Sunday Dec. 4, 2016

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A Snap Quiz in Body Language

We can’t hear what they’re saying, but that man
is holding that woman in his arms. Your assignment
is to deduce their thoughts from what they do.
They’ve left no apparent space between their bodies.
It could be called a close embrace, but notice
her arms are at her sides, her hands relaxed,
her face impassive, while he’s whispering
something in her ear. His upper torso
is tilted slightly forward. Hers is yielding
but not in a way suggesting sweet surrender.
Is this a seduction scene? Is she being held
for questioning? Should she call a lawyer?
He’s looking into her eyes now. How wide open
would you say they are? What does he see in them?
If he were to let her go, class, what would she do?

“A Snap Quiz in Body Language” by David Wagoner from A Map of the Night. © University of Illinois Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of British essayist, philosopher, and historian Thomas Carlyle (books by this author) born in Ecclefachan, Scotland (1795), and best known for writing The French Revolution: A History (1837), which was Charles Dickens inspiration for writing A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

It was as a philosopher and social historian that Carlyle found his calling. He wrote The French Revolution, an immense tome, only to lend it to fellow philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose maid accidentally tossed it into the fire. Undeterred, Carlyle rewrote the entire manuscript from scratch.

He found a wife, Jane Baillie Welsh, but she was still partly in love with a minister, and made no secret of not loving Carlyle. They lived in farmhouse in Scotland for the first six years of their marriage, during which he wrote madly and she did housework. Over the course of their courtship and marriage, they exchanged more than 9,000 letters. They were intensely unhappy, often infatuated with others, but they remained together. A friend once said, “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.”

It’s the birthday of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (books by this author), born in Prague (1875). His family wanted him to be a lawyer and take over his uncle’s law firm. But he published some sentimental love poetry, and it inspired him to make his living as a writer. He went to Munich to be part of the arts scene, and there he met a woman. She was brilliant, she had been friends with Nietzsche, she was 15 years older than Rilke. And she took the young poet under her wing, helped him develop as a writer, persuaded him to give up writing sentimental poems and become more ambitious. He followed her all over Europe. When they broke up, he traveled around and seduced rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote. He wasn’t too handsome, but he was poetic and romantic, so women fell for him. Then he met the Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis. She was older than he was, and she thought he treated other women badly, and refused to be seduced. But they became close friends and exchanged hundreds of letters, and Marie let Rilke stay in her castle in Trieste, on the Adriatic Sea. He loved it there, at the Castle Duino, and one winter while he was living there alone, he said an angel appeared. The angel started talking to him about life and death, about beauty and humanity, and Rilke went right to work on what turned out to be his most famous poems, The Duino Elegies, 10 long verses.

It’s the birthday of mystery writer Cornell Woolrich (books by this author), born in New York City (1903). His first six books weren’t crime fiction at all, but were Jazz Age novels inspired by the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He first started writing detective stories under pseudonyms like William Irish and George Hopley. He was a contemporary of other, more famous crime writers like Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, and his stories and novels were adapted for radio and film noir, including The Bride Wore Black (novel: 1940; film: 1968) and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (novel: 1945; film: 1948).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®