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We’re Breaking Up: Rebecca Solnit on How Modern Noncommunication Is Changing Our Experience of Time, Solitude, and Communion

“Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it.”

We’re Breaking Up: Rebecca Solnit on How Modern Noncommunication Is Changing Our Experience of Time, Solitude, and Communion

Recently, while packing to move, I came upon a stack of letters from my Bulgarian grandmother. During my time in college, we wrote each other long, beautiful letters about once a month. Then she discovered the internet. The letters became emails and, invariably, their nature changed. The slow mutual beholding of sentiment and feeling that co-respondence implies became the quick mutual reaction to information under the pressure of immediacy, which often bled into the banal — daily errands, travel plans, the weather.

As I ran my fingers over the lined paper, words subtly debossed by the pressure of my grandmother’s ballpoint pen, I wondered about the continuity of personal identity across this shift — my letter-writing self seemed to have entirely different things to say, and to say them entirely differently, than my email-writing self, and yet the two selves belong to the same person. Each appears to be a dormant potentiality, beckoned forth by the respective medium of expression — something that makes it hard not to notice, and hard not to worry about, how such shifts in medium might shape what parts of ourselves we manifest, which in turn add up to the sum total of our personal identity.

The many dimensions of this question are what Rebecca Solnit, one of the most incisive thinkers and exquisite essayists of our time, explores in a spectacular essay titled “We’re Breaking Up: Noncommunication in the Silicon Age” from The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (public library) — the superb nonfiction collection that gave us Solnit on what our dream homes reveal about our interior lives.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

With an eye to Virginia Woolf’s famous proclamation that “on or around December 1910, human character changed,” regarding the arrival of Modernism, Solnit writes:

On or around June 1995, human character changed again. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound — and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the Internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavors — radio, television, print — and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.

Perhaps each generation broods over how the disruption technologies of its time are taking civilization down — Italo Calvino, after all, bemoaned the newspaper itself as a worrisome distraction and one twelfth-century Zen monk thought the same of books — but Solnit’s point is far from that familiar techno-dystopian refrain. Rather, she contemplates the subtler and more insidious effects of our communication technologies on the human psyche — the shredding of the very fabric of time, which blankets our daily lives and dictates their rhythm:

Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people, or your trivia.

[…]

The bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time; it had different parts; mornings included this, and evenings that, and a great many of us had these schedules in common. I would read the paper while listening to the radio, but I wouldn’t check my mail while updating my status while checking the news sites while talking on the phone. Phones were wired to the wall, or if they were cordless, they were still housebound. The sound quality was usually good. On them people had long, deep conversations of a sort almost unknown today, now that phones are used while driving, while shopping, while walking in front of cars against the light and into fountains. The general assumption was that when you were on the phone, that’s all you were.

Art from Inside the Rainbow, a collection of vintage Soviet children's book illustration
Art from Inside the Rainbow, a collection of vintage Soviet children’s book illustration

Solnit considers how correspondence changed from the thrilling event of receiving a letter — “the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words” — to the task-oriented pragmatism of fielding a demand or relaying one for the recipient to field:

Letters morphed into emails, and for a long time emails had all the depth and complexity of letters. They were a beautiful new form that spliced together the intimacy of what you might write from the heart with the speed of telegraphs. Then emails deteriorated into something more like text messages… Text messages were bound by the limits of telegrams — the state-of-the-art technology of the 1840s — and were almost as awkward to punch out. Soon phone calls were made mostly on mobile phones, whose sound quality is mediocre and prone to failure altogether (“you’re breaking up” or “we’re breaking up” is the cry of our time) even when one or both speakers aren’t multitasking. Communication began to dwindle into peremptory practical phrases and fragments, while the niceties of spelling, grammar, and punctuation were put aside, along with the more lyrical and profound possibilities. Communication between two people often turned into group chatter: you told all your Facebook friends or Twitter followers how you felt, and followed the popularity of your post or tweet. Your life had ratings.

While she acknowledges that a great many benefits have come from our modern communication technologies, Solnit considers their cost:

Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.

Reflecting on witnessing an all too familiar vignette — a group of young people waiting to be seated together at a restaurant, each staring into her or his phone instead of conversing with one another — Solnit writes:

It seems less likely that each of the kids waiting for the table for eight has an urgent matter at hand than that this is the habitual orientation of their consciousness. At times I feel as though I’m in a bad science fiction movie where everyone takes orders from tiny boxes that link them to alien overlords. Which is what corporations are anyway, and mobile phones decoupled from corporations are not exactly common.

Art by Jonathan Burton for a Folio Society edition of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four
Art by Jonathan Burton for a Folio Society edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

In a lament evocative of psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s assertion that the sense of missing out, however psychologically discomfiting, is essential to a full life, Solnit observes:

A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing, or doing at least two things at once, or going to check some other medium. It’s an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind.

She considers the sense of loss, nebulous in its precise object but undeniably palpable, that many of us feel in bearing witness to and partaking in this profound shift in the human experience:

I think it is for a quality of time we no longer have, and that is hard to name and harder to imagine reclaiming. My time does not come in large, focused blocks, but in fragments and shards. The fault is my own, arguably, but it’s yours too — it’s the fault of everyone I know who rarely finds herself or himself with uninterrupted hours. We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.

It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there, alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void and filled up with sounds and distractions.

With an eye to the particular atrocity of interruption that was Google Glass — an atrocity that has since perished after metastasizing into too uncomfortable a caricature of our modern malady of productivity-guised flight from presence — Solnit writes:

I watched in horror a promotional video for these glasses that showed how your whole field of vision of the real world could become a screen on which reminder messages spring up. The video portrayed the lifestyle of a hip female Brooklynite whose Google glasses toss Hello Kitty-style pastel data bubbles at her from the moment she gets up. None of the information the glasses thrust into her field of vision is crucial. It’s all optional, based on the assumptions that our lives require lots of management and that being managerial is our highest goal. Is it?

I forget practical stuff all the time, but I also forget to look at the distance and contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe and the oneness of all things. A pair of glasses on which the temperature and chance of rain pops up or someone’s trying to schedule me for a project or a drink is not going to help with reveries about justice, meaning, and the beautiful deep marine blue of nearly every dusk.

malmo_tower1

Nearly seven decades after Henry Beston’s magnificent manifesto for breaking the tyranny of technology and relearning the art of presence, Solnit wonders when the uprising will come — against the part of ourselves too easily lured by the promise of efficiency at the expense of aliveness, and against the corporations exploitively perfecting the allure of such seductive illusions. Looking to the groundswell of craftsmanship and the maker movement — gardening, knitting, and the general surge of interest in making things by hand via traditional methods — she considers how this shift might help us reclaim our sense of time:

It is a slow-everything movement in need of a manifesto that would explain what vinyl records and homemade bread have in common. We won’t overthrow corporations by knitting — but understanding the pleasures of knitting or weeding or making pickles might articulate the value of that world outside electronic chatter and distraction, and inside a more stately sense of time.

[…]

Getting out of [the rabbit hole of total immersion in the networked world] is about slowness and about finding alternatives to the alienation that accompanies a sweater knitted by a machine in a sweatshop in a country you know nothing about, or jam made by a giant corporation that has terrible environmental and labor practices and might be tied to the death of honeybees or the poisoning of farmworkers. It’s an attempt to put the world back together again, in its materials but also its time and labor. It’s both laughably small and heroically ambitious.

The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness is a superb read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with how Lewis Carroll’s rules of letter-writing can make email more civil, then revisit Solnit on how walking vitalizes the meanderings of the mind, what reading does for the human spirit, and how we find ourselves by getting lost.

BP

Patti Smith on Time, Transformation, and How the Radiance of Love Redeems the Rupture of Loss

“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.”

“Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?” philosopher Rebecca Goldstein asked in contemplating how Einstein and Gödel shaped our experience of time. A little less than a century earlier, just as the theory of relativity was taking hold, Virginia Woolf articulated in exquisite prose what quantum physics sought to convey in equations — that thing we feel in our very bones, impervious to art or science, by virtue of being ephemeral creatures in a transient world.

That transcendent transience is what beloved musician, artist, and poet Patti Smith explores in M Train (public library) — a most unusual and breathtaking book: part memoir, part dreamscape, part elegy for the departed and for time itself.

A person possessing the rare gift of remaining radiant even in her melancholy, Smith grieves for her husband and her brother; she commemorates her great heroes, from friends like William S. Burroughs, who influenced her greatly, to kindred companions on the creative path across space and time like Frida Kahlo, William Blake, and Sylvia Plath; she even mourns the closing of the neighborhood café she frequented for more than a decade, one of those mundane anchors of constancy by which we hang on to existence.

The point, of course, is that each loss evokes all losses — a point Smith delivers with extraordinary elegance of prose and sincerity of spirit. What emerges is a strange and wonderful consolation for our inconsolable longing for permanency amid a universe driven by perpetual change and inevitable loss.

Frida Kahlo’s bed (Photograph: Patti Smith)

Smith writes:

The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.

But every transformation is invariably a loss, and the transformed must be mourned before the transformed-into can be relished. The mystery of the continuity between the two — between our past and present selves — is one of the greatest perplexities of philosophy. Smith arrives at it with wistful wonderment as she contemplates the disorientation of aging, that ultimate horseman of terminal transformation:

I considered what it meant to be sixty-six. The same number as the original American highway, the celebrated Mother Road that George Maharis, as Buz Murdock, took as he tooled across the country in his Corvette, working on oil rigs and trawlers, breaking hearts and freeing junkies. Sixty-six, I thought, what the hell. I could feel my chronology mounting, snow approaching. I could feel the moon, but I could not see it. The sky was veiled with a heavy mist illuminated by the perpetual city lights. When I was a girl the night sky was a great map of constellations, a cornucopia spilling the crystalline dust of the Milky Way across its ebony expanse, layers of stars that I would deftly unfold in my mind. I noticed the threads on my dungarees straining across my protruding knees. I’m still the same person, I thought, with all my flaws intact, same old bony knees…

[…]

The phone was ringing, a birthday wish from an old friend reaching from far away. As I said good-bye I realized I missed that particular version of me, the one who was feverish, impious. She has flown, that’s for sure.

Patti Smith, late 1970s

In a sentiment reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on the fluidity of past and present, Smith considers what “real time” is:

Is it time uninterrupted? Only the present comprehended? Are our thoughts nothing but passing trains, no stops, devoid of dimension, whizzing by massive posters with repeating images? Catching a fragment from a window seat, yet another fragment from the next identical frame? If I write in the present yet digress, is that still real time? Real time, I reasoned, cannot be divided into sections like numbers on the face of a clock. If I write about the past as I simultaneously dwell in the present, am I still in real time? Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory. I looked out into the street and noticed the light changing. Perhaps the sun had slipped behind a cloud. Perhaps time had slipped away.

One of William Blake’s drawings for Milton’s Paradise Lost

This dance with change on the precipice of past and present is perhaps why the weather plays such a recurring role throughout the book — weather changes are the most universally palpable of transformations, and at their most acute they augur loss. Smith writes about storms with a kind of primal awe — the blizzard that strikes as she and her husband leave the theater after seeing an Akira Kurosawa film on her fortieth birthday, having entered it under clear and sunny skies; the raging thunderstorm through which she returns home alone after her husband dies in a Detroit hospital, forty-five years after he was born in the midst of an electrical storm in his grandparents’ kitchen; Hurricane Sandy, which devastates the Far Rockaways just as she has fallen in love with the community and purchased a ramshackle bungalow as her newfound sanctuary.

Recalling visiting her beloved Rockaways after the Sandy devastation, Smith captures the piercing impermanence that storms swirl us into contact with:

The great storm surges that flooded the streets had killed most of the vegetation. I inspected all that there was to see. The mildewed pasteboard walls forming small rooms had been gutted, opening onto a large room with the century-old vaulted ceiling intact, and rotted floors were being removed. I could feel progress and left with a bit of optimism. I sat on the makeshift step of what would be my refurbished porch and envisioned a yard with wildflowers. Anxious for some permanency, I guess I needed to be reminded how temporal permanency is.

Bungalow, Rockaway Beach (Photograph: Patti Smith)

Nothing encodes this temporal permanency more palpably than our treasured objects, imbued with memories and haunted by former versions of ourselves, and there is nothing we imbue with memory more intimately than the worn stories of our clothes. Like life itself, these wearable micro-museums of memory are woven of both love and loss. Smith captures this beautifully in the story of one such cherished possession:

I had a black coat. A poet gave it to me some years ago on my fifty-seventh birthday. It had been his — an ill-fitting, unlined Comme des Garçons overcoat that I secretly coveted. On the morning of my birthday he told me he had no gift for me.

— I don’t need a gift, I said.

— But I want to give you something, whatever you wish for.

— Then I would like your black coat, I said.

And he smiled and gave it to me without hesitation or regret. Every time I put it on I felt like myself. The moths liked it as well and it was riddled with small holes along the hem, but I didn’t mind. The pockets had come unstitched at the seam and I lost everything I absentmindedly slipped into their holy caves. Every morning I got up, put on my coat and watch cap, grabbed my pen and notebook, and headed across Sixth Avenue to my café. I loved my coat and the café and my morning routine. It was the clearest and simplest expression of my solitary identity. But in this current run of harsh weather, I favored another coat to keep me warm and protect me from the wind. My black coat, more suitable for spring and fall, fell from my consciousness, and in this relatively short span it disappeared.

Smith’s husband, Fred, believed that when such beloved possessions disappear, they enter “the Valley of Lost Things.” When he was a child, his favorite toy — a red plastic cowboy he had named Reddy — suffered a similar fate after Fred’s mother, dusting the bookcase, inadvertently knocked Reddy into domestic neverland. But he miraculously reappeared some years later, emerging from the floor when boards had to be replaced. When Reddy returned, Fred proudly placed him on the bookcase in the couple’s bedroom.

Smith reflects on this dance of disappearances, which so aggrieves us precisely because objects concretize our longing for permanence:

Some things are called back from the Valley. I believe Reddy called out to Fred. I believe Fred heard. I believe in their mutual jubilance. Some things are not lost but sacrificed. I saw my black coat in the Valley of the Lost on a random mound being picked over by desperate urchins. Someone good will get it, I told myself, the Billy Pilgrim of the lot.

Do our lost possessions mourn us? Do electric sheep dream of Roy Batty? Will my coat, riddled with holes, remember the rich hours of our companionship? Asleep on buses from Vienna to Prague, nights at the opera, walks by the sea, the grave of Swinburne in the Isle of Wight, the arcades of Paris, the caverns of Luray, the cafés of Buenos Aires. Human experience bound in its threads. How many poems bleeding from its ragged sleeves? I averted my eyes just for a moment, drawn by another coat that was warmer and softer, but that I did not love. Why is it that we lose the things we love, and things cavalier cling to us and will be the measure of our worth after we’re gone?

Then it occurred to me. Perhaps I absorbed my coat.

Smith examines this question of what is lost and what is redeemed in recounting a rather allegorical experience she had while journeying to a picturesque canyon in Mexico:

It was breathtaking though dangerous place, but we felt nothing but awe. I said a prayer to the lime-dusted mountain, then was drawn to a small rectangular light some twenty feet away. It was a white stone. Actually more tablet than stone, the color of foolscap, as if waiting for another commandment to be etched on its polished surface. I walked over and without hesitation picked it up and put it in my coat pocket as if it were written to do so.

I had thought to bring the strength of the mountain to my little house. I felt an instantaneous affection for it and kept my hand in my pocket in order to touch it, a missal of stone. It was not until later at the airport, as a customs inspector confiscated it, that I realized I had not asked the mountain whether or not I could have it. Hubris, I mourned, sheer hubris. The inspector firmly explained it could be deemed a weapon. It’s a holy stone, I told him, and begged him not to toss it away, which he did without flinching. It bothered me deeply. I had taken a beautiful object, formed by nature, out of its habitat to be thrown into a sack of security rubble.

[…]

I took the stone from the mountain and it was taken from me. A kind of moral balance, I well understood.

The book is, above all, a reminder that love and loss always hang in such a balance — perhaps not a moral one, for morality presumes meaning and some losses are senseless, dealt out by a universe impervious to human concerns and conceits, but a balance nonetheless. Smith captures this devastating and transcendent truth in recounting the days following Fred’s death:

My brother stayed with me through the days that followed. He promised the children he would be there for them always and would return after the holidays. But exactly a month later he had a massive stroke while wrapping Christmas presents for his daughter. The sudden death of Todd, so soon after Fred’s passing, seemed unbearable. The shock left me numb. I spent hours sitting in Fred’s favorite chair, dreading my own imagination. I rose and performed small tasks with the mute concentration of one imprisoned in ice.

Eventually I left Michigan and returned to New York with our children. One afternoon while crossing the street I noticed I was crying. But I could not identify the source of my tears. I felt a heat containing the colors of autumn. The dark stone in my heart pulsed quietly, igniting like a coal in a hearth. Who is in my heart? I wondered.

I soon recognized Todd’s humorous spirit, and as I continued my walk I slowly reclaimed an aspect of him that was also myself — a natural optimism. And slowly the leaves of my life turned, and I saw myself pointing out simple things to Fred, skies of blue, clouds of white, hoping to penetrate the veil of a congenital sorrow. I saw his pale eyes looking intently into mine, trying to trap my walleye in his unfaltering gaze. That alone took up several pages that filled me with such painful longing that I fed them into the fire in my heart, like Gogol burning page by page the manuscript of Dead Souls Two. I burned them all, one by one; they did not form ash, did not go cold, but radiated the warmth of human compassion.

Art by Maurice Sendak for a rare 1967 edition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence

This, indeed, is the book’s greatest gift: The sublime assurance that although everything we love — people, places, possessions — can and likely will eventually be taken from us, the radiant vestiges those loves leave in the soul are permanently ours, and this is the only permanence we’ll ever know.

Echoing Italo Calvino’s unforgettable assertion that “every experience is unrepeatable,” Smith writes:

Nothing can be truly replicated. Not a love, not a jewel, not a single line.

[…]

I have lived in my own book. One I never planned to write, recording time backwards and forwards. I have watched the snow fall onto the sea and traced the steps of a traveler long gone. I have relived moments that were perfect in their certainty. Fred buttoning the khaki shirt he wore for his flying lessons. Doves returning to nest on our balcony. Our daughter, Jesse, standing before me stretching out her arms.

— Oh, Mama, sometimes I feel like a new tree.

We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.

With lyrical lucidity, Smith reminds us that the only liberation from the shackles of change lies in its acceptance, in the act of willful surrender:

Shard by shard we are released from the tyranny of so-called time. A curtain of purple wisteria partially conceals the entrance to a familiar garden… In a wink, a lifetime, we pass through the infinite movements of a silent overture.

One of William Blake’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy

Indeed, we move through this world both mutable and abiding, and it is the movement itself that anchors us to ourselves. Returning to the Möbius strip of our personal continuity, Smith writes:

I believe I am still the same person; no amount of change in the world can change that.

I believe in movement. I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. I believe in midnight and the hour of noon. But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond. I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose. When we are young we think we won’t, that we are different. As a child I thought I would never grow up, that I could will it so. And then I realized, quite recently, that I had crossed some line, unconsciously cloaked in the truth of my chronology. How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints, my iron-colored hair. Now I am older than my love, my departed friends. Perhaps I will live so long that the New York Public Library will be obliged to hand over the walking stick of Virginia Woolf. I would cherish it for her, and the stones in her pocket. But I would also keep on living, refusing to surrender my pen.

Virginia Woolf’s walking stick (Photograph: Patti Smith)

Stubbornly writing the story of our own finitude and impermanence, Smith seems to suggest, is our only true homecoming to wholeness:

Home is a desk. The amalgamation of a dream. Home is the cats, my books, and my work never done. All the lost things that may one day call to me, the faces of my children who will one day call to me. Maybe we can’t draw flesh from reverie nor retrieve a dusty spur, but we can gather the dream itself and bring it back uniquely whole.

Complement the wholly enchanting M Train with Smith on the love of books, her stirring poems for her departed soul mate, her advice on life, and her homage to Virginia Woolf, then revisit Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful meditation on love and loss.

For a bewitching immersion in Smith’s radiant spirit, treat yourself to her conversation with the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber, part of these nine fantastic podcasts for a fuller life:

If we walk the victim, we’re perceived as the victim. And if we enter … glowing and receptive … if we maintain our radiance and enter a situation with radiance, often radiance will come our way.

[…]

William Blake … being a sort of a victim of the Industrial Revolution … was a great poet, a great songwriter, an activist, a philosopher, a visionary. He gave us beautiful books, paintings, ideology — and yet William Blake in his lifetime was never appreciated. He had no real success. He was often ridiculed. He died poverty-stricken, but he also died full of joy. He never let go of his vision, he never let go of that radiance, he never let go of the language of enthusiasm. So I try to remember now when I feel sorry for myself to give a little thought to William Blake.

BP

Virginia Woolf on the Elasticity of Time

“An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length.”

Long before psychologists had any insight into our warped perception of time — for instance, why it slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets twisted when we vacation — or understood how our mental time travel made us human, another great investigator of the human psyche captured the extraordinary elasticity of time not in science but in art.

In Orlando: A Biography (public library) — her subversive 1928 masterwork, regarded as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which also gave us her insight into the dance of self-doubt in creative workVirginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) writes:

Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second.

Woolf was acutely and intimately conscious of this strange elasticity of time — something she contemplated not only in her novels, for the public eyes, but also in the privacy of her diary, which she considered creatively essential. Nearly a decade before the publication of Orlando, in March of 1919, 37-year-old Woolf issues a meta-lament:

Life piles up so fast that I have no time to write out the equally fast rising mound of reflections.

In a rather despondent entry from the following October, Woolf considers how time both gives shape to existence and warps it — it is against the firmness of time, after all, that we measure our feats and infirmities. She writes:

I want to appear a success even to myself. Yet I don’t get to the bottom of it. It’s having no children, living away from friends, failing to write well, spending too much on food, growing old. I think too much of whys and wherefores; too much of myself. I don’t like time to flap round me. Well then, work.

In yet another entry from the day of her younger brother Adrian’s fifty-second birthday — don’t birthdays stir our indignation at time more potently than anything? — fifty-three-year-old Woolf’s unease with time intensifies even further:

I wonder why time is always allowed to harry one.

Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary (public library) is a timelessly rewarding read in its totality. Sample it further with her reflections on the consolations of aging and the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then complement this particular tussle with the story of how Galileo forever changed our relationship with time, the visual history of humanity’s quest to map time, and Thomas Mann on time and the soul of existence.

BP

More than Words: The Illustrated Love Letters, Thank-You Notes, and Travelogues of Great Artists, from Kahlo to Calder to Saint-Exupéry

“Letter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations, in fact, it is its finest residue.”

Virginia Woolf aptly called letter writing “the humane art.” But what amplifies the humanity and immediacy of words is the addition of art itself — how instantly alive Van Gogh’s illustrated letters feel, to say nothing of Edward Gorey’s envelope drawings.

That magical marriage of epistolary text and image is what Liza Kirwin explores in More than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (public library) — a wonderful selection of love letters, thank-you notes, travel missives, visual instructions, picture-puzzles and plays on words from the world’s largest repository of artists’ papers, featuring missives from creative titans like Marcel Duchamp, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, Andrew Wyeth, Alexander Calder, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Kirwin, who serves as deputy director of the venerable archive and has also culled from it the illustrated lists and inventories of great artists, begins the book with a perfect line from a letter the great American graphic artist John Graham wrote to his third wife, Elinor, in July of 1958 — a gem from the archive’s John Graham Papers collection:

Letter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations, in fact, it is its finest residue.

The illustrated letter is an even more beautiful such manifestation, as artist Walter Kuhn remarked in a letter to his wife: “One should never forget that the power of words is limited.”

Lyonel Feininger to Alfred Churchill, May 20, 1890
Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

German-American Expressionist painter and comic strip artist Lyonel Feininger asserted this sentiment with double the ardor in a May 1890 letter to the art critic and lecturer Alfred Churchill:

I will … make one more demand upon your friendship, also it is your promise to me before we parted. viz: to illustrate your letters! If it is only a little landscape or a simple figure, or any little sketch or sketches illustrating the text of your letters, it will be just as welcome and will do you very considerably good in helping you on in penwork or ready interpretation of any little conception you may wish to put on paper.

Frida Kahlo to Emmy Lou Packard, October 24, 1940
Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Among the many gems is one from Frida Kahlo — who was a prolific letter writer, most notably of gorgeous and profound illustrated love letters to Diego Rivera — thanking muralist Emmy Lou Packard for taking such good care of Rivera during his trip to San Francisco. The couple had divorced a year earlier, and yet Kahlo writes, illustrating the letter with lipsticked smooches:

Kiss Diego for me and tell him I love him more than my own life.

Kahlo and Rivera remarried a few weeks later and remained together, not without tumult, until death did them part. Years later, as he recalled first meeting the teenage Kahlo, Rivera would consider her “the most important fact” of his life.

Alfred Joseph Frueh to Geiuliette Fanciulli, January 29, 1913
Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

One of the sweetest love letters comes from caricaturist Alfred Joseph Frueh, who called his fiancée’s missives “pinkies” (on account of the pink paper she used) and declared that weeks without pinkies “are as empty as cream puffs without cream.” In one letter, he sent her a set of charming cartoons, writing in the postscript that he had to tear up a “pinky” and adding: “But you’ll send me another, wontcha?”

Joseph Lindon Smith to his parents, September 8, 1894
Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Among the most charming specimens from the section on travel letters is one from Joseph Lindon Smith to his parents, listing in beautiful penmanship and delightful illustrations the masses of fruit he was consuming during his 1894 trip to Venice:

Delicious fruits are here in Venice now, and I consume vast quantities of it. Melons, pears, peaches, plums, apples, figs, grapes and other things unknown to my interior.

[…]

I eat fruit so much of the time and so much at a time that I go to bed at night expecting.

But folded into this playful admission of dietary excess is Smith’s larger and graver meditation on the excesses and pretensions of the art world. With the conflicted ambivalence not uncommon in artists — a polarizing pull between wanting commercial success on the one hand and having deep disdain for the system that bestows it on the other — he recounts his visit with the prominent American art patron Isabella Steward Gardner:

Mrs. Gardner wishes so much to have the extreme pleasure of having me make her a visit there that I have promised to go over on Wednesday and end my visit in Venice there.

I lunched there yesterday and showed my pictures and dined with the Brimmers and again passed them all out and told the same little anecdotes with the same inflexion of voice — and they seemed pleased and Colleroni and I are pretty well set up and conceited — for when they weren’t admiring him — they were the workmanship — and I simply floated home in air I was that puffed up my waistcoat hasn’t a button to its name — and the upper part of my trousers looks like two funnels.

And you will ask — you miserable money ideaed things you sordid American parents you will ask if I sold any pictures to Mrs. Gardner — so I will just say yes — “it was bit off” — and with love to you all

I remain your little sonnie JoJo

Joseph Lindon Smith to his parents, June 15, 1894
Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Smith’s irreverent playfulness and his conflicted attitude toward the art world appear in another letter to his parents from that spring, when he was holding informal exhibitions four evenings a week and buyers — mostly American collectors visiting Venice — were clamoring to buy his work. Illustrating his letter with a drawing that captures perfectly this duality of the artist as panhandler and fashionable commodity, he writes:

Dear Mother and Father,

“It never rains but it pours.”

Behold your son painting under a shower of gold. I am selling pictures on every side and every day. — And we are feeling very much set up and bloated at Palazzo Dario these days.

[…]

I am going to make this last picture the best thing I have ever done.

Man Ray to Julian Edwin Levi, June 26, 1929
Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Some are landmarks not only of art history but of all history — shortly before the stock market crash of 1929, surrealist icon Man Ray is sitting in an American bar in Paris, sketching a self-portrait in a lyrical letter to his friend Julian Edwin Levi:

The blue light is creeping over Blvd. Montparnasse and the sparrows are chirping in the trees waiting for a windfall.

J. Kathleen White to Ellen Hulda Johnson, September 1, 1986
Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Another letter marks a turning point in the history of computing technology. In the fall of 1986, artist and writer J. Kathleen White brags in a letter to art historian Ellen Hulda Johnson about using a computer to draw a cat, a dog, and a bird:

These household pets here pictured come from computer land.

Alexander Calder to Ben Shahn, February 24, 1949
Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Then there are those practical matters for which words simply don’t suffice — such as directions. In his letter of invitation to artist Ben Shahn, the great Alexander Calder encloses a hand-drawn map to his home — and it somehow feels like one of his iconic mobiles.

Robert Lortac to Edward Willis Redfield, August 18, 1919
Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Some letters offer oblique assurances about the creative path. Like many subsequently successful artists, French filmmaker and cartoon animation pioneer Robert Collard (known as R. Lortac) had a day-job. During his years as a real estate consultant, he included in a letter to his friend Edward Willis Redfield — a landscape artist — a series of beautiful drawings to give him a better sense of “the character of the landscape” in Brittany, where Redfield was planning a trip.

Andy Warhol to Russell Lynes, 1949
Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Another such oblique assurance comes from Andy Warhol. Immediately after graduating from college and moving to New York City — where his overbearing mother would soon follow him to take care of her son through poverty — Warhol applied for a job at Harper’s. Without the slightest care for punctuation or capitalization, except when it comes to his own name, 21-year-old Warhol answers editor Russell Lynes’s request for biographical information:

Hello mr. lynes
thank you very much
biographical information

my life couldn’t fill a penny post card i was born in pittsburgh in 1928 (like everybody else — in a steel mill)

i graduated from carnegie tech now i’m in NY city moving from one roach infested apartment to another.

Andy Warhol.

And yet later that year, Lynes gave Warhol one of his first jobs — to illustrate a John Cheever short story for Harper’s. It would be another decade before he began working as a low-level art director at Doubleday, producing his little-known children’s book illustrations — he filled the time by collaborating with his mother on feline drawings — and nearly twenty years before he established himself as a pop culture icon.

A letter from the German painter and writer Edith Schloss brings a delightful meta-touch to the volume — in 1981, in thanking Philip Pearlstein and other supporters for their help with her American visa, she writes on the back of the letter:

I wish we had a National Archives here to give all my junk & diaries to — I’m not good at throwing things away.

Edith Schloss to Philip Pearlstein, March 25, 1981
Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Pearlstein eventually donated his own papers to the Smithsonian’s esteemed archive from which this book is culled, and Schloss — most likely upon his suggestion — soon did the same.

Some are delightful for their little-touches — like multimedia artist Red Grooms’ genial copyediting on the word “snail” in his altogether charming thank-you note to three of his friends for letting him stay at their home in Europe during an extended visit.

Red Grooms to Elisse and Paul Stuttman and Edward C. Flood, 1968
Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Perhaps the tenderest letter in the book is also an elegant homage to time and place. Legendary French couturier Yves Saint-Laurent writes his affectionate letter to his dear friend and Vogue art director Alexander Liberman inside a sketch of a traditional Islamic cloak typically worn by women in Marrakech, where the designer had a home, against a background of a traditional Moroccan pattern.

Yves Saint-Laurent to Alexander Liberman, June 7, 1970
Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

My very very dear Alex

I am here, in Marrakech
and I am thinking of you as always
of your friendship, loyalty
and your sincerity
I hope to see you as soon as possible and hug you
I love you with all my heart

Yves

But my favorite letter comes from beloved author and contemplator of life Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, penned shortly after the completion of his masterwork The Little Prince — the manuscript of which he also illustrated.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to Hedda Sterne, 1943
Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

The letter is merely a dinner invitation to his friend, but it is the postscript, referencing the completion of The Little Prince, that makes it irresistibly endearing and bittersweet:

P.S. A nuisance delayed this letter that did not leave but — to be very honest — I am so proud of my masterpiece that I send it to you anyway.

About a year later Saint-Exupéry, left on a reconnaissance mission as a fighter pilot, never to return. He was forty-four — a biographical detail utterly eerie given that in Saint-Exupéry’s beloved book, the Little Prince watches the sun set exactly forty-four times.

More than Words is an absolute treat in its totality. Complement it with Kirwin’s other collection, Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Collections of the Smithsonian Museum, then revisit Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s illustrated love letters and Lewis Carroll’s rules of letter writing.

BP

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