Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “sontag harnessed”

Susan Sontag on the Creative Purpose of Boredom

“Most of the interesting art of our time is boring.”

Artist Maira Kalman believes that it’s very important not to be bored for too long. And yet the history of boredom shows that boredom has an essential function in the history of art.

From the recently released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, censorship, and aphorisms, and her illustrated insights on love — comes a meditation on the creative purpose of boredom as a form of attention:

Function of boredom. Good + bad

[Arthur] Schopenhauer the first imp[ortant] writer to talk about boredom (in his Essays) — ranks it with “pain” as one of the twin evils of life (pain for have-nots, boredom for haves— it’s a question of affluence).  

People say “it’s boring” — as if that were a final standard of appeal, and no work of art had the right to bore us.  

But most of the interesting art of our time is boring. Jasper Johns is boring. Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring. Etc. Etc.  

Maybe art has to be boring, now. (Which obviously doesn’t mean that boring art is necessarily good — obviously.)  

We should not expect art to entertain or divert any more. At least, not high art.  

Boredom is a function of attention. We are learning new modes of attention — say, favoring the ear more than the eye— but so long as we work within the old attention-frame we find X boring … e.g. listening for sense rather than sound (being too message-oriented). Possibly after repetition of the same single phrase or level of language or image for a long while — in a given written text or piece of music or film, if we become bored, we should ask if we are operating in the right frame of attention. Or — maybe we are operating in one right frame, where we should be operating in two simultaneously, thus halving the load on each (as sense and sound).

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 is the sequel to Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, which gave us Sontag’s rules and duties for being 24, her 10 guidelines for raising a child, and her love, death, art and freedom.

BP

Susan Sontag on Life, Death, Art, and Freedom

“Oh, where is the out-going freedom, the instrumental freedom from, freedom that is not this enormous possession of one’s own heart which is death?”

The first installment of Susan Sontag’s published diaries, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library), has already given us the celebrated thinker’s list of “rules + duties for being 24” and her 10 rules for raising a child. On February 13, 1951, shortly after Sontag’s 18th birthday, she jotted down some fragmented notes on her current reading — War and Peace, Caudewll, a biography of Dostoyevsky — then turned the existential lens inwards, as one inevitably, and often reluctantly, does around personal milestones, adding to other cultural icons’ meditations on the meaning of life:

From Rilke:

… the great question-dynasty: … if we are continually inadequate in love, uncertain in decision, + impotent in the face of death, how is it possible to exist?’

Yet we do exist, + affirm that. We affirm the life of lust. Yet there is more. One flees not from one’s real nature which is animal, id, to a self-torturing externally imposed conscience, super-ego, as Freud would have it– but the reverse, as Kierkegaard says. Our ethical sensitivity is what is natural to man + we flee from it to the beast; which is merely to say that I reject weak, manipulative, despairing lust, I am not a beast, I will not to be a futilitarian. I believe in more than the personal epic with the hero-thread, in more than my own life: above multiple spuriousness + despair, there is freedom + transcendence. One can know worlds one has not experienced, choose a response to life that has never been offered, create an inwardness utterly strong + fruitful.  

But how, when one can, to instrument the fact of wholeness + love? One must attempt more than the surety of reflexive nurturing. If ‘life is a hollow form, a negative mold, all the grooves + indentations of which are agony, disconsolations + the most painful insights, then the casting from this … is happiness, assent– most perfect + most certain bliss.’ But how protected + resolved one would have to be! And this leads one outside art to the dying, the madness– oh, where is the out-going freedom, the instrumental freedom from, freedom that is not this enormous possession of one’s own heart which is death?

More of Sontag’s meditations on life — including her thoughts on love, writing, censorship, and aphorisms — are collected in the second volume of her diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980.

BP

Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, Susan Sontag, Harper Lee, and Other Literary Greats on Censorship

A century of conviction celebrating the freedom to read.

Some history’s most celebrated works of literature have, at various times and in various societies, been banned — from Arabian Nights to Ulysses to, even, Anaïs Nin’s diaries, to name but a fraction. To mark Banned Books Week 2012, I’ll be featuring excerpts from once-banned books on Literary Jukebox over the coming days. But, today, dive into an omnibus of meditations on and responses to censorship from a selection of literary heroes from the past century.

Kurt Vonnegut writes in his almost-memoir, A Man Without a Country (public library):

And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.

And yet libraries have had a track record for exercising censorship themselves. When Virginia’s Hanover County School Board removed all copies the Harper Lee classic To Kill a Mockingbird (public library) in 1966 on the grounds that it was “immoral,” Lee wrote the following letter to the editor of The Richmond News Leader, found in Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird:

Monroeville, Alabama
January, 1966

Editor, The News Leader:

Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.

Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that “To Kill a Mockingbird” spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is “immoral” has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.

I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.

Harper Lee

In 1985, when the Public Library in Nijmegen decided to remove Charles Bukowski’s Tales of Ordinary Madness (public library) after a complaint from a reader, declaring it “very sadistic, occasionally fascist and discriminatory against certain groups (including homosexuals),” a local journalist reached out to the author for a response. Bukowski immediately fired off an altogether brilliant letter, which included a direct shot at the essence of censorship:

Censorship is the tool of those who have the need to hide actualities from themselves and from others. Their fear is only their inability to face what is real, and I can’t vent any anger against them. I only feel this appalling sadness. Somewhere, in their upbringing, they were shielded against the total facts of our existence. They were only taught to look one way when many ways exist.

In a poignant and heated exchange with the editor of Esquire in 1975, E. B. White considers media sponsorship as a form of censorship that hinders the free press, and argues:

For a citizen in our free society, it is an enormous privilege and a wonderful protection to have access to hundreds of periodicals, each peddling its own belief. There is safety in numbers: the papers expose each other’s follies and peccadillos, correct each other’s mistakes, and cancel out each other’s biases. The reader is free to range around in the whole editorial bouillabaisse and explore it for the one clam that matters — the truth.

In September of 1965, Susan Sontag wrote in her diary, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980:

I am against censorship. In all forms. Not just for the right of masterpieces — high art — to be scandalous.

But what about pornography (commercial)?
Find the wider context:
notion of voluptuousness à la Bataille?
But what about children? Not even for them? Horror comics, etc.
Why forbid them comics when they can read worse things in the newspapers any day. Napalm bombing in Vietnam, etc.

A just/ discriminating censorship is impossible.

Lemony Snicket writes in The Penultimate Peril (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 12) (public library):

The burning of a book is a sad, sad sight, for even though a book is nothing but ink and paper, it feels as if the ideas contained in the book are disappearing as the pages turn to ashes and the cover and binding — which is the term for the stitching and glue that holds the pages together — blacken and curl as the flames do their wicked work. When someone is burning a book, they are showing utter contempt for all of the thinking that produced its ideas, all of the labor that went into its words and sentences, and all of the trouble that befell the author.

In Mrs. Warren’s Profession (public library), George Bernard Shaw puts it in the most deterministic terms possible:

All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.

In June of 1945, Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary:

The important task of literature is to free man, not to censor him, and that is why Puritanism was the most destructive and evil force which ever oppressed people and their literature: it created hypocrisy, perversion, fears, sterility.

Ray Bradbury writes in Fahrenheit 451 (public library):

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

When a New Hampshire high school banned John Irving’s “inappropriate” The Hotel New Hampshire (public library), Irving sent an indignant letter to the head school librarian, ending with the following parenthetical:

Real readers finish books, and then judge them; most people who propose banning a book haven’t finished it. In fact, no one who actually banned Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” even read it.

In fact, Salman Rushdie himself recently reflected on censorship in The New Yorker:

The creative act requires not only freedom but also this assumption of freedom. If the creative artist worries if he will still be free tomorrow, then he will not be free today.

For a weeklong celebration of the freedom to read, tune into Literary Jukebox for some favorite excerpts from censored books, thematically paired with music.

Public domain images courtesy of Flickr Commons

BP

How to Raise a Child: 10 Rules from Young Susan Sontag

Be consistent. Always speak well of his pop. Do not discourage childish fantasies.

The second volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, gave us the celebrated author and thinker’s insights on love, writing, censorship, and aphorisms. However, it was in the first installment, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (public library), that the beloved public intellectual coalesces out of a shaky young woman grappling with her place in relation to the world and herself — as we’ve already seen in her 1957 list of “rules + duties for being 24”.

Two years later, in September of 1959, Sontag lists her 10 rules for raising a child. (Their object, Sontag’s son David Rieff, edited this very volume.) Underpinning them is a subtle but palpable reverence for the precious gift of “childishness” — something Ted Hughes has spoken to with such stirring eloquence.

  1. Be consistent.
  2. Don’t speak about him to others (e.g., tell funny things) in his presence. (Don’t make him self-conscious.)
  3. Don’t praise him for something I wouldn’t always accept as good.
  4. Don’t reprimand him harshly for something he’s been allowed to do.
  5. Daily routine: eating, homework, bath, teeth, room, story, bed.
  6. Don’t allow him to monopolize me when I am with other people.
  7. Always speak well of his pop. (No faces, sighs, impatience, etc.)
  8. Do not discourage childish fantasies.
  9. Make him aware that there is a grown-up world that’s none of his business.
  10. Don’t assume that what I don’t like to do (bath, hairwash) he won’t like either.

Image via The Telegraph

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.