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Artist Louise Bourgeois on How Solitude Enriches Creative Work

“You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love.”

“Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul… Seek solitude,” young Delacroix counseled himself in 1824. Keats saw solitude as a sublime conduit to truth and beauty. Elizabeth Bishop believed that everyone should experience at least one prolonged period of solitude in life. Even if we don’t take so extreme a view as artist Agnes Martin’s assertion that “the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone,” one thing is certain: Our capacity for what psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has termed “fertile solitude” is absolutely essential not only for our creativity but for the basic fabric of our happiness — without time and space unburdened from external input and social strain, we’d be unable to fully inhabit our interior life, which is the raw material of all art.

That vital role of solitude in art and life is what the great artist Louise Bourgeois (December 11, 1911– May 31, 2010) explores in several of the letters and diary entires collected in Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews, 1923–1997 (public library) — an altogether magnificent glimpse of one of the fiercest creative minds and most luminous spirits of the past century.

Louise Bourgeois at her studio, New York, 1946. (Louise Bourgeois Archive)
Louise Bourgeois at her studio, New York, 1946. (Louise Bourgeois Archive)

In September of 1937, 25-year-old Bourgeois writes to her friend Colette Richarme — an artist seven years her senior yet one for whom she took on the role of a mentor — after Richarme had suddenly left Paris for respite in the countryside:

After the tremendous effort you put in here, solitude, even prolonged solitude, can only be of very great benefit. Your work may well be more arduous than it was in the studio, but it will also be more personal.

A few months later, Bourgeois reiterates her counsel:

Solitude, a rest from responsibilities, and peace of mind, will do you more good than the atmosphere of the studio and the conversations which, generally speaking, are a waste of time.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky, a children's book about the beloved artist's early life and how it shaped her art.
Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois by Amy Novesky, a children’s book about the beloved artist’s early life and how it shaped her art.

For Bourgeois, aloneness was the raw material of art — something she crystallized most potently half a century later, in a diary entry from the summer of 1987:

You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love. That is why geometrically speaking the circle is a one. Everything comes to you from the other. You have to be able to reach the other. If not you are alone…

Complement the immeasurably insightful Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father with Bourgeois on art, integrity, and the key to creative confidence and this almost unbearably lovely picture-book about her early life, then revisit Edward Abbey’s enchanting vintage love letter to solitude.


How Music Helps Us Grieve

“The springs of our reaction to music lie deeper than thought.”

How Music Helps Us Grieve

Scientists now believe that language and music co-evolved to simulate the most abiding truths of nature. Indeed, for as long as we’ve been able to articulate the human experience, we’ve made music about the most inarticulable parts of it and then used language to extol music’s power — nowhere more beautifully than in Aldous Huxley’s 1931 meditation on how music stirs the soul, in which he asserted that music’s greatest potency lies in expressing the inexpressible.

This, perhaps, is why music is so sublime a solace when it comes to the most inexpressible of human emotions: grief.

Wendy Lesser articulates this peculiar power of music in a passage from Room for Doubt (public library) — a miraculously beautiful book I discovered through Oliver Sacks’s reading list.


Lesser, who doesn’t consider herself “a particularly musical person,” contemplates the way in which music bypasses the intellect and speaks straight to the unguarded heart:

The springs of our reaction to music lie deeper than thought… Part of what music allows me is the freedom to drift off into a reverie of my own, stimulated but not constrained by the inventions of the composer. And part of what I love about music is the way it relaxes the usual need to understand. Sometimes the pleasure of an artwork comes from not knowing, not understanding, not recognizing.

Nothing befuddles our elemental need for understanding more effectively than death, the great unknown and ultimate unknowable. Music, Lesser suggests, offers a gateway not to understanding death in an intellectual way but to befriending its mystery in that Rilkean sense — something she realized in a surprising encounter with music shortly after her dear friend Leonard’s death, which she hadn’t let herself mourn.

Lesser, who had traveled to Germany for research on a book about David Hume but had somehow found herself at the auditory oasis of the Berlin philharmonic, recounts:

I had been carrying around Lenny’s death in a locked package up till then, a locked, frozen package that I couldn’t get at but couldn’t throw away, either. As long as I was afraid to look inside the package, it maintained its terrifying hold over me: it frightened and depressed me, or would have done, if I had allowed myself to have even those feelings instead of their shadowy half-versions. It wasn’t just Lenny that had been frozen; I had, too. But as I sat in the Berlin Philharmonic hall and listened to the choral voices singing their incomprehensible words, something warmed and softened in me. I became, for the first time in months, able to feel strongly again.

Revisiting the question of not understanding, or what Thoreau celebrated as the transcendent humility of not-knowing, she adds:

Later, when I looked at the words in the program, I saw that the choral voices had been singing about the triumph of God over death. This is what I mean about the importance of not understanding. If I had known this at the time, I might have stiffened my atheist spine and resisted. But instead of taking in what the German words meant, I just allowed them to echo through my body: I felt them, quite literally, instead of understanding them. And the reverie I fell into as I listened to Brahms’s music was not about God triumphing over death, but about music and death grappling with each other. Death was chasing me, and I was fleeing from it, and it was pounding toward me; it was pounding in the music, but the music was also what was helping me to flee. And, as in a myth or a fairy tale, I sensed that what would enable me to escape — not forever, because all such escapes are temporary, but to escape just this once — would be if I looked death, Lenny’s death, in the face: if I turned back and looked at it as clearly and sustainedly as I could bear.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly magnificent Room for Doubt with beloved writers’ reflections on the power of music, these unusual children’s books about making sense of loss, and psychologist Irvin D. Yalom on the role of not-knowing in our search for meaning.


John Steinbeck on Racism and Bigotry

“I am sad for a time when one must know a man’s race before his work can be approved or disapproved.”

In September of 1936, young John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) witnessed murderous riots in the streets of his Californian hometown — the result of a violent clash between the local lettuce growers and the migrant farm workers who had finally revolted against the inhumane conditions they had long endured. (Decades later, one such laborer would detail these horrific conditions in his conversation with Studs Terkel.) Animated by irrepressible compassion, Steinbeck set out to tell the migrants’ story and spent two years working on a manuscript titled L’Affaire Lettuceberg. But he held himself to so high a standard that he ultimately decided he had failed to live up to his humanistic duty and destroyed the manuscript — one of the most courageous acts for a creative person to perform.

He then started from scratch and embarked upon the most intense writing experience of his life thus far — a quest to give voice to these oppressed laborers, to celebrate the basic goodness and humanity of the so-called common people amid a culture than had tried over and over to dehumanize them. The result was his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (public library), published on April 14 of 1939, in which Steinbeck wrote:

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success … in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

First-edition cover for The Grapes of Wrath, published on April 14, 1939

Both populist and insurrectionist, both protest song and gospel, the book was instantly beloved by those who stood for equality and human rights, and instantly reviled by the Donald Trumps of the day, who saw it as a threat to the power structures that buoyed them.

Steinbeck received a letter from a Reverend L. M. Birkhead, National Director of an organization called “Friends of Democracy,” claiming to combat Antisemitic, pro-Nazi propaganda. But Birkhead’s missive had a troubling undercurrent of bigotry. He asserted that The Grapes of Wrath had been called “Jewish propaganda” and implied that the only way to dispel such accusations would be for Steinbeck to prove that he is not Jewish — an accusation analogous to the conspiracy theories which “birthers” directed at President Barack Obama nearly a century later, stemming from the same soul-malady of which all bigotry is a symptom.

Steinbeck’s response to the Reverend, found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library), is a masterwork of moral wisdom and a sublime stance against bigotry, just as timely and perhaps — such is the tragedy of our time — even timelier today.

Steinbeck writes:

Dear Mr. Birkhead:

I am answering your letter with a good deal of sadness. I am sad for a time when one must know a man’s race before his work can be approved or disapproved. It does not seem important to me whether I am Jewish or not, and I know that a statement of mine is useless if an interested critic wishes to ride a preconceived thesis… It happens that I am not Jewish and have no Jewish blood but it only happens that way. I find that I do not experience any pride that it is so.

If you wish — here is my racial map although you know what an intelligent anthropologist thinks of racial theories. As you will see, I am the typical American Airedale.

After outlining his genealogy, not without sarcastic jabs at the very notion that it is of any significance at all, Steinbeck adds:

Anyway there it is. Use it or don’t use it, print it or not. Those who wish for one reason or another to believe me Jewish will go on believing it while men of good will and good intelligence won’t care one way or another. I can prove these things of course — but when I shall have to — the American democracy will have disappeared.

The Grapes of Wrath was awarded the Pulitzer Prize the following year and became a cornerstone of Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize two decades later. It endures as a one of the most significant works of social justice ever written.

Complement the thoroughly fantastic Steinbeck: A Life in Letters — the source of his timeless wisdom on falling in love and the art of the friend breakup — with the story of how the beloved writer used the diary as a tool of discipline and an antidote to self-doubt as he was writing The Grapes of Wrath.


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