This Week in Books: The Emperor Banned Trousers

And the tsar put a tax on beards.

Dear Reader,

While working on this newsletter, I ended up rereading The Eighteenth Brumaire (I somehow got there by way of Larry Wolff’s review [#8] of two new books about, uh, opera technology): “the heroes… of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time — that of unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society — in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases,” writes Marx, before going on to theorize about the baggage of history with which revolutions must pack for the future (“first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”; “the social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future”; etc). His phrasing struck me as really funny, though, on this reread (second time as farce), because I had just finished reading another review — Josephine Quinn on a new book about the fall of Rome [#13] — which informed me that “in 399 the Western emperor banned trousers.” The point of the ban was to culturally oppress barbarian immigrants, who were real pants guys, I guess. Anyway, it’s hard to imagine how a pants ban would have gone over with the sans-culottes. Famously, they were pretty big pants guys too! (They loved those phrygian caps though which, yeah, I know that’s what Marx is talking about…)


Chained German wearing trousers, 2nd century, bronze.

Similarly, Peter the Great once put a tax on beards, in an attempt to “Westernize” the masses — as I learned from Jennifer Wilson’s review [#14] of a new collection of Gogol. Truly, empire is always endeavoring to stop dudes from rocking…

…and to stop women from posting their Ws — for instance, in Jayne Ross’s review [#11] of a new book about the women who pioneered early TV, she relates how the Red Scare put a big McCarthyite damper on the pioneering women’s careers, canceling their delightfully strange shows. (I really recommend you click through some of the youtube links that I included in my pull-quote for that one; those early TV shows, man, they are wild — in the sitcoms especially, the characters keep breaking the fourth wall, sometimes as part of the plot and sometimes as part of an ad for like, energy powder… and the actor, in character, starts selling you this powder… my first thought was, “just like a podcast,” lmao.)

Anyway, if you don’t use twitter, and don’t know what “dudes rock” and “women posting their Ws” mean, then, truly, congratulations.

—Dana

@danasnitzky @endworldreview



1. “The Walker” by Izumi Suzuki (trans. Daniel Joseph), Granta

A short story by Izumi Suzuki excerpted from the collection Terminal Boredom: Stories

The world will cease to spin, I suppose. The sun, in its death mask, will burn away the last traces of life clinging to the surface – the lichens, insects, even the bacteria – with its tongue of flame. And the Walker, the last woman standing, will she continue her great wandering circle through the sun’s mad tantrum?

2. “Some Requiem” by Harmony Holiday, Poetry

Harmony Holiday writes about Henry Dumas, whose posthumously published volume of selected poems Knees of a Natural Man, first released in 1989, was recently reissued.

…[H]e was killed violently, abruptly, by an officer with the New York City Transit Police, on May 23, 1968, while on his way home. …[H]e was taken by negligence, by our collective cold shoulder, and by the pernicious social disease of prejudice, his killing having been deemed a case of “mistaken identity.” The unconditional attentiveness in his work avenges him now… 

…Are you guilty of some self-deluded gimmick? Dumas’s work reveals where you have over-complicated your listening, or where you’ve become addicted to illusions rendered by the very culture that oppresses you… 

3 “House Hunters” by Nora Caplan-Bricker, The Point

Nora Caplan-Bricker writes about the pivotal role of real estate in the mystery novels of Tana French, “in which the lust for property is always primary to the plot.”  (French’s latest is The Searcher.)

In… Broken Harbor… a detective arrives at the scene of a triple murder and steps into what feels like a real-estate ad. Other than a bloody tableau in the kitchen… the house is strangely immaculate, with not a speck of dust on the sleek, modern furniture, or a picture frame out of place on a mantelpiece. Even in the kitchen, the detective can’t help but see double, noticing the highly desirable light from the floor-to-ceiling windows…  

…In a mystery novel, murder is always, in part, an immoderate metaphor, a way to personify the half-formed fears that hover at the edge of any mundane existence. The genre’s appeal grows in eras of high anxiety. In a famous essay bemoaning the appetite for detective novels, written shortly after the form experienced a heyday in the 1930s, the literary critic Edmund Wilson came up with a theory to explain the trend: “The world during those years was ridden by an all-pervasive feeling of guilt and by a fear of impending disaster which it seemed hopeless to try to avert because it never seemed conclusively possible to pin down the responsibility,” he wrote.

4. “Black Hole” by Namwali Serpell, The New York Review of Books

Deep in the thicket of this excellent, wide-ranging essay, Namwali Serpell briefly takes a crack at diagnosing the social ills apparent within the bourgeois millennial relationship novel, which, granted, is a kind of universal pastime at this point, but one she accomplishes with such incredible efficiency that it’s inspiring to read. (I’m obsessed with the phrase the millennial’s economic precarity under “Daddy.”

…The millennial seems stuck in a whirlpool of want, circling a vortex of desires. Sexual desire is almost preordained to be “problematic,” arising out of unfaithful or open marriages, intrafamilial abuse, and masochism—specifically, a yearning to be struck. “I want you to hit me,” one of Sally Rooney’s protagonists says; “Will you hit me?” asks another. The narrator of Raven Leilani’s Luster confesses of her lover: “I want us to fight in public. And when we fight in private, I want him to maybe accidentally punch me.” Ostensibly, this kind of female desire is edgy because it embraces shocking, scandalous desires—but they dovetail with the stereotypical desires of powerful, straight men. These erotic trends symptomize and fetishize the millennial’s economic precarity under “Daddy.” Far from BDSM, with its aristocratic origins and contractual/consensual logics, this is a suburban, shame-ridden paradigm, in which the choices are choke me or coddle me, but notably never compensate me.  

Here, sex is an occasion not for pleasure or art or fun, but for an analysis of power. The millennial wants to be wanted or to be abjected. Either way, the focus is on someone else’s desires and actions, and the appeal seems to lie in inciting a feeling in them: you make them want to fuck you or hurt you, while you escape the vulnerability of wanting, which, after all, puts you in the position of potentially being rejected, disappointed, judged, or taken advantage of. In a review in these pages, Anne Enright summarizes the dilemma of a character in Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation: “She wants to be used by men as a means to their ends and not for her own ends.”

5. “How Sara Gruen Lost Her Life” by Abbott Kahler, New York Magazine

So, it turns out the author of Water for Elephants had a sort of mini descent into madness (literal, cat scratch fever–induced madness!) while valiantly attempting to overturn the apparent wrongful conviction of an imprisoned man who seemed to be descended from a historical figure on whom a character in Water for Elephants is based... This story involves both neo-nazis and a Hatchimals reselling scheme gone awry.

(To be clear, Gruen blasted, like, her entire Water for Elephants fortune on trying to get a guy out of prison, and therefore she is a better person than I will ever be. Just thought I should clarify that, because upon rereading, it sounded kind of like I was making fun of her. But, au contraire, I respect and admire all descents into madness.) 

…Sara was on the phone with Bolaños when she got a forwarded letter from Murdoch that he’d received in prison. “Sara Gruen” was listed as the sender:

Dear Bad Luck Chuck, 

We set your golden goose free. Want to know why? Because water is for elephants. Not lame bitches like you. Get comfy. You’re going to be there for a while. 

Hugs and Kisses, 

Dino Dinardo and the Man with the Keys to the B Yard 

XOXOXO

Sara noted the past tense: set. This small detail, she later said, “amped up my terror factor by about a thousand.” Still on the phone with Bolaños, she recalls being so upset that he couldn’t understand what she was saying, so she hung up, took a picture of the letter, and sent it to him. Then, Sara says, Bolaños consulted with the FBI, called back, and said, “I need you to leave the house right now. Do you understand?”

7. “Interview with Ming Smith” by Zoe Whitley, The White Review

Zoe Whitley, co-curator of Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, speaks with the legendary Kamoinge photographer Ming Smith. The interview is full of wandering reminiscences that touch on so many threads of history that Smith herself ends up reflecting on the serendipity of it all:

…I knew Lisette Model who was Diane Arbus’s teacher, and she used to live in the Village. And we would go to these cheap diners with her and her husband, Evsa Model, who was a painter. And we would have conversations. For years she kept on saying ‘I’m worried about my student Dionne’. I didn’t realise that Dionne was Diane.   

When I was going through some of my photographs last night, I saw one of {civil rights activist} Dorothy Height. I looked her up, and found this quote of hers, which is exactly how I feel about everything: ‘I am the product of many lives that have touched mine, from famous, distinguished and powerful to the little known and the poor.’

8. “Phantasms of the Opera” by Larry Wolff, The New York Review of Books

Larry Wolff reviews two(!) new books about major historical advancements in opera technology (namely gaslight and magic lanterns, but there are others!): Gabriela Cruz’s Grand Illusion: Phantasmagoria in Nineteenth-Century Opera and Gundula Kreuzer’s Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of Nineteenth-Century Opera

…The word “phantasmagoria” to describe such illusory effects originated with an itinerant performing magician known as Paul Philidor, probably Dutch, who used magic-lantern projections to create the illusion of ghosts, first in imperial Vienna in 1790 and 1791, and then in revolutionary Paris in 1792 and 1793. A French account from 1793 quoted Philidor’s claim to his public: “I will bring before you all the illustrious dead, all those whose memory is dear to you.”

…In 1848 Karl Marx announced that “a specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism,” but in the operatic world of the 1840s the supreme spectral apparition was the phantom ship of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, with its ghostly captain and crew, which first touched shore in 1843 on the stage of the Semperoper in Dresden. This fully modern opera house, designed by Gottfried Semper, had opened in 1841, and its gas lighting would in 1869 cause a fire that destroyed the building. It served, however, for the premiere of The Flying Dutchman in 1843 and then Tannhäuser in 1845, before both Wagner and Semper had to flee Dresden as political revolutionaries at the end of the decade. When Marx wrote afterward about the short-lived political gains of the revolutions of 1848, he declared that “everything has disappeared like a phantasmagoria.”

9. “The Roots of Our Madness” by Kamran Javadizadeh, The New York Review of Books

Nooooooo way! Wow. No!*

*Real-time transcription of me the first time I read through this passage:

…[I]n many of the Dream Songs, Henry speaks and is spoken to as though he were a blackface performer (called Mr. Bones) in a minstrel show.

…Berryman regularly sought out [a] friend, the novelist Ralph Ellison, who later explained the odd routine to one of Berryman’s biographers:  

During the period he was writing Dream Songs I grew to expect his drunken (sometimes) telephone calls, in the course of which he’d read from work in progress…. I can’t recall how many such calls there were, but usually he wanted my reaction to his uses of dialect. My preference is for idiomatic rendering, but I wasn’t about to let the poetry of what he was saying be interrupted by the dictates of my ear for Afro-American speech. Besides, watching him transform elements of the minstrel show into poetry was too fascinating. Fascinating too, and amusing was my suspicion that Berryman was casting me as a long-distance Mister Interlocutor—or was it Mister Tambo—whose temporary role was that of responding critically to his Mister Bones and Huffy Henry.

It’s an extraordinary scene: a white poet summoning the author of Invisible Man as a disembodied voice, enlisting a Black novelist as silent guarantor of authenticity in an elaborate racial masquerade… 

10. “Sickness in Health” by Phillip Longman, Washington Monthly

Philip Longman reviews Brian Alexander’s The Hospital: Life, Death, and Dollars in a Small American Town.

…During [the early 20th century], other countries, such as Germany, were crafting large social insurance programs. These systems spread the cost of health care across the whole population, thereby guaranteeing hospitals adequate revenue regardless of the income of their patients. But doctors in the United States, fearful of reductions to their autonomy and earning power, organized into a powerful lobby that opposed not only any kind of national health insurance program but even private plans that could make health care more affordable. In 1929, after two doctors in Los Angeles formed a practice that covered all health care costs for a fixed monthly subscription fee of $1.50, the wrath of other area medical professionals, on whom they depended for referrals, was so extreme that the Los Angeles Medical Association expelled the two doctors…

…[R]aw power dynamics now set prices and allocate resources at every level of the health care sector… 

…“Pediatrics, primary care, obesity, mental health, and dentistry all affected a lot more people,” Alexander writes, “but none of them were big moneymakers like a cath lab or radiation oncology were…”

11. “TV's Founding Mothers” by Jayne Ross, American Scholar

Jayne Ross reviews Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today.

…[I]n television’s earliest days—20-some years before the airing of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and other groundbreaking sitcoms—the industry was arguably even more progressive than it is now. That progressivism was thanks, in large part, to the medium’s fledgling status—few households owned TV sets in 1948, and new shows were experimental by default.

…Armstrong deftly weaves the Red Scare throughout the book, describing the heavy toll it took on her subjects’ lives. [Gertrude] Berg and [Hazel] Scott appear to have been affected most painfully by the anti-Communist panic, which forced a devastating shakeup of The Goldbergs’s cast and dealt a fatal blow to Scott’s show when her name appeared on a celebrity blacklist. [Betty] White and [Irna] Phillips were not so overtly targeted by McCarthy and his cronies, but the subsequent wave of white-male-led conservatism affected them, too: Phillips reckoned with executives who didn’t believe in her vision even after years of success, and White wondered if she would ever find work in Hollywood again after Life in Elizabeth ended in 1955 (a seemingly unthinkable fear for the woman who would one day be called the “First Lady of Television”). Many of the recordings of their shows were lost, and along came the shows of the ’50s and ’60s that we tend to think of as the real TV classics—idealized, patriarchal versions of family life like Father Knows Best and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

12. “How Everyday Chemicals May Affect Fertility Rates” by Frieda Klotz, Undark

Lauren Moya Ford reviews Shanna H. Swan’s Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race, a title which really speaks for itself! (The world ends not with a bang, just as the poet predicted… *wiggles eyebrows at bad pun*)

“Count Down” is filled with worrying data you may immediately want to tweet about or send to friends… 

The hardest chapter to read is on declining fertility in animals. Swan outlines how scientists are finding polar bears with low testosterone levels, seals in the Baltic Sea with uterine fibroids, and female sea-snails that developed male sex organs after exposure to under-water chemicals. “There’s been a rise of abnormal genitals in wildlife, including unusually small penises in alligators, panthers, and mink, as well as an increase in fish, frogs, birds, and snapping turtles that have both male and female gonads or ambiguous genitalia,” she writes.

…Toward the end, Swan conducts a tour of an average house, pointing to where the toxins reside…

13. “They burned and looted with discrimination” by Josephine Quinn, The London Review of Books

Josephine Quinn reviews Douglas Boin’s Alaric the Goth: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome.

…[H]istorians have continued to bicker over the causes of the fall: over-extension, class struggle, natural disaster, or perhaps the emancipation of women? In 1984, the German scholar Alexander Demandt carefully catalogued the 210 explanations so far proposed… 

Douglas Boin proposes another… solution… One of the most important questions facing Rome in this era was ‘whether foreigners would have a fair shot at becoming Romans’, and the authorities flunked it, refusing to grant citizenship to immigrants and refugees, who eventually fought back… 

…Gothic refugees finally joined together to revolt against their unwelcoming hosts. In 378 they defeated the imperial troops who came to put them down… It was a victory on the scale of Hannibal’s at Cannae six hundred years earlier, and the Romans learned their lesson. When another Gothic federation requested permission to enter the empire a decade later, they were instructed to cross at night, allowing Roman boats to surround and sink them, selling the survivors into slavery. Prejudice against foreigners increased within the empire too, especially from Christians… Assimilation was enforced: in 399 the Western emperor banned trousers and boots from the streets of Rome.

14. “Among the Rank and File” by Jennifer Wilson, The Nation

Jennifer Wilson writes about Susanne Fusso’s new translation of Gogol, The Nose and Other Stories.

…Peter the Great… spent much of his reign on a series of modernizing initiatives intended to get Russia “caught up” with the West. To implement his reforms—which included… imposing a tax on beards… he needed a robust bureaucracy and a standing military that could manage the demands of his new, spruced-up empire. Peter thus made service—civil or military—compulsory for the Russian nobility, and he implemented a new class system, the Table of Ranks… 

…To a modern audience accustomed to hidden hierarchies and the unwritten rules of elite spaces, the Table of Ranks seems almost refreshingly transparent. But as Gogol reminds us, transparency itself can be something of a mask. Meritocracies are always loudly announcing themselves; this is precisely how they drown out the voices of their victims.


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