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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Unseen, Even of Herself

November 17, 2015 | by

Before she was guillotined, the inscrutable Madame Roland wrote a remarkable memoir.

A portait of Madame Roland from Coiffure 1er Republique, a compendium of historical French hairstyles

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Abdellatif Laâbi’s poems, here.

It could be said that the men with the greatest influence on Marie-Jean Phlipon’s life and legacy were two she never met. She rarely let herself depend too heavily on the male figures she knew: her husband, whom she respected and discretely controlled; the lawyer François Buzot, whom she came to love; and the many men of power whose authority she defied. It was Rousseau who provided “exactly the nourishment I needed,” she wrote, having read his La Nouvelle Héloïse in the wake of her mother’s death. “He showed me the possibility of domestic happiness and the delights that were available to me if I sought them.”

Phlipon—a well-read engraver’s daughter who went on to become a martyr of the French Revolution—defined “domestic happiness” differently than most. Two years after Rousseau’s death, she married Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, whose political rise and fall she explores in the thrilling Memoirs she wrote from Paris’s Saint-Pélagie prison in the months leading up to her execution. Thomas Carlyle, the second man who shaped her reputation, was born two years after her death. When he gave his account of her in his 1837 history of the Revolution, it was left to others to decide whether he “interpreted feelings” that she had had herself: Read More »

Sick Souls

October 2, 2015 | by

On the long line of conversion literature from imprisoned writers.

Eldridge Cleaver in the pants he developed.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the first entry, on Dostoyevsky’s Notes from a Dead House, here.

In one of his later theological tracts, the sixteenth-century Nonconformist preacher John Bunyan interpreted a few lines from 2 Timothy—“I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand”—as a kind of challenge. “Here we see,” he wrote, “that a Christian’s heart should be unclenched from this world; for he that is ready to be made a sacrifice for Christ and his blessed Word, he must be one that is not entangled with the affairs of this life: how else can he please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier?”

Modern Biblical scholars suspect that Paul didn’t write most of 2 Timothy at all (it was likely composed by the apostle’s acolytes some time after his execution), but Bunyan could just as easily have extracted the same lesson from any number of lines in the letter Paul wrote to the young church in Philippi during one of his several imprisonments by the Roman government. “My desire,” Paul confesses frankly early in the epistle, “is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Some verses later, he heaps scorn on the respected Pharisee he’d been earlier in life. On the road to Damascus decades earlier, he’d survived a violent conversion experience: Read More »

Disagreeable Tales

July 14, 2015 | by

In his fiction, Léon Bloy strove “to disclose the universal villainy of respectable people.”

Bloy observed the vows of both poverty and suffering; he earned the nickname the Ungrateful Beggar.

In his first homily as Pope Francis, in March 2013, the Pontiff included an obscured voice of the French fin de siècle. Restating one of the most entrenched principles of Catholic dogma, Francis declared, “When one does not profess Jesus Christ, I recall the phrase of Léon Bloy—‘Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.’ ” Though it may have struck religious scholars as unusual, the reference to Bloy indicated the Church’s cautionary role against the millennial idolatry of technology and humanism. Bloy, who wrote a series of pamphlets, novellas, and essays during the increasingly scientific climate of the Second Empire and the Belle Epoque, included himself among the cabal of symbolists and decadents who had taken Satan as the object of their literary obsessions—specifically, the resurgence of the devil in the popular French imagination. Read More »

Quote Unquote

June 30, 2015 | by

A sentence goes viral—why?


Quinn Dombrowski, The Library, 2010. Image via Flickr

I recently discovered that a sentence of mine, written many years ago in a book that had enjoyed some critical praise but disappointing sales, had gone viral.

I suppose I google myself about as often as any writer does, and I hope not more often, but on the occasion of my discovery I was doing so at someone else’s behest: in preparation for a new book, my publishing house had asked me to compile a portfolio of reviews of my previous books. As I scrolled through the search results, hunting for newspaper and magazine URLs, I became aware that I was seeing the same words and sentence fragments over and over again in the highlights at the top of each hit. “Eating…” “…communion…” “ …hospitality in general…” The combination sounded vaguely familiar. I finally tracked down the full quote at Goodreads.

The book, The Duchess Who Wouldn’t Sit Down, from 2003, is an anecdotal history of hospitality in Western civilization, in reverse chronological order from Nazi Germany to Homeric Greece. The sentence, hidden deep within the body of the book and in no way positioned to draw attention to itself, reads as follows:

Eating, and hospitality in general, is a communion, and any meal worth attending by yourself is improved by the multiples of those with whom it is shared.

Read More »

Staff Picks: Grim Reaper Hex, Ouija Board Sex

May 1, 2015 | by


Iris Apfel, in Iris.

The_Hidden_World_Jim_Shaw_0002_Layer_2_1024x1024The artist Jim Shaw began collecting printed media when he was still a teenager, and his extensive archive, which serves as a primary source of inspiration for his paintings, was recently published as The Hidden World. The small book is made to resemble a bible: the edges of the pages are stained red, and the black cover bears only the gold-embossed title. The roughly five hundred images are presented without captions or commentary and were originally produced for pedagogical religious purposes: Freemason, fundamentalist Christian, Mormon, Rosicrucianism, Jehovah’s Witness, Opus Dei, Branch Davidian, and much more. “The Hidden World” was shown as an exhibition a few years ago, but in book form, the same images don’t have the feel of artworks. If it’s a book, you can read it—whether the pages are filled with words or pictures. The unbridged sequences between various brands of faith create a strange narrative: from, say, Left Behind pop culture to beatific Christendom, homemade cultism to UFO-related arcana. A Bill Mauldin cartoon featuring the grim reaper at work sits across the page from a book cover that reads “Good News to Make You Happy.” It’s a creepy book, especially if you aren’t a member of any of these clubs, but it also testifies to how deeply people want to believe. —Nicole Rudick

I was lucky enough to attend the New York premiere of Albert Maysles’s last documentary, Iris. As one might expect, the film offers no shortage of celebration for the buoyant and idiosyncratic style of Iris Apfel; well into her nineties, she’s still very much a commanding force in the world of fashion. But what interested me more than Iris’s style were the glimpses into the relationship between the “Rare Bird of Fashion” and Maysles himself, whose presence, more often than not, manifests only as a voice from behind his camera. To me, the film was an endearing look at two aging artists brought together by the longevity of their art—and, more largely, a tribute to their indefatigable grace. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

hammerbookcoverFrom a distance, I’d always cast a cool eye on James Merrill’s epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover—his famous experiments with Ouija boards struck me as superstitious gimmickry, a rich boy’s attempt to swath himself in the aura of Yeatsian occultism. Well, file that under “moronic snap judgment.” Langdon Hammer’s new biography, James Merrill: Life and Art, has shown me the light. Merrill, who led a truly singular life, came to the Ouija board not for some self-serious dalliance with the afterworld but to buttress his playful, skeptical, fecund approach to poetics; as Hammer writes, he “renewed poetry’s ancient task of soliciting speech from the gods. He activated a source of inspiration existing in language itself.” And I hadn’t known that the poet and his partner, David Jackson, used the board in 1955 to commune with Wallace Stevens, who had just died and who expanded their sexual vocabulary from a higher plane: “‘Do you not know the lovely prologue kissing of nostrils, tongue in nostril and on rims?’ He described scenes of sex at court with Ethiopian slaves, dogs, oils, multiple positions and partners, and a tiger licking sweets from the genitals of the orgiasts.” —Dan Piepenbring

Stefan Zweig is one of those writers who mastered the art of memory—reading his short stories on prewar Vienna feels like walking into a sepia photograph. “Mendel the Bibliophile” definitely has that effect. The misfit book peddler Jakob Mendel, endowed with an encyclopedic memory, is typical of the vanished Vienna Zweig is always mourning in his work: a breeding ground for intellectuals where old books are cherished like secular relics, a comfortable, stimulating cocoon, doomed to splinter during the war. The tenderness of its nostalgia makes “Mendel” a gem. —Charlotte Groult

Farewell to Meat

April 15, 2015 | by

At Masopust, the Czech festival for spring.


Photo: Carleen Coulter

In February, I took the night bus to Prague for Masopust, the old spring festival—abandoned under Communism—that has made a steady resurgence in the Czech Republic in recent years. The bus pulled into a neighborhood adjacent to the Vltava, north of Old Town, late on a Thursday evening. According to centuries-old tradition, Czech farmers would have slaughtered pigs earlier in the day to make blood sausages, headcheese, and other treyf dishes for the coming feasts. At the bus station, though, there was only a Burger King, a McDonald’s, and, beyond them, the famous Prague spires. Pill-shaped tramcars rumbled along the quiet streets, their interiors as bright as roadside diners.

Saturday morning, I boarded a local bus bound for Únětice, a village about five miles outside the city. With its muddy streets and modest Brueghelian cottages clustered alongside a wide, frozen lake, Únětice presents a fairy tale, or at least preindustrial, vision of Central Bohemia. It was bright and cold, the streets still empty save a few Lycra-clad joggers puffing out steam—Brueghel’s rotund peasants, slimmed down for the new millennium. Cracked and faded village walls suggested an attentively maintained desuetude, and the local tavern was selling strong black beer brewed locally for the occasion. Inside the tavern, I found the tables full of locals eating little open-faced sandwiches called chlebíčky and waiting for the festival to start. Read More »