The Daily

On the Shelf

Do Not Let This Man Paint, and Other News

April 15, 2015 | by

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Autoportrait, ca. 1875.

  • “How do you rehabilitate your love for art works based on expired and inhuman social values—and why bother?” Elif Batuman reckons with racist literature. (Which is, after all, most literature: “These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children,” Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov.)
  • Frida Kahlo’s love letters to José Bartoli are being exhibited and auctioned, thus granting “small-minded people the chance to grub about, imagining what it’s like to be a great artist enjoying a great love affair, with its epic arc, operatic decline and poignant afterlife … This is all being served up like a tray of fast food, yet more low-grade fodder to fuel the Kahlo myth with sexualised details, emotional prurience and papery relics. People will pore over her handwriting in a way they never pore over her work.”
  • “Irritated by Renoir’s intrusion, Manet is reported to have told Monet, ‘He has no talent, that boy. Since he’s your friend, you should tell him to give up painting!’”
  • On the continued importance of close reading as an academic tool: “The attentive inspection of the verbal texture of poems, novels, and plays continues to be the methodological basis of what we do in our most important venue: the college classroom, especially the Intro to Lit classroom … teachers found that students lacking specialized knowledge of the ins and outs of English history or the finer points of Aristotelian logic could still get excited by talking about the form of a Donne lyric or image-patterns in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man it allowed public-school trained students at the University of Illinois or Iowa to have as much to say about texts as their preppie counterparts at Yale or Harvard.”
  • An ode to the lowly breakfast sandwich, that quiet workhorse: “The great virtue of the bacon, egg and cheese on a roll, or its variations, is in what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t divide New Yorkers by class, income or neighborhood. It doesn’t seek publicity. It doesn’t convey status or bragging rights. It just conveys nutrition and, if you need it, settles your nerves. It is a secret handshake that New Yorkers exchange, not with one another, but with the city.”

Flunking Derrida, and Other News

April 14, 2015 | by

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Derrida’s instructor pans his style. Oh, and his substance.

  • “It’s counterintuitive to think of the British Museum as a happening spot, but for a long time its reading room served as a premier gathering place for London’s brainy bohemians … It was also a pickup scene. Edward Aveling, a science lecturer, playwright, and political activist—and a notorious flirt—described the reading room as ‘in equal degrees a menagerie and a lunatic asylum’ and made a tongue-in-cheek proposal that it be segregated by sex so as to bring about ‘less talking and fewer marriages.’ ” (If you’re getting any ideas—don’t. The reading room has since closed.)
  • As an adult, Derrida transformed English and humanities departments around the world; as a student, he had struggles of his own. When he was twenty, he submitted a paper on Shakespeare that earned him a failing grade, along with such (arguably prophetic) remarks as “quite unintelligible” and “totally incomprehensible”: “In this essay,” the instructor wrote, “you seem to be constantly on the verge of something interesting but, somewhat, you always fail to explain it clearly.”
  • Dickens’s nighttime constitutionals gave him a chance to “see through the shining riddle of the street,” as G. K. Chesterton put it—but they also granted him a chance for emotional escape. “It seems as if they supplied something to my brain,” Dickens wrote, “which it cannot bear, when busy, to lose.”
  • This month marks Trollope’s bicentennial, and though his renown is taken more or less for granted today, it wasn’t always so: Tolstoy found “too much that is conventional” in his work, and Henry James called him “mechanical.”
  • Today in teens: they’re still out there, they are legion, they are wild, oppressed, they are everything you fear and want to be. “Teens are the only true nihilists left. Teens can use guns and have sex but their brains aren’t even fully formed. This is an amazing fact … Teens only care about the immediate culture. They are not stuck in dead-time nostalgia. They have never heard of Missy Elliot. They do not care. That is OK. Teens plow their carts over the bones of the dead.”

“The Inventiveness of the Writer,” and Other News

April 13, 2015 | by

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Günter Grass in 2010.

  • Günter Grass, best known for his novel The Tin Drum, has died at eighty-seven. “Grass learned a lot from Rabelais and Celine and was influential in development of ‘magic realism’ and Marquez,” Orhan Pamuk said about him. “He taught us to base the story on the inventiveness of the writer no matter how cruel, harsh, and political the story is.”
  • Joseph Mitchell was on staff at The New Yorker for decades—and yet the magazine has suspiciously few of his bylines. What was he doing all that time? “Mitchell had no idea he was embarking on one of the most celebrated writer’s blocks in American letters. In fact, at the time he was juggling a variety of ideas, hoping—assuming—that in his reporting one of them would logically emerge as his next New Yorker piece.”
  • Distracted? Of course you are—this is 2015. It’s in the nature of contemporary society “to manipulate our attention and to profit others … repetitive pseudo-actions create patterns of satisfaction that progressively disconnect us from the world.” And for this preponderance of pseudo-actions we can blame one Immanuel Kant, whose “insistence on autonomy … reads as a denial of mutual entanglement.”
  • Toby Barlow on Derek Walcott and Star Trek: “If any other show had as many scenes in an elevator as Star Trek did, we would have talked about it, complained about it.”
  • On the Anderson Valley Advertiser, which dubs itself “America’s last newspaper” and reads like “Our Town on bad Mendo meth, a Norman Rockwell scene painted in the midst of a weed-wine binge and given a makeover by Hunter S. Thompson.”

The Picasso of Golf Course Designers, and Other News

April 10, 2015 | by

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Juan Gris, Portrait of Pablo Picasso, 1912.

  • On James Merrill, whose work “exists in part to reverse our bias against trivia”: “His work is replete with the transfigured commonplace, bits of the world reclaimed in his daily imaginative raids: an ‘Atari dragonfly’ on the Connecticut River, a joint smoked on a courthouse lawn, a trip to the gym, a Tyvek windbreaker … And Ouija boards: Merrill made the most ambitious American poem of the past fifty years, seventeen thousand lines long, in consultation with one.”
  • “I am writing to you because I noticed that you did exceptionally well last semester … and I would encourage you to consider English as a major (or a second major) … flexible enough to fit in easily with your other academic pursuits.” Giving the hard sell to prospective students of literature.
  • A busting of the bucolic, a puncturing of the pastoral”: young writers are reckoning with the English landscape in unconventional ways, seeking its absences, its eeriness, “the terror in the terroir.
  • We’ve been Photoshopping images for twenty-five years. How did we dupe and retouch before that? Double exposure, montage, stage-setting; we’ve been manipulating photographs since nearly the moment they were invented.
  • Picasso, in his posthumous life, is more than a mere painter—he’s a barometer of unassailable excellence in any and every field. Thus, I present to you “The Picasso of LEGO Bricks,” “The Picasso of Low-temperature Geochemistry,” and “The Picasso of Anal-Pleasuring Toys.”

Nostalgia for the Future, and Other News

April 9, 2015 | by

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Illustration by Dan McPharlin. Via Beautiful/Decay

  • Writers love to hate M.F.A.s; they also love to brag about them. Are the degrees worthless? Essential? Expansive? Detrimental to one’s creative impulses? “It’s no surprise that the promise of the M.F.A.—to make you, if you’re lucky, a famous, well-paid author—strikes so many people with even the smallest literary dream as utterly irresistible.”
  • To master the subtleties of another language is no mean feat—and getting prepositions right is often the most frustrating part. They can seem entirely arbitrary: “Spaniards dream with (not about) something. In the unlikely event that Germans schedule something at an approximate time, it is gegen (against) seven o’clock, not about or around. The ancient Greeks, progenitors of western logic, had many prepositions that do bizarre double duty to the English eye: meta means both with and after; kata means both according to and against.”
  • Lydia Davis, meanwhile, has faced struggles of her own in learning Norwegian: “You see how you are suddenly able to unlock so many words, just by studying the pattern? Take the words beginning with ‘Hv.’ I guessed they were used in questions: ‘hva’ meaning ‘what’, ‘hvorfor’ meaning ‘why’. But it took me a long time to figure out ‘hvis’ was ‘if.’ ”
  • Then there are contranyms, auto-antonyms, antagonyms, Janus words, and/or antiologies—words that can function as their own opposites. Take no, for instance, which increasingly means yes. (Only, mind you, in certain situations.)
  • Dan McPharlin makes art “derived from blueprints laid down decades earlier on the pages of battered sci-fi paperbacks, fantasy art books, and mid-century design quarterlies.”
  • On the “mind-numbing chatter” of the art world: “There is a debate about whether or not something ‘posits something about its ability to posit something.’ One critic tells a student, ‘You have to make better paintings fail.’ One exchange between student and critic involves the critic demanding, ‘What does that paint can stand for, in that painting?’ When the student doesn’t reply, the critic continues, ‘Stop squirming! Is there a political implication to this paint can or not?’ ”

Most Novelists Are Bitter Failures, and Other News

April 8, 2015 | by

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George Gissing, ca. 1890s.

  • When Richard Dawkins conceived of memes, he imagined them as units of culture, transmitted like viruses to contribute to our social evolution. But Internet memes have distorted the meaning of the term, arguably to uselessness. “Trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins … seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a ‘hijacking’ of the original term.”
  • George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) is good for a whole host of reasons, but it’s “a particularly potent corrective to the current cottage industry centering on ‘the writing life’—in which literary production is seen as glamorous, in which photos of writers’ desks appear on Pinterest and readers obsess over the perfect pen with which to write their buried masterpiece. The lesson of Gissing is that most novelists are bitter failures—always were, and always will be.”
  • Curmudgeonly grandparents around the world would have you believe that textspeak is a travesty, a crime against language. But it has, in so many ways, expanded and streamlined our methods of communicating: our tonal varietyyyyy, our semiotics (!!!), our ability to corretc (*correct) ourselves …
  • The postal service’s new Maya Angelou stamp contains many perfectly nice words—“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song”—but they weren’t written by Maya Angelou. “A Postal Service spokesman told the newspaper that the line, which has been widely attributed to Angelou by people including President Obama, was approved for use on the stamp by Angelou’s family.”
  • The insidious logic of the trailer has made its way from movies to music and books—now there are trailers for college courses, too. “A branding tactic once reserved for the marketplace has entered the marketplace of ideas.”