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Limbo

November 25, 2014 | by

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John Singer Sargent, Violet Paget (Vernon Lee), 1881

Vernon Lee—the pen name of the English writer Violet Paget—was a travel writer, novelist, musician, and critic with a strong interest in aesthetics. One of the first to bring the concept of Einfühlung, or empathy, into English criticism, she was also an outspoken follower of Walter Pater’s aestheticism. “An engaged feminist, she always dressed à la garçonne,” someone has written, amazingly, on Wikipedia. 

Lee’s work is included in any collection of Victorian ghost stories. Her work is haunting in the true sense, and not merely because it deals so frequently with possession. Her stories are graceful, engaging, surprisingly strange. There are often lesbian subtexts; the supernatural was a vehicle for a writer like Lee to indirectly explore such themes.

I first came to Lee through a novella called “A Phantom Lover” in a collection from the 1960s. As with many of Lee’s works, the narrator is male. This one also features a woman given to cross-dressing, specifically period Elizabethan cross-dressing. A nameless painter is invited to an isolated, beautifully preserved country house to do portraits of the young squire and his wife. The latter proves to be a mysterious and somewhat perverse creature, remote and self-absorbed, utterly obsessed with the story of a long-dead ancestor. The love triangle that arises is not what one might expect: it’s far creepier. Find it if you can, and then if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to seek out the 1890s collection Hauntings. Read More »

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Sleep of the Just

November 24, 2014 | by

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Illustration by Randolph Caldecott.

You know how J. M. W. Turner tried to exhibit his work at the Royal Academy and the Royal Academy was all, Wow, your work is way too innovative and interesting and we can’t show it because it would threaten all our hidebound, bourgeois ideas and force us to reevaluate everything and make important societal changes? Yeah, well, I totally see their point. Once a year, anyway.

Because every November, all the food magazines and blogs start trying to bully us into to reinventing the wheel. Don’t be a fogey! they scream. What, you’re still eating turkey? HAHAHA. Well, if you insist on being a “traditionalist,” stuff that turkey with linguica and kale! Baste it with ramen! Douse it in pomegranate molasses! (All this is said in a vaguely threatening, SportsCenter-style cadence.) This isn’t your mom’s green bean casserole! You’re not even seeing those losers, are you, with their stupid political views and opinions about your love life? Surely you’re having some awesome no-strings Friendsgiving celebrating the new family you’ve chosen! Right? RIGHT?! SRIRACHA. SRIRACHA. SRIRACHA. 

Look. I get the market demands of the newsstand. You can’t just recycle the same stuff year after year. Nor do I mean to advocate a slavish adherence to tradition. In my family’s case, that would mean cleaning the dining room table off in a panic at the last minute, barring entrance to the rooms where we’ve stuck all the mess, then watching my mother stand in front of the digital meat thermometer with tears rolling down her cheeks.  Read More »

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Head Cases

November 21, 2014 | by

An illustration from Les gens de Medecine dans l'oeuvre de Daumier. Via the Wellcome Library

Migraines are the most glamorous of headaches. Mysterious, debilitating, unpredictable: they get all the press. Who wants to talk about the workaday irritation of a tension headache, the dull thud of dehydration, the queasy slosh of sinus infections? That’s not sexy. By definition, even; the headache is the punch line to half the Andy Capp jokes in the world. 

But migraines! Everyone relishes a migraine. They have a literal aura! Migraines foster the sort of pure narcissism that only intense, essentially benign pain can. We sufferers (that’s how it’s described, “migraine sufferer”) feel it is meet and right that the migraine should be dramatized in films like Pi or White Heat; this strengthens the perception that migraines are the hallmark of geniuses, or at least psychopaths. Joan Didion writes about them; of course she does. In “In Bed,” she describes the purification arising from this crucible of pain:

The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings.

Yes, Joan, yes! That’s it exactly! Of course, she also says, “My husband also has migraine, which is unfortunate for him but fortunate for me: perhaps nothing so tends to prolong an attack as the accusing eye of someone who has never had a headache.” I disagree. What migraine sufferer wants to share the limelight? After all, we all know in our hearts that no one in the history of the world has ever experienced basically unserious pain like we have.

It’s a bit like cats on social media. On the face of it, social media is a boon for cat fanciers, so long isolated from the easy socialization of other pet owners. And on the face of it, it is indeed a vibrant online community. But the suspicion cannot help but intrude, first, that everyone really thinks her cat is the cutest, the wackiest, the wittiest, the best. And second, that this conviction is unshakeable. 

So it is with migraine sufferers. On the face of it, we’re collegial. Oh, you get migraines, too? We compare triggers (Tyramines? Blood sugar? Hormones?) and triptans. Have you tried Zomig? Maxalt? Imitrex? What about the spray? And then the one-upsmanship begins. How often? For how long? Where is your pain localized? Really, behind the eyes? Interesting. I didn't realize that qualified as a migraine! Light sensitivity? Nausea? Have you tried biofeedback? Beta-Blockers? Botox? Acupuncture? Going GF? (That’s recent.) What about that codeine stuff you can only get in Europe because the FDA hasn’t approved it? Have you been to the ER? How many times? Have you seen a neurologist? (We all have; there’s never anything wrong with us. At least, nothing detectable.) Of course, if anyone plays the “Cluster Headache” card, the conversation is over, and the rest of us have to trudge sullenly away.

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Call Me Madam

November 20, 2014 | by

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Photo: Karen Horton

In my defense, I was really little when my mom took me to my first concert at a grown-up concert hall. The music was for children, but I was still too babyish; I demanded to leave in the middle of act I so I could pee. I have no memory of what we heard that day, but the elegant bathroom made a huge impression on me. “Who was that lady?” I asked my mother, after a uniformed woman had handed me a paper towel and my mom had dropped a bill in her basket. And she explained: that was a Madame Pipi.

For a long while after that, I was obsessed. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” adults would ask me. And I would answer, “A Madame Pipi.” It seemed to me the most glamorous job in the world; to be surrounded by grandeur, dressed in a smart uniform, and have a bowl of money, besides. To a small child, all grown-ups seem important and magisterial; bathrooms loom large; the adult measures of income and status do not apply. I made myself a Madame Pipi outfit with a small apron, although my parents would not allow me to be on duty when we had guests. Read More »

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Another Evening Gone

November 19, 2014 | by

If you never have, watch this 1964 episode of the BBC show Monitor, in which John Betjeman interviews Philip Larkin. It is twenty-four minutes well spent. There’s the poetry: Larkin reads “Here” and “A Study of Reading Habits” and “Toads Revisited” and “Church Going” and “Wants.” Betjeman inventories the wares of a Hull department store like a mystical incantation.

There's the deliberate portrait of Larkin's circumscribed existence: we see his flat, the cemeteries and streets where he walked, and of course, the library where he worked.

Betjeman was a great champion of The Whitsun Weddings, and his knowledge of and admiration for Larkin’s work is clear. The portrait is certainly what both poets would have wished, carefully orchestrated from its location to its doleful closing quotation. And yet, there is the great, odd moment when Betjeman says, “I envy you, being a librarian. It must be marvelous to have something to fall back on.”

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Them Apples

November 18, 2014 | by

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An illustration by Philip Dadd for P. G. Wodehouse’s William Tell Told Again, 1904.

According to legend, it was on November 18, 1307, that the Swiss patriot William Tell shot an apple off his son’s head. After refusing to pay homage to a Hapsburg liege, Tell was forced to submit to the test of marksmanship. Later, Tell killed the tyrant and went on to many a daring exploit in the service of the Old Swiss Confederacy.

Although the William Tell legend is mentioned in books dating back to the late fifteenth century—and one can find similar marksmanship myths throughout the world—it was Schiller’s highly politicized play that canonized the apple-centric version, and, buoyed by Switzerland’s post-Napoleonic patriotism, made the archer iconic. Schiller had never visited Switzerland; he got the idea from his friend Goethe, who returned from a trip bearing tales of local lore. In 1804, the play premiered at Weimar under Goethe’s direction. (The popular Rossini opera—and the resulting Lone Ranger theme—was based on the play.)

Although a part of the German dramatic canon (and initially a Nazi favorite), the play came into disfavor with Hitler. After a 1941 assassination attempt by a Swiss-born activist, the Führer banned William Tell, reportedly lamenting, “Of all people Schiller had to glorify this Swiss sniper.” Read More »

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