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Plug Up the Spiritual Emptiness, and Other News

August 19, 2015 | by

Aghast at modernity: R.S. Thomas.

  • In which James Wood discusses “smarty-pants tone,” his revised opinion on David Foster Wallace, and erasing the distinction between pleasure and analysis: “At exactly the moment that I wanted really to write, and started writing poems and then trying to write bad fiction, I was reading with a view to learning stuff. I was reading poetry. How did Auden do his stanza forms? And I was trying to copy those. What’s a successful poem, what’s an unsuccessful poem? … What’s a good sentence? I don’t think I’ve changed. I am as sincerely interested in novels that fail as I am in novels that succeed. I just want to work them out. It’s a pleasure for me actually.”
  • Who doesn’t love a good moral panic? In today’s advanced society, hardly a decade can pass without the populace whipping itself into a righteous lather over something or other—the eighties’ day-care abuse scandals stand as an especially potent reminder of our ability to delude ourselves, and the consequences of this delusion. Richard Beck’s We Believe the Children remembers the madness: “Jennifer went to regular one-on-one meetings with a therapist named Miriam, who also saw other children who had been allegedly abused at the day care. Miriam used dolls to demonstrate sex acts and then asked Jennifer to affirm that these things had happened to her. ‘I remember getting massive headaches,’ Jennifer said. ‘And I remember Miriam saying, “Say this happened to you, it did, it did”—repeatedly—“it did, didn’t it?”’ Over and over again.”
  • The Japanese poet Sagawa Chika died, in 1936, before she’d even turned twenty-five—and before a long period of cultural upheaval in which her work quickly fell out of favor. “But over the past decade, her work has enjoyed a revival among contemporary Japanese poets, and it has begun to appear in English … Sagawa used free verse to explore her interiority through imagery: rather than relying on traditional forms, she expressed an individual relationship with the world and with nature … the body frequently becomes alien, distant, and threatening.”
  • The Welsh poet R. S. Thomas, on the other hand, fled modernity in all its guises, embracing instead a thorough, religious misanthropy: “He despised modern consumer culture—talking of ‘the machine’ with its ‘cold brain,’ the yearning for the latest white goods to plug up the spiritual emptiness … He did not want to see an unspoilt spot carpeted in caravan parks and hated that the road to the saints on Bardsey had become ‘a thoroughfare for ice-cream vendors.’ He was enraged to bump into a ‘creature in a bikini’ on a birding trip.”
  • Why did Jeff Bezos choose the name Amazon, anyway, all those years ago? “Bezos’s Amazon was not, it turns out, named for a woman warrior, but for the mighty river … Apparently Bezos didn’t take his research that far, or even so far as to consider some relationship between the greatest river in the world and a mythical tribe of female fighters. He began, rather, with the name Cadabra … When his lawyer misheard the word as Cadaver, Bezos was prompted to change the name. He went for the river because of the implication of large scale and because website listings at the time were mostly alphabetical. The A and Z in Amazon didn’t hurt, since it allowed the logo designer to join them with a little yellow arrow, suggesting a place that sells everything from A to Z and also leaves its customers smiling.”

Camping for Everyone, and Other News

August 18, 2015 | by

campingladies

From Wiser Counselors, Better Camps, Happier Children, 1929.

  • Anyone who maintains that writers play a pivotal role in advancing and transforming our language is dead wrong—the real engines for linguistic change are teenage girls, who have served as “disruptors” since the fifteenth century, if not earlier. Linguists who have studied six thousand letters from 1417 to 1681 “found that female letter-writers changed the way they wrote faster than male letter-writers, spearheading the adoption of new words and discarding words like doth and maketh.”
  • Next year will see the release of a new Cormac McCarthy novel called The Passenger, the first since 2006’s The Road. (There’s a joke to be made here about how The Road and The Passenger together sound like a spin-off of Car and Driver, but … ah, forget it.) The new book, scuttlebutt suggests, is “set in New Orleans around 1980. It has to do with a brother and sister. When the book opens she’s already committed suicide, and it’s about how he deals with it. She’s an interesting girl.” As for McCarthy, he spends most of his time “at a science and mathematics think tank in New Mexico, the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), where he is a trustee.”
  • Reminder: Ottessa Moshfegh doesn’t need your praise or acceptance. “I don’t care about being a literary personality—that doesn’t appeal to me, especially because the literary world doesn’t appeal to me. I actually don’t feel like I even belong in it … If this was high school, I would be sitting with the goths, looking at everyone, being like, Whatever.”
  • In the early twentieth century, with the nineteenth amendment finally ratified, the writers of camping guides realized at last that women can enjoy camping, too—thus ensued a slew of new camping and hunting books for women. “Somehow, out of the neglect, arose the impression that woods’ joys were for men alone,” Woodcraft for Women begins. “Gradually a few women discovered that the lazy drifting down a pine and rock-bound stream calms feminine as well as masculine nerves and that the dimly blazed trail into an unknown country arouses the pioneering instinct in them as truly as it does a man.”
  • Looking back at Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques: “If the voice of this French anthropologist conveys to you nothing more than academic curmudgeonliness, let’s leave it there. But isn’t it a kind of fastidiousness that seems to belong to a vanished intellectual world? It seems a promise that he feels his discoveries too important not to be told, and perhaps they are.”

The Clown Spirit of 1923, and Other News

August 17, 2015 | by

gusinde-clown-spirit

Ulen is a clown­-like male spirit, whose role is to entertain the audience of the Selk’nam Hain ceremony, 1923. Photo: Martin Gusinde/Anthropos Institute/Éditions Xavier Barral, via NYRB

  • In New York, most of the iconic bookstores make certain distasteful concessions to consumers. Their books are in alphabetical order, for example, on neat, clearly marked shelves. Not so in John Scioli’s Community Bookstore, which has been a fixture in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill for more than thirty years. Now it’s closing, and Scioli, having collected five and a half million dollars, wants you to know a few things: “A lot of young people can’t handle this type of store. They want everything to look like a supermarket, like Barnes & Noble. Very neat. Some young people come in and they say, ‘Do you have a computer?’ I’m like, ‘No, do you want to buy a computer?’ and then they start to walk out. They don’t know how they’re supposed to find anything without a computer—like, they want Hemingway, and I tell him that their book is under the ‘Hemingway’ section … they never saw a messy bookstore.”
  • From 1918 to 1924, Martin Gusinde, a priest, traveled to Tierra del Fuego, where he began to the photograph the Selk’nam, Yamana, and Kawésqar peoples, whose cultures were even then facing extinction. His pictures are collected in The Lost Tribes of Tierra del Fuego: “Several photos show naked male figures standing barefoot in the snow, their bodies painted in bold white stripes on dark ochre and wearing eerie, phallic headdresses. An image of a snowy field strewn with corpse-like forms—according to the caption, initiates enacting a passage through the underworld—evokes uncanny echoes of the actual Selk’nam genocide. White bone-dust covering the skin and conical masks of Kawésqar initiates gives them a spectral, hallucinatory quality.”
  • Today in brouhahas with the classics: Spanish academics have derided a new, more accessible translation of the famously difficult Don Quixote as “a crime against literature.” “You cannot twist the flavor of the words of the greatest writer in our language,” one professor said, though I had thought you couldn’t twist any flavor, period.
  • Dance criticism was once a regular part of magazines and newspapers—but in recent years, the New York Post, Time Out New York, The New Republic, the Village Voice, New York, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle have all let go of their dance critics, thus reinforcing the fact that “dance is the least respected of the fine arts … That’s been the case ever since the fourth century when the church took over the arts and banished dance from public religious ceremonies.”
  • Clancy Martin on Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel Eileen: “We expect this pathology of dissatisfaction, ennui, and frustrated need in a certain brand of narcissistic male hero, but in a female narrator it is more disturbing, more interesting, and more exciting. Her hunger lends her a perceptiveness you won’t find in a more content character. Her observations are always a bit too disturbing, too repellent—but they are never blithe, silly, or conventional. She has that scalpel-like, cynical intelligence and insight that one gets with a blistering hangover.”

It’s Not a Bean, It’s an Oil Bubble, and Other News

August 14, 2015 | by

Karmay’s suspiciously Kapoor-ish new sculpture.

  • Plenty of adjectives are fit for Norman Mailer—insecure, misogynistic, overrated—but the one people seem to settle on, as a kind of euphemism, is pugnacious. Yes, here was a man whose ears always pricked up for the call of combat, a man who’d ask you to put your dukes up even when no one was watching: “Imagine it: Mailer is living in small-town Connecticut. He takes his dogs out after midnight to relieve themselves. He chances to stroll past a few young men sitting on a porch, one of whom points out the obvious: Mailer’s well-groomed poodles were probably queer. Mailer must have seen the implication: Who would own homosexual dogs, if not a homosexual man? In the middle of the night, with no one there to impress, one of the world’s most famous authors demanded satisfaction … Fearing for his life and bleeding from both eyes, Mailer surrendered and dragged himself home. Laid up in a dark room for days afterwards, he didn’t feel too badly about himself: there was only dishonor in flinching from a fight, not in losing decently.”
  • Joan Didion, meanwhile, has been held up as the embodiment of feminine cool, even with her wincingly elitist, antifeminist politics: “It’s interesting to think about how Didion would have fared had she come to New York in 2015 rather than 1955. She is, after all, a writer for whom feelings (especially her own) are inherently unreliable sources. She assailed feminism’s ‘invention of women as a “class” ’ and wrote dismissively of the oppressed ‘Everywoman’ who ‘needed contraceptives because she was raped on every date … and raped finally on the abortionist’s table.’ She never got involved in the women’s movement, because, according to a friend, ‘she was beyond that.’ Didion is, for all her sensitivity and curiosity, more than a little bit of a class snob.”
  • The Contemporary Novel,” an 1927 essay by T. S. Eliot, is finally seeing publication in English, nearly ninety years later. Of novelists like Woolf, Lawrence, and Huxley, he writes, “I can find unity—or rather, unanimity—only in the fact that they all lack what [Henry] James seems to me so preeminently to possess: the ‘moral preoccupation.’ And as I believe that this ‘moral preoccupation’ is more and more asserting itself in the minds of those who think and feel, I am forced to the somewhat extreme conclusion that the contemporary English novel is behind the times.”
  • Some twenty-five hundred words of a lost F. Scott Fitzgerald novel have been found languishing in a box in the Princeton library. They’re from an unfinished work called Ballet School—Chicago, which is about, sure enough, “a ballerina trying to make her way in Chicago. She has an attraction to a wealthy neighbor because he can get her out of this tough existence … and she can have a happy life with him. The story goes into the very hard training for ballet dancers. But then something quirky and unsuspected happens that changes her impression of him.”
  • Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, otherwise known as “the Bean,” has been a major attraction in Chicago since 2006, which is maybe why in China, the city of Karamay, Xinjiang, has just ripped it off with a new, shiny, surprisingly Bean-like sculpture of their own. “A spokesperson from the Karamay tourism bureau went on the record to defend the sculpture, telling the Wall Street Journal that while Kapoor’s sculpture was ‘a bean shape,’ the sculpture in Karamay ‘looks like an oil bubble.’ ”

Zero at the Bone, and Other News

August 13, 2015 | by

A daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, ca. 1848.

  • Since David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, Infinite Jest has undergone a dramatic change in its cultural significance: once merely the mark of a curious reader, it’s become a totem for bros, who see in its massive size and brainy reputation a chance to show off their own massive size and brainy reputations—and who have no intention of really grappling with it. “How did poor David Foster Wallace go from dissecting the pretensions and shortcomings of mid-century men of letters to holding a central place in the pretensions of their heirs? … [Jest’s] irrefutable bigness is a dare … For these men, Wallace stands as a challenge to be confronted, just as the paperback brick of Infinite Jest stands as a challenge to the guy hauling it on the G train.”
  • Alexandra Kleeman, whose debut short story “Fairy Tale” appeared in our Winter 2010 issue, discusses her new novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, and the altogether surreal experience of seeing ads on TV for the first time after a long break from the medium: “They’re these little pockets of weirdness … You get these characters who so fervently believe in the power of a certain product, they’re so fervently wanting to fix this one problem. You have these weird extreme emotions like jealousies and affections for things that no normal person would, so I find them really interesting and almost beautiful in that way, like surrealist films. You can feel how much money goes into commercials by how swiftly they act on your mind. And they’ve got like a hypnotic quality to the way they present their products. I can feel myself taking on a desire for that thing, or at least like feeling the desire they want me to feel, when I see a beautifully done eye, or makeup, or the softness of some cotton fabric bouncing up and down.”
  • And Lydia Davis looks at the life and work of Lucia Berlin, who died in 2004, and whose story “B.F. and Me” appears in our Summer issue: “We have, most of us, known at least some part of what she went through: children in trouble, or early molestation, or a rapturous love affair, struggles with addiction, a difficult illness or disability, an unexpected bond with a sibling, or a tedious job, difficult fellow workers, a demanding boss, or a deceitful friend, not to speak of awe in the presence of the natural world—Hereford cattle knee-deep in Indian paintbrush, a field of bluebonnets, a pink rocket flower growing in the alley behind a hospital. Because we have known some part of it, or something like it, we are right there with her as she takes us through it.”
  • It’s time to make food a permanent part of the cultural canon: “We have traditionally regarded cuisines as pop or folk art at best­—cherished but ephemeral, beginning as peasant food forged from the local landscape and naturally disappearing as people emigrated and landscapes changed … ‘There is a group of us who want to know the deep flavors of what has endured longest. Those ingredients that mattered for so long that they became “the taste” of the time, the points of reference against which all innovations were measured. For me, those ingredients constitute the canon, and the dishes of the time frame them.’ ”
  • Step aside—Joyce Carol Oates is asking the big questions about inspiration and art. “Why do we write? What is the motive for metaphor? … Is inspiration a singular phenomenon, or does it take taxonomical forms? Indeed, is the uninspired life worth living? … ‘Inspiration’ is an elusive term. We all want to be ‘inspired’ if the consequence is something original and worthwhile; we would even consent to be ‘haunted’—‘obsessed’—if the consequence were significant. For all writers dread what Emily Dickinson calls ‘Zero at the Bone’—the dead zone from which inspiration has fled.”

As American as April in Arizona, and Other News

August 12, 2015 | by

Nabokov in 1969. Photo: Giuseppe Pino

  • For three years, Barton Swaim worked as a speechwriter for Mark Sanford, the maligned former governor of South Carolina. His book, The Speechwriter, suggests that Sanford’s grammar was as wanting as his ethics: “Nearly every page of this book is wet with the tears of a pedant. At their first meeting, Sanford interrupts Swaim to ask whether it is appropriate to begin a sentence with a preposition. Swaim suggests that he must mean a conjunction, in which case it is a silly non-rule that no good writer has ever observed. Sanford is unconvinced: ‘There’s a rule against beginning a sentence with a prepositions [sic]—conjunctions, whatever—and you can’t break rules.’ Determined to keep the boss happy, Swaim dutifully tries to remove ‘yet’ from a speech a few weeks later, only to be rebuffed by a colleague who assures him that Sanford ‘doesn’t know “yet” is a conjunction’.”
  • When Nabokov came to America, his whole style underwent a transformation, and he took pains to emphasize his Americanness; he said once that he was “as American as April in Arizona.” “Nabokov turned himself into a more purely American writer than many others have so far acknowledged … But the questions remain. Where did Nabokov really develop what Kingsley Amis, in a brilliant review of Lolita in The Spectator, called his ‘Charles Atlas muscle-man’ style of writing? Was it in St Petersburg or on an American campus? On the family estate back home in Russia or in the lonely motel rooms he and Véra liked to stay in on their long summer tours of the Rockies and the Southern states? Are literary audacity and effrontery really echt American or are they the products of aristocratic disdain?”
  • Somewhere deep in the annals of facial-hair scholarship you’ll find T. S. Gowing’s The Philosophy of Beards, a treatise from 1875 or thereabouts that makes a series of dubious aesthetic and functional arguments for bearding: “‘The beards of foreign smiths and masons,’ he remarks, ‘filter plaster dust and metal from the air, protecting the lungs.’ Bearded soldiers, he claims, are less likely to catch colds; and the ability of a moustache to warm the air is invaluable ‘in a consumption-breeding climate like ours.’” He also suggests that a shaved man resembles a monkey—contradicting more recent research that suggests that men grow beards expressly to indulge “simian displays of size and aggression.”
  • Today in holography: Alkiviades David, a forty-seven-year-old billionaire and hologram impresario, thinks that “the hologram business is bigger than porn. It’s going to be as big as the movie market.” He imagines hologram performances so sophisticated that it would be possible to bring back Amy Winehouse. Or the Beatles. Or Jesus. But he seems to miss the fact that people have a limited appetite for novelties and imitations: “Ultimately, what is a hologram good for? … It’s entirely possible, even probable, that, at some point, David’s technology will be fully able to create and project a celebrity digital likeness that’s indistinguishable from the real thing, one that moves fluidly and organically and delivers unerringly consistent performances. But no matter how lifelike, a hologram still favors the second half of that adjective more than the first.”
  • The French artist Bernar Venet has written conceptual poetry since 1967, when the phrase conceptual poetry inspired many fewer grunts of disdain than it does now. His focus is on “the rudimentary syntax of the list,” and his “list poems” comprise everything from “synonyms to acronyms to currency exchange rates to the most frequented tourist destinations in France.” His poem “Monostique” is literally a math problem. “Following French semiologist Jacques Bertin, he associates figurative representation with polysemy (which is open to multiple meanings) and abstraction with pansemy (which is open to any meaning). Mathematical symbols, on the other hand, convey only a single, fixed meaning, and for Venet, such unambiguity has not yet been explored in the history of art.”