Robert Pogue Harrison’s Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age explores the history of culture, from antiquity to the present, in order to frame how neotony, the retention of juvenile characteristics through adulthood, has become central to our youth-obsessed, yet historically entrenched civilization. Mired in the past, and at the same time, forced to look forward, the way in which we frame life and death errs heavy on the side of protracting the cusp of adulthood. “While genius liberates the novelties of the future,” Harrison writes, “wisdom inherits the legacies of the past, renewing them in the process of handing them down.”
From the Southern Humanities Review, which considers Harrison one of our foremost academics working today:
Robert Pogue Harrison, an intellectual steeped in the philosophical and literary traditions of the Western world, may be the single most significant writer in the humanities today. In three of his previous books—Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, The Dominion of the Dead, and Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition—he developed a particular style of writing that takes readers on a journey through time, tracing a particular concept or trope as it manifests itself in a wide array of literary and philosophical works. . . . In each of his books, Harrison demonstrates that responses to the most fundamental human questions often appear in the most unlikely places and that it takes a formidable intellect and an Auerbach-like memory to be able to discern a particular thread that runs through the tradition. To read Harrison, therefore, is to be reminded of texts that you may have read years ago, or the texts that you may be studying or even teaching at this time, only to discover that you have never carefully read them.
And, as the SHR piece concludes:
In Juvenescence, Harrison fashions himself as a type of philosophico-literary renouvelant, a young adherent to a long tradition, one who affirms his faith in the meaning-producing capacities of texts that are both all too familiar and long forgotten. In doing this, Harrison has written a book that enacts what it describes, one which boldly explores new ideas through revitalizing the past.
To read more about Juvenescence, click here.
Appropriated from the Spolia Mag Tumblr, here are some upcoming readings and release events surrounding Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project. All are free and open to the public, except where indicated.
The Dead Ladies are going on tour!
September 29, New York
A conversation with Laura Kipnis
at Melville House
46 John Street, Brooklyn
October 1, Chicago
Good old-fashioned house party (open to the public)
1926 W Erie
October 5, London
70 Cadogan Place, Knightsbridge
October 12, Paris
Reading, champagne, and launch party
at Berkeley Books
8 Rue Casimir Delavigne
October 15, Leipzig
Cabaret! With opera singer Jennifer Porto! Details T/K
(Image: Maud Gonne. Or me, in my traveling hat, I’m not sure.)
To read more about The Dead Ladies Project, click here.
The Proust Questionnaire dates back to the parlor room fad of the “confession album,” popularized in late-nineteenth-century England, in which individuals, families, strangers, and the occasional ill-mannered first date answered a series of questions, which inevitably revealed a bevy of his/her/their aspirations, fantasies, and personal tastes. Earning its current moniker via the series of sophisticated (and yes, Proustian) responses provided by the author in two recorded versions (dated 1885/86 and 1890/91, respectively), the mental survey accrued further cultural currency when it was included as form of celebrity confessional in the back pages of the American magazine Vanity Fair. To celebrate the debut of her first book The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries, we asked writer and editor Jessa Crispin to let us crawl along with her to the recesses of her mind to give you a taste of what makes her tick and let you know why she’s one of the sharpest interlocutors of contemporary art and lit around today. Not playing favorites or anything, but you can read Proust’s and—for fun and karmic resolution—Norman Mailer’s responses via hyperlinks. Read Crispin’s in full below.
Your favorite virtue:
I have been using the Minchiate tarot for a while, and for a while almost every day I was drawing the virtue card “Faith” as my card for the day. And man, I hated her, with her dreamy, delusional, silly oh everything is sure to get better vibe. I don’t like to be challenged on my “everything is fucking terrible” point of view. But she’s growing on me.
Your favorite qualities in a man:
Your favorite qualities in a woman:
Your chief characteristic:
What you appreciate the most in your friends:
I’ve been crazy blessed with friends. Brilliant fuckers, all of them. I am constantly inspired by all of them, and most everything I write starts as a conversation with one of them. But beyond their brilliance, they are all compassionate, warm people, and I don’t know what I did to deserve so many of them and of such high quality.
Your main fault:
My appetites are enormous.
Your favorite occupation:
The love of my life, Honeybee, makes candy. (Whimsical candy! It is delicious and available online!) Her kitchen was four blocks from my apartment in Chicago, so she would bring over rejected candy. Nougat that was too soft, scraps from caramel, marshmallows that didn’t set properly. She thinks of ways to make people feel like kids again, basically. She has a good job.
Your idea of happiness:
Baby elephant gifs and the sounds that camels make.
A friend just texted me my answer, though: “opera tickets for tomorrow night in a foreign city.” And this is also true.
Your idea of misery:
An unmoving train or plane.
If not yourself, who would you be?
I am quite enjoying being myself. I don’t think I would trade it in. Unless I could be a baby elephant.
Where would you like to live?
Oh babe, if I had an answer to this question, it would be a very different life I’d be leading.
Your favorite color and flower:
I am growing a collection of poisonous plants in my garden right now, so let’s say Foxglove, Datura, and Belladonna. They are awfully pretty and they will definitely kill you.
I am an adult, though, and so I do not have a favorite color.
Your favorite bird (NB addition, c. 1891):
The one specific blackbird who lived in the birch tree outside my Berlin apartment.
He’s probably dead by now, though. I don’t know the lifespan of the average urban blackbird.
Your favorite prose authors:
Oh my jesus god. The thought of answering this question exhausts me, I have to go lie under the rug now. Okay, my report from under the rug: Henry James will always be my spinster king. My love for him will always be fiercer than for anyone else. But also, all the writers in my book, plus Helen Garner, Rebecca Brown, Kathryn Davis, James Baldwin, Shalom Auslander, Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Bowen, JG Farrell, oh look I found a quarter under here.
Your favorite poets:
Lately I’ve been reading Rachel Wetzsteon a lot. Also recently discovered June Jordan, and wow. But also: Anne Carson, Hoa Nguyen, Alice Notley, Daphne Gottlieb. It would seem pretentious to say Ovid, but his exile poems are beautiful.
Your favorite heroes in fiction:
All the disappointments to their families, the guys who couldn’t get the girl, the men who couldn’t find their hero’s journey, the men who died of TB before really accomplishing anything.
Your favorite heroines in fiction:
Catherine Sloper and all the other spinsters.
Your favorite painters and composers:
Your heroes in real life:
Michael Servetus, Giordano Bruno, and all of the other heretics. Basically if the State ever set you on fire, I am on your side.
Your favorite heroines in real life:
The women who led the Ferguson protests and #blacklivesmatter. The women who were at the Stonewall riots. The lesbians who took care of the dying men during the AIDS crisis. The women I worked with at pro-choice organizations in Texas who worked hard to make sure women who wanted and needed an abortion had access. Basically every goddamn woman who just continues to do the work that needs to be done, even when they’re forgotten, spoken over, and written out of history.
What characters in history do you most dislike:
Most of the men, really.
Your heroines in world history:
Rosa Luxemburg, Joan of Arc, Louise Michel, Boudica, and all the other women who just got fed up and started setting shit on fire.
Your favorite food and drink:
Oysters and dry martinis.
Your favorite names:
I made up the name Jessa when I was 11 or 12, because I hated my birth name. But, you should know that the list of possible names that I gave full and serious consideration to were Jessa, Crystal, and Sierra. So.
What I hate the most:
My downstairs neighbors’ record collection.
World history characters I hate the most:
The imperial British.
The military event I admire the most:
The moment in the Romanian revolution where the army stopped shooting at protesters and started shooting at the government buildings.
The reform I admire the most:
Whatever reform it was that made crows capable of making and using tools.
The natural talent I’d like to be gifted with:
I wish I had been able to play an instrument, but I was terrible. My hands are like paws, absolutely no articulation or independence of movement. I was forced to try to play the clarinet, but I squawked and squeaked until they asked me to please stop. Plus, how would a person ever choose one instrument to learn and perfect? Out of all possible, how could you ever limit yourself to one? What if twenty years in you realize you chose wrong? Or maybe the instrument chooses you? I admire really good bassoon players, what must their world be like? I think Stravinsky must have, too, he always wrote good parts for bassoons.
How I wish to die:
Did you know that Isak Dinesen died because near the end of her life she refused to eat anything other than white grapes, oysters, and champagne? What a way to go.
What is your present state of mind:
For what fault have you most toleration?
Your favorite motto:
I always thought the idea of “live like each day is your last” is a stupid, selfish way to look at life. Same with, “Follow your bliss.” Your bliss is built on the oppression of others, 98% of the time. Maybe no mottoes. Maybe stop trying to simplify this terrible, amazing, idiotic, beautiful world we live in. Maybe accept the terror of not understanding, of not knowing. Maybe that’s a good place to work from.
(this is not an actual author photo of Jessa Crispin, but a woodcut of
Saint Christina the Astonishing)
To read more about The Dead Ladies Project, click here.
To visit the Bookslut and Spolia, click here and here, respectively.
Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, University of Chicago Press editorial director Alan Thomas has a piece on the legacy of Norman Maclean’s now classic account of the 1949 Mann Gulch disaster, Young Men and Fire—carefully detailed and processed by an account of Thomas’s own experience of bringing the long delayed manuscript to publication. Below follows an excerpt from the longer essay, a must-read for anyone interested in Maclean’s stunning reportage or the contradictions and complexities inherent in a young man editing a posthumous manuscript from one of our most acclaimed storytellers, on furloughs in Japan, Chicago, and Missoula, Montana. Visit the LARB website for me.
Reading Young Men and Fire for the first time, you expect that the book will end with fire science and the definitive account it allows Maclean to give at the end of part two of the book. But there is a third and last part to come, a very brief section that feels like a coda. It is in some ways the most experimental part of Young Men and Fire, and Marie Borroff, for one, argued in her essay on the book that it is not a success, that the book should have ended short of part three. “I have to say,” writes Borroff, “and I say it hesitantly and with pain — that what we are presented with in the last twenty pages as his further attempts to bring the poetic imagination to bear on his subject strike me as just that: as attempts.”
Perhaps, but those last pages were important to Maclean. Part three, he says in his notes, entrusts itself “to the Imagination and Compassion of the Story-teller.” Imagination takes the form of an elevated view of the Smokejumpers’ last moments, extending an earlier reference to Thomas Hardy’s Sky Spirits, “who comment upon tragedies of man from distant horizons.” Compassion brings the storyteller, and us, back to the ground with the doomed men, “to project ourselves into their final thoughts.” He envisions, most importantly, their loneliness, which, he writes, “loomed up suddenly — they were young and not used to being alone.” Here, accompanying the men to their end, Maclean recalls his wife, who died of cancer of the esophagus: “Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”
These are the last lines of the book — an abrupt, almost unbearable ending. All deaths are lonely, Maclean seems to say in these final pages, but acknowledging that his own wife was lonely in death may reveal a deeper sorrow. We think of his father’s words in A River Runs Through It: “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.” We think of Dodge, who at the crucial moment couldn’t save his men, and whose wife told Maclean, “I loved him very much, but I didn’t know him very well.” And we think of the loneliness of an old man spending his last years at a writing table, as the energy to finish leaves him.
The closing pages of Young Men and Fire may be imperfect and strained, but that is because Maclean is trying to grasp something ultimate — the quality of “a special kind of death,” the death of the young and unfulfilled. He speculates that for them the last emotions were fear, followed by self-pity and bewilderment, and then finally, as they each made a last lunge up the hill, “some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth.”
Read Thomas’s essay in full at the Los Angeles Review of Books, here.
To read more about Young Men and Fire, click here.