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Partying with Communists, Chaucer the European, and Salvador Dalí’s Marx Brothers Screenplay

Also: Pound’s Cathay revisited, and more.
Partying with Communists, Chaucer the European, and Salvador Dalí’s Marx Brothers Screenplay

In The Atlantic, Alan Jacobs argues against creating “conservative” universities in response to increasingly progressive institutions.

Politicized children’s books are the worst. “Won’t somebody please think of the children!”

The Canterbury Tales is often said to be a quintessentially English work, but Marion Turner argues in her biography of Chaucer that to describeCanterbury Tales as an “epic of Englishness,” as Peter Ackroyd has, “would have seemed distinctly odd to Chaucer”: “Far from being a UKIP-member prototype, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is based mainly on a figure called La Vieille from the French Roman de la Rose, and on stereotypes from Jerome’s Latin Adversus Jovinian. And the idea of a group of people telling stories has multiple sources, notably Boccaccio’s Decameron. Most of The Canterbury Tales doesn’t even take place in England: the settings range from central Asia to Syria to northern Italy to Flanders. And very few have any English sources.” A. M. Juster will be reviewing Turner’s biography for one of our summer issues. I’m looking forward to his take.

The screenplay that Salvador Dalí wrote for the Marx Brothers “is a baffling mess”: “When Harpo Marx met Salvador Dalí, it was kismet, as Josh Frank reports in Giraffes on Horseback Salad, his diverting graphic novel about the pair’s 1937 attempt to collaborate on a movie of the same name. While it’s not too surprising that the troublemaking artist and the seditious comedian would be simpatico, their bond went deeper than that. They painted each other, and Dalí sent his new friend a full-size harp strung with barbed wire. Harpo replied with a photo of himself pretending to play the lethal harp, all his fingers wrapped in bandages. (It’s included in this book, courtesy of his son Bill.)…Neither Dalí or Harpo seems to have realized that their approaches to humor were vastly different. The Marx Brothers’ work was acutely conscious of, and responsive to, established structures: They subverted the social order using its own rules. Groucho and Chico’s wordplay exemplifies this, and even Harpo’s silent antics acknowledged conventions in order to upend them. Dalí, more often than not, simply headed off in a direction orthogonal to accepted reality. As a result, he’s not generally particularly funny at all.”

The many “mistakes” of Pound’s Cathay: “There were many classes of error for which the kundoku method and the men involved stand responsible. Many things could have gone wrong in the daisy chain of such transmission. As Murphy’s Law demands, in Cathay they did. The corruptions in modern Japanese of classical Chinese words are more than matched by blunders of the translators, mishearings by Fenollosa, and misreadings by Pound—and then the dozens of places where Pound, mistaken or not, mucks with the original for a stronger poetic effect.”

Essay of the Day:

Claire Berlinski visits the three-day Fête de l’Humanité event that the French Communist Party runs every year to raise money:

“Originally, the fete was just for party members and sympathizers. In the 1960s, they flung open the gates to show that Communists were just normal folk. The strategy paid off: it was the music, not the Marxism, that got the crowd hopping. The organizers waved good-bye to the poncho-wearing panpipe player and created a major music festival—one attended, this year, by 600,000 people, many of whom camped outside the park. This year’s attractions included the Molotov Brothers and Skunks’n’Noses.

“It’s a culinary festival, too: all of the Party’s 95 departmental federations and local cells have stands offering regional gastronomy. In the Village du Monde, Marxist groupuscules show off Marxist international cuisine, which is just like international cuisine, beneath posters of political prisoners.

“I stopped at a booth where they were selling hand-blown Palestinian glassware and asked the revolutionary manning the till what Communism meant to him. He looked unsure, and then said that it was about being different. ‘You can be a bourgeois, or you can think differently,’ he said.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Train in peach blossoms

Poem: Joseph Harrison, “Dickens on Fire”

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