The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘religion’

A Compound of Knave and Blockhead

September 26, 2016 | by

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Happy 128th, T. S. Eliot. Here’s a letter he wrote to the poet Stephen Spender in June 1932. Eliot had argued, in his religious essay “Thoughts After Lambeth,” that young people needed to be taught “chastity, humility, austerity, and discipline.” Spender wrote him to dispute that notion; the below is Eliot’s rebuttal. This excerpt comes from The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 6, edited by John Haffenden.

I can’t agree that religion provides such an effective escape as you seem to think. The great majority of people find their escape in easier ways; there are a great many unimaginative, selfish and lazy people who profess to be religious, but a vastly greater number who are not … All of the middle classes want to be gentlemen, and being a gentleman is incompatible with holding any strong religious convictions; with the latter, one must at least be prepared sooner or later to commit some ungentlemanly act. And for one person who escapes through religion into a “sentimental dreamland,” there are thousands who escape by reading novels, by looking at films, or best of all, by driving very fast on land or in air, which makes even dreams unnecessary. Read More »

The Story in the Shadows: An Interview with Sjón

September 26, 2016 | by

Sjón. Photo: Gabriel Kuchta.

Photo: Gabriel Kuchta.

Moonstone, Sjón’s latest novel, has been called “the gayest book in Iceland.” It follows the sixteen-year-old Máni Steinn, a queer hustler and cinephile whose life becomes upended by the Spanish flu of 1918 when the pestilence ravages Reykjavik. With the country fearful of any bodily contact, Máni can no longer pick up “gentlemen,” and the cinema houses are shut down. Máni finds solace in a new friendship with Sóla G, a beautiful feminist who rides a motorcycle and dresses all in black. When Máni gets tangled up in a sodomy scandal that threatens to humiliate the homophobic country, Sóla is perhaps the only person who can help him.

As with Sjón’s previous books—The Whispering Muse, The Blue Fox, and From the Mouth of the Whale—the magic of Moonstone lies in language. Máni Steinn doesn’t just love movies but “lives in the movies. When not spooling them into himself through his eyes he is replaying them in his mind.” Máni is illiterate, and as he struggles to read, “the letters of the alphabet disguise themselves before his eyes, glide between lines, switch roles in the middle of a word, and might as well be a red cipher to which he does not have the key.” Sjón’s easy way with words goes back to the Icelandic sagas he devoured as a child. He has internalized the lyrical language of epics, myths, folktales, and religion—“the old great narratives,” as he calls them.

Moonstone has been praised all around, with David Mitchell calling it “Sjón’s simmering masterpiece,” and it has won nearly all of Iceland’s literary prizes, including the country’s most prestigious: the Icelandic Literary Award. Sjón and I met once in New York in 2013, to discuss his earlier works; this month he was kind enough to answer a few questions I had for him about Moonstone over e-mail. Read More »

A Gritty Little Something on the New York Street

March 25, 2016 | by

Remembering Phife Dawg—a family perspective.

Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg.

I lived in New York for the first time for the summer of 2006, between my junior and senior years of college. I was in love with words. I’d started writing, but I needed a job, so I entered book publishing. Two days a week, I read manuscripts in the magnificent but decaying Flatiron Building; at night, I worked the coat check at a white-tablecloth restaurant on Union Square for spending money (the perfect gig, as in the summer I had few customers, and spent most of my time reading). After my shifts at the restaurant, I took the 5 train uptown to Harlem with the typical collection of bleary-eyed late-night workers and drunk revelers, where I slept on a cot in the living room of my aunt’s two-bedroom apartment.

The apartment was modest but warmly decorated in pinks, oranges, and turquoises—colors that undoubtedly reminded her of Trinidad, her island home. Our sleeping arrangement mirrored that of my great-grandmother’s house. She’d lived till she was ninety-eight: a former caretaker who’d immigrated from a rural part of the island, she’d saved enough money to buy a semidetached three-bedroom house in Jamaica, Queens.

As several family members and friends before and after her did, my aunt, the poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, had stayed with my great-grandmother to get on her feet in America. She married young, had a child, and, after an amicable divorce, started dating women—a shock to our family of devout Seventh Day Adventists. When I was younger, my parents, in a typical move of the time, never discussed her sexuality. I only knew that she had many female friends, and after a while, sometimes they would be gone from her life in a way that was unusual for just friends. In that apartment, she finally gave me a name for what she was, speaking to me openly about her life like I was an equal, capable enough to understand and not to judge.

On the wall of the apartment hung a portrait of Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, who was her son and my cousin. She told me that when visitors came by, they would uniformly exclaim how much they loved him. Why do you have a picture of him? they’d ask, before dropping one of his verses, and she would answer with pride, He’s my son, her perfect white smile beaming. Read More »

The Little Man of Nuremberg

March 17, 2016 | by

Wonder in the age of Matthias Buchinger.

A late sixteenth-century portrait of a disabled man, included in a Wunderkammer at Ambras Castle.

Though he had neither arms nor legs and was only twenty-nine inches tall, Matthias Buchinger spent his sixty-five years variously as a magician, a musician, a carver, and an inventor, among other vocations. But his most astounding talents were in micrography—that is, literally, small writing. Since his death in 1740, his renown has been relegated to an obscure niche between print design and outsider art. “Wordplay: Matthias Buchinger’s Inventive Drawings from the Collection of Ricky Jay,” showing now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, rescues him from a seventeenth-century German wunderkammer of conjurers, carneys, witches and “freaks” endemic to early modernity. Accompanying the exhibition is the equally eccentric art-history and antiquarian memoir Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest Living German by Ricky Jay, Whose Peregrinations in Search of the “Little Man of Nuremberg” are herein Revealed, in which Jay, something of a sleight-of-hand artist, reconstructs Buchinger’s exotic life and oeuvre. Read More »

Haunted Convict

February 25, 2016 | by

The rediscovered prison memoir of a nineteenth-century black man.

The inside cover and first page of Reed's manuscript. Photo: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, here.

On the back cover of the manuscript of his prison memoir, which he completed in New York’s Auburn state jail sometime after 1858, Austin Reed pasted a clipping of the third chapter of Lamentations: “I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath … / He hath builded against me, and compassed me with gall and travail. / He hath set me in dark places, as they that be dead of old.” Around the thirtieth verse, the tone shifts to one of reassurance—“For the Lord will not cast off forever”—and then, by the fifty-fifth, to one of retributive anger. The last verses Reed excerpted are a plea “out of the low dungeon” for God to avenge the poem’s narrator against his enemies: “Persecute and destroy them in anger from under the heavens of the Lord.”

These lines suggest the tone and shape of a literary genre: a lament in which sorrow coexists with requests for divine vengeance. By placing them at the end of The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict—acquired by Yale’s rare-book library in 2009 and published last month with helpful editorial comments by the scholar Caleb Smith—Reed was making a strong suggestion about the kind of book he’d written. The text itself, however, is an amalgam of genres that wouldn’t seem to combine: a picaresque memoir in which sermons jostle up against pulpy adventure anecdotes; dutiful recollections of fact move with little notice into fantasies and dreams; radical gestures of black empowerment share the page with the coarsest kinds of racial caricatures; and assertive denunciations of the prison system coexist with passages of meek and guilty self-recrimination. It’s puzzling to make sense of these apparent contradictions—to decide what Reed meant his book to do. Read More »

Distant Hammers

February 4, 2016 | by

Notes on art and apocalypse.

From Patrick Reed’s “Distant Hammers.”

How will the end come? Did it already come? Did we miss it? That we can ask this last question shows just how far our current mood of millenarianism has traveled from its antecedents in the distant and not-so-distant past. As late as Eliot, poets and prognosticators assured us that we would recognize “how the world ends.” Most visions of apocalypse were spectacular, sublime. The possibility that we have instead whimpered our way into some kind of boiling-frog scenario—marked by slow but irreversible global warming, mass human displacement, and a gradually perceptible slide toward famine, disease, war, and extinction—is a radical departure from the convulsive display we’d long been promised.

The first properly apocalyptic writings in the monotheistic tradition are the books of Joel and Zechariah, two of the twelve minor prophets in the Tanakh, or Jewish canon. Joel, whose account may date to the reign of King Josiah, around 800 B.C., and who may therefore be the oldest prophet, begins by describing a coming locust infestation, which he claims will be coincident with famine and widespread misery. The lament transforms into a hallucinogenic description of locusts as God’s army (“the increasing locust, the nibbling locust, the finishing locust, and the shearing locust”), of a fire that consumes the world, and of a day of thick darkness “like the dawn spread over the mountains.” The more famous book of Daniel follows approximately in this mold, albeit with new messianic trappings. Read More »