- As Inauguration Day beckons with its plump, vulgar middle finger, writers are struggling to articulate their role in the resistance: How do we undo our nation’s descent into mediocrity and bigotry? Surely it won’t hurt to brush up on our occultist spell-writing, which may have gotten rusty since the Bush years. But Aleksandar Hemon—who knows more than a little about the way societies can crumble into cesspools of violence and hate—has a better idea. He urges writers to pursue a “split-mind” literature, one that eschews the assumptions of bourgeois culture: “In America, a comfortable entitlement additionally blunts and deactivates imagination—it is hard to imagine that this American life is not the only life possible, that there could be any reason to undo it, because it just makes sense as it is, everything is going fine. One of the roles literature often serves in a bourgeois culture is to make a case for this life as endless and universal, as making perfect, if pleasingly complicated, sense, as containing all that is required for the ever comforting processes of our understanding ourselves. Literature becomes ontological propaganda, a machinery for making reality appear unalterable. The vast majority of Anglo-American literary production serves that purpose, confirming what is already agreed upon as knowable … What I call for is a literature that craves the conflict and owns the destruction, a split-mind literature that features fear and handles shock, that keeps self-evident ‘reality’ safely within the quotation marks. Never should we assume the sun will rise tomorrow, that America cannot be a fascist state, or that the nice-guy neighbor will not be a murderer because he gives out candy at Halloween.”
- Marina Warner doesn’t speak Russian, but that didn’t stop her from enjoying a performance of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry at the Gogol Centre: “Unintelligibility has become interesting to me as a far more common state—with its own benefits—than has been recognized. Some of the most involving and passionate moments of a reading life can be baffling. In my first encounters with Rebecca, The Waste Land, Waiting for Godot, Dante’s Paradiso, I could grasp very little of what was being said, either at the level of the words or in the larger picture of narrative and thought. Yet these works absorbed me utterly, and their feel has remained vivid in memory; they felt intense and alive and their power is and was contagious—they made me feel intense and alive too. There’s something about attending to a work beyond lucidity that’s like learning a language when young, or finding your way around a neighborhood.”
- Sure, Moby-Dick is a signal achievement and the Great American Novel and a cornerstone of the canon and all that—but haven’t you ever wondered if Melville was only trying to pull off literature’s greatest penis joke? I mean … Moby-Dick? And also, like … whales are obscenely well hung, and isn’t that funny? In Canada, where apparently Melville is less beloved than the esteemed litterateur Tim Horton, authorities are reluctant to let Melville perpetrate yet another dick joke from the grave. Emily Saul reports, “A Canadian fish and chips franchise called ‘Moby Dick’s’ is suing their local building council for blocking the purchase of a new restaurant, because the council doesn’t like having the word ‘dick’ on a sign … The council maintains the ‘offensive’ sign could drive down the price of neighboring properties, and promote litter in the area. Yet the owners claim in court papers the name is ‘not offensive to the public, given its literary significance and fame.’ ”
- And the thing is, that’s not even the stupidest piece of literary news from the past twenty-four hours. That honor goes to one Joseph Charles McKenzie, some “poet” who wrote a horrific encomium to our incoming president, which was briefly touted as an official inaugural poem before the Internet wised up:
Come out for the Domhnall, ye brave men and proud,
The scion of Torquil and best of MacLeod!
With purpose and strength he came down from his tower
To snatch from a tyrant his ill-gotten power.
- Should you prefer the verse of a real poet, Ed Simon recommends reading Richard Barnfield, a forgotten Elizabethan sonneteer whose poems are so steeped in homoeroticism that academics chose to ignore him for centuries: “Though Barnfield (unsuccessfully) defended his poems against the accusation of them promoting sodomy, the verse itself is seemingly a proud (if at times heartbreaking) expression of the love between men in the seventeenth century … Barnfield’s poetry haunts, not just because of his talent which has been traditionally ignored, but because he supplies a quiet voice to a community of men denied theirs. Homosexual men of the period lacked a vocabulary to speak of their rights, and were buffeted by the oppressions of church and state. The literature of the time was too toothless to fully express that love, yet Barnfield courageously speaks of his frustrations and sorrows.”