Prufrock

Miles Davis’s Trumpet, the One Universal in Languages, and Alexander the Great’s Death

Photo by Berthold Werner, via Wikimedia Commons.

Are you planning on reading Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, her follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale? If so, and you pre-ordered it on Amazon, were you one of the lucky few who received it early by mistake? Inquiring minds want to know.

I’ll be reviewing it for The American Conservative, so I won’t say much here other than this: When Atwood announced she was writing a sequel to Handmaid’s, she said it was inspired by “the world we’ve been living in.” Well, what else could have inspired it, you might ask, and rightly so. But what Atwood seems to have meant is that it was inspired by our present political moment—i.e., the election of Donald Trump, the debate over abortion, and the rise of #MeToo. If true, I remarked at the time, it didn’t sound very promising. Literary works that are preoccupied with making political statements usually miss the opportunity to make less obvious but more interesting statements. There are exceptions, of course, and this doesn’t mean that literary works should say nothing political. But expedience usually tramples nuance.

At the same time, Handmaid’s Tale is nuanced—certainly more so than many recent fans think. Is it about the dangers of religious fundamentalism, or is it (also) a critique of a certain strain of radical feminism? Atwood is of a relatively independent mind—a good trait for a novelist—so maybe The Testaments will be OK after all. We’ll see!

In other news: One of Miles Davis’s trumpets has been put up for sale. “The trumpet was made by the Martin Company, which was founded in Chicago in 1865 by German instrument-maker Johann Heinrich Martin, around 1980 to Davis’ specifications, according to Christie’s. The instrument, featuring a deep blue lacquer and gilt crescent moon and stars, with the name ‘Miles’ inscribed on the bell, is one of a set of three colored trumpets designed by Davis.”

How did Alexander the Great die? By wine?

Seamus Perry reviews Geoffrey Hill’s last work, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin: “You would be hard pressed to describe Geoffrey Hill’s final work. To say it is a sort of notebook cast as a prose poem in 271 sections of greatly varying length doesn’t get you very far. In one way it is squarely in the tradition of Pope’s Dunciad (which it mentions): it is a poem about the betrayal of England, a yowl of anger and outrage at the prevailing imbecility Hill often addressed in his later works . . . Some sections have something of the quality of a diary or a day-book: he takes note of public events (Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, the Brexit vote), responds to the books he’s reading and to what’s in the papers, as well as occasionally registering very beautifully the changing seasons in his garden and, somewhere in the background, the progress of the church year. Parts of the poem are movingly autobiographical, full of elegiac feeling: he looks back, for example, to his roots in Worcestershire while experiencing old age and bodily decline (‘Diabetes is now affecting both eyes, though what this may symbolise I can’t say’). And for a lot of the time it is a poem preoccupied with poetry.”

Adam Kirsch reviews Elias Khoury’s My Name Is Adam. Does it matter that a work presented as a historical novel isn’t historical? “Khoury excels at imagining the ‘how’ that historical fiction is meant to capture. But when it comes to why things happened and what they meant, My Name Is Adam raises questions it fails to answer.”

Do literary prizes lead to more books sales and a longer lasting readership? Yes.

Are GMO’s bad? That’s the wrong question, Tess Doezema argues in her review of Mark Lynas’s Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs: “The central problem that plagues Lynas’s argument is the same one that plagues the GMO debate in general: The conceit that the battle will be won by establishing a unitary scientific Truth about whether genetically modified organisms are good or bad. This view from nowhere is impossible to achieve for an issue bound up with so many questions of social and cultural meaning, from humanity’s relation to nature, to the significance of life, to the role of markets in creating, shaping, and producing it. What ought to be genetically engineered, when, and to what ends — these are questions far broader than biologists can answer. Lynas’s book reveals how damaging the effort to pretend otherwise has been.”

Essay of the Day:

Despite all the differences between languages, there is at least one similarity: People use them to transmit information at roughly the same rate. Rachel Gutman explains in The Atlantic:

“In the early 1960s, a doctoral student at Cornell University wanted to figure out whether there was any truth behind the ‘cultural stereotype’ that certain foreigners speak faster than Americans. He recorded 12 of his fellow students—six Japanese speakers and six American English speakers—monologuing about life on campus, analyzed one minute of each man’s speech, and found that the two groups produced sounds at roughly the same speed. He and a co-author concluded that ‘the hearer judges the speech rate of a foreign language in terms of his linguistic background,’ and that humans the world over were all likely to be more or less equally fast talkers.

“In the half century since then, more rigorous studies have shown that, prejudice aside, some languages—such as Japanese, Basque, and Italian—really are spoken more quickly than others. But as mathematical methods and computing power have improved, linguists have spent more time studying not just speech rate, but the effort a speaker has to exert to get a message across to a listener. By calculating how much information every syllable in a language conveys, it’s possible to compare the ‘efficiency’ of different languages. And a study published today in Science Advances found that more efficient languages tend to be spoken more slowly. In other words, no matter how quickly speakers chatter, the rate of information they’re transmitting is roughly the same across languages.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Coniston

Poem: Morri Creech, “Witness”

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Southern Barbecue Today, Brexit Novels, and Murder in American Fiction

Photo by Jeffrey Loo, via Wikimedia Commons

The descendants of Kaiser Wilhelm II are suing the state to reclaim palaces and artworks: “The biggest prize up for grabs is the right of residence in Cecilienhof Palace near Berlin, site of the 1945 Potsdam Conference. The Tudor-style mansion, which boasts 176 rooms, six courtyards and 55 fireplaces, was the last Prussian palace built by the Hohenzollerns. It was there that the victorious Allied leaders, US president Harry Truman, British prime minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, decided the shape of a post-war world . . . Family representatives and cultural foundations have held secret negotiations on their compensation and restitution demands since 2013, sometimes in Angela Merkel’s chancellery building.” I like pulling for the underdog. I hope they get everything back.

John Shelton Reed surveys Southern barbecue today. Can “folk” barbecue survive haute fusionism? “In a 1953 essay in Diogenes, Dwight Macdonald wrote about folk culture, high culture, and popular culture. I suggest that there are now corresponding sorts of barbecue.”

Brexlit—mostly novels that deal with Britain’s leaving the European Union—has one distinguishing feature: self-indulgent indignation. “Thus, Times best-selling author and Guardian columnist Olivia Laing’s Crudo introduces the reader to her alter ego, Kathy, engaging in an apocalyptic rant about the state of the post-Brexit world . . . Laing’s Kathy is ‘avant-garde, middle-class-in-flight’, but she ‘did not like the bourgeoisie’. Now a forty-something successful but impeccably progressive writer, she commutes between London, Rome and New York, attending literary conferences. Although living the literary high life, Kathy hates ‘living at the end of the world’. Anticipating the coming apocalypse: ‘she was fairly certain that by the time she was an old lady they’d be eating out of rubbish dumps, sheltering from a broiling impossible sun. It was all done, it was over, there wasn’t any hope.’ Like liberals everywhere, ‘she missed Obama. Everyone missed Obama. She missed the sense of time as something serious and diminishing. She didn’t like living in the permanent present of the id’, despite the fact that Kathy serves up nothing but the angry id of liberal narcissism.”

Midge Goldberg reviews Rhina Espaillat’s latest collection of poetry, And After All: “‘Without you,’ Rhina Espaillat says, ‘all of time is cut in two.’ The best poems in Espaillat’s new book, And After All, are about grief. Espaillat lost her husband, Alfred Moskowitz, in 2016, and in many of these poems grief permeates the varied aspects of life. It’s easy for poems about loss to be sentimental, overwrought, or overly personal, but these poems draw us in through their natural, conversational language [and] exquisite, restrained formal poetic craft.”

Is modernism disenchantment? Like many folks, Gabriel Josipovici thinks so: “Pinpointing exactly when this disenchantment occurred is a complex, almost impossible task. Josipovici suggests that the Marburg debate between Luther and Zwingli over the substantial presence of Christ in the Sacrament might be a milestone of creeping secularization. Luther, despite being such a firebrand in certain matters, was a solid denizen of the old world, in which God worked directly upon reality turning the bread and wine of the Eucharist literally into the flesh and blood of Christ. Zwingli found the notion laughable. By Josipovici’s definition, Zwingli was a modernist, at least in spirit. Luther was not. In literature the earliest expressions of the modernist impulse come from Cervantes and Rabelais, whose awareness of the absence of cosmic authority force their writing into comical self-referentiality.” Well, maybe. Or maybe disenchantment has always been with us, and there is no milestone. Still, Josipovici’s latest novel sounds interesting. Read the rest of Scott Beauchamp’s review here.

In praise of Decca Records: “Decca’s history is inextricably bound up with that of its founding director, Sir Edward Lewis, who persuaded a successful gramophone manufacturer of that name to move into the record business. Shares in the new company began trading in February 1929, and that they survived the subsequent Depression and went on to establish a formidable artist roster in the 1930s was in no small part due to Lewis’s abilities and perseverance. In January 1980, weeks before his death, he sold the company to the Dutch conglomerate PolyGram, after which its historic studio in West Hampstead was closed and its pressing plant and head office building disposed of. Although the Decca name has since been retained through several corporate buyouts, some might argue that the real story ended with Sir Edward.”

Essay of the Day:

What do murders in American fiction tells us about murder in America—and how Americans think about guilt and innocence, agency and fate? Algis Valiunas risks an answer in National Affairs:

“We Americans are fascinated by murder. It leads every local newscast; it fills hour after hour of television entertainment and packs them in at the movies. It has been the subject of novels and plays by important writers — a way into understanding our national temperament and state of mind.

“Where does this fascination come from? Ours is essentially a middle-class country, and Hegel and Rousseau wrote that the bourgeois is defined by his fear of death, especially violent death. We have grown accustomed to living peaceable and comfortable lives. And as the world remains a dangerous place, we naturally fear losing our peace, our comfort, and our lives.

“The nature of the danger — the direction from which unexpected death comes — has changed over time, or at least the work of some of our best writers suggests it has. That change has affected how we think and feel about chance, fate, desire, individual responsibility, and the general condition of our civilization. It would appear our vulnerabilities as a people are laid most bare in the tales we tell about murder, and the evolution of our best-drawn fictional murderers may have much to tell us about the direction in which American life is headed.”

Read the rest.

Photos: Washington  

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A Defense of “Like,” in Praise of Essex, and a Report on Lyme

Cricketers Arms, Danbury, Essex. Photo by BookerSteve.

Truly there is no end to the making of many books. According to the Associate of American Publishers, book industry revenue is up by 6.9% in the first six months of 2019 compared to last year. And Eli Gottlieb praises Italian book festivals, though he notes the strange fact that Italians read less than anyone else in Europe: “In this light, the country’s literary and music festivals are probably best thought of as a 21st-century variant of the ancient Roman tradition of bread and circuses, drawing an elegantly crafted curtain over the nation’s precarious cultural/economic affairs. But they have a subtler function as well. In the words of Italian cultural critic Claudio Giunta, ‘Italians have a collective sense of guilt. They love to eat and talk, but it’s dinned into them from birth that they’re the inheritors of a great culture and this past weighs on them. These festivals function as alibis of a sort, in which they can literally have their cake and eat it, too.’”

In other news: Scholars discover unknown John Locke manuscript in St. John’s Greenfield Library: “It was a unique find; in the world of Locke scholarship, there is a fairly definitive online bibliography of more than 8,000 of the philosopher’s works, from books and treatises to notes and letters. The Reasons for tolerateing Papists manuscript was not among them. ‘It was amazing because it was obviously a Locke manuscript. There was no mistake about that. St. John’s was in possession of a very rare item even by the standards of major U.S. libraries . . . And the content was really, really interesting.’”

Joseph Loconte reviews James Como’s C. S. Lewis: A Very Short Introduction: “Como’s unlikely achievement is to deliver a brief (under 200 pages) yet compelling literary survey of Lewis’s works, which include over 40 books, 200 essays, 150 poems, short stories, a diary, and three volumes of letters.”

A defense of “like”: “Like, then, can’t just be used anywhere, but it can still appear in about six different places in our example sentence – so what is it doing? The corpus shows us that an utterance that starts with like always follows on from another utterance. The speaker who starts an utterance with like in this way might be adding their support to what someone else has just said, or emphasising that they really believe something that they have just said themselves.” You know what? Something can make sense and still be annoying.

In praise of Essex: “Gillian Darley’s book is not a mad dash through this most compelling and complex of English counties. Nor is it another tired example of psychogeographical self-indulgence in the mode of Iain Sinclair or Will Self. It is a measured and loving treatment of a slice of England made schizophrenic by the ‘pull and push’ of London.”

Essay of the Day:

We understand very little about Lyme disease, but that’s slowly changing, Meghan O’Rourke reports in The Atlantic:

“In 2012, I was diagnosed with a relatively mild autoimmune disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Yet despite eating carefully and sleeping well, I was having difficulty functioning, which didn’t make sense to my doctor—or to me. Recalling basic words was often challenging. Teaching a poetry class at Princeton, I found myself talking to the students about ‘the season that comes after winter, when flowers grow.’ I was in near-constant pain, as I wrote in an essay for The New Yorker at the time about living with chronic illness. Yet some part of me thought that perhaps this was what everyone in her mid-30s felt. Pain, exhaustion, a leaden mind.

“One chilly December night in 2012, I drove a few colleagues back to Brooklyn after our department holiday party in New Jersey. I looked over at the man sitting next to me—a novelist I’d known for years—and realized that I had no idea who he was. I pondered the problem. I knew I knew him, but who was he? It took an hour to recover the information that he was a friend. At home, I asked my partner, Jim, whether he had ever experienced anything like this. He shook his head. Something was wrong.

“By the following fall, any outing—to teach my class, or to attend a friend’s birthday dinner—could mean days in bed afterward. I hid matters as best I could. Debt piled up as I sought out top-tier physicians (many of whom didn’t take insurance)—a neurologist who diagnosed neuropathy of unclear origin, a rheumatologist who diagnosed ‘unspecified connective-tissue disease’ and gave me steroids and intravenous immunoglobulin infusions. I visited acupuncturists and nutritionists. I saw expensive out-of-network ‘integrative’ doctors (M.D.s who take a holistic approach to health) and was diagnosed with overexhaustion and given IV vitamin drips. Many doctors, I could tell, weren’t sure what to think. Is this all in her head? I felt them wondering. One suggested I see a therapist. ‘We’re all tired,’ another chided me.

“I was a patient of relative privilege who had access to excellent medical care. Even so, I felt terrifyingly alone—until, in the fall of 2013, I found my way to yet another doctor, who had an interest in infectious diseases, and tested me for Lyme. I had grown up on the East Coast, camping and hiking. Over the years, I had pulled many engorged deer ticks off myself. I’d never gotten the classic bull’s-eye rash, but this doctor ordered several Lyme-disease tests anyway; though indeterminate, the results led her to think I might have the infection.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Burano

Poem: Christopher Bakken, “Turning Fifty at the Oracle of Death”

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No Gay Gene, Weird McDonald’s, and Book Diseases

Via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll be laboring a bit on Monday but not on this column, so don’t expect anything here on Labor Day. It’ll be beautiful here in southeastern Virginia, and I won’t be working the entire day. I hope to hit the road on the ole steel tenner for a few hours and maybe bookworm a bit afterwards or sit on the front porch and stare at the lawn. Get outside if it’s nice where you live. The world is an amazing place.

And a crazy one, too. Remember when people were afraid that library books would spread deadly diseases? Me neither, but apparently they were: “On September 12, 1895, a Nebraskan named Jessie Allan died of tuberculosis. Such deaths were a common occurrence at the turn of the 20th century, but Allan’s case of ‘consumption’ reportedly came from an unusual source. She was a librarian at the Omaha Public Library, and thanks to a common fear of the time, people worried that Allan’s terminal illness may have come from a book.”

Andrew Ferguson reviews Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me: “The set of What the Constitution Means to Me is a dystopian riff on an American Legion hall, with a desk and a podium and three walls covered in pressboard wood paneling and hung with black-and-white headshots of middle-aged guys in Legionnaire hats—dozens of them, cheek by jowl. Schreck is surrounded, in other words, by the enemy, whom she loves. As a girl of 15, Schreck appeared in many such halls to give speeches about the Constitution. The prize money she won paid her way through college. ‘A few years ago,’ she tells the audience, ‘I was thinking about the Constitution [beat] for various reasons [meaningful glance].’ The ironic aside gets a good laugh; no group of New York theatergoers needs to be told why she’s worried about the Constitution. They’re worried too! She wonders why, as a girl, she loved the Constitution so passionately. ‘Because I did, I loved it’ . . . By play’s end, it’s become clear that if the young Schreck did indeed love the Constitution, it’s because she misunderstood it; and if her passion for the document has cooled as she’s gotten older, it’s because she’s transcended her earlier misunderstanding to misunderstand it even more.”

A new study finds there is no single genetic cause of same-sex sexual behavior: “Analysis of half a million people suggests genetics may have a limited contribution to sexual orientation.”

Weird McDonald’s: “Back in June, a user on the Facebook group ‘What Zoning Board Approved This?’—a kind of zoning-focused little brother forum for New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens—shared a photo of an unusual McDonald’s restaurant in Arizona. Users in turn marveled at and mocked the franchise’s teal Golden Arches and tacky stucco facade. The board that approved this particular McDonald’s was in Sedona, Arizona, which enforces an especially strict design code. A local in the group provided additional context: ‘I live in Sedona [and] all the boards that run this place have a stick up their …’ Weird McDonald’s are a mainstay in the group, which interrogates the strange results of America’s hyper-localized system of land-use regulation. For the most part, the chain has produced standard, recognizable stores, from Googie food stands to double-sloped mansard roofs. So when local zoning boards insist on aesthetic control, the results stand out, producing an awkward mix of formula design and local whims.”

James MacMillan on theology, music, and Scotland: “Theology has always been a big interest for me and has always fed into my music one way or another. Not just in the little, quasi-liturgical pieces like ‘Serenity,’ that you mentioned, but even in big pieces like symphonies and oratorios. My fifth symphony has just premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, and it’s a massive big thing for two choirs and orchestra, exploring the mystery of the Holy Spirit.”

The unsolved case of the missing millionaire theatre owner: “A century ago, one day in 1919, a 53-year-old man named Ambrose Small initiated a long-running Toronto mystery by disappearing. One day he was at his desk, busy looking after the affairs of his many theatres, and the next he was gone. Suddenly everyone who knew him was being interviewed by the police or newspaper reporters. Some feared he had been murdered — after all, he had made many enemies with his ruthless way of doing business. Others imagined he was sick, hiding away from the chaos of running half a dozen theatres spread across Canada. It became more mysterious when it was learned that on the day before Small’s disappearance he had sold all his theatrical holdings to Trans-Canada Theatres Ltd. for $1,700,000. He had already deposited his million-dollar cheque in the bank.”

Essay of the Day:

In Quillette, Mary Eberstadt argues that our contemporary obsession with identity has its roots in the disappearing nuclear family:

“Of all the issues that divide us, none seems as inimical to reasoned discussion as identity politics. Conservatives excoriate such politics as politically opportunistic theater, the acting out of coddled ‘snowflake’ students. Liberals and progressives put forth an opposing grievance-first narrative, arguing that identity politics emanates from authentic wounds.

“But what if both contenders have a piece of the truth? What if many identity-firsters today are claiming to be victims because they and their societies are victims—only not so much of the abstract ‘isms’ they denounce, but of something else that till now has eluded description?

“Let’s try a new theory: Our macro-politics have become a mania about identity because our micropolitics are no longer familial. This, above all, is what happened during the decades in which identity politics went from being a phrase in an obscure quasi-radical document to a way of being that has gone on to transform academia, law, media, culture and government.

“Yes, racism, sexism and other forms of cruelty exist, and are always to be deplored and countered. At the same time, the timeline of identity politics suggest another source. Up until the middle of the twentieth century (and barring the frequent foreshortening of life by disease or nature) human expectations remained largely the same throughout the ages: that one would grow up to have children and a family; that parents and siblings and extended family would remain one’s primal community; and that, conversely, it was a tragedy not to be part of a family. The post-1960s order of sexual consumerism has upended every one of these expectations.

Who am I? is a universal human question. It becomes harder to answer if other basic questions are problematic or out of reach. Who is my brother? Who is my father? Where, if anywhere, are my cousins, grandparents, nieces, nephews and the rest of the organic connections through which humanity up until now channeled everyday existence? Every one of the assumptions that our forebears could take for granted is now negotiable.

“The panic over identity, in short, is being driven by the fact that the human animal has been selected for familial forms of socialization that for many people no longer exist.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Culla

Poem: Serhiy Zhadan, “They Buried Their Son Last Winter” (translated by John Hennessy and Ostap Kin)

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In Defense of Empire, Philip Larkin at Home, Louisa May Alcott at the Front

Via Wikimedia Commons

If you happen to be in Venice this fall, don’t bother with the Biennale. Go see the ancient mosaics in the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, “on the distant lagoon island of Torcello.” James Panero is your guide.

Louisa May Alcott at the front: “On December 12, 1862, she arrived in Washington, D.C., where she had arranged to work as a nurse, an opportunity only newly available to women. Louisa spent six weeks working at the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown, not the assignment she had hoped for. The Union had a reputation for being poorly managed and in ill repair, and Alcott wrote home to her family about the rotting wood floorboards and the swarming rats. Shortly after she arrived, the hospital received scores of wounded soldiers from the bloody battles at Fredericksburg and Antietam: ‘3 or 4 hundred men in all stages of suffering, disease & death’ she later wrote.”

Richard Carwardine reviews David W Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass: “A major challenge is to get behind the self-made public hero of the autobiographies and pin down the private man. Blight handles with great sensitivity the tensions between the two sides of his life.”

The charms of Lake Garda: “Italians really know how to make the most of often small, steep terrain.”

A surprising history of collage: “Japanese artists began to stick paper onto silk as early as the 1100s. In Europe, paper collage is first recorded in Europe in the 1400s. By the following century, the technique was being put to practical use in anatomical ‘flap-books’ – woodcut prints layering skin and sinew over internal organs.”

A defense of the British Empire: “Black does not undertake a comprehensive apologetic for the British Empire. Instead, he offers a more limited defense against the revisionist and condemnatory interpretations that have become standard in both academic and popular discussion. In its early chapters, Imperial Legacies promises to show how disapproval of America today replicates the postcolonial condemnation of Britain. The book does not quite fulfill this line of argument, which vanishes as Black’s focus on the British Empire becomes much more acute. Instead of refining the comparison to America, however, Black accomplishes something much more ambitious: he systematically debunks the ideologies of ‘decolonization’ and postcolonial resentment and shows the harm of dismissing British history as a story of monolithic oppression.”

Essay of the Day:

In the Times Literary Supplement, Alan Jenkins writes about Philip Larkin’s childhood homelife:

“In anything intended for public consumption – poems, interviews, articles – Larkin would refer to his childhood as a ‘forgotten boredom’, to Coventry as ‘only where my childhood was unspent’ and his parents as ‘awkward people with no talent for being happy’. But if that was all, where did he acquire his bad stammer, or his conviction that ‘human beings should not live together and children should be taken from their parents at an early age’? A lot of what has been published by and about him since his death – and Letters Home is no exception – suggests that as well as boredom the legacy of his childhood included rage, fear, embarrassment, guilt, resentment and, perhaps above all, shame.

“As he wrote to his mother in 1962, ‘I remember that if there was “somebody in the drawing room” at Coventry I felt an intense emotion of fear mixed with shyness – a kind of embarrassment lest the door should open … and its awful occupants catch me crossing the hall. It wasn’t so much that I was shy of people as that I hated the idea of them in “our” house’. Twenty years later, when his old schoolfriend Noel Hughes, in a memoir of their schooldays for the festschrift Larkin at Sixty, described Sydney’s authoritarian, ‘mercilessly dismissive’ tendencies and admiration for ‘qualities of decisiveness and vigour’ in Hitler’s Germany, even suggesting some involvement with the pro-Nazi organization The Link (though this was suppressed before publication), Larkin was incensed. As a teenager he had been excruciatingly aware of Sydney’s enthusiastic support for National Socialism, his visits to Nuremberg rallies, the statuette of Hitler and other Nazi souvenirs that adorned his office until the outbreak of war. Now, in distinguished middle age, he didn’t want other people to be aware of them too.

“But he had been merciless himself in a fragment of autobiography written, presumably for private therapeutic purposes, in the 1950s, in which he recalls his ‘intensely shy, inhibited’ father’s barely concealed contempt for his wife and daughter, and the ‘taut ungenerous defeated pattern of life’ he had imposed on the family. His mother, meanwhile, is skewered as an ‘obsessive snivelling pest’.”

Read the rest. 

Photos: The photography of Margaret Bourke-White

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Emily Dickinson Gets Turnt, in Defense of Renoir, and a History of the Hill Country’s Cedar Choppers

Via Wikimedia Commons

Have you seen the trailer for Apple’s new series on Emily Dickinson? If not, and if you have even the slightest interest in her work, don’t bother: “The brief trailer gives a very different perspective on Dickinson, who was traditionally portrayed as a shy recluse . . . Instead, Dickinson will be showing off the poet ‘getting turnt’ in a far more modern fashion, depicting Emily as a rebellious free spirit who disappoints her parents and apparently… joins a circus? . . .  [B]ased on the music (‘I Like Tuh’ by Carnage feat. iLoveMakonnen) and the style of the trailer (a rock n roll lute-playing, devil-horn finger poses, and dubstep dance scenes), Smith is apparently adding some anachronistic modernizations in the spirit of recent historical dramadies like TNT’s Will or Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite.” All artists take liberties in revisiting the past, filmmakers especially. What I find irksome about the trailer is that our interests today are apparently so superficial. The only thing we care about is sex.

In other news: Banksy’s Brexit mural has been painted over: “The side of a building that had borne a famous painting of a worker chipping away one of the golden stars from the European Union’s flag — symbolizing Britain’s impending exit from the bloc — was covered in white paint Monday. Scaffolding had been erected over the weekend at the building in the southern British port city of Dover.”

Roger Kimball defends Renoir: “Schjeldahl’s judgments about Renoir are a fastidiously composed congeries of up-to-the-minute elite opinion. There at The New Yorker, everyone will agree with Schjeldahl about Renoir or — the more important point — about subjugating him to the strictures prevalent among the beautiful people circa 2019. What made Schjeldahl’s essay notorious were not his particular judgments about Renoir’s art or character but rather his imperative anachronism. ‘An argument is often made that we shouldn’t judge the past by the values of the present,’ Schjeldahl writes, ‘but that’s a hard sell in a case as primordial as Renoir’s.’ Is it?”

A history of the Hill Country’s cedar choppers: “The clan that would come to be known as the cedar choppers first settled in Appalachia before moving west through the Ozarks, then into Central Texas following the Civil War. Hill Country farmers quickly depleted the region’s thin topsoil, and most of them moved on to greener pastures as shrubby juniper replaced native grasses along the disturbed rocky slopes. But the cedar choppers didn’t have much to begin with, so they hunkered down. For generations, they eked out a meager existence hunting, fishing, distilling moonshine, and cutting cedar, some of which they burned to make and sell as charcoal. As the cedar choppers further withdrew from society, they became ever more clannish. Folklorist Alan Lomax encountered cedar chopper families in the 1930s and recorded them singing traditional English ballads like ‘The Romish Lady’ and ‘Seven Long Years.’ They had their own manner of speaking, distinct from their fellow Texans, and lived by a code that prized freedom and personal honor. ‘There was a lot of murder going on,’ Roberts said during a recent interview, ‘but they wouldn’t steal.’”

Anne Midgette and Patrick Rucker discuss Ivo Pogorelich’s first album in over 20 years: “I can’t say that I was enraptured. But I thought, ‘It’s legitimate.’ One of the painful things about hearing some of these interpretations in general is that the urge to put your own stamp on music that’s been played 5,000 times almost necessarily leads you to be eccentric and excessive, because everything’s been done.”

Essay of the Day:

In Esquire, Stayton Bonner writes about the worldwide hunt for a $7 million car:

“Joe is a detective for hire who specializes in recovering stolen cars. But not your car. Joe doesn’t look for cars stolen from parking garages or shopping malls—everyday transportation whose value lies in the number of miles they carry us. Joe Ford specializes in recovering cars whose value lies in not being driven much at all: rare, collectible, fetishized cars that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions or tens of millions of dollars, prized not for their ability to get from here to there but rather for their beauty, the artistry of their design, the care with which they were built, and perhaps most of all, their provenance.

“‘I’m in a niche of a niche of a niche,’ he says. Joe, sixty-two, is more Magnum P.I. than Sam Spade—tall, trim, tan, usually wearing a fitted polo or a Hawaiian shirt. Drinks sweet tea by the gallon and speaks like the New Orleans native he is. (‘I grew up in east New Orleans, near the Ninth Wah-ard.’) Likes to swim and dive for lobsters and drive boats. He recently cruised on a sixty-­five-footer down to Utila, ‘this coral-reef island off the coast of Honduras,’ he says. ‘It was incredible—diving with whale sharks and drinking with outlaws. One guy didn’t come back.’

“People end up doing all kinds of jobs in this life. You sometimes wonder if, given a few left turns and different choices, the guy playing center field at Yankee Stadium could have ended up a taxi driver instead. Or vice versa. But Joe . . . Joe Ford is what happens when a particular set of skills, personality traits, and turns of phrase lead a person into the only thing he should be doing. It’s rare. And when you see him at work—when you see him move easily among both the shady creatures of criminality and the millionaires on those yachts—you wonder whether you, like him, have found your place in the world.

“The FBI agent was calling about a new lead in Joe’s current case. It’s a big one, the kind that could set Joe up for a long time. Maybe help him get his own boat, his own rare sports car. Help his daughter be more comfortable as she copes with the disease that’s taking away her eyesight. Help him disappear into the sunset.

He’s been working this case for six years. ‘Everyone loves cars, but this is different,’ Joe says. ‘At this level, it’s about bragging rights for the rarest and the best. That’s what makes the Teardrop so coveted.’

“The Teardrop. Otherwise known as the 1938 Talbot-Lago T150C SS teardrop coupe, chassis number 90108, current value $7.6 million. Built by two men, names of Figoni and Falaschi—Italian immigrants to France who ran the world’s top custom-car shop in Paris from the thirties through the fifties—the T150 is a prime example of a model that the Robb Report once called ‘the most beautiful car in the world.’ One of only two models built with a race-car engine, it’s an art deco masterpiece, a long, sleek body powered by ground-shaking horsepower. The C stands for competition—it gets 140 bhp out of a 3,996cc six-cylinder engine—but the Teardrop was built as rolling art, a metallic blue car with a red leather interior and red wire wheels. It’s shaped like a teardrop, pure aerodynamics.”

Read the rest. 

Photo: Hansehafen

Poem: A. F. Moritz, “Silence and Song”

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Missionary Spies, Surfing in the Age of Social Media, and New York’s Last Pirate

Via Wikimedia Commons

Spies. Who needs them? That’s Adam Gopnik’s conclusion—sort of—in a short survey of a handful of books on espionage: “If there is a lesson to be taken from the literature of espionage, it is that the surfaces we see generally have the greatest significance, and the most obvious-seeming truths about other countries’ plans and motives are usually more predictive than the sharpest guesses at hidden ones.”

Well, we needed them during WWII, and some of our most successful spies were missionaries: “William Eddy was one of the most effective intelligence officers in American history. During World War II, he was among the first to join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the nation’s first permanent espionage agency. After the war, he helped found the CIA. He was also a decorated veteran of World War I and, in civilian life, an educator, devoted husband, and father. But none of those roles really captures the true William Eddy: Above all, he was a man of God. Eddy was born in Lebanon in 1896 to Presbyterian missionaries. Raised in the Middle East, he became fluent in Arabic and French and went to college in the United States. After earning a doctorate from Princeton, he went on to teach English at the missionary-founded American University in Cairo and later at Dartmouth. With his linguistic abilities and insider’s knowledge of the region, Eddy was recruited to the OSS by William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, the founding father of modern American espionage. Eddy became America’s man in the Middle East, helping make possible the Allied invasion of North Africa in 1942. He acted as an interpreter between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Saudi King Ibn Saud at their meeting in 1945, which established the US-Saudi alliance. Yet no matter where he was, Eddy rarely missed a Sunday service. Eddy’s remarkable career—part missionary, part spy—might seem unusual, but as Matthew Avery Sutton shows in his magnificent new book, Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War, it was anything but. The wartime role of American missionaries has largely faded from memory, but Sutton’s entertaining and insightful narrative recovers it in full.”

The problem on university campuses today is not the abandonment of free speech. It’s the abandonment of excellence and reason.

The life and work of Romare Bearden: “Bearden’s art changed over time as he embraced motifs drawn from a wide array of sources, including Greek mythology and the vivid palette inspired by his new home in St. Martin. He continued to create using a variety of methods and materials—watercolors, pen and ink, fabrics and miscellaneous items, even bits of metal—with collage as his main process, in works he composed until shortly before his death in 1988. Campbell’s extraordinarily rich biography offers its readers many rewards. Nowhere here is the awkwardness of critics unfamiliar with the history of black art or who isolate it from its frames of reference or consider only how black artists ought to criticize race in America. Hers is a self-confident study of an artist’s life in all its contexts.”

New York’s last pirate: “Albert Hicks, the protagonist of Cohen’s tangy new book, The Last Pirate of New York, was no waterborne juvenile delinquent. Remarkably handsome and sturdy, with piercing black eyes, gleaming white teeth, and a scraggly beard, he was a psychopathic serial killer avant la lettre. By his own account, before he landed in New York, he freebooted around the world’s sea lanes in the decades leading to the Civil War and left a bloody wake. Hicks, writes Cohen, ‘is the closest thing the New York underworld has to a Cain, the first killer and the first banished man, carrying that dread mark: MURDER.’”

Essay of the Day:

Is social medial ruining surfing? Jamie Brisick thinks it is. Here he is in The New Yorker:

“On a recent, sunny Friday morning, a group of journalists and photographers gathered on the roof deck of the Surfrider Malibu, a boutique hotel that looks out over the iconic surf break for which it’s named. We were there for a demo of a new feature from Surfline, an iPhone app best known for its surf forecasts. Called Sessions, the feature captures the waves surfers ride and downloads the videos to their phones. ‘The pro guys have their personal filmers documenting their every ride,’ Dave Gilovich, Surfline’s chipper, sixty-seven-year-old brand director, said. ‘Well, Surfline Sessions is for the everyman.’

“‘See that camera over there?’ Gilovich pointed to a camera mounted atop the slanted roof of the hotel. I knew it well; it shoots the live feed of the waves at First Point, a section at Surfrider, and I check it most mornings. ‘We have over six hundred of these at breaks around the world, rolling day and night,’ he said. ‘Combined with the latest in wearable technology, and the software that we’ve developed, the camera can identify the surfer as they take off on a wave. To put it simply, you go out, you surf, and, before you’ve even changed out of your wetsuit, your waves are downloaded to your phone, ready for you to watch.’

“Over fresh pastries and coffee, Gilovich gave us a glimpse into an immediate future where no ride goes undocumented. ‘Say there’s some kid on the south side of Huntington Pier, and he’s getting good, and he’s been trying to bust his first air reverse,’ he said. ‘He’s sitting off the peak—he’s not with the alpha dogs yet. But that one morning he throws it up.’ Gilovich demonstrated an arcing twirl with his fingers. ‘The air reverse completes, he sticks the fins, and he rides out of it. Now it will be documented via the cam, and he’ll have that for the rest of his life.’

“It was a good day for documenting. At First Point, sets of shimmering head-high waves were peeling off with precision. More than a hundred and fifty surfers dotted the water, with three or four often riding the same wave. At least half were likely tipped off to the excellent swell by Surfline, a company that has changed surfing with both the live cams at popular breaks and super accurate swell forecasting. Gilovich pulled out a stash of Apple Watches from his duffel bag. ‘You just press this Start button right before you paddle out, then you go for your surf, and when you get out you press Stop. Simple as that,’ he said. We strapped the watches to our wrists, changed into our wetsuits, grabbed our boards, and headed for the water.

“As a former professional surfer and as a documenter of surfing for nearly thirty years, I’ve observed how the omnipresent camera has affected surf style. In a clip on The Surfer’s Journal’s Web site, for instance, the South African pro Michael February surfs solo at a remote point break in West Africa. His hand jive, soul arches, and toreador-like flourishes play to the camera in a way that breaks the spell of the itinerant surfer in far-flung solitude. His style is as self-conscious as the duck-face selfie. And by no means is February alone. Scroll through Instagram and you’ll see it: exaggerated arms, too-perfect fingers, the surf dance served up almost smugly.

“I’ve always thought of style as something instinctive and spontaneous—how you might react, say, dancing alone to your favorite song. I was curious to get the eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater’s take. ‘Style should be natural and not perfect,’ he wrote, fittingly, in a direct message on Instagram. ‘I really dislike watching someone, anyone, who seems to be trying to look a certain way.’ But the effect of the camera in surfing goes much deeper than just style. ‘One of the true gifts of surfing is the privacy of it,’ Scott Hulet, the longtime editor and current creative director of The Surfer’s Journal, told me over the phone. ‘That’s going away, and it’s at a great, great, great hazard to the experience. We’re so infatuated with getting looked at now—look at me, look at me, and look at me!—that we’re losing the magic of surfing being a low-profile activity.’”

Read the rest.

Photo: Viborg

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Camille Paglia’s Provocations, Yuval Noah Harari’s Dataism, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

Bruno Liljefors, Gustaf Kolthoff Hunting, 1888, via Wikimedia Commons

Good morning, everyone. Let’s get straight to business, shall we? First up, Emily Esfahani Smith surveys Camille Paglia’s provocations: “A professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she has taught since 1984, Paglia became an intellectual celebrity after the 1990 publication of Sexual Personae, her first book, which carries the subtitle Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Melding history and psychology with art and literature and laced with references to popular culture, the book delivered a one-two punch to academe. A feminist critical of the modern women’s movement, Paglia insisted on the greatness of Western civilization, though it was already unfashionable to do so. And she asserted that its greatness resulted from a creative but violent tension between male and female—between the Apollonian male principle of order (civilization) and the Dionysian female principle of chaos (nature). Two of the book’s most quoted lines are ‘If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts’ and ‘There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.’ Reading Sexual Personae, one reviewer wrote, was ‘a bit like being mugged.’ Now, nearly 30 years later, Paglia has once again found herself in the middle of the culture wars.”

Brian T. Allen recommends the new Museum of the Dog in New York: “The niche world of dog painters, until recently, was dominated by women. Starting in the 1860s, French art schools like the Académie Julian in Paris catered to women, and places like the Royal Academy in London and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts offered women’s classes. Professional success, though, was nearly inaccessible, undermined by prejudice and stereotypes. Dog painting was an exception. The field was not so much marginal as intimate and private.”

Thomas F. Bertonneau reviews a recent book on the Golden Age of Science Fiction: “For one who knows the subject matter, or who thinks so, reading Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding will prove an enriching but also a disturbing experience. Enrichment belongs obviously to Nevala-Lee’s intention. He sees John W. Campbell—editor of the science fiction magazine Astounding from 1937 until his death in 1971—as a central figure in American popular culture. Nevala-Lee acknowledges the stable of writers whom Campbell recruited and encouraged as having significantly shaped the American popular imagination in the mid-twentieth century, and not merely in terms of the genre that they cultivated and patented. Indeed, Nevala-Lee documents that during the Second World War the federal government saw in Campbell and his authorial coterie a high-level propaganda asset and duly put them to work to aid the war effort. The disturbing aspect of Astounding, one which links itself only tenuously to Nevala-Lee’s intention, consists in the study’s exposure of the selfish, banal, and prurient little world that his group of contributing personae, all of whom knew and socialized with one another, constituted.”

Titus Techera reviews Paul A. Cantor’s Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream: “Paul Cantor has a new book on popular culture, completing his long-term project on the American dream. His previous book, The Invisible Hand In Popular Culture, established how real the American dream is and how it connects freedom and success. His new book, Pop Culture and the Dark Side of the American Dream: Con Men, Gangsters, Drug Lords, and Zombies, examines the dangers of individualism: apathy and violence; the yearning for success whatever the cost; and the ongoing failure of confidence in America.”

Most people believe they have an “internal voice” and that they think in words, but that may not be the case: “Psychologist Russell Hurlburt at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has spent the last few decades training people to see inside their own minds more clearly in an attempt to learn something about our inner experiences at large. Though many individual studies on inner speech include only a small number of participants, making it hard to know whether their results apply more widely, Hurlburt estimates he’s been able to peek inside the minds of hundreds of people since he began his research. What he’s found suggests that the thoughts running through our heads are a lot more varied than we might suppose.”

Essay of the Day:

In City Journal, Roger Scruton debunks Yuval Noah Harari’s post-humanism:

Homo Deus repeats the central argument of Sapiens, concerning the way in which human powers are indefinitely amplified by trust. But Harari also recognizes an impasse. Our religious fictions came to us by the invisible hand. They were believed and passed on with the effect of enhancing our power, yet it was not power but meaning that we were looking for. The power conferred by the imagined order, that is, depended on our pursuing something else. In this way, the self-sacrificing renunciation of power became a power immeasurably greater than the power renounced. To use the language of game theory, renunciation became a winning strategy in the game of domination, as in the monastic orders of the Middle Ages.

“Now, though, it is all out in the open. The myths have been debunked, and the truth that they concealed is exposed to our view. Meaning is a fiction; the reality is power. As Harari puts it, modernity offers us a deal: ‘Give up meaning in exchange for power.’ There is no purpose in the world, only the unending chain of cause and effect. Hence human beings have no predetermined role, and we can use our knowledge as we please. This knowledge, which tells us what we are, also confers the power to change what we are. ‘On the practical level,’ therefore, ‘modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning.’ Instead of acquiring power through the invisible hand of faith, we can now seize it directly and compel the world to obey us.

“This does not mean that we will be particularly pleased with the outcome. Harari is skeptical of our progressivist illusions—the obsession with economic ‘growth,’ the transhumanist attempt to complete the ‘Gilgamesh project’ and to free us from death, the bland satisfactions of the consumer society, and the attempt to live for creature comfort alone. But he also has a more subtle response to the ‘modern deal,’ which ‘offers us power, on condition that we renounce our belief in a great cosmic plan that gives meaning to life. Yet when you examine the deal closely, you find a cunning escape clause. If humans somehow manage to find meaning without predicating it on some great cosmic plan, this is not considered a breach of contract.’

“The name of this escape clause is humanism, ‘a revolutionary new creed that conquered the world during the last few centuries.’ It is a creed that exists in many forms—liberal, socialist, evolutionary, and even nationalist. It has led us into the great destructive wars of the twentieth century and into the horrors of totalitarianism but also into the modern free economy with its unprecedented prosperity and the expansion of wealth across the globe. But ‘what will happen,’ Harari asks, ‘once we realise that customers and voters never make free choices, and once we have the technology to calculate, design or outsmart their feelings? If the whole universe is pegged to the human experience, what will happen once the human experience becomes just another designable product, no different in essence from any other item in the supermarket?’

“That sentence is typical of the tone of voice with which Harari addresses the future. The Brave New World scenario has been presented many times before, and the response has usually been ‘Don’t go there.’ But Harari thinks that knowledge will take us there, anyway. He believes that a yet-newer religion is arising from the wreck of humanism. He calls it ‘dataism.’ As we develop forms of artificial intelligence that do not merely take over our cognitive abilities but enhance them beyond our grasp, we will rapidly find ourselves marginalized, our distinctively human capacities no longer useful for running the great machine that we set in motion by accident when Alan Turing gave us his definition of the mind. A machine has a mind, Turing maintained, if it responds to human questioning exactly as a human would. For Harari, ‘Once the Internet-of-All-Things is up and running, humans might be reduced from engineers to chips, then to data, and eventually we might dissolve within the torrent of data like a clump of earth within a gushing river.’”

Read the rest. 

Photo: Hong Kong

Poem: Richard Kenney, “Science Today”   

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

Dense Plasma Device developed at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. c. 1968, via Wikimedia Commons

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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Fascinating Pigeons, the New Treasures of Pompeii, and the Mystery of “Skeleton Lake”

Bones near Roopkund Lake. Photo by Schwiki, via Wikimedia Commons

Helen Macdonald reviews a “joyous” book on pigeons: “A decade ago I went to a racing pigeon club meeting with my boyfriend of the time, who lived in a bungalow on a farm in the Midlands and kept a loft of Janssens, checkered blue racing pigeons resembling town pigeons that had spent too much time at the gym. The meeting was in a Portakabin on what I think was a carp fishery in the middle of winter. There were stands of damp alders outside, and a ferocious easterly that rocked the cabin with every squall. Inside was a hissing Calor gas fire, steamy fug on the windows, and a crowd of men sitting on plastic chairs. Apart from my boyfriend they were all over fifty. There wore padded fishing waistcoats, tracksuits, tattoos and leather jackets with pigeon badges, and they talked at length of feeding regimes, wind directions, release points, the trials of flying the north road. Old personal scores were raised and not settled, much was made of the misguided love of bird protectionists for murderous bloody hawks, and I was silent the entire time. I was fascinated by everything I heard, but for all the contribution I made, I could have been a pigeon. Though of course then I’d have been of far more interest to the men in the room. Which is fair. Pigeons are incredibly interesting.”

The mystery of “Skeleton Lake”: “Hundreds of skeletons are scattered around a site high in the Himalayas, and a new study overturns a leading theory about how they got there.”

Facebook to hire journalists—again: “On Tuesday, the platform announced plans to hire what it is describing as a ‘small team’ of veteran journalists – likely fewer than 10 at the outset – to choose content that will be featured in a section of the news tab, a much-discussed product Facebook will begin testing on portions of its U.S. user base toward the end of October.”

Adam Kirsch replaces David Yezzi as poetry editor at The New Criterion.

The new treasures of Pompeii: “From gorgeous artworks to grimacing corpses, archaeologists are still uncovering the truth about life—and death—in the doomed city.”

Essay of the Day:

“Russians revere literature more than anyone else in the world,” Gary Saul Morson writes in The New Criterion. Great writers “see into the essence of things,” and what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn saw and recorded in The Gulag Archipelago is how easy it is to commit acts of great evil:

“Solzhenitsyn reports how it was mere chance that he did not become supremely evil. When he was finishing his education, he and his classmates were offered the opportunity to do something nobler than physics, a job of great moral importance which also entailed social prestige and material reward: they could attend the NKVD training school. These students had been raised to regard the NKVD as a supremely moral organization. Realizing how close he came to becoming an interrogator himself, Solzhenitsyn reflects: ‘And just so we don’t go around flaunting too proudly the white mantle of the just, let everyone ask himself: “If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner?” It is a dreadful question if one answers it honestly.’

“Solzhenitsyn turned down this coveted offer out of some inner intuition ‘not founded on rational argument. . . . It certainly didn’t derive from the lectures on historical materialism we listened to: it was clear from them that the struggle against the internal enemy was a crucial battle front, and to share in it was an honorable task. . . . It was not our minds that resisted but something inside our breasts. People can shout at you from all sides: “You must!” But inside your breast there is a sense of revulsion, repudiation. I don’t want to. It makes me feel sick. Do what you want with me. I want no part of it.’ And yet, he reflects, some of us did join, and if enough pressure had been applied, perhaps all of us would have. In that case, ‘what would I have become?’ The passage that follows is one of the book’s most famous: ‘So let the reader who expects this book to be a political exposé slam its covers shut right now. If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? . . . From good to evil is one quaver, says the [Russian] proverb. And correspondingly, from evil to good.’

“The contrary view, held by ideologues and justice warriors generally, is that our group is good, and theirs is evil. ‘Evil people committing evil deeds’: this is the sort of thinking behind notions like class conflict or the international Zionist conspiracy. It is the opposite of the idea that makes tolerance and democracy possible: the idea that there is legitimate difference of opinion and we must not act as if God or History had blessed our side as always right. If you think that way, there is no reason not to have a one-party state. The man who taught me Russian history, the late Firuz Kazemzadeh, used to say: remember, there are always as many swine on your side as on the other.

“A heart is not good or evil once and for all. Sometimes a heart ‘is squeezed by exuberant evil[;] and sometimes it shifts to allow space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances . . . close to being a devil, at times to sainthood.’ We are never closer to evil than when we think that the line between good and evil passes between groups and not through each human heart.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Ankogel

Poem: Morri Creech, “The Sentence”

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