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Posts Tagged ‘censorship’

Who Does This Alice Think She Is, Anyway? and Other News

June 11, 2015 | by

An illustration by John Tenniel for The Nursery “Alice,” 1890.

  • Alice, of Wonderland fame, has osmosed right on into the culture and found a life of her own; we no longer need to read Lewis Carroll’s books to feel that we know her. But we should read Carroll—there’s a certain amount of drift between his Wonderland and the one we think we understand. “Conversations about what is real, what is possible, and how rubbery the rules that govern such distinctions turn out to be abound in the tales of Alice. Yet they are sold as children’s books, and rightly so. A philosopher will ask how the identity of the self can be preserved amid the ceaseless flux of experience, but a child—especially a child who is growing so fast that she suddenly fills an entire room—will ask more urgently, as Alice does, ‘Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.’ Children, viewed from one angle, are philosophy in motion.”
  • This Saturday marks Yeats’s sesquicentennial, an occasion celebrated easily enough by reading his poems—but why not read his plays, which are always given short shrift among his work? In a way, they anticipated Beckett: “What happens in a Yeats play can be startling. Purgatory, for example, verges on the lurid. Its material is the rough red wine of sex and violence: a woman’s lust for her groom and their son’s murderous determination to extirpate her sin in blood. Yeats’s genius is to distill that red wine into a fine but heady spirit, a short, incredibly potent theatrical essence that goes straight to both the head and the guts.”
  • Since Jerry Seinfeld declared, earlier this week, that he no longer plays college campuses because they’re “too P.C.”—such a taboo-buster, that Seinfeld, with his wry observations!—many have asked if comedy is in jeopardy. They often lean on the same tired rhetoric about laughter’s potential as a “unifying force”; why? “Comedy isn’t supposed to be anything, except what the comedian tries to make it—harmless, mean, political, dirty, dumb. You wouldn’t say that music or fiction are ‘supposed’ to be anything; so why do we saddle all comedy with a curative democratic mission? Too often we view comedy as a craft, a service brought to us by cheerful comfort-workers, more than the work of serious artists. Thus, when they don’t comfort us, we want to complain to the manager.”
  • “I can remember in the Fifties when Goatman would come by, up near Arab, Ala. The first time I ever saw him we were picking cotton in the fields near Arab and he was coming down the road. You could hear him coming a mile away with all the bells and all the pots and pans rattling. People would come by and say, ‘Goatman’s coming! Goatman’s coming!’ We’d all rush to the end of the cotton row to watch Goatman go by.” That’s Ansel Elkins, quoting her father in a new interview about her poems and the South.
  • Chinese publishers routinely censor their translations of Western books—and the West just as routinely greets this news with a small shrug. “As the anecdotal evidence started to accumulate, it became clear that though cuts tended to be surgically precise, they were also extremely common. Only rarely was there outrage. Many were fatigued by the idea of having to police all their overseas editions. With international publishing, they argued, something is always going to get lost in translation. Many had simply decided to not worry about it.”

Special Effects

May 12, 2015 | by

 Sharia law goes to the movies.

District_9_vector_poster_by_butterflyka

From a District 9 poster, 2009.

In 2009, halfway through my second deployment as an infantryman in Iraq, I was made company armorer. Instead of spending days in the field or going on patrols at odd hours, I had a set schedule repairing our company’s guns and night vision goggles—a normal nine-to-five, in many ways, except that I was stuck on a military compound in the Diyala Province and my office was a shipping container. As a newly ordained soldier of leisure, I decided to reconnect with American culture by watching a couple of new movies.

I chose The Wrestler and District 9 for arbitrary reasons: friends back home had mentioned them and they were for sale in stacks at my base’s knickknack shop, run by locals. The Wrestler, I discovered, is a Darren Aronofsky film starring Mickey Rourke as a washed-up professional wrestler haunted by his past fame, torn between focusing on building a new life outside of wrestling and rekindling some of his former glory. The film crackles with the dark intensity of the knowledge that Rourke’s character will have to make a choice—the violence of the wrestling ring or domestic tranquility. I thought The Wrestler triumphed in the end by leaving the character’s fate up in the air; the film culminates in a poignant hospital scene where the broken wrestler’s love interest pleads that he not agree to a reunion matchup with his old rival, the Ayatollah. Read More »

Science Fiction in the White House, and Other News

May 8, 2015 | by

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  • A plea to the professoriat: If you really love the humanities, do them a favor and shut up about Shakespeare. “On the shrinking support for the liberal arts in American education … organizations such as ACTA and NAS mistake a parochial struggle over particular authors and curricula for the full-throated defense of the humanities.”
  • When Jules Verne meets the sterling judgment of our nation’s executive branch: John Quincy Adams once approved a journey to the center of the Earth. The plan asked for “one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with Reindeer and slays, on the ice of the frozen sea … ”
  • Fran Ross’s 1974 novel, Oreo, newly reissued, “resists the unwritten conventions that still exist for novels written by black women. There’s nothing redemptively uplifting about Ross’s work. The title doesn’t refer to the Bible or the blues. The work does not refer to slavery. The character is never violated, sexually or otherwise. The characters are not from the South. Oreo is sincerely ironic, hilarious, brainy, impenetrable at times.”
  • Scott Timberg’s new book Culture Crash holds the well-being of the cultural middle class as the key to American creativity.” But this thesis only reveals “an unexplored aesthetic bias that favors the sort of art reviewed in the pages of the unrepentantly middle-class New York Times, art that becomes middlebrow through its relative accessibility and popularity. Forget the cynical dross intended for the tasteless masses: It is this kind of middlebrow culture—the kind best known and appreciated by well-rounded liberal-arts grads—of which Timberg wants to see more, even though it abounds right now.”
  • Of Mice and Men contains such hair-raising profanities as bastard and God damn, which make it unsuitable, according to a curriculum-review committee in Idaho, for fourteen- or fifteen-year-old students. “Teachers actually had the audacity to have students read these profanities out loud in class,” one parent said.

Letter from New York, 2005

January 26, 2015 | by

Adventures in tastelessness at The Onion.

Photo: Casey Bisson, via Flickr

I used to be an editor at The Onion. This was in 2004, when most of the original writers were still there—just a handful had gone off to Hollywood. I was hired by my friend Carol Kolb, who’d just been made editor in chief.

Carol is the funniest person I have ever known. One time we went to a German restaurant together, and our server was a cross-dresser. The cross-dresser was the newer kind. He was a man, dressed as a woman, but I think the polite thing is to use the female pronoun. She didn’t wear any makeup, and she didn’t have styled hair. She wore blue jeans and a shirt from the Gap. Her chin-length red hair was lackluster, and looked a little oily. She was about forty years old, and she behaved like a forty-year-old woman—tired, kind, a little weary.

I went to the restaurant a lot, and for whatever reason, she never confused me, but Carol, I have to say, was uncomfortable. It was as if she couldn’t decide whether this was just a guy who had accidentally put on his wife’s clothes that morning or she was a woman who had just given up all hope. Carol had trouble ordering—she stumbled over her words and couldn’t meet the server’s eye. I noticed she kept looking nervously at the server’s breasts and hips. It wasn’t too big a deal, and the server handled it like a forty-year-old woman would, not taking it personally and not acknowledging that it was happening. When the server walked away, Carol said, “I am so embarrassed. I was acting like somebody from Spencer, Wisconsin.” She made her eyes glaze over as a hayseed’s would if he met Divine. “I was like this!” she said, “I just couldn’t get it together.”

Another joke of Carol’s was to say, on a crowded subway, “Did you hear about Maria’s new boyfriend?” Read More »

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American Grotesque, and Other News

December 1, 2014 | by

William Mortensen’s L’Amour (1932) doubles as the cover of a new book about him, American Grotesque.

  • Don DeLillo rereads his own opus, Underworld, seventeen years after its publication. (“Great fucking line,” he’s written next to “The subway seals you durably in the stone of the moment.”)
  • In the thirties, William Mortensen was one of the most celebrated photographers in the nation—his pictures were “unabashedly theatrical, bizarre, and often louche.” What sank his reputation: a critical tiff with Ansel Adams.
  • The Chinese State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television has moved to ban wordplay “on the grounds that it breaches the law on standard spoken and written Chinese, makes promoting cultural heritage harder and may mislead the public—especially children.” (An example of the now forbidden fruit: “replacing a single character in ke bu rong huan has turned ‘brook no delay’ into ‘coughing must not linger’ for a medicine ad.”)
  • While we’re on censorship: In the quest for G-rated moon landings, NASA used to go to great lengths to scrub astronauts’ profanity from its transcripts. In the case of one particularly salty spaceman, they went further—they had him hypnotized. “A psychiatrist put the idea in his head that he would rather hum when his mind wandered.”
  • On the history of fairy tales: “In the coded language of symbol and metaphor they chart the journey from childhood to adulthood. The Russian commentator Eleaser Meletinksji wrote, ‘It is even possible to say that the fairy tale begins with the break-up of one family and ends with the creation of a new one.’”

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No One Can Draw Runners, and Other News

October 13, 2014 | by

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A Greek vase with runners at the panathenaic games, ca. 530 BC.

  • “Picture a person running. You’re probably picturing [it] wrong. It’s okay, you wouldn’t be alone. It turns out that artists have been drawing people running incorrectly for thousands of years. From Greek vases to drawing handbooks to modern sculptures, even our very best artists can’t seem to get the pose right.”
  • A new anthology’s narrow definition of art: “There is certainly great value in drawing attention to the historical context of a poem. We ignore an essential feature of literature when we lose sight of its power as an artifact of a particular moment, place or era. Still, it is difficult to read Poetry of Witness without quickly sensing that the editors are gaming the system to support their narrow preconception of poetry’s utility.”
  • Censorship in China: great for sales. “Having a book banned in China is often a marketing coup for publishers selling copies abroad. In the age of social media, this dynamic appears to be playing out on the mainland as well … ‘Smothering someone is as good as crowning that person … A ‘smothering’ order is a reading list.’”
  • The art of brand names: What makes for assonant, beautiful, memorable, popular branding? (Pro tip: do not name your company Shpoonkle. It will fail.)
  • Against brunch: “There’s something more malevolent at work than simply the proliferation of Hollandaise sauce that I suspect comes from a packet. Brunch has become the most visible symptom of a demographic shift that has taken place in our neighborhood and others like it … Our once diverse neighborhood now brims with the homogeneity of an elite university.”

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