The Daily

Our Daily Correspondent

Gags and Novelties

December 17, 2014 | by

Banana_Peel

Illustration: Max Ronnersjö

“Do we need tea?” she echoed. “But Miss Lathbury … ” She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. ―Barbara Pym, Excellent Women

We have all experienced such “landslides of the mind”: moments that upend everything we thought we knew or believed, everything that made us feel secure. These are the moments when we grow up—or resolutely refuse to. They are the moments that define us. In my case, it was the moment, in middle school, when I saw someone actually slip on a banana peel.

If you’d asked me in the minutes—days—years before it happened, I would have scoffed at the very notion. I knew certain things as facts: The sky was blue. Everyone died. People slipping on banana peels were not funny. My certainty was so obvious as not to require conscious thought; and yet, in a sense, it underlay so many of my assumptions about comedy, sophistication, and human nature itself. 

As a child I was in the habit of listening to the 1918 Prokofiev opera Love for Three Oranges (dramatized for kids by the peerless Ann Rachlin), in which a prince has fallen into a melancholy from too much tragic poetry; the only cure is laughter. Yet all the most amusing clowns and jesters in the land fail to coax forth so much as a smile. It is only when the evil witch Fata Morgana falls over and exposes her underpants that the melancholy prince is roused to helpless mirth, and his life is saved. Read More »

Comments Off

On the Shelf

Still in the Grip of Kitsch, and Other News

December 17, 2014 | by

Lourdes_boulevard_de_la_grotte_8

Photo: Jean-Noël Lafargue

  • The origins of Times New Roman, the trustiest typeface of the PC era: “Times New Roman began as a challenge, when esteemed type designer Stanley Morison criticized London’s newspaper The Times for being out-of-touch with modern typographical trends. So The Times asked him to create something better. Morison enlisted the help of draftsman Victor Lardent and began conceptualizing a new typeface with two goals in mind: efficiency—maximizing the amount of type that would fit on a line and thus on a page—and readability.”
  • A history of kitsch and its enduring power: “Kitsch is not about the thing observed but about the observer. It does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this—it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, ‘Look at me feeling this—how nice I am and how lovable.’ ”
  • Great moments in swearing: an utterance in John Carpenter’s The Thing helped define our sense of a treasured obscenity. “The fuckin’ in ‘You gotta be fuckin’ kidding’ is surplus to compositional meaning but crucial to the moment and the encounter. Its trochee supplies essential force to the line’s measured disbelief, extending Palmer’s (and by extension the group’s) appalled bewilderment at the boggling form of their alien enemy.”
  • A new book purports to bust the stereotypes behind archaeology: “the work is often poorly paid, physically demanding, and prone to controversy … the unemployment rate in the field [is] at about fifty per cent.” (This piece, to its great credit, mentions Indiana Jones zero times.)
  • The best defense for research: “It’s in the archive where one forms a scholarly self—a self that, when all goes well, is intolerant of weak arguments and loose citation and all other forms of shoddy craftsmanship; a self that doesn’t accept a thesis without asking what assumptions and evidence it rests on; a self that doesn’t have a lot of patience with simpleminded formulas and knows an observation from an opinion and an opinion from an argument.”

3 COMMENTS

Bulletin

Happy Haneke

December 16, 2014 | by

Funnygamesgerman

A still from the German version of Haneke‘s Funny Games, 1997.

“My students, meanwhile, pitch only the gravest of topics. For them it’s always got to be the Holocaust. I usually tell them, Back off. You have no idea what you’re talking about. You can only reproduce what you read or heard elsewhere. Others who actually lived through it have said it much better than you ever could. Try to create something that springs organically from your own experience. For only then does it stand the slightest chance of being genuinely interesting.” —Michael Haneke, the Art of Screenwriting No. 5

I felt enormously clever writing that pun up there. Then I remembered that it’s already been used—it’s the title of Anthony Lane’s excellent 2009 profile of Haneke in The New Yorker. Tant pis!

Even so, my point stands: tonight marks the first night of Hanukkah, and our new issue features the Art of Screenwriting No. 5, an interview with Michael Haneke, whose name is pronounced in very nearly the same fashion. Coincidence? Yes, absolutely, nothing more.

And yet.

You may consider, during these eight nights of gift-giving, capitalizing on the Haneke/Hanukkah near-homonym and presenting your loved one with a subscription to The Paris Review, starting with our Haneke issue—just forty dollars for a year’s supply of fiction, poetry, interviews, and art, including a postcard announcing your gift with a personal message. They make a great present for aspiring writers, who should, in the words of William Kennedy, “read the entire canon of literature that precedes them, back to the Greeks, up to the current issue of The Paris Review.”

NO COMMENTS

Department of Tomfoolery

The Eyes Have It

December 16, 2014 | by

1914_Redon_Zyklop_anagoria

Odilon Redon’s The Cyclops (detail), ca. 1914.

Philip K. Dick was born on this day in 1928. His story “The Eyes Have It” originally appeared in Science Fiction Stories 1953, but since the copyright wasn’t renewed, it’s lapsed into the public domain. “A little whimsy, now and then, makes for good balance,” the magazine’s editors wrote then. “Theoretically, you could find this type of humor anywhere. But only a topflight science-fictionist, we thought, could have written this story, in just this way … ”

It was quite by accident I discovered this incredible invasion of Earth by lifeforms from another planet. As yet, I haven’t done anything about it; I can’t think of anything to do. I wrote to the Government, and they sent back a pamphlet on the repair and maintenance of frame houses. Anyhow, the whole thing is known; I’m not the first to discover it. Maybe it’s even under control.

I was sitting in my easy-chair, idly turning the pages of a paperbacked book someone had left on the bus, when I came across the reference that first put me on the trail. For a moment I didn’t respond. It took some time for the full import to sink in. After I’d comprehended, it seemed odd I hadn’t noticed it right away.

The reference was clearly to a nonhuman species of incredible properties, not indigenous to Earth. A species, I hasten to point out, customarily masquerading as ordinary human beings. Their disguise, however, became transparent in the face of the following observations by the author. It was at once obvious the author knew everything. Knew everything—and was taking it in his stride. The line (and I tremble remembering it even now) read: Read More »

2 COMMENTS

Our Daily Correspondent

Half Magic

December 16, 2014 | by

John William Waterhouse, The Magic Circle, 1886.

I like the arbitrary lists the Guardian often includes in its children’s book section: best villains in children’s books, best dogs, best mothers. As with all lists, these are made to be debated, and it’s always fun to see what the compiler chooses. But today’s list made me mad. Simply put, it was incomplete. “Best cauldrons in children’s books” did not include the cauldron from Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth.

I’m sure the cauldrons from The Worst Witch and Wyrd Sisters are great. I know the cauldrons found in Lloyd Alexander and J. K. Rowling are high quality. And certainly no one’s denying that Macbeth’s cauldron game is strong. (Even if it’s a stretch to call it a children’s book.) One can justify the exclusion of The Black Cauldron from this list, and, even though I’d have included Eleanor Estes’s The Witch Family, I understand that this is a matter of opinion. But Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth is nothing less than a glaring omission.

If you’re a fan of E. L. Konigsburg, you probably know her first book. It came out the same year—1967—as From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s the story of a loner, the titular Elizabeth, who falls under the sway of another girl, Jennifer, who claims to be a witch and takes Elizabeth on as her apprentice. Elizabeth balks at her mentor’s bossiness, but puts up with it: “Before I’d got Jennifer,” she says, “I’d had no one.” Jennifer declares that the pair will make a flying potion as a test for Elizabeth. But the cauldron actually appears earlier in the story, when the kids are asked to bring in kitchen props for a school play.  Read More »

Comments Off

First Person

Going Aboard

December 16, 2014 | by

Retracing Moby-Dick on a nineteenth-century whaler.

photo 1

Photo: Ben Shattuck

­­­When Herman Melville was twenty-one, he embarked on the whaleship Acushnet, out of New Bedford. We all know what that led to. This past summer, Mystic Seaport finished their five-year, 7.5-million-dollar restoration of the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan, the sister ship to the Acushnet. The Morgan is in many ways identical to Melville’s fictional Pequod, save that sperm whale jawbone tiller and a few other sinister touches. Mystic Seaport celebrated the completion by sailing the Morgan around New England for a couple months. I went aboard for a night and a day, intent on following in Ishmael’s footsteps, hoping to breathe a little life into my idea of the distant, literary ship. Below are passages from Moby-Dick that involve the Pequod, followed by my own accounts.
Read More »

3 COMMENTS