Thursday, August 27, 2015
The French are not given to outbursts of patriotic fervour. This makes the reaction to the carnage at Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket in Paris in January all the more extraordinary. In the biggest wave of demonstrations the country has ever seen, more than 4 million people marched to honour the victims. For the first time since Armistice Day 1918, the Marseillaise was sung at the National Assembly. “Je suis Charlie” became the rallying cry of a nation seemingly united around the basic “republican” values of secularism, tolerance and free expression.
It soon emerged, however, that not everyone in France was Charlie. In areas with large Muslim populations, few mourned journalists who had insulted the Prophet. Many supporters of the far-right Front National (FN) also begged to differ. To them, the fact that the political establishment, Left and Right, rallied in support of an offensive magazine run by leftovers from the 1960s epitomized everything that was wrong with the country.
The pro-Charlie camp was unsettled by these cracks in the consensus. They appeared at a time when radical Islam is on the rise in immigrantbanlieues and the FN is threatening the pro-EU order. But in a way, the naysayers helped galvanize the “Je suis Charlie” mainstream. They could be dismissed as Islamists or fascists. Either way, they had no place in a modern, secular, liberal country. The true people of France had to strike an even stronger blow for the République.
For all those keen quivering Nabokovians out there with infinitely deep pockets - are there any other kind? - or perhaps with access to a university library, these are undoubtedly the years of plenty. In 2014 alone, even the most casual short-trousered amateur Nabokovterist armed with a basic butterfly net would have been able to catch Maurice Couturier'sNabokov's Eros and the Poetics of Desire, Yuri Leving's Shades of Laura: Vladimir Nabokov's Last Novel, Samuel Schuman's Nabokov's Shakespeare, and the paperback reissues of Gerard de Vries and D Barton Johnson's Nabokov and the Art of Paintingand Vladimir E Alexandrov's Nabokov's Otherworld. Almost forty years after his death there is, it seems, much good Nabokov-hunting still to be had. In a lecture on 'The Art of Literature and Commonsense', collected in his Lectures on Literature - which remains the perfect entry point into the vast, prodigious kingdom of the Great Nabob - Nabokov remarks, 'In a sense, we are all crashing to our death from the top story of our birth ... and wondering with an immortal Alice at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles - no matter the imminent peril - these asides of the spirit ... are the highest form of consciousness.'
So as we go crashing to our death, let us continue, like Alice, to wonder at trifles. This year has already seen a reprint of Galya Diment's excellent and eccentric Pniniad, an utterly thorough study of the relationship between Nabokov and the much-thwarted Marc Szeftel, his colleague at Cornell and the model for poor Timofey Pnin, hapless 'assistant professor emeritus' in Pnin. And now comes Robert Roper's perfectly usefulNabokov in America.
John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is the perfect read for the waning days of summer, when early evening thunderstorms break the heat, and when children play under moonlight — knowing their freedom will soon end. In the more than 50 years since it was originally published in The New Yorker, Cheever’s tale has become an undergraduate rite-of-passage, a staple of graduate writing programs, and a favorite of readers long out of the classroom. In the same way that James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” are often relegated to shorthand, Cheever’s tale has its own summary: a man’s decision to swim home is not what it seems. The genius of Cheever’s narrative is how it courts, but ultimately resists, myth. The story gestures toward The Odyssey, but remains painfully provincial and absolutely suburban.
When a story reaches iconic status, we trade the actual text for its themes. Granted, the thematic considerations of “The Swimmer” are nearly endless. It is a love letter to youth and sport; document of mid-century Protestant despair; a metaphor for our seemingly perpetual American economic downturn. “The Swimmer” could be put into conversation with Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, contrasted with the Lisbon family’s superstitious suburban Catholicism in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, or perhaps best paired with Laurie Colwin’s fine story “Wet,” another tale of secrecy and swimming. It is also a quite teachable tale: no other work of short fiction better examples John Gardner’s potamological concept of fictional profluence than a story the main character of which travels by water.
Parul Sehgal in Bookforum:
AS AN INSTITUTION, the family is in the curious position of being regarded as both crucial to human survival and inimical to human freedom. It bears a note of bondage down to its root; family, that wonderfully warm, nourishing-sounding word (it’s the echo of mammal, mammary, mama, I suspect), derives from the Latin familia, a group of servants, the human property of a given household, from famulus, slave. Since its beginnings, family has carried this strain of being bonded—and not just in body but in imagination. “In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God,” says Ishmael, setting sail in Moby-Dick. On shore, we are to understand, our minds remain manacled, too absorbed with the hearth to look up at the stars. The first thing the Buddha did in pursuit of enlightenment was to leave home (after naming his newborn son Rahula—“fetter”). For writers, the family has been posited as an especially hazardous pastime; as Cyril Connolly’s lugubrious forecast goes: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” But a swarm of recent books have been freshly interrogating the family as experience, institution, and site for intellectual inquiry.
...The issue of attention burns at the core of all these books—Rachel Cusk examines how it contracts after the birth of a child, Anne Enright how it expands. Sarah Ruhl makes an aesthetic out of how it fractures. Ben Lerner asks if the uniquely intense quality of attention specific to the domestic can be coaxed out of familial bonds and into the public, Maggie Nelson how language helps or hinders our abilities to attend to each other. They all invite us to try to hold a little more in our eye, to define families broadly—out of necessity and joy—to remember, as Eula Biss might say, that they are continuous with everything on earth. “Everything is relevant,” wrote the poet James Tate. “I call it loving.”
Kent A. Kiehl and Joshua W. Buckholtz in Delancey Place:
"Between the two of us [authors], we have interviewed hundreds of prison inmates to assess their mental health. We are trained in spotting psychopaths, but even so, coming face to face with the real article can be electrifying, if also unsettling. One of the most striking peculiarities of psychopaths is that they lack empathy; they are able to shake off as mere tinsel the most universal social obligations. They lie and manipulate yet feel no compunction or regrets -- in fact, they don't feel particularly deeply about anything at all. "Psychopaths are curiously oblivious to emotional cues. In 2002 James Blair of the NIMH showed that they are not good at detecting emotions, especially fear, in another person's voice. They also have trouble identifying fearful facial expressions.
..."A man we will call Brad was in prison for a particularly heinous crime. In an interview he described how he had kidnapped a young woman, tied her to a tree, [abused] her for two days, then slit her throat and left her for dead. He told the story, then concluded with an unforgettable non sequitur. 'Do you have a girl?' he asked. 'Because I think it's really important to practice the three C's -- caring, communication and compassion. That's the secret to a good relationship. I try to practice the three C's in all my relationships.' He spoke without hesitation, clearly unaware how bizarre this self-help platitude sounded after his awful confession. "Thanks to technology that captures brain activity in real time, experts are no longer limited to examining psychopaths' aberrant behavior. We can investigate what is happening inside them as they think, make decisions and react to the world around them. And what we find is that far from being merely selfish, psychopaths suffer from a serious biological defect. Their brains process information differently from those of other people. It's as if they have a learning disability that impairs emotional development.
Roy Orbison and John Milton
Are Still Dreaming
You know what I mean: In the instant
of waking in bliss, the whole body smiles—
He’s still alive—She came back—They didn’t mean it—
We forgive and are forgiven—It all turned out—
And then the hand claws the duvet,
seized by the real, as all that’s warm just drops.
I know you know. But I seek a potion
to make me dream of the actual with the same fervor,
so I’ll wake to happy facts: It’s spring! It’s raining! Robins!
Someone will return a phone call today! My son
has watched the clock and let me nap for 35 minutes!—
and does not notice my face smacked wet
by the snap of the delusion, unmatched in sweetness,
that you promised to hold me always.
by April Bernard
W.W. Norton & Company
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
No one did colour more blatantly and more unexpectedly than Van Gogh. Its blatancy gives his pictures their roaring charm. Colour, he seems to be saying: you haven’t seen colour before, look at this deep blue, this yellow, this black; watch me put them screechingly side by side. Colour for Van Gogh was a kind of noise. At the same time, it couldn’t have seemed more unexpected, coming from the dark, serious, socially concerned young Dutchman who for so many years of his early career had drawn and painted dark, serious, socially concerned images of peasants and proletarians, of weavers and potato-pickers, of sowers and hoers. This emergence, this explosion from darkness, has no parallel except for that of Odilon Redon (who was prompted into colour more by internal forces, whereas Van Gogh was prompted into it externally – first in Paris by the Impressionists, and then by the light of the South). Yet there are always continuities in even the most style-changing of artists. Van Gogh’s subject matter, after all, remained much the same: the soil, and those who tend it; the poor, and their stubborn heroism. His aesthetic credo did not change either: he wanted an art for everyone, which might be complicated in means but simple to appreciate, an art that uplifted and consoled. And so even his conversion to colour had a logic to it. In his youth, reacting against the stolid piety and conformity of the Dutch Reformed Church, he had lurched not into atheism but its opposite, evangelism. His notion of working as a priest among the downtrodden was to end no more successfully than most of his other youthful schemes; but the fundamentalist, all-or-nothing streak in human beings, once aroused, never entirely goes away. So the striving painter who, in the most successful of his schemes, took himself off to Arles, first working alone, then alongside Gauguin, then alone again, then in the mental hospital in Saint-Rémy, was continuous with that violently principled younger man: he had grown up to become an evangelist for colour.
Melancholy is a word that has fallen out of favor for describing the condition we now call depression. The fact that our language has changed, without the earlier word disappearing completely, indicates that we are still able to make use of both. Like most synonyms, melancholy and depression are not in fact synonymous, but slips of the tongue in a language we’re still learning. We keep trying to specify our experience of mental suffering, but all our new words constellate instead of consolidate meaning. In the essay collectionUnder the Sign of Saturn, Susan Sontag writes about her intellectual heroes, who all suffer solitude, ill temper, existential distress and creative block. They all breathe black air. According to her diagnostic model, they are all “melancholics.” Sontag doesn’t use the word depression in the company of her role models, but elsewhere she draws what seems like an easy distinction: “Depression is melancholy minus its charms.” But what are the charms of melancholy?
There is a long history in Western thought associating melancholy and genius. We have van Gogh with his severed ear. We have Montaigne confessing, “It was a melancholy humor … which first put into my head this raving concern with writing.” We have Nina Simone and Kurt Cobain, Thelonious Monk and David Foster Wallace.
“I was born with a white beauty mark, or what others call a birthmark, covering the cornea of my right eye,” an unnamed female narrator states at the outset of Guadalupe Nettel’s autobiographical novel, The Body Where I Was Born. The spot, she describes, “stretched across my iris and over the pupil through which light must pass to reach the back of the brain.” And so, “in the same way an unventilated tunnel slowly fills with mold, the pupillary blockage led to the growth of a cataract.”
Thus begins a remarkable exploration into sight and the perceptions of childhood. Nettel, a talented Mexican writer who has been named one of the Bogota 39—one of the most promising young Latin-American writers under the age of thirty-nine—has called the novel’s narrator “I, myself.”
From the vantage of adulthood, on a psychoanalyst’s couch, she peers into her past, relitigating the bounds of normativity, the expectations of family, and the limits of medical science. She recounts how doctors, unable to repair the cataract, prescribed a torturous treatment that her parents took up with a passion, which involved subjecting her “to a series of annoying exercises to develop, as much as possible, the defective eye.” To strengthen it, a patch—a piece of flesh-colored cloth with sticky, adhesive edges—was placed over her other eye, making the world a mess of sounds and smells. Wearing the patch, she had to insert her head daily into a small black box with moving images of animals, a process she describes as agonizing.
Aseem Shrivastava in Caravan:
Around two years ago, on 25 August 2013, my mother, a loyal reader of Jansatta—a Hindi daily—asked me to read a small piece in the editorial section of the newspaper. The piece in question was a reprint of an essay originally titled ‘Rajyavaad Aur Samrajyavaad’—“Monarchy and Imperialism”—written by Munshi Premchand, the renowned Hindi novelist. The original essay had been printed in a journal named Swadesh, in 1928. In the essay, Premchand made the argument that imperialism had proved to be no better than monarchy, and that communism might prove to be equally, if not more, dangerous than imperialism. He argued that all the perils of capitalism would also plague communism, perhaps in an even more aggravated form.
...In a few vernacular paragraphs, penned 87 years ago, Premchand depicted the modern world to be, above all, a system of power. He felt that this system was so deep and insidious that everyone was already a devotee of power and domination, and that the subjugation of countless others lower in the hierarchy was a corollary of this contagious habit. Premchand concluded his prescient essay with this paragraph: “In the time of monarchies only one individual was drunk on power. Under imperialism an entire community is consumed with this headiness, and they are capable of anything. All the affluence, all the knowledge and science, all religions and philosophies of the West are narrowed down today to one word: ‘selfishness’, and justice, truth, compassion, grace, rationality—everything is sacrificed at the altar of ‘selfishness.’”
Heidi Ledford in Nature:
A complete lack of formal scientific training has not kept Johan Sosa from dabbling with one of the most powerful molecular-biology tools to come along in decades. Sosa has already used CRISPR, a three-year-old technology that makes targeted modifications to DNA, in test-tube experiments. Next week, he hopes to try the method in yeast and, later, in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Hailed for its simplicity and versatility, CRISPR allows scientists to make specific changes to a gene’s sequence more easily than ever before. Researchers have used CRISPR to edit genes in everything from bacteria to human embryos; the technique holds the potential to erase genetic defects from family pedigrees plagued by inherited disease, treat cancer in unprecedented ways or grow human organs in pigs. One researcher has even proposed modifying the elephant genome to produce a cold-adapted replica of the long-extinct woolly mammoth. Such feats are beyond the reach of do-it-yourself (DIY) ‘biohackers’, a growing community of amateur biologists who often work in community laboratories, which typically charge a recurring fee for access to equipment and supplies. But CRISPR itself is not. Driven by an inventive spirit that inspires them to fiddle with yeast to alter the flavour of beer, build art installations out of bacteria or pursue serious basic-research questions, these amateurs cannot wait to try the technique. “It’s, like, the most amazing tool ever,” says Andreas Stürmer, a biohacker and entrepreneur who lives in Dublin. “You could do it in your own home.”
Sosa is an IT consultant from San Jose, California, who took up biohacking as a hobby about three years ago, when he decided that he would like to grow organs — or maybe other body parts — in the lab. At first, he had no idea how unrealistic that goal was. “I just thought you take a bunch of stem cells and add stuff to them,” he says. The challenge of manipulating living cells sank in as he began to read molecular-biology textbooks, attend seminars and teach himself laboratory techniques. He joined the BioCurious community lab in Sunnyvale, California.
An interview with the poet and writer Wendy S. Walters over at Vol. 1 Brooklyn:
I wanted to talk about your introduction to Multiply/Divide. When I first saw it, I initially talked about it as an essay collection, but then I saw that you divided the pieces into essays, lyric essays, and fiction. Do you generally know, when you sit down to write a piece, what approach you’re going to take?
The thing for me is, the paradox is where the piece starts. You’ll come across something, and you’ll go, “Hmm. Why are these red berries growing on this bush that always produces blueberries?” I think that’s interesting–is it the soil, is it the season, is it pollution? What’s the trigger? The inciting incident often tells me a lot about the form. I tend to think of written works in kind of an architectural way. That comes from writing songs or writing plays. There’s certainly a visual cue from the subject that’s going to suggest to me how I might put a piece together. I’m usually pretty clear on how long the piece is going to be before I start it. I used to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design; I taught there for many years. I think the art students I worked with definitely influenced my process; I’ve also worked with musicians for many years. I had a sculpture student who told me one thing that I thought was brilliant, about carving in stone. He said that his approach to carving in stone was, he picked the piece of stone, and he asked it what was inside of it. His job was to cut away the parts of the stone that were not essential to reveal what was always inside of it. I think of my composition process as pretty similar to that.
For thirty-three years as a poet
I merrily defined what beauty was.
Each time, without hesitation
I would declare: beauty is like this, or:
this is a betrayal of beauty.
I went crazy over several different kinds
of aesthetic theory.
But beauty was never
in those aesthetic theories.
I was falling asleep
with the light on.
What fear in the days gone by!
From now on I will strictly refrain
from any definitions of beauty!
As if beauty can ever be defined!
All through the weeks of summer rain
no flowers bloomed on the pumpkin creepers.
Now the rains are over
and at long long last a flower has bloomed,
inside it a bee is quivering,
outside it I am quivering.
Pumpkin flower brimming full of life:
you are true beauty!
by Ko Un
from The Sound of My Waves
Cornell East Asia Series, 1996
Corey Robin over at Crooked Timber:
I’ve spent the past few days reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and posting about it on Facebook. Rather than rewriting those posts as a single piece here, I thought I’d take some screen shots, and share them with some additional commentary. A shout-out to my friend Lizzie Donahue, whose queries to me on our daily walk this morning prompted the last and lengthiest post.
Here’s the first post.
And here’s a short addendum to this post, where I comment further on the theme of education and Coates’s discussion of his time at Howard University.
I say here that breaking with the mytho-poetic view of a heroic African past was the second great trauma of Coates’s life. I should be more precise. I mean disillusionment. But it was a disillusionment that was immensely productive. More than the loss of a specific view of things, the break with black nationalism made Coates suspicious of all master narratives, all collective platforms of totality. As an alternative, he turned to the specificity and concreteness of poetry, “of small hard things,” as he says: “aunts and uncles, smoke breaks after sex, girls on stoops drinking from mason jars.” And in that specificity “I began to see discord, argument, chaos, perhaps even fear, as a kind of power.” The “gnawing discomfort, the chaos, the intellectual vertigo was not an alarm. It was a beacon.” This is a writer for whom the struggle to see what is in front of his nose is a lifelong effort, a hard-won right to see things as they are, without mediation or adornment or chastising authority.
Daniel Goodwin in Scientific American [h/t: Marko Ahtisaari]:
Science urgently needs hackers—hackers in the original, Tech Model Railroad Club of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sense of the word. Their engineering and design skills will be useful, but what is most desirable is the true hacker's resourcefulness, curiosity and appetite for fresh challenges. Particularly in a field like neuroscience, helpers could be invaluable in exploring the daunting wilderness of newly revealed neural networks.
A few pioneers are leading the way. One is H. Sebastian Seung, a professor at the Neuroscience Institute and in the department of computer science at Princeton University. A few years ago he and his collaborators set out to map the retina's neural connections. As they collected an overwhelming mass of electron microscopy data, the question was how they would ever manage to interpret it all. Seung's familiarity with state-of-the-art computing told him that no artificial-intelligence algorithm in existence could possibly handle the task alone.
The solution—then almost unheard of in lab science—was to enlist thousands of human volunteers alongside a state-of-the art AI and harness their collective brainpower. On December 10, 2012, Seung and his team launched the online game EyeWire, in which players score points by helping to improve a neural map.
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Deborah Baker in The Wire:
A year before the first Gulf war, I felt that the pro Soviet/anti Americanism of the Bengalis was more of a salutary practice than a firm conviction, not unlike choosing low fat milk over whole. To someone’s proposition that the CIA had orchestrated the rise of Solidarity and the more recent fall of the Berlin wall, I once replied “you can’t be serious.” This was a mistake. On occasion some inane remark of mine at what I imagined was a friendly dinner party would end up in the society pages accompanied by a snarky comment. This happened more than once. It took me awhile to catch on that I was a subject of suspicion.
During one of these evenings at Tarapada’s house, he suddenly turned and spoke directly to me. He told me that he had known the American poet Allen Ginsberg, that he and his fellow poets had met him in the famed College Street coffeehouse in North Calcutta. Again, the tail end of the thought was lost in an explosion of incomprehensible and fearful sounds finishing in a deadly quiet. I smiled and Tarapada glared.
I had met Allen Ginsberg just once, several years before. He was smaller than I had imagined; his stature further undermined by the folds and cushions of an off white sectional sofa at an upper west side cocktail party. The once rabbinical beard was then trim and graying and there were suede patches on the elbows of his jacket befitting his new position as a professor at Brooklyn College. He carried the weight of his legend lightly, with none of the affectations the young are so quick to discover and disparage. He had kind eyes—one slightly drooping from an illness we had all heard about—behind thick spectacles.
Nearly everyone at the party had a claim on him but any direct approach was made somewhat awkward by the arrangement of furniture. The party took place in one of those storied pre-war classic six apartments, with a book lined hallway running its length, the kitchen at one end and a living room and its sofa at the other. Just being in an owner occupied apartment back then gave me an outsider’s sense of belonging, a sense of having cracked New York City in some essential way.
Over at Rationally Speaking:
Dan SpeberThe traditional story about reason is that it evolved to help humans see the world more clearly and (thereby) make better decisions. But on that view, some mysteries remain: why is the human brain so biased? Why are we so much better at defending our pre-existing views than at evaluating new ideas objectively?
In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia talks with guest Dan Sperber, professor of cognitive and social sciences, who is famous for advancing an alternate view of reason: that it evolved to help us argue with our fellow humans and convince them that we're right.
Dan Sperber is a social and cognitive scientist. His most influential work has been in the fields of cognitive anthropology and linguistic pragmatics. Sperber currently holds the positions of Directeur de Recherche émérite at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Director of the International Cognition and Culture Institute.
Ben Dreyfuss in Mother Jones:
Wine is a joke. Whether it's in a bottle, a box, or a boot, it's a stupid drink. Since time immemorial people have consumed wine, but for most of that time people were backwards and lived in fields and didn't know anything. Now we live in the 21st century and drink wine? Lol.
It doesn't even taste good! It tastes ok sometimes, but it's really sugary! It gives you terrible hangovers! It doesn't get you drunk! It ruins your teeth! You know who drinks wine? Europeans.
Americans who drink wine do so because they think they are living in a BBC adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. It feels rich and smart to have thoughts about wine and to order fancy, expensive bottles of wine. You are not smart. You are not fancy. You are not rich—or at least you won't be if you keep pissing your money away on wine.
You drink alcohol because your life is hard and you need a respite from the pain. You drink wine because you have been tricked by society into thinking it is a shibboleth of class and taste.
Through the CCF, as well as by more direct means, the CIA became a major player in intellectual life during the Cold War—the closest thing that the U.S. government had to a Ministry of Culture. This left a complex legacy. During the Cold War, it was commonplace to draw the distinction between “totalitarian” and “free” societies by noting that only in the free ones could groups self-organize independently of the state. But many of the groups that made that argument—including the magazines on this left—were often covertly-sponsored instruments of state power, at least in part. Whether or not art and artists would have been more “revolutionary” in the absence of the CIA’s cultural work is a vexed question; what is clear is that that possibility was not a risk they were willing to run. And the magazines remain, giving off an occasional glitter amid the murk left behind by the intersection of power and self-interest. Here are seven of the best, ranked by an opaque and arbitrary combination of quality, impact, and level of CIA involvement.
It is, therefore, remarkable to actually read the whole document and realize that it is far more important even than that. In fact, it is entirely different from what the media reports might lead one to believe. Instead of a narrow and focused contribution to the climate debate, it turns out to be nothing less than a sweeping, radical, and highly persuasive critique of how we inhabit this planet—an ecological critique, yes, but also a moral, social, economic, and spiritual commentary. In scope and tone it reminded me instantly of E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful (1973), and of the essays of the great American writer Wendell Berry.1 As with those writers, it’s no use trying to categorize the text as liberal or conservative; there’s some of each, but it goes far deeper than our political labels allow. It’s both caustic and tender, and it should unsettle every nonpoor reader who opens its pages.
The ecological problems we face are not, in their origin, technological, says Francis. Instead, “a certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us.” He is no Luddite (“who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?”) but he insists that we have succumbed to a “technocratic paradigm,” which leads us to believe that “every increase in power means ‘an increase of “progress” itself’…as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such.”
The chromatic subtleties contribute to an unsettled feeling. A more substantial jolt occurs when you register an over-all spatial distortion: the forms stretch horizontally, so that the length of Anna’s concealed legs, angled and descending to an upholstered footstool, suggests the anatomy of an N.B.A. draft pick. The more you notice of the composition’s economies—such as the cavalier indication of the bentwood chair legs, at the lower right, and, at the lower left, three perfunctory diagonal strokes that do for establishing the plane of the floor—the more happily manipulated you may feel, in ways that, like the camera tricks of a great movie director, excite a sense of the scene as truer to life than truth itself. It took me an hour of inspection to take in an inconspicuous, brownish strip across the bottom of the canvas. Anna’s dress falls smoothly past it and out of the picture. It is the edge of a stage or a platform. Whistler is looking up at his mom.
“Yes, one does like to make one’s mummy just as nice as possible,” Whistler allowed years later, answering friends who praised the speaking likeness of the portrayal. But he was exasperated by sentimental responses to the work. He regularly preached that subject matter should be regarded merely as a pretext for adventures in aestheticism. He said, “To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?”
John S. Rosenberg in Harvard Magazine:
Imagine a simple triangle diagram of the planet’s population. A fortunate couple of billion upper-income people—in the United States and Canada, much of Europe, Japan, Australia, and prospering urban centers in parts of Asia and Latin America—occupy the apex. The invisible hand of market capitalism supplies this prominent minority with bountiful goods and services. But that leaves a lot of people out. At the very bottom of the pyramid, a billion or more humans live in poverty (on less than $1.25 per person per day), often depending on government programs and charitable aid to subsist.
In between, pointed out V. Kasturi (universally, “Kash”) Rangan, live the low- and low-middle-income majority of mankind: perhaps four billion people who are entering or are already in the cash economy—but barely, with incomes of up to $15 per day. In a conversation, he compared the lives of these people, the base of the pyramid, with those at the top. Because they likely do not own property, and lack rent or tax receipts, they are not bankable, so they turn to exploitative money lenders for credit to stock a shop or start a small business. For medical care, they choose among local healers, vendors of patent nostrums, or queues at public clinics (where it may take a bribe to advance in line). Their labor, often interrupted by those queues or long bus trips to remit cash to a rural family, may be seasonal, itinerant, and legally unprotected. Functioning markets, he noted, imply a level playing field between consumers and producers, but most of these people aren’t getting a remotely fair deal. It is as if the broad base of the pyramid were an alternate universe where familiar rules don’t apply.