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25 OCTOBER, 2013

Picasso’s Rare 1934 Etchings for a Racy Ancient Greek Comedy


Literary entrepreneurship, unorthodox anti-war advocacy, and a side of sex.

There is something singularly mesmerizing about the marriage of great art and great literature — take, for instance, Salvador Dalí’s heliogravures for Alice in Wonderland, his illustrations for Montaigne’s essays and Don Quixote, and Henri Matisse’s etchings for Ulysses. The latter gem was masterminded by New York literary entrepreneur George Macey, who founded the Limited Editions Club in 1929 — an imprint specializing in commissioning some of the era’s best-known artists to illustrate literary classics in limited editions of 1,500 signed copies, sold to members on a subscription basis. It was an early — and successful — experiment in premium publishing and subscription models, later replicated by Anaïs Nin in her own Gremor Press.

In 1934, Macey commissioned Pablo Picasso (October 25, 1881–April 8, 1973) to illustrate a special edition of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata (public library) — a Greek comedy about a woman who sets out to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing her countrywomen to withhold sex from their war-bound husbands and lovers. Macey’s edition included six original etchings by the celebrated artist and 34 line block reproductions of the drawings. Picasso’s signature style of simple, elegant lines and expressive sensuality seemed to be a perfect fit for the ancient classic, which, though comedic in nature, also offered a prescient backdrop for Picasso’s own anti-war paintings a few years later.

While, sadly, long buried in the cemetery of out-of-print treasures, used copies of Picasso’s Lysistrata can still be found online.

Thanks, Open Culture

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11 SEPTEMBER, 2013

How Antidepressants Affect Selfhood, Teenage Sexuality, and Our Quest for Personal Identity


“Though antidepressants are effective at managing negative emotions, they don’t in themselves provide the sense of meaning and direction that a person equally needs in order to find her way in life.”

“Great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” Anaïs Nin famously wrote. But what if it doesn’t balance out? What if the emotional excess, believed to be essential to creativity, was of the negative and crippling kind? One need only look at such tragic heroes as Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Marilyn Monroe, and Kurt Cobain to grasp the gravity of the proposition. And yet we remain ever so culturally ambivalent about alleviating the anguish of mental illness with the same arsenal we use against physical pain: drugs.

In Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let Us Down, and Changed Who We Are (public library), Katherine Sharpe explores the heart of this ambivalence through an intersection of her own experience, conversation with medical and psychiatric experts, and in-depth interviews with forty young adults who grew up on psychopharmaceuticals. Having spent a fair portion of my own life on antidepressants, and having recently resumed treatment, I was instantly fascinated, both as an observer of culture and a living sample size of one.

Sharpe begins with an anecdote from her college days, in which she and her six roommates arrived at the accidental and highly self-conscious realization that each one of them was, or had been, on one form of psychoactive drug or another — an incident emblematic of the pervasive and profound cultural pattern at the heart of Sharpe’s book. She writes:

It is strange, as a young person, to realize that you have lived through something that can be considered a real historical change, but that’s exactly what we had done. When I was a child, in the early 1980s, taking psychiatric medication was decidedly a fringe phenomenon. Prozac came onto the market in 1987, the year I was eight. The first member of a family of drugs called SSRIs (for “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors”), it quickly became the leading edge of a psychopharmaceutical revolution. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Americans grew ever more likely to reach for a pill to address a wide variety of mental and emotional problems. We also became more likely to think of those problems as a kind of disease, manifestations of an innate biochemical imbalance. Depression, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the like went from being strange clinical terms or scrupulously hidden secrets to constituting acceptable topics of cocktail party conversation — talk that was often followed up by chatter about the new miracle drugs for despair.

Artwork by Bobby Baker from 'Drawing Mental Illness.' Click image for more.

But more than a mere statistically swelling phenomenon — less than two decades after the introduction of Prozac, SSRIs had outpaced blood pressure medication to become America’s favorite class of drugs, popped by about 10% of the nation — Sharpe points out a troubling corollary: In permeating everyday life so profoundly, antidepressants also embedded themselves in youth, with an ever-growing number of teenagers taking psychopharmaceuticals to abate depression, ADHD, and other mental health issues. And while relief from the debilitating and often deadly effects of adolescent depression is undoubtedly preferable over the alternative, it comes with a dark side: Antidepressants confuse our ability to tell our “true self” from the symptoms of the disease, and from the effects of the medication, at a time when the search for selfhood and the construction of personal identity are at their most critical and formative stages. And given the teenage brain responds so differently to life than the adult’s, the implications are even more uneasy:

Rightly or wrongly, antidepressants command powerful emotions; they can lead people to examine their deepest assumptions about themselves and the world.


The notion that depression distorts the true self and that antidepressants merely restore what was there all along has often been invoked against the fear that by taking antidepressants, we might somehow be betraying our true natures. But that belief in particular is one that people who start medication young cannot fall back on. Worries about how antidepressants might affect the self are greatly magnified for people who begin using them in adolescence, before they’ve developed a stable, adult sense of self. Lacking a reliable conception of what it is to feel “like themselves,” young people have no way to gauge the effects of the drugs on their developing personalities. Searching for identity — asking “Who am I?” and combing the inner and outer worlds for an answer that seems to fit — is the main developmental task of the teenage years. And for some young adults, the idea of taking a medication that could frustrate that search can become a discouraging, painful preoccupation.

She relays her own experience:

When I first began to use Zoloft, my inability to pick apart my “real” thoughts and emotions from those imparted by the drug made me feel bereft. The trouble seemed to have everything to do with being young. I was conscious of needing to figure out my own interests and point myself in a direction in the world, and the fact of being on medication seemed frighteningly to compound the possibilities for error. How could I ever find my way in life if I didn’t even know which feelings were mine?

This inner torment makes perfect, if tragic, sense in the context of developmental psychology, the commonly accepted credo of which is that establishing an identity is adolescents’ primary developmental task. When that process is disrupted by folding in the effects of medication, or the adopted inner storytelling that mental illness renders one somehow handicapped or fundamentally flawed, the consequences can be serious and far-reaching:

Though antidepressants are effective at managing negative emotions, they don’t in themselves provide the sense of meaning and direction that a person equally needs in order to find her way in life.

And even though modern psychology does away with the notion of the immutable self — something Nin herself so eloquently articulated more than half a century ago — Sharpe reminds us that despite what we may rationally believe about our scientific selves, we hang on to the romantic ideal of their metaphysical manifestation with emotional fervor:

For the last twenty years, the dominant academic theories of personhood have focused not on the idea of essence but on performance and changefulness, the sense that we don and doff identities at will as we move through our lives. Intellectually, we all know that the true self is more of a metaphor than a literal reality — we don’t really believe that there is some perfectly realized version of each of us hovering out there, just waiting to be discovered like a vein of gold.

But no matter how well we understand the academic critique of the essential self, or how much we feel disposed to dismiss “Who am I?” … most of us still want to feel, in some way, like ourselves. We may never achieve the highly concrete answer to the question of who we are that we first imagine possible as a young teenager — but a notional sense of self is something that we rely on from day to day. … A feeling of authenticity is, admittedly, an intangible thing to lose — but in a society that still prizes a notion of authentic selfhood, however problematic, it can be a significant one.

Artwork by James Thurber from 'Is Sex Necessary?' Click image for more.

Among the facets of selfhood most deeply affected by adolescents’ and young adults’ use of antidepressants, Sharpe notes, is that of sexuality. Every SSRI warning label cautions that the drug might — meaning, to decode the big-pharma-euphemism here, most likely will — produce “sexual side effects” ranging from loss of interest in sex to performance difficulty to inability to reach orgasm. For teenagers, most of whom are only just beginning to experiment with and understand their sexuality — whether parents approve or not — the repercussions can have an additional layer of gravity over the frustration these “sexual side effects” present for adults:

Just as teens don’t have a sense of their baseline adult personality with which to judge whether and how antidepressants may be affecting them, teens also lack a baseline impression of their own sexuality. Adults who are familiar with their own sexual norms will have an easy time knowing when those norms have been upset. But for adolescents who are just growing into their sexuality, the picture can be more mysterious. … Because SSRIs influence not just performance but also a person’s thoughts and desires, these side effects are relevant for teens who aren’t having sex as well as for those who are.

Artwork from 'An ABZ of Love.' Click image for more.

Coming of Age on Zoloft is fantastic and pause-giving in its entirety, embodying the rare bravery of asking important, complex questions in a society that fetishizes simplistic, sensationalistic answers. In a culture where just about the most embarrassing thing is not to have an opinion, Sharpe invites us to form one that is truly our own, however inconclusive and full of what Keats called “negative capability,” rather than a borrowed one that is easier to don but devoid of true understanding. Sharpe herself puts it beautifully:

This book won’t settle those debates, but it does speak to them. Twenty-five years after the introduction of Prozac, we are still collectively attempting to figure out what an appropriate use of medication would look like, in our culture and in our individual lives. We are trying to figure out what our sadness and pain mean — if they mean anything at all — and when they attain the status of illness. We’re trying to figure out when to turn to pills, when to go another route, and how we might be able to tell. … Good answers to the big questions about medication are likely to proceed from careful attention to the actual experiences of the people who have faced them.

For more on how psychoactive drugs affect the romantic and sexual lives of adults, see biological anthropologist Helen Fisher’s excellent analysis of the neurochemistry of desire and SSRIs.

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10 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Sex on Six Legs: What Insects Teach Us about Ourselves


“It is possible to be unselfish without a moral code, sophisticated without an education, and beautiful wearing a skeleton on the outside.”

If you’ve ever walked a city block with a field naturalist, you know that on every square inch of surface, entire microcosms oscillate between vibrant life and violent death. And if you’ve ever seen Isabella Rossellini’s wonderfully entertaining and educational Green Porno, you know that those oscillations often include incredible feats of copulation for which even our kinkiest acts are no match. And yet, rather than admiration, insects tend to trigger in most of us a spectrum of fear and loathing. In fact, a 1973 survey found that only public speaking and heights exceed our terror of insects, with even death ranked lower in the hierarchy of dread. Even if we rationally realize their ecological importance — some 87% of the world’s flowering plants rely on pollination, and thus on insects, to survive — we might still be gripped by emotional cringe. But in Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language from the Insect World (public library) — a fascinating odyssey into what these joint-legged lives reveal about the secrets of our own — behavioral biologist Marlene Zuk sets out to change our minds and to enchant us with the same profound fascination with these tiny creatures that entranced some of history’s greatest minds, including Charles Darwin and E. O. Wilson.

She begins by reminding us of the fascinating osmosis between similarity and difference that insects embody for us:

The lives of six-legged creatures … seem both frighteningly alien and uncannily familiar. Beetles and earwigs take care of their young, fireflies and crickets flash and chirp for mates, and ants construct elaborate societies, with internal politics that put the U.S. Congress to shame. … Those of us who study insects are passionate about them in a way that can seem incomprehensible to outsiders. People get why Jane Goodall loves chimps; they are less sanguine about my fondness for earwigs.

Perhaps paradoxically, however, insects are infinitely more populous than any other creature and compose some 80% of all species. Right this minute, approximately ten quintillion individual insects — that’s 10 with eighteen zeroes after it — keep you company in the world. Zuk puts the numbers in more comprehensible perspective:

Estimates of the number of kinds of insects vary wildly, because new ones are being discovered all the time, but there are at least a million, possibly as many as ten million, which means that you could have an “Insect of the Month” calendar and not need to re-use a species for well over eighty thousand years.

To those who see insects as a domestic pest and outdoor nuisance, Zuk extends an invitation to give their inherent magic a chance. What she urges us to see in them is nothing short of philosophical:

It is possible to be unselfish without a moral code, sophisticated without an education, and beautiful wearing a skeleton on the outside. Insects can shake you in ways you never expected.

In fact, insects present a curious mirror for human behavior — but one composed of equal parts revelation and anthropomorphic projection:

Along with all of their alien behavior, insects seem to do much of what people do: they meet, mate, fight, and part, and they do so with what looks like love or animosity. Dung beetles take care of their helpless squirming young, doing almost everything human mothers do, short of giving their baby a bottle — or parking it in front of the television. Ants keep aphid “cattle,” moving their herd from place to place and milking the honeydew the aphids produce. Bees convey the location of food using symbols. Unlike any other nonhuman animal, some insects live in sophisticated hierarchical societies, with specialized tasks assigned to different individuals and an ability to make collective decisions that favor the common good. They mirror most of our familiar behaviors.

And yet they do all those things in stunningly different ways from humans, getting to what look like the same destinations without any of the same highway systems or modes of transport. That reflection we recognize is eerily superficial, because what drives the behaviors is not what drives our own.


How is that possible? How can you get what looks like human reasoning, even human love, when you lack not only a human brain but even the chemicals in the blood that drive human emotions? It is easy to endow a fellow warm-blooded creature, for example, a dog or a bird, with motivations and feelings like our own, harder to do so when the entire nervous system of a fruit fly producing a wing-fluttering courtship song of come-hither would fit on a sesame seed.

Insects bring home the uneasy truth that you don’t need a big brain to do big things, and that in turn makes us question how the mind and, dare to say it, the spirit, are related to the brain. It even makes us question what it means to be human.

By laying bare the workings of evolution, Zuk argues, insects pull into question practically every single assumption about the essence of our humanity. But our degree of difference is also a welcome window of insight, unburdened by the weight of closer kinship that we share with the furred and feathered. Zuk cites Richard Dawkins:

As the famous evolutionist Richard Dawkins said in an article about the intelligent design controversy, “Many people cannot bear to think that they are cousins not just of chimpanzees and monkeys, but of tapeworms, spiders, and bacteria.” This unwillingness is particularly true for insects; it may seem improbable to imagine oneself related to microbes, but it does not offend. But to me that lack of identification with insects is precisely why we can look to them to gain insight into our own lives — we simply cannot anthropomorphize them into cute caricatures of humans.

And yet:

Insects are starting to answer the question of “What does it take?” — to have a personality, to learn, to teach others, to change the world around them — with the humbling and perplexing answer, “Not much.” Humbling because they do these things with brains the size of a pinhead, and perplexing because if that’s all it takes, what does that mean for us, with our gigantic forebrains and exhaustingly long periods of childhood dependency?

Sex on Six Legs goes on to explore just how insects answer these questions and teach us about everything from mind control (the tiny emerald cockroach wasp direct the movements of its prey, the household cockroach, turning it into a zombie that readily offers itself up to be devoured) to the biological basis of homosexuality (the gay butterfly might sound like a good indie band name, but it is in fact an oft-recorded scientific occurrence) to language (honeybees use sophisticated communication to maintain their peculiar social structure balancing democracy and dictatorship).

Photographs by Maria Popova

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