• print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Queer I

    In November 1961, a closeted gay man in a well-tailored suit went to see an unsigned and relatively new musical group performing at a Liverpool club called the Cavern. “I was immediately struck by their music, their beat, and their sense of humor on stage—and . . . when I met them, I was struck again by their personal charm,” Brian Epstein would write in A Cellarful of Noise, his 1964 memoir about the band he would soon manage, make over, and turn into mop-topped superstars. Teasingly, referring to the open secret of Epstein’s private life, John Lennon suggested an alternate title: A Cellarful

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

    PORTIONS OF CLAUDIA RANKINE’S Just Us first appeared in the New York Times Magazine and were posted online with the clickbaity headline “I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked.” In the article—now the second section of the book, after some introductory poems—Rankine relates some of the material covered in a class called Constructions of Whiteness that she teaches at Yale. As part of the class, her students sometimes interview strangers about race. “Perhaps this is why . . . I wondered what it would mean to ask random white men how they understood their

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Among the Deceivers

    TWO FIGURES OVERLOOK A SACRED RIVER: both qualify as students, yet one is more experienced by far. He attempts to bridge the difference with a lesson. Pointing to the wastelands on the right bank, he defines it as sunyata, the void. Then, turning, points at the city opposite. An enormous maze of temples and houses, the dwellings of deities and castes: that is maya, illusion. “Do you know what our task is?” A test. “Our task is to live somewhere in between.” We have two versions of the scene, but in each case the younger student is described as “terrified.”

    Originally transpiring in North India

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Mum’s Boy

    “IT WAS HIS QUOTABILITY,” observed the critic Clive James, “that gave Larkin the biggest cultural impact on the British reading public since Auden.” What comes to mind? The opening lines from “Annus Mirabilis,” certainly—“Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three”—but if there is one Philip Larkin quote even better known, it would surely be: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.”

    Did Larkin’s parents fuck him up? According to his sister Catherine (“Kitty”), ten years his senior, both parents “worshipped” Philip. All the same, they have undoubtedly been demonized—sometimes by the poet

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Going Postal

    I QUIT TWITTER and Instagram in May, in the same manner I leave parties: abruptly, silently, and much later than would have been healthy. This was several weeks into New York City’s lockdown, and for those of us not employed by institutions deemed essential—hospitals, prisons, meatpacking plants—sociality was now entirely mediated by a handful of tech giants, with no meatspace escape route, and the platforms felt particularly, grimly pathetic. Instagram, cut off from a steady supply of vacations and parties and other covetable experiences, had grown unsettlingly boring, its inhabitants increasingly

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Words of Light

    A DISAPPOINTED WOMAN should try to construct happiness out of a set of materials within her reach,” William Godwin counseled Mary Wollstonecraft after she tried to kill herself by jumping off a bridge. Virginia Woolf liked to read “with pen & notebook,” a generative relationship to the page. Roland Barthes had a hierarchical system with Latinate designations: “notula was the single word or two quickly recorded in a slim notebook; nota, the later and fuller transcription of this thought onto an index card.” Walter Benjamin urged the keeping of a notebook “as strictly as the authorities keep

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    One Weird Trick

    IN FEBRUARY 2005, the literary theorist Sianne Ngai published Ugly Feelings, a book she described as a “bestiary of affects” filled with the “rats and possums” of the emotional spectrum. Instead of looking to the classical passions of fear and anger, Ngai, then an English professor at Stanford University, wanted to explore what she called “weaker and nastier” emotions. The book is divided into seven chapters, each focusing on a single “ugly feeling” such as envy, anxiety, irritation, and a hybrid of boredom and shock she termed “stuplimity.” Based on Ngai’s graduate dissertation, Ugly Feelings

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Songs in the Key of Life

    IN AUGUST 1969, the Billboard “Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles” chart was rechristened “Best Selling Soul Singles.” A new type of music had emerged, “the most meaningful development within the broad mass music market within the last decade,” according to the magazine. The genre mystified much of the mainstream press. Publications like Time announced soul music’s birth one year earlier as if it were a phenomenon worthy of both awe and condescension. Its June 1968 issue featured Aretha Franklin as its cover star and called the music “a homely distillation of everybody’s daily portion of pain and joy.”

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Crossings to Bear

    WHILE THE BALKANS are generally not known for neighborliness, that reputation is still quite recent. Most would date it to the mid-nineteenth century, when the rise of the nation-state suddenly spurred competition over inheritances that had traditionally been shared. The term “Balkanization”—which crystallized the peninsula’s characterization as bitterly divided—was coined by the New York Times only in 1918, in the wake of the Balkan wars, when the ousting of the Ottomans sparked a land grab among the kingdoms of the former Balkan League. If anything, the previous centuries of occupying

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    The Varieties of Musical Experience

    As its title suggests, Wagnerism is not precisely a book about Richard Wagner, or even about his music. It is rather, as Alex Ross clarifies, “about a musician’s influence on non-musicians”—a narrow premise seemingly for a work of more than seven hundred pages, but Ross is only teasing out the most salient points from a crowded and mesmerizing history. His book stretches from the opening of Wagner’s first mature operas in the 1840s to the present moment, when fantasy movies and comic books teem with Wagnerian echoes, and the operas themselves are accessible in multiple formats on a previously

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    The Fire This Time

    ONE APRIL MORNING in 1973, just before dawn, a ten-year-old Black boy and his stepfather began to run through South Jamaica in Queens. A white policeman had pulled up in a Buick Skylark behind them, the crunch of the car’s wheels on the pavement interrupting the quiet semidarkness. Thinking the mysterious car contained someone who wanted to rob them, Clifford Glover and his stepfather fled. The cop, Thomas Shea, pulled out his pistol and fired into the boy’s back, killing him almost instantly. “Die, you little fuck,” Shea’s partner, Walter Scott, was recorded saying on a radio transmission,

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2020

    Boroughed Time

    GIVEN TIME, every discussion of New York in the 1970s becomes a discussion of the South Bronx. When documentary filmmakers need to indicate the decade of New York’s municipal failure, the rubbled lots of the South Bronx mark the moment and do the failing. When overpaid Netflix directors need to gloss the Black experience in New York in the 1970s, an abandoned tenement is cast as the silent buddy. The South Bronx is a real place dogged by the surreal, somehow always most itself when on fire. But New York in the ’70s was not a burning dumpster, and the South Bronx was not a crater full of dancers

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