‘1984’ in China, the World’s Best-Known Writer, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Exile
Who is the best-known writer in the world? And how long can most famous people expect to be remembered after they die? Between five and 30 years, according to a recent article in Nature: “Hidalgo is among the premier data miners of the world’s collective history. With his MIT colleagues, he developed Pantheon, a dataset that ranks historical figures by popularity from 4000 B.C. to 2010. Aristotle and Plato snag the top spots. Jesus is third. It’s a highly addictive platform that allows you to search people, places, and occupations with a variety of parameters. Most famous tennis player of all time? That’s right, Frenchman Rene Lacoste, born in 1904. (Roger Federer places 20th.)…Last month Hidalgo and colleagues published a Nature paper that put his crafty data-mining talents to work on another question: How do people and products drift out of the cultural picture? They traced the fade-out of songs, movies, sports stars, patents, and scientific publications. They drew on data from sources such as Billboard, Spotify, IMDB, Wikipedia, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the American Physical Society, which has gathered information on physics articles from 1896 to 2016. Hidalgo’s team then designed mathematical models to calculate the rate of decline of the songs, people, and scientific papers. The report, ‘The universal decay of collective memory and attention,’ concludes that people and things are kept alive through ‘oral communication’ from about five to 30 years.”
On the topic of death and memory, Molly Brigid McGrath argues that the Coen brothers’ latest film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is very much about death and “the importance of poems, speeches, songs, and stories in helping us to approach mortality better.”
Christopher Caldwell writes about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in exile in National Review: “Vain, Solzhenitsyn was less vain than most dissidents. He had no political deference, but a metaphysical humility had been beaten into him by what he had undergone. Exile was not a “new beginning” for him. He undertook it with dread, and a somewhat unrealistic idea of how tight a link he could maintain to the culture of the old country. He dreamed of establishing a Russian university in Canada that might serve the children of emigrants, ‘encouraging them to break free from Western satiation and turn toward the rigor of their motherland.’ He appreciated the archives at the Hoover Institution in California and the writing conditions in Cavendish, but none of that made America home. Solzhenitsyn surrounded his property with chain link, to protect his tranquility and discourage interlopers, including those from the KGB. When he appeared at a town meeting in Cavendish to apologize to hunters and snowmobilers for the inconvenience, he took the opportunity to explain that ‘Russian’ did not mean Soviet and that to confuse the two was to mistake a patient for a disease: ‘My people, the Russians, have been suffering from it for 60 years already; they long to be healed. And the day will come when they are indeed healed of this Soviet disease. On that day I will thank you for being good friends and neighbors, and will go back to my homeland.’”
Ishmael Reed responds to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton in new play: “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda targets Hamilton, the play, and Hamilton, the best-selling biography by Ron Chernow, which inspired Mr. Miranda. The program handed out at the reading said, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda was ‘about a playwright who is misled by a historian of white history into believing that Alexander Hamilton was an abolitionist.’”
Let the little critics be brainwashed: “Through its Press Corps Intensive (PCI) program, TeenTix is fostering the next generation of Seattle arts critics. The program empowers teens to thoughtfully engage in the Seattle arts and performance scene. Through a series of workshops on arts criticism, PCI prepares teens to enter the professional world of arts criticism and fill the apparent void…The program was recently revamped to include a more intentional social-justice lens, with a goal (per the TeenTix website) of ‘disrupting systems of oppression within arts media that have kept marginalized voices out of arts journalism.’”
Why isn’t George Orwell’s 1984 banned in China? It’s complicated: “Last winter, after the Chinese Communist Party announced the abolition of presidential term limits, Beijing temporarily moved to censor social-media references to George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984. The government’s concern was that activists would use these titles to charge, in not-so-subtle code, that China was moving in a decidedly authoritarian direction. But censors did not bother to ban the sale of these texts either in bookstores or online. It was—and remains—as easy to buy 1984 and Animal Farm in Shenzhen or Shanghai as it is in London or Los Angeles.”
Terry Teachout explains how Broadway became Broadway: “The story begins in 1891, when Charles Hoyt and Percy Gaunt wrote a musical comedy called A Trip to Chinatown that ran in New York for two years, a record that would not be broken until 1919. Freely based on an 1842 farce by the Viennese playwright Johann Nestroy, it was so successful that several road companies performed the show throughout America simultaneous with its New York run.”
Nic Pizzolatto returns to his tried-and-true first season formula in the latest installment of True Detective.
Essay of the Day:
In Vanity Fair, William Langewiesche writes about U.S. Army private second class named Matthew Warren Brown who apparently killed himself in 2008 while manning a watchtower at base in Afghanistan. Did he?
“The belief that Brown had killed himself was widely shared in Asadabad, even though not a single soldier who gave a statement after his death was aware of any recent difficulties he may have had. Those who knew him best thought of him as a goofy kid, quiet around his superiors, but relaxed and funny among his peers, invigorated by a recent home leave, excited by a subsequent promotion, and looking forward to the successful conclusion of his army service after a few short years. His drug use, if they were being honest, was not exceptional. Valium was a way to get through the days. They were surprised that Brown had killed himself. They attributed it to the unknowable in life, and moved on.
“Not so, Brown’s mother, Sandra Evans. She lived in a trailer park with her second husband on the shores of Clear Lake in Northern California. She and her son were close. During his recent leave they had spent a lighthearted week with friends and family, swapping stories and enjoying the pleasure of being together. Brown was open with her to a degree that he could not be with his father. Nonetheless he waited until the very end of the visit to tell her what was on his mind.
“They were in her car, driving from Clear Lake to the Sacramento airport. Brown put on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ the operatic Queen song about a condemned man crying out to his mother. He said he did not want to go back to Afghanistan. His problem was not with the enemy, he explained, but rather with one of his sergeants, whom he described as a thug. Brown told his mother that the sergeant was running a drug ring, smuggling in prescription narcotics from Pakistan and selling them to American troops eager to tune out the war. Brown told his mother he had made a mistake: he had let the sergeant co-opt him into being the courier who took the risk of acquiring the narcotics at the bazaar in the outer FOB, then carried the contraband past security into the inner FOB. Recently he had told the sergeant he wanted out. The sergeant had refused, and had threatened him. As Sandra Evans drove her son to the airport, he told her that he might not return alive. Two weeks later he was dead.”
Poem: Jennifer Wheelock, “Unison”
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