Here is my third installment in pulling down random books from my shelves and writing about them, under the belief that the internet is better when not all of it comes from the internet.
Eugen Weber is a wonderful, sassy cultural historian. His best-known book is probably Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1880-1914.
When I first moved to Philadelphia, one of my favorite things about staying up too late was catching episodes of his documentary series The Western Tradition on PBS at 3 AM. (Now you can stream the whole series free at Learner.org, which I just found out today.)
This is a passage from France Fin de Siecle, a really terrific book about art, culture, and literature in mid-to-late 19th-century France. And I swear to God, I think about this particular section all the time.
If one considers the scarceness of water and of facilities for its evacuation, it is not surprising that washing was rare and bathing rarer. Clean linen long remained an exceptional luxury, even among the middle classes. Better-off buildings enjoyed a single pump or tap in the courtyard. Getting water above the ground floor was rare and costly; in Nevers it became available on upper floors in the 1930s. Those who enjoyed it sooner, as in Paris, fared little better.
Baths especially were reserved for those with enough servants to bring the tub and fill it, then carry away the tub and dirty water. Balzac had referred to the charm of rich young women when they came out of their bath. Manuals of civility suggest that this would take place once a month, and it seems that ladies who actually took the plunge might soak for hours: an 1867 painting by Alfred Stevens shows a plump young blonde in a camisole dreaming in her bathtub, equipped with book, flowers, bracelet, and a jeweled watch in the soap-dish. Symbols of wealth and conspicuous consumption.
In a public lecture course Vacher de Lapouge affirmed that in France most women die without having once taken a bath. The same could be said of men, except for those exposed to military service. No wonder pretty ladies carried posies: everyone smelled and, often, so did they.
Teeth were seldom brushed and often bad. Only a few people in the 1890s used toothpowder, and toothbrushes were rarer than watches. Dentists too were rare: largely an American import, and one of the few such things the French never complained about. Because dentists were few and expensive, one would find lots of caries, with their train of infections and stomach troubles, it is likely that most heroes and heroines of nineteenth-century fiction had bad breath, like their real-life models.
Yep. That's why we call them "the unwashed masses."
It wasn't until the twentieth century that most people took a bath, washed their underwear, flushed a toilet, saw their own reflection in a mirror, or stopped dying at atrocious rates every time they gave birth to a child. How's that mistake looking now, Werner?
One thing I will be doing from time to time this week is pulling down random books from my shelves and writing about them, under the belief that the internet is better when not all of it comes from the internet. Here's the first installment.
According to tradition, Simonides of Keos was the first Greek poet who composed and sung poems for money, rather than being kept by a patron. He was also famously stingy and liked to pose riddles:
They say that Simonides had two boxes, one for favors, the other for fees. So when someone came to him asking for a favor he had the boxes displayed and opened: the one was found to be empty of graces, the other full of money. And that's the way Simonides got rid of a person requesting a gift.
Simonides's world was one where old relationships of gift-exchange and patronage were breaking down in favor of what for Greeks was a fairly new invention, coinage. And all of his poetry and the stories around him seem to play with this: how the old world mythic heroes and Gods (Homer's subjects) gave way to Olympic champions and rich merchants (Simonides's subjects), the way value can be real but invisible, how words can be things that you exchange, like gifts or cash. This is one thing that helps make Simonides unusually modern.
That, at least, is poet/critic Anne Carson's take in her terrific book Economy of the Unlost, which juxtaposes Simonides and the equally staggering twentieth-century poet Paul Celan:
Simonides of Keos was the smartest person in the fifth century B.C., or so I have come to believe. History has it that he was also the stingiest. Fantastical in its anecdoes, undeniable in its implications, the stinginess of Simonides can tell us something about the moral life of a user of money and something about the poetic life of an economy of loss.
No one who uses money is unchanged by that.
No one who uses money can easily get a look at their own practice. Ask eye to see its own eyelashes, as the Chinese proverb says. Yet Simonides did so, not only because he was smart.
Another argument Carson makes is that because Simonides was willing to write for anyone who would pay, his epigraphs -- literally, writing that would be inscribed on a gravestone -- is the "first poetry in the ancient Greek tradition about which we can certainly say, these are texts written to be read: literature" (emphasis mine).
I've always thought that passivity is underrated. One of the nice things about going to the movies is that once you're there, everything just happens to you. In the seventies, film theory took on a lot of anti-consumerist and weirdly sexual politics where, for some reason, it was better to be active than passive, which always just feels very vanilla. I mean, sometimes you're active, sometimes you're passive, and sometimes you're just playing around, which isn't really either, but all three are good.
You could apply this three-part scheme to a lot of things (three-part schemes are good for that), but I thought of it reading this 1997 essay "The Book and the Labyrinth," on cybertexts and literature that, like a lot of games we're familiar with, cycles through a variety of different architectural possibilities.
The author, Espen J. Aarseth, gives three predigital historical examples of this kind of literature: the I Ching, which is literally random, like throwing dice; Apollinaire's Caligrammes, which contains more like concrete poetry that can be read in multiple (or sometimes just unexpected) directions (there are plenty of "traditional" free verse poems in that book, too); and Raymond Queneau's Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes (One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems) -- which sounds about as right in French as "a million billion trillion dollars" does in English -- ten sonnets printed on cards with each line on a separated strip, where all the lines can be recombined to produce new sonnets in any sequence.
Whitney Anne Trettien calls these "text-generating mechanisms," and her thesis (Computers, Cut-ups & Combinatory Volvelles) offers much more history on this kind of literary play, while also being an excellent example of what Aarseth would call a cybertext.
My two favorites, however, are both by French poet Stephane Mallarme. (The French love these things almost as much as they love their accented vowels.) This is an image from his poem "Un coup de des jamais n'abolira le hasard" or "A throw of the dice will never abolish chance":
You can read the poem linearly (such as it is), but even to find its putative title, you have to skip words, finding a thread in different fonts and sizes. It's the first (and maybe the last) truly avant-garde poem that uses space this way. And it never turned out exactly the way Mallarme wanted it.
He had precise instructions on the layout of the poem, he had precise instructions on the layout of negative space, he had precise instructions on the kind and quality of paper to be used, the type of binding, and so forth. This radical, go-in-any-direction-you-wish experiment was through-designed in a way that was impossible to fulfill.
It's not a poem even as we would recognize it. It's an architecture.
My other favorite example was called simply Le Livre (The Book), or sometimes The Great Work. We don't even know its contents. All we have are unpublished notes that detail (in part) its physical arrangement and rearrangement, storage, where the reader of the book would stand in relationship to the audience while a reading was performed (yes, this book would be performed), how much money would be charged, how many performances could occur in each day, etc., etc., etc.
It's like having detailed instructions for the proper handling of the ark of the covenant, and no ark. And it wasn't lost -- there never was one.
And that may be where we are. The only way to abolish chance -- to create the space for action, audience, and game simultaneously -- may be to create a structure with nothing inside, no mistakes to be made because there is nothing for them on which to be made, "a labyrinth with no center" (which is what Borges called the "metaphysical detective story" Citizen Kane).
Mallarme invented vaporware, the LOST questions that never get answered, the giant 404. It wasn't his fault. It was supposed to be great.
In a letter to the editor in 1988, literary critic Eddie Dow tried to set the record straight:
In 1926 Fitzgerald published one of his finest stories, ''The Rich Boy,'' whose narrator begins it with the words ''Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.''
Ten years later, at lunch with his and Fitzgerald's editor, Max Perkins, and the critic Mary Colum, Hemingway said, ''I am getting to know the rich.'' To this Colum replied, ''The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.'' (A. Scott Berg reports this in ''Max Perkins, Editor of Genius.'') Hemingway, who knew a good put-down when he heard one and also the fictional uses to which it could be put, promptly recycled Colum's remark in one of his best stories, with a revealing alteration: he replaced himself with Fitzgerald as the one put down. The central character in ''The Snows of Kilimanjaro'' remembers ''poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of [ the rich ] and how he had started a story once that began, 'The very rich are different from you and me.' And how someone had said to Scott, yes, they have more money.''
World-class athletes, though, really do seem to be different from you and me, and not just because they have better physical skills and (some of them) more money. We act shocked when athletes we think we understand, like LeBron James or Tiger Woods, surprise us with their behavior, or when a great player like Isiah Thomas degenerates into a complete lunatic once he's off the court. (Sorry, Knicks fans.)
The strangeness (and unbelievable abilities) of top athletes is the theme of David Foster Wallace's 1995 essay "The String Theory," about the lower rungs of pro tennis:
Americans revere athletic excellence, competitive success, and it's more than lip service we pay; we vote with our wallets. We'll pay large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we'll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.
But it's better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we'll invoke lush cliches about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one's mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think. Note the way "up close and personal" profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life -- outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what's obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It's farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence. An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child's world, is very small.
This willful ignorance breaks down when 1) an athlete is sufficiently famous and dominant that we expect more from him, 2) an athlete suddenly fails to succeed, 3) an athlete allows those idiosyncrasies out more than is necessary, 4) an athlete's competing in a sport that we don't understand well or follow closely.
For instance, Michael Jordan is a great example of a top athlete who never broke character, whose talents never let us down (that stint with the Wizards being apocryphal, and best ignored), and won at the highest level in a widely followed sport. Yet by all accounts, he was a hypercompetitive, gambling-addicted sociopath. In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons offers my favorite take on Jordan:
Chuck Klosterman pointed this out on my podcast once: for whatever reason, we react to every after-the-fact story about Michael Jordan's legendary competitiveness like it's the coolest thing ever. He pistol-whipped Brad Sellers in the shower once? Awesome! He slipped a roofie into Barkley's martini before Game 5 of the '93 Finals? Cunning! But really, Jordan's competitiveness was pathological. He obsessed over winning to the point that it was creepy. He challenged teammates and antagonized them to the point that it became detrimental. Only during his last three Chicago years did he find an acceptable, Russell-like balance as a competitor, teammate, and person.
And still, nearly everyone agrees (and I do too) that this made Jordan the best basketball player, certainly better than Shaq and Wilt and (so far) LeBron, who just had different pathologies.
At Deadspin, Katie Baker takes this in a different direction, looking at ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary on BMX and X-games legend Mat Hoffman:
[A] leprechaun-faced, sparkle-eyed freestyling daredevil who did things on sketchily self-constructed ramps in his tweenage backyard ("he's this shady little kid from Oklahoma just blasting," recalls one former pro from that era) that no one else in the sport had even conceived of. Hoffman was so instant a splash that in his first sanctioned competition he took first in the amateur bracket, turned pro on the spot, and then went on to win first place in that class as well. By the next day he had 15 sponsors lined up.
But while the retrospective into Hoffman's game-changing theatrics appears on the surface a delish amuse-bouche for the X Games, it also may cause a few viewers to choke. He nails 900s, yes, but he also breaks over 300 bones. He flies high, but then he lays low. Like, in a coma-type low. As one friend of Hoffman says in the film, describing his jumps off an ever-heightening ramp: "It would go from this beautiful soaring thing to a violent crash so suddenly. We'd be like, 'is he dead?'...
It's easy to see films like these and lament the death-defying choices of men who have families and children, to judge them harshly for their inability to say no, but I wonder sometimes what the alternative is. Some people are simply hard-wired this way. (It's almost too perfect that Hoffman had a dear friendship with Evel Knievel.)
Tony Hawk understands, saying: "That's who we are! We love it too much to hang it up. I hate when people ask me that: 'When are you hanging it up?' Like, if I'm standing on my own two feet? I'm riding a skateboard."
You can't watch the footage of Hoffman as a young kid and not see that he's different, that he can't not do these things. "I just kick my feet," he tells one professional rider who asks how he pulls off an impossible move, sounding like some kind of Will Hunting savant. He talks about lying in bed dreaming about how to build higher ramps. "That's the fabric of who Mat is," says one friend. Who are we to tell him to change?
Add in the fact that Hoffman suffered his most life-threatening injuries trying to perform for TV audiences for ESPN and The Wide Word of Sports, and it's hard to see exactly what the difference is between him and football players or boxers suffering one concussion (or some other major injury) after another, sometimes dying on the field or in the ring, in far too many cases dying too young.
The one difference between Hoffman and the others is that he didn't make fans feel betrayed by a celebrity like LeBron, he wasn't easily ignored like Wallace's low-level tennis pros fighting it out in the qualies just to make a living, and he didn't entertain a gigantic audience for more than a decade like Michael Jordan or Muhammed Ali.
We are all witnesses.
Update: Reader Nick pointed out that the first version of this post implied that Hoffman's career was significantly shorter than Jordan's or Ali's; the contrast I was trying to draw was between the allowances most of us make for athletes in "major" sports versus those in "extreme" competition, especially when the former are just as dangerous and personality-specific as the latter, if not more so.