The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘nineteenth century’

Hatched in Prison, and Other News

November 5, 2015 | by

From Gil Batle’s “Jargon” series: carved eggs alluding to the hidden messages that inmates and their friends and families used to avoid censorship by prison staff monitoring their correspondence.

  • The Great and Noble Defenders of High Culture (one of them rhymes with Kansan) would have you believe that books and social media are locked in a mortal battle, and that every time you tweet, an angel-novelist loses his wings. But this is a false dichotomy, Paul Ford says—the best way to read the Internet is to dredge its deep archives of ephemera: “I tweet with the best of them, and I like reading the hard stuff. I have a phone filled with novels, even some experimental ones. But the reality is that the most profound feeling of cultural participation for me comes from trawling databases. I like to look through old scanned pages, search against tags on Tumblr, see how hashtags form discussion on Twitter, or look through the dead-eyed monstrosity of a racist comment thread on Facebook. That sort of stuff constitutes ‘reading,’ for me … The most meaningful experiences I have, the experiences that give me the greatest insight into the operation of culture over time—something over which historians used to hold a monopoly—are the results of database queries.”
  • When Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch came out in 1970, it placed her at the forefront of the feminist movement: she was a bona-fide public intellectual, a celebrity. Why has her star fallen? “Eunuch had a single argument at its core: gendered oppression is all-pervasive. It argued that women were systematically subjugated to the power and will of men and too fearful, polite, or unaware to retaliate and claim authority over their own lives … Described by her biographer as having ‘the youth, the charisma, the chutzpah and the media savvy’ to lead the movement, Greer had managed to both radicalize and glamorize women’s liberation … And then, just as suddenly, Greer wasn’t relevant … The possibility of rehabilitating Greer’s public image is not, at this point, interesting or even viable. What remains compelling about Greer is the question of what her irrelevancy reveals about the state of contemporary gender politics, or feminism as we know it … While Greer is undeniably at odds with the goals and rhetoric of today’s complex and often convoluted feminism, women’s liberation as we know it would not exist without her daring in the first place.”
  • When you keep a diary in prison, you write on whatever’s handy, even if that something is ostrich shells … and even if you don’t begin the diary until after you’re out of the clink. “San Francisco native Gil Batle spent twenty years in five different California prisons for fraud and forgery … The fifty-three-year-old Filipino American now lives in the Philippines, where he has spent the past few years carving a twenty-year prison diary into the surfaces of dozens of ostrich shells. The diary depicts his own haunting stories of prison life and those of the murderers, drug dealers, and armed robbers he served time with … At first glance, the carved eggshells could pass for ancient artifacts until you look carefully at the subject matter: suicides and stabbings, fights and race riots, cavity searches, and other trials and tribulations of prison life.”
  • For a few years now, the Internet has made a sport of slowing down pop songs by 500, 1,000, hell, 5,000 percent, tapping the rich mineral deposits of ambient beauty hidden in all that mud. But little has prepared us for the gift that is Alvin and the Chipmunks at sixteen rpm. They sound like a doom-metal band. With the holiday season upon us, Chipmunk-ified tunes will soon blare from a storefront near you—gird your loins with the slow version.
  • Fanny Fern, E. D. E. N. Southworth … the best-selling women writers of the nineteenth century have names that would land them on the Billboard Top 40 today, and yet their books remain neglected. Their often willfully sentimental novels “grew out of the conduct literature that was popular earlier in the century—for example, seduction novels that frightened girls and young women away from sexual impropriety—and was popular among women more so than men. For this reason, it was dismissed by ‘serious’ authors—as when Hawthorne bemoaned the ‘damned mob of scribbling women.’ … Today we recognize that it was a powerful political tool.”


Sympathy for the Devil

October 29, 2015 | by

Melmoth the Wanderer and the bizarre appeal of gothic horror.

From the Penguin Classics edition of Melmoth.

I have long been a rather reluctant fan of gothic horror. The reluctance comes from never quite knowing if it’s a genre worth caring about. How well, really, do any of my favorite works hold up? Is The Castle of Otranto actually good, or just campy? Is The Monk great literature? Probably not—but as genres go, there’s none quite so pleasingly ridiculous as this one.

Gothic horror usually revolves around the sinister absence of God inside some religious framework. These are stories that couldn’t exist outside a culture obsessed with sin and hellfire, and yet they’re not morality tales: the only lesson to be drawn from most gothic romances is that the supernatural can be easily substituted for the divine. Any benefits to leading a religious life seem to be completely erased in these stories, with paranoia and persecution complexes to take their place. There seems barely time to contemplate the afterlife when everyone’s so busy trying to escape the traps laid for them on earth—traps set by heredity and fate. The “good” characters are, for the most part, idiots: foolish clergyman, one-dimensional lovers doomed to die horrible (sometimes cannibalistic) deaths, and so on. The only character with any power of personality happens, more often than not, to be the devil himself.

This is especially true of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, a shapeless tale of transformation, loneliness, and evil as shown in complete isolation from good. Maturin, an Irish clergyman and great-uncle to Oscar Wilde, wrote the book in 1820, at the height of the vogue for gothic romance. By the end of the nineteenth century, the book had taken on cult status. Baudelaire adored it. Balzac wrote a sequel to it. Wilde himself, after being released in disgrace from Reading Gaol, based his entire identity around his uncle’s story, renaming himself after its hero, Sebastian Melmoth. What was it in the story that spoke to them so deeply? Read More »

The Gay Lothario

October 28, 2015 | by

A caricature of Coates as Lothario.

Strange as it seems now, there was a time when I was responsible for writing a best- and worst-dressed list. I had no qualifications, I felt uncomfortable doing it, and I admired extravagantly those celebrities who had the gall to flout convention and throw themselves squarely into the “bad” category like early Christian martyrs among lions. I was reminded of this unlikely interlude in my career while looking at the fashions from this weekend’s MTV Europe Music Awards, many extravagantly ludicrous. Visible underwear! Macramé! Polychrome! Monochrome! Bieber! The mind boggled, the soul leaped.

A pilloried celeb is usually defiant, and understandably. There are varying degrees of ingenuousness often correlated to the degree of celebrity involved, but the gist is usually: haters be damned. The best of all sartorial retorts, though, belongs to the celebrated London macaroni and amateur of drama, Mr. Robert “Romeo” Coates, whose early nineteenth-century exploits are chronicled in Edith Sitwell’s peerless English EccentricsRead More »

Punch, Brothers

October 15, 2015 | by

Do it. Do it!

The other night, we had the chance to see the Mets play the Dodgers. In an effort to rally the team, the jumbotron repeatedly blared that “Everybody clap your HANDS!” command—accompanied at Citi Field by a graphic of Mr. Met leading the cheer—and we all furiously, dutifully clap-clap-clap-clap-clap-clap-clapped until Andre Ethier went down in the bottom of the ninth and we trudged sullenly onto the 7 train.

Now, a couple days later, my sore hands have ceased to ache and the smell of hot dogs has faded from my jersey—but that chant is still in my head. It follows me wherever I go, an insistent tattoo on the back of my brain. Mr. Met bobs through my dreams, clapping and beaming. Yesterday, apropos of nothing, my husband texted me the words of the chant. Periodically, the two of us break into joyless but insistent clapping. 

It made me think of Mark Twain’s “A Literary Nightmare.” In the 1876 story, Twain recalls coming across the following bit of doggerel in the newspaper: Read More »

Notes from a Dead House

September 15, 2015 | by

This is the first in a series by Max Nelson on prison literature.

Käthe Kollwitz, The Prisoners, 1908.

No writer intends to produce prison literature. Just as incarceration involves its own awful set of debasements, drudgeries, and abuses, so it marks any writing done under its restrictions as part of a genre, one of the oldest to which new work is still added daily. The loose canon of prison literature includes novels (Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Toer’s Buru Quartet), autobiographies (Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Madame Roland’s memoirs), poems (Pound’s Pisan Cantos), erotic fictions (de Sade’s Justine, Cleland’s Fanny Hill), poetic dialogues (Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy), economic tracts (Gramsci’s prison notebooks), histories (Nehru’s Glimpses of World History) and works of philosophy (portions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus)—but with the stipulation that whoever enters it must have suffered to an extent, and in a way, for which practically no one would volunteer. No prison writing is professional, but nor is any of it exactly recreational; it comes, by definition, from environments where “any self-willed display of personality … is considered a crime.”

Those words arrive early in Notes from a Dead House, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s extraordinary, semi-fictionalized account of the internment he endured in a Siberian prison camp after being sentenced to four years of hard labor for his involvement in a revolutionary conspiracy—and the latest installment in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s grand, ongoing effort to retranslate the Russian canon. Episodic, rambling, full of keen and deliberately stretched-out character sketches, the book is the drama of a person working out how to reproduce prison life in prose: its longueurs, its diversions, its pleasures, traumas, and inurements. Read More »

What’s the Use?

July 21, 2015 | by

Celebrity and oblivion in the Goncourt brothers.


Edmund and Jules Goncourt.

Few documents provide as comprehensive—or as caustic—a view of celebrity as the diary of the Goncourt brothers, Jules and Edmond. Chronicling literary Paris from 1851 to 1896, The Journal of the de Goncourts features enough searing bons mots and scandal mongering to make Gawker look like a Sunday school brochure. In one entry from 1852, the famed cross-dressing novelist and amoureuse George Sand threatens to “publish an account” of the behavior of her son-in-law, the sculptor Clésinger; he is quick to reply: “then I’ll do a carving of your backside. And everybody’ll recognize it.” The novelist, playwright, and bohemian Villiers de l’Isle-Adam is described as having “the face of an opium addict or a masturbator”; Edmond de Goncourt dismisses Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality, like his poetry, as a “plagiarism from Verlaine.”

Whether or not one is familiar with the poets, novelists, and absintheuses of Haussmannian Paris, to read the Goncourt brothers is to plunge headlong into a world of bitter rivalries and bitterer friendships, in which every gathering around a café table on the Grands Boulevards is a chance to raise one’s status in the byzantine literary hierarchy. “Here,” as Christopher Isherwood put it, “gossip achieves the epigrammatic significance of poetry.” Of course, such a cynical, self-satisfied perspective can grate. André Gide, writing on the Goncourts’ novels, excoriated their style as pathologically shallow—a Perez Hilton of the Passages des Panoramas: “It is impossible to read a page by them where that good opinion they have of themselves does not burst out from between the lines.” Read More »