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How to Get Back Up and Keep Running: Amanda Palmer on Making Art When Life Unmakes You

“Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. And for an artist, art is what happens when you let your bizarre, unbidden, unpredictable life steer you into creating things that you weren’t expecting to make.”

How to Get Back Up and Keep Running: Amanda Palmer on Making Art When Life Unmakes You

“What is art, / But life upon the larger scale, the higher / … Art’s life, — and where we live, we suffer and toil,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in her epoch-making 1856 epic novel in blank verse, Aurora Leigh — arguably the first far-reaching literary manifesto for women’s right to autonomy in art and life, and for the indivisibility of the two in any artist’s body of work.

More than a century and a half later, Amanda Palmer — an artist of uncommon courage in making the arena of toil and suffering a wellspring of art, a kind of punk philosopher and poet for our own era (and my dear friend) — articulates that indivisibility with her signature fusion of vulnerability and steampunk-spiked grit in the introduction to There Will Be No Intermission — the gorgeous self-published, audience-funded, vinyl-sized artbook companion to her record of the same title, featuring surreal, fairy-tale photographs by Kahn & Selesnick, song lyrics, and Palmer’s autobiographical essays exploring the rawest life-material of art: love, loss, abortion, mothering as a working artist, the moral and spiritual collapse of one’s homeland, what it means to really show up for a friend in need, how to find a sliver of sanity in the insanest, most insaning times.

With a nod to John Lennon’s famous words, Palmer writes in the introduction:

Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. And for an artist, art is what happens when you let your bizarre, unbidden, unpredictable life steer you into creating things that you weren’t expecting to make.

Art is what happens if you’re able to hold fast — with one angry, trembling hand — to your art-mirror, the one that reflects you, your trials, your thoughts, your audience, your insights, your attempts to try to figure out and express What It All Might Fucking Mean. In that art-mirror, all of the blurry, stinkingly-similar self-portraits you have ever drawn of yourself merge into one constantly-shifting image — you — and, as an artist, you gaze into it and alternate between being horrified and fascinated with this image as you stumble down the un-illuminated road of Planlessness.

In a sentiment evocative of that arresting line from Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Life While-You-Wait” — “…ill-prepared for the privilege of living…” — she adds:

In your other hand, you try to hang onto Real Life. You clutch a wailing baby and an overstuffed suitcase and a copy of The New York Times that you haven’t had time to read (because, dammit, you’re a Good Citizen and Must Be Informed) and a pot of burning rice and a cell phone that is buzzing with unbidden text messages: your friend is dying, your Facebook account has been hacked, your pregnancy must be terminated, your chickens have been slaughtered by coyotes in the night, your marriage is collapsing, your connecting flight has been cancelled, your ex just shot himself in the head, the right wing has read your stupid blog-poem about the Boston bomber and is emailing murder threats, the fetus you’re finally happy about hosting may or may not be deformed, and your mother is pissed you haven’t called in so long.

What, then, does the life-assailed artist do to go on making art, to go on living? She does in the private realm the selfsame thing she must do in public in order to call herself an artist, which Toni Morrison articulated exquisitely in her timeless meditation on the artist’s task in trying times: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.” Inverting the direction of responsibility to the inner world, where all capacity for outward action invariably begins, Palmer writes:

You read the text messages in one hand while trying to hold your well-polished but increasingly heavy and irritating art-mirror in the other, with a growing sense of resentful detachment — as if the text messages are somebody else’s newsfeed, as if the art-mirror is a heavy curse that you never asked to carry in the first place.

And you keep running down the road. If you’re lucky, you don’t drop the mirror. Sometimes you look at the mirror and you’re like: Why the fuck am I carrying you when I have all this other shit to carry? And sometimes you drop the mirror in exhaustion and fall to your knees. And you drop the suitcase, and the child, and the phone, and the pot of burned rice, and you simply have a cry, knowing that you’re just too goddamn tired to do life, much less make any artful sense out of what’s happening.

Then you get up and start running again.

Complement this portion of There Will Be No Intermission, which contains many more raw-hearted meditations on art and life, with Courtney Martin and Wendy MacNaughton’s magnificent illustrated manifesto for creative resilience in hard times and E.E. Cummings on the courage to be yourself, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s haunting reading of Cummings’s “Humanity i love you” and “The Hubble Photographs” by Adrienne Rich — another artist of unassailable truth-telling bravery, another poet laureate of the tenacity of the human spirit.

BP

Thomas Bernhard on Walking, Thinking, and the Paradox of Self-Reflection

“There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking… Walking and thinking are in a perpetual relationship that is based on trust.”

Thomas Bernhard on Walking, Thinking, and the Paradox of Self-Reflection

“I: how firm a letter; how reassuring the three strokes: one vertical, proud and assertive, and then the two short horizontal lines in quick, smug succession,” the adolescent Sylvia Plath wrote in her diary as she contemplated free will and what makes us who we are. “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” proclaimed Leo Tolstoy in the diaries of his own youth a century earlier. These are abiding questions we all ask ourselves and answer with our selves, but also impossible ones. To hold up a mirror to oneself is to become both the looking-glass and the eye doing the looking — a sort of infinite Borgesian mirror of self-reflection reflecting itself. (Borges himself, in his own youth, danced with the paradox of self-awareness.)

No one has paced this labyrinthine paradox more elegantly, nor reached its center with richer insight, than the Austrian novelist, playwright, and poet Thomas Bernhard (February 9, 1931–February 12, 1989) in his novella Walking (public library) — his unusual 1971 masterpiece exploring the nature of thinking and the impossibility of accurate self-reflection.

Painting of Thomas Bernhard, with photographer’s reflection. Thomas Bernhard House. Photograph by Mayer Bruno.

Half a century after The Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame asserted that to walk is “to set the mind jogging” and a generation before Rebecca Solnit defined walking as “a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned,” Bernhard writes:

If we observe very carefully someone who is walking, we also know how he thinks. If we observe very carefully someone who is thinking, we know how he walks. If we observe most minutely someone walking over a fairly long period of time, we gradually come to know his way of thinking, the structure of his thought, just as we, if we observe someone over a fairly long period of time as to the way he thinks, we will gradually come to know how he walks… There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking… Walking and thinking are in a perpetual relationship that is based on trust.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

In a brilliant conceptual twist, which turns the mirror of self-reflection into a Möbius strip, Bernhard adds:

However, we may not ask ourselves how we walk, for then we walk differently from the way we really walk and our walking simply cannot be judged, just as we may not ask ourselves how we think, for then we cannot judge how we think because it is no longer our thinking. Whereas, of course, we can observe someone else without his knowledge (or his being aware of it) and observe how he walks or thinks, that is, his walking and his thinking, we can never observe ourselves without our knowledge (or our being aware of it). If we observe ourselves, we are never observing ourselves but someone else. Thus we can never talk about self-observation, or when we talk about the fact that we observe ourselves we are talking as someone we never are when we are not observing ourselves, and thus when we observe ourselves we are never observing the person we intended to observe but someone else. The concept of self-observation and so, also, of self-description is thus false.

Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

Bernhard extends this logic to the vastest questions about how the native limitations of our consciousness shape our perception and interpretation of reality:

Looked at in this light, all concepts (ideas)… like self-observation, self-pity, self-accusation and so on, are false. We ourselves do not see ourselves, it is never possible for us to see ourselves. But we also cannot explain to someone else (a different object) what he is like, because we can only tell him how we see him, which probably coincides with what he is but which we cannot explain in such a way as to say this is how he is. Thus everything is something quite different from what it is for us… And always something quite different from what it is for everything else.

Walking, translated into English by Kenneth J. Northcott, is a stunning read in its unparagraphed totality, fusing philosophy’s depth of thought with poetry’s contemplative spaciousness. Complement this fragment with Hannah Arendt on time, space, and the thinking ego, Lauren Elkin’s manifesto for peripatetic empowerment, and Solnit’s indispensable Wanderlust, then revisit former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith on the persistence of the self and the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas on how a jellyfish and a sea slug illuminate the mystery of the self — the most original, science-governed, yet deeply poetic perspective on the subject I’ve ever encountered.

BP

Langston Hughes’s Ardent Public Fan Letter to the Young Nina Simone

“She is strange. So are the plays of Brendan Behan, Jean Genet, LeRoi Jones, and Bertholt Brecht. She is far-out, and at the same time common. So are raw eggs in Worcestershire and The Connection.”

Langston Hughes’s Ardent Public Fan Letter to the Young Nina Simone

On February 8, 1949, a week after his forty-eight birthday, the poet, novelist, activist, and playwright Langston Hughes (February 1, 1901–May 22, 1967) traveled to Asheville to speak at the Allen School — one of a handful of accredited boarding schools for black girls in the South. There, he met sixteen-year-old Eunice Kathleen Waymon, who had helped organize the event as treasurer of the school’s NAACP chapter. Although Eunice was academically formidable — she had skipped the ninth grade and would graduate as valedictorian of her class — her supreme power lay elsewhere: music. Gifted, hard-working, and determined to become a classical pianist, she had been playing at her mother’s church since age four, performed her first concert at twelve, and had landed at the Allen School thanks to a scholarship fund procured by her beloved piano teacher and first great champion, Miss Mazzy — an Englishwoman by the name of Muriel Mazzanovich.

When Hughes met the young Eunice that winter, he could not have known that she would soon revolutionize the music canon under her stage name, Nina Simone. Less than a decade after his Allen School visit, her debut album Little Girl Blue stopped the nation’s breath. Hughes, by then one of the most influential voices in black creative culture, was so stunned that he lauded it with lyrical ardor in “Week by Week” — the newspaper column he had been writing for the Chicago Defender since before he met the young Eunice and would continue writing until his death. Included in Nadine Cohodas’s biography Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (public library), the piece is no common journalistic report on a young artist’s debut but rather a prose poem, a kind of paean for the arrival of a new creative prophet.

Originally published on November 12, 1958, it was quickly syndicated by newspapers around the country and was eventually reprinted as a sort of extended blurb on the back of Simone’s 1965 EP Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, just like Walt Whitman had emblazoned a sentence of Emerson’s electric letter of praise to him on a subsequent edition of Leaves of Grass. Hughes writes:

She is strange. So are the plays of Brendan Behan, Jean Genet, LeRoi Jones, and Bertholt Brecht.

She is far-out, and at the same time common. So are raw eggs in Worcestershire and The Connection.

She is different. So was Billie Holiday, St. Francis, and John Donne. So in Mort Sahl. She is a club member, a coloured girl, an Afro-American, a homey from Down Home. She has hit the Big Town, the big towns, the LP discs and the TV shows — and she is still from down home. She did it mostly all by herself. Her name is Nina Simone.

She has a flair, but no air, she has class but does not wear it on her shoulders. Only chips. She is unique. You either like her or you don’t. If you don’t, you won’t. If you do — whee-ouuu-eu! You do!

This short, lovely newspaper serenade marked the beginning of lifelong friendship, mentorship, and artistic collaboration that would last for the remaining years of Hughes’s life. He would send her books he thought would inspire her, invite her to his Manhattan apartment for dinner, and write words for her to set to song. When Hughes died in 1967, a devastated Simone turned her coveted set at the Newport Jazz Festival into a tribute and closed it with an exhortation to the audience: “Keep him with you always. He was beautiful, a beautiful man, and he’s still with us, of course.”

Complement with Hughes’s little-known children’s book about jazz and this rare recording of him reading “We Are the American Heartbreak,” then revisit Nina Simone on time.

BP

Kahlil Gibran on Friendship and the Building Blocks of Meaningful Connection

“In the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.”

Kahlil Gibran on Friendship and the Building Blocks of Meaningful Connection

“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” the poet Adrienne Rich observed as she contemplated the art of honorable human relationships on the cusp of the Internet revolution that furnished the commodification of the word friend. “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship,” Seneca counseled two millennia earlier in his meditation on true and false friendship, “but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul.” But how does one refine the ponderation sieve through which one admits into one’s soul the few who count?

Perched in time and sensibility between Seneca and Rich, the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) examined this question in a few short, exquisitely insightful verses from The Prophet (public library) — the 1923 classic that also gave us Gibran on the courage to weather the uncertainties of love and what may be the finest advice ever offered on the balance of intimacy and independence in healthy relationships.

Kahlil Gibran, self-portrait

In his narrative poem, when a youth inquires about the essence of friendship, Gibran’s prophet answers:

Your friend is your needs answered.
He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving.
And he is your board and your fireside. For you come to him with your hunger, and you seek him for peace.
When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the “nay” in your own mind, nor do you withhold the “ay.”
And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed.

Diagram from my taxonomy of the four levels of platonic relationships.

More than a decade before the brilliant and underappreciated French philosopher Simone Weil considered the paradox of friendship and separation, Gibran offers assurance that absence is only a clarifying and fortifying force for the bond:

When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.

In a sentiment C.S. Lewis would come to echo in his poetic insistence that friendship “has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival,” Gibran adds:

And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught.

Gibran ends the fragment on friendship with a vital reminder that the measure of closeness is not the magnitude of intensity and the heaviness two people entrust in one another but the ability to dance across the entire spectrum of being with equal ease:

In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry

Complement with trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell on how we co-create each other and recreate ourselves in friendship, her contemporary and almost-friend Ralph Waldo Emerson on the two pillars of friendship, and John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic notion of soul friend, then revisit Gibran on authenticity, why we make art, and his gorgeous love letters to and from Mary Haskell, who was his primary financial and spiritual succor as he found his creative voice and without whom The Prophet would not have come alive.

BP

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