The Prince’s Perfect Poo, and Other News


On the Shelf



  • Every era has its fads and fashions. When the dust settles, will cultural historians look kindly on 2017, in which the citizens of Western metropolises roam the streets looking like we could go camping at any moment? I cannot say. But I think we should give ourselves some credit—even the most lamentable style of the past ten years, the red #MAGA baseball cap, looks sensible in comparison to the sins of the past. During Marie Antoinette’s time, for instance, there was a brief craze for caca-dauphin, a shade of brown that resembled the color of the new prince Louis-Joseph’s soiled diapers. In the most fashionable circles, people dressed to celebrate the royal bowel movements. As Michael Taube writes in a review of Carolyn Purnell’s new book The Sensational Past, this was but one example of eccentric Enlightenment-era trends: “This awakening of our senses led to some astonishing results, from sensible to senseless … The citronella-based drink Water of Carmes, which supposedly ‘stimulated memory and got rid of unpleasant fantasies,’ was popular for a time … A few relatively harmless drinks aside, the senses of the Enlightenment occasionally ventured into some strange territory. Take the brief rise of ‘prince poo.’ During the time of Marie Antoinette in France, wealthy individuals ‘spent the equivalent of thousands of dollars to wear the clothing the color of baby poop.’ This grotesque fashion choice was done ‘as a way to show their support for the monarchy and to demonstrate how fashionable they could be.’ There was also the cat piano. As the story goes, King Philip II of Spain brought his father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a ridiculous contraption in 1549 ‘with twenty rather narrow boxes, each of which contained a cat’ that would produce a ‘lamentable meowing’ when a key was pressed.”
  • Corporations love to infantilize consumers, and they’re always looking for new and novel ways to do so. Take the new Kmart shopping bag, for instance—Vinson Cunningham has seen it, and he is afraid: “The bag, pristinely white, its surface marked by forgiving wrinkles, is set against a subtle gradient-blue background that looks like the sky. It might have been tossed away and carried upward by the wind. ‘Life is ridiculously awesome,’ it says, in two bubbly, bright-red fonts: a juicy cursive and a blocky, all-caps sans serif … Kmart adopted this slogan just last March, after several years of market share lost to Walmart, in order to attract a rising generation of millennial shoppers. The hope was to convince them (or, I guess, remind them) that consumption, retail-style, could, in the corporation’s words, be ‘fun,’ even ‘awesome’ … The hint of self-consciously campy nostalgia in its new ‘look and feel’ seems connected to the steady decay of the shopping experience that once helped to define, and to bolster, a wide swath of working- and lower-middle-class life in America.”
  • Saeed Kamali Dehghan on the profusions and confusions of the Iranian publishing industry, whose cavalier approach to copyright makes for an abundance of shoddy translations: “If J. D. Salinger could see what was on the shelves in Iranian bookshops, he would turn in his grave. The Inverted Forest, a 1947 novella that he refused to republish in the U.S. for more than half a century, is widely available in Farsi in most Iranian bookshops … just one example of Iran’s messy, complicated, yet fascinating translation scene, which has long been undermined by the country’s failure to join the Berne convention on copyright … The popularity of foreign fiction and the difficulties of obtaining permission have exacerbated the problem of multiple translations of the same book popping up, with some translators exploiting the copyright vacuum—particularly so for bestsellers. Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, for instance, has been translated into Persian by at least sixteen different people … In 2008, Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee asked me to pass on a statement to the Iranian news agencies, one that reflected his belief that copyright protection was not just about money. ‘It does upset writers, justifiably, when their books are taken over without permission, translated by amateurs and sold without their knowledge,’ he wrote.”
  • The English invented English, but Americans have perfected it. Or so we might assume, to judge by the number of Americanisms and loanwords that have infiltrated the once-impenetrable walls of British English. And the Brits are pissed about this—many of them would prefer their tongues unsullied by such American poisons as “no-brainer” and “elevator.” Reviewing Matthew Engel’s That’s the Way It Crumbles, John Sutherland writes, “We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism … One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution ‘wake-up call.’ The first use he finds is ‘in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975’ … Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound ‘from the get-go.’ He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called ‘Git-Go Blues.’ And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean! … Britain in 2017 is, to borrow an Americanism, ‘brainwashed,’ and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.”
  • In an interview with Ann Friedman, Chris Kraus explains how her novel I Love Dick emerged from an antipathy toward the relentless you-go-girl positivity that characterized the feminism of the nineties: “I never bought into any of the sort of positivity. I was of an era where New Age came along, and I found that so deeply repugnant, and I wrote about it. When I wrote I Love Dick, it’s not as if—I mean, I’ve never put myself forward as any kind of political leader or cultural critic or even cultural theorist. I was just writing a book … I felt like my goal was to put everything on the table that was transacted under the table. There’s this kind of gender romantic comedy on the surface of it, but really it’s about power. And not even personal dynamic power; more like economic power and cultural-politics power, and how things are transacted. I think the book asks literally in the middle, ‘Who gets to speak and why is the only question.’ ”