Clive James, a Tireless Polymath Who Led With His Wit

Dwight Garner at the NY Times:

“A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing,” he wrote. “Those who lack humor are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.”

He said of George W. Bush that he “should not be delivering a State of the Union address. He should be delivering pizza.” He compared Arnold Schwarzenegger’s torso to a “condom full of walnuts.” He made fun of his own looks, comparing himself to a bank robber who forgot to take the stocking off his head.

He told an editor, “Listen, if I wrote like that, I’d be you.” Reviewing a memoir by Leonid Brezhnev, he declared: “Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it. If you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs drop dead.”

more here.

Investigating a Famous Study About the Line Between Sanity and Madness

Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times:

Books about mental illness often reflect on how reality is experienced. In addition to the standard questions — What do we know, and how do we know it? — is another layer of inquiry: What do we know about our own minds, and what if it isn’t true? In her first book, “Brain on Fire,” Susannah Cahalan described her horrifying experience of presenting symptoms of mental illness that looked like schizophrenia but turned out to be an autoimmune disease. She eventually received the treatment she needed, but the tortuous ordeal disrupted her assumptions about the medical profession and her sense of self. Her next project promised to be straightforward by comparison: She would use her skills as an investigative journalist to write about somebody else — a scientist and his pathbreaking study. In 1973, the psychologist David Rosenhan published “On Being Sane in Insane Places” in the journal Science, helping to upend the field of psychiatry. He had recruited healthy volunteers to feign symptoms of mental illness and get admitted to hospitals, thereby showing how easily “sane” people could get institutionalized by a profession that had enormous confidence in its diagnoses and had accumulated a vast amount of power. Cahalan decided to track down these volunteers, or “pseudopatients.” She had landed on a puzzle that seemed to be missing only a few pieces.

What she unearthed turned out to be far stranger, as documented in her absorbing new book, “The Great Pretender.” It’s the kind of story that has levels to it, only instead of a townhouse it’s more like an Escher print. On one level: A profile of Rosenhan and his study. On another: Cahalan’s own experience of researching the book. And on a third: The fraught history of psychiatry and the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

More here.

Paying the Piper

Lewis Lapham in Lapham’s Quarterly:

The warming of the planet currently spread across seven continents, four oceans, and twenty-four time zones is the product of a fossil-fueled capitalist economy that over the past two hundred years has stuffed the world with riches beyond the wit of man to marvel at or measure. The wealth of nations comes at a steep price—typhoons in the Philippine Sea, Category 5 hurricanes in the Caribbean, massive flooding in Kansas and Uttar Pradesh, forests disappearing in Sumatra and Brazil, unbearable heat in Paris, uncontrollable wildfires in California, unbreathable air in Mexico City and Beijing. The capitalist dynamic is both cause of our prosperous good fortune and means of our probable destruction, the damage in large part the work of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, guided by the belief that money buys the future. Nature doesn’t take checks. Who then pays the piper—does capitalism survive climate change, or does a changed climate put an end to capitalism? The question informs this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, and in place of an answer, it offers observations that follow along the line of my learning to ask it.

Eighty-five percent of the carbon now present in the atmosphere is the value added during the course of my lifetime, 2.5 trillion tons, roughly equivalent to one thousand times the total weight of all the fish in the sea. I was fifty years old before I knew it was there, much less understood it to be a problem. Born and baptized in Rachel Carson’s Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, I grew up in the city of San Francisco in the 1940s, so far apart from nature I assumed most of it located in Africa, picturesque specimens to be seen in Golden Gate Park and the San Francisco Zoo. The streets in my neighborhood bore the names of trees—Walnut and Cherry, Laurel, Chestnut, and Spruce. I didn’t wonder what the trees themselves might look like; nor was I familiar with the birds, plants, insects, and animals living on the far side of the Presidio wall, half a block from my boyhood home. Like most city-bred children of my generation (especially those among us brought up under the protection of money and machines), I thought bread came from the baker, light from a bulb, milk from a bottle. At grammar school during the Second World War, I devoted the free study periods to sketching the silhouette of every fighter plane and bomber in the American, German, and Japanese air forces.

More here.

Saturday Poem

The wall dematerializes as a form and allows the name to become the object…
– Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Walls and Mirrors, Fall 1982

The English translation of my surname is walls
misspelled, the original s turned to its mirrored
twin, the z the beginning of the sound for sleep.

I’m nearly twelve and the mirror is a disaster I
learn to turn away from, the girl looking back
always looking to extract her pound of flesh.

I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth,
Maya Lin is writing as the mirrored wall
of names she’s made is arranged and laid

against the riven hillside. I never looked
at the memorial as a wall
, she writes, but
as an edge to the earth, an opened side

For a wall to become a mirror it must not
absorb or scatter too much light; for a girl
to become the protagonist she must sleep

with the guy or until he kisses her awake.
Sometimes we know she’s the fairest one
of all because of the mirror on the wall.

Sometimes she must scale the city’s walls
to bury the guy. Antigone cuts into the earth
to give him his proper memorial. She ends

up the heroine and buried alive, an in-be-
tween thing
, like someone who’s eleven or
nearly twelve. When I look at the number

11 I see two walls, my name and its mirrored
twin. Sometimes 11 resembles the mirrored
L’s at the end of wall or the beginning of llanto,

the Spanish word for weeping. Sometimes 11
looks like a pair of railway sleepers arranged
and laid along a track that’s always leading me

back to my war-worn father. Sometimes the guy
comes back from battle and has seizures
in his sleep and the girl must shake him awake.

Sometimes the wall and the name are one
and the same. Sometimes the wall is where
we end up to begin letting go our llanto.

by Deborah Paredez
Split This Rock

Friday, November 29, 2019

About Kurt Vonnegut

Suzanne Raga in Mental Floss:


Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922, Vonnegut met his future wife, Jane, in kindergarten. Although they dated as teenagers in high school, their relationship paused when Vonnegut went to Cornell University, dropped out to serve in World War II, and became a prisoner of war in Germany. After returning to the U.S., he married Jane in 1945. The couple had six children—three biological and three adopted—but divorced in 1971.


When Vonnegut was born, his parents were well-off. Kurt Sr., his father, was an architect and Edith, his mother, was independently wealthy from the brewery that her family owned. But due to Prohibition and the Great Depression, the family struggled to make ends meet, sold their home, and switched their son to a public school. Edith, who suffered from mental illness, became addicted to alcohol and prescription pills. In 1944, when Vonnegut came home from military training to celebrate Mother’s Day, he found Edith dead.

More here.

Turkey Or Sides: A Socratic Dialogue

Taylor Kay Phillips and Felipe Torres Medina in McSweeney’s:

LAIUS: Pardon my delay, Socrates! And thank you for being such a gracious host on this feast of thanks! My chariot got delayed at Crete. I had to wait at Terminal B for two hours and I was not going to pay 43 drachmas for that pita bread with cheese the Etruscans sell.

SOCRATES: Enter, Laius. You must be famished! The turkey is nearly ready, but please help yourself to some sides.

LAIUS: Thank you for being such a gracious host, Socrates, but seeing as I have waited so long I rather will wait for the turkey to be ready.

SOCRATES: Do you not favor the sides? We have casserole of green beans slathered in Campbellios’s cream of mushroom soup and laden with Funyuns, sweet potato candied with sugar, and potatoes mashed and covered with fine goat cheese.

LAIUS: Gracious host, the sides look delicious, but without the central dish of turkey, they and the meal itself are incomplete. The turkey is, as they say, the reason for the season.

More here.

Food is a strong proof of our animality; it is equally strong evidence of how we transcend it

Wilfred M. McClay in The Hedgehog Review:

Food is a many-splendored thing, and its meanings too are manifold. It upholds the life of both our higher and lower selves, and most things in between. Indeed, the ways we think about our food might well be taken as a rough index of what we consider those two words higher and lower to mean more generally, and, in turn, of what our conception of that axial division tells about ourselves and the world picture we carry around in our heads.

Of course, there is always a danger of overinterpretation, and the subject of food, like that of music, notoriously lends itself to untethered reflections and inflationary writing. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes food is just fuel for the body. But that’s true far less often than one might think, and it’s almost never simply and entirely so. As the sunflower turns its face toward the sun, so our experiences with food tend to turn us toward thoughts of things greater than food, borne up by the power of our cultural and spiritual expectations.

To begin with perhaps the most salient examples of this truth, consider the dietary codes imposed by so many of the world’s great religions—Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, among others.

More here.

This Mess of Troubled Times

Karl Schlögel at Eurozine:

Looking and listening around today, one sometimes gets the impression that the ‘historical moment’ of 1989, with all its excitement and happiness, never occurred – that the event witnessed by many of us has vanished under a mountain of interpretation and reflection; that ‘in fact’ all that happened on the streets of Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Bucharest and elsewhere was mere self-deception, an illusion, surreality. Despite all the documentaries, the newsreels and interviews, the experience of people appears to have largely been forgotten – people who first crossed the open border, striding enthusiastically or strolling, exploring a world that had been closed to them their entire lives, the thrill of liberty, of the freedom of movement, of reading newspapers they never had access to before, of visiting relatives in the West.

This ‘historical moment’ had its illusions, but it was not illusory. It cannot be ‘deconstructed’ or undone. It was part of a great movement of European liberation.

more here.

Redefining the Black Mountain Poets

Jonathan C. Creasy at the Paris Review:

Grouping writers into “schools” has always been problematic. The so-called Black Mountain poets never identified themselves as such, but the facts of their union spring from a remarkable instance of artistic community: Black Mountain College and the web of interactions the place occasioned. Founded in the mountains of western North Carolina in 1933 and closed by 1956, the college was one of the most significant experiments in arts and education of the twentieth century. In recent years, a number of international exhibitions and publications have showcased the range of artwork produced at the college’s two campuses, the first situated in the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly, and the second at Lake Eden in the Swannanoa Valley. The list of famous names associated with Black Mountain is as impressive as it is unlikely, given that the college never housed more than a hundred students and faculty at a time, often far fewer.

Difficult questions persist in attempting to define a “Black Mountain” school of poets. Do we look to the physical and historical circumstances of Black Mountain College, or the complex pattern of friendships, influence, correspondence, publication, and collaboration that constitute the broader notion of this artistic coterie?

more here.

Lucian Freud’s Elusive, Uncertain Self-Portraits

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst at the TLS:

Reflection (Self-portrait), 1985 Oil on canvas, 55.9 x 55.3 cm Private collection, on loan to the Irish Museum of Modern Art © The Lucian Freud Archive/Bridgeman Images

He was often in trouble. There was his love of gambling, which he nurtured so carefully that at the Playboy Club in the 1960s he demonstrated how to play three games of pontoon simultaneously, keeping all the mathematical calculations ticking over in his head and accepting his losses as cheerfully as if they belonged to someone else. (Given how often he borrowed money there’s a good chance they did.) There were his regular dips into London’s criminal underworld: at one stage he was rumoured to owe the Krays half a million pounds; on another occasion he rang a friend asking for £1,500, “and if I haven’t got it by twelve o’clock they’re going to cut my tongue out”. Then there were the unpredictable bursts of violence, pushing one girl out of a car when she wouldn’t go home with him, and kicking a man in a pub for talking out of turn. Yet from Lucian Freud’s point of view such events were merely distractions from a far more serious fight, which was the one he had with himself every day. Even catching sight of himself in the mirror he kept in his studio could feel like an encounter between two strangers. “I don’t accept the information I get when I look at myself”, he explained, “and that’s when the trouble starts.”

more here.

Citizens Adrift

Joshua Mitchell in City Journal:

Today, the problem of existential homelessness has become acute. Growing rates of anxiety, loneliness, and suicide offer statistical confirmation. Facebook and Amazon are among the largest and most powerful corporations on the planet, yet the realization is dawning that social media “friends” are poor substitutes for the real thing and that man cannot live by online shopping alone. (See “When Supplements Become Substitutes,” Autumn 2018.) The mobile phone connects us to the world but imprisons us inside ourselves. Human life must be lived at human scale, in the face-to-face relations of everyday life. These flesh-and-blood connections extend from our local neighborhoods to the nation­­—the largest durable community known to man.

Since 1989 and the end of the Cold War, though, we have increasingly tried to build a world without attention to these communities—building it instead around the configuration of what I call “management society and selfie man.” If only populism were the crisis we face. Populism is a political problem. It is something that we can fix—say, by pursuing more beneficial policies for the struggling middle class, or by adjusting trade policy. Homelessness of the existential sort that Tocqueville described is a deeper problem. Tocqueville marveled that American federalism helped address the problem of homelessness by giving citizens “a share in their government.” Yet how can federalism work today if we are so frightened by real-time, everyday dealings with our fellow citizens that we text-message one another to see if it’s okay to talk over the phone?

More here.

What is authentic love? A View from Simone de Beauvoir

Kate Kirkpatrick in iai:

Simone de Beauvoir spent more time talking about inauthentic love than authentic. But that is because she thought authentic love is so hard to achieve. From the vantage point of 2017, aspects of Beauvoir’s view of authentic love look rather dated and pessimistic: for one thing, it presents men and women in binary terms that are unlikely to resound with many readers. Today’s women have greater access to education and employment than women did in 1949, and may be less likely to see love as life, as Beauvoir charged, instead of a part of life. Although structural inequality persists, relationships between men and women – or men and men, or women and women, etc. – theoretically have better chances of proceeding on an equal footing. But nevertheless many cultural portrayals of love (from Puccini to pop) continue to depict it as a game between unequals – as conquest or domination, seduction or entrapment – where the boundaries are drawn along distinctly gendered lines. Such dynamics, on Beauvoir’s view, make authenticity in love impossible – but why?

What Love Meant for Men versus Women

In her watershed feminist book The Second Sex Beauvoir wrote that the word ‘love’ has different meanings for men and women – and that these differences are responsible for many of the disagreements between them. Byron hit the nail on the head, she thought, by saying that for men love is an occupation in life while for women it is life itself. Writing in 1949, Beauvoir believed that men remained ‘sovereign subjects’ in love – that they valued their beloved women alongside other pursuits, as an integral part – but only a part – of their whole life. By contrast, for women love was expected to become their whole life: ‘total abdication for the benefit of a master’ (SS 699). This may sound an alien note in twenty-first century ears. But in Beauvoir’s time she saw many assumptions (implicit and explicit) that for women love involved forgetting themselves as people in their own right.

More here.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

The Long History of Debt Cancellation

Olivia Schwob in the Boston Review:

Today the phrase “debtors’ prison” is often invoked to describe this experience of punitive indebtedness. Sometimes it is meant literally. Consider Melissa Welch-Latronica, a thirty-year-old single mother, who in February was wrenched from her minivan and thrown into a jail cell in Porter County, Illinois, over failure to pay an ambulance bill. Her story is unusual but not unique. A 2018 ACLU report documented a thousand cases of the “criminalization of private debt” and compiled a dozen of the most extreme stories. Most of the people featured ended up in jail because they failed to appear in court over unpaid debts, resulting in a warrant. And then there is the abominable, systemic cycle of incarceration and reincarceration of poor people—and particularly poor people of color—unable to pay fines and court fees.

More here.

This year we give thanks for space

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

This year we give thanks for space. (We’ve previously given thanks for the Standard Model LagrangianHubble’s Law, the Spin-Statistics Theoremconservation of momentumeffective field theorythe error bargauge symmetryLandauer’s Principle, the Fourier TransformRiemannian Geometrythe speed of lightthe Jarzynski equality, and the moons of Jupiter.)

Even when we restrict to essentially scientific contexts, “space” can have a number of meanings. In a tangible sense, it can mean outer space — the final frontier, that place we could go away from the Earth, where the stars and other planets are located. In a much more abstract setting, mathematicians use “space” to mean some kind of set with additional structure, like Hilbert space or the space of all maps between two manifolds. Here we’re aiming in between, using “space” to mean the three-dimensional manifold in which physical objects are located, at least as far as our observable universe is concerned.

That last clause reminds us that there are some complications here.

More here.

At their best, self-help books can offer powerful insights

Cal Flyn interviews Oliver Burkeman in Five Books:

Cal Flyn: We’re here to talk about the best self-help books of 2019. Before we start, let’s define our terms: what does ‘self-help’ mean to you?

Oliver Burkeman: I’m always a bit loath to think of self-help as just those books that get that label in the book store. In fact, I think sometimes that they’re among the less helpful books. The idea that philosophy and therapy are separate things would make very little sense to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The earliest philosophy was fully intended to make a difference, to change the way one lived. But then, the same is true of religious writing.

Conventional self-help works best when you know what your problem is, and there are some fairly good, respected, scientifically-backed ways of dealing with that problem. In that case, it’s good to have them packaged and promoted. But I’m increasingly interested in the kind of books that make you question whether you know what your problem is, as good therapy also should. A therapist should at least bear in mind the possibility that the thing you think is wrong with you is not what’s wrong with you at all – or that nothing might be wrong with you.

More here.

Civility & Thanksgiving: Why you should leave politics off the menu

Robert B. Talisse in The Fulcrum:

Something strange is afoot when America turns to journalists for advice in surviving a holiday devoted nearly entirely to eating good food. Politics has rendered Thanksgiving something to be dreaded. Given the purpose of the holiday, this is tragic. Can anything be done to save Thanksgiving from our partisan divisions?

One strategy is to adopt the adage instructing us to avoid discussing politics over dinner. This rule is rooted in the observation that differences of political opinion quickly escalate into hostility. Better, then, that they be suppressed.

There is much to recommend this policy. Yet not everyone holds to the view that politeness outranks the business of democratic citizenship. Some relatives might feel strongly that democracy is a full-time endeavor and so the struggle for decent politics must override traditional manners. According to them, however valuable a congenial holiday might be, justice is a far more important goal.

If instituted strictly for the sake of ensuring peace, the “no politics over dinner” policy compels only those who see peace as especially valuable. When Thanksgiving also involves relatives who regard politics as more important than familial harmony, the policy amounts to unilateral disarmament. That typically means that your drunk uncle gets to hold forth unopposed. One might just as well cancel.

Thus, whatever its merits may be, the “no politics over dinner” policy requires backup from considerations weightier than the desirability of a placid holiday feast.

Such considerations are found in the ideal of democracy itself.

More here.

The Horrible History of Thanksgiving

Charles Blow in The New York Times:

When I was a child, Thanksgiving was simple. It was about turkey and dressing, love and laughter, a time for the family to gather around a feast and be thankful for the year that had passed and be hopeful for the year to come. In school, the story we learned was simple, too: Pilgrims and Native Americans came together to give thanks. We made pictures of the gathering, everyone smiling. We colored turkeys or made them out of construction paper. We sometimes had a mini-feast in class. I thought it was such a beautiful story: People reaching across race and culture to share with one another, to commune with one another. But that is not the full story of Thanksgiving. Like so much of American history, the story has had its least attractive features winnow away — white people have been centered in the narrative and all atrocity has been politely papered over.

So, let us correct that.

What is widely viewed as the first Thanksgiving was a three-day feast to which the Pilgrims had invited the local Wampanoag people as a celebration of the harvest. About 90 came, almost twice the number of Pilgrims. This is the first myth: that the first Thanksgiving was dominated by the Pilgrim and not the Native American. The Native Americans even provided the bulk of the food, according to the Manataka American Indian Council.

This is counter to the Pilgrim-centric view so often presented. Indeed, two of the most famous paintings depicting the first Thanksgiving — one by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe and the other by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris — feature the natives in a subservient position, outnumbered and crouching on the ground on the edge of the frame. The Pilgrims had been desperate and sick and dying but had finally had some luck with crops.

More here.

The case for mandatory vaccination

Liam Drew in Nature:

In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the United Kingdom had eradicated the infectious viral disease rubella. The following year, it similarly designated the country as measles-free after confirmed cases numbered fewer than 125 for the second consecutive year. Immunization rates in UK children were high at that time. They had slumped to a nadir in the mid-2000s following the false assertion in 1998 that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to autism. But by 2016, more than 95% of the country’s 5-year-olds had received one dose of MMR, and roughly 85% had received the pre-school booster that maximizes immunity. When 95% of a population is immune to measles, the disease cannot spread. This is known as herd immunity, and it is the cornerstone of the WHO’s long-held plan to eradicate measles globally. Achieving this would rid the world of a very serious disease, for which 1 in 1,000 cases is fatal. In 2010, eradication was considered achievable by 2020. But that time is almost here, and the disease is not close to being eradicated. In fact, it is on the rise.

During the first half of this year, Europe had 90,000 cases of measles — more than 17 times the number reported in the whole of 2016. In August, the United Kingdom lost its measles-free status (as did Albania, Greece and the Czech Republic). The United States, which is currently experiencing the highest number of measles cases since 1992, is also at risk of losing the measles-free standing that it has held since 2000. The resurgence of measles is a symptom of falling rates of immunization against infectious disease. “When immunization rates drop and herd immunity frays, it’s always measles that comes back first,” says Paul Offit, a paediatrician specializing in infectious disease at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “Measles is the canary in the coal mine.”

More here.