Vegetarianism has not gone the way of the cravat…
|November 20, 2012|
From The New Republic:
American history is the history of fitful enthusiasms. “On canal boats” in the nineteenth century, Gilbert Seldes records mysteriously in the history of American fanaticism that he published in 1928, which has been reissued by NYRB Classics, “bed-linen was promiscuous.” There were fads in fashion: “Men … wore the enormous cravats which had been introduced by George the Third to hide the swelling on his neck.” Fads in food: “Carrots were scarcely used and the tomato was known as the ‘love apple’ and considered poisonous”; and a little later, “[b]roccoli had been introduced and the tomato accepted.” Fads in propriety: “At Long Branch it was correct for two girls to go into the water accompanied by one man.” Even fads in perception: “Broadway, in New York, was considered more attractive by night than by day.” The litany continues: “The beard was an object of mockery.” “The rocking-chair was in.”
Lists of such fragmentary observations, which suggest the output of a hand-cranked steampunk search engine, are salted through The Stammering Century. Seldes’s book deals primarily with the slightly narrower—but nonetheless extremely diverse—fields of religious enthusiasm and political reform. The book’s intention, he writes, “is to connect these secondary movements and figures with the primary forces of the century.” Seldes wanted to show that there was a greater logic to the apparent cacophony of nineteenth-century enthusiasms—a figure in the carpet, to paraphrase that famous American stammerer Henry James. “The voices of the century seem at first a clamor of discords,” he writes early on, “but, if we listen carefully, we discover a certain relation between the major voice of progress and the minor voice of radicalism.” Moreover, the fringes of the nineteenth century “supply a background in American history for the cults and manias of our own time.”
In plenty of cases, though—and this, perhaps, was Seldes’s point—it is hard to separate the mainstream crazes from the “cults and manias”; previously commonplace items (like those “promiscuous” bed-linens) now appear as bizarre as the supposed oddities, or even more so. The nineteenth century’s most reviled “fanaticisms and eccentricities” included women’s suffrage, vegetarianism, and the abolition of slavery: those are not ideas that have gone the way of the cravat. In intellectual history, the relationship between figure and ground is always shifting, and what seems like madness or drollery to one decade will be the next one’s dogma or good sense.
Make any cento you want! But try to make it as good as you want it to be. You don’t really want Seidel’s freedom. His poems are licensed by privilege, prestige and money — lots of all three. His deliberate transgressions look like power — to poets, any use of power looks like freedom. But I just read all Seidel’s work, straight through, and I think he’s wearing golden handcuffs.
Pale Youths in Love
I remember when I was a pre-teen and they moved into a loft across the street from me in Tribeca, where I lived. And an older neighbor friend told me they were living in her building, on the top floor. I saw him at my corner deli, and on the street smoking, but never her. At night, I sometimes looked up at their windows and saw their lights on. He was not very impressive in person. Cute, but no big deal.
What is Work?
Without a written record, we cannot know with certainty how the earliest humans thought about work, but the importance of sharing food and other resources means that prehistoric work embodied at least an element of serving the needs of a community rather than just those of an individual and his or her immediate family.
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