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Posts Tagged ‘literature

“The soul never thinks without a mental picture”*…

 

While popularised by Guillaume Apollinaire’s wonderful Calligrammes from 1918, the art of making images through the novel arrangement of words upon the page can be traced back many centuries. Some of the earliest examples of these “calligrams” are to be found in a marvellous 9th-century manuscript known as the Aratea.

Each page of the Aratea has a poem on the bottom half — written by the 3rd-century BC Greek poet Aratus and translated into Latin by a young Cicero — describing an astronomical constellation. This constellation is then beautifully drawn above the poetry; the drawings however are themselves made up of words taken from HyginusAstronomica. The passages used to form the images describe the constellation which they create on the page, and in this way they become tied to one another: neither the words or images would make full sense without the other there to complete the scene. Also, note the red dots on each picture: these show where the stars appear in the sky.

This remarkable object brings together nearly 2000 years of cultural history. Making use of two Roman texts on astronomy written in the 1st century BC, the manuscript was created in Northern France in about 820. It then found its way into the library of the Harley family in England, before being sold to the nation in 1752 under the same Act of Parliament which created the British Museum.

More– and larger– examples of this extraordinary art at “Aratea: Making Pictures with Words in the 9th Century.”

* Aristotle

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As we “just doodle it,” we might send speculative birthday greetings to Roger Joseph Zelazny; he was born on this date in 1937.  While (justly) remembered as an important science fiction author— he won the Hugo Award six times; the Nebula, three– he was also an accomplished poet.

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Written by LW

May 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I try to conjure, to raise my own spirits, from wherever they are. I need to remember what they look like.”*…

 

In Margaret Atwood’s The ­Handmaid’s Tale, a Christian sect call the Sons of Jacob creates a male-dominated theocratic state

Margaret Atwood’s evergreen dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is about to become a television drama. Published in 1985, it couldn’t feel more fresh or more timely, dealing as it does with reproductive rights, with the sudden accession to power of a theocracy in the United States, with the demonisation of imagined, pantomime villain “Islamic fanatics”. But then, feminist science fiction does tend to feel fresh – its authors have a habit of looking beyond their particular historical moment, analysing the root causes, suggesting how they might be, if not solved, then at least changed.

Where does the story of feminist science fiction begin? There are so many possible starting points: Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 book The Blazing World, about an empress of a utopian kingdom; one could point convincingly to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as an exploration of how men could “give birth” and what might happen if they did; one could recall the 1905 story “Sultana’s Dream” by Begum Rokeya, about a gender-reversed India in which it’s the men who are kept in purdah.

And perhaps one of the starting points was here: on 29 August 1911, a 50-year-old man, a member of the Yahi group of the Native American Yana people, walked out of the forest near Oroville, California, and was captured by the local sheriff. He was known at the time and popularised in the press as “the last wild Indian”.

He called himself “Ishi” – a word in the Yahi language that means simply “man”. He was the very last of his people, and had been living in the wilderness alone, travelling to places he remembered from the time when his tribe had flourished, in the hope of finding some remnant of those he’d grown up with. When he realised they were truly all gone, when a series of forest fires meant he was close to starvation, he allowed himself to be found and taken in…

And the link with feminist science fiction? Theodora and Alfred Kroeber’s daughter was Ursula Le Guin, the science fiction author. Her novel The Left Hand of Darkness was published in 1969, at the start of the revolutionary women’s movement, and was one of the earliest pieces of feminist SF. It is about a man from Earth who travels to the planet Gethen, where the people have no fixed gender. He is by turns fascinated, appalled and deeply, sickeningly lonely. Everyone’s “normality” is someone else’s wilderness…

From Mary Shelley to Margaret Atwood, feminist science fiction writers have imagined other ways of living that prompt us to ask, could we do things differently?  More of their history at “Dystopian dreams: how feminist science fiction predicted the future.”

* Margaret Atwood, The Handmaiden’s Tale

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As we listen and learn, we might send hauntingly-beautiful birthday greetings to Eleanora Fagan; she was born on this date in 1915.  Better known by her stage name, Billie Holiday (and her nickname, Lady Day), she was a jazz musician and singer-songwriter– a legendary performer who enjoyed both huge popular success and great acclaim from her fellow artists.

 

Written by LW

April 7, 2017 at 1:01 am

“We have met the enemy, and he is us”*…

 

Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain started writing thrillers together for the motor-car racing magazines and rags about bicycle adventures and trucking for which Paris in the early 20th century had a limitless appetite. They knocked out a novel together in 1909 (monkey-men, tire ads, electric corselets and flying bat-suits) and two in 1910 (including a proto-fotonovela of adventure in the theatre), and then they found their lightning bolt, the main line: Fantômas. They wrote a four-hundred-page Fantômas novel every month for almost three years. The books were so cheaply printed that whole pages of the minuscule type were smeared or unreadable, but they were throwaway cheap (65 centimes, about the cost of a week of the daily paper) and sold in the hundreds of thousands of copies. The rules were simple: Juve, the cop, would pursue Fantômas, and Fantômas, l’insaisissable, the uncatchable and elusive, would always escape to wreak fresh havoc.

Fantômas was the ultimate industrial criminal: he was the crumbling gothic castle for an age of masses, cities, shopping, and machines. Always in disguise, the faceless genius of disaster could look like anyone and disappear into the metropolitan crowds he would occasionally massacre… He thrived by perverting modern spaces: releasing plague rats onto luxurious ocean liners, lining gloves with toxic chemicals and chic shoes with broken glass and filling department store perfume atomizers with poison, dumping sleepers off moving locomotives into the canyons outside, opening gas valves to asphyxiate victims. He did his evil on a mass production basis, sinking ships, crashing trains, and packing so many victims into a building that the walls started bleeding. Crowds gathered at the scene of some new outrage were showered in blood, jewels, and banknotes; chaos reigns.

The core of Fantômas’s criminal project is a kind of psychopathology in modern technology itself: in the trucs, the gadgets and elaborate machines he employed. A rigger of trick techniques and special effects, a cheater, a fixer of loaded dice and stacked decks, he turned the world into a movie set…

A kind of free-floating evil – a way of looking delectably askance at electricity and electric light, photography, telephones and telegraphs, industrial equipment and the glittering city – Fantômas was perfectly suited to new formats. There were five French silent films, then a twenty-part American serial; there were translations, knockoffs, and pirate editions of both the books and the character – Belphégor, Tenebras, Judex, Phantomas, Diabolik, Ultus, Za la Mort. The Surrealists created suites of fan fiction devoted to what Blaise Cendrars called “the modern Aeneid”; Alain Resnais made 8-mm test films towards a Fantômas movie in 1934. There was a sound movie, then another, and then remakes after the war and in the 1960s, three of which had a strange cultural afterlife playing over and over in Cuban movie theaters for more than a decade. There was a TV series in the 1970s. He had an enormous parallel career in comic books in Mexico…

Much more (including a pointer to an exquisite Julio Cortazar novella) in Finn Brunton‘s “L’Insaisissable, the latest installment in his always-illuminating newsletter series, Passing Current.

[Image above, one of Gino Starace‘s striking covers for the Fantômas series]

* Walt Kelly, Pogo

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As we find ourselves in a crowd, we might recall that it was on this date in 1934 that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow mortally wounded a constable in Miami, Oklahoma and abducted a police chief, whom they also wounded.  The FBI and local law enforcement redoubled their efforts to stop the pair, and succeeded, in a hail of bullets, the following month.

Bonnie and Clyde

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Written by LW

April 6, 2017 at 1:01 am

So many books, so little time”*…

 

There are millions of books in the world (and almost definitely hundreds of millions—last they checked, Google had the count at 129,864,880, and that was seven years ago). The rabid and/or competitive readers among you will now be asking yourselves: yes, yes, now how will I read them all?

Well, you won’t…

A logical method for figuring out “How many books will you read before you die?

Then, increase your count with:  “How to Read (a Lot) More Books This Year, According to Harvard Research.”

* Frank Zappa (riffing on an age-old theme)

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As we memento mori, we might send imaginative birthday greetings to Washington Irving; he was born on this date in 1783.  A short story writer, essayist, biographer, historian, and diplomat, he was America’s first genuine internationally best-selling author.  While best remembered for stories like “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” both of which appear in his book The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.), he also wrote biographies of George Washington, Oliver Goldsmith, and Muhammad, and several histories of 15th-century Spain dealing with subjects including Christopher Columbus, the Moors, and the Alhambra; he served as the U.S. ambassador to Spain from 1842 to 1846.

Mathew Brady’s copy of an original daguerreotype by John Plumbe

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Written by LW

April 3, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Don’t criticize what you can’t understand”*…

 

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'”

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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.”

cbrichmond source

 

Written by LW

March 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Panem et circenses”*…

 

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

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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)

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Written by LW

March 2, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying”*…

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

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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.

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Written by LW

February 28, 2017 at 1:01 am

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