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Humean, All Too Humean, and Other News

October 5, 2015 | by

The Camera Restricta encourages you to get a life.

  • If you were conducting a kind of Hemingway Grand Tour, traveling the world in search of all things Papa, I’d tell you to get a better hobby—but if you insisted, I would tell you to make sure you visit northern Michigan, the site of Hemingway’s sometimes neglected formative years. “Havana, Key West, Ketchum, Paris, Pamplona—these locales tend to conjure vintage Papa: a kerchiefed, bloated, rum-drunk Nobel laureate. Petoskey? Not so much. The gatekeepers of Hemingway’s legend have largely ignored the place … But if you want to understand the writer, you have to start here. Michigan-era Hemingway is threshold Hemingway—young and raw, before the fame and subcutaneous padding and sixteen-daiquiri lunches. It’s where he experimented in delinquency, learned to cast a fly rod, stepped unmoored into the wilderness and first tinkered with a prose style that would one day make him famous.”
  • In times of internal strife and quandary, it’s seldom a good idea to turn to the precepts of dead white men. But during her midlife crisis, Alison Gopnik found solace in the ideas of David Hume, which remain progressive even today: for Hume, “the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or ‘reality’ or even ‘I’? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact … Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.”
  • From the renowned creators of camera obscura and camera lucida, it’s Camera Restricta, which “will force you to actually spend time admiring a picturesque landscape rather than worrying about composing the best shot.” Basically, it’s a camera that can tell if other people have already photographed the thing you’re trying to photograph, thus saving you a lot of time and preventing any kind of White Noise–esque Most Photographed Barn in America phenomenon.
  • On Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound, an Indonesian novel now available in English, which is playful and agreeably profane even as it tackles the darkest chapters of its nation’s history, such as 1965’s anti-communist purge: “The narrator’s voice ranges from merciless and brusque to tender and doleful. One of the men is terrorized by the ghosts of slaughtered Communists, who make him ‘think that he was making love to his wife’ when, in fact, ‘he was fucking the toilet hole.’ Scenes of brutality—of rape, incest, bestiality—are undercut by macabre humor. Dewi Ayu’s eldest daughter, Alamanda, is in love with Kliwon, her childhood sweetheart, but she is forced to marry the Japanese soldier Shodancho, twenty years her senior, who drugs and rapes her. Alamanda buys an impenetrable ‘anti-terror garment’ that transforms her underwear into a literal iron fortress.”
  • Most of us have accepted that this “Internet” isn’t just a passing trend; it’s time, then, to put some serious thought into how to curb the trolls, whose power is on the rise. “With enough effort, expertise, and good faith, a comments section can showcase the worthwhile, efface the worthless, and downrank the dubious. But in mass media and mega-platforms—where most of the action is—comments sections are all too often cybercesspools of trashing and trolling, obsessive annotators, and regressive instigators … The original sin of Internet culture was the exploitation of user-generated content to enrich a lucky few at the top of dominant platforms. Spreading that wealth … would be a good first step toward taming trolls and shaming sock-puppeteers.”

Bring Home a Little Piece of Obscenity, and Other News

October 2, 2015 | by

Detail from Robert Mapplethorpe’s Self Portrait, 1983.

  • If you’ve got an extra $250k–$350k lying around, you could own a part of obscenity history—a print of Robert Mapplethorpe’s electrifying photograph Man in Polyester Suit is up for auction. That’s the one, you’ll recall, that features “a tightly cropped picture of the torso of a black man wearing a three-piece suit, with his large penis hanging out, like a Montgomery Ward catalog hacked by Tom of Finland, with an assist from Duchamp and Groucho Marx.” Twenty-five years ago, Mapplethorpe’s photography unleashed a righteous fury; Jesse Helms and other congressional fuddy-duddies called it obscene and wrote a bunch of angry letters to people. To own Man in Polyester Suit is to give the middle finger to such types, always and forever. I’m sorry I can’t afford it myself. But if someone were to wish to buy it for me as a gift …
  • Elizabeth Bishop met Clarice Lispector in 1962, and immediately set about trying to help the Brazilian writer to break out in America. But there was some kind of a hiccup, and things between them cooled: “It is notably odd that Lispector was not more interested in Bishop’s offer to foster relationships with American publishers; she had struggled to get the elite presses of Brazil to take on her books and would struggle to make money after separating from her husband … Bishop personally negotiated the relationships and letters of interests with these editors, but it seems that she never realized or acknowledged that the power she wielded, often with an air of superiority, was precisely what was offensive … The last time Bishop writes about Lispector to Lowell, she says, ‘She’s hopeless, really.’ ”
  • Whither e-reading? A few years ago, e-books were poised to take over the world—but reading on a screen has failed to live up to its promise, and e-books are just … kind of boring, especially on the much-vaunted Kindle. “Amazon has built seamless, efficient plumbing for digital books. But after a book has made its way through the plumbing and onto the devices, the once-fresh experience now feels neglected … I’ve found that it’s much more effortless to dip back into my physical library—for inspiration or reference—than my digital library. The books are there. They’re obvious. They welcome me back.”
  • If Nietzsche gave a commencement speech—I know, thank God he’s dead, and won’t—he might draw from a part of his Untimely Meditations, devoted to Schopenhauer as an educator, but littered with weird nuggets of quasi-self-help: “There is no drearier, sorrier creature in nature than the man who has evaded his own genius and who squints now towards the right, now towards the left, now backwards, now in any direction whatever … No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!”
  • In John Keene’s collection Counternarratives, “every available form of literary irony—every possible way of forcing stubborn words to mean more than they pretend—­seems to be working at once.” Keene (“black, gay, raised in St. Louis, enamored with language, tormented by it”) is intent on using silence and absence in his fiction; his stories are full of missing texts. “This time, they are the reader’s assumptions and expectations, the dominant narratives—historical and political as well as strictly literary—with which we conjure the world and reproduce it, exclusions and erasures intact.”

Obnoxious Effluvia at Every Turn, and Other News

October 1, 2015 | by

“A London Fog” (detail), 1802, colored aquatint.

  • “I love the nuance and depth of feeling in the poems of T. S. Eliot,” you’ve probably said to yourself, sighing: “If only the man had written more erotica!” Reader, he did, and soon it will be yours to behold. A new edition of Eliot’s poems will feature several previously unpublished efforts dedicated to his second wife, Valerie, and found in notebooks. Steel yourself for such succulent similes as “Her breasts are like ripe pears that dangle / Above my mouth / Which reaches up to take them.” And while the Eliot fire sale is in progress, you might as well get your hands on his formerly unpublished volume of several works by Alfred North Whitehead. It contains the words “Foxy Grandpa.”
  • The contemporary fascination with castrati has two sources. First, we’ve never heard their music, and unheard music haunts us; second, they were people with no testicles, and we are, as a people, obsessed with testicles and wonder how they got along without them, what they did in bed, et cetera. “The very in-betweenness of castrati, their being neither women nor complete men, neither peasants nor aristocrats, having access to kings’ ears and girls’ bedrooms, allowed them to move into positions of easy privilege and influence … From this middle ground he could have a great deal of fun and wield a good deal of influence. It is also important to remember, in this context, that same-sex relations did not have the same meaning as they would later come to have.”
  • The debate surrounding appropriation has reached a fever pitch: “Questions about the right to your creation and labor, the right to your identity, emerge out of old wounds in America, and they provoke familiar battle stances … Can some kinds of appropriation shatter stereotypes? This has been literature’s implicit promise: that entering into another’s consciousness enlarges our own … What conversations about appropriation make clear is that our imaginations are unruly kingdoms governed by fears and fantasies. They are never neutral.”
  • In William Delisle Hay’s 1880 novella, The Doom of the Great City, Londoners are “choked to death under a soot-filled fog”—an unsettlingly prescient conceit, from our vantage point. Or is it just kooky propaganda for the miasmatists, who believed that bad smells meant bad air? “At their best, the miasmatists practiced social medicine that included a focus on diet, education, and forms of social uplift. At their worst, they were racist and classist bureaucrats. But whatever their scientific and ideological deficiencies, miasmatists were amazingly successful at marshaling the resources and political will (often with the important tool of disgust at their disposal) to create a compelling vision of the sanitary city.”
  • The inimitable Peggy Guggenheim came into her second inheritance in 1937 and decided to open her first gallery in London. “‘I am in Paris working hard for my gallery and fucking,’ she wrote to her friend Emily Coleman the following January; and when Coleman remonstrated, Peggy wrote back to reassure her: ‘My fucking is only a sideshow. My work comes first every time.’ ”

Mourning the Striped Pig, and Other News

September 30, 2015 | by

Time was you could find this fella on newsstands, getting sloshed.

  • Fact: the American newspapers and gazettes of the nineteenth century had names that absolutely trounced their present-day counterparts where liveliness and creativity are concerned (with the exception of the Modesto Bee, which remains a truly great paper title). In simpler times, you could spend your mornings over the Horseneck Truth Teller and Gossip Journal, Estabrook’s Great Public Chowder, Steven H. Branch’s Alligator, and the Striped Pig, among others.
  • For a different kind of nostalgia, contemplate MacGyver, which hit the airwaves thirty years ago and has left in its wake a mess of nerdy white-male heroics and misplaced, quasi-racist adventure: “MacGyver embraces its own insistent loneliness to an absurd degree. And that, in turn, makes the whole show feel distinctly retrograde … MacGyver sags under the weight of its old-school definition of heroism. It glorifies the single man—the single mullet—while treating other people as victims and saps.”
  • Not dissimilarly: in a new book, Lions in the Balance, Craig Packer attempts to careen between the MacGyver-esque machismo of those who hunt lions in the Serengheti and the “communal emotionalism” that so often animates conservation movements. “It is his position, as the story begins, that the lions of the Serengeti need sport hunters to survive; that Cecils must die if prides are to endure … In his quest to restructure incentives, in his willingness to take the long view, in his commitment to numbers over narrative, Packer deems himself ‘ultimately alone.’ ”
  • Trying to build a brand of one? Of course you are! This is the age of the brandividual. Let me tell you a few things you already knew, though: it’s a futile project, authenticity is a myth, and branding strategists are working to make our society a waking nightmare of empty professionalism. “I don’t think it’s possible to appeal to everyone and still be authentic, let alone unique. When [my branding strategist] declared my web-site font ‘almost hippie-dippy,’ I couldn’t help but get a bit defensive. So what if it is? My truest self does not use ‘impact as a verb.’ My truest self likes to be catty about former employers that have done me wrong, not write pleasant summaries of what I was able to achieve while working there. My truest self is sending GIFs to my friends, not cheerfully influencing strangers’ thoughts.”
  • Today in new and novel uses for the black crayon: Richard Serra’s strangely affecting “Ramble Drawings” are seventy-four works on paper, all “variations on Malevich’s square, stretched out and pressed with black lithographic crayons to achieve different textures: oily, streaky, pocked, solid. The pictures, stacked like rows of large, incongruous industrial cement bricks across the gallery walls, are anything but monotonous, however. Black never looked so colorful.”

Like, Everything’s Connected, Man, and Other News

September 29, 2015 | by

An illustration from the Rhode Island Historical Society depicting 1815’s Great September Gale.

  • Carmen Balcells, who died earlier this month, was “a literary superagent with a license to kill, like James Bond.” (NB: she never murdered anyone. Some also referred to her, equally outlandishly, as “Big Mama.”) She changed Spanish-language publishing, launching the careers of Gabriel García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, José Donoso, and Julio Cortázar, among others. “The moment … has been known ever since as the ‘Latin American Literary Boom’ … For writers coming of age during and after the Boom, invoking Balcells became de rigueur, the ultimate literary credential, because it linked them to a special kind of origin story.”
  • A couple centuries ago, in 1815, a real ballbuster of a storm swept through New England. Recollections of the Great September Gale, as it became known, suggest that meteorology then was in some ways a more holistic, if not more sophisticated, discipline than it is today: “Gales and tempests were related, many people thought, to phenomena like lightning, volcanism, and earthquakes … In the 1810s, the idea of an ‘electric fluid’ surrounding and suffusing the world—disturbances in which manifested themselves as earthquakes, waterspouts, hurricanes, and thunderstorms—was quite mainstream … For many New Englanders in 1815, it was intuitively obvious that everything in the sky, and most everything on the ground, was connected somehow to everything else.”
  • Seventy-five years after his apparent suicide, what are we to make of Walter Benjamin—or his strange end? Supposedly he took his own life in 1940, on the Spanish border, where his visa had been refused; he feared that if he returned to France he’d be handed over to the Nazis. But “there are all sorts of unanswered questions surrounding Benjamin’s death. His traveling companions remembered him carrying a heavy briefcase containing a manuscript he described as ‘more important than I am’. No such manuscript was found after his death … There has been persistent speculation that he was actually murdered, perhaps by a Soviet agent who had infiltrated his escaping party.”
  • In which William Vollmann reads a novelization of Trotsky’s assassination (The Great Prince Died) and begins to mull on grave questions of power: “Do the ends justify the means? This is one of the great questions of any time. We should consider it deeply and provisionally answer it for ourselves … ‘Then it amounts to this,’ says a Mexican official to the dying Rostov’s wife. ‘Those who use all means will win, those who reject some means will lose. There is no remedy …’ Can it be so? Trotsky believed it. Sometimes, so do I. (That is why I prefer to lose.)”
  • Today in recovered Babylonian epics: At last! A new version of the fifth tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh has been unearthed, perhaps illegally, from an undisclosed location in what was once Mesopotamia. It contains a whopping twenty new lines of cuneiform, rich with such narrative revelations as “Gilgamesh and Enkidu saw ‘monkeys’ as part of the exotic and noisy fauna of the Cedar Forest” and “Humbaba emerges not as a barbarian ogre but as a foreign ruler entertained with exotic music at court in the manner of Babylonian kings.”

A Period Equals Four Commas, and Other News

September 28, 2015 | by

Photo: Dvdgmz

  • Today in reading and statecraft: What’s your nation’s official book? Think. There must be one. “Each country chooses, prefers to be represented by a book,” Borges said, “although that book isn’t usually characteristic of the country. For example, one regards Shakespeare as typically English. However, none of the typical characteristics of the English are found in Shakespeare. The English tend to be reserved, reticent, but Shakespeare flows like a great river, he abounds in hyperbole and metaphor—he’s the complete opposite of an English person.”
  • Nothing causes more arguments than punctuation—of all the typographical elements, it’s ended the most marriages and caused the greatest number of bloody noses. But the contentions surrounding it have a rich history. “Scribes started to punctuate in order to make manuscripts easier to read aloud: they were signaling pauses and intonational effects. Grammarians and, later, printers adopted the marks, and tried to systematize them, as aids to semantic understanding on the page … The big four—comma, semicolon, colon and full stop—were for a long time, and insanely, regarded as precise measurements of a pause: a full stop was worth four commas.
  • In praise of the suburban lawn: “Even when you are indoors a lawn makes its presence felt. There is a palette of green hovering in your periphery, just outside the panes; breezes enter through open windows and screen doors, carrying scents of pine and gasoline. I was always dimly aware of being surrounded by a cushion of space, a feeling I never have in the city. Deep in the night, the lawn carries on its own hidden life. Animals stage unheard battles. My father found a cat’s head behind the shed. An unidentified predator dragged a chicken from a coop four backyards away, discarding the carcass, which looked like a crumpled Victorian hat, under my parent’s bedroom window.”
  • In the late nineteenth century, Hugh Mangum began to roam the South with a Penny Picture camera, taking portraits of all comers. “Mangum created an atmosphere—respectful and often playful— in which hundreds of men, women, and children genuinely revealed their spirits … Though the early twentieth-century American South in which he worked was marked by disenfranchisement, segregation, and inequality—between black and white, men and women, rich and poor—Mangum portrayed all of his sitters with candor, humor, and spirit. Above all, he showed them as individuals, and for that, his work—largely unknown—is mesmerizing. Each client appears as valuable as the next, no story less significant.”
  • Let’s talk about hair and its meanings, which are multiple, inscrutable, and, depending on whom you ask, probably sexual: “In his famous 1958 essay ‘Magical Hair,’ the anthropologist Edmund Leach developed a cross-cultural formula: ‘Long hair = unrestrained sexuality; short hair or partially shaved head or tightly bound hair = restricted sexuality; closely shaved head = celibacy.’ Leach was deeply influenced by Freud’s thoughts on phallic heads, although for him hair sometimes played an ejaculatory role as emanating semen.”