Tiny island is a feudal time warp

Kim Murphy in the Los Angeles Times:

SarkSark, Channel Islands — HERE, on an island that might be called Camelot, the winds of democracy have blown in like the waft from a landfill.

This 3-mile-long stretch of granite crags, flowered meadows, neat cottages and well-behaved Guernsey cows 80 miles off Britain’s coast in the English Channel is the last feudal outpost in Europe. Algernon Swinburne, the 19th century poet, called it a “small, sweet world of wave-encompassed wonder.”

Sark has remained pretty much the same for 442 years, since Queen Elizabeth I declared it a noble fiefdom. Transport is by bicycle, horse-and-carriage or Wellington boots. When absolutely necessary, one may resort to one of the island’s few tractors. But the neighbors, never frugal with opinions, tend to look up from their gardens and make case-by-case assessments of what constitutes necessity.

Landownership is divided among 40 “tenants.” They are the descendants or successors of the 40 men with muskets recruited by the original seigneur, the ruling lord commissioned to defend the isle against pirates and buccaneers. Government administration is by fiat, with the island administrator, judge, constable and clerk appointed by the current seigneur, a 79-year-old former aeronautical engineer whose family has governed Sark since 1852.

But that was all in place long before the 21st century arrived on the gut-churning, twice-a-day ferry from Guernsey; before it was decreed that, in a modern Europe whose members are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, it’s just not on to have feudal lords, and not on to have seats in the island’s parliament bequeathed across generations to eldest sons, and not on to refuse to adopt divorce laws because you don’t like them.

More here.

The knight that had knotted the nets of deceit


The survival of poetry, especially if written before the invention of print, has often been a matter of luck or accident. Consigned to caves in the deserts of the Middle East, it might be preserved by the hot, dry climate for a couple of thousand years before somebody stumbled on it. And we are told that some hot, dry Alexandrian bureaucrat, no poetry lover, decided that seven plays by Sophocles, enough for one codex, would serve for the teaching of grammar and rhetoric. The surplus hundred-odd went for scrap. The single surviving manuscript of the Sophoclean remnant was rescued during the sack of Byzantium in 1453 and carried off to Italy. The story did not end there; the survivors were subjected to the depredations of vermin and, before the development of modern editorial skills, to the attentions of celibate, passionate scholars of the type studied by A.D. Nuttall, lately and sadly lost to us, in his brilliant book Dead from the Waist Down.

Of course one can look at the question from the opposite angle: how amazing it is not that so much was lost but that anything at all survived. A manuscript, now in the British Library, contains the only surviving copy of the late 14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It lacks a title and shares the manuscript with three other poems of a devotional character, also without titles, and probably, according to the experts, by the same poet. Of this group Pearl, an allegory about a man’s grief at the death of his two-year-old daughter, is the most brilliant and mysterious.

more from the LRB here.

A flye which in the night semeth a flame of fyer


It can’t have been easy to observe wildlife from an Elizabethan sailing vessel. The wooden ships of the day were so cramped and frightening that the crew got huge beer rations to keep them drunk enough to endure it. But one man has given us an idea of what it must have been like.

Very little is known about the life of John White, whose unique art is about to go on show in a perspective-shifting exhibition at the British Museum, but one thing is clear – he must have been brave. Born in the 1540s, he eventually crossed the Atlantic, tried to live as a colonist on the edge of an unknown continent, even became governor of a doomed outpost. Whatever we think of the greed, racism, and violence of the beginning of the British Empire in the 16th century, it would be facile to deny the daring of those swashbuckling privateers who served Good Queen Bess by harrying the gold-laden galleons of Spain and persuaded the Queen, in the early 1580s, to rival the Spanish empire in South America by establishing a British colony in the New World.

more from The Guardian here.

Expectations of Adolescence

From Lens Culture:

Twins_4 Blake Fitch’s “Expectations of Adolescence” is a remarkable collection of photographs for many reasons. It documents, over the course of ten years, the growing-up of two cousins less than a year apart in age, seen only during large family reunions in the same two timeless settings of their grandparents’ ornately decorated New England home or the family’s summer place on the water. We do not know these two young women outside of these family meetings during Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and summer holidays. But we can watch them interact, grow Twins2 and change, relax (or feel anxiety) in these settings outside day-to-day life, and in moments of introspection. We see them as they grow up, become more and more themselves, chafing perhaps at the obligations implied by required attendance in surroundings of upper-crust comfort that remain unchanged and constant.

Fitch shows us two adolescent girls experimenting with trying on new identities, breaking out or fitting in to the preconceptions and roles for which they’ve both been groomed. Here we see an emergence of those identities. First, Julia and Katie appear to be twins as they prepare to practice a music lesson together. But very soon, we see them as individuals growing up in parallel — and branching off.

More here.

Dozens of new cancer genes found

From Nature:

Genes_2 The range of mutations that can drive cancer growth could be much wider than thought. An international research effort called the Cancer Genome Project has identified around 120 new genes that contain mutations promoting the disease. “This is a lot more cancer genes than we expected to find,” says Michael Stratton of the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK, one of the leaders of the research.

The researchers used data generated by the human genome project to sift through a family of 500 genes, called kinase genes, linked to cell growth and division. Defects in some of these genes have already been linked to cancer. Using cell samples from 210 different types of cancer, they searched for mutations in the genes of these cells that are not present in those of non-cancerous cells. They found more than 1,000 cancer-specific mutations, of which around 150 are thought to be ‘driver’ genes, which trigger the rampant growth of cancer cells.

More here.

Multiculturalism (allegedly) v. Liberalism, Episode V

In Sign and Sight, more in the multiculturalism (ostensibly) contra liberalism debate started Pascal Bruckner’s salvo against Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash. This week, a thoughtful entry by Jesco Delorme:

To put it as clearly as possible: All the participants in the Perlentaucher debate so far explicitly affirm a belief in certain universal values; not one of them takes a position of genuine cultural relativism. It is unfounded, to put it mildly, to accuse Ian Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash and Stuart Sim of doing so. Why then, Messrs. Bruckner, Cliteur and Gustafsson, Madam Kelek and Madam Ackermann, do you level that accusation regardless?

I believe the answer is clear: you commit the error of assuming that the multiculturalist position necessarily implies an attitude of cultural relativism, or is subsumed under it.

Observe the thinking of one of the most prominent advocates of multiculturalism: Canada’s Will Kymlicka. He includes under this heading all approaches which maintain that there are certain claims made by ethnic / cultural groups which are in keeping with the liberal principles of freedom and equality, and which justify granting certain special rights to minorities. Thus multiculturalism – in contrast to communitarianism – does not stand in opposition to liberalism; rather, a liberal order is a condition of multiculturalism’s very existence. So Kymlicka terms his position “liberal culturalism.” The multiculturalist calls for certain group rights as complementary to a liberal order. But the liberal order claims universal – not relative – validity. Hence the multiculturalist advocates a monistic or pluralistic world view, not one of cultural relativism!

The real question is: “On the basis of what criteria may the claims which supplement liberalism be differentiated from those which undermine it?” Ms. Ackermann and Ms. Kelek may (or may not) be right when they oppose removing private funds from banks, setting aside beaches for Muslim women, founding Muslim hospitals or the wearing of headscarves as concessions to religious feelings. But they must specify their criteria and their reasons. What, for example, differentiates a segregated stretch of beach where Muslim women may bathe unobserved by men’s eyes, from a local sauna which is set aside for the same purpose on certain days of the week? To what extent does one constitute a danger to our political system, while the other does not?

In order to answer that question we should first agree on which values are essential to the liberal model of society. Only then will we be able to examine whether certain individual or collective actions threaten that model.

Defending T.S. Eliot

Terry Eagleton tries to understand the urges to defend Eliot against charges of misgyny and anti-Semitism, in this case by Craig Raine in his TS Eliot, in Prospect.

Why do critics feel a need to defend the authors they write on, like doting parents deaf to all criticism of their obnoxious children? Eliot’s well-earned reputation is established beyond all doubt, and making him out to be as unflawed as the Archangel Gabriel does him no favours. It is true that the poet was a sourly elitist reactionary who fellow-travelled with some unsavoury political types in the 1930s, and as a Christian knew much of faith and hope but little of charity. Yet the politics of many distinguished modernist artists were just as squalid, and some—Pound and Junger, for example—were quite a lot worse. There is no need to pretend that all great writers have to be uxorious, liberal-minded, philosemitic heterosexuals. Why does Raine write as though discovering that Eliot was a paedophile would change our view of Four Quartets?

Neither is it just a question of “fine poetry, pity about the politics.” The fact that apart from Joyce and Woolf, almost all of the major “English” modernists were radical reactionaries, askew to the orthodox liberal consensus of their age, is a condition of their achievement, not a regrettable corollary. Like a lot of poets and Oxford English dons, however, Raine doesn’t really do ideas (something of a problem when tackling a poet as doctrinal as Eliot), and seems to know rather little about modernism. He dates it from 1922, which is at least two decades too late. Nor, being poor on “isms,” does he grasp the complex relations between Eliot’s modernism and his neoclassicism.

Raine defends his protégé above all from the accusation of antisemitism, and in doing so produces at least one page of magisterial disingenuousness. When Eliot writes that “any large number of free-thinking Jews (is) undesirable,” and that “a spirit of excessive tolerance (in this regard) is to be deprecated,” Raine is able to demonstrate with his close-reading skills just what a moderate sentiment this actually is. For it is, you see, large numbers of such Jews which is undesirable, not the whole lot of them; and it is excessive tolerance, not any old tolerance, which is to be deprecated. So that’s all right then.

Nadezhda Mandelstam

In Slate, an essay adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia–this one on Nadezhda Mandelstam. Taking a line from Auden, Joseph Brodksy described her as “hurt” into prose by the Soviet Union. I recommend her autobiograhpies Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned (“Nadezhda” means hope).

Nadezhda Yakovlevna Khazina, known to us as Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899–1980), would have been sufficiently famous as the heroic wife and widow of Osip Mandelstam, one of the finest poets of 20th- century Russia and therefore one of the most illustrious of Stalin’s victims among the old intelligentsia who had stayed on in Russia in the mistaken belief that the Soviet regime would be an opportunity for culture. As the naïvely nonpolitical poet soon found, it would instead have been an opportunity for him to starve if Nadezhda’s ability to translate the principal European languages had not helped to pay for the groceries. After the poet was arrested in 1934 (his “crime” had been to write a few satirical lines about Stalin), Nadezhda’s translations from English were her only means of sustenance over the course of her long banishment to the provincial towns, during which time, in 1938, her husband finally perished in the Gulag.

Only after Nadezhda was permitted to return to Moscow, in 1964, did she begin to write Hope Against Hope, the magnificent book that puts her at the center of the liberal resistance under the Soviet Union and indeed at the center of the whole of 20th- century literary and political history. Some would place her book even ahead of Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man (unforgivably known, in the United States, under the feel- good title of Survival in Auschwitz) and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans as required preliminary reading for any prospective student enrolled at a university. A masterpiece of prose as well as a model of biographical narrative and social analysis, Hope Against Hope is mainly the story of the terrible last years of persecution and torment before her husband was murdered. Nadezhda and Osip are the most prominent characters, although there is a vivid portrait of Anna Akhmatova. The book’s sequel, Hope Abandoned, is about the author’s personal fate and is in some ways even more terrible, because, as the title implies, it is more about horror as a way of life than as an interruption to normal expectancy. Both volumes are superbly translated into English by Max Hayward. Until the collapse of the regime, they were available in the original language only in samizdat or else from printing houses situated outside the Soviet borders. As with Akhmatova’s banned poem “Requiem,” their full publication in Russia marked the day when the Soviet Union came to an end, and freedom—which Nadezhda, against mountainous evidence, had always said would one day return of its own accord—returned.

Hayward chose the English titles well for his magnificent translations: Hope Against Hope is about a gradual, reluctant but inexorable realization that despair is the only thing left to feel: It is the book of a process. Hope Abandoned is about what despair is like when even the memory of an alternative has been dispelled: the book of a result. The second book’s subject is spiritual desolation as a way of life.

Do’s and Don’ts for the New Star Trek

MTV’s Larry Carroll offers some advice to director J.J. Abrams now that it’s been revealed that Star Trek XI will be an origin story of the young James T. Kirk and young Spock (I guess in the spirit of Batman Begins or Casino Royale). What’s up with this recent cultural obsession with the pathos of origins, anyway?

Make ‘Em Badass. As we’re seeing with Daniel Craig in “Casino Royale” and Gerard Butler in “300,” reinterpreting old stereotypes with a ’70s-style tough-guy approach is a really, really cool idea. So don’t be afraid to let Scotty come up out of the engine room and kick some butt, or allow Uhura to make like the Bride in “Kill Bill.” Look at Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” if you need inspiration on how to balance tough-guy sensibilities with the Gene Roddenberry sense of noble exploration.

Don’t Make It A Prequel. Prequels suck and we hate them. If you’re going to reboot the franchise with “Star Trek XI” (by the way, please don’t call it that), actually reboot it. Remember how we said that Roddenberry’s characters aren’t like Bond? Well, they’re not — but that doesn’t mean the aesthetic of your movie can’t be. As silly as it might sound for a movie set in space, the grittier, more realistic approach would do wonders for this particular franchise. Remember how the engine sputters when Han Solo tries to turn the key on the Millennium Falcon? Imagine if George Lucas (circa ’77) had brought such ideas to the U.S.S. Enterprise.


From Edge:

Kandel150 In keeping with the theme of this year’s Question: “What Are You Optimistic About”, Edge asked neuroscientist and Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel for a sampling of recent developments in neuroscience that inspire his optimism. “in a field as broad and as deep as neuroscience,” he writes, “it is difficult to select simply four contributions. I therefore consider this a sampling of the contributions that drive my optimism rather than a true selection of the top four. Moreover, I have simplified the task by dividing the field into four areas: Molecular Neuroscience, Systems Neuroscience, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Neuroscience of Psychiatric Disease.” 

In a larger sense, social cognition is an extreme example of a broader issue in biology of mind, and that is social interaction in general. Even here we are beginning to make some rather remarkable progress. Cori Bargmann, a geneticist at the Rockefeller University, has studied two variants of a worm called C elegans, that differ in their feeding pattern. One variant is solitary and seeks its food alone; the other is social and forages in groups. The only difference between the two is one amino acid in an otherwise shared receptor protein. If you move the receptor from a social worm to a solitary worm, it makes the solitary worm social.

More here.

The world’s most explosive tongue


Salamander_hmed_10a_1 The giant palm salamander of Central America shoots out its tongue with more instantaneous power than any known muscle in the animal kingdom, a new study finds. The salamander, Bolitoglossa dofleini, can shoot out its tongue with 18,000 watts of power per kilogram of muscle. This is nearly double the power output of the previous champ, the Colorado River toad Bufo alvarius. Bolitoglossa can extend its tongue more than half its body length in about 7 milliseconds, or about 50 times faster than an average eye blink.

How the salamander achieves its record power output is still unclear. Tongue-launching systems in other animals require three components: a motor to generate energy, a spring to store the energy and a latch to control the timing of unloading of the spring. Scientists have so far identified only the motor in the salamander system.

More here.

In search of Gilgamesh, the epic hero of ancient Babylonia

Michael Dirda in the Washington Post:

GilgameshThe oldest surviving fragments of the Babylonian epic we now call Gilgamesh date back to the 18th century — the 18th century before the Christian era, that is, more than 3,700 years ago. Etched in the wedge-shaped letters known as cuneiform on clay tablets, Gilgamesh stands as the earliest classic of world literature. Surprisingly, it is a classic still in the making, for scholars continue to discover and piece together shards — in Akkadian, Sumerian, Hittite and other ancient languages — that occasionally add a few more lines to this story of an ancient Middle Eastern king’s quest for immortality and his coming to terms with the inevitability of death.

In The Buried Book, David Damrosch, a Columbia professor of comparative literature, organizes his text as an archaeological dig, opening with a prefatory account of Austen Henry Layard’s discovery and excavation of the ruins of Nineveh in the 1840s, then gradually working his way back from the Victorian era into ancient times. His first and second chapters describe the career of George Smith, a self-taught Assyriologist, who one momentous afternoon in 1872 was working at the British Museum, going through a pile of Layard’s clay tablets. Suddenly, Smith realized that he was reading about “a flood storm, a ship caught on a mountain, and a bird sent out in search of dry land.”

The discovery of this “Chaldean account of the Deluge” so electrified the young scholar that he danced around the museum and actually began to “undress himself.”

More here.

Facing the Islamist Menace

Christopher Hitchens in The City Journal:

In the prologue to his new book, America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It, Mark Steyn sarcastically alludes to two people whom, in different ways, I know well. The first is novelist Martin Amis, ridiculed by Steyn for worrying about environmental apocalypse when the threat to civilization is obviously Islamism; the second is Jack Straw, formerly Tony Blair’s foreign secretary, mocked for the soft and conciliatory line he took over the affair of the Danish cartoons.

I might quibble about Steyn’s assessment—Amis has written brilliantly about Mohammed Atta’s death cult, for example, while Jack Straw made one of the best presentations to the UN of the case for liberating Iraq. But it’s more useful to point out two things that have happened between the writing of this admirably tough-minded book and its publication. Jack Straw, now the leader of the House of Commons, made a speech in his northern English constituency in October, in which he said that he could no longer tolerate Muslim women who came to his office wearing veils. The speech catalyzed a long-postponed debate not just on the veil but on the refusal of assimilation that it symbolizes. It seems to have swung the Labour Party into a much firmer position against what I call one-way multiculturalism. Prime Minister Tony Blair confirmed the shift with a December speech emphasizing the “duty” of immigrants to assimilate to British values. And Martin Amis, speaking to the London Times, had this to say:

There’s a definite urge—don’t you have it?—to say, “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.” What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan. . . . Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children. . . . They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs—well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people.

I know both of these men to be profoundly humanistic and open-minded.

More here.

A Toast to Evolvability and Its Promise of Surprise


From The New York Times:

Late last month, the day after my birthday, I was feeling punch drunk on my favorite glogg of sullenness, self-pity and panic. My life was passing by at relativistic speed, not one of my rotten siblings had called to wish me a happy birthday, my husband hadn’t bothered to arrange so much as a waiter-serenaded slice of cake at the restaurant the night before, and did he really think that his gift to me of an “amazing squirrel-proof bird feeder” would excite anybody but the squirrels?

My post-birthday gloom was so rich, so satisfyingly glutinous, that I forgot to be suspicious, and when we headed over to a neighbor’s house later that evening, I opened the door like a cartoon buffoon onto a huge throng of friends and relations, gathered from across the nation and athwart my entire curriculum vitae, bellowing out in fractured synchrony that magic word “Surprise!” I gasped. I couldn’t help wondering why I’d wanted such a shock to my system in the first place.

In their recently published book, “The Plausibility of Life,” Dr. Kirschner and Dr. John C. Gerhart of the University of California, Berkeley, offer a fresh look at the origins of novelty.

More here.

Inner Workings, by J M Coetzee

Justin Cartwright in The Independent:

CoetzeeInner Workings is a collection of essays, mostly from the New York Review of Books, to which J M Coetzee has been a frequent and heavyweight contributor. It is literary criticism of the highest order. And the title is apt, because what Coetzee does is never superficial or opportunist; this is a close examination of the way the writers he is discussing work, and the historical and cultural context in which they work, and it is informed by a breathtakingly wide understanding of their influences and preoccupations.

It is also, and I found this fascinating, an insight into the way Coetzee’s mind works, the themes which interest him most, and the writers who have influenced him in one way and another. In almost all these essays, which range from Italo Svevo to Saul Bellow – 21 in all – I found some significant clues to what Coetzee values, and indeed, I feel I now have a far better understanding of his novel, the rather gnomic, Slow Man, because of his essay on Philip Roth. Of course his earlier essays on Franz Kafka give other, more obvious, clues.

More here.

Helsinki Warming

Jonathan Kandell in Smithsonian Magazine:

Screenhunter_04_mar_06_0249Dour climate and isolation have made the Finns a grim people. That, at least, is the conventional wisdom regarding this nation of 5.3 million. They would have reason enough for melancholia, having endured not only eons of winter but also centuries of dominance by more powerful neighbors—first the Swedes, then the Russians, then the Soviets. (The country declared its independence after the fall of Russia’s czar Nicholas II in 1917.) Finns survived all of this by dint of sisu, their phrase for stolid perseverance in the face of long odds and frequent disparagement. Even their old capital, of which Finns are justifiably proud, was designed by an outsider, Carl Ludvig Engel, the famed German architect hired in 1816 to rebuild Helsinki when it was hardly more than a town of 4,000.

Now, after years of self-doubt on the sidelines, that capital has grown to 561,000, and the Finns are finally stepping out into the sunlight of modern Europe. They are even showing the way for the rest of the world: Finns were among the first to embrace modern telecommunications, arming themselves with Nokia cellphones, a local product that they unleashed upon the planet, and one that keeps virtually 100 percent of this once-reticent nation chattering away, breaking down the vast distances that characterize their sparsely settled country.

More here.