WRB—June 17, 2023
It’s a hype tactic
In the District of Columbia, you want more, I think.
In The Paris Review, Michael Edwards on poetry in the Bible:
Most importantly, as soon as the first man opens his mouth, he speaks in verse. Did the author think that in the world of primitive wonder language was naturally poetic? Is this why Adam, immediately after eating the forbidden fruit, responds to God in prose: “I heard your steps in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10)? We cannot know, but that first brief, spontaneous poem of Adam, which we seem to hear from so far away and from so close, solicits our attention and calls for our thought. If language before the Fall was poetic, or produced poems at moments charged with meaning, does poetry represent for us the apogee of our fallen speaking—its beginning and its end, its nostalgia and its hope?
[For more, see today’s Upcoming book]
At Literary Hub, Sarah Viren on the construction of the self in personal essays:
Just as, after returning from my run this morning, I found myself holding the reins of two competing urges: one yelling about how hungry she was, telling me to make breakfast first and write later; the other whispering softly, slyly, that if I don’t finish writing this essay now, it will never find its end. Such selves, critical and needy, bossy and lascivious, always inhabit us, Freud would say, even when we try to set them aside, as I am in this moment, my belly now full, my confidence returned. Even when silent, these selves simmer inside, reminding us of the absurdity of assuming that we can ever pretend to write with just one “I.”
In The New Atlantis (and out from behind the paywall), Joseph Joyce on the replacement of garage inventors with technocrats:
The logic tracks; as we transition into a service economy, we have yielded the baseline mechanical comprehension to change our oil, let alone build a time machine out of a DeLorean. “Tech” has stepped into the vacancy and assumed the role of “inventor,” partly out of its own self-regard and partly because there’s no one else to fill the vacuum.
Let’s look to Marvel movies, or as kids call them these days, “the movies.” Tony Stark operates in a garage, albeit one that lies beneath his Malibu compound. He is a beloved character not for his relatability, but for his arrogance. He defines himself by his isolation; no one is as clever or rich as he is, but he’d like to see you try. His altruism is set on his terms. He has, as he famously decreed at a congressional hearing, “privatized world peace.” We see the same with Hank Pym, a.k.a. the original Ant-Man. Although helping mankind, he uses his shrinking technology for himself and his select protégés. With great power comes great responsibility, but that power belongs only to the mogul who invented it.
In The Guardian, Carey Baraka profiles Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o:
“But what of Kenyan English or Nigerian English?” I asked him. “Aren’t these now local languages?”
He looked at me, aghast. “It’s like the enslaved being happy that theirs is a local version of enslavement,” he said. “English is not an African language. French is not. Spanish is not. Kenyan or Nigerian English is nonsense. That’s an example of normalised abnormality. The colonised trying to claim the coloniser’s language is a sign of the success of enslavement. It’s very embarrassing.”
He covered his eyes. “I read someone saying he is writing in French so that he can subvert it. I thought, wait a minute. He is the one being subverted.”
As he spoke, I cringed. I wondered what Ngũgĩ made of the fact that I wrote in English, or that I, a Kenyan writer, was here to profile him on assignment from a British newspaper. Was I also one of the enslaved?
So: a well-told novel of crime and detection. There are plenty of them on the market. What sets this one apart, what gives it both grit and texture, is its unerring depiction of small-town rural life and the uneasy (and sometimes violent) interactions between Charon’s white and Black citizens. Sheriff Crown finds himself in that gray area between, with a foot in both worlds. The novel gets mighty down-home Southern gothic in places—gay men passing for straight, the illegitimate child of an interracial relationship, backwoods snake-handling Jesus-shouters—but Cosby keeps his eye on the story and the pedal to the metal. He stays firmly focused on Titus, and on the town of Charon itself. For me, the reality of the locale and the people who live there lifted this story up and made it sing.
For, Alexandra Lange with notes on a new book about Danish furniture (The Chieftain and the Chair: The Rise of Danish Design in Postwar America, May):
Maggie Taft sets out to tell the story of how we got from the 1949 Cabinetmakers Guild Exhibition in Copenhagen, where Juhl showed his chair, with its shield-shaped back, next to a pinboard of influences including a bow and a photograph of an African hunter with spear (Juhl’s “romantic—and colonizing—view of primitive authenticity”) to the handsome, if slightly generic, coffee table in my friend’s living room. Her story is not one of heroic artistic choices, but of compromises made for manufacturing at scale, successive counterfeits, the dispersal of a once-original style. What persists from the two chairs of her title is the wood—initially teak—and a care to keep the joints smooth and the silhouette crisp. A previous generation of studies in design would have confined themselves to the original exemplars: the artistry of their conception, their innovations of manufacture, their influence on other museum-worthy chairs. But the age of the single-player design monograph is over (or should be), replaced by books like this, asking questions not about who made a specific charismatic design but what happens when it gets popular and shaped by commercial forces, what a label like “Danish Modern” even means anymore.
He continued to explore America long after he left, though one of the upshots of this book is to de-center America in Tocqueville’s thought. America was essential, even central, but not the sole object of his penetrating mind. The book moves chronologically through his life, organizing chapters according to the places—America, Canada, England, Ireland, Switzerland, Algeria, Italy, and Germany, and again back to America and England, and eventually to Cannes where he died—that grounded his thought. It is not a straightforward biography however because of Jennings’s expert grip of Tocqueville’s theory, and his interweaving of the theory with the history; as the reader journeys with him and Jennings abroad and back to France in between, the reader can feel the gears of Tocqueville’s mind turning, working to order discrete facts into “idées mères” (mother ideas) and visions of the whole. The reader also gains a sense of where his lively, restless intellect might have yet carried him further abroad—to India, or to Russia, both of which he contemplated visiting and writing on—were it not for financial and physical constraints.
Caro said, “In all the hours of working on The Power Broker, Bob never said one nice thing to me—never a single complimentary word, either about the book as a whole or about a single portion of the book. That was also true of my second book, The Path to Power, the first volume of the Johnson biography. But then he got soft. When we finished the last page of the last book we worked on, Means of Ascent, he held up the manuscript for a moment and said, slowly, as if he didn’t want to say it, ‘Not bad.’”
And in Critical notes below, your (partial) Cormac McCarthy obit roundup.
“To behold something beautiful is to experience completion—Kant calls it ‘purposiveness without purpose’—in a way that leaves us more aware of our own incompleteness.” (on paternity)
“Some men send flowers to their wives on important anniversaries. James Joyce wrote Ulysses.” (for Bloomsday and Father’s Day)
“Airports, in short, have become a class joke: fancy architecture deployed ruthlessly to enforce social inequality. This moment of becoming can be accurately dated to 1977. That was when ITV aired an ad for Campari.” (Bryan Appleyard at Engelsberg Ideas) [As I was getting dropped off at La Guardia yesterday morning it struck me as funny that, whatever particular architectural choices aside, every airport just looks like that—whitewash framing, huge grayish tiles inside, big panes of glass, horizontal lines. It’s amusing to imagine, say, a Beaux-Arts air terminal. —Chris]
“reflecting a scene back at itself is not an insight into our incoherent condition—it’s a hype tactic” (Madeline Cash on whatever the hell is going on in New York these days) [“New York is older and changin’ its skin again.”]
Issues we’re having:
The summer issue of The Yale Review is online.
The Georgetown Library book sale starts today at 11:00 a.m. and ends at 2:00 p.m. It also runs tomorrow, from 1:00–3:00 p.m.
Capital Book Fest at Woodrow Wilson Plaza today: “Shop thousands of gently used books, CDs, DVDs, and vinyl, all on sale for $6 or less.”
June 20 | University of Pennsylvania Press
A Life of Psalms in Jewish Late Antiquity
by A.J. Berkovitz
From the publisher: The Bible shaped nearly every aspect of Jewish life in the ancient world, from activities as obvious as attending synagogue to those which have lost their scriptural resonance in modernity, such as drinking water and uttering one’s last words. And within a scriptural universe, no work exerted more force than the Psalter, the most cherished text among all the books of the Hebrew Bible.
A Life of Psalms in Jewish Late Antiquity clarifies the world of late ancient Judaism through the versatile and powerful lens of the Psalter. It asks a simple set of questions: Where did late ancient Jews encounter the Psalms? How did they engage with the work? And what meanings did they produce? A. J. Berkovitz answers these queries by reconstructing and contextualizing a diverse set of religious practices performed with and on the Psalter, such as handling a physical copy, reading from it, interpreting it exegetically, singing it as liturgy, invoking it as magic and reciting it as an act of piety. His book draws from and contributes to the fields of ancient Judaism, biblical reception, book history and the history of reading.
[Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Poetry, 2011):
Our own post-Romantic predisposition to originality in literature may lead to a certain perplexity about how to think of a collection where in any given genre a dozen or more poems seem to be saying the same thing, often with more or less the same metaphors and sometimes even with some of the same phrasing. What I think we need to be more attuned to as readers is the nuanced individual character—“originality” in fact may not be the relevant concept—of different poems reflecting the same genre and even many of the same formulaic devices. There are abundant instances in later poetic tradition, as in Arabic and Hebrew poetry of medieval Spain, Petrarchan love poetry, much English Augustan verse, where the power of the individual poem is meant to be felt precisely in such a fine recasting of the conventional, and that is what we ought to be able to discern more minutely in the psalms.
Jean-Louis Chrétien (The Ark of Speech, 1998, 2004):
We pray to God, but we pray in the world. We may go somewhere private to pray, but prayer cannot itself be secret, unless it be with a luminous secret that desires to be exposed, since it is an act of presence and manifestation. In antiquity, murmured or inaudible prayer was often associated with magical practices or requests of which one was ashamed. The magician wished to keep the secret of his formulae and his incantations: they must not be proclaimed. . . .
Even the opponents of vocal prayer agree that it is necessary to collective prayer, which, if it may include moments of silence, cannot be conceived of without the voice. And the superiority of collective prayer is emphasized by numerous religious traditions. The Talmud goes so far as to assert that “only the prayers said in a synagogue are heard,” and Maimonides writes that “one must be associated with a community and not pray alone when there is a possibility of praying with others.”
Last weekend I paced around holding an infant for quite a long time, and found that reciting psalms to her was very calming when she fussed. That’s another use for them—how good and joyful a thing it is. —Chris]
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial