From Aristotle’s Masterpiece.
- First published in London in 1684, Aristotle’s Masterpiece is “one of the best-selling books ever produced in English on sex and making babies.” Aristotle, at the time, had assumed a role in the popular culture as an ancient sex expert; “his” sex guide reads in parts like the Kama Sutra in cheeky British doggerel, and it’s complete with a woodcut of a woman in dishabille, so teenagers probably masturbated to it. “But the book also provided a solid framework of contemporary knowledge about the basics of pregnancy, childbirth, and infant health, detailing topics such as the signs of pregnancy, how to tell false labor from true, the various positions the baby might present in, et cetera. Not surprisingly, since it was plagiarized from another midwifery book, this information was largely unexceptional.” It makes a cameo in Ulysses.
- “I attend a diplomatic soiree and as I am leaving my pants fall down (Is it desire?) … Cannibals. You were on an island and some black cannibals jumped out and they put you on the grill and poured oil on you. You, so peaceful. They ate you and they reported saying that the meat was hard and had to fatten more.” Santiago Ramón y Cajal discovered the neuron and hypothesized the function of synapses—which was a boon for science and all—but more important, he kept a dream journal, and it is piquant.
- Art has come to valorize depression, clearly, and to see genius in melancholy—but in the culture at large, thanks to pharmacology, depressives are still stigmatized. “Stigmatization and sanctification come with real ethical dangers. On the one hand, there is the danger that hidden in the wish for the elimination of depressive symptoms is a wish for the elimination of other essential attributes of the depressed person … On the other hand there is the danger of taking pleasure in the pain of the melancholic, and of adding the expectation of insight to the already oppressive expectations the melancholic likely has for herself … The language used in both discourses bears a striking resemblance to the language the depressed person uses in her own head.”
- Considered as a text, the Nashville music industry’s collected lyrics have one clear idée fixe: adultery. Even in the twenties, tunes like “The Jealous Sweetheart” and “The Mountaineer’s Courtship” wept over the wayward heart; by the time “Jolene” came around, the style had become an archetype, if not a formula. “Cheating songs have a lot of moving parts. All of them have at least three characters, each of which can be the narrator or the person being addressed … Country music has a somewhat limited palate, and adultery is one its primary colors. ‘To say something fresh and literal is the hardest thing’ … But if you have a mess of variables to slot into your tried-and-true story structure, it gets a little easier.”
- The refined songcraft of one James “Jimmy” Buffett, meanwhile, focuses its talents almost exclusively on epicurean pleasures. “Food and drink are central to the ethos of Jimmy Buffett, and even the most casual fan can rattle off a handful of songs that orbit around seaside eats. There are lesser known gems like 1994’s ‘Fruitcakes’ (Half-baked cookies in the oven / Half-baked people on the bus / There’s a little bit of fruitcake left in everyone of us) and 1970s classic ‘Grapefruit-Juicy Fruit’ (Grapefruit, a bathin’ suit, chew a little Juicy Fruit / Wash away the night).”