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Hello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition â€“ Mary Oliver on the third self and the central commitment of the creative life, a eulogy for a tree, Virginia Woolf on Elena Ferrante, and more â€“ you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation â€“ I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
Few artists have articulated the dance between this â€œdivine discontentâ€ and creative fulfillment more memorably than the poet, novelist, essayist, and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912â€“July 16, 1995). In her Journal of a Solitude (public library), Sarton records and reflects on her interior life in the course of one year, her sixtieth, With remarkable candor and courage. Out of these twelve private months arises the eternity of the human experience with its varied universal capacities for astonishment and sorrow, hollowing despair and creative vitality.
In an entry from September 15, 1972, Sarton writes:
It is raining. I look out on the maple, where a few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself and to the rain ticking gently against the windows. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my â€œrealâ€ life again at last. That is what is strangeâ€”that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am aloneâ€¦
She considers solitude as the seedbed of self-discovery:
For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self. I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose â€” to find out what I think, to know where I stand.
My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there. I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.
In another journal entry penned three days later, in the grip of her recurrent struggle with depression, Sarton revisits the question of the difficult, necessary self-confrontations that solitude makes possible:
The value of solitude â€” one of its values â€” is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within, just as there is nothing to help balance at times of particular stress or depression. A few moments of desultory conversation â€¦ may calm an inner storm. But the storm, painful as it is, might have had some truth in it. So sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.
The reasons for depression are not so interesting as the way one handles it, simply to stay alive.
Perhaps Albert Camus was right in asserting that â€œthere is no love of life without despair of life,â€ but this is a truth hard to take in and even harder to swallow when one is made tongueless by depression. In an entry from October 6, still clawing her way out of the pit of darkness, Sarton considers the only cure for despair she knows:
Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.
By mid-October, Sarton has begun to emerge from the abyss and marvels at the transformation in a beautiful testament to the finitude and transitoriness of all things, even the deepest-cutting and most all-consuming of states:
I can hardly believe that relief from the anguish of these past months is here to stay, but so far it does feel like a true change of mood â€” or rather, a change of being where I can stand alone.
So much of my life here is precarious. I cannot always believe even in my work. But I have come in these last days to feel again the validity of my struggle here, that it is meaningful whether I ever â€œsucceedâ€ as a writer or not, and that even its failures, failures of nerve, failures due to a difficult temperament, can be meaningful. It is an age where more and more human beings are caught up in lives where fewer and fewer inward decisions can be made, where fewer and fewer real choices exist. The fact that a middle-aged, single woman, without any vestige of family left, lives in this house in a silent village and is responsible only to her own soul means something. The fact that she is a writer and can tell where she is and what it is like on the pilgrimage inward can be of comfort. It is comforting to know there are lighthouse keepers on rocky islands along the coast. Sometimes, when I have been for a walk after dark and see my house lighted up, looking so alive, I feel that my presence here is worth all the Hell.
â€œA poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.â€ So wrote E.B. White in his timeless 1949 love letter to New York. But meaning never exists in the singular in this city of infinite multiplicity, this mecca of idealism, iconoclasm, and codified idiosyncrasy, which means many different things to its eight million inhabitants and seven billion onlookers â€” a densely populated capital of loneliness, a canine kingdom, an ever-changing castle, a city that makes and breaks the American dream, a city that impelled Walt Whitman to demand: â€œKeep your splendid silent sunâ€¦ Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees humâ€¦ give me the streets of Manhattan!â€
The poetics of that multiplicity is what Rebecca Solnit, in collaboration with Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, explores in Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas (public library) â€” the culmination of Solnitâ€™s cartographically scrumptious trilogy, after Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, exploring â€œwhat maps can do to describe the ingredients and systems that make up a city and what stories remain to be told after we think we know where we are.â€ The trilogy, Solnit notes, arose from â€œthe belief that any significant place is in some sense infinite, because its stories are inexhaustible and the few that are well known overshadow the many worth knowing.â€ Any place can therefore be mapped in innumerable ways, each casting before the viewer a particular point of view and thus contributing to cartographyâ€™s long history as power and propaganda.
The twenty-six maps, each accompanied by an original essay, explore facets of the city as varied as its songscape, its linguistic wilderness, its notable women, its brownstones and basketball courts, its riots, and its various human and physical energy systems.
Beyond the revelations of this particular city, the maps reveal the nature of all cities as functions of human intention with its always dual and often dueling capacities for good and evil, for revolution and repression, for power and prejudice, for creation and destruction. To map any city is to present a polished mosaic of selective memory built atop the rubble of selective forgetting. In reimagining the social and cultural landscape of New York, Solnit and Shapiro reclaim the unmapped territories of being and the untold stories of beings marginalized by the dominant psychogeographies of their time â€” from women to Native Americans to wildlife species.
Solnit writes in the introduction:
A city is a machine with innumerable parts made by the accumulation of human gestures, a colossal organism forever dying and being born, an ongoing conflict between memory and erasure, a center for capital and for attacks on capital, a rapture, a misery, a mystery, a conspiracy, a destination and point of origin, a labyrinth in which some are lost and some find what theyâ€™re looking for, an argument about how to live, and evidence that differences donâ€™t always have to be resolved, though they may grace and grind against each other for centuries.
Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory. So a city and its citizens constitute a living library.
With an eye to the inherent incompleteness of any cartographic representation of a place as rife with infinite possibility as a city, Solnit adds:
Each of us grasps and inhabits only part of the pattern. The complexity beyond comprehension is one of the marvels of great cities, their inexhaustible, ever-renewing mysteryâ€¦ Every city is many places; the old woman and the young child do not live in the same city, and the rich and the poor, the pedestrian and the wheelchair-bound, black and white inhabit different but not completely separate realms.
A city is not one or the other of these things but all of them, contradictions and collaborations and conflicts together, forever churning and spitting out new possibilities.
Among the peculiarities of New York, a city that is at once a template and a glorious oddity, is the mismatch between its location and its significance â€” perched on the periphery of the country and hanging off the very edge of the continent, it is nonetheless an epicenter of creative culture and intellectual life. In a passage that calls to mind Susan Sontagâ€™s memorable words on the crucial difference between being in the middle and being at the center, Solnit captures the centripetal force of this peripheral city:
The opera diva from the rustic West at the center of Willa Catherâ€™s novel The Song of the Lark leaves small-town Colorado for Chicago for her first round of education as a musician, but she triumphed by becoming a successful artist in New York, as Cather did herself for the last forty-one years of her life. There she wrote vividly about the West, while living with her partner, editor Edith Lewis, in the East, where a publishing job had brought her and where privacy, tolerance, sophistication, maybe access to Europe and editors, seem to have kept her.
Itâ€™s a reverse of the old mythic westward migration for freedom â€” though itâ€™s worth remembering that other New Yorkers left the city in search of liberation, whether it was the patrician Edith Wharton checking out of the closed upper-class society she continued to write about or James Baldwin escaping American racism for a while... You could come to New York to appear or to disappear; the city accommodated all kinds of wishes.
New York is a center that pulls people in and a centrifuge that spins them out into the world.
Cather, Wharton, and Barnes are among the women depicted in one of the most fetching maps in the atlas, City of Women, which reimagines the iconic New York City subway map â€” a feat of graphic design but a failure of social justice, with its complacent abundance of stops named after white men. In this alternative version, each stop on the cityâ€™s twenty-two subway lines is renamed after a notable woman who was born, lived, or made her name nearby.
Another map, The Singing City, plots New Yorkâ€™s musical creativity onto a typographic songscape celebrating â€œthe ways that what starts as a particular place can end up as the tune that you hum, a song line with no guidance other than to the human heart.â€
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Gent Sturgeon
What Is a Jew? captures the astonishing diversity of the subpopulation associated with New Yorkâ€™s intellectual elite but, in reality, spanning a vast spectrum of inclinations, interests, and legacies. (One can grasp that staggering range in reading Alfred Kazinâ€™s poignant reflections on the loneliness of being in a culture but not of it, penned amid Brooklynâ€™s densely Jewish Brownsville neighborhood as Robert Moses, another Jew, was masterminding Manhattanacross the river.)
Cartography: Molly Roy
Solnit, herself the daughter of a Jewish New Yorker mother, introduces the map:
Stereotypes and generalizations generally precede discrimination. Often they depend on the belief that all members of the hated group have common characteristics, so much so that you can punish any member for the sins all members share. Except that they donâ€™t. Categories are leaky, anomalies often occur, and differences within groups can matter as much or more than similarities. You could make this map, pointing up diversity, of any ethnic group, but we made it of Jews because New York has the greatest concentration of Jews on earth outside Israel, and because the word Jew contains a host of internal contradictions, from positions on Israel and capitalism and religion to race and class. What can you say of a group that, even within New York, ranges from Busy Siegel to Sammy Davis Jr. to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Beastie Boys? Whether Judaism is a culture, an ethnicity, or a religion is an unresolved question for people who are good at questions, and even Judaism the religion runs from the progressive inclusiveness of Chelseaâ€™s queer-friendly Congregation Beit Simchat Torah to the mysticism and strictures of the Hasidic ranks of Williamsburg. What is a Jew? This is an exploration without an answer, or with as many answers as there are Jews.
Riot! depicts the eruptions of unrest and revolution in â€œa city at a simmer that boils over readily.â€
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Thomas Nast, illustration of Draft Riots, Harperâ€™s Weekly, August 1, 1863
In the accompanying essay, Luc Sante makes clear that most of these uprisings sprang up when the systemic abuse and oppression of minorities reached a breaking point, from the Stonewall riots to the aftermath of Eric Garnerâ€™s murder in the hands of the NYPD. (Iâ€™m reminded here of Chinua Achebeâ€™s astute observation that those who condemn something as too political are simply those who see it as discordant with their politics and who prefer the status quo undisturbed, so the very act of labeling a civic event a â€œriotâ€ can itself be a function of the oppressive status quo.)
Indeed, dissent, difference, and divergent viewpoints are core to the genome of the cityâ€™s spirit â€” this city, as any great city. These, after all, were the conditions that catalyzed the emergence of the revolutionary Vienna Circlein the early twentieth century, which forever changed the course of art, science, and philosophy. I recall a poignant passage of May Sartonâ€™s journals, in which she describes Dallas â€” â€œjust plain inhuman, too rich, too newâ€ â€” as a city of artificial beauty empty of poetry, where people are â€œstarved for a kind of reality that does not exist in Neiman Marcus fur coats, in changes of fashion, in redecorating,â€ where â€œunder the polite small talk, one sensed nostalgia, the nostalgia of the bored child who does not know what he lacks, but knows he is being deprived of something essential to his well-being.â€ Such homogeneity of privileged politeness threatens to sap any city of its essential energy. With an eye to these forces â€œdriving diversity and complexityâ€ out of the city, Solnit asks:
What are cities when the qualities that have defined them are drowned in rising tides of what we call wealth â€” that increase in holdings for some that increases scarcity, desperation, and exclusion for others?
The odd notion of the central city as a place where bohemia and dissent thrive has been withering away as cities become enclaves of the affluent and the corporate â€” or empty zones. Many of the condominiums and luxury apartments are often unoccupied, either because theyâ€™re not primary residences, or because theyâ€™re places to park money for the transnational super-wealthy or their corporations.
The poor are pushed to the periphery, to the old suburbs, which fall into their own kind of decay. In the inner city the poor had access to shared resources like public pools and parks, to public transit, and to the possibility of a collective power and civil society engagement that the suburbs do not offer. There they become literally marginal.
Cities are not over. But itâ€™s hard not to fear that the great cities of the North are never going to be what they were. Just as most have cased to be centers of industrial production, so they may cease to be centers of cultural production, at last with the intensity they once possessed. Now theyâ€™re menaced by climate change, too. New York CItyâ€™s coastline will be pummeled with hurricanes and blizzards; hotter, wetter weather will bring the kind of heat waves that tend to kill seniors; food prices will likely rise, and climate refugees will become a new subpopulation. Itâ€™s impossible to say exactly what this city, like other great cities ceasing to be what they were, will become.
Brooklyn Villages, laid out in the style of the first modern world map, plots former Native American settlements, original Dutch and English villages, and Freedmenâ€™s towns alongside contemporary housing complexes and real estate developments. My own home nestles uncomfortably between a onetime Ihretonga settlement and the aptly named â€œRapacious Developers Villageâ€ of today.
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Hannah Chalew
And yet the stories told in this atlas â€” for every map is a story â€” are decidedly redemptive. They offer considered counterpoints which, in exposing the fragments of our sociocultural brokenness, compose us closer to wholeness.
Noting the â€œspecial incandescent joyâ€ with which we humans respond to maps, Solnit examines her criteria for these cartographic redemptions:
Maps demand work, and this kind of cerebral work can be exhilarating.
By a good map I mean an aesthetic one, a map that is an invitation to the imagination, a map that offers a fresh view of the familiar or an introduction to the unfamiliar or finds the latter in the former. If every map is a story, most of them are mysteries that invite you to solve them while remaining forever unsolved, in that they indicate more â€” more past, more future, more adventures, more travels. They have an openness, indicating more than they depict.
Maps, Solnit reminds us, are above all exercises in editing, both conscious and unconscious:
A map can trace one story, though it often portrays the coexistences of many stories in relation to each other. It can show how the physical, economic, visual, and social landscape can shape those stories, letting some bloom, grinding out others. Multiple stories in spatial relation become the geosocial constellations of our livesâ€¦
A map is a proposition: here is what this place is, or was, or will be. Most contemporary maps are predictable propositions: here are streets and freeways and also parking and maybe shopping or subway lines. But imagination can always go beyond what even the most quotidian map shows. You know that when you exit the Columbus Circle subway stop, Central Park will be there, and that may evoke majestic trees or strolls or memories of crimes or performances; or the Mets-Willets Point subway stop in Queens on the 7 may make you think about the Unisphere or Venus and Serena Williams at the U.S. Open or when the ash heaps described in The Great Gatsby were nearby.
We furnish maps with imagination; they offer us rooms to furnish thus. Even the most straightforward map is an invitationâ€¦
In orienting oneself in this atlas â€” and orient is a fitting word in speaking of New York, for it comes from the Latin oriens, meaning to find east by looking for the rising sun â€” one is invited to fathom the many New Yorks hidden from historyâ€™s eye. But, more than that, the atlas stands as a reminder that maps make cities as much as cities make maps, and that humans make meaning through how we build and map and live our cities and our stories.
Digital devices tend to offload knowledge from brains to machines, promise us that our ignorance will be adequate because machines will augment us. All recording technologies do this, but paper maps have a way of transferring their data to your mind, so that you become the map. You donâ€™t become the phone. Expertise about place never becomes yours with the digital devices, but it often does with paper, which, paradoxically enough, makes paper a more fluid interactive technology.