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Posts Tagged ‘history’

Six More Public Cases

September 27, 2016 | by


In March 2016, our correspondent Anthony Madrid began composing a set of quasi-kōans (on the theme “What is poetry for?”) for the Chicago arts and commentary magazine The Point. What follows is the second of two sets written for the Daily. (The first one ran in July.) Madrid’s unwieldy and indeed unusable title for the first set was “Both speech and silence are involved in transcendent detachment and subtle wisdom. How can we pass through without error?” His unusable title for the present set is “I always remember Jiangnan in May; where the partridges call, the hundred flowers are fragrant.” (Taken together, the two titles constitute Case 24 in the Song Dynasty kōan collection Wumenguan.)

Public Case 6: Ancient Chinese

Our teacher said: “Has anyone ever noticed that many of the most attractive ancient Chinese poets have the same ideas about poetry as modern American high school students? Anyhow, the themes are the same. What am I doing today. How am I feeling. What’s my philosophy. What can I see from where I’m sitting. What just happened. I am kind of a loser. What are my favorite quotes.”

One of the students said: “James Schuyler.”

Comment. It is hard for twenty-first-century USA poets to really understand old Chinese poetry: no surprise there. The surprise is that we find our own childhoods as difficult to “relate to” as the literary world of premodern China. We rub our eyes in disbelief when we have anything in common with either.

Tao Qian, James Schuyler, our own sixteen-year-old selves—of course they write about what they can see from where they’re sitting. What else can be seen? 

The truth is almost everyone has almost everything in common. The main exception is the people who are “too smart for that.” They make a point of not having anything in common with anybody. Read More »

My First Dirty Joke

September 23, 2016 | by


Photo: Michael Philip Manheim.

Revisiting is what I do. I am a pathological revisitor, I think—my ex-wife ventured to suggest a time or two when, late returning from some errand, I’d admit to having taken an excursion into one of my old neighborhoods. I’m always driving back through my old neighborhoods, the places I have lived within the city from the time I was four until my early teens. The five great ages of my youth, as I conceive them—each as sweeping and portentous, as distinctly toned and lit as Thomas Cole’s five stages of Empire in that famous series of paintings. When I drive through—pretty slowly with the radio off and the windows open—I’ll get into this tour guide state of mind. I’ll fall into this line of patter, actually talking to myself as if into a little microphone. I don’t intend to speak out loud. But here I go. Read More »

Rare Beasts, Birds, and the Calaboose

September 22, 2016 | by

A brief history of London’s Tower Menagerie.


Royal Menagerie, 1812.

It was New Year’s Eve 1764, and John Wesley—founding father of Methodism, horseback proselytizer, teetotaler—stood before the structure now known as the Tower of London, accompanied by a flautist, who was, in turn, accompanied by his flute. Wesley had traveled to this sprawling complex in the hope of testing a hypothesis. Could music soothe the most savage of beasts? If it did, Wesley might clear up a burning theological ambiguity—the question of whether nonhuman animals had souls. With his contracted companion in tow, he marched through the tower, determined to find some big cats and to smother them with song.

Zoos, as we know them today, did not exist in Wesley’s lifetime—the zoological garden is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Even the London Zoo, one of the oldest “scientific” outdoor sites for animal rehoming, opened six decades after his tower trip. If Wesley wished to glean the spirituality of lions firsthand, the infamous citadel, all arched cages and grilles, was his best bet in England. (Spoiler: the reaction to a live flute performance was mostly lukewarm—only one out of five lions stirred and stood up on all fours—not quite what our preacher had been hankering for.)

For those unfamiliar with the capricious usage history of the Tower of London, it might be hard to imagine parts of the site used as a full-blown menagerie—one that lasted about six hundred years. But through its almost thousand-year history, the place has morphed like a sort of Room of Requirement, having served variously as a palace, a public-record office, an armory, a torture chamber, a private ground for beheadings, and the Royal Mint. Its most recent incarnation is as a magnet for jewel-ogling, cash-happy tourists. Today the tower’s official website reflects this diversity—it includes a Peasants’ Revolt Quiz (“Are you revolting?”), details on venue hire for weddings, and an e-shop peddling miniature armor and replica Lionheart shields. Read More »

Staff Picks: Forehead Blotches, Lasagna Hogs, and Crust Punks

September 2, 2016 | by

From William Eggleston’s The Democractic Forest.

From William Eggleston’s The Democratic Forest.

In the new issue of Aperture, our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, pays a visit to William Eggleston in Memphis. As you might expect, it is a memorable visit. Eggleston plays piano for John and his wife, Mariana. They talk about Bach and Big Star and Mississippi Fred McDowell; and about Eggleston’s fifty-year marriage. They look at his photos, too. “He asked me to pull down the new boxed set of his Democratic Forest (2015). Ten volumes. I stopped at certain pictures. He leaned forward and, with his finger, traced lines of composition. Boxes and Xs. Forcing me to pay attention to the original paying of attention. ‘Either everything works, or nothing works,’ he said about one picture, a shot of an aquamarine bus pulling into a silvery station. ‘In this picture, everything works.’ ” —Lorin Stein

After reading Amie Barrodale’s debut collection You Are Having a Good Time, I was reminded of something Geoff Dyer wrote in his introduction to Prabuddha Dasgupta’s photography portfolio in our two hundredth issue: “Longing can exist entirely for its own sake, with no object in mind, as a kind of intensified nostalgia or eroticized elegy.” It’s this aimless form of desire that drives Barrodale’s stories and gets her characters into trouble, as in “William Wei” (for which Barrodale won our 2011 Plimpton Prize), about a morbidly depressed New Yorker’s attempt to crystallize a relationship with a woman he’s spoken to only on the telephone, mostly when she’s stoned. In “Catholic,” a young woman has a one-night stand with a married man, obsesses over him, and compulsively e-mails him without response: “I told him a tree of plum blossoms fell on me and I saw some young men wearing outfits … I always wish there was a point to all those e-mails. Maybe there was. I don’t know. I do know. There was.” Like so many of the troubled people in these fictions, she struggles to articulate the profundity in her bad decisions. Still, she desperately convinces herself that the beauty is there, somewhere. In You Are Having a Good Time, we know meaning exists, but we’re all too fucked up to understand its various expressions. It’s one of the quintessential sentiments of this collection: the stories are as eloquent as a plum blossom tree collapsing on a lonely woman—if only we could figure out just what that eloquence means. —Daniel Johnson

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Dating History

September 1, 2016 | by

How a book about Chinatown made me remember my first New York date.

Mott Street at night, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mott Street at night. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve spent much of the summer totally captivated by Tong Wars, Scott Seligman’s comprehensive account of Manhattan’s Chinatown at the turn of the twentieth century. The book narrates the half century of history that followed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which made it illegal for Chinese, known at the time as “Celestials,” to immigrate and become naturalized American citizens. Those who traveled to New York from the American West (the New York Herald described them as an “army of almond-eyed exiles”) often found jobs as laundry workers and, according to Seligman, not a few of them spent their evenings gambling illegally in low-lit basements or nursing serious opium addictions.

In Tammany Hall–era Manhattan, Chinatown covered the area between Mott Street, Pell Street, and the Bowery. The neighborhood was the site of violent battles between the Hip Sings and the On Leongs, gangs that fought each other using everything from hatchets to bombs. Doyers Street, the dramatic alley off Pell Street, saw so much violence that it became known as the Bloody Angle. (“More people have died violently at Bloody Angle,” the Times reported in 1994, “than at any other intersection in America.”) Read More »

Sitting Up

August 23, 2016 | by

A brief history of chairs.

Still from Lawrence of Arabia.

Still from Lawrence of Arabia.

There is a pivotal early scene in David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia in which T. E. Lawrence and his superior, Colonel Brighton, visit the desert encampment of Prince Faisal, a leader of the Arab Revolt. The royal tent is spartan yet luxurious, patterned woven cloths hang from the low ceiling, a large brass samovar gleams in the candlelight, the ground is covered with a rich carpet. There is no furniture; the men sit on the carpet. Brighton, in his tailored uniform, polished Sam Browne belt, and riding boots, looks distinctly ill at ease with his legs awkwardly stretched out in front of him. Lawrence, a lieutenant and less formally dressed, appears slightly more comfortable, with his legs folded to one side. The prince, attired in a dark robe and a white ghutrah, reclines on a pile of sheepskins, while his colleague Sherif Ali leans casually against a tent pole. The various postures cinematically underline a central point: the relaxed Bedouins are at home in this place—the desert—while the stiff English colonel is an interloper. Lawrence is somewhere in between.

The world is divided into people who sit on the floor and those who sit on chairs. In a classic study of human posture around the world, the anthropologist Gordon W. Hewes identified no fewer than a hundred common sitting positions. “At least a fourth of mankind habitually takes the load off its feet by crouching in a deep squat, both at rest and at work,” he observed. Deep squatting is favored by people in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but sitting cross-legged on the floor is almost as common. Many South Asians cook, dine, work, and relax in that position. Certain Native American tribes in the Southwest, as well as Melanesians, customarily sit on the floor with legs stretched straight out or crossed at the ankles. Sitting with the legs folded to one side—Lawrence’s position above—is described by Hewes as a predominantly female posture in many tribal societies. Read More »