We’ll Always Have Barf Bags, and Other News


On the Shelf

The barf bag: a comforting cultural constant.


  • These days, it often seems the world has tilted on its axis: nothing is the same, we’ve broken with the past, there’s no going back. But we’ve still got an old friend kicking around—the barf bag. In these uncertain times, Hollywood’s horror filmmakers still turn to sick bags as a primo promotional gag. For there is still vomit in this realm, and still a need to contain it in the face of extreme spectacle. Cara Buckley writes: “After a moviegoer apparently vomited during a Los Angeles screening of the French coming-of-age cannibal flick, Raw, the theater began handing out barf bags … The move is a vintage publicity stunt going back some fifty years. Among the standout bags in movie history: The keepsake vomit bag from the 1963 splatter film Blood Feast came with an encouragement, ‘Spill your guts out!’ ‘Guaranteed to upset your stomach!’ proclaimed the bag from the 1981 Italian film Cannibal Ferox. The bag for The Beyond (1981) came with the thoughtfully worded warning, ‘Individuals with sensitive constitutions may experience stomach distress,’ and advised that the bag be used only once and not overfilled.”
  • For a while, Marianne Moore taught at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a dubious institution in Pennsylvania that aimed to “assimilate” Native American youth basically by flogging their culture out of them. This was not, as one might imagine, a bright spot for Moore’s career. Siobhan Phillips notes that “even at the time Moore taught there, the school’s obvious wrongs were noticed and decried. Moore knew of ‘cruel neglect and abuse,’ as her mother put it in a letter included in [Linda] Leavell’s biography. Moore did not protest. In 1914, federal investigators examined conditions at CIIS and dismissed the superintendent … Congress found financial corruption and mismanagement as well as incidents of wrongful expulsion and physical harm. A student in Moore’s department organized the petition requesting the investigation, which 276 students signed. Moore was accused of supporting insurrection, but she sidestepped the charge, as she reports in a letter to her brother: ‘I crush out disrespect and rancor whenever I see it, and I give the students as thorough a training in political honor as I can.’ When inspectors came to Carlisle, she dodged them. Her brother advised her not to say anything definitive or particular. She took his advice.”

  • Because someone had to do it: Geoffrey Nunberg has had a good think about the president’s love of quotation marks, the last refuge of the barely literate: “Trump’s use of quotation marks actually suggests the insecurity of the unpracticed writer who worries that a word may be too clichéd or colloquial for written English—the woman who writes, ‘I’m going to stick with my “hubby,” ’ to show she knows the word is slangy, or the student who writes, ‘Things got “hot and heavy,” ’ hoping to escape the charge of triteness. In 1926, the grammarian H. W. Fowler classed quotes like these among the devices used by writers ‘who wish to safeguard their dignity & yet be vivacious.’ Like scare quotes, they’re meant to immunize the writer from the taint of the word’s associations, but out of fear of sounding uneducated or common. The effect is invariably the opposite.”
  • Norman Rush reviews Teju Cole’s new book of essays and photos, seeing in it a brush with the sublime: “Robert Owen, the great patriarch of socialism, was asked what we would do once Utopia was established. His reply was: ‘We shall travel.’ For Cole, travel itself can yield a kind of second-order sublime … Travel requires discipline and self-awareness and an awareness of travel’s limitations, like Heimweh and FernwehHeimweh is the German word for homesickness. It can of course strike at any time and screw up an experience. ‘Fernweh is a longing to be away from home, a desire to be in faraway places. Fernweh is similar to wanderlust but, like heimweh, has a sickish, melancholy tinge.’ ”