WRB—July 22, 2023
“a glitter of nostalgia”
Saturday in the WRB you can really feel the pull of the weekend.
Three pieces on criticism in the new issue of The Point, “What is beauty for?” are right up the WRB’s collective so-called alley:
This is how artistic self-education works today; a young person wants to develop their taste, but they have no framework for judgment except their own meager experience and mostly uninsightful information from the internet. On the one hand, deferring to experience is necessarily infantilizing to someone who has so far only consumed media for children; the mainstreaming of “nerd culture” is the result of society at large attempting to prolong childhood indefinitely. On the other hand, constructing one’s personality around consensus notions of high art is scarcely better, leading to another marginal subculture: the dreaded Reddit music geeks who believe that Radiohead is the greatest band of all time because their albums have the highest aggregated average ratings, or the self-proclaimed film buffs whose understanding of cinema never developed beyond Taxi Driver and Fight Club, rhapsodizing in YouTube vlogs on the profundities of a crane shot or a certain cut ad infinitum. These are two sides of the same coin, an ignorant versus a pretentious philistinism. The only means to bridge them is intelligence. The concept is as fraught as any, but by invoking it I don’t mean any kind of inherent superiority or quantifiable IQ. I mean rather the emergence of sensibility, sensitivity and a distinct personal taste, which are indistinguishable from the slow development of intellectual maturity.
[The best way of developing one’s taste hitherto developed, we earnestly believe, is to read the WRB. Talk of this with your children when you walk and when you sit. —Chris]
Walk into any workshop and you will hear how, like financial contracts, the agreement between reader and writer can be undersigned and broken—how, like markets, underregulated fictions can collapse. As freewheeling finance acts more and more unapologetically like novels, it may be that novels themselves are being written more and more like traditional financial instruments—carefully designed to be safe readerly investments.
The critical tide is turning, once again. The professional critics—and not just the old, curmudgeonly ones—are fed up with moralizing, and they are willing to speak about it in public. . . . For all its good intentions, art that tries to minister to its audience by showcasing moral aspirants and paragons or the abject victims of political oppression produces smug, tiresome works that are failures both as art and as agitprop. Artists and critics—their laurel bearers—should take heed.
Once I was at a formal dinner at Kirkland House, sitting with Louis Hartz, the eminent political scientist who wrote The Liberal Tradition in America. He was actually crazy—he’d been in an insane asylum, and he’d end up there again—but he was also, as Norman Mailer says, “crazy family good.” That night, he said to me, “I’m glad to be sitting with you. You’re a real Jew.” I said this was true, and he said, “My father was a cantor in Cleveland, and look at us now. We are so intimidated. We’re talking very quietly because Jews are expected to talk loudly.” Then, suddenly, he raised his voice: “Now George Homans over there is not lowering his voice!” George Homans was a very decent man and a serious scholar in the new field of behavioral sociology and his uncle was Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of presidents. George had a picture on his office wall of his uncle holding him on his lap. As Louis’ voice boomed out and George looked over to see who was talking about him, I hissed at Louis, as quietly as I could, “Be quiet! Be quiet! Be quiet!”
[Nic texted me this week, “This book is awesome,” and “It’s an excellent repository of gossip.” —Chris]
In the LRB, Nicole Flattery reviews Lynne Tillman’s memoir about her mother’s illness and death (Mothercare: On Obligation, Love, Death, and Ambivalence, 2022):
It’s in the descriptions of these carers—women who are both inside and outside the family—that Mothercare begins to resemble a typical Tillman novel. She demonstrates the same talent for compression, the same affection for bizarre behaviour, that characterised earlier books such as Haunted Houses and Men and Apparitions, both of which have recently been reissued. Of one carer: ‘Patsy slept in Mother’s bed at night to comfort her which was kind and Mother liked it, but she proved to be a lunatic and we had to fire her.’ Another, nicknamed Hats, wears unusual headgear and accidentally doubles her mother’s seizure medication. To keep her happy, Tillman buys her a large cake.
Two in The Atlantic:
Charlie Tyson reviews Paula Marantz Cohen’s book on the importance of talking to each other (Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation, March):
This is not to say that Talking Cure underestimates conversation’s importance as a route to knowledge. Cohen praises Plato’s dialogues, in which interlocutors pursue truth by means of careful question-asking, as a crucial template for conversation. And her celebration of the college seminar as a training ground for talk leads her to argue for increased seminar offerings in STEM fields as a way of helping those disciplines come alive for a broader swath of students. The habits of perceptive listening and imaginative testing of ideas, modeled in the college seminar, prepare us to treat more casual exchanges as chances to learn. But again, she grants priority to pleasure, and the delights of knowledge and intellectual discussion are only some of conversation’s many satisfactions. Her tour of literary salons and other glamorous conversational milieus credits gossip, banter, and flirtation as modes of verbal intercourse that can run parallel with philosophical disputation. In talk at its most glittering, knowledge and delight are mutually supporting.
[If I wanted talk at its most glittering I would text Chris. —Steve]
Yet even in this less fully realized novel—her best are The Man Who Saw Everything and Hot Milk—Levy showcases her idiosyncratic mind. If the ultimate aim of feminism, as she preaches it, is to reclaim individuality, to banish the haunting specter of a more fulfilled, more authentic version of one’s self, her prose models this idea. Her language is beautifully her own: She describes the entertaining of suicidal thoughts as “standing on the forbidden pasture”; she calls Elsa’s dyed mane “very expressed hair.” Her imagery is pungently original. She shows us Elsa’s capacity for cruelty by having her unflinchingly stab a sea urchin with a fork while on a diving trip.
Levy’s subjects are credible intellectuals, because she is too. When she casually inserts a riff about Nietzsche’s failed musical experiments into dialogue, it is organic and interesting. Her reading of Freud is never far beneath the surface of her prose—and it’s almost a Freudian joke that she repeats the Freudian phrase “things we don’t want to know” so often. As an observer, she’s able to conjure the historic moment that has just passed, describing the ennui of the pandemic with disturbing precision, capturing the awkwardness of everyday human interactions in the aftermath of quarantine.
Barack Obama’s summer reading list is now out. [I think he would enjoy the WRB. —Steve] [Someone please send Obama the WRB. —Chris]
DeedDa, which “would combine ecommerce and first-person confessional essays,” still isn’t up and maybe won’t ever be.
“Dear traditional romance publishers and anyone else who wants to listen, I have a case to plead: hardbacked romance novels.”
Indie publishers are winning awards in the UK.
On literary relationships: “The sordid details of literary marriages have always found a fascinated audience; one would indeed be hard pressed to find better examples of the tension between the larger-than-life aspirations of genius and the quotidian banalities of everyday existence.”
Dissent has a new monthly column by former chef Arun Gupta, “Apocalypse Chow.” The first installment is about “why the best-tasting Chinese dumplings tend to be the cheapest.”
Demolition has started at Dave Thomas Circle.
What is Old Bay and what is in it? [The worst beer I have ever had was, as far as I could tell, a pretty standard IPA into which someone had dumped an unholy quantity of Old Bay. —Steve]
Death & Co’s first D.C. location opened yesterday. [I went here yesterday; the interior is very nicely done, and they brought me an expensive cocktail that tasted delicious. —Chris]
Gounod’s Faust is being performed at The Barns in Vienna Sunday, Thursday, and Saturday.
The AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural center is showing several Jean-Luc Godard films between now and September. Pierrot le Fou (1965) is playing this week.
On rap in Virginia Beach and the DMV.
A documentary on Jacques Bolsey, who “aimed to disrupt the early film industry with a motion picture camera for the masses: the iconic Bolex”, is being shown at the National Gallery of Art tomorrow at 2 p.m.
“Birthday” by Richard Hugo
Wind deserted the pond this morning. The day
aged badly under a single cloud, and birds
abandoned this air where lilies stop waving
and microscum moors to the base of reeds.
Cattails doze under the light’s warm weight.
Remember salmon, how they once climbed
over each other frantic to die? Even rivers fade.
Under wings, sudden, out of a birdless north
cars are out of gear and my life runs
empty roads like a sick hand on a map.
Regions beyond worn needs to clown, a man
waits by the road for out-of-date wagons.
The wagons won’t come. His children grew weary
calling clouds candy, frying mud on a rock.
They ran from the calendar south. He grows
the same sick corn every year. He tries reading
the girls better ways. Miss August is best,
the least stained by wine he throws at the wall.
If wine would return, south to north, some
old comforting motion, opening, closing the skies,
letting man peek at the stars and his grave,
I could face those years I lived ashamed
of the demented grocer and his run down store,
dust on jars, meat dark in the case, the tab
he ran for the poor. I could use the wind
like others use religion, to tell myself
it’s ok to be out of rivers and weak.
[This poem first appeared in Poetry in 1975. I got it from Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo.
Reading this poem, I was reminded of a passage from one of Levis’ essays, where he says:
. . . We have known for years that the Image is not a photograph, that it engages or can engage any of the senses . . . but why, both in the popular imagination and among poets, is there this persistent fault in the way we think of the Image? Usually, people think of and remember images as if nearly all of them were seen.
This is a poem dense with visual images, but many of them strike me as tactile, too. We get images of The light’s warm weight and the salmon climbing over each other, frantic to die (I just love that line!), the hand on the map, the dust on jars in the grocery store, and even the opening and closing of the skies.
With all the discussion of desertion, lack, and sickness in the first two stanzas, we get such a strong sense of the speaker’s disillusion and discomfort—agitation, too—with the place he’s describing. The final stanza then turns to the speaker’s desire for some kind of alleviation. But what he’s asking for isn’t that the place would be improved, exactly; he’s asking for something that would allow him to accept those years I lived ashamed of all the flaws of this place. I’m really interested in the fact that what the speaker says would be the condition for that—If wine would return—is described as comforting, but it’s also something that would let man peek at the stars and his grave. It’s a rich, unexpected linking: comfort and, simultaneously, the ability to look at these symbols of eternity and mortality.
The last sentence of the poem is really rich too, as well as just sonically beautiful (like much of the poem). I love the weaving together of the place and the speaker that happens with out of rivers (the landscape, presumably) and weak (the speaker). With that line, the person and the place—imperfect, weak, difficult—suddenly exist so closely as to be indistinguishable. —Julia]
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