Jul. 26, 2011


by Louis Jenkins

Temperature in the upper seventies, a bit of a breeze. Great
cumulus clouds pass slowly through the summer sky like
parade floats. And the slender grasses gather round you,
pressing forward, with exaggerated deference, whispering,
eager to catch a glimpse. It's your party after all. And it couldn't
be more perfect. Yet there's a nagging thought: you don't really
deserve all this attention, and that come October, there will be
a price to pay.

"July" by Louis Jenkins, from Words to that Effect © Will o' the Wisp Books. Reprinted with permission of the author. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the man who said, "If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion" and "War does not decide who is right, but who is left": playwright and founder of the London School of Economics George Bernard Shaw (books by this author), born in Dublin in 1856. He moved to London with his mother in 1876, determined to be a writer. His first attempts at fiction were failures by nearly any standard. He wrote a semiautobiographical novel, the aptly titled Immaturity, in 1879; no publisher in London would touch it. (It was finally published in 1930, after he was famous.) He then wrote four more novels without publishing any of them, either. He tried submitting articles to various newspapers for a decade, and not a single one ever ran. His last attempt at fiction was published posthumously as An Unfinished Novel, which he worked on in 1887-8 and finally gave up on. He earned less than 10 shillings a year from writing during this period; luckily his mother made enough as a music teacher to support them both.

In the mid-1880s, he finally got work as a journalist, writing book reviews and a music column, and later, as a theater critic. He made a good living, and his reviews were witty. In them he argued passionately that the theater needed fresh ideas, and that's when he started to write his own plays. He's best known for Pygmalion (1912), about a Cockney girl who's taught to talk like a lady. It was made into a film in 1938, and also a musical, My Fair Lady (the stage version premiered in 1956; the film version was released in 1964). He also wrote Arms and the Man (1894), which was his first popular success, as well as Man and Superman (1903), Major Barbara (1905), and Saint Joan (1923). He's considered one of the most significant English-language playwrights since Shakespeare, and also nearly as widely quoted. He's the one who gave us "England and America are two countries separated by a common language," and "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches," and "People who say it cannot be done should get out of the way of people who are doing it."

It's the birthday of Carl Jung (1875) (books by this author), born in Kesswil, Switzerland. He was the father of analytic psychology, and he gave us the concept of introversion versus extraversion, the idea of the collective unconscious, and the notion of archetypes. He worked very closely with Freud between 1907 and 1912, and was considered by many — Freud included — to be the crown prince of psychoanalysis. Eventually, the two parted company; Jung felt Freud was too quick to make every neurosis about sex, and Freud was uncomfortable with Jung's interest in mysticism and myth. Jung began to delve deeper into his dream and fantasy life, letting his irrational mind take over, taking careful notes all the while. This line of thought led to his theory of the collective unconscious: certain images and experiences common to the whole human race. The collective unconscious, coupled with his theory of archetypes — primordial images or characters that occur in every culture's folklore — formed the basis of his views on the psychology of religion. He spent the rest of his life developing these ideas. He came to believe that archetypes are all facets of our own selves, and we must embrace them — even the villainous ones — to be truly whole.

He wrote, "The conscious mind allows itself to be trained like a parrot, but the unconscious does not — which is why St. Augustine thanked God for not making him responsible for his dreams."

Today is the birthday of English author Aldous Huxley (1894) (books by this author), born in Godalming, Surrey. He was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, a scientist and man of letters who was known as "Darwin's bulldog" for his defense of the theory of evolution. Huxley wrote a few of novels that satirized English literary society, and these established him as a writer; it was his fifth book, Brave New World (1932), which arose out of his distrust of 20th century politics and technology, for which he is most remembered. Huxley started out intending to write a parody of H.G. Wells' utopian novel Men Like Gods (1923). He ended by envisioning a future where society functions like one of Henry Ford's assembly lines: a mass-produced culture in which people are fed a steady diet of bland amusements and take an antidepressant called Soma to keep themselves from feeling anything negative.

It's natural to compare Brave New World with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), since they each offer a view of a dystopian future. Cultural critic Neil Postman spelled out the difference in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death:

"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. ... In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us."

It's the birthday of Jean Shepherd (1921). He was born in Chicago, and raised in nearby Hammond, Indiana. He wrote a number of humorous short stories about growing up in the Midwest, and was also a columnist for the Village Voice and Car and Driver. He had a popular radio show on WOR in New York; he told stories, shared amusing anecdotes, and made observations about the human condition. He's the man who gave us the holiday classic A Christmas Story, about Ralphie, a boy who really wants an Official Red Ryder 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle. Shepherd wrote and narrated the movie, which was based on some of his short stories and material from his radio show.

It's the birthday of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (1928), born in New York City. His father taught him to play chess when he was 12, and it became a lifelong passion. His parents wanted him to be a doctor, but he didn't have the grades to get into college at all. A friend got him a job as a staff photographer for Look magazine when he was only 17, and though he didn't make too much money, he got to travel the world. He made a short documentary about boxing in 1951, called The Day of the Fight. His first feature was Fear and Desire (1953), and he went on to direct an impressive list of American film classics, including Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and The Shining (1980). Nearly all of his films were adapted from novels or short stories; Anthony Burgess and Stephen King (authors of A Clockwork Orange and The Shining) were dissatisfied with his adaptations, but most critics felt his films brought something fresh and innovative to the source material.

"It has always seemed to me that really artistic, truthful ambiguity — if we can use such a paradoxical phrase — is the most perfect form of expression," he told Horizon magazine in 1960. "Nobody likes to be told anything. Take Dostoyevsky. It's awfully difficult to say what he felt about any of his characters. I would say ambiguity is the end product of avoiding superficial, pat truths."

On this date in 1947, President Truman signed the National Security Act, reorganizing the United States Armed Forces. It created the Central Intelligence Agency — the country's first peacetime intelligence agency — as well as the National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It merged the Department of War and the Department of the Navy into a single Department of Defense, and added the Department of the Air Force, which previously had been part of the Army. It was a major component of Truman's Cold War strategy, along with the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine. The president signed the Act aboard the presidential aircraft Sacred Cow, which was the predecessor to Air Force One.

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  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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