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Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

Being a Bumpkin

October 10, 2016 | by

Three new books try to untangle the Gordian knot of white-trash identity.

From the cover of Hillbilly Elegy. 

Scan the headlines and you’ll find that everyone’s talking about how the white trash have made their presence felt. The white trash support Trump; the white trash are losing ground; the white trash should be honored by the government for their hard work and sacrifices; the white trash are continuing to redirect their aggression at other racial minorities instead of the robber barons who exploit them.

But who exactly are these people, these trashy whites who have found themselves, in the words of sociologist C. Wright Mills, “without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power?” Read More »

Kicked Toward Saintliness

January 21, 2016 | by

On the dark erotics of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers.

From a German edition of Our Lady of the Flowers.

On September 11, 1895, the deputy chaplain of Wandsworth prison wrote a worried report about one of his new charges, Oscar Wilde, who had been transferred from Pentonville two months before. “He is now quite crushed and broken,” the chaplain recorded:

This is unfortunate, as a prisoner who breaks down in one direction generally breaks down in several, and I fear from what I hear and see that perverse sexual practices are again getting the better of him. This is a common occurrence among prisoners of his class and is of course favoured by constant cellular isolation. The odour of his cell is now so bad that the officer in charge of him has to use carbolic acid in it every day.

The possibility that a famous author had been driven to masturbating during his internment in Wandsworth would not have reflected well on the prison’s authorities, who immediately denied the charge and changed the indiscreet chaplain’s assignment. One wonders how they would have reacted to Jean Genet’s short film Un chant d’amour (1950), which the French author, playwright, and criminal directed in collaboration with Jean Cocteau soon after writing the last of the five novels that earned him international fame. Midway through the film, a poker-faced prison guard peers one at a time into a row of cells, each of which turns out to contain an autoerotic peepshow more wild, graphic, and uninhibited than the one before. A convict rubs his exposed member against the wall of his cell; a smiling bather lathers himself lasciviously in soap; a young black man, one of the many dark-skinned figures in Genet who appear to their white observers as sexual threats, dances with a tight grip on his open-flied crotch. Read More »

Idle Bird

December 31, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!


Vincent van Gogh, Coalmine in the Borinage, 1879.

Van Gogh finds art in the Borinage.

In October of 1879, Theo van Gogh went to visit his brother, Vincent, in the Borinage coal-mining district of Belgium. Theo was en route to Paris, where he had business to conduct as an art dealer; Vincent was doing self-appointed missionary work. The pair walked along an abandoned quarry that reminded them of a canal they’d frequented as children in Holland, but now there was an undeniable rift between them. Theo, upset by Vincent’s appearance—he had given away nearly all of his clothes to the miners, and had ceased bathing—told him, “You are not the same any longer.” He felt that Vincent was wasting his time in this squalid place, and suggested that he leave to take up a different trade.

Angry at his brother’s inability to understand him, Vincent wrote a letter to Theo on October 15 that would be the last for ten months. The brothers had been writing letters to each other almost unceasingly since 1872, when Vincent was nineteen and Theo fifteen. This would be the first and deepest rupture between them, a silence that would never repeat itself. Referring to Theo’s accusation of “idleness,” Vincent wrote with bitterness, Read More >>

Writing Is a Nefarious Business

November 10, 2015 | by

“Have you been doing anything you shouldn’t, William Carlos Williams?” asks the venerable women’s-hour host Mary McBride. 

“Writing for forty years!” replies the poet with alarming jocularity. “That’s a nefarious business, you know!” Read More »

Kafka on the Shore Stage, and Other News

August 10, 2015 | by


From Kafka on the Shore. Photo: Takahiro Watanabe

  • “It wasn’t easy to interest glossy magazines in poverty in the 1980s and 90s,” Barbara Ehrenreich writes: “I once spent two hours over an expensive lunch—paid for, of course, by a major publication—trying to pitch to a clearly indifferent editor who finally conceded, over decaf espresso and crème brulee, ‘OK, do your thing on poverty. But can you make it upscale?’ ” That was then. Today, things are even worse: “Now there are fewer journalists on hand at major publications to arouse the conscience of editors and other gatekeepers. Coverage of poverty accounts for less than 1% of American news.”
  • How New York Review Books is perfecting the art of the reissue: “It was our intention to be resolutely eclectic, and build our classics series as different voices build a fugue … We set out to do the whole mix of things that a curious person might be interested in, which would take you back and forth from fiction to certain kinds of history … We were picking low-hanging fruit, only no one knew the fruit was out there, hanging from the branches.”
  • In 2003, the Russian writer Kirill Medvedev lifted the copyright from his publications, putting them all into the public domain worldwide. Twelve years later, he defends his choice:Do you, as a poet or writer or musician, really want to go the way of prohibitions, fences, barbed wire and guard towers to defend texts and music the way some would defend private cottages, private forests, private fields and private earth?”
  • Nearly a century after it was composed, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” remains the quintessential adolescent poem: “Eliot himself was barely out of his teens when he wrote it, uncannily in touch with the exquisite torments of hypersensitive youth, and with the peculiar burden of seeing through everything without having experienced much of anything. This was a different species of verse. It exuded cinematic urgency rather than exam-ready ‘messages’ and ‘themes.’ It was full of sudden rhythmic jolts and colliding tones, and could make emotional pirouettes on a vowel. Unapologetic, brash, discontinuous, ‘Prufrock’ taught me the thrill of disorientation in language. No matter how often I returned, it was never tamped down by classroom-style explanations. It grew. It seemed to understand me more than I understood it.”
  • Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore has been adapted for the stage at Lincoln Center by Yukio Ninagawa: the production is “a collage of modern, neon-lit, commercialized, glitzy Japan, haunted by dark, mostly unspoken memories of World War II, including the atom bomb, shown in what looks like a stylized advertising logo … [it’s] still unmistakably Japanese: stylized, poetic, comical, violent, full of spectacular effects, and often exquisitely beautiful to look at.”

A Very Interesting Excursion

June 29, 2015 | by

Looking for van Gogh in Belgium’s mining district.


Vincent van Gogh’s The Sower, 1888, which was inspired by paintings by Jean-François Millet.

Earlier this month, Nellie wrote for the Daily about van Gogh’s time in the Borinage and its effect on his art. In this follow-up piece, she reflects on her own travels in the region.

On a sunny but cool afternoon in mid March, I stood on the muddy ground of a closed and abandoned mine in Belgium. Behind me, a handful of pigs screamed from inside a pen in one of the decrepit buildings. A large, lean, mean-looking dog, which in fact was not mean at all, stood nearby, tethered to a long rope.

It was my first time in this place, the former mining district of Belgium, called the Borinage, though I spent the nearly six years prior writing a novel that took place there. From 1878 to 1880, before he declared himself an artist, Vincent van Gogh lived in the Borinage, trying to be a preacher, and the story of what may have happened during that time is my novel’s subject. I didn’t go to Belgium while I was researching or writing the book—the mines are all closed these days and the area developed; I told myself there was no point in going if it didn’t look just like it had in the late nineteenth century. But Mons, the city that sits right at the tip of the Borinage region, is this year’s selection for the European Capital of Culture and, as a result, is home to all sorts of interesting exhibits and performances, including the first-ever exhibition of van Gogh’s work from and related to this period of his life: it opened, strangely, just a few weeks after my book had been published. It was a coincidence too odd to ignore, and I got on a plane to go see this place I had long imagined.

I have been struggling to articulate what this visit was like in any coherent way. I knew, all those years, that the place I was envisioning was real, but in my mind it was a place that no longer existed, a place to be conjured and imagined, not to stand on with two real feet. To be confronted with the reality of the place in physical space was quite a different thing. I expected that there would be nothing left. In a way I was right, and in a way very wrong. Read More »