Wednesday, December 31, 2008
The editors of Seed select the year's outstanding books
Goodbye to 2008 with one last list:
Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure
By Paul A. Offit (Columbia University Press)
In a perfect world, the public's knowledge would mirror the scientific consensus. In Autism's False Prophets, vaccine expert Offit dissects how shady lawyers, suspect science, self-interested politicians, and equivocating journalists have derailed this hope, convincing millions that vaccines cause autism even as the scientific community has proven the theory false. More than a book about a disease, it is an ode to uncorrupted science and a cautionary tale that data alone is never enough. Buy
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
By Mary Roach (W.W. Norton)
There are many humorous science books. There are not many hilarious science books. With Bonk, a review of science's study of sexual behavior, Mary Roach has written a volume so viscerally funny, it's easy to overlook how obsessively she researched her subject. But Roach's tales of a day with pig inseminators, a hands-on experience with penile implants, and a romp under an ultrasound machine serve as not-so-subtle reminders of her commitment to writing the first-ever comprehensive book on sex research. Buy
Why bombing Ashkelon is the most tragic irony
Robert Fisk in The Independent:
That is why Gaza exists: because the Palestinians who lived in Ashkelon and the fields around it – Askalaan in Arabic – were dispossessed from their lands in 1948 when Israel was created and ended up on the beaches of Gaza. They – or their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren – are among the one and a half million Palestinian refugees crammed into the cesspool of Gaza, 80 per cent of whose families once lived in what is now Israel. This, historically, is the real story: most of the people of Gaza don't come from Gaza.
But watching the news shows, you'd think that history began yesterday, that a bunch of bearded anti-Semitic Islamist lunatics suddenly popped up in the slums of Gaza – a rubbish dump of destitute people of no origin – and began firing missiles into peace-loving, democratic Israel, only to meet with the righteous vengeance of the Israeli air force. The fact that the five sisters killed in Jabalya camp had grandparents who came from the very land whose more recent owners have now bombed them to death simply does not appear in the story.
Both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres said back in the 1990s that they wished Gaza would just go away, drop into the sea, and you can see why. The existence of Gaza is a permanent reminder of those hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lost their homes to Israel, who fled or were driven out through fear or Israeli ethnic cleansing 60 years ago, when tidal waves of refugees had washed over Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War and when a bunch of Arabs kicked out of their property didn't worry the world.
Well, the world should worry now.
happy new year
There is an ungainly German word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, that has no equivalent in the English language. It means "coming to terms with past," and it was coined to refer to the efforts of German intellectuals, journalists, and even some politicians who, over the past half century, insisted that facing unpleasant truths about their country's history was both a moral and political necessity. As a result of these efforts, Vergangenheitsbewältigung has become part of the core political culture of contemporary Germany.
A new German movie that has attracted considerable attention in Europe is part of this tradition--albeit in an unusual way. While Vergangenheitsbewältigung generally refers to examination of the Nazi era, this film looks at another chapter in German history: the rise, during the 1970s, of a radical left-wing group called the Red Army Faction (or the Baader-Meinhof Gang, after its leaders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof). Obviously, the group's crimes were in no way analogous to those of the Nazis; the RAF ultimately murdered 34 people, while the Nazis murdered millions. Still, an honest reckoning with the past is exactly what the movie attempts. And, in providing a frank and unsentimental depiction of the brutal excesses associated with 1960s radicalism, it sets an example that Hollywood would do well to follow.
more from TNR here.
the year in maps
IN THE EARLY Middle Ages, if an educated Westerner set out to make a standard map of the world, here is what he would do: draw a circle, then a horizontal band across that circle, then a vertical band dividing the bottom half of the circle in two. The result resembled a hood ornament with a "T" in the middle. The semicircle at the top was Asia; the identical quarter-circles below were Europe and Africa. Today, it's easy to feel superior to a society that thought Europe and Africa looked like matching slices of pizza, but we shouldn't. That medieval map said very little about how the world was shaped, but it had a lot of information: For starters, it told you that God's creation was symmetrical, and thus perfect, and that its apex was Jerusalem. In a deeply religious society in which most people never made it more than a few miles from home, this was understood to be far more important than knowing the exact contours of the Mediterranean. Thanks to satellites, surveying, and ever-increasing computing power, mapping has become geographically accurate beyond the dreams of a medieval mind. But many of those same technological advances have also brought us full circle: Maps have increasingly become vehicles not just for telling us how the world looks, but for organizing and representing all sorts of information.more from Boston Globe Ideas here.
New Year Poem
New Year Poem 2009
How d’ya feel about the new year, chum?
I’m just glad the old one’s gone.
Not gone –can't you see it’s a continuum?
I can, but ‘scuse my circumspection.
All time is one.
It’s true, all years are frames in a projection.
Yeah, but, some are very stark and stand out.
Some are good, some glum.
Too bad how this one’s panned out.
So, we gonna celebrate and drink up?
What for? What’s new?
Let’s just toast that there aren’t more
disasters we can think up.
Shame of the House of Saud: Shadows over Mecca
Daniel Howden in The Independent:
Irfan Ahmed al-Alawi, the chairman of the Islamic Heritage Foundation, set up to help protect the holy sites, says the case of the grave of Amina bint Wahb, the mother of the Prophet, found in 1998, is typical of what has happened. "It was bulldozed in Abwa and gasoline was poured on it. Even though thousands of petitions throughout the Muslim world were sent, nothing could stop this action."
Today there are fewer than 20 structures remaining in Mecca that date back to the time of the Prophet 1,400 years ago. The litany of this lost history includes the house of Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet, demolished to make way for public lavatories; the house of Abu Bakr, the Prophet's companion, now the site of the local Hilton hotel; the house of Ali-Oraid, the grandson of the Prophet, and the Mosque of abu-Qubais, now the location of the King's palace in Mecca.
Yet the same oil-rich dynasty that pumped money into the Taliban regime as they blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan six years ago has so far avoided international criticism for similar acts of vandalism at home. Mai Yamani, author of The Cradle of Islam, said it was time for other Muslim governments to ignore the al-Sauds' oil wealth and clout and speak out. "What is alarming about this is that the world doesn't question the al-Sauds' custodianship of Islam's two holy places. These are the sites that are of such importance to over one billion Muslims and yet their destruction is being ignored," she said. "When the Prophet was insulted by Danish cartoonists thousands of people went into the streets to protest. The sites related to the Prophet are part of their heritage and religion but we see no concern from Muslims."
The first part in this video playlist is five minutes of clips from the documentary Occupation 101. The whole film (about 90 minutes) is presented in ten parts after that. You can skip to the beginning of the film by clicking the right-arrow once. Each part should follow the previous one automatically.
What to Do About the Torturers?
David Cole in the New York Review of Books:
The story of America's descent into torture in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has been told now by many writers. Mark Danner, Jane Mayer, and Ron Suskind have written brilliant expositions of the facts, showing how the drive to prevent the next attack led the administration's highest officials to seek ways around the legal restrictions on coercive interrogation of suspects. After the abuses at Abu Ghraib came to light, the military itself commissioned three detailed investigative reports, including highly critical ones by Major General Antonio Taguba and by a panel led by former defense secretary James Schlesinger. Among other factors, they blamed ambiguity in the standards governing interrogation—an ambiguity ultimately attributable to the attempts at evasion directed from the top. Congressional committees have held numerous public hearings into the use of coercive interrogation tactics at both Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. The Center for Constitutional Rights, the ACLU, and the NYU Center on Law and Security have each published collections of official documents, which effectively indict the government using its own words.
But undoubtedly the most unusual and deeply revealing take on the subject is the work of the British lawyer and law professor Philippe Sands. As Alexis de Tocqueville showed long ago, sometimes it takes the eyes of an outsider to show us ourselves. Sands, a leading international lawyer and a professor at University College London, took it upon himself to conduct his own personal investigation of one aspect of the torture policy—the Army's adoption of coercive tactics to interrogate suspects at Guantánamo.
SELF AWARENESS: THE LAST FRONTIER
V.S. Ramachandran in The Edge:
One of the last remaining problems in science is the riddle of consciousness. The human brain—a mere lump of jelly inside your cranial vault—can contemplate the vastness of interstellar space and grapple with concepts such as zero and infinity. Even more remarkably it can ask disquieting questions about the meaning of its own existence. "Who am I" is arguably the most fundamental of all questions. It really breaks down into two problems—the problem of qualia and the problem of the self. My colleagues, the late Francis Crick and Christof Koch have done a valuable service in pointing out that consciousness might be an empirical rather than philosophical problem, and have offered some ingenious suggestions. But I would disagree with their position that the qualia problem is simpler and should be addressed first before we tackle the "Self." I think the very opposite is true. I have every confidence that the problem of self will be solved within the lifetimes of most readers of this essay. But not qualia.
The qualia problem is well known. Assume I am an intellectually highly advanced, color-blind martian. I study your brain and completely figure out down to every last detail what happens in your brain—all the physico-chemical events—when you see red light of wavelength 600 and say "red". You know that my scientific description, although complete from my point of view, leaves out something ineffable and essentially non-communicable, namely your actual experience of redness. There is no way you can communicate the ineffable quality of redness to me short of hooking up your brain directly to mine without air waves intervening (Bill Hirstein and I call this the qualia-cable; it will work only if my color blindness is caused by missing receptor pigments in my eye, with brain circuitry for color being intact.) We can define qualia as that aspect of your experience that is left out by me—the color-blind Martian.
Still Paging Mr. Salinger
From The New York Times:
On Thursday, J. D. Salinger turns 90. There probably won’t be a party, or if there is we’ll never know. For more than 50 years Mr. Salinger has lived in seclusion in the small town of Cornish, N.H. For a while it used to be a journalistic sport for newspapers and magazines to send reporters up to Cornish in hopes of a sighting, or at least a quotation from a garrulous local, but Mr. Salinger hasn’t been photographed in decades now and the neighbors have all clammed up. He’s been so secretive he makes Thomas Pynchon seem like a gadabout.
Mr. Salinger’s disappearing act has succeeded so well, in fact, that it may be hard for readers who aren’t middle-aged to appreciate what a sensation he once caused. With its very first sentence, his novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” which came out in 1951, introduced a brand-new voice in American writing, and it quickly became a cult book, a rite of passage for the brainy and disaffected. “Nine Stories,” published two years later, made Mr. Salinger a darling of the critics as well, for the way it dismantled the traditional architecture of the short story and replaced it with one in which a story could turn on a tiny shift of mood or tone.
More here. (Thanks to Alia Raza)
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books
Matthew Price in The National:
Like many cultural conventions, the canon of great books is one part myth, another part wishful-thinking. At once self-limiting and ever expanding, the western literary and philosophical tradition has grown by means organic and totally artificial. Classics, after all, were once new; but only posterity decides which works survive to be handed down from generation to generation, and which vanish into obscurity.
Few would deny that the likes of Aristotle, Cervantes and Shakespeare are central figures in the western canon. But what, exactly, do we mean when we speak of literary greatness? The very notion is enshrouded in a kind of hoary mysticism. The Victorian critic Matthew Arnold wrote of “the best that has been thought and known in the world,” but that only takes us so far. There is a cloudy, if universal agreement – a convenient fiction, really – that such an elevated category exists, but there are not, and never will be, fixed criteria for determining those books that are entitled to the sobriquet “great”.
Greatness may be bestowed by a kind of collective acclaim, in the accretion of hundreds of years of opinion from critics, academics, writers and thinkers. And it is ultimately the authority of cultural elites that forms the boundaries of what we keep in the canon – by reading it, teaching it, writing about it – and what falls by the wayside. Taking this measure – the wisdom of crowds, if you will – one could define the canon of great books in an expansive sense: it includes those works that have, over time, been esteemed as great. This was the approach taken in 2006 by the New York Times, which polled “a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages” in an attempt to crown the best American novel of the last quarter-century. (Toni Morrison’s Beloved was the winner.) In this conception, the canon is a fluid, living thing: its boundaries ebb and flow as new works emerge and older books fall out of favour.
But this descriptive approach strikes a certain kind of mandarin as far too permissive – and there remains always a temptation to prescribe a list instead: to pin down, once and for all, a definitive and precise list of imperishable works that speak to all ages and eras, monuments of aesthetic accomplishment; not just those books we do still read, but what we should read.
What Babies Tell Us About Cognitive Development, Math and Racism
Doctor Doom: Global Stag-Deflation Has Arrived
The return rate on gifts and the cashing of gift cards is up considerably. Elsewhere holiday gift cards from places like Wal-Mart are increasingly being used for food purchases. Things are looking worse and worse. Roubini in Project Syndicate:
Traditionally, central banks have been the lenders of last resort, but now they are becoming the lenders of first and only resort. As banks curtail lending to each other, to other financial institutions, and to the corporate sector, central banks are becoming the only lenders around.
Likewise, with household consumption and business investment collapsing, governments will soon become the spenders of first and only resort, stimulating demand and rescuing banks, firms, and households. The long-term consequences of the resulting surge in fiscal deficits are serious. If the deficits are monetized by central banks, inflation will follow the short-term deflationary pressures; if they are financed by debt, the long-term solvency of some governments may be at stake unless medium-term fiscal discipline is restored.
Nevertheless, in the short run, very aggressive monetary and fiscal policy actions – both traditional and non-traditional – must be undertaken to ensure that the inevitable stag-deflation of 2009 does not persist into 2010 and beyond. So far, the US response appears to be more aggressive than that of the euro zone, as the European Central Bank falls behind the curve on interest rates and the EU’s fiscal stance remains weak.
Given the severity of this economic and financial crisis, financial markets will not mend for a while. The downside risks to the prices of a wide variety of risky assets (equities, corporate bonds, commodities, housing, and emerging-market asset classes) will remain until there are true signs – towards the end of 2009 – that the global economy may recover in 2010.
Gideon Levy on the Assault on Gaza
Israel did not exhaust the diplomatic processes before embarking yesterday on another dreadful campaign of killing and ruin. The Qassams that rained down on the communities near Gaza turned intolerable, even though they did not sow death. But the response to them needs to be fundamentally different: diplomatic efforts to restore the cease-fire - the same one that was initially breached, one should remember, by Israel when it unnecessarily bombed a tunnel - and then, if those efforts fail, a measured, gradual military response.
But no. It's all or nothing. The IDF launched a war yesterday whose end, as usual, is hoping someone watches over us.
Blood will now flow like water. Besieged and impoverished Gaza, the city of refugees, will pay the main price. But blood will also be unnecessarily spilled on our side. In its foolishness, Hamas brought this on itself and on its people, but this does not excuse Israel's overreaction.
The history of the Middle East is repeating itself with despairing precision. Just the frequency is increasing. If we enjoyed nine years of quiet between the Yom Kippur War and the First Lebanon War, now we launch wars every two years. As such, Israel proves that there is no connection between its public relations talking points that speak of peace, and its belligerent conduct.
Israel also proves that it has not internalized the lessons of the previous war. Once again, this war was preceded by a frighteningly uniform public dialogue in which only one voice was heard - that which called for striking, destroying, starving and killing, that which incited and prodded for the commission of war crimes.
We have no words left
Ali Abunimah in The Guardian:
"I will play music and celebrate what the Israeli air force is doing." Those chilling words were spoken on al-Jazeera on Saturday by Ofer Shmerling, an Israeli civil defence official in the Sderot area adjacent to the Gaza Strip. For days Israeli planes have bombed Gaza. Almost 300 Palestinians have been killed and a thousand injured, the majority civilians, including women and children. Israel claims most of the dead were Hamas "terrorists". In fact, the targets were police stations in dense residential areas, and the dead included many police officers and other civilians. Under international law, police officers are civilians, and targeting them is no less a war crime than aiming at other civilians.
Palestinians are at a loss to describe this new catastrophe. Is it our 9/11, or is it a taste of the "bigger shoah" Matan Vilnai, the deputy defence minister, threatened in February, after the last round of mass killings?
Israel says it is acting in "retaliation" for rockets fired with increasing intensity ever since a six-month truce expired on 19 December. But the bombs dropped on Gaza are only a variation in Israel's method of killing Palestinians. In recent months they died mostly silent deaths, the elderly and sick especially, deprived of food, cancer treatments and other medicines by an Israeli blockade that targeted 1.5 million people - mostly refugees and children - caged into the Gaza Strip. The orders of Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, to hold back medicine were just as lethal and illegal as those to send in the warplanes.
Palestine's Guernica and the Myths of Israeli Victimhood
Mustafa Barghouti in the Huffington Post:
While Israel has indeed removed the settlements from the tiny coastal Strip, they have in no way ended the occupation. They remained in control of the borders, the airspace and the waterways of Gaza, and have carried out frequent raids and targeted assassinations since the disengagement.
Furthermore, since 2006 Israel has imposed a comprehensive siege on the Strip. For over two years, Gazans have lived on the edge of starvation and without the most basic necessities of human life, such as cooking or heating oil and basic medications. This siege has already caused a humanitarian catastrophe which has only been exacerbated by the dramatic increase in Israeli military aggression.
2. Israel claims that Hamas violated the cease-fire and pulled out of it unilaterally.
Hamas indeed respected their side of the ceasefire, except on those occasions early on when Israel carried out major offensives in the West Bank. In the last two months, the ceasefire broke down with Israelis killing several Palestinians and resulting in the response of Hamas. In other words, Hamas has not carried out an unprovoked attack throughout the period of the cease-fire.
Israel, however, did not live up to any of its obligations of ending the siege and allowing vital humanitarian aid to resume in Gaza. Rather than the average of 450 trucks per day being allowed across the border, on the best days, only eighty have been allowed in - with the border remaining hermetically sealed 70% of the time. Throughout the supposed 'cease-fire' Gazans have been forced to live like animals, with a total of 262 dying due to the inaccessibility of proper medical care.
Real Ways to Stand With the People of Gaza
Tom J in Daily Kos:
1. Stay informed
An increasingly invaluable resource is The Electronic Intifada. Listen to Palestinian voices and solidarity activists who are on the ground in Gaza. Listen to listener sponsored radio, like KPFA. Flashpoints has excellent interviews with people on the ground. You will not hear much from the military generals , for that you have CNN.
2. Donate so that the people of Gaza may live
Israel's starvation "diet" is causing a humanitarian catastrophe, and may actually cause more casualties, in a quiet way, than the US-supplied bombs that fall in city centers in Gaza. Children are especially vulnerable. There is also a dire situation of lack of medical supplies, as Israel restricts the amount of aid allowed into Gaza. Now with thousands of massacre casualties, i can't imagine what this can be like. You can make a difference. Join the Middle East Children's Alliance in sending much needed medical aid to Gaza. It would be cool to let them know Daily Kos sent you.
3. Advocate for a new US policy in the Middle East
Our political work must not end on election nights. Politicians, with few exceptions, will do nothing for human rights unless they are pushed, prodded, and forced to do so. When Congressman Ron Dellums was first elected to Congress, he offered at every congressional session a bill to impose sanctions on the Apartheid system in South Africa. For many years, only a handful of congresspeople joined him. All that changed when a strong movement started on the street demanding change. How much more so is our work needed now for a change in US policy.
I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth will come after a summer
Will you be angry?
I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks..
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself at the footsteps of your chamber
So will you be angry?
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew
My father.. descends from the family of the plow
Not from a privileged class
And my grandfather..was a farmer
Neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Teaches me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me how to read
And my house is like a watchman's hut
Made of branches and cane
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name without a title!
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks..
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!
Write down on the top of the first page:
I do not hate poeple
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper's flesh will be my food
Of my hunger
And my anger!
Salman Rushdie: provoking people is in my DNA
From The Telegraph:
A car pulls up outside a Georgian house in Soho. Out steps Salman Rushdie. He's dressed entirely in black – black overcoat, black scarf, black jacket, black sweater, trousers, shoes... The only thing not completely black is his shirt and that's only because it's got a few white stripes on it. He looks – actually, he looks just like a hit-man. In his hand he carries a polythene bag full of books. When he comes upstairs, I find myself peering through the opaque plastic trying to make out the titles. One of them turns out to be the French version of his last novel, The Enchantress of Florence – now out in paperback. The book, declares Rushdie with satisfaction, has done terrifically well in France, getting 'the sort of rave reviews you find yourself making up in the bath'.
Over here, it had a more mixed reception, but then, as Rushdie says of himself, 'I'm not the sort of writer who ever gets five out of 10 reviews. I tend to get 11 out of 10, or minus one out of 10. That's all right, though; it shows that people are having strong reactions.' The reactions to Rushdie have been so strong in certain sections of the British press that you might expect him to be wary of interviews – hostile even. In fact, he's relaxed, genial and prone to bursts of Mutley-like chuckling. Plopping one Canderel into his cup of tea, he sets his BlackBerry down on the table beside him. Over the next hour it regularly chugs with incoming emails.
Darwin's Living Legacy--Evolutionary Theory 150 Years Later
From Scientific American:
When the 26-year-old Charles Darwin sailed into the Galápagos Islands in 1835 onboard the HMS Beagle, he took little notice of a collection of birds that are now intimately associated with his name. The naturalist, in fact, misclassified as grosbeaks some of the birds that are now known as Darwin’s finches. After Darwin returned to England, ornithologist and artist John Gould began to make illustrations of a group of preserved bird specimens brought back in the Beagle’s hold, and the artist recognized them all to be different species of finches. From Gould’s work, Darwin, the self-taught naturalist, came to understand how the finches’ beak size must have changed over the generations to accommodate differences in the size of seeds or insects consumed on the various islands. “Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends,” he noted in The Voyage of The Beagle, published after his return in 1839.
Twenty years later Darwin would translate his understanding of finch adaptation to conditions on different islands into a fully formed theory of evolution, one emphasizing the power of natural selection to ensure that more favorable traits endure in successive generations. Darwin’s theory, core features of which have withstood critical scrutiny from scientific and religious critics, constituted only the starting point for an endlessly rich set of research questions that continue to inspire present-day scientists. Biologists are still seeking experimental results that address how natural selection proceeds at the molecular level—and how it affects the development of new species.
Monday, December 29, 2008
This flag of Palestine is here to symbolize our solidarity with the innocents being massacred and maimed in unbelievable numbers in Gaza. All justifications for the brutal Israeli assault are utter nonsense.
Interpretations: Blood Studies
by Anjuli Raza Kolb
For me, moving into adulthood was and continues to be a series of amplifying revulsions as I find out more and more about what goes on in grown-ups’ secret lives. If this sounds peevish and stufepyingly lacking in empathy, it is. But I think it’s the reason that I am especially moved by stories that shuttle us to the outermost limits of what is morally and viscerally incorporable—can I love this person who likes Radiohead (no)? Can I love this person who is deceiving his affianced (yes)? Can I love this person who eats in this fashion, tongue preceding lips and teeth? Whose eyes change color? Who scales ice-cold hospital walls in an unseasonably light nightie with bare feet? Who, in sleepless hungry nights, kills middle-aged men to guzzle their blood and in the ensuing froth might be incapable of not also drinking me dry? Yes please.
Horror stories, and vampire tales in particular, are almost always read according to a series of circulating paranoias that range from the intensely personal to the anxious social. Disquiet about chastity, virginity, invasion of the domestic space, and contagion occupy the more intimate chambers of such paranoias. Xenophobia is one of the most obvious of the latter, more social agitations. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the paradigm for such interpretations, obsessively detailing cultural and psychological difference through letters, physicians’ diaries, shipping bills, and journals. In what is perhaps the imprisoned solicitor Jonathan Harker’s most uncanny discovery in Castle Dracula, he learns that the Count is applying himself rigorously to the study of English culture and idiom, revealing not only the monster’s focus and drive, but also the promise of an unidentifiable and dangerous assimilation about to take place—an intimate and secret invasion that activates all the more personal, antigenic panics on the other end of the spectrum.
What’s interesting to me about vampire stories is how they cut two paths around a particularly feminine adolescent narcissism with which I am uncomfortably familiar. On the front side, they model a generosity of spirit and a maternal instinct that allows especially sensitive, brainy, outsidery beauties to fantasize about what amounts to gestating and/or breast-feeding (neck-feeding? blood-nursing? lactation station at the blood bank?) anemic boys at the expense of their own strength. Like Bram Stoker’s Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra, and more recently Stephanie Meyer’s Isabella Swan from the Twilight series, these often-female subjects, defined by their independence and smarts, find themselves moved by the idea of becoming providers, life-lines. The failers-to-thrive they thusly nurse or dream of nursing—and herein lies the seduction for at least a century’s worth of voracious female readers—are paradoxically capable of puncturing the taut skin of their defenses, at throat and hotly thither.
At the back, there’s the promise that whatever ontological distance exists between two people can, if necessity or passion should force our hand, be eliminated by the quick and dirty trick of sharing a blood supply. In other words, a more thanatophilic version of my favorite flea from John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets who unites the speaker’s blood with his reluctant lover’s in its promiscuous gut to render them “more than married.” This sanguine exchange is, I think, equally heady to both vampire and victim because for each it can expeditiously turn the other into a version of the self, or at least a separate being infected with the self. Victims become vampires, and vampires make the blood of their prey circulate through their own veins becoming fully inhabited, at least until the next meal—a solution to solitude not entirely different from the tried and true umbilical connection between mother and foetus.
This season has two opposite approaches to bloodsuckers that both feed on their troubled attraction to and repulsion from the strict rules of the genre: Catherine Hardwicke’s record-breaking Twilight and Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In). Both of these movies—one art house camp, one maybe accidentally so—are witty and loving manipulations of the conventions not only of vampire flicks, but also of teen exclusion dramas that end in triumphant normalizing scenes in the gym or at the dance. The relationship they forge to their predecessors is both familiar and estranged, concordant and provocative, not unlike a good and brutal teenage love affair that is always an utterly original repetition.
Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, as visually poetic a film as I’ve seen in a long time, is set on the outskirts of Stockholm and centers on the emotional life of Oskar, an insubstantial and slightly effeminate twelve-year-old bully-target who lives with his single mother. On the other side of Oskar’s bedroom wall is the little vampire Eli and her beleaguered father or guardian, or perhaps former lover, a hunter/bleeder indentured to his “daughter’s” unusual appetites. Eli is starving, a chalk green little girl with stringy black hair running around the snowy courtyard in ratty nightclothes and anachronistic sweaters.
She is overtly different—intense, secretive, solitary—but so is Oskar in his way, and it’s this that binds them to each other. Their friendship is in many ways ordinary. They are close, she disappears, he keeps secrets. She angers and frightens him, he insults her and makes her nervous. They do their awkward distant dance of thinking each other’s thoughts and betraying each other by turns. In one of the film’s most tender moments, Oskar buys Eli some candies. She accepts a tiny wafer wearily to please him, even though she can only eat human blood. Moments later we see her wasting body heaving and vomiting at the bottom of a perfectly still and expansive shot of the back of the candy store. Oskar watches, then hugs her furiously. She asks if he’d still like her if she wasn’t a girl. As a premonition of a future scene of quotidian domestic drama—a girl made sick by an unexpected intimacy, perhaps a pregnancy—it’s about as moving as her many murderous feasts are repellent.
Oskar is not without his own violent vengeful traits, and for him loving Eli is complicated but not impossible. In a film of emotionally distant long shots, Alfredson occasionally fills frames with the pair’s otherworldly faces and steaming breath, as if to suggest the disorienting and uncommon fullness they feel with each other. But eating, marriage, and death rites have long been anthropologist’s most basic ways of describing cultural difference. Eli is unincorporable in all these senses. Oskar slices his hand with his favorite knife—“we’re going to mix!” he says joyously—and she laps his blood off a concrete floor. He accidentally spies her Henry Darger-esque blank genitalia and delivers a satisfyingly cartoonish gasp in response. Like all vampires, she is immortal and doesn’t age. Eli is also starving and poor. As an exhausted and underfed child without a socially acceptable avenue for relief, she’s pushed into dark informal economies of theft and consumption she obviously abhors. Thinking back to Dracula and its legacy, this impoverishment also makes Eli a potentially interesting foil for Sweden’s present population of struggling and monstrously different new arrivals from afar, who new liberal immigration and labor policies have made even more ubiquitous not only in the cities but beyond.
The second paranoiac strains of vampire stories—racial terror and miscegenation-panic—stalk closely behind the xenophobic, but are concerned more with virginity, the erotics of encounter, the swapping of and exposure to bodily fluids, the allure of the stranger or the outsider. Let the Right One In is obsessively concerned with incommensurability—though not in an overtly sexual way, since its lovers are just twelve—but its ending ultimately advances an argument for a generous reaching-across as Oskar smuggles Eli away from her final crime scene in a tiny box aboard a train. Twilight, while it takes the easy out by making its vampire family, the Cullens, “vegetarian” (they only drink the blood of animals), fully wallows in the dangerous sexual politics of mixing, first between boys and girls, and second between girls and vampires. Stephanie Meyer, the author of the novels on which the film was based, has said in an interview that the Book of Mormon is the most significant book in her life, a fact which can’t but have some bearing on the film’s relentless projection of sex as a guarantee for death or—worse!—immortality, which I guess is bad because it’s against God’s plan?
Catherine Hardwicke, who also directed Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, takes some distance from Meyer’s moralizing, but preserves a good deal of the vampire paradox of desire and estrangement, which probably has something to do with the movie’s insane success at the box office, even despite its female fan base, which is not traditionally too reliable. Bella Swan (ha x infinity!) and Edward Cullen find each other in school; she’s the new girl from Arizona, he’s part of a pale-skinned, quiet rebel clan. Everyone thinks he’s fucking hot, in a lupine kind of way. Oh and he’s rich, too. Bella is such a tasty smelling lab-partner that Edward retches and reels. He tries to transfer out of her biology class. After a few lusty looks across the parking lot, he starts turning up to rescue her from assorted perils (a near-rape!) with superhuman strength, pouts, and a fast Volvo. He’s always in the right place at the right time, stalking her, as she points out a heartbeat before she lets herself fall for him.
The story is perfectly vacuous and yet utterly convincing; in part because the film’s cinematography and location in the fog-veiled Pacific Northwest are as lush and as imperfect as Let the Right One In’s are spare and meticulous. Twilight is often sloppy, obvious, it gives itself away, at least on the plot level—it is a parable for the uncontrolled, ill-advised granting of access that teenage girls are always being warned about, which is also why, as a film, it’s a pretty good feminist story. Bella keeps a tenuous hold on control (at least in terms of being eaten), but Hardwicke doesn’t. She drops trou and lets you roam around in the movie, have your way with it.
If Let the Right One In plays with the vampire rules, it does so with ultra-refinement. Vampires must be invited in, or else they begin to seep blood out of their eyes and ears and have to put on a clean dress. Sparkling snowy dusts herald their arrival. Eli is a girl, which seems surprising, but everyone from Stoker to Interview With The Vampire plays with the sexual politics of vampirism too. One of the women who’s been bit by Eli—a leftover—spontaneously combusts in a hospital bed where she’s being treated for what we can only assume is vampirism, given that it’s exposure to the sun that causes her to go up in comic flames. The scene is hilarious, but also cold, ironic, self-referential.
The reason I think Twilight is great is because, in spite of the novel’s annoyingly pious motivation for exploring youthful desire as necessarily non-consummatable and its NONONO stance on interspecies mixing, Hardwicke as a director manages to mix metaphors in a completely unanxious and un-anxiety provoking way. So, as in Let the Right One In, the vampire stuff gets messed around. Hardwicke riffs archly on vampires' non-ageing: Bella notes an art installation of graduation mortarboards in her vampire boyfriend’s house. “We matriculate a lot,” heartthrob vampire says, concisely articulating the total horrorshow/wet dream of being in high school forever. More to the point, though, Hardwicke manipulates teen-movie rules deftly. The final scene finds Bella and Edward at prom—traditionally a Saturnalia of reckoning, revenge, and comeuppance in teen movies. Bella, of course, didn’t even want to attend, but Edward convinces her to go in spite of Officer Swan’s really really menacing discouragements (“Do you have your pepper spray?” hahahaha!) Having survived vampire faceoffs, multi-state chases, and biology field-trips, the too-cool-for-high-school-love-
They dance, in fact, alone in a gazebo, outside of the Casino-themed prom hall, to negotiate a contract of irrevocable possession. Their language throughout the perfectly ordinarily-shot slow dance casts only the most gossamer veil on the hackneyed talk of losing one’s virginity on prom night: Bella asks Edward why, when he had the chance (she was transforming and he had to suck vampire venom out of an open wound in her wrist), he didn’t just let her become a vampire so they could stay together for all eternity? Won’t he just bite her now, commit the crime and imprint the promise it entails? He stalls her at least until the sequel, and she seems hungrily satisfied with his abeyant response. This last exchange, then, embodies the third—the erotic personal level—of vamparanoia I began with: the slow abdominal unseaming that arrives as it becomes clear that the person who loves you is capable of and probably wants to suck every last drop of proper self out of you. That there is a hellish violence being held at bay because you’re so effing special, and also weird enough to be able to speak its language.
Alfredson’s film culminates on this note, too. Eli, who has been gone awhile, rescues Oskar from a near-drowning (he is working out, bulking up in the gym) in a storm of campy gore: from underwater, we see little feet skim the surface of the pool, followed by bullies’ severed limbs, a head, and rusty clouds of blood. Earlier in the film, Eli leaves Oskar a note that reads: “I must be gone and live or stay and die.” Oskar runs away with her anyway, knowing full well that if she’s starving, as she often is, he’d be her only source of food. It is the blatantly erotic, preposterously romantic wish that runs through all these works, and the one Bella delivers with tragic, trite stupidity when she realizes she’s in danger: “I’d rather die than stay away from you.” Ha! Srsly, but. The dialogue in the movie is atrocious.
Still, to want to be a source of sustenance in this self-annihilating way is one of the strangest and earliest experiences we have of the quick-cutting back and forth between being cared for by our parents and falling in love in an exogenous way: something all four of these characters experience. To be held in that suspension for a fictional moment reminds us of the shock and freedom that comes when what we thought was unincorporable becomes suddenly necessary. When my fiancé walked out on me a couple of years ago, he referred me to that other brutal Scandinavian, Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote in Either/or that when two people fall in love and suspect they are made for each other, the thing is to have the courage to break it off, for by continuing they only have everything to lose and nothing to gain. This kind of sentiment is of course inoperable and infantile. But some skinnier, more roiling part of me maintains a more than academic interest in why it is that me and those innumerable voracious readers of vampiralia want to dwell, as a form of leisure! in that kind of impossible feeling.
What makes both Twilight and Let the Right One In pitch perfect is their undying, unjudging conviction that those desires we nursed in the parking lot by the cafeteria and on moony late night trudges around Walden pond—to love forever and yet be kept apart, to rip to shreds and ingest the pieces of the one we love—are still, with equal parts embarrassment and longing, some of the strongest we get to experience.
Paris, Paranoia, the CIA, Humes
by Bryant Urstadt
Here’s Harold L. Humes again, back from the dead this time, rising from the boiling mists of time like The Swamp Thing, dripping muddy secrets and forgotten brilliance and true madness. Nothing new about that, in a way. He was always showing up with his own invite, overstaying a welcome he had extended to himself. His appearance in a PBS documentary making the rounds of local public stations this winter is among the least strange of his drop-ins.
He appeared at James Jones’ funeral in 1978, with a boulder in the back of his station wagon, which required three men to unload. Jones was the author of From Here to Eternity, just the kind of bright literary lamp Humes would introduce himself to when he was alive. The boulder is still on the lawn in Bridgehampton. Fine, but… Humes had never met Jones.
He showed up at Random House in the mid-Fifties with a stellar novel, just moved in with his manuscript and his toothbrush and his motorcycle, which he wheeled into the lobby of the office of founder Bennett Cerf, when Random was located in the more motorcycle-friendly Villard Mansion, just behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Madison Avenue.
“You didn’t just meet Humes,” remembers Random House editor Bob Loomis, who edited Humes’ second novel, Men Die.
Loomis, now 80, is the embodiment of the legend of Random, having worked with everyone from William Styron to Toni Morrison, and he lobbied hard within Random to allow for last springs’ reissue of Men Die and Humes’ longer, better novel The Underground City. “He kind of entered your life. He used to sleep in our offices. He helped me move. He just became part of your day.”
Humes swept into the cafes of Paris in the late forties and early fifties, inserting himself into a crowd that included Irwin Shaw, James Baldwin, and everyone else, it sometimes seemed, who would otherwise have been living in Greenwich Village. Humes was at Le Dome in Paris one night in 1951, probably wearing the black velvet cape and carrying the silver-handled cane for which he became known in those days, tapping a 24-year-old Peter Matthiessen on the shoulder and introducing himself, and soon after teaming up with him to start Paris Review.
And now Humes, dead for 16 years, crashes 2008, his books up for reevaluation after forty years in the cooler of history; the subject of Doc, the documentary by daughter Immy Humes; and shedding awkward news about Matthiessen, who used Humes and their Paris Review as a front for his work with the CIA. (It was deeper than that, of course; in a way, it can be argued that Matthiessen was using the CIA as a front for living as a novelist in Paris.) Humes now is a weird Banquo pounding the literary table, asking us to listen, listen, to the story of his life, his work, and the birth of one of the country’s most important literary magazines.
Humes was called “Doc” for most of life, a nickname he was given by his high school classmates in Princeton. He earned it by being smarter than everyone else, and most everyone who knew him has described him, roughly, as an infuriating genius. He went on to MIT, but dropped out after two years, spent some time in the Navy, and ended up working for the Marshall Plan in Paris in 1948, which led him directly into the second great migration of Americans to Paris, the cafes and then to Matthiessen, whom he recruited as the literary editor for a magazine he had just started, the Paris News Post. It has been described as a “fourth-rate” version of the New Yorker, and by Matthiessen himself as a Parisian version of Cue, the old listings magazine which was eventually folded into the back pages of New York. But it was more than that, with its own charm and style, and a distinctly literary bent. At some point, the two decided to start a second, less mundane magazine, and drew up plans for the Paris Review.
Humes and Matthiessen began work in earnest over the summer of 1952, drafting Plimpton, who had gone to grade school with Matthiessen at St. Bernard’s in New York. Plimpton came over with his own cape and a tiny fedora and everything else that would set him atop New York’s social world for the next fifty years. Humes, true to himself—infuriating and a genius—rather than buckling down to the work of laying out a magazine, took off for a sojourn in a villa with girls in the south of France with William Styron while Plimpton, Matthiessen, and others sweated out the details of the first issue. Humes took the magazine’s typewriter with him, too, leaving Matthiessen to complain frequently in handwritten notes that he was running a magazine with no typewriter. And then Humes went off to Harvard, to study literature with Archibald MacLeish.
Humes’s disappearance, among other things, temporarily lost him his spot on the masthead, and the magazine would take off without him. It was a stellar first issue, like one of those fireworks whose tracers reach far from the initial explosion. Within the pages of that first issue was a tremendous display of talent, almost too much to list, but including William Styron, Donald Hall, Terry Southern, Robert Bly, Matthiessen, of course, and finally, Plimpton, the longtime editor, and one of a handful of American writers to step into the imagination of the general public.
Plimpton, Matthiessen, and the others involved have offered many stories over the years about who really came up with the idea for the Paris Review, but none is as odd as the description offered by Humes himself in a letter which has sat for more than fifty years in an envelope marked “Private.” It’s at the back of a box marked “unprocessed” in the Morgan Library, which took ownership of the complete files of the Review in 1999 and 2005.
In the letter, dated February 25, 1953, Humes argues that the Review was his idea from the start, challenging Plimpton to check with James Baldwin, with whom he discussed it in the summer of 1950 at the Metro Café on the Rue de Four, a year before Matthiessen would arrive. Humes not only claims that the magazine was his idea alone, but that he caused Matthiessen to suggest to him. It takes a little explaining, a task Humes never seemed to duck. In his letter, he describes some management techniques he had learned while working for William Sheppard on the Marshall Plan in Paris. Among “Sheppard’s Rules” were instructions on how to convince colleagues to advance your own ideas as theirs. Humes claims he worked on Matthiessen in this regard for some time, writing, “Do you think it is an easy thing to build up steam for the idea of the Paris-American Review in Peter Matthiessen’s cold, New England boilers?” and then reaching a fever pitch:
“No one can know the organizing dream, the planning, the scheming, the long conversations, the step-by-step learning, which had to precede the event. No one ever saw me step into the dark street and click my heels in the air in a mad little dance one morning at 5 a.m. That was the night that Peter had first suggested that maybe we should junk the Paris News Post and start a new magazine…. I played reluctant, unconvinced. It was necessary – for Peter to convince me, before he’d really convinced himself.”
In the letter, he offers as proof the fact that he registered the name the Paris American Review with the French publishing authorities on October 3, 1951, and there is in fact a little document, all neat and French, containing the “official” declaration of “un journal ayant pour titre PARIS-AMERICAN REVIEW,” and registered to Humes himself.
Adding a penthouse to the many floors of manipulation was the fact that Peter Matthiessen had arrived in Paris as a new CIA recruit, something Matthiessen hasn’t spoken about publicly about until Immy Humes “cajoled” him into doing so. There were times when his silence might have been a practical decision: While working on his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which argued for the overturn of the decision against Leonard Peltier, the Native American serving two life terms for the murder of two FBI agents, Matthiessen certainly would not have been helped with the ghost of a CIA badge around his neck. But discussing the CIA may have been personally difficult as well, for he had been working undercover alongside a close friend with an historic case of paranoia, and it created an unsolvable problem.
When they first met, Matthiessen was looking for cover, and likely primed for Humes’ developed techniques of suggestion. The Paris News Post had been an adequate start, but the Paris Review would be much better. “It strengthened the cover I was supposed to set up,” he told me from his home in Sagaponack. “I had been using the Paris News Post but it was shaky. I was looking for something more stable.”
Matthiessen had graduated in 1948 from Yale, the veritable birthplace of the CIA, where he was recruited by a graduate school professor. Many of his classmates had joined, and it was, as he notes in the movie, “kind of the thing to do.” He lasted about two years, writing up reports on activity in the city. Matthiessen quit the CIA “abruptly” in March of 1953, having been asked to befriend and inform on several figures in the French intellectual left. “It was no go. My politics were veering left and fast,” Matthiessen told me. “I wasn’t sympathetic, and they couldn’t trust me anymore.” As for Humes, who, as his letter suggests, was a conspiracy theorist’s conspiracy theorist, he would not find out about Matthiessen’s role until the worst possible time, during a nervous breakdown twelve years later.
Over two years in the late fifties, Doc banged out two novels that excuse much of his later antics. He wrote the first, The Underground City, in 1957. Set amid the French Resistance during and just after the second World War, it at times digresses in a way that would impress a subway preacher, but it is, overall, the kind of book that ones finishes and closes with the satisfaction of having lived through something, from hiding out in basements to ambushing German prison guards to burying an armored car to waiting in a dark field for a shipment of arms to arrive by plane. It is also filled with conflicting loyalties, cross-purposes, deceptive behavior and conspiracy.
As Matthiessen told me, Humes wrote it on a dare, in about two months. “He had showed up at my house, unannounced, as he often did, and he was ranting about literature. I challenged him, saying ‘Why don’t you write your own book?’” and he said, ‘Well, Goddamn it, I will,’ and about two months later he was at Bennett Cerf’s office saying you had better read this book, because it’s brilliant.”
It is a particularly astonishing feat due to the book’s length, an imposing and practically archaic 755 pages. “I don’t know how he did it,” says Matthiessen, “unless he had been secretly typing on the side. He might have been. He loved that kind of thing. He loved staging things.”
The novel appeared to incredible response. Random House told Humes that it was the most widely-read and best-received debut novel they had published. (It is a poignant requiem for letters in America to page through Immy Humes’ scrapbook of clipped reviews, with tiny papers across the nation publishing their own opinions on the literature of their time.) Men Die, a smaller but nearly as accomplished book about doomed men building an arms cache on an island during the War, appeared the next year, also to acclaim. It also marked the end of Humes’s literary career.
Humes cracked up in 1965, and afterwards claimed that even trying to write made him ill. There was never another finished novel. In the years before his breakdown, however, Humes had been everywhere. He managed Norman Mailer’s first aborted campaign for mayor, and was in the kitchen the night Mailer stabbed his wife. He built a paper house of his own design at George Plimpton’s parents house in Huntington – cheap and weather-resistant, it was meant to house the poor. He prepared a wooden boat for an ocean crossing. He had four daughters, including Immy. But paranoia, always a part of his personality, was expanding its hold, taking over after Timothy Leary—with whom he had been doing acid since Harvard—left Humes alone in a house in London with way too much LSD. Acid was a subject Humes took seriously. He kept notes of his “research” with the drug, even taking the addled care to note that the research had gone way out of control. He began talking to the Queen, through his bedpost, which he believed was bugged. He was sure he was being watched. Institutionalized, he would tell friends in confidence that he had averted a world war by mediating talks between the CIA and the KGB via a tabletop radio.
Matthiessen and Humes had grown close over the years, but with a conspiracy-obsessed friend desperately in need of help, he was in a bind. Humes was suffering from delusions that might have been right for the wrong reasons, and Matthiessen naturally imagined that the only thing worse than telling him might have been him finding out some other way. Matthiessen had told Plimpton years earlier about his involvement with the agency, and feels it really shook him.
“George was outraged,” Matthiessen told me. “Here was his baby and it turns out to be a front.” In any event, Matthiessen and Plimpton agreed at that time, according to Matthiessen, that Humes “simply could not handle it.”
Even after decades, Plimpton seems uneasy discussing the matter in the film. “None of us knew,” says Plimpton, “that the magazine was….” he pauses, clearly at a loss and goes on to say, “I guess some people might call it a front.”
When Humes broke down, Matthiessen and Plimpton discussed again what to do about their friend, and agreed that it would be best to tell him, as a way of clearing a way toward Humes’ recovery. It was a hard decision and turned out perhaps only a little better than the alternative.
Or as Plimpton puts it in the film, “It was the worst conceivable therapy.”
“It didn’t help,” Matthiessen told me, in response to Immy’s film, which he feels places too much blame on him for Humes’ breakdown, “but it didn’t hurt either. He had already been institutionalized. I remember telling him as we walked down a London street. I remember the scene so well. ‘I want to tell you something,’ I said. I think he already knew. We had a very agreeable evening afterwards. He came back to my hotel room and spent the night. I suggested he take a bath, which he sorely needed, and he did. But he wasn’t outraged. George says that he was outraged, I guess this was George’s way of expressing outrage. He was the outraged one.”
There may have been enough outrage to go around, however, and enough generosity on all sides to somehow accept it. In a letter owned by Immy Humes, Doc Humes wrote Plimpton in March of 1966, letting him know what Peter told him, and threatening to resign unless Matthiessen publicly confessed, writing: “Since this was apparently a formal arrangement, involving his being trained in a New York safe house and being paid through a cover name… our hapless magazine was created and used as an engine in the damned cold war… It still shocks me that Peter, again in his own words, used you as he used me and frankly I am still sore as hell about it. More precisely, I’m hurt….”
And yet Humes, as Matthiessen argues, seems to have taken his comments in stride, writing, “far from blaming Peter I think at this juncture he deserves full marks for having had the guts to speak up.”
Plimpton would write a calming letter to Humes in response, sprinkling it liberally with soothing charm, pleading that Humes not resign, unless it was over the poetry, which, he admitted, had seemed bad lately, and noted that he didn’t accept resignations anyway.
CIA rumors would dog the Review for years, far out of proportion to the magazine’s actual participation in any “missions.” As late as the anniversary issue in 1980, Plimpton was still dispelling the notion that the Review had been a tool of the CIA. And in fact it was not, in the sense that the CIA had or cared to have any control over its content. It merely allowed Matthiessen to continue work for a style of government he would later, as a mature and important American writer, struggle against.
Humes would never be the same. He never wrote again, for all practical purposes, and his ideas flowed with equal intensity but lesser relevance. He became a student of massage as a cure for everything, up to and including heroin addiction. He grew a Methuselah beard and became an apostle of pot. He embarked on a fifteen year long talking tour of the campuses of the northeast, finding an ear in the students of the early seventies, who were at a high point in history for their tolerance of esoteric anti-establishment jibber-jabber. With two of these students, he a son; that is, two sons of two different students. He saw his daughters irregularly. When he inherited a few thousand dollars from his father in 1969, he gave it away on the Columbia campus in fifties and hundreds, hoping to bring down capitalism by overwhelming it with irrational and inefficient generosity, or something like that. Columbia would ask him to leave. He moved up to Harvard, producing long answers to questions no one had asked. He interpreted cloud formations and described international cabals of scientists. Harvard would ask him to leave. He blamed that on the C.I.A. He died of prostate cancer at a rest home in New York in 1992.
Humes has been gone for years, but the Review survives. It has even flourished of late, under editor Philip Gourevitch, who took over in 2004. Circulation has doubled, to nearly 15,000, and a redesign, more faithful in many ways to the earliest issues, has created a magazine as pleasant to hold as to read. The offices have moved from Plimpton’s apartment to a business-like loft in SoHo.
Plimpton is gone, too, of course, leaving behind numberless bookworms who saw his death as particularly sad, as it meant they would never be able to attend one of his legendary parties. There is a young group trying to get a statue of him built somewhere in the city. Not long before his death, Plimpton called the Paris Review the best thing to ever happen to him, and he certainly would be diminished, and perhaps even largely forgotten, had he merely been a writer of funny sports books, fine as they are.
In a way, Humes is like the Tim Paterson of literature. Very few have heard of Tim Paterson. He sold an operating system to Bill Gates in 1980, who needed something for IBM, with whom he had just signed a contract to supply the software which most of us use today. Humes gave birth to an institution, too, and like Paterson, Humes held the door open to history for many, but will likely never pass through himself. It’s good to see him again, if only for a short time.
What shall the meek inherit? The case of Guinea
"The natives are restless" -- I used to get indignant when I heard that paternalistic, sometimes cynical phrase. Now I try to smile. For one, I hear it a lot in my line of work, and it gets tiresome to always think ill of someone whose diction deceives her intentions. But mostly I smile because I want the cliché to mean something else, a portent for positive change, the end of calamitous rule, a new era for the meek. So when the meek turn restless, it should mean that justice is around the corner.
With last week's passing of Guinea's senile dictator, Lansana Conté, and the military coup that followed, the country is marking no deviation from a well-rehearsed choreography, enacted repeatedly since independence from the French in 1958. The dance moves are economical, simple for new generations of political elites to learn.
A leader emerges, accedes power bolstered by populist rhetoric, buys off the military, installs single-party rule. Cronyism flourishes, rule of law evaporates, the military shores up the trappings of statehood. Decades pass; the population languishes. Leader then dies, military resumes control until a new leader-puppet is found. For nine million Guineans, the spectacle and squalor continue.
Conté down for the count
Conté belonged to a dwindling species of wizened and paranoid leaders-for-life, whose ranks include Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Omar Bongo of Gabon. Once hailed as liberators and visionaries, they became pathetic parables of 'absolute power corrupting absolutely'. The psychological path from flamboyant liberator to murderous despot is dramatic stuff, and was ably fictionalized in The Last King of Scotland. An excellent non-fiction account of Mobutu Sese Seko’s rise and fall is Mobutu, Roi du Zaire, by Thierry Michel.
Not so for Conté. A diabetic chain-smoker who rarely appeared in public, Conté was a garden-variety despot whose life and career will be quickly forgotten, even by Guineans. In the murky hours after Conté’s death, a military junta declared power. Western powers demanded an immediate return to civilian rule; a rote bit of finger wagging that has surely never produced a single result.
Alluding to the high propensity for carnage in this West African neighborhood, Senegalese President Wade recently appealed for acceptance of Guinea’s new military junta. Although highly predatory and wholly opportunistic, the Guinean national military arguably prevented the country from sliding into the chaos of its neighbors, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, for whom Guinea served for years as a place of refuge.
The intent of Wade’s appeal is ambiguous. Another leader-for-life in the making and no friend of opposition parties or the free press, Wade's point may be that civilian rule and democracy are over-rated, and that in such places security is primordial. He may also be a proponent of 'negative solidarity', as my Burundian friends call it, between African leaders who defend one another till the bitter end. Witness the deafening silence from African leaders regarding Mugabe.
Amazonian propaganda and guided missiles
Still, it is all deeply disappointing and predictable. Decades of syphilitic, jack-booted rule finally falls flat in the dust, and a unified populace stares blankly while an army faction takes control. Is it that foreign occupiers are enough to mobilize popular resistance (e.g., anti-colonialism) but when the oppressor is your brother you sit on your hands?
Compared to the colonial era, today’s absence of constructive, popular political agency in the world’s poorest countries is mystifying and exasperating. Back then, Sekou Toure led Guinea to independence and stood proud on the world stage, with adulation from Kennedy and visits from Castro.
[ST’s political compass is clear in these photos: star worship for Castro and distraction with Kennedy.]
Like Mugabe and other liberators, it didn’t take long for Sekou Toure to relish the pleasures of despotism. Conté took him down in 1984 and lived to repeat the tale. Sekou Toure did leave one legacy of note, a massive musical propaganda machine, similar to that created and cultivated by Mobutu in Zaire. Of the dozens of propaganda bands still playing in Guinea, most notable are the Amazones de Guinée, an all female troupe pictured here.
A tidy description of all these different bands, with audio/video footage, can be found here.
Today, any damn idiot can fill a political vacuum in a place like Guinea, and there are dozens of Guineas in Africa. Coups flourish, generally over control of resources, led by marginalized power bases organized along ethnic lines. Mr. Bottom Billion, Paul Collier, wrote an op-ed earlier this year “in praise of coups,” suggesting that the West get back to its once successful business of engineering political putsches where it needed an ally. Only this time, Collier argued, we should do it in favor of better governance by capable partners, and put an end to kleptocracies run by mandarins-cum-raving despots.
Responses to the article were predictable: a fantastical notion; there are no such ‘guided missiles’ in politics. As a dream, though, I understand the appeal of Collier’s idea. Social engineering doesn’t sound so evil when the outcome is a guaranteed net gain. And most people grasp that freedom without structure is a desert, so they might welcome the trade-off. For the meek who get nothing and have nothing, I wonder what they might say to Collier, or anyone who just wants Africa to work.
Like me, Joe Plumbers in Africa want little to do with politics; they just want politicians to do their jobs. Their government’s failings are not their own. So when the ship starts sinking, no one’s interested in going down with it. Who would be? That’s when the jack-boots and ammo cartridges are at their most frenzied.