- Today in noble sidelines: in the same way that you or I might go to the gym or take a few shots of Cuervo Gold, Russian diplomats like to write poetry as a means of “blowing off steam.” And they do this intently—there’s a 541-page anthology of poems from Russian and Soviet diplomats. “Poets and diplomats use the same building blocks: the idea and the word,” Vladimir Kazimirov, a former Soviet and Russian ambassador, told the Washington Post. The foreign minister Sergei Lavrov wrote one that goes like this: “And they served the country, feeling its nerves as their own / And learned the art of how to agree and to trade / And they learned how to live, respecting others on merit / And taught others how to respect Russia always … ”
- Last month, Saul Bellow’s desk was up for sale, and it went nowhere. Now J. K. Rowling’s chair, in a move that must have Bellow’s desk seriously pissed, has sold for $394,000. “The unassuming 1930s-era oak chair with a replacement burlap seat decorated with a red thistle sat in front of Rowling’s typewriter when she was ‘writing two of the most important books of the modern era,’ said James Gannon, director of rare books at Heritage Auctions … [The seller] said he would like to see the new buyer display it somewhere where children could see it, perhaps in a museum or theme park.”
- When he wasn’t writing The Origin of Species, Darwin apparently just left the manuscript lying around in conspicuous places—so his children got a hold of it and doodled all over the thing. “At age eight, George Howard Darwin, who grew up to be an astronomer and a mathematician, draws an entire visual taxonomy of the British infantry; Francis Darwin, who followed in his father’s footsteps and became a botanist, draws a warring salad; on a dummy envelope, an unidentified child produces a charming caricature of Darwin himself … From a fish with legs to a fruit-and-vegetable cavalry, these irrepressibly joyful drawings, some inspired by natural history and some by the typical staples of boyhood fantasy, bespeak the inseparability of science and life.”
- At last, we have a scientific corroboration of creepiness: what’s creepy, who’s creepy, where the creepy things are, and why. Two researchers from Knox College “concluded that a person’s ‘creepiness detector’ pings when she encounters something unpredictable or outside the norm, like a person with idiosyncratic behavioral patterns, unusual physical characteristics, or a tendency to over- or under-emote … People were creeped out by those who repeatedly licked their lips; laughed at inappropriate moments; and habitually steered their conversations toward a single subject, particularly sex … Many of the attributes survey participants rated the creepiest—greasy hair, pale skin, ‘peculiar smile,’ bags under the eyes, unkempt hair, dirty clothing, ‘bulging eyes’—seem indicative of a deeper prejudice against people with poor hygiene or conventionally unattractive features … The creepiest occupations, according the survey-takers, are clowns, taxidermists, sex-shop owners, and funeral directors.”
- Is it creepy to listen to the ocean? To really love listening to the ocean? In the seventies, Irv Teibel convinced a bunch of countercultural types that environmental records were “the future of music”: “Pick up a copy of Environments 1, and you don’t see any of its backstory. There’s no sign of the all-nighters, the stacks of failed beach tapes, or the greasy burgers; no credits or place designations … What you do see are promises, and lots of them. The front boasts the track titles, all-caps beneath a long view of a foamy wave: ‘Side 1: THE PSYCHOLOGICALLY ULTIMATE SEASHORE. Side 2: OPTIMUM AVIARY’ … Early test pressings displayed at the Harvard Coop outsold the Beatles at exam time, as students used recorded surf to drown out noisy neighbors. Bolstered by this early success, in the summer of 1970, Atlantic Records & Tapes bought the rights, expanded distribution, and embarked on a small marketing campaign. ‘This album contains no music, no singing, no spoken words,’ one ad begins, before this surprise kicker: ‘ … And it’s one of the Hottest-sellers in the Underground!’ ”
- Kafka isn’t often remembered for his sunny worldview. Surprising, then, to read his effusions about the hustle and bustle of the Paris metro, which you’d think would’ve depressed the hell out of him: “The noise of the Metro was terrible when I took it for the first time in my life, from Montmartre to the grand boulevards. Aside from that it isn’t bad, rather it even intensifies the pleasant, calm feeling of speed. The advertisement for Dubonnet is very well-suited to being read, expected, and observed by sad and unoccupied passengers. Elimination of language from commerce, since one does not have to speak when paying, or when getting on or off. Because it is so easy to understand, the Metro offers the best opportunity for an eager, weakly foreigner to assure himself that he has quickly and correctly made his way into the very essence of Paris on his first try.”
- If Kafka’s too much the Pollyanna for your liking, you can return to abject misery by having a look at Hermann Göring’s art collection: Sarah Wildman writes, “the catalogue of Göring’s art provides a perversely fascinating yardstick for the changing taste of a man known for personal eccentricities as well as horrifying brutality. The emphasis, at first, is on northern European Romanticism, along with the nude female form. But the collection shifts, becomes more expansive, and, occasionally, eschews the Nazi laws on so-called degenerate art to scoop up some of the modern greats … The catalogue provides a fuller picture of how spoliation itself was an integral, early part of the Nazi effort to degrade, dehumanize, and expel the Jews, setting the stage, ultimately, for mass murder.”
- In which Tony Tulathimutte dares to imagine the unimaginable—technology that actually helps writers do their jobs better: “Google could team up with the NSA to digitize and index every word ever written or recorded, and make this omni-corpus available for indexing, mining, and categorizing. Or by being trained on a personal corpus of writing samples, the detector could be adapted to learn an author’s pet phrases. Zadie Smith pointed out that in all of her novels someone ‘rummages in their purse’; our program would flag each instance, as well as any variations … It could be tailored to specific genres: ‘heaving bosoms’ in romance, ‘throughout history’ in student papers, ‘please advise’ in business emails. Beyond merely detecting clichés, the program could also offer statistically unique replacements for each cliché, constructed by thesaural substitution and grammatical reshuffling.”
- Today in enduring industry dilemmas: How much should writers and publishers get paid? James McConnachie renews the oldest debate in books: “Writers and publishers are in it together, I tend to feel. Not always in a cuddly way. Sometimes more in a screaming-down-the-mineshaft way … When a publisher tells you he ‘shares your frustration,’ ask him how much he earns—and quite how little he’d pay his lowest paid editorial assistant before he felt he was exploiting the vulnerability of their position. Before he felt he was endangering the long-term sustainability of his business. Publishing is a market, but it is also a fragile ecosystem, and right now we are losing not just individual writers but entire species of authors.”
- If you’d prefer to think on something loftier, you might ask yourself instead: How do sea creatures have sex? Marah J. Hardt’s Sex in the Sea is here for you. “From rays finding each other through magnetic charges, to whales with labyrinthine labia,” Colin Dickey writes, “Hardt trawls the sea for all manner of odd reproductive habits, including the deep-sea worm, the Osedax, the males of which are tiny, microscopic animals that live entirely inside the females … For many species, including the clownfish, the fish have it both ways: they start off as male, impregnating females left and right; then, as they mature and grow, they switch sex, becoming larger, mature, adult females who can hold more eggs. Known by ichthyologists as BOFFFFs (Big, Old, Fat, Fecund Female Fish), these matriarchs incorporate a number of reproductive advantages not available to those of us stuck with one sex our whole lives.”
- Kathryn Schulz’s Thoreau-bashing New Yorker piece last week was only the latest in a long tradition of broadsides against Walden—people love to hate Thoreau. James Russell Lowell, Garrison Keillor, Jill Lepore, and Bill Bryson have all taken swipes at him in print. But all of them, and especially Schulz, are dearly misreading him, especially when they accuse him of misanthropy: “He was active in circulating petitions for neighbors in need. He was attentive to what was going on in the community. He was involved in the Underground Railroad. He quit his first teaching job, in protest, because he was expected to administer corporal punishment, and struggled to find a new one. He loved watermelons, and threw an annual watermelon party for his friends, of whom he had plenty. Children were especially fond of him … He was very handy. He could dance, and play music. He wrote lovingly about his father, mother, and siblings in his journals, and they wrote lovingly about him, and he was so devastated by his brother’s death that he developed symptoms of tetanus in sympathy.”
- Notes from the annals of traffic planning: one of the greatest innovations in Frederick Law Olmsted’s designs for Central Park was his way of guiding people and horses—and, later, cars—gently away from one another: “In 1900 there were some two hundred horse-related deaths in New York City. Thus Olmsted and Vaux’s strict division of circulation in the park acknowledged the ever-present danger of such accidents by consigning heavy east–west vehicular traffic to crosstown transverses sunk well below surface level, while above-grade pedestrian footpaths dipped beneath north–south roadways through small bridges and short tunnels … This concept of dual circulation soon became an article of faith among progressive planners in the United States and Europe. Clarence Stein and Henry Wright’s much-praised 1929 design for Radburn, New Jersey—touted as the ‘New Town for the Motor Age’—so effectively segregates cars and people that children can walk to local schools and playgrounds without crossing a street. Stein, whose Central Park West apartment overlooked the 65th Street Transverse, said that he discovered what became known as ‘the Radburn idea’ simply by peering out his front window.”
- The Polish writer Agnieszka Taborska is gazing seaward, as writers are wont to do. In the ocean she’s found a suitable home for surrealism: “The sea calms and alarms. Its swoosh is compared to a hundred sounds at once and yet there’s no way to convey the whole complexity. Screams, wails, thunderclaps, whistles, moans, rumbles, shrieks of exhortation, the boom of waves breaking on rocks, seagulls’ cries, sirens’ chants, the weeping of sailors tickled to death, half-audible words coming from no one knows where, transfused with their own echo. Ghost ships on the horizon, spirits of castaways floating on waves nearer the shore, shadowed by the amused look of a mermaid combing her wet locks for eternity … And then there are the beaches! Dunes torn asunder by secret life.”
- “Do you remember Novokuznetskaya Station? … My mother threw up at each of the throne-like benches and felt sick at the sight of the lamps that look like a dentist’s spittoons…” Each chapter of Hamid Ismailov’s newly translated The Underground is named after a Moscow metro station, which is fun and all, but how is a bewildered, provincial American reader to make heads or tails of these places? You can use Google, for starters—it brings those sick-making spittoon-lamps right to life.
- Isn’t it high time that we give Ursula K. Le Guin the anarchist cred she deserves? “Le Guin has received her due as a master crafter, as the lyrical chronicler of worlds of the imagination, spaces apart from the world, where children and lingering adults can find an oasis. But the political implications of her anarchist aesthetics go much further than that … Stalin said that the poet should be the engineer of human souls. Le Guin is the anti-engineer.”
Baudelaire was born on this day in 1821. You may know that he’s credited with coining the term modernité, or that he helped to shape our theory of the flâneur; but you likely did not know that he was a seafaring man, with an unslakable thirst for the ocean. (An irresistibly bad pun presents itself: Boatelaire. But let’s pretend I didn’t write that.) Here’s “Already!”, a prose poem translated from the French by Aleister Crowley.
A hundred times already the sun had leaped, radiant or saddened, from the immense cup of the sea whose rim could scarcely be seen; a hundred times it had again sunk, glittering or morose, into its mighty bath of twilight. For many days we had contemplated the other side of the firmament, and deciphered the celestial alphabet of the antipodes. And each of the passengers sighed and complained. One had said that the approach of land only exasperated their sufferings. “When, then,” they said, “shall we cease to sleep a sleep broken by the surge, troubled by a wind that snores louder than we? When shall we be able to eat at an unmoving table?”
There were those who thought of their own firesides, who regretted their sullen, faithless wives, and their noisy progeny. All so doted upon the image of the absent land, that I believe they would have eaten grass with as much enthusiasm as the beasts.
At length a coast was signalled, and on approaching we saw a magnificent and dazzling land. It seemed as though the music of life flowed therefrom in a vague murmur; and the banks, rich with all kinds of growths, breathed, for leagues around, a delicious odour of flowers and fruits.
Each one therefore was joyful; his evil humour left him. Quarrels were forgotten, reciprocal wrongs forgiven, the thought of duels was blotted out of the memory, and rancour fled away like smoke.
I alone was sad, inconceivably sad. Like a priest from whom one has torn his divinity, I could not, without heartbreaking bitterness, leave this so monstrously seductive ocean, this sea so infinitely various in its terrifying simplicity, which seemed to contain in itself and represent by its joys, and attractions, and angers, and smiles, the moods and agonies and ecstasies of all souls that have lived, that live, and that shall yet live.
In saying good-bye to this incomparable beauty I felt as though I had been smitten to death; and that is why when each of my companions said: “At last!” I could only cry “Already!”
Here meanwhile was the land, the land with its noises, its passions, its commodities, its festivals: a land rich and magnificent, full of promises, that sent to us a mysterious perfume of rose and musk, and from whence the music of life flowed in an amorous murmuring.