Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “seven word biography”

The Poetics of the Psyche: Adam Phillips on Why Psychoanalysis Is Like Literature and How Art Soothes the Soul

“Everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.”

“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer,” Susan Sontag once said. The object of the writer’s observation isn’t just the outer world but also — and perhaps even more so — the inner. In that regard, the writer bears a striking similarity to another professional observer — the psychotherapist. That’s precisely what Adam Phillips — Britain’s most celebrated psychoanalytical writer and the author of such immeasurably stimulating reads as Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature, On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life, and the particularly wonderful On Kindness — explores in his wide-ranging conversation with Paul Holdengräber, several years in the making, part of The Paris Review’s legendary interview series.

Phillips, who read Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections at the age of seventeen and was profoundly influenced by it, reflects on his early educational experience:

This was conveyed very powerfully — that the way to learn how to live and to live properly was to read English literature — and it worked for me. I was taught close, attentive reading, and to ironize the ambitions of grand theory.

Like Kafka, who memorably considered what books do for the human soul — a question Carl Sagan also addressed beautifully, and one I too once contemplated in answering a 9-year-old girl’s inquiry — Phillips reflects on the essential reward of reading:

It’s not as though when I read I’m gathering information, or indeed can remember much of what I read. I know the books that grip me, as everybody does, but their effect is indiscernible. I don’t quite know what it is… There are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. There’s something about these books that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us. They’re not just fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about.

Holdengräber cites an essay by the legendary British pediatrician Donald Winnicott, whose definitive biography Phillips penned in 1988:

HOLDENGRÄBER: It seems natural that an interest in literature and in Winnicott should go hand in hand. In Winnicott’s essay “On the Capacity to Be Alone,” he writes that the goal for the child is to be alone in the presence of the mother. For a long time this has seemed to me the single best definition of reading.

PHILLIPS: That idea was one of Winnicott’s most radical, because what he was saying was that solitude was prior to the wish to transgress. That there’s something deeply important about the early experience of being in the presence of somebody without being impinged upon by their demands, and without them needing you to make a demand on them. And that this creates a space internally into which one can be absorbed. In order to be absorbed one has to feel sufficiently safe, as though there is some shield, or somebody guarding you against dangers such that you can “forget yourself ” and absorb yourself, in a book, say. Or, for the child, in a game. It must be one of the precursors of reading, I suppose. I think for Winnicott it would be the definition of a good relationship if, in the relationship, you would be free to be absorbed in something else.

Phillips, who wrote in the preface to Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature that “psychoanalysis, at its best, should be a profession of popularizers of interesting ideas about the difficulties and exhilarations of living,” uses the springboard of the parallels between children’s psychology and reading to consider the broader allure of psychoanalysis:

Psychoanalysis starts from the position that there is no cure, but that we need different ways of living with ourselves and different descriptions of these so-called selves.

The great thing about the psychoanalytic treatment is that it doesn’t work in the usual sense of work. I don’t mean by this to avoid the fact that it addresses human suffering. I only mean that it takes for granted that an awful lot of human suffering is simply intractable, that there’s a sense in which character is intractable. People change, but there really are limits. One thing you discover in psychoanalytic treatment is the limits of what you can change about yourself or your life. We are children for a very long time.

[…]

The point is that it’s an experiment in what your life might be like if you speak freely to another person—speak and allow that person to show you the ways in which you stop yourself thinking and speaking freely. I don’t mean by that that it doesn’t change symptoms. I know by my own experience that it does. But I think the most interesting thing about it is its unpredictability. If you buy a fridge, there are certain things you will be guaranteed. If you buy a psychoanalysis, you won’t be. It’s a real risk, and that also is the point of it. Patients come because they are suffering from something. They want that suffering to be alleviated. Ideally, in the process of doing the analysis, they might find their suffering is alleviated or modified, but also they might discover there are more important things than to alleviate one’s suffering.

When Holdengräber points out the word appetite frequents Phillips’s vocabulary in discussing psychoanalysis, Phillips offers a somewhat counterintuitive framework for the two goals of his profession:

Analysis should do two things that are linked together. It should be about the recovery of appetite, and the need not to know yourself… Symptoms are forms of self-knowledge. When you think, I’m agoraphobic, I’m a shy person, whatever it may be, these are forms of self-knowledge. What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way. You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. Because the point of knowing oneself is to contain one’s anxieties about appetite. It’s only worth knowing about the things that make one’s life worth living, and whether there are in fact things that make it worth living.

Illustration from ‘Freud,’ a graphic biography. Click image for details.

Echoing philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s meditation on living with our human fragility, Phillips adds:

Everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.

We all have self-cures for strong feeling. Then the self-cure becomes a problem, in the obvious sense that the problem of the alcoholic is not alcohol but sobriety. Drinking becomes a problem, but actually the problem is what’s being cured by the alcohol. By the time we’re adults, we’ve all become alcoholics. That’s to say, we’ve all evolved ways of deadening certain feelings and thoughts.

Citing Kafka’s famous letter, Phillips points to art — something Alain de Botton explored more deeply in Art as Therapy. Phillips tells Holdengräber:

One of the reasons we admire or like art, if we do, is that it reopens us in some sense — as Kafka wrote in a letter, art breaks the sea that’s frozen inside us. It reminds us of sensitivities that we might have lost at some cost.

And yet those sensitivities to our inner lives become increasingly muffled by the constant influx of external stimulation brought on by the century of the self. Echoing Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that “the modern version of introspection is the sum total of all those highly individualized choices that we make about the material content of our lives,” Phillips considers the solace of human conversation:

It can be extremely difficult to know what you want, especially if you live in a consumer, capitalist culture which is phobic of frustration — where the moment you feel a glimmer of frustration, there’s something available to meet it. Now, shopping and eating and sex may not be what you’re wanting, but in order to find that out you have to have a conversation with somebody. You can’t sit in a room by yourself like Rodin’s Thinker…

In conversation things can be metabolized and digested through somebody else — I say something to you and you can give it back to me in different forms — whereas you’ll notice that your own mind is very often extremely repetitive. It is very difficult to surprise oneself in one’s own mind. The vocabulary of one’s self-criticism is so impoverished and clichéd. We are at our most stupid in our self-hatred.

Returning to the parallels between psychoanalysis and literature, Phillips gives greater granularity to the analogy:

Psychoanalytic sessions are not like novels, they’re not like epic poems, they’re not like lyric poems, they’re not like plays — though they’re rather like bits of dialogue from plays. But they do seem to me to be like essays, nineteenth-century essays. There is the same opportunity to digress, to change the subject, to be incoherent, to come to conclusions that are then overcome and surpassed, and so on.

An essay is a mixture of the conversational and the coherent and has, to me, the advantages of both. There doesn’t have to be a beginning, a middle, and an end, as there tends to be in a short story. Essays can wander, they can meander.

Reflecting on the legacy of 19th-century essayists like Emerson and Lamb, Phillips defines the inherent psychology of the genre in terms that counter E.B. White’s notion of the essay as a mecca of narcissism and adds:

The essay is very rarely a fanatical form, it seems to me, partly because you’d just run out of steam. It would just be propaganda of the most boring sort. In order to write a compelling essay, you have to be able to change tone. I think you also have to be reflexively self-revising. It’s not that these things are impossible in other genres, but they’re very possible in essays. As the word essay suggests, it’s about trying something out, it’s about an experiment. From the time I began writing — although this wasn’t conscious — I think that was the tradition I was writing in.

Like Edgar Allan Poe, who considered music the most sublime embodiment of the Poetic Principle and Edna St. Vincent Millay, who extolled music above all arts including her own, Phillips explores the symmetry between psychoanalysis and poetry through the lens of music and its capacity — even on a neurological level — to sidestep our conscious bulwarks and whisper directly to the soul:

I can remember the first time I heard Dylan’s voice, Neil Young, J.J. Cale, Joni Mitchell — that music made me imagine myself. It was so evocative. It taught you nothing, but you felt you’d learned everything you needed to know.

[…]

The emotional impact of music is so incommensurate with what people can say about it, and that seems to be very illustrative of something fundamental—that very powerful emotional effects often can’t be articulated. You know something’s happened to you but you don’t know what it is. You’ll find yourself going back to certain poems again and again. After all, they are only words on a page, but you go back because something that really matters to you is evoked in you by the words. And if somebody said to you, Well, what is it? or What do your favorite poems mean?, you may well be able to answer it, if you’ve been educated in a certain way, but I think you’ll feel the gap between what you are able to say and why you go on reading.

In the same way, a psychoanalysis bent on understanding people is going to be very limited. It’s not about redescribing somebody such that they become like a character in a novel. It’s really showing you how much your wish to know yourself is a consequence of an anxiety state — and how it might be to live as yourself not knowing much about what’s going on.

Inverting Maya Angelou’s lament about labeling others and echoing Joss Whedon’s excellent Wesleyan commencement address on embracing all our selves, Phillips issues the same admonition about our tendency to label — and thus narrow and proscribe, to use Angelou’s words — ourselves:

When people say, “I’m the kind of person who,” my heart always sinks. These are formulas, we’ve all got about ten formulas about who we are, what we like, the kind of people we like, all that stuff. The disparity between these phrases and how one experiences oneself minute by minute is ludicrous. It’s like the caption under a painting. You think, Well, yeah, I can see it’s called that. But you need to look at the picture.

But Phillips later observes that while we’re telling ourselves who we are, we’re also telling ourselves — and grieving — who we could’ve been, a kind of toxic speculative grief for the unrealized what-ifs of our lives, something he explores in greater detail in his most recent book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. He tells Holdengräber:

Missing all our supposed other lives is something modern people are keen to do. We are just addicted to alternatives, fascinated by what we can never do. As if we all had the wrong parents, or the wrong bodies, or the wrong luck…

The comfort would be something like, You don’t have to worry too much about trying to have the lives you think you’re missing. Don’t be tyrannized by the part of yourself that’s only interested in elsewhere.

Reflecting on his prolific career as a writer, Phillips considers the question of why one writes — a question memorably addressed by George Orwell, David Foster Wallace, Michael Lewis, Lynne Tillman, Italo Calvino, Susan Orlean, and Joy Williams — as well as the psychology of criticism:

You have to be really good at masochism to welcome criticism. But you know, you can’t write differently, even if you want to. You just have to be able to notice when you are boring yourself.

Echoing Joan Didion (“Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.”), Phillips adds:

Anybody who writes knows you don’t simply write what you believe. You write to find out what you believe, or what you can afford to believe… When I write, things occur to me. It’s a way of thinking. But you can perform your thinking instead of just thinking it.

Unlike famous writers who ritualize their routines, Phillips sides with Bukowski and tells Holdengräber:

There is no creative process. I mean, I sit down and write. That is really what happens. I sit down in the morning on Wednesday and I write. And sometimes it doesn’t work and almost always it does work, and that’s it.

He points to an even more toxic cultural mythology that couples similar magical thinking with a profound confusion of causal relationship — the “tortured genius” ideal of the artist, which implies that one must suffer in order to create meaningful work. Instead, he suggests an alternative approach — the kind Ray Bradbury embodied and advocated — anchoring artistic endeavor not to cruelty but to kindness:

If you live in a culture which is fascinated by the myth of the artist, and the idea that the vocational artistic life is one of the best lives available, then there’s always going to be a temptation for people who are suffering to believe that to become an artist would be the solution when, in fact, it may be more of the problem. There are a number of people whom you might think of as casualties of the myth of the artist. They really should have done something else. Of course some people get lucky and find that art works for them, but for so many people it doesn’t. I think that needs to be included in the picture. Often one hears or reads accounts in which people will say, Well, he may have treated his children, wives, friends terribly, but look at the novels, the poems, the paintings. I think it’s a terrible equation. Obviously one can’t choose to be, as it were, a good parent or a good artist, but if the art legitimates cruelty, I think the art is not worth having. People should be doing everything they can to be as kind as possible and to enjoy each other’s company. Any art, any anything, that helps us do that is worth having. But if it doesn’t, it isn’t.

The full interview is available here. For more of Phillips’s singular mind, dive into his books, including the especially excellent On Kindness and Promises, Promises.

BP

A Visual History of Typewriter Art from 1893 to Today

How Victorian female stenographers pioneered a unique art form with newfound notoriety in the digital age.

“Art is not a thing — it is a way,” Elbert Hubbard observed in 1908 in what became one of history’s finest definitions of art. Hubbard was writing at the dawn of an unusual new art form, wherein artists were appropriating a new thing — a trailblazing technology — to find a new way of making art. The product and legacy of that is what graphic design scholar Barrie Tullett explores in Typewriter Art: A Modern Anthology (public library) — a fascinating chronicle of “the development of the typewriter as a medium for creating work far beyond anything envisioned by the machine’s makers,” embedded in which is a beautiful allegory for how all technology is eventually co-opted as an unforeseen canvas for art and political statement.

‘Looking Forward’ by Leslie Nichols (2010)
Trained as a traditional painter, Nichols now combines texts with images to create mixed-media landscapes and portraits. Her typewriter text portraits are driven by a desire to understand different facets of women’s rights and identity as well as her place, and sense of womanhood, in her own community. Nichols creates large-scale text pieces with hand-stamped oil-based inks and stenciled graphite; smaller, more intimate pieces are produced entirely with a manual typewriter.

What makes this unusual art form so enchanting is that it blends the compositional drama of drawing with the patterned precision of the machine. But what is typewriter art anyway? The definition, Tullett argues, is both very broad and very personal:

For some artists, it is an object to draw — from the machine itself, to the ephemera associated with it (typewriter oils, ribbon cases and so on) — or an object to make art from, whether that be the music of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, or sculptural pieces and explorations… For others, however, the typewriter is a tool to draw with; a means of making art.

Charles Thurber's typewriter patent, 1843
Charles Thurber’s typewriter patent, 1843

The first practical typewriter was invented by Charles Thurber and patented in 1843, but was it never manufactured. The first true typewriter to be manufactured, the Hansen Writing Ball, made its public debut in 1870, but it was another four years until a commercially successful machine took off. Much like the bicycle, one of the most immediate and palpable roles of the new technology was in the emancipation of women — not only did the typewriter create a whole new sphere of female employment, but it also provided a medium of democratic political communication outside the patriarchal regime’s circle of censorship. It was, as Tullett notes, a revolution.

As is the case in any cultural revolution, artists were quick to appropriate its medium for their own message.

Untitled by Flora F.F. Stacey (1898)

For nearly a century, it was believed that the very first known example of typewriter art appeared in 1898, seventeen years after the first emoticon made its debut. It was a mechanical “drawing” of a butterfly by Flora F.F. Stacey — an English stenographer and, not coincidentally, a female artist. A short 1904 New York Times profile noted:

Some years ago, seeing a prize offered by a phonographic paper, [Stacey] entered for the competition, and has since applied herself enthusiastically to the idea.

Such competitions were not uncommon as manufacturers and early proponents sought to get the general public excited about and comfortable with the new technology — creative exploration, after all, is the greatest conduit to adoption. In announcing one such call for entries for “Fancy Work on a Typewriter,” a Syracuse paper cited Stacey as an exemplar for entrants:

Flora Stacey, an Englishwoman, has done some remarkable work at machine drawing, and out of her experiences, which have been without competition, some facts helpful to contestants … may be given.

Stacey, in fact, had been experimenting with “art-typing” for several years before her butterfly drawing catapulted her into international fame, as were other artists. The first edition of Pitman’s Typewriter Manual, published in 1893, included several examples of typed ornaments that a typewriter operator could use to embellish his or her work. Though Stacey may have well produced more typewriter art before her famous butterfly, none of it is preserved and the anonymous plate from the 1893 manual is now considered the first recorded example of “art-typing.”

Pitman’s Typewriter Manual (1893)
Queen Victoria by an unknown artist (c. 1900), published in ‘The History of the Typewriter’ by George Mares (1909)
Otto von Bismarck, unknown artist (1898), published in ‘The History of the Typewriter’ by George Mares (1909)

But first, back to the basics: Lest we forget, the typewriter, like all technology, went from revolutionary in its heyday to sentimental monument of obsolescence in our era. For those born after its mainstream decline, Tullett offers a basic primer on how a typewriter actually works, complete with the proper terminology:

The typewriter is designed to be used in a very simple way. A piece of paper is inserted into the back of the platen (the roller). This then feeds around to the front so that the paper sits behind a colored ribbon, usually black, or black and red. As a letter on the keytop is pressed, a typebar is raised. This then strikes the ribbon to make the impression of a character on the paper behind it. The carriage return moves forward one space, then the typebar for the next character can be pressed. When the end of the line is reached, the carriage is returned (manually), the platen rotates to position the paper ready for the next line to begin and the process is repeated until the page is full.

Tullett notes the unconventional path taken by the early practitioners of typewriter art:

The surviving pieces from this period of typewriter art’s history were created by people with a background in secretarial studies rather than art. Although we have no historical detail about their lives, their artistic education would presumably have been limited to what they had been taught at school, and the representational vernacular.

Though early typewriter art made its mark, the golden age of the discipline was still decades away — it wasn’t until the concrete poetry movement of the 1950s–1970s, best described as concerned with “poetry that appeals to the eye and not the ear,” that the typewriter became a commonly embraced artistic medium.

‘Whisper Piece’ by Bob Cobbing (1969)
Originally a painter, Cobbing was famous for his sound, visual, concrete and performance poetry, as well as his role as a publisher for his Writers Forum press. In 1968 he founded the Westminster Group of experimental poets (WOUP). He created a link between the silent poetry of text on the page and the audioscapes of sound poetry. Cobbing’s work became more and more experimental as his career developed; almost any mark that could be made and any sound that could be heard were viable ingredients for his prolific creative output.
‘Beethoven Today’ by Bob Cobbing (1970)
‘Textum 2’ by Miroljub Todorovic (1973)
Politically active as a law student in Serbia, Todorovic participated in the student uprisings of May 1968; he founded the avant-garde artistic and literary movement Signalism a year later. During his career he worked as a journalist, teacher and magazine editor, and also worked for the Ministry of Culture. He retired in the early 1980s to devote himself to his literary and artistic work, including collages, drawings, visual poetry, mail art and conceptual art. His work has featured in a number of national and international exhibitions.
‘O’ from The Season Suite, a serial visual poem by Alan Riddell (1975–1976)
Although born in Australia, Riddell was bought up in Scotland and went on to live in Greece, Spain, France and Australia. Originally a traditional poet, he was introduced to concrete poetry by Ian Hamilton Finlay in 1963. A major figure in the promotion of typewriter art, Riddell organized two major shows of work in Edinburgh and London, as well as editing the book Typewriter Art (London Magazine Editions, 1975). For almost fifty years it was the only major publication on the subject. His opus, The Seasons Suite, remained uncompleted at the time of his death.

To be sure, the link between typewritten text and narrative form had been around since the dawn of the technology — it all began in the late 1800s when Mark Twain, a pioneer in more ways than one, delivered his first typed manuscript to his publisher, sparking the intimate relationship between literary thought and typed text.

‘the words we use are lovely’ by J.P. Ward (1973)
Both a traditional and concrete poet, Ward firmly believed that the old-fashioned typewriter poem (c. 1960–80) should exploit that machine’s nature, rather than what is handwritten or printed. His work thus evinced a fascination with geometry, abstraction and the search for a deeper truth that goes beyond surface detail, looking instead for ‘more elaborate patterns, including semantic ones, requiring only the poets with the patience to find them.’ In the 1990s came the digital word-processor, taking him to different approaches.
Panel from ‘Carnival’ by Steve McCaffery (1970–1975)
McCaffery’s experiments with the disintegration/reintegration of language began in the mid-1960s. In the 1970s he formed the sound poetry group the Four Horsemen with three other poets. The two panels of Carnival, produced between 1967 and 1975, are among the most significant pieces of typewriter art/concrete poetry/sound poetry ever produced. McCaffery saw it as ‘essentially a cartographic project; a repudiation of linearity in writing and the search for an alternative syntax in “mapping”.’ The work developed and grew throughout the two panels to gain typographic complexity, moving from the simplicity of the red and black masks of a typewriter ribbon to include colored rubberstamped letterforms, carbon-paper frottage, wet-feed electrostatic disintegrations and holograph. A third digital panel was conceived in 2012, comprising a superimposition of the earlier two panels and has been published (in reduced size) as a poster.

Shortly after the golden age of concrete poetry, the punk movement saw in the typewriter a creative intersection of the practical and the political — a medium that enabled the cheap production of texts that could be printed and photocopied for wide dissemination.

‘Unusual Love Poem’ by Andrew Belsey (1987)

Today, as the typewriter’s sun sets over the horizon of practical utility, what remains is its aura of nostalgic obsolescence — something that imbues contemporary typewriter art with a whole new cultural sensibility that weaves the medium’s nostalgia into the conceptual message.

Selection from ‘Typewritten Portraits’ by Nadine Faye James (2007)
A British illustrator, James produces work in a variety of mediums, including pen and ink, photocopies, Omnicrom, letterpress, Letraset, typewriters and the occasional screenprint. Her witty and economical type portraits connect her with the earliest typewriter artists and the work they produced over a hundred years ago.
‘The Pattern Series’ by Vickie Simpson (2012)
Simpson investigates the aesthetics of the handmade. For her, inspiration cannot be found on a screen but only in the physical exploration and making of tactile forms. The Pattern Series asks the viewer to consider the physicality of manual mark-making in our increasingly digitized world.
‘Barcelona Love Letters’ by Keira Rathbone (2012)

Typewriter Art goes on to illustrate the history of the genre through ample artwork spanning nearly 130 years as well as a handful of interviews with some of the most prominent artists in the field today. It comes from British publisher Laurence King — the indie powerhouse behind the magnificent Saul Bass monograph, the graphic biography of Dalí, and the series 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art.

Images courtesy of Laurence King

BP

How Diego Rivera Met the Fierce Teenage Frida Kahlo and Fell in Love with Her Years Later

“I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life. And she would continue to be, up to the moment she died…”

There is something singularly mesmerizing about the fateful encounters that sparked epic, often turbulent, lifelong love affairs — take, for instance, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas or Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. But one of modern history’s most vibrant, passionate, and tumultuous loves is that between legendary artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the unusual and enchanting beginning of which is recounted first-hand in My Art, My Life: An Autobiography (public library) — a rare glimpse of Rivera’s inner life posthumously published in 1960, based on the interviews Gladys March conducted with the artist while shadowing him between 1944 and his death in 1957. March describes the book as “Rivera’s apologia: a self-portrait of a complex and controversial personality, and a key to the work of perhaps the greatest artist the Americas have yet produced.”

In a section titled An Apparition of Frida, Rivera describes his first encounter with the fierce teenage Kahlo while painting his first significant mural, Creation, at the Bolívar Auditorium of the National Preparatory School in Mexico City in 1922. Kahlo was one of only thirty-five female students at the prestigious institution.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, 1933 (Photograph by Martin Munkácsi)

While painting, I suddenly heard, from behind one of the colonial pillars in the spacious room, the voice of an unseen girl.

Teasingly, she shouted, “On guard, Diego, Nahui is coming!”

Nahui was the Indian name of a talented woman painter who was posing for one of the auditorium figures.

The invisible voice continued to play pranks on Rivera until it finally presented itself in the mischievous flesh: One night, as Rivera was painting up on the scaffolding and his then-wife Guadalupe “Lupe” Marín was working below, they heard loud commotion coming from a group of students pushing against the auditorium door. Rivera describes the moment, which he would only later, in hindsight, come to recognize as pivotal in his life:

All at once the door flew open, and a girl who seemed to be no more than ten or twelve* was propelled inside.

She was dressed like any other high school student but her manner immediately set her apart. She had unusual dignity and self-assurance, and there was a strange fire in her eyes. Her beauty was that of a child, yet her breasts were well developed.

She looked straight up at me. “Would it cause you any annoyance if I watched you at work?” she asked.

“No, young lady, I’d be charmed,” I said.

She sat down and watched me silently, her eyes riveted on every move of my paint brush. After a few hours, Lupe’s jealousy was aroused, and she began to insult the girl. But the girl paid no attention to her. This, of course, enraged Lupe the more. Hands on hips, Lupe walked toward the girl and confronted her belligerently. The girl merely stiffened and returned Lupe’s stare without a word.

Visibly amazed, Lupe glared at her a long time, then smiled, and in a tone of grudging admiration, said to me, “Look at that girl! Small as she is, she does not fear a tall, strong woman like me. I really like her.”

The girl stayed about three hours. When she left, she said only, “Good night.” A year later I learned that she was the hidden owner of the voice which had come from behind the pillar and that her name was Frida Kahlo. But I had no idea that she would one day be my wife.

‘Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days…’ A page from Kahlo’s handwritten love letters to Rivera. Click image for more.

It wasn’t until several years later that the two crossed paths again. In another section of the book, titled Frida Becomes My Wife, Rivera recounts how their passionate epic, in the true sense of the word, love affair began:

I was at work on one of the uppermost frescoes at the Ministry of Education building one day, when I heard a girl shouting up to me, “Diego, please come down from there! I have something important to discuss with you!”

I turned my head and looked down from my scaffold.

On the ground beneath me stood a girl of about eighteen. She had a fine nervous body, topped by a delicate face. Her hair was long; dark and thick eyebrows met above her nose. They seemed like the wings of a blackbird, their black arches framing two extraordinary brown eyes.

As he climbed down the scaffolding, Frida made no attempt to conceal her spirited attitude and fierce ambition, telling Rivera:

I didn’t come here for fun. I have to work to earn my livelihood. I have done some paintings which I want you to look over professionally. I want an absolutely straightforward opinion, because I cannot afford to go on just to appease my vanity. I want you to tell me whether you think I can become a good enough artist to make it worth my while to go on. I’ve brought three of my paintings here. Will you come and look at them?

Rivera agrees and follows her into a cubicle under the staircase, where she has stowed her paintings. His recollection captures the ineffable magic of a rare occurrence — that priceless precipice of creative communion where one artist is humbled by another, a recognition that inevitably blossoms into love:

She turned each of them, leaning against the wall, to face me. They were all three portraits of women. As I looked at them, one by one, I was immediately impressed. The canvases revealed an unusual energy of expression, precise delineation of character, and true severity. They showed none of the tricks in the name of originality that usually mark the work of ambitious beginners. They had a fundamental plastic honesty, and an artistic personality of their own. They communicated a vital sensuality, complemented by a merciless yet sensitive power of observation. It was obvious to me that this girl was an authentic artist.

Kahlo, however, having been warned of Rivera’s reputation as a ladies’ man, is skeptical of the noticeable enthusiasm in his face and immediately scolds him “in a harshly defensive tone”:

I have not come to you looking for compliments. I want the criticism of a serious man. I’m neither an art lover nor an amateur. I’m simply a girl who must work for her living.

Rivera is smitten — intellectually, creatively and, though he doesn’t yet realize it, romantically. He simply notes:

I felt deeply moved by admiration for this girl.

‘Only one mountain can know the core of another mountain…’ A page from Kahlo’s handwritten love letters to Rivera. Click image for more.

So when she insists on his honest opinion regarding whether she has what it takes to become a professional artist or whether she should pursue another line of work, he answers resolutely:

In my opinion, no matter how difficult it is for you, you must continue to paint.”

Vowing to follow his advice, Kahlo asks him one last favor — to come to her place the following Sunday and look at the rest of her paintings. It is only after providing her address that she tells Rivera her name — a revelation that stops him dead in his tracks as he remembers two important pieces of information about how he had come to know that name. The first was relayed to him by a good friend, then-director of the National Preparatory School where Kahlo went, who had identified her as the leader of a “band of juvenile delinquents” and had even considered quitting his job out of frustration with Kahlo’s mischief. The second is the memory of their first encounter at the Creation mural years earlier, that brave twelve-year-old girl who had stood up for herself without a shadow of fear or self-doubt. Rivera describes the exhilarating exchange that followed:

I said, “But you are…”

She stopped me quickly, almost putting her hand on my mouth in her anxiety. Her eyes acquired a devilish brilliancy.

Threateningly, she said, “Yes, so what? I was the girl in the auditorium, but that has absolutely nothing to do with now. You still want to come Sunday?”

I had a great difficulty not answering, “More than ever!” But if I showed my excitement she might not let me come at all. So I only answered, “Yes.”

Then, after refusing my help in carrying her paintings, Frida departed, the big canvases jiggling under her arms.

The following Sunday, Rivera promptly presented himself at the address Kahlo had given him, only to find her engaged in an appropriately fearless and mischievous activity:

In the top of a high tree, I saw Frida in overalls, starting to climb down. Laughing gaily, she took my hand and ushered me through the house, which seemed to be empty, and into her room. Then she paraded all her paintings before me. These, her room, her sparkling presence, filled me with a wonderful joy.

I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life. And she would continue to be, up to the moment she died, twenty-seven years later.

‘I ask for it, I get it, I sing, sang, I’ll sing from now on our magic — love…’ A page from Kahlo’s handwritten love letters to Rivera. Click image for more.

A few days later, the two kissed for the first time and Rivera “began courting her in earnest.” Although she was eighteen and he twice her age, neither of them “felt the least bit awkward.” Four years later, on August 21, 1929, they were married in a civil ceremony by the Mayor of Coyoacán, one of Mexico City’s sixteen boroughs, who proclaimed the merger “an historical event.” Kahlo was 22 and Rivera 42. They remained together until Kahlo’s death in July of 1954. Despite having an open marriage where each had multiple affairs — for the bisexual Kahlo, the most notable were those with French singer, dancer, and actress Josephine Baker and Russian Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky — both Kahlo and Rivera maintained that they were the love of each other’s life.

My Art, My Life: An Autobiography is a fascinating read in its candid, often scandalous entirety. Complement it with Kahlo’s exquisite handwritten love letters to Rivera.

* In factuality, Kahlo was two weeks shy of her 15th birthday

BP

From the Gold Rush to Silicon Valley: How Mark Twain Became the Steve Jobs of His Day

The power of mischief, timing, and typography.

Mark Twain has no shortage of cultural credits — celebrated humorist, irreverent adviser to little girls, opinionated critic and cultural commentator, underappreciated poet, recipient of some outrageous requests from his fans. But perhaps his greatest feat was his own becoming — how he transformed Samuel Clemens into Mark Twain, “the Lincoln of Literature.”

In The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (public library), Ben Tarnoff chronicles that becoming alongside the rise of the singular “vanguard of democracy” that shaped the course of the Western written word, a course largely steered by Twain. Embedded in the altogether fascinating story, on a closer read, is a testament to history’s cyclical nature as a parallel emerges between San Francisco in the Gold Rush era and Silicon Valley today, and between the respective patron saints of those worlds — Mark Twain and Steve Jobs.

Born in 1835, Twain came of age “at the best possible time,” as the country was on the cusp of a remarkable cultural change, driven in large part by the discovery of gold in California in 1848 — the spark for the famous Gold Rush, which drew risk-takers, pioneers, and enterprising vagabonds from all over the world and elevated San Francisco as a gateway to the era’s El Dorado. Twain, born in the west and raised in Missouri, found in San Francisco what many entrepreneurs today find in Silicon Valley — like many other young men, he “hadn’t come to stay, but to get rich and get out.” The confluence of all these cultural and personal factors created a unique backdrop:

They erected tents and wooden hovels, makeshift structures that made easy kindling for the city’s frequent fires. They built gambling dens and saloons and brothels. They lived among the cultures of five continents, often condensed into the space of a single street: Cantonese stir-fry competing with German wurst, Chilean whores with Australian. On the far margin of the continent, they created a complex urban society virtually overnight.

By the time Twain got there, San Francisco still roared. It was densely urban, yet unmistakably western; isolated yet cosmopolitan; crude yet cultured. The city craved spectacle, whether on the gaslit stages of its many theaters or in the ornately costumed pageantry of its streets. Its wide-open atmosphere endeared it to the young and the odd, to anyone seeking refuge from the overcivilized East. It had an acute sense of its own history, and a paganish appetite for mythmaking and ritual.

Mark Twain in 1863, taken on his first visit to San Francisco. He was twenty-seven.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the city quickly sprouted a thriving literary scene — a “band of outsiders” known as the Bohemians — for writers are a culture’s foremost mythmakers. Tarnoff captures their spirit:

The Bohemians were nonconformists by choice or by circumstance, and they eased their isolation by forming intense friendships with one another. San Francisco was where their story began, but it would continue in Boston, New York, and London; in the palace and the poorhouse; in success and humiliation, fame and poverty.

Two concurrent and seemingly opposite cultural forces contributed to the rise of the Bohemians: On the one hand, the Civil War disrupted America’s moral and aesthetic tradition, creating “rifts in the culture wide enough for new voices to be heard”; on the other, the technological advances brought on by the war had also shrunk the country, bringing East and West closer together with the advent of the railroad and the telegraph. San Francisco was in a unique position to reap the fruits of both developments, and “its writers found a wider readership at a moment when the nation sorely needed new storytellers.

In joining the Bohemians, Twain forever changed the course of both his own life and American literature. Tarnoff writes:

No Bohemian made better art than Twain. San Francisco gave him his education as a writer, nurturing the literary powers he would later use to transform American literature. He would help steer the country through its newfangled nationhood, and become the supreme cultural icon of the postwar age. But first, he would spend his formative years on the Far Western fringe, in the company of other young Bohemians struggling to reinvent American writing.

Artwork by Debbie Millman. Click image for more.

Tarnoff’s enchanting portrait of young Twain is remarkable in several ways — it is exquisitely written, it paints a somewhat timeless picture of the eccentric entrepreneur archetype, but perhaps most of all it reveals details about the beloved author of which most of us are unaware, for seemingly trivial reasons related to the trajectory of recording technology: left with only black-and-white photographs as sensory documentation of his life, we are deaf-blind to details like his striking carrot-colored hair or the peculiar drawl and even more peculiar rhythm of his speech. Tarnoff brings young Twain to life:

What people remembered best about him, aside from his brambly red brows and rambling gait, was his strange way of speaking: a drawl that spun syllables slowly, like fallen branches on the surface of a stream. Printers transcribed it with hyphens and dashes, trying to render rhythms so complex they could’ve been scored as sheet music. He rasped and droned, lapsed into long silences, soared in the swaying tenor inherited from the slave songs of his childhood. He made people laugh while remaining dreadfully, imperially serious. He mixed the sincere and the satiric, the factual and the fictitious, in proportions too obscure for even his closest friends to decipher. He was prickly, irreverent, ambitious, vindictive — a personality as impenetrably vast as the American West, and as prone to seismic outbursts. He was Samuel Clemens before he became Mark Twain, and in the spring of 1863, he made a decision that brought him one step closer to the fame he craved.

Cover of ‘Advice to Little Girls,’ which Twain wrote at the age of thirty in 1865. Click image for more.

So on May 2, 1863, Samuel Clemens boarded a stagecoach headed to Mark Twain via a rocky two-hundred-mile journey to San Francisco. At age 27, he was already extraordinary before he had even arrived:

The young Twain … already had more interesting memories than most men twice his age. He had piloted steamboats on the Mississippi, roamed his native Missouri with a band of Confederate guerrillas, and as the Civil War began in earnest, taken the overland route to the Territory of Nevada — or Washoe, as westerners called it, after a local Indian tribe.

Originally, Twain hadn’t planned to stay long, but he found himself entranced by the city’s perpetual cycle of eating, drinking, sailing, and socializing. In a letter to his mother and sister from mid-May, he announced he was only going to stay a little while longer — ten days or so, and no more than two weeks. But San Francisco’s bountiful buffet of saloons, dance halls, and gambling dens sang to him a siren song he could not resist. By June, he was still there, living “to the hilt” (to borrow Anne Sexton’s term) and estimating that he knew at least a thousand of San Francisco’s 115,000 citizens — “knew” in the pre-Facebook sense, which makes the scale of his social life all the more impressive.

He eventually left in July, but the spell had been cast:

Over the course of the next year he would find many reasons to return: first to visit, then to live. He would chronicle its quirks, and hurt the feelings of not a few of its citizens. In exchange, San Francisco would mold him to literary maturity. It would inspire his evolution from a provincial scribbler into a great American writer, from Hannibal’s Samuel Clemens into America’s Mark Twain.

One particular detail about Twain made me consider a curious parallel between him and Steve Jobs beyond their similar cultural legacy of revolutionizing their respective fields: Twain, like Jobs, was a disobedient boy (his mother described him as “very wild and mischievous”) who hated school. But perhaps most importantly, he was a typesetter by trade and dropped out of school (as did Jobs) to become “a printer’s devil,” as type apprentices were called at the time. It was through typesetting that he entered into literature, and through typesetting that he found his irreverent voice. Tarnoff writes:

The shop became his schoolroom. He put other people’s lines into print and composed a few of his own. He learned to think of words as things, as slivers of ink-stained metal that, if strung in the right sequence, could make more mischief than any schoolboy prank. At fifteen he began typesetting for his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Western Union, and wrote the occasional sketch. When Orion left on a business trip and put his sibling in charge, the teenager lost no time in testing the incendiary potential of the medium. He ignited a feud with the editor of a rival newspaper, scorching the poor man so thoroughly that when Orion returned, he was forced to run an apology.

This sounds remarkably like the story of Steve Jobs, whose era-defining design vision was first tickled by a typography class that he serendipitous wandered into, out of academic mischief and boredom with his prescribed course. Type led Jobs to design innovation and Twain to literary innovation. Both men also came of age at a time of incredible technological progress — for Jobs, the golden age of modern computing, and for Twain, the momentum of the Industrial Revolution. As a young man, Twain saw steamboats and trains and telegraphs transform the diffusion of the printed word across the country. He witnessed America’s booming love affair with newspapers — a century before he was born, the country had 37 newspapers. By the time he entered typesetting, there were more than a thousand.

Tarnoff contextualizes the significance of this shift, and the particular fertility of Twain’s locale of choice:

The newspaper revolution created America’s first popular culture. Twain belonged wholly to this revolution, and the world he discovered in the Far West was its most fertile staging ground… By 1870, California had one of the highest literacy rates in the nation: only 7.3 percent of its residents over the age of ten couldn’t write, compared with 20 percent nationwide. The region’s wealth financed a range of publications and gave people the leisure to read them. As Twain observed, there was no surer sign of “flush times” in a Far Western boomtown than the founding of a “literary paper.” Poetry and fiction mattered to miners and farmers, merchants and bankers. For them the printed word wasn’t a luxury — it was a lifeline. It fostered a sense of place, a feeling of community, in a frontier far from home.

The Bohemians is fantastic read in its entirety. Complement it with Twain on religion and our human egotism, morality vs. intelligence, and his mischievous advice to little girls.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.