- Given our newfangled penchant for the darker arts, it’s probably time for a James Merrill revival. I do not mean this literally: we should not raise James Merrill from the dead. Still, we might commune with him. To aid our spiritual discourse, Dwight Garner points out, we should turn to the Ouija board, the supposedly harmless instrument Merrill used to write The Changing Light at Sandover. As it happens, Merrill’s own biographer, Langdon Hammer, recently dusted off his Ouija, although he was too ravaged by paradox to contact the poet: “We didn’t try [to commune with Merrill]. I guess it seemed beside the point. Who had invited us to the table and sat us down at the board if not James Merrill? We were already in contact … Looking back now, I think the board had a point to make. Using it puts you in touch with the soul. But it’s not the soul as we normally think of it—something singular and deep inside you. According to the Ouija board, it takes two people to create the soul, and it exists out there, between and beyond them.”
Is Kanye’s McDonald’s poem a parable of class struggle?
When I wrote in May about the seriocomic implications of a Burger King Spa opening in Helsinki, I thought I’d pegged the most extraordinary fast-food story of the year. Reader, I blew it. In the past month alone, McDonald’s has opened a “McDonald’s of the Future” in Saint Joseph, Missouri, luring customers to their purportedly healthier, Chipotlified restaurant by promising all-you-can-eat fries; BK has debuted the “Whopperito,” a burger-burrito hybrid that fits in your cup holder; and KFC has sold two thousand bottles of fried-chicken-scented SPF 30 sunscreen. For any writer hoping to capture the texture of our greasy-fingered moment, the ineffable Sturm und Drang of life in a world where Denny’s believes the ideal male body is a stack of flapjacks, the outlook is grim. As Philip Roth wrote, American reality “stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.” And he said that before Chicken Fries were a thing.
But Philip Roth is no Kanye West, and Kanye West won’t just sit there while actuality outdoes his talents—heaven forfend. Instead, Kanye West has published a poem about Mickey D’s in Boys Don’t Cry, a one-off zine from Frank Ocean. It goes like this: Read More
This week, Project Gutenberg made available Acrobats and Mountebanks, an 1890 book that explores the circuses, fairs, carnivals, and hippodromes of nineteenth-century France. Written by Hugues Le Roux and Jules Garnier, and translated from the French by A. P. Morton, the book features 233 illustrations of clowns, trainers, tamers, equestrians, equilibrists, acrobats, gymnasts, contortionists, fortune-tellers, dwarves, elephants, carousels, Ferris wheels, and all the trappings of classic mountebankery. It’s worth perusing for the drawings, a selection of which are presented above—but it’s also, after more than a century, still an astonishingly funny read, full of sharp observations and acerbic asides. Here, for instance, is a passage on dwarves:
No one should wonder at the fact that many people are more interested in the abnormal than in the beautiful. But this trait being once recognised, the dwarf is more wonderful than the giant; man is such a complicated machine, that in watching these microscopic creatures who gesticulate and speak like ourselves, we feel something of the same astonishment that would strike us if we found the seconds marked by a miniature watch which we could only see through a magnifying glass. For this reason the dwarf show is one of the most popular booths in the fair.
Every one knows that there are two kinds of dwarfs—those who are naturally dwarfs, and those who, as children, were at first of average size and growth, but whose development was abruptly checked. In their case the limbs which no longer grew, were yet capable of enlargement. As a rule the head is enormous. Monsieur François, from the Cirque Franconi—the partner of Billy Hayden the clown, the tiny circus rider—is a typical specimen of this class of dwarfs, who are called noués to distinguish them from the perfect miniature of humanity. They are physically deformed, but in all other respects they resemble other men. François, for instance, is very intelligent. I shall always remember our first interview two years ago in Erminia Chelli’s box at the Cirque d’Eté.
“How old are you, Monsieur François?”
“I am older than you are, M. François; yet, as you know, I am not celebrated.”
M. François shook his head … “You see not every one can be a dwarf.”