WRB—Jan. 14, 2023
It’s the Winter Issue of our discontent.
If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in the WRB.
To do list:
avail yourself of our world-famous classified ads, either by placing or responding to one;
The winter issue of The New Atlantis is now online. Here’s two:
For centuries, art and culture have celebrated and represented this notion of the splendor of heroism and the despicability of cowardice. Nor has this been merely a matter of simplistic propaganda. Cervantes’s Don Quixote, one of the most wonderful and influential novels ever written, is a portrait of an elderly madman who falls under the spell of chivalric romances. The Don is often absurd, comical, and lunatic, but no one could doubt his courage. When he believes windmills are giants he does not flinch or retreat; he charges right at them. Hurrah! Is Cervantes ironizing this kind of courage, suggesting that it is a function, actually, of insanity? By which I mean: Is this way of framing heroism actually an ironic critique of it as madness, a fable, a lie?.
There is something utterly profound in this humanism of the abyss, for it is as though Leonard is saying, “This happened to me and to me only — but it could have happened to any other human being.” The act of striving to communicate the incommunicable is a double acknowledgment: of the chasm of experience that separates every person from every other person, and the possibility of using language and image to generate connection, to generate empathy, to generate what our ancestors called “fellow feeling” — out of nothing but air and chalk marks on a slate.
These kinds of inconsistencies would be damning if Fisher weren’t so affable in admitting her intellectual caprices. Her work reminds us that many great essayists, such as Michel de Montaigne and Henry David Thoreau, are interesting precisely because they call the reader to watch them think things out in real time on the page, a process that can reveal vivid contradictions.
In doing so, Fisher invites us to think about what we already think. She’s skeptical of received wisdom, an iconoclast in the tradition of Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1942, as the urgencies of a global conflict inspired a general feeling about the primacy of American values, How to Cook a Wolf raised a subtle voice of dissent.
Ian S. Maloney writes for Vol. 1 Brooklyn on Jesus’ Son (1992) at 30 (“one of those books you read in a single sitting, again and again”): “a charred and broken American landscape of lost souls and fragmented American dreams.”
Missed this a few weeks ago while we were off for the holidays, but Vinson Cunningham wrote about a production of Denis Johnson’s last play in the New Yorker: “the characters are desperately sad and live lives that feel almost willfully marginal, but their psyches are shot through with deep and often numinous yearnings.”
In the LARB, Alan Warhaftig remembers C. L. R. James’ life, work, and singular character:
C. L. R. James was a brilliant, articulate, charming man, one of the finest public intellectuals of the 20th century. He was not one to lounge on what he called the “bathing beaches of contemporary philosophy.” While he profoundly comprehended the personal terms in which social problems manifest, he was a materialist and refused to indulge a tragic worldview. He was also intellectually pragmatic. As he wrote in his preface to Beyond a Boundary: “If the ideas originated in the West Indies it was only in England and in English life and history that I was able to track them down and test them. To establish his own identity, Caliban, after three centuries, must himself pioneer into regions Caesar never knew.”
James intimately understood European culture. His teachers, after all, were Thackeray, Shakespeare, and Marx, whose methods of inquiry he mastered along with their ideas. James extolled the virtues of a humane democracy, in which the interests of all members of society are respected, rather than trod upon by the greed and ambition of a few.
And they also have some excerpts from interviews Warhaftig conducted with James in the 1970s.
In the NYRB, Colin Thubron reviews two books from last year (Shadowlands: A Journey Through Britain’s Lost Cities and Vanished Villages, July; Mudlark’d: Hidden Histories from the River Thames, May) about British stuff that’s broken garbage.
In the CRB, Hannah Bonner writes about the Amina Cain book on writing which Dorothy-A-Publishing-Project put out last year (A Horse at Night, October):
In this way, A Horse at Night is not an edict on how one writes or an analytical exploration of a certain sect of authors and artists. Instead, this book is about the moment “when one closes a book it doesn’t mean the feeling of the book closes too.” There is an impression left on us by others’ words and images. These traces shape our quotidian lives. It is an impression not unlike Roland Barthes’ ‘blind field’ in Camera Lucida where he argues that a punctum in a photograph allows for a whole world to open up, and be imagined, beyond the confines of the frame. The punctum ignites the possibilities of world-building for the spectator, beyond the static world of the photograph: “I animate this photograph and it animates me.” Similarly, Cain confesses, “the thought of what is beyond the frame of a painting has always been appealing to me.” In the embodied experience of reading, what exists beyond the frame of the page is the interior life of the person. The reader animates, imagines, and expands upon the words before them, as if in communion with the author.
“Is Substack the future of media?” Gosh we hope not.
Lapham’s Quarterly is hiring interns.
And Noēma is hiring a senior editor “who will work with us in LA or remotely. The salary range is $110,000–$160,000, and candidates should have at least five years experience editing.”
Earlier this week, Julia mentioned how much she was enjoying a recent anthology edited and illustrated by two NYRB editors (American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide, November). Ron Slate has some comments and pictures of the illustrations.
January 17 | Dalkey Archive
By Harry Matthews
From the publisher: Cigarettes is a novel about the rich and powerful, tracing their complicated relationships from the 1930s to the 1960s, from New York City to Upper New York State. Though nothing is as simple as it might appear to be, we could describe this as a story about Allen, who is married to Maud but having an affair with Elizabeth, who lives with Maud. Or say it is a story about fraud in the art world, horse racing, and sexual intrigues. Or, as one critic did, compare it to a Jane Austen creation, or to an Aldous Huxley novel—and be right and wrong on both counts.
What one can emphatically say is that Cigarettes is a brilliant display of Harry Mathews’s ingenuity and deadly playfulness.
[ “Cigarettes are the only way to make bleakness nutritional, or at least useful, something to do while feeling terrified.” —B.H. Fairchild. —Chris]
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