A continuous vibrato of brushstrokes

Jed Perl in The New Republic:

053105image_perlGoing through “Rembrandt’s Late Religious Portraits,” the extraordinary exhibition that was at the National Gallery in Washington this winter and is now at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles until August 28, I found myself drawn deeper and deeper into the daunting and sometimes baffling variety of Rembrandt’s painterly approach, which involves not only the brush bristles but also the palette knife and the wooden end of the brush and perhaps fingers as well. When the art historian Otto Benesch wrote about these canvases half a century ago, he described “a continuous vibrato of brushstrokes, flecks and scratches with the brush stick, nervous and utterly alive.” The secret of this aliveness has everything to do with Rembrandt’s unwillingness to settle on a method or a system. The protagonists in his late paintings–figures from the Bible or the classical past, or his contemporaries, or family members, or the artist himself–live in a world where all the old Renaissance oppositions between light and shade or volume and void, which had been set in a finely plotted perspectival space, have dissolved. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this dissolution and the revolution that it provokes have taken place at once, for we can feel a simultaneous thinning and thickening of the atmosphere, a fading of all fixed or known structures followed swiftly by the emergence of a new, shocking concreteness.

More here.

Christopher Hitchens vs. Peter Hitchens

From The Guardian:

Hitchensdavidlevene436346zxczxPugnacious commentators Christopher and Peter Hitchens have not spoken to each other since a row over a joke about Stalinism four years ago. For this special issue of G2, produced live in Hay in collaboration with an audience of festival-goers, we brought the estranged brothers together to discuss sibling rivalry, politics and reconciliation. Just don’t ask them to shake hands…

Female audience member Excuse me. I’m not usually awkward at all but I’m sitting here and we’re asked not to smoke. And I don’t like being in a room where smoking is going on.

CH (smoking heavily): Well, you don’t have to stay, do you darling. I’m working here and I’m your guest. OK . This is what I like.

IK Would you just stub that one out?

CH No. I cleared it with the festival a long time ago. They let me do it. If anyone doesn’t like it they can kiss my ass.

(Woman walks out)

More here.  [Thanks to Timothy Don.]

Love means always having to say you’re sorry

From CNN:

A British couple who hold the world record for the longest marriage said their success was down to a glass of whisky, a glass of sherry and the word “sorry.”

Percy and Florence Arrowsmith married on June 1, 1925 and will celebrate their 80th anniversary on Wednesday.

Guinness World Records said Tuesday the couple held the title for the longest marriage and also for the oldest married couple’s aggregate age.

“I think we’re very blessed,” Florence, 100, told the BBC. “We still love one another, that’s the most important part.”

Asked for their secret, Florence said you must never be afraid to say “sorry.”

More here.

Scrabble, Gender, and Evolution–or perhaps another “just so” story

John Tierney, in the New York Times:

“For a quarter-century, women have outnumbered men at Scrabble clubs and tournaments in America, but a woman has won the national championship only once, and all the world champions have been men. Among the world’s 50 top-ranked players, typically about 45 are men.

The top players, both male and female, point to a simple explanation for the disparity: more men are willing to do whatever it takes to reach the top. You need more than intelligence and a good vocabulary to become champion. You have to spend hours a day learning words like ‘khat,’ doing computerized drills and memorizing long lists of letter combinations, called alphagrams, that can form high-scoring seven-letter words.

. . .

The guys who memorize these lists have a hard time explaining their passion. But the evolutionary roots of it seem clear to anthropologists like Helen Fisher of Rutgers University.

‘Evolution has selected for men with a taste for risking everything to get to the top of the hierarchy,’ she said, ‘because those males get more reproductive opportunities, not only among primates but also among human beings. Women don’t get as big a reproductive payoff by reaching the top. They’re just as competitive with themselves – they want to do a good job just as much as men do – but men want to be more competitive with others.'”

Snap, Buckle, Pop: The Physics of Fast-Moving Plants

From The National Geographic:

Plants Fleet-footed animals, such as gazelles and cheetahs, aren’t the only livings things that rely on speed for their survival. The same is true for some plants and fungi.  Consider the Venus flytrap, the poster child for carnivorous plants: Its jaw-like leaves can ensnare insects in an eye-blurring one-tenth of a second. Other plants employ similar lightning-quick movements, if not to hunt, than to spread their seeds, squirt pollen, or shake off predators. Plants don’t have muscles. So how can some plants move so quickly?

Using the laws of physics, two scientists have detailed the mechanical design principles that govern these speedy plant moves. “To understand biology, it is always useful to come up with general principles as we have in this case,” said Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan, a professor of applied mathematics and mechanics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mahadevan and his student, Jan Skotheim, report their findings in tomorrow’s issue of the research journal Science.

More here.

Watching New Love as It Sears the Brain

From The New York Times:Love

New love can look for all the world like mental illness, a blend of mania, dementia and obsession that cuts people off from friends and family and prompts out-of-character behavior – compulsive phone calling, serenades, yelling from rooftops – that could almost be mistaken for psychosis. Now for the first time, neuroscientists have produced brain scan images of this fevered activity, before it settles into the wine and roses phase of romance or the joint holiday card routines of long-term commitment.

In an analysis of the images appearing today in The Journal of Neurophysiology, researchers in New York and New Jersey argue that romantic love is a biological urge distinct from sexual arousal. It is closer in its neural profile to drives like hunger, thirst or drug craving, the researchers assert, than to emotional states like excitement or affection. As a relationship deepens, the brain scans suggest, the neural activity associated with romantic love alters slightly, and in some cases primes areas deep in the primitive brain that are involved in long-term attachment. The research helps explain why love produces such disparate emotions, from euphoria to anger to anxiety, and why it seems to become even more intense when it is withdrawn.

More here.

India emerging as hot destination for medical tourists

India_medicalIndia is emerging as one of the favourite destinations for health tourists in Asia with strengths in cardiac care, joint replacement and eye care. This is stated in an UNCTAD expert paper on General Agreement in Trade in Services (Gats). It said India attracted over 100,000 health tourists in 2002, most of whom had visited the country for cardiac care, joint replacements and eye care. Most of the visitors were from the Middle East, Britain and neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan. Thailand is the top destination for health tourism receiving rich visitors from the US and UK. Thailand has strength in cosmetic surgery, organ transplants, dental treatment and joint replacements.

According to the paper, Indian health care providers (doctors, nurses, technicians) deliver services in the Middle East on short-term bilateral contracts. The service providers have had their training in developed countries. India has also emerged as the most important source country registered under the H1A category to the US. As many as 81,000 Indian nurses went to the USA under H1A visa as compared to 15,838 for China and 5509 for the Philippines.

More here.

Johnny Depp to help fire Hunter Thompson from cannon

From the AFP:

The ashes of legendary “gonzo journalist” Hunter S. Thompson will be fired from a cannon housed in a giant fist-shaped monument paid for by movie star Johnny Depp, a friend told AFP.

Depp, who played the counter-culture icon in the 1998 film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” is financing the 45-meter (150-foot) steel monument that will be the centrepiece of Thompson’s August 20 memorial service.

The service, to be held in the Colorado hamlet where the 67-year-old Thompson shot himself on February 20, will also be attended by Hollywood luminaries Sean Penn and Jack Nicholson, said Thompson’s friend Troy Hooper.

More here.

Style over function for stegosaur spikes

From Geotimes:

Stegoagi The spikes and plates of the Jurassic Stegosaurus may look like armor that could have staved off intrepid predators, but defense most likely was not their main purpose. According to new research, these bony growths on the back and tail were actually meant for species recognition — so that one Stegosaurus could pick his friends out of a crowd. “Paleontologists have been trying to determine what the plates and spikes of stegosaurs were for, for over a century,” says Russell Main, lead author of a new study published in Paleobiology this month. “The hypotheses have included defense, thermoregulation and display, [for] either sexual or species recognition,” he says.

In previous studies, scientists ruled out the defense mechanism as the primary function, as did Main, who is now a graduate student at Harvard University, and his co-authors Kevin Padian of the University of California, Berkeley, Armand de Ricqles of the Collège de France, Paris, and John Horner from Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont. Although their fearsome appearance may have played an accessory role in protecting the large herbivores, upon examination of the bone structure of the plates and spikes, the researchers determined that the relatively light construction was not robust enough to act as a deterrent to predators, Main says. “

More here.

The Lobotomist

Raj Persaud reviews The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and his Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness by Jack El-Hai, in the British Medical Journal:

Aside from the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the US neurosurgeon Walter Freeman ranks as the most scorned physician of the 20th century. The operation Freeman refined and promoted, the lobotomy, still maintains a uniquely infamous position in the public mind nearly 70 years after its introduction and a quarter of a century after its disappearance…

But back in 1936, when Freeman performed his first leucotomy, the only alternative treatment for severe mental illness was prolonged institutionalisation, and the procedure did seem to liberate many patients from this fate. How else to explain why, in the United States alone, more than 40 000 such procedures would be carried out over the next few decades, and why it remained in use well into the 1970s?

More here.

The one about The Sheikh and the Model

Deyan Sudjic on the architectural predilictions of the powerful, and the architects willingness to service them:

I started to collect images of the rich and powerful leaning over architectural models in a more systematic way after I suddenly found myself in the middle of one. The elder statesman of Japanese architecture, Arata Isozaki, had hired an art gallery in Milan owned by Miuccia Prada, for a presentation to an important client. Outside, two black Mercedes cars full of bodyguards were parked on either side of the entrance, alongside a vanload of carabinieri. Inside was another of those room-size models. Isozaki described it as a villa. In fact it was a palace for a Qatari sheikh, who was his country’s minister for culture. And the palace had to do rather more than accommodate the sheikh, his family, his collection of rare breed animals and his Ferraris, his Bridget Rileys and his Hockney swimming pool, as well as his Richard Serra landscape installation.

Each piece of the building had been allocated to an individual architect or designer. Ron Arad was doing one room, Tom Dixon another, John Pawson a third. Isozaki’s assistants were marshalling them for an audience with the sheikh. The architects waited, and they waited, drinking coffee and eating pastries dispensed by waiters in black tie until the sheikh finally arrived, almost two hours late.

Here was the relationship between power and architecture in its most naked form, a relationship of subservience to the mighty as clear as if the architect were a hairdresser or a tailor. In fact the villa never got built, and the last report I heard of the sheikh was that he was under house arrest while police investigated details of his purchases of millions of dollars-worth of art on behalf of the government.

More on “The Edifice Complex” at this week’s Observer Review

We remember the Medici with dazzlement

Edmund Fawcett reviews Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence by Tim Parks, in The Guardian:

Despite the trail of financial and political failure they left, we remember the Medici with dazzlement largely for two reasons. One is that they were very good at landing on their feet. The other is they were brilliant at spin.

Their bank, which opened in Florence in 1397, lasted less than 100 years. Its glory days were over even before Cosimo, its most capable head, died in 1464. As money ran out, Cosimo’s successors, Piero the Gouty and Lorenzo the Magnificent, relied ever more on manipulating Florence’s superficially republican constitution to hold on to princely influence and power. When enemies united to banish the Medici in 1494, their bank was already dead in the water, victim of mismanagement and a wider banking downturn.

The Medici soon slipped back into Florence as puppets of the Habsburg dynasty. They employed artists, notably Vasari, to present the Medici as Florence’s natural rulers and its art as Italy’s best. The Medici now put their wealth into land, which they did little to improve, and married their daughters into the sovereign houses of Europe. They ruled without glory and often oppressively until the line died out in 1737…

More here.

How technology has transformed the sound of music

Alex Ross in The New Yorker:

Ninety-nine years ago, John Philip Sousa predicted that recordings would lead to the demise of music. The phonograph, he warned, would erode the finer instincts of the ear, end amateur playing and singing, and put professional musicians out of work. “The time is coming when no one will be ready to submit himself to the ennobling discipline of learning music,” he wrote. “Everyone will have their ready made or ready pirated music in their cupboards.” Something is irretrievably lost when we are no longer in the presence of bodies making music, Sousa said. “The nightingale’s song is delightful because the nightingale herself gives it forth.”

Before you dismiss Sousa as a nutty old codger, you might ponder how much has changed in the past hundred years. Music has achieved onrushing omnipresence in our world: millions of hours of its history are available on disk; rivers of digital melody flow on the Internet; MP3 players with ten thousand songs can be tucked in a back pocket or a purse. Yet, for most of us, music is no longer something we do ourselves, or even watch other people doing in front of us. It has become a radically virtual medium, an art without a face. In the future, Sousa’s ghost might say, reproduction will replace production entirely. Zombified listeners will shuffle through the archives of the past, and new music will consist of rearrangements of the old.

More here.

Babies help prevent cancers

Janelle Miles in The Weekend Australian:

The more babies a woman has, the less likely it is that she will get breast, colorectal, ovarian and uterine cancers, Australian research suggests.

Scientists at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) found increasing numbers of pregnancies were associated with a significantly reduced risk of certain cancers.

“The more children you have, the more protective it gets,” said medical health statistician Steven Darlington.

“It seems that an increase in the hormones produced during pregnancy are protecting against cancer, but we’re not quite sure exactly how or why that happens.”

He studied more than 1.2 million Swedish women, including about 25,000 who had delivered twins, to determine the effect of reproductive history on a number of different cancers.

More here.

Negotiations: 1: What puts the ‘aargh’ in art?

At 9pm on May 7th, 2005, in an art space in Queens, New York City, three novelists were enclosed within three individual habitats designed and constructed by three teams of architects/artists. For the past twenty-one days, this has been their reality. They are not allowed to leave the building and they are granted ninety minutes of free time each day, for which they must punch a time clock to gain. In seven days time, they are to emerge from their habitats having completed a novel. The name of this conceptual art project, created and hosted by Flux Factory, is Novel: A Living Installation.

This work emanates from the Flux Factory collective. In case you haven’t heard, Flux has taken some heat in the press for their work, most notably from the editorial page of the New York Times. The Times’ criticism amounted to a claim that this project trivializes the act of writing, because it takes writing out of the hands of the writers and spatiates it, mechanizes it, and tethers it to time: “part of the meaning of making a novel is commanding the time to do so and owning the workings of imagination, however they pace themselves.” So says the Times. The criticism is unfair, in my opinion but not because it is inaccurate.

The Flux oeuvre (and—full confession— I say this as a frequent collaborator on their projects) rests to some degree on exploiting the trivial, the absurd, and the happenstance. Flux makes you look at exactly what is in front of your face. (The Dadaists did the same thing.) As a result, their projects often run the risk of becoming gimmicky acts of self-promotion; but when they succeed they succeed either because they manage to transform the trivial and the everyday into something meaningful or because they manage to mine the trivial and the banal for the potential profundities they occlude. Many of their projects function as almost artistic analogues for Socratic irony. They are like gadflies on the ass of the art world.

In this regard, the criticism is unfair because it misses the point. Novel’s aim was never to re-enthrone writing as the queen of the arts and to produce three masterpieces of contemporary American fiction. The point was to remove the crown that writing wears and peer into its brain, to resituate writing as an obsessively mechanical process alongside the other obsessively mechanical processes that comprise the manufacturing of art objects.

Embedded in the criticism, then, is a notion that we may or may not agree with: that writing is most emphatically not an art form. The intention of the curators at Flux was to interrogate that very notion. There are three forces at play in this installation, three intentionalities. This first one is a conceptual force.

The second force at play in this installation, the second intentionality at work, is that of the architects who designed the writers’ habitats. Where space is empty, it is not space—it is nothingness. What I have always found fascinating about architecture is that it seems to have a unique ability to sculpt somethingness out of the nothingness of empty space. In that regard, the work of the architects has been the most under-discussed element of this project. For them, the installation was an exploration of space with the aim of creating new space; and the spaces they have carved (really, out of thin air) are not merely holding pens or empty frames for the work of the writers within them. They were made to give rise to new spaces of the imagination; they are the material politics that make possible the very work that transcends them.

The third force at play is the actual writing that the novelists are doing. They have asserted that their writing is paramount and has superseded the restrictions under which they are laboring. (An interesting discussion remains to be had about the point—or points—at which the formal restraints they have to deal with, restraints of space and time, have actually become opportunities for the liberation of the imagination…) As one of the three groups of artists involved in this project, the novelists (fed and housed for a month, with nothing to do other than write) have had perhaps the easiest task—if one thinks that being oneself is an easy task. But if what one is, is a writer, theirs has also been the most difficult task because, unlike much of what passes for art, you cannot fake writing. As a writer you can’t hide under bells and whistles and wisecracks; you can’t call it in; and you are obliged to work with the knowledge that you have been assigned a Sisyphean fate: Sisyphean not because it is futile, but because it will always remain, to some extent, unfinished and unfinish-able.

So what we are dealing with, in toto, are three forces at play, three intentionalities: the intentionality of the curators (conceptual), the intentionality of the architects (spatial), and the intentionality of the novelists (literary).

What puts the “aaargh” in “art”? My pet theory, which I am testing out when I look at Novel, is that art is the stuff that’s left over. It’s the thing that occurs when intentionalities collide, like flint and steel, when the intent of the artist meets the (often hidden) intent of the material with which she is to work. Art is not the material object that artists produce, it is not the concept or the space or the words we create as artists. It is the stuff that remains; the stuff we are left with after we have said or made or thought or written what we have to say or make or think or write. It is—to borrow a phrase from Slavoj Zizek—the “indivisible remainder” of the interaction between our intentions and our materials. If Novel succeeds as an artwork, then, it does so not because it creates a closed universe of meaning, but because it creates aporias in art, because it throws something up that escapes the intentions of any of the artists working within it.

Monday Musing: Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist

[Abbas Raza is filling in for J.M. Tyree, who is on vacation this week.]

Lolitacover_1As in the case of many sciency types, my mostly informal education in the humanities has been somewhat arbitrary and certainly very spotty. I can reliably amuse and horrify more erudite friends by reciting lists of authors and books I’ve never read. Fortunately, Nabokov is not on those lists. I say fortunately, and I mean it literally: in 1986 I was in Buffalo, New York, spending a few nights in the hospital with my mother who was having a back operation, and I needed something to read. Wandering into a nearby bookstore, I was looking for something by Naipaul in the alphabetically arranged fiction section when, purely by luck, I came upon Lolita. The name triggered only a vague memory of something salaciously exciting, and I picked it up. Thus began an obsession with Nabokov that reached its acme when (at the invitation of my dear friend and mentor Laura Claridge) I taught Lolita to the midshipmen (and women) at the United States Naval Academy a couple of years later. (This picture shows the paperback copy of the book I had bought that day, and not wanting to sully my lapel with adhesive, had affixed the hospital visitors’ sticker to its cover instead.)

Nabokovvladimir_1Nabokov’s (the name is stressed on the second syllable, so that it rhymes with “to talk of”) reputation in the world of letters is so gargantuan that it is easy to forget that he was an accomplished scientist. Nabokov was a serious entomologist; more specifically, a lepidopterist specializing in the identification and classification of a major group of butterflies, the Latin American Polyommatinae, of the family Lycaenidae, more popularly known as the “blues”. For six years in the 1940s, Nabokov held an appointment at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, as a Research Fellow. During this time he was responsible for organizing and supervising additions to their extensive butterfly collection. His enthusiasm for the difficultly precise minutiae of taxonomy can be gauged by the exuberant tone of the following passage in a letter to his sister Elena Sikorski in 1945:

My museum — famous throughout America (and throughout what used to be Europe) — is the Museum of Comparative Zoology, a part of Harvard University, which is my employer. My laboratory occupies half of the fourth floor. Most of it is taken up by rows of cabinets, containing sliding cases of butterflies. I am custodian of these absolutely fabulous collections. We have butterflies from all over the world; many are type specimens (i.e. the very same specimens used for the original descriptions, from the 1840’s until today). Along the windows extend tables holding my microscopes, test tubes, acids, papers, pins, etc. I have an assistant, whose main task is spreading specimens sent by collectors. I work on my personal research, and for more than two years now have been publishing piecemeal a study of the classification of American “blues” based on the structure of their genitalia (minuscule sculpturesque hooks, teeth, spurs, etc., visible only under a microscope), which I sketch in with the aid of various marvelous devices, variants of the magic lantern….

To know that no one before you has seen an organ you are examining, to trace relationships that have occurred to no one before, to immerse yourself in the wondrous crystalline world of the microscope, where silence reigns, circumscribed by its own horizon, a blindingly white arena–all this is so enticing that I cannot describe it.

(I cannot resist an aside on Nabokov’s false modesty: this I-cannot-describe-it Nabokov–after having just described looking through a microscope like no one else could–is the same one who is able effortlessly to evoke entire worlds of sensation out of the simplest possible raw material. Just look at this:

Without any wind blowing, the sheer weight of a raindrop, shining in parasitic luxury on a cordate leaf, caused its tip to dip, and what looked like a globule of quicksilver performed a sudden glissando down the center vein, and then, having shed its bright load, the relieved leaf unbent. Tip, leaf, dip, relief–the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it, a missed heartbeat, which was refunded at once by a patter of rhymes…

Nabokov wrote this to describe the birth of his first poem, which he wrote at age 14. I cannot describe it, indeed. And while we are still on the subject of Nabokov’s coy modesty, let me also quickly adduce this, from the afterword to Lolita–which, unlike Nabokov’s early work, was written in English:

My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses — the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions — which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

So much for Nabokov’s descriptive incapacity and his second-rate English.)

NabokovBack to Nabokov’s lepidoptery: even among many of those who know of Nabokov’s butterfly work, there is a lingering suspicion that he was essentially a dilettante in the field. This relegation of amateur status is not fair. At the time, the distinction between amateur and professional lepidopterist was not made as starkly as it might be today. Much serious work in the classification of animal and plant species was done by gentlemen-scholars, and in any case, as I have mentioned, Nabokov held a coveted academic appointment and was paid as an entomologist for six years by Harvard. As Brian Boyd shows in the second volume of his biography, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, though Nabokov had no formal education in entomology, his early fascination with and dedication to the study of butterflies eventually made him a world-class lepidopterist. Throughout his life whenever he had a chance, Nabokov visited museums of natural history to examine their butterfly collections. While he collected many and varied species, his scientific work was limited to the Polyommatinae on which he published more than a dozen technical papers, including “The Nearctic Forms of Lycaeides Hübner “; “Notes on the Morphology of the Genus Lycaeides“; “The Nearctic Members of the Genus Lycaeides Hübner,” and “Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae .” Nabokov’s contemporary scientific colleagues consistently acknowledged his expertise, and his classifications and other technical work have stood the test of time.

As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in an essay on Nabokov’s lepidoptery (not available online, but printed in his I Have Landed), another common objection to Nabokov’s lepidopterological work is that although it may have been competent, it does not compare with his prodigious literary achievements. This is true to the extent that Nabokov was not a theorist in science, and he is not responsible for significant scientific innovations. Having said that, one should not belittle the careful, precise, and painstaking work, requiring extensive training and practice, that it takes to accumulate scientific knowledge one small bit at a time. What data would theorists have to work with if not for the Nabokov’s of the world?

Butt49Nabokov discovered and named more than twenty genera, species, and subspecies of butterflies. These include Carterocéphalus canopunctátus NABOKOV 1941, and Cyllópsis pertepída avícula NABOKOV 1942 (pictured here on the right). In addition, many butterflies have been name for Nabokov by others, such as Cyllópsis pyrácmon nabokóvi MILLER 1974, and Nabokóvia HEMMING 1960, while yet others have been given Nabokov-related names like Madeleinea lolita BÁLINT 1993: “a polyommatine butterfly known from just one locality in Peru’s Amazonas department (Huambo). Only its males have been examined. They are blackish brown with iridescent metallic blue basal and medial diffusion.”

Nabokov himself, even after attaining monumental literary success with the American publication of Lolita in 1958, regularly expressed his lifelong ardor for lepidoptery. He says in Strong Opinions:

Frankly, I never thought of letters as a career. Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime — but I never expected it to be a source of income. On the other hand, I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum.

He once said, “I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is.” His literature and his scientific work share the same qualities of obsessive attention to minute detail, an unabashed respect for facts, and an almost painfully sharp appreciation of the aesthetic pleasures of small things, which would produce in him what he famously once described as “intolerable bliss.” I will give VN the last word:

“A Discovery”

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss
Poems that take a thousand years to die
But ape the immortality of this
Red label on a little butterfly.

Have a good week!

My other recent Monday Musings:
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President

Brain Region Linked to Metaphor Comprehension

From Scientific American:Metaphor

Metaphors make for colorful sayings, but can be confusing when taken literally. A study of people who are unable to make sense of figures of speech has helped scientists identify a brain region they believe plays a key role in grasping metaphors.

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego and his colleagues tested four patients who had experienced damage to the left angular gyrus region of their brains. All of the volunteers were fluent in English and otherwise intelligent, mentally lucid and able to engage in normal conversations. But when the researchers presented them with common proverbs and metaphors such as “the grass is always greener on the other side” and “reaching for the stars,” the subjects interpreted the sayings literally almost all of the time. After being pressed by the interviewers to provide deeper meaning, “the patients often came up with elaborate, even ingenious interpretations, that were completely off the mark,” Ramachandran remarks.

More here.

An imaginary “scandal”

Theodore Darlymple in The New Criterion:

A literary agent contacted Rahila Khan by post and asked to represent her. Until then, Miss Khan had refused to meet in person anyone with whom she dealt, or even to send a photograph of herself: but she agreed to meet the agent who wanted to represent her. The agent was surprised to discover that Miss Khan was actually the Reverend Toby Forward, a Church of England vicar. The vicar’s understanding of the tragic world of Muslim girls living in British slums, caught between two cultures and belonging fully to neither, possessing little power to determine their own fates, seems to be accurate. Indeed, he explores this world with considerable subtlety as well as sympathy.

The girls are vastly superior, morally and intellectually, to their white counterparts. Their problem is precisely the opposite of that of the white youths: far from nihilism, it is the belief in a code of ethics and conduct so rigid that it makes no allowances for the fact that the girls have grown up and must live in a country with a very different culture from that of the country in which their parents grew up.

I am certain that he is right that we can enter into the experience of other people. I confirm this each time I ask a Muslim patient who is resisting a forced marriage whether her mother has yet thrown herself to the ground and claimed to be dying of a heart attack brought on by disobedience. However miserable my patient may be, she laughs: for this is precisely what her mother has done, and it comes as a great relief to her that someone understands.

More here.

Jasper Johns: Catenary

Peter Schjedahl in The New Yorker:

“Jasper Johns: Catenary,” a large show of paintings, drawings, and prints at the Matthew Marks Gallery, is advertised as a return to form. In the opening sentence of the catalogue’s introduction, the art historian Scott Rothkopf writes, “Johns’s paintings had grown too full”—conceding, in a remarkable gambit of damage control, a widely felt distaste for the artist’s works of the nineteen-eighties and nineties, which were “jam-packed with signs of Johns’s life and art.” (Those signs included allusions to Leonardo, Grünewald, Duchamp, and Picasso; dolorous references to an unhappy childhood and encroaching death; recyclings of the artist’s signature motifs; and coy hints of private meaning.) Rothkopf hastens to his good news: “Johns wiped the slate clean.” Would that it were so. Johns has only reduced the number of elements in works that still bespeak self-imitative pastiche, and tied them together, almost literally, with real and drawn catenaries. (A catenary is the curve assumed by a cord hanging freely from two points.) Sagging strings cross most of the paintings, at times attached to thin wooden slats that may be hinged or cantilevered at the edges of a canvas. The new works do reëmphasize the cynosures of his painterly genius: tone and touch. Subtly varied, tenderly stroked grays in mixtures of oil paint and wax predominate. But those plangent qualities, once so moving, feel forced here.

More here.

The War Within Islam

Max Rodenbeck in the New York Times Book Review:

Aslan184These are rough times for Islam. It is not simply that frictions have intensified lately between Muslims and followers of other faiths. There is trouble, and perhaps even greater trouble, brewing inside the Abode of Peace itself, the notional Islamic ummah or nation that comprises a fifth of humanity.

News reports reveal glimpses of such trouble — for instance, in the form of flaring strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in places like Iraq and Pakistan. Yet the greater tensions, while similarly rooted in the distant past, are less visible to the wider world. The rapid expansion of literacy among Muslims in the past half-century, and of access to new means of communication in the last decade, have created a tremendous momentum for change. Furious debates rage on the Internet, for example, about issues like the true meaning of jihad, or how to interpret and apply Islamic law, or how Muslim minorities should engage with the societies they live in.

What is unfolding, Reza Aslan argues in his wise and passionate book, ”No god but God,” is nothing less than a struggle over who will ultimately define the sweeping ”Islamic Reformation” that he believes is already well under way across much of the Muslim world.

More here.