August 31, 2006
A Case of Role Reversal in the Maglev Project
China finds German workmanship shoddy after the Maglev fire, in The People's Daily (China). (And why are battery cells catching fire everywhere?)
If China didn't develop her Maglev technology, if the German Maglev train had not caught fire, how would the Sino-German Maglev project have resulted? Since the Maglev fire in Shanghai on August 11th, the train has remained there unmoved. By August 18th, the train was repaired then moved on to a maintenance station. The next day, Shanghai Maglev Development Company said that they had preliminarily examined the cause of the fire to be the battery cell provided by Germany. A Chinese expert working in the German Maglev project believed the reason for the fire to be the Shanghai climate since it is more humid there than in Germany. The battery cell has never caused a fire in Germany before. The accident where the Shanghai Maglev cable end was burned in 2003 was also attributed to the Shanghai's humid weather and bad air quality.
When the accident took place two weeks ago, the German spokesman declared that the first step of investigation was focusing on the improper use of the battery cell. However they have not yet been able to draw any conclusions still. Three days later, the spokesman found the cause of the fire to be the battery cell.
"Why has Germany delayed the announcement about the cause of the fire? It may be more beneficial for them to do so." A Chinese scientist who is working in the German transportation sector told reporter. "Now it is time for the Hu-Hang(Shanghai-Hangzhou) Maglev project to be completed, Germany is using a delaying strategy."
Zizek on Jerusalem
In the LRB, Zizek on Jerusalem.
If there ever was a passionate attachment to the lost object, a refusal to come to terms with its loss, it is the attachment of Israelis and many diaspora Jews to the ‘Holy Land’ and above all to Jerusalem. The present troubles are supreme proof of the consequences of such a radical fidelity, when taken literally. For almost two thousand years, when the Jews were fundamentally a nation without land, living in exile, their reference to Jerusalem was a negative one, a prohibition against ‘painting an image of home’ or indeed against feeling at home anywhere on earth. Once the return to Palestine began a century ago, the metaphysical Other Place was identified with a specific place on the map and became the object of a positive identification, the place where the wandering which characterises human existence would end. The identification, negative and positive by turns, had always involved a dream of settlement. When a two-thousand-year-old dream is finally close to realisation, such realisation has to turn into a nightmare.
Brecht’s joke a propos the East Berlin workers’ uprising in 1953 – ‘The Party is not satisfied with its people, so it will replace them with a people more supportive of its politics’ – is suggestive of the way Israelis regard the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza. That Israelis, descendants of exemplary victims, should be considering a thorough ethnic cleansing – or ‘transfer’ – of the Palestinians from the West Bank is the ultimate historical irony.
What would be a proper imaginative act in the Middle East today? For Israelis and Arabs, it would involve giving up political control of Jerusalem, agreeing that the Old Town should become a city without a state, a place of worship, neither a part of Israel nor of a putative Palestine, administered for the time being by an international force.
Can YouTube Survive?
The Economist wonders if YouTube can make money:
“STARBUCKS has comfy chairs, but they don't charge people for sitting in them,” says Tom McInerney, the boss and co-founder of Guba, an internet-video company. Instead, he explains, Starbucks provides a comfortable environment, at considerable expense, so that people will buy overpriced coffee. That, in essence, is the business model being pursued by websites that host “user-generated content” such as personal blogs, photographs and today's craze, amateur videos, which can be uploaded and watched on sites such as YouTube, Google Video, MySpace, Guba, Veoh and Metacafe. By offering a setting for free interaction, such sites provide the online equivalent of comfy chairs. The trouble is that, so far, there is no equivalent of the overpriced coffee that brings in the money and pays the bills.
That is why people like Chad Hurley and Steven Chen (pictured), the co-founders of YouTube, the clear leader of the pack by audience size, are casting around for a business model. Aware that inserting advertisements at the beginning of video clips, as some sites do, is annoying and risks driving away YouTube's users, Mr Hurley and Mr Chen have announced two experiments with advertising, with the promise of more to come. One idea is for “brand channels” in which corporate customers create pages for their own promotional clips. Warner Brothers Records, a music label, led the way, setting up a page to promote a new album by Paris Hilton. The second experiment is “participatory video ads”, whereby advertisements can be uploaded and then rated, shared and tagged just like amateur clips. This “encourages engagement and participation,” the company declares.
Live recording of Darcy James Argue conducting Secret Society at the 3QD Ball, now available free online
Darcy has kindly made recordings available at the Secret Society weblog. Here they are:
(Right-click and select "Save Target As" -- they take a couple of minutes to download.)
SETLIST (click to listen/download)
1) Flux in a Box
Solos: Rob Wilkerson, alto sax; Mike Holober, piano
Solo: Mark Small, tenor sax
Solo: Aaron Irwin, alto flute/soprano sax
4) Induction Effect
Solo: Matt Shulman, trumpet
Solos: Mike Fahie, trombone; Sebastian Noelle, guitar
6) Desolation Sound
Solo: Sam Sadigursky, soprano sax
Solo: Jacob Varmus, trumpet
Download all (zip archive) [87.5 MB]
innuendo, insinuation and allusion
Jesper Just is crafting a subtle genre of his own, re-creating masculine stereotypes within emotionally ambiguous mises-en-scène. While innuendo, insinuation and allusion are hallmarks of his work, Just’s characters are strangers to consequences, and especially repercussions. There is no one to take responsibility for his narrative slivers. There are no protagonists and no director when the credits roll, and with no dénouements his audience can never take responsibility for their own emotions while Just holds them in suspense.
His films, teetering on the fringes of highly mannered mating rituals (The Lonely Villa, 2004) or unrequited homosexual affairs (Something to Love, 2005), never embark on storytelling. Just does not entangle his characters in explicit dramatic motives; instead he sketches thresholds of erotic indulgence, creatures that impersonate rather than perform and shadowy affiliations foregrounded by masses of loose ends.
more from Frieze here.
The spy thriller is a kind of weather report, taking disparate, shifting phenomena and working them into a prognosis for the days to come. Where the casual observer only sees the wavering breeze of foreign policy, approaching clouds of war, or sunny patches of treaties, the spy thriller knows of the coming of the storm, which may be why its most productive period coincided with the period we call the Cold War. Since that time, the form has co-existed rather uneasily with the present day, as if a kind of geopolitical global warming affects its ability to say anything other than the fact that things look very bleak indeed.
The response to this problem has taken the spy thriller in two opposed directions. John le Carré, the master of the Cold War novel, has tackled the situation head-on, directing his steely gaze towards multinational corporations and neoconservative cabals. The other approach, best exemplified by the novels of Alan Furst, has been to turn the clock back and convert a form obsessed with interpreting present and future into a historical receptacle, leaving it to us to decide if the double-crosses of the 1930s have any resonance in our world.
William Boyd’s latest novel, Restless, chooses the latter approach, its parallel stories focusing on the Second World War and the 1970s.
more from the TLS here.
center for land use interpretation
The world will have to wait to know the whole truth about the Center for Land Use Interpretation until the publication of my as yet unoptioned Mr. Coolidge’s Filing Cabinet of Wonder, but in the meantime we have Overlook — a splendid institutional autobiography compiling many of the highlights of the dummy corporation’s first decade of geosociological interrogation, edited by director (Mr.) Matthew Coolidge and associate director Sarah Simons, with an essay by former L.A. Weekly columnist Ralph Rugoff. CLUI, headquartered immediately adjacent to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City (and embodying a fearfully symmetrical extrovert doppelgänger to the Jurassic’s trance-inducing interiority complex — one of the earliest and most inspired of CLUI’s site-specific interventions), is a cultural project that mimics the structure and aesthetics of large — essentially governmental — bureaucracies. But instead of delivering some pat critique of those unwieldy psychic parasites (or, worse yet, arbitrarily bestowing institutional authority on more Art), the center pursues a mission that seems like something the government should have been doing all along, if it had balls and a sense of humor.
more from the LA Weekly here.
A Woman in Jerusalem
From The Christian Science Monitor:
A Woman in Jerusalem by Abraham B. Yehoshua
The woman's name was Yulia Ragayev, a mechanical engineer from a former Soviet Republic, who had been working as a cleaning lady on the night shift. What's not in her slim human resources file was that she was so beautiful that, even dead, she inspires extraordinary concern in others. No one noticed Yulia's absence for the simple reason that she had stopped working at the bakery a month before the bombing. Neither the owner nor the journalist is willing to let the matter rest there, however. An irritated human resources manager finds himself excoriated in print, and then appointed the dead woman's escort back to her homeland.
His irritation fades, however, and he finds himself increasingly moved by his quest and the woman who inspired it. As his mission gets more and more improbable, the manager (who is recently divorced and isolated from his only daughter) finds a subtle spiritual renewal as he crosses frozen rivers to reunite what's left of Yulia's family for her funeral. As if to make up for her anonymity in life, Yulia is the only one named in the novel. The symbolic device works to create the atmosphere of a fable or folk tale, but can also be somewhat muffling. This is especially true once the human resources manager heads for the nameless European country, which is a mishmash of peasants, frozen landscapes, and the remains of the Soviet military complex.
Nuns go under the brain scanner
Neuroscientists have identified a network of brain regions activated when nuns feel that they are at one with God. Artificially stimulating the brain in this way, they say, might allow people to have mystical experiences without believing in God themselves. Lead author Mario Beauregard at the University of Montreal, Canada, says that he wanted to know what was going on in the brain during spiritual, mystical or religious episodes because of his own personal experiences. During such moments, people feel that they are in union with God and feel peace, joy and love.
Beauregard and his colleague Vincent Paquette recruited 15 nuns from Carmelite monasteries, slid them into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and asked them to fully relive the most mystical moment in their lives. They didn't scan the subjects when actually praying, because the nuns told the researchers that they could not connect with God at will.
As a comparison, the nuns also relived an experience in which they felt at union with another person.
A Switch is Born
Carl Zimmer in his blog, The Loom:
All living things have genes. Enzymes read those genes and produce a copy of their code, which a cell can then use to build a protein. But in order to read a gene, the enzymes must first lock onto a distinctive segment of DNA near the gene, known as a promoter. Promoters act like switches, which a cell can use to turn genes on and off. Different genes carry different promoters, so that they can be switched on under different conditions.
Scientists have studied the promoters of the bacteria Escherichia coli more closely than those of any other species, and they've identified some of its switching patterns. When Escherichia coli is growing quickly, it produces a lot of gene-reading
enzymesfactors called sigma 70. Sigma 70 can switch on several hundred genes that allow the microbe to feed and build up its biomass and reproduce. If Escherichia coli begins to starve, it slips into a sort of suspended animation, and produces a different enzymefactor called sigma S. Sigma S recognizes a different set of genes that begin to make the proteins necessary for shutting the microbe's operations down.
Here we have a wonderfully precise system for controlling genes. Now imagine that Escherichia coli acquires a gene with no promoter at all--just a random sequence of DNA next to the gene, 41 nucleotides long. Imagine that this DNA starts going through cycles of mutation and natural selection. Would it be possible for a random sequence to change into one Sigma 70 could grab? Could it go from nothing to a promoter?
The answer is yes. How long would it take? According to some recent experiments, two days. Two.
Shopping Cart Sculptures
Ptolemy Elrington with his giant heron made from old supermarket trolleys pulled out from the river. From Canadian Content:
Climate changes shift springtime
From the BBC:
A Europe-wide study has provided "conclusive proof" that the seasons are changing, with spring arriving earlier each year, researchers say.
Spring was beginning on average six to eight days earlier than it did 30 years ago, the researchers said.
In regions such as Spain, which saw the greatest increases in temperatures, the season began up to two weeks earlier.
The findings were based on what was described as the world's largest study of changes in recurring natural events, such as when plants flowered.
The team of researchers also found that the onset of autumn has been delayed by an average of three days over the same period.
This Is a Bike. Trust Us.
Preston Lerner in the Los Angeles Times:
Barely visible against the vast asphalt expanse of the Nissan test track, a white speck emerges from the soft light of the Arizona dawn. As it approaches, it takes shape as what might be a miniature submarine, or maybe a giant suppository on wheels. Crammed within the tiny, fully enclosed, artfully streamlined body is a world-class cyclist who's reclining like guy on a Barcalounger as he pedals furiously enough to make his bike the world's fastest sweatbox. He rockets past with a whoosh, and I suddenly understand why his ride is called a human powered vehicle, or HPV, rather than just a bicycle.
Whatever you call it, this little sucker is honking along so fast that it could merge comfortably into traffic on the 405. Moreover, the rider plans to maintain this speed for the next 52 minutes, thereby setting a world record by covering nearly 55 miles in an hour without the aid of an internal combustion engine, electric motor or flux capacitor.
More here. [Thanks to Winfield J. Abbe.]
August 30, 2006
Richard Lloyd Parry in the London Review of Books:
At the peak of his Manhattan success, Jay McInerney came out to study karate and produced the dismal Ransom, full of sub-Hemingway machismo and lumbering Japonaiserie (‘he picked up his katana, made by the great swordsmith Yasukuni of the Soshu Branch of the Sagami School’). The best that Clive James – a regular visitor and student of Japanese – could come up with was the smirking comedy Brrm! Brrm! Only two novelists have filtered Japanese characters into English with any conviction, and neither of them has made a home in the country: Kazuo Ishiguro, British in all but name, has not lived in Nagasaki since he was a toddler; David Mitchell left Hiroshima four years ago. There is a certain amount of unjustly neglected travel writing, such as the work of the late Alan Booth. But Japan has never attracted the attention of a Chatwin or a Naipaul, let alone fostered a Kipling, a Somerset Maugham, a Hemingway or a Paul Bowles.
Foucault the Neohumanist?
Richard Wolin in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
In 1975 and 1976, Michel Foucault published two books that single-handedly reoriented scholarship in the humanities: Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. Thereby, Foucault fundamentally altered the way we think about power.
For centuries, power had been associated with the negative capacity to deny or forbid. In spatial terms, it stood at the apex of a vertical axis. This view suited our modern conception of political sovereignty as a top-down phenomenon. Power reputedly consisted of a relationship between sovereign and subjects. It bespoke the capacity of rulers to censure or to control the behavior of those they ruled. That was the traditional model of power that Foucault vigorously challenged in these pathbreaking studies. As he remarked laconically: "In political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king." By remaining beholden to an anachronistic notion of power, the human sciences, Foucault claimed, remained impervious to the distinctive modalities and flows of power in modern society, tone-deaf to the diffuse and insidious operations of "biopower": modern society's well-nigh totalitarian capacity to institutionally regulate and subjugate individual behavior — via statistics, public-health guidelines, and conformist sexual norms — down to the most elementary, "corpuscular" level.
What would happen if we reconceived power as operating on a horizontal axis, wondered Foucault? What if the traditional vertical focus on sovereignty, governance, and law were diversionary, leading us to mistake power's genuine tenor and scope? What if power's defining trait were its productive rather than its negative or suppressive capacities? In that case, power's uniqueness would lie in its ability to shape, fashion, and mold the parameters of the self, potentially down to the infinitesimal or corpuscular level. Following Descartes, we have typically been taught to conceive of the self as a locus of autonomy or freedom. But what if this autonomy were in fact illusory, concealing potent, underlying, and sophisticated mechanisms of domination?
Conservative Judaism gets a kick in the pants
Samantha M. Shapiro in Slate:
I grew up in the Conservative movement, and my religious ideals line up with it in many ways. Yet I agree that it often misses the mark and suffers, as Schorsch said, from "a failure of nerve." As the world is growing increasingly religious, the faithful are not growing more interested in reconciling modernity and tradition. They are becoming more orthodox. It's somehow liberating (if not encouraging) to see the leader of a religious movement whose goal is to hold the middle ground forcefully wrestle with his sense of failure.
how we flush money down the toilet with our half-hearted endangered species laws
Paul D. Thacker in Environmental Science and Technology:
Many California condors have extremely high concentrations of lead and must occasionally be caught to undergo chelation therapy to remove the heavy metal from their blood. But for the past 22 years, scientists and hunting activists have argued over how this endangered species is being poisoned. Now, research posted today on ES&T’s Research ASAP website (DOI: 10.1021/es060765s) finds that hunting ammunition is the cause of lead poisoning in condors. The results may spur state regulations that force hunters to use nonlead ammunition in the condor range.
Don Smith, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and corresponding author of the study, says that years of anecdotal evidence have pointed to hunting ammunition as the source of lead in condors, but scientists lacked hard data.
“These results are a no-brainer,” he says. “The problem is that the people who need to be convinced to take action have not been convinced,” he says, referring to politicians and special interest groups that fight attempts to regulate lead ammunition.
The Origins of Radical Islam in England
Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank suggest that Muslim extremism among some young British Pakistanis can be traced to Kashmir.
[H]omegrown militancy can only partly account for the problem. That's because it is primarily in Pakistan--not the United Kingdom--where British citizens are being recruited into Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. About 400,000 British Pakistanis per year travel back to their homeland, where a small percentage embark on learning the skills necessary to become effective terrorists. Several of the British citizens recently suspected of plotting to blow up airliners reportedly went to Pakistan to meet Al Qaeda operatives. According to a government report released this year, British officials believe that the lead perpetrators of the 2005 attacks in London--Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer--met with Al Qaeda members in Pakistan. Several individuals allegedly involved in a 2004 plot to explode a fertilizer bomb in Great Britain also spent significant time in Pakistan. In April 2003, Omar Khan Sharif, whose family immigrated to Great Britain from Kashmir, attempted to carry out a suicide attack in a bar in Tel Aviv after visiting Pakistan. In 2001, according to British prosecutors, he e-mailed his wife from there, writing, "We will definitely, inshallah, meet soon, if not in this life then the next." And, in the fall of 2001, Sajit Badat plotted to explode a transatlantic airliner with a shoe bomb shortly after spending time in a Pakistani training camp.
But how to explain the lure of militancy for those who travel to Pakistan to become terrorists? The answer, in many cases, is Kashmir. A disproportionate number of Pakistanis living in Great Britain trace their lineage back to Kashmir. Though conventional wisdom holds that anger toward U.S. foreign policy is most responsible for creating new terrorists, among British Pakistanis, Kashmir is probably just as important. What's more, for the small number of British Pakistanis who want terrorist training, the facilities of Kashmiri militant groups have become an obvious first choice--as well as a gateway to Al Qaeda itself.
sernovitz v. Shteyngart
3QD friend Gary Sernovitz reviews Absurdistan at n+1.
When you have two girlfriends, John Madden once said, you have none. Madden, the football commentator, was talking about quarterbacks. If neither of a team’s quarterbacks is good enough to end the debate on which one should play, then the team doesn’t have a player fit for the job. So, too, if a man can’t decide between two women, neither is the right one for him. Misha Vainberg, the narrator of Gary Shteyngart’s second novel, Absurdistan, has two girlfriends: Rouenna in the Bronx and Nana in the fictional Central Asian country of Absurdsvanï. This is not a problem for Misha, but it is a problem for Absurdistan. Misha’s frequent, fervent declarations of love for both women make him hard to believe about either one.
Absurdistan has bigger problems, though. Impressively imagined, it recreates the insidiousness, spectacle, and variety of contemporary American and global culture. Yet it suffers deeply from Shteyngart’s disregard for selection and consequence in his jokes, incidents, and characters, especially Misha himself. John Madden might also have said that when you have two voices, you have none, and Misha Vainberg has seven or eight.
appiah on beliefs and rationality
But don't values still fall short of the standard of rationality by which we measure beliefs? Appiah replies that even a person's beliefs are only rational relative to the beliefs he already possesses. It is no more irrational for a member of the Asante clan to believe that his aunt's illness is caused by her daughter-in-law's witchcraft than for a person in Manhattan to believe that a virus is responsible. The westerner does not see viruses invading cells any more than the Asante sees witches producing their malign effects. When scientists looked at photographs of cloud chambers they saw fuzzy lines which it was rational to interpret as the paths of electrons only because of prior theoretical beliefs. Appiah concludes that "you can't get into the game of belief by starting from nothing". However, he rejects the view that we cannot adjudicate between beliefs in witchcraft and viruses. The former, he declares, are false, the latter true; the theories and ideas of science are "far superior" to those of pre-scientific societies. By Appiah's own reckoning, this judgment is rational only relative to the beliefs he already possesses.
more from Guardian Unlimited Books here.
8. For all its allure, its mystery, its sublime significance, the ruin always totters on the edge of a certain species of kitsch. The pleasure of the ruin—the frisson of decay, distance, destruction—is both absolutely unique to the individual wreckage, and endlessly repeatable, like the postcard that is so often its tangible memento. The very recent, industrial ruin is the contemporary equivalent of the picturesque view of a decaying Roman amphitheatre: it is part of an aesthetic now so generalized as to have lost almost all of its charge as a generic image. The twentieth-century ruin has become the preserve of countless urban explorers and enthusiasts of decaying concrete: the evidence of their obsession is spreading across hundreds of websites devoted to haunted asylums, silent foundries, vacant bunkers, and amputated subway stations. The secret of these places, in short, is out: the motivation behind such a fascination for decay is less clear, however. The ruin, still with us after six centuries of obsession, is no longer the image of a lost knowledge, nor of the inevitable return of repressed nature, nor even of a simple nostalgia for modernity. Instead, it seems almost a means of mourning the loss of the aesthetic itself. Ruins show us again—just like the kitsch object—a world in which beauty (or sublimity) is sealed off, its derangement safely framed and endlessly repeatable. It is a melancholy world in which, as Adorno put it, "no recollection is possible any more, save by way of perdition; eternity appears, not as such, but diffracted through the most perishable."
more from Cabinet here.
First Arab Nobel laureate dies
Naguib Mahfouz, who became the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, died at his home today. He was 94.
Mahfouz, whose novels depicted Egyptian life in his beloved corner of ancient Cairo, was admitted to the hospital just over a month ago after falling in his home and injuring his head. He died this morning after a sharp decline, according to Dr Hossam Mowafi, the head of a medical team that had been supervising his treatment. Long established as one of the Middle East's finest and best-loved writers, and an ardent advocate of moderation and religious tolerance, Mahfouz's acceptance of the Nobel Prize in 1988 brought him to international notice. But a wider readership came at a price: in 1994, an attacker inspired by a militant cleric's ruling that one of Mahfouz's novels was blasphemous stabbed the then-82-year-old writer as he left his Cairo home. The attack damaged the nerves leading to his right arm, effectively putting an end to his former practice of writing for hours in longhand.
Why Does It Still Hurt, Doc?
From The Washington Post:
They regularly visit doctors' offices complaining of baffling combinations of symptoms for which no medical cause can be found: chest pain one month, gynecologic problems the next, followed by headaches or crushing fatigue.
Hospital staff privately refer to them as "crocks" -- people who repeatedly show up in emergency rooms demanding expensive, exhaustive tests to unearth the elusive cause of their numerous symptoms. Reassurance that their tests don't show anything amiss has the opposite effect, convincing these patients that physicians haven't looked hard enough -- or don't believe them. Most are women who develop the lifelong disorder during adolescence.
August 29, 2006
Sleeping with Cannibals
Paul Raffaele in Smithsonian Magazine:
Cannibalism was practiced among prehistoric human beings, and it lingered into the 19th century in some isolated South Pacific cultures, notably in Fiji. But today the Korowai are among the very few tribes believed to eat human flesh. They live about 100 miles inland from the Arafura Sea, which is where Michael Rockefeller, a son of then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, disappeared in 1961 while collecting artifacts from another Papuan tribe; his body was never found. Most Korowai still live with little knowledge of the world beyond their homelands and frequently feud with one another. Some are said to kill and eat male witches they call khakhua.
Greg Grandin in the Boston Review:
There is something quaint—flattering, even—about the way Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez insists on calling George W. Bush “Mr. Danger.” The taunt, which Chávez delivers in English with rolled-out vowels and pinched consonants, evokes an earlier era of cloak-and-dagger politics and lends Bush a certain mystery that he is generally denied in these shrill times of stateless terrorism. Mr. Danger, it turns out, is a minor character in Rómulo Gallegos’s 1929 novel Doña Barbara, a landmark in Venezuelan literature and before the fiction boom of the 1970s one of the most widely read Latin American novels in the world. A “great mass of muscles under red skin, with a pair of very blue eyes,” he is one of many unsympathetic misters who populate 20th-century Latin American social and magical realist prose, beginning in 1904 with the Chilean writer Baldomero Lillo’s abusive mine foreman Mr. Davis and continuing through Mr. Brown, the manager of a U.S. banana company in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Colliding Clusters Shed Light on Dark Matter
From Scientific American:
For more than 70 years, astronomers, cosmologists and physicists have known that ordinary matter must be surrounded by vast quantities of an invisible substance--not substantial enough to collide with atoms or stars but massive enough to keep galaxies from flying apart. Dubbed dark matter, the mysterious stuff has eluded detection through any means other than its gravitational impact, leading some to propose that Einstein's general relativity fails to adequately describe how gravity actually works on galactic scales. Now a relatively recent collision of two galaxy clusters has lifted the veil between ordinary and dark matter, proving the latter must exist.
More here. Also in Scientific American, Robert Caldwell answers the question "What are dark matter and dark energy, and how are they affecting the universe?"
From Laura's new website:
Laura Claridge has written several books ranging from feminist theory to biography and popular culture, most recently Norman Rockwell: A Life (Random House). She is currently completing a biography of American icon Emily Post, Emily Post and the American Dream: Red Shoes, White Gloves and the Little Blue Book (Random House), for which she received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant (2005). This project also received the J. Anthony Lukas Prize for a Work in Progress (2006), administered by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Born in Clearwater, Florida, Laura Claridge received her Ph.D. in British Romanticism and Literary Theory from the University of Maryland in 1986. She taught in the English departments at Converse and Wofford colleges in Spartanburg, SC, and was a tenured professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis until 1997.
She has been a frequent writer and reviewer for the national press, appearing in such newspapers as The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. Her books have been translated into Spanish, German, and Polish. She has appeared frequently in the national media, including NBC, CNN, BBC, CSPAN, and NPR and such widely watched programs as the Today Show.
Laura Claridge has also been my teacher, mentor, and very dear friend for a very long time. More about this amazingly accomplished woman here (including reviews by and of her, excerpts from her books, and much more).
NY man charged for beaming Hezbollah TV
Lindsay Beyerstein in Majikthise:
A New York City businessman is facing charges for making broadcasts from Hezbollah's al-Manar satellite TV station available to New Yorkers. [BBC]
The right wing tabloids have been all over this story. I'm surprised that the arrest of Javed Iqbal hasn't generated more attention from civil libertarians.
This case could set some very troubling precedents. So far, he has been charged with doing business with a terrorist entity, but there may be more serious charges to come:
Prosecutor Stephen A Miller had argued against granting him bail, indicating more charges were likely to be filed.
"The charge lurking in the background is material support for terrorism," the Associated Press news agency quotes him as saying. [BBC]
We can't treat all dealings with Hezbollah as if they were the equivalent of dealings with an Al Qaeda cell. Like it or not, Hezbollah has an institutional and political presence in the region as well as a military force. Hezbollah runs hospitals, schools, and other social service agencies. Hezbollah members sit in the Lebanese legislature. The US government didn't sever diplomatic relations with Lebanon just because members of Hezbollah have seats in the Lebanese legislature. Why should we hold American businesspeople to a stricter standard?
More here, including quite a discussion in the comments.
they made art with all kinds of crap
They had some striking wallpaper in France 70 years ago. There was wallpaper that emulated the ornate gold-on-red arabesques of the Empire style, that pastiched stonework, and, far in advance of the date you might guess, paper in an assortment of modern abstract designs - coloured bars, teardrop-like blue petals, cubist triangles. You could buy wallpaper printed with ridged relief maps of the continents, olive-brown against grey oceans. Presumably, this didactic geographical wallpaper was intended for a child's bedroom. It took the imagination of Picasso to turn it into a dress..
In 1938, the 20th century's greatest painter made a work of art out of wallpaper
more from The Guardian here.
james lee byars
In Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951) Erwin Panofsky argues that the builders of Gothic churches did not need to read scholastic philosophy in order to adopt a similar worldview, for “they were exposed to the Scholastic point of view in innumerable other ways….” Very often art too reflects the period style of its supporting culture. By displaying Judd’s art on the twentieth and twenty-first floors in midtown Manhattan, in rooms with large windows on all four sides of the building, Christie’s allows us to see how his sculptures and wall pieces mirror the architecture of America. Look from his boxes and stacks to the windows of the nearby skyscrapers, or compare his corner piece linking two panels with a black pipe and his wood blocks with horizontal and vertical lines to the banal architectural structures outside the gallery. In the city at large, as in Judd’s art, regular geometric divisions are omnipresent. He reconstructs our urban environments, making aesthetic the city’s basic visual vocabulary. It was instructive to walk from Renzo Piano’s newly opened reconstruction of the Morgan Library and Museum a few blocks uptown to Christie’s. The new steel-and-glass pavilions at the entrance, thrust into the older Renaissance-style palazzo designed by Charles McKim, bear a striking resemblance to Judd’s boxes. Christie’s most generous gift to the public (April 3 – May 9, 2006), the highest display of art I have yet visited, and one of the best, effectively presented Judd’s vision. James Lee Byars’s “The Rest is Silence” was dispersed amongst gallery spaces of three New York dealers. And so when you traveled from Michael Werner uptown down to the Chelsea galleries of Mary Boone and Perry Rubenstein, it was natural to reflect upon the relationship of Byars’s art to its urban setting.
more from artcritical here.
no more gods
Zeus would not approve. In Wolfgang Petersen's 2004 movie ``Troy" and now in ``An Iliad" (Knopf), the new novelization of Homer's epic by the bestselling Italian author Alessandro Baricco, we find no gods -- none. No Hera or Aphrodite; no limping Hephaestus or weed-bearded Poseidon; the whole fractious, horny, and meddlesome crew is simply...not there.
The omissions in ``Troy" we can probably forgive; a swords-and-sandals blockbuster like that, swirling in money and policed no doubt by militant producers, might just not have had room for visions or divine entries. But the godlessness of Baricco's ``An Iliad" is more considered and programmatic: Homer's Olympians ``are probably the aspect of the poem most extraneous to a modern sensibility and often break up the narrative, diffusing a momentum that should rightly be palpable," he writes in an introductory note. ``I wouldn't have removed them if I'd been convinced they were necessary."
more from Boston Globe Ideas here.
Why the study of English lit needs to become a tough subject again
Great (British) literary critics are like heavyweight boxing champions. No one bothers to know their names any more. Lit-crit used to be big time; Henry Cooper big. No longer. Our very greatest living GBLC is Frank Kermode, now in his ninth decade. Sir Frank (like 'Enery in his field of combat) was ennobled for services to literary criticism. Something makes him a rather lone figure among the sovereign's doughty band of knights.
Looking back over the field he has dominated for half a century, Kermode's words are unminced. Universities, he says, "are being driven by madmen". And education in general "is being run by lunatics".
Micro-motor runs on bacteria power
At Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology near Tokyo, Hiratsuka and his colleagues experimented with one of the most rapid crawling bacteria, Mycoplasma mobile. This pear-shaped microbe, a millionth of a meter long, can glide over surfaces at up to seven-tenths of an inch an hour. Translated to a 6-foot-tall (180-centimeter-tall) runner, this roughly equates to 20 mph (32 kilometers per hour). The researchers built circular pathways coated with sugary proteins, which the microbe needs to stick to in order to glide over surfaces. They then docked a rotor onto the track and coated the bacteria with vitamin B7, which acted like glue to yoke the germs to the cog. They also genetically modified the microbes so they stuck to their tracks more stably.
The scientists created roughly 20,000 rotors on a silicon chip. Each cog is etched from silica, which sand is made of, and is 20 microns wide, or roughly a fifth the diameter of a human hair. In addition to helping drive micro-robots, Hiratsuka suggested that bacteria-powered motors could help propel micropumps in lab-on-a-chip devices. "Alternatively, we may be able to construct electronic generator systems, which generate electric energy from an abundant chemical source — glucose in the body," he said.
August 28, 2006
Being a fan of Andre Agassi is difficult - there's too much competition. He is the most sentimentally revered figure in the history of professional tennis, which can make appreciating him feel like a form of conformity. For this reason, with the start of the U.S. Open, Agassi's declared last tournament, many tennis enthusiasts prefer to moan about the press banquet of schmaltz being spread out before us. But, as with music fans who denounce overly popular musicians to demonstrate their independence, those who allow NBC's endless 'inspirational' montages to dictate their feelings are merely indulging in juvenile contrarianism. Having trouble admiring what is too popular is a common youthful problem, but not the one I face here. Quite the opposite: with nostalgic tributes to Agassi thicker on the ground than confetti, many composed by people who have actually met the man, what can I add?
Maybe I can start by critiquing some of the broad brushstrokes used to paint the man's narrative arc. Today's New York Times contains an illustration of Agassi bisected into two halves: on the left, his youthful bleach-blond maned incarnation; on the right, his current "wizened veteran" visage. As a visual metaphor it sums up the common conception of Agassi's career: after a wasted youth spent caring too much about image, Agassi dropped to number 141 in the rankings, then was reborn having learned important life lessons and returned to number one. Simple, but mostly wrong. In truth, Agassi's career has been about comebacks from the very beginning.
Agassi was blessed with ball-striking talent so clean and remarkable that at age four he rallied with Jimmy Connors for a crowd at Caesar's Palace in his hometown of Las Vegas. Growing up, he was seen in no uncertain terms as a prodigy who would go on to dominate tennis. And he duly burned up the men's tour as a teenager, and in 1990 he reached the finals of two Grand Slam tournaments as a heavy favorite. He lost both (although we later came to realize that losing to a then-unknown Pete Sampras wasn't as inexplicable as it then seemed), then reached the French Open final in 1991 again as the favorite, and lost again. What happened?
Agassi's early years were marked by a desire and an ability to hit the ball harder off both forehand and backhand sides than was generally considered wise. He possessed, however, a freakish consistency in his ability to strike the ball early (making 'hit it on the rise' into a shibboleth of the era) and accurately. First chance he got, he simply blasted you off the court. Agassi was able to maintain the "flow state" -- those ineffable, perfect stretches -- much more of the time than others, with less practice and less preparation. He had a sort of genius.
Yet his talent came with a price. The unconscious ability to unload on the ball was prone, as all such talents are, to disappear during moments of tension. This happened to him quite often early in his career; when faced with matches he was favored in, and thus pressured by, he often lost them. It was as if the punishment for how easily the strokes came to him was a lack of strategies to win (you can see this today with Marat Safin). The midsection of his career then, was marked by fallow periods followed by amazing victories out of nowhere. He won the 1992 Wimbledon after playing indifferently for months, with little practice, on his worst surface. Again he disappeared, only to resurface with a poor ranking and become the only player to win the U.S. Open without a seeding in 1994.
At this stage, Agassi employed the crafty former veteran, Brad Gilbert, whose professional success despite a near vacuum of talent was the precise reversal of Agassi's underachievement. Together, Gilbert and Agassi were able to concoct strategies of point construction that could overcome Agassi's early reliance on irruptions of brilliance. Specifically, the new plan was to become fitter than any man on tour, and to punish opponents by jerking them from side to side, purposely not making the killing stroke until a plain positional adavantage was achieved. This plan wore opponents out, induced unforced errors (which are the easiest way to win points), and, most importantly, freed Agassi from reliance on the "flow state." He began to dominate, beating Sampras at the Australian Open to begin 1995, and in doing so generated a hybrid offensive-defensive model for success followed to this day.
Agassi went on to dominate 1995 until the U.S. Open final against Pete Sampras, which he entered having won 27 straight matches. Sampras, however, had never needed to play the defensive tactics Agassi had developed, because Sampras possessed a serve that is probably the single most devastating weapon in tennis history. (The shorter Agassi, by contrast, has never had the psychological luxury of a great serve.) In addition, Sampras never showed vulnerability on big stages the way Agassi did. He mercilessly served Agassi off the court that day, sending him into a tailspin from which Agassi took two years to recover.
Now, the rivalry between Sampras and Agassi was extremely close. Every time they met in Grand Slams on a slower surface (Roland Garros, Australia), Agassi won. Of their sixteen tournament finals, Agassi won seven, Pete nine. Unfortunately, everytime they met in the two faster Slams, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Sampras won. These are the most prestigious tournaments in tennis. After 1995, Agassi was faced with the realization that all his childhood genius combined with all his adulthood grinding was still not good enough to defeat Sampras at the events most important to him. There was also the nagging sense that he cared too much in the big moments to be a true killer.
Don't shut down on a player. Agassi lost some interest, then made the mother of all comebacks, from 141 in 1998 to winning the French Open in 1999. This gave him the historic full collection of Grand Slams on three surfaces, an achievement Sampras couldn't match (nor Federer, as yet). And thus began a run of dominance at an age that defied belief, and a consistency he had never before showed. Agassi was ranked number one as recently as June 2003, and just last year, of course, played Federer pretty darn tough in the U.S. Open final, at age 35.
I have spent some time recounting the many comebacks of Agassi's career, to give some of the flavor of his tenure in tennis. Rather than a dominant number one, he has always seemed to be an ephemeral victor, an paradoxical combination of all-time legend with underdog. He has revived his passion for the intense physical work of playing professional tennis after disappointments of many kinds. Uniquely among top players, who rise to the top, are displaced, and then fade away, Agassi was able to scale the heights repeatedly, never becoming fatally disengaged by heartbreaking losses. This was partly because of his amazing native facility for pugilistic hitting, much more due to his tenacious desire to play.
Like tennis' Gatsby, Agassi was an extremely sensitive arriviste; of Armenian-Iranian origins, Agassi's father had boxed for Iran before moving to Las Vegas to pursue Amercian social mobility. His drilling of Agassi as a toddler may have programmed Agassi's later perfection in muscle memory. Agassi's astonishingly bad, Merry Go Round fashion sense as a youngster was a sign of his contempt for those who would attempt to exclude him because of his lack of gentility. Likewise his denunciations of Wimbledon's dress code and anything else that seemed insufficiently egalitarian to the teenage Agassi.
After such an assault on a perceived establishment, Agassi's transformation into the offical Elder Statesman of tennis sometimes surprises. But the intelligence he always showed has remained constant. He has an uncanny ability to remember crucial details, and he is probably the most accurate tennis analyst alive. (Here's Agassi after playing Federer; here after playing Nadal.) He is compassionate towards others as only a career underdog could be: he is by far the world's most philanthropic athlete. His career has demonstrated that redemption does not come from winning, but from working and giving (as New Agey as that, and Agassi, often sounds). This last, by the way, is what I believe Agassi means when he says he owes a debt to tennis, that tennis has taught him lessons.
Caring more deeply about his sport and its intersection with the actual world than maybe any other player, Agassi showed that sensitivity can be an asset instead of a liability for athletes, who are more commonly compared to warriors and assassins. This has had far-reaching effects on sport. No longer do we think that true champions must be repressive drones or angry jerks. If Federer is Sampras' technical heir, he is Agassi's emotional heir: he wins without negativity. Federer, Andy Roddick, and others have also followed the lead Agassi set by forming their own foundations (Agassi's runs a public school in a deprived section of Las Vegas). The more impassive Sampras won more, and the more talented Federer will win more, but Agassi's care has won him the love of the world. The most important thing I've learned from watching him is how to defeat winning and losing.
The rest of Dispatches.
Monday musing: once more on the whole grass thing
Maybe it is OK to be a Nazi if you also happened to write at least one really amazing book. Granted, Mister Grass has written a lot of crap in the last few decades. I was recently trying to read My Century when a fit of boredom so immobilized me I had to watch several episodes of The Entourage on a friend's TiVo just to get back the use of my limbs. But The Tin Drum is a great book of the twentieth century. It is so good that you can't debate it. It's just good. It's great. A person who has written a book like The Tin Drum has provided a service for humanity. They have managed to grasp and convey something deep and profound and important about the real experiences of a generation. A novel that operates on that level is performing at the very highest echelon of what a novel can do and be. The Tin Drum is one of the novels that actually did the work of putting the European mind and soul back together again after its utter collapse in the traumas of the first half of the twentieth century. John Berger put it this way in his impassioned defense of Grass in last week's Guardian:
… [H]is life as a storyteller was devoted to grasping, narrating and explaining, with extensive fellow-feeling, the contradictions, cruelties, abysmal losses, wisdom, ignorance, cowardice and grace of people (person by person) under extreme historical stress. Very few other writers of our time have such a wide knowledge of articulate and inarticulate experience. Grass never shut his eyes. He became a writer of honour.
The Tin Drum, in that sense, changed the world, at least a little bit (and for the better). The person who wrote The Tin Drum has therefore become a special person to us.
Günter Grass is also a terrible blow hard and sometimes barely tolerable jerk who has shown a calculated and self-serving side in many of his actions, most egregiously in rather conveniently waiting to receive his Nobel Prize before mentioning anything about all that SS stuff. Christopher Hitchens, not one to mince words, has summed up the situation thusly:
Grass' many defenders have not asked themselves the question that needs to be posed, which is: Has he at last decided to appeal to the new German readership that is, so to say, a bit fed up with hearing about how dreadful the Nazis were? If this admittedly rather cynical suggestion has any merit, then at least his recent boring writings and operatic confessions would, in combination, make perfect sense. But they would also make absolute nonsense of his previous career as a literary policeman and a patroller of the line of taboo. "Let those who want to judge, pass judgment," Grass said last week in a typically sententious utterance. Very well, then, mein lieber Herr. The first judgment is that you kept quiet about your past until you could win the Nobel Prize for literature. The second judgment is that you are not as important to German or to literary history as you think you are. The third judgment is that you will be remembered neither as a war criminal nor as an anti-Nazi hero, but more as a bit of a bloody fool.
There is no question that Hitchens is essentially correct in this tirade. Grass can and should be condemned for all of it. And here there is something lacking in Berger's otherwise thoughtful essay. Berger is right that Grass proved himself, in his work, to be a writer of honor. But he's also proved himself to be a complete ass. It took Hitchens to put his finger on that one messy little detail: Grass is a piece of shit.
But he is also great, overwhelmingly, wonderfully great. That's how good his book is. And that is the one thing Hitchens is wrong about. Grass's importance to German literature and, indeed, to world literature can't be underestimated. That's what happens when you write a truly great novel. Perhaps it's not right, but there you have it. There are lots of weasely little worms who served with the SS when they were too young or ignorant to realize what they were doing and they'll never be forgiven for it. Nor should they be. Let them rot. But they didn't write any great novels. When you do something great, the rules change. That is the nature of our moral world, the human moral world in which things don't work out very clean and nice. They get complicated and they do so quickly. Berger gives a nod to that fact in his essay but he makes it too easy on himself and thus too easy on Grass as well. Hitchens is no friend to easiness but he has to fudge the issue as well in order to achieve the finality of his moral judgments. In the end, Hitchens has to belittle Grass's writing in order to get away cleanly with his judgments. The one time Hitchens mentions The Tin Drum, he does so with a telling reverence that shows how much he is brushing the question of Grass's achievement under the rug. He writes, "For all this, one was never able to suppress the slight feeling that the author of The Tin Drum was something of a bigmouth and a fraud, and also something of a hypocrite." Well, fair enough. But that's the point. He is still the author of The Tin Drum and nothing is going to change that. It has to enter into our thinking about the man and what he is to us, what he means to us.
The brilliant philosopher Bernard Williams once coined the term Moral Luck. With it, he meant to pound a little contingency into the universalist and absolute moral philosophies of the Kantians and Utilitarians. We are not judged, Williams meant to say, in the pure realm of our actions and intentions, but within the decidedly contingent realm of the outcomes of those actions and intentions. What happens matters. The way things turn out, which is effectively impossible to foretell, has a lot to do with how we judge and understand the initial behavior. Williams was famously fond of his Gauguin example. It was, by any standard, a rather reprehensible set of actions that led Gauguin to abandon his wife and child and take off to Tahiti where he could behave scandalously with very young girls. It was a shitty thing to do. But, Gauguin also managed to accomplish something else. He painted brilliant paintings there. He painted paintings that were a revelation, that blew painting open and revealed new worlds of possibility to the art of his time. That is an accomplishment that cannot be ignored in the attempt to take account of Gauguin's awful behavior to the people who needed him most. We judge Gauguin differently in the light of his accomplishment. That isn't even to say that we let him off the hook, but that we simply cannot see his actions as unrelated to his accomplishments when those accomplishments are so meaningful to the world we all share.
And that is where Günter Grass currently resides. He's in Gauguin territory. And any attempt to reduce him either to being a complete fraud on the one hand or a martyr/saint on the other is going to look like bad moral philosophy. Maybe we simply have to say that he's a piece of shit who got away with it. Worse things happen in the world than that. But I'm glad he wrote The Tin Drum and I have no question that the world in which The Tin Drum was written is better than the world in which it wasn't.
Random Walks: She's a Rebel
-- Jane Austen, in a letter dated March 13, 1816
There's been a great deal of heated discussion in the blogosphere this past week about that infamous Forbes column by Michael Noer. You know the one. It's where he urges his male readers to marry any woman, pretty or ugly, so long as she's not an example of that unnatural, emasculating, horrific hellbeast -- the dreaded Career Woman. Because dude, that is just a recipe for divorce, according to Noer's generic "social scientists." Not because the fragile male ego can't take the competition, but because such marriages run a higher risk of failure due to the woman's dissatisfaction with a mate who might not be able to keep pace with her fast-track professional goals and achievements.
It took mere nanoseconds for every feminist blogger (male and female) on the Internet to be up in arms over Noer's crassly sexist scribblings; even Jack Shafer at Slate felt compelled to weigh in on the issue. Among the many other objections raised, Noer's definition of a "Career Woman" is not the stereotypical senior partner in a law firm or corporate CEO bringing down six figures (or more), but any female with a college degree who works 35 hours a week and makes more than $30,000 a year. The accompanying readership outcry prompted the Powers That Be at Forbes to post a rebuttal by Elizabeth Corcoran, which now appears side-by-side with Noer's original screed.
I wonder whether Noer would have considered the English novelist Jane Austen to be one of those unmarriageable "career women" he so clearly despises. She certainly didn't fit his simplistic strict criteria: she lived quietly, had no formal education, and came from modest means. While technically her "career" was writing, she earned very little from her literary endeavors -- rarely more than 100 pounds per year -- and spent much of her life dependent on financial assistance from her brothers. Yet in her own quiet way, she was quite the rabble-rousing feminist revolutionary, particularly when it came to her ideological views on matters of marriage.
Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775, in Hampshire, England, the seventh child of eight born to the local rector, George Austen, and his wife. Her father was a gentleman, with a respectable income supplemented by private tutoring, but the costs of maintaining such a large household meant that Jane and her older sister, Cassandra, didn't have much in the way of dowries. Nor was there much opportunity for formal education, apart from a year-long stint at a nearby boarding school. But she learned to draw and play the pianoforte, and she was an avid reader, with full access to her father's considerable library. She also loved to write, penning humorous parodies of Shakespeare's plays and the more fashionable novels of her day for her family's amusement at the age of 12. By 20 she had turned her attention to writing novels.
It's quite telling that Austen's heroines were rarely girly-girls, by Regency standards, where the only socially acceptable status for women was marriage -- otherwise they were "doomed" to be spinster dependents, teachers, governesses, or lowly servants. Catherine in Northanger Abbey prefers cricket and baseball to more feminine forms of play, and loves "rolling down the green slope at the back of the house." But none of Austen's protagonists are as modern as Elizabeth Bennett, the spirited heroine of Pride and Prejudice. She is pretty and charming enough to turn heads, but with no dowry, her marital prospects are slim. Nonetheless, she still refuses two proposals of marriage: one from her cousin, Mr. Collins, and one from Mr. Darcy (whom, as we all know, she eventually accepts -- but only because she loves him). Either one of them would have been acceptable matches in Regency England -- indeed, Darcy was quite the catch -- but Elizabeth heeds her father's warnings not to tie herself to a life partner she can't love and respect.
That was a downright radical notion in Austen's day: women simply didn't have the luxury of marrying for love. Compare Elizabeth's choices and attitude with that of her far more pragmatic friend, Charlotte Lucas, who marries the odious Mr. Collins simply because she has no better prospects, being both plain and poor -- and, at 27, verging on desperation to avoid abject spinsterhood. Charlotte personifies the plight of the low-brow Regency gentlewoman, for whom marriage "was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want."
As Austen wrote, so she lived. She, too, had limited marital prospects because of her small dowry, despite being described in contemporary accounts as very pretty, lively, witty, even flirtatious -- the kind of fun-loving, whip-smart girl-next-door many men would dearly love to meet and marry. Unable, for financial reasons, to marry the young man she truly cared for at age 20, she resisted attempts to set her up with a local reverend in Cambridge the following year. In 1802, then in her late 20s, she briefly succumbed to temptation and accepted a marriage proposal from one Harris Bigg-Wither, a man six years her junior, quite prosperous, but "big and awkward." She repented the next day and rescinded her acceptance, choosing to live out her life as a spinster rather than marry for anything other than love -- even if it meant sacrificing financial stability. In the end, Austen had the courage of her convictions. Noer would have just hated her, I suspect. She, in turn, would have found him quite ridiculous, no doubt making him the target of her razor-sharp wit.
One might be tempted to dismiss this past week's hullabaloo as the proverbial tempest in a teapot were Noer a lone voice crying in the wilderness. My inner cynic insists that Forbes and Noer were deliberately antagonistic in order to generate just the sort of red-hot free publicity the article has since received. Even if my inner cynic is wrong, who really cares about the opinions of a clearly insecure man who lacks the stones to consider a potential wife his equal? Not me. The whole "Battle of the Sexes" debate seems so, well, 1970s. But there seems to be a disturbing broader trend at play: an abject terror that our society is changing as a result of the progress made over the last 30 years in terms of women's rights, the roles they play, and the ever-widening array of choices they can make. And we all know how people fear change -- even when it's arguably for the better.
Consider a few examples from The New York Times, which has been running an alarmist series of articles on "the new gender divide." For instance, on July 9 , Tamar Lewin reported on how women college students were leaving men in the dust, in terms of their commitment to achieving academic success -- perhaps because most women don't (yet) view education as an entitlement, having been denied the privilege for centuries. This should be a positive development, but apparently, it is evidence for a pending "crisis for boys," despite the fact that, as Lewin writes, "[M]en still dominate the math-science axis, earn more money, and wield more power than women." One gets the sense that Lewin was reluctant to jump on the "crisis" bandwagon, since she goes on to prominently quote the skeptical education analyst Sara Mead: "The idea that girls could be ahead is so shocking that they think it must be a crisis for boys."
Further riffing on the "men are victims" motif, the August 6
installment of the Times' gender divide series detailed the growing number of
men between 40 and 44, with less than four years of college, who are
still (gasp!) single, in part because women have become economically independent. Again, this ought to be a positive thing. In fact, it's a bit difficult to take such concerns seriously. Personally, I'm still waiting for the TIME cover story declaring that men over 40 have a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married; maybe then I'll start to worry -- in between chortles of delight at having the matrimonial tables turned at long last. But part of me bristles at the unspoken implication that the reason such men aren't married isn't due to choice, but because all those uppity, status-seeking, money-grubbing, over-educated females think they're too good for the hard-working regular guy. That's insulting to both men and women.
Yea verily, I exaggerate for comic effect, but even more unsettling is a nagging sense that there might be a wee bit of truth to that exaggeration. Lewin's article quotes a young female college student as saying she would be reluctant to marry a man without a college degree: "I want to be able to have that intellectual conversation." Eventually this young woman will learn that a college degree, even from an Ivy League school, is not necessarily evidence of intelligence -- just look at our current president. Ironically, the over-40 single men featured in the August 9 Times article were described as healthy, youthful and happy despite their unmarried state, although they still desired female companionship. It is no longer a "truth universally acknowledged" that a young man of good fortune must, by definition, be in want of a wife. Ditto for young women of good fortune.
And let's not forget last October's pathetic "pity me" whine-fest by Times columnist Maureen Dowd, intended to help launch her new book, provocatively titled Are Men Necessary? (Check out Katie Roiphe's witty, Austen-worthy smack-down of Dowd in Slate entitled, "Is Maureen Dowd Necessary?") In essence, Dowd complains that men don't want lively, spirited women who are their intellectual equals because they find them too threatening; instead, they want pliable women in positions of servitude: maids, for instance, or secretaries. At the same time, however, Dowd finds very few men she herself would deem acceptable based on her stringent, "I must marry up" criteria. Can you say "double standard"? Granted, it's hard to marry "up" when you're, well, Maureen Dowd. But why does someone as well-placed as Maureen Dowd even need to marry "up"? Why dismiss otherwise handsome, decent men as prospective husbands out of hand just because they're a little lower on the socio-economic ladder? (What would Mr. Darcy do? Easy -- he married Elizabeth anyway, despite her lower socio-economic status, because he loved her and could afford to choose with his heart.)
Jane Austen would never have been so crass. She knew marriage should be first and foremost based on mutual love and respect, and that a union of true equals has nothing to do with their respective socio-economic status. She suffered the loss of her youthful suitor, an Irishman named Thomas Lefroy, because "society" -- in the form of their respective families -- didn't deem him economically worthy. (He had the last laugh: he later became chief justice of Ireland, and told his nephew of his "boyish love" for Jane Austen.) Another young man who fell in love with her, and whom she might have loved in return, and married, died tragically before he could propose. (A similar fate befell Austen's older sister, Cassandra, who was engaged for several years to a young man who died before they could marry.)
Marriage for women is no longer about economic survival, as it was in Austen's day. Women have never had more freedom of choice, more options for what they want from life. And yet, it seems that the issue of marriage is becoming more about the social pressure to conform to the cultural stereotype than it is about finding the right loving partner. Anyone who doesn't fit the traditional mold is viewed with extreme suspicion. The message to young women today is clear: Beware, because nobody will want to marry you if you're too smart, too successful, too selective about your choice of man, because men like Noer can't handle the competition. And that would be terrible! You'll be an old maid! With a hundred cats! People will snicker behind your back and secretly pity you!
Thirty years into the women's movement, and we still labor under the false assumption that marriage is the only acceptable state for a woman -- or a man, for that matter. Even Dowd has fallen into this trap. She's beautiful, powerful, successful, and attracts equally successful, well-heeled men as paramours, even if she hasn't married any of them. She clearly has a pretty high opinion of herself. And yet somehow even Dowd has bought into the notion that all her impressive accomplishments are negated by the fact that she's "still single."
Compare Dowd's attitude to that of Austen, who found humor in her "old maid" status at 37, and even relished certain advantages when chaperoning young ladies at dances, "for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like." She indulged in flowers and concert tickets, and delighted in being an aunt to her many nieces and nephews. And while her novels brought her only modest recognition and financial rewards, they did bring great personal satisfaction. When she died -- probably of Addison's disease -- at 41, she was buried at Winchester Cathedral. Perhaps the only thing that would have piqued her ire was that her tombstone made no mention of her literary accomplishments, merely alluded to "the extraordinary endowments of her mind."
Somehow I doubt Dowd's eventual obituary in the Times will follow its respectful summation of her life's work with the somber observation, "Alas, she never married." That's because we don't live in Austen's Victorian England, with its restrictive social mores and limited opportunities for women. There's still progress to be made on the road to true gender equality, but I believe our society has changed for the better. Women marry not because we need to, but because we choose to do so, and can also choose when to do so. We don't have to be like Charlotte Lucas and accept the first halfway decent guy (or, in poor Charlotte's case, the first pompous insufferable jackass) who comes along. We can afford to hold out for the kind of man we can truly love. And in the long run, that can only be a good thing for both genders. Unlike Dowd, I have faith in the male of the species. I suspect most men, given the choice, would opt to marry a woman who truly loved them, rather than one who wed them out of necessity or raw, status-seeking greed. I consider Noer and his ilk to be the aberration, not the norm.
Austen's Emma is a strong-willed young woman, perhaps just a wee bit spoiled, with enough confidence and economic independence to be able to view marriage as an option, not a necessity. She meets her friend Harriet's horror at the prospect of being an "old maid" with good-humored disdain: "A single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable." Indeed, Emma laments, "To be so bent on marriage -- to pursue a man merely for the sake of a situation -- is a sort of thing that shocks me." Emma's sentiments echo those of her postmodern kindred spirit, the feminist blogger Bitch PhD:
"If you define non-career women as all the 'undereducated' who work part-time and make less than $30K, it becomes painfully obvious why female careerists are more likely to divorce than non-careerists: They can better afford to get out of an unhappy marriage than their sisters. That may be bad news for all the schmoes getting dumped, but it's great news for the gals. So, go ahead, young ladies. Get your degree. Even go to grad school. Gun for that corner office if you want to, and get the guy. If you divorce, make sure to stick him with the shared subscription to Forbes."
[UPDATE: I take responsibility for an inadvertent mis-attribution: the quote above was written not by BitchPhD, but by Shafer in his Slate article, who in turn linked to her. So Shafer is Emma's kindred feminist spirit, and Jane's spirit throws him a genteel high five for his eloquence.]
Somewhere, Jane Austen is demurely pumping her tiny, lace-gloved fist in the air with a big smile on her pixie-ish face, declaring in dulcet well-bred Regency tones, "You go, girls!" My inner hopeless romantic would like to think her lost first love, Tom Lefroy, who everyone said wasn't good "husband material," is laughing by her side.
When not taking random walks at 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette muses on science and culture at her own blog, Cocktail Party Physics.
PERCEPTIONS: lost in suburbia or "let's roam with the deer tonight ..."
Pierre Huyghe. Deer; Streamside Day Follies, 2003.
Current show at the Tate Modern, London. (Thanks to Jaffer Kolb for alerting me to this. It's definitely worth checking out).
Below the Fold: Re-Discovering Evil in a Small Town Library
I have spent a lot of time in libraries.
Some of it was joyous. The library in our town when I was growing up provided the books that transported me into mythic worlds where I found my heroes among ancient Greeks, baseball starts, and even of the occasional great politician. Fastballers, spear throwers, and great rhetoricians – these were my summer companions. I once tried to read Arthur Schlesinger’s first book on FDR. I could barely carry the book home on my bicycle. But even as I ran out of summer time and returned the book unfinished, I still remember that amazing mix of fixers that surrounded the master himself, from clever lawyers, campaigning social reformers, and ward bosses -- all seeking to change an America gone really wrong. As a Chicago boy, raised behind the lace curtain by a family of New Deal Democrats and a states rights Republican father, I often wondered what would have happened to life around me if Mayor Daley had been Jim Farley instead. It would be a better world, I told myself. When John Kennedy and his motorcade passed our house, and my sister and I festooned the attic with his pictures and bumper stickers, much to the dismay of my father and to the secret pleasure of my mother, I figured a better world was coming again.
The solace of the small town library did not last. The fantasies of childhood were replaced by the imperatives of young adulthood. Other atheneums, university libraries, became my haunts. I feared and despised them for some 20 years. Northwestern’s Deering Library, named for the tractor family, became my enemy. Like all Chicagoans who claim first dibs on near-native Frank Lloyd Wright and keep his quotes as closely as they do the poetry of Carl Sandburg, I would remember his acid description of Deering, a Romanesque part church, part castle, that it looked like a pregnant pig on its back.
Its mastery for me proved impossible. Too many books. An unforgiving card catalog. Dim-lit reading rooms, suffocating stacks. Like those great early cathedrals, natural light was anathema. The scant windows were colored. Light was to have shown presumably from within. Outside was the prairie; inside the seat of learning. The little light of mine couldn’t shine.
I later left the Midwest for the East Coast, but the university libraries there were fortresses of learning no less than Deering had been. Even newer libraries built on modernist designs, all glass curtain walls and open plan spaces on the first floors, turned into cloisters up above where all the books were. I hated them too.
But I see now that it was more than architecture that bedeviled me. My relationship to libraries and books had changed. Thanks to my scholarly pursuits, I had become something of a reluctant intellectual minotaur. The man in me had taken on the mind of an industrialist, piling through books in great heaps, pulling out citations, sources, and reading excerpts at an appalling speed. Did you ever wonder why we love Google? No doubt because it perfects our pursuit of industrial knowledge. It is utterly and ruthlessly efficient. It is like a cleaver that cuts through and strips away the meandering intellectual contexts in which knowledge is found. It gives us the meat of the matter, as one used to say in demanding a synthesis from a wistful student or an absent-minded colleague.
The beast in me was weak. The memory of the good mother that the small town library of my past had invoked prevented me from turning Deering or any other learning castles into objects of conquest. I did not feel strong enough to devour or to subordinate them to my will. Moreover, they became a kind of Kryptonite in my intellectual life. The more time I spent in them, and thus with them, the weaker I felt. Thus, I became a guerrilla user. I would strike quickly, practically upending the portion of the stacks that was my target, grabbing up the books, and fleeing the library after a few life-draining hours. But oh, the fines.
Things changed a bit with the arrival of the university library as pastel airport lounge style. Postmodernist architects, by letting in light and by using colors that I think of as variations on United Airlines O’Hare Terminal robin’s egg blue, calmed me. I still attacked the periodicals room in a frenzy, but I did develop little habits of browsing the new books section, even sitting down, and reading a bit without constant breathlessness and palpitations.
This summer, I spent time in a small town library -- Salisbury, Connecticut’s Scoville Library. It says it is America’s first free public library, founded in 1803. The present building was constructed in the late 1880s owing to the benefice of a local iron master named Scoville. It has 33,000 books, the New York Times, The Financial Times, the local newspapers, Harper’s, the Atlantic, but not the New York Review of Books. If the late Norman Cousins were still publishing The Saturday Review, you would doubtless still find it there. Though not a Carnegie library (he financed 3,000 public libraries throughout the nation around the turn of the century), it is like them: a spirited architectural gem, loaded down with the eclectic touches of a time when a lot of Furness and Richardson went a long way.
I find comfort in its finitude. History is just four stands each with six bookshelves: could there be any more than a thousand books? Anthropology and sociology practically disappear, a perverse pleasure for me, the anthropologist.
This is where I re-discovered Hitler. Far and away, he and his Third Reich lead the history collection, a fact I have noted at other town libraries near me in Boston. I had had some good exposure to the genre over the years. In my time as an undergraduate, Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny was a standby in poli sci courses otherwise devoted to mindnumbing abstract theories of modernization and nation-building, a kind of functionalist fun house of American triumphalism produced by the self-satisfied political scientist cold warriors. Bullock was grudgingly assigned as the sugar that made the veiled ideology of American superiority go down more easily. Hitler like Stalin was an anti-American, all that was the evil that we were not. He like Stalin was an object lesson in what could happen mostly elsewhere, save the McCarthy era, if we did not remain vigilant and spread democracy worldwide.
About Hitler, The Holocaust, Night and Fog, Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and yes, Mel Brooks became my teachers in addition to Bullock over the years. I had book-marked the new three-volume histories of Hitler and of the Third Reich, but hadn’t gotten to either of them.
At the Scoville Library this summer, I picked up William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), a book I had known of since high school but had never read. I gleaned my first impression of Shirer in the sixties on a late night talk show out of Chicago run by Irv Kupcinet, a former sports and gossip columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, who was also a kind of weekend, Midwestern version of David Suskind. Shirer, as I remember was a solid, big-headed man with facial hair and a pipe. During this time, Hans Morgenthau was on Kup’s show a lot. Shirer, an intelligent, intrepid journalist who had reported first-hand the rise the rise of Nazism and the onset of World War II, had become a respected historian. He held his own with all of the south side U. of Chicago lions that Kup entertained on those late Saturday nights.
Now, in high summer with a lake at my feet, or my feet in the lake, was my chance. A small town library had availed me of another myth, this time a meditation with facts on the rise and fall of Hitler, recited by highly competent and morally attuned Homer. And I descended into the hell of the Hitlerism and the Third Reich.
Shirer’s Hitler is not banal. Her Eichmann, the Holocaust general manager, may have been, but the difference between him as puppet and Hitler as fairly jumps off of each riveting page. Shirer’s Hitler is evil incarnate, a white-hot poker stuck in the eye of German society, blinding the German Cyclops as it devoured its victims. He was a devil, a Beelzebub, who caused the death of scores of millions of people, and who finished his life practically desperate to kill some more.
Hitler was also was possessed of a charisma that guided his evil genius. It was said of Alexander that he could lead his troops anywhere and beyond human endurance. But when his troops felt his gift had become a betrayal of their bond, their unconditional love became hate. If he had crossed the Indus once more, they would have killed him.
Hitler was possessed of the same charisma: he commanded, and others submitted and became his followers. It was subordination fueled by attraction, awe, fear, and a kind of blinding love. Today, part of what seems an almost unending age of cynicism, his followers’ confessions of love seem naively, even absurdly carnal. Listen to what Goebbels wrote in 1926. I quote with major elisions for emphasis:
My heart is beating so wildly it is about to burst. I enter the hall. Roaring welcome… And then I speak for two and a half hours…People roar and shout. At the end Hitler embraces me. I feel happy…Hitler is always at my side…
Adolph Hitler, I love you because you are both great and simple.
We…bow to him…with the manly, unbroken pride of the ancient Norsemen who stand upright before their Germanic feudal lord. We feel that he is greater than all of us, greater than you and I. He is the instrument of the Divine Will that shapes history with fresh, creative genius." (Shirer, 128-129)
He is the Fuehrer – the leader. "From millions of men … one man must step forward," Shirer quotes Hitler as writing in Mein Kampf, "who with apodictic force will form granite principles form the wavering idea-world of the broad masses and take up the struggle for their sole correctness, until from the shifting waves of a free thought-world there will arise a brazen cliff of solid unity in faith and will. (Shirer, 109-110)
Hitler had a volcanic temperament. He had fits – not those you would describe your Aunt Ellen of having, but those worthy of psychiatric evaluation. His rages remind one of those attributed to charismatic figures of the past. When in fits of rage, Alexander and Charlemagne would command their soldiers to slaughter every man, woman and child in sight. Only orgies of blood and violence could calm them. Achilles’ rage on the death of Patroclus remains the greatest and most lasting of archetypes to this kind of psychotic break that charismatic figures are prone to, and are by their subalterns often permitted.
But Hitler’s rages were also instrumental. He would use them to bully and intimidate foreign leaders, succeeding in gaining ground for the Reich while giving a knowing wink to his lieutenants. The rages inflicted on his followers achieved more complicated effects. Like a great, mad magician, he turned outsiders into enemies, and enemies into sub-humans, vermin and lice on the German body that had to be exterminated. Vacillators and prevaricators became murderers. People jumped over moral boundaries and executed the slaughter of the Slavs and the Holocaust.
Thanks to the Scoville Library, I found Shirer this summer, and discovered Hitler again. I suffered the sickening fascination of evil. I achieved a greater appreciation of the powers of emotion to overturn reason.
I re-disovered Hitler, however, enwrapped in the comfort of a small-town lending library, a little outpost of reason like the one that succored me in my early life. Thanks to Shirer’s remarkable book, I have learned that though we live in a world of madness, emotion, and unreason, we are led by those possessed mostly of ignorance and hubris, and not of total evil. Call out your analogies for the American empire, Afghanistan, and Iraq: Athens and the Peloponnesian War, 16th Century Spain, the Western Europe of the Two Wars, the Soviet Union of the successors of Stalin. Fair enough. But Hitler? Well, not yet.
ORPHEUS ASCENDING, PART 3
The whole history of art is really a prolonged commentary on human nature. Here, in a world that has managed to send a human-made object out of our solar system but which yet witnesses thousands of deaths every day from starvation and war, Wagner's art work surely stands for the mightiness of the human endeavour, whatever our beliefs about why or how we got here. As Wagner was intensely human, there are traces of all his humanity in his work. Perfection is an ideal that can be embodied in art, hardly ever lived out as an ethical ideal.
Orpheus is ascending: And maybe we are learning to look at the face of Wagner with not only our love but with compassion too, the same compassion Wagner expressed so nobly in his music. The world must be an alien place for those who can only criticise what has been brought by civilisation to their back door. How strange it is that Wagner should have achieved something so gigantic in one lifetime. We do no honour to Wagner by turning those achievements into a cult and praise, as in a Nuremberg war rally, the outer garments, the actual detritus of biography and performing tradition left behind after the life has been consigned to history. A real love of Wagner means putting aside all the biographical apparatus and listening to the music he composed and the words his characters sing. What we do with that intensity and exaltation is our own affair, but I should say that the experience is a civilising one.
In some of Lucian Freud's later paintings the artist has concentrated on painting the figures of Sue Tilley and Leigh Bowery. They are subjects who have amplitude; they impose their bodies on the visual landscape with a voluptuous certainty; they have a physicality that reaches out beyond the canvas; the details of their skin and hair are painted in loving detail. These paintings of Freud are in total contrast to the anorexic smugness that passes itself off as beautiful in contemporary culture. Wagner's works are somewhat like these paintings. All of life has been put into them. Beyond the rational, yet not irrational, the music of Wagner provokes with its prodding at the fabric of life, the fabric Wagner found so difficult to wear himself. Past debt, fatigue, depression, nervous exhaustion, irritability and duplicity, Wagner dragged into existence his music dramas with their panoramic transformative power. We cannot always be worthy of rising to the level that Wagner demands, and sometimes those demands, as in the Prologue and Act One of Götterdämmerung on a hot August afternoon, are fearsome.
Orpheus had been given a gift by the gods. Wagner often wanted to hand his gift back; even after his world success he fantasised about luxuriating on the Nile and wished the whole Bayreuth enterprise would go to the devil. Christina Rossetti asked in a poem, 'Does the road wind up-hill all the way?' and answered, 'Yes, to the very end.' Wagner's life was lived along a road that wound up-hill to the very end. The extraordinary fecundity of Wagner's imaginative world is still leading audiences, critics and historians uphill.
I said at the outset that Wagner's predestined end was the classical imperium we reserve for only a handful of mighty creative spirits. He is still removed from that imperium, but the distance is narrowing. Much still needs to be written about and thought over, and that will only be possible once we have cast to one side our present cultural confusion.
In Theodore Zeldin's book, An Intimate History Of Humanity, Vintage, 1994, the author states that, with all of our historical understanding and insatiable curiosity, the real age of discovery has hardly begun. Let us try to discover the real Wagner, the Wagner still in advance of a century of new departures, artistic revolutions and experimentation. Wagner saw quite clearly that art was not a throw of the dice across a white abyss of symbolic chance, to use the language of Mallarmé, but a profoundly expressive medium that could embody the complexity of existence. It may seem outrageous to claim that we have not yet discovered Wagner. What with the outpouring of critical works written and a performing tradition that is 'rich and strange', perhaps it might be objected that we understand Wagner only too well. I would argue that we are now only just preparing ourselves intellectually and emotionally to confront the reach of the Wagnerian enterprise. The old pro and contra arguments are not sophisticated enough to bring into focus the contradictions and ambiguities that the Wagner music drama presents us with.
Critics who write on Wagner spend a great deal of time wringing their hands at the wailing wall of their own supposed moral superiority. I don't suppose any of them ever got round to nearly starving or being exiled from their own country, though I imagine one or two of them might have had bad first marriages. It is the individual members of the great unwashed general public who are properly grateful for culture, not the critical fraternity, and who often see beyond the tiresome theoretical monologues to the passion and beauty of the art. It is one of the singular failures of most art criticism, though it is of particular significance in Wagner's case, that it cannot accommodate itself to the following observation made by Arthur Schnitzler in Casanova's Return To Venice: 'had he not leamt a thousand times that in the souls of all persons who are truly alive, discrepant elements, nay apparently hostile elements, may coexist in perfect harmony?'
From the very tooth and claw of nature Wagner drew down onto the stage uncanny representations of fire, water and birdsong, moonlight, rainbow and wind. From his own knowledge of human frailty he gave us Marke's grieving and Brangaene's incomprehension, Alberich's lust for power and Wotan's abnegation of that very same power, Loge's ironic detachment and Parsifal's spiritual commitment, Kurwenal's steadfastness and Ortrud's treachery. From within a reservoir of sympathetic intellectual interest he fashioned the epic-poetical, political-aesthetic, republican-mediaeval art work of the future. There is revolutionary fervour in the music dramas, just as there is resignation, passionate abandonment to divine fate and existential aloneness. In other words, there is life, not an image of life, but the thing itself in all its ambiguity and complexity. How perplexing it is that an artist captured it all with such intensity and verisimilitude. And how remarkable it is that it should have been possible when circumstance so often conspires to defeat what is worthwhile in this world. The Wagnerian music drama continues to thrive because, for one thing, it is all-inclusive. The young sailor at the beginning of Tristan und Isolde is winged with the same yearning humanity as its protagonists; the apprentices who request silence at the beginning of the song contest in Meistersinger know they are asking for the quiet needed for all to properly participate in a festival of poetry and song. Wagner does not compartmentalise his characters either. Nothing could betray a greater misunderstanding of Wagnerian dramaturgy than a comment such as this in the notes for the CDs of the Met's 1942 Tannhäuser: 'Wolfram is so goody-goody. No wonder . . . nobility has died out . . . he's too pure to procreate'. Such vulgar reductionism cannot begin to comprehend Wagner's theatrical world which, whilst seldom achieving equanimity, sees into the heart of the human experience, and in doing so, attempts to reconcile all of its fragmented splendour. Now, one must take account of someone like Marc Weiner who proposes that Wagner's works are riddled with anti-Semitic intention. There can be no question of the shameful prevarications still practised by those who would like to rewrite history after their own unjust deserts. Art worthy of the name will always withstand critical scrutiny; it has nothing to fear from it. But intellectual justice has to be exercised on behalf of art too. Trying to contain Wagner in an ideological straightjacket simply doesn't work. The music dramas are too big and too many depth charges are set off in the course of the Wagner experience for there ever to be much plain sailing. Simplifying the biographical facts of the matter doesn't help our understanding of Wagner either. Just as Cosima's haughty obsequiousness can make us feel queasy, so can her service to the composer fill us with amazement at its dedicated far-sightedness. If the lamentable intellectual shenanigans Glasenapp got up to have challenged contemporary Wagner scholarship to rebalance the scholarly equation, so too must we come to a clear-sighted estimation of what really was achieved by Wagner and what is now being achieved by the inheritance of Wagnerism.
Are our ideals capable of being fulfilled by us, here, now, practically. Or are our lives exercises in hypocrisy, and all our humanitarianism a charade to cover over the traces of an adamantine egotism. Is not the example of Wagner a compelling witness for the defence of Western culture, which latterly can be seen to have not been up to scratch. Why is it that the world of Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall and AIDS can appear to fit the Wagnerian music drama so aptly whereas our own art can seem so indifferent, unconcerned and mediocre by comparison. Well, I would argue that Wagner was open to the enormity of our existence and that he lived out the polar and tropical entirety of the mysterium that got put into its elliptical orbit as the third rock from the sun. If there is an underlying racist or sexist agenda in the works themselves, it must be of the kind that is transformed in the very effort of the life lived and the art created. Beauty and truth to be realities must have dipped their purity into the muck of life, the 'foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart' as Yeats has it in 'The Circus Animals' Desertion'. Wagner certainly knew that bone shop in all of its complexities—its disappointments, hatreds and failures. Transcendence and redemption were freely optioned by a volatile sensibility at the epicentre of the Romantic agony.
I am all too aware of the unsatisfactory nature of this commentary on Wagner, just as I am aware that its contents could easily be dismissed as a rhetorical trope by one of our latter-day linguistic exegetes. What matters now is our commitment to art; that we have learned from it, been taught to feel and think in new ways by it. If we look on the Wagnerian endeavour as entertainment we have entirely missed the point; Wagner would have had nothing but contempt for us. It is not a matter of entering the theatre with bowed heads and an air of hysterical solemnity, as with the old guard at Bayreuth, but of an active and intelligent engagement with one of the most fertile and challenging artistic oeuvres that Western civilisation has given us. If that means rejecting the art work of the future or reducing it to the level of our own present straightened circumstances, so be it. It is often the function of great art to wait beyond decades and even centuries of neglect for its torso to emerge before newly-cleansed and awakened eyes.
On the last night of his life Cosima hears Richard talking 'volubly and loudly', as always.' "Once in 5000 years it succeeds!" "I was talking about Undine, the being who longed for a soul." He goes to the piano, plays the mournful theme "Rheingold, Rheingold", continues with "False and base all those who dwell up above." "Extraordinary that I saw this so clearly at the time!"—And as he is lying in bed, he says, "I feel loving towards them, these subservient creatures of the deep, with all their yearning." ' [Cosima Wagner's Diaries, February 11th, 1883] What a profound leave-taking of life with its clear presentiment of death these final comments are. And how truthful to his whole artistic endeavour is this final adieu. It was extraordinary that Wagner felt and composed as he did; no artist does themself a favour by indulging in false modesty. His final comment is one that expresses love; on the eve of his death Wagner foresees the ocean of life ready to take him, Licht-Alberich/Schwarz-Alberich, down to the depths on the immense wave of feeling he expressed in his music so profoundly. And as he prepares to descend, before a final historical ascent, he sheds his mortality, becoming, like Undine, a spirit of infinite yearning and patience.
In 'The Critic as Artist' Oscar Wilde writes in his amusing way, 'A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal'. Well, perhaps never in the whole history of art was an artist more sincere than Wagner. Maybe it is that sincerity we find so unsettling. We now live in a culture that will pay millions of dollars for a baseball and that espouses the celebrity interview as a via media of significance. In contrast, we have Wagner to show us, in his life and work, what the upper limit for significance can be in this world. The great achievement of democracy gives us a personal freedom to fulfil our humanity to the best of our capacity. Wagner shows both the glories and limitations of this enigmatic human enterprise. His work also stands defiantly as a challenge to all that is unachieved or too-easily achieved in art and culture. Once in five thousand years it succeeds? No, certainly not. But it did succeed gigantically, once. Against all the odds, the poetic ideal became a reality. Wagner ascended the terrain we have yet to traverse, step-by-painful step, and he is waiting for us now.
The following poem was written in 1997. Ernest Newman, the Wagner scholar and music critic, mistakenly believed that Wagner had composed a string quartet while staying near Lake Starnberg, the lake in which Ludwig II subsequently drowned. My suggestion is that we can complete the 'quartet' begun by Ludwig, Nietzsche and Wagner through our involvement in, and commitment to, the creative act.
Ludwig, Nietzsche, Wagner
Here a gold symposium
Was summoned by a swan:
A king unsure of kingship, but who found
In art the solace we would give it now
If we believed in it as he had done;
A thinker near truth’s wound,
Bitter in rejecting what he loved,
A mind at the end of its strength,
Yet leaving Attic tracings
Of philosophic joy;
And a composer, worthy of our need,
Moving beyond failure
To ideals not betrayed.
It ended with drowning and madness,
An argument over sex.
Laughing death now names the fourth
Making the markings of this score—
That is you and I.
Matching what we have
With what they had to give,
Our reach might equal theirs.
We were never so foolish
To think redemption could come
From music heard in the dark
Or use ambiguous logic
To challenge our modern redoubt,
And we know if a god came to earth
Its name would sound like Mandela,
Not Wotan with his strife.
If we reject a part
Of what they were or said
And would never wish to become,
Then too we honour their greatness—
From highest bliss to the social debt,
Manoeuvring to find
All the human allows.
A mountain stands before us
Beneath a radiant Muse
And we would climb it still,
If we could give our best
And serve art as we know we should.
We wait now near their limit
For courage to reshape
The image of our magnitude
In work that’s undismayed.
Written 1997 Published 2001
August 27, 2006
Pictures from the 3QD Ball
Thanks to Darcy James Argue and Secret Society for amazingly beautiful music. Thanks to everyone at the Flux Factory for hosting our event and helping out in every way, especially Stefany Ann Golberg, who went far beyond the call of duty, stepping in and taking charge and instantly solving any problems that came up with an enviable calm and efficiency. Thanks to my dear friend Morgan Meis, without whom so many NYC-based intellectual and artistic endeavors would collapse. Thanks to Asad Raza for doing most of the heavy lifting, and for driving me around picking up supplies for a couple of days. Thanks to Alta Price for making the lovely 3QD sign. Thanks to Jed Palmer for helping in all the different ways that he did. Thanks to Azra Raza, Sughra Raza, and Shiban Ganju for generously donating funds to help cover our costs. Thanks to Jennifer Prevatt, and her young assistant Sheherzad Preisler, for taking care of the bar. Thanks to Lindsay Beyerstein for taking great photographs. Thanks to Maeve Adams for all her help. Thanks to Robin Varghese for all his work in the planning and execution of our event and, of course, for always being the best friend that anyone could possibly hope for. Thanks to the most beautiful woman in the world, Margit Oberrauch, who did more than any other person to make the party possible. And thanks to everyone who came!
Without further ado, here are a few of Lindsay's photographs:
Sughra and Ashley:
Zehra, Asad, and Ashley:
Shiko, Lucy, Camille, and Elia:
Born in 1847, raised in Edinburgh and London, hauled off to Canada to escape the tuberculosis that had killed his two brothers, Alexander Graham Bell made history before age 30 by inventing the telephone. Reluctant Genius (Arcade, $29.95) is a puzzling name for Charlotte Gray's biography. The man she depicts tortures himself when in love, clashes with his parents about his career and suffers over his shortcomings as a husband, but he positively revels in his role as genius. Nothing seemed to suit him better than to pursue -- with as few distractions and interruptions as possible -- his obsessive inspirations.
New Orleans Then and Now
One year after Hurricane Katrina struck the United States' Gulf Coast, the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, is a patchwork of recovery and neglect, as seen in these pairs of then-and-now photographs.
At top, cars cross over New Orleans' Industrial Canal to the city's Lower Ninth Ward in July 2006. Below, two men paddle by the same bridge on August 31, 2005, two days after Katrina made landfall, eventually causing levees to fail, flooding much of the city.
From The National Geographic: More here.
August 26, 2006
gaddafi: still him
It isn't so much a tent as an awning, open to the desert at the edges. Inside, there are some white plastic chairs, a plastic table and two easy chairs. I am sitting in one of them, waiting for Colonel Gaddafi. To get here, I flew to Tripoli and then took another plane up the coast, followed by an hour and a half's car ride into the desert scrubland. Gaddafi moves around a lot, like the nomadic groups he comes from, and no doubt also for security reasons. This evening he is camped at a small oasis, replete with camels and some tired-looking palm trees. It's only a few minutes' wait before he arrives.
Dressed in a brown-gold robe, he cuts an impressive figure. There are no guards or minders in view, and the occasion is a completely informal one. He is instantly recognisable and would be so to a great many people across the world, whatever their feelings about him might be. In a way, it is an extraordinary phenomenon. Libya is a tiny country in terms of population, with only 5.8 million people. Gaddafi's global prominence is altogether out of proportion to the size of the nation he leads. He is now 64, in power since 1969. Rumours abound that he is in failing health, but he looks robust.
more from The New Statesman here.
strange tales: el buen tono and the arctic radio
Who was this Nordic-looking man and why was he promoting El Buen Tono's cigarettes? Why would a Mexican tobacco company choose an icy landscape as the backdrop for a product that was grown in the tropics? And what was the connection between radio and the blimp, another invention of the modern era that fascinated Ernest Pugibet? Looking through newspapers from 1926—the year the ad was first published—I was able to uncover a tale that was even more bizarre and even more fantastic than the android cigarette sellers or the radiophonic beer. It turns out the advertisement had to do with a news item that was the talk of the town in Mexico City during the summer of 1926.
In the first days of May of that year, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, a seasoned adventurer who had been the first man to reach the South Pole, set out on an ambitious expedition to the North Pole.
more from Cabinet here.
who is Eugène Carrière?
An exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris this summer marks 100 years since the death of the once-famous French painter Eugène Carrière. Goncourt's Journals confirm Carrière's prominence in the cultural life of fin-de-siècle Paris; the artist's writings and letters reveal his part in the political issues of the day: in the Dreyfus affair alongside Clemenceau and Zola, in anti-war agitation, and a concern with women's issues and workers' education. He left indelible images of his contemporaries, in particular his best-known painting, a portrait of the poet Paul Verlaine.
At the entrance to a nondescript block of artists' studios in Paris, a plaque reads, "Here lived the painter/ Eugène Carrière (1849-1906)/ Verlaine posed for him in his studio." When the mayor of Montmartre tugged away the white sheet at its ceremonial unveiling, he revealed an added inscription, graffiti scrawled in large white letters: "Fuck off I love you".
more from The Guardian here.
A Muslim Labour MP on Islamist Terrorism
A letter from Labour MP Shahid Malik, in the August 15th Times (London):
ON FRIDAY last week I agreed to add my name to a letter to the Government from Oxfam, other non-governmental organisations and individuals to express, in the wake of the Middle East crisis, our commitment to the fundamental humanitarian principle that all innocent lives should be valued equally.
As has been made apparent to me over the past few days, the letter was open to several interpretations. It has never been my contention that the Government ought to change foreign policy because of terrorist threats within our borders. We must never be held to ransom by those who would deliberately shed innocent blood in the name of their cause. I firmly believe that justice, righteousness and national interest should be our policy compass. So when ministers such as Kim Howells and Douglas Alexander argue that “no government worth its salt would allow any policy to be dictated by threats of terror”, we are at one.
I doubt if many would question my commitment to fighting terrorism. I have vociferously argued, ever since it was revealed that the leader of the 7/7 bombers was my constituent, that no policy, domestic or foreign, can ever justify or excuse British-born Muslims strapping on suicide belts.
Berger on Grass
From last Monday's Guardian, John Berger on the Günter Grass controversy.
Without ethics man has no future. This is to say mankind without them cannot be itself. Ethics determine choices and actions and suggest difficult priorities. They have nothing to do, however, with judging the actions of others. Such judgments are the prerogative of (often self-proclaimed) moralists. In ethics there is a humility; moralists are usually righteous.
These thoughts come to my mind as I read the macabre denunciations being levelled today against Günter Grass. About him as a man and about his great work as a writer, they totally miss the point, and might be dismissed as laughable, but, as an index of a certain recent moral climate in Europe, they are troubling. They are an example of moral judgments made in a carefully constructed vacuum of experience. They are what is left after the emptying out of lived experience, and they are a strident denial of what we know in our bones to be real.
Rorty Reviews Another Take on Morality and Biology
In The New York Time Book Review, Richard Rorty reviews Marc D. Hauser's Moral Minds:How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.
We need, Hauser says, a “radical rethinking of our ideas on morality, which is based on the analogy to language.” But the analogy seems fragile. Chomsky has argued, powerfully if not conclusively, that simple trial-and-error imitation of adult speakers cannot explain the speed and confidence with which children learn to talk: some special, dedicated mechanism must be at work. But is a parallel argument available to Hauser? For one thing, moral codes are not assimilated with any special rapidity. For another, the grammaticality of a sentence is rarely a matter of doubt or controversy, whereas moral dilemmas pull us in opposite directions and leave us uncertain. (Is it O.K. to kill a perfectly healthy but morally despicable person if her harvested organs would save the lives of five admirable people who need transplants? Ten people? Dozens?)
Hauser hopes that his book will convince us that “morality is grounded in our biology.” Once we have grasped this fact, he thinks, “inquiry into our moral nature will no longer be the proprietary province of the humanities and social sciences, but a shared journey with the natural sciences.” But by “grounded in” he does not mean that facts about what is right and wrong can be inferred from facts about neurons. The “grounding” relation in question is not like that between axioms and theorems. It is more like the relation between your computer’s hardware and the programs you run on it. If your hardware were of the wrong sort, or if it got damaged, you could not run some of those programs.
Knowing more details about how the diodes in your computer are laid out may, in some cases, help you decide what software to buy. But now imagine that we are debating the merits of a proposed change in what we tell our kids about right and wrong. The neurobiologists intervene, explaining that the novel moral code will not compute. We have, they tell us, run up against hard-wired limits: our neural layout permits us to formulate and commend the proposed change, but makes it impossible for us to adopt it. Surely our reaction to such an intervention would be, “You might be right, but let’s try adopting it and see what happens; maybe our brains are a bit more flexible than you think.”
The End of Irony
Claire Messud is a novelist of unnerving talent. Her first three books — two novels and a pair of novellas — deftly evoke the lives and mores of radically different characters and locales, from an aging Holocaust survivor in Canada to a young woman coming of age on the southern coast of France. Until recently, though, she may have seemed something of a writer’s writer — a crafter of artful books praised more for their “literary intelligence” and “near-miraculous perfection” than for their sweeping social relevance. Now, in “The Emperor’s Children,” her splendid new novel, she has produced a formally nimble novel of formidable scale. Set mostly in New York City at the turn of the 21st century, “The Emperor’s Children” is a masterly comedy of manners — an astute and poignant evocation of hobnobbing glitterati in the months before and immediately following Sept. 11.
Battle of the blockbusters
From The London Times:
MARTIN AMIS: House of Meetings
What’s the story? Set in the USSR between the end of the Second World War and Stalin’s death, this short novel follows two brothers, held in a labour camp above the Arctic Circle, in love with the same girl.
The background Amis is interested in Communism — his father was once a Communist, and he wrote about Stalin in his nonfiction book Koba the Dread. A Soviet prison camp, then, might prove more fertile subject matter for a novel than the macho violence of his much-reviled Yellow Dog.
Cape says “Amis at the height of his powers.”
We say Left off the Man Booker longlist, perhaps too short to qualify, this is nevertheless a strong contender to be the literary novel of the year.