We drank. We ate. We glowed.

26MACINTYRE-articleLarge

ON the day Paris was liberated from Nazi occupation, two trucks screeched to a halt in front of the Ritz. Out jumped several dozen French Resistance fighters, armed to the teeth and led by a burly American with a large mustache. The French “irregulars” were so in awe of the man they referred to as “le grand capitaine” that they had taken to copying what the photographer Robert Capa called his “sailor bear walk” and machine-gun diction, “spitting short sentences from the corners of their mouths.” The leader swaggered up to the hotel bar and placed his order: “How about 73 dry martinis?” Ernest Hemingway went on to liberate the Ritz of a great deal of alcohol. “We drank. We ate. We glowed,” recalled one of his men. That cameo is just one of many unforgettable scenes in the final installment of Rick Atkinson’s epic trilogy about America’s war in Europe, a book that stitches a multitude of such small but telling moments into a tapestry of fabulous richness and complexity. Atkinson is a master of what might be called “pointillism history,” assembling the small dots of pure color into a vivid, tumbling narrative.

more from Ben Macintyre at the NY Times here.

A dragon is no idle fancy

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Tolkien was a noted scholar and linguist before he was a published novelist, laboring on the Oxford English Dictionary and then embarking upon a long career at Oxford University, where he was professor of Anglo Saxon studies and later Merton Professor of English, a chair he held until his death. His iconoclastic 1936 lecture, “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics,” challenged assumptions that the eighth century text should be treated purely as a historical document and not a work of art. It’s now regarded as a watershed moment in Beowulf studies. In the essay, Tolkien didn’t mince words in his disdain of fellow academics: “For it is of their nature that the jabberwocks of historical and antiquarian research burble in the tulgy wood of conjecture, flitting from one tum-tum tree to another.” He was particularly dismissive of those who ignored the importance of the poem’s monsters — Grendel, Grendel’s mother and especially the dragon that Beowulf kills, but not before he himself is mortally wounded.

more from Elizabeth Hand at the LA Times here.

unnerving in its ordinariness

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Packer, a staff writer at the New Yorker – and among the best non-fiction writers in America – devotes most of The Unwinding to those whom Oprah has robbed of excuses. Billed as “an inner history of the new America”, the book is both a portrait of a country in flux and an elegy to those on the wrong side of it. Starting in 1978 and concluding after Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election, the big events – from Ronald Reagan’s first victory to the attacks of 9/11 – supply only fleeting backdrops to the odysseys of its characters. The Unwinding is about the majority of Americans whose lives have grown more atomised and less financially secure in the past generation. And it is about a society whose cultural landmarks have been crowded out by monuments to the new household gods – “celebrities who only grow more exalted as other things recede”. In one sketch, Packer observes that Raymond Carver “seemed to know, in the unintentional way of a fiction writer, that the country’s future would be most unnerving in its ordinariness”. This is also Packer’s canvas.

more from Edward Luce at the FT here.

Unexcited? There May Be a Pill for That

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Daniel Bergner in the NYT Magazine:

When they were dating and out with other couples, Linneah would think, “I just want to get home with him, I just want to get home with him,” she recalled. But that lust had dwindled. Around the arrival of their second child in 2004, something insidious crept in, partly fatigue but partly something else that she couldn’t name. She talked about her to-do lists, the demands of the kids, “but let’s face it,” she said, “sex doesn’t take that much time.” Rather than feeling as if she still wanted to grab her husband’s hand and hurry him up the stairs in their small brick house, on many nights she waited in bed, somewhat like prey, though the predator was tender, though he was cherished.

Around once a week, her husband tried to reach through the invisible barriers she built — the going up to bed early, the intense concentration on a book, the hoping he was too tired to want anything but sleep. “He’ll move closer to me in bed, or put his arm around me, or rub my back.” She willed herself not to refuse him. And mostly, she didn’t. Usually they had sex about four times each month. But it upset her that she had to force herself and that she put up those barriers to deter him from reaching more often.

“I’m scared that if it’s slimmed to this by now, what’s going to happen as we get older?” she said. “I want to stay close, not just psychologically, physically. I want to stay in love. I have a friend, they have sex so intermittently, every three months. She is so unhappy. I don’t want that to happen to me.” She longed for a cure, a tab of magic. As she got into her car in the parking lot at the center, she hoped that her first set of pills had been placebos, that she’d been given fakes for the first eight weeks, that today she was driving away with the real drug and that their sex life would be transformed.

Amanda Marcotte offers some thoughts in Slate:

Since its beginnings, when it was called “sociobiology,” evolutionary psychology has been wed to the theory that women are monogamous and men are promiscuous—that men have a compunction to spread their seed while women instinctually want to lock some guy down to raise her children. Feminist attempts to create sexual equality between men and women were doomed to fail, because they went against biology. Shrugging was encouraged, and the term “hard-wired” was mandatory.

But now the evidence is beginning to trickle in, and one sticky fact has thrown this entire theory into jeopardy: It's women and not men who get bored with monogamy faster. As Daniel Bergner writes in the New York Times, women are far more likely to lose interest in sex with their partners. This doesn’t necessarily translate into infidelity—a choice many reject because it’s so hurtful—but, Bergner reports, spouse-weary women often just avoid sex altogether.

Add to that the study Bergner cites showing women respond to novelty in pornographic fantasies, and another showing that women are much more turned on by fantasies of sex with strangers than friends. You’d be forgiven for concluding that the gender most interested in mixing it up might be…women.

Saturday Poem

Morning Glories
.

Blue and dark-blue
pppppp rose and deepest rose
ppppppppppp white and pink they

are everywhere in the diligent
ppppp cornfield rising and swaying
ppppppppppp in their reliable

finery in the little
ppppp fling of their bodies their
ppppppppppp gear and tackle

all caught up in the cornstalks.
ppppp The reaper's story is the story
ppppppppppp of endless work of

work careful and heavy but the
ppppp reaper cannot
ppppppppppp separate them out there they

are in the story of his life
pppppp bright random useless
pppppppppppp year after year

taken with the serious tons
pppppp weeds without value
pppppppppppp humorous beautiful weeds.

by Mary Oliver
from White Pine

Harcout Brace, 1994

Guy de Maupassant

From The Guardian:

Guy-de-Maupassant-008“He is a better writer than you think,” Malcolm Lowry once said of Guy de Maupassant. This comment, made to David Markson, indicates the conundrum Maupassant presents to readers. A hugely influential writer of short stories, the sheer mass of his extremely uneven body of work – 300 stories, 200 articles, six novels, two plays, and three travel books churned out between 1880 and 1891 – can obscure his genius like clouds around an alp. Yet while many of those 300 stories fail to rise beyond the anecdotal, nearly a quarter are very good, and within them stands a core of indisputable classics. It shouldn't be doubted that Maupassant is one of the most important short-story writers to have lived. It was to the detriment of Maupassant's work – although not his bank balance – that his career coincided with a demand from French newspapers for stories of around 1-2,000 words. Jostling with news and faits divers, these stories were by necessity laconic and attention-grabbing, and Maupassant, whose severe economy was a model for Hemingway, had a great facility for producing them. The irony, however, is that Maupassant's best works are much longer. The spareness, learned in his youth from the poet Louis Bouilhet, is still there – as in the opening of “Hautot & Son” (1889), where, as Sean O'Faolain writes, “the scene is brilliantly and swiftly painted, with three lines for the countryside and six for the sportsmen” – but the stories' scope helps avoid the glibness that can mar his shorter work. When Bouilhet died another family friend, Gustave Flaubert, took on Maupassant's literary education, counselling his impatient charge to hold off from publishing until he was ready (although from 1875 several stories crept into print under pseudonyms). The fruit of this long labour was “Boule de Suif”, which Flaubert lived just long enough to read and proclaim a masterpiece.

…It's certainly difficult to find much meaning in Maupassant's final years, which were as lurid as any plot he ever concocted. By 1885 he was suffering memory lapses and eye problems, and would sometimes see his double sitting at his desk. These were early symptoms of the syphilis he most probably contracted during his hedonistic twenties (a period he recreates in an unusually touching story of 1890, “Mouche”). By late 1891 he was convinced his brain was pouring from his nose and mouth, and thought his urine was made of diamonds. “My mind”, he told a friend, “is following dark valleys”. He slit his throat in Cannes on New Year's Day, 1892, and spent the last 18 months of his life in a Parisian asylum. “M Maupassant is reverting to the animal”, his doctor wrote a few days before his death, aged 42.

More here.

Faith Healing

Kathleen Norris in The New York Times:

This is a daring and urgent book, written after the author learned he had a rare, incurable and unpredictable cancer. But it is not a conventional memoir of illness and treatment. Beyond informing us that he received his dire news in a “curt voice mail message,” Christian Wiman says very little about his experience of the medical world. He is after bigger game. More than any other contemporary book I know, “My Bright Abyss” reveals what it can mean to experience St. Benedict’s admonition to keep death daily before your eyes.

…In reflecting on the meaning of Christ’s passion for his own life, Wiman finds that it reveals that “the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.” It is the resolutely incarnational nature of the religion that draws him in. “I am, such as I am, a Christian,” he writes, “because I can feel God only through physical existence, can feel his love only in the love of other people.” His love for his wife and children, he realizes, is both human and entirely sacred. And here the poet comes to the fore, insisting on the right to embrace contradiction without shame. “I believe in absolute truth and absolute contingency, at the same time. And I believe that Christ is the seam soldering together these wholes that our half vision — and our entire clock-bound, logic-locked way of life — shapes as polarities.” This pithy and passionate book is not easy, but it is rewarding. Wiman’s finely honed language can be vivid and engaging. He describes his childhood home as “a flat little sandblasted town in West Texas: pump jacks and pickup trucks, . . . a dying strip, a lively dump, and above it all a huge blue and boundless void” that he admits, with typical acuity, “I never really noticed until I left, when it began to expand alarmingly inside of me.” He exhibits a poet’s concern for precision, writing, for example, that “the sick person becomes very adept at distinguishing between compassion and pity. Compassion is someone else’s suffering flaring in your own nerves. Pity is a projection of, a lament for, the self.” This is, above all, a book about experience, and about seeking a language that is adequate for both the fiery moments of inspiration and the “fireless life” in which we spend most of our days. It is a testament to the human ability to respond to grace, even at times of great suffering, and to resolve to live and love more fully even as death draws near.

More here.

REFLECTIONS ON WOOLWICH

Kenan Malik in Padaemonium:

ScreenHunter_209 May. 24 18.331. It was a mad, barbarous attack, more akin to a particularly savage form of street violence than to a politically motivated act. What was striking about the incident was not just its depravity but the desire of the murderers for that depravity to be captured on film. This was narcissistic horror, an attempt to create a spectacle, enact a performance, and generate media frenzy. In that it succeeded. We should not provide the act with greater legitimacy by rationalizing it in political or religious terms. Even to call it a terrorist act is to give it too much credibility.

2. Brutal nihilism and narcissistic hatred are central threads of contemporary jihadism. This is as true of 9/11 and 7/7 and the Boston bombing as it is true of the Woolwich murder. But while 9/11 and 7/7 were degenerate acts, the Woolwich attack shows how much more degenerate such attacks have become over the past decade. This was jihadism as depraved street violence.

3. Such degenerate nihilism is not peculiar to jihadists. It drove the twisted, paranoid fantasies of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass killer, who wanted ‘to create a European version of al-Qaeda’. It underlay the mass shootings in America in Aurora and Sandy Hook. Such acts remain rare. But the inchoate, disengaged, misanthropic rage upon which they draw, and the hatred of people and the indifference to one’s actions that they express, has become typical of a very contemporary form of violence. The fact that Breivik claimed that he was waging a war in defence of Christendom, or that the Woolwich attackers shouted ‘Allahu Akhbar’ does not make them any less degenerate or nihilistic, or any more ‘political’, than the perpetrators of the Aurora or Sandy Hook killings.

More here.

A Commencement Address

Brodskyandmississippi

On what would have been his 73rd birthday, my old teacher Joseph Alexandrovich Brodsky's commencement address to the 1984 graduating class of Williams College, in the NYRB:

Given its volume and intensity, given, especially, the fatigue of those who oppose it, Evil today may be regarded not as an ethical category but as a physical phenomenon no longer measured in particles but mapped geographically. Therefore the reason I am talking to you about all this has nothing to do with your being young, fresh, and facing a clean slate. No, the slate is dark with dirt and it’s hard to believe in either your ability or your will to clean it. The purpose of my talk is simply to suggest to you a mode of resistance which may come in handy to you one day; a mode that may help you to emerge from the encounter with Evil perhaps less soiled if not necessarily more triumphant than your precursors. What I have in mind, of course, is the famous business of turning the other cheek.

I assume that one way or another you have heard about the interpretations of this verse from the Sermon on the Mount by Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and many others. In other words, I assume that you are familiar with the concept of nonviolent, or passive, resistance, whose main principle is returning good for evil, that is, not responding in kind. The fact that the world today is what it is suggests, to say the least, that this concept is far from being cherished universally. The reasons for its unpopularity are twofold. First, what is required for this concept to be put into effect is a margin of democracy. This is precisely what 86 percent of the globe lacks. Second, the common sense that tells a victim that his only gain in turning the other cheek and not responding in kind yields, at best, a moral victory, i.e., quite immaterial. The natural reluctance to expose yet another part of your body to a blow is justified by a suspicion that this sort of conduct only agitates and enhances Evil; that moral victory can be mistaken by the adversary for his impunity.

There are other, graver reasons to be suspicious. If the first blow hasn’t knocked all the wits out of the victim’s head, he may realize that turning the other cheek amounts to manipulation of the offender’s sense of guilt, not to speak of his karma. The moral victory itself may not be so moral after all, not only because suffering often has a narcissistic aspect to it, but also because it renders the victim superior, that is, better than his enemy. Yet no matter how evil your enemy is, the crucial thing is that he is human; and although incapable of loving another like ourselves, we nonetheless know that evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another. (This is why you’ve been hit on your right cheek in the first place.) At best, therefore, what one can get from turning the other cheek to one’s enemy is the satisfaction of alerting the latter to the futility of his action. “Look,” the other cheek says, “what you are hitting is just flesh. It’s not me. You can’t crush my soul.” The trouble, of course, with this kind of attitude is that the enemy may just accept the challenge.

Twenty years ago the following scene took place in one of the numerous prison yards of northern Russia.

Hannah Arendt, Guilty Pleasure

Hannaharendt_hoberman_052213_620pxIn Tablet, J. Hoberman reviews Margarethe von Trotta's biopic of Hannah Arendt, starring the wonderful Barbara Sukowa:

It’s not every week that you get to see a movie about an intellectual contretemps, let alone one that rocked the Jewish world. Indeed, in a way, Von Trotta and screenwriter Pamela Katz have attempted something far more difficult and potentially absurd than making a documentary, namely setting out to dramatize an upheaval in the life of the mind. The only filmmaker who has ever really turned the trick is Roberto Rossellini in his early-’70s telefilmsSocrates, Descartes, and Blaise Pascal. (Would that he had also essayed Spinoza!)

Von Trotta and Katz could not possibly do justice to the outrage—and outrageous abuse—that Arendt inspired, or to the breadth of her continents-spanning life and thought. A sprinkling of flashbacks notwithstanding, it’s Arendt in Jerusalem and on Eichmann that Von Trotta considers in her film.

Greatly simplified, Arendt’s three great sins were 1) suggesting that the “desk murderer” Eichmann was a mediocre opportunist rather than the devil incarnate (and thus all the more frightening); 2) publicly discussing and denouncing the role of Nazi-appointed Jewish Councils in the Final Solution; and 3) examining the judicial basis for the trial itself. Arendt, however subtle in her analysis, was not given to understatement; still, to a large degree the tumult she inspired was a case of blaming the messenger. (For a pithy, reasoned historical contextualization of the reaction to Arendt’s report, see Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life.)

As a film, Hannah Arendt is a sort of hybrid and not just because it is half in German. The movie is a didactic docu-drama, part old-school Soviet “publicist” film in its idealized, ideological representation of historical figures, and part Hollywood biopic in its entertainingly kitschy notion of how they might have interacted in real life.

The Faraway Nearby

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Many stories are told about the T’ang dynasty artist Wu Daozi, sometimes named as one of the three great sages of China: that he ignored color and only painted in black ink, that he transgressively painted his own face on an image of the Buddha, that he painted a perfect halo in a single stroke without the aid of compasses, that he painted pictures of the dragons who cause rain so well that the paintings themselves exuded water, that the Emperor sent him to sketch a beautiful region and reprimanded him for coming back emptyhanded, after which he painted a 100-foot scroll that replicated all his travels in one continuous flow, that he made all his paintings boldly and without hesitation, painting like a whirlwind, so that people loved to watch the world emerge from under his brush. One story about him I read long ago I always remembered. While he was showing the Emperor the landscape he had painted on a wall of the Imperial Palace, he pointed out a grotto or cave, stepped into it, and vanished. Some say that the painting disappeared too. In the account I thought I remembered, he was a prisoner of the Emperor who escaped through his painting. When I was much younger I saw another version of this feat that impressed me equally.

more from Rebecca Solnit at Guernica here.

truth is harder than fiction

African-lives

In recent years, African literature has broken free of what Wole Soyinka called the “orange ghetto” of the Heinemann African Writers Series, which in 1962 launched the series with the one African book that everyone seems to know: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Writers from around the continent—José Eduardo Agualusa, Doreen Baingana, Mia Couto, Emmanuel Dongala, Nuruddin Farah, Petina Gappah, Yasmina Khadra, Zakes Mda, Maaza Mengiste, Abdellah Taïa—continue to win awards and gain international recognition. From Nigeria alone, authors like Chris Abani, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, Helon Habila, E.C. Osondu, and Helen Oyeyemi have joined the pantheon already occupied by Achebe, Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka, and Amos Tutuola. A steady stream of anthologies has introduced American readers to fresh voices from Africa. But something has been missing. These anthologies have focused almost exclusively on fiction, ignoring a wealth of extraordinary true-life narratives.

more from Geoff Wisner at The Quarterly Conversation here.

the sprite-like Reykjaviker

Iceland-landscapeLARGE

When Icelanders talk to Americans about Iceland, sooner or later talk is going to turn to fairies, or hidden people, or elves. And while it seems many Icelanders do truly believe in those things, often you’ll get a response like the novelist Sjón gave Leonard Lopate the other day: “If you actually lean on an Icelander, most of us will confess to believing that nature has the power to manifest itself in a form understandable to humans. So the hidden people, you know, we would say, ‘Well of course I don’t believe that there are actually cities inside our mountains, but it’s possible that nature has a way of manifesting itself in a human form to, you know, have an interaction with the humans.’” Similarly, when Americans talk about Iceland, sooner or later (probably sooner) we’re going to start talking about one specific fairy, or hidden person, or elf. And despite my not having any photos or videos to back it up, you’ll have to believe me that last week at Scandinavia House, the sprite-like Reykjaviker you’re thinking of did indeed manifest herself in a striking, stiff, white-and-purple dress for a ten-minute interaction with book-reading humans on behalf of her longtime friend and collaborator Sjón.

more from David Bukszpan at Paris Review here.

Friday Poem

Three Questions

How can it be
that the one sure thing
worth repeating
from a year that slips
between the hands
like kite string,
and is hauled into
the next like a
favorite kite,
is what I think is
a Japanese maple
from the far end
of November,
firing through half
a suburban block
with its not yet burnt-
through extravagance
of orange? Or that
that one tree on
that one block
seen on that one day
in the course of
this one short life
is enough, though clearly,
despite the lies
its leaves are, or
my need to trust
the impossible stories
hanging from its limbs,
it is enough? Or even
that the world, even
this one, can offer so little and
so much at once
and mean them both?
.
.
by Ralph Black
from Turning Over The Earth
Milkweed Editions

Race Is Not Biology

From The Atlantic:

Race%20is%20not%20biology%20mainDuring the past two weeks, much outrage has arisen over former Heritage Foundation staffer Jason Richwine's Harvard doctoral dissertation, which speculated that IQ differences between “Hispanic” and “non-Hispanic' populations were genetically rooted. The claims mirrored those of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's scurrilous The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, which made similar claims about the intelligence of blacks. (Murray receives thanks in Richwine's dissertation acknowledgments and wrote recently in National Review Online in defense of Richwine.) The fury continues. In the past couple days, a group of scholars has circulated a petition excoriating Harvard for approving the dissertation and condoning scientific racism in the process. Their petition situates Richwine within an odious lineage stretching back to the era of eugenics and charges that his work rests on shoddy intellectual foundations. (These scholars are right: the late J. Phillipe Rushton, best known for claiming associations among race, brain size, and penis length, is cited by Richwine.) A group of 1,200 Harvard University students has also put together their own petition.

But the attacks on Richwine are missing something far more insidious than neo-eugenic claims about innately inferior intelligence between races. The backlash against Richwine and Murray, after all, gives some indication that their views are widely considered beyond the respectable pale in the post- Bell Curve era. Richwine and Murray are really extreme branches of a core assumption that is much more pervasive and dangerous because it isn't necessarily racist on the surface: the belief in biological “races.” This first assumption is required to get to claims like Richwine's, which argue that between Race A and Race B, differences exist (in “intelligence” or whatever else) that are grounded in the biological characteristics of the races themselves. Public outcry always greets the second Richwine-Murray-esque claim. But the first assumption required to reach it is more common and based on as shaky an intellectual foundation, even as it continues to escape equal scorn. Even so, the critique of biologically innate race is hardly new. In 1972, the Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin famously observed more genetic variation within populations than between them, undercutting the case for fixed and timeless genetic boundaries that demarcated “races.”

More here.