WRB—Jan. 13, 2024
Why not remove all the words from the Washington Review of Books? The Managing Editors could still be seen, but not read.
In The Common Reader, Jeannette Cooperman on P. G. Wodehouse and his attitude towards life:
Once famous, he took shelter in his boyhood shyness. “Cornered at one of these affairs by some dazzling creature who looks brightly at me, expecting a stream of good things from my lips, I am apt to talk guardedly about the weather,” he admitted, adding that he usually wound up “left on one leg in a secluded corner of the room in the grip of that disagreeable feeling that nobody loves me.” The feeling was not new. “Even at the age of ten I was a social bust, contributing little or nothing to the feast of reason or the flow of soul”—a phrase Hitchens made his own and used regularly—“beyond shuffling my feet and kicking the leg of the chair into which loving hands had dumped me.” That sentence breaks my heart, not for the shyness but for the retrospective insistence on “loving hands.” The hands would have belonged to one of his aunts—and gave no guarantee of affection.
In Tank, a multimedia piece by Kinza Shenn on the landscapes of Oregon, which inspired both Ursula Le Guin and Frank Herbert:
Our trip played out in a swing of long talks through the night, and quietudes in the face of natural giants through the day. Daniel would sometimes point at plants: balsam, or arrow wheat, yellow and sunflower-like, Indian paintbrush, red; or lupine, a tall wildflower resembling purple wheat. Some were ugly or disturbing, like the profusion of carnivorous Darlingtonia californica protected by a state park, but such perspectives were the kind often challenged by Le Guin. In her stories, what was alien and othered oftentimes concealed ingenuity, or simply another significance of life that does not ask for the human robes of good and bad. Indeed, Le Guin found such attributions in other science fiction writers to be yet another Western instinct to conquer and dominate frontiers. Where genre conventions established tropes, Le Guin posed questions through nuance. Such qualities as orthodox prettiness—the land of Omelas from the eponymous short story, or verdant idylls such as Urras, set in dichotomy to the barren moon Anarres in The Dispossessed—more often concealed ambivalent, violent secrets.
In The Paris Review, Oscar Schwartz on the Aeolian harp and the idea of the poet as doing something similar:
The story behind this metaphor begins on a summer’s day in 1795, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge traveled to the town of Clevedon to visit his fiancée, Sarah Fricker, in a seaside cottage where they would, later that same year, spend their honeymoon, and begin their lives together as a very unhappily married couple. One evening, the pair was sitting in the drawing room, admiring the clouds as they changed color with the setting sun, when Coleridge looked at Sarah, and felt, for a rare moment, content and at ease. It was only fleeting, though, because the next moment, Coleridge’s calm was interrupted by an odd melody emanating from a wooden box lodged in the window. It looked like a rectangular acoustic guitar with no fretboard, set on the windowsill, the sash pulled down to just above the strings. When the evening breeze blew, it passed through the box and out came an otherworldly music.
[There are some resonances, as it were, with Justin E. H. Smith’s The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning (2022) here. —Steve]
In the Times, Joumana Khatib on translation, exile, and friendship in the work of Hisham Matar, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography (The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between, 2016) and whose new novel (My Friends, January 9) returns to those themes:
“One of the things that I am interested in is how human consciousness is forever modulating, traversing, trying to measure the distance between documentable fact and the firmament of our interiority,” Matar said. “That distance, to me, is really where literature sits: the untranslatable, the unsayable.”
In My Friends, Khaled enrolls at university in Edinburgh and encounters a professor who changes his life. During a lecture about Lord Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam A.H.H,” an elegy for his friend, the professor points to two “untranslatable experiences” in the work. “The first is the friendship, which, like all friendships, one cannot fully describe to anyone else. The second is grief, which again, like all forms of grief, is horrible exactly for how uncommunicable it is.”
In the local Post,reviews the recent reissue of Guy Davenport’s essay collection The Geography of the Imagination (1981, January 16):
And for all his suspicion of modernity, with its spewing cars and its squawking televisions, he also believed that it had furnished us with the resources to rescue ourselves. Without modernity, after all, there would be no modernism, and without modernism, there would be no hope. Joyce and Pound were in the business of re-enchanting a world formerly drained of magic, of returning us to what the latter once called “the primal things.” One of Davenport’s most memorable pronouncements was that modernism represents “a renaissance of the archaic,” and therein lies its saving power. Picasso’s “Guernica” resurrects the visual vocabulary of the prehistoric cave paintings; William Carlos Williams and his peers “catalyze poetry by returning to the Greek fragment.” Pound, always Davenport’s lodestar, called on his followers to “make it new,” but he also insisted that “the Gods have not returned. They have never left us.”
Its introduction, by John Jeremiah Sullivan, appeared in UnHerd:
I remember the book he had been looking at on that day I first visited.
It was a Chinese translation of one of his own short fiction collections.
He told me a story: He said that a Chinese scholar friend had come by.
Guy had shown him the book and asked him what the subtitle meant.
The scholar gave him a generic answer, like “Foreign Literature Series”.
“But what does it really mean?” Guy asked. He wanted to understand
The symbols. The man, who was Chinese, smiled with embarrassment.
“Finally he told me, ‘Barbarian Writings with Fragrance of Literature.’”
Guy cackled. He loved that. I think it summarized how he saw himself,
As somebody who was working at the end of a civilization or tradition.
If you’re interested in Barbarian Writings with Fragrance of Literature, why not subscribe to the Washington Review of Books?
Writers are fascinated by Woodforde. They always ask the same question: why did he bother? “What made him keep it?” asked Ronald Blythe. Virginia Woolf conceded that “for whom he wrote or why he wrote it is impossible to say”. Woodforde might well have agreed. It is clear that the diary began as a simple record of expenditure and, to a lesser degree, personal achievement. Then the channel burst its banks and widened into broad waters. Everything is written as if it were an accounting of the day’s expenditure. This may, in part, explain Woodforde’s quiet success in the 20th century. His private, laconic prose has come of age. Modern writers strain for effects that the parson conjured artlessly in his smoky study.
[I’m waiting for the first annotated collection of tweets, personally. —Steve]
The story of the woman who had sex with a dolphin is itself part of the historical ambience of The Dolphin House: the paranoid-prurient style of postwar pop culture’s attitude toward science and pseudoscience, the drift between one and the other. There is not, after all, such a gap between the technocratic fantasies of Lilly the 1960s animal researcher—Blum and Tibbet seem like dual aspects of his character—and the (drugged or therapeutic) altered states of the 1970s. Or between the scientists’ callousness toward the dolphins and their casual or furious misogyny. At times, Schulman’s depiction of the latter starts to sway into Mad Men period cliché: the ashtray, the martini pitcher, the workplace grope. A peculiar note at the end of the novel tells us: “This book is not meant to reflect the way men act now.” Such a caveat weakens Schulman’s grasp on tech hubris and species destruction, themes that make The Dolphin House seem very much of our own moment, and which she treats deftly in her novel’s more embodied, alien passages. Those underwater episodes, liberated from the salacious mythology of her source material, are the most buoyant as well as profound.
What is perhaps most troubling about all of this, to return to the question with which I began, is that Houellebecq’s critics, far from disagreeing with him on this point, don’t even identify it as an issue—a sure sign that they already inhabit a world from which sexuality has been evacuated. To be sure, this is not a world from which sex has disappeared; it may even proliferate and take on hitherto unseen forms. But it is a world in which the links between sex and sexuality—and, more broadly, love—have been severed.
The Point has launched a summer workshop.
Wednesday is a new magazine “created to explore darkness as a catalyst for creativity in music, art, film, fashion, literature and beyond.”
- : “Who Is Reading What and Why”
“Bit by bit, the internet has been remade in Google’s image. And it’s humans—not machines—who have to deal with the consequences.”
- : “In fact, I’m sure I’d pay Google more than it makes right now by selling my boring private details and forcing ads down my throat.”
On grief and archiving social media.
“It’s No Longer Cool to Hate the Vodka Martini” [Vindication. —Chris] [Absolutely not. —Steve]
Some advice from old guides to entertaining: “Never EVER serve chips.”
If talks had gone just a bit differently, we might have ended up in a world with a “sun” barcode on every deodorant stick and cereal box, or maybe RCA’s round one, which had already been piloted at a Kroger in Kenwood, Ohio. “We came extremely close to ending up with the RCA ‘bullseye’ barcode,” Jordan Frith, a Clemson professor and the author of Barcode, told me. “It came down to the last day.” In 1973, the committee went out to an adult theater to watch Deep Throat (I’m serious), and soon made their decision: IBM’s rectangular, zebra-striped barcode. One symbol to rule them all.
A map of D.C. with descriptions of its neighborhoods.
The One-on-One: Ugo Rondinone / Louis Eilshemius exhibit at the Phillips Collection closes tomorrow, January 14.
D.C. Winter Restaurant Week runs from Monday, January 15 to Sunday, December 21.
- will be discussing her new novel (Here in Avalon, January 2) at Catholic University on Tuesday, January 16 at 4 p.m.
“Integrals” by Jonathan Holden
Erect, arched in disdain,
the integrals drift from left
across white windless pages
to the right,
serene as swans.
beautiful seen from afar
on wavering water, each
curves with the balanced severity
of a fine tool weighed in the palm.
Gaining energy now, they
break into canter—stallions
bobbing the great crests of their manes.
No one suspects their power
who has not seen them rampage.
Like bulldozers, they build
dirt to dirt to stumps added
to boulders to broken glass added
to live trees by the roots added
to hillsides, to whole
that roll, foaming before them,
the tumbling end of a broken wave
in one mangled sum: dandelions, old
beer cans and broken
rolled into one.
Yes, with the use of tables
integration is as easy as that:
the mere squeeze of a trigger, no
second thought. The swans
cannot feel the pain
it happens so fast.
[This is from Holden’s Design for a House (1972), his first of nine poetry collections.
I came across this poem by way of Holden’s 1985 essay “Poetry and Mathematics,” where he addresses Valery’s statement that he wanted his poems to have “the solidity of certain pages of algebra”:
The proof is “pure” mathematics, mathematics unapplied. It is elegantly tautological: mathematical sentences that are about nothing except other mathematical sentences, just as some poems can be about poetry, which is to say, about themselves.
The raison d’être of mathematics is not, however, primarily aesthetic. Number is the most practical language human beings have devised to orient themselves within the physical dimensions of the world and to measure that world. Valéry's attraction to “purity” in “pages of algebra” and in poetry is over-refined, precious. His famous analogy between poetry and dance—that poetry is to prose as dance is to walking, because poetry uses words as a dancer uses steps, as ends in themselves, whereas prose uses words as a walker uses steps, as means to an end, as mere transportation—trivializes poetry, reducing it to merely pretty language, equivalent to an entirely “pure” mathematics concerned only with elegant proofs of its own consistency. But the function of poetry, like the function of mathematics, is measurement; and “measurement” presumes that there is something to measure. What, then, does a good poem attempt to measure?
January 23 | Knopf
by Kaveh Akbar
From the publisher: Cyrus Shams is a young man grappling with an inheritance of violence and loss: his mother’s plane was shot down over the skies of the Persian Gulf in a senseless accident; and his father’s life in America was circumscribed by his work killing chickens at a factory farm in the Midwest. Cyrus is a drunk, an addict, and a poet, whose obsession with martyrs leads him to examine the mysteries of his past—toward an uncle who rode through Iranian battlefields dressed as the angel of death to inspire and comfort the dying, and toward his mother, through a painting discovered in a Brooklyn art gallery that suggests she may not have been who or what she seemed.
Kaveh Akbar’s Martyr! is a paean to how we spend our lives seeking meaning—in faith, art, ourselves, others.
[We featured a poem of Akbar’s last April.]
What we’re reading:
Julia is reading What We Do: Essays for Poets (2016) by Michael Gottlieb and Dave Smith’s essay collection Hunting Men: Reflections on a Life in American Poetry (2006). [The poetry criticism in Hunting Men is great. I’m really impressed with it. In one of the essays, Smith spends a few paragraphs castigating Robert Bly for leading young American poets in the ’70s to attempt minimalist poems with “awe-filled image[s] supposed to leave you sucking a breath.” As much as I love Bly, it was both insightful and very entertaining. “That he caused an intelligent young man to imagine he actually feels like empty cattle yards ought to dog Mr. Bly into whatever eternity may be granted him.” —Julia] She also started Julie Fay’s 1998 poetry collection The Woman Behind You.
Steve finished Tess of the d’Urbervilles. He also read more of Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (1981) and started How Milton Works by Stanley Fish (2001). [2024 is going to be my Year of Milton, among other things. We’ll see how much Milton actually gets read, but that’s the goal. —Steve]
- on acquiring good taste:
When we prioritize our own reaction to art, we assume that those reactions are about the art. But if you are misreading a piece of writing, without knowing it, your feelings will be more to do with you than with the writing, and thus not a response to the writing at all. When we misunderstand what we read, our feelings make us pay more attention to what is familiar in the writing than to what is unfamiliar. Thus believing that taste is primarily personal encourages us to not react to the writing, but instead repeat what we already think and feel. And so bad taste perpetuates itself.