There is no decent way of containing the excesses of Gabriele d'Annunzio's lives. It would astonish his contemporaries to discover that he is now only faintly remembered outside Italy. Even within Italy, though firmly entrenched in the literary canon, he is most commonly recalled with a sort of collective cringe. For once upon a time, in the fervid fin de siècle – for reasons variously literary, political, military and, not least, sexual – he was one of the towering figures of European culture. Think Wilde crossed with Casanova and Savonarola; Byron meets Barnum meets Mussolini – and you would have some of the flavours, but still not quite the essence, of this extraordinary, unstoppable and in many ways quite ridiculous figure. In The Pike, Lucy Hughes-Hallett has taken on the vast and frequently thankless task of trying to capture this strange genius, ten years after the most authoritative literary biography to appear in English thus far, Gabriele d'Annunzio: Defiant Archangel by John Woodhouse.

more from Literary Review here.

‘Bound for Freedom’s light: African Americans and the Civil War’

FromThe Washington Post:

It’s easy to believe that when Abraham Lincoln drafted his second inaugural address in 1865 — writing that if God willed it, the struggle against slavery would continue until “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” — he had in mind a famous photograph made two years earlier. The image shows a former slave, known only as “Gordon,” who had escaped bondage in Louisiana to freedom behind Union lines at Baton Rouge. The man appeared seated, with his face and torso turned away from the camera, showing a gruesome and abstract welter of lash marks and lacerations on his back. The photograph was one of the most convulsive images of the 19th century, circulated widely by abolitionists, reproduced and disseminated not just through popular magazines but on visiting cards, small reproductions on card stock that could be purchased and collected in albums. As Frank Goodyear writes in a recently published Smithsonian book, “Photography Changes Everything,” the image not only galvanized antislavery sentiments, but it “also inspired many free blacks in the North to enlist.”

The photograph appears in a small National Portrait Gallery exhibition, “Bound for Freedom’s Light: African Americans and the Civil War,” which, curator Ann Shumard said, is designed “to drive home the point that African Americans weren’t simply passive observers on the sidelines of this conflict.” The show includes photography, engravings, bookplates and drawings, and occupies a niche gallery sandwiched between two larger long-term displays of Civil War material. The modest nature of the display contrasts sharply with the sumptuous oil paintings and traditional sculpture in the main galleries, a visual analog to the complicated way in which African Americans were caught up in the war, yet marginal to its outcome and direction. They fought, and they were fought over, but it was white men who wore the epaulettes, called the shots and ended up being memorialized in full-length, heroic portraits of power.

More here. (Note: At least one daily post throughout February will be devoted to African American History Month)

Cartoonists take science seriously


ScienceIf a picture is worth a thousand words, how many pages of scientific prose is a science comic worth? Or, for that matter, how many words in a blog post? Science comics took the spotlight last week during one of the scores of sessions at Science Online 2013 in Raleigh, N.C. — and one of the takeaways was that illustrators and cartoonists are serious about the science they're depicting. Heck, many of them are trained scientists as well as gifted artists. Take MinutePhysics' Henry Reich, for example: He earned degrees in physics and math, but found himself drawn to film and video. Now he encapsulates complex concepts in physics (such as the quest for the Higgs boson) in YouTube videos that last just a bit more than a minute. His latest MinutePhysics offering wraps up more than two dozen science websites and video channels worth checking out, including way-cool science comics such as xkcd and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. You'll want to scan the whole list, but you won't want to stop there. It's a good thing the weekend is coming up, because here are another eight science comics to while away the hours with:

Bird and Moon: Rosemary Mosco is a “nature lover with a passion for science communication” — and a flair for cute, colorful graphics that are thoughtful as well. Have you always wondered how to tell a dolphin from a porpoise? Check out the “Animal Cheat Sheet.”

More here.

Where women warriors will lead

Hugh Gusterson in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

As a result of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's January 24th announcement, within a few years it will be normal to see women leading men into combat, serving on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and returning to the United States in flag-draped coffins as their tearful husbands comfort their children.

As well as resolving the debate about the role of women in combat, Panetta's announcement will reverberate well beyond war zones. For example, it will have implications for a longstanding tension between antiwar feminists and those I have called “feminist militarists.” In the 1980s, antiwar feminism seemed to have the upper hand. These were the years of women-only peace camps at Greenham Common and Seneca Falls, and an antinuclear movement led largely by women such as Helen Caldicott, Randall Forsberg, Jessie Cocks, and Pam Solo. In a decade in which Carol Gilligan's argument that women reason about right and wrong “in a different voice” held sway in women's studies programs, many feminists took it for granted that militarism was an expression of patriarchy and that feminism was necessarily anti-military. But at the same time a different kind of feminist, typified by Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, was arguing that it was time to smash the glass ceiling in the military and let women fight in combat. While this is a breakthrough in terms of equal opportunity, casting women as fighters signals the eclipse of what had been a powerful ground for critique of the military.

More here.

The Abstract painters blurred the boundary between science and the spiritual

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

ID_IC_MEIS_ABSTR_CO_001It is like the message above Dante's Gates of Hell. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Except that we are not entering hell, we are entering an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The message at the Gates of MoMA is in the form of a question. It asks, “Must we not then renounce the object altogether, throw it to the winds and instead lay bare the purely abstract?” The writer of the message is neither God nor Satan. He was a human being, and from Russia. His name was Wassily Kandinsky.

The attempt to answer Kandinsky's question led to a transformation in painting the implications of which are still being felt today. The transformation was Abstraction. Painters, just a few years prior to Kandinsky, happily portrayed human beings and animals and landscapes and historical events. After Kandinsky, pure forms and shapes and colors took over the canvas. This was a shocking and more or less unprecedented development. It took the art world by storm and carried the oft-bewildered public along with it.

More here.

The Real—and Simple—Equation That Killed Wall Street

Chris Arnade in Scientific American:

“If it weren’t for those meddling kids!” That was the punch line for every Scooby Doo episode. It also is the overly simple narrative that many in the media have spun about the last financial crisis. Smart meddling kids armed with math hoodwinked us all.

One article, from the March 2009 Wired magazine, even pinpointed an equation and a mathematician. The article “Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street,” accused the Gaussian Copula Function.

It was not the first piece that made this type of argument, but it was the most aggressive. Since then it has been a common theme in the media that mathematics, especially obscure advanced mathematics, is largely responsible for the catastrophe that doomed the world to the last five years of recession and slow growth.

This theme plays on the fallacy that danger always comes from complexity. It’s a fabrication that obscures the real causes, that makes it easier to say, “Hey, it wasn’t my fault, I was blinded by science.”

The reality is much simpler and less sexy. Wall Street killed itself in a time-honored fashion: Cheap money, excessive borrowing, and greed. And yes, there is an equation one can point to and blame. This equation, however, requires nothing more than middle school algebra to understand and is taught to every new Wall Street employee. It is leveraged return.

What is leveraged return? It’s the return on assets using borrowed money.

The equation for the leveraged return, L, is:

Where Y is the return of the asset, R is the cost to borrow money, and N is the “haircut,” or the percentage of money the investor must put down to secure the loan (the down payment).

More here.

“The gods have decreed work for men!”


Hilaire Belloc once wrote that he never burned anything but oak in the huge fireplace of his ancient home in West Sussex. For a while I considered doing the same in the wood stove of my home in the Shenandoah Valley. Oak of several kinds are indeed abundant here. Then practicality intruded. It has a way of doing that. There are in fact a number of eastern hardwoods that have a higher heating value than oak, such as hickory and locust. When upon approaching my home in winter one smells the smoke curling out of the chimney, there are a number of possible suspects: oak (red, black, and white), black locust, red elm, hickory, and less often, cherry or maple. For thirteen years we have heated this house almost exclusively by wood; and I have never purchased a single cord. All the wood that I use is bucked with my chainsaw and hand split with a maul or axe, by me, my family, or my college students. My commitment to purchase neither wood nor hydraulic splitter is at times a sign of contradiction. It has been pointed out to me on numerous occasions how much time I would save with a hydraulic splitter—a ‘splitter’ in common usage. When upon hearing that I heat my house by wood somebody asks, “Surely you have a splitter?” I usually point either to my son or to my arms.

more from John Cuddeback at Front Porch Republic here.

The sound of the blues


IN A MOMENT I will tell you why Kendrick Lamar, a young rapper from Compton, deserves much of the acclaim, and, even more so, the analysis he has received, but first let us deal with the vanguard of black memoirists who came before him and in whose well-forged path he follows. In the summer of 1945, Ralph Ellison wrote a review of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Wright’s semiautobiographical novel about his tough boyhood in Mississippi. In Ellison’s piece he suggested that Black Boy is shaped more by the blues tradition born from the same hard countryside as Wright than it is by any literary genre or narrative model. Ellison would explain that, “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.”

more from Kaadzi Ghansah at the LA Review of Books here.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves


The comedy of the poem is its reproduction of a range of acoustic and rhythmic strategies that the reader immediately recognizes as typical of a certain kind of poetry, but with nonsense words. The suggestion is that all such poetry is driven to a degree by the inertia of style and convention, that the sound is as decisive as the sense in determining what gets said; indeed, when we “run out of sense” the sound trundles on of its own accord. But how could one begin to translate “mome raths outgrabe”? We have no idea what it means. The only strategy would be to find an equally hackneyed poetic form in the translator’s language and play with it in a similar way. Liberated by the fact that many of the words don’t have any precise meaning, the translator should not find this impossible, though whether strictly speaking it is now a translation is another issue.

more from Tim Parks at the NYRB here.

Thursday Poem

for a sculpture by Michelangelo
(Pietà di Rondanini in Milan)
and within the block of marble the sculpture lies waiting
and within it another
and another
and where am I to stop
when doubt remains
the words lie
in my pen
it feels good
to perish
in this sea of words

but you whisper to me
no one manages to complete
what they were busy doing
that love is a single
unfinished wish to go on
you lift me up
you let me fall
perhaps it is death
you want to walk

perhaps what I seek
within the white marble
hovers like fear frozen
in a jumper’s eye
suicidal silence momentarily falls
then suddenly nothing
my arm falls asleep
outside my body

perhaps it is like the rolled-up darkness
under a street lamp
or something else
and far more complex
my father, for example, in an epileptic fit
what his eyes see
when they roll white

I try to raise him again
entangled in the darkness
so heavy a body can be
when it transforms
into strange
soft stone

or is it
my small white mother
who has come
to strangle me
there is almost nothing left

a double-headed angel
that melts everything
with its
introverted look

two people
in a peculiar

a mountain

to walk

by Morten Søndergaard
from Et skridt i den rigtige retning
publisher: Borgens Forlag, Kopenhagen, 2004
translation: 2007, Barbara Haveland and John Irons

Read more »

The Untold History of Post-Civil War ‘Neoslavery’

From NPR:

In Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon of the Wall Street Journal argues that slavery did not end in the United States with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. He writes that it continued for another 80 years, in what he calls an “Age of Neoslavery.” “The slavery that survived long past emancipation was an offense permitted by the nation,” Blackmon writes, “perpetrated across an enormous region over many years and involving thousands of extraordinary characters.”

Excerpt from Slavery by Another Name:

BlackOn March 30, 1908, Green Cottenham was arrested by the sheriff of Shelby County, Alabama, and charged with “vagrancy.” Cottenham had committed no true crime. Vagrancy, the offense of a person not being able to prove at a given moment that he or she is employed, was a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century by the state legislatures of Alabama and other southern states. It was capriciously enforced by local sheriffs and constables, adjudicated by mayors and notaries public, recorded haphazardly or not at all in court records, and, most tellingly in a time of massive unemployment among all southern men, was reserved almost exclusively for black men. Cottenham's offense was blackness. After three days behind bars, twenty-two-year-old Cottenham was found guilty in a swift appearance before the county judge and immediately sentenced to a thirty-day term of hard labor. Unable to pay the array of fees assessed on every prisoner—fees to the sheriff, the deputy, the court clerk, the witnesses—Cottenham's sentence was extended to nearly a year of hard labor. The next day, Cottenham, the youngest of nine children born to former slaves in an adjoining county, was sold. Under a standing arrangement between the county and a vast subsidiary of the industrial titan of the North—U.S. Steel Corporation—the sheriff turned the young man over to the company for the duration of his sentence. In return, the subsidiary, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company, gave the county $12 a month to pay off Cottenham's fine and fees. What the company's managers did with Cottenham, and thousands of other black men they purchased from sheriffs across Alabama, was entirely up to them. A few hours later, the company plunged Cottenham into the darkness of a mine called Slope No. 12—one shaft in a vast subterranean labyrinth on the edge of Birmingham known as the Pratt Mines. There, he was chained inside a long wooden barrack at night and required to spend nearly every waking hour digging and loading coal.

More here. (Note: At least one daily post throughout February will be devoted to African American History Month)

A Beckettian masterpiece

From The Telegraph:

Martin_main_2467179bDave Eggers has packed such a lifetime of activity into the past 10 years that it’s amazing to find he still has time to write novels. An energetic young literary man who leapt to world attention in 2000 with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – a garrulous memoir bristling with marginalia, footnotes and all the trappings of late-Nineties ironic reflexiveness – he has transformed over the decade into one of America’s most serious, thoughtful and socially engaged writers. Anyone picking up What Is the What (2006), the novelised memoir that Eggers wrote in collaboration with the Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng, or Zeitoun (2009), his non-fiction book following a Syrian-American man through New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, would find it near-impossible to reconcile their incisiveness and economy of style with the chatty, self-revising persona in Eggers’s debut.

But Eggers doesn’t just write. His other projects include running his publishing empire McSweeney’s, and its spin-off literary magazine The Believer; a string of charitable books interviewing survivors of human-rights abuses (the series Voice of Witness has reached eight volumes); a clutch of screenplays (Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, Sam Mendes’s Away We Go), as well as the organisation 826 National, a string of drop-in centres he started in San Francisco to offer mentoring, help with homework and creative writing classes to schoolchildren. 826 has now spread to eight cities across the United States (a London chapter opened briefly in 2010), and the initiative has since led to ScholarMatch, an online platform that lets internet philanthropists sponsor promising students through college. This is, by any standards, an astonishing lot of stuff to have done, the kind of industry that usually breeds serious malignity, if not Oxfordian authorship hypotheses, in jealous competitors struggling with the daily 500 words. But the transparency of Eggers’s intentions seems to have put him almost beyond the criticism of his peers.

More here.

Martin Amis on Obama’s second term and the role of bad behavior in fiction

Santiago Wills in Guernica:

ScreenHunter_91 Feb. 06 16.58Late one Saturday morning last November, Martin Amis strode across the stage of a half-filled auditorium at the Miami Book Fair. Squinting as the light struck his face, Amis took a seat at a lonely table with a copy of his most recent work, Lionel Asbo: State of England.

Stern-faced, he commended the audience after a brief greeting. “You avoided electing a president who looks like a religious porn star, one much respected in the industry,” he said. “You avoided the presidency of a man who a few months ago sat in Jerusalem next to Sheldon Adelson,” he continued. “You’d have to rack your brains to find someone, anyone as disreputable as that. Perhaps if he’d had Larry Flint sitting on the other side of him…” The official schedule described the event as a reading, but Amis, often referred to as the Mick Jagger of literature by the British press (“Why isn’t Mick Jagger known as the Martin Amis of the rock world?” he’s joked), chose to start with a short speech on American politics and religion. “[Romney] is a hick,” he said alluding to Romney’s Mormonism, a religion, which, in his opinion, didn’t deserve discussion, given its short and somewhat ridiculous inception.

“I was just amazed that the election was so close,” he continued. “The Democratic Party represents the American brain, and the Republicans represent not the American heart, or soul, but the American gut. The argument between brain and bowel, everywhere else in the Free World, has been decided long ago in favor of brain. But Americans still—it still divides the nation, this question, here in America.”

Amis is well versed in provocation, but he hasn’t always shown a significant interest in politics. Early in his career he was largely seen as a literary playboy, avoiding the political scuffles that his late friend and colleague Christopher Hitchens ardently pursued. In recent years, however, Amis has taken on a wide range of culturally sensitive subjects, including communism, the press, and Islam.

More here.

Eefin and Hambone, Or, What Is Culture?

Justin E. H. Smith in his blog:

I mentioned recently that whenever I come back to the US (I'm writing from Chicago), I enjoy immersing myself in this country's rich cultural history. This, for example:

My friends imagined that I was joking, that I was being my usual haughty, hi-culture, Europhile self. How can I get the message across? No matter how often I attempt to explain this, no one believes me: I am essentially a lo-culture kind of guy. Or, rather, I deny the legitimacy of the distinction. I do not believe that there is anything more earnest in Ernstkultur than in Unterhaltung. I believe, quite the contrary, that culture bubbles up from the depths, and that its genius is equally distributed across all places and times. And I have no patience, either, for these incessant reminders that Brahms incorporated Slavonic folk dances into his music, or that Copland was influenced by jazz; to those who bring this up I can only reply: don't waste my time, then, but give me Slavonic folk dances, and give me jazz.

What gives the appearance of some monopoly on genius to the sort of cultural output that is housed in museums and Lincoln Plaza and so on is just this: that brainless one-percenters are spending huge amounts of money to put their names on these monuments, and the brainless bourgeoisie makes pilgrimages to them, spending medium sums of money to have a brush with cultural objects that supposedly edify by their simple proximity. The illusion that genius is stored up in sites of high culture is sustained by capital and by the laziness and gullibility of culture's consumers: all the season-ticket holders, all the dupes of the museums' advertising departments, for their part driven ever further, under the compulsion of capital, to make the Ottoman sultan's throne, or medieval armor, or Greco-Bactrian statuary, look like so many things to buy– passing them off as a special class of objects, museum objects, that you can buy in a way just by going and standing in front of them.

Now that that's out of the way, let's get back to Eefin and Hambone. I remarked to a friend (who, again, thought I was joking), that what we are witnessing here (and in general are always witnessing on Hee Haw, the show that perhaps more than any other shaped my earliest thoughts about what culture is and how it works) is a performance of musical virtuosity that unites feigned cretinism with real genius (i.e., not the kind that's only sustained by capital).

More here.

India’s Speech Impediments

Suketu Mehta in the New York Times:

ImagesIndia is in the throes of what Salman Rushdie rightly calls a “cultural emergency.” Writers and artists of all kinds are being harassed, sued and arrested for what they say or write or create. The government either stands by and does nothing to protect freedom of speech, or it actively abets its suppression.

This year, the world’s largest democracy ranked a miserable 140th out of 179 countries in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index— falling nine places from last year. Today, Afghanistan and Qatar have a freer press than India.

In recent years, the government has cast a watchful eye on the Internet, demanding that companies like Google and Facebook prescreen content and remove items that might be deemed “disparaging” or “inflammatory,” according to technology industry executives there.

In November, police in Mumbai arrested a 21-year-old woman for complaining on Facebook about the shutdown of the city after the death of the nativist politician Bal K. Thackeray; another Facebook user was arrested for “liking” the first woman’s comment. The grounds for the arrests? “Hurting religious sentiments.”

More here.

Why was he buried in a parking lot?


When the experts announced today that they had definitively identified the bones of Richard III (the curvature of the spine was so pronounced that breathing would have been difficult and the pain agonizing), what astonished me most was the savagery of the attack that killed the king in the Battle of Bosworth Field, 1485, which put the first Tudor, Henry VII, on the throne. According to the Guardian:

The hands lay by his side, but as found suggested that he was buried with arms still bound, just as he was lugged from the battlefield. The skull lay with the largely undamaged face up – itself a significant and sinister point, according to the experts, hiding the savage blow to the base from a halberd, a fearsome medieval pike-like weapon, which sliced through bone and into the brain and would have killed him in seconds. …

more from Cynthia Haven at The Book Haven here.

The transparency delusion


Transparency is the new political religion shared by a majority of civic activists and an increasing number of democratic governments. The transparency movement embodies the hope that a combination of new technologies, publicly accessible data, and fresh civic activism can more effectively assist people control their representatives. What makes transparency so attractive for different civic groups is the exciting premise that when people “know,” they will take action and demand their rights. And it is fair to admit that the advancement of the transparency movement in many areas has demonstrated impressive results. Governmental legislation that demanded companies to disclose the risks related to their products empowered customers and made life safer (we have today’s often reviled Ralph Nader as one early person to thank here). Demand for disclosure has also transformed the relations between doctors and patients, teachers and students. Now patients have a greater capacity to keep doctors accountable, and parents can more effectively decide which school to select for their children. The new transparency movement has empowered the customers.

more from Ivan Krastev at Eurozine here.