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Posts Tagged ‘Edgar Allen Poe’

The Indescribable Frankenstein: A Short History of the Spectacular Failure of Words

March 5, 2013 | by

frankenstein-jj-001Mrs. Chesser taught me that there is never any reason to use the word indescribable. Invoking the indescribability of something does no work except to tell everyone, quite explicitly, that you are incapable of describing. Indescribable is not a quality something can possess, only a failure that can overwhelm a writer. Even now, years later, I can practically hear Mrs. Chesser, her voice languid with existential weariness, pleading with all of us in third-period English: “For the love of God, ask ourselves why a thing is indescribable and then write that down. Never be so lazy as to just dash off, ‘It was indescribable.’ It’s a waste of everyone’s time.” I remember her making profound eye contact with me just as the words “waste of everyone’s time” escaped her lips. Chastened, and most likely the prime offender, I made a note to myself, much of it capitalized, and have since made all-out war on the indescribable in my life.

But the indescribable has a history, and a distinguished one at that. In her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley uses the word “describe,” or some version of it, twenty-one times. Of those twenty-one, fourteen are coupled with a negation. Which means that approximately 66 percent of the time Mary Shelley uses the word “describe,” it is to describe how she, in fact, cannot describe something. “I cannot describe to you my sensations,” or, “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe,” or, “I cannot pretend to describe what I then felt,” or, “a hell of intense tortures such as no language can describe.” But these romantic, brain-feverish testimonies to descriptive incompetence are often immediately paired with very precise descriptions, as in, “Over him hung a form which I cannot find words to describe—gigantic stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions,” or when the explorer Robert Walton writes his sister, “I cannot describe to you my sensations on the near prospect of my undertaking. It is impossible to communicate to you a conception of the trembling sensation, half pleasurable and half fearful, with which I am preparing to depart.” What is that indescribable sensation? Well, trembling, half-pleasurable, half-fearful, which is actually quite descriptive. Read More »

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Bookish Heroism, and Other News

February 6, 2013 | by

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  • Before they were stars: the wayward youth of Balzac, Flaubert, Baudelaire, and more. (And it was wayward!)
  • Bookish, a new website created by Penguin, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster, has launched. Check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s riposte to Philip Roth
  • How one man saved eight thousand precious volumes amid the violence in Timbuktu. 
  • We are psyched about the new Believer podcast, The Organist
  • A. L. Kennedy: “From here I can see the spine of The Wind in the Willows—the same volume I read in bed when I was a child. It has been my friend for more than 40 years, there for me, a kind light. Here is the volume of Raymond Carver I threw across the room when I was a student because it was so amazing, so tender with broken people. Here is Alasdair Gray and his mind-blowing Lanark, which taught me the courage inherent in thinking and creating when I had no courage of my own. Here is my library.” 
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    Literary NFL, and Other News

    February 5, 2013 | by

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  • “The Ravens’ lack of interest thus far in supporting the city’s literary legacy is a travesty.” The Super Bowl doesn’t help Poe!
  • “Ladies and gentlemen, your Literary National Football League.” (And more!)
  • Speaking of (sort of) fictional characters inspired by real people... 
  • Doodling and Neuroscience 101. Half of this sounds doable.
  • “Anthony Trollope, before he set off for his job at the GPO every day, would write three thousand words between 5:30 and 8:30 A. M.. He kept his watch in front of him so he could achieve two hundred fifty words each quarter-hour. If he finished one novel before 8:30, he would instantly start the next one.” Don’t worry: not all writers’ word-counts are this demoralizing inspiring. 
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    Allen Ginsberg Snaps, and Other News

    January 25, 2013 | by

  • Should you fancy some of the two-foot letters from the recently disassembled Borders flagship sign, you can bid for them on eBay, with all profits going to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation. And as someone who owns an S from an old marquee, I will judge you not at all.
  • An exhibition of beat-era Allen Ginsberg photographs is on display at Grey Art Gallery. The captions, which read like speedy mini-poems, are the best part.
  • The Following, a new Fox drama that features—along with Kevin Bacon and many other things—a Poe-obsessed serial killer, is probably no threat to the author’s legacy. However, it’s fun to read the tally of the show’s crimes against literature.
  • “I haven’t read my rivals because I think it could be a deeply demoralising process,” quoth Hilary Mantel.
  • Oh, and Judge Dredd might be gay.

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    Poems, PEN, and Poe

    April 27, 2012 | by

  • The restored Edgar Allan Poe cottage in the Bronx has won the “Preservation Oscars,” a Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award.
  • Guests of the PEN World Voices Festival will get a gift bag of books hand-selected by Jennifer Egan.
  • The art of the toast.
  • A roundup of literary curmudgeons.
  • Celebrate poem in your pocket day.
  • Jason Epstein: “The revolutionary process by which all books, old and new, in all languages, will soon be available digitally, at practically no cost for storage and delivery, to a radically decentralized world-wide market at the click of a mouse is irreversible.”

     

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    The Grandmaster Hoax

    March 28, 2012 | by

    In September 2006, the World Chess Championship devolved into a debate about bathrooms. One champion, Veselin Topalov, accused the other, Vladimir Kramnik, of excessive urination, hinting that Kramnik was retreating to the unmonitored bathroom to receive smuggled computer assistance. (Kramnik responded that he merely drank a lot of water.) Kramnik was eventually declared the victor, but to many, the episode displayed the sad state that the grand game had fallen into since Garry Kasparov lost to IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997. Back then, Kasparov was bitter about the loss and accused IBM of cheating—with human intervention, saying that he saw uncanny human intelligence in the computer’s moves.

    Even that incident, though, was not the first time the line between man and machine had been blurred in the game. The first machine to awe humanity with its chess mastery was the eighteenth-century life-size automaton known as the Turk. Constructed in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen to impress Empress Maria Theresa, the Turk appeared as a wooden Oriental sorcerer seated at a large cabinet. Before playing commenced, Kempelen would open the cabinet doors to reveal the clockwork machinery that controlled the Turk. The audience could see that there was nothing else inside. After the doors were closed and a challenger seated, the Turk would come eerily to life. He would move the pieces robotically, but shake his head or tap his hand in human displays of annoyance or pride. He also nearly always won.

    The Turk became a spectacular attraction, thrilling, baffling, and terrifying viewers across Europe and America for decades. Read More »

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