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Posts Tagged ‘wealth’

The Law of Jante

February 11, 2015 | by

How an irritable Danish author left an enduring mark on the national character.

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Aksel Sandemose in 1963. Photo: Leif Ørnelund

Your modern-day Dane is not what you would call a God-fearing creature. The Danish church, though never formally separated from the state (as happened in Sweden), plays an ever-diminishing role in the lives of the vast majority of Danes, with Sunday attendance experiencing an apparently inexorable decline, divorce increasing, and church leaders gently shunted into the margins of the popular discourse. You would imagine, then, that the teachings of Martin Luther would hold little currency in Danish society today, yet many of the core principles of Lutheranism—parsimony, modesty, disapproval of individualism or elitism—still define the manner in which the Danes behave toward one another and view the rest of the world, thanks in part to the enduring influence of an improbable literary figure.

Aksel Nielsen was a sensitive and sickly child who grew into a weak and stunted young adult. The son of a smith, he was born in 1899 in the somnolent North Jutland town of Nykøbing on the island of Mors. He received a rudimentary education at the local school until 1916, when, at the age of seventeen, he went to sea on a schooner bound for Newfoundland.

This was the first of many flights from reality upon which the bookish Aksel would embark during his life: the next came just a few weeks later on the other side of the Atlantic, where he jumped ship. But, with the world now at war, Nielsen’s habit of scribbling secretively in his notebooks late at night in his bunk bed, combined with his strange accent, aroused suspicion in Canada. His workmates began to think he might be a German spy. Once again he fled, this time back to Denmark, via Spain, working to pay his passage on a ship. Read More »

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He Was Always Right, and Other News

January 20, 2015 | by

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James Rosenquist, Floating to the Top, 1964. Courtesy VAGA New York and Paul Kasmin Gallery.

  • Merriam-Webster has undertaken a daunting project: they’re publishing a new edition of their unabridged dictionary, which hasn’t seen a major overhaul since 1961. Their employees are already hard at work: “Emily Brewster has produced anywhere from five to twenty-five definitions a week. Twerking is ready, she tells me in December. Nutjob (which dates to 1959) and minorly are good to go. Jeggings is, too. The new sense of trolling looks promising, she says, ‘but first I have to finish hot mess.’ Brewster is very excited about hot mess. Thanks to Google Books, she found it in a machinists union trade journal from 1899: ‘If the newspaper says the sky is painted with green chalk that is what goes. Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.’ ”
  • In 1969, the curator Henry Geldzahler convinced the Met to host “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970,” a show so vast and intensely contemporary that it remains a watershed—so why not just do the whole thing again? “Henry had a fantastic eye. He wasn’t wrong about anything. He was always right.”
  • A mother from an affluent Texas town would strongly prefer her children to read Ayn Rand in school, not The Working Poor, David K. Shipler’s book about poverty. In other news, Oxfam announced yesterday that 1 percent of the global population holds half the world’s wealth.
  • George Steinmetz traveled by helicopter to take these aerial photographs of New York in winter. He and his pilot “frequently flew so low that they passed in between buildings, with Steinmetz and his camera hanging out of the open door.”
  • Remembering Alice K. Turner, who was Playboy’s fiction editor for two decades. “Fiction is kind of a nuisance,” she once said. “The ad sales guys don’t see the point. They would cut it out if they could, except for the fact that it adds a certain respectability … Playboy stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. They have a kind of general appeal. They are not experimental. They are not terribly modern or forward-reaching but they have real quality, or so I hope.”

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In Defense of Fanny Price

July 10, 2014 | by

Mansfield Park at two hundred.

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A publicity still of Billie Piper as Fanny Price in a 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park.

Poor Fanny Price. The unabashedly mousy, pathologically virtuous protagonist of Mansfield Park—which turns two hundred this year—is Jane Austen’s least popular heroine. She spends most of the novel creeping around the periphery of the titular park, taciturn and swallowing tears; she tires after the briefest of physical exertions; she looks down on her wealthier cousins for engaging in flirtatious amateur theatrics; and for most of the book’s five hundred pages, she refuses to voice her long-held love for her cousin Edmund.

Austen’s own mother reportedly found Fanny “insipid”; the critic Reginald Farrer described her as “repulsive in her cast-iron self-righteousness and steely rigidity of prejudice.” Even C. S. Lewis—in the voice of his demon Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters—let loose a vitriolic rant about Austen’s most priggish heroine, calling her “not only a Christian, but such a Christian—a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouselike, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss … A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood, and then dies with a smile … Filthy, insipid little prude!” Even if we are to separate Lewis from Screwtape, it’s difficult to see Fanny as anything but, to quote Nietzsche’s famous description, “a moralistic little female à la [George] Eliot.”

And indeed, those who defend Fanny tend to see her as a Christian heroine in the mold of a Dorothea Brooke. As the Austen biographer Claire Tomalin puts it, “it is in rejecting obedience in favor of the higher dictate of remaining true to her own conscience that Fanny rises to her moment of heroism.” But to read Mansfield Park as a kind of Middlemarch is to miss the far more complicated story Austen has told. Fanny Price’s story is less about her individual virtue, or her richer relatives’ lack thereof, but about class, about privilege in its most insidious form—before the term ever cropped up in contemporary social justice discourse. Fanny isn’t moral or upright because she wants to be, but because the role—along with a whole host of so-called middle-class values—is forced upon her. For all we know, she may well wish to be as carefree, as filled with dynamic sprezzatura, as Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s more fortunate heroines, but the social dynamic, and the circumstances of her birth, deny her the security necessary for such frivolity. Fanny has too much at stake to be easygoing. Read More »

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Chasing Away the Big Black Bird

May 21, 2014 | by

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Image: Richard Crossley

My buddy at work—I call him my buddy, but really he’s just the guy I hate the least—turned to me and asked which would be better: having one testicle or having three. I rolled my eyes and gave him the same answer I gave him every time he asks: three. I’d rather be creepy than a little sad.

Then one night in the shower I discovered that my left testicle was the size and density of a small Cadbury Creme Egg. The doctor told me my testicle needed to come out immediately; it was malignant as hell. He probably did not actually say the words “malignant as hell,” but I went into shock almost immediately, and can only reconstruct events based on what happened next.

Twenty-four hours later, I was entering emergency surgery. The nurse asked if I’d like a prosthetic. “Would I!” I said. “Can I get two?” I was thinking of how awesome would it be to really double down and commit to this joke, surprising my work friend in the men’s room.

I also have a difficult relationship with my Virginian heritage—it would be perfect if I could have an actual Civil War–era musket ball put in there instead, to literally carry a heavy, awkward, and slowly poisonous reminder of our nation’s tragic past that I only talk openly about with my black friends when I am drunk.

But none of that happened. As it turned out, I wasn’t going to be creepy. I was going to be sad. Read More »

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The Circus Is Brighter in Poland, and Other News

April 1, 2014 | by

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“Cyrk” poster, designed by Lech Majewski, Poland, 1973.

  • D. H. Lawrence’s hometown has opened a new pub called the Lady Chatterley.
  • An enterprising fourteen-year-old has an urgent message for the government: change your official typeface to Garamond and you’ll save millions.
  • Shakespeare plays illustrated in three easy panels. (“Three witches tell Macbeth he will be king. Macbeth kills lots of people in order to be king. Macbeth is killed.”)
  • Taking stock of Monocle, which is now seven years old: “a magazine that is in general focused on a particular brand of well-heeled global urbanism … Monocle doesn’t have bureaus, it has bureaux what Monocle and its advertisers clearly understand, even if the point is seldom made explicit, is that living in a first-tier city is a luxury good, like a Prada bag or a pair of Hermès boots.”
  • Don’t merely go to the circus. Go to the circus in Communist-era Poland. “The visual style of the Polish School of Posters, funded and sponsored by state commissions, was characterized by vibrant colors, playful humor, hand-lettering, and a bold surrealism that rivaled anything similar artists in the West were doing at the time.”

 

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Family Fortunes

October 16, 2012 | by

One recent weekday afternoon, I left my apartment in Los Angeles, walked three blocks, and bought a movie ticket. I was at liberty to see a movie in the middle of the day because I had just left my job, having decided to spend some time not “working,” but writing—and I needed to see a movie because the writing was not working. There was no writer’s block, per se: words trickled out, they were just terrible in that first-draft-fiction way. Compounding this writerly self-doubt was the uncomfortable feeling that I’d invoked a huge privilege—namely, a class privilege (my household could get by for a time, our dogs’ pampered existence intact, without my salary)—to produce a Word document full of tired characters and clichés. Worse still was the suspicion that I was, myself, a tired character and a cliché: too neurotic and guilt stricken to enjoy this temporary luxury and try to do something good with it.

And so, off to the movies. I’d just read about the documentary The Queen of Versailles, said to be the “riches-to-rags” story of a billionaire time-share mogul and his wife forced to cease construction on their new ninety-thousand-square-foot home (the largest in America, once finished) when the economy collapsed. So I chose that one: it was well reviewed, prize winning, and very much of the broader world, a good counterweight to the swimmy interiority of novel drafting. I was also drawn to it because it sounded like the kind of movie I would see with my dad back when I lived in New York; he and I would meet up at the Film Forum after work, usually for some edifying progressive documentary—The Trials of Henry Kissinger or Bush Family Fortunes, say—the significance of which we would then gnaw on over pad Thai afterwards. I liked films like this, and talking to my dad about them, because they helped me make sense of the world, and because they drew clean, reassuring lines in my brain between justice and injustice. Which is to say, walking into The Queen of Versailles, I expected to see a movie about some greedy one-percenters getting their comeuppance and feel good about that.

In a sense, I did. David Siegel, the time-share king, made his billions by seducing people into buying time-shares they can’t afford, largely by convincing them that the purchase will help them feel less like a working stiff and more like a rich person. This isn’t an interpretation but a matter of record—we see his sales force in action, as director Lauren Greenfield captures them talking strategy, luring people to sign on the dotted line, and, later, trying to extract payments from distressed customers after the housing bubble bursts. At that point, when banks refuse to lend to David and he becomes a “victim” of the system from which he has profited so outrageously, we savor the irony all the more because, well, David is a schmuck. He brags to Greenfield about having helped deliver the 2000 election to George W. Bush through “extra-legal” means (the Siegels live in Florida), but won’t elaborate. He channels his philanthropic impulses toward beauty pageants (Jackie Siegel, his wife, is a former beauty queen); a big patron of the Miss America organization, Siegel exudes lecherous entitlement when chatting up the young contestants at a party at his and Jackie’s home. When the Siegels fall on what passes for hard times—droppings from their countless white fluffy dogs pile up around the house, their domestic staff having been reduced to one; Jackie starts shopping at Walmart; there is suddenly talk of an “electric bill”—David becomes irritable and withdrawn, generally making life miserable for Jackie and the couple’s eight children. Partly because we know that the Siegels will always land on padded feet—even if their absurd imitation-Versailles mansion does slip from their grasp, a question that remains unresolved by the end of the film—it’s easy to root against David.

Jackie is a more complicated case. Read More »

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