- In 1858, Walt Whitman made an impassioned contribution to a series called Manly Health and Training, a kind of precursor to the self-help movement. In the piece, newly rediscovered, he implores the young men of his day to pursue lives of fervid activity, and to avoid indigestion. “To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice,” he says. “Up!” As the New York Times notes, “Whitman’s first installment strikes a vatic, exclamatory note: ‘Manly health! Is there not a kind of charm—a fascinating magic in the words?’ he writes, before outlining the path to ‘a perfect body, a perfect blood.’ That torrent of advice that follows touches on sex, war, climate, bathing, gymnastics, baseball, footwear, depression, alcohol, shaving, and the perils of ‘too much brain action and fretting,’ in sometimes rambling prose.”
- While we’re on dead white male writers: Is it time to release Rudyard Kipling from detention? True, he was a racist, colonialist naïf who had the gall to speak of the white man’s burden, but The Jungle Book isn’t as bad as all that, Malcolm Jones writes: “The Jungle Book stories were not written by Colonel Blimp. They are not propaganda. They have no agenda. And they are not, in fact, even very optimistic at heart. If anything, Kipling’s tales quietly but inescapably leave their readers with a chilly view of life—nasty, poor, brutish, and short (except for elephants, who live practically forever). First and last, the Mowgli stories condemn all humans as foolish, superstitious, mean-spirited, and full of hubris, specifically for our propensity to assume superiority over the animal kingdom … The truth is, Kipling wrote a lot of ill-conceived garbage and he wrote a lot of truly wonderful fiction as well, and it’s usually not at all hard to tell the difference. Even when it is, the effort is justified. Pondering how a writer so good could occasionally go so wrong forces us to contemplate how all of us, even the most enlightened, can be swayed and deluded by the assumptions and beliefs that hold sway in the times in which we live.”
- There was a time, roughly a quarter century ago, when one would hear the phrase “I feel like” only in catchy ads for Chicken Tonight. But now the phrase is everywhere, leaving our discourse awash in subjectivity. As Molly Worthen writes, “ ‘I feel like’ masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too—but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks … The phrase cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning. It turns emotion into a cudgel that smashes the distinction—and even in our relativistic age, there remains a distinction—between evidence out in the world and internal sentiments known only to each of us.”
- If your goal is to shake the education system to its bedrock, upending the very notion of a curriculum and doing away with universities as we know them … you’re gonna need some convincing posters. When Maurice Stein and Larry Miller wrote the Blueprint for Counter Education, they were sure to spruce up all that talk of Eldridge Cleaver and Jean-Luc Godard with some impressive visuals, now collected in a new edition of the book. “Surrounded by charts, the participant will be confronted by ideas and issues that compel him to interact with everything going on around him—from movies, to riots, to political campaigns,” the introduction reads. “There is no text book, no syllabus, no final exam … THE REVOLUTION BEGINS HERE.”
- Reading Joseph Brodsky’s poem “On Love,” Kathryn Harrison was struck by the line “For darkness restores what the light cannot repair”: “The line also defines writing, at least writing the way I experience it. For me, writing is a process that demands cerebral effort, but it’s also one informed by the unconscious. My work is directed by the needs of my unconscious. And through that dark, opaque process, I can restore what might otherwise be lost … I teach writing, and before I taught I never would guessed the thing I say most often is: ‘Please stop thinking.’ But people really write better without thinking, by which I mean without self-consciousness.”
- Jim Harrison has died at seventy-eight. “You don’t write—an artist doesn’t create, or very rarely creates—good art in support of different causes,” he told The Paris Review in 1988. “And critics have an enormous difficulty separating the attitudes of your characters from your attitudes as a writer. You have to explain to them: I am not all the men in my novels. How could I be? I’m little Jimmy back here on the farm with my wife and two daughters, and, at one time, three female horses, three female cats, and three female dogs, and I’m quite a nice person.”
- Fact: you, too, can enjoy Aldous Huxley waxing lyrical about a controversial Los Angeles sewage treatment plant. “One day in 1939, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, and two women walk along the shore south of Los Angeles. The weather is beautiful, the beach is empty, and Shakespeare is debated. Then the group realizes that something’s funny about the beach. As Huxley put it in the essay, ‘Like Hyperion to a Satyr,’ they are suddenly walking among ‘ten million emblems and mementos of Modern Love … Malthusian flotsam and unspeakable jetsam.’ The four had found themselves among a sea of used condoms that ejected by Los Angeles’s Hyperion sewage treatment plant. Huxley returned to those shores a few years later, after LA upgraded the plant in 1950. He was overjoyed with what he saw, and what he thought the vista suggested about the city: ‘Another torrent, this time about 99.95 percent pure, rushes down through the submarine outfall and mingles, a mile offshore, with the Pacific. The problem of keeping a great city clean without polluting a river or fouling the beaches, and without robbing the soil of its fertility, has been triumphantly solved.’ ”
- In America, Joseph Brodsky is often held up as “the poster boy for Soviet persecution,” as Cynthia Haven writes—but a new biography is trying to change that perception: “Ellendea Proffer Teasley, in her short new memoir, Brodskij sredi nas (Brodsky Among Us), offers a different view of the poet. It’s an iconoclastic and spellbinding portrait, some of it revelatory. Teasley’s Brodsky is both darker and brighter than the one we thought we knew, and he is the stronger for it … According to the leading critic Anna Narinskaya, writing in the newspaper Kommersant, Teasley’s memoir had been written ‘without teary-eyed ecstasy or vicious vengefulness, without petty settling of scores with the deceased—or the living—and at the same time demonstrating complete comprehension of the caliber and extreme singularity of her “hero” ’ … Even so, the book has yet to find a publisher in English, the language in which it was written.”
- Do you want Saul Bellow’s desk? He sat there, wrote some books. And it’s nice—a mahogany roll-top job dating to the Victorian era. A steal at ten thousand bucks. Please buy it. Please, please buy it. No one else is buying it, Bellow’s son told the Wall Street Journal: “I guess space is expensive on the Upper West Side. Nobody’s got room for a giant piece of furniture … I thought, well, this will provoke discussion. But it really didn’t … I’m moving to a smaller place and the desk just isn’t fitting into the plan.”
- Problem: a staging at the Park Avenue Armory of Louis Andriessen’s 1988 avant-garde opera, De Materie, calls for one hundred sheep. Solution: get the fucking sheep. “Simply getting hold of so many stage-ready sheep was an exceptionally difficult bit of opera casting … The bane of international opera stars is a visa system that can be difficult to navigate. For opera sheep, it is getting the right veterinary certificates, exhibiting permits, humane handling paperwork and the like … Then there was the question of where to house them. The ovine troupers could not sleep at the Armory; could not commute from Pennsylvania; and would not have been welcome at the hotels that usually cater to visiting sopranos. So accommodations were found at the Bronx Equestrian Center, which has stables in Pelham Bay Park. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which has jurisdiction over animals in performances, issued a permit to allow the project to go ahead … Then the Armory had to be readied. A backstage paddock was built and soundproofed … ”
Mikhail Baryshnikov’s new “anti-ballet.”
At the New Riga Theatre, before a recent performance of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s new one-man show, Brodsky / Baryshnikov, women combed their hair and adjusted their furs in the yellow lobby’s mirror-paneled walls. Some had camped out overnight for tickets when they first went on sale in September; seats sold out almost immediately and promptly began circulating on the black market for many hundreds of euros. Wealthy Russians jetted in from Moscow and Saint Petersburg for the event—the director Alvis Hermanis and Baryshnikov are both persona non-grata in Russia, so the entirely Russian-language performance will not stop in Russia during its upcoming international tour.
The well-heeled crowd greeted one another with “Ciao, ciao” before slipping into their native tongues, the theater a burble of Latvian, Russian, English, and French. They were all there to see the return of “their” prodigal son, but the performance they witnessed was something more akin to the return of the prodigal son as old man. Mikhail Baryshnikov is, after all, sixty-seven years old. He is no longer a prodigy, but emeritus.
“Those who expect the typical Baryshnikov pirouettes and splits … are likely to be disappointed,” Latvian critic Undine Adamaite wrote in Diena, a Latvian daily. Read More
- Amazon has launched a juggernaut of a Kindle store in Australia.
- The Joseph Brodsky reading list for facilitating intelligent conversation.
- Alison Bechdel on heading to Broadway.
- Writing for good health
“Repressed Soviet writers had the chance to become political heroes, even when (as in the case of Joseph Brodsky, for instance) their writing was not explicitly political. Every ‘unofficial’ story or poem became an act of bravery, of protest. Illicit literature was circulated among friends and smuggled abroad; the sheer effort devoted to reading and sharing samizdat texts was a testament to their significance. America has its share of homegrown graphomaniacs, hellbent on becoming the next John Grisham or Jonathan Franzen, but it’s just not the same.” In The Nation, our frequent contributor Sophie Pinkham asks what happened to Russian writing. —Lorin Stein
Lately I have been returning to the work of John Thorne. Thorne, who has published an idiosyncratic and resolutely un-foodie newsletter for thirty years, is acknowledged in the trade to be one of our finest food writers. I think he’s one of the best essayists working, full stop: humane, eccentric, incisive. Start with his book Simple Cooking, although you can’t really go wrong. As Thorne writes in his essay “Perfect Food,” “Our appetite should always be larger and more curious than our hunger, turned loose to wander the world’s flesh at will. Perfection is as false an economy in cooking as it is in love, since, with carrots and potatoes as with lovers, the perfectly beautiful are all the same; the imperfect, different in their beauty, every one.” —Sadie Stein Read More
In 2006, a leading Moscow publisher issued Texts Published Without the Permission of the Author, comprised of the works of a well-known Russian poet. Rather than a lawsuit, the book resulted in a literary symposium, accompanied by a debate about the nature of copyright and, finally, the first translation of Kirill Medvedev’s works into English. In December 2012, It’s No Good: poems/essays/actions—a compilation of the thirty-seven-year-old poet-activist’s work—was published, indeed, technically without the permission of the author, by n+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse.
Medvedev, a controversial figure in the contemporary Russian poetry scene, stopped publishing in 2003. He would continue to release poetry, essays, and calls to political action on his Web site, LiveJournal, and Facebook page. But he renounced all rights to his own work. “I have no copyright to my texts,” he wrote in Manifesto on Copyright, “and cannot have any such right.” He became more deeply involved in leftist activism. Some thought him washed up, a has-been, even crazy. Others were angered by what they deemed a gimmick.
Critical of the post-Soviet liberal intelligentsia, makers of the culture who came to dominate an increasingly booming nineties Russia, Medvedev—who was born in Moscow in 1975—and his work issue directly from the tradition he critiques; his father was a well-known post-Soviet journalist. A decisive moment of separation might be found in his abdication of the most basic literary right. Read More