The heaven of Dante’s Divine Comedy is, like purgatory and Hell before it, divided into nine different regions. When he gets to the first sphere, he asks the first soul he meets a question: how can there be different levels of heaven when it’s supposed to be paradise for all?
Her answer, I think, explains the idea of heaven more fully than any of the celestial fireworks that Dante spends the rest of the Comedy describing. Not all souls in heaven are worthy of the same amount of grace and proximity to God, she says, due to a variety of reasons (earthly imperfections or being associated with a slightly-less-superior virtue). Nevertheless, each soul is filled according to its capacity nonetheless, and therefore each is equally, which is to say completely, content.
I find this so powerful an image because I know only too well what it feels like to be mostly content—to know that perfection is just out of reach, over the horizon, at the end of one more task. Doubly so when it comes to writing: there is so much of it, and a relative abundance of decent and successful writing, and moreover, far too little of it is my own.
Egotistical? You bet. But writing is ultimately an act of imposing one’s ego on readers in one way or another, probably more so than any other profession. Unlike a surgeon or a cop or even a politician, a writer has little to offer the world except a vivid imagination and the ability to turn a phrase, period. And the extent to which your own work is read or ignored, linked to and retweeted or consigned to oblivion, is, in the end a direct referendum on your own ego.
So in an essay called “Envy, or, The Last Infirmity,” Sven Birkerts describes the feeling of artistic envy that stings every serious or semi-serious writer from time to time—myself most definitely included. Ostensibly an examination of the 1984 film Amadeus, Birkerts actually takes you on a tour of the indignities of his own writing life. What he feels when a colleague lands an article in a good periodical. Why he gets the most invidious over the worst pieces. How he can only quiet his jealous ego in the presence of actual artistic brilliance, just as, for all the indignities that Mozart inflicted upon Salieri, the latter still stood in awe of the Requiem as he transcribed it at the foot of Mozart’s deathbed.
“Nothing more fully discloses the artist’s, the writer’s, flawed character than envy of a peer,” he writes. This is unquestionably true, and the best I (or anyone) can do is simply tamp down my feelings and pretend like everything is great and I am unreservedly happy for whomever for their piece on wherever. Seething in private: one of my favorite pastimes, and I’m sure I’m not alone on that front.
So this is why I, too, long to feel the same as the angels in Dante’s celestial firmament: to be filled fully with contentment, even if the amount that I receive is not as much as the person next to me or the person writing for X publication. Instead, I am left to my feeble attempts at self-abnegation of the sort that eluded much better people (Siddhartha comes to mind…)
In reading Birkerts’s essay, though, I understand what he means about standing in the reflected light of brilliance. In a subtle way, and about the most unlikeable of topics, Birkerts has expressed something that I’ve felt but have never quite grasped in its entirety. For that little bit of self-awareness I can only be grateful.
Best of The Bureau: Ask Ono!
— Darryl Campbell
Empathy, in the abstract, is an unalloyed good. It exists beyond race, gender, nationality, and economics. My capacity to care is not bound up with biology or geography. It is a feature of my humanity. When this abstract empathy is animated into action is where the problems occur. For instance: young, male, Caucasian journalist dining on steak in London seeks to help starving, tortured, denizens of the North Korean gulag. What action should this young man’s empathetic desire for justice take?
This is the question that Mike Deri-Smith wrestles with in “North Korea Won’t Be Liberated in a Day” in The Morning News. The first thing Deri-Smith does is listen: to the stories of North Korean refugees, to the experiences of generations of writers who went on idealistic empathy benders (Hemingway, Greene, Vollmann) and came back to warn us of its folly, to the debate stirred up by Kony 2012 (particularly Teju Cole’s excellent analysis of the “White Savior Industrial Complex” in the Atlantic). Listening seems like a good first step. From there Deri-Smith comes up with a “Manifesto for the Modern iDealist” that is a simple eight point plan we can all tape to our walls when we want to help, but need some guidance. (I referred to the manifesto recently, after reading some entries at The Afghan Women’s Writing Project.)
The mental gymnastics of one white guy who wants to help hundreds of thousands of suffering North Koreans without coming off like an asshole may seem like a small issue. On the contrary, how to effectively help one another is probably the most important question of the 21st century, regardless of your vital statistics. Respectfully, sympathetically helping each other feels like the best response to the immense forces of politics, environment, and economics that keep some people in a state of abject horror while others choose between different packaged meats at the supermarket. Or is that too idealistic?
Best of The Bureau: Katie Boody is the perfect example of Deri-Smith’s modern iDealist, as shown in her excellent essay “Welcome Back Boody: Ignorance.”
— Jonathan Gourlay
“Getting Them Dead” by Francine Prose exemplifies the kind of literary analysis applied to everyday political and cultural life that the New York Review of Books does so well. It’s a close reading of that NYT essay on Obama’s “Secret ‘Kill List’” and reminds us how language bends its own insidious forms of power and threat. “Detail, word choice, diction, and tone,” writes Prose, directs and influences “the reader’s response without, on the surface, appearing to do so […] and make[s] a familiar narrative seem new.” She continues: “the language of the journalists and of their interview subjects may make readers feel that they are receiving fresh and troubling information.” Citing Orwell’s important essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Prose examines how certain phrases work to hide their own violence. “Personality strikes;” “signature strikes;” “aggressive techniques;” “enhanced interrogation” – what do these phrases mean and, more crucially, how do they mean? It shouldn’t take a material catastrophe for English-speaking America to interrogate such language.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s review of Cynthia Carr’s new biography of David Wojnarowicz Fire in the Belly for Bookslut is one of those book reviews I could only hope for, not expect. Like Maggie Nelson’s review of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s The Weather in Proust, it’s intensely poetic, personal, and incisive. That these two reviews touch on books by or about queer artists is a coincidence, though not irrelevant to the nature of such prose and content. They’ll leave one with goosebumps, and a desire not just to know – but to understand – more. They glitter the books themselves with the reviewer’s own desiring perspective, adding (not detracting) from the subject at hand. Sycamore does not prostrate herself to the image of the late Wojnarowicz, but remains both loving and critical of the conflicted artist at the heart of Carr’s biography. Care, responsibility, and ethics ring throughout the piece – more than one can say about most book reviews.
For personal blogs, I have no idea what you’re doing if not reading Natalia Cecire (see her post on Nate Silver and puerility) and J.R. Martin (here on homophobia, islamophobia, immigration, and more). They’re two of the most intelligent and generous minds on the internet.
Best of The Bureau: This zany piece about Reality Musical Theatre by Jon Methven.
— Jane Hu
Spelunky is an amazing game, but it’s appeal is elusive. It’s an action platformer, like the old Mega Mans or Castlevanias, made in the roguelike style, which means the levels are random and every time you die you have to start all over again. But none of that explains why it’s one of the best independent games ever.
Luckily, Russ Frushtick is here to help. In a lengthy feature for Polygon (shoe-in for best new blog if we were still doing that, by the way), Frushstick goes deep on Spelunky. Staring with the question “But it’s just randomized Mario, right? What’s the big deal about that?,” he profiles Spelunky‘s developer, explains just what the hell “roguelike” means, charts the rise of indie games, and follows the game’s development from retro PC freebie to polished Xbox gem, before bringing it all back around to tell us what makes this little piece of software so special.
The whole piece is well written and reported, but the introduction especially has stuck with me. Frushstick opens by having the reader visualize the first level of Super Mario Bros., then changes elements until that mental image transforms into Spelunky. It’s tough to describe unusual game mechanics in simple, relatable terms, but Frushstick makes it look easy. And once that understanding is in place, the rest flows smoothly.
What I like most about the piece, though, is just that it exists. Videogames are such complex pieces of media: they’re computer programs, they’re art, they’re interactive, they’re narrative, they’re audio, they’re visual, and so on. Capturing the whole of even a fairly modest title like
Best of The Bureau: H.P. Lovecraft Answers Your Relationship Questions
— Nick Martens
Growing up, I watched lots of re-runs of Hanna-Barbera cartoons. The Jetsons were never my favorite, probably because I really liked The Flintstones which, conceptually, was the opposite. But as Paleo Future‘s Matt Novak points out, The Jetsons is one of the greatest influences on our futuristic vernacular. The Jetsons represent an optimistic way to talk about the future, or as Novak puts it in his Jetsons 50th anniversary retrospective, “the distillation of every Space Age promise Americans could muster.” This piece is actually the intro to a series of recaps of the entire 24-episode run of The Jetsons (did you know there were only 24 episodes of the original show?). Novak touches on the sense of entitlement associated with nostalgic futurism (“Where’s my jetpack!?! Where’s my flying car!?! Where’s my robot maid?!?”), a lot of historical context (the NASA space program 35-45% public approval rating), and why the show didn’t last more than one season (not enough color TVs).
Best of The Bureau: For me, the most resonant pieces we published this year were Tyler Magyar’s tonal GIF narrative “Things I Don’t Want to Forget” and Avery Edison’s terrific, touching series about being a transgender woman, Right Body, Wrong Junk series.
— Kevin Nguyen