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Love, Pain, and Growth: The Forgotten Philosopher, Poet, and Pioneering LGBT Rights Activist Edward Carpenter on How to Survive the Agony of Falling in Love

“Self-consciousness is fatal to love. The self-conscious lover never ‘arrives.’”

Love, Pain, and Growth: The Forgotten Philosopher, Poet, and Pioneering LGBT Rights Activist Edward Carpenter on How to Survive the Agony of Falling in Love

“Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility,” James Baldwin reflected in his final interview. “An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other,” Adrienne Rich wrote in her superb meditation on the dignity of love. Both the danger and the responsibility of love lie in this refining of truth, which is at bottom a refining of self, for we are the sum total of the truths by which we live. In love — in the beauty and brutality of it — we can come completely undone. But we can also make and remake ourselves. From our formative attachments to our great loves, relationship is the seedbed of our becoming, the laboratory of our self-invention and reinvention.

Nearly a century before Rich and Baldwin, the English philosopher, poet, and early LGBT rights activist Edward Carpenter (August 29, 1844–June 28, 1929) examined this eternal question of how we grow and refine ourselves through the turbulent process of love in his uncommonly insightful 1912 book The Drama of Love and Death: A Study of Human Evolution and Transfiguration (public library).

A correspondent of Gandhi’s and a close friend of the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize, who also believed that “relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance” — Carpenter was one of the first Western thinkers to incorporate ancient Eastern philosophy into his moral universe. Entwined in mutual admiration with Walt Whitman, he went on to influence writers like D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster.

Carpenter composed his treatise on love two decades after he met his own great love, George Merrill, at the ripe age of fifty. They would spend the remainder of life together. Several months after Merrill’s death, Carpenter suffered a paralytic stroke. He died a year later and was buried next to his beloved.

Edward Carpenter, 1900

Our first experience of great love, Carpenter observes, always shocks and unsteadies us, for universal as the experience may be, it “cannot very well be described in advance, or put into terms of reasonable and well-conducted words.” (In that sense, perhaps, love shares a great deal with loss — we can never prepare for either, and each snatches the reins of our psyche to govern us on its own non-negotiable terms.) He paints the delicious and disorienting madness familiar to anyone who has ever fallen in love:

To feel — for instance — one’s whole internal economy in process of being melted out and removed to a distance, as it were into the keeping of some one else, is in itself a strange physiological or psychological experience… To lose consciousness never for a moment of the painful void so created — a void and a hunger which permeates all the arteries and organs, and every cranny of the body and the mind, and which seems to rob the organism of its strength, sometimes even to threaten it with ruin; to forego all interest in life, except in one thing — and that thing a person; to be aware, on the other hand, with strange elation and joy, that this new person or presence is infusing itself into one’s most intimate being — pervading all the channels, with promise [of] new life to every minutest cell, and causing 25 wonderful upheavals and transformations in tissue and fluids; to find in the mind all objects of perception to be changed and different from what they were before; and to be dimly conscious that the reason why they are so is because the background and constitution of the perceiving mind is itself changed — that, as it were, there is another person beholding them as well as oneself– all this defies description in words, or any possibility of exact statement beforehand; and yet the actual fact when it arrives is overwhelming in solid force and reality. If, besides, to the insurgence of these strange emotions we add — in the earliest stages of love at least — their bewildering fluctuation, from the deeps of vain longing and desire to the confident and ecstatic heights of expectation or fulfilment — the very joys of heaven and pangs of hell in swift and tantalizing alternation — the whole new experience is so extraordinary, so unrelated to ordinary work-a-day life, that to recite it is often only to raise a smile of dismissal of the subject — as it were into the land of dreams.

And yet, as we have indicated, the thing, whatever it is, is certainly by no means insubstantial and unreal. Nothing seems indeed more certain than that in this strange revolution in the relations of two people to each other — called “falling in love” — and behind all the illusions connected with it, something is happening, something very real, very important.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being.

Carpenter then makes an astute point that remains thoroughly countercultural in the context of our rather limited and limiting romantic mythologies: He argues that whatever the outcome of a great love, whatever its duration, it is still a triumph and a transformation to be celebrated.

In Figuring, reflecting on Margaret Fuller’s remark at the end of a significant love affair that “the union of two natures for a time is so great,” I wrote:

Are we to despair or rejoice over the fact that even the greatest loves exist only ‘for a time’? The time scales are elastic, contracting and expanding with the depth and magnitude of each love, but they are always finite — like books, like lives, like the universe itself. The triumph of love is in the courage and integrity with which we inhabit the transcendent transience that binds two people for the time it binds them, before letting go with equal courage and integrity.

I find such consonant consolation in Carpenter’s words:

The falling-in-love may be reciprocal, or it may be onesided; it may be successful, or it may be unsuccessful; it may be only a surface indication of other and very different events; but anyhow, deep down in the sub-conscious world, something is happening. It may be that two unseen and only dimly suspected existences are becoming really and permanently united; it may be that for a certain period, or (what perhaps comes to the same thing) that to a certain depth, they are transfusing and profoundly modifying each other; it may be that the mingling of elements and the transformation is taking place almost entirely in one person, and only to a slight degree or hardly at all in the other; yet in all these cases — beneath the illusions, the misapprehensions, the mirage and the maya, the surface satisfactions and the internal disappointments — something very real is happening, an important growth and evolution is taking place.

Noting that understanding this bewildering phenomenon, having even the slightest sense of “the points of the compass by which to steer over this exceedingly troubled sea,” is an operative imperative for any human being’s personal maturation, Carpenter adds:

Love is concerned with growth and evolution. It is — though as yet hardly acknowledged in that connection — a root-factor of ordinary human growth; for in so far as it is a hunger of the individual, the satisfaction of that hunger is necessary for individual growth — necessary (in its various forms) for physical, mental and spiritual nourishment, for health, mental energy, large affectional capacity, and so forth. And it is — though this too is not sufficiently acknowledged — a root-factor of the Evolution process. For in so far as it represents and gives rise to the union of two beings in a new form, it plainly represents a step in Evolution, and plainly suggests that the direction of that step will somehow depend upon the character and quality of the love concerned.

Illustration from An ABZ of Love

One of our greatest misunderstandings about love, and mispractices of it, is the tendency to focus on only those aspects of the other that rivet us most intensely — only the physical in an attraction dominated by lust, only the mental in an intellectual crush, only the emotional in a romantic infatuation. Cautioning against such fragmentary simulacra of love, Carpenter writes:

Love is a complex of human relations — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and so forth — all more or less necessary. And though seldom realized complete, it is felt, and feels itself, to be imperfect without some representation of every side. To limit it to the expression of one particular aspect would be totally inadequate, if not absurd and impossible. A merely physical love, for instance, on the sexual plane, is an absurdity, a dead letter — the enjoyment and fruition of the physical depending so much on the feeling expressed, that without the latter there is next to no satisfaction. At best there is merely a negative pleasure, a relief, arising from the solution of a previous state of corporeal tension. And in such cases intercourse is easily followed by depression and disappointment. For if there is not enough of the more subtle and durable elements in love, to remain after the physical has been satisfied, and to hold the two parties close together, why, the last state may well be worse than the first!

But equally absurd is any attempt to limit, for instance, to the mental plane, and to make love a matter of affectionate letter-writing merely, or of concordant views on political economy; or again, to confine it to the emotional plane, and the region of more or less sloppy sentiment; or to the spiritual, with a somewhat lofty contempt of the material — in which case it tends… to become too like trying to paint a picture without the use of pigments.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

He notes the necessary complementarity of these elements in a truly satisfying love — a simple and rather obvious point, yet one to which we so readily turn a willfully blind eye when governed by a strong attraction:

The physical is desirable, for many very obvious reasons — including corporeal needs and health, and perhaps especially because it acts in the way of removal of barriers, and so opens the path to other intimacies. The mental is desirable, to give form and outline to the relation; the emotional, to provide the something to be expressed; and the spiritual to give permanence and absolute solidity to the whole structure.

More than a century before the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh asserted that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” Carpenter argues that love is not merely an internal state — it is also an outward practice, to be mastered and refined by engaging every aspect of oneself and the beloved:

Love has its two sides — its instantaneous inner side, and its complex outer side of innumerable detail. In consciousness it tends to appear in a flash — simple, unique, and unchangeable; but in experience it has to be worked out with much labor. All the elements have to come into operation, and to contribute their respective quota to the total result… Love searches the heart, drags every element of the inner nature forward from its lurking-place, gives it definition and shape, and somehow insists on it being represented.

If this holistic satisfaction of the soul is the one leg on which love stands, time is the other. In a sentiment that calls to mind John Steinbeck’s beautiful letter of advice to his lovestruck teenage son — “If it is right, it happens,” the Nobel laureate wrote. “The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.” — Carpenter urges:

For any big relationship plenty of time has to be allowed. Whichever side of the nature — mental, emotional, physical, and so forth — may have happened to take the lead, it must not and cannot monopolize the affair. It must drag the other sides in and give them their place. And this means time, and temporary bewilderment and confusion.

Art by Jennifer Orkin Lewis from Love Found: 50 Classic Poems of Desire, Longing, and Devotion

A century before the Lebanese-American poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran contemplated the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, Carpenter adds:

For the complete action of that creative and organizing force plentiful time must be given; and the two lovers must possess their souls in patience till it has had its full and perfect work… A long foreground of approach, time and tact, diffusion of magnetism, mergence in one another, suffering, and even pain — all these must be expected and allowed for — though the best after all, in this as in other things, is often the unexpected and the unprepared.

A century earlier, the philosopher William Godwin had written in his stunning love letters to the philosopher and feminism founding mother Mary Wollstonecraft as the two were forging the first true marriage of equals in the history of letters: “We love… to multiply our consciousness… even at the hazard… of opening new avenues for pain and misery to attack us.” Carpenter examines this most bewildering aspect of the experience — the curious interdependence between love and pain, which seems to be an inevitable function of the growth process love effects:

Love, if worth anything, seems to demand pain and strain in order to prove itself, and is not satisfied with an easy attainment. How indeed should one know the great heights except by the rocks and escarpments? And pain often in some strange way seems to be the measure of love — the measure by which we are assured that love is true and real; and so (which is one of the mysteries) it becomes transformed into a great joy.

[…]

Pain and suffering… have something surely to do with the inner realities of the affair, with the moulding or hammering or welding process whereby union is effected and, in some sense, a new being created. It seems as if when two naked souls approach, or come anywhere near contact with each other, the one inevitably burns or scorches the other. The intense chemistry of the psychic elements produces something like an actual flame. A fresh combination is entered into, profound transformations are effected, strange forces liberated, and a new personality perhaps created; and the accomplishment and evidence of the whole process is by no means only joy, but agony also, even as childbirth is.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

In a passage evocative of Charlotte Brontë’s lament, penned in the grip of an unrequited love, that “when one does not complain… one pays for outward calm with an almost unbearable inner struggle,” Carpenter counsels the love-anguished:

All one can reasonably do is to endure. It is no good making a fuss. In affairs of the heart what we call suffering corresponds to what we call labor or effort in affairs of the body. When you put your shoulder to the cart-wheel you feel the pain and pressure of the effort, but that assures you that you are exercising a force, that something is being done; so suffering of the heart assures you that something is being done in that other and less tangible world. To scold and scowl and blame your loved one is the stupidest thing you can do. And worse than stupid, it is useless. For it can only alienate. Probably that other one is suffering as well as you — possibly more than you, possibly a good deal less. What does it matter? The suffering is there and must be borne; the work, whatever it is, is being done; the transformation is being effected. Do you want your beloved to suffer instead of you, or simply because you are suffering? Or is it Pity you desire rather than Love.

As useless as the protesting and complaining, Carpenter argues, is any effort to put into words the density and magnitude of one’s feelings — an experience this vast must only be expressed in the language of life itself. More than half a century before the German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm published his influential book The Art of Loving, Carpenter writes:

Love is an art… As no mere talk can convey the meaning of a piece of music or a beautiful poem, so no verbal declaration can come anywhere near expressing what the lover wants to say. And for one very good and sufficient reason (among others) — namely, that he does not know himself! Under these circumstances to say anything is almost certainly to say something misleading or false. And the decent lover knows this and holds his tongue. To talk about your devotion is to kill it — moreover, it is to render it banal and suspect in the eyes of your beloved.

Nevertheless though he cannot describe or explain what he wants to say, the lover can feel it — is feeling it all the time; and this feeling, like other feelings, he can express by indirections — by symbols, by actions, by the alphabet of deed and gesture, and all the hieroglyphics of Life and Art.

[…]

Love can only say what it wants by the language of life, action, song, sacrifice, ravishment, death, and the great panorama of creation.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón.

Carpenter insists that in the experience of love, however imperfect and tortuous, we learn more about ourselves and the world than any didactic form can teach us:

Love — even rude and rampant and outrageous love — does more for the moralizing of poor humanity than a hundred thousand Sunday schools. It cleans the little human soul from the clustered lies in which it has nested itself — from the petty conceits and deceits and cowardices and covert meannesses.

In fact, he argues, the teachings of our civilization have been detrimental to our mastery of love. In a sentiment that calls to mind E.E. Cummings’s assertion that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” Carpenter writes of the art of love:

Self-consciousness is fatal to love. The self-conscious lover never ‘arrives.’ … And so too the whole modern period of commercial civilization and Christianity has been fatal to love… They have bred the self-regarding consciousness in the highest degree; and so — though they may have had their uses and their parts to play in the history of mankind, they have been fatal to the communal spirit in society, and they have been fatal to the glad expression of the soul in private life.

Self-consciousness is fatal to love, which is the true expression of the soul.

In the remainder of The Drama of Love and Death, Carpenter goes on to examine what it takes to make love last over the long arc of a shared life, unwearied by friction and unblunted by habit. Complement it with Hannah Arendt on how to love despite the fundamental fear of loss, Rilke on the difficult art of giving space in love, and Jane Welsh Carlyle on loving vs. being in love, then revisit Carpenter’s contemporary Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage.

BP

How to Rewire Your Broken Behavioral Patterns: Shakespeare’s Advice on Acquiring Better Habits

“Assume a virtue, if you have it not.”

How to Rewire Your Broken Behavioral Patterns: Shakespeare’s Advice on Acquiring Better Habits

“The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us,” Mary Oliver wrote in contemplating how habit gives shape to our inner lives. “Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar,” William James asserted a century earlier in his foundational treatise on the psychology of habit. “Good habits, imperceptibly fixed, are far preferable to the precepts of reason,” the pioneering political philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft insisted yet another century earlier in her Blake-illustrated children’s book of moral education. But if our imperceptibly fixed habits incline more toward vice more toward virtue, what does it take to reconfigure these scarred and scarring patterns?

That is what William Shakespeare — another seer of elemental truth and keen observer of human psychology — examined long before Oliver, James, and Wollstonecraft, in Hamlet. In eleven exquisitely insightful lines of blank verse, he frames the central premise of what would come to be known, a dozen generations later, as cognitive behavioral therapy.

Depiction of William Shakespeare from an 1889 art edition of his comedies, tragedies, histories, and sonnets.

In Act III, Scene 4 — a passage quoted in founding father and mental health reformer Benjamin Rush’s landmark speech on the influence of physical habits upon mental health — Hamlet counsels his mother, Gertrude:

Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, Custom, who all sense doth eat
Of habits evil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence; the next more easy:
For use can almost change the stamp of nature,
And master even the devil, or throw him out,
With wondrous potency.

Couple with Nicole Krauss’s beautiful letter to Van Gogh across space and time about how to break the loop of our destructive patterns, then revisit James Baldwin on the source of Shakespeare’s genius of insight and Meghan O’Rourke on how Shakespeare can shepherd us through our grief and despair.

BP

Ursula K. Le Guin on Redeeming the Imagination from the Commodification of Creativity and How Storytelling Teaches Us to Assemble Ourselves

“Literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we’re visiting, life.”

Ursula K. Le Guin on Redeeming the Imagination from the Commodification of Creativity and How Storytelling Teaches Us to Assemble Ourselves

“The imagination,” wrote the trailblazing philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft in a 1794 letter, “is the true fire, stolen from heaven, to animate this cold creature of clay, producing all those fine sympathies that lead to rapture, rendering men social by expanding their hearts, instead of leaving them leisure to calculate how many comforts society affords.” And yet somehow, in the centuries since, we have increasingly lost sight of the imagination’s rapturous rewards and come to see it as a commodity of what we now call “the creative industry” — something calculable and efficient, useful in maximizing society’s comforts and business’s profits. Much as today’s archetypal Silicon Valley characters are pragmatizing Eastern philosophy and ancient meditation practices as tools for “optimizing” their “performance,” the imagination — that pinnacle of our cognitive evolution and seedbed of our core humanity — is being co-opted for purposes that have little to do with animating our sympathies and expanding our hearts.

More than two centuries after Wollstonecraft, Ursula K. Le Guin, another woman of extraordinary intellect and imaginative prowess, sets out to redeem the imagination from the grip of consumerist commodification in a magnificent 2002 lecture titled “Operating Instructions,” later included in Le Guin’s altogether fantastic nonfiction collection Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week (public library).

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Le Guin writes:

In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples. Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions. I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.

I hear voices agreeing with me. “Yes, yes!” they cry. “The creative imagination is a tremendous plus in business! We value creativity, we reward it!” In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. This reduction has gone on so long that the word creative can hardly be degraded further. I don’t use it any more, yielding it to capitalists and academics to abuse as they like. But they can’t have imagination.

Imagination is not a means of making money. It has no place in the vocabulary of profit-making. It is not a weapon, though all weapons originate from it, and their use, or non-use, depends on it, as with all tools and their uses. The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human.

Le Guin observes that like any tool, the imagination requires that we first learn how to use it — or, rather, that we unlearn how to squander it. Storytelling, she argues, is the sandbox in which we learn to use the imagination:

Children have imagination to start with, as they have body, intellect, the capacity for language: things essential to their humanity, things they need to learn how to use, how to use well. Such teaching, training, and practice should begin in infancy and go on throughout life. Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive.

When children are taught to hear and learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs.

Nothing else does quite as much for most people, not even the other arts. We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón

Virginia Woolf considered memory the seamstress that threads our lives together, but it is story — our inner storytelling — that orders memory into a coherent thread; it is story that, as Susan Sontag memorably observed, can “reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.” Our life-paths are paved with story — stretching back, the stories we tell ourselves about what happened to us, why it did, and how it made us who we are; stretching forward, the stories we tell ourselves about what is possible, what we want to achieve, and who we want to become.

In consonance with Rebecca West’s assertion that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity… a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” Le Guin considers this essential function of story in sculpting our ability to be at home in the world and its formative role in our becoming:

Through story, every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people.

[…]

A child who doesn’t know where the center is — where home is, what home is — that child is in a very bad way.

Home isn’t Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn’t where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary.

Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it—whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.

All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.

Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova for ‘The Jacket’ by Kirsten Hall. Click image for more.

But that self-invention, Le Guin cautions, is not a solitary act — it takes place at the communal campfire where our essential stories of being are co-created and told. Building on the ideas in her exquisite earlier meditation on telling and listening, she writes:

Human beings have always joined in groups to imagine how best to live and help one another carry out the plan. The essential function of human community is to arrive at some agreement on what we need, what life ought to be, what we want our children to learn, and then to collaborate in learning and teaching so that we and they can go on the way we think is the right way.

[…]

Nobody can do anything very much, really, alone.

What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow some freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen.

Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.

Reading is a means of listening.

Seven decades after Hermann Hesse made his beautiful case for why we read and always will, however technology may evolve, Le Guin adds:

The technology is not what matters. Words are what matter. The sharing of words. The activation of imagination through the reading of words.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we’re visiting, life.

Words Are My Matter is a tremendous read in its totality, exploring questions of art, storytelling, gender, freedom, dignity, and what happens when we go to sleep. Complement this particular portion with William Blake’s searing defense of the imagination and Ada Lovelace on its two core faculties, then revisit Le Guin on being a “man,” the sacredness of public libraries, imaginative storytelling as a force of freedom, what beauty really means, where good ideas come from, and writing as falling in love.

BP

The Dinner Party: Artist Judy Chicago’s Iconic Antidote to the Erasure of Women in the History of Creative Culture

From Hypatia to Susan B. Anthony to Virginia Woolf, a sacrament and an insurrection restoring women’s place in history.

“I spent the morning in needle-work,” pioneering astronomer Caroline Herschel wrote in her journal on an unexceptional July morning in 1786. To persuade her conservative mother to let her leave home and join her brother in his astronomical endeavors, Herschel knitted a year’s worth of stockings for the family. But even as this tiny five-foot woman was gazing at the cosmos by night through her twenty-foot Newtonian telescope, making comet discoveries that paved the way for women in science, by day she remained consistently engaged in craftwork. Just before her seventy-eighth birthday, Herschel became the first woman awarded the prestigious Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. That week, her nephew, the astronomer John Herschel, wrote to congratulate her on the accolade and offered in the same breath: “My mother … begs me to thank you for your kind and beautiful present of needlework (which even I could admire).”

At the age of eighty-one, beloved artist Louise Bourgeois — who came from a long lineage of craftspeople — reflected on her lifelong fascination with “the magic and power of the needle” in her diary: “The needle is used to repair the damage. It’s a claim to forgiveness. It is never aggressive, it’s not a pin.”

Hand-embroidered runner for Caroline Herschel by Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party.
Hand-embroidered runner for Caroline Herschel (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

That redemptive and rebellious aspect of needlework is a centerpiece of The Dinner Party (public library) — the iconic 1979 project by artist Judy Chicago (b. July 20, 1939), celebrating women’s heritage in creative culture.

At once a sacrament and an insurrection, the project was born out of and into the women’s empowerment movement of the 1970s. But any hubristic impulse we may have had, until recently, to dismiss its central point as no longer relevant or needed has been swiftly disarmed by the political situation of our day — a situation that is foisting upon us the unwanted, discomfiting awareness that misogyny and other forms of bigotry are alive and well, that we live in a society not nearly as woke as we may have thought, and that somehow we must break bread with people who have a very different view of the present and of the tapestry of former presents we call history.

Chicago’s words from decades ago stun with their relevance today:

Women had always made a significant contribution to the development of human civilization, but these were consistently ignored, denied, or trivialized.

Caroline Herschel plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Caroline Herschel plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

The monumental installation, every meticulous detail of which is painstakingly crafted by hand, features an open triangular table, each side 46 ½ feet long, covered with fine white cloths embroidered in gold. Thirty-nine place settings grace the table, thirteen per side — a number of deliberate duality, referring to both the thirteen apostles at the Last Supper and the number of witches in a coven, contrasting the holiness of maleness with the demonization of women.

At the center of each place setting is an exquisite hand-painted fourteen-inch china plate, representing a particular period in Western civilization and a particular woman — artist, writer, scientist, saint, mythic figure — who made a powerful mark on that period. Among the women are Susan B. Anthony, Caroline Herschel, Georgia O’Keeffe, Hypatia of Alexandria, Emily Dickinson, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Virginia Woolf. Painted onto each plate is the vibrant, symbolically stylized vulva of each woman.

Mary Wollstonecraft plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Mary Wollstonecraft plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Georgia O'Keeffe plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Georgia O’Keeffe plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hrosvitha plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hrotsvitha plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Susan B. Anthony plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Susan B. Anthony plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

Surrounding each plate are a golden chalice, lustered ceramic flatware, and a gold-embroidered napkin, resting upon a generous runner embroidered in the needlework style specific to the period and region in which the respective woman lived.

Embroidery detail: illuminated capital from Virginia Woolf runner (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Embroidery detail: illuminated capital from Virginia Woolf runner (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Virginia Woolf plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Virginia Woolf plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Elizabeth Blackwell plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Elizabeth Blackwell plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Emily Dickinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Emily Dickinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Amazon plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Amazon plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Anne Hutchinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Anne Hutchinson plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Ishtar plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Ishtar plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Sappho plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Sappho plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hypatia plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Hypatia plate (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

The table itself stands on an enormous triangular floor covered in 2,300 handcrafted ceramic tiles, inscribed in gold luster with the names of 999 notable women grouped around the women represented at the table — a constellation of influences and affiliations celebrating the long and interwoven history of women’s accomplishment.

Table overview (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979, Brooklyn Museum)
Table overview (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979, Brooklyn Museum)

Chicago details the extraordinary craftsmaship process that brought the project to life in Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework (public library) — from her decision to learn china-painting after becoming enchanted by the quality of color in an antique porcelain plate to her assembly of a diverse team of craftswomen collaborators to learning about the rich cultural history of needlework and ceramics.

Chicago writes:

Studying china-painting exposed me, for the first time, to the world of women’s traditional arts. I learned a great deal from the women with whom I trained — not only about china-painting, but also about a very different way of being an artist. Most china-painters see teaching as part of their work. Their teaching takes a number of forms; they give classes and seminars, but most importantly, at least for me, they teach by example. During exhibitions, they sit in their booths and paint while crowds of people watch them. This act and the public response to it intrigued me; the china-painters’ activity was in stark contrast with the isolated and private act of creation associated with twentieth-century “high art.”

In an homage to these women and their countercultural approach to art, Chicago decided to do same with The Dinner Party — a project that began as a solo endeavor, but after a year and a half of work, made it clear that completion would require a studio of skilled workers.

Woven banners hanging at the entry of the installation, greeting visitors (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)
Woven banners hanging at the entry of the installation, greeting visitors (Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979)

Four years elapsed between the time Chicago enlisted the help of her team of craftswomen and the time The Dinner Party was completed and exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 1979. Once a week, the bustling rhythm of labor at the studio was halted for an evening of discussion, lectures, and a potluck dinner. The materials and fabrication of the finished project cost more than $250,000 — close to $875,000 in today’s money.

Chicago reflects on the wonderfully emboldening grassroots spirit of the project — the same spirit in which the vast majority of art in human history was made:

We worked as I had worked for fifteen years: without knowing where the money would come from. I’d sell a drawing, we’d get a small grant, someone would make a donation — and we’d have enough money for another month or two.

The installation itself, as powerful today as it was four decades ago and at least as culturally necessary, is currently housed at the Brooklyn Museum and lives on, alongside essays detailing its creative process and exploring its cultural significance, in the commemorative volume The Dinner Party.

BP

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