Schadenfreude: joy in the misfortune or shame of others. When someone of high station or great accomplishment falls or fails we can feel assuaged in our relative obscurity by knowing that we suffer in less dramatic and public ways. So many joys in life are comparative — and this is one of them.

Schadenfreude is a sophisticated emotion — a combination of jealousy and revenge refracted through the lens of voyeurism. Part of the appeal of schadenfreude is that it takes no effort and involves no responsibility. We experience it like rubberneckers at an accident. In this regard, it is an innocent sin, one that ought not to evoke guilt — or so I tell myself. More… “Schadenfreude TV”

Jimmy Yee cannot kill himself.

It’s certainly not for a lack of effort. Hanging doesn’t work. Slitting his wrists is useless. Shooting himself in the head, overdosing on pills . . . nothing he tries gives him the exit into oblivion he so clearly craves. Each time he succumbs, he witnesses a glowing ring of light, then awakens once again in his motel room. At least it seems like his motel room. What is going on? Maybe if he throws himself in front of a truck . . .

That’s the opening sequence to Demon, Jason Shiga’s bloody brilliant (or brilliantly bloody) action comic, a no-holds-barred assault on good taste and timidity that proves to be as hilarious and captivating as it is incredibly violent and profane. Originally serialized both online and via print pamphlets by the author, Demon is now being “officially” published as a four-volume series of books by First Second. The first volume was released late last year, the second just last month — volumes three and four will be coming out by the end of 2017. More… Demon am I”

The Whitney Biennial, which was inaugurated in 1932, once again works by promising us what is new, challenging, and — with luck — of lasting interest. The promise involves finding the right frame and purpose, such as scientists find in the use of a cross-section. Slice into contemporary art and lay out what most rivets, without fear or favor, label it, study its energies, and try to bear accurate account of what it’s made of. Then it’s reviewed and talked about and disputed — a cross section of a cross section. A two-year survey of what is an impossibly various assortment of works and practitioners of the visual and plastic arts, from the jackanapes to the genius, from the ravishing object to the puzzling proposal. It can’t be taken in; it will be taken in.

This year’s version runs from mid-March to June 11th. Delayed a year and a half because of the opening of the museum’s downtown building, this biennial starts a new run, lulling us into memories of the previous shows and yet promising a new place where the art is somehow still aborning. Recovering from this small interruption of its run of 73 yearly or bi-yearly shows, the Whitney looks to make the 2017 issue an especially memorable one. As Jason Farago put it in The New York Times:

In a generational shift, the Whitney has chosen two young curators for this always anticipated exhibition: Christopher Y. Lew, 36, and Mia Locks, 34. It’s also the first time that the biennial’s curators are both people of color. After months on the road, they have boiled down the art of the last few years into a survey that, for all its energy, doesn’t overwhelm the museum.

More… “The Whitney Biennial of 2017”

Chuck Barris died Tuesday night at the age of 87. He was a “character,” as my father liked to say of people who kept you interested despite being irritated by them. I interviewed him in 2008. He had graduated from Drexel University (then Drexel Institute of Technology) in 1953, and, following graduation, talked himself into a position as a page at NBC, then parlayed this into a higher-level job at ABC. He eventually opened their Hollywood office where he began to build his game show empire. He was the mastermind behind such shows as The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, The Parent Game, and, most famously, The Gong Show. When I interviewed Barris 9 years ago, I found him to be an unintegrated mix of the naïve, the boastful, and the cunning. When I asked him about his book, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, in which he claimed to have worked undercover as a CIA assassin (the book became a movie directed by George Clooney), he was predictably evasive. Part of the hype for that book was that Barris never revealed whether it was fiction or fact. Still, I sensed he was getting tired of the goof. He wanted to unmask — showmen always do. He had an instinct for what the public wanted and a relentless drive for celebrity and success. But he was also a simple Philly boy with a chip on his shoulder and a desire for acceptance in more respectable circles. He’d been labeled the King of Shlock for his game shows, but he wanted to be seen as a serious author. When we talked, he was working on a book about his daughter, who died of a drug overdose in 1998. • More… “I Remember Chuck”

Both Jews and Muslims consider the pink, snout-nosed animals we know as pigs to be unclean. The question of why this is so has not been conclusively resolved. Did the Koran follow a Jewish rule? Or does the ban stem from the fact that eating raw or undercooked pork meat can contain roundworm larvae, which cause trichinosis? People may have made a connection between pigs and disease, resulting in a fear-based taboo. For the anthropologist Marvin Harris, the main reasons for prohibiting the eating of pork were ecological and economical. Pigs require lots of water and shady woods with seeds, conditions that are scarce in the Middle East.

But the full story may be even more complicated. Whether pigs are considered “clean” or “unclean” has differed from culture to culture, and no clear dividing line based on climate conditions is evident. As a result, it’s difficult to determine what exactly people in the distant past thought about meat. Could it be that this taboo was chosen more or less randomly to create a sense of community among believers of the same religion? To the Egyptian pharaohs, pork was unclean, to the ancient Greeks it was not. The hoggish Romans had a great deal of sympathy for the genus sus, and one pig in ancient Rome even had its own tomb. The inscription reads “Porcella hic dormit” — here rests a piglet. This particular pig lived for three years, ten months and 13 days. Its modern descendants “enjoy” much shorter lives, as they are usually slaughtered when they are between six and ten months old. Christianity’s Saint Anthony, a monk who was born in Egypt, serves as the patron saint of farmers, swineherds, and butchers. Legend has it that at some point he worked as a swineherd, and Hieronymus Bosch painted him with a pet pig at his side. In the Middle Ages, pigs, like many other animals, were held culpable for criminal acts and could be taken to court and executed. All in all, the pigs do not exactly have the best reputation in the Christian tradition — but people still eat them. More… “Between Porcophilia and Porcophobia”

Having lived and worked in Washington, D.C. for most of the last generation, I have been impressed with the growing gap between the political and economic realities that confront policymakers and the fantasy worlds that are home to many political activists, ideologues, and pundits.

In domestic policy and foreign policy alike, things change slowly and it is often very hard to enact even minor changes of policy. Even in foreign policy, dramatic events like the implosion of the Soviet Union and 9/11 and the Arab Spring tend to punctuate less visible, longer-term shifts in relative wealth and power, like the gradual rise of China. In domestic politics, incumbent interests are almost always stronger than insurgents, making even minor changes, of course, difficult to achieve, even in societies with fewer constitutional veto points than the U.S. More… “The Fantasy Worlds of Politics”

Examine your sentences. Use strong verbs wherever possible. Use the active, not the passive, voice. Try not to use the same words everyone else uses, unless you have a particular reason for making your piece flat. Flat is not what usually works, because flat is boring.

Examine your paragraphs. Do they lead from one to the other in a way that makes sense? Does each paragraph carry an interesting thought, a wonderful sentence, a joke, an astute observation, something to mull over? You do not have to have all of these in the same paragraph. George Garrett advised us to touch base with each of our senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) on every single page. It is good advice.

If your piece contains chapters, ask yourself if you have started and ended them at the most effectual points. Until you reach the end of the piece, you want each chapter to tantalize the reader into the next chapter. This is called narrative drive. It was not always seen as essential, but today it is essential. Without narrative drive, a story withers on the vine. More… “Poetic Praise”

It’s hard to know exactly what moment we occupy in regard to the New Atheism and its concomitant backlash. Are we in the backlash of the backlash? Or the backlash of the backlash of the backlash? As Tim Whitmarsh shows in his recent Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, this debate is about two thousand years old; I don’t propose to resolve it today or tomorrow. I do, however, have a modest suggestion: Instead of riling up ourselves and our antagonists any further, we atheists might direct at least some of our righteousness into good-humored mockery of a perfectly harmless figure whose feelings can’t be hurt: God.

Admittedly, it’s almost impossible not to rile up people on this subject, but short of taking a vow of silence, atheists don’t have much choice. While muzzling ourselves in deference to the sensitivities of believers is not a reasonable expectation, expressing full-blown contempt for those same sensitivities isn’t much better. Might there be a middle path between excessive deference on the one hand and hurtful belligerence on the other? Yes, there is, and Friedrich Nietzsche marked it out in his gloriously intemperate polemic The Antichrist. More… “How To Laugh At God”

Like the namesake of his most recent novels, J. M. Coetzee speaks to us in parables. The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus, like Disgrace and Summertime before them, give us politically charged stories seemingly without side. This encourages the Nobel laureate’s reviewers to become Coetzeeologists, attempting to parse out whether the book before them sets opposing tensions in play for art’s sake alone, or whether we can discern a clear moral leaning beneath the tensions. We assume Coetzee came to the story with an open mind but did he leave with one too? What’s he trying to say?

Since about The Master of Petersburg, most of Coetzee’s novels have used oppositional ideas to power their dynamos. The reader’s changing sympathies fall into a sort of dance with the story itself: Each revelation shifts our allegiances, tilting the axis of the book. It’s like watching a courtroom drama where the very ideas by which we live our lives are put on trial, and we’re not yet certain whodunit. In Disgrace, a college professor in Coetzee’s native South Africa takes sexual advantage of a student and then is himself savagely victimized — in what measure has justice been served? In the underrated Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous fictional novelist accuses a fictionalized version of the real novelist Paul West of depicting the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that effectively exploits them; as we watch her argument unfold, we find ourselves first cheering her on, then recoiling. This is fiction at its best. More… “The Dancer Upstairs”

All is completed, I said. You can rest and take delight in your accomplishment, I said. Except.

Except now you have to do it all over again.

Maybe not all of you. Maybe only most of you. There are, after all, those painstaking writers who meticulously go over each sentence as it appears and polish it until it has just the right glossiness and hint of darkness. When it is as smooth as a milkshake. When it dances or sings or claps.

But make no mistake: Almost all of us have to do all of it all over again.

You may start by running a spelling and grammar search on the file in your computer. The search will clean up a few typos. Which helps, but, sadly, not all that much. After all, this is simply housecleaning, and like housecleaning, you need to do it repeatedly, i.e., every time you add to or alter your piece. You must also read, reread, reread again, and then reread some more. Some readers suggest reading backwards from the last page, especially when what you have written is poetry. What are you looking for? The tiniest things imaginable: reversed quotation marks, for example, and words that lack needed power, or a comma that should be a semicolon, a question mark that should be a period. Check spellings for capitals and hyphens. Check military abbreviations. Check all other abbreviations. This, unfortunately, is not fun. This is tedious. And you may find yourself nearly hysterical with anxiety.
More… “Revise Until You Drop”