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Britain’s Wildest Decade, Shakespeare’s Late Plays, and the Reconstruction of Notre Dame

I’m writing this in my air-conditioned office, which is just off our bedroom on the second floor of our home here in southeastern Virginia. It doesn’t look hot outside, but it is (it’s Wednesday afternoon). The trees are dead still, the dogs are sprawled out on the tile floor in the kitchen, and one of my daughters is listening to music and reading, comfortably in a summer dress, on the living room sofa. Just a few years ago—70, perhaps—we’d all be suffering. Fans would be whirring, windows open. It’d be hard to keep from napping.

But there is also something I love about the hot, humid summers of the South—particularly in the evening. My wife and I like to take walks around the neighborhood after work, and the late sun and evening humidity somehow helps to dissolve the day’s stress as we walk and talk. Later in the week, we might finish on the front porch with a lemon water. I’ll hate it in three months, maybe two, but right now there’s something right about the heat and the changes the season brings.

First things first: A writer and former exterminator says we should stop killing moles [1], but I don’t see any reason we should: “Marc Hamer was once the only mole catcher in south Wales and for years killed them professionally and, he stressed, humanely. But he no longer kills them and nor should they be killed, he told Hay festival. ‘Moles used to be trapped in their tens of thousands; there have been mole catchers around since Roman times, but these days they are not caught so much so the population is absolutely astonishing. But it doesn’t matter that it’s astonishing, let them carry on with their lives, we don’t need to catch them’ . . . Having said that, ‘they are horribly vicious’, he admitted. ‘If you pick one up, it will hiss and snarl; they are incredibly violent creatures. They don’t even like each other very much.’” We kill them all completely naturally at our house—by dog.

The New York Times used the ubiquitous “Distracted Boyfriend” meme this week to lead its business section [2], and people are having a little good-natured fun at the paper’s expense: “Everyone please give a warm round of applause to the New York Times, which arrived in the year 2017 this week in a big way. The paper of record published its own version of the ‘Distracted Boyfriend’ meme on Wednesday, using the characters to represent Fiat Chrysler, Renault, and Nissan. (Fiat Chrysler and Renault are about to merge, sorry Nissan.) Fun!” Here’s the 2017 story of how the photo went viral [3] and an interview with the photographer who took the picture. (Oh, and here’s Jack Black in an accidental recreation of the meme [4] a few months ago.)

The French Senate approves restoration of Notre Dame [5] and adds that it must be restored “to the state it was before the blaze.” I would be fine if it weren’t the same as before as long as any new elements reflected Catholic teaching. There is little chance of that, however, and so simply reproducing what was lost is probably best.

In The Atlantic, Peter Martin, drawing from his new book, writes about Noah Webster’s desire to create a national standard of American English [6]: “‘Now is the time, and this the country … Let us then seize the present moment, and establish a national language, as well as a national government.’ That is what Noah Webster wrote in 1789 at the age of 31, long before he had compiled the nation’s first major dictionary. It is a clarion call for American linguistic unity and independence in his Dissertations on the English Language—a 409-page treatise remarkable for its boldness and length as much as for its sweeping, generalized history of the language. The book’s main argument goes something like this: There is to be no elite in America, no linguistic differentiation between classes and regions.

Was Britain’s “wildest” decade the second of the 19th century? Michael Dirda reviews [7] Robert Morrison’s The Regency Year: “In London, 1 woman out of 8 was a prostitute. Newly mechanized factories — truly dark Satanic mills — put children to work in 12-hour shifts. Men seethed to see their families starving, then drank gin and whored for temporary respite from despair. A certain Lady Sutherland sucked every possible penny from her estates in Scotland, insisting that her tenants only appeared to be half-starved. ‘Scotch people,’ she explained, ‘do not fatten like the larger breed of animals.’”

In Image, the novelist Chris Beha lists his favorite books (all novels) of the past thirty years as part of the magazine’s thirtieth anniversary issue. It’s a wonderful selection [8] and, as Chris notes, “unapologetically personal,” as are all recommendations. I’ll add, unapologetically personally, that I couldn’t finish Delillo’s Underworld, which I tried to read a couple of times when it first came out. I found it gimmicky. Maybe I need to give it another try. Anyway, take a look [8] at Chris’s list.

Essay of the Day:

In The London Review of Books, Michael Dobson writes about Shakespeare’s late plays [9]:

“Often depicting physical and psychological traumas as extreme as any in the tragedies, but finding their ways via magic, miracles and divine interventions to endings as prone to betrothals and family reunions as those of the comedies, Shakespeare’s late plays speak at once of mature sophistication and of second childhood. They frequently draw on texts remembered from his youth: The Winter’s Tale dramatises a prose romance from 1588, Pandosto, appropriately written by the same Robert Greene who accused Shakespeare of being a plagiaristic ‘upstart crow’, while both The Tempest and Cymbeline borrow from Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune, a creaky anonymous play of the early 1580s about an exiled courtier who lives in a cave and exercises magical powers derived from his books. The plots of the late plays revert nakedly towards fairy tale, in ways Ben Jonson, for one, found embarrassing: in 1614, in the induction to Bartholomew Fair, Jonson promised that his play would not include a ‘servant-monster’ like Caliban, and he ridiculed The Two Noble Kinsmen in the play itself. In ‘An Ode on Himself’, 15 years later, Jonson was still lamenting that theatre audiences undervalued his scrupulous satirical realism, preferring ‘some mouldy tale/Like Pericles’. But despite their apparently naive narrative materials, the linguistic textures and dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s late plays reach with effortless accomplishment towards impossible difficulty, as if making one final push at the boundaries of playmaking.”

Read the rest. [9]

Photo: Volcán de Fuego [10]

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