When people ask me why I’m a vegetarian, I tell them it’s because it makes me feel good. I deny doing it because I think it will help me live longer. “Hell,” I tell them, “I could get hit by a truck tomorrow.” But in reality, whenever I hear of someone getting cancer or heart disease, the first questions I ask are, “How did they eat? What emotions did they keep bottled up inside? How did they bring it on themselves?”
So the most striking thing about Sy Safransky’s essay “Stephen” [May 1993] was what he said about death not discriminating. Safransky’s realization that “spiritual teachers seem to die of cancer as frequently as the rest of us” made me see that if I want to live a healthy life it must be for what it provides me with right now: clarity, strength, and a general sense of well-being. I need to loosen my grip on the illusion that my lifestyle provides me with some sort of holistic health insurance.
Before reading Safransky’s essay, I would have been genuinely shocked if I learned that I had cancer. Now I am aware that it could happen despite my best efforts. This realization forces me to reexamine my commitment to a healthy lifestyle (which I intend to continue) and brings me one step further from being ruled by the fear of death.
I just finished reading Readers Write about Fathers And Daughters [May 1993], and I wish I hadn’t. I know that fathers often abuse their daughters. But when I put down that issue, I had the feeling — a horrid feeling — that every father sexually abuses his daughter, that it is the norm rather than the exception. I don’t want to believe that.
I would like to have read more of the funny, poignant stories of fathers and daughters, of lessons learned, of love and acceptance. Weren’t there more of those? If you received hundreds of submissions, were these representative? If so, either mostly mistreated women read your magazine, or more abused people want to tell their stories, or we have been a sicker people than I thought for a long, long time.
The Sun responds:
I, too, would have preferred to read more stories of love and acceptance; sadly, many of the pieces we received were about abusive relationships, and it seemed important to reflect that in our selection.
I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s story “Homeland” June 1993] and was delighted, saddened, and moved. Her writing is brilliant. The contrast between Great Mam’s deep, life-giving connection to the earth, and its brutal exploitation by coal-mining companies and the trivialized tourist traps of Cherokee says more than a hundred ecology books could say about where we have gone wrong, and why. The way that Native American stream keeps insistently pushing into the narrator’s consciousness, and into ours, whether she likes it or not, whether we like it or not — it’s like the way in birth a new life pushes into your world, claiming your responsibility, claiming your love.
What I didn’t like about the piece is the way the boys are portrayed as uncaring morons, whereas the real custodial job of cherishing tradition devolves upon the woman, as if men are not up to it. I’m not sure this is Kingsolver’s fault — after all, if she lived it that way, then that’s how she has to write it — but it’s an attitude I meet with all too often in ecofeminist writing. Any attitude that men are not as good as women is a rejection of yang, a crippled vision. I listened deeply to the tradition handed down to me by my Nova Scotian mother and grandmother, as well as by my New Englander father; I have a penis and testosterone glands, I played cowboys-and-Indians as a kid, and I’m not gay, but I’m no less sensitive to the earth, the suffering of the oppressed, my cousins in the woods, or the small people in the sky.
But I suppose if I really want to carry my point, I’ll have to write it in a story as moving as hers — which will be very tough to do. Thank you for introducing me to Kingsolver’s work, and I want to thank her for doing it so splendidly.
On rare occasions, someone articulates ideas that have been growing in my head but have not found words. Dana Branscum’s interview with Barbara Kingsolver [“Words of Honor,” June 1993] was so full of such ideas that I have had to read it four times so far. Her comments on the relationships among art, science, and social responsibility have been haunting me, and I sent her comments on being a parent to my best friend who just had his first child. Thank you for turning me on to her!
I was a bit dismayed, though not shocked, by Branscum’s comment in the introduction that Kingsolver must have hated her job as a “science writer” at the University of Arizona because it “sounded so removed from creativity.” In my work as a scientist and engineer, I hear such stereotypes on a regular basis. Personally, I view technical writing as a great creative challenge. The goal is to say what one means, exactly and clearly, in a space limited by editors. The best technical writing is crafted like a beautiful wooden boat. I suggest to Branscum that creativity and constraint are two sides of the same coin.
I enjoyed John Rosenthal’s essay on Sally Mann’s photographs [“Sally Mann’s Beautiful and Treacherous World,” June 1993]. But I’m not sure that Calvin Klein photography is bad art. Rosenthal seems to believe it is, just because it is Calvin Klein. But I’ve observed that children of a certain age actually do look like those models in Calvin Klein ads: cool, erotic, distant. Look at your teenagers when they’re just doing nothing. Most of the time you’ll see very dumb faces, but every so often you’ll see those wistful, beautiful, seemingly posed looks that remind you of, if not Calvin Klein, perhaps Michelangelo.
I applaud John Rosenthal’s essay. Something sacred has been violated in Mann’s photographs. The role of mother — to protect and shield her children — has been subverted by the desire to expose.
As a sexually abused child who was painted in the nude, I buried and repressed my inner self, and, like Mann’s children, posed with an erotic brazenness. The innocent child was lost to the artist’s (and prurient viewer’s) gain.
In John Rosenthal’s curiously troubled essay on Sally Mann’s photographs in her new book, Immediate Family, no criticism is too intellectually sloppy to be admissible. A handful of these pictures of the artist’s three children feature the young’uns nude. The case for the prosecution rests on Rosenthal’s spinsterly fretfulness over the “moral issues” arising here and on his objections to the images’ having been in some measure staged — thus, he wails, not “the real thing.” A more fatuous critical approach would be hard to imagine.
I’m inclined to dismiss his moral qualms out of hand, since they’re so obviously the product of a twisted imagination (no other kind could look at these stunning images and see “pedophilic implications” or “the polymorphously perverse”). Equally stupid but less ostentatiously so is Rosenthal’s confused squawking to the effect that Mann has treacherously violated the sacred “distinction” in art photography “between truth-telling and contrivance.” No such distinction exists. Every photograph — no matter how objectively journalistic the photographer’s intent — is to some extent a subjective fiction, a selective remake of an infinitely complex lived moment.
A distinction does exist, though, between art and, for want of a kinder word, propaganda. Yet in Rosenthal’s mind there’s no difference between tabloid news shows like “Hard Copy” (to which he likens Mann’s work) and, let us say, the films of Italian neorealism, which often achieved a gritty documentary look as the result of meticulous planning. But for the rest of us there is a difference, and it lies in the presence or absence of artistic truth, often a very different commodity from journalistic “fact” (whatever that might be).
Sally Mann’s photographs explore childhood with an attention to variety of mood and situation and to complexity of feeling, which speaks of something rather more rare than mere genius. These brilliant pictures alert us to the wonder and mystery of family life and love, and sometimes they alert us to the flaws in our own ideological postures toward those subjects. If John Rosenthal doesn’t get this, that’s his problem. The rest of us can look with astonishment and gratitude on these photographs and allow them to enrich our lives. They are extraordinary and the really “real thing.”
John Rosenthal lacks the delicacy of touch required to dissect for analysis the poetic imagery of Sally Mann. Bogged down in his deliberations over “tradition” and “taboo,” he passed over a work of tremendous emotional power and dignity. Moreover, the banalities of his sexual preoccupations throw less light on the work itself than on his personality.
Startled by the beauty and depth of Mann’s work, I find irrelevant the means by which she is able to use her creative powers to reflect intimate and faithful impressions. The function of the image, as Gogol said, is to express life itself, not ideas or arguments about life.
John Rosenthal responds:
Apparently Niall MacKenzie and Thomas Heuberger believe that critics shouldn’t waste their time dealing with such issues as the right to privacy — in this instance, the right of underage children not to be used as models in sexually suggestive photographs. In a marvelous turn of logic, Heuberger suggests there’s something wrong with my “personality,” while MacKenzie insists that my imagination is “twisted.” As the comedian said, this is a tough crowd.
To these guys, anybody who suggests that an artist lives in the same world and deals with the same ethical issues as ordinary people is just a stand-in for Jesse Helms. Perhaps they worry that any discussion about the responsibility of art or artists raises the specter of censorship. Tragically, this limits their perception of art to an appreciation of its affects (for which, incidentally, Mann is justly praised); however, in the presence of “meaning,” of implication, they simply slam shut, like coffins. Obviously they don’t want me (or anybody else) to address the questions raised by Richard B. Woodward in his article “The Disturbing Photographs of Sally Mann” in the New York Times Magazine. If Mann considers it her responsibility, Woodward queries, to keep her children from harm’s way, “has she knowingly put them at risk by releasing these pictures into a world where pedophilia exists? [And] can young children freely give their consent for controversial portraits even if the artist is their parent?”
May I recommend Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting to MacKenzie? Especially Kundera’s thoughts on the danger of altering the rich factuality of the photographic image. Readers of Kundera’s wonderful book will recall how Clementis, one of the founders of communist Czechoslovakia, was airbrushed out of photographs (and history) once he was accused of treason and hanged — an attempt to refashion the memory of actual events into a more suitable, if completely dishonest, shape. Since MacKenzie declares that every photograph lacks objectivity and is “to some extent a subjective fiction,” he might be surprised to find out what happens when objectivity is overthrown by totalitarian thugs, instead of by a few theoretical morons.