WRB—May 27, 2023
“a fun job as jobs go”
There’s an old joke: two elderly women are reading the Washington Review of Books and one of ’em says, “Boy, the links in this thing are really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know, and such short quotations.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life.
I play music every minute I’m home or out alone with my headphones. But note that playing it means I’m hearing it not that I’m listening to it. In fact, for music I’m hearing to catch my ear so that I concentrate on it and listen carefully is fundamental to how I make judgments. That music inspires attention is my first clue that it may be worth writing about, because usually that means I’m enjoying it. Then I try to concentrate and find out how that grabs me. Then I find out how it holds up to repetition. And somewhere in there I start to concentrate on and isolate and maybe analyze my degree of interest or pleasure, gradually getting a grip on its skill or substance or beauty or energy or lyrical acuity or any combination of the above. And sometime in that phase comes the work phase you imagine where I say to myself you’re the dean now nail this one. Except that whether or not I’m the dean is usually irrelevant. I’m just a critic, doing what critics do. Which is a fun job as jobs go.
For The Guardian, Imogen West-Knights explores the proposition that Guinness World Records has “sold out”:
It is strange to think of Guinness World Records—a business named after a beer company, which catalogues humanity’s most batshit endeavours—as the kind of entity that could sell out. At first glance, it seems like accusing Alton Towers or Pizza Express of selling out. But the deeper I delved into the world of record breaking, the more sense it made. In spite of its absurdity, or maybe because of it, record breaking is a reflection of our deepest interests and desires. Look deeply enough at a man attempting to break the record for most spoons on a human body, or the woman seeking to become the oldest salsa dancer in the world, and you can find yourself starting to believe that you’re peering into humanity’s soul.
Nick Burns writes for The New Statesman on the resurgence of psychoanalysis in these United States:
The CEO who holds company meetings in the hot tub; the high-powered lawyers typing away on work Slack channels throughout their vacations – their desire always seems on the brink of destroying their work, their compulsion to work on the brink of destroying their wellbeing. Psychoanalysis may provide tools to understand the constantly changing forms and violent oppositions of American desire, but a full understanding will require further, major modifications to Freud’s theories.
The same ironies complicate the novel’s veritable anthology of old saws and truisms: “All’s in the ride, not the arrival”; “choice usually isn’t choice, only what you’re left with”; “there’s no tellin’ where we end up in the world, is there?” Mr. Ford’s tendency to write in chin-stroking proverbs has brought him critics—James Wolcott quickly tired of hearing “the plop of platitude” in Frank’s narratives—but what’s important is less the truth of these utterances than the extent to which Frank relies on them. In Mr. Ford’s hands, clichés become koans, simultaneously resonant and hollow depending on one’s fortunes at the time, and to Frank they double as sound, practical counsel and bitter jokes that highlight “the inevitable fatherly defeat of everything you do.” Paul, a lover of American kitsch who is trying to make his death manageable by being sardonic about it, latches on to the Midwestern locution “yeah-no,” a kind of conversational hedge that allows people to politely reply without actually saying anything. “Yeah-no” becomes a general refrain during these misadventures, a helpless nod to the contingency of it all.
It is a delight to watch such an agile mind slicing through the flab of lazy thinking. To those who claim that women have different natures than men, Sontag replies succinctly: “The argument from ’nature’ is self-confirming. Individual lives which do not confirm the argument will always be taken as exceptions, thereby leaving the stereotypes intact.”
The New Yorker has Merve Emre’s introduction to the volume up as well.
When we have a scholar-translator-poet such as Frisardi, who has tilled the fertile soil of Italy’s greatest poet for many years, and who is adept at observing our sublunar life, we’re in for a treat. In Love’s Scribe he quotes Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia, in which poetry is defined as “an invention or fiction composed through rhetoric and music.” So then, a poet makes form from language and music—both aural and oral forms themselves—woven together. And in his new poetry collection from Wiseblood Books, The Moon on Elba, Frisardi continually pleases with his deft wielding of wit, word, and song. These are poems of gentle insight and sharp wit that evince joy both in wordplay and in our strange, heartbreaking world.
In this week’s 4Columns, Brian Dillon reviews a book out this week about the history of storytelling and short-form literature (Civic Storytelling: The Rise of Short Forms and the Agency of Literature, May):
What do we want from all these fragments? Is lack of extent even a defining quality? Florian Fuchs’s Civic Storytelling is a scholarly exploration of fragments and other literary genres distinguished by their brevity: proverbs, fairy tales, novellas, Joycean epiphanies, and a less easily corralled—and less persuasive—category of recent “postliterary” visual works, such as the videos and texts of Hito Steyerl. There are certain obvious omissions. The essay does not count, seemingly because it is not primarily a narrative form. (You could argue with that one all day, as well as Fuchs’s argument for the inclusion of proverbs and epiphanies as “micronarratives.”) Likewise, the aphorism. The very short short story, as practiced by Lydia Davis or Diane Williams, is probably missing for a couple of reasons. First, Fuchs’s own narrative is chiefly about European (mainly German and French) literature. And second, it’s something more than mere concision that exercises this book. Civic Storytelling argues that some short forms have been especially directed toward the immediate “lifeworld” of the reader. These are types of writing that are not just about the world they join, but are meant to make something happen there. They are part of a long history whose origins Fuchs locates in the classical ars topica.
John J. Miller of [the] National Review reviews a recent collection of William F. Buckley’s travel writing (Getting About, April):
The prose of Getting About contains Buckley’s stylistic hallmark: hard words. On these pages comes “demisemiquaver” in one sentence and “chiliastic” in the next, and elsewhere stumpers such as “asymptotic,” “sempiternally,” and “wrother.” Yet Buckley is not difficult to read. He is easy to read, and looking up unfamiliar words is part of the fun. So are the observations, which are by turns amusing (“There isn’t actually that much to do on a beach, is there?”), homespun (“The best pizza in America is at the corner bakery”), idiosyncratic (“James Bond is okay once, disastrous the second time”), acute (“Men in high office do not answer questions, they maneuver”), and metaphorically rich (“Race your boat hard. And pay no attention to the results”).
On Wednesday we asked if the thing we do, where we link to something with a vague crack as the only hint to what it is, is annoying to many of you. Usually, getting any feedback at all out of you people [You people. —Chris] is like wringing water from a very dry stone. Not so this time! If anything else really ticks you off, let us know. [I guess I’ll have to cut that out. —Chris]
- is “A Little Magazine With Big Pretensions” [They’re just like us. <3 —Chris]
The Spring issue of The Common Reader is up: “Aviation”
The Washington Performing Arts 2023–2024 season, Together in Arts and Community, has been announced.
McMillian Park has been renamed. [There goes the neighborhood. —Chris]
Through tomorrow at the Kennedy Center: “Scotland’s national dance company returns with The Crucible, bringing Arthur Miller’s classic play about the Salem witch trials to the ballet stage.”
Courtesy of the guy who sometimes tells us about local music events: “the National Civic Art Society’s summer walking tour series is underway. The next tour is of Congressional Cemetery, this Sunday.”
May 31 | Yale University Press
Critical Revolutionaries: Five Critics Who Changed the Way We Read
by Terry Eagleton
From the publisher: Before the First World War, traditional literary scholarship was isolated from society at large. In the years following, a younger generation of critics came to the fore. Their work represented a reaction to the impoverishment of language in a commercial, utilitarian society increasingly under the sway of film, advertising, and the popular press. For them, literary criticism was a way of diagnosing social ills and had a vital moral function to perform.
Terry Eagleton reflects on the lives and work of T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, William Empson, F. R. Leavis, and Raymond Williams, and explores a vital tradition of literary criticism that today is in danger of being neglected. These five critics rank among the most original and influential of modern times and represent one of the most remarkable intellectual formations in twentieth-century Britain. This was the heyday of literary modernism, a period of change and experimentation—the bravura of which spurred on developments in critical theory.
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