Monday, December 02, 2013
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Thursday, December 05, 2013
Justin E. H. Smith in The American Reader:
What is Europe? Where are its cracks? The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben recently argued that a ‘Latin Union’ should be carved out of the crumbling EU, on the basis of shared linguistic and cultural heritage. Agamben would like to include France in this breakaway federation, yet there is in fact some ancient and medieval basis for the belief that French identity, unlike Italian, is not simply descended from the Romans, but indeed is forged out of a significant encounter with the Germanic and Celtic worlds.
For one thing, the very ethnonym, français, denotes in the first instance Frankish people, speakers of the Germanic Old Franconian language, who also left their name to a certain fort that would grow into a city later distinguished as the birthplace of Goethe and the home of the German stock exchange. Students in traditional programs of Romance philology were required to master the non-Romance languages of influential neighbors; those specializing in Spanish also took Arabic, while those focused on France had to prove mastery of German. But here in fact the neighboring relation does not do justice to the nature of the influence in question. The two cultural spheres are co-generated, and share much of the same stock of treasures. Before there was Tristan und Isolde there was Tristan et Yseult. La Fontaine and the Brothers Grimm tell many of the same tales, gathered from the French and German countrysides like mushrooms. The German word for ‘France’, Frankreich, hits us like Thor’s hammer, even as it accurately describes the thing in question. France is the Reich of the Franks.
Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:
The Nonhuman Rights Project, an organization founded by Massachusetts lawyer and animal rights activist Steven Wise, has this week filed a series of lawsuits in New York demanding that chimpanzees be granted ‘legal personhood’. The lawsuit seeks to extend the concept of habeas corpus to chimpanzees, drawing an analogy with one of the most famous anti-slavery cases, that of James Somerset in 1772, an American slave:
...who had been taken to London by his owner, escaped, was recaptured and was being held in chains on a ship that was about to set sail for the slave markets of Jamaica. With help from a group of abolitionist attorneys, Somerset’s godparents filed a writ of habeas corpus on Somerset’s behalf in order to challenge Somerset’s classification as a legal thing, and the case went before the Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield. In what became one of the most important trials in Anglo-American history, Lord Mansfield ruled that Somerset was not a piece of property, but instead a legal person, and he set him free.
‘We are claiming that chimpanzees are autonomous’, Wise has said. ‘That is, being able to self-determine, be self-aware, and be able to choose how to live their own lives.’
I hope to write a proper response to this. In the meantime, I am republishing an old debate between myself and Peter Singer on the question of rights for Great Apes. In the form of an exchange of letters, it was first published in Prospect magazine in in April 1999.
Brandon Keim in Wired:
It's a question that's perplexed philosophers for centuries and scientists for decades: where does consciousness come from? We know it exists, at least in ourselves. But how it arises from chemistry and electricity in our brains is an unsolved mystery.
Neuroscientist Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, thinks he might know the answer. According to Koch, consciousness arises within any sufficiently complex, information-processing system. All animals, from humans on down to earthworms, are conscious; even the internet could be. That's just the way the universe works.
"The electric charge of an electron doesn't arise out of more elemental properties. It simply has a charge," says Koch. "Likewise, I argue that we live in a universe of space, time, mass, energy, and consciousness arising out of complex systems."
The Pacific has long been the hole at the heart of world history. For two centuries, global historians from the First World have hardly known what to make of the “fifth part of the world”. There’s just “so much ocean, too many islands”, the late Australian historian Greg Dening lamented ironically: over 25,000 islands in an ocean covering more than a third of the Earth’s surface and spanning from the Arctic to the Antarctic and from Southeast Asia to Central America. In the ages of paddle and sail, steam and propeller, every traveller could feel the connections between land and sea, the continents and the islands. The jet age seemingly rendered the Pacific Basin a kind of intellectual flyover territory – “the earth’s empty quarter” – for outsiders to Oceania and Australasia. The upshot, as the i-Kiribati scholar Teresa Teaiwa noted in 2002, was that “the dialogue between studies of humanity and studies of the Pacific” broke down. Only lately has the conversation resumed among historians. It now includes fish, mammals and birds. It takes place amid metaphorical mountains of fur, blubber and faeces. And it has lessons, even warnings, for the rest of the world.
“I hate traveling and explorers.” A great and famous first line (from Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques) because, for the reader—and who knows, maybe even for the author as well—it is such a provocative untruth: we love explorers. When we’re tired of every other kind of reading expedition, we’ll trudge along in the footsteps of the great explorers; even if we no longer have the stamina to read about them, we’ll settle for pictures of them.
And what about Albert Camus’s claim, in the opening line of his essay “The Minotaur or the Halt at Oran,” that “There are no more deserts, there are no more islands”? How can that be true, even at some metaphorical level? Okay, the Maldives might sink beneath the waves in the not-too-distant future, but there are still plenty of islands left—I live on one—and there are loads of deserts. The danger, as I understand it, is that if we’re not careful we’ll lose some islands and there will be nothing but deserts.
It’s the ice that’s endangered, receding and melting by the day, making polar exploration a thing of the past when it’s already a thing of the past.
David Rooney in The New York Times:
Since the dawn of time — well O.K., since the mid-’60s — gay men have been fiercely divided into love-her or hate-her camps by their feelings for Barbra Streisand. The intensity of those relationships is perhaps equaled by the subject’s self-regard, at least based on the evidence of her hilariously unnecessary 2010 coffee-table book, “My Passion for Design.” The volume is a personal tour and chronicle of the creation and construction of Ms. Streisand’s extensive Malibu compound, a “dream refuge” that includes a Connecticut-style mill house and water wheel. (Why not?) The author is also credited as principal photographer for the book, available in both regular and limited signed-and-numbered deluxe editions, the latter in a cloth-covered box that also includes a DVD, directed and narrated by... guess who? A steal at $500! But even in the more modest $60 version, this is a jaw-dropping digest of narcissism, obsessive folly and stifling tastefulness, which makes it a delicious target for satire. Jonathan Tolins has turned this tome into a springboard for “Buyer & Cellar,” a featherweight but irresistible play about celebrity false bonding, the solitude of über-fame and the seductive allure of expensive chintz.
A wonderful solo vehicle for Michael Urie to purvey his wicked winsomeness, the show, which opened on Wednesday at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, is a work of extravagant fiction, albeit one rooted in bizarre fact. The sheer excess of Babs-ylonia is of less interest to Mr. Tolins than the actual underground Main Street in the basement of a barn on the estate. Inspired by Winterthur, the American decorative arts museum in Delaware, it’s an avenue of quaint storefronts — a doll shop, an antiques emporium, a gift shoppe, a vintage clothing boutique, etc. — all built to house Ms. Streisand’s vast collection of “stuff.” “Remember, this is the part that’s real,” Mr. Urie says before he slips into character, with a nod of complicity that reads, “Crazy, right?” That character is Alex More, a struggling gay Los Angeles actor licking his wounds after being fired as the mayor of Toontown at Disneyland. The play’s cheeky premise is that since Ms. Streisand has fabricated herself a shopping mall with one customer, it also requires an employee to run it. That’s where the freshly hired Alex comes in. Idling away his days in this subterranean arcade with only the purr of the frozen yogurt machine for company, he is a symbol for the indignities endured by out-of-work actors in survival jobs. But Alex’s boredom is instantly forgotten when his employer pops downstairs to browse.
More here. (Note: This is the best play I have seen in NY in the last year! Go immediately if you can!)
“If I had any visual talent, I would have loved to be a filmmaker,” Stephen Sondheim told me in a recent phone interview. “But I didn’t. So this is what I became.” It’s jarring to think that the legendary composer-lyricist of Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods only resorted to musical theater out of an inability to compose a wide shot. In the 1950s Sondheim directed amateur horror movies (“The photography is like a five-year-old’s”) and he later co-wrote the enjoyably chilly mystery film The Last of Sheila, but he has made a relatively piddling contribution to the art form that is deepest in his bones. As he told Frank Rich in 2000, “Movies were, and still are, my basic language.”
It’s the language he used to write Follies, the sumptuous 1971 Broadway musical about middle-aged showgirls gathering for a boozy, confrontational reunion on the eve of their old theater’s destruction. While critics have treated the show as an elegy to the theater, Hollywood seems to have been the headiest influence on Follies’ creative team. Sondheim has said that during the writing process, he “could only imagine the spectacle of a Ziegfeldian ‘Loveland’ in terms of movie musicals,” and co-director Harold Prince’s concept for Follies as a story about “rubble in the daylight” grew out of Life magazine photo of Gloria Swanson standing in the ruins of the Roxy movie palace.
Erica Westly in Nature:
In 1975, when Prabhat Jha was growing up in Canada, his family received a report from India that his grandfather had died; the cause was unclear. Like many people living in rural India, Jha's grandfather had died at home, without having visited a hospital. Jha's mother was desperate for more information, so she returned to her home village to talk to locals. Years later, when Jha was at medical school, he reviewed his mother's notes and realized that his grandfather had probably died of a stroke. Now Jha, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, is nearing the end of an ambitious public-health programme to document death in India using similar 'verbal autopsy' strategies.
The Million Death Study (MDS) involves biannual in-person surveys of more than 1 million households across India. The study covers the period from 1997 to the end of 2013, and will document roughly 1 million deaths. Jha and his colleagues have coded about 450,000 so far, and have deciphered several compelling trends that are starting to lead to policy changes, such as stronger warning labels on tobacco. Public-health experts need mortality figures to monitor disease and assess interventions, but quality mortality data are scarce in most developing countries. Seventy-five per cent of the 60 million people who die each year around the globe are in low- and middle-income countries such as India, where cause of death is often misclassified or unreported. Groups such as the World Health Organization (WHO) typically base mortality estimates on hospital data, but in many developing countries most people die outside hospitals. As global health researchers increasingly turn to indirect computer models, many applaud the MDS's low-tech, on-the-ground approach and see it as a model for assessing true health burdens in the developing world. “For countries like India, there will almost certainly continue to be a role for verbal autopsy,” said Colin Mathers, coordinator of mortality and burden of disease at the WHO. “It's a crucial source of information.”
A Question for Grace
I feel dead. I never managed to ask Grace
if one may open a text with such a statement,
meanwhile we left New York to pick apples
and on both sides of the road pumpkins burned around us.
I’d never travelled inside a sleeve
and when we stopped to drink cider at a local inn
I imagined I saw Grace’s gray head
among the wheat-haired people
and at home I read that she was dead.
by Shulamit Apfel
from Pahot me-emet ain ta’am liktov
publisher: Safra, Tel Aviv, 2012
translation: 2013, Lisa Katz
Poets's Note: The American writer and activist Grace Paley (1922-2007)
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
Vali Nasr in the New York Times:
Critics have dismissed the Nov. 24 interim accord reached with Iran on its nuclear program as marginal, tenuous and easily reversed. But an enormous amount has changed, especially from Iran’s viewpoint. Essentially, Iran agreed to freeze its enrichment program for six months to allow time for talks on a potential final agreement, while a few sanctions were lifted. Overlooked in the debate over the merits of the deal are the economic dimensions that are surely a factor in Iran’s calculus.
These considerations, more than ideological ones, may well shape the landscape of future bargaining. It would be a colossal error to restore or expand the few sanctions that are being lifted, as some members of the United States Congress are threatening to do.
Before the deal started developing, in secret talks that started in March, Iran’s leaders faced a dilemma: scrap their whole nuclear program or live indefinitely under sanctions that were strangling their economy. Rather than surrender completely, they swallowed the economic hardship and eventually came to think that they could endure it for longer than the West expected.
But now they can envision a compromise that allows them a nominal right to enrichment if they forgo a path to nuclear weapons — and full relief from sanctions once they sign a permanent accord. That is a deal that might be accepted even by the most hard-line forces in Iran.
Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:
In a paper in the journal Nature, scientists reported Wednesday that they had retrieved ancient human DNA from a fossil dating back about 400,000 years, shattering the previous record of 100,000 years.
The fossil, a thigh bone found in Spain, had previously seemed to many experts to belong to a forerunner of Neanderthals. But its DNA tells a very different story. It most closely resembles DNA from an enigmatic lineage of humans known as Denisovans. Until now, Denisovans were known only from DNA retrieved from 80,000-year-old remains in Siberia, 4,000 miles east of where the new DNA was found.
The mismatch between the anatomical and genetic evidence surprised the scientists, who are now rethinking human evolution over the past few hundred thousand years. It is possible, for example, that there are many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover. They might have interbred, swapping DNA. Scientists hope that further studies of extremely ancient human DNA will clarify the mystery.
Gill A. Pratt in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
On March 12, 2011—the day after a powerful earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station—a team of plant workers set out to enter the darkened reactor buildings and manually vent accumulated hydrogen to the atmosphere. At first, the workers made progress inside the buildings, but soon their dosimeters showed they had reached their maximum emergency radiation exposure limits, and they had to turn back. In the days that followed, with vents still closed, hydrogen built up in each of three reactor buildings, fueling explosions that extensively damaged the facility, contaminated the environment, and drastically complicated stabilization and remediation of the site.
News of the earthquake galvanized those in charge of robotics programs at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief is a primary mission of the Defense Department, and DARPA had responded to a disaster before, sending robots whose development it had funded to New York City in the days after the 9/11 attacks. The robots found no survivors then, but perhaps this time, robots could help mitigate the evolving disaster.
Micahel Rectenwald in The North Star:
Marxist and other “left” critics and opponents of identity politics are often mistaken for opponents of the identity groups that such politics aim to support and promote. Such critics can be easily mistaken as opponents of gay rights, LGBT rights, black and Latino equality, or the like. In their retorts to “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” several of Mark Fisher’s respondents voiced this conclusion about Fisher himself. Such a mistake is often due, in no small part, to the ill stated, incomplete and ad hominem character of the critiques themselves. Unfortunately, Fisher’s article is no exception in this regard.
Rather than carefully explaining the problems with identity politics from a Marxist (or other) perspective, Fisher snidely and blithely dismisses such politics and their proponents as hopelessly “petit bourgeois.” As such, not only does he open himself up to the tu quoque retort (you too are resorting to a politics of identity), he also falls victim to the counter argument that his attack on identity politics is explicable strictly in terms of his identity – as a privileged white Marxist male. I will discuss the circularity of such defenses of identity politics below. My point here is that such epithets as Fisher’s do little or nothing to analyze identity politics and clarify its shortcomings. Rather, Fisher tells us that identity politics pretends to deal with collectivities but instead works to individualize and condemn. We are told that identity politics operates through guilt and serves to incapacitate. We are told that identity politics is petit bourgeois. But we are never told why or how any of this is the case. I’m not referring, as so many critics of Fisher’s article have, to the article’s lack of examples. Instead, I’m pointing to the paucity of analysis.
More here. [Thanks to Justin E. H. Smith.]
When Primo Levi committed suicide in 1987, many thought that he’d killed himself because his wartime imprisonment in Auschwitz had at last made it impossible for him to go on living; many others (this writer among them) believed that if it hadn’t been for Auschwitz, Levi would have killed himself years earlier—that the war, in fact, had lengthened his life because the experience of the concentration camp gave him writing, and it was writing alone that controlled the life-threatening anxiety against which he had struggled from earliest youth. Bearing witness to the historic catastrophe of Nazi Germany allowed (nay, commanded) Levi’s inner agitation to retreat far enough and long enough to let him exercise the talent for philosophical observation that had always been his, but, until the war, had been without sufficient content to find form. It was Auschwitz that freed Levi to become the artist he so clearly was, and writing about it held his inborn despair in check for a good forty years; only then did it fail to win the day.
Primo Levi was born in the northern Italian city of Turin in 1919, into a family of secular, middle-class Jews who had been living in the Piedmont for generations. He grew up in one of the city’s Jewish neighborhoods surrounded by aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and neighbors, most of whom remained solidly in place until World War II and, since most of them survived the war, even long after. Levi, too: except for a year in Milan, a year in Auschwitz and another year spent getting back to Turin, he lived and died in the apartment house in which he was born.
Freud always lived a high-low life: dukes and duchesses and royalty and posh girlfriends on one hand, gangsters and bookies on the other. The middle classes were generally scorned or ignored. He also had high-low manners: unfazed and relaxed in royal circles, a stickler for good manners from his children, but also indelibly rude and aggressive. He did whatever he liked, whenever he liked, and expected others to go along with it. His driving made Mr Toad look like a nervous learner. He would assault people without warning or, often, excuse. As a refugee child he would hit his English schoolfellows because he didn’t understand their language; as an octogenarian he was still getting into fistfights in supermarkets. He once assaulted Francis Bacon’s lover because the lover had beaten up Bacon, which was quite the wrong response: Bacon was furious because he was a masochist and liked being beaten up. Freud would write ‘poison postcards’, vilely offensive letters, and threaten to have people duffed up. When Anthony d’Offay closed a show of his two days early, an envelope of shit arrived through d’Offay’s letterbox.
In one version of the philosophy of the self, we all operate at some point on a line between the twin poles of episodicism and narrativism. The distinction is existential, not moral. Episodicists feel and see little connection between the different parts of their life, have a more fragmentary sense of self, and tend not to believe in the concept of free will. Narrativists feel and see constant connectivity, an enduring self, and acknowledge free will as the instrument which forges their self and their connectedness. Narrativists feel responsibility for their actions and guilt over their failures; episodicists think that one thing happens, and then another thing happens.
“Ukraine” means “on the border,” and it has always been stuck in the middle. Its current territory was split between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and held some of the largest Jewish enclaves in Europe. People in Western Ukraine spoke Ukrainian, Russian, German, Romanian, Hungarian, and Yiddish, and traces of this heritage are still evident. Crimea, Ukraine’s southern peninsula, was part of the Ottoman Empire until Catherine the Great seized it, and it still houses a Russian naval base. Crimea still had a sizeable Tatar population in 1944, when Stalin deported the Tatars to starve to death in Central Asia (in the 1990s, the children of the survivors returned). Stalin had allowed the Ukrainians to starve to death at home, in the famine of 1932 and 1933. Ukraine was one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of World War II, with its Jews shot and dumped into mass graves—many of which are still marked only as the graves of “Soviet heroes.” Today, many Ukrainians speak both Ukrainian and Russian; some speak surzhik, a blend of the two languages that varies according to place and mood. Eastern Ukraine is much more sympathetic to Russia, after two centuries of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union (with the associated entrenched corruption). Western Ukraine, on the other hand, has a vivid memory of being part of “Europe,” and they want very badly to be part of it again; many Western Ukrainians seem to feel that they are Europeans who have been held hostage for decades, held back from the European destiny that ought to be theirs. Rakhiv, a tiny town in Western Ukraine, boasts a spot that someone once declared “the geographic center of Europe”; this is still a point of great pride. Tourists come and take pictures near the sign, as men in fedoras drive horse-drawn carts down the mountain roads.
Helen Shen in Nature:
Instead of taking prescription pills to treat their ailments, patients may one day opt for genetic 'surgery' — using an innovative gene-editing technology to snip out harmful mutations and swap in healthy DNA. The system, called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), has exploded in popularity in the past year, with genetic engineers, neuroscientists and even plant biologists viewing it as a highly efficient and precise research tool. Now, the gene-editing system has spun out a biotechnology company that is attracting attention from investors as well.
Editas Medicine, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, announced its launch on 25 November with an initial US$43 million venture capital investment. The company, founded by five leading CRISPR researchers, aims to develop therapies that directly modify disease-related genes. "This is a platform that could have a profound impact on a variety of genetic disorders," says interim president Kevin Bitterman, a venture capitalist at Polaris Partners in Waltham, Massachusetts, which is one of Editas' backers. CRISPR piggybacks on an immune strategy that bacteria use to detect and chop up foreign DNA. The DNA-cutting enzyme Cas9 finds its target with the help of an RNA guide sequence that researchers can now engineer to home in on potentially any gene of interest. Editas is not disclosing its intended targets, but the technology might be tried first on diseases caused by a single faulty gene copy, says Feng Zhang, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and one of Editas’ founders. Simply disabling the disease-causing copy could clear the way for the good copy to take over.
More here. (Note: I sincerely believe that this is one of the most significant scientific discovery of our century; something as important as the discovery of shRNA or PCR!)
One used to be able to say
what Seneca said to Nero:
"However many people you kill
you can never kill your successor."
But now the joke may not
be necessarily true: we might
have done it already. So let's
remember what the poet Oppian said:
"The hunting of dolphins is immoral
and the man who willfully kills them
will not only not go to the gods
as a welcome sacrifce, or touch
their altars with clean hands, but will
even pollute the people under his own roof."
by Alan Dugan
from New and Collected Poems 1961-1983
Ecco Press, 1983
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
Hannah Green in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
In his most recent work, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea, Faisal Devji offers a detailed analysis of the various political and ideological forces that were at play in the buildup to Pakistan’s creation. Devji’s larger project seems to be to mitigate the tendency to look at historical phenomena from the 20th and 21st centuries isolated from their global context. In The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence (2012), he presented an alternative biography of the Mahatma, partly by rejecting the notion that this London-educated man was purely influenced by Indian thinkers and had purely Indian goals. In Landscapes of the Jihad (2005), Devji suggested that al-Qaeda and bin Laden took their cues from global media trends much more than they did from any tribal Islamic tradition.
Muslim Zion is perhaps more expansive than either of these works, as it deals not with one specific movement or figure but the confluence of movements and figures that led to the formation of a nation. Devji prioritizes the trajectory of ideas over all other historical forces. Ideologies of communism and Zionism (which Devji uses in a somewhat idiosyncratic way) were important in the middle of the 20th century, Devji argues, because they made it possible for nation-states to define themselves based on ideas rather than territorial or hereditary attachments. Both were significant catalysts in Pakistan’s foundation. Israel is Pakistan’s closest twin in this type of national movement, as both nations were conceived as homelands for people who didn’t necessarily have any familial connection to the territory, and both used religion as the common ground that would define their citizenry. The connection between the two ideologies, Devji suggests, was not a coincidence.
'Have you read that cholera has already reached Naples? Will you be giving it a wide berth?' So wrote Anna Freud (aged 14) in September 1910 to her father, then travelling in the south. Anna was Sigmund's youngest child and the only one of his six to train as a psychoanalyst. She became a custodian of his movement, a pioneer of child analysis, and co-founder of the Hampstead Nurseries, which offered refuge to homeless families during the Second World War. She was well known for her fierce quarrels with Melanie Klein, whose ideas were to have a profound impact on British psychoanalysis. Anna also proved influential in this country and to a still greater extent in the United States. She never married, nor did she ever permanently leave her parental home. After she died in 1982, her - their - residence in London became the Freud Museum. Sigmund called Anna his 'Antigone', which captured something of her unswerving dedication.
Their letters, postcards and occasional telegrams to one another, spanning a 34-year period, have been assembled in this remarkable book, just translated from the German. In that same teenage letter mentioned above, Anna expressed her fears that Sigmund's then travelling companion and colleague, Sándor Ferenczi, was not looking after him. Perhaps it was not surprising, given that Sigmund's gastrointestinal problems were not infrequently mentioned in his correspondence to her and others, that she inquired so particularly after the state of his stomach.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the male body was crucial to academic painting, anchoring the ideals of ancient Greek and Roman aesthetics. One of the more compelling works early in this show is Jacques-Louis David’s Patroclus (1780). David, the icon of early 19th century Neoclassical painting, used heroic, naked males in many of his historical paintings, composing large canvases filled with muscled subjects, their crotches often covered in subtle ways, all rendered with realist precision. Unlike David’s more crowded historical scenes, this work offers a quiet intimacy between viewer and the subject sitting on the ground in a weakened state, his torso twisted away from us, leaving us gazing at him from behind. In Homer’s Iliad Patroclus was the comrade of Achilles fighting alongside him in the Trojan Wars where he was killed. Their relationship has often been considered a romantic one. The painting conjures the beauty of Patroclus’ body as something idealized, as if David is asking us to gaze upon the defeated warrior in the same loving way as Achilles himself might have done. But beauty and nakedness here serves another purpose as well: a heroic ideal that captures not just our attraction but also our empathy.
Not far from this work you find Picasso’s Adolescents (1906), a muted orange oil painting of two naked figures against a flat background. They float on the canvas, their bodies blending with the atmosphere around them, their bodies shaped in thick lines. Just around the corner is Gustave Moreau’s Prometheus (1868), the figure bound to the mountain’s edge, his body taunt and tired, his face determined as he looks off into the distance, echoing more the image of a Christ figure than that of a Greek god.
We had the W.H. Auden reading list here, so now – ta DUM! – we present the Joseph Brodsky list, thanks to Monica Partridge, a Los Angeles writer and a former Brodsky student from Mt. Holyoke, where the Nobel poet taught for years. With her blog, called The Brodsky Reading Group, she seems to have formed something of a cultus around the list, and with her acolytes she is attempting to work through the whole slog of books. More power to her. I’d heard rumors of such a list before, but never saw the actual artifact. I include the list below, having spent some time correcting the references and the spellings (always a dangerous thing to do, someone is sure to find a mistake in my rendering). The list he gave her class was handwritten – perhaps he just scribbled it out, errors and all.
At any rate, eventually the list was typed out, errors still intact. Open Culture has already printed the list here, so you can see for yourself. On the site, author Jennifer K. Dick‘s contributed her own memories in the comment section:
When I was a student of Joseph Brodsky’s at MHC between 1989 and 1993 for course on Russian Lit and Lyric Poetry, we were distributed a similar list. However, it was not given as a basis for “conversation” at that time, but rather he said that anyone who had not already completed the reading of that list by 18 would certainly never be able to become a great poet, because the list was a basis for that. This, of course, meant that all of us who might have been aspiring authors were already doomed. So, like everything else with him, you had to take it with a grain of salt. He asked us to write poems based on works by Auden and Frost on occasion. He also made us memorize many poems, as Partridge mentions, including many by Auden, Frost, A.E. Housman and most memorably (no pun intended) all of Lycidas by Milton.
John Elmes in Times Higher Education:
The protagonist in the film Le Week-End is an academic; do academics make good fictional characters?
Yes, they make fantastic characters because they’re thoughtful – if you’re lucky. They’ve devoted their life to instructing others, which seems to me to be a worthwhile thing to do.
You’re a busy writer (and now teacher): what do you do to relax?
I’ve got kids; that’s what I’ve been doing for the last few years – looking after my kids. It’s really fun; I really like doing it.
Would you consider giving up writing to solely focus on parenting?
Well, I’ve got to support them, haven’t I?
Is there anyone from history you’d like to meet?
I don’t know; I’ve not really thought about it. You mean [someone] like Leonardo da Vinci?
…someone who you might have wanted to have met or had a conversation with…
I can’t believe you can’t think of better questions than this dude, I really can’t.