Hear Maggie Gyllenhaal Read the Opening Lines of Anna Karenina: The Beginning of a 36-Hour, New Audio Book

maggie reads karenina

Back in 2007, J. Peder Zane asked 125 top writers–everyone from Stephen King and Jonathan Franzen, to Claire Messud, Annie Proulx, and Michael Chabon–to name their favorite 10 books of all time. Zane then published each author’s list in his edited collection, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite BooksAnd he capped it off with one meta list, “The Top Top Ten.”  When you boil 125 lists down to one, it turns out [SPOILER ALERT] that Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the very best of the best. If you’ve read the novel, you’ll likely understand the pick. If you haven’t, you’re missing out.

Above, you can hear actress Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight, The Honourable Woman, etc.) read the opening lines of Anna Karenina, which famously begins “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Gyllenhaal spent 120 hours in the studio, making a recording that runs close to 36 hours in total. A lot more than she originally bargained for. Although available for purchase online, you can download the reading for free if you sign up for a 30-Day Free Trial with Audible. We have more information on that program here.

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Hear Albert Camus Read the Famous Opening Passage of The Stranger (1947)

It is closing-time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair –Cyril Connolly

My mind has been drawn to lately Albert Camus’ The Stranger, in which an alienated French-Algerian man, simply called Meursault, shoots a nameless “Arab,” for no particular reason that he can divine. He thinks, perhaps, it may have been the sun in his eyes. Meursault is not a police officer, he has not been called to a scene. He ambles into a scene, sees a stranger coming toward him, and fires five shots, commenting—in language that recalls the impersonal copspeak of a “discharged weapon”—that “the trigger gave.”

The import of Camus’ 1942 novel—translated as The Outsider in the first British edition, with its introduction by despairing literary critic Cyril Connolly—became such a hobby horse for critics that Louis Hudon wrote in 1960, “L’Etranger no longer exists…. Almost everyone has approached Camus and L’Etranger bound by his own tradition, prejudices, or critical apparatus.” But maybe we cannot do otherwise. Maybe there is never the “magnificently naked purity of the text” Hudon eulogizes.

Part of the difficulty, Hudon alleged, was down to Camus himself, who made available his journals and manuscripts, thus encouraging over-interpretation. In 1955, Camus remarked, “I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’” The book has been read and taught in light of this general statement ever since.

Recent commentary on The Stranger in English has turned, almost obsessively, on the translation of the novel’s first sentence: Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Typically, as in that first British edition, the line has been rendered “Mother died today”—using a “static, archetypal term… like calling the family dog ‘Dog’ or a husband ‘Husband,’” writes Ryan Bloom in The New Yorker. For decades, Anglophone readers have come to know Meursault “through the detached formality of his statement.”

Perhaps if translators were to leave the word in its original French—maman—which connotes something between the formal “Mother” and childish “Mommy”—we would see Meursault differently. (French-speaking readers, of course, are not faced with this particular interpretive challenge.) But whether or not it makes a difference, and no matter how we have imagined Meursault’s internal voice, we can hear it the way Camus heard it, in the audio above from 1947, in which the author reads the opening section of the novel in French. (See the French passage and English translation at the bottom of the post.)

Does it matter whether we translate maman as “Mother” or leave it be? “Mommy” may be inappropriate, and while “mom” might “seem the closest fit… there’s still something off-putting and abrupt about the single-syllable word.” (Some translations have opted for the equally jarring, one-syllable “Ma.”) If the debate seems agonizingly scholastic, keep in mind that Meursault’s fate, his very life, as Camus remarked, turns on whether a jury views him as a sympathetic fellow human or a psychopath, based on exactly this kind of scrutiny.

But what of the murder? The murder victim? A man who is given no name, no history, no family, and no funeral that we see. Leaving maman in French, writes Bloom, serves another purpose—reminding readers “that they are in fact entering a world different from their own”—that of Camus’ native colonial French Algeria. (Though in some ways not so different.) Here, “the likelihood of a Frenchman in colonial Algeria getting the death penalty for killing an armed Arab was slim to nonexistent.” This historical context is often elided.

Many of us were taught that the murder is all of a piece with Meursault’s callous detachment from the world. But that interpretation itself betrays a profound callousness, one that takes for granted Meursault’s objectification of the faceless “Arab.” Absent in such a reading is the fact that Meursault is “a citizen of France domiciled in North Africa,” as Connolly writes, “an homme du midi yet one who hardly partakes of the traditional Mediterranean culture” …a colonist, who, because of his race and nationality, has likely been taught to view the Algerian “Arabs” as sub-human, other, outside, strange, undifferentiated, an enemy….

The shooting is a reflex born of that training. Why does he do it? He doesn’t know.

The freshest response to Camus’ novel happens to be a novel itself, Algerian writer Kamel Daoud’s 2013 The Meursault Investigation, narrated by “the Arab”’s younger brother, Harun, who notes that in Camus’ book “the world ‘Arab’ appears twenty-five times, but not a single name, not once.” Here, writes Claire Messud in her review, “Harun wants his listener to understand that the dead man had a name [“Musa”] and a family.” In his metafictional commentary, Harun ruminates: “Just think, we’re talking about one of the most read books in the world. My brother might have been famous if your author had merely deigned to give him a name.”

Daoud’s novel does not exist to upbraid Camus or supplant The Stranger but to humanize the figure of “the Arab,” tell the complicated stories of Algerian identity, and ask some very Camus-inspired questions about the morality of killing. Perhaps, as the consideration of maman suggests to us English readers, Meursault is not a sociopath, or an emotional vacuum, or a symbol of the amoral absurd, but a person who had a certain vague fondness for his mother, just not in the falsely sentimental way his judges would like. This is what we often take away from the novel—Meursault’s condemnation of a social order that insists on an inauthentic performance of humanity. Perhaps also Meursault’s seemingly senseless, casual murder of “the Arab” is not an outcome of his existential emptiness but a reflexively ordinary act that makes him more like his peers than we would like to admit.

Here’s the full text, in French and English, that Camus reads:

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile : « Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués. » Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier. (See full text below)

L’asile de vieillards est à Marengo, à quatre-vingts kilomètres d’Alger. Je prendrai l’autobus à deux heures et j’arriverai dans l’après-midi. Ainsi, je pourrai veiller et je rentrerai demain soir. J’ai demandé deux jours de congé à mon patron et il ne pouvait pas me les refuser avec une excuse pareille. Mais il n’avait pas l’air content. Je lui ai même dit : « Ce n’est pas de ma faute. » Il n’a pas répondu. J’ai pensé alors que je n’aurais pas dû lui dire cela. En somme, je n’avais pas à m’excuser. C’était plutôt à lui de me présenter ses condoléances. Mais il le fera sans doute après-demain, quand il me verra en deuil. Pour le moment, c’est un peu comme si maman n’était pas morte. Après l’enterrement, au contraire, ce sera une affaire classée et tout aura revêtu une allure plus officielle.

J’ai pris l’autobus à deux heures. Il faisait très chaud. J’ai mangé au restaurant, chez Céleste, comme d’habitude. Ils avaient tous beaucoup de peine pour moi et Céleste m’a dit : « On n’a qu’une mère. » Quand je suis parti, ils m’ont accompagné à la porte. J’étais un peu étourdi parce qu’il a fallu que je monte chez Emmanuel pour lui emprunter une cravate noire et un brassard. Il a perdu son oncle, il y a quelques mois.

J’ai couru pour ne pas manquer le départ. Cette hâte, cette course, c’est à cause de tout cela sans doute, ajouté aux cahots, à l’odeur d’essence, à la réverbération de la route et du ciel, que je me suis assoupi. J’ai dormi pendant presque tout le trajet. Et – 5 – quand je me suis réveillé, j’étais tassé contre un militaire qui m’a souri et qui m’a demandé si je venais de loin. J’ai dit « oui » pour n’avoir plus à parler.


MOTHER died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.

The Home for Aged Persons is at Marengo, some fifty miles from Algiers. With the two o’clock bus I should get there well before nightfall. Then I can spend the night there, keeping the usual vigil beside the body, and be back here by tomorrow evening. I have fixed up with my employer for two days’ leave; obviously, under the circumstances, he couldn’t refuse. Still, I had an idea he looked annoyed, and I said, without thinking: “Sorry, sir, but it’s not my fault, you know.”

Afterwards it struck me I needn’t have said that. I had no reason to excuse myself; it was up to him to express his sympathy and so forth. Probably he will do so the day after tomorrow, when he sees me in black. For the present, it’s almost as if Mother weren’t really dead. The funeral will bring it home to me, put an official seal on it, so to speak. …

I took the two-o’clock bus. It was a blazing hot afternoon. I’d lunched, as usual, at Céleste’s restaurant. Everyone was most kind, and Céleste said to me, “There’s no one like a mother.” When I left they came with me to the door. It was something of a rush, getting away, as at the last moment I had to call in at Emmanuel’s place to borrow his black tie and mourning band. He lost his uncle a few months ago.

I had to run to catch the bus. I suppose it was my hurrying like that, what with the glare off the road and from the sky, the reek of gasoline, and the jolts, that made me feel so drowsy. Anyhow, I slept most of the way. When I woke I was leaning against a soldier; he grinned and asked me if I’d come from a long way off, and I just nodded, to cut things short. I wasn’t in a mood for talking.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stanley Kubrick’s Daughter Vivian Debunks the Age-Old Moon Landing Conspiracy Theory

Kubrick Moon Landing

All moon-landing conspiracy theorists refuse to believe that the United States landed on that much-mythologized rock 250,00 miles away in 1969. As to why the rest of us believe that it did happen, moon-landing conspiracy theorists vary in the specifics of their stories. Perhaps the most interesting element of the lore — interesting to cinephiles, at least — holds that Stanley Kubrick, fresh off the production of 2001: A Space Odyssey, secretly shot the landing video seen across America in a studio, later cashing in on the favor by borrowing one of NASA’s custom-made Zeiss lenses to shoot 1975’s Barry Lyndon.

Kubrick died in 1999, and so can’t clear up the matter himself, unless you believe the “confession” video that circulated last year, convincing nobody but the already-convinced. But his daughter Vivian took to Twitter just this month to put the matter to rest herself, embedding an impassioned defense of her father’s integrity (and an encouragement to focus on the more plausible abuses of power quite possibly going on right this moment) that goes way beyond 140 characters:

Kubrick Moon Landing Tweet

“Vivian Kubrick worked on the set of The Shining with her father where she shot a behind-the-scenes making-of documentary about the film,” adds Variety‘s Lamarco McClendon. “Theorists have purported [Stanley] even used the film to admit to shooting the hoax by leaving behind clues. One such clue was Danny Lloyd wearing an Apollo 11 sweater.” The Shining has given rise to a fair few theories, conspiracy and otherwise, of its own, proving that Kubrick fans can get obsessive, watching and re-watching his work while seeking out symbols and patterns, seeing connections and drawing conclusions by building elaborate interpretive structures atop thin evidence. Come to think of it, you’d think they and the moon-landing conspiracy theorists would have a lot to talk about.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

In Touching Video, People with Alzheimer’s Tell Us Which Memories They Never Want to Forget

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda‘s 1999 film Afterlife tasks its recently deceased characters with choosing a single memory to take with them, as they move into the great unknown.

The subjects of “On Memory,” above, are all very much alive, but they too, have great cause to sift through a lifetime’s worth of memories. All have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. They range in age from 48 to 70. Two have been living with their diagnoses for six years. The baby of the group received hers just last year.

Those who have no personal connection to Alzheimer’s are likely to have a clearer picture of the disease’s advanced stage than its early presentation. A few minutes with Myriam Marquez, Lon Cole, Frances Smersh, Irene Japha, Nancy Johnson, and Bob Wellington should remedy that.

All six are able to recall and describe the significant events of their youth. At the interviewer’s request, they reflect on the pain of losing beloved parents and the pleasure of first kisses. Their powers of sensory recall bring back their earliest memories, including what the weather was like that day.

The recent past? Much hazier. At present, these individuals’ mild cognitive impairment resemble benign age-related memory slips quite closely. Their diagnoses are what lends urgency to their answers. The prospect of forgetting children and spouse’s names is very real to them.

Knowledge of the interviewees’ diagnoses can’t but help sharpen viewers’ eyes for distinct facial expressions, speech patterns, and individual temperaments. They share a common diagnosis, but for now, there’s no difficulty distinguishing between the six unique personalities, each informed by a wealth of experience.

The video is a step up for viral video producer Cut, creator of such internet sensations as the Truth or Drink series and Grandmas Smoking Weed for the First Time. This video, which directs viewers to the Alzheimer’s Association for more information, deserves an even wider audience.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

If Coffee Commercials Told the Unvarnished Truth

A new comedy video from Cracked makes a fair point: there’s a lot of bullshit that goes into the marketing of coffee nowadays. Slap the words “organic” and “fair trade” on the product, and everyone feels pretty good about keeping their caffeine addictions going. Several years ago, Slovenian theorist Slavoj Žižek took a closer look at this phenomenon and drew some interesting conclusions about how, within contemporary capitalism, companies like Starbucks have reworked Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic, and found new ways to square our economic and spiritual lives. Starbucks has made it, Žižek notes, so that when we enter their stores, we’re not just buying coffee and being consumers. Rather, we’re buying fair trade and eco-friendly coffee, participating in charitable work, and leaving with a sense of redemption. The animated video is worth a look.

And lest you think marketing coffee has always been a sunny affair, let me turn your attention to this post in our archive: Men In Commercials Being Jerks About Coffee: A Mashup of 1950s & 1960s TV Ads.

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Marie Curie Attended a Secret, Underground “Flying University” When Women Were Banned from Polish Universities

curie underground education

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Marie Curie has long stood in the pantheon of scientists for her research on radioactivity — research so close to the subject that, as we posted about last year, her papers remain radioactive over a century later. She’s also become the most prominent historical role model for female students with an interest in science, not least because of the obstacles she had to surmount to arrive at the position where she could do her research in the first place. Born in 19th-century Poland to a family financially humbled by their participation in political struggles for independence from Russia (whose authorities took laboratory instruction out of the country’s schools), she hardly had a smooth road to follow, or even much of a road at all.

“I was only fifteen when I finished my high-school studies, always having held first rank in my class,” Curie wrote of those years. “The fatigue of growth and study compelled me to take almost a year’s rest in the country.” But when she returned to the capital, she couldn’t continue her formal learning there, given the University of Warsaw‘s refusal to admit women. So she continued her learning informally, getting involved with the “Flying University” (or “Floating University”) that in the late 19th and early 20th century clandestinely offered an education in ever-changing locations, often private houses, throughout the city. (Over 5,000 Poles, male and female, benefited from its services, including the writer Zofia Nałkowska and doctor Janusz Korczak.)

Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity author Naomi Pasachoff writes that “the mission of the patriotic participants of the Floating University,” as its name is also translated, “was to bring about Poland’s eventual freedom by enlarging and strengthening its educated classes.” Youngsters eager to read more about Curie’s experience there might like to read Marie Curie and the Discovery of Radium, whose authors Ann E. Steinke and Roger Xavier write of Curie’s experience listening to “lessons on anatomy, natural history, and sociology. In turn she gave lessons to women from poor families.” She would later describe her time there as the origin of her interest in experimental scientific work.

With their sights set on Western Europe, Curie (then Maria Skłodowska) and her sister Bronislawa (known as Bronya) made a pact: “Maria would work as a governess to help pay for Bronya’s medical studies in Paris. As soon as Bronya was trained and began to earn money, she would help cover the costs of Maria’s university training.” Curie earned two degrees in Paris in 1893 and 1894, and her first Nobel Prize in 1903. The Flying University lasted until 1905, and the operation would later return to activity in the late 1970s and early 80s with Poland under the thumb of communism. We now live in more enlightened times, with proper educations, scientific or otherwise, available to students male or female across most of the world — thanks to the will that drove unconventional institutions like the Flying University, and its unconventional students like Marie Curie.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Wonderfully Offbeat Assignments That Artist John Baldessari Gave to His Art Students (1970)

baldessari assignment

In 1970, when conceptual artist John Baldessari was teaching studio art at the experimental CalArts campus near Valencia, CA, the assignments he handed out to his class were art in themselves. Humorous, confounding, sometimes very specific but often like zen koans, the assignments must have come as a shock, especially to those students with a more traditional sense of what constitutes art.

They probably didn’t know that Baldessari was questioning art itself and in the middle of a crisis. That year he had taken all his previous painted work from 1953 – 1966 and cremated it at a San Diego mortuary. He turned from painting to photography. And he expected his students to rethink everything they thought they knew.

baldessari assignment 2

Looking back at his class assignments, which you can see here, here, and here, it’s like seeing the seeds of ideas that were to be turned into whole careers by the likes of Cindy Sherman, Wayne White, Komar & Melamid, and others.

Here’s a selection of favorites:

  1. One person copies or makes up random captions. Another person takes photos. Match photos to captions.
  2. Defenestrate objects. Photo them in mid-air.
  3. Photograph backs of things, underneaths of things, extreme foreshortenings, uncharacteristic views. Or trace them.
  4. Repaired or patched art. Recycled. Find something broken and discarded. Perhaps in a thrift store. Mend it.
  5. Imitate Baldessari in actions and speech.
  6. Punishment: Write “I will not make any more art” / “I will not make any more boring art” / “I will make good art” (or something similar) 1000 times on wall. (Apparently, Baldessari punished himself.)

Some of these assignments are intentionally silly. Some could produce good work. But all are meant to wake the artist up to the possibilities of the form.

via Austin Kleon/CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

The Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” Gets a Dreamy New Music Video from Cirque du Soleil

The Beatles gave us enough. You couldn’t ask for more. But if you want to get a little greedy, you could ask for a few more songs from George. Though crowded out by the prolific Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership, Harrison squeezed in some Beatles songs that rival their best. Shall I refresh your memories?  “Taxman.” “I Want to Tell You.” “It’s All Too Much.” “Something.” “Here Comes the Sun.” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” You owe them all to George.

Written in 1968 for The White Album, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is ranked #136 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list, “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Clapton played the solo on the original recording–the same solo Prince shredded at the 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony. And it’s perhaps partly thanks to that Prince performance, witnessed so widely when the musician passed earlier this year, that we now have this: a new video paying tribute to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” featuring scenes from LOVE, Cirque du Soleil’s mesmerizing Beatles production that’s been running in Las Vegas since 2006. If you like the beautiful LOVE soundtrack, you’ll enjoy the remixed version of Harrison’s song and all of the dreamy Cirque du Soleil visuals that accompany it above.

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Octavia Butler’s 1998 Dystopian Novel Features a Fascistic Presidential Candidate Who Promises to “Make America Great Again”


Image by Nikolas Coukouma, via Wikimedia Commons

The Internet has been abuzz and atwitter these past few months with stories about prophetic predictions of the rise of Trump, buried in ancient texts like Back to the Future II, and an episode of The Simpsons from 2000. Then there’s Mike Judge’s now ten-year-old satire Idiocracy. While not specifically modeled after a Trump presidency, its depiction of the country as a violent, backward dystopia, armed and corporate-branded to the teeth, sure does resemble the kind of place many imagine Trump and his supporters might build. These allusions and direct references don’t necessarily provide evidence of the writers’ clairvoyance; after all, Trump has threatened us with his candidacy since 1988, with mostly unserious statements. But they do show us that we’ve seen this version of the future coming for the last thirty years or so.

One prediction you may have missed, however, offers us a much more sober take on the rise of a frightening neo-fascist during a time of fear and civil unrest. As Twitter user @oligopistos pointed out, in the second book of her Earthseed series, The Parable of the Talents (1998), Hugo and Nebula-award winning science fiction writer Octavia Butler gave us Senator Andrew Steele Jarret, a violent autocrat in the year 2032 whose “supporters have been known… to form mobs.” Jarret’s political opponent, Vice President Edward Jay Smith, “calls him a demagogue, a rabble-rouser, and a hypocrite,” and—most presciently—Jarret rallies his crowds with the call to “make America great again.”

butler tweet
Though Trump has trademarked it, the slogan did not originate with him, nor even with Butler’s Jarret character—the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign used it, as Matt Taibbi pointed out Rolling Stone last year. (Historians have even shown that another of Trump’s slogans, “America First,” was used by Charles Lindbergh and “Nazi-friendly Americans in the 1930s.”) Again, proto-Trumpism has been in the zeitgeist for a long time. While Butler may have used “Make American Great Again” from her memory of Reagan’s first campaign, the way her character employs it speaks to our moment for a number of reasons.

It’s true that Senator Jarret differs from Trump in some significant ways: “Jarret’s beef is with Canada instead of Mexico,” writes Fusion, and “instead of business acumen as his main credential, religion is Jarret’s stump. He’s the head of a group called Christian America, which is intolerant of other religious views, and whose supporters burn ‘witches’—meaning Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists—at the stake.” Our current candidate may have co-opted the religious right, but he doesn’t speak their language at all. Nonetheless, he has made promises that give secularists and non-Christians chills, and religious intolerance has formed the backbone of his campaign and of the rhetoric that has driven his party to the far right.

Jarret and the fanaticism he inspires form the core of the novel’s story, but the crucial background in Butler’s 1998 depiction of a post-apocalyptic 2032 are the conditions she identifies as giving rise to the Senator’s rule (and which she described in the first book, Parable of the Sower). In Talents, the narrator’s father Taylor Franklin Bankole writes,

I have read that the period of upheaval that journalists have begun to refer to as “the Apocalypse” or more commonly, more bitterly, “the Pox” lasted from 2015 through 2030—a decade and a half of chaos…. I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused the problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises.

In Butler’s fiction, the rise of Senator Jarret and his mobs is an outcome of the same kinds of impending crises we face now, and that far too many of our leaders dutifully ignore as they stage increasingly acrimonious and bizarre forms of political theater. Butler’s indirect warning to us in Parable of the Talents may be less about the demagogic leader and his cult—though they pose the most dire existential threat in the book—than about the causes and conditions that created “the Pox,” the kind of social collapse that Kurt Vonnegut warned of ten years before Butler in his time-capsule letter to the people of 2088, vaguely identifying similar kinds of “climatic, economic, and sociological” crises to come. Would that we could abandon empty spectacle and heed these Cassandras of the near future.

via The Huffington Post

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Portraits of Ellis Island Immigrants Arriving on America’s Welcoming Shores Circa 1907

Guadalupe Woman

The shibboleths of our political culture have trended lately toward the loathesome, crude, and completely specious to such a degree that at least one prominent columnist has summed up the ongoing spectacle in Cleveland as “grotesquerie… on a level unique in the history of our republic.” It’s impossible to quantify such a thing, but the sentiment feels accurate in the fervor of the moment. We’ll hear a torrent of well-worn counter-clichés at the other party’s big convention, and one of them that’s sure to come up again and again is the phrase “nation of immigrants.” The U.S., we’re told over and over, is a “nation of immigrants.” And it is. Or has become so, though the term “immigrant” is not an uncomplicated one, as we’ve seen in the EU’s struggle to parse “refugees” from “economic migrants.”

German Stowaway

The U.S. is also a nation of indigenous people and former slaves, indentured servants, and settler colonists, all very different histories—and academic historians are careful not to blur the categories, even if politicians, ordinary citizens, and textbook publishers often do. Yet rhetoric about who owns the country, and who gets to “take it back,” clouds every issue—it belongs to everyone and no one, or as Wallace Stevens put it, “this is everybody’s world.”

Danish Man

But when we talk about the history of immigration, we usually talk about a specific history dating from the mid-19th to early-20th century, during which diverse groups of people arrived from all over the world, bringing with them their languages, customs, food, and cultures, and only slowly becoming “Americans” as they naturalized and assimilated to various degrees, forcibly or otherwise. We also talk about a legal history that proscribed certain kinds of people and created hierarchies of desirable and undesirable immigrants with respect to ethnic and national origin and economic status.

Algerian Man

Millions of the people who arrived during the peak of U.S. immigration passed through the immigration inspection station at New York’s Ellis Island, which operated between the years 1882 and 1954. The individuals and families who spent any time there were working people and peasants. Among new arrivals, “the first and second class passengers were considered wealthy enough,” writes The Public Domain Review, “not to become a burden to the state and were examined onboard the ships while the poorer passengers were sent to the island where they underwent medical examinations and legal inspections.”

Italian Woman

Many of these individuals also sat for portraits taken by the Chief Registry Clerk Augustus Sherman while “waiting for money, travel tickets or someone to come and collect them from the island.” Sherman’s camera captured striking images like the poised Guadeloupean woman in profile at the top, the defiant German stowaway below her, stern Danish man further down, Algerian man and Italian woman above, and severe-looking trio of Dutch women and Georgian man below.

Dutch Women

These photographs date from before 1907, which was the busiest year for Ellis Island, “with an all-time high of 11,747 immigrants arriving in April.” About two percent of immigrants at the time were denied entry because of disease, insanity, or a criminal background. That percentage of people turned away rose in the following decade, and the diversity of people coming to the country narrowed significantly in the 1920s, until the 1924 immigration act imposed strict quotas, “as immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were seen as inferior to the earlier immigrants from Northern and Western Europe” and those from outside the European continent were limited to a tiny fraction of the almost 165,000 allowed that year.

Russian Cossack

“Following the Red Scare of 1919,” writes the Densho Encyclopedia, “widespread fear of radicalism fueled anti-foreign sentiment and exclusionist demands. Supporters of immigration legislation stressed recurring themes: Anglo-Saxon superiority and foreigners as threats to jobs and wages.” Not coincidentally, during this time the country also saw the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan, which—notes PBS—“moved in many states to dominate local and state politics.” It was a time that very much resembled our own, sadly, as fanatical nativism and white supremacy became dominant strains in the political discourse, accompanied by much fearmongering, demagoguery, and violence. (It was also in the teens and twenties that the idea of a superior “Western Civilization” was invented.)

Group Portrait Ellis Island

The portraits above were published in National Geographic and “hung on the walls of the lower Manhattan headquarters of the federal Immigration Service” in 1907, before the hysteria began. They show us the human face of an abstract phenomenon far too often used as an epithet or catch-all scare word rather than a fact of human existence since humans have existed. Becoming acquainted with the history of immigration in the U.S. allows us to see how we have handled it well in the past, and how we have handled it badly, and the photographic evidence preserves the dignity of the various individual people from all over the world who were lumped together collectively—as they are today—with the loaded word “immigrant.”

Ellis Island 2

These images come from the New York Public Library’s online archive of Ellis Island Photographs, which contains 89 photos in all, including several exterior and interior shots of the island’s facilities and many more portraits of arriving people. We’re grateful to the Public Domain Review (who have a fascinating new book on Nitrous Oxide coming out) for bringing these to our attention. For more of the NYPL’s huge repository of historical photographs, see their Flickr gallery of over 2,500 photos or full digital photography collection of over 180,000 images.

Ellis Island 1

via The Public Domain Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.