In the LRB, Marina Warner on Edward Fitzgerald's version of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

A glass-fronted Regency bookcase in a corner of the London Library opposite the lift holds a collection of rare and beautiful editions of Edward FitzGerald’s poem, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Since its first publication in 1859, it has appeared in every size and shape, giant and toy, on vellum and silk, in fabulous bindings stamped with peacocks’ tails and nightingales’ eyes; it has been printed by masters for tiny private presses, handwritten and illustrated by artists – beginning with the trio of William Morris, Burne-Jones and Charles Fairfax Murray, who helped launch the work after some friends came across it in a remainders box outside Quaritch’s. Two years had passed since the bookseller first published it, at the price of 1s, and not a single copy, it seems, had been sold.

That same year, 1861, Rossetti and Swinburne took it up with enthusiasm. Across the Atlantic, the American artist Elihu Vedder, a specialist in antiquarian Eastern fantasies, whose writhing snakes of healing wisdom and forbidding, yet full-breasted, goddesses of scholarship, history and memory still greet readers at the Library of Congress, followed the Pre-Raphaelite lead and produced a lavish edition of Omar Khayyám in 1884. The poem continued to attract devotees, and a whole company of eccentrics: the splendid London Library cache – more than 300 Rubáiyáts – was put together by the polymorphous Orientalist Edward Heron-Allen, who was an expert in cheirosophy (palm-reading), the leading light in the field of fidicinology (the study of instruments played with a bow), and wrote the definitive work on barnacles. Heron-Allen struggled to identify which poems by Omar Khayyám FitzGerald had rendered into English, the task proving so labyrinthine that he effectively had to back-translate FitzGerald’s quatrains into Persian. Baron Corvo did a version; Augustus John supplied the images for a translation into Romany Welsh. More recently, W.G. Sebald searched out FitzGerald’s grave in the churchyard in the village of Boulge in Suffolk, and, in the same way that FitzGerald chose to speak through Omar Khayyám, Sebald seems in The Rings of Saturn to speak through FitzGerald when he describes with evident fellow-feeling the poet’s misanthropic solitude.

The Way of All Debt

Margaret-atwood Over at the CBC, Margaret Atwood discusses debt in the 2008 Massey lectures.

In the NYRB, John Gray reviews her Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth:

One of the many impressive features of Margaret Atwood's new book is its almost eerie timeliness. Consisting of five chapters that were broadcast in November 2008 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as the Massey Lectures, a series intended to provide a radio venue for the exploration of important issues, Payback appeared in print last October. The book must have been written some months earlier, but there is no sign that it was composed in haste. Atwood examines the role of ideas of debt in religion, literature, and society; she discusses the nature of sin, the structure of plot in fiction, the practice of revenge, and the ecological payback that occurs when human beings take from the planet more than they return. A celebrated novelist, poet, and critic, Atwood has combined rigorous analysis, wide-ranging erudition, and a beguilingly playful imagination to produce the most probing and thought-stirring commentary on the financial crisis to date.

Atwood's project is to show how human thought has been deeply shaped by notions of debt. It will be objected that she is merely spinning out an extended metaphor suggesting analogies between debt and noneconomic phenomena that are only vaguely analogous. In fact she is advancing the contrary and more interesting claim that economic activities involving borrowing and lending are metaphorical extensions of an underlying human sense of indebtedness. Beliefs about debt are not shadows cast by processes of market exchange. They are presupposed throughout much of human activity. Economic life invokes a sense of order in human affairs, widely dispersed throughout society.

hitchens V the fascists: smackdown edition


Well, call me old-fashioned if you will, but I have always taken the view that swastika symbols exist for one purpose only—to be defaced. Telling my two companions to hold on for a second, I flourish my trusty felt-tip and begin to write some offensive words on the offending poster. I say “begin” because I have barely gotten to the letter k in a well-known transitive verb when I am grabbed by my shirt collar by a venomous little thug, his face glittering with hysterical malice. With his other hand, he is speed-dialing for backup on his cell phone. As always with episodes of violence, things seem to slow down and quicken up at the same time: the eruption of mayhem in broad daylight happening with the speed of lightning yet somehow held in freeze-frame. It becomes evident, as the backup arrives, that this gang wants to take me away. I am as determined as I can be that I am not going to be stuffed into the trunk of some car and borne off to a private dungeon (as has happened to friends of mine in Beirut in the past).

more from Vanity Fair here.

larkin creates himself


The first article on Philip Larkin ever to appear in the British press was published anonymously in the Times Educational Supplement, once the younger sister paper to the TLS, in 1956, when the poet was thirty-four years old. In his reply to a letter from an American professor who had written in 1958 to ask him for some biographical details, Larkin wrote:

The best and indeed the only source of information about me is an article in the Times Educational Supplement on 13 July 1956 which I assume you will be able to see. This gives details of biography, education and publications, along with a rather unpleasant photograph . . . . If necessary I could supply a copy of the article I mentioned, but since I have only a very small and diminishing stock of these I should be relieved if you could find a copy or photocopy within the United States.

This article was written by me – with considerable input from Larkin himself.

more from the TLS here.

I feel your skepticism seeping towards me from under the door


The family of Karl Wittgenstein, who was one of Austria’s richest men when he died, in 1913, may deserve some gloomy sort of prize, the Palm of Atreus, perhaps. His youngest child, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, once asked a pupil if he had ever had any tragedies in his life. The pupil, evidently well trained, inquired what he meant by “tragedy.” “I mean suicides, madness, or quarrels,” replied Ludwig, three of whose four brothers committed suicide, two of them (Rudi and Hans) in their early twenties, and the third (Kurt) at the age of forty. Ludwig often thought of doing so, as did his surviving brother, Paul. A budding concert pianist when he lost his right arm to a Russian bullet, in 1914, Paul was imprisoned for a time in the infamous Siberian fortress where Dostoyevsky had set his novel “The House of the Dead.” Ludwig later claimed to have first entertained thoughts of suicide at around the age of ten, before any of his brothers had died. There were three sisters: Gretl, Helene, and Hermine. Hermine, the eldest child (she was born in 1874; Ludwig, the youngest, arrived fifteen years later), and the guardian of her father’s flame, never married. Helene was highly neurotic, and had a husband who suffered from dementia. Gretl was regarded as irritating by most people, including her unpleasant husband, who committed suicide, as did his father and one of his aunts. Bad temper and extreme nervous tension were endemic in the family. One day, when Paul was practicing at one of the seven grand pianos in their winter home, the Palais Wittgenstein, he leaped up and shouted at his brother Ludwig in the room next door, “I cannot play when you are in the house, as I feel your skepticism seeping towards me from under the door!”

more from The New Yorker here.

Nature v nurture? Please don’t ask

From The Times:

Nature_nurture The monster Caliban, according to his master, Prospero, was “a devil, a pure devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick”. Yet only a few decades before Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, St Ignatius Loyola had founded the Jesuit order, with its famous maxim: “Give me the child until he is 7, and I will show you the man.” This ancient debate over the relative contributions of inheritance and experience to the human condition has never been more charged than in the genetic age. On one side stood those who sought and saw genetic explanations for human psychology; on the other, those who believed it to be moulded by culture. There was little common ground. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an evolutionary psychologist, has even joked that perhaps we are genetically programmed to set nature against nurture.

Since the middle of the last century the nurture camp has been dominant. Just as molecular biology began to unravel the secrets of DNA, genetics and evolution were relegated to psychological bit-players by a new orthodoxy, which held that biology has forged a human mind of almost limitless malleability. It was the doctrine of the blank slate.

The idea, usually traced to the 17th-century philosopher John Locke, grew popular in the Enlightenment, fitting the mood of challenge to the supposedly innate authority of monarchy and aristocracy. It was a statement of individual freedom, which became strongly associated with the political Left. Though many early socialists were enthusiasts for eugenics, later generations grew suspicious of genetics, particularly after it was abused to justify oppression of disadvantaged racial and social groups, most brutally in Nazi Germany. Liberal opinion turned against the concept of a biological human nature, which was increasingly seen as a tool with which male and bourgeois elites could rationalise hegemony.

More here.

Does Dark Energy Really Exist?

From Scientific American:

Does-dark-energy-exist_1 In science, the grandest revolutions are often triggered by the smallest discrepancies. In the 16th century, based on what struck many of his contemporaries as the esoteric minutiae of celestial motions, Copernicus suggested that Earth was not, in fact, at the center of the universe. In our own era, another revolution began to unfold 11 years ago with the discovery of the accelerating universe. A tiny deviation in the brightness of exploding stars led astronomers to conclude that they had no idea what 70 percent of the cosmos consists of. All they could tell was that space is filled with a substance unlike any other one that pushes along the expansion of the universe rather than holding it back. This substance became known as dark energy.

It is now over a decade later, and the existence of dark energy is still so puzzling that some cosmologists are revisiting the fundamental postulates that led them to deduce its existence in the first place. One of these is the product of that earlier revolution: the Copernican principle, that Earth is not in a central or otherwise special position in the universe. If we discard this basic principle, a surprisingly different picture of what could account for the observations emerges.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Celestial Music
Louise Gluck

I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks
to god,
she thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth, she's unusually competent.
Brave, too, able to face unpleasantness.

We found a caterpillar dying in the dirt, greedy ants crawling
over it.
I'm always moved by weakness, by disaster, always eager to
oppose vitality.
But timid, also, quick to shut my eyes.
Whereas my friend was able to watch, to let events play out
according to nature. For my sake, she intervened,
brushing a few ants off the torn thing, and set it down across
the road.

My friend says I shut my eyes to god, that nothing else
my aversion to reality. She says I'm like the child who buries
her head in the pillow
so as not to see, the child who tells herself
that light causes sadness—
My friend is like the mother. Patient, urging me
to wake up an adult like herself, a courageous person—

In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We're walking
on the same road, except it's winter now;
she's telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial
look up, she says. When I look up, nothing.
Only clouds, snow, a white business in the trees
like brides leaping to a great height—
Then I'm afraid for her; I see her
caught in a net deliberately cast over the earth—

In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;
from time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.
It's this moment we're both trying to explain, the fact
that we're at ease with death, with solitude.
My friend draws a circle in the dirt; inside, the caterpillar
doesn't move.
She's always trying to make something whole, something
beautiful, an image
capable of life apart from her.
We're very quiet. It's peaceful sitting here, not speaking, the
fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air
going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering—
it's this stillness that we both love.
The love of form is a love of endings.

Hungry Ghost

Large-hunger Paul Helliwell on Steve McQueen's film Hunger in Mute:

Re-enactment in politics often affirms the closure of questions, fixing meanings. In art or film it often serves to re-open questions, to bring something back. In both there is a faith that re-enactment is not numbing repetition but rehearsal, practice making perfect.ii Think of the Northern Ireland marching season as an attempt to legitimise protestant ascendancy, to prevent the redistribution of roles within Ulster. But what are the aesthetics and the politics of McQueen’s re-enactment, narrative and mise-en-scène? What is the redistribution being proposed here? What is McQueen trying to bring back?

‘McQueen and his collaborators take us to a time and place that already seems unimaginable’, says Ian Christie in Sight and Sound. To be honest, it is not just the worryingly accurate ’70s and ’80s clothes, breakfasts, gender roles, suburban repression, and concrete that seem unimaginable, but the degree of political conviction of those years. The end titles tell us the hunger strike ended with the recognition of every demand but the key one – that republican prisoners be recognised as political prisoners and treated as a special category. Just as the war in the six counties (or ‘the troubles’, if you will) ended with a recognition of almost every demand but the key one – that of a united Ireland. The ‘no-state’ solution is simply not recognisable as the object of the prisoners’ struggle. As Bobby Sands’ sister Bernadette Sands-McKevitt put it, ‘Bobby did not die for cross-border bodies with executive powers’. Neither is it recognisable as the object of the struggle of the wider republican movement, nor indeed that of the loyalists. This is not the ending anybody imagined at the time. But does this really make that time unimaginable from now? As Vikki Bell notes in her study of the Civic Forum, there the past and its politics must be dealt with carefully to prevent a collapse of civil society back into sectarianism. The peace remains haunted.

There can be few who actively want to bring back ‘the troubles’ – so what is it McQueen wants to bring back?

Obama’s Ersatz Capitalism

Stiglitznyt Joseph Stiglitz in the NYT:

In theory, the administration’s plan is based on letting the market determine the prices of the banks’ “toxic assets” — including outstanding house loans and securities based on those loans. The reality, though, is that the market will not be pricing the toxic assets themselves, but options on those assets.

The two have little to do with each other. The government plan in effect involves insuring almost all losses. Since the private investors are spared most losses, then they primarily “value” their potential gains. This is exactly the same as being given an option.

Consider an asset that has a 50-50 chance of being worth either zero or $200 in a year’s time. The average “value” of the asset is $100. Ignoring interest, this is what the asset would sell for in a competitive market. It is what the asset is “worth.” Under the plan by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the government would provide about 92 percent of the money to buy the asset but would stand to receive only 50 percent of any gains, and would absorb almost all of the losses. Some partnership!

Brian Barry, 1936-2009

Barry_185x295_513366a In the Times:

Brian Barry was one of the most influential British political philosophers of the postwar era. He had been an academic wanderer, holding positions at the universities of Birmingham, Keele, Southampton, Oxford and Essex, before moving to posts in Canada and the US at British Columbia, Chicago and the California Institute of Technology.

After a short stay at the European University Institute, Florence, he returned to England to spend 11 years as professor of political science (1987-98) at the London School of Economics. There, perhaps, he found his true intellectual home as well as personal happiness in his second marriage, and in these years produced some of his most important work. His last post was as the Lieber Professor of Political Philosophy at Columbia University, New York.

Brian Barry was born in London in 1936 before moving as a child to Southampton. From grammar school there he went to take a first in philosophy, politics and economics at The Queen’s College, Oxford, before studying under H. L. A. Hart for his doctorate. Even before he achieved his doctorate he was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship by the Rockefeller Foundation, which he took at Harvard largely so that he could meet John Rawls, who was then at MIT.

guardian goes twitter (4/1/09)


Consolidating its position at the cutting edge of new media technology, the Guardian today announces that it will become the first newspaper in the world to be published exclusively via Twitter, the sensationally popular social networking service that has transformed online communication. The move, described as “epochal” by media commentators, will see all Guardian content tailored to fit the format of Twitter’s brief text messages, known as “tweets”, which are limited to 140 characters each. Boosted by the involvement of celebrity “twitterers”, such as Madonna, Britney Spears and Stephen Fry, Twitter’s profile has surged in recent months, attracting more than 5m users who send, read and reply to tweets via the web or their mobile phones. As a Twitter-only publication, the Guardian will be able to harness the unprecedented newsgathering power of the service, demonstrated recently when a passenger on a plane that crashed outside Denver was able to send real-time updates on the story as it developed, as did those witnessing an emergency landing on New York’s Hudson River.

more from the Guardian here.

poland and the new world


I have always felt uneasy when historians or politicians sound off about sea-changes in history, claiming that the emergence of Islamism, terrorism, globalisation, climate change or whatever has transformed the world. I could not repress a snort of derision when I heard that Francis Fukuyama had published The End of History. But lately, I have been obliged to accept that fundamental changes have taken place in the past two decades, mainly as a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet imperium. The catalyst for this reassessment came from an unlikely quarter: I was asked by my publisher to revise and update The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and their Culture, a history of Poland which first came out in 1987. When I began writing that book, more than a quarter of a century ago, the study and writing of history had changed little since my schooldays, despite the fashion for microhistory, gender studies and Marxist revision (Eric Hobsbawm was at the height of his reputation). The perspective was relentlessly British, and European history was hardly touched on. When it was, the only countries that figured were those that impinged, one way or another, on British interests: France, Russia, Prussia and, at various points in their history, Holland, Sweden, Spain and Portugal.

more from Standpoint here (via bookforum).



It was in my late teens that I fell for Donald Barthelme. No passing adolescent fancy this, but a palpitating obsession of the first water. In his essay The Beards, Jonathan Lethem writes of Talking Heads that “[at] the peak, in 1980 or 1981, my identification was so complete that I might have wished to wear the album Fear of Music in place of my head”. In 1993 I felt much the same way about Forty Stories, the first Barthelme collection I owned. That book and its predecessor Sixty Stories were Barthelme’s self-selected “best-ofs”, their contents culled from nine story collections and work first published in magazines such as the New Yorker and Esquire. His fiction resulted in more letters of complaint being sent to the former publication than any other writer, a predictable result of its audacity. His postmodernist aesthetic, however, is not of the sort that revels in being problematic for its own sake. “Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult,” he wrote in his 1987 essay Not-Knowing, ‘but because it wishes to be art.”

more from The Guardian here.

Wednesday Poem

Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World
Sherman Alexie

The eyes open to a blue telephone In the bathroom of this five-star hotel.
I wonder whom I should call? A plumber, Sherman Alexie
Proctologist, urologist, or priest?

Who is most among us and most deserves
The first call? I choose my father because

He's astounded by bathroom telephones.
I dial home. My mother answers. “Hey, Ma,

I say, “Can I talk to Poppa?” She gasps,
And then I remember that my father

Has been dead for nearly a year. “Shit, Mom,”
I say. “I forgot he's dead. I'm sorry–

How did I forget?” “It's okay,” she says.
“I made him a cup of instant coffee

This morning and left it on the table–
Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years–

And I didn't realize my mistake
Until this afternoon.” My mother laughs

At the angels who wait for us to pause
During the most ordinary of days

And sing our praise to forgetfulness
Before they slap our souls with their cold wings.

Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.

Those angels, forever falling, snare us
And haul us, prey and praying, into dust.

from Thrash; Hanging Loose Press

The Darfur the West Isn’t Recognizing as It Moralizes About the Region

Howard W. French in The New York Times:

Mamdani190 For many who survey an African landscape strewn with political wreckage, nowadays merely to raise the subject of European colonialism, which formally ended across most of the continent five decades ago, is to ring alarm bells of excuse making. Clearly, the African disaster most in view today is Sudan, or more specifically the dirty war that has raged since 2003 in that country’s western region, Darfur. Rare among African conflicts, it exerts a strong claim on our conscience. By instructive contrast, more than five million people have died as a result of war in Congo since 1998, the rough equivalent at its height of a 2004 Asian tsunami striking every six months, without stirring our diplomats to urgency or generating much civic response.

Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan-born scholar at Columbia University and the author of “When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and Genocide in Rwanda,” is one of the most penetrating analysts of African affairs. In “Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror,” he has written a learned book that reintroduces history into the discussion of the Darfur crisis and questions the logic and even the good faith of those who seek to place it at the pinnacle of Africa’s recent troubles. It is a brief, he writes, “against those who substitute moral certainty for knowledge, and who feel virtuous even when acting on the basis of total ignorance.”

More here.

Is Life Too Hard for Honeybees?

From Scientific American:

Bee “For almost two years we've been documenting and sampling colonies that are dying and examining healthy colonies in the same area, trying to determine what factors are involved,” Pettis says. “I think there are interactions going on, like low-level pesticide exposure and poor nutrition weakening the host honeybees and then pathogens doing the killing. It's similar to a human who might not be eating, or is frail and traveling too much, and as a result is more susceptible to pathogens. If you go into a hospital in excellent health, you don't contract pneumonia, but if you go in weakened, pneumonia kills you.”

Pesticides and fungicides
How much pesticide exposure is too much for a honey bee? Traditionally, Pettis says, manufacturers seek clearance for pesticides by using the LD-50 test, which “essentially applies toxic stuff to bees and sees if half or more of them drop dead.” This brute force test does not, however, gauge long-term systemic effects. “The general feeling is that we need to move beyond mortality testing to sublethal testing that looks at the shortening of life span, disorientation, reduced vigor, and other things,” says Pettis, who has been in discussions with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about developing newer, more sensitive pesticide tests.

More here.