With midterms coming up (kid not: we missed them), WEEKEND has been thinking about thinking. On the brain we’ve had the minds that define the heights of savantry and the depths of delirium. What began as a fanciful flight into the foibles of the genius mind soon ended in unabashed revelry of sex and morbid demise. Plus some Nicolas Cage loving and fungal farming on the side.
Joyce: Juicier than you
“You think perhaps that my love is a filthy thing,” wrote the enigmatic author to his lover one cool December evening. “It is, darling, at some moments.” And indeed it was. He, James Joyce, was the eccentric Irishman nursing literary aspirations; she, Nora Barnacle, was the young woman whose simple means masked her not-so-simple mind. Though the couple met in 1904, their so-called filthy love — a vulgar series of fetishes shocking even by contemporary standards — bloomed in 1909, when Joyce’s travels to Switzerland kept him away from Nora in an era before Skype and sexts.
Sure, even Dubliners get the blues, but Joyce’s letters to Barnacle are hardly the chaste longings of Abelard and Heloise. In nearly 10 pieces of correspondence, Joyce details his proclivities for riding boots, “filthy poses,” and even the apparent joys of erotic flatulence, the details of which cannot be further described for the sake of decency. In some letters, Joyce provides Nora vivid instructions for the purposes of her self-pleasure; in others, he longs — perhaps more romantically and certainly less explicitly — to see her again soon.
James’ relationship with Nora survived his preoccupation with her frilly drawers. Barnacle stayed with Joyce until his death, though she often complained of his alcoholism and neurotic tendencies. Yet as far as history can tell us, Nora never protested her husband’s dirty mind; in fact, her own correspondence matched his in its vulgarity and wit.
“Have I shocked you by the dirty things I wrote to you?” Joyce wrote that same December night. And while he might not have shocked Nora, Joyce most certainly shocked us, insofar as his letters reveal a hidden portrait of the artist (and his lover) as a young perv. —Marissa Medansky
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Fighting dark forces in the clear moonlight
I can’t find any unimpeachable source to verify this, so it’s entirely possible that Leonardo Da Vinci did not sleep in twenty-minute naps every four hours, but I’d like to believe that it’s true. At Yale we’re told that we can only have two-thirds of the holy trinity: sleep, good grades, and a social life. It would be nice to immediately rule out the least interesting of the three options. Da Vinci sleep, or “Uberman sleep,” operates on the assumption that all non-REM sleep is filler. It insists that you can train your body to function with just the necessary two hours of rapid-eye-movement, taken in discrete units of hardcore power-naps. Certainly Leo did plenty of other fucked-up genius shit, like writing with both hands simultaneously and inventing flying machines in the sixteenth century, so the world should probably accept his crazy-brilliant reputation whether or not he engaged in this particular eccentricity. But it’s appealing to think that, in the long struggle of intellectuals with irrationality and chaos, he was the first to overcome sleep, that most insidiously quotidian irrationality. Monophasic sleep, i.e. “how normal people sleep,” just doesn’t make sense: eight hours of each valuable day are spent supine and unconscious, without even getting spectacularly drunk first. Currently, Uberman sleep is a potentially-dangerous niche interest with questionable Da Vinci credentials. But with midterms coming up, I find myself wishing for just a little more Da Vinci idiosyncracy, and a little less natural absurdity. —Natalie Collins
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I don’t know much about Rudolph Steiner, the founder of biodynamic farming and one of the strangest thinkers of the early 20th century, but I do know this: while working on a farm this past summer, several of my fellow WWOOFers were late to dinner because they had been too busy spraying all of the plants in a figure-eight pattern using a fungal mixture supposedly made to his specifications. Steiner, you see, believed in the link between science and mysticism, so some of his ideas, such as perceiving of the farm as one holistic organism, sound pretty good. Others, like using the positioning of the stars and planets to guide your planting, don’t. Then again, as Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The Steindawg definitely achieved that much, although I can’t really say I buy it.
That said, our farm didn’t have any cows, so the milk we bought was from a bunch of biodynamic Germans a ways down the road. It was delicious, which just goes to show. —Austin Bernhardt
He blew out his candles
“Camino Real.” A play that involves Don Quixote, a gypsy, a metaphysical wind, a woman who regains her virginity daily and a fat man who coddles a bird named Aurora. The fact that Tennessee Williams even wrote this play is reason enough for putting him in this Double Truck. The fact that he changed his name to match that of a state is another.
But before Tennessee wrote “Camino” and started winning Pulitzers, he was growing up in— not Tennessee—but Mississippi. When he was young, he couldn’t walk because he suffered from diphtheria, so he read Shakespeare and Dickens (the kid was like 12) while hanging out with his sister. When he was older, he had to go to three universities before he was able to graduate. Once he finally did, he got the hell away from his family and started to write for real.
As Tennessee gained more and more fame, the pressure he felt started to build. He turned to drink, pills, and promiscuous sex. “[Tennessee] considered the day lost if he didn’t get into bed with somebody,” one of his roommates said on the Biography channel. As he watched his lover die and his sister grow crazy, he grew paranoid and depressed. Reviewers consistently panned his shows after his second Pulitzer. He died by choking on the cap of a pill bottle with which he was trying to overdose.
If you’ve read any of his plays, you’ll notice a recurring theme of tragic southern belles: strong minded but emotionally fragile women with southern drawls who, because of personal flaws or just bad luck, experience unbearable tragedy. Even though they wind up destitute or in the crazy house, they always seem to wear an aura of beauty and dignity.
Sometimes I think Tennessee wished he had their strength. —Freddie Ramos
Fats taps ivories
Talent is a perilous thing; it’ll get you all sorts of attention if you’re not careful. Sometimes music renders otherwise harmless fans hysterical and dangerous (cf. “Bieber Fever”); sometimes fans are just dangerous to begin with. Thomas “Fats” Waller, the stride piano virtuoso, moved from New York to Chicago in 1925. He immediately landed gigs at the Windy City’s ritziest hotels, entertaining gangsters of equally prodigious girth. One night in ’26, as he stepped out of the Sherman Hotel for a snack (which may well have comprised nine cheeseburgers), some goon jabbed a revolver into his gut and forced him into a limousine. We can only imagine the fat bullets Fats sweated as the limo left the city and pulled up to a fancy saloon in East Cicero—the kingdom of none other than Al Capone. Turns out Scarface had a taste for jazz with his cigars and Templeton rye; it was his birthday, and he would have only the best. For three days and three nights, Fats banged the ivories for his life. Apparently, our hero did alright for himself: he staggered sotted into a cab back to Chicago with C-notes bulging out of his pockets at the end of the gig. —Dylan Kenny
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We always hear about math geniuses, the genius of love, word-geniuses. Never geniuses of pleasure. Surely if there were a genius of pleasure, he/she/it [respect: corporations are people too!] would be the coolest person in history!? Well there was one, and he was the coolest person in history: Caius Petronius.
Author of the epigraph to “The Waste Land” (taken from his “Satyricon”), he was the most powerful human in the court of the Roman emperor Nero for a short time. He wasn’t the secretary of defense or anything like that; he was the motherfucking Arbiter of Elegance. What kinda job is that!? Petronius would tell Nero what beer to drink, what poems to read, what to laugh at, how to really have fun in bed. How do you get a job like that? Petronius, Tacitus writes, “stabbed his days with sleep and his nights with the business and pleasure of life. Most dudes get respect via diligence, but Petronius’ idleness propelled him to renown … The looser he was with his words and deeds — the more they exuded carelessness — the better they were received, since they appeared simply honest.” So, Nero thought, I’ve gotta chill with that guy.
But Caius was too good at his job. He acquired more sway over Nero than all the bald republicans combined. One of them, this smug ‘n’ whiny Karl-Rove figure, Tigellus, became jealous. Tigellus, insecure that Caius was “more powerful than he in the science of pleasure,” did some banal shady stuff, the result of which was that Petronius, like Socrates, was forced to kill himself for being awesome.
So Caius has a giant party. The whole time he’s casually slicing and bandaging, rinse and repeat, while chatting with his buddies, reading poems, singing songs, eating good food, taking naps, probably getting real drunk, dying, etc. Probably the greatest party in history.
In his final act, he writes a suicide note to Nero in which he “document[s] the sexploits of the emperor …listing his partners by name (all the women and the crusty old male hookers [yes that’s one word in Latin]).”
After Petronius’ death, the emperor begins to wonder how the hell everybody was finding out about the “genius acts of his bedtime debaucheries.” And Caius, he’s lying dead in his coffin thinking, “Those things? Genius? Psshhhh.” —Nick Levine
How the Caged bird sings
His detractors often forget the concept of a genius where one is bound to live and act out life beyond the frosted glass of our tiny uncomprehending lenses. Compare him to Pacino, compare him to Nicholson, compare him to Pope Joan — you cannot and will not find an actor who dares to suffer the human affliction of Being along with his characters like Nicolas Cage. Cage is a dove with clipped wings who sings Verdi without the wrong notes. In his own words, Cage is the surrealist son of Miles Davis. Cage doesn’t play good cop/bad cop. Cage doesn’t play. Cage becomes Terrence McDonagh, the bad lieutenant in “Port of Call: New Orleans”. In short, if Cage has liberated the actor from the stereotype, the least we can do is liberate the actor from the man. So forget about his 20 houses. Who gives a shit about a rich guy who buys a crazy bunch of houses?
When you think of Cage, think of that shamanistic gaze at the end of Port of Call. “His soul is still dancing,” a crack-smoking Cage giggles at a man lying dead on the floor. “Shoot him again.” —Ava Kofman