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Posts Tagged ‘words’

Six More Public Cases

September 27, 2016 | by

madrid1

In March 2016, our correspondent Anthony Madrid began composing a set of quasi-kōans (on the theme “What is poetry for?”) for the Chicago arts and commentary magazine The Point. What follows is the second of two sets written for the Daily. (The first one ran in July.) Madrid’s unwieldy and indeed unusable title for the first set was “Both speech and silence are involved in transcendent detachment and subtle wisdom. How can we pass through without error?” His unusable title for the present set is “I always remember Jiangnan in May; where the partridges call, the hundred flowers are fragrant.” (Taken together, the two titles constitute Case 24 in the Song Dynasty kōan collection Wumenguan.)

Public Case 6: Ancient Chinese

Our teacher said: “Has anyone ever noticed that many of the most attractive ancient Chinese poets have the same ideas about poetry as modern American high school students? Anyhow, the themes are the same. What am I doing today. How am I feeling. What’s my philosophy. What can I see from where I’m sitting. What just happened. I am kind of a loser. What are my favorite quotes.”

One of the students said: “James Schuyler.”

Comment. It is hard for twenty-first-century USA poets to really understand old Chinese poetry: no surprise there. The surprise is that we find our own childhoods as difficult to “relate to” as the literary world of premodern China. We rub our eyes in disbelief when we have anything in common with either.

Tao Qian, James Schuyler, our own sixteen-year-old selves—of course they write about what they can see from where they’re sitting. What else can be seen? 

The truth is almost everyone has almost everything in common. The main exception is the people who are “too smart for that.” They make a point of not having anything in common with anybody. 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 »

Five Hours of Happy Hour, and Other News

August 25, 2016 | by

Still from Happy Hour.

  • Early in the fourteenth century, an Egyptian bureaucrat embarked on the kind of project that many of us attempt on nights off: an enormous encyclopedia designed to contain all knowledge in the Muslim world. The book, The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, ran to nine thousand pages, and a part of it will see English translation, after so many centuries, this fall. It illustrates “the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam, so different from the crude puritanical myths purveyed by modern-day jihadis,” Robert F. Worth writes. “Reading it is like stumbling into a cavernous attic full of unimaginably strange artifacts, some of them unforgettable, some merely dross. From the alleged self-fellation of monkeys to the many lovely Bedouin words for the night sky (‘the Encrusted, because of its abundance of stars, and the Forehead, because of its smoothness’) to the court rituals of Egypt’s then-overlords, the Mamluks, nothing seems to escape Nuwayri’s taxonomic ambitions.” (We’ll have excerpts on the Daily after Labor Day.) 

Read More »

Revere the Fig, Pity the Fig Wasp, and Other News

August 12, 2016 | by

From a package of California Fig Syrup Company’s “Syrup of Figs” laxative.

  • Friends, the great march of progress continues apace. The word bawbag—“a Scots word meaning scrotum, in Scots vernacular a term of endearment but in English could be taken as an insult”—has been added to the Macmillan Open Dictionary. Now the official record will never forget the rich, protean history of this fine word: ‘Bawbag made the headlines five years ago when hurricane force winds hit Scotland in a storm dubbed Hurricane Bawbag by Twitter users—a name which quickly went viral. It was also one of the many insults leveled at the US Republican party’s presidential candidate when he arrived in Scotland earlier this summer—the Daily Record reporting that anti-Trump protestors held up signs reading ‘Trump is a bawbag.’ The Ukip leader Nigel Farage was met with cries of ‘Nigel, you’re a bawbag, Nigel you’re a bawbag, na, na, na, hey!’ in Edinburgh three years ago.”
  • I eat figs as I eat most things—hell-bent on my own delectation, and totally ignorant of the food’s history or provenance. Ben Crair has taught me the ancient ways of the fig, though, in all their beauty and tragedy: “Because a fig is actually a ball of flowers, it requires pollination, but because the flowers are sealed, not just any bug can crawl inside. That task belongs to a minuscule insect known as the fig wasp, whose life cycle is intertwined with the fig’s. Mother wasps lay their eggs in an unripe fig. After their offspring hatch and mature, the males mate and then chew a tunnel to the surface, dying when their task is complete. The females follow and take flight, riding the winds until they smell another fig tree … When the insects discover the right specimen, they go inside and deposit the pollen from their birthplace. Then the females lay new eggs, and the cycle begins again. For the wasp mother, however, devotion to the fig plant soon turns tragic. A fig’s entranceway is booby-trapped to destroy her wings, so that she can never visit another plant. When you eat a dried fig, you’re probably chewing fig-wasp mummies, too.”
  • In the media, to call a piece of writing “academic” is to condemn it in the worst terms. David Wolf and Jo Livingstone discuss the eroding reputation of professorial prose: “People talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing as if it’s obvious what they are … In a journalistic context, extremely formal and exhaustive academic writing can come across as so pretentious and ridiculous when, in fact, there’s a lovely humbleness to it. The academic is saying, ‘Look! I’ve acknowledged all these people that have thought really hard about this’ … But, I think, one way in which academics writing for journalistic audiences can go wrong is not appreciating that the world which you are writing for is completely different … It’s not the job of the readers of the Guardian, say, to read you. They’re either going to read you because they’re interested, or they think it’s really important, or they’ll do it for pleasure or entertainment, but they’re not doing it out of any sense of duty.”
  • The National Library of France has digitized the 1588 manuscript of Montaigne’s seminal Essays. It is, yes, in French. But if you can jump over that hurdle, you’ll see that Montaigne’s handwritten annotations (allongeails) are intact here. (Previously, the manuscript lived for many centuries in a convent in Bordeaux.)

With Some Help from My Invisible Friends, and Other News

June 17, 2016 | by

Georgiana Houghton, Glory be to God, ca. 1868.

  • In 1871, Georgiana Houghton debuted her “spirit drawings,” a set of abstract watercolors that she made with the encouragement of her “invisible friends.” People were scared: “What she put on display was unlike anything any Western artist had made, or any member of the British public had ever seen. The watercolor drawings, a little larger than A4, were intricately detailed abstract compositions filled with sinuous spirals, frenetic dots, and sweeping lines. Yellows, greens, blues, and reds battled with each other for space on the paper. The densely layered images appeared to have no form, and no beginning or end. There was no traditional perspective to enjoy. There was no mythological subject to interpret; no moral narrative to read, and no hint of portraiture or landscape to scrutinize.”
  • It’s been a while since we thought about how worthless most literary depictions of sex are, so let’s think about that some more: “Literature about sex, no matter who has written it, is almost always terrible, and everybody knows it … In writing my own book full of sex, there was almost no one I could turn to for inspiration. There wasn’t a single book I looked to and thought, ‘What I’m trying to do is write sex like she did or like he did.’ There weren’t even movies and TV shows I felt had handled it the way I wanted to see it done. You know what movies and TV shows are really brilliant at capturing? Bad sex. They’re great at doing awkward, depressing, uncomfortable sex scenes where everyone is sort of strangled in the sheets … The other thing that movies and TV shows are good at nailing down is the kind of phonily intense sex scene in which the involved parties are grabbing fistfuls of hair and grunting and slamming each other around because their passion, their chemistry, is so overpowering it can’t be softened by courtesy, affection, or fear of causing actual physical harm.”
  • To read the medieval poem “Pearl” requires a fairly sophisticated knowledge of the New Testament. But just go ahead and read it anyway. You will still like it, as Josephine Livingstone explains: “There is something about the very strangeness of the poem that magnifies its emotional power. When we look at a Byzantine mosaic, for instance, we may not grasp the precise meaning of its images without scholarly help—but that remoteness lends such artworks the marvelousness of something just beyond our understanding. In his new translation of ‘Pearl,’ Simon Armitage, who is currently the Oxford Professor of Poetry, conveys that feeling of the almost-but-not-quite comprehensible, the feeling that can make medieval art at once eerie and wonderful.”

They Call It “Photography,” and Other News

June 9, 2016 | by

Photo: Adolphe Braun

  • In the seventies, Barbara Williamson founded the Sandstone Foundation for Community Systems Research, “a nudist community that promoted personal freedom through open marriage and group-sex parties.” She became known as “the most liberated woman in America,” but in 1975 the foundation closed for good and Williamson, leery of the Reaganism to come, dropped off the map. Now Alex Mar has paid her a visit and found that she’s raising big cats: “Barbara asks me to choose from the boxes of tea in the open cupboard—‘Lemon ginger? Green? Chamomile?’—as the lynx has rounded the corner from the living room and is now trailing me from one counter to the next. She is making a sound that’s unmistakable, even to someone who has never before spent time with an exotic cat. A deep, low, insistent growl … Barbara shoos the lynx away, but the animal does not listen.”
  • I love book reviews, but sometimes they’re just so long—so subtle! Some parts of the book are good, some parts are bad, some parts kind of depend, blah, blah … It’s like, why don’t you just give the book a fucking letter grade and be done with it, so I can pursue my reading life with the standards of a Consumer Reports subscriber? Fortunately, Book Marks is here, the new “Rotten Tomatoes of Books” that assigns every book a grade. The only problem: every book passes with flying colors. Alex Shephard writes, “Nearly all of the more than 100 books graded by Book Marks seem to be worth reading, which renders it somewhat useless as a recommendation resource … If it is doing exactly what it was designed to do—reflecting the current state of literary criticism—then the real problem is that literary criticism, like America’s universities, is suffering from severe grade inflation.”
  • In London, a new show, “Seizing the Light: Photography in the Age of Invention,” gathers some of the earliest examples of photography from the nineteenth century, when “pioneers began to document the world around them with unprecedented accuracy … [Prince Albert] and Queen Victoria, who had a darkroom in Windsor Castle, were early photography enthusiasts … As well as portraits of Pope Pius IX and Franz Liszt, Adolphe Braun made Alpine and Alsatian landscapes, and specialized in carbon print reproductions.”