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Posts Tagged ‘books’

30 NOVEMBER, 2012

Susan Sontag on Art: Illustrated Diary Excerpts

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“Art is a form of consciousness.”

Earlier this year, I asked artist extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton to illustrate Susan Sontag’s meditations on love, based on my collected highlights from the second volume of Sontag’s published diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library). Today, we’re thrilled to release our second collaboration, this time highlighting Sontag’s reflections on art — adding to history’s most timeless definitions — which I culled from more than 1,000 pages of diary entries from both the same volume and the one preceding it, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library). Enjoy.

The artwork is available on Etsy as an 11×14″ print on heavy cotton rag paper with razored edges in a limited edition of 300, signed and numbered, bearing a hand-stamped inscription on the back. We’re donating a portion of the proceeds to A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists.

The excerpts:

All aesthetic judgment is really cultural evaluation. (9/3/1956)

All great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation. (9/10/1964)

Modern aesthetics is crippled by its dependence upon the concept of ‘beauty.’ As if art were ‘about’ beauty—as science is ‘about’ truth! (9/10/1964)

Art is a form of consciousness (11/1/1964)

Art is a form of nourishment (of consciousness, the spirit) (11/25/1964)

Could get a new art movement every month just by reading Scientific American. (3/26/1965)

Art is the production of mental events in / as a concrete sensuous form (12/4/1979)

Why has there been no new international style in 50 years? Because the new ideas, the new needs are not yet clear. (Hence, we content ourselves with variations + refinements on Art Deco and, for refreshment + fusions, parodistic — ‘pop’ — revivals of older styles.) (8/8/1975)

The only interesting ideas are heresies (6/30/1975)

Both volumes of Sontag’s diaries are unspeakably excellent. Sample them with her thoughts on writing, censorship, boredom, aphorisms, and freedom, her beliefs at age 14 vs. 24, her 10 rules for raising a child, and her list of “rules and duties for being 24.”

See more of Wendy’s magnificent work on her site (designed by the inimitable Kelli Anderson), find her prints on Etsy and 20×200, and follow her on Twitter.

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30 NOVEMBER, 2012

Henry Miller’s Reflections on Writing

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“Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery.”

Why do writers — great, beloved, timeless writers — write? George Orwell had his four motives. For Joan Didion, it is a matter of ego and self-revelation. David Foster Wallace, perhaps ironically in retrospect, wrote purely for the fun of it. For Charles Bukowski, it was an inextinguishable inner burning.

From The Wisdom of the Heart (public library) — the sublime anthology of Henry Miller’s short stories, profiles, and literary essays that gave us his insights on the art of living and the future of mankind — comes a fantastic, timeless essay titled “Reflections on Writing,” in which Miller examines the psychological, emotional, and social roots of the impulse to create literature.

Miller begins by relaying his journey of discovery, that essential and infinite process that helps us transmute information into knowledge and wisdom:

Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery. The adventure is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order eventually to become the path himself.

I began in absolute chaos and darkness, in a bog or swamp of ideas and emotions and experiences. Even now I do not consider myself a writer in the ordinary sense of the word. I am a man telling the story of his life, a process which appears more and more inexhaustible as I go on. Like the world-evolution, it is endless. It is a turning inside out, a voyaging through X dimensions, with the result that somewhere along the way one discovers that what one has to tell is not nearly so important as the telling itself. It is this quality about all art which gives it a metaphysical hue, which lifts it out of time and space and centers or integrates it to the whole cosmic process. It is this about art which is ‘therapeutic': significance, purposelessness, infinitude.

From the very beginning almost I was deeply aware there is no goal. … With the endless burrowing a certitude develops which is greater than faith or belief. I become more and more indifferent to my fate, as writer, and more and more certain of my destiny as man.

In describing his initial attempts to analyze and imitate the writing of his literary heroes, but failing to produce “good” writing himself, Miller depicts failure as a kind of creative catharsis, an essential prerequisite for discovering one’s own purpose:

My huge failure was like the recapitulation of the experience of the race: I had to grow foul with knowledge, realize the futility of everything, smash everything, grow desperate, then humble, then sponge myself off the slate, as it were, in order to recover my authenticity. I had to arrive at the brink and then take a leap in the dark.

He goes on to make the case for a “condition of sublime indifference,” nestled with the Bradburyesque insistence on writing with joy — a necessary antidote to the “tortured genius” myth of creativity, one Bukowski has also famously debunked. Miller writes:

On the surface, where the historical battles rage, where everything is interpreted in terms of money and power, there may be crowding, but life only begins when one drops below the surface, when one gives up the struggle, sinks and disappears from sight. Now I can as easily not write as write: there is no longer any compulsion, no longer any therapeutic aspect to it. Whatever I do is done out of sheer joy: I drop my fruits like a ripe tree. What the general reader or the critic makes of it is not my concern. I am not establishing values: I defecate and nourish. There is nothing more to it.

[…]

Paradise is everywhere and every road, if one continues along it far enough, leads to it.

On words vs. language:

I do not believe in words, no matter if strung together by the most skillful man: I believe in language, which is something beyond words, something which words give only an adequate illusion of. Words do not exist separately, except in the minds of scholars, etymologists, philologists, etc. Words divorced from language are dead things, and yield no secrets.

In arguing for the value of making peace with mystery, Miller echoes Rilke and John Keats’s concept of “negative capability” with a sentiment later articulated by great scientific minds as well, including Richard Feynman and Isaac Asimov. Miller puts it beautifully:

Understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through and by it.

He zeroes in on the quintessential purpose of the writer with breathtaking poetic precision to convey an ethos reminiscent of his once-lover Anaïs Nin’s:

It is the stuff of life, the very sign of livingness. One gets nearer to the heart of truth, which I suppose is the ultimate aim of the writer, in the measure that he ceases to struggle, in the measure that he abandons the wills. The great writer is the very symbol of life, of the non-perfect. He moves effortlessly, giving the illusion of perfection, from some unknown center which is certainly not the brain center but which is definitely a center, a center connected with the rhythm of the whole universe and consequently as sound, solid, unshakable, as durable, defiant, anarchic, purposeless, as the universe itself. Art teaches nothing, except the significance of life.

Miller adds to history’s keenest definitions of art:

I believe that one has to pass beyond the sphere and influence of art. Art is only a means to life, to the life more abundant. It is not in itself the life more abundant. It merely points the way, something which is overlooked not only by the public, but very often by the artist himself. In becoming an end it defeats itself. Most artists are defeating life by their very attempt to grapple with it. They have split the egg in two. All art, I firmly believe, will one day disappear. But the artist will remain, and life itself will become not ‘an art,’ but art, i.e., will definitely and for all time usurp the field. In any true sense we are certainly not yet alive.

On the fluidity of facts:

Between subjective and objective there is no vital difference. Everything is illusive and more or less transparent. All phenomena, including man and his thoughts about himself, are nothing more than a movable, changeable alphabet. There are no solid facts to get hold of.

Contributing to other famous writerly meditations on truth vs. fiction, Miller notes:

Fiction and invention are of the very fabric of life. The truth is no way disturbed by the violent perturbations of the spirit.

Thus, whatever effects I may obtain by technical device are never the mere results of technique, but the very accurate registering by my seismographic needle of the tumultuous, manifold, mysterious and incomprehensible experiences which I have lived through and which, in the process of writing, are lived through again, differently, perhaps even more tumultuously, more mysteriously, more incomprehensibly. The so-called core of solid fact, which forms the point of departure as well as repair, is deeply embedded in me: I could not possibly lose it, alter it, disguise it, try as I may. And yet it is altered, just as the face of the world is altered, with each moment that we breathe. To record it then, one must give a double illusion — one of arrestation and one of flow. It is this dual trick, so to speak, which gives the illusion of falsity: it is this lie, this fleeting, metamorphic mask, which is of the very essence of art. One anchors oneself in the flow: one adopts the lying mask in order to reveal the truth.

Putting the routine of writing in wonderfully introspective and soulful terms, he stresses the generative role of what William Gibson has termed “personal micro-culture,” attesting to the notion that creativity is merely the combinatorial expression of one’s lived experience:

Just as life begins at any moment, through an act of realization, so the work. But each beginning, whether of book page, paragraph, sentence or phrase, marks a vital connection, and it is in the vitality, the durability, the timelessness and changelessness of the thoughts and events that I plunge anew each time. Every line and word is vitally connected with my life, my life only, be it in the form of deed, event, fact, thought, emotion, desire, evasion, frustration, dream, revery, vagary, even the unfinished nothings which float listlessly in the brain like the snapped filaments of a spider’s web. There is nothing really vague or tenuous — even the nothingnessses are sharp, tough, definite, durable. Like the spider I return again and again to the task, conscious that the web I am spinning is made of my own substance, that it will never fail me, never run dry.

He echoes the Japanese ethos of wabi-sabi, a philosophy of finding beauty in impermanence and decay:

In an age marked by dissolution, liquidation seems to me a virtue, nay a moral imperative. … I have always looked upon decay as being just as wonderful and rich an expression of life as growth.

Miller ends with a poignant, poetic meditation on authenticity and the life of purpose:

I had to learn to think, feel and see in a totally new fashion, in an uneducated way, in my own way, which is the hardest thing in the world. I had to throw myself into the current, knowing that I would probably sink. The great majority of artists are throwing themselves in with life-preservers around their necks, and more often than not it is the life-preserver which sinks them. Nobody can drown in the ocean of reality who voluntarily gives himself up to the experience. Whatever there be of progress in life comes not through adaptation but through daring, through obeying the blind urge. ‘No daring is fatal,’ said René Crevel, a phrase which I shall never forget. The whole logic of the universe is contained in daring, i.e., in creating from the flimsiest, slenderest support. In the beginning this daring is mistaken for will, but with time the will drops away and the automatic process takes its place, which again has to be broken or dropped and a new certitude established which has nothing to do with knowledge, skill, technique or faith. By daring one arrives at this mysterious X position of the artist, and it is this anchorage which no one can describe in words but yet subsists and exudes from every line that is written.

The Wisdom of the Heart is an absolute treasure in its entirety. For more timeless wisdom on writing, revisit Miller’s 11 commandments and complement with Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, Joy Williams on why writers write, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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29 NOVEMBER, 2012

How Love Works: Stendhal on “Crystallization” and the Seven Stages of Love (1822)

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“Happiness never stays the same, except in its origin; every day brings forth a new blossom.”

Love is perhaps the most fertile subject of literature, music, and all the arts. Kurt Vonnegut believed you’re only allowed to be in love three times in your life. It has been described as a matter of bravery, a limbic revision, the greatest insurance against regret. For Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, it is simply, sweetly walking hand in hand. But how, exactly, does love take hold of the heart?

In 1822, French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better-known by his pseudonym Stendhal, penned On Love (public library) — a timeless treatise attempting to rationally analyze the highest human emotion, rediscovered through a passing mention in the diaries of Susan Sontag (who famously and perhaps ironically wrote, “Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.”)

Stendhal sets out to bridge “the deeply sensitive and coolly analytical,” beginning with a taxonomy of the four main types of love:

There are four different kinds of love:

1. Passionate Love. This was the love of the Portuguese nun, that of Heloïce for Abelard, of the captain of Vésel, and of the gendarme of Cento.

2. Mannered Love, which flourished in Paris about 1760, and which is to be found in the memoirs and novels of the period; for example those of Crébillon, Lauzun, Duclos, Marmontel, Chamfort, and Mme d’Epinay…

A stylized painting, this, where the rosy hues extend into the shadows, where there is no place for anything at all unpleasant – for that would be a breach of etiquette, of good taste, of delicacy, and so forth. A man of breeding will know in advance all the rituals he must meet and observe in the various stages of this kind of love, which often achieves greater refinement than real love, since there is nothing passionate or unpredictable about it, and it is always witty. It is a cold, pretty miniature as against an oil painting by one of the Carrachi; and while passionate love carries us away against our real interests, mannered love as invariably respects those interests. Admittedly, if you take away vanity, there is very little left of mannered love, and the poor weakened invalid can hardly drag itself along.

3. Physical Love. You are hunting; you come across a handsome young peasant girl who takes to her heels through the woods. Everyone knows the love that springs from this kind of pleasure, and however desiccated and miserable you may be, this is where your Love-life begins at sixteen.

4. Vanity-Love. The great majority of men, especially in France, both desire and possess a fashionable woman, much in the way one might own a fine horse – as a luxury befitting a young man. Vanity, a little flattered and a little piqued, leads to enthusiasm. Sometimes there is physical love, but not always; often even physical pleasure is lacking. ‘A duchess is never more than thirty in the eyes of a bourgeois,’ said the Duchesse de Chaulnes, and the courtiers of that just king Louis of Holland cheerfully recall even now a pretty woman from The Hague who was quite unable to resist the charms of anyone who happened to be a duke or a prince. But true to hierarchical principles, as soon as a prince came to court she would send her duke packing. She was rather like an emblem of seniority in the diplomatic corps!

The happiest version of this insipid relationship is where physical pleasure grows with habit. Then memories produce a semblance of love; there is the pricking at your pride and the sadness in satisfaction; the atmosphere of romantic fiction catches you by the throat, and you believe yourself lovesick and melancholy, for vanity will always pretend to be grand passion. One thing is certain though: whichever kind of love produces the pleasures, they only become vivid, and their recollection compelling, from the moment of inspiration. In love, unlike most other passions, the recollection of what you have had and lost is always better than what you can hope for in the future.

Occasionally in vanity-love, habit, or despair of finding something better, results in a friendship of the least attractive sort, which will even boast of its stability, and so on.

Although physical pleasure, being natural, is known to all, it is only of secondary importance to sensitive, passionate people. If such people are derided in drawing rooms or made unhappy by the intrigues of the worldly, they possess in compensation a knowledge of pleasures utterly inaccessible to those moved only by vanity or money.

Some virtuous and sensitive women are almost unaware of the idea of physical pleasure; they have so rarely, if I may hazard an expression, exposed themselves to it, and in fact the raptures of passionate love have practically effaced the memory of bodily delights.

There are some men who are the victims and instruments of a hellish pride, a pride like that of Alfieri. These men, who are cruel perhaps because like Nero they are always afraid, judge everyone after their own pattern, and can achieve physical pleasure only when they indulge their pride by practicing cruelties upon the companion of their pleasures. … Only in this way can they find a sense of security.

Instead of defining four kinds of love, one might well admit eight or ten distinctions. There are perhaps as many different ways of feeling as there are of seeing, but differences of terminology do not affect the arguments which follow. Every variety of love mentioned henceforth is born, lives, dies, or attains immortality in accordance with the same laws.

Stendhal, 1840

In a chapter titled “Concerning the Birth of Love,” Stendhal outlines the process by which love takes hold. Particularly interesting is his concept of crystallization, a kind of madness Sylvia Plath so elegantly captured — the projective idealization with which we tend to see our beloveds, submerging their complete humanity in our selective, romanticized versions of reality.

HERE is what happens in the soul:

1. Admiration.

2. You think, ‘How delightful it would be to kiss her, to be kissed by her,’ and so on…

3. Hope. You observe her perfections, and it is at this moment that a woman really ought to surrender, for the utmost physical pleasure. Even the most reserved women blush to the whites of their eyes at this moment of hope. The passion is so strong, and the pleasure so sharp, that they betray themselves unmistakably.

4. Love is born. To love is to enjoy seeing, touching, and sensing with all the senses, as closely as possible, a lovable object which loves in return.

5. The first crystallization begins. If you are sure that a woman loves you, it is a pleasure to endow her with a thousand perfections and to count your blessings with infinite satisfaction. In the end you overrate wildly, and regard her as something fallen from Heaven, unknown as yet, but certain to be yours.

Leave a lover with his thoughts for twenty-four hours, and this is what will happen:

At the salt mines of Salzburg, they throw a leafless wintry bough into one of the abandoned workings. Two or three months later they haul it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig, no bigger than a tom-tit’s claw, is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original branch is no longer recognizable.

What I have called crystallization is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.

You hear a traveller speaking of the cool orange groves beside the sea at Genoa in the summer heat: Oh, if you could only share that coolness with her!

[…]

The phenomenon that I have called crystallization springs from Nature, which ordains that we shall feel pleasure and sends the blood to our heads. It also evolves from the feeling that the degree of pleasure is related to the perfections of the loved one, and from the idea that ‘She is mine.’

Stendhal even illustrates crystallization in a visual analogy where the city of Bologna signifies indifference and Rome stands for perfect love. The traveler begins in Bologna, indifferent, then moves through the four stages of crystallization — Admiration, Acknowledgement, Hope, Delight — and arrives in Rome in love, having enormously amplified the merits of the beloved. He allegedly drew this diagram on the back of a playing card while en route to the Salzburg salt mine.

The outline continues:

This is what happens next to fix the attention:

6. Doubt creeps in. First a dozen or so glances, or some other sequence of actions, raise and confirm the lover’s hopes. Then, as he recovers from the initial shock, he grows accustomed to his good fortune, or acts on a theory drawn from the common multitude of easily-won women. He asks for more positive proofs of affection and tries to press his suit further.

He is met with indifference, coldness, or even anger if he appears too confident. In France there is even a shade of irony which seems to say ‘You think you’re farther ahead than you really are.’ A woman may behave like this either because she is recovering from a moment of intoxication and obeying the dictates of modesty, which she may fear she has offended; or simply for the sake of prudence or coquetry.

The lover begins to be less sure of the good fortune he was anticipating and subjects his grounds for hope to a critical examination.

He tries to recoup by indulging in other pleasures but finds them inane. He is seized by the dread of a frightful calamity and now concentrates fully. Thus begins:

7. The second crystallization, which deposits diamond layers of proof that ‘she loves me.’

Every few minutes throughout the night which follows the birth of doubt, the lover has a moment of dreadful misgiving, and then reassures himself, ‘she loves me’; and crystallization begins to reveal new charms. Then once again the haggard eye of doubt pierces him and he stops transfixed. He forgets to draw breath and mutters, ‘But does she love me?’ Torn between doubt and delight, the poor lover convinces himself that she could give him such pleasure as he could find nowhere else on earth.

It is the pre-eminence of this truth, and the road to it, with a fearsome precipice on one hand and a view of perfect happiness on the other, which set the second crystallization so far above the first.

The lover’s mind vacillates between three ideas:

1. She is perfect.

2. She loves me.

3. How can I get the strongest possible proofs of her love?

The most heartrending moment of love in its infancy is the realization that you have been mistaken about something, and that a whole framework of crystals has to be destroyed. You begin to feel doubtful about the entire process of crystallization.

And yet, crystallization isn’t necessarily a bad thing — in fact, Stendhal argues it might be the key to the essential attachment phase of love that biological anthropologist Helen Fisher identified nearly two centuries later. He writes:

The second crystallization ensures that love will last; for you feel that the only alternatives are to win her love or to die. The very idea of ceasing to love is absurd when your convictions are confirmed moment by moment, until the passing months make love a habit. The stronger your character, the slighter the impulse to inconstancy.

[…]

Crystallization goes on throughout love almost without a break. The process is something like this: whenever all is not well between you and your beloved, you crystallize out an imaginary solution. Only through imagination can you be sure that your beloved is perfect in any given way. After intimacy, ever-resurgent fears are lulled by more real solutions. Thus happiness never stays the same, except in its origin; every day brings forth a new blossom.

Underpinning his rationalist analysis of love is a kind of reassuring caveat, recognizing the all-too-familiar notion that love isn’t something we can will or will away. Stendhal notes:

Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will. It is chiefly in this that mannered love differs from passionate love. The charms of your beloved are not a matter of self-congratulation, except as a stroke of luck. Finally, there are no age limits for love.

In fact, he argues that love at a later age is always richer and more enduring than young love:

For the very young, love is like a huge river which sweeps everything before it, so that you feel that it is a restless current. Now a sensitive person has acquired some self-knowledge by twenty-eight; she knows that any happiness she can expect from life will come to her through love; hence a terrible struggle develops between love and mistrust. She crystallizes only slowly; but whatever crystals survive her terrible ordeal, where the spirit is moving in the face of the most appalling danger, will be a thousand times more brilliant and durable than those of the sixteen-year-old, whose privileges are simply happiness and joy. Thus the later love will be less gay, but more passionate.

On Love is a sublime read in its entirety, full of the era’s delightfully quaint biases but also of timeless, boundless, universal human truth.

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