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Posts Tagged ‘out of print’

17 OCTOBER, 2014

A Stocking for a Kitten: Beautiful Vintage Children’s Book Illustrations of Domestic Life in Eastern Europe

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Entitlement, empathy, and ethics, with a large helping of grandmotherly love.

Every summer during my childhood, my parents would ship me off to my maternal grandmother in rural Bulgaria — a land of colorful rugs and handcrafted pottery and grandmothers constantly knitting mittens and stockings and scarves. It seems like a different lifetime now, but those memories were brought back with vitalizing vividness when I chanced upon the 1965 gem A Stocking for a Kitten (public library) — a sweet out-of-print children’s book by Helen Kay, featuring exquisite illustrations of Eastern European domestic life by New York City-born artist Yaroslava.

The story follows little Tanya, who watches her Babushka sit knitting stockings for the grandchildren all day long. As Christmas approaches, one of Tanya’s sisters, Olga, grows impatient — entitled, even — and demands that Babushka hurry up with the knitting so her new stockings would be done already. Babushka takes this as a good opportunity to teach the little girl about patience — a recurring theme in children’s books from that era, it seems — by refusing to complete the stockings until Olga has learned some forbearance and humility. (And as anyone who grew up in Eastern Europe can tell you, negative reinforcement is the name of the game in disciplining there — whether by grandparents or by the government.)

Meanwhile, Tanya puts Babushka’s strike to constructive use and convinces the grandmother to teach her to knit, so that the little girl could make a pair of stockings for her kitten.

In the end, Tanya is overcome with compassion for her sister and stays up all night, finishing Olga’s stockings herself. But in the meantime, the kitten does what kittens do, producing a series of entertaining domestic misadventures.

While the story is decidedly heartwarming — there is entitlement and empathy and even ethics, alongside a large helping of grandmotherly love — it is Yaroslava’s striking art, shaped by her lifelong interest in Slavic folklore, that makes the book so captivating. It is also a gentle reminder that so much of human culture has historically taken place in the domestic sphere, where women make things in rooms, with selflessness, with passion, with quiet integrity.

A Stocking for a Kitten is out of print but well worth the hunt. Complement it with the delightful Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book.

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08 OCTOBER, 2014

The Virtuous Cycle of Gratitude and Mutual Appreciation: The Letters of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann

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“The beautiful exists only in such traces of dream-daring, which a work of art brings with it from its spiritual home.”

In a culture that makes it easier to be a critic than a celebrator, where it takes growing commitment to do the opposite, how heartening to be reminded of the ennobling gift of gratitude, of the elevating capacity of being one another’s champion — reminders like Charles Bukowski’s letter of gratitude to his greatest champion or Emerson’s epistolary encouragement to young Walt Whitman or Leonard Bernstein’s note of appreciation to his mentor or Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan or Charles Dickens’s flattering letter to George Eliot.

That’s precisely what two of the twentieth century’s greatest authors, Nobel laureates Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann, did for each other over the course of five decades — even though they came from opposite corners of Germany and went on to lead starkly different lives, Hesse an exponent of the quiet contemplation and Mann a public intellectual with a vibrant social life. But they also had a great deal in common — both had rebelled against their bourgeois background by dropping out of school and taking working-class jobs — Hesse at a second-hand bookstore and Mann as an insurance agent — before becoming prominent writers; both had mothers who brought into their otherwise ordinary German childhoods an exotic perspective — Mann’s was born in Brazil and Hesse’s in India.

But what brought them together, above all, were their convictions. Bound by a shared commitment to humanism and an unflinching belief in the integrity of the individual, they stood by one another’s work, both privately and publicly, through war and exile, through harsh criticism, even through their own philosophical disagreements. The record of this virtuous cycle of mutual support is preserved in the wonderful out-of-print 1975 volume The Hesse/Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann 1910–1955 (public library).

Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse in Chantarella, Switzerland

In January of 1928, a year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mann writes after receiving a limited-edition collection of forty-five of Hesse’s poems:

Dear Herr Hesse,

Thank you — I take it as an honor — for sending me these poems, whose atmosphere will not appeal to everyone. You were right in supposing that they would meet with my inward understanding.

In the same letter, Mann pays a beautiful compliment to Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, which had debuted a few months earlier and which was the first major work that put him on a track to his own Nobel Prize two decades later, in no small part thanks to Mann’s repeated and generous nominations:

I am getting more and more cranky and difficult in matters of reading; most of what I see leaves me cold. Steppenwolf has shown me once again, for the first time in ages, what reading can be.

The admiration was mutual. In a letter from March of 1932, Hesse writes to Mann after reading his lecture-turned-essay on Goethe and Tolstoy:

Once again I have admired … the courage and vigor with which, contrary to all German custom, you are at pains not to attenuate, simplify and whitewash, but precisely to stress and deepen the tragic problems.

[...]

In short, I wish to thank you for the great pleasure your book has given me.

At the end of 1933, after Mann writes to Hesse about another one of his poems, “so full of wisdom and kindness,” Hesse responds with equal generosity of spirit in commending Mann on the first novel of his Joseph and His Brothers tetralogy:

I should like at least to thank you for the great pleasure your book gave me… As a contrast to prevailing conceptions of history and historiography, I loved every bit of the faintly melancholy irony with which in the last analysis you view the whole problem of history and narration, though you never for a moment flag in your endeavor to do what you have recognized to be fundamentally impossible, that is, to write history. To me, who differ from you in many respects and have been molded by different origins, just this is profoundly congenial, for I well know that it is to attempt the impossible, while knowing it to be impossible, to take the tragic actively upon oneself. Besides, this quiet book comes as a god-send in times so cluttered with stupid current events!

Mann’s novel was met with harsh criticism, which rendered Hesse’s encouraging letter particularly vitalizing for the author — in a letter sent a few days later, Mann speaks to the power of kindness amid criticism, which all who have endured such public attacks appreciate deeply when present and long for painfully when absent:

[You] can imagine the insolence and stupidity with which the reviewers, almost without exception, have reacted to the book. It is both pitiful and shocking to observe such — by now unconscious — intellectual submissiveness and emasculation in men one has known. The kindness and acuteness with which you have responded … has moved me deeply, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your comforting lines…

In the same letter, Mann adds a sentiment as true of the art of appreciation as of art itself:

When you come right down to it, the beautiful exists only in such traces of dream-daring, which a work of art brings with it from its spiritual home.

In May of 1934, Mann returns the gesture after reading Hesse’s novella “The Rainmaker,” which Hesse would later incorporate in his last novel, The Glass Bead Game, published in 1943 after a decade of rejections due to Hesse’s anti-Nazi convictions:

What a beautiful piece of workmanship your novella is — there is no longer anything like it in Germany. And how humanely it deals with the primitive era, without groveling to it, as it has become so inanely fashionable to do. The “much larger whole” of which this is a part will be magnificent work! — I take my leave with hearty congratulations!

In August of the same year, after Hesse sends Mann a small selection of his poetry as a gift, Mann — who by that point had grown gravely dejected and disheartened by the Nazi’s rise to power — responds with exuberant appreciation:

What a treasure trove of melodies! What pure art! A true comfort to the languishing soul. These words have a general validity, but I also mean them personally, not easy by way of an excuse for this niggardly expression of gratitude. I am in the midst of a grave crisis, both in my life and in my work. I am so plagued by the happenings in Germany, they are such a torment to my moral and critical conscience, that I seem to be unable to carry on with my current literary work.

And yet carry on he does, encouraged by Hesse. Several months later, Mann sends to his friend and champion the ultimate note of appreciation-for-appreciation, speaking to this enormously vitalizing virtuous cycle of mutual respect and admiration that is available to all who choose to welcome and celebrate one another’s kinship of spirit:

My emotion and joy were great and proved to me once again how profoundly receptive I am to kindness and understanding. How could I help taking pride in the good opinion of a man whose art and thinking I approve with all my heart?

Although The Hesse/Mann Letters is long out of print, used copies are still available and are very much worth the hunt — to witness two great minds and expansive spirits come together around art, literature, politics, and philosophy is nothing short of a gift.

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03 OCTOBER, 2014

The Creative Experience: Legendary Choreographer Merce Cunningham on Motion as Metaphor

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“A good teacher keeps out of the way.”

Despite what today’s plethora of books on creativity might indicate, it wasn’t until the second half the twentieth century — with the notable exception of Graham Wallace’s famous 1926 model for the four stages of ideation — that psychology turned to creativity as a formal area of study, bringing to millennia of mystical ideas about genius the rational probing mechanisms of science. In 1970, psychologists Lawrence E. Abt and Stanley Rosner set out to bridge these two approaches and to debunk the false divide between intuition and intellect. With the help of former Life magazine science editor Albert Rosenfeld and noted art critic Clement Greenberg, they identified 23 cultural icons working in the arts and sciences and conducted extensive interviews with them to discern the conditions, motives, and personality traits most conducive to the creative experience. The result was The Creative Experience: Why and How Do We Create? (public library).

Among the luminaries interviewed was choreographer and modern dance pioneer Merce Cunningham (April 16, 1919–July 26, 2009), recipient of the National Medal of Arts and a MacArthur “genius” — a legend in his own right, as well as half of one of history’s greatest creative power couples, alongside the love of his life, the visionary composer John Cage.

Merce Cunningham by Annie Leibovitz (Merce Cunningham Trust)

While Cunningham’s creative medium is dance, it quickly becomes clear that he sees movement as a metaphor — for life, for the creative process, for the human condition:

In my choreographic work, the basis for the dances is movement, that is the human body moving in time-space… It is essentially a process of watching and working with people who use movement as a force of life, not as something to be explained by reference, or used as illustration, but as something, if not necessarily grave, certainly constant in life. What is fascinating and interesting in movement, is, though we are all two-legged creatures, we all move differently, in accordance with our physical proportions as well as our temperaments. It is this that interests me. Not the sameness of one person to another but the difference…

Furthering this notion of movement as a separate, singular language, Cunningham makes a counterintuitive assertion yet one that bespeaks the very sensibility that rendered him one of the greatest creative innovators of the twentieth century:

The dance is not performed to the music. For the dances that we present, the music is composed and performed as a separate identity in itself. It happens to take place at the same time as the dance. The two co-exist, as sight and sound do, in our daily lives. And with that, the dance is not dependent on the music.

[...]

To push this a little further, the dancers on several occasions have not actually heard the music until the first performance; that is, until the audience hears it.

He illustrates this idea with a rather comical yet surprisingly profound exercise:

One of the better things to do on plane trips across the country is to watch [legendary American football quarterback] Joe Namath on the professional football reruns, and plug the sound into the music channel. It makes an absorbing dance.

Noting that he thinks of choreography as Cage thinks of music — as “structure in time” — Cunningham extracts from movement a beautiful metaphor for the secret of human excellence:

I think in movement terms. Human beings move on two legs across the floor, across the earth. We don’t do very much on the ground. We don’t have that kind of power in us. And we can’t go as fast as most four-footed animals do. Our action is here on our two legs. That’s what our life is about. When one thinks about falling, dying, or a loss of consciousness, this is a condition that is out of the normal range of human momentum. With jumping, although we all try to do it, we are again caught, because we can’t stay up there very long. So it becomes virtuoso. You know, when someone jumps high and stays long enough for it to register, it becomes a virtuoso feat.

Merce Cunningham performs in his 'Antic Meet,' 1958. (Photograph: Richard Rutledge / Merce Cunningham Trust)

In a rather Buddhist-like aside — and his other half, as we know, was a wholehearted practitioner of Zen — Cunningham adds:

Falling is one of the ways of moving.

[...]

The human body moves in limited ways, very few actually. There are certain physical things it can’t do that another animal might be able to do. But within the body’s limitations, I wanted to be able to accept all the possibilities.

In reflecting on his work as a teacher, Cunningham champions the idea that we find ourselves by getting productively lost:

My hope is that in working the way I do, I can place the dancer (and this is involved in my student work too), in a situation where he is dependent upon himself. He has to be what he is. He has as few guides or rules as need be given. He finds his way. It’s concerned with his discovery. I think a good teacher keeps out of the way. That’s why, in the classwork, although there are certain exercises which are repeated every day, they are not exact repetitions. They are varied slightly and radically. Each time the dancer has to look again. The resourcefulness and resiliency of a person are brought into play. Not just of a body, but of a whole person.

Later in the interview, Cunningham recounts his own upbringing and one can’t help but trace the origin of this philosophy to his own formative years — to the idea that, like a good teacher, a good parent “gets out of the way” and that sometimes, even when active encouragement isn’t present, the mere absence of discouragement is enough to let genius take its course:

My family was never against my wanting to be in the theater. My father was a lawyer, and my mother enjoyed traveling. But they had no particular awareness of the arts. They didn’t stop me from tap-dancing when I was an adolescent. My father said, “If you want to do it, fine. All you have to do is work at it.” There was no personal objection. It is curious perhaps, since my two brothers followed him, one being a lawyer, the other, a judge.

But perhaps his most poignant point goes to the heart of creativity — the notion that we are the combinatorial product of everything we ever read, saw, heard, and otherwise experienced, which William Faulkner elegantly articulated and which accounts for the perilous psychology of “cryptomnesia.” Beyond the influence of Cage and “his ideas about the possibilities of sound and time,” which Cunningham readily acknowledges, he speaks to the impossibility of tracing, or even registering, the myriad external ideas that leave an impression on us and shape our own:

Influences are difficult to pinpoint since there are probably many of them. There are many things in one’s life that serve to influence one’s ideas and one’s actions to them.

The Creative Experience is an excellent read its entirety. Sample it further with composer Aaron Copland on emotion vs. intelligence and the trap of public opinion, then revisit this soul-stretching take on John Cage and the inner life of artists.

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