Francis Towne, The Baths of Caracalla, 1781. Image via the British Museum/The New York Review of Books.
- New York’s alright if you like saxophones, but it’s no place for existentialists: “When a boat carrying Albert Camus sailed into New York Harbor in March 1946, he was hailed as a moral emissary from war-ravaged Europe and the glamorous embodiment of a newfangled philosophy known as Existentialism … But a year later, Camus recalled his three months amid the city’s ‘swarming lights’ and frantic streets with a mixture of awe and bafflement. ‘I have my ideas about other cities but about New York only these powerful and fleeting emotions,’ he wrote in 1947. ‘I still know nothing about New York, whether one moves among madmen here or among the most reasonable people in the world.’ ”
- If you think there’s no possible way for a painter to take a unique approach to the Roman ruins—because who hasn’t painted them?—look at the work of Francis Towne, whose color washes the city in eerie light: “Towne was forty-one, no stripling, when he arrived in Italy in October 1780. Born a Londoner, he had begun his career as a coach-painter, moving in his twenties to Exeter. There, he became a respected drawing master and painter of West Country landscapes, of scenes of the lakes and of North Wales. His work was admired, yet the London art establishment dismissed him as a provincial drawing teacher—while he, on the other hand, was equally disdainful in return, adopting the habit of his Exeter patrons of praising rural retirement and virtue in contrast to the vanities of city life … Towne’s paintings suggest a wariness about approaching the great city. He began with views from without, pacing the countryside … Towne preferred the back of things, the uncommon view, high walls, old Roman gates, suggesting a life beyond. He ignored modern Rome; he gives no hint of grand Papal processions, of high-life, of the color and glamor that wowed the young men on their Grand Tours.”
- A casual reminder that spending time with Salvador Dalí was statistically all but guaranteed to yield a great story: “Dalí broke his silence. ‘My fisherman-Christ,’ he announced with a toss of the head. Before I had time to register surprise he added in a loud voice, ‘Now it is time to swim.’ Without a glance in my direction he made his way very precisely across the rocks and into the water. I decided that since I was the required audience the only course of action was to strip down to my underpants and follow him into the sea. Dalí began to utter, as though he was in a trance. As he did so he gave me my own surrealist moment, as his head appeared to be floating disembodied on the water, his eyes huge and staring past me towards the open sea, with the moustachios raised a little above the surface like twin periscopes … He launched into a declaration: ‘Every morning upon waking I experience the supreme pleasure of being Salvador Dalí, and I ask myself what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dalí?’ ”
- Then again, meeting Hilary Clinton can make for a great story, too, if you’re Terry Castle: “I haven’t rehearsed any jokey badinage to cast in HRC’s direction on being introduced; nor even tried out possible facial expressions in the mirror. The moment has arrived and I simply don’t know what to do. Thus it unfolds that even as Her (Mostly) Incorruptible Majesty reaches appreciatively for my hand, I am mortified to hear myself squeak out—like a dying baby bat mewling helplessly for its mother: ‘SORRYMYHANDISSOCOLD.’ Just that—all in a rush, all in a preternaturally silly little voice … Hillary Clinton—two-term First Lady, former New York Senator, US Secretary of State, legendary Iron Woman and all-around Smiling yet Fearless Maker of Executive Decisions on which our Great Country’s Future Depends—takes my frozen mitt in her own, enfolds it Don Giovanni–style, and now regards me with a rakish and appraising eye: ‘Well, Terry [she says]: We’ll Just Have to Do Something (heh heh) to Warm It Up. Won’t We? (Heh heh heh)’ Love-impaled Sappho, help me in my discombobulation! Did you hear that? HILLARY CLINTON IS FLIRTING WITH ME! She’s got my hand and she is warming it up! Bejeezus! (It’s getting positively toasty!) Not only that—my god! She’s giving me the Look! (What look?) The Look You Can’t Mistake! The Nanosecond Too Long Look! The Look you get when someone shows you her trowel for the first time! The Look you get when contemplating the Mysteries of Rosicrucianism!”
- Last week I reported in this space, perhaps with a bit of alarmism, that artificial intelligences are now writing award-winning novels and that the entire human storytelling tradition is doomed. I may have been wrong. “As Japanese publication Asahi Shimbum explains, the research team first wrote a novel of their own and then broke it down into its component parts. Only then did the A.I. involve itself, arranging the parts it had been given to create ‘another story similar to the sample novel,’ building it from words, phrases, characters, and plot outlines that had been fed to it. The Los Angeles Times claims that this means that the computers ‘did the hard work,’ which is true only if you consider plagiarism ‘hard’ … Literary algorithms almost always seem to work best when they’re producing the kind of texts such as contemporary poems in which we expect to find confusing elements.”