Capturing the essence of Pushkin

9780307959621Michael Dirda at The Washington Post:

While the verbal music of Pushkin’s verse-novel “Eugene Onegin” is said to be untranslatable — despite impressive attempts in English by Charles Johnston and James E. Falen — his stories are typically set down in a plain, direct style that almost recalls Hemingway. As Pevear notes, the five “Tales of Belkin” are “as unpoetic, as purely narrative, as possible. They have no commentary, no psychology, no ideas, no flights of rhetoric or authorial digressions. They are cast as local anecdotes, and are told so simply and artlessly that at first one barely notices the subtlety of their composition, the shifts in time and point of view, the reversals of expectation, the elements of parody, the ambiguity of their resolutions.”

Consider, for example, “The Shot,” which opens in a backwater town, where a group of bored army officers spends long evenings playing cards. Their host is a quiet 35-year-old civilian of modest means, who devotes his days to pistol practice. Silvio has grown so expert that he now aims at buzzing flies as they land on the wall of his room. He never misses.

One drunken night over a misunderstanding at cards, a newly arrived officer insults this sharpshooter. To everyone’s surprise, Silvio doesn’t challenge him to a duel. Why not? It turns out that six years earlier, while in the army, he had quarreled with a rich, aristocratic fellow officer and nothing less than pistols at dawn would settle the affront. In an extraordinary passage, Silvio recalls that his adversary was late for their rencontre.

more here.

The World of Mr Casaubon by Colin Kidd

9781107608597Rosemary Hill at The Guardian:

The first readers of Middlemarch in 1872 therefore looked back at Casaubon across a vast intellectual gulf. Understanding of humankind and its place in time had been transformed in a generation. It is perhaps surprising that Kidd makes no direct reference to Lyell or Darwin, but in fairness they made at first no fundamental difference. The mythography of the mid-Victorians continued to absorb the discoveries of archaeologists in Nineveh and Egypt, of explorers and scientists within an overarching theory of “development”. In theology, in the architecture of the gothic revival, as well as mythography and geology, creation could be presented as the immensely slow unfolding of what was, nevertheless, a divine plan. It allowed for cultural evolution, of primitive societies evolving towards Christianity. “Development” defended the breach until the year beforeMiddlemarch. In 1871 Darwin’s The Descent of Man overturned the concept of humanity as a unique creation, distinct from the animals. After that, development was doomed.

So mythography as a subject finally died at the end of the 19th century, or rather it dissolved into the ectoplasmic haze of theosophy, and echoed faintly in the new, secular anthropology. James Frazer’s popular The Golden Bough (1890) explained myth as a primitive stage from which society progressed, passing through religion and arriving at last at science.

more here.


Pieces-of-soapDustin Illingworth at The Quarterly Conversation:

There is an unfortunate shortage of grotesquerie in literary criticism. Prudish intellect has somehow muscled the burping body from the realm of books, as if we do not read and write, too, through the revelations and failures of our flesh. The grand critics have already assembled in holy raiment—Trilling, Wilson, Kermode, Ozick, Wood—to lay a white cloth over the roughly hewn table of literature, smoothing over its splinters, its sap. While of obvious merit, their collected work is, in itself, something like a history of manners: spotless, chaste, the well-planed beams of a gleaming critical edifice. This is not necessarily a knock against them (I read much of their work with admiration); call it rather a lingering desire for something supplementary, a meaner model, runny as an egg or rich as butter, words to stain lips and lapels, to pass gas (as Gass’s does), flippant, bloated, savage, overcooked but rarely overwrought: a criticism of both gut and guile. Such a mode would, of course, need its exemplar, its Falstaff, comingler of erudition and eructation. Such a mode, finally, needed only Stanley Elkin.

Though perhaps we should pluralize that to Elkins, his guises being both potent and plentiful: pomo pervert, stand-up comic, sword-swallower, scamp, glutton, scribe, and oracle (to name but a few). Pieces of Soap, then—the recent, exhaustive Elkin collection from Tin House—is a necessarily lurid and lurching thing, a foaming cauldron of culture, a kind of bacchanal in which the master of ceremonies is soused but never sentimental. Cutting a broad swath across thematic concerns—California, Schnitzler, the tuxedo, multiple sclerosis, the future of the novel—Elkin’s essays swerve gorgeously before he allows them to soar: in riffs, in rages, in tangents spinning out like silken thread to pile on the floor.

more here.

Ruby Bridges: the first African-American child to attend an all-white public elementary school in the American South


RubyOn the morning of November 14, 1960, federal marshals drove Ruby and her mother five blocks to her new school. While in the car, one of the men explained that when they arrived at the school, two marshals would walk in front of Ruby and two would be behind her. The image of this small black girl being escorted to school by four large white men inspired Norman Rockwell to create the painting "The Problem We All Must Live With," which graced the cover of Look magazine in 1964. When Ruby and the federal marshals arrived at the school, large crowds of people were gathered in front yelling and throwing objects. There were barricades set up, and policemen were everywhere. Ruby, in her innocence, first believed it was like a Mardi Gras celebration. When she entered the school under the protection of the federal marshals, she was immediately escorted to the principal's office and spent the entire day there. The chaos outside, and the fact that nearly all the white parents at the school had kept their children home, meant classes weren't going to be held. On her second day, the circumstances were much the same as the first, and for a while it looked like Ruby Bridges wouldn't be able to attend class. Only one teacher, Barbara Henry, agreed to teach Ruby. She was from Boston and a new teacher to the school. "Mrs. Henry," as Ruby would call her even as an adult, greeted her with open arms. Ruby was the only student in Henry's class, because parents pulled or threatened to pull their children from Ruby's class and send them to other schools. For a full year, Henry and Ruby sat side by side at two desks, working on Ruby's lessons. Henry was very loving and supportive of Ruby, helping her not only with her studies but also with the difficult experience of being ostracized.

Ruby Bridges' first few weeks at Frantz School were not easy ones. Several times she was confronted with blatant racism in full view of her federal escorts. On her second day of school, a woman threatened to poison her. After this, the federal marshals allowed her to only eat food from home. On another day, she was "greeted" by a woman displaying a black doll in a wooden coffin. Ruby's mother kept encouraging her to be strong and pray while entering the school, which Ruby discovered reduced the vehemence of the insults yelled at her and gave her courage. She spent her entire day, every day, in Mrs. Henry's classroom, not allowed to go to the cafeteria or out to recess to be with other students in the school. When she had to go to the restroom, the federal marshals walked her down the hall. Several years later, federal marshal Charles Burks, one of her escorts, commented with some pride that Ruby showed a lot of courage. She never cried or whimpered, Burks said, "She just marched along like a little soldier."

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month

Depression Classic: ‘This Close to Happy’

Adam Kirsch in Tablet:

ImagesThe problem with depression—the thing that makes it so hard to describe, and gives its sufferers a bad conscience—is its resemblance to unhappiness. Unhappiness is part of every life, and most people learn how to cope with it: by changing the conditions that cause it, or by distracting themselves, or by actively repressing it. A person who can’t deal with being unhappy is seen as a moral failure—childish, selfish, “difficult.” It is all too easy to apply the same judgment to a depressed person, as if depression just meant luxuriating in unhappiness. David Foster Wallace wrote a brilliant story, “The Depressed Person,” in which a woman worries that by describing her suffering she will only disgust her friends and even her therapist—a worry which itself feeds into her suffering. But depression is actually the opposite of unhappiness, because it is precisely not “a part of life.” When you are unhappy, life is pressing you, hurting you, and you are forced to respond to it. An unhappy life is a problem, and to be absorbed in a problem is to be absorbed in existence. When you are depressed, on the other hand, there is no problem, because there is nothing to be solved. Existence itself seems to retreat, to leave you stranded, without purchase on things, people, yourself. In her new memoir, This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, Daphne Merkin describes it this way:

Now you can no longer figure out what it is that moves other people to bustle about out there in the world, doing errands, rushing to appointments, picking up a child from school. You have lost the thread that pulled the circumstances of your life together. Nothing adds up and all you can think about is the raw nerve of pain that your mind has become—and, once again, how merciful it would be to yourself and others to extinguish this pain.

This is the situation that Heidegger called anxiety, and that Sylvia Plath describes as being covered with a bell jar.

More here.

Saturday Poem

The Spirit The Triumph

do you remember learning to tie your shoes?
astonishing! the loops you had to make the delicate
adjustments the pulling-through tightening impossible!
the things we learn!
putting a bridle on a horse when he's headshy
getting your hands under a girl's sweater
no wonder we are the crown of all that exists
we can do anything how we climb chimneys
how we put one foot on the gas one on the clutch
and make the car go nothing too difficult nothing!

crutches artificial arms have you seen that?
how they pick their cups up and use razors? amazing!
and the wives shine it for them at night
they're sleeping the wives take it out of the room
and polish it with its own special rag
it's late they hold it against their bellies
the leather laces dangle into their laps
the mechanisms slip noiselessly
lowering the hook softly onto their breasts
we men! aren't we something? I mean
we are worth thinking about aren't we?
we are the end we are the living end

by C.K. Williams
from Selected Poems
Noonday Press, 1994


The Art of the Bigger Deal


Adam Shatz in the LRB Blog:

Liberal supporters of a two-state solution have deplored Trump’s press conference as another example of his uncouthness, his disregard for an international consensus based on decades of international diplomacy, and, not least, his rejection of agreed ‘parameters’ for a resolution. Their mourning over the death of the ‘peace process’ ignores the fact that it has been dead for some time. A moribund process for more than twenty years, it has mainly benefited American ‘peace processors’, Israeli settlers and a narrow section of the Palestinian bourgeoisie and nomenklatura. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Hayley, has glossed Trump’s comments: ‘We absolutely support the two-state solution, but we are thinking out of the box as well.’

Most Palestinians in the Occupied Territories believe that their situation has deteriorated since Oslo; some fondly remember the period before the first intifada, when they could work and travel inside Israel, or what they call the ‘48 territories’: i.e. the territory they lived in before the creation of Israel. To be able to live, work and move freely in their land has always been a stronger desire among Palestinians than statehood, especially if a minuscule, sovereign Palestine means being walled off from 78 per cent of the territory to which they still feel intimately connected.

As Yezid Sayigh argued in Armed Struggle and the Search for State (1997), the Palestinian national movement was initially driven by a vision of return and restoration, rather than the replacement of Israel’s occupation with a Palestinian state. The notion of statehood emerged gradually, out of a series of strategic defeats. With it came the bureaucratisation of the PLO and its transformation (or calcification) into a state-apparatus without a state.

If Israel were officially to abandon its commitment to the ‘peace process’ in favour of the bigger deal – continued control, even annexation, of the West Bank, as Israeli voices to the right of Netanyahu propose – Palestinians may well decide to struggle for their own ‘bigger deal’. That is what frightens defenders of the fading two-state consensus.

More here.

The fire this time – the legacy of James Baldwin

Lanre Bakare in The Guardian:

1990In the opening to his 1962 New Yorker essay Letter from a Region in My Mind, James Baldwin remembers walking around his neighbourhood of Harlem as a 14-year-old, wondering if his fate would trap him there. “What I saw around me that summer in Harlem was what I had always seen,” he wrote. “Nothing had changed.” More than 50 years on, Baldwin’s words and philosophy have travelled thousands of miles from 110th street. His public image has been on a journey, from literary sensation with his debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1952 to his searing non-fiction work in the 60s that saw him revered as one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals. Thirty years since he died of stomach cancer in 1987, an expat in the south of France, there is reinvigorated interest in Baldwin and his ideas. February sees the release of I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary by Haitian director Raoul Peck that takes Baldwin’s final, unfinished project – a book about the lives and murders of his friends Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers – as a starting point, before analysing Baldwin’s sometimes strained and difficult relationship with the civil rights movement. In March, Taschen will publish a special edition of The Fire Next Time with images from Life magazine photographer Steve Schapiro.

Peck’s film is the latest in a string of events and retrospectives that have put Baldwin back in the public imagination. The ball began rolling in 2014 with Columbia University’s year-long programme pegged to his 90th birthday. Since then, there have been film festivals, exhibitions dedicated to Baldwin, and musical theatre inspired by his writing. As the Black Lives Matter protests unfolded around the US, there was a collection of writing – including an entry from the Pulitzer winner Isabel Wilkerson – which took inspiration from Baldwin. His work has been used to explain everything from Trump to Dylann Roof and the Charleston church shooting. Then, in 2015, came Ta-Nehisi Coates’s bestseller turned must-read commentary on contemporary race relations in America, Between The World And Me, which was inspired by Baldwin’s own essay collection, The Fire Next Time.

More here.

The Civil Rights Movement:1968—2008

Nancy McLean in National Humanities Center:

Shirleychisholmv2Looking back, it’s clear now that the real work of winning equal treatment began after the legislative victories once thought to signal the movement’s denouement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not simply open public accommodations, such as lunch counters and bus stations. It made possible the first large-scale progress in breaking down job segregation, a primary goal of civil rights activists from at least the 1940s onward. Using the Act’s Title VII, which outlawed employment discrimination, hundreds of thousands of workers ended their exclusion from higher-paying jobs and stopped discrimination in benefits, promotions, and day-to-day treatment. While some fought discrimination using the Civil Rights Act, other black workers organized to improve conditions in their existing jobs, as the Memphis sanitation strike inspired a vast wave of union organizing. Led by black municipal and hospital workers, the public sector became the best organized part of the U.S. labor market over the next two decades. There, African American men and women, especially, achieved their greatest income and promotion gains. In the area of school segregation, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and subsequent court victories enabled other activists to make the first significant headway in breaking down since the Supreme Court had issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision over a decade before. Still others, using the Voting Rights Act of 1965, opened electoral politics to African American voters and candidates as never before. In the South, the impact was stunning, as newly enfranchised black voters partnered with liberal and moderate whites to elect more African Americans than the region had seen since Reconstruction. In the cities of the North and West, black communities gained representation as never before. Nationally, forty-three black candidates won election as mayor in 1973, a number that quintupled over the next fifteen years.

As African Americans gained new access to white-dominated institutions, the freedom struggle moved inside from the streets. On college campuses, black students fought for and won the creation of Afro-American Studies programs and financial aid policies that would allow children of lower-income families to get college educations. In the military, one of the largest employers of African Americans, affirmative action and other policies produced one of the most racially equitable workplaces in the nation—indeed, the only one in which whites routinely have black supervisors. In just about every occupation, from auto work to librarianship, black caucuses arose to create a “safe space” where members would no longer be lonely “tokens”; they could raise consciousness about white privilege and organize for fair treatment and other institutional changes. The Congressional Black Caucus was only the best-publicized and most influential of these. Created in 1969 by Shirley Chisholm (D-NY, 1924-2005) and others, it joined together a new critical mass of African American representatives as it enabled them to speak with a common voice on issues of concern to their constituents.

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month)

Between the Mine and the Stream

Smith_1Justin E H Smith at Cabinet Magazine:

Hoover’s philosophy is continuous with a long American tradition, born in England, of engaging with nature, both for the wonder of the thing itself and for the more practical empiricist aim, typified already in the seventeenth century by Francis Bacon, of discovering better ways to dominate it and to put it to use for us. The idea that philosophy might be practical in this way has been almost completely erased from our consciousness today, above all in the professionalized bubble of academic philosophy. Yet, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the period from which Hoover drew the most, common usage of the term makes perfectly clear that what a “philosopher” does primarily is to inquire—as Socrates was, wrongly, accused of doing—into what goes on in the heavens above and the earth below (and everywhere between as well). In a characteristic usage of the term, John Evelyn, in his 1661 workFumifugium; Or, The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated, speaks of “these unwholsome vapours, that distempered the Aer, to the very raising of Storms and tempests; upon which a Philosopher might amply discourse.”2 Or, as Agricola himself explains, “there are many arts and sciences of which a miner should not be ignorant. First there is Philosophy, that he may discern the origin, cause, and nature of subterranean things.”3

Thomas Jefferson would amply discourse on the floral and faunal diversity of the New World, not least with his contemporary, the French natural historian Buffon, and also participate in ethnolinguistic surveys of the Native American groups of the Northeast. This sort of practical undertaking was one of the principal tasks of philosophy as commonly understood into the eighteenth century, and particularly so in the United States, where it was the only conception of philosophy that seemed appropriate for the nascent nation.

more here.

Write the Things That Burn: The Poems of Alejandra Pizarnik

0811223965.01.LZZZZZZZMatthew Phipps at The Millions:

“I speak the way I speak inside,” wrote the great Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik. “Not with the voice intent on sounding human, but with the other one, the one that insists I’m still a creature of the forest.” Pizarnik, whose ubiquity in 20th-century Latin-American literature is indicated by the fact that many critics refer to her simply as “Alejandra” or “A.P.,” has not, historically, been on a first-name basis with English-reading audiences; that may change following the publication ofExtracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972, an invaluable 2016 release from New Directions that compiles new translations of three full-length collections and numerous uncollected poems Pizarnik left behind. This volume charts the final decade of the poet’s life, a period of her career in which she turned her gaze away from the world, facing inward to focus on the dark voices she channeled. On the page she carves out spaces of solitude and silence in which language is reduced to its very essence, a limited collection of recurring images and symbols. “When the roof tiles blow away from the house of language, and words no longer keep—that is when I speak,” Pizarnik resolved. Drawing from the dream-languages and word games of the surrealists, Pizarnik turns notions of lyrical subjectivity inside out with her kaleidoscopic procession of masks and personae; the strange music of her poems invites the reader in, and her revelations — cathartic and unsettling — are very nearly overwhelming.

more here.

‘Second-Hand Time’, by Svetlana Alexievich

51djjPcqXxL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Pádraig Murphy at The Dublin Review of Books:

A striking element in the book, which is referenced all through it, is the extent to which the quality and the availability in the shops of what we call salami was a gauge of quality of life for people in the Soviet generation. As Alexievich puts it, giving voice to a common view in most of this generation (this is not her own view), “the man who chooses from a hundred different varieties of salami in the shop is freer than the man who chooses from ten varieties”. (She adds, provocatively and controversially, freedom also means “to be unwhipped, but we can never expect an unwhipped generation; the Russian doesn’t understand freedom, he needs the Cossack and the lash”.) There can be little doubt that the salami question points to a significant reason for the failure of the great experiment in transforming human nature. A striking example of its centrality is provided in the report of Yeltsin’s visit to the US in 1989. He toured a medium-sized grocery shop in Texas. Leon Aron in his Yeltsin biography quotes one of the entourage: “For a long time, on the plane to Miami, he sat motionless, his head in his hands. ‘What have they done to our poor people?’ he said after a long silence.” The accompanying official went on: “On his return to Moscow, Yeltsin would confess the pain he had felt after the Houston excursion: ‘the pain for all of us, for our country so rich, so talented and so exhausted by incessant experiments’.”

This very question of the place of salami in an ideal society will, like a revenant, persist in those who come after the collapse of the Soviet system, as an index of where each situates himself or herself in relation to that vanished past. Most have become totally cynical. One businessman diagnoses “a mental revolution of one hundred and eighty degrees”. There is now no talk of the Gulag or anything like it.

more here.

The Science of Flow Says Extreme Inequality Causes Economic Collapse


Sally J. Goerner in Evonomics:

According to a recent study by Oxfam International, in 2010 the top 388 richest people owned as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population– a whopping 3.6 billion people. By 2014, this number was down to 85 people. Oxfam claims that, if this trend continues, by the end of 2016 the top 1% will own more wealth than everyone else in the world combined. At the same time, according to Oxfam, the extremely wealthy are also extremely efficient in dodging taxes, now hiding an estimated $7.6 trillion in offshore tax-havens.

Why should we care about such gross economic inequality? After all, isn’t it natural? The science of flow says: yes, some degree of inequality is natural, but extreme inequality violates two core principles of systemic health: circulation and balance.

Circulation represents the lifeblood of all flow-systems, be they economies, ecosystems, or living organisms. In living organisms, poor circulation of blood causes necrosis that can kill. In the biosphere, poor circulation of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, etc. strangles life and would cause every living system, from bacteria to the biosphere, to collapse. Similarly, poor circulation of money, goods, resources, and services leads to economic necrosis – the dying off of large swaths of economic tissue that ultimately undermines the health of the economy as a whole.

In flow systems, balance is not simply a nice way to be, but a set of complementary factors – such as big and little; efficiency and resilience; flexibility and constraint – whose optimal balance is critical to maintaining circulation across scales. For example, the familiar branching structure seen in lungs, trees, circulatory systems, river deltas, and banking systems (Fig. 1) connects a geometrically constant ratio of a few large, a few more medium-sized, and a great many small entities. This arrangement, which mathematicians call a fractal, is extremely common because it’s particular balance of small, medium, and large helps optimize circulation across different levels of the whole. Just as too many large animals and too few small ones creates an unstable ecosystem, so financial systems with too many big banks and too few small ones tend towards poor circulation, poor health, and high instability.

More here.

The Thousand Day Reich: Civil Society


Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber:

Civil society is a notoriously loose term – Marx, Gramsci, Bobbio and a whole host of political theorists and writers in the 1990s mean very different things by it. So how can we make it useful? One good place to start is the work of Ernest Gellner.

Gellner’s book on civil society, Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals, was published in 1994. My hardback copy was remaindered from the library of the American Enterprise Institute, which suggests a micro-history of the American conservative movement in itself. Gellner’s account of civil society makes it clear that what’s important about civil society is that it’s not the ‘civic society’ that Bannon is talking about, and in many respects is its antithesis.

Much of what Gellner has to say isn’t immediately relevant today. He’s writing in the immediate wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites of which Gellner, an idiosyncratic social democrat, was not a fan. He also has a lot to say about the role of the umma in the Islamic world, stressing the ways in which Islamic ‘fundamentalism’ is a product of a set of very modern conditions. Yet what he has to say about civil society is highly relevant to Europe and the US. He writes with some skepticism about the efforts to build civil society in Eastern European countries where the state had atomized its citizens, and in which the local substitute for bourgeois modernizers were a clatter of spivs and former apparatchiks. This skepticism seems to have been born out in many cases, at least as things stand at the moment. The politics of the governing parties in Poland and Hungary, for example, are in part a deliberate retreat away from civil society into more traditional forms of identity such as religion and nationalism. It’s no coincidence, comrades, that the great hate figure of the populist right on both sides of the Atlantic is George Soros, whose Open Society Foundation is dedicated exactly to building up the kind of civil society that Gellner and his old sparring partner Karl Popper wanted to see.

And for Gellner, the cultural conditions of civil society are essential. Civil society involves a relationship of power, in which the forces within society and the economy are sufficiently strong to constrain the state. Yet it also involves a set of associated beliefs, or, more precisely, a pluralism of beliefs and identities, in which no identity is so overwhelmingly strong as to become a prescribed faith or universal moral order.'

More here.

‘Homo Deus’ Foresees a Godlike Future. (Ignore the Techno-Overlords.)

Jennifer Senior in The New York Times:

BookIn a nub: “Homo Deus” makes the case that we are now at a unique juncture in the story of our species. “For the first time in history,” Harari writes, “more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals combined.” Having subdued (though by no means vanquished) famine, pestilence and war, Harari argues, we can now train our sights on higher objectives. Eternal happiness. Everlasting life. “In seeking bliss and immortality,” he writes, “humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods.” If you’re acquainted with the story of Icarus, you know that these prideful efforts don’t tend to end well. Harari imagines that in attempting to refine ourselves to utter perfection — the logical apotheosis of humanism, whose history and evolution he traces over many pages — we will destroy humanism itself. Our slow creep toward the uncanny valley has already begun. We take pills that change our affect and select embryos with the best odds for optimal health. Google has an offshoot, Calico, whose modest mission is to slow the aging process. Throw in advancements in biological and cyborg engineering, and our radical transformation, in Harari’s view, seems quite feasible.

“Relatively small changes in genes, hormones and neurons,” he points out, “were enough to transform Homo erectus — who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives — into Homo sapiens, who produce spaceships and computers.” Why should we assume that Sapiens are the end of the evolutionary line?

Yet a question arises: If we aren’t at the end of the line, what comes next?

More here.

Friday Poem

Why will I recount this for you,
fluent waitress bringing me pad
thai in the corner noodle shop?

How my father passed on only
empty-handed rage, having lost,
after Guadalcanal, all taste

for carnage, how I missed out
entirely on guns, how I see a guy
from fifty yards, in gray sweats,

looking like a thief about to pop
a door lock, and I trot up to find
this devout soccer dad who just

wants quiet as he faces east
kneeling between parked cars.
And we laugh. But if I,

lapsed pacifist, eluded the draft
and dodged a war, you did not.
An infant born near a firefight,

you could be immaterial as steam
rising from imagined broth. I long
to touch your delicate hands.

by Michael Lauchlan
from Matter, Jan 7, 2017

Whither the adverbs of place?

From the American Heritage Dictionary website:

In contemporary English, here refers to the speaker’s location regardless of whether the sentence involves things or people remaining in that place, moving to that place, or leaving that place. We say I have been waiting here for hours or Come here! or Get out of here! But historically English has used three separate adverbs to convey these three different relations to place. A speaker of the sixteenth century might have said I have been waiting here for hours, but she would have said Come hither! instead of Come here! and Get thee hence! instead of Get out of here!

Likewise, when referring to a location other than where we are, we now use there indiscriminately: Who is there? I will take you there. We sailed from Ireland to Iceland and from there to Greenland. Our sixteenth-century speaker, for her part, might have said Who is there? but I will take you thither or We sailed from Ireland to Iceland and thence to Greenland.

Finally, for asking about places, though English relies now on just where, there were once three separate adverbs. If our twenty-first-century speaker says Where am I? or Where are you going? or Where is that smell coming from? our hypothetical Elizabethan speaker might say Where am I? or Whither goest thou? or Whence cometh that reek?

More here. [Thanks to Steven Pinker.]

How Islamic scholarship birthed modern astronomy

Shannon Stirone in Astronomy Magazine:

ScreenHunter_2597 Feb. 16 19.34Astronomy may be the oldest natural science in the world. Before humans ever took to systematically studying the skies, we were craning our necks upwards, observing the curious movements of some bright points of light, and the stillness of others. Civilizations around the world have incorporated astronomical observations into everything from their architecture to their storytelling and while the pinnacle of the science is most commonly thought to have been during the Renaissance, it actually began a thousand years earlier and 5,000 miles to the East.

Around the 6th century AD, Europe entered what’s known as the Dark Ages. This period of time from around 500 AD until to the 13th century witnessed the suppression of intellectual thought and scholarship around the continent because it was seen as a conflict to the religious views of the church. During this time the written word became scarce, and research and observations went dormant.

While Europe was in an intellectual coma, the Islamic empire which stretched from Moorish Spain, to Egypt and even China, was entering their “Golden Age”. Astronomy was of particular interest to Islamic scholars in Iran and Iraq and until this time around 800 AD, the only astronomical textbook was Ptolemy’s Almagest, written around 100 AD in Greece. This venerable text is still used as the main reference for ancient astronomy in academia to this day. Muslim scholars waited 700 years for this fundamental Greek text to be translated into Arabic, and once it was, they got to work understanding its contents.

More here.