Both Janet Malcolm’s writing and her collages are preoccupied with what happens on the margins of knowing, or in its wake. Malcolm has always had great confidence in what she’s come to know—she writes with such a sure hand—yet at the same time she is well aware of the limits of what we might ever feel assured in saying. In “A House of One’s Own,” her essay on Bloomsbury, she writes that “we have to face the problem that every biographer faces and none can solve; namely that he is standing in quicksand as he writes. There is no floor under his enterprise, no basis for moral certainty.” The abyss is there and she nods at it and goes about her business.
While Sherlock continues to be exceptionally entertaining, I can’t help but wonder if it has grown a little too self-aware and too reliant on punning riffs for its titles, plots, and in-jokes. Even “The Giant Rat of Sumatra”—the most tantalizing of those untold cases for which the world is not yet prepared—is repurposed in this episode. Every element in “The Empty Hearse” feels a bit overstylized, artificial, almost going beyond the tongue-in-cheek. At regular intervals, too, the action actually pauses so that the camera can linger on the Byronically handsome Cumberbatch, brooding Batman-like over the city of London.
Youths of my generation learned about Brassaï from his eye-opening Secret Paris of the 30s (1976). There were pictures of thugs, bums, prostitutes, brothels, drag balls, lesbian bars, interracial dances—who knew such things even existed forty years earlier? But then our fascinated naïvety was rewarded by further contemplation of the photographs, which were humane, sympathetic, endlessly inquisitive, beautifully composed, and drew every possible bit of poetry from the enveloping cloak of night—not more than half a dozen pictures were taken in daylight. Brassaï: Paris Nocturne is the first major book on the photographer since then.
If animals are not only bons à manger but also bons à penser (good to eat, good to think with), according to the celebrated dictum of Claude Lévi-Strauss, then monsters, while perhaps less inviting to the palate, make even better food for thought. Themselves the direct and fanciful products of attempts to understand phenomena, they appear in a wonderful variety of forms on the maps drawn up by medieval and Renaissance cartographers, as Joseph Nigg and Chet van Duzer show in two resplendently illustrated and thoughtful recent studies. Scylla and Charybdis, sea serpents and pristers offer a range of explanations for natural phenomena, such as whirlpools and reefs; indeed the abundant stories that Homer and Ovid tell draw up a wonderful narrative geography as much as a mythical history.