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Come, My Lad, and Drink Some Beer

September 18, 2014 | by

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry.

From James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson was born on September 18, 1709; Boswell wrote this passage in 1777, on the occasion of Johnson’s sixty-eighth birthday.

Thursday, September 18. Last night Dr. Johnson had proposed that the crystal lustre, or chandelier, in Dr. Taylor’s large room, should be lighted up some time or other. Taylor said, it should be lighted up next night. ‘That will do very well, (said I,) for it is Dr. Johnson’s birth-day.’ When we were in the Isle of Sky, Johnson had desired me not to mention his birth-day. He did not seem pleased at this time that I mentioned it, and said (somewhat sternly,) ‘he would not have the lustre lighted the next day.’

Some ladies, who had been present yesterday when I mentioned his birth-day, came to dinner to-day, and plagued him unintentionally, by wishing him joy. I know not why he disliked having his birth-day mentioned, unless it were that it reminded him of his approaching nearer to death, of which he had a constant dread.

I mentioned to him a friend of mine who was formerly gloomy from low spirits, and much distressed by the fear of death, but was now uniformly placid, and contemplated his dissolution without any perturbation. ‘Sir, (said Johnson,) this is only a disordered imagination taking a different turn.’

He observed, that a gentleman of eminence in literature had got into a bad style of poetry of late. ‘He puts (said he,) a very common thing in a strange dress till he does not know it himself, and thinks other people do not know it.’ BOSWELL. ‘That is owing to his being so much versant in old English poetry.’ JOHNSON. ‘What is that to the purpose, Sir? If I say a man is drunk, and you tell me it is owing to his taking much drink, the matter is not mended. No, Sir, ——— has taken to an odd mode. For example, he’d write thus:

“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray.”

Gray evening is common enough; but evening gray he’d think fine.—Stay;—we’ll make out the stanza:

“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray;
Smite thy bosom, sage, and tell,
What is bliss? and which the way?”

BOSWELL. ‘But why smite his bosom, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, to shew he was in earnest,’ (smiling.)—He at an after period added the following stanza:

‘Thus I spoke; and speaking sigh’d;
—Scarce repress’d the starting tear;—
When the smiling sage reply’d—
—Come, my lad, and drink some beer.’

I cannot help thinking the first stanza very good solemn poetry, as also the three first lines of the second. Its last line is an excellent burlesque surprise on gloomy sentimental enquirers. And, perhaps, the advice is as good as can be given to a low-spirited dissatisfied being:—‘Don’t trouble your head with sickly thinking: take a cup, and be merry.’

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MacArthur Fellows, Past and Present

September 17, 2014 | by

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Congratulations to the MacArthur Foundation’s twenty-one new fellows, including the graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel, whom the Daily was fortunate to interview back in 2012:

Most people are oppressed in some way or other by their family’s expectations, by their parents’ psychological issues, by any number of things. And it holds us back, it limits who we can be in the world. We’re so consumed with our personal problems that we’re not doing more important things. I mean, who am I to talk? All I do is sit in my basement making notes about my therapy sessions. But I want us all to be autonomous and think for ourselves and do the things we’re good at, and I think that’s much more the exception than the rule for people. Not to mention living in a democracy that’s functional. I mean, if we were all really doing those things, what would our world look like?

This latest round of “genius” grants—always with those pesky tone quotes!—inspired NPR to look back at the work of Amy Clampitt, whose poems the Review occasionally published before her death in 1994. Clampitt, a 1992 MacArthur fellow, used her grant money to buy a home in Lenox, Massachusetts, “a small, clapboard house that became the seventy-two-year-old poet's first major purchase.” Soon after, Clampitt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and her husband Harold Korn

dreamed up a fund to benefit poetry and the literary arts. Since 2003, the house Clampitt bought with her MacArthur money has been used to help rising poets by offering six- to twelve-month tuition-free residencies …

This December, the nineteenth resident of the house Amy Clampitt purchased with her MacArthur purse will settle in, get to work and likely draw on some of the same things that inspired Clampitt. Among them is a small box on the mantel filled with the late poet's beach glass collection.

Clampitt was interviewed for our Art of Poetry series in the Spring 1993 issue, where she elaborated on another collection of sorts:

My own original handwritten drafts are usually on the backs of those silly announcements law firms send out, that so-and-so has just been appointed a partner, which would otherwise go into the wastebasket, and which my best friend Hal, a law professor, saves for me. They’re printed on fine creamy vellum, and they’re very small—four-by-six inches or so, though maddeningly there isn’t even a standard size. I’ve put away stacks of these things for a single poem.

Below is an abbreviated list of Paris Review contributors who have been awarded grants over the twenty-three years of the Fellows program:

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The Future According to Stanisław Lem

September 12, 2014 | by

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A still from The Congress, a new film adaptation of Lem’s 1971 novella The Futurological Congress.

In his 1971 novella The Futurological Congress, the Polish science-fiction writer Stanisław Lem describes a group of futurologists who have gathered at the Hilton Hotel in Costa Rica to stave off planetary disaster. Overpopulation and resource depletion are at crisis levels; famine and political collapse are just around the corner. Even before the conference begins, events take an ominous turn. Guerrillas kidnap the American consul and start mailing in body parts, demanding the release of political prisoners. As Professor Dringenbaum of Switzerland explains how humanity will soon resort to cannibalism, rioting breaks out in the streets. In response, the Costa Rican government deploys new types of chemical weapons, intended to make the rebels docile and peace-loving. They induce feelings of empathy and euphoria, and come with names like “Felicitine” and “Placidol.” Planes barrage the city with LTN, or “Love Thy Neighbor” bombs.

Among the conference attendees is Ijon Tichy, an unflappable cosmic adventurer with the habit of getting into outlandish scrapes. Having inadvertently received a premature dose of the drugs through the hotel’s tap water, Tichy has the foresight to take refuge from the bliss-inducing crackdown in the building’s sewer system. Nevertheless, he winds up inhaling a near-lethal dose of psychotropic chemicals and tumbles down a dark rabbit hole of hallucinations. When he finally wakes up in the year 2039, after having been cryogenically frozen for decades, he finds a world where such substances have ceased to be used for crowd control and have become, instead, a way of life.

The novella—masterfully translated by Michael Kandel and recently adapted as The Congress, a part-live action, part-animated movie by the Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman—is more a satire than a poker-faced dystopia. Rather than solving its problems, humanity learns to mask them using comically sophisticated pharmaceuticals. In the “psychemized” future, you can take drugs like “gospelcredendium” to have a religious experience, and “equaniminine” to dispel it. Books are no longer read but eaten; they can be bought at the psychedeli, a kind of one-stop psychem superstore. For a friendly conversation there’s “sympathine” and “amicol,” for an unfriendly one “invectine” and “recriminol.” Even acts of violence and revenge are sublimated into ingestible form.

Folman’s movie adopts this premise, but reframes it as a critique of the entertainment industry. Instead of Ijon Tichy, the movie’s main character is the actress Robin Wright, who plays a fictional version of herself. At first, studio executives want to scan her to create a digital avatar that will take over all of her roles. Twenty years and a switch to animation later, they want to produce a drug that will enable anyone to “be” Robin Wright, or at least to believe that they are. The Congress itself is a Hollywood bash celebrating the new age of chemical entertainment, rather than an academic conference on humanity’s doom. As in Lem’s novella, however, this future promises not social and scientific progress, but technological hedonism and senescence. Read More »

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Writing Advice from D. H. Lawrence at Twenty-One

September 11, 2014 | by

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On September 11, 1906, D. H. Lawrence turned twenty-one. Around that time he wrote this letter to Louie Burrows, a friend with whom he attended University College in Nottingham. The letter dissects one of Louie’s essays about art; it finds Lawrence full of youthful arrogance (“Like most girl writers you are wordy”) and optimism (“the world abounds with new similes and metaphors”). Lawrence and Burrows corresponded steadily for years; in 1910, they were engaged, though Lawrence broke off the engagement in 1912. (The “J” he refers to here is Jessie Chambers, another of his love interests.)

Dear Louie,

I am going to quizz [sic] your essay, not in the approven [sic] school-mistress style, but according to my own whimsical idea, which you may or may not accept. First of all I will find fault.

I do not like the introductory paragraph, it is like an extract from a Catalogue of Pictures for sale at some auctioneers … Like most girl writers you are wordy. I have read nearly all your letters to J, so I do not judge only from this composition. Again and again you put in interesting adjectives and little phrases which make the whole piece loose, and sap its vigour. Do be careful of your adjectives—do try and be terse, there is so much more force in a rapid style that will not be hampered by superfluous details. Just look at your piece and see how many three lined sentences could be comfortably expressed in one line. Read More »

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The Solar Anus

September 10, 2014 | by

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Photo: Steve Kollis, via Flickr

Happy birthday to Georges Bataille, connoisseur of Eros, born on September 10, 1897, a simpler time he took it upon himself to complicate. Actually, to call him an erotic connoisseur grossly understates what so many readers find, uh, gross about him. Suffice it to say his work revels in varieties of sexual expression that remain taboo today; a given Bataille text presents you with a veritable cavalcade of the debauched and the proscribed, and, worse still, makes all of it seem terribly worth investigating. Even his fellow Continental philosophers—not exactly vanilla adherents of the missionary position—thought he was something of a degenerate. Jean-Paul Sartre said Bataille “incarnated human sexuality in its most degraded form”; André Breton described him more succinctly as a “sick and dangerous pervert.”

But history teaches us that perverts make fine litterateurs, and Bataille is no exception. (Not to say there aren’t exceptions. There are plenty.) In Paris, he worked as a librarian and at night went drinking and whoring on the rue Pigalle. His first novel, 1928’s L’Histoire de l’oeilStory of the Eye, which he published under the pseudonym Lord Auch, or aux chiottes, or “to the shithouse”—was hailed not as a transgressive surrealist masterwork but as pornography, plain and simple. Its reputation has improved since then: it’s still regarded as porn, just the good kind. (John Wray wrote about it for the Daily a few years ago.)

Here, for your edification and titillation, is a bit from The Solar Anus, a short something-or-other published in 1931. I don’t know what you’d call it. It’s metaphysics. It’s a taunt. It’s a series of aphorisms. It’s an extended metaphor that stops shy of allegory. It’s a hymn; it’s a rant. And what it lacks in logical validity it makes up for in images. Among the lines of inquiry pursued: the passage of energy, heliophilia, heliophobia, fecundity, decay, volcanoes, the phallic, the Sapphic, the erect, the supine, excretion, intake, and many other things besides. Have at it: Read More »

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You Are Quite Unnecessary, Young Man!

September 4, 2014 | by

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Antonin Artaud

The English translation of Roberto Bolaño’s excellent final novella, A Little Lumpen Novelita, is out this month. The book opens with an epigraph by Antonin Artaud, who was born today in 1896: “All writing is garbage. People who come out of nowhere to try to put into words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs.”

Since I read it about a month ago, I’ve thought of this quotation every day, often as I’m writing—you can imagine the rat-a-tat of my keyboard punctuated with an occasional “All writing is garbage.” It’s a bracing sentiment, taunting and misanthropic, and a truer one than most of us would care to admit. At the moment, it flies in the face of our glad-handing literary culture, where every book is a good book and every writer in every M.F.A. program partakes of a dignified struggle with Art.

Here’s how that quotation, which comes from Artaud’s The Nerve Meter (1925), goes on: Read More »

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