Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘New York’

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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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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09 JULY, 2014

What Makes a Great City: E.B. White on the Poetics of New York

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“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.”

A great city is like a great love — it makes you feel closer to your own center, envelops you in its immutable and caring magic, and no matter how far from it you may travel, it always beckons you with steadfast, unshakable mesmerism.

But what makes a great city? Scholars, social scientists, and urban planners have pondered the question for centuries, pointing to everything from walkability to the social life of small urban spaces. And yet the most timeless answer is a poetic rather than a pragmatic one. From the 1949 gem Here Is New York (public library) — one of the best books about New York ever written, and undoubtedly one of the best books about anything — comes an exquisite articulation by E.B. White, who captures the singular mesmerism of Gotham and all the “enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.”

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

In one of the most spectacular passages, he writes:

New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute. … New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.

But White’s words also emanate the universal exhilaration of any large city that cajoles humanity into a state of constant interaction:

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

Stone and William Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

Here Is New York is a sublime read in its entirety, as “miraculously beautiful” itself as the city it serenades. Complement it with White’s moving obituary for his beloved dog Daisy and his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity.

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