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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

The Story in the Shadows: An Interview with Sjón

September 26, 2016 | by

Sjón. Photo: Gabriel Kuchta.

Photo: Gabriel Kuchta.

Moonstone, Sjón’s latest novel, has been called “the gayest book in Iceland.” It follows the sixteen-year-old Máni Steinn, a queer hustler and cinephile whose life becomes upended by the Spanish flu of 1918 when the pestilence ravages Reykjavik. With the country fearful of any bodily contact, Máni can no longer pick up “gentlemen,” and the cinema houses are shut down. Máni finds solace in a new friendship with Sóla G, a beautiful feminist who rides a motorcycle and dresses all in black. When Máni gets tangled up in a sodomy scandal that threatens to humiliate the homophobic country, Sóla is perhaps the only person who can help him.

As with Sjón’s previous books—The Whispering Muse, The Blue Fox, and From the Mouth of the Whale—the magic of Moonstone lies in language. Máni Steinn doesn’t just love movies but “lives in the movies. When not spooling them into himself through his eyes he is replaying them in his mind.” Máni is illiterate, and as he struggles to read, “the letters of the alphabet disguise themselves before his eyes, glide between lines, switch roles in the middle of a word, and might as well be a red cipher to which he does not have the key.” Sjón’s easy way with words goes back to the Icelandic sagas he devoured as a child. He has internalized the lyrical language of epics, myths, folktales, and religion—“the old great narratives,” as he calls them.

Moonstone has been praised all around, with David Mitchell calling it “Sjón’s simmering masterpiece,” and it has won nearly all of Iceland’s literary prizes, including the country’s most prestigious: the Icelandic Literary Award. Sjón and I met once in New York in 2013, to discuss his earlier works; this month he was kind enough to answer a few questions I had for him about Moonstone over e-mail. Read More »

Sitting Up

August 23, 2016 | by

A brief history of chairs.

Still from Lawrence of Arabia.

Still from Lawrence of Arabia.

There is a pivotal early scene in David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia in which T. E. Lawrence and his superior, Colonel Brighton, visit the desert encampment of Prince Faisal, a leader of the Arab Revolt. The royal tent is spartan yet luxurious, patterned woven cloths hang from the low ceiling, a large brass samovar gleams in the candlelight, the ground is covered with a rich carpet. There is no furniture; the men sit on the carpet. Brighton, in his tailored uniform, polished Sam Browne belt, and riding boots, looks distinctly ill at ease with his legs awkwardly stretched out in front of him. Lawrence, a lieutenant and less formally dressed, appears slightly more comfortable, with his legs folded to one side. The prince, attired in a dark robe and a white ghutrah, reclines on a pile of sheepskins, while his colleague Sherif Ali leans casually against a tent pole. The various postures cinematically underline a central point: the relaxed Bedouins are at home in this place—the desert—while the stiff English colonel is an interloper. Lawrence is somewhere in between.

The world is divided into people who sit on the floor and those who sit on chairs. In a classic study of human posture around the world, the anthropologist Gordon W. Hewes identified no fewer than a hundred common sitting positions. “At least a fourth of mankind habitually takes the load off its feet by crouching in a deep squat, both at rest and at work,” he observed. Deep squatting is favored by people in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but sitting cross-legged on the floor is almost as common. Many South Asians cook, dine, work, and relax in that position. Certain Native American tribes in the Southwest, as well as Melanesians, customarily sit on the floor with legs stretched straight out or crossed at the ankles. Sitting with the legs folded to one side—Lawrence’s position above—is described by Hewes as a predominantly female posture in many tribal societies. Read More »

You Are on Display: An Interview with Morgan Parker

July 22, 2016 | by

Photo by Kwesi Abbensetts.

Photo by Kwesi Abbensetts.

Morgan Parker has a long résumé—she teaches and edits—that somehow hasn’t precluded a prolific career as a poet. Her first collection, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night, came last year; her second, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, is due out in 2017.

A few months ago, Parker’s poem “Hottentot Venus” appeared in the Spring issue of The Paris Review. Her use of famous names and long, playful titles (“Ryan Gosling Wearing a T-shirt of Macaulay Culkin Wearing a T-Shirt of Ryan Gosling Wearing a T-Shirt of Macaulay Culkin”) suggests that she’s light of heart—but she is, as one reviewer put it,“as set on understanding the world as on changing it.” Race and femininism are central to her work, which explores ways to look at the present through the past, to examine ordinary life through pop culture, and to consider the events of her own life. We spoke recently about the joys of lengthy titles, how her many jobs intersect, and the process of crafting a personal mythology. Read More »

Language Leakage: An Interview with Sarah Thomason

March 30, 2016 | by

The linguist discusses how technology shapes culture and culture shapes words.

A uniform for the Spokane Indians in Salish.

The first time Sarah “Sally” Thomason and I spoke, she’d just completed her annual two-day, eighteen-hundred-mile drive from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she teaches, to rural northwestern Montana, where she spends her summers studying Montana Salish. For thirty-four years, Thomason has been assembling a dictionary of this Native American language, which is spoken fluently by fewer than forty people. Thomason, a linguist, is fascinated by what happens when one language meets another, and how those languages change, or don’t. I had contacted her because I was interested in how certain words—say, e-mail, or google, or tweet—had been exported worldwide by American-born technology. I’d already called several linguists, and they all said I had to speak to Sally. No one, they said, had more insight into how linguistic traits travel, how pidgins and creoles are born, and how languages interact and change over time.  

The French government tried very hard to resist American loanwords like e-mail, promoting in its place messagerie électronique or courriel. They’d formed a whole agency for this purpose. Laws were passed and enforced. And yet e-mail prevailed—it was simply more efficient. But Sally was especially excited about languages that resist such borrowing, even in the face of extraordinary cultural influence and dominance. Montana Salish was one such language. Our conversations followed a pattern: I arrived expecting one thing and ended up somewhere entirely distinct, thinking differently about language and human culture.

Is it fair to say that you study what happens when languages meet? Is meet too friendly a word? I suppose there’s a whole range of things that happen, and sometimes it’s friendly and sometimes it’s not.

Right, but having a language disappear because all the speakers got massacred is actually really rare. There are a couple of examples where all the speakers of some language got wiped out by a volcanic eruption on an island. And there are a couple of examples, at least one in this country, where almost everybody was wiped out by smallpox and then the remainder was lynched by a mob.

What languages are those? Read More »

Bring on the Dedicated Smell Words, and Other News

November 9, 2015 | by

Paul Thévenaz, Untitled (Nude smelling flowers), 1922.

  • Today in language and sensory perception: the verdict is in and English is a laughably inadequate language when it comes to describing scents. We must close the smell deficit, giving the olfactory its due in a mad rush of neologism. “In English, there are only three dedicated smell words—stinky, fragrant, and musty—and the first two are more about the smeller’s subjective experience than about the smelly thing itself … the Jahai people of Malaysia and the Maniq of Thailand use between twelve and fifteen dedicated smell words … ltpit describes the smell of a binturong or bear cat—a two-meter-long animal that looks like a shaggy, black-furred otter, and that famously smells of popcorn … Another word is used for the smell of petrol, smoke, bat droppings, some species of millipede, the root of wild ginger, the wood of wild mango, and more. One seems specific to roasted foods. And one refers to things like squirrel blood, rodents, crushed head lice, and other ‘bloody smells that attract tigers.’ ”
  • In her quest to compile a kind of contemporary ars moriendi, Robyn K. Coggins has taken an exhaustive survey of how people would like to die: “Sometimes I think getting sniped while walking down the street is the best way to go. Short, sweet, surprising; no worries, no time for pain. Sure, it’d be traumatic as hell for the people nearby, but who knows—your death might spark a social movement, a yearlong news story that launches media, legal, and criminal justice careers. What a death!”
  • I can think of where not to die: in Gore Vidal’s pool, which has apparently fallen into disuse. “The pool was … filled with dead fish with bruised purple backs hovering beneath the dark green surface. Abandoned sun chairs lay by the side.” You can change all that, though. Vidal’s 10,500-square-foot property on the Amalfi coast, La Rondinaia, is for sale for a cool $21.1 million. Invite me over once you’ve fixed the place up. Don’t let me die in the pool.
  • Far beyond the walls of the academy, poets like Tyler Knott Gregson are pouring their hearts out online, putting forth page after page of unvarnished verse. They’ve found that most coveted thing: a wide readership. Gregson’s new book of haiku has a first printing of a hundred thousand copies; he “belongs to a new generation of young, digitally astute poets whose loyal online followings have helped catapult them onto the best-seller lists, where poetry books are scarce. These amateur poets are not winning literary awards, and most have never been in a graduate writing workshop … Their appeal lies in the unpolished flavor of their verses, which often read as if they were ripped from the pages of a diary … The rapid rise of Instapoets probably will not shake up the literary establishment, and their writing is unlikely to impress literary critics or purists who might sneer at conflating clicks with artistic quality. But they could reshape the lingering perception of poetry as a creative medium in decline.”
  • In the late eighties, the artist Kembra Pfahler decided to sneak subversive commentary into the most accessible vehicle around: a rock band. “The first performance I ever did … was when I came home and looked around and there was nothing in the house except an egg. There wasn’t anything to use, I didn’t have a guitar, I had an egg. So I stood on my head and cracked an egg over it … I decided in 1989 to start a classic rock band … so I could slide the imagery into the consciousness of the viewer a little easier. This was The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black … The band allowed me to squeeze in all the strange images I’d been working on for all these years, what I now call my ‘manual of action,’ my own vocabulary of images: the sewn vagina; the egg piece; all of the costumes, like Abra Kedavour; the flowing anal bead shirt; the shark piece; the upside down Crucifix piece, where I hang upside down on the cross; the wall of vagina; the bowling ball piece. For the most part, the performances happened during the guitar solo, and were over before you knew what happened.”

I Demand Satisfaction, and Other News

July 10, 2015 | by

Yevgeny_Onegin_by_Repin

Ilya Repin, Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky’s duel, 1899.

  • Your extensive library is all vanity: Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady warns against associating our books with status and considering them a marker of “the supposed growth of our intellect advertised in terms of shelf space.” Do you collect books, or do you actually read them?
  • What happened to midrange film dramas? Maybe they just got better and look more like big pictures. Example: that “art film” aesthetic we like so much (hand-held camera work, low and bad lighting) is tied more to compromises made by directors with low budgets than to artistic choice, and yet these bad techniques are often misused as a markers of “artistic authenticity.” Film history has seen a number of these gambles and trade-offs, but not all have stuck: “there’s no connection between the short-term appeal of a movie and its artistic importance. Some aesthetic landmarks are profitable, some aren’t.”
  • The comic-book publisher Drawn & Quarterly celebrates its twenty-fifth birthday this year, and everyone is excited because they’ve been doing the Lord’s work: “The D+Q backlist is rich in volumes that have been at the forefront of making comics an accepted literary and visual form—works by such prominent cartoonists as Lynda Barry, Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Chester Brown, Seth, Julie Doucet, Adrian Tomine, Yoshihiro Tatsumi.”
  • Before you do your literary duty and read Go Set a Watchman, consider naming your child after your literary hero. If the trends tell us anything, we may be destined for a generation of Atticuses: “Harper, which nationwide ranked 887th for newborn girls in 2004, actually ranked 11th in 2014. Atticus rose from 937th in 2004 to rank 370th in popularity for male babies in 2014.”
  • Touché! A specific set of literature is steeped in pistol-wielding duels. Whether it be the soufflet, the acknowledgement of the offense, the rencontre, the violent encounter, or listening to the dying opponent’s final words, John Leigh’s Touché catalogues and analyzes the duels of literary history. Through this chronicle of absurd formality, Leigh looks at everything, from “Casanova’s account of his duel with a Polish nobleman, to comic duels in Dickens and to two of Maupassant’s short stories.”

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