The Essayist

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

Scenes From My Life in Porn

by Evan Wright, (via TETW)

In 1996, an unknown named Jasmin St. Claire set out to have sex with 300 men in a XXX video titled The World‘s Biggest Gang-Bang II, thereby breaking an alleged record of 251 men set a year earlier by Annabel Chong. By the mid-’90s, gangbang films had become a hot product in the industry. They not only created overnight stars — worthy of Howard Stern, Jerry Springer — but added a new dimension to celebrity worship. Where once an autograph served as a hallowed connection with a famous person, now fans, invited to participate in these spectacles, could actually fuck a star.

Late one Sunday morning on the second floor of a decrepit Hollywood sound stage, Jasmin held a press conference prior to the shoot. Reporters and photographers from such esteemed publications as Club, Screw and, of course, Hustler packed the room. Champagne was served. Jasmin, 23, entered in skintight red latex. She moved imperiously, with her head held high and her surgically augmented D-cups thrust forward. Jasmin‘s ethnic origins were a mystery. Her skin was coppery brown, like a glass of tea in sunlight. She told people her dark complexion came from Sicilian blood, and there were rumors that she was the granddaughter of a New York mobster. She denied those, and claimed to have been raised by an international-financier father, to have been educated in Continental boarding schools and to have an undergraduate degree from Columbia. (Years later, Jasmin’s first manager, Charlie Frey, told me he‘d discovered her doing lap dances in an outer-borough New York strip club. “I don’t know about her dad,” Frey said. “Jasmin‘s mom is a dot-head Indian.”) At the press conference, Jasmin responded in French, German and Spanish to questions from European porn-magazine stringers. As cameras flashed and the room filled with the staccato sound of 20 reporters calling her name, the scene took on the air of an old-fashioned Hollywood movie premiere. I asked Jasmin why she was having sex with 300 men, and she answered, “To achieve my dreams.”

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In My Father's Kitchen

by Chris Wallace

I used to joke that I have daddy issues with Jacques Pépin, because it was he who really raised me. My parents divorced when I was a year old and, until I was thirteen, they split custody in every conceivable way. It was my father’s habit to write in the mornings and watch his favorite cooking shows in the afternoon, with a drink, while preparing dinner. On the days I was with him, I watched too. Usually it was Julia Child, or the Frugal Gourmet; later it was Jacques, and then Jacques and Julia. Recipes and technique were like my nursery rhymes and I grew up—“spoiled rotten,” my dad would say—only ever eating perfect pie crust. By the time I was eleven, my knife skills were impeccable, my Caesar salad the best ever (in my family, hyperbole is hereditary). When my mother invited my high school girlfriend and her parents for dinner I served a traditional osso buco and risotto Milanese. It was a success—my culinary coming out party—and one in which my father, who felt he deserved the credit, took particular pride.

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Real Genius

By Chuck Klosterman, (link fixed)

Once in a while, everything about the world changes at once. This is one of those times.

Consider everything you think you know about music. Consider all that you believe to be “good” and all that you believe to be “bad.” Consider the manner in which you view popular culture. And now—today—cast all those thoughts aside. I’ve got some bad news, my friend: You are wrong about everything. But you are going to evolve. You are going to understand.

You are going to Advance.

It’s entirely possible that you’re unaware of Advancement theory; like most renegade fields of cultural study, it exists on the fringes of society. However, Advancement theory is the future of intellectual discourse in this country (and possibly in Western Europe). As a school of academic thought, it’s still young; Advancement emerged just fourteen years ago at the University of South Carolina. It is also Byzantine: I concede that I am merely a wide-eyed frosh in this discipline, and that many of its principles still baffle me. But I am learning, and so will you. It is my assertion that—within the next two hundred years—Advancement theory will be the primary means of understanding rock ‘n’ roll, and perhaps all artistic ventures. Prepare to have your paradigm obliterated.

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The Non-Scenic Route to the Place We’re Going Anyway

by John Lanchester

Quarterly GDP data don’t, on the whole, tend to make the person studying them laugh out loud. The most recent set, however, are an exception, despite the fact that the general picture is of unrelieved and spreading economic gloom. Instead of the surge of rebounding growth which historically accompanies successful exit from a recession, we have the UK’s disappointing 0.2 per cent growth, the US’s anaemic 0.3 per cent and the glum eurozone average figure of 0.2 per cent. That number includes the surprising and alarming German 0.1 per cent, the desperately poor French 0 per cent and then, wait for it, the agreeably frisky Belgian 0.7 per cent. Why is that, if you’ve been following the story, laugh-aloud funny? Because Belgium doesn’t have a government. Thanks to political stalemate in Brussels, it hasn’t had one for 15 months. No government means none of the stuff all the other governments are doing: no cuts and no ‘austerity’ packages. In the absence of anyone with a mandate to slash and burn, Belgian public sector spending is puttering along much as it always was; hence the continuing growth of their economy. It turns out that from the economic point of view, in the current crisis, no government is better than any government – any existing government.

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Novelty Acts

The Sexual Revolutions Before the Sexual Revolution, by Ariel Levy

In the past century—as feminists discovered the clitoris, gay liberationists discovered homosexuality, and flower children discovered free love—the illusion of erotic novelty entered mass culture. Dr. Alex Comfort, the author of the international best-seller “The Joy of Sex,” first published in 1972, was convinced that his young contemporaries invented “playfulness,” asserting that it was “a part of love which could well be the major contribution of the Aquarian revolution to human happiness.” To this day, there are baby boomers who half believe that “sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three,” as Philip Larkin had it, “between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.”

As in previous eras, the dream of erotic emancipation was paired with that of political emancipation. Christopher Turner writes in “Adventures in the Orgasmatron” that Wilhelm Reich coined the term “sexual revolution” in the nineteen-thirties to express the conviction, informed by his Marxism, that “a true political revolution would only be possible once sexual repression was overthrown, the one obstacle Reich felt had scuppered the efforts of the Bolsheviks.”

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Signifying Rappers

An excerpt from David Foster Wallace now priceless 1990 book on Hip Hop culture, Signifying Rappers

Rjam Productions, modestly headquartered in a mixed black/Hispanic Field, Corner section of North Dorchester, is as follows:

* One (1) four-car garage fitted with dubbing and remastering gear worth more than most of the rest of the real estate on the block;
* One (1) touch-tone telephone (leased);
* Two (2) Chevy Blazers, vanity-plated RJAM1 and RJAM2, each equipped with cellular phones and slick tape decks (also leased);
* One (1) VCR with Kathleen Turner’s Body Heat cued up on the morning in question;
* Most importantly, eight (8) promising acts under binding contract.

If, as has happened to many local labels, Rjam were liquidated to satisfy creditors, these would be the pieces. But there are stores of value in the converted garage beyond the reach of the auctioneer’s gavel. Schoolly D, the original Signifying Rapper, looms irresistibly from the pages of rap “fanzines” Hip-Hop and The Source; and Rjam’s prime, unauctionable asset is the consuming ambition of the artists in its stable to be the next Schoolly D. Or the next Ice T, or Kool Moe Dee, or L. L. Cool J., or whoever’s the special hero of the kid cutting the demo.

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The Idiot Culture

Carl Bernstein on Watergate and journalism,

Despite some of the mythology that has come to surround “investigative” journalism, it is important to remember what we did and did not do in Watergate. For what we did was not, in truth, very exotic. Our actual work in uncovering the Watergate story was rooted in the most basic kind of empirical police reporting. We relied more on shoe leather and common sense and respect for the truth than anything else—on the principles that had been drummed into me at the wonderful old Washington Star. Woodward and I were a couple of guys on the Metro desk assigned to cover what at bottom was still a burglary, so we applied the only reportorial techniques we knew. We knocked on a lot of doors, we asked a lot of questions, we spent a lot of time listening: the same thing good reporters from Ben Hecht to Mike Berger to Joe Liebling to the young Tom Wolfe had been doing for years. As local reporters, we had no covey of highly placed sources, no sky’s-the-Iimit expense accounts with which to court the powerful at fancy French restaurants. We did our work far from the enchanting world of the rich and the famous and the powerful. We were grunts.

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by David Byrne

"I adore that pink! It’s the navy blue of India," declared Diana Vreeland, former editor of Vogue and source of many aphorisms. By this she meant that, just as navy blue in our culture tends to signify conservative respectability, pink exemplifies tradition and balance in India. The existence of universal stylistic and psychological color reactions is therefore placed in doubt: what we would consider a wild, flamboyant, and feminine color is, in India—at least according to DV—considered refined and conventional.

I asked my daughter, who is thirteen and loves the color pink, why the attraction and what it’s all about. She said it’s a “nice color,” it “looks good on me,” and “guys can’t wear pink—it makes them look stupid” (more on this later). “Pink and black look good on everybody—except redheads.” When pressed, she suggested, “Maybe it’s because of Barbie” (proof that kids are aware of the effects of marketing, branding, and advertising). “Maybe because I was given pink stuff as a baby—and maybe because it’s pretty.”

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by Shelley Jackson

 Contusions and confusions. Half-mourning and melancholia. Twilight and adolescence, home decorators and homosexuals. Drag queen hair, cheap swag, braggadocio. Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley (that “monstrous orchid,” said Wilde). Orchids, especially Cattleya labiata. All things orchidaceous, including the word “orchidaceous.” Prose just shy of purple. According to Nabokov, time itself.

A young chemist tinkering with coal tar, hoping to find a way to synthesize quinine to treat the malaria felling British soldiers stationed in India, discovers, instead, a color. Mauve, the color of disappointment.

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The View From Mrs Thompson's

David Foster Wallace on 9/11

Everybody was staring in transfixed horror at one of the very few pieces of video CBS never reran, which was a distant wide-angle shot of the North Tower and its top floors’ exposed steel lattice in flames and of dots detaching from the building and moving through smoke down the screen, which then that jerky tightening of the shot revealed to be actual people in coats and ties and skirts with their shoes falling off as they fell, some hanging onto ledges or girders and then letting go, upside-down or writhing as they fell and one couple almost seeming (unverifiable) to be hugging each other as they fell all those stories and shrank back to dots as the camera then all of a sudden pulled back to the long view — I have no idea how long the clip took — after which Rather’s mouth seemed to move for a second before any sound emerged, and everyone in the room sat back and looked at one another with expressions that seemed somehow both childlike and horribly old. I think one or two people made some sort of sound. It’s not clear what else to say. It seems grotesque to talk about being traumatized by a video when the people in the video were dying. Something about the shoes also falling made it worse. I think the older ladies took it better than I did. Then the hideous beauty of the rerun clip of the second plane hitting the tower, the blue and silver and black and spectacular orange of it, as more little moving dots fell.

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Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts.

by Jonathan Franzen,

A COUPLE of weeks ago, I replaced my three-year-old BlackBerry Pearl with a much more powerful BlackBerry Bold. Needless to say, I was impressed with how far the technology had advanced in three years. Even when I didn’t have anybody to call or text or e-mail, I wanted to keep fondling my new Bold and experiencing the marvelous clarity of its screen, the silky action of its track pad, the shocking speed of its responses, the beguiling elegance of its graphics.

I was, in short, infatuated with my new device. I’d been similarly infatuated with my old device, of course; but over the years the bloom had faded from our relationship. I’d developed trust issues with my Pearl, accountability issues, compatibility issues and even, toward the end, some doubts about my Pearl’s very sanity, until I’d finally had to admit to myself that I’d outgrown the relationship.

Do I need to point out that — absent some wild, anthropomorphizing projection in which my old BlackBerry felt sad about the waning of my love for it — our relationship was entirely one-sided? Let me point it out anyway.

Let me further point out how ubiquitously the word “sexy” is used to describe late-model gadgets; and how the extremely cool things that we can do now with these gadgets — like impelling them to action with voice commands, or doing that spreading-the-fingers iPhone thing that makes images get bigger — would have looked, to people a hundred years ago, like a magician’s incantations, a magician’s hand gestures; and how, when we want to describe an erotic relationship that’s working perfectly, we speak, indeed, of magic.

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An elegy for the telegram, by Ander Monson (link now fixed)

There are still a few telegram services you can find on the Internet, but the Internet itself of course is one of the successors of the telegram, itself a successor to the dot-dot-dash of the telegraph (like the enduring telephone, TYMNET, Telenet, and other data networks, faxes, videoconferencing, IMing, text-messaging, and whatever’s next, etc.), and it now provides a gateway to the telegram. It is strange to use the Internet to send a telegram: like pouring one of our Great Lakes into a graduated cylinder. As such the telegram is used mostly for a sort of retro or romantic effect if it’s used at all: birthday wishes for the old, who might have actually received telegrams throughout their lives; Valentine’s Day presents for one’s lover before a classy dinner out. One of the telegram websites claims that research shows that consumers will discard birthday cards but will keep a birthday telegram. Extend this to the idea of making an impression. That’s what they do. It costs $20 or more, depending on the level of service and romance you require. STOP

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Shoplifters of the World Unite

Slavoj Žižek’s (inevitable) essay on the London riots.

Although the riots in the UK were triggered by the suspicious shooting of Mark Duggan, everyone agrees that they express a deeper unease – but of what kind? As with the car burnings in the Paris banlieues in 2005, the UK rioters had no message to deliver. (There is a clear contrast with the massive student demonstrations in November 2010, which also turned to violence. The students were making clear that they rejected the proposed reforms to higher education.) This is why it is difficult to conceive of the UK rioters in Marxist terms, as an instance of the emergence of the revolutionary subject; they fit much better the Hegelian notion of the ‘rabble’, those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence – what Hegel called ‘abstract negativity’.

There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he pushes in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards find nothing; it is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves. The guards were missing the obvious truth, just as the commentators on the riots have done. We are told that the disintegration of the Communist regimes in the early 1990s signalled the end of ideology: the time of large-scale ideological projects culminating in totalitarian catastrophe was over; we had entered a new era of rational, pragmatic politics. If the commonplace that we live in a post-ideological era is true in any sense, it can be seen in this recent outburst of violence. This was zero-degree protest, a violent action demanding nothing. In their desperate attempt to find meaning in the riots, the sociologists and editorial-writers obfuscated the enigma the riots presented.

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Erotics of the Mining City

by Edwin Dobb

To orient.
Most of us are animated by what might be called the cosmological impulse—a reflexive tendency to orient ourselves with respect to space and time. It’s so deep-seated that we usually don’t think about it. On a mundane level, the impulse manifests itself in a variety of ways, depending on circumstance. In cities such as New York, where I lived for ten years before moving back to Butte, people usually ask, “What do you do?” But when I returned to Butte, the first questions almost always concerned parish, neighborhood, and family connections. Kinship trumped all other ways in which one might “place” someone else. Oh, I went to school with your mother. Or: Your dad worked with my uncle. Or: My cousin is married to your cousin. There was nothing better than that: discovering that the stranger you just met is in fact a relative.

Your name was your calling card. I don’t know who you are until I know who you’re related to and what part of town you come from. This was a map that you developed unconsciously and which stayed with you. And you can still find it today. When I met John T. Shea, my neighbor, now a dear friend, he stood on North Main Street and, while pointing to empty lots in both directions, recited the names of people long dead who once lived and worked in buildings that were razed years ago—residences, bars, grocery stores, boarding houses. All within the shadow of the Mountain Con Mine, where his father worked, a mile below the surface across the street from the family home. John T. says that he and his buddies stole the bottles that miners placed outside the second-story windows of the Mullan, the biggest of the boarding houses in the neighborhood. That was the first sign of his knack for climbing, which served him well later when he became an ironworker building those very headframes.

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Gods and Monsters

Paul La Farge on HP Lovecraft

A story from the vault: When we were 11 years old, my best friend and I used to don black robes and wander the streets of the Upper West Side in the middle of the night, carrying signs that read, on one side, The End of the World Is Nigh, and, on the other, Give to the Cult of Cthulhu. What nameless dread, what eldritch excitation, drove us to risk mugging or worse (the Upper West Side hadn’t been gentrified yet) in service of a fictitious—and implacably evil—deity? On the one hand, the fear, familiar to anyone who was a child during the Cold War, that the end of the world really was nigh; on the other, the stirrings of adolescence, blasphemous and unspeakable, at least for two boys who could put words to everything but what they felt. No wonder we were drawn to the stories of Cthulhu creator H.P. Lovecraft, whose specialty was the kind of horror that can’t be put into words, and relies instead on adjectives like nameless and unspeakable, and on exclamations in an unpronounceable made-up tongue: Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!

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