Kieran Setiya: Idleness as Flourishing

This article was originally published by Public Books and is reprinted here with permission.

It is hard work to write a book, so there is unavoidable irony in fashioning a volume on the value of being idle. There is a paradox, too: to praise idleness is to suggest that there is some point to it, that wasting time is not a waste of time. Paradox infuses the experience of being idle. Rapturous relaxation can be difficult to distinguish from melancholy. When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break. As Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.”[1.Samuel Johnson, The Idler, no. 1, April 15, 1758; reprinted in The Idler and The Adventurer, edited by W. J. Bate, John M. Bullitt, and L. F. Powell (Yale University Press, 1963), pp. 3–4.] As he also wrote: “There are … miseries in idleness, which the Idler only can conceive.”[2.Johnson, The Idler, no. 3, April 29, 1758; in The Idler and The Adventurer, p. 11.]

This year brings three new books in praise of wasting time: a manifesto by MIT professor Alan Lightman; a critical history by philosopher Brian O’Connor; and a memoir by essayist Patricia Hampl. Each author finds a way to write in the spirit of idleness. Yet none of them quite resolves our double vision. Even as they bring its value into focus, they never shake a shadow image of the shame in being idle.

Why idleness now? Because we are too busy, too frantic; because of the felt acceleration of time. Lightman supplies a measure. “Throughout history,” he writes, “the pace of life has always been fueled by the speed of communication.”

When the telegraph was invented in the nineteenth century, information could be transmitted at the rate of about four bits per second. By 1985, near the beginnings of the public Internet, the rate was about a thousand bits per second. Today, the rate is about one billion bits per second.

We are in principle accessible anywhere, at any time; we can be texted, emailed, tagged: “The world today is faster, more scheduled, more fragmented, less patient, louder, more wired, more public.” There is not enough downtime. So Lightman argues in his brisk, persuasive essay. His snapshots of the relevant social science portray the grim effects of over-connection in our digital age: young people are more stressed, more prone to depression, less creative, more lonely but never really alone. Our time is ruthlessly graphed into efficient units. The walking speed of pedestrians in 32 cities increased by 10 percent from 1995 to 2005.

With its brief chapters and bright illustrations, Lightman’s book is itself well-designed for the attention deficits of the internet era, perfect for the postliterate teenager or the busy executive with only an hour to spare. It makes an elegant case for downtime: unstructured and undistracted, time to experiment and introspect. For Lightman, this is the kind of time-wasting that is not a waste of time. It augments creativity, which draws on undirected or “divergent” thinking. It replenishes and repairs us. And it gives us space in which to find ourselves.

Lightman’s definition of “wasting time” as undirected introspection is deliberately tendentious. The phrase could just as well describe the smartphone addict playing Angry Birds. Ironically, one of the most intriguing studies in Lightman’s book concerns the positive impact of trivial games. Asked to come up with new business ideas, people who were forced to procrastinate with Minesweeper or Solitaire for several minutes were “noticeably more creative.” Lightman does not pause to ask whether this effect can be scaled up. (I pushed it pretty far myself in graduate school, with mixed results.) But he offers a suggestive catalog of artists and scientists whose best ideas arrived when they were staring at a wall.

Lightman ends with concrete, practical prescriptions: 10-minute silences during school days, “introspective” college courses that give students more time to reflect, electronics-free rooms at work, unplugged hours at home. The changes are not radical and leave intact the media ecology in which we are to live. “It is within the power of each of us as individuals,” Lightman writes, “to make changes in our way of living to restore our inner lives. … With a little determination, each of us can find a half hour a day to waste time.”

Perhaps it is modesty, or realism, that prevents Lightman from seeking social remedies for a social problem. In the short term, he suggests, we have to work on ourselves: a conservative therapy for what ails us. Lightman’s apology for wasting time is conservative in other ways, too. He celebrates not downtime itself but its instrumental value, its usefulness as a means to integrity and achievement. Lightman cites psychologist Abraham Maslow on two forms of creativity: the kind that involves an artistic escape from stress and the kind that fuels “‘self-actualization,’ the desire to become the best we can be.” For Lightman,

there is a kind of necessary homeostasis of the mind: not a static equilibrium but a dynamic equilibrium in which we are constantly examining, testing, and replenishing our mental system, constantly securing the mental membrane between ourselves and the external world, constantly reorganizing and affirming ourselves.

If this is wasting time, who has the energy for it?

Not Brian O’Connor, who makes bolder, larger claims on behalf of being idle. Idleness flouts the prevailing social order and the conception of autonomy as arduous self-fashioning that Lightman and Maslow share. O’Connor traces the exhausting project of self-constitution to Kant and Hegel, through Karl Marx. What Lightman depicts as the ultimate purpose of wasting time, O’Connor sees as an alien imposition, an order issued without authority. Modern philosophy instructs us to make something of ourselves, but it has no right to tell us what to do, and its edicts are appropriated by societies that make exorbitant demands for work, tie recognition to material success, and exalt the individual at the cost of real community. For O’Connor, idleness is indifference to productive work and social prestige; it rejects the need for guiding purpose or self-formation. He adds to the acknowledged benefits of downtime its value as social critique.

Although O’Connor’s book has a guiding purpose, it nonetheless stays true to the ethos of idling. For the most part, O’Connor is content to answer the case against idleness made by its philosophical critics, not to argue for idleness itself. The burden of proof is placed on the opponents of being idle, who must work to convince the idler he is wrong. The idler’s objections are appropriately laconic.

O’Connor’s principal antagonist is Kant, who argues that we must make every choice as if we were legislating for all, and that we have a consequent duty to develop our talents. Scholars may query O’Connor’s interpretation of Kant as drawing on “that special feeling of worthiness” that comes from being useful to society. But even if he is wrong about this, O’Connor is right to find in Kant a vision of freedom as responsibility, of autonomy as work: the daunting project of determining how to be. For Kant, freedom requires one to live by principles one can will as laws for every rational being. One must bring this severe ambition to everything one does; only then is one entitled to be happy. “It is,” O’Connor writes, “a profound theoretical justification of an idea that has now become commonplace: that a life worth living is one marked by effort and achievement.” The idea that a good life calls for onerous self-creation fuels Nietzsche’s injunction to “become who you are” and Sartre’s existentialism.

Marx is a more difficult customer, since his emphasis on the alienation of labor under capitalism could easily be read as a critique of work. In fact, it is a call for the transformation of work into new, authentic forms. Marx’s idea of alienation was developed by Herbert Marcuse, the closest O’Connor gets to an intellectual ally. For Marcuse, alienation involves the internalization of goals that have nothing to do with what we really want. In order to function, contemporary society requires its members to be alienated in this way. What O’Connor finds suspicious in both Marx and Marcuse is the desire to solve the problems of alienation by changing the nature of work, rather than putting it in its place. Describing the conditions of work under communism, Marx writes: “What appears as a sacrifice of rest may also be called a sacrifice of idleness, of unfreedom, of unhappiness.” Marcuse strives instead for a synthesis of work and play.

O’Connor sees no hope of reconciling labor with leisure. Where Marx wants to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner,” O’Connor wonders why he can’t just take a nap.[3.Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, translated from the German by Salo Ryazanskaya, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, 2nd ed., edited by David McClellan (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 185.] Work needs to be transformed, but even after its transformation, it should not be our model of meaning in life and it cannot subsume the value of being idle. Idleness is freedom not just from alienated labor, but from the pressures of autonomy and authenticity. It is another mode of flourishing, against which the lure of striving and success should seem, at best, a lifestyle choice.

What O’Connor’s provocations miss is that for Kant, and for Sartre, the responsibility for oneself that defines autonomy is at the same time a responsibility to others. It is one thing to slack off when I could develop my talents; that is no one’s problem but my own. It is another to be idle in the face of urgent need, and so to be indifferent to suffering. John Berger wrote: “On this earth there is no happiness without a longing for justice.”[4.John Berger, Hold Everything Dear (Verso, 2007), p. 102.] It has been an aspiration of philosophers since Plato to show that this is true. An adequate defense of idleness would have to address that aspiration, to assuage the idler’s guilt. I may not owe it to myself to strain and struggle, but don’t I owe it to you?

Ironically, the work that most directly confronts the tension between idleness and ethical responsibility is neither a manifesto nor a monograph, but an essay in the spirit of Montaigne. Like Montaigne, Patricia Hampl is moved to reflect by grief and writes in conversation with someone she has lost. Like Montaigne, she rates description over narrative. And like Montaigne, she is willing to meander. Framed by a pilgrimage to Montaigne’s tower near Bordeaux, Hampl’s book does not arrive at his estate for more than two hundred pages and stops at its destination for a perfunctory eight. On the way, it pays visits to the homes of authors, saints, and scientists who embraced idleness by retiring from the world.

The most memorable are two Anglo-Irish women, Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler, who eloped together unsuccessfully, disguised as men, in 1778. Returned to their homes, they wore their families down and were permitted to leave together two months later, setting up a cottage in Llangollen, Wales, where they lived on their limited family income, reading books, writing letters, and tending their garden, “famous for wishing to be left alone.” They were visited by celebrities from Shelley and Byron to the Duke of Wellington and Sir Walter Scott.

What the Ladies of Llangollen have in common with Montaigne is a strategy of “[retreat] during ages of political mayhem,” in their case the French Revolution, in his the Reformation. Today, many of us may also feel tempted to retreat. The way of life the Ladies called “our System,” with its monastic regularity and disdain for social expectations, is subversively attractive. Like Montaigne’s essays, it assures us that “the littleness of personhood is somewhere alive, taking its notes,” that it is okay to “enjoy yourself in the littleness of the moment” when the narrative of history goes awry. Withdrawal is not defeat. And if it is irresponsible to withdraw completely, doing so has a point. The limit cases of Montaigne or Ponsonby and Butler, whose idleness did not serve some further goal, show that wasting time is worthwhile in itself. This is what we see in the model their lives present even if, in the face of our obligations to others, it is not a model for us.

It may not even be a model for them. At the end of her book, Hampl quotes a passage from Montaigne: “We say; ‘I have done nothing today.’ What, have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations … He says this in his Essai titled—what else?—‘On Idleness.’” Except he doesn’t. The quotation is from the sprawling essay “Of Experience,” with which the Essays close. “Of Idleness” is an earlier piece, a distillation of self-doubt in which Montaigne indicts his enterprise: “The soul that has no fixed goal loses itself.” If he commits his extravagances to paper, he writes, it is in order “to make my mind ashamed of itself.”[5.Michel de Montaigne, “On Idleness,” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated from the French by Donald M. Frame (Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 21.]

Like Montaigne, who played a diffident but competent role in politics—he was mayor of Bordeaux—most of us forge a rotten compromise between idleness and industry. What else can we do? We see the flourishing of life in the little moments, as we see the scale of its shirked responsibilities. To manage our ambivalence is necessary work.

  1. Samuel Johnson, The Idler, no. 1, April 15, 1758; reprinted in The Idler and The Adventurer, edited by W. J. Bate, John M. Bullitt, and L. F. Powell (Yale University Press, 1963), pp. 3–4. 
  2. Johnson, The Idler, no. 3, April 29, 1758; in The Idler and The Adventurer, p. 11. 
  3. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, translated from the German by Salo Ryazanskaya, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, 2nd ed., edited by David McClellan (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 185. 
  4. John Berger, Hold Everything Dear(Verso, 2007), p. 102. 
  5. Michel de Montaigne, “On Idleness,” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated from the French by Donald M. Frame (Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 21. 

Featured image: Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers (1900–1906). Oil on canvas, 6 feet 10 7/8 inches × 8 feet 2 3/4 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons

Kieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, Reasons without Rationalism (Princeton) and Knowing Right from Wrong. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with his wife and son.

Idleness: A Philosophical Essay by Brian O’Connor is available here.

Rebecca Bedell on Moved to Tears

Rebecca Bedell Moved to Tears book coverIn her new book Moved to Tears, Rebecca Bedell overturns received ideas about sentimental art, arguing that major American artists—from John Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale in the eighteenth century and Asher Durand and Winslow Homer in the nineteenth to Henry Ossawa Tanner and Frank Lloyd Wright in the early twentieth—produced what was understood in their time as sentimental art. This was art intended to develop empathetic bonds and to express or elicit social affections, including sympathy, compassion, nostalgia, and patriotism. In this Q&A, she discusses the ways sentimental art has been misunderstood, and why it is important today.

What is new in the book? What did you hope to accomplish?

I hope both to uproot the still tenacious modernist prejudice against sentimental art and to transform our understanding of it. So many art critics, art historians, artists, and others regard “sentimental art” as a synonym for “bad art.” I want to redefine and complicate ideas about sentimental art: what it looks like, who made it, the cultural work it does.

Isn’t there bad sentimental art?

Yes, of course. There’s also bad abstract art, bad Impressionist art, bad portraits—but we don’t dismiss those entire categories of art because of that.

I associate sentimental art with Victorian genre painting. Is that what you focus on?

No. I do not associate sentimental art with particular subject matter, nor do I locate it in the Victorian era alone. I’ve tried to suggest in the book the extent to which the sentimental pervaded artistic production (and reception) from the later eighteenth century onward. It touched nearly all categories of subject matter: portraits, history painting, religious imagery, landscape, and so on. It affected the creation not only of painting, sculpture, prints, and photography, but also architecture, landscape design, and public spectacles.

Who are the key figures in the book?

The artists I address range from John Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale in the late eighteenth century, to Andrew Jackson Downing, Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and others in the nineteenth, to Henry Ossawa Tanner and Frank Lloyd Wright in the early twentieth.

So, what is sentimental art?

Sentimental art has fundamentally to do with connectedness, with our connectedness to others, to place, to the conditions of our existence. Sentimental art aims to develop empathetic bonds and to represent and elicit what were called in the eighteenth century the “social affections,” those emotions that bind us together, including tenderness, affection, sympathy, compassion, and patriotism.

I see sentimental art as part of the broader “sentimental project,” as historians have termed it, launched from Great Britain in the eighteenth century. Its ambition was to transform individuals and society through the cultivation of sympathy. Abolitionism, penal reform, child labor laws, and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals were all, in some measure, parts of the project.

In working on the book, did you come upon anything that surprised you?

I began the project by combing through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books, newspapers, and magazines for the use of the word “sentimental” in relation to art. The first instance I found of this was a surprise to me. A writer for a Boston newspaper in the 1780s described John Trumbull’s Revolutionary War paintings as sentimental, and in a very positive way. That was my first hint that sentimental art’s early associations were not with the feminine and the domestic, but with the masculine, the public, and the political.

Where did the book begin? What launched you on this project?

As an art historian and teacher, I have been thinking about these issues and themes for a long time. But in a way, this project began in a big way for me during Barack Obama’s presidency, when he was selecting a new Supreme Court justice. He said that one of the qualities that he valued in jurists was empathy. The backlash against that statement was so intense and powerful that it shocked me. To me, empathy, an ability to think oneself into the subject position of someone different from oneself, seems a critically important quality in a judge.  Where did this angry, visceral reaction against the connective emotions of the sentimental come from?

At the same time, in my readings in my field of American art, I was continually coming upon statements such as, “Winslow Homer was never sentimental,” “John Singer Sargent’s paintings of children are never sentimental.” Yet their works—at least some of them—looked sentimental to me.  Why this need to deny the presence of the sentimental in the works of artists we admire?

All of this came together to launch me on this project. I had become conscious of a broad societal aversion to and rejection of the sentimental in both art and public life, and I wanted to understand it historically. What caused this aversion? Where did it come from? When did it begin?

Is sentimental art still being made today?

Certainly.  Steven Spielberg is one of the great sentimental filmmakers of our time. Ken Burns too. Much of the environmental art being created today is deeply concerned with our connectedness to the natural world. Some of the most powerful art associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, such as Carrie Mae Weems’s recent work, is, in my understanding of the term, sentimental. In fact, I think it is difficult to identify any artists whose work excludes the sentimental completely. Its emotions—compassion, sympathy, affection, pity, concern—are fundamental to our human identities. I don’t think they can ever be wholly suppressed, and indeed one of my discoveries in my research and writing is that the sentimental is at the core of much of the art we admire and enjoy the most.

Rebecca Bedell is associate professor of art and chair of the Art Department at Wellesley College. She is the author of The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825–1875 (Princeton). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

UPress Week Blog Tour: #TurnItUp Arts and Culture

Welcome to the University Press Week blog tour. We’re kicking off today by turning up the volume on arts and culture with these fantastic university press offerings from our colleagues: Duke University Press writes about how partnerships with museums have helped them build a strong art list, Athabasca University Press offers a playlist by author Mark A. McCutcheon of all the songs featured in his book, The Medium Is the Monster: Canadian Adaptations of Frankenstein and the Discourse of Technology. Rutgers University Press dedicates a post to their book, Junctures in Women’s Leadership: The Arts by Judith Brodsky and Ferris Olin. Over at Yale University Press, you can read a piece by author Dominic Bradbury about how immigrants enrich a country’s art and architecture, then head over to University of Minnesota Press for a post about their author Adrienne Kennedy, who will be inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame today. Stay tuned for a great lineup of #TurnItUP posts throughout the week!

Jack Zipes: The Rise of Édouard Laboulaye from the Dead

I am not certain when the urge or itch began, but about ten years ago, when I founded the series of Oddly Modern Fairy Tales with Hanne Winarsky, then senior editor at Princeton University Press, I began to “rebel” against the classical well-known fairy tales, not to mention the insipid Disney fairy-tale films. I realized that they had become stale and commodified and had no historical relevance. The fairy tale is a mysterious hybrid genre and has secrets about our past to reveal if you value each tale’s historical idiosyncrasies. As a scholar of these tales, I realized you cannot deal with present socio-political-cultural conditions unless you have a firm grasp on historical transformation. Consequently, all my concerns as a scholar of folklore and fairy-tale studies and, also as a writer and translator of tales, made a huge U-Turn. Indeed, I began to search and research the gaps of the past that we needed to fill and still need to fill to make the present more substantial and pave the way for a better future.

In the particular case of folk and fairy tales, this led me to discover and uncover highly significant writers and illustrators of fairy tales in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since I have always been a library nerd, a used book pack rat, and a flea market junky, it was not difficult for me to sniff out numerous neglected authors and their works. In the course of ten years, I have been fortunate not only to find amazing collections of fairy tales written by Kurt Schwitters, Bela Balázs, Naomi Mitchison, Walter De La Mare, Lafacadio Hearn, but also numerous unusual fairy tales by British writers of the 1930s, workers’ tales of the early twentieth century, and “decadent” French fairy tales of the late nineteenth century. Moreover, the books in the series have been edited by superb scholars and writers such as Maria Tatar, Marina Warner, Philip Pullman, Gretchen Schulz, Lewis Seifert, and Michael Rosen. Thanks to these works – with more to come – we now know that the popular fairy tale did not end and will not end in a homogenized form of happily ever after. Rather, the fairy tale as genre has never ended as a fraudulent happy end, it continues to startle us through diverse and extraordinary versions throughout the world.

The plans for the future include fabulous Japanese fairy tales by Lafcadio Hearn, Chinese stories of the early twentieth century during the onset of communism, Jewish tales by Nister, a somewhat bizarre rabbi, radical fairy tales written by Hermynjia zur Mühlen, an Austrian aristocrat, turned communist, provocative and dazzling Italian fairy tales from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Lisa Tetzner’s fairy-tale novel Hans Sees the World, about a boy’s adventures during the 1929 depression, and Yuri Olesha’s Three Fat Men, which concerns an upside-down world in Russia during the 1930s.

What makes Édouard Laboulaye’s political fairy tales of the late nineteenth century significant for today and for history is that he was truly the foremost writer of political fairy tales in all of Europe. In fact, I know of no other writer or politician in the nineteenth century who used the fairy tale so deftly and ironically to oppose tyranny. In addition, Laboulaye was very much an internationalist. He know many foreign languages and had an extraordinary knowledge of folk tales from oral traditions in Italy, Senegal, Egypt, Estonia, Russia, Germany, Iceland, and other countries, and he adapted them to sharpen their political implications and make them more acute. Furthermore, he was certainly a proto feminist: almost all of his tales have feisty female protagonists who courageously oppose stupid fathers, unjust husbands, and corrupt male courts of power. The major tale in my current collection, “Slap-Bam, or The Art of Governing Men,” is a wonderfully humorous narrative that argues for the importance of women in shaping the politics of a country.

Is such relevance reflected, then, in the nature of our current study of folklore and fairy tales at universities? How is it possible for such a writer like Édouard Laboulaye to escape the eyes of university students and their professors? Although political scientists in France are well aware of Laboulaye’s importance – a recent conference in France was dedicated to his work in jurisprudence and history – I have not read one single essay or book about his work in literature and folklore. Is this the fault of French literary scholars caught in the barbed wire and babble of French critical theory all over the world? Is this the fault of most universities in the world that do not have folklore programs, or which have eliminated them? I am not certain. But I have a certain urge and itch to find out why.

A. A. Long on How to Be Free An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life (according to Epictetus)

How-to-be-free-epictetus-ancient-romeHow to be Free is a book for every place and occasion. I can say this without any pride or self-promotion because the ideas of the book are not my own but those of the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus, and they have stood the test of time. In fact his guide to life, which I translate and introduce here, is more relevant and needful today than at any period in its long and salutary history. I say this because the freedom that Epictetus promises and justifies—freedom to take charge of one’s own individual thoughts and actions—is under attack by market capitalism, commercial advertising, social media, and cyber aggression. By manipulating desires and infiltrating mindsets, these powerful forces are undermining autonomy and personal independence with disastrous results. They are a main cause of the anxiety and depression that oppresses so many people, through the fear of falling short in health, wealth, personal success, relationships, appearance, and status.

Epictetus counters the pressures of the external environment by making a deceptively simple distinction—between things that are up to us (call them U things) and things that are not up to us (call them N things). U things comprise our will and our motivations, our likes and dislikes, our actions and reactions, our feelings and emotions—in other words the essential person that each of us is. N things comprise everything else—the state of the world, the people around us, our work and income, even our bodies because our limbs and physical wellbeing are not absolutely under our direct control. This is a stark distinction. Its value is to highlight the notion that what we want or do not want, what matters or does not matter to us, depends primarily on our own individual decisions, and not what is done to us by others. On this view, it is we ourselves, and not outside forces, that ultimately determine our happiness and unhappiness and condition our reactions.

The freedom that this book seeks to promote has two sides: one side is freedom to act without constraint by external forces, whether people or media pressures or mistaken impressions that we have to react in certain ways; the other side is freedom from disabling emotions and anxieties that inhibit the full exercise of our will and mental capacity. Along with freedom Epictetus emphasizes self-sufficiency and competing with oneself to be as good as possible in facing the challenges of life. Read this book as you approach a cold shower. You will feel great when it is over, toned up and ready for anything.

A. A. Long is professor emeritus of classics and affiliated professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. His many books include Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to LifeStoic Studies, and (with Margaret Graver) Seneca: Letters on Ethics. He lives in Kensington, California.

Philip Freeman: How to Be a Friend (according to Cicero)

In a world where social media, online relationships, and relentless self-absorption threaten the very idea of deep and lasting friendships, the search for true friends is more important than ever. In this short book, which is one of the greatest ever written on the subject, the famous Roman politician and philosopher Cicero offers a compelling guide to finding, keeping, and appreciating friends. With wit and wisdom, Cicero shows us not only how to build friendships but also why they must be a key part of our lives. For, as Cicero says, life without friends is not worth living. Translator Philip Freeman has taken the time to answer some questions about How to be a Friend.

Who was Cicero?

A Roman lawyer, politician, and philosopher who lived in one of the most dangerous places and important times in human history—first-century BC Rome. He was friends and sometimes enemies with Julius Caesar and almost every other key player at the end of the Roman Republic. It was an age of war, revolution, and mass slaughter, yet also a time of amazing creativity. Cicero saw it all and lived long enough to write about it until Marc Antony finally had his head cut off.

What did he write about?

Practically everything. God, religion, sex, greed, growing old—you name it. He was also a key political philosopher. The American founding fathers were huge Cicero fans. In fact, the American government as found in the US Constitution is largely based on the writings of Cicero. But one of his best little works is about the subject of friendship.

Why should we care what Cicero says about friendship? I mean, he lived over two thousand years ago. Surely in an age of social media, all the rules have changed.

Friendship—like all the important things in life—doesn’t change at all as the centuries pass. How people make and communicate with friends may have shifted in some ways, but the crucial role of friendship in our lives never will. We all hunger for the ties we make with friends whether we’re in ancient Rome or a modern California suburb. Without some form of friendship in their lives, most people would wither away and die, spiritually if not physically. We are social creatures who desperately need meaningful connections with others. Cicero is right when he says that life without friends is simply not worth living.

Cicero talks about different kind of friendships. What does he mean?

He says we all by necessity have different types of friendships, each good in its own way. There are friendships of utility such as those we have with our auto mechanic or dentist. You can have hundreds of these in your life. They are an essential part of living in any society in which you must interact with others. But you’re hopefully not going to tell your most intimate secrets to the guy who sells you bagels at the corner shop. Then there are friendships of pleasure, the dozen or more people you enjoy hanging out with at the local pub or in your neighborhood. Finally there are the deepest of friendships you have with only a handful of people—or maybe just one or two—friends you tell everything to and would take a bullet for if necessary. These last sort of friends are what Cicero calls “another self.”

What’s the best way to tell if a person can be a true friend?

Cicero would say look if they’re willing to be honest with you. Not honest in a hurtful way—plenty of people will do that—but honest because they care deeply about you. A true friend will tell you if a boyfriend you’re crazy about is bad news even if you don’t want to hear it. That kind of friend is willing to risk even the friendship for the sake of honesty. If you find friends like that, never let them go.

Can a bad person have friends?

A good way to answer this is to look at the extreme case of Voldemort in the Harry Potter books and movies. He’s a character totally focused on himself who cares nothing about others except how he can use them for his own purposes. Thankfully there are few Voldemorts in the real world, but I imagine all of us know people who seem to use others only for their what they can get from them. These selfish sorts could have friendships of utility, maybe even of pleasure, but never true friendships.

Would Cicero be on Facebook?

I think he would love Facebook. He was an accomplished letter writer, the only social medium of the day. We actually have a collection of many of his letters, especially those he sent to his best friend Atticus who lived far away in Greece. But I think Cicero would draw an important distinction between posting photos of his cat to thousands of followers and intimate interactions with his closest friends, whether written or face-to-face. Cicero would probably say that the social media universe can be a good thing if used properly and terribly harmful to the soul if not.

Philip Freeman is the editor and translator of How to Grow Old, How to Win an Election, and How to Run a Country (all Princeton). He is the author of many books, including Searching for Sappho (Norton) and Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths (Simon & Schuster). He holds the Fletcher Jones Chair of Western Culture at Pepperdine University and lives in Malibu, California.

Green: Ten Facts You Didn’t Know about the Color Green

Pastoureau Green book coverGreen is the color of cash, and also of protecting the environment. A green light means go, but a green-tinged emoji means someone is about to be sick. Where did these cultural meanings come from, and how have they developed and shifted throughout history? Michel Pastoureau’s book Green: The History of a Color takes readers from ancient times to the present day, exploring the role of green in Western societies over thousands of years.

Green is just one title in Pastoureau’s acclaimed series on the history of colors in European society! This National Color Day, don’t miss Red, Blueand Black.

How many of these facts about green did you know?

1. The ancient Egyptian god Ptah was depicted with a green face. In Egyptian painting, green was a beneficial color that protected against evil.

2. The Roman emperor Nero was known for eating a large amount of leeks he consumed, which was unusual for a high-ranking person at that time. Leeks were strongly associated with the color green, and even lent their name to one of the Greek words for the color, prasinos.

3. The Roman Empire’s chariot races featured two opposing stables: the Blues and the Greens. The Blues represented the Senate and the patrician class, while the Greens represented the people. Each stable was backed by a large, influential organization with a network of clientele and a lobby that extended far outside the racecourse.

4. The prophet Muhammad favored the color green. After becoming the dynastic color of the Fatimids, green came to be the sacred color of Islam as a whole.

5. During the Middle Ages, green was the color of hope for pregnant women in particular. Pregnant women in paintings were often shown wearing green dresses.

6. Possessing a green shield, tunic, or horse’s quarter sheet often meant that a knight was young and hotheaded. One well-known example of a “green knight” is found in the late fourteenth-century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

7. In Gothic stained-glass windows, green was the color of demons, sorcerers, dragons, and the Devil himself.

8. Dyeing in green was difficult during the Middle Ages. Green dyes from plants produced faint and unstable color that grew even more faded when mordant, or fixative, was applied. Because of this instability, green came to represent inconstancy, duplicity, and betrayal. Judas, for example, is often shown dressed in green.

9. Another obstacle to dyeing in green was the way the dyeing trades were organized. Professional dyers were licensed to dye only in certain colors. This made mixing colors—such as blue and yellow, which make green—next to impossible. Even dyers who broke the regulations and used both blue and yellow dyes had to possess the then-rare knowledge that blue and yellow combined make green. This combination may seem obvious to us now, but in pre-Newtonian color classifications, green was never located anywhere near yellow.

10. Schweinfurt green was a shade developed in Germany in 1814 and made from copper shavings dissolved in arsenic. It was used to make paint, dye, and painted paper. When exposed to humidity, the arsenic evaporates and can be toxic. According to some theories of Napoleon’s death, he was poisoned by his wallpaper.

Qualification, Exclusion, and the Art of Bill Traylor

by Leslie Umberger

Leslie Umberger Bill Traylor Between Worlds book coverBill Traylor, regarded today as one of America’s most important artists, was born into an enslaved family in rural Alabama around 1853. Traylor and his family continued to work as farm laborers after Emancipation, work that Traylor himself spent some seven decades doing. In the late 1920s, Traylor moved by himself to Montgomery, Alabama. About a decade later, no longer able to take on heavy physical labor, he began to make drawings. What does it mean for Traylor, untrained as an artist, to now be held in such high esteem?

Certainly, part of what makes Traylor’s story so profound is that he chose to become an artist of his own volition; no one suggested he make drawings or showed him how to do it. In fact, in the days of slavery, literacy was strictly the privilege of whites. Reading and writing were regarded as tools of empowerment, and blacks seeking these tools were often harshly punished. Traylor never became literate, and in his time and place, the very act of taking up pencil and paper might have been viewed as an affront to white society—even if it was becoming increasingly common for African Americans to be both educated and successful.

So what Traylor did was radical in multiple ways. He was among the first generation of black people to become American citizens, and Traylor grappled with the meaning of that identity as he sat in the black business district of Montgomery in the 1930s and 1940s and watched a rising class of business owners and community leaders—finely dressed, educated black folks who were strong, creative, and were assertively shaping a cultural identity distinct from that of white America. Traylor created a record not just of his own selfhood, but also of the oral and vernacular culture that had shaped him.

Many terms are bandied about for untrained artists; we often hear them called self-taught, folk, visionary, or “outsider.” Traylor may not have conceptualized being an artist in a predetermined or conventional way, but the way we talk about him and his art matters. Traylor lived and worked quite literally in a different world than that of the mainstream fine arts.. And as is true with any artist, the facts of his life provide meaningful contexts and deeply inform the work he made. It is highly significant that Traylor came through slavery and lived the rest of his days in the Jim Crow South—this life powerfully undergirds the entire body of work.

Still, when we speak of an artist as being successful or important only within a subcategory of art, we diminish an artist’s larger validity. To say, for example, that Traylor is among America’s “most important self-taught artists” is to qualify his importance, to send a signal that his work is ultimately lesser than that of trained, mainstream artists—that it exists in a subcategory without full rank. To call an artist an “outsider” is to note difference as the foremost framework. The term describes the artist, not the art, and ultimately functions as a euphemism for race, class, or social agency. Marketers often grab encompassing terms because they are easy, but “outsider” has always been a disparaging way of grouping individuals by difference, rather than seeking to foster a broader understanding of art and its diverse makers.

Understanding context in a deep way brings meaning to art that is unique and unaffiliated with the mainstream art world, yet it is key to remember that qualifiers always signal disparity. We recognize that it is demeaning and inappropriate to say, for example, that someone is “among the best female employees,” or “among the best black experts,” but we have yet to fully extend this to artists like Traylor. It has been clear for decades that Traylor is among the most important self-taught artists; his work fetches blue-chip prices and is recognized and collected the world over. Today we need to look at the magnitude of what he did against the larger backdrop of art in his nation. He is one of America’s most important artists—no qualifier welcome. Between Worlds fleshes this out and proposes a different, more encompassing course that moves beyond an exclusionary past.

Exhibition Schedule
Smithsonian American Art Museum
September 28, 2018–March 17, 2019

Leslie Umberger is curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She is the curator of the exhibition Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor and the author of the accompanying exhibition monograph.

Helena Rosenblatt on The Lost History of Liberalism

Lost History LiberalismThe Lost History of Liberalism challenges our most basic assumptions about a political creed that has become a rallying cry—and a term of derision—in today’s increasingly divided public square. Taking readers from ancient Rome to today, Helena Rosenblatt traces the evolution of the words “liberal” and “liberalism,” revealing the heated debates that have taken place over their meaning. This book sets the record straight on a core tenet of today’s political conversation and lays the foundations for a more constructive discussion about the future of liberal democracy. 

What led you to write this book?

 I became interested in the history of political thought in college and my interest grew in graduate school.  My PhD dissertation, which became my first book, was on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I wrote my second book on Benjamin Constant. Both these thinkers had a huge influence on liberalism, Rousseau as a kind of gadfly, and Constant as a founder. In the course of my work, I became aware of a curious fact: despite the importance of liberalism to our history and current politics, no comprehensive history of liberalism had been written in a surprisingly long time. So I began thinking about writing such a history myself.

I set to work, but soon confronted a series of perplexing questions and contradictions. In one way or another, they all involved defining liberalism. Why was it, I wondered, that liberalism means one thing in Europe and something else in the United States? Why do some people speak of a “classical liberalism” that they say is more authentic than today’s? Why are there so many different “founders” of liberalism? Some call Machiavelli a founder, while others speak of John Locke, or even Jesus Christ.  How can they all be founders of liberalism when they are so radically different? While pondering these and other questions, I couldn’t help noticing that liberalism was often called a “slippery,” “elusive,” or “vague” concept in the books and articles that I read. All of it led me to ask a deceptively simple question: what is liberalism? And how do you write a history of liberalism when you don’t know what it is? After struggling for some time, the smoke cleared and I fell upon a new approach.

What is original about your approach to the history of liberalism?

I made it my mission to let the past speak for itself. In my book, I trace the history of the words “liberal” and “liberalism” over the course of history, starting with classical Rome—when the word “liberal” existed, but not yet “liberalism”—and ending today. What did “liberal” mean to the people who used the term two thousand years ago and how did that meaning change over time? When was the word “liberalism” coined, why was it coined, and what did it mean to the people who used it? When was the first “liberal party” formed and what did it stand for? These are the sorts of questions my book asks and seeks to answer. And my approach leads to a number of surprising findings.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?

 It is hard to summarize the many interesting discoveries I made. One concerns liberalism’s origins. We tend to think of liberalism as an age-old and venerable “Anglo-American” tradition with roots stretching deep into English history. Some trace its origins as far back as the Magna Carta. From England, liberalism is said to have spread and slowly gained acceptance until it was transported to America in the eighteenth century. There its principles were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. During the 19th century, liberalism continued its steady and inexorable progress until it became the dominant doctrine of the West.

This is a nice story, but it’s inaccurate. “Liberalism,” as a word and cluster of concepts, emerged in France in the wake of the French Revolution, not before. Its first theorists were Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël, not John Locke. For most of the nineteenth century, liberalism was widely seen as a French doctrine and closely associated with France’s successive revolutions (1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871). The Encyclopaedia Americana of 1831 did not contain an entry on “liberalism,” and the article on “liberal” explained that its political meaning came from France. Only half a century later was liberalism given an entry in the American Cyclopaedia of Political Science and, even then, it was a translation of a French article equating liberalism with the “principles of 89.” During the closing years of the nineteenth century, “liberalism” remained a rare word in the language of American politics and, when it was used, was sometimes spelled “liberale,” or rendered in italics, to indicate its foreignness. The word “liberalism” only gained currency in America’s political vocabulary in the early twentieth century and the idea of an “Anglo-American liberal tradition” half a century later.

What is the relationship between liberalism and democracy?

A common mistake we make today is to use the expression “liberal democracy” unproblematically, as if “liberalism” and “democracy” go together naturally. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably as if they were synonyms. However, for the first one hundred years of their history, most liberals were hostile to democracy, which they associated with chaos and mob rule. Certainly, the founders of liberalism were not democrats. Although he believed in popular sovereignty, Benjamin Constant insisted that it be limited and advocated stiff property requirements for voting and office holding. Madame de Staël championed the “government of the best,” which she distinguished from democracy.

To Constant, de Staël, and many other liberals, the French Revolution proved that the public was utterly unprepared for political rights. People were ignorant, irrational and prone to violence. Under popular pressure, the rule of law had been suspended, “enemies of the people” guillotined, and rights trampled upon. Napoleon’s despotic rule, repeatedly legitimized by plebiscite, only confirmed the liberals’ apprehensions about democracy.  They watched with horror as demagogues and dictators manipulated voters by appealing to their lowest instincts. It was obvious to them that the masses lacked the judgement necessary to know their true interests, and even less those of their country. Liberals accepted democracy very late and even then they thought hard about ways to contain it.  They pondered methods to “enlighten” and “educate” democracy and make it safe. 

What is the relationship between liberalism and socialism?

The relationship between liberalism and socialism is often described as antagonistic, but this is untrue. Again, the question has a lot to do with definitions, since “socialism” has always been a contested and evolving cluster of ideas. At first, the word “socialist” simply described someone who felt sympathy for the poor. Three more revolutions, in 1830, 1848, 1871, and the dislocations and hardships brought to the poor by the Industrial Revolution, caused many liberals to become increasingly receptive to socialist ideas. By the early twentieth century, some began calling themselves “liberal socialists.” In 1909, the future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, championed what he referred to as a “socialistic” form of liberalism dedicated to improving the lives of the “left-out millions.” A leading British liberal weekly declared that “we are all Socialists in that sense.”

It was World War II and the fear of totalitarianism that caused the rift between liberalism and socialism with which we are now familiar. First published in 1944, the bestseller, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, warned that the “social liberalism” toward which Britain and America were headed would inevitably lead to totalitarianism. Such anxieties caused other prominent Cold War liberals increasingly to distinguish themselves from socialists.

How is your book relevant today?

As an historian, I tend to think that getting history right is important in its own right. But I also think that history can lend critical perspective on the present. It can tell us about the challenges people in the past faced, the options they had, and the choices they made. Today it is clear that liberalism is facing crisis. Alarming statistics indicate that people around the world are losing confidence in liberal democracy. Populism is on the rise, American hegemony in decline. And it is not just that liberalism is being attacked by enemies or losing adherents. Liberals are divided among themselves. Some say that they have lost sight of their essential values. Some are beginning to ask what liberalism’s essential values really are. One way of answering this question is to turn to the history of liberalism. That is what my book does.

Helena Rosenblatt is professor of history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her many books include Liberal Values: Benjamin Constant and the Politics of Religion and Thinking with Rousseau: From Machiavelli to Schmitt. She lives in New York City.

Leslie Umberger on Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor

Leslie Umberger Bill Traylor Between Worlds book coverBill Traylor (ca. 1853–1949) came to art-making on his own and found his creative voice without guidance; today he is remembered as a renowned American artist. Traylor’s experiences spanned multiple worlds—black and white, rural and urban, old and new—as well as the crucibles that indelibly shaped America—the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration.

Leslie Umberger’s book Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor accompanies the exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, curated by Umberger. She presents an unparalleled look at the work of this enigmatic and dazzling artist, who blended common imagery with arcane symbolism, narration with abstraction, and personal vision with the beliefs and folkways of his time. In this Q&A, Umberger offers an introduction to Traylor’s life and work. For more, check out the exhibit and the book!

Who was Bill Traylor?

Bill Traylor was born into an enslaved family in rural Alabama around 1853. Although slavery ended when Traylor was about twelve, things in Alabama didn’t change dramatically or rapidly after that, and families like Traylor’s had limited options for finding work, shelter, and safety elsewhere—so they often stayed on as laborers, living in the same cabins as they had before Emancipation. This is what Traylor’s family did.

Traylor spent over seven decades working as a farm laborer. His life was split almost evenly between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so he was eyewitness to enormous change over a lifetime that almost reached ten decades. Around 1927—Traylor’s wife had died and most of his grown children had given up on life in the South—he made the choice to move, alone, into Montgomery. The city was segregated, and he was increasingly old and frail between then and his death in 1949. But in the last years of his life, Traylor began to draw and paint memories, stories, and dreams recalling that remarkable lifetime and observing black life in an urban setting. Against the odds, many of the artworks he made in the late 1930s and early 1940s survived, and today he is acclaimed as one of America’s most significant artists.

Your book is titled Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor. What “worlds” was Traylor between?

Traylor’s lifetime spanned an epic period of American history that encompasses slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration, two world wars, and, through it all, the steady rise of African American culture in the South. Traylor didn’t live to see the civil rights movement, be he was among those who laid its foundation. Six years after Traylor died, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger just a few blocks from where Traylor had sat and painted.

Throughout his life, Traylor straddled markedly different worlds: slavery and freedom, plantation and city life, and overarching it all, black and white cultures. “Racial etiquette” was the custom in the Jim Crow South wherein black people had strict and demeaning rules governing what they said and how they behaved in the presence of white people—any minor infraction of which might literally imperil that individual’s life. Traylor knew these systems, and his drawings nimbly employ symbolism, allegory, and ambiguity to send different messages to black and white viewers—to “code switch” as we would say today. He lived between worlds, looking back at a long life of labor and oppression, and ahead at the long, hard road toward freedom his children were traveling on.

What kind of topics did Traylor depict in his artworks?

Traylor covered a lot of territory in his subject matter. He became known not only for deceptively simple renderings of horses, mules, and other animals he knew from farm life, but also for many other species, including dogs, snakes, and birds. Traylor knew these animals and their visages well, but his representations of them are complex, for he also had a deep grasp of their symbolism. For example, the mule as a metaphor for black slaves or laborers, or the snake as a symbol of deceit—the lurking enemy.

Throughout his oeuvre there is a strong thread of storytelling. He often revisits particular themes or memories, and very often the works cohere when seen together in ways they don’t when viewed alone. A particular focus of both the exhibition and the book is to give certain images adjacency and draw out related themes, so that the artworks can function collectively and tell their stories more completely. Traylor depicted people he recalled from plantation days as well as the finely dressed black citizens of Montgomery he saw before him. His drawings are often quite enigmatic, as the artist engaged dreams, superstitions, and various spiritual belief systems.

Some of Traylor’s most iconic drawings present multifaceted narratives, chaotic action that swirls around a house, a tree, or a local site such as the fountain in Montgomery’s Court Square. He devised a manner of presenting story lines, sometimes left to right on the page but more often from top to bottom—or bottom to top. He discovered that vertical arrangements gave the story a different reading: events unfold rapidly or simultaneously, instead of sequentially. The viewer’s eye is caught in a swirling eddy of action that obscures Traylor’s meaning, which, in turn, gave him a higher degree of safety among white viewers. These works have a quality of operatic drama and demand a deep look: narratives that might at first seem humorous are often quite dark; the unspeakable violence of Traylor’s life and times looms large.

Traylor’s body of work is a sizable pictorial record of the oral culture that had shaped him. He embarked on making a record of selfhood that he devised for himself, one picture at a time.

Exhibition Schedule
Smithsonian American Art Museum
September 28, 2018–March 17, 2019

Leslie Umberger is curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She is the curator of the exhibition Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor and the author of the accompanying exhibition monograph.

 

10 facts about the color black

Black—favorite color of priests and penitents, artists and ascetics, fashion designers and fascists—has always stood for powerfully opposed ideas: authority and humility, sin and holiness, rebellion and conformity, wealth and poverty, good and bad. In this beautiful and richly illustrated book, the acclaimed author of Blue, Red, and Green tells the fascinating social history of the color black in Europe. 

Here are ten facts from the book about black:

When Isaac Newton discovered the color spectrum in 1665, he presented a new order of colors in which there would no longer be a place for white or black. This thinking continued for centuries.  

In the Medieval period, painters and dyers did not make purple by mixing blue and red, rather by mixing blue and black; purple was a sort of demi-black.

In Medieval Europe, white is the color of priests, red the color of warriors, and black is the color of artisans.

In the Upper Paleolithic period, humans learned how to make black pigment by burning plants and minerals. Depending on the original material—woods, barks, roots, shells, pits—the shade of black would be more or less brilliant and more or less dense. When they learned how to burn bone in a similar fashion, they had access to even more beautiful blacks.

The most prized black pigment by the Romans was from vines, obtained through the calcination of very dry vine shoots that gave the color depth and blue highlights.

In Latin caeruleus can refer to both blue and black. Viridis can refer to green and black.

Medieval heraldry used only six colors: white, yellow, red, blue, green, and black. Black could be found in 20-25% of European coats of arms. Red was the most common color and green, the rarest.

It was lawyers, judges, and magistrates who popularized black as a color for clothing in early 14th century Europe. Prior to that, black was the color of Satan and fear, but it came to be seen as a color of sobriety and gravitas. By the end of the century, merchants, bankers, and all men of finance had also adopted black as their chosen color for attire.

Early inks following the appearance of Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid 15th century contained linseed oil to make it heavy and viscous enough to adhere to the paper; iron or copper sulfate to give it a brilliant black color; and metallic salts to facilitate its drying.

While the Age of Enlightenment was characterized by a near universal retreat from dark colors throughout much of Europe and embrace of bright colors and pastels, Protestant morals in Northern Europe forbade too vivid or frivolous colors—black prevailed there.

Michel Pastoureau is a historian and director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études de la Sorbonne in Paris. He is the author of many books, including Blue: The History of a Color (Princeton) and The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes.

Dora Malech on her new collection, Stet

In Stet, poet Dora Malech takes constraint as her catalyst and subject, exploring what it means to make or break a vow, to create art out of a life in flux, to reckon with the body’s bounds, and to arrive at a place where one might bear and care for another life. Tapping the inventive possibilities of constrained forms, particularly the revealing limitations of the anagram, Stet is a work of serious play that brings home the connections and intimacies of language.

Why anagrams?

I asked myself this question over and over as individual lines became individual poems became project became book. Most of the poems in Stet take shape through anagrammatic methods, and almost all of them operate through some kind of “constrained form,” foregrounding alphabetic transposition or redaction. The immersive nature of these processes drew me to them; I’d find myself lost for hours dismantling and reassembling these building blocks of written language. Of course, many cultures, including Jewish mysticism, have a spiritual relationship with the letters of the written word, but I couldn’t bring myself to make that leap. Rather, it was wanting to make that leap into belief, and being unable, that led me from constraint-as-process to constraint-as-theme. I found myself asking what it means to attempt to remake one’s life from the same old materials, what it means to want to believe in transformation.

Is this use of constrained form a departure from your previous work?

It seems so, but it isn’t exactly. Gertrude Stein referred to her repetitions as “insistence”; this book feels like an insistent exploration of tendencies that have always captivated me. I’ve always been deeply invested in sound, and pattern, and linguistic play in my poetry. I’m also drawn to the full spectrum of enactment and subversion of “traditional” prosody. Rhyme and meter and verse form is “constrained form” too, of course, though I use the term to refer to practices viewed as peripheral to canonical verse, embraced by the writers of Oulipo in the middle of the last century. I wrote this book from a place of intense change and questioning, and its forms reflect that intensity, but I have always been obsessed with thinking about what language is made of both on and off the page – sound, sense, word, letter.

Are there particular writers who inspired this project, or contemporary writers engaged in similar work?

As my teachers used to remind me to do in math class, Stet “shows its work.” It foregrounds both its formal process of making, and those who inspired and informed that process. For example, Andrew Joron’s sense of “language as a speculative substance” continues to be an energizing force for me. Unica Zürn and Sylvia Plath (both mothers who took their own lives) echo through the book. Influence isn’t always linear; as I went deeper into the project, I sought out those who could in some way explain or justify my own practices to me. For example, I read from the work that has become Stet in Amsterdam several years ago, where some of the students urged me to read the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens. This work on the culturally fundamental nature of play became a touchstone for me, articulating some of my own previously inchoate thoughts.

For a reader accustomed to reading verse that employs a more straightforward narrative or lyric mode, or for a reader hesitant to approach contemporary poetry altogether, what could you say to convince them to take a chance on Stet?

The lived stakes of Stet are fragmented and submerged, but they are present nonetheless – relationships, closures, and apertures enacted in language. I hope that the pleasure I take in the materiality of language translates to pleasure for the reader, and I hope that the emotional intensity I channeled into the process of making and remaking translates as well. As Stet is a book that foregrounds process, it’s also a book that invites the reader to participate in that process and in the act of meaning-making. That engagement can bring its own kind of pleasure, and for someone asking “why poetry?” This collection foregrounds that very question.

Dora Malech is the author of two previous books of poetry, Say So and Shore Ordered Ocean. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, The Best American Poetry, and many other publications. She is assistant professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore.