Monday, September 30, 2019

Leanne Shapton / The Ghosts Are Aghast

Leanne Shapton
HERMÉS dress.
hotographed by Lauren Hemmick



MARCH 18, 2019

The epigraph in the beginning of Leanne Shapton’s latest graphic novel, Guestbook: Ghost Stories, out via Riverhead Books in March of this year, was penned by her late friend and prolific writer Adam Gilders—“A geist/ A gust/ A ghost/ Aghast/ I guess/ A guest.” 
Full of unconventional storytelling in the form of photo essays, poems, paintings, profiles, blueprints, make believe Instagram grids, prose, wrapping paper, and spooky 35mm photographs tucked between the pages, the work’s 33 chapters explore the presence of unknown presences—the past as a present paranormal guest.
 “With these stories, I wanted to experiment with how a reader emotionally reads a picture and metabolizes a picture. And I wanted to use photography in a way to show how dark and powerful I think it is,” Shapton says from a Times Square highrise on an icy Friday afternoon, “I think it’s where our ghosts are centered now.” 
These ghosts of our past selves in polaroids are not unlike the ones lurking in the narrow hallways and bright sitting rooms in the book’s photo essays “The Dream” and “Lago”, nor are they dissimilar to the found photographs of icebergs, like the one that presumably dismantled the Titanic, floating ominously in the fog of the North Atlantic in the chapter “The Iceberg As Viewed by Eyewitnesses.” 
The book, Shapton’s tenth, follows in the parade of her innovative works like 2009’s “Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry” that details a four- year love affair between a couple as told through 335 auction lots as well as 2016’s Was She Pretty about jealousy for current lovers’ ex-lovers featuring witty resentments and charming drawings. 
Aside from the success of her books, Shapton is also an accomplished artist and illustrator with past client collaborations like Aesop, Tory Burch, and Rachel Comey. Her creative eye has also led her to the role of art director at a variety of publications, and her knack for storytelling shines in her journalism, with bylines in The New Yorker andThe New York Times Style Magazine. 
While much of Guestbook is serious, like the chapter “Billy Bryson” that deals with imaginary friends, trauma, and burn-out, Guestbook also has wonderful moments of humor that remind us that just because we are being haunted, doesn’t mean we can’t laugh. 
In “I Will Draw A Diagram of Her Movements” we’re told that sometimes it actually feels nice to be watched by unseen eyes, “The creepy creeping. The okayness creeps.” And in “Public Figure/ Beauty Lover/ Digital Talent / Traveler / Spinario / Parma / Abu Dhabi” a humorous poem displays lavishly mundane online flirtations left below a photo we cannot see— “My dear, so elegant, so confident, I’m in love with your feed”, “Oh wow looks so dreamy”, “Ahhh I love this looks amazing”, and “This is goals.” 
The poem reads like Instagram comments from strangers you don’t want to meet. Sad, shackled, and wandering. 
Speaking of the grid, in “Natura Morta,” vintage photographs are mixed with a modern photos of a woman— driving in a convertible, backstroking in a lagoon, a (clothed) crotch channeling a ray of light, a topless mirror selfie, and many others. Underneath each photo are arbitrary “likes” that peak at a modest 267. 
“There’s a lot of trust that happens with photography that I don’t think should happen with photography,” Shapton says, “ It’s just lies and lies and sadness. I was telling a friend the other day that every time I post on Instagram it’s because I’m feeling sad, and lonely. It doesn’t come out of a place of security, in some ways, it’s kind of a cry for help.” 
Guestbook’s ghost stories are not ones tracing our most storied ghosts like The Flying Dutchman, Thom Thompson, La Llorona, nor is it an investigation of the literary ghost, like Hamlet’s father’s wraith or the ghoulish sailors of Coleridge’s “The Rime of Ancient Mariner”—Shapton’s visitants are us, disappearing from our present to live as apparitions on the feeds of our past. 

Ghost Story / An Interview with Leanne Shapton

Leanne Shapton

Ghost Story: An Interview with Leanne Shapton

In this interview with MFA nonfiction candidate Grace Ann Leadbeater, Leanne Shapton talks about her upcoming book, Guestbook: Ghost Stories, out March 26, 2019. Shapton is an artist, author, and publisher. Her book Swimming Studies won the 2012 National Book Critic’s Circle Award for autobiography, and was long listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2012. She is also a partner in J&L Books.

Grace Ann Leadbeater
February 28, 2019

Guestbook investigates what haunts us. What first drew you to explore this idea of being haunted by objects, experiences, people, et cetera?
I’ve been interested in old things all my life. I grew up in an old house, my father collected Studebakers. He was an industrial designer and we were surrounded by things from different decades. My mother is Filipino and the house was full of baskets and cups and objects from the Philippines. I’ve always valued and understood that there were stories and meaning in things— sentimental value, design value, and history.
In all of my work I’m looking backwards, whether it’s the book Was She Pretty?, and how we think of our lover’s exes— or Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. That was a love story in the form of an auction catalog: the objects act as containers, transmitters for storytelling. For The Native Trees of Canada, I took inspiration from a vintage book from 1979— a forestry manual. I’m always looking for how the past resonates or speaks to me now.
The book is bursting with images. Did you ever consider this book existing without images or were the images always a vital part?
They were always a vital part. I’ve read ghost stories and loved ghost stories since I was small. All of my favorite stories are ghost stories, even if they’re not always called ghost stories, like Hamlet, “The Dead,” A Christmas Carol. I love literary ghost stories like Edith Wharton’s “Afterward,” or local lore you might find in a gift shop like Ghost stories of Montana.
I wanted to do something with the form that involved images. Images carry emotion. In this image-driven culture, they influence what we’re haunted by. Look at Instagram, for example, how violent it can be in terms of inspiring jealousy, sympathy, or making us feel lousy or good about ourselves.
I wanted to see if the ghost story form could carry more or do more with images. Early on in thinking about this book I went to the ghost story section of the London Library. There were all these books by eccentric British ghost hunters, like Borley Rectory: The most haunted house in England. The photographs in those books— often banal images of houses and plain rooms— had terrifically dramatic captions. I loved how that discrepancy worked. The way we looked at those pictures with leading captions could direct comprehension and tone. I could work on emotion more efficiently with a picture.
This collecting of images and artifacts is so exciting in the literary realm. Are these images and artifacts you’ve been collecting for years? Did you go looking for any in the midst of making the book?
I found most of the images while making the book. I knew that after Important Artifacts I could cast and shoot scenes if I wanted to. But with thirty stories I realized it would get expensive. I turned to my family’s photo albums, my own collection of snapshots, to eBay and Etsy.
With “Eidolon,” the images began as screen grabs from Death in Venice. They then became painted stills from one scene, to abstract them even more. The painted photographs allow one more layer of abstraction—less veracity and more of a floaty quality.
How do you position yourself with the title? Are you a guest studying this guestbook or is it your guestbook that others are the guest of?
The book is full of ghosts that are guests. The epigraph “A geist, A gust, A ghost, Aghast, I guess, A guest” was something that my friend Adam Gilders, who died in 2007, wrote in my parents’ guestbook back in 1995.
The book had a few different titles, but I realized the original guestbook that held Adam’s little message was an existing object already. I love the word guest. It felt right. There was a debate over whether I should put “ghost stories” on the cover. My agent said, “Well they’re not all ghost stories. You’ve done something with this short story form, too. These are stories about detachment, loss and memory.” It was my editor’s idea to de-boss it on the cover so that it’s an impression and not a printed word.
How did you navigate your own personal artifacts and images with the ones that you sought out through eBay, Etsy, et cetera?
“Sirena Di Gali” uses my own original photographs, found images and family snapshots, but very few other stories do.  They are either, per story, all my own, or found. For “New Jersey Transit,” I searched specifically for swimmers behind chain link fences. There is so much anonymous, snapshot photography available. And again, like these ghosts, guests—who are these people? With “Billy Byron,” I used a few stock images. I did have to go over everything with the Penguin Random house legal department.
Do you think that using both words and pictures to tell a narrative is more readily received because of this newish world we are in of rapid image-sharing (predominately with Instagram)?
I do. I think we are very sophisticated readers of images, but we don’t know how sophisticated we are. It’s something that excites me, that you and I can look at a completely boring image of a latte and read the same, nuanced things. I think there is a lexicon, or alphabet of reading images that we haven’t organized yet. I think since the invention of photography our understanding of the world has deepened, as has our capacity to be fooled by things. What’s really interesting to me is that we put so much trust in it. I find it sinister. I find it tricky. I find myself second guessing. Do I believe what I’m reading in a picture? Or, What’s the whole story? We’re losing some sense of wonder, or faith, when we rely on images. I think there’s a whole new kind of literacy that has been developing since Daguerre.
Do you think that that we also heavily put trust in one another to believe our deceptions with the images we share?
Yes. Our lives have become a performance because we understand what’s photogenic and what’s not. And I think that’s limiting. I think the idea of what is photogenic or what is beautiful inflects our culture by repetition. This was all predicted by Aby Warburg. When we see something, there is a knee-jerk reaction to believe, because it’s a photograph. Ideas of trust are in question, and that’s why I thought the ghost story could be revisited. There will be more ghost stories that involve photography. Henry James wrote one, in 1896, called “The Friends of the Friends.”
Does your process as a writer differ from your process as an artist? Or perhaps they’re synonymous for you?
I’m in the middle of writing a long-form journalism piece and it’s similar. When I paint I work in series. I’ll paint the same thing seventeen times. With writing, well, I love rewriting. It’s a case of re-writing something seventeen times. Also, when I’m writing, it helps me to look at images and describe them to get tone or to give the reader a sense of two channels working at the same time. My writing will always have an element of, “Reader, look at this,” whether illustrated or not. I like to play with layers of text and image, that involve an imagined image, a description of a real image, and then facts. I do paint more than I write. I find writing harder.
You have a background in swimming. How does this activity/practice of propelling oneself through water relate to or differ from your creative practices?
Both make you tired and short of breath. I rely on the idea of laps, repetition. Finding a rhythm. Finding a zone. If I sit down and work for five hours it feels wonderful. It feels like the focus I had in a practice or when I pushed myself to get up, eat a bagel, to get to the pool. I find that place is very satisfying. And how does it relate? I guess because I know how to do it, to focus like that. That feeling is what I look for when painting and writing: the line on the bottom of the pool. And in terms of propulsion, I think a creative process requires that you slow down. Stamina. Discipline. I mean, all these things have to be at work.
Do you see yourself ever making a book without a visual factor?
I don’t know, because it’s how I write. I would like to. It’s a good idea. In the class I teach at Columbia, Words and Pictures, the first exercise I have everyone do is to find an image from a selection on a table and write about it. When the pieces are read aloud, sometimes I don’t show the class the image.
The text has a different life with the removal of the picture. I’ve written pieces of journalism where I don’t provide the images, where someone illustrates or a photo editor decides. Right now I’m writing an afterword for a Thomas Bernhard novel and I won’t put pictures in it.
Is it terrifying to write when you know that someone else is going to decide what images go with the writing?
I want to design and art direct it all. It’s a part of my writing, a part of the delivery for me, using that entire palette. I can’t stand it, but I get it. And I love collaborating.

About the author

Grace Ann Leadbeater is an artist who is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in writing at Columbia University. She grew up in Central Florida and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Robert Mapplethorpe's X-Rated Photographs Changed Culture Forever

Robert Mapplethorpe's X-Rated Photographs Changed Culture Forever

We spoke to the filmmakers behind 'Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures,' a new HBO documentary about the photographer who died 25 years ago, to find out more about his life.

By Hannah Ewens
Mar 29 2016, 9:20am

Patti Smith's boyfriend, the gay New York artist who died of AIDS, the man who took a picture of fisting and called it art: However you know of cult photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, it's strange that we know so little about the man himself. Famed for shooting male nudes, the scandal of the homoeroticism in his pictures has overshadowed both the artist and work itself.

His photos are striking, even today still reasonably shocking, and unflinching. Patti Smith describes it best in her memoir of their life together, Just Kids, when she says, "Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art. He worked without apology, investing the homosexual with grandeur, masculinity, and enviable nobility. Without affectation, he created a presence that was wholly male without sacrificing feminine grace."

Twenty-five years after his death, we are more intrigued than ever before. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the duo behind RuPaul's Drag Race, have made a documentary for HBO which aims to dig some way through the controversy in order to truly chart his life, loves, and creative work. I spoke to them about Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures and what they discovered about the man along the way.
VICE: We're introduced to Mapplethorpe as a little boy, which is a stark contrast to the sexualized art-and-leather man he's been immortalized as. You offer up the tiniest but most brilliant details about him.
Fenton Bailey: When you make a documentary, the devil is in the details, and details help conjure up a person for an audience. Rather than having an art critic pontificate about his work, you get more insight about Robert's character and personality when you know he held the local nonstop pogo stick record. Why? It speaks to his stick-with-it-ness, his determination. Or the fact that Mapplethorpe said as a child he knew he wanted to be an artist, "whatever that was." Even before he knew what an artist was, he wanted to be one.

He's anything but a lovable character in this film. He's single-minded and at times borders on cruel—I'm thinking of his treatment of his brother, Edward. When he poses a threat by branching out to be a photographer himself, Robert tells him he should change his last name, so they aren't associated. Did you go into the project liking him, and did that change?
Randy Barbato: For us, during the first year making it, we were ambivalent about our feelings toward Robert Mapplethorpe. Things that he did, particularly to his brother, made it hard to identify and connect with him from a traditional moral point of view. But the further we got into making the film, the more we admired his brutal honesty. It's not something you see that often. It's rare you see someone not edit out the qualities that most would judge as being selfish, ambitious, heartless, or insensitive. Why do we as a society think that ambition is wrong? That quality is simply how some people get things done. We're all complex individuals, and I think Robert Mapplethorpe in his naked ambition reminds us of the complexity of humanity.
Fenton Bailey: The film definitely forces you to get past what you think of as traditionally likable and not-likable, though. I can understand if people watching come away not liking him.

You show his ambition as relentless, with an awareness of publicity and criticism that's rare to see. He repeatedly asked, "Will people write about this work?"Fenton Bailey: It wasn't enough for him to sit in his loft making beautiful art; he had to position that art. People think that's not what pure artists do, but I was in the National Gallery last weekend looking at these old master artists and realized this is true with all artists throughout history. You don't end up painting the Vatican ceiling without kissing the pope's ass. Throughout art history, artists have needed patrons, and they've had to hustle to get work recognition. Twenty-five years later, people still think of Mapplethorpe. There were some artists working with male sexuality at that time—where are they now? It's a valid part of being an artist.
Randy Barbato: Artists now are so openly ambitious. Back then you couldn't admit to it.
Patti Smith is shown and spoken about, although she doesn't appear. It felt like you discussed what was relevant from that time in terms of his lifespan and career: their determination to be artists, her sacrifices to put his career before hers, and most importantly, her pride.Fenton Bailey: Absolutely, it was about those two points. It's important to realize that Mapplethorpe had many intimate collaborators and almost all of them are in the film. He was just like that; he was very intimate to that level with a number of people.
Randy Barbato: Patti had a beautiful relationship with him, but that was one part of his life. She actually wasn't around in New York or his life during a significant part of his artistic career. So she's in the film to the extent that she was in his life.
One thing you show well is his sensitivity, which comes through despite his "faults." Fenton Bailey: He was a highly sensitive person. Very good to his friends, very caring, loving, and with a great sense of humor. Listen to how soft spoken he is. He's such a gentle, polite person. It's not what you'd expect.

The way he worked seemed to have been: picking up a man for sex, sleeping with him, and taking photos of him almost immediately. Randy BarbatoThe thing about Mapplethorpe is he didn't draw the line. He was the work of art. Nothing was off bounds because his life was art. Remember, he said himself, the whole point of art is to open ourselves up, open our hearts, our minds. He took that job very seriously and in many ways sacrificed his entire being to the cause.

Someone in the documentary accuses him of exploiting these people.
Fenton Bailey: In the trial after he'd died, the pictures were put on trial for obscenity, but they were safe because yes, they are obscene, but they have artistic merit. Why does it have to be one or the other? In terms of the models he picked up, had sex with, and shot, it's sexual desire and desire to turn the body into art. There isn't a distinction between making love with someone and taking his photograph.

During the end of the film as he knows he's dying of AIDS, his desire to produce and self-curate is in overdrive. Shooting extensively, throwing a "going away party." I saw parallels with David Bowie and Blackstar.Fenton Bailey: Yes! Exactly. Except, of course, Mapplethorpe was doing it many years before, and the equivalent of Blackstar is that show, The Perfect Moment, where he put together those pictures for the first time. He literally was building a time bomb. I don't think he was necessarily interested in politics or censorship or freedom of speech, but he knew what they could do for him. And they would make him a world-famous artist. The scandal did just that.
Often the fame narrative is either that someone gets famous for his or her work well after death or spends his or her life as a star. But with Mapplethorpe, he spent his final moments tasting that fame he'd always craved. 
Fenton Bailey: And spent that time thinking, What can I do considering I am dying that can make me more famous than I've been so that my work will last?
The article Vanity Fair wrote about him, almost talking about him posthumously, was awful. It isn't clear in the documentary, but did you find out if he'd read it himself?Fenton Bailey: Oh yes, he did see it. It wasn't in the film because there was so much we had to leave out. The headline of the piece was "Mapplethorpe's Long Goodbye," and his reaction was, What? Am I dying too slowly for Vanity Fair? Do they want me to speed things up a bit? He was very upset over it.

'Panorama,' Robert Mapplethorpe
How do you think he would have adapted to today's art world and wider culture?
Fenton Bailey: I think he would've loved where we are right now because the male body and nudity is an accepted part of art. I promise you it was scandalous when he first did it. I think he'd love digital photography and the culture in which everyone's taking selfies, often nude selfies, whether it's Tinder or Grindr. He'd love the way careers changed. In the past, you were a painter, or a designer, or a director, but now if you're an artist, you can do all those things. You don't have to pick a discipline and stick to it. Creating work can be simultaneously multi-disciplined. He'd have survived well.

To what extent did he change our attitude to male nudes and sex in art?Fenton Bailey: He's a pioneer. Without his male nudes, Calvin Klein never would've done that campaign with Marky Mark. It's impossible to imagine where we are today without him. Shooting those sexually explicit selfies and saying these are art and forcing them to look at them was a huge step toward normalizing it, so people could get over the shock. He was a disrupter.
Randy Barbato: Contemporary photography wasn't even considered art when Mapplethorpe was alive. Gays weren't running around calling themselves gay. Images of male nudity and sex like his were not seen. It was two different worlds ago.
Since Patti Smith's Just Kids, we've seen a lot of exhibitions and films about Mapplethorpe. Why this interest now? Why so relevant?Randy Barbato: Before he died, he set up a foundation to promote his work, and following his directions very closely, they gave a huge body of work to LACMA and Getty. The fact there are these two huge retrospectives at these specific museums is because of him and his intention. The reason he's around today is because that's the way he planned it. Why now? This is an important time to reexamine Mapplethorpe. People are closing borders, closing their minds, closing their hearts. His art challenges us to open them up again at this important time.

Robert Mapplethorpe by Robert J. Lewis

Robert Mapplethorpe

The heterosexual dictatorship versus


Sophistication is the ability to approach culture
with the minimum amount of anxiety.
Northrop Frye

The give and take is consensual. From a penis pulled out of homosexual Jim’s leather pants, a straight line of urine is being directed into the mouth of homosexual Tom. If a public toilet’s "thought-dreams could be seen," it would envy the considered delivery, the not-a-drop-wasted marksmanship.

The photograph, entitled “Jim and Tom, Sausalito, 1977,” was taken by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS (1989) at the age of 42. It is one of the great photographs of the twentieth century. But it is not, classification notwithstanding, homoerotic art: neither the urinator nor his toilette is even approximately aroused. And if we grant the position is sexual, urinating and having to negotiate a mouthful of urine are not normally the stuff of foreplay or activities that predict arousal.

The storyline is straightforward. Hooded Jim, standing, is relieving his bladder while cowled Tom, kneeling, mouth agape, is orally receiving the benediction.

Since the photo wasn’t likely to elicit a sympathetic view of homosexuality or induce heterosexuals to switch sides, why did Mapplethorpe enter “Jim and Tom” into the public domain?

Does the photo argue that homosexuals are well-adjusted, comfortable in their sexual skins? Did the photographer hope to ingratiate himself into the good graces of the gay rights and gay pride movements? Seeing that it is not normal to thirst for or imbibe urine, is Mapplethorpe proposing that homosexuality is abnormal, anomalous, even perverse? He must have known that the already scarlet lettered homosexual community would vigorously object to the implications of the photo and would be click-quick to disassociate itself from sexual practices that deviate from the more conventional modalities (oral, anal) of gay sex, even though the photo is not sexual. But even Mapplethorpe’s harshest critics must admire his position on political correctness whose tyrannies he literally pisses on.

Is there a case to be made that “Jim and Tom” not only illuminates but represents the definitive outing of the condition of self-hatred? What causes a man to want to urinate into the mouth of his fellow man? In what regard does the urinator behold the man who agrees to orally receive his micturition? And what are we to conclude about the vessel and his (jaundiced) self-esteem indices?

“Jim and Tom” is a photo depicting what it’s like to be gay. It is a cry to the world, an advertisement announcing that gay pride is a lie, a façade without any practical agency against the intensity and ubiquity of hatred directed against homosexuals.

What makes a man so turn on himself, turn himself into a toilet or regard his fellow man as a mere toilet? How many negative experiences did it take to transmogrify Jim and Tom into the

unredeemed, into unregenerate self-haters? To what unfathomable degree of hatred were these men subjected to that finally twisted them to hate themselves, to find solace in humiliation and degradation, to not only accept the verdict of the hater but to appease him by signing their capitulation in urine.

There doesn’t exist a human being who wouldn’t rather be liked than not. When someone discovers he is hated for reasons other than his principles and beliefs, he will reflexively (unconsciously) attempt to modify his behaviour in order to be relieved of the cause of the hatred. But what is he to do when he is hated or rejected for something over which he has no control, or cannot change or alter: the colour of his skin, his ethnicity, his sexual orientation? He will do what comes most easily and naturally; he will appeal to his imaginative faculties and wish to be something other than what he is. Little does he suspect in this innocent act of wishful thinking his relationship with the world will never again be the same.

Self-hatred, especially among ethnic and minority group members, is an affliction, a sickness of being that no one dares to speak of because of the shame it elicits. But the shame is not a function of identity; it is an admission (of defeat) that the self-hater is hostage to public opinion, that he lacks the wherewithal to outthink or neutralize the inauthentic hatred directed against him. That so many self-haters remain self-hating over a lifetime forces the conclusion that, with few exceptions, ethnic and racial hatred is so overpowering it cannot be overcome.

Unlike members of ethnic and racial minority groups, homosexuals become self-hating later in life, during adolescence. The former are typically exposed to prejudice in early childhood and, perforce, learn to live with and adjust to the condition, especially if, as adults, they restrict the locus of their activities to their ethnic ghettos. The homosexual will only begin to become self-hating when he learns or suspects he is gay. Prior to that, he will have been culturally exposed to the widely held, condescending view of homosexuality that goes unchallenged in everyday discourse. Thus, it all too frequently happens that the prepubescent homosexual comes to adopt the homophobic ethos before he becomes aware of his homosexuality, which almost guarantees he will become a self-hating adult.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo of Jim and Tom lays bare, in all its brutality, the sheer power of homophobia and its tragically crippling consequences. In the brokeback facial expressions of Jim and Tom, we catch a phantom glimpse of the self-satisfied Liberal who -- even though he would have you think otherwise -- in his private thoughts is at best uneasy with homosexuality, which predicts that in a perfect world where homosexuality and heterosexuality enjoy equal positive regard, he will still prefer that his son be straight than gay.

What does “Jim and Tom” tell of our nation’s art critics who, en masse messed up, failed to uncover the work’s epochal significance, who instead lobbied to have the photo censured? From what smug biases did they pick and choose in the rendering of their ‘final judgment?’

The photo of “Jim and Tom” is not merely a depiction of self-hatred; it is a millennia-deep indictment of homophobia and its debilitating first effects. In its stark and bone-chilling content, it reduces to a singularity the immobilizing hatred and immorality that inhere in homophobia. Heterosexuality is revealed as a brutal dictatorship. In the unequal war of the worlds, it is the heterosexual who presumes the right to define for all time the status of the homosexual. As a commentary on the luck of the draw, the photo portrays homosexuality as a black hole from which there is no escape, and homophobia an issue from the same sordid swamp that spawned the likes of the Gestapo, the Klu Klux Klan, Stalin and Pol Pot. “In the darkness with a great bundle of grief the people march . . . where to, what next?"

Robert Mapplethorpe's infamous photo meets the criteria of art because in the telling of its story it moves us without being didactic. As an artwork that transcends time and defies category, “Jim and Tom” deserves to be exhibited in every major and minor museum in the world, and included in every university curriculum.

In light of the dark fact that homophobia continues to prosper and multiply, it is not enough that we merely think correctly, meaning pat ourselves liberally on the back only to stay pat. Nothing less than doing what is right will relieve us of our complicity in Jim and Tom’s humiliation. Jim and Tom have mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters; they belong to every race, religion, colour and culture. Since there is no escaping our moment in time which is their time, we can decide to return to them their stolen dignity or let human nature -- gene and claw -- do our bidding.

Like birds on the wire, like drunks in a midnight choir, Jim and Tom have tried in their way to be free. 

Saturday, September 28, 2019

The 100 best nonfiction books / No 22 / A Grief Observed by CS Lewis (1961)

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 22 – A Grief Observed by CS Lewis (1961)

This powerful study of loss asks: ‘Where is God?’, and explores the feeling of solitude and sense of betrayal that even non-believers will recognise

Robert McCrum
Monday 27 June 2016

o one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.” From its famous opening line, A Grief Observed propelled its readers into a no-man’s-land of mourning and loss. It dramatises bereavement and ruthlessly confronts the desolate survivor with an insistent and overwhelming question: “Where is God?”

Lewis’s answer to this existential conundrum resonates through the rest of the book with a kind of tangible fury: “Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double-bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?

Even a confused non-believer can appreciate the deep sense of betrayal here. In good times of happiness and security, you might have no sense of needing any consolation and might even assume that God will not be available when he is needed. For a believer, writes Lewis, bitterly, “the conclusion I dread is not ‘so there’s no God after all’, but ‘so this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”
Much of his text is quasi-theological; other parts have a self-help flavour that quickly morphs into lyricism: “Sorrow,” instructs Lewis, “turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop. There is something to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”
A Grief Observed is an unsettling book for a secular age, plunging the reader, as it does, into allusions to St Augustine, considerations of heaven and eternity, coupled with some intense, self-analytical discussions about separation, solitude and Christian suffering. Some of Lewis’s exclamations are raw and modern. “Cancer, and cancer, and cancer. My mother, my father, my wife. I wonder who is next in the queue.”

Once the reader has tuned his or her sensibility to Lewis’s wavelength, this unsentimental, even bracing, account of one man’s dialogue with despair becomes both compelling and consoling in several intriguing ways not necessarily associated with death. As Rowan Williams has written: “If the anguish of loss can be honestly lived in (not ‘through’), it must be with a clear recognition of the impossibility of possessing or absorbing anyone we love.”
Indeed, some of Lewis’s best passages recall the intensity of an earlier and very passionate essay, The Four Loves: “We have seen the faces of those we know best so variously, from so many angles, in so many lights, with so many expressions – waking, sleeping, laughing, crying, eating, talking, thinking – that all the impressions crowd into our memory together and cancel out in a mere blur.”
This series of nonfiction greats does not typically narrate the backstory to the classics it selects, but the circumstances of A Grief Observed are worth repeating. Throughout his life, “Jack” Lewis was a man tortured by the tragedies of love. He was born in Northern Ireland in 1898, enjoyed a quasi-public school education in England, and then served as an officer in the first world war, where he was quite badly wounded in action. For him, the horror of the trenches was just another kind of association with death. He had lost his mother as a small boy, aged 10. In Surprised by Joy, he says that, when his mother died, “grief was overwhelmed by terror” at the sight of her dead body.
Thereafter, in honour of a pact made on the battlefield with a fallen fellow soldier, he formed a highly unconventional relationship with Jane Moore, a woman 26 years older than him, whom he referred to as “mother”, and who eventually died of dementia in 1951.
When, in 1956, he abandoned his bachelor security for Joy Davidman, an American poet, he experienced a kind of conversion to the joys of feminine intimacy, and also acquired two stepsons through his marriage. This late flowering was cut short when Joy was diagnosed with cancer. Four years later, she was dead. Her death plunged Lewis into the crisis of faith he addresses in A Grief Observed. Perhaps he was more deeply wounded by his loss than he realised. Lewis died a week before his 65th birthday in November 1963.
The typescript of this fiftysomething page text [reference: Readers’ Edition, Faber, 2015] was submitted to Faber as the work of a pseudonymous author, Dimidius, by a literary agent, Curtis Brown, who declared he was neither at liberty to reveal the author’s name, nor much interested in further inquiries about it. The first person to read the text, TS Eliot, a Faber director, claimed to have “guessed the name of the author”, typically kept his hunch to himself, recommended immediate publication and requested a less contrived pseudonym. (Dimidius, in Latin, implies “cut in half”.) CS Lewis at once suggested an alternative, and A Grief Observed by NW Clerk was published in the autumn of 1961. Thanks to Eliot’s connections and support, this little book attracted a disproportionate attention for the work of an unknown. When Lewis died a couple of years later, early in 1964, his estate gave permission for the book to be republished under his own name, adding to its growing status as a contemporary classic.

A signature sentence

“The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like a drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs.”

Three to compare

CS Lewis: Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955)
Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)
Paul Kalanithi: When Breath Becomes Air (2015)

A Grief Observed is published by Faber (£7.99).