Wednesday, December 28, 2005
"I will astonish Paris with an apple."
Paul Trachtman in Smithsonian Magazine:
Paul Cézanne wanted to make paint bleed. The old masters, he told the poet Joachim Gasquet, painted warmblooded flesh and made sap run in their trees, and he would too. He wanted to capture "the green odor" of his Provence fields and "the perfume of marble from Saint-Victoire," the mountain that was the subject of so many of his paintings. He was bold, scraping and slapping paint onto his still lifes with a palette knife. "I will astonish Paris with an apple, " he boasted.
In the years when his friends Manet, Monet, Pissarro and Renoir were finally gaining acceptance, Cézanne worked mostly in isolation, ridiculed by critics and mocked by the public, sometimes ripping up his own canvases. He wanted more than the quick impressions of the Impressionists (nature, he wrote to a fellow artist, "is more depth than surface") and devoted himself to studying the natural world. "It's awful for me," he told a young friend, "my eyes stay riveted to the tree trunk, to the clod of earth. It's painful for me to tear them away." He could often be found, according to one contemporary, "on the outskirts of Paris wandering about the hillsides in jackboots. As no one took the least interest in his pictures, he left them in the fields."
How Google is changing medicine
Dean Giustini in the British Medical Journal:
For all the benefits technology provides, it does provoke anxiety. In a recent letter in the New England Journal of Medicine, a New York rheumatologist describes a scene at rounds where a professor asked the presenting fellow to explain how he arrived at his diagnosis.4 Matter of factly, the reply came: "I entered the salient features into Google, and [the diagnosis] popped right up." The attending doctor was taken aback by the Google diagnosis. "Are we physicians no longer needed? Is an observer who can accurately select the findings to be entered in a Google search all we need for a diagnosis to appear—as if by magic?" In a post-Google world, where evidence based education is headed is anyone's guess.5 Googling your diagnosis; Googling your treatment—where is all this leading us?
The Mirage of Empire
John Gray in the New York Review of Books:
Robert Kaplan was one of the few who did not share the complacent sense of triumph that accompanied the end of the cold war. In an article entitled "The Coming Anarchy," which he published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1994, Kaplan outlined a very different prospect from that anticipated by most other observers. He saw a world in which some states collapsed or rusted away, leaving their populations to scramble for survival, while powerful states acted ruthlessly to ensure their control of the world's dwindling resources. In many countries, he wrote, the struggle for resources would be intensified by ethnic and religious conflicts, and nationalist demagogues and fundamentalist prophets would come to power, imperiling what remained of order and security in the international system.
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Paradise City Lost
In Harvard Design Magazine, Marshall Berman reviews Michael Johns' The American City in the 1950s.
All over America, from the biggest cities to the smallest, the FHS [Federal Highway System] worked as an engine for ripping up downtowns. In just a few years, hundreds of solid city neighborhoods turned into fragments lodged between freeways and entrance / exit ramps. Thriving businesses found themselves cut off from their customers. Venerable streets became parking lots. Beloved hotels and department stores, so vital to civic identity, were forced to close.
Even as the FHS ravaged downtown, it created overpowering reasons for moving, “offers you can’t refuse,” as the wiseguys in The Godfather said. Capital, jobs, and people took the offers and left. Meanwhile, millions of Southern and West Indian blacks poured into Northern cities in search of the entry-level jobs that were disappearing fast. Meanwhile, a heroin epidemic spread, leading to a prolonged explosion of violence. It happened all over, but cities felt it worst. Everyday city life got harder and scarier.
Our two political parties recognized that there was big trouble, but they dealt with it in very different ways. Democrats offered programs to help people in trouble (“Model Cities”); Republicans blamed them and punished them for the trouble (“planned shrinkage”). Still, they shared an underlying desire to change our cities from centrifugal into centripetal places, where energy went “flying from the center” to the edges.
The Cultural Economy of Awards and Prizes
And continuing with the week's theme of lists and rankings, Michael Sandlin reviews James F. English's The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, in PopMatters.
English approaches his topic with a postmodernist critic's eye, viewing the world of cultural prizes through the monocle of French theorist Pierre Bourdieu: he often deploys Bourdieu's own terminology (when speaking of the "consecration" of artists, for example), and defines the cultural awards racket in terms of absence and illusion, or as Baudrillaud or Macherey might say (with a thumbs-up and a wink), it's "a manipulation of signs that takes the place of an absent reality." This po-mo reasoning naturally leads to English's recurring references to the "collective make-believe" that artist, press, and general public must (and do) perpetuate in order for awards to potently function as "symbolic capital," in an increasingly de-industrialized, "weightless" economy.
English's advancements in the woefully thin discourse on cultural prizes are many; but his most crucial breakthrough may be the complicit role he sees in high-profile critics of awards (or those behind anti-award awards like the Razzies), whose insults are actually essential to perpetuating "prize frenzy." And this is where Bourdieu again rears his bereted head, as English speaks of the "styles of condescension" that play an important role in the symbolic empowerment of cultural prizes. And considering there's little difference today between good and bad publicity, clued-in anti-awards critics, often prizewinners themselves, engage in public naysaying that simply fuels the hype machine. And in this way the scandal-dependent prizes -- like say, the Booker -- stay relevant in the eyes of an increasingly controversy-hungry media and the public at large.
Question is, can we detect any real hope from English's study that this all-powerful "collective make-believe" will ever be dispelled?
Humiliation and rejecting rejection
In Economic and Political Weekly, Sanjay Palshikar looks at the phenomenon of humiliation.
Besides these two ways of talking about one’s humiliation, there is a third possibility in which one claims to be humiliated, or gives an account of it, on the unreflected basis of an order of values, but later comes to reject that order, and reconstitutes the grounds of the claim. This is famously exemplified in Gandhi. He began by thinking of the British rule in India as a challenge to our manhood, and considered various ways of overcoming the lack of manly vigour in himself, to start with; over time, he came to see the empire as ill-treating its loyal subjects, and later went beyond even this basis of criticism. Here, we see notions of fairness and justice replacing the culture of masculinity and reformulating the account of humiliation on a new basis.
There is a similar thing happening with Ambedkar’s turning to Buddhism. Soon after declaring in 1935 his resolve to leave the Hindufold, Ambedkar made a speech in the Mahar Conference. Conversion is not for the slaves, he said. It is part of the struggle against the caste Hindus. The oppressed needed three kinds of strength to win this struggle: manpower, finance, and mental strength. Regarding the last, he said the oppressed had come to accept without any complaint all manner of insults. There was neither “retort nor revolt”. “Confidence, vigour and ambition” had vanished, and the oppressed had become “helpless, unenergetic and pale”. There was an “atmosphere of defeatism and pessimism”. He ended the speech by saying that one of the reasons he was asking his followers to convert was to gain strength: “convert to become strong”. Even two decades later, he remained preoccupied with these ideas and the themes of strength and spiritedness surfaced even in his historic speech at Nagpur, the day after he finally converted to Buddhism. He spoke appreciatively of the combativeness of the Muslims, and he also quoted Sant Ramdas to the effect that the lack of enthusiasm or spiritedness leads to the disease of mind and body. But there was something else he wanted to tell his followers: “lead such a life that you will command respect”.
(If you're interested in the phenomenon, I highly recommend Avishai Margalit's The Decent Society.)
Reading Bin Laden
In openDemocracy, Faisal Devji reviews Bruce Lawrence, ed., Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden.
While Messages to the World arranges and presents Bin Laden’s words in a lucid and comprehensive way, the nature of the material often militates against its own readability. But this has nothing to do with anything particularly foreign or exotic about Osama bin Laden’s words; indeed the contrary, since it is the sheer familiarity of his rhetoric that might permit readers to pass by what is of interest in it. . .
The risk of simply reading one’s own concerns into Osama bin Laden’s words is, needless to say, made many times more likely by the controversy he generates in all walks of life from politics and economics to philosophy and religion. Even the collection’s editor does not escape this risk, for in the book’s introduction Bruce Lawrence is determined to locate his hero squarely within the politics of the middle east, or even better, the Arab world. Professor Lawrence confines al-Qaida to regional issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, America’s support of repressive and undemocratic local regimes or the struggle for oil and its wealth, and in doing so finds himself in agreement with the very concerns that he claims animate American or Israeli policy in the middle east. This is surely an embarrassing position for a Verso author to find himself in, since to agree with the terms of a debate while disagreeing with its details is already to hold a politics in common.
Another list: The Wealthiest 15 Fictional Characters
Collectively, we are fascinated by the super-rich. We devour their biographies. We hang on their advice. Maybe we even hope for their downfall. But in our attempts to explain the ultra-rich--and their super-inflated bank accounts--we are often guilty of reducing real people to mere caricatures. There is the monopolist. The oracle. The genius. The thief.
With the Forbes Fictional 15, we have taken the opposite approach--fiction’s caricatures are elevated to the status of real people.
At the top:
- Santa Claus
- Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks
- Richie Rich
- Lex Luthor
- C. Montgomery Burns
- Scrooge McDuck
- Jed Clampett
- Bruce Wayne
(Luthor and Clampett, wealthier than Wayne???)
Edward Farley offers a theory of fundamentalism in Cross Currents.
Since the early twentieth century, the term, fundamentalism, has undergone significant changes of meaning. First, the initial movement (biblicistic and anti-evolution Protestantism) experienced an upsurge after World War II that included denominational takeovers, the successful deployment of radio and television, relatively successful ventures into local and national politics, and, in recent times, the development of large and small independent congregations ("community churches") whose music, entertainment, anti-liturgy and informal worship are especially attractive to young married couples with children. Second, in the 1940's and after, Protestant fundamentalism in the United States split into conservative and moderate factions: the former preferring cultural and denominational isolation and anti-historical Biblicism, the latter, centered in the new National Association of Evangelicals and Fuller Seminar, rejecting such isolation and embracing selected elements of "modernism." Third, the original funmentalist movement, its pre-history, and its period of upsurge called forth a whole literature of historical, sociological, and even theological studies. Fourth, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, and Hindu communities spawned movements which closely resembled American Protestant fundamentalism. Following these developments, the term, fundamentalism, underwent both a narrowing and a broadening. The "evangelical" or moderate side of the original movement restricted the term to the far right wing of conservative Protestantism. Because of this restriction, "fundamentalism" migrated from a descriptive historical to a pejorative term for an ossified, hostile, and even fanatical way of being religious. In the last part of the twentieth century, students of world religions appropriated the term to describe aggressively anti-modernist, tradition-preserving movements in many of the world's faiths. Others in turn resisted this broadening on grounds that the term was too loaded with Protestant Christian connotations to apply to other faiths. "Islamism" and "Hinduization" thus became the preferred terms to describe these tradition-defending movements. The broadeners have argued that, granting the differences between religions, there does exist a complex of similar behaviors and attitudes in these faiths that justify a common label. Behind these similarities is the struggle of all contemporary religious faiths to maintain themselves in a radically secularized world.
Testing Action at a Distance and other Quantum Weirdness
This fall scientists announced that they had put a half dozen beryllium atoms into a "cat state."
No, they were not sprawled along a sunny windowsill. To a physicist, a "cat state" is the condition of being two diametrically opposed conditions at once, like black and white, up and down, or dead and alive.
These atoms were each spinning clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time. Moreover, like miniature Rockettes they were all doing whatever it was they were doing together, in perfect synchrony. Should one of them realize, like the cartoon character who runs off a cliff and doesn't fall until he looks down, that it is in a metaphysically untenable situation and decide to spin only one way, the rest would instantly fall in line, whether they were across a test tube or across the galaxy.
The idea that measuring the properties of one particle could instantaneously change the properties of another one (or a whole bunch) far away is strange to say the least - almost as strange as the notion of particles spinning in two directions at once.
Slowly, Cancer Genes Tender Their Secrets
From The New York Times:
At first, as scientists grew to appreciate the complexity of cancer genetics, they despaired. "If there are 100 genetic abnormalities, that's 100 things you need to fix to cure cancer," said Dr. Todd Golub, the director of the Cancer Program at the Broad Institute of Harvard and M.I.T. in Cambridge, Mass., and an oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. "That's a horrifying thought." Making matters more complicated, scientists discovered that the genetic changes in one patient's tumor were different from those in another patient with the same type of cancer. That led to new questioning. Was every patient going to be a unique case? Would researchers need to discover new drugs for every single patient? "People said, 'It's hopelessly intractable and too complicated a problem to ever figure out,' " Dr. Golub recalled.
But to their own amazement, scientists are now finding that untangling the genetics of cancer is not impossible. In fact, they say, what looked like an impenetrable shield protecting cancer cells turns out to be flimsy. And those seemingly impervious cancer cells, Dr. Golub said, "are very much poised to die."
Todd Golub, M.D. here.
Getting a Rational Grip on Religion
From Scientific American:
The Flight of Form: Auden, Bruegel, and the Turn to Abstraction in the 1940s
Alexander Nemerov in Critical Inquiry:
Pieter Bruegel made Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in 1938—or so W. H. Auden helps us see. Auden wrote his famous poem "Musée des Beaux Arts" that year, with its last stanza devoted to Bruegel's picture, and under the poem's pressure The Fall of Icarus becomes a commentary about events in the months leading up to inevitable world conflict. More precisely, the poem transforms Bruegel's painting into a surrealist diagram concerning the place of the intellectual in violent times. What do artists and poets and critics do in the face of catastrophe? How do they register it in their work, or should they even try to do so? Auden makes Bruegel's painting address these questions with a special urgency, indeed with enough power that this picture painted around 1560 becomes a template for understanding literature and visual art at the end of the nineteen thirties and into the forties. In particular the motivations and underlying energies of American abstract painting of that era—that of Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock, for example—become unexpectedly clearer in light of The Fall of Icarus. What did it mean for the artist to turn away from the world? Bruegel suggests some answers.
Auden wrote "Musée des Beaux Arts" when he was in Brussels in December 1938, biding his time before he and Christopher Isherwood moved to New York early the next year.1 The poem refers to two other Bruegel paintings, The Massacre of the Innocents and The Nativity, both in Vienna, but it is the Brussels Fall of Icarus that Auden concentrates on the most. Then as now in a second-floor gallery of the museum the poem is named after, the painting depicts the story from book 8 of Ovid's Metamorphoses of Daedalus and his son Icarus (fig. 1).
Figure 1. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1560. Oil on panel transferred to canvas, 28 5/8 x 43 5/8 in. Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Photo: Scala/Art Resource, New York.
Daedalus fashioned wings of wax, thread, and feathers to escape imprisonment on the isle of Crete and made a second set of wings for his fellow prisoner Icarus. He warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, which would melt the wax and bring him crashing down, but the impetuous youth ignored his father's advice and suffered the forewarned meltdown, falling to the earth.
Some artists—Peter Paul Rubens, for example—focus exclusively on the airborne drama of father and son, but Bruegel omits Daedalus and shows only Icarus's pale legs as he plunges into the water at lower right (fig. 2).
Figure 2. Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (detail). Photo: Scala/Art Resource, New York.
Bruegel concentrates on other aspects of Ovid's tale: "Some fisher, perhaps, plying his quivering rod, some shepherd leaning on his staff, or a peasant bent over his plough handle caught sight of [Daedalus and Icarus] as they flew past," Ovid writes, "and stood stock still in astonishment."2 These figures appear throughout Bruegel's picture—the fisherman at lower right, the shepherd at midground center, and most clearly the plowman at left foreground—but Bruegel departs from Ovid, as Walter Gibson notes, by showing them oblivious to the drama around them. Even the figures busily scaling the rigging of the ship at lower right notice neither Icarus nor the feathers floating past the sails. Indifference and preoccupation are everywhere. In the distance, the culpable sun sits half-submerged, as if in sympathy with Icarus's sinking, but it too is part of a vaster world—even the icon of that world—that goes about its business, its daily cycle, unconcerned with particular tragedies.
This of course is the quality Auden seized on in his poem, with its famous last stanza devoted to the Brussels painting:
Musée des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.3
Short story: The Unfortunate Fate of Kitty da Silva
"After the huge success of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and its successor novels, ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH turns to his home city of Edinburgh for 'The Unfortunate Fate of Kitty da Silva', a whimsical short story about an unusual companionship."
From The Independent:
He arrived before the agent did, and was standing there, on the pavement, for 15 minutes or so before the young man came round the corner. The agent was whistling, which surprised him, because one did not hear people whistling; there was something unexpected, something almost old-fashioned about it. And there was no birdsong, of course, or very little. At home there had always been birdsong, and one took it for granted. Here the mornings seemed silent; the air drained of sound. Thin air. Thin.
"Are you the doctor?" asked the young man, looking at a piece of paper extracted from his pocket. "You're Dr... Dr John. Right?"
He shook his head, and stopped and reminded himself that it was the other way round. In India one shook one's head for yes, which was the opposite of what they did here. It was rather like water going this way round as it drained out of the bath in the southern hemisphere, and that way round in the north, or so people said. Clockwise or anti-clockwise. Widdershins and deasil. Those were wonderful words - widdershins and deasil - and he had written them down in his notebook of fine English words, as he had always done since he was a boy. He had had an uncle who had taught English at a college and had impressed upon him the importance of a wide vocabulary. He had imitated his uncle's habit of writing down interesting words in his notebook. Pejorative, he wrote. Gloaming. Conspicuous.
The Other Panda's Thumb
Carl Zimmer in his blog, The Loom:
If you could travel back to Spain about ten million years ago, you'd have no end of animals to watch, from apes to bear-dogs to saber-tooth tigers. With so many creatures jockeying for your attention (and perhaps chasing you down for lunch), you might well miss the creature shown here. Simocyon batalleri was roughly the size and shape of a puma, although its face looked more like a raccoon's. If anything were to draw your attention to Simocyon, it would probably be the animal's gift for climbing trees. Most big carnivorous mammals of the time were restricted to the ground; some may have been able to climb up tree trunks and onto bigger boughs. But judging from its fossils, Simocyon could have climbed trees out to their slender branches. It could do so because, unlike other carnivores, it had thumbs that it could use to grasp branches much like a monkey would. Those thumbs turn out to have a fascinating story to tell about the tinkering habits of evolution.
Louis Menand on Literary Prizes
From The New Yorker:
When the first Nobel Prize in Literature went to Sully Prudhomme, in 1901, the choice was regarded as a scandal, since Leo Tolstoy happened to be alive. The Swedish Academy was so unnerved by the public criticism it received that its members made a point of passing over Tolstoy for the rest of his life—just to show, apparently, that they knew what they were doing the first time around—honoring instead such immortals as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, José Echegaray, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Giosuè Carducci, Rudolf Eucken, and Selma Lagerlöf. When you have prizes for art, you will always have people complaining that prizes are just politics, or that they reward in-group popularity or commercial success, or that they are pointless and offensive because art is not a competition. English believes that contempt for prizes is not harmful to the prize system; that, on the contrary, contempt for prizes is what the system is all about.
Daniel Dennett on Intelligent Design
Interview in Spiegel:
Intelligent Design is once again making headlines in the United States. But what is the attraction? Daniel Dennett spoke with SPIEGEL about the attraction of creationism, how religion itself succumbs to Darwinian ideas, and the social irresponsibility of the religious right in America.
SPIEGEL: Professor Dennett, more than 120 million Americans believe that Adam was created by God some 10,000 years ago out of mud and Eva from his rib. Do you personally know any of these 120 million?
Dennett: Yes. But people who are creationists are usually not interested in talking about it. Those who are actually enthusiastic about Intelligent Design, though, would talk endlessly. And what I learned about them is that they are filled with misinformation. But they've encountered this misinformation in very plausible sources. It's not just their pastor that tells them this. They go out and they buy books that are published by main line publishers. Or they go on Web sites and they see very clever propaganda that is put out by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which is financed by the religious right.
Monday, December 26, 2005
Monday Musing: 'Tis the Season for Lists
For many years Abbas and I have spent the occasional evening composing lists of the greatest this, the smartest that, and the most overrated other. As you can imagine, it usually comes at some late moment when we’re tipsy. It’s a silly act of camaraderie which I would do with very, very few others. For me, it’s also a very private affair, which is precisely the opposite role that lists play in society.
I was reminded of it this holiday season, as I am on every other holiday season, because it is the season for collective judgment. Sometime between the beginning of November and the end of January, we are bombarded with lists, usually top 10 lists—and not just the best books, best fiction, best non-fiction, best movies, best albums, best songs, and their complement “worst’s”, but also worst disasters, worst web design mistakes, best and worst toys, and industry or sub-culture specific objects that are, so to speak, too numerous to list.
A list is different in kind and in effect from a simple “person of the year” or other declaration of a superlative. The latter sorts of things usually require some extensive justification of the judgment. If I were to say that Tony Judt’s Postwar was the best book that came out this year, you may reasonably ask why I thought so. And I would give a host of reasons to defend my claim. (In this instance, the claim is hypothetical.) But once I list runners up, I’m forced to answer different questions—why a work of history over fiction? why this prose style over that one?
This comparative quality of lists is the seductive virtue that turns the whole affair into a participatory event. (I was thinking about this when Abbas was soliciting top 10 books of the year from 3Quarks editors.) Relative judgments seem to engage us more than absolute ones. Say Hitler is a monster, you have no quarrel. Say Hitler is a worse monster than Stalin, and then you have a debate. Or if that’s too contentious, try: Franklin Roosevelt was a great wartime leader, against Franklin Roosevelt was a greater wartime leader than Churchill. This is not to say that the judgments of the former kind aren’t debated but that the latter elicits more responses and wider audiences. The Prospect/FP poll of the global public intellectuals did probably far more to create an audience for Oliver Kamm (with his neurotic Chomsky-phobic rant) than it did for Chomsky. Kamm was part of the debate; Chomsky was its object. And for the wider circles, Chomsky’s ordinal rank relative to Daniel Dennett, Richard Posner, or Slavo Zizek, is more contentious affair than whether he is well-known and well-respected public intellectual (at least in many circles).
This fun-silly exercise is not restricted to dilettantes such as yours truly. Sidney Morgenbesser once recounted a dinner with Isaiah Berlin spent classifying philosophers into gods, geniuses, brilliant men, smart guys, and some fourth category, whose title I don't recall. They got into a fight over where to place Leibniz, and wound up creating the category of demigods, which became populated solely by Leibniz. The story made me feel less silly.
Now with the audience that Amazon.com brings, these exercises grow more and more common, so much so that it calls itself listmania. (But some times I wonder whether this need to state our judgments even over matters of taste to wider and wider audiences doesn't make us kin to Judge Judy or the mobs found in Jerry Springer.)
Criticisms or reflective assessments of lists commonly begin with something like: “List say more about those that construct them than they do about . . .” the object, or the real world, or whatever else they’re supposed to tell us about. That of course is trivially true, in the sense that any made object tell us something, often a lot, about the maker. But it is true that lists generally deflect attention away from the criteria for judgment and, quite often, the judge. ("Judge, lest ye be judged," Karl Kraus once said.) This is so even when the criteria for judgment are made fairly explicit.
Interesting lists offer us not so much new rankings but new dimensions for evaluation. The lists that fill much of the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, lady in waiting to the Empress Sadako (or Teishi) during the Hiean, are wonders. Each list evokes memories and sensations rather than judgments and thereby disagreements. Some of my favorite lists of Shonagon’s:
109. Things That Are Distant Though Near
Festivals celebrated near the Palace
Relations between brothers, sisters, and other members of a family who do not love each other.
The zigzag path leading up to the temple at Kurama
The last day of the Twelfth Month and the first of the First
44. Things That Cannot Be Compared
Summer and winter. Night and day. Rain and sunshine. Youth and age. A person's laughter and his anger. Black and white. Love and hatred. The little indigo plant and the great philodendron. Rain and mist.
When one has stopped loving somebody, one feels that he has become someone else, even though he is still the same person.
In a garden full of evergreens the crows are all asleep. Then, towards the middle of the night, the crows in one of the trees suddenly wake up in a great flurry and start flapping about. Their unrest spreads to the other trees, and soon all the birds have been startled from their sleep and are cawing in alarm. How different from the same crows in daytime!
The lady Murasaki Shikibu, author of the Tale of Genji, one of the earliest novels ever written (circa 1000 A.D.) and contemporary of Shonagon, described her as “frivolous”, and concluded that “[h]er chief pleasure consists in shocking people, and, as each eccentricity becomes only too painfully familiar, she gets driven on to more and more outrageous methods of attracting notice." But this is precisely the virtue of lists such as Shonagon’s; they get people to notice by pointing to new dimensions and new collections, and not simply to our judgment. If we can't be outrageous with the playful, where can we be?
The lists don’t have to consist of exotica. Nick Hornby did a remarkable job of using simple lists to construct a seductive story in High Fidelity. But when they do consist of exotica they really seduce, as in the case of many of Borges' stories. It’s probably a little late now, but for next season, I suggest new kinds of lists, ones that speak of our wit, creativity, and even whim.
Happy Monday and a Happy New Year.
Perceptions: In honor of Newton
Whirlpool Galaxy (spiral galaxy M51) Eagle Nebula
Hubble Space Telescope, NASA. April, 2005.
Sunday, December 25, 2005
The MySpace Generation
A BusinessWeek article about the ways advertisers are using the growing power of online social networks among teens:
" You have just entered the world of what you might call Generation @. Being online, being a Buzzer, is a way of life for Adams and 3,000-odd Dallas-area youth, just as it is for millions of young Americans across the country. And increasingly, social networks are their medium. As the first cohort to grow up fully wired and technologically fluent, today's teens and twentysomethings are flocking to Web sites like Buzz-Oven as a way to establish their social identities. Here you can get a fast pass to the hip music scene, which carries a hefty amount of social currency offline. It's where you go when you need a friend to nurse you through a breakup, a mentor to tutor you on your calculus homework, an address for the party everyone is going to. For a giant brand like Coke, these networks also offer a direct pipeline to the thirsty but fickle youth market"
27 men and women who died in 2005
From the New York Times Magazine:
This year, like all years, brought the deaths of many notable people. Among them were Rosa Parks, Pope John Paul II, William H. Rehnquist, Saul Bellow, Peter Jennings, Eugene J. McCarthy, August Wilson, Hans Bethe and Richard Pryor. The year 2005 was also marked by the 2,000th death of a member of the American armed forces in Iraq and of an untold number of Iraqi civilians. Violence, both man-made and natural - especially the earthquake in South Asia that killed some 70,000 - claimed thousands upon thousands of lives around the world.
This 12th annual end-of-the-year issue does not purport to be definitive. Instead, it is an idiosyncratic selection, one driven primarily by the whims, interests and passions of the magazine's editors and writers. Some names, like Sandra Dee, Frank Perdue, Luther Vandross, Rose Mary Woods and Constance Baker Motley, are probably familiar. Others are less well known: Elizabeth McFarland Hoffman, the poetry editor of Ladies' Home Journal; Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of Tony the Tiger; Joseph Frelinghuysen, whose unlikely escape as a prisoner of war during World War II was made possible by a generous and courageous Italian family; and Lawrence Celestine, a New Orleans police officer who took his own life shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit. Through stories, ideas and images, we seek to capture the lives they lived.
Fiction, Islam and the story of Zulaikha
Elif Shafak in Words Without Borders:
In the history of Islam, perhaps no woman has been as widely (mis)interpreted as Zulaikha—the beautiful and perfidious wife of Potiphar in the story of Joseph. It was she who tried to seduce Joseph into the whirl of adultery and unbridled hedonism. It was she who upon being rejected by Joseph accused him of raping her, thus causing him to be incarcerated for years in the terrible dungeons of Potiphar’s regime. And it was she who has over and over been blamed, condemned, and vilified by conservative religious authorities in the Islamic world. Throughout the centuries, in the eyes of the conservative-minded, Zulaikha has stood out as a despicable symbol of lust, hedonism, and, ultimately, feminine evil.
As wicked as Zulaikha might be in the eyes of the conservative Muslims, she was considered in a completely different way by the Sufis. For the Sufi mystic, Zulaikha simply represented someone purely and madly in love. Nothing more and nothing less. This ages-old discrepancy between the exoteric (zahiri) and esoteric (batini) interpretations of Qur’an is little known in the Western world today. Likewise, this hermeneutical tradition is not well known by the contemporary reformist, modernist cultural elite of Muslim countries either. Therein the novel as a genre being the vehicle of Westernization and mostly shaped by the privileged cultural elite, it is not a coincidence that the esoteric shadow of Zulaikha has not been able to reflect in the “Middle Eastern novel,” much less in the Turkish novel—a country where the process of Westernization and modernization has been carried out to the furthest extreme possible by detaching from the past as quickly as possible and erasing the Sufi legacy completely.
Boaz on the virtue of the judgment of the masses
The New England Review makes an old essay by Franz Boas, "The Mental Attitude of the Educated Classes", available online.
When we attempt to form our opinions in an intelligent manner, we are inclined to accept the judgment of those who by their education and occupation are compelled to deal with the questions at issue. We assume that their views must be rational, and based on intelligent understanding of the problems. The foundation of this belief is the tacit assumption not only that they have special knowledge but also that they are free to form perfectly rational opinions. However, it is easy to see there is no type of society in existence in which such freedom exists.
I believe I can make my point clearest by giving an example taken from the life of a people whose cultural conditions are very simple. I will choose for this purpose the Eskimo. In their social life they are exceedingly individualistic. The social group has so little cohesion that we have hardly the right to speak of tribes. A number of families come together and live in the same village, but there is nothing to prevent any one of them from living and settling at another place with other families. In fact during a period of a lifetime the families constituting an Eskimo village community are constantly shifting about; and while they generally return after many years to the place where their relatives live, the family may have belonged to a great many different communities. There is no authority vested in any individual, no chieftancy, and no method by which orders, if they were given, could be carried out. In short, so far as law is concerned, we have a condition of almost absolute anarchy. We might therefore say that every single person is entirely free, within the limits of his own mental ability, to determine his own mode of life and his own mode of thinking. Nevertheless it is easily seen that there are innumerable restrictions that determine his behavior.
Wish List: No More Books!
Several years ago, I calculated how many books I could read if I lived to my actuarially expected age. The answer was 2,138. In theory, those 2,138 books would include everything from "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" to "Le Colonel Chabert," with titles by authors as celebrated as Marcel Proust and as obscure as Marcel Aymé. In principle, there would be enough time to read 500 masterpieces, 500 minor classics, 500 overlooked works of genius, 500 oddities and 138 examples of high-class trash. Nowhere in this utopian future would there be time for "Hi-Ho, Steverino!"
The Middle Class on the Precipice
During the past generation, the American middle-class family that once could count on hard work and fair play to keep itself financially secure has been transformed by economic risk and new realities. Now a pink slip, a bad diagnosis, or a disappearing spouse can reduce a family from solidly middle class to newly poor in a few months.
Middle-class families have been threatened on every front. Rocked by rising prices for essentials as men’s wages remained flat, both Dad and Mom have entered the workforce—a strategy that has left them working harder just to try to break even. Even with two paychecks, family finances are stretched so tightly that a very small misstep can leave them in crisis. As tough as life has become for married couples, single-parent families face even more financial obstacles in trying to carve out middle-class lives on a single paycheck. And at the same time that families are facing higher costs and increased risks, the old financial rules of credit have been rewritten by powerful corporate interests that see middle-class families as the spoils of political influence.