Thursday Poem


I’m utterly helpless.
I’ll just have to swallow my spit
and adversity, too.
But look!
A distinguished visitor deigns to visit
my tiny, north-facing cell.
Not the chief making his rounds, no.
As evening falls, a ray of sunlight.
A gleam no bigger than a crumpled postage stamp.
I’m crazy about it! Real first love!
I try to get it to settle on the palm of my hand,
to warm the toes of my shyly bared foot.
Then as I kneel and offer it my undevout, lean face,
in a moment that scrap of sunlight slips away.
After the guest has departed through the bars
the room feels several times colder and darker.
This special cell of a military prison
is like a photographer’s darkroom.
Without any sunlight I laughed like a fool.
One day it was a coffin holding a corpse.
One day it was altogether the sea. How wonderful!
A few people survive here.
Being alive is a sea
without a single sail in sight.

by Ko Un
Songs for Tomorrow
Green Integer Books, 2009

The Earthspinner by Anuradha Roy – love, loss and longing

Sana Goyal in The Guardian:

Now at university in England, Sara looks back on her hometown in southern India. “This is the west,” where almost everything is within reach, but where she comes from, people have always known that “ordinary days can explode without warning, leaving us broken, collecting the scattered pieces of our lives”. Anuradha Roy’s carefully crafted fifth novel shows how, in such a place, things can change in extraordinary ways, even if new beginnings and worlds are hard to come by.

Elango is a Hindu potter. His dream is to create a terracotta horse; his crime is falling in love with a Muslim girl, Zohra, and wanting the “unbridgeable crevasse” between them to close (“the space between the two was a charnel house of burnt and bloodied human flesh, a giant crack through the earth that was like an open mouth waiting to swallow him”). What follows is a story of love, loss and longing; tradition, creation and destruction; and the invisible lines that divide humans, animals and the divine.

Told between the first and the third person, the novel revisits themes that readers of Roy will be familiar with: myth, memory and history. As in her previous novel, All the Lives We Never Lived, she engages with the epistolary form. But it is Roy’s longstanding fascination with the figure of the artist, who fathoms new objects from what the earth has to offer, that is fully fleshed out in this novel. As Sara, the narrator, recalls: “A caterpillar had escaped a fire and turned into a butterfly, and my clay had become my first cup on a new wheel. Anything was possible.” What propels the book forward is this constant brink of possibility and potential for transformation.

More here.

Why Dragons Dominated the Landscape of Medieval Monsters

Perry and Gabriele in Smithsonian:

The dragon resting on its golden hoard. The gallant knight charging to rescue the maiden from the scaly beast. These are images long associated with the European Middle Ages, yet most (all) medieval people went their whole lives without meeting even a single winged, fire-breathing behemoth. Dragons and other monsters, nights dark and full of terror, lurked largely in the domain of stories—tales, filtered through the intervening centuries and our own interests, that remain with us today.

As Halloween approaches, we’re naturally thinking about scary stories. Though horror today is most often about entertainment—the thrill of the jump scare or the suspense of the thriller—it hasn’t always been that way. In the European Middle Ages, monster stories served as religious teaching tools, offering examples of what not to do, manifestations of the threats posed by the supernatural and the diabolical, and metaphors for the evil humans do to one another.

Medieval people told tales about all kinds of monsters, including ghostswerewolves and women who turned into serpents on Saturdays. But dragons held a special place in both the modern imagination and the medieval one. As historian Scott Bruce, editor of the newly released Penguin Book of Dragons, explains, dragons in the medieval mindset stood “as the enemies of humankind, against which we measure the prowess of our heroes.” As such, they were neatly and easily folded into Christian tradition, “often cast … as agents of the devil or demons in disguise.”

More here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

On the assisted dying debate

Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:

A man is standing on the parapet of a bridge. He is about to jump. What should you do? Most people would agree that the moral act would be to talk to him to try to persuade him not to. Most people would also agree that giving him a push because “that’s what he wanted” would be committing murder.

Your grandmother is dying. She is in great pain, has only a few days to live and wants you to end her life now. It’s unlikely that most people could bring themselves to do that. But most would probably understand if you did accede to her wishes, however tormented you felt. And even more were a doctor to give her sufficient painkillers to allow her to die in peace.

The debate about assisted dying is one in which there are no simple answers; a debate in which we need to acknowledge that truth and moral decency lie on both sides and in which context is particularly important in judging what is right and wrong.

More here.

Genetic Sequencing Pinpoints the Origins of the Domestic Horse

Rasha Aridi in Smithsonian Magazine:

People have relied on the modern horse to plow fields, charge into battle and traverse long distances for millennia. Horses have transformed human societies with every stride. But scientists have struggled to answer the seemingly simple of question of when and where these animals were domesticated.

It took an international team of more than 160 scientists to pinpoint the origins of the modern horse’s domestication: between 4,200 and 4,700 years ago near the Volga and Don Rivers in southwestern Russia. The team reported their findings this week in the journal Nature.

More here.

Judith Butler: Why is the idea of ‘gender’ provoking backlash the world over?

Judith Butler in The Guardian:

In June, the Hungarian parliament voted overwhelmingly to eliminate from public schools all teaching related to “homosexuality and gender change”, associating LGBTQI rights and education with pedophilia and totalitarian cultural politics. In late May, Danish MPs passed a resolution against “excessive activism” in academic research environments, including gender studies, race theory, postcolonial and immigration studies in their list of culprits. In December 2020, the supreme court in Romania struck down a law that would have forbidden the teaching of “gender identity theory” but the debate there rages on. Trans-free spaces in Poland have been declared by transphobes eager to purify Poland of corrosive cultural influences from the US and the UK. Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul convention in March sent shudders through the EU, since one of its main objections was the inclusion of protections for women and children against violence, and this “problem” was linked to the foreign word, “gender”.

The attacks on so-called “gender ideology” have grown in recent years throughout the world, dominating public debate stoked by electronic networks and backed by extensive rightwing Catholic and evangelical organizations.

More here.

On The Parallels Between Walden And John Cage’s 4′33″

Robert Sullivan at Bookforum:

What is perhaps Cage’s most famous work, 4′33″, consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, and, like a shack on the edge of a transcendental pond (or the idea of one), 4′33″ is a framework, one that reminds me of the way Walden’s structure positions us to hear not just the sound of the wind at the pond but the sound of the wind vibrating the telegraph lines that ran across the edge of Walden’s mostly felled woods, the sound of man-moved sand shifting down the railroad embankment as ice thawed in spring. The world is animate in Walden, Thoreau word-painting what was invisible to the eyes but tangible to the body. I am reminded of Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, heightening the conversation between the visitor and the Great Basin’s sky, and of Charles Burchfield, whose paintings, made in and around Buffalo in the 1940s, don’t depict fields but the feeling of fields, their invisible vibrations. So Thoreau perceived space at the pond, listening to the wind in the telegraph poles, his ear pressed to the pole’s dead wood for sonic transformation—“its very substance transmuted,” he said.

more here.

The Formal Poetry of Anthony Hecht

Edward Hirsch at The Hudson Review:

Anthony Hecht had a daunting formality. He took a measured, classical approach to poetry that, at face value, could seem emotionally cool and intellectually distanced. It was easy to misunderstand his mannered approach to the lyric in the increasingly raucous world of American poetry of the 1960s and after. I liked him immediately when I met him in the early ’80s, but his demeanor put me in mind of T. S. Eliot, who, by all accounts, spoke with a dry, faintly concocted accent and always dressed as if he were going to High Church. As a Jewish American poet, there was a certain anxiety that shadowed Hecht’s style, a fear of exclusion, which he covered up with cunning wit and cultivated shine. He was an exceptional formal poet, like Richard Wilbur and James Merrill, with whom he is often grouped, but he was also a formalist with a difference.

more here.

Feast for the soul

J R Patterson in New Humanist:

Springtime on the West African coast. Nights, pleasantly warm and close, give way to searing daylight. By ten o’clock, the sun presses down upon the earth like a thumb, grinding everything beneath it into the dust that rises from the roads and thickens the air. It is a heat that hurts. People hide in the shade of mango trees or within the dark caverns of roadside shops; movement encourages a torrent of sweat.

Into this climate came Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, during which the observant abstain from all food and drink between sunrise and sunset. Those who must move – the men busting their guts making bricks, the women hauling buckets of water to vegetable patches along the river Gambia – take no water to slake their thirst, no food to ease their rumbling bellies.

I do not write to make fun of fasting, which is undertaken in some variation by much of the world’s population. But as the month-long deprivation descended on The Gambia, I wondered whether there was something beyond religious zeal that compels millions to deprive themselves of food in what could already be considered conditions of want. Could fasting create a societal relationship to food that extended beyond not having enough of it?

I profess no religion, and stem from a heritage that perceives religious (or even non-spiritual) fasting as eccentric behaviour. Early on, I looked up fasting online. “See list of ineffective cancer treatments,” the internet told me. It seems that this is good advice for some. There are groups – “breatharians” and “sungazers” among them – for whom fasting is a kind of panacea, a way to eradicate so-called toxins from the body. The fasting I saw in The Gambia was far from this idiocy, but the dedication required to temporarily forgo the needs of the body was similar.

In the west, gluttony barely registers as a problem.

More here.

The Greek gods — they’re just like us

Etelka Lehoczky in NPR:

If you tend to click on those trend pieces telling us what Gen Z is up to (heck, who doesn’t?) you’ve probably heard that the kids today are very into nostalgia. We’re told that twentysomethings are playing first-gen video games, reminiscing about Beanie Babies and decorating their in grandmillenial style. If you needed further proof that a sentimental vibe is thrumming through the zeitgeist, you’ll find it in the smash hit webcomic Lore Olympus. Racking up hundreds of millions of views since its debut in March 2018, Rachel Smythe’s stylish creation has helped propel the Korean comics platform Webtoon to worldwide success practically overnight. Sure, aspects of Lore‘s style may look cutting-edge — it’s obviously created entirely on a digital drawing app, for one thing, with no pen and paper in sight. But its inner heart is as backwards-looking as floral upholstery and reruns of Friends.

Lore Olympus is a retelling of Greek myths, particularly the myth of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, king of the underworld. Persephone’s story dominates this book, which collects episodes 1-25 (the webcomic is now on episode 178). But though the Persephone-Hades relationship is at its center, Smythe ponders and plays with virtually every other god and mortal we know from ancient mythology. As such, the unspoken theme that lurks in Lore — and, when you think about it, lurks in any work that updates a classic story — is a conservative one. It’s the idea that, no matter how much society has changed, classic stories are still relevant. They still have plenty to tell us because we’re not, at bottom, all that different from the people who dreamed them up hundreds of years ago. This contention seems to suggest a rather depressing corollary, though: Maybe those classic stories aren’t just relevant, they’re sufficient. Why do we need new stories at all? We’re still the same people.’

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Drone: The Pilot’s Wife in Church

She wears a kind of doily hair-pinned to her crown,
her glory, the pastor says. She stands and the hymn
is sung along with the keyboard, the electric
guitar and the lead singer, heavy eyeliner, a tear
in the voice. The pastor stands at the rail, waiting
on sinners, scanning the congregation.
What should she pray? That her husband’s hands
should stop shaking? That he should stop working
on the Sabbath? That he should stop having those dreams,
stop getting up and playing video games in the dark?
Stop turning out the lights and then talking?
Stop not talking? Stop hating her for listening?
Stop killing those men who kill us? Stop killing
those children who cluster around them? Stop
the women who he must watch collect the bodies,
parts of bodies, who are themselves sometimes nothing
but bodies? Stop watching the bodies get into carts,
into trucks, into the trunks of cars? Stop being paid
for watching, for locating, for prosecuting,
for firing? Stop fighting for the insurance to pay,
for the VA to pay, for the government to pay.
What should she pray? How can God answer?

by Kim Garcia
Brooklyn Quarterly, Issue 8

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Thoreau’s economics: the truly precious costs precious little

John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle in Psyche:

The word ‘economy’ evolved from the Greek root οἶκος. ‘Oikos’ had three interrelated senses in ancient Greece: the family, the family’s land, and the family’s home. These three, taken interchangeably, constituted the first or fundamental political unit in the ancient Greek world, especially in the minds of Greece’s hereditary aristocrats, for whom family mattered more than all other affiliations. The family, then and after, was viewed as the state in miniature, with its rules of order and its exemplars (of moral strength or moral incontinence).

Henry David Thoreau, knowing his Greek, loving puns and etymologies, and being a punctilious writer, was likely quite deliberate in the choice of ‘Economy’ as his title for the longest and first chapter in Walden (1854). By living in his spartan little pond house, his oikos, and getting this house in order, as it were, Thoreau meant to help others get their houses in order – and, house by house, family by family, give new life to society. The dry title hides a pun with a deep purpose, one that whispers: this is a book about a house, a simple one on a pond, but also a not-so-simple one, a disordered one, orbiting the Sun.

More here.

The Expansive Feminism Of Jacqueline Rose

Cora Currier at The Nation:

The fact that our political and inner lives cannot be separated, that political and psychic struggle can and should be one and the same, is a twist on the classic feminist adage that the personal is political, and for Rose, it also derives from her psychoanalytic method. Along with Juliet Mitchell, she is one of the foremost advocates for the relevance of Freud to feminism, and On Violence and On Violence Against Women draws from many of her earlier works merging psychoanalysis and feminist critique. In Rose’s view, psychoanalysis illuminates the violence of men’s and women’s “allotted sexual roles,” which in turn shows why we cannot simply equate masculinity with violence. Taking aim at radical feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin and contemporary writers of the trans-exclusionary ilk, Rose writes that “even while calling out masculinity in its worst guise, we allow to individual men the potential gap between maleness and the infinite complexity of the human mind.” In a similar vein, she notes that “it is because trans women [pry] apart the question ‘Who is a real woman?’ with such pain…that they should be listened to.” Across several chapters, she uses psychoanalysis and writing on trans experience to show places where this “stultifying ideology” of what men and women are meant to be breaks down. Faced with the expansion and proliferation of gender categories, which some people have found threatening, Rose is exhilarated.

more here.

Street Photography

Kim Beil at Cabinet:

City streets seemed eerily empty in the early years of photography. During minutes-long exposures, carriage traffic and even ambling pedestrians blurred into nonexistence. The only subjects that remained were those that stood still: buildings, trees, the road itself. In one famous image, a bootblack and his customer appear to be the lone survivors on a Parisian boulevard. When shorter exposure times were finally possible in the late 1850s, a British photographer marveled: “Views in distant and picturesque cities will not seem plague-stricken, by the deserted aspect of their streets and squares, but will appear alive with the busy throng of their motley populations.”

During COVID-19 lockdowns, streets and squares truly were plague-stricken and empty. Drones buzzed over the avenues, vacant save for ambulances. Photographers stood in the middle of once-busy boulevards, taking glamour shots of the apocalypse.

more here.

In a First, Surgeons Attached a Pig Kidney to a Human, and It Worked

Roni Caryn Rabin in the New York Times:

Surgeons in New York have successfully attached a kidney grown in a genetically altered pig to a human patient and found that the organ worked normally, a scientific breakthrough that one day may yield a vast new supply of organs for severely ill patients.

Researchers have long sought to grow organs in pigs that are suitable for transplantation into humans. Technologies like cloning and genetic engineering have brought that vision closer to reality in recent years, but testing these experimental organs in humans has presented daunting ethical questions.

So surgeons at N.Y.U. Langone Health took an astonishing step: With the family’s consent, they attached the pig’s kidney to a brain-dead patient who was sustained on a ventilator, and then followed the body’s response while taking measures of the kidney’s function. It is the first operation of its kind.

More here.

Where the Critics of Liberalism Go Wrong

Andrew Lynn in The Hedgehog Review:

Perhaps the most invigorated intellectual movements to gain steam during the Trump era occupied not the progressive left but the reactionary right. The conservative visions of Reagan, Goldwater, or Buckley have now receded into the pages of history, voicing only a whimper of protest. What stands in the wake of these older modes of conservatism is not yet fully determined, but various modes of populism, authoritarianism, nationalism, cable news antagonisms, and conspiracy-driven paranoia now contend for whatever will come next.

One stream attracting the interest of the more intellectually minded has been dubbed postliberalism. Postliberal promoters have so far populated the backchannels of the conservative and religious intelligentsia, often among marginalized faculty members at well-established universities. They write think pieces and savvy tweets, which not surprisingly have earned them a minimal foothold in the conservative landscape at large.

More here.