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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Blunt the Edge

July 22, 2014 | by

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Detail from the cover of The Baffler’s eighth issue; art by Archer Prewitt.

The Baffler, which has probably the best slogan of any magazine in history—“the Journal that Blunts the Cutting Edge”—has made all of its back issues available for free online: required reading for anyone interested in the tenor of criticism and analysis in the nineties and early aughts, if that’s what we’ve decided to call them.

For starters, I recommend Tom Vanderbilt on SKYY vodka’s ridiculous original campaign, which was predicated on the myth that it was “hangover free” (“built on that distinctly American quest to find magic formulas to indulge more and suffer less”); or Kim Phillips-Fein’s “Lotteryville, USA,” a powerful screed against the ills of the lottery as an institution; or Terri Kapsalis’s “Making Babies the American Girl Way,” a terrifying meditation on multicultural dolls, artificial insemination, and designer babies; or, perhaps my personal favorite, Steve Albini’s “The Problem with Music,” a terse, caustic critique of the record industry at the height of yuppie-ism and major-label excess. Its scorched-earth opening:

Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end, holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed.

Nobody can see what’s printed on the contract. It’s too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody’s eyes water. The lackey shouts to everybody that the first one to swim the trench gets to sign the contract. Everybody dives in the trench and they struggle furiously to get to the other end. Two people arrive simultaneously and begin wrestling furiously, clawing each other and dunking each other under the shit. Eventually, one of them capitulates, and there’s only one contestant left. He reaches for the pen, but the Lackey says, “Actually, I think you need a little more development. Swim it again, please. Backstroke.”

And he does, of course.

If arch anticapitalist rhetoric and scatological takedowns of corporate media aren’t your cuppa, The Baffler publishes a nice variety of fiction and poetry, too. Have at it.

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The Most Expensive Word in History

May 1, 2014 | by

Saroyan print

Since 1964, The Paris Review has commissioned a series of prints and posters by major contemporary artists. Contributing artists have included Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Bourgeois, Ed Ruscha, and William Bailey. Each print is published in an edition of sixty to two hundred, most of them signed and numbered by the artist. All have been made especially and exclusively for The Paris Review.

Among these is Aram Saroyan’s lighght print, available in our online store. The print is a record of Saroyan’s most famous poem—one among many collected in his newly reissued Complete Minimal Poems. Soon after the poem’s first publication in 1965, “lighght” engendered a surprisingly long-lived controversy, in which The Paris Review’s own George Plimpton played no small part. As Ian Daly’s terrific piece at poetry.org explains,

Plimpton decided to include it in the second volume of The American Literary Anthology, which he was editing for the National Endowment for the Arts … Plimpton picked Saroyan’s “lighght,” so the NEA cut him a check for $750—the same as all the other authors in the anthology. The Review kept $250, and Saroyan kept the rest. All of which seems reasonable enough—that is, unless you judge the poem’s worth on a strictly cost-per-word basis—which is exactly what Congress did.

When Representative William Scherle, a Republican from Iowa, caught wind of the one-word poem, he launched a national campaign against the indefensible wastefulness of the newly established NEA, and urged the removal of its chairperson, Nancy Hanks … Mailbags of letters from fuming taxpayers clogged the agency’s boxes, most of them variations on a theme: We can’t afford to lower taxes but we can pay some beatnik weirdo $500 to write one word…and not even spell it right?!

“If my kid came home from school spelling like that,” one congressman said, according to the now-defunct arts and literature quarterly Sabine. “I would have stood him in the corner with a dunce cap.”
The NEA lived to cut another check, of course, but more than twenty-five years later, “Ronald Reagan was still making pejorative allusions to ‘lighght.’ That sparked Saroyan to write about the whole affair for Mother Jones in 1981, in a piece he called ‘The Most Expensive Word in History.’”

But our lighght print is not merely a keepsake from an ill-advised chapter in cultural politics. As Daly elegantly writes—and as none of the pols could see through the fog of their vituperation—the poem is also energetic, ineffable, beautiful:

“Lighght” is something you see rather than read. Look at “lighght” as a poem and you might not get it. Look at it as a kind of photograph, and you’ll be closer. “The difference between ‘lighght’ and another type of poem with more words is that it doesn’t have a reading process,” says Saroyan, who lives in Los Angeles and teaches writing at the University of Southern California … “Even a five-word poem has a beginning, middle, and end. A one-word poem doesn’t. You can see it all at once. It’s instant.”

The Paris Review’s lighght print is available here in an edition of 150.

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Different Ways of Lying: An Interview with Jesse Ball

April 3, 2014 | by

Jesse Ball

Photo: Joe Lieske

Jesse Ball writes novels and stories in the vein of Kafka or Daniil Kharms—surreal, often hyperpolitical constructions from contemporary life. His 2011 novel, The Curfew, whirls around an absurd dystopia, an uncanny avatar of our own. It’s home, but not quite. The Way Through Doors (2009) and Samedi the Deafness (2007) are set in neighborhoods at once eerily similar to and foreign from our own. To read Ball, who won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize in 2008, is to step into a kind of liminal space. And his new novel, Silence Once Begun, contains his most beguiling sleight of hand yet.

Silence Once Begun begins in a Japanese fishing town where eight people have recently disappeared from their homes. At a bar, Oda Sotatsu, an unassuming, lonely young man, wagers on a card game and loses to the mesmeric Jito Joo—Sotatsu signs a document that says he’s responsible for the recent disappearances. Jito Joo takes this confession to the police, and soon rumormongering and hearsay consume the town. Throughout his trial and imprisonment, Sotatsu remains almost completely silent, refusing to testify on his own behalf in court and barely engaging with the relatives who appeal to him. At the center of the novel, framing its various narratives, is a divorced investigative journalist named Jesse Ball.

Our conversations found the real Jesse Ball by turns serious and coy. We discussed the political value of plain speech, his near ascetic desire for isolation, and the necessity of lying.

Silence Once Begun demonstrates the failure of this town’s justice system, a failure to do right by one of their own. Another of your novels, The Curfew, also engages with unjust and inescapable social systems. Do you see your work as political?

Saying almost anything as well as you can say it, or doing anything properly and with your whole being, is a political act. And so I think almost any text that strives to have its own focus, without bowing to contemporary modes of humor or a little commercialism or whatever else—I think that’s very political. As long as everyone decides to hold and contain their own state, things improve.

My books, some of them appear to verge on the political. This one certainly seems to be an indictment of a justice system. In the course of time, many things that appear certain within an epoch or an era seem ludicrous and silly to those in another time. However, plain clear speech, or questions stated within the power of the heart, don’t really become silly. They retain a certain power. In terms of attempts to write clearly, I think that’s the most political act. Read More »

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O Canada

November 6, 2013 | by

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While things may have been tense around Parliament Hill in the last day, let us take a moment to appreciate something lovely: the neo-Gothic wonder that is Canada’s Library of Parliament. Designed by Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones, the 1876 structure is not open to the general public, but is portrayed on the Canadian ten-dollar note.

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Happy Election Day

November 5, 2013 | by

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“All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it.” —Henry David Thoreau

 

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Doctored

September 26, 2013 | by

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During the bedtime-story portion of his twenty-one-hours-and-nineteen-minutes-long speech on the floor of Congress, Senator Ted Cruz, in an episode that has already achieved notoriety, read Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham as his two daughters watched at home in their pajamas.

“I will credit my father,” Senator Cruz said. “He invented green eggs and ham.” Cruz’s father, the senator remembered, would add food coloring to eggs or mix spinach into them to get the green color.

But not even Dr. Seuss would say that he invented green eggs and ham. It was a bet with his publisher that led Theodor Seuss Geisel to write the book. Bennett Cerf wagered $50 that Geisel could not write a book with only fifty words.

And yet by repeating forty-nine monosyllabic words and a single polysyllabic word (anywhere), Geisel assembled a book with 681 words total that would become his most popular book ever, selling tens of millions of copies. Geisel claimed that Cerf never paid him the $50, but Green Eggs and Ham was one of the many Beginner Books that made the author and his publishing house millions of dollars.

Part of Dr. Seuss’s midcentury success came from federal education reform that dedicated money to stocking school libraries and promoting early education. “Children’s lit,” according to critic Louis Menand, “was a Cold War growth industry, right alongside Boeing, Northrop, and Dow Chemical.”

Dr. Seuss, in particular, was very much of his time, and Menand offers a convincing read of The Cat in the Hat as an allegory for the problems of feminism, communism, and juvenile delinquency. Read More »

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