A Possible Victory Against Malaria

The scepticalchymist is a science blog, devoted largely to chemistry and chemical biology, by the editors of Nature and the Research journals. Joshua Finkelstein, associate editor of Nature, has a post on yesterday’s news in the BBC, which reported that scientists have found a technique which may lead to a cheap production of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, which as part of a drug regimen is nearly 100% effective.

This work was funded by a $42.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was was awarded to the California Institute of Quantitative Biomedical Research at University of California, Berkeley, Amyris Biotechnologies, and the Institute for OneWorld Health (a non-profit pharmaceutical company). It’s an interesting collaboration:

To ensure affordability, UC Berkeley has issued a royalty-free license to both OneWorld Health and Amyris to develop the technology to treat malaria. Amyris will transform the Keasling lab’s research into a robust fermentation process and perform the chemistry and scale-up necessary to bring the drug to market. OneWorld Health will conduct pre-clinical studies and implement a global access strategy for the drug.

The Euston Manifesto

A few weeks ago Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Irshad Manji, Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, and others signed the “Manifesto Against a New Totalitarianism”. Now there is the Euston Manifesto, whose signatories include Norman Geras, Paul Berman, Marshal Berman, Quintin Hoare, Marc Cooper and many more. Norman Geras and Nick Cohen discuss how and why they initiated the Euston Manifesto, in The New Statesman.

On a Saturday last May, right after the general election, 20 or so similarly minded people met in a pub in London. We had no specific agenda, merely a desire to talk about where things were politically. Those present were all of the left: some bloggers or running other websites, their readers, a few with labour movement connections, one or two students. Many of us were supporters of the military intervention in Iraq, and those who weren’t – who had indeed opposed it – none the less found themselves increasingly out of tune with the dominant anti-war discourse. They were at odds, too, with how it related to other prominent issues – terrorism and the fight against it, US foreign policy, the record of the Blair government, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, more generally, attitudes to democratic values.

At that first meeting our discussion focused on our common sense of discord with much current left-liberal thinking. We talked of how the prevailing consensus had ample representation in the liberal press, on the BBC and Channel 4, whereas the viewpoint of our own segment of the left was significantly under- represented in the mainstream media. We had, however, found a place on the internet and in the blogosphere, which had helped to connect people who might otherwise have felt isolated and had given expression to the voices and debates of a left other than the one heard loudly everywhere: from TV screens and newspapers, in universities and other workplaces, in theatres, at dinner tables and at every kind of social gathering. Its ideas were so much perceived as conventional wisdom that many found it difficult to allow that there could be an alternative left-liberal view.

Fossils fill gap in human lineage

From BBC News:Fossil

Fossil hunters have found remains of a probable direct ancestor of humans that lived more than four million years ago. The specimens of this ancient creature are helping bridge a long gap during a crucial phase of human evolution. Professor Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues unearthed the cache of fossils in the Middle Awash region of Ethiopia. They describe the finds, which belong to the species Australopithecus anamensis, in the journal Nature.

Our own genus, Homo, is widely thought to have evolved from this group. So the relationship of Australopithecus to even earlier bipedal hominids is crucial to understanding where we all ultimately come from. When placed together with other fossils from the same general area of Ethiopia, the 4.1-million-year-old anamensis specimens appear to establish an evolutionary succession between earlier and later species. “The fact anamensis is sandwiched between earlier and later hominids is what is really significant about this Ethiopian sequence,” Tim White told the BBC News website.

More here.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Inheritance, More than DNA

In Science, changing ideas of inheritance.

As Darwin would have loved to have known, genes made of DNA are the basic unit of inheritance. But in recent years, researchers have shown that differences not related to DNA sequence can also be passed down, a phenomenon called epigenetic inheritance. Some studies have implicated chemical groups that bind to genes. A new study in mice, however, suggests other possibilities–some of which could dramatically alter our notions of inheritance.

Epigenetic inheritance has long been known in plants and yeast. In the mustard plant Arabidopsis, for example, epigenetic alterations in leaf and flower shape can be passed on to offspring. But the phenomenon was first demonstrated in mammals only in 1999, by molecular geneticist Emma Whitelaw and her coworkers. They created a strain of genetically identical mice, all of which had a coat color gene called agouti viable yellow (Avy). Despite having exactly the same DNA, the mice had wildly varying coat colors, ranging from yellow to mottled and nearly everything in between.

Meanest Reviews

(Via Crooked Timber) Kieran Setiya had a contest for the meanest review over at his blog.

The criteria of judgement were as follows:

The review must have a worthy target. Thus, I was forced to ignore, among other things, A. O. Scott’s review of Gigli.
The review may be grossly unfair, but…

It has to give good arguments, or memorable ones that contain a grain of truth.

Finally, preference was given to reviews that made good use of sarcasm.

The nominees are all reviews of philosophical works, perhaps with the exception of Garrison Keillor’s review of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s American Vertigo. Many of the reviews are scathing but insightful.

Resisting Gastarbeiters in America

Mathew Yglesias in the American Prospect Online:

Immigration is that rarest thing in politics — a controversial issue that’s not just “controversial” but actually difficult. People who think immigrants are “stealing their jobs” are mistaken, but politicians who say immigrants do jobs “Americans won’t do” are lying. There’s no job Americans won’t do – it’s just a question of how much Americans want to be paid to do the job. Research indicates that large flows of low-skilled immigrants from Mexico have a small, but quite real, downward pull on the wages of poorly educated people including, of course, many people who’ve already immigrated from Mexico and most of their descendants. On the other hand, immigration has a mildly positive effect on the rest of us, and a hugely positive effect on the immigrants themselves, who tend to be much poorer than even the poorest Americans.

Legitimate progressive priorities thus come into conflict and, at the end of the day, leave me entirely uncertain as to what the right number of immigrants to allow ought to be.

One aspect of the current debate, however, is easy — we don’t need any sort of “guest-worker” program.

The details of these proposals vary quite a bit and, as ever, the details are important. But all varieties of the concept share some factors in common.

things french


At one corner of the Place Bastille, every Thursday and Sunday, one of the largest open air markets in all of Paris convenes. From there it stretches half a mile along both sides of the boulevard Richard Lenoir, a thriving, crowded bazaar piled high under countless canopies with all the splendid variety of European (and North African) agriculture. Hidden within this exhibition of the wealth of French food, among the disarray of meats and fish and bread and cheese and fruits and vegetables and wine, are booths hawking less picturesque necessities like socks and children’s underwear – all of it cheap and much of it presumably made in China. Even in this bastion of Gallic pride, one can hear, above the vaunting of the marchands, the overseas cry of globalization.

more from n+1 here.

simon doonan ruins (saves) art


1997: I wander into the now-notorious Sensation show at the Royal Academy in London and am taken aback by what art has become: The sight gags, found-object installations and assemblages before me scream “WINDOW DISPLAY.” Artists would appear to have put down their brushes and picked up staple guns and glue guns. The Basquiats, Schnabels and Scharfs of the 1980’s have been replaced by the Damien Hirsts and Chapman Brothers of the 90’s. (The latter duo actually use window mannequins in their work.) Art is obviously having a love affair with display. Will the affair end in tears? Keep reading. An art-world friend informs me that detractors have dubbed this strange new development “the post-skill” movement. I find this very amusing and strangely accurate. Virtually every artist in the Sensation show is working in a medium that I have blithely and unthinkingly used at some point or another.

more from the NY Observer here.

Perry Anderson Reads Fukuyama

Also in The Nation, Perry Anderson reviews Francis Fukuyama’s America at the Crossroads.

In the tripartite structure of America at the Crossroads–capsule history of neoconservatism; critique of the way it went awry in Iraq; proposals for a rectified version–the crux of the argument lies in the middle section. Fukuyama’s account of the milieu to which he belonged, and its role in the run-up to the war, is level-headed and informative. But it is a view from within that contains a revealing optical illusion. Everything happens as if neoconservatives were the basic driving force behind the march to Baghdad, and it is their ideas that must be cured if America is to get back on track.

In reality, the front of opinion that pressed for an assault on Iraq was far broader than a particular Republican faction. It included many a liberal and Democrat. Not merely was the most detailed case for attacking Saddam Hussein made by Kenneth Pollack, a functionary of the Clinton Administration…The operations of what Fukuyama at one point allows himself, in a rare lapsus, to call the “American overseas empire” have historically been bipartisan, and continue to be so.

In the Republican camp, moreover, neoconservative intellectuals were only one, and not the most significant, element in the constellation that propelled the Bush Administration into Iraq. Of the six “Vulcans” in James Mann’s authoritative study on who paved the road to war, Paul Wolfowitz alone–originally a Democrat–belongs to Fukuyama’s retrospect. None of the three leading figures in the design and justification of the attack, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Rice, had any particular neoconservative attachments. Fukuyama is aware of this, but he offers no explanation, merely remarking that “we do not at this point know the origins of their views.” What, then, of his own location within the galaxy he describes?

Israeli-Palestinian History and the Future Prospects for Peace

Joel Beinin reviews Gershom Gorenberg’s The Accidental Empire and Shlomo Ben-Ami’s Scars of War, Wounds of Peace.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, a history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, was minister of public security in Barak’s government. Born in Tangier, Morocco, in 1943, he immigrated to Israel in 1955 and eventually received a PhD in history from Oxford with a specialty in modern Spain. After a successful academic career he entered politics, serving as Israel’s ambassador to Spain from 1987 to 1991 and as a Knesset member from 1996 to 2002. Barak was so impressed by Ben-Ami’s performance as a negotiator at Camp David that he awarded him the additional portfolio of foreign minister, which had been vacated by David Levy, one of several defections that led to the demise of Barak’s government…

Since 2001 Ben-Ami has written books in Hebrew, French and English about the Arab-Israeli conflict. His most recent effort, published four years after his resignation from the Knesset, is a fascinating–and deeply schizophrenic–book, alternating between a soul-searching history of the roots of the conflict, and political score-settling and self-aggrandizement when Ben-Ami turns to the record of the government he served. Ben-Ami’s account of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the 1930s until he joined the Israeli government in 1999 largely accepts, and on some matters is even more radical than, the arguments of Avi Shlaim in The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (1999). Shlaim is one of the leading Israeli “new historians,” who have shown that Israel bears far more responsibility than is commonly thought for the Palestinian ordeal of dispossession and occupation and for the absence of peace in the region. Ben-Ami’s adoption of their perspective is a measure of the triumph of the new history, although arguments about details, rectifications of errors and debates over interpretation will continue.

Are women human?

From The Guardian:Kinnon64ready

Of all the provocative passages in Catharine MacKinnon’s new book Are Women Human? the following hit me hardest. She writes: “[T]he fact that the law of rape protects rapists and is written from their point of view to guarantee impunity for most rapes is officially regarded as a violation of the law of sex equality, national or international, by virtually nobody.”

Are you suggesting that rape law enshrines rapists’ points of view, I ask MacKinnon? “Yes, in a couple of senses. The most obvious sense is that most rapists are men and most legislators are men and most judges are men and the law of rape was created when women weren’t even allowed to vote. So that means not that all the people who wrote it were rapists, but that they are a member of the group who do [rape] and who do for reasons that they share in common even with those who don’t, namely masculinity and their identification with masculine norms and in particular being the people who initiate sex and being the people who socially experience themselves as being affirmed by aggressive initiation of sexual interaction.” She takes a well-earned breath.

More here.

Scientists Predict Extinctions from Global Warming

From Scientific American:Flower

Global warming has extended the destructive reach of humankind. Plants and animals far from human habitation are now threatened by the climate change resulting from the carbon we release into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels. In fact, according to a new study, global warming may surpass other byproducts of human activity, such as deforestation, in driving species into extinction.

Forester Jay Malcolm of the University of Toronto and his international team of conservation professionals looked at the changes to vegetation types, or biomes, in 25 so-called hotspots–unique ecosystems with a wide range of endemic species. The researchers modeled what would happen to the plants in these areas if the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide doubled in the next 100 years.

More here.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

naomi wolf finds jesus


“Are we talking about God?” Crichton asked.

“Yeah, God,” Wolf said. She elaborated: “I actually had this vision of–of Jesus.” And that, needless to say, is when the interview really began.

Wolf’s story went like this: Several years ago, while in therapy for writer’s block, Wolf was asked to try a classic deep relaxation technique, where she imagined walking down a flight of stairs. When she reached the bottom and opened the door, there he was: Jesus, with a holy light radiating out of him, the light of absolute perfection and powerful love. In the vision, Wolf wasn’t her usual zaftig, constantly commented-upon physical self, but rather a 13-year-old boy. The vision taught Wolf several lessons: that God cares about each and every one of us; that we are born with knowledge of our own soul, which, like Plato once taught, we forget and have to re-remember in order to realize our life’s mission (in her case, to spread the gospel of feminism). That we can all, if we try, be like Jesus–radiant, loving, perfect. The revelation made tears run down her face, she confessed to Crichton.

more from TNR here.

kakutani stinks


Kakutani’s refusal ever to take her eyes off the thumbs up/thumbs down prize, or to lay any of her own prejudices, tastes, or tangentially relevant observations on the table, is dispiriting. One of her favorite gimmicks for ducking subjectivity is to invoke the supposed reactions of “the reader” to a book. This is a rather underhanded device with a tweedy scent of 1940s and ’50s arbiters like Lionel Trilling and Clifton Fadiman—and it’s a perfect emblem of the way Kakutani muffles her own voice by hiding behind a mask. But it provides the only fun I get from her reviews: First thing, I always hunt for “the reader” (whom I visualize as a kind of miniature androgynous Michelin man) the way I used to count the Ninas in a Hirschfeld drawing. Imagine my delight to come upon Kakutani’s January review of Richard Reeves’ President Reagan and find two successive sentences telling us that “the reader turns in eager anticipation” to the book because Reeves’ previous works on Kennedy and Nixon gave “the reader minutely detailed accounts” of their presidencies.

more from slate.com here.

more or less interesting


IN RETROSPECT, Douglas Huebler seems to have framed the scope of his work (or at least the general reception of it) with two irreconcilable declarations, the first being Conceptual art’s most oft-quoted pronouncement, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” Despite its laconic tone, Huebler’s remark, initially put forward in a 1969 artist’s statement for a show at New York’s Seth Siegelaub Gallery, mercilessly lampoons the expectation that artists be prolific. It implies a cessation of production, not because the world is particularly wonderful, but simply because it meets a minimum standard: “more or less interesting.” It hints at a certain ecology as well. To make more objects—particularly, boring art objects—would be redundant. Why bother?

more from artforum here.

Faster Food, Longer Distance

Brad Delong point us to this article in The New York Times on the reorganization of work at McDonald’s.

Like many American teenagers, Julissa Vargas, 17, has a minimum-wage job in the fast-food industry — but hers has an unusual geographic reach.

“Would you like your Coke and orange juice medium or large?” Ms. Vargas said into her headset to an unseen woman who was ordering breakfast from a drive-through line. She did not neglect the small details —”You Must Ask for Condiments,” a sign next to her computer terminal instructs — and wished the woman a wonderful day.

What made the $12.08 transaction remarkable was that the customer was not just outside Ms. Vargas’s workplace here on California’s central coast. She was at a McDonald’s in Honolulu. And within a two-minute span Ms. Vargas had also taken orders from drive-through windows in Gulfport, Miss., and Gillette, Wyo.

Ms. Vargas works not in a restaurant but in a busy call center in this town, 150 miles from Los Angeles. She and as many as 35 others take orders remotely from 40 McDonald’s outlets around the country. The orders are then sent back to the restaurants by Internet, to be filled a few yards from where they were placed.

The people behind this setup expect it to save just a few seconds on each order. But that can add up to extra sales over the course of a busy day at the drive-through.

Nanoparticles Annihilate Prostrate Cancer

From Scientific American:Nano

Fighting cancer is currently a messy war. Modern chemotherapies attack tumors with the equivalent of a machinegun approach: cover the area widely with deadly fire and hope to destroy the tumor with a minimum of collateral damage. Doctors have long sought a way to precisely target tumors with their chemical therapies. Now researchers may have found it in a nanoparticle laced with a cancer-combatting drug.

Omid Farokhzad of Harvard, Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and their colleagues created the nanoparticle out of a previously FDA-approved polymer that has been shown to dissolve inside cells. This nanoparticle–one-thousandth the width of a human hair–carries a load of a lethal chemical: docetaxel, which is currently used to treat prostate cancer. In addition, the scientists studded the outside of the particle with so-called aptamers–tiny proteins that link directly to cancer cells while avoiding regular cells. Finally, they equipped the nanoparticles with polyethylene glycol molecules, which allow them to resist the internal defenses of a tumor cell.

More here.

Are near-death experiences a dream?

From Nature:Death

People who have had near-death experiences are more likely to mix up dreams and reality than those who have not, researchers say. At times of extreme danger or trauma, many people report out-of-body experiences, seeing intense lights, or a feeling of peace. “Near-death experiences are more common than people realize,” says neurophysiologist Kevin Nelson of the University of Kentucky, Lexington, lead author of the study published in Neurology.

Via the Near Death Experience Research Foundation, based in Federal Way, Washington, Nelson found 55 people who reported near-death experiences after traumatic incidents such as car accidents or heart surgery. He also interviewed an equal number who had not had any such experiences. Of those who reported near-death experiences, 60% also reported having had at least one incident where they felt sleep and wakefulness blurred together. For those without a near-death experience the figure was 24%.

More here.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Old Bev: POP! Culture

53063_2The cover of this week’s STAR Magazine features photos of Katie Holmes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Brooke Shields, Angelina Jolie, and Gwen Stefani (all heavily pregnant) and the yellow headline “Ready to POP!”  Each pregnancy, according to Star, is in some way catastrophic – Katie’s dreading her silent Scientology birth, Gwyneth drank a beer the other night, Brooke fears suffering a second bout of depression, Angelina’s daring to dump her partner, and Gwen’s thinking of leaving show business.  They seem infected, confused, in danger of combustion.  “I can’t believe they’re all pregnant all at the same time!” exclaimed the cashier at Walgreen’s as she rung up my purchases, as if these women were actually in the same family, or linked by something other than fame and success.  The cover of Star suggests that these ladies have literally swollen too big for their own good.

Edwards_1Britney Spears’ pregnancy last summer kicked off this particular craze of the celebrity glossy.  Each move she made, potato chip she ate, insult tossed toward Kevin, all of it was front page pregnancy news for Star and its competitors.  “TWINS?!” screamed one cover, referencing her ballooning weight. It was coverage like this that inspired Daniel Edwards’ latest sculpture, “Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston,” though from his perspective the media’s take on the pregnancy was unilaterally positive.  When asked why it was Britney Spears whom he chose to depict giving birth naked and on all fours on a bear skin rug, he replied, “It had to be Britney.  She was the one.  I’d never seen such a celebrated pregnancy…and I wanted to explore why the public was so interested.”

Predictably, the sculpture has attracted a fair amount of coverage in the last few weeks, most of it in the “news of the weird” category. The owners of the Capla Kesting Fine Art Gallery have made much of the title of the piece, taking the opportunity to include in the exhibit a collection of Pro-Life materials, announcing plans for tight security at the opening,  and publicizing their goal of finding an appropriate permanent display for the work by Mother’s Day.  Edwards states that he’s undecided on the abortion issue, Britney has yet to comment on the work, and the Pro-Lifers aren’t exactly welcoming the statue into their canon.  For all of the media flap, I was expecting more of a crowd at Friday’s opening (we numbered only about 30 when the exhibit opened), and a much less compelling sculpture.

Front_3My initial reaction to photos of “Monument to Pro-Life” was that Britney’s in a position that most would sooner associate with getting pregnant than with giving birth.  Edwards, I thought, was invoking the pro-life movement as a way to protest the divorce of the sex act from reproduction. But in person, in three dimensions and life-size, the sculpture demands that the trite interpretations be dropped.  It’s a curious and exploratory work, and I urge you to go and see it if you can, rather than depend on the photos.  Unlike the pregnant women of STAR, the woman in “Monument to Pro-Life” isn’t in crisis.  She easily dominated the Capla-Kesting gallery (really a garage), and made silly the hoaky blue “It’s a Boy!” balloons hovering around the ceiling.  To photograph the case of pro-life materials in the corner I had to ask about five people to move – they were standing with their backs to it, staring at the sculpture.  The case’s connection to the work was flimsy, sloppy, more meaningful in print than in person.

Yes, Edwards called the piece “Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston,” but I think the title aims less to signal a political allegiance than to explore the rhetoric of the abortion debate.  Birth isn’t among the usual images associated with the pro-life movement. Teeny babies, smiling children, bloody fetuses are usual, but I’ve never seen a birth depicted on the side of a van.  Pro-life propaganda is meant to emphasize the life in jeopardy – put a smiling toddler on a pro-life poster, and you’re saying to the viewer, you would kill this girl?  The bloody fetus screams, you killed this girl.  The images are meant to locate personal responsibility in the viewer.  But a birth image involves a mother, allows a displacement of that responsibility.  A birth image invokes contexts outside of the viewer’s frame of reference (but maybe she was raped! Maybe she already has four kids and no job!  Maybe she’s thirteen!), and forces the viewer to pass judgment on the mother in question.  Not all pro-lifers, not by any means, wish to punish or humiliate those women who abort their pregnancies. The preemies and toddlers and fetuses serve to inspire a protection impulse, and the more isolated those figures are from their mothers (who demand protection), the simpler the argument. Standard pro-life propaganda avoids birth images in order to isolate that protective impulse, and narrow the guilt.

Of course, the mother in this birth image has a prescribed context.  Britney Spears, according to Edwards, has made the unusual and brave choice to start a family at the height of her career, at the young age of 24.  For him, the recontextualization of “Pro-Life” seems to be not just about childbirth, but about childbirth’s relationship to ‘anti-family’ concepts of female career.  Edwards celebrates the birth of Sean Preston because of when Sean Preston was born, and to whom.  Unlike STAR, which depicts the pregnancies of successful women as dangerous grabs for more, Edwards depicts Britney’s pregnancy as a venerable retreat back to womanhood.  The image/argument would be more convincing, however, if the sculpture looked more like Britney, and if Britney was a better representative of the 24-year-old career woman. It doesn’t (the photos don’t conceal an in-person resemblance), and she isn’t (already the woman has released a greatest hits album).  Edwards would have been better served had Capla Kesting displayed a case of Britney iconography along side the statue if he wished his audience to contemplate her decision.  But the sculpture is perfectly compelling even outside of the Britney context.

BackStandard pro-life rhetoric is preoccupied by transition, the magic moment of conception when ‘life begins.’  Edwards too focuses on transition, but at the other end of the pregnancy.  Sean Preston, qualified as male only by the title, is frozen just as he crowns.  He has yet to open his eyes to the world, but the viewer, unlike his mother, can see him. Many midwives and caregivers discourage childbirth in this position (hands and knees) because, though it is easy on the mother’s back and protects against perineal tearing, it is difficult to anticipate the baby’s arrival.  It’s a method of delivery that a mother should not attempt alone. The viewer of “Monument to Pro-Life” is necessarily implicated in the birth, assigned responsibility for the safe delivery of Sean Preston.

You’ve got to be up close to see this, though.  As I left the gallery, walked up North 5th to Roebling, a 60-something woman in a chic black coat stopped me.  “Who’s the artist?” she asked.  “Who is it that’s getting all the attention?”  I told her it was Daniel Edwards, but that the news trucks were there because it was a sculpture of Britney Spears giving birth on all fours.  Her eyebrows raised.  “You know, I thought it was very pornographic,” she offered, and I glanced back at Capla Kesting.  And from across the street, it did look like a sex show.

It’s a tricky game Daniel Edwards is playing.  On the one hand, “Monument to Pro-Life” is a fairly complicated (and exploitive) work; on the other, it’s a fairly boring (and exploitive) conduit of interest cultivated by STAR and the pro-life movement.  Unfortunately for Edwards, the media machine that inspired his work doesn’t quite convey it in full – the AP photograph of the sculpture doesn’t show her raised hips, and forget about Sean Preston crowning. However, the STAR website does have a mention of the sculpture, and a poll beneath the article for readers to express their opinions.  The questions: “Is it a smart thing for pregnant-again Britney Spears, who gave birth to son Sean Preston just 6 months ago, to have another child so soon after giving birth?” and “Can Britney make a successful comeback as a singer?”

Philip Larkin: Hull-Haven

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au and at the NLA.

Philiplarkin200x280_1For Gerard Manley Hopkins there was Heaven-haven, when a nun takes the veil, and perhaps a poet-priest seeks refuge, but for Philip Larkin there is no heaven. There is Hull, and that is where Larkin, largely free of metropolitan London’s seductions, finds his poetry and his poetics. Old chum Kingsley, it seems, can do his living for him there. But Larkin has more than two strings to his bow too, which awkward last meetings around the death bed show only too plainly.

Now that the usual attempts at deconstruction have almost run their course, the time has come to look at the work left. Pulling people off their plinth is a lifetime task for some who never get around to understanding that some writers say more, and more memorably, than they can ever do. Also, they don’t seem to understand that writers are just like everyone else, only with the inexplicable gift, which the said writer understands least of all, knowing that the gift, bestowed by the Muse, can depart in high dudgeon without notice. Larkin knew this, and lamented the silences of his later years.

Silence does seem to wait through his poems. They bleakly open to morning light, discover the world’s apparent heartlessness, then close with a dying fall. Occasionally ‘long lion days’ blaze, but the usual note is meditative, and sometimes grubby. What mum and dad do to you has to be lived out in extenso. Diary entries are too terrible to be seen and must be shredded. Bonfires and shreddings have a noble tradition in the history of literature. What would we have done if we had Byron’s memoirs and we were Murray and the fireplace waited?

Strange harmonies of contrasts are the usual thing in art. So if Larkin proclaimed racist sentiments in letters yet spent a lifetime in awe of jazz greats, or ran an effective university library whilst thinking ‘Beyond all this, the wish to be alone’ (‘Wants’), that is the doubleness we are all prone to. For artists there always seems to be the finger pointing, whereby perfection is expected of the artist but never required by the critic. Larkin is seen as squalid, not modern, provincial, by some. For others there are no problems. He says what they feel, and says it plainly.

If Larkin doesn’t have a mind like Emily Dickinson’s—who does—or scorns the Europeans, these are not, in themselves, things that limit the reach of his poetic. Larkin’s modest Collected Poems stands in distinct contrast to silverfish-squashing tomes groaning with overwriting. Larkin is a little like Roethke in that way. Every poem is precise, musical, clear. How infuriating it is that people do not follow artists’ wishes and publish poems never meant to see the light of day. There is a great virtue in Larkin’s kind of selectivity. Capitalism seems to require overproduction of product, and many poets have been happy to oblige. But this surfeit does the poet no long-term favours and usually ensures a partial, or total, oblivion. Tennyson and Wordsworth are great poets who clearly have survived oblivion, but who now reads through all of ‘Idylls of the King’ or ‘The Prelude’.

Larkin’s version of pastoral has its rubbish and cancer, sometimes its beautiful, clear light, its faltering perception of bliss, usually in others. Doubts about the whole poetic project surface occasionally, and what poet doesn’t empathise with that. How easy jazz improvisation seems in comparison to getting poems out and about. No doubt the improvisation comes only after mastery, control. Then comes the apparently spontaneous letting go. But the poet doesn’t see that. He/she is left with the rough bagging of words to get the music through. Larkin’s music is sedate, in the minor key. Wonder amongst daffodils or joy amongst skylarks are pleasures that always seem just over the hill, or flowing round a bend in the Humber as one gets to the embankment. Street lights seem like talismans of death, obelisks marking out seconds, hours, days, years, eternity. Work is a toad crushing you.

A great poet? The comparison with Hopkins is instructive. Hopkins makes us feel the beauty of nature, he makes us confront God’s apparent absence in the dark, or “terrible”, sonnets. It is committed writing in the best sense The language heaves into dense music, sometimes too dense, but you always feel engaged by his best poetry. Larkin is dubious about the whole life show. The world is seen from behind glass, whiskey to hand, or in empty churches, or from windswept plains, sediment, frost or fog lapping at footfall. Hopkins loves his poplar trees; his kingfishers catch fire; weeds shoot long and lovely and lush. Grief and joy bring the great moments of insight and expression, and thus the memorability.

The case of Larkin does raise a fundamental concern regarding art and its place in society. When the upward trudge of aesthetic idealism meets the downward avalanche of political and social reality, what is the aesthetic and political fallout. With Larkin it appears to be a stoic acceptance of status quo nihilism—waiting for the doctor, then oblivion. With Celan, one cannot get further than the Holocaust. For others, a crow is an image of violence, or tulips are weighted with lead. No longer are these images of natural beauty. No doubt, for those who have just seen a contemporary exhibition at Gagosian or been reading about the latest horrors in Darfur, Larkin could seem hopelessly out of touch, and self-pitying to boot. That is not a sensible way of looking at culture. Looking for political correctness in art always leads to disappointment.

Larkin seems to fill the expectations required by late-twentieth century English aesthetics, but I wonder. When younger, I thought Stravinsky the greatest composer of the century I was born into. Now it is Rachmaninov and Prokofiev who give me more pleasure. And I find them no less ‘great’. Robert Lowell seemed the representative poet of his generation when I was at university. Now some of the work reads to me like a bad lithium trip. Does this signify cultural sclerosis on my part? We can’t have a bar of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, but that still leaves the fact of Wagner’s greatness to be confronted. The achievement is so enormous. To use a somewhat dangerous and controversial term of the moment, it shows more than intelligent design. Appeals to the Zeitgeist, a somewhat unreliable indicator of artistic excellence, are last resorts for those who like to give their critiques an apparently incontrovertible seal of approval. In the interim, culture remains dynamic and reputations sink or swim depending on factors having very little to do with intrinsic value.

In Hull Larkin found his haven, the world held warily at bay. However, the world cannot be held at bay for long. The general public want their pound of flesh, and they will take it. Hopkins’ divided soul has passed through mercy, and mercilessness, to a Parnassian plateau. Larkin has entered upon his interregnum, where an uncertain reckoning now takes shape.

The following is the first part of a two-part poem, ‘Larkin Land’, written in 1993.

P03p37           Larkin Letters 

Perhaps this sifted life is right—
The best of him was poetry
Bearing acid vowels
In catalogued soliloquy,

Where art’s unspent revisions
Would liberate, restore;
Trapped in a bone enigma
Ideals could still creep through.

A fifty-dollar lettered life
Can’t give you all the facts.
When one has got a poem just right
Awkward prose seems second-best.

Judgment is mute
When words come from pain—
Beside fierce Glenlivet
These civilised spines

Stare past the face
Of a thousand-year spite;
Annexed by form,
Poems survive the killing night.

So, at end, the cost of verse
Is paid for with this strife;—
Though not asked for, given,
This England mirrored into life.

Written 1993