On Having Misidentified a Wildflower
A thrush, because I'd been wrong,
Burst rightly into song
In a world not vague, not lonely,
Not governed by me only.
by Richard Wilbur
Thomas Chatterton Williams reviews Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me in the LRB:
Soon after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, a book called The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace was published, describing one New Jersey man’s dual existence as a top student at Yale and an incorrigible drug dealer.1 Peace was an alarmingly precocious black boy whose mother toiled in hospital kitchens to raise the money to send him to parochial schools, where he thrived. His father, a magnetic hustler his mother refused to marry, was an active presence in his early life; he taught his son how to use his fists and decode the logic of the streets. When Peace was seven, his father was convicted of double homicide on circumstantial evidence, and sentenced to life in prison.
No one could claim that Peace had an easy path. Yet it’s also hard to deny that the institutions of US society unfailingly worked for him. Jeff Hobbs, who was Peace’s roommate at Yale, shows that at every stage of Peace’s life, his gifts were not just recognised but cultivated. He may have started selling marijuana to help his mother pay the rent, but his family didn’t have the crippling debts that frequently end any possibility of class mobility. He was the valedictorian at his prestigious high school, and a wealthy banker, moved by his speech, offered to pay all the expenses at whichever university he chose. He studied microbiology at Yale, but never stopped selling or using drugs. In 2011, at the age of 30, he was the victim of a gangland execution.
In the conversations about the deaths of Brown, Peace and numerous others who have commanded public attention in the US over the past year, there’s often a tension between the desire to attribute responsibility for actions to those who undertake them and the protective urge to downplay those same people’s responsibility for their actions. In Brown’s case, many people, including plenty of blacks, saw the predictable if gratuitous death of a young man who had committed a crime and then defied a cop; others saw this view as naive: it didn’t matter what the 18-year-old had or hadn’t done, because he wasn’t a moral agent in the first place.
In this second view, which is steadily gaining purchase in the US, Brown was a casualty of a centuries-old system of oppression that decided his fate before his parents’ parents had even met. This is the view held by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a 40-year-old journalist at the Atlantic, who makes the case most seductively in his recent memoir, Between the World and Me.
Richard Marshall interviews Jonardon Ganeri in 3:AM Magazine [h/t: Yogesh Chandrani]:
3:AM: Your new book, due out this year, ‘Identity as Reasoned Choice: A South Asian Perspective’ foregrounds multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-racial characteristics of identity in the contemporary world. You argue that identity is a matter of reasoned choice and draw on a theory retrieved from India. You discuss the role of consensus, of what you call an ‘adaptive model according to which exemplary cases provide local standards of evaluation’, the importance of dissent, historical conceptions of identity and reason from within Indian philosophy and finally how past cultures of reasoning and identity-formation may be used in a contemporary setting. Can you say something about this project?
JG: I want to move away from the notion that there is any one answer to the question of who one is, by which I mean the idea that there are fixed determiners of one’s individual identity, the sort of person one takes oneself to be, the values one endorses, the character that one has. That idea is especially dangerous in a new age of religious intolerance, when, for example, immigration officials engage in racial profiling and make inferences about a person’s values from the clothes they wear.
So I took seriously a thought in the work of Amartya Sen, Akeel Bilgrami, and others that reason goes “all the way down” as it were, meaning that there are always reasoned choices to be made about the weight someone attaches to each of the various sources of value and identity everyone has available to them. Religion is one of the most powerful sources of identity, and I see no difficulty in someone choosing to found their sense of self in their religious faith, as long as they recognise that this is a choice, and that other choices can be equally legitimate.
But I wanted to take this thought a step further, and to ask how, in the ideal conversation envisaged by a deliberative democracy, individuals can call on their various identities in making collective decisions or agreeing on common goods. My idea is that cultural inheritances supply what I called “resources of reason”, normative ways of thinking, and I think that it is important to see that each such such way of thinking provides its own techniques for acknowledging the rights and legitimacies of other ways of thinking.
So someone can come to the table as, for instance, a Jew or a Muslim, and still with a full range of ways of understanding the demands of public reason and of the deliberative practices and values of the other participants in the conversation. Drawing on my own field of expertise, I try to show how this works in the case of Indian intellectual cultures in particular, but I think exactly the same is true for East Asian, African or western sources of significance.
Tyler Curtis at The Quarterly Conversation:
Such is the thread that runs so exquisitely through The Argonauts, poet and critic Maggie Nelson’s memoir, for lack of a more comprehensive term. At once a meditation on queerness, language, and family, and in part a spiritual follow-up to the melancholic Bluets, Nelson’s book traverses the gap between theory and the lived experience that it so often abstracts into oblivion. She traces her relationship with artist Harry Dodge, and memories pass through critical-philosophical cogitation. We often find Nelson and Dodge in conversation, or sharing passages from Wittgenstein or Barthes, and the two spar on the function of names and categories, assimilation and resistance in X-Men, and Nelson’s neglecting the queer part of her life in her writing until now, which is effectively the starting point of this project.
Once we name something, is it irreversibly changed? Can words “do more than nominate”? At one point Nelson recalls the fervor for and against Proposition 8 in California (which made same-sex marriage illegal), and her and Dodge’s frantic journey from courthouse to courthouse to get married once it becomes clear that the ballot proposition would likely pass. But how adequate is the term “same-sex marriage,” anyway? And how many queer folk actually “think of their desire’s main feature as being ‘same-sex’”? What really makes a family unit? And what exactly are the so-called defenders of traditional marriage reallylamenting?
David L. Ulin at the LA Times:
In 1967, John Lennon bought a small island off the west coast of Ireland called Dorinish. It wasn't much of an island, just a pasture and some rocks, which, Kevin Barry tells us in his second novel, “Beatlebone,” “were harvested for ballast by the local fishing fleet.” Although Lennon wanted to establish a utopian community on Dorinish (in the early 1970s, he invited a group to start a commune on the land), he visited the island just twice.
The story is intriguing, not least because it's rare to come upon a lesser-known narrative about the Beatles — and yet the unexpected turn of Barry's novel, which imagines a 1978 trip by Lennon to Dorinish, is that it isn't really about the singer at all.Sure, there are identifying traces: This Lennon lives at the Dakota and he longs to “work again and breathe again and write again, and not be locked to the … past — that he might play again — not locked to the past — that he can write again — not locked to the past and its same old song.” But he is also tormented in ways that may have less to do with Lennon than with Barry himself.
Charles McGrath at The New York Times:
Easily the best, most entertaining book about Gore Vidal is his 1995 memoir “Palimpsest.” But with the possible exception of “In Bed With Gore Vidal,” Tim Teeman’s 2013 tell-all, “Palimpsest” is also the least reliable of the Vidal books. Vidal was a tireless self-mythologizer, and as his title suggests, that book is a layering of rememberings, re-rememberings and mis-rememberings. In his new, much sounder biography, “Empire of Self,” Jay Parini suggests that even the account of Vidal’s idyllic romance with his high school friend Jimmie Trimble, one of the touchstones of “Palimpsest” — the story of a love so perfect and unearthly that it could never be duplicated — was most likely a fabrication.
Parini was close enough to Vidal to know when not to take him at his word. An English professor at Middlebury College, he met Vidal while on sabbatical in Italy in the mid-80s, and somewhat improbably — Parini is modest, earnest, scholarly and straight, none of which could be said about Vidal — the two became friends. “It would be fair to say, in a crude way, that I was looking for a father, and he seemed in search of a son,” Parini writes, not adding that, as so often happens, the son wound up taking care of the father to a certain extent and putting up with more than he had bargained for.
Sally Satel in The Atlantic:
In December 1966, Leroy Powell of Austin, Texas, was convicted of public intoxication and fined $20 in a municipal court. Powell appealed his conviction to Travis County court, where his lawyer argued that he suffered from “the disease of chronic alcoholism.” Powell’s public display of inebriation therefore was “not of his own volition,” his lawyer argued, making the fine a form of cruel and unusual punishment. A psychiatrist concurred, testifying that Powell was “powerless not to drink.”
Then Powell took the stand. On the morning of his trial, his lawyer handed him a drink, presumably to stave off morning tremors. The prosecutor asked him about that drink:
Q: You took that one [drink] at eight o’clock [a.m.] because you wanted to drink?…And you knew that if you drank it, you could keep on drinking and get drunk?
A: Well, I was supposed to be here on trial, and I didn’t take but that one drink.
Q: You knew you had to be here this afternoon, but this morning
you took one drink and then you knew that you couldn’t afford
to drink anymore and come to court; is that right?
A: Yes, sir, that’s right.
The judge let stand Powell’s conviction for public intoxication.
Two years later, the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of punishment for public intoxication, rejecting the idea “that chronic alcoholics … suffer from such an irresistible compulsion to drink and to get drunk in public that they are utterly unable to control their performance.”
Now, fast-forward almost half a century to the laboratory of Carl Hart, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, who has been showing that cocaine and methamphetamine addicts have a lot in common with Powell. When Hart’s subjects are given a good enough reason to refuse drugs—in this case, cash—they do so too.
Gene Seymour in Bookforum:
Fine. Let’s start with “Negro,” or, if one prefers, “negro.” Even with this word’s present-day, often lower-case status, there are African Americans for whom “Negro” is a trigger word for outrage or affront. Some want the word excised altogether—which, at least to this African American, displays amnesia toward (or, worse, disrespect for) our collective history. Between the years 1900 and 1970 (give or take), “Negro” defined a people in transition through two world wars, a cultural renaissance, and a social and political movement that changed everything around it. Those who defined themselves as “Negro” flew airplanes to battle fascism, made their own movies, established baseball franchises, and used their hard-won education in law, the arts, and science to pull their people ahead with them, transforming a nation that otherwise refused to see them as they were, when it chose to see them at all. Where that other “N-word” demeaned and distorted (and still does, no matter who uses it), “Negro” dignified and elevated. After the ’60s had run their course, Negroes collectively agreed to shift to “black” because the other was no longer considered sufficient, or useful. It was outdated, perhaps. But an insult? Our grandparents and great-grandparents might beg to differ, no matter what they chose to call themselves.
I am, in short, riding the same train as Margo Jefferson, who may be even more bullish on the matter than I am, certainly more lyrical: “I still find ‘Negro’ a word of wonders, glorious and terrible. . . . A tonal-language word whose meaning shifts as setting and context shift, as history twists, lurches, advances, and stagnates. As capital letters appear to enhance its dignity; as other nomenclatures arise to challenge its primacy.”
Edward Mendelson in The New York Times:
Primo Levi studied chemistry at Turin and worked as a chemist until, at 24, he joined the Italian “partisans” resisting the Nazi occupation of northern Italy in 1943. He was arrested by Italian Fascists and turned over to the Germans, who sent him to Auschwitz — he called it the Lager, the German word for a concentration camp — where he survived partly by luck, partly because he was put to work in a synthetic-rubber factory that used prisoners as slave labor. Returning to Italy, he wrote his memoir of Auschwitz, “If This Is a Man” (1947), and worked 30 years for a paint factory while writing stories, poems, memoirs, essays, a novel and “The Periodic Table” (1975), his idiosyncratic autobiography in which each chapter was named for a chemical element and some chapters were short stories.
Levi earned world fame for the quiet, undramatic lucidity of “If This Is a Man” and for the strangely moving blend of scientific fact and quicksilver fantasy in “The Periodic Table.” In the United States his work was published haphazardly, with some books retitled for marketing purposes (“If This Is a Man” became “Survival in Auschwitz”), some printed in incomplete translations, some never translated at all. “The Complete Works of Primo Levi,” expertly edited by Ann Goldstein — and the product of six years of negotiations to bring together the translation rights — includes everything Levi published, in new or revised translations. Twenty-eight years after his death, these three handsome volumes bring into focus the breadth and coherence of his genius, and make unexpectedly clear how deeply his work as a chemist shaped his unsettling work as a moralist and his unique vision of psychology and history.
The Patience of Ordinary Things
It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they’re supposed to be.
I’ve been thinking about the patience
Of ordinary things, how clothes
Wait respectfully in closets
And soap dries quietly in the dish,
And towels drink the wet
From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?
Margaret Wertheim in The Conversation:
One hundred years ago this month, an obscure German physicist named Albert Einstein presented to the Prussian Academy of Science his General Theory of Relativity. Nothing prior had prepared scientists for such a radical re-envisioning of the foundations of reality.
Encoded in a set of neat compact equations was the idea that our universe is constructed from a sort of magical mesh, now known as “spacetime”. According to the theory, the structure of this mesh would be revealed in the bending of light around distant stars.
To everyone at the time, this seemed implausible, for physicists had long known that light travels in straight lines. Yet in 1919 observations of a solar eclipse revealed that on a cosmic scale light does bend, and overnight Einstein became a superstar.
Einstein is said to have reacted nonchalantly to the news that his theory had been verified. When asked how he’d have reacted if it hadn’t been, he replied: “I would have felt sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct.”
What made him so secure in this judgement was the extreme elegance of his equations: how could something so beautiful not be right?
From Bright Side:
Raza Rumi in Aeon:
A few months earlier, I had moved to Pakistan’s second largest news channel – Express News – to host a current affairs show. Ten days before, as I left the Express Television Studios, a group of armed men on motorbikes attacked my car. I escaped more than a dozen bullets fired at my car.
When we turned off the busy Ferozepur Road onto the quieter Masood Farooqi Road leading to my home, they were waiting in a dark corner. I heard the tremors of a submachine gun. The flash of the bullets triggered my survival instinct. I leapt forward, huddling on the car’s floor. Later, I saw the bullet hole in its window: it would have been a precise shot had I not got down on the floor. Mustafa, my 25‑year‑old driver, together with a sturdy guard, sat in the front seats. The guard screamed: ‘Hamla ho gaya!’ (‘We have been attacked!’)