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Sound Off

July 31, 2014 | by

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The Cincinnati Public Library Card Catalog. Image via Retronaut

The other day, a friend sent me a link to a Reddit conversation: What common sounds from a hundred years ago are very rare or just plain don’t exist anymore? 

This, in turn, led us to the Museum of Endangered Sounds, which I highly recommend to anyone with a pair of headphones and a few hours to kill. Of course, we can’t even document some of them—the early-morning scuttle of coal, for instance, was probably too humble ever to rate a recording. I mean, how many of us have bothered to record the hiss of a radiator—and presumably that won’t be around forever. For that matter, someone ought to memorialize the rattle of a dead, incandescent bulb.

I must have had this in mind when I ran across this image on Retronaut. Because the sound of a card catalog—the squeak of the drawer, the slight ruffle of the stiff paper, the sliding noise as a card is pulled from the file—is almost certainly on the endangered list. (To say nothing of everything else in the picture.)

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Look

How to Win Friends and Influence People

July 31, 2014 | by

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Daniel Defoe, beloved in the pillory. Line engraving by James Charles Armytage, 1862

Before he wrote Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders—before he wrote any novels at all, actually—Daniel Defoe was a pamphleteer, fomenting controversy in the London of the early eighteenth century. On July 31, 1703, he landed himself in the pillory for seditious libel; he’d written an anonymous satire mocking the hostility toward Dissenters, suggesting that the whole lot of them should be killed. It didn’t take long for authorities to pin him as the author. Then they did what authorities do: fined him to the point of bankruptcy, threw him in prison, and subjected him to ritualized public humiliation.

Before his stint in the stocks began, Defoe managed to write and disseminate a poem, “Hymn to the Pillory.” Legend has it, however dubiously, that the public was so enamored of his verse that they came to greet him at the pillory with flowers, toasting his health instead of hurling stones at him.

Lesson learned: in the court of public opinion, nothing carries more weight than a well-timed poem. Bear this in mind next time you’re stoking the flames of religious unrest in your community.

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On Poetry

On the Slaughter

July 31, 2014 | by

A political poem’s ironic new life.

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Bialik at around age thirty.

ON THE SLAUGHTER

Heaven—have mercy.
If you hold a God
(to whom there’s a path
that I haven’t found), pray for me.
My heart has died.
There is no prayer on my lips.
My hope and strength are gone.
How long? How much longer?

Executioner, here’s my neck:
Slaughter! You’ve got the ax and the arm.
The world to me is a butcher-block—
we, whose numbers are small
it’s open season on our blood:
Crack a skull—let the blood
of infant and elder spurt on your chest,
and let it remain there forever, and ever.

If there’s justice—let it come now!
But if it should come after I’ve been
blotted out beneath the sky,
let its throne be cast down.
Let the heavens rot in evil everlasting,
and you, with your cruelty,
go in your iniquity
and live and bathe in your blood.

And cursed be he who cries out: Revenge!
Vengeance like this, for the blood of a child,
Satan has yet to devise.
Let the blood fill the abyss!
Let it pierce the blackest depths
and devour the darkness
and eat away and reach
the rotting foundations of the earth.

Political poems lead strange lives—they often wither on the vines of the events they’re tied to. Old news gives way to new, and the whole undertaking starts to seem, well, an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. For many and maybe most American readers, “poetry and politics just don’t mix.”

But sometimes they do. Quite violently.

On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped while hitchhiking home together from their West Bank yeshivas. They were murdered—most likely within hours of being taken—and, eighteen days later, after an extensive search, their bodies were discovered under some rocks in a field near Hebron. Israel mourned, and raged. Emerging from a cabinet meeting convened just after the corpses were found, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his condolences to the families and quoted the great modernist Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik: “Vengeance … for the blood of a small child, / Satan has not yet created.” He went on in his own words: “Hamas is responsible—and Hamas will pay.” For good measure, the Prime Minister’s office tweeted the lines as well.

As anyone who hasn’t lived atop a column in the Congo for the past seven weeks knows, a series of violent, retaliatory acts followed. Israel carried out mass arrests on the West Bank, killing six in the process; a Palestinian teenager was beaten and burned alive by a group of Jews; throngs of Palestinians destroyed tracks and stations on the Jerusalem light-rail line; Jewish gangs shouting “Death to the Arabs!” rampaged through Jerusalem in search of victims—and found them; some thirty-five thousand Facebook users “liked” a page called “The People of Israel Demand Revenge”; Hamas fired rockets by the dozen into Israel from Gaza; Hamas officials warned that “the gates of hell” would open if Israel attacked in retaliation for the killings or the shelling. Read More »

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On the Shelf

Ovid (or You) in Ossining, and Other News

July 31, 2014 | by

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Photo: Jason O'Neal, via Newsweek

  • Want to buy John Cheever’s old house in Ossining? Have at it. (A mailbox bearing the Cheever name is still there.)
  • On the late Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex, a 1978 retelling of Arthurian legend: “Berger adopts the distinct voice of the medieval-epic narrator, slipping easily into the rhythm and pattern of courtly speech, with its ‘And’s and ‘Now’s and ‘Whilst’s, its frequent and self-serious references to the glory of God and the sin of doubt. He uses the old style of speech to tell what has always been a surprisingly modern story: that of a kingdom in which every socioeconomic problem is brilliantly resolved and its people turn to a pure and destructive religious idealism.”
  • The actress Lisa Dwan is taking her production of three one-woman Beckett playsNot I, Rockaby, and Footfalls—on a world tour.
  • Advice for reading blurbs: Don’t. “Cover blurbs aren’t reviews. They’re advertisements. No space for balanced, nuanced positivity. Nothing can be interesting; it must be fascinating. Good isn’t good enough; it must be great.”
  • Rock stars are not gods but rather human beings whose emotions happen to resonate with millions—emotions that are inspired by other human beings, some of whom have written memoirs. These books are often disregarded as attempts to cash in, but while the books are sometimes bitter, they’re rarely cynical. Taken together, they comprise a shadow history of classic rock, an account from within the aura and from the margins of the rock star’s hero journey.”

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On Film

Still Slacking After All These Years

July 30, 2014 | by

Everyone’s talking about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood at the moment—as well they should; it’s a remarkable film—but in honor of the director’s birthday, you should revisit his first feature, Slacker, which is freely available on YouTube.

The Criterion Collection’s site has a few insightful essays on Slacker, too. There’s “Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Do,” by Chris Walters, which was written in and about 1990, but feels right at home in 2014:

The all-but-total decay of public life has atomized others into subcultures of which they are the only member, free radicals randomly seeking an absent center as the clock beats out its senseless song.

The movie buries its treasure here, in the crevasses of its drollery and craziness. Nothing in the current climate is more permissible than mocking or reducing such people; Slacker celebrates their futility as a sign of endurance and mourns the passing of time by marking it with emblems of affection and empathy, the only prizes worth having.

Or Ron Rosenbaum’s “Slacker’s Oblique Strategy,” originally published in the New York Observer, which makes a seemingly outlandish but ultimately shrewd claim:

Slacker is at heart a very Russian film. Not just in its obvious kinship to Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov’s great nineteenth-century Russian novel, the classic celebration of the luxuriant pleasures of lethargy and the sensual delights of the contemplative life. There’s another Russian link, to Turgenev and his novels of the “superfluous man.” (And, to make a cross-cultural comparison, there’s a link as well to the seventeenth-century British pastoral “poetry of retirement” tradition, whose varieties are best limned in a volume with the lovely title The Garlands of Repose by the scholar Michael O’Loughlin.)

But on a deeper level, the true Russian kinship is less with Goncharov or Turgenev than with Dostoyevsky, to a novel like The Brothers Karamazov: the kind of novel that is unashamed in its preoccupation, its obsession, with ultimate philosophical and metaphysical questions.

And remember, in closing, the wise slogan proffered by one of Slacker’s many hitchhikers: “Every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death!”

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Arts & Culture

Emily Brontë’s Boring Birthday

July 30, 2014 | by

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Emily’s portrait by her brother, Branwell.

It’s Emily Brontë’s birthday, and wouldn’t you know it—of her famously scarce surviving documents, several are letters written on and about the anniversary of her birth. Imagine! Rare glimpses into the thoughts of the most inscrutable Brontë sister! As Robert Morss Lovett wrote in The New Republic in 1928, Emily “was the household drudge … the ways by which her spirit grew into greatness and by what experience it was nourished, remain a mystery.”

And her biography at the Poetry Foundation deepens the mystique:

She is alternately the isolated artist striding the Yorkshire moors, the painfully shy girl-woman unable to leave the confines of her home, the heterodox creator capable of conceiving the amoral Heathcliff, the brusque intellect unwilling to deal with normal society, and the ethereal soul too fragile to confront the temporal world.

Let us turn, then, with not undue trepidation, to the letters themselves, precious reflections from one of English fiction’s brightest luminaries. A note from July 30, 1845, begins: Read More »

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