Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘literature’

13 AUGUST, 2012

Anaïs Nin on Life, Hand-Lettered by Artist Lisa Congdon

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“You live out the confusions until they become clear.”

UPDATE: After a flurry of requests, the quotes are now available as prints. Enjoy.

It’s no secret I’m an obsessive reader of famous diaries, most recently those of French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (1903-1977), one of the most dedicated diarists in modern literary history. Her sixteen tomes of published journals, spanning more than half a century between the time she began writing at the age of eleven and her death, are a treasure trove of insight on literature, culture, human nature, and the life of meaning.

Earlier this month, I asked the inimitable Wendy MacNaughton to illustrate Susan Sontag’s insights on love, as synthesized from the writer’s diaries. Now, I’ve turned to another extraordinary illustrator, Lisa Congdon ( ), and asked her to bring to life some of my favorite highlights from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) in the style of her lovely 365 Days of Hand Lettering project.

The results took my breath away — enjoy:

You can find Lisa’s stunning prints on 20×200 and Etsy, and follow her on Twitter.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3 is sublime in its entirety — highly recommended.

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09 AUGUST, 2012

Introducing Literary Jukebox: Daily Book Quote Matched with a Song

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An experiment in cross-pollinating the arts.

As a lover of both literature and music, I frequently find myself immersed in a passage, with a conceptually related song beginning to play in my mind’s ear. I recently started making such matches more consciously and was quickly drawn into a highly addictive exercise in creative intersections and associations. So I decided to make a little side project out of it. Enter Literary Jukebox, a minimalist site where I match a passage from a favorite book with a thematically related song each day. Sometimes, the connections will be fairly obvious. Other times, they might be more esoteric and require some reflection. Whatever the case, I hope you enjoy — I certainly am.

Many thanks to the talented Josh Boston for designing the identity and to Debbie Millman for in part inspiring the project.

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02 AUGUST, 2012

Is It Dirty: A Love Letter to New York’s Grit from Frank O’Hara, 1964

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“…you don’t refuse to breathe do you…”

After Anaïs Nin’s disenchanted take on New York, here comes a wonderful antidote by way of Frank O’Hara (March 27, 1926–July 25, 1966). Found in the magnificent collection Lunch Poems (public library) and originally published in 1964, “Song (Is it dirty)” is a beautiful homage to Gotham’s grit — the age-old social glue that centuries of visitors and natives have remarked upon and rejoiced in.

Enjoy a reading of “Song (Is it dirty)” by O’Hara himself, an audio excerpt from the TV program USA: Poetry: Frank O’Hara, a 12-part documentary series produced and directed by Richard Moore for National Education Television. This episode was filmed on March 5, 1966, at O’Hara’s New York City home and originally aired on September 1, 1966.

Is it dirty
does it look dirty
that’s what you think of in the city

does it just seem dirty
that’s what you think of in the city
you don’t refuse to breathe do you

someone comes along with a very bad character
he seems attractive. is he really. yes very
he’s attractive as his character is bad. is it. yes

that’s what you think of in the city
run your finger along your no-moss mind
that’s not a thought that’s soot

and you take a lot of dirt off someone
is the character less bad. no. it improves constantly
you don’t refuse to breathe do you

Complement O’Hara’s glorious Lunch Poems with E.B. White’s 1949 love letter to New York and a curious history of the city in 101 objects.

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01 AUGUST, 2012

Anaïs Nin on Paris vs. New York, 1939

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“The ivory tower of the artist may be the only stronghold left for human values, cultural treasures, man’s cult of beauty.”

French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (1903-1977), an author of short stories and erotica, remains best-known as a prolific and dedicated diarist, perhaps the most prolific and dedicated diarist in modern literary history. Her sixteen tomes of published journals, spanning more than half a century between the time she began writing at the age of eleven and her death, speak volumes about the intellectual and creative landscape of 20th-century Europe and America.

Nin first began journaling in 1914 when her mother whisked Anaïs and brother from France to New York. Only months later did Nin find out that her parents had separated permanently and she wasn’t to be reunited with her father, with whom she loved and admired enormously. Tossed into a state of grief and turmoil, she came to project her anxious discomfort on her new non-home, New York — and joined the ranks of the city’s famous diarists. “When a child is uprooted,” she later wrote, “it seeks to make a center from which it cannot be uprooted.” Nin eventually returned from Europe but, with World War II looming menacing on the horizon, she once again fled to New York twenty years after her first exile, where she once again felt like an outsider.

From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) comes this poignant, articulate description of what Nin experienced as the difference between Parisians and New Yorkers — something recently explored in much lighter, more tongue-in-cheek terms — penned in the winter of 1939:

In Paris, when entering a room, everyone pays attention, seeks to make you feel welcome, to enter into conversation, is curious, responsive. Here it seems everyone is pretending not to see, hear, or look too intently. The faces reveal no interest, no responsiveness.

Overtones are missing. Relationships seem impersonal and everyone conceals his secret life, whereas in Paris it was the exciting substance of our talks, intimate revelations and sharing of experience.

[…]

I read over my old diaries. I sit by the fire of my life in Paris and wonder when this life here will start to burn brightly. So far it looks like those electric logs in artificial fireplaces burning with moderate glow and without sparkle or warmth.

Anais Nin portrait

Then, in September of 1940, she revisits the parallel:

Sometimes I think of Paris not as a city but as a home. Enclosed, curtained, sheltered, intimate. The sound of rain outside the window, the spirit and the body turned towards intimacy, to friendships and loves. One more enclosed and intimate day of friendship and love, an alcove. Paris intimate like a room. Everything designed for intimacy. Five to seven was the magic hour of the lovers’ rendezvous. Here it is the cocktail hour.

New York is the very opposite of Paris. People’s last concern is with intimacy. No attention is given to friendship and its development. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of life itself. There is much talk about the ‘world,’ about millions, groups, but no warmth between human beings. They persecute subjectivity, which is a sense of inner life; an individual’s concern with growth and self-development is frowned upon.

Subjectivity seems to be in itself a defect. No praise or compliments are given, because praise is politeness and all politeness is hypocrisy. Americans are proud of telling you only the bad. The ‘never-talk-about-yourself’ taboo is linked with the most candid, unabashed self-seeking, and selfishness.

If people knew more about psychology they would have recognized in Hitler a psychotic killer. Nations are neurotic, and leaders can be psychotic.

The ivory tower of the artist may be the only stronghold left for human values, cultural treasures, man’s cult of beauty.

Nin’s lament was, of course, filtered through the lens of her painful, forced exile. Whether or not it bespeaks some grand universal truth about the New York way remains a question to be answered privately by each of us. But to deny that New York fosters a kind of Schopenhauer’s porcupine dilemma would be naive — the key to the city, as it were, is in learning how to unlock the enormity of Gotham’s magnificent humanity.

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