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Cold War Science, in Defense of Walt Whitman, and Sartre’s Bad Trip

The American government gave money to writers and scientists to help the country win the Cold War. That doesn’t mean the art or science is somehow tainted. In Boston Review, Michael D. Gordin reviews Audra J. Wolfe’s Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science. Here’s a snippet: “Wolfe’s book is not a history of science filled with equations, detailed accounts of laboratory research, or gee-whiz discoveries. It is about the erection of a scientific infrastructure in the Cold War and the many ways that scientists were embedded in the apparatus of that frigid confrontation. By focusing on how the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department expended a lot of attention and treasure on promoting a particular view of science both at home and abroad, she shows how our understanding of science today was built on the back of Cold War cultural diplomacy. Today, when both science and academic freedom have resurfaced as flashpoints in U.S. politics, Wolfe helps us think more clearly about how the inevitably political institution of science is not necessarily at odds with its intellectual integrity.” And in Spectator, Nicholas Shakespeare reviews Duncan White’s Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War: “Cold Warriors fascinates in the areas it does choose to cover, and serves as a nostalgic reminder of a time when literature was a life-or-death matter. White writes: ‘It is hard to imagine the publication of a novel precipitating a geopolitical crisis in the manner of Dr. Zhivago or The Gulag Archipelago.’”

Mark Bauerlein responds to Sarah Ruden’s attempted takedown of Walt Whitman in a recent issue of National Review: “Takedowns of revered figures can be entertaining, of course, and they can serve a moral purpose, too. When the second-rate is overpraised, it’s an affront to the first-rate. A healthy society distinguishes between high art and the rest. But if you’re going to take on a monument and judge it false, you need to get your facts straight, and you also need to base your judgments on background knowledge that extends well beyond personal taste. If you don’t, you sound like a quibbler.”

A surprising history of college dorms: “The religious and often rural origins of many American colleges, designed to remove students from the malignant influences of the city, played a prominent role in the provision of housing . . . It’s easy to roll one’s eyes about broader recent claims about housing always being an ideological project, but in the case of universities it was and always has been one, concerning ‘the socially constructed nature of the student’—with the (partial) exceptions occurring in the postwar period, when students were treated less like charges to be bent to one’s will and more like cattle. Even then, questions emerged: is it social engineering to separate genders or engineering to combine them? I simply don’t know.”

Aretha Franklin’s estate is a mess, and it’s her fault: “At Aretha Franklin’s funeral in Detroit a year ago, members of her family, dressed in crisp black and white, filled an aisle in the Greater Grace Temple as they walked together toward her coffin — a solemn image of unity after the death of their matriarch. But that harmony seems all but lost now, as some of Franklin’s closest kin — including her four sons — jockey for control of her estate and trade barbs in court over matters as serious as each other’s competence and as minor as who gets to drive Franklin’s Mercedes-Benz. Hanging in the balance is the value of an estate that some experts estimate could ultimately be worth hundreds of millions of dollars — if the family can manage it properly.”

Sartre’s bad trip: In the 1930s, both Jean-Paul Sartre and Walter Benjamin took mescaline. Sartre started seeing crabs scuttling around him for weeks afterwards. Benjamin didn’t see much at all and complained he hadn’t been given enough. In the little that both wrote about the experience, they touched on the drug’s dark side: “Sartre . . . describe[ed] it briefly in notes that later found a place in L’imaginaire, his 1940 study of the phenomenology of the imagination. He found its effects elusive and sinister. ‘It could only exist by stealth,’ he wrote; it distorted every sensation, yet whenever he attempted to perceive it directly it withdrew into the background or shifted shape.”

Essay of the Day:

Anthony Daniels writes about the sad state of Aberystwyth in The New Criterion:

“Aberystwyth, a seaside resort and the seat of the National Library of Wales, could be a kind of metonym for the whole of Great Britain. Once a place of some grandeur and elegance (subsisting, of course, in the midst of severe poverty), it is now given over almost entirely to decay and slovenliness. Every physical addition since the First World War, and even more since the Second, has been ruination and hideousness. The University, whose original magnificent Victorian building stands unoccupied except by detritus that can be glimpsed through its Gothic windows unwashed for decades, is a World Heritage site of incompetent British modernist architecture of such ugliness that one is left clutching one’s eyes in despair. Splendid Victorian terraces have been ravaged, and their harmony ruined, by cheap additions to extract a few more square feet of habitation from the land area that they cover. The students, who in term time make up a third of the town’s population, no doubt care deeply about the fate of the planet and the future of the environment, but live in squalor, turn everywhere they inhabit into a slum, and wade happily through the litter—principally the wrappings and containers of their refreshments rather than lecture notes—that they drop.”

Read the rest. 

Photo: Reine

Poem: David Barber, “Nightingale Floor”

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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University. Follow him on Twitter.

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