Foreword: Take Heart

Take Heart 

Plato banished poets and playwrights from his ideal Republic because he felt they dealt in irrationality and half-truths. Only philosophers, who deal in absolute truths, could occupy his Republic, thus safeguarding it from emotion and unreason. Likewise, lately, some have questioned the idea of literature as a source of helping develop human empathy since it requires half-truths and the condemnation of some characters to allow us to empathize with others. It demands that we live with degrees of uncertainty and delayed judgment. Critic Wayne Booth discussed this issue in The Rhetoric of Fiction, in effect saying, “So what” if we identify with Hamlet and condemn Claudius, or if Othello is not fair to Cassio or Lear to the Duke of Cornwall. In his best plays, Shakespeare hardly made pure heroes and villains of anyone.  

Even in the face of political correctness and professional outrage, literary writers can’t be prohibited from centering our interest and sympathy for certain characters and restraining sympathy for others. They can even imbue sympathy in some antiheros, such as Heathcliff, despite the character’s bizarre and even cruel behavior. Literature must be able to witness malice among some and inherent destructiveness in certain situations. When reading As I Lay Dying for the first time, I didn’t feel revulsion toward any one character but a deep appreciation for the way an author can empathize with a family living in a place and circumstance so diminished that almost any choice its members make can be cruel, even to the point of absurdity.  

Empathy in life or in literature is never about merely identifying with a character or set of circumstances but about sharing—in whatever style or method—their lives and the events that comprise them. Literature is replete with the paradoxes of real life. Some believe that the common denominator of postmodern literature, beginning sometime in the 1960s, is that it came from serious writers giving up on naïve empathy and on the easy logic or coherence in literature. In a chaotic world where the apocalypse is another world war or bullet or bomb away, why insist on order, even in the form of a literary work? There are no heroes or villains, only characters navigating a world that does not make sense. In Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, protagonist Yossarian hopes only to not go on the next bomb run, to not die, even in a righteous war. Call him paranoid, call him a coward, that’s fine with him. And to follow his experience in war closely, the writer cannot use artificial logic or neatness, even in the form of the novel.  

Curio Cabinet: Clara Tice and the Art of Being Bohemian

Clara Tice and the Art of Being Bohemian 

In 1915, Clara Tice became the talk of the town when a series of her nude drawings exhibited at Polly’s Greenwich Village restaurant became a target of moral reform. Anthony Comstock, the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, wanted the bohemians gone. The Village, known at the time as America’s Left Bank, was home to artists, writers, and political activists living in crowded tenements and brownstones. They were known for their raucous parties and eccentric dress. Comstock directed his crusade at the “obscene, lewd, and lascivious” art and literature that filled the bookshops and hung on the walls of coffeehouses, restaurants, and small galleries. Tice’s simple yet provocative drawings were saved from confiscation at the last minute, when they were bought by a patron. The controversy made the front page of the New York Tribune 

Transformations: Creating Character in Contemporary Photography

Transformations: Creating Character in Contemporary Photography 

Kristine Somerville 

Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us. . . .There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.  

—Virginia Woolf, Orlando 

As a child during the ’60s, I fell in love with the adventurous styles of the era, with their bright colors and patterns, variety of materials and textures, and extreme shapes, from form-fitting to free-flowing and voluminous. I had several pieces of clothing that I adored: a silk shirt patterned with wide-eyed, lush whiskered cats, light blue patent leather saddle shoes, and a richly embroidered peasant top. I was an awkward, shy child who hid behind her mother when strangers spoke to her, but I was extroverted in my sense of style. The flashier the clothes, the better I liked them and the braver I felt when venturing out into the world. 

Death & Co: The Contemporary Elegy and Poetry of Mourning in a Season of Grief

Death & Co.: The Contemporary Elegy and the Poetry of Mourning in a Season of Grief 

Andrew Mulvania 

 

Obit by Victoria Chang. Copper Canyon press, 2020, 120 pp., $17 (paper).

Say Something Back & Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley. NYRB Books, 2020, 136 pp., $16 (paper).

Riven by Catherine Owen. a misFit Books, 2020, 88 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Middle Distance by Stanley Plumly (posthumous collection). W.W. Norton & Co., 2020, 96 pp., $16.95 (paper).
 

“The problem / with everything is death,” writes Diane Seuss in frank: sonnets (one of the more noteworthy poetry collections to appear in the past year, though one not reviewed here as it is not principally concerned with death and dying). Seuss continues, “There really is no other problem / if you factor everything down.” Judging by the number of recent collections of poetry concerned with grief and grieving, and simply consulting our own experience, it is difficult to argue with Seuss: death, and our response to it—grief, mourning—does, in fact, seem to be the greatest, most intractable obstacle to our happiness in this life. But that has long been so. Just this year, archaeologists discovered the oldest known burial site, in Kenya, the grave of a child, dating back more than 78,000 years. The position of the bones upon examination revealed that the child had been buried with its head pillowed, its body swaddled in a shroud, suggesting the ancient origins of our need to honor and lament the dead in formal ritual, whether by language or gesture.  

Foreword: How Did I Get Here?

“How did I get here?” is a recurring question in one of my favorite songs, “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads. It is an anthem to the uncertainty of human existence that suggests the existential feel of much of this issue.

While several post-World War II philosophers such as John-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus are called “existentialists,” they were less a school than a group of related thinkers stretching back to the nineteenth century. Their ideas are kindred but quite individual. They came from an understandable beginning, as late eighteenth-century industrialization created an urban working class. Marx was predictive of existential thought, due to the threats to individual freedom that he argued would happen in developed capitalist economies, regardless of the label used by political leaders for their economic systems.

The Art of Indifference: Duchamp and the Legacy of Readymades

The Art of Indifference: Duchamp and the Legacy of Readymades

I believe art is the only form of activity in which man shows himself to be a true individual.

— Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp never sought fame and certainly not infamy. His natural disposition was one of detachment; he was uniquely indifferent to money, attention, and a wider audience for his work. What he preferred instead was time and freedom to engage in radical experimentation. Yet he created controversy with works of art that today are among the most influential of the modern era.

Strange Beauty: Barbette and the Art of Transformation

Strange Beauty: Barbette and the Art of Transformation

In 1912, at twenty-three, French writer Jean Cocteau collaborated with some of the most talented artists in Europe when he wrote the libretto for The Blue God, a ballet performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Nijinsky danced the title role, Reynaldo Hahn wrote the music, and Léon Bakst designed the set and costumes. A decade later, when Cocteau wrote to his friends about a terrific new performer called Barbette at the Casino de Paris, they took note. To the Belgian music critic Paul Collaer, Cocteau wrote, “A music-hall act called Barbette has been keeping us enthralled for a fortnight.” Cocteau described the young American from Texas as a graceful daredevil on the trapeze and one of the most beautiful entertainers in theater. “No mere acrobat in women’s clothes. He blends a tightrope dancer’s skill and perilous performance with the creativity of a poet. An angel, a flower, a bird. We all found him an absolute knockout.”

New and Recent Southern Writing

New and Recent Southern WritingBy Samuel Pickering

Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2020. 312 pp., $26.95 (hardcover). Kudzu Telegraph by John Lane. Hub City Press, 2008. 156 pp., $11.95 (paper).Seven Days on the Santee Delta by John Lane and Philip Wilkinson. Evening Post Books, 2020. xiv+144 pp., illustrated, $60 (hardcover). Indigo: Arm Wrestling, Snake Saving, and Some Things in Between by Padgett Powell. Catapult, 2021. 272 pp., illustrated, $16.95 (paper).You Want More: Selected Stories by George Singleton. Hub City Press, 2020. xiii+366 pp., $27 (hardcover).

Foreword: Moving On

Moving On

When excited about a piece of writing, I often sense a largeness to it that exceeds what I first fully understand. As an editor, I’ve had that experience too often to remember. I love something and then struggle to articulate why, and it may take me a while to do so with any certainty. Perhaps it comes from rightness of form and richness of theme, including a necessary ambiguity in the subject. I may not fully get it at first because often the best writing is, in fact ,wonderfully complicated, both in what it is about and sometimes in the way it’s done. Literature has an almost biological element: its DNA shows similarities to past writing as well as newness and variance. It carries a suitcase or wears at least some of its clothes from the past. It doesn’t simplify life but sees and shows its messiness. This is shown in much of this issue, with the theme of moving on while at the same time still in ways still carrying the past.

The Charm Offensive: Magritte’s Influence on Contemporary Art

The Charm Offensive: Magritte’s Influence on Contemporary Art

Kristine Somerville

 

“All I know of hope, I place in love.” —René Magritte

During the World War II, René Magritte aimed through his painting to launch what he called “a charm offensive.” In opposition to the brutality of the war, he wanted to find some pleasure for himself and others. He wrote, “The German occupation marked a turning point in my art. Before the war, my paintings expressed anxiety, but the experiences of the war have taught me that what matters in art is to express charm. I live in a very disagreeable world, and my work is meant as a counter-offensive.” He went on to explain that “it lies with us, who have some notion of how feelings are invented, to make joy and pleasure.” Magritte was criticized by his fellow surrealists, particularly André Breton, who publicly opposed what he considered a simplistic notion. He thought it ridiculous to foster “charm, pleasure, sunshine” at the exclusion of “sadness and boredom.”