Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘diaries’

16 JULY, 2013

Susan Sontag’s Bulletpointed Bodily Self-Portrait

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Low blood pressure, loves sleep but grinds teeth, craves pure sugar but dislikes desserts.

After Edna St. Vincent Millay’s playfully lewd self-portrait, Italo Calvino’s poetic CV, and the 7-word autobiographies of cultural icons, here comes a fine piece of self-assessment by Susan Sontag.

From As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 (public library) — which was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 and which has previously given us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her meditation on why lists appeal to us, and her illustrated insights on love and art — comes this bodily self-portrait from a diary entry dated August 20, 1964, when Sontag was thirty-one. Though it appears under the heading “Body type,” it also touches on psychological tendencies, bespeaking the inextricable link between mind and matter.

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, gelatin silver print, 1975

  • Tall
  • Low blood pressure
  • Need lots of sleep
  • Sudden craving for pure sugar (but dislike desserts — not a high enough concentration)
  • Intolerance for liquor
  • Heavy smoking
  • Tendency to anemia
  • Heavy protein craving
  • Asthma
  • Migraines
  • Very good stomach — no heartburn, constipation, etc.
  • Negligible menstrual cramps
  • Easily tired by standing
  • Like heights
  • Enjoy seeing deformed people (voyeuristic)
  • Nailbiting
  • Teeth grinding
  • Nearsighted, astigmatism
  • Frileuse (very sensitive to cold, like hot summers)
  • Not very sensitive to noise (high degree of selective auditory focus)

It was in the very same diary entry that Sontag also made her memorable remark about criticism and reflected that “words have their own firmness,” one of her essential insights on writing.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is the sequel to the equally indispensable Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963, which gave us Sontag’s wisdom on life, death, art and freedom, her list of “rules + duties for being 24″, her 10 rules for raising a child, and her beliefs at age 14 vs. 24.

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12 JULY, 2013

Thoreau on Friendship, Sympathy, and Animal Consciousness

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“A man [is] commonly a locked-up chest to us, to open whom, unless we have the key of sympathy, will make our hearts bleed.”

What better way to complement Maurice Sendak’s lovely vintage illustrated ode to friendship than with a related reflection from one of modern history’s most beloved thinkers? In The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 (public library) — which also gave us, for a piece of appropriate meta-irony, Thoreau on why not to quote Thoreau — the beloved transcendentalist, born on July 12, 1817, considers the essence of friendship, what it means to be human, and how inextricably connected we are to our fellow non-human beings, who are just as worthy of our sympathy and respect as our human friends.

On July 13, 1857 — the day after his 40th birthday — Thoreau awakens to a resolution for celebrating capital-F friendship as a centerpiece of the good life:

I sometimes awake in the night and think of friendship and its possibilities, a new life and relation to me, which perhaps I had not experienced for many months. Such transient thoughts have been my nearest approach to realization of it, thoughts which I know of no one to communicate to. I suddenly erect myself in my thoughts, or find myself erected, infinite degrees above the possibility of ordinary endeavors, and see for what grand stakes the game of life may be played. I catch an echo of the great strain of Friendship played somewhere, and feel compensated for months and years of commonplace. It is as if I were serenaded, and the highest and truest compliments were paid me. The universe gives me three cheers. Friendship is the fruit which the year should bear; it lends its fragrance to the flowers, and it is in vain if we get only a large crop of apples without it.

For Thoreau, the essence of friendship was the cultivation of true sympathy. On a “stern, bleak, inhospitable” January day in 1856, with the temperature a cruel “5° at noon and at 4 P.M.,” Thoreau observes a closed pitch pine cone he had gathered three days prior, which had just opened in his chamber. From this seemingly mundane occurrence he extracts a profound meditation on existence and the ties of sympathy, by way of a squirrel — that uncanny gift from translating the minutia of the physical world into timeless wisdom on the metaphysical is the defining characteristic of his journal:

If you would be convinced how differently armed the squirrel is naturally for dealing with pitch pine cones, just try to get one off with your teeth. He who extracts the seeds from a single closed cone with the aid of a knife will be constrained to confess that the squirrel earns his dinner. It is a rugged customer, and will make your fingers bleed. But the squirrel has the key to this conical and spiny chest of many apartments. He sits on a post, vibrating his tail, and twirls it as a plaything.

But so is a man commonly a locked-up chest to us, to open whom, unless we have the key of sympathy, will make our hearts bleed.

In fact, this combined sensitivity to other living beings and exaltation of sympathy as a defining duty of what it means to be human emerges again and again throughout the diary as Thoreau touches on insights predating the modern science of animal consciousness by more than a century. On March 31, 1842, in the last entry before his three-year journal hiatus that ended when Thoreau moved to Walden, he contemplates our interconnectedness with the rest of the living world and the joyous humility that springs from its recognition:

All parts of nature belong to one head, as the curls of a maiden’s hair. How beautifully flow the seasons as one year, and all streams as one ocean!

[…]

It is the saddest thought of all, that what we are to others, that we are much more to ourselves, — avaricious, mean, irascible, affected, — we are the victims of these faults. If our pride offends our humble neighbor, much more does it offend ourselves, though our lives are never so private and solitary. How many young finny contemporaries of various character and destiny, form and habits, we have even in this water! And it will not be forgotten by some memory that we were contemporaries. It is of some import. We shall be some time friends, I trust, and know each other better. Distrust is too prevalent now. We are so much alike! have so many faculties in common! I have not yet met with the philosopher who could, in a quite conclusive, undoubtful way, show me the, and, if not the, then how any, difference between man and a fish. We are so much alike! How much could a really tolerant, patient, humane, and truly great and natural man make of them, if he should try? For they are to be understood, surely, as all things else, by no other method than that of sympathy. It is easy to say what they are not to us, i.e., what we are not to them; but what we might and ought to be is another affair.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 is sublime in its entirety, the kind of lifelong companion to be revisited regularly and voraciously for a wholehearted existence.

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09 JULY, 2013

Frida Kahlo’s DIY Paint Recipe

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How to emulate artistic genius via a home-cooked emulsion.

Mexican painter and reconstructionist Frida Kahlo, true to her penchant for native crafts and her methodically inquisitive mind, was intensely interested in artists’ guidelines — a meta-genre of art that holds equal fascination today. From The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (public library), which also gave us her passionate hand-written love letters to Diego Rivera and her poignant meditation on how we are all connected in our pain, comes Kahlo’s recipe for a paint medium using damar gum — a resin harvested from trees native to the Pacific — to which pigment would be added to produce the final paint product:

FOR THE OLD CONCEALER FISITA*. Distemper together 4 equal parts of egg yolks raw linseed oil

egg yolk = raw linseed oil = compound of damar gum blended in turpentine = water

damar gum dissolved in turpentine and distilled water. with disinfectant take = concentrated aldehyde alcohol. ½ gram. to a liter of water.

crushed damar inside of lemon [suspended in] turpentine for 8 to 10 days.

remove all the white from the yolk.

  1. Make an emulsion of the ingredients
  2. Grind the colors into the emulsion
  3. If a glossy texture is desired, increase the amount of damar, up to two parts.
  4. If an overall matte finish is desired increase the water up to three parts

* Diego Rivera’s nickname for Kahlo

Complement this with Hans Ulrich Obrist’s compendium of 20 years of famous artists’ irreverent instructionals and the ever-delightful Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook.

The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait remains beautiful and fascinating in its entirety — a rare glimpse of one of modern history’s most outwardly celebrated inner worlds.

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