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Posts Tagged ‘Doris Lessing’

Baronial Colonials, and Other News

August 18, 2016 | by

The alligator insignia of “The Calcutta Pococurante Society.” Image via the Public Domain Review.

  • I’ve never understood the appeal of mixed martial arts—too often it features, as Matthew Shen Goodman puts it, “an unending barrage of increasingly indistinguishable bald men and cornrowed women with terrible tattoos throwing the same one-two into a low kick and wrestle-fucking each other into the fence.” But maybe we’re watching it for the storytelling? Or maybe not: “MMA’s drama tends to be somewhat undercooked and boring, or terrifying and repulsive: incidents of domestic violence; hyping fights with xenophobic slurs (please, Conor and Joanna, stop telling your Brazilian opponents to go back to the jungle or that you’ll ransack their villages on horseback) or intense narratives about face-punching for Jesus/America/family legacy. There are a few fighters who thrive on being death spirits personified (Robbie Lawler, for example, who soberly told a broadcaster he takes people’s souls on Atlanta local television), but an actual story is often lacking, as are characters. This makes for difficult viewing, given how many fights there are, and the fact that you usually have to pay to watch, as well as the time spent sitting through ads for MetroPCS and new appetizers at Buffalo Wild Wings.”
  • Everyone knows that Netflix’s Stranger Things pays homage to eighties-era horror and sci-fi, but if you want to be a real asshole at the next party you go to, you can insist that its roots go much, much deeper, back to Lovecraft and an earlier tradition of speculative fiction: “The idea—central to Stranger Things—that the unnatural is weirder, more widespread, and therefore scarier than the state of nature dates back at least to 1927, when H. P. Lovecraft published a short story called ‘The Colour Out of Space.’ It’s about a meteor that lands on a farm in rural Massachusetts. A strange life-form is buried within the meteor, and it soon leaches into the soil. The farm’s plants begin to glow in shades ‘unlike any known colors of the normal spectrum.’ The animals, too, begin to move in unnatural ways. Eventually, the life-form takes a concrete shape. It begins to move about, stalking the farmer and his family and turning their bodies into a kind of living ash. Of the meteor, the narrator concludes, ‘It was nothing of the earth, but a piece of the great outside.’ ” 
  • Before fat shaming was a thing, there was Roald Dahl, peppering his books with gluttons and the many objects of their gluttony. As Annalisa Quinn writes, food in Dahl’s work is uniquely fraught: “If you look closely, the danger inherent in food is everywhere. There’s the dinner party in ‘Taste,’ Dahl’s chilling adult short story in which the host bets his gourmand guest that he won’t guess the provenance of the wine (the prize: his daughter); the chocolate Xanadu of Willy Wonka, where handling food the wrong way subjects you to contortions and tortures; and the dripping, voluptuous peach that kills James’ aunts. He entices us and then shows us what happens if we succumb: derision, loss of bodily autonomy, death.”
  • Calcutta in the early nineteenth century was full of British fat cats cooling their heels in various exotic locales. Joshua Ehrlich looks at 1833’s Calcutta Quarterly Magazine, which includes a bizarre supplement mocking a fictitious group called the “Calcutta Pococurante Society” for its indulgent ways: “The members’ wandering dinner chat, peppered with lines of poetry and elements of the occult, is not the kind of thing modern readers are used to seeing in print. Nor is it obvious why past readers should have wanted to … It is striking, meanwhile, how little the text is concerned with India or Indians … The aloofness of the British transplants, their dislocation from their surroundings, seems part of the satire … At the Society’s dinner, even local ingredients are rendered in French on the menu. The members discuss almost exclusively Western politics, philosophy, and literature. On the rare occasions when the east enters the scene, it does so obliquely and fancifully, for instance in the decoration of the Society’s meeting place: ‘a Turkish tent of white silk … Ottomans of pale Blue and Gold … a profusion of Purple Velvet drapery.’ The everyday experience of life in India is relegated to outside the tent-flaps.”
  • While we’re on the British empire: Zimbabwe’s Harare City Library boasts a new Doris Lessing Special Collection, commemorating the thirty-five hundred books she gave to the library after her death. Lessing had a special history with the place, as Percy Zvomuya writes: “Lessing lived in Southern Rhodesia between 1925 (when she was six) and 1949 … The independent Zimbabwe that Lessing returned to in the 1980s was a different country from the Southern Rhodesia she left in 1949, which had declared her a ‘prohibited immigrant’ when she went back in 1956. She described it as an ‘awful place’ in one interview. ‘Only someone who’s lived in these dreadful colonial places will understand why. They are so dead and narrow and stultifying. If you are living in that kind of society where a small number of people are oppressing a great many, they become obsessed by the fact, and they talk about nothing else, day and night. And I always think of Goethe, who said, if you are going to keep a man down in the ditch, you are going to have to get into the ditch with him.’ ”

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 »

Staff Picks: Unspooling, Erupting, and Recoiling

April 22, 2016 | by

An image of Tambora taken by the Space Shuttle in 1992, with a view of the caldera produced by the 1815 eruption.

An image of Tambora taken by the Space Shuttle in 1992, with a view of the caldera produced by the 1815 eruption.

On a sad, sad morning, thanks to J. J. Sullivan for sending us this 1989 cover of “When You Were Mine,” by the Blue Rubies. —Lorin Stein

Since Mary Ruefle’s 2008 book Most of It, I’ve watched for a second collection of her short prose. So I was pleased when we published two such pieces from her upcoming book, My Private Property, in our Spring issue. (NB: they’re nestled under Poetry, but as Ruefle told me over the phone, she doesn’t think them poems, per se.) I’ve since gotten my hands on a galley of that book and have read it twice over: Ruefle is as good as ever. In forty-one ambrosial bits, she muses on everything from programs littering a concert-hall floor to menopause to what a bird might think as it watches a woman die. Many of these begin simply—with a golf pencil or a string of Christmas-tree lights—but they unspool into larger existential meditations, on language and death, on creation and sadness and boredom; some are even doused in whimsy. Ruefle’s is a soothing, enlightening voice—always playful, always gentle, and always unfettering some ineffable truth. There’s a closeness I feel toward her as I read this book, as if she’s telling me all the secrets of this world—or at least of hers—and that I’d be wise to listen. “And if you sleep through a truth,” she writes, “you will wake at the bitter end.” —Caitlin Youngquist

This summer marks the bicentennial anniversary of “Frankenstein”—not the book itself, but the spoken nub of the story, which Mary Shelley first narrated by firelight in Switzerland in the summer of 1816. The eighteen-year-old Shelley had traveled with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, their infant son, and Mary’s stepsister to the shores of Lake Geneva. Their idea was to spend the season with Lord Byron, far from the dreary chill of London. This part of the story is well-known: incessant rain confined the group to the house, and to fight off cabin fever, they each wrote a ghost story. Shelley summoned the tale of Frankenstein, whose frequent confusion with his nameless creation became a great gift to two centuries of pedants, and, lately, to Twitter. What I learned this week, however, from a recent episode of In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg’s indispensable BBC radio show, is that the bad weather that night had its own traceable origin. A year before the Lake Geneva gathering, the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history occurred in Indonesia. The explosion, of a mountain called Tambora, threw thirty-eight cubic miles of rock, ash, and magma into the air. The airborne cloak of sunlight-reflecting ejecta circled the globe and was ultimately responsible for the “ungenial” weather of 1816, which became known as the Year Without a Summer. Tambora’s explosion likely killed some seventy thousand people, so it was hardly the innocuous butterfly of classic chaos theory. Still, we can guess that Shelley might have appreciated, at some level, the distant and violent origins of her tale. “Every thing must have a beginning,” she wrote in the 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, “and that beginning must be linked to something that went before … Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.” —Robert P. Baird
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The Horror of Philosophy, and Other News

August 24, 2015 | by

From This Magazine Is Haunted, April 1952.

  • Newly declassified documents have revealed that the British government spied on Doris Lessing for some twenty years and that they’d thoroughly imbibed the rhetoric of J. Edgar Hoover: “Her communist sympathies have been fanned almost to the point of fanaticism owing to her upbringing in Rhodesia, which has brought out in her a deep hatred of the colour bar,” MI6 wrote of Lessing, whose “plump build” they were also sure to mention. “Colonial exploitation is her pet theme and she has now nearly become as irresponsible in her statements as … saying that everything black is wonderful and that all men and all things white are vicious.”
  • Say what you will about The End of the Tour as a depiction of David Foster Wallace—it is, if nothing else, a smart take on the mechanics and ethics of celebrity profiles, the lifeblood of the magazine industry. “The movie is apt in its insinuation that there is sometimes very little daylight between doing the reporting necessary for a magazine profile of someone and compiling a surveillance dossier upon him or her … the very structure of the reporting process, with its enforced proximity, can engender a precarious intimacy, even while the ultimate purpose of this intimacy—an article that is to be written by one participant about the other—is never forgotten.”
  • Teju Cole saw a photograph by René Burri: four men on a rooftop in São Paulo. He resolved to discover the circumstances of its creation, and—why not?—to replicate it, if possible: “To me, it literally portrays the levels of social stratification and the enormous gap between those above and those below … ‘Those four guys just came from nowhere, and went to nowhere,’ Burri said of the men in his photograph.”
  • On philosophy and horror and the horror of philosophy and the philosophy of horror: “Any reader of difficult philosophy books will have experienced their own kind of horror of philosophy, reinforced today by public intellectuals, who most often use philosophy as a smokescreen for selling self-help books and promoting the cult of the guru … philosophy explains anything and everything, telling us that a horror films means this or that, reveals this or that anxiety, is representative of this or that cultural moment that we are living in, and so on. Perhaps genres such as the horror genre are interesting not because we can devise ingenious explanatory models for them, but because they cause us to question some of our most basic assumptions about the knowledge-production process itself.”
  • If you’re looking for a good way to kill a lot of time at the end of the summer, head to Berlin, where, in a longstanding ritual, a cinema deep underground hosts a complete and unabridged viewing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s filmography. “International filmgoers book their flights as soon as the schedule is released, some in order to see the same set of films they saw last year. Judging from my seatmates at several screenings, the appeal crosses generational as well as national divides. The people want Tarkovsky, they want him on celluloid, and they want him whole.”

The Ultimate Example of Everything, and Other News

August 27, 2014 | by

Ashbery-2010-09-12

John Ashbery at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2010. Photo: David Shankbone

  • Our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, on the New Museum’s current show, “Here and Elsewhere”: “So many of today’s iconic images are made in the Middle East … For visual artists working from the region, this surfeit of spectacles poses a challenge. When everyday life—at least as it is experienced via a computer screen—regularly throws up these images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
  • Ben Lerner at the Met: “What interests me about fiction … is in part, its flickering edge between realism and where a tear in the fabric of a story lets in some other sort of light.”
  • Things that—according to the students and faculty of the first Ashbery Home School, a new writing conference in Hudson, New York—John Ashbery is “the ultimate example of”: “surrealism, realism, hyperrealism, distance, proximity, translation, tradition, the grotesque, the beautiful, the blind, the all-seeing, the old, the young, the queer, the hetero, the hedgehog, the fox, the human, the alien, the bric-a-brac in the cupboard, the masterpiece on the wall, painting, cinema, architecture, life.” (NB the author of this list describes it as “incomplete and incompetent.”)
  • A brief history of the problem of sorting, classifying, and otherwise categorizing things: “It is tempting to think making categories is a straightforward scientific enterprise, and that debates will be clearly settled once we’ve amassed enough data. But the history of science shows this not to be the case … The nature of scientific categories is not merely an empirical issue; it’s also a philosophical one, and one affected by self-interest and social forces.”
  • Today, in posthumous gifts: more than three thousand of Doris Lessing’s books are to be donated to a public library in Zimbabwe, where she lived for twenty-five years.

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Well, This Is Depressing, and Other News

November 19, 2013 | by

eko-selfielarge

  • The Oxford Word of the Year is … selfie.
  • Here is a series of cowboy poets, looking very authentically cowboy-ish indeed.
  • Well, swell. Right-wing extremists destroyed a statue of the poet Radnóti Miklós, who died during the Holocaust, and are burning his books.
  • “Wonderful Doris Lessing has died. You never expect such rock-solid features of the literary landscape to simply vanish. It’s a shock.” Margaret Atwood salutes the late laureate

 

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