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MLK’s Lost Lectures on Technology, Alienation, Activism, and the Three Ways of Resisting the System

“There has always been a force struggling to respect higher values. None of the current evils rose without resistance, nor have they persisted without opposition.”

MLK’s Lost Lectures on Technology, Alienation, Activism, and the Three Ways of Resisting the System

“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic,” Maya Angelou observed in her finest interview, “because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”

A decade earlier, in his 1967 Massey Lectures, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968) examined the forces that dispirit the young into cynicism — that most puerile form of impatience — by mapping the three primary regions of reaction and resistance in the landscape of social change.

Launched in 1961 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and named after Vincent Massey — the first Canadian-born person to serve as governor general of Canada, who had spearheaded a royal commission for Canadian arts, letters, and sciences, producing the landmark Massey Report that led to the establishment of the National Library of Canada — the annual Massey Lectures invited a prominent scholar to deliver five half-hour talks along the vector of their passion and purpose, which were then broadcast on public radio each Thursday evening. Eventually, the CBC began publishing the lectures in book form. But some of the earliest ones, including the five Dr. King delivered in the final months of his life, remained unprinted for decades, until they were finally released in 2007 as The Lost Massey Lectures: Recovered Classics from Five Great Thinkers (public library).

Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964 (Photograph by Dick DeMarsico. Library of Congress.)

In his third lecture, titled “Youth and Social Action,” Dr. King presents a taxonomy of the three types of people into which the era’s youth had been “splintered” — his own superb word-choice — by the era’s social forces.

More than half a century hence, it is a useful exercise, temporally sobering and culturally calibrating, to consider what the equivalents of these archetypes might be in our present time, in our present language. Our language might have changed dramatically — Dr. King was writing in the epoch before the invention of women, when “man” denoted all of humanity; an epoch when the acronym BIPOC would have drawn a blank stare at best and “Negro” was his term of choice — but we are still living with the underlying complexities which language always seeks to clarify and contain. The social forces splintering the present generation of youth have changed, and they have not changed — an eternal echo of Zadie Smith’s observation that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

With the caveat that the three principal groups sometimes overlap, Dr. King describes the first:

The largest group of young people is struggling to adapt itself to the prevailing values of society. Without much enthusiasm, they accept the system of government, the economic relations, the property system, and the social stratifications both engender. But even so, they are a profoundly troubled group, and are harsh critics of the status quo.

It is easy to picture the young of our own time, roiling with the same restless ambivalence, the same resentful submission to the system, perched on their standing desks across the glassy campuses of Google and Facebook, drinking corporate kombucha on tap while composing impassioned tweets against police brutality, homophobia, and climate change, tender with the terror of being a person in the world, a budding person in a world that feels too immense and immovable. Dr. King captures this ambivalence with his characteristic compassionate curiosity:

In this largest group, social attitudes are not congealed or determined; they are fluid and searching.

Illustration from How to Be a Nonconformist — a high school girl’s 1968 satire of conformity-culture.

He contrasts the first group with the second — those in outright and outspoken rejection of the status quo:

The radicals… range from moderate to extreme in the degree to which they want to alter the social system. All of them agree that only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather than in men or in faulty operation. These are a new breed of radicals.

This claim of novelty is somewhat ahistorical, or perhaps too narrowly American, for Dr. King’s perceptive description of that generation’s spirit is an equally apt description of the spirit of the generation that fueled the French Revolution two centuries earlier, an ocean apart. He sketches the radicals of the 1960s:

Very few adhere to any established ideology; some borrow from old doctrines of revolution; but practically all of them suspend judgment on what the form of a new society must be. They are in serious revolt against old values and have not yet concretely formulated the new ones. They are not repeating previous revolutionary doctrines; most of them have not even read the revolutionary classics. Ironically, their rebelliousness comes from having been frustrated in seeking change within the framework of the existing society. They tried to build racial equality, and met tenacious and vivacious opposition. They worked to end the Vietnam War, and experienced futility. So they seek a fresh start with new rules in a new order.

In a sentiment that fully captures today’s social media — that ever-protruding, ever-teetering platform for standing against rather than for things, a place increasingly unsatisfying and increasingly evocative of Bertrand Russell’s century-old observation that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it” — Dr. King adds of these so-called radicals:

It is fair to say, though, that at present they know what they don’t want rather than what they do want.

Art by Ben Shahn from On Nonconformity, 1956.

Identifying the third group as the era’s “hippies” — a group the contemporary equivalent of which is especially interesting to identify and locate in our present generational landscape — he writes:

The hippies are not only colorful but complex; and in many respects their extreme conduct illuminates the negative effect of society’s evils on sensitive young people. While there are variations, those who identify with this group have a common philosophy.

They are struggling to disengage from society as their expression of their rejection of it. They disavow responsibility to organized society. Unlike the radicals, they are not seeking change, but flight. When occasionally they merge with a peace demonstration, it is not to better the political world, but to give expression to their own world. The hard-core hippy is a remarkable contradiction. He uses drugs to turn inward, away from reality, to find peace and security. Yet he advocates love as the highest human value — love, which can exist only in communication between people, and not in the total isolation of the individual.

Art by Corinna Luyken from The Tree in Me.

In an especially insightful comment that applies to so many fleeting but vital and vitalizing movements across the sweep of history, he adds:

The importance of the hippies is not in their unconventional behavior, but in the fact that some hundreds of thousands of young people, in turning to a flight form reality, are expressing a profoundly discrediting judgment on the society they emerge from.

He proffers a prediction substantiated by history, contouring the possible future of some of our own social movements when they have become another era’s past:

It seems to me that hippies will not last long as a mass group. They cannot survive because there is no solution in escape. Some of them may persist by solidifying into a secular religious sect: their movement already has many such characteristics. We might see some of them establish utopian colonies, like the 17th and 18th century communities established by sects that profoundly opposed the existing order and its values. Those communities did not survive. But they were important to their contemporaries because their dream of social justice and human value continues as a dream of mankind.

Art by Nahid Kazemi from Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon by JonArno Lawson.

The most interesting challenge of applying Dr. King’s taxonomy to our own time is that of seeing beyond the surface expressions that shimmer with the illusion of contrast, peering into the deeper similitudes between the attitudes of the past and those of the present. Escapism doesn’t always look like escapism — escapism can masquerade as pseudo-engagement. A generation’s drug of choice might be a psychoactive molecule, or it might be an intoxicating self-righteousness masquerading as wakefulness to difference. Technology might give the illusion of participatory action in democracy while effecting alienation at the deepest stratum of the soul — something especially true of the vast majority of pseudo-political uses of our so-called social media. Dr. King writes:

Nothing in our glittering technology can raise man to new heights, because material grown has been made an end in itself, and, in the absence of moral purpose, man himself becomes smaller as the works of man become bigger.

Another distortion of the technological revolution is that instead of strengthening democracy… it has helped to eviscerate it. Gargantuan industry and government, woven into an intricate computerized mechanism, leaves the person outside… When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied. When culture is degraded and vulgarity enthroned, when the social system does not build security but induces peril, inexorably the individual is impelled to pull away from a soulless society. This process produces alienation — perhaps the most pervasive and insidious development in contemporary society… Alienation should be foreign to the young. Growth requires connection and trust. Alienation is a form of living death. It is the acid of despair that dissolves society.

In consonance with the animating spirit of this here labor of love, he insists upon the importance of mining the collective record of experience we call history “for positive ingredients which have been there, but in relative obscurity.” Echoing Whitman’s gentle long-ago exhortation that “the past, the future, majesty, love — if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them,” Dr. King adds:

Against the exaltation of technology, there has always been a force struggling to respect higher values. None of the current evils rose without resistance, nor have they persisted without opposition.

Complement with Seamus Heaney’s vivifying advice to the young, Kierkegaard on nonconformity and the power of the minority, and Richard Powers’s antidote to cynicisms, then revisit Dr. King on the six pillars of resistance to the status quo.

BP

Probable Impossibilities: Physicist Alan Lightman on Beginnings, Endings, and What Makes Life Worth Living

How our cosmic improbability confers dignity and meaning upon our shared existence.

Probable Impossibilities: Physicist Alan Lightman on Beginnings, Endings, and What Makes Life Worth Living

“What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious,” Lisel Mueller, who lived to nearly 100, wrote in her gorgeous poem “Immortality” a century and a half after a young artist pointed the world’s largest telescope at the cosmos to capture the first surviving photograph of the Moon and the first-ever photograph of a star: Vega — an emissary of spacetime, reaching its rays across twenty-five lightyears to imprint the photographic plate with a image of the star as it had been twenty-five years earlier, immortalizing a moment already long gone.

And yet in a cosmological sense, what exists is precious not because it will one day be lost but because it has overcome the staggering odds of never having existed at all: Within the fraction of matter in the universe that is not dark matter, a fraction of atoms cohered into the elements necessary to form the complex structures necessary for life, of which a tiny portion cohered into the seething cauldron of complexity we call consciousness — the tiny, improbable fraction of a fraction of a fraction with which we have the perishable privilege of contemplating the universe in our poetry and our physics.

In Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings (public library), the poetic physicist Alan Lightman sieves four centuries of scientific breakthroughs, from Kepler’s revolutionary laws of planetary motion to the thousands of habitable exoplanets discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission, to estimate that even with habitable planets orbiting one tenth of all stars, the faction of living matter in the universe is about one-billionth of one-billionth: If all the matter in the universe were the Gobi desert, life would be but a single grain of sand.

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

Along the way, Lightman draws delicate lines of figuring from Hindu cosmology to quantum gravity, from Pascal to inflation theory, from Lucretius to Henrietta Leavitt and Edwin Hubble — lines contouring the most elemental questions that have always animated humanity, questions that are themselves the answer to what it means to be human.

Building on his lifelong passion for harmonizing our touching human partialities with the fundamental reality of an impartial universe — our hunger for absolutes in a relative world, our yearning for permanence in a universe of constant change — he writes:

As we have struggled through the ages to fathom this strange and wondrous cosmos in which we find ourselves, few ideas have been richer than the concept of nothingness. For to understand anything, as Aristotle argued, we must understand what it is not. To understand matter, said the ancient Greeks, we must understand the “void,” or the absence of matter.

Because we are self-referential creatures — the consequence of being creatures with selves, itself the consequence of consciousness and the ceaseless electrical storm of neural firings that gives rise to our sense of self — no void troubles us more than that of our own mortality: the notion of our absence from the scene of life. It is difficult enough to grasp how somethingness could have arisen from nothingness — how the universe can exist at all. It savages the mind and its animating selfhood to consider that everything — including the subset constituting the particular something of us — could dissolve to nothingness.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman

It is a discomposing notion — even for a physicist without delusion about the materiality of life, with a soulful reverence for the poetry of existence. Lightman closes his essay on the science of nothingness with a sentiment of touching, inescapable humanity:

What I feel and I know is that I am here now, at this moment in the grand sweep of time. I am not part of the void. I am not a fluctuation in the quantum vacuum. Even though I understand that someday my atoms will be scattered in soil and in air, that I will no longer exist, I am alive now. I am feeling this moment. I can see my hand on my writing desk. I can feel the warmth of the Sun through the window. And looking out, I can see a pine-needled path that goes down to the sea.

Another essay, titled “Immortality,” explores this irreconcilable dissonance between the creaturely and the cosmic — the dissonance from which we make our most symphonic art as we try to fathom our existence. Lying in his hammock one summer day, Lightman observes:

A hundred years from now, I’ll be gone, but many of these spruce and cedars will still be here. The wind going through them will still sound like a distant waterfall. The curve of the land will be the same as it is now. The paths that I wander may still be here, although probably covered with new vegetation. The rocks and ledges on the shore will be here, including a particular ledge I’m quite fond of, shaped like the knuckled back of a large animal. Sometimes, I sit on that ledge and wonder if it will remember me. Even my house might still be here, or at least the concrete posts of its footing, crumbling in the salt air. But eventually, of course, even this land will shift and change and dissolve. Nothing persists in the material world. All of it changes and passes away.

Robert Fludd’s pioneering 1617 conception of non-space, long before the notion of the vacuum existed in cosmology. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

And yet, in an echo of one of the book’s subtlest yet profoundest undertones, Lightman challenges our binary view of life and death. With an eye to consciousness — “the seemingly strange experience” that furnishes “the most profound and troubling aspect of human existence” — he argues that death is not the life-switch in the off position but the gradual dimming of consciousness, of our experience of aliveness, through the deterioration of its physical infrastructure.

Ever since Cecilia Payne discovered the chemical fingerprint of the universe, we have known that the atoms we are made of — seven thousand trillion trillion atoms in each of us, on average — were forged in the furnace of faraway stars. We know, too, that every cell in our bodies — the tendons that stiffen our fists and the cortices that kindle our tenderness — is made of atoms. Lightman writes:

To an alien intelligence, each of us human beings would appear to be an assemblage of atoms, humming with our various electrical and chemical energies. To be sure, it is a special assemblage. A rock does not behave like a person… When we die, this special assemblage disassembles. The atoms remain, only scattered about.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print.)

That special assemblage is what we call consciousness. A century after Virginia Woolf observed that “one can’t write directly about the soul [for] looked at, it vanishes,” Lightman writes:

The soul, as commonly understood, we cannot discuss scientifically. Not so with consciousness, and the closely related Self. Isn’t the experience of consciousness and Self an illusion caused by those trillions of neuronal connections and electrical and chemical flows? If you don’t like the word illusion, then you can stick with the sensation itself. You can say that what we call the Self is a name we give to the mental sensation of certain electrical and chemical flows in our neurons. That sensation is rooted in the material brain. And I do not mean to diminish the brain in any way by affirming its materiality. The human brain is capable of all of the wondrous feats of imagination and self-reflection and thought that we ascribe to our highest existence. But I do claim that it’s all atoms and molecules. If the alien intelligence examined a human being in detail, he/she/it would see fluids flowing, sodium and potassium gates opening and closing as electricity races through nerve cells, acetylcholine molecules migrating between synapses. But he/she/it would not find a Self. The Self and consciousness, I think, are names we give to the sensations produced by all of those electrical and chemical flows.

If someone began disassembling my brain one neuron at a time, depending on where the process began I might first lose a few motor skills, then some memories, then perhaps the ability to find particular words to make sentences, the ability to recognize faces, the ability to know where I was. During this slow taking apart of my brain, I would become more and more disoriented. Everything I associate with my ego and Self would gradually dissolve away into a bog of confusion and minimal existence. The doctors in their blue and green scrub suits could drop the removed neurons, one by one, into a metal bowl. Each a tiny gray gelatinous blob. Stringy with the axons and dendrites. Soft, so you would not hear the little thuds as each plopped in the bowl.

An understanding of death as “the name that we give to a collection of atoms that once had the special arrangement of a functioning neuronal network and now no longer does so” renders the boundary between life and death more like a shoreline redrawn by the receding tide pool than like a coastal cliff dropping off into the abyss. And yet even as a scientific materialist with no mystical inclinations and no belief in an afterlife, Lightman remains what we all are — fundamentally human in our special assemblage of atoms — and gives voice to that fundamental humanity with uncommon splendor of sentiment:

Despite my belief that I am only a collection of atoms, that my awareness is passing away neuron by neuron, I am content with the illusion of consciousness. I’ll take it. And I find a pleasure in knowing that a hundred years from now, even a thousand years from now, some of my atoms will remain in this place where I now lie in my hammock. Those atoms will not know where they came from, but they will have been mine. Some of them will once have been part of the memory of my mother dancing the bossa nova. Some will once have been part of the memory of the vinegary smell of my first apartment. Some will once have been part of my hand. If I could label each of my atoms at this moment, imprint each with my Social Security number, someone could follow them for the next thousand years as they floated in air, mixed with the soil, became parts of particular plants and trees, dissolved in the ocean and then floated again to the air. Some will undoubtedly become parts of other people, particular people. Some will become parts of other lives, other memories. That might be a kind of immortality.

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750 — the first book to describe the spiral shape of the Milky Way. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

As if it were not staggering enough how tiny a fraction of space life animates, Lightman observes that it also animates a fraction of time — not merely in terms of the transience of any one life, but in terms of all life occupying only a slender slice of the totality of time in the universe, as the discovery of cosmic acceleration has revealed. The cosmic brevity of “the era of life” is bookended on one end by the slow condensation of colossal gas clouds into the first stars that forged the first atoms large enough to form complex structures, after the universe had already existed for about one billion years, and bookended on the other by the eventual death of all stars when they burn out in several thousand billion years, leaving behind a dark lifeless expanse of pure spacetime.

Here we each are, each existence a summer day suspended in the hammock of spacetime.

And yet even in these cold unfeeling cosmic facts, Lightman finds reason to swell the brevity of existence with the warm feeling of kinship that makes life worth living. With an eye to his grain-of-Gobi-sand analogy, he writes:

Life in our universe is a flash in the pan, a few moments in the vast unfolding of time and space in the cosmos… A realization of the scarcity of life makes me feel some ineffable connection to other living things… a kinship in being among those few grains of sand in the desert, or present during the relatively brief era of life in the vast temporal sprawl of the universe.

[…]

We share something in the vast corridors of this cosmos we find ourselves in. What exactly is it we share? Certainly, the mundane attributes of “life”: the ability to separate ourselves from our surroundings, to utilize energy sources, to grow, to reproduce, to evolve. I would argue that we “conscious” beings share something more during our relatively brief moment in the “era of life”: the ability to witness and reflect on the spectacle of existence, a spectacle that is at once mysterious, joyous, tragic, trembling, majestic, confusing, comic, nurturing, unpredictable and predictable, ecstatic, beautiful, cruel, sacred, devastating, exhilarating. The cosmos will grind on for eternity long after we’re gone, cold and unobserved. But for these few powers of ten, we have been. We have seen, we have felt, we have lived.

Light distribution on soap bubble from Les phénomènes de la physique by Amédée Guillemin, 1882. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Complement these fragments of Lightman’s altogether luminous Probable Impossibilities with physicist Brian Greene’s Rilke-inspired reflection on how to fill our transience with maximal aliveness and Maya Angelou’s Sagan-inspired ode to the cosmic specialness of our humanity, then revisit a Borges-inspired meditation on chance, the universe, and what makes us who we are.

BP

Gertrude Stein on Writing and Belonging

“Everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves to tell what is inside themselves.”

Gertrude Stein on Writing and Belonging

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all,” Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their fantastic forgotten conversation about freedom. Beneath the surface of this paradoxical sentiment is a kind of koan, simple yet profound, replete with layered truth for those of us living expatriated lives — expatriated from a place or a culture, in space or in time.

Two generations before Angelou, Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874–July 27, 1946), living out her great love story as an American expatriate in Paris, addressed this paradox with uncommon insight and her own characteristic koan-like style in a passage from her 1940 novel Paris France (public library).

Gertrude Stein by artist Maira Kalman from her superb illustrated edition of Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Stein — Jewish and gay, writing while the world was coming undone by warring nationalisms and gas chambers disbelonging human beings from life itself — observes:

Everybody, that is, everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves to tell what is inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there.

Stein notes that the Victorians found their romantic home in Italy, Americans found theirs in Spain in the first half of the nineteenth century and in England in the second, and her own generation found it in Paris. Prefiguring Angelou’s sentiment, she adds:

Of course sometimes people discover their own country as if it were the other… but in general that other country that you need to be free is in the other country not the country where you really belong.

I read this and think of Leonard Cohen’s lovely notion of poetry as “the Constitution of the inner country.” For me, living an unbelonging life in a country other than the one in which I was born and raised, poetry has been an increasingly vital portal to that inner landscape of freedom that Stein contours — a way of tending to and befriending the interior wilderness from which all creative work springs and which remains a sovereign territory of psychogeography, wherever one’s body may be located and whatever artificial borders may be drawn around it by outside observers.

Art by Maira Kalman from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Complement with poet and philosopher David Whyte on how to be at home in yourself and Toni Morrison on borders and belonging, then revisit Maria Kalman’s magnificent illustrated love letter to Gertrude and Alice’s love.

BP

Art and the Human Spirit: Olivia Laing on What the Lives of Great Artists Reveal About Vulnerability, Love, Loneliness, Resistance, and Our Search for Meaning

“We’re so often told that art can’t really change anything. But… it shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us to the interior lives of others. It is a training ground for possibility. It makes plain inequalities, and it offers other ways of living.”

Art and the Human Spirit: Olivia Laing on What the Lives of Great Artists Reveal About Vulnerability, Love, Loneliness, Resistance, and Our Search for Meaning

The composite creation of a doctor, a philosopher, a poet, and a sculptor, the word empathy in the modern sense only came into use at the dawn of the twentieth century as a term for the imaginative act of projecting yourself into a work of art, into a world of feeling and experience other than your own. It vesselled in language that peculiar, ineffable way art has of bringing you closer to yourself by taking you out of yourself — its singular power to furnish, Iris Murdoch’s exquisite phrasing, “an occasion for unselfing.” And yet this notion cinches the central paradox of art: Every artist makes what they make with the whole of who they are — with the totality of experiences, beliefs, impressions, obsessions, childhood confusions, heartbreaks, inner conflicts, and contradictions that constellate a self. To be an artist is to put this combinatorial self in the service of furnishing occasions for unselfing in others.

That may be why the lives of artists have such singular allure as case studies and models of turning the confusion, complexity, and uncertainty of life into something beautiful and lasting — something that harmonizes the disquietude and dissonance of living.

Red Hill and White Shell by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1938

In Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (public library), Olivia Laing — one of the handful of living writers whose mind and prose I enjoy commensurately with the Whitmans and the Woolfs of yore — occasions a rare gift of unselfing through the lives and worlds of painters, poets, filmmakers, novelists, and musicians who have imprinted culture in a profound way while living largely outside the standards and stabilities of society, embodying of James Baldwin’s piercing insight that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”

Punctuating these biographical sketches laced with larger questions about art and the human spirit are Laing’s personal essays reflecting, through the lens of her own lived experience, on existential questions of freedom, desire, loneliness, queerness, democracy, rebellion, abandonment, and the myriad vulnerable tendrils of aliveness that make life worth living.

What emerges is a case for art as a truly human endeavor, made by human beings with bodies and identities and beliefs often at odds with the collective imperative; art as “a zone of both enchantment and resistance,” art as sentinel and witness of “how truth is made, diagramming the stages of its construction, or as it may be dissolution,” art as “a direct response to the paucity and hostility of the culture at large,” art as a buoy for loneliness and a fulcrum for empathy.

Summer 1964 by Agnes Martin

Laing writes:

Empathy is not something that happens to us when we read Dickens. It’s work. What art does is provide material with which to think: new registers, new spaces. After that, friend, it’s up to you.

I don’t think art has a duty to be beautiful or uplifting, and some of the work I’m most drawn to refuses to traffic in either of those qualities. What I care about more… are the ways in which it’s concerned with resistance and repair.

A writer — a good writer — cannot write about art without writing about those who make it, about the lives of artists as the crucible of their creative contribution, about the delicate, triumphant art of living as a body in the world and a soul outside standard society. Olivia Laing is an excellent writer. Out of lives as varied as those of Basquiat and Agnes Martin, Derek Jarman and Georgia O’Keeffe, David Bowie and Joseph Cornell, she constructs an orrery of art as a cosmos of human connection and a sensemaking mechanism for living.

In a sentiment to which I relate in my own approach to historical lives, Laing frames her method of inquiry:

I’m going as a scout, hunting for resources and ideas that might be liberating or sustaining now, and in the future. What drives all these essays is a long-standing interest in how a person can be free, and especially in how to find a freedom that is shareable, and not dependent upon the oppression or exclusion of other people.

[…]

We’re so often told that art can’t really change anything. But I think it can. It shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us to the interior lives of others. It is a training ground for possibility. It makes plain inequalities, and it offers other ways of living.

Throughout these short, scrumptiously insightful and sensitive essays, Laing draws on the lives of artists — the wildly uneven topographies of wildly diverse interior worlds — to contour new landscapes of possibility for life itself, as we each live it, around and through and with art. In the essay about Georgia O’Keeffe — who revolutionized modern art while living alone and impoverished in the middle of the desert, in the middle of the world’s first global war — Laing observes:

How do you make the most of what’s inside you, your talents and desires, when they slam you up against a wall of prejudice, of limiting beliefs about what a woman must be and an artist can do?

[…]

From the beginning, New Mexico represented salvation, though not in the wooden sense of the hill-dominating crosses she so often painted. O’Keeffe’s salvation was earthy, even pagan, comprised of the cold-water pleasure of working unceasingly at what you love, burning anxiety away beneath the desert sun.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow, 1923 (Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)

In an essay about another artist — the painter Chantal Joffe, for whom Laing sat — she echoes Jackson Pollock’s’s observation that “every good artist paints what he is,” and writes:

You can’t paint reality: you can only paint your own place in it, the view from your eyes, as manifested by your own hands.

A painting betrays fantasies and feelings, it bestows beauty or takes it away; eventually, it supplants the body in history. A painting is full of desire and love, or greed, or hate. It radiates moods, just like people.

[…]

Paint as fur, as velvet, as brocade, as hair. Paint as a way of entering and becoming someone else. Paint as a device for stopping time.

Art by Basquiat from Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou

In another essay, Laing offers an exquisite counterpoint to the barbed-wire fencing off of identities that has increasingly made the free reach of human connection — that raw material and final product of all art — dangerous and damnable in a culture bristling with ready indignations and antagonisms:

A writer I was on a panel with said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that it is no longer desirable to write about the lives of other people or experiences one hasn’t had. I didn’t agree. I think writing about other people, making art about other people, is both dangerous and necessary. There are moral lines. There are limits to the known. But there’s a difference between respecting people’s right to tell or not tell their own stories and refusing to look at all.

[…]

It depends whether you believe that we exist primarily as categories of people, who cannot communicate across our differences, or whether you think we have a common life, an obligation to regard and learn about each other.

In a sense, the entire book is a quiet manifesto for unselfing through the art we make and the art we cherish — a subtle and steadfast act of resistance to the attrition of human connection under the cultural forces of self-righteousness and sanctimonious othering, a stance against those fashionable and corrosive forces that so often indict as appropriation the mere act of learning beautiful things from each other.

In another essay — about Ali Smith, the subject to whom Laing feels, or at least reads, the closest — she quotes a kindred sentiment of Smith’s:

Art is one of the prime ways we have of opening ourselves and going beyond ourselves. That’s what art is, it’s the product of the human being in the world and imagination, all coming together. The irrepressibility of the life in the works, regardless of the times, the histories, the life stories, it’s like being given the world, its darks and lights. At which point we can go about the darks and lights with our imagination energised.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Celestial Navigation), 1958. (U.S. Department of State / Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation)

Among the subjects of a subset of essays Laing aptly categorizes as “love letters” is John Berger, whose lovely notion of “hospitality” radiates from Laing’s own work — a notion she defines as “a capacity to enlarge and open, a corrective to the overwhelming political imperative, in ascendance once again this decade, to wall off, separate and reject.” She reflects on being stopped up short by Berger’s embodiment of such hospitality when she saw him speak at the British Library at the end of his long, intellectually generous life:

It struck me then how rare it is to see a writer on stage actually thinking, and how glib and polished most speakers are. For Berger, thought was work, as taxing and rewarding as physical labour, a bringing of something real into the world. You have to strive and sweat; the act is urgent but might also fail.

He talked that evening about hospitality. It was such a Bergerish notion. Hospitality: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers, a word that shares its origin with hospital, a place to treat sick or injured people. This impetus towards kindness and care for the sick and strange, the vulnerable and dispossessed is everywhere in Berger’s work, the sprawling orchard of words he planted and tended over the decades.

[…]

Art he saw as a communal and vital possession, to be written about with sensual exactness… Capitalism, he wrote in Ways of Seeing, survives by forcing the majority to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. It was narrowness he set himself against, the toxic impulse to wall in or wall off. Be generous to the strange, be open to difference, cross-pollinate freely. He put his faith in the people, the whole host of us.

Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World, 1997
With My Back to the World by Agnes Martin, 1997

In a superb 2015 essay titled “The Future of Loneliness” — an essay that bloomed into a book a year later, the splendid and unclassifiable book that first enchanted me with Laing’s writing and the mind from which it springs — she considers how technology is mediating our already uneasy relationship to loneliness, and how art redeems the simulacra of belonging with which social media entrap us in this Stockholm syndrome of self-regard. In a passage of chillingly intimate resonance to all of us alive in the age of screens and selfies and the vacant, addictive affirmation of people we have never dined with tapping heart- and thumb-shaped icons on cold LED screens, she writes:

Loneliness centres around the act of being seen. When a person is lonely, they long to be witnessed, accepted, desired, at the same time as becoming intensely wary of exposure. According to research carried out over the past decade at the University of Chicago, the feeling of loneliness triggers what psychologists term hypervigilance for social threat. In this state, which is entered into unknowingly, the individual becomes hyperalert to rejection, becoming inclined to perceive their social interactions as tinged with hostility or scorn. The result of this shift in perception is a vicious circle of withdrawal, in which the lonely person becomes increasingly suspicious, intensifying their sense of isolation.

This is where online engagement seems to exercise its special charm. Hidden behind a computer screen, the lonely person has control. They can search for company without the danger of being revealed or found wanting. They can reach out or they can hide; they can lurk and they can show themselves, safe from the humiliation of face-to-face rejection. The screen acts as a kind of protective membrane, a scrim that permits invisibility and also transformation. You can filter your image, concealing unattractive elements, and you can emerge enhanced: an online avatar designed to attract likes. But now a problem arises, for the contact this produces is not quite the same thing as intimacy. Curating a perfected self might win followers or Facebook friends, but it will not necessarily cure loneliness, since the cure for loneliness is not being looked at, but being seen and accepted as a whole person: ugly, unhappy and awkward as well as radiant and selfie-ready.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

Having met with Ryan Trecartin — “a baby-faced thirty-four-year-old” of whom I had never heard (saying more about my odd nineteenth-century life than about his art) but whose early-twenty-first-century films about the lurid and discomposing thrill of digital culture prompted The New Yorker to describe him as “the most consequential artist to have emerged since the nineteen-eighties” — Laing reflects:

My own understanding of loneliness relied on a belief in solid, separate selves that he saw as hopelessly outmoded. In his world view, everyone was perpetually slipping into each other, passing through perpetual cycles of transformation; no longer separate, but interspersed. Perhaps he was right. We aren’t as solid as we once thought. We’re embodied but we’re also networks, expanding out into empty space, living on inside machines and in other people’s heads, memories and data streams as well as flesh. We’re being watched and we do not have control. We long for contact and it makes us afraid. But as long as we’re still capable of feeling and expressing vulnerability, intimacy stands a chance.

Vulnerability — which Laing unfussily terms “the necessary condition of love” — is indeed the bellowing undertone of these essays: vulnerability as frisson and function of art, of life itself, of the atavistic impulse for transmuting living into meaning that we call art.

Complement the thoroughly symphonic Funny Weather with Paul Klee on creativity and why an artist is like a tree, Kafka on why we make art, Egon Schiele on why visionary artists tend to come from the minority, and Virginia Woolf’s garden epiphany about what it means to be an artist — which remains, for me, the single most beautiful and penetrating thing ever written on the subject — then revisit Laing on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers.

BP

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