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Posts Tagged ‘language’

Back to School with the Übermensch

September 16, 2015 | by

Nietzsche on education, inequality, and translation.

Nietzsche as a pupil at Schulpforta, 1861.

 When I went off to college, it wasn’t, as far as I could tell, the result of any decision. The assumption—the fact—was simply there, in my family or high school or race and class or wherever it was, that there was more to come after twelfth grade. I didn’t appreciate the privilege nearly enough, but I also felt no need to justify to myself or anyone else how I planned to spend the next four years. There must still be such eighteen or nineteen year olds out there, never expected to explain themselves, but it is harder to imagine them. Nowadays, education is fraught and embattled and debated and doubted down to the core.

I feel like I’ve read the same essay half a dozen times recently­—here are two good examples—an essay insisting that the true value of education is not calculable in monetary terms. Education is moral, philosophical: a process of creating and becoming better people. You can make the argument that a liberal-arts education is “valuable” in the narrow sense, since it is, but even if that argument wins some battles—and it rarely does—it will lose the war. Once you concede that economic striving takes priority over artistic or humanistic goals, then arts funding and English degrees and even pure science are never going to withstand the juggernaut of business and technology. You have to fight under a higher standard.

I agree with this line of thought and am happy enough to see the point made half a dozen times over. I’ve read it recently in Friedrich Nietzsche, too, whose little-known 1872 lectures On the Future of Our Educational Institutions are appearing this fall in my new translation under the snappier title Anti-Education. Even in Nietzsche’s day, the state and the masses were apparently clamoring for

as much knowledge and education as possible—leading to the greatest possible production and demand—leading to the greatest happiness: that’s the formula. Here we have Utility as the goal and purpose of education, or more precisely Gain: the highest possible income … Culture is tolerated only insofar as it serves the cause of earning money. 

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Letter from Shanghai

September 11, 2015 | by

How a scandal about a Chinese name has been received in China.

This past February, the Chinese media widely announced that the Chinese poet Biqujibu, an ethnic Yi from western Sichuan, had been shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, international category. Only twenty-three years old, he was selected for his very first book of poetry, a 1,500-line epic poem written in English, called A Poem Sacrifice for a Mountain Dream. Among the literary stars who wrote glowing reviews of the book were Biden Sitland (a famous American poet), Liffen Lushby (a prominent American translator, critic, and member of the Nobel selection committee), and Didian Linda (an American woman poet, a proponent of “rural writing”). This was an astonishing honor for a young ethnic-minority writer living in a country whose great literary works have been largely overlooked by American critics and readers.

But of course it never happened. The entire thing, including the unconvincing names and the assertion that the Pulitzer committee created the “international” prize just for Biqujibu’s sake, was made up. Even the poet in question turned out not to be ethnic Yi, but Han (the majority ethnicity in China). News of this fantastically ambitious ruse never made it to the States. And why should it have? It had nothing to do with the U.S., really; it had to do with the distant fame of the Pulitzer, and a lust for outside recognition in a dusty mountain town somewhere near the border of Yunnan. Read More »

The Age of Udge

September 2, 2015 | by

Learning a word from John Ashbery.

From Edward Burtynsky’s Oil, 2012, color photograph.

It started, as things sometimes do, with an Ashbery poem: “Staffage,” from his book A Wave.

The poem is more than thirty years old now, and it’s remarkable how well it captures the generation then just being born: “I am one of a new breed / Of inquisitive pest” (the poem makes clear-ish that this is a pest from the perspective of the older speaker, not in the eyes of the poet himself) “in love with the idea / Of our integrity, programming us over dark seas / Into small offices, where we sit and compete / With you, on your own time.”

It’s a kind of prophecy Ashbery can still pull off, for instance with the artisanal children of today in a poem from 2015’s Breezeway called “Seven-Year-Old Auroch Likes This”: “Will research tell us tomorrow / of normal morals? Take a Brooklyn family / in fracture mode, vivid, / energizing, throbs to the earlobes … Exeunt the Kardashians.” I predict this poem will make perfect sense in thirty years. Read More »

What Happened to O?

August 27, 2015 | by

The death of an exclamation.

William Blake had me thinking about death.

I was lying on my couch, Norton Anthology in my lap, when I stumbled on Blake’s poem “The Sick Rose.” I’d read the poem before, and I remembered its famous opening lament: “O Rose, thou art sick!”

What follows is a compact poem built of stark imagery. An invisible, amorous worm is flying through a storm at night. It descends on a rose. A death is at hand. And the perpetrator of the rose’s death, Blake warns, is none other than the worm’s secret love.

I reread the poem, parsing its lines for meaning. Then I read it once again. The night was late, and I felt drowsy. As sleep approached, an inchoate thought began to surface.

I sat up. O Rose, I thought. O Muse. O death.

I stood from the couch and found a pen. I tore off a piece of scratch paper, and on it I wrote myself a note: “What killed O?” Read More »


August 20, 2015 | by

Ludwig Knaus, Mein Napf ist leer, 1886.

I dislike the term hangry, a neologism conflating hungry and angry and thus describing the rage induced by hunger. Like PMS, it seems to conveniently dismiss any legitimate anger that may arise in the course of a blood-sugar crash. And for those of us who are both frequently ravenous and frequently furious, it doesn’t allow for the possibility of much reasonable irritation. Besides, it rests on the supposition that there is such a thing as unclouded judgment, and that feels potentially very dangerous.

Aside from that, the word itself is ugly. It evokes airplane hangars and chewy steaks and public executions and boring games played on pieces of scratch paper. It does not trip off the tongue. Hunger and anger, as words, both have such dignity, such grace—they are serious feelings in response to real stimuli. They are noble marble statues. Hangry, by contrast, is a Shoebox greeting card.

But it is spiritually ugly, too. To be hangry is a luxury. The very use of the term suggests that hunger and suffering are so remote as to be irrelevant to the conversation. I don’t mind telling you that now that I think about it, it gets me absolutely furious.

That said, only the other day, in the supermarket, I felt an almost overwhelming wave of rage crash over me because someone happened to already be standing in front of a spice I wanted to inspect. The intensity of the rage alarmed me, and I had to give myself a little talking to, and a bag of gummy bears besides. It is, after all, this sort of behavior that leads to charges of irrationality.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review and the Daily’s correspondent.

Camping for Everyone, and Other News

August 18, 2015 | by


From Wiser Counselors, Better Camps, Happier Children, 1929.

  • Anyone who maintains that writers play a pivotal role in advancing and transforming our language is dead wrong—the real engines for linguistic change are teenage girls, who have served as “disruptors” since the fifteenth century, if not earlier. Linguists who have studied six thousand letters from 1417 to 1681 “found that female letter-writers changed the way they wrote faster than male letter-writers, spearheading the adoption of new words and discarding words like doth and maketh.”
  • Next year will see the release of a new Cormac McCarthy novel called The Passenger, the first since 2006’s The Road. (There’s a joke to be made here about how The Road and The Passenger together sound like a spin-off of Car and Driver, but … ah, forget it.) The new book, scuttlebutt suggests, is “set in New Orleans around 1980. It has to do with a brother and sister. When the book opens she’s already committed suicide, and it’s about how he deals with it. She’s an interesting girl.” As for McCarthy, he spends most of his time “at a science and mathematics think tank in New Mexico, the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), where he is a trustee.”
  • Reminder: Ottessa Moshfegh doesn’t need your praise or acceptance. “I don’t care about being a literary personality—that doesn’t appeal to me, especially because the literary world doesn’t appeal to me. I actually don’t feel like I even belong in it … If this was high school, I would be sitting with the goths, looking at everyone, being like, Whatever.”
  • In the early twentieth century, with the nineteenth amendment finally ratified, the writers of camping guides realized at last that women can enjoy camping, too—thus ensued a slew of new camping and hunting books for women. “Somehow, out of the neglect, arose the impression that woods’ joys were for men alone,” Woodcraft for Women begins. “Gradually a few women discovered that the lazy drifting down a pine and rock-bound stream calms feminine as well as masculine nerves and that the dimly blazed trail into an unknown country arouses the pioneering instinct in them as truly as it does a man.”
  • Looking back at Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques: “If the voice of this French anthropologist conveys to you nothing more than academic curmudgeonliness, let’s leave it there. But isn’t it a kind of fastidiousness that seems to belong to a vanished intellectual world? It seems a promise that he feels his discoveries too important not to be told, and perhaps they are.”