Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in a letter to another Horace—Mann—dated January 28, 1754. The occasion was pretty unremarkable—it was a happy accident, after all—and almost archetypally British: Walpole had used a talisman to discover a link between two families by investigating their coats of arms in an old book. At least Walpole was aware of the dullness of his eureka moment: “I have nothing better to tell you,” he writes, before launching into the fascinating etymology of his new word. It would take nearly two centuries for the adjective form, serendipitous, to come on the scene—its first recorded usage was in 1943. —D. P. Read More
- We’ve known for a while that fairy tales are old, but only now have we discovered that they’re in fact really, really, really old—an important distinction. Stories like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumpelstiltskin” originated thousands of years ago, researchers suggest, in “prehistoric times, with one tale originating from the bronze age”: “Using techniques normally employed by biologists, they studied common links between 275 Indo-European fairy tales from around the world and found some have roots that are far older than previously known, and ‘long before the emergence of the literary record.’ ”
- “The sound is as important as the surface and the feel. It’s important because our ears define for me the nature of space,” said Derek Sugden, an acoustic engineer who died this week at ninety-one. He headed Arup Acoustics, which designed buildings with sound in mind, thus starting a kind of quiet revolution in architecture, as Gillian Darley writes: “The more recent transformation of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam by Cruz y Ortiz takes its responsibilities to an immense visiting public seriously. Enormous frame-form baffles hang from the Gothic Revival roof of the original atrium, while several interior windows are blanked out with fabric ‘shutters’ to keep resonance at a minimum. Thousands of people come and go (the café is in a separate space beyond) and the experience remains convivial and pleasurable, sound levels no higher than a gentle hum. Yet nothing is made of this achievement in features on the renovated museum in the architectural press: Sugden was right, architects don’t hear.”
- The Soviet artist Vagrich Bakhchanyan hoped to subvert his government by using its own language against it in his art: “He made works on paper in which appropriated texts and images were combined and layered using transfer techniques, some utilizing official notices by Soviet administrators—the terse, usually handwritten flyers that punctuated the everyday life of Soviet citizens with warnings, admonitions, and exhortations. One such announcement scribbled on a page torn out of a logbook reads: ‘Comrade residents! On Monday the 19th there won’t be any cold or hot water. We ask you to close the taps and shut off the heating system in your apartments.’ Over top of this message, Bakhchanyan has layered an image of a peaceful country landscape. In this and other works, the juxtaposition of random texts and images was meant to produce a momentary disorientation, a visual and mental shock caused by two or more layers of signification clashing and negating one another. The artworks reflect the absurdities and humiliations of the Soviet life—the tragic contradictions between the official ideology of socialism and its everyday reality.”
- Last November, Yurina Ko went to the Big Eaters World Championship in Times Square, where passersby were fascinated by a Japanese woman—everyone called her a girl—who could eat and eat and eat: “ ‘But the girl. She can eat.’ ‘I wonder what her stomach looks like’ … It’s the magic of the Little Big Eater Girl. She’s skinny, prepubescent, and childlike in her seeming ignorance about what constitutes an appropriate portion of food. And yet she’s an adult. If you take her on a date, she won’t order just a salad but every item on the menu and beg for dessert after. After enjoying every spoonful of this giant meal, she still looks healthy, small, and fuckable … Someone in the crowd points to the Japanese eater and says, ‘But look, now she’s sick.’ The woman looks like she’s in pain, breathing into a paper bag. What’s really happening is she’s starting to regurgitate into it. People scatter at the sight of this.”
- Today in corporate-media pissing contests: anyone who dreams of landing a gig at Condé Nast has a foolish, outmoded dream, because all the cool kids work at Hearst now. “Working at Condé is passé,” an “insider” told Page Six. (Another compared Condé to Icarus.) “Hearst has the better perks now: visiting chefs in the cafeteria and free workout clothes in the gym. There are also master classes from the likes of Gloria Steinem, Ethan Hawke, and Arianna Huffington.”
- Evil, in fairy tales, often comes in the form of an old woman: the fearsome, embittered crone is a staple of the genre. What will it take for our legends to start treating old biddies with respect—and why did they get a bad rap to begin with? The answer could be psychological (“Children do have a way of splitting the mother figure into … the evil mother—who’s always making rules and regulations, policing your behavior, getting angry at you—and then the benevolent nurturer”) or political (“She’s usually a solitary woman. She’s already marginal. She’s angry at something—at life, or whatever—and she will ‘eat’—that’s the expression—people’s souls, in the sense that she’s going to possess people and then they die a terrible death”). Or maybe we’ve just been reading the stories wrong and failing to see that “old women in fairy tales and folklore practically keep civilization together. They judge, reward, harm and heal; and they’re often the most intriguing characters in the story.”
- Oh, goody. We might just have, more than fifty years after her death, a new Sylvia Plath sex scandal on our hands: What was she doing the night before she gassed herself? Her biographer Jonathan Bate might know. “Andrew Sinclair, a friend of Plath and [Ted] Hughes, pointed [Bate] to a poem of Hughes’s that made reference to a final lover of Plath’s, and that a book editor in New York, Frances Lindley, met someone at a book party who told her he’d seen Plath’s last letter, which made reference to a call to said lover. Additionally, Plath’s downstairs neighbor attested that she asked for a postage stamp that last night. Next to the phone box on St. George’s Terrace, there’s also a mailbox. Bate says he’s read reports of a collector in possession of Plath’s last letter, but he doesn’t name the collector. He doesn’t name the possible final lover either.” It might be “the critic Al Alvarez, who is still living but has always denied having an affair with Plath (‘Sylvia wasn’t my style—she wasn’t my physical type,’ he told Janet Malcolm) and has expressed guilt about the whole thing.”
- David Lynch disdains words, and that’s okay as long as you’re not having a conversation with him. Better, maybe, just to listen: “In Lynch’s own speech and in the speech patterns of his films, the impression is of language used less for meaning than for sound. To savor the thingness of words is to move away from their imprisoning nature. Lynch has said, more than once, that he had to ‘learn to talk,’ and his very particular, somewhat limited vocabulary seems in many ways an outgrowth of his aesthetic … Lynch’s aphasia is born of a protectiveness that verges on superstition. Words for him are not just reductive; they are anathema to his view of art as fundamentally enigmatic.”
- Today in the case for misandry: men are taking photos of beautiful landscapes and allowing their exposed scrotums to creep into the frame. It’s called nutscaping. And no matter how its creator attempts to defend it—it takes “courage, vulnerability and skill to properly execute,” he says, and it’s intended to gratify “a primal urge to connect on a deeper level with Mother Nature”—it’s further proof that men should probably be wiped off the face of the Earth.
- There’s nothing like a magic trick to restore one’s faith in good old battle-tested irrationality: “Believing in magic is generally considered a callow faith, clung to by foolish young’uns who have a long distance relationship with reality … Carl Jung opted not to explain magic away. Instead, he wrote in 1938, there’s psychological worth in how magic and religion can allow us to function effectively in society: ‘What is usually and generally called “religion” is … a substitute. … The substitution has the obvious purpose of replacing immediate experience by a choice of suitable symbols invested in a solidly organized dogma and ritual.” Magic, in short, allows us to put reality through a strainer … It is the experience itself we’re imbibing, and magic can help with the swallow … Indeed, as Harry Houdini said, ‘Magic is the sole science not accepted by scientists, because they can’t understand it.’ ” (Cue Pilot’s 1975 hit, “Magic”…)
Joanna Walsh’s writing enacts what Chris Kraus has called “a literal vertigo—the feeling that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space—by probing the spaces between things.” Walsh, a British writer and illustrator, is fascinated by liminal spaces, especially in the many varieties encountered by tourists. She’s sometimes known by her French nom de guerre, Badaude, loosely translated as “gawk,” and suggesting the perambulatory figure of the flaneuse. Her work trades on the literary genres of the miniature—short stories, essays, even postcards—reminiscent of Marcel Schwob, Clarice Lispector, Roland Barthes, and Lydia Davis. Her 2014 Twitter initiative @read_women is an archival who’s who of modern female writers, extolling in its tweets the distaff works of everyone from Leonora Carrington to Elena Ferrante. Aside from her abundant online presence,Walsh’s prolific output includes three new books: Hotel, Vertigo, and Grow a Pair: 9½ Fairytales About Sex, all of which run from the bantam lengths of fifty-five to 170 pages.
Among her seemingly disparate subjects are hotel architecture and etiquette, sexual politics in twentieth-century psychoanalysis, the perils of family vacations, the fantasias of cinema, and fables of transgendered witches. In Walsh’s feminist cosmogony, all are brought to bear as inscrutable souvenirs of the everyday mundane. She elucidates the slippery, gendered in-betweenness of everyday ritual in a manner reminiscent of Derrida’s disquisition on the chora—that most mysterious and mundane of spaces, not unlike the anonymous corridor of a hotel.
I reached Walsh, appropriately enough, at a hotel in Mexico. She and I shared a lively discussion about hotel culture and theory, travel fantasies, and the contemporary potential of fairy tales.
Once upon a time, a newly married couple rode an old train from Myrdal to Flåm. The train passed through mountains and valleys, past waterfalls and vast lakes. Often the climb was dramatically steep, the hairpin turns almost impossibly sharp. The passengers ran from window to window in a frenzy of excitement, exclaiming at the vivid scenery, blinking in wonder when the train emerged from a tunnel.
A voice spoke to the passengers, first in Norwegian, then in German, then English. The voice spoke of gradients and history: of the men who had built tracks from wood and stone and the many people who had ridden on the red seats of the old train. And there were legends, too: this was folklore country. The land through which the train was passing was said to be haunted by trolls and fays. The valleys were home to the Hulder, a forest siren who lured mortals with her unearthly song. The bride squeezed her husband’s hand in excitement. Here was magic; here was darkness. Read More
Last night, as part of the Norwegian-American Literary Festival, four Norwegian writers—Gunnhild Øyehaug, Lars Petter Sveen, Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold, and Carl Frode Tiller—spoke at New York’s 192 Books. James Wood, who moderated, asked them to address the question of perceived Norwegian literary tropes like solitude and loneliness. Sveen pointed out another: the shared cultural knowledge of fairy tales.
Of course, you’ll find solitude and loneliness there, too. Norwegian fairy tales are, even by the genre’s grim standards, dark, thematically and often literally, too (e.g. “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”). For an American audience, accustomed to tall tales that focus on the heroic, and devils who rarely do anything worse than argue with sharp-witted Yankee lawyers, Norway’s fairy tales are downright scary.
“The Lindworm”—also translated, when it is, as “The Lindworm Prince”—is a story with variations across Scandinavia. The version anthologized in the seminal Asbjornsen and Moe collection goes thus: Read More