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Literary Ecstasy: Virginia Woolf Describes a Psychedelic Experience

“All our most violent passions, and art and religion, are the reflections which we see in the dark hollow at the back of the head when the visible world is obscured for the time.”

Literary Ecstasy: Virginia Woolf Describes a Psychedelic Experience

“Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in his landmark inquiry into transcendent experiences, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.” A century later, Michael Pollan would echo this sentiment in exploring the science of psychedelics: “The Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think.”

The most evocative description of an ecstatic experience comes not from the annals of psychology or science, but from literature. Writing partway in time between James and the dawn of psychedelics, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) limns the essential elements of transcendent experience — the dreamlike quality of the images flooding into the mind, the hallucinatory halo that envelops the ordinary world, the curious melting of time — in the final pages of her groundbreaking 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography (public library).

Portrait of Virginia Woolf from Literary Witches.

Placing her heroine amid a “night in which the reflections in the dark pool of the mind shine more clearly than by day,” Woolf writes:

She now looked down into this pool or sea in which everything is reflected — and, indeed, some say that all our most violent passions, and art and religion, are the reflections which we see in the dark hollow at the back of the head when the visible world is obscured for the time. She looked there now, long, deeply, profoundly, and immediately the ferny path up the hill along which she was walking became not entirely a path, but partly the Serpentine; the hawthorn bushes were partly ladies and gentlemen sitting with card-cases and gold-mounted canes; the sheep were partly tall Mayfair houses; everything was partly something else, as if her mind had become a forest with glades branching here and there; things came nearer, and further, and mingled and separated and made the strangest alliances and combinations in an incessant chequer of light and shade. Except when Canute, the elk-hound, chased a rabbit and so reminded her that it must be about half past four — it was indeed twenty-three minutes to six — she forgot the time.

[…]

It was not necessary to faint now in order to look deep into the darkness where things shape themselves and to see in the pool of the mind now Shakespeare, now a girl in Russian trousers, now a toy boat on the Serpentine, and then the Atlantic itself, where it storms in great waves past Cape Horn. She looked into the darkness… “Ecstasy!” she cried, “ecstasy!” And then the wind sank, the waters grew calm; and she saw the waves rippling peacefully in the moonlight.

Couple this fragment of Orlando — which also gave us Woolf’s insights into the elasticity of time, the nature of memory, the fluidity of gender, and our propensity for self-doubt in creative work — with Rachel Carson’s splendid account of a rather different yet kindred transcendent experience through the lens of science, then revisit Woolf’s own account of the otherworldly transcendence of a total solar eclipse.

BP

My Favorite Things: Maira Kalman’s Illustrated Catalog of Unusual Objects, Memories, and Delight

“Go out and walk. That is the glory of life.”

Four decades after Barthes listed his favorite things, which prompted Susan Sontag to list hers, Maira Kalman — one of the most enchanting, influential, and unusual creative voices today, and a woman of piercing insight — does something very similar and very different in her magnificent book My Favorite Things (public library).

Kalman not only lives her one human life with remarkable open-heartedness, but also draws from its private humanity warm and witty wisdom on our shared human experience. There is a spartan sincerity to her work, an elegantly choreographed spontaneity — words meticulously chosen to be as simple as possible, yet impossibly expressive; drawings that invoke childhood yet brim with the complex awarenesses of a life lived long and wide. She looks at the same world we all look at but sees what no one else sees — that magical stuff of “the moments inside the moments inside the moments.” Here, her many-petaled mind blossoms in its full idiosyncratic whimsy as she catalogs the “personal micro-culture” of her inner life — her personal set of the objects and people and fragments of experience that constitute the ever-shifting assemblage we call a Self.

The book began as a companion to an exhibition Kalman curated to celebrate the anticipated reopening of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. But it is also a kind of visual catalog sandwiched between a memoir, reminding us that our experience of art is laced with the minute details and monumental moments of our personal histories and is invariably shaped by them. Between Kalman’s original paintings and photographs based on her selections from the museum’s sweeping collection — the buttons and bathtubs, dogs and dandies, first editions of Winnie the Pooh and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Proust’s letters — are also her childhood memories, her quirky personal collections, and her beautiful meditations on life.

Kalman writes in the introduction:

The pieces that I chose were based on one thing only — a gasp of DELIGHT.

Isn’t that the only way to curate a life? To live among things that make you gasp with delight?

And gasp one does, over and over. As Kalman makes her way through the vast Cooper Hewitt collection, her immeasurably lyrical interweavings of private and public expose that special way in which museums not only serve as temples to collective memory but also invite us to reopen the Proustian jars of our own memories with interest and aliveness and a capacity to gasp.

“Whoever invented the bed was a genius,” Kalman writes in her simple homage, inspired by a trading card ad from 1909. “When you get up from bed, get dressed in pants and socks.” The pants: French silk and linen breeches from 1750–1770; the socks: French knitted silk stockings from 1850–1900.

Her painting of a pair of yellow American slippers from the 1830s is really a love letter to walking, something Kalman sees as an existential activity and a creative device:

The ability to walk from one point to the next point, that is half the battle won.

Go out and walk.

That is the glory of life.

Beneath her painting of a quilted and embroidered silk Egyptian cap from the late 13th or early 14th century, Kalman hand-letters the perfect pairing — Pablo Neruda’s 1959 poem “Ode to Things”:

I love crazy things,
crazily.

I enjoy
tongs,
scissors.

I adore
cups,
rings,
soup spoons,
not to mention,
of course,
the hat.

As an enormous lover of Alice in Wonderland, I was particularly bewitched by Kalman’s painting of a photograph by Lewis Carroll, which calls to mind the real-life Alice who inspired his Wonderland:

There is also Kalman’s wink at Darwin’s despondent letter:

Painting a set of dolls made by Mexican nuns, Kalman notes in her singular style of wry awe:

The nuns have sensational fashion sense.

Emanating from the entire project is Kalman’s ability to witness life with equal parts humor and humility, and to always find the lyrical — as in her exquisite pairing of this early nineteenth-century European mount and a Lydia Davis poem:

The objects Kalman selects ultimately become a springboard for leaping into the things that move her most — like her great love of books, woven with such gentleness and subtlety into a French lamp shade from 1935:

The book. Calming object. Held in the hand.

Indeed, the screen does no justice to the magnificent object that is My Favorite Things, an object to be held in the hand and the heart. It follows Kalman’s equally enchanting The Principles of Uncertainty and Various Illuminations (Of a Crazy World), which she has complemented with such wonderful side projects as her illustrations for Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules.

For a dimensional tour of Kalman’s mind and spirit, see Gael Towey’s wonderful short documentary.

Illustrations courtesy of Maira Kalman / HarperCollins; photographs my own

BP

Portraits in Creativity: Artist Maira Kalman, Modern Patron Saint of the Moments Inside the Moments Inside the Moments

“We always are in this in-between world of ‘Is this a dream? Is this really happening? Are we in costume? Who are we?'”

From her immeasurably wonderful visual meditations on life, including The Principles of Uncertainty and Various Illuminations (Of a Crazy World), to her illustrations for such cultural classics as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, Maira Kalman is one of the most influential artists and visual storytellers of our time. Beneath her visual vignettes and narratives, imbued with enormous generosity of spirit, is always a subtle undertone of the great existential inquiry — why are we here? — coupled with a gentle assurance that it’s okay not to know, to thrash around in the maddening and marvelous ambiguity of it and make that be its own exquisite answer.

In this fantastic short film from the Portraits in Creativity project — a beautiful and thoughtful series of cinematic profiles by Gael Towey, spotlighting notable artists, their vibrant minds and inspirations, and “the courage and curiosity that propel the creative act” — Kalman discusses her influences, her love of New York, her charming collaboration with Daniel Handler and the MoMA, her witty TEDxMet talk, which maps “epic moments” in Kalman’s own life onto the museum’s timeline of notable acquisitions, her role as the duck in Isaac Mizrahi’s production of the pioneering Soviet children’s symphony Peter and the Wolf, and more. Annotated highlights below — please enjoy:

On how walking helps us see the world with new eyes:

Walking is another way of getting out of yourself, in the best possible way, because you really do get swept away by what’s around you.

On the singular poetics of New York:

I think that every person you talk to is eccentric — deeply eccentric — in their own way. You just have to find it. Some people are not willing to show it — which is why New York is so fantastic, because people are über willing to show any eccentricity they possibly can. And that’s one of the points of being here — you’ve left the restrictions of whatever place you’ve been in and you go, “Now I’m really going to show you something!”

On how mind-wandering enhances creativity and the importance of unconscious incubation, or what the Chinese call wu-wei, in coming up with ideas:

Daydreaming is a function of the brain that’s an uncensored exploration, without controlling it, of ideas and emotions. Often, the best ideas, the smartest ideas, the most amazing ideas come from those moments when you’re not trying.

On the Alice in Wonderland quality of everyday life:

We always are in this in-between world of “Is this a dream? Is this really happening? Are we in costume? Who are we?”

Complement this gem with Kalman on the two keys to a full life and the difference between thinking and feeling, then revisit her delightful Girls Standing on Lawns.

BP

Maira Kalman on Curiosity, Courage, Happiness, and the Two Keys to a Full Life

“What protects you in this world from sadness and from the loss of an ability to do something? … Work and love.”

Maira Kalman is one of the most beloved illustrators working today and one of my greatest heroes, a singular spirit living at the intersection of art and philosophy. In this fantastic talk from India’s INK Conference, Kalman takes us on a journey into her wonderfully idiosyncratic mind and expansive soul, revealing along the way the poetic and profound universalities of our human triumphs and tribulations. Highlights below — please enjoy:

On the outlook her mother bequeathed her, a beautiful affirmation of why the capacity to wonder drives culture:

You don’t really have to have knowledge — what you have to have is curiosity.

On the psychoemotional cycles of life, something Kalman explores with magnificent dimension in The Principles of Uncertainty:

You’re constantly battling with the idea of loss and grief in this lifetime, and then continuing with optimism and courage to continue your work.

Kalman adds to modern history’s notable meditations on the meaning of existence — including ones by Carl Sagan, David Foster Wallace, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, Richard Feynman, Charles Bukowski, Arthur C. Clarke, Annie Dillard, John Cage, and others — by considering the fundamental necessities for a full life, which she explores further in And the Pursuit of Happiness:

The question that we ask ourselves is, what protects you? What protects you in this world from sadness and from the loss of an ability to do something? For me, what protects me … is work and love. And I think that those two things cover pretty much every single thing. Because what you do, who you love, what you love, and what you do with your time is really the only question that you have to answer.

For more of Kalman’s wisdom and creative brilliance, treat yourself to some of her magnificent books, including her illustrated editions of classics like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, then see her reflections on happiness and existence and art and the power of not thinking.

BP

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