- John Jeremiah Sullivan on Shuffle Along, one of the first all-black musicals on Broadway: “The blacks-in-blackface tradition, which lasted more than a century in this country, strikes most people, on first hearing of its existence, as deeply bizarre, and it was. But it emerged from a single crude reality: African American people were not allowed to perform onstage for much of the nineteenth century. They could not, that is, appear as themselves … In Shuffle Along, two black people fell in love onstage, and [the journalist Les] Walton wanted to see how a white audience would handle this … What he expected to see was not rage or revolt but something more ambiguous, an occasional discomfort passing through the room, and perhaps at certain moments a holding-back too, on the part of the cast. ‘White audiences, for some reason,’ Walton wrote, ‘do not want colored people to indulge in too much lovemaking.’ ”
- Speaking of musicals: American Psycho is one now. When Bret Easton Ellis’s novel came out, in 1991, some bookstores refused to stock it. Times have changed. As Dwight Garner writes, “This novel was ahead of its time. The culture has shifted to make room for Bateman. We’ve developed a taste for barbaric libertines with twinkling eyes and some zing in their tortured souls … Reading Mr. Ellis’s novel today, the hysteria of 1991 is almost inexplicable to me. It’s apparent from the start that Patrick Bateman is a sendup of a blank Wall Street generation. He’s a male mannequin, the ultimate soulless product of a soulless time … Something has happened since 1991 to our response to violence, especially when it is seasoned with a shake of wet or, especially, dry humor. Increasingly inured to the mess, we’ve learned to savor the wit.”
- What about Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary? Was it, too, ahead of its time? Though its observations about youth and work have long been dismissed as pedestrian, the economy has made them radically prescient, as Daniel Wenger writes: “Two years before Sex and the City, Fielding offered a third-wave route around the battleground between love and power … Today, Bridget Jones needn’t be limited to the confines of its chick-lit designation. The notion that the equations of life do not add up is still a particular problem for women of all ages, but many young people, no matter their gender, will find some of Bridget’s story familiar. Within a couple of years of graduating college, Bridget would have found her job prospects threatened by the global recession of the late eighties and early nineties; even when we first meet her, she’s flitting from position to position. Millennials began joining the workforce in the wake of the Great Recession, and according to a 2014 Council of Economic Advisers report, the consequence is an almost epigenetic stain on professional lives.”
- Sometimes people talk about fiction and nonfiction, and I’m like, What’s really the difference, you know? And they sort of phumpher and mumble a bit before they throw their hands up. But a lot of us feel this way: “According to Geoff Dyer, who says his next book is ‘a mixture of both fiction and non- but will be published as non-,’ the strength of the distinction in anglophone culture has waxed and waned … The nonfiction novels of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer blurred the lines again in the 1960s, he continues, and the boundary is ‘perhaps going through another porous phase right now’ … ‘You’d have to go back to the early nineteenth century or earlier to a time when “literature” referred to fiction and nonfiction rather than to a particular, highly regarded form of imaginative writing,’ he adds. Dyer cites Raymond Williams, who suggested that ‘the special regard in which fiction comes to be held … is probably connected to romanticism and the emphasis put on the imagination—which is itself a response to the rise of industrialization: a very fact-based process as Dickens emphasizes later in Hard Times.’ ”
- But why stop there? Why knock down the walls between genres when you can mount an assault on the separation between language and culture? On Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal: “He argues that language, like everything else that matters to human beings, cannot be understood as a kind of semantic Lego, where we acquire individual words with firm, clear shapes and string them together to form sentences, paragraphs, essays, and books. Language is shaped by the culture that has produced it, which means that it, in turn, shapes those who go on to use it. Hence: ‘The basic thesis of this book is that language can only be understood if we understand its constitutive role in human life’ … He agrees that ‘speech is the expression of thought,’ but insists ‘it isn’t simply an outer clothing for what could exist independently.’ The broadly Wittgensteinian alternative he offers to this reductionism is a kind of holism, in which the meanings of words hang together in complex webs in which culture and semantics cannot be disentangled.”
How Smart Reply attempts to mimic the way we talk.
Last month, researchers at Google unveiled Smart Reply, a piece of artificial intelligence that scans the e-mail you’re reading on your phone and suggests three possible responses. Why bother composing an answer yourself? Now you can choose one of Smart Reply’s with a quick tap. “Do you have any vacation plans set yet?” asks the sample e-mail. “No plans yet,” you might choose; or “I just sent them to you”; or “I’m working on them.”
Smart Reply uses neural networks to calibrate its future suggestions, meaning it learns from how we use it. But Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist on the project, observed a “bizarre feature of our early prototype”: “its propensity to respond with ‘I love you’ to seemingly anything.” Analysis suggested “that the system was doing exactly what we’d trained it to do, generate likely responses—and it turns out that responses like Thanks, Sounds good, and I love you are super common.” Read More
- In which Tom McCarthy, Rachel Kushner, Paul Muldoon, and other writers are photographed in their offices: “Helicopters, the L.A.P.D.’s crazy hobby, thunder overhead, chasing some guy who stole a Honda Element,” Kushner writes of her home office in LA. “The whoop-whoop of sirens comes next. I sit at my desk, less than a mile from the criminal courts and the jail, structures of human sacrifice, where people’s lives get wrecked.”
- “I talked about the times he had slapped me and the times he had locked me in the cellar, and the point of these stories was always the same: his fury was always triggered by some petty detail, some utter triviality, and as such was actually comical. At any rate we laughed when we told the stories. Once I had left a pair of gloves on the bus and he slapped me in the face when he found out. I had leaned against the wobbly table in the hall and sent it flying and he came over and hit me. It was absolutely absurd!” A new excerpt from the long-awaited fourth volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle.
- A strain of occultism runs through Yeats’s poetry—“do-it-yourself religion,” as Seamus Heaney called it—and sure enough, “as a young man, according to the scholar Kathleen Raine, Yeats had a pack of Tarot cards among his ‘few and treasured possessions.’ In London, in 1887, he was initiated into the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn, one of those secret societies that tend, as Raine remarks, ‘to relate everything with everything—letters with numbers, with cycles of months, years, and the signs of the zodiac, with parts of the body, celestial and infernal hierarchies of angels, with minerals, metals, plants, and animals.’ ”
- On Obadiah Slope, the “calculating curate” at the center of Trollope’s Barchester Towers: “Isn’t Slope just a man seeking a better job and, into the bargain, a wife with a comfortable income? What exactly does he do, and why is he so disturbing? Ruthlessly fawning, constantly trying to wriggle his way into favor with the rich and powerful, and in the process tread on the heads of others, Slope is a particularly poisonous example of the kind of creep that haunts almost any organization or social group.”
- Reports by the World Bank are torturing the English language like never before—these “grammatico-political monstrosities” amount to a new form of expression, “Bankspeak.” “In the world of ‘management’, people have goals and agendas; faced with opportunities, challenges and critical situations, they elaborate strategies. To appreciate the novelty, let’s recall that, in the 1950s–60s, issues were studied by experts who surveyed and conducted missions, published reports, assisted, advised and suggested programs.”
- In London, the anti-café has arrived. It’s a place where you pay about a nickel a minute to sit around and drink free coffee. Will the intelligentsia cotton to it? We’ll keep you posted.
- Golden Globes be damned—yesterday also saw the announcement of the National Book Critics Circle award nominations.
- If you must transpose real people into fictional avatars, heed Christopher Isherwood’s advice: “You can question their morals, call them liars, expose them as thieves—as long as you describe them as attractive.”
- Arthur Schopenhauer: post-Kantian metaphysician, notorious curmudgeon, prophetic technofuturist?
- The Supreme Court is about to argue semantics. Among the prickly issues to be addressed: what does happen mean?
The Portuguese word saudade connotes this beautiful expectation of nostalgia for a current moment. There’s a word that describes the place where your collarbone meets the neck. Tom Robbins makes up erleichda, a combination of a command, interrogation, and request to “lighten up.” Are there any such words in English? I know Shakespeare made up the word encorpsed, but it doesn’t seem to have settled in as comfortably to our vernacular.
You pose a deep question, Alex. By “any such words,” I take it you mean words with highly specific functions, words that it is hard to believe are single words. But seen in a certain light, most words are like that. Just now at the sandwich place down the street, the barista asked a customer whether he wanted a tray, then she pulled down one of those egg-carton thingies with the indentations in it for cups. And suddenly it seemed strange to me that we have such a short word, tray, for such a specific tool—a portable horizontal surface on which to carry prepared foodstuffs—that comes in so many shapes and sizes.
After all, get has the longest definition in the OED.
But maybe you are thinking specifically of new words. And yes, English is always full of those. In the sixteenth century, it must have been a semantic thrill to hear words like scapegoat and beautiful, both coined by William Tyndale for his translation of the Bible. Until then, no one knew a word for “the goat that you send off into the wilderness with your iniquities on its back,” or to say a thing was “characterized by beauty.” Some words still surprise me that way. German friends tell me they have no word for ear, in the sense of “you have a good ear.” To them the word is magic. (“That is why we will never have an Elmore Leonard.”)
And if saudade sounds exotic to you, try explaining to a Portuguese the exact meaning of fun.