The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘death’

Elaborate Networks of Siphons, and Other News

May 13, 2016 | by

Detail from an illustration in an 1851 English edition of Hero’s Pneumatica.

  • While we’re on government-generated weekend-reading material: if you’re feeling morbid, you could try, instead, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s catalog of the ways people have died on the job. Something about its bland, administrative style makes it a chillingly effective memento mori: “Worker was crushed when tractor he was driving, pulling a bin dumper full of pomegranates, fell onto its side. Worker was possibly trying to make a U-turn while going too fast … Worker was engulfed after standing on a pile of beans at a bean plant … Worker was crushed by a rack of baked goods … Worker was eating lunch and swallowed a bee … ”
  • Well before the likes of Alan Turing, the notion of artificial intelligence came alive in automata, i.e., self-moving machines. The first robots were, in a sense, waterworks. Jessica Riskin writes:Many involved elaborate networks of siphons that activated various actions as the water passed through them, especially figures of birds drinking, fluttering, and chirping … Waterworks, including but not limited to ones using siphons, were probably the most important category of automata in antiquity and the middle ages. Flowing water conveyed motion to a figure or set of figures by means of levers or pulleys or tripping mechanisms of various sorts. A late twelfth-century example by an Arabic automaton-maker named Al-Jazari is a peacock fountain for handwashing, in which flowing water triggers little figures to offer the washer first a dish of perfumed soap powder, then a hand towel.”
  • It’s one thing to translate a dead author, who can no longer quibble with your decisions—but a living author is another matter entirely. “The few living authors I’ve translated,” Lydia Davis says in a new interview with Liesl Schillinger, “tend to be very modest and self-effacing, like Snijders and Blanchot, so they’ll say, Whatever you think is best, this is really your work, that sort of thing. I have had friends who have had very different experiences with authors, who say, No, that’s not it at all, and virtually force them to write in a way that they’re not happy writing. I’ve had times when I wished an author were still alive, especially in the case of Michel Leiris, so I could ask, What exactly did you mean? Actually, Leiris sent me a couple of postcards that I framed. His handwriting is great, black spidery old man’s handwriting. As I remember, he said something like, I’m here to help in any way I can. I don’t think I took advantage of his offer, which is something I really regret, now.”

Jenny Diski, 1947–2016

April 29, 2016 | by

Jenny Diski died yesterday. You might have discovered that fact if you happened to visit the London Review of Books, where Diski published essays, reviews, and blog posts for nearly twenty-five years. Or maybe, like me, you learned it on Twitter, where, hours before the obituaries arrived, old tweets of Diski’s, some of them years out of date, started swirling back into circulation. They joined a tumble of appreciative links and quotations, an accumulation whose size quickly disqualified the possibility of happy coincidence. This is how death announces itself now, at least for the artists who don’t rate a breaking-news alert on our phones: a surge of mentions on social media, a collective attempt to plug up the vacuum of absence with digital abundance. For a moment you think you’ve lucked into an outpouring of spontaneous enthusiasm. Finally! you tell yourself. We’re talking about her now! But then quickly enough the rational brain reasserts itself and begins working down the checklist: Are they handing out Nobels today? A genius grant, maybe? Was someone quoted by Beyoncé? No? Oh. Oh, no. Read More »

Morning Street

April 21, 2016 | by

William Edouard Scott, Rainy Night at Etaples, 1912

William Edouard Scott, Rainy Night at Etaples, 1912

Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s poem “Morning Street” appeared in our Fall 1986 issue. He is considered by some to be the greatest Portuguese-language poet of all time.

The splashing rain
unearthed my father.
I never imagined
him buried thus,
to the din of trolleys
on an asphalt street
giant palm trees slanting on the beach
(and a voice from sleep
to stroke my hair),
as melodies wash up
with lost money
discarded confessions
old papers, glasses, pearls.

To see him exposed
to the damp, acrid air,
that drifts in with the tide
and cuts your breath,
to wish to love him
without deceit
to cover him with kisses, with flowers, with swallows,
to alter time
to offer the warm
of a quiet embrace
from this elderly recluse,
discarded confessions
and a lamb-like truce.

To feel the lack
of inborn strengths
to want to carry him
to the older sofa
of a bygone ranch,
but splashes of rain
but sheets of mud beneath reddish street lamps
but all that exists
of morning and wind
between one nature and another
yawning sheds by the docks
discarded confessions
ingratitude.
What should a man do
at dawn
(a taste of defeat
in his mouth, in the air)
in whatever place?
Everything spoken, drunk, or even pretended
and the rest still buried
in the folds of sleep,
cigarette stubs
the wet glare of streets
discarded confessions
morning defeat.

Vague mountains
greening waves
newspapers already white,
hesitant melody
trying to spawn
conditions for hope
on this gray day, of a broken lament.
Nothing left to remind me
of the seamless asphalt.
Abandoned cellars
my body shivers
discarded confessions:
abruptly, the walk home.

—Translated from the Portuguese by Thomas Colchie

Memento Mori

March 10, 2016 | by

This painting and below: E. B. Roberts, Series of Salesman Samples for Memorials, 1929, enamel on board,  20" x 24". From a series of thirty-three paintings. Images courtesy Ricco/Maresca Gallery.

Trawling through eBay recently, I came across a folder of sample funeral cards from the early twentieth century. As near as I can tell, salesmen would roam from funeral home to funeral home peddling these to undertakers, who would in turn press them on bereaved families. They were standard thank-you notes, essentially—“The family of _________ will hold in grateful remembrance your Spiritual Bouquet and kind expression of sympathy”—but unattached to any death in particular, their messages were gauche, even funny. That they were framed in advertising copy didn’t help. Imagine: Someone you love dies, and before you can even pick out the announcement cards, you have to read sentences like “Genuine engraving achieves its inherent beauty from a correlation of width and depth which no other process possesses.” As a character in Terry Southern’s The Loved One says: “Death has become a middle-class business. There’s no future in it.” Read More »

Writ in Water

February 23, 2016 | by

The enduring mystery of Keats’s last words.

Keats’s grave at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment
For skies Italian ...

—John Keats, “Happy is England! I Could Be Content,” 1817

Among the dozens of fountains in Rome, the Trevi may be the most famous, but the Barcaccia in the Piazza di Spagna arguably has a lock on the most poignant. Commissioned in 1629, it sits at the foot of the Scalinata, or Spanish Steps, swarmed by hordes of tourists in high season. Boat shaped to commemorate the spot where, in the historic flood of 1598, the Tiber River reached its highest level and improbably deposited a river barque in the square, the Barcaccia now seems a light-hearted way station, an oasis on a hot Latin day.

But nearly two centuries ago, the fountain played a far different role for one particular admirer, a transplant from England who roomed in an apartment above the steps and listened incessantly to the murmurings of its waters. To this visitor, the Barcaccia was a temporary lifeline during a few dark winter months at the turn of 1821, as he coughed and spluttered his way to a tragically early death. That doomed young man, as devotees of English Romantic poetry know, was John Keats, and the apartment where the poet, barely twenty-five, breathed his last from tuberculosis, on February 23, 1821, is now the Keats-Shelley House, a meticulously kept museum and scholarly library founded in 1909. It’s there, in the room where Keats died, that you will find the key to a misapprehension—one could almost say a lie—about his life and death that has been promulgated, literally written in stone, since 1823. Read More »

My Harper Lee SparkNotes

February 22, 2016 | by

Writing the SparkNotes for Go Set a Watchman. 

From the cover of Go Set a Watchman.


Context

The summer when I was eight, I read two books: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and To Kill a Mockingbird. My copy of Mockingbird was a cheap lilac paperback. Its cover featured the knot of a tree with a pocket watch and a ball of yarn inside, a mockingbird stamped in silhouette. In the corner, a crescent moon as thin as a tea-stain rose above a clot of green trees.

I lived inside that book. I read it, reread it, and reread it again, sitting in an attic bedroom of my grandparents’ house, hunched on the green shag carpet. I remember the book in discrete images: Dill’s duckweed-like tufts of hair. Slimy Mr. Ewell leering at his daughter. Miss Maudie’s house going up in flames, like a pumpkin, and her prized azaleas frozen and charred in the aftermath. Crotchety, liver-spotted Mrs. Dubose with her perfect camellias, ivory and globular against the glossy leaves. The day when Jem, in a sudden rampage, snatches Scout’s baton and shears off all the buds and flowers on the camellia bushes. And then, when Mrs. Dubose dies, the white box that her servant gives to Jem with one pristine, waxy camellia resting inside. To Kill a Mockingbird showed me how to create a fully realized, sensory world. Read More »