Wednesday Poem

The Little Vagabond Image_blake_songs_of_innocence&experience
William Blake

Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold,
But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm;
Besides, I can tell where I am used well,
Such usage in heaven will never do well.

But if at Church they would give us some Ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We'd sing and we'd pray all the live-long day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.

The the Parson might preach, & drink, & sing,
And we'd be as happy as birds in spring;
And modest dame Lurch, who is always at Chruch,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.

And God, like a father rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as he,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel,
But kiss him, & give him both drink and apparel.

From Songs of Experience, William Blake

Sarah Palin for Poet Laureate

From Prospect Magazine:

Palin Reading Sarah Palin’s anguished interview with Greta van Susteren of Fox News just after the election, I had an epiphany: Palin is a poet, and a fine one at that. What the philistine media take for incoherence is, in fact, the fruitful ambiguity of verse. Here she is, in a work I have taken to calling “The Relevance of Africa.” (Not a single word or comma has been changed, but the line breaks are placed where they naturally fall.) In it, Palin blends the energy of free verse with the austerity of a classic 14-line sonnet.

It reads: “And the relevance to me /With that issue, /As we spoke /About Africa and some /Of the countries /There that were /Kind of the people succumbing /To the dictators /And the corruption /Of some collapsed governments /On the /Continent, /The relevance /Was Alaska’s.”

A great poet needs to leave open the door between the conscious and unconscious; Sarah Palin has removed her door from its hinges. A great poet does not self-censor; Sarah Palin seems authentically innocent of what she is saying. She could be the most natural, visionary poet since William Blake.

More here.

Amoebae Family Values

From Science:

Amoeba Tony Soprano and social amoebae have one thing in common: They only trust family. When things get tough, the single-celled organisms gang up with their closest relatives like any cutthroat mobster would, a strategy that may protect them from swindlers, new research shows. Scientists say the slimy cooperation may shed light on how some of the earliest social behavior first evolved.

The social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum usually lives alone, dining on bacteria in the forest soil. When food becomes scarce, tens of thousands of neighboring amoebae meld into a blob–about a third the length of an eyelash–that slithers much farther than any amoeba could on its own. When the slug reaches a warm, sunlit locale, the aggregate transforms into a fruiting body: About 20% of amoebae sacrifice themselves to form a rigid stalk, hoisting their comrades upward as a ball of spores. These lucky amoebae hitch rides on the fur of passing mammals to reach greener pastures. The martyrs of the stalk wither and die.

The strategy seems ripe for cheaters. After all, amoebae that shirk their stalk duty have a better chance of survival–and are more likely to pass their deceitful ways on to the next generation. Yet cheaters haven't overtaken the species, so something must be keeping them honest. A team led by biologists Elizabeth Ostrowski of Rice University and Mariko Katoh of Baylor College of Medicine, both in Houston, Texas, wondered whether that something might be nepotism. In certain insect species, for example, workers “sacrifice” themselves for the good of their relatives so that some of their shared genes are passed on.

More here. (Do watch the fascinating video on this linkalso.)

Hilary Putnam’s Roadmap to God

Putnam David Kaufmann in nextbook:

Hilary Putnam’s Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life is not disappointing. In a short series of equally short lectures on four important religious philosophers of the 20th century (Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, and Ludwig Wittgenstein), Putnam outlines a rigorous and yet livable approach to Judaism. He writes for a general audience. He doesn’t indulge in parsing. There are no nits.

Instead, Putnam asks us to confront some fundamental issues. What is the essence of the divine? How do we account for evil? What are the ethical demands that religion makes on us? He suggests that we need to pose these questions differently. We should not ask what God is, but how we should experience Him. We should not explain evil but confront it. We should find our way to God through our relations with our fellow humans and not the other way around. According to Putnam, the big problems aren’t so big. In fact they aren’t even problems.

Putnam’s book is recognizably and in a certain way also traditionally Jewish. It presents its own coherent argument in the guise of a commentary on other texts. It speaks through them as well as about them. This approach allows Putnam, who has been one of the leading American philosophers of science for over four decades, to begin with Wittgenstein’s insight that faith is different from science because it does not depend on proof. You can abide by the tenets of the Torah even if you don’t strictly believe that they were handed down at Sinai. You can balance the story of Adam and Eve and the theory of evolution because religious truths are not necessarily damaged by contradictory evidence.

Religion can withstand secular science because religion is more than a series of dogmas. It represents a way of life. It expresses an attitude toward the world and is deeply entwined with a set of everyday activities and commitments. Religion cannot be outfoxed by science or logic. Try as they might, cosmologists cannot prove that the heavens do not proclaim the glory of God.

Garrett Lisi’s Exceptional Approach to Everything

LisiARTICLE Greg Boustead in Seed:

When Lisi published his physics paper, “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything,” to an online archive last year, it created a media buzz about his lifestyle and an onslaught of support and skepticism about his model. Although the verdict is still out on whether Lisi's theory will prove predicatively accurate, the means by which he released and vetted his research point to a larger trend in the scientific community.

Barriers to data are falling, a cross-disciplinary community of commenters is replacing journal-selected peer reviewers, and “information to the people!” is becoming the raison d'être of the science information superhighway. The movement, combined with an evolving image of the contemporary scientist, is redefining how society interacts with science.

We checked in with Lisi recently for an update on his theory, his thoughts on publishing, and his pursuit of life.

You left academia to study physics on your own. Why?

Freedom. When I got my PhD, I really loved general relativity, quantum field theory, and differential geometry, and I wanted to continue my research in these areas. But at that time the only funded research options available in these combined fields were in string theory, which was and still is the dominant research program in theoretical particle physics. I had learned a bit about string theory, and some things about it are pretty cool, but I thought string models were kind of far-fetched and probably not relevant to our universe. So I took off for Maui — the most beautiful part of the world I could find — and worked on the physics I wanted to, while squeaking by financially. Recently, research grants from small private foundations (FQXi and SubMeta) have allowed me to travel a bit and talk with other physicists, but I still spend most of my time on Maui.

On The Beatles’ Lost Jam Carnival of Light

Paulm-copy-2 Paul McCartney in The Guardian:

Being far out is not something I'm known for too much, but I do enjoy that side of things. If you look at things I've done, from Why Don't We Do It in the Road, which is kind of out-there, to Carnival of Light, which is so out there it hasn't even been released, you can see I like experimenting. I don't like this phrase “more than John”, though. We grew up as a couple of kids in Liverpool and I think we were both as earnest and experimental as each other.

In the 60s, I happened to have more opportunity to do some of that
stuff because I was living on my own in London, whereas John was in the countryside in Weybridge and married so he was a little bit more pipe and slippers! I was out in the clubs and Wigmore Hall, catching people like Cornelius Cardew. I was into Stockhausen and stuff. So I had more of an opportunity but I don't think that made me more experimental than John. I just possibly did a bit more during that period. And John ended up with Revolution No 9 so, perception wise, he was the most experimental Beatle. But that was something I'd been doing off-piste, as we say in the skiing business. I'd been doing it for a hobby and he was smart enough to bring it into the main event. That was John's courage. But I think we were both equally experimental.

What to Do With the Big 3

Daniel Khaneman and Andrew Rosenfield in the NYT:

The combined equity valuations of Chrysler, Ford and G.M. total less than $6 billion, which is not even a fifth the valuation of Honda and only about a twentieth that of Toyota.

When faced with disaster, the natural response of people — and businesses — is to fight for time and hope for the best. The likely outcome of this strategy would be a succession of failures that would spare no one. We believe that there is a better way: simultaneous bankruptcy filing by all three companies would substantially reduce both the uncertainty and the stigma for each one.

A coordinated filing would send a message that the problem is systemic — not an indication that American manufacturers produce inferior cars and trucks. It would also signal that a systemic solution to save the industry is in the works.

We do not suggest that this would be a panacea: the American carmakers’ market share would most likely decline, but less so than if the companies were allowed to fail one after the other.

The Big Three are competitors and not all would welcome the idea of coordinated bankruptcy. And even if they wanted to, they could not simply decide to simultaneously file, because any such private agreement could be viewed as a garden-variety violation of antitrust law. Government intervention will be required.

a new currency


The national headquarters of Liberty Dollar is housed on the commercial east side of Evansville, Indiana, in a low-slung beige strip mall with an awning that hangs over the facade like a hood. It sits between Strictly Shooting gun shop and a vacant storefront, and faces a service road, disused train tracks, and a state nature preserve cordoned off by a rusted chain-link fence. Though it looks like an average pawnshop, the nerve center of Bernard von NotHaus’s decade-old alternative-currency operation manages the production and shipping of several million Liberty Dollars—elaborately designed coins made of copper, silver, or occasionally, gold—and the sale of “warehouse receipts” redeemable for silver. After a bout with the law last November, von NotHaus changed the company’s name in order to make a semantic distinction between its product and legal tender, but business has only increased as the value of the US dollar has continued its forty-year slide. The headquarters in Evansville, a middling river city just across the Ohio from Kentucky, coordinates the nationwide circulation of the Liberty Dollars with offices in twenty-five states, acting as the hub for satellite communities from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, to Berryville, Arkansas.

more from Triple Canopy here.



It is fortunate for literary historians that Thornton Wilder and Edmund Wilson did not meet at the Princeton-Yale football game or, heaven forbid, in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s bedroom. They were brought together instead at one of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s weekend debauches at their rented estate of Ellerslie, outside Wilmington, Delaware, in the winter of 1928. Wilson had heard that the Fitzgeralds’ latest parties were “on a more elaborate scale than their old weekends at Westport or Great Neck,” an impression confirmed by the invitation. “All is prepared for February 25th,” Fitzgerald wrote Wilson. “The stomach pumps are polished and set out in rows, stale old enthusiasms are being burnished…. Pray gravity to move your bowels. It’s little we get done for us in this world. Answer. Scott.” Ellerslie proved to be an imposing white mansion built during the 1840s, with majestic Greek columns and high-ceilinged rooms. “I had never seen Scott and Zelda in such a magnificent setting,” Wilson wrote in his vivid account of the occasion in The Shores of Light. The main attraction for Wilson turned out not to be the house, the booze, or the women–who included Gerald Murphy’s younger sister Esther–but a fellow writer. “I arrived there with Thornton Wilder,” Wilson wrote, “whom I had not known before and whose books I had not read.”

more from TNR here.



FOR MANY AMERICANS, the idea of a world without nuclear weapons is a bit like the idea of a world without war or disease – it would be nice, but, contra John Lennon, it’s hard to imagine. That’s not to say lots of people haven’t devoted themselves to the cause. As the atomic age was dawning, Gandhi was already demanding its end, and today Pope Benedict XVI echoes that call. A host of international organizations, from Greenpeace to Mayors for Peace to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to the German Green Party, are dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons. Many of them have been at it for decades. The movement, however, has always carried utopian associations, and been conflated in the popular imagination with pacifism. The leaders of the world’s nuclear powers, their global stature buttressed by their atomic arsenals, have, with a few exceptions, shown little real interest in the idea. This is changing.

more from Boston Globe Ideas here.

Pragmatists ‘R’ Us

E. J. Dionne, Jr. in The New Republic:

Obama Econ Team President-elect Barack Obama has now made three things clear about his plans to bring the economy back: He wants his actions to be big and bold. He sees economic recovery as intimately linked with economic and social reform. And he is bringing in a gifted brain trust to get the job done.

Just three weeks after Election Day, Obama has already expanded his authority by seizing on “an economic crisis of historic proportions,” as he described it on Monday, to call for a stimulus package that will dwarf in size anything ever attempted by the federal government.

But Obama is also using the crisis to make the case for larger structural reforms in health care, energy and education — “to lay the groundwork for long-term, sustained economic growth,” as he put it. Obama clearly views the economic downturn not as an impediment to the broadly progressive program he outlined during the campaign but as an opportunity for a round of unprecedented social legislation.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Pairs of Shoes
Nguyễn Quyền

My future lives come to me in dreams
Come silently with torn soles.
I am like a skilled shoemaker
Greeting the wandering breath of these feet.

These dreams — my other selves
Sprawl out to sleep like a litter of puppies,
Pinches of ashy fur standing up in tufts
Their young hair like hens’ fluffed feathers
They lie on their stomachs, pressing against my shadow.

Pairs of shoes from yesterday will come tomorrow
Am I their native land, or a land foreign to them?
Their house, or an inn?
Which road guided them to me?

Tonight I decide to open myself to these dreams,
As anxious for their arrival as a child yearning for milk.
Perhaps fireflies will draw them in a different direction
And perhaps the shoes are no longer ripped.

I feel empty as a newborn animal.
I spread out like a homeless evening
To meet these footprints turning toward me.

Translated from the Vietnamese by Ben Tran

Modernism’s Monster

From The Washington Post:

Lecor In 1938, while visiting a new villa built by the Irish designer Eileen Gray, Le Corbusier was inspired to improve on her work. He admired the white-walled classicism and industrial finesse of the home, which was built in the spirit of his own domestic architecture. But he thought it needed a little something. And so Le Corbusier stripped naked, took out his paint brushes and covered the house with large, sexually provocative images. “One of the murals was on the previously spare white wall behind the living-room sofa, so that what had been specified by Gray to be a point of visual respite was now an animated scenario,” writes Nicholas Fox Weber in his new biography, Le Corbusier: A Life. Gray, who admired Le Corbusier and was, like many architects, proprietary about her work, felt “raped” by the incident.

Le Corbusier — the Swiss modernist who, along with Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, laid down the commandments of 20th-century architecture — might have known better. After all, he became so enraged by how the art was hung in the house he built for the wealthy collector Raoul La Roche that he broke with his best friend at the time, the painter Amédée Ozenfant, who had perpetrated the unauthorized hanging: “I insist absolutely that certain parts of the architecture should be entirely free of paintings,” he wrote.

More here.

A Whisper, Perhaps, From the Universe’s Dark Side

From The New York Times:

Dark2_600 Is this the dark side speaking?

A concatenation of puzzling results from an alphabet soup of satellites and experiments has led a growing number of astronomers and physicists to suspect that they are getting signals from a shadow universe of dark matter that makes up a quarter of creation but has eluded direct detection until now.


“Nobody really knows what’s going on,” said Gordon Kane, a theorist at the University of Michigan. Physicists caution that there could still be a relatively simple astronomical explanation for the recent observations.But the nature of this dark matter is one of the burning issues of science. Identifying it would point the way to a deeper understanding of the laws of nature and the Einsteinian dream of a unified theory of physics. The last few weeks have seen a blizzard of papers trying to explain the observations in terms of things like “minimal dark matter” or “exciting dark matter,” or “hidden valley” theory, and to suggest how to look for them in particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider, set to begin operation again outside Geneva next summer.

“It could be deliriously exciting, an incredibly cool story.”

More here.

First lady got back

Erin Aubry Kaplan in Salon:

Michelle Obama Free at last. I never thought that I — a black girl who came of age in the utterly anticlimactic aftermath of the civil rights movement — would say the phrase with any real sincerity in my lifetime. But ever since Nov. 4, I've been shouting it from every rooftop. I'm not excited for the most obvious reason. Yes, Obama's win was an extraordinary breakthrough and a huge relief, but I don't subscribe to the notion that his capturing the White House represents the end of American racial history. Far from it. There is a certain freedom in the moment — as in, we are all now free from wondering when or if we'll ever get a black president. Congratulations to all of us for being around to settle the question.

But what really thrills me, what really feels liberating in a very personal way, is the official new prominence of Michelle Obama. Barack's better half not only has stature but is statuesque. She has coruscating intelligence, beauty, style and — drumroll, please — a butt. (Yes, you read that right: I'm going to talk about the first lady's butt.)

More here.


From the American Civic Literacy Program website:

Businessman-Sitting-in-Corner-with-Dunce-Hat Are most people, including college graduates, civically illiterate? Do elected officials know even less than most citizens about civic topics such as history, government, and economics? The answer is yes on both counts according to a new study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). More than 2,500 randomly selected Americans took ISI’s basic 33 question test on civic literacy and more than 1,700 people failed, with the average score 49 percent, or an “F.” Elected officials scored even lower than the general public with an average score of 44 percent and only 0.8 percent (or 21) of all surveyed earned an “A.” Even more startling is the fact that over twice as many people know Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol than know that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Complete results from ISI’s third study on American civic literacy are being released today in a report entitled Our Fading Heritage: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions. The new study follows up two previous reports from ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board that revealed a major void in civic knowledge among the nation’s college students. This report goes beyond the college crowd however, examining the civic literacy of everyday citizens, including selfidentified elected officials. But according to ISI, the blame and solution again lie at the doorstep of the nation’s colleges.

More here.

Take the quiz yourself here. I was proud that my Italian wife managed to score 10% higher than the average American college graduate (she got 67%), but then in my infinite arrogance, I lost a dishwashing bet with her that I could ace the quiz by getting three answers wrong! 🙂

I did eke out an 'A' though! Report your own score in the comments.

Lunar Refractions: Debauched Grace—Gainsbourg is no Gorbachev…

SG.Partie.sub_wm-17.php I’ve spent the weekend out in the cold, and as I sit here sipping a glass of hot water with a wedge of lemon, the song that’s been stuck in my head for the past few months returns yet again to mind. Unexpectedly, yet somehow logically, the taste of this citron chaud cold cure I first learned from a Parisian friend of mine has my ears ringingSG.Esclaves.sub_wm-9.php with “Un zeste de citron / Inceste de citron,” provisional titles for the song Serge (and Charlotte) Gainsbourg published some twenty-four years ago as “Lemon Incest.” I can already hear you saying, “Wow, it doesn’t take much…” but no, my mind isn’t always in the gutter—or, if it is, at least it’s in an artistic way. The material on Serge Gainsbourg—his discography, filmography, biography, bibliography, and various other -ographies of all sorts—is inexhaustible. Equally inexhaustible is my ability to listen to this particular song over and over and over; though this may be reason to worry—as if I needed yet another—I’ve decided my fascination with it is worth investigating for what it may have to say about the creative process (pun intended … and no, I didn’t say procreative process!).

SG.50sRouge.sub_wm-8.php I first heard Serge’s mellifluous voice flowing from the stereo in the apartment of a friend of a friend (merci, Elise); I’d just moved to New York—literally the day before—and the tracks on Couleur Café, a posthumous compilation expanding upon the eponymous 1964 EP, intrigued and disoriented me. Where did this music come from, Africa? French Guiana? France proper? But soon this city began its inexorable take-over of my life, and my memory of those beats ceded to more pressing questions: where am I, where have I come from, and just where do I want to go? All those questions most people ask themselves soon after arrival here. But then Serge—Gainsbourg père, one might call him, given his love of literature and painting, as well as the creative enterprises many of his family members have also undertaken—came back with a vengeance.

I See New York, New York U.S.A. (Oh, c’est haut!)

SG.NewYork.sub_wm-20.php Upon moving here I had a brief stint in a bookshop. The pay was miserable, but never since my childhood evenings at the library had I been able to spend so much calm time totally surrounded by books. One day I came across book with sans serif pink and purple lettering and what looked to be a reclining nude—but male, smoking, and photographed rather than painted—on the cover. The subtitle of Sylvie Simmons’s biography Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes said it all, and periodically over the next eight years I enquired about the book whenever I found myself in a bookstore: all had carried it at some point in the past, none had it in stock. This September I finally got lucky, and delved right into the pages between its fruity covers on the subway ride home that evening. Reflecting on the fact that in many respects, for all their promise, my later cubicle gigs never gave me as much future fodder as that humble little bookstore had, I was immensely grateful for my past servitude and current freedom … and for having finally found the bio.

SG.Nue.sub_wm-6.php I had an inkling that the difficulties and triumphs of any New Yorker paled in comparison to his, but I had no idea; were he alive still, he’d have turned eighty this year. As you can guess, given his dates (1928–1991), young Lucien Ginsburg—an evidently Jewish (albeit assimilated) aspiring painter in mid-century Paris who left high school and then the École des Beaux Arts to follow in his immigrant father’s footsteps to play in various piano bars—was in for a hard time. So how can anyone sublimate the experience of being forced to wear a patch that could get you shipped off to the camps, escaping to stay with a family of hospitable strangers in a small town hours away from home, and hiding behind a different family name? By turning it all—and yourself—into art, of course. It may have taken three decades, but all that, with his experience in the military added in to boot, became a source to be raided for his 1975 album Rock Around the Bunker, complete with song titles like “Nazi Rock,” “Yellow Star,” and “S.S. in Uruguay.” The whole thing was done to music reminiscent of the fifties and sung in a very Elvis-esque tone, though before long he decided on the more radical step of splitting himself in two by creating an alter ego (more on that later). This is one approach to creativity: be yourself, have that taken away; reinvent yourself, be someone else; assume the personae of others, and make them your own. Rock around the bunker that is your ego and your life.

(Lolli)Pop Genius

SG.Profile.sub_wm-4.php SG.Silhouette.sub_wm-16.php The idea of genius comes up repeatedly in his bio and many of his television appearances and interviews. I don’t know that Whitney Houston qualified for the epithet in the mid-eighties when he said she was a genius (see below), but in light of his considerable output, he unequivocally does. He appears not to have liked the term, or was at least too humble to ever have applied it to himself—though he had no qualms about taking credit for his ugliness, saying that “ugliness has more going for it than beauty does: it endures.” So what’s an ugly man obsessed with beauty to do? Expose everything in its own particular type of beauty. According to one interview, he gave up painting because “I wanted to have an artistic genius, and all I had was talent.” Being disinclined to settle for mediocrity, he must’ve rightly felt that in music, at least, he had more than talent going for him.

SG.Tricouleur.sub_wm-5.php I’d twist the term genius to say it’s applicable to his work insofar as he’s captured the sense of genius loci as it might’ve been understood by the mythic Wandering Jew—the man who’s seen it all, experienced it all, lived a long time (and will, indeed, by condemnation or not, live on forever), all the while remaining somewhat excluded. In his oeuvre, Gainsbourg combines many traditions—rock, classical, jazz, reggae, rap—to create what many now consider one of the keystones of popular music; but it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t always popular, and certainly can’t be traced back to any one tradition. Instead, his genius was precisely that ability to transcend place and time (if not language), loot tradition for all it’s worth, and put out something that no one, anywhere, had ever heard before—say, a song for an innocent little girl about lollipops and how much she loves it when her lollipop’s anise-flavored sugar runs down her throat…. A tender France Gall won the 1966 Eurovision contest (an American Idol of sorts, sans painfully televised tryouts) with just such a song, and was later upset to learn that its lyrics could insinuate something other than her love of candy—could a nineteen-year-old back then really have been so pure, so much more naïve than today’s nineteen-year-old? And what’s wrong with a little insinuation when it leads to such sweet, scary, laughable clips as the one of young Gall and not-quite-so-young Gainsbourg singing that duet? One of my main criteria for whether something is art or not is how deeply it changes your idea of self and your life, and it sounds like this song changed France’s life deeply indeed. Over the years several more muses would come into his life to set the scandal bar slightly higher than it ever had been before.

Oh Daddy Oh (Daddy Oh…)

[Parental/filial advisory: this is the part with lemons and incest in it.] Gainsbourg had been married, had a child, and divorced by the time he met Jane Birkin, who had also been married, had a child, and divorced. Three years after briefly baring all at seventeen (take that, Mademoiselle Gall!) in a playful scene of Antonioni’s Blowup, Birkin found herself in Paris for a film test, and was set as heroine opposite Gainsbourg’s hero in Slogan. But I cannot go into everyone’s lengthy artistic c.v.s here: long story short, their union produced a daughter named Charlotte. She is now a singer, actress, and mother in her own right, after debuting at age thirteen (take that, Madame Birkin!) in the (in)famous “Lemon Incest,” the aforementioned 1984 duet with her father. While many people may be familiar with that song, not everyone knows that it also appeared as the last track of an album the two released together in 1986, Charlotte For Ever. My personal favorite is track three, “Oh Daddy Oh.” Aside from its catchy tune, it’s even more interesting when you hear some of the words this father puts into his daughter’s mouth:

Oh Daddy oh Daddy oh Oh Daddy oh Daddy oh

Tu te prends pour Alan Poe You take yourself for Edgar Poe

Huysmans Hoffmann et Rimbaud Huysmans Hoffmann and Rimbaud

SG.Maison.sub_wm-14.php Such references—to the Decadent author of Au Rebours (Against Nature), the poet in Offenbach’s semi-fictitious eponymous opera, and two other poets—says a lot about this particular Daddy, and his ability to make fun of himself via words penned to be tossed right back at him by his own daughter. Much as he was a musician, reading his lyrics one notes how he was equally a poet; not only that, but a poet who more often than not was capable of keeping remarkable rhyme schemes without having to break tradition, and while sustaining double, sometimes triple entendres. I suppose he left his revolutionary energies to the parts of his life that lay outside the strictly compositional precepts of verse writing—i.e., the sexual, political, and non-verbal artistic realms.

Returning briefly to Birkin’s sparklingly blonde appearance in Blowup, another curious connection emerges: the brunette friend with whom she harasses the photographer is played by none other than Gillian Hills. Three years earlier, a nineteen-year-old blonde Hills (a familiar age, n’est pas?) had sung at Serge’s side in another episode that falls well into the category of his recurring theme of young women and old men, to directly quote his 1959 song “Jeunes femmes et vieux messieurs.” See this excerpt from their 1963 “Une petite tasse d’anxieté:”

[Elle:] [Her:]

Où m’emmenez-vous ? Where are you taking me?

Etes-vous donc devenu fou ? Have you gone crazy?

[Lui:] [Him:]

Un p’tit tour au bois A little ride through the woods

Si vous n’avez pas peur de moi If you’re not afraid of me…

[Elle:] [Her:]

Mais vous vous trompez You’re mistaken,

Je n’ suis pas celle que vous croyez I’m not what you take me for…

Between the sixties and the eighties, the Vieille Canaille’s young woman counterpart is seen in her transformation, over several albums, from uncooperative lass to instigating vixen, culminating in “Lemon Incest.” For those who are ready to accuse the old man of going too far, here’s the key verse, sung by Charlotte:

L’amour que nous n’ f’rons jamais ensemble The love we’ll never make (to one another)

Est le plus rare le plus troublant Is the most rare, the most troubling

Le plus pur le plus énivrant The purest, the most intoxicating

Sublime love is all of those things, and when a thirteen-year-old tells you so, how can you denounce it? Sure, she may not yet have the necessary life experience, but compare this to Marilyn’s songs from the fifties (especially her rendition of Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” in Some Like it Hot), and tell me these women didn’t fully determine the words they sang and how they sang them.

Now for that alter ego I mentioned earlier: a lot of artists are known for their multiple personalities, be they clinically certified or not. While Gainsbourg always kept things clean within the family, he was nevertheless a very open, free man. In the late seventies the highly cultured, somehow elegant (at least melodically speaking) Gainsbourg created an alter ego named Gainsbarre; the latter was a drunken lout, a provocateurconstantly enveloped in a blue-grey cloud of smoke issuing from the ever-present Gitane in his mouth, and loved to make appearances on live national television. Simmons points out that Gainsbarre came into being shortly after Birkin walked out on him, and it was only a few short years before he was even conducting interviews with himself, the civil, suit jacket–wearing Gainsbourg delving into the depths of the sunglass-masked, leather jacket–wearing Gainsbarre to discuss his/their courage, fears, having to wear a star… in short, a philosophical conversation.

Such moments showed Gainsbarre at his best, whereas his appearances on other TV shows often proved superlative in other, less flattering ways. The two most well known occasions were what I’ll call the Houston incident and the 500-Franc incident. In the first, he and Whitney Houston were guests on a popular talk show. Less than two minutes into it, after claiming his mic doesn’t work, he abruptly interrupts Michel Drucker, the interviewer/interpreter, saying “You are not Reagan, and I am not Gorbachev, so don’t try, eh! I said I want to fu*k her.” (Mais j’ai bien dit que je voulait la baiser.) The comparison he used for that scold is curious, and reveals a certain political awareness one might think such a drunken man wouldn’t have. To run with it, there are similarities: both Gainsbourg and Gorbachev were of Russian descent; both grew up under totalitarian regimes; both help foster a disintegration of barriers and greater cultural (not to say economic) exchange on many levels. But as far as I know, Gainsbourg never did a Vuitton ad.


But he did burn money in other, less fashionable ways. In the 500-Franc incident he was seen, again on live national television, illegally taking his lighter to a bill and burning roughly the same percentage of his total earning he paid in taxes. He’s careful to specify that he knows it’s illegal but doesn’t care, and, more importantly, that his anger stems from the fact that the government funnels the money into nuclear (energy and weapons) and other such wastes, not to the poor. Remind you of any other administration?

Un Role Model

SG.Gun+Roses.sub_wm.php Ultimately, 6a00d8341c562c53ef010536207fa6970c-150wi Lucien Ginsburg/Serge Gainsbourg/Gainsbarre/Le Vieille Canaille was not just an unparalleled artist, but he was “un role model,” a linguistically mixed concept I’ll awkwardly translate, just as so many of his lyrics lose their grace in translation: in latter-day, anglo-filled French, un role model = a role model (un bon exemple); in English (sure, add the hyphen), he’s plainly an un-role model, the sort of man you might never want your son to take after, but undeniably a role model nonetheless—perhaps a role model of the sort clearly attested to by dozens of little boys on a children's TV show dressed up as him, complete with cigarette and (hopefully faux) glass of liquor in hand, five-o'clock shadows on their sunglass-clad faces, and greyed hair singing a modified version of one of his old songs as an homage.

SG.Dessin.sub_wm-18.php To round out this picture of the young painter turned musician turned activist—the real renaissance man—along comes his (semi-autobiographical) novel Evguénie Sokolov, whose protagonist is a struggling young painter suffering from a terrible, chronic case of gas. He literally takes a shitty situation and harnesses his shortcoming to create pieces he terms “gasograms,” much like the surrealists’ automatic paintings (Gainsbourg adored Dalì). In both the book and the song, young Evguénie Sokolov, and by extension his creator, echoes the idea that taboos are simply time-dependant limits he’s unfettered by and will, on the contrary, turn to his advantage where possible.

SG.Clock.sub_wm-3.php For myself, in my own creative endeavors, the points and ideas I take from Gainsbourg’s songsSG.Cuffs.sub_wm-7.php and life are most encouraging. Critics often have an agenda that doesn’t apply to you. Critics are often wrong; when they aren’t wrong, it behooves you to find out why. Style both matters and doesn’t matter at all. The style of the day, in particular (i.e., the twist, les ye-ye), can be nice but is often forgettable. Smoking and drinking can facilitate great works of art. Smoking and drinking can kill you. Proper grammatical construction can be a hindrance (i.e., “Je t’aime, moi non plus,” “I love you, me neither”). Amid all the hot air—intestinal and otherwise—beauty (often masked in ugliness) reigns supreme.

SG.écrit.sub_wm-19.php SG.N'écoute pas.sub_wm-10.php For months I’ve been waiting for the right time to address this adoration I harbor for Serge, and it never comes, but as my citron chaud runs low I know I have a lot more to listen to before we’re done. Now I’m just waiting for some linguist or French music and lit specialist to begin the lexicography of Gainsbourg’s multi-entendres.

SG.TombGinzburg.sub_wm-13.phpASG.TombPoiçonneur.sub_wm-12.php previous 3QD link about Gainsbourg is here, and previous Lunar Refractions can be seen here.

All images courtesy of this site. More great clips can be watched here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

the great escapist


In an interview with me in 1997, Le Clezio explained that during this period he was greatly affected by Aldous Huxley’s seminal dsytopian tract, Brave New World. This influence is most evident in The Giants, a novel describing a Big Brother-style society of surveillance, founded on the seduction of the consumer and the control of language by “the Masters”. With characters called Machines and Tranquillity, trapped in a massive supermarket named Hyperpolis, Le Clezio echoes Huxley’s horrific vision of the future in a premonitory portrait of the manipulative power of advertising. The inescapable oppression of modern Western civilisation and the fear of what it might lead to is the essential message that Le Clezio seeks to convey here, and there is little hope for new beginnings or a better way of being in the world. More optimistic insights came to him, however, as he travelled and experienced other cultures. After brief periods working as a teacher in Thailand and a librarian’s assistant in Mexico, he spent considerable time in the early ’70s living among the Embera indians, deep in the forests of Panama.

more from The Australian here.

Structures Smaller than Light

The elegant ribbon drawings that became standard depictions of proteins originated in the sketches of Jane S. Richardson, now a professor of biochemistry at Duke University. The schematics Jane and David Richardson created and refined continue to help biologists untangle protein structures—combinations of helices (corkscrew shapes) and strands gathered into sheets—and thus tie form with function.

Robert Kosara interviews Jane S. Richardson in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_02 Nov. 23 15.22 R. K. Your biography in a recent meeting program ended with the sentence, “She now has three honorary degrees to fill in for her lack of a Ph.D.” Can you tell us a bit about your background?

J. S. R. In high school,I was a very active amateur astronomer; later I majored in math, physics and astronomy in college. I switched to philosophy at some point, and went to graduate school at Harvard for a year. I even got an M.A. in teaching. Eventually, I ended up joining the lab at MIT where my husband was getting his degree. This was in the '60s, right after the structures of two important proteins, hemoglobin and myoglobin, had been published. It was an exciting new field, and I was fascinated by these complicated structures. I treated them as another kind of natural history, similar to astronomy. The philosophy training turned out to be quite useful; it makes you skeptical about everything. I later joined Duke University, originally in the anatomy department and later in biochemistry with my husband.

More here.