The Daily

Arts & Culture

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 »

The Resurrection of Joseph Brodsky

December 1, 2015 | by

Mikhail Baryshnikov’s new “anti-ballet.”

Image via New Riga Theatre

At the New Riga Theatre, before a recent performance of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s new one-man show, Brodsky / Baryshnikov, women combed their hair and adjusted their furs in the yellow lobby’s mirror-paneled walls. Some had camped out overnight for tickets when they first went on sale in September; seats sold out almost immediately and promptly began circulating on the black market for many hundreds of euros. Wealthy Russians jetted in from Moscow and Saint Petersburg for the event—the director Alvis Hermanis and Baryshnikov are both persona non-grata in Russia, so the entirely Russian-language performance will not stop in Russia during its upcoming international tour.

The well-heeled crowd greeted one another with “Ciao, ciao” before slipping into their native tongues, the theater a burble of Latvian, Russian, English, and French. They were all there to see the return of “their” prodigal son, but the performance they witnessed was something more akin to the return of the prodigal son as old man. Mikhail Baryshnikov is, after all, sixty-seven years old. He is no longer a prodigy, but emeritus.

“Those who expect the typical Baryshnikov pirouettes and splits … are likely to be disappointed,” Latvian critic Undine Adamaite wrote in Diena, a Latvian daily. Read More »

Words Could Not Fell Me

November 30, 2015 | by

Reciting sagas in the Westfjords of Iceland.

All photos by Karl Steel

Haymaking time had come, warm, dry, and cloudless, on a late summer’s morning roughly a millennium ago. All the men had gone out to mow, except for Thorkel, who lingered in bed, eavesdropping on the women in the next room, digesting his breakfast, and, with less composure, the revelation of his wife Asgerd’s infidelity. At last Thorkel roused himself, to speak a verse:

Hear a great wonder,
hear of peace broken,
hear of a great matter,
hear of a death
—one man’s or more.

Thorkel’s prophecy came true with the help of a big spear. After an anonymous assailant stabbed Asgerd’s lover, Vestein, Vestein’s and Thorkel’s brother-in-law, Gisli—“a man of great prowess, [yet] fortune was not always with him”—initiated the obligatory, inexhaustible cycle of revenge killings. Honor and familial chore-shirking would doom Gisli to a life of feud, outlawry, and death by mob, but not before he, too, had seized the chance to speak a great many verses.

When I first heard the medieval Icelandic Gísla saga Súrssonar, I was sitting on a mound where archaeologists had excavated a Viking-era burial site, where Gisli might very well have buried Vestein, in the Haukadalur valley, on the banks of Dýrafjörður, in the Vestfirðir, or Westfjords of Iceland. It was July, and the grass grew high, spangled with toadstools, wildflowers, and dried sheep dung, but it wasn’t haymaking weather. Under a gray, drizzly sky, beside the subarctic waters of the fjord, I huddled with my husband, Karl, on a gray wool blanket. Read More »

Culture Is a Wonderful Fiction

November 23, 2015 | by

From the cover of The Guy Davenport Reader.

From Guy Davenport’s journals, as published in The Guy Davenport Reader (2013), edited by Erik Reece. Davenport was born on this day in 1927; he spent most of his life in Lexington, Kentucky, where he taught at the University of Kentucky. “My notebooks have subjects and information for which I’ve not yet found a workable technique,” he told The Paris Review in 2002, three years before his death. “I think ultimately, as Joyce felt, that we know nothing, and that what we call culture is a wonderful fiction, and that we live inside this fiction, and as long as it’s articulate we’re successful. And we add to it, or subtract from it, but we really don’t know anything else. And I think a hard scientist, the people who are working on consciousness now, would have to admit the same thing. We don’t know what consciousness is, we don’t know why we’re here.” —D. P.

To sit in the sun and read Columella on how to plant a thorn hedge is a pleasure I had to teach myself. No, I was teaching myself something else, and the thorn hedge came, wisely, to take its place. They’re longer lasting than stone walls and have an ecology all their own. Birds nest in them and snails use them for a world. Hedgehogs, rabbits, snakes, spiders. Brier rose, dog thorn. There are some in England still standing from Roman times.

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Being ought to have a ground (the earth under our feet) and a source. It seems to have neither. The Big Bang theory is science fiction. It may be that the expanding universe is an illusion born in physics labs in Paris, Copenhagen, and Berkeley. It is also too eerily like Genesis (being in a millisecond) and other creation myths. It is partly medieval, partly Jules Verne. From a human point of view, it has no philosophical or ethical content. It is, as a vision, a devastation, an apocalypse at wrong end of time. It is a drama in which matter and energy usurp roles that once belonged to gods and angels. It is without life: brutally mechanical. It is without even the seeds of life, or the likelihood. Read More »

Kilroy Is Still Here

November 12, 2015 | by

In wartime, the walls of the latrine provide a rare opportunity for self-expression.

Photo: Lee Cannon

“It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech,” as a patriotic poem by Charles Province has it. That presumption is a point of pride among service members, who defend civilian rights and privileges they’re often not afforded themselves. You don’t have the right to foment a strike in the military. You don’t have the right to a trial with a jury of your peers. You can’t sue the military. You don’t have the right to peacefully assemble. There is no such thing as freedom of speech. But self-expression is like hydraulics: plugging one hole only builds more pressure somewhere else. In my own experience as an infantryman in Iraq, the only place where the stress of combat found unfettered freedom of expression was on the walls of the latrine.

You begin to notice it as soon as you hit the staging area in Kuwait. At places like Camp Buehring, a crossroads where battalions came and went on their way to different operating areas in Iraq, American troops are sheltered under the anonymity of massive logistical bureaucracies. A port-a-potty next to a chow hall could be used by any number of soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines passing through. Unlike a permanent duty station, where bathrooms are assigned to specific companies and any defacement is easily traceable, there simply wasn’t any way to catch someone scrawling on the walls of a well-trafficked latrine. The situation wasn’t very different once one finally got to Iraq, where the bases were just as large and sprawling, and combat outposts were constructed in the half-destroyed hovels of what had been private residences. In the former, the anonymity was conducive to getting away with latrine graffiti; in the latter, no one cared if you wrote on some walls. Read More »