This week, we’re publishing four short excerpts from The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, a fourteenth-century encyclopedia of … well, everything, or everything known to Arab civilization circa 1314. Compiled with dogged dedication by Shihāb al-Dīn al-Nuwayrī, the book runs to more than nine thousand pages; an abridged version is now available for the first time in English. Ultimate Ambition lives up to its bold title—its eclectic, protean entries cover lunar cults, the sugary drinks in the sultan’s buttery, and how to attract your dream woman by burying a crow’s head. Its translator, Elias Muhanna, believes the compendium affords “a view into the kaleidoscopic and multifarious intellectual tradition of the classical Islamic world”; the New York Review of Books calls it “a bizarre, fascinating book that illustrate[s] the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam.” Today’s extract: Read More
On Pre-Raphaelite muse Jane Morris.
“Defining British Art,” part of this summer’s 250th anniversary sale at London auctioneer Christie’s, included two lots by Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Ligeia Siren (1873), a nude of an unknown model, and Portrait of Jane Morris, bust-length (ca. 1870), a chalk drawing of the legendary Pre-Raphaelite muse—née Jane Burden and known as Janey to her friends—who, despite being married to trailblazing designer William Morris for thirty-seven years, was the love of Rossetti’s life. Only the second work sold (for the tidy sum of £602,500), from which we might infer that Janey’s strange beauty, more than a century after her death, entices at least as much as Rossetti’s signature. A few years ago, his chalk drawing of Janey as Proserpine, goddess of spring and empress of Hades, sold at Sotheby’s for nearly £3.3 million—double the presale estimate.
Rossetti would be gratified indeed. Proserpine, which he reworked in at least eight versions, was his favorite creation, the fullest realization of an artistic drive fueled, above all, by his passion for Janey. A. S. Byatt, in pondering Rossetti’s painterly addiction to Janey in her new book, Peacock and Vine: Fortuny and Morris in Life and at Work, also sees this particular image as the culmination of Rossetti’s entwined artistic and erotic fixations. Byatt, however, is disquieted by it. “There is something appalling,” she writes, “in looking at a whole series of Rossetti’s images, more and more obsessive yet essentially all the same, brooding, dangerous, sexually greedy, too much. The best, and therefore the worst, is Proserpine.” Read More
Christopher Isherwood, born on this day in 1904, met a teenager on the beach in Santa Monica in the early 1950s. It was Don Bachardy, with whom Isherwood began one of the first openly gay relationships in Hollywood. In their love letters, the pair adopted pet names and, with them, exaggerated identities: Isherwood became “Dobbin” and Bachardy “Kitty.” Their correspondence is published in The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, edited by Katherine Bucknell. The excerpt below is from a March 1963 letter from Isherwood.
If “porn poetry” is defined as poetry that’s supposed to turn people on, then we have no tradition of porn poetry in English. What we have instead is a bunch of what might be called “exhilarating nastiness”: poetry that’s basically a revenge against sex, a way of processing anxiety.
Don’t get me wrong. The material I seem to be dismissing is my favorite stuff in the world. Rochester, Swift, Seidel: they are disgusting and great. I have no real complaints about these guys. They speak to my concerns.
Still, these days, I’ve become interested in expanding my borders beyond what I call “therapeutic art.” My anxieties ain’t going nowhere; they’ll be here when I get back. How about some poetry that comes straight out of delight and high spirits? Poetry that never heard of revenge or consolation. Read More
How the Brooklyn Bridge became a living landfill.
I too saw the satin ribbons, the scrunchies, the clothing tags, the fat knots of underwear and panty hose, had my eyes dazzled by the foil of a bag of potato chips, the ripped labels of Poland Spring water bottles, look’d on the clear plastic rosary with a cross, the teak mantra beads strung on red thread, look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of a plastic spoon, and saw how four black locks neatly proselytized in gold marker (JESUS <3’S YOU, BE A CHRISTIAN, KEEP GOD <3 FIRST <3, GOD IS GREAT). Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge one evening last week, I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me when I saw the white diaphanous fluff of tampons—unused, I hope—that had been tied to the railings by the living crowd. Read More