The only novel that doesn’t embarrass me

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On the back of my copy of Robert Bolaño’s novel Antwerp is the following quotation from the man himself, “The only novel that doesn’t embarrass me is Antwerp.” I assume he was speaking only of the novels he wrote, but maybe not. Maybe he meant all the novels, every single one. There is nothing sexier than a book you haven’t read yet. Especially if it has a nice cover and nice fonts. Especially if it is by someone with an aura. The volumes of Kierkegaard’s writings put out by Princeton University Press used to drive me crazy. The block of color on top and the pure black underneath. The line drawing of Kierkegaard’s profile in an oval in the middle of the book.

more from me at The Owls here.

Songs of the Saints, With Love, From Pakistan

Jon Pareles in The New York Times:

SUFI-2-popup Hands waved overhead. Voices shouted lyrics and whooped with delight. Children were hoisted onto parents’ shoulders. In the tightly packed crowd a few dancers made room to jump. T-shirts were tossed to fans from the stage. Yet in the songs that Abida Parveen was singing, saints were praised. They were Islamic saints, the poets and philosophers revered by Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. It was the first New York Sufi Music Festival, a free three-hour concert on Tuesday in Union Square, and it had music from the four provinces of Pakistan, including traditional faqirs who perform outside temples, Sufi rock and a kind of rapping from Baluchistan. The concert was presented by a new organization called Pakistani Peace Builders, which was formed after the attempted bombing in Times Square by a Pakistani-American. The group seeks to counteract negative images of Pakistan by presenting a longtime Pakistani Islamic tradition that preaches love, peace and tolerance. Sufism itself has been a target of Islamic fundamentalists; on July 1 suicide bombers attacked Pakistan’s most important Sufi shrine. Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, spoke between sets on Tuesday. “What we’re here to do today,” he said, is “to be at peace with all of America.”

The music’s message was one of joyful devotion and improvisatory freedom. Ms. Parveen, one of Pakistan’s most celebrated musicians, was singing in a Sufi style called kafi. Like the qawwali music popularized worldwide by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, kafi sets classical poems — about the love and intoxication of the divine, about seeking the spirit within — to visceral, handclapping rhythms and vocal lines that swoop and twist with passionate volatility. Ms. Parveen carried songs from serene, hovering introductions to virtuosic euphoria. Long, sustained notes suddenly broke into phrases that zigzagged up and down an octave or more; repeated refrains took on an insistent rasp and became springboards for elaborate leaps and arabesques; quick syllables turned into percussive exchanges with the band. Each song was a continual revelation, making the old poems fully alive.

More here. (Note: I was there. I heard Ms. Parveen for three nights in a row in New York. Her renditions of Khusro and Bullay Shah were a transformative experience. Listen to her.)

The Errors of Our Ways

From The New York Times:

Wrong In 1650, Oliver Cromwell asked the Church of Scotland to reconsider its decision to side with the royalists instead of him. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” The church didn’t think it possible, of course, so Oliver’s army took Scotland. According to Kathryn Schulz, each of us is our very own Church of Scotland — ­often mistaken, oddly oblivious and typically immune to a good beseeching. ­“Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error” is an insightful and delightful discussion of the errors of our ways — why we make mistakes, why we don’t know we are making them and what we do when recognition dawns.

Schulz begins with a question that should puzzle us more than it does: Why do we love being right? After all, she writes, “unlike many of life’s other delights — chocolate, surfing, kissing — it does not enjoy any mainline access to our biochemistry: to our appetites, our adrenal glands, our limbic systems, our swoony hearts.” Indeed, as she notes, “we can’t enjoy kissing just anyone, but we can relish being right about almost anything,” including that which we’d rather be wrong about, like “the downturn in the stock market, say, or the demise of a friend’s relationship or the fact that at our spouse’s insistence, we just spent 15 minutes schlepping our suitcase in exactly the opposite direction from our hotel.”

More here.

Saturday Poem

Lascaux

The writing is on the wall…Lascaux
With dirty, ochre fingers, black soot
Crocus yellows, and white wax,
I smear my woes, my dreams, my story,
Onto the granite canvas of time.

Bison, horses, buffalo run,
Run off my fingertips
Into a forever story of running.
Run solo, run with the herd,
Neither toward, nor from.
Run in dreams… finger dreams.
My own dreams of running free,
Free from hungry thought.

By firelight,
My oily fingers caress
Stone walls of home, so
That my grandchildren's
Grandchildren may learn
Of the herd and the hunt,
And my dreams.

I tell of my dreams
With soiled fingers –
That they may learn
To tell their stories
With their own oily hands.

by Daniel Armstrong
from The Delaware Poetry Review,
Spring 2010

the moral sense

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Where does our sense of right and wrong come from? Most people think it is a gift from God, who revealed His laws and elevates us with His love. A smaller number think that we figure the rules out for ourselves, using our capacity to reason and choosing a philosophical system to live by. Moral naturalists, on the other hand, believe that we have moral sentiments that have emerged from a long history of relationships. To learn about morality, you don’t rely upon revelation or metaphysics; you observe people as they live. This week a group of moral naturalists gathered in Connecticut at a conference organized by the Edge Foundation. One of the participants, Marc Hauser of Harvard, began his career studying primates, and for moral naturalists the story of our morality begins back in the evolutionary past. It begins with the way insects, rats and monkeys learned to cooperate.

more from David Brooks at the NYT here.

a cockroach crawling about amidst dismantled splendors

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In 1939, with Europe already sinking into World War II, 46-year-old Henry Miller left Paris, knowing that a cycle of his life had come to an end. As an expatriate in Paris he’d found his voice, and published the novels — “Tropic of Cancer,” “Black Spring” and “Tropic of Capricorn” — which made his name. He’d had his legendarily steamy and dangerous affair with Anais Nin, and George Orwell had fired a salute on his behalf, hailing him as “a Whitman among the corpses.” Miller, although banned in America, had arrived, and then, restless as ever, he accepted the invitation of another writer, his friend Lawrence Durrell, to visit Greece and the island of Corfu. Miller, being Miller, didn’t merely nibble and float in Lotus-land: First published in 1941, “The Colossus of Maroussi” (New Directions: 240 pp., $12.95), which has been reissued with accompanying essays by Will Self and Ian S. MacNiven, documents his attempt to devour the Hellenic experience and turn it to advantage.

more from Richard Rayner at the LAT here.

secret somerset

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In 1962, William Somerset Maugham’s nephew, Robin, his own literary efforts having not amounted to much, informed his wealthy and famous uncle that an American publisher, Victor Weybright, had offered him an advance of $50,000 to write Maugham’s biography. “Obviously I can’t afford to turn down such a good offer,” the younger Maugham explained. “As you know, although I earn enough from my writing to keep me going each year, I haven’t a penny of capital.” The letter’s affectionate tone notwithstanding, Maugham had no trouble grasping its import and responded by sending Robin a check equal to the one he would have received from Weybright. “I give you my word that I shall not write any other biography about you — ever,” Robin replied. “I’m really awfully shy about all this, but I’m also very ­grateful.” “Shy” is a peculiar adjective to use to describe blackmail, which was, as Selina Hastings makes clear in her biography, “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham,” Robin’s intention. Himself homosexual, Robin had been privy to Maugham’s erotic and emotional involvements with other men since he was a teenager, and might well have been the object of more than avuncular interest on Maugham’s part. (“I’m not saying I think there was incest,” ­Glenway Wescott recalled, “but Willie was infatuated with Robin.”)

more from David Leavitt at the NYT here.

Live From Ground Zero

Amy Davidson in The New Yorker:

I must say that this ad leaves me almost speechless with rage:

Just to be clear, the plan for the proposed community center, to be called Park51, does not, as the ad, which was paid for by something called the National Republican Trust PAC, might suggest, actually involve spiking a minaret into some smoldering ruins, to the sound of masked men cackling. (“Where we weep, they rejoice.”) It would be on the site of a defunct Burlington Coat Factory, on Park Place, two blocks away from Ground Zero. In the same vicinity, there are several fast-food places, bagel shops, banks, shoe stores, a movie theatre, a couple of churches, at least one gentleman’s club, and, even nearer, Century 21, the discount department store.

I do not mean—I hope this is obvious—to call for an expulsion of strip clubs or designer-sale free-for-alls from the zone around Ground Zero, but to point out that the area is a busy, living neighborhood that has flourished since and in defiance of the terrorist attacks. (It is home, among other things, to a great Little League, on whose fields there is, depending on how the games go, both weeping and rejoicing.) A mosque near Ground Zero is not, as the ad says, a way to “celebrate that murder,” but a celebration and sign of everyday life, and the way it continues, as well it should. Downtown is a community, one in which Muslims live. Why on earth shouldn’t there be an Islamic community center?

More here.

Biological roots of today’s anger

David P. Barash in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Photo_6128_carousel “No fair” must rank among the loudest and most readily evoked complaints. Nor is the din of inequity limited to children. Consider the widespread anger generated by the Wall Street and AIG bailouts: Regardless of whether they were justified as national policy, those and other departures from perceived evenhandedness have a long history of rousing departures from citizen complacency, and even from civility. Ditto for outrage over executives getting outsized bonuses and golden parachutes while the rest of us are left to soldier on as best we can.

In evolutionary terms, what's going on here?

Another way of asking that question is to turn it around. Why do we feel so violated? Lixing Sun, a professor of biology at Central Washington University, thinks we have a “fairness instinct.” And he may be right. He maintains that high on the roster of human propensities is a “Robin Hood mentality” that characterizes our species and qualifies as one of those “mental modules” that evolutionary psychologists consider part of our likely biological inheritance.

More here. [Thanks to Ali Altaf.]

UK government acts to prevent arrest of Pope

Andrew John in Digital Journal:

ScreenHunter_04 Jul. 23 23.43 The UK government is said to have set in motion a law change that will prevent the Pope from being arrested when he visits the country in September.
Officials in Whitehall – the UK government’s administrative offices – are said to be worried over plans by the atheist authors Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to have Pope Benedict arrested for crimes against humanity, because of his alleged cover-upof priestly assaults on children.
“Mr Dawkins, the atheist campaigner, and Mr Hitchens, an atheist author, asked human rights lawyers in April to put together a case for charging the Pope over his alleged cover-up of sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church,” reportsPink News today.
Its report adds: “Justice Secretary Ken Clarke proposed changes to the law today which would require the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions to any arrest warrant issued under universal jurisdiction.”
The Pope’s proposed visit has ever been free of controversysince it was announced last year.
A recent suggestion by the Pope’s second-in-command, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, that child abuse and paedophilia were connected with homosexuality brought condemnation even from fellow Catholicsin the UK.
More here.

Frans de Waal: Fair is fair

This post is the first in a four-part series of essays for Scientific American by primatologist Frans de Waal on human nature, based on his ongoing research. De Waal and other researchers appear in a series of Department of Expansion videos focusing on the same topic. [See below for parts 2, 3, and 4.]

Frans de Waal in Scientific American:

FransWeb Fairness is viewed differently by the haves and have-nots. The underlying emotions and desires aren't half as lofty as the ideal itself. The most recognizable emotion is resentment. Look at how children react to the slightest discrepancy in the size of their pizza slice compared with their siblings'. They shout, “That's not fair!” but never in a way transcending their own desires.

An experiment with capuchin monkeys by Sarah Brosnan, of Georgia State University's CEBUS Lab, and myself illuminated this emotional basis. These monkeys will happily perform a task for cucumber slices until they see others getting grapes, which taste so much better. They become agitated, throw down their measly cucumbers, and go on strike. A perfectly fine vegetable has become unpalatable! Not all economists, philosophers and anthropologists were happy with our interpretation, because they traditionally consider the “sense of fairness” uniquely human. But by now there are many other experiments, even on dogs, that confirm our initial findings.

More here. And here are parts two, three, and four.

The worst poster boys for Islam

Nadeem F. Paracha in Dawn:

2905 While formulating Islamic laws, a rationalist and contextual approach to Islamic sources should be taken, keeping in mind Islam’s core values i.e., justice and mercy.

Islamic rules should always meet the following criteria: Compatibility with reason and compatibility with the requirements of (modern) times and people’s preferences.

How is that possible, wouldn’t the traditionalists protest?

Well, let’s take the example of Quranic verses dealing with slavery. Understandably, the institution of slavery was perceived as perfectly acceptable in the seventh century. But from eighteenth century onwards, through a widespread civil consensus between various world civilisations (including the Muslims), slavery was abolished as being an inhuman act.

Just imagine what the state of the Muslims would have been had they insisted on retaining slavery. The so-called Muslim ummah would have stood completely isolated with millions of Muslims preferring to adopt a more accommodating religion.

So my point is that when traditionalists demand that the Quran be understood literally and laws should then be based on this literalist reading, they are actually undermining the evolutionary spirit of the Holy book and relegating its status to being a document frozen in the social, political and cultural ethos of a distant past.

Islam and Islamic law should be understood and implied by each generation according to its own conditions.

We should define Islam in such a way that it does not undermine its global standing. For this we need educated, pragmatic and rational political and cultural spokespersons. Obviously, people like the Al Qaeda and the Taliban are the worst poster boys for Islam in the modern world.

More here.