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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Philip Levine, 1928–2015

February 15, 2015 | by

We were saddened to learn that Philip Levine died yesterday at eighty-seven. The U.S. poet laureate from 2011 to 2012, he composed poems that were, as Margalit Fox writes in the New York Times, “vibrantly, angrily, and often painfully alive with the sound, smell, and sinew of heavy manual labor.”

Levine grew up in industrial Detroit during the Depression; the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he worked factory jobs for Cadillac and for Chevrolet. “You could recite poems aloud in there,” he told The Paris Review in 1988 of his time on the assembly line. “The noise was so stupendous. Some people singing, some people talking to themselves, a lot of communication going on with nothing, no one to hear.”

His time in those jobs would later inform one of his most enduring poems, “They Feed They Lion,” from the late sixties—you can hear him read it above. Levine explained the title in a 1999 interview with The Atlantic: Read More »

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Read, Reread, Re-reread, Re-re-reread, and Other News

February 10, 2015 | by

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A passenger reading on a train to Houston, 1974. Photo: NARA

  • It’s one thing to be well read—quite another to be well reread. Stephen Marche has coined the term centireading, i.e., reading something a hundred times. He’s accomplished only two feats of centireading (Hamlet and The Inimitable Jeeves), but they effectively restored the purity of his reading experience: “The main effect of reading Hamlet a 100 times was, counter-intuitively, that it lost its sense of cliché. ‘To be or not to be’ is the Stairway to Heaven of theatre; it settles over the crowd like a slightly funky blanket knitted by a favorite aunt. Eventually, if you read Hamlet often enough, every soliloquy takes on that same familiarity. And so ‘To be or not to be’ resumes its natural place in the play, as just another speech. Which renders its power and its beauty of a piece with the rest of the work.”
  • As a moneymaking device, the book is obsolete, as we all know. Of course it is—it’s very, very old. What you might not have heard yet is that Web sites are obsolete, too, and that your mere presence on this page renders you a technological dinosaur. It’s okay. I’m one, too. This man is not: “In his weird zone of the internet, he said, the concept of a large publication seemed utterly hopeless. The only thing that keeps people coming back to apps in great enough numbers over time to make real money is the presence of other people. So the only apps that people use in the way publications want their readers to behave—with growing loyalty that can be turned into money—are communications services. The near-future internet puts the publishing and communications industries in competition with each other for the same confused advertising dollars, and it’s not even close.”
  • From the makers of the flaneur, meet the crónica: “a crónica is both ‘a history that obeys the order of the times’ and ‘a journalistic piece … about current events.’ But it is more. Starting in the nineteenth century, crónica and urban life became inseparable; to the mere recording of a city life for posterity, the genre added flânerie and modern investigative reporting. Together, crónica and la ciudad (the city) inform a typology of ‘essaying’ a pie (on foot), in which walking is to thinking what seeing is to reading, and cities’ ‘intensification of nervous stimulation’ becomes social and cultural criticism.”
  • In France, even illicit, politically scandalous affairs play out like fairy tales: “It was not until his press attaché phoned Valérie and informed her that François was ‘madly in love with you’ that Valérie recognized the current of passion that roiled beneath their professional rapport … They were committed to others—Ségolène and Denis—and they had more than half a dozen children between them, but how could they refuse love’s call? Over crêpes and waffles, Valérie and François confessed their feelings, which led to, she wrote, ‘a kiss like no other kiss I’d ever shared with anyone. A kiss that had been held back for nearly fifteen years, in the middle of a crossroads.’”
  • William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is one of the most daring movies of the sixties, which may be why no one saw it until 1991. Now his film is finally getting its due: “Greaves was up there with John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke in the blend of sophisticated modernism and emotional fury, of self-implication and formal innovation, of self-revelation and revelation of the heart of the times.”

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All in One: An Interview with Tomi Ungerer

January 30, 2015 | by

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Tomi Ungerer. © Luc Bérujeau

At the opening for the Drawing Center’s “All in One,” Tomi Ungerer’s first U.S. retrospective, swarms of visitors obscured the art on the walls. The crowd bent toward the artist, who was holding court and a glass of red wine, though none was being served. Ungerer, who is eighty-three, was in his element. For him, this retrospective is a kind of homecoming. After more than forty years in exile, his career is finding its rightful place in the New York art world.

The Drawing Center exhibition, curated by Claire Gilman, begins with Ungerer’s earliest doodles as a child growing up in Nazi-occupied Alsace, where under the nationalistic duress of war he first learned to be an outlaw. Delicately subversive, they are inscribed with a mature, swaggering humor that takes a subject as terrifying as Hitler and renders him a fool.

In 1956, Ungerer was lured to New York City at the height of print, when publications offered vast opportunities for creative illustrators. Without contacts or even a high school diploma, Ungerer impressed art directors with his idiosyncratic drawing style and witty candor. He became sought after for advertising and editorial work, and most prominently, his unconventional children’s books, which featured society’s most repulsive characters—robbers, snakes, pigs, beggars—as compassionate protagonists.

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Untitled, 1966 (drawing for The Party, first published by Paragraphic Books, Grossman Publishers, New York), ink and ink wash on paper, 18" x 18". Collection Musée Tomi Ungerer/Centre international de l’Illustration, Strasbourg. © Tomi Ungerer/Diogenes Verlag AG, Zürich. Photo courtesy Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg/Mathieu Bertola.

While working professionally in these PG-rated circles, he remained a deeply political artist, self-publishing bold posters against the Vietnam War, a book of harsh satire called The Underground Sketchbook, and sadomasochistic erotic drawings. But upon discovering his erotic work, the children’s-book community was scandalized. His books were removed from public libraries and his reputation tarnished. Dejected and unable to find work, he left New York in 1971, moving to Nova Scotia with his wife before finding a permanent home in Cork, Ireland.

This defection cost Ungerer the renown he deserves. It wasn’t until 1998 that he received the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest achievement for children’s-book authors, and a sign of the recent reappraisal of his career. Recent years have seen reissues of his children’s books in English and a large catalogue of his erotic drawings. In Strasbourg, he has a museum dedicated to his work, and in 2012, his life was the subject of a documentary film. Read More »

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Politics as Usual

January 23, 2015 | by

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Al Smith in 1913.

At a certain point in the late nineties, my family’s living room needed to be rewired. It seemed the wiring had not been replaced since the house was first built. The hardware store sent up a very old man to tackle the job. I know because I was hanging around; it was summer vacation.

“I remember this house,” he said. It seemed he had worked on it as an apprentice electrician. 

“In 1919?” my dad asked.

“Yup,” said the man, getting to work. Read More »

Stanisław Barańczak’s “This Is Not a Conversation for the Telephone”

January 5, 2015 | by

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Barańczak in a photo from Ostatni wiersz z Widokówki z tego świata, 1988.

I’ve been thinking today of Stanisław Barańczak, the Polish poet and translator who died last month at sixty-eight. He was known for flouting state censors with poems that mocked the euphemistic language of communism, and his work was seditious enough that in the seventies he was barred from publishing in Poland, though he continued to publish underground. By the early eighties, his politics had cost him his job as a professor in Poznan, and he decamped to the U.S. to lecture at Harvard. In a famous speech he likened life as a dissident to breathing underwater, with a nod to a science-fiction story by Stanisław Lem:

Bubbling sounds were the only acceptable means of communication, the official propaganda emphasized the advantages of being wet, and occasional breathing above water was considered almost a political offense—although everyone had to do it from time to time …

I wonder what Barańczak would’ve made of the new PEN International report, published this morning, on writers and government surveillance. It suggests that free expression around the world—even in the U.S., where what we’ve come to call “content producers” aren’t in the habit of fearing violence from the state—is in some ways more embattled now than it’s been since the Cold War.

It’s worth reading the report in full, though it will make you gnash your teeth and hurl invective at various institutions, chiefly the NSA. (And why shouldn’t you? You’ve already got their ear.) PEN International polled 772 writers from fifty countries, with some classified as “free,” some as “partly free,” and some “not free.” But those gradations hardly matter, it seems, when it comes to freedom of expression. Of the respondents, 75 percent in free countries, 84 percent in partly free countries, and 80 percent in not free countries said they were “very” or “somewhat” worried about surveillance. Some were so worried that they were afraid to say how worried they were:

As a final indication of the way the current “surveillance crisis” affects and haunts us, I should say that I have had serious misgivings about whether to write the above and include it in this questionnaire. It is clear to me from the information I have given you that my responses to the questionnaire, and presumably also therefore this statement, can be traced back to me. It may be that this information will be hacked by security agencies. Surely anyone who thinks thoughts like these will be in danger—if not today, then (because this is a process) possibly tomorrow.

Read More »

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Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book

January 2, 2015 | by

Photo by Sylvain Bourmeau

Photo by Sylvain Bourmeau

It’s 2022, and France is living in fear. The country is roiled by mysterious troubles. Regular episodes of urban violence are deliberately obscured by the media. Everything is covered up, the public is in the dark ... and in a few months the leader of a newly created Muslim party will be elected president. On the evening of June 5, in a second general election—the first having been anulled after widespread voter fraud—Mohammed Ben Abbes handily beats Marine Le Pen with support from both socialists and the right.

The next day, women abandon Western dress. Most begin wearing long cotton smocks over their trousers; encouraged by government subsidies, they leave the workplace in droves. Male unemployment drops overnight. In formerly rough neighborhoods, crime all but disappears. Universities become Islamic. Non-Muslim teachers are forced into early retirement unless they convert and submit to the new regime.

This is the world imagined by Michel Houellebecq in his sixth novel, Soumission (Submission), which will appear next week. Should it be read as a bad Op-Ed, as pulp fiction for an election year, or as the attempt of a great writer to air a social critique through farce? In an exclusive interview—the first he's given about this novel—Houellebecq explains what led him to write a book that has already created a scandal in France, even before its publication.

Why did you do it? 

For several reasons, I’d say. First of all, I think, it’s my job, though I don’t care for that word. I noticed some big changes when I moved back to France, though these changes are not specifically French, but rather Western. As an exile you don’t take much of an interest in anything, really, neither your society of origin nor the place you live—and besides, Ireland is a slightly odd case. I think the second reason is that my atheism hasn’t quite survived all the deaths I’ve had to deal with. In fact, it came to seem unsustainable to me.

The death of your dog, of your parents?

Yes, it was a lot in a short period of time. Part of it may be that, contrary to what I thought, I never was quite an atheist. I was an agnostic. Usually that word serves as a screen for atheism but not, I think, in my case. When, in the light of what I know, I reexamine the question whether there is a creator, a cosmic order, that kind of thing, I realize that I don’t actually have an answer.

Whereas before you felt

I thought I was an atheist, yes. Now I really don’t know. So those are the two reasons I wrote the book, the second reason probably outweighing the first.

How would you characterize this book?

The phrase political fiction isn’t bad. I don’t think I’ve read many similar examples, but at any rate I’ve read some, more in English literature than in French. Read More »

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