Hating Renoir, the Western Canon Rightly Understood, and R.E.M.’s Early Years

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Pont Neuf (1872), via Wikimedia Commons

Note: I’ll be on vacation next week at an undisclosed location deep in the Appalachians. I won’t be wearing a “Report for America” pin and certainly won’t be writing about our struggling small towns and their mysterious inhabitants, but if you happen to see a guy in a cycling kit touching off a few fireworks while holding a can of Coors Light, that may or may not be me. I’ll be back on Monday, July 8th.

Let’s kick things off this morning with a few pieces on minor but influential art world figures from times past. First, there is Roderick Conway Morris on the Grimani sculptures, which have been returned to their original settings after 400 years: “In 1499 Antonio Grimani, as Admiral of the Venetian fleet, presided over its disastrous defeat at the hands of the Ottomans off the south-western coast of the Peloponnese at the battle of Zonchio. The Venetian maritime strongholds of Modon, Coron and Lepanto were lost. Grimani was conveyed back to the lagoon in leg-irons and condemned to perpetual exile on the Dalmatian island of Cherso. But he escaped to Rome, where, in 1493, he had paid Rodrigo Borgia an enormous sum to have his son Domenico made a cardinal; ten years later, in one of the greatest comebacks in Venetian history, Antonio was not only allowed to return home but elected Doge in 1521 . . . Numerous ancient sculptures were unearthed on the Grimani Roman estate on the Quirinale Hill. Domenico, a cultivated humanist, meanwhile amassed one of the finest libraries of the early Renaissance, collected gemstones, medals, and Italian and Northern artworks, including paintings by Raphael and Heironymus Bosch.”

Stephen Schmalhofer writes about the life and work of Egisto Paolo Fabbri, Jr. at The New Criterion: “Raised Episcopalian in affluent comfort, his childhood loneliness matured into Franciscan detachment—altissima povertade—and pulled him back to the art and faith of the old country . . . Egisto as a young dandy is best seen in a painted group portrait by Michele Gordigiani of his son Edoardo with young Egisto holding a lit cigarette while studying their friend Alfredo Müller’s canvas. He reinforced his good looks with a charming and unforgettable personality that made him dangerously attractive to women and gave his friendships a touch of glamour. When his uncle retired to Italy, the extended family lived together in patriarchal fashion. Young Egisto studied painting at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze and under J. Alden Weir at The Art Students League of New York. He rented a studio in Paris up six flights of stairs in Montmartre. At this stage, he risks becoming a cliché—the trust-funded aspiring artist with a waifish model girlfriend—until his generous and gentle soul shines light on our doubts. His portrait of his amour Stephanie shows a beautiful young Parisienne who must have stopped every party as her lithe frame entered holding Egisto’s arm. When he completed her black-and-white portrait in 1910, her weakened posture and alluring but exhausted eyes already showed signs of the tuberculosis that would later claim her life. Egisto risked his own health to comfort her until she died in 1913. When the art critic Walter Pach visited Egisto’s studio, he found the artist at his easel under a skylight. Modesty compelled Egisto to hide his canvas. He often destroyed his own works. For his visitor, he brought out his collection of Cézannes.”

In other news: Did you know that R. E. M. was named after the Kentucky photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard? Mark Hemingway reviews an excellent book on the band’s early years.

Hating Renoir: For many critics, the artist “is awful. Hideous. Beyond the pale. Asked for her take on Renoir, a discerning friend replied that his works provoked ‘visceral disgust.’ His canvases, she said, were ‘like a painted version of Sweet’N Low’. . . The problem with hating Renoir is simply this: Why, if he was so terrible, did Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Pierre Bonnard revere him? Why was Renoir so admired by Berthe Morisot, Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne? Why did his obituary in the Guardian conclude that ‘probably it will be the verdict of posterity that Renoir was the greatest painter of the nude of his time.’ And why did Matisse describe them as ‘the loveliest nudes ever painted: no one has done better — no one.’ To suggest Matisse didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to the nude is like saying Einstein had a flimsy grasp of physics. So, what gives? Hating Renoir (if you do) is more than an aesthetic judgment. It is a neurotic affliction. I know, because I have suffered from it. It is rooted, I think, in a justifiable instinct: the feeling that a modern nude should express some convincing quotient of reality, be it psychological, social or simply physical. Renoir’s nudes don’t really do this.”

A posthumous novel by Stan Lee to be published this fall: “A Trick of the Light, co-written by Kat Rosenfield, tells of the friendship between Cameron, who has the ability to manipulate technology with his mind after a freak accident, and the mysterious hacker and coding genius Nia. When physical and online forces threaten the annihilation of the human race, they must combine their powers to save the world. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which will publish the book on 17 September, said the book was Lee’s ‘first novel for adult readers’, and that it had been ‘years in the making’.” I’m not sure what the publisher means by “for adult readers.” Anyway, the audio version of the book is out tomorrow.

If you teach (or are planning to teach) in the public school system, you should read 13 Ways of Going on a Field Trip: “We expect too much of schools in poor communities. The book shows how we attempt through education to replace communities and save children from poverty. The worse off the community, the likelier that the schools have to teach everything about being an adult to children, rather than focusing on academics. Schools have few punitive powers, and the worse off the kids are, the higher the chances they don’t even have a father. What does authority mean then, if anything? Equality and excellence are different things, always pulling education in different directions. Worse, the book shows, equality itself separates into different things, friendship and authority, so that the wisest way to educate children is not self-evident, despite the therapeutic pieties of our times.”

Essay of the Day:

The establishment of a canon of literary texts in English is relatively new. It remains a useful tool, Barry Spurr argues in Quadrant:

“The idea of the ‘canon’ (from Greek, meaning a ‘rule’ or ‘measuring stick’) derives principally from Christianity’s listing of the approved sacred books of the Bible, of the Old and New Testaments, which was generally established by the fifth century AD. These form the required reading and study of the faithful, and are understood to be inspired by God and as expressive of the authoritative history of the relationship between God and his people. There are significant variations among the Christian denominations about the canonical or non-canonical status of various historical texts. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, for example, has a broad canon, with as many as seventy different writings considered to be authoritative.

“So the first important point that needs to be made about the idea of a canon is that, even in its original biblical manifestation, while there is a generally-agreed list of books, there is also an emphasis on what is widely, but not exclusively accepted. There is much evidence of variations, as well as acknowledgment of the value and significance of non-canonical texts, such as the Apocrypha.

“With regard to the study of English literature, the appropriation (in much more recent times) of the concept of the ‘canonical’ has revealed even more flexibility over the mere century or so of the discipline’s development as a university subject. The first Professor of English at Oxford, Sir Walter Raleigh, was not appointed until 1904; the first at Cambridge, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, not until 1912, and it was only in the years after the Great War that English as a respected and increasingly popular university discipline got into its stride, in both the Old and New Worlds.

“In our time, the common argument proposed by the formidable forces in the universities who have been very successful in destroying the discipline of English—and, in the process, the concept of the canon of texts that had been developing in the first half-century of the subject’s progress—was the fiction that this was a rigidly-conceived and enforced imposition of mandatory study. Accordingly, it had to be disposed of in the liberating name of various contemporary cultural and sociological shibboleths, which have come to be far more forcibly imposed than any proponent of canonical study would demand.

“The essential idea of a canonical text in literature in English is that it should have the status of widespread, time-honoured acclaim and be of a sufficient linguistic and literary standard, complexity, and depth and range of interest to warrant students’ and scholars’ detailed and sustained study, discussion and debate. Nursery rhymes, limericks, hymns, songs and doggerel verse, fables and fairy tales (for example) have been much loved and widely known through the centuries, and in specialist study can yield some interesting insights into language use and popular culture, but it would be perverse to elevate these to the status of canonical texts, as ‘must-reads’ of foundational and seminal significance, for undergraduates in the discipline.”

Read the rest. 

Photo: Poncho

Poem: Damian Balassone, “The Girl Who Hugs Dogs”

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The Problem with Authenticity, Why American High School Students Don’t Learn Anything, and Hypersonic Missiles

Hypersonic cruise missile, NASA Langley Research Center, VA (May 30, 2002), via Wikimedia Commons

Why do most American high school students learn so little? Blame Differentiated Instruction (DI): “Differentiation aims to ‘meet students where they are,’ adjusting curricula and teaching methods to account for each child’s learning style and perceived needs, in order to set each student up to succeed in the classroom and graduate from high school. Such curricular adjustments are not left to the discretion of teachers in their classrooms, or even to the discretion of school leaders; they are often imposed across school districts and even at the state level. In many states, students no longer need to pass standardized tests in order to graduate high school. To use the jargon of differentiation, states now graduate ‘students not standards,’ adjusting the educational ‘product’ and ‘process’ to the students’ needs.”

Daegan Miller reviews a book on the friendship of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau: “Friendship, for Thoreau, was strenuous, a ‘conjunction of souls,’ a ‘glowing furnace in which all impurities are consumed,’ a process that refined each person into the absolute best version of himself. Such demands are exhausting, of course, and they drove people from Thoreau, which broke his heart: ‘Actually I have no friend. I am very distant from all actual persons — and yet my experience of friendship is so real and engrossing that I sometimes find myself speaking aloud to the ideal friend.’ Nor were the woods, for Thoreau, the antithesis of society; ‘Would not a friend enhance the beauty of the landscape as much as a deer or hare?’ he asks. What Cramer’s layered chronicle suggests, though never explicitly argues, is that a purifying friendship, in which each one of us is the best we can possibly be, is at the root of Thoreau’s environmental and social ethic, not wilderness nor misanthropy nor even individualism. ‘To insure health,’ Thoreau wrote, ‘a man’s relation to Nature must come very near to a personal one; he must be conscious of a friendliness in her; when human friends fail or die, she must stand in the gap.’ Emerson was different, and one of the biggest surprises of Solid Seasons is to discover how much Emerson relied on the younger writer for inspiration.”

James Campbell on The French Lieutenant’s Woman at 50: “The teller of this kind of tale customarily plays God, he writes; but the author is writing in 1967, not 1867. Fowles – and he insists that the person speaking is the writer whose name is on the cover of the book in your hands, not some detached ‘narrator’ – has barely reached the foot of the first page before opting to describe the Cobb in these terms: ‘Primitive yet complex, elephantine but delicate; as full of subtle curves as a Henry Moore or a Michelangelo; and pure, clean, salt, a paragon of mass. I exaggerate? Perhaps, but I can be put to the test, for the Cobb has changed very little since the year of which I write; though the town of Lyme has …’ ‘How did it start?’ Fowles was asked by another kind of interloper – an interviewer – in 1973; to which he replied: ‘From an obsessive image of a woman with her back turned, looking out to sea. It didn’t begin as a historical novel, and the reason it turned historical may be that I have collected Victorian books all my life. I have a poor academic knowledge of the age, but I do know quite a lot about the byways of Victorian life’. He told his student questioner that a good many details about domestic life, arrangements with servants, fashion and the like, were drawn from Punch.”

Joe Frazier gets his due. “Smokin Joe: The Life of Joe Frazier . . . covers the great boxer’s life from his poor beginnings in South Carolina to his ascension to the championship of the world.”

Memento mori: “Hypersonic missiles are unstoppable, and they’re starting a new global arms race.”

Essay of the Day:

Be yourself? Follow your heart? We are obsessed with authenticity and the idea of a “true self,” but it is a muddy term that has limited value:

“One big problem with authenticity is that there is a lack of consensus among both the general public and among psychologists about what it actually means for someone or something to be authentic. Are you being most authentic when you are being congruent with your physiological states, emotions, and beliefs, whatever they may be? Or are you being most authentic when you are congruent with your consciously chosen beliefs, attitudes, and values? How about when you are being congruent across the various situations and social roles of your life? Which form of “being true to yourself” is the real authenticity: was it the time you really gave that waiter a piece of your mind or that time you didn’t tell the waiter how you really felt about their dismal performance because you value kindness and were true to your higher values?

“Another thorny issue is measurement. Virtually all measures of authenticity involve self-report measures. However, people often do not know what they are really like or why they actually do what they do. So tests that ask people to report how authentic they are is unlikely to be a truly accurate measure of their authenticity.

“Perhaps the thorniest issue of them all though is the entire notion of the ‘real self’. The humanistic psychotherapist Carl Rogers noted that many people who seek psychotherapy are plagued by the question ‘Who am I, really?’ While people spend so much time searching for their real self, the stark reality is that all of the aspects of your mind are part of you. It’s virtually impossible to think of any intentional behavior that does not reflect some genuine part of your psychological make-up, whether it’s your dispositions, attitudes, values, or goals.’

This creates a real problem for the scientific investigation of a concept such as authenticity. As Katrina Jongman-Sereno and Mark Leary conclude in their recent article ‘The Enigma of Being Yourself’, ‘Given the complexity of people’s personalities, two seemingly incompatible actions might both be highly self-congruent. People are simply too complex, multifaceted, and often conflicted for the concept of a unitary true self to be a useful standard for assessing authenticity, either in oneself or in others.’

“So what is this ‘true self’ that people are always talking about? Once you take a closer scientific examination, it seems that what people refer to as their ‘true self’ really is just the aspects of themselves that make them feel the best about themselves.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Strawberry Moon over the Temple of Poseidon

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St. George Statue Unrestored, Milton’s Latin Verse, and Lincoln’s Bible

Tintoretto, Christ at the Sea of Galilee (c. 1575), via Wikimedia Commons

According to Nelson Algren, the promise of American capitalism was a lie and the simple-minded middle class had been fooled. He believed the writer’s task was to wake the reader from his moral stupor. Too bad his books are overwritten and dull: “Algren said that he worked on The Man with the Golden Arm for two years before he came upon the idea of making Frankie Machine a junkie, when it all came together. But does it really come together? The Man with the Golden Arm is a novel quite without pace. Algren’s lyrical flights, deployed throughout the book, ruin any narrative flow the book might have had. Throughout, characters wax poetically in ways they are most unlikely to have done outside an overwritten novel. Frankie’s badgering wife Sophie, for example, looks out the window of her apartment to note ‘moonlight that once had revealed so many stars now showed her only how the city was bound, from southeast to the unknown west, steel upon steel upon steel; how all its rails held the city too tightly to the thousand-girdered El.’ (Without the El, one sometimes thinks, Algren would have been out of business.) Three more paragraphs in the same vein follow: ‘The city too seemed a little insane. Crippled and caught and done for with everyone in it.’”

Milton’s Latin verse: “Like any precocious youth, Milton’s allusions show his wide and deep reading; but with Juster’s notes on Milton’s biblical and classical references the student should not have too much difficulty. At 718 verses, the book of elegies is about the perfect size for a lower-level advanced Latin seminar for undergraduates. But with Juster’s lucid translations, notes, and introduction, the book should equally find its place in any course considering the poetry and thought of John Milton or English literature of the period.”

Alice Oswald will be the next Oxford University Professor of Poetry.

Lincoln’s late Bible goes on display: “The Bible remained in Noyes’ family, unbeknownst to historians, for 150 years. But the precious the artifact has now been gifted to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois, where it went on display for the first time this week . . . Experts believe that the Bible was presented to Lincoln in 1864, one year before his death, when the president visited Philadelphia to raise money for the medical care of Union soldiers.”

Statue of St. George is “unrestored”: “Specialists in Spain spent $34,000 to fix a church statue that had ended up looking like Tintin after a paint job.”

Let’s stop blaming Boomers: “From the early years of the 21st century, the idea that old people have screwed up the world has become the received wisdom. From economic crisis to environmental catastrophe, from the Brexit vote to the election of Donald Trump, from the lack of affordable housing to the persistence of ‘unaffordable’ pensions, blame for a whole range of presumed social evils is levelled at that catch-all category — ‘the older generation’.”

Essay of the Day:

In The Fortnightly Review, Hoyt Rogers writes about the profound influence that Tintoretto has had on modern art on the occasion of an exhibit of his work in Washington:

“Of particular satisfaction to me is that this new transatlantic tribute features a painting I have always considered one of Tintoretto’s greatest, though it has generally gone unnoticed not only by the tourist hordes who tramp through Venice, but also by the majority of educated visitors (see the ‘Heard in Tintoretto’ section of this portfolio, second image). During the fourteen months I have spent in the Serenissima over the past decade, I have usually had the canvas all to myself. Tucked away in a dim side-chapel of the Church of San Trovaso, and rather small for a Tintoretto, it portrays the Last Supper as an unremarkable, almost everyday scene. The early date of its creation, 1563-1566, lends it a signal importance: in my modest opinion as an art-lover, rather than an art historian, it should be counted among the turning points of Western painting. A diminutive, ghostly inset of the Holy Family introduces the only overtly spiritual note, though even that tiny vignette seems like little more than a distant reminiscence. In the jumble of a dingy room, rough-hewn men sit around a humble meal, their haloes well-nigh invisible. One of them reaches behind him for a jug of table-wine, set casually on the floor. A mischievous cat plays nearby, and a rustic, straw-seated chair—identical to those Van Gogh will later depict—lies overturned in the foreground. The dog-eared books piled in the right-hand corner could imply several interpretations, such as the fulfilment of Hebrew Law or the future propagation of the Gospel; but on the surface, they merely reinforce the sense of disarray. Such an unvarnished image certainly adumbrates the naturalism of Annibale Carracci; yet by fusing earthiness with tenebrism, it also foreshadows the plebeian chiaroscuro of Caravaggio, three or four decades into the future. As I stood before the canvas one morning with a Venetian friend, the canon of the Orthodox cathedral, he shook his head in dismay. ‘Yes,’ he sighed, ‘this is the beginning of the end.’”

Read the rest.

Photo: Dogs pull a sled on water-covered sea ice in Greenland

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How to Kill More Deer, Foucault’s Late Libertarianism, and David Mamet on Women Writers

Photo by Judy Gallagher, via Wikimedia Commons

Happy Friday, everyone. It looks like it’s going to be a glorious day here in southeastern Virginia. Too bad I’ll be sitting at a desk all day. At least I have big windows.

First up, we have David Mamet on women writers, and the hypocrisy of the intelligentsia, if they can be called that, only touting women writers who write about sexism—as if women are incapable of having other interests. Mamet provides a list of interesting women writers that are “forgotten and unread.” Many of them are neither, alas, but there are a few I had never heard of that sound interesting: “Mari Sandoz (1896–1966) grew up in a log cabin in Nebraska. See her reminiscences in Old Jules and her beautiful novels. I mention in particular Miss Morissa, Doctor of the Gold Trail. Miss Sandoz was the state historian of Nebraska. Her pioneer sister, in New Mexico, was Agnes Morley Cleaveland. Her No Life for a Lady is a thrilling report of a cow-woman, rancher, genteel gun-toting rustler, and if that don’t get you running to Amazon I don’t know what [will] . . . The greatest war correspondent of the 20th century was Martha Gellhorn. Collier’s sent her, just out of Vassar, to Spain, after which she covered the fall of Czechoslovakia, all of World War II, and Vietnam. She is the only woman to have landed on D-Day. She dressed as a man, bribed her way onto a hospital ship, and landed among the first waves, working as a stretcher-bearer. She was at the liberation of Dachau. No one wrote better than Martha Gellhorn. Here is a list of her books that would take you through a winter you’d hold in memory. War correspondence: The Face of War; short stories: The Trouble I’ve SeenThe Heart of AnotherThe Honeyed Peace; novels: A Stricken FieldThe Wine of Astonishment.”

Of the fascination with Sherlock Holmes there is no end, or so says Michael Dirda: “It’s been said that Sherlock Holmes is the most famous man who never lived and who, consequently, can never die. Just in the past decade, Holmes has repeatedly dazzled us with his deductions in blockbuster movies, two popular television series and dozens of new stories and novels. More than ever, enthusiastic devotees crowd exhibitions about the great detective, attend conventions in his honor and join ‘scion societies’ of the revered Baker Street Irregulars, including the Red Circle of Washington. However, given that Elementary is now on its final season, might Holmes’s caseload finally be growing lighter? Perhaps a little, though fans don’t need to worry about losing their Baker Street fix.”

Andrei Znamenski writes about Foucault’s late turn towards neoliberalism: “Foucault started examining and challenging some 20th-century conventional left orthodoxies, especially the veneration of the power of a benevolent welfare state that faced economic and social stagnation by the end of the last century. The philosopher suggested that democratic socialism failed to deliver a well-working political matrix and suggested his left-leaning audiences explore ideas of ‘neoliberalism’ – free market and individual liberty notions that were gaining popularity in the 1970s and the 1980s. Foucault assumed that this emerging political mindset was worthy of attention and intellectual respect because it could offer a type of ‘governmentality’ that developed and corrected itself through its own critique.  He never approached his toying with ‘politically incorrect’ insights as some kind of an intellectual epiphany. In fact, more often than not, Foucault simply narrated and summarized for his students and acolytes what he was learning from the writings of West German Ordoliberals (Röpke), Austrians (Mises and Hayek), and Chicagoans (Friedman and Becker) . . . François Ewald, one of his close students who was listening to those talks, later tried to explain the keen attention of his teacher to the libertarian economists, ‘The sole liberalism for Foucault, the sole interesting liberalism is the liberalism practiced by economists and not by the theoreticians of the political or of the philosophical politics of liberalism. Why? Because Foucault gives to the economists a very specific status, that is, they are truth producers.’” (HT: Brandon Christensen)

Memento mori: Here is how an asteroid could cause a heck of a lot of damage before it even hits the ground.

Also: Mass surveillance is coming to a city near you. “Tech entrepreneur Ross McNutt wants to spend three years recording human outdoor movements in a major U.S. city, KMOX news radio reports. If that sounds too dystopian to be real, you’re behind the times. McNutt, who runs Persistent Surveillance Systems, was inspired by his stint in the Air Force tracking Iraqi insurgents. He tested mass surveillance technology over Compton, California, in 2012. In 2016, the company flew over Baltimore, feeding information to police for months (without telling city leaders or residents) while demonstrating how the technology works to the FBI and Secret Service.”

Show me the money: “As Notre-Dame holds its first mass Saturday since a devastating fire two months ago, billionaire French donors who pledged hundreds of millions for rebuilding have ‘yet to pay a penny’, a spokesman for the cathedral said.”

Essay of the Day:

In Reason, Tate Watkins writes about the damage that deer are causing across the country and how markets might help:

“In 1900, the last known passenger pigeon to be hunted was supposedly shot by a boy in Ohio. Seven decades later, he said he had no idea what type of bird it was at the time. The species, which once traveled in flocks so vast that they darkened the sky for hours at a time, had served as a plentiful and cheap source of protein for 19th century settlers making their way westward. While early Americans hunted the birds for food, professional hunters later massacred them for sport. All the while, the pigeon’s nesting territory and forest habitat were gradually eliminated as white men plowed their way to manifest destiny. In 1914, when the last captive pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo, a species that had once numbered in the billions was extinct.

“Out of this era came a new approach to managing wildlife—or rather, the first attempts to bother with a concerted approach to managing wildlife at all. European settlers who had discovered a continent teeming with game saw little need to regulate who could take how much and from where. Wildlife was an open-access resource, a ‘commons’ to be exploited with no regard to notions of scarcity. But zero limits on hunting, combined with widespread habitat loss from clearing lands for agriculture and other uses, took their toll. We sent the passenger pigeon to extinction; slaughtered American bison indiscriminately on the plains; extirpated white-tailed deer from many eastern areas; and decimated populations of beavers, minks, and other valuable and trappable furbearers.

“With many fauna depleted from sea to sea, hunters and early conservationists began to develop the ‘North American model’ of wildlife management. One of its key tenets: eliminating markets for game and wildlife products. As a definitive report published by The Wildlife Society recounts, old boys’ networks like the one found at the New York Sportsmen’s Club played a significant role: ‘The club’s membership included many influential lawyers, judges, and politicians, who often acted in their official positions on behalf of the club. At a time when there was limited or no government oversight on wildlife, they drafted, led efforts to enact, and enforced the first game laws directed against market hunting.’

“Eventually, states began to regulate the taking of wildlife. They instituted license systems, bag limits, and hunting seasons. The federal government played its part as well, via the Lacey Act of 1900, which effectively outlawed commercial hunting nationwide ‘and remains the most powerful legal tool to combat this activity,’ as the report put it.

“The upshot is that selling products from wild game animals has effectively been illegal for more than a century, a source of great pride among many sportsmen and -women. That status quo suits most environmentalists, too. Regulation managed to close off the commons, and many species rebounded. It’s an oft-touted conservation success story. Yet it has brought about new problems that stem from a new reality: wildlife overabundance.

“As it becomes clearer that the current regulatory scheme is counterproductive to managing wildlife in an era of plenty, it’s worth exploring whether markets could provide incentives to deal with animal populations that have gotten to nuisance levels.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Stade

Poem: Anna Lena Phillips Bell, “Floss”

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Gene Wolfe’s Nouns, the Right Whale’s Song, and the New Poet Laureate of the United States

Via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve finished the final lectures on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The final two treat friendship and action. Friendship according to Aristotle is the “most necessary” virtue. I won’t go into Aristotle’s types of friendship (those founded on utility, pleasure, and virtue), but I appreciated his view that friendship is one of the foundations of civilization. It is what binds a city together. We see this idea in classical and modern literature, too. Friendship and hospitality (which is welcoming a stranger as a friend) are quintessentially human attributes in The Odyssey, for example, which are not shared by the gods or the sub-human cyclops. These two ideas—that friendship is the basis of civilization and a touchstone of humanity—are also found in Francis Bacon’s short essay “Of Friendship,” which is obviously drawn from classical sources. Whatever “delights in solitude,” Bacon writes, “is either a wild beast or a god. For it is most true, that a natural and secret hatred, and aversation towards society, in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast.” It’s not that solitude is bad or unnecessary. It is that to live only in solitude is to live a sub-human life. Without friends, Bacon continues, the “world is but a wilderness.”

It seems to me that we’ve lost this high view of friendship as an aspect of human identity, which we now regularly confuse with personality or view as a discrete construction of the autonomous will rather than as something that is composed of universal attributes. So, it is no surprise that our lives increasingly look like those of the cyclops. We live in caves, in fenced-in back yards, and “consume” each other—on television, in movies, on Facebook and Twitter. And because our lives (I’m speaking generally here) are ordered around maximizing physical pleasure, not virtue, they must end in suicide when the body’s capacity for physical pleasure wanes. The opioid crisis starts with this low view of human nature and won’t end until a grander view is recaptured, which I don’t see happening any time soon.

In other news: Joy Harjo is the new poet laureate of the United States. She’s being described as the first Native American appointed to the post, but the poet and translator A. M. Juster argued on Twitter last night that that honor belongs to William Jay Smith.

One of the first international news stories was about the rampage of the “Beast of Gévaudan,” a wolf in south-central France that was supposedly responsible for the death of 300 people.

Two cheers—no, three—for cultural appropriation: “The world is a hopelessly, magnificently criss-crossed, overlapping, and interrelated tangle. There’s no going back. Whatever good has come out of mankind’s stumbling, staggering march through the millennia should be cherished by us all: neither forced on anyone nor forcibly withheld.”

Listen to the first recording of the “song” of the right whale.

Neil Gaiman on Gene Wolfe’s nouns: “I know where I was and who I was when I read The Sword of the Lictor. By the time The Citadel of the Autarch came out, in 1983, I was a young journalist and was thrilled to be sent a review copy. I met and interviewed Wolfe shortly after. He was kind and patient with my questions. This was thirty-five years ago, in Birmingham. He and his wife Rosemary were over as he was Guest of Honour at the British Fantasy Convention, and to do some book promotion. We became friends. Gene answered all of my questions about The Book of the New Sun, and I wish I had the kind of memory that Severian is cursed with, because then I could remember which word he told me was a typo that he had kept and thus was the only word you cannot find in a big enough dictionary . . . The words are important. This is science fiction, not fantasy (even if the science is usually so advanced and far from our own time that it is, as Arthur C. Clarke put it, ‘indistinguishable from magic’) and the words help ground it. They are not invented. They are real. The names of animals are taken from animals that are no longer with us, or from obscure sources.”

Miranda returns to Broadway: “Freestyle Love Supreme, the hip hop theatrical improv show co-created by Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2004 and staged intermittently since, will make its Broadway debut in September, producers – including Miranda – have announced.”

Essay of the Day:

In The London Review of Books, Adam Shatz revisits the life and work of French filmmaker, Resistance fighter, and “anarchist of the right” Jean-Pierre Melville:

“Melville was a loner and a curmudgeon, with more than a touch of Bartleby. He built his own studio so that he wouldn’t have to take orders from anyone, and lived there with his wife and three cats. (The staircase from the studio to the flat upstairs features in nearly every Melville film.) He hated shooting because he had to wake up early and change out of his pyjamas. He could be charming but on set was often a tyrant; he considered it a betrayal when his actors became romantically involved. He was a great talker, with a deep, velvety voice, but he hated cliques and industry schmoozing. One of the fathers of the Nouvelle Vague, he soon fell out with his ‘children’. ‘I desire only one thing in life: to be left alone,’ he said. Individualism was something he revered, especially as portrayed in American gangster films and westerns. He described himself as an ‘anarchist of the right’, but was in no way a political reactionary. ‘If I had been profoundly on the right, I couldn’t make the films I make,’ he told the Portuguese critic Rui Nogueira in Le Cinéma selon Melville, a book of interviews published two years before his death in 1973. What he was, he explained, was ‘backward-looking. I shun the world of the present, which I never manage to love.’

“Melville’s refuge was his desk, where he wrote his scripts and edited in the middle of the night, with his sunglasses on and all the windows and shutters closed. He believed art was ‘possible only when the creator is alone, when he isolates himself from the rest of the world’. (He preferred the term ‘creator’ to ‘director’ since he considered writing and editing to be the most important aspects of his work.) Several of his movies, including his three great films about the war, were adaptations of novels. In the first scene of Le Silence de la mer (1949), a man leaves a suitcase on the street; another man opens it to find, underneath some pressed shirts, the 1942 novel of the Resistance by Vercors on which the film is based. The pages of the novel reveal the credits: a device, as André Bazin noted, that Robert Bresson borrowed for his 1951 adaptation of Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest.”

* * *

“What did Melville really know of the world he put on screen? He described the war as the ‘rare time when one encounters virtue’, and as ‘the most beautiful years of my life’. But he remained discreet, even secretive, about his experiences, and ruled out ever making a movie of them, though he flirted with the idea of writing a novel about the battles inside the Resistance. When Bertrand Tavernier, who worked as his assistant on Léon Morin, prêtre (1961), asked him what he did during the war, Melville said he’d ‘gone to England so he could see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’. He was so cagy that some of his closest colleagues – including Schlöndorff, whom the childless Melville regarded as a son – wondered if his Resistance past was a myth, all part of the same persona as his Stetson and Ray-Bans.

“Thanks to two recent books – Bertrand Teissier’s biography Jean-Pierre Melville: Le Solitaire and Jean-Pierre Melville, une vie, an unusually illuminating coffee-table book by the film critic Antoine de Baecque – we have a much fuller picture not only of Melville’s war, but of the ways it shaped his films. As de Baecque writes: ‘Melville would remain a man the war had fashioned, faithful to a vanished time.’ While the sets of his films were expressionistic confections, not faithful recreations – Melville aimed for authenticity, not realism – their themes, especially brotherhood and betrayal, came directly from the war. As he told Nogueira, ‘what people tend to take for imagination’ in his films is ‘in reality an effect of memory’.”

Read the rest.   

Photo: Port of Marseille

Poem: David Yezzi, “Sugar on Snow”

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The Other Bonhoeffer, Unjust Affirmative Action, and Svetlana Alexievich’s Oral Histories

Arial view of Dinas Dinlle, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s kick things off this Wednesday with a few items on higher education. In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Glenn Loury talks about race and his early years as a professor at Harvard: “On a Thursday evening in April, Glenn Loury is talking about race, ethics, and affirmative action. And he’s getting emotional. ‘Don’t patronize my people,’ he told an audience at the College of the Holy Cross, in Massachusetts. ‘Don’t judge us by a different standard. Don’t lower the bar! Why are you lowering the bar? What’s going on there? Is that about guilt or pity?’ He let the question hang in silence for a moment. ‘Tell me a pathway to equality that is rooted in either one of those things.’”

In The Atlantic, Alia Wong writes about the closing of Newbury College—which wasn’t “surreal” and shouldn’t have been surprising to students and faculty but apparently was: “During Newbury’s final chapter, the school almost seemed to be in its prime, reminiscent of its heyday in the 1980s, when it was the largest two-year postsecondary institution in the United States. Newbury owed its onetime glory to a relatively obscure entrepreneur named Ed Tassinari, who in the early 1960s had founded Newbury in Boston’s fashionable Back Bay neighborhood, branding it as a business-oriented school. Tassinari over the years rejiggered that model, including converting the school to a four-year institution, and established Newbury—both the main campus and the series of satellite campuses that he subsequently acquired—as a pipeline to jobs throughout the Boston region. In recent years, the school had expanded its NCAA Division III offerings. A brand-new men’s lacrosse program, announced in 2017, had been slated to launch this past spring, with a head coach appointed last year. Many of its existing teams had been getting better and better, some making it to the New England Conference championships. This past school year’s freshman class was one of Newbury’s largest, too; the college had to hire more residence staff and rent land from a nearby college to accommodate the growth. Art exhibits, club posters, and event flyers covered the new student center’s walls. On his blog, Chillo touted Newbury’s new degrees, study-abroad programs, business partnerships, and construction projects.”

Svetlana Alexievich’s emotional histories: “Last Witnesses was the second book by Svetlana Alexievich, originally published in 1985, the same year as her first, The Unwomanly Face of War. Both of them, like the three major works that followed—Zinky Boys (1990), Voices from Chernobyl (1997), and Secondhand Time (2013)—could be briefly and superficially described as oral histories. They indeed consist of testimony, recorded and transcribed, by witnesses to major events and periods in the history of the former Soviet Union . . . In 1941 these witnesses ranged in age from zero to fifteen; most lived in villages. There are more women than men. Some can remember the impossibly idyllic world before the war: ‘I remember songs. The women return from the fields singing songs. The sun is setting over the horizon, and from behind the hill, drawn-out singing reaches us.’ But clear memories of the war can go back as far as age three, and they are nightmare images. A four-year-old boy remembers that chicks had just hatched when the bombing started. He was frantically trying to account for all the chicks, then started counting the bombs. ‘That’s how I learned to count.’ In a column of refugees, a seven-year-old girl loses her mother, then loses her name. She can only remember the name a random unknown woman called her once, and does not learn her real name until twenty-five years later—and then doesn’t recognize it. Others don’t remember their parents’ faces or anything about them. They do remember being shot and left for dead, watching the murders of their mothers and fathers and siblings and grandparents, witnessing every kind of atrocity, walking long distances barefoot and barely clothed, starving for extended periods.”

Susannah Hunnewell, publisher of The Paris Review, has died. She was 52.

Dwight Garner reviews Robert Menasse’s satiric novel, The Capital, on the politics of the European Union: “If you tasked an excellent writer with turning a tall stack of recent issues of The Economist into a novel, you might get The Capital. Somehow I mean this as high praise.”

Is Welsh becoming cool? “Welsh speakers are not used to their language and their culture being perceived as interesting or cool. When Welsh does make the headlines, it tends to be in the context of English visitors complaining about restaurant staff and pub clientele speaking it, as though people speaking their own language in their own country were a deliberate act of rudeness. So when Alffa, two teenage rock musicians from rural Gwynedd, north Wales, passed 1m plays on Spotify with a Welsh language song, I’ll admit I was very surprised. We Welsh speakers may live and breathe the language, but many people outside Britain are unaware it even exists. All my life, it has been in crisis – but change is in the air. The number of speakers has surged to 874,700 – up from 726,600 in 2008, according to the Office of National Statistics. The Welsh Assembly has set a goal of one million Welsh speakers by 2050 (the population of Wales is 3.1 million) and it’s off to a good start. But, subtler than that, there seems to have been a cultural shift that Alffa’s achievement embodies: whereby identifying as Welsh is no longer a source of social stigma, nor discouraged in favour of a more homogenous notion of ‘British’.”

Essay of the Day:

In Christianity Today, James R. Edwards writes about the “Bonhoeffer that history overlooked,” the German theologian Ernst Lohmeyer:

“I had never heard of Ernst Lohmeyer until I was in my late 20s. I came across his name in the same way I came across many names at the time—as another scholar whom I needed to consult in doctoral research.

“In the mid-1970s, I was writing my dissertation on the Gospel of Mark in the McAlister Library at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. A premier commentary on Mark at the time was Ernst Lohmeyer’s Evangelium des Markus (Gospel of Mark), published in the acclaimed Meyer Commentary Series in Germany. Lohmeyer first published the commentary in 1936 when he was professor of New Testament at the University of Greifswald in Germany. The edition I was using, however, was published in 1967 and accompanied by a supplementary booklet. It carried the name Gerhard Sass, was dated 1950, and mentioned ‘how continuously [Lohmeyer had] labored to improve and expand his book, until a higher power carried him off to a still-unresolved fate.’

“The melancholy of Sass’s preface haunted me. Why, after all these years, was the mystery still unsolved? The note about Lohmeyer’s mysterious disappearance stayed with me by the sheer power of its intrigue. But I did not pursue it. I was married at the time. My wife, Jane, and I had two young children, and my work as youth minister at First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs was a full-time-plus call. In addition, my PhD work at Fuller entailed flying to Pasadena three times a year to research assiduously in the library for two weeks. I had no leisure to pursue the lead.

“In June 1979, however, his name came up again. I was translating for a Berlin Fellowship team in Greifswald, East Germany. We were in our final meeting, enjoying Kaffee und Kuchen—coffee and cake—in dicke Maria—‘Fat St. Mary’— as the rather squat-looking church was affectionately called. The church basement was filled to capacity with people interested in hearing and talking with American visitors. Those who attended did so at some risk to themselves, for the Stasi—secret police—disapproved of public gatherings that were not controlled by the state. During a pause in the discussion, I suddenly interjected. ‘Is not Greifswald where Ernst Lohmeyer taught? Does anyone know what happened to him?’

“The warmth and conviviality suddenly drained from the gathering. I had no idea why. The pastor of Fat St. Mary, Reinhart Glöckner, brought the meeting to a hasty and awkward conclusion and said to me, ‘Jim, let’s take a walk.’ In a society where listening devices were placed in radios and TVs, in light sockets and under reception counters, where social settings such as this invariably had listening ears, a walk usually guaranteed privacy. We walked along a street called Brüggstrasse to the point where it exited through the old city walls. There we took a right and walked along a gravel path. On our right was the old red-brick city wall, on our left a spacious and inviting bank of trees. I felt anxious as we walked.

“‘Lohmeyer disappeared at the hands of the communists,’ Gloeckner said in veiled exasperation. ‘He was certainly killed by them, although we do not know any details.’”

Read the rest.

Photo: Chapelle du Pré de l’Essert

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How the Alliance of American Football Failed, Malaysian’s Missing Flight, and the Pursuit of Happiness Rightly Understood

Via Wikimedia Commons

Good morning, everyone. Good to be back in the saddle after a short morning off yesterday. Like me, you may have already planned your summer vacation, but Russell Shorto’s short trip up the Hudson River Valley makes me want to add a New York outing to the schedule.

Ivo van Hove has become the darling of New York theatre, and he shouldn’t be, Terry Teachout argues: “It makes sense . . . that frustrated critics searching in vain for a new star on whom to heap their compliments might well be shifting their attention to directors of broadly similar inclination. If so, then Ivo van Hove’s ornately mannered, self-consciously spectacular stagings of such surefire midcentury chestnuts as The Crucible and A Streetcar Named Desire would seem to be ideally suited to the purpose. Indeed, van Hove’s revivals go the critics’ darlings of days gone by one better, for in addition to being exercises in self-caricature writ immensely large, they are also left-of-center political statements of the most blatant kind. This was true even in his off-Broadway days. The first show of his that I saw was a 2010 revival of The Little Foxes in whose finale the character of Alexandra was shown on a video screen, escaping from the rapaciously evil capitalism of her money-hungry mother by boarding a plane to somewhere else—anywhere else—while John Lennon’s ‘Woman Is the Nigger of the World’ played stridently in the background. Such is van Hove’s now-accustomed modus operandi: He supplies the big-ticket scenic effects for which playgoers hunger, heavily frosted with the standard-issue political content that relieves them of the need to feel guilty for relishing such extravagance in the Age of Trump.”

An account of the IRA in Northern Ireland: “If you’re an Irish-American Catholic, as some 13 million of us are, chances are fair that your father or your grandfather or your Uncle Pat was in a bar or social club in the Bronx, Chicago’s South Side, or Dorchester, Massachusetts, on at least one occasion in the 1970s or 1980s when the hat came around with a somewhat coercive suggestion: ‘Make a donation for the lads, won’t you?’ The ‘lads’ meaning, of course, the Irish Republican Army, which from 1969 to 1998 fought a bitter war against Protestant loyalist paramilitaries and the British Army—all for the quixotic goal of reuniting the six counties of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, which didn’t want them. In Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe provides an intimate—and terrifying—account of what the ‘lads’ were up to with their ArmaLite rifles and revolutionary pamphleteering. He constructs an entire moral atmosphere, centered around 1970s-era Belfast, and asks us to consider basic questions about the combatants’ warfare. Who has the right to call oneself a soldier? What may a soldier do that is not permitted to a civilian? In the lawless Belfast of that period, paramilitaries sorted out those questions for themselves. What Radden Keefe discovers is a young, charismatic, and morally arrogant IRA, whose members later struggled with the memories of their violent deeds.”

The “pursuit of happiness” rightly understood: “Far from being a ‘glittering generality’ or a euphemism for property, the ‘pursuit of happiness’ had a distinct and widely understood meaning in the eighteenth century. It ‘refers to man’s ability to know the law of nature as it pertains to man,’ Conklin concludes, ‘and man’s unalienable right to then choose to pursue a life of virtue or, in other words, a life lived in harmony with those natural law principles.’”

Black Mirror is broken: “Part of the grim satisfaction of early Black Mirror was the prickling recognition that you already knew this future, including the knowledge that a television series may be the only way to understand the present.” No longer: “The plot devices — black men on the down low, the kidnap stand-off and ‘death by cop’, the digital takeover of inner life and domestic life — are staples of contemporary media, and the staging replicates a historic weakness of British television. Two of the three episodes are set in the United States, yet the speech rhythms of the scripts are audibly British. The British-set death-by-cop episode applies that American scenario to the English countryside, but puts the kidnapper in implausible contact with a Jack Dorsey-style social media tycoon on the West Coast. In the future, the ultimate goal of British scriptwriters will be, as it is and has been for decades, making it big in America. Black Mirror no longer reflects our anxieties forward. It now looks sideways and even backwards in a world in which Black Mirror is a permanent fixture, as The Twilight Zone was for an earlier generation.”

When it opened in April 2018, a museum dedicated to the work of Étienne Terrus announced that over half of its contents were fake. “The mayor, Yves Barniol, had known for months; 82 works out of a total of 140, worth approximately €160,000 (£140,000), had already been seized by the gendarmerie in nearby Perpignan. Barniol was soon fielding calls from the New York Times, the BBC, Al Jazeera and the Japan Times. Despite the embarrassment, he felt it was better to come clean. ‘It’s hard. It’s a shock,’ he tells me later. ‘But 60,000 people have seen these fakes over the last 15 years – that’s unforgivable.’ The Terrus affair represents a new kind of art crime, driven by what one French radio station has called ‘low-cost fakes’. As it has become harder for forgers to penetrate the top tiers of a global art market saturated with counterfeits – a figure of as many as 50% is often cited – they are thought to have turned to lesser works.”

How the Alliance of American Football failed: “Dundon’s team calculated the league’s total revenue in a year of existence at around $12 million, against estimated annual operating costs exceeding $100 million.”

Essay of the Day:

What happened to Malaysia Airlines flight 370 that disappeared over the Indian Ocean five years ago? William Langewiesche reports:

“The mystery surrounding MH370 has been a focus of continued investigation and a source of sometimes feverish public speculation. The loss devastated families on four continents. The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seems beyond the realm of possibility. It is hard to permanently delete an email, and living off the grid is nearly unachievable even when the attempt is deliberate. A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. The disappearance of the airplane has provoked a host of theories. Many are preposterous. All are given life by the fact that, in this age, commercial airplanes don’t just vanish.

“This one did, and more than five years later its precise whereabouts remain unknown. Even so, a great deal about the disappearance of MH370 has come into clearer view, and reconstructing much of what happened that night is possible. The cockpit voice recorder and the flight-data recorder may never be recovered, but what we still need to know is unlikely to come from the black boxes. Instead, it will have to come from Malaysia.”

Read the rest.

Photo: La Clusaz

Poem: Rachel Hadas, “Cento on the Beach”   

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Landmarking the Strand, the Origins of Aladdin, and Actors Acting Badly

Via Wikimedia Commons

You may remember the owner of the Strand Bookstore, Nancy Bass Wyden, asking the City of New York not to name its building (which Wyden also owns) a historic landmark. Such a move would subject the store to “a lifetime of needless red tape” and would make it more difficult for it to stay in business: “We operate on thin margins in a fragile economic environment,” she had said at the time. The city has ignored her appeal and has approved the building for landmark status. Sarah Carroll, who chairs the Landmarks Preservation Commission, told Wyden to trust the bureaucracy: “I’m confident that the commission’s review of the masterplan and any future applications will provide [the] flexibility the Strand needs to remain nimble and innovative and to continue its important place in New York City, and adapt to a changing retail climate.” Sure.

John Wilson enjoyed The New York Times’s fat summer reading issue, but something was missing, too.

Andrew J. Bacevich reviews David Brook’s The Second Mountain: “David Brooks eludes easy classification. To call him a journalist is the equivalent of calling Donald Trump a real-estate developer: the label may not be wrong, but it is thoroughly insufficient. A columnist for the New York Times, author of several bestsellers, regular participant in weekly NPR and PBS news roundups—did I mention his teaching gig at Yale?—Brooks is anything but an ink-stained wretch. He is our Walter Lippmann, positioned above the fray to tell us what it all means. Brooks differs from Lippmann in at last two respects. He possesses a wry sense of humor, whereas Lippmann seemingly never cracked a smile. And while Lippmann distanced himself from his Jewish heritage, Brooks has never done so. He is thoroughly a Jew, albeit one whose personal Exodus story has now led him to become a kind of Christian as well. That’s the big reveal in ‘A Most Unexpected Turn of Events,’ the twenty-first chapter of his new book, The Second Mountain. As for the twenty preceding chapters and the several that follow it, I suppose it’s all a matter of taste, but I found them formulaic, preachy, and too pat. Skip them or skim them as you will. Yet linger over Chapter 21 with its moving and insightful account of the author’s own midlife spiritual awakening.”

Bad actors: “Several members of the Television Academy’s Performers Peer Group (read: actors) have been disqualified from voting for the upcoming Primetime Emmy Awards. According to a Wednesday memo sent to the group and obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, a few members were found to have engaged in or advocated for block voting. That is to say, they discussed voting with other members of the group with the intention of all voting for one or more specific projects.”

“Why has so little of Walter Kempowski’s work appeared in English?” That’s Blake Morrision’s opening question in his review of Kempowski’s recently translated Homeland. “In Germany he was and remains a well-known figure but critical recognition was slow in coming there too. Only with All for Nothing, published as Alles umsonst in 2006, did he feel he was given his due and he didn’t have long to enjoy it: he was 77 when the novel came out and he died the following year. In an interview he gave in his last months, he’s wry and a little bitter about it: ‘You were ignored for a long time by the literature business. And you suffered as a result. And now shortly before you pass away, you’re suddenly a literary star.’ ‘I don’t understand that either. It could have come a bit sooner.’ It might have come sooner if he’d been less of a curmudgeon and less at odds with a leftist intelligentsia (think Kingsley Amis and you get the idea).”

The origins on Aladdin: “Quick! Name a story from The Arabian Nights. If you answered ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp,’ as most people probably do, you’d be wrong—at least technically speaking. There is no evidence that this beloved classic, now usually encountered in nursery versions, or on film, was ever part of the collection called Alf Layla wa-Layla—that is, A Thousand Nights and a Night. What’s more, no early Arabic original has ever been found. ‘Aladdin’ exists today only because of the 18th-century Orientalist Antoine Galland.”

Essay of the Day:

Why do people, who have almost no chance of winning, play the lottery. Adam Piore explains in Nautilus:

“To grasp how unlikely it was for Gloria C. MacKenzie, an 84-year-old Florida widow, to have won the $590 million Powerball lottery in 2013, Robert Williams, a professor of health sciences at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, offers this scenario: head down to your local convenience store, slap $2 on the counter, and fill out a six-numbered Powerball ticket. It will take you about 10 seconds. To get your chance of winning down to a coin toss, or 50 percent, you will need to spend 12 hours a day, every day, filling out tickets for the next 55 years. It’s going be expensive. You will have to plunk down your $2 at least 86 million times.

“Williams, who studies lotteries, could have simply said the odds of winning the $590 million jackpot were 1 in 175 million. But that wouldn’t register. ‘People just aren’t able to grasp 1 in 175 million,’ Williams says. ‘It’s just beyond our experience—we have nothing in our evolutionary history that prepares us or primes us, no intellectual architecture, to try and grasp the remoteness of those odds.’ And so we continue to play. And play. People in 43 states bought a total of 232 million Powerball tickets for the lottery won by MacKenzie. In fact, the lottery in the United States is so exceedingly popular that it was one of the few consumer products where spending held steady and, in some states, increased, during the recent recession. That’s still the case. About 57 percent of Americans reported buying tickets in the last 12 months, according to a recent Gallup study. And for the 2012 fiscal year, U.S. lottery sales totaled about $78 billion, according to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries.

“It may seem easy to understand why we keep playing. As one trademarked lottery slogan goes, ‘Hey, you never know.’ Somebody has to win. But to really understand why hundreds of millions of people play a game they will never win, a game with serious social consequences, you have to suspend logic and consider it through an alternate set of rules—rules written by neuroscientists, social psychologists, and economists. When the odds are so small that they are difficult to conceptualize, the risk we perceive has less to do with outcomes than with how much fear or hope we are feeling when we make a decision, how we ‘frame’ and organize sets of logical facts, and even how we perceive ourselves in relation to others. Once you know the alternate set of rules, plumb the literature, and speak to the experts, the popularity of the lottery suddenly makes a lot more sense. It’s a game where reason and logic are rendered obsolete, and hope and dreams are on sale. And nobody knows how to sell hope and dreams better than Rebecca Paul Hargrove.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Triangular Shadow

Poem: John Wall Barger, “The Most Handsome Man in the Neighborhood”

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The Hypocrisy of Decolonize This Place

Protest at the Whitney Museum facilitated by Decolonize This Place, April 26, 2019, via Wikimedia Commons

As you may know, I’m listening to Hillsdale College’s seminar on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and re-reading the book. This story about the group Decolonize This Place and their nine-week protest at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which ended in the middle of May, made me think about the section in Aristotle’s treatise on justice.

The group was protesting the presence of Warren Kanders on the board of the museum because his company manufactures tear gas. “Kanders represents an untenable hypocrisy for an art institution that purports to present radical works,” according to the article. In the group’s own metaphors-run-amok prose: “We can no longer accept the art-world logic of career over cause, with artists and critics making politically engaged work against the backdrop of an institutional framework grounded in the art-washing of profits for figures like Kanders.” In short, they think it is wrong for Kanders to be on the board because he makes a product that is used to help enforce laws, including ones limiting immigration, and they think it is wrong for the private, non-profit Whitney to manage its finances as it sees fit, putting its own success over progressive causes that Decolonize happens to support.

The rich irony of Decolonize This Place is that while they think they are acting in the name of justice, they are, in reality, acting tyrannically—imposing their rather narrow opinion on others and attempting to force them to act accordingly. It is not illegal or immoral to make or sell tear gas. In fact, one could argue it is one of the more humane ways of subduing a riot—better than clubs and bullets, I’d say. Of course, it can be used for good or evil, but it takes a rather thick skull not to understand that in most cases evil actors should be punished for the evil use of a thing, not the creator of the thing itself. There’s also nothing illegal about a private institution managing what it owns as it sees fit. In fact, as Aristotle argues, freedom to make choices about one’s life and affairs is necessary for a just society. But Decolonize This Place is trying to take that freedom away from the Whitney simply because it disagrees with how the museum is managing its own affairs.

By the way, Decolonize This Place also thinks of itself as an art group that (if you can handle the mushy thinking here) blurs “the lines between knowledge, action, practice, academia, and activism. I think you can say we’re about art, but we’re also [about] changing perceptions.” So, the Whitney is wrong to put “career over cause,” but Decolonize This Place is free to pursue both at the same time—and get a nice interview in Pacific Standard talking about their “aesthetic,” to boot. Talk about hypocrisy.

Let’s look at some real art, shall we? Check out these illustrations in Victorian children’s books.

Luke Kennard reviews Andrew Martin’s latest novel, Early Work, which sounds interesting: “Andrew Martin’s Early Work functions simultaneously as a celebratory autofiction about literary life in the United States and an indictment of the generation that populates it. ‘Most of the people I associated with considered themselves exceptional,’ says Pete, the protagonist, and we may take this to mean above average or, simply, those to whom normal rules don’t apply: “‘So you work from, uh, home?’ ‘Yeah, I’m a bum,’ she said. ‘Like you, I heard.’ I figured she meant writer.” Pete and his friends, all in their late twenties with MFAs in creative writing, rent cheaply in rural Virginia, where bars are plentiful, everyone is smart and funny, and the drugs are strong and readily available. The novel opens: ‘Like most people trying to get by in something like the regular current of American life, I don’t act like a total asshole to most people I meet, and am generally regarded as pretty nice, mainly because I leave myself vulnerable to hearing out other people’s crises and complaints for longer, on average, than would be merely polite.’ Self-aware to the point of self-loathing, Pete attributes his personality to being ‘raised by relatively kind parents who taught me to be polite and decent and to rely on the company and the help of others, but to also consider myself smarter and, on some fundamental level, more deserving of complete fulfilment than anyone in the world besides maybe my sisters.’”

What did Old English sound like? Have a listen if you’ve never heard it read or spoken.

The day Agatha Christie disappeared as reported in The New York Times.

Before the invention of x-rays and the modern xylophone, the letter X was for Xerxes and Xantippe, sometimes Pope Xystus and Xany, in alphabet books.

Recovering the seriousness of Herakles: “Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama’s recent production of Herakles in the Minor Latham Playhouse was notable for many reasons. The acting, particularly Yilin Liu as Lyssa, is superb. And Caleb Simone’s deft direction ensures that the entire production coheres wonderfully. But the play is also performed in ancient Greek (with subtitles projected for the audience) and, most significantly, accompanied by a reconstructed score on an auloi, a double-reed wind instrument. It is, perhaps, as Mary Spencer writes in National Review, “the first time the instrument has been fully employed in the performance of a tragedy since ancient times.” And while it isn’t necessarily true that tragic performances have become “cliché,” they can often take on the Herculean quality of having “reached the boundary of their own myth.” It’s a wonderful paradox that pushing them farther back towards something more resembling their original formal structure allows them to resonate more clearly within a contemporary audience. This production of Herakles thus makes itself relevant by eschewing timeliness.”

Essay of the Day:

In The American Scholar, Steve Lagerfeld writes that self-driving cars will make the roads much safer one day . . . and life a lot less enjoyable and, perhaps, less contemplative, too:

“I recently drove a Tesla for the first time, or rather it drove me. The Model 3 was beautifully appointed, embraced the road like a lover, and boasted the kind of instant acceleration that car aficionados like to call head-snapping. It was a terrific experience right up until the moment I switched on Autopilot and the car’s computer took command, eerily changing lanes and keeping pace in traffic. The car even parked itself. I marveled at the Tesla’s otherworldly powers, but I couldn’t help feeling sad. The Model 3 and its electric kin can’t reliably steer themselves without a human copilot, but that limitation won’t last forever. When it’s gone, driving and all the wonderful things that go with it will be roadkill. Elon Musk’s remarkable driving machine will someday help bury driving itself.

“The end of driving is a tragic necessity, like removing ice cream from your diet. More than 37,000 Americans (and more than a million people worldwide) were killed in traffic accidents in 2017, and the vehicles weren’t often to blame. It was the drivers—drunk, stupid, inept, or just unlucky. More than half the deaths involved only one vehicle. The coming of autonomous cars won’t eliminate traffic deaths, but it will save many lives. Traffic will be unsnarled and calmed, harmful emissions will decline, and former drivers will be free to text and play Candy Crush all the way to the office. Inevitably, it will become illegal for humans to take the wheel—which will probably have joined the engine crank and the human appendix in the museum of vestigial things. Along with the steering wheel will go the internal combustion engine, its burblings and exultations so big a part of the sensory experience of driving.

“I’m sure I’ll appreciate all this when, too old to drive, I can summon a robotic Ford to take me to the grocery store (if such a thing is still around). Until then I’ll be in mourning. Cars will continue to exist, but when driving ends in the foreseeable future, we will all become passengers, passively conveyed down the roads and byways of our lives. We’ll leave behind a form of adventure and freedom and, more than that, a haven of privacy, intimacy, and creativity. And we will lose a way of encountering others that teaches us how to be more civilized.

“Driving may be in bad odor for environmental reasons, and post-millennials may not be as eager to get their licenses as their elders were, but most people enjoy driving and some even—gasp!—like commuting. A third of those polled by Gallup last spring said they enjoy being behind the wheel ‘a great deal,’ and another 44 percent said they enjoy it ‘a moderate amount.’ Only 21 percent said they didn’t like it much or at all. A few people even told other pollsters they wished their commutes were longer.

“Something interesting is going on inside all those cars, and most of it is in our minds. Car time is often private time, leaving you alone with your thoughts in your own self-contained capsule—or perhaps with the absence of any thoughts. It is a refuge.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Church of Good Shepherd

Poem: Amit Majmudar, “Deaths of the Eminent Philosophers”

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A Wartime Memoir Revisited, Southern Irish Protestants Remembered, and the 2008 Universal Fire

Via Wikimedia Commons

Patrick French revisits Eric Newby’s wartime memoir, Love and War in the Apennines: “An escaped British prisoner-of-war is sleeping in a grassy hollow by the edge of a cliff. He wakes to find a German soldier standing over him, wearing summer battledress, a pistol at his hip. Realizing he has been caught, he says his name and adds, ‘I’m a lieutenant in the infantry, or rather I was until I was put in the bag.’ In the bag – captured. It is one of the many phrases of the time that add to the resonance of Love and War in the Apennines (1971), a vivid memoir of Eric Newby’s capture, escape and recapture in Italy’s mountainous terrain during the later years of World War Two. The man standing over him will not, though, take him away. Oberleutnant Frick is an education officer who instead proffers a bottle of beer and talks of his love of butterflies, which he has come to collect in the hills, armed with a net. He says his day job is to give lectures on Italian Renaissance culture ‘to groups of officers and any of the men who are interested. It is scarcely arduous because so few of them are.’”

A new collection of essays tells the story of Southern Irish Protestants: “Small in number and almost pathologically self-effacing, the lives of Southern Irish Protestants, beyond the Big House caricature, are almost invisible to external observers. This book sets out to reveal something of them. The phrase in my family, for the Methodist community from which we come in West Cork, is ‘thin on the ground, but hard to kill’. Sadly, some of the more empirically-minded among the members of the ‘Old’ IRA put the proposition to the test in 1922.”

Breaking: Big homes don’t make you happy. Of course, they don’t make you unhappy either. For that, my friend, you’ve only yerself to blame.

The man who turned the British bookseller Waterstones around will lead the effort to do the same at Barnes and Noble: “Daunt appears ready for the responsibility. In an interview with PW, he said that when he assumed the role of managing director at Waterstones in 2011, the situation there was much worse than at present at Barnes & Noble. ‘At the very least, B&N is profitable,’ he said, ‘but I may be stating the bleeding obvious that if sales aren’t turned around, there are going to be some adverse consequences—closing a lot of shops or, worse, closing all the shops.’”

Jake Shafer: Newspapers don’t need and shouldn’t ask for “a special law to help it compete with Google and Facebook.”

While scholars debate the authenticity of Salvator Mundi, it’s chillin’ on the yacht Serene.

Essay of the Day:

In The New York Times Magazine, Jody Rosen writes about the “biggest disaster in the history of the music business”—the 2008 Universal fire:

“The fire that swept across the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood on Sunday, June 1, 2008, began early that morning, in New England. At 4:43 a.m., a security guard at the movie studio and theme park saw flames rising from a rooftop on the set known as New England Street, a stretch of quaint Colonial-style buildings where small-town scenes were filmed for motion pictures and television shows. That night, maintenance workers had repaired the roof of a building on the set, using blowtorches to heat asphalt shingles. They finished the job at 3 a.m. and, following protocol, kept watch over the site for another hour to ensure that the shingles had cooled. But the roof remained hot, and some 40 minutes after the workers left, one of the hot spots flared up.

“The fire moved quickly. It engulfed the backlot’s famous New York City streetscape. It burned two sides of Courthouse Square, a set featured in ‘Back to the Future.’ It spread south to a cavernous shed housing the King Kong Encounter, an animatronic attraction for theme-park visitors. Hundreds of firefighters responded, including Universal Studios’ on-site brigade. But the fire crews were hindered by low water pressure and damaged sprinkler systems and by intense radiant heat gusting between combustible structures.

“Eventually the flames reached a 22,320-square-foot warehouse that sat near the King Kong Encounter. The warehouse was nondescript, a hulking edifice of corrugated metal, but it was one of the most important buildings on the 400-acre lot. Its official name was Building 6197. To backlot workers, it was known as the video vault.

“Shortly after the fire broke out, a 50-year-old man named Randy Aronson was awakened by a ringing phone at his home in Canyon Country, Calif., about 30 miles north of Universal City, the unincorporated area of the San Fernando Valley where the studio sits. Aronson had worked on the Universal lot for 25 years. His title was senior director of vault operations at Universal Music Group (UMG). In practice, this meant he spent his days overseeing an archive housed in the video vault. The term “video vault” was in fact a misnomer, or a partial misnomer. About two-thirds of the building was used to store videotapes and film reels, a library controlled by Universal Studios’s parent company, NBCUniversal. But Aronson’s domain was a separate space, a fenced-off area of 2,400 square feet in the southwest corner of the building, lined with 18-foot-high storage shelves. It was a sound-recordings library, the repository of some of the most historically significant material owned by UMG, the world’s largest record company.”

Read the rest.

Photos: Madonna della Corona Sanctuary

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