When Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001, it heralded a cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy that would, at long last, possess scale, production value, and sheer ambition enough to do justice to the original novels. This set it somewhat apart from the version of The Fellowship of the Ring that had aired just ten years before on Leningrad Television — and hasn’t been seen since, at least until its recent upload (in twoparts) to Youtube. An unofficial adaptation, Khraniteli tells a story every single Tolkien reader around the world will recognize, even if they don’t understand unsubtitled Russian. The production’s appeal lies in any case not in its dialogue, but what we’ll call its look and feel.
“Featuring a score by Andrei Romanov of the rock band Akvarium and some incredibly cheap production design, no one is going to confuse this Lord of the Rings with Jackson’s films,” writes /Film’s Chris Evangelista. “The sets look like, well, sets, and the special effects — if you can call them that — are delightfully hokey. This appears to have had almost no budget, and that only lends to the charm.”
Despite its cheapness, Khraniteli displays exuberance on multiple levels, including its often-theatrical performances as well as visual effects, executed with the still-new video technology of the time, that oscillate between the hokily traditional and the nearly avant-garde. Some scenes, in fact, look not entirely dissimilar to those of Prospero’s Books, Peter Greenaway’s high-tech vision of Shakespeare that also premiered in 1991.
That year was the Soviet Union’s last, and the prolonged political shakeup that ensued could partially explain why Khraniteli went unseen for so long. Until now, obscurity-hunters have had to make do with The Fairytale Journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit (previously featured here on Open Culture), Leningrad Television’s earlier adaptation of Tolkien’s pre-Lord of the Rings children’s novel. It was the now long-gone Leningrad Television’s successor entity 5TV that just put the Soviet Fellowship of the Ring online — and in seemingly pristine condition at that — to the delight of global Tolkien enthusiasts who’d known only rumors of its existence. And as many of them have already found, for all the shortcomings, Khraniteli still has Tom Bombadil, for whose omission from his sprawling blockbusters Jackson will surely never hear the end.
Brenda (laughing): Can you imagine a Taoist advertising agency? “Buy this if you feel like it. If it’s right. You may not need it.”
Ursula: There was an old cartoon in The New Yorker with a guy from an advertising agency showing his ad and the boss is saying “I think you need a little more enthusiasm Jones.” And his ad is saying, “Try our product, it really isn’t bad.”
Perhaps no Chinese text has had more lasting influence in the West than the Tao Te Ching, a work so ingrained in our culture by now, it has become a “changeless constant,” writes Maria Popova. “Every generation of admirers has felt, and continues to feel, a prescience in these ancient teachings so astonishing that they appear to have been written for their own time.” It speaks directly to us, we feel, or at least, that’s how we can feel when we find the right translation.
Admirers of the Taoist classic have included John Cage, Franz Kafka, Bruce Lee, Alan Watts, and Leo Tolstoy, all of whom were deeply affected by the millennia-old philosophical poetry attributed to Lao Tzu. That’s some heavy company for the rest of us to keep, maybe. It’s also a list of famous men. Not every reader of the Tao is male or approaches the text as the utterances of a patriarchal sage. One famous reader had the audacity to spend decades on her own, non-gendered, non-hierarchical translation, even though she didn’t read Chinese.
It’s not quite right to call Ursula Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching a translation, so much as an interpretation, or a “rendition,” as she calls it. “I don’t know Chinese,” she said in an interview with Brenda Peterson, “but I drew upon the Paul Carus translation of 1898 which has Chinese characters followed by a transliteration and a translation.” She used the Carus as a “touchstone for comparing other translations,” and started, in her twenties, “working on these poems. Every decade or so I’d do another chapter. Every reader has to start anew with such an ancient text.”
Waley’s translation “is never going to be equaled for what it does,” serving as a “manual for rulers,” Le Guin says. It was also designed as a guide for scholars, in most editions appending around 100 pages of introduction and 40 pages of opening commentary to the main text. Le Guin, by contrast, reduces her editorial presence to footnotes that never overwhelm, and often don’t appear at all (one note just reads “so much for capitalism”), as well as a few pages of endnotes on sources and variants. “I didn’t figure a whole lot of rulers would be reading it,” she said. “On the other hand, people in positions of responsibility, such as mothers, might be.”
Her version represents a lifelong engagement with a text Le Guin took to heart “as a teenage girl” she says, and found throughout her life that “it obviously is a book that speaks to women.” But her rendering of the poems does not substantially alter the substance. Consider the first two stanzas of her version of Chapter 11 (which she titles “The uses of not”) contrasted with Waley’s CHAPTER XI.
We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel; But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends. We turn clay to make a vessel; But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
Thirty spokes meet in the hub. Where the wheel isn’t is where is it’s useful.
Hollowed out, clay makes a pot. Where the pot’s not is where it’s useful.
Le Guin renders the lines as delightfully folksy oppositions with rhyme and repetition. Waley piles up argumentative clauses. “One of the things I love about Lao Tzu is he is so funny,” Le Guin comments in her note,” a quality that doesn’t come through in many other translations. “He’s explaining a profound and difficult truth here, one of those counterintuitive truths that, when the mind can accept them, suddenly double the size of the universe. He goes about it with this deadpan simplicity, talking about pots.”
Such images captivated the earthy anarchist Le Guin. She drew inspiration for the title of her 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven from Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, perhaps showing how she reads her own interests into a text, as all translators and interpreters inevitably do. No translation is definitive. The borrowing turned out to be an example of how even respected Chinese language scholars can misread a text and get it wrong. She found the “lathe of heaven” phrase in James Legge’s translation of Chuang Tzu, and later learned on good authority that there were no lathes in China in Chuang Tzu’s time. “Legge was a bit off on that one,” she writes in her notes.
Scholarly density does not make for perfect accuracy or a readable translation. The versions of Legge and several others were “so obscure as to make me feel the book must be beyond Western comprehension,” writes Le Guin. But as the Tao Te Ching announces at the outset: it offers a Way beyond language. In Legge’s first few lines:
The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.
Here is how Le Guin welcomes readers to the Tao — noting that “a satisfactory translation of this chapter is, I believe, perfectly impossible — in the first poem she titles “Taoing”:
The way you can go isn’t the real way. The name you can say isn’t the real name.
Heaven and earth begin in the unnamed: name’s the mother of the ten thousand things.
So the unwanting soul sees what’s hidden, and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants.
Two things, one origin, but different in name, whose identity is mystery. Mystery of all mysteries! The door to the hidden.
Where were you when you heard that Hunter S. Thompson had died? The uniquely addled, uniquely incisive taker of the strange trip that was 20th-century America checked out sixteen years ago last month, a span of time in which we’ve also lost a great many other influential figures cultural and countercultural. The departed include many of Thompson’s colleagues in letters: societal diagnosticians like David Foster Wallace and Christopher Hitchens; conjurers of the fantastical and the familiar like Ursula K. Le Guin and Gabriel García Márquez; and specialists in other fields — Oliver Sacks from neurology, Anthony Bourdain from the kitchen, Nora Ephron from Hollywood — who on the page entertained us as they shared their expertise.
“Hemingway would have knocked back the booze and gone all moody and silent; the notoriously paranoid Dick would have been under the table checking for bugging devices and Ephron would’ve channeled what she called ‘the truly life-saving technique’ taught to her by her Hollywood screenwriter parents to get through a rough time: the mantra, ‘Someday this will be a story!'”
With a range of deceased icons, including Marilyn Monroe and Martin Luther King, Jr., Julia Child and Jorge Luis Borges, Fred Rogers and Frida Kahlo, the Last Interview books cast a wide net for such an aesthetically and intellectually unified project. “Each volume offers, besides useful insights into its particular author’s work, what an old friend would call ‘civilized entertainment,'” writes Michael Dirda in The Washington Post. “Nearly all the titles actually contain several interviews, and some add introductions. For instance, the Roberto Bolaño opens with a 40-page critical essay.” In some cases the interviewers are as notable as the interviewees: “Two of Lou Reed’s questioners — the multi-talented novelists Neil Gaiman and Paul Auster — are now probably as well known as the legendary co-founder of the Velvet Underground.”
From the world of music theseries includes not just Reed but David Bowie and Prince, two other one-man cultural forces who left us in the past decade, as well as their equally irreplaceable predecessors Johnny Cash and Billie Holiday. At the moment you can buy the entire Last Interview collection on Amazon (in Kindle format) for USD $344, which comes out to about $10 per book with 34 volumes in total. You may find this an economical solution, a way to explore the final thoughts of figures featured more than once here on Open Culture.
Was he gay? Asexual? A virgin with a propensity for massive crushes on unattainable women, who engaged prostitutes solely for conversation?
No one can say for sure.
What we know definitively is that he was a jolly and talented paper cutter.
He enchanted party guests of all ages with improvised stories as he snipped away, unfolding the sheet at tale’s end, a souvenir for some lucky young listener.
“You can imagine how many of them must have got torn or creased,” says art historian Detlef Klein, who co-curated the 2018 exhibition Hans Christian Andersen, Poet with Pen and Scissors. “You could often bend the figures a little, blow at them and then move them across the tabletop.”
Pierrots, dancers, and swans were frequent subjects. Spraddle-legged creature’s bellies served as proscenium theaters. Even the simplest feature some tricky, spindly bits—tightropes, umbrellas, delicate shoes….
The most intricate pieces, like Fantasy Cutting for Dorothea Melchior below, were thoughtful homemade presents for close friends. (The Melchiors hosted Andersen’s 70th birthday party and he died during an extended visit to their country home.)
The cuttings bring fairy tales to mind, but they are not specific to the published work of Andersen. No Thumbelina. No Ugly Duckling. Not a mermaid in sight.
As Moy McCrory, senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Derby, writes:
Andersen knew that his written work would outlast him: he was famous and successful, as were his tales. Yet he continued to work in these transient materials, their cheapness and availability making them of no value apart from their appeal to sentiment…Why work in a form that ought to have left no traces? I suggest that this showed how Andersen reacted to his fame, and to his own sense of being forever on the margins of the lived life. He moved amongst the educated and the famous, was friendly with Dickens, was patronized by nobles, but was outside those circles. His education was gained at some pains to himself, years after the usual dates for these activities (he would not even pass nowadays as a “mature student”, since his completion of elementary school only took place when he was a young adult). He was always placed outside the normal bounds of the society he kept.
Readers, we challenge you to play Pygmalion and release a fairy tale based on the images below.
All images, with the exception of The Royal Library Copenhagen’s The Botanist, directly above, are used with the permission of Odense City Museums, in accordance with a Creative Commons License.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti proclaimed on the wall of his City Lights bookstore, a San Francisco fixture since the poet, activist, and publisher founded the landmark with Peter D. Martin in 1953. Ferlinghetti, who died on Monday at age 101, was himself a fixture, a venerated steward of the counterculture. (See him read “Last Prayer,” above, in a clip from The Last Waltz). On his 100th birthday–on which the city instituted an annual “Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day”–Chloe Veltman interviewed him, describing the poet as “frail and nearly blind… but his mind is still on fire.” It was the same mind that started a publishing house in the 50s with the intent to stir an “international dissident ferment.”
Ferlinghetti and Martin started their bookstore with a mission: “to break literature out of its stuffy, academic cage,” Veltman writes, out of “its self-centered focus on what he calls ‘the me me me,’ and make it accessible to all.” City Lights was the first all-paperback bookstore, opened at a time, he says, when “paperbacks weren’t considered real books.”
For Ferlinghetti, literature and democracy were not separate pursuits. The idea was radical, and so were his patrons. “A bookstore is a natural place for poets to hang out,” Ferlinghetti told NPR’s Tom Vitale, “and they started showing up there”–“They” being East Coast Beats like Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the great, unsung Bob Kaufman.
Like a Northern California Shakespeare and Company, Ferlinghetti’s City Lights became the physical embodiment of a literary movement, especially after the infamous publication of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl and Other Poems, for which Ferlinghetti stood trial for obscenity, an event that “propelled the Beat generation into the international spotlight,” writes Evan Karp. “For the first and–arguably–only time, literature became a popular movement in the U.S.” Young people around the country realized that poetry was relevant to their politics (and lives), and vice versa.
His purpose, he writes, was to pierce a culture he calls “a freeway fifty lanes wide / a concrete continent / spaced with bland billboards / illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness.” From his Navy service in WWII–in which he saw the aftermath of Nagasaki weeks after the dropping of the atomic bombs–to the last days of the Trump administration, he kept his keen eye on America’s abuses. His “poetry is notoriously critical of politicians and the status quo,” Karp writes, and he was “unafraid to name names and take stances publicly” as a writer and a lifelong activist.
“Gerald Nicosia, the critic,” Vitale points out, “says Ferlinghetti’s two greatest accomplishments were fighting censorship, and inaugurating a small press revolution.” What did Ferlinghetti himself think of his place in the culture? “In Plato’s republic, poets were considered subversive, a danger to the republic,” he told The New York Times in 1998. “I kind of relish that role.” As for what might finally shake the country out of the anti-democratic spirit that has held its people hostage to corporations and a hostile government, he was not sanguine: “It would take a whole new generation not devoted to the glorification of the capitalist system,” he said. “A generation not trapped in the me, me, me.”
The phrase “opening of Japan” is a euphemism that has outlived its purpose, serving to cloud rather than explain how a country closed to outsiders suddenly, in the mid-19th century, became a major influence in art and design worldwide. Negotiations were carried out at gunpoint. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry presented the Japanese with two white flags to raise when they were ready to surrender. (The Japanese called Perry’s fleet the “black ships of evil men.”) In one of innumerable historical ironies, we have this ugliness to thank for the explosion of Impressionist art (van Gogh was obsessed with Japanese prints and owned a large collection) as well as much of the beauty of Art Nouveau and modernist architecture at the turn of the century.
We may know versions of this already, but we probably don’t know it from a Japanese point of view. “As our global society grows ever more connected,” writes Katie Barrett at the Internet Archive blog, “it can be easy to assume that all of human history is just one click away. Yet language barriers and physical access still present major obstacles to deeper knowledge and understanding of other cultures.”
Unless we can read Japanese, our understanding of its history will always be informed by specialist scholars and translators. Now, at least, thanks to cooperation between the University of Tokyo General Library and the Internet Archive, we can access thousands more primary sources previously unavailable to “outsiders.”
“Since June 2020,” notes Barrett, “our Collections team has worked in tandem with library staff to ingest thousands of digital files from the General Library’s servers, mapping the metadata for over 4,000 priceless scrolls, texts, and papers.” This material has been digitized over decades by Japanese scholars and “showcases hundreds of years of rich Japanese history expressed through prose, poetry, and artwork.” It will be primarily the artwork that concerns non-Japanese speakers, as it primarily concerned 19th-century Europeans and Americans who first encountered the country’s cultural products. Artwork like the humorous print above. Barrett provides context:
In one satirical illustration, thought to date from shortly after the 1855 Edo earthquake, courtesans and others from the demimonde, who suffered greatly in the disaster, are shown beating the giant catfish that was believed to cause earthquakes. The men in the upper left-hand corner represent the construction trades; they are trying to stop the attack on the fish, as rebuilding from earthquakes was a profitable business for them.
There are many such depictions of “seismic destruction” in ukiyo-e prints dating from the same period and the later Mino-Owari earthquake of 1891: “They are a sobering reminder of the role that natural disasters have played in Japanese life.”
Jules Verne’s tales of adventure take his characters around the world, through the deepest seas, even into the center of the Earth—on journeys, that is, difficult or impossible in the 19th century. Verne himself, however, spent most his life in France, writing of places he had not seen. In one apocryphal story, the young Jules Verne is caught trying to sneak aboard a ship bound for the Indies and promises his father he will henceforth travel “only in his imagination.” Whether or not he made such a vow, he seemed to keep it, though the idea that he never traveled at all is a “tiresome canard,” writes Terry Harpold in an essay titled “Verne’s Cartographies.”
“Of the 80 novels and other short stories he published,” geographer Lionel Dupuy writes, “62 make up the corpus of Extraordinary Voyages (Voyages Extraordinaires). These books, in which imagination played a vital role, were termed ‘geographical novels,’ a category the author himself used for them.”
Verne would also use the term “scientific novel,” but he made it clear which science he meant:
I always had a passion for studying geography, as others did for history or historical research. I really believe that it is my passion for maps and great explorers around the world that led me to write the first of my long series of geographical novels.
As a geographical novelist, and member of the Geographical Society from 1865 to 1898, it was only fitting that Verne include as many maps as he could in his quest, as he put it, “to depict the Earth, and not just the Earth, but the universe, for I have sometimes carried my readers far away from the Earth in my novels.” To that end, “thirty of the novels” in the first edition of Voyages Extraordinaires” published by Pierre-Jules Hetzel, “include one or more engraved maps,” Harpold points out. “There are forty-two such engravings in all.” View them here.
“These images and design elements are nuanced, graceful, and evocative; drafted and engraved by some of the finest artists of the time,” Harpold writes. “They represent the pinnacle of late nineteenth-century popular-scientific cartography.” They also represent the author of geographical fictions who, as both a scientist and artist, refused to let either form of thinking take over the text, combining myth and poetry with observation and measurement. As Dupuy puts it, “in Extraordinary Voyages, the passage from reality to imagination and back is encouraged by the emergence of a ‘marvelous’ that we can call ‘geographical.’”
In one sense, we might think of most kinds of fiction as geographical, in that they describe places we have never seen. This is particularly so in fictions that include maps of their imagined territories, such as those of William Faulkner, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Louis Stevenson, and so on. We might look to Jules Verne as their towering forbear. “Several of the maps appearing in the Hetzel Voyages were drafted under Verne’s close supervision or were based on his sketches or designs. Maps in three of the novels (20,000 Leagues [top], Hatteras [further up], Three Russians) were drafted by Verne himself, whose talents in this regard were appreciable,” writes Harpold.
Unsurprisingly, she’s been getting published in The New Yorker a lot of late.
The process for getting cartoons accepted there is the stuff of legend, though reportedly less grueling since Emma Allen, the magazine’s youngest and first-ever female cartoon editor, took over. Allen has made a point of seeking out fresh voices, and working with them to help mold their submissions into something in The New Yorker vein, rather than “this endless game of presenting work and then hearing ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
Kurzweil has a fondness for literary themes (and the same brand of pencils that John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, and Vladimir Nabokov preferred—Blackwings—whether in her hand or, conversing with Allen on Zoom, above, in her ears.)
Getting the joke of a New Yorker cartoon often depends on getting the reference, and while both women seem tickled at the first example, Kurzweil’s mash-up of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and the picture book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, it may go over many readers’ heads.
The thing that holds it all together?
Madeleines, of course, though outside France, not every Proust lover is able to identify an inked representation of this evocative cookie by shape.
Kurzweil states that she has never actually read the children’s book that supplies half the context.
(It’s okay. Like the idea that memories can be triggered by certain nostalgic scents, its concept is pretty easy to grasp.)
Nor has she read philosopher Derek Parfit’s whopping 1,928-page On What Matters. Her inspiration for using it in a cartoon is her personal connection to the massive, unread three-volume set in her family’s library. Because both the size and the title are part of the joke, she directs the viewer’s eye to the unwieldy tome with a light watercolor wash.
She also has a good tip for anyone drawing a library scene—go figurative, rather than literal, varying sizes and shapes until the eye is tricked into seeing what is merely suggested.
A all-too-true literary experience informs her second example at the 4:30 mark—that of a little known author giving a reading in a bookstore. Despite a preference for drawing “fleshy things like people and animals” she forgoes depicting the author or those in attendance, giving the punchline instead to the event posters in the store’s window.
As she told the NYPL’s Moore:
A cartoon is always an opportunity to showcase a contemporary phenomenon by exaggerating it or placing it in a different context.
Over the last year, a huge number of New Yorker cartoons have concerned themselves with the domestic dullness of the pandemic, but when Allen asked if she has a favorite New Yorker cartoon cliché, Kurzweil went with “the Moby Dick trope, because whales are easy to draw, and I like a good metaphor for the unattainable.”
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse. Follow her @AyunHalliday.
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