The fiction of Richard Powers sometimes resembles a dying satyr—above the waist is a mind full of serious thought, philosophical reflection, deep exploration of music and science; below, a pair of spindly legs strain to support the great weight of the ambitious brain. Powers thinks, and thinks well, and his almost nostalgic devotion to the European modernist tradition of “The Magic Mountain” and “The Man Without Qualities” makes him rare in American fiction. In his best books, “The Gold Bug Variations” (1991) and “Galatea 2.2” (1995), he displays an impressive command of the languages of music, genetics, computer science, and neurology, but more exciting is his willingness to engage in abstract thought, to argue and persevere, to carry arguments through the rooms of logic. (“The Gold Bug Variations,” in particular, contains several profound essays on Bach.) Contemporary American novelists, compared with Powers, can seem like intellectual visitors, fiddling in the foyers of the mind.
more from James Wood at The New Yorker here.
Once upon a time the young John Baldessari was so desperate for images that he prowled back alleys hunting for discarded photographs. He’d climb into garbage bins (diving head first was never the recommended technique) and rummage around, finding curious rejected pictures of odd male bowlers (something about what their hands revealed in the follow-through) or stiff ceremonial group portraits of beaming Caucasians with faces revealing their true jack-o-lantern selves, or a stack of dead bodies, or – simply and remarkably – a photograph of a standing man in a black suit which would eventually be cropped and tilted on its side and positioned at the bottom of a horizontal stack of other men – soldiers, cowboys, etc. – all of whom appear to have been shot dead in the street. The solitary living man in the black suit is on the bottom tier, facing up.
more from Benjamin Weissman at Frieze here.
Up from the creek
where a shut-in
a mink and otter
can still be seen
and native brook trout
cross breed with the stocked
come black bears
first one and then a second
pass by my window
silent as ghosts
not a leaf disturbed
not even rousing the dogs
moving with secret purpose
through the yards.
Who knows what else appears
while others are off to work
or the gym
and gardens are left
to browsing deer
also emerging lightly
with the resurrected
from the soft Indian
to my window
with the ghost bears
on black fur.
By Harry Walsh
Lydia Polgreen and Souad Mekhennet in the New York Times:
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since they were created by the bloody partition of British India in 1947. Whether they begin again the long journey toward peace or find themselves eyeball to eyeball, nuclear arms at the ready, depends in no small measure on the actions of this shadowy group.
A new attack could reverberate widely through the region and revive nagging questions about Pakistan’s commitment to stamp out the militant groups that use its territory.
It could also dangerously complicate the Obama administration’s efforts in Afghanistan. Success there depends in part on avoiding open conflict between India and Pakistan, so that Pakistan’s military can focus on battling the Taliban insurgents who base themselves in Pakistan.
Even so, American diplomatic efforts to improve India-Pakistan relations have been stillborn. So delicate is the Kashmir issue that Indian officials bridle at any hint of American mediation.
Arthur Krystal in the New York Times:
That’s Vladimir Nabokov on my computer screen, looking both dapper and disheveled. He’s wearing a suit and a multibuttoned vest that scrunches the top of his tie, making it poke out of his shirt like an old-fashioned cravat. Large, lumpish, delicate and black-spectacled, he’s perched on a couch alongside the sleeker, sad-faced Lionel Trilling. Both men are fielding questions from a suave interlocutor with a B-movie mustache. The interview was taped sometime in the late 1950s in what appears to be a faculty club or perhaps a television studio decked out to resemble one. The men are discussing “Lolita.” “I do not . . . I don’t wish to touch hearts,” Nabokov says in his unidentifiable accent. “I don’t even want to affect minds very much. What I really want to produce is that little sob in the spine of the artist-reader.”
Not bad, I think, as I sit staring at the dark granular box on my YouTube screen. In fact, a damned good line to come up with off the cuff. But wait! What’s that Nabokov’s doing with his hands? He’s turning over index cards. He’s glancing at notes. He’s reading. Fluent in three languages, he relies on prefabricated responses to talk about his work.
Sebastian Horseley in Open:
I remember the first time I had sex—I still have the receipt. The girl was alive, as far as I could tell, she was warm and she was better than nothing. She cost me £20.
I was 16 then and I’m 47 now. I have spent 25 years throwing my money and heart at tarts. I have slept with every nationality in every position in every country. From high-class call girls at £1,000 a pop to the meat-rack girls of Soho at £15, I have probably slept with more than 1,300 prostitutes, at a cost of £115,000.
I am a connoisseur of prostitution: I can take its bouquet, taste it, roll it around my mouth, give you the vintage. I have used brothels, saunas, private homes from the Internet and ordered girls to my flat prompt as pizza. While we are on the subject, I have also run a brothel. And I have been a male escort. I wish I was more ashamed. But I’m not. I love prostitutes and everything about them. And I care about them so much I don’t want them to be made legal.
There’s something special about naming a celestial body, putting your thumbprint in the heavens up there with Jupiter and Mars and the Horsehead Nebula. The idea speaks to our desire for immortality–attaching a name to something that, if not quite eternal, will last far longer than anyone will be around to remember. The world of commerce has figured this out, of course. Various services have arisen that claim to put your name on a star for a fee. Unfortunately, as nice as it sounds, these names don’t count: You pay your money and get a certificate, but it isn’t recognized by the only organization that actually matters, the International Astronomical Union. So what if you really do want to name a piece of the sky? Is there a way to name a newly discovered star, or planet, or comet–maybe not after yourself, but maybe after someone you admire?
more from Samuel Arbesman at The Boston Globe here.
Katja Nicodemus interviews Lars von Trier, originally in Die Zeit, over at Signandsight:
You seem to be fascinated by power relationships. With the Dogma rules, you formulated an aesthetic manifesto and your last two films “Dogville” and “Manderlay” are based on strict formal principles. What so interests you about guidelines and rules?
I come from a family of communist nudists. I was allowed to do or not do what I liked. My parents were not interested in whether I went to school or got drunk on white wine. After a childhood like that, you search for restrictions in your own life.
But communists actually have very strict rules.
That’s true, but that’s where things start to get very complicated. All my life I’ve been interested in the discrepancy between philosophy and reality, between conviction and its implementation. The general assumption is that all people are able to differentiate more or less equally between good and evil. But if this is the case, why does the world look like it does? Why have all the good intentions of my parents come to nothing. And why do my own good intentions lead to nothing?
Paul Krugman reviews Robert Skidelsky’s Keynes: The Return of the Master in the Guardian:
In Part I of his 1936 masterwork, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, Keynes asserted that the core of his theory was the rejection of Say’s Law, the doctrine that said that income is automatically spent. If it were true, Say’s Law would imply that all the things we usually talk about when trying to assess the economy’s direction, like the state of consumer or investor confidence, are irrelevant; one way or another, people will spend all the income coming in. Keynes showed, however, that Say’s Law isn’t true, because in a monetary economy people can try to accumulate cash rather than real goods. And when everyone is trying to accumulate cash at the same time, which is what happened worldwide after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the result is an end to demand, which produces a severe recession.
Some of those who consider themselves Keynesians, myself included, agree with what Keynes said in The General Theory, and consider the rejection of Say’s Law the core issue. On this view, Keynesian economics is primarily a theory designed to explain how market economies can remain persistently depressed.
But there’s an alternative interpretation of what Keynes was all about, one offered by Keynes himself in an article published in 1937, a year after The General Theory. Here, Keynes suggested that the core of his insight lay in the acknowledgement that there is uncertainty in the world – uncertainty that cannot be reduced to statistical probabilities, what the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns”. This irreducible uncertainty, he argued, lies behind panics and bouts of exuberance and primarily accounts for the instability of market economies.
Michael Specter in The New Yorker:
“What if we could liberate ourselves from the tyranny of evolution by being able to design our own offspring?” Drew Endy asked, the first time we met in his office at M.I.T., where, until the summer of 2008, he was assistant professor of biological engineering. (That September, he moved to Stanford.) Endy is among the most compelling evangelists of synthetic biology. He is also perhaps its most disturbing, because, although he displays a childlike eagerness to start engineering new creatures, he insists on discussing both the prospects and the dangers of his emerging discipline in nearly any forum he can find. “I am talking about building the stuff that runs most of the living world,” he said. “If this is not a national strategic priority, what possibly could be?”
Endy, who was trained as a civil engineer, spent his youth fabricating worlds out of Lincoln Logs and Legos. Now he would like to build living organisms. Perhaps it was the three well-worn congas sitting in the corner of Endy’s office, or the choppy haircut that looked like something he might have got in a tree house, or the bicycle dangling from his wall—but, when he speaks about putting together new forms of life, it’s hard not to think of that boy and his Legos.
Endy made his first mark on the world of biology by nearly failing the course in high school. “I got a D,” he said. “And I was lucky to get it.” While pursuing an engineering degree at Lehigh University, Endy took a course in molecular genetics. He spent his years in graduate school modelling bacterial viruses, but they are complex, and Endy craved simplicity. That’s when he began to think about putting cellular components together.
Arundhati Roy in The Nation:
The question here, really, is what have we done to democracy? What have we turned it into? What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasized into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit?
Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be? What we need today, for the sake of the survival of this planet, is long-term vision. Can governments whose very survival depends on immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this? Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race? Could it be that democracy is such a hit with modern humans precisely because it mirrors our greatest folly–our nearsightedness?