Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Max Porter revisits Francis Bacon’s painting Triptych May–June 1973.
What happens to Ben Lerner, or Ben Lerner’s character in Leaving the Atocha Station, when he has a profound experience of art cannot happen to a person too many times, or it stops being profound. I do not fall in love all the time, and I distrust the cultural vocabulary that insists I should. I’ve looked at a lot of art, and thought deeply about what I’m looking at, how I’m looking at it, and I think only two or three times has it been profound. This might be a failing on my part, and I could strive, like the ecstatic saints, to prolong the jouissance, the sweet heightened encounter. But for now, here is one of those times: Read More
- In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast has landed the number-one spot on the French best-seller list—spurred in part by an interview with a woman known only as Danielle, who said the memoir helps the French “hold high the banner of our values,” even if it was written by an American.
- Speaking of Paris—look out, world. Houellebecq is on the Times Op-Ed page, up to his usual tricks: “Despite the common perception, the French are rather docile, rather easy to govern. But they are not complete idiots. Instead, their main flaw is a kind of forgetful frivolity that necessitates jogging their memory from time to time. There are people, political people, who are responsible for the unfortunate situation we find ourselves in today, and sooner or later their responsibility will have to be examined. It’s unlikely that the insignificant opportunist who passes for our head of state, or the congenital moron who plays the part of our prime minister, or even the ‘stars of the opposition’ (LOL) will emerge from the test looking any brighter.”
- If you’d rather not read on, head elsewhere in the Times, where high-tech Japanese toilets are on parade. (And remember, gift givers, the holiday season is approaching.) “For those who own Japanese toilets, there is a cultish devotion. They boast heated seats, a bidet function for a rear cleanse and an air-purifying system that deodorizes during use. The need for toilet paper is virtually eliminated (there is an air dryer) and ‘you left the lid up’ squabbles need never take place (the seat lifts and closes automatically in many models) … Toto, arguably the industry leader (though other companies sell them), has tried over the years to get Americans to embrace the concept. Their latest bid to toilet-train the public is the Connect+ system of the Carlyle II 1G with s350e washlet. The model offers the standard comforts, along with something Toto calls SanaGloss, a glaze that seals the porcelain and repels waste.”
- But you don’t look for this space for hygiene advice. You’re here for literature. May we recommend a dime-store paperback, then? Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, first published in 1953, depicted a lesbian couple without putting them through the wringer: it was “a landmark book for queer America, offering readers a powerful and hopeful ending, one that didn’t see the two women at the center of the story end their affair, commit suicide, or attempt murder … As an act of secretive reading, the lesbian pulp novel formed an invisible lesbian community.”
- On the plays of Caryl Churchill, who’s still honing her craft at age seventy-seven: “Churchill’s interest in mutable, shifting identities has remained a major theme—and from the perspective of contemporary debates about gender and the essence of identity, seems almost prophetic … Whatever one thinks of her politics, Churchill has been able to respond rapid-fire to current events in part because she has stayed away from the convoluted development processes of film and television: she remains committed to live forms. And it is hard to see how anything but theatre could give her the flexibility to write as she pleases. The early texts are rich, dense, often sprawling as they hop-skip across time; these days, the plays are pearlescent in their minimalism. Sometimes they’re as short as eight minutes: one sentence can be an entire scene.”
- Joy Williams has a new collection out, and a reporter has found her in rare form: “Williams does not have an email address. She uses a flip phone and often writes in motels and friends’ houses on old Smith-Coronas; she brings one with her and keeps others everywhere she stays … Williams now splits her time among Tucson, her daughter’s home in Maine and Laramie, migrating across the country with her dogs in her Toyota, which has 160,000 miles on it but is pretty new by her standards. (Her last car, her old Bronco, neared 360,000.) She eats a lot of Weetabix.”
- You should be proud of your name: it’s yours. It denotes y–o–u, and no one can take that away from you. Unfortunately, things get a bit complicated if your parents happen to have given you a necronym, that is, a death name: “It usually means a name shared with a dead sibling. Until the late nineteenth century, necronyms were not uncommon among Americans and Europeans. If a child died in infancy, his or her name was often given to the next child, a natural consequence of high birth rates and high infant mortality rates … In their 1989 Dictionary of Superstitions, folklorists Iona Opie and Moira Tatum offer one reason for the necronym’s decline: many parents feared it was a murderous curse.”
- “Unless ice burns and burning fire cools / No bard could look on you and not speak out / It can not be that I monopolize / The making of the songs that give you praise / Or that such pools as are your dearest eyes / Have just one bather.” These lines, and about eight others like them, are worth seventy-five hundred pounds. That’s not because they’re excellent, necessarily. It’s because Ezra Pound wrote them. They’re from an unpublished sonnet he wrote to the British painter Isabel Codrington in April 1909; it sold at auction earlier this week. “He obviously admired her,” said a perceptive employee at the auction house.
- Let’s go on an adventure with the passive voice, shall we? Watch as, step-by-grammatically-irksome-step, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” becomes “Speed was involved in a jumping-related incident while a fox was brown.” “We have finally fully arrived at the ultimate in passive voice: the past exonerative tense, so named because culpability is impossible when actions no longer exist. For the most extensive erasure of direct communicative value, the original object can now even be removed entirely.”
- Duchamp is old hat. The future of toilet art is, like the future of most things, in Japan, where an exhibition called Toilennale “brings together Japanese artists who have transformed sixteen public restrooms into sites for art installations … one park lavatory literally becomes a sweet site, transformed inside and out by a trio of artists into an enormous piece of pink candy titled ‘Melting Dreams.’ ”
Late this morning, the pipes of my toilet began to make a noise that I can only describe as haunting. How to explain it? Loud, very loud. Sad, very sad. A sort of melancholy lowing, a primal moan expressing things seen and unseen. One could imagine ancient peoples hearing such things and looking to the supernatural for answers. If they had plumbing, I mean.
It went on and on. It was beautiful. I had been distracted, blue, depressed by the unrelenting humidity of an urban Tuesday on the day after a long weekend. And then I heard the mysterious sound and it calmed me. For the first time, I began to understand the New Agey penchant for whale songs.
I thought I had better look up “toilet groaning” on the Internet and see if it was something I could manage myself. I’m no plumber, but I grew up in a house with very uncertain old pipes, and in such cases you learn to do what you can. It’s very satisfying when you learn to do these things yourself, if you do. And I know an air vent malfunction when I hear it.
But somehow on my way to the computer, I found myself going to the bookshelf, and picking up Moby-Dick, and paging through it, and then, twenty minutes later, there I was, sitting on the floor, reading.
Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
It was at this point that things started gurgling, and of course then the toilet overflowed. I turned off the water source, mopped up, and notified the super.
- “Delicious, unkosher, dark, vague, the Cloud / Of Mexico Pork threatens our borders.” In a new forum, John Ashbery, Cathy Park Hong, Charles Bernstein, Robert Pinsky, Rae Armantrout, and others contribute poems about the surveillance state in the twenty-first century. (Those lines are Pinsky’s.)
- Good news for grad students reluctant to enter academia: “Humanities Ph.D.s are all around us—and they are not serving coffee.”
- The Mets blew what now? An unfortunate headline teaches us the everlasting value of commas.
- Anyone who worships at the altar of user experience will wince at these designs by Katerina Kamprani, who has made it her task to suck the utility out of everyday objects.
- One man’s strangely inspiring search for a vocation: “He started the Restroom Association of Singapore to clean up the public toilets. People loved it. He then realized there were fifteen toilet associations around the world, in cities in Britain and Germany and Japan and some other places, too, but no world headquarters. So he started the World Toilet Organization … and that is how Jack Sim became the Toilet Man.”
- A brief history of naked babies in fashion magazines.