The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘death’

Beneath the Yew Tree’s Shade

October 31, 2015 | by

In the first of three excerpts from The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, Thomas Laqueur explores the necrobotany of the yew tree, “the tree of the dead”—found in churchyards across the United Kingdom, France, and Spain.

William Turner, Pope's Villa at Twickenham, 1808.

A churchyard was adjacent to a church; both held the bones of the dead. The three—the building, the ground, the dead—were conjoined by a common history that made them part of what by the eighteenth century was a given; if ever there were an organic landscape, it was the churchyard.

The long-lived European yew tree—Taxus baccata, the tree of the dead, the tree of poisonous seeds—bears witness to the antiquity of the churchyard and shades its “rugged elms,” and the mounds and furrows of its graves: The yew of legend is old and lays claim to immemorial presence. We are speaking here of two or three dozen exemplary giants, some with a circumference of ten meters, that have stood for between 1,300 and 3,000 years but also of many more modest and historically documented trees that have lived, and been memorialized, for centuries. At least 250 yews today are as old or older than the churchyards in which they stand. Some were there when the first Saxon and indeed the first British Christian wattle churches were built; a seventh-century charter from Peronne in Picardy speaks of preserving the yew on the site of a new church. Read More »

Donna Reed in the Old Scary House

October 28, 2015 | by

Donna Reed, being spooky.

Tom Disch’s poem “Donna Reed in the Old Scary House” appeared in our Fall 1995 issue. A prolific poet, novelist, science-fiction writer, and author of children’s books—including The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances—Disch frequently published his work in the Review. He died in 2008. —D.P.

At first she is only mildly annoyed: the car
won’t start, it’s happened before. She’ll phone
her husband—what is his name?—at his office,
and he’ll come pick her up. Another cup of coffee,
meanwhile, in that funeral parlor of a living room
with old Mrs. Marbleheart, who haunts this old house. Read More »

Surprise—It’s Dylan Thomas, and Other News

October 27, 2015 | by

Two of Lilliput’s 1942 covers.

  • A lost poem by Dylan Thomas, published originally in a magazine called Lilliput in 1942, has been recovered from a torn-out page; this weekend, in an act of poetic resuscitation, the actor Celyn Jones will read it aloud in public. We know the poem is called “A Dream of Winter,” and that it “features eight verses of three lines and focuses on imagery of a birdless wood, snow, and ‘singing statures.’ ” Anyone who can reconstruct it word for word based on these parameters will receive the entirety of my checking account.
  • The novelist H. L. “Doc” Humes helped to cofound The Paris Review in the early fifties—an often delicate enterprise, apparently. “Doc’s essential contribution to the founding of The Paris Review was his gusto and charisma; he was the first managing editor, but he prioritized his own writing … Doc was embarrassingly demoted to ‘advertising manager’ at the first issue’s release in spring 1953—a slight that prompted him to stamp his name onto the masthead of as many copies of the first issue as he could. In future issues, Doc was restored to the masthead as a founding and contributing editor, in spite of his laissez-faire style.”
  • Today in mourning through psychogeography: “When’s the last time you’ve spotted someone you know on Google Maps? I never had. And my mother, besides, is no longer alive. It couldn’t be her … By moving the camera position up and down the street, and using the zoom function, I could trace my mom’s movements on that day as the Google car drove by. In the first frame, she’s a few paces from the door, with her back to the street; she was probably just returning from work … I took screenshots of my mom from every angle available on the site, saved them to my hard drive, and e-mailed copies to myself, just in case my hard drive crashes at some point. Then, like a living, breathing grief-complicating cliché, I e-mailed the images to family and friends, in order to simultaneously brighten and ruin their days.”
  • Jim Shaw is working a vein that you might call “crackpot gothic”: his retrospective at the New Museum features his own work as well as the thrift-store paintings, UFO magazines, and wooden theatrical flats he’s recovered from various ends of America. “Like the surrealist Max Ernst, Shaw eschews a single signature style in favor of an elaborate, somewhat hermetic personal mythology … Shaw’s show may be titled ‘The End Is Here,’ but he appears to share our national optimism. Although his obsessive faux naïve work dares you to find it creepy, it is more often strangely cheerful, as well as enigmatic. How nice to see a swarm of gnat-sized Superman clones in pink capes fly through a giant keyhole.”
  • Growing old blows. Art and literature know this—in fact, they know it better than science, or at least better than dermatology. And so dermatologists, in their textbooks, turn to art: “The authors of Surgical Anatomy of the Faceconclude their efficient run-through of the changes that occur from approximately age thirty to seventy by referring their readers to a few seventeenth-century oil paintings. ‘These changes,’ they note, ‘can be clearly seen in the sequential self-portraits of Rembrandt.’ And indeed, in the four that the authors have selected, we can trace the Dutch master’s transformation from soft, luminescent youth to jowly, faded old man. More precisely, we can observe as ‘the melolabial lines deepen, forehead lines appear, and undulation of the mandibular line becomes noticeable,’ observe ‘the nasal tip descend, and the rhytids of the forehead, the perioral area, and the neck deepen … ’ ”

A Cataract of Ruin

October 26, 2015 | by

Hawthorne’s scariest story.

Thomas Cole, A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains, 1839.

“Even his bright gildings,” Herman Melville once wrote of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “play upon the edges of thunder-clouds.” This was in “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” an 1850 appreciation in which Melville reputed the notion that Hawthorne, fifteen years his senior, was merely “a sequestered, harmless man”:

this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free … At all events, perhaps no writer has ever wielded this terrific thought with greater terror than this same harmless Hawthorne … this black conceit pervades him, through and through.

In the reductive churn that comes with canonization, this “black conceit” seems to have washed off Hawthorne—Melville’s nickname for him, “the Man of Mosses,” hasn’t exactly stuck. We have better Moss People: your Poes, your Lovecrafts, your Shelleys and Stokers. Hawthorne, the thinking goes, is too puritanical to be truly spooky. (Imagine the groans you’d get from reading a bit of The Scarlet Letter around a late October campfire.) But his story “The Ambitious Guest” is scarier than anything in Poe, and its dark romanticism makes no recourse to haunted houses, death masques, black cats, supernaturally sustained heartbeats, or any other genre trope. It’s just about a weary traveler and a nice family who open their home to him. Read More »

More Sweetly Play the Dance

October 6, 2015 | by

William Kentridge’s elaborate danse macabre.

William Kentridge, More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015, eight-channel video installation with four megaphones, 15 minutes. All photos © William Kentridge, courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

Dance has always been aware of death: it lingers just off to the side of the stage, waiting for the performance to end. William Dunbar’s 1508 poem “Lament for the Makers” describes two “state[s] of man”: “Now dansand mirry, now like to die.” In other words, you’re either dancing or dead. Death in the poem is personified as a sort of efficient businessman, doing his best to knock people out of the dance. The more familiar character of Death—the cloaked, scythe-bearing skeleton who fulfills his duties like an overworked godly employee—was around even before Dunbar, an invention of the medieval period, which remains the most productive time in human history for imagining deathly personifications. People then seemed less resistant to death than they are now, perhaps because the threat was omnipresent: one could die from the plague, childbirth, decapitation, infection, or even of indigestion, as Martin of Aragon did at a feast in 1410.

The danse macabre, or death dance, another medieval invention, was an allegorical way of resisting as well as respecting the force of death. It comprises a chain of dancers, some living and others skeletons, moving together toward a grave—death being the equalizing force that brings all of us together, finally. Some more modern dances, like the tarantella, present themselves as assertions of survival, proving that one is still alive despite mortal injury. When we dance, the thinking goes, we are at the most alive we can be. Likewise, when we stop dancing, we die. Read More »

What’s the Use?

July 21, 2015 | by

Celebrity and oblivion in the Goncourt brothers.

goncourts

Edmund and Jules Goncourt.

Few documents provide as comprehensive—or as caustic—a view of celebrity as the diary of the Goncourt brothers, Jules and Edmond. Chronicling literary Paris from 1851 to 1896, The Journal of the de Goncourts features enough searing bons mots and scandal mongering to make Gawker look like a Sunday school brochure. In one entry from 1852, the famed cross-dressing novelist and amoureuse George Sand threatens to “publish an account” of the behavior of her son-in-law, the sculptor Clésinger; he is quick to reply: “then I’ll do a carving of your backside. And everybody’ll recognize it.” The novelist, playwright, and bohemian Villiers de l’Isle-Adam is described as having “the face of an opium addict or a masturbator”; Edmond de Goncourt dismisses Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality, like his poetry, as a “plagiarism from Verlaine.”

Whether or not one is familiar with the poets, novelists, and absintheuses of Haussmannian Paris, to read the Goncourt brothers is to plunge headlong into a world of bitter rivalries and bitterer friendships, in which every gathering around a café table on the Grands Boulevards is a chance to raise one’s status in the byzantine literary hierarchy. “Here,” as Christopher Isherwood put it, “gossip achieves the epigrammatic significance of poetry.” Of course, such a cynical, self-satisfied perspective can grate. André Gide, writing on the Goncourts’ novels, excoriated their style as pathologically shallow—a Perez Hilton of the Passages des Panoramas: “It is impossible to read a page by them where that good opinion they have of themselves does not burst out from between the lines.” Read More »