The Daily

On the Shelf

Just Another Filthy Sewer, and Other News

January 12, 2016 | by

Cloaca Maxima.

  • Good help is hard to find. The late nineteenth century was a fecund period for the Oxford English Dictionary, which began to add and sift through words at unprecedented speed—in large part because Dr. William Chester Minor, a murderer locked up in the Broadmoor insane asylum, was volunteering for the dictionary by mail. “In 1879, Minor began to submit thousands of words to the Oxford English Dictionary via a mail-in volunteer system to the dictionary’s editor, Dr. James Murray … Murray and Minor wrote each other often, but Murray didn’t learn that his most prolific contributor lived in a psychiatric hospital until he traveled fifty miles to see him in 1896 … Haunted by a branding he was forced to give an Irish deserter in the American Civil War, he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and had believed he was being molested and poisoned as revenge by Irish men, nightly, for years.”
  • Henry James’s late memoirs A Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother find him recounting—with apparent joy, at that—the adventures of his youth: Adam Gopnik thinks the books deserve a wider audience. “The charm of the memoirs—the first book in particular—is helped, too, by their evocation of New York. Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue and Washington Square all register as the places they are now and were then, and yet are dazzlingly unlike. We are both in a city we know and in another city entirely, bearing the same street names, and this double vision delights us on each page. Nothing is more charming than James using the full weight of his scrutiny on the simple attractions of his youth, the Crystal Palace and P. T. Barnum’s American Museum.”
  • Everyone cheers for the innovative spirit of Roman plumbing. Roman bathhouses! Roman sewers! Roman latrines and toilets! Fine inventions, all, but filthy ones, too—research suggests that these advances in sanitation really didn’t do much to improve public health. “In some baths the water was only changed intermittently, and could acquire a scum on the surface from human dirt and cosmetics … They were afraid of connecting their houses to the sewers, since they feared what might climb out of a sewer into one’s house … They also feared the mephitic gas fires that sometimes burned in sewer holes or in the open seats in public toilets … And when they did go to the public latrines, one of the things they used to wipe themselves was a sponge on a stick, which was shared by everybody.”
  • Who needs monuments? What good has a monument ever done anybody, really? Jed Perl argues that Rodin, “with his zigzagging enthusiasms, may have been the first sculptor to conceive of the monument in ways that unmade the monument. He set the stage for the twentieth-century sculptor’s conflicted allegiances to grandiosity and intimacy, as well as what many have come to see as modernism’s embrace of ambiguity. Although Rodin was capable of placing an expressive figure on an imposing base, as in his beguiling salute to the seventeenth-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain, often he aimed to destabilize the monument, suggesting with The Burghers of Calais that heroic figures might have no need for a pedestal and transforming the imposing, cloaked figure of Balzac into a mountainous talisman, a primordial plinth.”
  • Few would call this a golden age for much of anything—but it is, maybe, a golden age for immersive theater. In New York alone there are at least eight immersive theater productions showing now or soon to open. Whether this is a wondrous bounty or an epidemic depends on what kind of a theatergoer you are: “In the last six weeks or so, I’ve gone to ten events involving all levels of participation, from not much to nonstop; varying in price from $18 to $200 a ticket; and ranging in personal discomfort level from mildly embarrassing to horrifically mortifying. I have experienced many interesting things … I cannot say that this investigation made me want to join an avant-garde acting troupe, but my self-conscious little internal voice, the one that keeps experiences at bay by critiquing them even as they happen, took itself off to a bar and got pleasantly drunk. Some productions were so compelling that you could not help but lose yourself in them, and that was exciting and unexpected.”

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