“A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs,” wrote Lou Andreas-Salomé, the first woman psychoanalyst, in a consolatory letter to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke as he was wrestling with depression, nearly a century before psychologists came to study the nonlinear relationship between creativity and mental illness. A generation later, with an eye to what made Goethe a genius, Humphrey Trevelyan argued that great artists must have the courage to despair, that they “must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy.”
Few artists have articulated the dance between this “divine discontent” and creative fulfillment more memorably than the poet, novelist, essayist, and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995). In her Journal of a Solitude (public library), Sarton records and reflects on her interior life in the course of one year, her sixtieth, With remarkable candor and courage. Out of these twelve private months arises the eternity of the human experience with its varied universal capacities for astonishment and sorrow, hollowing despair and creative vitality.
In an entry from September 15, 1972, Sarton writes:
It is raining. I look out on the maple, where a few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself and to the rain ticking gently against the windows. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my “real” life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone…
She considers solitude as the seedbed of self-discovery:
For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self. I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose — to find out what I think, to know where I stand.
My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there. I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.
Art by Sir Quentin Blake from Michael Rosen’s Sad Book
In another journal entry penned three days later, in the grip of her recurrent struggle with depression, Sarton revisits the question of the difficult, necessary self-confrontations that solitude makes possible:
The value of solitude — one of its values — is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within, just as there is nothing to help balance at times of particular stress or depression. A few moments of desultory conversation … may calm an inner storm. But the storm, painful as it is, might have had some truth in it. So sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.
In a passage that calls to mind William Styron’s sobering account of living with depression, Sarton adds:
The reasons for depression are not so interesting as the way one handles it, simply to stay alive.
Perhaps Albert Camus was right in asserting that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” but this is a truth hard to take in and even harder to swallow when one is made tongueless by depression. In an entry from October 6, still clawing her way out of the pit of darkness, Sarton considers the only cure for despair she knows:
Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.
By mid-October, Sarton has begun to emerge from the abyss and marvels at the transformation in a beautiful testament to the finitude and transitoriness of all things, even the deepest-cutting and most all-consuming of states:
I can hardly believe that relief from the anguish of these past months is here to stay, but so far it does feel like a true change of mood — or rather, a change of being where I can stand alone.
Echoing Virginia Woolf’s memorable insight into writing and self-doubt — the same self-doubt with which Steinbeck’s diary is strewn — Sarton considers the measure of success in creative work:
So much of my life here is precarious. I cannot always believe even in my work. But I have come in these last days to feel again the validity of my struggle here, that it is meaningful whether I ever “succeed” as a writer or not, and that even its failures, failures of nerve, failures due to a difficult temperament, can be meaningful. It is an age where more and more human beings are caught up in lives where fewer and fewer inward decisions can be made, where fewer and fewer real choices exist. The fact that a middle-aged, single woman, without any vestige of family left, lives in this house in a silent village and is responsible only to her own soul means something. The fact that she is a writer and can tell where she is and what it is like on the pilgrimage inward can be of comfort. It is comforting to know there are lighthouse keepers on rocky islands along the coast. Sometimes, when I have been for a walk after dark and see my house lighted up, looking so alive, I feel that my presence here is worth all the Hell.
Complement these particular passages of the wholly exquisite Journal of a Solitude with Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckages of the soul, then revisit Louise Bourgeois on how solitude enriches creative work and Elizabeth Bishop on why everyone needs at least one prolonged period of solitude in life.
“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.” So wrote E.B. White in his timeless 1949 love letter to New York. But meaning never exists in the singular in this city of infinite multiplicity, this mecca of idealism, iconoclasm, and codified idiosyncrasy, which means many different things to its eight million inhabitants and seven billion onlookers — a densely populated capital of loneliness, a canine kingdom, an ever-changing castle, a city that makes and breaks the American dream, a city that impelled Walt Whitman to demand: “Keep your splendid silent sun… Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum… give me the streets of Manhattan!”
The poetics of that multiplicity is what Rebecca Solnit, in collaboration with Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, explores in Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas (public library) — the culmination of Solnit’s cartographically scrumptious trilogy, after Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, exploring “what maps can do to describe the ingredients and systems that make up a city and what stories remain to be told after we think we know where we are.” The trilogy, Solnit notes, arose from “the belief that any significant place is in some sense infinite, because its stories are inexhaustible and the few that are well known overshadow the many worth knowing.” Any place can therefore be mapped in innumerable ways, each casting before the viewer a particular point of view and thus contributing to cartography’s long history as power and propaganda.
The twenty-six maps, each accompanied by an original essay, explore facets of the city as varied as its songscape, its linguistic wilderness, its notable women, its brownstones and basketball courts, its riots, and its various human and physical energy systems.
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Kelsey Garrity-Riley
Beyond the revelations of this particular city, the maps reveal the nature of all cities as functions of human intention with its always dual and often dueling capacities for good and evil, for revolution and repression, for power and prejudice, for creation and destruction. To map any city is to present a polished mosaic of selective memory built atop the rubble of selective forgetting. In reimagining the social and cultural landscape of New York, Solnit and Shapiro reclaim the unmapped territories of being and the untold stories of beings marginalized by the dominant psychogeographies of their time — from women to Native Americans to wildlife species.
Solnit writes in the introduction:
A city is a machine with innumerable parts made by the accumulation of human gestures, a colossal organism forever dying and being born, an ongoing conflict between memory and erasure, a center for capital and for attacks on capital, a rapture, a misery, a mystery, a conspiracy, a destination and point of origin, a labyrinth in which some are lost and some find what they’re looking for, an argument about how to live, and evidence that differences don’t always have to be resolved, though they may grace and grind against each other for centuries.
Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory. So a city and its citizens constitute a living library.
With an eye to the inherent incompleteness of any cartographic representation of a place as rife with infinite possibility as a city, Solnit adds:
Each of us grasps and inhabits only part of the pattern. The complexity beyond comprehension is one of the marvels of great cities, their inexhaustible, ever-renewing mystery… Every city is many places; the old woman and the young child do not live in the same city, and the rich and the poor, the pedestrian and the wheelchair-bound, black and white inhabit different but not completely separate realms.
A city is not one or the other of these things but all of them, contradictions and collaborations and conflicts together, forever churning and spitting out new possibilities.
Among the peculiarities of New York, a city that is at once a template and a glorious oddity, is the mismatch between its location and its significance — perched on the periphery of the country and hanging off the very edge of the continent, it is nonetheless an epicenter of creative culture and intellectual life. In a passage that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable words on the crucial difference between being in the middle and being at the center, Solnit captures the centripetal force of this peripheral city:
The opera diva from the rustic West at the center of Willa Cather’s novel The Song of the Lark leaves small-town Colorado for Chicago for her first round of education as a musician, but she triumphed by becoming a successful artist in New York, as Cather did herself for the last forty-one years of her life. There she wrote vividly about the West, while living with her partner, editor Edith Lewis, in the East, where a publishing job had brought her and where privacy, tolerance, sophistication, maybe access to Europe and editors, seem to have kept her.
It’s a reverse of the old mythic westward migration for freedom — though it’s worth remembering that other New Yorkers left the city in search of liberation, whether it was the patrician Edith Wharton checking out of the closed upper-class society she continued to write about or James Baldwin escaping American racism for a while... You could come to New York to appear or to disappear; the city accommodated all kinds of wishes.
New York is a center that pulls people in and a centrifuge that spins them out into the world.
Cather, Wharton, and Barnes are among the women depicted in one of the most fetching maps in the atlas, City of Women, which reimagines the iconic New York City subway map — a feat of graphic design but a failure of social justice, with its complacent abundance of stops named after white men. In this alternative version, each stop on the city’s twenty-two subway lines is renamed after a notable woman who was born, lived, or made her name nearby.
Cartography: Molly Roy; subway route symbols © Metropolitan Transit Authority
Populating this transit of Venus is an eclectic cast of writers, artists, scientists, philosophers, and other luminaries, including Hannah Arendt, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Mead, , Nora Ephron, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Audre Lorde, Ella Fitzgerald, Maira Kalman, Louise Bourgeois, and Anaïs Nin.(I’d be remiss not to savor the supreme, if solipsistic, existential satisfaction of being placed as near as I will ever get to Susan Sontag, my great abiding hero.)
Another map, The Singing City, plots New York’s musical creativity onto a typographic songscape celebrating “the ways that what starts as a particular place can end up as the tune that you hum, a song line with no guidance other than to the human heart.”
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Gent Sturgeon
What Is a Jew? captures the astonishing diversity of the subpopulation associated with New York’s intellectual elite but, in reality, spanning a vast spectrum of inclinations, interests, and legacies. (One can grasp that staggering range in reading Alfred Kazin’s poignant reflections on the loneliness of being in a culture but not of it, penned amid Brooklyn’s densely Jewish Brownsville neighborhood as Robert Moses, another Jew, was masterminding Manhattan across the river.)
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