It’s Monday, and it’s raining a cold rain (at least here in southeastern Virginia). Why not go all in and read about the depressing shallowness of Instagram art? “Pop-up attractions like the Happy Place are built for selfies, but does anybody actually enjoy going to them?”
Agnès Poirier reviews Michael Peppiatt’s The Existential Englishman: Paris Among the Artists: “Part confession, part meditation on artists, Michael Peppiatt’s memoir about being an Englishman in Paris from 1966 to 1994 and again since 2014 probably reveals more than the author had intended. Often candid about his failures and inability to stick to the great literary ambitions of his youth, the well-known biographer of Francis Bacon doesn’t seem much interested in retenue, even when musing about his insatiable appetite for priapic adventures. It is almost a relief when the figure of Jill, Peppiatt’s wife, comes into the picture in the late 1980s, as we know we will at last be spared some impossibly French love affairs that end in either ridicule or suicide.”
Paul Quenon’s “useless” life: “‘I am on permanent vacation,’ says Paul Quenon, who then proceeds to define vacation not as an idyllic retirement lifestyle but as vacating, ‘an emptying out of the clutter within the mind and heart . . . to make room for God.’ His 60-plus years as a monk, he says, have been ‘an interior journey into a wilderness to be alone, free of the world and at rest in God.’”
Gary Saul Morson reviews Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator: “What really makes a moment, a person, a life, and a historical period what they are is not the ‘events,’ like Waterloo, but what Platonov calls ‘the non-events,’ like the aroma of printer’s ink emanating from a favorite book or the ‘glassy ringing of garlands in a draft of air.’ By focusing again and again on sounds and smells, Platonov echoes the way Russia’s greatest chronicler of nature, Ivan Turgenev, conveyed the uniqueness of each natural scene and each passing moment.”
What’s missing in all of the books on the declining support for free speech on American college campuses? A clear solution: “They each, in slightly different ways, end up calling for a change in campus feeling and a reversal of campus culture. They want America’s colleges to commit to free speech and intellectual diversity, but leave vague the mechanisms by which that commitment would take effect. What needs to be made clearer in all these accounts is that robust intellectual engagement has two distinct enemies on campuses today.”
The public and private Diderot: “There are at least two Diderots, both controversial, both remarkable Enlightenment figures. The first was a renowned philosophe and atheist associated with Voltaire and Rousseau but often thought their inferior in accomplishment. He was known chiefly as the major author and editor of the Encyclopédie—a revolutionary project of the eighteenth century—as well as a few plays and other works such as Philosophical Thoughts (1746), The Skeptic’s Walk (same year) and Letter on the Blind (1749). He also wrote a brilliantly risqué novel, The Indiscreet Jewels (1748), in which women’s genitalia narrate their experiences. Perhaps this is the figure about whom W. H. Auden wrote, in ‘Voltaire at Ferney,’ ‘Dear Diderot was dull but did his best.’ Auden loved alliteration more than truth in that line. Diderot was anything but dull and did not always do his best. In 1749 he spent four months in prison for his early writings, and that trauma probably shocked him into withholding some of his most significant work from publication. The second Diderot emerged in the centuries following his death in 1784, with the discovery and publication of his major philosophical works, his most enduring fiction and other writings. For a time he was a missing link of the Enlightenment, highly influential—directly or indirectly—on America’s founders, as well as Goethe and a small army of other writers. It may be a long time before Diderot’s complicated legacy is fully understood, which makes Andrew S. Curran’s new biography, Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely, a timely exercise, especially helpful for those of us not steeped in philosophy. He humanizes Denis Diderot by uniting the public intellectual and the secret one known to his daughter and a few avid supporters.”
Essay of the Day:
In The Times Literary Supplement, Laura Freeman writes about the “hungry” novels of post-war Britain:
“Dinner with Rex Mottram – a bore – but made bearable by soupe d’oseille, caviar aux blinis, sole in white wine, caneton à la presse, lemon soufflé and a bottle each of the 1906 Montrachet and Clos de Bèze 1904. ‘If I had to spend an evening with him’, decides Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, ‘it should at any rate, be in my own way.’ Over the meal at Paillard in Paris, Charles recalls: ‘I closed my mind to him as best I could and gave myself to the food before me, but sentences came breaking in on my happiness, recalling me to the harsh acquisitive world which Rex inhabited’. By the lemon soufflé and cognac, the menu has won. ‘I heard his voice, unintelligible at a great distance, like a dog’s barking miles away on a still night’.
“When Waugh came to write a preface to the second edition of Brideshead Revisited in 1959 he repented his former greed. Brideshead, he explained, had been written between December 1943 and June 1944, while he was recuperating from a minor parachute injury. ‘It was’, he wrote, ‘a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English – and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.’
“Waugh wasn’t the only writer to suffer this guilty kind of gluttony. The spam-and-soya-bean period of English literature is full of Hungry Novels. Sometimes the tone is wistful, sometimes resentful. The characters in a Hungry Novel will suffer the indignities of bully beef, spaghetti bits and powdered egg, while dreaming of richer meat. Under the barrage of bombs, the wail of air raid sirens, the crackle of the wireless, an unmistakable base note: the complaining rumble of the author’s stomach. In the fiction of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, Wyndham Lewis, Rosamond Lehmann, Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark and others, written during the war and in the years of rationing that followed, there is a marked stomach sensibility, an obsessive detail of food.”
Photos: Daocheng County
Poem: Joseph Mirra, “Digging Shakespeare”
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