Saturday, November 01, 2014
Chris Power in The Guardian:
The villain in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick isn’t the monstrous White Whale, but the man that wants to kill him: Captain Ahab. Melville withholds Ahab’s appearance for well over 100 pages of his novel. At first he is only a name, then a sailor’s story, then a brooding but unseen presence, shut up in his cabin, as the Pequod sets sail from Nantucket on Christmas Day and strikes south for the whaling grounds of the Pacific. The Pequod’s shareholders are hoping for a great profit, but Ahab is only interested in a single whale among the multitudes: Moby Dick.
Ahab is an enigma whose “larger, darker, deeper part remains unhinted”. What can we say we know about him? That he is a “grey-headed, ungodly old man”. He has eyes “like powder pans”. His crew say he never sleeps, only tosses in bed. Dough-Boy the steward tells Ishmael that every morning: “He always finds the old man’s hammock clothes all rumpled and tumbled, and the sheets down at the foot, and the coverlid almost tied in knots”, and Ahab’s pillow hot to the touch, “as though a baked brick had been on it”. He has a scar, too, a “slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish”, running from head to toe. None of the crew knows where he got it, but they all know how he lost his leg. In the Pacific, a year before the events Ishmael describes in the novel, Ahab found himself surrounded by “the chips of chewed boats, and the sinking limbs of torn comrades”, all churning in the “white curds of the whale’s direful wrath”. Moby Dick took Ahab’s leg, “as a mower a blade of grass in the field”, and now the captain uses a peg leg carved from whalebone.
Deborah E. Lipstadt in The New York Times:
In the wake of World War II, America recruited a few leading German scientists in order to advance our space and military programs and to keep these valuable assets from falling into Soviet hands. This is the broadly accepted script about Nazis in America. In fact, as Eric Lichtblau, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The New York Times, relates in “The Nazis Next Door,” we welcomed approximately 10,000 Nazis, some of whom had played pivotal roles in the genocide. While portions of this story are not new — see Annie Jacobsen’s book “Operation Paperclip,” for example — Lichtblau offers additional archival information in all its infuriating detail. (He conducted some of his research at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, on whose supervisory committee I serve. I had no role in his selection as a fellow at the center.)
America began reaching out to leading Nazis months before the Germans surrendered. In March 1945, while the war still raged, the American spy chief Allen Dulles conducted a friendly fireside chat in the library of a Zurich apartment with the Nazi general Karl Wolff, the closest associate of the SS leader Heinrich Himmler for much of the war. The Scotch-lubricated conversation convinced Dulles that Wolff, despite his ties to Himmler and his role as a leader of the Waffen SS, was a moderate who deserved protection. When prosecutors sought to try Wolff, one of the highest-ranking SS leaders to survive, at Nuremberg, Dulles worked to have his name removed from the list of defendants. While Wolff was in Allied custody, he was permitted to take a yacht trip, spend time with his family and carry a gun. Nonetheless, he complained that what he endured was “much more inhumane than the extermination of the Jews.” He said the Jews had been gassed in a few seconds, while he did not know how long he would be held. (His imprisonment lasted four years.) While Jews languished in the camps after Germany’s defeat (“We felt like so much surplus junk,” one survivor said), the United States gathered up Nazi scientists. Had only leading scientists been enlisted, it would have been distasteful if understandable. But of the more than 1,600 scientists brought over, some had pedestrian skills. Others had developed the chemicals for the gas chambers, or conducted experiments on concentration camp prisoners. Even the State Department protested. But we did not stop with scientists. The C.I.A. and the F.B.I. sought out spies and informants who had participated in genocide.
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig in Boston Review:
It is a strange season when culture warriors and women’s studies departments find common cause, though not unheard of—think pornography. But while Gail Dines’ Pornlandwon acclaim from The Christian Post, conservative Christian sex ethics and feminist sex ethics maintain disparate opinions of sex itself. For the conservative Christian, sex has always been a matter of the most sincere gravitas, the ultimate (and sometimes sacramental) union; feminist sex ethicists have a more liberal view of the matter, favoring personal experience over some sublime essence. In other words, the two don’t seem to share a conception of the kind of thing sex is.
This gap appears to be closing.
In late August, the California legislature passed bill SB 967, a bundle of regulations pertaining to educational institutions receiving public funding. Most notably, it enforces a standard of ‘affirmative consent’ in sexual assault proceedings. Roughly a month later, Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law. According to the text of the law, a standard of affirmative consent
means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. It is the responsibility of each person involved in the sexual activity to ensure that he or she has the affirmative consent of the other or others to engage in the sexual activity. Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time. The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of consent.
No, in other words, means no. But nothing also means no, and a variety of intermediate expressions between perhaps and absolutely now must also be presumed to mean no, and body language is also no longer sufficient to communicate consent.
Friday, October 31, 2014
Dylan Scott in TPM:
Political scientists from two of the nation's most highly respected universities, usually impartial observers of political firestorms, now find themselves at the center of an electoral drama with tens of thousands of dollars and the election of two state supreme court justices at stake.
Their research experiment, which involved sending official-looking flyers to 100,000 Montana voters just weeks before Election Day, is now the subject of an official state inquiry that could lead to substantial fines against them or their schools. Their peers in the field have ripped their social science experiment as a "misjudgment" or -- stronger still -- "malpractice."
What went so wrong?
Last Thursday, the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices started receiving complaints from voters who had received an election mailer (see below) bearing the state seal and describing the ideological standing of non-partisan candidates for the Montana Supreme Court. The fine print said that it had been sent by researchers from Dartmouth College and Stanford University, part of their research into voter participation. But that wasn't satisfactory for the voters who received the flyers or the state officials to whom they complained.
Jonathan Motl, the state commissioner, told TPM that the flyer has elicited the most complaints that his office has seen this election cycle. It describes the candidates in two Montana Supreme Court elections -- who are supposed to be non-partisan -- on an ideological scale. The candidates are placed on a line graph that compares them to President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
It is titled as a "2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide" with the state of Montana seal featured prominently. Only the fine print identifies the mailer as part of a research project.
"This particular flyer triggered such a strong reaction among Montanans for two reasons. No. 1, it used the state seal. Just based on the people I've talked to, that was strongly offensive. They didn't like their state seal being appropriated," Motl said. "The second thing that's confusing about it is the intimation that it serves a research purpose. Because in the judgment of the people looking at it, it doesn't serve a research purpose, it serves a political purpose."
David Graeber in The Guardian:
The autonomous region of Rojava, as it exists today, is one of few bright spots – albeit a very bright one – to emerge from the tragedy of the Syrian revolution. Having driven out agents of the Assad regime in 2011, and despite the hostility of almost all of its neighbours, Rojava has not only maintained its independence, but is a remarkable democratic experiment. Popular assemblies have been created as the ultimate decision-making bodies, councils selected with careful ethnic balance (in each municipality, for instance, the top three officers have to include one Kurd, one Arab and one Assyrian or Armenian Christian, and at least one of the three has to be a woman), there are women’s and youth councils, and, in a remarkable echo of the armed Mujeres Libres (Free Women) of Spain, a feminist army, the “YJA Star” militia (the “Union of Free Women”, the star here referring to the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar), that has carried out a large proportion of the combat operations against the forces of Islamic State.
How can something like this happen and still be almost entirely ignored by the international community, even, largely, by the International left? Mainly, it seems, because the Rojavan revolutionary party, the PYD, works in alliance with Turkey’s Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), a Marxist guerilla movement that has since the 1970s been engaged in a long war against the Turkish state. Nato, the US and EU officially classify them as a “terrorist” organisation. Meanwhile, leftists largely write them off as Stalinists.
But, in fact, the PKK itself is no longer anything remotely like the old, top-down Leninist party it once was. Its own internal evolution, and the intellectual conversion of its own founder, Abdullah Ocalan, held in a Turkish island prison since 1999, have led it to entirely change its aims and tactics.
The PKK has declared that it no longer even seeks to create a Kurdish state. Instead, inspired in part by the vision of social ecologist and anarchist Murray Bookchin, it has adopted the vision of “libertarian municipalism”, calling forKurds to create free, self-governing communities, based on principles of direct democracy, that would then come together across national borders – that it is hoped would over time become increasingly meaningless.
Francisco Goldman in The New Yorker (photo by Macro Ugarte/AP):
On Sunday morning, a heartbreaking headline appeared on the news Web site SinEmbargo, which is based here in Mexico City: “I Know My Son Is Alive and That He Will Be a Teacher.” The speaker was Manuel Martínez, the thirty-five-year-old father of a seventeen-year-old boy named Mario, who has been missing since September 26th, along with many of his classmates at the Ayotzinapa Normal teacher-training school. That night, according to witness testimonies and the confessions of those arrested in the case, six students from the school were murdered by municipal police and other gunmen, and forty-three others were “disappeared” in the small city of Iguala, in the Pacific-coast state of Guerrero.
The Martínezes are indigenous Huave from the impoverished seaside village of San Mateo del Mar, in Oaxaca. Martínez told SinEmbargo’s Humberto Padgett that he’d also studied at Ayotzinapa, twenty years before, and that his son had long dreamed of following in his footsteps. Like many other rural schoolteachers, Martínez built his little school with his own hands, out of planks and zinc sheeting. “All the rural schools are bad,” he said. “Here and in the country, education is in terrible shape. … In my school, we don’t even have electricity. The students live in the same conditions we do, or a little worse, because they live on just corn and beans, and from their tomato and chile harvests. … None of them owns a pair of shoes; they use huaraches or sandals.”
Martínez went on, “The authorities should pay for what they’ve done because they’ve done the very worse that you can do, to the most humble of people.”
The country has been seized by the story of the missing forty-three, though many refuse to believe the worst until it can no longer be denied—my dentist, for example, says that this is all just a student prank that went too far, and that the students will turn up any day now, sheepish and contrite.
In a Neighborhood in Los Angeles
from my grandma
she'd tell me
on the mornings
at the fish
waltzes with them
in the kitchen
when she'd say
with my grandma
to count clouds
to point out
on her dress
in her eyes
I'd see them
in her braids
I'd touch them
in her voice
I was told:
she went far away
I feel her
in my ear
by Fancisco Alarcón
from After Atzlan
Godine Publishing, 1992
Wilcox and Lerman in National Review:
The standard portrayals of economic life for ordinary Americans and their families paint a bleak picture of stagnancy, rising economic inequality, joblessness, and low levels of economic mobility. From President Barack Obama’s speech last year at the Center for American Progress to Fed chairman Janet Yellen’s address this month in Boston, we’re getting the picture that the American Dream looks to be in bad shape. These portrayals contain an important germ of truth — today’s economy isn’t doing ordinary Americans many favors — but what is largely missing from the public conversation about economics in America is an honest discussion of the family factor in all of this.That’s unfortunate, because one reason — though, to be sure, not the only reason — that the American economic landscape looks bleaker today is that American families are not as strong and stable as they could be. Indeed, in a new report released this week from the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, we find that about one-third of recent increases in family-income inequality and male joblessness, and a significant share of median family-income stagnation, can be linked to the declining share of Americans who are getting and staying married.
Larry Greenemeier in Scientific American:
For the past four decades the Nikon Small World competition has placed photography under the microscope, with eye-catching results. This year’s 20 finalists, announced Thursday, are no exception, zooming in on microorganisms, minerals and even electronic circuitry to find beauty hidden from the naked eye. Judges evaluated more than 1,200 photos sent from dozens of countries based on scientific relevance, composition, quality and technique, along with technical and artistic merit. The competition’s subject matter is unrestricted as long as some type of light microscopy technique is used, including phase contrast, polarized light, interference contrast, dark field or some combination thereof.
PICTURE: Anagallis arvensis (scarlet pimpernel)
We are used to the Nabokov who wrote for a robust, “panting and happy” reader, for the climber of “trackless slopes”. This is the playful Nabokov who loves to fold his magic carpet so that some readers might trip, the scourge of lazy, system-bound critics, the “perfect dictator” who so savagely heaps scorn on idols of the West: Dostoevsky, Freud, Sartre, Mann. The Nabokov on display in this beautifully produced volume of letters, only a few of which have been published in the original Russian, is quite different: not an inveterate competitor besting his characters and critics, but an author who sees his task as talking his fragile reader down from an upper-storey ledge by showing her the luminosity of a world that has somehow ceased to be a source of delight.
Some of the letters contain poems, some are about writing poetry, others are essentially poems in prose. Nearly all the letters from the summer of 1926 are about the importance of noticing things, and, as in The Gift, are informed by a gratitude for the omnipresence of beauty, even in images that might otherwise chill or disgust. Nabokov is delighted by animals: “a charming borzoi” with “ash-blue specks on her forehead (like yesterday’s evening sky)” plays with “a russet dachshund”, their “two long tender snouts prodding each other”.
Let me start with a confession. I am not particularly keen on stories of modernity in which “modernity” figures as a character and in which the plot—surprise—entails a “fall” or “break.” Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern is a long telling of this tale, containing some wonderfully astute scenes and bringing on stage two of my favorite thinkers, John Locke and Theodor Adorno (the first appearing as a culprit and the second as an ally). I am not unmoved by Pfau’s convictions and arguments that what appears to be human advancement is actually decline (325). Nonetheless, I find myself appreciating the worldliness and ostentatiousness of Adorno’s miniaturized version of this story: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.” Pfau frames his argument as an exploration of and possible solution to the crisis in the humanities. For him, that crisis is not the devaluation of humanistic study in a context of the corporatization of higher education and intense competition for scarce and unstable employment. Rather, it is his sense that we are suffering through a case of amnesia. (I am putting aside, for the moment, who it is that constitutes this “we.”) According to Pfau, we have forgotten the conceptual framework of human personhood and thus have a “stunted conception of the will” or, more ominously, “[have atrophied] our capacity for articulate reasoning about ends” (10, 398, 325). Pfau’s equivocation as to whether the problem is a conception or an actual impairment of the will or agency is telling. Pfau is convinced that our conceptual portfolio shapes and reflects our capacity for reasoning, judging, and willing. Yet this is a different, and far less contentious, point than the one that insists that a particular vocabulary or argument is either in accord with or detrimental to moral judgment and moral behavior. For instance, does Thomas Hobbes’s denial of a qualitative divide between humans and other animals really “cause us to stray into very dangerous moral territory” (203)?
From 1967 until their disbanding in 1971, the group wrote and performed. They played at a fundraiser for Eugene McCarthy, at bars where the air was thick with marijuana smoke, in college quads, on radio shows, and at the New England Conservatory of Music’s Jordan Hall, in front of a thousand rapt listeners. The men wore turtlenecks and jackets. (“We weren’t Kiss,” Clawson says.) Anne wore long dresses: she had two favorites, a red one and a black-and-white one. “She moved discreetly,” Clawson says. “She had those long arms and long fingers. Her movement was lovely . . . it wasn’t frenzied . . . she might wink at the audience. She was really engaging.”
Anne Sexton the performer stands in some contrast to Anne Sexton the poet. Though both Linda Sexton and Bob Clawson claim she had no sense of rhythm and often fell into a kind predetermined modulation better suited for readings than musical performances, her voice on the recordings is lilting and measured, rising and softening in accordance with the band. Listening to a performance of “Protestant Easter,” a hilarious poem that digs at New England Calvinism from the point of view of a child (“After that they pounded nails into his hands / After that, well, after that / everyone wore hats”), I begin to envision her covered in sweat, down on her knees in front of a congregation, shouting “Praise Jesus!” as the organ trills away behind her.
Sam Anderson in the NYT Magazine (photo Dolly Faibyshev for The New York Times):
For more than 100 years, Punta Gorda has claimed to have the Fountain of Youth: an artesian well that once drew such long lines of tourists that, according to National Geographic, the fountain’s handle had to be replaced every six months. I walked there as soon as I woke up. I knew I was getting close when I started to see kitschy images of Ponce de León everywhere: murals on the sides of restaurants, fake motorized galleons parked at an Oktoberfest carnival. Ponce: his bulging armor, his pointy beard, the cockatoo crest of his helmet plume. He always seemed to be gesturing at something. “Go over there,” he seemed to be saying. “The important things are just out of the frame.” It was hot; after only a few minutes of walking, my face was pouring sweat. My plan, while I was in Florida, was to drink exclusively out of self-described Fountains of Youth, which meant I was already very thirsty. When I reached the spot where the fountain was supposed to be, it was nowhere. There was just an empty small-town intersection — restaurant, bank, chiropractor, stop sign. No special plaque, no burbling fountain, no crowds of elderly people leaping out of wheelchairs and dancing with joy. I worried, for a minute, that the trip had been a waste.
Then I saw it, and I laughed out loud. The Fountain of Youth was tiny, shabby and neglected: a blocky little drinking fountain, not much bigger than the garbage can it stood next to, covered in green tile that must have been decorative 90 years ago but was now cracked and stained. Today nothing identified it as the Fountain of Youth. In fact, the only sign on it was a warning from the Florida Department of Health: “Use Water at Your Own Risk: The water from this well exceeds the maximum contaminate levels for radioactivity as determined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
I turned the little spigot, and sure enough, water sputtered out. It smelled sulfurous. I bent down and drank. It was not refreshing, not at all. It tasted exactly like hard-boiled eggs. But I was thirsty, so I kept drinking. It seemed to have a little more body than regular water — maybe the high mineral content thickened it, I thought, or the radiation was already warping the nerves on the inside of my cheeks. Every mouthful felt like swallowing a single, liquid hard-boiled egg. I started to feel ill. But I had come all this way, and it was hot, and there was a long day of driving ahead of me, so I kept gulping it down. I filled a few plastic bottles to get me to the next fountain.
Thursday, October 30, 2014
Geoffrey Pullum in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
On the panel show A Good Read (Radio 4, October 17, 2014), each guest recommends a book, which the other guests also read and discuss. And Pinker’s recommendation for a good read was … The Elements of Style !
It was like hearing Warren Buffett endorsing junk bonds. It was like learning that Stanley Kubrick called Plan 9 From Outer Space high-quality cinematography. It was like seeing Chet Atkins (Never mind. I am too dispirited to go on with this potentially entertaining game of analogy-making.)
You see, Pinker’s own new book, The Sense of Style (Viking, 2014), which of course the ethos of the radio program would not permit him to pick, has solved a problem I’ve had for years. People keep asking me what, given my low opinion of The Elements of Style, I would recommend instead; and I have had little to say except that I wished there were an answer. Today there is an answer: For a sensible guide to what makes good writing good, buy Pinker’s book.
From The Baffler:
Moderators: You both appear to think that the prevailing economic and financial system has run its course, and cannot endure much longer in its present form. I would like to ask each of you to explain why.
Thomas Piketty: I am not sure that we are on the eve of a collapse of the system, at least not from a purely economic viewpoint. A lot depends on political reactions and on the ability of the elites to persuade the rest of the population that the present situation is acceptable. If an effective apparatus of persuasion is in place, there is no reason why the system should not continue to exist as it is. I do not believe that strictly economic factors can precipitate its fall.
Karl Marx thought that the falling rate of profit would inevitably bring about the fall of the capitalist system. In a sense, I am more pessimistic than Marx, because even given a stable rate of return on capital, say around 5 percent on average, and steady growth, wealth would continue to concentrate, and the rate of accumulation of inherited wealth would go on increasing.
But, in itself, this does not mean an economic collapse will occur. My thesis is thus different from Marx’s, and also from David Graeber’s. An explosion of debt, especially American debt, is certainly happening, as we have all observed, but at the same time there is a vast increase in capital—an increase far greater than that of total debt.
The creation of net wealth is thus positive, because capital growth surpasses even the increase in debt. I am not saying that this is necessarily a good thing. I am saying that there is no purely economic justification for claiming that this phenomenon entails the collapse of the system.
Based on real data (latitude, longitude and height) from the University of Amsterdam the animation initially shows the tracks of 12 birds, but then concentrates on a pair - male and female, as they migrate south in Autumn 2010 from the Veluwe forest in the Netherlands to warmer weather on the African coast (Liberia, Ghana and Cameroon). After wintering in Africa, in Spring 2011 the birds fly back. But en route we see the female lose her way - possibly due to unfavourable winds. After a long journey the male arrives back in the Veluwe forest and waits for her.
Wudan Yan in Hippo Reads:
You may have read recent media stories stating that a cure for Type I Diabetes is “imminent” and wondered what the buzz was about—is a cure indeed imminent and, if so, what does this mean for modern medicine?
Yes, scientists at Harvard University have recently made a huge breakthrough in the treatment possibilities for Type I Diabetes, an inherited condition affecting over three million Americans that causes the body’s immune system to malfunction. Type I Diabetes destroys the pancreatic beta cells in the body that manufacture insulin, a hormone critical for processing sugars. Under current medical practice, people with Type I Diabetes must regularly check their blood sugar levels and inject themselves with insulin to keep levels in check, an imperfect process disruptive to routine life. For decades, researchers have tried to generate pancreatic beta cells that could be used to provide insulin for Type I patients.
Now, thanks to a research group led by Doug Melton, a stem-cell researcher at Harvard Medical School, they may in fact be closer to that goal: Melton’s talented team of scientists have generated functional human pancreatic beta cells from stem cells in large quantities (the paper reporting these findings was published inCell on October 9, 2014). Hippo Reads’s Science Correspondent Wudan Yan spoke with Felicia Pagliuca, a postdoc in Melton’s lab, about the work that went into this landmark study, the importance of collaboration, and where diabetes research will go from here.
WY: Thanks for chatting with Hippo Reads! We’re interested to know: how did you first get involved in this research?
Felicia Pagliuca: I had been doing my PhD at Cambridge University in the UK at the Gurdon Institute. I was conducting research in cancer biology at the time but [Doug] Melton came to Cambridge to give a seminar. By the end of that seminar, I was just blown away—completely inspired by his vision and what you could do with stem cells in the field of regenerative biology and the impact that could have on patients. I reached out to Doug and told him about my interest and background. We hit it off and I was fortunate enough to be offered an opportunity to work in his laboratory.
On a pillow
The Sutra on
On my cushion
Hiding from fears
To my old mantra:
Full of grace...
by Mark J. Mitchell
from The Buddhist Poetry Review
Craig Lambert in Harvard Magazine:
In the spring of 2012, Brown University hosted an extraordinary academic conference. “Being Nobody?” honored the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Slavery and Social Death by Orlando Patterson, Harvard’s Cowles professor of sociology. Giving a birthday party for a scholarly book is a rarity in itself. Even more unusual, the symposium’s 11 presenters were not sociologists. They were classicists and historians who gave papers on slavery in ancient Rome, the neo-Assyrian empire, the Ottoman Middle East, the early Han empire, West Africa in the nineteenth century, medieval Europe, and eighteenth-century Brazil, among other topics. “I’m not aware of another academic conference held by historians to celebrate the influence of a seminal work by a social scientist writing for a different discipline,” says John Bodel, professor of classics and history at Brown, one of the organizers.
But Patterson is no ordinary academician. “Orlando is one of a kind—the sheer scope and ambition of his work set him apart from 99 percent of social scientists,” says Loic Wacquant, JF ’94, professor of sociology at Berkeley. “In an era when social scientists specialize in ever-smaller objects, he is a Renaissance scholar who takes the time to tackle huge questions across multiple continents and multiple centuries. There was another scholar like this in the early twentieth century, named Max Weber. Orlando is in that category.”
Viv Groskop in The Guardian:
Azar Nafisi, 58, is an Iranian writer and professor of English literature. She lives in Washington DC and became an American citizen in 2008. In 1995 she quit her job as a university lecturer in Tehran and taught a small group of students at home, discussing works considered controversial in Iran at the time, such as Lolita and Madame Bovary. Her 2003 book based on this experience, Reading Lolita in Tehran, was on the New York Times bestseller list for 117 weeks and won a string of literary awards. Nafisi’s latest non-fiction book, The Republic of Imagination (Viking), is described as “a passionate tribute to literature’s place in a free and enlightened society”.
What motivated the latest book?
In the last chapter of Reading Lolita in Tehran I talk about how my students were uncritically in love with this world they could not connect to physically – the west. I wanted them to know that this was an illusion. That there were serious critiques of any system, no matter how wonderful. When I came here [to the US], I realised how the ideal of freedom is being eroded. One canary in the mine is the denigration of ideas.
What do you mean by this? What are the signs?
The inequalities of the education system [in the US]. You are also experiencing this in Britain. Where public schools [ie state schools] are virtually being dismantled. Where children are deprived of music, art and fiction more and more. And where all the privilege goes to the private schools. This is not the America I want my children to grow up in.
Why is fiction in particular important in solving all this?
The importance of ideas and the imagination is that they really defy borders and limitations. Books are representative of the most democratic way of living. There’s a James Baldwin quote about feeling all alone and isolated until you read Dostoevsky and you discover that someone who lived a hundred years ago connects to you – and you don’t feel lonely any more.
The premise of this book is that “to deny literature is to deny pain and the dilemma that is called life”. In what way can fiction help us with this dilemma?
Fiction confronts a great many things that we cannot fully confront in real life. Fiction is the ability to be multi-vocal and to speak through the mind and the heart of even the villain. In doing that, it forces us to face the pain of being human and being transient. It’s what Nabokov talks about: “The conclusive evidence of having lived.”
Joanna Scutts in Lapham's Quarterly:
In The Burning of the World, his recently discovered memoir of the first few weeks of World War I, the Hungarian artist, officer, and man about town Béla Zombory-Moldován writes frequently about his attachment to his watch. When he’s wounded in the confusion of battle in the forests of Galicia, he finds the watch unscathed during an agonizing evacuation of the area, and exalts the survival of “my trusty companion, sharer of my fate, the comrade that connected me to my former life.” Much more than a watch, it’s almost a miracle: “Not just an object, but a true and staunch friend. I held it in my left hand and marveled at it as it measured off the seconds.”
How to tell time was a matter of survival and strategy during the Great War, a war in which communication technologies had to advance rapidly to keep pace with the new instruments of battle. The war was a crucible of innovation in destruction, in which chlorine gas, tanks, and heavy artillery choked, crushed, and obliterated human bodies in new ways. Vast armies dug in opposite each other across unprecedented distances—the Western Front alone stretched well over four hundred miles, from the Swiss border to the North Sea. Because much of the infantry went underground, it was no longer possible simply to holler or sound a hunting horn as a signal to attack, nor for regiments to advance proudly, and visibly, together on horseback. Instead, it became necessary to coordinate time and to tell it accurately; the practice and the phrasesynchronize watches was born from this need during the war. Officers in crowded trenches watched for second hands to tick down before blowing the whistle and rallying their men, who scrambled up ladders into the awaiting gunfire. The term zero hour, the moment of no return, was first recorded in the New York Times in November 1915: “At 5:05 a.m. September 25 a message came to the dugout that the ‘zero’ hour, that is, the time the gas was to be started, would be at 5:50 a.m.” The irony of ascribing a precise time for an attack as uncontrollable and weather-dependent as gas goes unmentioned.
Paul Fussell, in his influential 1975 study The Great War and Modern Memory, notes that sunrise and sunset dominated soldiers’ trench lives and their understanding of the passage of time. These periods of “stand-to” were times of heightened tension and observation, when men would keep watch on the raised fire step and strain their eyes through field glasses for movement. When it wasn’t raining, the skies above the flat, endless fields would burst into color as they waited—an unforgettable combination of beauty and terror. (Fussell writes that “dawn has never recovered from what the Great War did to it.” Dawn and dusk were unavoidable natural markers of time, both ordinary and mystical. “The darkness crumbles away./It is the same old druid Time as ever,” as Isaac Rosenberg puts it in his 1916 poem “Break of Day in the Trenches.”Dawn is relentless, and soldiers are powerless to hide from it, speed it up or slow it down. A watch then gives the illusion of controlling time, a sustaining fantasy of life at the front. As Zombory-Moldován suggests, the watch is something more than practical; it’s a link back to a world where a man was free to make his own appointments, to run his own life.
Tim Martin in Aeon (Illustration by Lee Moyer):
Alan Moore is waiting when I get off the train in Northampton, a majestically bearded figure in a hoodie, scanning the crowd that pushes through the turnstiles with a look of fearsome intent. When I wave, the glare becomes a beaming smile. ‘How are you, mate?’ he booms. ‘Splendid, splendid. I thought we’d go for a bit of a walk, so I can show you around and we can work up an appetite.’
Off we go up the hill. Moore swings his stick – a wooden snake coiled around the handle to symbolise his enthusiastic worship of Glycon, a second-century Macedonian snake god – and keeps up a constant flow of arcane local chatter. This station car park, he tells me, used to be King John’s castle, where the First Crusade began. That charmless glass-and-steel building was once a Saxon banqueting hall. Over there was a pub where, ‘if you’d come along here on a Sunday afternoon in the 1920s or ’30s, you’d have found a zebra tied up outside it.’
Before long, tramping through the riverside mud under a railway bridge, we’ve moved on to grander concerns. Moore has embarked on a potted summary of eternalism, the philosophical concept of time that ran through Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), played a part in his own revolutionary superhero comic Watchmen (1986-87), and is the central conceit behind ‘Jerusalem’, the million-word mega-novel the first draft of which he has now, after more than a decade, shepherded to its conclusion.
In essence, eternalism proposes that space-time forms a block – ‘imagine it as a big glass football’, Moore suggests – where past and future are endlessly, immutably fixed, and where human lives are ‘like tiny filaments, embedded in that gigantic vast egg’. He gestures around him at the rubbish-strewn path, his patriarch’s beard waving in the wind. ‘What it’s saying is, everything is eternal,’ he tells me. ‘Every person, every dog turd, every flattened beer can – there’s usually some hypodermics and condoms and a couple of ripped-open handbags along here as well – nothing is lost. No person, no speck or molecule is lost. No event. It’s all there for ever. And if everywhere is eternal, then even the most benighted slum neighbourhood is the eternal city, isn’t it? William Blake’s eternal fourfold city. All of these damned and deprived areas, they are Jerusalem, and everybody in them is an eternal being, worthy of respect.’
If this mixture of local history, cosmological speculation and messianic mysticism sounds bewildering, then perhaps you haven’t been reading enough Alan Moore lately.
Michael Collins in In These Times:
Set in the present day, the film follows the lives of five black people on the fictitious Ivy League college Winchester as they navigate race, love and ever-shifting personal identities. Broken into a series of blithely titled chapters, the film is billed as “a satire about being a black face in a white place.”
The film, however, is less a satire in the sense of using “wit to expose stupidity” as much as it is a mockumentary whose humor comes from its earnestness, in the vein of films like Best in Show. Perhaps this is because, as the title suggests, the work is narrowly pointed at white America. Or, more specifically, the type of liberal white America that prefaces racist statements with “I’m not racist, but…” and when challenged responds, “But my best friend is a black!” For those who already know that all black people aren’t the same (we have different names for a reason!), and that race, class and sexuality are complex parts of a greater whole, the film will have little critical edge. But for those who haven’t taken Race in America 101, the film may yet be productive.
Through a series of occasionally disjointed chapters, we are presented with a host of college archetypes: the charismatic jock played by the astonishingly beautiful Brandon Bell; the black militant played by Tessa Thompson, the pushover nerd played convincingly by Tyler Williams ofEverybody Hates Chris fame, the society queen with a terrible secret (and an amazing wardrobe of pearl necklaces and backless dresses) played by Teyonah Parris, and the incorrigible dean played by Dennis Haysbert. Throughout, the film adds various layers to these one-dimensional caricatures by highlighting their “performance of blackness.”
For those who slept through critical race theory, it’s now taken for granted that there is no essential black experience. Rather, blackness is a social, political and economic construct that individuals engage with as society, the economy or our personal desires dictate. The film revels in multiplicity of identity, internal contradictions and the general sense of confusion and misidentification that characterize public discussions of race.
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
This was a very low period for Waugh. There was an urgent necessity for him to find a way of making a living, and eventually, with deep foreboding, he took a post as a teacher at Arnold House Preparatory School on the north coast of Wales. This grotesque establishment was the model for the hilariously awful Llanabba Castle in Decline and Fall. He did not stay there for long, and found another teaching job at a more nearly normal school in Buckinghamshire, from which eventually he was sacked, apparently for drunkenness. Waugh was not cut out to be a teacher.
He did not really know what he was cut out to be. He had started to write, and some short stories had been published, but he had not yet given up hope of being a painter. He also spent a brief, happy few months taking carpentry lessons with a view to embarking on a career as a cabinetmaker. He did some journalistic work, and began his first book, a life of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but the most important event of these years was his meeting Evelyn Gardner on April 7, 1927. (They would come to be known to their friends as He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn.)