The Daily

This Week's Reading

Staff Picks: Rage, Reggae, Reading Rooms

March 27, 2015 | by

wild_tales_0

A still from Wild Tales.

Before he coined the term Dark Ages, before he became the father of humanism, and before he wrote the world’s first travel guide—to a place he’d never actually visited, at that—Petrarch climbed a mountain. In “Epistolae familiares,” a letter to Dionisio da Borgo San Sepolcro, Petrarch described the journey he took with his brother on April 26, 1336, now commonly known as “The Ascent of Mont Ventoux.” The letter is often quoted in mountaineering literature that altogether misses the point; Petrarch’s ascent is a vehicle for the ascent of the mind, and it’s compelling to watch him weigh out his thoughts as he climbs. “I am still preoccupied with a lot that is troublesome,” he writes. “What I used to love, I no longer love. But on second thought, that isn’t true. I think I still love those things, I just love them a little less. No, I lie again! Of course I still love those things, and love them just as much. It’s just now I love with guilt.” Scholars regard the letter as a kind of beginning to the Renaissance, when man turned his thoughts inward; they also question whether Petrarch truly ascended Mont Ventoux, but that doesn’t matter. As John D’Agata wrote of the letter in his anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, “It’s a great mimetic demonstration of a mind ascending something as the body does the same. But what if it is only Petrarch’s mind that is doing the ascending? The real title of Petrarch’s essay contains an extra word that seldom finds its way into English translations: allegorico. How much less significant is a journey of just the mind?” —Jeffery Gleaves

k10439I’ve only just started Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, but already it’s taught me a lot about unreason, in all its guises. I hadn’t known, for instance, that the Hebrew for “to behave like a prophet” can also mean “to rave”; or that Ancient Greek physicians construed hysteria as a uniquely feminine affliction because they believed the womb could wander about the abdomen; or that the earliest English madhouses were, almost too perfectly, renovated from “decaying mansions in once-fashionable areas,” because their proprietors thought building from scratch would cut into profits too much. The in in Scull’s title is a nice reproach to Foucault; we like to think of insanity as existing apart from, or before, the constructs of society—and certainly we try to put it there—but Scull’s history unpacks centuries of our cultural baggage about madness, arguing that it’s “indelibly part of civilization, not located outside it.” There’s even a lesson spelled out on his ingenious, and literally dizzying, cover: that nervous illnesses have been widely seen, since the eighteenth century, “as part of the price one paid for civilization, indeed as afflictions to which the most refined and civilized were particularly prone.” —Dan Piepenbring
Read More »

Our Daily Correspondent

The Impossible Dream

March 27, 2015 | by

quixote

A comparatively tame still from the erotic cartoon take on Quixote.

It made headlines last year when word got out that Terry Gilliam would finally resume work on his windmill-tilting Don Quixote—and cineastes speak with awe of Orson Welles’s unfinished 1955 Quixote. But there’s one Quixote adaptation that no one talks about much, that few people seem even to know about: the Spanish pornographic cartoon from the seventies.

I’m not going to link to it. If you want to track it down, you can. The caption on one Web site reads, “Just too cool … Must see … ” I’m not a professional film critic, but I respectfully disagree—the erotic Don Quijote cartoon is tedious in the extreme. Read More »

From the Archive

Soap

March 27, 2015 | by

Photo: Kathea Pinto

From “Soap,” by Francis Ponge, in our Summer 1968 issue. Ponge, a French poet and essayist born on this day in 1899, believed that “a mind in search of ideas should first stock up on appearances.” “Soap” is an excerpt from his Le Savon.

There is so much to say about soap. Precisely everything that it tells about itself until the complete disappearance, the exhaustion of the subject. This is just the object suited to me.

*

Soap has much to say. May it say it with volubility, enthusiasm. When it has finished saying it, it no longer is.

*

Soap was made by man for his body’s use, yet it does not willingly attend him. This inert stone is nearly as hard to hold as a fish. See it slip from me and like a frog dive into the basin again … emitting also at its own expense a blue cloud of evanescence, of confusion. Read More »

The “Mating” Book Club

4: “Here Was the Famous Voice”

March 27, 2015 | by

“A Farce Written in Human Blood,” pp. 70–89

mating

This is the fourth entry in our Mating Book Club. Read along.

So here he is, after all this setup: Denoon—the anthropologist beyond anthropology, the man who until this chapter had been kept behind the margins as if in the wings, behind a curtain. Because his entrance here, now, is a stage entrance—he’s going to give us a performance.

Here we have a party whose entertainment consists of an anthropologist’s lecture costumed as an anthropologist’s debate—with politicians, about politics—in the thickly caked makeup of a play: “A Farce Written in Human Blood: THE DESTRUCTION OF AFRICA ACCELERATED BY HER BENEFACTORS, PRESENT COMPANY NOT EXCEPTED.” The caps are Rush’s. Then there’s this heading: Act II. But where was Act I? Did we miss it? We did. Our unnamed narrator gives us access to Denoon only after he’s finished (verbally) demolishing capitalism (rather, “excoriating the capitalist development mode for Africa”)—socialism is next.

But before we get into Denoon’s “objections to the socialist remedy for Africa,” let’s ask a question: Why did Rush write this section as a drama? Why not as a thoroughgoing narrated scene? Read More »

1 COMMENT

On the Shelf

The Rise of Slackness, and Other News

March 27, 2015 | by

General-echo

General Echo‘s 12" of Pleasure LP.

  • Luc Sante on listening to reggae in the late seventies: “General Echo, whose real name was Errol Robinson, was prominent in the rise of ‘slackness,’ the sexually explicit reggae style that began to eclipse the Rastafarian ‘cultural’ style … his songs include ‘Bathroom Sex’ and ‘I Love to Set Young Crutches on Fire’ (‘crotches,’ that is), as well as ‘Drunken Master’ and ‘International Year of the Child.’ ”
  • The Cannes Film Festival saw a lot more action in the fifties: “Of all the grueling daily rituals … perhaps the most frivolous are the combination beach party/publicity functions, where paparazzi scramble to get shots of the ‘traditional striptease by the starlet of the year standing on the rocks.’ This particular custom was spawned in part by Brigitte Bardot’s inaugural, bikinied appearance at Cannes in 1953. But disrobing actresses arguably didn’t become a fixture of the festival until the following year, when Simone Silva got banned for posing topless next to Robert Mitchum—a spectacle that caused a pile-up of frantic, injured photographers.”
  • How the Danish writer Dorthe Nors found her way to the short story: “The Swedes have that big, fearless, existential approach to literature. The Danes have an elastic, playful, anarchistic and ironic way of using language. And here was this dude telling me—the closet Swede—that I should make use of the strengths of my own language … ”
  • What does Taylor Swift have in common with Austen, Auden, Thackeray, and Shakespeare? And don’t say, She’s a storyteller of legendary talents—the answer is more mundane. She’s an adopter of they as a singular pronoun.
  • When John Updike tried to write a Jewish character—Henry Bech, who went on to star in four of Updike’s novels—Cynthia Ozick took him to task: “Updike comes and goes as anthropologist, transmitting nothing … Being a Jew is something more than being an alienated marginalized sensibility with kinky hair.”

Our Daily Correspondent

Conservative Radicals

March 26, 2015 | by

frost meet the press

Frost on Meet the Press in 1955.

First, a general note: At what point do we stop celebrating the birthdays of the deceased? Yes, Robert Frost was born on this day in 1874, and yes, that would make him 141 today—had not death intervened in 1963, when, at eighty-eight, Frost had already been around for a good while. At a certain point, can’t we just say that today is “the anniversary of his birth”? The word birthday no longer seems to apply—in the normal range of things, it starts to feel a bit macabre. One begins to imagine cakes and party hats on gravestones. Read More »