WRB—Mar. 18, 2023
Hell is other Anglos
The Managing Editors began their lives in civilization through a singular dilemma, to which literature was more central than politics. This was the dilemma of despair.
What are you doing? Go outside! Look at the flowers! It’s this city’s one redeeming quality and it lasts for a week!
In Hazlitt, Richard Trapunski on the legacy of Leonard Cohen’s time on the Greek island of Hydra:
“Greece is a good place to look at the moon, isn’t it?” Cohen asks in his poem “Days of Kindness.” He’s right, on Hydra the moon is as bright as any place I’ve ever seen it. But as I think about that poem, I can’t help but wonder, am I seeing it through my eyes or through his?
In the Atavist, on the relationship between a woman and an elephant named Tarra:
Buckley visited a local welder, who estimated that it would cost $2,500 to construct metal skates big and strong enough for an elephant. Buckley had $3,000 in her bank account. She called her mother. “You know Tarra better than anyone,” her mother told her. “If you think she would like it, then do it.” Buckley emptied her bank account and commissioned the skillet-size skates.
[When I clicked I expected this to be a bit of a bore, but it’s so well done; it’s a really fun read and I wouldn’t be mad to come across it in a book. —Chris] In New York, Paul Murray explores Mark Zuckberg’s metaverse:
I go into the house, where I meet a couple from the north of England. The woman keeps making strange gestures with her hands as if she were trying to tunnel through the air. “Ooh, you are naughty,” she says. Is she talking to me? “Oh, sorry,” she says. “I’m in bed, and my dog is burrowing under the quilt.” “Oh,” I say. This is my second conversation in the metaverse.
As I walk around some more, a strange sensation grips me. It’s … boredom. I’m bored! When was the last time I was truly bored? I don’t think I’ve felt like this since I got a smartphone. It’s actually kind of interesting, though mostly it’s just boring. A panel appears in front of me. Nutsacksandwich has been reported, it says, with a picture of Nutsacksandwich’s avatar. Do you want Nutsacksandwich to be ejected? I give the question some thought. I decide to let Nutsacksandwich stay: I like his energy.
In The New Yorker, Lauren Oyler on the use of language in the novels of Maylis de Kerangal:
The phrase “as though language is what allows us to see,” precise in the way it describes the power of words to make something almost real, suggests de Kerangal’s own philosophy of style. Abstraction, myth, and narrative must be built upon a foundation of specificity; description is what allows language to transcend description.
Three from TLS:
Irina Dumitrescu reviews a book by Alice Robb on the effects of ballet on its practitioners (Don’t Think, Dear, February) [Keen readers will recall we linked to Glory Liu’s review in The Nation earlier this month]:
There are many books about the careers of great dancers; this is a book about the women who didn’t make it. Robb was one of them. A student at the School of American Ballet, the feeder school for New York City Ballet (NYCB), she collected used pointe shoes autographed by the company’s dancers and fell asleep under a poster of Degas’s “The Dance Class”. Then her hips grew and her prospects of becoming a professional dimmed. Don’t Think, Dear is her attempt to come to terms with an art form notorious for its perfectionism as well as its legacies of physical injury and sexual abuse.
Stanley Corngold reviews Carolin Duttlinger’s book of last year on paying attention in Germany (Attention and Distraction in Modern German Literature, Thought, and Culture, December 2022), which “could very well mark the beginning of an epoch in which one reads books and cultures through the lens of attention and distraction, and such linked phenomena as contemplation and diversion, literalness and allegory, teleology and digression, and melancholy and agitation.” [On this theme, see both Jon Baskin’s New Yorker essay on David Foster Wallace and Josefina Massot’s review of In Search of the Third Bird linked in WRB—July 30, 2022]
Jacqueline Banerjee reviews Clare Carlisle’s forthcoming biography of George Eliot and her ersatz marriage to George Lewes (The Marriage Question: George Eliot’s Double Life, August):
On this occasion as on others, divergent opinions are found in Carlisle’s substantial endnotes. Middlemarch benefits most from her good judgement in not cluttering up her chapters with them, but they are worth consulting. For example, Eliot was starting Middlemarch as Lewes finished revising his Biographical History of Philosophy, with its considerably enlarged section on Hegel. The new novel owed much to the couple’s discussions of the philosopher, especially with respect to “Lordship and Bondage” in his Phenomenology of Spirit. While exploring its complex influence on the marriage relationships of the novel, Carlisle summarizes Isobel Armstrong’s influential article on this subject in one of those longer notes. To Armstrong’s point that Eliot changes the political context of Hegel’s ideas to “a psychological or existential register”, she responds: “one might argue that, precisely because of these power dynamics, marriage is as ‘political’ as any other social relationship”. Indeed, Carlisle shows that all these elements are woven together in the struggles between Eliot’s two most important couples, Dorothea and Casaubon, and Rosamond and Lydgate. Going further, Carlisle suggests that the feelings expressed in Lydgate’s sorrowful confession that “I meant everything to be different with me” not only derive from the interplay of those elements, but also, in their very ordinariness, transcend them: “Within the quotidian experiences of married life a series of possible worlds arise, as silent pangs of regret or jealousy or longing, barely discernible to an observer, flare with inward intensity. In these moments George Eliot reveals to her readers the nature of human consciousness, even the nature of reality itself”. Like her subject Carlisle conveys the fruits of her studies and reflection with a light, sometimes even lyrical touch.
“To advise publishers to concentrate on good books is of course a counsel of perfection. We must make the best of what we get.” (, “An oddly uplifting tour of publishing”)
Issue 3 of the Mars Review of Books is online. Including an ambitious Classifieds section! [Our own Classifieds section is sadly at this point almost entirely moribund. You can help change that! To place an ad, email firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Ambitiously, the Autumn 2023 issue of Meanjin Quarterly is now available.
[It just occurs to me—do they still make new issues of Endnotes? I could google this but I won’t right now. —Chris]
“the most lucrative poetry prize in the world”—what does it pay, a nickel and a ham sandwich? [I will pay two nickels and a ham sandwich to the person who writes the best updated Dunciad focusing on the 2023 Oscars, especially the winners for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress. —Steve] [Save it for the film issue Steve. —Chris]
“aesthetic eccentricity is one of the only things that make wealthy people even remotely interesting” (Kate Wagner [the McMansion Hell woman], “Liberating Our Homes From the Real Estate–Industrial Complex”). More:
A unique twist central to the why of greigification is that the neutral gray colors are integral to this new post-digital kind of unreality. The more uniform the color, the easier it is to apply postproduction features without them looking contrived, and the easier it is to drop in virtual furniture, as the even, diffuse light enhanced by gray as a color helps soften the edges of the virtual furniture, blending them into “reality.”
“Goethe’s Theory of Colors, published in 1810, maintained that bright colors were suited to children and animals, not sophisticated adults; this view was shared by great artists and thinkers throughout history from Aristotle and Plato to Le Corbusier and Cartier Bresson.” (Elle Hunt, “It’s not beige, it’s not grey: it’s greige,” 2022)
“Goethe wrote Theory of Colours in a period of his life described by one critic as ‘a long interval, marked by nothing of distinguished note.’ Goethe himself describes the period as one in which ‘a quiet, collected state of mind was out of the question.’ Goethe is not alone in turning to color at a particularly fraught moment.” (Maggie Nelson, Bluets, 2009) [More on Goethe in Critical notes, below.]
“The most impressive surface you can have on an upper-middle-class driveway is gravel in some neutral or dark shade. Beige is best. White gravel is lower, violating as it does the axiom that bold effects and vivid contrasts are always to be avoided.” (Paul Fussell, Class, 1983)
Geraldine Page, Sam Waterson, Mary Beth Hurt (Interiors, dir. Woody Allen, 1978):
EVE: …but we should stick with my beiges and my earth tones.
MIKE: “My beiges and my earthtones…”
JOEY: Stop picking on her!
MIKE: Nobody’s picking on her.
JOEY: She’s a sick woman!
JOEY: I think you’re really too perfect to live in this world. I mean, all the beautifully furnished rooms, carefully-designed interiors, everything so controlled. There wasn’t any room for any real feelings. None! . . . . You’re… not just a sick woman. That would be too easy. The truth is… there’s been perverseness and wilfulness of attitude in many of the things you’ve done. At the centre of a sick psyche there is a sick spirit.
“Malcolm was always preoccupied with interiors. Among her first contributions to The New Yorker—where she wrote for nearly six decades until her death, at 86, in June 2021—was a monthly column on design called ‘About the House.’ In works such as The Journalist and the Murderer, In the Freud Archives, and Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, she uses acutely observed descriptions of living spaces to characterize her subjects. Surfaces, she believed, were richly revealing. Journalists and psychoanalysts, she told Katie Roiphe in a Paris Review interview, are both ‘connoisseurs of the small, unregarded motions of life.’ The styling of a home, which involves a mix of considered and unthinking motions, was indispensable data for her method. ‘The unconscious is right there on the surface, as in “The Purloined Letter,” ’ Malcolm says.” (Sam Adler-Bell, “Janet Malcolm’s Dangerous Method,” Monday)
We can’t condone this sort of thing.
[I wanted to read this and make some crack about it, but I still can’t be bothered to figure out how to pay for this site. —Chris]
Today through May 18 at the Phillips Collection, Pour, Tear, Carve “spotlights how the selection and manipulation of materials—whether poured, torn, carved, sewn, beaded, or glued—can enhance a viewer’s understanding of and dialogue with art.”
March 21 | Greywolf
Ten Planets: Stories
by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman
From the publisher: The characters that populate Yuri Herrera’s surprising new story collection inhabit imagined futures that reveal the strangeness and instability of the present. Drawing on science fiction, noir, and the philosophical parables of Jorge Luis Borges’s Fictions and Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, these very short stories are an inspired extension of this significant writer’s work.
In Ten Planets, objects can be sentient and might rebel against the unhappy human family to which they are attached. A detective of sorts finds clues to buried secrets by studying the noses of his clients, which he insists are covert maps. A meager bacterium in a human intestine gains consciousness when a psychotropic drug is ingested. Monsters and aliens abound, but in the fiction of Yuri Herrera, knowing who is the monster and who the alien is a tricky proposition.
In Ten Planets, Herrera’s consistent themes—the mutability of borders, the wounds and legacy of colonial violence, and a deep love of storytelling in all its forms—are explored with evident brilliance and delight.
What we’re reading:
For Saint Patrick’s Day, Chris read The Great Divorce, which is a short book which argues that Hell was invented by the English because they prefer it there.