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25 AUGUST, 2014

A Brief History of Romantic Friendship

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“Smashes,” “crushes,” “spoons,” and other curious nineteenth-century relationship varieties.

Thoreau used to lie awake at night and “think of friendship and its possibilities,” while his dear friend Emerson, in contemplating the secret of friendship, marveled, “What is so delicious as a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling?” — language strikingly similar to that of all the great Romantic poets in extolling the union of love. It’s been argued that friendship is a greater gift than romantic love, but what about that strange, wonderful, and often messy neverland between the two and the inevitable discombobulation of our neatly organized relationship structures that happens when romantic love and friendship converge?

In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (public library), historian Lilian Faderman chronicles the extraordinary, era-defining rise and fall of precisely that phenomenon — romantic friendship — as an agent of cultural change:

While romantic friendship had had a long history in Western civilization, it took on particular significance in nineteenth-century America, where men’s spheres and women’s spheres became so divided through the task of nation-building. Men saw themselves as needing the assistance of other men to realize their great material passions, and they fostered “muscle values” and “rational values,” to the exclusion of women. Women, left to themselves outside of their household duties, found kindred spirits primarily in each other. They banded together and fostered “heart values.”

Still, given the economic and social demands of life at the time, most of these female bonds were necessarily secondary to women’s familial obligations, whether in a father’s house or a husband’s. But college, Faderman argues, changed all that — access to education swung open the gates to a new world for women and, as pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell memorably marveled in her diary, it allowed women to set their sights much higher than pervious generations had imagined possible.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Click image for more.

What amplified the impact of that progress, beyond the raw material of academia, were young women’s relationships with each other and the ecosystem of those relationships, which created “a healthy and productive separatism.” This allowed them to explore their own boundaries, to build their own hierarchy of values, to try on the roles of leaders in a self-contained universe free from the traditional yardsticks of society and from the pressure of male demands. But there was one especially potent driver of this empowerment — romantic friendships, which were referred to in college slang as “smashes,” “crushes,” or “spoons.”

In 1873, a Yale student newspaper described the phenomenon in terms that bespeak either utter obliviousness to the sexual undertones of these relationships or nonchalant acceptance of them:

When a Vassar girl takes a shine to another, she straightway enters upon a regular course of bouquet sendings, interspersed with tinted notes, mysterious packages of “Ridley’s Mixed Candies,” locks of hair perhaps, and many other tender tokens, until at last the object of her attentions is captured, the two women become inseparable, and the aggressor is considered by her circle of acquaintances as — smashed.

Vassar, as it happens, was not only the university where Maria Mitchell had begun teaching as the only woman on the faculty, paving the way for women in science, but also where Edna St. Vincent Millay became “smashed” with another woman and penned for her some of the most enchanting queer love letters of all time.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Click image for more.

The romantic friendship, also well-documented among men, was not only culturally condoned — in fact, William Alger wrote in 1868 that it brought to women “freshness, stimulant charm, noble truths and aspirations” — but also deeply woven into the fabric of college life. Institutions like Vassar and Smith regularly held all-female dances in the early twentieth century. A Cosmopolitan magazine article from 1901 on life in women’s colleges describes Smith’s Freshman Frolic, in which a sophomore girl played “the cavalier” for the freshman girl she escorted:

She sends her flowers, calls for her, fills her order of dance, fetches ices and frappes between dances and takes her to supper… Every “soph” sees her partner home, begs for a flower … and if the freshman has taken advantage of the opportunity and made the desired hit, there are dates for future meetings and jollifications and a good night over the balusters, as lingering and cordial as any the “freshie” has left behind. And if the gallant soph who lives in another hall runs away from her shadow on the way back to her dormitory, it’s nobody’s business but her own.

Despite the reluctance of the era’s writers to detail that aspect, Faderman notes that such courtship rituals often led to “lovemaking,” both in the 19th-century sentimental sense and in the modern meaning of sexual intimacy. She marvels at the fault line between the oblivious and the obvious:

How could such excitements not lead to passionate loves at a time when there was not yet widespread stigma against intense female same-sex relationships?

What’s more, young college women’s romantic friendships were modeled heavily after the relationships between their female professors, who resided on campus, usually in pairs, often forming lifelong love relationships — “marriages,” like that of Charity and Sylvia. They also provided a new model of economic independence — wholly self-supporting, they didn’t need to marry in order to survive.

Once college-educated women began entering the workforce, the romantic friendship took place against a new backdrop, which Katherine Anne Porter once described as “a company of Amazons” — those early professional women, the first generations of female doctors, professors, ministers, union organizers, and social workers. Faderman cites the case of two Englishwomen from the 1890s, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, a pair of “romantic friends” who penned some 25 plays and eight books of poetry together under the pseudonym Michael Field, vowing to each other to be “poets and lovers evermore.”

Photograph from 'The Invisibles,' a compendium of archival images of queer couples celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Click image for more.

But it didn’t take long for the cultural establishment to begin fearing romantic friendships as a threat to the traditional institution of marriage, which was still a pivotal part of society’s economic model. By the early 1900s, Faderman notes, sexologists and other newly anointed “experts” in the social sciences began condemning these relationships, which only a decade earlier had been universally accepted as innocuous and even ennobling. An 1895 book titled Side Talks with Girls cautioned that it was dangerous for a woman to have “a girl-sweetheart” because wasting her love on another woman would leave nothing for “Prince Charming when he comes to claim his bride.” One pseudo-medical text from the beginning of the century admonished against women’s “increasing affection” for one another:

They kiss each other fondly on every occasion. They embrace each other with mutual satisfaction. It is most natural, in the interchange of visits, for them to sleep together. They learn the pleasure of direct contact, and in the course of them fondling they resort to cunni-linguistic practices… After this the normal sex act fails to satisfy [them].

By 1906, one Swiss psychiatrist issued the alarmist statement that “the excess of female inverts exceeds those of the male” and that for female lovers, sexual lust “is their one thought, night and day, almost without interruption.” (That gentleman had clearly missed the memo on lesbian bed death.) And yet through the 1920s, college women were able to enjoy their romantic friendships with varying degrees of freedom and self-consciousness. Faderman cites one particularly amusing 1921 satirical essay from the Oberlin College yearbook, titled “My Heart Leaps Up,” in which the writers deploy delightful irony at the admonitions against romantic friendship:

Crushes are bad and happen only to the very young and very foolish. Once upon a time we were very young, and the bushes on the campus were hung with our bleeding hearts. Cecil’s heart bled indiscriminately. The rest of us specialized more, and the paths of Gertie Hearne, Dosia, Eleanor Marquand, Adelaide, Tip, and others would have been strewn with roses if public opinion had permitted flowers during the War.

The type of person smitten was one of the striking things about the epidemic. For instance, our emotional Betty Mills spent many stolen hours gazing up at Phoebe’s window. The excitable Copey was enamoured successively of all presidents of the Athletic Association, and has had a hard time this year deciding where to bestow her affections.

But there were some cases that were different from these common crushes. We know they were different, because the victims told us so. Only the most jaundiced mind could call by any other name than friendship Nora’s tender feeling toward Gertie Steele, which led her to keep Gertie’s room overflowing with flowers, fruit, candy, pictures, books, and other indispensable articles. (I always thought rather pathetic the story that once Gertie had been exposed to the measles and for a whole week could not be kissed good-night.) We will all admit that only the purest friendship caused Marjorie to knit the shell-pink sweater and gallantly rescue V.K.’s gown from the waste basket…

Of course, all these things happened in our extreme youth.

Willa Cather (right) with Louise Pound, University of Nebraska, early 1890s

(Image: Willa Cather Archive)

While some early-twentieth-century women saw no need to hide their same-sex relationships, Faderman points out that many were already bending down to the culture’s budding pressures against “romantic friendship.” She points to celebrated writer Willa Cather as one particularly appropriate example — early in her college career at the University of Nebraska in the late 19th century, she called herself Dr. William and practically dressed in male drag, but by graduation, despite continuing her romantic relationships with women (one of whom would eventually become the love of her life), she had conformed to a much more feminine presentation.

Willa Cather as a freshman (left) and upon graduation

(Images: Willa Cather Archive)

Indeed, the turn of the twentieth century did eventually beget the death knell of romantic friendship — a phenomenon that, as Faderman notes, “might have been too simple to survive in our complex times anyway.” She writes:

It was also the beginning of a lengthy period of general closing off of most affectional possibilities between women. The precious intimacies that adult females had been allowed to enjoy with each other earlier — sleeping in the same bed, holding hands, exchanging vows of eternal love, writing letters in the language of romance — became increasingly self-conscious and then rare.

Thanks to the influence of Freud and “all his spiritual offspring,” Faderman argues, the late twentieth century became “hyper-sophisticated” about matters of sexuality and love between women was stripped of that older veneer of sexual innocence:

Whether or not two women who find themselves passionately attached choose to identify themselves as lesbian today, they must at least examine the possibility of sexual attraction between them and decide whether or not to act upon it. Such sexual self-consciousness could easily have been avoided in earlier eras.

Of course, Faderman was writing more than two decades before the triumph of marriage equality and its political leap in eliminating an enormous part of that “self-consciousness,” which we owe largely to one particular woman: Edith Windsor, the courageous patron saint of modern love, who fought for the sanctity of the love she shared with her spouse of 42 years, Thea Spier, and for its rightful status as a marriage in the eyes of the law, fighting her case all the way up to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in Windsor’s favor and deemed DOMA unconstitutional.

Still, it pays to remember that any landmark cultural shift is the product of decades, and often centuries, of incremental strides and cumulative efforts. The remainder of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers chronicles precisely those ordinary stories and imperceptible victories that, together, laid the groundwork for one of the greatest triumphs of human rights and dignity in the past century. Complement it with the sweet story of how two women married each other in early America.

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20 AUGUST, 2014

James Baldwin on the Creative Process and the Artist’s Responsibility to Society

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“A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”

“The sole purpose of human existence,” Carl Jung wrote in his reflections of life and death in 1957, “is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Five years later, in one of his least well-known but most enchanting works, the great novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and cultural critic James Baldwin argued for this existential kindling of light as the sole purpose of the artist’s life.

In a 1962 essay titled “The Creative Process,” found in the altogether fantastic anthology The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library), Baldwin lays out a manifesto of sorts, nuanced and dimensional yet exploding with clarity of conviction, for the trying but vital responsibility that artists, “a breed of men and women historically despised while living and acclaimed when safely dead,” have to their society.

Baldwin, only thirty-eight at the time, writes:

Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone. That all men are, when the chips are down, alone, is a banality — a banality because it is very frequently stated, but very rarely, on the evidence, believed. Most of us are not compelled to linger with the knowledge of our aloneness, for it is a knowledge that can paralyze all action in this world. There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.

But unlike David Foster Wallace’s heartbreaking and rather matter-of-fact observation — “I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.” — Baldwin is careful to point out that this ideal aloneness is not a state of nihilistic resignation but a prerequisite for realizing and inhabiting one’s true identity, rather than donning an identity inherited from society like a traditional costume:

The state of being alone is not meant to bring to mind merely a rustic musing beside some silver lake. The aloneness of which I speak is much more like the aloneness of birth or death. It is like the fearless alone that one sees in the eyes of someone who is suffering, whom we cannot help. Or it is like the aloneness of love, the force and mystery that so many have extolled and so many have cursed, but which no one has ever understood or ever really been able to control. I put the matter this way, not out of any desire to create pity for the artist — God forbid! — but to suggest how nearly, after all, is his state the state of everyone, and in an attempt to make vivid his endeavor. The state of birth, suffering, love, and death are extreme states — extreme, universal, and inescapable. We all know this, but we would rather not know it. The artist is present to correct the delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid this knowledge.

It is for this reason that all societies have battled with the incorrigible disturber of the peace — the artist. I doubt that future societies will get on with him any better. The entire purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos, in order to make life bearable and to keep the human race alive. And it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it. They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is suggested that they can or that they must, is panic… And a higher level of consciousness among the people is the only hope we have, now or in the future, of minimizing human damage.

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

In a sentiment that Jeanette Winterson would come to echo decades later — “Art … says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.” — Baldwin considers the unique position of the artist as a challenger of society’s protective delusions:

The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society — the politicians, legislators, educators, and scientists — by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some things as real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen. A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven. One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child, or drive a car without taking some things for granted. The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.

But the artist’s responsibility to society springs from the artist’s responsibility to him- or herself. Reflecting on the monumental challenge of self-awareness and the notion that “we hardly know our own depths,” Baldwin considers the elusive art of knowing ourselves, which we often evade by seeking to know others instead:

Anyone who has ever been compelled to think about it — anyone, for example, who has ever been in love — knows that the one face that one can never see is one’s own face. One’s lover — or one’s brother, or one’s enemy — sees the face you wear, and this face can elicit the most extraordinary reactions. We do the things we do and feel what we feel essentially because we must — we are responsible for our actions, but we rarely understand them. It goes without saying, I believe, that if we understood ourselves better, we would damage ourselves less. But the barrier between oneself and one’s knowledge of oneself is high indeed. There are so many things one would rather not know! We become social creatures because we cannot live any other way. But in order to become social, there are a great many other things that we must not become, and we are frightened, all of us, of these forces within us that perpetually menace our precarious security. Yet the forces are there: we cannot will them away. All we can do is learn to live with them. And we cannot learn this unless we are willing to tell the truth about ourselves, and the truth about us is always at variance with what we wish to be. The human effort is to bring these two realities into a relationship resembling reconciliation.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

His words ring with double poignancy, for Baldwin — a queer Black man — came of age decades before the marriage equality movement and penned this essay a year before the March of Washington, at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Echoing throughout his manifesto for artists is Baldwin’s clarion call for acceptance of all who appear dissonant with society’s forces, for granting equal dignity to the human experience in all of its manifestations:

The human beings whom we respect the most, after all — and sometimes fear the most — are those who are most deeply involved in this delicate and strenuous effort, for they have the unshakable authority that comes only from having looked on and endured and survived the worst. That nation is healthiest which has the least necessity to distrust or ostracize these people — whom, as I say, honor, once they are gone, because somewhere in our hearts we know that we cannot live without them.

Baldwin closes by reflecting on this relationship between the artist and the nation, specifically in the context of American history. In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag on courage and resistance, he appeals to the artist’s most crucial, most challenging responsibility to culture:

In the same way that to become a social human being one modifies and suppresses and, ultimately, without great courage, lies to oneself about all one’s interior, uncharted chaos, so have we, as a nation, modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history.

[...]

Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.

The remaining essays in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction explore, with the same blend of intellectual vigor and social sensitivity, subjects like power, protest, equality, patriotism, and the value of indignation. Complement this particular essay with Joseph Conrad on writing and the role of the artist.

Thanks, Morley

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14 AUGUST, 2014

What Makes a Baby: An Inclusive and Imaginative Illustrated Guide to the Modern Family

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A playful illustrated primer for every kind of family and every kind of kid.

Benjamin Franklin’s oft-cited proclamation that nothing in the world is certain except death and taxes omits another existential inevitability, and arguably one no less pleasant — the question every parent dreads and no parent ever escapes: where do babies come from? After illustrator Sophie Blackall’s sweet and honest primer, here comes a very different but no less delightful answer from author Cory Silverberg and illustrator Fiona Smyth.

Imaginative and inclusive, What Makes a Baby (public library) is a modern-day, queer, colorful reimagining of Peter Mayle’s 1987 classic Where Did I Come From?. The playful illustrations and simple but intelligent text illuminate the basic biology of reproduction while honoring today’s diversity of families, of genders and gender identities, and of how kids can come into a family.

We learn, for instance, what a sperm is, but aren’t told that it always comes from the “father,” nor even from a “man” — simply what function in serves in creating a baby, unmooring the reproductive process from limiting definitions of gender and parental roles.

Inside the egg there are so many stories all about the body the egg came from.

Inside the sperm, just like the egg, there are so many stories all about the body the sperm came from.

When an egg and a sperm meet, they swirl together in a special kind of dance. As they dance, they talk to each other.

The egg tells the sperm all the stories it has to tell about the body it came from.

And the sperm tells the egg all the stories it has to tell about the body it came from.

Silverberg, a writer and sex-educator raised by a children’s librarian mother and sex therapist father, envisioned the book a few years ago, when all of a sudden many of his friends started having kids. There didn’t seem to be a book on baby-making that was lyrical and beautiful but biologically accurate, illuminating but not dreadfully pedagogical, a celebration of diversity but not a piece of self-righteous political propaganda. So he wrote one.

Who was waiting for you to be born?

Complement What Makes a Baby with little children’s deceptively simple, profound questions about how life works, then revisit kids’ amusing and poignant responses to gender politics during the second wave of feminism.

Images courtesy of Cory Silverberg / Triangle Square Books

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