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  • Elias Altman

    Notes on “Youth”: Wasted on the Young

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    “One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy,” George Eliot lamented in a letter to a friend in 1844. “I am just beginning to make some progress in the science, and I hope to disprove Edward Young’s theory that ‘as soon as we have found the key of life, it opens the gates of death.’” It was spring again in northern Coventry, and the future author of Middlemarch was twenty-four years old. A morbid thought for one so young, but what is youth if not a world of melodrama, strutting and fretting? For the young, all experience is new experience, the action unfolding as a parade of excitement, desire, betrayal, anger, ambition, joy—often all in the same afternoon. Youth affords a clarity of impression, the exactitude of unmitigated feeling, and we later come to recollect with poignancy a carefree summer day spent climbing trees or that kiss behind the swing set as what our youth was all about. Is it lost before we know it, those golden days wasted and spent? Or is it a thing seen only from afar, a convenient classification to cleave what I was from who I am?

    If the magic of early life seems only to grow the further it recedes, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any magic to begin with; the alluring green light at the end of Daisy’s distant dock was green up close too. Henry Adams, a descendant of the second and sixth U.S. presidents, wrote in his autobiography, published posthumously in 1918, “Boys are wild animals, rich in the treasures of sense, but the New England boy had a wider range of emotions than boys of more equable climates. He felt his nature crudely, as it was meant.” Adams was a boy of six in 1845, the year those observations characterize: around the time Eliot was worrying over the science of happiness, Adams was living it. “Winter and summer, then, were two hostile lives, and bred two separate natures. Winter was always the effort to live; summer was tropical license.” Such dualities are endemic to childhood, for boys as well as girls, whether in New England or old. Life is extreme; imagination will make it so if circumstance does not.

    Continue reading » July 15, 2014 Bookmark and Share
  • Madison Mainwaring

    The Riot of Spring

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    The premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps, on May 29, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, is perhaps the most legendary theatrical event of the twentieth century. During the performance of Le Sacre, or The Rite of Spring, there were fistfights, stampedes, chairs knocked over. A lady took out her hatpin in order to stab the man next to her (who may or may not have been Jean Cocteau). The police had to be called in during intermission in order to take away forty of the audience’s more boisterous members. One of the double bass players in the orchestra reported that “many a gentleman’s shiny top hat or soft fedora was pulled down by an opponent over his eyes and ears, and canes were brandished like menacing implements of combat.” Brawls carried on into the streets and at least one duel was fought the next day.

    These accounts, astonishing as they may be, fail to express the riot’s fervor. “Nothing of all that has ever been written about the battle of The Rite conveys a weak impression of that which actually happened,” the French artist Valentine Gross-Hugo would later recall of the evening. “The theater seemed to have been struck by an earthquake. It seemed to shake.”

    Continue reading » June 17, 2014 Bookmark and Share
  • Miles Klee

    Alternative Histories

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    “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so,” he argued. “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take away everything that you have,” he concluded.

    Or might have—there’s just no proof. These grave comments (and more of their ilk) appear in a list of “Spurious Quotations” featured on the visitors’ website for Monticello, where Jefferson famously indulged in the tyranny of slavery. Each is a wild paraphrasing at best and invented from whole cloth at worst, though one suspects this hardly matters to the truthers, militiamen, secessionists, etc., who share and repost them online. It’s not even especially important which wig-wearing moral hypocrite of a founding father is supposed to have said this stuff, the aggrieved rhetoric is all. What counts is that a true patriot from centuries ago, an expert in these matters, has eloquently summarized and justified their rage.

    Continue reading » June 10, 2014 Bookmark and Share
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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