Denis Johnson’s Poetic Visions of a Fallen World

Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times:

WorldIn one of the rare interviews he did, the fiction writer and poet Denis Johnson — who died on Wednesday at 67 — was asked about his craft, and he quoted these lines from Joseph Conrad: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.” In his own novels and poems, Mr. Johnson fulfilled that task with extraordinary savagery and precision. He used his startling gift for language to create word pictures as detailed and visionary, and as varied, as paintings by Edward Hopper and Hieronymus Bosch, capturing the lives of outsiders — the lost, the dispossessed, the damned — with empathy and unsparing candor. Whether set in the bars and motels of small-town America, or the streets of wartime Saigon, his stories depict people living on the edge, addicted to drugs or adrenaline or fantasy, reeling from the idiocies and exigencies of modern life, and longing for salvation.

…Mr. Johnson’s America, past or present, is uncannily resonant today. It’s a troubled land, staggering from wretched excess and aching losses, a country where dreams have often slipped into out-and-out delusions, and people hunger for deliverance, if only in the person of a half-baked messiah. Reason is in short supply here, and grifters and con men peddling conspiracy thinking and fake news abound; families are often fragmented or nonexistent; and primal, Darwinian urges have replaced the rule of law. And yet, and yet, amid the bewilderment and despair, there are lightning flashes of wonder and hope — glimpses of the possibility of redemption. In “Tree of Smoke,” “The Stars at Noon” (1986) and “The Laughing Monsters” (2014), America seems to have exported some of its native-born madness — limning what Mr. Johnson saw as the country’s military or cultural colonization of large swaths of the globe. Poverty and chaos multiply abroad, where the sun and the heat fuel a sense that the center cannot hold, that things are indeed falling apart.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Electric Elegy

—for Robert Hass

Farewell, German radio with your green eye
and your bulky box,
together almost composing
a body and soul. (Your lamps glowed
with a pink, salmony light, like Bergson's
deep self.)
Through the thick fabric
of the speaker (my ear glued to you as
to the lattice of a confessional), Mussolini once whispered,
Hitler shouted, Stalin calmly explained,
Bierut hissed, Gomulka held endlessly forth.
But no one, radio, will accuse you of treason;
no, your only sin was obedience: absolute,
tender faithfulness to the megahertz;
whoever came was welcomed, whoever was sent
was received.
Of course I know only
the songs of Schubert brought you the jade
of true joy. To Chopin's waltzes
your electric heart throbbed delicately
and firmly and the cloth over the speaker
pulsated like the breasts of amorous girls
in old novels.
Not with the news, though,
especially not Radio Free Europe or the BBC.
Then your eye would grow nervous,
the green pupil widen and shrink
as though its atropine dose had been altered.
Mad seagulls lived inside you, and Macbeth.
At night, forlorn signals found shelter
in your rooms, sailors cried for help,
the young comet cried, losing her head.
Your old age was announced by a cracked voice,
then rattles, coughing, and finally blindness
(your eye faded), and total silence.
Sleep peacefully, German radio,
dream Schumann and don't waken
when the next dictator-rooster crows.

by Adam Zagajewski
Polish trans. Renata Gorczynski and
Benjamin Ivry & C.K. Williams

The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb is controversial not so much because of India’s past but rather because of India’s present

Audrey Truschke in

24565-yeechmzsox-1495601742In 1700, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was arguably the richest, most powerful man in the world. He ruled for nearly 50 years, from 1658 until 1707, over a vast empire in South Asia that boasted a population exceeding the entirety of contemporary Europe. Today, he has been forgotten in the West.

In modern-day India, however, Aurangzeb is alive in public debates, national politics, and people’s imaginations. From Mumbai to Delhi to Hyderabad, Indians debate his legacy and, overwhelmingly, condemn him as the cruelest king in Indian history. The list of charges against Aurangzeb is severe and, if they were all true, shocking. Aurangzeb, a Muslim, is widely thought to have destroyed thousands of Hindu temples, forced millions of Indians to convert to Islam, and enacted a genocide of Hindus. As I am reminded daily on Twitter, many Indians sincerely believe that Aurangzeb was Hitler and ISIS rolled into one with a single objective: To eradicate Hindus and Hinduism.

My narrative of Aurangzeb in Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King – based on extensive research and relying on primary source documents – does not match his current reputation.

More here.

Men Without Women

Lucy Scholes in The Independent:

Men-1I have something of a love/hate relationship with short stories. Too many mediocre offerings leave me despairing of the genre, but then a collection like Men Without Women comes along and all is forgiven, my faith restored in the recognition of how utterly perfect the medium can be – in the right hands. Haruki Murakami’s are talented indeed, each of the seven stories here (five of which have been previously published, four in TheNew Yorker and one in Freeman’s, while the remaining two – “An Independent Organ” and “Men Without Women” are original compositions for this collection) a gem in and of its own right, but strung together they’re a sparkling strand of precious stones, the light refracted from each equally brilliant but the tones varying subtly. The collection’s central concern is loneliness. “You are a pastel-colored Persian carpet, and loneliness is a Bordeaux wine stain that won’t come out,” explains the narrator of the final story, speaking of the myriad “Men Without Women”, among whom he counts himself. These figures take on a different guise in each of the tales – a widowed actor, musing on his dead wife’s affairs; a student who couldn’t bring himself to go all the way with his girlfriend, pimping her out instead to his friend; a lovesick plastic surgeon who starves himself to death after reading a book about the Holocaust; a single man under some form of house arrest, sleeping with his housekeeper; a divorced man who begins life again as a lonely barkeep; Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, transformed from insect into man, finding his feet in an unfamiliar world and thrown off them again by sexual desire; and a man whose girlfriends keep committing suicide.

They’re more than simply men without women though, they recognise an impossible gulf between the sexes – “I don’t think we can ever understand all that a woman is thinking,” Kafuku the actor declares – and how this connects to absences in their own identity: the doctor who wants to “reduce himself to nothing”; the bar-owner who feels disconnected from reality, fearful that he “doesn’t exist”; the student who professes to be someone he isn’t by means of an acquired accent; Kafuku who pretended all was well with his marriage. The prose clear and refined – not to mention seamlessly translated from the original Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen – the unassuming quietness of these stories doesn’t mean they don’t hit home with when they need to, whether it’s by means of a single arresting sentence, the shock of a completely unanticipated eventuality – an otherwise sensible, cultured man refusing to eat, for example – or the lingering sense of expectant incompleteness that accompanies Scheherazade, in which a woman entertains her paramour with a striking post-coital story of obsession and desire from her teenage days.

More here.

A new anthology of essays reconsiders Thomas Piketty’s “Capital”

20170520_FND000_0from The Economist:

“A MODERN Marx” was how The Economist described Thomas Piketty three years ago, when he was well on his way to selling more than 2m copies of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”. It was meant as a compliment, mostly: as advice to take the analysis seriously, yet to treat the policy recommendations with caution. The book’s striking warning, of the creeping dominance of the very wealthy, looks as relevant as ever: as Donald Trump’s heirs mind his business empire, he works to repeal inheritance tax. But “Capital” changed the agenda of academic economics far less than it seemed it might. A new volume of essays reflecting on Mr Piketty’s book, published this month, prods economists to do better. It is not clear they can.

“After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality”, edited by Heather Boushey, Bradford DeLong and Marshall Steinbaum, is a book by economists, for economists. In that it resembles “Capital” itself. Before he was an unlikely cultural icon, Mr Piketty was a respected empirical economist. He was best known as one of a group of scholars, among them Emmanuel Saez and Anthony Atkinson, who used tax data to track long-run inequality. In “Capital” these data became the basis for an ambitious theory of capitalism. Mr Piketty argued that wealth naturally accumulates and concentrates, so that familial riches are ever more critical to determining an individual’s success or failure in life. The extravagant inequality of the Gilded Age could return if no preventive action is taken.

more here.

The Age of Spectacle

CoverJonathan Meades at Literary Review:

Cities of spectacle are becoming this young century’s norm. The bling school of architecture is a global nostrum. Take Pekka Korpinen, until recently deputy mayor of Helsinki. He would like to see an example of jaw-dropping architecture in that city. Is the man blind? Has he not noticed Lars Sonck’s magnificent work? Ah, he wants something jaw-dropping and new. Unimaginative local politicians, borderline-criminal elected mayors, vain ‘philanthropists’, thick Rotarians, optimistic local-enterprise partnerships and regional development agencies determinedly assume that non-orthogonal, sculpturally outré new buildings will foster regeneration (whatever that is). If it worked in Bilbao it’ll work in Lille, Bremen and Malmö. But has it worked in Bilbao? Gehry reels off statistics to demonstrate the supposed benefits to the city of his creation but quite neglects to mention the considerable increase in poverty there since the museum was opened and the consequently greater dependence on income assistance. Dyckhoff doesn’t challenge him.

In an interesting early chapter, Dyckhoff traces the history of the idea of ‘gentrification’ and its stuttering progress over half a century. The term was coined in 1964 by the sociologist Ruth Glass. She observed at first hand the phenomenon of inner London being slowly rebourgeoised. She ascribed this shift to the coming of age of a generation of people, then in their late twenties and early thirties, who shunned the anti-urban bias of their parents and grandparents. These were often people who worked in what was not yet called the media: their just-about fictional analogues were the characters of Mark Boxer and Peter Preston’s ‘The String-Alongs’.

more here.

Athens: Rocking the Cradle of Democracy

Letter-from-AthensJohn Psaropoulos at The American Scholar:

In seven years of nearly continuous protests, this one was the most articulate. Some 400 speech therapists, occupational therapists, and child psychologists stood outside the Greek parliament in late January, calling on the government not to cut subsidies they receive from the national health system. The protesters—well dressed, middle class, and highly educated, many of them at universities in the United Kingdom and the United States—were not the sort who generally take to the streets. And yet, so angry were they with the government that they marched out into traffic, led by a stray dog that had instinctively placed itself at the head of the column, and paraded their banners and slogans across the center of town, from Syntagma Square to the doors of the Ministry of Health. Given the makeup of the crowd, the elocution on display was unusually refined that day. “For no reason, for no cause do we demean speech therapy,” the protesters chanted in rhyming, scanning Greek. “There is no therapy for austerity,” read one banner. Ever since 2010, when the first of three austerity packages aimed at reducing the debt crisis was approved, Athenians have grown accustomed to routine disruptions. At least at this protest the entire street wasn’t cordoned off, as happens every few days for larger demonstrations. Motorists simply weaved their way around.

The Greek government pays for less than half of a child’s therapy costs, but that subsidy still means treatment for thousands of families. The health budget has been in free fall for years; this year alone, it has plummeted by €129 million, and since 2009, the reduction has amounted to 35 percent.

more here.

Friday Poem

Theater Impressions

For me a tragedy's most important act is the sixth:
the resurrecting from the stage's battlegrounds,
the adjusting of wigs, of robes,
the wrenching of knife from breast,
the removing of noose from neck,
the lining up among the living
to face the audience.

Bows solo and ensemble:
the white hand on the heart's wound,
the curtsey of the lady suicide,
the nodding of the lopped-off head.

Bows in pairs:
fury extends an arm to meekness,
the victim looks blissfully into the hangman's eyes,
the rebel bears no grudge as he walks beside the tyrant.

The trampling of eternity with the tip of a golden slipper.
The sweeping of morals away with the brim of a hat.
The incorrigible readiness to start afresh tomorrow.

The entry in single file of those who died much earlier,
in the third, the fourth, or between the acts.
The miraculous return of those lost without a trace.
The thought that they've been waiting patiently backstage,
not taking off costumes,
not washing off makeup,
moves me more than the tragedy's tirades.

But truly elevating is the lowering of the curtain,
and that which can still be glimpsed beneath it:
here one hand hastily reaches for a flower,
there a second snatches up a dropped sword.
Only then does a third, invisible,
perform its duty:
it clutches at my throat.

Wislawa Szymborska
from The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry
Vintage Books
translation: Krynski & Maguire

Tissue-independent cancer drug gets fast-track approval from US regulator

Heidi Ledford in The New York Times:

CancerThe US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued its first approval of a cancer drug that targets tumours with specific mutations, regardless of where in the body the tumour first took root. This deviates from the agency’s previous approach: although a drug’s use may have been linked to the presence of a particular molecular marker, the FDA still required individual approvals to deploy that drug based on the tumour's location. The announcement on 23 May expands the use of pembrolizumab, manufactured by pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. of Kenilworth, New Jersey. The drug boosts the body’s ability to attack tumours by blocking a protein called PD-1, which normally holds the immune system in check. The FDA had previously approved pembrolizumab for use in several cancers, including lung and skin cancer. But physicians can now use it in any solid tumour that has a particular defect in its ability to repair damaged DNA.

Yet achieving this milestone has been more difficult than many cancer researchers initially expected. Despite early enthusiasm for the approach, researchers have come to respect the influence of a tumour’s location on its response to treatment, says cancer researcher René Bernards of the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. “It was a case of irrational exuberance,” he says. “When push comes to shove, the clinical responses were not that impressive.” Bernards speaks from experience. In 2010, researchers reported a successful trial of a drug called vemurafenib, which targets a mutated form of the protein B-RAF1. Subsequent studies found that the drug worked in 48% of melanomas with that mutation2. The results came as cancer genome sequencing efforts were gathering steam, building massive catalogues of mutations found across different cancers. The vemurafenib success fuelled hopes that the drug would work in other cancers with the same B-RAF mutation.

More here.

Boston Review Forum: Basic Income in a Just Society

Brishen Rogers in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_2708 May. 25 23.18“Amazon needs only a minute of human labor to ship your next package,” read a CNN headline last October. The company has revolutionized its warehouse operations using an army of 45,000 robots and other technologies. Previously workers known as “pickers” would walk among shelves to find goods. Now robots bring the shelves to them; pickers select goods, scan them, and put them into bins; after robots whisk the shelves away. A network of automated conveyer belts then sends the bins to “packers,” who spend just fifteen seconds on each, sealing boxes with tape that is automatically dispensed at the perfect length. “By the time you take an Amazon delivery off your stoop, walk into your home, find a pair of scissors and open the brown box,” the story intoned, “you’ve already spent nearly as much time handling the package as Amazon’s employees.”

The story is hardly exceptional. Each week, it seems, another magazine, book, or think tank sketches a dystopian near-future in which new technologies render most workers unnecessary, sparking widespread poverty and disorder. Delivery drivers, the thinking goes, will not be needed when there are drones or autonomous cars staffed by robots, and Starbucks baristas and fast food workers will be redundant when a tablet can take your order and a machine can prepare it. Some even envision more skilled jobs at stake: robots repairing our homes, caring for the elderly, or nursing patients back to health. As President Obama warned in his farewell address, “The next wave of economic dislocations . . . will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”

An economic challenge of this magnitude requires ambitious solutions, and many in public debates have converged around a basic income. The idea is simple: the state would provide regular cash grants, ideally sufficient to meet basic needs, as a right of citizenship or lawful residency. Understood as a fundamental right, basic income would be unconditional, not means-tested and not contingent on previous or current employment.

More here.

Science Busts The Biggest Myth Ever About Why Bridges Collapse

Ethan Siegel in Forbes:

1450105450794218-1200x675The collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge on the morning of November 7, 1940, is the most iconic example of a spectacular bridge failure in modern times. As the third largest suspension bridge in the world, behind only the George Washington and Golden Gate bridges, it connected Tacoma to the entire Kitsap Peninsula in Puget Sound, and opened to the public on July 1st, 1940. Just four months later, under the right wind conditions, the bridge was driven at its resonant frequency, causing it to oscillate and twist uncontrollably. After undulating for over an hour, the middle section collapsed, and the bridge was destroyed. It was a testimony to the power of resonance, and has been used as a classic example in physics and engineering classes across the country ever since. Unfortunately, the story is a complete myth.

Every physical system or object has a frequency that's naturally inherent to it: its resonant frequency. A swing, for example, has a certain frequency you can drive it at; as a child you learn to pump yourself in time with the swing. Pump too slowly or too quickly, and you'll never build up speed, but if you pump at just the right rate, you can swing as high as your muscles will take you. Resonant frequencies can also be disastrous if you build up too much vibrational energy in a system that can't handle it, which is how sound alone at just the right pitch is capable of causing a wine glass to shatter.

It makes sense, looking at what happened to the bridge, that resonance would be the culprit. And that's the easiest pitfall in science: when you come up with an explanation that's simple, compelling, and appears obvious. Because in this case, it's completely wrong.

More here.


From Wired:

GettyImages-468682364Pope Francis already has a reputation for barnstorming. His positions on poverty, on gay priests, and liberation theology would have been shocking enough on their own, but in contrast to the more conservative positions of previous popes, they were downright lefty.

Sure, Francis has his more traditional moments. Abortion and assisted suicide are still no-go for the leader of the world's Catholics. But Francis has been explicit about links between capitalism, materialism, and threats to the world's poor. There's a reason he named himself after St. Francis of Assisi—famously poor, famously eco-conscious—after all.

Now the Pope is taking on science. Specifically, in a new encyclical—that's a letter laying out official Catholic doctrine—Francis describes Earth's problem with an increasingly messed-up climate, why that's the purview of religion, and who will suffer the most if people don't do anything about it. The encyclical, "On Care for Our Common Home," makes explicit the connection between climate change and oppression of the poorest and most vulnerable. It's well-argued, clear, at times quite moving…and 42,000 words long. So here's the good-parts version…

More here.

Friedrich Nietzsche: human, all too human

02f8afaa-4072-11e7-a09b-a4ae022938a6Andrew Huddleston at the Times Literary Supplement:

One of the most interesting elements in Blue’s story is its charting of Nietzsche’s loss of faith, beginning in his middle teenage years. In his contributions to Germania, we don’t see outright atheism, but we do see a cautious movement to a more sceptical perspective. In one of his essays from this period, Nietzsche reflects on how difficult it can be to distance oneself from the tradition in which one has grown up, and to reflect on it in a critical way. This gives a nice hint of what, in the face of this difficulty, will become one of his most striking philosophical accomplishments: specifically his ability to step, insofar as possible, outside the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition and look at it as an anthropologist might, explaining how it gained traction and why it continues to retain it. Nietzsche pressed this still further, going beyond the role of anthropologist to that of philosophical “legislator”, concerned with the task of “revaluing” these hitherto revered values.

From Schulpforta, Nietzsche first moved to Bonn to study, then to Leipzig, where he did his doctoral training. While philology was his subject, philosophy was a strong side interest. He had ongoing doubts about whether he would be cut out for a career as a philologist, but his talent was evident to his teachers. Blue is particularly good in charting Nietzsche’s relationship to Friedrich Ritschl, a noted classicist who was Nietzsche’s supervisor in Leipzig. It was partly on Ritschl’s glowing recommendation that Nietzsche secured his first (and only) academic post, at the University of Basel.

more here.