Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The New Yorker

We lost it at the movies

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Over a decade ago, the New Yorker film critic David Denby published a memoir titled American Sucker. I read it when it first came out, and I honestly can’t remember much about it, but there’s one section that has stuck in my mind ever since. Denby is writing of his obsession with investing, which has caused him to lose much of what he once loved about life, and he concludes sadly:

Well, you can’t get back to that. Do your job, then. After much starting and stopping, and considerable shifting of clauses, all the while watching the Nasdaq run above 5,000 on the CNNfn website, I put together the following as the opening of a review.

It happens to be his piece on Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, which begins like this:

In Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts appears in scene after scene wearing halter tops with a bit of bra showing; there’s a good bit of leg showing, too, often while she’s holding an infant on one arm. This upbeat, inspirational melodrama, based on a true story and written by Susannah Grant and directed by Steven Soderbergh, has been bought to life by a movie star on a heavenly rampage. Roberts swings into rooms, ablaze with indignation, her breasts pushed up and bulging out of the skimpy tops, and she rants at the people gaping at her. She’s a mother and a moral heroine who dresses like trailer trash but then snaps at anyone who doesn’t take her seriously—a real babe in arms, who gets to protect the weak and tell off the powerful while never turning her back on what she is.

Denby stops to evaluate his work: “Nothing great, but not bad either. I was reasonably happy with it as a lead—it moves, it’s active, it conveys a little of my pleasure in the picture. I got up and walked around the outer perimeter of the twentieth floor, looking west, looking east.”

I’ve never forgotten this passage, in part because it represents one of the few instances in which a prominent film critic has pulled back the curtain on an obvious but rarely acknowledged fact—that criticism is a genre of writing in itself, and that the phrases with which a movie is praised, analyzed, or dismissed are subject to the same sort of tinkering, revision, and doubt that we associate with other forms of expression. Critics are only human, even if sometimes try to pretend that they aren’t, as they present their opinions as the product of an unruffled sensibility. I found myself thinking of this again as I followed the recent furor over David Edelstein’s review of Wonder Woman in New York magazine, which starts as follows:

The only grace note in the generally clunky Wonder Woman is its star, the five-foot-ten-inch Israeli actress and model Gal Gadot, who is somehow the perfect blend of superbabe-in-the-woods innocence and mouthiness. She plays Diana, the daughter of the Amazon queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and a trained warrior. But she’s also a militant peacenik. Diana lives with Amazon women on a mystically shrouded island but she’s not Amazonian herself. She was, we’re told, sculpted by her mother from clay and brought to life by Zeus. (I’d like to have seen that.)

Edelstein was roundly attacked for what was perceived as the sexist tone of his review, which also includes such observations as “Israeli women are a breed unto themselves, which I say with both admiration and trepidation,” and “Fans might be disappointed that there’s no trace of the comic’s well-documented S&M kinkiness.” He responded with a private Facebook post, widely circulated, in which he wrote: “Right now I think the problem is that some people can’t read.” And he has since written a longer, more apologetic piece in which he tries to explain his choice of words.

I haven’t seen Wonder Woman, although I’m looking forward to it, so I won’t wade too far into the controversy itself. But when I look at these two reviews—which, significantly, are about films focusing on different sorts of heroines—I see some striking parallels. It isn’t just the echo of “a real babe in arms” with “superbabe-in-the-woods,” or how Brockovich “gets to protect the weak and tell off the powerful” while Diana is praised for her “mouthiness.” It’s something in the rhythm of their openings, which start at a full sprint with a consideration of a movie star’s appearance. As Denby says, “it moves, it’s active,” almost to a fault. Here are three additional examples, taken at random from the first paragraphs of reviews published in The New Yorker:

Gene Wilder stares at the world with nearsighted, pale-blue-eyed wonder; he was born with a comic’s flyblown wig and the look of a reddish creature from outer space. His features aren’t distinct; his personality lacks definition. His whole appearance is so fuzzy and weak he’s like mist on the lens.

There is a thick, raw sensuality that some adolescents have which seems almost preconscious. In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta has this rawness to such a degree that he seems naturally exaggerated: an Expressionist painter’s view of a young role. As Tony, a nineteen-year-old Italian Catholic who works selling paint in a hardware store in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge, he wears his heavy black hair brushed up in a blower-dried pompadour. His large, wide mouth stretches across his narrow face, and his eyes—small slits, close together—are, unexpectedly, glintingly blue and panicky.

As Jake La Motta, the former middleweight boxing champ, in Raging Bull, Robert De Niro wears scar tissue and a big, bent nose that deform his face. It’s a miracle that he didn’t grow them—he grew everything else. He developed a thick-muscled neck and a fighter’s body, and for the scenes of the broken, drunken La Motta he put on so much weight that he seems to have sunk in the fat with hardly a trace of himself left.

All of these reviews were written, of course, by Pauline Kael, who remains the movie critic who has inspired the greatest degree of imitation among her followers. And when you go back and read Denby and Edelstein’s openings, they feel like Kael impersonations, which is the mode on which a critic tends to fall back when he or she wants to start a review so that “it moves, it’s active.” Beginning with a description of the star, delivered in her trademark hyperaware, slightly hyperbolic style, was one of Kael’s stock devices, as if she were observing an animal seen in the wild and frantically jotting down her impressions before they faded. It’s a technical trick, but it’s a good one, and it isn’t surprising that Kael’s followers like to employ it, consciously or otherwise. It’s when a male critic uses it to describe the appearance of a woman that we run into trouble. (The real offender here isn’t Denby or Edelstein, but Anthony Lane, Kael’s successor at The New Yorker, whose reviews have the curious habit of panning a movie for a page and a half, and then pausing a third of the way from the end to rhapsodize about the appearance of a starlet in a supporting role, which is presented as its only saving grace. He often seems to be leering at her a little, which is possibly an inadvertent consequence of his literary debt to Kael. When Lane says of Scarlett Johansson, “She seemed to be made from champagne,” he’s echoing the Kael who wrote of Madeline Kahn: “When you look at her, you see a water bed at just the right temperature.”) Kael was a sensualist, and to the critics who came after her, who are overwhelmingly male, she bequeathed a toolbox that is both powerful and susceptible to misuse when utilized reflexively or unthinkingly. I don’t think that Edelstein is necessarily sexist, but he was certainly careless, and in his routine ventriloquism of Kael, which to a professional critic comes as easily as breathing, he temporarily forgot who he was and what movie he was reviewing. Kael was the Wonder Woman of film critics. But when we try to channel her voice, and we can hardly help it, it’s worth remembering—as another superhero famously learned—that with great power comes great responsibility.

Avocado’s number

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Earlier this month, you may have noticed a sudden flurry of online discussion around avocado toast. It was inspired by a remark by a property developer named Tim Gurner, who said to the Australian version of 60 Minutes: “When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocados for nineteen bucks and four coffees at four dollars each.” Gurner’s statement, which was fairly bland and unmemorable in itself, was promptly transformed into the headline “Millionaire to Millennials: Stop Buying Avocado Toast If You Want to Buy a Home.” From there, it became the target of widespread derision, with commentators pointing out that if owning a house seems increasingly out of reach for many young people, it has more to do with rising real estate prices, low wages, and student loans than with their irresponsible financial habits. And the fact that such a forgettable sentiment became the focal point for so much rage—mostly from people who probably didn’t see the original interview—implies that it merely catalyzed a feeling that had been building for some time. Millennials, it’s fair to say, have been getting it from both sides. When they try to be frugal by using paper towels as napkins, they’re accused of destroying the napkin industry, but they’re also scolded over spending too much at brunch. They’re informed that their predicament is their own fault, unless they’re also being idealized as “joyfully engaged in a project of creative destruction,” as Laura Marsh noted last year in The New Republic. “There’s nothing like being told precarity is actually your cool lifestyle choice,” Marsh wrote, unless it’s being told, as the middle class likes to maintain to the poor, that financial stability is only a matter of hard work and a few small sacrifices.

It also reflects an overdue rejection of what used to be called the latte factor, as popularized by the financial writer David Bach in such books as Smart Women Finish Rich. As Helaine Olen writes in Slate:

Bach calculated that eschewing a five-dollar daily bill at Starbucks—because who, after all, really needs anything at Starbucks?—for a double nonfat latte and biscotti with chocolate could net a prospective saver $150 a month, or $2,000 a year. If she then took that money and put it all in stocks that Bach, ever an optimist, assumed would grow at an average annual rate of eleven percent a year, “chances are that by the time she reached sixty-five, she would have more than $2 million sitting in her account.”

There are a lot of flaws in this argument. Bach rounds up his numbers, assumes an unrealistic rate of return, and ignores taxes and inflation. Most problematic of all is his core assumption that tiny acts of indulgence are what prevent the average investor from accumulating wealth. In fact, big, unpredictable risk factors and fixed expenses play a much larger role, as Olen points out:

Buying common luxury items wasn’t the issue for most Americans. The problem was the fixed costs, the things that are difficult to cut back on. Housing, health care, and education cost the average family seventy-five percent of their discretionary income in the 2000s. The comparable figure in 1973: fifty percent. Indeed, studies demonstrate that the quickest way to land in bankruptcy court was not by buying the latest Apple computer but through medical expenses, job loss, foreclosure, and divorce.

It turns out that incremental acts of daily discipline are powerless in the face of systemic factors that have a way of erasing all your efforts—and this applies to more than just personal finance. Back when I was trying to write my first novel, I was struck by the idea that if I managed to write just one hundred words every day, I’d have a manuscript in less than three years. I was so taken by this notion that I wrote it down on an index card and stuck it to my bathroom mirror. That was over a decade ago, and while I can’t quite remember how long I stuck with that regimen, it couldn’t have been more than a few weeks. Novels, I discovered, aren’t written a hundred words at a time, at least not in a fashion that can be banked in the literary equivalent of a penny jar. They’re the product of hard work combined with skills that can only be developed after a period of sustained engagement. There’s a lot of trial and error involved, and you can only arrive at a workable system through the kind of experience that comes from addressing issues of craft with maximal attention. Luck and timing also play a role, particularly when it comes navigating the countless pitfalls that lie between a finished draft and its publication. In finance, we’re inclined to look at a historical return series and attribute it after the fact to genius, rather than to variables that are out of our hands. Similarly, every successful novel creates its own origin story. We naturally underestimate the impact of factors that can’t be credited to individual initiative and discipline. As a motivational tool, there’s a place for this kind of myth. But if novels were written using the literary equivalent of the latte factor, we’d have more novels, just as we’d have more millionaires.

Which isn’t to say that routine doesn’t play a crucial role. My favorite piece of writing advice ever is what David Mamet writes in Some Freaks:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

A lot of writing comes down to figuring out what to do on any given morning—but it doesn’t mean doing the same thing each day. Knowing what achievable steps are appropriate at every stage is as important here as it is anywhere else. You can acquire this knowledge as systematically or haphazardly as you like, but you can also do everything right and still fail in the end. (If we define failure as spending years on a novel that will never be published, it’s practically a requirement of the writer’s education.) Books on writing and personal finance continue to take up entire shelves at bookstores, and they can sound very much alike. In “The Writer’s Process,” a recent, and unusually funny, humor piece in The New Yorker, Hallie Cantor expertly skewers their tone—“I give myself permission to write a clumsy first draft and vigorously edit it later”—and concludes: “Anyway, I guess that’s my process. It’s all about repetition, really—doing the same thing every single day.” We’ve all heard this advice. I’ve been guilty of it myself. But when you don’t take the big picture into account, it’s just a load of smashed avocado.

Brand awareness

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Over the last few months, I’ve noticed that Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and one of my personal heroes, has been popping up a lot in the press. In his excellent piece earlier this year in The New Yorker on survival prep among the rich, Evan Osnos called Brand to get a kind of sanity check:

At seventy-seven, living on a tugboat in Sausalito, Brand is less impressed by signs of fragility than by examples of resilience…He sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”

More recently, in an article in the same magazine about the Coachella Festival, John Seabrook wrote: “The short-lived first era of rock festivals began in San Francisco. The incubator was Stewart Brand and Ramon Sender’s three-day Trips Festival, a kind of ‘super acid test,’ in Tom Wolfe’s famed account.” The New York Times Magazine published a piece in March on Brand’s efforts to revive extinct species, and just last week, Real Life featured an essay by Natasha Young on the Long Now Foundation.

So why is Brand back in style? Young’s article offers a tempting clue: “The Long Now’s objective is to support the defense of the future against the finite play of selfish actors.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if Donald Trump is the question, Stewart Brand is the answer, although it would be harder to imagine two white males of the same generation—Brand is eight years older than Trump—with less to say to each other. Yet his example is even more damning for those who claim to be following in his footsteps. The historical connections between Silicon Valley and the Catalog have been amply chronicled elsewhere, and much of the language that technology companies use to talk about themselves might have been copied straight from Brand’s work, with its insistence that information and modern tools could improve the lives of individuals and communities. To say that these ideals have been corrupted would be giving his self-appointed successors too much credit. It takes a certain degree of cluelessness to talk about making the world a better place while treating customers as fungible data points and unloading as much risk as possible onto outside parties, but it isn’t even particularly impressive. It’s the kind of evil that comes less out of ruthless efficiency or negative capability than short-term expediency, unexamined notions, lousy incentives, and the desperate hope that somebody involved knows what he or she is doing. Brand was a more capable organizer of time, capital, and talent than any of his imitators, and he truly lived the values that he endorsed. His life stands as a rebuke to the rest of us, and it didn’t lead him to a mansion, but to a houseboat in Sausalito.

Brand matters, in other words, not because he was a better person than most of his contemporaries, but because he was vastly more competent. This fact has a way of being lost, even as we rush to honor a man whose like we might never see again. His legacy can be hard to pin down because he’s simply a guy who got it right, quietly and consistently, for four decades, and because it reflects what seems at first like a confusing array of influences. It includes Buckminster Fuller’s futurism and Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics; the psychedelic fringe of Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, as flavored by mysticism, Jungian psychology, and Zen Buddhism; Native American culture, which led Tom Wolfe to refer to Brand as “an Indian freak”; and the communalist movement of young, mostly affluent urbanites going back to the land in pursuit of greater simplicity. That’s a lot to keep in your head at once. But it’s also what you’d expect from a naturally curious character who spent years exploring whatever he found interesting. My favorite statement by Brand is what he says about voluntary simplicity:

Personally I don’t like the term…I’m more comfortable with the idea of “right livelihood,” which is one of the folds of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s less of an exhortation than an observation—greedy behavior makes a sour life. The idealism of “Voluntary Simplicity” is okay I suppose, but it obscures what I find far more interesting—the sheer practicality of the exercise.

“Sheer practicality” sums up how I like to think about Brand, who lists the rewards of such an existence: “Time to do your work well enough to be proud of it. Time for an occasional original idea and time to follow it. Time for community.”

Take that recipe and extend it across a lifetime, and you end up with a career like Brand’s, which I’ve been contemplating for most of my life. Before I ended up working on my current nonfiction project, I seriously thought about pitching a book on Brand and the Catalog, simply because I thought it would be good for me. As it turns out, I don’t need to write it: John Markoff, the former technology reporter for the New York Times, is working on a biography of Brand, and Caroline Maniaque-Benton and Meredith Gaglio recently edited the anthology Whole Earth Field Guide. I’d be jealous, if I weren’t also grateful. And Brand’s impact can be seen right here every day. Kevin Kelly, Brand’s protégé, once wrote:

[The] missives in the Catalog were blog postings. Except rather than being published individually on home pages, they were handwritten and mailed into the merry band of Whole Earth editors who would typeset them with almost no editing (just the binary editing of print or not-print) and quickly “post” them on cheap newsprint to the millions of readers who tuned in to the Catalog‘s publishing stream. No topic was too esoteric, no degree of enthusiasm too ardent, no amateur expertise too uncertified to be included…It is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.

Personally, I think that there’s a lot to be said for putting out a version on paper, and Kelly evidently came around to the same conclusion, publishing the lovely tribute Cool Tools. But the basic form of the Catalog—excerpts from worthwhile sources interspersed with commentary—is the one that I’ve tried to follow. This blog is a kind of portrait of myself, and although its emphasis has changed a lot over the years, I’d like to think that it has remained fairly consistent in terms of the perspective that it presents. And I owe it more to Stewart Brand than to anybody else.

Notes on campers

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A few days ago, in the course of one of my periodic daydreams about leaving it all behind, I stumbled across a site called Truck Camper Magazine, and I haven’t looked at much of anything else since. It’s more or less what you’d expect, with reviews of pickup campers alternating with testimonials from satisfied owners who gave up the rat race to become nomads, and it offers a wealth of material for my persistent fantasies of a life on the road. I’ve looked at slideshows, studied floor plans, and watched video tours of such campers as the Northern Lite 9-6 Special Edition—which is the one I’ve found myself coveting the most—and the controversial Cirrus 820. As usual, I suddenly have strong opinions on the relative desirability of the dry and wet bath designs, and I’m weirdly convinced that I’d only be happy with a hard side, non-slide, wet bath camper, when I couldn’t have told you what any of that meant just a week ago. So far as such reveries go, it’s harmless, and I doubt that I’d ever really go through with it: if nothing else, I don’t think I’d be willing to leave my books behind. But it taps into a persistent longing to pare down my life, embrace simplicity, and gain a commensurate degree of freedom. As Dave, one of the campers profiled by the magazine, recalls:

I spent many a night imagining our probable future; long hours of work, no company pension for years of labor, and just a house full of stuff in a declining neighborhood. This is not how I wanted to remember my life when I grew old…We were willing to sacrifice money, everyday luxuries, square footage, going out all the time, and buying things we didn’t need on a whim if it meant we could have our lives back. I think my exact words were, “I’ll eat beans and rice into my sixties if it means I can do what I want with my life!”

Purely by coincidence, I became entranced by the mystique of truck camping shortly before the publication of an article by Rachel Monroe of The New Yorker on the vanlife movement, which channels the same impulses into a very different direction. It profiles a pair of ridiculously photogenic thirtysomethings, Emily King and Corey Smith, who roam the country in a VW van and chronicle their travels on Instagram. (Their project is titled “Where’s My Office Now?”, and it feels like a real missed opportunity that they didn’t call it “Emily Van Camp.”) They’ve attracted a substantial following, and as Monroe points out, they’re selling a seductive image:

There is an undeniable aesthetic and demographic conformity in the vanlife world. Nearly all of the most popular accounts belong to young, attractive, white, heterosexual couples. “There’s the pretty van girl and the woodsy van guy,” Smith said. “That’s what people want to see.” At times, the vanlife community seems full of millennials living out a leftover baby-boomer fantasy: the Volkswagens, the neo-hippie fashions, the retro gender dynamics.

But the piece is mostly sympathetic, even as it shows the couple spending half an hour staging the perfect “casual” shot of Emily for a sponsored post, painstakingly adjusting the image in Photoshop, and posting it to such comments as: “Such a beautiful lifestyle.” “This looks like heaven.” As one acquaintance says: “It looks like they’re having fun. But they’re working a lot.”

And what intrigues me the most about vanlife—which my spellchecker insists on correcting to “vanilla”—and the community of truck campers is the contrast between their preferred solutions, which are responses to a shared sense of disaffiliation. Fairly or not, it’s easy to come away with the impression that the couple in the van and the family in the camper prefer different beers and political candidates. Both emerge from a backdrop of economic insecurity, as seen from distinct life stages. Monroe notes that vanlife seems rooted in “the recent recession” and its impact on millennials:

“We heard all these promises about what will happen after you go to college and get a degree,” Smith said. “We graduated at a time when all that turned out to be a bunch of bullshit.” The generation that’s fueling the trend has significantly more student debt and lower rates of homeownership than previous cohorts. The rise of contract and temporary labor has further eroded young people’s financial stability…Like staycations and minimalism, vanlife is an attempt to aestheticize and romanticize the precariousness of contemporary life.

Dave in Truck Camper Magazine uses much the same language: “We had been sold a lifestyle that’s no longer a reality for most people.” The primary difference is that Emily King worked on the road, until recently, as a web developer, while Dave, after being laid off from his job of fourteen years, could only find “shift work at a variety of manufacturing plants,” hauling boxes of salsa. Whether you’re drawn to a van or a camper seems based both on your socioeconomic profile and on when you began to question your assumptions. And the gap doesn’t need to be wide: Dave and Emily are less than a decade apart in age.

I fall roughly in the middle, so I find myself torn between both fantasies. If I’m ultimately more attracted to the truck camper aesthetic, it’s because I’ve always been more interested in the nuts and bolts of nomadism than in looking at wildlife calendars. (It’s no accident that one of my ten favorite books is The Complete Walker by Colin Fletcher, whom Scientific American once aptly described as “a new Thoreau faced with the evaluative responsibilities of Consumers Union.”) The cognitive divide between fixing up an old Volkswagen Vanagon and spending eighty thousand dollars on a Northern Lite rig and Dodge Ram pickup is very real, and I suspect that each side suffers from mutual incomprehension. When I first saw the inside of a truck camper, it seemed like a snug distillation of life to its essentials, but after a brief exposure to vanlife, it now strikes me as a little, well, campy in its determination to recreate what amounts to an efficiency apartment on wheels. To a truck camper, in turn, life in a van might seem ludicrously twee and unsustainable. But they have more in common than you might think. At one point in the profile, Emily says, fretting: “We really need to create content.” This doesn’t sound much like Thoreau—except, of course, that Thoreau was selling an image of his own. And while the shaky handheld video tours of truck camper interiors seem far removed from the luminous vanlife images on Instagram, they’re both constructed around the same archetypal photograph, obviously staged, of a tiny, self-contained vehicle parked in a beautiful landscape. Either way, most people who look at these pictures, like me, are unlikely to put it into practice, although it might inspire them to cultivate simplicity along other lines. In their own distinct ways, Emily and Dave are both living a movie. The rest of us just watch the trailers.

Written by nevalalee

April 19, 2017 at 10:02 am

The Voynich Inheritance

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Sooner or later, if you devote any time to poking around odd corners of the unexplained, you’ll encounter the document known as the Voynich Manuscript. It’s a fifteenth-century codex, often called “the world’s most mysterious book,” consisting of roughly two hundred and forty pages of writing in an unknown alphabet, interspersed with many enigmatic illustrations and diagrams. Last year, the Yale University Press issued the first authorized edition of the complete text, leading to a flurry of renewed interest. After a century of failed attempts to decipher it, however, the conversation around it has shifted from the hope of any solution to its status as an emblem of the unknown. Josephine Livingston of The New Yorker writes that the manuscript “encourages us to sit with the concept of truth and to remember that there are ineluctable mysteries at the bottom of things whose meanings we will never know,” while Dustin Illingworth concludes in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

We revere the Voynich, I think, only insofar as it eludes us. The purpose of this new edition, then, is not to provide definitive answers. Instead, as the historian Deborah Harkness has it, the book is offered as an invitation “to join us at the heart of the mystery.” Despite its pages of cramped writing and sprawling illustrations, the Voynich is perhaps the ultimate carte blanche—the purest form of philological fantasy, a canvas vast enough to contain dreams, conspiracies, hunches, and prophecies. In the company of such rich human engagement, a solution—if one should exist—is merely incidental. May the mystery live on.

Mentioned only in passing in most recent coverage is the figure in the story who has always fascinated me the most, a scholar named William Romaine Newbold who died believing that he had cracked the code. As David Kahn recounts in his masterpiece The Codebreakers, Newbold was a brilliant linguist and cryptanalyst who served as a philosophy professor and former dean of the graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1919, Newbold stumbled across a few pages of the manuscript, and he immediately set to work on it:

Newbold saw microscopic shorthand symbols in the macroscopic characters of the manuscript text and began his decipherment by transliterating them into Roman letters. A secondary text of seventeen different letters resulted. He doubled all but the first and last letters of each section: the secondary text oritur would become the tertiary text or-ri-it-tu-ur. Any of these groups that contained any letters of the word conmuta, plus q, underwent a special substitution. The resultant quaternary text was then “translated”: Newbold replaced the pairs of letters with a single letter, presumably according to a key, which, however, he never made clear. Newbold regarded some letters of this reduced quinary text as equivalent to one another because of phonetic similarity. When required, therefore, he interchanged d and t, for example, b, f, and p, o and u, and so on. Finally, Newbold anagrammed the letters of this senary text to produce the alleged plaintext in Latin.

Two years later, Newbold announced his results, which were extraordinary. The author of the manuscript, he claimed, was the medieval philosopher Roger Bacon, who stood revealed as the greatest scientist of all time: “Bacon had recognized the Great Nebula in Andromeda as a spiral galaxy, identified biological cells and their nuclei, and come close to seeing the union of the sperm with the ovum. He had therefore to have not merely speculated about but to have actually constructed a microscope and a telescope.” Newbold also offered what seemed like a strong argument in favor of the authenticity of his results, as Kahn recounts:

Newbold’s cryptanalysis of a caption on a sketch that somewhat resembles a pinwheel and that he took to represent the Andromeda nebula reads in part: “In a concave mirror I saw a star in the form of a snail…between the navel of Pegasus, the girdle of Andromeda, and the head of Cassiopeia.” Newbold asserted that his solution could not be subjective because “I did not know at the time [of solution] that any nebula would be found within the region thus defined.”

It was, of course, utter nonsense. One critic pointed out that Newbold’s system of letter pairs, as in or-ri-it-tu-ur, worked in only one direction: it could be deciphered, but there was no possible way that it could be enciphered in the first place. Anagramming chunks of over a hundred characters at a time, as Newbold did, could result in almost any text you wanted. And the “microscopic shorthand symbols” were nothing but “the breaking up of the thick ink on the rough surface of the vellum into shreds and filaments that Newbold had imagined were individual signs.”

On its surface, it’s yet another cautionary tale of misguided obsession, like so many other stories from the fringes of reason. But what sticks with me the most is how inseparable Newbold’s brilliance was from his delusions. As Kahn points out:

How, then, to explain Newbold’s cryptanalyzing information that he said he never knew, such as the position of the spiral nebula? The answer is that he must have known it, though subconsciously. Newbold, a scholar of immense erudition who casually learned the Catalan language and read a thousand pages in it in pursuit of a minor point of the solution, must have swept up that detail in his extensive studies and slipped it into the depths of his brain, where it lay hidden from his active mind until the solution drew it forth. No one ever questioned Newbold’s integrity; he was a victim, [philologist John Matthews] Manly said, “of his own intense enthusiasm and his learned and ingenious subconscious.”

This seems reasonable enough, although I’d propose a slightly different explanation: Newbold surely must have checked his solutions before publication, and a plaintext that failed to fit known scientific facts was either revised or quietly dropped. Either way, only a genius could have been so misguided, and Newbold’s case is just an extreme version of a tendency that we find in many forms of scholarship. The impulse that led him to see a nebula that wasn’t there isn’t so different from the pitfalls confronting literary critics, historians, biographers, and other scholars with a mass of material on which to exercise their ingenuity and intuition. As Roger Bacon, the real one, once wrote, one of the greatest stumbling blocks to wisdom is “the hiding of our own ignorance while making a display of our apparent knowledge.” Newbold happened to misread his text in an obvious way, but he wasn’t the first—or the last—scholar to fall victim to the perils of cleverness.

The art of the anti-blurb

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In a recent issue of The New Yorker, the critic Dan Chiasson offers up an appraisal of the poet Bill Knott, who died in 2014. To be honest, I’d either never heard of Knott or forgotten his name, but I suspect that he might have been pleased by this. Knott, who taught for decades at Emerson College, spent his entire career sticking resolutely to the edges of the literary world, distancing himself from mainstream publishers and electing to distribute his poems himself in cheap editions on Amazon. Chiasson relates:

The books that did make it to print usually featured brutal “anti-blurbs,” which Knott culled from reviews good and bad alike: his work was “grotesque,” “malignant,” “tasteless,” and “brainless,” according to some of the big names of the day.

Here are a few more of the blurbs he reprinted: “Bill Knott’s ancient, academic ramblings are part of what’s wrong with poetry today. Ignore the old bastard.” “Bill Knott bores me to tears.” “Bill Knott should be beaten with a flail.” “Bill Knott’s poems are so naïve that the question of their poetic quality hardly arises…Mr. Knott practices a dead language.” According to another reminiscence by the editor Robert P. Baird, Knott sometimes took it even further: “On his various blogs, which spawned and deceased like mayflies, he posted collages of rejection slips and a running tally of anti-blurbs: positive reviews and compliments that he’d carved up with ellipses to read like pans.” Even his actual negative reviews weren’t enough—Knott felt obliged to create his own.

The idea of a writer embracing his attackers has an obvious subversive appeal. Norman Mailer, revealingly, liked the idea so much that he indulged in it no fewer than three times, and far less nimbly than Knott did. After the release of The Deer Park, he ran an ad in The Village Voice that amounted to a parody of the usual collage of laudatory quotes—“The year’s worst snake pit in fiction,” “Moronic mindlessness,” “A bunch of bums”—and noted in fine print at the bottom, just in case we didn’t get the point: “This advertisement was paid for by Norman Mailer.” Two decades later, he decided to do the same thing with Marilyn, mostly as a roundabout way of responding to a single bad review by Pauline Kael. As the editor Robert Markel recalls in Peter Manso’s oral biography:

The book was still selling well when [Mailer] came in with his idea of a full two-page ad. Since he was now more or less in the hands of [publisher] Harold Roth, there was a big meeting in Harold’s office. What he wanted to do was exactly what he’d done with The Village Voice ad for The Deer Park: present all the positive and negative reviews, including Kael’s, setting the two in opposition. Harold was very much against it. He thought the two pages would be a stupid waste of money, but more, it was the adversarial nature of the ad as Norman conceived it.

Ultimately, Mailer persuaded Roth to play along: “He implied he’d made a study of this kind of thing and knew what he was talking about.” And five years down the line, he did it yet again with his novel Ancient Evenings, printing up a counter display for bookstores with bad reviews for Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Leaves of Grass, and his own book, followed by a line with a familiar ring to it: “The quotations in this poster were selected by Norman Mailer.”

This compulsiveness about reprinting his bad reviews, and his insistence that everyone know that he had conceived and approved of it, is worth analyzing, because it’s very different from Knott’s. Mailer’s whole life was built on sustaining an image of intellectual machismo that often rested on unstable foundations, and embracing the drubbings that his books received was a way of signaling that he was tougher than his critics. Like so much else, it was a pose—Mailer hungered for fame and attention, and he felt his negative reviews as keenly as anyone. When Time ran a snarky notice of his poetry collection Deaths for the Ladies, Mailer replied, “in a fury of incalculable pains,” with a poem of his own, in which he compared himself to a bull in the ring and the reviewer to a cowardly picador. He recalled in Existential Errands:

The review in Time put iron into my heart again, and rage, and the feeling that the enemy was more alive than ever, and dirtier in the alley, and so one had to mend, and put on the armor, and go to war, go out to war again, and try to hew huge strokes with the only broadsword God ever gave you, a glimpse of something like Almighty prose.

This is probably a much healthier response. But in the contrast between Mailer’s expensive advertisements for himself and Knott’s photocopied chapbooks, you can see the difference between a piece of performance art and a philosophy of life truly lived. Of the two, Mailer ends up seeming more vulnerable. As he admits: “I had secret hopes, I now confess, that Deaths for the Ladies would be a vast success at the bar of poetry.”

Of course, Knott’s attitude was a bit of a pose as well. Chiasson once encountered his own name on Knott’s blog, which referred to him as “Chiasson-the-Assassin,” which indicates that the poet’s attitude toward critics was something other than indifference. But it was also a pose that was indistinguishable from the man inside, as Elisa Gabbert, one of Kott’s former students, observed: “It was kind of a goof, but that was his whole life. It was a really grand goof.” And you can judge them by their fruits. Mailer’s advertisements are brilliant, but the product that they’re selling is Mailer himself, and you’re clearly supposed to depart with the impression that the critics have trashed a major work of art. After reading Knott’s anti-blurbs, you end up questioning the whole notion of laudatory quotes itself, which is a more productive kind of skepticism. (David Lynch pulled off something similar when he printed an ad for Lost Highway with the words: “Two Thumbs Down!” In response, Roger Ebert wrote: “It’s creative to use the quote in that way…These days quotes in movie ads have been devalued by the ‘quote whores’ who supply gushing praise to publicists weeks in advance of an opening.” The situation with blurbs is slightly different, but there’s no question that they’ve been devalued as well—a book without “advance praise” looks vaguely suspicious, so the only meaningful fact about most blurbs is that they exist.) Resistance to reviews is so hard for a writer to maintain that asserting it feels like a kind of superpower. If asked, Mailer might have replied, like Bruce Banner in The Avengers: “That’s my secret. I’m always angry.” But I have a hunch that the truth is closer to what Wolverine says when Rogue asks if it hurts when his claws come out: “Every time.”

How to rest

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As a practical matter, there appears to be a limit to how long a novelist can work on any given day while still remaining productive. Anecdotally, the maximum effective period seems to fall somewhere in the range of four to six hours, which leaves some writers with a lot of time to kill. In a recent essay for The New Yorker, Gary Shteyngart writes:

I believe that a novelist should write for no more than four hours a day, after which returns truly diminish; this, of course, leaves many hours for idle play and contemplation. Usually, such a schedule results in alcoholism, but sometimes a hobby comes along, especially in middle age.

In Shteyngart’s case, the hobby took the form of a fascination with fine watches, to the point where he was spending thousands of dollars on his obsession every year. This isn’t a confession designed to elicit much sympathy from others—especially when he observes that spending $4,137.25 on a watch means throwing away “roughly 4.3 writing days”—but I’d like to believe that he chose a deliberately provocative symbol of wasted time. Most novelists have day jobs, with all their writing squeezed into the few spare moments that remain, so to say that writers have hours of idleness at their disposal, complete with that casual “of course,” implies an unthinking acceptance of a privilege that only a handful of authors ever attain. Shteyngart, I think, is smarter than this, and he may simply be using the luxury watch as an emblem of how precious each minute can be for writers for whom time itself hasn’t become devalued.

But let’s assume that you’re lucky enough to write for a living, and that your familial or social obligations are restricted enough to leave you with over half the day to spend as you see fit. What can you do with all those leisure hours? Alcoholism, as Shteyngart notes, is an attractive possibility, but perhaps you want to invest your time in an activity that enhances your professional life. Georg von Békésy, the Hungarian biophysicist, thought along similar lines, as his biographer Floyd Ratliff relates:

His first idea about how to excel as a scientist was simply to work hard and long hours, but he realized that his colleagues were working just as hard and just as long. So he decided instead to follow the old rule: sleep eight hours, work eight hours, and rest eight hours. But Békésy put a “Hungarian twist” on this, too. There are many ways to rest, and he reasoned that perhaps he could work in some way that would improve his judgment, and thus improve his work. The study of art, in which he already had a strong interest, seemed to offer this possibility…By turning his attention daily from science to art, Békésy refreshed his mind and sharpened his faculties.

This determination to turn even one’s free time into a form of self-improvement seems almost inhuman. (His “old rule” reminds me of the similar advice that Ursula K. LeGuin offers in The Left Hand of Darkness: “When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.”) But I think that Békésy was also onto something when he sought out a hobby that provided a contrast to what he was doing for a living. A change, as the saying goes, is as good as a rest.

In fact, you could say that there are two types of hobbies, although they aren’t mutually exclusive. There are hobbies that are orthogonal to the rest of our lives, activating parts of the mind or personality that otherwise go unused, or providing a soothing mechanical respite from the nervous act of brainwork—think of Churchill and his bricklaying. Alternatively, they can channel our professional urges into a contained, orderly form that provides a kind of release. Ayn Rand, of all people, wrote perceptively about stamp collecting:

Stamp collecting is a hobby for busy, purposeful, ambitious people…because, in pattern, it has the essential elements of a career, but transposed to a clearly delimited, intensely private world…In stamp collecting, one experiences the rare pleasure of independent action without irrelevant burdens or impositions.

In my case, this blog amounts to a sort of hobby, and I keep at it for both reasons. It’s a form of writing, so it provides me with an outlet for those energies, but it also allows me to think about subjects that aren’t directly connected to my work. The process is oddly refreshing—I often feel more awake and alert after I’ve spent an hour writing a post, as if I’ve been practicing my scales on the piano—and it saves an hour from being wasted in unaccountable ways. This may be why many people are drawn to hobbies that leave you with a visible result in the end, whether it’s a blog post, a stamp collection, or a brick wall.

But there’s also something to be said for doing nothing. If you’ve devoted four hours—or whatever amount seems reasonable—to work that you love, you’ve earned the right to spend your remaining time however you like. As Sir Walter Scott wrote in a letter to a friend:

And long ere dinner time, I have
Full eight close pages wrote;
What, duty, has thou now to crave?
Well done, Sir Walter Scott!

At the end of the day, I often feel like watching television, and the show I pick serves as an index to how tired I am. If I’m relatively energized, I can sit through a prestige drama; if I’m more drained, I’ll suggest a show along the lines of Riverdale; and if I can barely see straight, I’ll put on a special feature from my Lord of the Rings box set, which is my equivalent of comfort food. And you can see this impulse in far more illustrious careers. Ludwig Wittgenstein, who thought harder than anyone else of his century, liked to relax by watching cowboy movies. The degree to which he felt obliged to unplug is a measure of how much he drove himself, and in the absence of other vices, this was as good a way of decompressing as any. It prompted Nicholson Baker to write: “[Wittgenstein] would go every afternoon to watch gunfights and arrows through the chest for hours at a time. Can you take seriously a person’s theory of language when you know that he was delighted by the woodenness and tedium of cowboy movies?” To which I can only respond: “Absolutely.”

Written by nevalalee

April 5, 2017 at 9:36 am

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