The Creative Tension Between Vitality and Fatality: Illuminating the Mystery of Sylvia Plath Through Her Striking Never-Before-Revealed Visual Art

“How frail the human heart must be — a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing — a fragile, shining instrument of crystal, which can either weep, or sing.”

“Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader,” young Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother upon the publication of her first tragic poem. Perhaps Plath would have felt differently had she been able to anticipate how inseparable her poetry would become from its indelible wellspring, her personhood, as posterity enveloped both in an immensity of interpretation — and misinterpretation — the right to which “the public” all too haughtily presumes over any artist’s life. In the decades since her death — a death the circumstances of which have only intensified the impulse for interpretation — her poetry has permeated the fabric of culture, quoted in everything from popular science books to Hollywood blockbusters, often unmoored from context and warped by a superficial understanding of fact. Half-opaque though we are to ourselves, we so readily presume to see the reality of another’s life on the basis of little more than fragmentary glimpses and biographical half-fictions.

Sylvia Plath

In addition to her poems, Plath left behind a rich body of journals and letters — an abundance of autobiographical material that seems to have only deepened the mystery and myth of her person. She found an outlet for what words could not contain in her visual art. “It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything,” Plath wrote in a letter to Ted Hughes when she took up drawing seriously at the age of twenty-four. “I can lose myself completely in the line, lose myself in it.”

In One Life: Sylvia Plath, Smithsonian curator Dorothy Moss hopes that we may find Plath — the unseen, unfathomed, misinterpreted Plath — in the lines of her visual art.

Self-Portrait in Semi-Abstract Style by Sylvia Plath, ink and gouache on paper, c. 1946-1952
(Estate of Robert Hittel, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)

The exhibition features a selection of images and objects from the Plath archives at Smith College and Indiana University’s Lilly Library, most of them never previously exhibited — sketches, drawings, collages, photographs, letters from her psychiatrist, handwritten pages from her journal, her childhood ponytail, her typewriter.

Triple-Face Portrait by Sylvia Plath, tempera on paper, c. 1950-1951
(Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)
Sylvia Plath’s childhood ponytail with her mother’s inscription, August 1945
(Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana)
“A War to End Wars,” self-portrait by Sylvia Plath, February 26, 1946
(Mortimer Rare Book Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, © Estate of Sylvia Plath)

Moss, curator of painting at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, had been incubating the idea for the show for five years. Having studied English and art history at Smith, where she first encountered the poet’s remarkable archives, she grew convinced that Plath made a worthy candidate for the Smithsonian’s One Lifeexhibitions, each offering a deep look at a single person’s impact on American life and culture. Previous installments in the series have celebrated founding father Thomas Paine, poet-philosopher Walt Whitman, baseball legend Babe Ruth, rivaling Civil War generals Grant and Lee, and civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.

Plath is only the third woman portrayed, after pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart and farm work activist Dolores Huerta. (Incidentally, Plath’s first job was as a farm worker — an experience she believed shaped her as a writer.)…



Thoreau on Writing and the Splendors of Mystery in an Age of Knowledge

“Do not seek expressions, seek thoughts to be expressed.”

A century before Einstein bequeathed his famous dictum that “imagination is more important than knowledge” and Richard Feynman delivered his iconic flower-monologue about knowledge and mystery, not a scientist but a Transcendentalist philosopher-poet, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862), examined the relationship between scientific knowledge and the imagination in a diary entry found in The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861(public library) — that timeless trove of wisdom on the myth of productivitythe greatest gift of growing oldthe sacredness of public librariesthe creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success.

In December of 1851 — only half a century after an amateur scientist classified the clouds with Goethe’s help — thirty-four-year-old Thoreau writes:

I witness a beauty in the form or coloring of the clouds which addresses itself to my imagination, for which you account scientifically to my understanding, but do not so account to my imagination. It is what it suggests and is the symbol of that I care for, and if, by any trick of science, you rob it of its symbolicalness, you do me no service and explain nothing. I, standing twenty miles off, see a crimson cloud in the horizon. You tell me it is a mass of vapor which absorbs all other rays and reflects the red, but that is nothing to the purpose, for this red vision excites me, stirs my blood, makes my thoughts flow, and I have new and indescribable fancies, and you have not touched the secret of that influence. If there is not something mystical in your explanation, something unexplainable to the understanding, some elements of mystery, it is quite insufficient. If there is nothing in it which speaks to my imagination, what boots it? What sort of science is that which enriches the understanding, but robs the imagination? … That is simply the way in which it speaks to the understanding, and that is the account which the understanding gives of it; but that is not the way it speaks to the imagination, and that is not the account which the imagination gives of it. Just as inadequate to a pure mechanic would be a poet’s account of a steam-engine.

If we knew all things thus mechanically merely, should we know anything really?

A decade later, Thoreau would revisit these questions in his ardent case for “the diffusion of useful ignorance,” but now he turns them toward his own art: writing. Nearly a century and a half before Polish poet Wisława Szymborska asserted in her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech that “whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know,’” Thoreau considers the vital role of not-knowing in the creative process of the writer:

It would be a truer discipline for the writer to take the least film of thought that floats in the twilight sky of his mind for his theme, about which he has scarcely one idea (that would be teaching his ideas how to shoot), faintest intimations, shadowiest subjects, make a lecture on this, by assiduity and attention get perchance two views of the same, increase a little the stock of knowledge, clear a new field instead of manuring the old; instead of making a lecture out of such obvious truths, hackneyed to the minds of all thinkers. We seek too soon to ally the perceptions of the mind to the experience of the hand, to prove our gossamer truths practical, to show their connection with our every-day life (better show their distance from our every-day life), to relate them to the cider-mill and the banking institution. Ah, give me pure mind, pure thought! Let me not be in haste to detect the universal law; let me see more clearly a particular instance of it! … Dissolve one nebula, and so destroy the nebular system and hypothesis. Do not seek expressions, seek thoughts to be expressed. By perseverance you get two views of the same rare truth.


Enlightenment, the Four Noble Truths, and Other Buddhist Concepts on Display at Brooklyn Art Gallery

Enlightenment, the Four Noble Truths, and Other Buddhist Concepts on Display at Brooklyn Art GalleryPhoto by Wendy Joan Biddlecombe

Ben Paljor Chatag, grandson of the late Gelek Rimpoche, uses his personal form of meditation—painting—to explore Buddhist philosophy and bring awareness to social and political issues in his native Tibet.

By Wendy Joan Biddlecombe

Along an industrial stretch of Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Avenue, across the street from a car rental shop and the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, Ben Paljor Chatag’s red, green, and blue Buddhas look outward from Yashar Gallery.

 Chatag, an artist who was born in Lhasa, Tibet, is currently showing a collection of paintings called “Suffering and Cessation.” A 2015 graduate of Marymount Manhattan College,  he has participated in several alumni art shows in New York City, and hopes his paintings, which use bright and vibrant colors to depict Buddhist concepts such as enlightenment and the four noble truths, can instill Tibetan philosophy “during challenging global times.”

 “I call this ‘Suffering and Cessation’ because I’m from Tibet; I’m a refugee. I wanted to bring awareness to the situation,” Chatag said.

Chatag moved to the United States about 10 years ago and is the grandson of the late Tibetan Buddhist lama and Jewel Heart International founder Gelek Rimpoche. Constantly exposed to the spiritual world while growing up in Tibet, Chatag recalled visiting temples and monasteries with his grandmother, experiences that continue to influence his work.  Yet it was only after Chatag had moved to the United States that he developed an interest to learn traditional Tibetan thangka painting [which depicts a deity or mandala and are used for meditative practice] and traveled to Dharamsala, India, to train for several months.   

“Honestly, I haven’t done meditation in a while,” Chatag confessed when asked about his practice. “For me, when you paint, you’re really focusing on the mind, and concentrating. Taking this time [to create the show] has been really positive, and helped create patience . . . My grandfather said that my art is my meditation.”


Frida Kahlo on the Meanings of the Colors

From the color of madness and mystery to that of distance and tenderness.

More than a century after Goethe’s theoretical inquiry into the emotional hues of colorFrida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) contemplated the question from a far more intuitive place in a fragment from The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait (public library) — the treasure trove that gave us the visionary Mexican painter’s DIY paint recipe, her ferocious political convictions, and her stunning handwritten love letters to Diego Rivera.

Early in her journal, the young Kahlo inscribes a lyrical stream-of-consciousness meditation on the symbolism of different colors inspired by an assortment of colored pencils at her desk. Picking them up one by one, each “sharpened to the point of infinity,” she writes out the symbolic association of a color with the respective pencil onto the notebook page.

Page from Frida Kahlo’s diary

I’ll try out the pencils
sharpened to the point of infinity
which always sees ahead:

Green — good warm light

Magenta — Aztec. old TLAPALI
blood of prickly pear, the
brightest and oldest

[Brown —] color of mole, of leaves becoming

[Yellow —] madness sickness fear
part of the sun and of happiness

[Blue —] electricity and purity love

[Black —] nothing is black — really nothing

[Olive —] leaves, sadness, science, the whole
of Germany is this color

[Yellow —] more madness and mystery
all the ghosts wear
clothes of this color, or at
least their underclothes

[Dark blue —] color of bad advertisements
and of good business

[Blue —]distance. Tenderness
can also be this blue

Nearly a century later, Rebecca Solnit would write her own lyrical meditation on blue as the color of distance and desire.

Complement The Diary of Frida Kahlo with the beloved artist on how love amplifies beauty, the beautiful letter she wrote to Georgia O’Keeffe after the American painter was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, and this illustrated tribute to her life and legacy, then revisit Goethe’s graphically daring diagrams of color perception.


Kafka on the Power of Music and the Point of Making Art

Art by Carson Ellis from Du Iz Tak?
“The only strong and deep passions are those which can stand the test of reason.”

“Without music life would be a mistake,” proclaimed Nietzsche, one of the legion of celebrated thinkers who have contemplated the unparalleled power of music. Two generations later, Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883–June 3, 1924) — another writer of glooming genius and talent for illumination via strong dark pronouncements — turned to the subject in his itinerant dialogues with his teenage walking companion and ideological interlocutor Gustav Janouch, collected in Conversations with Kafka (public library), which also gave us the brooding author on Taoismappearance versus reality, and love and the power of patience.

During a walk in the summer of 1922, the conversation turns to music — a subject the seventeen-year-old Gustav wished passionately to study, but his father forbade the pursuit. Kafka tells his young companion:

Music is the sound of the soul, the direct voice of the subjective world.

In a subsequent conversation, when Gustav shares with his mentor a short story he has written titled The Music of Silence, Kafka elaborates on how music casts its spell on the soul:

Everything that lives is in flux. Everything that lives emits sound. But we only perceive a part of it. We do not hear the circulation of the blood, the growth and decay of our bodily tissue, the sound of our chemical processes. But our delicate organic cells, the fibres of brain and nerves and skin are impregnated with these inaudible sounds. They vibrate in response to their environment. This is the foundation of the power of music. We can set free these profound emotional vibrations. In order to do so, we employ musical instruments, in which the decisive factor is their own inner sound potential. That is to say: what is decisive is not the strength of the sound, or its tonal colour, but its hidden character, the intensity with which its musical power affects the nerves. [Music] must … elevate into human consciousness vibrations which are otherwise inaudible and unperceived… [bring] silence to life… uncover the hidden sound of silence.

In another conversation, he considers the parallels and differences between music and poetry — something Patti Smith would contemplate nearly a century later. Kafka tells Gustav:

Music creates new, subtler, more complicated, and therefore more dangerous pleasures… But poetry aims at clarifying the wilderness of pleasures, at intellectualizing, purifying, and therefore humanizing them. Music is a multiplication of sensuous life; poetry, on the other hand, disciplines and elevates it.

And yet Kafka is swift to recuse himself of authority on music:

Music for me is rather like the sea… I am overpowered, wonderstruck, enthralled, and yet afraid, so terribly afraid of its endlessness. I am in fact a bad sailor.

Still, for Kafka the magnitude of his overwhelm was perhaps the most direct measure of the intensity of his love. “I don’t want to know what you are wearing,” he once wrote in one of his beautiful and heartbreaking love letters“it confuses me so much that I cannot deal with life.”

When Gustav laments his father’s veto on music and wonders whether having a head of his own gives him the right to disobey his father’s wishes and pursue his passion, Kafka dilates the question into a larger meditation on why artists make art:

Using one’s own head is often the easiest way of losing it… Of course, I am not saying anything against your studying music. On the contrary! … The only strong and deep passions are those which can stand the test of reason… There is passion behind every art. That is why you fight and suffer for your music… But in art that is always the way. One must throw one’s life away in order to gain it.

In another conversation, he revisits the subject and likens the sacrifices of art to those of religious devotion. In a sentiment that calls to mind Simone Weil’s abiding assertion that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity [and,] taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer” — and what else is art if not generosity of the highest degree? — Kafka tells Gustav:

Prayer and art are passionate acts of will. One wants to transcend and enhance the will’s normal possibilities. Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts. Prayer means casting oneself into the miraculous rainbow that stretches between becoming and dying, to be utterly consumed in it, in order to bring its infinite radiance to bed in the frail little cradle of one’s own existence.


‘Sgt. Pepper’ Is the Greatest Album Ever — Unless You Don’t Think So

Robert Fraser /EMI Records LTD

On its 50th anniversary, is it finally time to stop expecting a silly, catchy album to be an unassailable cultural totem?

Tomorrow sees the release of a deluxe reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, almost exactly 50 years since it first hit record shelves. It’s a major anniversary of the greatest album ever made. If that claim makes you roll your eyes, don’t blame me: It’s what the culture decided a long time ago. The record that featured the Beatles on the cover dressed up as a fictional band, Sgt. Pepper has been considered a masterpiece for as long as it’s existed.

Case in point: In the December 1967 issue of Esquire, music critic Robert Christgau wrote, “Partly because the 10-month gap between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper was so unprecedented, the album was awaited in much the same spirit as installments of Dickens must have been a century ago. Everyone was a little edgy: Could they do it again?” Although Christgau loved the record, he pushed against the ecstatic, blanket hosannas that greeted its release.Sgt. Pepper is not the world’s most perfect work of art,” he declared. “But that is what the Beatles’ fans have come to assume their idols must produce.”

In the 50 years since, Sgt. Pepper has only remained an unassailable musical totem. In 2003, Rolling Stone polled journalists, critics, musicians and others to put together a special issue commemorating the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” Sgt. Pepper topped the list. Nine years later, when the magazine revised the list, Sgt. Pepper was still number one. Summarizing the record, the staff wrote,is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time. … [T]he 13 tracks on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are the pinnacle of the Beatles’ eight years as recording artists. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were never more fearless and unified in their pursuit of magic and transcendence.”

Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison

With that kind of description — and with that kind of imposing history behind it — how could anyone approach Sgt. Pepper in 2017 with anything other than skepticism? As much as people like discovering new music, we tend to resist when it’s being shoved down our throats. It’s very hard to love something — to really embrace it as ours — when everybody else has already laid claim to it.No wonder that when NME made its own list of the greatest albums in 2013, Sgt. Pepper landed all the way down at number 87, the snotty write-up noting, “Considered the ultimate achievement of recorded music at the time, the gleam has dulled on Pepper’s medals over time, its psychedelic visuals and flower power sentiments turned corny at the edges.”

I’m not here to argue over whether Sgt. Pepper is the greatest album ever, or even the greatest Beatles album ever. (For what it’s worth, I don’t — and, not that it matters, but I probably prefer The Beatles.) But I would like to suggest that evaluating something based on other people’s belief that it’s the Greatest Thing Ever is a really bad idea. There’s no such thing as the Greatest Thing Ever. Such talk does a disservice to new listeners. And, more importantly, it does a disservice to the Thing in question.

Here’s what I mean: Pretend I told you that some mystery album I was going to play you, which you’d never heard, was the greatest album ever made. Before you heard a single note, what would you be thinking? Your expectations would be pretty high, right? Would you maybe start imagining what the greatest album ever would sound like? Maybe you’d begin constructing in your mind a list of sonic criteria that would be necessary for a record to justify to such a lofty buildup. You’d think about your own favorite albums — the ones that have meant the most to you and have been touchstones for the most important and meaningful moments in your life. Then you’d think, “Okay, what I’m about ready to hear has to surpass all of those albums. After all, this is the greatest album ever made.” Now imagine that, if you’re not totally sold on the record after one spin, that you’re going to be badgered by people telling you that it really is the greatest album ever made and that you just don’t get it.

I don’t care how open-minded a person you are: There’s very little chance you’re going to love that album. The deck is stacked against you. It’s a problem all cultural totems have: Once we decide as a consensus what the greatest movie/book/album/sitcom is, it gets encased in amber, its merits frozen in time. The piece of work is no longer breathing and open to exploration and discovery — it’s now an unimpeachable art object. And who can love something described as an “unimpeachable art object”?…



A Laboratory for Feeling and Time: Pioneering Philosopher Susanne Langer on What Gives Music Its Power and How It Illuminates the Other Arts

The Gnomes: "He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes."

“Music is ‘significant form,’ and its significance is that of a symbol, a highly articulated sensuous object… Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import.”

“Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts… and the most sensual,” Susan Sontag wrote in one of the most beautiful meditations on the power of music. Aldous Huxley, in his immensely poetic reflection on why music moves us so, recounted “some exquisite soft harmony apprehended by another sense” as he listened to Beethoven in the dark. This sensorial splendor of music is what Helen Keller, deaf and blind, articulated in her exultation upon “hearing” Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with her hand.

I thought about all of this recently — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I felt about it — as I listened, with my whole being, to a friend perform music that seemed to emanate from her whole being. I wondered what it is about music that we feel in our marrow, that invites us into some other dimension of time, magnetizing us to the present yet containing within itself all that ever was and ever will be — a place where the symbolic and the real, the abstract and the acutely alive, converge into something larger.

That peculiar property of music may have been what prompted Susanne Langer (December 20, 1895–July 17, 1985), one of the first professional women philosophers, to call music an “unconsummated symbol” in her trailblazing 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. Langer revisited the subject a quarter century later in her final work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling(public library), exploring what makes music different from all other forms of creative expression and how, paradoxically, understanding the source of its power illuminates the other arts.

Langer writes:

Music, like language, is an articulate form. Its parts not only fuse together to yield a greater entity, but in so doing they maintain some degree of separate existence, and the sensuous character of each element is affected by its function in the complex whole. This means that the greater entity we call a composition is not merely produced by mixture, like a new color made by mixing paints, but is articulated, i.e. its internal structure is given to our perception.

And yet music, Langer argues, is not quite a language, as it has frequently been called (although the two worked in tandem to help us evolve.) Unlike language, where words function as its primary forms of fixed meaning and association, music allows us to fill its forms with our own meaning. She considers this singular role of meaning in music:

Music has import, and this import is the pattern of sentience — the pattern of life itself, as it is felt and directly known.

Let us therefore call the significance of music its “vital import” instead of “meaning,” using “vital” not as a vague laudatory term, but as a qualifying adjective restricting the relevance of “import” to the dynamism of subjective experience.

With this lens, Langer offers a sublimely compact and insightful definition of what music is, how it differs from language, and what it does in and for us:

Music is “significant form,” and its significance is that of a symbol, a highly articulated sensuous object, which by virtue of its dynamic structure can express the forms of vital experience which language is peculiarly unfit to convey. Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import…