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Hello, Terry Travers! If you missed last week's edition – Hemingway's advice on writing and the 17 essential books every writer should read, what con artists reveal about the psychology of trust, a young neurosurgeon's reflection on the meaning of life upon facing his death, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you missed the annual special of the best Brain Pickings in 2015, you can read it here. If you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – I spent hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it each month, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
As artists, Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) and Diego Rivera (December 8, 1886–November 24, 1957) each possessed boundless talent bolstered by an unbending will. As partners, they possessed each other with a ferocious love, intense and complicated and all-eclipsing — the kind for which, in Rilke's immortal words, "all other work is but preparation." They wed when Kahlo was twenty-two and Rivera forty-two, and remained together until Kahlo's death twenty-five years later. They had an open marriage long before the term existed as a trend of modern romance — both had multiple affairs, Rivera with women and Kahlo with both men and women, most notably with the French singer, dancer, and actress Josephine Baker and with the Russian Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky. Still, both insisted that they were the love of each other's life — a deep conviction crystallized in Kahlo's passionate love letters and Rivera's affectionate account of their first encounter.
But nowhere does their uncommon love come more vibrantly alive than in Kahlo's short portrait of Rivera, included as an afterword to his My Art, My Life: An Autobiography (public library). In just a few wholehearted, wholebodied paragraphs, she captures the enormity of their love. Her sincere humanity radiates a testament to the enormity of all love as a transfiguring force, the ultimate wellspring of beauty and grace.
I warn you that in this picture I am painting of Diego there will be colors which even I am not fully acquainted with. Besides, I love Diego so much I cannot be an objective speculator of him or his life… I cannot speak of Diego as my husband because that term, when applied to him, is an absurdity. He never has been, nor will he ever be, anybody's husband. I also cannot speak of him as my lover because to me, he transcends by far the domain of sex. And if I attempt to speak of him purely, as a soul, I shall only end up by painting my own emotions. Yet considering these obstacles of sentiment, I shall try to sketch his image to the best of my ability.
Under the wildly affectionate gaze of her sketch, Rivera — a man physically unattractive by our culture's conventional standards of beauty — is transformed into an exquisite, magical, almost supernatural creature. We are left with a bone-deep awareness that the true splendor of a human being, as Ursula K. Le Guin so elegantly demonstrated a generation later, is something quite different from "beauty." What emerges is ultimately a portrait less of Rivera than of Kahlo's own astonishing capacity for love and beauty in the largest possible sense.
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico, 1933 (Photograph by Martin Munkácsi)
Kahlo sketches Rivera:
Growing up from his Asiatic-type head is his fine, thin hair, which somehow gives the impression that it is floating in air. He looks like an immense baby with an amiable but sad-looking face. His wide, dark, and intelligent bulging eyes appear to be barely held in place by his swollen eyelids. They protrude like the eyes of a frog, each separated from the other in a most extraordinary way. They thus seem to enlarge his field of vision beyond that of most persons. It is almost as if they were constructed exclusively for a painter of vast spaces and multitudes. The effect produced by these unusual eyes, situated so far away from each other, encourages one to speculate on the ages-old oriental knowledge contained behind them.
On rare occasions, an ironic yet tender smile appears on his Buddha-like lips. Seeing him in the nude, one is immediately reminded of a young boy-frog standing on his hind legs. His skin is greenish-white, very like that of an aquatic animal. The only dark parts of his whole body are his hands and face, and that is because they are sunburned. His shoulders are like a child's, narrow and round. They progress without any visible hint of angles, their tapering rotundity making them seem almost feminine. The arms diminish regularly into small, sensitive hands… It is incredible to think that these hands have been capable of achieving such a prodigious number of paintings. Another wonder is that they can still work as indefatigably as they do.
Diego's chest — of it we have to say, that had he landed on an island governed by Sappho, where male invaders were apt to be executed, Diego would never have been in danger. The sensitivity of his marvelous breasts would have insured his welcome, although his masculine virility, specific and strange, would have made him equally desired in the lands of these queens avidly hungering for masculine love.
His enormous belly, smooth, tightly drawn, and sphere-shaped, is supported by two strong legs which are as beautifully solid as classical columns. They end in feet which point outward at an obtuse angle, as if moulded for a stance wide enough to cover the entire earth.
He sleeps in a foetal position. In his waking hours, he walks with a languorous elegance as if accustomed to living in a liquefied medium. By his movements, one would think that he found air denser to wade through than water.
Art by Yuyi Morales from Viva Frida, a lovely picture-book celebrating Kahlo's life and legacy
At the very end of the piece, Kahlo addresses that gruesome yet all too common human tendency to judge other loves from the outside — a violent flattening of the nuance and dimension and enormous richness that exist between two people, perceptible to them alone. She writes:
Perhaps it is expected that I should lament about how I have suffered living with a man like Diego. But I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow, nor does the earth suffer because of the rains, nor does the atom suffer for letting its energy escape. To my way of thinking, everything has its natural compensation.
"Stories," Neil Gaiman asserted in his wonderful lecture on what makes stories last, "are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance." But what is the natural selection of these organisms — what makes the ones that endure fit for survival? What, in other words, makes a great story?
In an immensely insightful piece titled "Two Modes of Thought," Bruner writes:
There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible to one another. Efforts to reduce one mode to the other or to ignore one at the expense of the other inevitably fail to capture the rich diversity of thought.
Each of the ways of knowing, moreover, has operating principles of its own and its own criteria of well-formedness. They differ radically in their procedures for verification. A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness. The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof. The other establishes not truth but verisimilitude.
A story (allegedly true or allegedly fictional) is judged for its goodness as a story by criteria that are of a different kind from those used to judge a logical argument as adequate or correct.
Bruner calls these two contrasting modes the paradigmatic or logico-scientific, characterized by a mathematical framework of analysis and explanation, and the narrative. Each, he argues, is animated by a different kind of imagination:
The imaginative application of the paradigmatic mode leads to good theory, tight analysis, logical proof, sound argument, and empirical discovery guided by reasoned hypothesis. But paradigmatic "imagination" (or intuition) is not the same as the imagination of the novelist or poet. Rather, it is the ability to see possible formal connections before one is able to prove them in any formal way.
The imaginative application of the narrative mode leads instead to good stories, gripping drama, believable (though not necessarily "true") historical accounts. It deals in human or human-like intention and action and the vicissitudes and consequences that mark their course. It strives to put its timeless miracles into the particulars of experience, and to locate the experience in time and place.
In contrast to our vast knowledge of how science and logical reasoning proceed, we know precious little in any formal sense about how to make good stories.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that story must construct two landscapes simultaneously. One is the landscape of action, where the constituents are the arguments of action: agent, intention or goal, situation, instrument, something corresponding to a "story grammar." The other landscape is the landscape of consciousness: what those involved in the action know, think, or feel, or do not know, think, or feel.
Illustration by Dasha Tolstikova from The Jacket by Kirsten Hall
Bruner considers the singular landscape of narrative:
Narrative deals with the vicissitudes of human intentions. And since there are myriad intentions and endless ways for them to run into trouble — or so it would seem — there should be endless kinds of stories. But, surprisingly, this seems not to be the case.
We would do well with as loose fitting a constraint as we can manage concerning what a story must "be" to be a story. And the one that strikes me as most serviceable is the one with which we began: narrative deals with the vicissitudes of intention.
But this matter of intention remains forever mediated by the reader's interpretation. What young Sylvia Plath observed of poetry — "Once a poem is made available to the public," she told her mother, "the right of interpretation belongs to the reader." — is true of all art and storytelling, whatever the medium. Bruner considers how the psychology of this interpretation factors into the question of what makes a great story:
It will always be a moot question whether and how well a reader's interpretation "maps" on an actual story, does justice to the writer's intention in telling the story, or conforms to the repertory of a culture. But in any case, the author's act of creating a narrative of a particular kind and in a particular form is not to evoke a standard reaction but to recruit whatever is most appropriate and emotionally lively in the reader's repertory. So "great" storytelling, inevitably, is about compelling human plights that are "accessible" to readers. But at the same time, the plights must be set forth with sufficient subjunctivity to allow them to be rewritten by the reader, rewritten so as to allow play for the reader's imagination. One cannot hope to "explain" the processes involved in such rewriting in any but an interpretive way, surely no more precisely, say, than an anthropologist "explains" what the Balinese cockfight means to those who bet on it… All that one can hope for is to interpret a reader's interpretation in as detailed and rich a way as psychologically possible.
This essential "subjunctivity" is the act of designating a mood for the story. "To be in the subjunctive mode," Bruner explains, means "to be trafficking in human possibilities rather than in settled certainties." Out of this drive toward unsettled possibilities arises the ultimate question of "how a reader makes a strange text his own," a question of "assimilating strange tales into the familiar dramas of our own lives, even more than transmuting our own dramas in the process" — something Bruner illustrates brilliantly with an exchange between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan from Italo Calvino's masterwork Invisible Cities, which takes place after Marco Polo describes a bridge stone by stone:
"But which is the stone that supports the bridge?" Kublai Khan asks.
"The bridge is not supported by one stone or another," Marco answers, "but by the line of the arch that they form."
Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: "Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me."
Polo answers: "Without stones there is no arch."
Bruner extracts from this an allegory of the key to great storytelling:
But still, it is not quite the arch. It is, rather, what arches are for in all the senses in which an arch is for something — for their beautiful form, for the chasms they safely bridge, for coming out on the other side of crossings, for a chance to see oneself reflected upside down yet right side up. So a reader goes from stones to arches to the significance of arches is some broader reality — goes back and forth between them in attempting finally to construct a sense of the story, its form, its meaning.
As our readers read, as they begin to construct a virtual text of their own, it is as if they were embarking on a journey without maps — and yet, they possess a stock of maps that might give hints, and besides, they know a lot about journeys and about mapmaking. First impressions of the new terrain are, of course, based on older journeys already taken. In time, the new journey becomes a thing in itself, however much its initial shape was borrowed from the past. The virtual text becomes a story of its own, its very strangeness only a contrast with the reader's sense of the ordinary. The fictional landscape, finally, must be given a "reality" of its own — the ontological step. It is then that the reader asks that crucial interpretive question, "What's it all about?" But what "it" is, of course, is not the actual text — however great its literary power — but the text that the reader has constructed under its sway. And that is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his own.
Bruner concurs with Barthes's conviction that the writer's greatest gift to the reader is to help her become a writer, then revises it to clarify and amplify its ambition:
The great writer's gift to a reader is to make him a better writer.
Art, at its most potent, springs from the artist's longing to bridge her private truth with the truth of the universe and transmute it into a public form that beckons forth the private truth of the viewer. This forceful yet delicate dynamic was at the heart of Patti Smith's beautiful childhood anecdote of the swan, but no artist has captured it more powerfully than the visionary mid-century sculptor Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) — a woman of enduring insight into the creative experience and the human spirit, which her training as a clinical psychologist allowed her to articulate with uncommon elegance and lucidity.
Anne Truitt in Tokyo, 1966
In a 1982 diary entry from the altogether magnificent Turn: The Journal of an Artist (public library), Truitt recounts the unexpected and electrifying revelation that overcame her as she faced her own work in a major retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art — a deeply personal experience that, like so much of her writing, captures a profound universality about being an artist:
When I entered the gallery in which my sculptures are installed, I fell back — actually stepped back — before the force of my own feelings distilled into forms rendering visible their own beings. Tears rose to my eyes and from that freshest of feeling the unchangeable and unchanging truth: I am always, and always will be, vulnerable to my own work, because by making visible what is most intimate to me I endow it with the objectivity that forces me to see it with utter, distinct clarity. A strange fate. I make a home for myself in my work, yet when I enter that home I know how flimsy a shelter I have wrought for my spirit. My vulnerability to my own life is irrefutable. Nor do I wish it to be otherwise, as vulnerability is a guardian of integrity.
The greatest point of vulnerability for the artist is that all private integrity is always subject to public misunderstanding, that the impulse toward the former must necessarily concede the possibility — the likelihood — of the latter. Truitt laments the inevitability of this Catch-22 of creativity:
The world can make no meet response to art. Praise can miss the point as much as a casual remark such as I overheard last night: an impeccably turned-out gentleman bounding up the stairs to the gallery exclaimed over his shoulder, "And now to see the minimalist — or maximalist!" He had all the relish of a casually greedy person with a tasty tidbit in view; he was on his way to gulp down my life with as little consideration as he would an artichoke heart.
Anne Truitt in her Washington, DC studio in 1973
And yet the blessing and burden of the artist, Truitt reminds us, is that she has no choice but to incur the risk of being so misunderstood and commodified — for that is the price of integrity. "Artists have no choice but to express their lives," she had written a decade earlier. And now, facing this major showcase of her work, she revisits the point from another angle:
Do I wish, can I afford, in my own limitations, to continue to make work that has such a high psychic cost and stands in jeopardy of being so met? Do I have a choice? I do not know. Neither whether I can further endure, nor whether I can stop. The work is preemptory. My life has led me to an impasse.
What sustains the creative spirit through this uncertainty, Truitt suggests, isn't the awareness of standing on the shoulders of giants — of all the artists whose lives are a testament to the burden being bearable and even transcendent — but of standing alongside those giants, shoulder to shoulder:
In the course of wandering the museum until I could decently leave, I confronted a Cézanne and felt as if a muscular hand had taken mine and Cézanne stood beside me, grubby with clotted paint, silent in his own life, impelled by its force to record it.
While it is not true that only artists understand art, for there are in every generation some people who not only understand it but also enhance its reach by appreciation, there is a freemasonry among us. We stand shoulder to shoulder, generation to generation.
"Since death alone is certain, and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?" So goes an ancient Tibetan meditation, intended to use our mortality as a clarifying force of guidance in how we live our lives. A modern-day take on this question was at the heart of a wonderful project by artist and curator Susan O'Malley, who asked a hundred ordinary people between the ages of seven and eighty-eight what advice their 80-year-old selves would give to their present-day selves.
Just as the answers — some profound, some playful, all disarmingly sincere — began appearing across the San Francisco Bay Area in O'Malley's public art installations, an unforgiving testament to the very premise of the project struck: One winter Wednesday, 38-year-old O'Malley fell unconscious and died a week before she was due to deliver the twin girls with whom she was pregnant; despite the emergency C-section, the babies also perished.
The shock of the tragedy reverberated across the Bay Area and beyond as O'Malley, a centripetal force of the local creative community, was grieved by her husband Tim and her extended family of friends. It also rendered her project, now published as Advice from My 80-Year-Old Self: Real Words of Wisdom from People Ages 7 to 88 (public library), a powerful and bittersweet piece of legacy, lending each of the responses the sudden immediacy of perspective and poignancy.
Karen, 51 years old
O'Malley writes in the introduction:
It's easy to forget how wise we can be. We resist our internal wisdom due to any number of reasons, such as fear, fatigue, or inconvenience. We race through our hyperactive lives, so busy with the details of day-to-day living that we end up feeling disconnected from ourselves and each other. But what's great about the 80-year-old self is that no matter how frantic we get, she is always readily available to us. She is present within each of us, reminding us we can be the best version of ourselves, not through some colossal effort at personal reinvention, but simply by slowing down. We just have to take a moment to pay attention and listen.
I started this project because I needed to listen to my 80-year-old self. At the time, I spent sleepless nights wondering, Should I leave my grown-up job with a paycheck and benefits to pursue my artistic passions? This ongoing dream felt terribly irresponsible, scary, and uncharted. But with the rapid illness of my mom, who was only in her 60s at the time, life suddenly felt too short not to take a risk. How would I feel at 80 if I did, or did not, make this choice? Before I had the courage to truly take the leap though, I turned to the words of strangers to help me navigate the way.
Eighty, to be sure, is a peculiar precipice of wisdom — it was at precisely eighty that Oliver Sacks looked back on the measure of living, Henry Miller examined the secret of vitality, and Donald Hall considered the meaning of aging. But there is something singularly commanding about the imaginary 80-year-old self, the figment of a future we tend to see as a guarantee rather than a grace. One is suddenly forced to consider how many of O'Malley's respondents — how many of us, really — will never live to be eighty, and by what cruelly arbitrary cosmic odds these outcomes are decided.
Caroline, 71 years old
Sarah, 50 years old
Emilia, 12 years old
Larry, 88 years old
Lea, 65 years old
The book's dedication, which O'Malley wrote shortly before her death, is almost unbearably heartbreaking in light of the darkness that followed: