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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

The Vestigial Clown

June 23, 2014 | by

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Detail from Hans Breinlinger’s The Clown, 1948.

Yesterday, a friend and I entered into a great debate. It started with my question:

“Does the clown exist who could make you laugh?”

He said yes; he thought that clown who does the act with snow off Union Square would make him laugh. (The show is lauded for its masterful clown-craft and its evocation of childlike wonder.)

“Okay,” I said, “has a clown ever made you laugh?”

“Of course not,” he said.

Does anyone expect to be amused by clowns in this day and age? We all know that clowns are creepy, clowns are scary, clowns are lame—but that understanding has always been predicated on the understanding that, like dolls, clowns are supposed to be happy, fun, innocent. Thus, when a clown goes psychotic, it is doubly terrifying. Or it was thirty years ago, at least. Now, in a world of John Wayne Gacy and It and Insane Clown Posse and Diddy’s coulrophobia-driven “no clowns” rider, we expect clowns to be sinister.

Take this recent survey of kids in children’s hospitals, a historical clown stronghold:

More than 250 children aged between four and sixteen were asked for their opinions—and every single one said they disliked clowns as part of hospital decor.

Even some of the older children said they found clowns scary, Nursing Standard magazine reported.

The youngsters were questioned by the University of Sheffield for the Space to Care study aimed at improving hospital design for children.

“As adults we make assumptions about what works for children,” said Penny Curtis, a senior lecturer in research at the university.

“We found that clowns are universally disliked by children. Some found them frightening and unknowable.” 

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Please Hire Walt Whitman, and Other News

May 12, 2014 | by

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The guy needs a job. Portrait of Whitman by Thomas Eakins, 1887.

  • In 1847, Charles Dickens founded a “home for homeless women”: he “flung himself into organizing every detail of it, from the food to the flower garden, and the piano around which the women would gather for wholesome evening entertainment … when he learned London society was particularly shocked about the piano, [he] spread a rumor that there would not just be one but many pianos, one for each woman.”
  • And in 1863, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a recommendation letter for Walt Whitman, who sought a government clerkship: “He is known to me as a man of strong original genius, combining, with marked eccentricities, great powers & valuable traits of character: a self-relying large-hearted man, much beloved by his friends; entirely patriotic & benevolent in his theory, tastes, & practice.”
  • A look at Alt Lit, “an online writing community that emerged in 2011 and harnesses the casual affect and jagged stylistics of social media as the basis of their works … Its members have produced a body of distinctive literature marked by direct speech, expressions of aching desire, and wide-eyed sincerity. (‘language is so cool. i can type out these shapes and you can understand me,’ or ‘Yay! Dolphins are beautiful creatures and will always have a wild spirit. I have been very lucky because I have had the awesome experience of swimming with dolphins twice.’)”
  • The problem (or at least a problem) with superhero movies: “the visual and rhythmic sameness of the films’ execution … Despite their fleeting moments of specialness, The Avengers, the Iron Man and Thor and Captain America films, the new Spider-Man series and Man of Steel treat viewers not to variations of the same situations … but to variations of the same situations that feel as though they were designed, choreographed, shot, edited and composited by the same second units and special effects houses, using the same software, under the same conditions … Shots of people fighting inside and atop collapsing and burning structures all feel basically the same.”
  • Misha Defonseca’s 1997 Holocaust memoir, which sold millions of copies in Canada and Europe, is entirely fabricated; a court has ordered Defonseca to return $22.5 million.
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Ditching Dickensian

April 30, 2014 | by

Giving the lie to a critical crutch.

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Illustration: Robert Ingpen

Copies of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch now bear an impressive gold foil sticker declaring it the “WINNER of the PULITZER PRIZE.” Before that accolade, though, critics had already branded the novel by using and abusing the adjective that’s launched a thousand blurbs—Dickensian. Despite, or perhaps because of, the ubiquity of the word in appraisals of the novel, such assessments are rarely issued without caveats. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan apologetically notes that the term “is one of those literary modifiers that’s overused”; in the New York Times Book Review, Stephen King somewhat ruefully acknowledged that he wouldn’t be the last to employ Dickensian to describe Tartt’s novel. He was right.

For all this critical concurrence, it’s less than clear what we mean by Dickensian, or, for that matter, by any adjective with a particular author at its root. Francine Prose leads her review of The Goldfinch with this very question: “What do people mean when they call a novel ‘Dickensian’?” As Prose notes, a number of answers present themselves—Dickensian can signify sentimentality, an attentiveness to the social conditions, a cast of comically hyperbolic characters, a reliance on plot contrivances, or even simply a book’s sheer length. (I suspect one rarely means the relatively slim A Tale of Two Cities or Hard Times when one labels a novel Dickensian.) In other words, the proliferation of the senses of Dickensian makes one wonder if it, or other such words, are critically useful at all. As Cynthia Ozick has recently complained with regard to Kafkaesque—another perennial—the word “has by now escaped the body of work it is meant to evoke.” Read More »

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Realer Than Real

February 7, 2014 | by

Charles Dickens was born today in 1812.


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FOOTE

The most illuminating thing that ever happened to me in those early days was winning as a Sunday-school prize a copy of David Copperfield. Now, I’d read Tom Swift and earlier Bunny Brown and his sister Sue, then moved on to the Rover Boys and Tarzan. But here came David Copperfield. I was dismayed that it was about six hundred pages long. But when I began to read I got so caught up in it—when I finished it, I realized that I’d been in the presence of something realer than real. I knew David better than I knew myself or anyone else. The way Dickens told that story caught me right then and there.  

INTERVIEWER

Was reading David Copperfield an early catalyst for making you a writer and not just a reader?  

FOOTE

I absolutely think so. I didn’t react immediately, but eventually it made me want to do what Dickens had done—make a world that’s somehow better in focus than real life, which goes rushing past you. He showed me how to do it too. 

—Shelby Foote, the Art of Fiction No. 158, Summer 1999

 

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Ill-Fitting Doll Suits

November 26, 2013 | by

Male dolls in a range of ill-fitting costumes.

Male dolls in a range of ill-fitting costumes.

For all humanity’s technological achievements, no one in the history of the world has ever succeeded in producing a realistic-looking miniature suit for a male doll. Any father doll who works a white-collar job looks instantly ridiculous: lumpen, clownish, stripped of all authority. The only play scenarios in which a miniature male doll’s suits make any sense is that in which he has just gotten out of prison and hasn’t had a chance to get new clothes, or if the dollhouse paterfamilias is David Byrne. I need not say that neither plotline is popular.

In his 1913 essay “On the Wax Dolls of Lotte Pritzel,” Rilke wrote, “Sexless as the dolls of childhood were, [the doll-souls] can find no decease in their stagnant ecstasy, which has neither inflow nor outflow.”

Which is all very well, but seriously, doll men have terrible-looking suits. Read More »

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Dickensian Peg Legs, and Other News

October 2, 2013 | by

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  • There are so many wooden legs in the works of Dickens.
  • David Bowie’s one hundred favorite books include The Trial of Henry Kissinger, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
  • “You’ve published a novel, and half a dozen short stories, and you’ve found clever ways to fluff up your bio. You think of your writing resume as one of the most creative pieces of fiction you’ve written.” Justin Kramon on being a fiction-writing professor.
  • “Fleming was essentially a bureaucrat during the war. But, being an imaginative man, he could not help thinking about a more active role as a secret agent.” The real story behind the birth of James Bond.
  • Yup: the Library of Congress is closed, too.

 

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