The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘existentialism’

In Flight

May 19, 2016 | by

Photo: NARA.

On a plane, I sat between an aging nerd and a teenage boy. The nerd informed us both with contemptuous superiority that we’d be told to put our bags up in the bin and then, when we were, said, “I told you.” He spent the rest of the flight playing chess on his tablet and reading A Clash of Kings. The teen read Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. Read More »

Kicked Toward Saintliness

January 21, 2016 | by

On the dark erotics of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers.

From a German edition of Our Lady of the Flowers.

On September 11, 1895, the deputy chaplain of Wandsworth prison wrote a worried report about one of his new charges, Oscar Wilde, who had been transferred from Pentonville two months before. “He is now quite crushed and broken,” the chaplain recorded:

This is unfortunate, as a prisoner who breaks down in one direction generally breaks down in several, and I fear from what I hear and see that perverse sexual practices are again getting the better of him. This is a common occurrence among prisoners of his class and is of course favoured by constant cellular isolation. The odour of his cell is now so bad that the officer in charge of him has to use carbolic acid in it every day.

The possibility that a famous author had been driven to masturbating during his internment in Wandsworth would not have reflected well on the prison’s authorities, who immediately denied the charge and changed the indiscreet chaplain’s assignment. One wonders how they would have reacted to Jean Genet’s short film Un chant d’amour (1950), which the French author, playwright, and criminal directed in collaboration with Jean Cocteau soon after writing the last of the five novels that earned him international fame. Midway through the film, a poker-faced prison guard peers one at a time into a row of cells, each of which turns out to contain an autoerotic peepshow more wild, graphic, and uninhibited than the one before. A convict rubs his exposed member against the wall of his cell; a smiling bather lathers himself lasciviously in soap; a young black man, one of the many dark-skinned figures in Genet who appear to their white observers as sexual threats, dances with a tight grip on his open-flied crotch. Read More »

Staff Picks: Continentals, Cocoons, Comics

January 15, 2016 | by

Paul Rudolph’s Walker Guest House, as pictured in The Florida Houses.

Don’t let the breezy title put you off. At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell’s group portrait of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, and the other “Continental” philosophers who flourished before and after World War II, is chatty, irreverent, gossipy, unabashedly personal—as far from the existentialist tone as it’s possible to get—but it’s also a work of deep intelligence and sympathy, reminding us how exciting those thinkers can be. And it’s a page-turner. I was so sorry to finish the last chapter that I almost—almost—ran over to the Strand to see what they had by Merleau-Ponty. —Lorin Stein

“They worked / They worked / They worked / and they died / They died broke / They died owing / They died never knowing / what the front entrance / of the first national city bank looks like.” Pedro Pietri wrote “Puerto Rican Obituary” in 1969, after having served in Vietnam. There’s no mention of that war in the poem, but there’s a strong sense of futility, death, and disaffection that must have been informed by witnessing the violence of war and then coming home to unfulfilled dreams. “Obituary” is the first poem in City Lights’ new collection of the late poet’s work, much of which is otherwise only available in out-of-print or photocopied editions. I hadn’t heard of Pietri before reading this collection, which is a shame because he strikes me as the Ginsberg of the post-Vietnam era—combining politics, race, and the personal in performative poetry. His lines are propulsive and witty, especially in the playful “Telephone Booth” series, which reads like a flirtatious midnight conversation: “because I do not / want to make / future generations /  lose sleep I / will do my very best / not to influence / anyone regardless / of what a nice ass / they seem to have.” —Nicole Rudick 
Read More »

Black Ink

January 15, 2016 | by

Henry de Montherlant’s novels have fallen out of fashion, but at their best they’re perfect for our confused age.

Henry de Montherlant, c. 1953.

Henry de Montherlant began writing in earnest after he came home wounded from the Great War, a decorated veteran. France in the 1930s made him a literary star, awarding him the Grand Prix—yet he hated the Third Republic. Montherlant, a true misfit, had many such contrarian tendencies: though he was gay, he wrote caustic articles for right-wing magazines and loathed modernity. In print, he professed admiration for the soldiers of the Wehrmacht, writing that France, with its “shopgirl’s morality,” deserved to lose the war. His book Le solstice de juin counseled “acceptance, then adherence” to German occupation and Vichy; after the war, it earned him a yearlong ban from publishing.

Even so, Montherlant was elected to the Académie française in 1960. His plays were staged, his novels published. In 1972, he swallowed cyanide and, to make sure, shot himself in the head. He has made the long slide from fame to infamy, but in his time he was tolerated and even praised, a guilty reminder that there were far more collaborators than Charles de Gaulle’s myth of noble France ever could admit. His literary biographer Lucille Becker writes, Read More »

Existence Precedes Essence

January 7, 2016 | by

Uh ...

I lost an idea last night. It was late, and I was tired, and I had some kind of insight that seemed interesting—but, with hubris worthy of a Greek tragedy, I told myself I’d remember in the morning. Of course, I didn’t. All I remembered was the lightbulb moment, which, with each passing hour, became more dazzling, more revelatory, more important in my memory. Within a few hours of my forgetting it, this had become the best idea I’d ever had. Read More »

Teach Your Automaton to Feel, and Other News

June 8, 2015 | by

Tim_Davies_-_Space_Robot_Lovers_(Scarlet_version)_postcard

Tim Davies, Space Robot Lovers, 2012.

  • At last, the time has come for robots to harness the single most powerful force known to humanity: metaphor. An attempt to teach emotional nuance to artificial intelligences, The Poetry for Robots project invites people—even decidedly unpoetic people—to react to photographs in verse, which the robots will thereafter memorize, as is their wont. “By feeding poems to the robots, the researchers want to ‘teach the database the metaphors’ that humans associate with pictures, ‘and see what happens.’ ”
  • Pistols at dawn! The duel, which was at the peak of its powers in the eighteenth century, enjoyed a prominent status in the literature of the era. Actually, “without literature, there would be much less to go on, historically speaking. Dueling was usually illegal. It was often tolerated, but, still, discretion was an issue—dueling at dawn was popular for reasons of secrecy … One outcome of the silence surrounding the activity was that, for first-timers, the nearest guide to protocol might lie in fiction.”
  • Vivian Gornick on Delmore Schwartz: “Like the time itself, everything about him was out of control—his beautiful, anxiety-ridden face, his stormy eloquence, his outrageous self-dramatization. He charmed and alarmed. There was a sweetness of spirit at the center of all his dishevelment that made nearly everyone who knew him hold him in tender regard.”
  • Fact: “under the right conditions, three atoms that all repel each other will be forced into an inseparable triad.” Physicists have only recently discovered what existentialists have known for a good while—“hell is other atoms.”
  • In French, the word créneau—what we’d call a crenellation, or a battlement in a castle—has taken on a rich figurative life; it can mean a parking spot, an appointment time, even a market opportunity. In other words, it’s very much like our word slot. So why not ask: “Does it mean anything that the French etymology sees appointment times, schedule segments, and parking spaces as figurative openings in a defensive wall made for ‘shooting or launching projectiles upon the enemy,’ while English speakers see them figuratively as shaped depressions made to allow pieces of wood to be fit together into useful structures?”