Dispatches: Anthony Minghella’s Talent

The writer and director Anthony Minghella died last week at the age of fifty-four.  I felt I knew him well, although I knew no biographical information about him until I began reading his obituaries.  He was the type of director who imparted quite personal feelings and predilections to giant-scale movies based on prestigious novels–a rare thing to achieve.  He did this so successfully that one felt one understood his consciousness, his interests, and especially his empathy, simply by watching his work: his films delineate themselves but also delineate a kind of negative-space portrait of the man himself.  His life details and circumstances, once you learn them, surprise one not at all.  Minghella was one of five children of Italian parents, immigrants to the Isle of Wight who ran an ice cream factory.  He was a trained classical pianist, a playwright, a director of opera, and a producer and mentor to other filmmakers (with Sydney Pollack).  All this makes sense.

Minghella, like David Lean before him, was capable of producing what you could call a “poetic” or “epic” cinematic tone.  The words are insufficiently specific: but there is a sense of scale and romance to his sequences, a briskly moving grandeur.  The most obvious example of this is of course The English Patient, where he brilliantly captured the size of the novel. (The fact that it’s hard to pin down how he achieved this adds to the accomplishment.)  Shots of Juliette Binoche riding in a military jeep are the ones I remember from the movie–it had a quick pace in moving you towards its sentimental conclusion.  Cold Mountain, also, has that quality of epic speed, of what is essentially a melodramatic romance scaled up and quickened.  (Lean was interested in unrequited love; Minghella preferred the requited version.)

Minghella seemed to do his best work when adapting other people’s novels.  His debut and original screenplay, Truly, Madly, Deeply, while a heart-warming production, tends to fulfill its own wishes too fully, admitting sorrow into its contents but offering too much consolation.  This also seemed the trouble with his most recent film, also with an original screenplay, Breaking and Entering.  The movie is about love as a way of overcoming the class barriers that separate London’s middle-class architects from its downtrodden refugees.  It is as tendentious as that summary makes it sound.  A sociologist Minghella was not–he was far too big-hearted to want to make critique his primary mode.  (There is also a bit of that English attitude, musn’t grumble, to his general embrace of possibility over complaint.)

Yet, this very ability to enter into the spirit of things is the key to his finest film, The Talented Mr. Ripley–an underappreciated classic if ever there was one.  The novel, by Patricia Highsmith, has an icy, nihilistic pessimism that forms an astringent, bracing complement to Minghella’s natural warmth.  The combination of these two elements means Ripley is both sentimentally alluring and cruelly fatalistic.  The movie is a true modern tragedy, and I could go on for pages on its many bravura cuts, small symmetries, and chilling implications.

The movie is also particularly unified, from its editing to its  sound design to its beautiful motif of fractured glass.  It is, simply, inspired filmmaking, in which the talents of, for instance, a Walter Murch find material of enough depth to motivate his aesthetic choices.  And yet, it’s the story of a social climbing sociopath–strange, at first, to think that Minghella, for whom love is the answer, so fully animated this character.  But it’s Minghella’s (and Matt Damon’s) ability to find the core of suffering, anxiety, and desire inside Ripley–Minghella’s empathetic generosity towards even such an unsympathetic madman–that make the film special and powerful.  Here, Minghella treats the dangers, instead of the rewards, of love: obsession, mimicry, compulsion.

It’s through music that Minghella finds his way into Tom Ripley, who is a prissy kid from a background he’s ashamed of trying to break in to a circle of louche American rich kids in Italy.  Minghella takes Ripley’s love of classical music from Highsmith and makes it into the preference of a precocious geek–while the wealthy youth he admires and impersonates only listen to jazz, Ripley is a classicist who subscribes to the taste preferences of their parents.  He has picked up his odd, isolated fixations without the benefit of constant social feedback from group of friends, and so his later attempts to insinuate himself into Dickie Greenleaf’s circle involve acquiring knowledge of a music he has trouble connecting to–it’s quite a perfect metaphor for the strange insider-outsider dialectic in which Ripley is caught. 

By opposing jazz and classical music, Minghella suggests unhealthy cravings lying underneath the unrippled surface of the “cool” of neo-aristocratic children of the American business elite–a class whose lack of obvious anxiety telegraphs a certainty that the world was made for them.  (In struggling to crack their smooth surface, Ripley cracks himself.)  But Minghella does not withhold his sympathies from the other characters either: Jude Law, particularly, has never been better in a role.  Law, you’ll agree, is best as an object of the camera gaze, rather than a subject for the viewer to project onto–he is a screen beauty rather than a screen protagonist–and this is maybe the only film that properly exploits this quality of his.  (If you meet someone who says the movie got boring after Law’s character exits, you know: they are essentially narcissistic, just as those who think Ripley is Minghella’s one misfire are essentially sentimentalists.)

Even better is Minghella’s portrait, entirely without precedent in Highsmith’s novel, of the anxieties and fears of the women of this same class–while Law’s Dickie and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unctuous Freddy Miles are all id, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett play women beset by insecurity.  This comes not from weakness but, for instance in the case of Paltrow’s character, from correctly surmising what is going on, only to be ignored and treated as a hysteric by the patriarchs of the film.  It’s a bleak but accurate portrait of the ways purportedly “rationalist” men of the postwar era discount “hysterical” women’s experience. 

Minghella’s gift was the sensitivity to see and represent such things.  Most often, he put it to use in the service of epic but conventional melodramas of love–but when he mixed his special talent for empathy with as bleak a vision as Highsmith’s, the result was unique and forceful: an illuminating glimpse into a darkness, that is both revealing and cathartic.  Few films have ever looked at American class consciousness as unsparingly but feelingly.  It’s just a hugely important movie.

Minghella was able to marshal all the elements of filmmaking–composition, montage, sound, music–in a way that is becoming rare, now that the era in which movies were are greatest cultural monuments recedes.  Though his films are constructed beautifully, they do not luxuriate in their construction, which is the mark of the mature artist, in whose work craft submits to a larger design.  Like a writer with a particularly pleasing style, Minghella wrote great prose, in film terms.  For that, and for the achievement of Ripley, I followed him avidly and closely.  I’m very sorry he’s gone.

Other Dispatches.

Monday Poem

Cat Dance Music
Jim Culleny


Delphiniums winddance Image_cat_dance_music_2 
with phlox in Pat’s garden.
They sway in quiet concord,
rooted in motion.

Dancing’s a vital sign of endless youth;
even my grandmothers danced:
one danced to accordianed polkas;
corseted cantileverd bosom bouncing.
The other jigged across her chicken yard
with handfuls of eggs –having just left her hens
without yield– acting goofy for a camera.

I once danced with abandon
to big-holed 45s
spun by a DJ named Jocko
who sent four-part doowop through my radio:
the Prisonaires, the Cadillacs, the Moonglows…

When was the last time I danced with abandon?
How did I do that beautiful thing?

It’s best to dance with others, real gurus say.
It’s lonely dancing with a mirror,
leading and following in one motion,
thinking breaking it would be bad luck.

Our cats dance to deep cat vibrations always.
Alert as …cats to music far beyond our ears:
cat dance music.

Zorba knew. Have you seen
Quinn, the Greek, dance?
Felt life spring in rhythms?
Watched it prance on toes to a bouzouki
even in the embrace of despair?

Never. Never forget how to dance.
All innocents dance.
Only the troubled are still.

Sandlines: Mea culpa – Can It Liberate?

Edward B. Rackley

Abughraib_2And your silence is all to no avail; today the blinding sun of torture is at its zenith; it lights up the whole country. Under that merciless glare, there is not a laugh that does not ring false, not a face that is not painted to hide fear or anger, not a single action that does not betray our disgust, and our complicity.

— Sartre, Preface to Fanon’s The Wretched Of The Earth

As the election year approaches, I find myself fantasizing about a very different political consciousness in this country. A state of mind where the majority of voters are appalled, outraged and shamed by our military practices and outcomes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Ashamed and outraged enough to mobilize in direct opposition to a geopolitical strategy that is digging our national grave by the day. To mobilize not just by voting for change next year, but acting now with concrete gestures of rejection and refusal powerful enough to bring the calculus driving this mad debacle to a shuddering, definitive halt.

I once enjoyed grim satisfaction at the prospect of a German war crimes indictment against Donald Rumsfeld, but—heavy sigh—it was not to be. Ozymandias, King of Kings… As public outlets to vent our outrage are dumbed-down and limited to bumper stickers and talk-show call-ins, Americans had insufficient occasion to behold the glory of a possible Rumsfeld indictment by an allied country. But is this due to fewer public for a to express outrage, or is our capacity to do so diminished, in retreat? I fear the latter. Why else do we not recoil in disgust at an administration gone too far?

In my recurring fantasy, Americans awake in toxic shock at an administration so far beyond the pale that each of us, asphyxiated and sputtering with rage, simultaneously grasps our complicity, our guilt by association. If nothing else appalls and shames us into action, passivity as complicity just might. In that Rorschach moment where silence and complicity meet, responsibility for national wrongs becomes ours, just as the parents of bullying, violent children know they too are to blame. Once the floodgates of popular rage are open, our leaders will remember to whom they are accountable.

Could this be more than a fantasy? Can a public narrative of outrage and shame born of complicity alter the course of a felonious state? We have done it before. Anti-slavery campaigns once used the slogan ‘Am I not a man and a brother’ to cast the victim as stranger, kin and racial equal, on the grounds of a shared humanity. Mass opposition to a more recent state-sanctioned abomination—segregation—saw it successfully overturned, but only after much public anguish, accusation and murder. The civil rights movement was ultimately successful for its unflinching solidarity and courage to confront injustice. For sympathetic whites, a sense of collective guilt also played a role.

101 Uses of Metaphysical Guilt

Following the Holocaust, the concept of solidarity emerged as an important theme in German social philosophy. Prior to Hannah Arendt’s 1963 analysis of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Karl Jaspers addressed the relation of silence, inaction and complicity in Die Schuldfrage in 1946 (trans. The Question of German Guilt). Identifying passivity before human tragedy as complicity, Jaspers coined the phrase ‘metaphysical guilt’: as fellow humans, we are obligated to intervene on behalf of others whatever the risk. Not doing so makes me an accomplice; further, it is a betrayal human solidarity.

But is solidarity alone a sufficient course of action to avert human tragedy on the scale of slavery, of the Shoah? True to academic form, Jaspers offer no specific instruction, arguing only that we must in such instances “affirm our solidarity with the human being as such.”

Arendt accepted Jaspers’ concept of metaphysical guilt but dismissed solidarity—“comprehending a multitude”—as her thinking on the origins of totalitarianism began to crystallize. “But this solidarity, though it may be aroused by suffering, is not guided by it,” she wrote. “It comprehends the strong and the rich no less than the weak and the poor.” Solidarity with an incorporeal whole like ‘humanity’ or the ‘international proletariat’ was dehumanizing; a mode of ‘massification’ Arendt likened to the totalitarian vision.

In France, Jean-Paul Sartre applied metaphysical guilt as a social justice strategy. The subjugations of colonial occupation were a perversion of Europe’s humanist tradition parading as la mission civilatrice, or ‘white man’s burden’. Sartre likened European complicity with colonialism to Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust, and he berated his readers with guilt by association. Sartre expanded Jasper’s metaphysical guilt to include the legal sense of responsibility for crimes committed, and the emotional sense of remorse and burden of psychological anguish. Properly leveraged, Sartre believed this would catalyze international action to overthrow colonialism and rectify Europe’s ‘racist humanism’. Combined with guilt, public outrage could be infectious and possibly catalytic.

Part of a wider leftist bloc known as ‘Third Worldism’, Sartre hoped that colonized peoples would emerge as partners in overthrowing colonialism, debunking European humanism and forging a more inclusive, less Euroecentric version in the process. “It is enough that they show us what we have made of them,” he wrote, “for us to realize what we have made of ourselves.”

Overcoming a ‘racist humanism’

In order to sensitize Europeans to the hypocrisies and moral failures of its ‘civilizing mission’ in the colonies, Sartre hurled guilt and shame at his readers. In his Preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, he browbeat his compatriots: “You who are so liberal and so humane, who have such an exaggerated adoration of culture that it verges on affectation, you forget that you own colonies and that in them men are massacred in your name.” Popular ignorance of the sins of colonialism was tantamount to direct collaboration and culpability. The era of misinformation about the realities of colonial rule was over, Sartre proclaimed; he gave no quarter to moral bystanders: “Even to allow your mind to be diverted, however slightly, is as good as being an accomplice in the crime of colonialism.”


In Sartre’s dialectical reading of history, anti-colonial violence in the colonies presented European morality with the perfect adversary if Europe were to transcend the bankrupt humanism of its Enlightenment tradition. Predictably, for Sartre, Europe was “at death’s door.” Still, Sartre persisted, even measuring colonial subjects with a Eurocentric yardstick: “We were men at his expense, he makes himself man at ours: a different man; of higher quality.” But dialectical materialism is a western philosophical fiction; there are no ‘dialectical’ laws of nature, only interpretations.

In Sartre’s Third Worldism, the sense of co-responsibility for the injustices of colonialism digressed into a need to redeem northern sins, to exorcise collective guilt. Such an all-inclusive mea culpa, perhaps bold in its humanist ambitions, eclipsed the self-determination of colonized peoples by presuming that because Europeans were responsible colonialism, they necessarily controlled the means of its undoing … and their own redemption.

The Self-Love of Self-Loathing

The anti-colonial movement in Europe, led by Sartre, used metaphysical guilt to claim a collective interest for colonized peoples: liberation from racial oppression and northern economic exploitation. Still, for all its latent Eurocentrism, Sartre and the Third Worldist movement were a major agitating factor against French colonial policies at home and in Africa.

Sartre never reckoned that a thundering chorus of northern self-indictment would only drown out non-European voices in the causal arena of colonial politics. That a guilt-fueled, victim-centered humanism would not undo the consequences of colonialism, but was merely a warmed-over Eurocentrism du jour, did not occur to him.

The narcissism of Third Worldist solidarity with colonized peoples echoes a contemporary criticism of international charity, another mode of solidarity driven by metaphysical guilt and the appeal to ‘common humanity’: “Non-poor people who give aid to poor people have a marked tendency to see their aid as central to the poor people’s lives” (Alex de Waal, Famine that Kills).

So what does this mean for the prospect of guilt, outrage and change in the context of American foreign policy today? Solidarity and humanity may be comforting and cosmopolitan ideals, but they are anemic and anachronistic today. Although unfashionable among liberals, I find Carl Schmitt’s sardonic rebuttal of ‘humanity’ prescient and refreshing: “‘Humanity’ as such cannot fight a war because it has no enemies, at least none on this planet.” Schmitt means that any theatre of political action is defined by victims and perpetrators; nothing more, nothing less. ‘Terrorist’ is an ideological epithet, ‘defenders of freedom’ equally manipulative.

‘Humanity’ remains a comforting thought, particularly in my business–overseas disaster relief—where the needs of strangers matter to our program descriptions and fundraising drives. But I find the concept useless; it distracts from matters of individual culpability, which must be addressed if a country is to recover from conflict.

Rumsfeld, Rove, Cheney and crew (Bush is exempt—too few neurons firing to qualify as sentient or conscious)… these names alone suffice to provoke paroxysms of rage and, one assumes, action. Yet these men continue to skip, sing and frolic in our midst. Warlords gallivanting in a failed state like Somalia, I can understand. But wearing suits, appearing on television and exercising their expense accounts in our own airspace—it’s criminal. So where’s the outrage?

Quaeries, part II

Justin E. H. Smith

GuillotineTo all those men of science who have occasion to attend a beheading: we have heard that the head remains conscious and agitated for up to thirty seconds after separation from the body. Won’t you kindly make an arrangement with the prisoner (and, as needed, the executioner), so as to measure its inevitable loss of vitality? You might agree with the head’s owner upon a system of signaling by blinks, at intervals of, say, five seconds, until such a time as the head can blink no more. We would not recommend that you get rough with the head and slap it about. This was tried by an earnest physician during the Reign of Terror, who only wanted to sustain the quickness and apperception of a woman’s severed caput for as long as he could by means of a few harsh blows to the cheeks. She was affronted, and gave him a bitter scowl, and would no doubt have lashed him harshly with her tongue, had she still lungs to bellow. Yet what, we would like to know, is so offensive about a few bracing and inquisitive strikes when one has, after all, just had one’s head sliced off?

We have heard talk of “free radicals” in the foodstuffs eaten by the great mass of common people, as in their maize chips, their fried poultry “nuggets,” and their “Bologna.” We would like to know how these radicals gained their freedom in the first place, and what precisely they aim to bring about in the people’s preferred snacks. How strong are the antioxidant forces? With which side does the palate sympathize? With which side the stomach? &c.

One of our Scientific Society’s members suffers from mighty head-aches, and has got stuck in his aching head the idea of travelling to Paris in order to undergo a trepan at the hands of the renowned barber-surgeon, Pierre Grossejambe, who is said to have drilled holes in the skulls of more than 200 patients. It is said that trepans were already performed by the ancient Egyptians and Chaldaeans, and that they are useful not just for relieving the pressure of the blood upon the head, but also for the having of mystical visions, most often just of lowly beetle- and ibis-headed divinities, but also, on occasion, of the true Lord and Creator of this our Universe. We would like to know why, if the benefits of trepanning are so great, this procedure remains forbidden in our land, and can only be performed openly in that country where, so it is said, tout est permis.

We have heard also of a “plague of corpulence” menacing the American people, of “all you can eat” restaurants they call variously “buffets,” “king’s tables,” “smorgas boards,” “smorgies,” and “sties,” where men and women the size of Nile river-horses will eat without pause from break-fast to dinner, and from dinner until supper-time. Is this plague a miasma of some sort, that has descended upon the New World and made its inhabitants sick with appetite? Or is this “plague” in fact only the deadly sin of gluttony?

It is reported that with the aid of convex lenses a sharp-eyed Hollander has discovered countless little animals in the male seed, which do propel themselves about, like so many tadpoles, by means of a long, whip-like tail. We would like to know whether these spermatic worms might play a role in the generation of animals and men, or whether they are not rather the product of putrefaction, like the worms that we see spontaneously generated in rotten meat, and in the interstices betwixt our teeth. We would also like to know how this Hollander obtained his seed sample, whether his wife was not implicated in its procuring, and whether in his view the abomination of Onan is not in some way cancelled out by the great contribution this “waste” of seed has made to the advancement of medical knowledge. 

We would sincerely like to know, in view of the tremendous recent advances in the science of embalming, why anyone would commission a statue to be raised of himself. Today, thanks to the ingenuity of our morticians, each man may become his own statue!

Should men eat eggs, or should they not? Will this matter never be settled?

We ourselves have, by use of tubes, and in front of a full auditorium, made the blood of a dog flow out of its body, and into that of another dog, and back again. This amazing spectacle went on for some time, until one of the dogs began to cry most pitiably, and a rather effeminate man in the audience, a certain “Mr. Frilly” who is no member of our Society and who generally prefers to pass his time writing in a journal at great length about his favorite condiments, himself cried out: for the love of God, have you no mercy, &c. We halted the experiment, but in any case what interests us most is the possibility of performing the same feat with two animals of different kinds, or with a man and an animal. This latter experiment might prove to have tremendous therapeutic benefits, as the blood of a docile and pacific lamb, for example, could be made to flow through the veins of a mad hospital patient unable to have his sanguinity subdued by the usual method of applying leeches. 

We have received news of the “science wars” raging in the universities of lands less advanced than ours. It appears one of the belligerent camps asserts that science is only a “narrative,” and is in no way superior to other folk practices, like musical theatre, or gin-rummy. Are these people mad? Could they perhaps use a drop of lamb’s blood in their veins too? And what could they know of science? Do they belong to Scientific Societies, such as ours? Or do they teach English literature, like The Red Badge of Courage, Oliver Twist, and Old Yeller? Please tell us: what do these people know of science?

Berlin, March 25, 2008

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.

Blogging in The Arab World

Courtney C. Radsch at ResetDOC:

Until recently, journalism in the Arab world suffered under the heavy hand of authoritarian rulers who sought to control the symbolic power of the media, the major arbiter of public opinion. With the increasing importance of citizen journalism on the Internet, which has burgeoned since blogging started to gain popularity in 2003, the new media are not only impacting mainstream journalism but the political process itself. With the force of the blogosphere coming on the heals of the explosion of Arabic satellite news media over the past decade, the public has more diverse, credible, and culturally relevant information source to choose from than ever before. Online citizen journalism in the form of web logs (blogs) video blogs (vlogs) is emerging as a powerful force in the Arab world, where it is challenging the ability of the state to control the information environment and forcing mainstream journalists to compete with online citizen journalists.

Blogging in Egypt is taking off, although it is still relatively unknown and certainly not popular among the general public. However, among journalists and the professional, globalized class, it is an emergent phenomeneon. The Egyptian blog ring claims more than 1500 blogs, with slightly less than half of those published in English (http://www.egybloggers.com). The Egyptian Blog Review’s motto “from citizens to watchdogs” proclaims the potential for new forms of citizen media to bypass state control and self-censorship, evidence of the impact changes in global communications systems are having. These changes favor narrowcasting and transnational, sub-state media that provide a more realistic view of the world than the traditional state-run media.

The Pride and The Prejudice of V.S. Naipaul

In the Guardian, Robert McCrum profiles Naipaul:

Everyone agrees that VS Naipaul is fully alive to his own importance. A mirror to his work, his life is emblematic of an extraordinary half century, the postwar years. Let it not be said that he does not know this. ‘My story is a kind of cultural history,’ he remarks, in part of an overture to a long conversation. Nevertheless, he will not be reading Patrick French’s forthcoming authorised biography, The World Is What it Is. ‘I asked Patrick to do it, but I haven’t read a word,’ he emphasises, brushing past rumours of discord over the manuscript. ‘I don’t intend to read the book.’

This volatile mixture of pride and insecurity illuminates everything about him. ‘I am the kind of writer,’ he once said, ‘that people think other people are reading.’ That’s a characteristic Naipaul formulation, ironically self-deprecating (my audience is small, but select) while at the same time breathtakingly self-confident (I am a great writer whose work deserves to be generally admired).

The light cast by this strange combustion of arrogance and modesty has often exposed the world in new and unexpected ways. At its best, Naipaul’s prose is as sharp and lucid as splinters of glass. But there’s a paradox here. The man himself is anything but straightforward – an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, inside a mystery: possibly, he is a bit of a puzzle even to himself.

Where Do Viruses Come From?

F1c30fb9f95f8b4e9faf03a0503d1aba_1 Ed Rybicki over at Scientific American:

Tracing the origins of viruses is difficult because they don’t leave fossils and because of the tricks they use to make copies of themselves within the cells they’ve invaded. Some viruses even have the ability to stitch their own genes into those of the cells they infect, which means studying their ancestry requires untangling it from the history of their hosts and other organisms. What makes the process even more complicated is that viruses don’t just infect humans; they can infect basically any organism—from bacteria to horses; seaweed to people.

Still, scientists have been able to piece together some viral histories, based on the fact that the genes of many viruses—such as those that cause herpes and mono—seem to share some properties with cells’ own genes. This could suggest that they started as big bits of cellular DNA and then became independent—or that these viruses came along very early in evolution, and some of their DNA stuck around in cells’ genomes. The fact that some viruses that infect humans share structural features with viruses that infect bacteria could mean that all of these viruses have a common origin, dating back several billion years. This highlights another problem with tracing virus origins: most modern viruses seem to be a patchwork of bits that come from different sources—a sort of “mix and match” approach to building an organism.

EO Wilson Says Soccer Moms Are Natural History’s Enemy

Over at the Discover magazine blog Better Planet:

In a candid conversation with an audience here at the Aspen Environment Forum, eminent biologist/naturalist EO Wilson said soccer moms are killing off bio-education because they don’t let their children experience nature.

In what he calls the ”soccer mom syndrome” Wilson said the worst thing a parent can do for a child is to take him or her to a botanical garden where all the trees are marked and labeled. Instead, “Go to the seashore and give them a pale and bucket. Let them experience nature…and then come back and ask questions,” Wilson said, admittedly paraphrasing Rachel Carson’s advice. Carson famously wrote the book “Silent Spring.”

Wilson, who is compiling an encyclopedia of life (www.eol.org), which will describe every species known to man, didn’t back down when a woman from the audience said that she would “forgive him” for the soccer mom comment.

“Don’t,” he responded. “Think on it.”

Sexual Advances

Paul600 Pamela Paul reviews Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.

Intended as much for amusement as for enlightenment, “Bonk” is Roach’s foray into the world of sex research, mostly from Alfred Kinsey onward, but occasionally harking back to the ancient Greeks and medievals (equally unenlightened). Roach belongs to a particular strain of science writer; she’s interested less in scientific subjects than in the ways scientists study their subjects — less, in this case, in sex per se than in the laboratory dissection of sex. She delights in medical euphemism and scholarly jargon; you can hear her titter as she rolls out terms like “vaginal photoplethysmograph probe,” “nocturnal penile tumescence monitoring” and “vaginocavernosus reflex.” Writing about a 1950s-era study of vaginal response in which female subjects copulated with a penis camera, Roach wants to know how exactly the “dildo-camera” operated, who volunteered to make use of it in a laboratory setting and, above all, where the device is now. This is “as good as science gets,” she writes, “a mildly outrageous, terrifically courageous, seemingly efficacious display of creative problem-solving, fueled by a bullheaded dedication to amassing facts and dispelling myths in a long-neglected area of human physiology.”

Oe Wins Court Battle in Japan

In the Guardian:

Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe has won a major court battle over a book he wrote more than 30 years ago detailing how Japanese soldiers persuaded and sometimes forced Okinawan civilians to commit suicide rather than give themselves up in the closing days of the second world war.

The topic is a hugely sensitive issue on the southern Japan islands, where battles raged from late March through to June 1945, leaving more than 200,000 civilians and soldiers dead, and speeding the collapse of Japan’s defences. The US occupied Okinawa until 1972.

The ruling was also a high-profile setback for a vocal lobby among Japanese conservatives who have long sought to discredit or censure material documenting Japanese excesses during the war, including government-supported prostitution, the rape of the Chinese city of Nanking and other incidents.

In his book, Okinawa Notes, Oe chronicled accounts of group suicides on Okinawa, and alleged that Japanese soldiers persuaded, and at times coerced, civilians to kill themselves rather than face what they were told would be horrible atrocities if they gave themselves up to the invading US troops. Historians generally agree that hundreds of Okinawan civilians killed themselves under such circumstances, and there is a wealth of testimony from survivors and their relatives to back that up.

In search of the visible woman

From The Guardian:

Woman_3 Women are in a bad way. We are still made scapegoats and traduced and our true natures denied. Two female polemicists have published books explaining why, although they have come to very different, arguably opposing, conclusions. One is also very much better than the other. Susan Pinker is a Canadian developmental psychologist and newspaper columnist perplexed that, after decades of feminism, there’s still a pay gap and so few women run major corporations. Girls do better at school and, at least in North America, which is where The Sexual Paradox is really concerned with, enter university in greater numbers. The conclusion she reaches, never mind Simone de Beauvoir’s liberating message all those years ago, is that biology is destiny. ‘People are programmed,’ she writes at one point. Women are ‘built for comfort, not speed’. Testosterone makes the male of the species more vulnerable, but also more risk-taking. Oxytocin makes women more empathetic. The trouble with this evolutionary Pinker first sets up what is probably a false opposition (public success and empathy are not in fact mutually exclusive) and then wholly fails to account for high-profile women such as Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton or all the women who are running companies and law firms.

Neither, I suspect, could she explain the pioneer-era women profiled in Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream, who bravely and often viciously fought Native Americans after their menfolk had failed them, usually by running away. These women, Faludi argues, have been airbrushed out of the founding-of-America myth, just as a similar airbrushing is now distorting our accounts of 9/11. The attacks on the Twin Towers left America feeling exposed, Faludi says; by the time it was clear exactly what was happening, there was absolutely nothing that could be done. psychobabble is that while it may get us a little way along the road to understanding, it strands us miles from any useful destination. How far was neatly summed up by Louis Menand in a review of a book by Pinker’s more famous brother Steven, a leader in the evolutionary psychology field, when he observed that Wagner may well have been trying to impress future mates – we all are – but it’s a long way from there to Parsifal.

More here.

Karachi’s Winter Days

Sehba Sarwar in The New York Times:

Karachi_2 I’ve been living in Houston for some time, but I often return to Pakistan to visit my parents. In December, when I arrived in Karachi with my 3-year-old daughter, Minal, the city was spinning with more than the usual winter weddings, parties and reunions. President Musharraf had issued emergency rule to hold back a possible Supreme Court ruling against him, and Benazir Bhutto had returned to Pakistan at her own risk. There had been suicide bombings, the lawyers were battling for restoration of an independent judiciary and parliamentary elections were a few weeks away. My husband, René, wanted me to postpone our trip, but my father wasn’t well, and it was important to go. I assured René I’d do my best to stay away from the political action.

But after I got to Karachi, it didn’t take long for me to change my mind. I simply felt that too much was at stake. I joined my journalist sister, Beena, who is based there temporarily, and other friends at several marches in support of a free press and the lawyers’ movement.

More here.


Benjamin Anastas in the New York Times:

Screenhunter_02_mar_30_0842_2Every traveler has a landscape that, for him, contains the wonder and mystery behind all travel. It could be the beach, or a cathedral square, or the rain forest, or a volcanic island — for me, it is the mountain pass. The mountain pass, roughly defined, is that point on the map where the winding road up is transformed into the winding road down. It marks the border where valleys meet, and often is where provinces divide, where one nation becomes another, with a corresponding change in language and road signs. To get to the mountain pass, you begin on a fertile plain, often crossed by a river, and drive through terraced fields and sleepy villages until the road gets steeper, the switchbacks get scarier and signs of human settlement fall away behind you.

If you are in Tyrol — the proud region straddling northern Italy and western Austria — and you ascend through the Val Passiria to the mountain pass known in German as the Timmelsjoch, small vineyards and neatly tended orchards give way to a desolate moonscape fringed with ice, and the tractors from the lower altitudes, carrying bins of apples, are replaced by swarms of motorcycles. (You will later see the same bikers that passed you like movie villains in black leather warming up over plates of sausages and fries at the restaurant just beyond the pass, crowded into booths and chatting amiably with one another.)

More here.  [St. Lorenzen, the village in this photo, is a few miles from where I live.]

Gloomy About Globalization

Robert Skidelsky in the New York Review of Books:

413280Making Globalization Work is the third of Joseph Stiglitz’s popular, and populist, books. Like Jeffrey Sachs, Stiglitz is an economist turned preacher, one of a new breed of secular evangelists produced by the fall of communism. Stiglitz wants to stop rich countries from exploiting poor countries without damaging the springs of wealth-creation. In that sense he is a classic social democrat. His missionary fervor, though, is very American. “Saving the Planet,” one of this new book’s chapter headings, could have been its title.

Stiglitz is in favor of globalization—which he defines as “the closer economic integration of the countries of the world.” He criticizes the ways it has been done. The “rules of the game,” he writes, have been largely set by US corporate interests. Trade agreements have made the poorest worse off and condemned thousands to death through AIDS. Multinational corporations have stripped poor countries of their natural resources and left environmental devastation. Western banks have burdened poor countries with unsustainable debt.

More here.  [Photo shows Stiglitz.]

The Limits of Bioterrorism

Carl Zimmer in Slate:

Screenhunter_01_mar_30_0823An outbreak of E. coli isn’t usually the stuff of feel-good stories. Feel-bad is more like it—or even feel-organ-failure. But recent E. coli outbreaks can offer us a bit of solace. We live in the anxious age of synthetic biology, when scientists can reconstruct entire genomes from raw chemicals, and when we all fret that someone is going to use this new technology to create a monster bug and unleash a man-made plague. According to one government report, “The effects of some of these engineered biological agents could be worse than any disease known to man.” But a close look at recent outbreaks of E. coli—and a closer look at the bacteria themselves—may help us to put aside our fears for the moment. Engineering plagues is harder than it looks.

More here.

Prada Prostitutes

Howard Jacobson in Prospect:

Reviews_jacobson_aprilTwo conflicting but equally sentimental narratives of the lives of prostitutes—and by implication the men who pay for their services—confront each other at the moment. The first describes the prostitute as abused victim, incidentally of global capitalism and the free market, but essentially of the violence of men. In this narrative, the idea that the prostitute might choose of her own free will to sell her body for profit or for pleasure, or for both, is derided. A battery of statistics proves her miserable condition: her low self-esteem and life expectancy, the dangers to which she is exposed, the rape, contumely and criminality which form the consistent scenery of her abbreviated existence. Therefore—no ifs or buts—we must criminalise the man who uses her. (I italicise the word to show that I mean to be more careful with it than are the criminalisers.)

The second narrative tells of snazzy, Sex in the City hookerdom, fucking and shopping exactly in the spirit and prose of women’s blockbusters of 20 years ago, only now the fucking pays for the shopping. Tracy Quan’s Manhattan whore is into Prada and Bulgari talk even before the fucking starts. Belle de Jour will tell you what she’s been buying at the chemist’s—”tampons, vaginal pessary (for irritation), condoms, sugarless breath mints, lubricant, individual post-waxing wipes, self-tanning liquid, razor blades, potassium citrate granules (for cystitis).” Too much information, as they say.

More here.

Saturday Poem


Suzie Patlove

Was there really a man
who bent his silk-stocking knee
before Isabella, a plumed hat in hand,
and did she say yes, sail out across the unknown
and claim it for me
, being, as she was,
accustomed to empire?

And, on his three ships, were there
men high in the rigging with fears
of a flat end to the world,
and when they came near land,
were the people who lived there
really unable to see the shape of ships,
unable to conjure anything
so huge, coming white-sailed,
on their turquoise and rippled sea?

And did all this begin a dance of greed,
did death and indenture grow up
beside the fine idea of liberty
on land so rich and full of grace
that a great darkness could be hidden?
And would the cries of Africans, trapped
under the decks of other ships,
be heard centuries later
when the land was paved with neon
and desire had been sown from sea to sea?
And was addiction after addiction spawned,
until map lines were too small
for the growth of so much wanting?

Now the foppish knee that bent down
before Isabella bends again.
This time the answer comes back from
the faceless monarchs of commerce,
yes, take the whole round truth of it.

I am in the rigging of this ship-bent-on-empire.
I am also in the garden of my green island.
Ahead, the earth goes over
the cliff of itself, yet still I hear birds,
singing of something in the salt air
which appears, but is not yet recognizable,
on the blue sheen of our horizon.


Physicists Make Artificial Black Hole

Saswato R. Das in IEEE Spectrum:

Screenhunter_02_mar_29_1305_2To make their event horizon, Leonhardt and colleagues used a titanium sapphire laser and a microstructured optical fiber—one containing a hexagonal arrangement of air-filled holes that ran its length. They first transmitted an ultrashort, intense laser pulse down the optical fiber. The optical fiber is susceptible to nonlinear effects, such that when an intense pulse of light hits the fiber, it changes the physical properties of the fiber. In this case, the first pulse created a distortion that amounted to a change in the fiber’s index of refraction, which moves along with the pulse. The pulse itself was slowed by the distortion. Leonhardt and colleagues then sent a “faster” stream of infrared laser light in pursuit of the first pulse. When the faster-moving second pulse encountered the distortion, it got trapped at its edge and couldn’t break past it. This edge became the fiber’s “event horizon.”

“Light propagating in a moving medium is similar to the light propagating in curved space” such as you would find near a black hole, explains Volovik. So “it is possible to create artificial horizons.”

Following Einstein’s theory of relativity, as light approaches the event horizon, it would slow down immensely and be stretched out; time would also proceed very slowly. Scientists have worked out what this deceleration would look like, and Leonhardt and colleagues say they observed the predicted effects in their optical-fiber event horizon.

Leonhardt and his colleagues hope their artificial event horizon will let experimentalists see whether anything can escape from a black hole. This highly counterintuitive idea was proposed by Stephen Hawking in the 1970s. Hawking applied tenets of quantum mechanics to existing black-hole theory and surmised that black holes are not black at all. Instead, they emit light—which has since come to be known as Hawking radiation.

More here.