Sylvia Plath on nose-picking, and other readings


Sylvia Plath picks her nose By Sylvia Plath, by way of Janet Malcolm.

There are so many subtle variations of sensation. A delicate, pointed-nailed fifth finger can catch under dry scabs and flakes of mucus in the nostril and draw them out ot be looked at, crumbled between fingers, and flicked to the floor in minute crusts. Or a heavier, determined forefinger can reach up and smear down-and-out the soft, resilient, elastic greenish-yellow smallish blobs of mucus, roll them round and jellylike between thumb and forefinger, and spread them on the under-surface of a desk or chair where they will harden into organic crusts. How many desks and chairs have I thus secretively befouled since childhood? Or sometimes there will be blood mingled with the mucus: in dry brown scabs or bright sudden wet red on the finger that scraped too rudely the nasal membranes. God, what a sexual satisfaction! It is absorbing to look with new sudden eyes on the old worn habits: to see a sudden luxurious and pestilential “snot-green sea,” and shiver with the shock of recognition.

From Plath’s Journals, via Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman (Granta paperback, 2005), 160–161.

The allure of Beethoven. By Alex Ross at The New Yorker.

Above all, Beethoven shaped the identity of what came to be known as classical music. In the course of the nineteenth century, dead composers began to crowd out the living on concert programs, and a canon of masterpieces materialized, with Beethoven front and center. As the scholar William Weber has established, this fetishizing of the past can be tracked with mathematical precision, as a rising line on a graph: in Leipzig, the percentage of works by deceased composers went from eleven per cent in 1782 to seventy-six per cent in 1870. Weber sees an 1807 Leipzig performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the titanic, turbulent “Eroica,” as a turning point: the work was brought back a week later, “by demand,” taking a place of honor at the end of the program. Likewise, a critic wrote of the Second Symphony, “It demands to be played again, and yet again, by even the most accomplished orchestra.” More than anything, it was the mesmerizing intricacy of Beethoven’s constructions—his way of building large structures from the obsessive development of curt motifs—that made the repertory culture of classical music possible. This is not to say that Beethoven’s predecessors, giants on the order of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, fail to reward repeated listening with their cerebral games of variation. In the case of Beethoven, though, the process becomes addictive, irresistible. No composer labors so hard to stave off boredom, to occupy the mind of one who might be hearing or playing a particular piece for the tenth or the hundredth time.

He’s right.

The Shrimp Is a Lie. By Megan Garber at The Atlantic.

The advocacy group Oceana tested 143 shrimp products—sourced from 111 different establishments—comparing the claims labels made about the shrimp’s origin to the shrimp’s actual DNA. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because Oceana is the same group that published the results of a fish-species test last year—the study that found, among other things, that nearly a third of all the seafood sold in restaurants and supermarkets across the country was fraudulently labeled.) Oceana scientists tested samples of the tasty crustacean in four regions across the country: the Gulf of Mexico; Washington, D.C.; New York City; and Portland, Oregon. New York City had the highest amount of misrepresentation (43 percent), followed by Washington (33 percent), the Gulf of Mexico (30 percent), and Portland (5 percent).

The Existential Crisis of Public Life Online. By Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic.

So for hundreds of thousands of people, Gamergate has been just there for a month now, an enervating army that makes itself known as soon as the “#Gamergate” hashtag is tweeted. It’s an attentional brushfire that, even when it’s not being discussed, could flare up at any time. It’s a source of exhaustion even before it has done anything to exhaust. The eloquent and humane film critic whose nom de blog is Film Crit Hulk recently wrote a long meditation on this. He pointed out that the scariest element of all this is that “pro-Gamergate” arguments follow the circular and meaningless patterns of the indoctrinated, yet its adherents seem to have absorbed this dogma exclusively through the Internet. In other words, Gamergate is a cult without geography.

Janet Malcolm on disruptive biography

[Clarissa Roche’s] biography of Vanessa Bell won her critical and popular acclaim; it is a long, well-narrated work. It convinces the reader that Vanessa was splendid — a game, kind woman and a gifted artist, who led a rich, beautiful life — and it is poised on the tension between the demented “plot” of Vanessa’s existence and its serene day-to-day actualities and achievements. Angelica Garrett’s memoir, in contrast, like Dido Merwin’s memoir of Plath, is full of aggrievement and complaint and one doesn’t like her for it — as one ultimately doesn’t like it. We don’t want to be told what vengeful memoirs like Angelica’s and Dido’s oblige us to consider: that our children and friends do not love us, that we are neurotic, blind, pathetic, that under the eye of God our life will be seen as a mistake, something botched and wasted.

From Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman (Granta paperback), 149.

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Photo by Smugs Spatzer, some rights reserved.