Richard Cohen in Literary Hub:

ScreenHunter_2226 Sep. 18 20.04“Marlon Brando’s gay, everybody knows that.”

Nora said that one night in my house in Washington. I can’t remember how Brando’s name came up, but there it was, this startling (at the time) piece of information, so inside, so unknown to the general public, who considered him—fools that they were—a womanizer of great repute. I can remember exactly where I was at the time. In the living room. Standing in front of the sofa and to the right. The remark hit with the force of a dumdum bullet. Marlon Brando’s gay? Who knew?

Everybody, it turned out. Everybody knew. And whether they did or they didn’t, whether it was true or not, was totally beside the point. When Nora said one of these things—and she said them quite often—she did not do so with any sort of tentativeness, with hesitation, with the suggestion that this might be the rawest gossip and possibly wrong, but with a firmness and robust confidence that transformed the gossamer of hearsay into something chiseled into the frieze of a Greek temple. It was beyond dispute. Behold what she knew and behold what you didn’t. You knew some things. She knew everything.

More here.

Don’t believe the rumours: Universal Grammar is alive and well

Dan Milway writes:

Main-qimg-0f0e650bd9f16c171f4d31768717f0be-cAs I write this I am sitting in the Linguistics Department lounge at the University of Toronto. Grad students and Post-doctoral researchers are working, chatting, making coffee. Faculty members pop in every now and then, taking breaks from their work.

It’s a vibrant department, full of researchers with varied skills and interests. There are those who just got back into town from their summer fieldwork, excited to dig into the new language data from indigenous Canadian, Amazonian, or Australian languages. There are those struggling to find a way to explain the behaviour of some set of prefixes or verbs in Turkish, or Spanish, or Niuean. There are those designing and running experiments to test what young children know about the languages they are acquiring. There are those sifting through massive databases of speech from rural farmers, or lyrics of local hip-hop artists, or the emails of Enron employees, to hopefully gain some understanding of how English varies and changes. And there are those who spend their time thinking about our theories of language and how they might be integrated with theories of Psychology, Neurology, and Biology.What unites these disparate research agendas is that they are all grounded in the hypothesis, generally attributed to Noam Chomsky, that the human mind contains innate structures, a Universal Grammar, that allows us to acquire, comprehend, and use language.

According to a recent article in Scientific American, however, the community I just described doesn’t exist, and maybe couldn’t possibly exist in linguistics today, because the kind of work that I just described has long since shown the Universal Grammar hypothesis (UG) to be flat-out wrong. But such a community does exist, and not just here at UofT, or in Chomsky’s own department at MIT, but in Berkeley and Manhattan, in Newfoundland and Vancouver, in Norway and Tokyo. Communities that collectively groan whenever someone sounds the death knell of the UG hypothesis or the enterprise of Generative Linguistics it spawned. We groan, not because we’ve been exposed for the frauds or fools that these pieces say we are, but because we are always misrepresented in them. Sometimes the misrepresentation is laughable, but more often it’s damn frustrating.

More here.

Once we blamed Yoko Ono. Now we blame refugees

Shazia Mirza in New Statesman:

Shazia-mirza_2016tour_image-print_copyHate and lies are all the rage. Everyone’s at it. “Obama is the founder of ISIS!” and everyone believes the Trump. “We’re at breaking point” – look, here’s a poster of lots of brown men that look just like your dad, cousin and brother. If you vote out, all these scavengers that come over here for the good life, they’ll be gone in the morning.Hate is fashionable. It’s flourishing in the comments section of the Daily Mail, Facebook, and this morning I saw some photographs on Twitter of Madonna’s cellulite with the comment: “I thought grandma had died of AIDS.”When people are unhappy, discontent and disillusioned with their own life, they want someone to blame. Once we blamed Yoko Ono. Now we blame refugees. They caused Brexit; they are destroying the NHS, housing, transport, and education. They can’t seem to do any good or make any valuable contribution.

Well, some people might be surprised to hear that Syrian refugees are not coming to Britain for the food, weather and £65.45 a week, which couldn’t even get you a night out at the cinema. They’re not coming because they want to find Harry Potter, drink tea and watch drunk people rolling down every high street looking for their teeth on a Friday night. No. These people want to live. When I was a teacher, I taught in some very challenging schools where a lot of the children had difficult and unstable parents. But no matter how awful their parents, the child always wanted to remain with them. They would rather be with their own volatile parent than with a kind, caring stranger. Refugees would love to remain in their homeland. The place they know and where their family life has been. But they are forced to leave out of desperation.

More here.

What It Feels Like to Die

Jennie Dear in The Atlantic:

Lead_960For many dying people, “the brain does the same thing that the body does in that it starts to sacrifice areas which are less critical to survival,” says David Hovda, director of the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center. He compares the breakdown to what happens in aging: People tend to lose their abilities for complex or executive planning, learning motor skills—and, in what turns out to be a very important function, inhibition. “As the brain begins to change and start to die, different parts become excited, and one of the parts that becomes excited is the visual system,” Hovda explains. “And so that’s where people begin to see light.”

Recent research points to evidence that the sharpening of the senses some people report also seems to match what we know about the brain’s response to dying. Jimo Borjigin, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, first became intrigued by this subject when she noticed something strange in the brains of animals in another experiment: Just before the animals died, neurochemicals in the brain suddenly surged. While scientists had known that brain neurons continued to fire after a person died, this was different. The neurons were secreting new chemicals, and in large amounts. “A lot of cardiac-arrest survivors describe that during their unconscious period, they have this amazing experience in their brain,” she says. “They see lights and then they describe the experience as ‘realer than real.’” She realized the sudden release of neurochemicals might help to explain this feeling.Borjigin and her research team tried an experiment. They anesthetized eight rats, and then stopped their hearts. “Suddenly, all the different regions of the brain became synchronized,” she says. The rats’ brains showed higher power in different frequency waves, and also what is known as coherence—the electrical activity from different parts of the brain working together.

More here.

Sunday Poem


Somewhere (thank you, father) over the hills,
through some trap-door in my mind, despite my having
no call to speak it, and hearing of it so long ago,
I know the Urdu ishq is love.
And further, how it’s the highest (a divine fervour,
a bolt cued from the round heavens – almost angelic)
among a whole host of forms, or feathers, of love
like that myth of subtle Inuit measures of snow

and now I’ve utterly gone and put my foot in it
and other shoppers are turning round, as we inch
up to the queue’s end, still far from those tills,
and she’s prodding me to explain my short-falling
answer – giving the nod, when she asked me If . . . and Whether . . .
– she swears that at the end of my assent she heard me whisper

by Zaffar Kunial
from The Poetry Review,
Autumn 2014


The true story of a scientist who discovered the equation for altruism—and gave himself away

Michael Regnier in Quartz:

ScreenHunter_2225 Sep. 17 16.54Laura met George in the pages of Reader’s Digest. In just a couple of column inches, she read an abridged version of his biography and was instantly intrigued. In the 1960s, apparently, egotistical scientist George Price discovered an equation that explained the evolution of altruism, then overnight turned into an extreme altruist, giving away everything up to and including his life.

A theatre director, Laura Farnworth recognized the dramatic potential of the story. It was a tragedy of Greek proportions—the revelation of his own equation forcing Price to look back on his selfish life and mend his ways, even though choosing to live selflessly would lead inexorably to his death. But as she delved into his life and science over the next five years, Farnworth discovered a lot more than a simple morality tale.

Born in New York in 1922, George Price realized pretty early on that he was destined for greatness. In a class full of smart kids he was one of the smartest, especially with numbers. He was in the chess club, obviously, and his mathematical brain was naturally drawn to science. Determining that there was no rational argument for God’s existence, he became a militant atheist, too.

His PhD came from the University of Chicago for work he did on the Manhattan Project—having graduated in chemistry, he’d been recruited to find better ways to detect traces of toxic uranium in people’s bodies.

More here.

Pardon Edward Snowden

Ken Roth and Salil Shetty in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_2224 Sep. 17 16.49Edward J. Snowden, the American who has probably left the biggest mark on public policy debates during the Obama years, is today an outlaw. Mr. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed to journalists secret documents detailing the United States’ mass surveillance programs, faces potential espionage charges, even though the president hasacknowledged the important public debate his revelations provoked.

Mr. Snowden’s whistle-blowing prompted reactions across the government. Courts found the government wrong to use Section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify mass phone data collection. Congress replaced that law with the USA Freedom Act, improving transparency about government surveillance and limiting government power to collect certain records. The president appointed an independent review board, which produced important reform recommendations.

That’s just in the American government. Newspapers that published Mr. Snowden’s revelations won the Pulitzer Prize. The United Nations issued resolutions on protecting digital privacy and created a mandate to promote the right to privacy. Many technology companies, facing outrage at their apparent complicity in mass surveillance, began providing end-to-end encryption by default. Three years on, the news media still refer to Mr. Snowden and his revelations every day. His actions have brought about a dramatic increase in our awareness of the risks to our privacy in the digital age — and to the many rights that depend on privacy.

Yet President Obama and the candidates to succeed him have emphasized not Mr. Snowden’s public service but the importance of prosecuting him.

More here.

Vladimir Nabokov interviewed by Herbert Gold in 1967

Herbert Gold in the Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER: What is most characteristic of poshlust in contemporary writing? Are there temptations for you in the sin of poshlust? Have you ever fallen?

ScreenHunter_2223 Sep. 17 16.42NABOKOV: “Poshlust,” or in a better transliteration poshlost, has many nuances, and evidently I have not described them clearly enough in my little book on Gogol, if you think one can ask anybody if he is tempted by poshlost. Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlost speaks in such concepts as “America is no better than Russia” or “We all share in Germany’s guilt.” The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as “the moment of truth,” “charisma,” “existential” (used seriously), “dialogue” (as applied to political talks between nations), and “vocabulary” (as applied to a dauber). Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost. Belonging to a very select club (which sports one Jewish name—that of the treasurer) is genteel poshlost. Hack reviews are frequently poshlost, but it also lurks in certain highbrow essays. Poshlost calls Mr. Blank a great poet and Mr. Bluff a great novelist. One of poshlost’s favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, Zen stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objects trouvés in latrines, cannonballs, canned balls. There we admire the gabinetti wall patterns of so-called abstract artists, Freudian surrealism, roric smudges, and Rorschach blots—all of it as corny in its own right as the academic “September Morns” and “Florentine Flowergirls” of half a century ago. The list is long, and, of course, everybody has his bête noire, his black pet, in the series. Mine is that airline ad: the snack served by an obsequious wench to a young couple—she eyeing ecstatically the cucumber canapé, he admiring wistfully the hostess. And, of course,Death in Venice. You see the range.

More here.

‘Looking for “The Stranger,”’ the Making of an Existential Masterpiece

16book-1-master180John Williams at the New York Times:

In the closing days of World War II, the American publisher Alfred A. Knopf was pursuing English-language rights to Albert Camus’s novel “The Plague,” with its powerful and clear allegorical view of Nazism. With hesitation, he also acquired Camus’s first novel, “The Stranger,” which one reader at the company described as “pleasant, unexciting reading” that seemed “neither very important nor very memorable.”

The novel went on to become, by consensus, one of the most important and memorable books of the 20th century. Alice Kaplan, in the prologue to “Looking for ‘The Stranger,’” her new history of Camus’s profoundly influential debut, writes that critics have seen the novel variously as “a colonial allegory, an existential prayer book, an indictment of conventional morality, a study in alienation, or ‘a Hemingway rewrite of Kafka.’” This “critical commotion,” in Ms. Kaplan’s phrasing, “is one mark of a masterpiece.”

Ms. Kaplan sets out to tell “the story of exactly how Camus created this singular book.” It’s a story that unfolded against one of the most dramatic backdrops in history.

more here.


Last-samuraiBen Merriman at The Quarterly Conversation:

Fifteen years after its first publication, Helen DeWitt’s novel The Last Samurai is back in print. Its long absence has owed to the messy legal history of Miramax Books, rather than lack of interest from readers: many have remained devoted to the novel, which is still a fresh and startling work. In the intervening years, DeWitt has published a good deal of other writing, including two novels (one co-authored) and a book’s worth of short prose. The republication of The Last Samurai provides a useful occasion to assess this body of work as a whole. DeWitt’s work consistently brings off a striking double movement: her fiction is at once a very modern examination of the relationship between art, science, and commerce, and an exploration of enduring philosophical and moral questions. It is also entertaining, lively, and darkly humorous.

The Last Samurai presents the story of Sibylla and her son Ludo. Sibylla emigrated from the United States to study at Oxford, and remains in England as a form self-imposed intellectual exile from American philistinism. Sibylla is a woman of extraordinary intelligence, yet she makes a very marginal and dull living: she spends her days at her (pre-internet) home computer, where she is paid a piece rate for transcribing the complete runs of magazines like Weaseller’s Companion and Carpworld.

more here.

‘The Tunnel Through Time’ by Gillian Tindall

Cover.jpg.rendition.460.707Jerry White at The Guardian:

The Crossrail project is proving to be quite an adventure. Even those of with little interest in engineering will have marvelled at the TV pictures of the irresistible monsters carving through London clay 30 metres deep, or the microsurgery in steel and concrete necessary to negotiate the jungle of tunnels while irreplaceable old buildings teetered on the edge of the Crossrail pit. A notable, solid achievement of the Blair and Brown governments has been one of the great infrastructure investments of 21st-century Europe. It has made engineering fashionable again, and revealed to us new marvels below the surface of London.

It is this last aspect of Crossrail that Gillian Tindall elucidates here, with all her customary energy and flair. She brings to it a lifetime’s love of metropolitan history and a dense and quirky knowledge of London lore. It is the central span of Crossrail that interests her, with its new tunnels running east and west linking Paddington with Whitechapel. The tunnels themselves are mostly too deep to reveal anything even of the two millennia of London’s story, but the intermediate stations at Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon and Liverpool Street, and the new ventilation shaft at Stepney Green, are necessarily shallower. These, and the extra-long platforms demanded by Crossrail traffic, require newer ground to be uncovered.

more here.

Saturday Poem

Last Words

Splendidly, Shakespeare’s heroes,
Shakespeare’s heroines, once the spotlight’s on
enact every night, with such grace, their verbose deaths.
Then great plush curtains, the smiling resurrection
to applause – and never their looks gone.

The last recorded words too
of real kings, real queens, all the famous dead,
are but pithy pretences, quotable fictions
composed by anonymous men decades later,
never with ready notebooks at bed.

Most do not know who they are
when they die or where they are, country or town,
nor which hand on their brow. Some clapped-out actor may
imagine distant clapping, bow, but no real queen
will sigh, ‘Give me my robe, put on my crown.’

Death scenes not life-enhancing,
death scenes not beautiful nor with breeding;
yet bravo Sydney Carton, bravo Duc de Chavost
who, euphoric beside the guillotine, turned down
the corner of the page he was reading.

And how would I wish to go?
Not as in opera – that would offend –
nor like a blue-eyed cowboy shot and short of words,
but finger-tapping still our private morse, ‘…I love you,”
before the last flowers and flies descend.

by Dannie Abse
from New and Collected Poems
Hutchinson, 2003

Satan in Poughkeepsie

Alex Mar in Believer:

ChurchThe ’70s counterculture and wo­men’s movements had derailed all kinds of assumptions about American family life and sexuality, and, in their wake, a collective nightmare had emerged: the notion that an invisible underground network of Satanists was lurking in the shadows, poisoning the water with sexual and moral depravity, waiting to turn out or torture our children. This period in the ’80s and early ’90s became known as America’s “Satanic Panic.” As absurd as it sounds now, the Panic was a time of thousands of accusations of “Satanic” abuse of children—so many that authorities coined the term “Satanic ritual abuse,” or SRA. Charges were brought against hundreds of child-care workers and suburban parents around the country. In courtrooms, prosecutors relied entirely on the accusers’ personal narratives, with no conclusive evidence. On the national level, law enforcement, prosecutors, and social workers began meeting at conferences around the country to hear from self-­proclaimed experts on how to deal with the SRA plague. One of the leading social workers in the McMartin case testified before a congressional committee in 1984, warning of SRA involving the slaughter of animals in front of small children. It all would have been a bizarro comedy of errors if the charges had not been so disgusting—and if some of those accused hadn’t gone on to spend decades in prison. Throughout the Panic, one group was turned to again and again as the best evidence that the Devil had droves of organized followers: the Church of Satan.

A product of flamboyant, late-’60s countercultural San Francisco, the Church of Satan was, and still is, the largest organization centered around Satan (it trademarked that goat’s head). Founder Anton LaVey, a former carnie, presented himself as a caricature of the Devil—complete with satin cape, shaved and Vaselined head, and appliqué horns—and gave lectures on the occult and the absurd, led workshops on how to manipulate the squares, and threw decadent “ritual” parties at his Richmond District “Black House” (a Victorian painted mainly black). The whole thing was an attention-seeking enterprise, but underlying the “church” was a sincere crusade against the evils of organized religion.

More here.

Uncertain Women

Heather Havrilesky in Bookforum:

Article00There is a moment of reckoning in every married woman’s life when she looks around and says to herself, “This support position was falsely advertised as an exciting leadership opportunity.” Someone in HR sold her a bill of goods. Happily ever after, she now realizes, is a trick they play on you, to turn your life into a blur of breast pumps and dirty laundry. No wonder the 2002 marital-angst anthology The Bitch in the House was a best seller. Edited by journalist and novelist Cathi Hanauer and featuring seasoned writers such as Vivian Gornick and Daphne Merkin, the collection zeroed in on the precise moment when, having been told she’d be adored by her new prince forever and ever, Cinderella is led back down to the cellar where the mops and brooms are kept. Recognizing just how deeply ingrained patriarchal notions of marriage still are (no matter how liberated all parties involved claim to be), the book’s contributors refused to tiptoe around their anger and disappointment. Instead, many of their stories seemed to suggest that as long as mainstream culture turns married women into handservants, those handservants will become what mainstream culture calls bitches.

But as gratifyingly familiar as that old sea shanty about the bewildering injustices of our shared heteronormative fantasy can be, there comes a time when a brave sailor must either mutiny, jump ship, or learn to be a happier deckhand in spite of it all. Cue Hanauer’s engrossing sequel, The Bitch Is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier (William Morrow, $27), in which fearless contributors from Ann Hood to Lizzie Skurnick encounter a wider range of challenges, from the dark clouds of middle age to the violent storms of single parenting to the flat sea of a sexless marriage. The writers have far less in common this time around, their personal stories are more varied, and most have long since abandoned the relatively tedious question of whose turn it is to swab the deck.

More here.

Sifting through decades of testimony of people caught up in the horrors of violent zealotry, a writer grapples with what hasn’t changed in our new world of terror

Roger Rosenblatt in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_2222 Sep. 17 12.43Here, lying in a stained carton, are notes on a refugee camp in Tanzania, where surviving Tutsis and their Hutu enemies lived side by side in blue tarp tents. It is 1994. The notes record that there are people everywhere, milling and moving in short parades on the main path in the camp, hastily constructed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Women wear colorful cloths, khangas, and carry yellow plastic containers of water on their heads. Children and old men push up against one another, as if at a bargain sale. They hold portable radios to their ears. A man in a brown rain hat drags a reluctant goat by a rope. White smoke mixes with the smells of fresh earth and excrement. At an outdoor butcher shop, a cow’s bloodied horn lies beside the animal’s astonished head. I greet a group of young Hutus in French. “Did you participate in the killings?,” I ask. “We did nothing,” one says. “Did you see others do the killing?” He says, “We saw nothing.” I ask, “How many Tutsis are left in Rwanda, do you think?” A teenage boy wearing a green baseball cap grins, and slowly draws the side of his index finger across his throat.

Here are several photos of and notes on Divis Flats, a Catholic neighborhood, or stronghold, in Belfast. It is 1981. Coiled barbed wire runs atop a long gray wall on which is written smash h-block, a reference to the British prison in which members of the Irish Republican Army are held. Windows are pockmarked with bullet holes and display black flags of mourning for hunger strikers. Rats skitter in huge sewage pits, soggy with rain. Glass chips cover streets that are interrupted by “dragon’s teeth,” huge blocks of stone set out by the British army in uneven rows to prevent fast getaways.

More here. [Thanks to Wolf Böwig.]

Italy: Writing to Belong

Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_2222 Sep. 16 18.20Is there a continuity of behavior between the stories we tell and the way we live? And if there is, does it hold at the level of the community, as well as at the level of the individual? Might we hazard the hypothesis that fiction and real behavior are mutually supporting and reinforcing?

Take the case of Italy. It’s generally agreed that one of the most distinctive features of Italian public life is factionalism, in all its various manifestations: regionalism, familism, corporativism, campanilism, or simply groups of friends who remain in close contact from infancy through to old age, often marrying, separating and remarrying among each other. Essentially, we could say that for many Italians the most important personal value is belonging, being a respected member of a group they themselves respect; just that, unfortunately, this group rarely corresponds to the overall community and is often in fierce conflict with it, or with other similar groups. So allegiance to a city, or a trade union, or to a political party, or a faction within the party, trumps solidarity with the nation, often underwriting dubious moral behavior and patently self-defeating policies. Only when fifteenth-century Florence had a powerful external enemy, Machiavelli tells us in his Florentine Histories, did its people unite, and as soon as the enemy was beaten they divided again; then any issue that arose, however marginal, would feed the violent battle between the dominant factions. This would not be an unfair description of Italian society today.

But if these observations seem commonplace, one question rarely asked is how this phenomenon is reflected in the country’s literature. Famous titles like Enrico Brizzi’s Jack Frusciante Has Left the Band, or Paolo Giordano’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers might seem eloquent in themselves; or again the fact that in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend the two main characters are obsessed with using their writing skills to escape the Neapolitan community they grew up in and gain admission to a more worthy society.

More here.