Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

09 NOVEMBER, 2011

The Ecstasy of Influence: Jonathan Lethem on the Author as a Public Intellectual

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A self-conscious reflection on literary self-consciousness, or what David Foster Wallace’s true gift really was.

If you’ve ever aspired to write a book — and let’s agree that ‘book’ is not a diagnosis of medium — or understand those who do and have, then Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. is for you. It’s part anthology of Lethem’s finest longform writing, part meditation on what it means to be what Lethem calls, not without a good measure of self-conscious self-consciousness, “an intellectual” — and even what it means to be an intellectual reader of an intellectual. He terms this the “white elephant” role of the author as a public intellectual and goes on to explore its burdens, blessings, and cultural responsibilities. (And he welcomes you to the conversation with a “bias spoiler alert” that forewarns: “I think I’m an intellectual, and I think you are too, whether you like it or not.”)

The zesty collection of “uncollected” writings includes some of Lethem’s best-known nonfiction pieces, exploring everything from cinema to graffiti to cyberculture to Bob Dylan, lined with a layer of metadata — epigraphs, quotes, reviews. But, above all, the anthology is about what Lethem calls “negotiating selfhood in a world of other selves — the permanent trouble of being alive.” He writes:

I want to bite the hand that feeds me, even if that hand is sometimes yours, reader.

The book’s title is based on Lethem’s excellent 2007 Harper’s Magazine essay, “The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism.” Curiously, Lethem appears preoccupied — whether in self-conscious jest or in heartfelt reality, the line between which is always elusive in the heart of the novelist — with these “plagiarisms,” “lifts both acknowledged and unacknowledged, both conscious and (surely) unconscious.” Curious because he gladly lists his many influences in writing his newest pieces — Renata Adler, Mark McGurl, David Foster Wallace, to name a few, alongside “usual suspects” like David Shields, Geoff Dyer, and Annie Dillard, as well as his life’s obsession with Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself. Given this very book is essentially a florilegium of writings and ideas by both Lethem himself and his literary influences, to slap the label “plagiarism” on the fundamental dynamic of what I’ve all too frequently referred to as combinatorial creativity is, at best, a semantic slip in the age of remix culture and, at its most unwholesome, an affront on the very mechanism that fuels creation, literary or otherwise.

(You can catch more of Lethem’s thoughts on influence in the excellent documentary Walking on Eggshells: Borrowing Culture in the Remix Age.)

For a taste, here are some favorite quotes that capture the mischievous irreverence and deep reflection with which Lethem approaches his subject.

On David Foster Wallace and self-consciousness:

David Foster Wallace deserves to be remembered as a great writer not because he was capable of doing PhD-level philosophical speculation as well as shunting fictional characters (slowly) through a well-described room but because he mastered a certain area of human sensation totally: intricate self-conscious remorse at the fact of self-consciousness. Wallace’s way of loading up this indistinct area with scrupulous depiction made a lot of people feel less lonely; meanwhile, the possibility that being the depicter made Wallace feel more lonely has become a widely circulated armchair-shrink’s allegory for the usefulness of self-consciousness. Because it doesn’t help. Doesn’t help the depressed person feel undepressed, doesn’t help the storyteller tell the story.

On language and self-consciousness:

Our language has no choice but to be self-conscious if it is to be conscious in the first place.

On language and abstraction:

Language, as a vehicle, is a lemon, a hot rod painted with thrilling flames but crazily erratic to drive, riddled with bugs like innate self-consciousness, embedded metaphors and symbols, helpless intertextuality, and so forth. Despite being regularly driven on prosaic errands (interoffice memos, supermarket receipts, etc.), it tends to veer on its misaligned chassis into the ditch of abstraction, of dream.

On influence itself:

Influence is semiconscious, not something to delineate too extensively, except when we’ve patterned our latest book on a literary monument of the past, at least a half-century old, by a master with whom we’d never dare compare ourselves, only hope to be ‘worthy of.’

On the curse of micro-celebrity:

If you want to drive a person mad in a fame culture, offer him only a little fame, the very least amount you can scrape up. This happens every day, but it happens in slow motion for novelists. We’re like the guy who gets voted off first on Survivor, except instead of departing the island we walk its beaches forever, muttering.

On the crux of writing:

All writing, no matter how avowedly naturalistic or pellucid, consists of artifice, of conjuration, of the manipulation of symbols rather than the ‘opening of a window onto life.’

On Vonnegut’s famously bitter retort to critics he thought wanted to see him vanish from the literary landscape — “I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books” — and the meta-irony therein:

Vonnegut wasn’t feeling powerful when he made his bitter remark about being in print, but his ability to enshrine the remark in hardcovers and keep it in circulation shows he was wrong.

With its meta-commentary and its passionate urgency, The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. is at once a collection of some of our time’s best longform writing and a welcome reflection, if a self-conscious one, on the writer’s fate in contemporary culture.

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08 NOVEMBER, 2011

From Freud’s Couch to Emily Dickinson’s Only Surviving Dress: Annie Leibovitz Catalogs Meta-Cultural Iconography

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What Virginia Woolf’s writing table has to do with Darwin’s countryside cottage and Freud’s final couch.

Annie Leibovitz is one of today’s most prolific and celebrated photographers, her lens having captured generations of cultural icons with equal parts admiration and humanity. Unlike her other volumes, her latest book, out today, features no celebrities, no luminaries, no models. Instead, Pilgrimage is Leibovitz’s thoughtful meditation on how she can sustain her creativity in the face of adversity and make the most of her remaining time on Earth. The quest took her to such fascinating locales and pockets of cultural history as Charles Darwin’s cottage in the English countryside, Virginia Woolf’s writing table, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home, Ansel Adams’s darkroom, Emily Dickinson’s only surviving dress, and Freud’s final couch.

The kernel of the idea came before Leibovitz’s partner, the great Susan Sontag, died — the two of them had planned to do a book of places that were important to them, which they meticulously compiled in lists. Years after Sontag’s death, upon visiting Niagara Falls with her three young kids, Leibovitz decided to start her own list and do the book on her own.

From the beginning, when I was watching my children stand mesmerized over Niagara Falls, it was an exercise in renewal. It taught me to see again.” ~ Annie Leibovitz

The darkroom in Ansel Adams's home in Carmel, California, now owned by Adams’s son, Michael, and his wife, Jeanne, friends of Leibovitz

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

The Niagara Falls in Ontario

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Annie Oakley’s heart target from a private collection in Los Angeles, California

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Emily Dickinson's only surviving dress at the Amherst Historical Society in Amherst, Massachusetts

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

A glass negative of a multiple-lens portrait of Lincoln made on Feb. 9, 1864, by Anthony Berger at the Brady Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Sigmund Freud's couch in his study at 20 Maresfield Gardens in London

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Virginia Woolf’s bedroom in her country home, which is a few miles from Charleston, England

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

A door in the adobe patio wall of Georgia O’Keefe’s home in Abiquiu, New Mexico

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance warehouse in Yonkers, New York

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Dominique Browning paid Leibovitz a visit to chat about the book and has a lovely piece about it in the Times.

I needed to save myself. I needed to remind myself of what I like to do, what I can do.” ~ Annie Leibovitz

An intimate catalog of cultural meta-iconography, Pilgrimage is as much a photographic feat of Leibovitz’s characteristically epic proportion as it is a timeless cultural treasure chest full of mementos from the hotbed of 20th-century thought.

Images courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

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07 NOVEMBER, 2011

A Painting of Cancer Cells Inspired by Carl Sagan

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What supernovas have to do with cancer cells.

When she lost her friend Cathy to cancer, artist Michele Banks (whose stunning biological watercolors you might recall) set out to tell her friend’s story in the language she speaks most fluently and eloquently: painting. But she didn’t want it to be another “cancer painting.” Instead, she found unlikely inspiration at the intersection of the deadly disease and Carl Sagan’s iconic, life-affirming idea that we’re all made of “star stuff” — she saw a striking parallel between supernovas and dividing cancer cells. The result is simply breathtaking.

I was reading about astronomer Carl Sagan, who often expressed the idea that humans are made of “star stuff”. That is, that all the basic elements of life on earth derive from “space debris” from the gigantic explosions of massive, ancient stars. This concept is at once so simple and so mind-boggling that it’s a struggle to absorb, much less to express artistically. I started looking around for ideas of how to visually portray the basic elements such as hydrogen, helium and nitrogen. Um. This is difficult, because you can’t see them. If you do a Google image search on Carbon, it comes up with a lot of gray-black cars. But when I thought about how the elements were released, I found supernovas. Not only are supernovas beautiful and awe-inspiring, they bear a strong resemblance to dividing cells, especially explosively dividing cancer cells.” ~ Michele Banks

Curiously, Sagan himself also had myelodysplastic syndrome, or “preleukemia,” and underwent three bone marrow transplants before losing the long and difficult fight in 1996. Banks reflects:

This painting, besides celebrating the cosmic connection that all living creatures share, goes out to Cathy and Carl. From the infinitely tiny cells deep in the marrow of their bones, to the billions of stars in the sky.”

You can find Banks on Twitter and her beautiful prints on Etsy.

In a similar vein, don’t forget composer Alexandra Pajak’s Sounds of HIV, which “plays” the patterns of the AIDS virus nucleotides and amino acids transcribed by HIV in 17 eerie, mesmerizing tracks.

via It’s Okay To Be Smart

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