Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Life’s “we”

These thoughts don’t belong in a post about comic strips and Hula Hoops, but I don’t want to let them go either. Consider this sentence from an Editors’ Note in Life, January 31, 1964:

And don’t forget the Hula Hoop. What American didn’t climb into a colored plastic hoop in 1958 and undulate his torso?
Life’s question is rhetorical: the editors assume that we all climbed in. But consider how limited that “we” is. Set aside the generic “his” (because it’s 1964), and Life’s sense of an American still fails to account for the very young, the very old, those with disabilities or medical conditions that make movement difficult or impossible, those who might find the Hula Hoop an insult to (or unnecessary supplement to) their own traditions of dance, those living in the kind of privation that might have made Hula Hoops unaffordable or unavailable. Were Hula Hoops for sale in deepest Appalachia? That question too is rhetorical.

My point is not to hate on Life or the year 1964; it’s only to point out that anyone’s sense of who “we” are is informed by countless unexamined assumptions. Mine too.

Risking ruin in a TED talk


A delightful headline that will likely see much attention from the syntax-minded. A better headline: “In TED talk, Pope warns powerful to act humbly or risk ruin.” Or in what sounds to me more like journalese: ”Pope, in TED talk, warns powerful to act humbly or risk ruin.”

Joubert on Homer

Joseph Joubert:

If a superior intelligence wanted to give an account of human beings to the inhabitants of heaven and to give an exact idea of them, he would express himself like Homer.

The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert: A Selection  , trans. Paul Auster (New York: New York Review Books, 2005).
Also from Joseph Joubert
Advancing without aging : Another world : “As real as a cannon ball” : Being and nothingness : Brevity : Doing something well : “Everything is new” : Form and content : Irrelevancies and solid objects : Justified enthusiasm : Lives and writings : New books, old books : ’Nuff said (1) : ’Nuff said (2) : Politeness : Resignation and courage : Ruins v. reconstructions : Self-love and truth : Thinking and writing : Wine : Writing, too much or not at all

Odysseus in the North Atlantic

A startling bit of dialogue, from Action in the North Atlantic (dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1943). The speaker is merchant seaman Boats O’Hara (Alan Hale):

“You know what I’m doin’ when this is over? I’m puttin’ into port, I’m gettin’ off the ship, I’m puttin’ an oar on my shoulder, and I’m startin’ inland. And the first time a guy says to me: ‘What’s that on your shoulder?’ that's where I’m settlin’ for the rest of my life.”
That’s Homer. In Odyssey 11, Odysseus recounts what the ghost of the seer Tiresias told him he must do if he makes it home to Ithaca and kills Penelope’s suitors:



There’s no place for winnowing fans or animal sacrifices in 1943. And Odysseus, unlike Boats, would never settle inland. As Tiresias foretells, Odysseus will return to Ithaca after his inland journey, offer sacrifices to the gods, each in turn, and thereby be assured of an easy death in old age.

Related reading
All OCA Homer posts (Pinboard)

[The quoted passage is from Stanley Lombardo’s translation of the Odyssey (Hackett, 2000).]

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Forger

“My pen, my ink, my stamps, and my stapler”: tools of the trade for master forger Adolfo Kaminsky, the subject of The Forger, a great short film from The New York Times.

[The Times went with quill for plume. I chose pen as more appropriate.]

Bad coffee

Maxwell House Instant FTW? Keith Pandolfi makes a case for bad coffee. Found via Matt Thomas’s Submitted for Your Perusal.

A related post
Whiter instant? (A 1972 Instant Maxwell House ad)

[It used to be Instant Maxwell House; now it’s Maxwell House Instant.]

Laden with Hula Hoops


[“Hula-Hoop Craze”. Photograph by Grey Villet. No date. From the Life Photo Archive. Click for a much larger view.]

Behold a woman of the dowdy world, laden with Hula Hoops.

Henrietta’s Hula Hoop


[Henry, April 25, 2017.]

Like this New Math panel, today’s Henry is good evidence that the strip’s reruns date from the 1960s. The Wham-O Hula Hoop became a craze in 1958. By the mid-1960s, not so much. Some evidence from Life:

January 31, 1964: “And don’t forget the Hula Hoop. What American didn’t climb into a colored plastic hoop in 1958 and undulate his torso?” August 20, 1965: “It only ceases to be Pop when it’s as dead as the Hula-Hoop.” December 23, 1966: “Remember the hula hoop? It came and went like a flash.” That last one is from an advertisement for Sylvania Blue Dots.

Related reading
All OCA Henry posts (Pinboard)

[Odd: Henry has been playing with a hoop and stick. Henrietta is nostalgic about a newer toy.]

Monday, April 24, 2017

Proust’s noisy neighbors

At auction this Wednesday, along with many other items related to French literature, a letter from Marcel Proust to his friend Jacques Porel, son of the actress Gabrielle Réjane, Proust’s then-landlady and a model for the actress La Berma in In Search of Lost Time. In the letter Proust complains about the noise he hears in his apartment, or what the auction catalogue calls “bruyants ébats amoreux de ses voisins”:

Les voisins dont me sépare la cloison font d’autre part l’amour tous les 2 jours avec une frénésie dont je suis jaloux.
More or less:
The neighbors on the other side of the partition make love every two days with a frenzy of which I am jealous.
Proust wrote to Porel on July 15, 1919. On October 1, 1919, he moved out. You can find the letter, no. 245, in the spectacular illustrated auction catalogue from Pierre Bergé and Associés. Spectacular: see also, for instance, nos. 81, 133, 153, 258.

In August, New Directions will publish Lydia Davis’s translations of Proust’s letters to another set of noisy neighbors.

Related reading
All OCA Proust posts (Pinboard)

[Sometimes I think that the best thing about the PDF is free auction catalogues.]

Review: Walks with Walser


Carl Seelig. Walks with Walser. 1957. Translated from the German by Anne Posten. New York: New Directions, 2017. 200 pages. $15.95 paper.

                        A famous person must not cause one
                        to forget the unfamous.

                        Robert Walser to Carl Seelig

The Swiss editor and writer Carl Seelig is best known today as Robert Walser’s friend, guardian, and literary executor. In the mid-1930s, Seelig began writing to Walser, wanting to do something for the writer and his work. Wanderungen mit Robert Walser (1957) is Seelig’s memoir of what followed: forty-five visits with Walser over nineteen years. Walks with Walser is this book’s first and long-awaited translation into English.

In 1929, after “a few bumbling attempts” at suicide, Robert Walser was admitted to a Swiss psychiatric clinic, where he continued to write in microscript on stray pieces of paper. In 1933 he was transferred against his will to a Swiss sanitarium, where he remained for the rest of his life, and where he appears to have stopped writing. In his conversations with Seelig, Walser is doubtful about those who admire his work: he dismisses Kafka’s interest with a wave; he calls Seelig’s praise nothing more than “society lies” (in the tenth year of their friendship); when told that Christopher Middleton is translating his work into English, Walser replies with what Seelig describes as “a curt ‘Really!’” Walser’s response to any mention of seventy-fifth-birthday newspaper and radio tributes to him: “That’s nothing to me!” Walser insisted to Seelig that he was in the asylum to be mad, not to write: his duties there included folding paper bags, sweeping floors, and sorting and unraveling twine.

And he walked. Walser loved to walk, not in the manner of a flaneur, but energetically, sometimes frantically, on mountain paths, across fields and meadows, in all weathers, for hours on end. (One of his greatest works is the novella The Walk.) Whatever was “wrong” with Walser (even his doctors could not agree), he was well enough to leave the asylum in Seelig’s company for day-long excursions on foot or by train. Seelig gives us a vivid picture of Walser as walker: virtually never wearing an overcoat (“I’ve always had a horror of overcoats”), virtually always carrying an umbrella: “It wants to go for a walk too — and besides, umbrellas attract good weather!” The two men’s outings include the occasional swim, many meals, a fair amount of drinking (“That I can do only with you!”), and considerable good feeling: “En avant: to beer and twilight!” Walser and Seelig are often the only figures in the landscape, even when the landscape is a village square. (Not surprising, given Walser’s penchant for walking in even the worst weather.) The two men talk of architecture, history, the war, writers past and present, and the peregrinations of Walser’s pre-asylum life.

It’s when the conversation turns to writing that we first see what Seelig calls “shadows,” signs that something is not right. Walser explains his confinement by saying that he “lacked a halo,” and he describes Hermann Hesse’s admirers as thinking that they can criticize and order him (Walser) around. Editors are “power-hungry boa constrictors,” squeezing and suffocating writers as they please. Writers must stand in opposition to their culture, Walser says, yet he also says that they must learn to conform, striking the theme of obedience and punishment that so often appears in his work. “Writers without ethics,” he declares, “deserve to be whipped.” The signs of trouble become noticeable elsewhere: “Eh, more of this to-do!” Walser exclaims when his sister Lisa is dying, and his only response to news of his brother Karl’s death is (once again) “Really!” Walser thinks that the Second World War makes space “for the beautiful to grow within us again” and that the bombing of Berlin will lead urbanites to “a more intuitive, more natural life.” Always distrustful of doctors and nurses, Walser is at times distrustful even of Seelig, who is, at all points, a model of kindness and patience. Sixteen years into their friendship, Walser seems to suspect his visitor of some sinister intent behind the day’s outing.

But Walser’s delight in the plainest surroundings and his dazzlingly aphoristic conversation are the dominant elements in this memoir. And they’re here in a beautifully conversational translation. Snowy woods: “It’s like a fairy tale.” A village square: “It’s like something from a dream!” The clatter of cash register, china, and glassware in a train-station restaurant: “It sounds like an orchestra of coziness.” Of a cloister-like building, its use unknown:

“Such things are much prettier from the outside. One need not investigate every secret. I have maintained this all my life. Is it not lovely, that in our existence so much remains strange and unknown, as if behind ivy-colored walls? It gives life an unspeakable allure, which is increasingly disappearing. It is brutal, the way everything is coveted and claimed nowadays.”
After seeing clouds, not blue sky, on his sixty-fifth birthday:
“I don’t care a fig about superb views and backdrops. When what is distant disappears, what is near tenderly draws nearer. What more do we need to be satisfied than a meadow, a wood, and a few peaceful houses?”
On Friedrich Hölderlin’s life, which must have reminded Walser of his own:
“Dreaming the days away in some modest quarter, without constant demands, is certainly not martyrdom. People just make it one!”
Yes, Robert Walser in conversation sounds like Robert Walser the writer.

The last walk Seelig describes is one without conversation, and one that he can only imagine. It is a walk that Walser made alone, on Christmas Day 1956. Seelig postponed a planned visit with Walser that day to stay at home with a sick dog. Walser went walking by himself, collapsed, and died on a snowy slope. An appropriate exit for a writer who, says Seelig, “delighted in winter, with its light, merry dance of snowflakes.” And who delighted in walking. And yes, it’s like a fairy tale.

Walks with Wasler will be published tomorrow, April 25. Thanks to New Directions for a review copy.

Related reading
A review of Walser’s Looking at Pictures
A review of Walser’s Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories
All OCA Robert Walser posts