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Just Slap Something on It

October 2, 2014 | by

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A sketch of a cicada in a van Gogh letter from July 1888.

Next month will come Ever Yours: The Essential Letters of Vincent van Gogh, which runs to nearly eight hundred pages and is frequently more absorbing, expansive, and instructive than a collection of letters ought to be. (He seldom seems to miss the forest for the trees, you could say.) As I thumbed through it, a passage leaped out at me from exactly 130 years ago—a letter van Gogh wrote to his younger brother, Theo, on October 2, 1884. It’s both Grade A existential grousing—were it not for the (faintly) uplifting conclusion, I could’ve believed that Thomas Bernhard wrote it—and, it seems to me, pretty sound advice.

Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.

You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerizes some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves.

Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares—and who has once broken the spell of ‘you can’t.’

Life itself likewise always turns towards one an infinitely meaningless, discouraging, dispiriting blank side on which there is nothing, any more than on a blank canvas.

But however meaningless and vain, however dead life appears, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, and who knows something, doesn’t let himself be fobbed off like that. He steps in and does something, and hangs on to that, in short, breaks, ‘violates’—they say.

Let them talk, those cold theologians.

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A letter of van Gogh’s from May 2, 1890.

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Under One Roof

October 2, 2014 | by

Ludwig Bemelmans’s Paris bistro, La Colombe, combined two of his passions: art and innkeeping.

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Ludwig Bemelmans's Woman with a Dog, a mural from the La Colombe restaurant.

“It was precisely what I had been looking for—a lovely house, half palace, half ruin, an old house covered partly with vine,” Ludwig Bemelmans wrote in his 1958 illustrated memoir, My Life in Art. In 1953, he’d bought the hôtel particulier that once belonged to La belle Ferronnière (mistress of François I) at 4 rue de la Colombe, in the shadow of Notre Dame. “It had a bistro on the ground floor frequented by clochards and a small garden in front in which people sat.”

He christened the bistro La Colombe and covered its walls with near life-size frescoes of café society—Bemelmans’s own Bemelmans Bar. But it was not to last.    

“Fifty three was a marvelous year for him, and a terrible year at the same time,” explained Jane Bayard Curley, the curator of the New York Historical Society’s current exhibition, “Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans” (on view through October 19). “He was doing La Colombe, he was painting the murals for Aristotle Onassis, he was publishing his Caldecott Award–winning Madeline’s Rescue. So many good things were happening that year and then the wheels came off.” Read More »

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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:Read More »

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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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