Sunday Poem

‘The yellow of the Caribbean seen from Jamaica at three in the afternoon.’
– Gabriel García Márquez

Meditation on Yellow

1

At three in the afternoon
you landed here at El Dorado
(for heat engenders gold and
fires the brain)
Had I known I would have
brewed you up some yellow fever-grass
and arsenic

but we were peaceful then
child-like in the yellow dawn of our innocence

so in exchange for a string of islands
and two continents

you gave us a string of beads
and some hawk’s bells

which was fine by me personally
for I have never wanted to possess things
I prefer copper anyway
the smell pleases our lord Yucahuna
our mother Attabeira
It’s just that copper and gold hammered into guanin
worn in the solar pendants favoured by our holy men
fooled you into thinking we possessed the real thing
(you were not the last to be fooled by our
patina)

As for silver
I find that metal a bit cold
The contents of our mines
I would have let you take for one small mirror
to catch and hold the sun

I like to feel alive
to the possibilities
of yellow

lightning striking

perhaps as you sip tea
at three in the afternoon
a bit incontinent
despite your vast holdings
(though I was gratified to note
that despite the difference in our skins
our piss was exactly the same shade of yellow)

Read more »

Niall Ferguson’s Civilisation: The West and the Rest

Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books:

Civilization-the-west-and-the-rest‘Civilisation’s going to pieces,’ Tom Buchanan, the Yale-educated millionaire, abruptly informs Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. ‘I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard? … The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged.’ ‘Tom’s getting very profound,’ his wife Daisy remarks. Buchanan carries on: ‘This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.’ ‘We’ve got to beat them down,’ Daisy whispers with a wink at Nick. But there’s no stopping Buchanan. ‘And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilisation – oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?’

‘There was something pathetic in his concentration,’ Carraway, the narrator, observes, ‘as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more.’ The scene, early in the novel, helps identify Buchanan as a bore – and a boor. It also evokes a deepening panic among America’s Anglophile ruling class. Wary of Jay Gatz, the self-made man with a fake Oxbridge pedigree, Buchanan is nervous about other upstarts rising out of nowhere to challenge the master race.

Scott Fitzgerald based Goddard, at least partly, on Theodore Lothrop Stoddard, the author of the bestseller The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy (1920). Stoddard’s fame was a sign of his times, of the overheated racial climate of the early 20th century, in which the Yellow Peril seemed real, the Ku Klux Klan had re-emerged, and Theodore Roosevelt worried loudly about ‘race-suicide’.

More here.

Meme Weaver: The author tries—and fails—to cash in on a big idea

Marshall Poe in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_07 Oct. 30 11.50When I was young I wanted to write a challenging book of ideas. I had in mind the kind of “deep” book that public intellectuals of the 1950s and ’60s wrote: The Lonely Crowd, The One-Dimensional Man, The End of Ideology. Intellectuals talked seriously about them in magical places like New York and San Francisco, places I—being in Kansas—knew nothing about. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have anything deep to say. So I did what most intellectually ambitious young Americans do. I went to graduate school. I found nothing deep to say there. Instead, I learned to do research and write clearly. In the years that followed, I wrote books, but not deep books of ideas. My books were focused, well-documented demonstrations of some minor fact about the world. They added to what we know. That’s something.

Yet I still hungered to write a book of ideas. I knew I wouldn’t ever do so in academia. So after about a decade of teaching at a big university you’ve probably heard of, I left to work in a staff position at a big magazine you’ve probably heard of. In my mind, this magazine stood at the pinnacle of American intellectual life. I didn’t think working at the big magazine would make me a public intellectual. I wasn’t hired as a writer; I was hired as a researcher. I cannot say, however, that I didn’t want to see my name in the big magazine.

In 2005, Wikipedia was taking off. I thought its history might be interesting. So I wrote a piece on spec about the founding of Wikipedia. The editors at the big magazine liked it, and they published it in the summer of 2006. Around the time my Wikipedia article appeared in the big magazine, another Wikipedia piece appeared in another big magazine. Wikipedia was suddenly, as Tina Brown says, “v. hot.” This was my chance to write a book of ideas—not that I had any good ideas to write about. I sent an e-mail to a literary agent picked at random, asking whether I could write a book about Wikipedia-style collaboration on the Internet. I got a call within minutes. The nice fellow at the other end of the line (who, incidentally, is still my agent) said he’d read my article. I could get a book deal with a big New York trade publisher.

More here. [Thanks to Thomas Wells.]

Irish President Elect Michael D Higgins Acceptance Speech

An amazing speech by a friend of ours here at 3QD, Michael D Higgins, who has just been elected president of Ireland in a rather incredible story of last minute political heroics and the like. Again, our congratulations to Michael and to the whole Higgins family (Alice Mary in particular). A frickin’ incredible story all around.

Editing the genome: Scientists unveil new tools for rewriting the code of life

R. Alan Leo in the Harvard Gazette:

ScreenHunter_06 Oct. 30 11.09The power to edit genes is as revolutionary, immediately useful, and unlimited in its potential as was Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. And like Gutenberg’s invention, most DNA editing tools are slow, expensive, and hard to use — a brilliant technology in its infancy. Now, Harvard researchers developing genome-scale editing tools as fast and easy as word processing have rewritten the genome of living cells using the genetic equivalent of search and replace — and combined those rewrites in novel cell strains, strikingly different from their forebears.

“The payoff doesn’t really come from making a copy of something that already exists,” said George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School who led the research effort in collaboration with Joe Jacobson, an associate professor at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “You have to change it — functionally and radically.”

Such change, Church said, serves three goals. The first is to add functionality to a cell by encoding for useful new amino acids. The second is to introduce safeguards that prevent cross-contamination between modified organisms and the wild. A third, related aim, is to establish multiviral resistance by rewriting code hijacked by viruses.

More here.

How Samuel Beckett Stood Up for German Jews

Benjamin Ivry in Forward:

ScreenHunter_05 Oct. 30 10.58Although Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett is known for his tragicomically inert characters, he himself was an anti-Nazi activist during World War II. Unlike the ever-absent Godot, the bedridden vagrant protagonist of his novel “Molloy” or the despairing characters in his play “Endgame” who lack legs and the ability to stand, Beckett — though painfully shy and prone to melancholy — was a dynamic member of the French Résistance. His surprising wartime actions are detailed, if not fully explained, in the 2004 biography from Grove Press, “Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett” by James Knowlson.

Like his mentor, James Joyce, Beckett was unusually philo-Semitic among European modernist writers, and he joined the Résistance, Knowlson notes, soon after Joyce’s Jewish friend and amanuensis, Paul Léon, was arrested in Paris (Léon would later be murdered in Auschwitz). A fuller understanding of Beckett’s motivation for his pro-Jewish and anti-Nazi activism had to wait until two new books appeared.

Taking us from wartime to the early part of the author’s great achievements, Cambridge University Press has just published “The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 2, 1941–1956” following the first volume in 2009. This adds to insight gleaned from “Samuel Beckett’s German Diaries 1936–1937,” released in June by Continuum. Author Mark Nixon, analyzing still-unpublished journals by Beckett, describes the latter’s reactions to a sojourn in Germany intended to improve his grasp of the language and knowledge of the visual arts.

Together, these books underline how profound Beckett’s ties were with the Jewish people.

More here.

Ashis Nandy: on Pakistan’s latent “potentialities”

Christopher Lydon at Radio Open Source:

AshisnandyAshis Nandy, our sparkling Sage of New Delhi, is in effect a psycho-analyst of post-colonial South Asia. On the way home from Lahore, we stopped to ask the great man about Pakistan — and the “myth of Pakistan” which, he has written, “originates in India and dominates India’s public life,” too. “Pakistan is what India does not want to be… both a double and the final rejected self… the ultimate symbol of irrationality and fanaticism.”

Such is the myth. The reality and the possibility of Pakistan, and Ashis Nandy’s feeling about India’s neighbor come out very differently in conversation. “I feel at home in Pakistan,” said the poster version of the Bengali intellectual. “I miss only the vibrancy, the stridency of the political opinions that are articulated against fundamentalism and the state.” Pakistan is “a troubled country,” he is saying, “but not moribund, not a failed state” and not about to become one.

Ashis Nandy has just made his own study, in 1500 interviews, of the wounds of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan — among the searing and decisive memories of his own boyhood in Calcutta.

Read more and listen to the interview here.

Why We Can’t Tell Good Wine From Bad

David McRaney in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_04 Oct. 30 10.45The Misconception: Wine is a complicated elixir, full of subtle flavors only an expert can truly distinguish, and experienced tasters are impervious to deception.

The Truth: Wine experts and consumers can be fooled by altering their expectations.

You scan the aisles in the liquor store looking for a good wine. It's a little overwhelming — all those weird bottle shapes with illustrations of castles and vineyards and kangaroos. And all those varieties? Riesling, Shiraz, Cabernet — this is serious business. You look to your left and see bottles for around $12; to your right you see bottles for $60. You think back to all the times you've seen people tasting wine in movies, holding it up to the light and commenting on tannins and barrels and soil quality — the most expensive wine has to be the better one, right?

Well, you are not so smart. But, don't fret — neither are all those connoisseurs who swish fermented grape juice around and spit it back out.

Wine tasting is a big deal to a lot of people. It can even be a professional career. It goes back thousands of years, but the modern version with all the terminology like notes, tears, integration, and connectedness goes back a few hundred. Wine tasters will mention all sorts of things they can taste in a fine wine as if they were a human spectrograph with the ability to sense the molecular makeup of their beverage. Research shows, however, this perception can be hijacked, fooled, and might just be completely wrong.

In 2001, Frederic Brochet conducted two experiments at the University of Bordeaux.

More here.

a fantasy of empire

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In 1929, two years after he resigned from his job as a policeman in Burma, George Orwell settled, in his mind at least, the question that still troubles many people in Britain and the US: whether the British empire was good or bad. Burma’s “relationship with the British empire”, Orwell wrote, “is that of slave and master. Is the master good or bad? That is not the question; let us simply say that this control is despotic and, to put it plainly, self-interested.” Writing in 1942 about Rudyard Kipling’s legend of British soldiers, administrators and engineers in the colonies carrying heroically the white man’s burden, Orwell was blunter. “He does not seem to realise,” Orwell wrote, “any more than the average soldier or colonial administrator, that an empire is primarily a money-making concern.” This, broadly speaking, was a consensus about the British empire that Orwell shared with some unlikely people: India’s governor-general Lord Bentinck, who in 1834 reported that the “bones of the cotton weavers” driven into destitution by British free traders “are bleaching the plains of India”; Adolf Hitler, who greatly admired and sought to emulate in eastern Europe what he called “the capitalist exploitation of the 350m Indian slaves”; as well as anti-colonial leaders and thinkers from Egypt to China who developed a systematic critique of the empire of “free trade”.

more from Pankaj Mishra at the FT here.

the maus’ shadow

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Art Spiegelman has been here before. At 63, dressed in black jeans, a denim shirt and that ubiquitous vest, he is talking, again, about his graphic memoir “Maus,” the saga of his father Vladek’s experiences during the Holocaust and of Spiegelman’s efforts to get to know that father — to inhabit his story, if you will. “Maus” was originally published in two parts, the first in 1986 and the second in 1991; it won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the first comic to be so honored. Still, for the last two decades, Spiegelman has kept doubling back, reconsidering the project, drawing its mouse-like protagonist into nearly everything. “I’m blessed and cursed by this thing I made that obviously looms large for me and for others,” he observes on a sunny October morning in Beverly Hills, eyes blinking behind wire-frame glasses as he smokes on the balcony of his room in the Four Seasons Hotel. “But the result is that I can’t do this thing that seems quite easy but that I just can’t do, which is: ‘That’s that, and now I’m working on a new thing, and it’s a whole other thing.’ I just can’t get out of its gravitational field.”

more from David L. Ulin at the LA Times here.

Why Malthus is back in fashion

From Spiked:

MalthusLisping, reclusive and reviled by the working class of his day, the Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) – the man behind the idea that the ‘lower orders of society’ breed too quickly – would probably be surprised by his current popularity. Because that’s what he is today: popular. Commentators, activists and academics positively fall over themselves in the rush to say, ‘you know what, that Malthus had a point. There are too many people and, what’s more, they are consuming far too much.’

Earlier this summer, a columnist for Time magazine was in no doubt as to the pastor’s relevance. The global population is ‘ever larger, ever hungrier’, he noted, ‘food prices are near historic highs’ and ‘every report of drought or flooding raises fears of global shortages’. ‘Taking a look around us today’, he continued, ‘it would be easy to conclude that Malthus was prescient’. Writing in the British weekly, the New Statesman, wildlife lover Sir David Attenborough was similarly convinced: ‘The fundamental truth that Malthus proclaimed remains the truth: there cannot be more people on this Earth than can be fed.’ Not to be outdone, the liberal-left’s favourite broadsheet, the Guardian, also suggested that Malthus may have been right after all: ‘[His] arguments were part of the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and they have validity in the natural world. On the savannah, in the rainforests, and across the tundra, animal populations explode when times are good, and crash when food reserves are exhausted. Is homo sapiens an exception?’ The melancholy tone whispered its answer in the negative. Writing in the New York Times, Paul Krugman was less coy: ‘Malthus was right!’ shouted the headline. Given the encomia that are currently coming the way of Malthus you may well wonder what exactly it was that he was meant to be right about. To find the answer to this it is worth actually taking a look at the work, first published in 1798, on which his supposed prescience is based: An Essay on the Principle of Population. It makes for surprising reading.

More here.

Roaring at the Screen With Pauline Kael

Frank Rich in The New York Times:

ApaulaThough Kael often made a shtick out of her Western roots — all the better to cast herself as a rebel in opposition to the East Coast intellectual establishment she resented — she was in fact a second-generation American of “Yentl”-ish heritage. Her parents had migrated from Poland to the slums of Hester Street and ultimately to the then pastoral town of Petaluma, ­Calif., where they joined a thriving community of Jewish chicken farmers. Kael, the youngest of five children, was born there in 1919. She adored her father, Isaac, a flagrant adulterer. “Rather than resenting her father for his infidelity to her mother,” Kellow writes, “Pauline seemed almost to take pride in it.” As an adult, she “would be drawn steadily to similarly unapologetic, confident and self-reliant males — as friends, sometimes as lovers and often as objects of professional admiration.” In that last category were the directors Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, James Toback and Brian De Palma. After Isaac Kael lost his farm in the economic turmoil of the late ’20s, he sought work in San Francisco, where Pauline would become a precocious high school student and an expert debater who in one competition, tantalizingly enough, faced Carol Channing. (Alas, the topic and the victor aren’t named.) After graduation, Kael entered Berkeley as a philosophy major and stepped up her prodigious consumption of literature. But she quit college before graduation, impatient to pursue a career as a writer of short fiction and plays. By then she was also pursuing serial attachments to men who had something other than confidence and self-reliance in common. They were all poets, and all gay or bisexual — Robert Duncan, Robert Horan and James Broughton.

Kael and Horan hitchhiked across America in 1941 to break into the Manhattan literary world. Broke and homeless upon arrival, they camped out in Grand Central Terminal. Horan wandered the streets in search of food, and one night caught the eye of the composers and lovers Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti when they spotted him weaving in front of Saks Fifth Avenue as they walked home from the opera. The couple unofficially adopted Horan, and, unsurprisingly, he peeled away from Kael. Thus began an odyssey, lasting more than a decade, in which she supported her writing habit with what she called “crummy jobs” — among them stints as a ­publishing-house grunt, a clerk at Brentano’s, a violin teacher and a freelance tutor. After some four years of defeat in her efforts to break into professional writing in New York, she returned to San Francisco. By the early ’50s, she was running a laundry and tailoring business off Market Street, desperate to support her young daughter, Gina, fathered out of wedlock by Broughton in 1948. She continued to crank out unpublished stories and unproduced plays in whatever spare time she could find. When she learned that Gina had a congenital heart defect, she could not afford the surgery needed to repair it. Once Kael’s fortunes finally changed, it was through a lucky break as improbable as starlets being discovered at Schwab’s drugstore. Arguing with a friend about a film in a Berkeley coffeehouse in the fall of 1952, she was overheard by Peter D. Martin, the founder of a new film-criticism journal, City Lights. Martin was so captivated by Kael’s riff that he invited her to review Chaplin’s “Limelight” — which she did, in a pan revealing her critical voice in embryo. Mocking the film’s climax, in which the Chaplin hero, a has-been clown, dies in the wings of a theater after achieving redemption, Kael wrote that it was “surely the richest hunk of self-­gratification since Huck and Tom attended their own funeral.” The piece attracted the attention of Mary McCarthy, among others, and soon Kael was submitting articles about film to other small but prestigious outlets like Partisan Review and Sight and Sound. At the ripe age of 33, she had at last found her subject as a writer. She had also found a literary community, in an exploding Bay Area bohemia populated by the likes of Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Peter Martin’s partner in creating the legendary City Lights bookstore and the founder of its publishing-house spinoff.

More here.