Tickle the Feline Ivories, and Other News


On the Shelf


Illustration of the cat piano from La Nature, vol. 11, 1883.

  • Earlier this year, Donald Antrim gave a commencement speech at Woodberry Forest School. His subject was “the unprotected life” and coping with its devastations. For years after a long suicidal depression, he said, “I did not write. It was enough to be restored, and I deeply and sincerely regretted ever writing at all. I’d seen what it could do, what my own choices, my own work, had done to me. I was afraid of what I might write, and afraid, too, that, were I to sit down to it, were I to try, I would only learn that I was broken, and that it was no longer possible for me to bring out a word.”
  • Time was, if you didn’t like any of the real musical instruments out there in the world, you’d just make one up in writing. The rich history of “fictophones”—imaginary musical instruments—includes Francis Bacon’s pluperfect sound-houses (“where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation”), the tublo cochleato (an enormous French horn-ish megaphone thing for amplifying the voice), and the torturetron (an organ that sends spikes into the sides of anyone near it, thus adding their pained groans to its own sounds). Best of all, though, is the cat piano, “a set of cats arrayed as sound-producing elements to be activated by the fingers,” which dates to the sixteenth century and was rumored to have cured an Italian prince of his melancholia.
  • Information overload is often depicted as one of the most tragic fates of the media age, anathema to all who prize the human condition. But it could be pretty good for poets, who can drown themselves in the “information sublime”: “Poets have not been passive victims of the proliferation of information, but rather have actively participated in—sometimes benefiting from, sometimes implicitly advocating, sometimes resisting—that proliferation … Poetries of information overload—by which I mean poetries and poems that relate either formally or historically to information saturation—demonstrate an extraordinary range of innovative responses to changing technological conditions.”
  • Today in the shifting sands of interlingual communication: German phrases have begun to yield to their English equivalents in interesting, not to say insidious, ways. “Germans are noticing that English is changing their fixed phrases, and even grammar. In English, something ‘makes sense.’ For Germans, though, ‘es hat Sinn’ (it has sense) or ‘es ist sinvoll’ (it’s sensible). The German is actually more logical. How, as in English, is something sensible actually making sense? The question is unanswerable; language is weird, and idioms especially. But nonetheless, many Germans are starting to say es macht Sinn, a loan-translation straight from English. Germans are proud of being thoughtful and logical; the idea that making sense is something they would have to borrow from the English might give a traditionalist the shivers.”
  • New York has a long, sad history of demolishing architectural wonders: the original Penn Station, the Roxy Theatre, St. John’s Church, the City Hall Post Office. The establishment, in 1965, of the Landmarks Preservation Commission did something to stop the destruction, but it was late in coming—a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, “Saving Place: 50 Years of New York City Landmarks,” reminds of all that’s been lost.