An imaginative invitation to empathy and self-expansion.
By Maria Popova
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince. Those bereft of vision, therefore, need not be bereft of the essential — they discern it by means other than sight.
The richness of that otherness is what Belgian artist and author Anne Herbauts came to see in a surprising and profound question from a blind child. During a bookmaking workshop she was leading, a little boy asked her whether she, as an artist, could tell him what color the wind was — a notion of the same trans-sensory, synesthetic quality as Helen Keller’s electrifying account of “hearing” Beethoven.
The story’s protagonist, whom Herbauts affectionately calls “the little giant,” goes in search of an answer to his synesthetic question. Every piece of nature he encounters gives him a different answer — to the bee, the wind is the warm color of the sun; the old dog, who perceives the world through smell, experiences it as “pink, flowery, pale white”; to the wolf, it smells of the forest; for the mountain, the wind is a bird; for the window, it is the color of time.
Herbauts paints the sensory landscape with extraordinarily inventive bookmaking techniques to which this screen can do no justice — appleseeds peek through a die-cut hole, raindrops gleam embossed on a laminated page, debossed grooves invite the touch of tree bark. What emerges is a parallel invitation to empathy and self-expansion in imagining the world as the unsighted experience it and exploring a different sensorial space than the one we sighted humans ordinarily inhabit. Just as the universe of smell unlocks hidden layers of reality, so does the universe of touch.
The little giant asks the bird, What color…
But the bird has flown away.
And the enormous giant,
with a slow gesture says: The color of the wind?
It is everything at once.
This whole book.
Then he takes the book and,
thumb against its edge,
he lets the pages fly.
“Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other.”
By Maria Popova
“There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love,” the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in his 1965 classic on mastering the art of loving. One chief reason we flounder in this supreme human aspiration is our unwillingness to accept the paradoxes of love — paradoxes like the necessity of frustration in romantic satisfaction and the seemingly irreconcilable notion that while love longs for closeness, desire thrives on distance.
How to live with those paradoxes, rather than succumbing to the self-defeating urge to treat them as problems to be solved, is what Belgian psychotherapist and writer Esther Perel explores in Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence (public library). Drawing on decades of her own work with couples and a vast body of psychological literature, Perel offers an illuminating and consolatory perspective on intimate relationships and our conflicting needs for security and freedom, warmth and wildness.
Love is at once an affirmation and a transcendence of who we are.
Beginnings are always ripe with possibilities, for they hold the promise of completion. Through love we imagine a new way of being.
In this imaginative act, we project ourselves into a fantasy of who we can be to and with the other. But as the encounter evolves from the fantasy of an idealized romance to the reality of an actual relationship, the projection begins to dim. The trouble for many couples, Perel points out, is in sustaining the desire fueled by the initial fantasy — the fantasy of what Mary Oliver so poetically called the “invisible and powerful and uncontrollable and beautiful and possibly even unsuitable” — while settling into the comfortable intimacy of a real relationship.
If love is an act of imagination, then intimacy is an act of fruition. It waits for the high to subside so it can patiently insert itself into the relationship. The seeds of intimacy are time and repetition. We choose each other again and again, and so create a community of two.
So begins the paradox of intimacy and desire: As a couple grows emotionally intimate through this repetition, which furnishes the building blocks of trust and security, desire begins to diminish. Noting that sex is not a function of emotional intimacy but a separate state of being, Perel counters a misconception central to our cultural narrative:
There is a complex relationship between love and desire, and it is not a cause-and-effect, linear arrangement. A couple’s emotional life together and their physical life together each have their ebbs and flows, their ups and downs, but these don’t always correspond. They intersect, they influence each other, but they’re also distinct.
It is too easily assumed that problems with sex are the result of a lack of closeness. But … perhaps the way we construct closeness reduces the sense of freedom and autonomy needed for sexual pleasure. When intimacy collapses into fusion, it is not a lack of closeness but too much closeness that impedes desire.
Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other. With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused — when two become one — connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.
Drawing on her work with couples, Perel writes:
The intense physical and emotional fusion [new lovers] experience is possible only with someone we don’t yet know. At this early stage merging and surrendering are relatively safe, because the boundaries between the two people are still externally defined. [The lovers] are new to each other. And while they are migrating into each other’s respective worlds, they have not yet taken full residence; they are still two distinct entities. It is all the space between them that allows them to imagine no space at all…
In the beginning you can focus on the connection because the psychological distance is already there; it’s a part of the structure. Otherness is a fact. You don’t need to cultivate separateness in the early stages of falling in love; you still are separate. You aim to overcome that separateness.
But as we bridge the separateness, we shorten and eventually annihilate the distance between two selves that makes one desirable to the other, for the springs of desire are in the very possibility of a leap across the abyss of otherness. As we settle into comfort love — the kind one of Perel’s patients aptly likened to a flannel nightgown — those springs come unwound.
She sketches the common dynamic:
The caring, protective elements that nurture home life can go against the rebellious spirit of carnal love. We often choose a partner who makes us feel cherished; but after the initial romance we find, like Candace, that we can’t sexualize him or her. We long to create closeness in our relationships, to bridge the space between our partner and ourselves, but, ironically, it is this very space between self and other that is the erotic synapse. In order to bring lust home, we need to re-create the distance that we worked so hard to bridge. Erotic intelligence is about creating distance, then bringing that space to life.
Creating psychological distance within the comfort of closeness, Perel argues, is essential for sustaining desire in a loving relationship. She explains:
In her landmark book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes, “Eroticism is a movement toward the Other, this is its essential character.” Yet in our efforts to establish intimacy we often seek to eliminate otherness, thereby precluding the space necessary for desire to flourish. We seek intimacy to protect ourselves from feeling alone; and yet creating the distance essential to eroticism means stepping back from the comfort of our partner and feeling more alone…Our ability to tolerate our separateness — and the fundamental insecurity it engenders — is a precondition for maintaining interest and desire in a relationship. Instead of always striving for closeness … couples may be better off cultivating their separate selves… There is beauty in an image that highlights a connection to oneself, rather than a distance from one’s partner. In our mutual intimacy we make love, we have children, and we share physical space and interests. Indeed, we blend the essential parts of our lives. But “essential” does not mean “all.” Personal intimacy demarcates a private zone, one that requires tolerance and respect. It is a space — physical, emotional, and intellectual — that belongs only to me. Not everything needs to be revealed. Everyone should cultivate a secret garden.
Tending to that secret garden, Perel suggests, is an art of acquired skill. (This, perhaps, is why great artists work like gardeners.) Its acquisition begins in treating love and desire not as a dissonant opposition but as a symphonic composition of counterpoints:
Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected. Love is about having; desire is about wanting. An expression of longing, desire requires ongoing elusiveness. It is less concerned with where it has already been than passionate about where it can still go. But too often, as couples settle into the comforts of love, they cease to fan the flame of desire. They forget that fire needs air.
“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
By Maria Popova
“In the wholeheartedness of concentration,” the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her beautiful inquiry into the effortless effort of creativity, “world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.” But concentration is indeed a difficult art, art’s art, and its difficulty lies in the constant conciliation of the dissonance between self and world — a difficulty hardly singular to the particular conditions of our time. Two hundred years before social media, the great French artist Eugène Delacroix lamented the necessary torment of avoiding social distractions in creative work; a century and a half later, Agnes Martin admonished aspiring artists to exercise discernment in the interruptions they allow, or else corrupt the mental, emotional, and spiritual privacy where inspiration arises.
How to hedge against that hazard is what beloved poet Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) explores in a wonderful piece titled “Of Power and Time,” found in the altogether enchanting Upstream: Selected Essays (public library).
It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.
But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.
Oliver terms this the “intimate interrupter” and cautions that it is far more perilous to creative work than any external distraction, adding:
The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter.
Echoing Borges’s puzzlement over our divided personhood, Oliver sets out to excavate the building blocks of the self in order to understand its parallel capacities for focused creative flow and merciless interruption. She identifies three primary selves that she inhabits, and that inhabit her, as they do all of us: the childhood self, which we spend our lives trying to weave into the continuity of our personal identity (“The child I was,” she writes, “is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.”); the social self, “fettered to a thousand notions of obligation”; and a third self, a sort of otherworldly awareness.
The first two selves, she argues, inhabit the ordinary world and are present in all people; the third is of a different order and comes most easily alive in artists — it is where the wellspring of creative energy resides. She writes:
Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.
Oliver contrasts the existential purpose of the two ordinary selves with that of the creative self:
Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?
Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go round.
In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.
Part of this something-elseness, Oliver argues, is the uncommon integration of the creative self — the artist’s work cannot be separated from the artist’s whole life, nor can its wholeness be broken down into the mechanical bits-and-pieces of specific actions and habits. (Elsewhere, Oliver has written beautifully about how habit gives shape to but must not control our inner lives).
Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.
No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.
Above all, Oliver observes from the “fortunate platform” of a long, purposeful, and creatively fertile life, the artist’s task is one of steadfast commitment to the art:
Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.
She returns to the problem of concentration, which for the artist is a form, perhaps the ultimate form, of consecration:
The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.
It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.
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