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Dorothy Parker is said to have been the author of one of the best quotes in history: “Eternity is a ham and two people.” Like many such quips, it’s hard to find the original source—although in this case, we can safely assume that life was certainly the direct inspiration.
It’s not just that hams are big—they were even more massive in Parker’s day than they are now—or that a little of the salty meat goes a long way. It’s also the fact that a ham goes immediately from a thing of festive beauty (cue pineapple rings, scored surfaces studded with cloves, glistening patina) to a professional leftover. It goes very gentle into that good night. And, because it is cured, and because it can be used in so many ways, and because you can always, always scrape more meat off that bone—well, you’re really never justified in throwing it away. It’s with you for eternity. Read More
- When Richard Dawkins conceived of memes, he imagined them as units of culture, transmitted like viruses to contribute to our social evolution. But Internet memes have distorted the meaning of the term, arguably to uselessness. “Trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins … seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a ‘hijacking’ of the original term.”
- George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) is good for a whole host of reasons, but it’s “a particularly potent corrective to the current cottage industry centering on ‘the writing life’—in which literary production is seen as glamorous, in which photos of writers’ desks appear on Pinterest and readers obsess over the perfect pen with which to write their buried masterpiece. The lesson of Gissing is that most novelists are bitter failures—always were, and always will be.”
- Curmudgeonly grandparents around the world would have you believe that textspeak is a travesty, a crime against language. But it has, in so many ways, expanded and streamlined our methods of communicating: our tonal varietyyyyy, our semiotics (!!!), our ability to corretc (*correct) ourselves …
- The postal service’s new Maya Angelou stamp contains many perfectly nice words—“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song”—but they weren’t written by Maya Angelou. “A Postal Service spokesman told the newspaper that the line, which has been widely attributed to Angelou by people including President Obama, was approved for use on the stamp by Angelou’s family.”
- The insidious logic of the trailer has made its way from movies to music and books—now there are trailers for college courses, too. “A branding tactic once reserved for the marketplace has entered the marketplace of ideas.”
I’ve always loved this line of Emily Dickinson’s: “November always seemed to me the Norway of the year.” Where did I first encounter it? Who knows—maybe a kid’s book of quotations or a calendar or something else. I know the context was cheerful rather than melancholy, although on a day like this one—gray, rainy, fall shading into winter—it felt apt, in its gnomic way.
What did Norway convey to Dickinson, who had never left New England? A bleaker, more romantic version of the same? A place of Norse legends and epics? Perhaps she’d met Scandinavian immigrants and this informed her remark. But however she intended it, it’s so evocative. It was not until very recently that I read the fuller context, from an 1864 letter to her frequent correspondent Elizabeth Holland:
It is also November. The noons are more laconic and the sunsets sterner, and Gibraltar lights make the village foreign. November always seemed to me the Norway of the year. —— is still with the sister who put her child in an ice nest last Monday forenoon. The redoubtable God! I notice where Death has been introduced, he frequently calls, making it desirable to forestall his advances.
In the same letter, she mentions the recent death of the family’s maid, Margaret O’Brien—“I winced at her loss, because I was in the habit of her, and even a new rolling-pin has an embarrassing element, but to all except anguish, the mind soon adjusts.” Another friend is ill. And, of course, there would have been the background of the Civil War, felt even from within her home. The letter ends, “Sharper than dying is the death for the dying’s sake.”
The first English translation of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s landmark Popular Tales from the Norse appeared in 1859. It’s filled with trolls, enchanted animals, captive princesses held under spells. One of the best known is “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a Cupid-Psyche story in which a maiden is only allowed to interact with her husband by darkness. Others feature mountain people, envious of those who get to live by daylight. Did it make its way to Amherst? I have never read of it in Dickinson’s letters, but perhaps a scholar can tell me otherwise.
“I’ve never seen the point of New York,” someone said to me last week, in a foreign city, upon learning that it was my hometown.
I must confess to being nonplussed by this. I hadn’t fielded such an idiotic remark since middle school. Back then, I would have responded in kind with some nonsense—“Well, since it’s not pyramid-shaped, neither have I,” or something about John Stuart Mill, if I knew about him—but now this did not come so easily. Most of us have long since learned that there’s not much sport in breaking the fine-print clauses of the social contract.
And most of us learn the hard way. My most shameful memory is of creeping around a tree, perhaps in second grade, at Reynolds Field, and hissing, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker,” at a mystified five-year-old. I knew instantly that I had not conjured the mystery and allure I’d been going for; that I was, in fact, an ass. I have never admitted that before. I wonder if that kid remembers it. I really hope not.
But now I am a grown-up. So I quoted to him one of the few things I know by heart:
On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.
I finished. We stared at each other blankly.
“That was E.B. White,” I said.
“I meant it rhetorically,” he said.
The English translation of Roberto Bolaño’s excellent final novella, A Little Lumpen Novelita, is out this month. The book opens with an epigraph by Antonin Artaud, who was born today in 1896: “All writing is garbage. People who come out of nowhere to try to put into words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs.”
Since I read it about a month ago, I’ve thought of this quotation every day, often as I’m writing—you can imagine the rat-a-tat of my keyboard punctuated with an occasional “All writing is garbage.” It’s a bracing sentiment, taunting and misanthropic, and a truer one than most of us would care to admit. At the moment, it flies in the face of our glad-handing literary culture, where every book is a good book and every writer in every M.F.A. program partakes of a dignified struggle with Art.
Here’s how that quotation, which comes from Artaud’s The Nerve Meter (1925), goes on: Read More