“Writing in 1994, Birkerts worried that distractedness and surficiality would win out. The ‘duration state’ we enter through a turned page would be lost in a world of increasing speed and relentless connectivity, and with it our ability to make meaning out of narratives, both fictional and lived.” Was he right?

Popes in fiction: “It is said that Anthony Burgess’s papal novel, Earthly Powers (1980), was designed to make fun of Somerset Maugham. Frederick Rolfe’s Hadrian VII (1904), similarly, was written to settle old scores. Self-indulgent to the core, written by Rolfe after he was kicked out of the seminary, Hadrian VII is brilliant, autobiographical wish-fulfillment. If you know a bit of the author’s biography, the combination of personal bitterness and comedy will make you laugh out loud. Repentant bishops and cardinals appear one day on his doorstep in London, admitting their mistakes, begging the still-young man to accept not only holy orders but the Holy Pontiff’s chair. Most writers have higher aspirations.”

A bluegrass song on atonal music goes viral: “‘(Gimme some of that) Ol’ Atonal Music,’ by the singer Merle Hazard, details in sunny and endearing tones a love of atonality, while explaining to newbies what that is (music that isn’t in one clear key), and includes the best atonal banjo solo you’ve ever heard (probably the only atonal banjo solo you’ve ever heard). That the solo, and the production values, are so good, is no surprise: The soloist and the recording’s producer is Alison Brown, one of the leading five-string banjo players in the country.”

Why did a Polish billionaire build a private museum in the tiny village of Susch in the Swiss alps? To give a platform to “new voices and positions that are often left outside the canon of male-dominated art history” of course.

Meet the endpaper enthusiasts: “In a small sanctuary from world events, book lovers gather to sigh over the most beautiful decorative pages and compare techniques.”

The return of Leo Steinberg: “Throughout his sixty-year career, the art historian Leo Steinberg (1920–2011) was a prolific lecturer and contributor to scholarly and other publications. His work focused primarily on Michelangelo and Picasso, but it also ranged widely across Renaissance, Baroque, and twentieth-century art. He was also a famously fastidious writer. In 1982 he was invited to give the annual A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. But rather than publishing his lectures soon after delivery, as is the custom, he continued to revise and update them for the rest of his life. So when he died there was every expectation that a significant corpus of his output would remain unpublished and that those interested in his other writings, such as celebrated essays on Velázquez’s Las Meninasand Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, would have to scrounge around eBay for copies of them. Happily, Steinberg had other ideas in mind. Shortly before his death, he directed Sheila Schwartz, his longtime associate, who worked with him from 1968 to his death, to arrange for the posthumous publication of essays written and lectures delivered throughout the course of his career. The first volume, devoted to Michelangelo’s sculpture, appeared this November. It is to be followed in the spring by one on Michelangelo’s painting, and thereafter by volumes on Old Masters, Picasso, and modern masters. These new publications are, on many levels, occasions to celebrate.”

Nun on the run: “A team of medieval historians working in the archives at the University of York has found evidence that a nun in the 14th century faked her own death and crafted a dummy ‘in the likeness of her body’ in order to escape her convent and pursue – in the words of the archbishop of the time – ‘the way of carnal lust’.”

Essay of the Day:

What attracts people to dictators? In Modern Age, William Anthony Hay turns to Paul Hollander for an answer:

“A search for transcendence to which dictators shrewdly appealed runs through Hollander’s account. When pressed on whether he would have supported the Soviet regime had he known of its mass murders in the 1930s, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm replied that ‘the chance of a new world being born in suffering would still have been worth backing.’ Many dictatorships beyond Josef Stalin’s offered the same promise, however miserably they failed to deliver on it. Hollander notes how ‘discontent with long-standing, familiar social arrangements’ and perhaps the limitations of their own personal lives fueled a pressing demand for alternatives that made intellectuals all too willing to believe in charismatic figures who forced the pace of change in ways that democratic politicians and traditionalist authoritarians could not. In many cases, dormant or misdirected religious impulses found expression in a political hero worship that imposed blinders on those drawn to it.”

Read the rest.

Photos: Snowy Seattle

Poem: Frederick Turner, “Ride This One Out”

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