The Essayist

Aggregated long-form essays from the world's best writers and publications.

I Can't Believe It's Not Buddha

The late, great David Rakoff on Steven Seagal’s career as a teacher of Tibettan Buddhism

I will come to know it as the Omega Hug: the official embrace of the Omega Institute of Holistic Studies. The woman in the fringed halter top and wraparound skirt sees someone se knows. Walking across the wide planked veranda—long limbed as a Modigliani, her ankle bracelets of tiny silver bells tintinnabulating as she moves—she embraces her friend, eyes closed, a beatific smile on her face, her hand moving slowly and healingly up and down the other’s back. The Omega hug is long and intense—it takes a full half minute to execute—but I will see it countless times over the next three days.

At the moment, there is plenty of time to hug. About 200 of us are sitting around waiting for Steven Seagal to arrive at the famed New Age retreat center. Set in Rhinebeck, New  York, among the gently rolling hills of the Hudson Valley, the Omega Institute usually expends its exquisitely positive energy offering hundreds of courses and seminars, led by such reigning spiritual superstars as Deepak Chopra. Courses like “Out of Body Experiences and Dream Exploration,” “The Art of Everyday Ecstasy” and “Women’s Sacred Summer Camp.” But this Memorial Day weekend the seminar is title “Cultivating Compassion & Clarity,” and the teacher is none other than Seagal—movie star, aikido master and, lately, teacher of Tibetan Buddhism.

According to the Omega minivan driver who picked me up at the train station, a Santa type who lives six months of the year in a nudist colony in Florida, this weekend’s seminar is quite an occasion, second only to the one led by Thay Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk and author who attracts seven hundred attendees. There is some concern that it is Seagal’s reputation as a aikido master, as opposed to his fame as a movie star, that will bring out the crazies. “You know,” says the driver, “guys who want to be able to say they mixed it up with Steven Seagal.”

Read this article                                                                         Share/Bookmark

A Rough Guide to Disneyworld

At the risk of becoming a one-blog PR machine charged only with ensuring the success of John Jeremiah Sullivan, here’s another brilliant essay from JJS. I kind of wanted to leave it a while, but I’m a sucker for these bad-dad stories. So here it is

The camper containing Shell, Trevor, Flora and Lil’ Dog moved south-southeast from Chattanooga. We were converging like lines on a graphing calculator. Unless you are very, very strong, the time will come when you Disney, and our time had come, unrolling like a glaring scroll in the form of I-95. It was a Saturday. The next day would be Father’s Day. This whole voyage, it turned out, was billed as a Father’s Day gift to me and Trevor, which in my case was like having been shot with a heavy barbiturate dart and bundled off to your own birthday party. Nonetheless I had little anxiety — a total lack of options will often produce a strange, free feeling. In the rearview mirror, Mimi practically strained her car-seat buckles with impatience. My highway thoughts passed through a curious phase of gratitude toward Walter Disney, as an individual, for having made possible such an intensity of childhood joy. Maybe Trevor felt the same about his little brood, hundreds of miles away, fewer each minute.

There’s something I should mention about Trevor, though I wouldn’t if it weren’t relevant to much of what came later, but he smokes a stupendous amount of weed. Think of a person who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, that’s 20 cigarettes. Trevor smokes about that many joints, on a heavy day, the first one while he’s making coffee. And yet is highly functional in all social and professional senses, or almost all. I’ve definitely seen him muff some conversations. Still, 90 percent of the time he’s one of the sharpest and most interesting people I know. But to repeat: the brother is always, always high…

Read this article                                                                         Share/Bookmark

Violence of the Lambs

The greatest threat to civilization in the next half century is not nuclear arms or global warming or a super-resistant virus that will wipe us out by the millions. Essayist-regular John Jeremiah Sullivan contemplates the coming battle between man and beast. Yes, interspecies war.

There are four small English seaport towns, for instance, where various seabirds have started targeting people. A swan came out of the water there and took a dog under. Indeed, when measured in actual numbers, birds may be the single most active species in terms of manifesting whatever lies underneath this shift. In Boston, for the past few years, there’s been what can only be called an ongoing siege of wild turkeys. Children and old people getting attacked. In Sonoma County, California, the chicken population not long ago carried out “a flurry of attacks on neighborhood children.” The mother of one of the victims told a reporter, “It’s not charming when you have to see your baby attacked…seeing the blood going down his face and seeing him screaming…. I can’t sleep at night.”

A fair share of the new violence is animal-on-animal. Needless to say, it garners less attention in the media. In the Polish village of Stubienko, in June of 2000 (one of the earlier blips in Livengood’s collection), the storks went crazy and started slaughtering chickens, hundreds of them. (There were, I’m noticing only now, additional reports of “sporadic attacks on humans” at the time.) Observers were “at a loss to explain the aberrant behavior.”

You see what I mean about there being something off in these stories. The storks started slaughtering the chickens.

Read this article                                                                         Share/Bookmark

The Vietnam Syndrome

The late, great Christopher Hitchens on Agent Orange and America’s ecocidal war on Vietnam

The very title of our joint subject is, I must tell you, a sick joke to begin with. Perhaps you remember the jaunty names of the callous brutes in Reservoir Dogs: “Mr. Pink,” “Mr. Blue,” and so on? Well, the tradition of giving pretty names to ugly things is as old as warfare. In Vietnam, between 1961 and 1971, the high command of the United States decided that, since a guerrilla struggle was apparently being protected by tree cover, a useful first step might be to “defoliate” those same trees. Famous corporations such as Dow and Monsanto were given the task of attacking and withering the natural order of a country. The resulting chemical weaponry was euphemistically graded by color: Agent Pink, Agent Green (yes, it’s true), Agent Purple, Agent Blue, Agent White, and—spoken often in whispers—Agent Orange. This shady gang, or gang of shades, all deferred to its ruthless chief, who proudly bore the color of hectic madness. The key constituent of Agent Orange is dioxin: a horrifying chemical that makes total war not just on vegetation but also on the roots and essences of life itself. The orange, in other words, was clockwork from the start. If you wonder what the dioxin effect can look like, recall the ravaged features of Viktor Yushchenko—ironically, the leader of the Orange Revolution.

Read this article                                                                         Share/Bookmark

The Great Taxonomy of Literary Tumblrs

So we made it into The Millions' taxonomy of the best literary tumblrs. We're in fine company alongside N+1, Granta, Guernica and The New York Review of Books, all of which have been featured on these pages. Super proud.



5. Literary, Cultural and Art Magazines or Blogs

  • Recommended Reading: Home of the marvelous ongoing fiction series run by Electric Literature.
  • Words Without Borders: Spreading the gospel of international and translated literature one Tumblr post at a time.
  • Tin House: You (should) know the magazine. Now you should know their blog.
  • VQR: The brand new companion to the invaluable source for great long-form and narrative journalism.
  • n+1: They recently decided to kill off their Personals blog, so perhaps this one will become more active.
  • New York Review of Books: Need I introduce them? Also, not to be missed, check out the NYRB Classics blog, A Different Stripe.
  • Granta: Follow these guys for updates on the magazine’s new releases and competitions.
  • Guernica: Hey, you’re spilling your art into my politics!
  • Full Stop: Who else would recommend Errol Flynn’s memoir, posit an alternate Olympics Opening Ceremony, and then review the work of Victor Serge?
  • Vol. 1 Brooklyn: As their banner says, “If you’re smart, you’ll like us.”
  • Rusty Toque: An online literary and arts journal backed by Ontario’s Western University.
  • Book Riot: How can you help loving the kind of people who reblog photos of Faulkner’s oeuvre alongside galleries of literary tattoos?
  • Berfrois: Some highbrow curiosities for that eager, eager brain of yours.
  • Literalab: Dispatches from Central and Eastern Europe, which as anybody who knows me knows to be my favorite parts of Europe.
  • Triple Canopy: The online magazine embraces yet another means of communicating.
  • fwriction review: Finally an honest banner: “specializing in work that melts faces and rocks waffles.” (See also: fwriction)
  • Little Brother: The latest project from our own Emily M. Keeler.
  • Asymptote: Dedicated to works in translation and world literature.
  • Glitterwolf Magazine: Devoted to highlighting UK writers and writers from LGBT communities.
  • The Essayist: Aggregated long-form writing from all over the place.
We made The Millions’ grand list of literary Tumblrs and followed them all
Read this article                                                                         Share/Bookmark

Travelling Southwards

Andrew O’Hagan reviews 50 Shades of Grey

Robbins and Collins liked a plush car with a smooth chassis. They liked champagne and caviar and jets you could shag in. They liked big desks. They liked jacuzzis. But what these gazillion-selling authors liked most was a human being perpetually on the brink of a soaring orgasm. Women just had to be approached, sometimes just looked at, and a ‘shuddering’ event would occur in their ‘sex’. Sometimes it wasn’t called ‘my sex’, and the word ‘clitoris’ made its debut in our lives. Men sometimes had cocks but more usually they had a ‘member’ or a ‘shaft’ or just an ‘erection’. More likely, they had a ‘towering erection’ or a ‘colossal shaft’, and that was worrying. Things didn’t improve a great deal in the 1980s, when women came on TV wearing lakes of lipgloss. Jackie Collins’s sister Joan was chief among them in Dynasty, pouting for England and surrounded by gay men with big hair who were keen to get on with the shafting. By this point in the evolution of the genre, ‘shafting’ could also mean something else, and the enduring aspect of 1980s sex novels was their obsession with new money. Time was when a romantic hero could be a soldier or a doctor or, heaven help us, a priest. But in the age of Jilly Cooper and Judith Krantz he had better be a polo player. Work is for pigs, and anyone without enough money to coat themselves in leisure had no place in a Krantz novel.

Read this article                                                                         Share/Bookmark

The Final Comeback of Axl Rose

by John Jeremiah Sullivan,

On May 15, he came out in jeans and a black leather jacket and giant black sunglasses, all lens, that made him look like a wasp-man. We had been waiting—I don’t really know how to calculate how long we’d been waiting. It was the third of the four comeback shows in New York, at the Hammerstein Ballroom. The doors had opened at seven o’clock. The opening act had been off by eight thirty. It was now after eleven o’clock. There’d already been fights on the floor, and it didn’t feel like the room could get any tenser without some type of event. I was next to a really nice woman from New Jersey, a hairdresser, who told me her husband “did pyro” for Bon Jovi. She kept text-messaging one of her husband’s friends, who was “doing pyro” for this show, and asking him, “When’s it gonna start?” And he’d text-message back, “We haven’t even gone inside.” I said to her at one point, “Have you ever seen a crowd this pumped up before a show?” She goes, “Yeah, they get this pumped up every night before Bon Jovi.” I didn’t want to report that last part, but in the post-James Frey era, you have to watch your topknot.

Read this article                                                                         Share/Bookmark

Feet in Smoke

To celebrate his forthcoming essay collection, Pulphead, here’s a hardy Essayist perrenial from John Jeremiah Sullivan. 

On the morning of April 21, 1995, my elder brother, Worth (short for Elsworth), put his mouth to a microphone in a garage in Lexington, Kentucky, and was—in the strict sense of having been “shocked to death”—electrocuted. He and his band, the Moviegoers, had stopped for a day to rehearse on their way from Chicago to a concert in Tennessee, where I was in school at the time. Just a couple of days earlier, he had called to ask if there were any songs I wanted to hear at the show. I requested something new, a song that he’d written and played for me the last time I’d seen him, on Christmas Day. Our holidays always end the same way, with my brother and me up late, drinking, trying out our new “tunes” on each other. There is something almost biologically satisfying about harmonizing with a sibling. We’ve gotten to where we communicate through music, using guitars the way fathers and sons use baseball: as a kind of emotional code. Worth is seven years older than I am, an age difference that can make brothers strangers, and I’m fairly sure the first time he ever felt we had anything to talk about was the day he caught me in his basement bedroom at our old house in Indiana, trying to teach myself how to play “Radio Free Europe” on a black Telecaster he’d forbidden me to touch.

(Source: essayist, via thearchitrave)

Read this article                                                                         Share/Bookmark

Laughing With kafka

by David Foster Wallace. An essay that is dear to my heart.

For me, a signal frustration in trying to read Kafka with college students is that it is next to impossible to get them to see that Kafka is funny … Nor to appreciate the way funniness is bound up with the extraordinary power of his stories. Because, of course, great short stories and great jokes have a lot in common… I might invite students to consider what is really being expressed when we refer to someone as “creepy” or “gross” or say that somebody was forced to “eat shit” in his job. Or to reread “In the Penal Colony” in light of expressions like “tonguelashing” or “She sure tore me a new asshole” or the gnomic “By a certain age, everybody has the face he deserves.” Or to approach “A Hunger Artist” in terms of tropes like “starved for attention” or “love-starved” or the double entendre in the term “self-denial,” or even as innocent a factoid as that the ety- mological root of “anorexia” happens to be the Greek word for longing.

(Source: essayist, via thearchitrave)

Read this article                                                                         Share/Bookmark

1,200 TED Talks

Q: What’s better than watching a dotcom millionaire repeat the words “dream”, “causality” and “accomplishment” into a bubble-mic?

A: 1,204 dotcom millionaires repeating the words “dream”, “causality” and “accomplishment” into bubble-mics.

Somebody’s collected URLs to (and descriptions of) every TED talk since 2006 in one place. Here they are. Click through.

Read this article                                                                         Share/Bookmark

In Gold We Trust

When the economy goes to pot, we the people place our faith in one indisputably sexy commodity. It’s the lone bright spot on Wall Street and a rallying cry for the riotous right. So as the Ron Pauls of the world dream of a return to the gold standard, GQ sent Wells Tower to the Klondike, where a new gold rush is on and rumors of a mother lode have everyone acting a little feverish.

Even so, you’d have a hard time packing a phone booth with econ Ph.D.’s who think the gold standard isn’t disastrous nonsense. The assortment of plagues a return to gold would inflict on our economy, experts say, is too vast to itemize here, so let’s do something simple. Let’s just imagine for a second where you’d be right now if the dollar were still yoked to gold. If you squint and are drunk, it looks pretty great.

Picture it: In the past decade, gold’s ascendancy would have jacked the dollar up 500 percent compared with, say, the euro. Boosh—slam dunk! Superpower! Face! Though wait, hold on: What if you’re a bright-eyed young entrepreneur who owns a factory that makes, say, bald-eagle flagpole toppers? Your competitor in China, who used to pay the stiffs in his beak-polishing department $6 a day, now gets them for $1 a day. His $60 bootleg of your Thrifty Patriot model now goes for ten bucks. Who wants to pay a 500 percent premium for your bona fide made-in-America eagle? Nobody. Everybody buys them from the Chinese guy. You lay off your employees and file bankruptcy. Your wife ditches you for a comparatively wealthy Zimbabwean roofer. You kill yourself. Everybody kills themselves. America ceases to push the envelope and run this planet.

Read this article                                                                         Share/Bookmark

My Kushy New Job

by Wells Tower

"I would kill to have your job" is a sentiment I’ll hear from tourists by the dozen during my week behind the Dampkring bar, though in fact I anticipate the exercise with cold anxiety. Part of the job, I’ve already been told, will involve smoking weed in quantity, and marijuana and I do not make a happy team. "Paranoia" doesn’t adequately get at what I suffer while I’m high. It’s more like Ebola of the superego, a self-loathing catatonia of uncertainty and dread. When I’m stoned, Homo sapiens and its customs become terrifying and obscure. Shortly after the first good toke, I can almost hear a delicate shardwork of baffling human etiquette crystallizing in the air around me, making it impossible to so much as reach for a Cheeto without causing an apocalypse

(Source: essayist, via thearchitrave)

Read this article                                                                         Share/Bookmark

How The Daily Mail Conquered England

by Lauren Collins

The Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, considers it a compliment when critics accuse the paper of moralizing. “The family is the greatest institution on God’s green earth,” he told me recently, sitting on a dotted-swiss sofa in his London office, which is swagged in the camels and burgundys, the brasses and woods, that one would expect of a man who, as a student at the University of Leeds, chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” but now says, “For the life of me, I’m not quite sure why.” According to one editor, Dacre is enamored with New Zealand: “He thinks it’s like Britain from the nineteen-fifties.” This retrograde mind-set has recently been notable in the Mail’s insistence that marriage should be solely between a woman and a man.

The paper, which runs to about a hundred pages a day, is not all gloom. It has an equable rhythm. The serious stuff is supplemented by a beguiling lineup of novelty stories (the girl who eats nothing but chicken nuggets), animal stories (the surfing hippopotamus), personal essays (“I married a skinflint!”), barely disguised press releases (cranberry-cheese-flavored crisps on sale at Tesco), recipes, gossip, crosswords, obituaries, amusing pictures, and heartwarming fluff. The Mail is the place to go if you want to see a house that looks like Hitler, or a tabby with its head encased in a slice of bread. These are, as the former Daily Express editor Arthur Christiansen, one of Dacre’s heroes, once wrote, the “human twiddly bits that make for conversations in the pubs.”

Read this article                                                                         Share/Bookmark

Hogs Wild

by Ian Frazier (stolen from TETW)

What do wild hogs do that’s so bad?

Oh, not much… eat red-cheeked salamanders and short-tailed shrews and red-back voles and other dwellers in the leaf litter in the Great Smoky Mountains, and destroy a yard that had previously won two “‘Yard of the Month” awards on Robins Air Force Base, in central Georgia, and knock over glass patio tables in suburban Houston, and muddy pristine brook-trout streams by wallowing in them, and play hell with native flora and fauna in Hawaii, and contribute to the near-extinction of the island fox on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California, and root up American Indian historic sites and burial grounds, and root up a replanting of native vegetation along the banks of the Sacramento River, and root up peanut fields in Georgia, and root up sweet-potato fields in Texas, and dig big holes by rooting in wheat fields irrigated by motorized central-pivot irrigation pipes, and, as the nine-hundred-foot-long pipe advances automatically on its wheeled supports, one set of wheels hangs up in a hog-rooted hole, and meanwhile the rest of the pipe keeps on going and begins to pivot around the stuck wheels, and it continues and continues on its hog-altered course until the whole seventy-five-thousand-dollar system is hopelessly pretzeled and ruined.

(Source: essayist, via thearchitrave)

Read this article                                                                         Share/Bookmark

A Fair to Remember

Dave Hickey on Art Fairs

We ride downtown in a white stretch limo with yellow lights on the sides. Everyone in front of the Mandarin is disappointed when we step out. They were expecting P. Diddy, at least. To reach the Sotheby’s party, we must trudge down a Great Wall of Chinese post-modernism. When we are finally seated on our white leather poufs, we decide that Sotheby’s can lay claim to the ultimate example of Basel’s décor de jour: the square crystal vase. Each table has one of these tall, square vases. Albino goldfish swim in their lower depths. A curve of calla lilies cantilevers out of the top. Orchids and votive candles surround each crystal skyscraper.

Very too much, we think, but halfway through chef Pierre Gagnaire’s surrealist dinner, we notice that the votive candles are heating up the water so the albino goldfish are literally cooking before our eyes. Like good Romans, we sit there and watch. Then an orchid bursts into flame. Someone reaches to put it out. The vase tilts. Hot water and calla lilies splash all over our white asparagus and green mashed potatoes. The fish are rescued. Two Asian gentlemen flee the site of big-time bad karma. I casually wander over to talk with Dennis Hopper about getting his kid into the Crossroads School.

Read this article                                                                         Share/Bookmark