Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Classics

I was very sad to hear of the passing of Robert Fagles, a wonderful scholar and translator - one of my favorites - of the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid and other works. He is especially near and dear to my heart since he was a professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton focusing on English and the Classics. He was also an adviser to Rebecca Bushnell, a phenomenal professor here at Penn. Eerily, I was visiting the Comparative Literature department at Princeton the day he passed away.

Here is an excellent interview with Princeton Classicist Denis Feeney on Fagles and the art of translation.


Everyone should look at these beautiful lithographs by Marc Chagall of the Odyssey and the Old Testament - his whimsical, etherial style seems wonderfully appropriate to these little sketches of Homer's epic, and really brings out the domestic, personal angle of that work. (Via Maud Newton)

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Book Watch

I've been writing my thesis in recent weeks so apologies for the long hiatus. I'm back with the long-promised look at Oscar Wilde's famous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

It's a fabulous novel and a great introduction to the enigmatic Mr. Wilde and his unique style. Any new reader will especially be struck by his use of aphorisms, which are all deeply thought provoking, linguistically clever, and delightfully irreverent. The story of Dorian Gray itself is a fascinating study of duality, sensuality, sin, and the nature of creativity. Criticism of Dorian Gray tends to fall into two camps: the moralist reading, whereby the ending of the novel offers a kind of censure to a life that is utterly aestheticized. The other camp rejects this view, in favor of a less didactic reading of the text. I'm rather inclined to fall somewhere in the middle. Overall, this novel is easy to read but not necessarily easy to understand. I recommend it to everyone.

I'm applying to PhD's in Comparative Literature next semester and indeed, my mind seems drawn to it. As I was reading Dorian Gray, I began to think about more contemporary studies of similar themes. What have I concluded? The movie Fight Club. It's by no means a water tight comparison, but I think there are some interesting convergences: the theme of duplicity, in Dorian as painting, in Fight Club, schizophrenia; rebellion against conventionality, so excellently symbolized in Fight Club by IKEA furniture; and the quest for sensation above all things - in Dorian Gray this sensation is firmly rooted in the aesthetic and is suggestively (homo)sexual, in Fight Club this has been replaced with violence, an ultimate attempt to experience pain, agony, physical suffering. Fight Club is so interesting because it offers this kind of reverse hedonism, very Freudian death-drive.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Art View

Some thoughts on the new Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which I recently saw with my friend Billy.

Frida Kahlo has never been my favorite artist, but I have always felt a certain power in her paintings, an undeniable brilliance, perhaps a bit too obvious for my tastes. However, I was very interested in seeing this exhibit to learn more about both her life and her work.

The exhibition itself will not disappoint. It is well laid out, chronologically, and contains a phenomenal line up of her greatest and most famous paintings. It is long, but not overwhelming. The audio guide was informative, but a little bit too basic. I quite enjoyed the exhibitions' overall emphasis on how Kahlo's life and work mirrored each other, and they were not afraid to intermingle artistic criticism with fascinating biography about Kahlo's dramatic, and rather , tragic life. Such an approach seems fitting for an artist who was almost obsessed with her artistic persona and whose most famous work are her haunting self-portraits. I found the collection of photographs in the beginning of the exhibition a fascinating look at the real Kahlo and her tumultuous marriage to the great Diego Rivera. Some of the photographs, showing Kahlo, Rivera, and men like Leon Trotsky were fascinating snap shots of 20th century intellectual history.

I certainly felt that I left with a greater appreciation of Kahlo's legacy and importance.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Book Watch II

Here is Oscar Wilde's, or rather Dorian Gray's, account of Huysmans' A Rebours (see below) in Wilde's phenomenal novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which will be the subject of my next Book Watch post.

"It was a novel without a plot and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes. There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some medieval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows."

Friday, February 29, 2008

Book Watch

I don't know where to begin with Joris-Karl Huysmans' novel A Rebours (Against Nature, or Against the Grain). One place is with Huysmans himself, who was a bizarre and fascinating figure. Oscar Wilde called the book "poisonous" and Arthur Symons called it "diseased." It is at once beautiful, repellent, bizarre, attractive, and disgusting. The novel has only one character, Des Esseintes, and nothing much of a plot. The narrator, disgusted by humanity in general, retreats in to what can only be described as monastic hedonism. While Des Esseintes professes nihilism and extols the philosophy of Schopenhauer, the specter of Catholicism and God haunt the novel's every page. Large portions of the book are discussions of minor artists, philosophers, and some of the worst medieval Latin authors. 

Often the novel feels like a sort of perverse experiment, other times a little Kafkaesque. I am reading it for a course on Aestheticism and Decadence, and it indeed seems to utterly embody both. The novel is fascinating, sometimes tedious, and always utterly strange. It address theoretical concerns of content and form and ultimately challenges our conceptions of pleasure and the intellect. I certainly recommend this book to all, but it is a must read for anyone interested in Modernism and the fin-de-siecle avant garde.

Book News

The Vladimir Nabokov lost manuscript controversy continues, in this amusing and insightful piece

I'm torn on the burn it or save it issue (what do you think?), but I'd like to believe Nabokov orchestrated this whole thing, intentionally leaving the literary world in ethical agony - I  think it fits his sense of humor.