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Come, My Lad, and Drink Some Beer

September 18, 2014 | by

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry.

From James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson was born on September 18, 1709; Boswell wrote this passage in 1777, on the occasion of Johnson’s sixty-eighth birthday.

Thursday, September 18. Last night Dr. Johnson had proposed that the crystal lustre, or chandelier, in Dr. Taylor’s large room, should be lighted up some time or other. Taylor said, it should be lighted up next night. ‘That will do very well, (said I,) for it is Dr. Johnson’s birth-day.’ When we were in the Isle of Sky, Johnson had desired me not to mention his birth-day. He did not seem pleased at this time that I mentioned it, and said (somewhat sternly,) ‘he would not have the lustre lighted the next day.’

Some ladies, who had been present yesterday when I mentioned his birth-day, came to dinner to-day, and plagued him unintentionally, by wishing him joy. I know not why he disliked having his birth-day mentioned, unless it were that it reminded him of his approaching nearer to death, of which he had a constant dread.

I mentioned to him a friend of mine who was formerly gloomy from low spirits, and much distressed by the fear of death, but was now uniformly placid, and contemplated his dissolution without any perturbation. ‘Sir, (said Johnson,) this is only a disordered imagination taking a different turn.’

He observed, that a gentleman of eminence in literature had got into a bad style of poetry of late. ‘He puts (said he,) a very common thing in a strange dress till he does not know it himself, and thinks other people do not know it.’ BOSWELL. ‘That is owing to his being so much versant in old English poetry.’ JOHNSON. ‘What is that to the purpose, Sir? If I say a man is drunk, and you tell me it is owing to his taking much drink, the matter is not mended. No, Sir, ——— has taken to an odd mode. For example, he’d write thus:

“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray.”

Gray evening is common enough; but evening gray he’d think fine.—Stay;—we’ll make out the stanza:

“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray;
Smite thy bosom, sage, and tell,
What is bliss? and which the way?”

BOSWELL. ‘But why smite his bosom, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, to shew he was in earnest,’ (smiling.)—He at an after period added the following stanza:

‘Thus I spoke; and speaking sigh’d;
—Scarce repress’d the starting tear;—
When the smiling sage reply’d—
—Come, my lad, and drink some beer.’

I cannot help thinking the first stanza very good solemn poetry, as also the three first lines of the second. Its last line is an excellent burlesque surprise on gloomy sentimental enquirers. And, perhaps, the advice is as good as can be given to a low-spirited dissatisfied being:—‘Don’t trouble your head with sickly thinking: take a cup, and be merry.’

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Our Daily Correspondent

Inherit the Earth

September 18, 2014 | by

REBECCA

From Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Rebecca, 1940.

The moment of crisis had come, and I must face it. My old fears, my diffidence, my shyness, my hopeless sense of inferiority, must be conquered now and thrust aside. If I failed now I should fail forever.
―Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

It must be wonderful to be one of those pedestrians who own the streets. To be one of those people who walks where he likes with Ratso Rizzo–like entitlement, or, better yet, is gracious enough to usher a car forward when, in fact, the car has the right of way. Such people, of course, never give a timid wave of appreciation—a tacit “thank you for not killing me”—when a car lets them cross.

It must be wonderful never to assume your name has been left off the list, or that your card will be declined. It must be wonderful not to have the moment of anxiety, every time you pass through automatic doors, that they will not open. It must be wonderful not to cry every time someone slights you, and feel bruised for days afterward. It must be wonderful to be Rebecca de Winter, rather than her nameless successor.

Whether you consider Rebecca escapist fun, or an uneasy picture of the Electra complex run amok, or a masterpiece of Gothic storytelling, one thing is for sure: du Maurier paints one of the most accurate portraits of shyness in all of English literature. The narrator has none of Jane Eyre’s reserves and mysterious poise, none of the position and dignity of Jane Austen’s uncomfortable heroes. She is instead consumed by the particularly agonizing egotism that is shyness: a paralyzing self-consciousness that is reinforced by every slight, every harsh word, every reaction of the world, real and perceived. (I suppose I should add a spoiler alert here, for those unfamiliar with the plot of Rebecca.) Read More »

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Notes from a Biographer

Stalking Seán O’Casey

September 18, 2014 | by

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Irish playwright Seán O’Casey’s death. Sam Stephenson tracks his appearances in W. Eugene Smith’s archive.

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The original tape box for the reel containing the Red Valens phone call. On same reel, photographer Daniel Kramer is recorded in Smith’s loft discussing his photographs of Bob Dylan intended for Sensorium. Smith met Kramer in June 1965 when both were photographing Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited studio sessions. A Long John Nebel radio show is also recorded. The handwriting is an assistant’s, not Smith’s. Images courtesy of Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona.

On August 15, 1965, W. Eugene Smith was up late, as usual, in his dingy fourth-floor loft in the wholesale flower district, a neighborhood desolate after dark. He was working on the first issue of Sensorium, his new “magazine of photography and other arts of communication,” a hopeful platform free of commercial expectations and pressures. He was editing a submission by the writer E.G. “Red” Valens, whom he had met in 1945 when both were war correspondents in the Pacific. Despite the late hour, Smith decided to give his old friend a call.

Valens’s wife answered the phone just before the fifth ring. She’d been asleep. She gave the phone to her husband. He’d been asleep, too.

“Good morning,” said a groggy Valens.

“You don’t stay up as late as you used to,” joked Smith.

He then apologized for calling so late. Valens wasn’t irritated. He even resisted Smith’s offer to call back at a more reasonable hour.

Thirty-six minutes and nineteen seconds later, the pair said good-bye and hung up. We know this because Smith taped the phone call. When he died in 1978, this clip was among 4,500 hours of recordings he made from roughly 1957 to 1966. Read More »

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On the Shelf

Antrim Returns, and Other News

September 18, 2014 | by

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  • John Jeremiah Sullivan on Donald Antrim and his new collection of short stories, The Emerald Light in the Air: “That last story [‘The Emerald Light’] does something special, something very quiet that demands extremely close brushwork, something that exceedingly few writers can do … The technique is one of illusion and happens at the level of the text itself. It’s a way of rendering permeable the surface lens that divides the underworld of fantasy from the ‘painful realism’ hovering above it, so that writer and reader at moments seem joined in not being totally certain whether what’s happening on the page should be taken literally and naturalistically or as mythical, otherworldly.”
  • “It is almost unheard-of for the same writer to have a byline on the lead item in rival newspapers. But it has happened in Britain today—to a man who last picked up his pen in 1796.” (Hint: think New Year’s Eve.)
  • Apple’s iOS 8 includes QuickType, a predictive typing feature that suggests words you might want to type next. Followed to its extremes, it takes one’s sentences to strange and arguably poetic lands: “I have a great way of saying the government has ordered a pizza./ Yes, you do that for the rest of the day before I go to sleep.”
  • Ben Lerner and Ariana Reines in conversation: “For me, the cow is a real modernist figure. I feel like after God died, the cow became the onlooker in great works of modernism. It’s the witness in Joyce, it shows up again and again—for me, it’s like the residue of the divine in the twentieth century.”
  • In the eighties, Michael Chabon had a punk band in Pittsburgh. They were called the Bats. One of his bandmates said, “I just remembered being very impressed with his stage presence, like he’d been waiting all his life to do this.”

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Arts & Culture

MacArthur Fellows, Past and Present

September 17, 2014 | by

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Congratulations to the MacArthur Foundation’s twenty-one new fellows, including the graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel, whom the Daily was fortunate to interview back in 2012:

Most people are oppressed in some way or other by their family’s expectations, by their parents’ psychological issues, by any number of things. And it holds us back, it limits who we can be in the world. We’re so consumed with our personal problems that we’re not doing more important things. I mean, who am I to talk? All I do is sit in my basement making notes about my therapy sessions. But I want us all to be autonomous and think for ourselves and do the things we’re good at, and I think that’s much more the exception than the rule for people. Not to mention living in a democracy that’s functional. I mean, if we were all really doing those things, what would our world look like?

This latest round of “genius” grants—always with those pesky tone quotes!—inspired NPR to look back at the work of Amy Clampitt, whose poems the Review occasionally published before her death in 1994. Clampitt, a 1992 MacArthur fellow, used her grant money to buy a home in Lenox, Massachusetts, “a small, clapboard house that became the seventy-two-year-old poet's first major purchase.” Soon after, Clampitt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and her husband Harold Korn

dreamed up a fund to benefit poetry and the literary arts. Since 2003, the house Clampitt bought with her MacArthur money has been used to help rising poets by offering six- to twelve-month tuition-free residencies …

This December, the nineteenth resident of the house Amy Clampitt purchased with her MacArthur purse will settle in, get to work and likely draw on some of the same things that inspired Clampitt. Among them is a small box on the mantel filled with the late poet's beach glass collection.

Clampitt was interviewed for our Art of Poetry series in the Spring 1993 issue, where she elaborated on another collection of sorts:

My own original handwritten drafts are usually on the backs of those silly announcements law firms send out, that so-and-so has just been appointed a partner, which would otherwise go into the wastebasket, and which my best friend Hal, a law professor, saves for me. They’re printed on fine creamy vellum, and they’re very small—four-by-six inches or so, though maddeningly there isn’t even a standard size. I’ve put away stacks of these things for a single poem.

Below is an abbreviated list of Paris Review contributors who have been awarded grants over the twenty-three years of the Fellows program:

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On Drugs

Extreme, Extreme!

September 17, 2014 | by

The literature of laughing gas.

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“This is not the Laughing, but the Hippocrene or Poetic Gas, Sir.” Colored etching by R. Seymour, 1829, via the Wellcome Library.

What’s mistake but a kind of take?
What’s nausea but a kind of -ausea?
Sober, drunk, -unk, astonishment.
Everything can become the subject of criticism—how criticise without something to criticise? Agreement—disagreement!!
Emotion—motion!!!

These words were set to paper in 1882 by William James, one of the most celebrated proponents of the new science of psychology, and a newly minted assistant professor of philosophy at Harvard. James was in many ways the paragon of an eminent Victorian—his writing tends to summon images of the author ensconced beside a roaring fire in some cozy wood-paneled study in Cambridge. And yet here James comes off as utterly, absurdly stoned.

Because he was.

After huffing a large amount of nitrous oxide, James set out to tackle a prominent bugbear of 1880s intellectual life: Hegelian dialectics. He came up with a stream of consciousness that centered on a kind of ecstatic binary thinking:

Don’t you see the difference, don’t you see the identity?
Constantly opposites united!
The same me telling you to write and not to write!
Extreme—extreme, extreme! Within the extensity that “extreme” contains is contained the “extreme” of intensity
Something, and other than that thing!
….
By George, nothing but othing!
That sounds like nonsense, but it’s pure onsense!
Thought much deeper than speech … !
Medical school; divinity school, school! SCHOOL!
Oh my God, oh God; oh God!

Read More »

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