third letter on the sublime (30 years later)

Possibly Solita Solano and Djuna Barnes, Maurice Branger 1922
possibly Solita Solano and Djuna Barnes, Maurice Branger 1922

 And here is, for the month of May, the third letter on the sublime. How the world has changed in no more than 30 years since the previous letter! I must warn readers, this letter introduces an awkward direction for the idea of the sublime, away from wilderness and landscape romance. Into the realm of a human type of sublime: dissonant, artificial, confronting, designable and political. One more letter to go after this one… so curious…


New York, Greenwich Village, United Sates of America, November 24, 1919[1]


To Victor Venturous and Edward Criterion,

How unfortunate that your letters have been received by me. I am possibly the least appreciative character imaginable to have gained possession of your ‘grand’ discourse. I do not read love letters to nature like those by Wordsworth. They are full of repressed desires that reveal tormented minds, and they are not accurate descriptions of surroundings, but projected distortions. Since Freud we know about the dark sides of ourselves and can refrain from blindly following such impulses. We can, however, consciously expand such distortions. If we do that, it becomes art. Real art, not pottery. So I prefer to read Rainer Maria Rilke and his Neue Gedichte: ‘Sieh, wie sich alles auftut: so sind wir’ (Gesang der Frauen an den Dichter).

I do like to stroll through Central Park when we are uptown with my bohemian friends from Greenwich Village, and so it is only out of a sense of gratitude to the designer of that space that I have not ritually burned your aristocratic letters.

When I was fifteen my folks moved from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park to work in the Wawona Hotel. My father was called in to install the first telephone in that remote place. After the first successful call my mother got a job in the restaurant and my father as a park technician – installing lights, for crying out loud! Lights, in a place of utter darkness and tranquillity. One day my sister and I were playing in the woods. We were playing Indians being raided by evil Europeans, bloodthirsty and blindly obsessed with destroying all native reminders of the days before they arrived. I still was not sure whether I loved being the invader or the victim. I was alone and lost in the woods when I discovered the crevice in the rock containing these letters. At the time it seemed to be part of our game, although I did not dare to show the letters to my sister. I simply kept them as a token of my destiny to become either invader or victim.

Fed up with the tourists, who only seemed to be interested in seeing what everybody else had already seen a million times before, I left Yosemite and headed for the East Coast to start a different life – a more meaningful life with meaningful people who deal with meaningful subjects and act accordingly. I found them just before getting on a boat to Europe. In a crazy little place in downtown New York I learned about love and life and art and human destiny. I changed my name in case someone would remember me from my earlier life. Everybody calls me Nana nowadays, Nana Nowhere or Nana the New or Nana Nimbus.

I do as I like and enjoy making love to whom I like. I like who I am, especially being a woman. It disturbs me that in your letters you don’t discuss women at all. You talk about nature as if it is the property of males, as if only men have a deep connection with the sources behind nature, giving them a noble, stylish or philanthropic position. Men do not respond to nature, they impose their will on it. If there is one group of humans that are in touch with nature, it must be women. You should come and see the plays we perform with the Provincetown Players. We are all amateurs and so we do not have to act professionally. We do not need to act, we simply are. We do not need any mountain scene to provide our audience with a deep sense of meaning. We proclaim and interact. That is all.

It was at the Armory Show in New York City in 1913, an exhibition that shocked aristocratic simplicity with a vision of the new world that is not invented but revealing, that I found my destiny. I instantly became a victim of myself and an intruder to the rest of the world. My place is not attached to any particular geographic locality, it is rooted in my character and existence. Everywhere I go I cause disturbances. Everybody causes disturbances, like the dissonant music by Igor Stravinsky in the Sacre du Printemps written for the expressive ballet by the Russian Serge Diaghilev. Although the overall theatrical presentation of the ‘Sacre’ resonates with an outdated upper class taste and the painted décor by the mystic Nicholas Roerich was inspired by his walks in the Himalayan Mountains. This male theatricality and strange sense of romance is precisely the aspect I detest in your letters. There are very few male artists that dare to limit their own spectacle in favour of simplicity, such as Marcel Duchamp – although I also mistrust his theatricality, he has yet to make something ultimately simple. They still have to show off to their rivals or towards willing females, in the spirit of Nietzsche and his propaganda for the chaotic energy of Dionysus as opposed to the composed aspects of Apollo. Not until females have gained positions of power will we be rid of such displays.

The president (Theodore Roosevelt) himself declared that the Armory Show was not art. What was it then? Fraud, immoral, degenerate, ridiculous and demented? Those descriptions by the press were all made by men who are afraid of what they are. They all suffer from their own type of penis envy since they all met the authoritarian father with his own pants down. In a few weeks I will leave this place and go to Paris and perhaps Berlin, the metropolises of the world, where all genders, all nations and all liberty is bred and fed, to head for a new era.

We do not have to be in the mountains to know about the future. We cannot relate to mountains because they are not ours. The more we are in the mountains, the more confused we will be about ourselves. The names of mountains are probably too short to capture what they really are. Maybe they should be called NAFOIJONVSSOIUODVOPMMDUEPOIIOPUOTOO or some other inexplicable name. We should not be concerned with our perception of mountains, we should be concerned with the existence of our own species. So I agree with the comment by Edward Criterion that humans only become humans when they become independent of the ancient sublime. Their own ‘human sublime’ already provides centuries of deepness. The human soul is as deep and old as the mountains, so we should begin to excavate it.

I know about the sublime from the books in the Wawona visitors library. I consulted them to find proof that I belonged in Yosemite Valley. I have always felt that it was a wrong place for me to be. No matter how big or old the place was, it never made me comfortable enough to be human. On the contrary, it highlighted the idea of not being there and not bothering to understand. The Grand Cities are the New National Parks for humans. The dissonance in Stravinsky’s music is what is human, not the presumed orderliness we look for as tourists. We cannot be tourists, we are partaking in a show without end.

The Great War that ended in 1918 is proof enough of the ‘human sublime’ that Edward mentions. The mountains and the trees did not fight a war, humans did, male humans with their love of steel and explosions. They would rather blow nature up than leave it be.

All I have to add to your letters is that the time of naive behaviour is over. We are both what we dream and what we do. There are many that see this now and we are expressive and will travel the inhabited world and not linger in the places that are not ours. Beware.

Yours, Nana


[1] Sources used for this letter and persona:

Barnes, D. (1937). Nightwood. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Mancini, J. M. (2005). Pre-modernism: art-world change and American culture from the Civil War to the Armory Show: Princeton University Press Princeton.