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Arts & Culture

Blunt the Edge

July 22, 2014 | by

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Detail from the cover of The Baffler’s eighth issue; art by Archer Prewitt.

The Baffler, which has probably the best slogan of any magazine in history—“the Journal that Blunts the Cutting Edge”—has made all of its back issues available for free online: required reading for anyone interested in the tenor of criticism and analysis in the nineties and early aughts, if that’s what we’ve decided to call them.

For starters, I recommend Tom Vanderbilt on SKYY vodka’s ridiculous original campaign, which was predicated on the myth that it was “hangover free” (“built on that distinctly American quest to find magic formulas to indulge more and suffer less”); or Kim Phillips-Fein’s “Lotteryville, USA,” a powerful screed against the ills of the lottery as an institution; or Terri Kapsalis’s “Making Babies the American Girl Way,” a terrifying meditation on multicultural dolls, artificial insemination, and designer babies; or, perhaps my personal favorite, Steve Albini’s “The Problem with Music,” a terse, caustic critique of the record industry at the height of yuppie-ism and major-label excess. Its scorched-earth opening:

Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end, holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed.

Nobody can see what’s printed on the contract. It’s too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody’s eyes water. The lackey shouts to everybody that the first one to swim the trench gets to sign the contract. Everybody dives in the trench and they struggle furiously to get to the other end. Two people arrive simultaneously and begin wrestling furiously, clawing each other and dunking each other under the shit. Eventually, one of them capitulates, and there’s only one contestant left. He reaches for the pen, but the Lackey says, “Actually, I think you need a little more development. Swim it again, please. Backstroke.”

And he does, of course.

If arch anticapitalist rhetoric and scatological takedowns of corporate media aren’t your cuppa, The Baffler publishes a nice variety of fiction and poetry, too. Have at it.

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Under the Volcano

July 21, 2014 | by

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John Gardner in 1979. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life in the twentieth century that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss. If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you’ve got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, “There are the skulls; that’s your baby, Mrs. Miller.” Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in. It seems to me that the artist ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living.

That’s John Gardner, from his Art of Fiction interview, which The Paris Review published in 1979—three years before Gardner died in a motorcycle accident. As far as lines in the literary sand go, this one seems defensible enough: make salutary art, wall off the volcano, protect the crania of your babies, et cetera. But here Gardner has given us the distillate of what had been, a few years earlier, a very controversial opinion; he’s paraphrasing his thesis from On Moral Fiction, a polemical book of criticism in which he took to task nearly every prominent American writer, pissing off a good number of them in the process. As Dwight Garner wrote a few years ago, “It wasn’t Gardner’s thesis, exactly, that made him enemies. It was the way he indiscriminately fired buckshot in the direction of many of American literature’s biggest names.”

Pynchon? Too inclined to “winking, mugging despair.”

Updike? “He brings out books that don’t say what he means them to say. And you can’t tell his women apart.”

Barthelme? Merely a disciple of “newfangledness.”

And the whole New Yorker crowd? Too into “that cold, ironic stuff … I think it’s just wrapping for their Steuben glass.”

If you’re thinking that picking fights is a pretty poor way of seeding one’s literary philosophy, you’re completely correct. As Per Winther, the author of The Art of John Gardner, has written, “One cannot help but think that Gardner’s cause would have benefited from less stridency of tone … What Gardner risked in couching his arguments in such bellicose terms was a hasty dismissal of his book and all its views.” Read More »

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Local Business

July 18, 2014 | by

I first noticed Harry Roseman’s art while dropping off my shirts at the dry cleaner near my home. It is a photograph of the wall in the dry cleaner on which the photograph hangs. Roseman had taken the picture because the sun had thrown on the wall the shadow of the shop’s neon sign. The name is spelled in outline on the drab wallpaper: Gladmore Cleaners. The picture hangs in the same spot where the shadow had fallen.

Then I noticed another one. Shirts under plastic covers and suspended from white, metal hangers form a line behind the register. Each shirt has a yellow slip attached to it. My own shirts hang there, ready for pickup. When the owner moves a section of shirts aside, a large photograph comes into view: a tight composition of the scene that has just been disturbed—all the shirts in their neat row.

Gladmore Cleaners in Poughkeepsie, in upstate New York, is owned by a Korean couple, Jongwon and Insoon Chung. In the recent past, Roseman has added their portraits to the collection in the store. High up above the counter is a photograph of the Chungs. They are standing at the counter, Insoon in more formal attire and without her glasses, Jongwon beside her wearing his customary white cotton vest.

This picture appears in another photograph of the Chungs taken by Roseman. The second picture hangs on the wooden wall beneath the counter where Insoon has her register. The scene is repeated here—the photographer and his subjects both keep their places from the first photograph—except that in the later picture, the Chungs are smiling and wearing brighter colors. Read More »

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The Many Poses of Marcel Marceau

July 9, 2014 | by

Mime’s brief spell in the mainstream.

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A 1974 publicity photo of Marcel Marceau.

At seven years old, before he becomes Marcel Marceau, Marcel Mangel goes to the cinema in Strasbourg with his his father, a butcher with a fine voice. The film is City Lights. A heavy curtain in the cinema pulls back as the lights go down. He sits next to his father, his shoes dangling, the seat and the velvety darkness huge around him.

Music. On the screen: a title, credits, grand municipal buildings, a crowd of people made of blacks, whites, and grays. They’re all still, waiting for something. Then comes a line of speech written in curled white letters, and a fat man gesticulating—these are the final days of the silent-film era. On the screen, a lady holding flowers pulls a ribbon to the sound of a trumpet fanfare, unveiling three giant stone figures. And there is Charlie Chaplin, horizontal, asleep across a giant stone lap. He stretches a leg upward, itches it, yawns. In the crowd, chaos. Chaplin sits up, grabs his cane, tips his bowler hat, tries to wriggle off the sculpture, and gets stuck. He fills the screen, the size of three Marcels.

When the butcher looks down, he sees Marcel’s eyes wide open in wonder, an expression the boy will mime often in years to come when he is the entertainment, being watched by rows of faces in theaters around the world. Read More »

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Recapping Dante: Canto 34, or “It Is Time for Us to Leave”

June 30, 2014 | by

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A colorized version of Gustave Doré’s illustration for Canto XXXIV.

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: the final canto.

My relationship with Dante can be traced back to a Saturday morning in 1994. My dad and I were standing in the rain on Sixty-Sixth and Broadway, and I suspected he was taking me to Lincoln Center for a concert. Instead, we stopped at a small park where a large, bronze statue was shrouded by nearby trees, hidden away from the city. That, he told me, is Dante.

The night before, my dad had told me the story of Count Ugolino, the sinner of canto 33 who may or may not have eaten his children during his imprisonment in Pisa; and later that day, he’d take me to the courtyard at St. John the Divine, where a statue of a crab-like creature pinches off the head of a demon—a scene that bears a striking resemblance to the end of Dante’s Inferno, when the three-headed Lucifer gnashes his teeth around the bodies of the three greatest sinners: Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Here, in canto 34, the final chapter, Dante and Virgil meet Lucifer and climb up his back in order to slip through a crack in the universe and leave the Inferno.

It wouldn’t occur to me for many more years that these weren’t stories from my dad, but the work of the better craftsman, or il miglior fabbro, as T. S. Eliot writes in the dedication of “The Waste Land,” paraphrasing Dante himself. In fact, if I look hard enough, I find traces of Dante throughout my life—a description of the wolf, lion, and leopard in the elevator of 765 Amsterdam Avenue, the building where my grandparents lived; the story of Paolo and Francesca, which I read in an illustrated, abridged Inferno for children; the fiberglass tyrannosaurus in Riverside Park, which I climbed as though I were Virgil scaling Lucifer’s back with Dante in order to reach Purgatory at the end of canto 34; a twig from a tree that I passed on a field trip in a botanical garden, which I tore off à la Dante in canto 13, so that my dad, a reluctant chaperone, would know that I wanted to be there as little as he did. As far as I knew, I wasn’t alluding to Pier delle Vigne but to a character from my father’s bedtime mythology. None of these tales came without embellishments, and so even today, when I reread passages of the Inferno and notice departures from the stories I heard growing up, I cannot help but think that Dante Alighieri’s versions are slightly inaccurate. Even so, by the time I reach someone like Ugolino, I feel as if I’m meeting an old friend. Read More »

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Recapping Dante: Canto 33, or History’s Vaguest Cannibal

June 23, 2014 | by

Gustave Doré, Canto XXXIII

Gustave Doré, Canto XXXIII

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: a Sophie’s Choice in medieval Pisa.

Here we meet the last great sinner of the Inferno: Count Ugolino. Like the others, he’s a historical figure remembered today chiefly for his appearance in Dante’s poem; and in spite of everything he confesses in these few verses, we inevitably pity him.

At the end of canto 32, Dante finds Ugolino gnawing violently at the head of another sinner, Archbishop Ruggieri. Ugolino tells Dante that he will describe his own crime, and allow Dante to determine which of the two of them is the greater sinner.

Ugolino, a magistrate, was charged with betraying the city of Pisa—he gave three of their fortresses to a neighboring town—and for this he was locked, along with his four children, in a tower there (not the one you’re thinking of). One night, he dreamed that he and his young children appeared as wolves; they were hunted and torn to shreds. He awakes to find his children crying in hunger for food, but when mealtime in the tower arrives, Ugolino hears the doors being nailed shut.

He understands that he and his children will starve to death. Seeing them in agony, he begins to gnaw at his own hands, and his sons say, “Father, we would suffer less if you would feed on us.” Ugolino composes himself and watches his children die slowly of hunger over the course of the fourth, fifth, and sixth days. For two days, Ugolino, who has gone blind from hunger, wails over his children, speaking to them as though they were still alive. And then he speaks one of the most haunting and also perhaps most memorable lines in the Inferno: “Then fasting had more power than grief.” This line has been interpreted variously; some believe it means that he continued to starve, whereas others contend that Ugolino ate his dead children. Read More »

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