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A Chunk of Van Gogh’s Ear, and Other News

July 14, 2016 | by

A 1930 letter from Dr. Félix Rey shows Van Gogh’s mutilated ear. Photo: The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, via the New York Times.

  • Today in longstanding debates about deceased painters’ body parts: Van Gogh scholars continue to argue about the fate of his left ear. Nina Siegal speaks to those on both sides: “Did he simply slice off a little chunk of his ear, or did he lop off the entire ear? … A note written by Félix Rey, a doctor who treated Van Gogh at the Arles hospital, contains a drawing of the mangled ear showing that the artist indeed cut off the whole thing … [Biographers Stephen] Naifeh and [Gregory] White argue that witnesses who saw Van Gogh after Dr. Rey, including his brother Theo’s wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the artist Paul Signac and Van Gogh’s doctor in Auvers-sur-Oise, Dr. Paul Gachet, said that the entire ear was not missing. They all ‘saw a portion of the mutilated ear remaining—so much, in fact, that, when Vincent was seen from face-on, the damage could go unnoticed,’ they wrote.”
  • Why did Google delete Dennis Cooper’s blog? Tobias Carroll investigates—but this is Google we’re talking about, so there is no such thing as “knowledge”: “Over the years, Dennis Cooper’s blog has become a go-to spot for those who appreciate challenging, bold, experimental literature. Cooper has frequently championed books on indie presses and literary work in small journals, using his own influence to point readers in the direction of other work that they might enjoy. (Many writers I know have been thrilled to have been included in lists of highlights from Cooper’s recent reading.) Over time, the site has gradually become a place where devotees of avant-garde fiction can learn more about what’s new in that particular corner of literature … There remains no indication of whether Cooper’s account has been entirely deleted or whether some form of recovery is possible—or, for that matter, of why Google felt the need to delete Cooper’s e-mail account and blog to begin with.”
  • Now that Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai is back in print, it gets another shot at a much-deserved wider readership. Christian Lorentzen talked to DeWitt about it, and about her grievances with the publishing industry:At the core of The Last Samurai is the notion that most people don’t meet their potential because the culture teaches them to assume there are things they just can’t do. The central example is Ludo reading Homer in the original Greek. ‘The Greek alphabet looks more daunting than it really is,’ DeWitt said. ‘I could get anybody reading the Greek script in an hour. I thought that this could be something that I could reveal in the book. People might read the novel and think, Gosh, if somebody had introduced this to me I could have done it. And so now I can have a grievance against our education system, just like the author of this book.’ ”

Destroy Capitalism by Watching Clouds, and Other News

July 13, 2016 | by

John Constable, Wolken-Studie, 1822.

  • Rukmini Callimachi reports on ISIS for the New York Times—a demoralizing, tormenting, dangerous beat. She constructs her pieces like poems: “My formation as a writer was as a poet. I tried very early on to be a poet and I published about a dozen poems in America and in American journals before I realized that this was a totally dead-end street as a career. In terms of poetry, one of the people who really marked me was Ezra Pound, who was a modernist poet and talks about the importance of distilling an image. The idea is that you have an image that you want to convey. Beginning and even intermediate writers will end up drowning that image in prose. The idea is that you look at the prose almost like a tree. You have to pare it down. You have to take out all of the extra limbs, all of the extra shrubbery so that you can really see the form. That idea, which I tried to practice in poetry, is one that I very much try to practice in journalism: to try to distill the language. I pick my adjectives carefully. I try to build stories around images because I think that’s the way that the human brain works when you are reading a story.”
  • A new wave of memoirs aim to advance feminism through confessional-style sexual candor, but Rafia Zakaria argues that they’re merely vehicles for white female entitlement: “We are now in a time where the avowal of nakedness (both physical and emotional) is key, where the publicly exposed woman is truly courageous. The line between titillation and transgression is a fine one and in a voyeuristic world that expects women to all be coquettish exhibitionists, titillation does feminists no favors. To borrow Bitch Media founder Andi Zeisler’s argument in We Were Feminists Once, what we are seeing now is feminism used as a brand; dislocated and disconnected from any collective political project. Sex has always sold well—but feminist sex sells even better … There is a lesson for all women here: declaring a woman’s sovereignty over body and mind must not be reduced to a willingness to be naked, to prurient confessions or anecdotes of despair and self-doubt.”
  • In 2004, Gavin Pretor-Pinney launched the Cloud Appreciation Society, which involves spending a lot of time supine on the grass, gazing at the sky. It’s the latest in a long line of projects to endorse idleness, that most underappreciated of art forms. Colette Shade spoke to him about the politics of loafing: “Aristophanes, the ancient Greek playwright, described the clouds as ‘the patron goddesses of idle fellows’ … He was talking about the way that lying back and finding shapes in the clouds is an aimless activity, and it’s one that’s not going to get you anywhere in life … I always say that cloudspotting is an excuse. It legitimizes doing nothing, and I think that’s valuable these days.”
  • Because today’s true-crime stories are only half as lurid as yesterday’s, let us revisit the events of July 17th, 1895, when, in East London, a thirteen-year-old boy named Robert Coombes stabbed his mom to death. Kate Summerscale writes, “Walker, the medical officer of Holloway gaol, talked to Robert that day about the forthcoming trial. The boy at first seemed gleeful at the prospect of going to the Old Bailey, telling the doctor that it would be a ‘splendid sight’ and he was looking forward to it. He would wear his best clothes, he said, and have his boots well polished. He started to talk about his cats, and then suddenly fell silent. A moment later he burst into tears. Dr. Walker asked him why he was crying. ‘Because I want my cats,’ said Robert, ‘and my mandolin.’ ”
  • A new biography of Diane Arbus prompts Alex Mar to remind us: Diane Arbus is not Diane Arbus’s photographs. “The legend of Diane Arbus has as much to do with a prurient fascination with her personal life as it does with her images. Which makes sense—the line between her life and her work is blurred in the extreme; in a conservative time, she did what few women of her background dared, pushing her personal boundaries, seeking out new territory. But while she’s present in the close encounters that produced her photographs, in every face that stares back at the camera, to confuse the woman with her work is to sell her short. She wrestled with being both a photographer and a mother; she struggled with depression; she put herself in danger over and over again. But as an artist, she was deliberate, calculating, and in control, prepared to do almost anything to grab the image she wanted.”

Deconstructing Garfield, and Other News

July 12, 2016 | by

Get it?

  • In 2003, as the U.S. mustered its forces for a long, messy invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein sat in solitude. He had an important task: he was putting the finishing touches on a piece of fiction. Not a novel, mind you—he’d already written three of those, and now he was just slightly too busy for another—but a novella, yes, called something like Get Out, You Damned One, and soon to arrive in English, at last: “The manuscript was reportedly carried out of Iraq by Saddam’s daughter, Raghad Saddam Hussein, in 2003. She announced plans to publish the 186-page novel in Jordan in 2005, before it was quickly banned from sale, resulting in multiple bootleg versions appearing … Hesperus has yet to announce what its English title will be. A spokesman for Hesperus described the book as ‘a mix between Game of Thrones and the UK House of Cards–style fiction,’ and said it was full of political intrigue, but that the publisher would be ‘keeping the rest secret until Christmas.’ ”
  • Like thousands before her, Elif Batuman has learned to love her fate, to heed the call of an ancient destiny: she’s moved to Brooklyn. “For a long time,” she writes, “I used to make fun of writers who lived in Brooklyn. There are a lot of things about Brooklyn that are both funny and sad, but none more so than the density of writers per square yard. I was trying to explain it once to a Russian novelist, back in the old days. We were sitting at a table. ‘There are writers everywhere. If this table was in Brooklyn, you would look under it, and there would be a writer.’ The novelist looked under the table, and said: ‘Like mushrooms.’ ”
  • Whither the stochastic, parodic Garfield spin-off? Anyone looking for an undercurrent of existential dread in America’s fattest cat can find it in any number of unauthorized novelty sites: there’s Garfield Minus Garfield, Minus Jon Plus Jon, Square Root of Minus Garfield, Garkov, and Random Garfield Generator. One artist explained the appeal: “The relative inanity of the original strip’s dialogue is a uniquely strong setup for weird/broken/scrambled non-sequitur text. I think that’s what works so well about so many Garfield variations, really; it’s such a sterile, safe, drama- and menace-free strip that injecting any kind of Dada strangeness or emotional complexity into it makes it jump off the page a bit.”

Bloodthirsty Billboards, and Other News

July 11, 2016 | by

As integral to the landscape as the horizon is.

  • Come to Catullus for the hunger and heartache, stay for the dick jokes: “The verses Catullus addressed to male rivals, or to friends who he felt had let him down, often pullulate with rage and obscenityPaedicabo ego vos et irrumabois his gloriously defiant reply to two companions, Furius and Aurelius, who had criticized the indecency of his writings: ‘I shall fuck you in the ass and I shall fuck you in the mouth.’ His fearless attacks on his enemies, even revered public figures, teem with anuses, penises, stinking armpits—one man, a certain Rufus, is said to have a wild goat living beneath his—and graphic sex acts either given or received. The saltiness of these poems has thrilled many a beginning Latin class, but their power extends beyond mere shock value. With his freewheeling aggression, his willingness to let fly at the slightest provocation, Catullus evokes the modern Beat poets; the ‘neoteric’ school to which he belonged was just as daring as theirs in breaking with literary tradition.”
  • Our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, reviews Hisham Matar’s The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, which finds Matar returning to Libya for the first time in thirty-three years, after Qaddafi’s fall: “His memoir is set in this honeymoon of the revolution, the brief window between the dictatorship and the current civil war. ‘Anything seemed possible,’ Matar writes of this hopeful interim, ‘and nearly every individual I met spoke of his optimism and foreboding in the same breath.’ In the memoir’s most rapturous passages, which recall Albert Camus’s essays on his Algerian childhood, Matar evokes his rediscovery of the Libyan landscape, the luminous Mediterranean coast and the austerity of the interior, where the earth ‘stood as all the unpeopled landscapes of Libya stand, clean and witnessing.’ ”

Looks Are Not Styles, and Other News

July 8, 2016 | by

Filters, bro.

  • The police murders of so many black men have been caught on video, putatively for the sake of justice. But these videos perpetuate themselves with the same moral ambiguity that comes with war photography or any document of suffering. As Ezekiel Kweku writes of Alton Sterling, “I was detached enough to critique the video of his death, classify it, find myself consigning it to genre. I’ve long passed the point at which watching these videos makes me feel like a helpless bystander—I am another distance removed. At this point, I am a critic of images of men like me, dying. I’m a connoisseur … For these videos to prick the conscience, that conscience must already value the lives of those who are dying. Otherwise, the videos are simply lurid entertainment, the modern version of the postcard-size images of lynchings that were passed around during the last century.”
  • While we’re on the power of images: Ricky D’Ambrose contrasts the “looks” of the Instagram-and-design age with legitimate style. “Style annuls the impersonal … A look—insofar as it has any resemblance to style at all—is a kind of instant style: quickly executed and dispatched, immediately understood, overcharged with incident. To say that a film, a photograph, a painting, or a room’s interior has a look is to assume a consensus about which parts of a nascent image are the most worthy of being parceled out and reproduced on a massive scale. It means making a claim about how familiar an image is, and how valuable it seems.”
  • Americans and Canadians. What could ever unite these two disparate peoples, given their distinct views on the welfare state and their radically different approaches to bacon? I’ll tell you what: a library. Sarah Yahm reports that “for nearly 200 years Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec, essentially functioned as one town. Citizens drank the same water, worked in the same tool factory, played the same sports … They also shared the same cultural center, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, an ornate Victorian edifice built deliberately on top of the international border in 1901 by the Canadian wife of a wealthy American merchant … Against all logic, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House continues to serve both Vermonters and Quebecers, and remains a transnational space that residents from both the U.S. and Canada can enter without a passport. Today, it is the only library in the world that exists and operates in two countries at once.”

The Museum of Broken Relationships, and Other News

July 7, 2016 | by

heartbreak

  • Public service announcement: be around trees. I say this not as some kind of granola-crunching hiker-guru type but as someone with a body of hard data to back it up. A new study by Marc Berman, a University of Chicago psychology professor, “compares two large data sets from the city of Toronto, both gathered on a block-by-block level; the first measures the distribution of green space … and the second measures health, as assessed by a detailed survey of ninety-four thousand respondents. After controlling for income, education, and age, Berman and his colleagues showed that an additional ten trees on a given block corresponded to a one-per-cent increase in how healthy nearby residents felt. ‘To get an equivalent increase with money, you’d have to give each household in that neighborhood ten thousand dollars—or make people seven years younger.’ ”