Month: October 2018

A Witch’s Chant for Halloween

Happy Halloween from me and the poet James Hogg (whom Google decided is my twin, in an odd coincidence, which I remembered only after selecting this poem).

James evokes better than I can this night, when the border between this world and the next is blurred, and, even if we are too old to wander the world in costume, we dress up our imaginations in unusual images and wander the strange border country between daydream and nightmare.

From Hogg’s “A Witch’s Chant:”

All is not well: by dint of spell
Somewhere between the heaven and hell
There is this night a wild deray;
The spirits have wander'd from their way.

The purple drops shall tinge the moon,
As she wanders the midnight noon;
And the dawning heaven shall all be red
With blood by guilty angels shed.

...

Sleep'st thou, wakest thou, lord of the wind?
Mount thy steeds and gallop them blind;
And the long-tailed fiery dragon outfly,
The rocket of heaven, the bomb of the sky.

Over the dog-star, over the wain,
Over the cloud, and the rainbow's mane,
Over the mountain, and over the sea,
Haste - haste - haste to me!

Washington’s Letter to the Jews of Newport

Printed below in full, written by George Washington to the congregation of the Touro Synagogue in 1790, as the states were still debating the ratification of the 1st amendment, which enshrines freedom of religion:

Gentlemen:

While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

Donate to help the survivors and the victim’s families as well as the Congregation of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh as they recover from the antisemitic attack that left eleven of their members dead. As a nation, we are more generous of heart and liberal of mind than this violence.

Short Story Review: An Inhabitant of Carcosa, by Ambrose Bierce

At barely five pages, An Inhabitant of Carcosa delivers a disproportionately powerful jolt to the imagination. It isn’t a classic ghost story, but a weird tale, the kind most associated with H. P. Lovecraft, though there is more art in this story than in almost all of Lovecraft’s fiction.

A narrator awakens on a barren plane, his consciousness catapulted there after reading a passage in a book by an obscure metaphysician. Who is he? Where is he? What is Carcosa? The echoes of the magnificiently wrought details will give you almost all the answers you need.

Ambrose Bierce, the tale’s author, was a journalist, memoirist, and spinner of tales during the Civil War and The Gilded Age. Perhaps because his stories were on my high school English syllabuses, I have long ignored them.

I’m grateful that he was included in an NYRB Classics anthology I picked up when last I was in Providence, browsing the shelves of Lovecraft Arts & Sciences. A collection of Bierce’s war reporting, short stories, and essays is now on its way to my book-haunted garret in New York City.

Next up, Bierce’s The Damned Thing, which Joyce Carol Oates selected for her anthology of American Gothic Tales.

The Latest Big Innovation In News? Human Editors

This post is a bit of a throwback to my days at The Schwartz Center at Fordham, where we spent a lot of our time investigating what was happening to the news business. We looked at the algorithmic gatekeepers that were replacing the human ones who once decided what was worthy of our attention, and we looked at the new business models that were feeding off that new locus of attention.

What seemed inevitable five or six years ago was that the future of news would be a grim collision between user generated content and dodgy social media algorithms, with the craft of journalism left out of the picture. That’s true in the darker corners of the Web, but, just as Tim Cook’s privacy speech this week showed, Apple may be charting a new, more human way forward.

Apple employs about thirty human beings with journalistic acumen to select the stories that show up in its news app, which reaches about 90 million people each week, according to this profile of the head of Apple News. You’ll never have the chance to meet the algorithm that selects the distractions in your Facebook feed–not so for Lauren Kern, Apple’s editor-in-chief.

I’d long ago deleted Apple News, preferring as I do to pay editors and writers to deliver the news to me in print each week. That’s still my preference, but for those of you who prefer thumbing through the news on an app for free, Ms. Kern’s operation may be the best option.

Dept. of Wonder: The Oldest Intact Shipwreck in the World

A few weeks ago, I marveled that less than 10% of the archeological finds in the world had been explored. Two kilometers beneath the Black Sea, that fact is on gorgeous display this week with reports of the discovery of an intact Greek trading vessel from about 400 B.C., the oldest shipwreck ever found.

Rope, coiled by the crew on a day when it is possible that Socrates and Plato were still breathing in Athens, is still where it was left on the decks of the sunken vessel. There is so much detail left that this single wreck will transform our understanding of ancient shipbuilding.

As our world above sinks further into chaos, I’m going to take some solace in knowing that there are still wonders buried in the deep places of the earth.

Highlights from the Frankenstein exhibit at The Morgan

By a happy accident, the Morgan Library’s show on Frankenstein’s bicentennial opened the same week that my book club planned to meet and discuss the novel. So, having just read the novel, we were primed to appreciate the show.

Verdict: a stunning exhibit, not just for fans of the novel but for anybody interested in the Romantic period and the origins of horror as a genre.

My highlights:

A few artifacts revealing connections between the geniuses of the period that I hadn’t known about. When you walk in, the first thing you see is the original of Füseli’s famous painting, The Nightmare, which has appeared on the cover of multitudes of horror story collections and books abut witchcraft and the supernatural. What I hadn’t known was that Füseli was a lover of Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and that the painting and others by the great Swiss master of the uncanny would’ve been known to Mary Shelly personally.

A few bits of Percy Shelley’s skull, supposedly snatched from his funeral pyre by a friend. And less than a foot from them are the fragmentary pages of a poem Shelley had with him on the sea voyage on which he drowned.

Percy Shelley’s own copy of Paradise Lost, which was displayed in a line-up of period copies of all the books Frankenstein’s monster reads in the course of his education.

Pages from the manuscript of Frankenstein itself, which contained memorable passages that you can just puzzle out, as well as what is unmistakably the marginal scribblings of Percy Shelly, offering up vivid phrases to enliven his wife’s book.

The portraits of Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft that you see on the covers of their books, which felt like being in the presence of the two women. More remarkable was a line in the description of Mary Wollstonecraft’s portrait that mentions her and her daughter’s friendship with Aaron Burr and his wife Theodosia. That puts fewer than two degrees of separation between all the American founding fathers and the seventeen-year-old girl whose genius would invent science fiction and change the world.

Go see the show! I haven’t described half the wonders you’ll see.

From the Commonplace Book: C. S. Lewis on His Idea of Fun

As I get more comfortable in my early middle age–I will be 40 in 2019–I am more honest about the pleasures that suit me. I feel less obligation to conform to what other people think of as fun, like loud music, loud movies, television, dancing, heavy foods, or artificially altered states of mind. If my deepest pleasures resemble those of an old lady or a frumpy British writer of the last century, I don’t care. Like a long soak in a hot bath, another activity which I no longer blush to devote whole afternoons to, giving into the sensation is a deep relief.

This quote pretty much sums up my ideal Saturday and Sunday. And I fully intend to follow through on it, as much as my work and social obligations will allow.

Have a great weekend everybody. I hope you do what pleases you.

Short Story Review: Miao Dao by Joyce Carol Oates

Since a friend read aloud the entirety of The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood while we were sitting in Central Park at dusk, I have been on a short story binge.

The Wendigo took about two hours to get through and produced in me a sense of strangeness, horror, and wonder I have not quite experienced before.

I’ve mostly ignored short stories as an adult reader. Why take just a bite of an alternate world when you can have the full meal of a novel? But The Wendigo reminded me that there are certain mental states that only short writing can induce. Blackwood’s story depends on the evocation of an atmosphere, which a novel length work would attenuate to the point of inefficacy. Much of odd or uncanny fiction has been disserved by the modern literary market place, which makes novels the sole focus for anybody but the few people who read literary magazines.

But short stories, as Michael Chabon says in one of his essays, were at one time synonymous with the odd and uncanny, so much so that all short stories may be descended from ghost stories, depending as they do on the single unexpected turn or the use of brief atmospheric effects, like a magic trick or a poem. To avoid short stories is to miss out on just how weird and enchanting writing can be.

Kindle Singles, which is designed to showcase short fiction, has a number of great stories on offer this October in their Dark Corners series. They are perfect for a single sitting, to be read on whatever screen is at hand. It’s probably most similar to the way the Victorians, the first great market for short writing, would’ve consumed short fiction. They were published in newspapers and magazines to be read in the spare moments of a busy life. And they were somehow of the moment, more like news reports than novels.

I recommend Miao Dao, by Joyce Carol Oates. Before ascending to literary recognition, Oates wrote mysteries and the kind of Gothic novels popular in the 1970s. Think of a lurid cover with a woman in a dress fleeing from a castle with a single light on in the window, and you know the type. Miao Dao has that easy readability of pop fiction. But it’s also nearly perfect in its craftsmanship.

It’s about Mia, a young girl who is going through puberty and doing a bad job of coping. Assailed by bullies at school, domestic upheaval at home, and strangely attracted to the feral freedom of an empty lot infested by stray cats, Mia is a narrator who is more interesting after every page.

I don’t know how Oates does it, but there is a horror about this story that seems like it could only explode from a much longer fuse. Like the terror that can emerge from the sterilized corners of suburbia, where Miao Dao is set, the mental disturbance of this story comes out of nowhere, but strikes like an avenging devil. Spend 45 minutes with Mia, and you’ll have a chill that’s far deeper than any spooky film or TV show I can remember.