WRB—Jan. 17, 2024
“the most wonderful thing of all”
His looks shewing him not pained, but pleased with this allusion to his situation, the Managing Editors were emboldened to go on; and feeling in themselves the right of seniority of mind, they ventured to recommend a larger allowance of prose in his daily study; and on being requested to particularize, mentioned such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering, as occurred to them at the moment as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances.
In our sister publication in the City of Angels, Michael Dango on “Taylor Swift Studies” and its echoes of the “Madonna studies” of thirty years ago:
A dissertation could be written about the subtle change from Madonna’s “real world appeal” to Swift’s “real-world value” and how the “cultural war” of the 1990s is more clearly, today, an economic war over resources, profits, and investments. What interests me is how the economic pressure of profitability has taken the new field of Swift studies in a different direction than the Madonna studies of the 1990s. If, as Cindy Patton says, Madonna studies was tied to new fields of theoretical study, what is surprising about the turn to Swift studies is the linking of a new musician with older methods and canons—the literature department’s bread and butter of close reading and Shakespeare. The course description for one of the first Swiftie courses, taught at UT Austin last fall, promises to “us[e] the songwriting of pop music icon Taylor Swift to introduce literary critical reading and research methods—basic skills for work in English literature and other humanities disciplines.” The ultimate learning objective for a course taught at NYU last spring: “Students will develop greater sophistication in their artistic appreciation, critical thinking, research and writing skills.”
Art Kavanagh on Browning’s “My Last Duchess”:
I can’t help wondering if, by threatening—even conditionally and hypothetically—the life of the Count’s daughter, the Duke has put his own life at risk. The Count may well be the kind of parent who doesn’t take kindly to having menaces directed at members of his family.
The poem first appeared in a volume titled Dramatic Lyrics (1842). It strikes me that it is more effective as drama if the reader is watching a failed negotiation (so far as the speaker is concerned) than if we see the Duke succeed in imposing his will on the Count, his representative and ultimately on the Count’s daughter. If this is right, then the woman in the picture is probably the Duke’s very last duchess, not merely his previous one.
Davis’s new methods of organized spontaneity meant that more work was done after the fact, tape-editing and restructuring, largely by his producer, Teo Macero. If the increasing density and disjunction of the music still carried traces of the jazz tradition, it did not reduce at all to free jazz, the primary established form of 1960s disjunction. Davis was cutting loose from forms in general. He no longer needed the tradition’s typical harmonic changes (his science), or standards (his library), or ballads (his emotional specialty), or anything like the thirty-two-bar song form. The old division of concepts between albums disappeared. By 1974 or so, he was playing less and less trumpet and more and more keyboards: treated, echoey, clustered.
[Some of my favorite music from Davis is found on Dark Magus: Live at Carnegie Hall, which, while not included in this box set, comes from the same period. —Steve]
Tove Jansson had lived with the Moomins since childhood, when her maternal uncle scared her with tales about the “Moo-oo-min trolls” behind the stove who would blow on her neck if she stole from the larder. Having initially imagined them as “house ghosts,” Tove drew her first Moomintroll—the “ugliest thing” she could think of—on the bathroom wall, in order to illustrate a point about Immanuel Kant; next to it she scrawled “Freedom is the best thing,” from the Swedish medieval poem “Song of Freedom,” and underneath she wrote “Snork,” the original name for the Moomintrolls. In other early illustrations Moomins have black rather than white fur; by her early twenties, when she had become a cartoonist, a Moomin-shaped thing served as what she called her “angry signature character.” The Moomin anger, once their defining feature, has vanished in The Great Flood, where their most striking feature is fear.
In The New Statesman, John Gray reviews Anthony Grafton’s book about magic in early modern Europe (Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa, 2023) [The Upcoming book in WRB—Nov. 15, 2023.]:
In 1546, Dr. John Dee—mathematician and alchemist, astrologer and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I—staged a production of the ancient Greek dramatist Aristophanes’ play Pax at Trinity College, Cambridge. The performance, which featured a giant mechanical beetle Dee had constructed ascending into the heavens with one of the characters on its back, provoked “great wondering, and many vain reports” at the university. For Dee the spectacle had been created using “strictly natural—that is, mathematical—means”. Yet such machines filled him with awe, recalling his studies of “the Cabala of nature” and conversations he had with angels. Mathematics was “the solid foundation,” as Grafton writes, “on which much of the edifice of learned magic now rested.”
[Behind the paywall: Chris on Persuasion and modern experiences of courtship, Steve on Mansfield Park and Milton with Stanley Fish’s assistance, Proust, books in general, birdsongs, and more links, reviews, news items, and commentary carefully selected for you. If you like what you see, why not subscribe, and why not consider a paid subscription? The WRB is for you, and we couldn’t do it without you.]