Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

05 AUGUST, 2014

How Susan Sontag Possessed New York and Subverted Sexual Stereotypes

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“Sontag seemed to exude an irresistible mixture of intelligence, hipness, sex, and beauty.”

In addition to being a great personal hero of mine, Susan Sontag endures as one of the most influential intellectuals of the past century. But her most enchanting quality was a singular blend of fierce, opinionated intellect and vast emotional capacity — a mind not only aware of the world, but also of itself and its own vulnerability, coupled with a heart that beat with uncommon intensity and inhabited its fallible human potentiality fully, unflinchingly — not only a “professional observer” of life, per her memorable definition of a writer, but also an active participant in life, both public and private. Sontag lived with more dimension than most people are capable of even imagining, let alone comprehending, which rendered her at times revered, at times reviled, but mostly artificially flattened into the very labels she so deplored.

To capture Sontag’s life and spirit by honoring her dimensionality, then, is a monumental task, but one which Berlin-based writer and art critic David Schreiber accomplishes with enormous elegance in the long-awaited Susan Sontag: A Biography (public library).

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.' Click image for details.

Perhaps the most interesting narrative thread in Schreiber’s story of Sontag explores how Sontag claimed her place in culture and crafted her version of “the American dream,” beginning with her conquest of New York:

In March 1959, Susan and her son, David, moved to New York. With her typical flair for self-dramatization, Sontag told interviewers that she arrived in the metropolis with only two suitcases and thirty dollars. Later it was seventy dollars, a somewhat more realistic amount that would be about $450 in today’s dollars. Because of the low rents in New York at the time, it would have been enough to make a start.

As Sontag told it, it sounds like a version of the American dream: a twenty-three-year-old single mother without resources moves to a huge and hostile city intending to live there as an author, filmmaker, and intellectual. And on her own and against all odds, she realizes her dream. There could not have been a better place than New York for Sontag to convert her fantasy of the bohemian life into reality. In this city, everything seemed possible for a young, ambitious woman.

But it wasn’t merely a matter of ambition: Sontag possessed a rare talent to possess — people, places, social situations. Schreiber cites an account by one of Sontag’s lifelong friends, The American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Howard:

Howard remembers what a natural Sontag was at making new contacts, striking up friendships, and meeting influential people. “She could be very, very nice — even seductive — to people she wanted something from. She just could not talk to stupid people.”

[…]

Sontag’s natural and self-confident contact with this exclusive society is all the more remarkable when one recalls how difficult it was to gain admittance. The gathering of New York’s high society of writers, artists, and intellectuals was an almost hermetically sealed world with strict criteria for admission.

[…]

Sontag seemed to exude an irresistible mixture of intelligence, hipness, sex, and beauty, so that, as she herself once said, she had Jasper Johns, Bobby Kennedy, and Warren Beatty all at her feet.

Joseph Cornell's famous collage-box 'The Ellipsian,' using a photograph of Sontag by Harry Hess. In the words of art critic Deborah Solomon: 'In Cornell’s collage, the photo of Sontag — torn at the edges to suggest the passage of time — occupies the upper right corner of the page, from whose heights she stares into space with cool self-possession. A scrap from a chart of the solar system and penciled circles endow her with an otherworldly dimension.'

For Sontag, however, New York wasn’t just a public scene to be conquered — it was also the scene of her most private passions and struggles. She inhabited, perhaps more fully than any other New Yorker, E.B. White’s famous description of Gotham as a city that “blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.” And among Sontag’s more private conquests was that of her own sexuality, underpinned by a characteristically paradoxical fusion of conflictedness and conviction. It was in New York that she met and fell in love with the Cuban-American artist María Irene Fornés. Schreiber explores the relationship between Sontag’s sexuality and her writing:

The published excerpts from Sontag’s journals make clear how close and fulfilling the relationship between her and Fornés was. In them, the extremely vulnerable Sontag sketches the petty jealousies and disappointments she suffered and her own, often exaggerated, demands on her partner. A few years later, the relationship would flounder on such demands. But the greatest discovery in this relationship was Sontag’s unconditional acceptance of the fact that her erotic needs included sexual relations with women. . . . By the end of 1959, she had admitted to herself that she desired women as well as men. With Fornés, she experienced erotic fulfillment such as she had not known before, and she associated it with the renewal of her writing: “I lust to write.”

A couple of years later, Sontag would revisit the interplay between writing and sex in her journal. But her “unconditional acceptance” would quickly be put to the test against the prejudices of her era. Philip Rieff, Sontag’s ex-husband and the father of her son David, ambushed her with a custody lawsuit claiming that she was an unfit mother due to her lesbian relationships. (Rieff, it appears, was no stranger to self-serving and exploitive tactics: their divorce settlement stipulated that he could claim sole authorship of Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, a book over which Sontag had tenaciously labored as co-author.) Schreiber writes of the custody battle:

This attempt was a shock to Susan who — herself fatherless as a child — had always strongly insisted that David have a good relationship with his father and had sent him on visits to Rieff in California and Pennsylvania as often as possible.

There ensued a custody battle that was grist for the gossip columns of several New York dailies. The New York Daily News headlined its courtroom commentary “Lesbian Religion Professor Gets Custody.” With his nose for a good story, Alfred Chester reported that Sontag and Fornés appeared in the courtroom “stunning” in dresses, heels, and makeup. The judge was so smitten by the glamorous duo that he could not believe they were lesbians.

Despite winning the case and retaining custody of David, Sontag was shocked by the trial. Although from the beginning it was unlikely that a court of the time would grant custody to the father rather than the mother, the Stonewall Uprising and the birth of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement lay far in the future. Homosexuality was still a punishable offense in New York, even if it was seldom prosecuted if practiced behind closed doors and by women.

Sontag went on to have several significant relationships in her lifetime, most with women. She spent the last fifteen years of her life with legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz. (According to Leibovitz, the couple never liked the terms “companion” or “partner” — after Sontag’s death, Leibovitz said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle: “It was a relationship in all its dimensions. . . I mean, we helped each other through our lives. Call us ‘lovers’ . . . I like ‘lovers.’ You know, ‘lovers’ sounds romantic. I mean, I want to be perfectly clear. I love Susan. I don’t have a problem with that.” One could only imagine how Sontag might have greeted the dawn of marriage equality, had she lived to see it, and how the new politics of sexuality might have translated into her writing.)

Susan Sontag on love — excerpts from her diary, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

In the closing pages, Schreiber returns to the essence of Sontag’s spirit and the very root of her enduring legacy:

Sontag was one of the few figures able to maintain her public status as an intellectual in the new era of theory. One reason was that, as her essays had always shown, she believed implicitly in her mission, namely, to bring together art, literature, film, and politics and communicate their interrelatedness to her readers.

And she accomplished that mission. Her conception of herself as an intellectual and writer on the French model whose passing Barthes mourned and her irresistible combination of braininess and hipness proved compatible with the changing public taste… Both the old and the new generation found a common denominator in her thought and writings. She was capable of building a bridge between the moribund New York Intellectuals of the “old school” and the academic disseminators of cultural studies, semiotics, and deconstructivism. As a transitional figure, she was both the object of a kind of nostalgia and the creator of new impulses, both the relict of a bygone era and the media star of a new one.

Susan Sontag: A Biography is a spectacular read in its entirety, chronicling Sontag’s career and the trajectory of intellectual luminosity, her loves, her political and social activism, her decades-long battles with depression and cancer, and her mission to “defend the universal role of the writer against the opposition of her times.” Complement it with Sontag on the gap between love and sex, “aesthetic consumerism,” beauty vs. interestingness, education, stereotypes, literature and freedom, and why lists appeal to us.

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24 JULY, 2014

The Poetics of Reverie: Philosopher Gaston Bachelard on Dreams, Love, Solitude, and Happiness

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“There are still souls for whom love is the contact of two poetries, the fusion of two reveries.”

“Creative writing, like a day-dream,” Freud observed, “is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood.” But how, exactly, does the playful imagination weave dream and storytelling together to frame our creative experience?

Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962) is one of the most wonderful — literally: full of wonder — philosophers of the twentieth century, yet one of the most underappreciated. His writings on poetics and the philosophy of science fall — rise, rather — somewhere between the erudite and the enchanting, but never more so than in his 1960 treatise The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos (public library), published in English seven years after Bachelard’s death — an exploration of “the remarkable psychic productivity of the imagination” and its relationship to memory, happiness, and our capacity for love, as well as of poetry’s singular ability to catalyze our sense of wonder.

Bachelard writes:

In poetry, wonder is coupled with the joy of speech… The poetic image is in no way comparable, as with the mode of the common metaphor, to a valve which would open up to release pent-up instincts. The poetic image sheds light on consciousness in such a way that it is pointless to look for subconscious antecedents of the image… Poetry is one of the destinies of speech. In trying to sharpen the awareness of language at the level of poems, we get the impression that we are touching the man whose speech is new in that it is not limited to expressing ideas or sensations, but tries to have a future. One would say that poetic image, in its newness, opens a future to language.

But the greatest power of the poetic image, Bachelard argues, is in its ability to grant us fuller access to the soul, to consciousness, through reverie — a concept that comes closest to, but isn’t entirely equated with, psychology’s notion of “positive constructive daydreaming,” a special flight of the imagination. And yet he makes a necessary distinction between reverie and dreaming:

In contrast to a dream a reverie cannot be recounted. To be communicated, it must be written, written with emotion and taste, being relived all the more strongly because it is being written down.

Illustration by Ohara Hale for 'Love Poem' by Denise Levertov. Click image for more.

In exploring how reverie evokes the realm of “written love,” Bachelard adds to history’s most beautiful definitions of love and reflects:

Written love … is going out of fashion, but the benefits remain. There are still souls for whom love is the contact of two poetries, the fusion of two reveries… To tell a love, one must write… Love is never finished expressing itself, and it expresses itself better the more poetically it is dreamed. The reveries of two solitary souls prepare the sweetness of loving… The reality of love is mutilated when it is detached from all its unrealness.

He returns to the question of dreams — a subject that, despite all the scientific advancements of understanding in the decades since Bachelard’s time, remains a mystery — and reflects:

One might wonder whether there really is a consciousness of dreams. A dream can be so strange that it seems that another subject has come to dream with us. “A dream visited me.” That is certainly the formula which indicates the passivity of great nocturnal dreams. To convince ourselves that they are really ours, we must reinhabit these dreams. Afterwards we make up accounts of them, stories from another time, adventures from another world… The teller of dreams sometimes enjoys his dream as an original work. In it he experiences a delegated originality; and hence he is very much surprised when a psychoanalyst tells him that another dreamer has known the same “originality.” The dream-dreamer’s conviction of having lived the dream he is recounting must not deceive us. It is a reported conviction which is reinforced each time he retells the dream. There is certainly no identity between the subject who is telling and the subject who dreamed.

[...]

Instead of looking for the dream in reverie, people should look for reverie in the dream.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from 'The Wizard of Oz.' Click image for more.

Even more powerfully, dream and reverie conspire together to form a gateway to happiness. Bachelard writes:

Reverie illustrates repose for a being… it illustrates well-being. The dreamer and his reverie enter totally into the substance of happiness.

[...]

The whole universe comes to contribute to our happiness when reverie comes to accentuate our repose. You must tell the man who wants to dream well to begin by being happy. Then reverie plays out its veritable destiny; it becomes poetic reverie and by it, in it, everything becomes beautiful.

[...]

Poetic reverie gives us the world of worlds. Poetic reverie is a cosmic reverie. It is an opening to a beautiful world, to beautiful worlds. It gives the I a non-I which belongs to the I: my non-I. It is this “my non-I” which enchants the I of the dreamer and which poets can help us share.

[...]

Reverie helps us inhabit the world, inhabit the happiness of the world.

Illustration by from 'The River' by Alessandro Sanna. Click image for more.

At its highest potentiality, reverie touches on the cosmic, and in doing so, liberates our solitude — that essential capacity to be alone. Bachelard writes:

The cosmic reverie … is a phenomenon of solitude which has its roots in the soul of the dreamer.

[...]

Cosmic reveries separate us from project reveries. They situate us in a world and not in a society. The cosmic reverie possesses a sort of stability or tranquility. It helps us escape time. It is a state. Let us get to the bottom of its essence: it is a state of mind… Poetry supplies us with documents for a phenomenology of the soul. The entire soul is presented in the poetic universe of the poet.

[...]

The soul does not live on the edge of time. It finds its rest in the universe imagined by reverie… Cosmic images are possessions of the solitary soul which is the principle of all solitude.

Therein lies the greatest gift of poetic reverie:

Reverie gives us the world of a soul [and] a poetic image bears witness to a soul which is discovering its world, the world where it would like to live and where it deserves to live… Poetry forms the dreamer and his world at the same time.

[...]

Poets lead us into cosmoses which are being endlessly renewed.

The Poetics of Reverie is a superb read in its entirety. Complement it with Muriel Rukeyser on how poetry expands our lives, James Dickey on how to read a poem, and Mary Oliver on the secret of great poetry.

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23 JULY, 2014

How a Vintage Children’s Book Illustrated by Lynd Ward Saved New York’s Iconic Little Red Lighthouse

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A timeless testament to the power of stirring the collective imagination.

In 1880, a little lighthouse was erected on New Jersey’s Sandy Hook to guide arriving ships into New York Harbor. But by 1917, this friendly nocturnal sherpa had become obsolete, so it was dismantled and put in storage. Four years later, it was reassembled on the Hudson River, in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, where it warned sailors along this vital industrial route about a fiercely dangerous part of the shore called Jeffrey’s Hook. The relocated lighthouse, renamed Jeffrey’s Hook Light, stood forty feet tall, proud of its responsibility and it status as the only lighthouse on the island of Manhattan.

Its glory days, however, lasted only a decade. The formidable George Washington Bridge was built to tower over it in 1931 and the steel giant’s bright lights rendered the little lighthouse obsolete once more. But it had already captured the hearts and imagination of the community and, eventually, the nation: In 1942, children’s book author Hildegarde Swift (1890–1977) wrote The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (public library) — a charming homage to the lonesome landmark that portrays the lighthouse as the dutiful and intrepid guardian of the river, featuring gorgeous illustrations by none other than the great Lynd Ward (1905–1985), godfather of the graphic novel.

Once upon a time a little lighthouse was built on a sharp point of the shore in the Hudson Valley.

It was round and fat and red.

It was fat and red and jolly.

And it was VERY, VERY PROUD.

In 1951, after decommissioning the lighthouse and extinguishing its lamp, the U.S. Coast Guard moved to dismantle it and auction off the parts, but a public outcry bubbled up and people flooded city officials with letters and money seeking to save the iconic lighthouse — all thanks to the book, which had by then become beloved by a generation.

On July 23, 1951, the Coast Guard surrendered to the public outpour of love and gave the property to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. In 1979, it was inducted into the National Register of Historic Parks. In 2000, it received a fresh coat of red paint, true to its historic color in The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, which was itself restored and republished in 2003 and remains a heartening testament to the fact that whenever the collective imagination is stirred in a meaningful way, social good invariably results.

Today, the little red lighthouse stands as an iconic piece of New York’s history, as well as a spectacular biking destination.

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