WRB—October 28, 2023
“arrive in your skeleton”
The Washington Review of Books was my delight, my folly, my anodyne, my intellectual stimulation.
John Chau, attempted missionary to the uncontacted inhabitants of North Sentinel Island, has been in the news due to a new documentary about him (The Mission, 2023). The Atlantic has an essay adapted from Adam Goodheart’s new book on the island (The Last Island: Discovery, Defiance, and the Most Elusive Tribe on Earth, September) about a Victorian-era attempt to contact its inhabitants:
Portman’s diaries and scholarly writings reveal that he tried to make contact with the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island multiple times, repeatedly landing there on his expeditions. On one such trip, just a year after his arrival in the archipelago, he brought a large party of armed men with him, a decision that he would later confess had been a mistake. Sweating and swearing as they trudged through the jungle, with sabers rattling and cartridge-boxes swinging, the officers and soldiers managed to frighten off any Sentinelese. As soon as these intruders came within earshot, the natives retreated into the forest. A few times, Portman got close enough to discern what he would describe as their “peculiarly idiotic expression of countenance, and manner of behaving.” (Could it be that this was how he perceived their understandable terror?)
In our sister publication in the Big Apple, Stacy Schiff on that high school classic The Crucible, shaped in several ways by the events of Miller’s life:
When asked later about Abigail and Proctor’s liaison, Miller replied that he had included it for two reasons. In the first place, he believed they had truly had a relationship. Only much later did he add that trouble at home had played a role. “My own marriage of twelve years was teetering and I knew more than I wished to know about where the blame lay,” Miller wrote in 1996. That Proctor’s strangling guilt might make of him the voice of reason reassured Miller. He was in the market for redemption: even a tarnished soul might deliver the sterling lines. With a few decades’ distance Miller emphasized the personal calvary over the McCarthy analogy. Some recognized the first from the start. Kazan read The Crucible as a public apology to Mary. “I had to guess that Art was publicly apologizing to his wife for what he’d done,” he observed. From the outset, the betrayal in the play struck him as more sexual than social, an observation largely submerged today. In a quip that Miller put down to professional jealousy, Clifford Odets dismissed The Crucible as “just a story about a bad marriage.”
[Cf.WRB—October 18, 2023.]
The WRB [Or at least this Managing Editor. —Steve] loves reporting from strange events and gatherings. Sarah Souli reports back from Europe’s largest arms fair in The Dial:
The majority of the people at DSEI were men, and the energy pulsing through the ExCel center was undoubtedly masculine. Men stood with their hands on their hips in front of missiles that were level to their groins; the symbolism was tiring. The arms industry, though, has excellent P.R. and knows the importance of an up-to-date image, As such, there has been a concerted effort to bring more women into the fold. At the Ultimate Training Munitions shooting booth, I watched as a woman dressed in a blue shift dress and pearls, gleefully shot a rifle; there was an entire panel dedicated to diversity in defense. “There are a huge number of women in tight dresses and stilettos who just hold that power structure in place,” said Gibbons. She noted that this year was more subdued—in the past, there have been fashion shows with young female models strutting on raised catwalks above missiles—but most of the booths have smiling women manning the front desk; the actual exchange of power happens behind them, largely between men.
[There’s writing? On the Internet? You heard about this? —Steve] For Longreads, Megan Marz on critical responses to online writing in light of the upcoming 30th anniversary of the blog:
But metabolizing the literature of previous generations is necessary to create new literature. And writing on the internet has a way of disappearing, so that it may not be available long enough for enough people to become aware of it, let alone to call it literature. An API might become too expensive, a hosting fee might no longer seem worth it, an author might delete or lock their account after a platform empties out, as X—and social media in general—feels like it’s doing now. In 2017, the Library of Congress decided to stop archiving all public tweets and instead collect only those that are “thematic and event-based, including events such as elections, or themes of ongoing national interest, e.g. public policy.” The Wayback Machine is a good but gappy source of disappeared blogs, and it probably won’t do any better with email newsletters.
[Where are the blogs of yesteryear? —Steve]
In The Paris Review, an adapted excerpt from Jeanette Winterson’s new collection (Night Side of the River: Ghost Stories, October 24):
You don’t have to be religious, or artistic, or creative, or a scientist, to understand that the world and what it contains is more than a 3D experience. To understand that truth, all we have to do is log on. Increasingly, our days are spent staring at screens, communicating with people we shall never meet. Young people who have grown up online consider that arena to be more significant to them than life in the “real” world. In China, there is a growing group who call themselves two-dimensionals, because work life, social life, love life, shopping, information, happen at a remove from physical interaction with others. This will become more apparent and more bizarre when metaverses offer an alternative reality.
Let me ask you this. If you enjoyed a friendship with someone you have never met, would you know if they were dead? What if communication continued seamlessly? What if you went on meeting in the metaverse, just as always?
Reminiscent of this from a few weeks ago:
We talk like we are haunted. My best friend tells me she’s been ghosted and what she means is a guy replied to one of her texts with something that didn’t require a reply, so she didn’t reply, but he hasn’t double texted, so that’s him ghosting. I ask if it’s possible she ghosted him or, perhaps, they ghosted each other. She glares at me. We debate for a while if a heart reaction and then nothing counts as ghosting. We debate if an “Lol” and then nothing counts as ghosting. I ask if it’s weird that this guy I sort of know replies to all of my tweets and she says it depends on how old he is. I ask if it’s weird for me to reply to my ex-boyfriend’s Instagram stories and she says no, unless I do it too much.
Do not care if you just arrive in your skeleton.
Would love to take a walk with you. Miss you.
Would love to make you shrimp saganaki.
Like you used to make me when you were alive.
Love to feed you. Sit over steaming
bowls of pilaf. Little roasted tomatoes
covered in pepper and nutmeg. Miss you.
Reminiscent, too, of this Róisín Lanigan note for the Verso blog on writers’ diaries:
The digital world we inhabit, we’re frequently told, is a phenomenally lonely one. While we’re finding relatability in centuries old chronicles of solitude and gloom, love and connection, we’re ever more unable to communicate with each other on a meaningful level. While we’re pining over declarations of devotion from Kafka and Nabokov, we’re setting our text messages to “read once” and allowing the art of love-letter writing to fall almost entirely out of use – far too exposing in the age of the dating app screenshot industrial complex. Although we’re constantly reminded of the vague “mental health benefits” of journaling, the journals we keep and are encouraged to keep make us feel less “seen” than the diaries of long-dead writers who had never seen an iPhone.
Yet his stories are studded with moments of gratuitous grace, fleeting as meteors in the moonless night sky, leaving traces long on the retina and even longer in memory. Where do these moments of grace come from? They are always the fruit of a memory stimulated haphazardly and appearing full-blown as a feeling and a vision. The character time-travels to a happier moment, is suffused with contentment, and catches a glimpse of paradise lost, perhaps, but nonetheless real in the moment. It reminds the reader (though seldom the character) how mysteriously, ineluctably, events in the present are linked to the past. Hopes crushed by life, buried beneath layers of disappointment and bitter experience, can return to us in a flash as emeralds or sapphires hardened into crystalline perfection under the tectonic pressures of the earth. For Chekhov, only with the passage of time can we grasp the meaning of an event or a feeling. But we must be patient and bear much pain before anything becomes clear to us.
Osamu Dazai’s new comic novel (The Flowers of Buffoonery, 1935, March) came out in a translation by Sam Bett from New Directions this spring. In The Nation, Paul Franz with a review [Once again, an Upcoming book—this time from WRB—Mar. 1, 2023.]:
Outrageous, exasperating, and, like so much of Dazai’s writing, indefinably (perhaps also indefensibly) charming, these narratorial intrusions are central to the book—and not just because they leave many chapters with a few bare sentences of narrative. The new angle they open onto the fictional world is also a new axis of conflict with the real one. To expose his own guilt, even in this fictional way, is also to implicate others—notably, his family, and the social apparatus in which they still played a prominent part. Crucially, however, Dazai will do so not by abandoning, but by intensifying, his aestheticism.
[If you think about it, isn’t the WRB an attempt at a lifelong long poem? Part of a noble tradition. —Steve] In our sister publication Down Under, George Cox reviews the third installment in aj carruthers’ “lifelong long poem,” Axis (Axis: Z Book 3, May):
carruthers inserts and adjoins prose prefaces, glossaries, afterwords, pictures, facsimiles, and musical notation into his different installments. Axis paratextualises, spinning out debris and satellites into numbered orbits. The result is that this new book is an extremely discontinuous assemblage that cycles through kinds of reading, modes of attention, and strategies of disambiguation. There are physical-optical challenges involved in the negotiation of the vertical line that seems to share content or structure with the parallel lines unfolding alongside it, inducing a “grass must be greener” kind of reading, where skipping to the end of the poem is no longer possible because it ends four times over. To read any of these poems left to right—to wilfully break the new and perverse taboo that Axis has invented for the reader—is to encounter not the non-meaning that would normally correspond with breaking decipherment rules, but instead to illuminate some underlying structural principle, to feel the new form abstractly.
In the Journal, Maxwell Carter reviews S. Frederick Starr’s book on two Central Asian polymaths (The Genius of Their Age: Ibn Sina, Biruni, and the Lost Enlightenment, October 24):
“Reading Aristotle challenged both young men to explore all fields,” observes Mr. Starr. The Greek thinker’s breadth of knowledge and inquiry was an inspiration as well as the standard to be measured against. Ibn Sina aspired to the mastery of Aristotle’s works and to the erection of “a new and even more comprehensive structure of knowledge.” In his autobiography, Ibn Sina claimed to have read the Metaphysics 40 times with limited success, grasping it only after coming across an analysis by the philosopher al-Farabi (for this, he had an importunate book peddler to thank). Biruni, who looked also to Euclid and Ptolemy, acknowledged Aristotle’s pre-eminence but was more apt to reject and revise his thought. When Biruni and Ibn Sina corresponded around 997–998—the 35-page paraphrase of this important exchange was discovered in an archive in Cairo in 1920—they bickered over Aristotle. Biruni questioned his method and conclusions on the heavens, physics and geography; Ibn Sina held to the authority of the “First Teacher.”
[You don’t hear much about importunate book peddlers these days. Maybe Chris could get into selling me all the books he recommends to me. —Steve]
In Compact, Adam Lehrer reviews a 30th-anniversary reissue of an essay collection by Dave Hickey (The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty and Other Matters, 1993, October 24):
Hickey thought that the institutional distrust of beauty had emerged partly in reaction to its modern commercial uses in selling products. If beauty sells, then perhaps beauty is merely idolatry or advertising. Hickey agreed that art shouldn’t be idolatry or advertising, but with a caveat: “Advertising and idolatry are, indeed, art, and the greatest works of art are indeed a bit of both.” In his account, this doesn’t work against art’s subversive potential; it is what unleashes it.
- proposes an explanation for a drop in sales at Penguin Random House: “A large number of readers found the high volumes of arguably inferior but less expensive product on Amazon an attractive substitute for conventionally published genre fiction.”
Some lost works of nineteenth-century American literature worth finding.
“Literary It Girls may have the standard markers of what we think of when we think of an It Girl: they’re beautiful, stylish, and social, with a certain je ne sais quoi.” [Hannah, our social media person, is well in front of the trendpieces and has been discussing the appeal of the WRB to literary it girls for months now. We drink from the pure stream of culture at its source. Get that merch! —Steve]
The facade of and entrance to Flower Theater will be restored to their original condition.
“A Myth of Devotion” by Louise Glück
When Hades decided he loved this girl
he built for her a duplicate of earth,
everything the same, down to the meadow,
but with a bed added.
Everything the same, including sunlight,
because it would be hard on a young girl
to go so quickly from bright light to utter darkness.
Gradually, he thought, he’d introduce the night,
first as the shadows of fluttering leaves.
Then moon, then stars. Then no moon, no stars.
Let Persephone get used to it slowly.
In the end, he thought, she’d find it comforting.
A replica of earth
except there was love here.
Doesn’t everyone want love?
He waited many years,
building a world, watching
Persephone, a smeller, a taster.
If you have one appetite, he thought,
you have them all.
Doesn’t everyone want to feel in the night
the beloved body, compass, polestar,
to hear the quiet breathing that says
I am alive, that means also
you are alive, because you hear me,
You are here with me. And when one turns,
the other turns—
That’s what he felt, the lord of darkness.
looking at the world he had
constructed for Persephone. It had never crossed his mind
that there’d be no more smelling here,
certainly no more eating.
Guilt? Terror? The fear of love?
These things he couldn’t imagine;
no lover ever imagines them.
He dreams, he wonders what to call this place.
First he thinks: The New Hell. Then: The Garden.
In the end, he decides to name it
A soft light rising above the level meadow,
behind the bed. He takes her in his arms.
He wants to say I love you, nothing can hurt you
but he thinks
this is a lie, so he says in the end
you’re dead, nothing can hurt you
which seems to him
a more promising beginning, more true.
[This is from Glück’s 2006 Averno, her tenth collection, named for the lake in southern Italy that ancient Romans believed to be the entrance to the underworld.
I’ve been enjoying the collection quite a lot so far, but what made me stop on this poem was the first enjambment in that final stanza: but he thinks / this is a lie. There’s two possible interpretations of that line. The first is “thinks” as in “thinks to himself;” the second, “thinks” as in “doesn’t know.” The hard enjambment after thinks caught my eye on my second read-through, and it certainly highlights that word with its two possible meanings. Plus, the enjambment also feels like a kind of hesitation, or stutter, which seems to further the possibility of his not-knowing. The distinction matters, if it matters, because if it means “thinks” as is “doesn’t know,” it raises the possibility that Hades may be wrong; i.e., he thought he didn’t love her, but he was unsure.
After noticing that, looking back through the poem, I realized that there are so many moments in which we see the faultiness of Hades’s attempts at knowledge—lines like Doesn’t everyone want love?, It had never crossed his mind…, and In the end, he thought, she’d find it comforting. The poem takes place, overwhelmingly, in his thoughts. And though his thoughts reach towards Persephone, the gap between his thoughts and her, as she is in reality, remains so vast. And this isn’t a situation particular to him, Glück reminds us, but is universal to lovers: no lover ever imagines guilt, fear, love, she notes. If this poem is about the failure inherent, or at least common, to a lover’s thinking, then the final stanza exists in light of that.
The moment of honesty in the final stanza that comes by way of such a striking line,
you’re dead, nothing can hurt you
feels particularly poignant because it’s, perhaps, the first thing Hades does that’s rooted in truth. It’s so in contrast to what he names the garden he builds for her, Persephone’s Girlhood (which is only true inasmuch as the garden located in the place of the dead, and therefore is dead—ended—itself). As dark as what he says to her is, I can’t help but see something tender in the ending, and in the choice of words Hades makes. In so much of the poem, he tries to reach toward her in his thoughts, toward what he thinks she’ll feel, or what she should feel. When he says you’re dead, he isn’t reaching for her at all, but staying within what he knows. It’s an interesting transformation that Glück pulls off so well. —Julia]
October 31 | Tor
A Wolfe at the Door
by Gene Wolfe
From the publisher: The circus comes to town… and a man gets to go to the stars.
A young girl on a vacation at the sea meets the man of her dreams. Who just happens to be dead. And an immortal pirate.
A swordfighter pens his memoirs… and finds his pen is in fact mightier than the sword.
Welcome to Gene Wolfe’s playground, a place where genres blend and a genius’s imagination straps you in for the ride of your life.
The Wolfe at the Door is a brand new collection from one of America’s premiere literary giants, showcasing some material been seen before. Short stories, yes, but also poems, essays, and ephemera that gives us a window into the mind of a literary powerhouse whose world view changed generations of readers in their perception of the universe.
Also on Tuesday:
Copper Canyon: The Blue House: Collected Works of Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Patty Crane
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