The Daily

Arts & Culture

Distant Hammers

February 4, 2016 | by

Notes on art and apocalypse.

From Patrick Reed’s “Distant Hammers.”

How will the end come? Did it already come? Did we miss it? That we can ask this last question shows just how far our current mood of millenarianism has traveled from its antecedents in the distant and not-so-distant past. As late as Eliot, poets and prognosticators assured us that we would recognize “how the world ends.” Most visions of apocalypse were spectacular, sublime. The possibility that we have instead whimpered our way into some kind of boiling-frog scenario—marked by slow but irreversible global warming, mass human displacement, and a gradually perceptible slide toward famine, disease, war, and extinction—is a radical departure from the convulsive display we’d long been promised.

The first properly apocalyptic writings in the monotheistic tradition are the books of Joel and Zechariah, two of the twelve minor prophets in the Tanakh, or Jewish canon. Joel, whose account may date to the reign of King Josiah, around 800 B.C., and who may therefore be the oldest prophet, begins by describing a coming locust infestation, which he claims will be coincident with famine and widespread misery. The lament transforms into a hallucinogenic description of locusts as God’s army (“the increasing locust, the nibbling locust, the finishing locust, and the shearing locust”), of a fire that consumes the world, and of a day of thick darkness “like the dawn spread over the mountains.” The more famous book of Daniel follows approximately in this mold, albeit with new messianic trappings. Read More »

The Nose

January 26, 2016 | by

An operator treating the carbuncled nose of an obese patient, James Gillray, 1801. Image via Wellcome Library

A lot of things are a century old this year: Boeing, Roald Dahl, the Professional Golfers’ Association. Another is Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s short story “The Nose,” published in January 1916 in a student magazine called Shinshichō. 

“The Nose,” which bears no relation to Gogol’s famous story of the same name, is a pretty standard parable about vanity. It stars Zenchi Naigu, a Buddhist priest with a massive schnoz—he needs aides to hold it aloft with a stick during meals. This is, as you can imagine, kind of unseemly, so Naigu undertakes a series of drastic schnoz-reduction measures, only to realize that his newly unembellished nose makes him even more self-conscious than the original had. He tries to catch a cold so his nose plumps up again. It does. He is at peace. And—scene! Read More »

Rivers, First Draft

January 13, 2016 | by

Lorraine O’Grady’s living Künstlerroman.

“Rivers, First Draft”: the Debauchees intersect the woman in red and the rape begins, 1982 Digital C-print from Kodachrome 35mm slide. Photo via Alexander Gray Associates

In 1982, the artist Lorraine O’Grady staged her first major performance piece in Central Park, “Rivers, First Draft.” In the park’s bucolic Loch section, the audience watched a black woman in a red dress walk down the ravine. Red is a sign for wanton women, and this one was in the company of wild-eyed dancers, barely clothed—all of them white. She was shy, lingering behind the dancers as they shimmied and shook down the hill. When she caught up and tried to engage them, they spurned her.

So the woman in red wandered over to a door. Several black male artists were gathered behind it. She knocked, and they, too, turned her away. While she hesitated, hoping to change their minds, the dancers returned and attacked her with Dionysian energy. Read More »

I’m Not Dead Yet

January 6, 2016 | by

The nineteenth-century obsession with premature burial.

Antoine Wiertz, The Premature Burial, 1854.

I was eleven when the family cat died—we found her on the cold concrete floor of the garage—but once we’d buried her in the backyard and erected a modest wooden cross, it occurred to me that she might not be dead. Sure, I had seen her dead, had held her dead body, but what if we’d been premature, what if she were only sleeping very, very stilly? The thought haunted me: I had a few nightmares where her little calico paw came jutting up through the ground, as in the archetypal images of zombie uprising. I went so far as to visit the grave with a trowel in hand, but the ground was soft and spongy, the soil still unsettled, and I got the creeps. I convinced myself the cat was extremely, entirely deceased.

Maybe I should’ve been more diligent. There was a big story a year ago about Bart, a bona fide zombie cat from Tampa Bay, who “clawed his way out of the grave” after five days underground. You’ll find that vivid, morbid phrase in almost all the coverage: “clawed his way out of the grave.” I missed all this in 2015, but it’s been brought to life again by the black magic of the news cycle: this is the first anniversary of Bart’s resurrection. “ZOMBIE CAT WHO CLAWED HIMSELF OUT OF GRAVE AFTER BEING KNOCKED DOWN BY CAR IS UNRECOGNIZABLE A YEAR ON,” read one headline this week, indicating Bart’s revivified fluffiness. “ ‘ZOMBIE CAT’ NOW AT THE CENTER OF CUSTODY BATTLE,” said another. Read More »

The Displaced Person

December 10, 2015 | by

Reading Flannery O’Connor in the age of Islamophobia.

Illustration: June Glasson, for Farrar, Straus and Giroux

At a little more than fifty pages, “The Displaced Person” is one of Flannery O’Connor’s least anthologized stories—and if you share her beliefs about what she called “topical” stories, it’s also one of the most problematic. O’Connor was wary of stories that focused squarely and perhaps sentimentally on social issues. Her own “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” featuring a bigoted white woman riding a newly integrated bus, was, she feared, just such a story—though in a letter to a friend she confided that she “got away with it … because I say a plague on everybody’s house as far as the race business goes.”

In the very same letter, O’Connor writes that “the topical is poison,” lambasting Eudora Welty’s famous story “Where Is the Voice Coming From,” written from the point of view of the man who assassinated the civil rights leader Medgar Evers. “It’s the kind of story that the more you think about it the less satisfactory it gets,” O’Connor wrote. “What I hate most is its being in the New Yorker and all of the stupid Yankee liberals smacking their lips over typical life in the dear old dirty Southland.”

Like many in the South, O’Connor abhorred racism but was slow to embrace integration, feeling that to rush things would lead to more violence. This stance may have been part and parcel of her attitude toward topical writing. To be topical, she thought, was to risk arguing for social changes that couldn’t be brought about by mere idealism, but by the hard, messy, and sometimes violent work of transforming hearts. Read More »

Invisible Adventure

December 9, 2015 | by

Watching a film about Claude Cahun.

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When Alan Pierson conducts, he stands with his feet together, sometimes springing onto his toes and then plunging forward at the waist. Other times, he takes a step forward, only to return immediately to his original spot. He is tall and thin, and his reedy build exaggerates his movements: he could be one of Robert Longo’s flailing suited men, but he is poised, like an exclamation mark.

He is conducting Alarm Will Sound onstage at Merkin Concert Hall as part of the Sonic–Sounds of a New Century Festival. He is also onscreen at the back of the stage, in a short film in which he conducts the same composition but without orchestra or audience. The live Alan Pierson conducts with his back to the audience in the hall, but onscreen he frequently appears frontally and in close-up, and his expression—of delectation and wonder—is fed by his body’s exuberant movements. Read More »