Staff Picks: Léger, Loving, LSD


This Week’s Reading

From Barbara, Wanda (c) The Estate of Barbara Loden. Courtesy UCLA Film & Television Archive.

The last couple of days, with work as my excuse, I’ve been losing myself in our back issues. This morning I was moved by a poem I haven’t read in years, “The Mutes,” by Denise Levertov, first published in 1965: “Those groans men use/passing a woman on the street/or on the steps of the subway…” Then, in our summer 1966 issue, I found a letter from Allen Ginsberg describing his first acid trip, at Big Sur, on the same day that LBJ underwent gallbladder surgery: “President Johnson went that day into the Valley of Shadow operating room because of his gall bladder & Berkeley’s Vietnam Day Committee was preparing anxious manifestoes for our march toward Oakland police and Hell’s Angels. Realizing that more vile words from me would send out physical vibrations into the atmosphere that might curse poor Johnson’s flesh and further unbalance his soul, I knelt on the sand surrounded by masses of green bulb-headed Kelp vegetable-snake undersea beings washed up by last night’s tempest, and prayed for the President’s tranquil health.” —Lorin Stein

An excerpt of Nathalie Léger’s new book Suite for Barbara Loden appears in our Fall issue. It’s one of my favorite pieces, a multigenre portrait of Léger, Loden, and Wanda (the titular subject of Loden’s 1970 film, which Loden wrote and directed and in which she stars). Léger sets out to write a short notice of Loden for an encyclopedia but quickly becomes mired in the task. How do you describe a person you don’t know? What constitutes their essentialness? And how do you tell their story simply? Since closing our Winter issue last week, I’ve taken up the rest of the book, and I’ve found it to be one of the most affecting stories I’ve read in a long time. A mix of observation, recitation, and imagination, Suite persists in the idea that no single perspective is sufficient in gaining an understanding of a person, and also, perhaps, that no accumulation of perspectives is sufficient either. “There I am,” Léger writes, “still unable to grasp the truth of this life in its official version, the version that is both overloaded and sparse. Born. Died. In the distance the barking of a dog and the sound of trucks maneuvering: the only illusion of reality, the only depth.” —Nicole Rudick 


I finished Henry Green’s Loving a few days before Trump won. And even though it was published in 1945; even though it’s about a bunch of servants in an Irish country house; even though it’s written at full tilt in a high modernist style that puts it at odds with 99 percent of contemporary writing: it’s been on my mind a lot this week. Loving’s drama (and its comedy, too) is the anarchy of uncertainty. The group of servants at its center are fearful of what the Second World War might mean for their stations in life, and the reports they get about the war’s severity often seem too far-fetched to be true. Making matters worse, their employers have all absconded to England for a while, leaving the staff listless and at loose ends—ripe conditions for infighting and mass confusion. Insofar as it’s a book about being stuck—about bickering, trying to open your eyes to the reality at hand, and finally acting to change your life—Loving serves nicely as a parable for our liminal political moment, when we’re all holding our breath and trying to stay sane. It helps that the novel has a happy ending. —Dan Piepenbring 

I sensed years ago when I read Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell that I’d return to it in crisis. The book’s theme—that when faced with disaster most people will respond altruistically—is crucial when our country is now poised for destructive change. It’s often held that when disaster strikes, communities devolve into chaos, rioting, and anarchy. But Solnit offers five examples from history of when this was solidly not the case, including two very familiar disasters in American history: 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Through meticulous sociological and historical research, she proves that “the image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it.” I thought about this a lot during a terrible ice storm in 2014; I was stuck on a Greyhound for twenty-four hours without any food and a man in front of me gave me a bag of pistachios and a can of beanie weenies. And I’ve been mindful of these ideas this week, walking around New York making tearful eye contact with strangers. “Most traditional societies have deeply entrenched commitments and connections between people, families, and groups,” Solnit writes. We need to hold onto these connections and lift each other up every day, especially for the next four years. —Caitlin Love

Rebecca Solnit

I’ve found that fragmentation accompanies shock. Thus, a few lines that have been drifting through my head the past two days: “Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway?—diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states” (Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man); “There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either” (Marilynne Robinson, Gilead); “I’m with you in Rockland / where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night and won’t let us sleep” (Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”); “I said I wouldn’t, / damnit: No tears” (Yusef Komunyakaa, “Facing It”); “Reality is a sound, you have to tune into it not just keep yelling” (Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red); “Let’s tell the truth to the people. When people ask, ‘How are you,’ have the nerve sometimes to answer truthfully” (Maya Angelou, Letter to my Daughter); “The terror I inspired I am made to feel” (Timothy Donnelly, “Accidental Species”); “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” (Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable). —Taylor Lannamann