Alain De Botton on Status as a Construction of Culture

status anxietyStatus-anxiety is a malady that has afflicted many over the millennia but is particularly rampant today.  More than in previous generations, in the 21st century, we’re beset with this debilitating disease: when we’re perpetually bombarded with photos from our friends’ exciting trips to faraway lands, when we’re ceaselessly assaulted by old college buddies’ more prestigious job titles on Linkedin, what can follow but stinging envy- and a disheartening sense that we’re somehow less than?  So we nod politely and give insincere congratulations when a friend shares she’s been admitted to grad school all the while struggling to conceal the fact that her success has us seriously doubting our worth as human beings.  The worry that we occupy too modest a rung in the social hierarchy defines much of our existence in our twenties.  “Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories,” endlessly erudite British philosopher Alain De Botton proclaims, “The first- the story of our quest for sexual love- is well known and well charted…The second- the story of our quest for love from the world- is a more secret and shameful tale…And yet this second story is no less intense than the first, it is no less complicated, important or universal, and its setbacks are no less painful.”

How to defend against the pathological obsession with how we’re doing in relation to others is what De Botton— the same nimble mind who suggested the reality of an exotic locale almost never lives up to our expectations— explores in Status Anxiety, his thought-provoking examination of the causes and solutions to this distinctly modern disease.  In his chapter on politics, De Botton argues status is not apportioned identically across cultures but is relative to time and place:

“Every society holds certain groups of people in high esteem while condemning or ignoring others, whether on the basis of their skills, accent, temperament, gender, physical attributes, ancestry, religion, or skin color.  Yet such arbitrary and subjective criteria for success and failure are far from permanent or universal.  Qualities and abilities that equate with high status in one place or era have a marked tendency to grow irrelevant or even become undesirable in others.”

alain de botton status

Using fascinating examples from history to substantiate his claims, De Botton contends what a culture values is not eternal or immutable but rather in a constant state of change: in medieval times, for instance, no one was more revered than a knight who was valiant in battle and chivalrous with the ladies.  However, by the mid 19th century, the sophisticated gentleman had thrust the gallant knight from his dominant rank.  No more did men strive to dauntlessly defend castles or make aggressive demonstrations of their virile masculinity- instead, they sought to be polite, refined men of cultivation and taste.  Was one way of being inherently better than the other?  No, but had you been a sensitive soul who preferred poetry to battle in medieval England, most of your society would have regarded you as a disgrace.

That a doctor is regarded as a man of stature while a store clerk is shamed says little about the worth of the men themselves and everything about their state.  As De Botton so eloquently explains, societies value occupations essential to their survival: in medieval times, when kingdoms were under constant threat, a warrior like a knight would be held in high esteem because his skills would protect the people.  But as the world became more stable, fighters- much like today’s U.S. automobile workers- were no longer necessary or useful:

“Certain people may win status through their ability to defend others, whether by patronage or through control of food, water, or other staples.  Where safety is in short supply, as in ancient Sparta or twelfth-century Europe, courageous fighters and knights on horseback will be celebrated.  If a community craves nutrients that are available only in the form of elusive animal flesh, as in the Amazon, it is the killers of jaguars who will earn respect and its symbol, the armadillo girdle.  In areas where the livelihood of the majority depends on trade and high technology, as in modern Europe or North America, entrepreneurs and scientists will be objects of admiration.  The converse also holds true: a segment of the population that cannot provide a useful service to others will end up without status, in the manner of muscular men in countries with secure borders, or of jaguar hunters in settled agricultural societies.”  

Culled from fields as diverse as philosophy, politics, history and artStatus Anxiety is both provocative and paradigm-shifting.  In the same way he distilled the wisdom of great French novelist Marcel Proust into an accessible self-help guide for the contemporary reader, De Button dives into the dusty archives of human history to help us better understand the status-anxiety that ails us in the modern era.  What he finds is who reigns at the top of the social pyramid varies depending on culture: what qualifies someone as an object of admiration or an object of scorn is not the same in a 12th century English village as in an isolated tribe in the Amazon.  This fact should console those of us who’ve ever felt like “failures” as such derogatory terms don’t reveal objective truth- they’re merely constructions of our culture.  What makes you a “loser” in one age could very well make you a “winner” in another.

Writing Lessons from Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”

In the lavish prose that is her signature, Francine Du Plessix Gray defines seduction as a kind of “challenge to create a tension between the promise of gratification and the refined delay of that gratification-to intimate how much information I shall offer and how much I shall withhold.”  No writer was a better master of seduction than Ernest Hemingway, whose economical writing style revolutionized English prose.  A revolt against the ornate artistic flourishes of the 19th century, Hemingway’s minimalist style pioneered a fiction “in which nothing crucial—or at least very little—was stated explicitly.”  His philosophy- known as the “iceberg theory”- rested on the belief that a story’s deeper meaning should be intimated- not expressed directly.  In much the same way the majority of an iceberg lies beneath the water where we can’t see, most of a story- he argued- operates underneath what a text says unambiguously.

One of my favorite professors described it this way: all novels have two levels, a narrative and a story.  The narrative is the surface: character, dialogue, setting.  Most readers can decipher at this level of what is literally being divulged on the page.  What isn’t being disclosed, however, is harder to grasp but infinitely more interesting: is what a character says what she actually means?  why does she pause dramatically before she speaks?  when her lover asks if she’s okay, why does she look away?  In Hemingway, these uncertainties are pregnant with possibility: you have to dig beneath the narrative to get to the real story.  Much like a painting’s white space heightens its colors or a symphony’s silences make its notes more resonant and full-bodied, what’s implied escalates tension and compels us to keep reading.  

It is well known among writers that drama dwells in the unuttered.  No where does the unsaid drive drama more than in the opening line of Hemingway’s masterpiece Farewell to Arms:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.  In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.  Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.  The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” 

hemingway

As a lover of poetic prose who prefers the complex constructions of a Faulkner or the opulent language of a Fitzgerald to the unornamented word choice of a Hemingway, I initially dismissed this passage as further proof that Papa was overrated.  Where was the beautiful, baroque wording?  the cultivated vocabulary?  the sumptuous figures of speech?  Hemingway’s plain diction- his monosyllabic, elementary school words, his exasperating obsession with “and” and “the”- seemed the hallmark of a less skilled writer- that is, until I read Joan Didion’s exceptional New Yorker essay, “Last Words: Those Hemingway Wrote, and Those He Didn’t.”  Her penetrative close reading of A Farewell to Arm’s opening line finally made me appreciate the genius of Hemingway’s storytelling:

“That paragraph, which was published in 1929, bears examination: four deceptively simple sentences, one hundred and twenty-six words, the arrangement of which remains as mysterious and thrilling to me now as it did when I first read them, at twelve or thirteen, and imagined that if I studied them closely enough and practiced hard enough I might one day arrange one hundred and twenty-six such words myself.  Only one of the words has three syllables.  Twenty-two have two.  The other hundred and three have one.  Twenty-four of the words are “the,” fifteen are “and.”  There are four commas.  The liturgical cadence of the paragraph derives in part from the placement of the commas (their presence in the second and fourth sentences, their absence in the first and third), but also from that repetition of “the” and of “and,” creating a rhythm so pronounced that the omission of “the” before the word “leaves” in the fourth sentence (“and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling”) casts exactly what it was meant to cast, a chill, a premonition, a foreshadowing of the story to come, the awareness that the author has already shifted his attention from late summer to a darker season.  The power of the paragraph, offering as it does the illusion but not the fact of specificity, derives precisely from this kind of deliberate omission, from the tension of withheld information.  In the late summer of what year?  What river, what mountains, what troops?”  

joan didion

Never in that first line does Hemingway explicitly state the year, never does he make clear that the “troops” to which he refers are fighting in WWI, the war to end all wars.  Though we’re often taught that specificity is at the heart of good writing, a masterful storyteller knows sometimes its more compelling to leave things incomplete.  Certainly, there are times when precision in phrasing is absolutely necessary- in an instruction manual, say, or any legal document where you sign your name- but stories exist in the ambiguities.  In his brilliant book The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing- the same compendium of writing wisdom that gave us Hersey on the impact of understatement and Plath on the unifying power of motif– journalist and Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark maintains a story is an enigma: what compels an audience to turn the page (or binge-watch another episode) is a mystery.  As quintessential lady’s man Casanova once said, “love is three quarters curiosity.”  If we want to seduce our audience, then, we have to conceal more than we disclose:

Writing Lesson #1 

“As important as what you put in is what to leave out.  This is easy to say but hard to do.  After you’ve written a draft, read it aloud, but only to yourself.  If you read it to someone else, that person may ask questions, which will lead to a longer draft.  That can make things clearer.  But if your goal is spare prose, it helps to listen for the useless or distracting word or phrase.  It may look right on the page.  But when you hear it, it may sound like that extra note in a trumpet solo.”  

As a non-conformist who always had the obnoxious need to rebel against prevailing taste, it was natural for me to despise Hemingway: he was the leader of the Lost Generation, the man who single-handedly invented the style of the modern age– in other words, yet another over-hyped dead white man, a representation of the establishment I hate.  This was a controversial opinion in most university classrooms, filled as they were with devoted Papa admirers.  But no matter how unpopular, I’d defend my case against the man of machismo: his lean, muscular writing- I insisted- wasn’t innovative nor was his simple style the conscious choice of an artist so much as the heedlessness of an amateur lacking skill.  He couldn’t choose words with the careful ear for their connotative meanings like Plath; he couldn’t string together evocative sentences like his friend/rival Fitzgerald.  

Not only did I despise the sparseness of his prose- I hated his incessant repetition of the same words.  Jesus H. Christ, Hemingway!  Is it really necessary to repeat the word “leaves” four times in a short passage of one hundred and twenty six words?  Did you never learn how to vary your word choice?  But just as I came to appreciate Hemingway’s austere story-telling, I eventually recognized the artistry of his repetition.  His continual repeating of “leaves” wasn’t a sloppy oversight- it was an intentional choice.  But why return to the word four times?  In literature, “leaves” are archetypal symbols for maturity that signify approaching death and decay.  According to Clark, Hemingway repeats this word to underscore how war annihilates all, one of A Farewell to Arms’s paramount themes:

“When something is over designed, we often criticize it as being too busy or cluttered.  The same is true of the arts.  First it was Miles Davis and then Tony Bennet who preached the virtues of knowing which musical notes to leave out.  Didion is so tuned into Hemingway that she can see the small deletions, which can create a big effect.  It is not obvious why the deletion of the before leaves makes such a big difference, but it does.  Perhaps the effect upon the reader comes from the establishment of a pattern followed by a variation of the norm.  Notice that the word leaves appears four times in the passage, in three cases preceded by the article the.  In the third example, the disappears, only to be restored in the last two words.  The author sends out lots of signals that leaves is important, including repeating it four times, then letting it stick out at the end of the paragraph, abutted to the white space.  

So what is the difference between “the leaves” and “leaves”?  Perhaps it is the difference between specificity and generality.  Between things that are contained within a space or moment and those that suddenly appear.  The defines certain leaves that are covered with dust and fallen.  Without it, I get a greater sense of chaos- once living things scattered to decay.  

Sometimes in stories, leaves are not just leaves.  Falling leaves are a convenient and ancient emblem for the loss of life and the change of seasons.  They may be dropping from the trees between summer and winter.  But remember that the dust of the roads coats the leaves, acting, perhaps, as a kind of environmental defoliant.  And where does that dust come from?  From troop movements.  Why are the troops there?  To wage war.  And what does the war do?  It tramples everything, kills everything.  So maybe the dust is not just dust at all.  Maybe it’s an iconic symbol of mortality.  Dust to dust.”  

“Vary your words” is a dictum proclaimed in classrooms everywhere.  Since we first put pen to page, we- being dedicated students- obeyed this decree, conscientiously perusing the thesaurus and straining to find a synonym so we wouldn’t repeat the same thing.  “No, we couldn’t possibly use a word twice!” we thought, dreading the stern, too-serious ink of our English teachers.  So instead of repeat the word “argue,” we used the sophisticated “assert” or the official-sounding “declare.”  Though we’ve been taught that repetition is a sign of an inferior writer, Clark suggests it’s an indispensable addition to any wordsmith’s toolbox.  As writers, we can repeat to emphasize, to highlight, to underline, to underscore.  Just as Hemingway restates the word “leaves” to call attention to the devastating effects of war, we can reiterate a symbol or image to reinforce the underlying message of our work:

Writing Lesson #2 

“Repetition is different from redundancy.  Don’t strain yourself looking for synonyms.  I’ll point this lesson out several times in the book.  Think of repetition as a drum beat.  Somehow, a marching drummer can repeat a rhythm countless times without making it sound tedious.  After a while, the rhythm becomes unnoticeable, almost like a heartbeat.  But it must be done with a purpose.  Beware of those times when you unintentionally repeat a word or image.  Readers will judge you as inattentive.”

Writing Lessons From John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”

hiroshima

“The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote.  Nowhere do we witness this eternal struggle more movingly than in Hiroshima, John Hersey’s unforgettable account of that fateful day on August 6th, 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped.  Hailed as the “most celebrated piece of journalism to come out of WWII,” Hiroshima follows six survivors as they navigate the devastating aftermath of nuclear war.  Obliterating 100,000 lives in an infernal blast that will reverberate through the centuries as human history’s “most unspeakable crime,” the atom bomb is an unsettling reminder that the human heart is neither wholly good nor evil.

Hiroshima stands as a masterpiece of reporting for its ability to humanize the Japanese people at a time when words were weaponized as instruments of war.  Rather than reduce them to a one-dimensional demonized “enemy,” Hersey revealed Dr. Masakazu Fujii, Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, Father Wilhem Kliensorge, Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, Toshiko Sasaki, and Hatsuyo Nakamura as ordinary people: people who were staring out windows and sitting at their desks just as they had hundreds of times when their lives were forever shattered by an unprecedented act of war.  While some reporters marveled at man’s ability to harness the cataclysmic power of atomic energy (New York Times staff member William Laurence, the only journalist to witness the terrible technology first hand, wrote with wonder, “It was no longer smoke, or dust, or even a cloud of fire.  It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes.”), others focused on calculating the staggering number of lives lost or capturing the wasteland left behind (New York Herald Tribune’s Homer Bigart observed when he visited Hiroshima in September 1945 that “across the river there was only flat, appalling desolation, the starkness accentuated by bare, blackened tree trunks and the occasional shell of a reinforced concrete building.”)  Hersey took a different approach.  Hiroshima, originally published as a 30,000 word feature in the August 1946 issue of the New Yorker, is now considered a landmark of new journalism, a style of reporting that blended the impartial facts of traditional journalism with the pacing and storytelling of a novel.  By funneling the harrowing events of that historic day through the soul-expanding subjectivity of stories instead of the heartless objectivity of mere numbers, Hersey was able to demolish the barricade between ally and enemy so often erected by war.  The result is a compassionate document that- as one critic put it- “stirs the conscience” of the soul.

Hiroshima’s first line is perhaps one of journalism’s best-known:

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

In his instructive new book The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing, journalist and Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark seeks to break down this stellar first sentence so we can better understand how it works.  A curator of spellbinding sentences and lover of lively prose, Clark contends the secret to writing well is hidden in literature’s masterworks or- as Matthew Arnold might say- in “the best that’s been thought and said” in the world.  If we want to be compelling writers, we just have to crack the code.  “Cracking the code” means paying attention to how an author mesmerizes us with his words.  Like Hemingway, does he seduce us to turn the page by revealing less information than he withholds?  Or like Plath, does he create a sense of unity by repeating an overarching motif or symbol?  In much the same way authors of that endlessly edifying guide to close-reading How to Read a Book revere books as absent teachers, Clark believes literature has a wealth of writing wisdom to offer.

So how, Clark wonders, does Hersey manage to captivate us from Hiroshima’s very first line?  The sentence itself is rather simple: 63 words, 32 of which are only 1-syllable.  There is no flamboyant expression, no elaborate sentence structure, no theatrical melodrama.  Even the subject matter is mundane: other than the offhand reference to the bomb “flashing above Hiroshima,” the sentence focuses on the ordinary and everyday, particularly one Miss Toshiko Sasaki, who’s doing the most uninteresting thing you could possibly conceive: turning her head to chat with a co-worker.  So why is this one of the most riveting first lines in all of literature?  For Clark, the secret is pacing:

“This feels like a most unconventional way to begin a story.  In spite of the importance of time to the telling of all narratives, we rarely see this degree of temporal specificity in a first line.  The word exactly is not a modifier but an intensifier.  We then learn the minutes, the hour ante meridiem, the month, day, year, and time zone.  That’s seven discrete time metrics before a verb.  The rhetorical effect of such specificity is that of a historical marker.  Something world-changing is about to happen (a meteor struck the earth; a volcano exploded; a jet plane flew into the Pentagon).  Chaucer’s springtime at the beginning of The Canterbury Tales is generic and cyclical.  In Hiroshima we are about to meet a group of pilgrims who share an experience that is triggered at a specific moment in time.  

In a way, time is also about to stand still.  Clocks and watches, damaged by the atomic blast, stopped at the moment of destruction.  This symbol of the stopped watch in relation to Hiroshima is repeated as late as 2014 in the updated version of the movie Godzilla.  The original was made in Japan in 1954 and is widely recognized as a science-fiction, monster-movie allegory of the consequences of nuclear destruction.  In the updated version, Japanese actor Ken Watanabe carries around the talisman of a pocket watch owned by his grandfather, killed at Hiroshima.  The time is frozen at eight fifteen.”  

As writers, what can we take away from this unforgettable first sentence?  Just as Hersey uses temporal specificity to stop time and signal that something history-making is about to happen, we can decelerate- or “freeze frame”- our narrative to amplify drama and build suspense:

Writing Lesson #1 

“Stories are about time in motion.  But there are moments when time seems to stop, at least in narrative terms: when the atom bomb drops, when Kennedy is shot, when the Challenger explodes.  As a writer, you can mark that moment when time stands still.  Freeze a movie into a still frame.”

stopped watch

Hiroshima is not only a paragon of pacing- it’s a matchless example of understatement.  “If ever there was a subject calculated to make a writer overwrought and a piece overwritten, it was the bombing of Hiroshima,” observed New Yorker journalist and political commentator Hendrik Hertzberg.  When a story is as momentous as Pearl Harbor or September 11th, it seems made for the newspapers.  There’s conflict, there’s catastrophe, there’s lives lost.  But though it’s tempting to hyperbolize, a good writer will restrain himself.  What makes Hiroshima so powerful is the way Hersey lets the material speak for itself.  Instead of indulging in melodrama- say, by sensationalizing the carnage or heavy-handedly accentuating the scene’s pathos- Hersey writes in a matter-of-fact style, employing only plain words all the while maintaining a dispassionate, journalistic tone.  As Clark explains, when a story is “big,” the key is to write “small”:

“In bringing us finally to the main part of the sentence, the author puts into practice two reliable rhetorical strategies, one from ancient Greece, the other from the American newsroom.  The name for the first is litotes, or understatement- the opposite of hyperbole.  While an unwise writer might overwhelm us with the visceral imagery of destruction, Hersey chooses to introduce a most common scene of daily life: one office worker turning to another, allowing the drama to unfold.  In the face of astonishing content, step back a bit.  Don’t call undue attention to the tricks of the writer.  

A related strategy comes from an old bit of newsroom wisdom: “The bigger the smaller.”  Nowhere was this strategy used more than in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York City on September 11th.  Faced with almost apocalyptic physical destruction and the loss of nearly three thousand lives, writers such as Jim Dwyer of the New York Times looked for ways to tell a story that seemed from its inception “too big.”  Dwyer chose to highlight physical objects with stories hiding inside of them: a window washer’s squeegee used to help a group break out of a stalled elevator in one of the Twin Towers; a family photo discovered in the rubble; a paper cup used by an escaping stranger to give water to another.  

The author of Hiroshima offers readers something akin to writing teacher Robert McKee’s “inciting incident.”  This is the moment that kicks off the energy of the story, the instant when normal life is transformed into story life.  All the characters described in the first paragraph are experiencing a version of normal, everyday life- given the context of an ongoing world war- but whatever their expectations, they were changed forever at the exact moment the atomic bomb flashed over Hiroshima.”  

Writing Lesson #2 

“Given the exact nature of the news and the death toll, the author’s narrative feels somehow underwritten, in a good way.  There are no elaborate metaphors.  The author keeps the focus on the cast of characters and not on his own feelings or emotions.  In general, this is a good rhetorical strategy.  The more powerful or consequential the content, the more the author should “get out of the way.”  This does not mean that craft must be set aside.  Instead, it means craft must be used to create a feeling of understatement.”

Writing Lessons From Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”

The benefits of reading are manifold.  For Ralph Waldo Emerson, what’s wonderful about booksthe bell jar is that a company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us” whereas for Honore de Balzac, reading acquaints us with “unknown friends.”  Research suggests reading not only magnifies our capacity for empathy and strengthens our ability to be open-minded, it promotes the kind of free-thinking on which democracy depends.  As writers, reading has the added benefit of helping us improve our craft.  Much like a blacksmith learns to mold metals by studying under an apprentice, a writer learns the elements of composition by dissecting (and imitating) her favorite penmen.  Writing is a kind of magic: it takes instruction under the tutelage of a master to become an enchantress of the craft.

The belief that we can become better writers by becoming better readers is at the heart of journalist and Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark’s new book The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing.  A wonderful companion to his altogether indispensable Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every WriterThe Art of X-Ray Reading surveys some of the most celebrated works in all of English letters, distilling their insights into practical lessons writers- both novice and expert- can apply to their craft.  If we want to write with the lyrical beauty of a Fitzgerald or with an appreciation of the short sentence like Melville, Clark argues we must read actively with “x-ray glasses” close at hand.  Written with a profound reverence for story-telling and an obvious love of literature, The Art of X-Ray Reading will teach you to dissemble a text so you can better understand how it works.  Though as a bookish English major I’ve read most of the texts Clark examines, I closed The Art of X-Ray Reading with a newfound appreciation for many of those tattered treasures we call the “canon.”  From analyzing how Hemingway intentionally omits information to build suspense to anatomizing how Hersey harnesses the power of understatement to emphasize the drama of that fateful morning on August 6th, Clark helps us peek behind the curtain on literature’s finest sentences, revealing good writing is the product of deliberate workmanship- not of chance:

“Where do writers learn their best moves?  They learn from a technique I call X-ray reading.  They read for information or vicarious experience or pleasure, as we all do.  But in their reading, they see something more.  It’s as if they had a third eye or a pair of X-ray glasses like the ones advertised years ago in comic books.  

This special vision allows them to see beneath the surface of the text.  There they observe the machinery of making meaning, invisible to the rest of us.  Through a form of reverse engineering…they see the moving parts, the strategies that create the effects we experience from the page- effects such as clarity, suspense, humor, epiphany, and pain.  These working parts are then stored in the writer’s toolshed in boxes with names such as grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling, semantics, etymology, poetics, and that big box- rhetoric.”  

In Chapter 5 “Jolt of Insight,” Clark close reads Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel, The Bell Jar.  The story follows Esther Greenwood, an ambitious young writer who earns a coveted internship at a prestigious New York magazine as a guest editor.  Though she knows her dazzling life of big city glamor and patent leather would be the envy of most girls, Esther becomes more and more disenchanted as the novel goes on.  When she returns home to Massachusetts to find she hasn’t been accepted to a distinguished summer writing program, she sinks into a debilitating depression.  An incisive and deeply disturbing account of mental illness, The Bell Jar is one of my favorite novels not only for its historical-cultural significance (never before had a book so frankly discussed such topics as the tension between career and child-bearing or the taboo subject of a woman’s desire for sex), but for the unrivaled genius of its prose.  The Bell Jar’s first line makes evident Plath’s literary virtuoso:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

With a linguist’s ear for the subtle effects of sound and a critic’s eye for socio-cultural references, Clark deconstructs this masterpiece of a first sentence:

“Before I read another word, I felt the need to X-ray that sentence.  At twenty-three words, it is a short and memorable first sentence for a novel, beginning with a subject and verb of the main clause, always an encouraging sign.  

“It was a queer, sultry summer…”

I feel a tension between the adjectives queer and sultry.  The first carries a judgement of distortion, something not quite right in the air.  The second, sultry, has the sense of something physical, hot and humid, but not necessarily unpleasant, perhaps carrying a sexual connotation, like the sound of a tenor sax.  (I’ve always felt that individual letters can carry hidden meanings. It may seem strange to say, but the letter makes me uneasy, especially that triple dose of it in the phrase “queer, sultry summer.”)  

What comes next is a shocking intrusion: “the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs…”  

A lot of things happened during the summer of 1953, when the story takes place: the Korea War ended, JFK and Jackie were married in Newport, Rhode Island; television was coming into its own.  An obsession with a New York Jewish couple executed for espionage aligns with queer and connects the collective paranoia of the McCarthy era with our protagonist’s distorted view of reality.  

[…] 

The whole sentence moves with remarkable efficiency from a season to an era to the confusion of a single young woman.”

So what can writers learn from this remarkable first line?  If you want to entice your readers to keep reading, Clark recommends adding an element of shock or surprise:

Writing Lesson #1 

“Many examples of good writing have a one-two-three quality to them: subject, verb, object.  In most cases, you don’t want the reader to stop or even pause.  My mentor Don Fry calls this effect the “steady advance.”  But there will be exceptions, moments when the writer will intrude on the reader’s expectations, even in the middle of a sentence.  Call it a bump in the road.  Plath achieves this effect with the insertion of the Rosenberg execution inside her first sentence.  What if the sentence had been: “It was a queer, sultry summer, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”  Clear and compelling enough, but not brilliant and explosive.  Most sentences you write will be A-B-C.  If you want to catch the reader off guard, consider A-X-B.”

sylvia plath torment

As readers, it’s often easier to understand “what” an author is saying than to decipher “how” it is she produces certain effects.  “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”  What is being said is clear enough but how it manages to linger in our memory- that’s more of a mystery.  Clark further demystifies the spell of this stellar sentence by unveiling the “how” behind its effectiveness.  Plath’s opening line is brilliant largely in part because it establishes the novel’s central motif of electrocution from the very first sentence:

“If something is important enough to place in the first sentence of a novel, even as a seeming aside, is it important enough to revisit?  We saw in Gatsby how the author introduced the green light on Daisy’s dock in the first chapter, how he reintroduced that light in the middle of the novel, and how he brought it back, with dozens of suggestive thematic implications, at the end.  We come to expect that type of exquisite story architecture from our favorite literary artists.  

So beyond my personal curiosity about the Rosenbergs, should I expect them to return to the stage later in Plath’s novel?  Here is what follows that first sentence:  

I’m stupid about executions.  The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers- google-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.  It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.  

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

rosenburgs die

“It has nothing to do with me.”  Yeah, right.  It has everything to do with our protagonist, Esther Greenwood, a fill-in for Plath in this highly autobiographical novel, who, during an internship at a fashion magazine in New York City, is traumatized time and again.  

Sure enough, the Rosenbergs reappear on page 100 of my edition, the beginning of chapter 9.  Esther is speaking with another young woman at the fashion magazine about the imminent execution of Esther and Julius:  

So I said, “Isn’t it awful about the Rosenbergs?”  

The Rosenbergs were to be electrocuted late that night.  

“Yes!” Hilda said, and at last I felt I had touched a human string in the cat’s cradle of her heart.  It was only as the two of us waited for the others in the tomblike morning gloom of the conference room that Hilda amplified that Yes of hers.

“It’s awful that such people should be alive…I’m so glad that they’re going to die.”  

This dispiriting moment comes just before the crisis that will crush our protagonist at the end of the first half of the book, when a blind date turns into a muddy rape attempt that leaves her physically injured and emotionally devastated, so much so that she returns to her hotel and throws all her glamorous clothes she has accumulated off the top of the skyscraper.  

Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the gray scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.  

In that dark moment, Plath offers a kind of silent convergence of the public and private.  Almost at the exact time the Rosenbergs would be electrocuted, the main character undergoes a kind of symbolic death, her clothes being scatted to the winds, “like a loved one’s ashes.”

dark black heart of New York

The sign of a true artist is her every choice is intentional.  Though the reference to the Rosenbergs in the first line seems like a passing comment, Clark realizes it has a much greater significance to The Bell Jar as a whole.  Like the Jewish spies executed during that “queer, sultry” summer, Esther will be electrocuted in a botched electro-shock treatment after suffering a mental breakdown.  Foreshadowed in that first trifling twenty-three word sentence is the most tragic, climatic moment of the novel:

“It was only after I had closed the book that I was stunned by the beauty of what Plath had created.  It was like looking at daybreak pouring through the rose window of a cathedral.  All that business about the Rosenbergs- the constant references not to their execution but to their electrocution– turned out to be a prologue to the traumatic events in Esther’s life, including a medical procedure in a facility that looks and works like a prison in which she is pinned down and wired up (like the Rosenbergs, no doubt) and shot up with electricity.  It is, at least at first, her version of the death penalty.”   

REZNICK

What makes The Bell Jar such a masterful work is how it’s so architecturally sound.  One of the greatest literary geniuses of our time, Plath establishes the novel’s principal motif in the very first line, the Rosenbergs’ brutal execution by electric chair a harbinger of Esther’s barbaric treatment by electroshock.  If stories are man’s way of making sense of the world, a good story imposes order onto the messy material of real life’s chaos.  Unlike in life, in a story, each event has meaning; every interaction, every exchange, a role: to reveal character, to establish theme or tone.  Every single line operates to form a coherent narrative arc.  But in the hands of a less adept storyteller, a novel will seem the product neither of logic nor thought: incidents, both pressing and trivial, will be included at random with no regard as to whether they have a purpose like advance the plot, an object will seem symbolically significant but only be mentioned once.  An expert storyteller, on the other hand, hypnotizes us by giving the impression that every element of the narrative performs an essential part: a dramatic change in weather reflects a shift in mood, the repetition of an object will be shown to have meaning later on. 

The Bell Jar stands as a harrowing beauty of an American classic largely because Plath’s storytelling is all method and no madness.  Though she traces one woman’s terrifying descent into insanity, she writes with a control that is rational and painstaking.  It is proof of her artistry that she is able to hint at the plot’s highest point from the first few words.  Clark suggests incorporating a unifying theme, image, or motif into our work to make it similarly cohere:

Writing Lesson #2  

“Not all allusions are created equal.  When an author quotes another author or mentions historical figures (such as the Rosenbergs), he or she embeds one narrative within another.  As we’ve seen with the opening of The Bell Jar, an apparent offhand comment becomes a much grander metaphor, taking on new contexts and connotations as the narrative builds up steam.  Most coherent texts contain a dominant image- sometimes more than one-that links the parts and accelerates the action.”

Anais Nin on New York

“London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful,” woman of wit Dorothy Parker once wrote, “Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.”  The Big Apple is a seductress that has always entranced artists.  Ayn Rand remarked of the modern metropolis that the sky over New York was the “will of man made visible” while Zadie Smith noted in her altogether marvelous essay “Find Your Beach” that in Manhattan “you are pure potential.”  To witness New York City’s startling skyline is to marvel at human will.  The city itself- its towering heights, its shining surfaces of glass and enamel- is a near perfect symbol: like its greedy skyscrapers grasping to snatch the gods’ fire, New York is always longing, always reaching for something better.  So vast is its ambition that it can’t be contained in this stratosphere.  Much like Gatsby, the classic literary emblem of our national identity, in New York, we believe in an “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.”  And though what we strive for eternally eludes our grasp, we resolve to “run faster” and “stretch out our arms further” the next day and the next.  

In America, we believe it’s our duty to find happiness.  If London is satisfied and Paris is resigned, New York is unfailingly optimistic: we’re confident-almost naively so- in our ability to manifest our every dream, our every desire.  The big city embodies this unshakable conviction: in New York, you can be a best-selling novelist, a Nobel Prize-winning poet, a groundbreaking painter; you can be a steel tycoon, a Fifth Avenue billionaire, a Wall Street stock broker.  New York shimmers on the shores of the Atlantic as the holy land of dreamers, a real-life representation of the tenets of American philosophy outlined by our founding fathers: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  

In New York, everyone is pursuing happiness.  But though this pursuit is exalted as a right, it’s a heavy individual burden.  After all, if you never actualize your dreams, if you never attain that magical, mysterious, much sought after state of “happiness” in a supposed meritocracy that rewards hard work and talent rather than inherited privilege, who’s to blame but yourself?  In our land of near limitless opportunity, to be a nobody is the worst possible outcome- nothing is more disgraceful.  The disheveled drunkard pan handling at the subway station, the mentally ill homeless guy mumbling to himself: to those who have faith in the doctrine of self-determination, their suffering is their own fault.  Maybe, some of us think, they weren’t diligent or persistent enough.  Certainly they didn’t work hard.  Rarely do we consider that those who fail to secure the American Dream fail as a result of a complex web of social, economic, and cultural forces outside their control.  No, instead we condemn the poor as lazy, the unhappy as morally contemptible.

retro subway

“New York City is the most fatally fascinating thing in America,” James Weldon Johnson once observed, “She sits like a great witch at the gate of the country, showing her alluring white face and hiding her crooked hands and feet under the folds of her wide garments–constantly enticing thousands from far within, and tempting those who come from across the seas to go no farther.”  New York may enchant our imagination with promises of possibility and success but she most often conceals the costs of this singularly American credo.  If you live in a culture where nothing is outside the realm of possibility and you- and you alone- are ultimately responsible for your fate, the pressure to be “something” is immeasurable.  In the hurry to “make it,” you inevitably lose some of your humanity as you become more ruthless and self-centered.  

In her pellucid literary memoir The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume Two, 1934-1939, always eloquent Anais Nin suggests New York is both largeness and smallness, hope and delusion, energy and agitation, paradise and hell.  Writing in 1934 while living in the city and working for Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, Nin describes hyperactive New York as the antithesis of reposeful Paris and achievement-obsessed America as the converse of sensual, romantic France:

“From where we sat I could see all of New York pointing upward, into ascension, into the future, to exultation, New York with its soft-oiled hinges, plastic brilliance, hard metal surfaces, glare and noise, New York gritty, sharp and windy, and the opposite of Paris in every possible way.

[…]

Paris, New York, the two magnetic poles of the world.  Paris a sensual city which seduced the body, enlivened the senses, New York, unnatural, synthetic; Paris-New York, the two high tension magnetic poles between life, life of the senses, of the spirit in Paris, and life in action in New York.”  

anais nin new york

In a passage calling to mind a recent study that found NYC boasts some of the world’s fastest walkers, Nin suggests the “city that never sleeps” is driven by an irrepressible desire to achieve.  Propelled by this restless, fitful energy, she hurries at a hysterical pace, always in perpetual motion, never at peace:

“In the evening he [Dr. Otto Rank] took me to see the magic doors at Pennsylvania Station, which opened as one approached them, as if they could read our thoughts, and then the Empire State terrace, which seemed to sway in the wind, so that I could see the panorama.  It was beautiful and strong, the whole design thrust into space, arrogant sharp pointed arrows piercing the sky as if seeking to escape from the earth into other planets.  

In New York the acoustics are good for laughter, for life is all external, all action, no thought, no meditation, no dreaming, no reflection, only the exuberance of action.  No memory of the past, no looking back, no doubts, no questions.”  

The tragic irony of the modern era is that the sweeping technological and scientific advancements of the last one hundred years have in many ways made life retrogress. We have farther-reaching social networks but fewer meaningful relationships; we’re more “connected” through Instagram and Snapchat but feel more lonely and have fewer friends.  In fact, in the last twenty five years, the number of quality social interactions has decreased drastically; one study found that compared to 1985, when only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and only 15 percent said they only had one real confidant, in 2004, 25 percent reported they had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent revealed they only had one close friend.  “Dazzled by the overwhelming credentials of science, the beauty and elegance of the scientific method, the triumph of modern medicine over physical ailments, and the technological transformation of the very world itself, the self finds itself…disappointed,” Walker Percy once said.  This sentiment certainly rings true for the millions who have countless followers but few friends.

As a psychoanalyst, Nin learned first hand that living in a materially affluent, technologically advanced society does not guarantee happiness.  Much like her patients, who- despite having all the external trappings of success- lie on her psychologist’s coach and lament of dissatisfaction, we in the modern age- despite having beheld the wonders of the computer revolution and modern medicine- lack the community, connection, and genuine sense of belonging we need as humans to truly be content.  

New York occupies our imaginations as the epicenter of human progress.  Yet- regardless of its promise to be the final destination on our route to happiness- New York consistently ranks as the unhappiest city in the U.S.  In evocative, stream-of-consciousness prose whose fast-paced rhythm mirrors the unrelenting speed of the city, Nin wonders if New York, like Sodom, represents the demise of humanity:

“The transparent brilliance over all things, from shop windows, to cars, to lights.  A texture which is not real, and not real human.  Days all bright and glossy.  One feels new every day.  The poetry of smooth motion, of quick service, a dancing action, at counters, changing money for the subway.  Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm.  After knowing what seethes within them, I do not dare look at the people too closely, for they seem a bit artificial, like robots, parts of concrete and electric wiring.  A million windows, high voltage, pressure, vitamin-charged, the city of tomorrow, and the people of tomorrow who cannot be human beings, and who, perhaps knowing it, come to Dr. Rank to weep and complain for the last time, for they too may be a vanishing race.  Just as the aristocrats are a vanishing race in Europe, perhaps here the human being who thought this was to be his world, is also being sacrificed to something else.  Here in Dr. Rank’s office I hear protests, revolts, sorrow, but outside they seem a part of the white-enameled, sterile buildings.” 

As the sun rises over the Hudson, stylish men in suits crowd into subway stations.  They are New York: the ambitious go-getters, the remorseless social climbers willing to squash anything- and anyone- who stands in the way of their ascent.  Though there’s something inhuman about life in the big city, after returning home to France in June 1935, Nin finds herself missing New York’s vitality and vibrancy.  Whereas she used to love the depth and richness of historic France, after shiny, modern New York where each day “you’re born anew,” the Old World seems like an antique: charming, quaint perhaps, but burdened by the past:

“Louveciennes.  Home.  Rush of memories.  Sleeplessness.  I miss the animal buoyancy of New York, the animal vitality.  I did not mind that it had no meaning and no depth.  Here I feel restless.  The Persian bed.  The clock ticking.  Time slowed down.  The dog barking at the moon. Teresa bringing the breakfast.  All the electric bulbs missing, the tenants took things away.  The books are dusty.  My colored bottles seem less sparkling after the sharp gaudy colors of New York.  The colorful room seems softer, mellower.  The rugs are worn.  Where is the jazz rhythm, the nervous energy of New York?  The past.  The glass on my dressing room table is broken.  The curtain rods are missing.  Where are the garden chairs?  France is old.  It has the flavor, the savoriness, the bouquet, the patina of ancient things.  It has humanity which New York does not have.  

[…]

Louveciennes is old and tranquil.  I once loved its oldness, its character.  Now it seems to have the musty odor of the past.  New York was new.

[…]

I miss the electric rhythm of New York: it was like riding a fiery race horse.  I was drunk on liberty, on space and dynamism.  Where are the dazzling lights, the roar of airplanes, fog horns, fast cars, wild pace?  I am restless.  Adventure is pulling me out.  

[…]

All I have been suffering from is falling from a quick rhythm to a slower one.  I cannot sit in a cafe for hours, or talk for ten hours as Henry and Fraenkel do.  I crave action and motion.  It is as if my heart were beating faster than theirs and I had broken into the running pace of New York.” 

french countryside

In the end, Nin concludes New York embodies the dual nature of America itself.  A work of breathtaking lyricism and revelatory insight, The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume Two, 1934-1939 is a genuine literary event.  More than just a portal into the content of one ordinary woman’s mind, Nin’s diary is a gateway into the mysteries of human life, exploring topics as diverse as the nature of America to the enigma of memory.  A masterpiece the Washington Post argued “examines human personality with a depth and understanding seldom surpassed since Proust,” The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume Two, 1934-1939 is sure to delight.

Anais Nin on the Mystery of How Experience Becomes Fossilized in the Sediment of Memory

anais nin typewriterOscar Wilde once wrote “memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”  Much like a diary- or, as Virginia Woolf affectionately called, a “blank-faced confidante”- memory is a record of our many guises, a monument to the ever-shifting fluidity of self.  And like a diary, memory is manufactured: we concoct the stories of our lives, magnifying certain plots while downplaying others.  But how is it that certain experiences become fossilized in the sediment of memory while others vanish into oblivion forever?  

This question is what prolific diarist and courageous chronicler of the human spirit Anais Nin explores in The Diary of Anais Nin: Volume Two, 1934-1939, the masterpiece of literary memoir Swiss newspaper Tagblatt called a “daring advance into the psychology of female being.”  An artist of remarkable sensitivity and perceptive intellect, Nin writes with lavish love of life, her prose as poetic as it is precise.  In this entry from August 1935, Nin wonders at the enigma of the subconscious mind: why is it that we retain some memories over others?  what permanently stores a memory in our mental hard drives?  and how is it possible to recall an experience with overwhelming intensity many years after it occurred- despite the fact that we were asleep to it at the time?  Though definitive answers to these questions will always elude her, Nin muses over mystery with exceptional grace:

“The mysterious theme of the flavor of events.  Some pale, weak, not lasting.  Others so vivid.  What causes the choice of memory?  What causes certain events to fade, others to gain luminousness and spice?  My posing for artists at sixteen was unreal, shadowy.  The writing about it sometimes brings it to life.  I taste it then.  My period as a debutante in Havana, no flavor.  Why does this flavor sometimes appear later, while living another episode, or while telling it to someone?  What revives it when it was not lived fully at the time?  During my talks with my father the full flavor of my childhood came to me.  The taste of everything came to me as we talked.  But not everything came back with the same vividness; many things which I described to my father I told without pleasure, without any taste in my mouth.  So it was not brought to life entirely by my desire to make it interesting for him.  Some portions of my life were lived as if under ether, and many others under a complete eclipse.  Some of them cleared up later, that is, the fog lifted, the events became clear, nearer, more intense, and remained as unearthed for good.  Why did some of them come to life, and others not?  Why did some remain flavorless, and others recover a new flavor or meaning?  Certain periods like the posing, which seemed very intense at the time, violent almost, have never had any taste since.  I know I wept, suffered, rebelled, was humiliated, and proud too.  Yet the story I presented to my father and to Henry about the posing was not devoid of color and incidents.  I myself did not feel it again as I told it.  It was as if it had happened to someone else, and the interest I took in its episodes was that of a writer who recognized good material.  It was not an unimportant phase of my life, it was my first contribution to the world.  It was the period I discovered I was not ugly, a very important discovery for a woman.  It was a dramatic period, beginning with the show put on for the painters, when I was dressed in a Watteau costume which suited me to perfection, and received applause and immediate engagements, ending with my becoming the star model of the Model’s Club, a subject for magazine covers, paintings, miniatures, statues, drawings, water colors.”  

“It cannot be said what is lived in a condition of unreality, in a dream, or a fog, disappears altogether from memory, because I remember a ride I took through Vallee de Chevreuse many years ago, when I was unhappy, ill, indifferent, in a dream.  A mood of blind remoteness and sadness and divorce from life.  This ride I took with my senses asleep, I repeated almost ten years later with my senses awakened, in good health, with clear eyes, and I was surprised to see that I had not only remembered the road, but every detail of this ride which I thought I had not seen or felt at all.  Even to the taste of the huge brioche we served at a famous inn.  It was as if I had been sleepwalking while another part of my body recorded and observed the presence of the sun, the whiteness of the road, the billows of heather fields, in spite of my inability to taste and feel at the time.”

3 Things I Learned From Sarah Ban Breathnach

Life is not made up of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years, but of moments.  You must experience each one before you can appreciate it,” Sarah Ban Breathnach once wrote.  There is an old-fashioned charm— and lush, almost bewitching, lyricism— with which Breathnach sifts poetry from the sands of everyday moments, be it in her much-beloved daily devotional Simple Abundance, which illuminated the path to richer, more contented lives for millions of women, or Something More, her eloquent, erudite guidebook to excavating the buried longings and forgotten dreams of the authentic self.  In Romancing the Ordinary: A Year of Simple Splendor, her enticing serenade to the sensual, Breathnach redeems the flesh from fire-and-brimstone and invites us to instead delight in our sense of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.  Though throughout the ages pleasure-seeking has been denounced as depraved and hedonistic, Breathnach contends there’s no surer route to the spiritual than through the flesh.  A feast for the splendor-starved soul, Romancing the Ordinary overflows with wisdom drawn from the arts, literature, history and film- not to mention delectable recipes that will enrapture your inner gastronome, ranging from “divine fettuccine” to “not meant to be shared chocolate mousse.”  The three central pillars of Breathnach’s wickedly indulgent philosophy are listed below:

1. life should be the grandest of love affairs 

posing with posies

Though as a culture we’ve mostly abandoned the image of women as helpless damsels in distress, many of us still secretly equate romance with a dashing prince.  Years after the women’s liberation movement, we remain spellbound by the enchanting fairytales of our youth, stories that suggested love of the non-platonic variety was the only possible route to adventure.  The charm of an idyllic French countryside, the smell of earth after a spring rain, the contentment of a winter night spent warm and toasty by a fire: such everyday pleasures, we thought, could only be enjoyed when shared.  

But Ms. Breathnach believes otherwise: women don’t need a significant other to be romanced- they can seduce themselves.  Rather than wait for a debonair lover to woo us with his wit or court us with extravagant bouquets of flowers, we can do small things each day to revive our love of life- or, as the French say, our joie de vivre.  

Sadly, instead of a lustful affair, our lives most often resemble a passionless marriage, stagnant after one too many neglectful years.  Our day-to-day is overrun not by “wants” but “should’s” and “have to’s.”  When was the last time we did something simply because we had a desire to?  At the cornerstone of Breathnach’s philosophy is the belief that life should be a high-spirited soiree, exuberant, filled with longing and laughter.  “What makes the blood rush to your head?  The fragrance wafting out the doorway of a chocolatier?…The silky squeak of a taffeta slip?  The buttery softness of a new pair of leather gloves?  Biting into a liquor-filled chocolate?  Your cat licking your face?  The first sight of forsythias in spring?  Discovering a new-to-you book by your favorite author?” Breathnach implores us to consider.  Ravish your senses, seduce yourself with the sweet, secret yearnings of your own soul, and transform your humdrum marriage with life into a red-hot love affair.

2. leisure isn’t decadent or self-indulgent- it’s an essential form of self-care

bubble bath

“There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know any,” poetess Sylvia Plath once quipped.  A soothing soak in a hot bath, a tattered book of beloved poems, a luscious cup of hot cocoa: these little acts of self-cherishing may be simple but they have the profound power to restore a frazzled soul.  Yet few women pause to pamper themselves.  Why?

One can blame the American work ethic, a legacy inherited from our rigorously disciplined Puritan grandparents.  Much like our forefathers, who believed hard work and strict self-denial brought glory to God, Americans worship at the altar of productivity and despise nothing more than idleness.  Product-oriented and accomplishment-obsessed, we prefer the gratification of checking another item off our to-do list to an unhurried afternoon with nothing “useful” to occupy us.  In fact, leisure and laziness are so inextricable in our society that most women are ridden with guilt when they so much as take a moment for themselves.  Workaholism is a pernicious pathology made all the more perilous because it’s supported and sanctioned by our culture: not only are we the only country in the industrialized world to not offer paid family leave, we’re a nation that shames those with enough self-respect to call-in sick when they’re ill.  Rarely, if ever, do we allow ourselves the “luxury” of missing work- even when we’re confined in bed with a 103 degree fever and a mountain of tissues.

But though our dystopic capitalist state assesses human worth by mechanical notions of input/output, leisure is essential to caring for ourselves.  A blissful reprieve from the day-to-day ennui of our twenty-first century hamster wheel, a few hours of leisure well-spent can help us once again delight in the world.  And here I must make a distinction: by leisure I don’t mean in the contemporary sense of the word but rather in the classical.  Though today leisure has come to signify an aimless frittering away of time in trivial pursuits, to the ancient Greeks, leisure, or scholé (interestingly the linguistic progenitor of the English word for school), was a time for learning and contemplation indispensable both to the advancement of civilization and the expansion of the human soul.  Whereas we in the modern era preach the gospel of work, the ancients viewed labor as a debasement of our higher selves.  Manual labor was seen as a necessary evil, required for survival but a hinderance to nobler intellectual pursuits.  It was only when man was free of the shackles of burdensome toil, they believed, that he could devise, dream, and discover truth.

Indeed, throughout time, leisure has been the fountainhead of all progress.  The most noteworthy human achievements- the greatest art, the most pioneering ideas of philosophy, the spark of every epoch-making scientific breakthrough- were conceived in leisure, in moments unburdened by duty or, as Bertrand Russell once said, in periods of “fruitful monotony,” be it Alexander Graham Bell solving the puzzle of the harmonic telegraph while strolling through a bluff overlooking the Grand River or Mozart noting that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.”  As Brenda Ueland observed in her timeless If You Want to Write, “The imagination needs moodling,- long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering” to cultivate ideas.

3. we can exalt our lives by being artists of the everyday

still life with bottle & basket

What constitutes “art” and what qualities confer the esteemed title of “artist” onto a mere aspirant are questions that have engrossed man for millennia.  Jacques-Louis David believed the artist was one who could execute his vision: To give a body and a perfect form to one’s thought, this—and only this—is to be an artist,” he remarked.  Henry Miller argued the artist was the “unrecognized hero of our time – and of all time” whereas Georgia O’Keeffe held that the artist was simply someone who filled “space in a beautiful way.”  Sarah Ban Breathnach’s definition is perhaps most similar to Mark Getlein’s: the purpose of art, he asserted, is to “create extraordinary versions” of ordinary things.  

But unlike these writers and artists, Miss Breathnach contends art isn’t only confined to easels and paintbrushes– art can be made of the everyday.  As fellow poet of the prosaic Henry David Thoreau so elegantly phrased, “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”  Much as Cezanne could glimpse the miraculous in something as mundane as a bowl of fruit, we can exalt our lives by elevating the ordinary to the status of ritual.  Brewing coffee.  Reading the morning paper.  Setting the table.  Most of us hurry through these daily rounds, accustomed as we are to their trivialities and trifles.  But what are diapers and groceries and dry cleaning if not the material for the greatest masterpiece- life itself?  The artist can only discern the possibility for art if he scrutinizes his subject and carefully renders its details: the intensity of its colors, the outline of its shapes.  To be an artist of the everyday we must act with love, reverence and a similar sense of heartfelt attention.  Rather than carelessly throw on the first thing in our closet and barely brush our hair, why not take the time to establish a real beauty routine and transform the early morning bathroom rush into a glorious retreat of self-pampering and self-care?  why not do a face mask and paint our nails?  If we take a brief respite from our habitual ways of seeing, if we conduct ourselves with the attentive eyes and receptive minds of artists, life can be our magnum opus.