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The old joke has it that reading Playboy for the articles is a dodge — a way to deflect clucking tongues of disapproval for the shy reader’s appreciation of nubile females. That old joke became a cruel one in the late winter of 2016 when the magazine published its first ever non-nude issue. Cooper Hefner, the 27-year-old owner and editor of Playboy, initially told readers that the legendary publication would cease publishing buxom models in their birthday suits for good. That promise did not last. The sadistic joke was over.

Back when Playboy was actually groundbreaking, daring, and (dare I say it) titillating, the magazine not only featured some of the world’s most beautiful women, but also some of the world’s best writers. Much of this literary greatness came courtesy of one editor — Ray Russell. Ironically, Russell, who managed the magazine’s fiction department during the early 1950s to early 1970s, was a Victorian thorough and thorough. Or at least he wrote like a Victorian English gentleman with a deep taste for the weird. More… “Conte Cruel”

Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Boston. He is the author of Hands Dabbled in Blood.

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“Urge and urge and urge,” Whitman intoned. “Always the procreant urge of the world.” These words signal the life instinct, eros, that innate, libidinal drive for pleasure and survival.

Humans are compelled by life, attracted to it and aroused by it. The procreant urge motivates us to act, stimulates our choices and actions, shapes our personal identity. There’s no subjectivity, no consciousness, absent coital awareness. The properties of life — what it means and how it appears to be alive — are conditions for their own perpetuation: to love life is to make it.

We are drawn to life, that inner bloom within the verdant body. We seek intimacy with the animated, energetic fertile parts, the warm, electric, pulsating body that’s flowing with blood, propelled by agency and personality. The sensual qualities of living flesh stir up an intense and unconscious desire for the continuity of our kind. More… “Sex with the Dead”

Allen Mendenhall is an associate dean at Thomas Goode Jones School of Law and executive director of the Blackstone & Burke Center for Law & Liberty. Visit his website at AllenMendenhall.com

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For his 2007 translation of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Robin Buss chooses to render the title as The Lost Estate, followed by Le Grand Meaulnes in parentheses. However, since reading it, I refer to it solely as Le Grand Meaulnes, because Buss’s note on the translation describes the French title as nearly untranslatable: “There are, in fact, more titles of this book in English than there are translations of it”! (Even the author’s name is not consistently “translated.” A pseudonym — he was born Henri-Alban Fournier — it appears on some editions as “Henri Alain-Fournier” and on others simply as “Alain-Fournier.”)

The novel, considered a coming-of-age classic in France on par with our The Catcher in the Rye, tells the story of Augustin Meaulnes, known as grand at school for both his height and his charisma, a dashing boy who escapes one day on an adventure. It’s a few days before Christmas, and one of his classmates has been chosen for the important task of picking up the schoolmaster’s parents at a nearby train station. In a fit of competitive jealousy, Meaulnes steals a horse and carriage and races off to beat him to the station, but he takes a wrong turn and gets lost. He stops to sleep and the horse runs away. Eventually, cold and exhausted, he stumbles upon a secluded estate where some kind of celebration — “a strange fête” — is taking place: There are children in costume, dancing, a great feast. (You can picture it, can’t you? Stone walls? Fairy lights in the trees?) It’s a wedding, and Meaulnes crashes it. He is assumed to be a guest, and when everyone leaves at the end of the weekend, he catches a ride back in the direction of his town. By the time he returns he has been missing several days and, when the horse turned up with an empty trap, feared dead. More… “Impossible Time”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.

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painting of a woman reading a novel
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There’s a David Shields quote that I have encountered multiple times, first in his own book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, and most recently in “Note to Self” by Elaine Blair, a review of the work (both written and editorial) of John D’Agata, subtitled “The lyric essay’s convenient fictions.” Both D’Agata and Shields are proponents of blurring the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. This is the quote (boldface mine):

Why do I so strenuously resist generic boundaries? Because when I’m constrained within a form, my mind shuts down, goes on a sit-down strike, saying, This is boring, so I refuse to try very hard. I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unselfconsciously as a novel, since it’s not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now.

More… “Why Read Novels?”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.

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Shagga glowered, a fearsome sight to see. “Shagga son of Dolf likes this not. Shagga will go with the boyman, and if the boyman lies, Shagga will chop off his manhood.”

No, that’s not a parody of A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin; it is A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. And if I begin my discussion of what is in some respects a remarkable creative achievement with a sample of bad prose, that’s because A Game of Thrones is virtually an encyclopedia of bad prose. It has bad exposition, bad dialogue, bad sex scenes, bad nature description, even bad free indirect discourse, to use the term for the narrative device Martin employs to advance the plot while taking us inside the heads of his principal characters.

More… “Shagga Son of Dolf Likes this Not”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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The setting of post-apocalyptic fiction, a venerable genre of science fiction, is a future in which today’s technological civilization has been destroyed by some global catastrophe — nuclear war, a plague, a meteor impact, a new Ice Age. The survivors of the disaster find themselves living in the conditions of a new medievalism, or perhaps a new Stone Age. Often to survive they must battle against zombies or mutants in the ruins of once-great cities. Now and then, in post-apocalyptic tales, the primitives of the future uncover shining relics of our forgotten industrial era — a computer, perhaps, or a spaceship.

Something similar has happened to the science fiction shelf at the bookstore in the last few decades. Stories about space travel and robots and domed cities in a gleaming high-tech future have all but disappeared, while the shelves groan under the weight of multi-novel series about medieval warriors in magical kingdoms, like George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Aliens from other planets in the solar system or other solar systems are on the endangered species list. Their place in the ecosystem of the imagination has been taken by vampires, werewolves, fallen angels, and, sometimes, repressive governments.
More… “The Lost Frontier”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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The last section of An African in Greenland is titled “A True Greenlander,” but what a Greenlander is, well, that’s not easy to say.

 

In this final chapter, Robert Mattaaq — a native Greenlander and village elder at 63 —  tells author Tété-Michel Kpomassie the story of the souls of names. They sit inside Robert’s turf and stone hut, a rarity in Greenland by the time Kpomassie gets there, as all similar huts have long been razed and replaced with flimsy Scandinavian-style wooden houses built by the colonizing Danish. When a man dies, Robert explains, all his different souls leave the body through his mouth — all except for one troublemaking soul, the ateqata, the soul of the dead man’s name. This soul of the name clings desperately to the corpse wanting only one thing: to live again in… More…

We fill absences. This is what we do. Nature has her way of filling up absence with stars, atoms, frogs, dirt, human beings. Human beings, though, have their own curious way of filling absence. When we lived in caves, we filled the vacuum of the unknown with fear. In ancient times, gods filled the unknown. In 16th-century Europe, the artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo filled the unknown with monsters.

“Arcimboldo, 1526–1593: Nature and Fantasy” Through January 9. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In the darkened rooms of the “Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy” exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., hang strange and unwholesome monster faces. The portraits lining the walls are a perversion of everything we consider to be natural and right and harmonious about the human visage. In Arcimboldo’s “composite heads,” men are… More…