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Posts Tagged ‘alcoholism’

To the Crematorium with Patricia, and Other News

October 16, 2015 | by

A 1909 postcard of the main gates to Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

  • Susan Howe on Wallace Stevens and just plain old liking the guy’s poems: “The poetry of Wallace Stevens makes me happy. This is the simple truth. Pleasure springs from the sense of fluid sound patterns phonetic utterance excites in us. Beauty, harmony, and order are represented by the arrangement, and repetition, of particular words on paper. No matter how many theoretical and critical interpretations there are, in the end each new clarity of discipline and delight contains inexplicable intricacies of form and measure … I don’t often remember Stevens poems separately except for the early ones, but they all run together, the way Emerson’s essays do, into one long meditation, moving like waves, and suddenly there is one perfect portal. The quick perfection.”
  • In 1987, Patricia Highsmith, then at her most misanthropic and having found a malignant tumor on her lung, paid a visit to Brooklyn, where she wrote an abortive essay for the New York Times about Green-Wood Cemetery. It never ran, perhaps because its pivotal moment finds her sticking her hand in an industrial furnace, still warm, at the crematorium. “The warmth of that retort, even though it may have come from a pilot flame, brought home death to me as none of the stone monuments above ground had,” she writes. She also likens the cemetery to a passing garbage truck: “Its apparently inexhaustible drip of squashed vegetable matter or leftover orange juice reminds me of human mortality, with its attendant ugliness, stench and inevitability.”
  • Susan Cheever has looked into America’s long lust for booze, and she’s discovered a few things. First, that a drunk Nixon once claimed he’d made a great pope. And second, that the link between writers and alcohol is a fairly new one: “In the nineteenth century, writers didn’t drink. Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow. Nope. No drinkers. It’s not about the writers. It’s about the drinking culture. Some writers drink a lot, so much so that the five people who won the Nobel Prize for literature were all alcoholics [Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck]. I hadn’t really done the math, and then it occurred to me that, of course, it came out of Prohibition, that Prohibition made drinking that much more attractive to writers.”
  • Today in vintage hate-reads: a newly discovered transcript of Ayn Rand’s remarks to the 1974 graduating class at West Point finds her up to her usual tricks, i.e., disguising out-and-out bigotry behind a tissue-thin veil of “philosophy.” “Any white person who brings the elements of civilization had the right to take over this continent,” Rand said to the group of dewy-eyed officers-to-be. “It is great that some people did, and discovered here what they couldn’t do anywhere else in the world and what the Indians, if there are any racist Indians today, do not believe to this day: respect for individual rights … Racism didn’t exist in this country until the liberals brought it up.” Important words to remember the next time you spot a malleable young person reading The Fountainhead and claiming it’s just “a really good story.”
  • Notes toward a theory of Playmobil, with its bizarre, intensely Euro-zone aesthetic, its fascination with the civil service, its tendency to exalt the bourgeois: “As I examined the Playmobil version of Vermeer’s Milkmaid, I realized how Vermeer’s popularity as a painter rests on the same sort of generic, domestic scenarios as Playmobil, with all those charming, joyful, bourgeois little details, the depiction of the everyday things of our lives … Next to Lego … Playmobil can seem downright dowdy and boring … One of the best-selling sets is a Christmas manger scene. The fastest-selling Playmobil figure of all time was launched this past winter: Martin Luther, complete with quill and German Bible!”

You Can’t Build That, and Other News

September 10, 2015 | by

Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, Hill with a Hole (detail), 1987–90. Image via Hyperallergic

  • “The role of a novel is to entertain readers, and fear is one of the most entertaining things there is … I don’t particularly feel like apologizing. It’s impossible to increase the proportion already given to Islam in the news. We’re already nearly at 100% … A good provocateur knows who he’s going to shock. I’m absolutely incapable of predicting that ... It’s always a surprise every time.” That’s Houellebecq, saying typically Houllebecq things about Islamophobia, on the eve of his novel Submission’s release in the UK. (It comes to America next month, translated by our own Lorin Stein.)
  • Today in wacky and yet not implausible Pynchon theories: Is this brick of a novel called Cow Country—published this April by one Adrian Jones Pearson through a very, very small press—actually the work of the P-man himself? It has all of his hallmarks: “Need I mention that this novel is serious while spoofing … that high satire with a healthy dollop of bodily humor and a keen eye for paradox is this literary sensibility’s chosen (and perhaps as a person, inevitable) metier? … With a magnifying glass, one could look closely and find what seem to be minor instances of Pynchon jokes from earlier novels recycled in Cow Country, tweaked for their new context.”
  • Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin were architects in the late days of the Soviet Union, which set strict aesthetic parameters for the buildings it erected—all but ensuring that architecture ceased to be an imaginative discipline. But Brodsky and Utkin found a way to skirt the rules: they designed buildings that could never exist, like “precarious scaffolding, classical domes, huge glass towers, and other visionary architecture that referenced everything from ancient tombs to Le Corbusier’s sprawling city plans.”
  • What is an author’s reputation made of? Reviews, sure. Critical studies, yes. But there’s also a less tangible factor you might call “litchat”: “the conversations that writers, readers, and critics have amongst themselves. Whether another writer is spoken of respectfully, whether you get the impression that ‘everyone’ is reading his or her new book enthusiastically, or how well people think he or she comes across in interviews—these and a dozen other imponderable factors constitute a reputation during a writer’s lifetime, particularly in the early part of a career.”
  • The image of the booze-soaked, tortured writer is a distinctly male one—but let us not forget the women who drink. “Male writers get careful interpretation of the role of alcohol in their creative lives; women writers are alcoholics, pure and simple … Women writers, meanwhile, have evolved a more complicated relationship with drunkenness. It is no longer quite the stain it once was … Still the canon is for the most part seriously dented by the effects of what you could call the Hemingway attitude—this idea that a woman is contaminated by self-destructiveness, and contaminated in a way that slurs her art.”

Alcoholism—What a Hoot!

July 29, 2015 | by

A lobby card for Good Old Soak, one of two films based on Marquis’s character.

Don Marquis, an early twentieth-century humorist, had an almost Disney-like knack for creating benign characters who thrived in the popular imagination. The most famous of these was Archy, a poet-cockroach who practiced his craft after-hours on an old typewriter in the offices of the New York Evening Sun. Archy wrote in lowercase letters with no punctuation, because he was too small to reach the shift key. With his companion Mehitabel, a cat who professed to have been Cleopatra in a past life, Archy and his free verse appeared in some half a dozen books, all of which sold handsomely. He counted E. B. White among his fans. “Mr. Marquis’s cockroach,” White wrote in an introduction to The Life and Times of Archy and Mehitabel,

was more than the natural issue of a creative and humorous mind. Archy was the child of compulsion, the stern compulsion of journalism. The compulsion is as great today as it ever was, but it is met in a different spirit. Archy used to come back from the golden companionship of the tavern with a poet’s report of life as seen from the under side. Today’s columnist returns from the platinum companionship of the nightclub with a dozen pieces of watered gossip and a few bottomless anecdotes. Archy returned carrying a heavy load of wine and dreams. These later cockroaches come sober from their taverns, carrying a basket of fluff. I think newspaper publishers in this decade ought to ask themselves why.

But Marquis was also responsible for a character called Clem Hawley, better known as the Old Soak: an endearing alcoholic who had the misfortune of living in America during Prohibition. Read More »

Tolkien by Jansson, and Other News

June 16, 2014 | by


  • The dirty secret of poetry is that it is loved by some, loathed by many, and bought by almost no one.” (That may be dirty, but is it a secret?)
  • Everyone can rattle off the names of alcoholic male writers—it’s time to give the women their due. “Jean Rhys was briefly in Holloway prison for assault; Elizabeth Bishop more than once drank eau de cologne, having exhausted the possibilities of the liquor cabinet. But are their reasons for drinking different? And how about society’s responses, particularly in the lubricated, tipsy twentieth century; the golden age, if one can call it that, of alcohol and the writer?”
  • Among the artists to have illustrated international editions of The Hobbit over the years: Tove Jansson, Maurice Sendak, and Tolkien himself.
  • No one can explain the success of “A Dark Room,” a best-selling game composed of words and not much else—harking back to the earliest computer games of the seventies. “These language games draw on a tradition of using language patterns as a form of play that precedes computers by thousands of years, something to which more recent video games remain indebted.”
  • Look to 1984—the year, not the novel—for a curious episode from the annals of bioterrorism: “In rural Oregon, a small religious sect led by an Indian mystic was busy organizing a massive voter-fraud campaign that nearly enabled it to take over an entire county … The Rajneeshees would try to depress turnout among regular voters by poisoning thousands of residents with Salmonella.”
  • Journalists reporting from more than ninety countries are collaborating on a new project called Deca: “Once a month, Deca publishes a nonfiction story about the world. Somewhere between a long article and a short book, each piece is written by one member, edited by another, and approved by the rest.”