Posts Tagged ‘literature’
Cultural critique is in a tricky spot. Living as we do under an extremist government, it is hard to know what to do with criticism, or how to consume art that does not carry a big rubber stamp declaring it “political.” It’s hard to defend doing anything except being in the streets…
Cultural criticism is not self-indulgent: It is a service to the community… Painting, music, television, the visual culture of the internet, poetry: These art forms and their consumers and critics represent an aesthetic space whose boundaries are not defined by the president. Unless we believe in and nurture this space, the critic is stuck forever explaining how this or that book is crucial reading “in Trump’s America.” But this type of reviewing hobbles thought, because it reduces all art to the structure of satire. It is as if Trump is a spider in the middle of a web, and every review that tethers the meaning of a pop song to his régime strengthens it…
Art as society’s hope chest: “In Defense of Cultural Criticism in Trump’s America.”
* Bob Dylan, “The Times, They Are A’-Changin'”
As we think for ourselves, we might recall that it was on this date in 1839 that Charlotte Brontë, eldest of the three literary Brontë sisters, and author of Jane Eyre (among other novels), wrote to The Reverend Henry Nussey, the brother of Ellen Nussey, her long-time friend and correspondent, refusing Henry’s proposal of marriage. Charlotte found Henry desperately dull. Still, she let him down diplomatically. “I have no personal repugnance to the idea of a union with you,” she wrote in her unenthusiastic reply, going on to cite altruistic reasons for her demurral: “mine is not the sort of disposition calculated to form the happiness of a man like you.”
There was a time when in-flight entertainment was better than anything you could actually bring onto a plane. That time has long passed…
The past– and future– of in-flight entertainment: “Are you not entertained?”
* “Bread and circuses,” Juvenal
As we remember that books are a joyous way to pass a fight, we might send tasty birthday greetings to the culinary genius behind green eggs and ham, Theodor Seuss Geisel, AKA “Dr. Seuss”; he was born on this date in 1904. After a fascinating series of early-career explorations, Geisel settled on a style that created what turned out to be the perfect “gateway drug” to book addiction for generations of young readers.
The more that you read,
The more things you will know.
The more that you learn,
The more places you’ll go.
– I Can Read With My Eyes Shut! (1978)
The notion that intelligence could determine one’s station in life… runs like a red thread through Western thought, from the philosophy of Plato to the policies of UK prime minister Theresa May. To say that someone is or is not intelligent has never been merely a comment on their mental faculties. It is always also a judgment on what they are permitted to do. Intelligence, in other words, is political.
Sometimes, this sort of ranking is sensible: we want doctors, engineers and rulers who are not stupid. But it has a dark side. As well as determining what a person can do, their intelligence – or putative lack of it – has been used to decide what others can do to them. Throughout Western history, those deemed less intelligent have, as a consequence of that judgment, been colonised, enslaved, sterilised and murdered (and indeed eaten, if we include non-human animals in our reckoning).
It’s an old, indeed an ancient, story. But the problem has taken an interesting 21st-century twist with the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI)…
Go mental at “Intelligence: a history.”
Pair with Isaac Asimov’s lighter piece to the same point, “What is intelligence, anyway?”
* Oscar Wilde
As we celebrate variety, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Michel Eyquem de Montaigne; he was born on this date in 1533. Best known during his lifetime as a statesman, Montaigne is remembered for popularizing the essay as a literary form. His effortless merger of serious intellectual exercises with casual anecdotes and autobiography– and his massive volume Essais (translated literally as “Attempts” or “Trials”)– contain what are, to this day, some of the most widely-influential essays ever written. Montaigne had a powerful impact on writers ever after, from Descartes, Pascal, and Rousseau, through Hazlitt, Emerson, and Nietzsche, to Zweig, Hoffer, and Asimov. Indeed, he’s believed to have been an influence on the later works of Shakespeare.
Men (and women) and their machines: “Writers and their typewriters.”
* P.G. Wodehouse
As we let our fingers dance, we might send carefully-composed birthday greetings to John Ernst Steinbeck, Jr.; he was born on this date in 1902. The author of 27 books, including 16 novels, six non-fiction books, and five collections of short stories, he is widely known for the comic novels Tortilla Flat (1935) and Cannery Row (1945), the multi-generation epic East of Eden (1952), and the novellas Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Red Pony (1937). The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is considered Steinbeck’s masterpiece and part of the American literary canon. In the first 75 years after it was published, it sold 14 million copies. In 1962, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The images that pop up in most people’s heads when they think about superheroes can be traced back to the 1938 debut of Superman and the genre evolution that followed. But it’s possible to go back even further, connecting the Hulk to the ancient epic poem of Gilgamesh, and Batman to 17th Century cross-dressing crimefighter Moll Cutpurse…
Heroic history at: “How Ancient Legends Gave Birth to Modern Superheroes.”
* Stephen Hawking
As we investigate our icons, we might recall that it was on this date in 1885 that Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in the U.S. Considered by many to be the Great American Novel, Huckleberry Finn has been controversial from it birth (e.g., here and here)– indeed, the controversy began before its birth: The UK and Canadian edition came out two months earlier; the U.S. version was delayed because one of the engravers added an obscenity to one of the illustrations: on p. 283, an illustration of Aunt Sally and Silas Phelps was augmented by the addition of a penis. Thirty thousand copies of the book had been printed before the unwanted addition was discovered. A new plate was made to correct the illustration and repair the existing copies; still, copies with the so-called “curved fly” plate remain valuable collectors items.
So far as we know, the earliest pillows date back over 9,000 years to Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq. Formed from stone, the top was carved in a half-moon shape to support the neck. The idea obviously wasn’t comfort, at least not immediate comfort. The basic function of the pillow was to keep the head off the ground and prevent insects from crawling into mouths, noses, and ears. Ancient Egyptians and Chinese also used similar pillows, though each culture had its own reasons for them…
Learn how the pillow evolved in function–and happily, in form– at “Pillows Throughout The Ages.”
* Michel de Montaigne
As we lay down our heads, we might send grateful birthday greetings to the extraordinary Jules Verne, imaginative writer non pareil (c.f., e.g., here); he was born in Nantes on this date in 1828.
Best known for his novels A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869–1870), Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) and The Mysterious Island (1875), Verne is the second most translated (individual) author of all time, behind Agatha Christie. He is considered, with H.G. Wells, the founder of science fiction.
Verne was startlingly prescient: Paris in the 20th Century, for example, describes air conditioning, automobiles, the Internet, television, even electricity, and other modern conveniences very similar to their real world counterparts, developed years– in many cases, decades– later. From the Earth to the Moon, apart from using a space gun instead of a rocket, is uncannily similar to the real Apollo Program: three astronauts are launched from the Florida peninsula– from “Tampa Town” (only 130 miles from NASA’s Cape Canaveral)– and recovered through a splash landing. And in other works, he predicted helicopters, submarines, projectors, jukeboxes, and the existence of underwater hydrothermal vents that were not invented/discovered until long after he wrote about them.
How do you get to utopia? You don’t, of course. It’s unreachably distant. Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627) are set in what were then uncharted waters, far enough away to have escaped both the attention and interference of the rest of the world. That’s what makes these islands, for a moment, plausible: no one can deny their existence with positive knowledge. And that’s how they stay perfect: no one’s colonized them, traded with them, influenced them in any way. Distance and difference were understood as directly relational: the greater the distance, the greater the difference. And utopias are radically different. Granted, in some cases, the distance is temporal; we call these “euchronias”. The point is we’ll never get there, never live long enough, never see fiction turned to fact.
Today’s readers demur. Too far-fetched, they complain, rejecting the distance. Others see utopias as prescriptive, rigidly so, even fascistic. People think of head-in-the-clouds dreamers or dogmatic philosopher kings, though Fredric Jameson argues, persuasively, that utopias give us not blueprints but open-ended possibilities. At any rate, we now prefer dystopias: The Road, The Hunger Games, and countless others, many adapted as films. Such scenarios seem not distant but close, potentially imminent, and fans of the cult movie Idiocracy have already noted, with horror, the accuracy of its predictions: our vulgar entertainment; the corporatization of everything; the dumbing down — and worse — of the highest office in the land. Dystopias speak to us because they’re practically adjacent…
Of course, we still have to try. Do nothing, and we get dystopias. Extrapolated from the present, they project a future that might seem inevitable, pulling us forward as if by tractor beam. For Margaret Atwood, this is literature that deals with “things that really could happen”.
The great power of utopias is to disrupt our surrender to orthodoxy, freeing us to understand the status quo as contingent, not predetermined, as changeable, not inevitable. And by smuggling utopia home, Defoe unsettles our notion of the totality of state power, the power to which his utopias are opposed…
The full and fascinating essay at “Defoe and the Distance to Utopia.”
C.F. also: “Every Society Invents the Failed Utopia it Deserves.”
* Kim Stanley Robinson,
As we hope– and work– for the best, we might spare a thought for William Butler Yeats; he died on this date in 1939. A poet, essayist, politician, and mystic, he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1923. His gravestone in Ireland bears the epitaph he composed: “Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, Pass by.” Larry McMurtry took the title of his first novel from these lines (filmed as Hud.)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
– “The Second Coming,” W.B. Yeats