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25 FEBRUARY, 2013

February 25, 1956: Sylvia Plath Meets Ted Hughes in One of Literary History’s Steamiest Encounters

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“He ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears.”

On February 25, 1956, young Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience” — walked into a crowded literary party and was instantly drawn to the man with whom she’d come to enter into a tumultuous marriage, the man who years after Plath’s suicide would write an exquisite letter of life advice to the couple’s son, the man who’d become the controversial executor of Plath’s literary estate: Ted Hughes.

The encounter, which Andrew Wilson describes in the ambitious recent biography Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted (public library), is the stuff of literary legend:

On February 25, 1956, twenty-three-year-old Sylvia Plath stepped into a roomful of people and immediately spotted what she later described in her diary as a “big, dark, hunky boy.” She asked her companions if anyone knew the name of this young man but she received no answer. The party was in full swing and the free-form rhythms of the jazz — the “syncopated strut” of the piano, the seductive siren call of the trumpet — made conversation difficult. Sylvia, in Cambridge studying on a Fulbright Fellowship, had been drinking all night: a lethal line of “red-gold” Whisky Macs at a pub in town with her date for that night, Hamish Stewart. The potent combination of scotch and ginger wine had left her feeling like she could almost walk through the air. In fact, the alcohol had had the opposite effect; as she had been walking to the party she had found herself so inebriated that she had kept banging into trees.

On arrival at the Women’s Union — the venue in Falcon Yard chosen to celebrate the first issue of the slim student-made literary journal the St. Botolph’s Review — Sylvia saw that the room was packed with young men in turtleneck sweaters and women in elegant black dresses. Counterpointing the jazz, the sound of poetry was in the air: great chunks of it being quoted back and forth like rallies in a game of literary dominance and seduction. Sylvia was in a bullish mood that night. One of the contributors to St. Botolph’s Review, Daniel Huws, had sneered at two of her poems that had appeared in another Cambridge literary magazine, dismissing her work as too polished and well made. “Quaint and electric artfulness,” he had written in Broadsheet. “My better half tells me ‘Fraud, fraud,’ but I will not say so; who am I to know how beautiful she may be.” Plath felt justifiably angry; after all, she had been writing for publication since the age of eight and she had already earned sizable sums for poems and short stories from Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen. She walked up to Huws, a pale, freckle-faced undergraduate at Peterhouse, and said in a tone of “friendly aggression,” “Is this the better or worse half?” Huws, who later regarded the words as a “fair retaliation” for his “facetious and wounding” remarks, did not know quite how to respond. From Sylvia’s point of view, Huws looked too boyish. She was equally as dismissive of the rest of the St. Botolph’s set, describing Lucas Myers, who was studying at Downing College, as inebriated and wearing a “satanic smile,” and Than Minton, reading natural sciences at Trinity, as so small-framed you would have to sit down if you wanted to talk to him (in Plath’s world a short man was about as useful and attractive as a homosexual).

By this point, Sylvia had knocked back another drink, emptying its contents into her mouth, down her hands, and onto the floor. She then tried to dance the twist with Myers and, although her movements may well have been less than smooth, her memory was razor sharp. As she danced, she proceeded to recite the whole of Myers’s poem “Fools Encountered,” which she had read for the first time earlier that day in St. Botolph’s Review. When the music came to a temporary halt, she saw out of the corner of her eye somebody approaching. It was the same “hunky boy,” the one who had been “hunching” around over women whom she had seen earlier. He introduced himself as Ted Hughes. She recalled the three poems he had published in St. Botolph’s Review, and in an effort to dazzle him with her vivacity, she immediately began reciting segments of them to him. In retrospect, it’s ironic that one of the poems she declaimed, “Law in the Country of the Cats,” addresses the violent, irrational sense of enmity and rivalry that can often exist between individuals, even strangers. On first meeting, the attraction between Hughes — who had graduated from Cambridge in 1954 and had a job in London as a reader for the J. Arthur Rank film company — and Plath was instant. But Sylvia sensed something else too. “There is a panther stalks me down: / One day I’ll have my death of him,” she wrote in “Pursuit,” a poem that she composed two days later.

Plath recorded this encounter — now one of the most famous in all literary history — in her journal the next day. Suffering from a terrible hangover — she joked she thought she might be suffering from the DTs — she described the sexual tension that had flared up between them. After she had quoted some lines from his poem “The Casualty,” Hughes had shouted back over the music at her, in a voice that made her think he might be Polish, “You like?” Did she want brandy, he had asked. “Yes,” she yelled back, at which point he led her into another room. Hughes slammed the door and started pouring her glassfuls of brandy, which Plath tried to drink, but she didn’t manage to find her mouth. Almost immediately, they started discussing Huws’s critique of her poetry. Hughes joked that his friend knew that Plath was beautiful, that she could take such criticism, and that he would never have attacked her had she been a “cripple.” He told her he had “obligations” in the next room — in effect, another Cambridge student, named Shirley — and that he was working in London and earning £10 a week. Then, suddenly, Hughes leaned toward her and kissed her “bang smash on the mouth.” As he did so he ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears. He moved down to kiss her neck, and Plath bit him “long and hard” on the cheek; when the couple emerged from the room, blood was pouring down his face. As Plath bit deep into his skin, she thought about the battle to the death that Hughes had described in “Law in the Country of the Cats” and the perpetrator’s admission of the crime: “I did it, I.” Hughes carried the “swelling ring-moat of tooth marks” on his face for the next month or so, while he admitted that the encounter and the woman remained branded on his self “for good.”

Mad Girl’s Love Song is sublime in its entirety, laced with the same blend of scintillating narrative and fascinating historical context.

Photographs via The Times and London Evening Standard

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25 FEBRUARY, 2013

Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich on Art vs. Design and the Joy of Losing Yourself in Purposeful Work

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“Art pushes the limit of human experience and language for its own sake, while Design might do this but only to humanize and integrate people’s lives in the context of an economy.”

In a recent episode of the inimitable Design Matters — which has previously given us exhilarating conversations with Paula Scher on creativity, Massimo Vignelli on intellectual elegance, Sophie Blackall on storytelling, and Chris Ware on the architecture of being humanDebbie Millman sits down with designer and typography maestro Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich. His innumerable accomplishments and accolades aside, I — a hopeless lover of beautiful and quirky alphabet books — was instantly smitten with the lovely specimen he created for his daughter’s first Christmas in 2000, inspired by the challenges of instilling an equal love of language in a bilingual child. Titled Bembo’s Zoo: An Animal ABC Book (public library), it features 26 different animals, one for each letter of the alphabet, constructed entirely out of the typeface Bembo. The story of the book’s genesis is as creatively invigorating as it is heart-warming:

In his most recent book, Men of Letters and People of Substance (public library) — a gallery of famous portraits created entirely out of letters and objects, with an introduction by none other than Francine Prose — de Vicq de Cumptich writes:

Design is not Art, since Art exists as an answer to a question posed by an individual artist, while Design exists as an answer to a question posed by the marketplace. Design must have an audience to come into being, while Art seeks an audience, sometimes, luckily, finding it, sometimes not. Art pushes the limit of human experience and language for its own sake, while Design might do this but only to humanize and integrate people’s lives in the context of an economy. Design needs an economic system, while Art does not. Art may become a product, but it’s not the reason why it was created, but how our society transforms it into a commodity.

In fact, this distinction between art and design seems to be a central concern: Echoing Chuck Close’s conception of artists as problem-finders rather than problem-solvers, de Vicq de Cumptich offers a succinct yet poetic definition of the difference between the two:

I like design because [in] design you have a problem and you have a solution … and you have a problem that existed outside of yourself. Art is different: [In art], you have to pose the problem.

Diving deeper into the distinction, de Vicq de Cumptich uses motive — creative impulse vs. commercial gain — as the differentiator, a proposition similar to H. P. Lovecraft’s contrast between “amateurs” and professional journalists:

Adding to history’s great fatherly advice, de Vicq de Cumptich articulates the existential urgency — and joy — of finding your purpose and doing what you love:

One of the things about work that is great is the idea of losing yourself into the work. … You have joy … to play with type, to play with image, to find similarities, to find patterns, to create ideas, to transform… So you lose yourself into the work. And that’s one of the things that I tell to my daughter: Try to find something that you’re so passionate [about] that you lose yourself in it.

De Vicq de Cumptich makes an interesting point about the role of typography as design’s lone singular agent:

The only thing that is specific about graphic design is typography. Everything else you borrow from the other arts — you borrow the image from photography, from painting — but the only thing that is specific material for graphic design is typography. So you have to know type, and you have to learn the history of type, and you have to be willing to play with type.

De Vicq de Cumptich is also the author of Love Quotes (public library), published more than fifteen years ago — a simple, elegant selection of history’s most profound words on love, rendered in exquisite typography alongside expressive photographs by Pedro Lobo.

In a meditation on the creative process, de Vicq de Cumptich ponders where ideas come from and champions the value of managing time purposefully:

Time is also essential. You have to manage your time. Your ideas have to be when you are taking a shower, not when you are in front of a computer.

De Vicq de Cumptich stresses the role of humor in making the audience feel intelligent, a core responsibility of great design also championed by Massimo Vignelli:

Listen to the interview in its entirety and be sure to subscribe to the free Design Matters iTunes podcast for a steady stream of stimulating conversations at the intersection of design, culture, and creativity.

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25 FEBRUARY, 2013

Virginia Woolf on the Language of Film and the Evils of Cinematic Adaptations of Literature

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“The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think.”

“Cinema, to be creative, must do more than record,” Anaïs Nin wrote in 1946 in the forth volume of her diaries. But the question of what this elusive, quintessential creative duty of cinema might be long predates Nin’s observation.

In the spring of 1926, when film was still young and silent, Virginia Woolf found herself at once captivated and concerned by the seventh art and penned an essay exploring its perils and its promise. “The Cinema” was originally published in the New York journal Arts, and a slightly edited version titled “The Movies and Reality” appeared in The New Republic shortly thereafter. It can now be found in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 4, 1925-1928 (public library).

Woolf begins with a reserved meditation on the nature of moving images, which at first glance appear to speak to our most primitive underpinnings and invite a strange kind of cerebral resignation, but upon deeper reflection serve as a lubricant between brain and body:

People say that the savage no longer exists in us, that we are at the fag-end of civilization, that everything has been said already, and that it is too late to be ambitious. But these philosophers have presumably forgotten the movies. They have never seen the savages of the twentieth century watching the pictures. They have never sat themselves in front of the screen and thought how for all the clothes on their backs and the carpets at their feet, no great distance separates them from those bright-eyed naked men who knocked two bars of iron together and heard in that clangour a foretaste of the music of Mozart.

The bars in this case, of course, are so highly wrought and so covered over with accretions of alien matter that it is extremely difficult to hear anything distinctly. All is hubble-bubble, swarm and chaos. We are peering over the edge of a cauldron in which fragments of all shapes and savours seem to simmer; now and again some vast form heaves itself up and seems about to haul itself out of chaos. Yet at first sight the art of the cinema seems simple, even stupid. There is the king shaking hands with a football team; there is Sir Thomas Lipton’s yacht; there is Jack Horner winning the Grand National. The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think. For the ordinary eye, the English unaesthetic eye, is a simple mechanism which takes care that the body does not fall down coal-holes, provides the brain with toys and sweetmeats to keep it quiet, and can be trusted to go on behaving like a competent nursemaid until the brain comes to the conclusion that it is time to wake up. What is its purpose, then, to be roused suddenly in the midst of its agreeable somnolence and asked for help? The eye is in difficulties. The eye wants help. The eye says to the brain, ‘Something is happening which I do not in the least understand. You are needed.’ Together they look at the king, the boat, the horse, and the brain sees at once that they have taken on a quality which does not belong to the simple photograph of real life.

Woolf considers the escapist nature of the cinematic experience, and the comforting safety that lies in that escapism:

[The moving pictures] become not more beautiful in the sense in which pictures are beautiful, but shall we call it (our vocabulary is miserably insufficient) more real, or real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life? We behold them as they are when we are not there. We see life as it is when we have no part in it. As we gaze we seem to be removed from the pettiness of actual existence. The horse will not knock us down. The king will not grasp our hands. The wave will not wet our feet. From this point of vantage, as we watch the antics of our kind, we have time to feel pity and amusement, to generalize, to endow one man with the attributes of the race. Watching the boat sail and the wave break, we have time to open our minds wide to beauty and register on top of it the queer sensation — this beauty will continue, and this beauty will flourish whether we behold it or not.

Woolf, who nearly three decades earlier had written of imitation as essential for the arts, proceeds with a rather scathing admonition against cinematic adaptations of literature (cue in Life of Pi…) and argues, aptly for the era, that cinema has to find its own stylistic and narrative voice to fully deserve the label of a new art:

But the picture-makers seem dissatisfied with such obvious sources of interest as the passage of time and the suggestiveness of reality. They despise the flight of gulls, ships on the Thames, the Prince of Wales, the Mile End Road, Piccadilly Circus. They want to be improving, altering, making an art of their own — naturally, for so much seems to be within their scope. So many arts seemed to stand by ready to offer their help. For example, there was literature. All the famous novels of the world, with their well-known characters and their famous scenes, only asked, it seemed, to be put on the films. What could be easier and simpler? The cinema fell upon its prey with immense rapacity, and to the moment largely subsists upon the body of its unfortunate victim. But the results are disastrous to both. The alliance is unnatural. Eye and brain are torn asunder ruthlessly as they try vainly to work in couples. The eye says ‘Here is Anna Karenina.’ A voluptuous lady in black velvet wearing pearls comes before us. But the brain says, ‘That is no more Anna Karenina than it is Queen Victoria.’ For the brain knows Anna almost entirely by the inside of her mind — her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema upon her teeth, her pearls, and her velvet. Then ‘Anna falls in love with Vronsky’ — that is to say, the lady in black velvet falls into the arms of a gentleman in uniform and they kiss with enormous succulence, great deliberation, and infinite gesticulation, on a sofa in an extremely well-appointed library, while a gardener incidentally mows the lawn. So we lurch and lumber through the most famous novels of the world. So we spell them out in words of one syllable, written, too, in the scrawl of an illiterate schoolboy. A kiss is love. A broken cup is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse. None of these things has the least connexion with the novel that Tolstoy wrote, and it is only when we give up trying to connect the pictures with the book that we guess from some accidental scene — like the gardener mowing the lawn — what the cinema might do if left to its own devices.

But what, then, are its devices? If it ceased to be a parasite, how would it walk erect?

For an echelon of what imaginative cinematic storytelling might look like, Woolf cites the 1920 German Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, then considers symbolism and semiotics as vital tools in the emerging language of film:

If a shadow at a certain moment can suggest so much more than the actual gestures and words of men and women in a state of fear, it seems plain that the cinema has within its grasp innumerable symbols for emotions that have so far failed to find expression. Terror has besides its ordinary forms the shape of a tadpole; it burgeons, bulges, quivers, disappears. Anger is not merely rant and rhetoric, red faces and clenched fists. It is perhaps a black line wriggling upon a white sheet. … Is there, we ask, some secret language which we feel and see, but never speak, and, if so, could this be made visible to the eye? Is there any characteristic which thought possesses that can be rendered visible without the help of words? It has speed and slowness; dartlike directness and vaporous circumlocution. But it has, also, especially in moments of emotion, the picture-making power, the need to lift its burden to another bearer; to let an image run side by side along with it. The likeness of the thought is for some reason more beautiful, more comprehensible, more available, than the thought itself.

And yet, Woolf cautions, cinema, already visual by nature, can’t afford to literalize the metaphors of the poets:

As everybody knows, in Shakespeare the most complex ideas form chains of images through which we mount, changing and turning, until we reach the light of day. But obviously the images of a poet are not to be cast in bronze or traced by pencil. They are compact of a thousand suggestions of which the visual is only the most obvious or the uppermost. Even the simplest image ‘My luve’s like a red, red rose, that’s newly-sprung in June’ presents us with impressions of moisture and warmth and the glow of crimson and the softness of petals inextricably mixed and strung upon the lift of a rhythm which is itself the voice of the passion and hesitation of the lover. All this, which is accessible to words and to words alone, the cinema must avoid.

To thrive and blossom into a true art form, Woolf argues, cinema ought to invent is own language:

Yet if so much of our thinking and feeling is connected with seeing, some residue of visual emotion which is of no use either to painter or to poet may still await the cinema. That such symbols will be quite unlike the real objects which we see before us seems highly probable. Something abstract, something which moves with controlled and conscious art, something which calls for the very slightest help from words or music to make itself intelligible, yet justly uses them subserviently — of such movements and abstractions the films may in time to come be composed. Then indeed when some new symbol for expressing thought is found, the film-maker has enormous riches at his command. The exactitude of reality and its surprising power of suggestion are to be had for the asking.

[…]

How all this is to be attempted, much less achieved, no one at the moment can tell us. We get intimations only in the chaos of the streets, perhaps, when some momentary assembly of colour, sound, movement, suggests that here is a scene waiting a new art to be transfixed. And sometimes at the cinema in the midst of its immense dexterity and enormous technical proficiency, the curtain parts and we behold, far off, some unknown and unexpected beauty. But it is for a moment only. For a strange thing has happened — while all the other arts were born naked, this, the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.

To trace the remarkable evolution of the seventh art between Woolf’s time and today, and the developments that propelled it, see 100 Ideas That Changed Film.

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