- Susan Howe on Wallace Stevens and just plain old liking the guy’s poems: “The poetry of Wallace Stevens makes me happy. This is the simple truth. Pleasure springs from the sense of fluid sound patterns phonetic utterance excites in us. Beauty, harmony, and order are represented by the arrangement, and repetition, of particular words on paper. No matter how many theoretical and critical interpretations there are, in the end each new clarity of discipline and delight contains inexplicable intricacies of form and measure … I don’t often remember Stevens poems separately except for the early ones, but they all run together, the way Emerson’s essays do, into one long meditation, moving like waves, and suddenly there is one perfect portal. The quick perfection.”
- In 1987, Patricia Highsmith, then at her most misanthropic and having found a malignant tumor on her lung, paid a visit to Brooklyn, where she wrote an abortive essay for the New York Times about Green-Wood Cemetery. It never ran, perhaps because its pivotal moment finds her sticking her hand in an industrial furnace, still warm, at the crematorium. “The warmth of that retort, even though it may have come from a pilot flame, brought home death to me as none of the stone monuments above ground had,” she writes. She also likens the cemetery to a passing garbage truck: “Its apparently inexhaustible drip of squashed vegetable matter or leftover orange juice reminds me of human mortality, with its attendant ugliness, stench and inevitability.”
- Susan Cheever has looked into America’s long lust for booze, and she’s discovered a few things. First, that a drunk Nixon once claimed he’d made a great pope. And second, that the link between writers and alcohol is a fairly new one: “In the nineteenth century, writers didn’t drink. Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow. Nope. No drinkers. It’s not about the writers. It’s about the drinking culture. Some writers drink a lot, so much so that the five people who won the Nobel Prize for literature were all alcoholics [Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck]. I hadn’t really done the math, and then it occurred to me that, of course, it came out of Prohibition, that Prohibition made drinking that much more attractive to writers.”
- Today in vintage hate-reads: a newly discovered transcript of Ayn Rand’s remarks to the 1974 graduating class at West Point finds her up to her usual tricks, i.e., disguising out-and-out bigotry behind a tissue-thin veil of “philosophy.” “Any white person who brings the elements of civilization had the right to take over this continent,” Rand said to the group of dewy-eyed officers-to-be. “It is great that some people did, and discovered here what they couldn’t do anywhere else in the world and what the Indians, if there are any racist Indians today, do not believe to this day: respect for individual rights … Racism didn’t exist in this country until the liberals brought it up.” Important words to remember the next time you spot a malleable young person reading The Fountainhead and claiming it’s just “a really good story.”
- Notes toward a theory of Playmobil, with its bizarre, intensely Euro-zone aesthetic, its fascination with the civil service, its tendency to exalt the bourgeois: “As I examined the Playmobil version of Vermeer’s Milkmaid, I realized how Vermeer’s popularity as a painter rests on the same sort of generic, domestic scenarios as Playmobil, with all those charming, joyful, bourgeois little details, the depiction of the everyday things of our lives … Next to Lego … Playmobil can seem downright dowdy and boring … One of the best-selling sets is a Christmas manger scene. The fastest-selling Playmobil figure of all time was launched this past winter: Martin Luther, complete with quill and German Bible!”
- Resolve your literary feud the media-friendly way: (1) do it at a public event, (2) make sure there’s not a dry eye in the house, and (3) invoke the memory of Charles Dickens, just for the sport of it. More than fifteen years ago, V. S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux “fell out in a spectacularly-bitter war of words, after Naipaul sold some of Theroux’s gifts at auction. The anger seethed for almost two decades. But on Wednesday the hatchet was resoundingly buried, with eighty-two-year-old Naipaul breaking down in tears after Theroux praised one of his most famous books at a literary festival in India, and compared the author to Charles Dickens.”
- Centuries ago, an excavation in Italy revealed a collection of some two thousand ancient Roman scrolls, most of them treatises on Epicurean philosophy. Unfortunately, the scrolls have a tendency to crumble in your hands, which makes it fairly difficult to read or even preserve them. People have tried taking knives to them (didn’t work), applying a gelatin-based adhesive (didn’t work), or just throwing them away (didn’t work). The latest solution: X-rays.
- The architect who bought Ray Bradbury’s Los Angeles house demolished it earlier this month, thus unleashing a furor from Bradbury fans. “It’s really been a bummer,” the architect said, adding in his defense that the home was exceptionally bland. “I could make no connection between the extraordinary nature of the writer and the incredible un-extraordinariness of the house.” Yesterday he hatched a new plan to honor the space: a wall.
- On Quvenzhané Wallis’s black Annie: “the fact that a black Annie has arrived on the scene at this particular cultural moment seems to me cruelly ironic … When it comes to persuading Americans about the virtue of selfishness, Ayn Rand has nothing on Annie … By making innocence seem invulnerable, Annie and other Teflon kids in fiction and film have helped to enable the widespread apathy about social inequalities that allows Americans to claim that our society is child-centered even though the percentage of children living in poverty in this country continues to grow.”
- Has technology accelerated life to the point of meaninglessness? On Judy Wajcman’s Pressed for Time: “Wajcman recalls seeing, at a nursing home, a daughter with one arm slung around her elderly mother, the other tapping on her smartphone. Though Wajcman acknowledges an initial negative judgment of this scene, she quickly reconsidered. The elderly mother was clearly not very aware of her surroundings and was likely comforted by her daughter’s presence. The daughter was able to provide this solace while engaging in other activities. (She could also have been reading a book or magazine.) Is this really to be condemned?”
- Merriam-Webster has undertaken a daunting project: they’re publishing a new edition of their unabridged dictionary, which hasn’t seen a major overhaul since 1961. Their employees are already hard at work: “Emily Brewster has produced anywhere from five to twenty-five definitions a week. Twerking is ready, she tells me in December. Nutjob (which dates to 1959) and minorly are good to go. Jeggings is, too. The new sense of trolling looks promising, she says, ‘but first I have to finish hot mess.’ Brewster is very excited about hot mess. Thanks to Google Books, she found it in a machinists union trade journal from 1899: ‘If the newspaper says the sky is painted with green chalk that is what goes. Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.’ ”
- In 1969, the curator Henry Geldzahler convinced the Met to host “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970,” a show so vast and intensely contemporary that it remains a watershed—so why not just do the whole thing again? “Henry had a fantastic eye. He wasn’t wrong about anything. He was always right.”
- A mother from an affluent Texas town would strongly prefer her children to read Ayn Rand in school, not The Working Poor, David K. Shipler’s book about poverty. In other news, Oxfam announced yesterday that 1 percent of the global population holds half the world’s wealth.
- George Steinmetz traveled by helicopter to take these aerial photographs of New York in winter. He and his pilot “frequently flew so low that they passed in between buildings, with Steinmetz and his camera hanging out of the open door.”
- Remembering Alice K. Turner, who was Playboy’s fiction editor for two decades. “Fiction is kind of a nuisance,” she once said. “The ad sales guys don’t see the point. They would cut it out if they could, except for the fact that it adds a certain respectability … Playboy stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. They have a kind of general appeal. They are not experimental. They are not terribly modern or forward-reaching but they have real quality, or so I hope.”
- A new report suggests that to stay relevant, libraries must become more like coffee shops, “vibrant and attractive community hubs.” You know, with Wi-Fi.
- And the future of roads is fewer roads, because we have too damn many of them. The Trip Generation Manual, a commonly consulted urban-planning guide, “may overestimate the number of trips generated from a new development by as much as 55 percent—‘phantom trips’ … The result is that cities may build way more roads than necessary, perpetuating sprawl and leaving less street space for non-drivers in the process.”
- Our editor Lorin Stein is judging Nowhere Magazine’s travel-writing contest—they’re “looking for young, old, novice and veteran voices to send us stories that possess a powerful sense of place.” First prize is a thousand dollars and submissions are due January 1.
- Secret Behavior is a new magazine about “what intimacy looks like”: “The first issue, which explored anonymity, is full of emotional money shots: self-portraits of men’s feet when they climax from masturbation (paired with their responses to the artist’s wanted ad), breakup fiction by Catherine Lacey, Jesper Fabricius’s anatomical encyclopedia made from close-cropped pornography.”
- A few months ago, John Paul Rollert wrote a piece for the Daily about an Ayn Rand conference in Vegas. Now he’s reported more on it in The Atlantic: “Escapism is the allure of Las Vegas. The city—with its shows, its clubs, even its casinos—is ultimately incidental. You come to leave your self behind. Escapism of a different sort is also the allure of a radical philosophy. It seduces not by promising a temporary solution to the contest between the grosser passions and personal integrity … but by providing an alternative vision of what the ‘real world’ constitutes.”
- With his album Pom Pom, Ariel Pink has delivered some of the best pop music of 2014: “It all seems to speak to people in that world, all these aged tweens,” he said in an interview: “Everybody still thinks they’re a tween, but they’re not. They’re former tweens. Generation tweens … the new twelve-year-olds pop up and usurp the former twelve-year-olds’ hegemony. That’s what I love about the music industry. It’s run by these kids. The children dictate what’s cool, and then everybody else just thinks that they’re a kid the rest of their lives.”
Sitting in on the 2014 Objectivist Conference in Las Vegas.
Even on a Monday morning at eight A.M.—an hour ripe for sober reckoning—the greatest lie of Las Vegas endures undiminished: if you keep playing, you’ll eventually beat the house. As I strolled through the Venetian, I saw the familiar ring of mostly young men crowding the aprons of a long line of craps tables. If any moment in Vegas should lend itself to second thoughts for these men, it would’ve been this one, the morning after a boozy weekend of debauchery. Yet the only concession to the occasion were the mimosas hanging pendulously over the Pass Line.
I was late for a different sort of spectacle, so I didn’t stop to watch. The Venetian, by some measurements the largest hotel in the world, had set aside a tranche of its 289 “meeting rooms” for the annual summer conference of the Ayn Rand Institute, an organization founded in 1985, a few years after the death of its namesake, with the express mission of fostering “a growing awareness, understanding, and acceptance of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.”
Open conferences are admirably egalitarian, which makes them something of an awkward format for discussing Objectivism, the name Rand choose for her canon of unalloyed elitism. “The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time,” her avatar, John Galt, declares in Atlas Shrugged. Meanwhile, “the man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.”
One need not be an honors geometry student to understand where on this pyramid most of us must fall. Throughout her writings, which began with allegorical novels and evolved into a miscellany of short works—speeches, essays, newsletters, and even, for one year, a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times—Rand was an evangelist for an aristocracy of talents. She characterized her aesthetics as “a crusade to glorify man’s existence” and the essence of her philosophy as “the concept of man as a heroic being,” descriptions which, if they mean anything, would lead one to believe an assembly of her acolytes might resemble a cross between a meeting of Phi Beta Kappa and an afternoon among the bodybuilders at Venice Beach. Read More
- Gordon Lish, at eighty, lives literally in the dark, because of his psoriasis: “His apartment is a crepuscular chamber, largely unchanged since his wife died more than a decade ago. With his heavy knit sweater and wild white hair, which culminates in a braid, he wanders these rooms looking like some cross between an old fisherman and King Lear … The problem with Lish is that he is all over the place. That also happens to be the best thing about him.”
- “I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail.” Flannery O’Connor hated Ayn Rand …
- … and Rand loved trains. More specifically, she loved to write about morally unworthy people dying in fiery train crashes: “The doomed include everyone from a lawyer who feels he can ‘get along under any political system,’ to ‘an elderly schoolteacher who had spent her life turning class after class of helpless children into miserable cowards’ because they believed in the will of the majority …”
- Borges: not a World Cup fan. “Soccer is popular,” he once said, “because stupidity is popular.”
- Further evidence that writing may be, you know, creative: scientists tracked “the brain activity of both experienced and novice writers … The inner workings of the professionally trained writers in the bunch, the scientists argue, showed some similarities to people who are skilled at other complex actions, like music or sports.”