Reading The Hebrew Prophets Today

Rick Baum at The Point:

But how can we think of YHWH as indicating a path away from injustice and oppression? One way we might try to understand Amos’s sense of YHWH in the central passages of the chiasmus is with reference to the notion of wonder. Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prominent twentieth-century theologian, rooted his theology in the teaching of the prophets and particularly in his observation that “to the prophets wonder is a form of thinking … it is an attitude that never ceases.” Importantly, for Heschel, wonder is a real-world experience—one that is latent in every person—resulting from even the most mundane aspects of life. “We do not come upon it only at the climax of thinking or in observing strange, extraordinary facts but in the startling fact that there are facts at all: being, the universe, the unfolding of time,” he writes in God in Search of Man. “We may face it at every turn, in a grain of sand, in an atom, as well as in the stellar space.”

more here.

Lee Krasner at The Barbican

T.J. Clark at the LRB:

The Prophecy pictures were made in tragic circumstances. By 1956 Krasner’s marriage to Jackson Pollock was all but broken. In August that year, while Krasner was in Europe, Pollock’s Oldsmobile came off the road at speed, killing himself and Edith Metzger, a friend of his lover, Ruth Kligman. Kligman survived the crash. The paintings Krasner made in response to the horror – and this is almost always her strength – are deeply engaged with other people’s imagery. Fighting with De Kooning’s Woman, as she does throughout – fighting and feeding on his colour, the scale and shape of his Cubist body parts, his bad faith fascination with Marilyn Monroe gorgeousness (bad faith because his irony is so obviously an alibi for gloating) – is her way of discovering what ‘woman’, that terrifying abstraction, meant for her. Out of the engagement comes the originality. Dripping paint, for example, was already a tired Ab Ex trademark by 1956, by no means De Kooning’s exclusive property. But no one had made dripped paint so unlovely, so impatient and passionless, as Krasner did the pinks and whites in Birth. (The tone of the title is undecidable.) For the fight with De Kooning to end in victory, other painters’ weaponry had to be taken out of the closet, some of it distinctly old-fashioned. Krasner was never up to date. Three in Two, for example, evokes explicitly, and not just in its title, the savage Jungian splitting and swapping of genders that Pollock had gone in for a decade earlier, during the time of Two and Male and Female. Behind those paintings lay Picasso, specifically Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Krasner was monstrously confident that she could mobilise this big machinery without in the least repeating its moves – or rather, that she could use the moves to deliver an entirely new, and dreadful, sense of closeness and inhumanity. Embrace, for example, is Les Demoiselles churned into viscera.

more here.

Chemists make first-ever ring of pure carbon

Davide Castelvecchi in Nature:

Long after most chemists had given up trying, a team of researchers has synthesized the first ring-shaped molecule of pure carbon — a circle of 18 atoms. The chemists started with a triangular molecule of carbon and oxygen, which they manipulated with electric currents to create the carbon-18 ring. Initial studies of the properties of the molecule, called a cyclocarbon, suggest that it acts as a semiconductor, which could make similar straight carbon chains useful as molecular-scale electronic components. It is an “absolutely stunning work” that opens up a new field of investigation, says Yoshito Tobe, a chemist at Osaka University in Japan. “Many scientists, including myself, have tried to capture cyclocarbons and determine their molecular structures, but in vain,” Tobe says. The results appear in Science1 on 15 August.

Pure carbon comes in several different forms, including diamond, graphite and ‘nanotubes’. Atoms of the element can form chemical bonds with themselves in various configurations: for example, each atom can bind to four neighbours in a pyramid-shaped pattern, as in diamond; or to three, as in the hexagonal patterns that make up the single-atom-thick sheets of graphene. (Such a three-bond pattern is also found in bulk graphite as well as in carbon nanotubes and in the globular molecules called fullerenes.) But carbon can also form bonds with just two nearby atoms. Nobel-prizewinning chemist Roald Hoffmann at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and others have long theorized that this would lead to pure chains of carbon atoms. Each atom might form either a double bond on each side — meaning the adjacent atoms share two electrons — or a triple bond on one side and a single bond on the other. Various teams have attempted to synthesize rings or chains based on this pattern.

More here.

Friday Poem

Crows over the Wheatfield

After Van Gogh

I have done with the sun.
Here on these northern
plains wheat fields become
waves, beneath leaden skies,
shadows black of dogs
run through the swaying crop.
Long ago I left another country
where the sulphurous sun
hung low over the potato fields.
They called me a madman
because I wanted to be a
true Christian. In Arles
I painted blossom pure as
drifts of Japanese snow.
Now it is upon me again,
this clamped crown.
I who melted gold into
an alchemy of sunflowers
burnished as a lion’s mane.
Misfortune must be good
for something…
Across the wheat field crows
wheel in a ragged requiem
towards me. My vision
shifts and slides. Three paths
diverge – leading somewhere
going nowhere. My eyes
burn. I cannot hold on.

by Sue Hubbard
from Ghost Station
saltpublishing 2004

Vincent Van Gogh
Wheatfield with Crows

Thursday, August 15, 2019

What Ails the Right Isn’t (Just) Racism

Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic:

I concur that Trump, as surely as Lee Atwater, marshals racist tropes. But I doubt the last claim: “Instrumental racists” believe that voters will perhaps respond only to racism. And I doubt that voters, in fact, respond only to racism. Something distinct and deeper is at work. This deeper force explains nearly all of Trump’s most odious and irresponsible comments, not just the racist ones. It helps explain why so many conservatives and Republicans were caught off guard by Trump’s rise and the resonance of his bigotry. And it helps clarify what the left sees and doesn’t see about racism. Once leftists understand it, they will find it easier to defeat the identitarian right.

No one better anticipated today’s societal divisions than the political psychologist Karen Stenner, author of the 2005 book The Authoritarian Dynamic. The book built on research literature that distinguishes between “authoritarians,” who prize what Stenner calls “oneness and sameness” so much so that they are prone to support coercion to effect it, and “libertarians,” who not only defend but affirmatively prize diversity and difference. (Those labels are not to be conflated with the popular definitions of the terms.)

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Adam Becker on the Curious History of Quantum Mechanics

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

There are many mysteries surrounding quantum mechanics. To me, the biggest mysteries are why physicists haven’t yet agreed on a complete understanding of the theory, and even more why they mostly seem content not to try. This puzzling attitude has historical roots that go back to the Bohr-Einstein debates. Adam Becker, in his book What Is Real?, looks at this history, and discusses how physicists have shied away from the foundations of quantum mechanics in the subsequent years. We discuss why this has been the case, and talk about some of the stubborn iconoclasts who insisted on thinking about it anyway.

More here.

Against Literalism—’The Satanic Verses’ Fatwa at 30

Daniel James Sharp in Quillette:

The novel’s protagonists are Indian-born Muslims. Saladin is a voiceover artist and an immigrant from Bombay to London whose shame about his Indian-ness and desire to be anglicised form the backdrop to a complex interrogation of what it means to be rootless and how migrants in a globalised world can find a sense of identity. Gibreel, meanwhile, is a legend of the Bombay movie scene whose recent health crisis has led him to lose his faith and travel to London to be with the woman he loves, Alleluia Cone. Famous for portraying Hindu gods on screen, Gibreel’s newfound archangelic nature sorely tests his mind—a newly godless man condemned to act as God’s (or is that Satan’s?) right hand on earth.

But both protagonists are hybrids who contain elements of the saintly and the diabolical. They both face challenges and crises of identity. Through them, Rushdie explores what it means to lose and then find one’s identity and what the true experience is of migrants whose rootlessness and existence in a foreign culture leads to a crisis of selfhood. The intermingling of elements—culture, language, religion—is celebrated, while the concept of purity in identity and culture is repudiated as too constricting.

More here.

Gin and Morals, Please

Thomas Triedman at The New Criterion:

“Cruelty and Humor” may be the subtitle of the Hogarth exhibition on display at the Morgan Library through September 22, but “Beer and Gin” would be more fitting. In the early eighteenth century, the British government (amid heightened tensions with France) instituted a policy to promote gin, a traditionally British drink, at the expense of French brandy. The policy proved too effective: by 1743, the average Brit was—in an intoxicated and nationalist frenzy—drinking 2.2 gallons each year. A satirist, agitator, and, in the words of David Bindman, “self-consciously English artist,” William Hogarth (1697–1764) employed his work in the hopes of chilling the “Gin Craze” of the 1750s.

Hard alcohol has, for many centuries, limited forbearance. The crusade against spirits probably began with Pittacus, an ancient Greek historian, who believed that “a blow given by a drunken man [should have been] more feverishly punished than if it had been given by one that was sober.” His idea set a precedent that extended well into William Hogarth’s era.

more here.

The Inner and Outer Worlds of Anne Frank’s Diary

Ian Buruma at the TLS:

The notion of Anne Frank’s diary as a source of redemption, or at least consolation, received a further boost from the American stage play, written by two Hollywood screenwriters, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, in 1955. The famous last words in the play are taken from a diary entry on July 15, 1944: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart”. Thus, the story that would end in Anne’s squalid death was given an uplifting Hollywood ending.

The context of these words is hardly uplifting, however. Anne was fighting against despair when she wrote them. In the same paragraph from which the quotation was drawn she wrote: “I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions”. But she found it impossible “to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death”. One month before this attempt to cling to a vestige of hope, she expressed a much darker view of humanity:

more here.

El Lago

Eduardo Halfon at the NYRB:

We called it El Lago. The Lake. As kids, growing up in the Guatemala of the 1970s, we probably never even knew its name—Lake Amatitlán. Nor did we care. It was only a winding, half-hour drive from the city to my grandparent’s vacation chalet on its shore. We spent most weekends and holidays of my childhood there, jumping off the wooden dock, learning to swim in the icy blue water, digging out old Mayan pots and relics from the muddy bottom, paddling out on long surfboards while little black fish jumped up through the surface and sometimes even landed on the acrylic board. Gently, we’d nudge them back in.

One early morning, we all woke up to find two indigenous men floating face down by the wooden dock. They were naked and bloated. Guerrilleros, my father said, his tone far from compassionate or even sympathetic. Guerrilla fighters, probably from one of the surrounding villages. I was still too young to understand that the military used to dispose of some of their enemies there, dumping the dead and tortured bodies into the water. A few weeks later, my grandparents sold the chalet.

more here.

Thursday Poem

For a taste of serenity turn to Snyder
……………………………. —Roshi Bob

For All

Ah to be alive
on a mid-September morn
fording a stream
barefoot, pants rolled up,
holding boots, pack on,
sunshine, ice in the shallows,
northern rockies.

Rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters
stones turn underfoot, small and hard as toes
cold nose dripping
singing inside
creek music, heart music,
smell of sun on gravel.

I pledge allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the soil
of Turtle Island,
and to the beings who thereon dwell
one ecosystem in diversity
under the sun
With joyful interpenetration for all.

by Gary Snyder

What is happening in Kashmir? The best books to help understand

Preti Taneja in The Guardian:

Seventy years after partition, the annexation of Kashmir by India is the endgame of Devraj, the Hindu nationalist businessman protagonist of my 2017 novel We That Are Young. His tactic is settler-colonialism: he is opening a seven-star hotel in Srinagar. But according to Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which among other protections prohibited non-Kashmiris from owning property there, he should never have been allowed to build it. In real life, Article 370 was last week unilaterally abolished by the Indian government. The Kashmiri population were placed under lockdown; there was a shortage of medicines and baby food, people were not able to speak to family members outside the state. Reports emerged that police used tear gas and pellet guns to break up peaceful protest. The international community was caught off guard. But Kashmir has long been known as the most militarised region in the world. Trapped between India and Pakistan, the people have suffered decades of human rights abuses and state-sanctioned violence. The mass of papers in the UN archives since 1947 reveal much international diplomacy, but a lack of political will to intervene.

Curfewed Night is the Kashmiri writer Basharat Peer’s moving memoir. He was just 13 years old in 1989, when the separatist movement turned violent. He writes of the desire for self-determination, the brutal Indian response. Of the friends who left their villages to train as fighters in Pakistan; of those who “disappeared”, possibly to Indian torture centres run off‑grid; and the “half widows” left behind.

More here.

A Novelist Teaches Herself Physics

Kevin Berger in Nautilus:

Helen Clapp, a professor of theoretical physics at MIT, recounted the biggest news of 21st century physics, the detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), an international collaboration of scientists, resulting from the collision of two black holes more than a billion years ago. Einstein posited the existence of gravitational waves in 1915, Clapp said. “People describe these waves as ‘ripples in spacetime,’ with analogies about bowling balls on trampolines and people rolling around on mattresses, and these are probably as good as we’re going to get. The problem with all of the analogies, though, is that they’re three-dimensional; it’s almost impossible for human beings to add a fourth dimension, and visualize how objects with enormous gravity—black holes or dead stars—might bend not only space, but time.”

“Because gravity could stretch matter,” Clapp said, “We knew that a collision between enormously dense objects—black holes or neutron stars—was the most likely way we would be able to hear it. One scientist came up with a good Hollywood analogy—that the universe had finally ‘produced a talkie.’ Actually, the universe has always produced talkies; it was only that we didn’t have the ears to hear them.” The “interferometers became the ears.”

In fact, Clapp is the fictional creation of Nell Freudenberger, the narrator of her recent novel, Lost and Wanted. The novel, Freudenberger’s third, takes readers inside Clapp’s suddenly turbulent world, a single mother whose close friend, Charlie, has died. Freudenberger explored the transformation of characters uprooted from their home countries and cultures in her previous novels, The Dissidentand The Newlyweds, and here traces her physicist’s dislocation as she receives texts from, apparently, her deceased friend, as if she were a ghost.

More here.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Ruse Of Fiction: An Interview With Amitava Kumar

Jeffrey J. Williams in Public Books:

Amitava Kumar’s recent novel, Immigrant, Montana, tells the story of Kailash, an Indian graduate student who has immigrated to the US to study at Columbia University, and his education in love as well as in academe. The novel was a New York Times Notable Book of 2018, and it has been compared to the autofiction of Teju Cole and Ben Lerner. In this interview, Kumar talks about how the novel is and is not autobiographical.

Kumar has also published several books of criticism and of reportage on India and Pakistan.

Jeffrey Williams (JW): Your new novel, Immigrant, Montana, has been widely reviewed and most of the reviews have touted it as autofiction, although it strikes me that it is not really autobiographical. Having known you for a long time, I’d say you conducted a skillful ruse, giving it the air of autobiography.

Amitava Kumar (AK): I worked very hard both to invent things and, at another level, to make it appear as if it were my story. For example, the narrator is called AK-47. I was on a train somewhere, and I thought, he must have a provincial name, Kailash, which is not a name you will hear among many Indians. And then I thought up the idea that an Irish friend of his calls him Kalashnikov, and that becomes AK-47, so it promotes the illusion that it’s about me.

But, of course, so much of it is fabrication, so I had never thought I was doing autofiction. I was very much open to invention, but at the same time I wanted it to read like it was a report from real life. It therefore attempts to insert personal details in a way that people understand as autofiction. For example, as you know, I never went to Columbia, I never studied with Said, I never knew this man called Eqbal Ahmad, on whom the main character, Ehsaan Ali, is based. But they were a great inspiration to me.

More here.

‘So Huge a Phallic Triumph’: Why Apollo Had Little Appeal for Auden

Edward Mendelson in the New York Review of Books:

In 1969, W.H. Auden wrote a skeptical poem about the moon landing after he had declined a request to write a celebratory one.

As Apollo 11 was heading for the moon, the editors of The New York Times decided to celebrate the landing, scheduled for a few days later, by printing a poem about it on the front page. In an article twenty years later, A.M. Rosenthal, then the managing editor, recalled the editors’ thinking:

What the poet wrote would count most, but we also wanted to say to our readers, look, this paper does not know how to express how it feels this day and perhaps you don’t either, so here is a fellow, a poet, who will try for all us.

Rosenthal continued, “We called one poet who just did not think much of the moon or us.” Rosenthal didn’t name names, but it was widely known in literary New York that the uncooperative poet was Auden. Someone at the Times, possibly Rosenthal, had offered to commission him to write a poem about the meaning of the event, and Auden had replied that it would have no meaning at all.

More here.