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Stamp out starving writers, buy their books!


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The Big Six

Book heap

A Variety of Old Books by a Variety of Publishers

Most readers believe there are a variety of well established and independent book publishers in the United States. Certainly,  it would increase artistic and intellectual diversity if there were a lot of different publishers. Actually, there are only six.  While it’s true there are many very small publishing companies,  six big ones dominate the US and in the publishing industry they are known as The Big Six.

Readers often think that the “imprint” under which a book is published is the name of a thriving, independent publisher.  Alas, the imprint is usually the name of a vanished publishing house — a publishing house that was bought  up by an international corporation — and the name of the global corporation, which owns many such imprints,  may or may not appear anywhere in the book.

The names of The Big Six may be familiar to you as distinguished old publishing houses. They are Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House, Macmillan, The Penguin Group, and Hachette. Only two of The Big Six are US companies: Simon and Schuster, and HarperCollins. The others are foreign: two are German, one is British and the other is French.

Simon and Schuster, for example, was established in 1924 in New York City by a man named Richard Simon and another named “Max” Schuster and it was one of many such unique, stand-alone publishing houses. Now the name is owned by CBS Corporation which under the Simon and Schuster name publishes over two thousand different books a year. Those books come out under 35 different “imprints.” Those imprints are what most people believe are the names of separate and independent publishing companies — which they may have been long ago.

HarperCollins looks, from its name, as if it were simply two well-known publishing houses side by side, a nice Anglo-American merger. Harper was founded in New York City way back in 1817 by the brothers James and John Harper. They prospered and in 1962, the company then known as Harper & Brothers merged with Row, Peterson & Company, and became Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. After Harper & Row went on a buying spree and acquired the publishing houses of Crowell, and Lippincott and Zondervan and Scott, Foresman, the Harper company was itself bought by Rupert Murdoch’s gigantic conglomerate, News Corporation Limited. Eventually, the company acquired the old British publishing house William Collins & Sons which was founded in 1819 by William Collins. The distinguished old name Harper was typographically joined to the equally distinguished old name Collins to make HarperCollins, a huge subsidiary of News Corp, the largest media company in the world. (more…)

The Seven Deadly Sins

The image below is cropped from Death of the Miser by Hieronymus Bosch, a 15th century painter in the Netherlands. Little is known about Bosch, other than that he did rather well in life. His paintings are frequently religious in theme and often bizarre. He also had a way of populating his works with creepy demons from his imagination, and you’ll find some in the scene below. Clearly it’s a bad moment for the Miser — Death is coming in the door and though the Miser’s guardian angel is trying to direct his attention to the crucifix at the window, the Miser’s hand still grasps at the bag of gold offered him by a weird fish-faced demon. This is Avarice, one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Bosch's Death of the Mise

Ever hear of the Seven Deadly Sins? Probably. Can you list them? Probably not.  If you also asked Why should I care?  you’re in grave danger of cultural ignorance, which isn’t a sin but merely a deep personal flaw.  Here’s the list, starting with the worst:  Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Greed,  Gluttony, and Lust.

The concept of Seven Deadly Sins was popularized and woven into European culture in Medieval times and though its importance has certainly faded it’s still part of our European, and now Western, Christian cultural inheritance. There’s no absolutely authoritative list nor is there a wholly agreed upon order and, to be frank, the meaning of the words, what behaviors they embrace, has changed over time. But let’s do our best and not quibble.

The list we’re using is the one used by the  13th / 14th century poet Dante Alighieri in his great Divine Comedy. Dante’s amazing poem is a first-person account  in which Dante himself, accompanied by the spirit of Virgil, walks down through Hell and up through Purgatory and, regretfully leaving the pagan Virgil behind, he eventually sails into Heaven and God’s presence. So this list must be as authoritative as any you’ll find.

The sins are deadly in the sense that they may kill the life of God in the soul and thereby threaten the sinner with eternal damnation. If eternal damnation isn’t one of your cool concepts, you can look at the list simply as a compilation of bad behavior. No one will love you if you’re a proud, envious, angry, lazy, greedy, gluttonous, lecher.

There’s always been disagreement about how to rank most of these seven sins, but Pride seems to top everyone’s list. Overwhelming Pride, you recall, was what drove Lucifer, the brightest of angels, to rebel against God. The 17th century Protestant poet, John Milton, wrote Paradise Lost, an epic that has some great scenes featuring the rebellion in Heaven. When your opponent is God, the odds are truly stacked against you and you may wonder if Lucifer really thought he had a chance of taking over Heaven. In any case,  he was thrown from that high place, fell for three days and nights and landed in Hell where, in fact, he made himself at home. Both Dante and Milton are experts on the subject of God, sin and hell. Milton quotes the fallen angel Mammon as saying that it’s “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”

And then there’s that episode in the Garden of Eden. The Serpent, you remember, ruined the famously weak-willed couple by telling Eve that if she and Adam ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge “your eyes shall be opened and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” It sure is tempting to be like the gods. So again it was Pride, the desire to be higher up, even if it’s forbidden by God, that causes a catastrophe.

When Dante enters hell and starts his descent he finds that hell is constructed rather like a large sports stadium.  No, Dante doesn’t use that comparison, but if haven’t gotten around to reading the poem, that image will give you a good sense of Hell’s geography.  Hell has concentric circles that funnel downward; the least sinful souls are in the topmost circle, and as you descend from level to level you encounter worse and worse sinners. The lowest pit of hell is actually frozen over — the sinners down there committed sins of cold-blooded intellect. Up near the top, where the sinners are less sinful, Dante meets Paolo and Francesca, a hot-blooded couple who succumbed to Lust. As punishment, the  errant lovers are blown this way and that by winds that mimic gusts of erotic passion. Pride, arrogant pride,  is the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins and you can sometimes see it on grand display during campaigns for political office. Lust, on the other hand, is the least deadly. There may be some consolation in that.


Help stamp out starving writers!Yes, you can do it. Writers starve not because people don’t read — you’re reading this note, right? — but because not enough readers buy their books.  So as a Public Service we at Critical Pages urge you to visit your local, privately owned, independent bookstore and buy a book. They’ll love you, the publisher will love you and the author, getting his crummy 10 percent of the retail price, will love you, too.


Who Was Ernest Meissonier?

Dejeuner sur l'herbe 460

Dejeuner sur l'herbe

You know who painted the glorious sun-shot scene just above. (You’re right, it’s by Claude Monet.) And you know who painted the scandalous nude below. (Right again, it’s by Édouard Manet.) And you can probably recognize a painting by Berthe Morisot or, if not a Morisot, surely a few peaches by Cézanne or a dancer by Degas. You’re familiar with these 19th century painters because you like their works. In fact, a great many people enjoy paintings by Manet and Monet and Cezanne and Pissarro and Seurat and – well, the list goes on.

Olympia

Olympia

As printing technology and inks evolved over the past hundred years, copies of images by these painters spread across Europe and the West. Reproductions of their paintings are now for sale everywhere from classy shops offering expensive prints to book stores selling illustrated kitchen calendars. But have you ever heard of Ernest Meissonier? Have you ever looked at one of his paintings? Have you ever seen even cheap print of his work? (If you said No, you’re in the great majority.) Yet in the world of art, Ernest Meissonier held top place far above those other painters. In fact, he was the most famous and, as a result, the richest painter in the Western Hemisphere. And he wasn’t just a pop success. He was the favorite of art critics, was showered with awards, and his paintings commanded the highest prices. Here below is one of his better known works.

Campagne de France by Ernest Meissonier

Now you know. Meissonier was most highly regard for his exactitude – he was a great horseman and at one point had a special mini-railroad track laid out so he could be pulled in a cart along side a galloping horse to study the movements of the horse’s legs with greater accuracy. He had a collection on military garments and knew the position and color of every button and ribbon; he once had a group of cavalry ride across a wheat field, trampling it so he’d be able to more accurately portray a particular battle which involved such a scene.

But political, social and cultural forces are always changing, and what constitutes the best in art evolves with those changes. France and the city of Paris itself underwent great and at times horrific changes, and these inevitably played out in galleries and salons as well. Precision and exactitude, polish and finish, lost favor to a new way of portraying the world. The revolutionary and sometimes scandalous vision of painters like Manet and Courbet began to make sense to people. And Ernest Meissonier went into eclipse, a penumbra  from which he’s unlikely to emerge. (more…)

“The Classics So Far”

Illustration for Jane Austen novel by Hugh ThomsonWe appreciate Great Novels, especially Great British Novels, but every now and then our attention flags.  And this isn’t limited to Great British Novels; there are also Great Russian Novels in which we’ve found our attention wandering. There are even some Great American Novels — OK, let’s admit it, we’re thinking of Henry James — in which we’ve fallen asleep, even though we do admire Henry James. Mostly admire him, anyway. At least we feel obliged to say so whether we do or not. So we were delighted to come across the following poem by Marilyn Robertson.

The Classics So Far

The heroine is choosing the wrong man.
If she were not sitting next to him at the dinner party,

she could see him as we do —
a man in love with his own brains.

Yet the handsome baronet who has made her a gift
of a small yapping dog — is he any better?

Surely, somewhere in the next five hundred pages
there’s a third man: a maker of violins, say, or

the vicar’s second cousin once-removed, who, after
several misadventures of his own, is going to turn up

in that village and change everything.
But I may not last that long if these other two characters —

the fat one in the waistcoat and the churlish earl —
don’t stop debating the principles of land reform,

completely oblivious to how little patience
we have these days for eloquence.

Two Sequels from Four Movies

Maybe you recall the movie Before Sunrise and its follow-up, Before Sunset, or perhaps you’ve seen L’Auberge Espagnole along with it’s sequel, Russian Dolls. Before Sunset posterThese aren’t new films. The earliest, Before Sunrise, was made in 1995 and the  most recent, Russian Dolls, came out in 2005. They’re not  deep, heavy-weight films. But they’re interesting movies with remarkably authentic, likeable characters and real conversations — a rarity in movies — and they offer us the special pleasure of  seeing fictional people blunder and develop over time. Each of these films was an acclaimed critical success. If you haven’t seen them, you may have four movies to enjoy.

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset focus exclusively on two characters: Jesse L Auberge Espagnole poster(Ethan Hawke) and Cèline (French/American actress Julie Delpy.) In Before Sunrise, this pair of twenty-something travelers meet on a train and end up together in Vienna where they spend the night talking, getting to know the city and each other until they part at sunrise. That’s it, they talk and get to know each other and promise to meet again in six months. These are two very engaging and intelligent young people who are open to experience and who hook up the way young people do. That they are interested in each other’s ideas  (Not exclusively, of course. This is an imitation of real life.)  places this movie above just about every other twenty-something flick.

But Jesse and Cèline don’t get together six months later. The sequel, Before Sunset, was filmed nine years later, and the story takes place after the same lapse of time.  Celine attends a book store reading by Jesse, now a successful novelist who is in Paris to promote his book. Jesse has a plane to catch and the couple have only “until sunset” to talk, to catch up on each other’s life. They’re the same talkative, engaging, interested and interesting people they were nine years earlier, but they’ve matured. Or, to put it another way, life has knocked them down a few times. Jesse is unhappily married and has a son he loves; Cèline, an environmental activist, is unsatisfyingly involved with a photojournalist. Happy marriages are not easy to come by, but maybe this thirty-something pair has a future. Or maybe not.

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are narrow aperture films that focus wholly on two characters. Furthermore, Before Sunset plays out in real time, giving the viewer an even more closely framed cinematic experience. On the other hand, L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls are sprawling stories with a jumbled multitude of characters, and Russian Dolls spreads out geographically, too, taking place in Paris, London, St Petersburg and Moscow. (more…)

The Readers at Readercon

Of the many literary gatherings held this summer, our attention was caught by Readercon, a conference focusing on imaginative literature. Readercon logoIt was held at the Boston-Burlington Marriott and drew people not only from all over the US but from other countries as well. Readercon has “con” baked into its name, which is unfortunate if it conjures up images of certain other “cons” which are primarily party occasions where participants dress up to resemble their favorite character from science fiction, fantasy, or vampire tales. Readercon has the reputation, deservedly, of being the most serious of the cons. For readers interested in imaginative literature in it’s many different forms, Readercon can be entertaining, sometimes scholarly, mostly engrossing and, in one way and another, simply enjoyable.

Though the program guide describes Readercon as “The Year’s Best Science Fiction Convention” the four-day event fortunately covers considerably more than science fiction. The recent 22nd annual Readercon offered a broad spectrum of discussions, stretching from an academic panel on the “Death of the Author” (a theory of French intellectual Roland Barthes), to the jovial “Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition.” In between these extremes there were panels on such diverse subjects as young adult fiction, on myth, on the Midrash, on a literary agency, on  book design and typography, the retelling of Russian folktales, the blurring of genras —  plus book signings, readings by authors, and interviews. According to the volunteer organizers, a typical Readercon has about 150 writers, editors, publishers, and critics. But what struck us were the 400 or more people who attended the different events – it would be hard to find a more engaged and lively group of readers.

Medical Marijuana & The Lotus Eaters

Sixteen states plus Washington, D.C., now permit the use of medical marijuana. Federal law doesn’t recognize medical marijuana, and the blue-nose mean-minded Bush administration made life difficult for certain doctors, patients and marijuana dispensaries. State law still doesn’t beat federal law, but the Obama administration has said it won’t prosecute people who use the drug if it’s prescribed by a physician, nor will the feds attempt to close down the marijuana dispensaries. Maybe you thought that California had a lot of marijuana dispensaries; you’re right, it does. But Colorado stands out by having more marijuana outlets than it has Starbucks coffee shops.

Marijuana leaf

Marijuana leaf

Our attention was caught by the names of some of the Colorado dispensaries as well as what they have to offer. The Ganja Gourmet claims to be “America’s First Medical Marijuana Restaurant-Dispensary!” And we believe it’s a reasonable claim. The Herbal Cure doesn’t offer gourmet dining but does provide massage therapy as well as the weed. Then there’s Denver Relief which describes itself as “a wellness and medical marijuana center dedicated to assisting people with making positive and natural changes in their lives.” If that’s too fancy an enterprise for you, there’s the simpler and more direct Discount Medical Marijuana. And we can’t forget Lotus Medical, a name which joins the antiseptic “medical” to Alfred Tennyson’s “The Lotus Eaters,” his extraordinarily lush poem about a land “In which it seemed always afternoon.”

“All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
And, like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.”

Tennyson was drawing on that passage in the Odyssey where a few men from Odysseus’s crew go ashore on an island where the inhabitants eat the narcotic lotus and spend their lives in dreamy passivity.  In fact, a couple of Odysseus’s men who eat the lotus succumb and give up all thought of returning home.

It certainly isn’t cool to read Alfred Tennyson today but, you know, the man had a way with words. You’re right, you won’t get high reading a Victorian poet, unless you can read and smoke at the same time.  (It’s not that difficult.)  If you’re curious about the poem you can read it here. It’s really lush.

Sex And Violence

Judge's gavelBy coincidence the Stop Porn Culture conference and the US Supreme Court decision about violent videos came upon us at the same time. What caught our attention was that although the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that states can legally keep pornography from youngsters, it has now ruled states cannot keep violent video games from them.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the court’s majority decision in the video game case. Among other things, he wrote “Like the protected books, plays, and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world). That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.”  And later: “No doubt a State possesses legitimate power to protect children from harm… but that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed.”

That last part did strike us as running counter to the assumptions behind the Supreme Court’s permitting a ban on, say, video depictions of  sexual acts being shown to the very young. In perhaps the most important case involving children and their access to pornography (Ashcroft vs. ACLU, 00-1293) the court ruled 8 to 1 in favor of using “community standards” as a measure for determining what material should be prohibited or regulated online.

A pornographic book or video  can also “communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music)”  yet those books and videos can be restricted using “community standards.” OK, we’ll stop now and admit we’re confused. As a matter of fact, Justice Scalia does go into the difference in legal standing between pornography and depictions of violence.  Justice Scalia has never been  one of our favorite Supreme Court justices, but his opinions are always interesting to read, and if you’d like to read his opinion, please click on this link http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/08-1448.pdf

“The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”

You probably know  about Sarah Palin’s novel misinterpretation of Paul Revere’s ride – the famous gallop he made through the countryside to warn the militias, the Minute Men, that the British were coming. According to Palen, Paul Revere rode through Boston warning the British that “they weren’t going to be taking away our arms.” In addition to giving comics another opportunity to skewer the irrepressible Sarah, her remarks have drawn attention to the ride and to Longfellow’s poem about it.

Paul Revere's Ride

Paul Revere's Ride

“The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” is a wonderful poem to memorize and to recite. It’s an exciting, colorful narrative and the lines go at a great gallop — yes, yes, we know it’s a romanticized rehearsal of the facts, but it’s still a great, rousing poem with many memorable passages. And what’s wrong with a burst of rousing rhymed patriotism? Let’s enjoy this.

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”

Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide. (more…)

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.