Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Go here to browse through the 85 nominees for this year's science prize and vote. Voting ends on Monday, September 1, at 11:59 pm NYC time.
[New posts below.]
Friday, August 29, 2014
Anna Rotkirch in Evolutionary Psychology:
Although gratitude is a key prosocial emotion reinforcing reciprocal altruism, it has been largely ignored in the empirical literature. We examined feelings of gratitude and the importance of reciprocity in same-sex peer relations. Participants were 772 individuals (189 men; mean age = 28.80) who completed an online survey using a vignette design. We investigated (i) differences in reported gratitude and the importance of reciprocity among same-sex siblings and same-sex friends, and (ii) how relationship closeness moderates these associations. Based on the theory of kin altruism, we expect that people would feel more grateful towards friends than towards their siblings, and that lack of gratitude or failure to pay back a loan would bother more with friends than with siblings, irrespective of emotional closeness. Results showed that levels of gratitude and expectations of reciprocity were higher towards friends compared to siblings. This was the case also after controlling for emotional closeness. Being close generally made participants feel more grateful and expect lower displays of gratitude in the other. Closeness was also strongly associated with emotional gratitude among siblings compared to friends. We conclude that feelings and displays of gratitude have a special role in friendships. Although a close sibling may elicit as much gratitude as a friend does, even a very close friend is not exempt from the logic of reciprocity in the same way that a sibling is.
Greg Dunn in American Scientist:
Both art and science arise from our root desires to describe our experience of reality. From this starting point, the artistic and scientific paths diverge. Science describes external reality, about which we share a consensus. Art captures our internal, subjective realities. But the two sides do not always stand apart. My own work can best be described as science/art, not simply because I paint that which scientists study but because I draw evenly from artistic and scientific approaches to capture the essence of the neurons that carry sensations and produce thought.
My artistic career began during my tenure as a graduate student in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. As I came to learn, molecular research can be an existential exercise in that you must rely on machines and chemical reagents to “see” your experiments. Painting provided me a welcome respite from lab frustrations because it gave me a sense of control. When painting, I can experiment and immediately see the result, judge it against my intentions, and iterate as necessary. I can convey my thoughts to the world without having to worry about grants, contaminated compounds, the politics of publishing, or an unexpected flood in the mouse room threatening to wash away my study subjects.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
Joe Hyams in Playboy in 1963:
Playboy: All right, let’s start with the most basic question there is: Are you a religious man? Do you believe in God?
Sinatra: Well, that’ll do for openers. I think I can sum up my religious feelings in a couple of paragraphs. First: I believe in you and me. I’m like Albert Schweitzer and Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein in that I have a respect for life—in any form. I believe in nature, in the birds, the sea, the sky, in everything I can see or that there is real evidence for. If these things are what you mean by God, then I believe in God. But I don’t believe in a personal God to whom I look for comfort or for a natural on the next roll of the dice. I’m not unmindful of man’s seeming need for faith; I’m for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. But to me religion is a deeply personal thing in which man and God go it alone together, without the witch doctor in the middle. The witch doctor tries to convince us that we have to ask God for help, to spell out to him what we need, even to bribe him with prayer or cash on the line. Well, I believe that God knows what each of us wants and needs. It’s not necessary for us to make it to church on Sunday to reach Him. You can find Him anyplace. And if that sounds heretical, my source is pretty good: Matthew, Five to Seven, The Sermon on the Mount.
Playboy: You haven’t found any answers for yourself in organized religion?
Sinatra: There are things about organized religion which I resent. Christ is revered as the Prince of Peace, but more blood has been shed in His name than any other figure in history. You show me one step forward in the name of religion and I’ll show you a hundred retrogressions.
More here. [Thanks to Sam Harris.]
David A. Bell in The National Interest:
In a famous exchange in 1994, Michael Ignatieff asked Eric Hobsbawm whether the vast human costs inflicted by Stalin on the Soviet Union could possibly be justified. Hobsbawm replied, “Probably not. . . . because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I’m not sure.” Do you mean, Ignatieff pressed him, that “had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” Hobsbawm answered, “Yes.”
Two years after Hobsbawm’s death at the age of ninety-five, his lifelong, unapologetic Communism remains for many the most important thing about him. To his critics on the right, it discredits him, pure and simple. On the left, even some commentators who took more admirable stances on Communist tyrannies treat his steadfast commitment to the USSR as, to quote Perry Anderson, “evidence of an exceptional integrity and strength of character.” They refer with something approaching reverence to the justification he formulated in his 2002 autobiography, Interesting Times: “Emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to the generation tied by an almost unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution.”
But in what ways did Hobsbawm’s politics really shape the voluminous writings that made him one of the most famous historians of the past century?
Seven of Italy’s top scientists were convicted of manslaughter following a catastrophic quake. Has the country criminalized science?
David Wolman in Medium:
During the winter and early spring of 2009, Selvaggi and other seismologists at Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology had been monitoring numerous tremors around L’Aquila. The sequence of small quakes over a short period of time, known as a “seismic swarm,” is distinct from the aftershocks that follow a big quake.
And in places like L’Aquila, they are not necessarily abnormal. Local media repeatedly relayed that generic message to the public. Regional government officials insisted there was no need to fret, despite chronically unenforced building codes. The Civil Protection Department for Abruzzo, the region where L’Aquila is located, even issued a press release flatly proclaiming there would be no big earthquake.
But the people of L’Aquila were understandably concerned. Over the centuries, the city had been devastated by several major quakes: One in 1703 killed 10,000 people, and a magnitude 7.0 quake in 1915 killed 30,000. This history has given rise to a culture of caution. When the ground seems especially temperamental, many residents — like their parents and grandparents before them — grab blankets and cigarettes and head outside to mill about in a piazza or a nearby park. Others sleep in their cars. Better not to be in an ancient building that hasn’t been seismically reinforced.
Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science:
Think of all the adults you know. Think of your parents and grandparents. Think of the teachers you had at school, your doctors and dentists, the people who collect your rubbish, and the actors you see on TV. All of these people probably have little mites crawling, eating, sleeping, and having sex on their faces.
There are more than 48,000 species of mites. As far as we know, exactly two of those live on human faces. While their relatives mostly look like lozenges on spindly legs, face-mites are more like wall plugs—long cones with stubby legs at one end. They don’t look like much, and most of us have never looked at one at all. But these weird creatures are almost certainly the animals we spend the most time with.
They live in our hair follicles, buried head-down, eating the oils we secrete, hooking up with each other near the surface, and occasionally crawling about the skin at night. They do this on my face. They probably do it on yours. A group of scientists led by Megan Thoemmes and Rob Dunn at North Carolina State University found that every adult in a small American sample had face-mites on their faces—something that was long suspected but never confirmed. If you want to find humanity’s best friend, ignore dogs; instead, swab a pore and grab a microscope.
Critical to the development of Woolf’s writing was the freedom of the Hogarth Press, which she and Leonard began in 1917 after buying a hand-press for £19 5s 6d on Farringdon Street. Woolf’s first two novels, The Voyage Out (1915), and Night and Day (1919), were published by her half-brother Gerald Duckworth’s company. The editions look sombre and conventional, a world away from Jacob’s Room(1922), which the Hogarth Press produced with a bright, bold cover designed by Vanessa Bell. Spalding describes this novel with almost no plot and a central character defined by his absence as “sprightly word painting”. After reading Woolf’s story “The Mark on the Wall”, which formed half of the Hogarth Press’s first publication Two Stories (1917), Roger Fry told her, “You’re the only one now Henry James has gone who uses language as a medium of art, who makes the very texture of the words have a meaning and a quality really almost apart from what you are talking about”.
In 1918, the Hogarth Press was asked to consider Ulysses for publication. The Woolfs explained the technical impossibility: “at our rate of progress a book of 300 pages would take at least two years to produce . . . . We very much regret this as it is our aim to produce writing of merit which the ordinary publisher refuses”. Joyce’s novel was eventually published by Shakespeare and Company, Paris, in 1922. Seeing a first edition of Ulysses alongside a selection of Hogarth Press books – Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude (1917), Hope Mirrlees’s Paris (1920), T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1923) – brings the press’s physical limitations and unbounded literary ambition into sharp focus.
If they want to be consistent, conservatives ought really to be anti-capitalist. This may be a little surprising, but in point of fact conservatism has always been flexible as far as particular policies are concerned. In the U.S. conservatives oppose universal healthcare as an attack on freedom; in the U.K. they defend it as a national tradition. Both positions count as conservative because, as Samuel Huntington argues, conservatism is a “situational” ideology which necessarily varies from place to place and time to time: “The essence of conservatism is the passionate affirmation of the value of existing institutions.” It follows that conservatives can seek to conserve all manner of institutions, including those designed to fight inequality, safeguard the environment, tame market forces, and so on.
But the potential for such reversals is by no means restricted to the Right. When Leftists reflect on their opposition to the free market, they will find that their reasons are–at least in part–conservative. And why not? If conservatism is indeed situational then its rightness or wrongness must depend entirely on the situation, and the value of what is to be conserved. One trope of “utopian” literature from Plato’s Republic to Aldous Huxley’s Island is the fear of adulterating perfect arrangements. Even radicals sometimes have to be conservative.
Around the time video games were to coming to define the memory of Operation Desert Storm, Chris Marker made a movie about a video game that depicted a forgotten battle of a well-remembered war. The heroine in Marker’s 1997 film Level Five is working on a Macintosh, writing a game to reconstruct the Battle of Okinawa,at the tail end of World War II. The Battle of Okinawa was dizzying in its loss of human life, but in the West today, hardly anyone knows it happened. In Level Five, Marker’s subject is as much the conflict as our technologies of remembering it. The focus might be predictable from the experimental filmmaker, who is best-known for his meditations on memory in La Jetée and Sans Soleil—though Level Five is structured more like the latter, an essay film that challenges easy categorization as either fiction or non-fiction. Nearly two decades after the film was made and two years after Marker’s death, Level Five is having its first theatrical release at a moment when wars are not just being remembered in digital arenas, but are increasingly being fought in them too.
In Level Five’s fictional frame, Laura, played by Catherine Belkhodja, is making a video game to tell the true story of the U.S. Army’s invasion into the Japanese island and of the subsequent mass suicide that claimed a huge portion of civilian life. Together with the casualties of war, 150,000 men, women, and children died in the battle, roughly a third of the island’s entire population.
Jane C. Hu in Slate:
Last week, people around the world mourned the death of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams. According to the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California, we were not the only primates mourning. A press release from the foundation announced that Koko the gorilla—the main subject of its research on ape language ability, capable in sign language and a celebrity in her own right—“was quiet and looked very thoughtful” when she heard about Williams’ death, and later became “somber” as the news sank in. Williams, described in the press release as one of Koko’s “closest friends,” spent an afternoon with the gorilla in 2001. The foundation released a video showing the two laughing and tickling one another. At one point, Koko lifts up Williams’ shirt to touch his bare chest. In another scene, Koko steals Williams’ glasses and wears them around her trailer. These clips resonated with people. In the days after Williams’ death, the video amassed more than 3 million views. Many viewers were charmed and touched to learn that a gorilla forged a bond with a celebrity in just an afternoon and, 13 years later, not only remembered him and understood the finality of his death, but grieved. The foundation hailed the relationship as a triumph over “interspecies boundaries,” and the story was covered in outlets from BuzzFeed to the New York Post to Slate.
The story is a prime example of selective interpretation, a critique that has plagued ape language research since its first experiments. Was Koko really mourning Robin Williams? How much are we projecting ourselves onto her and what are we reading into her behaviors?
George Mason University neuroscience researcher Todd Gillette got a preview of the forthcoming movie Autómata. It “caught me completely by surprise,” he said on his OnMason blog. “Starring Antonio Banderas, here we have a believable future (2044, 30 years from now) in which desertification is threatening society, and a single company is leading the way in intelligent robotics.” “Will this happen? Maybe not, but could it happen? Certainly. There’s at least one nod to Asimov’s 3 laws, and at least from the preview it feels more like an Asimov story, albeit with a somewhat gloomier tone than I, Robot the movie was. “As District 9 showed up the humanity of a severely alien species, finally we get dirty, mechanical robots that don’t look cute at all, but that arguably are alive in the only way that really matters.”The movie is due in theaters on Oct. 10, 2014.
Fast forward fifty years into the future, planet earth is in the midst of gradual desertification. Mankind struggles to survive as the environment deteriorates and the slow regression of the human race begins in AUTÓMATA. On the brink of life and the reality of death, technology combats the prevailing uncertainty and fear with the creation of the first quantum android, the Automata Pilgrim 7000. Designed to bring support to society’s plight, man and robot reveal what it means to co-exist in a culture defined by human nature.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Perhaps you’ve bought pita bread at the supermarket? Dry, flat: a kind of envelope for holding food. Now imagine something more like a beautiful down pillow where food could rest and relax and dream big dreams.
Can you wrap your mind around a tray—a huge tray, the size of a pool table—that’s nothing but tiny squares of baklava, a giant grid of honeyed puff? There are eight or nine of these trays at Sahara Sweets, just waiting for the moment when Iraqis across the city get off their jobs and race to the bakery.
If you’ve got these images in your head (or in your mouth), then perhaps you can imagine a secure, prosperous Iraqi community under the Arizona sun. There, sadly, you’d be wrong.
Wallace Stevens had a notorious sweet tooth. In the oral biography Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered, friends and colleagues repeatedly attest to his appetite and love of delicious foods. Yet Stevens also had a strong, competing ascetic streak. He was, for most of his life, a quiet, reserved insurance lawyer in Hartford, Connecticut, who lived semi-reclusively and often behaved distantly toward his family. He once declared during a celebratory dinner that “you’ve got to be a monk” to succeed as a poet, an austerity that impressed and perhaps surprised one of his table companions, the young Richard Wilbur.
As in his life, so in his writing. Stevens’s poems are full of lush language, balmy climates, and tropical fruits but also wintry landscapes and austere philosophizing. They are both sensuous and abstract, indulgent and hermetic. Their playfulness belies a stoic, even pessimistic, outlook. (His poem “Table Talk” begins simply: “Granted, we die for good.”)
Squarely in the midst of these contradictions falls “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.”
Why people walk is a hard question that looks easy. Upright bipedalism seems such an obvious advantage from the viewpoint of those already upright that we rarely see its difficulty. In the famous diagram, Darwinian man unfolds himself from frightened crouch to strong surveyor of the ages, and it looks like a natural ascension: you start out bending over, knuckles dragging, timidly scouring the ground for grubs, then you slowly straighten up until there you are, staring at the skies and counting the stars and thinking up gods to rule them. But the advantages of walking have actually been tricky to calculate. One guess among the evolutionary biologists has been that a significant advantage may simply be that walking on two legs frees up your hands to throw rocks at what might become your food—or to throw rocks at other bipedal creatures who are throwing rocks at what might become their food. Although walking upright seems to have preceded throwing rocks, the rock throwing, the biologists point out, is rarer than the bipedalism alone, which we share with all the birds, including awkward penguins and ostriches, and with angry bears. Meanwhile, the certainty of human back pain, like the inevitability of labor pains, is evidence of the jury-rigged, best-solution-at-hand nature of evolution.
Over time, though, things we do for a purpose, however obscure in origin, become things we do for pleasure, particularly when we no longer have to do them.
A genome is not a blueprint for building a human being, so is there any way to judge whether DNA is junk or not?
Itai Yanai and Martin Lercher in Aeon:
Humans are astounding creatures, our unique and highly complex traits encoded by our genome – a vast sequence of DNA ‘letters’ (called nucleotides) directing the building and maintenance of the body and brain. Yet science has served up the confounding paradox that the bulk of our genome appears to be dead wood, biologically inert junk.
Could all this mysterious ‘dark matter’ in our genome really be non-functional?
Our genome has more than 20,000 genes, relatively stable stretches of DNA transmitted largely unchanged between generations. These genes contain recipes for molecules, especially proteins, that are the main building blocks and molecular machines of our bodies. Yet DNA that codes for such known structures accounts for just over 3 per cent of our genome. What about the other 97 per cent? With the publication of the first draft of the human genome in 2001, that shadow world came into focus. It emerged that roughly half our DNA consisted of ‘repeats’, long stretches of letters sometimes found in millions of copies at seemingly random places throughout the genome. Were all these repeats just junk?
The Doctor -Exceprt from A Boxing Story
No more boxers for me.
Bar room brawlers,
that's another story.
They don't train
to destroy people.
No one pays to watch
a couple of drunks
Four and a half hours
inside this kid's head
and I'll fight anyone
who calls this sport.
You want to know
this kid's prize?
three subdural hematomas,
possible skull fracture,
total left hemiplegia.
Let me translate.
If he ever wakes up
half life in the cabbage patch,
maybe complete loss
of his whole left side,
years of therapy
so he can shuffle,
drool and gawk about.
No more boxers for me.
I'm a neurosurgeon
not a bloody botanist.
by Garry Hyland
from After Atlantis
Thistledown Press, 1991.
Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic:
On the one hand, it is completely unsurprising that Europe has become a swamp of anti-Jewish hostility. It is, after all, Europe. Anti-Jewish hostility has been its metier for centuries. (Yes, the locus of much anti-Jewish activity today is within Europe’s large Muslim-immigrant population; but the young men who threaten their Jewish neighbors draw on the language and traditions of European anti-Semitism as much as they do on Muslim modes of anti-Semitic thought.) On the other hand, the intensity, and velocity, of anti-Jewish invective—and actual anti-Jewish thuggery—has surprised even Eurocynics such as myself. “Jews to the gas,” a chant heard at rallies in Germany, still has the capacity to shock. So do images of besieged synagogues and looted stores. And testimony from harassed rabbis and frightened Jewish children.
But I find myself most bothered by what seems to have been, on the surface, a relatively minor incident. The episode took place last weekend at a Sainsbury’s supermarket in central London. Protesters assembled outside the store to call for a boycott of Israeli-made goods. Quickly, the manager ordered employees to empty the kosher food section. One account suggests that a staff member, when asked about the empty shelves, said “We support Free Gaza.” Other reports suggest that the manager believed that demonstrators might invade the store and trash it. (There is precedent to justify his worry.)
Daniel Cressey in Nature:
In many respects, the modern electronic cigarette is not so different from its leaf-and-paper predecessor. Take a drag from the mouthpiece and you get a genuine nicotine fix — albeit from a fluid wicked into the chamber of a battery-powered atomizer and vaporized by a heating element. Users exhale a half-convincing cloud of ‘smoke’, and many e-cigarettes even sport an LED at the tip that glows blue, green or classic red to better simulate the experience romanticized by countless writers and film-makers. The only things missing are the dozens of cancer-causing chemicals found in this digital wonder’s analogue forebears.
E-cigarettes — also known as personal vaporizers or electronic nicotine-delivery systems among other names — are perhaps the most disruptive devices that public-health researchers working on tobacco control have ever faced. To some, they promise to snuff out a behaviour responsible for around 100 million deaths in the twentieth century. Others fear that they could perpetuate the habit, and undo decades of work. Now, a group once united against a common enemy is divided. “These devices have really polarized the tobacco-control community,” says Michael Siegel, a physician and tobacco researcher at Boston University School of Public Health in Massachusetts. “You now have two completely opposite extremes with almost no common ground between them.” Evidence is in short supply on both sides. Even when studies do appear, they are often furiously debated. And it is not just researchers who are attempting to catch up with the products now pouring out of Chinese factories: conventional tobacco companies are pushing into the nascent industry, and regulators are scrambling to work out what to do.
Douglas Martin in the New York Times:
Her death was announced by the Iranian Republic News agency, the country’s official information service.
Ms. Behbahani wrote more than 600 poems, collected in 20 books, on subjects as diverse as earthquakes, revolution, war, poverty, prostitution, freedom of speech and her own plastic surgery. In poems and public speeches, she confronted Iran’s religious authorities, challenging them on practices like the stoning of women who commit adultery.
“She became the voice of the Iranian people,” Farzaneh Milani, a University of Virginia professor who translated many of her poems into English, said in an interview on Thursday. “She was the elegant voice of dissent, of conscience, of nonviolence, of refusal to be ideological.”
Paul Bloom in the Boston Review:
This reaction surprised me at first, but I’ve come to realize that taking a position against empathy is like announcing that you hate kittens—a statement so outlandish it can only be a joke. And so I’ve learned to clarify, to explain that I am not against morality, compassion, kindness, love, being a good neighbor, doing the right thing, and making the world a better place. My claim is actually the opposite: if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.
The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but here I am adopting its most common meaning, which corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy. I will follow this convention here, but we should keep in mind that the two are distinct—they emerge from different brain processes; you can have a lot of one and a little of the other—and that most of the discussion of the moral implications of empathy focuses on its emotional side.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Christian Parenti in Jacobin:
In the American political imagination, Jefferson is rural, idealistic, and democratic, while Hamilton is urban, pessimistic, and authoritarian. So, too, on the US left, where Jefferson gets the better billing. Michael Hardt recently edited a sheaf of Jefferson’s writings for the left publisher Verso.
Reading “Jefferson beyond Jefferson,” Hardt casts him as a theorist of “revolutionary transition.” We like Jefferson’s stirring words about “the tree of liberty” occasionally needing “the blood of patriots and tyrants,” and his worldview fits comfortably with a “small is beautiful” style localism. We recall Jefferson as a great democrat. When Tea Partiers echo his rhetoric, we dismiss it as a lamentable misunderstanding.
But in reality, Jefferson represented the most backward and fundamentally reactionary sector of the economy: large, patrimonial, slave-owning, agrarian elites who exported primary commodities and imported finished manufactured goods from Europe. He was a fabulously wealthy planter who lived in luxury paid for by slave labor. Worse yet, he raised slaves specifically for sale.
“I consider the labor of a breeding woman,” Jefferson wrote, “as no object, and that a child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.”
Even if it could somehow be dislodged from the institution of slavery, Jefferson’s vision of a weak government and an export-based agrarian economy would have been the path of political fragmentation and economic underdevelopment. His romantic notions were a veil behind which lay ossified privilege.
Hamilton was alone among the “founding fathers” in understanding that the world was witnessing two revolutions simultaneously. One was the political transformation, embodied in the rise of republican government. The other was the economic rise of modern capitalism, with its globalizing networks of production, trade, and finance. Hamilton grasped the epochal importance of applied science and machinery as forces of production.
D. Brian Burghart in Gawker:
Nowhere could I find out how many people died during interactions with police in the United States. Try as I might, I just couldn't wrap my head around that idea. How was it that, in the 21st century, this data wasn't being tracked, compiled, and made available to the public? How could journalists know if police were killing too many people in their town if they didn't have a way to compare to other cities? Hell, how could citizens or police? How could cops possibly know "best practices" for dealing with any fluid situation? They couldn't.
The bottom line was that I found the absence of such a library of police killings offensive. And so I decided to build it. I'm still building it. But I could use some help. You can find my growing database of deadly police violence here, at Fatal Encounters, and I invite you to go here,research one of the listed shootings, fill out the row, and change its background color. It'll take you about 25 minutes. There are thousands to choose from, and another 2,000 or so on my cloud drive that I haven't even added yet. After I fact-check and fill in the cracks, your contribution will be added to largest database about police violence in the country. Feel free to check out what has been collected about your locale's information here.
The biggest thing I've taken away from this project is something I'll never be able to prove, but I'm convinced to my core: The lack of such a database is intentional. No government—not the federal government, and not the thousands of municipalities that give their police forces license to use deadly force—wants you to know how many people it kills and why.
It's the only conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence.
Jacob Heilbrunn in The National Interest:
IN JOSEPH Roth’s novel Radetzky March, Count Chojnicki drives district captain Franz von Trotta and his son Carl Joseph, a lieutenant in the Austrian infantry, in a straw-yellow britska to his small hunting lodge in the Galician forest near the border with Ukraine. After pouring glasses of 180 proof, Chojnicki disconcerts his two guests by declaring that the Habsburg Empire is doomed:
With great effort Herr von Trotta asked another question: “I don’t understand! Why shouldn’t the monarchy still exist?” “Of course,”Chojnicki answered, “taken literally, it continues to exist. We still have an army”—the count motioned to the lieutenant—“and officials”—the count pointed to the district captain. “But it is disintegrating. . . . An aged one, whose number is up, endangered by each sniffle, hangs onto his throne simply by the miracle that he can still sit upon it. How much longer, how much longer! This era doesn’t want us any longer! This era wants to create nation-states! No one believes in God. The new religion is nationalism. . . . The monarchy, our monarchy, is based on piety: in the belief that God elected the Habsburgs. . . . Our Emperor is a secular brother of the Pope. . . . The Emperor of Austria-Hungary cannot be abandoned by God. But now God has abandoned him!”
Chojnicki’s lament reflects the profound sense of abandonment that assailed not only Roth, but also his compatriot Stefan Zweig. Both mourned the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy and the loss of the comforting stability it had represented, not least for Jews like themselves. Both became refugees, going into exile years before the Anschluss, or annexation, of Austria by Nazi Germany in March 1938—in a 1933 letter, Roth warned Zweig that it was all over once Hitler had been appointed chancellor by the senescent President Hindenburg. And both ended up destroying themselves—the alcoholic Roth, dependent on handouts from Zweig, perished of delirium tremens in a Paris hospital in 1939 at the age of forty-five; Zweig, together with his young second wife, Lotte, swallowed poison in a little bungalow in 1942 in Petropolis, a lovely mountain resort located near Rio de Janeiro. Unlike Roth, however, Zweig’s literary star dimmed after his death, even though he was one of the most popular authors in the world during the 1930s, an era when books, like the cinema, could command a mass audience.
Now, in his beguiling study The Impossible Exile, George Prochnik examines Zweig’s odyssey. Prochnik, who is the author of In Pursuit of Silence, sets Zweig in the context of literary and social Vienna. It’s very much a life and times rather than a discussion of the old boy’s oeuvre, which was rather vitriolically attacked as “just putrid” by Michael Hofmann in 2010 in the London Review of Books. That his works don’t measure up to Thomas Mann’s or Roth’s almost goes without saying.
But Zweig, a compulsive collector whose possessions included Goethe’s pen and Beethoven’s desk, makes for a fascinating subject (Wes Anderson’s charming new film The Grand Budapest Hotel was inspired by him). Prochnik mines both Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday as well as his letters to offer numerous insights. He suggests that Zweig, who was friends with everyone from Richard Strauss to Sigmund Freud, provides an acute lens through which to examine not only the cultural contradictions of the imperial city, but also the plight of the numerous cultural émigrés from Central Europe whom Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ridiculed as “cadavers on leave.”