Our Strange DNA, Sir Walter Raleigh’s Last Poem, and How the Hammond Took Over America

Hammond C3, via Wikimedia Commons.

Good morning, everyone. Let’s start today off with a couple of pieces on the proposed Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. In The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler writes that it won’t have an on-site library: “The four-building, 19-acre “working center for citizenship,” set to be built in a public park on the South Side of Chicago, will include a 235-foot-high ‘museum tower,’ a two-story event space, an athletic center, a recording studio, a winter garden, even a sledding hill. But the center, which will cost an estimated $500 million, will also differ from the complexes built by Barack Obama’s predecessors in another way: It won’t actually be a presidential library. In a break with precedent, there will be no research library on site, and none of Mr. Obama’s official presidential records. Instead, the Obama Foundation will pay to digitize the roughly 30 million pages of unclassified paper records from the administration so they can be made available online.” It also will be run by a foundation, not the National Archives and Records Administration. In CityLabs, Kriston Capps brings us up to speed on the legal battle over the location of the center.

Now on to the really important stuff: Sir Walter Raleigh’s last poem is pretty darn good: “Though it’s not a 21st-century thing to say, Sir Walter Raleigh was a man of virtue. Unlike his more popular successors, he was a Lord and Gentleman, husband of one wife, faithful father of three sons—given neither to the moon, nor to drink, nor was he a philanderer, nor ruined by opium and STDs. My sense after having toured the Tower of London many years ago, and having read the inscriptions in rock that are now protected behind Lucite, is that England has valorized Raleigh more and more as time has passed. The night before Raleigh died, he wrote an eight-line poem.”

How the Hammond took over America: “The Hammond Organ was the first electronic musical instrument to become commercially successful. Just two years after it went on sale in 1935, major radio stations and Hollywood studios, hundreds of individuals, and over 2,500 churches had purchased a Hammond. The instrument had a major impact on the soundscape of both popular and religious musical life in the U.S., but it has been largely ignored by electronic music historians.”

The Atlantic hires Andrew Ferguson as staff writer.

A short history of the color orange.

Enough with the Jane Austen memorials already! The people of Winchester protest the erection of yet another statue of the novelist. “Plans to erect a statue of Jane Austen in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral have been shelved after residents baulked at the idea of another memorial to the novelist in the city. The cathedral had commissioned the sculptor Martin Jennings to create a statue of Austen for its inner close, planning for it to ‘seal her place in the rich and complex identity of Winchester and create a lasting memorial to her literary genius’ and setting out to raise £250,000 to make the proposals a reality. The project was supported by Hampshire county council and Winchester city council. But according to the Southern Daily Echo, residents and local groups submitted “a barrage of criticism” in response to the plans. ‘There is a strong body of opinion that rejects the idea of another Jane Austen statue anywhere, or any statue at all in the cathedral close,’ wrote one resident.”

Essay of the Day:

We like DNA tests because they prove the otherwise unprovable. You say your family came to America from Scotland? Take a DNA test. You say you are not the father of that child? DNA yourself and prove it. In The New York Review of Books, Tim Flannery writes in review of Carl Zimmer’s She Has Her Mother’s Laugh that they tell us less than we think and maybe more than we want to know:

“In 2003 Lydia Fairchild, a pregnant, single mother of three living in Washington State, sought welfare benefits. In order to qualify she had to take a DNA test to prove that she and her former partner were indeed the parents of their children. The tests proved paternity but, according to the Department of Social Services, showed that Fairchild could not possibly be the mother of her children.

“Suspecting abduction or a child surrogacy scam, the court put Fairchild’s children in foster care and charged her with fraud. A court officer was present to witness the birth of her fourth child, but even that was not persuasive; only DNA would be accepted as evidence of the child’s maternity. Even Fairchild’s father, dazzled by science, began to have doubts about his daughter’s honesty. Thankfully, her lawyer recalled an earlier, similar case that had resulted from chimerism. Through sheer good fortune a hospital had kept a cervical smear taken years earlier, and analysis of the sample revealed that the cells of Fairchild’s body were derived from two genetically distinct female eggs that had fused to form one individual. Her sex cells came from one egg, while the parts of her body used in the DNA test came from the other. The court was finally convinced, and Fairchild’s children were returned to her, but not before severely traumatizing the family. As we contemplate the potentially dire consequences of the case, the fact that supposed scientific evidence is so persuasive that eyewitness testimony, and even the love of a parent, could be negated by it should act as a caution.

“Chimeras can also result from pregnancy. Cells from embryos regularly cross via the placenta into the mother during gestation, while her cells can end up in the embryo. It is astonishing how long such cells can survive. One woman who had given birth to a son still had cells with Y-chromosomes in her body twenty-seven years later. In another case, an entire lobe of a woman’s liver that had been damaged by disease was repaired by fetal cells that remained in her body after an abortion. A mother’s brain cells, too, can be derived from offspring.

“Recent advances in genetic analysis have revealed that chimerism is common. In fact, chimeric individuals may be the rule, rather than the exception, among mammals. One Danish study of the blood of 154 girls aged ten to fifteen discovered that around 13 percent of them had blood cells with Y-chromosomes. These cells probably originated from an older brother and had crossed into the mother, where they survived before crossing into, and taking root in, the daughter. A Seattle study of fifty-nine women who died, on average, in their seventies found that 63 percent had cells with Y-chromosomes in their brains.

“As bizarre as chimeras might seem, they represent only the surface waters of Zimmer’s deep dive into the nature of inheritance. Epigenetics, a fast-expanding area of science that explains how things experienced by individuals can influence the traits that are inherited by their offspring, seems to contradict our conventional understanding of genetics. The epigenome, ‘that collection of molecules that envelops our genes and controls what they do,’ as Zimmer puts it, operates through methylation—the process whereby methyl-group molecules are added to the molecular envelope surrounding the DNA, and so inhibit certain genes from operating (and, in some cases, from operating in descendants as well).”

You read that last paragraph right, folks. What you do and what you experience can affect what is passed down genetically to your children. Read the rest.

Poem: J. P. Celia, “The Country Library”

Photos: Swiss cat ladders

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Cashing in on Wokeness, Anthony Burgess’s Obscure Novels, and the DNA of Old Books

Tom Murphy VII via Wikimedia Commons.

You know, I give opportunistic artists and writers a tough time occasionally in this column, but let me be quick to admit that it’s not always easy to cash in on wokeness—especially when you are pitted against an investment firm or corporation that is also trying to cash in. That seems to be the plight of Kristen Visbal, who created the Fearless Girl statue for State Street Global Advisors (SSGA). Apparently, her contract disallows her from making unauthorized replicas of the statue, but she’s doing it anyway, and SSGA has sued: “Last year, Hyperallergic reported that the artist was selling reproductions of the ponytailed bronze for $6,500 each in a limited run of 1,000 miniatures. According to the website advertising these copies, Visbal has already sold at least 114 editions of the statue. When Hyperallergic spoke with Visbal about the project, she said that the replicas were ‘in no way associated’ with SSGA, and that she owned the copyright to Fearless Girl. While copyrights and trademarks both offer intellectual property protection, the former is typically geared toward artistic works while the latter defends brand identity. Accordingly, SSGA’s lawsuit questions Visbal’s ownership of the sculpture by claiming that unauthorized reproductions could damage its status in a global campaign to support corporate gender diversity and female leadership.”

Univision, on the other hand, can’t cash out. They are having difficulty finding a buyer for Gizmodo Media because of the publication’s history of bashing owners—at least owners they don’t like—since its writers unionized in 2015. “Gizmodo Media staffers are also digging into the personal life—and Tinder profile—of Bustle Digital Group CEO Bryan Goldberg, who has bid to buy select sites, The Post has learned…Gizmodo’s track record of skewering owners is scaring away bidders, said sources, who noted the Spanish-language media giant could attract more buyers if it would rein in an editorial independence provision in Gizmodo’s union contract.” Smart play, Gizmodo writers.

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, established in 2003, has been reissuing out-of-print Burgess novels and publishing “reconstructed” works from his notes and drafts over the past few years. Margaret Drabble takes stock of the work and Burgess’s “verbal play.”

Nick Spencer reviews James Simpson’s Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism: “Focusing solely on the English Reformation, and drawing primarily on literary evidence—Milton is the book’s presiding genius—Simpson makes a good case for this accidental Whig history. He somewhat overplays his hand when describing the Reformation. It was, we are told, a dissident, punishing, crushing, violent, schismatic, repressive, absolutist, cruel, despair-producing, humanity-belittling, merit-denying movement. The impression is less of a detached historian than of a man with a narrative to drive and a thesaurus to hand. More seriously, he doesn’t quite nail why the permanent revolution steadied post-1688. His argument is that the liberal tradition had fundamentally to repudiate Protestantism in order to move on, and that it did so by ‘inventing self-stabilizing mechanisms’. But this fails to recognize the extent to which late Reformation/ early Enlightenment thinkers adopted and adapted existing evangelical ideas.”

I don’t usually link to interviews, but two recently caught my eye. First, Patricia Reimann talks to John Williams’s fourth wife, Nancy Gardner Williams. Here’s a snippet of what she had to say about the Stoner author: “He was nothing if not independent and willful. He had a good way of living for the day. He didn’t have any anxiety about whether his work was accepted or not.” He could also fib a little about his life, as Charles Shields notes in his recent biography, but that goes unnoted in the interview.

The second is M. H. Miller’s sit-down with Jasper Johns: “I can’t say that my encounter with Johns did much to upend his reputation as an impenetrable figure. He had a remarkable ability to cut off a conversational thread with a single look. When asked if there were any younger artists he admired, he said, ‘Mmhmm.’ Asked for specific names, he responded with an unsmiling, ‘No.’ His speech was punctuated by long, powerful silences during which he stared out into the distance, looking at nothing in particular but doing so with such a sense of purpose it was as if he were searching the hills for the words he wanted to say before emerging with a full-paragraph answer. When we sat upstairs—a book of paintings by Edvard Munch, with whom Johns shares a morbid sense of symbolism, between us—there was a certain amount of negotiation regarding my recording our interview. I told him it was the only way I could know that I’ve quoted him accurately. ‘That’s what I’m worried about,’ he said grimly before relenting.”

Essay of the Day:

In The Atlantic, Sarah Zhang explains why researchers are analyzing the DNA found in (and on) old books:

“It was in the archives of the Archbishop of York that Matthew Collins had an epiphany: He was surrounded by millions of animal skins.

“Another person might say they were surrounded by books and manuscripts written on parchment, which is made from skins, usually of cows and sheep. Collins, however, had been trying to make sense of animal-bone fragments from archaeological digs, and he began to think about the advantages of studying animal skins, already cut into rectangles and arranged neatly on a shelf. Archaeologists consider themselves lucky to get a few dozen samples, and here were millions of skins just sitting there. ‘Just an obscene number,’ Collins told me, his voice still giddy at the possibilities in their DNA.

“In recent years, archaeologists and historians have awakened to the potential of ancient DNA extracted from human bones and teeth. DNA evidence has enriched—and complicated—stories of prehistoric human migrations. It has provided tantalizing clues to epidemics such as the black death. It has identified the remains of King Richard III, found under a parking lot. But Collins isn’t just interested in human remains. He’s interested in the things these humans made; the animals they bred, slaughtered, and ate; and the economies they created.

“That’s why he was studying DNA from the bones of livestock—and why his lab is now at the forefront of studying DNA from objects such as parchment, birch-bark tar, and beeswax. These objects can fill in gaps in the written record, revealing new aspects of historical production and trade. How much beeswax came from North Africa, for example? Or how did cattle plague make its way through Europe? With ample genetic data, you might reconstruct a more complete picture of life hundreds of years in the past.”

Read the rest.

Poem: William Logan, “The Roman Villa”

Photos: Super moon

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Auden’s Political Poems, Shakespeare’s Songs, and Defining Dystopia

Bo Jackson. U.S. Navy Photo by Mate 3rd Class Robert Matthew Schalk via Wikimedia Commons.

How China caught the science fiction bug: “One afternoon in June 1999, more than three million Chinese schoolchildren took their seats for the Gaokao, the country’s national college entrance exam. Essay subjects in previous years had been patriotic – ‘the most touching scene from the Great Leap Forward’ (1958) – or prosaic – ‘trying new things’ (1994) – but the final essay question of the millennium was a vision of the future: ‘what if memories could be transplanted?’ Chen Quifan, who is published in the West as Stanley Chen, says this was the moment that modern Chinese science fiction was born. ‘Earlier that year,’ he explains to me in the offices of his London publisher, ‘there was a feature on the same topic in the biggest science fiction magazine in China, Science Fiction World. It was a coincidence, but a lot of parents then thought, OK – reading science fiction can help my children go to a good college.’ The magazine’s circulation exploded, as hundreds of thousands of new readers began to explore a genre that had previously been classified as children’s literature.”

Friendly reminder: A dystopia is not just “any awful situation.” It is “what results from the attempt to create utopia”: “Some so-called ‘dystopias’ are merely scenarios of decline, such as predictions of what things will be like when the planet is overpopulated (as in Soylent Green or John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar) or the economy collapses (as in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles) or the atmosphere and water are poisoned (as in The Road or Blade Runner 2049). Others present apocalyptic or post-apocalytic environments, whether the nuclear nightmares of 1950s science fiction (such as Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz or Nevil Shute’s On the Beach) or when robots take over (the Matrix trilogy), or the zombie apocalypse. Still other so-called ‘dystopias’ are nothing more than stories of wildly power-hungry dictators or oligarchies (as in V for Vendetta). None of these scenarios represents someone’s idea of a perfect society… For all that the various dystopias of fiction and reality reflect wildly different visions, they share several common features: social regimentation, dehumanization, abuse of technology, state terror, a new class of rulers, propaganda instead of truth, inevitable totalitarianism, and the tragedy of the individual. When combined, these features sketch the map of dystopia.”

Ancient site linked to Julius Caesar’s murder to open to public: “The ruins include a stone pedestal from the Curia of Pompey, the meeting place of senators, where Caesar was slain in 44 B.C.”

ESPN revisits the year Bo Jackson took over America.

Listen to a recording of Shakespeare’s songs: “In the first two dec ades of the twentieth century, The Victor Talking Machine Company produced a series of recordings of songs from the plays of William Shakespeare, sung by a variety of operatic vocalists of the day including American tenor Lambert Murphy (listed here under his pseudonym of Raymond Dixon), baritone Reinald Werrenrath, and soprano Laura Littlefield. If The Bard ever did specify melodies for the songs featured in his plays, nothing has survived today, and the arrangements used here by Victor are mostly more modern inventions. There are, however, a couple by the eighteenth century composers Thomas Arne and Joseph Haydn, and ‘O Mistress Mine’ and ‘It Was a Lover and His Lass’ by the Elizabethan musician Thomas Morley.”

What is epilepsy and how does it feel to suffer from it? “Epilepsy—the disorderly electrical discharge of neurons in the brain—is a protean disease whose manifestations are so various, and sometimes so subtle, that they are easily mistaken for something else: plain bad behavior, for example. Suzanne O’Sullivan, author of Brainstorm: Detective Stories from the World of Neurology, is a London neurologist who specializes in epilepsy, and who in this captivating book recounts the stories of some of the patients (I nearly wrote cases, but that would be dehumanizing) whom she has treated. Although epileptic attacks are usually intermittent and sometimes infrequent, they often exert a profound influence on the lives of sufferers out of all proportion to their duration. Dr. O’Sullivan brings this home to the reader very well; no one who reads this book will ever fail again to sympathize with sufferers from this mysterious condition.”

Essay of the Day:

In Daily Beast, Michael Weiss writes about Auden’s political poems and why the poet renounced them:

“As early as 1941, the poet had come to renounce some of his most celebrated work from the Thirties, those he considered riddled with ‘devil of unauthenticity … false emotions, inflated rhetoric, empty sonorities.’ Auden had two examples in mind of such emotional fraudulence. Both, uncoincidentally, were urgent responses to the rise of Fascism, not glimpsed out of the corner of his eye but confronted head-on in a warzone and then as an exile woozily watching the clock tick toward the midnight of the century. Both poems were unmistakable exhortations to collective action, which is another way of saying they were propaganda. ‘Spain’ and ‘September 1, 1939’ would be variously revised and amended before Auden finally excised them altogether from his corpus, the first because he saw it as the endorsement of a wicked philosophy, the second because it saw it as sententious nonsense.

“One can certainly argue for the virtues of ‘Later Auden’—and Mendelson has ably done so in his eponymous critical biography— while also appreciating the merit of Larkin’s tribute and judging Auden’s self-criticism as harsh and unfair. The man who proclaimed ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ in fact made it do quite a lot. If Orwell’s ambition was to turn political writing into an art, then Auden’s singular achievement was to use one of the oldest art forms to lay bare the grotesquerie of modern politics. For this reason, and though he’d never have thought of himself in this way, he stands among great anatomists and critics of totalitarianism.

“There is a reason, I think, so many Eastern bloc poets admired him, with the Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky proclaiming Auden’s ‘the greatest mind of the twentieth century.’ His sensitivity and acuity as a poet made him aware that the pathologies of ideology are first manifest in the pathologies of individuals, including and especially himself, a character he never shied from satirizing or indeed using as a template for the doomed romantic or cruel authoritarian he took as the protagonist of so many of his poems. ‘Do you know what the Devil looks like?’ Auden asked a Sunday School class in 1942, not long after his return to the Anglican faith in which he’d been raised. ‘The Devil looks like me.’”

Read the rest.

Photo: Ski jump

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Getting Rid of Email, in Search of Titled Husbands, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Worlds

The gardens at Chateau Villandry. Photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons.

I have been hacking up a lung the past few days and thinking I need a vacation. Maybe you do, too. This would do nicely: Explore France’s Loire Valley in the footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci: “Five centuries after his death, visitors can pay homage to the artist at these sites in central France where he spent his final years.”

In search of British husbands: “The daughters of the American rich who invaded London in quest of titled mates tended to be spirited and good company, not milksops like the general run of British debutantes. Whatever their other attractions, the ‘buccaneer belles’ have inspired a social history par excellence.”

Company claims that it has made a text generator that is too dangerous to be released: “Researchers at the non-profit AI research group OpenAI just wanted to train their new text generation software to predict the next word in a sentence. It blew away all of their expectations and was so good at mimicking writing by humans they’ve decided to pump the brakes on the research while they explore the damage it could do.”

Rachel Hadas reviews a handful of books on Stoicism, including A. A. Long’s How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life: “Perhaps more than his fellow Stoic writers, Epictetus is perennially useful and relevant not only in his guidance toward a life free of anxiety, fear, or anger, but in the practicality of his applications and illustrations. Many of his tropes remain fresh and compelling. To cite only a few: any situation has two handles by which it can be grasped; treat life as a banquet where you shouldn’t be greedy, or as a play where you didn’t control the casting but must act your part as well as you can; don’t stray too far from the ship, even if you’re picking up pretty shells, for the captain may call at any moment. ‘Captain’ is glossed by Long as ‘Metaphor for the Stoics’ providential divinity,’ but surely part of the beauty of metaphors is that they allow some leeway of interpretation. Each of us has his or her own captain. A sensible piece of advice is drily humorous: ‘If you are told that someone is talking badly of you, don’t defend yourself against the story but reply: “Obviously he didn’t know my other faults, or he would have mentioned them as well.”’ These vivid and often wry nuggets come across clearly in Long; and it’s admittedly useful to be able to consult the crisp, brisk Greek on the left-hand side of each page, if you know Greek. But it’s safe to say that many of Epictetus’ numerous readers in the past few centuries have not known Greek. And one conclusion reading Long leads to is that it isn’t necessary to read the Greek; nor, indeed, does translation seem to make much difference. As with the Parables and the Four Noble Truths, the insights aren’t dependent on phrasing.”

Kissing Sailor has died: “George Mendonsa, who maintained for decades that he was the sailor in an iconic 1945 Times Square photo, dubbed ‘The Kiss,’ that came to symbolize the end of World War II, has died, his family says. He was 95.”

Ursula K. Le Guin’s worlds: “Her first Earthsea fantasy novel began with a map of islands that she drew for herself in a paper-and-ink archipelago, which offered her the freedom to imagine who might live there. Real places inspired not only her realistic but also her speculative fiction, where the situations were imaginary but the emotionally charged landscapes were often based on ones she knew and loved. In the new documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, she tells director Arwen Curry, ‘I don’t feel so much as if I were “making it up”; I know I am, but that’s not what it feels like. It feels like being there and looking around, and listening.’”

Essay of the Day:

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Cal Newport argues that professors (and perhaps other people) should get rid of email:

“In 2014, the Boise State anthropologist John Ziker released the results of a faculty time-use study, which found that the average professor spent a little over 60 hours a week working, with 30 percent of that time dedicated to email and meetings. Anecdotal reports hint that this allocation has only gotten worse over the past five years. ‘The days of the ivory tower are a distant memory,’ concludes Ziker, and many burnt-out professors agree. Until recently, I would have as well. Now I’m not so sure.

“On his website, [Donald] Knuth offers the following explanation for his refusal to use email: ‘Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.’ The idea that the life of a professor should be radically different than other professions, and that universities should take far-reaching steps to allow faculty members to be ‘on the bottom of things’ is easy to dismiss as eccentric utopianism. But the time has come to take Knuth’s vision seriously.”

Read the rest.

Poem: Suzanne Edgar, “Interwoven”

Video: Gustav Knepper power plant implosion

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The Wellness Scam, the Beginning of Modern Manners, and Hell

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), “Chart of Hell,” via Wikimedia Commons.

Remember, wellness is always a scam: “Sam Lipsyte’s novel Hark is a righteous send-up of self-help gobbledegook and the mindfulness industry.”

The beginning of modern manners: “In his new book, In Pursuit of Civility, Oxford historian Keith Thomas traces how the idea of conduct befitting a civilized people developed, especially in Stuart and Georgian England. During the Middle Ages, Europeans of every social class were more prone to unrestrained impulses. It was not uncommon to eat with one’s hands, belch at the dinner table, or relieve oneself in public. Renewed interest in ancient Greece and Rome during the Renaissance led to a new concern for how “civilized” people ought to act, according to Thomas. The use of the fork, which became common among the Italian upper classes in the 14th century and eventually reached England by the 18th, exemplifies this transition.”

“Artists collect differently from other people,” Frank Stella says in an interview at The New York Times. He explains how differently and why he displays fakes of his own work in his house.

Nick Ripatrazone reviews The Penguin Book of Hell: “A visceral, meandering journey through hell written by a 12th-century Irish monk living in Regensburg, the Vision of Tundale does not have the focus of Dante’s later work—yet its confusing nature makes the narrative feel eerily authentic.”

The rhetoric of menus: “In May We Suggest, Pearlman sets out to determine how menus ‘steer consumer satisfaction and choice,’ if indeed they do so at all. After visiting over 60 restaurants in the Greater Los Angeles area—‘single- and multi-unit; chains regional, national, and international, eateries of varying ethnicities and cultural fusions […] vanguard and traditional; historic and new; full service, half-service, and self-service’—Pearlman challenges the rigid, programmatic directives provided by the consultants and the industry trade rags and the hospitality marketing journals. Menus certainly influence us, she claims. But not in the ways that they say we do.”

Google Books is broken: “I periodically write about Google Books here, so I thought I’d point out something that I’ve noticed recently that should be concerning to anyone accustomed to treating it as the largest collection of books: it appears that when you use a year constraint on book search, the search index has dramatically constricted to the point of being, essentially, broken.”

Essay of the Day:

In Spectator, Douglas Murray remembers the 30th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses:

“In the bloody Iran/Iraq war Khomeini famously sent legions of his country’s young to die as suicide bombers. In the novel the exiled Imam (after a rant against the ‘apostate’ Aga Khan for drinking alcohol) extols a future when ‘Water will have its day and blood will flow like wine’ . . . For those few Muslims who did read the book and felt grievously offended, such contemporary politics were incidental. Of far greater significance, and grievance, was Rushdie’s re-imagining of the origins of Islam. Muslims who had never had the foundations of their religion questioned robustly found such passages so shocking as to be almost uncommunicable.

“Ziauddin Sardar was one such. In his 2004 memoir Desperately Seeking Paradise he described the sensation of reading The Satanic Verses when it came out. Years later he wrote, ‘It felt as though Rushdie had plundered everything I hold dear and despoiled the inner sanctum of my identity. Every word was directed at me and I took everything personally. This is how, I remember thinking, it must feel to be raped.’

“The section that would likely have caused most offense to even such a relatively progressive Muslim as Sardar would have been a passage which is among the novel’s most brilliant: a superlative dream sequence in which the dictation of the Koran is re-narrated into a tale of ‘Mahound’, the Messenger and his scribe ‘Salman the Persian’. ‘Mahound’ was a generally derogatory variant of ‘Mohammed’ used in the Middle Ages.

“In Rushdie’s novel the section satirizing the origins of the Koran is a searingly sad and humorous tale. Gibreel (Gabriel) appears to the Prophet who, ‘Salman the Persian’ finds ‘spouting rules, rules, rules . . . rules about every damn thing, if a man farts let him turn his face to the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning one’s behind. It was as if no aspect of human existence was to be left unregulated, free.’ The rules that flow include dietary laws, the way in which to kill an animal by bleeding and the positions in which sexual intercourse is and is not allowed. But it is when Gibreel gets into the business technicalities of how a man’s property should be divided that Salman wonders ‘what manner of God this was that sounded so much like a businessman.’ The result of this thought is the first crack in Salman’s faith. He begins to suspect that Mahound is not really taking dictation from an archangel but just making it up as he goes along.”

Read the rest.

Poem: Salvatore Quasimodo, “Your Quiet Outpost” (translated by Julia Older)

Photo: Train in the Harz

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A Not-So-Wild Bill Hickok, a History of the Clipper, and the Irish Dante

Ellen Forsyth. Wikimedia Commons.

I’m trying to think of a dumber way to organize books than this one but can’t come up with anything: “Politicize Your Bookshelf with Colorful, Codified Stickers”: “Participants were supplied with circular sticky labels in different colors and were exhorted to use these stickers to categorize the book collection, based on considerations of race, perspective, and privilege.” Irony alert: The article goes on to tell us that this system—called Shelf Life—is “meant to trigger deeper thinking about the paradigms readers are absorbing.”

How wild was Wild Bill? Not that wild, it turns out.

A history of the clipper: “The clipper era was brief. As the historian Samuel Eliot Morison remarked, clipper ships were “our Gothic Cathedrals, our Parthenon; but . . . carved from snow.” These swift, lithe steeds raced not only each other, but also the inevitable steamship and railroad, and were soon wounded by the American Civil War and thence dispatched by the transcontinental railroad, a great golden spike through these hulls of oak. Thanks to naval historians like Morison, the clippers continue to occupy an outsized place in our national mythology, their metaphorical names familiar to many today: Flying CloudSovereign of the SeasGreat Republic (pace the N. B. Palmer, a swift ship saddled with a decidedly terrestrial name). The clippers were among the first industrial triumphs of the young republic, built initially to best the merchant ships of the British Empire at its apex. Now Steven Ujifusa, in his well-researched Barons of the Sea, and their Race to Build the World’s Fastest Clipper Ship, offers us a fresh perspective on this fleeting era.”

An Irish Dante: “Sartre famously wrote that “hell is other people,” but for the poet Micheal O’Siadhail, hell is a highly specific group of other people. Among the damned are Franz Kafka, Karl Marx, and—you guessed it—a certain existentialist Frenchman, all of whom are punished for their role in launching modernity. But this hellscape is part of a larger project for O’Siadhail, a means of puzzling over the question, “How do we describe the contemporary world?” His answer is The Five Quintets, a poem spanning 400 years of intellectual history. Mirroring Dante’s The Divine Comedy, O’Siadhail presents readers with a summation of the modern period, a Who’s Who in verse of the ways and whys that led to our particular moment in history.”

Theo Mackey Pollack remembers the Singer Building: “Rising 612 feet above Broadway (at the corner of Liberty Street) its sheer ambition was proved by a fleeting reign as the world’s tallest building. Its artfulness was established by use of neoclassical and Renaissance design elements at a novel scale. And its authenticity was grounded in local industry: Manhattan then was a maze of textiles. Its industrial fabric comprised cloth workshops and showrooms, its tenements housed armies of piece workers and seamstresses, and its labor unions were dominated by needle-trades employees. For the city’s skyline to be topped off by a maker of industrial sewing machines was a perfect fit.”

Serial art thief Stéphane Breitwieser has been arrested again: “Stéphane Breitwieser, the serial art thief who raided museums around France, Switzerland, Germany and other countries on the continent from 2004 to 2011, has been arrested again in his native region of Alsace. He had been under surveillance since 2016 when he offered a 19th-century paperweight on eBay. Several such objects were stolen from the crystalware museum in Saint Louis, owned by the fashion house Hermès. At his house in the city of Marmoutier, police also discovered roman coins from an archeological museum and other pieces from local and German galleries; €163,000 in cash was stashed in buckets at his mother’s home.”

Essay of the Day:

In First Things, Dan McCarthy argues for a “new conservative agenda”:

“We need a conservative agenda fit for the twenty-first century, and the closest thing to it is in fact the program that follows through on the themes of Trump’s 2016 campaign with greater clarity and focus than the administration itself has so far done. This is not because Trump now defines conservatism, as his detractors allege when they complain about a cult of personality. (Trump has no more of a cult than his last two predecessors did, and less of one among professional conservatives than the deified Reagan.) Rather, Trump in 2016, whether consciously or not, drew upon what has been the clear policy alternative to the elite consensus in favor of global liberalism since the early 1990s: economic nationalism, and nationalism more generally. This is an honorable tradition whose roots in the Republican party run all the way back to Abraham Lincoln. So successful was the economic nationalism pursued by America in the twentieth century that we could afford to deviate from it during the Cold War for the sake of strengthening allies like West Germany, Japan, and South Korea—and even Communist China, an ally of convenience against the Soviet Union. But when the Cold War ended, our economic policy, no less than our foreign policy, should have taken a turn back toward the national interest over building a liberal world order. Trump’s essential appeal to voters was his promise to do just that. He is not an aberration; he is not even a second, more successful Pat Buchanan. He is a return, in however haphazard a fashion, to the policy orientation that once really did make America great and the GOP grand.

“Economic nationalism is not just about tariffs. It is less about ‘economic’ than it is about ‘nationalism’—that is, it takes account of the different needs of different walks of life and regions of the country, serving the whole by serving its parts and drawing them together. In the past, the challenge was to harmonize farmers, urban capital, and labor. The challenge now is to balance those groups with the post-industrial classes as well, and to strengthen the productive economy against the largely fictional economy of administrators and clerks. All of this is for the sake not just of prosperity, in raw dollar terms, but of a national economy that provides the basis for a healthy culture in which citizens and their families can flourish.

“Culture comes first—but like a final cause or end in Aristotle’s philosophy, it is first in priority, not necessarily first in time or action. We need to bring this truth forward, for we’ve forgotten it over the past few decades.”

Read the rest.

Poem: Heinrich Heine, “In the Dream” (translated by Terese Coe)     

Photos: Antarctica

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Living without Big Tech, NASA Ends Mars Mission, and Reconsidering Nuclear

NASA’s Earth Observatory. Wikimedia Commons.

Armond White praises the animated film Ruben Brandt, Collector: “Milorad Krstic, a Slovenian filmmaker working in Hungary, uses modern animation technique and inspiration to restore the form’s connection to the tradition of hand-created fine-art in Ruben Brandt, Collector. Krstic converts the Eastern European style of poster-art animation to museum culture. The title figure is a psychotherapist (voiced by Iván Kamarás) experiencing high-art vertigo; he suffers from nightmares about art-canon masterpieces from Velázquez, Manet, and Botticelli to Van Gogh, Warhol, and Hopper. This obsession intrigues his patients, including kleptomaniac Mimi (voiced by Gabriella Hámori), who ironically advises, ‘Possess your problem.’ This leads to a series of thefts in international museums, including the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Tate, and MoMA.”

Reconsidering the nuclear option: “As atomic power fades, a new band of supporters argues that it is still our best source of clean, reliable, and—yes—safe electricity.”

NASA ends Mars mission: “The space agency will stop trying to contact the Opportunity rover, which was sent to Mars to search for evidence of water.”

Why are the Southern and Northern Lights different? It has to do with how “the sun squeezes Earth’s magnetic tail.”

Reading J. B. Priestly today: “Acclaimed for most of his life as a writer of hugely popular books and plays, which became part of the national imagination, he is now best known for that dramatic pot-boiler, An Inspector Calls (1945) and as a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (launched after Priestley wrote an article in this magazine). To a modern readership his novels are – if they are considered at all – period pieces. Even The Good Companions, his breakout hit of 1929, adapted many times for stage and screen, has fallen by the wayside. There are writers of the recent past who are not particularly well-read, but who are nevertheless well-considered: Patrick Hamilton, for example. Priestley is neither well-read nor fashionable.”

The glorious miniatures (and chaotic life) of Nicholas Hilliard: “After completing his goldsmithing apprenticeship in 1569, Hilliard rose swiftly as a professional miniaturist, powered by exceptional talent and zealous self-promotion. In a self-portrait of 1577, produced when he was thirty, he is just as elegantly dressed and self-assured as his powerful patron Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is in a miniature painted in 1576, which appears on the facing page. Hilliard’s desire to live and present himself as a gentleman, combined with unlucky business ventures and downright financial mismanagement, repeatedly landed him in debt. Sources suggest that he did not handle this well, often letting down colleagues, friends and relations, exploiting his high-ranking contacts and lying. Goldring is compelled to admit that her assiduous archival research reveals a less than appealing character. But the art is glorious, and presents us with a pantheon of the Elizabethan court, most of whose prominent members sat for Hilliard. His most illustrious sitter was, of course, Queen Elizabeth herself, who evidently – and understandably – liked how he depicted her, using his services again and again, not only for miniatures but also for the full-scale Phoenix and Pelican portraits.”

Essay of the Day:

Kashmir Hill stops using the big five tech companies—Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon—for six weeks. “It was hell,” she writes:

“A couple of months ago, I set out to answer the question of whether it’s possible to avoid the tech giants. Over the course of five weeks, I blocked Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple one at a time, to find out how to live in the modern age without each one.

“To end my experiment, I’m going to see if I can survive blocking all five at once.

“Not only am I boycotting their products, a technologist named Dhruv Mehrotra designed a special network tool that prevents my devices from communicating with the tech giants’ servers, meaning that ads and analytics from Google won’t work, Facebook can’t track me across the internet, and websites hosted by Amazon Web Services, or AWS, hypothetically won’t load.

“I am using a Linux laptop made by a company named Purism and a Nokia feature phone on which I am relearning the lost art of T9 texting.

“I don’t think I could have done this cold turkey. I needed to wean myself off various services in the lead-up, like an alcoholic going through the 12 steps. The tech giants, while troubling in their accumulation of data, power, and societal control, do offer services that make our lives a hell of a lot easier.

“Earlier in the experiment, for example, I realized I don’t know how to get in touch with people without the tech giants. Google, Apple, and Facebook provide my rolling Rolodex.

“So in preparation for the week, I export all my contacts from Google, which amounts to a shocking 8,000 people. I have also whittled down the over 1,500 contacts in my iPhone to 143 people for my Nokia, or the number of people I actually talk to on a regular basis, which is incredibly close to Dunbar’s number.

“I wind up placing a lot of phone calls this week, because texting is so annoying on the Nokia’s numbers-based keyboard. I find people often pick up on the first ring out of concern; they’re not used to getting calls from me.

“On the first day of the block, I drive to work in silence because my rented Ford Fusion’s ‘SYNC’ entertainment system is powered by Microsoft. Background noise in general disappears this week because YouTube, Apple Music, and our Echo are all banned—as are Netflix, Spotify, and Hulu, because they rely on AWS and the Google Cloud to get their content to users.”

Read the rest.

Poem: Matthew Buckley Smith, “Political Ode”   

Photo: Jahorina

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The Unintended Consequences of Silicon Valley’s “Smart” Paternalism, Agatha Christie’s Politics, and Lin-Manuel Miranda Wasted Opportunity

Agatha Christie on the 1922 British Empire Expedition Tour. Wikimedia Commons.

What has Lin-Manuel Miranda done since Hamilton became a hit? Appear on a handful of talk shows and voice a duck for Disney.

Agatha Christie’s politics: “Christie’s satirizing of socialism should not be mistaken as an attack on strong political commitments generally. She defended the legitimacy, for example, of the inherited wealth which renders working superfluous. She thought nonsensical that one might reject its responsibilities and privileges in favor of a putative independence, especially since that independence left one working jobs under an employer’s control and often materially worse off. She was critical of the mid-twentieth century trend towards casual clothing. And in the late 1960s, she signed a letter to Pope Paul VI asking him to make some provision to continue the ancient form of the Roman Mass. Christie’s statement on feminism was even more definitive: ‘…the foolishness of women in relinquishing their position of privilege obtained after many centuries of civilization. Primitive women toil incessantly. We seem determined to return to that state voluntarily.’”

Once again, no, Eskimos don’t have 50 words for snow. The phrase “became a thing because that particular example was taken in isolation: it was cut out of Whorf’s article and propagated through a series of textbooks that were much sloppier than Whorf, from whence it has gone on to become an exotic story about an exotic people.”

An old debate renewed: Is The Virgin with the Laughing Child, Leonardo da Vinci’s only known sculpture?

New species of deep-sea coral discovered off the coast of Costa Rica.

The liberal arts are all but dead: “Assaults on reason, privilege, and canonical knowledge have not ended and they could escalate. Original discourse and thinking might of necessity relocate to places where traditional definitions of quality and canonical knowledge are not ritually despised. But study and preservation of discredited artifacts and a despicable past are not likely to draw many patrons or top talent. The ars liberalis prevailed over theology in the 19th century and flourished at American colleges, designating the learning that free men required. This matrix of knowledge long informed the nation’s discourse, civic principles, and moral examples. Once, in better circles, and among U.S. statesmen, educators, and clergy, familiarity with classical and modern markers was simply expected. Whether minds so furnished will be sought in the future remains uncertain. The timeless might endure and the faddish fade away, but there are no guarantees.”

Essay of the Day:

Facebook’s mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” So why is the platform so effective at driving people apart? Blame Silicon Valley’s “smart” paternalism, Jon Askonas argues in The New Atlantis, which often has unintended consequences:

“Much of the politics of Silicon Valley is explained by this Promethean exchange: gifts of enlightenment and ease in exchange for some measure of awe, gratitude, and deference to the technocratic elite that manufactures them. Algorithmic utopianism is at once optimistic about human motives and desires and paternalistic about humans’ cognitive ability to achieve their stated preferences in a maximally rational way. Humans, in other words, are mostly good and well-intentioned but dumb and ignorant. We rely on poor intuitions and bad heuristics, but we can overcome them through tech-supplied information and cognitive adjustment. Silicon Valley wants to debug humanity, one default choice at a time.

“We can see the shift from ‘access to tools’ to algorithmic utopianism in the unheralded, inexorable replacement of the ‘page’ by the ‘feed.’ The web in its earliest days was ‘surfed.’ Users actively explored what was interesting to them, shifting from page to page via links and URLs. While certain homepages — such as AOL or Yahoo! — were important, they were curated by actual people and communities. Most devoted ‘webizens’ spent comparatively little time on them, instead exploring the web based on memory, bookmarks, and interests. Each blog, news source, store, and forum had its own site. Where life on the Internet didn’t follow traditional editorial curation, it was mostly a do-it-yourself affair: Creating tools that might show you what your friends were up to, gathering all the information you cared about in one place, or finding new sites were rudimentary and tedious activities.

“The feed was the solution to the tedium of surfing the web, of always having to decide for yourself what to do next. Information would now come to you. Gradually, the number of sites involved in one’s life online dwindled, and the ‘platform’ emerged, characterized by an infinite display of relevant information — the feed. The first feeds used fairly simple algorithms, but the algorithms have grown vastly more complex and personalized over time. These satisfaction-fulfillment machines are designed to bring you the most ‘relevant’ content, where relevancy is ultimately based on an elaborate and opaque model of who you are and what you want. But the opacity of these models, indeed the very personalization of them, means that a strong element of faith is required. By consuming what the algorithm says I want, I trust the algorithm to make me ever more who it thinks I already am.

“In this process, users have gone from active surfers to sheep feeding at the algorithmic trough. Over time, platforms have come up with ever more sophisticated means of inducing behavior, both online and in real life, using AI-fueled notifications, messages, and default choices to nudge you in the right direction, ostensibly toward your own maximum satisfaction. Yet now, in order to rein in the bad behaviors the feeds themselves have encouraged — fake news, trolling, and so on — these algorithms have increasingly become the sites of stealthy intervention, using tweaks like ‘shadowbanning,’ ‘down-ranking,’ and simple erasure or blocking of users to help determine what information people do and don’t access, and thereby to subtly shape their minds.”

Read the rest.

Photo: White Sands

Poem: Dan Sheehan, “The Phone Not Ringing”   

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The Appeal of Dictators, Popes in Fiction, and Endpaper Enthusiasts

Aristeas. Wikimedia Commons.

“Writing in 1994, Birkerts worried that distractedness and surficiality would win out. The ‘duration state’ we enter through a turned page would be lost in a world of increasing speed and relentless connectivity, and with it our ability to make meaning out of narratives, both fictional and lived.” Was he right?

Popes in fiction: “It is said that Anthony Burgess’s papal novel, Earthly Powers (1980), was designed to make fun of Somerset Maugham. Frederick Rolfe’s Hadrian VII (1904), similarly, was written to settle old scores. Self-indulgent to the core, written by Rolfe after he was kicked out of the seminary, Hadrian VII is brilliant, autobiographical wish-fulfillment. If you know a bit of the author’s biography, the combination of personal bitterness and comedy will make you laugh out loud. Repentant bishops and cardinals appear one day on his doorstep in London, admitting their mistakes, begging the still-young man to accept not only holy orders but the Holy Pontiff’s chair. Most writers have higher aspirations.”

A bluegrass song on atonal music goes viral: “‘(Gimme some of that) Ol’ Atonal Music,’ by the singer Merle Hazard, details in sunny and endearing tones a love of atonality, while explaining to newbies what that is (music that isn’t in one clear key), and includes the best atonal banjo solo you’ve ever heard (probably the only atonal banjo solo you’ve ever heard). That the solo, and the production values, are so good, is no surprise: The soloist and the recording’s producer is Alison Brown, one of the leading five-string banjo players in the country.”

Why did a Polish billionaire build a private museum in the tiny village of Susch in the Swiss alps? To give a platform to “new voices and positions that are often left outside the canon of male-dominated art history” of course.

Meet the endpaper enthusiasts: “In a small sanctuary from world events, book lovers gather to sigh over the most beautiful decorative pages and compare techniques.”

The return of Leo Steinberg: “Throughout his sixty-year career, the art historian Leo Steinberg (1920–2011) was a prolific lecturer and contributor to scholarly and other publications. His work focused primarily on Michelangelo and Picasso, but it also ranged widely across Renaissance, Baroque, and twentieth-century art. He was also a famously fastidious writer. In 1982 he was invited to give the annual A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. But rather than publishing his lectures soon after delivery, as is the custom, he continued to revise and update them for the rest of his life. So when he died there was every expectation that a significant corpus of his output would remain unpublished and that those interested in his other writings, such as celebrated essays on Velázquez’s Las Meninasand Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, would have to scrounge around eBay for copies of them. Happily, Steinberg had other ideas in mind. Shortly before his death, he directed Sheila Schwartz, his longtime associate, who worked with him from 1968 to his death, to arrange for the posthumous publication of essays written and lectures delivered throughout the course of his career. The first volume, devoted to Michelangelo’s sculpture, appeared this November. It is to be followed in the spring by one on Michelangelo’s painting, and thereafter by volumes on Old Masters, Picasso, and modern masters. These new publications are, on many levels, occasions to celebrate.”

Nun on the run: “A team of medieval historians working in the archives at the University of York has found evidence that a nun in the 14th century faked her own death and crafted a dummy ‘in the likeness of her body’ in order to escape her convent and pursue – in the words of the archbishop of the time – ‘the way of carnal lust’.”

Essay of the Day:

What attracts people to dictators? In Modern Age, William Anthony Hay turns to Paul Hollander for an answer:

“A search for transcendence to which dictators shrewdly appealed runs through Hollander’s account. When pressed on whether he would have supported the Soviet regime had he known of its mass murders in the 1930s, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm replied that ‘the chance of a new world being born in suffering would still have been worth backing.’ Many dictatorships beyond Josef Stalin’s offered the same promise, however miserably they failed to deliver on it. Hollander notes how ‘discontent with long-standing, familiar social arrangements’ and perhaps the limitations of their own personal lives fueled a pressing demand for alternatives that made intellectuals all too willing to believe in charismatic figures who forced the pace of change in ways that democratic politicians and traditionalist authoritarians could not. In many cases, dormant or misdirected religious impulses found expression in a political hero worship that imposed blinders on those drawn to it.”

Read the rest.

Photos: Snowy Seattle

Poem: Frederick Turner, “Ride This One Out”

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The Problem with the Campus Free Speech Debate and Post-War Britain’s “Hungry” Novels

Fibonacci Blue. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s Monday, and it’s raining a cold rain (at least here in southeastern Virginia). Why not go all in and read about the depressing shallowness of Instagram art? “Pop-up attractions like the Happy Place are built for selfies, but does anybody actually enjoy going to them?”

Agnès Poirier reviews Michael Peppiatt’s The Existential Englishman: Paris Among the Artists: “Part confession, part meditation on artists, Michael Peppiatt’s memoir about being an Englishman in Paris from 1966 to 1994 and again since 2014 probably reveals more than the author had intended. Often candid about his failures and inability to stick to the great literary ambitions of his youth, the well-known biographer of Francis Bacon doesn’t seem much interested in retenue, even when musing about his insatiable appetite for priapic adventures. It is almost a relief when the figure of Jill, Peppiatt’s wife, comes into the picture in the late 1980s, as we know we will at last be spared some impossibly French love affairs that end in either ridicule or suicide.”

Paul Quenon’s “useless” life: “‘I am on permanent vacation,’ says Paul Quenon, who then proceeds to define vacation not as an idyllic retirement lifestyle but as vacating, ‘an emptying out of the clutter within the mind and heart . . . to make room for God.’ His 60-plus years as a monk, he says, have been ‘an interior journey into a wilderness to be alone, free of the world and at rest in God.’”

Gary Saul Morson reviews Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator: “What really makes a moment, a person, a life, and a historical period what they are is not the ‘events,’ like Waterloo, but what Platonov calls ‘the non-events,’ like the aroma of printer’s ink emanating from a favorite book or the ‘glassy ringing of garlands in a draft of air.’ By focusing again and again on sounds and smells, ­Platonov echoes the way Russia’s greatest chronicler of nature, Ivan Turgenev, conveyed the uniqueness of each natural scene and each passing moment.”

What’s missing in all of the books on the declining support for free speech on American college campuses? A clear solution: “They each, in slightly different ways, end up calling for a change in campus feeling and a reversal of campus culture. They want America’s colleges to commit to free speech and intellectual diversity, but leave vague the mechanisms by which that commitment would take effect. What needs to be made clearer in all these accounts is that robust intellectual engagement has two distinct enemies on campuses today.”

The public and private Diderot: “There are at least two Diderots, both controversial, both remarkable Enlightenment figures. The first was a renowned philosophe and atheist associated with Voltaire and Rousseau but often thought their inferior in accomplishment. He was known chiefly as the major author and editor of the Encyclopédie—a revolutionary project of the eighteenth century—as well as a few plays and other works such as Philosophical Thoughts (1746), The Skeptic’s Walk (same year) and Letter on the Blind (1749). He also wrote a brilliantly risqué novel, The Indiscreet Jewels (1748), in which women’s genitalia narrate their experiences. Perhaps this is the figure about whom W. H. Auden wrote, in ‘Voltaire at Ferney,’ ‘Dear Diderot was dull but did his best.’ Auden loved alliteration more than truth in that line. Diderot was anything but dull and did not always do his best. In 1749 he spent four months in prison for his early writings, and that trauma probably shocked him into withholding some of his most significant work from publication. The second Diderot emerged in the centuries following his death in 1784, with the discovery and publication of his major philosophical works, his most enduring fiction and other writings. For a time he was a missing link of the Enlightenment, highly influential—directly or indirectly—on America’s founders, as well as Goethe and a small army of other writers. It may be a long time before Diderot’s complicated legacy is fully understood, which makes Andrew S. Curran’s new biography, Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely, a timely exercise, especially helpful for those of us not steeped in philosophy. He humanizes Denis Diderot by uniting the public intellectual and the secret one known to his daughter and a few avid supporters.”

Essay of the Day:

In The Times Literary Supplement, Laura Freeman writes about the “hungry” novels of post-war Britain:

“Dinner with Rex Mottram – a bore – but made bearable by soupe d’oseille, caviar aux blinis, sole in white wine, caneton à la presse, lemon soufflé and a bottle each of the 1906 Montrachet and Clos de Bèze 1904. ‘If I had to spend an evening with him’, decides Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, ‘it should at any rate, be in my own way.’ Over the meal at Paillard in Paris, Charles recalls: ‘I closed my mind to him as best I could and gave myself to the food before me, but sentences came breaking in on my happiness, recalling me to the harsh acquisitive world which Rex inhabited’. By the lemon soufflé and cognac, the menu has won. ‘I heard his voice, unintelligible at a great distance, like a dog’s barking miles away on a still night’.

“When Waugh came to write a preface to the second edition of Brideshead Revisited in 1959 he repented his former greed. Brideshead, he explained, had been written between December 1943 and June 1944, while he was recuperating from a minor parachute injury. ‘It was’, he wrote, ‘a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English – and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.’

“Waugh wasn’t the only writer to suffer this guilty kind of gluttony. The spam-and-soya-bean period of English literature is full of Hungry Novels. Sometimes the tone is wistful, sometimes resentful. The characters in a Hungry Novel will suffer the indignities of bully beef, spaghetti bits and powdered egg, while dreaming of richer meat. Under the barrage of bombs, the wail of air raid sirens, the crackle of the wireless, an unmistakable base note: the complaining rumble of the author’s stomach. In the fiction of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, Wyndham Lewis, Rosamond Lehmann, Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark and others, written during the war and in the years of rationing that followed, there is a marked stomach sensibility, an obsessive detail of food.”

Read the rest.

Photos: Daocheng County

Poem: Joseph Mirra, “Digging Shakespeare”

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