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

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.

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment

Latest Articles