A Scholarly Spat Over Dante

Bud Parr of litblog Chekhov’s Mistress here follows the vitriol poured on the newish Penguin Dante in English, an anthology of translations introduced by Eric Griffiths of Cambridge University and edited by Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds. Harvard’s Helen Vendler gave Dante in English a royal thrashing in the LRB, focusing especially on Griffiths’ Introduction, which is really a long essay. Parr’s notes are useful:

Vendler concludes: “It is acutely disappointing to see a new presentation of Dante that seems, at least to me, so false to the spirit of the author.” She takes on Griffiths’ “desperation…that nobody will pay any attention to Dante unless he is jazzed up in contemporary slang.”

Well, there’s nothing like a transatlantic Harvard-Cambridge Dante scholar’s grudge match. I take it Vendler and Griffiths aren’t chums, although this sort of tedious light aggressive banter, of course, afflicts intellectual life at Cambridge UK just as much as at Cambridge MA. By reputation, Griffiths can dish it out as well as take it – indeed, he’s very much known as a maverick, but he is also regarded by many students as an invigorating and memorable teacher; perhaps he’ll respond. As to why this volume so upset Vendler, who is known to avoid writing bad reviews, it’s not super clear.

Vendler is probably wrong to claim that Griffiths has a wholesale “patronising attitude towards religion.” Griffiths’ book The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry was cited in Geoffrey Hill’s collection of essays, Style and Faith, and Hill is a poet who takes religion rather seriously, to put it mildly. You practically have to have a degree in religious studies to understand Hill – his brilliant book-length poem The Triumph of Love is almost as supersatured with obscure religious references as William Gaddis’ The Recognitions.

As a sidebar, it’s interesting to note that there could hardly be two more different poets than Geoffrey Hill and Seamus Heaney, Vendler’s own contemporary poet of choice. It’s intriguing but probably fanciful to imagine that all this might be seen as two strong and poetically irreconcilable intellectual constellations (Vendler/Heaney, Griffiths/Hill) locking horns. That said, it would also be difficult to find two critics more different than Vendler and Griffiths. Vendler tends toward the straightforward, like Heaney, and sometimes, unlike Heaney, the obvious – she’s said that “the work of criticism is a patriotic impulse of a sort” (Ugh), and “when you’re in a state of perplexity, sadness, gloom, elation, you look for a poem to match what you are feeling” (OK, but there’s surely a little more to it). Griffiths, on the other hand, like Hill, is a dense thicket of British wit. You can see this in the passage that Vendler singles out as supposedly abusive to religion:

Even today, if you walk round an old but still serving church, you may light on a rich jumble: the statue of a saint whose cult has subsided, lacking an arm; a pile of cyclostyled pastoral letters; plasticene oxen, asses and cribs; the various wherewithal of flower-arrangers; in my experience, there is also often (usually behind the altar along with inexplicable quantities of papier-mâché) a mineral-water bottle containing a virulently green liquid.

I find this funny and actually rather loving in an odd way, although its relation to Dante is a bit tangential; Vendler is not amused, and preempts a possible response by wondering in her conclusion if Griffiths would find her review “pedantic and humorless”. My description of it would be a characteristic misunderstanding of tone. To twist something Pynchon says in Gravity’s Rainbow, there is an Atlantic of some sort between Vendler and Griffiths.

For what it’s worth, I personally think there ought to be a ten-year moratorium on new English translations of Dante, which are really a kind of cottage industry at this point, perhaps by-product of American poets being forced to learn other languages during their graduate studies. Indeed, it seems to me that since poetry has largely lost its cultural place our prominent poets are better known for their translations than their own work. On a less frivolous note, Mr. Parr suggests The Poet’s Dante, which has translations by Borges and Eliot as well as Merwin and Pinsky, as an alternative or complement to Dante in English.

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Monday Musing: Three Dreams, Three Athletes

Hanif1Sports figures have always held great fascination for me, and over the years I have regarded various athletes with an almost worshipful awe. When I was a child, there was the legendary cricket batsman, Hanif Mohammed, who still holds the world record for most runs in an innings in first class cricket: an unbelievable 499. I met him once along with a bunch of other neighborhood kids when he was having his car air-conditioner repaired at a workshop near our house in Karachi. He was already retired by then, and seemed very ordinary in person (I don’t know what I was expecting). There was Safdar Abbas, lighning-quick left-forward on the national hockey team, who had gone to Habib School where reverential tales of his speed and skill were still oft-exchanged when a little later I attended 4th and 5th grades there. There was Tanveer Dar, penalty corner specialist for Pakistan’s hockey team in the 70s, who had a name too cool sounding to ignore. Tanveer Dar. I still like saying it.

Later, there were three squash players in succession, Geoff Hunt of Australia, and then, Jehangir Khan and Jansher Khan of Pakistan. Another squash player also had a cool sounding name and an unconventional game, both of which took a hold on my psyche: Gogi Allauddin. I played squash against him once at the Lahore gymkhana at a Gogi5smtime when I believe he was ranked number 2 in the world. Mutual friends had introduced us and he had no idea how good or bad I was but was arrogant enough that before we started, he said that if I was able to win a single point in a game of 21 points, he would buy me dinner. I bought him dinner. An Austrian skier I was temporarily obsessed with was Franz Klammer, and around the same time I had the severest crush on Nadia Comeneci, even daydreaming about marrying her (I was too young for more imaginative fantasies) when I wasn’t tKlammer_1oo busy planning my wedding to Miss Müller, my 7th grade German teacher. (Miss Müller once took the whole class out to a German restaurant for a bit of exposure to German culture, and my eagerness to impress her was such that on a dare from another kid I ate a whole candle that was on our table. Needless to say, this stunt did not have the desired effect of making the lovely Miss M. want to marry 12-year-old me, but I did eventually manage to seduce another more susceptible Miss M., also a native German-speaker, into marriage.) I even met Imran Khan once, possibly the most shockingly good-looking man I have ever met, though I was never a great fan of his for some reason. But by far the greatest object of my athletic adoration has always been and remains Mohammad Ali, the greatest of all time.

SamprasThree of the most famous athletes of our time are Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong, and Mohammad Ali. Jordan may or may not be the greatest basketball player of all time, but he undoubtably holds the highest value in the psychological economy of basketball fans as well as the general public. Armstrong probably is the greatest cyclist of all time, but bicycling itself has never been very glamorous a sport. Mohammad Ali’s place in the history of boxing is a subject of neverending counterfactual debate of the “What if Tyson and Ali fought when each was in his prime?” variety, but he, of course, more than any other athlete, seized our collective imagination in a way that far transcends his prodigious pugilistic prowess. (We are not similarly obsessed with Pete Sampras, or Ian Thorpe, or Tiger Woods, or Carl Lewis, or Wayne Gretzky.) Why is this? What is it about these three individuals that has arrested our attentions so?

JordanMaybe it is this: each of them is the symbolic embodiment of an age-old human dream. In the case of Michael Jordan, it is the dream of flight. The desire to defy the clutch of gravity is as old as human history: to escape the poverty of Earth’s surface for the rich freedom of three-dimensional air, to have an eagle’s-eye view of tiny Terra. And catching air is what Michael Jordan could do better than any other human, ever. He could float. He could soar. He could fly. He is about as close as anyone in real-life has gotten to leaping tall buildings in a single bound. And he made it look graceful. (High jumpers may be able to jump higher, but the Fosbury Flop is not very balletic; no poetry can attach to a movement correctly called a “flop” onto a mattress. Hop, skip, jump, leap, flop, plop, whatever; it ain’t flight.) On the contrary, Jordan follows an upright and, like all objects in a gravitational field, lovely parabolic arch after leaving the ground. As he approaches the top of the arch, his vertical speed gradually slows to zero, and for an infinitesimal but seemingly-infinite instant he is suspended high in the air, floating in space, frozen in time, legs splayed underneath or treading air, arms reaching up, one hand cocked underneath the ball ready to propel it on its own parabolic path to the basket while the other supports it lightly from the side. This is the moment one remembers, not the moment when the ball inevitably clears the rim. Oddly enough, it is only in flight that Jordan is an extraordinarily compelling figure. Closer to the ground, he often looks awkward with his tongue stuck out of the side of his mouth, and despite his ubiquitous presense in every medium by way of commerical endorsements, he retains an air of shyness. Off the court he seems not very articulate or particularly interesting in any other way.

LanceLance Armstrong embodies the dream of immortality, and he does it doubly. Unlike car racing, or even the 100-meter dash, bicycle racing is not about speed. It is about endurance. It is about lasting forever. It is about not dying. And Armstrong never dies. He is known to break away from the pack of cyclists behind him, making them expend stupendous effort in catching up, which he encourages by slowing down just a bit, then repeating this process again and again until the buildup of lactic acid in the legs of his hapless competitors causes such excruciating pain that they freeze up. They die. He doesn’t. And he didn’t even die when his testicular cancer metastasized to his lungs and brain. He kept going. He is the ultimate Energizer Bunny, and keeping on going and going is what the dream of immortality is all about. If you can come back from death’s door and win the Tour de France seven times in a row, you are about as immortal as can humanly be. The other interesting thing about Armstrong is his body. Unlike Jordan and Ali, whose stature, size, and shape immediately indicate their difference from you and me, Lance looks like my local pizza-delivery boy (well, I guess there is that bicycle connection). We all feel like we could be Lance Armstrong if we just tried hard enough. There is nothing on the surface to indicate that this man has a heart that is a third bigger than the rest of us, that it can beat at more than 200 beats per minute, that his cancer-scarred lungs can take in more oxygen than a healthy male twice his size, that his muscle-efficiency is 8 percent greater than average, or that his muscles produce half as much lactic acid as normal people. He is ideally built to do what he does. Lance is gonna’ live forever, like we all wish we could.

Foreman_and_aliMohammad Ali’s most famous fight of all, the Rumble-in-the-Jungle against George Foreman in 1974 in Zaire, is the athletic world’s most powerful instantiation of the David versus Goliath story. It speaks to our dream of the triumph of cunning and skill over brute strength. And this is what Ali’s life has been about, inside and outside of the ring. He is not a big boxer, as heavyweights go, but he more than makes up in speed and nimbleness what he lacks in size. Ali’s hold on our psyches is such that I can remember my mother, who knew and cared nothing about sports, not only getting up in the middle of the night to watch the Rumble-in-the-Jungle live via-satellite, but very earnestly saying a praMohammad_ali_1yer for Mohammad Ali to win. If you have not seen the documentary When We Were Kings, please do yourself a favor: buy the DVD and watch it every Sunday as I used to do until I practically had it memorized. Norman Mailer and George Plimpton were at the fight covering it as journalists, and comment on the fight looking back. There is music by James Brown and B.B. King, and there is the fight itself, along with delightful footage of Ali from before and after the fight, including his reciting some of his poetry, such as this bit to describe what he has been doing to train for the fight:

I wrestled with an alligator,
I tussled with a whale,
I have handcuffed lighting,
Thrown thunder in jail.
Yesterday, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick.
I’m so mean I make medicine sick!

Ali1The movie, and Ali’s story, is so moving that several of the people I have shown the film to have wept at the end, out of sheer joy and admiration for the man. At the time, Ali was a bit of a has-been fighter in his 30s while George Foreman was the new, young, invincible, 22-year-old heavyweight champion of the world. Foreman was built like a bull with the personality of a pitbull. He was taller, heavier, and had much greater reach than Ali. He was nothing like the amiable teddy bear of a guy-next-door we know so well now from commercials for his electric grill and Midas mufflers. And the sheer force of his punches had already become mythic. The bookmakers gave him 7-to-1 odds againts Ali. Ali didn’t care. Mohammad Ali crushed him in an 8th round knockout in a blindingly fast flurry of punches (see picture), having tired him out earlier in the fight by inventing what we now know as the rope-a-dope trick (leaning back against the ropes in a defensive stance and letting your opponent pound you until he or she gets exhausted). Ali became world champ for the third time that day.

Ali2But Ali is such a colossus that his herculean boxing accomplishments can only explain a small part of his appeal. I cannot think of another human being as physically beautiful, as talented, as intelligent, as charming, as articulate, as funny, vivacious, and brave, and as morally principled, as Mohammad Ali. Mohammad Ali has been the greatest international symbol of standing up to overwhelming might that the sports world has ever produced. He is the modern-day David that took on the Goliaths of racism, the U.S. government, even the Nation of Islam–after he broke with it. He gave hope and strength to those who opposed the Vietnam war and American imperialism, not only within America, but everywhere. He refused to run away to Canada to avoid the draft and faced the prospect of jail instead. He was stripped of his title and was not allowed to box for years. He suffered and sacrificed for his beliefs, and he never gave in. Ali is the only sports figure ever with Nelson Mandela-like dignity. As George Plimpton puts it toward the end of When We Were Kings: “What a fighter. And what a man.”

Fame
I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna learn how to fly
High

My other recent Monday Musings:
Rocket Man
Francis Crick’s Beautiful Mistake
The Man With Qualities
Special Relativity Turns 100
Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Thoughts in Exile: Interview of Shirin Neshat

Pradeep Dala in Ego Magazine:

Shirinneshat_main1Internationally-acclaimed photographer, filmmaker, and video artist Shirin Neshat has been interpreting boundaries in Islam—boundaries between men and women, between sacred and profane, between reality and magic realism—through her work for many years. She came to New York to study art, but the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 made it impossible for Neshat to return for over eleven years. Returning to Iran in 1990 after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, Neshat found that the Iran of her childhood was smothered under a layer of conservative, fundamentalist Islamic tradition. Feeling that she had something to say, Neshat came back to New York and began working on a series of extraordinary photographs and video installations through which she explored her relationship with Islam and Iran. In particular, she is known for a unique and stirring visual discourse on the place and identity of women in Iran, and on the complex relationship between genders in Islam.

More here.

Anti-Condescensionism

Susan Pederson reviews Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907 by Nadja Durbach, in the London Review of Books:

If, like me, you are young enough to have been immunised against diphtheria and polio in the mass public health campaigns of the postwar period, but old enough to have known victims of these childhood scourges, it may be hard to think of vaccination except within a narrative of progress. Almost paralysed with dread of the needles awaiting us, my sisters and I nonetheless understood ourselves to be lucky children, rescued by heroic doctors and a benevolent state from the implacable and unseen demons that had randomly crippled or killed so many of our parents’ generation.

Today, this confident alliance of doctors, parents and public health officials is hard to find. Scary if unproven allegations of a link between infant vaccination and both bowel disorders and autism have helped fuel mass movements of parents critical of vaccination in both the US and UK. In Britain, uptake rates for the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine are falling, leaving scientists, doctors and public health officials scrambling to reassure parents not only of the safety of vaccines but, more challengingly, of their necessity in a Western world where ‘wild’ cases of measles or rubella are now rare. The press, prone to approach medical matters either through the human interest story (‘Did Leo Blair have the MMR?’) or as a ‘debate’ between two equally plausible positions, has shown itself ill-suited to the task of reporting on scientific data, while on the web claims to expertise flourish unchecked. In cyberspace, organisations urging parents as rational human beings to inform themselves of the risks of vaccination before delivering up their children to the syringe jostle with harrowing pictures of infants struck down by vaccines and the delusional rantings of anti-semites and conspiracy theorists. (Check out www. christianparty. net, where Jonas Salk’s great work developing a polio vaccine is lambasted as a Jewish plot aimed at infecting ‘Christian children’ with monkey-borne diseases.)

More here.

Everyone does not have a novel inside them

Tim Clare in The Guardian:

Sillitoe_corona1There is an auld axiom beloved of burnt-out English teachers, glamour-impoverished fantasists and a million other drudges seeking to transcend their lives of quiet desperation: everyone has a novel inside them.

This slogan has been appropriated as an article of faith by the amateur writing community, whilst its corollary – as a novelist, you have six-and-a-half billion potential rivals – remains the gravest of heresies. Like a blind man in a room of ill-positioned rakes, any group indulging in such wilful myopia is doomed to a series of unpleasant collisions with reality.

Curiously unsatisfied with the idea that being a successful novelist requires the ability to write books that a consistently large number of people are prepared to buy, jaded scribblers search instead for an explanation that will permit them to retreat with their pride and delusions intact. As W Somerset Maugham put it: “I have never met an author who admitted that people did not buy his book because it was dull.”

More here.

Conservationist Plan Would Give Lions, Elephants a Home on the Range

Kate Wong in Scientific American:

000cb945a9351303a93583414b7f0000_1People hoping to glimpse lions, cheetahs, elephants and other megafauna in their natural environment must journey to Africa’s wildlife reserves. But if one group of ecologists and conservationists gets its way, safari-goers could soon head for the Great Plains of the U.S. instead.

In a report published today in the journal Nature, Josh Donlan of Cornell University and his colleagues propose replacing the large carnivores and herbivores that disappeared from North America 13,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene epoch. Noting that humans likely had a part in these extinctions and that our subsequent activities have stunted the evolutionary potential of most remaining megafauna, the scientists say we have an ethical responsibility to address these problems. But rather than just managing extinction, they argue, conservation biology should aim to actively restore natural processes.

More here.

My Life as a Hack

Ben Yagoda in Slate:

050722_cb_yagodak_tnI can recall seeing only one movie about a freelance writer: Woody Allen’s Celebrity. In an early scene, a movie star (played by Melanie Griffith) takes the hack (Kenneth Branagh) on a tour of her childhood home then seduces him in her old bedroom.

That struck me as unrealistic. It’s been my experience as a freelancer that film stars almost never invite you to their houses.

It did happen to me once, however. About 15 years ago, Rolling Stone asked me to profile the teenage Uma Thurman. We had lunch at the Russian Tea Room (where Rolling Stone bought Uma a caviar-blini combination so expensive it had an unlisted price) then took a pit stop at her family’s apartment on the Upper West Side. There was no seduction, the least of many reasons being that her little brother was due home from school any minute. Even so, the whole thing was a highlight of my freelancing career to that date.

More here.

On Poetry: I and You

David Orr in the New York Times Book Review:

Poets who write only poetry are like musicians who play only cowbell: oddly cool, but mostly just odd. More typically, poets work on their poems alongside an array of literary and quasi-literary projects, from novels (Hardy) to plays (Yeats) to libretti (Dryden) to art reviews (John Ashbery) to advertising slogans for Lay’s Potato Chips (James Dickey). Marianne Moore even once spent a month helping Ford come up with names for the car that was eventually christened the Edsel. (Moore’s suggestions included ”The Intelligent Whale,” so you can’t say the company didn’t get its money’s worth.) Yet while poets have excelled at a number of sidelines, they’ve done some of their sharpest work in a genre that’s often overlooked: the personal letter. Not all great poets are great letter writers, of course, but the correspondence of Pope, Keats, Rilke and many others is more than simply an interesting supplement to the poetic canon; without these letters, poetry as we know it wouldn’t exist.

More here.

The Beauty of Deceit

Carl Zimmer in his blog, The Loom:

Orchid20flySometimes a picture can tell you a lot about evolution. This particular picture has a story to tell about how two species–in this case a fly and an orchid–can influence each other’s evolution. But the story it tells may not be the one you think.

Coevolution, as this process is now called, was one of Darwin’s most important insights. Today scientists document coevolution in all sorts of species, from mushroom-farming ants to the microbes in our own gut. But Darwin found inspiration from the insects and flowers he could observe around his own farm in England.

Darwin’s thoughts about coevolution began with a simple question: how do flowers have sex? A typical flower grows both male and female sexual organs, but Darwin doubted that a single flower would fertilize itself very often. Flowers, like other organisms, display a lot of variation, and Darwin thought that the only way flowers could vary was if individuals mates, mixing their characters. (Sex turns out not essential for creating variation, but it does do a good job of creating it.) But in order to have sex, plants can’t walk around to find a mate. Somehow the pollen of one flower has to get to another. Not just to any flower, moreover, but to a member of its own species.

More here.

Scale buildings in a single bound

David Cohen in New Scientist:

KerschlsupermanSpiderman does it, so does James Bond. Now a gadget has been developed to allow US marines to zip up the sides of buildings or ships with virtually no effort.

All you do is fire a rope to the top of the structure using a harpoon gun or grappling hook, and then fit the rope into the device, called PowerQuick, which attaches to your climbing harness. Then just sit back and squeeze a lever.

PowerQuick has been developed by Quoin International based in Carson City, Nevada, and can lift a load of 145 kilograms at a rate of 1 metre per second. A battery-powered motor turns a series of wheels and cogs to pull the rope through the device. One battery charge is enough to scale the Statue of Liberty five times, or 250 metres in total. If you let go of the device it automatically stops and holds its position, and it can also be used for a slow controlled descent.

More here.

a new method of achieving a rude aim

Miss Manners in the Washington Post:

Heckling is attempting to go respectable.

Traditionally, interrupting performers and speakers with wisecracks and insults was the specialty of nightclub drunks. Later it was taken up by political dissenters who were not inclined to wait for the question-and-answer period.

Heckling was never, however, considered to be a polite way of registering objections during live speeches or performances. The approved methods of showing disapproval are withholding applause, or, in extreme cases, booing (for opera crowds) and walking out in the middle (for more dignified crowds).

Now, Miss Manners has observed, heckling is attempting to reinvent itself under the popular name of “audience participation.” The Internet having given us the means of widely disseminating immediate personal reactions to just about everything, the idea has arisen that doing so will enhance any format.

More here.

Shalimar the Clown: Fall of the tightrope walker

From The London Times:Shalimar_1

Salman Rushdie’s new novel tells the tale of Shalimar, whose romantic downfall turns to fury then destruction. Justine Hardy finds the Booker of Bookers winner in eloquent form. THE PUPPET MASTER IS BACK. He was absent for a while, busy with re-invention, polemic and courtship. The intervening years have perhaps softened him to the extent that he almost allows us to believe that we are independently able to grasp his art. But no, with a snap, he reminds us that he holds the strings. We just get to dance around beneath his elevated acrobatics, bragging to our friends that yes, indeed we understand how the tightrope tricks are done.

More here.

This is an important book, a wonderful reversing story with a cast of characters with names that are not their names, and ideals that have been thrust upon them, but this is not a real study of the anatomy of terrorist warfare or its perpetrators. Remember this as you read this vast story set in a splintering world reflected in lakes.

Brain cells tune in to music

From Nature:Music_2

The discovery of a group of pitch-sensitive cells in the brain has sent reverberations through the field of music perception. Researchers think that studying these neurons will reveal how our minds grasp songs and speech. In recent years, researchers have looked at the role played by the primary auditory cortex, the brain region known to digest sounds. Human brain scans have indicated that a peripheral bit of this brain region is active when we try to identify pitch. But no one could find cells that responded to specific frequencies, leaving it a mystery how we interpret them. A study with marmoset monkeys (Callithrix jacchus) has now shown up specific neurons that do just that. “This is the first evidence that there are individual neurons in the brain that are encoding for pitch,” explains Josh McDermott, a music psychologist based in Cambridge at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

More here.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Evolution versus Metamorphosis

Thomas Jones in the London Review of Books:

As Ian Hacking said in the last issue of the LRB, quoting Steven Rose quoting Theodosius Dobzhansky, ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.’ Since we use our brains to make up stories, and to make sense of the stories of others, it’s hard to disagree with the idea that the capacity for storytelling is the result of evolution. And it’s easy enough to concoct prehistoric situations in which making up stories would have been an aid to survival or reproduction, or both.

Once upon a time, there were two cavemen called Bill and Ben, who were rivals for the affections of a beautiful cavewoman called Beryl. (If you think this story is going to take a reactionary turn, you’re not wrong. But that’s because it belongs in the tradition of evolutionary psychology just-so stories, which have a tendency to provide a pseudoscientific – because unfalsifiable – justification for the status quo. As how could they not? Since the circular logic behind them goes something like this: things are how they are; they are this way because that’s how they evolved; here’s a plausible reason for them to have evolved this way; they couldn’t be any other way.) One day, Bill returned to the cave after a morning’s hunting and told an elaborate and plausible story about how he had killed the sabretooth tiger that had been terrorising the neighbourhood. Ben, delighted at the news, rushed out of the cave to enjoy the tiger-free sunshine and tell the neighbours. He was promptly eaten by the sabretooth, which Bill hadn’t killed after all. With Ben out of the picture, and Beryl suitably impressed by his tall tales of heroism, Bill was comfortably able to pass on his genes, which all lived happily ever after.

Well, maybe.

More here.

More on Explanation vs. Justification in Politics

Related to this past Monday’s Musing, Brad Delong has an excellent post this week on History, Politics and Moral Philosophy, which includes a response by Jeff Weintraub and many thoughtful comments from readers.

“Where explaining crosses into justifying–or excusing–is when you go on to say not just “we have pushed their buttons in ways that have, predictably, generated bad consequences” but also to say either that “in acting as they have, they have been their best selves and acted from praiseworthy and moral motives,” or that “given their circumstances, we cannot condemn them for not being their best moral selves.” Where I sit, I see many arguing that brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers are being (predictably) human, and that we ought to recognize that people will be human in calculating what we should do. I see very few Westerners arguing that brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers are being moral, or even that it is unfair to blame brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers for not being their best selves.

Where I sit, I see considerably more Westerners trying to spread ignorance by condemning explanations which they dislike as ‘excuses.'”

An interview with Tzvetan Todorov

In Eurozine and via Political Theory Daily:

[Vita Matiss] You place the question of the parallels between Nazism and communism within a specific European post-World War II historical and philosophical context. As you point out, this context was not at all favourable for people like Margarete Buber-Neumann and David Rousset. Is the context for raising the issue of the similarities between these totalitarian regimes significantly more propitious today?

Tzvetan Todorov: Vast question… First of all, a comparison of the two totalitarian regimes is not something new. On the eve of the Second World War, when the first democratic and liberal criticisms of the two regimes emerged in both Europe and the United States, it had even become rather common — just about everywhere, those who observed the rise of these two totalitarian regimes were susceptible to their similarities. This similarity attained its apogee in September 1939, when, after the German-Soviet pact, that is, Nazi-Communist pact, both totalitarian leaders embarked upon a common political path, when Hitler and Stalin simultaneously invaded Poland. At this moment, it was clear for everyone that the two regimes not only resembled each other, but that they were accomplices.

What made the comparison difficult was the Second World War.”

A profile of Robert Trivers

In The Guardian, a profile of Robert Trivers (via Crooked Timber):

“Despite switching disciplines – from maths to law to history then the sciences – Robert Trivers profoundly influenced evolutionary biology with his theory that our sense of justice has Darwinian explanations. But he suffered severe mental breakdowns and his career at Harvard was dogged by controversy. After 15 years in genetics he has now turned to anthropology.

Robert Trivers could have been one of the great romantic heroes of 20th-century science if he’d died in the 70s, as some people supposed he would. But here he is, loping down the quiet, pale corridors of Harvard’s Programme in Evolutionary Development, a powerfully built man about six foot tall, bespectacled, dressed in trainers, narrow blue cord trousers, a black leather jacket and a knitted watchman’s cap. His language matches the macho clothes: for an Ivy League professor, he says ‘fuck’ a lot.”

Crowds go ape over ‘humans’ zoo exhibit

From MSNBC:

Zoo_1 LONDON – Caged and barely clothed, eight men and women monkeyed around for the crowds Friday in an exhibit labeled “Humans” at the London Zoo. “Warning: Humans in their Natural Environment” read the sign at the entrance to the exhibit, where the captives could be seen on a rock ledge in a bear enclosure, clad in bathing suits and pinned-on fig leaves. Some played with hula hoops, some waved. Visitors stopped to point and laugh, and several children could be heard asking, “Why are there people in there?”

More here.

‘The First Poets’: Starting With Orpheus

Camille Paglia in The New York Times:

Pagl184 Ancient Greece is the fountainhead of Western culture and politics. As Michael Schmidt demonstrates in ”The First Poets,” the evolution from aristocratic rule to democracy in Greece was accompanied by the emergence of a strongly individualistic lyric poetry. While the Hebrew Bible, the other major source of Western literature, expresses a God-centered view of the universe, Greek literature gradually freed itself from the sacred to focus on the uniquely human voice.

More here.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Black and white—and red all over

Review of Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution by Simon Schama, in The Economist:

At the height of the conflict, Britain guaranteed freedom to any slave who fought for the king against George Washington’s slave-owning rebels. And in 1772, in London, Lord Mansfield, nudged by the advocacy of Granville Sharp, an abolitionist, judged that Africans could not be transported against their will. It sounded good. Thousands of slaves, lacking a better offer, joined the king’s cause.

It goes without saying that Britain’s pledge was issued with only token expectation that it would need to be honoured—victory would surely render it irrelevant. But military incompetence and American resolve turned it into a disquieting political reality. After much smudging, a liberal haven—an 18th-century African Zion—was marked out in Sierra Leone. African-Americans began to go “home”.

It was a disastrous enterprise from the start; what began as a rescue mission was later seen as a “racist deportation”.

More here.