Saturday, March 2, 2024

Gauguin and Polynesia

Michael Prodger at Literary Review:

Today, says Thomas, ‘it feels difficult just to look at a Gauguin painting, without being told what to think’. The instructions tell us that he was ‘a sexual predator in life and a colonialist in his art’. Thomas’s aim is not to launder Gauguin’s reputation or undo recent decades of feminist art history and postcolonial studies but to eliminate some of the anachronism that inevitably arises when the past is examined, and judged, by contemporary mores.

There is no doubt that Gauguin was a deeply flawed individual. He was, says Thomas, ‘narcissistic … arrogant, brusque and often socially inept’ and a man who ‘never stopped concocting plans to live cheaply, make art, promote it and win renown and reward’. ‘“Gaugin” has become a negative icon,’ he writes, ‘less a body of work or a life, more a sign for a combination of artistic genius, colonial appropriation and sexual abuse.’ But Thomas believes he was more than this. 

more here.

How the World Made the West

Steven Poole at The Guardian:

“Western civilisation” would not exist without its Islamic, African, Indian and Chinese influences. To understand why, Quinn takes us back in time, beginning at the bustling port of Byblos in Lebanon in about 2000BC. It was the middle of the bronze age, which “inaugurated a new era of regular long-distance exchange”. Carbon dating techniques applied to recent archaeological findings provide compelling evidence about just how “globalized” the Mediterranean already was, 4,000 years ago. Welsh copper went to Scandinavia, and Cornish tin as far as Germany, for the forging of bronze weapons. Beads of Baltic amber, found in the graves of Mycenaean nobles, were made in Britain. A thousand years later, trade up and down the Atlantic seaboard meant that “Irish cauldrons became especially popular in northern Portugal”.

With such relentless trade and travel comes, naturally, cultural commingling. “Overseas exchange meant that Cretans could pick and choose from different cultural options, and they did,” Quinn remarks. Cultural appropriation was not yet an affront; indeed, it could be a strength, as we learn later from Polybius’s remark about the upstart Romans: “They are unusually willing to substitute their own customs for better practice from elsewhere.”

more here.

What Is Human Energy?

Richard Cohen in Lapham’s Quarterly:

William Ewart Gladstone was Britain’s prime minister four times between 1868 and 1894, a member of Parliament for more than sixty years, a brilliant and passionate orator, an accomplished writer, and an indefatigable social reformer. Lord Kilbracken, his private secretary, estimated that if a figure of 100 could represent the energy of an ordinary man and 200 that of an exceptional one, Gladstone’s energy would be represented by a figure of at least 1,000.

…There are over a dozen common forms of energy, as usually itemized, from chemical, gravitational, and electromagnetic to nuclear, thermal, and wind. It is a formidable register—but human energy rarely appears in such listings. When set against those other categories, what do we mean by the term, anyway? The word energy itself comes from the ancient Greek ἐνέργεια, meaning “activity.” Aristotle said it was a condition that describes the capacity to do work. More recently, human energy has been similarly defined as the amount of stamina, vigor, or “juice” a person has to engage in a particular activity. None of this, unfortunately, takes us very far. There is obviously a difference between a person full of gusto and joie de vivre and a person with significant actual productivity. Marcel Proust spent much of his adult life lying in bed, but his masterwork, À la recherche du temps perdu, has 1,267,069 words in it, double the number in War and PeaceVoltaire spent eighteen hours a day writing or dictating to secretaries, eventually completing an output covering two thousand works; he sustained himself by drinking, so it was said, fifty cups of coffee a day. But while such prodigious feats are all about get-up-and-go, it is not something, a chemical reaction, but someone who has to do the getting up and going.

More here.

The Mysteries and Quirks of Human Memory

Erica Goode in Undark:

AUTHORS DON’T GET to choose what’s going on in the world when their books are published. More than a few luckless writers ended up with a publication date of Sept. 11, 2001, or perhaps Nov. 8, 2016, the day Donald Trump was elected. But Charan Ranganath, the author of “Why We Remember: Unlocking Memory’s Power to Hold on to What Matters,”was more fortunate. His book went on sale last month, not long after the Department of Justice released a report describing President Joe Biden as an “elderly man with a poor memory” who, in interviews, was “struggling to remember events,” including the year that his son Beau died.

The special counsel’s report immediately became a topic of intense discussion — disputed by the White House, seized on by many Republicans, analyzed by media commentators, and satirized by late-night television hosts. But for Ranganath, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis, who for decades has been studying the workings of memory, the report’s release was a stroke of luck. His book, which dispels many widespread but wrongheaded assumptions about memory — including some to which that special counsel Robert K. Hur appears to subscribe — could easily have been written as a corrective response.

If Ranganath has a central message, it is that we are far too concerned about forgetting.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Traveling Through the Dark

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
the road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all —my only swerving—
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

William Stafford
Literature and the Writing Process
Prentice Hall, 1996

Friday, March 1, 2024

How “The Prophet” Made Kahlil Gibran a Household Name in America

Joan Acocella at Literary Hub:

What made The Prophet so fantastically successful? At the opening of the book, we are told that Almustafa, a holy man, has been living in exile, in a city called Orphalese, for twelve years. (When The Prophet was published, Gibran had been living in New York, in “exile” from Lebanon, for twelve years.) A ship is now coming to take him back to the island of his birth. Saddened by his departure, people gather around and ask him for his final words of wisdom—on love, on work, on joy and sorrow, and so forth. He obliges, and his lucubrations on these matters occupy most of the book.

Almustafa’s advice is not bad: love involves suffering; children should be given their independence. Who, these days, would say otherwise? More than the soundness of its advice, however, the mere fact that The Prophet was an advice book—or, more precisely, “inspirational literature”—probably ensured a substantial readership at the start. Gibran’s closest counterpart today is the Brazilian sage Paulo Coelho, and his books have sold nearly a hundred million copies.

Then there is the pleasing ambiguity of Almustafa’s counsels. In the manner of horoscopes, the statements are so widely applicable (“your creativity,” “your family problems”) that almost anyone could think that they were addressed to him.

More here.

Health Effects of Cousin Marriage: Evidence From U.S. Genealogical Records

Sam Hwang, Deaglan Jakob, and Munir Squires at SSRN:

Cousin marriage rates are high in many countries today. We provide the first estimate of the effect of such marriages on the life expectancy of offspring. By studying couples married over a century ago, we observe their offspring across the lifespan. Using US genealogical data to identify children whose parents were first cousins, we compare their years of life to the offspring of their parents’ siblings. We find that marrying a cousin leads to more than a three-year reduction in offspring life expectancy. This effect is strikingly stable across time, despite large changes in life expectancy and economic environment.

More here.

An interview with poet Fady Joudah

From the Boston Review:

In 2007 Louise Glück selected Fady Joudah as the winner of the distinguished Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. In a foreword to his debut poetry collection published the following year, The Earth in the Attic, she called Joudah a “lyric poet in whom circumstance and profession . . . have compelled obsession with large social contexts and grave national dilemmas.” Since then, Joudah has published five more collections of poetry, won numerous awards, and translated several volumes of poetry by Palestinian writers, among them Mahmoud Darwish, perhaps the best-known Palestinian poet in the English-speaking world.

Born in Texas to parents of the Palestinian diaspora, Joudah spent his early life in Libya and Saudi Arabia before returning to the United States to complete medical training. He now lives in Houston, where he works as an internal medicine physician while continuing to publish poetry.

More here.

How humans lost their tails — and why the discovery took 2.5 years to publish

Ewen Callaway in Nature:

“Where’s my tail?”

Geneticist Bo Xia asked that question as a child and it was on his mind again a few years ago, while he was recovering from a tailbone injury during his PhD at New York University (NYU) in New York City. Xia and his colleagues now have an answer. The researchers identified a genetic change shared by humans and other apes that might have contributed to their ancestors’ tail loss, some 25 million years ago. Mice carrying similar alterations to their genomes had short or absent tails, the researchers found — but that insight was hard won. The work was published on 28 February1: nearly 900 days after being submitted to Nature and posted as a preprint, because of extra work needed to develop several strains of gene-edited mice and demonstrate that the genetic changes had the predicted effect.

“Respect to the authors,” says Malte Spielmann, a human geneticist at Kiel University in Germany, who reviewed the paper for Nature. “I’m incredibly excited about the fact that they’ve really pulled it off.”

The mice with no tails

Unlike most monkeys, apes — including humans — and their close extinct relatives don’t have tails. Their coccyx, or tailbone, is a vestige of the vertebrae that constitute a tail in other animals. Finding the genetic basis for this trait wasn’t what Xia, now at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, planned to devote his PhD to. But his coccyx injury, sustained during a cab ride, reinvigorated his tail curiosity.

More here.

The Roaring Twenties: Into the Past

Mark Asch at The Current:

The New York City of Raoul Walsh’s childhood was a place where giants walked the earth—and came to dinner. In his riotously unreliable 1974 autobiography, Each Man in His Time, the director recalls his father, Thomas Walsh, as an Irish subversive who shot his way out of Dublin, escaping on a ship bound for Spain and ending up in New York as a cutter for Brooks Brothers, where he dressed Edwin Booth for Hamlet and Teddy Roosevelt for San Juan Hill. Through his father, young Raoul allegedly brushed up against the greats—Mark Twain, Enrico Caruso, Buffalo Bill, Gentleman Jim, John L. Sullivan—some of whom would later populate his films. After his father died in 1937, Walsh writes, his hometown “was just another city without Big Tom.” But soon enough he would recreate the city of his memories on the “New York Street” of the Warner Bros. backlot.

That film—his first for the studio—was The Roaring Twenties, an epoch-spanning tall tale filled with the kind of composite characters and legendary incidents found in Walsh’s recollections.

more here.

A Hidden History of Europe’s Pre-Modernist Women Artists

Barry Schwabsky at The Nation:

It’s true that Caravaggio’s reputation as a revolutionary force in Italian art remains unmatched, but Artemisia Gentileschi now overshadows all the other artists who drew on his influence. Édouard Manet, likewise, may still be seen as the key figure in the emergence of modernism in 19th-century Paris, but among those who recognized and built on his achievement, Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot appear far more important today than they did 50 years ago; the specific qualities of their work, unshared by their contemporaries, have come into focus. Paula Modersohn-Becker outshines most of her German Expressionist colleagues. And while Jackson Pollock remains the Abstract Expressionist par excellence, Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell are now better appreciated than some of the male painters who were once accounted as his near-equals—Franz Kline, for example. Is just plain old “great” not great enough without the “supremely” added like a cherry on top?

I’m as happy as anyone can be for the chance to enjoy the work of a great artist, or a supremely great one, or even just an almost great one.

more here.

Friday Poem

Lightly, My Darling

It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and
lightly cope with them.

I was so preposterously serious in those days,
such a humorless little prig.
Lightly, lightly – it’s the best advice ever given me.
When it comes to dying even.
Nothing ponderous, or portentous, or emphatic.

No rhetoric, no tremolos, no self conscious
persona putting on its celebrated imitation
of Christ or Little Nell.
And of course, no theology, no metaphysics.
Just the fact of dying and the fact
of the clear light.

So throw away your baggage and go forward.
There are quicksands all about you,
sucking at your feet,
trying to suck you down into fear and
self-pity and despair.
That’s why you must walk so lightly.

Lightly my darling, on tiptoes and no luggage,
not even a sponge bag, completely unencumbered.

by Aldous Huxley

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Amitava Kumar on Finding Solace in the Words of Others

Amitava Kumar at Literary Hub:

When my kids were little, I was always afraid that they would die, but that was mostly nervous ignorance on my part, knowing nothing about the resilience of little bodies. I used to worry how an infant would be able to tell me what was wrong. But the real worry was about my parents. They had language—and still they would die.

My mother died in early 2014. During the years that followed, I understood that now it was my father’s turn. He was healthy and active, at least till the pandemic arrived, but I wasn’t taking chances. I read and took note of anything that writers wrote about the death of their fathers.

More here.

AI Could Actually Help Rebuild The Middle Class

David Autor in Noema:

In a recent interview with U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Elon Musk proclaimed artificial intelligence to be “the most disruptive force in history,” and noted that “there will come a point where no job is needed.” Last year, AI godfather Geoffrey Hinton advised people to “get a job in plumbing.”

The message seems clear: The future of work, for many of us, is imperiled. A recent Gallup poll found that 75% of U.S. adults believe AI will lead to fewer jobs.

But this fear is misplaced.

More here.

As the crisis of democracy deepens, we must return to liberalism’s revolutionary and egalitarian roots

Matthew McManus in Aeon:

Very few of us expected liberalism to have such a rocky 21st century. At the turn of the 20th, liberal ideology and liberal democratic political institutions seemed more legitimate and secure than ever before. Liberals had defeated their great geopolitical rivals on the fascist Right and the communist Left. How things change.

Over the past few decades, discontent and disdain for liberalism have spread across huge swathes of the globe, led by a resurgent Right-wing populism that denounced its materialism, universalism and libertine decadence. Wannabe strongmen like Victor Orban declared they were constructing new kinds of ‘illiberal democracy’ – a half truth, since the regimes would be illiberal, but not particularly democratic.

More here.