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A Sincere Mustache, and Other News

March 6, 2015 | by

mustaches

From a 1902 newspaper advertisement.

  • John McPhee on writing, illumination, and mustaches: “Robert Bingham, my editor at The New Yorker for sixteen years, had a fluorescent, not to mention distinguished, mustache. In some piece or other, early on, I said of a person I was writing about that he had a ‘sincere’ mustache. This brought Bingham, manuscript in hand, out of his office … A sincere mustache, Mr. McPhee, a sincere mustache? What does that mean? Was I implying that it is possible to have an insincere mustache? … Across time, someone came along who had ‘a no-nonsense mustache,’ and a Great Lakes ship captain who had ‘a gyroscopic mustache,’ and a North Woodsman who had ‘a timber-cruiser’s guileless mustache.’ A family practitioner in Maine had ‘an analgesic mustache,’ another doctor ‘a soothing mustache,’ and another a mustache that ‘seems medical, in that it spreads flat beyond the corners of his mouth and suggests no prognosis, positive or negative.’”
  • Pop music is heralded as one of life’s simple pleasures: a chance for pure escapism. Why, then, are so many pop songs really, really, really sad? “Love songs have always been more likely to deal with the yearning for love, the complications of love, love’s betrayal, or the loss of love (or even, sometimes, the loss of life) than the fancied bliss of love fulfilled … a strain of sadness has long been laced through the popular songbook. Music listeners’ likes have never been restricted to things that make them happy.”
  • On Kingsley Amis’s misanthropic masterwork, Ending Up: “The finished product is short and brutal, a series of cackling vignettes of man’s cruelty to man, all conveyed in Amis’s crisp, beady prose. It is also very funny, growing funnier with each fresh misery, mishap and atrocity. The blurb on my Penguin edition draws attention to its ‘humanity,’ but it might more accurately have highlighted its inhumanity: few novels have ever been quite this bleak, quite this nasty.”
  • The impressionists are often derided as “the painterly equivalent of easy listening,” but they still have much to teach us: “While Degas was in America in 1872 he was much taken with the Southern Creole women, feeling they had ‘that touch of ugliness without which no salvation.’ Let’s not get too politically correct here. His remark has a general application. It speaks to a shared aesthetic disposition. By ‘ugliness,’ Degas means ordinary life—a girl having her hair combed on a beach; women unperturbed, unself-conscious at their ablutions; a laundress stretching, yawning, another one ironing. They are the painters of modern life, in Baudelaire’s encapsulation. As modern as T. S. Eliot’s woman who yawns and draws her stocking up in ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales.’ ”
  • “Jane Austen’s earliest writings are violent, restless, anarchic, and exuberantly expressionistic. Drunkenness, female brawling, sexual misdemeanor, and murder run riot across their pages.”

Bulletin

Writing from the Winners of the 2015 Whiting Awards

March 5, 2015 | by

whitingCongratulations to the ten winners of this year’s Whiting Awards:

The Daily is delighted to have selections from work by all the 2015 honorees. Click each name above to read on and learn more about them. Read More »

Our Daily Correspondent

Baby Style

March 5, 2015 | by

watch-grabber1Years ago, I lived with a roommate who worked as a temp at a now-defunct parenting magazine. While she was there, the magazine sponsored a cutest-baby contest, and she took to rescuing some of the nonwinning entrants from the trash—these were physical photos, back then—and affixing them to our refrigerator door. The resulting gallery was off-putting, to say the least. 

I was reminded of this not long ago while I was browsing some nineteenth-century newspaper archives. An ad from a November, 1877 Brooklyn Daily Eagle caught my eye: THE GREAT NATIONAL BABY SHOW, it trumpeted. The upcoming exhibition (at a venue rejoicing in the name of “Midget Hall”) promised “infantile prodigies,” “freaks of nature”, “Fat Babies!” “Lean Babies!” as well as “beautiful triplets and elegant twins.” Cash prizes were promised. Read More »

Arts & Culture

Wittgenstein, Schoolteacher

March 5, 2015 | by

What the philosopher learned from his time in elementary-school classrooms.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who knew how to sully a chalkboard with the best of them.

Every philosophy major has at some point had to answer the standard challenge: “What are you going to do, teach?” It’s especially frustrating after you realize that, for someone with a humanist bent and a disinterest in worldlier things, teaching is a pretty good career choice. Unemployables in the humanities might take comfort from the fact that one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, made the same choice. He revolutionized philosophy twice, fought with shocking bravery in World War I, inspired a host of memoirs by people who knew him only glancingly—and for six years taught elementary school in the mountains of rural Austria. Biographers have tended to find this bizarre. Chapters covering the period after his teaching years, when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, are usually called something like “Out of the Wilderness.” (That one’s from Ray Monk’s excellent Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. The next chapter is called “The Second Coming.”)

By the time he decided to teach, Wittgenstein was well on his way to being considered the greatest philosopher alive. First at Cambridge, then as an engineer and soldier, Wittgenstein had finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, at once an austere work of analytic philosophy and—for some readers, Wittgenstein apparently included—an almost mystical experience. In it, he claimed charmingly and not without reason to have solved all the problems of philosophy. This was because of the book’s famous “picture theory of meaning,” which held that language is meaningful because, and only because, of its ability to depict possible arrangements of objects in the world. Any meaningful statement can be analyzed as such a depiction. This leads to the book’s most famous conclusion: that if a statement does not depict a possible arrangement of objects, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Ethics, religion, the nature of the world beyond objects … most statements of traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein contended, are therefore nonsense. And so, having destroyed a thousand-year tradition, Wittgenstein did the reasonable thing—he dropped the mic and found a real job teaching kids to spell. Read More »

On Language

Perfect Paul

March 5, 2015 | by

Our ongoing quest to personify the weather.

Arthur Rackham, 1912.

As I write this, the ominously named Winter Storm Thor is bringing his hammer down on the tristate area. Thor is pelting. Thor is dumping. Thor is lashing, coating, and causing havoc. He has an image problem, as all storms do, these days. Led by the heedless call of the Weather Channel, the media has depicted Thor—like Juno, Neptune, and others before him—as a creature of blind wrath, fueled by an amoral, motiveless lust for destruction. If you believe in the banality of evil, then Winter Storm Thor belongs with Eichmann and Iago in your rogues’ gallery.

The Weather Channel has named winter storms since 2012, as part of a dumb and widely impugned media strategy that sensationalizes the weather in a shameless bid for more clicks. “The previous model was: How does weather affect you?” Neil Katz, who runs Weather.com, told The New Republic last year. “Now we’re really asking: How does weather affect everything in the world?” By becoming the very embodiment of vengeance, is one answer. Read More »

On the Shelf

Trollope Triumphant, and Other News

March 5, 2015 | by

Portrait_of_Anthony_Trollope

The face of a winner.

  • When Anthony Trollope’s The Duke’s Children was published in 1880, he had cut, presumably on a publisher’s order, some sixty-five thousand words—almost a quarter of the original manuscript. “Although Trollope did not delete any of his eighty chapters, he removed consecutive paragraphs in some places; in others, he cut sentences, phrases and words, even replacing a word with one which was slightly shorter on some occasions.” Now an unabridged version of the novel will finally see print.
  • Fornicators! Addicts! Indigents! Orange-juice drinkers! They’re all part of a day in the life of Marko Petrovich, a library security guard in Portland, Maine. “Once in a while a librarian will have security cover a desk while they run to the bathroom or do something quick. Then they return to find that Petrovich has reset the computer desktop background to a portrait of himself.”
  • In 1906, Van Tassel Sutphen’s novel The Doomsman made peculiar predictions about life in the New York City of 2015. “Sutphen’s book imagines that the world of 2015 has devolved into three tribes: the Painted People, the House People, and the marauding Doomsmen. Keeps, drawbridges, archery, and Sirs and Ladies have grown back as thickly as vines over the ruins of American civilization. At the center of it all is the city of Doom.”
  • Donatello’s sculpture of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk may be the most significant marble statue of the fifteenth century. “ ‘Speak, damn you, speak!’ Donatello, we are told, repeatedly shouted at the statue while carving it … the story may be apocryphal. Still, it points to the fundamental appeal of Donatello’s sculptures: by some strange magic they seem to capture the phantom of life.”
  • Is your teenage daughter sinking into an abyss of nihilism and despair? Leaving poems in her footwear may help. “People have been in pain before, struggled to find hope, and look what they’ve done with it. They made poetry that landed right in your shoe.”
  • Peter Gizzi, who has three poems in our new Spring issue, is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for his collection In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987–2011.