Stuck, Ch. 15. What We Become: Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”

by Akim Reinhardt

Stuck is a weekly serial appearing at 3QD every Monday through early April. The Prologue is here. The table of contents with links to previous chapters is here.

Image result for charles lutwidge dodgson
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson ca. 1856 – 60. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was an odd fellow who eventually became someone else.

Born in 1832, he was the fourth of twelve children, and descended from a long line of English soldiers and priests all named Charles Dodgson. His parents were first cousins. He stuttered. A childhood fever left him deaf in one ear. As an adult he would suffer from migraines and epilepsy.

At age 12 he was sent away to school. He hated it. Still, he aced his classes and went on to Christ Church College in Oxford. He did not always apply himself, but nonetheless excelled at mathematics and eventually earned a teaching position. He remained at the school for the rest of his life.

Dodgson was conservative, stuffy, and shy. He was awed by aristocrats and sometimes snobbish to his social inferiors. He was mildly self-deprecating and earnestly religious. He had a reputation for being a very good charades player. He invented a number of gadgets, including a stamp collecting folder, a note taking tablet, a new type of money order, and a steering device for tricycles. He also created an early version of Scrabble. He liked little girls.

Dodgson enjoyed photographing and drawing nude children. He never married or had any children of his own. Whether his affection for pre-pubescent girls was sexual, or merely tied to Victorian notions of children representing innocence, is still debated. In the prime of his adulthood, one girl in particular caught his fancy: eleven year old Alice Liddell.

Dodgson spent much time with the Liddell family. A favorite activity was taking Alice and her two siblings out on a rowboat, where he would tell them stories. Alice so enjoyed the stories that she begged Charles to write them down. He presented her with a handwritten, illustrated collection in 1864. He called it Alice’s Adventures Underground. Read more »

Sunday, February 16, 2020

American Dirt, Identity and Imagination

Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:

‘What insults my soul’, Zadie Smith has written, ‘is the idea… that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally ‘like’ us: racially, sexually, genetically, nationally, politically, personally.’

Both as novelist and essayist, Smith is one of the most subtle guides to the fraught terrain of culture and identity. The problem of ‘cultural appropriation’ – writers and artists being called out for having stepped beyond their permitted cultural boundaries to explore themes about people who are not ‘fundamentally ‘like’ us’ – is an issue that particularly troubles her. Too often these days, on opening a book or on viewing a painting, we are as likely to ask: ‘Did the author or painter have the cultural right to engage with that subject?’ or: ‘Does he or she possess the right identity?’ as: ‘Is it any good?’

So it is with the latest cultural firestorm over Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt, which tells the story of a mother and son, Lydia and Luca, forced to flee their home in Acapulco and join the migrant trail to America after their family is slaughtered by a drugs cartel. Cummins wants Americans to stop seeing migrants as a ‘faceless brown mass’ and to bear witness to the tragedy of our making on our southern border’.

The novel’s supporters have hailed it as a Great American Novel, even the new The Grapes of Wrath. Its detractors point to the fact that Cummins is non-Mexican and that this wasn’t a story that was hers to tell, which is why she gets it all wrong.

More here.

The Strange Quest to Crack the Voynich Code

Jillian Foley in Undark:

IT’S AN APPROXIMATELY 600-year-old mystery that continues to stump scholars, cryptographers, physicists, and computer scientists: a roughly 240-page medieval codex written in an indecipherable language, brimming with bizarre drawings of esoteric plants, naked women, and astrological symbols. Known as the Voynich manuscript, it defies classification, much less comprehension.

And yet, over the years a steady stream of researchers have stepped up with new claims to have cracked its secrets. Just last summer, an anthropologist at Foothill College in California declared that the text was a “vulgar Latin dialect” written in an obscure Roman shorthand. And earlier in the year, Gerard Cheshire, an academic at the University of Bristol, published a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Romance Studies arguing the script is a mix of languages he called “proto-Romance.”

Thus far, however, every claim of a Voynich solution — including both of last year’s — has been either ignored or debunked by other experts, media outlets, and Voynich obsessives. In Cheshire’s case, the University of Bristol retracted a press release highlighting his paper after other experts roundly challenged his research.

More here.

On Belén Fernández’s “Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World”

Todd Miller in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

One way to lose a popularity contest in the United States is to mention in polite company — who may be chatting about, say, the impeachment or the Mueller investigation — the numerous ways the United States has meddled in the affairs of other countries throughout many years.

Rigging elections might be the most benign offense on a list that includes engineering military coups, forcing economic policies beneficial to corporations, or blasting another country to bits. And if you mention any of these truths, and the wrong person is in the crowd, there is a chance that the rebuttal will be the following old insult: if you don’t like the country, why don’t you just leave?

Belén Fernández did just that. And it was no whim. As she explains in her book Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World, she left because the United States is, as she writes, a “large-scale lab experiment on how to best crush the human soul.”

More here.

Lance Olsen in conversation with Andrea Scrima

From The Brooklyn Rail:

Otto Freundlich, Mein roter Himmel, 1933, oil on canvas, 63 x 51 in. Photo: Til Niermann. Courtesy wikimedia commons.

Andrea Scrima (Brooklyn Rail): Lance, you’ve written a novel that, in a nod to Ulysses (1922) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925) (but perhaps also to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)), takes place in a single 24-hour period—in this case, June 10, 1927. My Red Heaven—which borrows its title from a painting by the exiled German artist Otto Freundlich—is a paean to the Weimar era and a chilling anticipation of the ruinous events that would soon befall Germany and the rest of Europe and the world. What made you choose this particular summer day?

Lance Olsen: I think I was thinking less of Phillip K. Dick (whom I adore) when the idea for the novel surfaced than James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, who I feel are everywhere in My Red Heaven. In 2015, I stumbled on Freundlich’s abstract Cubist painting at the Pompidou. It was completed in 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor. For some reason, that painting all at once became connotative to me of the cultural energy of the Weimar era. It also gestures toward a collage aesthetic in its collection of apparently disparate forms on a surface that simultaneously unifies them and underscores their multiplicity. I found myself wanting to see what happens when that aesthetic is translated into a narrative architectonics.

More here.

The art of second chances

Ruth Franklin in The Atlantic:

Writing in The New York Times in June 2003, less than two years after the events of September 11 shattered the complacency with which many Americans conducted their lives, the British critic Michael Pye lamented an unlikely casualty of the new era: the ability to occupy ourselves with a superficial novel while sitting in an airport lounge or drifting at 30,000 feet. With tanks now standing guard at London’s Heathrow Airport, what was once an ordinary plane trip had acquired “an element of thoroughly unwanted suspense.” The usual reading material, Pye argued, would no longer do. “We stand in need of something stronger now: the travel book you can read while making your way through this new, alarming world.”

The Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel used these lines as an epigraph to her second novel, The Singer’s Gun (2010), a book haunted by 9/11. But her entire body of work—her new novel, The Glass Hotel, is her fifth—can be read as a response to Pye’s demand. Mandel’s deeply imagined, philosophically profound reckonings with life in an age of disaster would indeed be appropriate companions alongside a plastic cup of wine and a tray of reheated food (if we’re lucky). But they are equally welcome at home during anxious days of following the news cycle or insomniac nights of worrying about the future. “You can make an argument that the world’s become more bleak, but I feel like we always think we’re living at the end of the world,” Mandel said in a recent interview at the University of Central Florida. “When have we ever felt like it wasn’t going to be catastrophic?”

More here.

Toni Morrison: ‘I’m writing for black people … I don’t have to apologise’

Hermione Hoby in The Guardian:

Of all the mantles that have been foisted on Toni Morrison’s shoulders, the heaviest has to be “the conscience of America”. It’s both absurd-sounding and true. For almost half a century her subject has been racial prejudice in the United States, a story that she has told and retold with a steadiness of rage and compassion. Her latest novel, God Help the Child, is her 11th and when I arrive at her apartment in Tribeca, Lower Manhattan, America’s Conscience is having her eyebrows drawn on. “For the photographer,” she explains with a chuckle.

Later, she’ll tell the photographer: “We did makeup for you. I have eyebrows and everything,” then add: “You lose all that stuff … ” The implied second half of that sentence is “when you reach my age”: Morrison turned 84 in February. Her many literary laurels include a Pulitzer in 1988 for Beloved, a Nobel in 1993, and, in 2012, the presidential medal of freedom, from her friend Barack Obama. Being America’s most venerated living writer does not, however, stop a person wanting to look good in pictures. And, it is natural that beauty and the notion of self-image are on her mind as at the centre of her new book is a striking, dark-skinned woman called Bride who tries to shield herself from her own past with surface beautification. A love story unfolds, precariously, between her and Booker, a scholarly young black man adrift in grief for a dead brother. He tells her: “scientifically there’s no such thing as race, Bride, so racism without race is a choice. Taught, of course, by those who need it, but still a choice. Folks who practice it would be nothing without it.”

Bride’s blackness is both the source of her childhood misery – her lighter-skinned mother is so horrified by it that she considers killing her baby – and of her adult success. She works in the fashion and beauty industry where, heeding one stylist’s dictum to dress only in white, she makes herself, “a panther in snow”, an exoticised “other”. The novel intimates that fetishising blackness, both for the observer and the observed, might be just as insidious as outright prejudice. There’s the ex-boyfriend, for example, who seems to claim her as some kind of racial trophy. When this young white man takes her home to his parents it’s clear “that I was there to terrorise his family, a means of threat to this nice old white couple. ‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ he kept repeating … His eyes were gleaming with malice.”

More here. (Note: Throughout February, at least one post will honor The Black History Month. This year’s theme is “African Americans and the Vote.” Readers are encouraged to send in their suggestions)

Sunday Poem

The shortest prayer I was ever taught was

no: what other name could a god have:

I named my son after my dead
grandfathers: blood and not blood

gather around the bent-corner Kodak
altar: I learned to cook by fetching ingredients

one by one: carrying them between
the kitchen and her swollen hands: I can

play cards and hold my liquor because I have
his blood: inheritance is what we can hold onto

not what we are given: my grandmother’s ring
was meant for me: my mother gave it away:

I kept his name: gave what I could
to my son: if I had a god who said yes: I’d ask

harder questions: where were you:
when Sandy walked through

my neighborhood: upended trees and sudden
opened roofs: my neighbor’s house and the world

could see where her baby slept: I like the new vinyl siding
and newer owners: if bad luck knew where I lived

I’d move: I broke a child once
twice: I was broken once

twice: I did what I had to do:

my mother can make ground beef
and ketchup and vinegar into my brother’s favorite food:

my favorite bible story is the one where our unlikely hero
feeds thousands with just a few fish and sleight

of hands: I have said god’s name and been ignored
so long: the night filled with prayer

by Nicole Homer
Split This Rock

Nicole Homer is a New Jersey based writer and educator. Her work can be found in the American Academy of Poets Poem-a-Day, Muzzle, The Offing, Winter Tangerine, Rattle, The Collagist, and elsewhere. A fellow of both The Watering Hole and Callaloo, Nicole serves as an Editor and regular contributor at BlackNerdProblems, writing critique of media and pop culture, and as faculty at the Pink Door Writing Retreat for Women and Gender Non-conforming Writers of Color.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

A Revolutionary History of The Aztecs

Ben Ehrenreich at The Guardian:

It is to Townsend’s credit that she does not attempt to be comprehensive. The cosmology of the Aztecs, their calendar, gods and myths, get only glancing treatment here. This is a brief history, and one told subtly and well, primarily through the lives of individuals. First among them is the woman baptised by the Spanish as Marina and known in Nahuatl as Malintzin, re-hispanicised as Malinche – a name that would become a synonym for traitor. Born to a noble lineage of a people unhappily subject to Aztec rule, she was offered as a tribute payment to the Mexica and then sold to the Chontal Maya on the Yucatán coast, one of the first communities to encounter Cortés’s ships. Given away again to the Spaniards, she survived by making herself indispensable, serving as Cortés’s concubine and interpreter as he tortured and slaughtered his way around the continent. Townsend has elsewhere devoted an entire book, Matlintzin’s Choices, to her resurrection. She emerges here as a complex and sympathetic figure, able – as indigenous Mexicans would be for generations to come – to hold many worlds within herself at once.

more here.

It’s ‘Chinatown,’ Jake

Janet Maslin at the NYT:

The film “Chinatown” was meticulously designed to capture a precise moment in Los Angeles’s history. Everything about its look and feel says 1937, not 1936 or 1938. In the same way, “The Big Goodbye,” Sam Wasson’s deep dig into the making of the film, is a work of exquisite precision. It’s about much more than a movie. It’s about the glorious lost Hollywood in which that 1974 movie was born.

In a scrupulously researched and reported book with a stellar cast of players, not to mention some astonishing sources, Wasson sees Roman Polanski as the genius who elevated “Chinatown” from good to great. Anyone offended by that should stay away.

more here.

Fashion! (turn to the left)

Cintra Wilson at the NYRB:

In 2007 the national mood was one of ecstatic bloodlust, war drums, and camo-prints, and Dolce & Gabbana ads featured nearly naked models in apocalyptic deserts being pawed into orgasmic submission by cheetahs. The subliminal code being promoted: we are at war, war is like sex but bloodier and bigger, we’ll have our dirty way with the world, the world will love it and we don’t care who watches.

Fashion has ostensibly changed very little in the last few decades; once “everything goes,” as fashion editors announced in the 2000s, there are few drastic shifts in silhouette, either season to season or decade to decade. Changes are mainly visible through sexual temperature, e.g., after a rash of Sexy Back, there is often a whipsaw volte-face back to haute prude, as if all the models suddenly sobered up after a summer of rampant polyamory. The October 2019 cover of Harper’s Bazaar featured Demi Moore dressed in Victorian schoolmarm wear, replete with knotted collar and wire-rimmed glasses.

more here.

Science Hasn’t Refuted Free Will

Christian List in the Boston Review:

According to the skeptics, human actions aren’t the result of conscious choices but are caused by physical processes in the brain and body over which people have no control. Human beings are just complex physical machines, determined by the laws of nature and prior physical conditions as much as steam engines and the solar system are so determined. The idea of free will, the skeptics say, is a holdover from a naïve worldview that has been refuted by science, just as ghosts and spirits have been refuted. You have as little control over whether to continue to read this article as you have over the date of the next total solar eclipse visible from New York. (It is due to take place on May 1, 2079.)

Such free-will skepticism may not yet be embraced by the general public. Nor is it new; the philosophical debate about whether free will is compatible with determinism stretches back centuries, and the modern scientific debate has been roiling at least since the famous neuroscience experiments on the alleged neural causes of voluntary actions conducted by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s. Still, this skepticism makes trouble for some deeply held views about ourselves. The idea of free will is central to the way we understand ourselves as autonomous agents and to our practices of holding one another responsible.

More here.


Just Deserts

Daniel C Dennett and Gregg D Caruso debate free will in Aeon:

[Dennett] You weren’t responsible for becoming an autonomous agent, but since you are one, it is entirely appropriate for the rest of us to hold you responsible for your deeds under all but the most dire circumstances. As [the American country singer] Ricky Skaggs once put it: ‘I can’t control the wind, but I can adjust the sails.’ To suppose that some further condition should be met in order for you or anyone else to be ‘truly deserving’ is to ignore or deny the manifest difference in abilities for self-control that we can observe and measure readily. In other words, the rationale or justification for excusing someone, holding them not deserving of criticism or punishment, is their deficit in this competence. We don’t try to reason with bears or babies or lunatics because they aren’t able to respond appropriately. Why do we reason with people? Why do we try to convince them of conclusions about free will or science or causation or anything else? Because we think – for good reason – that in general people are reasonable, are moved by reasons, can adjust their behaviour and goals in the light of reasons presented to them. There is something indirectly self-refuting in arguing that people are not moved by reasons! And that is the key to the kind of self-control which we are justified in treating as our threshold for true desert.

Caruso: I don’t disagree with you that there are important differences between agents who have the kind of rational control you highlight and those who lack it. Such a distinction is undeniable. A normal adult who is responsive to reasons differs in significant ways from one who is suffering from psychopathy, Alzheimer’s or severe mental illness. I have no issue, then, with acknowledging various degrees of ‘control’ or ‘autonomy’ – in fact, I think you and other compatibilists have done a great job highlighting these differences. My disagreement has more to do with the conditions required for what I call ‘basic desert’ moral responsibility.

More here.

Writing ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’

V.S. Naipaul in the New York Review of Books:

Of all my books A House for Mr. Biswas is the one closest to me. It is the most personal, created out of what I saw and felt as a child. It also contains, I believe, some of my funniest writing. I began as a comic writer and still consider myself one. In middle age now, I have no higher literary ambition than to write a piece of comedy that might complement or match this early book.

The book took three years to write. It felt like a career; and there was a short period, toward the end of the writing, when I do believe I knew all or much of the book by heart. The labor ended; the book began to recede. And I found that I was unwilling to reenter the world I had created, unwilling to expose myself again to the emotions that lay below the comedy. I became nervous of the book. I haven’t read it since I passed the proofs in May 1961.

My first direct contact with the book since the proofreading came two years ago, in 1981. I was in Cyprus, in the house of a friend. Late one evening the radio was turned on, to the BBC World Service. I was expecting a news bulletin. Instead, an installment of my book was announced. The previous year the book had been serialized on the BBC in England as “A Book at Bedtime.” The serialization was now being repeated on the World Service. I listened. And in no time, though the installment was comic, though the book had inevitably been much abridged, and the linking words were not always mine, I was in tears, swamped by the emotions I had tried to shield myself from for twenty years.

More here.

7 things to know about the private equity industry

Matthew Yglesias in Vox:

Emily has written at length about private equity’s role in recent bankruptcies of major retailers and about Elizabeth Warren’s plan to reform and re-regulate the industry. Those are great long reads if you want to go deep, and, of course, the episode itself is chock-full of details.

But here are seven main takeaways:

  • The private equity business model doesn’t have a technical or legal definition, but it normally refers to leveraged buyouts — a private equity firm offers to buy a business with cash that’s mostly borrowed and the debt that accrues to the books of the acquired company rather than the private equity firm itself.
  • Because companies bought through the LBO process are now indebted, the business inherently becomes riskier and more fragile than it was before the acquisition — a small downturn might make them unable to cover interest costs and force them into bankruptcy.
  • At its best, private equity provides a new infusion of energy, money, and outside expertise that can help improve a company’s operational performance and set the stage for expansion.
  • At other times, the debt burden induced by the LBO simply makes it harder to raise capital for needed investments, making it even more difficult for the acquired company to survive and thrive in a changing business environment.

More here.

Ralph Ellison’s letters fulfill his great first novel’s promise

Gene Seymour in Book Forum:

ANY OPPORTUNITY TO READ A GREAT WRITER’S MAIL should be embraced in these days when a serial Instagram feed is about as ambitious as correspondence gets. Granted, at roughly a thousand pages, The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison may be asking a lot, at the outset, of even the most committed scholar of twentieth-century American literature, to say nothing of the waves of readers who continue to come away from Invisible Man convinced that it’s the Great American Novel.

But these letters, as assembled by John F. Callahan and Marc C. Conner, come to us a quarter of a century after Ellison’s death as more than just another corpus for further academic study. In heft and breadth, the missives here make up the Big Book of Life that Invisible Man’s triumph augured, and that we’ve been awaiting (not always patiently) for all these years. After his first book’s publication in 1952, Ellison doggedly, painstakingly, and at times dolefully toiled at completing a second novel, which remained unfinished at the author’s death in 1994. More than either posthumous version of that book, the densely compacted Juneteenth and forbiddingly gargantuan Three Days Before the Shooting . . . (both curated by Callahan, Ellison’s executor), Ellison’s letters vibrate with striking imagery, flinty repartee, shrewd literary insight, and bountiful reverie. One can’t help thinking while wandering through this capacious volume that if only this mercurial and meticulous man could have somehow sustained the high-spirited, polychromatic flow of his correspondence and carried it into his regular routine, there could have been two, three, even four more novels bearing his name. Or so you’d like to imagine.

The story told by this Ellison opus, as in Invisible Man, concerns a black American’s progress toward self-realization in a world that insists on misunderstanding him. Ellison was correct to insist, especially to interviewers in the immediate wake of its publication, that his novel was not autobiographical, although the author, like the book’s anonymous protagonist, rose from modest beginnings (in Oklahoma City) to attend a historically black university (Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute).

More here. (Note: Throughout February, at least one post will honor The Black History Month. This year’s theme is “African Americans and the Vote.” Readers are encouraged to send in their suggestions)

50 States, 50 Love Stories

Jordan and Egan in The New York Times:

Plunk yourself in an armchair and lose yourself in a tale of love, whether it’s a family saga, “12-hanky weeper” or timeworn classic.

Before Audrey Hepburn shimmied into that iconic black dress and dangled her cigarette holder between two fingers, the story of Holly Golightly existed only between the covers of Truman Capote’s beloved novella. Way back in 1958, our reviewer summed it up in words that hold true to this day: “‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ is a valentine of love, fashioned by way of reminiscence, to one Holly Golightly … a wild thing searching for something to belong to.”

On an island in Puget Sound in 1954, the body of a fisherman is pulled out of the sea, trapped in his own net. ​A Japanese-American man is charged with his murder, and the ensuing trial leads the town’s newspaper editor to reflect on his long repressed love for the accused man’s wife. The novel, which became a best seller and was adapted into a 1999 feature film, explores the sometimes porous line between unrequited love and resentment, and how deep-seated animosity and fear can erode a community.

More here.