Between Judgment And Spontaneity


Aging literary scholar, Mark Edmundson reflects on his final days on the basketball court. “Many activities that we pursue with particular fervor,” he notes,  ”are attempts to make time go away, to let us live in a pure present.”  Edmunson finds in the art of writing and the art of sport a deeper awareness of life’s constant push forward.

“This process of imagining a physical act, doing it, then revising it, isn’t far removed from what a writer does. I like to think that the two activities, writing and playing ball, might feed each other. There’s no basketball weakness quite so severe that I can’t figure out a way to begin to compensate; no first draft so chaotic that the right kind of patient, smoothing hand can’t make something out of it. I once heard the novelist Bernard Malamud say that he found revision to be one of the most humanly ennobling things that a person could commit himself to. To be a good reviser, you need the ability to throw yourself out there and, possibly, to make a… Read more »

Beyond the Personal

Empathy Exams

Leslie Jamison describes her sense of the personal essay and its connections to journalism and critical writing.  Her recent collection of essays entitled “The Empathy Exams” combine the personal with the the cultural.  ”I’m interested,” she writes, “in essays that follow the infinitude of a private life toward the infinitude of public experience.”   In this approach, personal experience is not the end of the essay but rather the beginning of making connections to the larger world.  In many ways, empathy is at the heart of what an essay can achieve between the writer’s personal experiences and our own.

“In my own essay, “The Empathy Exams,” I tell several personal stories—an abortion, a failed heart surgery—inside a broader inquiry into the terms of empathy itself: What does it consist of? Can it be taught? I write about my work as a medical actor—following diagnostic scripts—and I write about falling in love and drinking too much wine and crying on the phone, but I also write about a neuroscientist who is using fMRI scans to figure out which parts of… Read more »

The House Allows One to Dream in Peace


“A house protects the dreamer,” writes Gaston Bachelard. Drawing on this idea, Sandell Morse recounts her travels to a house that protected Jews during the war, woven with her own memories of the yellow stucco house she grew up in.

“Toute le monde, everyone, knew it was a Jewish house,” Monsieur Le Hech said, leading me out of the plaza and around a corner. Clearly, this was a grand house, more expansive than I’d thought, belonging, once, to a nineteenth century nobleman, Louis de Veyièves, a man faithful to the Bourbons. What would this nobleman have thought of this refuge for Jewish children? Monsieur Le Hech pointed upward, then watching my face as if to gauge my perception, he asked, “You see?”

Red roof tiles, blue sky, a balcony. Ah, a courtyard. In the History of Beaulieu, I’d seen a photograph of girls scrubbing, then wringing clothes, all posing for the camera’s eye. Above their heads this balcony and blouses hanging on a line. This was ordinary life, the dailyness Germaine described the day we talked—girls washing clothes, peeling apples, and perhaps,… Read more »

Unruffled Psychological Still Lives


Andre Aciman considers his youthful innocence, caught between an Eric Rohmer film and his memories of his first love. Aciman asks us to wonder  how our films and novels project upon our experiences insights that we struggle to see.

The movie theater on West 57th Street is nearly empty—this is the film’s last run in New York. I hear voices on screen. I have no sense of how much I’ve missed or if coming late might ruin it. The sudden disappointment of missing a part of the film distracts me and gives the entire viewing an unreal, provisional feel, as though seeing it now doesn’t really count, might need to be corrected by a second viewing. I like the option of a second viewing that is already implied in the first, the way I imagine seeing places or hearing tales a second and a third time while I’m still experiencing them the first time—which is how I confront almost everything in life: as a dry run for the real thing to come. I’ll return, but this time with someone… Read more »

The Particularities of Their Bodies


The mysteries of sexual desires have for years provoked theories and laws keen on containing, erasing, or improving our sexual lives. Sexual stories illuminate personal as well as cultural insights. Richard Williams went searching for the ways architecture affects how we have sex. Here Bryan Thomas Rice relates the pleasurable paradox of his obsessions with anonymous sex.

This is what the man from the chat room wanted:

He wanted me to park in the alley and enter his house through the kitchen door, which would be unlocked, and once inside, I would take an immediate right and find a door leading to an unfinished basement, and because there would be no light, I would need to descend the stairs slowly, very slowly, grasping the rail like a child learning to walk, and grope along the cinderblock wall until I found another door, behind which he would be laying on a sleeping bag, waiting for me in the dark.

No names, no faces: only our bodies. Total anonymity. 

He explained that he taught biology at the university and had… Read more »