Kafka’s Papers, Charlotte Brontë’s Hair, and Shakespeare’s Neighborhood

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What was life like in Shakespeare’s late 16th-century parish? Geoffrey Marsh investigates: “In the 1590s, I have found, there were about 100 households in the parish, and perhaps 500 to 600 people in all. Take these households into account, and you see that Shakespeare, in his early thirties, moves from halfway down the fiscal/social scale into the top quarter – and this was in a wealthy parish. Considered from this perspective, he had reached an impressive position for someone who had come to London maybe a decade earlier, with few or no financial resources. St Helen’s was larger than the average City parish, covering around seven acres, and it was clearly a bustling and affluent part of London. It is usually suggested that Shakespeare settled there because it was near The Theatre playhouse, the home of his acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, from 1594 to 1597/8. A glance at a map, however, shows that St Helen’s was all but equidistant from The Theatre with the adjacent Curtain playhouse, the Rose playhouse across the river in Southwark, and the bookshops around St Paul’s Cathedral. All three were about twenty minutes’ walk away – not necessarily an appealing prospect in bad weather with woollen clothes and no umbrellas. The Bull Inn, meanwhile, which was one of the four city inns used for performance until 1594, lay close by on the parish’s northern boundary.”

Anthony Daniels reviews Tiffany Watt Smith’s Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune: “Schadenfreude…is interesting, but not because it is good. It is interesting because it is symptomatic of the increasing vulgarity and crudity of intellectual life in the modern English-speaking world, particularly in Britain, where it goes almost unopposed. The phenomenon of schadenfreude is a fascinating and important one, of course, well worth examination. But since it is usually subtle, undeclared, and often unacknowledged, even by he who experiences it, it requires some finesse to dissect it, which unfortunately the author, Tiffany Watt Smith, does not possess.”

James Murdoch to invest $1 billion in new media companies according to The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times.

Braided hair likely belonging to Charlotte Brontë found in ring: “The ring came to light on the latest episode of the Antiques Roadshow, filmed in Erddig, north Wales. An unidentified woman said it had belonged to her late father-in-law. It has an inscription on the inside, bearing the name of the author of Jane Eyre, and the date of her death in 1855.”

Kafka’s papers head to Israel after legal battle and may contain some intriguing items: “Though the exact content of the vaults remains unknown, experts have speculated the cache could include endings to some of Kafka’s major works, many of which were unfinished when they were published after his death.”

Why we love a bit of bubbly: “Despite our solid understanding of bubble formation in drinks, a question remains: just why do we like drinks with bubbles? The answer remains elusive, but some recent studies can help us understand. The interaction of carbon dioxide with certain enzymes found in saliva causes a chemical reaction that produces carbonic acid. This substance is believed to stimulate some pain receptors, similar to those activated when tasting spicy food. So it seems that the so-called ‘carbonation bite’ is a kind of spicy reaction – and humans (strangely) seem to like it. The presence and size of bubbles can even affect our perception of flavour. In a recent study, researchers found that people could experience the bite of carbonic acid without bubbles, but bubbles did change how things tasted.”

Maria Gabriela Llansol’s mystical novel: “Anyone coming to Llansol with any kind of ‘normal’ expectations at all will likely be disappointed. Plot, logical structure, continuity, a sense of linear time and/or space— you won’t find any of that here. At least not in any form that is readily apparent. Instead, Llansol immerses her readers in a shared hallucinatory vision, seemingly fueled by religious hysteria and open to multiple interpretations. The key into Llansol is provided by Benjamin Moser in an extremely helpful afterword, which I recommend reading before delving into The Geography of Rebels. In it Moser explains that, while in exile with her husband in Belgium, Llansol ‘discovered an institution peculiar to the Low Countries: the beguinage, medieval hostels that offered a refuge to spiritually inclined laypeople.’ These hostels were built for women who did not wish or intend to take holy orders, but wanted to live a life of religious contemplation and celibacy. They still exist today. And it was after visiting one such beguinage in Bruges that Llansol ‘suddenly understood that “several levels of reality were deepening their roots, coexisting without any intervention of time.”’ This small insight into the author’s history helps to explain the real-life, historical figures she chose to populate the pages of her books—a veritable who’s who of medieval Christian mystics throughout the ages.”

Essay of the Day:

In Modern Age, Jeremy Friedman takes stock of Joseph Stalin’s extraordinary evil:

“Joseph Stalin was evil. This statement is no longer terribly controversial, at least among Western historians, as it once was in the last century. The story is very different inside Russia, where an industry has arisen to glorify Stalin and the state that he created, alongside other famously bloody Russian leaders such as Ivan the Terrible. This literature, however, is considered an embarrassment by most serious Russian historians. Even there, as Oleg Khlevniuk writes, ‘Apologists for Stalin no longer try, as they once did, to deny the crimes of his regime.’

“Thankfully the days of prominent Western writers such as Walter Duranty and Jean-Paul Sartre seeking to deny Stalin’s crimes appear long gone. Yet the basic consensus among scholars on the existence of Stalin’s crimes, with debate continuing on their exact scope, has given way to a different discussion: What was the source of Stalin’s evil? Was it to be located within Stalin’s own personality, his paranoia, his lust for power, his legendary suspiciousness?

“Some have sought to argue that Stalin’s personality, perhaps deriving from childhood traumas, is the essence of the story, a personality that remained hidden to some degree from Stalin’s comrades until it was too late to stop him. For others, the evil of Stalin is the age-old evil of Russian tyranny and expansionism, a bloody legacy that has been the source of centuries of oppression and threats to both ordinary Russians and Russia’s neighbors. For those who see Russia as a continuing menace, who see Putin as a dangerous heir to Stalin’s legacy, such a story has obvious temptations. Finally, there are those who locate the evil of Stalin’s regime in communist ideology. The centralization of power and the system of terror necessary to impose such an ideology on a country the size of the Soviet Union, the force required to mobilize an entire population to build socialism in such conditions, and the de facto imposition of a permanent state of war with the outside world meant that any such regime, were it to succeed and remain faithful to its purposes, would have had to commit crimes of this magnitude.

“While this tripartite typology necessarily simplifies many aspects of the debate, especially as each of the three directions contains several possibilities within it, it is a useful way of clarifying what is at stake in the historiography of Stalin today.

“But Joseph Stalin was also extraordinary. The notion of Stalin as a mediocrity par excellence, an unsophisticated, ideologically illiterate, uncharismatic, talentless bureaucrat who rose to the top precisely because he was so unremarkable cannot survive the mountain of documentation that has become available about him and the regime he ran. Far from being ideologically illiterate, the Stalin that emerges from the archives is one with a profound commitment to ideology and a penchant for deep engagement with the ideological impact of cultural production of various sorts. Far from being uncharismatic, accounts of personal meetings with Stalin describe him as having a captivating charm and wit. Most important, the sheer scope of his task—micromanaging the most powerful state apparatus in the world across a sixth of the earth’s land surface, conducting foreign relations on behalf of the world’s first communist state in a hostile and unstable political environment, and ultimately repulsing the largest invasion in human history—belies the notion that a mediocrity could have managed it.

“Scholars who write about Stalin therefore need to contend with his extraordinary nature, meaning in particular that they have to account to some degree for its origins, describe its specific characteristics, and then integrate that with the story they choose to tell about the constitution of Stalin’s evil. If such evil was of a personal kind, how did he manage to accomplish so much, to get so many people to follow him passionately, sacrificing their lives for him? If Stalin’s evil was a product of Russian history or communist ideology, could that evil have manifested itself through a different leader? Somehow Stalin cannot be reduced merely to just another Russian autocrat or just another communist dictator. Not for him the ‘banality of evil.’

“The problem is that our received narratives about Stalin have been shaped by two people who knew him well and, indeed, whose very careers and identities were set up in opposition to him: Trotsky and Khrushchev.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Chicago

Poem: Sally Thomas, “Newborn and Copperhead”

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Rebuilding Notre Dame, the Making of ‘Salvator Mundi’, and the Pulitzer Winners

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Rebuilding Notre Dame: Nearly $1 billion has been raised so far to restore Notre Dame, and scans an architectural historian made of the cathedral before he died may help in that restoration: “Over five days,” Andrew Tallon and Paul Blaer “positioned the scanner again and again—50 times in all—to create an unmatched record of the reality of one of the world’s most awe-inspiring buildings, represented as a series of points in space. Tallon also took high-resolution panoramic photos to map onto the three-dimensional forms that the laser scanner could create.”

Emmanuel Macron has said France will rebuild the cathedral in five years. Most experts believe it will take much longer. “The roof and spire of Notre Dame, which was completely incinerated in Monday’s fire, were made of ancient oak. There were 13,000 beams in the church’s ceiling, and Guerry said about 3,000 trees would be needed to replace them.” Just finding those could take time.

There are (of course!) those who think the cathedral is just a symbol of white power and colonialism and so, really, not that important. Yes, really. Others argue that the cathedral should be rebuilt to reflect a secular, multiethnic utopianism: “‘The question becomes, which Notre Dame are you actually rebuilding?,’ he says. Harwood, too, believes that it would be a mistake to try to recreate the edifice as it once stood, as LeDuc did more than 150 years ago. Any rebuilding should be a reflection not of an old France, or the France that never was — a non-secular, white European France — but a reflection of the France of today, a France that is currently in the making. ‘The idea that you can recreate the building is naive. It is to repeat past errors, category errors of thought, and one has to imagine that if anything is done to the building it has to be an expression of what we want — the Catholics of France, the French people — want. What is an expression of who we are now? What does it represent, who is it for?,’ he says.” But why rebuild Notre Dame at all if you want to expunge the past? Just raze it to the ground and build a new, coherent structure that captures this contemporary idealism in every detail, inside and out.

Is the Palace of Westminster next? It caught fire “40 times between 2008 and 2012 alone.”

In other news: The Pulitzer winners have been announced. Richard Powers won the fiction award for Overstory, David Blight won in history for his account of Frederick Douglass, and The Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozada won in criticism.

The novelist Gene Wolfe has died: “Wolfe’s publisher Tor, when announcing the news on Monday, described him as a ‘beloved icon’. ‘He leaves behind an impressive body of work, but nonetheless, he will be dearly missed,’ said the publisher, pointing to The Book of the New Sun’s ranking in third place in a Locus magazine poll of fantasy novels – behind only The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.”

Michael Holroyd writes about how his first novel went unpublished in England because of a lawsuit threat…from his father: “As you know I work in a firm with a staff of several hundreds…In the circumstances – for my sister’s sake and my own – I must do everything to prevent this book being published anywhere till we are dead, and I am prepared to take whatever steps that are necessary legal or otherwise.”

Was the art forger Eric Hebborn murdered by the mafia? Unsurprisingly, filmmakers working on a TV drama of his life think so.

Need a vacation? Rent Claude Monet’s three-bedroom home in Northern France.

Isaac Chotiner on the art of the interview: “One frustration I’ve had reading interviews is that they feel really edited to me. They’d be really good, but they didn’t feel like a real conversation. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some really good editors, who push me both before and in the editing process to make sure that [the interviews] reflect the actual conversation, because that makes them more interesting and less artificial. I also think it’s a more honest representation of the conversation itself.”

Essay of the Day:

In Vulture, Matthew Shaer writes about how Salvator Mundi went from a $1,000 auction piece to Leonardo da Vinci’s $450-million final work. It required extensive restoration. Was it over-restored?

“In November 2006, when Modestini retook possession of the Salvator Mundi, she had a better sense of the work that lay ahead of her. ‘There were passages that were unusually well preserved,’ she told me, citing the blessing hand and the tumbling curls on the left side of Christ’s head. ‘But you also had passages’ — such as the right-side curls and that ‘clown’s mask’ on the face — ‘that were extremely damaged.’

“Very few 500-year-old paintings have survived to the present day in perfect condition. ‘The vast majority,’ says Brian Baade of the University of Delaware’s art-conservation department, ‘have required restoration during their long lifetimes.’ Sometimes restoration is just a matter of removing surface coatings that have degraded or darkened. Often it requires more substantial work, including in-painting, which fills in damaged areas. ‘Conservators,’ Baade said, undertake this technique ‘not to trick the viewer but to reintroduce a sense of coherence and harmony, which is lost when damage remains visible.’ And yet restoration, like authentication, is a subjective science. Two hundred years ago, it was common for restorers to overpaint pictures so heavily that the original image all but disappeared; some schools of restoration, particularly in Europe, have advocated a minimalistic approach that allows viewers to distinguish between the original artwork and the in-painting without having to hold a black light to the canvas.

“In restoring the Salvator Mundi, Modestini, who says she ‘tries to imitate the original as closely as possible,’ would be charged with bringing a badly damaged painting back to life while conserving what remained of the original draftsmanship. And if her efforts on the painting happened to yield insight into its authorship, so much the better.

“In an essay published in 2015, Modestini details the long process of restoring Christ’s face, which gave her no shortage of trouble — a previous clean had stripped away the 20th-century overpaint while revealing areas of abrasion around the eyes and chin. ‘The ambiguity between abrasion and highlight made the restoration extremely difficult, and I redid it numerous times,’ she wrote. Equally time-consuming was the ‘muddy background.’ To fix it, she added ‘a glaze of rich warm brown,’ then more layers of paint, distressing the paint between layers ‘to make it look antique … The new color freed the head, which had been trapped in the muddy background, so close in tone to the hair, and made a different, altogether more powerful image.’

“About a year into the restoration process, Modestini was repairing some damage to Christ’s lip when she noticed a set of color transitions that she described to me as ‘perfect. Just the way the paint was handled — no other artist could have done that.’ In 2006, the Louvre had published a book called Mona Lisa: Inside the Painting, which included high-resolution close-ups of the subject’s features. ‘I was studying her mouth, and all at once, I could no longer hide from the obvious,’ Modestini later wrote. ‘The artist who painted her was the same hand that had painted the Salvator Mundi.’ Already Modestini had used intact portions of the painting, such as the corkscrews of hair, to inform her in-painting of destroyed ones. After her epiphany about the authorship, she no longer was just restoring a Renaissance painting — she was restoring a Leonardo. She studied how he had handled certain passages or transitions in analogous works, such as the Mona Lisa and Leonardo’s other masterwork, St. John the Baptist. Her work was almost ontological in nature; by relying on Leonardo’s work to restore the painting, was she uncovering a Leonardo or bringing it into being?

“No specific technique used by the Salvator Mundi’s restorers was particularly unusual. What sets the painting apart, one prominent art-world figure told me, is the scale of the restoration. ‘You’ll get defenders of the painting who will say, ‘Look at a work like [Hans] Holbein’s The Ambassadors. That had loss too, and it was restored and repainted, and now it’s hanging in a museum!’ ’ the source said. ‘Well, yes, but that loss was 5 to 10 percent of a very large painting. With all due respect to the immense talents of Dianne Modestini, the Salvator Mundi was a much smaller picture, and the amount of required intervention was proportionally higher. And that should be a key area of debate: Where does conservation become invention?’”

Read the rest.

Photo: Tea harvest

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The Latest on the Notre Dame Fire, Against the Political Invasion of Art, and in Defense of the Thesaurus

Photo by Wandrille de Préville, via Wikimedia Commons

You’ve read the news and seen the images and video. Notre Dame has been ravaged by a fire. “The Paris Fire Service announced on Twitter that firefighters ‘came to grips with’ the blaze at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, more than 12 hours after nearly 400 firefighters had battled the inferno that altered the city’s skyline. Two policemen and one firefighter had been slightly injured, according to the fire service.” The exact cause of the fire is unknown, but authorities are treating it as an accident. Some writers see in the destruction of the Parisian cathedral a symbol of a charred Christianity in the West, which has been gutted by scandal and heresy. Perhaps, but that seems a little too facile to me. Let’s just write about what we know, and that is: a great monument has been lost. Even if it is rebuilt, which I hope it is, it will never be the same.

Here are some photos of the cathedral before and during the fire. Here are photos of the damage inside after the fire was put out. Slate has a helpful (though incomplete) list of what has been lost and what has been saved.

I’m tempted to stop this email here, but life and culture move on, however unexpectedly. And so, in Aeon, Benjamin Harnett writes about the codex and the fact that nearly every ancient Christian text is not written on a scroll but on bound sheets. The technology itself is not Christian, he writes, but Christians were early adopters for practical reasons: “Ease of reference, capacity and portability would have recommended the codex for Christians, just as these factors recommended it to Martial.”

Speaking of books, one that gets a lot of hate, especially from us English professors, is the thesaurus. After all, we suffer first-hand from students’ mindless employment of it to inject lifeless prose with a bit of gaseous inflation. But the book has its uses, B. D. McClay argues, and we shouldn’t throw out the enfant with the eau du bain: “If a thesaurus can be a trap for the unwary, who don’t realize the next step after browsing a collection of words is to go look those words up in a dictionary, this seems like a problem with a one-time solution.”

In praise of Miró: “The tension in Miró’s life between obedience and rebelliousness—between order and anarchy, precision and looseness, control and disinhibition—is pervasive in his art, and this creative tension is on display in ‘Joan Miró: Birth of the World,’ a superb exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York centered upon the connections between Miró’s art and poetry.”

Essay of the Day:

We are obsessed with politics, Chris Beha writes in Harper’s, and this obsession invades everything, including art. It shouldn’t:

“Whatever forces have built up politics as an ever-present collective obsession, whatever forces have taught us that quiet contemplation is not just useless but actually irresponsible, there are now too many people profiting from the idea for it to fade away in the natural course of things. The political-­entertainment machine is never going to give us our lives back. It will never announce an end to hostilities, tell us it is safe to return to our homes. To quote Lewis: ‘Life has never been normal.’ If we are going to restore the balance, we are going to have to do it during ‘war-time.’ If the goal of turning some of our attention away from politics is worth working for on January 20, 2021, it is worth working for now.

“To what do I propose we dedicate our attention instead? Well, all sorts of things, but above all what Lewis called ‘intellectual and aesthetic activity.’ The critic Wesley Morris wrote a much-discussed New York Times Magazine essay published in October about art as ‘a battleground for social justice.’ ‘Everything means too much now,’ he contended. But my own feeling is the opposite—everything other than politics means too little.

“These days we divide our cultural consumption into two categories. There is escapist entertainment, the value of which lies precisely in its ultimate insignificance, serving as a kind of release valve for the pressure of our day-to-day lives. Then there are cultural objects that matter because they advance a political argument. When people complain about the politicization of culture, what they mostly mean is that things that had once stood comfortably in category one—late-night TV, football, the Oscars—are increasingly migrating to category two. People seem to have entirely forgotten a third category: culture that matters for its own sake, culture that enacts ‘the search for knowledge and beauty.’

“Knowledge and beauty; pleasure and delight; the contemplation of truth, irrespective of its instrumental uses; the intimate encounter with another human consciousness offered by the best works of art—these are among the things that make life worth living. If we set them aside until we have made it safely through our present emergency, we will never return to them, because our present emergency will never be through.”

Read the rest.

Photo: What has been lost

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In Search of the Rosario Family Gold, Chantal Joffe’s Self-Portraits, and a Lehman Brothers Play

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The solution to racism is not more identity politics, but less: Thomas Chatterton Williams talks about the fiction of race and his new book. “My wife is French and she’s white, and it occurred to me that perhaps our kids would be kind of white-looking. But the reality of our daughter’s birth really struck me, and I realized that I couldn’t just send her out into the world with this antiquated logic of hypo-descent, which is really the slave master’s logic and reinforces some really bad stuff if you think about it for a minute, even though it has allowed the black community to have a lot of solidarity when they needed it. We had this very Scandinavian-looking child, and for the first time in my life what I now call the fiction of race was thrust into my consciousness. It’s an experience that most people, black or white, don’t have to have because most people don’t live on the racial margins and don’t see how ridiculous it is to say something like, ‘My father is black, and my daughter is white, but they have the same smile.’ And my daughter is blond-haired and has blue eyes and white skin, but she’s of 20 percent West African descent. Most people don’t actually have these kinds of contradictions. So, her birth really set me down this path . . . So, my book started with this questioning essay about what it means to have a white child — what kind of black person am I if I can have a child like this? What type of white-looking child is she if she can be significantly genetically West African? It ended as an argument against race, just all the way, saying that we’re not going to transcend racism so long as we believe that you are a different race than I am, which necessarily imposes and implies hierarchies. So, I don’t think you can transcend racism without transcending racial categorization, and the book became a kind of memoir making an argument.”

Randy Boyagoda’s new novel, Original Prin, is delightful. You should read it, I say, especially if you work at a university.

Olivia Laing on Chantal Joffe’s self-portraits: “Unless you’re Benjamin Button, you’re getting older by the second. But emotional states are more like weather systems, moving in and out, and so the face is constantly changing in two ways simultaneously. A long slow look, Lucian Freud–style, literally accretes time on the canvas, but Joffe’s strategy of small and fast might be a better route if what you want to capture is not a permanent or solid self but rather instability, the way that moods temporarily tighten muscles or slash fresh grooves, refashioning flesh in a minute-by-minute way adjacent to but nothing like as permanent as the seismic collapses of age. Flesh is so funny. Bottom line, it’s there, too too solid as Hamlet had it, and horribly revealing. The older you get the more you give yourself away; the more the you in you seeps out.”

Looted manuscripts and books returned to German library: “Hundreds of priceless manuscripts and documents believed to have been looted by Belgian soldiers from a German library at the end of the second world war were returned on Thursday. The works, which were thought to have been irretrievably lost, included rare medieval manuscripts, early 15th-century prints, historical maps and the 19th-century illustrated bird books from the library of the celebrated German ornithologist and explorer Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied.”

Alfred Nicol reviews Rhina P. Espaillat’s latest collection of poetry: “The power of even the best poets begins to flag as they reach their eighth and ninth decades. Donald Hall said it well: ‘As I grew older – collapsing into my seventies, glimpsing ahead the cliffs of the eighties, colliding into eighty-five – poetry abandoned me.’ Against those odds, the beloved Dominican-American poet Rhina P. Espaillat will publish two volumes of new work in her 86th year. The first to appear, And After All, from Able Muse Press includes some of the finest poems she has written in a lifetime dedicated to the art and craft of poetry.”

The play The Lehman Trilogy, Nicole Gelinas writes, “like the bank it chronicles, is itself the unlikely product of globalism. As a luxuriously printed, oversize glossy playbill informs theatergoers, it’s the English-language version of Italian writer Stefano Massini’s play, first staged in Paris in 2013, then brought to Milan and, last year, to London’s National Theatre. Three actors—all veterans of the London theater scene—share the sparse stage, which evokes an oversized twenty-first-century office cubicle. They don’t embody their roles so much as narrate them, often speaking of themselves in the third person. ‘Emanuel Lehman, five years younger than Henry, arrived three years ago,’ says Emanuel, for example. It reads tendentiously on the page, but in person, it works, giving the proceedings a quality of inevitability; it also allows the three actors to narrate for successive generations of Lehmans.”

Essay of the Day:

In the 19th century, the Rosario family owned a Dominican gold mine and regularly sent money to banks in Europe. Now the family’s descendants are trying to get the money back. But how much is there really?

“From time to time, lawyers would agree to represent the family, but nothing came of it. When Portorreal took on the case, he told the Rosarios he’d get billions of dollars in reparations from Barrick, both for the land and for the illnesses—skin lesions, most commonly—the company had allegedly caused. In return he wanted a 30 percent cut of whatever he won. Some family members felt his fee was exorbitant, but they were outvoted. In February 2012 he filed the first of a half-dozen lawsuits against the company.

“Portorreal took the Rosarios’ crusade to the streets, organizing protests, holding sit-ins, even making a four-day march to the Capitol in Santo Domingo. He would tell his clients he was in negotiations with Barrick, or that they were doing well in court, or that a settlement was near (all of which a Barrick spokesman denies was taking place). Portorreal told me in our first conversation that ‘a payment from Barrick Gold is almost here.’ Yet after seven years, not a penny had changed hands.

“Portorreal had long known about the Rosarios’ inheritance, he told me. Everyone in the family could recall learning about it as a child. There were Rosarios whose relatives had gone mad dreaming about it. “We may not look it, but we’re rich,” mothers would say to their children. He decided to pursue the inheritance, too.

“He’d already overseen a massive three-year effort to collect genealogical documents going back four and five generations, to prove the Rosarios had valid claims to the land near the mine. Thousands of family members had searched church archives, municipal offices, libraries—anyplace that might have archived death certificates, marriage certificates, and the like. These same documents could be used for an inheritance search.

“According to Portorreal’s account, he then traveled widely in search of the money, to Spain and Switzerland, across Europe, and elsewhere. To pay for this, he’d rounded up a small group of investors, promising them a sliver of the 30 percent he stood to gain if he landed the inheritance. In the Grand Cayman Islands, Portorreal said, he’d found his first Rosario account, containing more than $700 million, as well as a helpful banker who told him what to look for at other financial institutions.

“By the time he was done, in his telling, he’d found 12 accounts, primarily at Banco Santander in Spain and Credit Suisse in Switzerland. Most were in the name of Celedonio del Rosario, Jacinto’s father. (He later told me he’d found more than 12 accounts.) As for the Guzmán accounts, he said he’d stumbled across them while searching for the Rosarios’ money because, thanks to intermarriage, several of the accounts were in both names. He’d then found an additional half-dozen accounts under the Guzmán name alone. Over the years, he said, various family members had tried to get the accounts, but they’d been rebuffed because they didn’t have the proper documents. A court had blocked the accounts, he said, which was why it was such an ordeal to get the money.

“When I finally had a chance to get in another question, I asked Portorreal an obvious one: ‘How much money is there in total?’

“He smiled, threw his hands in the air, and gave a helpless shrug, as if to say, It’s more than we can count.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Esch-sur-Sure

Poem: Sylvia Plath, “Circus in Three Rings”

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The Joys of Print, How Space Affects the Body, and Michel Houellebecq on Pentecostalism

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French bad boy novelist Michel Houellebecq writes about the strengths and weaknesses of Pentecostalism: “Many Americans probably don’t know that a Pentecostal movement exists in France. I became aware of it when I was living in Paris near the Porte de Montreuil, at that time a poor neighborhood with a lot of recent immigrants. Drawn by posters, I went to several meetings, some led by an American televangelist on tour. Probably 90 percent of the attendees were black. The memories I have of this are strange—I almost doubt having lived these moments. The people danced, sang at the top of their lungs, and sometimes spoke in tongues. I never had the feeling I was witnessing a collective delirium, or that I was in the midst of a cult. The sign of peace, reduced in Catholic Masses to a brief, irritated, and icy shake of the hand, gave way here to interminable warm hugs and kisses. And at the end of the celebration, we would share bountiful meals. ‘If these people are saved,’ Nietzsche more or less said (with cruelty, but rightly), ‘they ought to look like it!’ I understood from this moment that the Catholic Church had much to gain by moving closer to the ambience of Pentecostal celebrations.”

Here are a couple of items on space following yesterday’s publication of the first-ever picture of a black hole. Mark J. Reid explains how black holes were discovered: “In the 1700s, John Michell in England and Pierre-Simon Laplace in France independently thought ‘way out of the box’ and imagined what would happen if a huge mass were placed in an incredibly small volume. Pushing this thought experiment to the limit, they conjectured that gravitational forces might not allow anything, even light, to escape. Michell and Laplace were imagining what we now call a black hole.” And Marina Koren writes about how our brains love the weightlessness of space but our bodies don’t: “Few people know this better than Scott Kelly, the NASA astronaut who spent nearly a year on the International Space Station from 2015 to 2016. Like other astronauts, Kelly served as a test subject in the study of space travel’s effects on the human body. Unlike other astronauts, Kelly has an identical twin, Mark, an astronaut himself. This gave researchers an uncommon opportunity to monitor the two brothers as they lived in two very different environments—one on Earth and the other 250 miles above it. According to their results, published Thursday in Science, Scott experienced a number of changes that Mark did not. Most of those changes went away after Scott returned to Earth. The long stint in space, the researchers say, produced some unexpected changes—but did not lead to any clinically significant health differences.”

In his first piece for The Atlantic as a staff writer, Andrew Ferguson considers the joys of reading the newspaper: “Sometime this winter, I performed an experiment: I decided to subscribe to home delivery of a daily newspaper. I am so pleased by the success of this experiment that I can no longer remember why I undertook it, although through my daze of self-satisfaction I am pretty sure that money was involved. A promotional offer probably arrived in the mail—the postal mail, I mean—that was as insanely cheap as I am. Succumbing to a printed come-on delivered by a flesh-and-blood letter carrier to subscribe to a real newspaper-on-newsprint gave my experiment the feel of something reactionary and backward-looking—another reason I was eager to undertake it. I even paid by check.”

Geoffrey Rush wins his defamation case against The Daily Telegraph: “Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush has been awarded $850,000 in damages and may receive millions more in lost earnings after he won his defamation case against Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph over reports accusing him of “inappropriate behaviour” towards a female co-star. In a judgment delivered on Thursday, Federal Court Justice Michael Wigney said the Telegraph had failed to establish a defence of truth to its claims and labelled the reports ‘extravagant, excessive and sensationalist’.”

Roger Scruton on the metaphysics of temples and tombs: “Tombs, temples, and memorials form the heart of our ancient settlements, marking the public squares, the crossroads and the places of pilgrimage. They are the nodes of the urban network, and the streets radiate out from them, carrying the message of belonging to the furthest reaches of the city. Every town in Europe is built around a church, and public spaces are marked by monuments and chapels, reminding us that the place has a meaning more durable than the people who reside there.”

Essay of the Day:

In First Things, Matthew Schmitz explains why Christians should be against open borders:

“In the run-up to World War II, men inside and outside the Church invoked the gospel to justify appeasement and pacifism. After his own flirtation with the idea, Reinhold Niebuhr came to believe that pacifism was ‘unable to distinguish between the peace of capitulation to tyranny and the peace of the Kingdom of God.’ In the name of an abstract ‘law of love,’ pacifists abandoned their duties to God and man. They refused to recognize that a fallen world can never be free of conflict. This was bad politics—and bad religion.

“We are making a similar mistake today. Faced with a historic surge of migration, Christian leaders have misread the gospel and misjudged human affairs. They have done so with the best of intentions. Just as Niebuhr’s contemporaries were correct to say that Christians must be peacemakers, today’s churchmen are right to say that we must welcome the stranger. Each theme is inescapable in Scripture and demands the Christian’s obedience to the point of pain. But obedience is never so simple as renouncing violence or refusing to defend national boundaries. In an imperfect world, peace must be protected by strength of arms, and welcoming the stranger entails preserving the society that might welcome him.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Doi Inthanon

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First-Ever Photo of a Black Hole, Julian Assange Arrested, and in Defense of Roger Scruton

The Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration et al. (2019). “First M87 Event Horizon Telescope Results. I. The Shadow of the Supermassive Black Hole,” via Wikimedia Commons

Big news first: Astronomers have taken the first-ever picture of a black hole: “At six simultaneous press conferences around the globe, astronomers on Wednesday announced they had accomplished the seemingly impossible: taking a picture of a black hole, a cosmic monster so voracious that light itself cannot escape its clutches. This historic feat, performed by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT)—a planet-spanning network of radio observatories—required more than a decade of effort.” Here’s the image. And here’s the story behind the photo: “Technically, this is a picture of the shadow of a black hole: specifically, a supermassive black hole—a 6.5-billion-solar-mass beast 55 million light years from Earth—at the center of the galaxy Messier 87. Black holes trap everything that falls in, including light, which is why they are black. In a sense, they are fundamentally unseeable, one-way cosmic escape hatches leading to … well, that part is unclear. But because of the way they warp spacetime, they impose a dark silhouette on the glowing, superheated matter that circles them. This is the barely imaginable scene the EHT captured during an observing run two years ago, and revealed to the world today. Since the 1960s, when indirect astronomical evidence and breakthroughs in theoretical physics made the existence of black holes all but undeniable, these objects have been in a sort of epistemological limbo: they were the most likely explanation for all sorts of otherwise inexplicable phenomena, but no one held out much hope of ever seeing one.”

More news: Julian Assange has been arrested in London.

Remember the fire that destroyed Brazil’s National Museum last year? Investigators have discovered what caused it: An improperly installed AC unit.

Dan Robbins, the “paint-by-number” inventor, has died. He was at 93.

A couple of items on the ever green (or should that be ever yellow) Vincent van Gogh: A major retrospective of Van Gogh’s work and writing opens in Houston: “Van Gogh’s writing dovetailed with his work, as the catalogue for the exhibition extensively notes. Of the color yellow, a recurring and almost spiritual presence in his work, the artist wrote: ‘Sunshine, a light which, for want of a better word I can only call yellow—pale sulphur yellow, pale lemon, gold. How beautiful yellow is!’” The gun that may have been used (by himself or someone else) to kill the artist goes on the block in June. “As reported by the Associated Press, a 7mm pocket revolver found in a field in the northern French village of Auvers-sur-Oise — where Van Gogh is believed to have shot himself in the chest on July 27, 1890 — will go up for auction in Paris at the Drouot auction center.”

Sir Roger Scruton has been removed from his role on the “Building Better, Building Beautiful” commission in the British government because he has supposedly revealed himself to be an anti-Semite, racist, and Islamophobe in an interview at The New Statesman. Michael Brendan Dougherty and Dominic Green take issue with the dishonest editing at the magazine. Rod Dreher has more here.

Essay of the Day:

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Vasquez and Dan Bauman write about how college closures affect students:

“All across the United States, colleges are disappearing. As a result, the lives of students and their families have been plunged into unexpected crisis. A Chronicle analysis of federal data shows that, in the last five years, about half a million students have been displaced by college closures, which together shuttered more than 1,200 campuses.

“That’s an average of 20 campus closures per month. Many of those affected are working adults living paycheck to paycheck, who carried hopes that college would be their path to the middle class. Most are age 25 or older. About one in four are at least 35 years old.

“‘ONE class left,’ Lisa La More wrote on Facebook last month, after the for-profit college she attended, the Art Institute of California’s San Diego campus, shut down. ‘Less than 3 weeks from my BS in Graphic and Web. 6 years of my life WASTED. I am 48 years old, with teenage kids. What am I supposed to do now?’

“College closures don’t just disproportionately hurt older students. They have severely hit low-income students, too: Nearly 70 percent of undergraduates at closed campuses received need-based Pell Grants. Black and Hispanic students also bear the brunt. About 57 percent of displaced students are racial minorities.”

Read the rest.

Photos: Mount Fanjing

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Medieval Parasites, a Modern Chekhov, and “Relevant” Art

Via Wikimedia Commons

The catalog of the library of Christopher Columbus’s son, Hernando Colón, not only contains summaries of books that no longer exist, it also tells us something about the reading habits of people 500 years ago. “The majority of the some 3,000 items are in Icelandic or Scandinavian languages, with only around 20 Spanish manuscripts, which is probably why the Libro de los Epítomes went unnoticed for hundreds of years.”

This announcement is no surprise and, quite frankly, laudable for stating explicitly what has been the practice of some prize and grant committees for the past twenty years: “Arts Council England has revealed it will now decide what to fund based principally on how ‘relevant’ it is to audiences – and it will ‘no longer be enough’ to produce high-quality work alone.”

A modern Chekhov: “Dr. Anton Chekhov was dead at 44, in 1904, and collections of his short stories didn’t begin appearing in English until 1915. More than a hundred years after Chekhov’s death, in 2009, Dr. Maxim Osipov published his first short story when he was 45. He has published six collections of stories since then. This first book in English, featuring 12 stories from those volumes, is going to make a splash. It’s not his fault, is it, that his readers will be put in mind of Chekhov, but as we meet the sad, amusing down-on-their-luck contemporary characters, whose physical and emotional ailments and histories are diagnosed with a light touch, who else are we supposed to think of?”

Why do pyroclastic flows move so quickly? They travel on air: “When Guatemala’s Volcán de Fuego erupted in June 2018, it sent a billowing hot cloud of gas, ash and rock careening down the slope of the mountain. In the many smartphone videos of the eruption, the rush of debris often looks reassuringly distant—until suddenly it’s not. How such pyroclastic flows, as they are called, can travel so quickly has long baffled volcanologists and disaster planners alike, leaving communities in volcanically active areas at risk. Now, though, a new study offers an explanation: forces within the flows create a cushion of air, allowing massive amounts of hot rock to slide like a puck on an air hockey table.”

Some appointments of note: A senior editor at The Wall Street Journal, Andrew LaVallee, joins The New York Times. Chris Lehmann, editor in chief of The Baffler, has been named editor of The New Republic.

People in the Middle Ages were relatively clean—except the clergy, Katherine Harvey writes, “who accepted filth as a sign of devotion.” Still, parasites were a problem for everyone: “Recent archaeological discoveries have brought revealing details about the realities of medieval hygiene. The preserved eggs of intestinal parasites have often been found in excavated latrine pits: for example, a recent excavation in the German port city of Lübeck suggested high levels of roundworm and tapeworm in the medieval population. And it wasn’t just the population at large who were affected. In 2012, when Richard III’s body was excavated in Leicester, his remains were found to be heavily infested with roundworm eggs. An examination of the mummified corpse of Ferdinand II, King of Naples, who died in 1496, showed that he had both head and pubic lice. The archaeological record tells only part of the story. It can tell us which parasites medieval people suffered from, but it can’t tell us what medieval people knew about parasites. How did they treat them? How did they feel about them? And what do their experiences with parasites reveal about life in medieval Europe?”

Essay of the Day:

What is a “Kirkian,” Michael Warren Davis asks in the latest issue of the magazine? A radical of a particular stripe—an anti-libertarian. Davis perhaps oversimplifies the incompatibility of libertarianism and traditionalism. Still, he hits the nail on the head here:

“My generation has seen the West undone by consumerism, lax divorce laws, the Sexual Revolution, outsourcing, urbanization, and centralization. All are defended (even if only half-heartedly) by modern conservatives as ‘the price we must pay’ to live in a free and prosperous country. They’re wrong. Liberty without morality is mere license; prosperity without charity is mere decadence. The traditionalist rejects both perversions while upholding the essential Good that they distort.

“To quote Burke: ‘Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.’ And what is it that Millennial traditionalists want? Friendship, family, community, an honest day’s work, real music, good books, and above all God. Kirk summed it up very nicely when he said that ‘conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship, and Christians call love of neighbor.’

“This is the radical vision he posited against the ‘dreams of avarice’ shared by socialists, progressives, and libertarians. This is what conservatives once fought for. We’ve abdicated that duty in the decades since Kirk’s death, but a new generation of conservatives is taking up the fight again.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Abyssinian cat in Kleinwalsertal

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Roman Concrete, the Science of Synchronization, and History as Entertainment

Ancient Roman concrete vault in Rome. Photo by Michael Wilson, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some modern literary scholars hate the idea of genius. Only a collective can produce truly amazing works because individuals, according to one version of this anti-human bias, are unremarkable and inescapably governed by false consciousness and the idea of a personal anything, be it property or style. Shakespeare could not have possibly written, say, Hamlet on his own, or so the argument goes. Of course, Shakespeare did collaborate on a number of his plays. Collaboration is a common practice across the arts—both in the past and today—and it can be difficult to determine which works were the result of a single pen and which ones were the result of many. Recent research on the epic poem Beowulf may help in answering this question: “While some argued the work is the product of multiple poets, others – including the scholar and Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien – have said the evidence suggests it is a single poet’s work. Recently the debate has resurfaced with some suggesting the poem is the result of two different works joined together – one involving Beowulf’s escapades in Denmark and one involving the dragon. Now a study adds to a growing body of work suggesting Beowulf was composed by just one poet.”

Speaking of genius of a kind, I am looking forward to reading Leo Damrosch’s group biography of Johnson, Boswell, Joshua Reynolds and others. Lyndall Gordon reviews it for The New York Times, and, of course, it has the obligatory remark on the terrible, no good, very bad attitudes these men had towards minorities and women: “Inevitably, certain opinions are alien, even offensive to modern ears: Johnson’s invoking the phrase ‘barbarous nations’ to describe the victims of Britain’s imperial wars; his dismissal of the American colonists’ protest against taxation without representation; and, despite sympathizing with Native Americans whose lands were being wrested from them, his refusal to suggest that these lands should be returned to them. Regarding women, all these 18th-century British men endorsed a double standard. Women, Johnson said bluntly, must be taught to keep their legs together. The rationale was pragmatic: to secure the line of inheritance that kept property in male hands. We read on because we are drawn by the alluring drama of character. This drama is biographical, not political.” I appreciate that last sentiment. What is truly interesting about people is the drama of their lives, which is the drama of all our lives in one way or another, not their political positions (and how dim they were compared to our righteous brightness). But why mention politics at all? Are the readers of the Times so puritanical that they must be convinced that Johnson and Boswell, of all people, are interesting despite their insufficiently progressive attitudes?

Modern concrete corrodes in seawater, but the concrete of ancient Rome doesn’t. Why? Brian Gallagher writes about the elusive search for the Roman “recipe”: “The samples contained aluminum tobermorite, a rare mineral and not an ingredient in conventional concrete, which accounted for their great durability and strength. In a 2017 study, the researchers found that the aluminum tobermorite grew out of a silicate mineral common to volcanic ash, called phillipsite, spurred by ocean contact. ‘We’re looking at a system that thrives in open chemical exchange with seawater,’ Jackson said. The tobermorite’s long plate-like crystals grant the concrete an unusual flexibility under stress that increases with time submerged. ‘It’s a very rare occurrence in nature,’ Jackson said. By contrast, modern concrete, made from a mix of Portland cement and coarse aggregate, corrodes in seawater within decades, making the application of Roman concrete, Jackson noted, an enticing option for steel reinforcement-free seawalls that guard against rising sea levels.”

History as entertainment from the past to today: “Entertainment and popular culture drawing from history is nothing new — Shakespeare’s histories were still plays, after all — but, ironically, our current shining moment of history entertainment comes amid the full-scale collapse of history as an academic discipline. As Harvard history professor Fredrik Logevall and Colorado School of Mines history professor Kenneth Osgood wrote in The New York Times, ‘The public’s love for political stories belies a crisis in the profession.’”

Brian Allen surveys artist’s books: “The artist’s book is easy to define; the concept, less easy to grasp. It’s a book, more or less, made by an artist. One artist is making all the choices. There’s no editor or publisher. Every facet, from materials to graphics, imagery, and words, is the product of one artist. It’s a book, which means mixed media — paper, words, pictures almost always — and it means multiple pages bound or cased together. We experience it in a sequence. Almost always, artist’s books are witty and erudite. You’ll find puns and epigrams. They’re often meant to be taken apart and examined closely, since things are rarely what they seem. They’re unlike wall art. They’re not really for display. They defy a one-shot look.”

Essay of the Day:

In Quanta Magazine, Natalie Wolchover writes about recent research in synchronization and why patterns do or do not arise:

“It was Kuramoto’s Mongolian post-doc, Dorjsuren Battogtokh, who first noticed a new kind of synchronous behavior in a computer-simulated population of coupled oscillators. The identical oscillators, which were all identically coupled to their neighbors, had somehow split into two factions: Some oscillated in sync, while the rest drifted incoherently.

“Kuramoto presented his and Battogtokh’s discovery at a 2001 meeting in Bristol, but the result didn’t register in the community until Steven Strogatz, a mathematician at Cornell University, came across it in the conference proceedings two years later. ‘When I came to understand what I was seeing in the graphics, I didn’t really believe it,’ Strogatz said.

“‘What was so weird,’ he explained, ‘was that the universe looks the same from every place’ in the system. And yet the oscillators responded differently to identical conditions, some ganging together while the rest went their own way, as if not coupled to anything at all. The symmetry of the system ‘was broken,’ Strogatz said, in a way that ‘had never been seen before.’

“Strogatz and his graduate student Daniel Abrams, who now studies synchronization as a professor at Northwestern, reproduced the peculiar mix of synchrony and asynchrony in computer simulations of their own and explored the conditions under which it arises. Strogatz dubbed it the ‘chimera’ state after a mythological fire-breathing monster made of incongruous parts. (Months earlier, Strogatz had written a popular book called Sync, about the pervasiveness of global synchronization.)

“Two independent teams realized this chimera state in the lab in 2012, working in different physical systems, and more experiments have seen it since. Many researchers suspect chimeras arise naturally. The brain itself seems to be a complicated kind of chimera, in that it simultaneously sustains both synchronous and asynchronous firing of neurons. Last year, researchers found qualitative similarities between the destabilization of chimera states and epileptic seizures. ‘We believe that further detailed studies may open new therapeutic methods for promoting seizure prediction and termination,’ said co-author Iryna Omelchenko of the University of Berlin.

“But the chimera state is still not fully understood. Kuramoto worked out the math verifying that the state is self-consistent, and therefore possible, but that doesn’t explain why it arises.”

Read the rest.

Photos: Giant technicolor squirrels 

Poem: Amit Majmudar, “Rigidity”

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Madeleine L’Engle’s Moral Banality, Walt Whitman’s Last Thoughts, and an All-Too-Human Thomas Merton

Front entrance to the Abbey of Gethsemani. Photo by Erik Eckel, via Wikimedia Commons

David Platzer revisits an old book against literary dandies—Martin Green’s Children of the Sun: “To Green’s mind, the post-1918 dandies sought to be eternally young men living in a commedia dell’arte world of Pierrots, Harlequins, and Columbines, rather than responsible, mature fathers as their own fathers had been. He notes that his mentor at Cambridge, the stern critic F. R. Leavis, condemned P. G. Wodehouse, beloved of many a dandy and just about everyone else, for popularizing the avoidance of maturity. Leavis was one of Green’s somewhat curiously named group of ‘decent men,’ the others being George Orwell, D. H. Lawrence, and even the early Kingsley Amis of Lucky Jim before Amis, too, went dandy, endorsing smart clothes, snuff, and James Bond. In fact many of Green’s dandies, including Waugh, Powell, Connolly, Quennell, Betjeman, Graham Greene, Henry Yorke/Green, Ian Fleming, and Alan Pryce-Jones, did become fathers. Insofar as neither Howard nor Acton had children, and both had difficulties with their fathers, they suited Green’s thesis. Less helpful was that these progenitors, Francis Howard and Arthur Acton, were themselves aesthetes and artists rather than conventional philistines and responsible fathers.

Madeleine L’Engle’s moral banality: “For all L’Engle’s explicit spirituality, her works show a greater comfort with the Modern Moral Order than one might expect from a writer so often associated with the antimodern Inklings. For all her explicit Christianity, L’Engle also endorses a modern, liberal form of the religion. This is illustrated most infamously in A Wrinkle in Time as the protagonists list those who have made the greatest contributions against the powers of a darkness, a list that begins with Jesus Christ and continues to Leonard da Vinci, Albert Schweitzer, Gandhi, Buddha, and Copernicus. L’Engle features clerics in more than one novel (themselves somewhat non-modern figures by virtue of their role), but their wisdom tends to favor modern dogma, as when Bishop Colubra of An Acceptable Time blandly asserts that ‘yesterday’s heresy becomes tomorrow’s dogma.’ Ultimately the spiritual values L’Engle aims at tend toward those that are uncontroversial in the Modern Moral Order: A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door endorse love over hate, Dragons in the Waters challenges greed and environmental destruction, and An Acceptable Time provides a lesson against selfishness. Two novels take up sexuality, and while Many Waters seems to repudiate lust, A House Like a Lotus renders in uncomfortable detail an encounter between its teenage protagonist and a medical student, commenting blandly that love ‘has to be given’—a lesson on consent long before that topic rose to the front of our national consciousness. On the level of moral vocabulary, then, L’Engle’s work does not challenge the Modern Moral Order, but all too often uncritically accepts its terms.”

Walt Whitman’s last thoughts: “‘I seem to be developing into a garrulous old man—a talker—a teller of stories,’ he told his friend Horace Traubel, who was transcribing in shorthand most of what Whitman said to him during the last years of his life. By the time Whitman died in 1892, Traubel had accumulated about five thousand pages of these conversations, a monumental chronicle of Whitman’s reflections, ruminations, analyses, and affirmations.”

Harold Bloom, anti-Inkling: “It’s a bit surprising to come across Harold Bloom’s confession that the literary work that has been his greatest obsession is not, say, Hamlet or Henry IV, but a relatively little-known 1920 fantasy novel. After all, Bloom is our most famous bardolater.  When I took an undergraduate class with him at Yale, he announced his trembling bafflement before Shakespeare’s greatness in almost every lecture. In the course of his career, Bloom has named a handful of other literary eminences who compel from him a similar obeisance—Emerson, Milton, Blake, Kafka, and Freud are members in this select club—but one does not find David Lindsay on this list. Yet, in his 1982 book Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, Bloom writes of Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus: ‘I have read it literally hundreds of times, indeed obsessively I have read several copies of it to shreds.’ The much-shredded book has, he says, ‘affected me personally with more intensity and obsessiveness than all the works of greater stature and resonance of our time.’ In fact, Bloom wrote his own fantasy novel—The Flight to Lucifer, published 40 years ago this year—in apparent response to Lindsay’s. ‘I know of no book,’ he writes, ‘that has caused me such an anxiety of influence, an anxiety to be read everywhere in my fantasy imitating it.’”

Joseph Bottum on Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bad books: “For all his work over the decades, has he ever written a genuinely satisfying book, a book that keeps the reader’s attention till the end? The publisher, New Directions, would not have issued Little Boy if it were by someone else, and that seems the story of the man’s career: A reasonably good if distinctly second-tier writer, Ferlinghetti has consistently bulked up his books with third- and fourth-tier work, and he’s somehow gotten away with it because he’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti.”

John Wilson reviews Andrew Klavan’s latest novel: “Another Kingdom, the first installment in a projected trilogy, also began as a podcast. I don’t want to reveal too much about the unfolding of the story, but I can tell you that it shifts back and forth between parallel worlds. The protagonist is a thirty-year-old would-be screenwriter, Austin Lively, living (but far from lively) in North Hollywood. Early in the book, he goes through a doorway and suddenly finds himself in a vaguely medieval setting (‘Galiana’) and in immediate peril. Before long (via another doorway), he finds himself back in Hollywood. And so it goes through the course of the book, back and forth. Austin first believes he’s suffering from a psychotic break, but his circumstances—whether in Hollywood or in Galiana—don’t allow for a great deal of reflection. This is a recurring situation for Klavan’s protagonists. You see something that seems impossible. What do you do? Tell yourself you didn’t see it? Make an appointment with a psychiatrist? Or do you say: All right, that happened, even though I can’t explain it. What does it tell me? What does it mean?”

Essay of the Day:

I am not a fan of Garry Wills, but his essay in Harper’s on the human side of Thomas Merton is worth your time:

“After Merton published The Seven Storey Mountain, and people started showing up at his abbey as postulants to become monks or as ‘seculars’ making weekend retreats, Merton’s books began to earn real money for Gethsemani, funds needed to handle the flood of applicants and visitors he had inspired. His output now had to match this influx. His otherworldly superiors, meanwhile, suddenly had a crass stake in his popularity—it brought the abbey fame, recruits, and money. In time he would begin to resent this, saying the publicity made him feel ‘cheap’: ‘I am sickened . . . by being treated as an article for sale, as a commodity.’

“He became depressed and sour about what was happening to the abbey. It was staging itself, in a kind of ‘liturgical vaudeville,’ which heightened the flow of people he was bringing in—‘all those guys, some solid, mostly half-wits I think, who are nevertheless good, well-meaning people and honest in their way, and many of whom are here on account of me.’

“The abbey tried to make Merton more than an ornament of its establishment, giving him responsible roles such as the novice master. But he preferred to devote himself to his writing, and he let his fellow monks know in an open letter that he would not serve as the abbot, should that office come open, not wanting to spend the rest of his life ‘arguing about trifles with 125 confused and anxiety-ridden monks.’ The brothers could not publicly express discontent with that insult. He was their source of the world’s respect.

* * *

“He was able to get such special treatment simply because he threatened to leave the Cistercians for a more contemplative life in stricter monasteries. In 1965, to keep him on the vast grounds of the abbey, the abbot approved a state of virtual secession within the monastery. Merton could live in his own hermitage, distant from the main house, where he asked that other monks not visit him. He said that he wanted more solitude, but he told the truth in his journal, that he wanted ‘all the liberty and leeway I have in the hermitage.’ It gave admiring outsiders easier access to him and let him slip off the grounds to make unmonitored phone calls to them. Gregory Zilboorg, the first psychoanalyst who treated him, said, ‘You want a hermitage in Times Square with a large sign over it saying hermit.’

“One year into life at his own hermitage, he found the place useful in an unanticipated way. In 1966, he had back surgery in a Louisville hospital, where he fell in love with a young student nurse.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Vapor Tracers over Norway

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Social Justice Indoctrination, Van Gogh in London, and Defining the Soul

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhône (1888), via Wikimedia Commons

Good morning, friends. Life—well, politics—in America is crazy these days. Who would have imagined ten years ago that a gay man saying “all lives matter” would be denounced as racist? But there is a kind of comfort in remembering that people have always been crazy. Take the example of the daughter of Henry I, Matilda, empress of Germany and nearly queen of England. Her life, Peter Marshall writes in a review of her biography, “contains more dramatic plot twists than a season or three of Game of Thrones. In 1110, her father, King Henry I, last of the sons of William the Conqueror, dispatched her to Liège to become the bride (on reaching twelve) of Emperor Henry V. The marriage ended childlessly with Henry’s death in 1125, but not before Matilda had been politically tutored to serve as her husband’s regent in Italy. Meanwhile, Henry I suffered personal and political catastrophe in 1120 when the White Ship, a state-of-the-art vessel carrying his son and heir William across the Channel, went down after striking hidden rocks. There had never been a queen regnant as opposed to a queen consort in England – and, as Catherine Hanley points out in this lively and illuminating biography, in English, ‘queen’, unlike ‘king’, usually requires a qualifier to make its meaning plain. But Henry was determined that Matilda, rather than any of his illegitimate sons, would succeed him. He required his barons to swear fealty to her and sought to provide her with political ballast by arranging her marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou. He was twelve years Matilda’s junior and the couple seemingly detested each other, but the marriage served its dynastic purpose in producing a trio of sons. When Henry himself died in December 1135, Matilda should have ascended to the throne, but the news was slow to reach her, and the old king’s nephew Stephen of Blois raced across the Channel to have himself crowned in Westminster Abbey, to the acclaim of supporters who, in the words of a later chronicler, thought it ‘a shame for so many nobles to submit themselves to a woman’. The barons of England and Normandy divided, and for the best part of twenty years the realm was plunged into civil war. Ordinary people suffered predictably and horribly; it was a time when, according to another chronicler, ‘Christ and His saints slept’.”

What do future teachers learn at the University of Washington’s Secondary Teacher Education Program?  A whole lot about “social justice activism” and not very much about teaching.

Algis Valiunas reviews the new Diderot biography: “One hates to restate the obvious, but some matters require to be repeated until their dire significance really sinks in. Intellectual freedom and diversity are in danger of being expunged. Formerly respectable universities have become the province of a mentally barren professoriate indoctrinating new generations of virtuecrats, who have no room in their minds for any thoughts that might defy the latest orthodoxy. The outlook is grim, rich possibilities are being foreclosed, and the past masters who formed our civilization have become objects of loathing, not to be spoken of without scorn. So one is grateful for small mercies, and this praiseful new intellectual biography of the French philosophe Denis Diderot (1713–1784) offers hope that serious engagement with the past is still possible in the academy.”

What can Aristotle teach us about the soul? “The soul is the most difficult and paradoxical thing in the world. In classical thought the soul is our form, which activates and animates the matter of our bodies and makes us rational and free beings. It thus provides our access to metaphysical being itself—the understanding of everything that is. The soul is the space where the light of philosophy shines. In Christianity the soul came to be understood as the spark of the divine or the image of God, and also immortal. (This latter view is ascribed to Aristotle by the disciples of Saint Thomas Aquinas.) A bit later, with the birth of modern science, the soul vanishes altogether. We speak today of the soul largely metaphorically and call the hard sciences “soulless”—by which we mean that chemistry, physics, and information technology are cold, deterministic, and heartless…David Bolotin, retired after a distinguished career at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, believes Aristotle can provide useful instruction here.”

Van Gogh in London: “As Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhône goes on show at Tate Britain, it is, in one sense, coming home. This might sound like wishful thinking. For the past half century the painting has hung in Paris, and its singing Mediterranean colours, which the artist himself described as ‘aquamarine’, ‘royal blue’ and ‘russet gold’, bear little resemblance to the murky half-tints of the Thames, which runs past Tate Britain’s Millbank site. Yet its spring exhibition, Van Gogh and Britain, is organised on the principle that the foundations of the Dutchman’s art, both his eye and his intellect, were laid not in the south of France, nor in the misty light of the Low Countries, but in London, where he spent three life-defining years (1873-76) as a young man.”

Why were Victorians obsessed with the moon?

Essay of the Day:

David Brown visits the island where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four:

“It’s hard to know what would be a good place from which to imagine a future of bad smells and no privacy, deceit and propaganda, poverty and torture. Does a writer need to live in misery and ugliness to conjure up a dystopia?

“Apparently not.

“We’d been walking more than an hour. The road was two tracks of pebbled dirt separated by a strip of grass. The land was treeless as prairie, with wildflowers and the seedless tops of last year’s grass smudging the new growth.

“We rounded a curve and looked down a hillside to the sea. A half mile in the distance, far back from the water, was a white house with three dormer windows. Behind it, a stone wall cut a diagonal to the water like a seam stitching mismatched pieces of green velvet. Far to the right, a boat moved along the shore, its sail as bright as the house.

“This was where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. The house, called Barnhill, sits near the northern end of Jura, an island off Scotland’s west coast in the Inner Hebrides. It was June 2, sunny, short-sleeve warm, with the midges barely out, and couldn’t have been more beautiful.”

Read the rest.  

Photo: Sagrada Familia from above

Poem: George Franklin, “Barcelona”   

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