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Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

05 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Salinger and the Architecture of Personal Mythology

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How “a broken soldier and a wounded soul transformed himself, through his art, into an icon of the twentieth century and then, through his religion, destroyed that art.”

In 1951, The Catcher in the Rye catapulted J. D. Salinger into instant literary celebrity and the 65 million copies sold to date have stirred generations of dejected adolescents. Despite having spent his entire adult life aspiring to become a successful author, Salinger found himself unprepared for the avalanche of attention with which the novel swarmed him. He withdrew into himself, publishing new work less and less frequently, until in 1965, without warning or explanation, Salinger silently disappeared. But he kept writing every single day for the remaining forty-five years of his life.

What happened? Where did he go and why? What filled those private pages, and how did he fill his days?

That’s precisely what writer David Shields and screenwriter, producer, and director Shane Salerno investigate in Salinger: The Private War of J.D. Salinger (public library) — a masterwork of inquiry into the literary legend’s inner world, nearly a decade in the making, straddling Salinger’s death with five years on one side and three on the other.

J. D. Salinger spent ten years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it.

Before the book was published, he was a World War II veteran with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; after the war, he was perpetually in search of a spiritual cure for his damaged psyche. In the wake of the enormous success of the novel about the “prep school boy,” a myth emerged: Salinger, like Holden, was too sensitive to be touched, too good for this world. He would spend the rest of his life trying and failing to reconcile these completely contradictory versions of himself: the myth and the reality.

[…]

The critical and popular game over the past half-century has been to read the man through his works because the man would not speak. Salinger’s success in epic self-creation, his obsession with privacy, and his meticulously maintained vault — containing a large cache of writing that he refused to publish — combined to form an impermeable legend.

Landing at Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

But the legend, it turns out, was composed largely of fanciful half-truths — half-truths deliberately and systematically architected by Salinger himself who, like Freud and unlike Joyce, engineered his own myth:

Salinger was an extraordinarily complex, deeply contradictory human being. He was not — as we’ve been told — a recluse for the final fifty-five years of his life; he traveled extensively, had many affairs and lifelong friendships, consumed copious amounts of popular culture, and often embodied many of the things he criticized in his fiction. Far from being a recluse, he was constantly in conversation with the world in order to reinforce its notion of his reclusion. … Much has been made of how difficult it must have been for Salinger to live and work under the umbrella of the myth, which is undeniably true; we show the degree to which he was also invested in perpetuating it.

Shields and Salerno’s claim to difference is that, unlike previous biographies — which they divide into the distinct trifecta of inferior categories: “academic exegeses; necessarily highly subjective memoirs; and either overly reverential or overly resentful biographies that, thwarted by lack of access to the principals, settle for perpetuating the agreed-upon narrative” — this one turns to nearly half a century’s worth of never-before-seen letters to and from Salinger’s friends, lovers, wartime brothers-in-arms, spiritual teachers, and other previously untapped sources from his inner circle, many of whom had refused to speak with biographers until after Salinger’s death.

Salinger at McBurney Prep School.

This biography’s quest, Shields and Salerno note, is three-fold: To understand why Salinger stopped publishing at the height of his success, why he disappeared, and what he spent the last forty-five years of his life writing. That understanding is anchored to two turning points in the author’s life, at once conflicting and osmotic — the brutality he witnessed during World War II and his submergence into the Vedanta religion branching out of Hindu philosophy — presenting a poetic, if heartbreaking symmetry to Salinger’s own inner contradictions. They write:

This is the story of a soldier and writer who escaped death during World War II but never wholly embraced survival, a half-Jew from Park Avenue who discovered at war’s end what it meant to be Jewish. This is an investigation into the process by which a broken soldier and a wounded soul transformed himself, through his art, into an icon of the twentieth century and then, through his religion, destroyed that art.

'The Four Musketeers': (L–R) J. D. Salinger, Jack Altaras, John Keenan, Paul Fitzgerald.

Paul Fitzgerald and J. D. Salinger with their beloved dogs.

And yet, without diminishing the remarkably rigorous research involved, it’s hard not to wonder whether Shields and Salerno, while sneering at the myth-weaving of previous biographies, are simply weaving a myth of their own — a story that is undeniably different from the commonly perpetuated mythology of Salinger’s life, but one that remains a story nonetheless, one driven by that ineffable yet palpably toxic desire to be right rather than to understand, to paint rather than to penetrate, to reduce the complexity and richness of a human being to a cultural currency of possibly shocking facts. As if to know one in life weren’t hard enough, to know one in death seems especially presumptuous. There’s an ever-so-slightly objectionable omniscience with which Shields and Salerno approach Salinger — not of his circumstances, but of his self; not of his biography, but of his being — to a point where he himself begins to read like a character:

Profoundly damaged (not only by the war), he became numb; numb, he yearned to see and feel the unity of all things but settled for detachment toward everyone’s pain except his own, which first overwhelmed and then overtook him. During his second marriage, he steadily distanced himself from his family, spending weeks at a time in his detached bunker, telling his wife, Claire, and children, Matthew and Margaret, “Do not disturb me unless the house is burning down.” Toward Margaret, who dared to embody the rebellious traits his fiction canonizes, he was startlingly remote. His characters Franny, Zooey, and Seymour Glass, despite or because of their many suicidal madnesses, had immeasurably more claim on his heart than his flesh-and-blood family.

Compounding those twinges of dramatization for effect, rather than inquiry for truth, is the fact that the biography accompanies the release of a documentary directed by Salerno, billing itself as “the motion picture event of the year,” complete with a Hollywood suspense-score and a thespian trailer:

And yet, though the trailer promises to reveal “the biggest secret of [Salinger’s] lifetime,” the book admits that there isn’t one — at least not in that dramatic, box-office-ready way:

Salinger’s vault, which we open in the final chapter, contains character- and career-defining revelations, but there is no “ultimate secret” whose unveiling explains the man. Instead, his life contained a series of interlocking events — ranging from anatomy to romance to war to fame to religion — that we disclose, track, and connect.

Creating a private world in which he could control everything, Salinger wrenched immaculate, immortal art from the anguish of World War II. And then, when he couldn’t control everything — when the accumulation of all the suffering was too much for a human as delicately constructed as he to withstand — he gave himself over wholly to Vedanta, turning the last half of his life into a dance with ghosts. He had nothing anymore to say to anyone else.

This begs a question about the direction of cultural debt: When someone swells into celebrity, does he owe the world the innermost contents of his life and private self as the price of public acclaim, or does the public owe him the right of privacy and integrity of self to which every human being is entitled?

That, perhaps, is the most valuable takeaway from Salinger, which, questions of motive aside, remains an exquisitely researched and beautifully engineered piece of storytelling about one of modern history’s most enigmatic personas. What Shields and Salerno give us, above all, is an unprecedented look at the elaborate blueprint of a masterful architect of personal mythology.

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22 AUGUST, 2013

Ray Bradbury on Writing, Emotion vs. Intelligence, and the Core of Creativity

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“You can only go with loves in this life.”

Between 1973 and 1974, journalist James Day hosted the short-lived but wonderful public television interview series Day at Night. Among his guests was the inimitable Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920–June 5, 2012) — beloved writer, man of routine, tireless champion of space exploration, patron saint of public libraries, passionate proponent of doing what you love and writing with joy. Highlights from the interview, which has been kindly digitized by CUNY TV, are transcribed below.

On the misunderstood, and often dismissed, value of the fantasy genre:

The ability to fantasize is the ability to survive, and the ability to fantasize is the ability to grow.

On the scope-expanding quality of science fiction, something Isaac Asimov has attested to as well:

The great thing about growing up with science fiction is that you have an interest in everything.

On the formative influence of fairy tales and Greek myths

My aunt and my mother read to me when I was three from all the old Grimm fairy tales, Andersen fairy tales, and then all the Oz books as I was growing up… So by the time when I was ten or eleven, I was just full to the brim with these, and the Greek myths, and the Roman myths. And then, of course, I went to Sunday school, and then you take in the Christian myths, which are all fascinating in their own way… I guess I always tended to be a visual person, and myths are very visual, and I began to draw, and then I felt the urge to carry on these myths.

If I’m anything at all, I’m not really a science-fiction writer — I’m a writer of fairy tales and modern myths about technology.

Recounting how he got his foot in the door of a local radio station through the sheer force of persistence, Bradbury reflects on the broader role of doggedness in success:

I discovered very early on that if you wanted a thing, you went for it — and you got it. Most people never go anywhere, or want anything — so they never get anything.

On the supremacy of intuition over rationalization and the intellect’s propensity for immorality:

I never went to college — I don’t believe in college for writers. The thing is very dangerous. I believe too many professors are too opinionated and too snobbish and too intellectual, and the intellect is a great danger to creativity … because you begin to rationalize and make up reasons for things, instead of staying with your own basic truth — who you are, what you are, what you want to be. I’ve had a sign over my typewriter for over 25 years now, which reads “Don’t think!” You must never think at the typewriter — you must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway.

On how the warping of that dynamic exposes the relationship between creativity and dishonesty, and why emotional excess is essential to creative work:

The worst thing you do when you think is lie — you can make up reasons that are not true for the things that you did, and what you’re trying to do as a creative person is surprise yourself — find out who you really are, and try not to lie, try to tell the truth all the time. And the only way to do this is by being very active and very emotional, and get it out of yourself — making things that you hate and things that you love, you write about these then, intensely. When it’s over, then you can think about it; then you can look, it works or it doesn’t work, something is missing here. And, if something is missing, then you go back and reemotionalize that part, so it’s all of a piece.

But thinking is to be a corrective in our life — it’s not supposed to be a center of our life. Living is supposed to be the center of our life, being is supposed to be the center — with correctives around, which hold us like the skin holds our blood and our flesh in. But our skin is not a way of life — the way of living is the blood pumping through our veins, the ability to sense and to feel and to know. And the intellect doesn’t help you very much there — you should get on with the business of living.

On how intuition and love, not intellectual understanding and rationalization, shape his poetry and prose, adding to history’s most beautiful definitions of art:

If there is no feeling, there cannot be great art.

On the tremendous value of libraries in discovering ideas to fall in love with, embedded in which is a bittersweet reminder that in today’s search-driven culture, we’ve lost that magic of serendipitous discovery:

I use a library the same way I’ve been describing the creative process as a writer — I don’t go in with lists of things to read, I go in blindly and reach up on shelves and take down books and open them and fall in love immediately. And if I don’t fall in love that quickly, shut the book, back on the shelf, find another book, and fall in love with it. You can only go with loves in this life.

On why he turns to children’s books — something we share in common — for creative inspiration in his “serious” literary work:

I try to keep up with what’s being done in every field, and most children’s books are ten times more enjoyable than the average American novel right now.

He returns to the role of the emotional in anchoring all true art:

This is the emotional thing, you see — you must galvanize people, so they want to be completely alive and live forever, or the next thing to it. And out of that comes art, then, and survival through emotion.

On finding no conflict between religion and science because the mysterious is at the root of both and “ignorance” drives them — something Bradbury had previously explored in his unpublished poetry:

The processes we’re going through are two sides of the same coin, because everything ends in mystery — the scientists have theories, and the theologians have myths, and they are both the same thing, because we end up in ignorance. … We have to think about the unthinkable, which is what religion does and science does, too.

On finding your purpose and avoiding “work” by doing what you love:

[I love my work] intensely — I wouldn’t be in it if I ever stopped loving it, I would shift it and go over into something else. … I don’t think life is worth living unless you’re doing something you love completely, so that you get out of bed in the morning and want to rush to do it. If you’re doing something mediocre, if you’re doing something to fill in time, life really isn’t worth living. … I can’t understand people not living at the top of their emotions constantly, living with their enthusiasms, living with some sense of joy, some sense of creativity — I don’t care how small a level it is. … I don’t care what field it is though, and there’s gotta be a field for everyone, doesn’t there?

A resounding secular “Amen!” to that, Mr. Bradbury, and thank you for everything.

For more of Bradbury’s inimitable mind in conversation, see Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews by his official biographer, Sam Weller. Complement with the wonderful 1963 documentary Ray Bradbury: Story of a Writer and the beloved author on space exploration, libraries, and the meaning of life in his lost Comic Con interview, then revisit the collected wisdom of great writers.

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22 AUGUST, 2013

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

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“The way people use a place mirrors expectations.”

“Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power,” Anaïs Nin wrote about the poetics of New York in 1939. But what, exactly, are those contents, and how does a city keep its sparkle?

In 1970, legendary urbanist and professional people-watcher William “Holly” Whyte formed a small, revolutionary research group called The Street Life project and began investigating the curious dynamics of urban spaces. At the time, such anthropological observation had been applied to the study of indigenous cultures in far-off exotic locales, but not to our most immediate, most immersive environment: the city, which hides extraordinary miracles of ordinary life, if only we know how to look for them. So Whyte and his team began by looking at New York City’s parks, plazas, and various informal recreational areas like city blocks — a total of 16 plazas, 3 small parks, and “a number of odds and ends” — trying to figure out why some city spaces work for people while others don’t, and what the practical implications might be about living better, more joyful lives in our urban environment. Their findings were eventually collected in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (public library) in 1980 and synthesized in a 55-minute companion film, which you can watch below for some remarkably counterintuitive insights on the living fabric of the city.

Far more intriguing than the static characteristics of the architectural landscape, however, are the dynamic human interactions that inhabit them, and the often surprising ways in which they unfold. Whyte writes in the preface:

What has fascinated us most is the behavior of ordinary people on city streets — their rituals in street encounters, for example, the regularity of chance meetings, the tendency to reciprocal gestures in street conferences, the rhythms of the three-phase goodbye.

Whyte’s team went on to investigate everything from the ideal percentage of sitting space on a plaza (between 6% and 10% of the total open space, or one linear foot of sitting space for every thirty square feet of plaza) to the intricate interplay of sun, wind, trees, and water (it’s advantageous to “hoard” the sun and amplify its light in some cases, and to obscure it in others). These factors and many more go into what makes a perfect plaza:

A good plaza starts at the street corner. If it’s a busy corner, it has a brisk social life of its own. People will not just be waiting there for the light to change. Some will be fixed in conversation; others in some phase of a prolonged goodbye. If there’s a vendor at the corner, people will cluster around him, and there will be considerable two-way traffic back and forth between plaza and corner.

[…]

The area where the street and plaza or open space meet is key to success or failure. Ideally, the transition should be such that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. New York’s Paley Park is one of the best examples. The sidewalk in front is an integral part of the park. An arborlike foliage of trees extends over the sidewalk. There are urns of flowers and the curb and, on either side of the steps, curved sitting ledges. In this foyer you can usually find somebody waiting for someone else — it is a convenient rendezvous point — people sitting on the ledges, and, in the middle of the entrance, several people in conversation.

Urban parks, Whyte discovered, were an integral mechanism for stimulating our interaction with the city — perhaps one reason they are so enduringly beloved:

The park stimulates impulse use. Many people will do a double take as they pass by, pause, move a few steps, then, with a slight acceleration, go on up the steps. Children do it more vigorously, the very young ones usually pointing at the park and tugging at their mothers to go in, many of the older ones breaking into a run just as they approach the steps, then skipping a step or two.

And so we get to the surprisingly intricate science of yet another seemingly mundane element of the urban experience: steps.

Watch these flows and you will appreciate how very important steps can be. The steps at Paley are so low and easy that one is almost pulled to them. They add a nice ambiguity to your movement. You can stand and watch, move up a foot, another, and, then, without having made a conscious decision, find yourself in the park.

Other factors that spur a lively and robust social interaction include public art and performance:

Sculpture can have strong social effects. Before and after studies of the Chase Manhattan plaza showed that the installation of Dubuffet’s “Four Trees” has had a beneficent impact on pedestrian activity. People are drawn to the sculpture, and drawn through it: they stand under it, beside it; they touch it; they talk about it. At the Federal Plaza in Chicago, Alexander Calder’s huge stabile has had similar effects.

Then there’s music, known to enchant the brain and influence our emotions in profound ways:

Musicians and entertainers draw people together [but] it is not the excellence of the act that is important. It is the fact that it is there that bonds people, and sometimes a really bad act will work even better than a good one.

In another chapter, Whyte considers the problem of urban “undesirables” — drunks, drug dealers, and other uncomfortable reminders of how our own lives might turn out “but for the grace of events.” Here, too, Whyte’s findings debunk conventional wisdom with an invaluable, counterintuitive insight: rather than fencing places off and flooding them with surveillance cameras (which he finds are of little use in outdoor spaces — something that would delight artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei), we should aim to make them as welcoming as possible

The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else. … The way people use a place mirrors expectations.

This, in fact, reflects the most fundamental and timeless insight of the entire project, echoing the famous Penguin Books maxim that “good design is no more expensive than bad”:

It is far easier, simpler to create spaces that work for people than those that do not — and a tremendous difference it can make to the life of a city.

Slim but fantastically insightful, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is a foundational piece of today’s thinking on what makes a great city and a fine addition to these essential reads on urbanism.

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