WRB—Jan. 7, 2023
This is so good. This is excellent drama.
George MacDonald’s unpublished work resembles his published writing in all respects save one: every unpublished story is set in the Caribbean.1
To do list:
avail yourself of our world-famous classified ads, either by placing or responding to one;
The editor of Current Affairs in Current Affairs on “Why We Must Criticize Our Culture”:
I used to hate being a professional critic. Critics are negative. Critics are the people who watch a movie that has taken hundreds of people a year to make, and have the audacity to just give it a “thumbs down.” They produce nothing. Their work is easy, because anything can be criticized. But over time, I’ve come to embrace the critical side of myself a bit more, because critics do something essential: they help people articulate their feelings and figure out why they don’t like certain things. For instance, when I wrote my popular critique of Jordan Peterson, a lot of people emailed to say that I had helped them understand why they were reacting the way they were to him. They knew something about him seemed fraudulent and wrong, but they couldn’t quite find the words. The job of the critic is to help us find the words, and finding the words to explain a problem is a precondition of discussing a solution. The critic asks tough questions. A critic who hates a work of art we love might help us see it in a new light, and wonder what the sources of our taste are. Correspondingly, a critic who praises something we loathe might have found virtues in it we overlooked.
These early works are all modest in scale and executed in various combinations of ink, oil, and watercolor on canvas. What they have in common is that they imbue an anonymous figure—an ultrarefined everyman or everywoman—with a highly expressive silhouette. These are ciphers of personality rendered with a calligraphic flourish, or with a type designer’s eye for the rhythmic energy that gives a letter its visual impact. Looking at the implicitly linguistic nature of Kantarovsky’s early figures in a somewhat different way, the critic Eli Diner suggested that “all these splayed feet, slender fingers and mannered—even effete—poses amass . . . into a kind of mini-lexicon. It’s a system of recurring gestures, postures, costumes, furnishings, and props.” Kantarovsky’s intuition of the painted human form as an alphabet of summary expressive configurations is something he shares with an otherwise very different painter, Alex Katz—whom I’ve heard say that the most important class he took as an undergraduate at Cooper Union was typography.
For The New Criterion, R. Eric Tippin writes about drinking songs:
This divine imperative is less obvious in horizontal drinking songs—that is, drinking songs that have no thematic interest in worship of a god: Schubert’s “Trinklied” lieder, Mozart’s so-called Champagne Aria from Don Giovanni, Richard Hovey’s tankard-swinging barroom choruses, sea shanties, and sporting anthems. The medieval drinking songs collected in the Carmina Burana maintain a connection to the divine, but usually by way of blaspheming it—parodying, among other sacred texts, St. Thomas Aquinas’s hymn on the Eucharist and a hymn to the Blessed Virgin.
“To make Kafka a philosopher, a religious thinker, a neurotic analysand, or a prophet foreseeing the Holocaust, as some people have done, diminishes his art in my mind. He wasn’t trying to illustrate anything. What he did was dramatize the truest sense he had of himself.” Laurie Stone has an old meditation of hers on Kafka on her Substack. Kafka’s diaries are coming out from Schocken on Tuesday, see the Upcoming book below.
It feels impossible to fully connect and empathize with all the people we interact with each day, to see the full existence of every person we pass on the street. It’s easier to keep your head down. But all these stories, these small nuggets of humanity buried in Google Reviews, feel like opportunities for us to practice that empathy.
Customers having bad days at an Autozone in Norman, Oklahoma. A daughter treating her terminally ill father to lunch at a diner in rural Kentucky. A veteran at Arlington National Cemetery, reckoning with the friends he met in basic training who never came home from Vietnam. Hidden beneath all the absurd, bizarre, and hilarious reviews is real and honest vulnerability.
[I fell in love with this man’s reviews. —Chris]
In the New Yorker, Peter Baker reflects on a recently passed age of music, “The Warm Glow of the Blog-Rock Era”:
Now there are playlists on streaming platforms for every genre, micro-genre, mood, and vibe. When you hear a song that you like on a playlist, maybe you stream the album, too. When the album finishes, your platform suggests something else it thinks you’ll like. Then something else. Then something else. In the streaming universe, popularity is shaped less by the enthusiasm (however blinkered or naïve) of amateur listeners than by the profit motive of the platforms themselves. It’s frictionless and plentiful. It also breeds a certain dissatisfaction, and not just once you start reading about the raw deal most artists get. Blog rock was mostly mediocre. MP3 blogs were very obviously high on their own supply.
In the NYRB, Josephine Quinn reviews two books from last year on the history of the written word (The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts, March) and (Inventing the Alphabet, July):
How worried should we be by alphabet supremacy? Is it simply an improvement on earlier scripts, just as syllabaries improved on picture-coded accounting systems? This might seem obvious: with fewer letters, alphabets should be easier to learn. But there’s more to reading and writing than learning your letters, and schoolchildren today can be taught to communicate effectively in all sorts of writing systems. Even the cuneiform script, with its hundreds of characters and specialized equipment, was no bar to functional literacy in the early second millennium BCE: in some Babylonian cities, writing tablets were found in more than half the houses. There’s a bigger question about whether writing, the handmaiden of imperial taxation, conscription, and surveillance, is a good thing at all.
[We’ll be raising this question in our own way soon enough. —Chris]
For Plough, Andrew Frisardi reviews the recent anthology of poetry by Micah Mattix and Sally Thomas (Christian Poetry in America Since 1940, September):
In short, I think Mattix’s working definition of Christian poetry misses the point that the Christian philosophy of art is one expression of a broader metaphysical understanding of art’s relation to reality. In any case, Mattix rightly notes that Christian poetics asserts that a poem’s life is a sign of the higher creative principles at work in the world. So Christian poetry “is inherently double—both surface and depth, material and immaterial.”
And for the LARB, Peggy Ellsberg reviews the latest collection of essays by Eva Brann (Pursuits of Happiness, 2020):
For John Locke and his disciple Thomas Jefferson, happiness is not pleasure. Like those precursors, Brann teaches Americans to free themselves from attachment to superficial gratifications and to pursue a higher-quality contentment with life. She locates this contentment in our “interestedness.” We are, she implies, morally, what we eat. She believes that Americans own the birthright of happy freedom, a conviction she reveals especially in Homage to Americans. As an American, my encounter with Brann’s work calls me back to a sense of my own good fortune. Against a keening background noise of lament—over the economy, the climate, the pandemic, the predations of technology, crime—Eva Brann’s bright witness lifts me up and out.
First the Dave Thomas Circle Wendy’s, now this: the weird Burger King in Northwest has closed.
Steven Heller at Print has a brief interview with John Kropf, author of last fall’s Color Capital of the World: Growing Up with the Legacy of a Crayon Company (November) on the history of the American crayon.
“Imagine if your therapist, as the next crucial phase of your treatment, assigned you to write your autobiography, which you did diligently, and after which you decided you were cured and thus ended your treatment, which angered your therapist and caused him to publish your autobiography as revenge.”
January 10 | Schocken
The Diaries of Franz Kafka
translated by Ross Benjamin
From the publisher: Dating from 1909 to 1923, the handwritten diaries contain various kinds of writing: accounts of daily events, reflections, observations, literary sketches, drafts of letters, accounts of dreams, as well as finished stories. This volume makes available for the first time in English a comprehensive reconstruction of the diary entries and provides substantial new content, including details, names, literary works, and passages of a sexual nature that were omitted from previous publications. By faithfully reproducing the diaries’ distinctive—and often surprisingly unpolished—writing in Kafka’s notebooks, translator Ross Benjamin brings to light not only the author’s use of the diaries for literary experimentation and private self-expression, but also their value as a work of art in themselves.
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