The Noble and the Base: Poland and the Holocaust


John Connelly in The Nation:

Earlier this year, while conferring a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom on the Polish hero Jan Karski, Barack Obama inadvertently touched off the greatest crisis in US-Polish relations in recent memory. The man he honored had served as a courier for the Polish resistance against Hitler, and in 1942 Karski traveled across occupied Europe to tell Western leaders about the Nazi war crimes being committed in Poland, including the Holocaust. Karski had been sent on this secret mission, Obama explained, after fellow underground fighters had told him that “Jews were being murdered on a massive scale and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself.” It was late evening in Warsaw when Obama spoke, but within minutes Polish officials were demanding an apology for his use of the phrase “Polish death camp,” which they thought scandalous.

Even those well-versed in European history must wonder why. After all, the media routinely speak of “French camps” from which Jews were sent to their deaths, and the phrase doesn’t draw similar ire from the French government. On the contrary, in July the French president himself, François Hollande, began a widely covered speech on the seventieth anniversary of the roundup of Jews at Vélodrome d’Hiver by stating, “We’ve gathered this morning to remember the horror of a crime, express the sorrow of those who experienced the tragedy…and therefore France’s responsibility.” Why are Poles so sensitive on the matter of Polish camps? Readers of Halik Kochanski’s new book, The Eagle Unbowed, will ask the opposite question: How could a famously well-educated person such as Barack Obama be so insensitive regarding the simple facts about Poland, the first country to stand up to Hitler?

Here’s one undisputed, essential fact: after the Nazis and their Soviet allies overran Poland in September 1939, they did not permit the Poles to form a new national government. The Soviets made the eastern Polish territories into western Soviet republics; the Germans annexed the western Polish territories into the Reich and made central Poland a “General Government” that they ruled directly. This arrangement was radically different from those in Nazi-occupied France, Denmark or Slovakia, which were ruled by collaborationist regimes. The French camps, then, really were French—that is, operated by French collaborators (a fact stressed by Hollande in his July speech). In Poland the death camps were German, like most other institutions.

a free man


Ashraf’s obsession with azadi has a flip side, akelapan — loneliness. Friendships are treacherous in Delhi, and he longs for his childhood friends in Patna, “a group that woke up together, skipped class together” and felt hungry, happy, depressed in “perfect synchronicity.” But on a good day, he can frame his isolation as a blessing. “Today I can be in Delhi,” Ashraf says. “Tomorrow I could well be in a train halfway across the country; the day after, I can return. This is a freedom that comes only from solitude.” Ashraf isn’t meant to represent an entire people. And he isn’t drawn to shame the reader into sympathy, either. His contradictions and three-dimensionality are hallmarks of honest reporting on the marginalized. Ashraf is not a poor man; he’s a man who happens to be poor. This distinction gives his character nuance and his world complexity.

more from Sonia Faleiro at the NY Times here.



This is a long book about a long life, a large volume about a large talent. Titian, its titular subject, was the most celebrated painter of his time. He died in his beloved Venice, Italy, on Aug. 27, 1576. The death certificate listed the cause of his demise as fever and age as 103. Like so much else about the artist, however, the date of his birth remains uncertain; it’s more likely he died in his late 80s. Even his name is subject to variation. He signed documents and paintings with “various spellings of his Christian name: Titian, Ticiano, or the Latinized Ticianus or Titianus.” The name by which many scholars know him, Tiziano Vecellio, signals the village close to Venice where he was born (most likely between 1488 and 1490). As his biographer reports, “Venice in 1500 was the wealthiest, most glamorous, most sophisticated, most cosmopolitan, most admired — and most hated — metropolis in Europe, centre of the only empire since ancient Rome to be named after a city rather than a dynasty.”

more from Nicholas Delbanco at the LA Times here.

the book of kells


One of the endearing features of this version of the Gospels is that it is not particularly accurate. “While the scripts of the Book of Kells have a unique verve and beauty,” Meehan writes, “its text is erratic, with many errors resulting from eyeskip (where the scribe’s eye has jumped from a word to its next appearance, omitting the intervening text or letter).” This calls down a rare but stern professorial rebuke: “There is considerable carelessness in transcription.” Reading this, one’s deplorably feckless imagination wanders back through the smoke of the centuries to that frail little isle afloat in the wild Atlantic, where in a stone beehive hut a lonely scribe, hunched with quill in hand over his sheet of vellum, halts suddenly as he spots a mistranscription, claps a hand to his brow and utters whatever might have been the monastic equivalent of “Oh, shit!” Those poor scribes – there were four of them, “prosaically termed A, B, C and D”, as Meehan sympathetically remarks – had their work cut out for them. The Book of Kells was made from 180 calf skins – an indication, by the way, of the comparative wealth of the monastic community, for in those days cows were money – and of the complete work, 680 pages remain, some folios as well as the original binding having been lost or destroyed.

more from John Banville at the FT here.

The Book of Imaginary Beings

From The Guardian:

A-leafy-sea-dragon-010In “The Book of Sand” (1975), Jorge Luis Borges describes a volume of inconceivably thin leaves in which no page is the first and no page the last, so that wherever you open it there is a different story, written in various indecipherable scripts. The narrator becomes obsessed with this extraordinary object and ultimately horrified: “I realised that the book was monstrous. It was no consolation to think that I … was no less monstrous than the book.” The short story echoes what is probably Borges's single most famous fiction, “The Library of Babel” (1941), which depicts a library of astronomical size containing everything that ever has been or could be written but in which meaning is elusive. The later work, however, written towards the end of the author's life, has a nightmarish quality that is less apparent in the earlier story.

Falling between these two is The Book of Imaginary Beings, a compendium of brief, almost stark descriptions and stories about fantastic animals from many older texts and sources, including the bestiaries of medieval Europe and their classical antecedents, Chinese and Indian myth, folk tales, the legends of indigenous peoples, and the minds of writers such as Kafka and Poe. First published in 1957, at the very time when (as Borges later explained) the vision that had gradually been failing him since birth had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer read or see what he was writing, this cryptozoological chiaroscuro is one of Borges's great creations. In the preface, Borges warns that Imaginary Beings is not meant to be read straight through: “Rather, we should like the reader to dip into these pages at random, just as one plays with the shifting patterns of a kaleidoscope.”

More here.

Coming Into Their Own

Julie Meyerson in The New York Times:

AndrewHow does it feel to be the mother of a teenage dwarf who’s desperate to start dating? What if you love the daughter you conceived when you were raped but can’t bear to be touched by her? And, as the father of a happy, yet profoundly deaf son who’s forgotten how it feels to hear, how do you deal with your memories of the times you played music together?

“Parenting is no sport for perfectionists,” Andrew Solomon rather gloriously understates toward the end of “Far From the Tree,” a generous, humane and — in complex and unexpected ways — compassionate book about what it means to be a parent. A lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell and the author of “The Noonday Demon,” a National Book Award-winning memoir about his journey through depression, Solomon spent 10 years interviewing more than 300 families with “exceptional” children. That is, children with “horizontal identities,” a term he uses to encompass all the “recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors.” He developed what seem to be genuine relationships (entailing multiple visits, unsparing communication and significant follow-up over a number of years) with families of individuals affected by a spectrum of cognitive, physical or psychological differences: “They are deaf or dwarfs; they have Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia or multiple severe disabilities; they are prodigies; they are people conceived in rape or who commit crimes; they are transgender.” His interviews yielded nearly 40,000 transcript pages and his “anti-Tolstoyan” conclusion that “the unhappy families who reject their variant children have much in common, while the happy ones who strive to accept them are happy in a multitude of ways.”

More here.

Barbarism in Cultured Soil: Rushdie’s Great Pakistani Novel

Shehryar Fazli in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

1353658437In the simplest terms, the novel is about the transformation of a country’s identity, the rise and fall of two men, the civilian leader Iskander Harrapa and the dictator-to-be Raza Hyder, fictional parallels respectively of Bhutto and Zia, who try to control the process, and the tragic outcomes of their missions. Its raw material is the history of Pakistan. At first glance, the book’s oft-quoted description of Pakistan as “a failure of the dreaming mind” seems mischievous and intended to provoke. But the failed dream here is an oppressive one: it is the dream of Urdu-speaking migrants who, after Partition in 1947, had to govern an essentially foreign nation, feeling compelled to impose a neat formula — the founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s ‘one nation, one culture, one language’ — onto a diverse, unwieldy polity. The dream disappoints because the country is too multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, too multidimensional for the imposition.

Shame’s narrator argues, “It is possible to see the subsequent history of Pakistan as a duel between two layers of time, the obscured world forcing its way back through what-had-been-imposed.” This duel forms the novel’s locus. Throughout, the censored and stifled rise to the surface, whether in the real-life secession of East Pakistan and insurgency in Balochistan against a brutal state, or in the gruesomely murderous acts of Sufiya Zinobia, General Hyder’s underdeveloped and repressed daughter. And then there is the deposed Iskander Harrapa, refusing to be quiet even after his execution: “O unceasing monologue of a hanged man!” Hyder wails as he starts hearing the dead prime minister, head still in the noose, taunting his executioner, “Never fear, old boy, it’s pretty difficult to get rid of me.

More here.

More Notes on Humans and Animals

Justin E. H. Smith in his own blog:

ScreenHunter_48 Nov. 24 13.14I am growing increasingly convinced that people who believe we have an absolute moral duty to see to the well-being of all other human beings, to install water-purifying equipment in villages on the other side of the world, etc., and who, at the same time, happily contribute to the ongoing mass slaughter of animals, are really just picking and choosing their causes. There simply is no compelling reason why I, or anyone, should suppose that all and only human beings are the worthy targets of moral concern. This is not to say that you should care about animals. It is only to say that there is nothing natural or obvious or conclusive about your belief that you should care about all and only human beings. Your belief is a prejudice, characteristic of a time and place, and not the final say about where the reach of moral community ends.

We have an extremely peculiar ontology, from which we suppose our moral commitments flow. It is unlike anything in human experience prior to the rise of the modern West. In all other places and times, since the appearance of the human species, there has been a presumption of some sort of shared socio-natural community that extends well beyond the boundaries of the species. This sounds like an exaggeration, and it attributes to many groups of people views they have left no explicit record of having supported. But from the explicit record, anyway, there is not a shred of evidence of any culture ever supposing, prior to our own, that moral community is defined by the boundaries of our species.

More here.

Saudi Arabia implements electronic tracking system for women

From The Raw Story:

ScreenHunter_46 Nov. 24 12.55Denied the right to travel without consent from their male guardians and banned from driving, women in Saudi Arabia are now monitored by an electronic system that tracks any cross-border movements.

Since last week, Saudi women’s male guardians began receiving text messages on their phones informing them when women under their custody leave the country, even if they are travelling together.

Manal al-Sherif, who became the symbol of a campaign launched last year urging Saudi women to defy a driving ban, began spreading the information on Twitter, after she was alerted by a couple.

The husband, who was travelling with his wife, received a text message from the immigration authorities informing him that his wife had left the international airport in Riyadh.

“The authorities are using technology to monitor women,” said columnist Badriya al-Bishr, who criticised the “state of slavery under which women are held” in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

More here.

The Beatles’ audition tape famously rejected by a record executive in 1962 has finally been uncovered after 50 years

From The Telegraph:

Beatles_2406448bThe fledgling group were told “they had no future in showbusiness” as guitar groups were “on the way out” following the audition.

The decision by a Decca Records executive proved to be one of the worst made in music history.

Within months John, Paul, George and original drummer Pete Best had signed with EMI and went on to become the greatest band of all time.

Now the original safety master tape, a 10-track demo the group recorded at Decca's London studios on New Year's Day 1962, has come to public light for the first time.

It is thought the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein held on to the tape he had paid to make and later gave it to an executive associated with EMI.

He sold it in 2002 to a prolific buyer of music memorabilia. He is now selling it at auction with a pre-sale estimate of 30,000 pounds.

The recording has never been officially released and the sound quality on it is said to be pristine.

More here. [For Aps and Ga, of course.]

The common problems of America, Chad, and Pakistan

Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times:

The National Climatic Data Center has just reported that October was the 332nd month in a row of above-average global temperatures. As the environmental Web site Grist reported, that means that nobody younger than 27 has lived for a single month with colder-than-average global temperatures, yet climate change wasn’t even much of an issue in the 2012 campaign. Likewise, the World Economic Forum ranks American infrastructure 25th in the world, down from 8th in 2003-4, yet infrastructure is barely mentioned by politicians.

So time and again, we see the decline of public services accompanied by the rise of private workarounds for the wealthy.

Is crime a problem? Well, rather than pay for better policing, move to a gated community with private security guards!

Are public schools failing? Well, superb private schools have spaces for a mere $40,000 per child per year.

Public libraries closing branches and cutting hours? Well, buy your own books and magazines!

Are public parks — even our awesome national parks, dubbed “America’s best idea” and the quintessential “public good” — suffering from budget cuts? Don’t whine. Just buy a weekend home in the country!

Public playgrounds and tennis courts decrepit? Never mind — just join a private tennis club!

I’m used to seeing this mind-set in developing countries like Chad or Pakistan, where the feudal rich make do behind high walls topped with shards of glass; increasingly, I see it in our country. The disregard for public goods was epitomized by Mitt Romney’s call to end financing of public broadcasting.

More here.

Sam Kerbel interviews David Grossman

In a candid interview, the Israeli author on Netanyahu’s impotence, how his son’s death affected his latest novel, and Israel’s need to embrace Palestinians with humanity.

From Guernica:

Guernica You began writing To the End of the Land six months before your son Uri joined the Israeli army. In the afterward, you mention that you started this book as a way to protect him, just as Ora’s expedition through the Galilee was meant to keep her son, Ofer, alive. Is Ora a doppelgänger?

Grossman-575David Grossman: I think all characters are in my books. Even if I didn’t know it in the beginning, they become [doppelgängers]—not only from the point of view of what happened later in my life, but usually when I write about the character in the beginning I do not really understand what the connection is between me and this character, and why I am so driven to write her or him. Gradually, I find out that this character is really relevant for me and meaningful for me. Ora is not myself; we are very different from each other. But after having written her, I think I became her.

Guernica: In the note at the end you say that the book was largely completed before your son Uri’s death. Can you take me back to the day when you picked up work on the novel again after this tragedy? Can you explain the thoughts you had at the time and whether the tone or resolution of the novel changed, if at all?

David Grossman: The story line did not change. I thought that I should remain loyal to the story, that the story is not about the death of a son but rather about the anxiety from death. The book is not about death at all—it’s about life, and fear of death, which is a very typical combination for every Israeli family and for Israel as an idea, as a state.

More here.

debating affect


Let me begin by posing a simple question: Why are so many scholars today in the humanities and social sciences fascinated by the idea of affect? In an obvious sense an answer is not difficult to find; one has only to attend to what those scholars say. “In this paper I want to think about affect in cities and about affective cities,” geographer Nigel Thrift explains, “and, above all, about what the political consequences of thinking more explicitly about these topics might be– once it is accepted that the `political decision is itself produced by a series of inhuman or pre-subjective forces and intensities.'” Similarly, cultural critic Eric Shouse states that “the importance of affect rests upon the fact that in many cases the message consciously received may be of less import to the receiver of that message than his or her nonconscious affective resonances with the source of the message.” He adds that the power of many forms of media lies “not so much in their ideological effects, but in their ability to create affective resonances independent of content or meaning.” In the same spirit, political philosopher and social theorist Brian Massumi, one of the most influential affect theorists in the humanities and social sciences today, attributes Ronald Reagan’s success as a politician to his ability to “produce ideological effects by nonideological means. . . . His means were affective.”

more from Ruth Leys with responses at Critical Inquiry here.

How can I be content when there is still that odor in the world?


Though intensity has been a characteristic feature of Glück’s work from the beginning of what is now a long career, the poems have inspired a wide range of epithets. Often they are said to be “chilling,” “supremely reticent,” “distant,” “scrupulous,” “on guard.” And yet the early poems, with their mainly short lines and controlled air of violence and disparagement, seemed to me at first, and now again, to be anything but reticent or aloof. It’s comical, actually, to think of Glück, at any point in her career, as being “on guard” or “distant.” The early poems seethe with opening lines like “Sometimes at night I think of how we did/ It, me nailed in her like steel,” or “Time and again, time and again I tie/ My heart to that headboard/ While my quilted cries/ Harden against his hand.” That a standard, largely misguided line about a major poet should harden into dogma and be repeated, over and over again, is bizarre, as in a 2009 New York Times review featuring the assertion that “All these years…Glück has been writing her stark, emaciated verse,” as if the poet-critic responsible for that observation didn’t know the difference between emaciation and a disciplined refusal of mere ornament, and hadn’t noticed the obvious marks of fullness and feeling in poems frequently anthologized.

more from Robert Boyers at The Nation here.

memory traps


It doesn’t take much. A deserted street at dusk, with the summer sunlight lingering on the upper floors of a row of buildings and the sidewalks down below already deep in shadow, may get some old movie in our heads rolling again. Since we are ordinarily better at forgetting than remembering, it is often a mystery why some such sight has stamped itself on our memory, when countless others that ought to have far greater meaning can hardly be said to exist for us anymore. It makes me suspect that a richer and less predictable account of our lives would eschew chronology and any attempt to fit a lifetime into a coherent narrative and instead be made up of a series of fragments, spur-of-the-moment reminiscences occasioned by whatever gets our imagination working. For instance, just recently in New York, I walked past a store selling cheap jewelry where fifty years ago, I realized, there had been an Italian restaurant. To my surprise I recalled what happened to me there one evening.

more from Charles Simic at the NYRB here.

Friday Poem

A note to all “self-made” men; to the “job-creators” and “makers”
—You didn't build that.

Freedom’s Plow

When a man starts out with nothing,
When a man starts out with his hands
Empty, but clean,
When a man starts to build a world,
He starts first with himself
And the faith that is in his heart-
The strength there,
The will there to build.

First in the heart is the dream-
Then the mind starts seeking a way.
His eyes look out on the world,
On the great wooded world,
On the rich soil of the world,
On the rivers of the world.

The eyes see there materials for building,
See the difficulties, too, and the obstacles.
The mind seeks a way to overcome these obstacles.
The hand seeks tools to cut the wood,
To till the soil, and harness the power of the waters.
Then the hand seeks other hands to help,
A community of hands to help-
Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,
But a community dream.
Not my dream alone, but our dream.
Not my world alone,
But your world and my world,
Belonging to all the hands who build.

Read more »

The Art of Friendship

From The Paris Review:

Esherick-264x300Philia, the root of Philadelphia, roughly translates to “friendship” in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, an enduring source for understanding the ethics of friendship. Aristotle identifies three essential bases for friendship: utility, pleasure, and virtue. Friendships of virtue, Aristotle believes, are ideal because only they are based on recognition. When I was thirty, I moved back to Philadelphia. I had only been gone a few years, and though I knew better, I had half expected it to be just as I’d left it. It was not: most of my friends had left the city altogether or moved, married, to the edges of town. Occasionally, I would run into people I had once known, encounters that produced deep and surprising embarrassment in me; unexplained life choices digested in fast, always alienating, appraisal. The more unsettling thing was that my close friendships were changing, too.

Friendship has never seemed both more important and less relevant than it does now. The concept surfaces primarily when we worry over whether our networked lives impair the quality of our connections, our community. On a nontheoretical level, adult friendship is its own puzzle. The friendships we have as adults are the intentional kind, if only because time is short. During this period, I began to consider the subject. What is essential in friendship? Why do we tolerate difference and distance? What is the appropriate amount to give? And around this same time, I discovered the curious, decades-long friendship between the writers Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, and the sculptor Wharton Esherick. Their relationship seemed to me model in some ways; they were friends for over twenty years, mostly living in different cities. Each man was dedicated to pursuing his own line of work, and the insecurities and single-mindedness of ambition seemed analogous too to the ways that adulthood can separate us from our friends.

More here.

The benefits of mammograms under fire

From Nature:

MammThe routine use of mammography to screen healthy women for breast cancer is leading to the widespread detection and treatment of tumours that would never have caused symptoms, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine asserts today1. The results inject yet another dose of controversy into an area that is already hotly debated. The study examined the effects of mammography screens on breast-cancer incidence between 1976 and 2008 in US women over 40. The authors conclude that more than one million women diagnosed with the disease would never have developed symptoms. In 2008 alone, they estimate, more than 70,000 women had such breast tumours diagnosed, accounting for 31% of all breast cancers diagnosed in women 40 and older. “Our study raises serious questions about the value of screening mammography,” the paper concludes. “The harm of overdiagnosis [is] probably larger than has been previously recognized.” The diagnosed women, the authors add, have undergone treatments involving surgery, radiation, hormones and chemotherapy “for abnormalities that otherwise would not have caused illness”.

…The study authors — oncologist Archie Bleyer of the St Charles Regional Cancer Center in Bend, Oregon, and H. Gilbert Welch, a professor of medicine at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine in Hanover, New Hampshire — examined the change in incidence of early-stage and late-stage breast cancer after large numbers of women began to have screening mammograms in the mid-1980s. As expected with the advent of a widespread screening programme, they found that diagnoses of early-stage disease more than doubled during the three decades, with an increase of 122 cases for every 100,000 women. The authors argue that if the screening was working as intended and stopping those cancers from progressing to a more harmful disease, then one would expect to see a roughly equivalent decrease in late diagnoses. Instead, they found that, assuming a steady underlying rate of breast cancer incidence, the number of late-diagnosed cancers decreased by only 8 cases per 100,000 women. Their inference: many of the early cases being detected through screening would not have gone on to cause symptomatic disease. They also conclude that mammography’s contribution to the sharp decline in breast-cancer mortality rates during the same period must therefore be small.

More here.