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Ship of Fools

October 30, 2014 | by

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Hieronymus Bosch, The Ship of Fools (detail), ca. 1494-1510, oil on oak panel.

There is something profoundly lonely about sitting in a movie theater, watching something you know to be bad, while people around you enjoy it. I had such an experience recently: the movie had been rhapsodically reviewed, was as full and red a tomato as I’d ever seen on the Internet, had been enthusiastically recommended by people whose tastes I trust. I bought my ticket with high hopes. We want every movie to be fantastic, to change our lives or at least our day. And how rarely we have reason for such hopes! Nevertheless, it was with such an unusually optimistic outlook that I settled into my seat and cracked open my box of Junior Mints.

My first doubts crept in quickly. A joke was cracked; it wasn’t funny. Chill, I told myself. Go with it. It’ll get better. The dialogue was forced and unnatural. Everyone around me was laughing. There’s that moment in a movie when you can’t pretend anymore: when the unassailable realization sets in that, simply put, you’re not in safe hands. Maybe it’s a stupid twist or bad line; more often, it’s just the cumulative stupidity outweighing anything redeeming. You can’t trust the filmmakers anymore, and as a result, you can no longer relax. Besides everything else, it’s exhausting. This movie got worse and worse: clichéd, pretentious, clumsy, vain. I was cringing; the women next to me were laughing heartily. At the end of the movie, much of the audience rose for a spontaneous standing ovation.

It did not occur to me for a moment that I was mistaken. No: they were wrong. The movie was bad. Is this sort of certainty merely arrogance or some sort of madness? Either way, it’s not fun. I’m much too old to derive any satisfaction from poking holes in other people’s pleasure. At $14.50, there are cheaper ways to feel lonely. Read More »

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Raised on Promises

October 29, 2014 | by

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An illustration from Cupid’s Cyclopedia, 1910.

If you’re looking for a crash course in prewar hilarity—or, indeed, in American gender dynamics—get yourself to the nearest used bookstore and pick up a copy of 1910’s Cupid’s Cyclopedia, “Compiled for Daniel Cupid by Oliver Herford and John Cecil Clay.” Perhaps the infantile title and winking byline give a sense of the work’s witty tone.

Clay was a popular commercial artist of his day. Herford, meanwhile, was a successful professional wit; he was actually known as the American Oscar Wilde. (One imagines those who called him that had never read much Oscar Wilde.) He wrote a good bit of doggerel, plus such urbane texts as The Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1903, The Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1904The Entirely New Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1905The Complete Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1906The Altogether New Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1907The Quite New Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1908, The Perfectly Good Cynic’s CalendarThe Complete Cynic, and The Revived Cynic’s Calendar (1917).

As to the Cupid’s Cyclopedia, it was not just for cynics. On the contrary! It’s a pretty book, embellished with mischievous pen-and-ink cupids and liberally illustrated with watercolor plates. Here’s the author’s note: Read More »

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Palpable Disappointment

October 28, 2014 | by

Or, the hazards of wearing a Paris Review shirt.

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Vintage Paris Review advertisement.

While I was shopping for milk, I felt a hand tap my shoulder. It was a lady of perhaps sixty, wearing arty jewelry. “Excuse me,” she said. “I was just wondering … are you from … Paris?” She said the last word with an exaggerated French accent: Par-ee

I stared at her blankly for a moment. She, in turn, was staring at my breasts. I looked down and realized that I was wearing a Paris Review T-shirt, the dark blue 2013 version that’s modeled on a design from early in the magazine’s life. THE PARIS REVIEW, it says, along with an image of the hadada ibis in its Frisian bonnet. 

“Oh, no,” I said apologetically. “No. I’m from here.”

This is not, of course, an uncommon error; as names go, The Paris Review—which denotes a magazine based in New York, one that publishes zero reviews—is among the most misleading out there. I can’t think of another title that’s quite so dishonest. To paraphrase Mary McMarthy’s remark about Lillian Hellman, every word here is a lie, including The. (Okay, maybe not The.) 

I was prepared to explain that the American founders had indeed started the magazine in Paris in 1953; that they’d moved to New York in 1973; that upon George Plimpton’s death they’d relocated operations from his Seventy-second Street apartment to an office. I was not going to say—but was thinking—that in any case, in my experience, Parisians don’t tend to advertise their Parisian-ness on their clothing. Or maybe they do; as I’ve stated, I’m not one. 

As is so often the case, the clarification resulted in palpable disappointment.

“Oh,” said the woman. “I was going to ask you about baguettes.” She indicated the bakery section.

“You can!” I said. “I think I’ve tried all the breads here, and some are way better than others.” 

“No,” she said. “That’s okay. Thanks.” And she walked away.

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The Little Shrimp

October 27, 2014 | by

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A postcard of the Little Shrimp.

One imagines that lots of Dylan Thomas devotees are marking his centenary by making a pilgrimage to the White Horse Tavern, where the dissolute poet famously downed those last fatal eighteen whiskeys. For their sake, we hope the White Horse is not thronged with frat boys, although I guess they have as much right to pay their respects as anyone. More, maybe. 

Naturally, any Thomas-themed New York walking tour—and there are several, guided and otherwise—includes the White Horse, the sites of his other watering holes, and perhaps St. Vincent’s hospital, where he died. Personally, I prefer to focus on a happier landmark from Thomas’s New York days: the Little Shrimp. This restaurant—a favorite of the poet’s when he was in residence at the Hotel Chelsea—is where, in 1952, the young, audacious Barbara Cohen and Marianne Rooney approached Thomas about making recordings for their new line of spoken-word records. The result was Caedmon Records—the source of many of Thomas’s iconic recordings—and the classic record A Child’s Christmas in WalesRead More »

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Once and Future

October 24, 2014 | by

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T. H. White. Photo: Burns Library, Boston College

Perhaps you’ve read Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories, or the volumes of poetry she wrote (some with her partner, Valentine Ackland). Lolly Willowes, her best-known work, is a sly novel about a spinster who takes up witchcraft, and well worth seeking out. But my favorite, and the one that’s been on my mind lately, is her 1967 biography of T. H. White, a small masterpiece of humanity.

White, born in 1906 and known to his friends as Tim, was the author of the Arthurian epic The Once and Future King and a number of successful sci-fi titles. A former teacher, he was prone to passionate enthusiasms—falconry, snakes, plans—and wrote a memoir about his experience training a goshawk. Townsend Warner captures his boundless excitement about these things, his humor, his kindness. But more than anything, this is a portrait of loneliness. White had no known relationships with men or women. Townsend Warner speculates that White was “a homosexual and a sado-masochist,” although others disagree on the question of his sexuality. In any case, he was profoundly alone; Townsend Warner wrote, “Notably free from fearing God, he was basically afraid of the human race.”

He did love his dog, an Irish Setter called Brownie. Townsend Warner writes extensively about his bond with Brownie, the love he could not express in other facets of his life. Upon Brownie’s unexpected death, he wrote the following heartbreaking letter to his friend David “Bunny” Garnett, presented in its entirety on the Futility Closet blog. Read this only if you are feeling emotionally tough: Read More »

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Sharing Economy

October 23, 2014 | by

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From a Dutch election poster, 1981.

I had never used one of those Web sites in which you list an odd job and ordinary people vie to do it for you. The arrangement seems almost too good to be true. So when I was faced with a household repair, I decided to make a go of it: I started a profile and posted a request.

“Small Welding Job” I titled it. “I have an old brass bed with a shaky frame that needs to be soldered. I think it will be a straightforward job if you have a welding machine/iron. Thanks so much!”

Within minutes, I had received a notification: I had a match! The young woman in question looked omnicompetent and had a bunch of glowing reviews. We arranged a time and I gave her my address, feeling very pleased with the whole business.

That night, I got a message. “Please call me by 10:30 P.M. or this task will be canceled,” it said ominously. I called. We reconfirmed our appointment. I gave her my apartment number.

At five A.M., I was awakened by an incoming text message. It was my handywoman. “There is no trace of the existence of your apartment online,” she wrote. “I do not feel safe with this situation. Thank you for understanding.”

I wasn’t sure how to defend myself against this. “I swear it’s real,” I wrote back lamely. Read More »

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