“I was not so bad as Carlyle, was I?”

by Eric Byrd

Edgar_Degas_Portrait_of_DurantyReading To the Lighthouse I was especially struck by her treatment of what Henry James calls, in his preface to The Tragic Muse, “the artist-life,” as a “human complication and social stumbling block.” The tension of contemplative withdrawal and selfless attention, the janicular simultaneity of egoism – egoism as a revelation of spirit, egoism as a spiritual imposition — struck James, and it seems to have struck Woolf, “as one of the half-dozen great primary motives.” Both James and Woolf were children of voluminous Victorians, would-be sages attended by disciples but fundamentally dependent on their wives; philosophers who had to be supported while they wrote and brooded. On patriarchal needs, the memoirs seem to intersect:

He needed always a woman to sympathize, to flatter, to console. Why? Because he was conscious of his failure as a philosopher, as a writer. But his creed made him ashamed to confess this need of sympathy to men. The attitude that his intellect made him adopt with men, made him the most modest, most reasonable of men. Vanessa, on Wednesdays, was the recipient of much discontent that he had suppressed; and her refusal to accept her role, part slave, part angel of sympathy, exacerbated him so that he was probably unconscious of his own barbarous violence…

(“A Sketch of the Past”)

We simply lived by her, in proportion as we lived spontaneously, with an equanimity of confidence…which left us free for detachments of thought and flights of mind, experiments, so to speak, on the assumption of our genius and our intrinsic interest, that I look back upon as to a luxury of the unworried that is scarce of this world. This was a support on which my father rested with the absolute whole of his weight…

All which is imaged for me while I see our mother listen, at her work, to the full music of the 'papers.' She could do that by the mere force of her complete availability, and could do it with a smoothness of surrender that was like an array of all the perceptions.

(Notes of a Son and Brother)

Mr. Ramsay rests on his wife with the absolute whole of his weight. He imposes his hunger for sympathy tactlessly, childishly, to the rage and impatience of the actual children. Mrs. Ramsay wonders if her husband thinks he would have written better books had he not married (Nietzsche said the married philosopher “belongs in a comedy”).

Read more »

Baku Firing the Imagination

by Maniza Naqvi

Baku4What do the Swedes Robert, Ludvig and Alfred Nobel have in common with South Asian Multani pilgrims and traders? Well for starters a certain fire in the belly of Azerbaijan.

I wake up to the sounds and smells of explosives, the whiff of dynamite mixed with a faint scent of petroleum which sometimes wafts on the breeze here, it is midnight in Baku, and there are extravagant fireworks, over the Caspian waters, framed in my hotel window—as Azerbaijan marks its Independence day. I am awake, and from the tower where I lie, I stare into the near distance at the make believe flames superimposed on three glass towers shaped as flames and lit up at night, appearing like the licks of burning tongues. These are, yes, The Flame Towers, a monument of sorts to free enterprise, trading and a homage to fire temples in the beautiful city of Baku on the shores of the Caspian Sea on the peninsula of Absheron, in Azerbaijan, in the South Caucuses, north of Iran, South of Georgia and Russia, west of Turkmenistan across the sea and East of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and that other country one doesn’t name here.

Bakufireworks

Baad e koo–city of winds—the strong gusts that rise from the south and the sea are called Khaezaeri while those from the north are called Kilavar. The Caspian in Azeri is Khaezer.

I am wide awake, resolutely denying jetlag and contemplate if I should work and finish the note I am to write on Somalia.I have a few hours before my day is to start. But staring at my reflection on the window glass, all I manage to scribble is: From Mogadishu to Baku there is you in common—From Mogidishu to Baku it always ends with you. I mull over the lines and tell myself I will write this. At some point. But as I drown and drowse and surrender to sleep, the moon wanes over the sea slick with oil rising to its surface and I dream of suns rising. My back hurts from the long flight over. I send whatsapp videos back home of the Towers.

Azericarpet1

Read more »

Goodbye to New York (Whether or Not it’s ‘All That’)

by Kathleen Goodwin

IMG_0599I'm currently in the process of moving away from New York City and while I've only lived here for two quick years, now seems as good a time as any for some reflection. Apparently since Joan Didion wrote a piece in The Saturday Evening Post in 1967 about her departure from the city (on a temporary basis as it turned out), it's become a trope for self-centered New Yorkers to announce their leaving the city in the same way, as if this place cares about one less inhabitant. I guess I'm more of a New Yorker than I let myself realize.

While many of my peers seemed to consider moving to New York an end-goal in itself, I had never intended to end up here and was primed for resentment that only grew as time passed. To me, it seemed that New York was a fantastic hoax, where everyone claims to love it and to be happy to be there, so no one is able to admit that they feel otherwise. At times I have felt like screaming that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. In “Goodbye to All That” Didion says that New York is “a city only for the very young.” Leslie Jamison, in a passage about living in New York in her novel The Gin Closet, says, “The truth of being young felt like an ugly secret that everyone had agreed to keep.”

Within the surplus of literature about New York writers love to utter universal truths about the city, probably not taking the time to consider if their experience is the same as the woman who does their laundry or the guy who guards the doors at their midtown office. My observations of New York come from the conscious vantage of someone who is white, educated, and gainfully employed in a city where one is likely to have an entirely different experience if she isn't one or any of those things. It would be very easy to write about unfathomably high rent prices, working too many hours, and competing with all of my former classmates for jobs and grad school spots. But that is the allure of the New York I know, after all. It's a difficult and competitive place to thrive which is precisely why many ambitious people want to be here—a self-perpetuating phenomenon.

Read more »

The Next 100 Years in the Human Sciences, a Reply to Frank Wilczek’s Remarks about Physics

by Bill Benzon

Frank Wilczek, theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate at MIT, has recently published his speculation on what physics will yield over the next 100 years [1]. It’s an interesting and provocative read, if a bit obscure to me (I never studied physics beyond a mediocre high school program). And, of course, I had little choice but to wonder:

What about the human sciences in the next 100 years?

My initial reaction to that one (with a nod to Buster Keaton): Damfino!

But then I actually began to think about it and things got interesting, in part because some of Wilczek’s speculations about physics have implications for the human sciences.

I begin with a failed prognostication of my own from four decades ago. Then I move on to Wilczek’s central theme, unification, and conclude with some observations about memory and quantum computing.

Computing, the Prospero Project, and Cultural Singularity

Back in 1976 David Hays and I published a review of the then current computational linguistics literature for Computers and the Humanities [2]. At the time Hays was a senior scholar in the Linguistics Department with a distinguished career going back to his early days at the RAND Corporation, where he led their work in machine translation. I was a graduate student in English literature and a member of Hays’s research group.

Once we’d finished with the research roundups standard in such papers we indulged in a fantasy we called Prospero (p. 271): “a system with a semantics so rich that it can read all of Shakespeare and help in investigating the processes and structures that comprise poetic knowledge. We desire, in short, to reconstruct Shakespeare the poet in a computer.” We then went to specify, in a schematic way, what would go into Prospero and what one might do with Prospero as a research tool.

We did not offer a delivery date for this marvel, specifying only a “remote future” (p. 273). That, I’m sure, ways Hays’s doing; he was too experienced in such matters to speculate on due dates and told me so on more than one occasion. I’m quite sure that, in my own mind, I figured that Prospero might be ready for use in 20 years, certainly within my lifetime. Twenty years from 1976 would have been 1996, but nothing like Prospero existed at that time, nor was it on the visible horizon. Now, almost two decades after that we still have no Prospero-like computational systems nor any likely prospects for building one.

Read more »