“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” the great French philosopher Simone Weil wrote shortly before her untimely death. An epoch after her, Mary Oliver eulogized the love of her life with the observation that “attention without feeling… is only a report.” Looking back on centuries of love poems by people of genius who dared to love beyond the cultural narrows of their time, the poet J.D. McClatchy observed that “love is the quality of attention we pay to things.”
Because our attention shapes our entire experience of the world — this, after all, is the foundation of all Eastern traditions of mindfulness, which train the attention in order to anneal our quality of presence — the objects of our attention end up, in a subtle but profound way, shaping who we are.
Because there is hardly a condition of consciousness that focuses the attention more sharply and totally upon its object than love, what and whom we love is the ultimate revelation of what and who we are.
That is what the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883–October 18, 1955) explores in a series of essays originally written for the Madrid newspaper El Sol and posthumously published in English as On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme (public library) — a singular culmination of Ortega’s philosophic investigation of Western culture’s blind spots, biases, and touching self-delusions about love, that is, about who and what we are.
Illustration from the vintage Danish handbook An ABZ of Love
Defining love as “that sense of spiritual perception with which one seems to touch someone else’s soul, to feel its contours, the harshness or gentleness of its character,” Ortega notes that love reveals “the most intimate and mysterious preferences which form our individual character.” He writes:
There are situations, moments in life, in which, unawares, the human being confesses great portions of his ultimate personality, of his true nature. One of these situations is love. In their choice* of lovers [human beings] reveal their essential nature. The type of human being which we prefer reveals the contours of our heart. Love is an impulse which springs from the most profound depths of our beings, and upon reaching the visible surface of life carries with it an alluvium of shells and seaweed from the inner abyss. A skilled naturalist, by filing these materials, can reconstruct the oceanic depths from which they have been uprooted.
Defining attention as “the function charged with giving the mind its structure and cohesion,” Ortega places it at the center of the experience of love:
“Falling in love” is a phenomenon of attention.
Our spiritual and mental life is merely that which takes place in the zone of maximum illumination. The rest — the zone of conscious inattention and, beyond that, the subconscious — is only potential life, a preparation, an arsenal or reserve. The attentive consciousness can be regarded as the very space of our personalities. We can just as well say that that thing dislodges a certain space in our personalities.
Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print.)
Half a century after William James — one of Ortega’s greatest influences and philosophical progenitors — laid the groundwork of modern psychology with his statement “My experience is what I agree to attend to,” Ortega adds:
Nothing characterizes us as much as our field of attention… This formula might be accepted: tell me where your attention lies and I will tell you who you are.
“Falling in love,” initially, is no more than this: attention abnormally fastened upon another person. If the latter knows how to utilize his privileged situation and ingeniously nourishes that attention, the rest follows with irremissible mechanism.
Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Available as a print.
Paradoxically, the cultural narrative handed down to us by the Romantics postulates that love broadens and consecrates our awareness of life: Suddenly, everything is illuminated; suddenly, everything sings. Anyone who has ridden the intoxicating elation of early love has felt this, and yet Ortega intimates that this is an illusion of consciousness, masking the actual phenomenon at work, which is rather the opposite — everything is tinted with aspects of the beloved, blurring and tuning out the details that give the world its actuality. Ortega writes:
The person in love has the impression that the life of his consciousness is very rich. His reduced world is more concentrated. All of his psychic forces converge to act upon one single point, and this gives a false aspect of superlative intensity to his existence.
At the same time, that exclusiveness of attention endows the favored object with portentous qualities… By overwhelming an object with attention and concentrating on it, the consciousness endows it with an incomparable force of reality. It exists for us at every moment; it is ever present, there alongside us, more real than anything else. The remainder of the world must be sought out, by laboriously deflecting our attention from the beloved… The world does not exist for the lover. His beloved has dislodged and replaced it… Without a paralysis of consciousness and a reduction of our habitual world, we could never fall in love.
Art from the 19th-century French physics textbook Les phénomènes de la physique. (Available as a print.)
Long before cognitive scientists came to study what “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator” attention is as it frames our experience of reality by deliberate exclusion, Ortega writes:
Attention is the supreme instrument of personality; it is the apparatus which regulates our mental lives. When paralyzed, it does not leave us any freedom of movement. In order to save ourselves, we would have to reopen the field of our consciousness, and to achieve that it would be necessary to introduce other objects into its focus to rupture the beloved’s exclusiveness. If in the paroxysm of falling in love we could suddenly see the beloved in the normal perspective of our attention, her magic power would be destroyed. In order, however, to gain this perspective we would have to focus our attention upon other things, that is, we would have to emerge from our own consciousness, which is totally absorbed by the object that we love.
Nothing illustrates this contracting of the lens more clearly than the discomposing experience of emerging from the somnambulant state of in-loveness — an experience familiar to anyone who has ever surfaced from an infatuation or has deepened an infatuation into a clam and steady love. Ortega writes:
When we emerge from a period of falling in love we feel an impression similar to awakening and emerging form a narrow passage crammed with dreams. Then we realize that normal perspective is broader and airier, and we become aware of all the hermeticism and rarefaction from which our impassioned minds suffered. For a time we experience the moments of vacillation, weakness, and melancholy of convalescence.
One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.
But despite its potential pitfalls, love remains at once the most interior and the most influential experience of our personhood. In a sentiment evocative of that exquisite line from The Little Prince — “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Ortega considers how love, so invisible yet so essential a feature of our humanity, polishes the lens of our entire worldview:
The things which are important lie behind the things that are apparent.
Probably, there is only one other theme more inward than love: that which may be called “metaphysical sentiment,” or the essential, ultimate, and basic impression which we have of the universe. This acts as a foundation and support for our other activities, whatever they may be. No one lives without it, although its degree of clarity varies from person to person. It encompasses our primary, decisive attitude toward all of reality, the pleasure which the world and life hold for us. Our other feelings, thoughts, and desires are activated by this primary attitude and are sustained and colored by it. Of necessity, the complexion of our love affairs is one of the most telling symptoms of this primogenital sensation. By observing our neighbor in love we are able to deduce his vision or goal in life. And this is the most interesting thing to ascertain: not anecdotes about his existence, but the card upon which he stakes his life.
Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being
And yet our culture has a peculiar willful blindness to how love shapes life and the particular expression of aliveness that is our creative work — a peculiar denial of the elemental fact that because we love with everything we are, our loves imprint everything we make. (I wrote Figuring in large part as an antidote to this dangerous delusion, exploring how the loves at the center of great lives shaped the way in which those persons of genius in turn shaped our understanding of the world with their scientific and artistic work.) Ortega shares in this distaste for the cultural diminishment of love as a driving force of creative work. Observing that many persons extraordinary creative power have tended to take their loves “more seriously than their work” — the very work for which they are celebrated as geniuses, and a choice for which they have suffered derision by their contemporaries and by posterity — he admonishes against this common cultural judgment:
It is curious that only those incapable of producing great work believe that the contrary is the proper conduct: to take science, art, or politics seriously and disdain love affairs as mere frivolities.
Crochet mural by street artist NaomiRAG, Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Photograph by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)
A century and a half after astronomer Maria Mitchell — a key figure in Figuring — observed that “whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” Ortega laments:
We do not take into sufficient consideration the enormous influence which our loves exercise upon our lives.
But while love reveals who we are, it also shapes who we are, sculpting our character and tinting our personality. The century of psychology developed since Ortega’s epoch has illuminated just how much “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” Ortega intuits this transformative power of love and, in consonance with Kurt Vonnegut’s theory that you can be in love up to three times in life, he writes:
A personality experiences in the course of its life two or three great transformations, which are like different stages of the same moral trajectory… Our innermost being seems, in each of these two or three phases, to rotate a few degrees upon its axis, to shift toward another quadrant of the universe and to orient itself toward new constellations.
Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print.)
Complement these fragments from Ortega’s intensely insightful On Love with Adrienne Rich on how relationships refine our truths, James Baldwin on love and the illusion of choice, and Esther Perel on our greatest misconception about love, then revisit what remains my favorite meditation on the subject from centuries of literature and philosophy: Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss.
“The secret of success,” Jackson Pollock’s father wrote to the teenage artist-to-be in his wonderful letter of life-advice, “is to be fully awake to everything about you.” Few things beckon our attention and awaken us to life more compellingly than color. “Our lives, when we pay attention to light, compel us to empathy with color,” Ellen Meloy wrote in her exquisite meditation on the chemistry, culture, and the conscience of color. And why else live if not to pay attention to the changing light?
In Darling Baby (public library), artist Maira Kalman, a poet of chromatic tenderness, composes an uncommon ode to aliveness, to the vibrant beauty of life, life that is very new and life that is very old.
As she teaches the baby to look at this color, this shape, this quality of light, we see the grownup relearn to see with those baby-eyes that are awake to the luminous everythingness of everything, undulled by the accumulation of filters we call growing up. What emerges is a celebration of attention as affirmation of aliveness, a vibrant testament to Simone Weil’s exquisite observation that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Page after painted page, a generous presence unfolds — presence with the new life of this small helpless observer of the world, presence with the ancient life of sky and sea.
There are people dancing and geese swimming in formation and “a thousand tiny silver fish” jumping over the water in an arc and a lightning-sliced night and a full Moon reflected in the gentle blue ripples and “a tree filled with yellow sparkly stars.”
Perfectly, it all takes place on the edge of the ocean — that singular place of existential reckoning, the perfect stage for Kalman’s classic dual serenade to life and death, to the mortal as the precious crucible of wonder.
One day, a summer party celebrates the baby’s birth “and everyone’s birthday with cheery cherry pie,” which a man takes home in his hat. “Everyone is born. That is true.” Another day, the grownup protagonist stumbles upon the still cool body of a “a big mossy-green turtle,” washed up from the ocean of life — a subtle, poignant intimation that everybody dies, too.
She tells the baby:
The water carried the turtle out to sea to be buried in the vast ocean. I think that is a good thing. At any rate, it is a thing.
I am telling you this because I know you will understand.
Throughout the story, there are echoes of Kalman’s love of dogs, echoes of her love of walking, echoes of her love of dance and her lovely American Utopia collaboration with David Byrne.
And all throughout, that wondrous overtone of Kalman’s irrepressible love of life.
Complement Darling Baby with an Italian illustrated ode to the science and strange splendors of pregnancy, then revisit Kalman’s tender painted love letter to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s love.
She has mounted fifty pounds of photography equipment on her bicycle and is pedaling along the shore to the Staten Island ferry, headed for Manhattan. Photography is only a generation old and Alice Austen (March 17, 1866–June 9, 1952) is twenty-nine. She is about to take photographs of the proper technique for mounting, dismounting, riding, and carrying a bicycle for her friend Maria’s trailblazing manifesto-manual for cycling, inciting Victorian women to embrace the spoked engine of emancipation: “You are at all times independent. This absolute freedom of the cyclist can be known only to the initiated.”
Illustration from Bicycling for Ladies based on Alice Austen’s photographs. Available as a print and as a face mask.
Alice — artist, athlete, banjo player, sailor, founder of the Staten Island Garden Club, the first woman to own a car in the borough — has come as close to absolute freedom as a woman of her era could come, transcending the narrow roadways of her time with her wheels, her lens, and her love.
Alice Austen and her bicycle, circa 1897. (Alice Austen House archive.)
As the ferry traverses the East River, Alice is watching the Statue of Liberty rise imperturbable over Ellis Island, where has just photographed people at New York Harbor’s immigrant quarantine stations — something she did every year for a decade, returning to that crucible of humility and hope to document those tender and terrifying moments when lives are begun afresh with little more than wordless daring and a fragile dream.
Soldiers at the Statue of Liberty docks, August 1887. (Alice Austen House archive.)
As a girl, abandoned by her father before her birth and raised by her mother in a cottage by an enormous sycamore rising strong despite the blackened interior hollowed out by lightning, Alice had watched Lady Liberty being built, part emblem and part promise. The statue was dedicated the year Emily Dickinson died and Alice turned ten — the year her uncle, a sea-captain, gave her a dry-plate camera from England as a birthday present.
Alice Austen. Self-portrait, age nineteen. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Turning a closet into a darkroom, Alice proceeded to teach herself the art of photography, taking meticulous process notes to refine her technique. Not yet out of her teens and already one of the most accomplished photographers in America, she ventured out into world to document its vibrant life, dedicating hers to her art. In an era when almost no women practiced photography — an activity both intensely physical and intensely delicate, given the size, weight, and fragility of early cameras and glass plates — she became the first American woman known to work outside the studio, creating what we now know as street photography.
Young bicycle messenger, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Riding the Manhattan-bound ferry that day in her youth, Alice didn’t yet know — for we never know these things — that she was soon to meet the love of her life.
Formal seated portrait of Alice Austen by Dunn Portrait Studios of New Brunswick, New Jersey, June 30, 1887. (Alice Austen House archive.)
In the final months of the nineteenth century, Alice Austen took a summer vacation in the Catskill Mountains, where she met Gertrude Tate, six years her junior — a vivacious dance instructor and kindergarten teacher from Brooklyn, who wore a wig over her buzz-cut hair and with whom Alice would spend the remaining fifty-three years of her life.
Gertrude Tate dancing in the sun in 1899, the summer she and Alice met in the Catskills. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Gertrude Tate. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Gertrude with and without wig, Catskill Mountains, 1899. (Alice Austen House archive.)
So began the other great Gertrude-and-Alice love story — far less fabled than the one of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas a generation later, but also one in which two people, joined together, become themselves.”
Over her long life, Alice Austen took more than 8,000 photographs, turning her sensitive and daring lens toward the lives of immigrants, child laborers, New York “street types,” and people for whom Victorian culture had neither terms nor tenderness and whom we might call LGBT today.
Alice Austen’s friend Maria Ward, who went by Violet, with partner, circa 1890. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Emerging from her photographs is a lovely testament to Frederick Douglass’s faith in early photography as an instrument of social justice, bridging the ideal and the real.
Trude & I, 1890s. (Alice Austen Photograph Collection, Staten Island Historical Society.)
Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and self dressed up, sitting down, 1891. (Alice Austen Photograph Collection, Staten Island Historical Society.)
The Darned Club, 1891. (Alice Austen Photograph Collection, Staten Island Historical Society.)
Group Apparatus, 1893. (Alice Austen Photograph Collection, Staten Island Historical Society.)
A generation before Berenice Abbott, another trailblazing lesbian photographer, created her iconic series Changing New York, Alice Austen captured the changing face of the city — this ever-changing emblem of a city — during its most rapid period of transformation as modernity was finding its sea legs and America was becoming America.
Postman collecting the day’s mail at 56th Street and Madison Avenue, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Newsboy at Grand Central Depot, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Organ-grinder with wife at 48th Street and Broadway, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Street-cleaner at 34th Street, New York City, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Two working children at City Hall Park, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Alice was flung into financial struggle. By the end of WWII, she and Gertrude were evicted from the home they had shared for three decades and thrust into the hands of their respective extended families, none of whom approved of their lifelong relationship. Without means and without options, they were separated. Gertrude was taken to Queens. At eighty, Alice ended up at the Staten Island Farm Colony — the euphemistic name for the local poorhouse. Gertrude, who continued teaching dance well into her seventies, visited weekly.
Alice (seated) and Gertrude in their late years. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Like Vivian Maier — another visionary photographer who also captured the street life of the city and who also, by the scant surviving evidence, was very probably queer — Alice Austen lived out her life without artistic recognition. Like Maier’s work, Austen’s was brought to light by a man who chanced upon it and knew he had chanced upon greatness. Unlike Maier, Austen was still alive.
In 1950, while working on his book The Revolt of American Women, Oliver Jensen — a thirty-six-year-old former Life magazine editor and writer — discovered 3,500 of Alice’s glass-plate negatives in the basement of the Staten Island Historical Society and was instantly taken with their uncommon genius. Leafing through phone books, he was staggered to realize that Alice was still alive, then doubly staggered to learn that she was living at a poorhouse.
Drawing on his magazine connections, he secured publication of Alice’s work in Life, which raised enough funds to migrate her to a nursing home. He then built on the initial visibility to organize an exhibition of her work at a local museum in 1951 — the first and only in her lifetime. When the show opened on October 7, now celebrated as Alice Austen Day, Alice was there with Gertrude by her side.
A friend’s young sons in what Alice called her “express wagon,” May 1889. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Six women, Staten Island, 1895. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Shortly after the opening, Alice suffered a stroke. By spring, she was dead. Gertrude survived her by a decade, living to ninety. The couple had expressly wished to be buried together — a wish Gertrude’s family bluntly refused in one final act of assault on their lifelong devotion.
Alice and Gertrude, early 1900s. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Today, the Staten Island home the couple shared for most of their life, the cottage in which Alice grew up and mastered her art, survives as Alice Austen House — part museum and part memorial, celebrating Alice’s trailblazing art and the totality of being from which it sprang, including her lush love for Gertrude. The sycamore tree — one of the sylvan marvels in Benjamin Swett’s wonderful book New York City of Trees (public library), from which I first learned of Alice Austen’s story — still rises by the house, still charred and hollowed, still growing and lush with life.