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The Pleasures of the Moth Hunter, and Other News

May 5, 2016 | by

Vincent van Gogh, Emperor Moth (detail), 1889.

  • Guess which living luminary has a new essay out? Hint one: it involves California, the seventies, and a certain inimitable brand of world weariness. Hint two: the author is an anagram of “Dad Join Ion.” “I see now that the life I was raised to admire was infinitely romantic,” she writes. “The clothes chosen for me had a strong element of the Pre-Raphaelite, the medieval. Muted greens and ivories. Dusty roses. (Other people wore powder blue, red, white, navy, forest green, and Black Watch plaid. I thought of them as ‘conventional,’ but I envied them secretly. I was doomed to unconventionality.) Our houses were also darker than other people’s, and we favored, as a definite preference, copper and brass that had darkened and greened. We also let our silver darken carefully in all the engraved places, to ‘bring out the pattern.’ To this day I am disturbed by highly polished silver. It looks ‘too new.’ ”
  • Remember that golden toilet I told you about a few weeks ago, the one that’s being installed at the Guggenheim? Well—there’s no easy way to say this—there’s been a problem. And now the toilet is delayed indefinitely. I share in your outrage because I, like you, can’t really “produce” on any toilet without at least a little gold in it. But remember, it’s not everyday that a foundry is called upon to cast a solid-gold throne. You can’t rush quality. A spokeswoman said of the wait: “It’s not days, but I can’t be more specific than that right now … The foundry encountered technical difficulties which they are working to resolve … To the museum’s knowledge, this kind of casting process has never been done before.”
  • Today in boundaries and demarcations: Give up. They don’t exist. Felice Frankel, a science photographer, has used her images to seek edges, the point where one thing definitively becomes another. “If you really, really get down to things,” she says, “what looks like a clean separation from one place to another, when you investigate it microscopically or macroscopically, is not as perfect as it appears … I believe strongly that we need to have a conversation; or part of the display, the depiction, has to be some sort of description about how the picture was made. We have to create standards, not only in the making of the pictures, but in understanding what the pictures are saying—and to really be aware of image manipulation, for example. My concern is that all scientific images are clumped together in one big happy family of honest representations, and that’s not necessarily the case.”
  • Of the twentieth century’s many extinctions, the moths—sixty-two species of which have disappeared in the UK alone—have perhaps not been properly mourned. Cue John Burnside: “Many years ago, I was a volunteer moth-hunter. I wasn’t a collector (I’ve always been puzzled by the impulse to capture a live creature, gas it and then pin its motionless corpse to a board); I was just another helping hand for a number of surveys aimed at estimating the variety and size of local populations … Even the names are cause for delight. ‘Garden tiger’ and ‘snout’ are self-explanatory, but who came up with ‘Brighton wainscot’ for an exquisitely beautiful creature that looks like nothing so much as a tiny bride in her wedding gown, or ‘Clifden nonpareil’ for that astonishing specimen whose underwing—a very dark blue, fringed with silvery white and streaked all the way across with a sky-blue stripe—is actually a defense mechanism, startling any predator that might descend upon it with a riot of unexpected color?”
  • If American popular culture from Roseanne to Beyoncé has taught us one thing, it is this: don’t be a Becky. “The quintessential Becky character we know and loathe today was thrust into the mainstream cultural lexicon in 1992 when she appeared in Sir Mix-a-Lot’s booty-shaking anthem, ‘Baby Got Back.’ In the song’s intro, a white woman gossips to her friend about a black woman’s behind. ‘Oh my god, Becky, look at her butt. It is so big. She looks like one of those rap guy’s girlfriends’ … Throughout movies and television of the 1990s and 2000s, Becky is often characterized not only as promiscuous, but also as image-obsessed. She appears frequently as a pageant queen, a vapid shopaholic, or an irresponsible teenager … Over the last decade, some of the most detested characters on television have all had one thing in common: they are in high school, and their names are Becky.”

I Call This Oulipo Meeting to Order, and Other News

May 4, 2016 | by

  • In July 2009, the French mathematician Michèle Audin began to attend the monthly meetings of Oulipo, everyone’s favorite experimental collective. And they involved just as much wine, whining, and rare meat as you’d hope: “Once everyone has entered and settled in, the President draws up the agenda, noting the names of those present and those excused (but only among the living Oulipians, the others are definitively excused ‘for reason of death’), including E and F who don’t come very often. We help ourselves to pre-dinner drinks … The President signs Oulipians up for the ‘Creation’ section: the rule says that, if no one signs up for this section, the meeting is cancelled. In March 2016, we’re up to the 665th meeting, and this has never happened … H and I, who are always late, arrive. J doesn’t drink alcohol, K prefers root beer, everyone has a glass in hand. The meeting begins. L is the one presenting a creation. Tradition requires that we continually interrupt the presentation to complain about the presenter’s never-ending sentences … N found new ‘anticipatory plagiarists’ (Oulipians before the creation of the Oulipo).”
  • A reminder—courtesy of Jessa Crispin, who is, after fourteen years, shutting down her blog, Bookslut—that literature in the U.S. is an over-professionalized, glad-handing extension of academia and corporate mass media, and the Internet hasn’t helped: “It’s just taking the print template and moving it online. I see the Millions used on book blurbs now. They’re so professional, and I mean that as an insult. I didn’t want to become a professional … I just don’t find American literature interesting. I find M.F.A. culture terrible. Everyone is super cheerful because they’re trying to sell you something, and I find it really repulsive. There seems to be less and less underground. And what it’s replaced by is this very professional, shiny, happy plastic version of literature … I don’t feel like publishing is going to be terrible forever. Now I think fiction is more interesting internationally, but there are so many great nonfiction writers here.”
  • Today in words versus numbers: words are fun, sure, and there’s no doubting their power, but the fact is that certain enormous prime numbers are so powerful they’re actually illegal, and I don’t know if words can compete with that. “In the digital age, huge prime numbers are really, really important for encryption … So important, in fact, that having or sharing some of them could get you prosecuted under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which prohibits people from subverting copyright-prevention measures …  Software to copy DVDs started circulating soon after the DMCA passed, and movie studios sued those distributing the software not long after that—and won … The silliest part? Phil Carmody discovered a 1,401-digit prime number—no, we’re not going to post it—that (with the right know-how) was executable as the very same illegal software—hence, an illegal prime number.”
  • Jacqueline Woodson remembers the day James Baldwin died, and what Giovanni’s Room meant to her: “Having become intrigued by everything he wrote, I moved on to finding pictures and films about him. I knew well the gapped-toothed smile sometimes veiled over by cigarette smoke. I knew the eternal cigarette dangling almost absently between his fore and middle finger. I knew the head thrown back in laughter, the deeply furrowed brow, the rage behind the poetically nuanced answers he gave to deeply uninformed questions about race, economic class, sexuality. I believed I would one day meet him, that we would sit at a café in France (a place I had not yet traveled to) and discuss the politics of queerness, art, our shared Blackness.”
  • Good news: that erotic Brazilian theme park you designed in RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 may soon be a reality. Bad news: you can’t actually have sex there, because think about it—really think about it. “The investors behind ErotikaLand say the park will promote a healthy approach to sex. Parkgoers will be able to tour a museum exploring the history of sexuality, and employees will promote condom use. The park will have a ‘sex playground,’ but it will feature a labyrinth, Ferris wheel and water slide. What the customers cannot have, the investors say, is any actual intercourse—at least, not in the park.”

Marisol’s Marathon Silences, and Other News

May 3, 2016 | by

Marisol, in 1963.

It’s Back: The Paris Review Commencement Gift Box

May 2, 2016 | by

Grad2016

Rumor has it that our founding editor George Plimpton was once called upon to give a commencement speech at Bennington College. Instead of bringing an armful of platitudes about inspiration and the future, he brought an armful of fireworks—maybe more like a truckload of fireworks, actually. There was one for each graduate, each carefully labeled. Rather than intoning from behind a podium, Plimpton set off the fireworks one by one, shouting each graduate’s name just before the rockets went screaming into the sky.

If you want a gift for your graduate that isn’t highly flammable and illegal in most states, try our Commencement Gift Box. It includes a one-year subscription to The Paris Review; a copy of The Unprofessionals, our new anthology, featuring the best young writers at work today; and two archival issues of the magazine—200 and 214—in which James Salter, Eileen Myles, Robert Caro, Jane Smiley, and Luc Sante share their memories of starting out as writers, with plenty of good advice for the graduate in your life.

The boxes are available from now through the end of June. You’ll find all the details here—order now. It’s the next best thing to lighting something on fire.

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I Feel Like Chicken Tonight, and Other News

May 2, 2016 | by

Who doesn’t?

  • In 1858, Walt Whitman made an impassioned contribution to a series called Manly Health and Training, a kind of precursor to the self-help movement. In the piece, newly rediscovered, he implores the young men of his day to pursue lives of fervid activity, and to avoid indigestion. “To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice,” he says. “Up!” As the New York Times notes, “Whitman’s first installment strikes a vatic, exclamatory note: ‘Manly health! Is there not a kind of charm—a fascinating magic in the words?’ he writes, before outlining the path to ‘a perfect body, a perfect blood.’ That torrent of advice that follows touches on sex, war, climate, bathing, gymnastics, baseball, footwear, depression, alcohol, shaving, and the perils of ‘too much brain action and fretting,’ in sometimes rambling prose.”
  • While we’re on dead white male writers: Is it time to release Rudyard Kipling from detention? True, he was a racist, colonialist naïf who had the gall to speak of the white man’s burden, but The Jungle Book isn’t as bad as all that, Malcolm Jones writes: “The Jungle Book stories were not written by Colonel Blimp. They are not propaganda. They have no agenda. And they are not, in fact, even very optimistic at heart. If anything, Kipling’s tales quietly but inescapably leave their readers with a chilly view of life—nasty, poor, brutish, and short (except for elephants, who live practically forever). First and last, the Mowgli stories condemn all humans as foolish, superstitious, mean-spirited, and full of hubris, specifically for our propensity to assume superiority over the animal kingdom … The truth is, Kipling wrote a lot of ill-conceived garbage and he wrote a lot of truly wonderful fiction as well, and it’s usually not at all hard to tell the difference. Even when it is, the effort is justified. Pondering how a writer so good could occasionally go so wrong forces us to contemplate how all of us, even the most enlightened, can be swayed and deluded by the assumptions and beliefs that hold sway in the times in which we live.”
  • There was a time, roughly a quarter century ago, when one would hear the phrase “I feel like” only in catchy ads for Chicken Tonight. But now the phrase is everywhere, leaving our discourse awash in subjectivity. As Molly Worthen writes, “ ‘I feel like’ masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too—but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks … The phrase cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning. It turns emotion into a cudgel that smashes the distinction—and even in our relativistic age, there remains a distinction—between evidence out in the world and internal sentiments known only to each of us.”
  • If your goal is to shake the education system to its bedrock, upending the very notion of a curriculum and doing away with universities as we know them … you’re gonna need some convincing posters. When Maurice Stein and Larry Miller wrote the Blueprint for Counter Education, they were sure to spruce up all that talk of Eldridge Cleaver and Jean-Luc Godard with some impressive visuals, now collected in a new edition of the book. “Surrounded by charts, the participant will be confronted by ideas and issues that compel him to interact with everything going on around him—from movies, to riots, to political campaigns,” the introduction reads. “There is no text book, no syllabus, no final exam … THE REVOLUTION BEGINS HERE.”
  • Reading Joseph Brodsky’s poem “On Love,” Kathryn Harrison was struck by the line “For darkness restores what the light cannot repair”: “The line also defines writing, at least writing the way I experience it. For me, writing is a process that demands cerebral effort, but it’s also one informed by the unconscious. My work is directed by the needs of my unconscious. And through that dark, opaque process, I can restore what might otherwise be lost … I teach writing, and before I taught I never would guessed the thing I say most often is: ‘Please stop thinking.’ But people really write better without thinking, by which I mean without self-consciousness.”

Cattle Rustlers Still Roam These Hills, and Other News

April 29, 2016 | by

Looking for cattle rustlers.