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The World Doesn’t Care About You, and Other News

August 31, 2015 | by

Bad Brains in 1983. Photo: Malco23

  • Today in reevaluations of problematic twentieth-century philosophers: Heidegger’s predilection for tragedy and poetry informed his yearning for a grand narrative, a story that could encompass all of history. That yearning, in turn, is part of what led him to Nazism. Even so, “Heidegger’s tragic, overblown interpretation of Nazism may have been unique to him, but he was certainly not the only twentieth-century philosopher to think that poetry and tragedy might preserve something integral to human experience that was in danger of being swallowed up by the forces of reason and demystification … Maybe academic philosophy today has conceded too much ground to demystifying argumentation, to judgment and quantification. Maybe we do need more poetry in our lives. Maybe films really do represent a last gasp for tragedy and grand-scale thinking in the modern world.”
  • Jane Smiley, whose Art of Fiction interview will appear in our Fall issue, discusses her cluttered office in Carmel Valley, California: “I have never objected to mess, since mess reminds me that I can choose to write or I can choose to clean, and I have always chosen to write … I have never liked privacy in a writing room; I have always preferred noise and traffic and phone calls and people walking in and out.”
  • Remembering New York City’s hardcore scene, some thirty years later: “The insight boiling up, across all of these records, is: the world doesn’t care about you. There are no merit badges awarded for normalcy and complacency for the likes of us in straight society. It’s a long slog, and some days you are just a piece of living meat unhappily compelled to work and eat and sleep and go through the motions of your relationships, just because it is too much trouble to do otherwise. Hardcore starts from the minimal, almost entirely swallowed-up spark of human life, maybe just the faint, unwanted heartbeat whose persistence means, ‘I have to go to work today.’ The young Marx thought that mankind would attain its ‘species-being’ in the free time obtained for human development after the attainment of communism. Hardcore says: our species-being is a pretty ugly thing, for now, but we have to own it. It—we—can’t wait.”
  • For the past several years, an experimental genre of creative nonfiction has been quietly thriving online: one-star Yelp reviews of national parks. Don’t let the unsophisticated and often ungrammatical prose fool you; these works have taken the pulse of America. Read on as our nation’s treasures and all manners of natural beauty are cast aside as garbage: Death Valley is “the ugliest place I have ever seen,” Yosemite needs more parking lots, and Carlsbad Caverns appeals only if “you find big caves and rocks overwhelmingly fascinating.”
  • Geoff Dyer revisits Raymond Williams: “Borders—how they are constructed and recognized, how they impede and are crossed—are central to his thought … [he] entirely reshaped my sense of life and literature and the way they were related … Before that, in a way that now seems hard to credit, I had no understanding of the social process I’d lived through even though it was, by then, a well-documented one: the working-class boy who keeps passing exams—exams that take him first to grammar school, then to an Oxbridge college—and discovers only in retrospect that there was more to all this than exams, or even education.”

Let Him Buy Groceries in Peace, and Other News

August 28, 2015 | by

Is that the author of The Map and the Territory in there?

  • Today in Houellebecq: the author has inveighed against Le Monde, the French newspaper of record, for publishing a series of unauthorized pieces about him. Calling journalists “parasites” and “cockroaches,” Houellebecq dismissed the articles for their “malicious sneakiness,” noting that he’d refused to meet the reporter and had explicitly instructed his friends not to speak with her. “Knowing which Monoprix I shop in is not a subject of national importance,” he wrote—somewhat mystifyingly, as the Le Monde piece made no mention of said Monoprix. (He’s also recently announced an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, where he’ll show “photographs, installations and films, along with commissions by other artists such as Iggy Pop and Robert Combas.”)
  • Reading: Why bother? What’s all the fuss about? Four new books aim to show that reading makes us thoughtful and empathetic—“training” for the art of being human. “We might describe it as paideutic criticism, the term taken from the ancient Greek idea of paideia—the original foundation of humanistic study. Paideia meant the pursuit of self-knowledge through examination of the beautiful and the good … By reading and rereading the classics in the company of these genial guides, Virgils to our Dante, we can, in a more modestly modern way, achieve some similar serenity.”
  • We can also find serenity in forgetfulness, which allows us to let go of that ultimate nuisance, personal identity: Going along with Locke’s view of memory as identity is the narrative theory of identity—the idea that one forges and maintains an identity by weaving a coherent narrative out of memories, tying one’s present to one’s past. Memory and the process of remembering are essential to this. Forgetting is an enemy, causing narrative gaps and undermining the sense of having a coherent narrative … Some people court forgetfulness. My students like to quote the old adage that ‘ignorance is bliss’ when we talk about memory and forgetting; from this they think it follows, as night follows day, that ignorance is to be preferred to knowledge when such knowledge undermines happiness. If forgetfulness serves the goal of bliss, who wouldn’t pursue it?”
  • In the wake of the controversy surrounding Duke and three students who refuse to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Sam Stephenson remembers his time teaching at the university’s Center for Documentary Studies: “ ‘There are people teaching at Duke that barely graduated from UNC,’ I’d tell my students on the first day of class. The ones who laughed usually proved to be the more engaged and thoughtful documentarians … The outlying students—the ones frustrated by the emphasis of their fellow students on linear, pre-professional tracks—tended to find their way to our building, on the wrong side of the tracks, literally … These three students who are objecting to Bechdel’s book could use a dose of good documentary engagement. (I doubt they would have thought my introductory class joke was funny.) The words document and doctor come from the same Latin root, docere, which means, variously, to teach, to learn, to pay attention, to care, and, ultimately, to heal.”
  • There’s a highly advanced, deeply treacherous form of storytelling far beyond the realm of mere literature: dating. Specifically, sugar dating, in which courtship between a sugar daddy and a sugar baby is clouded by the exchange of money. “You can tell yourself whatever story you want, and eventually you'll forget you’re telling a story and you’ll find yourself in the parking lot of a Pizzeria Uno getting sucked off by someone who thinks she’s getting the better end of the deal. And the worst part is, you’ll think you’re helping her. And she’ll give you that blow job, all the while wondering how she could get so lucky, how you could be so dumb. Everyone gets what they want. And, sure, what’s so wrong with that?”

Ignorance Studies, and Other News

August 27, 2015 | by

An illustration of ignorance personified from an 1890 edition of Pilgrim’s Progress.

  • Literary fame has been a thorny thing more or less forever—according to Suetonius, Virgil sometimes ducked into buildings to flee his fans and the adulating masses. But what accounts for this celebrity, and what stokes its flames once a writer has died? Being struck down in your prime helps: that’s why we read Keats, who died at twenty-five, and not Barry Cornwall, who lived to eighty-six. All told, “an appetite for literary immortality, like the desire to read one’s obituary, poses sufficient challenge that a writer should concentrate on other goals.”
  • Today in etymology and the patriarchy: misogyny is a very old word, and sexism a fairly new one—in 1933, the Oxford English Dictionary defined it as “a sequence of six cards”—but despite their nuances, the two are coming to be used interchangeably: “Imputing hatred, which is what misogynist does, is an unnecessary step in a different direction … Misogyny isn’t merely a strong version of sexism. Some men go past stereotyping to contempt. Those calling out ‘misogyny’ everywhere do so with the aim of helping women, but overuse of a word weakens it. If speakers keep misogyny to its original and more powerful meaning, it will pack a greater punch, hopefully to land all the harder on the misogynists of the world.”
  • If we want to dispel ignorance, there’s one tactic we haven’t really tried yet: teaching it. Ignorance Studies could impart valuable lessons about human folly, in its many guises. “The study of ignorance—or agnotology, a term popularized by Robert N. Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford—is in its infancy … But giving due emphasis to unknowns, highlighting case studies that illustrate the fertile interplay between questions and answers, and exploring the psychology of ambiguity are essential. Educators should also devote time to the relationship between ignorance and creativity and the strategic manufacturing of uncertainty.”
  • Since The Corrections, published fourteen years ago, Franzen has assumed a role as our preeminent public moralist, following in the footsteps of Roth and Mailer where once he admired more fringe figures like DeLillo and Gaddis. “His new phase is marked by his conviction that novels be animated by causes … Franzen has always conceived of writing as a competition, with all writers everywhere, living or dead, aligned either with him or against him, or both at once. His critical writings often read like peace treaties or declarations of war, or like the posturings of a permanent undergraduate at pains to take a side. They frequently contain eccentric statements about what it means to read a novel.”
  • Charles Simic has been reading Charles Reznikoff’s long poem Testimony: The United States (1885–1915): Recitative, culled from thousands of pages of court records spanning three decades around the turn of the twentieth century: “I know of nothing like it in literature … what we have here is the first found epic poem. It certainly reads like one, with its huge cast of evildoers and victims, vast setting, and profusion of breathtaking stories. Murder, treachery, injustice, greed, foolishness, jealousy, rape, anger, revenge, marital squabbles, cruelty to children and animals, bad luck, and many other miseries human beings bring upon themselves and on their fellow men are all here to behold … It should not be surprising that Testimony is rarely assigned at our colleges and universities these days; it causes too much discomfort to those who prefer to know nothing about what goes on in the world. This may be precisely what Reznikoff intended with a book like this. Let whoever reads it be upset.”

A Brief History of Seagull Hatred, and Other News

August 26, 2015 | by

Winslow Homer, Rocky Coast and Gulls (detail), 1869.

  • Claudia Rankine on Serena Williams, black excellence, and the strange status conferred by corporate largesse: “The London School of Marketing (L.S.M.) released its list of the most marketable sports stars, which included only two women in its Top 20: Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. They were ranked 12th and 20th. Despite decisively trailing Serena on the tennis court (Serena leads in their head-to-head matchups 18–2, and has 21 majors and 247 weeks at No. 1 to Sharapova’s five majors and 21 weeks at number 1), Sharapova has a financial advantage off the court … There is another, perhaps more important, discussion to be had about what it means to be chosen by global corporations. It has to do with who is worthy, who is desirable, who is associated with the good life. As long as the white imagination markets itself by equating whiteness and blondness with aspirational living, stereotypes will remain fixed in place.”
  • Kingsley Amis, says Rachel Cusk, approached the short story as a kind of journeyman, self-consciously avoiding any rhetoric about the form’s high modernist possibilities: “His own stories, he said, were mere ‘chips from a novelist’s work-bench’ … With his talk of product and workbenches, Amis is trying to create the image of the writer as an ordinary worker, to dispel art’s associations with foppishness and pretentiousness and self-aggrandizement … It is as though, in the modernist possibilities of the short story, he perceived a threat both to his masculine and his writerly identity; yet for a generation of American male writers emerging contemporaneously with Amis, the short story was a sort of ‘working man’s’—indeed almost a macho—form.”
  • Reader, I implore you to take a moment out of your day to consider the seagull—it is, now as ever, among our most maligned birds, and the root of our hatred for them is deep and etymological: “The word ‘gull’ doesn’t appear in English until the late medieval period, and its origins are unclear. It’s probably a loan-word from the Cornish guilan or Welsh gŵylan. But in the early modern period, the seagull suffered from its homonyms, particular the verb meaning ‘to deceive’.”
  • At last, the year’s most essential, most probing listicle: a complete ranking of literary magazines funded by or affiliated with the CIA. The New Leader is there, and The Kenyon Review, and Mundo Nuevo, and—oh, what’s this? “Of all the publications on this list, The Paris Review may be the one with the weakest connection to the CIA … But the record clearly shows that The Paris Review benefited financially from selling article reprints to CCF magazines. This was far from the CCF’s direct participation in management of Der Monat or Encounter, but The Paris Review did derive some benefit from the CIA, and there is circumstantial evidence that this affected the choices of authors for its interview series. In a way, the Paris Review case shows how difficult it was for ‘apolitical’ highbrow literary periodicals to get through that period of the Cold War without some form of interaction with the CIA.”
  • Garth Greenwell has spent many hours with Lidia Yuknavitch’s sex scenes, and has emerged a wiser, richer person for it: “Yuknavitch forces us to see the body in all its physicality, its flesh and fluids and excretions, and she depicts scenes of sex, including fetishistic and sadomasochistic sex, that are brutally visceral. Yuknavitch’s sex scenes are remarkable among current American novelists, not just for their explicitness but for the way she uses them to pursue questions of agency, selfhood, and the ethical implications of making art.”

Loved the Ocean, Lived in the Desert, and Other News

August 25, 2015 | by

Agnes Martin, Untitled #1 (detail), 2003, acrylic and graphite on canvas.

  • The poet Cynthia Macdonald has died at eighty-seven. Hayden Carruth praised her “light sardonic touch”; her poems sometimes drew on her career as a psychoanalyst, in which her specialty was, appropriately enough, writer’s block. “All people who really want to write and can’t, or who really need to write and can’t, have real conflict and real oppositions,” she said in 1998. “One part of them is saying you have to do this, you want to do this, and the other part is saying you’re not allowed to.”
  • Dismaland, Bansky’s sprawling, much-touted parody of Disney theme parks, is supposed to indict consumer capitalism by immersing us in a grim portrait of social collapse—but its real appeal is as banal as anything with the Disney insignia on it: “it remains a fun ‘family day out. For all his protests, Banksy is a showbizman. The night this correspondent visited, the organizers were laughingly dispensing unlimited quantities of prosecco, strangely unaware of their resemblance to the portrait above them of Prime Minister David Cameron, sipping white wine insouciantly while the curtain is drawn on old Blighty. Fireworks lit up the dark. Hollywood stars joined in the frivolity. Dandily dressed salespeople circulated with price-lists of objets-d’art, and Banksy has auctioned his work elsewhere for hundreds of thousands of pounds. In 21st century Britain, even anarchists have joined the champagne society.”
  • Richard Diebenkorn—who died in 1993, and whose art was featured all the way back in our Fall 1984 issue—kept sketchbooks throughout his life, often putting one down only to pick it up years later: “The books are filled with stunningly gestural sketches of bits and pieces of daily life, both mundane capturing of everyday things, and powerful vignettes of intimate family moments … We see brief visual meditations on vistas seen on travels, and we see carefully built studies that would become the large-scale finished Ocean Park paintings we know so well.”
  • A new biography of Agnes Martin brings her many contradictions into sharp relief: “the Martin who insisted that nothing was more important to her than the ocean yet lived most of her life in the desert; Martin the ascetic guru, subsisting through the winter on hard cheese and walnuts and homegrown, preserved tomatoes, yet also the margarita- and steak-loving life of the party … Martin the disciplined practitioner who woke up early every morning to paint, and who admitted, ‘I don’t get up in the morning until I know exactly what I’m going to do. Sometimes, I stay in bed until about three [in] the afternoon, without any breakfast.’ ” (She was also, in her life as a motorist, an inveterate speeder.)
  • Henri Cole elaborates on his equivalent of Proust’s madeleine: “You take a piece of Wonder Bread and spread butter over it and sprinkle Domino sugar on top. It’s love-food. It’s dessert for people who don’t have a dessert, like in the Depression era. By eating it as an adult, I am recreating childhood and the purest pleasure of love-food.”

The Horror of Philosophy, and Other News

August 24, 2015 | by

From This Magazine Is Haunted, April 1952.

  • Newly declassified documents have revealed that the British government spied on Doris Lessing for some twenty years and that they’d thoroughly imbibed the rhetoric of J. Edgar Hoover: “Her communist sympathies have been fanned almost to the point of fanaticism owing to her upbringing in Rhodesia, which has brought out in her a deep hatred of the colour bar,” MI6 wrote of Lessing, whose “plump build” they were also sure to mention. “Colonial exploitation is her pet theme and she has now nearly become as irresponsible in her statements as … saying that everything black is wonderful and that all men and all things white are vicious.”
  • Say what you will about The End of the Tour as a depiction of David Foster Wallace—it is, if nothing else, a smart take on the mechanics and ethics of celebrity profiles, the lifeblood of the magazine industry. “The movie is apt in its insinuation that there is sometimes very little daylight between doing the reporting necessary for a magazine profile of someone and compiling a surveillance dossier upon him or her … the very structure of the reporting process, with its enforced proximity, can engender a precarious intimacy, even while the ultimate purpose of this intimacy—an article that is to be written by one participant about the other—is never forgotten.”
  • Teju Cole saw a photograph by René Burri: four men on a rooftop in São Paulo. He resolved to discover the circumstances of its creation, and—why not?—to replicate it, if possible: “To me, it literally portrays the levels of social stratification and the enormous gap between those above and those below … ‘Those four guys just came from nowhere, and went to nowhere,’ Burri said of the men in his photograph.”
  • On philosophy and horror and the horror of philosophy and the philosophy of horror: “Any reader of difficult philosophy books will have experienced their own kind of horror of philosophy, reinforced today by public intellectuals, who most often use philosophy as a smokescreen for selling self-help books and promoting the cult of the guru … philosophy explains anything and everything, telling us that a horror films means this or that, reveals this or that anxiety, is representative of this or that cultural moment that we are living in, and so on. Perhaps genres such as the horror genre are interesting not because we can devise ingenious explanatory models for them, but because they cause us to question some of our most basic assumptions about the knowledge-production process itself.”
  • If you’re looking for a good way to kill a lot of time at the end of the summer, head to Berlin, where, in a longstanding ritual, a cinema deep underground hosts a complete and unabridged viewing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s filmography. “International filmgoers book their flights as soon as the schedule is released, some in order to see the same set of films they saw last year. Judging from my seatmates at several screenings, the appeal crosses generational as well as national divides. The people want Tarkovsky, they want him on celluloid, and they want him whole.”