In Praise of Blake, Thomas Edison’s Genius, and Reading Peter Handke

Abraham Archibald Anderson, Thomas Alva Edison (1890), via Wikimedia Commons.

If you are unfamiliar with the work of Peter Handke and unsure if you should give him a try following the “flood of articles and ‘statements’ denouncing [him] as a fascist and an apologist for genocide,” John Wilson has some recommendations: “You are busy; you may feel that life is too short for you to plunge into investigating the merit of such charges. (‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,’ etc.) Understood. Then again, you may want to read a bit more before simply accepting the judgment of the angry chorus.”

What should we make of J. D. Salinger? “You might think that the literary reputation of a writer born a century ago (New Year’s Day 1919), dead for nearly a decade (since 27 January 2010), all of whose published work had appeared by 1965, would be a pretty well settled matter by now, whatever the verdict. Judgment should be an easy matter. But the work can’t be separated from the life, and the life – the Salinger case, really – radically departs from the usual pattern. Beginning with The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, Salinger published four books which dramatically succeeded in the ways books conspicuously can: zillions of readers bought and loved them; critics admired, detested or were baffled by them, and they have never been out of print. One big success of that sort can make an author rich and famous for life but Salinger, blessed with four, instead chose to disappear. He turned his back on the excitements of New York City, where he and most of his fictional characters had been born and raised, for quiet and seclusion at the end of a dirt road in a tiny New Hampshire town. There he bolted his door to the world, answered no questions from the curious, and carried on writing books he did not intend to publish in his lifetime.”

In praise of Blake: “The Blake exhibition at Tate Britain, the first major exhibition in nearly twenty years, shows 300 of his prints and paintings, with manuscripts and printed books, gathered from galleries and libraries across the world. There have been other, smaller Blake shows with particular emphases, but this one sets out bravely to guide us through the whole range of his ideas, his art and his working life. A lot to see, a lot to take in. To corral this, the curators have imposed a chronological arrangement, setting Blake’s work in the context of the French Revolution, the spread of industry and the growing British empire, and devoting rooms to his patrons and his career as an engraver to show how he scraped a living until the relative freedom of his final years. This is, of course, exactly the kind of crisp, rational, time-bound framework that Blake himself railed against so passionately. Yet, on the whole, it works well. Far from being dwarfed by the vast Tate rooms, within these controlling boxes Blake’s shining art explodes with energy, sometimes mystical, sometimes rippling with anger, sometimes leaping with delight.”

The Swiss school that trains the world’s elite: “You can tell a lot about a school from its most famous sons. Eton will always be defined by the flagrant smoothy and the born-to-rule—Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Anthony Eden, et al. Le Rosey is the spiritual home of the Euro gadabout and the family curse–baiter—Rothschilds, Radziwills, Rockefellers. The Dragon, meanwhile, is a petri dish for peppy actors and self-confessed attention seekers—Emma Watson, Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston. Institut auf dem Rosenberg boasts no notable alumni. That’s not because nobody went there, of course—but because almost everybody did. ‘Our former students are some of the most successful people in the world,”’ Bernhard Gademann, the fourth-generation headmaster of the Swiss boarding school, tells me. ‘They’re technology founders, Silicon Valley figures, members of well-established industrial dynasties—real world changers. But we have a rule that we never speak about them, I’m afraid.’”

What was Thomas Edison’s genius? “Thomas Edison was already well known by the time he perfected the long-burning incandescent light bulb, but he was photographed next to one of them so often that the public came to associate the bulbs with invention itself. That made sense, by a kind of transitive property of ingenuity: during his lifetime, Edison patented a record-setting one thousand and ninety-three different inventions. On a single day in 1888, he wrote down a hundred and twelve ideas; averaged across his adult life, he patented something roughly every eleven days. There was the light bulb and the phonograph, of course, but also the kinetoscope, the dictating machine, the alkaline battery, and the electric meter. Plus: a sap extractor, a talking doll, the world’s largest rock crusher, an electric pen, a fruit preserver, and a tornado-proof house. Not all these inventions worked or made money. Edison never got anywhere with his ink for the blind, whatever that was meant to be; his concrete furniture, though durable, was doomed; and his failed innovations in mining lost him several fortunes. But he founded more than a hundred companies and employed thousands of assistants, engineers, machinists, and researchers. At the time of his death, according to one estimate, about fifteen billion dollars of the national economy derived from his inventions alone. His was a household name, not least because his name was in every household—plastered on the appliances, devices, and products that defined modernity for so many families. Edison’s detractors insist that his greatest invention was his own fame, cultivated at the expense of collaborators and competitors alike. His defenders counter that his celebrity was commensurate with his brilliance.

Essay of the Day:

In Rolling Stone, we learn about the adult children of a Dutch family that supposedly believed they were the only people left on earth. The story is still developing, but Elizabeth Yuko writes about what we know so far:

“On the night of October 5th, Jan Zon van Dorsten walked into his local bar in a rural part of the Netherlands. But the 25-year-old — with a long, shaggy beard and loose-fitting, outdated clothing — arrived as the bar was closing, and was sent home. He tried again eight days later. This time, over five pints of beer, he told the owner of the bar that he had been living in isolation with his family for the past nine years and needed help.

“Since the story first broke on Tuesday, October 15th, more bizarre details have emerged. At this point, there have been two arrests for deprivation of liberty and money laundering, potential cult connections and reports that the family was waiting out the end of days.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Moon shadow on Jupiter

Poem: Sally Thomas, “The Hermit Observes All Saints Day”

Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.

Post a comment

A History of Music, Real Pagan Witches, and an Ode to Skimming

Johann Heinrich Füssli, The Three Witches (1783), via Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t live for the weekend, but I’m glad it’s here. First up: Old grammar forms live on in American English: “Take the past participle of get, which in Britain is got and in America gotten. To some Britons, American gotten is a cute or irritating invention. In fact, it is the older form, which came from Old Norse. ‘Gotten’ appears in a Bible translation of 1535: ‘Treasures that are wickedly gotten, profit nothinge.’ It persisted for centuries before fusing with the past tense, got, in Britain. Not that America was entirely conservative; it has a got too. But Americans use it differently: ‘He’s got a car’ means he owns one, while ‘He’s gotten a car’ means he has acquired one.”

We’re told that reading online articles or ebooks rather than print makes us dumb and unhappy. Hogwash, says Leah Price: “Where readers of books are typically portrayed as methodical and patient, moving seriously, page by laborious page, from the front cover to the back, Price draws on evidence from a wide range of contexts to show how readers have always ‘skipped and skimmed their way through print’ – think about the way we page through dictionaries, anthologies, car manuals or cookbooks. I was reminded of an image I saw online, of two children in literary costume for World Book Day. They were dressed as the Argos catalogue. The image went viral because of the clash between the high-minded ideals we are supposedly celebrating when we celebrate books, and the literal interpretation of a book as any object with pages. Similarly, reading in print is supposed to be a sedentary activity which absorbs the reader, situated in opposition to a complex of online reading-based activities (browsing, posting, retweeting, commenting). Price offers, by contrast, dense histories of marginalia and dog-earing, of books sold, loaned, redacted, recommended and withheld – multi-tasking rather than rapt attention. Where reading books is assumed to palliate pathological issues including anxiety and depression, Price draws attention to the history of moralistic opposition to books (particularly novels) as spreaders of disease, and, more broadly, to readers who turn to literature not to be sedated but rather to be stimulated. Reading books has, Price shows, fostered community and conversation, and still does.”

Michael Dirda reviews Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History: “Rather than devote space to yet another analysis of the sonata form, Gioia’s focus is primarily sociocultural: He wants to explain the dynamics of music history, to track how styles and forms evolve, run their course and are eventually replaced or re-energized. Naturally, he has a thesis. Just as societies need carnivalesque holidays such as Mardi Gras to remain healthy, so too does music require regular infusions of Dionysian eroticism and violence. Conservative practices and arthritic genres must be periodically disrupted and undermined.In particular, Gioia argues that ‘musical innovation happens from the bottom up and the outside in.’ After all, fresh ideas are seldom found in the conservatory, cathedral or concert hall. One needs instead to search out ‘the neglected spheres of music that survive outside the realms of power brokers, religious institutions and social elites.’”

Archeologists discover a cache of ancient coffins: “The seemingly well-preserved sarcophagi were discovered ‘as the ancient Egyptians left them,’ said an official press statement highlighting their intact engravings and surviving coloration. Found in Al-Assasif, an ancient necropolis on the west bank of Nile, the coffins were spread out over two levels of a large tomb. The site once formed part of the ancient city of Thebes, the ruins of which are found in present-day Luxor.”

Frank Lloyd Wright’s love-hate relationship with New York: “If you know the slightest thing about Frank Lloyd Wright, you’ll know that he abominated New York City in just about all of the colorful and scabrous ways that he could. There are dozens of deprecations to draw upon, about ‘dying a hundred deaths a day on the New York gridiron in the stop-and-go of the urban criss-cross’ and more of every variety: ‘I have seen an enormous glut of everything—and seen nothing of any true significance where any real life worth living is concerned.’ But Wright also needed New York, and made very considerable use of it during his most difficult mid-career years, as a not infrequent home base for public relations, for writing income, and of course as a source of clients. He also even occasionally enjoyed it.”

Rod Dreher on the collapse of Christianity in America: “Just yesterday I heard from a reader who teaches in a school in one of the most conservative, religious parts of the US. He told me that he discussed the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision the other day in class as they were discussing the Supreme Court. He said every one of his students thought that the cake baker ought to be crushed.”

Essay of the Day:

The common view of witches today—that, throughout time, they have been oppressed for their opposition to patriarchy—is “utter rubbish,” Diane Purkiss argues in Athenaeum Review:

“The autumn 2018 television schedule was also full of witches, from pseudo-historical A Discovery of Witches to remakes of Charmed and Netflix’s reboot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, a feminist who hexes her headmaster with a plague of spiders when he refuses to act on the bullying of her non-binary best friend. The witches of 2018 are galvanised and political, says the London Times. Which all sounds like a lovely extended Halloween party. But soon, the reservations begin. ‘We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn,’ read a sign at the 2017 Women’s March. Yes, except that unless they were descended from German or French immigrants, they were actually descended from the witches that hadn’t been hanged. The writers probably mean the Salem witches, though, which means they are mathematically challenged. It’s an odd image to choose to empower young women. The spells, the shows, and the signs are pretending to a history that could be described charitably as misunderstood, uncharitably as utter rubbish. In fairness to them, they are drawing on published books, albeit ones that have been overtaken by more recent work. And they are very clearly picking and choosing. Yet as a historian, I am, shall we say, uncomfortable with the degree of falsification involved.

“A central aspect of witchcraft in its 21st-century incarnation is its insistence on its own virtue, a virtue which it projects back into the past. Modern witches have no doubt that witches in the time of the persecutions were good too, opponents of patriarchy like themselves. Patriarchy here means Christianity in the sense of organised religion, and especially the Catholic Church with its obvious discomfort with the body and human sexuality. Modern witches claim to be speaking for an entire class of oppressed people who have existed throughout history: ‘For decades, witches have been moving slowly out of the shadows and spreading good magic across the planet…the forces of capitalism, patriarchal greed and white supremacy united for one last gasp, producing our present circumstances—Nazis in the streets, our earth in peril, and an actual rapist in the White House. It’s not great out there these days. But in 2018, we will fight for the change we deserve to see. In 2018, we will support progressive candidates, advocate for justice, and, most importantly, vote witch.’

“In a way, this is indeed nothing new; countercultural movements from the 1960s also sought ironically for magical powers, as when the Yippies tried to levitate the Pentagon. Witchcraft ‘was always practiced by the people who were the outliers, who were on the fringes,’ witch Dakota Bracciale says. ‘Those people oftentimes had to also be the arbiter of their own justice.’ This almost meaningless statement seems to claim impunity for launching magical attacks. They have been attacked, so it’s fair to fight back.

“This argument depends on history. These exotic outsiders are framed as historical constants. However, the source quoted (even by such an august scholarly journal as Marie Claire) is Barbara Ehrenreich’s long-discredited idea that the majority of those accused were midwives and herbalists. Careful study of the witch trials, including studies by women historians such as Lyndal Roper, has revealed that very few of the accused were midwives, and some historians have argued convincingly that the majority of midwives were more likely to be working with the persecutors than against them. The popular idea that witches in the past were lonely souls living at odds with their ignorant Christian communities is just not true.

“There are in fact so many problems with some modern witches’ historical narrative that it’s hard to know where to begin, but a good starting point might be the assumption that witches are at variance with their culture rather than a product of that culture. Those accused of witchcraft—including those who genuinely believed themselves to be practicing magic, a minority of those accused—espoused beliefs that derived directly from medieval Christendom. In this essay, I will show that medieval and early modern witchcraft was for the most part not a pagan practice, but a dissident form of Christianity. I will also argue that modern pagans and modern witches are themselves products of the very globalized, commercial, urban and anywhere culture which they set out to resist, because rather than reacting against those trends, they are turning what might once have been a genuinely radical alternative into another form of self-care. Finally, I will show that the surviving remnants of pagan culture illuminate a much more violent and less liberal world than the one imagined by modern witches.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Klaushof

Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.

Post a comment

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Sermons, John Crowe Ransom’s Collected Poems, and a Prize-Winning Flannery O’Connor Documentary

Photo by Meria Geoian, via Wikimedia Commons.

Good morning, everyone. Well, this is good news: John Crowe Ransom finally gets not one but two variorum editions of his work: “Many readers will wonder whether Ransom is a poet worth troubling over, these decades after his death, the great movement in American poetry and literary criticism he helped to incite having been, by and large, routed in the academy and in the broader culture. The answer is, yes, indeed.”

Also good news, I think: Flannery O’Connor documentary receives $200,000 grant: “A new film about the life and writings of Flannery O’Connor will receive the first Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film. The award was announced on Wednesday by the Better Angels Society, the Library of Congress and the Crimson Lion/Lavine Family Foundation.”

Jim Antle reviews Rand Paul’s The Case Against Socialism: “Much of Paul’s book is devoted to pointing out that when socialism is taken to its most radical conclusions, it degenerates into starvation and death camps, not playing cute AOC videos on your iPhone or wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt on your college campus.”

2018 saw a big jump in the number of self-published books according to Bowker’s annual survey: “In its report, ‘Self-Publishing in the United States, 2013-2018: Print and E-books,’ the total number of print and e-books that were self-published in 2018 was 1.68 million, up from 1.19 million in 2017. Bowker measures the size of the market based on the number ISBN’s registered and thus does not include self-published e-books by Amazon’s Kindle division, which uses an Amazon identifier.”

Why red means red in almost every language: “When Paul Kay, then an anthropology graduate student at Harvard University, arrived in Tahiti in 1959 to study island life, he expected to have a hard time learning the local words for colors. His field had long espoused a theory called linguistic relativity, which held that language shapes perception. Color was the ‘parade example,’ Kay says. His professors and textbooks taught that people could only recognize a color as categorically distinct from others if they had a word for it. If you knew only three color words, a rainbow would have only three stripes. Blue wouldn’t stand out as blue if you couldn’t name it. What’s more, according to the relativist view, color categories were arbitrary. The spectrum of color has no intrinsic organization. Scientists had no reason to suspect that cultures divvied it up in similar ways. To an English speaker like Kay, the category ‘red’ might include shades ranging from deep wine to light ruby. But to Tahitians, maybe ‘red’ also included shades that Kay would call ‘orange’ or ‘purple.’ Or maybe Tahitians chunked colors not by a combination of hue, lightness and saturation, as Americans do, but by material qualities, like texture or sheen. To his surprise, however, Kay found it easy to understand colors in Tahitian. The language had fewer color terms than English. For example, only one word, ninamu, translated to both green and blue (now known as grue). But most Tahitian colors mapped astonishingly well to categories that Kay already knew intuitively, including white, black, red, and yellow. It was strange, he thought, that the groupings weren’t more random.”

Banksy opens online store, and it is predictably sardonic in that belabored way that characterizes most of Banksy’s work. The poor man is two cents shy of a good sense of humor and doesn’t know it.

A Cambridge gallery has loaned art to students for 60 years and none of it has ever been returned damaged.

Essay of the Day:

In The Los Angeles Review of Books, Brett Beasley takes stock of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sermons:

“‘Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!’ wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in a now-famous sonnet called ‘The Starlight Night.’ It was not just any sky, but the sky over Wales in the spring of 1877 that inspired him to see the constellations as ‘quickgold,’ ‘whitebeam,’ and ‘flake-doves.’ Hopkins, awaiting his ordination as a Jesuit priest, was living and studying at St. Beuno’s, a small theological college set into the side of a hill called Maenefa. As he described it in one poem, he was ‘[a]way in the loveable west, / On a pastoral forehead of Wales.’ It was here at St. Beuno’s, a few days after writing ‘The Starlight Night,’ that Hopkins delivered his earliest extant sermon.

“If the setting for the sermon was a friendly one, so was the audience. The attendees were Hopkins’s Jesuit brothers, the aim of the sermon being to gain him practice before his first assignment as a parish priest. The stakes, in other words, were low.

“Hopkins, however, was not one for halfhearted pursuits. He had no intention of taking it easy on himself. He opened with a grand metaphor, one designed to make his hearers reflect on the act of hearing. ‘Lend me your ears,’ he said, and then presented an image of the Sea of Galilee as ‘a man’s left ear.’ The River Jordan, he began, ‘enters at the top of the upper rim [and] runs out at the end of the lobe.’ The city of Bethsaida Julias rests, he said, ‘above the ear in the hair.’ He described the Apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip as coming from ‘against the cheek where the bow of the ear ends.’ The city of Tiberias he situated ‘on the tongue of flesh that stands out from the cheek.’

“And on he goes. And on. And on. As though the image were not complex enough, he fancifully transposed the ear/map composite onto the Welsh landscape surrounding St. Beuno’s. He connected Holy Land locations with Welsh places like Rhuddlan and Llannefydd, and finally he made the spot where his listeners sat on the slope of Maenefa, the very site where the biblical story they were about to hear took place.

“A metaphor bringing together the Holy Land, Wales, and an ear is a surprising feat of the imagination — and a playful one, too. But there is no reason to think Hopkins did not also mean for it to inspire. Surprise, in fact, is integral to his strategy. He wants to collapse time and space, to thrust his reader into the scene, making the Gospel story a vivid, felt reality. This much is certain: Hopkins missed his mark. Hearing their left ears compared to the Sea of Galilee, his listeners did not sit in silent amazement. They guffawed. And as Hopkins disentangled himself from his baroque opening metaphor, he encountered fresh difficulties.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Chiru in a snow-covered desert

Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.

Post a comment

The Future of Writing under A.I., Secular Pilgrimages, and Repatriating James Joyce

Grave of James Joyce, Fluntern Cemetery, Zurich. Photo by Nicholas Hartmann, via Wikimedia Commons.

First up: Should the remains of James Joyce be moved ahead of the centenary of Ulysses in 2022? “Dublin city councillors are hoping to fulfil wishes of the writer and his wife, which were denied after his death in Switzerland in 1941.”

The strange appeal of secular pilgrimages: “One of the most moving pilgrimages I’ve been on was a trip seven years ago to a craggy promontory in Norway on the small lake Eidsvatnet. This was the site of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s custom-built house near the town of Skjolden. It was difficult to find, hard to access, and all that remained were the foundations. But as I sat there and looked out across the water, I felt strangely moved. On my return home, I learned of plans to rebuild the philosopher’s house – remarkably, it still existed. In 1958, it had been moved to the town and re-erected with modifications. The original windows were stored in a barn. At the time, reconstruction of the home in its original location seemed like a pipe dream. The Wittgenstein Foundation in Skjolden wasn’t even formally established until 2014. But in recent years the plan gathered momentum, helped by the owner’s threat to demolish it if it wasn’t bought from him. In March 2017, the county of Sogn og Fjordane and the local bank Luster Sparebank each gave a million Norwegian krona ($110,000) to the project. In May 2018, reconstruction began. Work was completed quickly. Jans, one of the project’s local builders, told me that, with these pre-cut timber homes, ‘it’s just like building Lego’.”

Salvador Dalí etching stolen from San Francisco gallery: “The piece is titled Burning Giraffe (1966), and it was insured, along with all the other works in the gallery’s current show on Geary Street, which is devoted to the famed Surrealist. The thief was caught on surveillance footage taking the piece from its place on an easel, which was momentarily unsecured from a lock-and-cable tether that normally secures it. The footage shows the swindler scooping the piece up into his right arm and immediately carrying it down the street.”

Rosemary Goring reviews a new edition of Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories: “A brittle, fearful awareness pervades many of these stories, their characters sensing the hazard of invisible lines that, once crossed, will have irrevocable consequences.”

Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg partner with Substack to create new publication. “It’s the first time that Substack has done this: The company, which announced about $15 million in VC funding over the summer, has until now catered only to individual writers, not larger publications.”

In search of the real China: “A longtime Hudson Institute scholar, formerly on the staffs of senators Henry Jackson and Daniel Moynihan, Horner is the author of the authoritative two-volume history, Rising China and Its Postmodern Fate: Memories of Empire in a New Global Context (2002) and Grandeur and Peril in the Next World Order (2015). In these—and in his latest, A China Scholar’s Long March—Horner delves among the Chinese archives and in the country itself to find the real China. For Horner, there is nothing inevitable about either the nation-state ‘China’ or its rising. That’s what makes A China Scholar’s Long March such an indispensable volume.”

Essay of the Day:

What is the future of writing under artificial intelligence? John Seabrook takes a stab at answering this question in The New Yorker (with the help of A.I.):

“I glanced down at my left thumb, still resting on the Tab key. What have I done? Had my computer become my co-writer? That’s one small step forward for artificial intelligence, but was it also one step backward for my own?

“The skin prickled on the back of my neck, an involuntary reaction to what roboticists call the ‘uncanny valley’—the space between flesh and blood and a too-human machine.

“For several days, I had been trying to ignore the suggestions made by Smart Compose, a feature that Google introduced, in May, 2018, to the one and a half billion people who use Gmail—roughly a fifth of the human population. Smart Compose suggests endings to your sentences as you type them. Based on the words you’ve written, and on the words that millions of Gmail users followed those words with, ‘predictive text’ guesses where your thoughts are likely to go and, to save you time, wraps up the sentence for you, appending the A.I.’s suggestion, in gray letters, to the words you’ve just produced. Hit Tab, and you’ve saved yourself as many as twenty keystrokes—and, in my case, composed a sentence with an A.I. for the first time.

“Paul Lambert, who oversees Smart Compose for Google, told me that the idea for the product came in part from the writing of code—the language that software engineers use to program computers. Code contains long strings of identical sequences, so engineers rely on shortcuts, which they call ‘code completers.’ Google thought that a similar technology could reduce the time spent writing e-mails for business users of its G Suite software, although it made the product available to the general public, too. A quarter of the average office worker’s day is now taken up with e-mail, according to a study by McKinsey. Smart Compose saves users altogether two billion keystrokes a week.

“One can opt out of Smart Compose easily enough, but I had chosen not to, even though it frequently distracted me. I was fascinated by the way the A.I. seemed to know what I was going to write. Perhaps because writing is my vocation, I am inclined to consider my sentences, even in a humble e-mail, in some way a personal expression of my original thought. It was therefore disconcerting how frequently the A.I. was able to accurately predict my intentions, often when I was in midsentence, or even earlier. Sometimes the machine seemed to have a better idea than I did.

“And yet until now I’d always finished my thought by typing the sentence to a full stop, as though I were defending humanity’s exclusive right to writing, an ability unique to our species. I will gladly let Google predict the fastest route from Brooklyn to Boston, but if I allowed its algorithms to navigate to the end of my sentences how long would it be before the machine started thinking for me? I had remained on the near shore of a digital Rubicon, represented by the Tab key. On the far shore, I imagined, was a strange new land where machines do the writing, and people communicate in emojis, the modern version of the pictographs and hieroglyphs from which our writing system emerged, five thousand years ago.”

Read the rest.

Photos: Purple clouds before the storm

Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.

Post a comment

Eliot’s Unseen Letters, a Mormon Hollywood, and the Booker Prize Winners

The SCERA Center for the Arts in Orem, Utah, via Wikimedia Commons

Harold Bloom has died. He was 89.

The Booker Prize has been awarded to two writers for the first time in 30 years—Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. I’m not familiar with Evaristo’s work, but Atwood’s The Testaments was terrible.

T. S. Eliot wrote over 1,000 letters to Emily Hale over nearly 30 years. Only a handful have been seen. That will change this week. “Hale delivered the letters to Princeton’s librarian, William Dix, in November 1956, and the following month the letters were sealed in 12 boxes in the archives of Firestone Library. Valerie Eliot, the poet’s second wife, asked to see them, but the terms of the bequest, forbidding all eyes, did not allow this. They were not to be opened until 50 years after the death of the survivor of the correspondence. Eliot died on Jan 4 1965; Hale nearly five years later, on Oct 12 1969, 50 years ago today. This week, the steel security bands will be cut, and this treasure will be unsealed. The curator Don Skemer will take two to three months to sort the letters, and then release them to readers in January 2020.”

Eliud Kipchoge becomes the first person to run a marathon in under two hours. How did he do it? With the help of 42 other world-class runners, among other things, though that doesn’t make the feat any less impressive: “The pacers worked in teams, rotating in twice during each of the course’s 9.6-km (6-mile) laps. An electric car preceded the runners, projecting a system of lasers to show where the pacers should run.”

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) is a mess. What’s going on? “In March 2018, after nearly 30 years of service, executive director David Fenza was fired in a hotel lobby in Tampa, at the conclusion of the organization’s annual conference, in full view of many of his peers. He was given no reason for his termination, and the board offered no explanation for his release. Subsequent to a public outcry from AWP members, an article appeared in Publishers Weekly with the provocative headline ‘Was a hostile work environment behind the firing of AWP’s David Fenza?’ A few months later, after voicing concerns about management decisions at AWP, Conference Director Christian Teresi left the organization as well. Everyone’s confused about what happened there (including the leadership at AWP). Mr. Teresi was surprised to learn that he was no longer in AWP’s employ after reading an article in Publishers Weekly, which never bothered to confirm this news with Teresi himself, who remained on AWP’s payroll for several months following the article’s publication. When confronted with this paradox, both David Haynes and Interim Director Chloe Schwenke claimed they could not comment on personnel matters, even though both were cited as sources . . . Schwenke restructured the staff, dissolved the organization’s most important institutional relationship, eliminated much of AWP’s institutional memory, and oversaw a staff exodus—one that did not end with Christian Teresi. The staff was then expanded dramatically, and large, ongoing expenses were added to AWP’s budget.”

Mark Zuckerberg has been having private dinners with conservative pundits since July. “Each dinner has been hosted at one of Zuckerberg’s homes in California, and at least one lasted around two-and-a-half to three hours. The conversations center around ‘free expression, unfair treatment of conservatives, the appeals process for real or perceived unfair treatment, fact checking, partnerships, and privacy,’ the source familiar with the meetings said.”

Essay of the Day:

In The New York Times, Elizabeth A. Harris writes about the mini-Hollywood outside Goshen, Utah, where BYU and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will produce 25 TV shows this year:

“In the heavy quiet of the Utah desert, past fields of alfalfa and fruit trees, past the Goshen trailer park and a big, sprawling dairy farm, the domes of Jerusalem rise up from the patchy grass.

“Set way back from the road, this maze of open-air passageways and courtyards is about the size of two football fields, an unusual vision of limestone bumping up against the Utah Rockies. It has played host to Mary and Joseph, John the Baptist and Jesus — as well as Lehi, Amulek and Alma the Younger.

“This is the Motion Picture Studio South Campus, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Jerusalem set, near Goshen, Utah, is part of the church’s substantial film and media production arm, which includes full time producers, editors and animators, and a fully equipped studio in Provo, complete with sound stages, editing bays and a clutch of 19th-century Americana houses constructed on a backlot.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Val di Funes

Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.


Post a comment

Restoring Salvator Mundi, Swimming in Sub-Zero Water, and the Women Who Made Modern China

Via Wikimedia Commons.

In his recent biography of Susan Sontag, Benjamin Moser claims that Sontag didn’t help her husband Philip Rieff write his first book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. She wrote the whole thing. If that’s the case (and it’s a big if), Len Gutkin writes in The Chronicle Review, what should we make of sections copied from other sources without attribution? Who is guilty of plagiarism?

Dianne Modestini writes about restoring Salvator Mundi: “While restoring the Salvator Mundi—work that I began in April 2005 and finished in September 2010—I made sure that my feeble retouches never masked these precious traces. To match the original paint, I built up the retouches in thin layers in the same sequence used by Leonardo. Fearful of covering any original paint, I used the tiny 000 sable watercolor brushes made by Winsor & Newton. Each brushstroke was carefully judged, based on knowledge of similar works and the formal structure of adjoining passages. Even so, many of the gadflies who make their living on the fringes of the scholarly art world appear to believe that a restorer—in this instance, me—is capable of creating the Salvator Mundi. I suppose I should be flattered.”

Lewis Pugh on what it’s like to swim in -3˚C saltwater: “If an untrained person were to dive into freezing water, death would come quickly. Even after all my preparation, as I braced myself for the plunge I knew my body would be fighting with all its might to stay alive.  What does it feel like when you first get into the water? It burns. It feels like you’re on fire. But in temperatures like this, you don’t die of the cold. You drown. Within the first five seconds your body goes into shock; it’s very difficult to breathe. The only thing I can do is count every stroke, ‘One. Two. Breathe. Three. Four. Breathe.’ It doesn’t get any better after that.”

The women at the heart of modern China: “In their lifetime, and afterwards, the Soong sisters from Shanghai seemed like figures from a Chinese fairy tale. There were three of them: ‘One loved money, one loved power and one loved her country.’ They came from a family of prosperous Methodist converts and, for almost 100 years, one or other of them presided at or near the center of power in China. The middle sister, Chingling, married Sun Yatsen, the founding Father of the Republic, transferring her allegiance after his death to the small group of bandits, led by Mao Zedong, who formed the nucleus of the Chinese Communist party. To this day Chingling enjoys something like mythical status in the People’s Republic of China.”

Da Vinci’s bridge would have worked, a research group at MIT shows: “Da Vinci’s proposal was radically different than the standard bridge at the time. As described by the MIT group, it was approximately 918 feet long (218 meters, though neither system of measurement had been developed yet) and would have consisted of a flattened arch ‘tall enough to allow a sailboat to pass underneath with its mast in place…but that would cross the wide span with a single enormous arch,’ according to an MIT press statement. It would have been the longest bridge in the world at the time by a significant measure, using an unheard of style of design.”

François Pinault’s $170 million Paris museum to open in June 2020.

In praise of New York Review of Books Classics: “Founded in 1972, the imprint Lost American Fiction had a mission to reintroduce wrongly forgotten books. It had reprinted 29 of them by 1979, at which point the series was itself consigned to oblivion. Prion Lost Treasures brought out 26 before suffering the same fate. Ecco Neglected Classics only made it to 21. There is something poignant about coming across a volume labeled “lost” or ‘neglected’ in a used-book store, the designation having become prophecy, but the earthward trajectory of these quixotic enterprises is unfortunately all too predictable. Which is why the 20th anniversary of New York Review Books Classics—they hit 500 last year, with Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Sand—is such an improbable milestone.”

Essay of the Day:

What does Jeff Bezos want? To leave this world, Franklin Foer writes in The Atlantic:

“I spent five months speaking with current and former Amazon executives, as well as people at the company’s rivals and scholarly observers. Bezos himself declined to participate in this story, and current employees would speak to me only off the record. Even former staffers largely preferred to remain anonymous, assuming that they might eventually wish to work for a business somehow entwined with Bezos’s sprawling concerns.

“In the course of these conversations, my view of Bezos began to shift. Many of my assumptions about the man melted away; admiration jostled with continued unease. And I was left with a new sense of his endgame.

“Bezos loves the word relentless—it appears again and again in his closely read annual letters to shareholders—and I had always assumed that his aim was domination for its own sake. In an era that celebrates corporate gigantism, he seemed determined to be the biggest of them all. But to say that Bezos’s ultimate goal is dominion over the planet is to misunderstand him. His ambitions are not bound by the gravitational pull of the Earth.”

* * *

“When reporters tracked down Bezos’s high-school girlfriend, she said, ‘The reason he’s earning so much money is to get to outer space.’ This assessment hardly required a leap of imagination. As the valedictorian of Miami Palmetto Senior High School’s class of 1982, Bezos used his graduation speech to unfurl his vision for humanity. He dreamed aloud of the day when millions of his fellow earthlings would relocate to colonies in space. A local newspaper reported that his intention was ‘to get all people off the Earth and see it turned into a huge national park.’

“Most mortals eventually jettison teenage dreams, but Bezos remains passionately committed to his, even as he has come to control more and more of the here and now. Critics have chided him for philanthropic stinginess, at least relative to his wealth, but the thing Bezos considers his primary humanitarian contribution isn’t properly charitable. It’s a profit-seeking company called Blue Origin, dedicated to fulfilling the prophecy of his high-school graduation speech. He funds that venture—which builds rockets, rovers, and the infrastructure that permits voyage beyond the Earth’s atmosphere—by selling about $1 billion of Amazon stock each year. More than his ownership of his behemoth company or of The Washington Post—and more than the $2 billion he’s pledged to nonprofits working on homelessness and education for low-income Americans—Bezos calls Blue Origin his ‘most important work.’”

Read the rest.

Photo: Val Poschiavo

Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.

Post a comment

Saving History, Taxing Tourists, and Buying Vinyl

Via Wikimedia Commons

Alumni of San Francisco’s George Washington High School sue the school to keep it from covering up a (supposedly) controversial mural of the life of George Washington. William Murchison argues that even past events poorly remembered are worth remembering.

Venice to tax tourists.

Vinyl is set to outsell CDs for the first time since 1986.

The owner of The Strand bookstore plans to sue the New York city government over landmark status.

An early transcription of The Tale of Genji has been found: “The original manuscript of the story no longer exists, with the oldest versions of the story believed to have been transcribed by the poet Teika, who died in 1241. Until now, just four chapters of the 54-chapter story are confirmed to be Teika’s transcriptions, but now a fifth chapter, which depicts Genji’s encounter with the girl who becomes his wife, Murasaki, has also been identified as Teika’s.”

Essay of the Day:

In Humanities, Patrick J. Geary writes about Columba Stewart—the monk who helps Christian and Muslin communities in the Middle East preserve and digitize their medieval manuscripts:

“The biography of Columba Stewart displayed on the home page of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library describes his extensive travels through the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and India in his efforts to help Christian and Muslim communities preserve and digitize their precious medieval and modern manuscripts.

“It mentions his rescue work in Timbuktu and his delicate and often dangerous efforts in war-torn Iraq to help Christian churches there save almost two millennia of religious thought from destruction. It goes on to describe his academic credentials: degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Oxford, fellowships from ‘all the right foundations,’ the grants that he has obtained for the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, and his distinguished publications on early Christian monasticism.

“But what the biography does not mention, the photo of Columba makes abundantly clear: There he stands, arms folded, dressed in the habit of a Benedictine monk. This monastic identity is the most salient feature of what makes Columba Stewart the man he is, what drives him in his scholarship to understand the earliest history and even the prehistory of monasticism, what gives him the courage to enter combat zones to rescue manuscripts that few people care about and that still fewer can read. Columba Stewart is a monk.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Rigi

Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.

Post a comment

The Crisis in Psychiatry, Rejecting English, and Winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature

Freud on a bench, via Wikimedia Commons.

The winners Nobel Prize in Literature have been announced (yes, that plural is correct—there are two winners this year). They are: Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk and Austrian Peter Handke.

In other news: Next week, it will have been 50 years since Caravaggio’s Nativity was stolen from the Oratory of Saint Lawrence in Palermo. Have the police been chasing red herrings all this time?

The Mona Lisa is back in its old spot at the Louvre, and a new “queuing system promises shorter waiting times and a more intimate experience with Leonardo’s celebrated oil-on-poplar painting, the museum insists.”

The crisis in psychiatry: “Anne Harrington begins Mind Fixers with a fairy tale. Once upon a time, psychiatry (or at least German psychiatry) rightly saw mental illness as rooted in biology, more specifically in the brain. Its laboratories developed new ways of slicing and dicing brains, and new techniques to stain and fix slices of brain tissue as it sought the sources of craziness. Then Freud came along and turned people’s heads. Talk of egos and ids, Oedipus and the unconscious, of murdered memories and hidden meanings, seduced generation after generation, luring psychiatry off into a ‘scientific wasteland’ and condemning sufferers to analysis terminable and interminable. From this nightmare, we suddenly awoke in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Advances in genetics, neuroscience and psychopharmacology all at once reminded psychiatrists that biology ruled, that talk could be dispensed with, and a truly medical psychiatry could finally emerge . . . Like all good fairy stories, this one has a happy ending. It is a fantasy, Harrington immediately asserts – indeed, deeply wrong – in every particular. It wasn’t the siren song of psychoanalysis that heralded the demise of German biological psychiatry; it was its own failures. Further, psychoanalysis did not replace it all at once. Analysis rose to prominence and dominance only after the Second World War. And Freudianism did not fall ‘because science triumphed over dogmatism’. The ‘science’ has turned out to be remarkably thin. Psychiatry continues to rely not on biological markers of disease but on clusters of clinical symptoms. Its vaunted diagnostic process is, in the words of a recent director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Thomas Insel, ‘equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever’. That problem is now obvious.”

Dominic Green laments the decline of American arts: “Everything is derivative and nostalgic. Nothing of note happened in painting or dance — or criticism, because the task of the American critic is to write obituaries and rewrite press releases. In music, Taylor Swift, once the Great White Hope of a dying industry, emitted a scrupulously bland album by committee. The jazz album of the year was, as it was last year, a studio off cut from John Coltrane, who died in 1967. The show, or what remained of it, was stolen by Lizzo, an obese but self-affirming squawker who, befitting an age of irony and multi-tasking, is the first person to twerk and play the flute at the same time. Meanwhile at the Alamo of high culture, 87-year-old John Williams marked the Tanglewood Festival’s 80th anniversary by perpetrating selections from Star Wars and Saving Private Ryan for an audience of equally geriatric and tasteless boomers.”

Essay of the Day:

In The New York Review of Books, Adam Kirsch surveys the work of Minae Mizumura:

“The writer from an immigrant background who exchanges his or her ancestral language for English is an American literary archetype. From Henry Roth, who arrived in Brooklyn in the 1900s from what is now Ukraine, to Junot Díaz, who came to New Jersey in the 1970s from the Dominican Republic, these writers often tell tales of alienation and hardship, but they also reinforce the idea, sometimes even despite themselves, that America is the land of the future—a place where people come to be remade, with all the gains and losses that process involves.

“But this model of what it means to be an immigrant writer may be breaking down in the twenty-first century. From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah to Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, some of the most accomplished twenty-first-century English-language novelists explore globalized and diasporic lives that self-consciously resist Americanization. Jhumpa Lahiri, whose stories about Bengali families in New England bridge the gap between these older and newer models of immigrant writing, has recently turned to writing in Italian, hoping, she told The New Yorker, ‘to free my work from geographic coördinates, and to arrive at a more abstract sense of place.’

“Most subversive of all, however, is the writer who has the chance to become American and write in the American language but deliberately rejects it. That is the story of Minae Mizumura, a distinguished Japanese novelist who has made her ambivalent feelings about English a central theme of her work.”

Read the rest.

Photos: Moving Hasankeyf


Flannery O’Connor, Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends, edited by Ben Alexander (Convergent, October 15): “A literary treasure of over one hundred unpublished letters from National Book Award-winning author Flannery O’Connor and her circle of extraordinary friends.” Available at Amazon.

Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.

Post a comment

The Rise of Androgyny, Saul Bellow’s America, and Newman the Novelist

Yoshiki. Photo by Georges Seguin, via Wikimedia Commons

Well, this is interesting: A new experiment proves that giant molecules can exist in two places at once: “Giant molecules can be in two places at once . . . That’s something that scientists have long known is theoretically true based on a few facts: Every particle or group of particles in the universe is also a wave—even large particles, even bacteria, even human beings, even planets and stars. And waves occupy multiple places in space at once. So any chunk of matter can also occupy two places at once. Physicists call this phenomenon ‘quantum superposition,’ and for decades, they have demonstrated it using small particles. But in recent years, physicists have scaled up their experiments, demonstrating quantum superposition using larger and larger particles. Now, in a paper published Sept. 23 in the journal Nature Physics, an international team of researchers has caused molecule made up of up to 2,000 atoms to occupy two places at the same time.”

In other news: What the Twenty-One quiz show scandal teaches us today: “Popular memory considers the ’60s a moment of great disruption, including of the WASP elite, but that disruption began earlier, at the height of WASP popular cultural influence. Today’s elite stands at a similar apex of influence, cooperating with mass media not to spread knowledge of literature, history, and philosophy, but of diversity, inclusivity, and intersectionality. But this cooperation can be risky. There may be no better way to create and spread discontent with reigning elite values than broadcasting them nationally.”

Newman the novelist: “When John Henry Newman is canonized by Pope Francis on October 13, the nineteenth-century cardinal and theologian will become the first new English saint in almost fifty years. He will also become the first novelist to be elevated to sainthood.”

Saul Bellow’s America: “When Augie March appeared in 1953, Jews and Jewish writers, entertainers, and critics were reaching the peak of their popularity in liberal America, as lingering images of the Holocaust still brought American Jews pity while the defenders of Israel gave them pride. This newfound confidence is heralded in Augie’s buoyancy. A new species of Jewish American, Augie is free to chart his own path. Though Bellow himself was not an American Chicago-born, he grants his hero that advantage while freeing him from parental Jewish supervision by making him the fatherless son of a weak mother. Freedom for Augie means not sex and drugs and irresponsibility but the right to try out the newly available options. Augie is the antithesis of John Steinbeck’s Depression victims (The Grapes of Wrath), of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s disenchanted tycoon (The Great Gatsby), and of Ernest Hemingway’s tight-lipped heroes who equate manhood with bullfighting. By contrast, Augie follows to Mexico a girl who is trying to tame a falcon, is schlemiel enough to lose her, ends up a flop at many other things—but is in no way resigned to lead a disappointed life. He leaves us with this thought: ‘Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.’”

The irritating genius of witzend: “There have been many great stories and personalities in the annals of comics. Few have been as intriguing, irritating, spellbinding, and magical as those in witzend.”

Essay of the Day:

What has led to the increasing international popularity of androgyny? The collapse of the family, Mary Eberstadt argues:

“Following the sexual revolution of the 1960s, sex differences in strength and endurance have been increasingly ignored or minimized, and standards for physical fitness altered, in venues where physical strength matters. These include the armed forces and police and fire departments. As one consequence among many, for the first time in American history, young American women stand a chance of being drafted into combat positions.

“There is also the explosion of gender ambiguity and fluidity in popular culture, beginning, though not only, in the United States. MTV, following the new ideological regimen, in 2017 moved to ‘gender-neutral’ awards for acting (i.e., no more separate awards for ‘actors’ and ‘actresses’). Other vetting boards in the performing arts and related circles are following suit.

“Then comes fashion. Denim jeans became the first sartorial plumage signifying the interchangeability of the sexes. In the 1990s, a handful of designers including Helmut Lang, Giorgio Armani, and Pierre Cardin pioneered what was called “unisex” clothing. Today, it is hard to name a major designer who hasn’t reinforced the trend and gone further.

“Androgyny is also front and center in popular music—and has been, for a while now. Once, David Bowie was a lone, mildly sexually ambiguous figure on the rock scene. Today, stars who flirt with gender bending are assured not only of fan love but also of competing on a field that gets more crowded by the day.

“Androgyny’s rewriting of popular culture isn’t an expression of European or American sexual exceptionalism. In Japan, designers such as Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, and Kenzo Takada render versions of the same androgynous cool seen in Europe and the United States. As with fashion, the pop-music trend is just as pronounced on the other side of the planet.

“Androgyny is a staple of Korean and Japanese popular genres, from K-pop and J-pop to anime and manga. In society after society, it is androgyny that is most visible across the genres of fashion, music, and other byways of pop culture.

“In short, an increase in androgynous expression is now to be found around the world—specifically, in societies transformed by the postrevolutionary remaking of primordial ties. Plainly, something unprecedented is happening to humanity across the planet, something so hitherto unknown, and operating with such power, that it demands more than passing explanation.

“Here’s one thesis: The new androgyny is not incidental to the collapse of family and community. To the contrary, the new androgyny is being driven by the collapse of family and community.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Morat

Poem: Will Toedtman, “Anniversary Poem”   


Joe Posnanski, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini (Simon and Schuster, October 22): “Award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Joe Posnanski enters the world of Harry Houdini and his legions of devoted fans in an immersive, entertaining, and magical work on the illusionist’s impact on American culture—and why his legacy endures to this day.” Available at Amazon.

Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.

Post a comment

Jane Austen Letter, the World’s Oldest Restaurant, and a History of Bicycles in New York

Photo by Gordon Zheng, via Wikimedia Commons.

First up: A letter from Jane Austen to her sister goes under the hammer: “Letters from Austen seldom come up for auction, because Cassandra and other members of the novelist’s family destroyed the majority of them in the 1840s. Of the estimated 3,000 missives written by Austen, only around 161 survive, of which around 95 are to Cassandra. The letter, dated 16 September 1813 and written shortly after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, runs to four pages. Dealing with everything from a trip to the dentist with her nieces to her mother’s health (Austen is hopeful she is ‘no longer in need of leeches’), it is ‘a gem’, according to Kathryn Sutherland, an Austen scholar and trustee of Jane Austen’s House Museum.”

Matthew Walther reviews Corey Robin’s The Enigma of Clarence Thomas.

What is the oldest restaurant in the world? “A tiny trattoria in Rome that specialises in tripe and boasts Caravaggio, Goethe and Keith Richards among its past customers has laid claim to being the world’s oldest restaurant and hopes to knock a Spanish rival out of the record books.”

A complex portrait of Lord Byron: “His club foot, he thought, made him damaged goods; he blamed this disfigurement on his mother, who wore a corset throughout her pregnancy and refused to remove it when she went into labour. He also had a tendency to obesity, for which his plump mother was likewise held accountable. His remedy was a succession of absurd, obsessive diets, including one that confined him to hard biscuits and soda water, supplemented by tobacco as an appetite suppressant. Byron’s aversion to ‘animal food’, meaning meat, dramatised his alienation from England, since John Bull proverbially gorged on roast beef. ‘To be carnivorous,’ Peattie says, ‘was to be patriotic’ . . . But Byron’s abstinent regime so weakened him that his death in the Greek marshes was as much due to starvation as to the quackery of his doctor, who diagnosed epilepsy and siphoned off half the blood in his body.”

Men and the sea: “The Boundless Sea is a work of immense scholarship, a forensic tribute to human enterprise. Did you know that Greco-Roman navigators ventured as far as Malaya? That standards of living in Roman Carthage and Alexandria were ‘perhaps higher than at any time before the 18th century’? That south of Yemen, on the island of Socotra, there is a cave beloved of seafarers who, between the 1st century BC and the 6th century AD, left inscriptions in languages including Sanskrit, Greek, Indian, Persian, Ethiopic and South Arabian, allowing us to trace some of their networks? ‘A historian ignores the smaller, apparently insignificant places at his or her peril,’ Abulafia notes.”

A 200-year history of bicycles in New York: “New York has maintained a shaky relationship with its bicyclists since 1819. Back then, people tired of walking or hoofing it around town adopted a European import, the velocipede—a primitive “wheeled contraption” with no pedals. New Yorkers—mostly men—rode these early bicycles through Vauxhall Gardens, City Hall Park, and Bowling Green, but not for long. Just three months after the velocipede made its appearance, city fathers—who happily put up with ‘carts, carriages, pedestrians, and hogs’—banned the device, imposing a $5 fine on violators. From the beginning, the bicycle was considered a ‘whimsical invention,’ an unrealistic mode of transportation. It took nearly a half century for the bicycle, much modified, to reappear. Following the Civil War, cycling became trendy again, fulfilling a growing population’s need for transportation and recreation. Dozens of bicycling schools opened citywide for untrained adults. In newly built Central Park, 2,786 bicycles were spotted in one spring month. It didn’t take long before there were ‘enough’ cyclists to ‘warrant some public infrastructure.’ Cyclists—not car owners—first lobbied for smooth surfaces, whether concrete or wood, over cobblestone. Yet as cyclists—including, now, some women—traversed the streets for work and leisure, city officials again viewed them as a problem. In 1873, Brooklyn’s common council banned bikes from streets during busy afternoon hours; cyclists could only ‘exercise’ before 1 p.m.”

Essay of the Day:

In Spiked, Alex Cameron argues that street art is a crime and should be punished not celebrated:

“Street art is an individual act that speaks of a chronic lack of consideration for anyone else. Its creators think they know best. They decide what, when and where. The people who live there, and must live with it, don’t have a say. There is no ‘demand’ for street art from ordinary people, and there is no consensual or participatory impulse on the part of the artist. It is only one person’s view of what should be and what is good for ordinary people. It is the act of an entitled, middle-class narcissist.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Lake Lucerne

Poem: Jim Harrison, “The Current Poor”

Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.

Post a comment
← Older posts