WRB—Nov. 22, 2023
“a very long funeral oration”
It has become commonplace to attribute the rise of modern political thought in the West to the Washington Review of Books.
[On Sunday I had brunch with a WRB subscriber who described himself as too busy to read anything other than the occasional article in his print copies of The New Yorker. It is difficult to imagine a better description of the ideal audience for the WRB. —Steve]
Zadie Smith relates a truly incredible story [Several guffaws and several sensible chuckles from me throughout. —Steve] from her youth of falling thirty feet out of a bedroom window in a meditation on the teenage experience in The New Yorker:
And now, on April 16th, in the middle of the Easter break, I had decided to use my mother’s bedroom phone to call my best friend and burden him once again with the knowledge that I loved him, and that the fact he didn’t like me “that way” was ruining my life and might well result in his having to listen to a very long funeral oration, delivered possibly by my brothers or maybe Keanu Reeves, depending on who was available. But because I had served a version of this ultimatum to my best friend once or twice a year since we’d met—aged twelve—he met my histrionics with great patience but few words. Meanwhile, at the other end of the winding phone cord I was dry heaving and messy crying, hoping that he would hear the hidden message in Prince’s “Love 2 the 9’s” (not so hidden), which I had left on playing at full volume in my bedroom. Somehow or other he got me off the phone. I trudged back to my room. Got myself up onto the windowsill with a box of Silk Cut I had stolen from my mother, let Prince’s “7” wash over me, and, in an orgy of self-pity, wept loudly, drew out a cigarette, and prepared to light up.
[A friend texted me a poem from Hemingway yesterday afternoon, which I’ll reproduce in full here (since Julia is off):
If my Valentine you won’t be,
I’ll hang myself on your Christmas tree.
As people say these days, “He’s so real for this.” —Chris]
In Antigone, Wentao Zhai on his process of translating Vergil into Chinese poetry for the first time:
Echoes from Zhuangzi do not stop here: following the memorable boxing match in the same book, Virgil slays the sacrificial bull sternitur (“is laid low”, “is made to prostrate itself”) by a mighty blow from Entellus (Aen. 5.481). It is a scene of extraordinary power and violence, where I slipped in the rare, classical adverb huoran taken from Chapter 3 of the Zhuangzi, which also describes the fall of a dead ox, but after being masterfully butchered by Chef Ding. Interested readers can look up the story; the message there is of course very different from Virgil’s, but the coincidence of imagery is too fortuitous to miss.
Similarly, I used language from Chinese philosophical texts when appropriate, such as at 2.327 of the Georgics, where the poet describes a cosmic semination with the grandiose line magnus alit magno commixtus corpore (“his might, mingling with her mighty frame, nurtures all growths”). Here the translator would do well to echo the equally grand and archaic I-Ching or Book of Changes, and render the process as a “great conjunction” jiaotai between “imperial heaven” (huangtian) and “noble earth” (houtu).
In the new issue of Harper’s Magazine, Hannah Gold reports back from Newark, where she attended Philip Roth Unbound, “a weekend-long festival hosted by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center”:
When I told Noah, who teaches at a subsidiary of the CUNY system, that I was from the Upper West Side, he became giddy. (Roth bought a condo in the neighborhood, on West 79th Street, in the early Aughts.) Eyes shining, he asked if I’d ever been to the Patagonia store on Columbus between 80th and 81st. Of course I had. Well, I was informed, that’s the very Patagonia where Roth, according to legend, once paid for the coat of an attractive woman who was checking out ahead of him. Then Noah asked me if I knew the Shake Shack on the corner of 77th and Columbus. Yes, Noah, better than some apartments I grew up in. Apparently Roth took some special pleasure in sitting on a bench across the street from that Shake Shack. That bench is just a stone’s throw from the Nobel Monument, “which, of course,” another society member interjected gloomily, “his name is not inscribed upon.”
[Not to be unfair to Noah here, but I cannot help but be reminded of a passage from Joshua Cohen’s review of Blake Bailey’s biography of Roth, delivered in the persona of Roth from beyond the grave:
Allow me to repeat this, in the now-Trumpian CAPS and exclamations that were such stylistic fixtures of my earlier novels and later faxes and emails: MY BIOGRAPHER HAS NO INTEREST IN MY WRITING!!!! Instead, what he’s interested in is my going to the shrink; he’s interested in my writing the shrink of a woman I was dating in order to get him to tell her I was breaking up with her. He’s interested in my readings (to an audience), but not my reading (at home); he’s interested in my honorary degrees, and the lectures and interviews I gave, and my attempts to prevail on my students and interviewers for blowjobs or handjobs. In the Nineties, he has me going to a lot of parties, and commiserating with Mia Farrow, who during my divorce from Claire was having her own tabloid brouhaha with Woody. In the Aughts, he has me going to a lot of lunches, with approving critics, ailing cousins, senior Newarkers I portrayed in my books, and friends who were writing memoirs about having been friends with me. (A note to out-of-towners: Sarabeth’s, which gets a ton of free press in these pages, isn’t some vaunted literary hangout so much as a mediocre New York chain whose Amsterdam Avenue outpost was near my apartment. I usually ordered the house salad, hold the dressing, and water, hold the ice.) Without belaboring my objections any further, let me just point out that given my writing schedule, I managed to accomplish all of the lechery, careerism, and casual dining that so captivates Bailey in the maybe four or three or two hours per day during which I wasn’t at my desk, or shitting, pissing, or sleeping.
It’s one of the best, and funniest, book reviews I’ve read. —Steve]
In Engelsberg Ideas, Tiffany Jenkins on the transformation of societal understanding of privacy in the 1960s and ’70s:
One year after the airing of An American Family, the BBC ran its own 12-part observational series, The Family, credited as Britain’s first fly-on-the-wall documentary. The intention of the producer, Paul Watson, was to make a film about the kind of people who never got on to television. The documentary makers spent two months with the chosen family before filming them for 18 hours a day for three months. They even had their own key to the front door.
This series “is going to be a tremendous intrusion into your privacy…We will film everything,” Watson reminded the mother, Margaret Wilkins, in the first episode. Across a blue Formica table, surrounded by her husband and four children, she nodded, replying that they were enthusiastic about that because: “It gives us a chance to portray ordinary people, if you like, instead of actors and actresses on the screen…with beautiful kitchens, nothing out of place…no dirty pans…all sparkling—well, people’s kitchens aren’t like that.” Giving up their privacy would reveal the authentic truth behind glossy appearances. It would be real life.
But the fundamental question is not the specter of apocalyptic risks (though, ironically, von Neumann coined the term “Mutually Assured Destruction” as he designed America’s nuclear warfare policy). Rather, it is the necessity of preserving our humanity.
Labatut—following in a long tradition of humanistic and theological thought—equips us with a superior vernacular with which to offer a critique, a warning, a prophecy. A quotation from thirteenth-century Dutch mystic and visionary Hadewijch of Brabant serves as the epigraph. She describes “my soul’s own faculty of Reason” as “a queen, wearing a gold dress, and her dress was full of eyes, and all the eyes were transparent, like fiery flames and yet like crystals.” Her crown is filigreed with “as many crowns, one above the other, as there were eyes in her dress.” Our powers of reason bring us riches and capabilities—but they may also bring us into the pits of Gehenna.
[Max is, perhaps, the most loyal of WRB readers. —Chris] [As people say these days, “he’s so real for this.” —Steve] [I still haven’t finished reading this book though. I don’t like it that much. Sorry Max! —Chris]