Songs of Herself

From The Washington Post:

Maya Maya Angelou published her blockbuster memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1969, when she was in her early 40s and I was a 17-year-old white Southerner trying my luck in New York City. Catching her on late night television, I fell utterly under her spell. I loved her delighted laugh, the studied cadences of her rich voice, her graciousness — especially to white interviewers who couldn’t get enough of her stories about growing up black in the Jim Crow South. In that time before everybody and his uncle wrote memoirs, I felt I must read her story. She was willing to speak plainly about race and to describe how she was raped as an 8-year-old. If that violation left her mute for several years, she vindicated her silence by trying her luck as a performer and then a writer, and it appeared she could hold rapt any audience she chose to entertain.

Nearly 40 years, six (six!) autobiographies, a dozen collections of poetry, a sprinkling of essays, children’s books and a cookbook later, Angelou — who turned 80 this spring — has written another book, this one an odd little hodgepodge of sound advice, vivid memory and strong opinion. Despite the slimness of the volume and the randomness of its offerings, I still find myself charmed by her plain talk.

I am, after all, her intended audience. Though she is the mother of one son, to whom she gave birth when she was just 16, Angelou has dedicated these musings to her “thousands of daughters . . . Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American and Aleut . . . pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered.”

More here.

Paul Newman (1925-2008)


WESTPORT, Conn. (AP) — Paul Newman, the Academy-Award winning superstar who personified cool as an activist, race car driver, popcorn impresario and the anti-hero of such films as “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Color of Money,” has died. He was 83.

Newman died Friday after a long battle with cancer at his farmhouse near Westport, publicist Jeff Sanderson said. He was surrounded by his family and close friends.

more from the NY Times here.

hitchens on brideshead


As I drove away from a California screening of the new film version of Brideshead Revisited, I was amused to overhear the comments of my companions from the back seat. “I thought the one who played Jeremy Irons was a bit thin …” “I liked the Anthony Andrews character better … ” It is more than a quarter of a century since the late William F Buckley introduced the Granada TV series to the American viewers of the Public Broadcasting System, and the residual effect is one of what Harold Isaacs once called “scratches on the mind”: a very durable if sometimes vague cultural impression. (My son was born in 1984 and as I was carrying a teddy bear home, and happening that day to be wearing a white linen suit, I was astonished by the number of passers-by in Washington DC who shouted “Hi Sebastian!” at me as I tooled along.) The directors Charles Sturridge and Michael Lindsay-Hogg achieved their 1981 success by gorgeous photography, of course, and also by generally inspired casting. The locations, plainly, required little or no embellishment. And the music was suitably … well, evocative. But most of all, they were faithful to Evelyn Waugh’s beautiful dialogue and cadence, both in set-piece scenes and in sequences of languorous voice-over in Oxford and Venice and – perhaps decisively – in the opening passage, where the melancholic Captain Charles Ryder hears the almost healing word “Brideshead” spoken again: “a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such magic power, that, at its ancient sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight”.

more from The Guardian here.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered And I am pleased.


Over the past 50 years, Clive James has worked as a British television personality; a radio broadcaster; a travel writer; a trainee bus conductor; a book reviewer for major publications in the United States, Britain and his native Australia; a flunky in a machine shop; a recording artist (the six albums he wrote in the 1970s with the singer-songwriter Pete Atkin are cult classics); a sports­writer; a book shelver; an art critic; a prose elegist for Diana, Princess of Wales (“I am appearing ridiculous now, but it is part of the ceremony, is it not?”); and, naturally, a circus roustabout. He has also, all along and not entirely coincidentally, been a poet. While that last fact is well known in Britain and Australia, James’s new book, Opal Sunset: Selected Poems, 1958-2008 (Norton, $25.95), is the first volume of his poetry to be published in the United States.

It isn’t necessarily an advantage in the poetry world, especially the American poetry world, to be known for writing things that aren’t poetry. We’re suspicious of dabblers; we’d prefer for the poet to have, as Emerson put it, “only this one dream, which holds him like an insanity,” and we sometimes view single-minded devotion to poetry’s institutions as evidence of that larger dedication.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.

Saturday Poem

The Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu


Change the world? It’s a fool’s errand.
What is, is. What is, is Tao.
Seers agree you can’t squeeze
blood from a stone.

Sometimes you’re in the lead,
at other times you’re pulling up the rear.
Sometimes you’re like a whirlwind
—a tornado that must eventually unwind.
Even great nations decline.

You’re weak, you’re strong.
You’re down, you’re up.
Your still center is the hub
of all motion at its rim,
when turmoil rules, go in.

Can you see the isness of things
and take it well?
Stay simply aware. What need have  you
for whistles and bells?

Interp: R. Bob


The X Chromosome and the Case against Monogamy

From Scientific American:

Mono Researchers report genetic evidence bolstering the socially contentious idea that polygyny—the mating practice where some males dominate reproduction by fathering children with several women—was the norm for sexual behavior throughout human history and prehistory. Because polygyny means other men father few or no children, the study, published today in PloS Genetics, also shows that, on average, women bequeath more genes to their offspring than men do. 

The proportion of female to male genes passed on is not yet known. “Our follow-up work is to get a better estimate, but we believe it’s at least two to one, if not more,” says senior study author Michael Hammer, a geneticist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “This is good science, and even more notable is the increasing light it sheds on our own human nature,” says David Barash, evolutionary psychologist, University of Washington in Seattle.

The study, which examined genetic material (DNA) from six geographically diverse populations—Biaka from Central African Republic, Mandenka from Senegal, San from Namibia, French Basque, Han Chinese and Melanesians from Papua New Guinea—provides independent corroboration of what many animal studies have shown and evolutionary biologists have long claimed: basic human biology is polygynous, Barash notes. “Monogamy is a recently inspired cultural add-on.”

More here.

The Final Days

From The New York Times:

The War Within: A Secret Whitehouse History 2006-2008 by Bob Woodword.

Book In contrast to his other Bush volumes, “The War Within” does provide interstitial analysis and judgments throughout. It also renders an extremely harsh final appraisal of President Bush. In a stinging epilogue, Woodward concludes: “For years, time and again, President Bush has displayed impatience, bravado and unsettling personal certainty about his decisions. The result has too often been impulsiveness and carelessness and, perhaps most troubling, a delayed reaction to realities and advice that run counter to his gut.”

SOME will deem this judgment obvious and long overdue. They will also come away hungry if they expect Woodward to grapple with the central question surrounding the Iraq war: whether it was launched and fought with just cause. Still, Woodward has traveled far since the publication of his first two volumes; in both he viewed events through an overly heroic prism in the aftermath of 9/11. In his third volume, “State of Denial,” the author took a mulligan. Writing as the insurgency in Iraq was spinning out of control, he rewound the story back to the beginning and offered a much tougher account of Bush’s war policies and their executors.

In “The War Within,” more judgmental still, President Bush shrinks in stature as the narrator’s presence grows. Cynics will say that Woodward waited until the last book to fully criticize the president and his closest advisers because he no longer needs access to them.

More here.

what, again, is beauty?


Why is something beautiful? David Hume argued that beauty exists not in things but “in the mind that contemplates them.” And everyone has at some point heard the old saw that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But Plato had a fanciful answer made to argue for a universal truth: In his world of forms, he claimed there existed a perfect Form of Beauty, which was imperfectly manifested in what we call beautiful. Despite the allure of Plato’s metaphorical claim, students of aesthetics have struggled to substantiate it. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that there exist quantifiable, describable, universal aspects to the human capacity for appreciating beautiful forms, perhaps originating in our ancestors’ experience on African savannas or in the need to find suitable mates. They have not solved the problem. However, recent work by several researchers at University College London — including the establishment of the first major grant-driven research program for the neurobiological investigation of aesthetics, or neuroaesthetics — has made the first steps toward a unified biocultural theory of art. An object’s beauty may not be universal, but the neural basis for appreciating beauty probably is. The researchers’ initial discoveries and the increasing formalization of the field promise to open the way for the first time to an understanding of beauty based on something other than speculation.

more from Seed here.

god is boring


We live in an age of autobiography, one in which young writers cannot even bother to change people’s names to create a novel, in which a story being true is a greater virtue than being well written, or insightful, or interesting.

I have a few unyielding standards for a memoir: Either your book must be exceptionally written (a trait hard to find in memoirs these days) or you must have done something exceptional. You must have traveled to the underground or the heavens and come back with fire or golden apples or at least a little wisdom. It can’t just be, “Daddy hit me, mommy got cancer” — everyone has a sad story, and it is possible to go through a trauma or experience something significant without gaining any insight.

You would think that the spiritual memoir would be a stand out division — after all, if the writer has seen the face of God, he or she should probably get a good story out of that.

more from The Smart Set here.

pentagon minimalism


The $22 million memorial commemorating the 184 people who perished in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon was dedicated two weeks ago. A memorial may be beautiful or homely, sophisticated or crude, monumental or unassuming: That’s not really the point. A rough stone stele can be as effective as an intricately carved marble catafalque. But, as Andrew Butterfield wrote in the New Republic a few years ago in the context of a 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, a memorial does need to do three things: It marks a spot, it says who, and it says so forever. How does the Pentagon Memorial fulfill these requirements?

The Pentagon is a surprisingly low building whose immense bulk only becomes apparent as you walk around it, which you must do to get from the nearest Metro stop to the memorial. The two-acre site is immediately adjacent to the place where American Airlines Flight 77 struck. Hence, much of the power of this particular memorial derives from the simple fact that it marks the actual place where the event occurred.

more from Slate here.

A Bailout We Don’t Need?

James K. Galbraith argues against the $700 billion for Wall Street (via Ygelsias):

Is this bailout still necessary?

The point of the bailout is to buy assets that are illiquid but not worthless. But regular banks hold assets like that all the time. They’re called “loans.”

With banks, runs occur only when depositors panic, because they fear the loan book is bad. Deposit insurance takes care of that. So why not eliminate the pointless $100,000 cap on federal deposit insurance and go take inventory? If a bank is solvent, money market funds would flow in, eliminating the need to insure those separately. If it isn’t, the FDIC has the bridge bank facility to take care of that.

Next, put half a trillion dollars into the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. fund — a cosmetic gesture — and as much money into that agency and the FBI as is needed for examiners, auditors and investigators. Keep $200 billion or more in reserve, so the Treasury can recapitalize banks by buying preferred shares if necessary — as Warren Buffett did this week with Goldman Sachs. Review the situation in three months, when Congress comes back. Hedge funds should be left on their own. You can’t save everyone, and those investors aren’t poor.

With this solution, the systemic financial threat should go away. Does that mean the economy would quickly recover? No. Sadly, it does not. Two vast economic problems will confront the next president immediately. First, the underlying housing crisis: There are too many houses out there, too many vacant or unsold, too many homeowners underwater. Credit will not start to flow, as some suggest, simply because the crisis is contained. There have to be borrowers, and there has to be collateral. There won’t be enough.

50 greatest villains in literature

From The Telegraph:

Satan Compiling a list of the 50 Greatest Villains in Literature, without too much recourse to comics and children’s books, proved trickier than we’d imagined – but gosh it was fun. It’s perhaps the nature of grown-up literature that it doesn’t all that often have villains, in the sense of coal-black embodiments of the principle of evil. And even when it does, it’s not always so easy to tell who they are. Is God the baddie, or Satan? Ahab, or the white whale? Yet even writers as subtle as Vladimir Nabokov have spiced their work with a fiend or two. And here they are. We hope you’ll furnish a few more we missed. These are the best of the worst: bloodsuckers, pederasts, cannibals, Old Etonians…the dastardliest dastards ever to have lashed damsel to track and waited for a through train.

“Who’s bad?” Michael Jackson asked. “They are,” we can at last, with confidence, reply. SL

48 Shere Khan from The Jungle Book stories, by Rudyard Kipling

His name and character, if not his physical appearance or his species, are based on a Pashtun prince. And there is something refreshingly simple about his aims: to eat Mowgli. To this end he sows dissent among wolf pack (enough alone to get him down to the eighth circle of Dante’s hell) and causes Mowgli all sorts of trouble. TC

47 Long John Silver from Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson

The former sidekick of the pirate Captain Flint (for whom his parrot is named) may have one leg, but he is physically brave, likeable and a natural leader of men, especially after he kills one who won’t join his mutiny. Switches sides whenever he can, and gets away in the end. AMcK

46 Moriarty from The Final Problem, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Got a chair at one of our smaller universities after his work on the Binomial Theorem, but the criminal strain in his blood won out. The “Napoleon of Crime”, motionless “like a spider at the centre of his web”, until his fall in Switzerland, may be called James. Or that may be his brother. AMcK

More here.

A Switch to Turn Off Autism?

From Scientific American:

Neuron Scientists say they have pinpointed a gene in the brain that can calm nerve cells that become too jumpy, potentially paving the way for new therapies to treat autism and other neurological disorders. “It’s exciting because it opens the field up,” says Michael Greenberg, a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School. “Nobody has [found] a gene that controls the process in quite that way before.”

The brain is continually trying to strike a balance between too much and too little nerve cell activity. Neurologists believe that when the balance tips, disorders such as autism and shizophrenia may occur. They are not sure why neurons (nerve cells) go berserk. But Greenberg says he and his colleagues located a gene in mice and rats that helps keep neural activity in check—and may one day be manipulated to prevent or reverse neurological problems.
Researchers report in Nature that they discovered a gene called Npas4 churns out a protein that keeps neurons from becoming overexcited when they fire (communicate with one another through connections known as synapses).

More here.

Baader Meinhof Film Splits Germany

Bader460x276 Kate Connolly in the Guardian:

The bloody legacy of the Baader Meinhof Gang which caused mayhem across West Germany with its politically-motivated assassinations, bombings and kidnappings is to be portrayed on cinema screens this week in a new film which claims to debunk the myth of 1970s terrorist chic.

Just how raw the darkest chapter in Germany’s postwar history remains has been demonstrated by the angry reaction that the Baader Meinhof Komplex has prompted from victims’ families, the children of gang members and historians.

Some have accused the film – which boasts a cast of top German actors – of being too violent, or of reinforcing the image of gang members as Bonnie and Clyde-style heroes.

Bettina Roehl, the journalist daughter of the gang’s co-leader, Ulrike Meinhof, wrote in a blog: “The Baader Meinhof Komplex is the worst-case scenario – it would not be possible to top its hero worship.”

The Berliner Zeitung critic said the film had given Andreas Baader, the other gang leader and son of a history professor, the stuntman status he had always craved. “Finally [he] has got what he always wanted. Posthumously he has become the hero of a real action film,” the critic said.

It was Baader’s escape from prison for the fire bombing of two Frankfurt department stores that marked the birth of the Baader Meinhof Gang, otherwise known as the Red Army Faction (RAF). Its members’ campaigning zeal was triggered by their anger at their parents’ perceived failure to confront Germany’s Nazi past.

The Porsche-driving Baader modelled himself on the Hollywood actor Marlon Brando, and he and Meinhof, a successful journalist, epitomised the glamour that gave the gang its appeal – a status it enjoys in popular culture even today.

Fashion Week, The Cheap Seats

Molly Young reports…for n+1:

I. Round one: Z Zegna

Like ants in a colony, the men and women in town for Fashion Week have thin black exoskeletons, specialized social functions and valuable cargo to transport. A swarm of these people has formed on a September afternoon in front of the West Village showroom where Z Zegna will exhibit its Spring-Summer 2009 collection. I don’t know what Z Zegna is, apart from an Italian menswear line whose website has an alphabet theme. Words that begin with “S” scoot across the introduction page and fade into a photograph of a guy on a motorcycle—Seduction. Sporty. Style. A press release I downloaded opened with a paean to the expected letter Z: “The ultimate letter, the most distinguished of the alphabet.” An invitation to the show is sandwiched between two candy bars in my purse, like a boarding pass. In terms of Fashion Week hierarchies, I get the feeling that Z Zegna is Greyhound to Zac Posen’s Amtrak and Marc Jacobs’s Concorde.

But an invitation is an invitation. From what I can tell by eavesdropping, the people mingling outside the showroom are representatives from department stores, boutiques, online retailers, and press, all smoking and speaking different languages. An abandoned kombucha bottle is wedged in a decorative shrub. Malcolm Gladwell walks past on his way somewhere else and looks inquisitively at the gathering. Ah! My totem! I see Mr. Gladwell frequently in the West Village and consider him, like a shooting star or a rainbow, to be a sign of good luck.

Ten minutes after the show is scheduled to begin people wrap up their conversations and move inside, flashing invites to a team of assistants in black outfits. Stiffly upright men posted by the door hold trays of water bottles that have had the Z Zegna label glued to their midsections. A concrete ramp leads into a bright cavern with seats set up like bleachers alongside a white runway, which is arranged in a complicated Tetris shape. (This is not what I was led to expect by Project Runway.) There is tuneless thumping music beneath the sound of “darling” pronounced in a dozen accents. The smack of kisses landing on cheeks reminds me of asterisks.

Influence and Liberal Internationalism

Michael Walzer in Dissent:

[I]nfluence is a normal feature of political life. We all try to be as influential as possible. So how should influence work? When is it legitimate?  There is a Marxist argument about this in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which starts from everyday social life. Assume, Marx writes, that our relation to the world is a “human” relation: “Then love can only be exchanged for love, trust for trust…If you wish to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you wish to influence other people, you must be a person who really has a stimulating and encouraging effect upon others.” I suggest that the case is the same with political parties, social movements, all sorts of NGOs, and with states, too. If they want to influence people in other countries, they must be stimulating and encouraging, which means materially helpful, politically supportive, ideologically persuasive. What is ruled out by the idea of “human” relations is military force, coercion, manipulation, and subversion. Barring those four, influence isn’t limited to a regional sphere—any person, any party or movement, any state can be influential anywhere.

So if democratic states in western Europe, say, provide ideological support, political encouragement, and material assistance first to new democrats and then to new democracies in eastern Europe, this isn’t imperial politics. It is an attempt at influence, indeed, but it isn’t the creation of an old-fashioned sphere of influence. The expansion of NATO is a harder question, and I am not going to address it here. But support and encouragement for the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine fit Marx’s account of how influence ought to work—while the U.S. instigation of a Guatemalan coup obviously doesn’t.

nascar cancels season for dfw


“I’m flooded with feelings of—for lack of a better concept—incongruity,” said Jimmie Johnson, the driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet who is known throughout racing for his habit of handing out copies of Wallace’s novels to his fans. “David Foster Wallace could comprehend and articulate the sadness in a luxury cruise, a state fair, a presidential campaign, anything. But empathy, humanity, and compassion so strong as to be almost incoherent ran through that same sadness like connective tissue through muscle, affirming the value of the everyday, championing the banal yet true, acknowledging the ironic as it refused to give in to irony.”

“And now he’s gone,” Johnson added. “He’s taken himself away. We can’t possibly race now.”

David Foster Wallace’s work came to stock car racing in the mid-1990s, just as the sport began experiencing almost geometric yearly growth. But the literary atmosphere of the sport was moribund, mired in the once-flamboyant but decidedly aging mid-1960s stylings of Tom Wolfe, whose bombastic essays—notably “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!”—served as the romantic, quasi-elegiac be-all and end-all for NASCAR fans and series participants alike. Racing was ready for new ideas, and when a new generation of young drivers like Jeff Gordon arrived on the scene, sporting new sponsorship deals on their fireproof coveralls and dog-eared copies of Broom Of The System under their arms, an intellectual seed crystal was dropped into the supersaturated solution of American motorsports.

more from The Onion here.

roubini getting it right

Even if the Treasury TARP plan is implemented fairly and efficiently the US will not avoid a severe U-shaped18-month recession and a severe financial and banking crisis: the recession train has already left the station in Q1 and the financial/banking crisis will be severe regardless of what the Treasury and the Fed do from now on. What a proper rescue plan can do is to avoid having the US experience a multi-year L-shaped recession and extreme financial crisis like the one that led to a decade long stagnation in Japan in the 1990s after the bursting of their real estate and equity bubbles.

Roubini at the RGE website here.

Roubini video here
Via Andrew Sullivan.

Bernard-Henri Levy’s Left in Dark Times

Scott McLemee in The Nation:

We witness a historical re-enactment of the New Philosophical argument that Pol Pot’s regime was the logical culmination of the Marxist revolutionary vision at its purest. Here, the benighted American leftist reader may want to interrupt–to ask if, say, the destabilization of Cambodia by years of carpet bombing during the Vietnam War might be just as germane to understanding the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power as even the most nuanced appreciation of Louis Althusser’s structuralism. (Ideas have consequences, but so do B-52s.)

Such an objection would not be welcome, for one of the two very worst forces in the world, by Lévy’s account, is anti-Americanism. The other is anti-Semitism, which, it seems to BHL, is well on the way to becoming the ideological core of a new, global totalitarian movement. Sooner or later all those kids with Che T-shirts and Noam Chomsky lectures on their iPods are going to discover the Protocols of Zion–and then what happens? Nothing good.

To swim against this sinister tide, it is necessary to insist upon “the correct notion of Islamofascism, or, better, of Fascislamism” (why the latter should be preferable is not clear) and revitalize old leftist commitments to secular society. The good, true, BHLian left will be generously cosmopolitan. “You won’t find me denying that non-European civilizations have produced wonders, and whole worlds, that it would be disastrous to ignore, and even more disastrous to crush beneath the wheel of a lazy, brutal, eradicating Universal,” proclaims Lévy.

That last part is a relief, to be sure. But it places us right back in front of certain problems that are not so readily solved–not in theory and certainly not in practice. For there is a long history of particular societies coming to regard themselves as “concrete Universals” (to borrow from a certain idiom apropos here)–in short, as the fullest possible manifestation of the proper essence of humanity, given the world’s conditions. People in other societies tend not to take this well, at least not when it becomes a foreign policy enforced by B-52s. It makes them resentful, and worse than resentful, and being patted on the head for their colorful history and folkways may not soothe them.

being trilling


Lionel Trilling was not completely happy about being Lionel Trilling. “I have one of the great reputations in the academic world,” he wrote in his journal after being promoted to full professor in the Columbia English Department, in 1948. “This thought makes me retch.” Two years later, he published “The Liberal Imagination,” a book that sold more than seventy thousand copies in hardcover and more than a hundred thousand in paperback, and that made Trilling a figure, a model of the intellectual in Cold War America. He represented, for many people, the life of the mind. Trilling was baffled by the attention. “I hear on all sides of the extent of my reputation—which some even call ‘fame,’ ” he wrote in the journal. “It is the thing I have most wanted from childhood—although of course in much greater degree—and now that I seem to have it I have no understanding whatever of its basis—of what it is that makes people respond to what I say, for I think of it as of a simplicity and of a naivety almost extreme.”

He hated being regarded as a paragon of anything.

more from The New Yorker here.