May 11, 2010

Society for the Dissolution of Learning

by Angela Ball

A scientist reports that evolution is
"A factory for the almost impossible,"

So, I've decided to go there.
I am a seminary for the pretty close to impetuous.

A nonscientist, I see the creation of life
As a kind of bulk mailing,
Much of which arrived
At the wrong address.

My extensively shaky reading habits might help:
"Our world," says John Lukacs, "has come to the edge of disaster
Precisely because of its preoccupation with justice."
I agree! I resolve to abandon the pursuit of sense,
Which turns intentions into roller skates
And revelations into laundry.

"Society for the Dissolution of Learning" by Angela Ball, from Night Clerk at the Hotel of Both Worlds. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1812 the waltz was introduced at Almack's dance hall in London. It was the first closed-couple dance the English aristocracy had ever seen. Men and women embraced one another as they were dancing, and the men lifted the women over their thighs as the couples turned. Critics called it "disgusting."

It's the birthday of a man who wrote many waltzes: Irving Berlin, born Israel Baline, in Russia (1888). He came to New York City with his family when he was five, and when he was eight his father died. That was the end of his formal education. He never learned to read or write music, and he never learned to play in any key but F sharp.

In his song "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," Berlin wrote:
A pretty girl is like a melody,
That haunts you night and day,
Just like a strain of a haunting refrain,
She'll start upon a marathon
And run around your brain.

It's the birthday of three famous 20th-century Spanish intellectuals. Painter Salvador Dalí was born on this day in 1904 in Figueras, Spain. Nobel Prize-winning novelist Camilo José Cela (books by this author) was born on this day in 1916 in Padrón, Spain. And Francisco Umbral (books by this author) — a newspaper columnist and the author of more than 80 books who for decades was Spain's best-known writer — was born on this day in 1935 in Madrid.

Salvador Dalí's ambitions included cultivating a reputation for eccentricity, and he once said, "The one thing the world will never have enough of is the outrageous." For one thing, he had a perfectly waxed, upturned mustache that's been alternately described as "flamboyant," "bold," "grotesque," and "hilarious." In recent years, it's inspired a line of Dalí mustache necklaces.

He wore long sideburns, sported clothes like Oscar Wilde's, and sometimes walked down the street ringing a bell so that people would look at him. He himself said he had a "love of everything that is gilded and excessive." And he said, "In order to acquire a growing and lasting respect in society, it is a good thing, if you possess great talent, to give, early in your youth, a very hard kick to the right shin of the society that you love. After that, be a snob." His most famous painting is "The Persistence of Memory" (1931); it's the one of melted pocket watches hanging from trees and other objects. You can see it at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Salvador Dalí died in 1989, the year that Camilo José Cela, the Spanish novelist whose birthday is also today, won the Nobel Prize in literature. His best-known works include The Family of Pascual Duarte (1942), which the Nobel committee said was "probably the most read novel in Spanish literature ... after Don Quixote." He's also famous for La Colmena ["The Beehive"] (1951), an experimental novel set in Madrid in the early 1940s. The novel is broken up into 215 fragments, and it features 300 characters in its 350 pages.

Camilo José Cela was close friends with Francisco "Paco" Umbral, a Spanish writer also born on this day. Umbral was incredibly prolific: He wrote 80 books in addition to his regular newspaper column for El País. Everybody in Spain read him, and he received all sorts of critical acclaim in Spain, including the country's top literary prize in 2000. But he was never really popular with the international intellectual community. He stood right of center on the political spectrum, and he was vocally contemptuous of left-leaning intellectuals, belittling the ideas and insulting the characters of those who tended to serve on international literary prize judging committees.

Umbral died a few years ago, in 2007. Among his 80 books are a number of biographies; he wrote one of Lorca and one of Lord Byron. His more recent books include The Capital of Sorrow (1996), A Thief's Forge (1997), Stories of Love and Viagra (1998), and Beloved Twentieth Century (2007).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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