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Posts Tagged ‘birthdays’

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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Natty Bumppo, Soviet Folk Hero

September 15, 2014 | by

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The Soviet Union’s 1989 series of James Fenimore Cooper stamps. Click to enlarge.

I was perplexed to learn that the Soviet Union, in its waning days, produced a series of five vivid postage stamps devoted to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. It seemed as if some lazy Soviet bureaucrat must’ve made a mistake. Why, after all, would the USSR want to commemorate some of the foundational texts of American lit, especially when Natty Bumppo stands as a paragon of rugged individualism? In other words, how had one of our folk heroes found an audience in a place where he should’ve been reviled?

Sandra Nickel, an author of young-adult novels, got the answer from her daughter’s Russian godmother, whose youth was apparently filled with totally authorized American classics:

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas by Thomas Mayne Reid. Almost every Russian child had read these by the age of twelve—and read them more than once.

I am sure the Soviet state approved these books because of their propaganda value. Put together, these three volumes could portray Americans as slave-owning destroyers of Native Americans, who are bigoted against Mexicans. Racists, across the board, in other words.

Instead of finding the disgusting evidence of prejudice and imperialism, though, young Russian readers tended to see the novels as ripping good yarns, so much so that their characters were inducted into public life:

$_57What spoke to them were the emotions, the suspense, the adventure, the heroes, and the friendship … In fact, Cooper’s second name, Fenimore, by which he is more readily recognized in Russia, has become a byword for exciting adventures. Loved by even the young Lenin and Stalin, The Last of the Mohicans penetrated Russian society … As [the] poet Tamara Logacheva says, “The heroic image of a courageous and honest Indian—Uncas—noble and devoted to his vanishing traditions, became an example for imitation by many generations of young people.”

There you have it. You can imagine Gorbachev, his state verging on dissolution, adhering one of the Leatherstocking stamps to a letter—perhaps to Reagan or H. W. Bush—and smiling warmly at the visage of Natty Bumppo, his troubled mind allayed, for the moment, by dusty schoolboy memories of The Deerslayer.

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Writing Advice from D. H. Lawrence at Twenty-One

September 11, 2014 | by

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On September 11, 1906, D. H. Lawrence turned twenty-one. Around that time he wrote this letter to Louie Burrows, a friend with whom he attended University College in Nottingham. The letter dissects one of Louie’s essays about art; it finds Lawrence full of youthful arrogance (“Like most girl writers you are wordy”) and optimism (“the world abounds with new similes and metaphors”). Lawrence and Burrows corresponded steadily for years; in 1910, they were engaged, though Lawrence broke off the engagement in 1912. (The “J” he refers to here is Jessie Chambers, another of his love interests.)

Dear Louie,

I am going to quizz [sic] your essay, not in the approven [sic] school-mistress style, but according to my own whimsical idea, which you may or may not accept. First of all I will find fault.

I do not like the introductory paragraph, it is like an extract from a Catalogue of Pictures for sale at some auctioneers … Like most girl writers you are wordy. I have read nearly all your letters to J, so I do not judge only from this composition. Again and again you put in interesting adjectives and little phrases which make the whole piece loose, and sap its vigour. Do be careful of your adjectives—do try and be terse, there is so much more force in a rapid style that will not be hampered by superfluous details. Just look at your piece and see how many three lined sentences could be comfortably expressed in one line. Read More »

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The Solar Anus

September 10, 2014 | by

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Photo: Steve Kollis, via Flickr

Happy birthday to Georges Bataille, connoisseur of Eros, born on September 10, 1897, a simpler time he took it upon himself to complicate. Actually, to call him an erotic connoisseur grossly understates what so many readers find, uh, gross about him. Suffice it to say his work revels in varieties of sexual expression that remain taboo today; a given Bataille text presents you with a veritable cavalcade of the debauched and the proscribed, and, worse still, makes all of it seem terribly worth investigating. Even his fellow Continental philosophers—not exactly vanilla adherents of the missionary position—thought he was something of a degenerate. Jean-Paul Sartre said Bataille “incarnated human sexuality in its most degraded form”; André Breton described him more succinctly as a “sick and dangerous pervert.”

But history teaches us that perverts make fine litterateurs, and Bataille is no exception. (Not to say there aren’t exceptions. There are plenty.) In Paris, he worked as a librarian and at night went drinking and whoring on the rue Pigalle. His first novel, 1928’s L’Histoire de l’oeilStory of the Eye, which he published under the pseudonym Lord Auch, or aux chiottes, or “to the shithouse”—was hailed not as a transgressive surrealist masterwork but as pornography, plain and simple. Its reputation has improved since then: it’s still regarded as porn, just the good kind. (John Wray wrote about it for the Daily a few years ago.)

Here, for your edification and titillation, is a bit from The Solar Anus, a short something-or-other published in 1931. I don’t know what you’d call it. It’s metaphysics. It’s a taunt. It’s a series of aphorisms. It’s an extended metaphor that stops shy of allegory. It’s a hymn; it’s a rant. And what it lacks in logical validity it makes up for in images. Among the lines of inquiry pursued: the passage of energy, heliophilia, heliophobia, fecundity, decay, volcanoes, the phallic, the Sapphic, the erect, the supine, excretion, intake, and many other things besides. Have at it: Read More »

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You Are Quite Unnecessary, Young Man!

September 4, 2014 | by

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Antonin Artaud

The English translation of Roberto Bolaño’s excellent final novella, A Little Lumpen Novelita, is out this month. The book opens with an epigraph by Antonin Artaud, who was born today in 1896: “All writing is garbage. People who come out of nowhere to try to put into words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs.”

Since I read it about a month ago, I’ve thought of this quotation every day, often as I’m writing—you can imagine the rat-a-tat of my keyboard punctuated with an occasional “All writing is garbage.” It’s a bracing sentiment, taunting and misanthropic, and a truer one than most of us would care to admit. At the moment, it flies in the face of our glad-handing literary culture, where every book is a good book and every writer in every M.F.A. program partakes of a dignified struggle with Art.

Here’s how that quotation, which comes from Artaud’s The Nerve Meter (1925), goes on: Read More »

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So Vivid You Can’t Get Free of Them

August 22, 2014 | by

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Ray Bradbury

Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor. We appreciate things like Daniel and the lion’s den, and the Tower of Babel. People remember these metaphors because they are so vivid you can’t get free of them and that’s what kids like in school. They read about rocket ships and encounters in space, tales of dinosaurs. All my life I’ve been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn one over and say, Yeah, there’s a story.
—Ray Bradbury, the Art of Fiction No. 203, 2010

Ray Bradbury would be ninety-four today—for more on his Art of Fiction interview, be sure to read “Fact-checking Ray Bradbury,” by our own Stephen Andrew Hiltner. And for proof of Bradbury’s metaphorical gifts, check out “All Summer in a Day,” a 1954 story published in the commonsensically named The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s conceptually unforgettable and, among the stories of his I’ve read, uniquely haunting.

“All Summer” takes place in a school on Venus, or rather, the Venus of the future—humans have colonized the planet. Problem is, Venus is rainy. All the time. “A thousand forests had been crushed under the rain and grown up a thousand times to be crushed again.” The sun shines for only two hours (consecutive, fortunately) every seven years. And in this drenched Venusian schoolhouse, where all the descendants of the rocket men and women presumably suffer from constant Seasonal Affective Disorder and severe vitamin D deficiencies, there’s one girl, Margot, who remembers the glories of sunshine: Read More »

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