Yesterday on Twitter, Teju Cole shared a series of definitions—some ironic, some
hilarious funny, all perceptive.
The series of definitions immediately reminded me of Ambrose Bierce’s sardonic work The Devil’s Dictionary, but Cole later tweeted that he had Gustave Flaubert’s Le Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues (The Dictionary of Received Ideas) in mind as a model.
Cole reiterated Flaubert’s influence again when he published the tweets today at The New Yorker under the title “In Place of Thought“—a little sample:
AMERICAN. With the prefix “all,” a blonde.
CHILDREN. The only justification for policy. Always say “our children.” The childless have no interest in improving society.
HILARIOUS. Never simply say “funny.”
HIP HOP. Old-school hip hop, i.e., whatever was popular when you were nineteen, is great. Everything since then is intolerable.
HIPSTER. One who has an irrational hatred of hipsters.
INTERNET. A waste of time. Have a long online argument with anyone who disagrees.
JAZZ. America’s classical music. The last album was released in 1965.
LITERALLY. Swear you’d rather die than use “literally” as an intensifier.
POET. Always preceded by “published.” Function unknown.
Bonus—from Flaubert’s Dictionnaire:
BLACK – Always preceded by “pitch”.
CHILDREN – Affect a lyric tenderness towards them, when people are about.
INTRODUCTION — Obscene word.
LITERATURE — Idle pastime.
METAPHORS — Always too many in poems. Always too many in anybody’s writing.
OPTIMIST — Synonym for imbecile.
POETRY — Entirely useless; out of date.
THINK (TO) — Painful. Things that compel us to think are generally neglected.
“Mothers” by William Gaddis
When Ralph Waldo Emerson informed—or rather, perhaps, warned us—that we are what our mothers made us, we might dismiss it as received opinion and let it go at that, like the broken clock which is right twice a day, like the self-evident answer contained in Freud’s oft-quoted query “What do women want?” when, as nature’s handmaid, she must want what nature wants which is, quite simply, More. But which woman? Whose mother, Emerson’s? A woman so in thrall to religion that we confront another dead end; or Freud’s? or even one’s own, even mine, offering an opportune bit of wisdom to those of us engaged in the creative arts, where paranoia is almost an occupational hazard: “Bill, just try to remember,” she said, “there is much more stupidity than there is malice in the world,” an observation lavish with possibilities recalling Anatole France finding the fool more dangerous than the rogue because “the rogue does at least take a rest sometimes, the fool never.”
This is hardly to see stupidity and malice as mutually exclusive: look at your morning paper, where their combined forces explode exponentially (women and children first) from Bosnia to Belfast, unlike the international “intelligence community” so self-contained in its malice-free exercises that it generally ensnares only its own dubious cast of players. Of further importance is the distinction between stupidity and ignorance, since ignorance is educable, while stupidity’s self-serving mission is the cultivation and exploitation of ignorance, as politicians are keenly aware.
How, then, might Emerson’s mother have seen herself stumbling upon Thomas Carlyle’s vision of her son as a “hoary-headed and toothless baboon”? Or Freud’s, in the gross unlikelihood of her reading the Catholic World’s review of her son’s book Moses and Monotheism as “poorly written, full of repetitions . . . and spoiled by the author’s atheistic bias and his flimsy psychoanalytic fancies”? Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister dismissed as “sheer nonsense” by the Edinburgh Review and, a good century later, the hero of Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man ridiculed as a “pharisaical stinker” in Time magazine, John Barth’s The End of the Road recommended by Kirkus Reviews “for those schooled in the waste matter of the body and the mind,” and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! shrugged off as the “final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent” by The New Yorker magazine where, just forty years later, “a group of avant-garde critics has put forward the idea that books should be made unreadable. This movement has manifest advantages. Being unreadable, the text repels reviewers, critics, anthologists, academic literati, and other parasitical forms of life,” indicting the author of the novel J R wherein “to produce an unreadable text, to sustain this foxy purpose over 726 pages, demands rare powers. Mr. Gaddis has them.” “You’re a fool, a fool!” the distraught mother of Dostoevski’s ill-fated hero Nikolay Stavrogin cries out at the “parasitical forms of life” surrounding her. “You’re all ungrateful fools. Give me my umbrella!”
(“Mothers” is collected in The Rush to Second Place).
Chris Ware writes about his New Yorker cover, inspired by the Newtown shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school.
This one looks pretty cool—André Maurois’s 1928 novel Climates. Here’s publisher Other Press’s blurb:
Written in 1928 by French biographer and novelist Andre Maurois, Climates became a best seller in France and all over Europe. The first 100,000 copies printed of its Russian translation sold out the day they appeared in Moscow bookstores. This magnificently written novel about a double conjugal failure is imbued with subtle yet profound psychological insights of a caliber that arguably rivals Tolstoy’s. Here Phillipe Marcenat, an erudite yet conventional industrialist from central France, falls madly in love with and marries the beautiful but unreliable Odile despite his family’s disapproval. Soon, Phillipe’s possessiveness and jealousy drive her away. Brokenhearted, Phillipe then marries the devoted and sincere Isabelle and promptly inflicts on his new wife the very same woes he endured at the hands of Odile. But Isabelle’s integrity and determination to save her marriage adds yet another dimension to this extraordinary work on the dynamics and vicissitudes of love.
I haven’t had time to dip into Climates yet, but it got a compelling write-up in The New Yorker last month. Excerpt:
At first sight, “Climates” is a simple fable. It tells of Philippe Marcenat, the heir to a provincial paper-mill business, who falls in love with the woman of his dreams, Odile Malet. He loses her, but is later loved in turn by Isabelle de Cheverny, a woman not of his dreams at all, although he tries (“Vertigo”-ishly) to make her so. We follow first Philippe and then Isabelle as they reflect on their love. There is a happy ending of sorts, though not for Philippe. Maurois has summarized his first vision of the story, in its bare-bones form, as:
Part 1. I love, and am not loved.
Part 2. I am loved, and do not love.
Put that way, it sounds like a perfectly balanced diptych. In fact, it is neither balanced nor anywhere near simple. Each of these four “love” and “non-love” elements conceals some complication, something moving at cross-purposes to it. Beneath what seems to be love, there lurks tyranny or submission, or a mixture of both. Beneath what seems to be non-love, there is… it’s hard to say what, but something indefinable that looks very much like love.
From Chapter XVII of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian—
They grew gaunted and lank under the white suns of those days and their hollow burnedout eyes were like those of noctambulants surprised by day. Crouched under their hats they seemed fugitives on some grander scale, like beings for whom the sun hungered. Even the judge grew silent and speculative. He’d spoke of purging oneself of those things that lay claim to a man but that body receiving his remarks counted themselves well done with any claims at all. They rode on and the wind drove the fine gray dust before them and they rode an army of gray-beards, gray men, gray horses. The mountains to the north lay sunwise in corrugated folds and the days were cool and the nights were cold and they sat about the fire each in his round of darkness in that round of dark while the idiot watched from his cage at the edge of the light. The judge cracked with the back of an axe the shinbone on an antelope and the hot marrow dripped smoking on the stones. They watched him. The subject was war.
The good book says that he that lives by the sword shall perish by the sword, said the black.
The judge smiled, his face shining with grease.
What right man would have it any other way? he said.
The good book does indeed count war an evil, said Irving. Yet there’s many a bloody tale of war inside it.
It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.
He turned to Brown, from whom he’d heard some whispered slur or demurrer. Ah Davy, he said. It’s your own trade we honor here. Why not rather take a small bow. Let each acknowledge each.
What is my trade?
War. War is your trade. Is it not?
And it aint yours?
Mine too. Very much so.
What about all them notebooks and bones and stuff?
All other trades are contained in that of war.
Is that why war endures?
No. It endures because young men love it and old men love it in them. Those that fought, those that did not.
That’s your notion.
The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.
Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the card. The whole universe for such a player has labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man’s hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be? This enhancement of the game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate. The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one. In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear. This man holding this particular arrangement of cards in his hand is thereby removed from existence. This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god. Brown studied the judge.
You’re crazy Holden. Crazy at last.
The judge smiled.
The New Yorker has published an excerpt from The Secret of Evil, the latest posthumous offering from Roberto Bolaño (new this spring from New Directions). The excerpt begins by extrapolating on a photo of some of the Tel Quel folks, (including a striking Julia Kristeva):
They’re seated. They’re looking at the camera. They are captioned, from left to right: J. Henric, J.-J. Goux, Ph. Sollers, J. Kristeva, M.-Th. Réveillé, P. Guyotat, C. Devade, and M. Devade.
There’s no photo credit.
They’re sitting around a table. It’s an ordinary table, made of wood, perhaps, or plastic, it could even be a marble table on metal legs, but nothing could be less germane to my purpose than to give an exhaustive description of it. The table is a table that is large enough to seat the above-mentioned individuals and it’s in a café. Or appears to be. Let’s suppose, for the moment, that it’s in a café.
The eight people who appear in the photo, who are posing for the photo, are fanned out around one side of the table in a crescent or a kind of opened-out horseshoe, so that each of them can be seen clearly and completely. In other words, no one is facing away from the camera. In front of them, or rather between them and the photographer (and this is slightly strange), there are three plants—a rhododendron, a ficus, and an everlasting—rising from a planter, which may serve, but this is speculation, as a barrier between two distinct sections of the café.
Patti Smith’s story about stealing a book was published last month in The New Yorker; somehow we missed it. It’s good to see this blog return to its original mission sometimes. Here’s an excerpt, but the whole piece is lovely and moving:
The next Saturday, my mother gave me a dollar and sent me to the A. & P. alone. Two quarts of milk and a loaf of bread: that’s what a dollar bought in 1957. I went straight to the World Book display. There was only one first volume left, which I placed in my cart. I didn’t need a cart, but took one so I could read as I went up and down the aisles. A lot of time went by, but I had little concept of time, a fact that often got me in trouble. I knew I had to leave, but I couldn’t bear to part with the book. Impulsively I put it inside my shirt and zipped up my plaid windbreaker. I was a tall, skinny kid, and I’m certain every contour of the book was conspicuous.
I strolled the aisles for several more minutes, then went through the checkout, paid my dollar, swiftly bagged the three items, and headed home with my heart pounding.
Suddenly I felt a heavy tap on my shoulder and turned to find the biggest man I had ever seen. He was the store detective, and he asked me to hand it over. I just stood in silence. “We know you stole something—you will have to be searched.” Horrified, I slid the heavy book out from the bottom of my shirt.
He looked at it quizzically. “This is what you stole, an encyclopedia?”
“Yes,” I whispered, trembling.
“Why didn’t you ask your parents?”
“I did,” I said, “but they didn’t have the money.”
“Do you know it’s wrong?”
Listen to This by Alex Ross. Publisher Picador’s description—
Listen to This—which collects Alex Ross’s finest writing for The New Yorker since 1994—is the rare book that moves across the entire landscape of music, from classical to rock and back again. In this series of lively, erudite essays, Ross tells of his own late-blooming discovery of pop, and of how contemporary sounds relate to centuries of musical tradition. He vividly sketches canonical composers such as Schubert, Verdi, and Brahms; gives us in-depth interviews with modern pop masters such as Björk and Radiohead; and, in a previously unpublished essay, he brilliantly retells hundreds of years of music history—from Renaissance dances to Led Zeppelin—through a few iconic bass lines of celebration and lament. Witty, passionate, and brimming with insight, Listen to This shows how music expresses the full complexity of the human condition.
Today, The New Yorker shares “Town of Cats,” a short story by Haruki Murakami. First paragraph—
At Koenji Station, Tengo boarded the Chuo Line inbound rapid-service train. The car was empty. He had nothing planned that day. Wherever he went and whatever he did (or didn’t do) was entirely up to him. It was ten o’clock on a windless summer morning, and the sun was beating down. The train passed Shinjuku, Yotsuya, Ochanomizu, and arrived at Tokyo Central Station, the end of the line. Everyone got off, and Tengo followed suit. Then he sat on a bench and gave some thought to where he should go. “I can go anywhere I decide to,” he told himself. “It looks as if it’s going to be a hot day. I could go to the seashore.” He raised his head and studied the platform guide.
At that point, he realized what he had been doing all along.
Fun fact: I used to live in Shin-Koenji, right near Koenji, and I took the Chuou to work every day.
From “Home,” a new George Saunders story in The New Yorker—-
Like in the old days, I came out of the dry creek behind the house and did my little tap on the kitchen window.
“Get in here, you,” Ma said.
Inside were piles of newspapers on the stove and piles of magazines on the stairs and a big wad of hangers sticking out of the broken oven. All of that was as usual. New was: a water stain the shape of a cat head on the wall above the fridge and the old orange rug rolled up halfway.
“Still ain’t no beeping cleaning lady,” Ma said.
I looked at her funny.
“Beeping?” I said.
“Beep you,” she said. “They been on my case at work.”
It was true Ma had a pretty good potty mouth. And was working at a church now, so.
We stood there looking at each other.
Then some guy came tromping down the stairs: older than Ma even, in just boxers and hiking boots and a winter cap, long ponytail hanging out the back.
“Who’s this?” he said.
“My son,” Ma said shyly. “Mikey, this is Harris.”
“What’s your worst thing you ever did over there?” Harris said.
“What happened to Alberto?” I said.
“Alberto flew the coop,” Ma said.
“Alberto showed his ass,” Harris said.
“I hold nothing against that beeper,” Ma said.
“I hold a lot against that fucker,” Harris said. “Including he owes me ten bucks.”
“Harris ain’t dealing with his potty mouth,” Ma said.
“She’s only doing it because of work,” Harris explained.
“Harris don’t work,” Ma said.
“Well, if I did work, it wouldn’t be at a place that tells me how I can talk,” Harris said. “It would be at a place that lets me talk how I like. A place that accepts me for who I am. That’s the kind of place I’d be willing to work.”
“There ain’t many of that kind of place,” Ma said.
“Places that let me talk how I want?” Harris said. “Or places that accept me for who I am?”
“Places you’d be willing to work,” Ma said.
“How long’s he staying?” Harris said.
“Long as he wants,” Ma said.
“My house is your house,” Harris said to me.
“It ain’t your house,” Ma said.
“Give the kid some food at least,” Harris said.
“I will but it ain’t your idea,” Ma said, and shooed us out of the kitchen.
“Great lady,” Harris said. “Had my eyes on her for years. Then Alberto split. That I don’t get. You got a great lady in your life, the lady gets sick, you split?”
“Ma’s sick?” I said.
“She didn’t tell you?” he said.
He grimaced, made his hand into a fist, put it upside his head.
“Lump,” he said. “But you didn’t hear it from me.”
Ma was singing now in the kitchen.
“I hope you’re at least making bacon,” Harris called out. “A kid comes home deserves some frigging bacon.”“Why not stay out of it?” Ma called back. “You just met him.”
“I love him like my own son,” Harris said.
“What a ridiculous statement,” Ma said. “You hate your son.”
“I hate both my sons,” Harris said.
“And you’d hate your daughter if you ever meet her,” Ma said.
Harris beamed, as if touched that Ma knew him well enough to know he would inevitably hate any child he fathered.
Ma came in with some bacon and eggs on a saucer.
“Might be a hair in it,” she said. “Lately it’s like I’m beeping shedding.”
“You are certainly welcome,” Harris said.
“You didn’t beeping do nothing!” Ma said. “Don’t take credit. Go in there and do the dishes. That would help.”
“I can’t do dishes and you know that,” Harris said. “On account of my rash.”
“He gets a rash from water,” Ma said. “Ask him why he can’t dry.”
“On account of my back,” Harris said.
“He’s the King of If,” Ma said. “What he ain’t is King of Actually Do.”
“Soon as he leaves I’ll show you what I’m king of,” Harris said.
“Oh, Harris, that is too much, that is truly disgusting,” Ma said.
Harris raised both hands over his head like: Winner and still champ.
“We’ll put you in your old room,” Ma said.
Boy oh boy this is great (yes, I am that kind of nerd). A few years ago The New Yorker published an early draft of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which was originally titled “Beginners.” The New Yorker simultaneously published a version of the story showing Gordon Lish’s edits. It’s a fascinating look at the Carver-Lish writing experience. In the sample that follows, strike-throughs are deletions and boldfaced words are Lish’s additions—
My friend Mel
HerbMcGinnis , a cardiologist,was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right. ¶ The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. It was Saturday afternoon.Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Mel Herband me Iand his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque ,then. But butwe were all from somewhere else. ¶ There was an ice bucket on the table. The gin and the tonic water kept going around, and we somehow got on the subject of love. Mel Herbthought real love was nothing less than spiritual love. He said When he was younghe’d spent five years in a seminary before quitting to go to medical school. He He’d left the Church at the same time, but hesaid he still looked back on tothose years in the seminary as the most important in his life.
Terri said the man she lived with before she lived with Mel
Herbloved her so much he tried to kill her. Herb laughed after she said this. He made a face. Terri looked at him.Then Terri shesaid, “He beat me up one night , the last night we lived together. He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, , all the while saying,‘I love you, don’t you see?I love you, you bitch.’ He went on dragging me around the living room. My , myhead kept knocking on things.” Terri Shelooked around the table at us and then looked at her hands on her glass. “What do you do with love like that?” she said.¶ She was a bone-thin woman with a pretty face, dark eyes, and brown hair that hung down her back. She liked necklaces made of turquoise, and long pendant earrings. She was fifteen years younger than Herb, had suffered periods of anorexia, and during the late sixties, before she’d gone to nursing school, had been a dropout, a “street person” as she put it. Herb sometimes called her, affectionately, his hippie.
“My God, don’t be silly. That’s not love, and you know it,” Mel
Herbsaid. “I don’t know what you’d call it, —madness is what I’d call it—but I sure know you wouldn’t call it it’s sure as hell notlove.”
The New Yorker has published an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King under the title “Backbone.” Many fans might have already heard the piece — and in Wallace’s own voice even — as it was part of the Lannan recordings and has been transcribed at least twice (although it appears one of those transcriptions has been taken down). (There’s also this fragment, by the way). Anyway, a taste–
Every whole person has ambitions, objectives, initiatives, goals. This one particular boy’s goal was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body.
His arms to the shoulders and most of his legs beneath the knee were child’s play. After these areas of his body, however, the difficulty increased with the abruptness of a coastal shelf. The boy came to understand that unimaginable challenges lay ahead of him. He was six.
There is little to say about the original animus or “motive cause” of the boy’s desire to press his lips to every square inch of his own body. He had been housebound one day with asthma, on a rainy and distended morning, apparently looking through some of his father’s promotional materials. Some of these survived the eventual fire. The boy’s asthma was thought to be congenital.