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The Muse of History: Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott on Why Reconciling Our Conflicting Ancestral Pasts Is Necessary for Cultural Renewal

“Maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor.”

The Muse of History: Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott on Why Reconciling Our Conflicting Ancestral Pasts Is Necessary for Cultural Renewal

“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin asserted in 1960 as he contemplated freedom and how we imprison ourselves. But we can only make a broken world over if we first closely examine its parts — that is, its pasts — and take responsibility for the conditions as well as the consequences of its brokenness.

And yet, too often, we flee and burrow in the comforting certitude of our history, which is not the same as our past, no matter how false and hubristic such certitude may be. Baldwin himself touched on this a decade later in his spectacular and timely 1970 conversation with Margaret Mead about identity, race, and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, where he observed: “What we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.” Without taking such responsibility we couldn’t create that new and better world, for the great drama of its creation — like that of our self-creation — is that of weaving something new and wonderful from the tattered threads of our cultural history and convention.

That difficult, necessary, transcendent will to weave is what the great Caribbean poet, playwright, essayist, and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott (January 23, 1930–March 17, 2017) explores in a stirring 1974 essay titled “The Muse of History,” found in his essay collection What the Twilight Says (public library).

Derek Walcott

“Not to go onwards (in verse, as in everything) means to go backwards — that is, to leave the scene,” the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva wrote on the cusp of the Russian Revolution and its attendant cultural revolution as she considered why we must intimately understand something before we can rightfully reject it. Half a century later, Walcott echoes her insight, turning a skeptical eye to the generation of West Indian writers who dismiss hastily and wholesale the complex colonial legacy of the New World. He writes:

Those who break a tradition first hold it in awe. They perversely encourage disfavour, but because their sense of the past is of a timeless, yet habitable, moment, the New World owes them more than it does those who wrestle with that past, for their veneration subtilizes an arrogance which is tougher than violent rejection. They know that by openly fighting tradition we perpetuate it … and that maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor.

For those who take this stance, Walcott argues, “history is fiction, subject to a fitful muse, memory.” In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s incisive ideas about the relationship between agency and victimhood, he writes:

The further the facts, the more history petrifies into myth. Thus, as we grow older as a race, we grow aware that history is written, that it is a kind of literature without morality, that in its actuaries the ego of the race is indissoluble and that everything depends on whether we write this fiction through the memory of hero or of victim.

In the New World servitude to the muse of history has produced a literature of recrimination and despair, a literature of revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters. Because this literature serves historical truth, it yellows into polemic or evaporates in pathos. The truly tough aesthetic of the New World neither explains nor forgives history. It refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force.

Those whom Walcott celebrates as the great poets of the New World — Neruda, Whitman, Borges — reject this model of history and instead uphold a more ennobling alternative:

Their vision of man in the New World is Adamic. In their exuberance he is still capable of enormous wonder. Yet he has paid his accounts to Greece and Rome and walks in a world without monuments and ruins. They exhort him against the fearful magnet of older civilizations… Fact evaporates into myth. This is not the jaded cynicism which sees nothing new under the sun, it is an elation which sees everything as renewed… This is the revolutionary spirit at its deepest; it recalls the spirit to arms.

And yet this potential for renewal necessarily coexists with our shared legacy of outrage, which must remain a wakeful outrage and not a somnolent trance if we are to transcend our history. Walcott writes:

Who in the New World does not have a horror of the past, whether his ancestor was torturer or victim? Who, in the depth of conscience, is not silently screaming for pardon or for revenge? The pulse of New World history is the racing pulse beat of fear, the tiring cycles of stupidity and greed.

[…]

In time the slave surrendered to amnesia. That amnesia is the true history of the New World. That is our inheritance, but to try and understand why this happened, to condemn or justify is also the method of history, and these explanations are always the same: This happened because of that, this was understandable because, and in days men were such. These recriminations exchanged, the contrition of the master replaces the vengeance of the slave.

With an eye to classics like Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and radical poets like Neruda, who made of language a vehicle for redeeming the present without denying the past, he adds:

It is not the pressure of the past which torments great poets but the weight of the present… The sense of history in poets lives rawly along their nerves… The vision, the “democratic vista,” is not metaphorical, it is a social necessity.

Contemplating the challenge and the necessity of reconciling contrasting, often conflicting, histories and heritages — something he termed in another essay “that wrestling contradiction of being white in mind and black in body, as if the flesh were coal from which the spirit like tormented smoke writhed to escape” — Walcott writes:

We are misled by new prophets of bitterness who warn us against experiences which we have never cared to have, but the mass of society has had neither the interest nor the opportunity which they chose. These preach not to the converted but to those who have never lost faith. I do not mean religious faith but reality. Fisherman and peasant know who they are and what they are and where they are, and when we show them our wounded sensibilities we are, most of us, displaying self-inflicted wounds.

I accept this archipelago of the Americas. I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you both whisper “history,” for if I attempt to forgive you both I am falling into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expiates, and it is not mine to forgive, my memory cannot summon any filial love, since your features are anonymous and erased and I have no wish and no power to pardon. You were when you acted your roles, your given, historical roles of slave seller and slave buyer, men acting as men, and also you, father in the filth-ridden gut of the slave ship, to you they were also men, acting as men, with the cruelty of men, your fellowman and tribesman not moved or hovering with hesitation about your common race any longer than my other bastard ancestor hovered with his whip, but to you, inwardly forgiven grandfathers, I, like the more honest of my race, give a strange thanks. I give the strange and bitter and yet ennobling thanks for the monumental groaning and soldering of two great worlds, like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice, that exiled from your own Edens you have placed me in the wonder of another, and that was my inheritance and your gift.

Complement What the Twilight Says with Walcott’s charming lighter side and his endlessly enlivening poem “Love After Love,” then revisit young Barack Obama on identity, race, and the search for coherence of selfhood.

BP

Hold Still: Sally Mann on the Treachery of Memory, the Dark Side of Photography, and the Elusive Locus of the Self

“Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time’s continuum.”

Hold Still: Sally Mann on the Treachery of Memory, the Dark Side of Photography, and the Elusive Locus of the Self

“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation,” pioneering researcher Rosalind Cartwright wrote in distilling the science of the unconscious mind.

Although I lack early childhood memories, I do have one rather eidetic recollection: I remember standing before the barren elephant yard at the Sofia Zoo in Bulgaria, at age three or so, clad in a cotton polka-dot jumper. I remember squinting into a scowl as the malnourished elephant behind me swirls dirt into the air in front of her communism-stamped concrete edifice. I don’t remember the temperature, though I deduce from the memory of my outfit that it must have been summer. I don’t remember the smell of the elephant or the touch of the blown dirt on my skin, though I remember my grimace.

For most of my life, I held onto that memory as the sole surviving mnemonic fragment of my early childhood self. And then, one day in my late twenties, I discovered an old photo album tucked into the back of my grandmother’s cabinet in Bulgaria. It contained dozens of photographs of me, from birth until around age four, including one depicting that very vignette — down to the minutest detail of what I believed was my memory of that moment. There I was, scowling in my polka-dot jumper with the elephant and the cloud of dust behind me. In an instant, I realized that I had been holding onto a prosthetic memory — what I remembered was the photograph from that day, which I must have been shown at some point, and not the day itself, of which I have no other recollection. The question — and what a Borgesian question — remains whether one should prefer having such a prosthetic memory, constructed entirely of photographs stitched together into artificial cohesion, to having no memory at all.

That confounding parallax of personal history is what photographer Sally Mann explores throughout Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (public library) — a lyrical yet unsentimental meditation on art, mortality, and the lacuna between memory and myth, undergirded by what Mann calls her “long preoccupation with the treachery of memory” and “memory’s truth, which is to scientific, objective truth as a pearl is to a piece of sand.”

Sally Mann as a girl
Sally Mann as a child

In a sentiment that calls to mind Oliver Sacks’s exquisite elucidation of how memory works, Mann writes:

Whatever of my memories hadn’t crumbled into dust must surely by now have been altered by the passage of time. I tend to agree with the theory that if you want to keep a memory pristine, you must not call upon it too often, for each time it is revisited, you alter it irrevocably, remembering not the original impression left by experience but the last time you recalled it. With tiny differences creeping in at each cycle, the exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away.

I had learned over time to meekly accept whatever betrayals memory pulled over on me, allowing my mind to polish its own beautiful lie. In distorting the information it’s supposed to be keeping safe, the brain, to its credit, will often bow to some instinctive aesthetic wisdom, imparting to our life’s events a coherence, logic, and symbolic elegance that’s not present or not so obvious in the improbable, disheveled sloppiness of what we’ve actually been through.

Photograph: Sally Mann
Photograph: Sally Mann

Nearly half a century after Italo Calvino observed that “the life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself,” Mann traces this cultural pathology — now a full epidemic with the rise of the photo-driven social web — to the dawn of the medium itself. Reflecting on the discovery of a box of old photographs in her own family’s attic, she echoes Teju Cole’s assertion that “photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses” and writes:

As far back as 1901 Émile Zola telegraphed the threat of this relatively new medium, remarking that you cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it. What Zola perhaps also knew or intuited was that once photographed, whatever you had “really seen” would never be seen by the eye of memory again. It would forever be cut from the continuum of being, a mere sliver, a slight, translucent paring from the fat life of time; elegiac, one-dimensional, immediately assuming the amber quality of nostalgia: an instantaneous memento mori. Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories. As I held my childhood pictures in my hands, in the tenderness of my “remembering,” I also knew that with each photograph I was forgetting.

Sally Mann on her beloved horse as a girl
Young Sally Mann on her beloved horse

Mann, whose memoir is strewn with an extraordinary sensitivity to language, anchors into the perfect word the perfect analogy for how the living of life impresses itself upon our memory:

When an animal, a rabbit, say, beds down in a protecting fencerow, the weight and warmth of his curled body leaves a mirroring mark upon the ground. The grasses often appear to have been woven into a birdlike nest, and perhaps were indeed caught and pulled around by the delicate claws as he turned in a circle before subsiding into rest. This soft bowl in the grasses, this body-formed evidence of hare, has a name, an obsolete but beautiful word: meuse. (Enticingly close to Muse, daughter of Memory, and source of inspiration.) Each of us leaves evidence on the earth that in various ways bears our form.

Over and over, Mann returns with palpable unease to the parasitic relationship between photography and memory, culminating in this unadorned indictment:

I believe that photographs actually rob all of us of our memory.

More than that, photographs disquiet our already unnerving relationship with time — a relationship which Borges, the poet laureate of memory’s perplexities, captured with memorable brilliance. Mann writes:

Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time’s continuum.

Photograph: Sally Mann
Photograph: Sally Mann

This dislocation of mnemonic truth into photographs is as rooted in time as it is in space. Mann, whose work is heavily animated by the life of landscape, once again draws on language to explore the nuances of the relationship between photography, memory, and place:

In an immigrant society like this one, we are often divided from our forebears less by distance than by language, generations before us having thought, sung, made love, and argued in dialects unknown to us now. In Wales, for example, Welsh is spoken by barely 20 percent of the population, so we can only hope that the evocative Welsh word hiraeth will somehow be preserved. It means “distance pain,” and I know all about it: a yearning for the lost places of our past, accompanied in extreme cases by tuneful lamentation (mine never got quite that bad). But, and this is important, it always refers to a near-umbilical attachment to a place, not just free-floating nostalgia or a droopy houndlike wistfulness or the longing we associate with romantic love. No, this is a word about the pain of loving a place.

[…]

Contemporary Welsh-speakers have continued that expression, linking memory and landscape most vividly in R. W. Parry’s sonnet in which the longed-for landscape communicates to the human heart, “the echo of an echo… the memory of a memory past.”

With an eye to her own heritage as a displaced Southerner, Mann adds:

Looking through my long photographic and literary relationship with my own native soil I can perceive a definite kinship with those fakelorish bards wailing away about their place-pain.

Photograph: Sally Mann
Photograph: Sally Mann

A generation after Susan Sontag admonished against the “aesthetic consumerism” of photography, Mann invites us to confront these commodifications of memory that we have come to take for granted:

Before the invention of photography, significant moments in the flow of our lives would be like rocks placed in a stream: impediments that demonstrated but didn’t diminish the volume of the flow and around which accrued the debris of memory, rich in sight, smell, taste, and sound. No snapshot can do what the attractive mnemonic impediment can: when we outsource that work to the camera, our ability to remember is diminished and what memories we have are impoverished.

Contemplating mortality, that ultimate end-point of memory, Mann writes in a Whitman-like meditation on the ever-elusive locus of the self:

Where does the self actually go? All the accumulation of memory — the mist rising from the river and the birth of children and the flying tails of the Arabians in the field — and all the arcane formulas, the passwords, the poultice recipes, the Latin names of trees, the location of the safe deposit key, the complex skills to repair and build and grow and harvest — when someone dies, where does it all go?

In a sentiment evocative of Meghan O’Rourke’s beautiful assertion that “the people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” Mann adds:

Proust has his answer, and it’s the one I take most comfort in — it ultimately resides in the loving and in the making and in the living of every present day.

Hold Still is an intensely beautiful and layered read in its totality. Complement this particular facet with Virginia Woolf on how memory threads our lives together, neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin on how the famous amnesiac H.M. illuminates the paradoxes of memory and the self, and Susan Sontag on how photography mediates our relationship with life and death.

BP

A New Refutation of Time: Borges on the Most Paradoxical Dimension of Existence

“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

A New Refutation of Time: Borges on the Most Paradoxical Dimension of Existence

“If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in contemplating our paradoxical experience of time in the early 1930s. “It is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change … into time as we know it,” Hannah Arendt wrote half a century later in her brilliant inquiry into time, space, and our thinking ego. Time, in other words — particularly our experience of it as a continuity of successive moments — is a cognitive illusion rather than an inherent feature of the universe, a construction of human consciousness and perhaps the very hallmark of human consciousness.

Wedged between Bachelard and Arendt was Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986), that muscular wrangler of paradox and grand poet-laureate of time, who addressed this perplexity in his 1946 essay “A New Refutation of Time,” which remains the most elegant, erudite, and pleasurable meditation on the subject yet. It was later included in Labyrinths (public library) — the 1962 collection of Borges’s stories, essays, parables, and other writings, which gave us his terrific and timeless parable of the divided self.

borges_time1

Borges begins by noting the deliberate paradox of his title, a contrast to his central thesis that the continuity of time is an illusion, that time exists without succession and each moment contains all eternity, which negates the very notion of “new.” The “slight mockery” of the title, he notes, is his way of illustrating that “our language is so saturated and animated by time.” With his characteristic self-effacing warmth, Borges cautions that his essay might be “the anachronistic reductio ad absurdum of a preterite system or, what is worse, the feeble artifice of an Argentine lost in the maze of metaphysics” — and then he proceeds to deliver a masterwork of rhetoric and reason, carried on the wings of uncommon poetic beauty.

Writing in the mid-1940s — a quarter century after Einstein defeated Bergson in their landmark debate, in which science (“the clarity of metaphysics,” per Borges) finally won the contested territory of time from the dictatorship of metaphysics, and just a few years after Bergson himself made his exit into eternity — Borges reflects on his lifelong tussle with time, which he considers the basis for all of his books:

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity, I have glimpsed or foreseen a refutation of time, in which I myself do not believe, but which regularly visits me at night and in the weary twilight with the illusory force of an axiom.

Time, Borges notes, is the foundation of our experience of personal identity — something philosophers took up most notably in the 17th century, poets picked up in the 19th, scientists set down in the 20th, and psychologists picked back up in the 21st.

Borges compares the ideas of the 18th-century Anglo-Irish Empiricist philosopher George Berkeley, chief champion of idealist metaphysics, and his Scottish peer and contemporary, David Hume. The two diverged on the existence of personal identity — Berkeley endorsed it as the “thinking active principle that perceives” at the center of each self, while Hume negated it, arguing that each person is “a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity” — but they both affirmed the existence of time.

Making his way through the maze of philosophy, Borges maps what he calls “this unstable world of the mind” in relation to time:

A world of evanescent impressions; a world without matter or spirit, neither objective nor subjective, a world without the ideal architecture of space; a world made of time, of the absolute uniform time of [Newton’s] Principia; a tireless labyrinth, a chaos, a dream.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

Returning to Hume’s notion of the illusory self — an idea advanced by Eastern philosophy millennia earlier — Borges considers how this dismantles the very notion of time as we know it:

Behind our faces there is no secret self which governs our acts and receives our impressions; we are, solely, the series of these imaginary acts and these errant impressions.

But even the notion of a “series” of acts and impressions, Borges suggest, is misleading because time is inseparable from matter, spirit, and space:

Once matter and spirit — which are continuities — are negated, once space too is negated, I do not know with what right we retain that continuity which is time. Outside each perception (real or conjectural) matter does not exist; outside each mental state spirit does not exist; neither does time exist outside the present moment.

He illustrates this paradox of the present moment — a paradox found in every present moment — by guiding us along one particular moment familiar from literature:

During one of his nights on the Mississippi, Huckleberry Finn awakens; the raft, lost in partial darkness, continues downstream; it is perhaps a bit cold. Huckleberry Finn recognizes the soft indefatigable sound of the water; he negligently opens his eyes; he sees a vague number of stars, an indistinct line of trees; then, he sinks back into his immemorable sleep as into the dark waters. Idealist metaphysics declares that to add a material substance (the object) and a spiritual substance (the subject) to those perceptions is venturesome and useless; I maintain that it is no less illogical to think that such perceptions are terms in a series whose beginning is as inconceivable as its end. To add to the river and the bank, Huck perceives the notion of another substantive river and another bank, to add another perception to that immediate network of perceptions, is, for idealism, unjustifiable; for myself, it is no less unjustifiable to add a chronological precision: the fact, for example, that the foregoing event took place on the night of the seventh of June, 1849, between ten and eleven minutes past four. In other words: I denny, with the arguments of idealism, the vast temporal series which idealism admits. Hume denied the existence of an absolute space, in which all things have their place; I deny the existence of one single time, in which all things are linked as in a chain. The denial of coexistence is no less arduous than the denial of succession.

One of Norman Rockwell’s rare illustrations for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

This simultaneity of all events has immense implications as a sort of humanitarian manifesto for the commonness of human experience, which Borges captures beautifully:

The vociferous catastrophes of a general order — fires, wars, epidemics — are one single pain, illusorily multiplied in many mirrors.

Borges ends by returning to the beginning, to the raw material of his argument and, arguably, of his entire body of work, of his very self: paradox. He writes:

And yet, and yet… Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. Our destiny … is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and iron-clad. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.

The essay, as everything in Labyrinths, is an exceptional read in its continuous entirety; excerpting, fragmenting, and annotating it here fails to dignify the agile integrity of Borges’s rhetoric and the sheer joy of his immersive prose. Complement it with Bertrand Russell on the nature of time, Virginia Woolf on its astonishing elasticity, and Sarah Manguso on its confounding, comforting ongoinginess.

BP

At Home with Themselves: Sage Sohier’s Moving Portraits of Same-Sex Couples in the 1980s

A tender, thoughtful lens on life and love in the margins.

By the second half of the twentieth century, same-sex love had undergone a tumultuous journey — in the middle ages, widely held male bonding ceremonies condoned the same love that would become punishable by death just a couple of centuries later; and yet in the 19th century, America’s first gay bar appeared, while women engaged in “romantic friendships” and even married each other, all within society’s transparent closet; but by the early twentieth century, the closet had become increasingly opaque — even luminaries like Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, and Margaret Mead celebrated their same-sex love only in private and queer couples lived in secret; those who dared not to conceal their lives were persecuted and punished — public tragedies like the fate of computing pioneer Alan Turing were only the tip of a chilling iceberg of injustice.

And yet love being love, perhaps the most remarkably resilient phenomenon the human heart will ever know, it persevered. The 1970s brought the first pride parades and a new era of civil rights for the LGBT community commenced.

The mid-1980s were a time of particular upheaval for the plight of same-sex families — a time when kids were writing Judy Blume endearing and exasperated letters about being gay, a time when the world saw its first children’s book about a two-mom family, a time when today’s inclusive ideas about what makes a family, not to mention the prospect of marriage equality in the eyes of the law, seemed like a radical proposition yet defined the daily reality of those courageous queer families who withstood the bigotry of the mainstream and lived their lives, at once extraordinary and extraordinarily ordinary, with dignity and grace.

Stephanie and Monica, Boston, 1987
Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

It was at this peculiar point in history that photographer Sage Sohier began her tenderly thoughtful project At Home with Themselves: Same-Sex Couples in 1980s America — a series of intimate photographs and interviews, documenting the simple human truths behind the cultural complexities of queer love.

Chuck and Jerry, Methuen, MA, 1986
Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist
Sheila and Dorothy, Santa Fe, 1988
Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

The project sprang from a deeply personal place — a few years earlier, Sohier had found herself at once startled and unsurprised to learn that her father was gay. Her cousin had spotted him dancing with a young man in a New York City nightclub and the incident instantly made him make sense — Sohier parents had divorced when she and her sister were still toddlers, and despite being a handsome and eligible bachelor, her father had never remarried. Sohier writes in the introduction:

My sister and I began reinterpreting history and realized that somewhere in our teens the beautiful young women he brought out to dine with us were replaced by beautiful young men, each one introduced as “a colleague from my law office.”

Craig and Bob, Provincetown, MA, 1986
Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

But despite the discovery, Sohier’s father didn’t come out to her and “it became increasingly clear that he didn’t intend to” — the wall between father and daughter may have suddenly become transparent, but it was still a wall and still a source of anguishing separation. The project became Sohier’s way of knowing her father, of offering him the implicit acceptance for which he was too timid or terrified to ask. She writes:

Some years later, a means of tackling this subject with some degree of indirection presented itself. In the spring of 1988, I was just finishing my same-sex couples project. It had taken me almost halfway into the project to realize that I had been inspired to a great extent by my lifelong curiosity about my father and more recent curiosity about his lifestyle. I was in New York showing the work to galleries and museums, and decided to call and see if my father was in town. He invited me over for lunch the next day; I had my portfolio with me, but figured I would never get up the nerve to show it to him. His partner, Lee, answered the door when I rang…. Lee made sandwiches for us while I chatted with my father. I mentioned my project and, after some urging from Lee, showed them my photographs. My father appeared to be interested, amused, and touched. As we kissed goodbye later, his eyes teared up. His emotion and relief at my coming out for him was palpable.

This compassionate curiosity for her father’s lifestyle and inner life is what Sohier brings to the many couples she photographs in the project — a kind of quiet humility before their love and unconditional celebration of its many dimensions, from the romantic to the sexual to the domestic.

Herb (38) and Dana (29), together almost 2 years. Quincy, MA, March 1988
Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

DANA: I didn’t want to grow old and grab somebody out of desperation. I wanted to grow old with somebody.

Pinky (31) and Diane (39), together 8 years. Kenner, Louisiana, April 1988
Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

DIANE: If I put on a dress I feel like a drag queen. There’s nothing feminine about me. I’ve given birth 8 times, I’m a good mother, I love my children dearly — I don’t want to be their father, I am their mother — but dresses aren’t my thing you know; make-up’s not my thing, even when I was married to my husband.

Steve (31) and Tom (29), together 4 years. Key West, Florida, March 1987
Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

TOM: When I met Steve, I was very rebellious with the church, and it fascinated me that Steven was gay and involved with the church at the same time. I had a very fundamentalist background, so it was very hard for me to come out ’cause I had all these religious friends who told me I was going to hell. [I went to a] Bible college, so I didn’t have a pretty time at first. I was running around with friends that drank and took drugs, and Steven rarely drank, wasn’t into drugs, so that fascinated me. And he was very sweet and gentle.

What makes the project so wonderfully disorienting is that it reminds us, ever so subtly, that we are always a product of our era’s normative biases — cultural, social, political, even technological. It is hard to imagine today, in our age of selfies and the general compulsion to share every sliver of the self on social media, just how much courage it must have taken for these couples to face the camera with their most intimate, private, vulnerable selves as same-sex couples. And yet the act of doing so channels the simple, profound sentiment Andrew Sullivan would come to write in his pioneering essay on the subject a few years later: “Silence, if it does not equal death, equals the living equivalent.”

To see and be seen, I continue to believe, are the greatest gifts we can give one another. Sohier’s project is a masterwork of generosity.

Jean (37) and Elaine (67), together 4 months. Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 1988
Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

Her choice of black-and-white film also adds an element of timelessness, as if to remind us that love, whatever its permutations, has always been the single most immutable presence in the human journey. Flowing from Sohier’s lens are what Isaac Asimov called “the soft bonds of love” — the same invisible threads of belonging that pulled our cave-dwelling ancestors toward one another and continue to bind every couple who ever lived.

Brian (68) and Hanns (65), together 28 years. Key West, Florida, January 1988
Photograph © Sage Sohier courtesy of the artist

Sohier reflects on the pioneering bravery of her subjects:

[In some photographs] there’s a tentativeness, in others a kind of not-to-be-taken-for-granted raw tenderness. People in my father’s generation had grown up feeling that being openly gay was just not an acceptable option. In my generation that began to change, and I was grateful to be witness to it.

It’s a wonderful step forward for the civil rights of this country and our collective humanity that same-sex relationships and marriages have become accepted and celebrated. It’s important, though, to recognize that these relationships have always existed, and, in many cases, thrived. They were often discreet, and many lived their lives in the margins. But the success of the same-sex marriage movement would not be possible without the efforts of all those couples who came before and who worked to achieve this goal. Their private love, and their persistence in going public with it, should never be forgotten.

Captivated by “the visual novelty yet total ordinariness of these same-sex relationships,” Sohier decided to complement the photographs with extensive interviews. Echoing Susan Sontag’s unforgettable insight into the “aesthetic consumerism” of photography — Sontag, appropriately, was busy subverting sexual stereotypes at that very moment — Sohier writes:

A photograph derives its strength from the singularity of its assertion, but people’s lives and beliefs are more complex than that.

At Home with Themselves is many layers of beautiful and thoughtful in its entirety. Complement it with The Invisibles, Sébastien Lifshitz’s spectacular portraits of same-sex couples in Europe in the early twentieth century, then revisit Edith Windsor, perhaps the single most important person in the modern marriage equality movement, on what equality really means.

Thanks, Wendy

BP

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