Posts Tagged ‘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
More– oh, so much more– at LiarTownUSA.
* Dr. Seuss
As we revel in the ridiculous, we might pour a cup of birthday tea for English mathematician, logician, photographer, and Anglican cleric, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson– better known as the author Lewis Carroll– born on this date in 1832.
“There is no use in trying,” said Alice; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
– Alice in Wonderland (nee “Alice’s Adventures Underground,” then “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”)
And we might might spare a sympathetic thought for Dante Alighieri, who was exiled from Florence on this date in 1302… sympathetic– and grateful– as it was on his subsequent wanderings that he wrote The Divine Comedy…
Happy Mozart’s Birthday!
“Only laughter can blow [a colossal humbug] to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”*…
P.T. Barnum, impresario behind the “Greatest Show on Earth,” could not abide a humbug: a man who tricked and swindled others for naught but his own gain. In Humbugs of the World (1865), he outlined the various types, with none being singled out for such ire as the humbug who believes nothing at all…
The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes—or pretends to believe—that everything and everybody are humbugs. We sometimes meet a person who professes that there is no virtue; that every man has his price, and every woman hers; that any statement from anybody is just as likely to be false as true…
More of the pot commenting on the kettle at “Pronouncing a fool.”
Resonate with today’s headline, David Byrne weighs in: “A Resistance With Laughs Is Irresistible.”
* Mark Twain
As we melancholize, we might spare a thought for Robert Burton; he died on this date in 1640. An Oxford scholar, he is best known for his classic The Anatomy of Melancholy, an odd mix of wide=ranging scholarship, humor, linguistic skill, and creative (if highly approximate) insights– a favorite of scholars and authors from Samuel Johnson’s to Anthony Burgess.
Much, much more at Pop ’67!– “meanwhile, 50 years ago…”
* Robert Browning
As we watch what goes around come around, we might send sharply-observed birthday greetings to Edith Wharton (nee Edith Newbold Jones); she was born on this date in 1862. A novelist, short story writer, and designer, she combined an insider’s view of America’s privileged classes with a brilliant, natural wit to become a pre-eminent novelist of manners, writing humorous, incisive novels (and short stories) rich in social and psychological insight… and criticism of the upper class society into which she was born.
Wharton was friend and confidante to many gifted intellectuals of her time: Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau and André Gide were all her guests at one time or another. Theodore Roosevelt, Bernard Berenson, and Kenneth Clark were valued friends as well. Her meeting with F. Scott Fitzgerald was described by the editors of her letters as “one of the better known failed encounters in the American literary annals.” (Nervous at being in Wharton’s presence, Fitzgerald embarrassed himself by telling her a long story of how he & Zelda had spent a night in a bordello, thinking it was a hotel.)
Wharton won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature for her novel The Age of Innocence, making her the first woman to be so honored.
Much has been said about the ways we expect our oncoming fleet of driverless cars to change the way we live—remaking us all into passengers, rewiring our economy, retooling our views of ownership, and reshaping our cities and roads.
They will also change the way we die. As technology takes the wheel, road deaths due to driver error will begin to diminish. It’s a transformative advancement, but one that comes with consequences in an unexpected place: organ donation…
The full story at: “Self-Driving Cars Will Make Organ Shortages Even Worse.”
TotH to Damien Williams
* Richard Schickel
As we get to the heart of the matter, we might spare a thought for a wicked bender of English words, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce; he died on this date in 1941. A poet and novelist best known for Ulysses, he was the preeminent figure in the Modernist avant-garde, and a formative influence on writers as various as (Joyce’s protege) Samuel Becket, Jorge Luis Borges, Salmon Rushdie, and Joesph Campbell.
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Ulysses No. 1, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man No. 3, and Finnegans Wake No. 77, on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. The next year, Time Magazine named Joyce one of its 100 Most Important People of the 20th century, observing that “Joyce … revolutionized 20th century fiction.” And illustrating that Joyce’s influence was not confined to the arts: physicist Murray Gell-Mann used the sentence “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” (in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) as source for the elementary particle he was naming– the quark.