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Congratulations, You’re Everywhere, and Other News

May 12, 2016 | by

William Sergeant Kendall, Narcissa (detail).

  • The art of literary hate mail endures, though you’d think people today would have better things to do or at least more prominent people to hate. William Giraldi offers a history of the form, a glimpse at some of his own hate mail (received, not sent), and, best of all, a sample of D. H. Lawrence’s scornful contributions, which reveal him as a true master of spleen: “To poet Amy Lowell in 1914: ‘Why do you deny the bitterness in your nature, when you write poetry? Why do you take a pose? It causes you always to shirk your issues, and find a banal resolution at the end.’ To Katherine Mansfield in 1920: ‘I loathe you. You revolt me stewing in your consumption,’ to which he amends this barb: ‘The Italians were quite right to have nothing to do with you.’ To critic John Middleton Murry in 1924: ‘Your articles in the Adelphi always annoy me. Why care so much about your own fishiness or fleshiness? Why make it so important? Can’t you focus yourself outside yourself? Not forever focused on yourself, ad nauseam?’ To Aldous Huxley in 1928: ‘I have read Point Counter Point with a heart sinking through my boot soles … It becomes of a phantasmal boredom and produces ultimately inertia, inertia, inertia and final atrophy of the feelings.’”
  • Forty-five years ago, Sports Illustrated hired Hunter S. Thompson to write five hundred words about a motorcycle race in Vegas. What emerged from the assignment was … different: “The final version would clock in at 204 pages (more than sixty thousand words)—over the course of which Thompson would manage to include a grand total of twenty-two psychopharmacological substances. Acid/LSD appears the most: it’s mentioned thirty-nine times and is consumed, in scene, twice. Mescaline comes in second, referred to on nineteen different occasions, but regarding consumption it takes top billing … While Hunter Thompson would manage to include in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a wide variety of subjects, one theme we tend to overlook, today, is a perspective on drugs that manages to articulate, with surprising foresight, our own present-day relationship with psychopharmacology—with stimulants, especially. After all, Thompson wasn’t taking Dexedrine to get high, to expand his consciousness; his amphetamine use could be egregious, yes, and on these two trips, after so many days of constant consumption—of drinking and not sleeping—the end result, the general degradation of his physical and mental state, would seem to suggest otherwise. But he didn’t use the drug to escape the reality of the world around him … ”

Shit Is Furniture, and Other News

May 11, 2016 | by

Merdacotta—clean enough to eat off of.

  • Because life is a waking nightmare in which the grandees of the universe spread their sagging buttocks over our prone bodies, Budweiser has changed its name to America. Ricardo Marques, a Budweiser veep hastening the arrival of the end times, gave an interview to Fast Company: “The tagline for the entire related media campaign is meant to be incredibly sincere, even inspiring message: ‘America is in your hands.’ When I ask Marques, jokingly, if drinking Budweiser now means you’re drinking America, his reply is dead serious. ‘In a way, it is true,’ he says. ‘If you think about Budweiser as the most iconic American brand when it comes to beer, it’s probably not incorrect.’ ”
  • But we mustn’t lose faith. Even as corporations coopt the nation-state and install themselves as our new gods, people are restlessly creating, inventing … turning shit into furniture. “Made out of clay and cow excrement, merdacotta—literally, ‘baked shit’ in Italian—can be fashioned into tiles, tableware, flowerpots and, fittingly, toilet bowls. An installation of items made out of merdacotta was one of the most memorable offerings at this year’s Salone del Mobile design extravaganza in Milan. Luca Cipelletti, an architect who helped to devise the exhibition, says that ‘people smile and think it’s funny to talk about caca, but behind it all we are exploring interesting and philosophical ideas about man, art and nature as well as the concept of transformation.’ ”
  • Meanwhile, in Russia, the “medical and biological” costs of keeping Vladimir Lenin’s body preserved have reached $197,000 annually. “If carefully monitored and re-embalmed regularly, scientists believe he can last in this state for centuries more,” writes Daria Litvinova for the Guardian.  (Note that dangling modifier: if the sentence isn’t corrected, someone might reasonably believe that we must embalm those scientists). “The first idea didn’t involve embalming at all, but deep freezing … In early March 1924, when preparations were gaining momentum, two well-known chemists, Vladimir Vorobyov and Boris Zbarsky, suggested embalming him with a chemical mixture that would prevent the corpse from decomposing, drying up and changing color and shape.”

A Superman at the Supermarket, and Other News

May 10, 2016 | by

Bob Adelman during the march from Selma to Montgomery, 1965.

  • The landscape architect Adriaan Geuze (pronounced “Huh-zaa”) is changing our notions of what a park can be. But to understand his work it helps to understand his past in the Netherlands—unless you’ve never wondered about the formative years of an influential landscape architect: “‘Ecology in Holland is in grids,’ Geuze said. ‘Every frog in Holland is in a line, because all the water is linear … The smell of the tide near Dordrecht, it intoxicated my brains … All the boys were into soccer, but I could not play soccer.’ Waiting out the school day, he would think, he said, ‘I have a tree hut. I have secret places you don’t even know where they are.’ When Geuze was a teenager, his father took him along to international industry and agricultural shows. ‘We went to the German Hanover machinery expos, where there would be not five machines but five thousand machines. He took me on very big boats, at least in my imagination—ocean steamers—and even an oil platform. Even into the engine rooms, where the violent noise was there. When I am romantic, I am thinking about these things.’ ”

The Natural Springs of New York City, and Other News

May 9, 2016 | by

A woman drinks at Carman Spring, on West 175th Street east of Amsterdam Avenue, New York City, c. 1897–1902. Photo: James Reuel Smith/New York Historical Society.

Watch Out for Hidden Skulls, and Other News

May 6, 2016 | by

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533.

  • With Zero K out, Don DeLillo is doing that most un-DeLillo of things: giving interviews. He told Mark O’Connell, “The novel still exists. And to my mind it still can be called a flourishing form. There are so many good younger writers. It’s clear people are drawn towards the form—people who want to write are drawn toward the novel. It’s the most accommodating form, certainly within fiction, and the most challenging. And it’s very heartening to see so many good young writers. Don’t ask me for names. But I do know the work of some of them, and I do know the opinions of people I respect who read more than I do. So I don’t feel any dismay concerning the form itself … I find that being active as a fiction writer propels one toward the future, in a way.”
  • While we’re on DeLillo: it’s comforting, in some small way, to know that Ben Rhodes, the nation’s deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications, has or has had DeLillo on his mind. “He saw the planes hit the towers, an unforgettable moment of sheer disbelief followed by panic and shock and lasting horror, a scene that eerily reminded him, in the aftermath, of the cover of the Don DeLillo novel Underworld … He was in the second year of the M.F.A. program at NYU, writing short stories about losers in garden apartments and imagining that soon he would be published in literary magazines, acquire an agent and produce a novel by the time he turned twenty-six. He saw the first tower go down, and after that he walked around for a while … ‘I immediately developed this idea that, you know, maybe I want to try to write about international affairs,’ he explained.”
  • The Crucible is sixty-three years old, and for all its heavy-handedness it’s still a great way to rile yourself up about despotism, especially when it’s set, as a new production is, in a contemporary elementary school: “For viewers around the globe, the play evokes frustrations with tyrannical, violent political leaders. As election season engulfs us, Ivo van Hove’s production urges us to consider our country’s currently campaigning personalities … Times never really change, Van Hove suggests. We’re all still schoolchildren, feuding and petty and hesitant to admit our mistakes. There’s a thin line between theatrics and rabble-rousing and the human inclination to follow spectacular reasoning, regardless of its truth. What matters more is what’s being taught and what’s been learned.”
  • Optical illusions can save your life, man. And your soul. India’s transport ministry has used some sleight of hand to make their crosswalks seem to levitate from the street, which reminds Kelly Grovier of a memento mori from the sixteenth century: “When it was unveiled in 1533, the double portrait The Ambassadors by the German and Swiss artist Hans Holbein the Younger must have struck observers as a road bump for the soul. Looked at straight on from the front, the huge oil-on-oak painting is enigmatic enough, presenting to the observer a pair of distinguished diplomats caught in a clutter of worldly amusements: musical instruments and scientific whatnots scattered about the shelves on which they lean … But pass by the painting at a shallow angle from the left, such that your eye catches the work by chance in the periphery of its vision, and a mystery tucked into the center of the painting stops you cold. Only from that askance vantage do you see the optical illusion Holbein has secretly positioned into the foreground of his work: the cracked cranium of a spooky skull grinning back you.”
  • Today in correlations that seem absurd on the face of it, but then you give them a little thought and you’re like, Oh, yeah, that kind of makes sense: Ping-Pong-table sales are tethered to the fate of the tech industry. As goes tech, so goes Ping-Pong. “Is the tech bubble popping? Ping-Pong offers an answer, and the tables are turning … Table buying ‘tracks most closely with start-ups that hit that threshold where they’re taking out office space,’ says Russell Hancock, chief executive of think tank Joint Venture Silicon Valley, which follows economic trends. ‘That’s when you’re going to get your first Ping-Pong table.’ Table sellers seeing a decline include David Vannatta, sales team leader at Sports Authority in San Francisco. The store was getting a ‘good flow of tech companies’ buying tables, he says, but sales have fallen since Christmas.”

The Pleasures of the Moth Hunter, and Other News

May 5, 2016 | by

Vincent van Gogh, Emperor Moth (detail), 1889.

  • Guess which living luminary has a new essay out? Hint one: it involves California, the seventies, and a certain inimitable brand of world weariness. Hint two: the author is an anagram of “Dad Join Ion.” “I see now that the life I was raised to admire was infinitely romantic,” she writes. “The clothes chosen for me had a strong element of the Pre-Raphaelite, the medieval. Muted greens and ivories. Dusty roses. (Other people wore powder blue, red, white, navy, forest green, and Black Watch plaid. I thought of them as ‘conventional,’ but I envied them secretly. I was doomed to unconventionality.) Our houses were also darker than other people’s, and we favored, as a definite preference, copper and brass that had darkened and greened. We also let our silver darken carefully in all the engraved places, to ‘bring out the pattern.’ To this day I am disturbed by highly polished silver. It looks ‘too new.’ ”
  • Remember that golden toilet I told you about a few weeks ago, the one that’s being installed at the Guggenheim? Well—there’s no easy way to say this—there’s been a problem. And now the toilet is delayed indefinitely. I share in your outrage because I, like you, can’t really “produce” on any toilet without at least a little gold in it. But remember, it’s not everyday that a foundry is called upon to cast a solid-gold throne. You can’t rush quality. A spokeswoman said of the wait: “It’s not days, but I can’t be more specific than that right now … The foundry encountered technical difficulties which they are working to resolve … To the museum’s knowledge, this kind of casting process has never been done before.”
  • Today in boundaries and demarcations: Give up. They don’t exist. Felice Frankel, a science photographer, has used her images to seek edges, the point where one thing definitively becomes another. “If you really, really get down to things,” she says, “what looks like a clean separation from one place to another, when you investigate it microscopically or macroscopically, is not as perfect as it appears … I believe strongly that we need to have a conversation; or part of the display, the depiction, has to be some sort of description about how the picture was made. We have to create standards, not only in the making of the pictures, but in understanding what the pictures are saying—and to really be aware of image manipulation, for example. My concern is that all scientific images are clumped together in one big happy family of honest representations, and that’s not necessarily the case.”
  • Of the twentieth century’s many extinctions, the moths—sixty-two species of which have disappeared in the UK alone—have perhaps not been properly mourned. Cue John Burnside: “Many years ago, I was a volunteer moth-hunter. I wasn’t a collector (I’ve always been puzzled by the impulse to capture a live creature, gas it and then pin its motionless corpse to a board); I was just another helping hand for a number of surveys aimed at estimating the variety and size of local populations … Even the names are cause for delight. ‘Garden tiger’ and ‘snout’ are self-explanatory, but who came up with ‘Brighton wainscot’ for an exquisitely beautiful creature that looks like nothing so much as a tiny bride in her wedding gown, or ‘Clifden nonpareil’ for that astonishing specimen whose underwing—a very dark blue, fringed with silvery white and streaked all the way across with a sky-blue stripe—is actually a defense mechanism, startling any predator that might descend upon it with a riot of unexpected color?”
  • If American popular culture from Roseanne to Beyoncé has taught us one thing, it is this: don’t be a Becky. “The quintessential Becky character we know and loathe today was thrust into the mainstream cultural lexicon in 1992 when she appeared in Sir Mix-a-Lot’s booty-shaking anthem, ‘Baby Got Back.’ In the song’s intro, a white woman gossips to her friend about a black woman’s behind. ‘Oh my god, Becky, look at her butt. It is so big. She looks like one of those rap guy’s girlfriends’ … Throughout movies and television of the 1990s and 2000s, Becky is often characterized not only as promiscuous, but also as image-obsessed. She appears frequently as a pageant queen, a vapid shopaholic, or an irresponsible teenager … Over the last decade, some of the most detested characters on television have all had one thing in common: they are in high school, and their names are Becky.”