Proust’s handwriting is bad; it is the handwriting of a novelist rather than a dandy, and visitors to the Morgan Library who can read French will have much fun making out the words and the many untidy emendations on the pages of the manuscript. In a letter to a publisher, as Proust seeks to explain what his novel is about, one word, however, stands alone and is written with a rare exactitude. In a letter to Alfred Vallette, editor of Le Mecure de France, in 1909 Proust described his work-in-progress: it “is a genuine novel and an indecent one in places. One of the principal characters is a homosexual.”
I worked for Aperture magazine between 1967 and 1970 and played a small part in the production of eleven issues of the magazine and a few books. I recall rainy afternoons with nothing to occupy me in the office but some photograph by Dorothea Lange, Paul Caponigro, Jerry Uelsmann, or by a complete unknown that I couldn’t stop looking at, because it seemed to grow more beautiful and more mysterious the longer I kept looking. Then, abruptly, a phone would ring with some irate subscriber shouting that his issue arrived damaged in the mail, and the spell would be broken.
Everyone seems to have kept scrapbooks during the nineteenth century. Like a Twitter account or a Facebook wall, scrapbooks filled with clippings gave the illusion of bringing order to the torrent of newsprint that threatened to overwhelm readers. During the Civil War, one Northern scrapbooker was “struck by the vast amount of information, on all points and of every grade of quality, which flowed in a continuous stream” from the telegraph-aided daily papers. Whitman’s Specimen Days, which he described as “the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed,” is a moving scrapbook of clippings and jottings from the whole span of his life. Emily Dickinson, a hyperactive cutter and paster, also repurposed scraps and clippings for original creative work.
“Even horrible people are tragic.” With this widely quoted phrase Thomas Adès summed up the gist of his 1995 opera Powder Her Face. The horrible person in question is Ethel Margaret Whigham, the fashionable debutante who became the Duchess of Argyll by her second marriage in 1951, and was divorced twelve years later following a trial that evidently handed the London tabloids almost more material than they knew what do with—a variety of sometimes well-documented affairs with some eighty-eight lovers of high and low degree—and more than the opera in its two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time can do much beyond hint at.
The Lunar New Year began last week as it always does, with a new moon. The empty sky seemed to empty Beijing of up to half its residents—authorities estimate that an incredible nine million people left the city, which usually has a population of eighteen to twenty million. This made it all the more enjoyable for those who stuck around, who were rewarded with a record number of temple fairs and their performers: scores of folk artists who gave daily performances of traditional arts, acrobatics, and martial arts—the sort of local cultural scene that this town of restaurants and staid museums rarely offers.
You can’t fight it. It happens. The dreams come on. They’re part of what we do. I had a theory once, which I also put in a novel, that many nightmares were caused by a common physical need: the need to get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom. Out of the stochastic stew that sits cooling on the stovetop of our sleep-softened consciousness, a couple of images would be ladled out in a bowl and sprinkled with a special neural Pickapeppa Sauce that made them seem frightening, so as to wake us up. All our subconscious was trying to do, I thought, was to help us by saying, Friend, your bladder is overfull and you should get up and relieve it.
Charles Mingus’s audiences never knew quite what they were going to get, and this kept them coming. Mingus, the bassist, composer, and bandleader who reached the height of his fame in the mid-1960s, was notoriously mercurial. He was known to fire and rehire band members over the course of a set, and was once fired himself for chasing a trombonist across the stage with an axe. His reactions to noisy crowds ranged from announcing, “Isaac Stern doesn’t have to put up with this shit,” to ordering his band to read books onstage. His music, which drew omnivorously on the blues, gospel, Dixieland, Duke Ellington, bebop, and classical music, among much else, was similarly unpredictable. It blurred the boundaries between improvisation and composition, often ignoring standard form, and was famous for its rapid shifts in mood and tempo.
The Republican Party is having its own form of PTSD. According to one of the most respected party elders the Republicans firmly believed that the voters would reject Barack Obama for a second term and deliver the Senate back into their hands. Wishful thinking combined with erroneous polling assumptions left them totally unprepared for the thumping loss they sustained and they are still in something of a state of shock. “They’re still close in time to that event,” the party elder said. “You need to keep that in mind. Right now they’re groping around in a dark room.”
Huang Qi is best known in China as the creator of the country’s first human rights website, Liusi Tianwang, or “June 4 Heavenly Web.” A collection of reports and photos, as well as the occasional first-person account of abuse, the site documents the hundreds of protests continually taking place in China, many related to government land seizures. When I went to see Huang in January, he was sitting out on the balcony in the early spring air, fielding a string of calls from China’s farmers and lower middle class—the people driving the country’s slow-motion revolution to make the government more accountable. Fueled by cigarettes and green tea, he listens to their stories, cuts them off when he has to, gives curt advice, and types out a few lines for his website on the latest protests and beatings.
Everyone has dreams. Some remember theirs, far fewer recount them, and very few write them down. Why write them down, anyway, knowing you will only sell them out (and no doubt sell yourself out in the process)? I thought I was recording the dreams I was having; I have realized that it was not long before I began having dreams only in order to write them.