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Posts Tagged ‘sex!’

21 AUGUST, 2014

Maurice Sendak’s Rare, Sensual Illustrations for Herman Melville’s Greatest Commercial Failure and Most Personally Beloved Book

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“The strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight.”

Something magical happens when a great artist interprets a great author — one need only look at William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost, Picasso’s 1934 drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses, and Salvador Dalí’s literary illustrations for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne. But one of the most extraordinary such “collaborations” across creative culture’s space-time continuum came in the form of a now-rare 1995 Kraken edition of Herman Melville‘s controversial 1852 novel Pierre; or, the Ambiguities (public library), illustrated by none other than Maurice Sendak.

The story of the book itself — an absolute disaster for Melville both critically and financially, and yet one he considered his “kraken book,” a book eclipsing Moby-Dick in its profound potency like the mythic kraken outshines the whale in might — is at least as scandalous as its plot.

In 1850, Melville wrote in a letter that “a book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism.” The following year, when Moby-Dick was published, the critical reception validated his fear — reviewers eviscerated the book, which Melville considered his greatest work to date, as irreverent and blasphemous. Though Melville’s style was praised by some for its ingenuity, most critics issued scathing remarks about it, including one prominent British reviewer’s assertion that it was an “ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact.”

As the reviews were pouring in, Melville wrote in a letter to his friend and great champion Nathaniel Hawthorne in June of 1851:

Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.

He proved heartbreakingly right: It took more than seventy years after Melville died a penniless customs agent for Moby-Dick to be extolled as one of the greatest books of all time.

So when Melville walked into the Harper & Brothers publishing office on January 2, 1852, with a copy of his Pierre manuscript, he was doubly embittered by how deftly reviewers had validated his prior grim fears about criticism. For their part, the Harper brothers were less than eager to publish a new book by an author whose most recent novel had done so dismally. Too polite and political to give Melville an outright rejection, they instead channeled their reservations by offering him a humiliating contract — instead of their standard author royalty rate of 50 cents on the dollar, they offered him 20 cents. This automatically meant that Pierre would have to sell 2.5 as many copies as his other books in order to yield Melville the share he had previously gotten — a share, no less, with which he had still run into considerable debt to the firm.

Desperate and resigned, Melville decided not to pitch the book to other publishers and signed the Harper & Row contract on February 20, 1852.

But then he did something even crazier — something that would seal the book’s tragic fate: He decided to enlarge the original 360-page manuscript with an additional 150 pages, in which he took the already extravagant plot to preposterous lengths. After book XVI, he inserted a section titled “Young America in Literature,” lacing it with his satirical, thinly veiled personal gripes against the literary establishment. (In one particularly vivid passage, he envisioned “the highly improbable event of the near approach of the Millennium, which might establish a different dynasty of taste, and possibly eject the editors.”)

The book all but perished, both in sales and in critical reception. Critics dismissed it as “perhaps, the craziest fiction extant” (The Boston Post) and “a confused phantasmagoria of distorted fancies and conceits, ghostly abstractions and fitful shadows” (New York Literary World) — the latter being the most burning of the bunch, as it was penned by editor Evert Duyckinck, the very friend with whom Melville had shared his prescient lament about criticism two years earlier.

But in the twentieth century, Pierre found its two greatest champions — Melville scholar Herschel Parker and the great Maurice Sendak, who considered it Melville’s greatest novel and who had previously illustrated another literary titan. So when Parker approached the beloved artist about the Kraken edition, Sendak was thrilled — doubly so because the book’s unabashed blend of sensuality, nightmarishness, and ambiguity mirrored his own aesthetic and paralleled the sensibility of his greatest lifelong influence, William Blake.

In fact, Sendak had independently begun working on drawings for Pierre after attending the 1991 Melville Centennial Conference. He found in this unusual, extravagant, almost ludicrous yet remarkably layered text the perfect canvas for equally over-the-top pictorial representation. The resulting drawings — by far the most sexually expressive of any of his work, featuring 27 discernible nipples and 11 male “packages,” three of which unclothed — are unlike anything Sendak created before or since. Bold, unapologetic, and incredibly sensual, the illustrations are also subtly subversive in their treatment of gender identity and stereotypes, from Pierre’s effeminate body-choreography to Isabel’s scrumptiously muscular back à la Venus with Biceps. This subversion was a subject close to Sendak’s heart, as a gay man who came of age decades before marriage equality and shared the last half-century of his life with his partner, Eugene Glynn, but it was nonetheless a subject he never explored directly.

The Kraken edition, however, is remarkable not only in inviting Sendak’s striking drawings, but also in restoring the Melville text to its original form, before his embittered 150-page addition. It is intended, as Parker notes in the introduction, “to supplement (not to rival) the text Harper published.” He writes:

[This edition] will at last make it feasible for lovers of Melville to comprehend his original design for the book and his original achievements in it.” Equally important, this version of Pierre will illuminate Moby-Dick. Even readers who have long loved Moby-Dick will perceive its psychological stature more clearly in the light shed by the book Melville wrote next — the short version of Pierre, surely the finest psychological novel anyone had yet written in English.

Indeed, Pierre‘s psychoemotional subtlety is perhaps best captured in a meta way, in this exquisite Melville line from Book IV of the novel:

In their precise tracings-out and subtile causations, the strongest and fieriest emotions of life defy all analytical insight.

The Kraken edition of Pierre; or, the Ambiguities is currently out of print but is oh-so-much worth the hunt. Complement it with Sendak’s rarest, most defining illustrations, his little-known posters celebrating books and the love of reading, and his posthumous love letter to the world.

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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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25 JULY, 2014

“Vacation Sex”: A Poem by Dorianne Laux

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“…in hotels under overpasses or rooms next to ice machines, friends’ fold-out couches…”

“Love is never finished expressing itself,” philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in his beautiful essay on poetic reverie, “and it expresses itself better the more poetically it is dreamed.” While love and sex might be worlds of ambiguity apart, one would hope this sentiment holds equally true of sex and the poetics of desire.

In 1999, poet Dorianne Laux visited my alma mater, the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, for a reading and discussion of her work. Among the poems she read was “Vacation Sex,” found in her altogether enchanting collection Facts About the Moon: Poems (public library) — a tongue-in-cheek yet strangely sensual homage to that particular, charmingly undignified, peculiarly romantic-in-its-scruffiness form of intimacy.

We’ve been at it all summer, from the Canadian border
to the edge of Mexico, just barely keeping it American
but doing okay just the same, in hotels under overpasses
or rooms next to ice machines, friends’ fold-out couches,
in-laws’ guest quarters—wallpaper and bedspreads festooned
with nautical rigging, tiny life rings and coiled tow ropes—

even one night in the car, the plush backseat not plush
enough, the door handle giving me an impromptu
sacro-cranial chiropractic adjustment, the underside
of the front seat strafing the perfect arches of his feet.
And one long glorious night in a cabin tucked in the woods
where our crooning and whooping started the coyotes

singing. But the best was when we got home, our luggage
cuddled in the vestibule—really just a hallway
but because we were home it seemed like a vestibule—
and we threw off our vestments, which were really
just our clothes but they seemed like garments, like raiment,
like habits because we felt sorely religious, dropping them

one by one on the stairs: white shirts, black bra, blue jeans,
red socks, then stood naked in our own bedroom, our bed
with its drab spread, our pillows that smelled like us:
a little shampoo-y, maybe a little like myrrh, the gooseberry
candle we light sometimes when we’re in the mood for mood,
our own music and books and cap off the toothpaste and cat

on the window seat. Our window looks over a parking lot—
a dental group—and at night we can hear the cars whisper
past the 24-hour Albertson’s where the homeless couple
buys their bag of wine before they walk across the street
to sit on the dentist’s bench under a tree and swap it
and guzzle it and argue loudly until we all fall asleep.

Complement with Laux’s “Antilamentation,” which rings with double poignancy in the above context.

This recording comes courtesy of the superb PennSound archive, which has previously given us such gems as Allen Ginsberg’s rendition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, Adrienne Rich on creative process, love, loss, and happiness, Gertrude Stein’s reading of “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson,” Yeats on modern poetry, and Charles Olson’s reading of “Maximus, to Himself.”

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