Jim Holt

16 May 2012

Auden at No.7

Last week a new musical featuring W.H. Auden as a central character began previews at New York's Public Theater. Entitled February House, the musical concerns an improbable ménage that occupied a picturesque but shabby little row-house in Brooklyn Heights during the early years of the Second World War. Besides Auden, who lived on the top floor, the tenants were Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, and – most improbably of all – Gypsy Rose Lee, who at the time was busy writing a mystery called The G-String Murders. Other occasional residents included Paul and Jane Bowles, Louis MacNeice, Richard Wright (who lived with his wife and child in the basement), and Golo Mann (who holed up in the attic). It was Anaïs Nin, a frequent visitor, who named it 'February House', because so many of the residents, including Auden, had birthdays in February. The address of the house, which was subsequently torn down to make room for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, was Middagh Street, number 7.

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24 December 2009

Poem of Advice

for his stalwart but sometimes uncouth friend, Christopher Hitchens Don't tipple at tiffin1 Or roar2 for your rum. Don't scowl at a griffin3 – You'll only look dumb. Don't nobble your neighbour4 Or haver5 at bees; But strive to be kindly And always to please.6 Notes: 1 Hitchens is known to imbibe immoderately at luncheon. 2 When his drink is slow in coming to the table, Hitchens often raises his voice at the waiter/bartender. 3 The griffin, being a union of terrestrial beast and aerial bird, is seen in Christianity as a symbol of Jesus, whom Hitchens deplores.

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27 November 2009

Ghastly Vision II

In (another) ghastly vision of future desolation, Lord Byron foresees my family's Thanksgiving dinner yesterday: ...a meal was boughtWith blood, and each sate sullenly apartGorging himself in gloom; no love was left... 'Darkness', lines 39-41

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10 November 2009

Ghastly Vision

In a ghastly vision of future desolation, Lord Byron foresees the contemporary American novelist’s dust-jacket photo:

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4 November 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss

From 'Slate', 9 February 1999: Last week I went to Claude Lévi-Strauss's 90th birthday party at the Collège de France. It seemed an unremarkable occasion at first. Though the courtyard of the Collège de France is fittingly grand for the republic's premiere scholarly institution, the rooms inside are meanly proportioned and shabby. The three dozen or so academics in attendance looked dreary and moth-eaten the way academics do. There was a sprinkling of journalists, but no cameras or microphones. Fortified by a couple of glasses of indifferent burgundy, I obtained an introduction to Lévi-Strauss, who rose with difficulty from his chair and shook my hand tremulously. The conversation went poorly, owing both to my shaky French and to my lack of conviction that the nonagenarian I was talking to could actually be Claude Lévi-Strauss.

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22 September 2009


The American philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser (1921-2004) was an odd case. For decades he held the prestigious John Dewey chair in philosophy at Columbia University. Before that, he was mentor to Hilary Putnam. Yet he rarely wrote anything. Instead, like Socrates, he was known for his viva voce philosophising. He was also known for his 'zingers', the most famous of which was allegedly uttered during an address on the philosophy of language being given by J.L. Austin. 'In some languages,' Austin observed, 'a double negative yields an affirmative. In others, a double negative yields a more emphatic negative.

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3 August 2009

Party Going by Marcel Proust

Think of a book. Then imagine someone other than the author who might – or could never – have written it.

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