Quote of the Day: No Armistice for the Dead

ww1trench

Today marks the signing of the armistice in 1918 that put an end to the First World War. The United States marks the occasion as Veterans Day, while in England it’s Armistice Day.

Although the day is meant to commemorate all the men and women who have served and died in the armed services, something particularly tragic and horrific remains in the collective memory of World War I. An official statement of Congress ending the war included this aside:

Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals …

Over 8 million soldiers and nobody knows how many civilians died in the four-year conflict. Some 36 percent of all British soldiers, and 65 percent of German soldiers, were either killed or wounded. And still nobody still quite understands why it was fought.

Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon

One of the war’s great poets was Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967). He served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers in France. In 1917 wrote a protest letter to the House of Commons, refusing to fight anymore: “I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.” He was hospitalized later that year.

Here’s his poem, “Absolution“:

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.

Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?

Writer’s Corner: Anaïs Nin on Saying It All

Anais Nin (Elsa Dorfman, c.1970s)

Anais Nin (Elsa Dorfman, c.1970s)

As one of the twentieth century’s more celebrated and mutinous rebel authors, Anaïs Nin (1903–1977) didn’t seem to keep much back. After all, she made money for a time in the 1940s by knocking out ornately gilded pornography at a buck a page for an anonymous, wealthy collector. The stories were later prettied up under the label “erotica” and published posthumously in collections like Delta of Venus.

Although she wanted to be remembered for her knotty and abstract avant-garde fictions like Cities of the Interior, Nin gained true notoriety for her multi-volume diary. The first iterations were high-toned smutty gossip for the literary set, liberally threaded with luminous poetic musings. deltaofvenusThey detailed her lavishly busy and experimental love life—including a 12-year affair with fellow literary rule-breaker Henry Miller—but were later outdone by the release (starting last year) of the completely unexpurgated diaries. This revised series includes everything cut out earlier by request of some of her then-living lovers.

Nin’s career-long back and forth between taboo-busting and rectitude makes this piece of writerly advice even more fascinating:

The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say but what we are unable to say.

Quote of the Day: The Six Great Paintings

“It’s crazy,” she’d said, “but I’d be perfectly happy if I could sit looking at the same half dozen paintings for the rest of my life. I can’t think of a better way to go insane.”

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Think about what six paintings you wouldn’t mind looking at forever.

Readers’ Corner: ‘This Town’ and the Gilded Trough

this town-coverAlmost the best thing about Mark Leibovich’s new Washington, DC tell-all This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital is what’s not in it. He didn’t include an index, thusly avoiding the tendency of Beltway types to cruise into bookstores and flip instantly to the index for any reference to themselves. Given the high-pitched response to his book from the corridors of power, a surprising number of those people have actually been reading the thing. It’s worth it.

My review is at PopMatters:

Mark Leibovich’s This Town is angry but funny, hitting big targets with ease while somehow avoiding the shrill tone of the screed. As the New York Times’ chief national correspondent, he has spent more time covering politics in the American capital than any human being should have to, unless serving time for a horrific crime. After 16 years covering the circular grip n’ grin of Washington politics, Leibovich has served up a heaping platter of disgust, but he’s done it with a smiley-face emoticon. After all, he’s still got to work in the place he calls “a city of beautifully busy people constantly writing the story of their own lives”…

You can watch Leibovich on The Daily Show here.

Reader’s Corner: Abraham Lincoln in His Day

Lincoln giving his address at Gettysburg -- he's the one in the tall black hat.

Lincoln giving his address at Gettysburg — he’s the one in the tall black hat.

Given the lionization and demonization that certain political figures attain after their death, it’s hard to remember that in their time, very few leaders are seen in such black-and-white terms. In England, Neville Chamberlain was not universally reviled, and Winston Churchill had enough detractors that he was quickly escorted from office after the war ended.

lincolnalife1In America, our most sainted president after George Washington is likely Abraham Lincoln. There is good reason for this, of course, but it’s always healthy to keep in mind that in his time there were more than a few who thought the man little more than an idiot.

Mark Bowden’s recent piece on Lincoln in the Atlantic points this out. Quoting heavily from Michael Burlingame’s 2008 biography Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Bowden highlights the criticism that Lincoln received while in office, the likes of which makes modern-day cable-news shouters seem tame by comparison:

His ancestry was routinely impugned, his lack of formal learning ridiculed, his appearance maligned, and his morality assailed…. No matter what Lincoln did, it was never enough for one political faction, and too much for another. Yes, his sure-footed leadership during this country’s most-difficult days was accompanied by a fair amount of praise, but also by a steady stream of abuse—in editorials, speeches, journals, and private letters—from those on his own side, those dedicated to the very causes he so ably championed. George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York lawyer and diarist, wrote that Lincoln was “a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla.” … Other Northern newspapers openly called for his assassination long before John Wilkes Booth pulled the trigger. He was called a coward, “an idiot,” and “the original gorilla” by none other than the commanding general of his armies, George McClellan.

This doesn’t prove that today’s climate of commentary has advanced any from the mid-19th century; far from it. But Bowden’s article is worth thinking of when trying to assess exactly how a sitting president will be judged by history. This applies to Barack Obama, both Bushes, Clinton, and possibly even back to Reagan and Carter; their true reckoning may still need decades of perspective and multiple historical tomes to truly emerge. Remember what Zhou Enlai (1898–1976) supposedly said when asked about the French Revolution of 1789: “It is too soon to tell.”

Bowden again:

Imagine all those critical voices from the 19th century as talking heads on cable television. Imagine the snap judgments, the slurs and put-downs that beset Lincoln magnified a million times over on social media. How many of us, in that din, would hear him clearly? His story illustrates that even greatness—let alone humbler qualities like skill, decency, good judgment, and courage—rarely goes unpunished.

 

Writer’s Room: Getting Hunter to Work

greatsharkhuntMost writers know the drill: Get an assignment, turn it in roughly on time and in generally the shape that it was desired. If not: kill fee, if you’re lucky. This is how it works.

Unless you were Hunter S. Thompson. In 1970, Hunter convinced the long-defunct Scanlan’s Monthly that “somebody” needed to cover the Kentucky Derby, dammit. S0 off he went to the races, with an expense account and a vision.  In Michael McCambridge’s excellent piece for Grantland on the epochal article that resulted, he provides a few illustrative details of what was required for Scanlan’s afterward for editor Warren Hinckle to actually get any workable copy out of Hunter. To wit:

… [according to Hinckle] within a couple of days (“as soon as he could walk”), Thompson flew to Manhattan, “where we locked him down for five days in a room in the Royalton Hotel, just up 44th Street from the Scanlan’s office in an abandoned ballroom above an Irish bar a block from Times Square.”

The story didn’t come easily. “I would lie in the bathtub at this weird hotel,” said Thompson. “I had a suite with everything I wanted — except I couldn’t leave…. They were sending copy boys and copy girls and people down every hour to see what I had done, and the pressure began to silently build like a dog whistle kind of scream. You couldn’t hear it but it was everywhere.”

… [Scanlan’s copy boy Harvey Cohen] kept Thompson “supplied with cigarettes, Heinekens and Chivas. When production slowed, Harvey would seize the time and rip pages out of Hunter’s notebook” and relay them to the Scanlan’s office, where they were read by managing editor Donald Goddard, and then sent by fax to Hinckle in San Francisco.

We should all be so lucky.

Reader’s Corner: Literary Death Match

literarydeathmatch2

Ever thought the following, “Hmmm, books are awesome, but I just wish it could be a little bit more like The X-Factor“? Too bad, sucker: Simon Cowell doesn’t read!

That being said, there might be hope for your televisual/literary mashup dreams to come true soon. Adrian Todd Zuniga is the founder and host of an amazing-sounding series of events called Literary Death Match, where authors are pitted against each other in a highly snarky competition featuring judges like Moby, Susan Orlean, and Jonathan Lethem.

literary death match1Now The Daily Beast‘s Melissa Goldstein reports that Literary Death Match has filmed a couple of pilot episodes for a potential TV show:

…Lethem may have been the L.L. Bean sweater–wearing Adam Levine to Zuniga’s Carson Daly, and there may have been a boxing ring, but the script was a long way from The Voice. Following a recitation by the evening’s first challenger, Silverlake-based comedy writer and novelist DC Pierson read a piece titled “To All the Aliens Who Got Stranded on Earth But Never Found a Kid to Take Care of Them.” Lethem pronounced it to be “like Allen Ginsberg in its velocity,” and suggested that “if there was an intergalactic Ellis Island, you would be its Emma Lazarus.”

Coming (please, maybe?) to a Bravo-ish channel near you in the (never) future.

(hat-tip: The Roundup)