On the Shelf
June 24, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- In South Korea, there’s a book so sagacious—so steeped in commonsense know-how and philosophical intrigue—that it’s whispered about at every level of society. It’s the Talmud, whose unlikely role in South Korean culture reads like something out of a counterfactual history: “Each Korean family has at least one copy of the Talmud. Korean mothers want to know how so many Jewish people became geniuses … Twenty-three per cent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish people. Korean women want to know the secret. They found the secret in this book.”
- Fact: book publishers don’t fact-check. According to your average book contract, fact-checking is the author’s problem, and the author’s financial burden, so good luck. But “the status quo might shift a notch this fall, at least for a lucky few. In September, Tim Duggan Books, the editor’s eponymous new imprint under the Crown Publishing Group, will be the first ever to offer fact-checking as a service paid for by the publisher.”
- So you’re cruising west on Interstate 10, shedding the trappings of your old life for a new, free beginning in the American West—congratulations! You’ve undertaken a journey so iconic, and perhaps so hackneyed, that 100 billboards now speckle the highway to commemorate it. The “Manifest Destiny Billboard Project,” which stretches from sea to shining sea, examines “the way we think about aspiration and ambition, achievement and taking. It ties to everything from the capitalist impulse to notions of exploration, and to the desire to know.”
- In the late nineteenth century, Nietzsche’s philosophy found an unexpected (if ambivalent) advocate in George Bernard Shaw: “People read Nietzsche for his philosophy; they go to Shaw’s plays for their comedy … In the absence of God, both were seeking a purpose. There was Nietzsche’s belief in struggle which Shaw acknowledged as necessary for essential improvement; there was also his attack on traditional moral values that acted as a brake on necessary change. He was clever and imaginative and sometimes original. But Shaw was not one of Nietzsche’s ‘brethren’ who is urged to see ‘the rainbow and the bridges of the Superman.’”
- If you were raised Catholic, your writing may well be forever inflected with Catholicism—even if you leave the Church. Don’t worry. It’s not bad … necessarily. “When we tag a writer ‘a Catholic novelist,’ we attribute to him the agenda of the Catholic, and not the aim of the novelist … Blake’s “mind-forged manacles” become faith-forged manacles when the purely imaginative and linguistic motive of the novelist is sullied by the believer’s allegiance to Catholicism. That’s the pinch: Catholics already have the truth, whereas novelists write novels in part because they don’t.”
June 23, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Our Summer issue features an interview with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, “the quiet rebels of Russian translation”—now Literary Hub has the longest excerpt of it you’ll see online. Among its many revelations, you’ll learn of Pevear’s long-hidden talents as a jingle writer: “Who’s that knocking at my door? / His badge is stamped with number four. / His shoulder bag is big and fat. / His coat is blue, so is his hat.”
- Claudia Rankine on black lives and mourning: “In 1955, when Emmett Till’s mutilated and bloated body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River and placed for burial in a nailed-shut pine box, his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, demanded his body be transported from Mississippi, where Till had been visiting relatives, to his home in Chicago. Once the Chicago funeral home received the body, she made a decision that would create a new pathway for how to think about a lynched body. She requested an open coffin and allowed photographs to be taken and published of her dead son’s disfigured body.”
- Tired of all your friends talking about the Enlightenment as if it were the very realization of paradise on earth? So is Vincenzo Ferrone, a historian aiming to puncture the era’s inflated reputation—and to kill a few centaurs along the way: “Every attempt to define an epoch—the age of steam, say, or the age of empire, or the age of the internet—involves making a link between two different registers: on the one hand a specific kind of activity, and on the other a stretch of historical time. As far as Ferrone is concerned, however, the idea of the Enlightenment is unique because it yokes a period not with something real but with a set of ideals: philosophical notions of truth, virtue and knowledge … the Enlightenment is another of [philosophers’] high-flown fictions, and when the historians took it over they had no inkling of the trouble they were getting into. It would prove to be a philosophical Trojan horse, or poisoned chalice, and Ferrone repeatedly denounces it as an ircocervo—a monstrous hybrid of goat and stag, or, as his translator would have it, a ‘centaur.’ He then sets out to ‘break the spell of the centaur’ by documenting the damage it has done.”
- “Maybe Oxford is just full of dull old farts who only vote for the obvious. I don’t think they have anything to be proud of here.” Simon Armitage has been voted Oxford’s new Professor of Poetry, and not everyone is happy about it. (Spoiler alert: some people are actively unhappy about it.) The post dates to the nineteenth century; professors emeritus include W. H. Auden, Robert Graves, and Cecil Day-Lewis.
- Meanwhile, in Italy: no one has yet unmasked Elena Ferrante. She’s a finalist for the Strega Prize, which will be awarded in July—so people really, really, really want to learn who she is.
June 22, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- As an undergraduate at Harvard, T. S. Eliot risked flunking out—but fear not, for his febrile poetic mind was already hard at work: “He invented the characters of ‘Columbo’ and ‘Bolo,’ who for years to come starred in a series of scatological, violent, and racist poems. Circulated privately, these verses became known to a wider readership only after Eliot’s death, when they presented the immensely refined poet in a bizarrely crude light … such writing served a purpose for the shy, physically awkward, and sexually late-blooming Eliot. It was a way for him to bond with his peers … ”
- Advertisements used to contain words—many words—even those aimed at such famously illiterate audiences as rock-music fans. A look at the Rolling Stone archive reveals a surprising amount of po-mo sophistication in record-label copywriting. A 1979 ad for the singer-songwriter Sirani Avedia, for example, begins, “After the chic anarchy of punk, the escapism of disco, and the cerebral celebrations of jazz fusion … something real.”
- An old photograph by Giovanni Gargiolli inspires ruminations on fatherhood: “The photograph was taken outside a Franciscan church in Alatri, a village south of Rome, in 1902 or 1903 … I recognize myself in that father who is leaning out of the family portrait in the church doorway. I feel an apartness, and I wonder: Is it a movable obstacle to the fullness of fatherhood, a primordial paternal taint, or a simple truth about the way men who have children are around their children?”
- Disturbing news from the tech sector: research suggests that our computers, the very beings on which our civilization depends, are no more than drug-addled dreamers, lost in psychedelic reveries every bit as inscrutable as those of your average dusthead. Google discovered what its image-recognition networks “imagine” by “feeding a picture into the network, asking it to recognize a feature of it, and modify the picture to emphasize the feature it recognizes. That modified picture is then fed back into the network, which is again tasked to recognise features and emphasize them, and so on. Eventually, the feedback loop modifies the picture beyond all recognition.”
- Nick Sousanis received his doctorate in education for Unflattening, a dissertation in the form of “a graphic novel about the relationship between words and pictures in literature.” Its lowly ambition? “Insurrection against the fixed viewpoint … Fusing words and images to produce new forms of knowledge.”
June 19, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Today in Sisyphean undertakings for the greater good: Michael Mandiberg, an interdisciplinary artist, is “transforming the English-language Wikipedia into an old-fashioned print reference set running to 7,600 volumes … [He] describes the project as half utilitarian data visualization project, half absurdist poetic gesture.” You can watch him transfer the digital files to a printer in real time at Denny Gallery, on the Lower East Side, where an exhibition, “From Aaaaa! to ZZZap!,” began yesterday.
- Joshua Cohen on Dostoevsky’s The Double, whose hero Golyadakin “doesn’t know how to present himself socially—or, in a contemporary phrasing, he doesn’t know which self to present, struggling as he is with a decaying class system, stagnant bureaucracy, Godlessness, materialism, precarity, and dread—all of which have rendered him incapable of appropriate behavior, or even of defining appropriate behavior, in front of friends, lovers, colleagues, the church, the state, himself. And I think we’re living in a culture like that today.”
- Alan Hollinghurst’s first chapbook, 1982’s Confidential Chats with Boys, is prized among collectors, but Hollinghurst seldom talks about it. A new interview finds him looking back at those early poems: “I suppose I always had the idea that gay sexuality was essentially innocent, even though it’s almost universally been stigmatized and criminalized. But actually it was innocent and natural … what you’re writing about might in a conventional sense be ‘hard-core’ because you’re writing very explicitly about sex, but actually it was something to which no opprobrious moral definition could be applied.”
- In 2013, Mark Strand reviewed a show of Edward Hopper’s paintings at the Whitney, and the handwritten text was rediscovered after Strand’s death last year. “My own encounters with this elusive element in Hopper’s work began when I would commute from Croton-on-Hudson to New York each Saturday … I would look out from the train window onto the rows of tenements whose windows I could look into and try to imagine what living in one of those apartments would be like … It was thrilling to suddenly go underground, travel in the dark, and be delivered to the masses of people milling about in the cavernous terminal. Years later, when I saw Approaching a City for the first time, I instantly recalled those trips into Manhattan and have ever since. And Hopper, for me, has always been associated with New York, a New York glimpsed in passing, sweetened with nostalgia, a city lodged in memory.”
- Are nature writers “just fiddling while the agrochemicals burn”? “The real danger is that nature writing becomes a literature of consolation that distracts us from the truth of our fallen countryside, or—just as bad—that it becomes a space for us to talk to ourselves about ourselves, with nature relegated to the background as an attractive green wash. The project of re-enchantment might restore to us a canon of lost writings about the eeriness and mystery of our landscape.”
June 18, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- “I see The Paris Review as much as an ‘object’ as I do a venerable and essential literary quarterly. The look and feel is both so important to the readers’ experience … The logo we now use was scanned from a midcentury back issue, and it has all the character of the original lead type that created it.” Talking shop with our art editor, Charlotte Strick.
- On Henry James’s mommy issues: though the author was close with his mother, “he did not write much about mothers in his fiction. In fact, many of his best novels have no mothers at all. They are safe spaces for orphans, or semi-orphans … James loved his mother and he also wanted to get away from her. It is as though those desires were oddly close to each other, both sides of a coin, or nudged each other gently.”
- Juan Felipe Herrera, our new poet laureate, has at last revealed the fetish that drives the creative class: tomatoes. “We are hermits, that is true. We live in tiny rooms, and we stay in those rooms hours upon hours … But we also like to walk around and throw ourselves into big crates of tomatoes, and roll around in them, and then get up all tomato-stained.”
- In 1983, the philosopher Vilém Flusser published Towards a Philosophy of Photography, which took an entirely technical view of the medium—and in the age of social media, the book’s arguments about technology read as eerily prescient. “Flusser claimed that the camera was the ancestor of apparatuses, which are in the process of ‘robotizing all aspects of our lives, from one’s most public acts to one’s innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires.’ And when we look at social media—from blogs, to Twitter, to Facebook, and to Instagram—we can see he was correct. The Twitter game is like Wittgenstein’s language games; we must learn the rules in order to play.”
- “Bring an excitement form wise—not just word-wise excitement but the twist of the hip—even the way we walk will be put in the poem—it gets that basic. Should if we let it. Thus those damn readers get their money’s worth. They meet us. Watch us dance.” Letters from John Wieners to Robert Greene and James Schuyler.
June 17, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s 1949 Cré na Cille is a landmark work of Irish modernism, available now in a new translation called The Dirty Dust. It’s a must-read for connoisseurs of decomposition: “All the characters are dead and speaking from inside their coffins, which are interred in a graveyard in Connemara, on Ireland’s west coast. The novel has no physical action or plot, but rather some 300 pages of cascading dialogue without narration, description, stage direction, or any indication of who’s speaking when.” If there’s an afterlife, let’s hope God isn’t a modernist.
- Of course, the God of antiquity wasn’t such a stand-up guy, either. The Bible finds Jesus promising a rich man “treasure in heaven” if only he’ll give to the poor in life. Somewhere along the line, that caveat fell by the wayside: “By the third century, however, in both Judaism and Christianity, the gesture of giving had become miniaturized, as it were. One did not have to perform feats of heroic self-sacrifice or charity to place treasure in heaven. Small gifts would do … Heaven was thus not only a place of great treasure houses, it included prime real estate in a state of continuous construction due to almsgiving performed on earth by means of common, coarse money.”
- If you were a woman wandering the streets of eighteenth-century London at night, you were generally taken for a prostitute. A 1754 book called The Midnight-Ramble: or, The Adventures of Two Noble Females: Being a True and Impartial Account of their Late Excursion through the Streets of London and Westminster—almost certainly written by a man, of course—supposedly aimed to rebuke young ladies for their wanton behavior. But it probably only served to encourage them—these “noble females” seem to have had a great time after dark: “The two women resolve to disguise themselves as monks in order to monitor their husbands’ nocturnal activities in the city. In prosecuting this plan, they commission their milliner, Mrs Flim, whose name signals that she is adept at idle deception, to bring them ‘ordinary Silk Gowns, close Capuchins, and black Hats.’ And, having taken care ‘to exhilerate their Spirits with a Bottle of excellent Champain,’ the three of them set off in pursuit of the men.”
- Elizabeth Taylor wrote twelve novels and several collections of stories, but her name recognition was compromised—turns out there was a certain actress who also happened to go by Elizabeth Taylor. “Another, more eventful world intrudes from time to time in the form of fan letters to the other Elizabeth Taylor,” she wrote. “Men write to me and ask for a picture of me in my bikini. My husband thinks I should send one and shake them, but I have not got a bikini.”
- Francine Prose on Felix Moeller’s new documentary Forbidden Films, a harrowing study of the cinema of Nazi indoctrination: “One of the most fascinating and disturbing sequences in Forbidden Films deals with Ich Klage An (1941), I Accuse, a film that was used to foster public discussions of euthanasia and to persuade the German public of the necessity of the Nazi euthanasia program. In the film, a doctor’s young and beautiful wife, afflicted with multiple sclerosis, begs her husband to ‘release’ her before her sufferings increase and she degenerates into an unrecognizable version of herself … ‘Her suffering was inhumane,’ the doctor claims in his own defense. ‘That is why I released her.’ During the period that the film was being produced and shown, the Nazis had already murdered, or would subsequently murder, a total of some 70,000 people ... ”