WRB—Nov. 11, 2023
“Nothing for show”
This is the core situation, and around and through it, as is the Managing Editors’ predilection, are woven other operable themes so that as a whole the Washington Review of Books confronts us with a myriad of ambiguities, contradictions, and what amounts ultimately to a metaphysical labyrinth of existence.
Two from the new issue of The Drift:
Hannah Gold on, about whom much has been said in recent years—some of the thematic material she frequently returns to has reentered the zeitgeist and her Substack is good:
It is oddly rare, these days, for an established older writer to conceive of herself as having more leverage than her students, but Gaitskill manages to be attentive to, and fascinated by, the ever-shifting balance of power in her classroom as it inevitably sways, touched by discourse but never determined by it. Refreshingly, she also doesn’t seem to harbor any special reverence for the radical possibilities of her own youth, in marked contrast to many of her peers, who seem to have held onto theirs to the point of becoming reactionary. She doesn’t even want a punk revival! So she says. “That was a wonderful expression of another moment and it doesn’t fully translate to where we are now,” she wrote in one of her incel-related posts. “What I’m wishing for, basically, is more humanity and more acceptable ways to express it, less fanatic conformity and desperate commodification.”
Ella Fox-Martens on the impact in J. M. Coetzee’s work of the linguistic situation in his native South Africa:
Over the course of a long and varied career, Coetzee’s embrace of surreality and interrogation of language’s ability to sustain nationalist propaganda has made him a key figure in the development of postcolonial writing, though he has not been universally adored. For those who wanted to see in Coetzee a representative of South Africa and a spokesperson for its literature, his silences and ambiguities have proven maddening. In the absence of overt criticism of apartheid, it is easy to read a kind of tolerance and small-mindedness. Gordimer accused Coetzee of “a revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions,” and the critic Michael Vaughan has skewered him for giving “privileged attention to the predicament of a liberal petty bourgeois intelligentsia.” He has been alternately criticized for furthering the “demon of white racism” (according to the African National Congress, circa 2000) and praised as a brilliant “son of this soil” (also the African National Congress, circa 2003)—a fierce freedom writer, or a bitter white man with a reputation for mean bleakness and harsh sentences. Always, he is playing with the reader, experimenting with documentation, translation, and narrative expectations.
In Engelsberg Ideas, Wessie du Toit on Aby Warburg, a German art historian who traced visual symbols and motifs in art as a means of transmitting cultural memory:
The search for such patterns might seem out of place today, given the vast number of images created on a daily basis, but, as Warburg realized, mass culture is perfectly suited to the transmission of pathos formulas, since the most resonant images tend to be the most widely circulated and reproduced. In the Memory Atlas, photographs of antique coins and oil paintings sit alongside modern advertising imagery and magazine clippings. A quick glance at the images that populate our own media reveals countless expressive gestures that could be called pathos formulas: the ecstasy of footballers celebrating a goal, the stance of actors assembled on a film poster, the pose of models on the covers of men’s magazines, the wooden bearing of a politician shaking someone’s hand, or the conventions dictating how people present their bodies on Instagram.
In Jacobin, James D. White on Alexander Bogdanov, socialist theorist, associate turned political enemy of Lenin, and author of science fiction:
Bogdanov’s Vologda exile was an important period in his intellectual development. In the process of debating with other political exiles there, particularly with Sergei Berdyaev, he formulated some of his most characteristic ideas. One of these was the conception of socialism as a state of continuous development, a vision that he incorporated into his science-fiction novel Red Star.
Red Star, which was published in 1908, depicted a high-tech socialist civilization on Mars through the eyes of its narrator, a Russian scientist and revolutionary who is brought to the planet by a Martian emissary. It inspired later writers of science fiction, both in the Soviet Union and in the West.
In UnHerd,on the history of another kind of science fiction—speculations about life beyond Earth:
This habit of ours has a very precise starting point in history. We could probably find some earlier examples if we tried, but I tend to date the birth of aliens, as we know them today, to 1609, the year Johannes Kepler wrote his Somnium (which would only be published posthumously in 1634). This is a peculiar work, both a proto-science-fiction reverie, as the Latin title suggests, and a work of properly modern relativistic astronomy, in which the author attempts to describe how the orbits of the other celestial bodies would appear if one were observing them from the moon. In the dream-like part of the work, Kepler relates the story not only of the transit of his hero Duracotus to our nearest satellite (evidently with the assistance of some psychoactive plants), but also the various animal-like beings he finds once he arrives there, including some creeping and slithering reptiles, and some sort of giant camel. Some decades later, in his Histoire comique des États et Empires du Soleil of 1662, the French author Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac would describe the different species of birds that inhabit the surface of the sun.
Moving from science fiction’s attempt to create new myths to the myths themselves, Salman Rushdie in The Guardian:
However, in India, I grew up with the Panchatantra, and when I find myself, as I do at this moment, in between writing projects, it is to these crafty, devious jackals and crows and their like that I return, to ask them what story I should tell next. So far, they have never let me down. Everything I need to know about goodness and its opposite, about liberty and captivity, and about conflict, can be found in these stories. For love, I have to say, it is necessary to look elsewhere.
And what does the world of fable have to tell us about peace? The news is not very good. Homer tells us peace comes after a decade of war when everyone we care about is dead and Troy has been destroyed. The Norse myths tell us peace comes after Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Gods, when the gods destroy their traditional foes but are also destroyed by them. The Mahābhārata and Ramayana tell us peace comes at a bloody price. And the Panchatantra tells us that peace is only achieved through treachery.
If we read the works of Hegel, Aufhebung, or sublation, describes the sudden change between one logical determination and the next. As Hegel writes in the “Preface” to The Phenomenology of Spirit, at a certain point, the dawn breaks. This is Aufhebung: that a qualitative shift occurs. A new identity is born. The night sky necessarily leaps into this new identity of dawn—incremental transition fails to describe what occurs. Likewise, the electron changes position in the cloud, not in an incremental way, it leaps. It jumps.
In Bookforum, Jane Hu traces Sigrid Nunez’s development as a novelist throughout her career:
Nunez’s late novels tell stories about women who remain hidden in plain sight. In The Friend, the narrator copes with her friend’s suicide by taking care of the Great Dane that he leaves behind. While it’s clear to the reader that the narrator is still in love with her dead friend, whom she once briefly dated, it’s less clear what the friend—who in his lifetime was accused of infidelities and sexual harassment—felt about our narrator. In What Are You Going Through, the narrator is asked by her friend, who is dying of cancer, to accompany her in her final days, before she commits euthanasia. It’s a fairly big ask in any context, typically reserved for the most intimate of friends or lovers. But in this case, the dying friend notably informs the narrator that she was not her first pick. Following narrators who remain engaged with a world that might not love them back—or love them the same amount—is Nunez’s power move as a storyteller.
In the Times, Rachel Fleit reviews a book about “a multimillion-dollar crime network among fraternity brothers at the College of Charleston” (Among the Bros: A Fraternity Crime Story by Max Marshall, November 7):
Told with journalistic integrity, a sense of humor and gruesome detail, Mikey Schmidt’s rise from try-hard to big-time drug lord is as breathtaking to witness as the ring’s takedown, in a 2016 bust that uncovers tens of millions of dollars’ worth of illegal drugs. The implosion of the brotherhood is swift; as one K.A. reminds us, “You can’t spell frat without rat.”
“Is Reading the Hottest Thing You Can Do as a Single Person?” [No. Being hot is. —Steve] [This worked out so well in After Hours. —Chris]
If you take pieces from the Times style section at their word, the 48.5% of Americans who read a book for pleasure in the last year have a big leg up, though. [There’s a big gap between women and men here (56.6% vs. 40%, respectively). Quick, rev up the gender gap take machines. —Steve]
Things are tough for writers trying to make a living.
Things are better for writers who are dead.
Some predictions about the future of books.
Texts for proofing fonts. (R.I.P. “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”)
Advertisements for gadgets.
Eighteenth-century love letters.
Harvard Book Store is having a virtual sale.
The NYRB is having a sitewide sale (Buy 2 books and save 20%; 3 and save 30%; or 4 or more and save 40%).
New issue of the Capitol Hill Citizen for November/December 2023.
Workers in D.C. do not take lunch breaks.
Two D.C. restaurants have been awarded a Michelin star.
The Atlas Performing Arts Center will be screening The Merry Widow (1925) on Sunday, December 3 at 4 p.m. [You may know Erich von Stroheim, the director of the film, from his role as Max von Mayerling in Sunset Boulevard (1950). —Steve]
“Snow” by Vladimír Holan, translated by C.G. Hanzlicek and Dana Hábová
The snow began to fall at midnight. And it’s true
that the best place to sit is in the kitchen,
even if it’s the kitchen of insomnia.
It’s warm there, you fix some food, drink wine
and look out the window into the familiar eternity.
Why should you worry whether birth and death are only two points,
when life is not a straight line after all.
Why should you torture yourself staring at the calender
and wondering how much is at stake.
And why should you admit you have no money
to buy Saskia a pair of slippers?
And why should you boast
that you suffer more than others.
Even if there were no silence on earth,
that snow would have dreamed it up.
You’re alone. As few gestures as possible. Nothing for show.
[I found this in Something Indecent: Poetry Recommended by Eastern European Poets. In his introduction to “Snow” for Something Indecent, Adam Zagajewski (we featured one of Zagajewski’s own poems back in May) wrote of Holan:
His poetry excels at producing unexpected images and metaphors, but it’s not a poetry of fireworks just for the sake of fireworks. “Nothing for show,” concludes Holan in his “Snow,” and we believe him. We believe him even if we remember that poetry cannot totally renounce “show” on expression, on metaphors… There are two movements in poetry—one toward theatricality, toward posing, toward trying different disguises, and the opposite one, a tendency to strip poems and their authors of (almost) any pretense. Holan’s “Snow” definitely belongs to the latter category.
Today | Farrar, Straus and Giroux
School of Instructions: A Poem
by Ishion Hutchinson
From the publisher: Deep-dyed in language both sensuous and biblical, Ishion Hutchinson's School of Instructions memorializes the experience of West Indian soldiers volunteering in British regiments in the Middle East during World War I. The poem narrates the psychic and physical terrors of these young Black fighters in as they struggle against the colonial power they served; their story overlaps with that of Godspeed, a schoolboy living in rural Jamaica of the 1990s. This visionary collision, in which the horizontal, documentary shape of the narrative is interrupted by sudden lyric effusions, unsettles both time and event, mapping great moments of heroism onto the trials of everyday existence It reshapes grand gestures of heroism in a music of supple, vigilant intensity.
Elegiac, epochal and lyrical, School of Instructions confronts the legacy of imperial silencing and weaves shards of remembrance—“your word mass / your mix match / your jamming of elements”—into a unique form of survival. It is a masterpiece of imaginative recuperation by a poet of prodigious gifts.
Tuesday, November 14:
Viking: Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather by Benjamin Taylor
Avid Reader Press: UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government’s Search for Alien Life Here―and Out There by Garrett M. Graff
MIT Press: Aeons without History/Thesis on the Metacartel by Edmund Berger and Vincent Garton
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