SARAH LEWIS with Phong Bui

I should confess that it has been a long time since I last read a book of this compelling nature about human failure, about the journey that some of us embark upon, about the search for mastery which is driven from within, and lies among other creative impulses that dictate how we live our lives, in spite of the risks of being misunderstood and underestimated. In reading Sarah Lewis’s The Rise I was at once reminded of how deeply appreciative I am of having read Freud, Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, Karen Horney, Erik H. Erikson, Sir Anthony Storr, even Paul Tillich, among others. In Lewis’s use of accessible yet uncompromised language, all the concerns of what elevates human spirit seem to coalesce into one unified geography of human courage that offers dignity to those who seek to understand the power and limitations of visions. Just before the publication of the paperback edition of The Rise from Simon & Schuster, the writer/critic/curator paid a visit to the Rail HQ in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to talk about her book with Rail publisher Phong Bui.

Portrait of Sarah Lewis. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. Inspired by a photograph by Zack Garlitos.

Phong Bui (Rail): In reading the book I was compelled to think through several issues concerning the unpredictable nature of how an ordinary person becomes someone remarkable, how in his or her early formation a specific experience, whether bad or good—an epiphany of joyous realization in response to a particular incident, or the opposite, a scar that is left for life and whatnot—would intensely inform the mature phase or outcome of his or her life. Somehow some were fortunate enough, despite their hardship, to have one person in their family that offered them encouragement early on, which gave them a sense of confidence that prepared them for a lifelong search of an unattainable goal, whatever that goal may be. For those not as fortunate to have that someone in their family, they must find a mentor from the outside world to foster what it is that their lives are about. It seems that person was your maternal grandfather.

Sarah Lewis: Shadrach Emmanuel Lee.

Rail: Who was a jazz musician, and in order to support his love for music and his family he had to work at night as a janitor, and as a sign painter on the weekend.  You wrote that his dream was shaped by hardship. When did you realize your admiration for him?

Lewis: The question of how an ordinary person becomes someone remarkable is precisely the reason that I not only wrote the book, but decided to reference my grandfather in the first essay, “Archer’s Paradox.” I noticed when I was very young that there was a paradox he had to wrestle with, the different lives he had lived and how difficult they all were. I remember he was telling me that in the 11th grade he was expelled from high school for asking where African Americans were in history books. The teacher told him that African Americans had done nothing to merit inclusion, so stop asking. He was expelled. His pride was so wounded that
he never went back. That difficult circumstance created a fire in him that launched his career as an artist. It just occurred to me that we often don’t discuss this paradox enough in our everyday discourse. The book therefore is part of my fascination with this kind of journey. I examined a selection of inventors, explorers, scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, anyone who’s blazed a new path; it seems that they often had this paradox as part of their stories.

Rail: Knowing that what you love in life would allow you to suffer with clarity.

Lewis: Exactly. Sometimes you have to suffer before you get to realize what you really want to do in life. Because of that desire you may be given strength to get to a place of bliss, full of paradoxes and adversaries, yet you don’t think of them as burdens.

Rail: And once you accept it you would not feel frightened or surprised by any form of challenge in life.

Lewis: Yes. I also think that how we respond to circumstances is our choice. There are limitations to that idea, of course, but by and large I think in the case of my grandfather, he lived out that principle, which enabled him to find solace and fulfill his life as an artist, a musician. I was 10 when I remember wanting to become an artist because of him. I would sit at his knee and paint with him and learn how to draw the figure from him down at his home in Virginia whenever my family came to visit. In his will, he bequeathed to me a stack of drawing paper that was yellowing at the edges, a few boxes of hardened cray-pas, pencil, ink, and other art supplies because he knew that was our connection. So in college at Harvard, I actually thought I wanted to be a painter, but I decided to change course and support and examine the creative lives of others as a curator, as an author. Nevertheless, his model remained instructive and helped me to rethink every circumstance I went through to find something from it that could spark, ignite a passion in me that might not have been there otherwise.

Rail: You also mentioned that you were being underestimated.

Lewis: It wasn’t one particular circumstance. It’s simply the assumption people may have about me when they see me, a young looking, African American petite woman, say in a coffee shop. The likelihood that they will assume that I went to Harvard and Oxford and Yale, curated at MoMA, and so on, and am now a fellow at Harvard, is miniscule. One percent. That’s what I mean. That’s underestimation, to be regarded, gazed upon, and not perceived to be who you actually are. It is the experience of millions of others who don’t fit a given expected model for the package that people consider excellence, all the way up to President Obama. The question is what do you do with that narrow convention?

Rail: Well, one way of addressing that feeling of underestimation is what Ben Saunders, the legendary explorer did—I mean he framed his report card from when he was 13 above his desk at home that reads, “Ben lacks sufficient impetus to achieve anything worthwhile.”  

Lewis: That’s it, yes. What did that do for him? Ben became the first person in the world to trek to the North Pole and back, solo and on foot, South Pole and back, solo and on foot. What shifted in Ben when he saw that report card? That is the same question I asked myself when I saw Dr. Martin Luther King received Cs on his report card in an oratory class in seminary and then went on to awaken our nation with the power of his spoken truth.

Rail: Not to mention his speech impediment.

Lewis: Right. We don’t usually associate such an impediment, a failing of that degree, with Dr. King. But he did manage to overcome his tic—a speech hiccup. As he told his friend Harry Belafonte, “Once I’d made my peace with death, I could make my peace with all else.” I think that we rob ourselves of the guidepost that we need to understand the true nature of becoming by not acknowledging the challenges people go through. It’s the fuller nature of becoming that leads to the journeys of endurance.

Rail: Which is what ambitious people desire. At any rate, what prompted you to select archery as an art, as an activity, an action, in order to get to the notion and context of mastery?

Lewis: I chose archery because I was fascinated by the endless process of hitting a target not just once but again and again, and also its relative obscurity compared to other athletic activities. It’s like being an artist—there is always the potential for obscurity throughout your lifetime. I felt that archery would be vivid enough for readers who might not understand the art world enough to know what it’s like to be in an art studio making works, day in and day out, that may not bring any immediate public reward. Not to mention the solitude that is constantly required for the pursuit. In archery, there is this idea that once you get proficient and can hit the 10 ring, eventually if you stop focusing on process you can lose your technique, and eventually your arrows will just start landing in the parking lot instead of hitting the target. And once that happens it really muddles with an archer’s psychology, so she or he must just wrap up, recompose, and do it all over again. What I realized I was watching in archery is the distinction between success and mastery. Success is just an event, it’s just hitting that 9 or 10 ring once, but it would’ve meant nothing if they couldn’t do it again and again and again, and what does that require? I realized that it required caring about this near win, it required caring about that gap between having hit a 7 but knowing you’re an archer who really can hit a 10. Watching them reframe their perceptions of themselves in front of me was incredible. I saw the techniques that they use, how they would pace, lie down on the ground to meditate, figure out how they can let go of their previous failure, and move on, and line up to shoot without anyone giving them any acclaim or glory.

Martin Hartley, “Route Finder, Adventure Ecology Trans-Arctic Expedition,” 2004.

Rail: It’s certainly not a spectacle sport like basketball, football, or tennis, for example.

Lewis: Exactly! In fact, few can even watch an archery practice because it’s so dangerous. These arrows are flying at 150 miles an hour, and the targets are about 75 yards away, so they have to practice in complete isolation. 

Rail: It reminded me of a story told by Joseph Campbell on Buddhism, part of a five lecture series, called The Eastern Way, about a samurai whose overlord was murdered by another samurai from a rival clan. His life onward was nothing else but to avenge his overlord’s death. He spent years and years looking for revenge. He finally tracked down his enemy, had a duel with him, won the duel, and with his sword right in front of the enemy’s throat and his body against the wall, he was just about to kill him. In an act of desperation the other samurai spit on him, and you know what he did? He put his sword down and walked away. Why did he walk away? Because he was angry. His initial aim was just centering on the act of vengeance as though it was a technical execution, nothing else. Being angry took him away from that focus, so he had to walk away. 

Lewis: Thanks for bringing up Joseph Campbell because I was deeply impacted by The Power of Myth, and how he reminds us that mythology is about archetypes that help us, that guide us through our eternal journeys. To me archery embodies so much of what it means to actually aim at something that’s in our sights, regardless of what it is—writing a book, creating a life as a painter, or whatever—accounting for all the things that might knock you off course, and then picking yourself up and doing it all over again.

Rail: Which brings up the most difficult action or activity—to surrender. You start with Toni Morrison’s line, “If you surrender to the wind you can ride it,” which seems to be—

Lewis: The hardest thing I’ve ever done in writing.

Rail: Tell us more, Sarah. 

Lewis: This idea of surrender, which is beautifully described in the samurai story too, is at the heart of “Arctic Summer,” a chapter that begins with Toni Morrison’s epigraph. Surrender is not about giving up, but giving over to something far larger and letting that power move you forward. Now, when I say much larger, I don’t mean it necessarily in a religious or spiritual sense. I mean Ben is out in the Arctic, which is not a stable continent; under his feet are floating ice sheets. He can trek in sub-50-degree temperatures for an entire day with a 200-pound sled on his back, sleep that night, and erase his gains from the day by the act of sleeping—drifting away from his goal. He’s also faced with not having anyone to speak to—the Arctic is the size of the United States, but completely depopulated. The psychological isolation just made me wonder what kind of fortitude you have to have to do this. And it occurred to me, this is why surrender is so important. It had nothing to do with physical training, or brute strength; it rather had to do with a kind of psychological flexibility that was about letting go of what you couldn’t control, such that you could harness all the internal resources you need to go forward, and that’s what Ben did.

Rail: The concept of surrender, as you had pointed out, is tied to Nietzsche’s term amor fati, to love your fate, and reminds me of a few lines from a beautiful poem by Rilke, “The Man Watching”: “What we choose to fight is so tiny! / What fights with us is so great. / If only we let ourselves be dominated / as things do by some immense storm, / we too would be strong, and not need names.”

Lewis: That’s it. Ben let himself be dominated and it allowed him to endure on his epic journey, which is also at the heart of the martial art of Aikido. Bruce Lee called it the most perfect martial art because it is the art of learning how to surrender to, and not resist an incoming force but redirect it—the energy—to the ground. The main idea is that when you stop resisting something you stop giving it power. So letting yourself be dominated, finding a way to be a vessel to contain and then to release what doesn’t serve you is at the heart of what surrender is about. I really enjoyed the interviews with the Aikidoists in particular, because they were helpful in learning ways that we can surrender in our daily lives. Not everyone is going to the Arctic.

Rail: That’s good to remember. I also remember, in a lost interview from 1971 (on the Pierre Berton show) Bruce Lee was saying, “Be like water my friend. If you pour water into a cup, it becomes a cup.”

Lewis: He remains absolutely amazing. It’s also the analogy that Wendy Palmer, the American Aikidoist, taught me. She said, “Well, hold two glass cups and one contains water and one doesn’t. Grip them both tight with the same pressure, and see if you can tell any difference in their relative weight.” You can’t. But she said, “Now make sure the table’s underneath the cups and let them go.” Then you can tell the difference. This is what surrender is about, it’s about letting us retain the resources we need to discern what to do next.

Rail: Does surrender relate at all to someone who is refered to as the so-called deliberate amateur?

Lewis: The deliberate amateur is a term I coined to consider what the road of mastery also requires, like a relinquishing expertise, and letting yourself surrender to a state of being we all were once in, being a child, being in a place of wonder. So yes, it is an act of surrender, especially among us adults. The chapter about deliberate amateurs actually centers on the story of two Nobel Prize winners, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who I interviewed about two years ago. They employ a brilliant practice of bracketing their time in the laboratory so that they can surrender, ultimately, by asking questions that their expertise and their pride wouldn’t allow them to otherwise.

Rail: You mean like children asking simple questions when they’re at play!

Lewis: Yes. In fact, Geim’s initial experiment was with diamagnetic force, which resulted in levitating a frog that earned him an Ig Nobel Prize. It went on and on—gecko tape being used as a prototype for the best cleaning agent. And eventually they asked: Well, if carbon is the material that people are using to try to isolate a two-dimensional object, why not just use scotch tape? And, of course, that was the thinnest recorded attempt—just the wastebin scotch tape and carbon from another experiment. But they had to surrender to these seemingly foolish questions that we all have within us that often contain the first step on a potentially path-breaking journey, that we deprive ourselves of by simply not asking. So, what I love about the deliberate amateur is the idea of surrender as it relates to these scientists is that they’re offering us a kind of structure to use to get around the feelings of being too embarrassed to surrender in professional contexts where we feel like we will be made fun of for asking a question like the ones that they did.

Louis Horst, “Paul Taylor and Dance Company Review,”
Dance Observer 24.9 (November 1957), 139.

Rail: I certainly can relate to Geim’s perspective, “Better to be wrong than to be boring.”

Lewis: He also said, “I don’t research: I only search.”

Rail: I am also interested in another of your remarks, “To transform from failure, you first have to let yourself feel badly about it.”

Lewis: Right. This is something that I experienced, and then a psychologist, Abigail Lipson who leads Harvard’s Success-Failure Project encouraged me to put the idea in the book. The idea is that, in order to benefit from a difficult circumstance—a failure, setback, or learning experience—you have to let yourself actually feel it. You can’t just wish it away and then expect to find the lesson. The idea of failure is a very internal condition: it is the gap between where you are and where you want to go. The greater it is the more it feels like a chasm, the more you feel like you have fallen into a valley, the more it might be, in your mind, a failure. What Abigail was encouraging me to make clear is what pain management specialists understand: that in order to actually move out of a certain circumstance, you have to stop resisting it, which gives it more energy physically, and let it be.

Rail: This of course relates to each person’s ability to mediate criticism and pressure. I was blown away by Louis Horst’s review of Paul Taylor’s 7 New Dances, which was nothing but a blank page, except for the name of the dance company, date, and place. That was it!

Lewis: Yes, Bill T. Jones told me about the story when I was working on the book. In 1957, Paul Taylor was trying to define his now signature style of severe minimalism. He was working countless jobs to support himself, living in a loft that feels like it’s winter when it is winter outside, and coping with all sorts of New York infestations. Enduring extreme circumstances for the love of his craft. So Paul Taylor and the dance company that he created at that point debuted their 7 New Dances at the Kaufmann Center at the 92nd Street Y. In the first 10 minutes of the performance people start flooding out. The only people left were his stalwart friends and the reviewer was forced to decide: okay, if austere minimalism is going to qualify as dance and you’re just going to stand there, my review—this is Horst thinking—is going to be austere too: I’m simply not going to write. The metaphor of a blank review, I think, summarizes the paradox of what it means to create in the face of critique. Anyone who creates in public has to learn to blanket some critiques, not listen to them, ignore them for a time, and then learn to take some of that critique, as if giving oneself a blank slate to begin anew. I really devised that chapter to look at that nimble dance that artists have to embark upon themselves, to toggle between those two states of being. And that’s what Paul Taylor had to do. He was of course scandalized and horrified when he saw the blank review, but then you look at a piece like Aureole, which premiered at Lincoln Center a few years later, in 1962, it had so many of the central elements that were panned through the blank review. So the chapter is really dealing with how he dealt with that paradox to crystallize his now celebrated style.

Rail: I also admire what Leonard Bernstein said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.” How can we convey that art has its own timing, which Hannah Arendt articulated most brilliantly in the difference between work and labor in her timeless volume The Human Condition. Work has a beginning and an end whereas with labor, it is perpetually continuous. It doesn’t matter whether a work of art takes more than two years to finish like Willem de Kooning’s “Woman, I” or Jackson Pollock making a painting in one day. You simply can’t put value on it in terms of time in relation to labor.

Lewis: No, you can’t because labor is about becoming and work is about manufacture. They’re two different things entirely. The paradox, the riddle of labor is much in the riddle of what it actually means to be in labor. You have to discern when something is ready. It’s very much connected to you the entire time, you can’t just be pregnant for a minute.

Rail: It’s as though each second, minute should be filled with some useful thoughts or action like how Umberto Eco standing in the elevator, thinking, was writing an article in his head.

Lewis: We all have these empty spaces on a daily basis, whether we fill them consciously or unconsciously, but when we empty them, much of this is getting into meditation and what it means to empty the mind, but when you empty it enough to be a space that you can work with, then you can really work productively. Essentially the process of filling the space and emptying it out has to be a continuous mediation.

Rail: Have you ever experienced your empty space being filled with all the things that you do not want to do?

Lewis: I grew up an only child so I spent a lot of time in my own head as a young person, so I did notice the monkey-mind phenomenon. Eventually, I realized that there’s a voice, a narrative in there: a construction of me, but not really me. Then I began to fill it with all the things that I had strong desire to do, and the narratives that were more productive for me.

Rail: I’d like to bring up the potential union of the arts—art and science. Of course, Samuel F. B. Morse was a great example.

Lewis: Yes. I wouldn’t have known about Samuel Morse’s journey from being an aspirant painter for 26 years to being the inventor of the telegraph, using the stretcher bars of a failed painting as the first telegraph model, if not for being trained as an Americanist art historian. I did my Ph.D. at Yale under Alexander Nemerov and Robert Farris Thompson, and I was surprised to see these paintings by Morse when I studied for my oral exams. Again, to the larger point, I wanted to make sure that we were looking at the full life stories of the people who we just celebrate to no end because we are often omitting pieces that are central to how they actually arrived there. Samuel Morse didn’t just want to be a painter; he wanted to rival Titian, Raphael, and Rembrandt. He gave it everything he had. He looked at the life of Pope Gregory and others, he would write back to his brother and family and say, I now think I understand how I can overcome the debilitating force of critique of my own work, as he’s being critiqued by Washington Allston when he went to Europe for training and by Benjamin West, these titanic figures. He became the first professor of painting at NYU, had a studio in Washington Square, and eventually surrendered. And this gets us to the union of art and science. He surrendered to the fact that invention with paint and wires was, in his mind, one and the same, which was more common in the 19th century than it is now. But for sure the fortitude that it took to receive a patent from Congress for the telegraph model, which is really the foundation of the communications revolution, was born through his ability to endure critique for his work as a painter.

Rail: And that ability to endure critique was tied to his desire to achieve great things in life. I was especially taken by Angela Duckworth’s father when she asked him what he wanted from life. He said, “I want to be successful. I want to be accomplished.”

Lewis: That’s right! Then she went further, “Well, no,” she told her father, “what you really mean is that you want to be happy, and being accomplished is what makes you happy.” And he said, “No, what I mean is that I want to be accomplished. I don’t care if I end up happy or not.”

Rail: Some folks I know would take it quite similar to Albert Camus’s existential crisis between Sisyphean condition and suicide. It’s quite fatalistic!

Lewis: Well, not in her case. In her landmark study of grit, for which she was awarded the MacArthur, she said, “How can this not be dysfunctional persistence? What is the dark side of grit?” I really went to her to understand how it can not be so dark, how we can pivot like Samuel Morse, as an analogy, who eventually realized that painting wasn’t going be what he had in mind to give the world. His invention shows us the relationship between play and grit, how grit can be supple, and how that’s expressed as a form of nimbleness and discernment.

Rail: And how that leads to the chrysalis nature of becoming is impossible to describe. How Abraham Lincoln, for instance, in seeing Carlton Watkins’s photographs of Yosemite Valley’s granite cliffs, was inspired by the natural beauty that resulted in the signing of legislation in 1894.

Lewis: Which led to the founding of the National Park Service. I couldn’t believe when I found that reference. We’re often inspired by these moments of aesthetic force, which is a catalyst for some of the profound changes in our lives, more than we would admit, when we surrender ourselves to the power of the beauty of nature or a work of art that may evoke some deeper sources within ourselves. This is why I wrote what Aristotle said, “Reason alone is not enough to make men good,” or women good, it’s whatever frees you from the relative reality around you, be it music, as it happened to Charles Black, who heard the genius coming out of Louis Armstrong’s horn in 1931 when he was just a freshman in college; he knew immediately that segregation must be wrong. This of course led to his prominent role as a lawyer in the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.

Rail: That’s really not that different from your grandfather, asking why African Americans are not in the history book.

Lewis: You’re right. And that’s why I loved that my grandfather chose the arts as a way to express what had been denied to him as a form of education—seeing the full embrace of American life. He chose the arts because, I believe, he knew and anticipated, by playing bass often as a backup for Count Basie and Duke Ellington, that the arts could impact us with a unique force. There is a power to the arts that we often deny, and it’s important as we consider what a life of service is about. We often forget that the arts can allow us to have a contributory life because they ignite these inner shifts that have led to some of our most impactful social movements. 

Rail: And in order to appreciate the relationship between life and the arts we all should embrace the notion of imperfection. It’s similar to the example of the Navajo craftsmen and women, as you had pointed out, who welcome imperfection as a given condition to endow their textiles and ceramics with an irregular appearance.

Lewis: Yes, so it would give them something to strive for the next time. Michelangelo stated it best in this succinct prayer, “Lord, grant that I always desire more than I can accomplish.” Meaning let the work be imperfect enough to keep me striving for something more. This brings us back to caring about those near wins that the archers focused on, between hitting a 7 and hitting a 10. When we have nothing to strive for we don’t endure, we don’t have the catalytic force that moves a journey onward. So, imperfection and deliberate imperfection are a part of this equation. Actually, I recently came across this practice in Japan called “Kintsukuroi.” It means, “To repair with gold.” It’s the art of repairing a bowl or a cup with gold and silver lacquer, with an understanding it is even more beautiful for having been broken.

Rail: It’s similar to a haiku poem by Mizuta Masahide, “My barn having burned down / I can now see the moon.” It’s poignant and beautiful. What’s your next book about? 

Lewis: It’s actually looking at, as I wrote about in The Rise a bit, how Frederick Douglass had recognized the importance or the impact of aesthetic force that compelled him to imagine the larger vision of the world. I’m excited about it.

Rail: Would it be fair to say that your understanding has roots in the time when you made the decision not to be an artist, but to write and advocate the importance of the arts; this seems to be a natural evolution to what you have written in The Rise?

Lewis: Yes. I’d say that I’m glad that I made that decision, because we all want to contribute to our communities. There’s so much we can do for the betterment of culture. I’m just trying to do my part.


Phong Bui

PHONG BUI is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.