Tuesday, April 25, 2017

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

Cooper-Moore in Illinois

Gelvin Noel Gallery
Krannert Art Museum
Champaign, Illinois
April 20, 2017

Cooper-Moore, ashimba, balloon, three-string fretless banjo, diddley-bow, mouth bow, horizontal hoe-handle harp, wind chimes, voice

Cooper-Moore’s performance at the Krannert Art Museum was part of the Sonified Sustainability Festival, devoted to ecologically minded music and art. Cooper-Moore (who took his name from his grandmothers’ surnames) is a pianist who also performs on instruments of his making, created from found and repurposed materials (a piece of a sofa frame, say) and inexpensive Radio Shack electronics. His performance on Thursday was part music-making on these instruments, part storytelling, part question-and-answer session.

Cooper-Moore began by singing “Roll, Jordan, Roll” while playing wind chimes placed horizontally on his lap, with two more chimes as mallets (adding a note and overtones to every note struck). The words of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” returned briefly as he made music on a balloon as one would play a glass harmonica — with fingers dipped in water). But this instrument (held close to a microphone) sounded like a drum kit, a running crowd, a noise guitar. “Where would they put that in Downbeat?” Cooper-Moore asked. “Under ‘Miscellaneous’?”

Cooper-Moore’s performances on ashimba, banjo, diddley-bow, and mouth bow (the last three amplified) recalled instrumental legacies both African and African-American. The ashimba, an eleven-note xylophone made from found wood, provided a dense accompaniment to the words of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round.” (The instrument’s name combines Cooper-Moore’s original surname Ashton and marimba.) Cooper-Moore’s banjo playing was rich in blues inflections. (From the spoken-sung story that went with it: “I’m not afraid of death. It just don’t suit me to be lookin’ at it.”) The pieces for diddley-bow — a monochord that figures in the origin stories of many blues guitarists — were especially virtuosic, as Cooper-Moore played the instrument with hands and drumsticks, and sometimes with drumstick on drumstick, sounding at times like a bottleneck guitar, at times like a bass, at times like a rhythm section unto himself. The sound of the mouth bow — a bowstring played with a half-size violin bow — is one that Cooper-Moore associates with the name Yahweh, the mouth opening and closing while producing vowels. His performance on horizontal hoe-handle harp (an instrument he built after hearing the Paraguayan harp and then pricing harps) began and ended in serene lyricism, with funkier and sharply percussive moments in the middle.

Between instrumental performances, Cooper-Moore told stories of finding materials, building instruments, and traveling the world, and he sang a bit of what sounded like an old and slightly risqué song about aging. I remember the line “But it don’t rise.” Through it all was the spirit of what Cooper-Moore says his work as a musician is about: play.

Thanks to Jason Finkelman, who continues to bring the news of the world to east-central Illinois.


[Mouth bow, diddley-bow, ashimba, water and balloon, horizontal hoe-handle harp, wind chimes, three-string fretless banjo. Click for a much larger view.]

Related reading
Cooper-Moore biography and partial discography (AUM Fidelity)

And from YouTube
Cooper-Moore plays fretless banjo, diddley-bow and mouth bow (with Digital Primitives); horizontal hoe-handle harp (with Subway Girl); and solo piano

[Don’t quit on the piano performance.]

Walser on ruins

Robert Walser in conversation:

“Aren’t ruins more beautiful than something that’s been patched up?”

Carl Seelig, Walks with Walser, trans. Anne Posten (New York: New Directions, 2017).
See also Walser on ruins and “former beauty.” And Joseph Joubert on ruins and reconstructions.

Related reading
All OCA Robert Walser posts (Pinboard)

[A review of Walks with Walser is coming soon.]

Joubert on writing

Joseph Joubert:

One ruins the mind with too much writing. — One rusts it by not writing at all.

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

It’s the Office Of Thesecretary

In December 2014, a student asked me whether it was acceptable to end a sentence with the word it. She had been told not to. Here was a zombie rule I’d never heard of, for which I (finally) discovered a source in an influential book of grammar instruction from 1795. Suffice it to say: it’s perfectly acceptable to end a sentence with it. And I was happy that my student believed me about it.

The post I wrote about ending a sentence with it continues to get visits every day, from all over. Even, yesterday, from someone in the Department Of The Interior, Office Of Thesecretary:


[They need to work on capitalization and proofreading.]

My thoughts about this detail in my blog stats:

It’s saddening that someone in a position of authority should be in the dark about it.

It’s reassuring that someone in a position of authority should be willing to look into it.

It’s alarming that someone in a position of authority (a staffer, no doubt) is relying on the Internets in such a free and easy way. (Notice that I’ve blotted out the IP address.) I wonder what else they might be looking up in the Office of Thesecretary.

It’s chilling to imagine the Interior sentences that might be ending with it. “We will eliminate it”? “We will destroy it”?

It’s disturbing to see something I’ve written prove useful to someone in the Trump administration. But public writing is public writing. One never knows, do one?
A related post
Were and was (Visits from the House and Senate)

[The #3 in the stat info makes it clear to me that the Google search had to do with terminal it and not, say, one or more of the proper names in the post. I don’t read stats closely — it’s luck that I happened to spot this visit.]

Nationalism, patriotism,
and possible futures

From the historian Timothy Snyder:

Democracy failed in Europe in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, and it is failing not only in much of Europe but in many parts of the world today. It is that history and experience that reveals to us the dark range of our possible futures. A nationalist will say that “it can’t happen here,” which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017).
Also from this book
“Believe in truth” : Distinguishing truth from falsehood

[Sobering and inspiring. And only $7.99.]

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

“The individual who investigates”

From the historian Timothy Snyder, writing about the importance of distinguishing between truth and falsehood:

“What is truth?” Sometimes people ask this question because they wish to do nothing. Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference. It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society. The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017).
Also from this book
“Believe in truth”

[Widely available on the Internets: an earlier short list of twenty lessons.]