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Rebecca Solnit on Love, Purposeful Work, and the Meaning of Liberty: An Empowered Retelling of Cinderella

“There are a lot of people with a lot of ideas about beauty. And love. When you love someone a lot, they just look like love.”

Rebecca Solnit on Love, Purposeful Work, and the Meaning of Liberty: An Empowered Retelling of Cinderella

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his 1925 treatise on the nature of happiness shortly after Freud asserted that love and work are the bedrock of our mental health and our very humanity. In the century since, this notion has been taken to a warped extreme — love has been industrialized into the one-note Hollywood model of romance and work has metastasized into aching workaholism. Russell, one of the deepest and most nuanced thinkers our civilization has produced, was closer to the subtler truth, which we as a culture are still struggling to enact: that, while love and work are central to the good life, romantic love is not the only or even necessarily the most rewarding pinnacle of love; that a sense of curiosity and purpose, rather than the mechanistic drive for reward in exchange of effort, is the richest animating force of work; and that these two faces of life-satisfaction must face each other. Just as work alone is not enough for a fulfilling life, love alone is not enough for a fulfilling relationship, romantic or otherwise. No partnership of equals — that is, no truly satisfying partnership — can be complete without each partner recognizing and respecting in the other a sense of purpose beyond the relationship, a contribution to the world that reflects and advances that person’s deepest values and most impassioned dreams, in turn adding creative, intellectual, and spiritual fuel to the shared fire of the relationship.

We may know this intuitively, and we may have even demonstrated it empirically — that is just what Harvard’s landmark 75-year study of what makes a good life indicated — yet we remain trapped in the millennia-old cultural mythologies that have permeated even our most enlightened and progressive belief systems so deeply and so invisibly that their precepts remain largely unquestioned.

Rebecca Solnit offers a mighty antidote to those limiting precepts in Cinderella Liberator (public library) — an empowered and empowering retelling of the ancient story, which dates back at least two millennia and has recurred in various guises across nearly every culture since, reflecting and perpetuating our most abiding cultural myths about love, work, gender, success, waste and want, the measure of prosperity, and the meaning of purpose.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Governed by her conviction that “key to the work of changing the world is changing the story” and by her lifelong love of books as “toolkits you take up to fix things, from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart,” Solnit retells the classic story, illustrated with century-old silhouettes by the great Arthur Rackham from a 1919 edition of the tale, in a way that liberates each character from the constrictions imposed upon him or her by someone else’s story and confers upon each the dignity of a complete human being with agency and autonomous dreams. Emerging from these simply worded, profound, richly rewarding pages is Solnit the literary artist, Solnit the revolutionary, Solnit the enchanter, Solnit the subtle and endlessly delightful satirist, Solnit the sage.

In one of the loveliest passages in the book, she wrests from the sad small lives of the two stepsisters, Pearlita and Paloma — who are later redeemed as mere victims of a cultural hegemony, and liberated — insight into and liberation from some of our most limiting beliefs. In consonance with Frida Kahlo’s touching testament to how love amplifies beauty and with my own conviction that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, Solnit writes of the stepsisters’ preparations for the great ball:

Pearlita was doing her best to pile her hair as high as hair could go. She said that, surely, having the tallest hair in the world would make you the most beautiful woman, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest.

Paloma was sewing extra bows onto her dress, because she thought that, surely, having the fanciest dress in the world would make you the most beautiful woman in the world, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest. They weren’t very happy, because they were worried that someone might have higher hair or more bows than they did. Which, probably, someone did. Usually someone does.

But there isn’t actually a most beautiful person in the world, because there are so many kinds of beauty. Some people love roundness and softness, and other people love sharp edges and strong muscles. Some people like thick hair like a lion’s mane, and other people like thin hair that pours down like an inky waterfall, and some people love someone so much they forget what they look like. Some people think the night sky full of stars at midnight is the most beautiful thing imaginable, some people think it’s a forest in snow, and some people… Well, there are a lot of people with a lot of ideas about beauty. And love. When you love someone a lot, they just look like love.

There is love, then there is work: Along the way, we meet persons of various animations and occupations, unhinged from gender — the town blacksmith and the painter are each a “she,” the bird-doctor is a “he,” the dancing teacher is a “they,” and all are content making their particular contribution to the world. We learn that Cinderella is living with her evil stepmother because her own mother is a sea captain lost at sea. We see Cinderella and Prince Nevermind become friends rather than romantic partners, magnetized by a sincere curiosity about each other’s dreams rather than a possessive demand for romantic bondage. We find out that the prince would rather labor in an orchard than idle in a castle and Cinderella would rather open a farm-to-table cake shop that feeds refugee children from warring kingdoms than be court lady whose sole value is as a prince’s spouse and who has ceased to work because there are servants to do everything.

On the other side of the enchantment, the lizards-turned-footwomen and the mice-turned-horses and the rat-turned-coachwoman are each asked whether they actually want to remain footwomen and horses and a coachwoman for perpetuity — some do and some don’t, being individuals who dream different dreams and have different notions of self-actualization.

In the end, each creature is liberated to become his or her “truest self” — even the pitiful stepsisters: One finds her sense of purpose by opening a salon “where she piles up people’s hair as high as it will go, and she’s happy because she’s doing what she loves,” and the other discovers that she likes “making beautiful dresses even more than wearing them,” and becomes a seamstress. Only the wicked stepmother remains unredeemed, for she has learned neither love nor the generosity of spirit necessary for contributing to the world in a meaningful way, and instead is operating from a small, dark place of seeing happiness as a limited zero-sum resource, wherein anything she gives to increase another’s wellbeing detracts from her own, and therefore she gives none. Turning the wicked stepmother into “the roaring in the trees on stormy nights,” Solnit writes:

Sometimes you can hear her outside, a strong wind rattling the windows and shaking the leaves off the trees, saying More and more and more, or Mine, mine, mine, and then the hungry wind dies down and she is gone until next time.

Sometimes that roaring is inside your own heart and head, and then it dies down there, too, the wind in all our heads that says we need more, we need to grab what someone else has and steal it away like the hungry wind. Everyone can be a fairy godmother if they help someone who needs help, and anyone can be a wicked stepmother. Most of us have some of that hunger in our hearts, but we can still try to be someone who says, I have plenty, or even Here, have this and How are you?

Solnit wrote the book for her beloved great-niece Ella, to whom her classic Men Explain Things to Me is also dedicated and whose name, Solnit realized with a shock only in the course of writing the story, is Cinderella liberated of the cinders. In the afterword to the book, on the cover of which Rackham’s cake-holding Cinderella resembles The Statue of Liberty and her torch, Solnit considers how these century-old silhouettes resonated with her broader motivations for the retelling:

I was also touched by Rackham’s image of the ragged child at work and thought of unaccompanied minors from Central America and immigrant domestic workers, who are a strong presence where I live, of foster children, and of all the children who live without kindness and security in their everyday lives, all the people who are outsiders even at home, or for whom home is the most dangerous place, or who have no home.

I liked the spirit of the silhouette-girl that Rackham portrayed. Even in rags she is lively, and she labors with alacrity, and runs and frolics wholeheartedly. She is stranded but not defeated. When it came time to write her story for our time, it seemed to me that the solution to overwork and degrading work is not the leisure of the princess, passing off the work to others, but good, meaningful work with dignity and self-determination — and one of the things the cake shop gives Cinderella, aside from independence, is the power to benefit others, because it’s also a meeting place.

Solnit reflects on the more personal roots of her story, inspired also by her two grandmothers, “both of whom were motherless girls, neglected, undereducated; neither of whom quite escaped that formative immersion in being unloved and unvalued.” She writes of one of them, a real-life Cinderella of the most tragic kind:

My paternal grandmother, Ida, was an unaccompanied refugee child who, after years without parents, made it from the Russian-Polish borderlands to Los Angeles with her younger brothers when she was fifteen. There, her long-lost father and stepmother also treated her as a servant.

Their tragedies were a century ago and more, but this book is also with love and hope for liberation for every child who’s overworked and undervalued, every kid who feels alone — with hope that they get to write their own story, and make it come out with love and liberation.

Complement the electrically wonderful Cinderella Liberator — at once an empowering gift to any young person beginning to behold the landscape of possibility we call life and powerful existential reboot for any grownup ready to break free of the world’s limiting stories — with Solnit on breaking silence, living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, catastrophe as a catalyst for human goodness, and her lovely letter to children about how books solace, empower, and transform us, then revisit the story of how Arthur Rackham revolutionized book art with his 1907 illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, one of the first classic children’s books to cast a girl as a protagonist endowed with agency, curiosity, and self-determination.

BP

Toni Morrison on the Power of Art and the Writer’s Singular Service to Humanity

“Art invites us to know beauty and to solicit it from even the most tragic of circumstances. Art reminds us that we belong here. And if we serve, we last.”

Toni Morrison on the Power of Art and the Writer’s Singular Service to Humanity

“Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” Rebecca West — one of humanity’s most insightful and underappreciated writers — observed as she contemplated storytelling and survival in her 1941 masterwork Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Two generations later, on the other side of WWII and the Cold War and the atomic bomb and myriad other failures of humanity, another seer of uncommon lucidity took up these questions in her formidable body of work, which made her the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Toni Morrison (b. February 18, 1931) examines the function of art and literature as humanizing forces of survival throughout The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (public library) — the nonfiction collection that gave us her wisdom on wisdom in the age of information.

Toni Morrison (Courtesy  Alfred A. Knopf)
Toni Morrison (Courtesy Alfred A. Knopf)

Half a century after James Baldwin asserted that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Morrison writes in her PEN/Borders Literary Service Award acceptance speech, which opens the volume:

Writers — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to.

[…]

Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.

Art by Mouni Feddag for a letter by Alain de Botton from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

In another piece, drawn from her 1990 Massey Lectures at Harvard, Morrison echoes Ursula K. Le Guin’s astute observation that “storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want,” and probes deeper into the singular gift and responsibility of the writer:

Writers are among the most sensitive, most intellectually anarchic, most representative, most probing of artists. The writer’s ability to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange, and to mystify the familiar — all this is the test of her or his power. The languages she or he uses (imagistic, structural, narrative) and the social and historical context in which these languages signify are indirect and direct revelations of that power and its limitations.

Toni Morrison illustrated by Katy Horan from Literary Witches — a celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

A quarter century later, in an award acceptance speech delivered at Vanderbilt University in the spring of 2013, also included in the book, Morrison considers her core credo as a writer and the central function of art in human life:

I am a writer and my faith in the world of art is intense but not irrational or naïve. Art invites us to take the journey beyond price, beyond costs into bearing witness to the world as it is and as it should be. Art invites us to know beauty and to solicit it from even the most tragic of circumstances. Art reminds us that we belong here. And if we serve, we last. My faith in art rivals my admiration for any other discourse. Its conversation with the public and among its various genres is critical to the understanding of what it means to care deeply and to be human completely. I believe.

Complement with Iris Murdoch on art as a vehicle of truth and Albert Camus on the artist’s role as a force of resistance, then revisit Morrison on the artist’s task in troubled times and her magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the power and responsibility of language.

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“Little Prince” Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on Love, Mortality, and Night as an Existential Clarifying Force for the Deepest Truths of the Heart

“Day belongs to family quarrels, but with the night he who has quarreled finds love again. For love is greater than any wind of words… Love is not thinking, but being.”

“Little Prince” Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on Love, Mortality, and Night as an Existential Clarifying Force for the Deepest Truths of the Heart

“For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars — pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time,” the great nature writer Henry Beston exulted in his stunning 1928 meditation on how night nourishes the human spirit. Indeed, there is a strange splendor to night, to how it envelops us in its consolatory darkness and lets us metabolize the day’s sorrows, how it clarifies our confusions in dreams we never fully comprehend, how it reminds us that each time the Earth turns away from the Sun, our days are diminished by one.

No one has articulated this clarifying power of night, nor its attunement to the urgency of mortality, more beautifully than Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (June 29, 1900–July 31, 1944) in his philosophical memoir Flight to Arras (public library), composed just as he was about to publish The Little Prince.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The afternoon before a terrifying reconnaissance mission to fly over the German tank parks scattered across Arras, Saint-Exupéry finds himself preoccupied with questions of war, death, sacrifice, and heroism, but vows to think about them that night, if he returns live. He contemplates this time of numinous clarity, beyond the cold metallic thought-containers of the daytime analytical mind:

Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of the trees.

One of Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.

Thrust into a moment of existential reverie by this twilight confrontation with mortality, he adds:

Day belongs to family quarrels, but with the night he who has quarreled finds love again. For love is greater than any wind of words… Love is not thinking, but being… I longed for night and for the rebirth in me of the being that merits love. For night, when my thoughts would be of civilization, of the destiny of man, of the savour of friendship in my native land. For night, so that I may yearn to serve some overwhelming purpose which at this moment I cannot define. For night, so that I may advance a step towards fixing it in my unmanageable language. I longed for night as the poet might do, the true poet who feels himself inhabited by a things obscure but powerful, and who strives to erect images like ramparts round the thing in order to capture it. To capture it in the snare of images.

[…]

I should wait for night, I said to myself; and if I am still alive I would walk alone… Alone and safely isolated in my beloved solitude. So that I might discover why it is I ought to die.

Four years later, as The Little Prince was meeting the open arms of the world with its timeless message of love beyond life and death, Saint-Exupéry disappeared into the Mediterranean night on a reconnaissance mission, never to be seen again.

Couple with Aldous Huxley on the transcendent power of music at night, then revisit Saint-Exupéry on what the desert taught him about the meaning of life and how a simple human smile saved his life during the war.

BP

Reading for Life: Polish Poet Aleksander Wat on How Books Helped Him Survive in a Soviet Prison

“I had a great desire to live because I found Nietzsche’s amor fati in every trifle in every book, even the pessimistic ones. The more pessimistic the book, the more pulsating energy, life energy, I felt beneath its surface — as if all of literature were only the praise of life’s beauty, of all of life…”

Reading for Life: Polish Poet Aleksander Wat on How Books Helped Him Survive in a Soviet Prison

“There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive,” 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin wrote as she recounted in her lovely letter to children how books saved lives in the Warsaw Ghetto of her Nazi-occupied homeland.

Around the same time, a prominent compatriot of hers attested with his own life to this elemental, salvatory power of literature.

In 1939, to escape the Nazi invasion of Warsaw, the Polish poet, memoirist, and futurism pioneer Aleksander Wat (May 1, 1900–July 19, 1967) fled to the city of Lviv, then under Soviet occupation. Because poets and artists are always the first to be targeted by totalitarian regimes — “Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Iris Murdoch observed in her superb meditation on literature as resistance to tyranny — Wat was soon arrested and thrown into a series of increasingly menacing detention facilities, eventually ending up at the infamous Lubyanka prison near Moscow. What kept him alive there, amid the unbearable privations, the bleak prospects of release, and the harsh physical and psychic abuse of the Soviet “investigators,” was literature — an experience he recounted in his posthumously published memoir, My Century (public library).

Aleksander Wat

With a poet’s precision of sentiment and vividness of image, Wat writes:

The pendulum of prison time swings between agony and nothingness, but in Lubyanka time has other laws and moves in a different way. But books brought us back to life, immersed us in the life of free people in the great and free world. We took fictional reality naïvely, like children listening to fairy tales. Could that have been the reason they gave us books in that laboratory of prison existence, where every detail had been thought out, quite possibly even by Stalin himself? Perhaps the experience of two such antithetical realities is supposed to induce a schizophrenic dissociation in a prisoner, rendering him defenseless against the investigation.

He recounts the paradoxical nature of reading in the alternate reality of prison — an experience of literature that stood as a mirror image of that experience in the real world, the world of freedom and possibility:

I had a great desire to live because I found Nietzsche’s amor fati in every trifle in every book, even the pessimistic ones. The more pessimistic the book, the more pulsating energy, life energy, I felt beneath its surface — as if all of literature were only the praise of life’s beauty, of all of life, as if nature’s many charms were insufficient to dissuade us from suicide, from Ecclesiastes, and from Seneca’s “better not to have been born at all but, if born, better to die at once.” I came across books that I had read before prison and that had sapped me of my will. For example, Notes from the Underground. But there in my cell even those books sang hosannas.

Art by Ofra Amit from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

And yet something even more paradoxical was taking place in the mindscape of the imprisoned — reading, for them, had a strange double-edged quality. Wat reflects on this strangeness, which he observed not only in himself but also in his cellmates:

Books stimulated a keen desire for life, life of any sort, at any cost, to live and move with the Rastignacs, Rostovs, and even the heroes of Notes from the Underground, an insatiable desire to live in freedom, even if that were the miserable freedom of the camps. I encountered many prisoners who had been pulled out of the camps for a review of their trials; despite their having no faith in being released and despite the great wretchedness of camp life, they would still grow nostalgic about being able to move freely about the camp, about the chance to work and be in contact with large numbers of people. A second and opposite effect of reading was that it disordered a prisoner’s mental structure by causing him to experience two entirely different realities simultaneously: the world of books — free, full of movement, light, change, colorful, Heraclitean — and the world where time stood still, lost all sensation in captivity, and faded into a dirty gray. The sum total of both opposed effects worked to the investigator’s advantage because it disturbed the victim’s entire soul.

But reading had the opposite effect on me. It marshaled my intellectual and spiritual resources and made me stronger. It truly was like touching the earth for Antaeus. No doubt that was because what I primarily filtered out from books, any sort of book, was the poetry they contained, and it was only in prison that I became aware of a certain banal truth, one that I had often doubted, namely, that I am a poet.

My Century is a stirring read in its totality — part invaluable document of a dark hour in human history that must not be forgotten and erased, part lyrical map to the inner world of an artist of uncommon intellectual and creative vitality. Complement this particular fragment with poet Mary Oliver on how books saved her life from a very different form of violence, Neil Gaiman on what books do for the human spirit, and a lovely animated oral history of how libraries save lives.

BP

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