Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Dan Drollette, Jr. in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
Although Iran’s nuclear program dominates the headlines now (and did apparently have a military dimension at one time), that program has yet to produce a nuclear weapon, judging from the available public evidence. Meanwhile, the country pushing most aggressively for complete elimination of any prospect of an Iranian bomb—Israel—has an unacknowledged nuclear arsenal of its own. Although others project higher numbers, nuclear arsenal experts Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris estimate that Israel has roughly 80 warheads, built in secret.
It is noteworthy that while negotiations over limiting Iran’s enrichment program have taken center stage in news coverage—and will likely dominate the headlines as a final agreement is or is not reached at the end of this month—the history of Israel’s covert nuclear program draws relatively little media attention. Israel has long maintained a policy of nuclear ambiguity, neither confirming nor directly denying that it has a nuclear deterrent, and the United States government has officially taken the same stance, prohibiting its officials from stating that Israel is a nuclear weapons country.
Monday, June 22, 2015
by Dwight Furrow
One of the main hurdles confronting the view that fine cuisine is a fine art is to say what fine cuisine is about. Paintings refer to something beyond the painting and thus a painting can have meaning and can be interpreted. What do dishes refer to? Are they just flavor combinations that refer to nothing beyond the meal or do the flavors have meaning that can be decoded and elucidated, as a reader might grasp the symbols in a poem? Here is a quote from essayist and literary critic William Deresiewic articulating the standard puzzlement often expressed when confronted by this question of the meaning of food:
But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion. An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one. Meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things. Food is highly developed as a system of sensations, extremely crude as a system of symbols. Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art. A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.
This dismissive argument from Deresiewic receives support from many philosophers throughout history writing on the arts. Even Carolyn Korsmeyer, the philosopher most responsible for putting food on the philosophical map, while granting that food is worthy of serious aesthetic attention, has reservations about food being a fine art. “Ought we now to take the next step and conclude that foods also qualify as works of art in the full sense of the term? That they represent in their own medium the same sorts of objects as paintings, sculptures, poems, and symphonies? I do not believe we should.” (Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste, 124)
Korsmeyer argues that food acquires meaning only because of its context, the ceremonies and rituals that surround the serving of food. Food, of course, is richly symbolic. The apple in Eve's hand represents the fall of humanity. The apple in Mom's apple pie represents her loving solicitude. For the Genoan, pesto is the taste of home; for coastal New Englanders it’s a clambake. Chicken soup is a symbol of healing; the Thanksgiving turkey a symbol of gratitude, abundance, and the gathering of family. There is plenty of meaning here to keep the semioticians busy.
by Alexander Bastidas Fry
When we face difficult questions vague answers can offer a feeling of clarity that binary answers cannot. The laws of nature and the foibles of humans do not always allow strict classification into true and false. Even when such a dichotomy exists how do we find the absolute truth? And what is more, how do we know the right question? Everything and everyone seems to have an answer and a question. During moments of introspection, the full moon may even ask you a question, or offer an answer with clarity. The moon is an object that is utterly real and tangible, but it is never quite present or reachable. It alludes to a bright idea that has no consequence. Take this old story,
A monk sat in the forest with three students. He took out his fan and placed it in front of him, saying, "Without calling it a fan, tell me what this is."
The first said, "You could not call it a slop-bucket." The master poked him with his stick.
The second and third students were actually rocks that the master had mistaken for students, because it was getting very dark. Suddenly, the master and his pupil felt afraid and alone.
In the distance a wolf howled.
The Zen tradition of paradoxical or even seemingly nonsensical stories like this, a koan, is to provoke doubt in understanding. Or to provoke true insight. Either way we would be fools to not take wisdom offered when there are wolves in the distance, sharks circling, or clouds gathering. Old Buddhist, Zen, and Sufi stories are searching for wisdom or answers to threats hidden in that shadows. But often the stories show all the search is for naught, there is nothing in the shadows. Indeed, many of the reoccurring themes and animals in those stories are not situations we encounter today. In the city there are troubled people on the corner and parking tickets. As I look out the window I see someone getting written a parking ticket. I think that a sort of modern koan is that parking signs that are always written in the negatory; statements which do not state what is permitted, only things which are un-permitted. The modern world casts new-old spells on people. What wisdom do we need in the modern world?
by Jalees Rehman
Anti-Semitism and the holocaust are among the central themes in the modern German secondary school curriculum. During history lessons in middle school, we learned about anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews in Europe during the middle ages and early modernity. Our history curriculum in the ninth and tenth grades focused on the virulent growth of anti-Semitism in 20th century Europe, how Hitler and the Nazi party used anti-Semitism as a means to rally support and gain power, and how the Nazi apparatus implemented the systematic genocide of millions of Jews.
In grades 11 to 13, the educational focus shifts to a discussion of the broader moral and political context of anti-Semitism and Nazism. How could the Nazis enlist the active and passive help of millions of "upstanding" citizens to participate in this devastating genocide? Were all Germans who did not actively resist the Nazis morally culpable or at least morally responsible for the Nazi horrors? Did Germans born after the Second World War inherit some degree of moral responsibility for the crimes committed by the Nazis? How can German society ever redeem itself after being party to the atrocities of the Nazis? Anti-Semitism and Nazism were also important topics in our German literature and art classes because the Nazis persecuted and murdered German Jewish intellectuals and artists, and because the shame and guilt experienced by Germans after 1945 featured so prominently in German art and literature.
One purpose of extensively educating Germany school-children about this dark and shameful period of German history is the hope that if they are ever faced with the reemergence of prejudice directed against Jews or any other ethnic or religious group, they will have the courage to stand up for those who are being persecuted and make the right moral choices. As such, it is part of the broader Vergangenheitsbewältigung (wrestling with one's past) in post-war German society which takes place not only in schools but in various public venues. The good news, according to recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth, is that Germans who attended school after the Second World War have shown a steady decline in anti-Semitism. The bad news: Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a bigger challenge for Germans who attended school under the Nazis because a significant proportion of them continue to exhibit high levels of anti-Semitic attitudes more than half a century after the defeat of Nazi Germany.
““The best evidence we have suggests that early Earth was completely covered by oceans…(but) if you link two amino acids together to make a protein, you have to remove water.” And that would have been impossible if the amino acids were immersed in an ocean. Life needed some land—literally a beachhead—to get started.” —Tim Folger , writer, National Geographic, Discover, Scientific American
though landbound, we were all once ships
we understand the sea which undulates within us
we’re bobbing on its swells of time
swept by winds that touch and grind us
few think we’re flawlessly designed
there are breaches in our hulls
we come perilously close to rocky spits,
adrift, each one looking for a beachhead
longing for a place that’s still
while everything around us shifts
the patch of earth by which god’s seas are parted
where future past and present sit
where love and luck may then be started
by Jim Culleny
by Claire Chambers
In the 1940s, around the time that the British Raj was disintegrating, Bengalis were coming to Britain in large numbers. (Smaller numbers had travelled to the country from as long ago as the seventeenth century onwards.) Many of them hailed from Sylhet in what is now northeast Bangladesh. Some of these new residents had previously been lascars, working on the crews of ships or as cooks. Settling in areas such as East London's Spitalfields, Sylhetis pioneered Britain's emerging curry restaurant trade, laboured for long hours and with few rights in the garment industry, and worked as mechanics.
Sylhetis have made an inestimable contribution to the fabric of British life over more than three centuries. This is most frequently recognized in their association with Brick Lane, the popular road of curry houses in East London. And too often their contribution to literature is reduced to one novel, Brick Lane, Monica Ali's 2003 debut about the famous street and its denizens. I will explore Ali's text in a future 3QD piece. However, this article seeks to broaden out the debate to English-language literature from authors writing about Britain who come from across the Bengaliyat. This word 'Bengaliyat' denotes national and cultural continuities between East and West, Hindu and Muslim Bengal.
As I mentioned in a previous article, the first book written in English by a South Asian author was Sake Dean Mahomed's The Travels of Dean Mahomet. Although Mahomed grew up in Patna, he claimed to be related to the Nawabs who governed Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa between 1740 and 1854. He is often thus categorized as a Bengali-British writer. The Travels of Dean Mahomet is an epistolary account of his journey through northern India, drawing on conventions of sentimental fiction and Western travel writing. Written to an imaginary English 'Sir', these letters describe 'Mahometan' habits and customs such as circumcision, marriage, and death rites.
Although his book focuses on India, Mahomed's travels took him far from the subcontinent. From 1784 to 1807, he lived in Cork, where he married a Protestant gentlewoman, Jane Daly, converted (on paper at least) to her religion, and fathered the first few of what would turn out to be a family of at least eight children. Here he had a chance meeting with another traveller, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, who was on a brief Irish visit in 1799 and was also an excellent travel writer. Whereas Mahomed cast his gaze eastwards to India for the benefit of a Western audience, Khan primarily wrote about Europe in Persian for his fellow Indians. Probably because of a withdrawal of his patronage in Ireland which created economic and social pressures, Mahomed and Jane relocated to London in 1808. There they set up the first Indian restaurant in Britain, the Hindostanee Coffee House, in 1810. London's high overheads and Britons' then timid taste buds meant that it went bankrupt in 1812.
"I see your infinite form in every direction,
with countless arms, stomachs, faces, and eyes."
~ Bhagavad-Gītā 11 16
About ten days ago, someone posted on an image on Reddit, a sprawling site that is the Internet's version of a clown car that's just crashed into a junk shop. The image, appropriately uploaded to the 'Creepy' corner of the website, is kind of hard to describe, so, assuming that you are not at the moment on any strong psychotropic substances, or are not experiencing a flashback, please have a good, long look before reading on.
What the hell is that thing? Our sensemaking gear immediately kicks into overdrive. If Cthulhu had had a pet slug, this might be what it looked like. But as you look deeper into the picture, all sorts of other things begin to emerge. In the lower left-hand corner there are buildings and people, and people sitting on buildings which might themselves be on wheels. The bottom center of the picture seems to be occupied by some sort of a lurid, lime-colored fish. In the upper right-hand corner, half-formed faces peer out of chalices. The background wallpaper evokes an unholy copulation of brain coral and astrakhan fur. And still there are more faces, or at least eyes. There are indeed more eyes than an Alex Grey painting, and they hew to none of the neat symmetries that make for a safe world. In fact, the deeper you go into the picture, the less perspective seems to matter, as solid surfaces dissolve into further cascades of phantasmagoria. The same effect applies to the principal thing, which has not just an indeterminate number of eyes, ears or noses, but even heads.
The title of the thread wasn't very helpful, either: "This image was generated by a computer on its own (from a friend working on AI)". For a few days, that was all anyone knew, but it was enough to incite another minor-scale freakout about the nature and impending arrival of Our Computer Overlords. Just as we are helpless to not over-interpret the initial picture, so we are all too willing to titillate ourselves with alarmist speculations concerning its provenance. This was presented as a glimpse into the psychedelic abyss of artificial intelligence; an unspeakable, inscrutable intellect briefly showed us its cards, and it was disquieting, to put it mildly. Is that what AI thinks life looks like? Or stated even more anxiously, is that what AI thinks life should look like?
Isaac Cordal. "Politicians Discussing Global Warming" as nick-named by social media. Part of a series titled Follow the Leaders. 2011.
by Jonathan Kujawa
The mathematics of the everyday is often surprisingly deep and difficult. John Conway famously uses the departmental lounge of the Princeton mathematics department as his office. He claims to spend his days playing games and doing nothing with whomever happens to be in the lounge, but his conversations about seemingly mundane questions has led to no end of delightful and deep mathematics. Chatting with math folks about the everyday can quickly lead to undiscovered country.
A much loved tradition among any group of mathematicians is talking math in the department lounge at afternoon tea. Nearly every department has such a tea. Some are once a week, some every day. There may or may not be cookies. What is certain, though, is that everyone from the retired emeriti to undergraduate students are welcome to stop by for a revitalizing beverage and a chat. More often than not it leads to talk about interesting math. You can begin to imagine why John Conway hangs out in the Princeton math lounge and Alfréd Rényi joked "A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems" .
You might think the conversation swirls around the work of the latest winners of the Abel prize or folks trying to impress by describing the deep results of their morning's efforts. There is some of that. But just as often the conversation turns into an energetic discussion about the mathematics of the everyday. Several years ago I was involved in a heated discussion about whether or not the election laws of the State of Georgia could allow for a certain local election to become caught in an endless loop of runoff votes. The local media's description of the electoral rules seemed to allow this absurdity. Of course the argument could easily be resolved with a quick Google search, but where's the fun in that? A search was done, but not until all possible scenarios were thoroughly thrashed out and a nickel wagered.
My colleagues, Kimball Martin and Ravi Shankar, asked themselves an innocuous tea-time question: "How often should you clean your room?" Easy to ask, the question is surprisingly difficult to solve. In math problems come in three flavors: so easy as to be not very interesting, so hard as to be unsolvable, and the sweet spot in the middle where the questions are both interesting and solvable. When to clean your room turns out to be a question of the third kind.
To have a chance in using math to answer a question you have to figure out what you're really asking. In the end Kimball and Ravi settled on the following scenario. Imagine you have a collection of objects which are all in order. For example, they could be books in alphabetical order on a shelf. After you've read a book you drop it on the large pile of books on your desk. From time to time you think of a book you'd like to read (let's say you'd like to reread the collected works of Shel Silverstein). Since the books in the pile are in no particular order, if the Shel Silverstein book is in the pile you have to go through the books one by one to find it. It's much faster to find the book when it's on the shelf. On the other hand, it takes time to put the books back on the shelf.
by Mandy de Waal
Click on over to the New York Times and you'll find a gallery of tortured artists. First up is a youthful, but ghostly looking Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud. The caption for the dark painting on the NYT site reads: "The Poet Rimbaud. Serial runaway. Absinthe and hashish benders. Shot by poet-lover Verlaine."
Born in October 1854 in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France, Rimbaud started writing poetry in primary school. By the time he was 16 he'd already written Le Dormeur du Val [The Sleeper In The Valley].
"It is a green hollow where a stream gurgles," the poem begins, before telling the story of "A young soldier, open-mouthed, bare-headed, With the nape of his neck bathed in cool blue watercress," sleeping stretched out on the grass under the sky.
Written during the French-Prussian war, the denouement of this piece is tragic:
"No odour makes his nostrils quiver;
He sleeps in the sun, his hand on his breast
At peace. There are two red holes in his right side."
Rimbaud's life was no less grim. His genius flowered early, and then stalled. By the time he was 21 he'd stopped writing. Four years earlier he'd send Le Dormeur du Val to celebrated French poet, Paul Verlaine, who'd forsake his wife and child for Rimbaud. The relationship would end after a few short years after Verlaine discharged a gun at Rimbaud in a jealous, drunken rage. Rimbaud wouldn't die then, but at at the age of 37 after suffering many agonising months from bone cancer.
by Brooks Riley
by Kathleen Goodwin
Following the murders of nine members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston by 21 year old Dylann Roof, many have noted the significance of Roof's being born in 1994. Despite growing up in "post-racial" America, in an allegedly "colorblind" generation, Roof is a white supremacist who adopted the symbols of some of the most patently racist and violent institutions in global history—namely the Confederacy, Nazi Germany, and the white African colony of Rhodesia. Suddenly, the optimistic talk of millennials being open-minded and racism being a fading relic is ringing false. Survey data about those born after 1980 is now being dredged up revealing that white millennials are not considerably more tolerant than Generation X (born between 1965-1980), or even their parents, the Baby Boomers. Yet, the "stubborn myth" of the unprejudiced millennial persists despite plenty of available information to the contrary.
The main problem with this myth is twofold—the first is that millennials are a homogenous group of bike-riding, social media preoccupied, workplace disruptors. It doesn't take much reflection to realize that the "millennial" that the media is fond of writing about is actually a very small portion of the 65 million people born between 1980-1995. The vast majority of them can't afford fair trade organic coffee and in some demographic groups aren't college educated or stably employed. As Emily Badger writes in the Washington Post, "Often in the media (and I'll raise my hand here), we evoke the word ‘millennial' to describe a subset of people born after 1980 who hold college degrees and live in cities. We're not talking about 20-year-old single moms in small towns, or fast-food workers in the suburbs trying to get by on only a high school diploma." Dylann Roof is a representative of the type of millennial that publications like the New York Times ignore in their coverage of the young adults currently living in major metropolises and being hired by Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Hence the surprise when Roof's values appear to conflict with widely disseminated views about the tolerance of his generation.
by Justin E. H. Smith
I tend towards a fairly hardcore social constructionism about most mental-health diagnoses. I've read Michel Foucault and Ian Hacking, and I'm well aware of the historicity of ways of classifying and enacting whatever it is that's eating at our souls. World War I ends and young men stop fuguing; no one has come down with an attack of St. Vitus' Dance for some centuries now. These days PTSD is in fashion, the proximate causes of which range from surviving heavy combat in Iraq to having to read Ovid's Metamorphoses in a humanities survey course.
I'm not saying we aren't all feeling something, that we don't all have a current running through us that at one minute charges us up with the life force only to send us convulsing to the ground with its cruel and insupportable shocks the next. I'm saying that how we describe this current has much more to do with the way the people around us are chattering than with the way our own private neutrons are firing.
Except when it comes to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This, I maintain, is a real illness, like diabetes. I know because I suffered from it for a few years in my early twenties, and the experience of it remains one of the most basic autobiographical facts in my repertoire, the talking-point I pull out most readily when it comes to the difficult matter of who I am and what my whole thing is.
Sunday, June 21, 2015
Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings:
Considering the scientific definition of life as a process that “includes the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death,” Gaiman argues that stories are alive — that they can, and do, outlive even the world’s oldest living trees by millennia:
Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes… Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce — they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.
Over at the Rationally Speaking podcast:
Photo by Jeremy DangerCommon wisdom holds that the world is getting more violent, but is that really true? Leading skeptic Michael Shermer, professor and author of many books on science, morality and skepticism, argues to the contrary. Shermer's thesis in his recent book, "The Moral Arc: How Science Leads Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom,"is that as science has advanced our understanding of the world, we have become more willing to expand our circle of empathy beyond our own provincial "tribes," and more able to design our societies to encourage human flourishing.
Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, a regular contributor to Time.com, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His new book is The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.
Jonathan Crow in Open Culture:
Consisting largely of simple line drawings, the film might lack the verve and visual sophistication that marked A Man with a Movie Camera, but Vertov still displays his knack for making striking, pungent images. Yet those who don’t have an intimate knowledge of Soviet policy of the 1920s might find the movie — which is laden with Marxist allegories — really odd.
Soviet Toys came out in 1924, during Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP), which gave some market incentives to small farmers. Not surprisingly, the farmers started producing a lot more food than before, and soon a whole new class of middleman traders formed — the reviled “NEPmen.”
The movie opens with a NEPman — a bloated caricature of a Capitalist (who coincidentally looks vaguely like Nikita Khrushchev) — devouring a massive heap of food. He’s so stuffed that he spends much of the rest of the movie sprawled out on the floor, much in the same way one might imagineJamie Dimon after Thanksgiving dinner. Then he belches riches at a woman who is can-canning on his distended belly.
Michael Le Page in New Scientist:
Now it appears that the tiny owner of this eye uses it to catch invisible prey by detecting polarised light. This suggestion is also likely to be greeted with disbelief, for the eye belongs to a single-celled organism calledErythropsidinium. It has no nerves, let alone a brain. So how could it "see" its prey?
Fernando Gómez of the University of São Paulo, Brazil, thinks it can. "Erythropsidinium is a sniper," he told New Scientist. "It is waiting to see the prey, and it shoots in that direction."
Erythropsidinium belongs to a group of single-celled planktonic organisms known as dinoflagellates. They can swim using a tail, or flagellum, and many possess chloroplasts, allowing them to get their food by photosynthesis just as plants do.
Basharat Peer in The Hindu:
On a recent afternoon, after a two-hour drive out of Mumbai, I followed a highway hugging the low hills of Mumbra, north-east of the city, near the Thane creek. As the road forked downhill, hundreds of grimy, teetering buildings stacked like tattered books in a neglected public library were the first glimpse intimation of Mumbra, India’s largest Muslim ghetto. Despite the heat, young boys played cricket in a clearing by a graveyard. A chaotic medley of vehicles choked the main street leading into the Kausa area of the ghetto.
Mumbra expanded with great velocity in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The Bombay riots of December 1992, which overwhelmingly killed Bombay Muslims, and the retaliatory bomb blasts in January 1993 by the Muslim underworld, reconfigured the social geography of the city. Bombay Muslims from riot-hit areas sought safety in numbers and found it in Mumbra, where Muslims from the Konkani coast had a long-standing presence. Through a combination of the desire for safety among Muslims, the relatively cheaper price of apartments, and continued rural-urban migration, Mumbra’s population grew 20 times from about 45,000 before the 1992 riots to more than 9,00,000 in the 2011 Census — possibly one of the fastest expansions of an urban area in India.
Assadullah Khan, an electrical engineer in his late 40s, was among the first groups of people who moved to Mumbra from Mumbai after the 1992-1993 violence. Mr. Khan was living in Kannua Nagar in the suburb of Vitroli, a mixed neighbourhood, where Hindus and a smaller number of Muslims lived together without incident. Mr. Khan, who also gave part-time tuitions to students, was the only Muslim in his building. After the riots, most of his Muslim neighbours began to migrate to areas with a heavier concentration of their co-religionists. Mr. Khan was weighing his options.
"The devil took Jesus to a high mountain
and showed him all the world and said, I'll
give you all of this if you'll worship me."
The Third Temptation
He watched with all his organs of concern
How princes walk, what wives and children say;
Re-opened old graves in his heart to learn
What laws the dead had died to disobey.
And came reluctantly to his conclusion:
"All the arm-chair philosophers are false;
To love another adds to the confusion;
The song of pity is the Devil's Waltz."
And bowed to fate and was successful so
that he was king of all the creatures:
Yet, shaking in his autumn nightmare, saw,
Approaching down a ruined corridor,
A figure with his own distorted features
That wept, and grew enormous, and cried Woe.
by W.H. Auden
from Selected Poems
Vintage Books, 1975
Edith Hall in The Guardian:
In 1748, the Earl of Chesterfield wrote to his son: “Classical knowledge, that is, Greek and Latin, is absolutely necessary for everybody … the word illiterate, in its common acceptance, means a man who is ignorant of these two languages.” Classical knowledge is here limited to linguistic knowledge, education to men, and literacy to reading competence in Greek and Latin. Greek was also handy when white people wanted to deride the intellectual abilities of black ones. In 1833-4, American pro-slavery thinkers were on the defensive. The senator for South Carolina, John C Calhoun, declared at a Washington dinner party that only when he could “find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax” could he be brought to “believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man”. This snipe motivated a free black errand boy, Alexander Crummell, to head for Cambridge University in England. There he indeed learned Greek as part of his studies, financed by abolitionist campaigners, in theology at Queens’ College (1851–3).
The best-known example is the hero of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Jude Fawley, a poor stonemason living in a Victorian village, is desperate to study Latin and Greek at university. He gazes on the spires and domes of the University of Christminster – they “gleamed” like topaz. The lustrous topaz shares its golden colour with the stone used to build Oxbridge colleges, but is one of the hardest minerals in nature. Jude’s fragile psyche and health inevitably collapse when he discovers just how unbreakable are the social barriers that exclude him from elite culture. Hardy was writing from personal experience: as the son of a stonemason himself, and apprenticed to an architect’s firm, he had been denied a public school and university education; like Fawley, he had struggled to learn enough Greek to read the Iliad as a teenager. Unlike Jude, Hardy rose through the social ranks to become a prosperous member of the literary establishment. But he never resolved his internal conflict between admiration for Greek and Latin authors and resentment of the supercilious attitude of some members of the upper classes who had been formally trained in them.
In this song Kabir evokes the image of our body, our self, being like the five-stringed musical instrument – the tambura. Made of the four elements and containing the fifth element – shoonyata or emptiness – we hold within our self the capacity to resound to a higher sound. But only if we learn to be perfectly strung –
Saturday, June 20, 2015
Vivian Gornick in The Nation:
In New York Jew, published in 1978, Alfred Kazin recalled that the “twin reading rooms” of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street “gave me a sense of the powerful amenity that I craved for my own life, a world of power in which my own people had moved about as strangers…. I was hungry for it all, hungry all the time. I was made so restless by the many minds within my reach that no matter how often I rushed across to the Automat for another bun and coffee…I could never get back to my books and notes…without the same hunger pains tearing me inside.”
What, exactly, was the “it” that the 22-year-old Kazin was so hungry for, sitting in the library in 1938? It was the English language. Not the American, the English. He was mad to read it, and also to write it, teach it, interpret it; to swallow it whole; to possess and be possessed by it. This was the “powerful amenity” he craved for his own life. Immigrant Jews who had fallen in love with English had been sitting in public libraries in New York since the 1880s, and many of them had longed to be intimates of the language in exactly the same way; but at the turn of the 20th century, to think of the language as anything other than a means to an end would have meant that you had climbed the ladder of acculturation three steps at a time. It wasn’t until the late 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, that this longing had begun to articulate itself with some real, rather than fantasy-ridden, hope of fulfillment. The first generation of college-educated Jews, born in America around 1914, was itself only half-in, half-out; but the hybrid experience alone allowed for their consideration of the exotic notion that English as a destiny might be seen as something other than utopian.