Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: Joan Didion, tradition, innovation, and more.

The editors

November 28, 2022

Ephemera from the desk of Joan Didion: The husband of influential writer Joan Didion died of a heart attack in 2003 over the couple’s dining table. That table was purchased at an auction of the late Didion’s estate recently for four times its asking price, and this was one of the auction’s bargains. Didion, an American writer who pioneered a style of journalism mixing memoir and nonfiction, passed away last December. Journalist Sophie Haigney reflects in The Paris Review on the pilgrimage many made to view Didion’s possessions in early November, the hours-long online auction that was a streaming spectacle as much as a sales pitch, and the act of looking for meaning in objects. One of Didion’s many essays is titled “On Keeping a Notebook”; the lucky buyer of a stack of Didion’s blank notebooks is now able to keep her practice alive for the price of $11,000.

The trad mystique: Traditionalism, or at least its aesthetic, seems to be all the rage recently. Ironically, this trend has taken off on the internet, which has, by any other measure, accelerated our separation from actual traditions. In a piece for Compact magazine, writer Matilda Lin Berke examines the human tendency to become attached to visions of an unspoiled past and considers the works of figures as diverse as filmmaker David Lynch, singer-songwriters Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey, and TikTok star and stay-at-home girlfriend Kendal Kay in the process. Berke believes the turn to traditionalism is motivated by a—not unfounded—collective fear that our institutions are failing and writes, “We have lived past the end of our myth and we are trying to repeat it, to take refuge in it. What, then, is our punishment?” Learning from the past is an undeniable good; a project aimed at restoring it, however, is doomed from the start.

The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020: The splash that David Hockney’s digitally drawn New Yorker cover made in December 2020 was not all positive. The English painter, who is famous for his contributions to pop art, has been using an iPad as his medium since 2010, and said in an interview that he feels he gets the same visual effects drawing digitally as he does painting. Many on Twitter and elsewhere, however, quipped that the cover looked more like MS Paint. Now, the Art Institute of Chicago is showing a host of Hockney’s iPad art for viewers to make their own judgments. Done in Normandy with more than a hint of influence from Monet’s water lilies, The Arrival of Spring will be sure to raise questions about technology, innovation, and whether art is more conceptual or craft-based. The exhibition will be on view through January 9, 2023.

Opening the people’s eyes (at least partially): On November 29th, University of Chicago professor John McCormick will give a lecture on Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince and Discourses on Livy. McCormick argues that Machiavelli’s works demonstrate that princely leaders must obscure the manipulation they practice, while civic leaders should encourage a populace to “open their eyes,” or enlighten themselves about their political priorities. The political scientist believes these strategies correspond to populist and democratic forms of leadership, respectively. After the lecture, University of Chicago history professor James Sparrow will moderate a conversation between McCormick, University of Chicago classics professor Michèle Lowrie, and social sciences lecturer Dan Luban. Attendees are asked to read Chapter 7 of The Prince and Book I, Chapter 47 of the Discourses ahead of the event, which will take place from 5:00-6:30 p.m in Kent Laboratory.