Mirror: an owner’s manual

Mr. Nagel said his wife was particularly attuned to her own appearance.

“It was a matter of great attention,” he said. “She thought it was an art.”

She believed, Mr. Nagel added, that people should be concerned with how they look from all angles: “She thought you should always use the double mirror before you leave the house.”

– Thomas Nagel, on his late wife Anne Hollander. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/09/style/anne-hollander-scholar-of-style-dies-at-83.html

The angels keep their ancient places

“In the summer of 1961 Harald Andersen uncovered at Foerlev Nymølle three sacrificial sites in the bog below the northern slope of the hill. . . . In one of these sites the stones were gathered up in a heap, and under this heap of stones lay a cloven oak-branch nine feet in length — the goddess herself. The branch in itself possessed natural ‘feminine’ form — suggesting a slender body, rounded hips and long legs and only the most distinctive features had been added by working or carving it. The sex was shown by a strong incision where the fork began. The roundness of the hips was emphasized by cutting back the upper parts of the legs at both sides. Head, arms and feet were all lacking, and it is perhaps just because of this that the female character of the figure is so apparent.”

— P. V. Glob, The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved, trans. Rupert Bruce-Mitford. (1969; rpt. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971) 124-25.

The angels keep their ancient places;
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
’Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces
That miss the many-splendored thing.

– Francis Thompson, “The Kingdom of God”

Learn of the green world what can be thy place / In scaled invention

Source: Canto LXXXI,

Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity,
nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnPaquin pull down!
The green casque has outdone your elegance.

1914-1918: Malcolm Cowley, Harry Crosby, E. E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway

Source: “Am’n Ambulance Field service in Woevre Forest, Bell to warn of gas waves.” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005023124/. Photoshopped. Click to enlarge.

Comb it wet or dry?

If you recognize the subject line above as a quotation, you’re probably showing your age. The line happens to be the final paragraph of a short story, Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” which once seemed important.

It probably isn’t important any more, but the reasons it was once taken seriously are still easy to understand. Lardner had a phonographically accurate ear for American speech, and the dialect of “Haircut” is an American demotic with a profound etymology in the language of dramatic irony, the “little does he know” effect. In “Haircut,” the irony is communicated by a talkative small-town barber who tells his customer a long, affectionate story about the wittiest man in town, a man recently killed in a hunting accident. As the barber prattles obliviously on and the page count steadily rises, it dawns on us readers — that is, on everybody in the world except the barber — that (1) the wittiest man in town was nothing but a sadist, (2) his death wasn’t an accident, it was a murder, and (3) oh boy did he have it coming. It probably matters as well that “Haircut” was first published in 1925, the same year that H. L. Mencken filed his mocking dispatches from the Monkey Trial and Harold Ross founded The New Yorker. That was exactly the right moment for delivery of a document like “Haircut.” The American idiom of the Roaring Twenties was a language excitedly teaching itself new antonyms to the lexicon of the pure, unironic sincerity of rural life.

You can still read “Haircut” here, canonized in the sarcophagus of the Library of America.


But I can’t visualize many people today reading it to the end. In the aftermath of the New Yorker era, Lardner’s irony seems unsophisticated, and at that I suppose I’d rather be stuck between trains in a small town ninety years ago than stuck between planes in an airport today. The evil in “Haircut” seems to have diminished in the perspective of time. It isn’t as comic as it used to be because it has lost some of its menace. Sadists these days have ascended in the world. In the “Haircut” era they were small-towners hanging out at the barber shop, but now they’re cosmopolitans in Gulfstreams.

The focused inquisitiveness of small-town small-mindedness has acquired a new geography since Lardner’s time, too. Earlier this year, after I used GMail to send a boarding pass to my wife, GMail’s party-line cousin Google dropped into my mailbox a dossier including my wife’s itinerary, complete with weather report and baggage claim information, and an archive of our email exchange. And just the other day, after I sent a link to somebody in Idaho, Google asked her whether she’d prefer to read it in English or Basque.

Hey, just askin. Yknow they got lotsa them Basques in Idaho, heh heh heh. And about that wart you were googling last year, I gotta insurance policy you might be interested in. . . .

Little did they know then. Too much do they know now. I’m standing by accordingly for the sequel to “Haircut.” Mind if I put your Google Glass over here while I get to work on your head?

Photohistory: Frank O’Hara during World War II

In City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (Knopf, 1993), Brad Gooch publishes two photographs of the poet taken on board USS Nicholas, the destroyer on which he served during World War II. I don’t know whether the third photograph below has also made it into the literary record, but in any case I’ve photoshopped it to make it a little clearer.

It comes from the ship’s wartime cruise book, a publication formatted exactly like a high school yearbook, including padded covers and a list of home addresses.

This yearbook, however, includes images of the Nicholas under attack and of Japanese and Allied generals on board during the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay. And on page 23 there’s this.

O'Hara in cruise bookSources: Destroyer History Foundation, http://destroyerhistory.org/fletcherclass/index.asp?r=44909&pid=44980