Andreas Huyssen on Gunter Grass

In The Nation:

I, too, felt betrayed by a literary idol of my youth when I first heard about Grass’s membership in the Waffen SS. I, too, was tempted to ride the moral high horse: How could Grass, famous since the 1960s for accusing high officials in the West German government of hiding their Nazi past and insisting on public penance, keep this secret for so long? How could he have left even his biographers with the assumption that, like so many other teenagers in 1944-45, he served only as a Flakhelfer, a youth conscript, rather than as a member of the Waffen SS? And why reveal it now, just as his memoir was hitting the market? Was it the need of a writer approaching his 80th birthday to come clean, or was it a clever marketing strategy? Or was it simply his wish, as he claims unapologetically in the memoir, to have the last word, denying his many opponents the pleasure of finding out first? For discovery was inevitable. The POW papers documenting his Waffen SS membership are unambiguous. It was just that nobody, not even his biographers, had bothered to check the details.

The reasons for Grass’s silence lie safely hidden in the memoir. And in his public statements since Peeling the Onion was published in Germany late last summer, he has been no more forthcoming about his decision to remain silent about this aspect of his past, further fueling the outrage of his critics (not a few of them disappointed admirers). To many, his legacy not just as a public intellectual but as a writer has been seriously damaged. After my initial reaction, however, I felt increasingly reluctant to point the finger at someone whose self-righteous moralizing about German politics had annoyed me time and again over the past few decades–particularly his stubborn insistence on the division of Germany as permanent penance for the crimes of Nazism and his often shrill anti-Americanism. To moralize about Grass’s lack of candor just seemed too easy.

A Civil War Among the Jihadis?

In Le Monde Diplomatique:

There is a widening split between armed Islamists, as two recent incidents show. In March the local Taliban in the Pakistani tribal zone of South Waziristan killed foreign fighters from the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Almost simultaneously, infighting broke out between the Islamic Army in Iraq and the local branch of al-Qaida. The confrontation between the two strategies – and two different ideologies – of the Islamist struggle is getting more violent.

Many of the foreign volunteers who have flooded into Pakistan and Iraq since 2003 are Takfirists, who regard “bad Muslims” as the real enemy (see ‘Takfirism: a messianic ideology’). Indigenous Islamic resistance groups have reacted uncomfortably to the growth of this near-heresy within al-Qaida which, by waging war against Muslim governments, has brought chaos to the populations it claims to defend.

Adam in wonderland

From The Guardian:

Book After five years in Paris, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik returns to the Big Apple with Through the Children’s Gate and falls in love all over again.

Adam Gopnik, who has been writing for the New Yorker since 1986, is best known for his book Paris to the Moon, a collection of dispatches from the French capital which he wrote from 1995 to 2000. It’s a beautiful book. Gopnik is a brilliant writer in any case – warm, witty, wise and learned – but his outsider status in France brought something extra to proceedings: a certain beadiness, perhaps. Now here’s another book about a city, New York, to which he and his wife and their two children returned seven years ago and, to a degree, his outsider status is intact. Gopnik, though an American, grew up in Canada, and first came to New York, eyes on stalks, as a boy and then, to live, as a postgraduate.

For him, New York is not so much home as the ultimate achievement. But even if this were not so, as he points out right at the start, it’s impossible to ‘own’ New York, even if its canyons are imprinted on your DNA. As a boy, he found the idea of it so wonderful that he could only ever imagine it as ‘some other place, greater than any place that would let me sleep in it’. Installed in his great aunt Hannah’s Riverside Drive apartment, the city was still a distant constellation of lights that he had not yet been allowed to visit. ‘Ever since, New York has existed for me simultaneously as a map to be learned and a place to aspire to – a city of things and a city of signs, the place I actually am and the place I would like to be even when I am here.’

Anyone who has ever visited New York will recognise this feeling, but still, it’s reassuring to have it articulated by one so urbane and clever.

More here.

bee-ing there

Gaden S. Robinson reviews two new books on bees, in TLS:

Bee Man’s obsession with the bee, for that is what it is, is founded on two most profitable premisses, honey and wax. The former is the sweetest natural substance widely available (Wilson points out that dates are sweeter) -it is a luxury in any society and was treasured throughout recorded history, its popularity only waning slightly with the advent of cheap sugar. The use of beeswax for candles, an obviously later innovation than the use of honey as a food, was a significant step forward in lighting technology. Beeswax burns cleanly and brightly with a steady flame and a pleasant smell, all features distinctly wanting in candles or wick-lamps burning animal fats or oils.

It is probable that man’s taste for honey can be traced deep into his primate ancestry.

Gorillas and chimpanzees raid bees’ nests as do monkeys and baboons. The Asian sun bear’s claws may be adapted as much for breaking into hollow trees to feed on honey as to find insect larvae. And an African bird, the honeyguide, has evolved calls and behaviour to lure ratels or honey badgers to a bees’ nest.

More here.

performance art par excellence

Hubert Duprat in Cabinet:




The images above illustrate the results of an unusual artistic collaboration between the French artist Hubert Duprat and a group of caddis fly larvae. A small winged insect belonging to the order Trichoptera and closely related to the butterfly, caddis flies live near streams and ponds and produce aquatic larvae that protect their developing bodies by manufacturing sheaths, or cases, spun from silk and incorporating substances—grains of sand, particles of mineral or plant material, bits of fish bone or crustacean shell—readily available in their benthic ecosystem. The larvae are remarkably adaptable: if other suitable materials are introduced into their environment, they will often incorporate those as well. …

After collecting the larvae from their normal environments, he relocates them to his studio where he gently removes their own natural cases and then places them in aquaria that he fills with alternative materials from which they can begin to recreate their protective sheaths. He began with only gold spangles but has since also added the kinds of semi-precious and precious stones (including turquoise, opals, lapis lazuli and coral, as well as pearls, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds) seen here. The insects do not always incorporate all the available materials into their case designs, and certain larvae, Duprat notes, seem to have better facility with some materials than with others. Additionally, cases built by one insect and then discarded when it evolves into its fly state are sometimes recovered by other larvae, who may repurpose it by adding to or altering its size and form.

More here.

A Mind for Sociability

From Science:

Mind Humans are highly social, but we don’t get pally with just anybody. Before forming relationships with other people, we normally size them up to see how trustworthy they are. A new study suggests that this behavior stems from an evolutionary reorganization in a part of the brain responsible for detecting other people’s emotions. The amygdala, a small, almond-shaped area deep within our brains, appears to be essential in helping us read the emotions of others. Last year, for example, scientists noted that the amygdalas of patients with autism, which is characterized by decreased social interaction and an inability to understanding the feelings of others, have fewer nerve cells, especially in a subdivision called the lateral nucleus. To see how the amygdala varies in different primate species, a team led by anthropologist Katerina Semendeferi of the University of California, San Diego, measured brain area in autopsy material from 12 ape and human specimens. The researchers found that although the human amygdala was much larger than those of the apes, it was actually the smallest when compared to overall brain size.

In humans, however, the lateral nucleus occupied a bigger fraction of the amygdala, and was larger compared to overall brain size, than in the other species. The team concludes that the amygdala’s lateral nucleus has enlarged relative to the rest of the structure since the human line split from the apes, and that this enlargement might reflect the “social pressures” of living in large groups.

More here.



It’s easy to say which nation has the fastest trains (France) or the largest number of prime ministers who’ve probably been eaten by sharks (Australia), but it’s impossible to know which country has the best writers, let alone the best poets. Even so, if cash money were on the line, you’d find few critics willing to bet against Poland. Since 1980, the Poles have two Nobel Prize-winning poets, 34 pages in the “Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry” (11 better than France, a country with 25 million more people) and enough top-flight artists to populate dozens of American creative writing departments, probably improving many of them in the process. The 19th-century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid said he wanted to see “Polish symbols loom / in warm expanding series which reveal / Once and for all the Poland that is real” — for decades now, those symbols and that reality have been hard to ignore.

Of course, for most of us, discovering “the Poland that is real” means reading works translated from Polish. The most significant such translation this year — possibly in many years — is Zbigniew Herbert’s “Collected Poems, 1956-1998” (Ecco/HarperCollins, $34.95), translated by Alissa Valles, which was published in February to (almost) universal acclaim.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

Remnants of a Quiet Life


If no one has ever made a corollary to the effect that scientists who do elegant work in the laboratory often write elegantly as well, let me do so here. A good experiment is like a poem; it aims for essence. To the list of brilliant scientist-writers who come to mind — Lewis Thomas, E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould — add Professor Sir Henry Harris (to give him his full due) of Oxford University.

Harris’ contribution to cell biology is immense: With one colleague, he developed the technique of cell fusion foundational to somatic cell genetics; with another, he devised the first systematic method for measuring genes along the human chromosome; with a third, he showed that certain genes are able to suppress malignancy. None of this would merit mention in a book review if he didn’t also write stories that open a world unknown to most of us — one that displays the rarefied intellectual culture of Oxford (and perhaps any great university) in all its human glory and failure.

more from the LA Times here.



Many of my New York City friends find my enthusiasm for Paterson, New Jersey, a little baffling and somewhat perverse. For many years I admired the place from afar, as a literary icon, of all odd things, because of my college research on William Carlos Williams. Paterson also has a resonance with contemporary national politics: two of the September 11 hijackers, Nawaf al Hamzi and the enigmatic, mild-looking, soft-featured rural Saudi Hani Hanjour, who piloted American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, lived in Paterson briefly.

In its crumbling melting pot isolation, virtually ignored by the rest of the country, Paterson appears to be an ongoing American experiment, but it is far from clear to the casual observer whether the experiment is working out. As in many of the less gentrified cities of the Eastern Seaboard, violent crime is endemic, but the city remains irrepressibly energetic. The city does not look like America thinks America is supposed to look, and yet it is a very American place.

from 3QDer, good friend, and Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University, J.M. Tyree. More at AGNI here. For a link to the Flux Factory project “Paterson”, go here.

Our War on Terror

From The New York Times:

Cover190 The day after the 9/11 attacks, President Deorge W. Bush declared the strikes by Al Qaeda “more than acts of terror. They were acts of war.” Bush’s “war on terror” was “not a figure of speech,” he said. Rather, it was a defining framework. The war, Bush announced, would begin with Al Qaeda, but would “not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” The global war on terror, he said, was the “inescapable calling of our generation.”

Six years later, most Americans still rightly believe that the United States must confront Islamic terrorism — and must be relentless in preventing terrorist networks from getting weapons of mass destruction. But Bush’s premises have proved flawed, and the war-on-terror frame has obscured more than it has clarified.

More here.

Why It’s Hard to Admit to Being Wrong

From NPR:

Mistakes200We all have a hard time admitting that we’re wrong, but according to a new book about human psychology, it’s not entirely our fault. Social psychologist Elliot Aronson says our brains work hard to make us think we are doing the right thing, even in the face of sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Excerpt from the book:

Half a century ago, a young social psychologist named Leon Festinger and two associates infiltrated a group of people who believed the world would end on December 21. They wanted to know what would happen to the group when (they hoped!) the prophecy failed. The group’s leader, whom the researchers called Marian Keech, promised that the faithful would be picked up by a flying saucer and elevated to safety at midnight on December 20. Many of her followers quit their jobs, gave away their homes, and dispersed their savings, waiting for the end. Who needs money in outer space? Others waited in fear or resignation in their homes. (Mrs. Keech’s own husband, a nonbeliever, went to bed early and slept soundly through the night as his wife and her followers prayed in the living room.) Festinger made his own prediction: The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecy—who awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren’t going to die at midnight—would quietly lose their faith in Mrs. Keech. But those who had given away their possessions and were waiting with the others for the spaceship would increase their belief in her mystical abilities. In fact, they would now do everything they could to get others to join them.

More here.

A War in the Heart of India

Ramachandra Guha in The Nation:

Screenhunter_03_jul_28_0131In the history of independent India, the most bloody conflicts have taken place in the most beautiful locations. Consider Kashmir, whose enchantments have been celebrated by countless poets down the ages, as well as by rulers from the Mughal Emperor Jahangir to the first prime minister of free India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Or Nagaland and Manipur, whose mist-filled hills and valleys have been rocked again and again by the sound of gunfire.

To this melancholy list of lovely places wracked by civil war must now be added Bastar, a hilly, densely forested part of central India largely inhabited by tribal people. In British times Bastar was an autonomous princely state, overseen with a gentle hand by its ruler, the representative on earth–so his subjects believed–of the goddess Durga. After independence, it came to form part of the state of Madhya Pradesh and, when that state was bifurcated in 1998, of Chattisgarh (a name that means “thirty-six forts,” presumably a reference to structures once maintained by medieval rulers).

The forts that dot Chattisgarh now take the form of police camps run by the modern, and professedly democratic, Republic of India. For the state is at the epicenter of a war being waged between the government and Maoist guerrillas. And within Chattisgarh, the battle rages most fiercely in Bastar.

More here.

Stop Trying To ‘Save’ Africa

Uzodinma Iweala in the Washington Post:

Screenhunter_01_jul_28_0122Last fall, shortly after I returned from Nigeria, I was accosted by a perky blond college student whose blue eyes seemed to match the “African” beads around her wrists.

“Save Darfur!” she shouted from behind a table covered with pamphlets urging students to TAKE ACTION NOW! STOP GENOCIDE IN DARFUR!

My aversion to college kids jumping onto fashionable social causes nearly caused me to walk on, but her next shout stopped me.

“Don’t you want to help us save Africa?” she yelled.

It seems that these days, wracked by guilt at the humanitarian crisis it has created in the Middle East, the West has turned to Africa for redemption. Idealistic college students, celebrities such as Bob Geldof and politicians such as Tony Blair have all made bringing light to the dark continent their mission. They fly in for internships and fact-finding missions or to pick out children to adopt in much the same way my friends and I in New York take the subway to the pound to adopt stray dogs.

More here.

Aristotle’s Email – Or, Friendship In The Cyber Age

Tim Madigan in Philosophy Now:

AristotleIn Book VIII of his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle categorizes three different types of friendship: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, and friendships of the good. Friendships of utility are those where people are on cordial terms primarily because each person benefits from the other in some way. Business partnerships, relationships among co-workers, and classmate connections are examples. Friendships of pleasure are those where individuals seek out each other’s company because of the joy it brings. Passionate love affairs, people associating with each other due to belonging to the same hobby organization, and fishing buddies fall into this category. Most important of all are friendships of the good. These are friendships based upon mutual respect, admiration for each other’s virtues, and a strong desire to aid and assist the other person because one recognizes their essential goodness.

The first two types of friendship are relatively fragile. When the purpose for which the relationship is formed somehow changes, then these friendships tend to end. For instance, if the business partnership is dissolved, or if you take another job, or graduate from school, it is more than likely that no ties will be maintained with the former friend of utility. Likewise, once the love affair cools, or you take up a new hobby or give up fishing, the friends of pleasure will go their own ways.

More here.

Daily Rant and Sarcasm Fix

A daily rant from Rantasaurus Rex:

Your disillusioned co-worker

So you claim to have developed some self-awareness finally.

Too bad you didn’t have any when you got mad at an innocent remark. You claim not to hold grudges, but you certainly blew it up to epic proportions.

Too bad you didn’t have any when you decided to get involved in a situation that had nothing to do with you. You grossly over-estimated your abilities as a peace maker.

Too bad you didn’t have any when you sent out snarky emails. Any reaction to your nastiness never elicited an apology. You were just “being honest”.

I really doubt your self-awareness. I think it’s more likely just more of your general self-centeredness. You are neither nice, nor honest. You’re just a bitch.

More here.

Doomsday Men

Robert Hanks reviews Doomsday Men: The Real Dr. Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon by P. D. Smith, in the Financial Times:

Being so accustomed to the idea of manmade apocalypse, it’s easy to forget what a novelty it is. It really only entered the collective consciousness at the same time that it became technologically feasible, in the 1950s. To be precise, the idea entered US homes on February 26 1950, when, on an American radio talkshow, the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard raised the possibility of a cobalt bomb which would envelop the world in a cloud of radioactive dust, poisoning every living thing. This is the weapon that is detonated at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove.

In Doomsday Men, P.D. Smith sets out to show how Szilard, and the rest of us, arrived at this seeming end-point – a prehistory of the atomic age. Three narrative strands intertwine through the first half of the book. One is the history of physics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – the Curies’ discovery of radium, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the realisation of the immense energy locked up in matter. Alongside this runs a history of military technology, the successive “superweapons” which, it was asserted, would bring an end to war: first by aerial bombardment, then poison gas, then germ warfare. The actual effect was the opposite – instead of making war less feasible, these weapons simply extended its reach, placing civilian populations in the front line.

More here.

This is England

Manohla Dargis in the New York Times:

27england600A soulful blast from the past sparked by heart and a throbbing beat, “This Is England” returns us to 1983, when Ronnie and Maggie ruled their roosts with Teflon finesse and an iron grip. The place is a quiet town where rude graffiti litter the walls and teenage skinheads loiter, dressed in jeans, Ben Sherman shirts and Doc Martens boots, looking for something, anything, to do. The Falklands War has just ended, but another battle simmers on the home front, fueled by unemployment, rage, nationalism and the old ennui.

A modest, near-flawless gem, “This Is England” is the fifth feature by the young British director Shane Meadows, doing his best work since he first hit the festival scene in the mid-1990s with his hilarious, raw-hewn shorts “Small Time” and “Where’s the Money, Ronnie?” Like most of his films the new one takes place in the East Midlands, in England’s midsection, where Nottingham and Derby are, and where Mr. Meadows was born and, in early adolescence, became a skinhead. By turns gentle and brutal, “This Is England” is a humbly, if insistently political, autobiographical homage to that lost world of youth as well as a lament for its hopes, pleasures and passionate camaraderie.

More here.  [Thanks to Asad Raza.]

The Storm Around Avraham Burg

In the New Yorker, David Remnick on the former speaker of the Knesset and head of the World Zionist Organization, Avraham Burg, and how his falling out with the Israeli Left, Right and Center:

Burg has a fairly standard left-leaning view of the Palestinian question: even now, with Hamas in control of Gaza, the longer Israel delays in coming to terms with a sovereign Palestinian state, the more Palestinian society will radicalize and embrace maximalist, jihadi ideologies, and the more Israeli society will lose its moral sense. But some of the views that Burg expressed in the interview [in Ha’aretz] were far from standard. He told Shavit that civil disobedience would have been preferable to the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto and that Israel should give up its nuclear weaponry in exchange for an unspecified “deal” with its Arab neighbors. Israel’s “law of return,” which allows any Jew around the world to immigrate and become a citizen, was “dynamite” in the Arab world, he said, and needed to be reëvaluated. One subject that especially infuriated [Avi] Shavit, and provoked countless letters to the editor, e-mail screeds, and editorial-page rebuttals, was Burg’s depiction of the European Union as an almost irresistibly attractive “biblical utopia” and his flouting of the fact that he holds a French passport, because his wife is French-born, and voted in the recent French elections. When Shavit asked Burg if he recommended that all Israelis acquire a second passport, Burg replied, “Whoever can”—a moment of determined cosmopolitanism. Shavit sarcastically called Burg “the prophet of Brussels.”