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Arts & Culture

Protect Yourself

August 15, 2014 | by

World War II’s sensational venereal disease posters.

J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” woman first appeared in 1943, when he drew her in a poster for Westinghouse Electric's internal War Production Coordinating Committee. Miller inadvertently created the most beloved character in the history of public service information: his bandanna-clad heroine—often misidentified as Rosie the Riveter, a separate creation of the War Advertising Council—has since been appropriated by innumerable causes as a symbol of solidarity, fortitude, and female empowerment. She’s ubiquitous among souvenir T-shirts, coffee mugs, and magnets. The “We Can Do It” woman survives in American culture as an emblem of all the social justice we want to see in World War II. But what became of her wicked stepsister, the “Bag of Trouble” girl?

The “Bag of Trouble” girl appeared on her own poster in the same era—like her counterpart, she was beautiful and tough, with immaculate eyebrows and deep red lipstick, staring down her viewers with steely resolve. But the caption that surrounded her was more menacing than motivational: “She may be … a bag of TROUBLE.” Then, in smaller type, just in case you didn’t catch the drift: “Syphilis-Gonorrhea.”

If the “We Can Do It” woman represents World War II as the public wishes to remember it, then the “Bag of Trouble” girl represents the part that the public is eager to abandon. For that reason, the editor and archivist Ryan Mungia chose her for the cover of his new book, Protect Yourself: Venereal Disease Posters of World War II—the first piece of a much larger upcoming project of Mungia’s, Shore Leave, which documents the seamier side of the WWII experience through vernacular photos and paper ephemera. Seventy years after D-Day and the liberation of France, it’s no longer credible to memorialize the war solely with the romanticized combat of Saving Private Ryan and platitudes of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” variety. The war didn’t just traumatize the country—it exposed and exacerbated already disconcerting facets of American society. Read More »

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Beach Read

August 14, 2014 | by

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Image via Urban75.org

Over at the LRB blog, Peter Pomerantsev has an affecting story about love, lies, and hair in Brighton Beach—you know,

the Russian ghetto where Brooklyn meets the ocean, a last stop on the subway from Manhattan. In the evening the boardwalk would be full of Russian immigrants with gaudy haircuts and fur-wrap finery, and as the light faded you could forget you were in America.

He tells of a time in 1982—and this is a true story—when an unemployed electrician named Lev found himself spinning a web of lies in pursuit of a beautiful young woman. What captivated him was her alluring, progressive hairdo: “shaved at the back with a Siouxsie Sioux spiked mop on top. He couldn’t stop staring at it.” Lev told the woman he was an intellectual, a Soviet dissident—he wasn’t. He said he was single—he was married, with kids. He said he’d been arrested by the KGB—he hadn’t been.

The story takes a tragicomic turn in the end that I won’t spoil here, except to say that it involves the woman’s haircut and has a singularly arresting image of a stroll on the Brighton Beach boardwalk. Read it here.

Those with no tolerance for shameless plugs can stop reading now, because I’m only about to mention our subscription deal with the LRB, which is, like this story, a kind of summer romance, and is, unlike this story, not sad in the slightest. Subscribe now and you’ll save on both magazines.

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What We See When We Read

August 14, 2014 | by

If I said to you, “Describe Anna Karenina,” perhaps you’d mention her beauty. If you were reading closely you’d mention her “thick lashes,” her weight, or maybe even her little downy mustache (yes—it’s there). Matthew Arnold remarks upon “Anna’s shoulders, and masses of hair, and half-shut eyes … ”

But what does Anna Karenina look like? You may feel intimately acquainted with a character (people like to say, of a brilliantly described character, It’s like I know her), but this doesn’t mean you are actually picturing a person. Nothing so fixed—nothing so choate.

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Most authors (wittingly, unwittingly) provide their fictional characters with more behavioral than physical description. Even if an author excels at physical description, we are left with shambling concoctions of stray body parts and random detail (authors can’t tell us everything). We fill in gaps. We shade them in. We gloss over them. We elide. Anna: her hair, her weight—these are only facets, and do not make up a true image of a person. They make up a body type, a hair color … What does Anna look like? We don’t know—our mental sketches of characters are worse than police composites.

Visualizing seems to require will …

… though at times it may also seem as though an image of a sort appears to us unbidden.

(It is tenuous, and withdraws shyly upon scrutiny.) Read More »

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The Professor and the Siren

August 9, 2014 | by

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s groundbreaking mermaid.

The-Mermaid

Howard Pyle, The Mermaid, 1910

By the side of the path around the circular, volcanic crater of Lake Pergusa, near the town of Enna in the center of Sicily, a carved stone marks the spot where Proserpina, the goddess of the spring, was seized and carried off by Pluto into the underworld. “Qui, in questo luogo,” proclaims the inscription. “Proserpina fù rapita.” This is the very place:

                                          ...that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpin gath’ring flow’rs
Herself a fairer Flow’r by gloomy Dis
Was gather’d, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world.
(Milton, Paradise Lost, IV)

I was giving a lecture in Palermo in 2011 and asked to see the entrance to Hades. My hosts from the university kindly drove me; it was early summer, the lush undergrowth was starred with flowers, and the tapestry of orchids, campion, arum, acanthus, clover, wild hyacinth, thyme, and marjoram was still green, tender, and damp. Next to the monument I found another sign, which pointed beyond the chain-link fence toward “the cave from which the god issued forth in his chariot.” Again, the use of the past historic declared the event’s definite reality. In a tangle of bushes and fruit trees, some rocks were visible, but the mouth opening on the infernal regions now stands in private grounds.

Ovid tells us, in his Metamorphoses, that the young girls who were gathering flowers with Proserpina that fatal day were turned into the Sirens—the bird-bodied golden-feathered singers with female faces of the Homeric tradition—and then went wandering about over land and sea, crying out in search of their vanished playmate. In “The Professor and the Siren,” Giuseppe Tomasi, Prince of Lampedusa, picks up these echoes when he evokes a passionate love affair unfolding by the sea in the ferocious heat of the dog days in 1887. However, in this late story, which was written in January 1957, a few months before his death, Lampedusa gives his immortal heroine the body of a fish from the waist down; in this he is following the more familiar northern folklore tradition of fish-tailed mermaids; of Mélusine, seal women or selkies; and of water spirits, called undines by the alchemist and philosopher Paracelsus. But both species share the special charm of an irresistible voice. In the case of Lampedusa’s mermaid, hers is “a bit guttural, husky, resounding with countless harmonics; behind the words could be discerned the sluggish undertow of summer seas, the whisper of receding beach foam, the wind passing over lunar tides. The song of the Sirens ... does not exist; the music that cannot be escaped is their voice alone.” Read More »

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Boule de Suif

August 5, 2014 | by

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Let’s talk about Guy de Maupassant, because he was born today in 1850 and because—why not? He’s Guy de Maupassant. As our own Lorin Stein wrote in 2010,

In a career that spanned barely a decade—the 1880s and early 1890s—Maupassant produced some 300 stories, 200 articles, three travel books, a collection of poems, three plays, and six novels, and the bulk of this production was consumed with the pursuit of illicit sex. His specialty was the conte leste, a kind of bawdy comic story we have very little of in English after Chaucer (think Boccaccio or The Arabian Nights). Maupassant modernized this tradition, testing the boundaries of what was permissible even in the Paris tabloids, where many of his stories first appeared. He was the best-selling writer of his generation.

Maupassant’s early story “Boule de Suif,” from 1880, remains a hallmark and a natural starting point. It’s about a prostitute whose refrain, like Bartleby’s, is that she would prefer not to—in this case, a Prussian officer asks repeatedly for the pleasure of her intimate company, and she invariably denies him. Unlike Bartleby, though, Boule de Suif must eventually give in, not by any defect of will but because of peer pressure.

This Prussian guy, you see, has detained her and several of her countrymen at a local inn. He’ll only allow the group to leave if Boule de Suif (or “Dumpling,” should that translation suit you, or “Butterball,” or most literally “Ball of Fat”) surrenders to his advances. And so her fellow travelers, all of whom disdain her for her occupation, find themselves begging her to succumb. Read More »

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Emily Brontë’s Boring Birthday

July 30, 2014 | by

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Emily’s portrait by her brother, Branwell.

It’s Emily Brontë’s birthday, and wouldn’t you know it—of her famously scarce surviving documents, several are letters written on and about the anniversary of her birth. Imagine! Rare glimpses into the thoughts of the most inscrutable Brontë sister! As Robert Morss Lovett wrote in The New Republic in 1928, Emily “was the household drudge … the ways by which her spirit grew into greatness and by what experience it was nourished, remain a mystery.”

And her biography at the Poetry Foundation deepens the mystique:

She is alternately the isolated artist striding the Yorkshire moors, the painfully shy girl-woman unable to leave the confines of her home, the heterodox creator capable of conceiving the amoral Heathcliff, the brusque intellect unwilling to deal with normal society, and the ethereal soul too fragile to confront the temporal world.

Let us turn, then, with not undue trepidation, to the letters themselves, precious reflections from one of English fiction’s brightest luminaries. A note from July 30, 1845, begins: Read More »

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