Sylvia Plath’s Ten Back to School Commandments (1953)

plath commandments

Before her lit­er­ary fame, her stormy rela­tion­ship with Ted Hugh­es and her crip­pling bat­tles with depres­sion, Sylvia Plath was an enthu­si­as­tic stu­dent at Smith Col­lege. “The world is split­ting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy water­mel­on,” she wrote to her moth­er. “If only I can work, work, work to jus­ti­fy all of my oppor­tu­ni­ties.”

Dur­ing her junior year, she broke her leg on a ski­ing trip in upstate New York. The acci­dent land­ed her briefly in the hos­pi­tal and she wound up with a cast on her leg. Her mood dark­ened.

Psych­ing her­self out for her return to col­lege, she wrote in her diary a pair of lists.

The first list is a short series of rules about how to behave around her new beau, Myron Lotz. All three points are good advice for any­one who is utter­ly smit­ten, par­tic­u­lar­ly num­ber two – “I will not throw myself at him phys­i­cal­ly.” In the end, Plath’s rela­tion­ship with Lotz didn’t amount to much. She report­ed­ly com­mem­o­rat­ed him with­in her poem “Mad Girl’s Love Song” with the refrain “I think I made you up inside my head.”

The sec­ond list is a col­lec­tion of “Back to School Com­mand­ments.” These com­mand­ments includ­ed ask­ing her Eng­lish prof Robert Gorham Davis for an exten­sion; con­sult­ing with her Ger­man teacher Marie Schnieders (“Be calm,” she writes mys­te­ri­ous­ly, “even it is a mat­ter of life & death.”); and com­plet­ing her appli­ca­tion to be a guest edi­tor for Made­moi­selle mag­a­zine. (She nailed that last task.)

The list’s final com­mand­ment comes off bleak­er than the mild­ly pan­icky moti­va­tion­al tone of the rest of the list. “Atti­tude is every­thing: so KEEP CHEERFUL, even if you fail your sci­ence, your unit, get a hate­ful silence from Myron, no dates, no praise, no love, noth­ing. There is a cer­tain clin­i­cal sat­is­fac­tion in see­ing just how bad things can get.”

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

via The Excel­lent Lists of Note book

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why Should We Read Sylvia Plath? An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

Christo­pher Hitchens Cre­ates a Revised List of The 10 Com­mand­ments for the 21st Cen­tu­ry

Bertrand Russell’s Ten Com­mand­ments for Liv­ing in a Healthy Democ­ra­cy

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

The Only Color Picture of Tolstoy, Taken by Photography Pioneer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1908)

The pho­to above depicts Lev Niko­layevich Tol­stoy, bet­ter known in the Eng­lish-speak­ing world as Leo Tol­stoy. It dates from 1908, when he had near­ly all his work behind him: the major nov­els War and Peace and Anna Karen­i­na, of course, but also the acclaimed late book The Death of Ivan Ilyich. His own death, in fact, lay not much more than two years before him. (See footage of the final days of his life here.) This did­n’t offer much of a win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty to the chemist Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, who had recent­ly devel­oped a pho­tog­ra­phy process that could cap­ture the great man of let­ters in “true col­or” — and who under­stood that such a por­trait would score a pro­mo­tion­al coup for his inno­va­tion.

“After many years of work, I have now achieved excel­lent results in pro­duc­ing accu­rate col­ors,” Prokudin-Gorsky wrote to Tol­stoy ear­ly that same year. “My col­ored pro­jec­tions are known in both Europe and in Rus­sia. Now that my method of pho­tog­ra­phy requires no more than 1 to 3 sec­onds, I will allow myself to ask your per­mis­sion to vis­it for one or two days (keep­ing in mind the state of your health and weath­er) in order to take sev­er­al col­or pho­tographs of you and your spouse.” After receiv­ing that per­mis­sion, Prokudin-Gorsky spent two days at Yas­naya Polyana, Tol­stoy’s fam­i­ly estate, where he took col­or pic­tures of not just the man him­self but his work­ing quar­ters and the sur­round­ing grounds.

“A few months lat­er, in its August 1908 issue, The Pro­ceed­ings of the Russ­ian Tech­ni­cal Soci­ety ran the fol­low­ing announce­ment describ­ing ‘the first Russ­ian col­or pho­to­por­trait,’ a col­or pho­to­graph of L. N. Tol­stoy,” accord­ing to Tol­stoy Stud­ies Jour­nal. The result­ing fame drew Prokudin-Gorsky an invi­ta­tion to show his work to Tsar Nicholas II, who sub­se­quent­ly fur­nished him with the resources to spend ten years pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly doc­u­ment­ing Rus­sia in col­or. “To this day, nobody knows exact­ly what cam­era Prokudin-Gorsky used,” writes Kai Bernau at Words that Work, “but it was like­ly a large wood­en cam­era with a spe­cial hold­er for a slid­ing glass neg­a­tive plate, tak­ing three sequen­tial mono­chrome pho­tographs, each through a dif­fer­ent col­ored fil­ter.” This appears to be a tech­no­log­i­cal descen­dant of the process devel­oped in the ear­ly eigh­teen-six­ties by Scot­tish physi­cist-poet James Clerk Maxwell, cre­ator of the first col­or pho­to­graph in his­to­ry.

To view that pho­to­graph, Maxwell “pro­ject­ed the three slides using three dif­fer­ent pro­jec­tors, each affixed with the same col­or fil­ter that had been used to pro­duce the slide.” Prokudin-Gorsky, too, had to project his pho­tos, though he did lat­er make col­or prints; “he also pub­lished it, in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers, as a col­lectible post­card,” says Tol­stoy Stud­ies Jour­nal, adding that the ver­sion seen here is a scan of one such post­card. How accu­rate­ly a lith­o­graphed repro­duc­tion like the one above of Tol­stoy rep­re­sents the ‘real’ col­ors of Prokudin-Gorsky’s orig­i­nal pro­ject­ed image is debat­able”; the basic tech­no­log­i­cal dif­fer­ence between “sub­trac­tive” lith­o­g­ra­phy and “addi­tive’ pro­jec­tion means that we can’t be see­ing quite the same pic­ture of Tol­stoy that the Tsar did — but then, it’s a good a like­ness of him as we’re ever going to get.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Rus­sia in 70,000 Pho­tos: New Pho­to Archive Presents Russ­ian His­to­ry from 1860 to 1999

Behold the Very First Col­or Pho­to­graph (1861): Tak­en by Scot­tish Physi­cist (and Poet!) James Clerk Maxwell

Russ­ian His­to­ry & Lit­er­a­ture Come to Life in Won­der­ful­ly Col­orized Por­traits: See Pho­tos of Tol­stoy, Chekhov, the Romanovs & More

The Very Last Days of Leo Tol­stoy Cap­tured on Video

Tsarist Rus­sia Comes to Life in Vivid Col­or Pho­tographs Tak­en Cir­ca 1905–1915

Col­orized Pho­tos Bring Walt Whit­man, Char­lie Chap­lin, Helen Keller & Mark Twain Back to Life

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Patti Smith Reads Sylvia Plath’s Poem, “The Moon and the Yew Tree”

Court Green, the rur­al Devon prop­er­ty Sylvia Plath called home for six­teen months toward the end of her life is a pop­u­lar pil­grim­age for Plathophiles, seek­ing to wor­ship at the well­spring of some of her best known poems — The Bee Meet­ing, Dad­dy, Lady Lazarus, and many oth­er works posthu­mous­ly pub­lished in 1965’s Ariel.

(Her ex-hus­band Ted Hugh­es wrote his col­lec­tion, Crow, there as well, not long after Plath died by sui­cide. Some­thing tells us his wid­ow, Car­ol, a staunch defend­er of her husband’s lega­cy, doesn’t exact­ly roll out the wel­come mat when she sees star­ry eyed devotee’s of her husband’s first wife tromp­ing around the perime­ter of the prop­er­ty where she still lives…)

Plath schol­ar Dor­ka Tamás made the trip to St. Peter’s, the North Taw­ton church abut­ting Court Green. Plath took plea­sure in describ­ing its grounds in let­ters to friends and fam­i­ly, and immoratl­ized its mas­sive yew in “The Moon and the Yew Tree”:

I looked around the Vic­to­ri­an grave­stones, slow­ly pass­ing the souls of the dead. The beau­ti­ful green trees could not con­trast more with the Neo-goth­ic church. I knew at first sight which one is the yew tree in Plath’s poem. I was search­ing for the win­dow of Court Green, Plath’s office win­dow, from which she could have an expan­sive view of the yew…North Taw­ton has been an ambigu­ous place for both Plath and Plathi­ans. In the year she spent in the iso­lat­ed vil­lage, she pro­duced her best and most well-known poems, but it was also a place where she expe­ri­enced extreme iso­la­tion after Hugh­es left her. Nev­er­the­less, the coun­try life pro­vid­ed plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ties for Plath to explore her cre­ative, aes­thet­ic, and domes­tic inde­pen­dence, such as horse rid­ing in the field of Devon, exper­i­ment­ing with bee­keep­ing, paint­ing her children’s nurs­ery elbow chair, and mak­ing apple pie from the apples of her gar­den. The poet­ry and fic­tion Plath wrote between autumn 1961 and win­ter 1962 are embed­ded in the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment in Devon and com­mu­ni­ty, places, and non-human life of North Taw­ton. 

Poet David Trinidad, an avid col­lec­tor of Plath-relat­ed mem­o­ra­bil­ia, whose sou­venirs include a vial of dust from the stu­dio she occu­pied dur­ing a res­i­den­cy at Yad­do and a fac­sim­i­le of a blue pat­terned Lib­er­ty of Lon­don scarf she gave her moth­er dur­ing a 1962 vis­it to Court Green, prizes his cut­tings from St. Peter’s yew:

Plath wrote The Moon and the Yew Tree on Octo­ber 22, 1961, less than two months after mov­ing to Court Green. Every­thing in the poem is true: her prop­er­ty was sep­a­rat­ed from an adja­cent church by a row of head­stones; on Sun­day eight bells would toll; an ancient yew tree grew in the church grave­yard. …She doesn’t men­tion the yew tree specif­i­cal­ly in any of her let­ters; she saved that for the poem.

God­moth­er of Punk Pat­ti Smith, whose sou­venirs run more toward Polaroids, wrote of vis­it­ing Plath’s grave in her mem­oir, M Train, and iden­ti­fies the poet as some­one who makes her want to write.

Her per­for­mance of “The Moon and The Yew Tree,” above, is more straight­for­ward than Plathi­an, allow­ing the dark­ness of the work–which The Mar­gin­a­lian’s Maria Popo­va calls “one of (Plath’s) finest poems and one of the most poignant por­traits of depres­sion in the his­to­ry of literature”–to speak for itself.

As Popo­va notes, the poem was writ­ten dur­ing a dif­fi­cult peri­od, in an attempt to ful­fill a writ­ing exer­cise sug­gest­ed by Hugh­es, “to sim­ply describe what she saw in the Goth­ic church­yard out­side her win­dow.”

Who would dare fault Plath for obey­ing the impulse to edi­to­ri­al­ize a bit?

The New York­er had accept­ed but not yet pub­lished “The Moon and the Yew Tree” when Plath took her own life on Feb­ru­ary 11, 1963. It was pub­lished posthu­mous­ly in a two-page spread along with five oth­er poems six months lat­er. You can read it online here.

via The Mar­gin­a­lian

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Why Should We Read Sylvia Plath? An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

Hear Sylvia Plath Read 18 Poems From Her Final Col­lec­tion, Ariel, in a 1962 Record­ing

Hear Pat­ti Smith Read 12 Poems From Sev­enth Heav­en, Her First Col­lec­tion (1972)

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

A Playlist of 45 Shakespeare Film Trailers, from 1935 — 2021

The Inter­net Movie Data­base cred­its Shake­speare as the writer on 1787 films, 42 of which have yet to be released.

The Shake­speare Net­work has com­piled a chrono­log­i­cal playlist of trail­ers for 45 of them.

First up is 1935’s A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, fea­tur­ing Olivia de Hav­il­land, Jim­my Cagney, Dick Pow­ell, and, in the role of Puck, a 15-year-old Mick­ey Rooney, hailed by the New York Times as “one of the major delights” of the film, and Vari­ety as “so intent on being cute that he becomes almost annoy­ing.”

Tragedies dom­i­nate, with no few­er than six Ham­lets, Shakespeare’s most filmed work, and “one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing and most thank­less tasks in show busi­ness” accord­ing to nov­el­ist and fre­quent film crit­ic James Agee:

There can nev­er be a defin­i­tive pro­duc­tion of a play about which no two peo­ple in the world can agree. There can nev­er be a thor­ough­ly sat­is­fy­ing pro­duc­tion of a play about which so many peo­ple feel so per­son­al­ly and so pas­sion­ate­ly. Very like­ly there will nev­er be a pro­duc­tion good enough to pro­voke less argu­ment than praise.

Lawrence Olivi­er, Nicol Williamson, Mel Gib­son, Ken­neth Branagh, Ethan Hawke, David Ten­nant — take your pick:

Mac­Beth, Richard III, Romeo and Juli­et, and The Tem­pest — a com­e­dy — are oth­er crowd-pleas­ing work­hors­es, chewy assign­ments for actors and direc­tors alike.

Those with a taste for deep­er cuts will appre­ci­ate the inclu­sion of Ralph Fiennes’ Cori­olanus (2011), Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000) and Titus, Julie Tay­mor’s 1999 adap­ta­tion of Shakespeare’s most shock­ing blood­bath.

Moviego­ing con­nois­seurs of the Bard may feel moved to stump for films that did­n’t make the playlist. If you can find a trail­er for it, go for it!  Lob­by the Shake­speare Net­work on its behalf, or make your case in the com­ments.

We’ll throw our weight behind Michael Almereyda’s Cym­be­line, fea­tur­ing Ed Har­ris roar­ing down the porch steps of a dilap­i­dat­ed Brook­lyn Vic­to­ri­an on a motor­cy­cle, the bizarre Romeo.Juliet pair­ing A‑list British vocal tal­ent with an all-feline line-up of Capulets and Mon­tagues, and Shake­speare Behind Bars, a 2005 doc­u­men­tary fol­low­ing twen­ty incar­cer­at­ed men who spent nine months delv­ing into The Tem­pest pri­or to a pro­duc­tion for guards, fel­low inmates, and invit­ed guests.

Enjoy the complete playlist of Shake­speare film trail­ers below. They move from 1935 to 2021.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Watch Very First Film Adap­ta­tions of Shakespeare’s Plays: King John, The Tem­pest, Richard III & More (1899–1936)

Young Orson Welles Directs “Voodoo Mac­beth,” the First Shake­speare Pro­duc­tion With An All-Black Cast: Footage from 1936

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Shakespeare’s Globe The­atre in Lon­don

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

A Stand-Up Comedy Routine Discovered in a Medieval Manuscript: Monty Python Before Monty Python (1480)

A fun­ny thing hap­pened on the way to the 15th cen­tu­ry…

Dr. James Wade, a spe­cial­ist in ear­ly Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge, was doing research at the Nation­al Library of Scot­land when he noticed some­thing extra­or­di­nary about the first of the nine mis­cel­la­neous book­lets com­pris­ing the Heege Man­u­script.

Most sur­viv­ing medieval man­u­scripts are the stuff of high art. The first part of the Heege Man­u­script is fun­ny.

The usu­al tales of romance and hero­ism, allu­sions to ancient Rome, lofty poet­ry and dra­mat­ic inter­ludes… even the dash­ing adven­tures of Robin Hood are con­spic­u­ous­ly absent.

Instead it’s awash with the sta­ples of con­tem­po­rary stand up com­e­dy — top­i­cal obser­va­tions, humor­ous over­shar­ing, roast­ing emi­nent pub­lic fig­ures, razz­ing the audi­ence, flat­ter­ing the audi­ence by bust­ing on the denizens of near­by com­mu­ni­ties, shag­gy dog tales, absur­di­ties and non-sequiturs.

Repeat­ed ref­er­ences to pass­ing the cup con­jure an open mic type sce­nario.

The man­u­script was cre­at­ed by cler­ic Richard Heege and entered into the col­lec­tion of his employ­ers, the wealthy Sher­brooke fam­i­ly.

Oth­er schol­ars have con­cen­trat­ed on the man­u­scrip­t’s phys­i­cal con­struc­tion, most­ly refrain­ing from com­ment on the nature of its con­tents.

Dr. Wade sus­pects that the first book­let is the result of Heege hav­ing paid close atten­tion to an anony­mous trav­el­ing minstrel’s per­for­mance, per­haps going so far as to con­sult the performer’s own notes.

Heege quipped that he was the author owing to the fact that he “was at that feast and did not have a drink” — mean­ing he was the only one sober enough to retain the min­strel’s jokes and inven­tive plot­lines.

Dr. Wade describes how the com­ic por­tion of the Heege Man­u­script is bro­ken down into three parts, the first of which is sure to grat­i­fy fans of Mon­ty Python and the Holy Grail:

…it’s a nar­ra­tive account of a bunch of peas­ants who try to hunt a hare, and it all ends dis­as­trous­ly, where they beat each oth­er up and the wives have to come with wheel­bar­rows and hold them home. 

That hare turns out to be one fierce bad rab­bit, so much so that the tale’s pro­le­tar­i­an hero, the pro­saical­ly named Jack Wade, wor­ries she could rip out his throat.

Dr. Wade learned that Sir Wal­ter Scott, author of Ivan­hoe, was aware of The Hunt­ing of the Hare, view­ing it as a stur­dy spoof of high mind­ed romance, “stu­dious­ly filled with grotesque, absurd, and extrav­a­gant char­ac­ters.”

The killer bun­ny yarn is fol­lowed by a mock ser­mon  - If thou have a great black bowl in thy hand and it be full of good ale and thou leave any­thing there­in, thou puttest thy soul into greater pain —  and a non­sense poem about a feast where every­one gets ham­mered and chaos ensues.

Crowd-pleas­ing mate­r­i­al in 1480.

With a few 21st-cen­tu­ry tweaks, an enter­pris­ing young come­di­an might wring laughs from it yet.

(Pag­ing Tyler Gun­ther, of Greedy Peas­ant fame…)

As to the true author of these rou­tines, Dr. Wade spec­u­lates that he may have been a “pro­fes­sion­al trav­el­ing min­strel or a local ama­teur per­former.” Pos­si­bly even both:

A ‘pro­fes­sion­al’ min­strel might have a day job and go gig­ging at night, and so be, in a sense, semi-pro­fes­sion­al, just as a ‘trav­el­ling’ min­strel may well be also ‘local’, work­ing a beat of near­by vil­lages and gen­er­al­ly known in the area. On bal­ance, the texts in this book­let sug­gest a min­strel of this vari­ety: some­one whose mate­r­i­al includes sev­er­al local place-names, but also whose mate­r­i­al is made to trav­el, with the lack of deter­mi­na­cy designed to com­i­cal­ly engage audi­ences regard­less of spe­cif­ic locale.

Learn more about the Heege Man­u­script in  Dr. Wade’s arti­cle, Enter­tain­ments from a Medieval Minstrel’s Reper­toire Book in The Review of Eng­lish Stud­ies.

Leaf through a dig­i­tal fac­sim­i­le of the Heege Man­u­script here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Killer Rab­bits in Medieval Man­u­scripts: Why So Many Draw­ings in the Mar­gins Depict Bun­nies Going Bad

A List of 1,065 Medieval Dog Names: Nose­wise, Gar­lik, Have­g­ood­day & More

Why Knights Fought Snails in Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

The Three Punctuation Rules of Cormac McCarthy (RIP), and How They All Go Back to James Joyce

Note: Today nov­el­ist Cor­mac McCarthy (All the Pret­ty Hors­es, The Road and No Coun­try for Old Men) passed away at the age of 89. Below, we’re revis­it­ing a favorite post from our archive that focus­es on punc­tu­a­tion, a dis­tinc­tive ele­ment of McCarthy’s writ­ing.

Cor­mac McCarthy has been—as one 1965 review­er of his first nov­el, The Orchard Tree, dubbed him—a “dis­ci­ple of William Faulkn­er.” He makes admirable use of Faulkner­ian traits in his prose, and I’d always assumed he inher­it­ed his punc­tu­a­tion style from Faulkn­er as well. But in his very rare 2008 tele­vised inter­view with Oprah Win­frey, McCarthy cites two oth­er antecedents: James Joyce and for­got­ten nov­el­ist MacKin­lay Kan­tor, whose Ander­son­ville won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955. Joyce’s influ­ence dom­i­nates, and in dis­cus­sion of punc­tu­a­tion, McCarthy stress­es that his min­i­mal­ist approach works in the inter­est of max­i­mum clar­i­ty. Speak­ing of Joyce, he says,

James Joyce is a good mod­el for punc­tu­a­tion. He keeps it to an absolute min­i­mum. There’s no rea­son to blot the page up with weird lit­tle marks. I mean, if you write prop­er­ly you shouldn’t have to punc­tu­ate.

So what “weird lit­tle marks” does McCarthy allow, or not, and why? Below is a brief sum­ma­ry of his stat­ed rules for punc­tu­a­tion:

1. Quo­ta­tion Marks:

McCarthy does­n’t use ’em. In his Oprah inter­view, he says MacKin­lay Kan­tor was the first writer he read who left them out. McCarthy stress­es that this way of writ­ing dia­logue requires par­tic­u­lar delib­er­a­tion. Speak­ing of writ­ers who have imi­tat­ed him, he says, “You real­ly have to be aware that there are no quo­ta­tion marks, and write in such a way as to guide peo­ple as to who’s speak­ing.” Oth­er­wise, con­fu­sion reigns.

2. Colons and semi­colons:

Care­ful McCarthy read­er Oprah says she “saw a colon once” in McCarthy’s prose, but she nev­er encoun­tered a semi­colon. McCarthy con­firms: “No semi­colons.”

Of the colon, he says: “You can use a colon, if you’re get­ting ready to give a list of some­thing that fol­lows from what you just said. Like, these are the rea­sons.” This is a spe­cif­ic occa­sion that does not present itself often. The colon, one might say, gen­u­flects to a very spe­cif­ic log­i­cal devel­op­ment, enu­mer­a­tion. McCarthy deems most oth­er punc­tu­a­tion uses need­less.

3. All oth­er punc­tu­a­tion:

Aside from his restric­tive rationing of the colon, McCarthy declares his styl­is­tic con­vic­tions with sim­plic­i­ty: “I believe in peri­ods, in cap­i­tals, in the occa­sion­al com­ma, and that’s it.” It’s a dis­ci­pline he learned first in a col­lege Eng­lish class, where he worked to sim­pli­fy 18th cen­tu­ry essays for a text­book the pro­fes­sor was edit­ing. Ear­ly mod­ern Eng­lish is noto­ri­ous­ly clut­tered with con­found­ing punc­tu­a­tion, which did not become stan­dard­ized until com­par­a­tive­ly recent­ly.

McCarthy, enam­ored of the prose style of the Neo­clas­si­cal Eng­lish writ­ers but annoyed by their over-reliance on semi­colons, remem­bers par­ing down an essay “by Swift or some­thing” and hear­ing his pro­fes­sor say, “this is very good, this is exact­ly what’s need­ed.” Encour­aged, he con­tin­ued to sim­pli­fy, work­ing, he says to Oprah, “to make it eas­i­er, not to make it hard­er” to deci­pher his prose. For those who find McCarthy some­times mad­den­ing­ly opaque, this state­ment of intent may not help clar­i­fy things much. But lovers of his work may find renewed appre­ci­a­tion for his stream­lined syn­tax.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Wern­er Her­zog Reads From Cor­mac McCarthy’s All the Pret­ty Hors­es

Cor­mac McCarthy Explains Why He Worked Hard at Not Work­ing: How 9‑to‑5 Jobs Lim­it Your Cre­ative Poten­tial

Wern­er Her­zog and Cor­mac McCarthy Talk Sci­ence and Cul­ture

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

Behold the Microscopically Tiny Handwriting of Novelist Robert Walser, Which Took Four Decades to Decipher

Robert Walser’s last nov­el, Der Räu­ber or The Rob­ber, came out in 1972. Walser him­self had died fif­teen years ear­li­er, hav­ing spent near­ly three sol­id decades in a sana­to­ri­um. He’d been a fair­ly suc­cess­ful fig­ure in the Berlin lit­er­ary scene of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, but dur­ing his long  insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion in his home­land of Switzer­land — from which he refused to return to nor­mal life, despite his out­ward appear­ance of men­tal health — he claimed to have put let­ters behind him. As J. M. Coet­zee writes in the New York Review of Books, “Walser’s so-called mad­ness, his lone­ly death, and the posthu­mous­ly dis­cov­ered cache of his secret writ­ings were the pil­lars on which a leg­end of Walser as a scan­dalous­ly neglect­ed genius was erect­ed.”

This cache con­sist­ed of “some five hun­dred sheets of paper cov­ered in a micro­scop­ic pen­cil script so dif­fi­cult to read that his execu­tor at first took them to be a diary in secret code. In fact Walser had kept no diary. Nor is the script a code: it is sim­ply hand­writ­ing with so many idio­syn­crat­ic abbre­vi­a­tions that, even for edi­tors famil­iar with it, unam­bigu­ous deci­pher­ment is not always pos­si­ble.”

He devised this extreme short­hand as a kind of cure for writer’s block: “In a 1927 let­ter to a Swiss edi­tor, Walser claimed that his writ­ing was over­come with ‘a swoon, a cramp, a stu­por’ that was both ‘phys­i­cal and men­tal’ and brought on by the use of a pen,” writes the New York­er’s Deirdre Foley Mendelssohn. “Adopt­ing his strange ‘pen­cil method’ enabled him to ‘play,’ to ‘scrib­ble, fid­dle about.’ ”

“Like an artist with a stick of char­coal between his fin­gers,” Coet­zee writes, “Walser need­ed to get a steady, rhyth­mic hand move­ment going before he could slip into a frame of mind in which rever­ie, com­po­si­tion, and the flow of the writ­ing tool became much the same thing.” This process facil­i­tat­ed the trans­fer of Walser’s thoughts straight to the page, with the result that his late works read — and have been belat­ed­ly rec­og­nized as read­ing — like no oth­er lit­er­a­ture pro­duced in his time. As Brett Bak­er at Painter’s table sees it,” Walser’s com­pressed prose (rarely more than a page or two) con­structs full nar­ra­tives than can be con­sumed rapid­ly – near­ly ‘at a glance,’ as it were. Their short length allows the read­er to revis­it the work in detail, focus­ing on sen­tences, phras­es, or words as one might exam­ine the paint­ed pas­sages or marks on a can­vas.”

These ultra-com­pressed works from the Bleis­tift­ge­bi­et, or “pen­cil zone,” writes Foley Mendelssohn, “estab­lish Walser as a mod­ernist of sorts: the recy­cling of mate­ri­als can make the texts look like col­lages, mod­ernist mashups toe­ing the line between mechan­i­cal and per­son­al pro­duc­tion.” But they also make him look like the fore­run­ner of anoth­er, lat­er vari­ety of exper­i­men­tal lit­er­a­ture: in a longer New York­er piece on Walser, Ben­jamin Kunkel pro­pos­es 1972 as a cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate year to pub­lish The Rob­ber, “a fit­ting date for a beau­ti­ful, unsum­ma­riz­able work every bit as self-reflex­ive as any­thing pro­duced by the metafic­tion­ists of the six­ties and sev­en­ties.” The pub­li­ca­tion of his “micro­scripts,” in Ger­man as well as in trans­la­tion, has ensured him an influ­ence on writ­ers of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry — and not just their choice of font size.

For any­one inter­est­ed in see­ing a pub­lished ver­sion of Walser’s writ­ing, see the book Micro­scripts, which fea­tures full-col­or illus­tra­tions by artist Maira Kalman.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Code of Charles Dick­ens’ Short­hand Has Been Cracked by Com­put­er Pro­gram­mers, Solv­ing a 160-Year-Old Mys­tery

Font Based on Sig­mund Freud’s Hand­writ­ing Com­ing Cour­tesy of Suc­cess­ful Kick­starter Cam­paign

Why Did Leonar­do da Vin­ci Write Back­wards? A Look Into the Ulti­mate Renais­sance Man’s “Mir­ror Writ­ing”

Dis­cov­er Nüshu, a 19th-Cen­tu­ry Chi­nese Writ­ing Sys­tem That Only Women Knew How to Write

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

J. R. R. Tolkien Writes & Speaks in Elvish, a Language He Invented for The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien was undoubt­ed­ly a sto­ry­teller, but he was even more of a world-builder. One may read the Lord of the Rings nov­els the first time for the high adven­ture, but one re-reads them to con­tin­ue inhab­it­ing the painstak­ing­ly craft­ed alter­nate real­i­ty of Mid­dle-Earth. Tolkien put seri­ous time and effort into the diver­si­ty of not just its mag­ic, its geog­ra­phy, and its inhab­i­tants, but also of its lan­guages. Indeed, the whole of his mas­ter­work could fair­ly be said to have served his lin­guis­tic inter­ests first and fore­most: “Inven­tion of lan­guages is the foun­da­tion,” he once wrote. “The ‘sto­ries’ were made rather to pro­vide a world for the lan­guages than the reverse.”

An Oxford philol­o­gist with a spe­cial inter­est in Old Norse, Tolkien had been exper­i­ment­ing with con­struct­ed lan­guages since ado­les­cence. But it was The Lord of the Rings that allowed him to engage ful­ly in that pur­suit, spurring the cre­ation of such tongues as Adû­na­ic, Dwarvish, and Entish. Like any­one of his lin­guis­tic exper­tise, he under­stood that, in real­i­ty, most lan­guages come to us not in iso­la­tion but in fam­i­lies, and it is the fam­i­ly of Elvish lan­guages — includ­ing Quendya, Exil­ic Quenya, Telerin, Sin­darin, and Nan­dorin — that rep­re­sents the pin­na­cle of his lan­guage-con­struc­tion project.

In the video at the top of the post, Tolkien him­self reads aloud an Elvish-lan­guage poem. Just below, you can see him writ­ing in Elvish script, or Teng­war, one of the sev­en writ­ing sys­tems he cre­at­ed for The Lord of the Rings alone. He did­n’t just assem­ble it out of forms that looked nice to him: much as with the Elvish lan­guage itself, he made sure that it plau­si­bly descend­ed from more basic ances­tors, and that it reflect­ed the his­to­ry, social prac­tices, and mythol­o­gy of its fic­tion­al users. But nor are Elvish or Teng­war com­plete­ly free of any influ­ence from what’s spo­ken and writ­ten in our own world, giv­en that Tolkien could draw on Eng­lish, Old Norse, and Latin, but also Old Eng­lish, Goth­ic, Span­ish, Ital­ian, and Greek.

Tolkien also took a strong inter­est in the Finnish lan­guage. In a let­ter to W. H. Auden, he likened it to “a com­plete wine-cel­lar filled with bot­tles of an amaz­ing wine of a kind and fla­vor nev­er tast­ed before.” The influ­ence of Finnish man­i­fests in cer­tain traits of the Elvish lan­guage of Quenya — “the absence of any con­so­nant com­bi­na­tions ini­tial­ly, the absence of the voiced stops b, d, g (except in mb, nd, ng, ld, rd, which are favored) and the fond­ness for the end­ing -inen, ‑ainen, ‑oinen” — but one sus­pects that Tolkien’s broad­er lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­i­ty was shaped more by the Kale­vala, the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry nation­al epic that inspired him to take up the study of Finnish in the first place. How close he ever got to mas­tery his­to­ry has­n’t record­ed, but as a fel­low Finnish-learn­er, I can attest that se ei ole help­poa.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Map of Mid­dle-Earth Anno­tat­ed by Tolkien Found in a Copy of Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien, Using a Tape Recorder for the First Time, Reads from The Hob­bit for 30 Min­utes (1952)

When J. R. R. Tolkien Worked for the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary and “Learned More … Than Any Oth­er Equal Peri­od of My Life” (1919–1920)

Ani­mat­ed Video Explores the Invent­ed Lan­guages of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones & Star Trek

Dis­cov­er Lin­cos, the Lan­guage a Dutch Math­e­mati­cian Invent­ed Just to Talk to Extrater­res­tri­als (1960)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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