Go Stand in the Corner, and Other News


On the Shelf

A lot to take in here.


  • Prepositions matter. If you’re standing on the corner, you could be having the time of your life; if you’re standing in the corner, you’re probably not having much fun at all. The corner of a room is a site of inwardness and anxiety, a repository for social insecurities. It’s also just not very exciting to look at. For these reasons and more, as Will Wiles writes in a ranging new essay, writers as various as H. P. Lovecraft and J. G. Ballard are united in their fixation on corners, the locus of so many psychic burdens: “Lovecraft and Ballard both put architecture at the heart of their fiction, even though neither had the slightest formal training in the subject … They are connected, through time and space, by that most humble of architectural events: the corner, the junction between two walls. What Lovecraft and Ballard did was to make the corner into a place of nightmares—and in doing so, they reveal its secret history … The Lovecraftian corner could drive men mad, whisk them to terrible other places, and sometimes kill them outright. And the corner of a room is a place of power—uncanny, unwelcome power. ‘That most sordid of all havens, the corner, deserves to be examined,’ writes the philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space. Bachelard saw the corner as a shameful intellectual bolthole, in which we are silent and immobile, negating the universe, constructing imaginary rooms around us … In 1967 Ballard made four conceptual advertisements and placed them in the pages of the literary magazine Ambit. One asked: ‘Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?’ ”
  • JFK talked a big game about art—“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist,” he said, and he seemed to believe that nurturing U.S. artists was a great way to kick Commie ass. But now that the dust has settled, Philip Kennicott writes, we should be honest—the guy didn’t really like art that much: “Kennedy was never an art lover, and to the extent that he respected art, it was in the same way he respected accomplishment in science and sports. Nor was Kennedy moved by music or opera, or susceptible to the introspection offered by paintings or sculpture. He was, however, passionate about winning the Cold War on all fronts, including culture … Kennedy no doubt believed everything he said about art, at least in an abstract way. But notice the words that got cut … ‘Art reminds us that man’s hunger for beauty, and truth and self-fulfillment, knows no national boundaries.’ That cut, eliminating reference to how individuals actually engage with art—the hunger for deeper things and self-fulfillment—is significant … He was mocked even in his own time for being more an enthusiast than a deep connoisseur. In 1965, the Kenyon Review wrote that one of his most engaging statements on the arts, an article he wrote for Look Magazine, was written ‘in a vein better suited to a high school commencement address.’ ”

  • Ed Yong is here to report on the sex life of the cabbage white butterfly, whose sperm is to humans’ as M&Ms are to Hershey Bars: they improved a classic by adding a candy shell. Yong writes, “A cabbage white’s ejaculate is very different from a human’s. Rather than a blob of white gunk, it’s a complex solid package called a spermatophore, which consists of a hard outer shell, soft nutritious innards, and a ball of sperm at the base. The male deposits this into a pouch within the female reproductive tract called the bursa copulatrix. Once inside, the sperm swim off into a second pouch—the female will later use these to fertilize her eggs. Meanwhile, she starts to break down the outer shell of the spermatophore to absorb the nutrients within. So, the spermatophore acts as a nuptial gift—a way for the male to nourish the mother of his future offspring, long after he flies away … She chews her way into the spermatophore using an organ called the signum, which sits inside her bursa. It looks exactly like a pair of toothed jaws, with a hinge in the middle … It takes between twenty-four and thirty-six hours of constant chewing to break into the spermatophore.”
  • Carl Simon has been mulling over Lorde’s new album, Melodrama, and the way it reflects her vision of an ideal collective listenership: “Melodrama contains a lot more life experience and more craft, with songs that teem with dramatic scenarios and storytelling. But bending to the plainspoken vernacular of pop has also domesticated Lorde’s vocabulary a little. To realize her dreams of Mitchell- or Cohen-esque genius, she might have to backtrack and recover a few of her former pretensions … The title Melodrama is partly teasing, as Lorde tells tales about her first big breakup (with a New Zealand photographer) and emotional group adventures. By turns it becomes more self-critical, as when she sings about ‘all of the things we’re taking/ ’cause we are young and we’re ashamed.’ But she’s also invoking a form, what the scholar Lauren Berlant calls a segment of ‘women’s culture’—though Lorde is making a case for a specific young women’s variety—that suggests an ‘intimate public.’ As Berlant puts it, it’s ‘a world of strangers who would be emotionally literate in each other’s experience of power, intimacy, desire, and discontent, with all that entails.’ ”
  • At a new Matisse exhibition, Claire Messud meditates on the objects he used in his daily life, and the inspiration they brought him in their quotidian way: “They delighted, inspired, or confounded him, in their humble ordinariness and in all that they evoked: a chocolate pot, a green glass vase, a pewter jug, embroidered hanging cloths (haitis) from North Africa, masks and figurines from sub-Saharan Africa, a brazier, a marquetry coffee table, a low-slung chair … Matisse’s passion for color, for light, for pattern, for flowers and the female figure; and his conviction—borne out in almost every one of his paintings and sculptures, whether a sublime nude woman’s torso small enough fit in the palm of your hand or an imposing complex oil painting such as Interior with Egyptian Curtain (1948)—that what endures is certainly matter: the flesh, the fruit, the flowers, the folds of fabric. But what counts, above all, is the emotion that we invest in that matter … In his renditions of beloved objects, Matisse sought to convey to all viewers what they conjured in him.”