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Posts Tagged ‘literature

“It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit”*…

 

Barnum

 

“Business is the ordinary means of living for nearly all of us,” P.T. Barnum wrote in his 1865 book The Humbugs of the World: An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, in All Ages. “ ‘There’s cheating in all trades but ours,’ is the prompt reply from the bootmaker with his brown paper soles, the grocer with his floury sugar and chicoried coffee…the newspaper man with his ‘immense circulation,’ the publisher with his ‘Great American Novel,’ the city auctioneer with his ‘Pictures by the Old Masters’—all and everyone protest each his own innocence, and warn you against the deceits of the rest.”

But…

The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes—or pretends to believe—that everything and everybody are humbugs. If you can imagine a hog’s mind in a man’s body—sensual, greedy, selfish, cruel, cunning, sly, coarse, yet stupid, shortsighted, unreasoning, unable to comprehend anything except what concerns the flesh, you have your man. He thinks himself philosophic and practical, a man of the world; he thinks to show knowledge and wisdom, penetration, deep acquaintance with men and things. Poor fellow! he has exposed his own nakedness. Instead of showing that others are rotten inside, he has proved that he is. He claims that it is not safe to believe others—it is perfectly safe to disbelieve him. He claims that every man will get the better of you if possible—let him alone! Selfishness, he says, is the universal rule—leave nothing to depend on his generosity or honor; trust him just as far as you can sling an elephant by the tail. A bad world, he sneers, full of deceit and nastiness—it is his own foul breath that he smells; only a thoroughly corrupt heart could suggest such vile thoughts. He sees only what suits him, as a turkey buzzard spies only carrion, though amid the loveliest landscape. I pronounce him who thus virtually slanders his father and dishonors his mother, and defiles the sanctities of home, and the glory of patriotism, and the merchant’s honor, and the martyr’s grave, and the saint’s crown—who does not even know that every sham shows that there is a reality, and that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue—I pronounce him—no, I do not pronounce him a humbug, the word does not apply to him. He is a fool…

Via Lapham’s Quarterly, “The Great American Humbug.”

* Noël Coward, Blithe Spirit

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As we honor honesty, we might send licentious birthday greetings to Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac; he was born on this date in 1619.  While he was a bold and innovative author in the 17th century libertine literary tradition, he is better remembered as the title character he inspired in Edmond Rostand’s noted drama Cyrano de Bergerac, which, although it includes elements of the real Cyrano’s life, is larded with invention and myth.

Cyrano was possessed of a prodigious proboscis, over which he is said to have fought more than 1,000 duels.  Surely as importantly, his writings, which mixed science and romance, influenced Jonathan Swift, Edgar Alan Poe, Voltaire– and Moliere, who “borrowed freely” from Cyrano’s 1654 comedy Le Pédant joué (The Pedant Tricked).

220px-Savinien_de_Cyrano_de_Bergerac source

 

Written by LW

March 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Poetry is emotion put into measure”*…

 

concretepoem

Concrete poem

 

From Petrarchian through Cinquain to Sestina, Adam Bertocci offers 22 variations on Shakespeare’s most famous poem: “Alternate Forms for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.”

* Thomas Hardy

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As we match content to form, we might send craftily-constructed birthday greetings to Ross Thomas; he was born on this date in 1928.  A thriller writer considered by many to be America’s answer to Len Deighton or John Le Carre– only funnier– he wrote The Cold War Swap, his first novel, in six weeks– and won the 1967 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.  He went on to write 19 other novels under his own name and 5 as “Oliver Bleeck.”  His 1984 novel, Briarpatch, won the Edgar for Best Novel.  In 2002, he was awarded the Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award— with Ed McBain, one of only two posthumous recipients.

ross thomas source

 

Written by LW

February 19, 2019 at 1:01 am

“A unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”*…

 

meme

Is there any way to intervene usefully or meaningfully in public debate, in what the extremely online Twitter users are with gleeful irony calling the “discourse” of the present moment?

It has come to seem to me recently that this present moment must be to language something like what the Industrial Revolution was to textiles. A writer who works on the old system of production can spend days crafting a sentence, putting what feels like a worthy idea into language, only to find, once finished, that the internet has already produced countless sentences that are more or less just like it, even if these lack the same artisanal origin story that we imagine gives writing its soul. There is, it seems to me, no more place for writers and thinkers in our future than, since the nineteenth century, there has been for weavers.

This predicament is not confined to politics, and in fact engulfs all domains of human social existence…

Justin E. H. Smith rages against the machine.  Come for the righteous indictment of algorithmic culture; stay for the oddly redeeming conclusion: “It’s All Over.” [TotH @vgr]

But we might recall that Socrates (as reported in Plato’s Phaedrus) railed against the new technology of his time– writing– and its corrosive effect on memory.  Several readers of Smith’s essay have suggested that it is similarly “conservative.”  Smith engages those criticism here.

Pair with “The Age of Post-Authenticity and the Ironic Truths of Meme Culture.”

[image above: source]

definition of a “meme” in Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene (1976)

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As we muse on meaning, we might send epistolary birthday greetings to Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné; she was born on this date in 1626.  A French aristocrat, she is the most celebrated letter writer in French literary history.  Those letters– over 1,100 survive– as celebrated for their vivid descriptiveness and their wit.  Mme de Sévigné’s letters play an important role in the novel In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, where they figure as the favorite reading of the narrator’s grandmother, and, following her death, his mother.

Check them out at the Internet Archive.

200px-Marquise_de_Sévigné source

 

Written by LW

February 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive”*…

 

maps

A map characterizes the Republican trade policy platform in the 1888 election

When PJ Mode began to purchase old maps in the 1980s, he set out to amass a typical collection of world maps. But along the way, his attention turned to unusual maps that dealers weren’t sure how to categorize—those that attempted to persuade rather than convey geographic information.

“Most collectors looked down their noses at these maps because they didn’t technically consider them maps,” Mode says. “But they were fun and they were inexpensive, and over the years I became more interested in them than the old world maps.”

The interest has culminated in a collection of more than 800 “persuasive maps,” as they are now called, which can be found in digital form through Cornell University’s library…

Maps never succeed is depicting reality exactly, fully as it is.  But as a digital collection at Cornell University shows, many important maps from our past haven’t even tried.  How subjective maps can be used to manipulate opinion: “These ‘Persuasive Maps’ Want You to Believe.”

See also “Maps that Make a Point” and “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.”

* Blaise Pascal, De l’art de persuader

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As we try to find our way, we might send birthday greetings to a “cartographer” of a different sort: James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was born on this date in 1882.  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.

Photo of Joyce included in a printed subscription order form for Ulysses, published Paris, 1921

source

 

Written by LW

February 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking”*…

 

Books hopper

As the year draws to a close, some of us like to look forward, and some of us backward—and some way backward. Last month, while working on the not-at-all-controversial Books That Defined the Decades series, I was often surprised by the dissonance between the books that sold well in any given year and the books that we now consider relevant, important, or illustrative of the time. I repeatedly regaled my colleagues with fun and interesting facts like: “Did you know that in 1940 the best-selling book of the year was How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn? That was also the year The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Native Son came out!” They made me stop eventually, and so I compiled all my comments into this very piece…

Some general takeaways:

1. The biggest bestsellers of any given year are not necessarily the books we remember 20, 30, 50, or 100 years later. (Something to remember when your own book goes on sale.)

2. Sometimes books take a little while to work themselves onto the bestseller list. Books suspiciously absent from the list of the year they were published sometimes show up in the next year, likely due to paperback releases and/or word of mouth (or they may have simply been published too late in the year to compete with the spring books).

3. People like to read the same authors year after year.

4. John Grisham owned the 90s.

5. There are so very many books, and we have forgotten almost all of them.

Here’s to remembering (the good ones, at least)…

A century of best-seller lists, compared with the books published in the same years that are well-remembered today: “Here are the biggest fiction best-sellers of the last 100 years (and what everyone read instead).”

* Haruki Murakami

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As we turn the page, we might spare a thought for Henry James III; he died on this date in 1947.  The son of philosopher and psychologist William James and the nephew of novelist Henry, he was an accomplished attorney, administrator (manager of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and Chair of TIAA), and diplomat (e.g., a member of the Versailles Peace Conference).

But like his famous elders, he also wrote– in his case, biographies, for one of which (a life of Charles W. Eliot) he won the Pulitzer Prize.

HJ III

Henry James III holding his sister, Mary Margaret, in his lap (source)

 

Written by LW

December 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”*…

 

Brody-Bathtubs-Over-Broadway

Steve Young, who obsessively collects LPs of industrial musicals, at first found them “unintentionally hilarious,” but in addition to absurdity they often contain the sincere and authentic spark of creative imagination.

 

From the title alone, it’s obvious that “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” a new documentary by Dava Whisenant… will be a delight. Its subject is the industrial musical—plays produced by corporations for their employees to enjoy at nationwide or regional sales meetings and conventions. Steve Young, who was, for more than twenty years, a writer for David Letterman, became obsessed, in the mid-nineties, with these shows—in particular, with LPs of them, which were pressed solely to be distributed to employees as souvenirs. The ostensible subject of “Bathtubs Over Broadway” is the amusement value of these exotic, eccentric by-products of show business, whose kitschy pleasures include celebrations of automobiles, dog food, and disposable blood-absorbing liners for the operating room, in a number that rhymes “hysterectomy” and “appendectomy.” But the overarching and underlying question that the film poses is nothing less than: What is art? And, for that matter, is the conventional definition of good art too narrow to account for the merits of such works as these?…

Many classic works of art are, in effect, commercials, from Pindar’s epinician, or victory, odes to Bach’s church cantatas. For that matter, plays and movies aren’t immune from propagandistic values, whether imposed on the artists or shared by them. It’s a mark of mediocrity, on the part of an artist or, for that matter, of a critic, to judge works by their ostensible subjects rather than by their approach to them…

Richard Brody on the new documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway (it opens in some cities today), and on the aesthetic questions that it raises: “Can a musical sponsored by a toilet manufacturer be a work of art?

* Pablo Picasso

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As we know art when we see it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1566 that Ralph Roister Doister was first publicly performed at Eton (or so some scholars argue; the exact date is not universally agreed); it was published the following year.  Written in 1552 (again, scholars believe) by London schoolmaster Nicholas Udall, it was probably performed earlier by his own students.

In any case, scholars agree that Ralph Roister Doister was the first comedy (as opposed to “work with comedic elements”) to be written in the English language.

Ralph_Roister_Doister

Illustration in English Plays, by Henry Morley, Cassell’s Library of English Literature, 1891. Caption says from a sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger in Desiderius Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium (The Praise of Folly) (1515/16).

source

 

Written by LW

November 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Who ever converses among old books will be hard to please among the new”*…

 

old book

There are four original manuscripts containing poetry in Old English—the now-defunct language of the medieval Anglo-Saxons—that have survived to the present day. No more, no less. They are: the Vercelli Book, which contains six poems, including the hallucinatory “Dream of the Rood”; the Junius Manuscript, which comprises four long religious poems; the Exeter Book, crammed with riddles and elegies; and the Beowulf Manuscript, whose name says it all. There is no way of knowing how many more poetic codices (the special term for these books) might have existed once upon a time, but have since been destroyed…

All four are on display at “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War,” a new show of artifacts at the British Library in London.  An appreciation of “the ineffable magic of four little manuscripts of Old English poetry” at “What Do Our Oldest Books Say About Us?

* William Temple

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As we turn the pages with care, we might spare a thought for Quintus Horatius Flaccus– Horace– the Roman soldier and poet, born on this date in 65 BCE…  Horace’s Satires, Epodes, Odes, and Epistles, have earned him a reputation akin to Virgil’s…  He was in some ways the antithesis of earlier honoree (and champion of the Republic) Cicero; an apologist for empire, Horace was Augustus’ Poet Laureate.  He may have coined, but was in any case the first to use “carpe diem” in a recorded setting.   And he offered this good advice: “Add a sprinkling of folly to your long deliberations.”

200px-Quintus_Horatius_Flaccus

Horace, as imagined by Anton von Werner

source

Written by LW

November 27, 2018 at 1:01 am

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