Posts Tagged ‘Herman Melville’
December 16, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- In November 1994, George Plimpton interviewed Garrison Keillor at 92Y as part of a collaboration with The Paris Review. You can listen to a recording of their interview here—and now the PBS series Blank on Blank has animated part of it. “I think that you’re only obliged to be a humorist from maybe the age of eighteen until you turn thirty,” Keillor tells Plimpton. “Past the age of thirty, I don’t think there’s any obligation to be clever at all. After that, you, I think, are supposed to settle down, be a good person, raise your children, and be good to your friends, which you may not have been when you were very clever, and try to atone for your cleverness. Humor has to surprise us. Otherwise it isn’t funny, and, it’s a death knell for a writer to be labeled humorous, because then, of course, it’s not a surprise anymore, it’s what expected of him. And when you come to expect humor of people, you will never get it.”
- Last month, Oxford Dictionaries named the “tears of joy” emoji its Word of the Year; now Merriam-Webster has followed suit, choosing a suffix, -ism, as its Word of the Year. Now, before you get all exercised and sit down to write an indignant op-ed about all these nonword words the dictionaries insist on force-feeding us, be advised that “Merriam-Webster notes that the version of -ism without the hyphen actually is a word, specifically a noun meaning ‘a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory’ or ‘an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude or belief’ … Last week, Dictionary.com bravely bucked this year’s trend by naming a word as their word of the year. They selected identity, citing increased conversation this year over gender and sexual identity, in large part because of former Olympic athlete Caitlyn Jenner’s decision to come out as a transgender woman.”
- Fact: Frank Lloyd Wright designed a gas station. It was but one element in a vast, unrealized utopia he’d planned to erect in Buffalo, New York, which remains, alas, a largely dystopian place. But in 1958, when Wright was ninety, one part of his idyllic vision found its way to Cloquet, Minnesota, and an historic gas station was born: “Wright had designed a house for a resident of Cloquet named R. W. Lindholm, who happened to be in the petroleum business. Wright never gave up on his utopian city, and knowing what his client did for a living, he convinced Lindholm to build a gas station that was similar in design to the Buffalo station … Wright saw the car as a way to personal freedom for Americans, so he gave the drivers of Cloquet what he thought that future needed in a gas station, including an observation deck where the attendants could watch for cars in warmth and comfort.” Forget Fallingwater. This is Tricklinggasoline.
- “I have in fact only once corresponded with anyone … who was as good at writing letters as I am,” Iris Murdoch once told the philosopher Philippa Foot. So this new book of her correspondence must be a veritable tour de force of jocularity and fluent intellect, yes? Well. John Mullan hates to break it to you, but “the brilliant thinker, witty conversationalist and powerfully idiosyncratic novelist are hardly here at all … Some have responded to the publication of these letters by depicting Murdoch as a rather shocking sexual adventuress, but this is not quite right. Really, she seems more interested in writing letters to people she found attractive than in having sex with them.”
- What was the deal with Hawthorne and Melville? The heat that emanated from the hearth of their friendship was … well, hot. Melville once wrote, for example, that Hawthorne “shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul.” But, as Jordan Alexander Stein notes, anyone wishing to prove some erotic intent on either writer’s part has a heavy burden: “Writers of the mid-nineteenth century did not have available to them the same expressive concision as those of us today who might speak glibly of topping and bottoming … Melville wrote of Hawthorne with undeniably sexy language. What proves more elusive are the feelings to which, with any precision, this language can be said to refer … The issue, then, is whether serious scholars writing about famous authors can reasonably deign to take dick jokes as evidence. And if we are indeed willing to take them as evidence, just how do we go about determining what kind of evidence they are?”
December 14, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Punctuation was once the stuff of radical experimentation; today it tends to be the site of tired grammatical debates, the kind that feel antiquated a mere decade or so after they first got people riled up. David Crystal’s book Making a Point hopes to assuage our punctuation anxiety: “In Old English manuscripts, punctuation is idiosyncratic; to denote word divisions, writers tried a variety of strategies: dots, spaces, ‘camel case’ (that is, using capital letters rather than spaces ToMarkTheBeginningsOfNewWords). Then the rise of printing created the demand for a standardized system … A 2007 Daily Mail article titled ‘I h8 txt msgs’ had declared that ‘SMS vandals’ were ‘pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.’ Crystal rebuffed these drastic claims: the supposed ‘innovations’ of texting, he notes—abbreviations, omitted letters, ideograms, nonstandard spellings—have been features of the language for centuries.”
- Melville must’ve been an intimate of punctuation anxiety; Moby-Dick has a hyphen that seems to disappear and reappear at will. Where did it come from? What does it mean? Did he intend to put it there at all? “Thomas Tanselle writes that Melville’s brother, Allan, made a last-minute change to the title of the American edition. ‘[Melville] has determined upon a new title,’ his brother wrote. ‘It is thought here that the new title will be a better selling title … Moby-Dick is a legitimate title for the book.’ The American edition went to press, hyphen intact, despite the fact that the whale within was only referred to with a hyphen one time … It’s still unclear whether Melville, who didn’t use a hyphen inside the book, chose a hyphen for the book’s title or whether his brother punctuated the title incorrectly. Whether you chalk it up to typographical error, long-obsolete custom or authorial intention, the hunt for the true story behind Moby-Dick’s hyphen continues.”
- Living life on the Gregorian calendar is okay—the days go by, the weeks go by, the months go by, the years go by. Break up the tedium by overlaying some other markers on your worldly existence: by reading fiction, say. “Memorable novels have a way of affixing a secondary story to themselves, a plot that touches tangentially, if at all, upon the plot of the book. Sometimes you recall a novel chiefly for the circumstances under which it was absorbed … It’s one of the keenest and least replaceable pleasures I know—the sense, native to a capacious novel, of existing simultaneously inside two calendars. One plot steadily proceeds and it is called Your Life; it’s the old, ongoing, errand-filled business of your datebook. The other plot is new; it’s called The Novel You’re Reading, and it unfolds with its own errands, its own weather and its own zodiac.”
- Today in cover judging: hats off to our art editor, Charlotte Strick, whose design for the reissue of Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge is among the New York Times’ twelve best covers of the year.
- China’s approach to film ratings (it doesn’t have them) and censorship (plenty of that, though) reflects a nervous ideological tension—and it results in some programming choices that feel frankly bizarre to a Western audience. “Its constraints on what may appear on screen represent a laundry list of the state’s anxieties. Content must not ‘endanger’ China’s unity, security or honor. It also should not ‘twist’ history, feature explicit sex or gambling, advocate ‘the supremacy of religion’ or ‘meticulously describe fortune-telling.’ Playing up violence is prohibited, in theory … A Chinese film released in 2006, Curse of the Golden Flower, was given a rating in America that required those under seventeen to be accompanied by an adult because of its violent scenes. But these scenes were left uncut when it was screened in China. Viewers were given no warning about them. On TV The Patriot (Yue Fei), a popular historical drama, commonly features long fights with bloody swords, arrows through the heart and dripping corpses. It currently airs on one channel in the early afternoon.”
December 3, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Our new Winter issue features an interview with Jane and Michael Stern, “the original culinary road warriors.” A new profile in Eater captures what Norman Rush would call their “idioverse,” i.e., a “private patois made up of shared references and sayings, occasional neologisms, and common words that have taken on new meanings”: “the dyad of Jane and Michael—some four decades in, now—almost surpasses idioverse, and forms a hovering mushroom cloud of collective memory. Spending time with them, I realized that there’s a voyeuristic pleasure in finding yourself submerged in the intimacies of a couple with a complex history. Watching the deepest, strangest way two people communicate made me feel like an intellectual Peeping Tom—one who wanted to stay … They go at it tit for tat, with the rapid-fire speed of David Mamet dialogue, but they’ll linger to enjoy language more when discussing their Roadfood glory days. At times, listening to them talk, it seems that alone neither one can remember an entire story, and that together neither one can remember it the same way. There are tales about botched attempts to donate leftovers that ended in an undercover police sting, and casual references to a strange commune-like group of former Barnum & Bailey performers who live in Bethel and call themselves the ‘frog people.’ ”
- This is a public service announcement. If you, like me, were taught growing up to deploy synonyms for said whenever you wrote dialogue, please stop immediately. To stick to said is to improve the world of prose for all of us. Gabriel Roth agrees: “Replacing the word said with ‘colorful’ or ‘lively’ synonyms is a ubiquitous symptom of bad writing. Individual instances are usually redundancies: ‘I’ll never cheat again!’ is recognizable as a promise without ‘he vowed’ after it. But a procession of she explained and he chuckled and I expostulated—the reporting verbs that clog your dialogue when you follow the ‘never say said’ rule—is worse, because they force the reader’s attention away from the content of the writing and onto the writer’s hunt for synonyms.”
- “Nabisco. Nabisco! / Oreos! Right? / Oreos! I love Oreos! // I’ll never eat them again. OK? / I’ll never eat them again. // No … Nabisco.” This poem, a masterwork of compression and a ludic comment on commodity fetishism, comes courtesy of Donald Trump, whose speeches have been anthologized in a “treasury of oral poetry” called Bard of the Deal. Some are calling “Freedom Tower,” in particular, the most vital and intriguingly cross-disciplinary work of our young century: “Worst pile of crap / Architecture / I’ve ever seen.”
- Hey there, young person: Do you wish to be as successful and as verbally acrobatic as bona-fide geniuses like Trump? Gay Talese has some advice for you: “I don’t think this new generation has the patience or even knowledge of how to get things … You have to get off your ass. Make something happen with your personality, with your goddamn style, your charm, your beautiful clothes, your reassurance, your salesman huckster-ist licorice. Know how to get something and not break hearts or be offensive.”
- Before he embarked on Moby-Dick, Herman Melville paid an inspiring visit to London: “Late at night, he ‘turned flukes’ down Oxford Street as if he were being followed by a great whale, and thought he saw ‘blubber rooms’ in the butcheries of the Fleet Market … Perhaps most importantly, it was here that Melville saw the work of J M W Turner, a clear visual influence on his book-to-be. Turner had painted a series of whaling scenes for Elhanan Bicknell, whose British whaling company was based in the Elephant and Castle; parts of Moby-Dick would read like commentaries to those tempestuous, brutally poetic canvases, not least the painting that greets Ishmael at the Spouter-Inn, ‘a boggy, soggy, squitchy picture’ of ‘a black mass … floating in a nameless yeast … an exasperated whale.’ It is all the more intriguing to note how Melville’s Anglophilia was the yeast out of which this great American novel emerged.”
October 26, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
Hawthorne’s scariest story.
“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 »
October 23, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- The artist Ragnar Kjartansson lives in fear (and bemused disgust) of what he’s dubbed “Western culture claustrophobia.” “It’s everywhere!” he’s said: “The same desire for this Western properness is everywhere—it’s like a big block of marble that is hanging all over the world and it’s getting bigger and bigger.” He’s doing his part to chip away at that marble sky with the most radical force of destruction known to man: performance art. His new piece, Bonjour, “takes place on a faux-outdoor set conceived to be as generically French as possible … Real-life actors play two characters, a man and a woman who live near one another and are brought together by a chance encounter at a fountain … The man and the woman say the only word of dialogue, ‘Bonjour,’ to each other … After their greeting, they return to their respective homes and go to sleep, and the piece, which will be on repeat during the duration of the exhibition, begins again.”
- Proust had his madeleine. Nell Zink has her Friskies: “It had been a long while since I’d seen cat food up close. I opened the bag and crouched to pour it into a bowl on the floor. Instantly I was transported back to my earliest youth. The pantry floor in our house in Corona. My face close to the cats’ food dish. My hand in the dish. The sharply disappointing flavor. Greasy dust integral to crumbly, salmon-pink x shapes, crosses faintly reminiscent of a game of jacks … I knew the brand very, very intimately.”
- Mind-body dualism: like, is there any bigger drag in all of philosophy? Most analytic philosophers subscribe to some version of physicalism—the theory that the mind is made of the same stuff as the body, and that indeed everything in the universe is made of physical stuff—but dualism remains dismayingly prevalent out among laymen. Where did it come from? “The idea of separation between soul and body may have assumed cultural dominance because of the new importance of political rhetoric within the large urbanized city-states that were formed in fifth-century Greece. The rhetorician and philosopher Gorgias, who was a generation older than Plato, wrote a virtuosic essay arguing that Helen was not to blame for the Trojan War because she was the victim of rhetorical persuasion. This piece … is the earliest surviving evidence of a Greek author making a systematic distinction between body and soul. Gorgias argues that the soul may be powerless against the body—an argument developed in awareness that people often act against their own best interests.”
- You’ve probably been reading the old, unannotated Bartleby, the Scrivener, haven’t you? That’s why everyone’s laughing at you. They’re all reading the slick new annotated version, which features glosses of criticism by everyone from J. Hillis Miller to Gilles Deleuze—and which airs, on at least one occasion, the theory that Bartelby may be dead for the entire novel, in a kind of Sixth Sense–ish way.
- In which Chen Li talks to an old Chinese blacksmith about his working life: “One year, a typhoon blew a foreign ship from the inner to the outer bay, slashing it in half and leading to the death of several foreigners. The coffin shop sent for him and had him deliver some thicker iron nails to the shop to fasten the coffins. Two weeks later, he returned to collect his due. While he was walking into that dark, long, and narrow shop—Oh my, what the heck—someone climbed out of a coffin! Turned out that was the master of the shop; he said it was a cool place to take his midday nap.”
September 29, 2015 | by Robert Kloss and Matt Kish
On the relatively short list of authors and artists who have collaborated on multiple books, there are few who so perfectly mirror one another’s sensibilities that it becomes difficult to imagine art and word as separate entities. I’d place Aleksei Kruchenykh and Olga Rozanova, A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake in that select group. And now I’d add author Robert Kloss and artist Matt Kish. The pair have, to date, worked together on two novels (Alligators of Abraham and The Revelator), a hybrid novel written with Amber Sparks (The Desert Places), and an ongoing project they call the “Bestiary.”
The two have published work independently—Kish, notably, has illustrated every page of Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness—but their joint efforts are of a different order, primarily because, being of like minds, one’s work influences the other’s in the course of making. The Revelator, which was just published this month, is a psychologically brutal tale about an itinerant zealot in nineteenth-century America. In the opening paragraphs, a group of forlorn sailors, “their faces blistered and their minds bleached and weary,” espies a mountain: “some named it the ‘Finger of the Evil One,’ and some called it a tower of soot, dreamed it an ancient citadel misshapen by flame, the horror of all trapped within.” Kish’s illustrations, sprinkled throughout, are correspondingly prophetic, alien, and apocalyptic.
Kloss recently moved from Boston to Boulder, Colorado; Kish lives in Ohio. The two have never met. Earlier this month, they conducted a conversation via online chat about the nature of collaboration and working in the shadow of Melville.
Kish: I’ve been thinking about this conversation for some time, alternately veering between excitement and intimidation. Aside from our numerous e-mails, this will probably be the most in-depth communication we’ve shared, at least on a sustained level.
Kloss: Let’s start with Melville then, since I don’t think we would be having this conversation without his work. Read More »