George Orwell Explains in a Revealing 1944 Letter Why He’d Write 1984

via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Most of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry’s notable men of let­ters — i.e., writ­ers of books, of essays, of reportage — seem also to have, lit­er­al­ly, writ­ten a great deal of let­ters. Some­times their cor­re­spon­dence reflects and shapes their “real” writ­ten work; some­times it appears col­lect­ed in book form itself. Both hold true in the case of George Orwell, a vol­ume of whose let­ters, edit­ed by Peter Davi­son, came out last year. In it we find this mis­sive, also pub­lished in full at The Dai­ly Beast, sent in 1944 to one Noel Will­mett, who had asked “whether total­i­tar­i­an­ism, leader-wor­ship etc. are real­ly on the up-grade” giv­en “that they are not appar­ent­ly grow­ing in [Eng­land] and the USA”:

I must say I believe, or fear, that tak­ing the world as a whole these things are on the increase. Hitler, no doubt, will soon dis­ap­pear, but only at the expense of strength­en­ing (a) Stal­in, (b) the Anglo-Amer­i­can mil­lion­aires and © all sorts of pet­ty fuhrers of the type of de Gaulle. All the nation­al move­ments every­where, even those that orig­i­nate in resis­tance to Ger­man dom­i­na­tion, seem to take non-demo­c­ra­t­ic forms, to group them­selves round some super­hu­man fuhrer (Hitler, Stal­in, Salazar, Fran­co, Gand­hi, De Valera are all vary­ing exam­ples) and to adopt the the­o­ry that the end jus­ti­fies the means. Every­where the world move­ment seems to be in the direc­tion of cen­tralised economies which can be made to ‘work’ in an eco­nom­ic sense but which are not demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly organ­ised and which tend to estab­lish a caste sys­tem. With this go the hor­rors of emo­tion­al nation­al­ism and a ten­den­cy to dis­be­lieve in the exis­tence of objec­tive truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophe­cies of some infal­li­ble fuhrer. Already his­to­ry has in a sense ceased to exist, ie. there is no such thing as a his­to­ry of our own times which could be uni­ver­sal­ly accept­ed, and the exact sci­ences are endan­gered as soon as mil­i­tary neces­si­ty ceas­es to keep peo­ple up to the mark. Hitler can say that the Jews start­ed the war, and if he sur­vives that will become offi­cial his­to­ry. He can’t say that two and two are five, because for the pur­pos­es of, say, bal­lis­tics they have to make four. But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great super­states which are unable to con­quer one anoth­er, two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it. That, so far as I can see, is the direc­tion in which we are actu­al­ly mov­ing, though, of course, the process is reversible.

As to the com­par­a­tive immu­ni­ty of Britain and the USA. What­ev­er the paci­fists etc. may say, we have not gone total­i­tar­i­an yet and this is a very hope­ful symp­tom. I believe very deeply, as I explained in my book The Lion and the Uni­corn, in the Eng­lish peo­ple and in their capac­i­ty to cen­tralise their econ­o­my with­out destroy­ing free­dom in doing so. But one must remem­ber that Britain and the USA haven’t been real­ly tried, they haven’t known defeat or severe suf­fer­ing, and there are some bad symp­toms to bal­ance the good ones. To begin with there is the gen­er­al indif­fer­ence to the decay of democ­ra­cy. Do you realise, for instance, that no one in Eng­land under 26 now has a vote and that so far as one can see the great mass of peo­ple of that age don’t give a damn for this? Sec­ond­ly there is the fact that the intel­lec­tu­als are more total­i­tar­i­an in out­look than the com­mon peo­ple. On the whole the Eng­lish intel­li­gentsia have opposed Hitler, but only at the price of accept­ing Stal­in. Most of them are per­fect­ly ready for dic­ta­to­r­i­al meth­ods, secret police, sys­tem­at­ic fal­si­fi­ca­tion of his­to­ry etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side. Indeed the state­ment that we haven’t a Fas­cist move­ment in Eng­land large­ly means that the young, at this moment, look for their fuhrer else­where. One can’t be sure that that won’t change, nor can one be sure that the com­mon peo­ple won’t think ten years hence as the intel­lec­tu­als do now. I hope they won’t, I even trust they won’t, but if so it will be at the cost of a strug­gle. If one sim­ply pro­claims that all is for the best and doesn’t point to the sin­is­ter symp­toms, one is mere­ly help­ing to bring total­i­tar­i­an­ism near­er.

You also ask, if I think the world ten­den­cy is towards Fas­cism, why do I sup­port the war. It is a choice of evils—I fan­cy near­ly every war is that. I know enough of British impe­ri­al­ism not to like it, but I would sup­port it against Nazism or Japan­ese impe­ri­al­ism, as the less­er evil. Sim­i­lar­ly I would sup­port the USSR against Ger­many because I think the USSR can­not alto­geth­er escape its past and retains enough of the orig­i­nal ideas of the Rev­o­lu­tion to make it a more hope­ful phe­nom­e­non than Nazi Ger­many. I think, and have thought ever since the war began, in 1936 or there­abouts, that our cause is the bet­ter, but we have to keep on mak­ing it the bet­ter, which involves con­stant crit­i­cism.

Yours sin­cere­ly,
Geo. Orwell

Three years lat­er, Orwell would write 1984. Two years after that, it would see pub­li­ca­tion and go on to gen­er­a­tions of atten­tion as per­haps the most elo­quent fic­tion­al state­ment against a world reduced to super­states, sat­u­rat­ed with “emo­tion­al nation­al­ism,” acqui­es­cent to “dic­ta­to­r­i­al meth­ods, secret police,” and the sys­tem­at­ic fal­si­fi­ca­tion of his­to­ry,” and shot through by the will­ing­ness to “dis­be­lieve in the exis­tence of objec­tive truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophe­cies of some infal­li­ble fuhrer.” Now that you feel like read­ing the nov­el again, or even for the first time, do browse our col­lec­tion of 1984-relat­ed resources, which includes the eBook, the audio book, reviews, and even radio dra­ma and com­ic book adap­ta­tions of Orwell’s work.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to George Orwell

The Only Known Footage of George Orwell (Cir­ca 1921)

George Orwell and Dou­glas Adams Explain How to Make a Prop­er Cup of Tea

George Orwell’s Polit­i­cal Views, Explained in His Own Words

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

The Romans Stashed Hallucinogenic Seeds in a Vial Made From an Animal Bone

What’s pop­u­lar in the metrop­o­lis soon­er or lat­er makes its way out into the provinces. This phe­nom­e­non has become more dif­fi­cult to notice in recent years, not because it’s slowed down, but because it’s sped way up, owing to near-instan­ta­neous cul­tur­al dif­fu­sion on the inter­net. Well with­in liv­ing mem­o­ry, how­ev­er, are the days when what­ev­er was cool in, say, New York or Los Ange­les would take time to catch on in the rest of the US. This went for fash­ions, movies, and bands, of course, but also for mind-alter­ing sub­stances: dis­tant-future archae­ol­o­gists are as like­ly to unearth a Vel­vet Under­ground album and the remains of its own­er’s stash in the ruins of Cleve­land as those of Chelsea.

A rough­ly anal­o­gous dis­cov­ery from the ancient world was recent­ly made by Dutch zooar­chae­ol­o­gists Maaike Groot and Mar­ti­jn van Haasteren and archaeob­otanist Lau­ra I. Koois­tra, who this past Feb­ru­ary pub­lished a paper in the jour­nal Antiq­ui­ty on “evi­dence of the inten­tion­al use of black hen­bane (Hyoscya­mus niger) in the Roman Nether­lands.” A mem­ber of the night­shade fam­i­ly, black hen­bane is “an extreme­ly poi­so­nous plant species that can also be used as a med­i­c­i­nal or psy­choac­tive drug,” the researchers write. It may have been the lat­ter pur­pose that encour­aged the cre­ation of a pecu­liar arti­fact: “a sheep/goat bone that had been hol­lowed out, sealed on one side by a plug of a black mate­r­i­al and filled with hun­dreds of black hen­bane seeds.”

“Phys­i­o­log­i­cal reac­tions to black hen­bane were well doc­u­ment­ed through­out the Ancient Mediter­ranean world,” writes Hyper­al­ler­gic’s Elaine Velie. She quotes Greek philoso­pher Plutarch as describ­ing its effects as “not so prop­er­ly called drunk­en­ness” but rather “alien­ation of mind or mad­ness.” Pliny the Elder “dis­cussed the plant’s med­i­c­i­nal, hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry, and poten­tial­ly lethal effects, not­ing that although it could be tak­en to heal ail­ments rang­ing from coughs to fever, the drug could also cause insan­i­ty and derange­ment. The Greek and Roman physi­cian Dioscorides wrote that black hen­bane and its close cousins could alle­vi­ate pain, but cause dis­ori­en­ta­tion when boiled.”

It would be nat­ur­al to assume that this hol­lowed-out, plugged bone func­tioned as some kind of pipe for smok­ing hen­bane. Though Groot, van Haasteren, and Koois­tra don’t find evi­dence for that, nei­ther do they rule out the pos­si­bil­i­ty that it was the stash box, if you like, of some res­i­dent of the Roman Nether­lands two mil­len­nia ago. Groot points out to Velie the espe­cial­ly fas­ci­nat­ing ele­ment of a “poten­tial link between med­i­c­i­nal knowl­edge described by Roman authors in Roman Italy and peo­ple actu­al­ly using the plant in a small vil­lage on the edge of the empire.” Though far from Rome itself, this hen­bane stash’s own­er pre­sum­ably used it how­ev­er the Romans did. If it met with dis­ap­proval, this indi­vid­ual could have resort­ed to a still-famil­iar refrain: “Hey, it’s med­i­c­i­nal.”

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Drugs Used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans

Humans First Start­ed Enjoy­ing Cannabis in Chi­na Cir­ca 2800 BC

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Down­load 100,000+ Images From The His­to­ry of Med­i­cine, All Free Cour­tesy of The Well­come Library

Pipes with Cannabis Traces Found in Shakespeare’s Gar­den, Sug­gest­ing the Bard Enjoyed a “Not­ed Weed”

Carl Sagan on the Virtues of Mar­i­jua­na (1969)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

How Las Vegas’ Sphere Actually Works: A Looks Inside the New $2.3 Billion Arena

If the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca is the Roman empire of our time, sure­ly it must have an equiv­a­lent of the Colos­se­um. A year ago, you could’ve heard a wide vari­ety of spec­u­la­tions as to what struc­ture that could pos­si­bly be. Today, many of us would sim­ply respond with “the Sphere,” espe­cial­ly if we hap­pen to be think-piece writ­ers. Since it opened last Sep­tem­ber, Sphere — to use its prop­er, arti­cle-free brand name — has inspired more than a few reflec­tions on what it says about the inter­sec­tion of tech­nol­o­gy and cul­ture here in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, not to men­tion the con­sid­er­able ambi­tion and expense of its design and con­struc­tion.

A $2.3 bil­lion dome whose inte­ri­or and exte­ri­or are both enor­mous screens — vis­i­ble, one often hears, even from out­er space — Sphere would hard­ly make sense any­where in Amer­i­ca but Las Vegas, where it makes a good deal of sense indeed. Its loca­tion has also made pos­si­ble such irre­sistible head­lines as “Sphere and Loathing in Las Vegas,” below which the Atlantic’s Char­lie Warzel gets into the details of this “archi­tec­tur­al embod­i­ment of ridicu­lous­ness,” includ­ing its sur­pris­ing ori­gin: “Accord­ing to James Dolan, the enter­tain­ment mogul who financed the Sphere, the inspi­ra­tion for the build­ing came from ‘The Veldt,’ a 1950 short sto­ry by Ray Brad­bury” involv­ing a fam­i­ly house with giant screens for walls that can ren­der what­ev­er the chil­dren imag­ine.

Nat­u­ral­ly, the kids get hooked, and when Mom and Dad try to inter­vene, the screens send forth a pack of lions to eat them. “Though the Sphere’s mar­ket­ing pitch doesn’t explic­it­ly men­tion being mauled by big dig­i­tal cats,” Warzel writes, “I got the notion that at least part of the allure of com­ing to the Sphere is a desire to be over­whelmed.” How, exact­ly, the venue mar­shals its advanced tech­nol­o­gy to do that over­whelm­ing is explained in the MegaBuilds video at the top of the post. With its form not quite like any event space built in human his­to­ry, it neces­si­tat­ed the inven­tion of every­thing from a cus­tom cam­era sys­tem to audio-per­me­able screen sur­faces, none of which came cheap.

Hence the cost of see­ing a show at Sphere, whether it be the Dar­ren Aronof­sky’s “docu-film” Post­card from Earth, U2’s Achtung Baby-based res­i­den­cy ear­li­er this year, or the now-show­ing Dead & Com­pa­ny, which revives not just the Grate­ful Dead in their var­i­ous incar­na­tions over the decades, but also the sto­ried venues in which they played. Its view­ers could hard­ly fail to be aston­ished by the sheer spec­ta­cle, even if they know noth­ing of the Dead­’s col­or­ful his­to­ry. All of them will no doubt be moved to con­sid­er his­to­ry itself: that of human­i­ty, tech­nol­o­gy, and civ­i­liza­tion, all of which has led up to this rare thing Warzel calls “a brand-new, non-phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence.” Say what you will about the over­stim­u­la­tion and excess rep­re­sent­ed by Sphere; if you can blow a Dead­head­’s mind, you’re def­i­nite­ly on to some­thing.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Absurd Logis­tics of Con­cert Tours: The Behind-the-Scenes Prepa­ra­tion You Don’t Get to See

U2’s Bono & the Edge Give Sur­prise Con­cert in Kyiv Metro/Bomb Shel­ter: “Stand by Me,” “Angel of Harlem,” and “With or With­out You”

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Japan’s Inflat­able Con­cert Hall

Stream a Mas­sive Archive of Grate­ful Dead Con­certs from 1965–1995

Read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as It Was Orig­i­nal­ly Pub­lished in Rolling Stone (1971)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Oh My God! Winston Churchill Received the First Ever Letter Containing “O.M.G.” (1917)


Win­ston Churchill is one of those pre­pos­ter­ous­ly out­sized his­tor­i­cal fig­ures who seemed to be in the mid­dle of every major event. Even before, as Prime Min­is­ter, he steeled the resolve of his peo­ple and faced down the Third Reich jug­ger­naut; even before he loud­ly warned of the Nazi men­ace before it was polite to do so; even before he was pil­lo­ried in the press for the dis­as­trous Gal­lipoli inva­sion dur­ing WWI, Churchill was a famous and con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure. As a young cav­al­ry offi­cer, he left his post in India to report on the bloody colo­nial cam­paign in the Swat Val­ley in present-day Pak­istan. His huge­ly pop­u­lar arti­cles pushed the mil­i­tary slang word “sniper” into pop­u­lar use. Dur­ing the sec­ond Boer War, Churchill was not only cap­tured at gun­point by future South African prime min­is­ter Louis Botha but he man­aged to suc­cess­ful­ly escape from his POW camp. And after being pushed out of the gov­ern­ment fol­low­ing Gal­lipoli, he returned to the mil­i­tary as a Lieu­tenant Colonel and com­mand­ed a bat­tal­ion of troops in France. He also won a Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in 1953 and was, as we’ve recent­ly seen, a pret­ty good painter too.

Add to this one more tri­umph: he unwit­ting­ly had a hand in shap­ing the speech pat­terns of teenaged girls some 50–60 years after his death. Churchill was the recip­i­ent of a mis­sive con­tain­ing the first ever usage of the oft-texted acronym “O.M.G.”. Accord­ing to the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary, O.M.G.’s ori­gins can be traced back to a let­ter to Churchill from Admi­ral John Arbuth­not Fish­er, sent on Sep­tem­ber 9, 1917. After com­plain­ing about the state of affairs of the Navy dur­ing the war, Fish­er clos­es with the fol­low­ing lame joke: “I hear that a new order of Knight­hood is on the tapis – O.M.G. (Oh! My God!) – Show­er it on the Admi­ral­ty!!”

Churchill’s rela­tion­ship with Fish­er was com­plex. While he was the First Lord of the Admi­ral­ty, Churchill brought Fish­er out of retire­ment in 1911 to head the roy­al navy. Their rela­tion­ship went south in 1915 fol­low­ing the fail­ure of the Dar­d­anelles cam­paign. Churchill was still round­ly blamed most­ly because of Fisher’s loud, pub­lic protes­ta­tions. (In fact, had the naval offi­cers pushed through the Dar­d­anelles to Con­stan­tino­ple, as Churchill com­mand­ed, the war would have like­ly end­ed years ear­li­er than it did.) Yet, much to his wife’s dis­may, Churchill remained cor­dial enough with Fish­er to exchange friend­ly notes.

The first online usage of O.M.G., by the way, came on a usenet forum about soap operas in 1994. Churchill does not appear to be con­nect­ed to that instance.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Win­ston Churchill Gets a Doctor’s Note to Drink Unlim­it­ed Alco­hol While Vis­it­ing the U.S. Dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion (1932)

What Hap­pens When Mor­tals Try to Drink Win­ston Churchill’s Dai­ly Intake of Alco­hol

Win­ston Churchill Goes Back­ward Down a Water Slide & Los­es His Trunks (1934)

Win­ston Churchill’s List of Tips for Sur­viv­ing a Ger­man Inva­sion: See the Nev­er-Dis­trib­uted Doc­u­ment (1940)

Jonathan Crow: You can fol­low him at @jonccrow

Get Unlimited Access to Courses & Certificates: Coursera Is Offering 40% (or $159) Off of Coursera Plus Until June 23

A heads up on a deal: Between today and June 23, 2024, Cours­era is offer­ing a 40% dis­count on its annu­al sub­scrip­tion plan called “Cours­era Plus.” Nor­mal­ly priced at $399, Cours­era Plus (now avail­able for $239.40) gives you access to 7,000+ cours­es for one all-inclu­sive sub­scrip­tion price. This includes Pro­fes­sion­al Cer­tifi­cates from lead­ing com­pa­nies. Take for exam­ple the Data Ana­lyst Pro­fes­sion­al Cer­tifi­cate from Meta, the UX Design Pro­fes­sion­al Cer­tifi­cate from Google, or the AI Devel­op­er Pro­fes­sion­al Cer­tifi­cate from IBM.

The $239.40 annu­al fee–which trans­lates to 65 cents per day–could be a good invest­ment for any­one inter­est­ed in learn­ing new sub­jects and skills, or earn­ing cer­tifi­cates that can be added to your resume. Just as Net­flix’s stream­ing ser­vice gives you access to unlim­it­ed movies, Cours­era Plus gives you access to unlim­it­ed cours­es and cer­tifi­cates. It’s basi­cal­ly an all-you-can-eat deal. Explore the offer (before June 23, 2024) here.

Note: Open Cul­ture has a part­ner­ship with Cours­era. If read­ers enroll in cer­tain Cours­era cours­es and pro­grams, it helps sup­port Open Cul­ture.

Is Reality Real?: 8 Scientists Explain Whether We Can Ever Know What Objectively Exists

Ask aloud whether real­i­ty is real, and you’re liable to be regard­ed as nev­er tru­ly hav­ing left the fresh­man dorm. But that ques­tion has received, and con­tin­ues to receive, con­sid­er­a­tion from actu­al sci­en­tists. The Big Think video above assem­bles sev­en of them to explain how they think about it, and how they see its rel­e­vance to the enter­prise of human under­stand­ing. For the most part, they seem to agree that, even if we accept that some­thing called “real­i­ty” objec­tive­ly exists, of more imme­di­ate rel­e­vance is the fact that we can’t per­ceive that real­i­ty direct­ly. Any infor­ma­tion we receive about it comes to our brain through our sens­es, and they have their own ways of inter­pret­ing things.

As cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist Don­ald Hoff­man puts it, our sens­es are “mak­ing up the tastes, odors, and col­ors that we expe­ri­ence. They’re not prop­er­ties of an objec­tive real­i­ty; they’re actu­al­ly prop­er­ties of our sens­es that they’re fab­ri­cat­ing.” What’s phys­i­cal­ly objec­tive “would con­tin­ue to exist even if there were no crea­tures to per­ceive it.”

There­fore, “col­ors, odors, tastes, and so on are not real in that sense,” yet they are “real expe­ri­ences”; the trick of sep­a­rat­ing what exists in objec­tive real­i­ty from what only exists in our minds as a result of that objec­tive real­i­ty — “the begin­ning of the sci­en­tif­ic method,” as evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gist Heather Hey­ing describes it — is an even more com­pli­cat­ed endeav­or than it sounds.

“Real­i­ty, for us, is what we can sense with­out sen­so­ry sur­faces, and what we can make sense of with the sig­nals in our brain,” says Sev­en and a Half Lessons About the Brain author Lisa Feld­man Bar­rett in the video just above. “Trapped in its own dark, silent box called your skull,” your brain “has no knowl­edge of what is going on around it in the world, or in the body.” It does receive sig­nals from the sens­es, “which are the out­come of some changes in the world or in the body, but the brain does­n’t know what the changes are.” With only infor­ma­tion about effects, it uses past expe­ri­ence to con­struct guess­es about their caus­es and con­texts. We might also call that func­tion imag­i­na­tion, and no sci­en­tists worth their salt can do with­out a good deal of it.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Is Con­scious­ness an Illu­sion? Five Experts in Sci­ence, Reli­gion & Tech­nol­o­gy Explain

Alan Watts On Why Our Minds And Tech­nol­o­gy Can’t Grasp Real­i­ty

Real­i­ty Is Noth­ing But a Hal­lu­ci­na­tion: A Mind-Bend­ing Crash Course on the Neu­ro­science of Con­scious­ness

Are We Liv­ing in a Com­put­er Sim­u­la­tion?: A 2‑Hour Debate with Neil Degrasse Tyson, David Chalmers, Lisa Ran­dall, Max Tegmark & More

The Sim­u­la­tion The­o­ry Explained In Three Ani­mat­ed Videos

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Roads of Ancient Rome Visualized in the Style of Modern Subway Maps

Sasha Tru­bet­skoy, for­mer­ly an under­grad at U. Chica­go, has cre­at­ed a “sub­way-style dia­gram of the major Roman roads, based on the Empire of ca. 125 AD.” Draw­ing on Stanford’s ORBIS mod­el, The Pela­gios Project, and the Anto­nine Itin­er­ary, Tru­bet­skoy’s map com­bines well-known his­toric roads, like the Via Appia, with less­er-known ones (in somes cas­es giv­en imag­ined names). If you want to get a sense of scale, it would take, Tru­bet­skoy tells us, “two months to walk on foot from Rome to Byzan­tium. If you had a horse, it would only take you a month.”

You can view the map in a larg­er for­mat here. And if you fol­low this link and send Tru­bet­skoy a few bucks, he can email you a crisp PDF for print­ing. Find more focused, relat­ed maps by Tru­bet­skoy right here:

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Roman Roads and Bridges You Can Still Trav­el Today

An Inter­ac­tive Map Shows Just How Many Roads Actu­al­ly Lead to Rome

How to Make Roman Con­crete, One of Human Civilization’s Longest-Last­ing Build­ing Mate­ri­als

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Patti Smith Reads Her Final Letter to Robert Mapplethorpe, Calling Him “the Most Beautiful Work of All”

If you go to hear Pat­ti Smith in con­cert, you expect her to sing “Beneath the South­ern Cross,” “Because the Night,” and almost cer­tain­ly “Peo­ple Have the Pow­er,” the hit sin­gle from Dream of Life. Like her 1975 debut Hors­es, that album had a cov­er pho­to by Robert Map­plethor­pe, whom Smith describes as “the artist of my life” in Just Kids, her mem­oir of their long and com­plex rela­tion­ship. A high­ly per­son­al work, that book also includes the text of the brief but pow­er­ful good­bye let­ter she wrote to Map­plethor­pe, who died of AIDS in 1989. If you go to hear Smith read a let­ter aloud, there’s a decent chance it’ll be that one.

“Often as I lie awake I won­der if you are also lying awake,” Smith wrote to Map­plethor­pe, then in his final hos­pi­tal­iza­tion and already unable to receive any fur­ther com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “Are you in pain, or feel­ing alone? You drew me from the dark­est peri­od of my young life, shar­ing with me the sacred mys­tery of what it is to be an artist. I learned to see through you and nev­er com­pose a line or draw a curve that does not come from the knowl­edge I derived in our pre­cious time togeth­er. Your work, com­ing from a flu­id source, can be traced to the naked song of your youth. You spoke then of hold­ing hands with God. Remem­ber, through every­thing, you have always held that hand. Grip it hard, Robert, and don’t let it go.”

Smith speaks these words in the Let­ters Live video at the top of the post, shot just a few weeks ago in The Town Hall in Man­hat­tan. “Of all your work, you are still your most beau­ti­ful,” she reads, “the most beau­ti­ful work of all,” and it’s clear that, 35 years after Map­plethor­pe’s death, she still believes it. That may come across even more clear­ly than in Smith’s ear­li­er read­ing of the let­ter fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture back in 2012. As the years pass, Robert Map­plethor­pe remains frozen in time as a cul­tur­al­ly trans­gres­sive young artist, but Pat­ti Smith lives on, still play­ing the rock songs that made her name in the sev­en­ties while in her sev­en­ties. And unlike many cul­tur­al fig­ures at her lev­el of fame, she’s remained whol­ly her­self all the while — no doubt thanks to inspi­ra­tion from her old friend.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Pat­ti Smith Remem­bers Robert Map­plethor­pe

Vin­tage Footage Shows a Young, Unknown Pat­ti Smith & Robert Map­plethor­pe Liv­ing at the Famed Chelsea Hotel (1970)

Pat­ti Smith’s Award-Win­ning Mem­oir Just Kids Now Avail­able in a New Illus­trat­ed Edi­tion

Pat­ti Smith Reads Oscar Wilde’s 1897 Love Let­ter De Pro­fundis: See the Full Three-Hour Per­for­mance

Pat­ti Smith Doc­u­men­tary Dream of Life Beau­ti­ful­ly Cap­tures the Author’s Life and Long Career (2008)

The Life and Con­tro­ver­sial Work of Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Robert Map­plethor­pe Pro­filed in 1988 Doc­u­men­tary

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Behold the Codex Gigas (aka “Devil’s Bible”), the Largest Medieval Manuscript in the World

Bar­gain with the dev­il and you may wind up with a gold­en fid­dle, super­nat­ur­al gui­tar-play­ing ability, or a room full of gleam­ing alchem­ized straw.

Whoops, we mis­at­trib­uted that last one. It’s actu­al­ly Rumpel­stilt­skin’s doing, but the by-morn­ing-or-else dead­line that dri­ves the Broth­ers Grimm favorite is not dis­sim­i­lar to the ulti­ma­tum posed to dis­graced medieval monk Her­man the Recluse: pro­duce a giant book that glo­ri­fies your monastery and includes all human knowl­edge by sun­rise, or we brick you up Cask of Amon­til­la­do-style.

Why else would a book as high-mind­ed as the Codex Gigas (Latin for Giant Book) con­tain a full-page glam­our por­trait of the dev­il garbed in an ermine loin­cloth and cher­ry red claws?

Per­haps it’s the 13th-cen­tu­ry equiv­a­lent of “sex sells.” What bet­ter way to keep your book out of the remain­der bin of his­to­ry than to include an eye-catch­ing glimpse of the Prince of Dark­ness? Hedge your bets by posi­tion­ing a splen­did vision of the Heav­en­ly City direct­ly oppo­site.

Notable illus­tra­tions aside, the Codex Gigas holds the dis­tinc­tion of being the largest extant medieval illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script in the world.

Weigh­ing in at 165 lbs, this 3‑foot-tall bound whale required the skins of 160 don­keys, at the rate of two pages per don­key. (Ten pages devot­ed to St. Benedict’s rules for monas­tic life were lit­er­al­ly cut from the man­u­script at an unknown date.)

It’s a lot.

A Nation­al Geo­graph­ic doc­u­men­tary con­clud­ed that the sprawl­ing man­u­script would’ve required a min­i­mum of 5 years of full-time, sin­gle-mind­ed labor. More like­ly, the work was spread out over 25 to 30 years, with var­i­ous authors con­tribut­ing to the dif­fer­ent sec­tions. In addi­tion to a com­plete Bible, the “Devil’s Bible” includes an ency­clo­pe­dia, med­ical infor­ma­tion, a cal­en­dar of saints’ days, Flav­ius Jose­phus’ his­to­ries The Jew­ish War and Jew­ish Antiq­ui­ties and some prac­ti­cal advice on exor­cis­ing evil spir­its.

The actu­al let­ter­ing does seem to come down to a sin­gle scribe with very neat hand­writ­ing. Experts at the Nation­al Library of Swe­den, where the Codex Gigas has come to a rest after cen­turies of adven­tures and mis­ad­ven­tures, iden­ti­fy it as Car­olin­gian minus­cule, a pop­u­lar and high­ly leg­i­ble style of medieval script. Its uni­form size would’ve required the scribe to rule each page before form­ing the let­ters, after which 100 lines a day would have been a rea­son­able goal.

You can have a look for your­self on the Library’s web­site, where the entire work is view­able in dig­i­tized form.

Cer­tain­ly the dev­il is a great place to start, though his appear­ance may strike you as a bit com­i­cal, giv­en all the fuss.

Begin your explo­rations of the Codex Gigas here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Brief His­to­ry of Mak­ing Deals with the Dev­il: Nic­colò Pagani­ni, Robert John­son, Jim­my Page & More

The Medieval Ban Against the “Devil’s Tri­tone”: Debunk­ing a Great Myth in Music The­o­ry

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

See Beau­ti­ful Pages from a Medieval Monk’s Sketch­book: A Win­dow Into How Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts Were Made (1494)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

James Joyce Picked Drunken Fights, Then Hid Behind Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hem­ing­way seemed to feud with most of the promi­nent male artists of his time, from Wal­lace Stevens and T.S. Eliot to F. Scott Fitzger­ald. He had a “very strange rela­tion­ship” with Orson Welles—the two came to blows at least once—and he report­ed­ly slapped Max East­man in the face with a book. All his blus­ter and brava­do make his warm friend­ship with James Joyce seem all the more remark­able. They are a lit­er­ary odd cou­ple if ever there was one: Joyce the labyrinthine thinker of Byzan­tine thoughts and cre­ator of sym­bol­ic sys­tems so dense they con­sti­tute an entire field of study; phys­i­cal­ly weak and—despite his infa­mous car­nal appetites—intel­lec­tu­al­ly monk­ish, Joyce exem­pli­fies the artist as a reclu­sive con­tem­pla­tive. Hem­ing­way, on the oth­er hand, well… we know his rep­u­ta­tion.

Hemingway’s 1961 obit­u­ary in The New York Times char­ac­ter­ized Joyce as “a thin, wispy and unmus­cled man with defec­tive eye­sight” (per­haps the result of a syphilis infec­tion), and also notes that the two writ­ers “did a cer­tain amount of drink­ing togeth­er” in Paris. As the nar­ra­tor of the rare film clip of Joyce informs us above, the Ulysses author would pick drunk­en fights, then duck behind his burly friend and say, “Deal with him, Hem­ing­way. Deal with him.” (That scene also gets men­tioned in The Times obit­u­ary.) Hem­ing­way, who con­vinced him­self at one time he had the mak­ings of a real pugilist, was like­ly hap­py to oblige. Joyce, writes Hem­ing­way biog­ra­ph­er James R. Mel­low, “was an admir­er of Hemingway’s adven­tur­ous lifestyle” and wor­ried aloud that his books were too “sub­ur­ban” next to those of his friend, of whom he said in a Dan­ish inter­view, “he’s a good writer, Hem­ing­way. He writes as he is… there is much more behind Hemingway’s form than peo­ple know.”

Joyce, notes Ken­neth Schyler Lynn in Hem­ing­way, real­ized that “nei­ther as a man nor as an artist was [Hem­ing­way] as sim­ple as he seemed,” though he also remarked that Hem­ing­way was “a big pow­er­ful peas­ant, as strong as a buf­fa­lo. A sports­man. And ready to live the life he writes about. He would nev­er have writ­ten it if his body had not allowed him to live it.” One detects more than a hint of Hem­ing­way in Joycean char­ac­ters like Dublin­ers’ Igna­tious Gal­la­her or Ulysses’ Hugh “Blazes” Boylan—strong, adven­tur­ous types who over­awe intro­vert­ed main char­ac­ters. That’s not to say that Joyce explic­it­ly drew on Hem­ing­way in con­struct­ing his fic­tion, but that in the boast­ful, out­go­ing Amer­i­can, he saw what many of his semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal char­ac­ters did in their more bull­ish counterparts—a nat­ur­al foil.

Hem­ing­way returned Joyce’s com­pli­ments, writ­ing to Sher­wood Ander­son in 1923, “Joyce has a most god-damn won­der­ful book” and pro­nounc­ing Joyce “the great­est writer in the world.” He was “unques­tion­ably… stag­gered,” writes Lynn, “by the mul­ti­lay­ered rich­ness” of Ulysses. But its den­si­ty may have proven too much for him, as “his inter­est in the sto­ry gave out well before he fin­ished it.” In Hem­ing­way’s copy of the nov­el, “only the pages of the first half and of Mol­ly Bloom’s con­clud­ing solil­o­quy are cut.” Hem­ing­way tem­pered his praise with some blunt crit­i­cism; unlike Joyce’s praise of his writ­ing, the Amer­i­can did not admire Joyce’s ten­den­cy towards auto­bi­og­ra­phy in the char­ac­ter of Stephen Dedalus.

“The weak­ness of Joyce,” Hem­ing­way opined, was his inabil­i­ty to under­stand that “the only writ­ing that was any good was what you made up, what you imag­ined… Daedalus [sic] in Ulysses was Joyce him­self, so he was ter­ri­ble. Joyce was so damn roman­tic and intel­lec­tu­al.” Of course Stephen Dedalus was Joyce—that much is clear to any­one. How Hem­ing­way, who did his utmost to enact his fic­tion­al adven­tures and fic­tion­al­ize his real life, could fault Joyce for doing the same is hard to reck­on, except per­haps, as Joyce cer­tain­ly felt, Hem­ing­way led the more adven­tur­ous life.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Joyce Reads a Pas­sage From Ulysses, 1924

Vir­ginia Woolf Writes About Joyce’s Ulysses, “Nev­er Did Any Book So Bore Me,” and Quits at Page 200

Ernest Hem­ing­way to F. Scott Fitzger­ald: “Kiss My Ass”

James Joyce’s “Dirty Let­ters” to His Wife (1909)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

The Radical Artistic & Philosophical World of William Blake: A Short Introduction

Over the years, we’ve fea­tured the work of William Blake fair­ly often here on Open Cul­ture: his own illu­mi­nat­ed books; his illus­tra­tions for every­thing from the Divine Com­e­dy to Mary Woll­stonecraft’s Orig­i­nal Sto­ries from Real Life to the Book of Job; pairs of Doc Martens made out of his paint­ings Satan Smit­ing Job with Sore Boils and The House of Death. Blake con­tin­ues to cap­ture our imag­i­na­tions, despite hav­ing lived in the very dif­fer­ent world of the mid-eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry to the mid-nine­teenth — but then, he also lived in a world well apart from his con­tem­po­raries.

“Blake belonged to the Roman­tic age, but stands utter­ly alone in that age, both as an artist and as a poet,” says gal­lerist-Youtu­ber James Payne in his new Great Art Explained video above. “He is some­one who invent­ed his very own form of graph­ic art, which organ­i­cal­ly fused beau­ti­ful images with pow­er­ful poet­ry, while he also forged his own dis­tinc­tive philo­soph­i­cal world­view and cre­at­ed an orig­i­nal cos­mol­o­gy of gods and spir­its designed to express his ideas about love, free­dom, nature, and the divine.” It would­n’t be an exag­ger­a­tion to call him a vision­ary, not least since he expe­ri­enced actu­al visions through­out almost his entire life.

Not just a visu­al artist but “one of the great­est poets in the Eng­lish lan­guage,” Blake pro­duced a body of work in which word and image are insep­a­ra­ble. Though it “address­es con­tem­po­rary sub­jects like social inequal­i­ty and pover­ty, child exploita­tion, racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, and reli­gious hypocrisy,” its world­li­ness is exceed­ed by its oth­er­world­li­ness. What com­pels us is as much the pow­er of art itself as the “vast and com­pli­cat­ed mythol­o­gy” under­ly­ing the project on which Blake worked until the very end of his life. His ide­al was “lib­er­ty from tyran­ny in all forms,” polit­i­cal, reli­gious, sci­en­tif­ic, and any oth­er kind besides; in pur­su­ing it, he could hard­ly have lim­it­ed him­self to just one plane of exis­tence.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Oth­er­world­ly Art of William Blake: An Intro­duc­tion to the Vision­ary Poet and Painter

William Blake: The Remark­able Print­ing Process of the Eng­lish Poet, Artist & Vision­ary

Enter an Archive of William Blake’s Fan­tas­ti­cal “Illu­mi­nat­ed Books”: The Images Are Sub­lime, and in High Res­o­lu­tion

William Blake’s Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Illus­tra­tions of John Milton’s Par­adise Lost

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Stephen King Names His Five Favorite Works by Stephen King

Stephen King has no doubt for­got­ten writ­ing more books than most of us will ever pub­lish. But even now, in his pro­lif­ic “late career,” if you ask him to name his own most favored works, he can do it with­out hes­i­ta­tion. Stephen Col­bert tried that out a few years ago on The Late Show, when the writer made an appear­ance to pro­mote his then-lat­est book Bil­ly Sum­mers. The first of Stephen King’s top five by Stephen King is “Sur­vivor Type,” a 1982 short sto­ry about “a physi­cian who gets strand­ed on a lit­tle island, and he’s smug­gling hero­in, and he’s starv­ing, so he eats him­self piece by piece.”

Sur­vivor Type” may be a deep cut — and one that ini­tial­ly strug­gled for pub­li­ca­tion, being so dis­turb­ing that King remem­bers “even men’s mag­a­zines” turn­ing it down — but it’s nev­er­the­less been adapt­ed into five dif­fer­ent films since the twen­ty-tens alone. King may have enjoyed mas­sive book sales through­out almost the entire­ty of his career, but it cer­tain­ly has­n’t hurt his brand that so many of his works have become movies and tele­vi­sion shows, many of them cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­na in their own right. Take the case of Mis­ery, anoth­er of King’s selec­tions, the 1990 fea­ture-film ver­sion of which gave us Kathy Bates’ Oscar-win­ning per­for­mance as a crazed fan who kid­naps her favorite nov­el­ist.

Mis­ery was direct­ed by Rob Rein­er, who’d worked with King’s mate­r­i­al before: in 1986, he turned the sto­ry “The Body” into Stand by Me, which is now con­sid­ered a high point in the cat­e­gories of eight­ies teen-star vehi­cles and ear­ly-six­ties nos­tal­gia pic­tures. After see­ing its first screen­ing, King declared it “the best film ever made out of any­thing I’ve writ­ten” — before char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly adding, “which isn’t say­ing much.” (That same year, recall, King not just wrote but direct­ed Max­i­mum Over­drive, a spec­ta­cle of malev­o­lent machines tak­ing over a truck stop that he lat­er described as a “moron movie.”)

King also enthus­es about his 2006 nov­el Lisey’s Sto­ry, as well as its Apple TV+ series adap­ta­tion, which had just come out at the time. Also still-new was the sec­ond tele­vi­su­al ren­di­tion of The Stand, King’s 1978 nov­el set in the after­math of an apoc­a­lyp­tic pan­dem­ic. “Any sim­i­lar­i­ties to what’s going on now are just too close for com­fort,” he says to Col­bert in this COVID-era clip, though it’s ambigu­ous whether the book actu­al­ly makes his top five. Col­bert sug­gests fill­ing out the list with Bil­ly Sum­mers, pre­sum­ably on the prin­ci­ple that every writer favors his most recent work. But where would King rank the three nov­els he’s cranked out since?

Relat­ed con­tent:

Stephen King’s 22 Favorite Movies, Packed with Hor­ror & Sus­pense

Stephen King Cre­ates a List of His 10 Favorite Nov­els

Stephen King Rec­om­mends 96 Books for Aspir­ing Writ­ers to Read

How Stan­ley Kubrick Adapt­ed Stephen King’s The Shin­ing into a Cin­e­mat­ic Mas­ter­piece

Pret­ty Much Pop #18 Dis­cuss­es Stephen King’s Media Empire

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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