- “Sorry, not sorry!” This little rhetorical slip—a dead hashtag, really—is analyzed by David Lehman as a poetic structure at The American Scholar. The non-apology, Lehmann explains, pits the poet against the crazed angel of language. “Our tendency to lie, distort or revise,” Lehman writes, “follows from the inability of the language to discriminate between truth and falsehood: Language is not self-verifying. Fiction is based on just this discrepancy between language and the duplicitous and calculating writer. Is it a discrepancy—or a struggle? Writers often describe their writing as a kind of wrestling match with language, as T. S. Eliot does in ‘Four Quartets.’ ”
- We can all agree that nothing is more debauched than a five-hundred-year-old drawing of a hand. That’s why we’ve consciously chosen Facebook as the arbiter of our shared morality. Facebook will first find the image of the hand, and then Facebook will do something about it—it will eliminate all traces of the hand. And it has done this very thing with a drawing by Holbein. Thankfully, too, an exemplary moral human (read: not an algorithm) was responsible for removing Holbein’s hand from the social network, Jonathan Jones writes at the Guardian: “It would be more reassuring if computer error were to blame, yet according to Facebook this is no algorithmic accident. An actual conscious human brain honestly thought a Renaissance drawing of a hand was obscene. Or did the curator think it was being published without proper copyright permission? That would open a huge hornet’s nest, but Holbein’s drawing is about 500 years old so fair use surely applies.”
- It has been eighty years since James Agee was offered the assignment of his life by Robert Ingersoll, his editor at Fortune magazine. It turns out, too, that this assignment—a piece on the works and days of white sharecroppers in the South—saved Agee from crushing boredom and despondency. At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Christopher Knapp retells the tale: “Agee had been on sabbatical from the magazine for seven months, recovering from his self-disgust. But the time off had been enough to restore his natural enthusiasm. As ambivalent as he was about the slick brand of magazine journalism that the Henry Luce publishing empire was built on, he was not only broke, but also desperately bored.” I wonder if Fortune will run an anniversary special!
- At The New Yorker, Daniel Wenger visits with the poet Bernadette Mayer, who has changed her writing method in the wake of a stroke. It now takes her a full four minutes to mentally compose a poem! “When I suggested to Mayer that her poetry had always been rather unbalanced,” Wenger writes, “she pretended to be dumbfounded, and then explained that the attack had forced her to alter her writing method. Without the use of her right hand, she cannot type quickly enough to transcribe her thoughts as she has them. She must now work out the poem in her mind, which she calls ‘actually thinking.’ I asked how long in advance she composes her poems before writing them down. ‘About four minutes,’ she said—both ribbing me and suggesting that even this obstacle has been made into an object of study.”
- Holbein’s hand may be morally objectionable, but a band named Penis is fine by me. At Bomb, Penis the band offers its “Penis Tenets.” They seem fairly reasonable: “We adjust our expectations and check in with ourselves: ‘Do I like this? Is this fun?’ WE decide whether or not Penis has value in our lives.”
In its first chapter alone, Jean Stein’s West of Eden: An American Place sees a fortune made and squandered, a dubious murder-suicide, a media blackout, hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribe money, and a death by battery acid. And this isn’t fiction—it’s an oral history of Los Angeles, full of myth and rancor and especially desolation. Focusing on just five addresses, including the Dohenys’ fabled Greystone Mansion and Jack Warner’s Beverly Hills monstrosity, Stein excavates an LA counternarrative that’s been buried for decades in the city’s foundations, obscured by those who insist on marketing the place as paradise. The Los Angeles that emerges here is anything but a dream factory—its denizens are so felled by corruption and hubris that their lives take on the dimensions of Greek tragedy. West of Eden is a stunning accomplishment. Strange that it comes at roughly the same moment as the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar!, which tells, beneath its frothy surface, another sad story of old Hollywood’s bitter power-brokers. —Dan Piepenbring
“We are getting / rid of ownership, substituting use. / Beginning with ideas. Which ones can we / take? Which ones can we give?” I read these sentences a half dozen times, stopping after each read to consider a new meaning that appeared before me, like an ever-expanding horizon. In fact, most sentences in John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) took several readings to get through. But these fragments of opinions and problems, worries and joys are meant to be meditative, and working through them recalibrates the reader’s perspective. Shifts between typefaces, indentations, and colors make a collage of the text, and there is little sense of where one entry ends and the next begins, which produces wonderfully unexpected juxtapositions and startles to attention odd anecdotes like this one: “In the lobby after La / Monte Young’s music stopped, / Geldzahler said: It’s like being in a / womb; now that I’m out, I want to get / back in. I felt differently and so did / Jasper Johns: We were relieved to be / released.” And to think that it’s really all just words arranged on a page. But, as Cage points out, “If we could change our language, / that’s to say the way we think, / we’d probably be able to swing the / revolution.” —Nicole Rudick Read More
New paintings by Mamma Andersson.
Mamma Andersson’s new exhibition “Behind the Curtain” opens tomorrow at David Zwirner. Andersson, who was born in Sweden and lives in Stockholm, paints with a muted palette—she tends to draw from old photographs and films, theater sets, and well-preserved interiors. There’s a look-but-don’t-touch quality to her subjects, as if she’s visited some quiet museum, or snuck backstage, and has decided to flout the no-photography policy by simply painting the view instead. And so what should feel aloof or antiquated feels intimate, almost even illicit. These are things we’re used to seeing at a remove or covered in dust: busts, stays, thrones. Looking at her paintings reminds me of that voguish phrase, secret history, that’s cropped up in dozens of titles and subtitles lately.
“All of us who’ve become artists, musicians, poets, dancers, film directors—God knows what—we were all once children who loved to delve into our other ego, where anarchy and limitlessness reigns,” she told BOMB in 2007: “If (healthy) schizophrenia can keep capitalism at bay, maybe we all should be much more schizophrenic than we are. I think it’s nice to be muddled.”
“Behind the Curtain” is at David Zwirner through February 14. Read More
On a recent Sunday evening, in a lounge at the Jane Hotel in Manhattan, the writers Kurt Andersen and Anne Kreamer enacted before an audience the final pages of The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, a 1971 work of literary pastiche by the author Frederic Tuten. Andersen played the role of Chairman Mao, sitting for a fictitious interview. “Have you seen Godard’s La Chinoise?” asked Kreamer, playing his interlocutor. “Have you seen Dali’s Mao/Marilyn?” “Chairman Mao, perhaps I might ask your opinion on birth control.” Tuten himself, a septuagenarian in a black blazer, sat at the front of the room, beaming with happiness at the event held in his honor.
If you have not heard of The Adventures of Mao, you would not have been out of place at its marathon reading. Indeed, some of those who gathered to participate in the reading—a roster including Lydia Davis, Wallace Shawn, Walter Mosley, John Guare, and Edmund White—admitted to having had only a glancing familiarity with the novel or its author. Yet The Adventures of Mao, about, as the title suggests, the Chinese dictator’s rise to power, has always had its advocates; Susan Sontag called it “soda pop, a cold towel, or a shady spot under a tree for culture-clogged footsoldiers on the American long march.” In 1972, the book achieved that pinnacle of literary attention, the John Updike New Yorker review. Analyzing the novel’s five distinct modes—textbooklike history of the Long March; ample direct quotation from the likes of Hawthorne, Melville, and Fenimore Cooper; passages of literary parody of authors such as Kerouac and Malamud; “normal novelistic substance—imaginary encounters and conversations”; and, finally, that extended interview with Chairman Mao—Updike declared the resulting sum “an intelligent, taut, and entertaining change from conventional novels.”
Despite Mao’s champions over the decades—New Directions embalmed it as one of its classics in 2005—the event at the Jane Hotel was in some ways an unlikely one. It had all begun in the Strand Bookstore, where three men in their twenties stumbled upon the book and brought it to their book club. Read More