The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

May 17 2001 11:30 PM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Many people have known for years that a day at the races is more rewarding than, say, following the form of those bullet-point personalities otherwise known as celebrities or, if you live in New York, wasting most of a glorious weekend being closely monitored by the East-bound jam-cams of the Long Island Expressway. But now, if the New York Observer is anything to go by, horse racing is in, and this year famous racetracks across the land, such as Churchill Downs, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Belmont Park, Aqueduct, and Saratoga will doubtless will be filled with more enthusiasts than usual, though let's pray the Euro-detritus washes up in the Hamptons. In this week's edition of the Manhattan weekly, Elizabeth Mitchell writes about Jorge Chavez, who rode Monarchos to victory at this year's Kentucky Derby. Both man and horse are contenders for this weekend's Preakness race at Baltimore's Pimlico racetrack. As Mitchell reports, last year Chavez won "$103,144,082 for his owners, trainers, agent and himself." According Monarchos' trainer, the jockey's skill lies in his ability to move his 4 foot 10 inch frame. He has a "very quick motion with his body and his hands [which] keep[s] a horse in a good, long, full stride, and while he's doing it he's waving his whip, and the whip is coming very, very close to the animal, but he hardly ever touches the animal. He might brush it against him. But he doesn't just reach up and do the chop-chop." In the same edition of the Observer, the novelist Jane Smiley explains how the Derby was won by a horse that had not previously shown much aptitude to run on harder, more Californian surfaces.

The biographer, critic, and publisher James Atlas (who trusses his neck in a bow-tie) has written an article for Brill's Content  about the reception of his life of Saul Bellow. He chooses not to attack the critics who disliked his portrait of the novelist or to thank those who admired it; rather, the varied appraisals of the biography lead him to conclude that something is wrong with literary society itself. There is, he says, no literary "authority," no universal scale that critics can agree upon to judge the merit of a new book. That's as it may be, but surely his work as a biographer and as a reviewer of countless literary biographies for the New York Times Book Review should have informed Atlas that even in the best of times, when novelists are venerated, discord rules. Atlas' disillusionment, however, seems less about literary society than about his own attachment to a society that he once scrambled to join. (A few years ago, he wrote of his difficulties reading Jane Eyre while a copy of House & Garden, with its "fabulous apartments, country homes, awesome chateaus and estates" lay nearby.) The man who came to New York by way of Harvard, who once saw an affinity between himself and a character in a Bellow novel, and who hoped to emulate the lives of his former literary heroes by knowing their every detail, is now grasping that what he once found affecting about the New York of Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and the New York intellectuals, lay in the writing of these authors, not in the lives they lived nor in the illusion that his own life would imitate their art.


PRIVATE LIVES Richard Holmes, whose many biographical subjects include Coleridge and Shelley, is to become a professor of biographical studies at the University of East Anglia; though he wonders whether the subject can flourish in an academic setting. "Can it be done?" he writes in the Sunday Times. "The current popularity of the genre—with 3,500 new titles published each year—is not in dispute. … But can it be taught? How will it—'the most delicate and the most humane of all the branches of the art of writing,' as Lytton Strachey once called it—survive the buckshot of postmodern jargon, the ideological damnations, the old historicism and the new reception theory, the whole terrible fiery shirt of abstract theory?" Other writers, however, such as Charles Simic and John Barrell, have suggested that biography has already become a wayward art, even outside academia. In a review of James Atlas' portrait of Saul Bellow, Simic says "the best of biographies can be both enjoyable and exasperating. The general rule seems to be, the more one knows about someone's life, the more impatient and judgmental one is about him or her. Since we all have plenty of troubles of our own, other people's failings, spelled out at great length, tend to get tiresome." In an assessment of Holmes' biography of Coleridge, Barrell observes: "It is, very largely, a vie privée, even a 'secret life,' and if approving reviewers have not expected a 'literary biography' to be anything else, that may be a measure of how far the notion that biography is the new novel has become established, and has persuaded us that, as in the novel, 'real' life is lived within—in private, inside the head, though not, especially, in the part of the head that does the thinking."


It would seem that everyone has an opinion about the marriage of Ted and Sylvia. Or at least an opinion about the circumstances of Plath's death. Or indeed about why Ted Hughes was so guarded about his wife and her work. Their marriage has never ceased to provoke controversy ever since Plath gassed herself to death in London in 1963. Indeed, hardly a year goes by without further revelations about one of the 20th century's most celebrated and tragic marriages. There was the appearance of Plath's journals in 2000; now in 2001, Emma Tennant has written a novel based on her affair with Hughes in the 1960s; Elaine Feinstein has recently delivered her biography of Hughes to her London publishers. And Jill Barber's autobiography—she claims she was Hughes lover for four years in the 1970s—will appear later in the year. By far the most sensational of Barber's charges is that Hughes, not Plath, wrote The Bell Jar. In the Daily Mail, Matthew Evans, chairman of Hughes' publisher and a close friend of the poet, said of the allegation: "The idea that Ted claimed to actually have written The Bell Jar is utterly preposterous." A movie of Hughes and Plath is being planned, with Cate Blanchett as Plath.

In his most recent column for Slate, Editor Michael Kinsley addressed the widely-held but mistaken assumption that Internet publications are unlike newspapers, magazines, and television because they cannot expect their readers to pay for editorial content. But does anyone pay to watch Nightline, Kinsley asks. Or do sales of the Washington Post or the subscriptions to The New Yorker accurately reflect the cost of producing these publications? The answers, of course, are no and no. Moreover, since the price of newsprint is set to rise and magazine publishers must contend with higher postage ratesassuming that advertising revenue will remain mostly static or perhaps even fall—at some point soon traditional publications will find themselves confronted by much the same dilemma as their Internet cousins: how to get people to pay for what they want to read? On the other hand, one could say that the question is not just about the price of content, but of its value to readers. In recent years, Time and Newsweek  gave up on hard news (except on certain cosmic occasions when the entire world was, for example, hounding a Washington scandal or a school shooting) in favor of the view from the solarium or the 14th green, though these efforts to expand readership with lifestyle specials have proved fruitless. This may all be beside the point. If a survey conducted by the NDP group is to be believed, regardless of what medium one employs or what approach one adopts to current affairs, Americans are becoming more "aliterate." As the Washington Post reports: "The number of people who don't read at all has been rising for the past 20 years. … We pride ourselves on being a largely literate First World country while at the same time we rush to build a visually powerful environment in which reading is not required."


PRESENT AT THE SEPARATION For the New York Post and the Daily News, the dispute between Ron Perelman and Patricia Duff over the proper care and custody of their child Caleigh (Perelman seems to have won) was a jackpot. As Justice Eileen Bransten, who presided over the case, said of the two: "In this action … both parents have acted deplorably with each other and, instead of working cooperatively, and in Caleigh's best interest, have made this a take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth battle to the death." Now another ugly divorce will help roll the presses—the separation and divorce of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his wife Donna Hanover, who currently live together at the mayoral mansion, despite the presence of another lady in Giuliani's life. Yet, the couple's troubles are also an excuse for the city's biggest newspaper, the New York Times, to assess the state and style of Manhattan divorce, and whether or not their example is part of what advertising types describe as "a trend." If Joyce Wadler's report is to be believed, Giuliani and Hanover's current arrangements may have found a niche in the market. "Love is hard to find in New York," Wadler writes, "but finding an affordable space to call home is even harder, so certain parties on the East Side may find comfort in that they [like the mayoral party] are not the only people in town forced to stay under the same roof while struggling through a difficult divorce."


BLOOD LUST News from the ganglands proliferates in the newspapers—probably because of the unfathomable vogue for the squalid and anarchic affairs of a fictional New Jersey crime family who also happen to be oh so human. (Immediately after Tony Soprano mentioned Sun-tzu's The Art of War, copies of the classic flew off bookshelves in a manner not seen since the early days of Deepak Chopra or The Road Less Traveled.) What exactly is so exotic about this relentless brutality? Is it that the quaint portrayal of greed and internal conflict seems so, well, familiar? I don't think so. Just as Michael Kinsley pointed out the absurd snobbery of Fox TV presenter Bill O'Reilly—he who "clings to the fantasy that he is a stiff among the swells"—mob tales elicit the blue in the whitest of collars just as surely as the fires in the New Jersey Meadowlands accompany the first dry spell of spring. (The Sopranos delusion seems especially mad among those who rail against the corruption of Washington on week days and then, when Sunday night comes, can't wait for the next Garden State scam.) Thankfully, Jerry Capeci's GangLandNews, profiled by the New York Times yesterday, offers a necessary corrective to the view that the world of murder, extortion, bribery, petty politics, and bad taste is anything other than nasty, brutish, and not short enough.


MORAL TERRE HAUTE Moral outrage is everywhere, though in various guises. In the United States, relatives of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing are apparently appalled that Timothy McVeigh has invited Gore Vidal (who is in turn appalled by the death penalty) to witness his execution at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., next week. Vidal told reporters that though the bombing of the Alfred C. Murrah building was unpardonable, McVeigh nevertheless has "a sense of justice." In France, the memoirs of a retired general, Paul Aussaresses, which were published last week, have shocked many Frenchmen. According to the Telegraph, Special Forces— Algeria 1955-57"recounts how [Aussaresses] used 'beatings, water and electricity' to torture suspected members of the Algerian National Liberation Front. Questioned by Le Monde …, Gen. Aussaresses said: 'Torture is extremely efficient. In the majority of cases people crack and talk. Afterwards, most of the time, we'd finish them off. Did that pose a problem for my conscience? I have to say it did not.' " President Chirac has demanded that the general be stripped of his honors and medals.


COSTUME DRAMA In an essay published in this week's New Yorker, Judith Thurman praises an exhibition about Cleopatra at the British Museum (though Brian Sewell describes the show as "a disgrace"). The bounty of the Egyptian queen, Thurman writes, "is inexhaustible. Every age restyles her in its own image and invests her with its own preoccupations. 'Many unpleasant things have been said about Cleopatra,' A.C. Bradley wrote in 1909, 'and the more that are said, the more wonderful she appears.' " Few unpleasant things are said about Jacqueline Kennedy, but like Cleopatra, her bounty, too, is seemingly inexhaustible, as an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art } attests. Not everyone is enthusiastic about the Hamish Bowles- curated show; Jed Perl, like some of the critics of the Cleopatra, believes the exhibition represents a triumph of entertainment and fashion over art. "The real point [of the show] is to replace paintings with dresses—to turn the museum over, at least temporarily, to the fashionistas and assorted cultural marketers who simply cannot bear the idea that there is some corner of the contemporary landscape that they do not control." On the other hand, Herbert Muschamp is hugely enthusiastic about this exhibit. "I would go so far as to call this a first-rate show of political art. … It is also the strongest show I've seen on the role played by the media in the transformation of modern American life."

The lives of three famous British intellectuals, Bertrand Russell, A.J.P. Taylor, and A.J. Ayer, hardly correspond with the conclusions of a recently published Dutch and Swedish study about monogamy and sex since none were predisposed to monogamous relationships—for Russell and Ayer, infidelity was the way of love. (Nor, for that matter, were some of their wives. Russell's second wife had a child with another man, as did Ayer's first—which contradicts some of report's findings. Not all women desire monogamous relationships.) Taylor, like Ayer, would remarry one of his wives, Margaret—though she, as a recent New Statesman article puts it, "made his life a misery not only by painful infatuations with younger men, but also by giving away large sums of money to the wretched Dylan Thomas." All three men were attacked for failing to live up to their early promise, though these jibes often seem to be veiled moralizing about their chaotic relationships or envy at their social lives and their ability to draw incomes from books or journalism. Taylor, a prolific journalist, was charged with a "lack of seriousness." According to Thomas Nagel, there's something indecent about the second volume of Ray Monk's Russell biography's evident desire to prove "the depths of Russell's misery and sexual passions." "It would have been possible to take the same attitude toward Ayer," writes Simon Blackburn. "After all, he had the same tangled family life as Russell, he did his best work when young … but he maintained a large output of articles and books, producing some of the most beautiful, lucid, philosophical prose since Hume."

Bravo, David Remnick and everyone who works for The New Yorker. At a lunch held at the Waldorf Astoria today, the magazine won five National Magazine Awards. In the middle of May, the weekly publication will host a festival in Manhattan, though the pretext for the occasion seems more about brand extension and self-celebrity than gilding a lily or commemorating the magazine's many journalistic and literary accomplishments. (The festival program is a large PDF file that takes some time to download.) Among the speakers and performers are Tracy Chapman, Chuck Close, Rickie Lee Jones, Stella McCartney, and Patti Smith, who will all be interviewed by various contributors to the magazine, while some of the more illustrious writers will talk about their work. It's as if The New Yorker wants to go the way of late-night television, though where in this belle galère is the light relief of Paul Schaffer and the CBS Orchestra? Such self-regard—should the magazine's famous mascot, the debonair Eustace Tilley, exchange his monocle for a mirror?—has one wondering what can possibly be next? Eustace, a lifestyle magazine about the magazine's editors, featuring "Annals of Annals," "Words on Talk," and "Factchecker Master Class"?


VIA DOLLAR-OSA The enthusiasm of many Republicans for naming (or renaming) government buildings and airports in memory of Ronald Reagan has reached such loopy proportions—it's been proposed that Reagan's face should adorn the $10 bill—that one wonders whether they have forgotten that this former president is alive. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Noemie Emery, writing in the conservative Weekly Standard, argues that such messianic tendencies need to be curbed. It's idiocy, she says, to cut funding to Washington's Metro system for its refusal "to change its station signs to read Reagan National Airport. … Washington is becoming a capital with too many memorials and much too much reverence; with too many things named for too many people. … It is the Bill Clintons of the world who fret over legacies. … Ronald Reagan also had it right when he signed a bill (that his fans are now trying to overturn in his honor) prohibiting the erecting of monuments on the Mall to anyone not already dead for a quarter century. This wise measure was designed to let partisan fevers run their course, to prevent spectacles like the Metro sign war, in which embittered diehard liberals and Reagan's more overwrought friends both look silly and spiteful."