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Kafka’s Papers, Charlotte Brontë’s Hair, and Shakespeare’s Neighborhood

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What was life like in Shakespeare’s late 16th-century parish? Geoffrey Marsh investigates: “In the 1590s, I have found, there were about 100 households in the parish, and perhaps 500 to 600 people in all. Take these households into account, and you see that Shakespeare, in his early thirties, moves from halfway down the fiscal/social scale into the top quarter – and this was in a wealthy parish. Considered from this perspective, he had reached an impressive position for someone who had come to London maybe a decade earlier, with few or no financial resources. St Helen’s was larger than the average City parish, covering around seven acres, and it was clearly a bustling and affluent part of London. It is usually suggested that Shakespeare settled there because it was near The Theatre playhouse, the home of his acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, from 1594 to 1597/8. A glance at a map, however, shows that St Helen’s was all but equidistant from The Theatre with the adjacent Curtain playhouse, the Rose playhouse across the river in Southwark, and the bookshops around St Paul’s Cathedral. All three were about twenty minutes’ walk away – not necessarily an appealing prospect in bad weather with woollen clothes and no umbrellas. The Bull Inn, meanwhile, which was one of the four city inns used for performance until 1594, lay close by on the parish’s northern boundary.”

Anthony Daniels reviews Tiffany Watt Smith’s Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune: “Schadenfreude…is interesting, but not because it is good. It is interesting because it is symptomatic of the increasing vulgarity and crudity of intellectual life in the modern English-speaking world, particularly in Britain, where it goes almost unopposed. The phenomenon of schadenfreude is a fascinating and important one, of course, well worth examination. But since it is usually subtle, undeclared, and often unacknowledged, even by he who experiences it, it requires some finesse to dissect it, which unfortunately the author, Tiffany Watt Smith, does not possess.”

James Murdoch to invest $1 billion in new media companies according to The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times.

Braided hair likely belonging to Charlotte Brontë found in ring: “The ring came to light on the latest episode of the Antiques Roadshow, filmed in Erddig, north Wales. An unidentified woman said it had belonged to her late father-in-law. It has an inscription on the inside, bearing the name of the author of Jane Eyre, and the date of her death in 1855.”

Kafka’s papers head to Israel after legal battle and may contain some intriguing items: “Though the exact content of the vaults remains unknown, experts have speculated the cache could include endings to some of Kafka’s major works, many of which were unfinished when they were published after his death.”

Why we love a bit of bubbly: “Despite our solid understanding of bubble formation in drinks, a question remains: just why do we like drinks with bubbles? The answer remains elusive, but some recent studies can help us understand. The interaction of carbon dioxide with certain enzymes found in saliva causes a chemical reaction that produces carbonic acid. This substance is believed to stimulate some pain receptors, similar to those activated when tasting spicy food. So it seems that the so-called ‘carbonation bite’ is a kind of spicy reaction – and humans (strangely) seem to like it. The presence and size of bubbles can even affect our perception of flavour. In a recent study, researchers found that people could experience the bite of carbonic acid without bubbles, but bubbles did change how things tasted.”

Maria Gabriela Llansol’s mystical novel: “Anyone coming to Llansol with any kind of ‘normal’ expectations at all will likely be disappointed. Plot, logical structure, continuity, a sense of linear time and/or space— you won’t find any of that here. At least not in any form that is readily apparent. Instead, Llansol immerses her readers in a shared hallucinatory vision, seemingly fueled by religious hysteria and open to multiple interpretations. The key into Llansol is provided by Benjamin Moser in an extremely helpful afterword, which I recommend reading before delving into The Geography of Rebels. In it Moser explains that, while in exile with her husband in Belgium, Llansol ‘discovered an institution peculiar to the Low Countries: the beguinage, medieval hostels that offered a refuge to spiritually inclined laypeople.’ These hostels were built for women who did not wish or intend to take holy orders, but wanted to live a life of religious contemplation and celibacy. They still exist today. And it was after visiting one such beguinage in Bruges that Llansol ‘suddenly understood that “several levels of reality were deepening their roots, coexisting without any intervention of time.”’ This small insight into the author’s history helps to explain the real-life, historical figures she chose to populate the pages of her books—a veritable who’s who of medieval Christian mystics throughout the ages.”

Essay of the Day:

In Modern Age, Jeremy Friedman takes stock of Joseph Stalin’s extraordinary evil:

“Joseph Stalin was evil. This statement is no longer terribly controversial, at least among Western historians, as it once was in the last century. The story is very different inside Russia, where an industry has arisen to glorify Stalin and the state that he created, alongside other famously bloody Russian leaders such as Ivan the Terrible. This literature, however, is considered an embarrassment by most serious Russian historians. Even there, as Oleg Khlevniuk writes, ‘Apologists for Stalin no longer try, as they once did, to deny the crimes of his regime.’

“Thankfully the days of prominent Western writers such as Walter Duranty and Jean-Paul Sartre seeking to deny Stalin’s crimes appear long gone. Yet the basic consensus among scholars on the existence of Stalin’s crimes, with debate continuing on their exact scope, has given way to a different discussion: What was the source of Stalin’s evil? Was it to be located within Stalin’s own personality, his paranoia, his lust for power, his legendary suspiciousness?

“Some have sought to argue that Stalin’s personality, perhaps deriving from childhood traumas, is the essence of the story, a personality that remained hidden to some degree from Stalin’s comrades until it was too late to stop him. For others, the evil of Stalin is the age-old evil of Russian tyranny and expansionism, a bloody legacy that has been the source of centuries of oppression and threats to both ordinary Russians and Russia’s neighbors. For those who see Russia as a continuing menace, who see Putin as a dangerous heir to Stalin’s legacy, such a story has obvious temptations. Finally, there are those who locate the evil of Stalin’s regime in communist ideology. The centralization of power and the system of terror necessary to impose such an ideology on a country the size of the Soviet Union, the force required to mobilize an entire population to build socialism in such conditions, and the de facto imposition of a permanent state of war with the outside world meant that any such regime, were it to succeed and remain faithful to its purposes, would have had to commit crimes of this magnitude.

“While this tripartite typology necessarily simplifies many aspects of the debate, especially as each of the three directions contains several possibilities within it, it is a useful way of clarifying what is at stake in the historiography of Stalin today.

“But Joseph Stalin was also extraordinary. The notion of Stalin as a mediocrity par excellence, an unsophisticated, ideologically illiterate, uncharismatic, talentless bureaucrat who rose to the top precisely because he was so unremarkable cannot survive the mountain of documentation that has become available about him and the regime he ran. Far from being ideologically illiterate, the Stalin that emerges from the archives is one with a profound commitment to ideology and a penchant for deep engagement with the ideological impact of cultural production of various sorts. Far from being uncharismatic, accounts of personal meetings with Stalin describe him as having a captivating charm and wit. Most important, the sheer scope of his task—micromanaging the most powerful state apparatus in the world across a sixth of the earth’s land surface, conducting foreign relations on behalf of the world’s first communist state in a hostile and unstable political environment, and ultimately repulsing the largest invasion in human history—belies the notion that a mediocrity could have managed it.

“Scholars who write about Stalin therefore need to contend with his extraordinary nature, meaning in particular that they have to account to some degree for its origins, describe its specific characteristics, and then integrate that with the story they choose to tell about the constitution of Stalin’s evil. If such evil was of a personal kind, how did he manage to accomplish so much, to get so many people to follow him passionately, sacrificing their lives for him? If Stalin’s evil was a product of Russian history or communist ideology, could that evil have manifested itself through a different leader? Somehow Stalin cannot be reduced merely to just another Russian autocrat or just another communist dictator. Not for him the ‘banality of evil.’

“The problem is that our received narratives about Stalin have been shaped by two people who knew him well and, indeed, whose very careers and identities were set up in opposition to him: Trotsky and Khrushchev.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Chicago

Poem: Sally Thomas, “Newborn and Copperhead”

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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.

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