Sunday Poem

A Total Non-apology
Speaker 4

Don’t ask my view of humankind, of God.
We’re eddies in the ocean mind of God.

I grin from yearbook pages, bright as pins
and primed to prick the fat behind of God.

O Holy Father, how can I revere you?
You suck the pulp and spit the rind of God.

Spices, rhinos, coffee-coloured bodies:
all dust beneath the awful grind of God.

I won!
……… Then she jujitsu-spun my head
and locked me in the double-bind of God.

It breaks my brickwork, howls through my walls,
the incoherent undefined of God.

Who scaled the spire of the abandoned church,
spray-painted All Is God, and signed off —God?

by Rachel Briggs
from Rattle #50, Winter 2015


Science and Disenchantment


Mark English in The Electric Agora:

At the age of seven, I went with my mother, brother and baby sister on a long plane journey. We flew for many hours, landing once for refueling (late at night). It was a rough journey, and I recall a certain amount of nausea and vomiting, but the positives certainly outweighed the negatives as far as I was concerned. As was then the custom with young boys on long flights, I was invited into the cockpit to talk to the pilots: a significant experience for someone who had previously never traveled on anything more impressive than a trolleybus.

The highlight, however, was finally reaching our destination, a metropolis more than five times the size of my home city. The sun had set an hour or two before, and the runway and tarmac were wet after summer rain. I remember the wetness, and lights reflected in puddles, so many lights, as the plane taxied to the terminal. There was a sense of promise, magic in the air.

Of course, the magic didn’t last very long (it never does) and the promise was not quite fulfilled (it never is). But for many, myself included, it’s the prospect or at least the possibility of this kind of magic or something like it that makes life more than just tolerable.

So I’m certainly not blind to this dimension of life; but I don’t think we should extrapolate on or intellectualize these feelings in the way religions and religious philosophies (like Platonism or pantheism) tend to do. They take the feeling and tell a story about it (Plato’s anamnesis, for instance). I say all we’ve got is the feeling. And that’s enough. It’s got to be enough.

The old, Weberian concept of disenchantment – or Entzauberung – has recently come up on this forum, and it was suggested that those who wholeheartedly welcome a demystified world and are driven to promote the idea have a distorted or impoverished view of things.[1] I would certainly agree that any view is deficient which fails to appreciate the importance of the sorts of feelings I have been talking about. But I think it’s a mistake to extrapolate from how we feel to how things are, objectively speaking, or to take some of our natural ways of thinking at face value.

Arguably most of us crave a natural world which is at least to some extent responsive to human goals and purposes. In fact, we are wired to see the world in animistic terms, as the universal tendency to impute agency to inanimate objects and human-like agency to animals attests. (The latter is particularly evident amongst hunter-gatherers but is evident also in the way people relate to their pets.)

More here.

Against the Anti-Art Literati: On Roberto Calasso’s ‘The Art of the Publisher’


Rebecca Novelli in The Millions:

Readers new to Roberto Calasso’s work often feel a bit bewildered, as if his books ought to come with a warning: This book is unlike any you’ve ever read. In addition to addressing the actual subject of the book, the reviewer must therefore explain who Calasso is, unpack his unorthodox rhetorical strategy, and provide some orientation to his uncommon perspective. This is easier said than done.

The Art of the Publisher, Calasso’s most recent work, consists of only 150 smallish and deceptively simple pages containing his speeches, essays, and occasional pieces about publishing. Briefly, he argues that publishing is an art, books are art objects, and the publisher is an artist. The publisher’s art has always been to provide the guiding sensibility for the publishing house and for the works it publishes. This sensibility is the mythos or spirit, if you will, of the publishing house. Today’s publishing houses lack this kind of vision and thus do not produce art. And the every-writer-and-reader-for-himself universe of electronic publishing cannot be art either, because it, too, lacks a guiding vision and the art object, books.

There could scarcely be anyone more qualified than Calasso to make this case, and The Art of the Publisher offers entry into his fascinating world of leading edge literati. Intellectually, he is elegant and stylish in an Italian way: traditional, subtle, original. He writes from his formidable knowledge and from his experience as a founder and editorial director of Adelphi, an Italian publishing house of exceptional depth and quality with a backlist that includes the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche,Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabokov, and Leonardo Sciascia. He considers publishing itself a literary genre. He writes erudite and highly original works on subjects few have considered, never mind named. He has an international following.

Calasso’s rhetorical method is “always a mosaic.” [Paris Review, 2012] His PhD thesis concerned the theory of hieroglyphs in Sir Thomas Browne. He says, “[The] idea of a language made up of images is connected with all of my work.” [Paris Review.] His books often begin with an image, almost a digression, that he deconstructs bit by bit as he traces its presence here and there; explicating its relationship(s) within mythology, religion, art, literature, history, languages (he knows eight), and the classics; making unexpected and seemingly effortless connections; and finally arriving at a new meaning for which the original image is now an emblem of a much larger whole.

More here.

No place like home


Lyndsey Stonebridge in Eurozine:

The end of the Second World War was as bad as the beginning. In Europe displaced persons filled old camps and necessitated new ones, as new political frontiers were drawn across the continent. More people waited on more boats and at more borders. As India and Pakistan took shape out of the ashes of British colonial rule in 1947, millions more found themselves forced on to the road. In 1948 the creation of Israel pushed out a new generation of refugees, the Palestinians, soon to become the first permanently stateless people of modern times. More followed from China, Tibet, Burma, Bangladesh and North Korea; the misfortunes multiplied, from land to land, continent to continent.

The reason why these refugees' misfortunes also belonged to the world was not simply because what they were experiencing was so awful. There was no grand collective revulsion at the fate of the millions who had been stripped of everything. Failure to recognize the sheer awfulness of refugee experience is a constant feature of refugee history. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm once observed that the twentieth century produced phenomena so atrociously unfamiliar that it had to invent new words to describe them. Nearly everyone in the world now knows the name and dreadful import of one of Hobsbawm's examples, “genocide”; his other example, “statelessness”, has yet to take root in our cultural memory of modern trauma, and yet to be recognized for the calamity it was and still is.

The misfortunes of modern refugees belonged not just to them but to everyone else too because their existence opened up a political, moral and existential faultline that has never closed. Their history doesn't provide us with a solution to our current troubles, but it can tell us something important about the origins of the current crisis. As a generation of writers and intellectuals clearly grasped at the time, the movement of so many people meant something important began to shift in the way it was possible to think about security, citizenship, belonging and human rights.

“Whoever is uprooted himself uproots others”, the French philosopher Simone Weil warned de Gaulle, shortly before her death in exile in Kent in 1943. Weil was not alone in recognising that the catastrophe of deracination cut deeply into the lives of all, including those who assumed that their national citizenship guaranteed them the right to a place on the planet. Just as the history of genocide has been woven into the moral and cultural fabric of world memory, so too do we need to understand how the modern history of refugees has shaped not only the lives of others but the lives, rights and securities of those who think of themselves as happily at home, too.

More here.

Buddhist Ethics


Richard Marshall interviews Nicolas Bommarito in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: You’re interested in Buddhist philosophy. Owen Flanagan has three different styles working across the border of western and Buddhist philosophy: a comparative approach; a fusion approach ( where we try a unify them) and a cosmopolitan one (where we are ironically poised to accept whichever comes through as best). Do any of these help capture your own perspective on what you’re about?

NB: Of the options, I suppose I’m closest to the cosmopolitan approach (though I’m not sure I’d describe myself as ‘ironically’ positioned). I see my interaction with Buddhist philosophy in the same way I think of my interaction with people I know. When I meet a philosopher that I respect, I’m not interested in just comparing our ideas and I’m not really out to develop some fusion of our views. I’m going to listen to them and think about what they say. I won’t accept everything they argue, but they’ll likely show me things I’ve not really worked out or things I didn’t see before. I relate to Buddhist philosophy in the same way.

3:AM: You’ve written about Tibetan philosophy. Although Plato has Apollo and Descartes God its kind of easy to be philosophically interested in their work without any theological or mythical commitments. Is it the same with the religious content of Buddhism? It seems to be more tightly wrapped to religion.

NB: One wrinkle here is that it’s often hard to tell what counts as “religious content” – You suggested Apollo for Plato, but does his belief in The Forms count as religious? How about his belief in reincarnation or the immortality of the soul? Lots of Buddhists so dislike the idea of theological or mythical commitments that they don’t even like to call Buddhism a religion at all.

More here.

a Memoir by a Former Abu Ghraib Interrogator

05BOOKFAIR-master180Michiko Kakutani at The New York Times:

Powerful and damning accounts of the Bush administration’s determination to work what Vice President Dick Cheney called “the dark side” and its elaborate efforts to legalize torture (including arduous attempts to narrowly define torture as leading to “serious physical injury so severe that death, organ failure or permanent damage” is likely to result) can be found in two essential books, “The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib,” edited by Karen J. Greenbergand Joshua L. Dratel, and “Standard Operating Procedure,” by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris. An important personal perspective is now provided by Eric Fair’s candid and chilling new book, “Consequence,” which is at once an agonized confession of his own complicity as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib and an indictment of the system that enabled and tried to justify torture.

Mr. Fair, who worked for CACI, a private contractor that provided interrogation services at the prison, participated in or witnessed physical abuse, sleep deprivation and the use of what he calls “the Palestinian chair” (a monstrous contraption that forces a prisoner to assume an excruciating “stress position”). He sees naked men handcuffed to chairs, stripped of their dignity and their clothes. He and his colleagues “fill out forms and use words like ‘exposure,’ ‘sound,” ‘light,’ ‘cold,’ ‘food’ and ‘isolation’” — ordinary words that become shorthand for methods of inflicting fear and pain. He rips a chair out from underneath a boy and shoves an old man, head first, into a wall.

Of the Abu Ghraib torture photos broadcast by “60 Minutes” in April 2004, Mr. Fair writes: “Some of the activities in the photographs are familiar to me. Others are not. But I am not shocked. Neither is anyone else who served at Abu Ghraib. Instead, we are shocked by the performance of the men who stand behind microphones and say things like ‘bad apples’ and ‘Animal House’ on night shift.’”

more here.


Birth-markNirmala Jayaraman at The Quarterly Conversation:

Susan Howe reunites us with our ideals of what language can do in two new books that blend elements of poetry and essay: The Birth-mark and The Quarry. These essays are steeped in the history of American literature, and they make for an invitation into the wilderness of an untamed, early American writing. Howe is able to show that poetry is relevant regardless of place or time. In The Birth-mark she discovers what poets can do for the essayist’s practice; in The Quarry she compares the same poetic experience to the concrete existence of visual film. These explorations will appeal to anyone’s senses, as she examines the physical matter and tangible pieces of both mediums. However Howe’s real motive behind all of this work have to do with metaphorical transformation and a desire for a more substantial experience of reading.

In The Birth-mark Howe writes, “we are always returning to unconscious talking.” She evokes this by drawing the reader’s attention to the modest notes left behind by poets who identify as outsiders, people who lived on the margins. Howe argues that the notes they left behind are just as important as their published work because, “in its relation to desire, reality appears to be marginal.” In other words, poetry is unique for its ability to convey desire through an individual word or letter, rather than a complex idea. Howe is careful not to suggest that writers like Hawthorne, or poets like Emily Dickinson are to blame for their contemporaries’ rigid interpretation of their writing. Rather, they found the marks and spaces in their works so threatening because they do not align with a particular order they were used to when reading poetry or prose.

more here.

How Tom Bissell’s lack of belief compelled him to write ‘Apostle’

La-ca-jc-tom-bissell-20160410-001Jeffrey Fleishman at The LA Times:

The life and legacy of the apostle Thomas were a shimmer of myth and fact that sent Tom Bissell across oceans and down alleys; he scribbled notes with a high fever and cried with dysentery and diarrhea in a church bathroom on a mountaintop in India.

In researching his new book, “Apostle,” Bissell, a writer of wanderlust and obsessed curiosity, spent years hunting the supposed tombs of disciples who for centuries have been gauzed in ecclesiastical mist, including Thomas the doubter, whose bones and relics have been scattered from Rome to Kerala, India.

“Apostle” is a ride-along through unanswerable questions about 12 imperfect men who set out in the first century to spread the word of Jesus Christ. The book is a trip into faith, history and skepticism. The story glows with enchanting asides and stitches together how Jesus' life and meaning were edited and refined through the ages from contradictory accounts and incongruous translations.

“What Christianity promises, I do not understand,” Bissell writes. “What its god could possibly want, I have never been able to imagine, not even when I was a Christian.”

“Apostle” was a fitting undertaking for a fallen altar boy, beleaguered Peace Corps volunteer, adventure journalist and writer whose short fiction delights in the mishaps of expat Americans navigating foreign lands. When discussing the book the other day, Bissell, veering from biblical legends to primal urges, smiled like a man who had overheard an indiscreet whisper.

more here.

June Jordan’s Songs of Palestine and Lebanon

Theresa Saliba in The Feminist Wire:

Book I write beside the rainy sky

Tonight an unexpected an


Cease-fire to the burning day

that worked like war across my

empty throat before I thought to try

this way

to say I think we can: I think we


–June Jordan, “To Sing a Song of Palestine”

For Arab feminists of my generation, June Jordan brought us out of our invisibility. She embodied transnational feminist solidarity long before it was in vogue. This bold Black woman, this brilliant poet, never retreated from speaking unspeakable truths. She visited Palestinian refugee camps after the massacre of Sabra and Shatilla in 1982. She returned to Lebanon after Israel’s massacre of refugees at a UN camp at Qana in 1996. Jordan turned the most gruesome horrors in our world—the world of Arab isolation and unabated imperial violence–into searing poems and essays that spoke to our shared humanity across the boundaries of race, class, creed and culture, and across oceans of ignorance and incomprehensibility. She shared Arabic coffee with those in mourning, bore witness to the strangulation of Israeli occupation and the US-sponsored arsenal of death, and through her writing tied our suffering to the terrors of anti-Black racism and police violence in the US. She affirmed our collective struggle, our resistance and resilience with a resounding “I think we can” (1985, 45-6).

Jordan was one of the first African American feminists to show her solidarity by traveling to Lebanon, producing haunting poetry that trenchantly indicted the US government and its citizens for the violence there. In “Apologies to All the People in Lebanon,” she lets her own complicity, as an American taxpayer, stand for the whole people: “I didn’t know and nobody told me and what/could I do or say, anyway?” After a litany of official excuses, and gruesome details of slaughter, she concludes, “Yes I did know it was the money I earned as a poet that/paid/for the bombs and the planes and the tanks/that they used to massacre your family. . . I’m sorry. I really am sorry” (1985, 106). This scathingly satirical piece exposes the excuses, the failure of recognition and solidarity, the emptiness of apology in the face of this brutally executed invasion.

More here.

Oh, So Now I’m Bangladeshi?

Zia Haider Rahman in The New York Times:

Rahman-superJumboTWENTY years ago, when New Yorkers asked me where I was from, all I’d say is that I grew up in Britain. Mentioning that I was born in Bangladesh drew only more questions, and New Yorkers simply wanted confirmation of what was to them the distinctive cultural marker: my British accent. That accent was learned from imitating BBC News announcers on a cassette recorder. As a boy, I read about the destruction of millions of Jews and was gripped by fear: If white Europeans could do that to people who looked like them, imagine what they could do to me. So I adapted, hoping to make myself less alien to these people so ill at ease with difference. I grew up not so long ago in a Britain that spat at nonwhites, beat us and daubed swastikas on walls. Britain frightens its natives with the specter of a fifth column, and exhorts immigrants to integrate better and adopt British values. Do it and you’ll earn your stripes. But the promise is hollow, for Britain has no intention of keeping its side of the bargain.

…If you’re not going to call me British when I grew up in Britain; when I hold a British passport and don’t hold a Bangladeshi one; when I don’t even speak Bengali; when, good citizen that I try to be, I help an elderly neighbor with his Ikea bed, or dig out the old lilac that another cannot uproot; when I was educated in Britain, worked in Britain, was “a body of England’s, breathing English air/Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home”; when I wash the dishes at the local church’s fund-raiser for the homeless (because regardless of faith, we surely all believe in the idea of community); and again — it bears repetition — when I hold a British passport “without let or hindrance,” then you can’t be surprised if, doubting your good faith, I grab my bags and get the hell out.

After all, how much more can I integrate? What more is it you want from us? To be white? To be you?

More here.

‘The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf’ by Laura Claridge

Charles McGrath in The New Yorker:

41-pkLXSkPL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Knopf itself has been bought and sold several times, and now belongs, along with hundreds of other publishing imprints, to a mega-company created by the merger of Penguin and Random House. Yet somehow Knopf has held on to its identity as a publisher that prides itself on being singular—on publishing books that are not just good but good-looking and, without neglecting the bottom line, also caring about literary excellence. At last count, the company had published twenty-five Nobel laureates, sixty Pulitzer Prize winners, and more than thirty winners of the National Book Award. As much as it’s a business, it’s now practically a cultural institution.

The company’s founder, Alfred Knopf, was one of the first generation of Jews brash enough to infiltrate the stuffy Wasp citadel of book publishing. The son of a New York clothing manufacturer turned salesman and bank director, he brought to a nearly ossified business a much needed jolt of energy and advertising savvy. Unlike other publishers, he made his own sales calls and wrote his own ads, which were broadcast on the radio, displayed on Broadway billboards, and toted around by men wearing sandwich boards. Knopf was just twenty-two when, in 1915, he started the business with five thousand dollars from his father. His assistant and only employee, besides an office boy, was his fiancée, twenty-year-old Blanche Wolf, whom he married a year later and who worked for the company the rest of her life. Not always a reliable witness, she later claimed that they had an oral prenup guaranteeing her equal partnership in the fledgling business. But if Alfred ever made such a promise he failed to keep it. Her share never exceeded twenty-five per cent, and she never received the credit she deserved for the success of the firm that bore her husband’s name. In 1965, when a great fuss was made over its fiftieth anniversary, Blanche Knopf was barely mentioned.

In a new biography, “The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Laura Claridge argues that Blanche was actually the more important and influential of the two Knopfs.

More here.

Is Alpha-Go Really Such a Big Deal? (Yes.)

Michael Nielsen in Quanta:

ScreenHunter_1838 Apr. 08 19.26In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue system defeated the world chess champion, Garry Kasparov. At the time, the victory was widely described as a milestone in artificial intelligence. But Deep Blue’s technology turned out to be useful for chess and not much else. Computer science did not undergo a revolution.

Will AlphaGo, the Go-playing system that recently defeated one of the strongest Go players in history, be any different?

I believe the answer is yes, but not for the reasons you may have heard. Many articles proffer expert testimony that Go is harder than chess, making this victory more impressive. Or they say that we didn’t expect computers to win at Go for another 10 years, so this is a bigger breakthrough. Some articles offer the (correct!) observation that there are more potential positions in Go than in chess, but they don’t explain why this should cause more difficulty for computers than for humans.

In other words, these arguments don’t address the core question: Will the technical advances that led to AlphaGo’s success have broader implications? To answer this question, we must first understand the ways in which the advances that led to AlphaGo are qualitatively different and more important than those that led to Deep Blue.

More here.

The Panama Papers Could Lead to Capitalism’s Great Crisis

Rana Foroohar in Time:

ScreenHunter_1837 Apr. 08 19.22It’s hard to know where to start in tallying up the explosive revelations in the Panama Papers, an analysis of leaked documents from global law firm Mossack Fonseca revealed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Yes, we’ve known for a while now that the shadow financial system was growing. But it’s another thing to take in 11.5 million documents showing the way in which Mossack Fonseca was working with big name financial groups like UBS, HSBC, Société Générale, and many others to help elites from the Communist Party leadership of China, to soccer star Lionel Messi, to global financiers hide cash in offshore havens around the world.

It’s just the tip of a much bigger iceberg. “The size of the leak is unprecedented, but the tricks Mossack Fonseca has allegedly used for its clients are neither new nor surprising. Anonymous shell companies and the failure of governments to require lawyers, corporate service companies, or banks to collect beneficial ownership information on clients leave the door wide open for dirty money to flow around the globe virtually unhindered,” says Heather Lowe, the Director of Government Affairs for Global Financial Integrity, a Washington DC-based consultancy.

To me, this is one of the key issues at work in the U.S. presidential election. Voters know at a gut level that our system of global capitalism is working mainly for the 1 %, not the 99 %. That’s a large part of why both Sanders and Trump have done well, because they tap into that truth, albeit in different ways. The Panama Papers illuminate a key aspect of why the system isn’t working–because globalization has allowed the capital and assets of the 1 % (be they individuals or corporations) to travel freely, while those of the 99 % cannot.

More here.