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This Week's Reading

Staff Picks: Dimensions, Defacements, Darkness

October 24, 2014 | by

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Mike Kelley, Reconstructed History, 1989, ink and collage on paper, framed, in fifty parts, 11" x 8.5" each. © The Estate of Mike Kelley/Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts

It is strangely relaxing to visit Frankfurt during the book fair, if you’re not in the book business. While actual publishers were staying out late, and getting up early, and speed-reading manuscripts on their phones, I got to visit Lucy Raven’s 3-D film installation, “Curtains,” at Portikus gallery, confirming my own suspicion that I do not, in fact, see in 3-D. (Everything was flat and red—or flat and blue if I squinted.) I also got to read the first three books of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. It was my third attempt on Powell’s twelve-volume comedy of manners, and I could see what defeated me before—the fake-Proustian “philosophizing,” the unparsable sentences and cavalier grammar, the complete lack of believable erotic feeling, the endless talk about characters who never rise above caricature. The whole thing is amateurish in a way that only English novels like to be. And yet Powell has a genius for physical space. He can seat an entire dinner party so you remember who’s sitting where, or show four friends walking down the street in such a way that you can tell, at all times, who’s walking next to whom. It’s magic. His characters may be strictly 2-D, but you always know where they are. —Lorin Stein

Last week I went to a show at Skarstedt Gallery to see a show of work by the late Mike Kelley. Kelley was a genius of an artist; to my mind, he is a genius of an artist, even though, of course, we will get no more new work from him. That present tense may be partly due to the fact that since his death, I’ve seen art by him that I hadn’t previously seen—like the installation at Skarstedt, which comprised fifty small, framed illustrations torn from American history textbooks and defaced by Kelley. The doodles are lewd and juvenile—he has Alexander Hamilton making a pass at George Washington and a signatory barfing on the Declaration of Independence—graffiti appropriate to the bored teenagers who likely suffered through the books. It’s a smart, astute work and very funny (a combination no artist does better than Kelley), but what really got me was the wall text, which was taken from Kelley’s introduction to a book of these images, published in 1990. This too-sober text turns an idealized view of American history and patriotism on its head: “Such childish resentment is the cause of the defacements presented here. The inability to accept their lower position in the order of things provokes these ‘artists’ to drag back to the surface garbage long buried–to sully, vandalize, and render inoperable our pictures of health,” he writes, adding, “Not that such a tactic is always bad.” —Nicole Rudick

“‘I get really affected by bestiality with children,’ she says … ‘I have to stop for a moment and loosen up, maybe go to Starbucks and have a coffee.’ She laughs at the absurd juxtaposition of a horrific sex crime and an overpriced latte.” That’s Adrien Chen in the latest issue of Wired, looking at the vast labor force (“well over 100,000”) devoted to “content moderation,” the purgation of offensive material from our social networks. If you’ve ever wondered why your YouTube experience never shades into sadism or pornography, you have content moderators to thank. Our demand for a whitewashed Internet—an uncontaminated “content stream”—comes at a steep human cost. Imagine if it were your full-time job to watch pornography, beheadings, torture, hate: the whole gamut of id and primeval desire, eight hours a day, forty hours a week. As Chen describes them, these laborers—that seems to me the only word for them, even if they’re handsomely remunerated—are at once desensitized and permanently scarred; he’s not overstating things when he writes that they’ve been “staring into the heart of human darkness.” One wants to cry foul here: Is it really necessary to expose so many people to such constant atrocity? Chen’s reporting presents a Gordian knot of ethics and exploitation. —Dan Piepenbring
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Quote Unquote

Berryman and Yeats Light Up

October 24, 2014 | by

Tomorrow marks the centenary of John Berryman’s birth.

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Craven_a_virginia_s_20_h_white_red_with_a_cat_jamaicaI went in and asked for Mr. Yeats. Very much like asking, “Is Mr. Ben Jonson here?” And he came down. He was much taller than I expected, and haggard. Big, though, big head, rather wonderful looking in a sort of a blunt, patrician kind of way, but there was something shrunken also. He told me he was just recovering from an illness. He was very courteous, and we went in to tea. At a certain point, I had a cigarette, and I asked him if he would like one. To my great surprise he said yes. So I gave him a Craven “A” and then lit it for him, and I thought, Immortality is mine! From now on it's just a question of reaping the fruits of my effort. He did most of the talking. I asked him a few questions. He did not ask me any questions about myself, although he was extremely courteous and very kind. At one point he said, “I have reached the age when my daughter can beat me at croquet,” and I thought, Hurrah, he's human! I made notes on the interview afterward, which I have probably lost. One comment in particular I remember. He said, “I never revise now”—you know how much he revised his stuff—“but in the interests of a more passionate syntax.” Now that struck me as a very good remark. I have no idea what it meant and still don't know, but the longer I think about it, the better I like it. He recommended various books to me by his friend, the liar, Gogarty, and I forget who else. The main thing was just the presence and existence of my hero.

—John Berryman, The Art of Poetry No. 16, 1972

 

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An ad for Berryman‘s books from our Winter 1972 issue, in which his Art of Poetry interview appeared.

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Arts & Culture

Why This Grown-up Reads YA

October 24, 2014 | by

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When I was a senior in high school, I took a class on Freud in which we read Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, published not so many years earlier in 1982. Gilligan traced the history of the way in which a female mode of thinking, especially about moral dilemmas, had been diminished and misunderstood by psychologists—not just by Freud, but by others like Lawrence Kohlberg, well-known for his theories of moral development. In answer to an ethical question—Should a man steal drugs for his sick wife?—Kohlberg had found girls to be less developmentally mature than boys, as the girls were unable to respond with a simple no. But Gilligan, a clinical psychologist and researcher, suggested an alternate way of looking at how girls reason, morally or otherwise, that had to do with a much more nuanced understanding about the network of the connections girls felt between themselves and others. As Gilligan describes it, girls saw “in the dilemma not a math problem with humans but a narrative of relationships that extends over time.”

The effect In a Different Voice had on me was shattering in the best way: I felt that someone had finally recognized and articulated my predicament as a teenage girl. An old, black-and-white way of thinking—the kind I was at that moment trying to shoehorn myself into at my boarding school, which had only recently become coed—was being put to question. The gender ratio at my school was kept to one-third girls, two-thirds boys, so the girls wouldn’t “overwhelm” the boys, or so I was told. Urinals stood sentinel in our bathrooms, as if waiting until the whole thing went back to the boys. We even wore boy’s clothes—preferably our fathers’ or boyfriends’. It was mens sana in corpore sano all the way, but it was the boys’ corpora everyone was trying to emulate. Read More »

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Our Daily Correspondent

Once and Future

October 24, 2014 | by

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T. H. White. Photo: Burns Library, Boston College

Perhaps you’ve read Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories, or the volumes of poetry she wrote (some with her partner, Valentine Ackland). Lolly Willowes, her best-known work, is a sly novel about a spinster who takes up witchcraft, and well worth seeking out. But my favorite, and the one that’s been on my mind lately, is her 1967 biography of T. H. White, a small masterpiece of humanity.

White, born in 1906 and known to his friends as Tim, was the author of the Arthurian epic The Once and Future King and a number of successful sci-fi titles. A former teacher, he was prone to passionate enthusiasms—falconry, snakes, plans—and wrote a memoir about his experience training a goshawk. Townsend Warner captures his boundless excitement about these things, his humor, his kindness. But more than anything, this is a portrait of loneliness. White had no known relationships with men or women. Townsend Warner speculates that White was “a homosexual and a sado-masochist,” although others disagree on the question of his sexuality. In any case, he was profoundly alone; Townsend Warner wrote, “Notably free from fearing God, he was basically afraid of the human race.”

He did love his dog, an Irish Setter called Brownie. Townsend Warner writes extensively about his bond with Brownie, the love he could not express in other facets of his life. Upon Brownie’s unexpected death, he wrote the following heartbreaking letter to his friend David “Bunny” Garnett, presented in its entirety on the Futility Closet blog. Read this only if you are feeling emotionally tough: Read More »

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On the Shelf

Miss Subways Reunite, and Other News

October 24, 2014 | by

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A Miss Subways ad from 1941.

  • From 1941 to 1976, a group called the New York Subways Advertising Company held regular contests to find Miss Subways, a woman who would appear in glamour shots on posters underground. Twenty-five Miss Subways held a reunion recently. “I thought this would be a springboard for my career, but, instead, I got married when I was twenty-one and had my son before I was twenty-two.”
  • On the eighteenth-century Irish writer Laetitia Pilkington, who “is recognizable as a type that still confounds many people today: an ambitious and righteously angry woman who refused to lose her sense of humor. And she used both her anger and her humor in her writing to spin gold out of the indignities and misfortunes—some of them of her own creation—that followed her all her life.”
  • “I firmly believe that art is a resistance machine. I want poetry to give hardcore thigh burn. As Frost said, no thigh burn for the writer, no thigh burn for the reader. I want to get to that place of cold neutrality where almost anything could work in poetry, though always somewhere obliquely remembering, it’s not all just up for grabs.” Dorothea Lasky and Adam Fitzgerald talk.
  • Is transrealism “the first major literary movement of the twenty-first century”? “Transrealism argues for an approach to writing novels routed first and foremost in reality. It rejects artificial constructs like plot and archetypal characters in favor of real events and people, drawn directly from the author’s experience. But through this realist tapestry, the author threads a singular, impossibly fantastic idea, often one drawn from the playbook of science fiction, fantasy and horror … ”
  • Today in exceedingly, affectingly contemporary displays of loneliness: “A twenty-six-year-old woman from Chengdu, in China’s southwest Sichuan Province, has taken an unusual approach to mending her broken heart: spending a week inside Kentucky Fried Chicken, gorging on the food.”

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Arts & Culture

All the News Not Fit to Print

October 23, 2014 | by

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“Sounds as if they emptied the back room at Elaine’s for this one.” —Calvin Trillin, in 1978, speculating on the character of those behind Not the New York Times.

The New York Times has seen surprisingly few interruptions in its 163-year history. The paper took five holidays in the early 1850s; a strike in 1962–3 led to nineteen days of silence; another, in 1965, caused four “joint” publication dates, which combined the Saturday and Sunday papers. And then there was 1978, when, from August 10 to November 4, a multiunion strike shuttered all three of New York City’s major newspapers. No editions of the Times were printed for a record-setting eighty-eight days.

Two and a half months into the ’78 strike, though—and thirty-six years ago today—New Yorkers awoke to find the Times unexpectedly back on newsstands, kind of. This was Not the New York Times, a one-off parody rife with satirical news stories, faux advertisements, and farcical editorials. Among the items on the front page were an exposé on an exotic new drug (“pronounced ko-kayne” and “generally ingested nasally”), a tedious seven-paragraph report written entirely in bureaucratese (“Carter Forestalls Efforts To Defuse Discord Policy”), and Mayor Koch’s recipe for chicken curry. There was a weather notice, too: “Mostly present today, still there tomorrow.”

The spoof, it turned out, was the brainchild of Paris Review founder George Plimpton and a handful of his friends, including Christopher Cerf, Tony Hendra, and Rusty Unger. Among those enlisted as “journalists” were Carl Bernstein, Nora Ephron, and Terry Southern—though none was exactly forthright about his or her contributions.

“I had nothing to do with this,” Cerf quipped. “I can give you a list of other people who weren’t involved as well. It’s also not true that we used the Plimptons’ apartment to put the paper together. I ought to know. I was there all week.” Plimpton himself was unavailable for comment—presumably tidying up after playing host to the editorial debauchery. (Incidentally, The Paris Review—also run out of Plimpton’s Seventy second Street apartment—failed to meet its deadlines that fall; the staff was forced to merge its final two issues into a single Fall-Winter edition.) Read More »

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