How to Love Something That Is Bad

Asher White
BFA SC 2022

You have to remove all of the furniture from your room—your mattress, your bed frame, your desk, your bookshelf—if you decide that the cheap, faux-distressed Walmart rug is in the wrong spot by even an eight-inch margin. It’s an exhausting and self-defeating task, especially in the summer heat, especially before you’ve installed an air conditioner. But for your first few weeks in your new apartment, you won’t rest until it all clicks into place. Unless you are legitimately knowledgeable about feng shui or watch a lot of HGTV, designing a dual work/home space is a dark art of trial and error. It’s a balance between logic and intuition: maximizing space and productivity while retaining warmth and comfort.

The artist and writer Etel Adnan, who passed away at 96 towards the end of last year, had two desks in her home studio. In the introduction to the late-career retrospective catalogue Weight of the World, critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie writes:

“In the Paris apartment where she lives and works, in a room at the back that she uses for her studio, Etel Adnan keeps two separate desks pushed slightly apart. One desk is for painting, strewn neatly with brushes, palette knives, tins filled with tubes of paint, various trinkets, and a stray roll of toilet paper. The other desk is for writing, and sometimes for drawing, scattered with pencils, inkpots, and charcoals. Both desks are wooden. Each surface is considerably worn, the varnish nicked and scratched and lovingly rubbed away.”

This arrangement is of much note to Wilson-Goldie, who later chides an exhibition’s recreation of Adnan’s studio for erroneously including only a single desk: “It was wrong: there was only one desk. The spatial arrangement of her studio says a great deal about who Adnan is as a person, and goes a considerable distance in explaining how the many different facets of her practice fit together.” Indeed, Adnan’s work was defined by simultaneity and multiplicity both in form and content. She had two delineated practices—writing and painting, the first often fiery and explicitly political, and the second “given wholly to beauty.” Her two desks reflected this duality functionally and symbolically.

I first knew of Adnan solely as a painter whose landscapes were rendered with unmistakable serenity and ease. Her visions of California and Lebanon are elemental, open, and meditative—simply stunning, and looking at them instantly lowers your blood pressure. When she took up painting in her 30s, she had already been an established writer for quite some time. I was less familiar with her literature, so I took the news of her passing as an opportunity to revisit much of her career’s work.

I was kind of shocked. Her writing, which ranges from poetry to journalism to novel to letter, is preoccupied mostly with societal collapse and chaos. Her narrative fiction, like her most famous novel Sitt Marie Rose, frequently interrogates war, masculinity, exile, complacency, terror. Was this the same Etel Adnan I knew? How could such blissed-out, seemingly carefree abstraction coexist with such unflinching depictions of brutality? How could she spend her days in front of a small canvas, tenderly washing the sky in lavendar—meanwhile, at her second desk only a few feet away, manuscripts thrummed with inferno, imprisonment, rape, nuclear war? How could she turn her back from this carnage to trace another Californian peak? Or, conversely: How could she abandon the sanctuary of abstract painting to immerse herself in such suffering?

Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2017. Oil on canvas, 13 x 9 ½ inches.

Among Adnan’s writings, the one that has most moved me, that has felt most revelatory, is a later work called Paris, When It’s Naked. This short, stream-of-consciousness memoir follows Adnan as she wanders around a rainy Paris, flipping through magazines, watching pigeons, visiting cafés, setting out cheese plates, getting bored by her friends. All the while, she is unable to shake from her head the emergent civil war in Algeria, riots and unrest in Egypt, instability in Iraq, the continuous persecution of North African immigrants in Europe—all of which are directly or indirectly tied to France’s lingering colonial power, a fact that Adnan unceasingly wrestles with throughout. This awareness informs, but does not override, her enjoyment of the city. As she sits in an alley café to relax and “smell fried eggs, beer and lemonade, absorb the smoke of the clients, read a stuffy paper like Le Monde,” she concludes: “a sandstorm in the Sahara throws its grains into my eyes. A political prisoner in Syria begs for my attention. I can bring him no water, no consolation. This is all part of my living here, while the bells of Saint-Sulpice unleash their call.”

Implausibly, Paris, When It’s Naked functions as a sincere, whole-hearted love letter that is inspired largely by the writer’s horror and anxiety over its subject’s existence. It is a complicated and contradictory romance. Adnan attacks Paris’s smug complacency, its mindless absorption and appropriation of other cultures, its Islamophobia, its refusal to fully “face South”; meanwhile, she strolls leisurely through her beloved city, remarking on the weather (it rains a lot in Paris, and rain, in Paris, is very beautiful) and the architecture (its avenues are carved with majestic silence and “delirious freedom”). Finding herself following the choreography of the carefree and comfortable—at one point, she bemoans that the boy who delivers her wine has gotten her order wrong again—Adnan also writes of the city’s allure as a foreign, destructive, and irresistible vice: “If Paris were a deadly poison, I would have gladly drunk a big portion, and silence my life. But this is a daily poison, minute drops of arsenic, a distilled evil, a passionate addiction. I am adhesive tape on Paris’ skin.”

Adnan’s identity, and the degree of security it afforded her, likely varied dramatically depending on the year or country she was in at any given moment. At various points throughout her life she identified herself as an Arab, an Arab-American, or sometimes just an American poet. But in her personal writing, she was constantly probing her Arabness in relation to her Frenchness or her Americanness. Over the same fifteen years, she watched her home country ravaged by war and became a celebrated cultural critic; needless to say, she intimately knew the coexistence of stability and crisis, of progress and destruction.

In an essay included in An Etel Adnan Reader, Ammiel Alcalay points out that while Paris, When It’s Naked rallies against the racism and xenophobia of its titular city...

“Adnan never assumes the role of victim. Her gaze penetrates the cityscape, the objects and people inhabiting it, but never at the cost of sparing herself, of abdicating responsibility. … She roams the sites that had been projected onto the now-distant but ever-present soil of Lebanon, implanted with her language, in order to interrogate herself through those very signs, cultural icons and ways of life that once stood for both total liberation and defeat. But the relations are never simple, for this amalgam of the “implanted” has formed the deepest recesses of her being. … Adnan does not simply refer to aspects of a place. … rather, she partakes in and of them.”

In Paris, When It’s Naked, Adnan is riddled with guilt as she enjoys the spoils of her city in all of its sumptuous melancholy. But importantly, her guilt does not not stop her from embedding herself in such a fraught place. Instead, the insurmountable weight of the injustice and the minutiae of life are held in equal measure. With incredible candor, Adnan darts compulsively between tiny, trivial concerns (“My rice will burn if I don’t check on it”) and fiercely political assertions (“Algeria, like veiled women, haunts France''). The toggling in such quick succession can be jarring. But it’s this unsettling quality that gives the writing its power: it’s a reminder of the unending simultaneity of the petty and the perilous, of the quotidian and the traumatic.

Such duality is a guarantee of life, but it seems to have come into especially sharp relief for those of us living in America over the past decade or so. Our ability to recognize and speak out against injustice has boomed, as has our understanding that this injustice is in no way remote from us, and in fact implicates us as citizens. For the first time, white Americans are beginning to understand the scale and severity of our violent colonial project; finally, the idea that this country is founded on unspeakable evil seems to be gaining legitimate mainstream recognition as liberal political discourse catches up with centuries of horror.

As a result, those of us that are, to any extent, enjoying the fruits of this country’s misdeeds or investing in its promises—choosing to attend an elite institution, purchasing fast fashion, using Apple products, etc.—have begun to feel a growing sense of disorientation. How can we so blatantly take part in the things we condemn? What does it mean to find momentary pleasure in the same system responsible for such long-standing suffering? How can we permit ourselves to do things whose origins and ethics we find inexcusable? We must ask ourselves such questions with every McDonald’s french fry, with every visit to New York.


It’s been a big couple of years for Braiding Sweetgrass. Despite having been originally published in 2013, the 400-page collection of teachings has suddenly and magnificently sprung up in Zoom backgrounds and gentrified-neighborhood bookstores alike, the endless braid pictured on its stately cover wrapping around the nation like a human chain. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s meditations on North American botany and its intrinsic linkage to spirituality has become outrageously popular and almost unanimously celebrated. Part memoir, part textbook, part lyrical paean to the Earth, Braiding Sweetgrass interweaves (braids?) two typically disparate schools of thought: contemporary scientific research and indigenous tradition. In doing so, the book, while clear-sighted and sober, has a utopian quality; hopeful, urgent, and galvanizing. It’s also incredibly soothing to read Kimmerer write about phosphate molecules in such warm prose.

How is it that this book was pretty much overlooked for its first seven years? In the updated edition, published in October 2020, Kimmerer herself notes its latent discovery by reflecting on what’s changed since its conception:

“I began writing Braiding Sweetgrass in what seems, from this moment in the midst of a global pandemic and the upheavals it has generated, a more innocent time … we could smell smoke but our home was not yet engulfed in flames. A long-lived overstory can dominate the forest for generations … but eventually, the old forest is disrupted and replaced by the understory, by the buried seedback that has been readying itself for this moment of transformation and renewal. Braiding Sweetgrass, I hope, is part of that understory, seeded by so many thinkers and doers, filling the seedback with diverse species, so that when the canopy falls, as it surely will, a new world is already rising.”

It’s easy to attribute a sudden desperation for the reassurance of natural healing to the pandemic, but Braiding Sweetgrass debuted on the New York Times Bestseller list in early February 2020, a month before lockdowns hit the U.S. As Kimmerer herself seems to suggest, the book’s delayed popularity might have had more to do with the year’s political climate than its public health.

Braiding Sweetgrass’s readership picked up at a moment in America when we felt apocalyptically uncertain about the fate of our nation. What the book so optimistically offers—particularly in a way that is palatable to white people and liberals—is a way forward that does not focus on the destruction of a state but rather coexistence with a forgotten one. It acknowledges (and never absolves) the country’s ills while envisioning a way to overlay them with sacredness. It asks us to look closer and look differently, rethink our sense of place.

In Paris, When It's Naked, Adnan writes: “Paris is beautiful … but in that word beautiful there are centuries of lives, of wars, of work, of faith, of death. When I walk in this city … I lose myself in contemplation, I experience ecstasy, an ecstasy which I know to be also a defeat.” Braiding Sweetgrass, which reaches ecstasy through its sincere mourning, scholarship (a rare feat), and themes of renewal, speaks to a similar sense of fraughtness. Its popularity suggests we are experiencing a crisis like Adnan’s, willfully inhabiting a space we know to be unjust. As our collective awareness of this country’s murderous history increases, so too does our sense of defeat and dread at its crushing immensity.

A few weeks ago I entered a small bookstore and found that the majority of entries on the “National Bestsellers” wall had something to do with reappraising the land of America. At eye-level was Braiding Sweetgrass; elsewhere was Graceland: At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache from the American South by Margaret Renkl, or Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard. Salves for the seemingly terminal illness of America, recent books on mycology, adaptive ecologies, “intuitive navigation,” “queering space,” etc. promise a clear directive in what is otherwise a massive geographical identity crisis.

Unknown, meme, 2019.

The geographical identity crisis is surfacing here at RISD in our art. In the Sculpture department, many of my peers (myself included) make work grappling with our immediate space, focusing on “the land” in oblique and abstract ways. Hoping to either look past or undermine the country’s colonial history, our work often hesitantly and noncommittally comments on water, ecosystems, plantlife, infrastructure; pieces in Textiles, Furniture, Illustration, and Printmaking incorporate icons and symbols of a natural, pre-colonial landscape. Are we aching to rekindle an “intuitive” relationship with the land, one both removed from Our Modern World and a consequence of it? It’s hard not to see the current ecology zeitgeist here as a cry of disillusionment with the late capitalist industrial hellscape we partake in.

What does it mean to put a land acknowledgement on your Cargo Collective artist website? This is not a call-out or a condemnation. I’m not interested in dismissing it simply as hypocritical—instead, I’d rather sympathize with its hypocrisy, linger for a moment in its uncomfortable contradictions. After all, it’s Adnan’s hypocrisy that gives Paris, When It’s Naked its messy, exuberant beauty. The Cargo Collective Land Acknowledgement is an artifact of our time, when our disgust with the game coincides with our lingering desire to win it; when we are lucid enough to chip at the veneer of our indoctrination but unwilling to strip it entirely. It’s a token of this type of tragic simultaneity, and a sincere moment of reckoning with the knotty and confounding material of citizenship.

This is what makes Paris, When It’s Naked so profound and resonant today: it speaks honestly to the experience of living comfortably in the time of—and often as a result of—tremendous and unthinkable horror. It is a manifesto for the irreconcilable experience of living well in a place that is deeply unwell. How do we love a problematic place? The easy answer is that we don’t, but it’s an answer that fails to address the generations of legitimately revolutionary activists who once did attempt to love their country.

“Paris, When It’s Naked is the testimony of a lover whose conscience is stricken, whose awareness has been pierced by the fruit of other knowledge and experience. The lover is Adnan herself, the object of her desire is Paris and the forbidden fruits are her past and present allegiances,” writes Alcalay. This is the adulterous affair of anyone swaddled in the arms of an imperial state.

Radical thought would assert that we in fact should relinquish our illicit love affair and excise these challenging things from our lives, and this is certainly worth attempting. But there will be inevitable exceptions and oversights. After we have tried to scrub ourselves of moral impurity, what do we do with the residue? None of us will completely achieve the politically righteous life (if you’re reading this copy of v.1, you probably still have some scrubbing to do), and it’s worth examining the parts of ourselves that we’re not proud of but can’t quite destroy. Consider Joseph Beuys: “A lifetime is not so long, you cannot wait for a tool without blood on it.”

Many of us are embroiled in institutions despite our anti-institutional politics, or residing in a colonial country despite our anti-colonial politics. We justify these choices with a belief in Hegelian progress—that we can work to better the system through our engagement with it. And this means both complicity and protest, both enjoyment and despair, both trivial concerns and vital emergencies. It means looking at an institution or country or city when it’s naked: with eyes both powerful and vulnerable.

A close friend recently wrote an email to me about patriotism and included a quote by James Baldwin: "Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover's war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real." But love is disobedient, dangerous, and often irrational. We are saddles with a frightening responsibility: it is up to our discretion as to when we stick to our principles and when we defer to our sentimental attachments.


Poet (and well-documented Adnan fan) Kazim Ali writes, “No city is ‘real’; each is only a collection of expectations generated by the people who come to it.” He is writing of the fluidity of place, its fickleness, its irrationality, reminding us that our knowledge of a place is contingent on our position relative to it. When we leave, we ask: “Is what we’ve left behind as real as we think?” In other words, do our homes truly exist as we believe them to? Or are those places only projections, only expectations? “It’s a heartbreaking question—how long do you keep alive the dream of returning home?” he writes.

The heartbreak of this question is something every Jew has felt upon learning that the Israel we have learned is not the Israel that exists or has ever existed, that the homeland we have been taught to love is, in reality, a force of immeasurable violence and destruction; a heartbreak that deepens with every new headline detailing the atrocities of the Israeli state; a heartbreak worsened by its inextricability from shame.

It is the same heartbreak that every American progressive has felt upon learning that the country we have strived for has never been—and may never be—actualized; a heartbreak that this generation of white Americans woke up to in the fall of 2014 as the Ferguson protests made national news; a heartbreak that we often stave off by insisting that we are better off now than we were fifty years ago.

It is a heartbreak that, in order for us to understand, we have to acknowledge both the heart and the break: the dream and its irreality, the intent and its impact. Etel Adnan’s understanding of place allowed for radical contradiction, instability, and incompleteness; we learn this too from Ali, Stein, Kimmerer, Baldwin: to dwell presently in a place is to know, intimately, its unforgivable sins and accidental grace. To live in a city is to both adopt and reinterpret its history just as to enter a room is to both follow and refuse the commands of its architecture. Seeing its surpluses and its absences. Its rigidity and flexibility. Leaving it, then returning to it. Imagining it, then looking at it, then imagining it again. Constantly renegotiating its space, rearranging its layout. Moving the furniture. Why is this shelf here? Does it need to be this high? Do I even like this rug? Perhaps the desk should be against this wall, or maybe against this one. Or maybe there shouldn’t be a desk at all. Or maybe there should be two.

Asher White loves IKEA with almost all of her heart.