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Patti Smith’s Imaginative Remedy for Insomnia

Soporific shadow theater of the mind, inspired by Melville.

Patti Smith’s Imaginative Remedy for Insomnia

Given that it serves as the brain’s built-in therapy mechanism regulating our negative moods, given that it acts as the brain’s janitor sweeping away toxins responsible for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, sleep may be the closest thing we have a superpower — so much so that its importance is encoded into the 13 most important things I’ve learned about life. The clearest evidence of that importance comes from the extreme disruption of our functioning when sleep is taken away — the way we we grow unmoored from our own minds, adrift an arm’s reach from reality, unable to follow the ordinary threads that link one thought to the next, that fetch the right word, the needed memory.

Insomnia, then, is a particularly unforgiving and parasitic malfunction of consciousness that feeds on its host, feeds on our very sense of being. Of the many proposed but ultimately unprovable remedies for insomnia, from the folkloric to the clinical, by far the loveliest I’ve ever encountered comes from Patti Smith in Year of the Monkey (public library) — her unclassifiable and uncommonly poetic masterpiece at the borderline of dream and reality.

Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)
Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)

In the disorienting midst of the 2016 election news cycle, when “an insidious insomnia” slowly begins to claim her nights, Smith resorts to an old mental game by which she tricks herself to sleep — a kind of shadow theater of the mind, inspired by Herman Melville and reminiscent of a Zen parable. She writes:

I imagine myself a sailor in the time of the great whaling ships on a lengthy voyage. We are in the center of a violent storm and the captain’s inexperienced son catches his foot in a length of rope and is pulled overboard. Unflinching, the sailor leaps into the storm-tossed seas after him. The men throw down massive lengths of rope and the lad is brought to deck in the arms of the sailor and carried below.

The sailor is summoned to the quarterdeck and led to the captain’s inner sanctum. Wet and shivering, he eyes his surroundings with wonder. The captain, in a rare show of emotion, embraces him. You saved my son’s life, he says. Tell me how I can best serve you. The sailor, embarrassed, asks for a full measure of rum for each of the men. Done, says the captain, but what of you? After some hesitation the sailor answers, I have slept on galley floors, bunks and hammocks since a lad, it has been a long time since I have slept in a proper bed.

The captain, moved by the sailor’s humility, offers his own bed, then retires to the room of his son. The sailor stands before the captain’s empty bed. It has down pillows and a light coverlet. There is a massive leather trunk at its foot. He crosses himself, blows out the candles and succumbs to a rare and wholly enveloping sleep.

This is the game I sometimes play when sleep is elusive, one that evolved from reading Melville, that takes me from the mat on the bathroom floor to my own bed, affording grateful slumber.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree.

Couple this tiny fragment of the wholly resplendent Year of the Monkey with Maurice Sendak’s antidote to insomnia, then revisit Smith on creativity, time, loss, and transformation, and her tribute to William Blake.


Edward Weston on the Most Fruitful Attitude Toward Life, Art, and Other People

“I feel towards persons as I do towards art, — constructively.”

Edward Weston on the Most Fruitful Attitude Toward Life, Art, and Other People

Goethe believed that the only opinion worth voicing about the work and choices of others is one that springs from “a certain one-sided enthusiasm, or from a loving interest in the person and the work… All else is vanity.” A particularly corrosive species of vanity is the habit of self-comparison, which — depending on the degrees of narcissism and insecurity in the comparer — results either in self-inflation by diminishing the worth of the other or in despair by hyperfocus on the other’s visible achievements against their invisible struggles (for our deepest struggles are always invisible). At its worst, such vanity — such absence of sympathetic enthusiasm for other people and the world at large — festers into the most uncreative, unconstructive self-contraction of all: cynicism.

A lovely antidote to such vanity comes from the visionary photographer Edward Weston (March 24, 1886–January 1, 1958) in his journal, The Daybooks of Edward Weston: Volume II, California (public library) — the out-of-print 1966 treasure that also gave us Weston on the importance of cross-disciplinary curiosity in creative work.

Edward Weston (© Brett Weston Archive, International Center of Photography)

In 1927, after four creatively fertile years in Mexico, Weston returned to his old studio in California and found himself struggling for survival. In a particularly telling diary entry, he agonizes after his son loses a five-dollar bill — half of Weston’s earnings from a print sale. “Five dollars!” he exclaims in his daybook. “Enough for me to live on a week!” And yet a certain inner buoyancy lifted him up to begin what would become his most influential work — a radiance and generosity of spirit that extended not only to his work but to the world about him, imperfect as a world always is. On the first day of February in 1928, Weston writes:

I feel towards persons as I do towards art, — constructively. Find all the good first. Judge by what has been done, — not by omissions or mistakes. And look well into oneself! A life can well be spent correcting and improving one’s own faults without bothering about others.

In another entry penned on that summer, Weston contemplates what makes a great artist — and a great person — by reflecting on the most admired photographer of his time, Alfred Stieglitz, then writes:

It has come to me of late that comparing one man’s work to another’s, naming one greater or lesser, is a wrong approach.

The important and only vital question is, how much greater, finer, am I than I was yesterday? Have I fulfilled my possibilities, made the most of my potentialities?

What a marvellous world if all would, — could hold this attitude toward life.

Five years earlier, Georgia O’Keeffe — Stieglitz’s muse and lover, soon to be wife, soon to be one of the most visionary artists humanity has produced — had articulated this very sentiment even more poetically in her stunning letter of advice and assurance to Sherwood Anderson, who himself had begun painting after being inspired by O’Keeffe’s work:

Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you.


Abraham Lincoln on Equality and the Slippery Slope of Exclusion

A prescient admonition against the infinite regress of “except.”

Abraham Lincoln on Equality and the Slippery Slope of Exclusion

“The North has always tried to establish its identity by cutting other people out and off,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their historic dialogue about identity, race, and belonging. “The Northern identity is dependent upon whom you can keep out.” Half a century later, this aspect of the Northern identity has become in a great sense the national identity of the country that calls itself by the name of an entire continent. Its rubric of exclusion has been mirrored across the world, in the various international nationalisms that have cropped up as the reactionary politics of regressive ideologies.

More than a century before Baldwin, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) issued a prescient admonition against this epidemic of divisiveness and exclusionary identity in a short, stirring letter to a friend, cited in These Truths (public library) — Jill Lepore’s masterwork of poetic scholarship, chronicling the complex and conflicted history of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln (Photograph by Abraham Byers)

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which granted legal freedom to more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans — a public triumph of human rights, and a private triumph for a man who had faced the artillery of brutal criticism for his idealism and his determination to make a willfully blind and belligerent nation see slavery for what it was: a “monstrous injustice.” Although his courageous approach to criticism helped him persevere in the public eye, privately he often despaired — never more bleakly than when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, allowing people within the two states to decide for themselves whether they wish to perpetrate slavery. Lincoln saw it as a colossal backward step for progress and a supreme betrayal of the Declaration of Independence — “progress in degeneracy,” a travesty of basic civil liberty, a travesty of basic morality, casting self-interest as the only inalienable right.

“Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of equal rights of men,” he wrote in a note to himself. “Ours began, by affirming those rights.” Devastated, incomprehending of how far his nation had fallen from its founding ideals, Lincoln followed the slippery moral slope of exclusion to its only logical conclusion in a chillingly prescient letter to a friend, penned in the summer of 1855:

As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

Complement with Zadie Smith on the see-saw of optimism and despair in cultural progress and philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of identity, then revisit Baldwin’s prophetic insight into divisiveness and its only cure.


Engraving Is Eternal Work: How to Dodge a Deadline Like William Blake

A subtle lesson in taking responsibility while protecting the integrity of the creative process and the freedom of the artistic imagination.

Engraving Is Eternal Work: How to Dodge a Deadline Like William Blake

Neil Gaiman has semi-facetiously located the two primary sources of good ideas in desperation and deadlines. Still, deadlines come and go and, devoid of ideas or dry of their actualization, we despair. We make excuses. Sometimes — like when the dog actually ate Steinbeck’s manuscript — they happen to be true. But the best excuse is always the truth itself — creative work is slower and more sacred in its unwillable transmissions from the muse than we ever like to admit.

That is what William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) addressed in a short, subtly transcendent letter found in Michael Bird’s Artists’ Letters (public library) — a collection of correspondence drawn from half a millennium of creative titans, spanning friendships and loves, family and patronage, skill-sharing and life-advice, including glimpses of such famous relationships as those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, and Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz.

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, 1807. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

Blake, celebrated today for his fathomless poetic and artistic imagination, was trained as an engraver. Bookending his career were his early engravings for the children’s moral tales by the political philosopher and trailblazing feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he revered, and his drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, on which he worked until his dying day. Upon seeing his engravings for Book of Job, which Blake completed a month before his death, the great photographer Edward Weston exclaimed in his daybook:

An hour with his engraving means more to me than a month of reading, — more spirituality, — for my eyes to receive — and give — more directly, surely, than any other of my senses.

In 1800, shortly after the death of the popular poet William Cowper, his wealthy friend and fellow poet William Hayley set about commemorating him in what would become a handsome three-volume biography. He commissioned Blake to illustrate it and asked him to move from London to a cottage in Sussex near his own newly built “hermitage” to work on the project. Blake, who so admired Cowper’s writing that he thought his letters “ought to be printed in letters of Gold & ornamented with Jewels of Heaven,” agreed.

Over the three years Blake spent in Sussex, he considered these engravings the “principal labor” of his time. But Hayley’s controlling proximity began to wear on the free-spirited artist, who just a year earlier had composed one of the most beautiful letters of all time, defending the integrity of the creative spirit and the freedom of the artistic imagination. The work slowed and the relationship soured, but Blake maintained absolute fidelity to his art and his creative process.

On March 12, 1804, after his return to London and after the first two volumes of the biography were published, Blake wrote to Hayley to explain, in a stunning tapestry of the practical and the poetic, why he had missed the deadline for the remaining two engravings.

Dear Sir,

I begin with the latter end of your letter & grieve more for Miss Poole’s ill-health than for my failure in sending proofs, tho’ I am very sorry that I cannot send before Saturday’s Coach. Engraving is Eternal work; the two plates are almost finish’d. You will receive proofs of them for Lady Hesketh, whose copy of Cowper’s letters ought to be printed in letters of Gold & ornamented with Jewels of Heaven, Havilah, Eden & all the countries where Jewels abound. I curse & bless Engraving alternately, because it takes so much time & is so untractable, tho’ capable of such beauty & perfection.

My wife desires me to Express her Love to you, Praying for Miss Poole’s perfect recovery, & we both remain,

Your Affectionate,
Will Blake

Hayley’s Life of Cowper, featuring six engravings by Blake, earned the author £11,000 — more than $600,000 today. Blake died destitute, isolated, and half-mad, but the embers of his genius, celebrated on a par with Beethoven’s, went on to inspire generations of artists as diverse as Maurice Sendak, whose early illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence became his lifelong creative compass, and Patti Smith, who so lyrically reverences Blake’s legacy as a guiding sun in the cosmos of creativity.


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