- John McPhee on writing, illumination, and mustaches: “Robert Bingham, my editor at The New Yorker for sixteen years, had a fluorescent, not to mention distinguished, mustache. In some piece or other, early on, I said of a person I was writing about that he had a ‘sincere’ mustache. This brought Bingham, manuscript in hand, out of his office … A sincere mustache, Mr. McPhee, a sincere mustache? What does that mean? Was I implying that it is possible to have an insincere mustache? … Across time, someone came along who had ‘a no-nonsense mustache,’ and a Great Lakes ship captain who had ‘a gyroscopic mustache,’ and a North Woodsman who had ‘a timber-cruiser’s guileless mustache.’ A family practitioner in Maine had ‘an analgesic mustache,’ another doctor ‘a soothing mustache,’ and another a mustache that ‘seems medical, in that it spreads flat beyond the corners of his mouth and suggests no prognosis, positive or negative.’”
- Pop music is heralded as one of life’s simple pleasures: a chance for pure escapism. Why, then, are so many pop songs really, really, really sad? “Love songs have always been more likely to deal with the yearning for love, the complications of love, love’s betrayal, or the loss of love (or even, sometimes, the loss of life) than the fancied bliss of love fulfilled … a strain of sadness has long been laced through the popular songbook. Music listeners’ likes have never been restricted to things that make them happy.”
- On Kingsley Amis’s misanthropic masterwork, Ending Up: “The finished product is short and brutal, a series of cackling vignettes of man’s cruelty to man, all conveyed in Amis’s crisp, beady prose. It is also very funny, growing funnier with each fresh misery, mishap and atrocity. The blurb on my Penguin edition draws attention to its ‘humanity,’ but it might more accurately have highlighted its inhumanity: few novels have ever been quite this bleak, quite this nasty.”
- The impressionists are often derided as “the painterly equivalent of easy listening,” but they still have much to teach us: “While Degas was in America in 1872 he was much taken with the Southern Creole women, feeling they had ‘that touch of ugliness without which no salvation.’ Let’s not get too politically correct here. His remark has a general application. It speaks to a shared aesthetic disposition. By ‘ugliness,’ Degas means ordinary life—a girl having her hair combed on a beach; women unperturbed, unself-conscious at their ablutions; a laundress stretching, yawning, another one ironing. They are the painters of modern life, in Baudelaire’s encapsulation. As modern as T. S. Eliot’s woman who yawns and draws her stocking up in ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales.’ ”
- “Jane Austen’s earliest writings are violent, restless, anarchic, and exuberantly expressionistic. Drunkenness, female brawling, sexual misdemeanor, and murder run riot across their pages.”
“If you want to be famous,” photographer Miroslav Tichý once said, “you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.” Born in 1926 in Czechoslovakia, Tichý spent decades taking voyeuristic photographs of women bathing. His subjects are caught unawares, often through fences or peepholes, in an erotically isolated moment. The pictures are spotted, blurred, crooked, scratched, and underexposed—done, by any conventional standards, “badly.” These flaws of execution are surpassed only by the crudeness of Tichý’s cameras, which were made with materials such as shoeboxes, tin cans, toilet-paper rolls, sandpaper, and toothpaste.
Tichý the man was equally disheveled. A ragged town eccentric, he had been trained as a classical painter but quit the academy after the Communist takeover forced artists to focus on socialist subjects. He remained, however, a diligent practitioner of the arts. He took three rolls of film a day, printed each negative only once, and embellished the prints with homemade frames. The results amount to a clever commentary on the state; his disguised cameras and the atmosphere of surveillance in his work subtly allude to the surveillance of the society at large. But the furtive pictures are also beautiful. They recall the scratched bodies of Degas’s bathers; they presage the soft focus of Richter. Their imperfection imprints them with the personal. As Tichý himself said, “A mistake. That’s what makes the poetry.” Read More