The Man Who Questioned Everything

Lynn Hunt in the New York Review of Books:

Jean-Baptiste Greuze: Portrait of Denis Diderot, eighteenth century

The most radical thinker of the eighteenth century, Denis Diderot (1713–1784), is not exactly a forgotten man, though he has been long overshadowed by his contemporaries Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. After the French Revolution of 1789, the French right routinely blamed every ill of modern life on Voltaire and Rousseau. The expressions “It’s the fault of Voltaire” and “It’s the fault of Rousseau” became so familiar that Victor Hugo could satirize them in a ditty sung by the urchin Gavroche in Les Misérables (1862): “Joy is my character; ’tis the fault of Voltaire; Misery is my trousseau; ’tis the fault of Rousseau.” Voltaire and Rousseau were among the first to be buried in the French Pantheon of the nation’s heroes; Diderot has yet to be, despite a concerted campaign leading up to the three-hundredth anniversary of his birth in 2013.

Diderot was simultaneously too much a man of his time and too much ahead of his time. He devoted the best years of his life to organizing, editing, and writing many of the 74,000 articles of the Encyclopedia (1751–1772), a vast compendium of knowledge amounting to seventeen volumes of text and eleven volumes of plates, and laced with acerbic commentary that alarmed the authorities for attacking religion and subverting government.

More here.

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DNA Gets a New — and Bigger — Genetic Alphabet

Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:

In 1985, the chemist Steven A. Benner sat down with some colleagues and a notebook and sketched out a way to expand the alphabet of DNA. He has been trying to make those sketches real ever since.

On Thursday, Dr. Benner and a team of scientists reported success: in a paper, published in Science, they said they have in effect doubled the genetic alphabet.

Natural DNA is spelled out with four different letters known as bases — A, C, G and T. Dr. Benner and his colleagues have built DNA with eight bases — four natural, and four unnatural. They named their new system Hachimoji DNA (hachi is Japanese for eight, moji for letter).

Crafting the four new bases that don’t exist in nature was a chemical tour-de-force. They fit neatly into DNA’s double helix, and enzymes can read them as easily as natural bases, in order to make molecules.

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Private Mossad for Hire

Adam Entous and Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker:

One evening in 2016, a twenty-five-year-old community-college student named Alex Gutiérrez was waiting tables at La Piazza Ristorante Italiano, an upscale restaurant in Tulare, in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Gutiérrez spotted Yorai Benzeevi, a physician who ran the local hospital, sitting at a table with Parmod Kumar, a member of the hospital board. They seemed to be in a celebratory mood, drinking expensive bottles of wine and laughing. This irritated Gutiérrez. The kingpins, he thought with disgust.

Gutiérrez had recently joined a Tulare organization called Citizens for Hospital Accountability. The group had accused Benzeevi of enriching himself at the expense of the cash-strapped hospital, which subsequently declared bankruptcy. (Benzeevi’s lawyers said that all his actions were authorized by his company’s contract with the facility.) According to court documents, the contract was extremely lucrative for Benzeevi; in a 2014 e-mail to his accountant, he estimated that his hospital business could generate nine million dollars in annual revenue, on top of his management fee of two hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars a month. (In Tulare, the median household income was about forty-five thousand dollars a year.) The citizens’ group had drawn up an ambitious plan to get rid of Benzeevi by rooting out his allies on the hospital board. As 2016 came to a close, the group was pushing for a special election to unseat Kumar; if he were voted out, a majority of the board could rescind Benzeevi’s contract.

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An interview with two-time Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage about her screwball comedy

Isaac Butler in Slate:

Lynn Nottage is the only living American playwright to have won the Pulitzer Prize multiple times. Her first one came in 2009 for Ruined, a drama about a small bar in a mining town in the Congo that serves soldiers from both sides of that country’s civil war. She received her second Pulitzer in 2017 for Sweat, a drama about the downfall of Reading, Pennsylvania, that largely takes place in a bar frequented by union workers as they find themselves caught between solidarity and trying to make rent.

Yet there’s another side to Nottage. She’s also a keen satirist with an eye toward metatheatrical playfulness. Nowhere is this more on display than in her 2011 By The Way, Meet Vera Starkcurrently being revived at the Signature Theatre in New York. Vera Starktells the story of a little-known but much beloved black actress in Hollywood’s golden age. The first act is a screwball comedy in which Vera and several of her friends vie for roles in The Belle of New Orleans, a melodrama about a prostitute whose wealthy beau doesn’t realize she’s only passing for white. The second act ping-pongs between a talk show appearance by Vera in the 1970s and an academic panel about her work and legacy in the 2000s. What in lesser hands could feel more like a treatise than a play instead becomes a multifaceted and hilarious look at race, gender, colorism, and representation.

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On “Edward Burne-Jones” at Tate Britain

Dominic Green at The New Criterion:

The sublimities of light entertainment are comic—as when Lloyd Webber and Led Zeppelin strain for the serious but hit the timpani of hollow pomp, or when Wilde carves up the stuffed dummy of Victorian manners. And though the serious sublime is tragic, one age’s serious sublime becomes another’s comic entertainment. The Burne-Jones that Charles Blanc saw in The Beguiling of Merlin (1872–77) now seems proleptic of the 1970s, a decade in which William Morris wallpaper reappeared in English homes as if century-old designs, sleeping like Briar Rose under the layers of intervening taste, had been drawn to the surface like mold. Merlin’s socks and sandals, his Simple Life robe, and his black eyeshadow and pin eyes all anticipate an analogous rot, the decay of Arthurian legend into the grubby narcosis of an early Glastonbury Festival.

The connection runs deep and direct. The “alternative lifestyle” that became a lucrative business of light entertainment in the 1960s, and which subsequently became the institutionalized lifestyle of the secular West, began in Burne-Jones’s youth and with people like Burne-Jones and his friends. The modern disease of “identity politics” originates in the Victorian cure of Lebensreform.

more here.

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The Painting Life of Robert Ryman

Andrew Russeth at Art News:

Over the course of the more than half-century of relentless experimentation that followed, Ryman radically expanded the possibilities of abstract painting, continuously rethinking how it could be made and what it could look like, even while seeming to confine himself to a single color: white. His death on Friday, in New York, at the age of 88, brings to a close one of the singular careers in postwar America art.

Though Ryman has often been categorized as a Minimalist, that has always felt like an inadequate label for an artist who could build up paint with controlled impasto, as if styling frosting or cement, or with loose, light brushstrokes, or in a deadpan mechanical manner. His work ranges from the resolutely austere to the proudly rococo. It juts out from the wall, is affixed to the wall with tape or screws, and on some rare occasions is effectively a wall itself.

more here.

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Revelations from Andrea Manafort’s Hacked Texts

Maya Gurantz at the LARB:

Yet one cluster of texts never entered public discourse in the same way. For eight months after these texts were released online — an eon, in internet time — no one wrote about them. The sleaziest gossip outlets, which enthusiastically published other dirty details about Manafort (including his membership in BDSM sex clubs), wouldn’t touch it. Deep transparency conspiracy theorists didn’t Tweet about it. A March 2018 Atlantic profile on Manafort by Franklin Foer only very delicately alludes to the matter, commenting that, “after the exposure of his infidelity, his wife had begun to confess simmering marital issues to her daughters.”

That’s a rather dainty way to refer to over a decade of coercive and manipulative sexual behavior, in which Manafort allegedly forced his wife, vulnerable from having sustained brain damage after a near-death horseback riding accident years before, to engage in “gang bangs” with black men while he watched.

more here.

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When W. E. B. Du Bois Was Un-American

Andrew Lanham in Boston Review:

February 1951 was a busy month for W. E. B. Du Bois, who turned eighty-three and threw himself a huge birthday party to raise funds for African decolonization. He also married his second wife, the leftist writer Shirley Graham, in what the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper called the wedding of the year. And he was indicted, arrested, and arraigned in federal court as an agent of the Soviet Union because he had circulated a petition protesting nuclear weapons. The Justice Department saw Du Bois’s petition as a threat to national security. They thought it was communist propaganda meant to encourage American pacifism in the face of Soviet aggression. They put Du Bois on trial in order to brand him as “un-American,” to use the language of Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Du Bois was not in fact a Soviet agent. He was an American citizen using his First Amendment rights to protest nuclear weapons on his own behalf. A federal judge acquitted him because prosecutors failed to present any evidence.

Nevertheless, the trial and the publicity around it ruined his career. He was left scrabbling to earn enough money just to buy groceries. And the trial hardly ended the state persecution. In 1952 the State Department illegally revoked Du Bois’s passport to stop him from traveling to a peace conference in Canada (and, implicitly, to prevent him from moving to a friendlier country where he was not blacklisted). The Supreme Court restored passport rights for suspected communists in 1958, and three years later Du Bois used his regained freedom of travel to become an expat in newly postcolonial Ghana. But while he was there, the State Department refused to renew his passport, effectively annulling his United States citizenship. The American civil rights icon became a Ghanaian citizen and died there in 1963.

More here. (Note: Throughout February, we will publish at least one post dedicated to Black History Month)

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Comrade Ghalib: A Great Progressive Poet

Raza Naeem in Naya Daur:

One thing is common among all the good and great writers: a deep sympathy with man; an ability to view and understand the various aspects of his character and the complex situations of his psychology; and a desire to see life as elegant, pure and pretty, fruit-laden and blooming. Humans do work of various kinds to maintain their personal and social life and for the satisfaction of their desires and instincts; and establish mutual bonds and relationships. They make things, provisions and tools, different laws for their use, ownership and distribution, and principles and codes of conduct.

…Ghalib, who passed away 150 years ago last week on February 15, is among the few greatest artists whose popularity is continuously increasing with the passage of time. It is a sad reality that Ghalib did not achieve the exalted position and status in his life which he deserved. The fame of his verses had spread even in the period of his youth in the Urdu circles of Agra, Delhi, indeed all the cities of northern India; but Ghalib’s poetry, both in terms of its shape and meaning, was different from the prevalent and favoured style of his own time. His verse had a novel meaning, and the beauty of his verse was a novel beauty. To understand, like and enjoy it, there was a need to bring the mind and feeling to a new level and that needed time.

…He said,

‘Do look upon the pomp of life
This commotion is all thanks to us
From this dusty curtain whose name is Man
An apocalypse-like event is glittering’

That is why Ghalib loved this Man; because his heart was permanently agitated with enthusiasm, wish and desire, passion and hope.

More here.

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February 21, 2019

On The Iconic First Line Of One Hundred Years Of Solitude

Claire Adam in Literary Hub:

I remember One Hundred Years of Solitude on my parents’ bookshelf when I was a child: it was the “one hundred years” that put me off: it sounded like it must be something to do with history, very boring history; “solitude” didn’t sound like much fun either. I imagined it was about a man being alone for a hundred years, talking endlessly to himself in the manner of “To be or not to be?” There was also Love in the Time of Cholera, which I assumed must be about cholera. (There were many medical textbooks in the house, both my parents being doctors. I had often leafed through The Handbook of Tropical Infectious Diseases, and knew all about cholera.)

However, when I was in my twenties and happened to be browsing in the English-language section of a bookshop in Amsterdam, I picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude and read the first sentence. I read the rest of the paragraph, and then down to the end of the page, and then I went back and read the first sentence again. I put the book down and moved on, but as I wandered around the bookshop, I occasionally glanced back towards the table where the book lay.

More here.

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Freeman Dyson on Biological and Cultural Evolution

Freeman Dyson at Edge:

In the near future, we will be in possession of genetic engineering technology which allows us to move genes precisely and massively from one species to another. Careless or commercially driven use of this technology could make the concept of species meaningless, mixing up populations and mating systems so that much of the individuality of species would be lost. Cultural evolution gave us the power to do this. To preserve our wildlife as nature evolved it, the machinery of biological evolution must be protected from the homogenizing effects of cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, the first of our two tasks, the nurture of a brotherhood of man, has been made possible only by the dominant role of cultural evolution in recent centuries. The cultural evolution that damages and endangers natural diversity is the same force that drives human brotherhood through the mutual understanding of diverse societies. Wells’s vision of human history as an accumulation of cultures, Dawkins’s vision of memes bringing us together by sharing our arts and sciences, Pääbo’s vision of our cousins in the cave sharing our language and our genes, show us how cultural evolution has made us what we are. Cultural evolution will be the main force driving our future.

More here.

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Why Has It Taken Us So Long to See Trump’s Weakness?

Corey Robin in New York Magazine:

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, pundits and scholars have been sounding the alarm over the authoritarian or fascist turn of American politics, preparing us for that moment when the president would throw off the shackles of his office and seize power. Now, in a move more brazen than any we’ve seen, Trump has declared a state of emergency, setting off a crisis about whether he or the Constitution is supreme. And the response from the media has been: meh.

In the Daily Beast, Sally Kohn called the declaration of emergency “a desperate act of a desperate man who is becoming increasingly irrelevant in Washington.” Trump’s announcement, claimed The New Yorker’s John Cassidy, shows that “he is a fundamentally weak and isolated President.” That was also the verdict of two scholars in the Washington Post, David Frum in The Atlantic, and the New York Times, which said, “This move will come back to bite [Trump] and his party.” On Facebook, the declaration was the stuff of snarky memes; even senators on Twitter got in on the fun.

How did we get here? Fourteen months ago, Vox’s Matt Yglesias was makingominous comparisons to Hitler, warning that Trump was “organizing an authoritarian regime.” Now he thinks Trump’s “flailing” and can’t “get anything done.” Where did all the tyranny go?

More here.

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Believers Without Belief

Philip Goff at the TLS:

Religious fictionalists hold that the contentious claims of religion, such as “God exists” or “Jesus rose from the dead” are all, strictly speaking, false. They nonetheless think that religious discourse, as part of the practice in which such discourse is embedded, has a pragmatic value that justifies its use. To put it simply: God is a useful fiction. In fact, fictionalism is popular in many areas of philosophy. There are, for example, moral fictionalists and mathematical fictionalists, who think that there are pragmatic benefits to using moral/mathematical language even though such discourse fails to correspond to a genuine reality (there are, on these views, no such things as goodness or the number 9, any more than there are dragons or witches). Religious fictionalists merely extend this approach to the statements of religion.

What is the pragmatic benefit for the atheist of using religious language? The religious fictionalist Andrew Eshelman proposes that religious discourse can be understood as mythological, by which he means “a meaning-loaded narrative that has been adopted by a particular community to give expression to and foster a form of life defined by its guiding ideals”.

more here.

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It’s Punk To Be Eastern European

Jáchym Topol at Music & Literature:

For me, Eastern Europe is a continent of ruins, a relic of a fallen empire.

I can feel the tension here. I love the dilapidated factories on the city peripheries, the roads to them washed away by rain, the bizarre objects along the way like in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the overgrown country paths leading nowhere, the monuments to those dead so long nobody even bothers to respect or hate them anymore.

And to exaggerate a bit, the wildness of our dual reality—the vile, brutal one that’s gone away, and the dreamed-of, free, and wealthy one that was supposed to come but never did—is still intoxicating to me, even if there are times when all the vulgarity makes me sick to my stomach: the fancy houses and cars of the newly rich in villages that otherwise feel like they are still in the fifties; the billboards slapped on trees along the roadside; a brothel in a former school, a brothel in a trailer home. It’s all part of my territory, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

more here.

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Weird Time in Frankenstein

Elisa Gabbert at The Paris Review:

I wondered whether Shelley’s misfortunes in the 1820s were also responsible for the novel’s obsession with loneliness. Everyone in the story, in particular the three men who take control of the narrative in turn—if the monster can be called a man—longs desperately for companionship. Walton writes, in his second letter posted from Archangel, a Russian port on the White Sea: “I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy, and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil, I have no friend, Margaret … You may deem me romantic, my dear sister, but I bitterly feel the want of a friend.” He does not expect to find one on the ocean, but he does, in Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein left his lifelong friends behind to attend university; it may be his isolation that leads him astray. The monster’s loneliness is especially keen. He calls the poor cottagers, who are ignorant of his existence, his friends: “When they were unhappy, I felt depressed; when they rejoiced, I sympathized in their joys. I saw few human beings besides them, and if any other happened to enter the cottage, their harsh manners and rude gait only enhanced to me the superior accomplishments of my friends.”

more here.

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Thursday Poem

Not for Love or Money. Not on your life.

No, said the cabbie when I asked him to change the station.
No, said the waiter when I tried to apologize for spilling the soup.
No, said my mother, when I begged her to stop firing her nurses.
No, said my daughter, when I told her she’d feel better tomorrow.
Not now. Not ever. On no account.
Under no circumstances.

Oh, n, what would we do
without your almost blissfully stubborn
negativity, your fervent
refusal to look
on the bright side, your delight
in slamming the door with such emphasis
it’ll never be opened again? Doctrinaire. Single-minded.
Devoted to your convictions.
The nail driven in:
Nada. Null. Nicht. Nope. Nah.
As if that’s what the mouth was made for:
to find fault with as much as it can,
to settle for nothing
and to relish doing so.
Uun-unnh.
No siree.
Not on your life. Not now.
Never.

by Christopher Bursk
from The First Inhabitants of Arcadia
University of Arkansas Press, 2006

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Why Doing Good Makes It Easier to Be Bad

Abbas Panjwani in Nautilus:

Oscar Wilde, the famed Irish essayist and playwright, had a gift, among other things, for counterintuitive aphorisms. In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” an 1891 article, he wrote, “Charity creates a multitude of sins.”

So perhaps Wilde wouldn’t have been surprised to hear of a series of recent scandals in the U.K.: The all-male charity, the President’s Club, which raised money for causes including children’s hospitals through high-valued auctions, was forced to close after the Financial Times uncovered sexual assault and misogyny at its annual dinner; executives of Oxfam, a poverty eradication charity, visited prostitutes while delivering aid in earthquake-stricken Haiti, and were allowed to slink off to other charities, rather than being castigated for their actions; and ex-Save the Children executives Brendan Cox and Justin Forsyth stepped down from their roles at other charities, after allegations of sexual harassment and bullying toward junior female colleagues resurfaced.

You might wonder how people who seem so good by occupation could be so bad in private. The theory of moral licensing could help explain why: When humans are good, it says, we give ourselves license to be bad.

In a recent paper, economists at the University of Chicago reported that working for a socially responsible company motivated employees to act immorally. In one experiment, people were hired to transcribe images of short German texts and paid 10 percent upfront, with the remaining payment being delivered if they completed the transcriptions, or if they declared the documents too illegible to transcribe. When they were told that, for every job completed or marked illegible, 5 percent of their wages would be donated to Unicef’s educational programs, the instances of cheating rose by 25 percent, compared to where no charitable donation was offered. Cheating manifested in both workers not completing jobs (taking the 10 percent upfront fee and running) and also workers saying that documents were too illegible to transcribe (and so receiving the full fee).

More here.

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Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt’s Beloved Radical

Kenneth W. Mack in Boston Review:

During her long and contentious life that spanned much of the twentieth century, Pauli Murray (1910–1985) involved herself in nearly every progressive cause she could find. Yet the contributions of this black woman writer, activist, civil rights lawyer, feminist theorist, and Episcopal priest have largely escaped public attention. Murray earned a reputation as an idealist who saw the world differently from many of the activists who surrounded her. She also walked away from several important organizations and movements when they were at the height of their influence. At the same time, her actions have seemed prescient to those involved in many of the social movements that have subsequently claimed a piece of her legacy. Through her friendships and writings, Murray left a long list of people deeply influenced by her, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, social activist Marian Wright Edelman, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Murray’s life story deserves to be made available to the larger public, but how does one do so in a way that honors her own obdurate unwillingness to be reduced to any clear set of vectors—to be, in effect, agreeable?

I first encountered Murray’s posthumously published autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat (1987), tucked away in the basement of Princeton University’s Firestone Library, shelved with the books on black biography. One could immediately sense that there was something hidden among its pages. There were the photos of an unusually thin woman with short hair and a wry expression, the seemingly impossible life story, and the evident wanderlust that drove her from one form of activism to another. I was looking for books on black lawyers, but by the time I published my own account of Murray’s story I had discovered a multilayered life that reached far beyond the bounds of the legal field. To the modern reader—more attuned than previous generations to the complex intersectionality of identity politics—Murray seems to speak directly from the page.

More here. (Note: Throughout February, we will publish at least one post dedicated to Black History Month)

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