On sex and husbands

Article00Jesse Baron at Bookforum:

By contrast, the most compelling books about monogamy are written after the fact by a surviving partner once the story has sorted itself out. If we want to learn about marriage, we turn here. Donald Hall’s accounts of life with Jane Kenyon before her illness, for example, provide a glimpse of the pleasures of the quotidian, walking around New Hampshire in the summer reading each other’s poems. They continued reading each other even as she was dying, when he recited a draft of his elegy for her. (She said, “You’ve got it.”)

Hall’s marriage offers a cautionary tale about believing you know your story before it concludes. Kenyon had spent the early part of their life together as the lesser poet, as “Donald Hall’s wife.” Then the story adjusted, as she became a known quantity with poetry in the New Yorker. Finally, one did not speak of Hall without speaking of Kenyon. That should have been the story, but the Aristotelian revelation was yet to come. Kenyon died at age forty-seven. Hall, twenty years older, should by rights have gone first.

Phyllis Rose, in her underrated study Parallel Lives, recounts a similar reversal. For years, Jane Carlyle played the role of “heroic housewife in the service of exasperating genius,” as Thomas produced his biography of Frederick the Great and bitched about the neighbors’ roosters.

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centenary of a Darwin-challenging classic

5616Steven Rose at The Guardian:

Asked to name the most significant book about biology ever written in English, most biologists would opt for Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. How about the second most significant book? After 1917, when it was published, the answer would unhesitatingly have been D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form. Eclipsed since the 1950s by the domination of DNA, its time may have come round once more. This year’s centenary was celebrated in editorials, a clutch of abridged versions and now a facsimile edition of the original.

Thompson, born in 1860, was a professor of natural history, first at Dundee and then at St Andrews, for an astonishing 63 years. But he was also a distinguished classicist and a powerful mathematician. The Nobel prize-winning immunologist Peter Medawar, himself no mean stylist, described him as “an aristocrat of learning whose intellectual endowments are not likely ever again to be combined within one man”. On Growth and Form, Medawar believed, is “beyond comparison the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue”.

nadar: the man behind the camera

The Great Nadar_FinalMichael Dirda at The Washington Post:

“The Great Nadar” lacks the obvious commercial appeal of Begley’s previous biography, a capacious, revealing life of the novelist John Updike, so that it comes across as a labor of love. Yet the word “labor” hardly characterizes the suavity, swiftness and economy of its text. The book is a pleasure to read, though one could almost buy it just for the pictures.

Born in 1820, Gaspard-Félix Tournachon adopted “Nadar” as a nom de plume when he and his pals were struggling young writers and painters. Henry Murger would depict their hardscrabble existence in the novel “Scènes de la Vie de Bohème” (which later provided the plot for Puccini’s opera, “La Bohème”). According to Nadar’s friend Charles Bataille they lived in a dubious quarter largely populated by the kind of women who “were likely to lead you quickly and directly to the definitive goal of all human experience.”

Nadar briefly enjoyed the intimate companionship of Haitian-born Jeanne Duval, who later became Baudelaire’s mistress (and the subject of some of his greatest poems). Another of Nadar’s close friends, the poet Nerval, would walk his pet lobster in the gardens of the Palais-Royal, using a length of blue-silk ribbon as a leash. Nerval said he kept the crustacean as a pet because it did not make noise and because it knew the secrets of the deep.

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Stop Telling Students Free Speech Is Traumatizing Them

Jesse Singal in New York Magazine:

ScreenHunter_2762 Jul. 22 19.55One fairly common idea that pops up again and again during the endless national conversation about college campuses, free speech, and political correctness is the notion that certain forms of speech do such psychological harm to students that administrators have an obligation to eradicate them — or, failing that, that students have an obligation to step in and do so themselves (as has happened during recent, high-profile episodes involving Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos, which turned violent).

Such claims of harm — often summed up as “speech is violence” — aren’t typically invoked in response to actual Nazis, or anything like that. Rather, they are used to argue against allowing speakers like Murray and Yiannopoulos — who, for better or worse, do fit in the conservative mainstream — or even significantly more moderate ones like Emily Yoffe, who has expressed skepticism about certain claims pertaining to the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. In one instance students successfully canceled a showing of American Sniper by arguing the film’s ostensible Islamophobia would make “students feel unsafe and unwelcome” — though the screening was later uncanceled.

Now, given the fog of culture war that has descended on this subject and the tendency of opportunistic (mostly) conservative outlets to hype these kinds of events, it isn’t clear how common they actually are — people often forget the polls suggesting that college students, broadly speaking, tend to hold pro-free-speech views. But either way, it is hard to take seriously the idea that an American Sniper showing or an Emily Yoffe appearance, or even a Yiannopoulos talk, is so potentially psychologically harmful that established norms about free expression — which protect both College Republicans and Palestinian students advocating on behalf of their people — should be tossed out the window.

More here.

In My Head I Carry My Own Zoo: the art of John Digby’s collages

Karen Holmberg in Independent:

A petition appears in my inbox without salutation, preamble, or signature:

END CRUELTY TO MOTHS!
Each year millions of moths are painfully deprived of their testicles for the making of MOTH BALLS…

I recall the moment weeks before in John Digby’s studio when I’d asked why I had found so many collages in the shape of butterflies, but none in the shape of moths.

John-digbyMy twelve-year-old daughter dissolves in helpless hilarity when I read the message aloud to her; she begs to hear it again and again. It’s a silly joke, of course. But there’s something serious to it as well. Tomfoolery fuels the engine of Digby’s artistic imagination; puns, literalising, and other forms of harmless absurdity create the spark of astonishment and surprise necessary to transform our perception of the world – and decenter us from its midst. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins, who defined the human being as “Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond”, Digby would describe the human being as (at best) a breathing motley of the silly and refined, the perishable and the permanent.

His art reflects this variousness. The collages, made from engraved illustrations found in damaged 19th century books, preserve what is essentially fragile, using archival practices to arrest deterioration. His art extends the life of these fragments by tugging them back into the modern moment and re-illuminating their beauty. Often, his art fuses the seemingly incompatible – the grotesque and the delicate, the violent and the peaceable, the whimsical and the serious, the earthy and the ethereal – yet he always achieves a luminous integrity. He embeds yoked oxen like organs within a fish’s abdomen; a Berber flute player crouches in the dust opposite a goat who perches atop towers of sticks, the figures perfectly balanced in the scale of a butterfly’s wings. Somehow, these figures speak to each other, belong to each other, though they may well have been transplanted from entirely different books. When I asked him about his foam core sculptures (antennal contraptions gathering dust on top of a bookshelf, inspired by a local cable program on aliens “listening in”) or the collage poems he writes (drawing the language from a select group of books he’s kept on his drafting table for years) he chuckles at himself – it’s all jokes, you see – but this doesn’t cancel out their beauty or their seriousness. Somehow Digby interfuses radically different qualities into his art to generate a miraculous levity, an insistent thisness.

Paradox defines the process itself. The animal collages – usually only a few inches square – magnify by miniaturising.

More here.

Two Testimonials Shed Light on Syrian Life and Death

Elisa Griswold in The New York Times:

Malik“I lived in a country where dying was taught to us from childhood,” the writer Svetlana Alexievich said in her 2015 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “We were taught death.” Alexievich was speaking of Belarus, where she grew up and where, during World War II, 2.2 million people died — nearly one person in four. The scale of this suffering seems impossible to fathom, numbers so large that the mind snaps shut. Yet one needn’t cast back in history for such figures. Since the war in Syria began six years ago, 6.5 million people — more than one in three Syrians — have been internally displaced, and another 470,000 are dead. Now, as the war grinds into its seventh horrifying year, literature written in English and borne out of the conflict is finally beginning to reach the rest of the world. Alia Malek’s memoir, “The Home That Was Our Country,” is one of the finest examples of this new testimonial writing. Born in Baltimore to Syrian-American parents, Malek is a journalist and attorney who landed a job in the civil rights division of the Justice Department less than a year before 9/11. Unable to endure the political climate under President George W. Bush, she quit the United States for the Middle East, where she traveled and taught human rights for the better part of a decade. Her political and cultural fluency, as well as her deep familiarity with the landscape, allow her to become “a human ear” as Svetlana Alexievich calls it, recording the tragic absurdities of daily life that give way to dark humor. On an earlier trip, she had visited southern Lebanon and toured a prison that was recently closed. Her guide, a former inmate, instructed the group’s members to cover their noses and mouths, “so as not to inhale the germs of diseases that he was convinced still lingered.” The disease that lingered, of course, was despair. She spotted a sign for the “suffering yard” — suffering, she writes, “was their translation for torture.”

In April 2011, Malek moved to the Syrian capital of Damascus to report in secret for The Nation and The New York Times. The country was in the initial throes of what many hoped would become a democratic uprising born out of the Arab Spring. Yet there were already terrible signs that the regime of Bashar al-Assad wasn’t going to give up without bloody reprisals. In February, his security forces had rounded up and tortured at least 15 children for anti-Assad graffiti in their town of Dara’a. Ordinary Syrians, long oppressed by two generations of the Assad family’s brutality, were taking to the streets in protest. In an attempt to quell reports of dissent, the regime banned many foreign journalists. Malek went to work anyway. As a cover story, she tells her Syrian cousins that she’s writing a book about her maternal grandmother, Salma, the daughter of a Christian businessman, Sheikh Abdeljawwad al-Mir, born in the Ottoman Empire in 1889.

More here.

Deus ex machine: Social networks can’t replace religion

Melanie McDonagh in The Spectator:

GettyImages-511709630Mark Zuckerberg says that Facebook could be to its users what churches are to congregations: it could help them feel part of ‘a more connected world’. That got a dusty response. Facebook as church, eh? So the man who helped an entire generation to replace real friends with virtual ones and online communities is sounding off about people feeling unconnected? Cause and effect or what? He wasn’t quite touting Facebook as an alternative church. It is, rather, now using artificial intelligence to suggest groups that its users might join — anything from locksmiths’ societies to addiction groups and Baptist organisations — and Mr Zuckerberg is enthusing about the benefits of moving from online to offline groups: ‘People who go to church are more likely to volunteer and give to charity — not just because they’re religious, but because they’re part of a community.’ So he’s trying to get more people to join things. Only — only! — 100 million of Facebook’s two billion users belong to a group that gives them a sense of community; he wants to raise that to a billion.

He’s right, obviously, about the benefits of being part of a group, from bellringers to Free Presbyterians, though it’s a bit weird for him to be evangelising for something that already exists, something that you might say is part of the human condition, given that we’re social animals. To take the most basic example, churches and parishes are ready-made communities under the noses of all of us. Just as they’re in radical decline in developed countries, Mark Zuckerberg is talking about how good it is to have a pastor looking out for your wellbeing. But it’s interesting that Zuckerberg identified the function of a church, specifically, as something that needs replicating. Churches were once the most obvious centre of any community, and at times of crisis, like after the Grenfell Tower fire, people still congregate there. But what’s now evident is that churches have other benefits. Specifically, churchgoing seems to have a bearing on the very contemporary problem of mental health. The object of going to church isn’t mental wellbeing, but it happens to be a documented side-product of ‘doing’ religion. And I don’t mean in the Alastair Campbell sense. A persistent finding in the field of mental health research for some years is that there is a beneficial effect of church attendance; religious practice, per se. It’s not about affiliation or spirituality, but about actually going to church. Including, I suppose, going to church all by yourself.

More here.

Researchers identify neurons important for the drive to win in mice

Leslie Nemo in Scientific American:

MicePinpointing where motivation resides in the brain is not easy, but a research team in China may have done just that. The group isolated a small group of neurons in the brains of mice that play a critical role in persistent behavior, according to a study published today in Science. This handful of brain cells is known as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, or dmPFC, and it sits in a region integral for learning appropriate social behavior. When the team fired up the neurons using light, the dmPFC motivated the mice to win competitions in which they had previously lacked the will to succeed. In other words, “this might provide a new biological basis for what people call ‘grit,’” says Hailan Hu, a neuroscientist at Zhejiang University who led the research.

In the case of these mice, “grit” requires upsetting hierarchies. Male mice that live together establish and maintain social rankings, Hu explains. To figure out which mice were dominant, she and her colleagues released two mice at a time into a narrow tube, one at each end. To get out, one animal—the lower-ranked individual—had to back up whereas the other, higher-ranking individual had to push forward. Most studies of mouse social hierarchy have focused on more aggressive behaviors such as how male mice might pick on new cage members, says Helmut Kessels, a neurologist at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience who was not involved with the research. “In this case it’s just four mice in a cage who live in peace,” he says, which helps strengthen the team’s argument that they were assessing motivation, not hostility.

More here.

Friday Poem

Witness

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of clouds, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or the few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing
presence

by Denise Levertov
from A Book of Luminous Things
Harvest Books, 1996
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An Appreciation of Night of the Living Dead

NightOfLivingDead1-768x583Nicholas Rombes at berfrois:

For some students in the class, Night of the Living Dead opened the door to an angle they had not considered before: that a film could be political without being “political.” More to the point: the most ideological films are the ones where ideology remains, on the surface, invisible. I’m not sure if we read Robin Wood’s potent essay “George Romero: Apocalypse Now” in that class or in a future one, but at some point in one of those classes we circled round to Woods’s claim that what the film is really about is subversion, the subversion of basic norms of bourgeois society. “The young people,” Wood writes, “whose survival as future nuclear family is generically guaranteed is burned alive and eaten around the film’s midpoint. The film’s actual nuclear family is wiped out; the child (a figure hitherto sacrosanct) not only dies but comes back as a zombie, devours her father, and hacks her mother to death.” This is the reading of the film as subversive and progressive, in line with most film theorists’ own politics.

But the horror genre is notorious for biting back and for being wonderfully resistant to narrow political readings. In fact, you could say that far from suggesting a progressive vision, Night of the Living Dead is a conservative, even reactionary piece of work, a film where the very hope of a progressive, multi-racial future ends in violence, with a gunshot. Zombies know no politics. They are driven by unnameable, mindless desire. Through this lens, the film is yet another variation on the age-old fuck-and-die archetype, except here the codes are racial rather than sexual. For daring to “take charge” of whites in defense of civilization–for this transgression–Ben must die.

more here.

A Test for Consciousness?

Consciousness-testing-machineRiccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks at the NYRB:

Will we ever really know what, or even where, consciousness is? Is there any way to get at it scientifically, conclusively? Week by week we hear claims from neuroscientists that would appear to confirm the prevailing “internalist” view of consciousness. If the brain creates a representation in our heads of the world around us through the firing of neurons, the argument goes, then we can identify neural activity that corresponds to particular aspects of consciousness. They tell us that if this part of the brain is damaged it will affect our eyesight. If that part suffers, we will have difficulty moving through space. They show us images based on scans of electrical and chemical activity in the brain and how those images change when our experience changes. Yet there has been no progress in bridging the gap between this activity in the brain and the nature of our experience, the richness of our sensations of color, sound, touch, motion, or simply awareness.

How, then, can the internalist theory be tested and demonstrated scientifically? Will it ever really be possible to prove beyond all doubt that this neural activity is our experience? And if that can’t be done, is there any proof for an alternative account of consciousness? What about the hypothesis that Riccardo Manzotti has been setting out in these dialogues, that consciousness is actually external to the body? Are there any scientific experiments that could settle this debate?

more here.

Ian Sansom re-reads all the novels of Jane Austen

P3_SansomIan Sansom at the Times Literary Supplement:

Anyone”, wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, though of course she didn’t mean “anyone” but “me”, “who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of [two] facts: first, that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their aunts.”

Times have certainly changed: chaste aunts these days are about as rare as a Bob’s your uncle and the twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who might resent you are now millions worldwide who will happily abuse you on Twitter. We’re all Janeites now: and if you’re not, look out. In a world – to use a phrase that might usefully serve as the introductory voice-over to the trailer for any recent Austen adaptation/biopic/retelling – in which the mute are always inglorious and fame is the only guarantee of value or quality, posterity has proved her worth. (Auden was right, as he was about most things, in “Letter to Lord Byron”: “She wrote them for posterity, she said; / ’Twas rash, but by posterity she’s read”.)

more here.

Arundhati Roy: “We are all living in a graveyard of sorts”

Zia us Salam in Frontline:

ScreenHunter_2761 Jul. 20 20.12A world wounded by aggression and inexplicable hatred could do with the welcome shade of Arundhati Roy’s works. Men and women, both in love and out of it, could do with the eloquence of her expression. As she says early on in the much-talked-about The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which follows 20 years after her Booker Prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things, “No matter how elaborate its charade, she recognised loneliness when she saw it.” Love, like Need, is “a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty”.

Welcome to the hectic world of Arundhati Roy. Never known to be a writer in an ivory tower, the image, in the past, preceded her. She was supposed to be that fiery orator who would not take any anomalies lying down. She won the Booker for The God of Small Things, but the prize came at a price. While it allowed her to plunge headlong into the socio-economic-political issues that so disturbed her equanimity, and be heard patiently and respectfully, she also evoked extreme reactions.

For some, she was a brave activist (a description she does not agree with), an author who left her Booker on the mantelpiece at home and jumped into the Narmada Bachao Andolan with Medha Patkar, even giving away her prize money to the movement. Hers was a strident voice against globalisation and neo-imperialism, besides the Indian government’s nuclear and economic policies. More recently, she has been a fearless critic of the government’s policies in Kashmir and Chhattisgarh, risking the wrath of the state and the right wing alike. She has also been very vocal about the treatment of minority communities and Dalits in recent times—concerns that have found their way into her latest book as well.

More here.