Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

26 APRIL, 2013

Susan Sontag on Why Lists Appeal to Us, Plus Her Listed Likes and Dislikes

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How lists confer value and guarantee existence.

“The list is the origin of culture,” Umberto Eco famously proclaimed. Whether or not he was right about origin, the list is very much a currency of culture, today’s favorite attention-exploitation device in an information economy of countless listicles and innumerable numerical headlines. But what is it, exactly, that makes lists appeal to us so?

The recently released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 and has already given us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, and her illustrated insights on love and art. In a characteristically self-reflexive entry from August 9, 1967, 34-year-old Sontag considers the allure of lists:

I perceive value, I confer value, I create value, I even create — or guarantee — existence. Hence, my compulsion to make “lists.” The things (Beethoven’s music, movies, business firms) won’t exist unless I signify my interest in them by at least noting down their names.

Nothing exists unless I maintain it (by my interest, or my potential interest). This is an ultimate, mostly subliminal anxiety. Hence, I must remain always, both in principle + actively, interested in everything. Taking all of knowledge as my province.

Nearly a decade later, on February 21, 1977, Sontag constructs an unusual list of her likes and dislikes, on the one hand unordered like a stream-of-consciousness meditation and on the other bearing the cyclical repetition and cadence of poetry:

Things I like: fires, Venice, tequila, sunsets, babies, silent films, heights, coarse salt, top hats, large long-haired dogs, ship models, cinnamon, goose down quilts, pocket watches, the smell of newly mown grass, linen, Bach, Louis XIII furniture, sushi, microscopes, large rooms, ups, boots, drinking water, maple sugar candy.

Things I dislike: sleeping in an apartment alone, cold weather, couples, football games, swimming, anchovies, mustaches, cats, umbrellas, being photographed, the taste of licorice, washing my hair (or having it washed), wearing a wristwatch, giving a lecture, cigars, writing letters, taking showers, Robert Frost, German food.

Things I like: ivory, sweaters, architectural drawings, urinating, pizza (the Roman bread), staying in hotels, paper clips, the color blue, leather belts, making lists, Wagon-Lits, paying bills, caves, watching ice-skating, asking questions, taking taxis, Benin art, green apples, office furniture, Jews, eucalyptus trees, pen knives, aphorisms, hands.

Things I dislike: Television, baked beans, hirsute men, paperback books, standing, card games, dirty or disorderly apartments, flat pillows, being in the sun, Ezra Pound, freckles, violence in movies, having drops put in my eyes, meatloaf, painted nails, suicide, licking envelopes, ketchup, traversins [“bolsters”], nose drops, Coca-Cola, alcoholics, taking photographs.

Things I like: drums, carnations, socks, raw peas, chewing on sugar cane, bridges, Dürer, escalators, hot weather, sturgeon, tall people, deserts, white walls, horses, electric typewriters, cherries, wicker / rattan furniture, sitting cross-legged, stripes, large windows, fresh dill, reading aloud, going to bookstores, under-furnished rooms, dancing, Ariadne auf Naxos.

UPDATE: Reader Lynore Avery illustrates Sontag’s favorite things, reminiscent of Lisa Congdon’s illustrations of Gertrude Stein’s objects:

Complement this with Nabokov’s stream-of-consciousness rant on things he hates. And if you still haven’t treated yourself to As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, do yourself a favor.

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26 APRIL, 2013

Proust’s Previously Unknown Illustrated Poems

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“As you read the poems, the lapidary wall of Great Writer dissolves and the person expands horizontally.”

In recent decades, literary history has unearthed previously unknown — and, often, unexpected — poems by such prose icons as Vonnegut, Bradbury, Joyce, and Twain. But even those most deeply acquainted with his work might be surprised that between the ages of seventeen and fifty, Marcel Proust — master of tormented prose, weaver of breathless sentences, sickly eccentric — penned a number of poems, mostly scribbled in his journals and in letters to his correspondents. A newly released dual-language edition of The Collected Poems (public library), with parallel text in French and English, features Proust’s poems never previously translated into English or published in book form at all. Affectionate, witty, often lascivious, frequently full of longing, these unexpected verses reveal a side of Proust that is at once utterly new and all the more intimately familiar.

Harold Augenbraum, founder of the Proust Society of America and editor of the collection, writes in the introduction:

[The poems] show a different side of Proust from the Great Writer to whom we have become accustomed and inured: at various times intimate, vulgar, gay, Proust as Wicked Little Imp, master of the affectionate barb. Knowing this Proust only enhances our appreciation of the novel. As you read the poems, the lapidary wall of Great Writer dissolves and the person expands horizontally, while at the same time the importance of friendship draws out a consistent beauty of form and language, full of sentiment without sentimentality.

At various times they are sexed-up, dreamy, artsy, catty, and loving. They are always observant, insightful, and delightful.

And delightful, indeed, they are. A number of them explore Proust’s experience of place and belonging, and three of those included in the collection feature his hand-drawn illustrations:

Proust's drawing that accompanied Poem 36, sent to Reynaldo Hahn from Dordrecht

#36 DORDRECHT

Your sky always slightly
blue
Morning often slightly
wet

Lovely Dordrecht
Tomb
Of my precious illusions

When I try to draw
Your canals, your roofs, your steeple
I feel I could love
A homeland

Still sun and church bells
Dry out quickly
For high mass, also brioches
And gleaming steeple

Your sky
So often wet,
But always underneath
A bit stays blue.

Proust's drawing that accompanied Poem 37, sent to Reynaldo Hahn from Dordrecht

#37 DORDRECHT

A baker in the square
Where nothing stirs but a pigeon
Reflections in an icy blue canal —
A great red mould,
A barge slipping forward, disturbing
A waterlily, sunlight
In the baker’s mirror flitting over a red currant
Tart,
Scaring hell out of a feasting fly.
At the end of the mass, here comes everybody — alleluia,
Holy Mother of Angels
Come, let’s take a boat ride on the canal
After a little nap.

Proust's drawing that accompanied Poem 58

#58

Little project of sweet stained glass
To make it was a pain in the ass
On the left are Félicie and Marie
Who wash clothes and complain incessantly.
On the right Buninuls cannot open Legras powder
And Binchdinuls comes for alumsinum
Buninuls helps by knee and arms
Binchdinuls is divided by a gothic column
Everything here to show Binchdinuls what day it is
Not a day goes by without sending a little inscripartus.

Echoing neurologist Oliver Sacks’s provocative wisdom on influence and the necessary forgettings of creativity and Twain’s assertion that all creativity is “second-hand,” Augenbraum notes:

The very bookish Marcel Proust was above all a reader, a logophile who imbibed literature to such an extent that one imagines by the time he reached adulthood he no longer knew where the memory of Baudelaire’s work ended and the vision of his own poetry began. Tone wells up from the deeply digested works of precursors.

And yet The Collected Poems are somehow uniquely Proustian — dreamy, ambivalent, sensitive, and invariably, intoxicatingly restless.

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26 APRIL, 2013

Ancient Aphrodisiacs and Anti-Aphrodisiacs

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The erotic lives of gladiators, or why pomegranate juice is the opposite of fresh lettuce.

“Self-respect … it’s the secret of good sex,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. And yet since time immemorial, humans have engaged in all kinds of practices of questionable dignity as we’ve indulged the mesmerism of our own procreation, from the first ejaculation in the fossil record to the cultural history of judging desire to the seemingly counterintuitive question of how to think more (meaning better) about sex. But beyond mere biology, the history of sex has always been paralleled by a kind of mythology defining our beliefs about eroticism and propelling our compulsion to control copulation in all of its dimensions. That’s precisely what Vicki León explores in The Joy of Sexus: Lust, Love, and Longing in the Ancient World (public library) — a fascinating journey to the intersection of science and superstition, exhuming antiquity’s curious beliefs about and practices of such facets of fornication as medicine and matrimony, bisexuality and gender-bending, adultery and pornography.

Among the most intriguing aspects of ancient love was the desire to control desire — in both directions of the dial — enlisting various alleged aphrodisiacs and anti-aphrodisiacs:

When it came to intimacy readiness, Greek and Roman lovers were perennially inventive. They set store by a wide spectrum of aphrodisiacs, some still in hopeful use today, including raw oysters, the fleshy symbol of the goddess Aphrodite (Venus among the Romans). Aphrodite emerged from the foamy crest of ocean waves, which the Greeks saw as a type of marine semen. … These pioneers on the frontiers of sexual virility wandered far beyond oysters, however. Pomegranate juice from Aphrodite’s favorite tree, mixed with wine, scored high with ancient Egyptians and other males in the Middle East. So did lettuce. Although toxic, mandrake root was an evergreen. So was opium as a wine additive.

Many ardent souls preferred lotions applied directly to the male organ — one provocative but now-mysterious favorite was called “the deadly carrot.” Some approaches, however, such as the honey-pepper mix, the tissue-irritating nettle oil, and the cantharides beetle (Spanish fly), gave painful new meaning to the expression “All fired ready to go.”

[…]

Other aids to Venus were added to wine, a social lubricant that provided a one-two punch: among them, gentian and a red-leafed root in the orchid family called satyrion, named for the randy prowess of the mythical satyrs. Roman emperor Tiberius, on the other hand, swore by another exotic tuber called skirret.

As an aphrodisiac, the pomegranate wine cooler had an enthusiastic following around the ancient world.

But that ancient libido had a flipside and often had to be reined in with different concoctions:

Consuming cress, purslane, cannabis seeds, nasturtium flowers, or the ashes of the chaste tree would do the trick. So would that horrific, erection-withering substance, fresh lettuce. In order to maintain sexual vigor, Greek and Roman male diners were careful to combine lettuce with aphrodisiacally active arugula to neutralize it. Or just avoid lettuce like the plague. (On the other hand, lettuce was considered highly lascivious among the Egyptians…)

Mouse dung, applied as a liniment, was a favorite anti-aphrodisiac. So was rue boiled with rose oil and aloes. Drinking wine in which a mullet fish had drowned and sipping male urine in which a lizard had expired both had their loyal adherents.

Nevertheless, taming truly terrific potency required strong measures, like nymphaea, an herb guaranteed to “relax” the phallus for a few days. One writer even boasted that it would “take away desire and even sex dreams for forty days!”

The Joy of Sexus goes on to explore ancient attitudes toward and rites of everything from mystery cults to masturbation to marriage. Complement it with Pixar’s Ancient Book of Sex and Science and the fascinating history of the first sexual revolution.

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