Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

06 OCTOBER, 2014

Karl Marx’s Life and Legacy, in a Comic

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From the opium of the masses to the downfall of capitalism, by way of love and revolution.

The history of our species is rife with ideologies — political, religious, social, philosophical — that have been either wholly hijacked from their creators or gradually warped, with only fragments of the original vision intact, doomed to being continually misunderstood by posterity.

On the heels of the excellent graphic biography of Freud, British indie press Nobrow is back with Marx (public library) by Swiss writer, economist, historian, and psychoanalyst Corinne Maier and French illustrator Anne Simon — an illuminating chronicle of the life and legacy of a man at once reviled as “the Devil” for denouncing capitalism and celebrated for his ideals of eradicating inequality, injustice, and exploitation from the world. More than the sum total of his political legacy, Marx’s story is also one of great personal turmoil and tragedy, inner conflict, and moral tussle — subtleties that the comic genre, with its gift for stripping complexities to their simplest truths without losing dimension, reveals with great sensitivity and insight.

The story begins with Marx’s childhood as the third of nine kids in a traditional Jewish family and traces his exasperation with classical education and his choice to study philosophy instead, how he fell in love with the woman who would become his partner for life, the evolution of his influential treatise The Communist Manifesto, how he ended up dying a stateless person, “both adored and hated,” and what his ideas have to do with the 2008 economic collapse.

One of the final pages, reflecting on communism’s rise to power in Russia, Eastern Europe and China in the twentieth century, captures the dimensionality of Marx’s legacy in elegantly simple form. “Some very good things came out of it, but some very bad ones, too,” writes Maier as Marx’s ghost is depicted walking off, muttering to himself, “My ideal of freedom was betrayed.”

Complement Marx with other fantastic graphic biographies — Salvador Dalí, Richard Feynman, Andy Warhol, Charles Darwin, Hunter S. Thompson, and Steve Jobs — then revisit Nobrow’s wonderful graphic novel about the brain.

Images courtesy of Nobrow Press

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01 OCTOBER, 2014

A History of New York in 101 Objects: A Thoughtful Visual Encyclopedia of Collective Memory

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How artifacts abstract the city’s tragedies and triumphs and tell the story of its aliveness.

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E.B. White wrote in his spectacular 1949 love letter to New York. “The city is like poetry.” And compress it does — the city’s five boroughs are home to some 8.4 million people, more than the entire population of my native Bulgaria. To capture New York’s dimensional poetics seems like a Herculean task, yet many have attempted it — from Walt Whitman with his raunchy verses to Berenice Abbott with her era-defining photographs to the New Yorker with its high-brow feline history. But to capture it in just a few dozen objects seems near impossible, since of all that New York compresses in its small space, objects are practically innumerable and cacophonous. And yet that is precisely what New York Times urban affairs correspondent Sam Roberts accomplishes in A History of New York in 101 Objects (public library) — partly a living museum, partly a catalog of events, partly a luminous sidewise gleam at the essence of what makes a great city.

Selected with a lens for the “paradigmatic but quirky,” Roberts’s objects are a far cry from the clichés of tourism or the tired symbols of iconography. Instead, they serve as living records of the city’s triumphs, tragedies, and remarkable resilience in cycling through the two, ranging from the artichoke with its secret history of mafia crime, to the AIDS button, which elevated an anguished community from the ashes of the city’s deadliest epidemic, to the school doorknob, emblematic of New York’s commitment to public education, to the air conditioner, which made windowless workspaces possible for the first time. Tucked between the entries are delightful curiosities, such as the pear tree that became the final living connection to New York’s Dutch heritage, and as well as poignant glimpses of our shared humanity, such as the maelstrom of heartbreak and hope that swept the city after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation.

Roberts explains the selection criteria for the project, which was inspired by the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects:

The objects themselves had to have played some transformative role in New York City’s history or they had to be emblematic of some historic transformation. They also had to be enduring, which meant they could not be disproportionately tailored to recent memory or contemporary nostalgia. Fifty, or even twenty-five years from now, would they seem as vital or archetypal as they do right now?

Objects, of course, are more than mere things — they are, especially in the context of this book, shorthand for events, stand-ins for people, vehicles for the sort of collective storytelling of which history is woven. Rob Walker captured this elegantly in his Significant Objects, where he wrote: “It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.” Such is the emotional energy that emanates from Roberts selections.

When I first moved to New York, I quickly developed a soft spot for the city’s countless and rather distinctive cylindrical water tanks (object #31) that stood as unsung sidekicks to the recognizable landmarks of its iconic skyline. There are a whopping fifteen thousand of them, Roberts explains, but most were built by two large family-owned companies — a wonderfully poetic reflection of New York’s peculiar play of scales and its fusion of private and public, or what E.B. White memorably termed the city’s blend of “the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.”

Roberts writes of Gotham’s cityscape fixtures:

The cylindrical tanks, which typically measure about twelve feet high and twelve feet across and are topped by a conical enclosure, hold ten thousand gallons on average and cost about thirty thousand dollars. Tap water is siphoned off the top, while murkier bottom water, mixed with sediment, is reserved for firefighting. As in a toilet tank, a ballcock regulates the level. The tanks can be dismantled and replaced in as little as twenty-four hours and take about three hours to fill.

They are also a feat of natural engineering and ingenuity — typically made of wood, which is cheaper yet more resilient in changing temperatures than steel, they are held together not by paint or adhesives but by sheer physics: when the wood gets wet, it expands and thus seals itself, while galvanized steel hoops keep the tank from bursting. With proper maintenance, each tank lasts around three decades.

As a wholehearted lover of public libraries and regular supporter of the New York Public Library in particular, I was also enchanted by Roberts’s account of how Gotham’s library (object #29) began. Guarded by its two iconic lions, Patience and Fortitude, the main building on 42nd street was the largest marble structure in the United States at the time it was built. The library is now the second-largest in America, after the Library of Congress, and the third-largest in the world. We owe it to a successful lawyer, investor, abolitionist, and political reformer named Samuel J. Tilden, whose will included the bequest to build a free public library.

Tilden’s broader intention, historian Michael Miscione tells Roberts, was “to solidify the city’s commitment to literacy, culture and a public-private partnership that enabled New York City to create so many world-class cultural institutions.” Even though New York had a number of libraries by the latter portion of the nineteenth century, they were privately funded and charged admission. Tilden’s unprecedented gift of $2.4 million — close to $100 million in today’s money — put the majority of his fortune toward the idealistic quest to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.”

Private philanthropy of such scale for the public good was practically unheard of at the time, but New York would go on to become the unheralded philanthropy capital of the world.

Another prescient token of New York’s values and priorities is the early dictionary (object #7), which Roberts aptly calls “a Colonial Rosetta Stone” — an essential tool for cross-pollinating the cultures and communities in American’s early melting pot. He writes:

Language difficulties divided the population (about half of it Dutch at the time) and got in the way of the British laissez-faire approach to governing. Innovations like the jury system were particularly problematic. The problem was solved by an English–Low Dutch dictionary published by a New Jersey schoolmaster. Except for a brief Dutch restoration nine years later, the English would rule for over a century. Their language would, more or less, prevail. Among the enduring linguistic traditions of the Dutch is that we still call little chunks of dough “cookies,” instead of the British “biscuits”. Other words such as “coleslaw,” “waffle,” “doughnut,” “stoop,” and “Yankee” endured.

There is also the famous 25-foot-tall Civic Fame statue (object #42) by Adolph A. Weinman perched atop Manhattan’s municipal building — a structure of scandalous backstory:

Audrey Munson, the model after whom she was sculpted, once appeared naked in a porn film (she of the face that launched a thousand quips, she listed herself in a city directory first as an actress, then as an artist) and later was declared insane.

[...]

In her eighth decade and suffering from exposure, the statue was removed, restored, and regilded with hand-burnished 23.5-karat gold leaf, and hoisted back into position by helicopter in 1991. That was only four years before Audrey Munson died in an upstate asylum, just short of her 105th birthday.

A number of the objects aren’t static mementos from the past but dynamic projections of the future. The famous Bloomberg computer terminal (object #96) was invented by a laid-off investment banker who would go on to become the city’s most beloved Mayor — one whose merits, I should add, all the more appreciated in hindsight by those of us who made New York a home under Mayor Bloomberg’s reign and somewhat naively took for granted that his idealistic and magnanimous rule was a function of mayorship rather than a function of his exceptional personhood.

Roberts considers the broader implications of having a self-made, entrepreneurial man at the helm of the city:

That little beige box soon made him the richest and most powerful man in New York. By affirming his faith in scientific solutions, it also helped deliver the city into the twenty-first century, through devices ranging from the expansion of the CompStat tactical crime-fighting program to the 311 telephone complaint and service system, and encouraged the evolution of Silicon Alley.

Since the nineteenth century, doomsayers have predicted that one scientific breakthrough after another — from the Atlantic cable to the telephone, from television to jet travel — would topple New York as the nation’s financial and cultural capital. Instead, a resilient city that thrives on reinventing itself transformed a potential threat into an opportunity. Milliseconds are vital to global trading, but nothing beats face-to-face contact to foster innovation. A wired city provided both.

Aptly calling Mayor Bloomberg “a modern Medici,” Roberts captures his philosophy:

The perfect is the enemy of the good. In other words, just do it. “Our product,” he said, “would be the first in the investment business where normal people without specialized training could sit down, hit a key, and get an answer to financial questions, some of which they didn’t even know they should ask.” In the decades since, he said, two constants endured: “the need for information; and the users of data, with their bravery, jealousy, adventurousness and fear of the new.”

But the book’s most poignant object is its final one, #101 — the Madonna that remained unscathed through the devastating sweep of Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic storm ever recorded and the second costliest in history, with a total tally of $68 billion and 40 lives in New York city alone. By far the most ravaged by the storm was the beach community of New York’s Rockaway Peninsula, home to the families of many of the city’s police officers, firemen, and other civil servants. Roberts writes of the Madonna’s significance as a vitalizing symbol of hope amid such unfathomable heartbreak:

Fittingly, the most visible survivor of the fire was a three-foot-high masonry Madonna, “a triumph of faith in the midst of the ashes,” as Monsignor Michael J. Curran explained it. The Madonna had belonged to Charlie Shannon, who had bought the bungalow at 2 Gotham Walk on the corner of Oceanside Avenue in 1929 for his wife and seven children. Only one of the seven had children of his own, and in 2006 his granddaughter Regina Bodnar inherited a version of the house that her aunt and uncle rebuilt. Her aunt Mary placed the Madonna just outside, Bodnar recalled, “and each morning Breezy neighbors stopped to say a prayer by the statue, and the young children and grandchildren of our neighbors waved and said, ‘Hi Mary!’ as they raced by.”

The statue was neither consumed by the fire nor toppled by the storm surge (it was not cemented in place but stood precariously on its own in the sea grass). Does Bodnar believe in miracles? She’s not sure, but said that somehow her neighbors and rescue workers “were miraculously protected from serious injury and loss of life.” Monsignor Curran, the pastor of St. Thomas More Church, took custody of the Madonna after the storm subsided. “It will be a symbol of the suffering but also of our rise from the ashes,” he said. “It will be a symbol of what we’ve been through, but also of our resurrection.”

A History of New York in 101 Objects is a rich and thoughtfully curated encyclopedia of milestones and values. Complement it with Julia Rothman’s illustrated love letter to the five boroughs, then zoom out with 100 diagrams that changed the world.

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24 SEPTEMBER, 2014

A Lolitigation Lament: Nabokov on Censorship and Solidarity

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“Could you visualize LOLITA as a little paperback being offered for sale on the newstands?”

Vladimir Nabokov was a man of strong opinions — whether about the necessary qualities of a great storyteller or the nature of inspiration or the attributes of a good reader — but nowhere more so than when it came to defending his greatest work against censorship.

When Lolita was first published in Europe in September of 1955, its first printing of 5,000 copies flew off the shelves, but the book remained largely under the radar of the literary establishment. It wasn’t until December of that year that Graham Greene catapulted it into public attention by declaring it one of the year’s three best books in a piece for London’s Sunday Times. And because rivaling publications thrive on provocation and at the heart of all cultural controversy is a powerfully charged battery of approval and disapproval, the editor of London’s Sunday Express went vocally against Greene, calling the novel “sheer unrestrained pornography” and “the filthiest book I have ever read.” The controversy stirred frantic alarm at the UK Home Office, which instructed customs agents to begin confiscating all copies of the book entering the United Kingdom. A few months later, France’s Minister of the Interior banned novel. The original publisher, Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, who had convinced Nabokov not to publish the book under a pseudonym, faced legal trouble on account of the book. Nabokov responded with equal parts concern and indignation.

In a letter to Girodias from early March of 1957, found in the unfailingly absorbing Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940–1977 (public library), Nabokov wryly scoffs at what he called the “lolitigation” surrounding his book:

My moral defense of the book is the book itself. I do not feel under any obligation to do more… On the ethical plane, it is of supreme indifference to me what opinion French, British or any other courts, magistrates, or philistine readers in general, may have of my book. However, I appreciate your difficulties.

Alternative cover for Lolita by Jamie Keenan from 'Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl.' Click image for more.

But Nabokov knew such idealism bordering on moral arrogance would hurt the book’s odds of reaching commercial success in the long run. Burned by Lolita‘s European reception, he was determined to protect it from a similar fate in America. (A few months later, he would write in another letter to Girodias: “I am positive that LOLITA is the best thing I have written so far.”) This required a highly strategic approach to timing, allegiances, and literary ideals.

Nabokov had his eye set on Doubleday as the best American publisher for the book he took such pride in. “Nothing in the world would please me better than to have Doubleday bring out LOLITA,” he wrote to Doubleday editor and publisher Jason Epstein earlier the same day, before sending his “lolitigation” lament to Girodias.

Meanwhile, Nabokov was being courted by McDowell, the New York publishing firm founded by the prominent financial analyst Prince Ivan Sergeyevich Obolensky. When he saw that Doubleday was dragging its feet, Nabokov wrote to Epstein — whether as political goading or in earnest, or some combination of the two — of Obolensky’s competing offer:

My reaction to it is not a matter of principle but a matter of money. I am not particularly impressed by his firm but I cannot afford to miss the opportunity of not missing the opportunity to sell the book.

And yet ten days later, he sent Obolensky a polite rejection, along with a lengthy justification for declining his offer:

I have given much thought to the plans you suggested for LOLITA and have consulted several friends whose opinion I value. I have also been in touch with my publisher in Paris. The unanimous opinion is that this is not the right moment to publish LOLITA in the United States. I am terribly sorry to disappoint you. Here are a few reasons against publication:

  1. Everybody seems convinced that LOLITA would be banned if it were to be published now, without further preparation. Even if you are willing to assume the costs of a legal fight which may run into 50.000 or 60.000 dollars, you may eventually lose the case, and then LOLITA would be lost irretrievably.
  2. Should the book get into trouble, the NY. Times would at once refuse to advertise it, and every important publication in the country would follow suit. Nor would the Post Office let you announce the book directly through the mails if the legal action were begun under a federal statute.
  3. When you suggested that you would get in touch with a reprint house it became clear to me that you did not realize all the implications of this case. Could you visualize LOLITA as a little paperback being offered for sale on the newstands? [sic]

Let me repeat that I am terribly sorry that this will be a disappointment to you. But I have become convinced that the publication has to be put off at least until I see how the Anchor Review fares, how the Paris litigation is settled, and what decision the Supreme Court takes in some similar cases now before it.

Alternative cover for Lolita by Michael Bierut from 'Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl.' Click image for more.

To make matters even more complicated, Girodias kept pressing to publish the book in America under his own European imprint. Nabokov, determined to land at Doubleday, wrote to Girodias on May 14, weighing the many factors at play regarding potential censorship in America:

Dear Mr. Girodias,

You know as well as I do that publishing LOLITA in the US under your own imprint would mean asking for trouble. Nor can you fail to realize that a second-rate publisher would be no use since he would not be able to defend the book. Some ten years ago Doubleday spent more than $60000 on the defense of HECATE COUNTY by Edmund Wilson. Costs have gone up since then and are beyond the means of a second-rate publisher.

Since you know all this, and also know that we have here all sorts of Watch and Ward Societies, Catholic Legions of Decency, etc., and that, moreover, every post master in the country can start censorship trouble, I feel sure that you do not seriously contemplate the course of action you suggest in your letter.

But Nabokov’s most poignant point, from the same letter to Girodias, has to do with the question of solidarity against censorship — the idea that a publisher must not only be an author’s commercial vendor, but also his or her greatest champion and unconditional comrade in creative idealism. Nabokov writes:

Whoever publishes LOLITA here will have to agree to defend it, at his own expense, and to carry this defense through the courts as far as the Supreme Court, if necessary.

By August, the situation worsens and the Nabokov’s evocation of the Supreme Court suddenly stops seeming like bombast. He writes again to Girodias:

The situation here is extremely delicate. Doubleday have chosen the passages from LOLITA for the Anchor Review with the help of their lawyers, who in two instances made them change their choice of text. These lawyers have now been consulted as to the prospects of a complete edition; they have advised against it for the present. As you probably know, the Supreme Court has just handed down some very disappointing decisions. Although the cases judged were far removed from LOLITA’s case, the important thing is that the Court did not bother with the definition of the term “obscenity”, and did not take any measures against local censorship. This means that any small-town postmaster can set in motion the machine of censorship, starting the case on its way from Court to Court, until it reached the Supreme Court, which probably (though by no means certainly) would exonerate my book.

If Nabokov’s mention of the postmaster-censor sounds like a throwaway remark of exaggeration, it is anything but. Local censorship would go on to plague America for decades, the most famous example perhaps being the story of Ursula Nordstrom’s brilliantly feisty letter to a school librarian, who had decided to burn Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen as an act of censorship merely because it depicted a little boy without pants.

He goes on to reject Girodias’s offer, revisiting the notion of solidarity in the face of censorship and citing it as a major reason for his decision:

An important consideration is, too, that Doubleday think of me as of one of “their” authors. They have acquired two more books from me, and will do more than any other publisher to “push” LOLITA, which would be as much to your advantage as to mine (or theirs). For all these reasons I am sorry that you so resolutely rejected their offer.

Urging Girodias to consider an agreement with Doubleday, he adds:

I am positive that LOLITA is the best thing I have written so far; I shall be always grateful to you for having published it. It would be an awful shame if some false move prevented you and me from enjoying some profit from it.

Alternative cover for Lolita by Henry Sene Yee from 'Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl.' Click image for more.

At the end, Doubleday didn’t come through — likely in large part out of fear of what the kind of solidarity Nabokov demanded would cost them if an obscenity lawsuit indeed resulted from the publication. The publisher willing to offer such solidarity was ultimately G.P. Putnam’s Sons, currently owned by Penguin Group, who published the American edition of Lolita in August of 1958. Already into its third printing within days, it became the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its initial three weeks on the market. Despite Nabokov’s fears of censorship, or perhaps precisely because of his elaborate strategizing to prevent it, there were no official government sanctions.

Then again, such is the nature of capitalism — commercial success automatically grants moral approval.

Complement the always opinionated, always pleasurable Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters with the celebrated author on literature and life in a rare 1969 BBC interview and his recommendation for the six short stories everyone must read, then revisit other literary icons on censorship.

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