The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘existentialism’

TV Is Better Without People, and Other News

July 28, 2016 | by

A still from How It’s Made.

  • James Alan McPherson, the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, has died at seventy-two. An obituary in the New York Times quotes his memoir, Going Up to Atlanta, in which he writes about reading comics at the library in Savannah, Georgia: “At first the words, without pictures, were a mystery … But then, suddenly, they all began to march across the page. They gave up their secret meanings, spoke of other worlds, made me know that pain was a part of other peoples’ lives. After a while, I could read faster and faster and faster. After a while, I no longer believed in the world in which I lived.”
  • If we watch TV mainly as an exercise in escapism, then a show devoid of people—or even trace elements of the anthropomorphic—would offer the greatest escape of all. We’re in luck, because there’s How It’s Made, a half-hour paean to manufacturing that is, as Alexandra Kleeman writes, closer to full-on post-human than anything on television: “The show begins to take on a post-­apocalyptic flavor. Its images of manufacturing, you realize, are oddly depopulated … Humans are so scarce, in fact, in this world of throbbing, gleaming machines that when part of one comes into view, the first reaction is not recognition but confusion. ‘What is that pink thing?’ you might ask yourself, before realizing that it is a hand. Against the swift exactitude and raw power of machinery, the human anatomy—with its soft, squishy shapes and nerve-riddled interior—looks vulnerable at best.”
  • And why not surrender to the conveyer belts? There is much to escape from in this world, especially as an enclave of elite technocrats begin to rebuild it from the ground up, finding ever more novel ways of infantilizing us in their quest to monetize. “I have been obsessed with figuring out why I hate the Seamless ads in the New York City subway,” Jesse Barron writes. “ ‘Welcome to New York,’ one reads. ‘The role of your mom will be played by us’ … We’re in the middle of a decade of post-dignity design, whose dogma is cuteness. One explanation would be geopolitical: when the perception of instability is elevated, we seek the safety of naptime aesthetics … We cannot find food on our own, or choose a restaurant, or settle a tiny debt. Where that dependency feels unseemly in the context of independent adult life, it feels appropriate if the user’s position remains childlike, and the childlikeness makes sense when you consider that Yelp depends on us to write reviews, and therefore must, like a fun mom, make chores feel fun, too.”
  • Maybe you’d been hoping that literature could offer some solace from all this. Should you attempt to write in your effort to flee from despair, proceed with extreme caution: there is only more suffering ahead. Robert Fay writes, “One occasionally glimpses the true existential cost of the so-called ‘writer’s life,’ where writing is both an act of self-abnegation—with all of its consequent anxieties—as well as a struggle against such a personalized nihilism … The daily act of sitting alone for hours and purposely conjuring up emotions and disturbing memories—precisely the kinds of things people use Percocet, vodka, food, and Netflix to forget—serves as the ideal petri dish for anxiety.”
  • Might as well bookend this one with obituaries. The cartoonist Jack Davis—known for the defining style he brought MAD Magazine, where he was one of “the Usual Gang of Idiots”—has died at ninety-one. “Davis’s final cover for the magazine came in 1995—a picture of magazine-mascot Neuman plunging radio-presenter Howard Stern in a toilet bowl, which the spokesman said ‘remains a MAD classic.’ ”

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 
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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 »