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Posts Tagged ‘Honoré de Balzac’

Radical Flâneuserie

August 25, 2016 | by

Reimagining the aimlessly wandering woman.

John Singer Sargent, A Street in Venice, oil on canvas.

John Singer Sargent, A Street in Venice, oil on canvas.


I started noticing the ads in the magazines I read. Here is a woman in an asymmetrical black swimsuit, a semitransparent palm tree superimposed on her head, a pink pole behind her. Here is a woman lying down, miraculously balanced on some kind of balustrade, in a white button-down, khaki skirt, and sandals, the same dynamic play of light and palm trees and buildings around her. In the top-right corner, the words Dans l’oeil du flâneur—“in the eye of the flâneur”—and beneath, the Hermès logo. The flâneur though whose “eye” we’re seeing seems to live in Miami. Not a well-known walking city, but why not—surely flânerie needn’t be confined to melancholic European capitals.

The theme was set by Hermès’s artistic director, Pierre-Alexis Dumas. While the media coverage of the campaign and the traveling exhibition that complemented it breathlessly adopted the term, Dumas gave a pretty illuminated definition of it. Flânerie, he explained, is not about “being idle” or “doing nothing.” It’s an “attitude of curiosity … about exploring everything.” It flourished in the nineteenth century, he continued, as a form of resistance to industrialization and the rationalization of everyday life, and “the roots of the spirit of Hermès are in nineteenth-century Flânerie.” This is pretty radical rhetoric for the director of a luxury-goods company with a €4.1 million yearly revenue. Looking at the ads, as well as the merchandise—including an eight-speed bicycle called “The Flâneur” that retailed for $11.3k—it seems someone at Hermès didn’t share, or understand, Dumas’s vision. Read More »

In the Restroom at the Walter Reade Theater

June 16, 2016 | by

In Brushes with Greatness, Naomi Fry writes about her relatively marginal encounters with celebrities.


Sofia Coppola and Francis Ford Coppola.

In 2014, the magazine In Touch broke what is still, to my mind, one of our era’s most quintessential gossip stories. The weekly claimed that Lindsay Lohan was holding court at the Beverly Hills Hotel and, in an apparent attempt to impress her retinue, wrote out the names of three dozen of her sexual conquests—most of them A-list Hollywood celebrities such as Justin Timberlake, Colin Farrell, and Zac Efron—then tossed the list aside. A mistake, obviously, since that was likely when one of the entourage pounced, retrieving the sheet and eventually getting it into the hands of an In Touch staffer. The magazine reproduced the list in Lohan’s all-caps, American-middle-school-girl handwriting. Read More »

Bodies in Space: An Interview with Garth Greenwell

January 19, 2016 | by

Photo:  Ricardo Moutinho Ferreira

Photo: Ricardo Moutinho Ferreira

Garth Greenwell’s “Gospodar,” which appeared in our Summer 2014 issue, is a slow-simmering story of unease, humiliation, and eroticism—it concerns a man’s experience with sadomasochistic sex in Sofia, Bulgaria. Greenwell, also a poet, is exacting in the language he uses to describe the encounter; the result is an intimate and intense intermingling of desire and trepidation.    

Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, out today, dilates those same concerns: over three sections, the book’s unnamed narrator plumbs the feelings of exploitation, loneliness, and overwhelming desire that are produced by his complicated, compulsive affair with a bewitching male prostitute named Mitko. The first section is a revised version of a novella, Mitko, which won the Miami University Press Novella Prize in 2011 and marked Greenwell’s first foray into fiction. It follows the young American teacher, new to Bulgaria, as he engages Mitko for sex in the bathrooms under Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. The second section comprises a single unbroken paragraph that reflects back to the narrator’s childhood, and the third returns to his troubled relationship with Mitko.

I met with Greenwell last November after eagerly reading an early copy of the novel. He spoke easily and at length about growing up gay in Kentucky, erotic freedom, and the many faces of desire.

I thought we would start by talking about sex.

Great. That’s my favorite thing.

The novel is concerned with sex and desire, and often we think of those two things as being intertwined, but they’re largely kept separate in this story. Sex and desire are sometimes linked, but they’re also independent entities.

Maybe that’s tied up with the experience of growing up queer in the eighties and early nineties in Kentucky. I remember very clearly thinking about sex all the time when I was twelve or thirteen and feeling an intense desire that I was pretty sure I would never be able to act on. I remember asking myself, Will I ever be able to do any of these things? Will I ever find anyone with whom to do these things? It really did seem possible that the world would never accommodate my desires. And so in that way, desire was separated from sex. And then when I did finally have sex, I found that the world accommodated those desires in these weird marginal spaces, where sex wasn’t exactly analogous with desire—places like cruising bathrooms and parks—and where there can be a circulation of bodies that, if it’s about desire, it’s about a kind of desire that can be detached from specific people. Read More »

Baudelaire Gets Baked

April 20, 2015 | by


Étienne Carjat’s portrait of Baudelaire, ca. 1862, with special detailing.

From Les Paradis Artificiels (Artificial Paradises), Baudelaire’s 1860 book on hashish, a drug he referred to as “the playground of the seraphim” and “a little green sweetmeat.” Along with Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, and others, Baudelaire belonged to Club des Hashischins, a Paris group that conducted monthly séances at the Hôtel de Lauzun to experiment with drugs. Translated from French by Aleister Crowley, 1895.

Generally speaking, there are three phases in hashish intoxication, easy enough to distinguish … Most novices, on their first initiation, complain of the slowness of the effects: they wait for them with a puerile impatience, and, the drug not acting quickly enough for their liking, they bluster long rigmaroles of incredulity, which are amusing enough for the old hands who know how hashish acts. The first attacks, like the symptoms of a storm which has held off for a long while, appear and multiply themselves in the bosom of this very incredulity. At first it is a certain hilarity, absurdly irresistible, which possesses you. These accesses of gaiety, without due cause, of which you are almost ashamed, frequently occur and divide the intervals of stupor, during which you seek in vain to pull yourself together. The simplest words, the most trivial ideas, take on a new and strange physiognomy. You are surprised at yourself for having up to now found them so simple. Incongruous likenesses and correspondences, impossible to foresee, interminable puns, comic sketches, spout eternally from your brain. The demon has encompassed you; it is useless to kick against the pricks of this hilarity, as painful as tickling is! From time to time you laugh to yourself at your stupidity and your madness, and your comrades, if you are with others, laugh also, both at your state and their own; but as they laugh without malice, so you are without resentment. Read More »

Java Jive

September 29, 2014 | by


A coffeepot truck from 1956. Photo via Retronaut

There are too many coffee clichés: nineties Seattle yuppies, current obsessives in Portland and Brooklyn, the enormous and always hilarious line of tchotchkes that emphasize the importance of caffeine to functioning and the inadvisability of approaching the addict pre-coffee. And that Friends pop-up! Oh god, the Friends pop-up. It makes one squirm with vicarious humiliation. It is impossible to mention coffee in any context without falling into some hoary cliché trap, which I imagine being like one of those pits cleverly disguised with leaves. But there's a funny paradox at work: however much we take it for granted, coffee has become a sort of identity. In a time when the real thing is scarce, coffee is sold to us as craftsmanship, as connoisseurship, as signifier—for ideas of glamor that very few of us can actually afford. 

It was not always so. Joseph Smith reported that hot drinks are not for the body or belly; Bach wrote the “Coffee Cantata”; and Balzac may or may not have died of coffee poisoning:

I have discovered a horrible, rather brutal method that I recommend only to men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins. It is a question of using finely pulverized, dense coffee, cold and anhydrous, consumed on an empty stomach. This coffee falls into your stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae. The coffee finds nothing else in the sack, and so it attacks these delicate and voluptuous linings; it acts like a food and demands digestive juices; it wrings and twists the stomach for these juices, appealing as a pythoness appeals to her god; it brutalizes these beautiful stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies; the plexus becomes inflamed; sparks shoot all the way up to the brain. From that moment on, everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination's orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

I recommended this way of drinking coffee to a friend of mine, who absolutely wanted to finish a job promised for the next day: he thought he'd been poisoned and took to his bed, which he guarded like a married man. He was tall, blond, slender and had thinning hair; he apparently had a stomach of papier-mâché. There has been, on my part, a failure of observation.

Read More »

Balzac the Intern, and Other News

September 29, 2014 | by


A drawing of Balzac attributed to Achille Devéria, ca. 1820.

  • Our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, interviewed the Moroccan writer Abdelfattah Kilito: “A writer was a sort of creator, naturally, but I always liked to think of him as a reader as well—a great reader. By way of his writing, I tried to make out, or guess at, what he’d read. A sort of literary voyeurism. And the writer would often show his hand, as though by chance. I felt a wonderful sense of complicity when I was able to recognize a title, or a line of poetry, or an allusion.”
  • Once he’d graduated from the Sorbonne, Balzac took an internship at a Paris law firm. “An intern is to the Civil Service what a choirboy is to the Church, or what an army child is to his Regiment, or what rats and sidekicks are to Theatres: innocent, gullible, and blinded by illusions,” he wrote in 1841’s The Physiology of the Employee.
  • On Scorsese’s new NYRB doc, which debuted this weekend: “Most literary publications, running smoothly, are about as well suited to cinematic narrative as a long-term janitorial project. Scorsese has attempted to pep things up by casting the Review as a front-lines political journal with a rock-star stable of writers. The result is forced, befuddled, and frequently weird. Still, it’s a fine introduction to the long arc of the paper’s history.”
  • The art of recording: John Vanderslice quit his job as a waiter at Chez Panisse to open one of the most innovative recording studios in the country. His mantra: “sloppy hi-fi,” which means “capturing loose, spontaneous performances on the best microphones in the world. It means gritting a pretty song with white noise, pink noise, high-quality distortion (not an oxymoron: ‘It has to be high-quality distortion’), tube amps, and tube compressors, and also by physically distressing and damaging the tape. Basically, Vanderslice wants powers of violence over the loveliest sounds.”
  • Today in highly unforeseen merchandise: “Prufrock”-themed flats. “These flats feature a mix of lines from the poem and theme collage imagery (peaches, mermaids, coffee spoons, etc). The edges and flexible areas of the flats are black for an extra accent.” (Also available: Pride and Prejudice and Catcher in the Rye flats.)