age of innocence


It is a strange fate for a celebrated writer to be remembered as the friend of a still more famous one. Such, for a generation after her death in 1937, was Edith Wharton’s lot. Her novels were out of fashion, indeed had been consigned to that limbo of all things ‘Victorian’ – ‘prim’, ‘mannered’, ‘violets and old lace’, etc – by a consciously modern public who simply supposed her books to be like that, from their setting in old New York, without actually reading them. Her personal image was of a large, rich, imperious old lady who – ah, ha – had seized on poor Henry James who was too polite to resist her and bore him off on wild journeys across France by chauffeured car. Did not James himself write piteously to friends of her ‘unappeasable summons’, and refer to her as an ‘eagle’ swooping down on him and as ‘the Angel Devastation’? And had not others complained about her bossiness, her arbitrary changes of plan, her chilliness to people who did not measure up to her own high social or intellectual standards, and her nineteenth-century assumption (correct, as it turned out) that her life would always be well padded with servants and that this was her right?

more from Literary Review here.

Salad Days

From SaladThe Washington Post:

Tristram Stuart’s thought-provoking book is not a global history of this taboo. Instead, it revolves around the vegetarian movement that began in 17th-century England — the name first came into use in the 1840s — and that remains strong today. But there is nothing narrow about the author’s focus. Both scholarly and entertaining, The Bloodless Revolution is a huge feast of ideas — ideas from India and France and America, from ancient Greece and Thoreau and Emerson, from Rousseau, Hobbes, the Kabbalah, the Old Testament, Descartes and Darwin, to name just a few of the better-known sources that weigh in on the meatless diet.

Vegetarianism illustrates the tremendous impact that India had on British culture but also the impact of the British on India. Mahatma Gandhi, Stuart tells us, didn’t take up vegetarianism as a cause until he encountered the raw food movement, which dates back to the poet Shelley, while in London to study law. Gandhi embraced the diet — he had rejected vegetarianism in his youth — because he determined it was free of “himsa” or violence.

But the meatless diet couldn’t be completely violence-free, for it also appealed to Adolf Hitler.

More here.

Ingredient in Male Sweat Raises Women’s Hormone Levels


From Scientific American:

Rats, moths and butterflies are all known to send chemosignals to secure mates. Similar phenomena have been suggested but not proved in humans: Studies such as Elizabeth McClintock’s work in the early 1970s—in which women living together in a dormitory were found to have synchronous menstrual cycles—indicate that a sort of sixth sense exists that allows people’s bodies to communicate with one another.

But no evidence was produced, says Claire Wyart, a postdoctoral neuroscience researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, “that a single component of a complex mixture like sweat could induce a change on a hormonal level” without direct contact. Now a new study led by Wyart, published in this week’s issue of The Journal of Neuroscience does just that.

The researchers exposed 21 subjects to 30 milligrams of androstadienone and to yeast, which is not in sweat but has a similar olfactory sensation. The results: smelling the androstadienone increased positive mood, total physiological arousal and sexual arousal, which grew with longer exposure.

More here.  (Thanks to Ga and Zehra).

Ameliorate, Contain, Coerce, Destroy

Niall Ferguson reviews The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by Rupert Smith, in the New York Times Book Review:

Ferg450Karl von Clausewitz, the greatest of all military theorists, learned the art of war the hard way. As a senior Prussian officer, he was on the receiving end of the Napoleonic revolution in warfare at the Battle of Jena in 1806, ending up a prisoner. Watching how Bonaparte used the French army to redraw the map of Europe convinced Clausewitz that war was “not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means” (the most famous and most frequently misquoted sentence in “On War”).

Clausewitz had witnessed a revolution not of technology but of mobilization and motivation. Under Bonaparte, war had become “the business of the people.” Raising larger armies than ever before, inspiring them with nationalist fervor, concentrating their attack on the enemy’s weakest spot and then annihilating the enemy’s forces: these were the essential traits of what Clausewitz called “absolute war.” In his view, its advent made political control of the military more important than ever before.

Now comes Rupert Smith, whose “Utility of Force” seeks to update Clausewitz for our own times.

More here.


One of many letters from the To Whom It May Concern blog:

January 15, 2007

Dear Alarmist Weathermen,

Everyone was saying that this storm system that’s moving through the Midwest was going to be big. Really big. Broadcast repeatedly were pictures from the Plains States of general carnage caused by the ice and snow that would surely be our doom. Desperate as I have been to spend time with friends this week, I decided not to call anyone or make plans for fear I would get stuck in the city during this impending blizzard that you had told me was going to land overnight Friday night. Friday night came and went and nothing happened. Oh, so now it was going to be overnight Saturday. Again, I thought, well, if I just go to Target, I won’t get caught in the Storm Of The Century.

What happened? Oh, nothing. It was raining. Raining. I was pissed. A friend texted me and asked what my plans were. By 7 pm I realized that the rain was certainly not snow and I should go out. The nagging suspicion that you had planted in my mind haunted me all night. On my way home the salt trucks were out and I thought – this is it. It is coming.

Sunday morning I woke up to some ice on my car, and again, I was pissed. On and off on Sunday I watched the news for the weather. Every single time, we got absolutely no information. None. Nothing of substance.

Here’s how every newscast happened:

Hairdo #1: Wow, the Bears won. Who knew? Roll that footage of drunk fans, just one more time!

[Fucking stupid tape of Bears fans celebrating in the parking lot of Solider Field]

Hairdo #2: Oh my, looks like fun!

Hairdo #1: Cold fun!

Hairdo #2: (dead serious) And how cold will it get? Weatherman McBlowme will tell us how terrible the commute will be tomorrow – because there’s a good chance your commute will mean death.

I began to get frustrated.  But then I thought, you know what? I would love to be you. I would love to have a job where I could basically make up whatever story I wanted and broadcast it across a major metropolitan area…

More here.

Language, truth … and wine

Colin Bower in New English Review:

An early reviewer of the writings of DH Lawrence remarked with some degree of accuracy and exasperation: “For Mr Lawrence, everything is always like something else”. In the belle epoque of Edwardian Britain, when a kind of debonair confidence made all knowledge unproblematic, it must have been puzzling for a stolid Times of London reviewer to have a chap come along insisting that things could only be understood by appreciating their likeness to other things.

WineThis probably explains why there was never much writing about wine in those days. Wine is always described as being like something else. This is appealingly post modern. If a chardonnay tastes a bit like a peach, what then does the peach taste like? A chardonnay? And if so, what does either taste like? If you must describe the Van Loveren 2001 limited edition Merlot as being “chocolately”, does it mean that chocolate tastes like the Van Loveren Merlot?  And if we like the Merlot on account if its tasting like chocolate, why don’t we eat chocolate instead of drinking wine?

More here.

the perfect narcissist


Andy’s more alive than ever. The press loves him, young artists discuss him reverently, foreigners consider him essential. The filmmaker Ric Burns recently made a two-part documentary about him. A show of his late work was one of the most discussed exhibitions last year. Phaidon just published a giant book called Andy Warhol: “Giant” Size. A trendy downtown club on Chrystie Street is dolling itself up to look like the Factory, the name of Warhol’s tinfoil-wrapped studio. (Three weeks ago, this magazine ran the cover headline WARHOL’S CHILDREN on a story about three ultrahip downtown art stars.) And Factory Girl—a movie about Edie Sedgwick, the rich young thing who hung out at the Factory and OD’d at 28—opened last week.

There’s something strange about this.

more from New York Magazine here.

the war to end all wars


In “The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare As We Know It” (Houghton Mifflin; $27), David A. Bell, a professor at Johns Hopkins, tries to restore military history to the center of history. This ambition may come as a surprise to amateur readers, for whom military history is probably already at the center of history. But academics tend to regard it either as old-style history, where seven key battles change everything, or as hobbyist’s history, where Tom Clancy types look up from the pages to buy Blue and Gray fighting action figures. Real history is the slow-crawl study of small changes, from clan loyalties to price ratios—gradually shifting tectonic plates that suddenly erupt into visible mountains. We see the peaks, but the movement, not the mountain, is the story.

Against this notion, Bell believes that understanding warfare, its practice and its particulars, is necessary to understand modernity—those mountain peaks really are the places that give you the longest view. He wants to make military history respectable by enfolding it into intellectual and cultural history. His subject is Napoleon’s wars, and he goes into great and often riveting detail about the tangles of Marengo and Moscow, all offered with a gift for storytelling and a flair for the weird, unfamiliar fact. (The problem that the French Army had in Russia, he points out, was not just the cold but the heat, too. It was ninety-seven degrees when the French arrived in their heavy woollens.) The thesis, though, is what’s startling: that the practice of “total war” is a modern and ideological invention, born in the French Enlightenment, and first realized fully by Napoleon—a millennial idea before it was a murderous activity.

more from The New Yorker here.

Every day I try to be as generous as I can be


Koons, meanwhile, has always seemed the sort of clever, wildly successful artist-cum-businessman one could afford to hate, or at least to distrust with bilious envy. But if the audience were expecting someone who wore his intellectual flair on his body, along with, say, funny hair and multicolored tennis shoes, they were disappointed. (There were some funny-haired people in the audience, and they were sitting together – does LACMA provide a special row?) Either he is a very good actor, or Koons is in reality a soft-spoken, thoughtful and articulate man who believes that the artist’s “journey” begins with the “acceptance of self.”

At one point a questioner in the audience addressed the result of Koons’ own self-acceptance, suggesting that his work is “cynical.” Koons seemed to take a slightly deeper breath; he’s heard this before. “I’m not cynical,” he said with deliberation. “My definition of cynicality is when you have more information than you reveal. I try to reveal everything I know. Every day I try to be as generous as I can be.”

more from the LA Weekly here.

Rubinstein on Levitt

The very talented economist and game theorist Ariel Rubinstein on Steven Levitt’s Freakanomics (via Tom Slee over at Whimsley):

Freakonomics lashes out at the entire world from the Olympus of economics. My response is an outline of “my new book”—Freak- Freakonomics. In my (“brilliant . . . ”) book, I will borrow from the structure and text of Freakonomics. I will show that if one also looks upon economists, including Levitt, as economic agents, one can use the insights of Freakonomics to lash out against . . . economics and economists.

Like Levitt, I have no central theme. My book will be a series of observations—some about economics, some about Freakonomics—that I hope the reader will find intriguing.

Chapter 1: is imperialism still alive?

Economists believe that they have a lot to contribute to any field—sociology, zoology or criminology. The academic imperialism of economics has something in common with political imperialism. Therefore, I will begin my chapter with a fascinating historical review where we will learn that imperialism stemmed from the perceived superiority of the conquering people over the conquered peoples, and that the role of the conqueror is to disseminate its lofty culture.

From here, I will move to describe Freakonomics as a typical work of academic imperialism. The complex interplay of feelings of superiority and deficiency has driven every empire, and economics is no different. Levitt: “Economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers, but a serious shortage of interesting questions”(xi). Freakonomics makes statistical reasoning, which is used in all the sciences, look like a subdued colony of economics. Furthermore, Freakonomics expresses the aspiration to expand economics to encompass any question that requires the use of common sense.


In Slate, Clive James, author of Cultural Amnesia, takes a look at the great lyrical Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.


Born in Odessa, educated in Kiev, and launched into poetic immortality as the beautiful incarnation of pre-revolutionary Petersburg, Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966) was the most famous Russian poet of her time, but the time was out of joint. Before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, called Akhmatova, already wore the Russian literary world’s most glittering French verbal decorations: Here work was avant-garde, and in person she was a femme fatale. Love for her broken-nosed beauty was a common condition among the male poets, one of whom, Nikolay Gumilev, she married. After the Revolution, Gumilev was one of the new regime’s first victims among the literati: The persecution of artists, still thought of today as a Stalinist speciality, began under Lenin. Later on, under Stalin, Akhmatova included a reference to Gumilev’s fate in the most often quoted section of her poem “Requiem”: “Husband dead, son in gaol/ Pray for me.”

In the last gasp of the czarist era, she had known no persecution worse than routine incomprehension for her impressionistic poetry and condemnation by women for her effect on their men. But the Russia of Lenin and Stalin made her first a tragic, then a heroic, figure. After 1922 she was condemned as a bourgeois element and severely restricted in what she could publish. Following World War II, in 1946, she was personally condemned by Andrey Zhdanov, Stalin’s plug-­ugly in charge of culture. She was not allowed to publish anything new, and everything she had ever written in verse form was dismissed as “remote from socialist reconstruction.”

From “Requiem” (translation by Sasha Soldatov, but you should look for the Stanley Kunitz-Max Haward translation, or the D.M. Thomas translation.):

Not under foreign skies/Nor under foreign wings protected -/I shared all this with my own people/There, where misfortune had abandoned us.



During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’. On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear (everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that something like a smile slid across what had previously been just a face.

[The 1st of April in the year 1957. Leningrad]


Mountains fall before this grief,/A mighty river stops its flow,/But prison doors stay firmly bolted/Shutting off the convict burrows/And an anguish close to death./Fresh winds softly blow for someone,/Gentle sunsets warm them through; we don’t know this,/We are everywhere the same, listening/To the scrape and turn of hateful keys/And the heavy tread of marching soldiers./Waking early, as if for early mass,/Walking through the capital run wild, gone to seed,/We’d meet – the dead, lifeless; the sun,/Lower every day; the Neva, mistier:/But hope still sings forever in the distance./The verdict. Immediately a flood of tears,/Followed by a total isolation,/As if a beating heart is painfully ripped out, or,/Thumped, she lies there brutally laid out,/But she still manages to walk, hesitantly, alone./Where are you, my unwilling friends,/Captives of my two satanic years?/What miracle do you see in a Siberian blizzard?/What shimmering mirage around the circle of the moon?/I send each one of you my salutation, and farewell.

[March 1940]

Over 100 Dinosaur Eggs Found in India

From The National Geographic:Dinosaurphoto

Three Indian explorers are giving amateurs a good name. The fossil enthusiasts recently set out on an 18-hour hunt near the central city of Indore and ended up with more than a hundred dinosaur eggs (some of which are pictured above, apparently arranged for photographers), the Hindustan Times reported today.

“They are the typical, spherical eggs that researchers interpret as having been laid by sauropod dinosaurs,” paleontologist Hans-Dieter Sues told National Geographic News via email after viewing photos of the find. Sues is an associate director for research and collections at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and a former member of the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration.

Distinguished by their long necks and tails, plant-eating sauropods are among the largest creatures known to have roamed the Earth. These particular sauropod eggs were found in clusters of six to eight, one of the discoverers told the Hindustan Times. The eggs were laid during the Cretaceous period, roughly 146 to 66 million years ago, by dinosaurs between 40 and 90 feet (12 and 27 meters) long, he added.

More here.

Repressed memories a recent development?

From Nature:Memory_2

The idea of repressed memory — when traumatic events are wiped from a person’s conscious memory but resurface years later — has had a chequered past. Some have cited it as evidence in court, yet others dismiss it as nothing more than psychiatric folklore. A new study adds a literary layer of evidence to the debate. To see how long the idea of repressed memories have been around, a group of psychologists and literature scholars turned to historical writings.

They could not find a single description of repressed memory, also referred to as dissociative amnesia, in fiction or factual writing before 1800. Harrison Pope of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, and his colleagues harnessed the power of the Internet to gather information, advertising on more than 30 websites and discussion boards a US$1,000 prize to the first person who could find an example of repressed memory after a traumatic event in a work published before 1800.

More here.

Lost and the Decline of Western Civilization

With this season of Lost set to resume tomorrow, The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley weighs in.

Anyone who thinks it’s a good sign that “Lost” is back has not spent enough time at the Web site of James Randi, a skeptical scholar of the pseudoscientific and the supernatural.

A fan recently posed this question online at “Is a fascination and increased belief in the supernatural a sign of social decline?”

The answer came as categorically as the words under the Magic 8-Ball: “Yes. Absolutely.”

By itself, “Lost” may not be a harbinger of the decline of Western civilization. But alongside “Heroes,” as well as “Medium,” “Ghost Whisperer” and “Raines,” a new NBC drama that begins in March and stars Jeff Goldblum as a detective who solves murders by appearing to commune with dead victims, the collapse looks pretty darn nigh.

“Lost,” on ABC tonight, is the most intriguing of all the series that traffic in the supernatural, mostly because it defies its own illogical reasoning. As the third season resumes after a three-month hiatus, nothing about the fate of the plane wreck survivors marooned on a paranormal island (or is it an archipelago?) makes much sense. But the real mystery of “Lost” is not the Dharma Initiative, the Others or why some characters are named after British philosophers (John Locke, Edmund Burke). It’s whether the writers actually have a cohesive story line that ties together all the unexplained subplots.

(I agree with her and have for a while… but am still going to watch it.)

Why and How to Care About Inequality

In the wake of rising inequality, Julian Sanchez offers some clarification on its relationship to moral and political goods over at Notes from the Lounge:

For various reasons, inequality seems to be a hot topic of late, and in particular I seem to be seeing a lot of folk taking up the abstract question of whether it’s inequality per se that we ought to be concerned with, or only whether the absolute level of the badly off is sufficiently high. All of which got me wondering: Does anyone really care about (material) equality in itself as an independent moral good? Lots of people profess to, but I want to suggest that if we get a little nitpicky about it, perhaps they don’t really think what they think they think.

First, for clarity’s sake, let’s distinguish three possible views of economic justice. First, there’s what you might call a Threshold View: What matters is that as few people as possible should be below some absolute level of well-being. On this view, it’s a matter of political concern when people lack adequate food or shelter, basic healthcare, education, opportunities for meaningful work, and certain other of what John Rawls would have dubbed “primary goods.” But our obligations here have a cutoff: Once (almost?) everyone has reached this minimum level, it is at least not a matter of political concern—not a question of justice—how much people have. If some people are only a bit above the minimum, while others have very much more, that is neither here nor there as far as public policy goes.

Next you’ve got the view that I suspect most self-described egalitarians actually hold, which (again borrowing from Rawls) we’ll call the Maximin View. Here again, what actually matters is the absolute level of well-being of the badly off. The only difference is that the obligation here has no upper-boundary; there’s no cutoff point past which we’re relieved of a duty to better the lot of those at the bottom of the distribution. Now, this will sometimes look like a concern with inequality per se, but the concern with inequality here is actually epiphenomenal. In other words, on this view, if some people have enormously more wealth or resources than others, the core problem is not that some have more as such. Rather, the disparity is taken as evidence that we could be doing a great deal more to improve the condition of the worst off (through redistribution), and are failing to do so.

searle’s mind


IDEAS: You think that questions about the mind are at the core of philosophy today, don’t you?

SEARLE: Right. And that’s a big change. If you go back to the 17th century, and Descartes, skepticism — the question of how it is possible to have knowledge — was a live issue for philosophy. That put epistemology — the theory of knowledge — at the heart of philosophy. How can we know? Shouldn’t we seek a foundation for knowledge that overcomes skeptical doubts about it? As recently as a hundred years ago, the central question was still about knowledge. But now, the center of philosophical debate is philosophy of mind.

more from Boston Globe Ideas here.

in the shadows


Victor I. Stoichita, Professor of the History of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, is the author of A Short History of the Shadow (Reaktion, 1997). In exploring the writings of Plato, Pliny, Leonardo, and Piaget, Stoichita explains how the shadow has always been integral to theories of art and knowledge, and investigates the complex psychological meanings we project into shadows. Christopher Turner spoke to him by phone.

Your book is the first study of its kind. Why do you think the subject was previously so overlooked?

I actually started my research with that very question. Just before the publication of my book, an exhibition on shadows was organized at the National Gallery in London, accompanied by a short but interesting text by the late Ernst Gombrich. But previously art historians took a long time in paying attention to shadows because shadows are, so to speak, heavy, dark, and ugly. Perhaps this is because for the Greeks, the shadow was one of the metaphors for the psyche, the soul. A dead person’s soul was compared to a shadow, and Hades was the land of shadows, the land of death.

more from Cabinet here.

teeming with a lifetime’s scrupulously collected detail


Hogarth’s art bursts with life, and with characters fictional and real, sometimes side by side. Moll Hackabout, Tom Rakewell and the Earl of Squander rub shoulders with Colonel Francis Charteris, a notorious abuser of women, while Sir Francis Dashwood prays at an altar to lust. Hogarth’s characters are as various as his age, and only rarely do they become caricatures. Early in his career, he made a stab at illustrating Don Quixote, but gave it up – perhaps the characters and situations were already too one-dimensional. For the same reasons, one can envisage him rejecting Dickens but illustrating De Sade. I imagine him appreciating the film director Robert Altman – the weave of stories, the characters, the situations. Hogarth knew his talents were as much those of a storyteller as of a painter or a printmaker; nowadays, he would probably have written and directed movies. The brilliantly orchestrated crowd scenes in Election are crying out for animation.

more from The Guardian here.

Tranquil Star

Primo Levi, posthumously in this weeks New Yorker:

After the death of the Arab, al-Ludra [“the capricious one”, the name given to the star], although provided with a name, did not attract much interest, because the variable stars are so many, and also because, starting in 1750, it was reduced to a speck, barely visible with the best telescopes of the time. But in 1950 (and the message has only now reached us) the illness that must have been gnawing at it from within reached a crisis, and here, for the second time, our story, too, enters a crisis: now it is no longer the adjectives that fail but the facts themselves. We still don’t know much about the convulsive death-resurrection of stars: we know that, fairly often, something flares up in the atomic mechanism of a star’s nucleus and then the star explodes, on a scale not of millions or billions of years but of hours and minutes.We know that these events are among the most cataclysmic that the sky holds; but we understand only—and approximately—the how, not the why. We’ll be satisfied with the how.

An observer who, to his misfortune, found himself on October 19th of 1950, at ten o’clock our time, on one of the silent planets of al-Ludra would have seen, “before his very eyes,” as they say, his gentle sun swell, not a little but “a lot,” and would not have been present at the spectacle for long. Within a quarter of an hour he would have been forced to seek useless shelter against the intolerable heat—and this we can affirm independently of any hypothesis concerning the size and shape of this observer, provided that he was constructed, like us, of molecules and atoms—and in half an hour his testimony, and that of all his fellow-beings, would end. Therefore, to conclude this account we must base it on other testimony, that of our earthly instruments, for which the event, in its intrinsic horror, happened in a “very” diluted form and, besides, was slowed down by the long journey through the realm of light that brought us the news. After an hour, the seas and ice (if there were any) of the no longer silent planet boiled up; after three, its rocks melted and its mountains crumbled into valleys in the form of lava. After ten hours, the entire planet was reduced to vapor, along with all the delicate and subtle works that the combined labor of chance and necessity, through innumerable trials and errors, had perhaps created there, and along with all the poets and wise men who had perhaps examined that sky, and had wondered what was the value of so many little lights, and had found no answer. That was the answer.

Outside-in, upside-down — and now in color!

From Lensculture:


Abelardo Morell travels the world and converts full-size rooms (some spare, some ornately rococo) into immense camera obscura devices. He brings the outside in through a tiny pin-hole, and by the alchemy of optics, the outside is projected quite naturally upside down superimposing and hugging the surfaces of everything in the room. Then, he photographs the resulting “installation” with his 8 x 10 view camera and enlarges the prints to mural size.

The effect is dizzying and delightful. And the photographs get better and better as you study them and soak in the exquisite overlapping details.

More here.