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Friday, December 4, 2020

Terry Southern’s Lucid Absurdities

Eric Been at JSTOR Daily:

Southern contained multitudes: He was a first-rate screenwriter, novelist, essayist, cultural tastemaker, critic, craftsman of the weird short-story, and a devotee of letter-writing (a mode he once called “the purest form of writing there is… because it’s writing to an audience of one”). One of Southern’s touchstones was the notion of the grotesque—he wanted to examine what disturbed people, pushing a macabre-showing mirror back in his audience’s face, and to muck through the modern American “freak show” at large.

Born in the cotton-farming town of Alvarado, Texas, in 1924, Southern went on to become a U.S. Army demolitions expert in World War II. After earning an English degree at Northwestern University, he subsequently studied philosophy in Paris at the Sorbonne, via the G.I. Bill. In France, after finishing up at school in the early fifties, Southern stayed in the Latin Quarter for a stint—enticed by existentialism, the city’s jazz scene, and the literary crowd he fell into.

more here.

On Don Mee Choi’s “DMZ Colony”

Jae Kim at the LARB:

When asked in an interview with Words Without Borders to give an example of an untranslatable word in Korean, Choi answers that duplicatives, “adverbs or adjectives that are repeated to form a pair,” poses a challenge. “Such doubling is the norm in Korean, and it accentuates the sounds, which can also have the phonetic or mimetic effects of onomatopoeia.” Her solution is often to use a similar tactic in English, such as “swarmsswarms” or “waddlewaddling.” In “Orphan Kim Seong-rye,” she uses the doubling technique twice: “Oblong oblong” and “circled and circled.” While the latter sounds natural in English, the former is more difficult to digest. It demands the reader’s attention, and the reader lingers over the phrase — oblong oblong, oblong oblong… — until all that remains is the sound.

more here.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Don DeLillo’s “The Silence”

Tess McNulty in The Point:

Flip through Don DeLillo’s massive corpus, and you may notice that the word “silence” crops up, again and again, at crucial moments. It’s the first word he spoke to the public when, in 1982, he gave his first, reluctant interview. Why, asked the critic Tom LeClair, did DeLillo shun the public eye? “Silence, exile, cunning, and so on,” the author responded, quoting Stephen Dedalus, tongue in cheek. It’s a word that then wended through his work, uttered by his secretive, mysterious men—“Silence,” says Underworld’s Nick Shay, “is the condition you accept as a judgment on your crimes.” It’s a word that, finally, became the target of his most serious critic, James Wood. Far from quiet, Wood complained in a 2000 essay, DeLillo’s books simply could not shut up. Underworld in particular—his vast 1997 Cold War epic—seemed gripped by the delusion that it “might never have to end.” “There are many enemies, seen and unseen, in Underworld,” wrote Wood, “but silence is not one of them.

White Noise was DeLillo’s breakout bookhis first—in 1985—to inspire loud chatter. “Postmodernism, Postmodernism!” the critics all cried, as the author ran his twelve-year-long victory lap, publishing LibraMao II and then Underworld to resounding applause. These, the 1980s and 1990s, were the decades of DeLillo’s canonization.

More here.

At 21, Ashwin Sah has produced a body of work that senior mathematicians say is nearly unprecedented for a college student

Kevin Hartnett in Quanta:

On May 19, Ashwin Sah posted the best result ever on one of the most important questions in combinatorics. It was a moment that might have called for a celebratory drink, only Sah wasn’t old enough to order one.

The proof joined a long list of mathematical results that Sah, who turned 21 in November, published while an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (he posted this new proof just after graduating). It’s a rare display of precocity even in a field that celebrates youthful genius.

“He has done enough work as an undergraduate to get a faculty position,” said David Conlon of the California Institute of Technology.

The May proof focused on an important feature of combinatorics called Ramsey numbers, which quantify how big a graph (a collection of dots, or vertices, connected by edges) can get before it necessarily contains a certain kind of substructure.

More here.

Nico Muhly: Throughline

The San Francisco Symphony performs the world premiere of Throughline, a new SF Symphony commission composed by Nico Muhly with performances by Esa-Pekka Salonen, all eight Collaborative Partners, and the San Francisco Symphony. Watch the full program here.

Thorstein Veblen, The Gadfly of American Plutocracy

Simon Torracinta in the Boston Review:

In 1893 financial panic triggered a four-year depression in the United States, then the most severe in the nation’s history. Bank runs, shuttered factories, and plummeting wheat prices put millions out of work. In Chicago alone, as many as 180,000 workers were jobless by the end of the year.

An attempt by the Pullman Palace Car Company in the city’s South Side to impose a 30 percent wage cut on its workforce in the spring of 1894 led to a walkout by the newly formed American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs (not yet famous as the socialist firebrand who would later win 6 percent of the vote in the 1912 presidential election). It quickly escalated into full-scale boycott of luxury Pullman cars by hundreds of thousands of railroad workers across the country—the infamous Pullman strike, which took place between May and July. With the railways paralyzed, President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago, and pitched battles—at times lethal—erupted in working-class neighborhoods. “This is no longer a strike,” the Chicago Tribune thundered: “This is a revolution.” That same spring, hundreds of desperate, unemployed workers, calling themselves the Army of the Commonwealth of Christ, marched from Ohio to the White House, demanding the federal government offer relief in the form of an ambitious public works program to be funded by the unprecedented issuance of fiat money. Another 700 workers from the northwest forcefully commandeered a train to make the trip to D.C., fending off marshals until federal troops intercepted them in Montana.

This was the atmosphere surrounding the campus of the University of Chicago, then only a few years old, which had just hired a young Norwegian-American economist named Thorstein Veblen two years earlier.

More here.

On Louis MacNeice

Seamus Perry and Mark Ford discuss the life and work of Louis MacNeice, the Irish poet of psychic divisions and authoritative fretfulness.

Mark Ford: I think his best poems all reveal that the pressures of his autobiography in terms of the effect on him of his fairly disastrous early childhood is something which features in poem after poem of the ones which we still read today. MacNeice wrote enormous amounts, given the fact he died in his mid fifties. His Collected Poems is some six hundred pages, and there were all the radio plays, enormous amounts of criticism as well. He was a reviewer. He really lived the literary life. But in his most powerful moments he does seem to always be returning to the bleakness of his childhood and the kind of divisions which had inculcated in him.

Listen to the podcast at the LRB here.

Marguerite Duras

Rachel Kushner at Artforum:

A certain scene between Marguerite Duras and Susan Sontag, told to me by someone who was friends with both and seated between them while Susan was visiting Paris, goes like this: Duras had just made a new film, and, in keeping with her character, she spoke at Susan in a monologic séance, going on and on about herself, her new film, and critical reactions to her new film. After speaking for most of the occasion they were together, Duras suddenly quieted and seemed to notice Sontag qua Sontag, and not just any old audience to her tirade. “Susan! My goodness. I have only talked and talked, and I haven’t let you speak a word! Please, tell me everything.” At this, Susan—or can we even say “poor Susan”—beamed like a child who was finally getting the attention she’d sought. Duras continued, “I want every detail! What did you think of my new film?”

I never tire of Duras, just as Duras never tired of Duras, and this year brought us two new beautiful English translations of raw and refined Durasianisms, Me & Other Writing (Dorothy Project) and Duras/Godard Dialogues (The Film Desk of Metrograph Cinema).

more here.

Food allergies: the psychological toll

Roxanne Khamsi in Nature:

Just before Thanksgiving in November 2005, paediatrician Ruchi Gupta gathered some parents of children with food allergies in an office building. She aimed to collect data on their knowledge and beliefs about allergies, but the conversation quickly turned emotional. One parent described how her family wouldn’t be joining the big Thanksgiving gathering because of her son’s allergy. “She started crying and she was very emotional about it, and said they were just going to do Thanksgiving on their own,” recalls Gupta, director of the Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research at Northwestern and Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. “The whole focus group became pretty intense and tissue boxes came out.” The meeting was planned to last an hour, but people stayed well into a third. Other parents opened up about their distress. “They started talking about their experiences in every realm of life: people who didn’t believe them, even in their own families. A lot of times the grandparents would say, ‘Oh, you’re just over-protective. We didn’t have this in my day’.”

Gupta decided that this was no coincidence; people with food allergies, and their families, needed more mental-health support. She conducted six more focus groups over the next six months, before publishing a paper detailing some of the anxiety felt by parents of children with food allergies1. It described how parents experience “emotions of fear, guilt, and even paranoia”. In the years since, she has continued to research the effects of food allergies on families, and last year published an analysis of available mental-health resources2.

More here.

How (And Why) to Measure Your Own Happiness

Arthur C. Brooks in The Atlantic:

On a scale of 0 to 10, I’d say my happiness ranks at about a 6. I’d guess my wife’s is at least a 9. I try not to envy her natural Spanish alegría, but sometimes it’s hard. Still, I’m glad to know I’m a 6, because, as a famous management maxim puts it, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” This is generally used in reference to business operations, but as a social scientist, I can assure you that it works for life operations as well. If you want to improve an aspect of your life, you need to be able to assess progress toward your goal—and that means measuring it. The goal of this column is to help you manage and improve your happiness. No surprise, then, that I make frequent reference to studies and surveys that measure happiness. A number of people have asked me whether quantitative happiness measures are really accurate and reliable—and it’s a reasonable question.

…The most dangerous use of happiness self-tests is social comparison. Researchers have long found that social comparison is a killer of joy, but you hardly need a study to tell you that—just spend a few hours browsing Instagram and see how bad you feel about yourself. This is because you are comparing your happiness with your perception of others’ happiness, as depicted in information of dubious accuracy. Nothing good comes of this. Shakespeare sums up the happiness-comparison problem in his Sonnet 29. The bard, after cursing what he calls his “outcast state,” compares himself to “one more rich in hope, / Featured like him, like him with friends possessed, / Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope.” The product of this envy? “With what I most enjoy contented least.” In sum: If you compare your happiness to others’—and covet theirs—you will lose the happiness you do have.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Over 2,000 Miles from the Border & No Concordance

​​Dad recalls the afternoon, the man
called to say the fee for my import
had raised. Then, dispel the thought
of guarantees. Then remind him all
polleros worked like that:
nothing personal, just business.
……………………… It was 1997.
……………………… Business was good.
In those days, dad paid
to ride the train beneath
the East River with tokens;
the soles of his feet grew thick.
Beneath the elevated rails,
pockmarked boys hocked phony
Socials. At the street carts, men
would wolf cordero down so fast
sometimes they’d swallow tin foil.
……………………… It was 1997.
……………………… Dad recalls
the familiar faces: albañiles
from Chiapas; electricians
from Guerrero; an arthritic
Oaxaqueño who peddled
miniature baseballs, neon
screwdrivers, the occasional
rumor of silverfish infestations;
of extramarital affairs;
the woman from India who paid
cien pesos al mes to sleep
on a kitchen table.
……………………… It was 1997.
……………………… Business was good
in New York. In the summer
before I arrived, Dad heard
of a raid. Upon discovering
62 indentured Mexicans, all
deaf-mutes, shoehorned
into a 4-bedroom apartment,
detectives remarked “The children
are in good condition, quite
charming.” The Red Cross brought
provisions. No arrests were made.
……………………… It was 1997.
……………………… At the precinct,
brought in for questioning,
62 sets of hands signed
furiously. Omitted from reports
was their first attempt
for help: a note
scribbled en español, folded
then hand-delivered
to the precinct. It was signed:
“I hope you have time
……………………… to read this.”

by Ricardo Hernandez
Muzzle Magazine

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Harold Bloom finally betrays how little he really understood literature

Philip Hensher in The Spectator:

Tennyson’s poem ‘Mariana’ has gone everywhere in the world since 1830. A professional scholar in Uruguay, Papua New Guinea or New Haven, Connecticut, reading the lines ‘Weeded and worn the ancient thatch/Upon the lonely moated grange’ might want to ask a few questions. Do English houses ever have moats? (Yes — Ightham Mote and Madresfield Court are famous examples.) Can we find houses with a humble thatch and also a moat? (A harder question – Tennyson’s poem set a vogue in landscape design as well as poetry.) Or, taking a different tack, where does the use of the word ‘moat’ as a verb come from? (Easy — ‘moated grange’ is from the poem’s subject, Measure for Measure.) What sort of word was it by 1830? (Harder — it comes up in translations with a taste for the archaic, and technical descriptions of architecture. Is it picturesque in a way that Shakespeare’s use isn’t?) These are interesting questions that might lead to some kind of enlightenment.

This is what Bloom has to say about it:

An English country house with moat seems rather singular. Doubtless they exist, though I have never seen one. Mariana’s grange and moat are Shakespeare’s in Measure for Measure, but only the line used as epigraph seems relevant.

Lazy, solipsistic, vague and plain wrong, this sums up the problem with Bloom’s criticism. There may be those who want to read about what Bloom didn’t know and couldn’t be bothered to find out, but I don’t believe their main interest is in literature.

More here.

Lab-grown meat to go on sale for first time

Damian Carrington in The Guardian:

Cultured meat, produced in bioreactors without the slaughter of an animal, has been approved for sale by a regulatory authority for the first time. The development has been hailed as a landmark moment across the meat industry.

The “chicken bites”, produced by the US company Eat Just, have passed a safety review by the Singapore Food Agency and the approval could open the door to a future when all meat is produced without the killing of livestock, the company said.

Dozens of firms are developing cultivated chicken, beef and pork, with a view to slashing the impact of industrial livestock production on the climate and nature crises, as well as providing cleaner, drug-free and cruelty-free meat. Currently, about 130 million chickens are slaughtered every day for meat, and 4 million pigs. By weight, 60% of the mammals on earth are livestock, 36% are humans and only 4% are wild.

More here.

The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

I should hate The Innovation Delusion. I’ve made a career as a futurist in Silicon Valley, helping big companies think about the business implications and commercial opportunities of emerging technologies. My father-in-law spent his career in the computer industry, my wife helps run her school’s “maker lab,” and my son graduated from d.tech, a high school that puts “design thinking” at the center of its curriculum. I have friends and relatives at Google, Apple, IDEO, Facebook, Intel, and Stanford. As Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell put it in their book, we are the class of people fluent in “innovation-speak,” “a language built for telling breathless stories of amazing creativity, incredible opportunity, and existential risk.” It’s “a sales pitch about a future that doesn’t yet exist,” they write. And, they add for good measure, it “is fundamentally dishonest.”

To which I say: Yeah guys, you’re right.

More here.

The last days of Trump

From New Statesman:

Since 2016, liberals have adopted a strategy of delegitimisation, condemning Mr Trump, and his supporters, for degrading political life. A grass-roots campaign of Democrats, Independents and Never-Trump conservatives, which describes itself as the “Resistance”, has also protested Mr Trump at every turn: over his treatment of women, the separation of immigrant families and his hostility towards Black Lives Matter.

Through mass activism, the Resistance has limited the president’s worst excesses, and during the election campaign it effectively mobilised large numbers of people to vote for Joe Biden. But far from recognising Mr Trump as a product of what came before, the Resistance has made him into an aberration, someone whose rise and fall says nothing about the conditions that made his presidency possible. “Resistance” has substituted for liberal self-criticism, and represents a shrunken politics, one based on sloganeering – “Never Trump” – and false historical comparisons, rather than on transformative ambition. No amount of alarmism can make up for the narrow stock of ideas with which the liberal left now hopes to restore the United States.

Those who warned about the coming of fascism may see in Biden a Democratic president who will redeem the original sin of Mr Trump’s victory in 2016. But while Mr Trump’s presidency may be over, the underlying problems that caused his political rise remain. Unless the Resistance can offer a transformative project, rather than a purely defensive one, the spectre of Trumpism will continue to haunt the republic.

More here.

Mindfulness is useless in a pandemic

Catherine Nixey in MIL:

I’d been looking forward to the meal for weeks. I already knew what I was going to eat: the rosemary crostini starter, then the lamb with courgette fries. Or maybe the cod. I planned to arrive early and sit in the window at the cool marble counter and watch London go by. In the warm bustle of the restaurant, the condensation would mist the pane. As a treat, I would order myself a glass of white wine while I waited for my friend. It won’t surprise you to hear that the meal never happened. Coronavirus cases started rising exponentially and eating out felt less like indulgence and more like lunacy. Then it became illegal to eat together at all. Soon it became illegal even to eat at a restaurant by yourself. Then everything shut.

The cost of these lost lunches has been totted up many times: the trains not taken, the taxis not flagged down, the desserts not eaten, the waiters not tipped. Then there is the emotional toll, too. Spirits are flagging, the lonely are getting lonelier, the world is wilting. Covid has already disrupted so much of how we live. It has altered something else, as well – time itself. Not so long ago, we had merely months and years. Things happened in November or in December, last year or this. Some events are so big that they divide the world into before and after, into the present and an increasingly alien past. Wars do this, and the pandemic has, too. Coronavirus has cut a trench through time.

The very recent past is suddenly another country. Now, amateur archaeologists of our own existence, we sort through our possessions and stumble on small relics from “then”, that strange place we used to live: a bus pass, a lipstick, a smart watch, a pair of shoes with the heels worn down, work clothes that, after just six months in stretchy active-wear, feel as stiff and preposterous as whalebone.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Maradona in Buenos Aires

He was a squat, curly-haired, pug-nosed man,
and he walked into the high-end asado restaurant
with five beautiful women and his manager,
the infamous Coppola, who father said, had led
Diego into “drogas.” I often wondered how
a man who could handle the pressure of a World Cup
could be led into drogas—but my father would
become enraged on this point, especially after Diego
laid in state at the Pink House, light blue and white
flags keeping the multitudes at a respectful distance
from the decrepit, bloated body of the soccer king.
I once approached the man himself, feigning I spoke
only English, so as to garner more respect, and
asked him, Coppola translated, to sign my used
airline ticket, a readable scrawl, and I went back
to our table, gave my father the ticket; he smiled
the forced smile of the ungrateful, and I took
another bite of a steak the size of South America.
There were poor faces pressed against the windows
of the restaurant, young men, boys, peeking in
to see Maradona, to ogle this ferocious little man
who was pressured into drogas, who scored a goal
with the hand of God to take the World Cup,
who single-handedly placed a backwater Italian town
centerstage, and who famously came from nothing,
de la nada, as if a man could come from nothing,
as if a player this great could ever be led to do
anything, to be anything less than boundless.

by Alejandro Escudé
Rattle Magazine, 11/29/20