To the End of the Land

From The Guardian:

For some time now, David Grossman has been describing his writing as a means of survival, as a way of no longer feeling a victim in the “disaster zone” of the seemingly eternal conflict that is Israel-Palestine. At moments he has talked of the risk of dispassion, of being paralysed with fear To-the-End-of-the-Land and despair. With the publication of this extraordinary, impassioned novel, such purpose or hope acquires a new meaning and intensity. It now seems that the life to be saved by writing, even though the struggle may be doomed, could only be – perhaps always has been – the life of a child.

To the End of the Land tells the story of Ora, who leaves her home in Jerusalem to walk across Israel to Galilee, in order to avoid the “notifiers” who might arrive at any moment to inform her of the death of her son. It is the trip they had planned together to celebrate his discharge from military service. Instead, he volunteers to rejoin the army in a high-intensity offensive – “a kick-ass operation” – against the Palestinians at the start of the second intifada. Ofer has been lost to his mother “forever from the moment he was nationalised”. Her husband, Ilan, has left her, taking her other son, Adam, with him to South America, after she failed to support Ofer when he was investigated over an incident in Hebron which left a Palestinian trapped in a meat-locker for two days. Ora is, among many other things, her son's failed conscience, a voice of caution for him and for her country which neither wishes to hear. Her love for him is limitless, but when he justifies the recourse to violence against the Palestinians, her sole focus is on saving “her child from the barbarian standing opposite her”.

More here.

How stress shapes ecosystems: Frightened animals make bad fertilizer

From Nature:

Grass You are tense and wary, alert to every rustle and snapped twig. A predator is near, you can sense it. Your heart races; you sweat. Quietly, you reach for a doughnut. Stress speeds up the metabolism of grasshoppers, making them seek out easily digested sugars and carbohydrates for a quick energy boost. This and other results, published in three journals in the past month, could have big implications — not just for prospective prey, but also for the ecosystems they live in.

In more relaxed conditions, many animals opt for high-protein foods that help them to grow and reproduce. But with a predator lurking, they need fuel to quickly feed their amped-up bodies — and to bolt, if needs be. Dror Hawlena, an ecologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, has been teasing out the ecological ramifications of this predation stress in meadows.

More here.

divided soul


Jonathan Franzen is, by his own account, a divided soul. “It turns out,” he once wrote, “that I subscribe to two wildly different models of how fiction relates to its audience.” One was the Status model: high art, genius, Flaubert; the other was the Contract model: accessibility, pleasure, the community of readers. Of the two things for which Franzen is most famous (other, of course, than The Corrections, his 2001 National Book Award–winning best seller), both were public controversies that erupted from this very self-division. The first was his 1996 Harper’s essay that renounced the novel of cultural critique in favor of “writ[ing] fiction for the fun and entertainment of it,” yet contrived to do so in a way that left him looking like exactly the kind of ideologue he didn’t want to be mistaken for. The second may be dubbed l’affaire Oprah—Franzen’s disinvitation by that redoubtable figure on a charge of aggravated elitism, in the course of which he came across as both a snob to the masses and a philistine to the literati. He couldn’t seem to figure out where he wanted to the stand, and so, renouncing both the highbrow and the low, pleasing no one by trying to please everyone, he managed, in the most sincere and well-intentioned way, to strand himself inside a one-man DMZ that perfectly embodied his ambivalence.

more from William Deresiewicz at Bookforum here.

not reading it


I try to get away from the damn thing, but it keeps coming at me. A friend visiting announced he had finished it on the airplane — did I want a look? There were emails, blog posts, multiple reviews in the same venue. And then, on vacation, in another country and in another language, there it was, in the Viennese bookstore window where I stopped to tie my shoe: FREIHEIT von Jonathan Franzen. It appears that everyone in the world is being stalked by Jonathan Franzen right now. My proclamation that I was not going to read Freedom was beginning to make me look like a dick. Just read it already. What’s the big deal? It’ll take a few days, and then you will be a participant in the cultural zeitgeist, the document of our era, the book that made books relevant again. (At least, the book since Twilight. Or Harry Potter. Or the last Franzen, Corrections.) After all, the Guardian called it the book of the century. Surely you have to read that. But no.

more from Jessa Crispin at The Smart Set here.

zooming in on details


Franzen is at his best when zooming in on details of the material world, depicting youthfully exclusive advances in telephoning, texting and emailing etiquette, for example: “You don’t understand that your phone is very, very different from your e-mail”, Walter’s exasperated daughter scolds him. “I have friends who hardly even check their e-mail anymore.” He is a brilliant and funny observer of physical movement, facial nuance, hand signals, tones of voice that register the opposite of what the speaker is trying to convey. Freedom contains many virtuoso passages, so many, indeed, that one is subject to the ungrateful suspicion that Franzen can weave the stuff by the yard. Conversations which ought to have concluded business with a snappy exchange are allowed to wander over three or four pages – another form of “American sprawl”. Some readers will be drawn by the naturalism, which has been promoted as a relief from the more arduous approach of writers such as Don DeLillo, others may be attracted by the new-fangled scientific expertise, while yet others will respond to the darkness of Joey thanking Connie “for fucking somebody else”, even as they contemplate marriage.

more from James Campbell at the TLS here.

The Artist Was Here

Abramovic_Performance5_Photo_Scott_Rudd.jpeg In the Economist:

“I HATE studio. For me, studio is a trap to overproduce and repeat yourself. It is a habit that leads to art pollution,” says Marina Abramovic, America’s most famous performance artist. She is in her kitchen, which occupies one prong of a star-shaped house with walls that are full of windows but free of art. “Nothing new happens. You don’t surprise yourself. You don’t put yourself in situations to risk,” she adds in a rapid, whispering monotone with a Serbian accent. The artist was born in Belgrade and lived all over the world before settling in Manhattan and then Maldon Bridge, New York.

Ms Abramovic’s milestone performance, “The Artist is Present”, had her sitting silently all day, every day from mid-March to the end of May in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. To preserve her energy for the marathon of one-on-one encounters with members of the public, she rarely spoke to anyone after hours other than museum staff. Now that the speechless blockbuster is over, Ms Abramovic seems to find particular joy in talking, with no diminution of her powerful presence.

“Ideas can come anytime, anywhere, while I am making this gazpacho or going to the bathroom,” she says as she chops tomatoes from her garden. “I am only interested in the ideas that become obsessive and make me feel uneasy. The ideas that I’m afraid of.”

Kafka’s Last Trial

26kafka-t_CA0-articleLarge Elif Batuman in the NYT Magazine:

During his lifetime, Franz Kafka burned an estimated 90 percent of his work. After his death at age 41, in 1924, a letter was discovered in his desk in Prague, addressed to his friend Max Brod. “Dearest Max,” it began. “My last request: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.” Less than two months later, Brod, disregarding Kafka’s request, signed an agreement to prepare a posthumous edition of Kafka’s unpublished novels. “The Trial” came out in 1925, followed by “The Castle” (1926) and “Amerika” (1927). In 1939, carrying a suitcase stuffed with Kafka’s papers, Brod set out for Palestine on the last train to leave Prague, five minutes before the Nazis closed the Czech border. Thanks largely to Brod’s efforts, Kafka’s slim, enigmatic corpus was gradually recognized as one of the great monuments of 20th-century literature.

The contents of Brod’s suitcase, meanwhile, became subject to more than 50 years of legal wrangling. While about two-thirds of the Kafka estate eventually found its way to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the remainder — believed to comprise drawings, travel diaries, letters and drafts — stayed in Brod’s possession until his death in Israel in 1968, when it passed to his secretary and presumed lover, Esther Hoffe. After Hoffe’s death in late 2007, at age 101, the National Library of Israel challenged the legality of her will, which bequeaths the materials to her two septuagenarian daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler. The library is claiming a right to the papers under the terms of Brod’s will. The case has dragged on for more than two years. If the court finds in the sisters’ favor, they will be free to follow Eva’s stated plan to sell some or all of the papers to the German Literature Archive in Marbach. They will also be free to keep whatever they don’t sell in their multiple Swiss and Israeli bank vaults and in the Tel Aviv apartment that Eva shares with an untold number of cats.

The situation has repeatedly been called Kafkaesque, reflecting, perhaps, the strangeness of the idea that Kafka can be anyone’s private property. Isn’t that what Brod demonstrated, when he disregarded Kafka’s last testament: that Kafka’s works weren’t even Kafka’s private property but, rather, belonged to humanity?

judge jerry


It’s been one month since the final episode of Work of Art: The Next Great Artist aired on Bravo. For those who don’t know, I was one of four regular judges on the show, which, much like Project Runway or Top Chef, asked fourteen aspiring artists to compete for $100,000 and an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. I’m told the show got bigger ratings than Project Runway in its first season (whatever that means), and blogs have reported that the network is committed to a second season. (If that’s true, I haven’t been contacted yet. Hello?) Should Work of Art return, prepare for a collective shriek of horror. The art world, for the most part, despised the show, describing it as, among other things, a disaster for art. The New York Times reported that a Brooklyn Museum trustee resigned in part because of the museum’s partnership with Bravo. Blogs blasted me as a sellout and fraud; one called the show “a glitter-dipped, shellacked turd” (sounds like a Chris Ofili painting); another said it “promulgates a massive deception that out-deceives all other reality programs.” (Take that, Fox News!) William Powhida, whose pointed cartoons of the art world were on my 2009 top-ten list, complained that being on my list was now “more like an anchor around my ankle than a life raft.”

more from Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine here.

All that interests me here is the Roma and their scandalous and unnecessary suffering


The president of the French republic raised a mountain, and it has fallen on his toes. In launching its offensive against the Roma, the French government believed it could turn to its electoral advantage a problem which is essentially a problem of border policing and the state authorities. Major error. The question of the Roma is not about public or social security, it is about mental security. And it is not a uniquely French problem, it is a European problem. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the American daily the Los Angeles Times conducted one of the first polls in Eastern Europe in 1990. The results showed that for 80 percent of the populations freshly freed from Communism – Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians and Poles, the ‘Gypsy’ was the incarnation of the diabolical other. In the nineties and in the face of strong popular resistance, Czech President Vaclav Havel tore down a ghetto where his people wanted to see the “travelling people” incarcerated. The hatred of the “Gypsies” may be widespread and have seen its worse excesses in Eastern Europe, but it is certainly no stranger to the West. Nineteen century literature and opera – from Victor Hugo to Verdi – amply betrays the fears of the sedentary about the non-territorial collective. Begging, disease, thieving, and even fantasies about child snatching – such were the associations that for centuries haunted a European mind living in fear of “people who don’t live as we do”. Propelling this hysteria to its extreme, the Nazis sent these “sub-humans” to the gas chambers.

more from Andre Glucksmann at Sign and Sight here.

the inscrutable one


No biographer of George Washington has failed to remark on his inscrutability. In “Washington: A Life” (Penguin; $40), Ron Chernow calls Washington “the most famously elusive figure in American history.” Sparks eventually published eleven volumes of Washington’s writings, together with a one-volume biography. In 1893, Worthington C. Ford published the last installment of a fourteen-volume set. An edition of thirty-nine volumes was completed in 1940. Of the University of Virginia Press’s magnificent “Papers of George Washington,” begun in 1968, sixty-two volumes have been published so far. But, for all those papers, Washington rarely revealed himself on the page. Even his few surviving letters to his wife are formal and strained. Those diaries? Here is Washington’s entire diary entry for October 24, 1774, a day that he was in Philadelphia, as a delegate to the Continental Congress, debating, among other things, a petition to be sent to the King: “Dined with Mr. Mease & Spent the Evening at the New Tavern.” Here is how John Adams’s diary entry for that same day begins: “In Congress, nibbling and quibbling, as usual. There is no greater mortification than to sit with half a dozen Witts, deliberating upon a Petition, Address, or Memorial. These great Witts, these subtle Criticks, these refined Genius’s, these learned Lawyers, these wise Statesmen, are so fond of shewing their Parts and Powers, as to make their Consultations very tedius. Young Ned Rutledge is a perfect Bob o’ Lincoln—a Swallow—a Sparrow—a Peacock—excessively vain, excessively weak, and excessively variable and unsteady—jejune, inane, and puerile. Mr. Dickinson is very modest, delicate, and timid.” Aside from chucking Washington in favor of writing about Adams, what’s a biographer to do?

more from Jill Lepore at The New Yorker here.

Kwame Anthony Appiah on Honor

From Big Think:

Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher, novelist, and professor of philosophy at Princeton University. Appiah was born in London but moved as an infant to Ghana, where he grew up. His father, Joseph Emmanuel Appiah, a lawyer and politician, was also, at various times, a Member of Parliament, an Ambassador, and a President of the Ghana Bar Association. His mother, Peggy Appiah, whose family was English, was a novelist, children’s writer, and social activist. In 1970, Appiah’s great-uncle, Otumfuo Sir Osei Agyeman Prempeh II, was succeeded by his uncle, Otumfuo Nana Poku Ware II, as king of Ashanti.

Appiah was educated abroad in England, ultimately graduating from Clare College, Cambridge University, in England, where he took both B.A. and Ph.D. degrees in the philosophy department. Since Cambridge, he has taught at Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Harvard universities and lectured at many other institutions in the United States, Germany, Ghana and South Africa, as well as at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

Appiah is the author of several books including “The Ethics of Identity,” “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers,” “Experiment in Ethics,” and “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.” He has also written three novels and reviews regularly for the New York Review of Books. 

He currently serves as President of the PEN American Center. He has homes in New York city and near Pennington, in New Jersey, which he shares with his partner, Henry Finder, Editorial Director of the New Yorker magazine.

Wednesday Poem

A Birthday Poem

Just past dawn, the sun stands
with its heavy red head
in a black stanchion of trees,
waiting for someone to come
with his bucket
for the foamy white light,
and then a long day in the pasture.
I too spend my days grazing,
feasting on every green moment
till darkness calls,
and with the others
I walk away into the night,
swinging the little tin bell
of my name.

by Ted Kooser

A Beheading

A terrifying and very short story by Mohsin Hamid in the current issue of Granta, which is devoted to Pakistan:

1283783497754 I hear the window shatter. There’s no air conditioner on to muffle the sound. I get out of bed. I wish I wasn’t my age. I wish I was as old as my parents. Or as young as my son. I wish it didn’t have to be me telling my wife to stay where she is, saying everything will be fine in a voice she doesn’t believe and I don’t believe either. We both hear the shouting downstairs. ‘Put on some clothes,’ I’m saying to her. ‘It’ll be better if you’re wearing clothes.’

The electricity’s gone so I use my phone to light the way. already there’s the sound of men running up the wooden stairs. I shut the bedroom door and lock it behind me. Shadows are jumping and stretching from multiple torches. I raise both my hands. ‘I’m here,’ I say to them. I want to say it loudly. I sound like a whispering child. ‘Please. Everything is all right.’

I’m on the floor. Someone has hit me. I don’t know if it was with a hand or a club. My mouth is full of liquid. I can’t get any words out. I’m gagging and I have to let my jaw hang open so I can breathe. Behind my back my wrists are being taped together. It feels like electrical tape, the kind of tape you wrap around a tennis ball for street cricket when you’re a kid. I’m lying on my face and there’s a grinding pain from that so I make some noise before I black out.

More here.

In the 2008 election, Hillary Clinton lost but feminism won

From The Washington Post:

Book In the early pages of “Big Girls Don't Cry,” Salon's Rebecca Traister seems determined to alienate every female reader over 40. Had I fallen for her false start, I would have missed her considerable contributions to the ongoing feminist narrative described by Gloria Steinem as the “revolution from within.”

At first, Traister gleefully harpoons the warriors of old to explain why her younger generation is done with antiquated notions of feminism. Consider, for example, her description of the women at a nonpartisan, pro-abortion-rights gathering: “It was a crowd of monied, Botoxed, electorally enthralled dames who, in the popular imagination of the time, should have had 'Hillary '08' mown into their Hamptons house topiary, if not their bikini lines.” That comes a mere four pages after she argues that, if young women are to care about feminism, the “conversation had to be drained of some of its earnest piety. Talking about gender in the new millennium required us, I thought, to get over ourselves a little bit, to dispense with the sacred cows, to question power and cultivate new ideas and leaders.”

More here.

Me, Myself and My Stranger: Understanding the Neuroscience of Selfhood

From Scientific American:

Neuroscience-of-selfhood_1 Where are you right now? Maybe you are at home, the office or a coffee shop—but such responses provide only a partial answer to the question at hand. Asked another way, what is the location of your “self” as you read this sentence? Like most people, you probably have a strong sense that your conscious self is housed within your physical body, regardless of your surroundings. But sometimes this spatial self-location goes awry. During a so-called out-of-body experience, for example, one's self seems to be transported outside the physical body into a surreal perspective—some people even believe they are viewing their bodies from above, as though their true selves were floating. In a related experience, people with a delusion known as somatoparaphrenia disown one of their limbs or confuse another person's limb for their own. Such warped perceptions help researchers understand the neuroscience of selfhood. 

A new paper offers examples of rare bodily illusions that are not confined to a single limb, nor are they complete out-of-body experiences—they are somewhere in between. These illusory body perceptions, described in the September issue of Consciousness and Cognition, could offer novel clues about how the brain maintains a link between the physical and conscious selves, or what the researchers call “bodily self-consciousness.”

More here.

The Winners of the 3 Quarks Daily 2010 Philosophy Prize

TOP_Quark_2010_New Philosophy-Strange-wake PhilCharm2010

Akeel Bilgrami has picked the three winners:

  1. Top Quark, $1000: Justin Erik Halldor Smith: More on Non-Western Philosophy (the Very Idea)
  2. Strange Quark, $300: Tomkow: The Retributive Theory of Property
  3. Charm Quark, $200: Brian Leiter's Nietzsche Blog: Katsafanas on “Nietzsche's Philosophical Psychology”

Here is what Professor Bilgrami had to say about them:

Blogs are not easy to assess for a prize.

For one thing, unlike the standard journal article, the length of blogs is quite variable as is evident among the finalists for the 3 Quarks Daily prize for philosophical blogs. The short blogs are at a disadvantage because they are bound –prima facie– to be more limited in ambition and in patient development of an argument. This was true for most of the shorter blogs I was sent –and I found myself wishing that the authors had allowed themselves more words.

For another, blogs are often embedded in larger contexts of writing because they are often responses to earlier postings. This is fine for the devoted reader who has been following the entire thread of postings. But for someone wheeled in as a judge for a prize, the most embedded of blogs are willy-nilly given as self-standing. Of course, if one is alert, one can surmise the larger context sufficiently to get a sense of the blog’s chief points and purpose. Still, it puts those blogs, which are more deeply embedded in earlier discussions at a disadvantage when compared with blogs which are first off and therefore manifestly self-standing.

Following instructions, I’ve selected three blogs.

The third prize goes to the blog on the Nietzsche discussion site. It had a number of interesting points to make and it may well have been placed higher if I had had a chance to read the earlier posting to which it was a response. As it happens, since I didn’t, I was left with a blinded appreciation of the overall dialectic on the issues at stake, but nevertheless appreciated some of the philosophical points that could be distilled despite missing the full sense of the background to the discussion.

The second prize goes to the longish self-standing discussion of property rights. The essay is smart, it is written with verve and high spirits, even as it makes its several historical and analytical claims concisely. I would have thought that what it says of property rights could not possibly extend to some rights that are not part of the standard liberal repertory of rights, even though the author begins with a discussion of a retributive theory of rights, in general.

The first prize goes to the essay on Western and non-Western philosophy. Despite one of the responses to it which makes a claim to exceptions, I think, the essay gives a more or less accurate description of the assumptions underlying the angle we have tended to take on non-Western philosophy and it makes a telling criticism against those assumptions. It is a good example of how one can learn about our own limitations by taking a critical look at how we tend to view others. It, like the previous blog I mentioned, is also very engagingly written and, I daresay, (despite one or two moments of hyperbole), it is measurably more believable.

My congratulations to the winners.

Congratulations also from 3QD to the winners (I will send the prize money later today–and remember, you must claim the money within one month from today–just send me an email). And feel free to leave your acceptance speech as a comment here! And thanks to everyone who participated. Thanks also, of course, to Akeel Bilgrami for doing the final judging.

The three prize logos at the top of this post were designed, respectively, by Carla Goller, Sughra Raza, and me. I hope the winners will display them with pride on their own blogs!

Details about the prize here.

Why, liberals wonder, don’t populists vote their economic interest?

William Hogeland in the Boston Review:

110 Because populism seeks, ostensibly, to enshrine and advance the rights and hopes of ordinary people, and because liberalism believes itself to be those rights’ best protection, populism’s rightward allegiances can be distressingly counterintuitive for liberals. Why, liberals wonder, don’t populists vote their economic interest? Liberals have long been asking about the white working class’s tendency to vote for Republican candidates, whose programs benefit the wealthy, and to reject the Democrats, whose programs, liberals keep insisting, benefit the working class. Liberals look wistfully to the New Deal days, when their predecessors banded together with populists and elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt president four times.

Yet the New Deal was a brief and possibly exceptional period, full of changes so big and important that it tends to block our longer-range historical view. American political and cultural life has more often involved mutual incomprehension and outright hostility between liberalism and populism. Repeatedly in U.S. history, the two have defined themselves publicly, as they are doing now, by rhetorical rejection of the other. Both ways of thinking may be fundamentally American, but that also may be all they share.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

The Hidden Singer

The gods are less
for their love of praise.
Above and below them all
is a spirit that needs
nothing but its own
its health and ours.
It has made all things
by dividing itself.
It will be whole again.
To its joy we come
together—the seer
and the seen, the eater
and the eaten, the lover
and the loved.
In our joining it knows
itself. It is with us then,
not as the gods
whose names crest
in unearthly fire,
but as the little bird
hidden in the leaves
who sings quietly
and waits
and sings.

by Wendell Berry
from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry;
Counterpoit Press, 1998

Is Narcissism Good for Business?

From Science:

Narcissism Narcissists, new experiments show, are great at convincing others that their ideas are creative even though they're just average. Still, groups with a handful of narcissists come up with better ideas than those with none, suggesting that self-love contributes to real-world success.

Narcissism and creativity seem to go hand in hand. Creative people often appear self-important, hungry for attention, and unconcerned with others' ideas and opinions— all traits narcissists share. Think of Pablo Picasso, famous for his iconoclastic paintings but infamous for declaring, “I am God.” Like Picasso, narcissists often rise to positions of importance in art, business, and other endeavors, suggesting that they have ability and ideas that others do not.

More here.