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Posts from the ‘Words Matter’ Category

Le Seize Septembre

Sometimes it seems that surrealism’s most enduring influence on popular culture is the non sequiturial distance between image and identifying text. When it comes to this art of disjuncture, the Belgian painter René Magritte was a master (see his 1930 work The Key of Dreams).

In college I was seduced by Magritte’s paintings of trees and nighttime illumination, and in Le Seize Septembre I found the best of both worlds. The painting shows a tree at the last moments of dusk, only the crescent moon shines not from above but from the heart of the tree, casting a strange light onto the surrounding ground. People have commented that the moon of September 16, 1956, did not look like this from where Magritte was painting: it was actually four days shy of full and much larger.

But it’s true that nature abhors a vacuum. The void of rationality behind Magritte’s choice of title for this picture I eventually filled in for myself. Read more

Paper Chase

In a pithy irony within our golden age of irony, state election officials around the country are seizing on a voting strategy that a few years ago would have seemed unthinkable: paper ballots.

We know that Russia will try to influence the 2018 elections, whether through the primaries that begin this month or the November midterms. In their quest to undermine American democracy, they’ll use the tried-and-true method—spreading misinformation using social media platforms—and give hacking into electronic voting systems another crack. They may have other things up their sleeves, but unless Robert Mueller announces more indictments, such things will probably go under the radar.

This week, America’s fearless leader reiterated his refrain that Russia had “no impact on our votes” in the election that put him in office. He did, however, indicate that the nation should guard against meddling in the midterms. “One of the things we’re learning,” he said, “it’s always good to have a paper backup system of voting. Called paper.” Read more

I Hear You

I remember when I realized that “I hear you” was big with the 360 Degree Feedback crowd. It was in 2008, and the proof came via a colleague in the university external relations office where I worked. She was one of those people who rise to the top in academic administration without displaying any degree of talent let alone basic competence (in HR speak: low ambiguity tolerance). To say she was a yes-woman put it mildly; she tended to nod into perpetuity like a bobble-head toy.

People thought of her as Miss Sunshine because she was always smiling and saying thank-you. She was Catholic and prim, with an aesthetic that suggested Karen Sue Pence by way of Lilly Pulitzer. With her strawberry blond hair and fair skin, the black splotch on her forehead every Ash Wednesday screamed down the hall to all sinners: Look what I’m enduring for you! At Christmas she sent fruit baskets from Harry & David. She had a lifetime supply of Monet waterlilies cards from the MFA. Read more

Elephant in the Room

What a strange day for Republicans. This is their guy, their origin story, and yet they can’t in good party conscience quote much of anything Abraham Lincoln said without violating the Fox News code of honor.

Three strands of Lincoln rhetoric would run afoul of Fox and Friends: his subject matter (the oppression of black Americans and a strong federal government), his skill at massaging words into compassion triggers for doing the right thing, and his refusal to demonize the opposition.

It is difficult to square Lincoln’s prosaic transfiguration of words on a page with a Republican president who gets an oral versus written daily intelligence briefing—or with the prune face of Mitch McConnell, where hopeful words die like sparrows smacking into the windows of the old Javits Center. Read more

Happy Birthday, Boz

Charles Dickens was born on this day in Portsmouth, southwest of London, in 1812. I had read his novels in school but started thinking about him seriously after visiting his onetime residence at 48 Doughty Street in London. It was around the Guy Fawkes holiday and it was pouring. A friend and I were invited to join the post-closing-time reading group since we were the last stragglers in the house museum. And also because we were very young in relation to the book group. They were discussing a shorter sketch about a boy or a lad and a walk that I unfortunately could not pick out of a bibliographical lineup if you held a gun to my head.

What I remember most about that visit, though, was the bedroom of Dickens’s sister-in-law, Mary. On her single canopied bed a white nightgown had been laid out. She had come to live with the family and help with the new babies, as was custom. But at seventeen she suddenly became ill and died—in Dickens’s arms no less. Read more

Origin Story

The excitement generated by Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech almost immediately became bigger news than the speech itself, prompting Winfrey to make a public demurral that she doesn’t “have the DNA” to run for president of the United States.

But the import of her message and the way she delivered it should not get lost within the cult-of-personality frenzy that has already spawned a hot market for Oprah 2020 merchandise.

We are all complicit in the sorry state of political speechcraft in 2018, tolerating a low bar despite Barack Obama’s rhetorical gifts. And this is because we only understand speeches as the tools of powerful men. One of Hillary Clinton’s biggest communications problems was her inability to not give a man’s speech. She also fell into the storifying sand trap—touchy-feely anecdote with a first name, three banal sentences, and no resonance whatsoever. Read more

Unknowing

Years ago I was looking through remaindered books in the basement of the Harvard Bookstore and came across The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, by the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto. The words seemed familiar, so I read the preface.

Danto titled his study of the then-current art world after something he remembered from the Muriel Spark novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Spark’s character Sandy Stranger—the acolyte schoolgirl who has an affair with her art teacher and betrays Miss Brodie—is said to have become a nun and authored a book called The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Yes, that’s right, I thought.

Having always fancied using that title for a book, Danto wrote to Spark asking what Sandy’s book would have been about. “She replied, to my delight, that it would have been about art, as she herself practiced it.” Read more