Three-fifths Romantic; two-fifths poor

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“The Philosophy of Composition” is a lovely little essay, but, as Poe himself admitted, it’s a bit of jiggery-pokery, too. Poe didn’t actually write “The Raven” backward. The essay is as much a contrivance as the poem itself. Here is a beautiful poem; it does everything a poem should do, is everything a poem should be. And here is a clever essay about the writing of a beautiful poem. Top that. Nearly everything Poe wrote, including the spooky stories for which he is best remembered, has this virtuosic, showy, lilting, and slightly wilting quality, like a peony just past bloom. Poe didn’t write “The Raven” to answer the exacting demands of a philosophic Art, or not entirely, anyway. He wrote it for the same reason that he wrote tales like “The Gold-Bug”: to stave off starvation. For a long while, Poe lived on bread and molasses; weeks before “The Gold-Bug” was published, he was begging near-strangers on the street for fifty cents to buy something to eat. “ ‘The Raven’ has had a great ‘run,’ ” he wrote to a friend, “but I wrote it for the express purpose of running—just as I did the ‘Gold-Bug,’ you know. The bird beat the bug, though, all hollow.” The public that swallowed that bird and bug Poe strenuously resented. You love Poe or you don’t, but, either way, Poe doesn’t love you. A writer more condescending to more adoring readers would be hard to find. “The nose of a mob is its imagination,” he wrote. “By this, at any time, it can be quietly led.”

more from The New Yorker here.

mcewan’s tricks

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In a recent profile in the New Yorker, McEwan said that he wants to ‘incite a naked hunger in readers’. I dislike strong narrative manipulation, but McEwan’s Collins-like surprises certainly work. They retain our narrative hunger, though perhaps at a cost. His addiction to secrecy has a way of ‘playing’ us, and if his withholdings ultimately seek to contain trauma, they also have the effect of reproducing, in plotted repetitions, the textures of the larger, originating traumas that are his big subjects. I don’t mean that his books traumatise us – that would be grossly unfair. Just that we finish them feeling a little guilty, having been exiled from our own version of innocence by a cunningly knowing authorial manipulator. The problem is that narrative secrets of this kind (large and small) ultimately exist only to confess themselves – that is their métier – and when they do we may find that the novels have become too easily comprehensible. (One definition of a narrative convention might precisely be: a secret that has finally confessed itself.) The Innocent, to select only one novel, too deftly tightens its little drawstring of thematics around a repeatedly underlined connection between tunnelling and sex, rape fantasies and war conquest, dismemberment of the body and dismemberment of Berlin into four sectors. Note, also, that many of these narrative secrets and withholdings are highly improbable. The woman who kept her pregnancy secret for nine months; the fact that the two dogs that attacked June Tremaine were also used by the Nazis to rape a woman; the dedicated, daylong fanaticism of Baxter, along with Perowne’s decision, at the end of the book, to perform surgery on the man who broke into his house and tried to rape his daughter; the fuse of unlikelihoods that sets fire to the plot of Atonement.

more from the LRB here.

fairbanks

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Two things in particular impressed unity on twentieth-century America: the automobile and motion pictures. Although invented elsewhere (thus supplying another pair of reasons for French resentment of the US), their development into mass-produced vehicles of transport and entertainment was a function of Motown and Hollywood. As the movies lent celluloid wings to public fancy, the Canadian-born Mary Pickford became “America’s sweetheart”; at much the same time, Henry Ford’s Model-T gave ordinary Americans their ticket to ride when and where they wanted. In both Detroit and Los Angeles, the production line ruled. Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) would make cinematic fun of the piecemeal routine of industrial manufacture, but composite assembly was as much a feature of the seventh art as of any other manufacture. Although Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks might put a personal mark on a movie, many talents and many hands were needed for its processing and marketing. When the theatre’s personnel was translated to California, what early twentieth-century Broadway had called “The Show Business” (the definite article was later dropped) mutated into “The Industry”.

more from the TLS here.

Torture Tape Implicates UAE Royal Sheikh

Brian Ross at ABC News:

ScreenHunter_05 Apr. 23 13.34 A video tape smuggled out of the United Arab Emirates shows a member of the country's royal family mercilessly torturing a man with whips, electric cattle prods and wooden planks with protruding nails.

A man in a UAE police uniform is seen on the tape tying the victim's arms and legs, and later holding him down as the Sheikh pours salt on the man's wounds and then drives over him with his Mercedes SUV.

In a statement to ABC News, the UAE Ministry of the Interior said it had reviewed the tape and acknowledged the involvement of Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan, brother of the country's crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed.

“The incidents depicted in the video tapes were not part of a pattern of behavior,” the Interior Ministry's statement declared.

The Minister of the Interior is also one of Sheikh Issa's brother.

The government statement said its review found “all rules, policies and procedures were followed correctly by the Police Department.”

More, including the video, here. [Photo shows Sheikh Issa.]

Ants: Savvy Real Estate Shoppers

From Science:

Ant When it comes to assessing real estate, the house-hunting ant (Temnothorax albipennis) has a more pragmatic approach than does the average human. These 3-millimeter-long insects aren't comparison shoppers, new research using ants tagged with tiny radio transmitters shows, but rather have some strict ideas of what they are looking for. And when they find it, they don't get distracted by what may be around the corner; they move. T. albipennis lives in the cracks in rocks, but just any old stone won't do. The ants look for nests that are dry and dark. Previous studies suggested that when their nest is destroyed, the ants comparison shop for a new abode: In the lab, scout ants that visited both a nearby, low-quality nest and a high-quality nest nine times farther away ultimately settled on the better nest and then alerted the rest of the colony to the new digs. It seemed that the scouts were comparing the two potential homes.

But the new study indicates that the ants follow a simpler rule to make their decision. Researchers led by behavioral ecologist Elva Robinson of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom used an entomological pin to dot a bit of glue on an ant's thorax and then affixed a microtransmitter the size of a bit of glitter. The team attached these tags to every worker ant in nine colonies; each colony has between 100 and 200 workers and larvae. In the lab, Robinson's team simulated the ant's rock habitats with small stacks of glass and cardboard slides. She then destroyed their good homes by removing the top.

With their queen and larvae dangerously exposed, scouts set off in search of a new dwelling. As in the previous experiments, Robinson's team gave the ants two options: a nearby, low-quality home and a high-quality home nine times farther away. The majority of ants–about 75%–visited only one site and therefore could not be comparing them. Of the scouts that saw only the low-quality nest, 41% left after a short stay; in contrast, only 3% of the ants that visited the high-quality nest left. This suggests that the ants know what they're looking for–and after finding it, return to the old nest to recruit the rest of the colony to join them, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

More here.

Thursday Poem

The City
C.P. Cavafy

You said, “ I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found, a better one than this.
Every effort of mine is a condemnation of fate;
and my heart is—like a corpse—buried.
How long will my mind remain in this wasteland.
Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I may look
I see black ruin of my life here,
where I spent so many years destroying and wasting.”

You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and you will grow gray in these same houses.
Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other—
There is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world.

from The Complete Poems of Cavafy; Harvest Books, 1961
Translation: Ray Dalven

obits have a new style, death still pretty much the same

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The obituary seems to be experiencing a renaissance. In her 2006 book The Dead Beat, Marilyn Johnson reveals a worldwide ring of rabid obituary enthusiasts—members of the Church of Obituaries, she calls them. They flip past the Sports and Business sections eager to read the day’s death roll. They “surf the dead beat” poring [:)] over blogs and newspapers searching for fascinating facts about Antoinette K-Doe, who turned a nightclub into a public shrine to her husband, or the guy who invented sea monkeys. Obituaries aren’t dirty little secrets as much as they used to be, lurking in hidden corners and ready to terrify those who cross their path. They are public, normal, interesting, fun. There’s howtowriteanobituary.com which involves everyday people in the writing process, and patrickswayzeobituary.com, a forum writing the demise of the movie star even as he lives. There’s even a glossy online magazine with the snappy name Obit. But the real change is with the obituary writers. Once shamed to the backs of periodicals to deliver dour, Margie Zellner-style obituaries, many are now part of this new movement to “out” death by making it more accessible and “natural.” They are reconsidering the obituary not as the final judgment, but as a way death can be presented as a sum total of its stories. Everyone has stories, everyone dies, and in writing about death, death and life become more of a circle. The obituary is not the period on the sentence of existence, but a mere interpretation.

more from The Smart Set here.

Wednesday Poem

—Smokey Bear, the guardian of our forests, has been a part of the American scene for so many years it is hard for us to remember when he first appeared. Dressed in a ranger's hat, belted blue jeans, and carrying a shovel, he has been the recognized forest fire prevention symbol for over 50 years.


Smokey the Bear Sutra
Gary Snyder

Once in the Jurassic about 150 million years ago,
the Great Sun Buddha in this corner of the Infinite
Void gave a Discourse to all the assembled elements
and energies: to the standing beings, the walking beings,
the flying beings, and the sitting beings — even grasses,
to the number of thirteen billion, each one born from a
seed, assembled there: a Discourse concerning
Enlightenment on the planet Earth.

“In some future time, there will be a continent called
America. It will have great centers of power called
such as Pyramid Lake, Walden Pond, Mt. Rainier, Big Sur,
Everglades, and so forth; and powerful nerves and channels
such as Columbia River, Mississippi River, and Grand Canyon
The human race in that era will get into troubles all over
its head, and practically wreck everything in spite of
its own strong intelligent Buddha-nature.”

“The twisting strata of the great mountains and the pulsings
of volcanoes are my love burning deep in the earth.
My obstinate compassion is schist and basalt and
granite, to be mountains, to bring down the rain. In that
future American Era I shall enter a new form; to cure
the world of loveless knowledge that seeks with blind hunger:
and mindless rage eating food that will not fill it.”

And he showed himself in his true form of

Read more »

Author J.G. Ballard dies after lengthy illness

Ben Hoyle in The Times of London:

ScreenHunter_04 Apr. 22 12.04 Pinteresque, Dickensian, Shakespearean. Not many writers are so distinctive and influential that their name becomes an adjective in its own right. J. G. Ballard, who died yesterday morning after a long battle with cancer at the age of 78, was one of them.

“Ballardian” is defined in theCollins English Dictionary as: “adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (born 1930), the British novelist, or his works (2) resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.”

His influence stretched across a modern world that he seemed to see coming years in advance.

His dark, often shocking fiction predicted the melting of the ice caps, the rise of Ronald Reagan, terrorism against tourists and the alienation of a society obsessed with new technology.

As Martin Amis once said of him: “Ballard is quite unlike anyone else; indeed, he seems to address a different – a disused – part of the reader's brain.”

The bands Joy Division, Radiohead, The Normal, Klaxons and Buggles all wrote records inspired by Ballard stories.

More here.

The Calm and the Restless

The plainness of Edward Thomas' “The Owl” vs. the struggle of Gerard Manley Hopkins' “Carrion Comfort.”

Robert Pinsky in Slate:

ScreenHunter_03 Apr. 22 11.45 Paint may be troweled or knifed onto the canvas in thick strokes or dribbled or splashed. In other works, the painter's strokes might be delicate, the surface nearly flat. Sometimes orchestration is elaborate or dense. Sometimes it is minimal and plain.

In a comparable way, one poem might generate its emotion with eloquent plainness, the force of directness. Another poem might work by turbulent or ecstatic or violent elaboration, the force of eruption. The two classic poems for this week illustrate what I mean.

“The Owl” by Edward Thomas (1878-1917) presents its narrative with a mild, somewhat conversational simplicity: Downhill I came, the speaker explains; then I was at the inn; then I heard the owl; and what the owl's cry brought to mind made me regard my comfort as “salted and sobered.” The poem gets its power from fine, crucial variations from ordinary speech. For instance, both “salted” and “sobered” fit the vocabulary of an inn—a place where salt is consumed and where people are sobered or not. The moral meanings of the phrase—comfort is both relished and tempered by a reminder of its opposite—grow out of that plain vocabulary. In the line after he uses the word “plain,” Thomas deploys some effective, precise words of one syllable; while he “escaped,” others in his predicament “could not, that night, as in I went.” Thomas' penetrating but apparently simple language—like a fine, scentless oil—goes deep into its subject. His moral reflection is tentative rather than assertive, minimal rather than sweeping, quiet rather than loud, and candid about appreciating his own good fortune. The poem respects the mysterious nature of fortune, and expresses that respect with its even, temperate voice. (There's an irony to the word “soldiers” in the final line. Thomas died as a soldier in World War I. He is the subject of the elegy “To E.T.” by his friend Robert Frost.)

More here.

In search of India

From The Guardian:

QHyder The theme of the London book fair this year is Indian writing. Vikram Seth, Amartya Sen, William Dalrymple and other writers in frequent circulation in this country are going to be joined by writers – K Satchidanandan, Javed Akhtar – distinguished or popular on their own terrain but less known here, for five days of discussions and celebrations. Something like this happened in 2006 to the Frankfurt book fair, when planeloads of Indian novelists and poets descended on the Intercontinental Hotel, waved to each other over breakfast, and then read from their work to courteous audiences in the afternoons and evenings.

The theme then, too, was India; and the “idea of India” acted as a catalyst to a process that might have already begun, but received, at that moment, a recognisable impetus – the confluence, in one place, of literary and intellectual dialogue with what is basically business activity, each bringing magic and movement to the other. The India-themed Paris book fair followed swiftly.

Qurratulain Hyder, novelist, short story writer and prose stylist of rare accomplishment, is one of Urdu's greatest writers. Literary critic Aamer Hussein has compared her to her contemporaries, Milan Kundera and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as “one of the world's major writers: eclectic, iconoclastic and versatile”. In her 30s, she wrote her magnum opus, Aag ka Darya – published in English for the first time in 1998 as River of Fire – a great river of a novel, majestic in its sweep, grand in its vision. She maintained that writing can encompass “fact, reportage, imagination, documentary presentation, the epistolary form”, even cinematic treatment. All her novels, novellas and short stories are a testament to this belief, as well as to her cosmopolitanism and uncompromising secularism.
Ritu Menon, founder of Women Unlimited, India's oldest feminist press

More here. (Picture: Ms. Qurratulain Hyder, my beloved Aini Apa)

Subcontinent’s great singer Iqbal Bano passes away

From Associated Press of Pakistan:

Iqbal%20Bano ISLAMABAD, Apr 21 (APP): Subcontinent’s great and Pride of Performance ghazal, thumri and classical singer Iqbal Bano died in Lahore in local hospital after brief illness. She was 74, a private TV channel reported. Bano was born in Delhi in 1935. She won the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz (Pride of Performance) medal in 1974 for her contributions to the world of Pakistani music. She was musically talented, with a sweet and appealing voice. From a young age, Bano developed a love for music.

In Delhi, she studied under Ustad Chaand Khan of the Delhi Gharana, an expert in all kinds of pure classical and light classical forms of vocal music. He instructed her in pure classical music and light classical music within the framework of classical forms of thumri and dadra. She was duly initiated Gaandaabandh shagird of her Ustad. He forwarded her to All India Radio, Delhi, where she sang on the radio. Iqbal Bano was invited by Radio Pakistan for performances, she being an accomplished artist. Her debut public concert was in 1957, at Lahore Arts Council, before an elite crowd. Music lovers feted her beyond imagination. With each recital, she generated more and more public appeal. She was considered a specialist in singing the works of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. She has given such musical relevance to the ghazals of Faiz, that Bano and Faiz are apparently inseparable in popular imagination. Because of Faiz’s imprisonment and hatred of the Pakistani Government towards him, Bano roused a strong crowd of 50,000 people in Lahore by singing his passionate Urdu nazm, “Hum Dekhenge.”

More here.

Media Having Trouble Finding Right Angle On Obama’s Double-Homicide

From The Onion:

ScreenHunter_02 Apr. 22 11.18 More than a week after President Barack Obama's cold-blooded killing of a local couple, members of the American news media admitted Tuesday that they were still trying to find the best angle for covering the gruesome crime.

“I know there's a story in there somewhere,” said Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, referring to Obama's home invasion and execution-style slaying of Jeff and Sue Finowicz on Apr. 8. “Right now though, it's probably best to just sit back and wait for more information to come in. After all, the only thing we know for sure is that our president senselessly murdered two unsuspecting Americans without emotion or hesitation.”

Added Meacham, “It's not so cut and dried.

Since the killings took place, reporters across the country have struggled to come up with an appropriate take on the ruthless crime, with some wondering whether it warrants front-page coverage, and others questioning its relevance in a fast-changing media landscape.

“What exactly is the news hook here?” asked Rick Kaplan, executive producer of the CBS Evening News.

More here.

Over-achievers and under-achievers

Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy:

ScreenHunter_01 Apr. 22 11.13 Here's an IR theory puzzle: Why do some seemingly powerful states exert relatively little influence on world politics, while other states with more modest capabilities cast a bigger shadow than one would expect? Although there is no consensus on how national power should be defined or measured, most IR scholars would probably agree that there is a substantial but not perfect correlation between national power and international influence. Indeed, one could imagine a simple regression, with “power” on the X-axis and “influence” on the Y-axis, and a diagonal line bisecting that space. I'd expect most states to array themselves pretty close to that line: as their power increased (measured in terms of GDP, population, military capability, resource endowments, etc.) one would expect to see a corresponding increase in their global influence.

But what about the outliers — either the “overachievers” who swing a bigger bat than one would expect or the “underachievers” who wield less influence than their overall capabilities might provide? Here's my personal, decidedly un-scientific top five list in each category, followed by some thoughts on what might explain why some states punch above their weight and some potentially major powers cast a comparatively small shadow.

“OVER-ACHIEVERS”
(in no particular order)

1. Sweden.

With a population of only 9 million, one wouldn’t expect Sweden to cast much of a shadow, despite its advanced industrial economy. Yet for its size and population, Sweden has been a significant international player. Its welfare state and other social policies have been widely-studied and a model for others, and diplomats such as Dag Hammarskjold, Folke Bernadotte, and Olof Palme were all important international voices. Sweden still devotes a higher percentage of its GDP to foreign aid than any other country, and institutions such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute have amplified Sweden's visibility on major issues of arms control and disarmament. Awarding the Nobel Prizes probably doesn't hurt either.

More here. [Thanks to Kris Kotarski.]

Global justice and the renewal of critical theory: A dialogue with Nancy Fraser

Fraser2_84x84 In Eurozine:

Nancy Fraser: Let me start with the “post-socialist condition”. I coined this term in the mid 1990s to characterize the predominant mood following the fall of communism, in which an apparently de-legitimated social egalitarianism gave way to a miraculously resurrected free-market fundamentalism. Whenever I use the expression “post-socialist condition”, then, I put it in scare quotes to indicate that I am referring to an ideological trope. It's not, in other words, that I myself think socialism is irrelevant; rather, this was the common sense of the age. Naming an epochal shift in the grammar of political claims-making, the phrase signalled the fact that many progressive social actors had ceased couching their claims in terms of distributive justice and were resorting instead to new discourses of identity and difference. In this shift “from redistribution to recognition”, as I called it, presumptively emancipatory movements such as feminism and anti-racism, which previously militated for social equality, began in the post-Cold War era to reinvent themselves as practitioners of the politics of recognition. In writing of the “post-socialist condition,” then, I aimed to call attention to the decentring of the socialist imaginary, which had oriented leftwing struggles for a century and a half. I also sought to contextualize that sea change in political culture in relation to the spectacular rise of neoliberalism, whose proponents could only rejoice in the decline of social egalitarian. It was this constellation, in which identity politics dovetailed all too neatly with neoliberalism, that constituted the “post-socialist” mood.

More recently, however, I have come to realize that something else was going on as well, which brings me to the notion of the “global” that you mentioned. So let's fast-forward ahead to 2003, when I started writing about the “problem of the frame”. That is my expression for the new uncertainty that prevails today about the proper way of setting the bounds of justice and thus of deciding whose interests should count. In the Cold-War era, this “frame” issue was not a live question, as it generally went without saying that the unit within which justice applied was the modern territorial state.