Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TALK I Eric Utne

Eric Utne, editor of Brenda My Darling

Colin talks to Eric Utne about the timeless love between a woman with "three husbands and 100 lovers," and a man who looked like this, while posing nude. 


CGB: Your talk tonight alluded to the uniqueness of an epistolary romance, in today's age of instant communication. But Brenda Ueland edited her letters in time to "leave history exactly as she wanted it," and Fridtjof Nansen sent nude photos of himself that probably came across as instantaneous to Ueland then as such photos tend to now. In what ways then do you think that writing letters, as opposed to texts or emails, has an effect on what is written?

EU: An "epistolary romance"... you mean love letters?

Yes, love letters.

Well, I've been writing letters online more recently. Actually, since doing this book, I find myself bringing more thought, and being less slapdash in my digital communications. But I also have to say that getting any letter that someone has written by hand, in the mail, feels like I'm getting a present. I feel like I'm unwrapping a present when it arrives. And I know that if I feel that way, others are probably feeling that, too. So I do take the time, occasionally, to write a genuine letter, and a love letter's even more precious. Also, if you know that your recipient wants to be written to, there's a kind of challenge; it lifts you, it's like you want to deliver the goods, you want to rise to the occasion and do something that's worthy of their expectations. Wouldn't it be an interesting world if everybody wrote love letters?

Speaking of getting a gift, Nansen was a polar explorer, diplomat, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. More than a public intellectual, he was an international celebrity. Did it ever cross your mind that in sending naked photos through the mail, he was hoping to get "caught," in a Janet Jackson, Us Weekly sort of way?

Well, his great grandson said on television that he thought his great grandfather was proud of his body, but I also learned while over there that Knut Hamsun and... who's the painter who did "The Shout"? Edvard Munch. Knut and Munch were also taking nude photos of themselves just around the same time. So it may be that this was going on, not only in Norway, but probably throughout Europe; that people were discovering photography. I mean, Nansen took these of himself. And he probably took them about 10 years before he sent them to Brenda, cause he looks young enough. There's no way he was 67 when he took these. So he was probably sharing them with other women, too. They were definitley living in an artistic milieu, and exploring the human body was something a lot of people were doing.

Remind me of that line from Brenda's book you cited.

Yea, I'll read it to you. Brenda's secret for good writing was to "slow down, as in long, inefficient, happy, idling, dawdling and puttering, and this inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and everyday give it a chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness."

Okay, so just for fun, can you think of any other situation, besides writing, where that skill might come in handy?

Well, I think life, ya know? I mean, actually, Graywolf is promoting Brenda's book as an inspiration for a creative life, not just the writing life. People now are turning to yoga and meditation, and they talk about mindfulness-based stress reduction, but that's so much just the surface of it. The reason to get quiet is because that's where the inspiration comes. A friend of mine, Arthur Zajonc, just wrote a book on meditation, and he calls it a contemplative inquiry. He says that's where great scientific discoveries come from and that's where artistic inspiration comes from, learning to be quiet, and listening. Listening deeply is what Brenda talks about in her essay on listening. Thats where the creative spirit, the imagination, comes alive, out of that quiet. That's why Nansen went to the far north, what he called the world's loneliest and saddest rims, because he felt that no true leader could ever emerge unless they knew that kind of quietude. For Nansen, it was going to the wilderness, but Brenda knew how to get there just by "dawdling" and "puttering." She'd also say, "woodling" and "doodling."

Your own life was in jeopardy as a result of publishing this book. Who was it that informed you?

It was a woman named Caren Berg, and she wrote a book called Nansen and His Women, and she documented about 15 women with whom he had affairs. And she had come here and seen the photos at the historical society, and chose not to use them. And so, when I contacted her, she said, "Don't publish those photos, because you will put your life in danger." Maybe I'm the Evil Knievel of the publishing set.

Is it more or less exciting, death, if you know it's coming?

I haven't a clue, but we all know it's coming, don't we?

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