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Art and Accidental Literature: Lynda Barry + Lord Chesterfield

One of yesteryear’s greatest literary icons, under one of today’s greatest artists.

Reconstructionist Lynda Barry is among my favorite artists, so every once in a while I save up a bit of lunch money and buy one of her gorgeous originals. Barry frequently paints over old book pages — like, for instance, this watercolor over Freud’s essay on creative writing and daydreaming — which results in a doubly delightful treat of beautiful art and accidental “found literature.” When my latest painting arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to see the charming watercolor dog (another soft spot) was painted over an essay by celebrated 19th-century French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, prefacing Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, Sentences and Maxims (public library; public domain) — the same gem that gave us his fatherly advice on the art of pleasing and the art of dressing well.

Watercolor by Lynda Barry from my personal collection

Sainte-Beuve writes:

Each epoch has produced its treatise intended for the formation of the polite man, the man of the world, the courtier, when men only lived for courts, and the accomplished gentleman. In these various treatises on knowledge of life and politeness, if opened after a lapse of ages, we at once see portions which are as antiquated as the cut and fashion of our forefathers’ coats; the model has evidently changed. But looking into it carefully as a whole, if the book has been written by a sensible man with a true knowledge of mankind, we shall find profit in studying these models which have been placed before preceding generations. The letters that Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son, and which contain a whole school of savoir vivre and worldly science, are interesting in this particular, that there has been no idea of forming a model for imitation, but they are simply intended to bring up a pupil in the closest intimacy. They are confidential letters, which, suddenly produced in the light of day, have betrayed all the secrets and ingenious artifices of paternal solicitude. If, in reading them nowadays, we are struck with the excessive importance attached to accidental and promiscuous circumstances, with pure details of costume, we are not less struck with the durable part, with that which belongs to human observation in all ages; and this last part is much more considerable than at a superficial glance would be imagined. In applying himself to the formation of his son as a polite man in society, Lord Chesterfield has not given us a treatise on duty, as Cicero has; but he has left letters which, by their mixture of justness and lightness, by certain lightsome airs which insensibly mingle with the serious graces, preserve the medium between the “Mémoires of the Chevalier de Grammont” and “Télémaque.”

Portrait by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click for details.

The complete essay was eventually included in the anthology The World’s Best Essays: From the Earliest Period to the Present Time, Volume 9 under the title “A Typical Man of the World.” Pair it with this contemporary meditation on what makes a great essay, then treat yourself to some of Barry’s superb books and art.


Susan Sontag on Sex

“If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.”

“Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple or nice in the ways we might like it to be… It refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should,” Alain de Botton wrote in his fantastic meditation on how to think more (meaning better) about sex. Indeed, for all its promise of pleasure, sex has invariably been a source of great frustration and anxiety even to some of history’s most brilliant and enlightened minds. Take, for instance, Susan Sontag: From As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 (public library), which came in as one of 2012’s best books on psychology and philosophy and which is now out in paperback, comes this remarkably, relatably human contemplation of the psychological turmoil of sex, a snippet of which you might recall from Sontag’s illustrated insights on love.

Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, gelatin silver print, 1975

In an entry from November 1, 1961, shortly before her twenty-ninth birthday, Sontag muses:

As a writer, I tolerate error, poor performance, failure. So what if I fail some of the time, if a story or an essay is no good? Sometimes things do go well, the work is good. And that’s enough.

It’s just this attitude I don’t have about sex. I don’t tolerate error, failure—therefore I’m anxious from the start, and therefore I’m more likely to fail. Because I don’t have the confidence that some of the time (without my forcing anything) it will be good.

If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.

I experience the writing as given to me — sometimes, almost, as dictated. I let it come, try not to interfere with it. I respect it, because it’s me and yet more than me. It’s personal and transpersonal, both.

I would like to feel that way about sex, too. As if “nature” or “life” used me. And I trust that, and let myself be used.

An attitude of surrender to oneself, to life. Prayer. Let it be, whatever it will be. I give myself to it.

Prayer: peace and voluptuousness.

In this, no room for shame and anxiety as to how the little old self rates in the light of some objective standard of performance.

One must be devout about sex. Then, one won’t dare to be anxious. Anxiety will never be revealed for what it is — spiritual meanness, pettiness, small-mindedness.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is sublime in its entirety and has previously given us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, her illustrated wisdom on art, and her bulletpointed bodily self-portrait.


David Ogilvy’s Timeless Principles of Creative Management

“If you ever find a man who is better than you are — hire him. If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.”

Advertising legend David Ogilvy endures not only as the original Mad Man, but also as one of modern history’s most celebrated creative leaders in the communication arts. From The Unpublished David Ogilvy (public library) — the same compendium of his lectures, memos, and lists that also gave us Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips on writing, his endearing memo of praise to a veteran copywriter, and his list of the 10 qualities of creative leaders — comes a chapter titled “Principles of Management,” based on a 1968 paper Ogilvy wrote as a guide for Ogilvy & Mather managers worldwide.

In a section on morale, he admonishes that some companies “have been destroyed by internal politics” and offers seven ways to curtail them:

  1. Always be fair and honest in your own dealings; unfairness and dishonesty at the top can demoralize [a company].
  2. Never hire relatives or friends.
  3. Sack incurable politicians.
  4. Crusade against paper warfare*. Encourage your people to air their disagreements face-to-face.
  5. Discourage secrecy.
  6. Discourage poaching.
  7. Compose sibling rivalries.

* Though Ogilvy was writing decades before email, the same applies with equal urgency to today’s electronic warfare.

Echoing Dickens, who advised his son to “never be hard upon people who are in your power,” and presaging the modern science of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the key to motivation at work, Ogilvy adds:

The best way to “install a generator” in a man is to give him the greatest possible responsibility. Treat your subordinates as grown-ups — and they will grow up. Help them when they are in difficulty. Be affectionate and human, not cold and impersonal.

Italo Calvino cautioned in his collected insights on writing that “one cannot say a priori that a writer just because he is a writer is more capable of handling ideas and of seeing what is essential than a journalist.” Similarly, Ogilvy notes the democratic nature of ideas and urges managers not to subscribe to siloed stereotypes:

Senior men and women have no monopoly on great ideas. Nor do Creative people. Some of the best ideas come from account executives, researchers, and others. Encourage this; you need all the ideas you can get.

Reflecting on mastering the pace of productivity, he argues:

I believe in the Scottish proverb: Hard work never killed a man. Men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They do not die of hard work. The harder your people work, the happier and healthier they will be.

Writing shortly after Arthur Koestler’s famous treatise on the relationship between humor and creativity, Ogilvy affirms the importance of that link in cultivating a creative environment:

Kill grimness with laughter. Maintain an atmosphere of informality. Encourage exuberance. Get rid of sad dogs who spread gloom.

In a section on respect, he calls for creative integrity:

Our offices must always be headed by the kind of people who command respect. No phonies, zeros or bastards.

In a section on hiring, he offers the two essential criteria for recruiting talent:

The paramount problem you face is this: advertising is one of the most difficult functions in industry, and too few brilliant people want careers in advertising.

The challenge is to recruit people who are able to do the difficult work our clients require from us.

  1. Make a conscious effort to avoid recruiting dull, pedestrian hacks.
  2. Create an atmosphere of ferment, innovation and freedom. This will attract brilliant recruits.

If you ever find a man who is better than you are — hire him. If necessary, pay him more than you pay yourself.

He adds a note on equality in hiring (though, on the cusp of the second wave of feminism and shortly after the Equal Pay Act, he makes no mention of equal opportunity for women):

In recruitment and promotion we are fanatical in our hatred for all forms of prejudice. We have no prejudice for or against Roman Catholics, Protestants, Negroes, Aristocracy, Jews, Agnostics or foreigners.

In a section on partnership within the company, he offers four points of advice:

It is as difficult to sustain happy partnerships as to sustain happy marriages. The challenge can be met if those concerned practice these restraints:

  1. Have clear-cut division of responsibility.
  2. Don’t poach on the other fellow’s preserves.
  3. Live and let live; nobody is perfect.
  4. “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considers not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

In a section on comers, exploring the management of talent, he reiterates some his 10 criteria for creative leaders and advises:

The management of manpower resources is one of the most important duties of our office heads. It is particularly important for them to spot people of unusual promise early in their careers, and to move them up the ladder as fast as they can handle increased responsibility.

There are five characteristics which suggest to me that a person has the potential for rapid promotion:

  1. He is ambitious.
  2. He works harder than his peers — and enjoys it.
  3. He has a brilliant brain — inventive and unorthodox.
  4. He has an engaging personality.
  5. He demonstrates respect for the creative function.

If you fail to recognize, promote and reward young people of exceptional promise, they will leave you; the loss of an exceptional man can be as damaging as the loss of an account.

The rest of his principles go on to explore such intricacies as the perils of leadership, the art of cat-herding creative people, and how to know when to resign a client. It’s worth reiterating just how excellent and timeless The Unpublished David Ogilvy is in its entirety.


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