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Ovid Is Not a Safe Space, and Other News

May 18, 2015 | by

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Deucalion and Pyrrha in an engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book I.

  • Dag Solstad will appear at our Norwegian-American Literary Festival this week—isn’t it time you get to know him? “A literary provocateur and a national icon, an experimental writer who is also a favorite with the country’s top comedians, Dag Solstad’s belated international breakthrough is in curious contrast to his position in his native country. Only three of his books have been translated into English (a fourth is on its way), but in Norway, Solstad has, at least since the mid 80s, been held up as a paragon of literary merit, his style a kind of gold standard of prose fiction.”
  • Columbia students believe that Ovid’s Metamorphoses should come with trigger warnings—the myths of Persephone and Daphne, after all, include rape. “But the core [curriculum] is not a form of therapy; it’s a form of exposure to diverse ideas, and it should not have the aim of making people feel ‘safe.’ In fact, that’s precisely the opposite of its aim.”
  • Rare book experts are assembling a kind of scholarly justice league to stop the theft and vandalism of historic books worldwide. “Lawyers and librarians, booksellers and auctioneers will descend on the British Library next month for a major conference whose title—‘The Written Heritage of Mankind in Peril’—conveys the seriousness of the problem.”
  • Émilie Du Châtelet, a seventeenth-century scholar of Newton, religion, science, and mathematics, earned plaudits from Kant and had a very visible relationship with Voltaire—but today no one reads her. “It is possible to major in philosophy without hearing anything about the historical contributions of women philosophers. The canon remains dominated by white males—the discipline that some say still hews to the myth that genius is tied to gender.”
  • How to turn fifty if you’re Rob Pruitt: have a barbecue, just like everyone else. But your barbecue will be art. “Pruitt has been able to embrace a peculiar irony that is omnipresent in the art world today: the paradox of a crass, hypervalued luxury market for the world’s super rich, wedded to a left-leaning ideology that sees art as a public good for the common folk … In this curious art world of limousine liberalism, Mr. Pruitt is happy to play chauffeur, more interested in reflecting modern culture than critiquing it.”

The Thrills of Good Suction, and Other News

May 15, 2015 | by

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(Nicholson Baker, Bissell Zing not pictured.)

  • Gay Talese has held on to his address book for fifty years, and he’s never erased a name. It has just the kind of history and pedigree that makes documentarians salivate—so, sure enough, it’s soon to be the subject of a documentary. “ ‘Do you really think you can make a film out of this?’ Talese asked me, somewhere around the F’s. Absolutely, I told him.”
  • William Zinsser has died at ninety-two. His On Writing Well belongs on the shelf next to Strunk and White—a clear, well-styled guide to clear, well-styled writing. A classic Zinsserism: “There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”
  • In which Nicholson Baker, a vacuumer as much as a writer, contends with the utility and beauty of true suction: “So strong is the Zing’s suction that it has a volume dial in its forehead that you can adjust on the fly from gentle to area-rug-ravaging. I vacuumed several rooms before a dinner party last week and found myself singing Irish drinking songs loudly as I worked.”
  • Hannah Arendt is still at the center of the argument: “Like so many Jewish texts throughout the ages, Eichmann in Jerusalem is an invitation to an auto-da-fé. Only in this case, almost all of the inquisitors are Jews. What is it about this most Jewish of texts that makes it such a perennial source of rancor among Jews, and what does their rancor tell us about Jewish life in the shadow of the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel? What does the wrongness of Eichmann’s readers reveal about the rightness of its arguments?
  • Lynda Barry on drawing and storytelling: “People think if you’re writing a story that you have to follow story structure … it’s like thinking the only reason we have teeth is because there are dentists.”

The Nineties Are History, and Other News

May 14, 2015 | by

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Anthony Aziz and Sammy Cutcher, Man with a Computer (detail), 1992. Image via Hyperallergic

  • Today is the first-ever Dylan Day: a commemoration of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, which he debuted at 92Y (his voice “removed and godlike in tone”) on May 14, 1953. Dylan Day grants you a plausible reason to seize strangers by their lapels and scream about raging against the dying of the light. Do this. The opportunity comes but once a year.
  • What happens when a performance artist abducts a bunch of curators and collectors for an “experimental expedition” in the Swiss Alps? More or less what you’d expect: “Kobilinsky appeared out in the snow. He was completely naked and he was walking toward the structure. It was a wild sight. Not just the naked man staggering through a wide expanse of snowy nothingness, but the group of esteemed collectors crowding the windows like eager schoolchildren. When Kobilinsky reached the crystal igloo and began to crawl inside, agonizing screams started emanating from somewhere outside the train.”
  • “I would sacrifice my own life for a chance to throw a single brick at Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist who eats too much … He coughs up feathers out of his mouth wherever he goes.” New “letters” between “Hemingway” and “Fitzgerald.”
  • As the nineties cedes its contemporariness and becomes “an object of historical inquiry,” it is now time to ask: What the hell happened back there? A new show, “Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s,” begins the critical task of contextualizing the works of the Clinton era. “The show marks our own radical break with a decade at once familiar and unfamiliar … The nineties were marked by various points of turbulence that have now evolved into unremarkable if not unproblematic features of our daily lives: a changing geopolitical order, precipitated by the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union; the “digital revolution,” which linked spatially disparate societies for the first time; the emergence of a global art scene and the series of international festivals and events it spawned; and the advent of so-called ‘identity politics.’ ”
  • Before there was Naples, there was Parthenope, a beautiful city on the bay in roughly the same location; Virgil retired there, and the city traded on this fact for centuries. “Virgil’s place in Parthenope was paraded from the moment of his death, though not perhaps in the way he might most have wished. He became much more than a poet. The author of the Aeneid was variously the city’s owner, its founder, a wizard, a magician tunnel-maker, a worker of miracles and, when Christianity sensed a rival, a worker of Christian miracles.”

The Totalitarian Tank Engine, and Other News

May 13, 2015 | by

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Thomas: a thinly veiled work of socialist realism? Image via the Telegraph

  • As Thomas the Tank Engine turns seventy, it’s worth asking: What’s this talking train’s political agenda? A thoughtless pushover, fearful of going off the rails and fixed on his cohort’s industriousness, “Thomas resembles one of those preposterous idealized figures of Stalinist propaganda. Face radiant with a dream of heightened productivity. In fact, Stalin would probably have approved of Thomas, who always does what the Fat Controller tells him and strongly disapproves of other engines who step out of line.”
  • If society seems increasingly illiterate to you, person of letters, remember that society relies less on literacy every year: “Most human beings worldwide would rather talk than read. Reading and writing are late inventions in the human story; widespread literacy in most places is only a few centuries old. And the fact that in black-and-white pictures of a commuter train almost every passenger is reading was an artifact of the technological state of things at the time. Today, most of those people’s equivalents are either talking on their phone or listening to music on it. Their forebears in those pictures would have been as well, if there had been devices to allow it.”
  • Piero di Cosimo is remembered most for his religious paintings, but he also made “startlingly vivid portraits of individualsHe gave himself the same tests, again and again, though he did not always pass them: for example, depicting feet, which he did in an elegantly detailed manner, down to their splayed toes.”
  • “When I began my first novel … I asked my colleague whether writing fiction caused manic-depression or merely mimicked the symptoms of manic-depression. He answered, ‘Yes,’ a cleverly enigmatic but also oddly confirming response.”
  • Want a euphemism for motherfucker? Try melon-farmer, mother-fouler, or motorcycle, and have a nice day.

Hw r u ts mng?, and Other News

May 12, 2015 | by

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Ethel Wakefield, a Western Union telegraph operator, June 1943.

  • “Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge,” a 52,438-word dissertation by a Ph.D. candidate named Patrick Stewart (not that one), “eschews almost all punctuation. There are no periods, no commas, no semicolons … ” Stewart “wanted to make a point about aboriginal culture, colonialism, and ‘the blind acceptance of English language conventions in academia.’ ” He conducted his oral exam last month; his teachers questioned him for hours. But in the end, he passed.
  • What someone ought to do is write an entire dissertation using turn-of-the-century telegraphy abbreviations, as decoded in this 1901 book: “Wr r ty gg r 9” means “Where are they going for No. 9”; “Is tt exa tr et” means “Is that extra there yet?”
  • Disclaimer: the remark above was not intended to senselessly valorize an outmoded technology. “I’ve heard many a nostalgist say there was something more, well, effortful, and therefore poetic, in the old system of walking for miles to a record shop only to discover they’d just sold out. People become addicted to the weights and measures of their own experience: We value our own story and what it entails. But we can’t become hostages to the romantic notion that the past is always a better country.”
  • For the second time, the avant-garde company Elevator Repair Service is mounting a theatrical adaptation of The Sound and the Fury: “Even if Faulkner isn’t your thing, or if confusion of characters and time frames aren’t, either, it’s important to see the piece, if only to understand how scripts work—and how they transform the actors in the space of the stage.”
  • In which Ottessa Moshfegh tries mayonnaise: “Mayonnaise, to my mother, was like peanut butter to the French: disgusting, uncivilized, and impossible to find. On a scale of respectability, a jar of mayonnaise came in somewhere between a vat of pig fat and one of those plastic pails of Marshmallow Fluff.”

The Return of the Glass Delusion, and Other News

May 11, 2015 | by

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Zoja Trofimiuk, Despair, 2012.

  • Chris Burden—who spent five days in a school locker, hammered a metal stud into his sternum, and had himself shot in the arm by a rifle from fifteen feet, all in the name of art—has died at sixty-nine. “Power was a central motif in Burden’s work. He approached it as an almost tactile, palpable material, one with visual, physical, emotional and social meanings … His work delved into the power of individuals, tribes and nations. Often he explored the realm of science and technology as distinctly modern manifestations of power’s dual capacity for the creation of magical delight or total annihilation.”
  • Send a (well-encrypted) thank-you note to the antiauthoritarian librarian in your life: “Librarians have frequently been involved in the fight against government surveillance. The first librarian to be locked up for defending privacy and intellectual freedom was Zoia Horn, who spent three week in jail in 1972 for refusing to testify against anti–Vietnam War activists. During the Cold War, librarians exposed the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s attempts to recruit library staffers to spy on foreigners, particularly Soviets, through a national effort called the Library Awareness Program. The post-Snowden Internet age is no different.”
  • The county of Dorset, along the coast of England, gave Thomas Hardy “the pastoral landscapes that he is famous for describing; the farmland and heath with sandstone cottages, sheep pastures and Roman roads ending abruptly at dramatic seaside cliffs. And since Dorset is relatively unspoiled by modern development, it isn’t hard to imagine, with a squint of the eyes, the countryside as Hardy saw it.”
  • The Irish landscape, meanwhile, contains such well-documented beauty and blight that any writer who takes it on risks courting cliché—but why not try anyway? “Over the years I had avoided what I call ‘the landscape solution’ in Irish prose, whereby the writer puts the word ‘Atlantic’ or ‘bog’ into the story and some essential yearning in her character is fixed. But there I was myself, getting fixed on the green road, and it seemed to me that this was something I should allow myself to write about now.”
  • Today in living, breathing metaphors: people who think they’re made of glass. When glass was a new and seemingly magical material, glass delusions manifested relatively commonly; about midway through the nineteenth century, though, doctors began to see fewer and fewer of them. “It’s easy to assume society and culture are so changed that mentally ill people would no longer manifest this particular delusion. But a psychiatrist from the Netherlands has uncovered contemporary cases … The glass delusion has powerful contemporary resonance in a society in which anxieties about fragility, transparency, and personal space are pertinent to many people's experience of, and anxieties about, living in the modern world.”