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The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: Food-Related Memories, Meditations, and Favorite Recipes by Beloved Creators

Neil Gaiman’s unblinking omelette, Joyce Carol Oates’s thin-sliced defiance of grief, Marina Abramovic’s meteoric antidote to doubt, and other existential edibles.

The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: Food-Related Memories, Meditations, and Favorite Recipes by Beloved Creators

“Art is a form of nourishment,” young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. But the inverse is equally true — food is a form of art, and it is artists who have always savored this two-way delight most ardently. In the past century alone, we’ve witnessed ample cross-pollination of culinary culture and the arts: the cuisine of Futurism, Salvador Dalí’s erotic cookbook, great poets’ favorite recipes, the found meals of the Lost Generation, Liberace’s cookbook, a sampling of modern art desserts, and the meals of famous fiction.

Now comes The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: A Collection of Stories with Recipes, envisioned and edited by artist and writer Natalie Eve Garrett, illustrated by Amy Jean Porter, and inspired by a the classic 1961 edition.

Among the seventy-six contributions from painters, poets, novelists, and other contemporary artists are food-related vignettes, meditations, micro-memoirs, and favorite recipes by Neil Gaiman, Ed Ruscha, Joyce Carol Oates, Nikki Giovanni, Roz Chast, Elizabeth Alexander, Paul Muldoon, Sanford Biggers, Anthony Doerr, Sharon Olds, and Marina Abramović.

The project does for food what artist Emily Spivack’s wonderful Worn Stories did for clothing — something seemingly mundane becomes a springboard for imaginative leaps into the depths of the human experience. Perhaps because food is so inseparable from our creaturely existence, undergirding these culinary curations are reflections — sometimes rapturous, sometimes poignant, often redemptive, always deeply humane — on life’s most inescapable commonalities: love, grief, growing up, the messy, unhandsome, absolutely beautiful journey of becoming who we are.

Recalling her first encounter with the vintage cookbook that inspired the project, Garrett writes in the introduction:

The more I read, the more the connection between art, writing, and cooking made sense: Ideally all three are about something new. They all require some measure of vision, revision, faith, and magic, not to mention a high tolerance for disaster. All three also engage the senses, surprise and sustain us, and can be evocative. And, at their best, they can even be transformative.

Master-enchanter Neil Gaiman contributes a recipe based on a passage from his beloved book Coraline:

ajp_gaiman_buttons

Her other mother smiled gently. With one hand she cracked the eggs into a bowl; with the other she whisked them and whirled them. Then she dropped a pat of butter into a frying pan, where it hissed and fizzled and spun as she sliced thin slices of cheese. She poured the melted butter and the cheese into the egg-mixture, and whisked it some more.

“Now, I think you’re being silly, dear,” said the other mother. “I love you. I will always love you. Nobody sensible believes in ghosts anyway — that’s because they’re all such liars. Smell the lovely breakfast I’m making for you.” She poured the yellow mixture into the pan. “Cheese omelette. Your favorite.”

Coraline’s mouth watered. “You like games,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been told.”

The other mother’s black eyes flashed. “Everybody likes games,” was all she said.

“Yes,” said Coraline. She climbed down from the counter and sat at the table.

The bacon was sizzling and spitting under the grill. It smelled wonderful.

“Wouldn’t you be happier if you won me, fair and square?” asked Coraline.

“Possibly,” said the other mother. She had a show of unconcernedness, but her fingers twitched and drummed and she licked her lips with her scarlet tongue. “What exactly are you offering?”

“Me,” said Coraline, and she gripped her knees under the table, to stop them from shaking. “If I lose I’ll stay here with you forever and I’ll let you love me. I’ll be a most dutiful daughter. I’ll eat your food and play Happy Families. And I’ll let you sew your buttons into my eyes.”

Her other mother stared at her, black buttons unblinking. “That sounds very fine,” she said. “And if you do not lose?”

“Then you let me go. You let everyone go—my real father and mother, the dead children, everyone you’ve trapped here.”

The other mother took the bacon from under the grill and put it on a plate. Then she slipped the cheese omelette from the pan onto the plate, flipping it as she did so, letting it fold itself into a perfect omelette shape.

She placed the breakfast plate in front of Coraline, along with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a mug of frothy hot chocolate.

“Yes,” she said. “I think I like this game.”

Gaiman steps out of his fictional universe and onto the kitchen floor, where he offers a real recipe for Coraline’s omelette:

CHEESE OMELETTE

2 eggs
butter
cheese
1 tablespoon milk
a pinch of salt

Beat together eggs, milk, and a pinch of salt.

Melt a large pat of butter in the frying pan, coat the pan with it, then pour it into the egg mixture and beat it in.

Pour the mixture into the pan.

Sprinkle grated cheese onto the omelette.

Push the eggs away from the edges of the pan, letting anything liquid cook. Don’t let the bottom of it brown. Fold it in the pan or do the elegant thing where you slip it half onto the plate then let the top half come down on the bottom half. Garnish with fresh parsley or don’t, depending on the finickiness of whoever you are feeding and whether or not they are scared of parsley.

In an even further extreme of the levity-gravity spectrum, Joyce Carol Oates captures the mundane finality we only recognize in hindsight, that most gutting aspect of grief:

ajp_oates_candles

Something simple like scrambled eggs with onions and smoked salmon and a particular sort of sourdough bread, and he might’ve had a glass of wine, possibly two glasses of wine, and there’d certainly have been a salad, mostly red-leaf lettuce, though with some of those little red cherry tomatoes he grew in his garden; and thin-sliced cucumbers, and thin-sliced red peppers; for it’s a household custom to make a simple meal when you’ve been traveling, and to put a small vase of flowers on your desk for you to discover when you return. And it comes as a slow revelation to you — (you who are dazed with travel, both at the time and now years later recalling that time as across an abyss of such depth and vertigo you dare not glance into it) — that yes, this is the last meal he will prepare for the two of you, the last meal he will prepare on such an occasion, or on any occasion, on this wintry evening in February 2008, as it is the last time you will set the table for two and light the dining room candles in the glass-walled house; and so you are thinking that possibly you can’t prepare the simple meal that had been one of your customs, for it’s too soon, and you aren’t ready, you aren’t strong enough; a recipe

Scrambled Eggs, Onions & Smoked Salmon

4 eggs, scrambled
chopped onion
minimal butter
small pieces smoked salmon

In frying pan melt butter and cook onions.

Add pieces of salmon.

Stir in scrambled eggs.

With an eye to a different sort of grief, civilizational rather than persona, the Pulitzer-winning Irish poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon offers a caricature of our undignified, self-defeating flight from and fight with nature — a satirical lament for our Monsantocene:

ajp_muldoon_apple

Take one pork cutlet,
preferably from a pig that’s been growth hormone-addled
and shows evidence of low-dose antibiotics
that’s sometimes swept under the rug.
Brush with a corn derivative
and place on grill.
Add two ammonia treated defatted beef patties
but only if they carry a USDA stamp.
On no account overcook
lest you accidentally kill
any of the superbugs
or other strains of bacteria about to enter your system.
It’s best if they’re resistant to drugs.

Take one Arctic apple
designed by the irresistible
Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. of Canada
to itself “resist” browning when sliced.
Cut in half
and place on grill.
Set aside your suspicion that genetic
modification is now endemic
and season with verbiage that comes by hook or by crook
from Capitol Hill.
Turn the cutlet twice,
then drizzle with honey and low pesticide residue nutmeg.
For nutmeg you may substitute low pesticide residue allspice.

Via-à-vis the honey,
the ideal would be to harvest it from a collapsing colony
of neonicotinoid-
compromised bees
that had built some semblance of a hive
in your grill.
IN a pan sweat a small onion but don’t
for a moment succumb to pathogen-paranoia.
Garnish with watercress almost entirely rife with liver fluke,
raised as it was a hydroponic rill
that’s the runoff from a piggery.
As to whether the Arctic apple is “truly non-browning,”
you’ll have to wait and see.

The poet Elizabeth Alexander offers a counterpoint to this tenuous question of authenticity as she reflects on the cultural and culinary heritage of her late husband, whom she eulogized so beautifully in her memoir of love and loss.

ajp_alexander_adulis

With an eye to the idea that altering the “authentic” can be a sanctifying act of the imagination, rather than the hubristic desecration Muldoon paints, Alexander writes:

When Ficre Ghebreyesus and I met in New Haven in the late spring of 1996, the first thing he wanted to do was show me his art. He was living at the time at 218 State Street, the New Haven Cash Register Company building, in an unfinished lot where he slept and painted when he was not cooking his Eritrean fantasia food in the kitchen of Caffé Adulis, the restaurant he owned and ran with his brothers Giddeon and Sahle. The restaurant was named in homage to Adulis, an ancient port city on the Red Sea that is now an archeological excavation site, one of Africa’s great “lost cities.” Pliny the Elder was the first writer to mention Adulis, which he called “city of free men.”

[…]

There were paintings everywhere, mostly large dark canvases lit with brilliant corners of insistent life. The paintings gave a sense of his beloved homeland in wartime — the Eritrean War of Independence began shortly before he was born — infused with the light of determined humanity that would not be deferred or extinguished.

[…]

Our love began in an instant and progressed inevitably. When Solomon Kebede Ghebreyesus, our first son, was born in April of 1998, we moved to 45 Livingston Street in New Haven. Ficre continued to invent and cook at Adulis. The great food writer and old-school newspaperman R.W. Apple visited the restaurant and after tasting Ficre’s creations asked, in his article in The New York Times, “A Culinary Journey out of Africa and into New Haven”:

“Is all of this authentic?”…

“Tricky word, authentic,” [Ficre] replied. “Tricky idea. Food ideas move around the world very quickly today, and if you went to Eritrea, you’d find American touches here and there. There are thousands of Eritreans living in the United States, and when they go home, they take new food ideas with them. For us, that’s no more foreign than pasta once was.”

Adulis was a gathering place where people ate food they’d never imagined and learned about the culture and history of a country that most of them had never heard of. Ficre created legendary dishes such as shrimp barka that existed nowhere in Eritrea but rather in his own inventive imagination. Women called for it from St. Raphael’s and Yale-New Haven Hospitals after they’d delivered their babies; people said they literally dreamed of it, a fairy food that tasted like nothing else.

Here is how you make it.

SHRIMP BARKA

4 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium red onions, thinly sliced
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
5 very ripe and juicy tomatoes, chopped coarsely
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
½ cup finely chopped fresh basic (1 bunch)
15 pitted dates (½ cup), cut crosswise in thirds
3 tablespoons unsweetened shredded coconut
½ cup half-and-half
1 pound medium shrimp (16-20), shelled and deveined
? cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 ½ cups cooked basmati rice

In a large, heavy pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions, and sauté until wilted, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, and continue sautéing, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, for 2 minutes longer. Stir in the tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes.

Add basil, dates, and coconut, and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 5 more minutes. Add the half-and-half, cover, and cook for 3 minutes.

Add shrimp to sauce. Cook covered, until shrimp turn pink, about 5 minutes. Stir in cheese and then the rice, and serve immediately.

Artist Marina Abramović cooks up a conceptual menu partway between Yoko Ono’s action-poems and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Do It:

ajp_abramovic_spirit

pain

In time of doubt
keep a small meteorite
stone
in your mouth

to be consumed on a solar eclipse

take 13 leaves of uncut
green cabbage with
13,000 grams of jealousy
steam for a long time in a
deep iron pot
until all the water
evaporates
eat just before attack

essence drink

mix fresh breast milk
with
fresh sperm milk
drink on earthquake nights

fire food

on top of a volcano
open your mouth
wait until your tongue
becomes flame
close your mouth
take a deep breath

Complement the thoroughly delectable Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook with its vintage counterpart and the fantastic, forgotten MoMA Artists’ Cookbook, then revisit Joan Didion’s favorite recipes and these real recipes from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s books, illustrated by the great Sir Quentin Blake.

Illustrations and excerpts courtesy of powerHouse Books

BP

Great Writers on the Power of Music

Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Aldous Huxley, Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Friedrich Nietzsche, and more.

“Music is the best means we have of digesting time,” Igor Stravinsky once remarked (a remark often misattributed to W.H. Auden). “Music is the sound wave of the soul,” the wise and wonderful Morley observed. Psychologists have studied why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity and how listening to music enraptures the brain. But, more than that, music works over the human spirit and stands as a supreme manifestation of our very humanity — something Carl Sagan knew when he sent the Golden Record into the cosmos as a representation of the most universal truths of our civilization.

Gathered here are uncommonly beautiful reflections on the singular power of music by some of humanity’s greatest writers, collected over years of reading — please enjoy.

SUSAN SONTAG

Susan Sontag spent the majority of her adult life reading between eight and ten hours a day, and never fewer than four. Her intense love of literature was paralleled by a commensurate love of music. In a diary entry found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — the spectacular volume that gave us young Sontag on personal growth, art, marriage, the four people a great writer must be, and her duties for being a twenty-something — she writes at age 15:

Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts — it is the most abstract, the most perfect, the most pure — and the most sensual. I listen with my body and it is my body that aches in response to the passion and pathos embodied in this music.

KURT VONNEGUT

In his final essay collection, A Man Without a Country (public library) — the source of his abiding wisdom on the shapes of storiesKurt Vonnegut wrote that music, above all else, “made being alive almost worthwhile” for him. He synthesized the sentiment in an extra-concentrated dose of his wry irreverence:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC

EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay makes a similar point via counterpoint. In a beautiful 1920 letter to a friend, found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library) — which also gave us the beloved poet on what it really means to be an anarchist, her touching appreciation of her mother, and her exquisite love letters — 28-year-old Millay writes:

I can whistle almost the whole of the Fifth Symphony, all four movements, and with it I have solaced many a whining hour to sleep. It answers all my questions, the noble, mighty thing, it is “green pastures and still waters” to my soul. Indeed, without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is. I find that lately more and more my fingers itch for a piano, and I shall not spend another winter without one. Last night I played for about two hours, the first time in a year, I think, and though most everything is gone enough remains to make me realize I could get it back if I had the guts. People are so dam lazy, aren’t they? Ten years I have been forgetting all I learned so lovingly about music, and just because I am a boob. All that remains is Bach. I find that I never lose Bach. I don’t know why I have always loved him so. Except that he is so pure, so relentless and incorruptible, like a principle of geometry.

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE

No one has illustrated the vitalizing power of music with more marvelous morbidity than Friedrich Nietzsche. In an aphorism from his 1889 book Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (public library), he proclaims:

Without music life would be a mistake.

The point of this morbidity, of course, is to convey the infinitely enlivening power of music — something Nietzsche elaborated on in an autobiographical fragment quoted in Julian Young’s altogether fantastic Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (public library):

God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.

ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER

Arthur Schopenhauer was a major influence on his compatriot of Nietzsche. In his extensive inquiry into the power of music, found in the first volume of his 1818 masterwork The World as Will and Representation (public library), Schopenhauer writes:

Music … stands quite apart from all the [other arts]. In it we do not recognize the copy, the repetition, of any Idea of the inner nature of the world. Yet it is such a great and exceedingly fine art, its effect on man’s innermost nature is so powerful, and it is so completely and profoundly understood by him in his innermost being as an entirely universal language, whose distinctness surpasses even that of the world of perception itself, that in it we certainly have to look for more than that exercitium arithmeticae occultum nescientis se numerare animi [“an unconscious exercise in arithmetic in which the mind does not know it is counting”] which Leibniz took it to be… We must attribute to music a far more serious and profound significance that refers to the innermost being of the world and of our own self.

More of Schopenhauer’s ideas about music can be found here.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

In her early twenties, Virginia Woolf found a very different kind of exaltation in music. In a lengthy 1903 diary entry titled “A Dance at Queen’s Gate” from A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library), the 21-year-old writer recounts the particularly intoxicating effect of dance music (which, at the time, involved violins) during a wild night on the town:

That is the quality which dance music has — no other: it stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room — oblivious of everything save that you must keep swaying with the music — in & out, round & round — in the eddies & swirls of the violins. It is as though some swift current of water swept you along with it. It is magic music.

VICTOR HUGO

The great French Romantic poet, novelist, and dramatist Victor Hugo extolled music’s singular potency with sublime succinctness. In the preface to his 1864 study of those he considered to be “the greatest geniuses of all time,” somewhat deceptively titled William Shakespeare (public library), he writes:

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.

ALDOUS HUXLEY

Aldous Huxley takes a complementary perspective in a beautiful essay titled The Rest Is Silence (on which Alex Ross’s excellent The Rest Is Noise is a play), found in the altogether terrific 1931 collection Music at Night and Other Essays (public library):

After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

[…]

When the inexpressible had to be expressed, Shakespeare laid down his pen and called for music.

ANAÏS NIN

Perhaps the most dedicated and prolific diarist of all time, French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and continued until her death at the age of 74, producing sixteen volumes of published journals in which she reflected on such diverse and timeless subjects as love, reproductive rights, the elusive nature of joy, the meaning of life, and why emotional excess is essential for creativity. In an entry from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5 (public library) — which also gave us Nin’s sublime meditation on embracing the unfamiliar — she writes:

Jazz is the music of the body. The breath comes through brass. It is the body’s breath, and the strings’ wails and moans are echoes of the body’s music. It is the body’s vibrations which ripple from the fingers. And the mystery of the withheld theme, known to jazz musicians alone, is like the mystery of our secret life. We give to others only peripheral improvisations.

WALT WHITMAN

In his timeless and tremendously timely 1860s essay Democratic Vistas, found in the Library of America volume Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (public library), Walt Whitman writes:

Music, the combiner, nothing more spiritual, nothing more sensuous, a god, yet completely human, advances, prevails, holds highest place; supplying in certain wants and quarters what nothing else could supply.

OLIVER SACKS

Nearly a century and a half later, Oliver Sacks captured this supreme spiritual sustenance of music in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (public library), which remains the most stimulating inquiry into the source of music’s power ever written. Reflecting on a particularly trying moment for the human spirit — the days following the September 11 attacks — Dr. Sacks writes:

On my morning bike ride to Battery Park, I heard music as I approached the tip of Manhattan, and then saw and joined a silent crowd who sat gazing out to sea and listening to a young man playing Bach’s Chaconne in D on his violin. When the music ended and the crowd quietly dispersed, it was clear that the music had brought them some profound consolation, in a way that no words could ever have done.

Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him; anyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.

Complement with Anthony Burgess’s account of the magical moment he fell in love with music as a little boy and this wonderful vintage guide to the seven essential skills of listening to music, then revisit similar collections of great writers’ reflections on New York City, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the importance of boredom, and how creativity works.

BP

Henry James and H.G. Well’s Famous Feud About Writing, the Purpose of Art, and the Usefulness of Literature

“It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance…”

Henry James and H.G. Well’s Famous Feud About Writing, the Purpose of Art, and the Usefulness of Literature

“What art does is to coax us away from the mechanical and towards the miraculous,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in 2006. A century earlier, two of literature’s most revered titans clashed on this question of what art does, and the debris became the soil in which nearly every contemporary debate about the purpose of creative work grows.

Henry James (April 13, 1843–February 28, 1916) and H.G. Wells (September 21, 1866–August 13, 1946) were a generation apart, but had much in common — both championed freedom of speech, had strong political views, and wrote incisive social commentary; both were nominated for the Nobel Prize several times but never won. And yet, despite their commonalities, the two writers collided on the subject at the center of their work — the nature of purpose of art, including literature. Their contrasting views capture a divide that continues to bedevil creative culture today.

wells_james2

The feud began in friendship: When Wells first emerged onto the literary scene, James was intrigued by the young writer’s talent and eventually declared his admiration directly: “You are, for me … the most interesting ‘literary man’ of your generation — in fact, the only interesting one.” But James soon came to lament a paradox in Wells’s writing, which he articulated to a friend as “so much talent with so little art, so much life with (so to speak) so little living.” For James, who had once described the “divine preoccupation” of art as an “intimate restlessness of projection and perception,” aliveness was always the true measure of art — something Joseph Conrad would later capture in his beautiful tribute to him. Wells, trained as a biologist and best-known for his science fiction masterworks, considered himself above all a journalist — he measured writing by its usefulness in the service of truth.

This irreconcilable contrast of sensibilities came to a head the year before James’s death, when he was 72 and Wells 49.

In 1915, exactly twenty years after Wells made a name for himself and popularized the concept of time travel with The Time Machine, he published a satirical novel titled Boon, parodying James’s writing and depicting a paragraph of his as a hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea in a corner — a caricature crowned with the accusation that James “never discovered that a novel isn’t a picture … that life isn’t a studio.”

Illustrations from the original edition of Wells's Boon
Illustrations from the original edition of Wells’s Boon

James was bemused and perhaps somewhat betrayed, given his early support of Wells’s work, but he responded with surprising graciousness given the blindsiding ferocity of the attack. (One of the consolations of old age surely must be a certain capacity for pause between stimulus and response, a willingness to reflect before reacting and to rise above the irascible immediacy of the situation in order to take a bird’s-eye view.)

In a considered and dignified defense, found in Henry James: A Life in Letters (public library), James argues that the artist is ultimately beholden only to his own measure of fullness — “fullness of life and the projection of it, which seems to you [Wells] an emptiness of both.”

But Wells, rather than honoring James’s sympathetic search for, if not common ground then, at least, mutual understanding, dug his heels in stubbornly:

To you literature like painting is an end, to me literature like architecture is a means, it has a use. Your view was, I felt, altogether too prominent in the world of criticism and I assailed it in lines of harsh antagonism. And writing that stuff about you was the first escape I had from the obsession of this war. Boon is just a waste-paper basket. Some of it was written before I left my home at Sandgate (1911), and it was while I was turning over some old papers that I came upon it, found it expressive, and went on with it last December. I had rather be called a journalist than an artist, that is the essence of it, and there was no other antagonist possible than yourself. But since it was printed I have regretted a hundred times that I did not express our profound and incurable contrast with a better grace.

This time, James was moved to outrage. He responded by, first, pointing at the seeming ingratitude of the ordeal by reminding Wells of his steadfast support:

My dear Wells,

I am bound to tell you that I don’t think your letter makes out any sort of case for the bad manners of Boon, as far as your indulgence in them at the expense of your poor old H. J. is concerned — I say “your” simply because he has been yours, in the most liberal, continual, sacrificial, the most admiring and abounding critical way, ever since he began to know your writings: as to which you have had copious testimony.

He then takes on Wells’s condemnation of his “view of life and literature,” still in a compliment sandwich of dissent:

Your comparison of the book to a waste-basket strikes me as the reverse of felicitous, for what one throws into that receptacle is exactly what one doesn’t commit to publicity and make the affirmation of one’s estimate of one’s contemporaries by. I should liken it much rather to the preservative portfolio or drawer in which what is withheld from the basket is savingly laid away.

[…]

I have no view of life and literature, I maintain, other than that our form of the latter in especial is admirable exactly by its range and variety, its plasticity and liberality, its fairly living on the sincere and shifting experience of the individual practitioner. That is why I have always so admired your so free and strong application of it, the particular rich receptacle of intelligences and impressions emptied out with an energy of its own, that your genius constitutes… For myself I live, live intensely and am fed by life, and my value, whatever it be, is in my own kind of expression of that.

After a few asides about his general beliefs and their particular differences, James delivers his greatest contestation:

I absolutely dissent from the claim that there are any differences whatever in the amenability to art of forms of literature aesthetically determined, and hold your distinction between a form that is (like) painting and a form that is (like) architecture for wholly null and void. There is no sense in which architecture is aesthetically “for use” that doesn’t leave any other art whatever exactly as much so; and so far from that of literature being irrelevant to the literary report upon life, and to its being made as interesting as possible, I regard it as relevant in a degree that leaves everything else behind. It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process. If I were Boon I should say that any pretence of such a substitute is helpless and hopeless humbug; but I wouldn’t be Boon for the world, and am only yours faithfully,

Henry James

Henry James: A Life in Letters remains one of the most psychologically insightful collections of correspondence ever made public. (That his brother was the pioneering psychologist William James seems both beside the point and a point.) Complement this particular excerpt with William Faulkner on the purpose of art and Jeanette Winterson on how art creates a sanctified space for the human spirit.

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Art as a Form of Active Prayer and What Writers Really Labor For

“Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice — not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) — your authentic voice … may be heard.”

Why do we humans create — why do artists make art, why do writers write? Pablo Neruda gave a beautiful answer in his metaphor of the hand through the fence. For Joan Didion, the impulse is a vital gateway to her own mind. David Foster Wallace saw it as a mode of fun-having and truth-telling. For Italo Calvino, it was a matter of belonging to “a collective enterprise.” William Faulkner simply believed it to be “the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet.” But even more important, perhaps, is the question of why — and how — artists continue to make art in the face of the rejection, ridicule, and indifference with which their society often meets them.

That immutable inquiry is what novelist, short story writer, and journalist Melissa Pritchard explores with unparalleled luminosity in an essay titled “Spirit and Vision” from her altogether magnificent first nonfiction collection, A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, and Write (public library). The piece — a sort of open letter to writers and, by extension, all artists — bears that cynicism-disarming quality of a commencement address and enchants the psyche like an incantation.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from ‘Enormous Smallness’ by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

Pritchard writes:

Great writers are witnesses to the spirit of their age. They need not be accepted by their times; they rarely are. Speaking the truth, they may go unheard, be misunderstood or criticized. Later, posthumously, it is said they were ahead of their time.

This she illustrates with a supreme example of the posthumously anointed literary genius: Walt Whitman, whose exquisite serenade to the soul, Leaves of Grass, fell on deaf ears — the same unfeeling audience that had been wholly nonplussed by Thoreau’s wholly plussing Walden and had snubbed Moby-Dick, leaving Melville to die in embittered poverty. Where the public was indifferent, reviewers were downright hostile — one famously advised Whitman to simply commit suicide. Middle-aged and penniless, the poet was friendless in an artless world — save for Emerson, who alone found Leaves of Grass to be full of “incomparable things said incomparably well” and declared it “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

Art from ‘Whitman Illuminated’ by Allen Crawford. Click image for more.

And yet Whitman didn’t give up writing, buoyed by the same mysterious force that has kept countless artists from throwing in the brush or pen or lyre when met with mockery or, worse, indifference. Pritchard considers his plight:

Walt Whitman had violated all the polite norms of his age, and Leaves of Grass was on a collision course with conventional literature. He had assaulted the institution of literature, had torn apart language and invented his own. In fact, Whitman laid the groundwork for much modernist writing from Kafka and Beckett to Borges.

With this, Pritchard arrives at the central inquiry, addressing writers with grounding yet elevating directness:

Why write? Why add to the tumult of the world? Your competition is fierce … from television, film, video, all social media, from the books of other writers living and dead. There currently exists in America an insidious numbness to literature. It is increasingly difficult to publish what is called “literary fiction”; even the best-seller market is not what it was. Stacks of books are returned to warehouses every day, even those blockbuster books publishing houses rely upon to finance more serious, less lucrative books. And how have we, as writers of that literature, become increasingly alienated from the soul of our culture? How have we become so nearly unnecessary? In other parts of the world, to be a writer is to place yourself in physical peril; your words might invite your own death. In other parts of the world, to be a writer is a heroic vocation, for which you may be imprisoned, tortured, “disappeared.” On the other hand, thousands of people may assemble to listen to you; as a poet you may be elected to the highest political office. In parts of this world, the power of language is still deeply connected to the soul of the people. Whitman’s work was initially met with indifference. By the time of his death he was regarded as a genius and a saint or a derelict and degenerate, depending on your stand. He was in no way dismissible.

In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Mark Strand’s memorable meditation on the artist’s task and Annie Dillard’s assertion that “writers serve as the memory of a people,” Pritchard adds:

We are in danger, I believe, of becoming accustomed to indifference, of being kept within writing workshops, conferences, and seminars where we write and read to a dwindling, closed circle of admirers. Nearly resigned to this peripheral fate, we are then tempted to take ourselves too seriously as far as ego recognition goes, in terms of literary prizes, grants, and publications in journals, yet not seriously enough as essential witnesses to our time.

But make no mistake — Pritchard’s is not a complaint but a clarion call, issued from the depths of a chest that cages a heart emanating uncontainable love for art and its spiritual rewards:

All great literature has an uncreeded and luminous theology behind it… Art [is] a form of active prayer.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘The Big Green Book’ by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

For writers, Pritchard argues — especially writers like Whitman, who stay true to their art in the face of repeated rejection — literature is a “sacred vocation”; there is no preciousness or pretense about its sanctity — only earnest and inexorable purposefulness. She exhorts writers to contact this invisible theology of their craft and elevate it to its height:

Many of the tenets of sainthood are also to be cultivated in the committed writer: selflessness, the death of the little self, purity of spirit leading to intensity of vision, a suspension of judgment in regard to your fellow human beings, an intimate acquaintance with ecstasy, sorrow, and revelation. Consider for a moment your work as analogous to intimate prayer in which you address God, and thereby divineness, in all matter.

[…]

We can begin with a metaphysic that recognizes a divine reality substantial to the world of things, lives, and minds, a psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine reality, an ethic placing humanity’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ground of all being. This is a universal, immemorial idea put forth by all religions, much folklore, and, uncounted times, by great artists. Whitman believed in the poet as agent of transcendent power; he was literal when he referred to his ecstasies, his illuminations.

This divine reality is of such a nature that it cannot be understood directly except by those who choose to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and rich in spirit. I am talking about mystics, saints, prophets, sages, enlightened ones, the Sufis of Islam, the gurus of India, the Catholic mystics, the Quakers’ tradition of inner light that so influenced Walt Whitman, the shamans, and medicine women and men of the Native American tribes. It is from these people and others that we learn of the detachment, charity, and humility essential to being immersed in the one divine reality. It is my assertion that as writers, we bring as many of these same qualities to bear in our work as we possibly can… This consciousness, supernatural consciousness, is what transformed Whitman from an ordinary hack writer to a composer of transcendent works.

The shining of this inner light onto the outer world, Pritchard asserts, is the task of the artist and the source of that mysterious force that carries the creative spirit forward, however glib the external reception of that art:

Enduring literature is suffused with compassion and love. And because we then act in the foolish, vain, mad, self-destructive, and sometimes criminal ways we do, all so characteristically human, this is much of what our stories and poems and novels concern themselves with. And just as the author labors in solitude but is never alone, so the artist, the author, is never poor.

Our one great Promethean labor is to reconcile humanity to itself and to reconnect, through language, humankind to the universe. If we begin with this ambition, then all the techniques, the seminars and workshops to promote confidence and craftsmanship make sense, are valid and valuable.

Art from ‘Whitman Illuminated’ by Allen Crawford. Click image for more.

This, indeed, is Pritchard’s most piercing point — however radiant that source of inner light, it cannot exist in isolation from the rest of the universe and must be emanated outward, shone in the direction of universal Truth. With an eye to iconic champions of truth-telling like Nadine Gordimer and Grace Paley, Pritchard addresses the writers of our own time:

If your commitment isn’t to truth, then you are in the wrong line of work. The poetics of silence still exist in America, but as writers I feel we have a responsibility to engage in history, in painful history, to be responsible witnesses to our own time. We are not separate; we are not an indulgent elite. We are not blind to suffering. We are, in fact, aware of our intimate relation to all other beings, and are thus accountable, deeply responsible. We must connect the personal with the political, the political with the spiritual. And though we can only work from our particular place, our given spot in the world, the particular can be a place of great power — the cry of the human heart and the yearning of the human spirit are, after all, universal.

She ends the piece like one might a commencement address — and if this were one, it would certainly be among the greatest commencement addresses of all time — urging writers:

What you have chosen is a profound vocation of healing, and your stories and poems are as sacraments, as visible blessings. Be at the heart and soul of your time, not resigned to what is safe or peripheral. Try to free yourself from attachment to results, to awards, publications, praise, to indifference, rejection, and misunderstanding. Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice — not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) — your authentic voice, supported by sacred reality, may be heard. May your words illuminate your vision, find you compassionate, attuned to human suffering and committed to its alleviation.

Complement A Solemn Pleasure, seriously pleasurable in its entirety, with Susan Sontag’s advice to writers, Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, and Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense wisdom on the craft, then revisit this evolving archive of great writers’ advice on writing.

BP

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