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Our Correspondents

On a Certain Epigram by Anna Akhmatova

June 21, 2016 | by

Akhmatova

Detail of a portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1922.

In my village it’s a famous epigram, but I wonder how many of you are familiar with it. Here it is, complete and unexpurgated, in Anna Akhmatova’s original Russian, from 1958:

Могла ли Биче словно Дант творить, 
Или Лаура жар любви восславить? 
Я научила женщин говорить... 
Но, Боже, как их замолчать заставить!

And now here is a transliteration, with metrical stress represented by bold type, so that the Russianless—or persons like myself with only a year of Russian, the might-as-well-be-Russianless—can have at least some chance of appreciating the sounds. (Note: iambic pentameter, with an inversion in the first foot of line 2.) Read More »

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On the Shelf

Portraits by Kitty, and Other News

June 21, 2016 | by

A 1978 photo from Kitty’s, a South African portrait studio. Courtesy the Walther Collection. Image via The New Yorker.

  • I don’t keep a diary. I prefer the raw material of anxiety, guilt, and neurosis—my “special sauce”—to remain entirely unprocessed in my brain. But for those who diarize with reckless abandon, there emerges a question of audience, as Elisa Segrave writes: “Compulsive diarists are ambivalent: we want to be private but we want our thoughts to be appreciated. When Jean Lucey Pratt, some of whose diaries have been published as A Notable Woman, began her first in 1926, aged sixteen, she wrote: ‘This document is private.’ But as her life unfolded and she realized that her career as an author was not going to take off, she started to treat her diaries more seriously. On Christmas Day 1934, she wrote: ‘7 p.m. A diarist must do what other writers may not … His purpose is special and peculiar. He has to capture and crystallize moments on the wing so that future generations will say as they turn the glittering pages, ‘This was the present then. This was true.’ ”
  • Charlotte Brontë and Thackeray met once for a tremendously awkward dinner, and in the 165 years since, people have clucked at the severe dress she wore to the encounter: plain blue and white, buttoned up to the neck. (Her contemporaries would’ve gone in for something more low-cut—in silk, maybe, or velvet or lace.) New analysis suggests that Brontë had better fashion sense than history has credited her for—but the dinner itself was still nothing to write home about. “The dinner, with other literary and artistic guests invited to meet the best-selling author, was an abject failure. Conversation faltered, and [Thackeray] later recalled her shocked look as he reached for another potato. One guest recalled it as ‘one of the dullest evenings she ever spent in her life’ … One guest, desperate to break the silence, asked Brontë if she was enjoying London. After a long silence, she finally replied: ‘Yes; and no.’ ”
  • Luke Mogelson teases out that nauseous link between journalism and Schadenfreude: “I do my best to observe things firsthand … This approach, despite its obvious journalistic advantages (you’re less likely to get stuff wrong), can frequently put you in awkward positions. You can find yourself, for instance, visiting a river every morning hoping to find a murder victim. Most foreign correspondents I know would probably object to my use of that word, hoping. They would probably say that we don’t want bad things to happen; we just want to witness them if they do. It’s a legitimate distinction, but one that, in the field, can feel semantic. In the field, we are actively, aggressively seeking to see with our own eyes the reality of war, famine, disaster—and who isn’t at least somewhat gratified when he discovers what he’s sought, at least somewhat disappointed when he doesn’t?”
  • I see you’re smiling, Internet user—you’re probably pretty jazzed about that new form of creative expression you’ve found! But I’m here to tell you that it’s doomed to commodification. Witness the death of the emoji and the GIF: “When emojis and GIFs are filtered through the interests of tech companies, they often become slickly automated … Buying into these features means giving tech companies the power to shape our creative expressions in ways that further enrich the companies themselves. A limited emotional range helps collect data on users’ states of mind. Twitter advertisers can now target users based on the emoji they tweet … The commodification of digital culture has engendered more explicit corporate branding, too. On Snapchat, where users embellish their selfies with emoji, crayon scribbles, and elaborate ‘lenses’ that cover their faces with virtual masks, marketers like McDonalds are seizing the opportunity to write their messages across people’s faces.”

First Person

Gunplay

June 20, 2016 | by

Illustration by Eric Hanson. Click to enlarge.

Indianapolis, 1964. My younger self owned a bandolier full of bullets; three revolvers, two with bone handles to fit a holster; a rifle; knives; a sword; a full Civil War uniform; a genuine U.S. Army helmet. From age eight to ten, I fought and died a thousand times for fun. My friends and I knew all the best ways to fall down dead, exhaling sighs of pleasure. Awaiting nuclear annihilation, we acted out gun ballets like period folk art. Here, in America’s “Gun Belt,” boys used to get their first squirrel rifle at eight, nine, ten years old; now they get pint-size assault rifles. Get them early, so they can learn to handle the violent kick of firing, learn not to hold the part of the weapon that gets so hot it smokes. And it’s not just boys. Parents can purchase special pink assault rifles for their junior misses.

In my own backyard, I was always alert for enemies. I moved with a stooped, serpentine grace, darting, pausing, looking around for people to shoot before they shot me. There was something adorable about it. We had very convincing submachine guns then. They were made by Marx out of hard molded plastic and came in black—the conventional color, suitable for playing Chicago gangsters or warriors in the European theater—or brown-and-green camouflage, for war in the tropics. There was a knob along the side to unleash a machine gun rat-tat-tat whenever we encountered the enemy. I was unaware of the irony in the brand name: we were training for our turn to halt the march of Marxism, but we were unfamiliar with Marx the mastermind. Every Friday I looked forward to the latest photos of the Vietnam War, counting the dead in LIFE magazine. Read More »

Our Correspondents

Unconventional, Part 2: Saint Genet Blesses the Hippies

June 20, 2016 | by

chicago 68 genet hero

In anticipation of the Republican and Democratic national conventions later this summer, Nathan Gelgud, a correspondent for the Daily, will be posting a regular weekly comic about the writers, artists, and demonstrators who attended the contested 1968 DNC. Read Part 1 hereRead More »

Revisited

Elliott Smith, Either/Or

June 20, 2016 | by

Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Emma Straub revisits Elliott Smith’s album Either/Or.

Elliott-Smith-Either-Or

For a little while, starting around 1998, Elliott Smith and I were the best of friends. I was a freshman at Oberlin, making myself depressing mixtapes to match my mood, and there was nothing that matched my mood better than Either/Or. I didn’t know anything about lo-fi music—everything else I’d ever truly loved was glossy and studio perfect: Madonna’s Immaculate Collection and Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411—but all of a sudden, my sadness was so great that I only could have loved Either/Or more if it had literally been covered with dirt. It was street-level misery, whispered and simple. Read More »

On the Shelf

The Color of Dirty Death, and Other News

June 20, 2016 | by

The ugliest color of them all.

  • Start your week off right: take a long, hard look at the world’s ugliest color, Pantone 448C, aka “opaque couché.” Redolent of baby shit and capable of summoning all kinds of grime in the mind’s eye, 448C is powerfully ugly: “The agency GfK Bluemoon had 1,000 smokers select the colors they found most visually repellent. Respondents overwhelmingly associated Pantone 448C with words like dirty, death, and tar. The Australian federal government initially referred to the color as ‘olive green,’ but changed their terminology to ‘drab dark brown’ after the Australian Olive Association expressed concern for the reputation of olives. After the study, Australia made Pantone 448C the predominant color on its mandatory plain packaging for tobacco products … Since 2012, smoking in Australia has, in fact, decreased.”
  • Talking with Sofiane Hadjadj, cofounder of the Algerian publishing house Editions Barzakh, at a bookseller in Algiers: “Young Algerians are eager to write, but most see it ‘as a form of therapy’, Hadjadj said (not unlike their counterparts in Europe and America). There aren’t many who can both describe their daily reality and achieve the necessary distance to transform it into narrative … Arabic literature generally is at an ‘inflection point’, according to Hadjadj. The great leftist writers of the 1960s, such as Elias Khoury and Sonallah Ibrahim, who had a strong vision of society, have been succeeded by a generation with more questions. ‘Should one write about oneself, about the world, about globalization, about jihadism?’ Hadjadj asked. ‘You need a somewhat stable vision of society to write a novel, but it is changing all the time, and we don’t understand it.’ ”
  • Francis Alÿs’s new paintings depict life in Ciudad Juárez, so to look at them is to ask that age-old question: Is art at all useful in helping us come to grips with massive acts of violence and suffering? “It might seem unlikely that an artist like Francis Alÿs would be able to engage in any meaningful way with life in Ciudad Juárez. He is known for a poetic and absurdist mentality, sending a peacock as his representative to the Venice Biennial of 2001, for example, or arranging for a troop of Household Cavalry to march through the center of London in 2004. Yet the sensitive and understated works on display here pack a powerful punch … The centerpiece of the exhibition is a striking film of Mr. Alÿs slowly kicking a flaming football through the dark night of downtown Ciudad Juárez, attracting stares from locals and scaring away stray dogs as police sirens wail in the distance. The vision is haunting, and the details picked up by the camera as it tracks his progress make reference to the city’s many problems: the sex trade, the drug trade, the ambiguous role played by the police. Perhaps the beautiful but oblique film is guilty, as Sartre put it, of reducing cruelty to the abstract. But then so do statistics.”
  • Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire are remembered for their Book of Greek Myths, from 1962—one of the most popular children’s books of all time. But they made a much less well-known book about America, too, and it’s appropriately mythic: “ ‘Virginia was once a wilderness,’ the D’Aulaires write. ‘Wild beasts lived there, and swift Indians ran through grass and swamps’ … Columbus’ story gets treated even more like a fairy tale. ‘There once was a boy / who loved the salty sea,’ it begins … Like any mythological hero, the D’Aulaires’ George Washington has powers beyond those of ordinary men. He’s stronger than other boys and rides his horse more skillfully. He can hurl a rock across the width of the river. He’s shot, but unharmed. Lincoln is also demigod-like, when they tell of how he ‘wrestled with the strongest and toughest of them all, and threw them to the ground.’ ”
  • Today in the ironies of intellectual-property law: a new suit contends that Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” belongs, in fact, to us, just as the land supposedly does. But all the land in America isn’t actually in the public domain, and the song might not be, either. “[The suit] is aimed at liberating a song known to generations of schoolchildren who have raised their voices to sing about a free country belonging to one and all, sprawling ‘from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters’ … Guthrie wrote the song in 1940 in response to the Irving Berlin song ‘God Bless America,’ which he felt inadequately addressed land and wealth inequality … In 1945, he published the song with a copyright notice that was never renewed … As a result, that copyright would have expired—and the song would have entered the public domain—twenty-eight years later, in 1973.”