The Freudian Romance

F4 Jean Bollack in Sign and Sight:

The correspondence between the young Sigmund Freud and his fiancee Martha Bernays stretched over 52 months, from June 1882 until their marriage in September 1886. When Freud met the 20-year-old Martha, a friend of his sisters, in the spring of 1882, he had just finished studying medicine. And since external circumstances made it impossible for him to continue his university career, he was now aspiring to become an established neurologist at the Viennese General Hospital. Soon after their engagement, which was initially kept secret, Martha's widowed mother decided to move with her two daughters to Wandsbek near Hamburg. During what was to be almost four years of separation the engaged couple wrote letters to each other on an almost daily basis, a vast bundle of correspondence.

At the time, 1882, no one was happier than he. This is his underlying tone. Freud does not write to convince himself; there is no need of that. From the outset their relationship had been affirmed as leading to the union of marriage, a bond based on rationality. The becoming of the romantic relationship was in and of itself as problematic as it is for every other person. But Freud had solved the problem on two fronts. He was able to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to his further scientific and medical education and find himself at the same time. Without having to roam afar. There was a social relationship between the two Jewish families, the Freuds and the Bernays, during his period of emancipation. The couple also took on the role of matchmaker. Anna, one of Freud's five sisters, became engaged a year later to Martha's brother Eli.

Freud was much taken with Martha and accurately gauged her abilities. For her part, everything about him was significant, not only as the persona of the “man” as the girl calls him, but also the position in society that awaited her and the role that she would thereby play. The existence of countless engagement letters written throughout the years before their marriage can be explained by the dictates of convention, which Sigmund Freud generally respected. These were the usual obligations; and good middle class families kept a close watch that they were observed. The aim of love was marriage and this was fulfilled by the birth of children, which required a regular income. Freud was still unable to provide this, which prescribed the duration of their correspondence. However, this period can be interpreted very differently from the perspective of the aspiring mate. Convention acquires its true meaning somewhere else.



1. agent of goodness & light: a.) In a YouTube interview, a lawyer and author of several books about English usage asks David Foster Wallace what he thinks of genteelisms—those multisyllablic, latinate, important-sounding words like “prior to” and “subsequent to” that substitute for shorter, often Anglo-Saxon, down-to-earth-sounding ones like “before.” Revealingly, the guy who majored in English and philosophy at Amherst College, whose father was a philosophy professor, doesn’t answer at first. Instead, he reflexively makes a sour face. Only then does he suggest “genteelism” is an “overly charitable way to characterize” such “puff words,” and concludes: “This is the downside of starting to pay attention. You start noticing all the people who say ‘at this time’ instead of ‘now.’ Why did they just take up one-third of a second of my lifetime?” 2. agent of goodness & light: b.) The upside to grammatical awakenings, Wallace continues, is that “you get to be more careful and attentive in your own writing, so you become an agent of light and goodness rather than the evil that’s all around.” Such remarkable precision and forethought is what Wallace’s writing is all about—but only in the sense that it’s emblematic of a larger determined noticing. Get that, and in many ways you get it all.

more from Lance Olson at The Quarterly Conversation here.

Twombly and Poussin rub shoulders in an uneasy way


A sea of smeared and dripped white is weighed down by undertones of grey. The overall effect is misty and eerie. But what wrenches this painting by Cy Twombly into violent grandeur is the eruption of red, like a slaughtered whale’s exploding blood, in the lower left part of the canvas. The painting, from 1985, is called Hero and Leandro (To Christopher Marlowe). Hero and Leandro (or Leander in English usage) were lovers in ancient Greek mythology who both drowned. When you discover that, it is easy to see that Twombly’s apparently abstract painting is a brilliant response to the tragic essence of these doomed lovers’ watery fate: it is an evocation of death at sea, and its smoky ambiguities suggest a heady cocktail of death and desire. The title invokes the Elizabethan writer Christopher Marlowe, who wrote about Hero and Leander and who was himself murdered close to the river Thames in Deptford; so this is also about the death of Marlowe. The mythical lovers drowned. Marlowe was stabbed. The blood in the painting is surely his. It is a cliche that abstract art is distant from real life, impenetrable and remote. Twombly is an abstract painter who tells stories of love, longing and loss. His art is always tangy with experience – it drips life.

more from Jonathan Jones at The Guardian here.

St Martin’s stomach


Alexis St Martin was one of the 19th century’s most important scientific guinea pigs. In 1822, the illiterate young French-Canadian was working as a ‘voyageur’ for John Jacob Astor’s fur-trading company in northern Michigan. He was hanging out with a bunch of rowdies in the company store when a shotgun accidentally went off and he was hit below his left nipple. The injury was serious and likely to be fatal – his half-digested breakfast was pouring out of the wound from his perforated stomach, along with bits of the stomach itself – but a US army surgeon called William Beaumont was nevertheless sent for. Beaumont was pessimistic, but he cleaned the wound as best he could and was amazed the next day to find his patient still alive. It was touch and go for almost a year: St Martin survived, though with a gastric fistula about two and a half inches in circumference. It was now possible for Beaumont to peer into St Martin’s stomach, to insert his forefinger into it, to introduce muslin bags containing bits of food and to retrieve them whenever he wanted. Human digestion had become visible. Beaumont took over St Martin’s care when charity support ran out, and over the next ten years the patient lived intermittently with the doctor, as both his domestic servant and a contractually paid experimental object. St Martin’s fistula was soon to become one of the modern world’s most celebrated peepshows.

more from Steven Shapin at the LRB here.


From Harvard Magazine:

RN-G More than 2,000 years ago, a Roman named Titus Lucretius Carus set down his thoughts on topics ranging from creation to religion to death. The format for his observations, many of them highly technical and uncannily modern, was a single elegant poem: readers would stomach such material more easily if it was presented artfully, he suggested, just as a child would drink bitter medicine more readily out of a cup with a honeyed rim.

He was right. In later centuries, when that poem, De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things”), came under siege for its subversive potential, the work’s captivating beauty would be key to its survival. Still, it barely weathered the incursions of time and hostile authorities, which conspired to put it out of view for nearly a millennium. The improbable story of how it re-emerged, and how the mindset it advocated informs our present, is the subject of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

More here.

How movies mirror our mimicry

From The New York Times:

Pulp Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film Pulp Fiction is packed with memorable dialogue — 'Le Big Mac', say, or Samuel L. Jackson's biblical quotations. But remember this exchange between the two hitmen, played by Jackson and John Travolta? Vincent (Travolta): “Antwan probably didn't expect Marsellus to react like he did, but he had to expect a reaction”. Jules: “It was a foot massage, a foot massage is nothing, I give my mother a foot massage.”

Computer scientists Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil and Lillian Lee of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, see the way Jules repeats the word 'a' used by Vincent as a key example of 'convergence' in language. “Jules could have just as naturally not used an article,” says Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil. “For instance, he could have said: 'He just massaged her feet, massaging someone's feet is nothing, I massage my mother's feet.'” The duo show in a new study that such convergence, which is thought to arise from an unconscious urge to gain social approval and to negotiate status, is common in movie dialogue. It “has become so deeply embedded into our ideas of what conversations 'sound like' that the phenomenon occurs even when the person generating the dialogue [the scriptwriter] is not the recipient of the social benefits”, they say.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

From The Owls:

“Author’s Note: Since 2007 I have been corresponding with the war reporter Paul Watson, as he traveled around the world, from southeast Asia to Afghanistan and Iraq. Paul is most well known for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Spot Photography in 1994 for his photograph of a fallen American soldier in the streets of Mogadishu. He claims that when he took this picture he heard a voice, a voice that he believes belonged to the dead soldier, telling him, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” The play we are writing, The Body of an American, is concerned with Paul’s life and career, and specifically the story of this haunting. In February of 2010 we finally met in person in Ulukhaktok, in the High Arctic of the Northwest Territories in Canada, where Paul was enjoying a brief stint as the reporter for the 'Arctic and Aboriginal Beat' for the Toronto Star. He is currently back in Afghanistan now.”

Paul Watson Watches TV

I like John Mayer. You like John Mayer?
I like Ryan Adams also. And Queen
Latifah. Her sound’s hot. I like to watch
TV with the sound off and just listen
to my iPod. That okay with you? This
sucks. This sucks. There’s nothing good on TV!
I usually watch just sports, like hockey
or football? sometimes entertainment news
because it’s stupid and I love it when
celebrities do stupid things. It helps
me to relax. Also I like curling
as an Olympic sport. I love hearing
the women’s curling team screaming, Harder!
Faster! All of these women with their brooms
that look more like Swiffer WetJets rubbing
some kind of path in the ice for the weight
or pot or stone or whatever it is
screaming, Harder! Faster! As if that does
anything, really! What about this show,
The Bachelor? Have you seen The Bachelor? Look,
she’s pretending to cry. She’s pretending
to cry! What are all these people, actors?
Strippers? She’s trying so damn hard to cry
real tears! Harder! Faster! How’s it look
out there? You can’t tell if the snow’s falling
down from the sky or blowing off the ice
in the wind. Must be gusting up to what
65 miles an hour? Why don’t you make
a TV show out of this place? You could
pitch it back home in Hollywood: Newhart
meets Nanook of the North. All the crazies
you run into at a so-called hotel
that’s really more of a youth hostel or
low-budget rehab somewhere far away
above the tree line. Want another glass
of Bordeaux? Is that your mug? You look bored,
I can tell. You think I’m wasting your time
here, watching TV. When I’m on the phone
with my brothers and sisters, they’re talking
about, you know, problems at work. I say,
How long have we been talking? Ten minutes.
I tell them: Now you’re ten minutes closer
to dying. Which annoys them. It bugs me
to the core though, that people just don’t see
how quickly we die. Whether you’re driving
home from work, or suntanning on a beach
in Phuket and this wave comes out of nowhere
and that’s it, the end. Unmute this. I love
this movie. Look at those legs! Meryl Streep
is on the run, or she’s on the river
actually, ha ha, in a rafting boat
trying to get away from this psycho
killer Kevin Bacon. Is this movie
good? Or shit? No it’s shit. But God, Meryl
Streep is so gorgeous.

by Dan O'Brien

A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100

Venkatesh Rao in Ribbon Farm:

VenkatPic3 On 8 June, a Scottish banker named Alexander Fordyce shorted the collapsing Company’s shares in the London markets. But a momentary bounce-back in the stock ruined his plans, and he skipped town leaving £550,000 in debt. Much of this was owed to the Ayr Bank, which imploded. In less than three weeks, another 30 banks collapsed across Europe, bringing trade to a standstill. On July 15, the directors of the Company applied to the Bank of England for a £400,000 loan. Two weeks later, they wanted another £300,000. By August, the directors wanted a £1 million bailout. The news began leaking out and seemingly contrite executives, running from angry shareholders, faced furious Parliament members. By January, the terms of a comprehensive bailout were worked out, and the British government inserted its czars into the Company’s management to ensure compliance with its terms.

If this sounds eerily familiar, it shouldn’t. The year was 1772, exactly 239 years ago today, the apogee of power for the corporation as a business construct. The company was the British East India company (EIC). The bubble that burst was the East India Bubble. Between the founding of the EIC in 1600 and the post-subprime world of 2011, the idea of the corporation was born, matured, over-extended, reined-in, refined, patched, updated, over-extended again, propped-up and finally widely declared to be obsolete. Between 2011 and 2100, it will decline — hopefully gracefully — into a well-behaved retiree on the economic scene.

More here.

Discovering my microbiome: “You, my friend, are a wonderland”

Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:

Ileana-navel-in-Saree Some people get a thrill from getting their genome sequenced and poring through the details of their genes. I’m a bit off-kilter, I guess, because I’m more curious about the genomes of the things living in my belly button. And let me tell you: it’s a jungle in there.

I first became curious about my navel in January. I was in Durham, North Carolina, to attend a meeting, and as I walked out of a conference room I noticed a cluster of people in the lobby handing out swabs. They were asking volunteers to stick the swabs in their belly button for the sake of science. Our bodies are covered with microbes, and scientists are discovering weirdly complex patterns to their biodiversity. From fingers to elbows to chin to forehead, different regions of our skin are dominated by different combinations of species. But the bellybutton remained terra incognita.

I happily donated my microbiome to the study, which is being conducted by Jiri Hulcr and Andrea Lucky, two post-doctoral researchers in the laboratory of Rob Dunn at North Carolina State University. After a few weeks, Hulcr sent me a photo of a Petri dish in which some of the bacteria from my bellybutton were thriving. Then Hulcr and Lucky got down to the serious work of identifying the species in the navels of their volunteers (90 and counting).

Yesterday, Dunn sent me a spreadsheet detailing my own results. “You, my friend, are a wonderland,” he wrote.

More here.

The Busts Keep Getting Bigger: Why?

Paul Krugman and Robin Wells in the New York Review of Books:

Krugman_1-071411_jpg_435x500_crop_q85 Suppose we describe the following situation: major US financial institutions have badly overreached. They created and sold new financial instruments without understanding the risk. They poured money into dubious loans in pursuit of short-term profits, dismissing clear warnings that the borrowers might not be able to repay those loans. When things went bad, they turned to the government for help, relying on emergency aid and federal guarantees—thereby putting large amounts of taxpayer money at risk—in order to get by. And then, once the crisis was past, they went right back to denouncing big government, and resumed the very practices that created the crisis.

What year are we talking about?

We could, of course, be talking about 2008–2009, when Citigroup, Bank of America, and other institutions teetered on the brink of collapse, and were saved only by huge infusions of taxpayer cash. The bankers have repaid that support by declaring piously that it’s time to stop “banker-bashing,” and complaining that President Obama’s (very) occasional mentions of Wall Street’s role in the crisis are hurting their feelings.

But we could also be talking about 1991, when the consequences of vast, loan-financed overbuilding of commercial real estate in the 1980s came home to roost, helping to cause the collapse of the junk-bond market and putting many banks—Citibank, in particular—at risk. Only the fact that bank deposits were federally insured averted a major crisis. Or we could be talking about 1982–1983, when reckless lending to Latin America ended in a severe debt crisis that put major banks such as, well, Citibank at risk, and only huge official lending to Mexico, Brazil, and other debtors held an even deeper crisis at bay. Or we could be talking about the near crisis caused by the bankruptcy of Penn Central in 1970, which put its lead banker, First National City—later renamed Citibank—on the edge; only emergency lending from the Federal Reserve averted disaster.

More here.

One Math Museum, Many Variables

From The New York Times:

Math For everyone who finds mathematics incomprehensible, boring, pointless, or all of the above, Glen Whitney wants to prove you wrong. He believes that tens of thousands of visitors will flock to his Museum of Mathematics, to open in Manhattan next year, and leave invigorated about geometry, numbers and many more mathematical notions.

“We want to expose the breadth and the beauty of mathematics,” said Mr. Whitney, a former math professor who parlayed his quantitative skills into a job at a Long Island hedge fund. He quit in late 2008 with connections to deep pockets and a quest to make math fun and cool. Two years ago, he and his team built a carnival-like traveling exhibit called the Math Midway, a proof-of-concept for the coming museum. It includes a tricycle with square wheels of different sizes that visitors can ride smoothly around a circular path ridged like a flower’s petals. An accompanying sign explains why: The undulating circular surface rises and falls exactly to offset the odd shape of the wheels, so that the tricycle’s axles — and the rider — remain at the same height as they move. Mr. Whitney hopes that colorful, interactive props will help his cause. “If we just pluck people in the street — ‘What adjectives would you use to describe math?’ — very few of them would say, ‘beautiful,’ ” Mr. Whitney said.

More here.

The Aesthetics of Change

by Aditya Dev Sood

Gandhicropped I’ve been reading Gandhi’s writings off and on for several months now, but just last week I turned to Joseph Lelyveld’s recent book on him. I’d been thinking about the kind of attitude towards the present that Gandhi must have had, in order to undertake social change at such a spectacular scale. How did Gandhi balance his quest for change with the full possibilities of the present, the taste of the world as he found it? Does Gandhi’s life and thought have a particular aesthetic, and if so, how can we better describe it? Great Soul has many virtues, foremost among them, perhaps, being nuance, and both curiosity and sensitivity to the progressive way in which Gandhi came to acquire his moral compass, his powers of communication and persuasion, and the bouquet of social technologies through which he was able to effect change. Being neither acolyte nor nationalist historiographer, Lelyveld is able to read Gandhi beyond his canonization, first in India, and more recently in post-apartheid South Africa.

Read more »

Men of Straw

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Straw men 2Properly run argument requires that we give reasons that provide support for the truth of our conclusions, that we do our best to be clear, and that we stay focused on the issue at hand. But it is possible to succeed in these ways and yet fail to argue properly. We must also respond to each other’s reasons, and this requires that we accurately represent our opponents’ views. When we fail in this latter respect, we commit the Straw Man fallacy.

Although it is common to speak of the Straw Man fallacy, there are actually several Straw Men. What they have in common is that they manifest a certain failure of dialogue. This makes Straw Men different from many other fallacy forms. Inductive fallacies—such as Hasty Generalization—and relevance fallacies—like Scare Tactics—are internal to the individual’s reasoning: Just because some X’s are Y’s, it doesn’t mean that all X’s are Y’s; just because doing A is risky, it doesn’t follow that it’s wrong to do. One can commit these errors on one’s own. But straw-manning involves the misrepresentation of an interlocutor’s view; consequently, Straw Man fallacies involve more than one person. When we commit a straw man fallacy, we fail to live up to the responsibilities of the exchange of reasons. Consider:

Military Spending

Adam: We really need to beef up our military budget—the world’s a dangerous place.

Betty: No way! We don’t need to devote our whole economy to being the world’s bully.

Betty’s right about not needing to pour a country’s entire budget into being a bully, but that’s not what Adam proposed. Betty misrepresents Adam’s view; therefore, she’s not in proper dialogue with Adam. This simple case exemplifies the standard form of the Straw Man. We’ve called it elsewhere the representational form of the Straw Man fallacy; the distortion happens when a specific interlocutor’s views are not accurately represented.

Read more »

Unwieldy Property

by Misha Lepetic

“Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.”
– Proudhon

100813_22_20100723_fp_chongqing_online_selects005 Back in undergraduate days, when, if it is to be believed, my prose was even more incomprehensible than it is now, I wrote a paper on the economic history of the concept of private property ownership. After 37 pages, and having only reached JS Mill, I bowed out as gracefully as I could, and spent the next week wondering how anyone could be said to own anything at all. And yet, society’s legal and social construction of property ownership continues to be of the utmost importance in setting the course for economic development in general, and urbanization in particular.

In this sense, past commentators have looked at housing as an especially crucial area, since the larger issue of urban migration had already reached a boiling point in Europe by the mid-19th century. The work of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is worth singling out in this regard. Originally an unapologetic Anarchist best known for the pithy aphorism “property is theft”, by the end of his life Proudhon had moderated his views considerably. Writing in the posthumously published Théorie de la Propriété,

“…property is the greatest revolutionary force which exists, with an unequaled capacity for setting itself against authority … [The] principal function of private property within the political system will be to act as a counterweight to the power of the State, and by so doing to insure the liberty of the individual.” Proudhon, quoted in Gray, p135

For the later Proudhon, the validity of property is resurrected only “if it is purged and infused with justice” (Gray, p243). Specifically, this right to property would encourage workers to defend themselves against the depredations of the State and its capitalist abettors. In contrast, the propagation of rent-based housing only exacerbated the uncertainty of their situation. It would also go a ways towards preventing slum clearance, which was as ineffective then as it is now. In fact, two decades after Proudhon’s death in 1865, Great Britain’s Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes published a report where the acknowledged that

Rookeries are destroyed, greatly to the sanitary and social benefit of the neighborhood, but no kind of habitation for the poor has been substituted… The consequence of such a proceeding is that the unhoused population crowd into the neighboring streets and courts…and when the new dwellings are complete…the tenants are not the…persons displaced [so that] those whose need is greatest suffer most acutely. (p19-20)

Thus Proudhon’s hope was that, in aggregate, the landowning proletarian class would throw up a legal-materialistic barricade against those who would otherwise bulldoze their neighborhoods and subsequently engage in the kind of property speculations that only further exacerbate income inequality and displacement of urban populations.

Read more »