Huntsville, Alabama, 12 pm
Do authors betray their loved ones with fictionalized accounts of their lives — and does the answer matter for the reader? Tim Parks explores the morally murky territory between fiction and memoir:
The question is: Can a novel that will affect the author’s closest relationships be written without any concern for the consequences? Will the story perhaps be “edited” to avoid the worst? Or is awareness of the possible reaction part of the energy feeding the book? Italo Svevo’s Coscienza di Zeno begins with a hilarious account of Zeno’s attempts to stop smoking, always stymied by his decision to treat himself to l’ultima sigaretta, the last cigarette, usually one of the highest quality. Friends were aware this was largely autobiographical. The novel continues with Zeno’s courting of three sisters; eventually rejected by the two prettiest, he marries the plain one. Again his wife would have been aware of elements from his own life. And now we have the story of a love affair, its various stages recounted in the most meticulous and again hilarious, all-too-convincing psychological detail. Finally, we proceed to chapters on Zeno’s business life, which much resembles Svevo’s own running of a paint company. Nevertheless the author’s wife always stated with great serenity that she was sure her husband had never betrayed her, nor was she shaken in this belief by the fact that his last words, when pulled out of a car accident were, reputedly, “Give me l’ultima sigaretta.”
So, was the introduction of the affair into the novel a kind of trial for her? She had to believe it was just made up. Or was there an agreement between them, explicit or otherwise, that whatever they knew would be kept to themselves, any truth in the matter forever denied? Did Svevo have to introduce the mistress because the shape of the novel required it? If so, wouldn’t there be a certain anxiety that his wife wouldn’t see it that way, and wouldn’t that affect the way he wrote these chapters? What I am suggesting is that in the genesis of a novel, or any work of literature, there will often be private tensions that the general reader will not be aware of playing a part in the creative decisions made. If, then, a reader becomes aware of these tensions, that awareness will inevitably alter the way the book is read.
Maria Popova captions the above short film:
From my friends at PBS Digital Studios and filmmaker James W. Griffiths comes A Solitary World — a breathtaking homage to H.G. Wells, with text adapted from five of his most celebrated works: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The First Men in the Moon (1901), In The Days of the Comet (1906), The World Set Free (1914). Read by Terry Burns and featuring an appropriately haunting score from the young British composer Lennert Busch, the film belongs to — pioneers, perhaps — an emerging creative genre: the cinematic poem.
Neil Gaiman’s 1200 word short story, “Down to a Sunless Sea,” makes for a perfect quick dive into fiction. Here’s how it begins:
The Thames is a filthy beast: it winds through London like a snake, or a sea serpent. All the rivers flow into it, the Fleet and the Tyburn and the Neckinger, carrying all the filth and scum and waste, the bodies of cats and dogs and the bones of sheep and pigs down into the brown water of the Thames, which carries them east into the estuary and from there into the North Sea and oblivion.
It is raining in London. The rain washes the dirt into the gutters, and it swells streams into rivers, rivers into powerful things. The rain is a noisy thing, splashing and pattering and rattling the rooftops. If it is clean water as it falls from the skies it only needs to touch London to become dirt, to stir dust and make it mud.
You have until noon on Tuesday to guess it. City and/or state first, then country. Please put the location in the subject heading, along with any description within the email. If no one guesses the exact location, proximity counts. Be sure to email entries to email@example.com. Winner gets a free The View From Your Window book or two free gift subscriptions to the Dish. Have at it.
Media coverage of the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese famously implicated dozens of the victim’s neighbors in Kew Gardens, Queens — none of whom, according to a front-page New York Times story, phoned the police despite witnessing the brutal attacks over the course of half an hour. Nicholas Lemann investigates how the now-debunked “apathy narrative” took hold, tracing its influence to Times editor A. M. Rosenthal:
Stories like that of the silent witnesses to Kitty Genovese’s murder represent the real danger zone in journalism, because they blend the power of instinct—which is about whether something feels true, not about whether it is true—with the respectable sheen of social science. In his book [on the murder, Thirty-eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case], Rosenthal groused, “I did not feel, nor do I now, that the sociologists and psychiatrists who commented contributed anything substantial to anybody’s understanding of what happened that night on Austin Street.” But, if he hadn’t assigned a second-day story consisting of quotes from such people, his version of the Genovese murder would not have taken the shape that it did. The experts transformed a crime into a crisis.
The manufacturing of the thirty-eight-witnesses myth had generally benign social effects. Yet there are many examples in which tendentious public renderings of violence have set off more, and worse, violence. (Many of the lynchings in the South during the Jim Crow era were undertaken to avenge a crime that the mob, confirmed in its rage by the local press, felt certain had taken place.) The real Kitty Genovese syndrome has to do with our susceptibility to narratives that echo our preconceptions and anxieties. So the lesson of the story isn’t that journalists should trust their gut, the way Abe Rosenthal did. Better to use your head.
Kaija Straumanis’s self-portraits capture a moment of impact:
Literary translator, editor, and grad student Kaija Straumanis has a keen eye for photography, as can be seen from her Flickr gallery. This series of self-portraits, which Straumanis humorously refers to as “stuff being thrown at my head” moments, stands out in particular. In each image, Straumanis is in the process of being hit in the face by some object, whether it is a dodgeball, a book, or even a jack-o’-lantern.
More of Straumanis’s photos here.
Maria Konnikova searches for a fix:
The ubiquity of modern music and the resulting proliferation of earworms raise [a] question…: How do you dislodge one? In a study that [researcher Lauren] Stewart and the psychologist Victoria Williamson just published in the journal PLoS ONE, they examined thousands of survey responses to see what, if anything, was an especially effective method. While people’s strategies for ridding themselves of unwanted aural guests fell into one of two broad categories—distraction or coping—the most successful way to remove an earworm, they found, was to deal with it head on, by intentionally listening to the song or singing it out loud, no matter how embarrassing the song.
But it may be futile to try to resist completely, if Stewart is correct about why we get earworms in the first place. In ongoing research with a team of neuroscientists at the University of Western Ontario, she says, “we’re working with the hypothesis that people are getting earworms to either match or change their current state of arousal—or a combination of the two.” She adds, “Maybe you’re feeling sluggish but need to take your child to a dance class, so it could be that an earworm pops into your hear that’s very upbeat, to help you along. Or working in reverse, can earworms act to calm you down?” It would explain why we sometimes get earworms even when we haven’t been listening to music at all, or why people who spend a great deal of time in nature often report beginning to hear every sound—wind blowing, leaves rustling, water rippling—as music, which their brain spontaneously plays over and over. Just as important, it would help explain why our brains often seem to linger on music that we don’t particularly care for.
Dish poetry editor Alice Quinn writes:
On the evening of March 6th, the Poetry Society of America partnered with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center to present e.e.cummings and Edna St. Vincent Millay: Two Mid-20th Century Stars, featuring the authors of biographies of the poets, Nancy Milford, whose Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, garnered praise from (among many others) Lorrie Moore and Toni Morrison, and Susan Cheever, whose new book, e.e.cummings: A Life has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf. The actress Blair Brown read poems by Millay and Billy Collins read poems by e.e.cummings, and the audience was enthralled. This weekend, we’ll feature some of the poems by Cummings read at the event. The first, “maggie and milly and molly and may” has been brilliantly set to music by Nathalie Merchant in her marvelous two-CD set, Leave Your Sleep. We also recommend the rain is a handsome animal, a sequence of 17 songs from the poetry of Cummings set to music by the San Francisco band, Tin Hat.
“maggie and milly and molly and may” by e.e. cummings:
maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
(From Complete Poems: 1904-1962 by E.E.Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage © 1950,1952, 1956, 1978, 1980, 1984, 1991 by the Trustees for the E.E.Cummings Trust. © 1979 by George James Firmage. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation. Photo of Billy Collins and Blaire Brown in front of Cummings (left) and Millay, at the PSA event described above © Lawrence Schwartzwald. No reproduction without express permission of the photographer.)
Steven Soderbergh, emerging from nominal retirement, has created a mashup of the shower scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake:
Jonathan Crow explains the experiment:
For much of the piece, Soderbergh alternates between a scene from the original and one from the remake – Anne Heche, who plays Marion Crane in Van Sant’s version leaves her apartment for work and in the next scene, Janet Leigh shows up at the office. At other moments, he cuts back and forth within the scene; at one point the Marion from the remake is at a traffic light and sees her boss from the original movie. And during a few key points in the film — like the famed shower scene… — Soderbergh does something different. That sequence opens with Heche disrobing and lathering up. But when the killer starts stabbing, Soderbergh jarringly overlays the original movie over top the remake, creating a disconcerting kaleidoscopic effect.
Rachel Arons also recommends the mashup:
Behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley notes “a surprising problem for military leaders in times of war: soldiers in battle find it relatively easy to shoot at someone a great distance away, but have a much more difficult time shooting an enemy standing right in front of them”:
George Orwell described his own reluctance to shoot during the Spanish Civil War. “At this moment,” he wrote, “a man, presumably carrying a message to an officer, jumped out of the trench and ran along the top of the parapet in full view. He was half-dressed and was holding up his trousers with both hands as he ran. I refrained from shooting at him. It is true that I am a poor shot and unlikely to hit a running man at a hundred yards. … Still, I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists,’ but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.”
Orwell is far from alone.
Joe Mac Donnacha offers a sober assessment of Irish as a “living” language:
In sociolinguistic terms, a language can be defined as living if it meets two criteria. First, it should be the dominant (but not necessarily the only) language in most or all of the social networks that make up a community. Second, the community of individuals who speak it as their dominant language must be capable of regenerating themselves as a “language community” – in other words, they must be a sustainable community in terms of both their demographic regeneration and the intergenerational transmission of their language.
On both of these criteria the Irish language is no longer a living language. It has not gained new dominance in the combined social networks of any community outside the Gaeltacht since the formation of the state, and since the late 1960s it has been losing its dominance in what were the Irish-language communities of the Gaeltacht. It is clear from the current research that though most of these communities have been able to regenerate themselves demographically since the early 1970s … they have been finding it increasingly difficult to regenerate themselves linguistically. What we are now seeing in the Gaeltacht, therefore, are the final throes of Irish as a living language.
But not all language is lost. Cal Flyn has good news for Gaelic speakers in Scotland:
Leon Wieseltier – surprise! – blames Obama’s rationality and his belief that others share it for blinding him to the ambitions of Putin’s Russia:
The lack of preparedness at the White House was not merely a weakness of policy but also a weakness of worldview. The president is too often caught off guard by enmity, and by the nastiness of things. There really is no excuse for being surprised by evil. There is also no excuse for projecting one’s good intentions, one’s commitment to reason, one’s optimism about history, upon other individuals and other societies and other countries: narcissism is the enemy of empiricism, and we must perceive differences and threats empirically, lucidly, not with disbelief but with resolve. “Our opinions do not coincide,” Putin said after meeting with Obama last year. The sentence reverberates. That lack of coincidence is now a fact of enormous geopolitical significance.
But opinions don’t coincide with almost all geo-political adversaries and even allies. That doesn’t mean that some common ground on the question of shared interests cannot also be reached, even as one retains no illusions about the underlying conflict. Rich Lowry shakes his head at the administration, which he says should have learned from the Bush era that Putin was not to be trusted:
Of all President George W. Bush’s failings, not giving the Russians a chance wasn’t one of them. He notoriously looked into the eyes of Russian resident Vladimir Putin at the beginning of his presidency and saw sweetness and light. His illusions were shattered by the end, with the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.
Larison counters Lowry’s whitewashing of Bush’s Russia policy:
Was Whistler just as belligerent toward his art as he was with the wider world into which he sent it? You might think so, judging from reports of how he went about making it: “His movements were those of a duellist fencing actively and cautiously with the small sword,” according to one witness. But no, the results show very little evidence of Whistler’s aggressiveness. Henry Adams can’t have been the only observer to have noticed the contrast between Whistler’s “witty, declamatory, extravagant, bitter, amusing, and noisy” public manner and his art of “nuance and tone,” though perhaps he was one of the few to speculate that it showed how the painter might have been “brutalized … by the brutalities of his world.” That might be putting it a bit too strongly, but still, something must account for Whistler’s conviction that “the Master stands in no relation to the moment at which he occurs—a monument of isolation—hinting at sadness—having no part in the progress of his fellow men.” Whatever the cause of this inner core of loneliness and sorrow, none of Whistler’s biographers, including Sutherland, has ever come close to touching on it. Perhaps that’s just as well, because the beauty of the art transcends its motivating ache—by communicating it in a homeopathic dosage.
(Image of Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge, circa 1872-1875, via Wikimedia Commons)
Charles Simic recalls a business scheme for a new kind of gravestone dreamed up by the poet Mark Strand when he was down and out:
It would include, in addition to the usual name, date, and epitaph, a slot where a coin could be inserted, that would activate a tape machine built into it, and play the deceased’s favorite songs, jokes, passages from scriptures, quotes by great men and speeches addressed to their fellow citizens, and whatever else they find worthy of preserving for posterity. … One of the benefits of this invention, as [Strand] saw it, is that it would transform these notoriously gloomy and desolate places by attracting big crowds—not just of the relatives and acquaintances of the deceased, but also complete strangers seeking entertainment and the pearls of wisdom and musical selections of hundreds and hundreds of unknown men and women.
While this invention may strike one as frivolous and irreverent, in my view it deals with a serious problem.
If you’re a drug dealer, you might want to get some tax stamps:
[Kansas] has set its tax rate on marijuana at $3.50 per gram and its taxes on other controlled substances at $200 per gram or $2,000 per pill. Drug dealers operating in the state should visit the Taxpayer Assistance Center in Topeka between 8:00 am and 4:00 pm to buy drug tax stamps. Or they can order them through the mail. By attaching the stamps to the drugs, dealers can show that they paid their taxes. They may be busted and arrested, but at least tax evasion won’t be one of the charges.
Kansas is not alone in demanding that drug dealers pay their fair share of taxes. Some 10 to 20 states have (or once had) legislation setting tax rates on illegal drugs.
One problem: the stamps aren’t exactly flying off the shelves:
According to attorney Robert Henak, “Everywhere but four states, I believe, there is no indication that drug dealers are buying stamps.” The majority of states have sold no stamps, or only a few thousand dollars worth in tiny increments. So who is buying?
Stamp collectors. Many of the stamps feature marijuana leaf designs or comical health warnings as Henak, a stamp collector who once shared his collection of drug tax stamps with Playboy magazine, can attest.
(Image: A marijuana tax stamp image via NORML)
On Wednesday, the Massachusetts court ruled that the state had no laws barring someone from taking a photo up a woman’s skirt. Meghan DeMaria notes the court’s judgment that those women were not “completely or partially undressed”:
If you’re wearing Spanx, a thong, or other undergarments that could constitute being “partially nude” beneath your skirt, you’re entitled to legal protection, but women who favor granny panties are out of luck. Good to know.
Doug Mataconis defends the court’s reasoning:
I agree generally with the principle that something like this should be against the law, but it seems to me that the Court was correct on the law here. As a general principle, people can only be convicted of a crime when they’ve actually committed an illegal act that is specifically defined in the law and, in this case, what Robinson was accused and convicted of did not comport with the statute under which he was charged. If the legislators in Massachusetts want to prevent this from happening again, they simply need to rewrite the law to cover the activities that Robinson was accused of committing.
It’s all in the body language. Christian Jarrett surveys a study that explored whether people pick up on losing athletes’ submissive body language without knowing the score (the above clip is a sample from the study):
The researchers showed adult and child participants dozens of silent, three-second clips of winning and losing athletes in table tennis, basketball and handball, and tested whether the observers could tell, based purely on “thin slices” of non-verbal body language, whether each athlete was winning or losing, and by how much (from “far behind” to “high lead”). The clips were taken from the breaks between play. Scores were concealed. And any clips containing explicit emotion, such as shame or pride, were omitted. … The researchers found high levels of accuracy, among young children (aged 4 to 8), older children (age 9 to 12), and adults. That is, the participants’ estimates of whether an athlete was losing or winning, and by how much, tended to correlate with the actual situation, as measured by the (hidden) score at that stage in the contest.
Jarrett considers the implications:
Harvard epidemiologist Ronald Kessler studied the effects of moving low-income families with children into better neighborhoods and found that these moves led to poor mental health outcomes in boys:
Kessler’s study was conducted using data from Moving to Opportunity (MTO), a decades-spanning housing mobility experiment financed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Within this project, 4,604 volunteer families with 3,689 children were randomly divided into three groups. Two of them received different versions of rent-subsidy vouchers that enabled them to move into a better neighborhood. A control group did not move.
In follow-up interviews conducted 10 to 15 years later, boys reported higher proportions of major depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and conduct disorder than boys within the control group—rates of PTSD comparable to those of combat soldiers. The opposite occurred with girls, who reported mental health that was substantially better than the girls who stayed in high-poverty neighborhoods.
The results represent something of a conundrum. Over the past few decades, urban policy has focused on breaking up clusters of poverty, planning cities so that poor residents could live in areas that also had middle-class people. Does this new research mean projects like MTO are actually a bad thing?
Megan Garber explains the photo agency’s decision to make 35 million of its photos freely embeddable for non-commercial use:
It’s important to note that, while many millions of Getty images are now available for embed, not all Getty images are. And there seems to be a fairly significant split, from what I can tell, between stock images and photojournalism images when it comes to embeddability. So do a search for “Ukraine,” and you”ll get lots of photos … but that one of John Kerry shaking hands with Sergei Lavrov in Rome yesterday? Nope, not embeddable. …
That distinction is important; it emphasizes, among other things, the bet that Getty is making by opening this new revenue stream. News outlets, after all, will always need news photos. Keeping the newsy stuff out of the “free photo” pool allows Getty to preserve its value for its already-paying digital subscribers, while the embed system could be a way to capture some value from The Rogues. This is Getty attempting to have its cake, and eat it, too.
The Dish has payed for Getty images for many years now, both within larger media companies and into its independence, and we couldn’t be more satisfied with their service and quality. A special thanks to Stephen Hanley for shepherding our account through the stressful period of setting up our own site and company last year. Meanwhile, Pat David points to some downsides of Getty’s new feature: