italo for beginners


Italo Calvino never wrote a bad book. Yet an author of such diffusion, without a single, encompassing magnum opus to embrace (some readers will argue for “Invisible Cities,” but that ineffably lovely book shows too narrow a range of Calvino’s effects, too little of his omnivorous exuberance) needs a beginner’s entry point, as well, perhaps, as a compendium to point toward posterity. Does it seem sacrilegious to propose a fat volume called “The Best of Calvino”? Call it “Tales,” then, or “Sixty Stories.” Does it seem to do violence to choose from linked pieces, or from books long since enshrined in reader’s hearts in their present, inviolate state? It isn’t as though the individual volumes need to go out of print to make room for the career-spanning omnibus I have in mind. Perhaps you consider it impossible to choose from within a structure as organically perfect as “Invisible Cities”? Fine, then include the entirety of that short book, just as “The Thurber Carnival” found space for the whole of “My Life and Hard Times.”

more form the NY Times Book Review here.

gombrowicz: the plotlessness thickens


Throughout the book, there are faint resonances of the intellectual prepossession with language that marked the era when “Cosmos” was written: the structural linguistics of Roman Jakobson, semiotics, the echo of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of “linguistic relativity” (which posits not consciousness but language itself as the human capacity that creates and organizes reality).

I don’t know whether Gombrowicz was deliberately playing with the intellectual currents of his day or whether he was one of those seminal artists who give voice to questions scholars will later rationalize. It doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that the insight in these remarkable pages is creatively captivating and intellectually challenging. Perhaps Gombrowicz’s break-out attempt from the Nietzschean “prison house of language,” in which postmodernism so blithely accepts its life sentence, feels a bit quaint today. But it’s also true that in the 40 years since “Cosmos” was published, no one has done any better.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

Pakistan: $5.4B in Quake Aid Raised

From The Washington Post:

Kid ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — International donors have pledged $5.4 billion in quake aid to Pakistan, surpassing the amount sought by the government, the prime minister said Saturday. The U.S. nearly tripled its pledge to more than half a billion dollars in a show of support for a key ally in the war on terror. The new pledges came at a donors conference attended by about 50 nations. Pakistan had hoped to get $5.2 billion for rebuilding from the Oct. 8 quake, which killed 86,000 people in its territory and another 1,350 in neighboring India. Before the conference, aid pledges totaled $2.4 billion but Pakistan had only received about 10 percent of it.

Musharraf said the calamity provided an “an opportunity of a lifetime” for Pakistan and archrival India to improve relations and resolve their dispute over Kashmir.

“If leaders fail to grasp fleeting opportunities, they fail their nations and peoples,” Musharraf told the conference. “Let success and happiness emerge from the ruins of this catastrophe, especially for the people of Kashmir. Let this be the Indian donation to Kashmir.”

More here.

Generation Rx

From The New York Times:Pills

APOCALYPTIC literature naturally gravitates toward the maudlin, lamenting that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, usually courtesy of someone like Eminem orTom DeLay. This is what makes Greg Critser’s “Generation Rx” such an unexpected delight. Although his message is unrelievedly depressing – drug companies, with the nation’s physicians and the federal government already on the payroll, have transmogrified a self-reliant nation into a herd of functional drug addicts – there is something so congenial and non-self-righteous about the way he tells his story that few of the scoundrels singled out for public obloquy will take personal offense.

Thus, describing the evolution of Glaxo from a sleeping giant to a juggernaut, Critser says that “in the boggy pharma jungle,” the company “swung on the vine of prior greatness while withering on stultifying British business practices.” Marveling at the liver, he writes, “It is the only organ that can, with time, regenerate itself, a kind of Donald Trump of the human body.” And he identifies Washington as “an unfathomable brothel to all but the Reverends Rove and Cheney.”

More here.

November 18, 2005



With how many people did people used to sleep? It’s hard to tell. Language changes, and there’s the problem of bragging. Take the French. Stendhal in his treatise on love is expansive on the seduction strategies of his friends (hide under the bed; announce yourself so late in the night that kicking you out would already be a scandal), but in The Red and the Black Julien Sorel sleeps with exactly two women—and for this they cut off his head! A generation later, the dissipated Frédéric Moreau hardly does any better in Sentimental Education. Flaubert himself mostly slept with prostitutes. In Russia, one could always sleep with one’s serfs, as Tolstoy did. (He felt terrible about it.) But peers, acquaintances, members of one’s own class? America was the worst. Henry James in his notebooks wonders if he should write a story about a man, “like W. D. H. [Howells], who all his life has known but one woman.” James had known zero women! Twenty years later, there was Greenwich Village. Edna St. Vincent Millay, riding back and forth all night on the ferry, was the most promiscuous literary woman of her time. But her biographer puts the grand total of her conquests at fourteen, and some of these, according to a rival biographer, are questionable—and three were “well-known homosexuals.” So ten. For the modern college senior, this is a busy but not extravagant Spring Break.

more from n+1 here.



The American painter Richard Pousette-Dart (1916-1992), whose very large late paintings are the subject of an enchanting exhibition at Knoedler & Company, was often described in his lifetime as the youngest of the Abstract Expressionist painters of the New York School. He was indeed younger than Pollock, de Kooning and a few other artists in that group, and his paintings were often exhibited with theirs. Yet in neither his art nor his life did Pousette-Dart have much in common with the artists of that group. For one thing, he was never any sort of Expressionist. The bravura gestural style that we associate with Pollock, de Kooning et al. was entirely alien to Pousette-Dart’s sensibility; so was the hard-drinking bohemian lifestyle of the painters who made the Cedar Tavern a favorite destination of art-world groupies. Pousette-Dart’s interest in the social life of the fashionable art world was practically nil. By temperament and conviction he was a family man, and his was a family of artists: His father was a painter and art writer; his mother a writer; and his children, too, have pursued careers in art and music.

more from Hilton Kramer at The New York Observer here.

we pee on things and call it art


His enemies, and God knows he has a few, often complain that Sewell’s love of art ends with Poussin. Anything later and he just isn’t interested. This is inaccurate. He has a ‘quite unreasonable passion’ for Joseph Beuys and loves the Chapman brothers. On balance, however, it is fair to say that he thinks that modern art is rubbish. ‘We’ve reached the point where Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen might as well be an artist; all he needs is an empty room and some chalk. We pee on things, we pee into things, we pee over things… and call it art.’ He is especially contemptuous of women artists. ‘Women are no good at squeezing cars through spaces. If you have someone who is unable to relate space to volume, they won’t make a good artist. Look at Barbara Hepworth – a one-trick pony. Look at that pile of rubbish in the Tate by Rachel Whiteread.’ I choose not to respond to this. He moves on. ‘This will end in disaster. In another generation, it will be inconceivable that anyone will be taught how to paint. The blind are leading the blind. The head of painting at the Royal College couldn’t paint a Christmas card.’ Does he find this depressing? ‘Not enormously. I’ve looked over the edge at death in the past few years enough times; when you’ve done that, you no longer find anything much very depressing.’

more from The Observer here.

What made us human?

From Science:Human

Humans and chimpanzees share at least 98% of their DNA, yet chimps are an endangered species while people have used their superior cognition to transform the face of the Earth. What makes the difference? A new study suggests that evolutionary changes in the regulation of a gene implicated in perception, behavior, and memory may be partly responsible.

Thirty years ago, geneticist Mary-Claire King and biochemist Allan Wilson proposed that changes in how genes are regulated, rather than in the proteins they code for, could explain important differences between chimps and humans (Science, 11 April 1975, p. 107). To test this hypothesis, an international team led by evolutionary biologist Gregory Wray of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, focused on the gene that codes for the protein prodynorphin (PDYN), a precursor to a number of endorphins, opiatelike molecules involved in learning, the experience of pain, and social attachment and bonding. Humans carry one to four copies of a region of DNA that controls the expression of this gene. Human copies had five DNA mutations not seen in the other primates. The team concludes that the pattern is a solid example of natural selection acting on the human lineage after it split from the chimp line from 5 million to 7 million years ago.

More here.

The show goes on for Stephen Hawking

From MSNBC News:Hawking_hmed_1

Wednesday’s appearance at the Paramount Theatre — presented by the Oregon-based Institute for Science, Engineering and Public Policy, or ISEPP — was the last of three scheduled stops on the Cambridge professor’s U.S. lecture tour. Hawking, who suffers from a progressive neurodegenerative disease that has almost completely paralyzed him, was due to travel to Seattle from San Francisco. But when he was taken off his respirator Monday morning, “he basically flat-lined,” said Terry Bristol, ISEPP’s president and executive director. “They had to resuscitate, and that panicked a few people,” Bristol told the audience. “But he’s been there before.” Once the crisis had passed, Hawking wanted to go ahead with the Seattle leg of the trip, but his medical caretakers — including his wife, Elaine — thought he should stay put awhile longer, Bristol said. So Hawking and his aides worked with Intel, ISEPP and the Paramount to set up a Web-based teleconferencing link from a Bay Area hotel.

“Many scientists were still unhappy with the universe having a beginning, because it seemed to imply that physics broke down,” Hawking said. “One would have to invoke an outside agency, which for convenience one can call God, to determine how the universe began.” Hawking traced how scientists have tried to address that conundrum using quantum theory, inflationary Big Bang theory and observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation — sometimes known as the Big Bang’s “afterglow.”

More here.

Akbar at Yale

Said Hyder Akbar in Slate:

051116_cw_group_tnHere at Yale, most students turn to teachers and friends for advice in figuring out what they really want from college. But for me, the person who really helped me understand what I wanted was a guy writing to his wife in 1780. John Adams, in a letter to Abigail Adams, wrote, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” The quote, which I first read at the library while researching for a paper, really resonated.

When my native country, Afghanistan, was turned upside down in the fall of 2001—my senior year in high school—I became involved with a place I had never seen before. (I call it “native” because I was born a refugee in Pakistan, and my parents lived in Afghanistan for most of their lives.)

More here.  [Akbar is on the right in the picture.]

John Updike on George MacDonald Fraser’s New Novel

From The New Yorker:

George MacDonald Fraser’s twelfth book about the Victorian rogue and soldier Flashman, finds both the author and the hero in dauntless fettle, the former as keen to invent perils and seducible women as the latter is, respectively, to survive and to seduce them. Fraser, an Englishman schooled in Scotland, served with the Highland Regiment in India, Africa, and the Middle East, before settling on the Isle of Man. He has written other fiction, plus history, autobiography, and film scripts, besides serving as Flashman’s assiduous editor; the series is presented, under the over-all title “The Flashman Papers,” as its protagonist’s memoirs, which need only a few footnotes and spelling corrections to become excellent entertainments. It was a brilliant stroke of Fraser’s, in the first volume, “Flashman” (1969), to retrieve a minor figure in Thomas Hughes’s greatly popular, intensely Christian best-seller “Tom Brown’s School Days” (1857) and reanimate him as a lauded though inadvertent hero in the service of the British Empire.

More here.

Everything comes down to 1 and 0

Elizabeth Svoboda reviews The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life and How to Be Happy by Rudy Rucker, in the San Francisco Chronicle:

RuckerA human brain, the assumption goes, is far more complex, incisive and unpredictable than any mere rules-governed machine.

Rudy Rucker thinks we’re all missing the point. If the affable computer scientist and sci-fi novelist had a mantra, it would be “Existence is computation.” Part technical treatise, part polemic, with a smattering of philosophy, Rucker’s magnum opus advances a red-hot firecracker of a thesis: Pretty much everything in the universe — Deep Blue, the human brain, the natural world and the way a soda can sprays when it’s cracked open — operates according to the same kinds of basic computational principles. He proposes that computation is everywhere in the same way pantheists assert that God is all around us.

Though Rucker defends this so-called “computational worldview” with all the zeal of a recent convert, his enthusiasm never becomes grating. His written demeanor is much more M. Scott Peck than Pat Robertson, and he is masterful at predicting and dispelling readers’ misgivings.

More here.

Even in Triumph, Mailer’s a Battler

Hillel Italie of the AP:

Captnyha10811170211NEW YORK – Even upon receiving an honorary medal for lifetime achievement, Norman Mailer took a little heat and gave some right back. The 82-year-old Mailer, cited Wednesday night at the National Book Awards, was introduced by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who praised him as a giant of American letters while reminding the audience of his prickly past.

“I have my own list of objections that I can peruse at my leisure, not least of which is an almost comic obtuseness regarding women,” said Morrison, who then likened Mailer’s work to the United States itself, “generous; impractical; often wrong; always engaged; mindful of, and often amused by, his own power.”

Mailer, recovering from heart surgery and long plagued by bad knees, hobbled up to the stage, good-naturedly acknowledged his reputation — “I’m obtuse about women, but also wary of them” — then engaged the real enemy.

More here.

November 17, 2005

How to reinvent higher education

From Slate:

What should students be studying in college? No one seems to agree anymore. Harvard University is in the midst of a heated debate about its general education requirements, while the Association of American Colleges and Universities has launched a campaign to promote “a liberal education.” Slate has taken the occasion to ask an array of prominent academics to tackle the question at the heart of the debate: What should undergraduates leave college knowing? Stanley N. Katz provides an overview of the liberal arts debate here. And here are the links to the responses of the 11 academics:

Alan Wolfe: “When Ideas Kill
Mark Lilla: “Un-American Activities
K. Anthony Appiah: “Learn Statistics! Go Abroad
Andrew Delbanco: “In Praise of Great Books
Alison Gopnik:  “Let Them Solve Problems
Steven Pinker: “The Matrix, Revisited
Michael Bérubé: “Disabilities Studies
Anthony Grafton: “Wrestling with Greco-Roman Ideas
S. Georgia Nugent: “Morality-Based Learning
W. Robert Connor: “Give Majors an Overhaul
Astrida Orle Tantillo: “What Professors Don’t Tell You

An interview with Lars Von Trier

In Sign and Sight, a translation of the Die Ziet interview with Lars Von Trier.

Die Zeit: Lars von Trier, who in your opinion has the power in an interview situation, the interviewer or the interviewee?

Lars von Trier: I could try to insist on a symbolic power. I could lay down the rule that during this talk you have to address me as King Lars. I could threaten to leave the room if you disobeyed. But that would do nothing to change the fact that in an interview, the same rules apply as in cinema. No matter what happens during the filming process, the power is in the hands of the editor. You have the scissors in your hands so you have absolute power.

You seem to be fascinated by power relationships. With the Dogma rules, you formulated an aesthetic manifesto and your last two films “Dogville” and “Manderlay” are based on strict formal principles. What so interests you about guidelines and rules?

I come from a family of communist nudists. I was allowed to do or not do what I liked. My parents were not interested in whether I went to school or got drunk on white wine. After a childhood like that, you search for restrictions in your own life.

Correcting the Emma Brockes “Interview” with Chomsky

The Guardian issues a retraction of parts of Emma Brockes’ interview with Noam Chomsky. (I doubt the Oliver Kamm’s of the world will be quick to condemn Brockes for placing words in Chomsky’s mouth, juxtaposing an unasked question to a given answer, etc.)

The readers’ editor has considered a number of complaints from Noam Chomsky concerning an interview with him by Emma Brockes published in G2, the second section of the Guardian, on October 31. He has found in favour of Professor Chomsky on three significant complaints. Principal among these was a statement by Ms Brockes that in referring to atrocities committed at Srebrenica during the Bosnian war he had placed the word “massacre” in quotation marks. This suggested, particularly when taken with other comments by Ms Brockes, that Prof Chomsky considered the word inappropriate or that he had denied that there had been a massacre. Prof Chomsky has been obliged to point out that he has never said or believed any such thing. The Guardian has no evidence whatsoever to the contrary and retracts the statement with an unreserved apology to Prof Chomsky.

The headline used on the interview, about which Prof Chomsky also complained, added to the misleading impression given by the treatment of the word massacre. It read: Q: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated? A: My only regret is that I didn’t do it strongly enough.

No question in that form was put to Prof Chomsky. This part of the interview related to his support for Diana Johnstone (not Diane as it appeared in the published interview) over the withdrawal of a book in which she discussed the reporting of casualty figures in the war in former Yugoslavia.

. . . The Guardian has now withdrawn the interview from the website.

Lewis Lapham to leave helm of Harper’s

From the CBC:

Lewis_narrowweb__200x233Lewis H. Lapham, the influential editor of Harper’s Magazine, has announced he will retire as editor in the spring.

Lapham, 70, said he would take on the title of editor emeritus and would continue to write his Notebook column on a regular basis.

As editor of Harper’s for almost 30 years, Lapham has wielded enormous influence on U.S. ideas and letters. Considered “left-wing” by many in the current U.S. administration, he has made it his business to take on the hypocrisy and corruption of world leaders and social systems.

His Notebook column has won the National Magazine Award and his hand can be seen in the tone of Harper’s mix of essays, fiction and “readings.”

In an interview with the New York Times, he described the magazine as: “about inquiry. It’s not about the promulgation of the truth, it’s about a search for the truth.”

Lapham said a new editor would be named within the month, but did not say if he had handpicked his successor.

More here.

The State and Crime in South Africa

In Other Voices, a lecture by the anthropologist Jean Comaroff:

This lecture explores the central place of crime in the popular imaginings, and practical lives, of South Africans after apartheid. While acknowledging that there is a significant material reality to such trauma, the paper suggests that much more is at stake: that crime and policing are key domains in which order, citizenship, race and the state are deliberated in the wake of liberation and liberalization. Above all, crime and policing are a sphere of melodrama in which state and nation construct each other—the state to assert its presence and authority upon a populace increasingly skeptical of its capacity to serve and protect.

A Note on the Latin Origins of American Jazz

Daine Johnson in Arts and Opinion:

For jazz musicians, you’ve got to shred and swing — not to mention the necessity of having a complete command of harmony. For Latin jazz musicians, add another dimension to the mix: La clave — the signature pulse that has found its way into many forms of American music. The rhythmic feeling is so integral to Latin music that playing out of clave will drive dancers off the dance floor. (This beat is most easily described as, “Shave and a haircut: two bits.”) Better still, think of Bo Diddley’s trademark rhythm in his tune “Who Do You Love.” . .

Without Latin music, American music would be unrecognizable. From the outset, as if by divine orchestration, music from the Spanish Caribbean was not only welcomed in America, it made an indelible stamp on American music, especially jazz and later rock. Jelly Roll Morton, the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz, referred to this impact as the “Latin tinge.”

SMSing Shakespeare

From the BBC:

Some of English literature’s greatest masterpieces have been condensed into a few lines of text message to help students revise for exams.

The service condenses classic works such as Bleak House and Pride and Prejudice into a handy aide-memoire.

For example, Hamlet’s famous line: “To be or not to be, that is the question” becomes “2b? Nt2b? ???”.

A university professor claims it “amply demonstrates text’s ability to fillet out the important elements in a plot”.