Staff Picks: Rage, Reggae, Reading Rooms


This Week’s Reading


A still from Wild Tales.

Before he coined the term Dark Ages, before he became the father of humanism, and before he wrote the world’s first travel guide—to a place he’d never actually visited, at that—Petrarch climbed a mountain. In “Epistolae familiares,” a letter to Dionisio da Borgo San Sepolcro, Petrarch described the journey he took with his brother on April 26, 1336, now commonly known as “The Ascent of Mont Ventoux.” The letter is often quoted in mountaineering literature that altogether misses the point; Petrarch’s ascent is a vehicle for the ascent of the mind, and it’s compelling to watch him weigh out his thoughts as he climbs. “I am still preoccupied with a lot that is troublesome,” he writes. “What I used to love, I no longer love. But on second thought, that isn’t true. I think I still love those things, I just love them a little less. No, I lie again! Of course I still love those things, and love them just as much. It’s just now I love with guilt.” Scholars regard the letter as a kind of beginning to the Renaissance, when man turned his thoughts inward; they also question whether Petrarch truly ascended Mont Ventoux, but that doesn’t matter. As John D’Agata wrote of the letter in his anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, “It’s a great mimetic demonstration of a mind ascending something as the body does the same. But what if it is only Petrarch’s mind that is doing the ascending? The real title of Petrarch’s essay contains an extra word that seldom finds its way into English translations: allegorico. How much less significant is a journey of just the mind?” —Jeffery Gleaves

k10439I’ve only just started Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, but already it’s taught me a lot about unreason, in all its guises. I hadn’t known, for instance, that the Hebrew for “to behave like a prophet” can also mean “to rave”; or that Ancient Greek physicians construed hysteria as a uniquely feminine affliction because they believed the womb could wander about the abdomen; or that the earliest English madhouses were, almost too perfectly, renovated from “decaying mansions in once-fashionable areas,” because their proprietors thought building from scratch would cut into profits too much. The in in Scull’s title is a nice reproach to Foucault; we like to think of insanity as existing apart from, or before, the constructs of society—and certainly we try to put it there—but Scull’s history unpacks centuries of our cultural baggage about madness, arguing that it’s “indelibly part of civilization, not located outside it.” There’s even a lesson spelled out on his ingenious, and literally dizzying, cover: that nervous illnesses have been widely seen, since the eighteenth century, “as part of the price one paid for civilization, indeed as afflictions to which the most refined and civilized were particularly prone.” —Dan Piepenbring

Ever wondered what it sounds like inside Oxford’s Bodleian Library? Of course you haven’t; it’s a library. But that hasn’t stopped the university from releasing a set of two recordings—one from the Old Library Upper Reading Room and one from the Upper Camera—to satisfy everyone’s (lack of) curiosity. Incredulity aside, the recordings provide a pleasant option for drowning out any unwanted ambiance with, well, the sounds of rarefied near-silence. —Stephen Hiltner

“Let me play you ‘Arleen’.” That’s how simply Luc Sante’s piece, the one Dan brought our attention to this morning, begins—as a gentle invitation to listen to a salacious reggae song by General Echo. From there, with sensual prose, Sante gives us a glimpse of the 1970s music scene; of the incredible violence in Kingston; of Isaiah’s, the Jamaican dance club downtown that for a time lured New York City white boys with Red Stripe, weed, and the promise of “riddim that stretched forever.” Beyond that, though, and only briefly, he tells of a romance with a woman he calls E., whom he remembers taking dancing at Isaiah’s —this was their “chief mode of communication, an intimacy like two people sleeping together in different dreams.” That intimacy permeates the piece from its opening sentence, somehow; there’s a fondness for E. that’s still crushing and heavy. —Caitlin Youngquist

Vulnicura_artwork_jpegLars von Trier has claimed that Björk once tried to eat her own dress on the set of Dancer in the Dark—an assertion that always struck me, like everything else about her, as the epitome of a kind of weird and cool. I’m such a fan that I was almost nervous going to see her in the flesh, as part of the tour for Vulnicura, her new album. She came out of the shadows dressed like a dandelion, and there was not one lull in her two-act set. “Black Lake,” the ten-minute centerpiece of Vulnicura, was especially sublime. Other highlights included an exuberant rendition of “The Pleasure is All Mine,” and her signature surfeit of head-banging. Björk at times moves her body with such reckless abandon that she looks like a puppet; she engages without pandering. In fact, the only words she spoke to the audience were a shy “thank oooohh” after each round of applause. The performance lived up to her claim in “Black Lake”: “I am a glowing shiny rocket / Returning home.” —Kit Connolly

In 2012, shortly before the Spanish duo (and occasional trio) Le Parody released their debut album, Cásala, I visited the vast olive orchard where their vocalist and songwriter, Soledad Parody, composed several of the album’s trance-like mixes. Parody—who at seventeen published a book of poems—draws inspiration from the landscape of southern Spain and its African roots, but her love affair with the American west and her travels across eastern Europe are also apparent in her music; these songs should sound chaotic for all their fusion, but instead they’re meditative. Le Parody fuses folk with flamenco-inflected vocals, and the group relies as heavily on an MPC as on Cuban-born Frank Santiuste’s euphoric trumpeting. The band’s new single, “Saetas en el aire,” was released this week. —Catherine Carberry

I was late in seeing Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales, but it doesn’t disappoint. The film comprises six shorts, each exposing the hilarity of rage, that most irrational, most idiopathic of passions. Szifrón braids the stories into an affecting anthology. In one story, a bride—after fucking a man on the catering staff, on the rooftop of the very building where her wedding reception is being held—tosses her new husband’s mistress into a mirrored wall; in another, a man takes a shit on the windshield of a car and hangs someone with a seatbelt. As Manohla Dargis puts it in her New York Times review, Szifrón’s “[is] a mad, mad social Darwinian world, churning with men and women who, whether pushed a lot or just a little, are all eager to do the worst to one another.” But Szifrón gives us “cathartic release”; his characters are “without the slightest social or cultural shackles on their behavior.” Which raises the question: If we could really let ’em have it, wouldn’t we? —C.Y.