The American John Milton

Robert Pinsky in Slate:

080818_book_miltontnGreat art is great not because it enters an academic curriculum, and neither is greatness affirmed by the awarding of prizes or titles. But great is not necessarily a vague term. It can indicate work that penetrates the shapes, feelings, ideas, and sounds of a culture, as in the cadences of speech. Sometimes that kind of penetration is so deep, so transforming, that it is nearly invisible, or barely acknowledged.

W.E.B. Du Bois, the American essayist and political leader, begins the peroration of his great essay “On the Training of Black Men” with a sentence like a symphonic chord, fortissimo, compact, rousing:

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.

This statement, and the paragraph it introduces, come at the climax of an argument against the idea of measured progress, associated with Booker T. Washington: first training a generation of freed slaves to be cooks and carpenters, then a generation of clerks, then artisans, and, finally, in four or five generations, doctors and judges and scholars. Du Bois, on the other side of this famous and crucial American argument, had emphasized individual qualities: “teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think; make carpenters of carpenters, and philosophers of philosophers, and fops of fools.”

More here.

three scoops of rice and a piece of clothing from Hnin Se


When night falls in Rangoon, the city’s spectacular decay—patches of black mold devouring the yellowed walls of colonial buildings, trees growing wildly into crumbling third-story terraces—nearly disappears from view. The tea shops fill up, locals crowd the bookstalls on Pansodan Road, and the city, which seems furtive and depressed by day, becomes a communal stage. In the Chinatown district, two men in an alley crank out schoolbooks with a hand-operated printing press. At a sidewalk fish market, women sell shrimp, scallops, and squid by candlelight, while two teen-agers nearby strum guitars. Further east, along the Rangoon River, in the old residential quarter of Pazundaung, the wooden houses are open to the street, like storefronts, revealing an old woman sitting on a couch, a living-room shrine strewn with votive candles, and two men laughing as they listen to a radio.

One such evening in June, I had dinner at an outdoor restaurant north of downtown with a young man I’ll call Myat Min. He grew up in a working-class township on the outskirts of Rangoon, the son of a mechanic and a woman who sold spices from Thailand. His father had been trained by British Air Force officers, and in the years after the 1962 coup, which gave control of the country to the Burmese military, he kept the family radio tuned to the BBC. Each evening, he ate fried noodles, listened to the news in English, and cursed the dictatorship.

more from The New Yorker here.

rock crystal


Last year, Stanford University Press published a selection of Hannah Arendt’s essays on the arts under the title “Reflections on Literature and Culture.” One of the pieces in the volume was Arendt’s review of a 1945 translation of the novella “Rock Crystal,” by the 19th-century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter. To Arendt, Stifter (1805-68) was “one of the very few great novelists in German literature,” whose work stood out for its “pure happiness, wisdom, and beauty.” Above all, Arendt stressed the power of Stifter’s natural descriptions: He was “the greatest landscape painter in literature … someone who possesses the magic wand to transform all visible things into words.”

In casting Stifter as a writer of lucid serenity, a maker of natural idylls, Arendt was following a long critical tradition. One standard history of German literature describes him as “a poetic soul” with “a serious, sane view of life,” who remained “untouched by the political currents of his age.” It all sounds a bit dull and worthy, and perhaps helps to explain why Stifter remains almost unknown to English readers, despite his high rank in German literature. As even Arendt acknowledged, “nothing in our time or in the non-German literary tradition … meets this work half-way. Our sense of homelessness in society and of alienation in nature … are constantly contradicted by Stifter.”

more from the NY Sun here.

if tank glut treasure, no pain


A lone gunslinger rides into town, ties his horse to the hitching post, and strides down the middle of Main Street. Two rival gangs come flooding out of their respective hideouts: the White Gang on one end of the street, the Reds on the other. There’s a buried treasure hidden somewhere nearby, and everyone’s crazy to find it, so the lone gunman stands between the two gangs and makes them an offer.

“Witch axe gonna by it. Marvy rose? What there—if tank glut treasure, no pain.”

Welcome to Sukiyaki Western Django (First Look), the English-language Western by Japanese director Takashi Miike. The all-Japanese cast, augmented by Quentin Tarantino in two cameo roles, learned their English dialogue phonetically and attack their lines as if the words were small furry animals that need to be beaten into submission. The dialogue is crammed with weird, Christopher Walken-esque line readings and bizarre placement of emphases—phrases like “You old biddy,” “Dang!” and “You reckon?” become hilariously divorced from meaning. But, like an alcoholic reduced to drinking sterno, the more you drink, the more brain cells you fry, and the better it tastes. Before long you not only start to understand Miike’s “through the looking glass” English but also to appreciate the cadences. It’s something like the dialogue in Deadwood or Cormac McCarthy’s writing: stiff, alien, occasionally silly but not without a hypnotic elegance all its own.

more from Slate here.

Elias Khoury remembers his friend Mahmoud Darwish

From Abu Dhabi’s The National:

Screenhunter_04_aug_29_1244“What will we write when you’re dead?” I asked him. And he told me a story about the assassination of Ghassan Kanafani.

Darwish recalled that he was taken by surprise when the Palestinian poet Kamal Nasser walked angrily into his office at the Palestinian Research Centre in 1972, holding the obituary The Poet had written for Kanafani. Nasser threw the article on the desk and demanded, gently, “What will you write about my death, now that you’ve written everything in this article?”

Less than a year later, when Nasser too was assassinated by Israel, Darwish wrote the poem Palestinian Wedding, in which:

Never will lover reach lover
Except as martyr or fugitive.

More here.

Proof Positive

From Harvard Magazine:

Clock As academics work to understand the architecture of the universe, they sometimes uncover connections in mysterious places. So it is with Smith professor of mathematics Richard L. Taylor, whose work connects two discrete domains of mathematics: curved spaces, from geometry, and modular arithmetic, which has to do with counting. Taylor has spent his career studying this nexus, and recently proved it is possible to use one domain to solve complex problems in the other. “It just astounded me,” he says, “that there should be a connection between these two things, when nobody could see any real reason why there should be.”

This is not the first instance of finding in geometry an elegant explanation for a seem- ingly unrelated phenomenon. Scholars during the Renaissance, seeking a mathematical basis for our conceptions of beauty, fingered the so-called Golden Ratio (approximately 1.6 to 1). Some analyses find the ratio in structures—most famously the Parthenon—built centuries before its first written formulation. More recently, scientists have found that the faces people find most beautiful are those in which the proportions conform most closely to the ratio. The geometry-arithmetic connection explored by Taylor solves another puzzle that has enticed mathematicians across centuries. In 1637, French mathematician Pierre de Fermat scrawled in a book’s margin a theorem involving equations like the one in the Pythagorean theorem (a2 + b2 = c2), but with powers higher than two. Fermat’s theorem said such equations have no solutions that are whole numbers, either positive or negative. Go ahead, try—it is impossible to find three integers, other than zero, that work in the equation a3 + b3 = c3.

The French mathematician also wrote that he had discovered a way to prove this—but he never wrote the proof down, or if he did, it was lost. For more than 350 years, mathematicians tried in vain to prove what became known as Fermat’s Last Theorem. They could find lots of examples that fit the pattern, and no counterexamples, but could not erase all doubt until Princeton University mathematician Andrew Wiles presented a proof in 1993.

His discovery made the front page of the New York Times, but six months later, the Times reported that another mathematician had found a mistake in the new proof.

More here.

Politics, Spectacle and History Under Open Sky

From The New York Times:

Barack Under clear skies after a humid day, the crowd of nearly 80,000 was a hodgepodge of suited Democratic donors, senators, delegates, party bigwigs, celebrities, political tourists, teenage volunteers and older voters — many of them African-American — bent on seeing a moment they had thought they would never witness. Some waited for five hours in baking heat in a line up to a mile long to come to the stadium. “I have no reason to be here other than to be a part of history,” said Janelle Murph, who had booked a last-minute flight from Baltimore to see the first African-American accept the nomination of a major party on the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “When I realized it was on that anniversary, it just felt like fate. I had to be there.”

As afternoon turned to evening, the mood evolved from giddy to serious to — by the time Mr. Obama was talking about Iraq — nearly silent. Mr. Obama’s face loomed on big video screens overhead while he spoke. About half of the crowd remained standing throughout, a group that included far more young people in the stands than delegates on the floor.

An elderly African-American man removed his oversize red, white and blue hat in deference as Mr. Obama spoke.

More here.

Akeel Bilgrami on Gandhi


Screenhunter_03_aug_28_2102In the philosophical tradition Gandhi is opposing, others are potential objects of criticism in the sense that one’s particular choices, one’s acts of moral conscience, generate moral principles or imperatives which others can potentially disobey. For him, conscience and its deliverances, though relevant to others, are not the well-spring of principles. Morals is only about conscience, not at all about principles.

There is an amusing story about two Oxford philosophers which makes this distinction vivid. In a seminar, the formidable J L Austin having become exasperated with Richard Hare’s huffing on about how moral choices reveal principles, decided to set him up with a question. ‘Hare’, he asked, “if a student came to you after an examination and offered you five pounds in return for the mark alpha, what would you say?” Predictably, Hare replied, “I would tell him that I do not take bribes, on principle!” Austin’s acid response was, “Really? I think I would myself say, ‘No thanks’. ” Austin was being merely deflationary in denying that an act of conscience had to have a principle underlying it. Gandhi erects the denial into a radical alternative to a (western) tradition of moral thinking. An honoured slogan of that tradition says, “When one chooses for oneself, one chooses for everyone”. The first half of the slogan describes a particular person’s act of conscience. The second half of the slogan transforms the act of conscience to a universalised principle, an imperative which others must follow or be criticised. Gandhi embraces the slogan too, but he understands the second half of it differently. He too wants one’s acts of conscience to have a universal relevance, so he too thinks one chooses for everyone, but he does not see that as meaning that one generates a principle or imperative for everyone. What other interpretation can be given to the words ‘One chooses for everyone’ in the slogan, except the principled one?

In Gandhi’s writing there is an implicit but bold proposal: “When one chooses for oneself, one sets an example to everyone.” That is the role of the satyagrahi. To lead exemplary lives, to set examples to everyone by their actions.

More here.  [Thanks to Thomas Zipp.]

The Philosopher’s Annual 10 Best Philosophy Papers, 2007

Via bookforum (links available over at The Philosopher’s Annual):

“Reflection and Disagreement”
Adam Elga
from Nous 41 (2007), 478-502

“Why Nothing Mental is Just in the Head”
Justin Fisher
from Nous 41 (2007), 318-334

“Socrates’ Profession of Ignorance”
Michael N. Forster
from Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 3 (2007), 1-36

“When is a Brain Like a Planet?”
Clark Glymour
from Philosophy of Science 74 (2007), 330-347

Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Convention

M_id_35744 Amitava Kumar reports from the DNC, in the Indian Express:

Near the end of his book The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama recalls a phone conversation with his wife Michelle after getting elected to the U S Senate, a conversation during which he began to tell her about a significant piece of legislation that he was fighting to get passed. But Michelle Obama had something else on her mind. She said to her husband, “We have ants.”Ants?

Yes, they were the problem. In the kitchen and in the bathroom upstairs. Michelle wanted Barack to pick up ant traps for their home. This conversation made the rookie Senator wonder if someone like Ted Kennedy or John McCain bought ant traps on the way home from work.

The point of the anecdote, I think, was to establish that Obama’s needs, and his family’s needs, even when he became a Senator, were ordinary. But a part of the story’s purpose is also to tell us that it is Michelle Obama who keeps Barack practical and grounded.

Was this the task that she was once again burdened with on Monday night?

Not to put too fine a point on it but ants just didn’t belong in Pepsi Center. The place is huge, its interiors soar. The very scale of things suggests size and ambition and vast sums of money. What occurred to me as I stood outside was that the building could swallow several of Saddam’s palaces.

In fact, I was still unprepared for the immensity inside and it took my breath away. If the practical entered the picture, as it must, at the level of planning and detail, it was only in the service of something grand. Michelle Obama delivered a powerful and deft speech, telling the story of her family and attempting earnestly to define herself for strangers. Except that she was also responding in a very precise way to criticism made of her in the past, and this open act, because it was being performed on such a big public stage, threatened each utterance by exposing its fragility.

I understood this more fully only when I came out of the Pepsi Center, and a friend of mine, who is black and a writer, sent me a text message from upstate New York saying that Michelle’s humanity had been diminished that evening: the white majority had imposed on her the view that she could be considered acceptable only if she said nothing critical of her own country.

Of Craps and Calculus

Craps Jennifer Ouellette on the research for her upcoming book:

Few science bloggers have the good fortune to write off a Vegas trip as “research”, but that’s exactly what it was: my next book for Penguin is all about my experiences as a former English major learning calculus, inspired by a series of blog posts I wrote in 2006. (Current working title: Dangerous Curves: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Calculus. “Love” is rather a strong word. “Grudging appreciation” would be more accurate, but it just doesn’t make for a snappy subtitle.) It’s a testament to how far I have come over the years in breaking out of the kneejerk “mathogynist” mindset that I would even contemplate writing such a book, never mind relish the prospect. Perhaps that’s because my pedagogical approach flies in the face of how the subject is usually taught; in fact, the Spousal Unit once observed that I was learning calculus “inside out.” (He could have said “ass backwards,” but he’s far too polite.)

It all started with an impulse purchase of a series of DVD lectures offered by the Teaching Company: “Calculus Made Clear,” with a math professor at the University of Texas, Austin, named Michael Starbird. (He also has a DVD lecture series on probability.) The Spousal Unit noted approvingly that there were actual equations/derivations involved in the lectures, so it wasn’t just a lightweight “concept” course. Whatever. The two need not be mutually exclusive; a truly good teacher, like Starbird, will include both. He presented the underlying concepts beautifully, plus he told little historical anecdotes along the way about Buffon’s Needle, the Newton/Leibnitz debate, Archimedes, even the famed “Dido’s Problem” in the Aeneid. Nothing makes an English major happier than a strong, compelling narrative. Give us a good story, and we’ll follow you anywhere — even into the minefield of solving scary equations.

Ever the supportive partner, the Spousal Unit started leaving me simple calculus-related exercises on our resident white board in the mornings, just to shake off the dusty cobwebs of the math portions of my brain. I brushed up on geometry and algebra — which reminded me how much I’d genuinely enjoyed geometry in high school, before I bought into the whole “mathogynist” self-identity. (Who knows where that came from? I earned straight A’s in all my math and science classes.) And I took on some supplementary reading, including books by John Allen Paulos, Jason Bardi’s The Calculus Wars (a history of Newton and Leibnitz), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Calculus. (The latter should perhaps be renamed The Half-Wit’s Guide to Calculus, since it assumes a bit more knowledge than the average adult recovering mathogynist has at his/her fingertips. That high school trig class was a long time ago….)

Love and Valour in The Ramayana

The British Library is having an extensive exhibition on the Indian epic.  The website has quite a number of manuscript images, guides, etc. An interesting podcast:

Neil Gaiman on the Ramayana (MP3, 45min, 18.3MB) Listen now

Neil Gaiman, author of the Sandman stories and many others, talks about his film treatment of Ramayana to Ravi Swami, animator, filmmaker and recent judge at the British Animation Awards.

The End of the Prague Spring and the Collapse of World Communism


Christopher Hitchens in Slate:

Forty years ago this week, the greatest English-language poet of the 20th century sat down and wrote an eight-line verse:

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips
While drivel gushes from his lips.

W.H. Auden did not give this telling piece of brilliant doggerel a grandiose name. (He had, after all, called his finest poem “September 1, 1939,” simply after the day on which it was composed.) But just as anyone with a sense of history will know what is intended by that date, so it is that those eight lines, titled “August 1968,” evoke all the drama and tragedy of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The Warsaw Pact no longer exists. Czechoslovakia no longer exists. The Soviet Union, which tried by force to keep the second entity as a part of the first one, likewise no longer exists. Yet few events in memory can be as real and “concrete”—to borrow a favorite term of Marxist propaganda—as the struggle that once took place in these far-from-ethereal regions of Central and Eastern Europe.

On that day, I was in Cuba at a leftist student summer camp. The news, which wasn’t a complete surprise, came to the island very early in the morning. The Cuban Communist Party had been officially neutral regarding the Russian and Czechoslovak parties, so there was no “line.” It was announced that Fidel Castro would therefore produce a line in a speech to be delivered that night. Thus one could spend a whole day in a Communist state that had no official position on the main news item. Most Cubans were, one found, instinctively pro-Czech and anti-superpower. At noon came the information, which altered some people’s opinion, that Ho Chi Minh had endorsed the Russian action. The Chinese Communists, on the other hand, denounced it as analogous to Hitler’s intervention in Prague in 1939. Over the next few days, the world’s Communist leaderships gave their verdicts. The Italian Communists: against. The Greeks (languishing under fascist dictatorship): split. The Portuguese (likewise languishing): in favor. The South Africans: strongly in favor. (That hurt.) The Spanish: quite strongly against. The American Communists: Why even ask? In favor, as usual, and of everything. And so it went on. What became clear, however, was that there was no longer something that could be called the world Communist movement. It was utterly, irretrievably, hopelessly split. The main spring had broken. And the Prague Spring had broken it.

The Novelist and the Murderers

Nathaniel Popper in The Nation:

Early last November, the novelist Francisco Goldman was shouldering his way through the Texas leg of a reading tour for his first nonfiction book, The Art of Political Murder. Published by Grove Press in September, the book had received glowing reviews in newspapers and magazines nationwide, and it would soon be included by The New York Times Book Review in its list of the 100 Notable Books of the Year. On November 5 Goldman was relaxing in his hotel before a reading at a Houston Barnes & Noble when his BlackBerry pinged with an e-mail from an innkeeper in the Guatemalan town of Santiago de Atitlán. One day earlier, Guatemalans had voted in a general election, and the winner of the presidential contest was Álvaro Colom, a self-proclaimed Social Democrat and head of the National Unity of Hope (UNE) Party. Quite unexpectedly, Colom had come from behind in the polls to defeat Otto Pérez Molina, a salt-and-pepper-haired general who had campaigned on the slogan of Mano Dura (Firm Fist), a sturdy platform in a country that was ruled by the military and repressive right-wing parties almost without interruption from 1954 until the late ’90s. As it happens, the election was also the subject of the e-mail Goldman received from the innkeeper, David Glanville: The Art of Political Murder, Glanville wrote, may have been a decisive factor in Pérez Molina’s loss.

Goldman’s book is about neither the election nor the candidates. The Art of Political Murder is an investigation of one of Guatemala’s most notorious and gruesome killings. On a Sunday night in April 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi had been bludgeoned to death just two days after publishing a report about the Guatemalan military’s responsibility for civilian massacres in the country’s recently concluded civil war. In the midst of investigating the case, Goldman found sources who told him that on the night of the murder, Pérez Molina was hanging out in a convenience store near Gerardi’s church with a few conspirators in Gerardi’s murder. That scrap of information is mentioned–but not heavily scrutinized–by Goldman in his book.

evolution and the ‘other’ disciplines


In the last decades of the twentieth century, constructivism became less dominant in the social sciences. Mead’s own work was brought into question, and evolutionary psychology gained credence, if not full acceptance, under the leadership of entomologist E. O. Wilson. In 1998, Ekman published a landmark edition of Darwin’s book that included Darwin’s original photographs and his own, along with related contemporary research.

In this decade, the evolutionary approach to psychology has almost become an orthodoxy in its own right: bestsellers such as Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature scathingly denounce social constructivism, while Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong posits a “universal moral grammar” in an attempt to explain why humans are nice to one another when from a narrowly evolutionary standpoint they have no apparent reason to be. Evolutionary ideas are also remarkably common in a wide range of popular self-help works, such as Ekman’s own Emotions Revealed and John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

more from The Walrus here.

durrell’s alexandria


No single imagination can truly own a city, so when we speak of Proust’s Paris, Joyce’s Dublin, Musil’s Vienna and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria, we are really clearing a space in our minds where specific happenings and feelings may be identified and reconvened. It is these novelists’ pressing need to set their narratives down in some palpable place, almost as aliens colonizing a territory, rather than a compulsion to celebrate their country or fictionalize an already famous vicinity that leads to their iconic inventions.

This is especially the case with the four novels that make up The Alexandria Quartet – Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea – published in quick succession from 1957 to 1960. It had not been Durrell’s original intention to carry the story over so long a span, but once begun, he found he had an irresistible impulse to complete the full trajectory of a long-fostered obsession. Alexandria became the mise en scène of his masterpiece, if not by accident, at least fortuitously. To state this is not to question the powerful presence of the city throughout the novels. But Durrell’s creative instinct appears to have hit on Alexandria as the right domain for his long-anticipated magnum opus because it had become highly familiar to him during his wartime exile and, more importantly, because an Alexandrian woman had entered his life at a critical point.

more from the TLS here.

a fleeting illusion of knowability


The enduring popularity of hard-copy field guides is more surprising given the current transformation in the way we receive information — news through the Internet, say, or television on an iPhone. Publishers are clearly aware of these developments. Video podcasts supplement the new Peterson guide. The Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America comes with a DVD of 138 birdsongs. And some guides, like eNature and FishBase, exist entirely online.

Yet it’s the “throwback” that remains popular. Indeed, the Peterson guide comes with a price of $26; the video podcasts created to accompany it are available for free on the publisher’s Web site.

In Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, Scott Weidensaul views field guides as vehicles for experiencing for the awesomeness that is life. “Field guides make the natural world knowable; they are the first entry point for most people into the diversity of life on the planet,” he writes. “One can shuffle through life noticing little more than dandelions and roses, but open a field guide and…[w]hat had been a blur begins to resolve itself into myriad distinct shards, each unique, each lovely.”

more from The Smart Set here.

Thursday Poem

How To Like It
Stephen Dobyns

These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.
A man and a dog descend their front steps.
The dog says, Let’s go downtown and get crazy drunk.
Let’s tip over all the trash cans we can find.
This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.
But in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid
until it seems he can see remembered faces
caught up among the dark places in the trees.
The dog says, Let’s pick up some girls and just
rip off their clothes. Let’s dig holes everywhere.
Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud
crossing the face of the moon. Like in a movie,
he says to himself, a movie about a person
leaving on a journey. He looks down the street
to the hills outside of town and finds the cut
where the road heads north. He thinks of driving
on that road and the dusty smell of the car
heater, which hasn’t been used since last winter.
The dog says, Let’s go down to the diner and sniff
people’s legs. Let’s stuff ourselves on burgers.
In the man’s mind, the road is empty and dark.
Pine trees press down to the edge of the shoulder,
where the eyes of animals, fixed in his headlights,
shine like small cautions against the night.
Sometimes a passing truck makes his whole car shake.
The dog says, Let’s go to sleep. Let’s lie down
by the fire and put our tails over our noses.
But the man wants to drive all night, crossing
one state line after another, and never stop
until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror.
Then he’ll pull over and rest awhile before
starting again, and at dusk he’ll crest a hill
and there, filling a valley, will be the lights
of a city entirely new to him.
But the dog says, Let’s just go back inside.
Let’s not do anything tonight. So they
walk back up the sidewalk to the front steps.
How is it possible to want so many things
and still want nothing. The man wants to sleep
and wants to hit his head again and again
against a wall. Why is it all so difficult?
But the dog says, Let’s go make a sandwich.
Let’s make the tallest sandwich anyone’s ever seen.
And that’s what they do and that’s where the man’s
wife finds him, staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept-
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.

From Velocities: New and Selected Poems (Penguin, 1994)

Thanks to Harry Walsh


Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences

ntAlexander Nemser in The New Republic:

Book Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov, the future Maxim Gorky, was born in 1868 in Nizhni Novgorod on the Volga River, and grew up in what he later described in his melancholy, violent autobiography as “that close-knit, suffocating little world of pain and suffering where the ordinary Russian man in the street used to live, and where he lives to this day.” It was the world of the provincial petty-bourgeois — neighbors cut the tails off each other’s cats and sons besieged their fathers’ houses, knocking all night on the doors with fists and clubs.

Gorky was struck from the start by the chaos and the carelessness of the life that he saw around him. Many of the most lyrical passages in his autobiography describe the silences that followed the savage outbursts of his relatives. He remembered his lazy cousin Sasha, whose two rows of teeth were “the only interesting thing about him”: “I liked to sit close to him,” Gorky wrote, “neither of us speaking for a whole hour, and watching the black crows circling and wheeling in the red evening sky around the golden cupolas of the Church of the Assumption, diving down to earth and draping the fading sky with a black net…. A scene like this fills the heart with sweet sadness and leaves you content to say nothing.” The cruelty around him made him want to embellish and to correct what he saw. In his best work, however, he told his stories without ornament.

More here.

Spellbound by monsters of the deep

From The Guardian:

Leviathan Philip Hoare began his writing career as the biographer of Stephen Tennant and Noël Coward. More recently, his work has turned into something harder to categorise: amazing feats of history and imagination that take you to places within yourself – never mind the places he is actually describing – that you did not even know existed. Leviathan or, The Whale is one of these feats and it is as elusive a beast as the great, unknowable creature that is its inspiration. It begins as memoir, then moves deftly through biography, literary criticism, social history and, finally, nature writing, in a muscular freestyle so compelling and all-encompassing that it cast a spell on me that endured for days after I had done turning its beautifully illustrated pages. Hoare has long been acclaimed as a brilliantly unconventional writer; WG Sebald was among his most devoted fans. This is the book he was born to write, a classic of its kind.

If you are going to write a book that deals, in large part, with the literary monolith that is Moby-Dick, then you had better be sure to have a good first sentence; Melville’s three little words – ‘Call me Ishmael’ – are so unsurpassably resonant they might have come from the Old Testament. Hoare knows this well – he cannot get the book out of his system (‘Every time I read it, it is as if I am reading it for the first time’) – and he has conjured a pretty good first sentence himself: ‘Perhaps it is because I was nearly born under water.’ Hoare grew up in Southampton. In the days before his birth, his parents visited Portsmouth’s dockyard, where they were taken on a tour of a submarine. As she climbed into its belly, his mother began to feel labour pains.

More here. (Note: For me, Moby Dick arguably remains the best book of American fiction).