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Posts Tagged ‘W. H. Auden’

Memento Mori

March 10, 2016 | by

This painting and below: E. B. Roberts, Series of Salesman Samples for Memorials, 1929, enamel on board,  20" x 24". From a series of thirty-three paintings. Images courtesy Ricco/Maresca Gallery.

Trawling through eBay recently, I came across a folder of sample funeral cards from the early twentieth century. As near as I can tell, salesmen would roam from funeral home to funeral home peddling these to undertakers, who would in turn press them on bereaved families. They were standard thank-you notes, essentially—“The family of _________ will hold in grateful remembrance your Spiritual Bouquet and kind expression of sympathy”—but unattached to any death in particular, their messages were gauche, even funny. That they were framed in advertising copy didn’t help. Imagine: Someone you love dies, and before you can even pick out the announcement cards, you have to read sentences like “Genuine engraving achieves its inherent beauty from a correlation of width and depth which no other process possesses.” As a character in Terry Southern’s The Loved One says: “Death has become a middle-class business. There’s no future in it.” Read More »

Hoops and the Abstract Truth

March 1, 2016 | by

Curry after his game-winning shot.

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious,” Einstein wrote in The World As I See It. “It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

Thus far, the NBA has been far from that cradle this season. There’s not a lot of mystery when you have two superior teams—when the best players in the game are playing like the best players in the game. The results have, for the most part, certified reasonable assumptions as truths. Read More »

First Folios on the Loose, and Other News

January 6, 2016 | by

Folger Library.

  • To celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Folger Library is sending Shakespeare’s First Folio to all fifty states. Good news for his fans, yes, but maybe for enterprising book thieves, too? “The Folger has eighty-two First Folios—the largest collection in the world. It’s located several stairways down, in a rare manuscript vault. To reach them, you first have to get through a fire door ... (if a fire did threaten these priceless objects, it would be extinguished not with water—never water near priceless paper—but with a system that removes oxygen from the room). A massive safe door comes next—so heavy it takes two burly guards to open it, and then yet another door, which triggers a bell to alert librarians that someone has entered. After that, there's yet another door and an elevator waaaay down to a vault that nearly spans the length of a city block…” No word on how many armed guards and armored trucks will accompany the Folios on their cross-country tour.
  • Carlo Gesualdo died about four hundred years ago, too—but contemporary celebrations of his work tend to be overshadowed by a grisly episode from his biography: namely the allegation that he killed his spouse. “The idea of an aristocrat murdering his wife in flagrante has proved irresistible, and only very secondarily do people ask how such behavior may have been turned to creative ends. And when they do listen to the music, they very quickly find exactly what they expect: tortured, dissonant, disjointed (no pun intended) writing which obviously shows a psychopath at work … From the start the marriage was not a success, and soon there were stories of Carlo maltreating his wife. Within three months he was journeying back to Naples without her, and once back in his castle he descended into a kind of madness, which eventually extended to a court case. The records survive and give a flavor of what was under discussion: ‘Menstrual blood is a kind of poison which, if imbibed and not treated immediately, will eventually lead to a person’s death.’ ”
  • Do you have one of the thousand hand-numbered copies of Theodore Roethke’s debut collection, Open House? It came out in 1941, and the Roethke House, in Saginaw, Michigan, is conducting a census to track down all the copies. One of them may be in the clutches of the Auden estate; he gave the book a glowing review: “Many people have the experience of feeling physically soiled and humiliated by life; some quickly put it out of their minds, others gloat narcissistically on its unimportant details; but both to remember and to transform the humiliation into something beautiful, as Mr. Roethke does, is rare. Every one of the lyrics in this book, whether serious or light, shares the same kind of ordered sensibility: Open House is completely successful.”
  • When do we become adults, really? At what point can one say with certainty that one has sloughed off the last vestiges of youth? Wordsworth said the child is father of the man, which … doesn’t answer the question at all, actually. But others have tried to, even if the answer will never really come: “Steven Mintz writes that adulthood has been devalued in culture in some ways. ‘Adults, we are repeatedly told, lead anxious lives of quiet desperation,’ he writes. ‘The classic post-World War II novels of adulthood by Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Philip Roth, and John Updike, among others, are tales of shattered dreams, unfulfilled ambitions, broken marriages, workplace alienation, and family estrangement.’ He compares those to nineteenth-century bildungsromans, coming-of-age novels, in which people wanted to become adults. Maybe an ambivalence over whether someone feels like an adult is partially an ambivalence over whether they even want to be an adult.”
  • There’s another thing blurring the line between childhood and adulthood: kids and grown-ups both cuss. As a kid, Mark Edmundson swore with impunity, perhaps even with grace, and he wonders why adults are so often shocked by their foul-mouthed offspring: “When a mom overhears her beloved child swear for the first time, her heart contracts until it feels like it will disappear. But imagine how she feels when she overhears a son or daughter who not only curses, but is truly adept at profanity … What if mom hears her little boy, not long out of Pampers, still in shorts, reel off a euphonious string of curses that sounds like the work of a top sergeant in rage at his recruits? … A shrill cry of ‘shit!’ from your five-year-old suggests that even with all the preparation you had and all the thought and all the love you invested, you didn’t manage to get it right this time.”

All the Fun of Poetry Without All Those Poems, and Other News

June 16, 2015 | by

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Kenyon Cox, An Eclogue, 1889.

  • Ben Lerner stares into the mire of futility and falsehood that is poetry: “What if we dislike or despise or hate poems because they are—every single one of them—failures? … The fatal problem with poetry: poems. This helps explain why poets themselves celebrate poets who renounce writing.”
  • While we’re on poets and failure—in the midthirties, W. H. Auden entered into an auspicious if unlikely collaboration with Benjamin Britten. Here’s how that went: “Britten wrote his first opera, and I my first libretto, on the subject of an American folk hero, Paul Bunyan. The result, I’m sorry to say, was a failure, for which I was entirely to blame, since, at the time, I knew nothing whatever about opera or what is required of a librettist. In consequence some very lovely music of Britten’s went down the drain, and I must now belatedly make my apologies to my old friend while wishing him a very happy birthday.”
  • Sixty years on, J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man “remains a hilarious and upsetting portrait of postwar Ireland and the American GIs who showed up there, with the prerogative and the wherewithal to carouse and copulate on a level that the locals did not appreciate.” And what of its author? He remains … obstreperous, a new interview suggests. “When I return to the kitchen, I see that Donleavy has put on a funny pink bucket hat. He tells me he never allowed any changes to his manuscripts, nor is he particularly inviting of second readers or the like.”
  • What’s your very favorite thing? If you answered “art fairs,” congratulations—you can’t throw a rock without hitting one. (Also, you are probably very wealthy.) You could be at an art fair right now, in fact, in beautiful Switzerland, instead of reading this. Art Basel “is one of at least 180 international art fairs held each year, up from only fifty-five in 2000 … The art calendar is so packed with them that there is increasing talk of ‘fair fatigue’—visitor and exhibitor saturation.”
  • Airports are such liminal spaces—and are so widely loathed—that we risk losing them to history. Who is documenting the airports? Who will remember them? Andrea Bruce is one of twenty photographers who took pictures of the airports she passed through in April. “Each time she let security scan her ISO 400 film with x-rays. Though the TSA claims that airport x-rays do not affect film of that speed in the United States, the repeated exposures to radiation left some of Bruce’s photographs with what she describes as ‘a faint, ghostly wave.’ ”

From Sand and Cactus

May 14, 2015 | by

Raymond Chandler the environmentalist.

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The wise man, as Biblical lore has it, built his house on the rock, his foolish compatriot on the sand—guidance that mankind has ignored for millennia. In the late nineteenth century, the pioneers, or developers, or “boosters” who founded and promoted Los Angeles as a new “instant city” were among those to lay substantial foundations in what was essentially sand. Not on a desert, exactly—that myth’s been debunked—but perilously close to one, and on the shore of an undrinkable ocean.

Today, it’s not an excess of water—as in the scriptures and children’s song—that threatens Southern California, but a scarcity of it. The state is considering implementing desalination centers. As has been remarked in Europe, the city defines itself against its medieval origins; American metropolises define themselves against the wilderness. In John Fante’s 1939 LA novel, Ask the Dust, his alter ego, Arturo Bandini, revels in his adopted home’s mastery of nature: “This great city, these mighty pavements and proud buildings, they were the voice of my America. From sand and cactus we Americans had carved an empire.” Read More »

W. H. Auden’s Potent Syllabus, and Other News

January 29, 2015 | by

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Light reading. Image via More Than 95 Theses

  • W. H. Auden was a professor at the University of Michigan for the 1941–42 academic year. His course was called Fate and the Individual in European Literature, and its syllabus mandated more than six thousand pages of reading: The Divine Comedy, The Brothers Karamazov, Moby-Dick, Fear and Trembling 
  • Coming to the Huntington Library: Jane Austen’s family letters, Wicked Ned the Pirate’s watercolors, Louis Pasteur’s beer notes (“scribbled on pages of various sizes, in black and blue ink”).
  • On Pedro Lemebel, a Chilean writer (and artist and activist and provocateur) who died last week: “a writer who called himself a ‘queen’ (una loca) and ‘a poor old faggot’ (un marica pobre y viejo), and whose style and obsessions were forged on the social margins and in political opposition.”
  • Alfred Hitchcock’s unreleased documentary about the Holocaust, suppressed for decades, is being screened in full for the first time later this year. “The film, shown at test screenings, extremely disturbed colleagues, experts and film historians.”
  • Fear death? Sure you do! Don’t just sit there drumming your fingers and waiting for the end, though. Talk about it. Over coffee. At a Swiss death café. “The idea for the café mortel was simple: the gathering was to take place in a restaurant, anyone could come, and [Bernard] Crettaz [a Swiss sociologist] himself would gently marshal the conversation. The only rule was that there was to be no prescription: no topic, no religion, no judgment. He wanted people to talk as openly on the subject as they could.”

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