why do we yearn for him?


George Washington’s corpse was scarcely a month in its grave when an enterprising minister from Maryland named Mason Locke Weems made a pitch to a Philadelphia publisher. “I’ve got something to whisper in your lug,” Weems wrote in January 1800. “Washington, you know is gone! Millions are gaping to read something about him. . . . My plan! I give his history, sufficiently minute” and “go on to show that his unparalleled rise & elevation were due to his Great Virtues.” Weems was on to something. His sentimental and often fictional biography became a best seller, the first in a seemingly endless stream of studies of the man who led the Continental Army to victory in the American War for Independence and who as the first president of the United States did more than anyone else to establish the legitimacy of a national government merely outlined in the Constitution of 1787. Today, books about Washington continue to appear at such an astonishing rate that the publication of Ron Chernow’s prompts the inevitable question: Why another one?

more from Andrew Cayton at the NYT here.

Bring Music, Bring Life

Barenboim Daniel Barenboim interviewed by Clemency Burton-Hill, over at Eurozine:

Clemency Burton-Hill: One of my strongest memories of rehearsing with you and the West-Eastern Divan is a moment when you reminded the members of the orchestra that every single one of their governments would stop them from being there if they could, and that what they were doing was therefore very brave. For all the adulation and acclaim that the Divan garners around the world, it strikes me that it is, essentially, a censored orchestra.

Daniel Barenboim: Yes, you're probably right. The Divan is not acceptable to any of the countries represented by its members. We can't play in any Arab countries except the Emirates, nor in Israel. The Israelis don't understand why it is even necessary to make the gesture. And the Arab world mostly sees the Divan as a way of normalisation, in the sense of accepting Israel, and all the problems that involves.

C. B.-H.: So the fact that those kids come together to make music with each other every year, in the face of governments who would silence them and despite recriminations from their friends and family at home, feels like something of a defiant act.

D. B.: It is. And you know, I believe more and more that it is up to individuals – or minorities – to express things which are not acceptable to the majority. Because there is always a special angle that an individual or a minority can have. And maybe the majority will eventually follow, but you cannot start a new idea that is going to change things with the blessing of the majority.

C. B.-H.: How important is it that the orchestra be allowed to make music freely in the Middle East?

D. B.: I think the full dimensions of the Divan will only be achieved when we are able to play in Tel Aviv, Damascus, Beirut, Cairo, because that is really what it is all about. On the other hand, if the conflict was resolved there would hardly be a need for the Divan. And so it is a bit of a contradiction in terms. The Divan came into existence and continues to develop because of the conflict, and it has not yet been fully able to push through its idea of accepting the narrative of the other, the point of view of the other. For that you need a yearning voice for justice and for compassion, from both sides. And the Israelis as a majority I don't think have a compassion for the rights of the Palestinians, otherwise they wouldn't be occupying the territories for so many years and they wouldn't blockade Gaza.

Sex, Evolution, and the Case of the Missing Polygamists

Sarahbhrdy.jpeg Eric Michael Johnson in Psychology Today:

Primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (author of The Woman That Never Evolved, Mother Nature, as well as her latest book Mothers and Others) is one of the leading experts on polygynous mating systems in primates. As she explained to me in our recent correspondence there are several important considerations that have been left out of this story. The most important is the kind of sample bias I referred to earlier if we were to make conclusions about Agatha Christie's work based only on her final novel. The DNA evidence may be a record of the human past, but how far into the past does it actually go? As Hrdy explained:

Keep in mind that in terms of interpreting such genetic evidence we are of necessity confined to a fairly recent time depth (and remember, by “recent” someone like me means the last 10,000 years or so). For this time period multiple lines of evidence do indeed suggest that humans were moderately to extremely polygynous and that women were moving between groups more than men were.

However, humans have been around for far longer than 10,000 years, with conservative estimates placing the emergence of modern Homo sapiens at about 200,000 years ago. A genetic record extending back 10,000 years is remarkable, but it's essentially adding only three more novels to our existing timeline. There is also something very important to consider that dramatically influenced human behavior within the last 10,000 years: the invention of agriculture. Prior to about 12,000 years ago all humans were hunter-gatherers and lived a migratory existence. With the advent of farming some human societies began to remain sedentary for the first time in our history. This change had serious impacts on human life and behavior. Just as Alzheimer's dramatically altered the content of Agatha Christie's work, so agriculture radically transformed human society and, by consequence, sexual behavior.

Hrdy argues that there was a major disruption in human residence patterns as a result of this “agricultural revolution.” In small bands of modern day hunter-gatherers there is a mixture of what anthropologists call matrilocal and patrilocal residence, the practice of women or men to stay within the community they're born into while the other migrates between communities. However, recent research has shown that hunter-gatherer societies today emphasize matrilocal (or bilocal) residence while fewer than 25% are considered patrilocal. This is in stark contrast to the larger scale agricultural societies where an estimated 70% are patrilocal

Via Razib Khan, who has some interesting comments on the issue.

Has any author’s reputation fallen further or faster than Dostoevsky’s?

From The Guardian:

Fyodor-Dostoyevsky--006 For those who don't know the story, Dostoevsky's first novel Poor Folk was passed before publication to a legendary critic/blowhard called Vissarion Belinsky who promptly declared that Dostoevsky was the heir to Gogol. This was nonsense: Poor Folk is a mawkish tale that would have been forgotten had the same author not also written Crime and Punishment et al. Still, the 24-year-old Fedya D was suddenly feted everywhere as the new literary genius of St Petersburg. It went to his head and he soon became insufferable, alienating all his new literary “friends”, who revenged themselves when he published his second novel, The Double. Not merely trashed, the book was denounced. Dostoevsky became a bad joke.

What I didn't know until now was the length of time between his moment of glory and terrible downfall. Authors then wrote much more quickly than they do today, and some of those impossibly fat 19th-century mega-books were composed in a quarter of the time it takes Milan Kundera to crank out a boring late novella. Bearing that in mind, take a guess: how long did Fedya D last as a cause celebre? A year? Nine months? Six? Three? The correct answer is: 15 days. That's right. Poor Folk was published on 15 January 1846; The Double followed on 30 January. Cue the reputation apocalypse. Now that has to be some kind of record. Thirteen years later he did emerge from exile to score a comeback with his novel-memoir House of the Dead, but according to Mochulsky, Dostoevsky never recovered his confidence. Even as he was writing some of the greatest books in world literature he remained consumed with anxiety that he had not yet “established his reputation”.

More here.

Friday Poem

One And The Same

……….. space
without center no above or below
devours and engenders itself and does not cease
Whirlpool space
……………………. and it falls into height
……….. clarities cut into jewel points
………… from night's sheerness
black gardens of rock crystal
flowering along a bow of smoke
white gardens that explode in air
………… a sole space that unfolds
………………. and dissolves
………………………………….space into space

All is nowhere
place of impalpable nuptuals

by Octavio Paz
Octavio Paz the Collected Poems 1957-1987
Carcenet Press, 1988

Lo Idéntico

…………. espacio
sin centro ni arriba ni abajo
se devora y se engendra y no cesa
Espacio remolino
……………………. y caída hacia arriba
………….. claridades cortadas a pico
……………… al flanco de la noche
jardines negros de cristal la roca
en una vara de humo florecidos
jardines blancos que estallan en el aire
………… un solo espacio que se abre
……….y se disuelve
………………………..espacio en el espacio
Todo es ninguna parte
lugar de las nupcias impalpables

by Octavio Paz

Rivalry Among DNA Sleuths Comes Alive in Letters

Nicholas Wade in The New York Times:

Crick-popup A long-lost trove of letters written by and to Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, has resurfaced, highlighting the tensions between the members of two English laboratories as they vied with each other and in alliance against a formidable American rival, the great chemist Linus Pauling. The letters were written during a 26-year period when Crick informally guided the progress of molecular biologists around the world in establishing how DNA operates in living cells. An article on the letters was published Wednesday in the journal Nature, focusing on those related to the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure in 1953.

“We are really between forces that may grind all of us to pieces,” the physicist Maurice Wilkins wrote after a disastrous attempt by Crick and his colleague James D. Watson to build a model of DNA based in part on data gathered by Rosalind Franklin. Ignoring the intimations of doom, Crick responded to Dr. Wilkins in flippant style, referring to his poaching another lab’s problem and to his friend’s inability to get along with his colleague Dr. Franklin. “So cheer up and take it from us that even if we kicked you in the pants it was between friends,” Crick wrote in December 1951. “We hope our burglary will at least produce a united front in your group!”

More here.

Environmentalism as Religion


For some individuals and societies, the role of religion seems increasingly to be filled by environmentalism. It has become “the religion of choice for urban atheists,” according to Michael Crichton, the late science fiction writer (and climate change skeptic). In a widely quoted 2003 speech, Crichton outlined the ways that environmentalism “remaps” Judeo-Christian beliefs: “There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.” In parts of northern Europe, this new faith is now the mainstream. “Denmark and Sweden float along like small, content, durable dinghies of secular life, where most people are nonreligious and don’t worship Jesus or Vishnu, don’t revere sacred texts, don’t pray, and don’t give much credence to the essential dogmas of the world’s great faiths,” observes Phil Zuckerman in his 2008 book Society without God. Instead, he writes, these places have become “clean and green.” This new faith has very concrete policy implications; the countries where it has the most purchase tend also to have instituted policies that climate activists endorse. To better understand the future of climate policy, we must understand where “ecotheology” has come from and where it is likely to lead.

more from Joel Garreau at The New Atlantis here.

The cover screamed epic


So why read 4 million words about arcane metaphysical theology, battle after battle, the mundane, angst-ridden thoughts of hundreds of people you don’t now know, and sex scenes that involve sentences like “He cupped the back of her head and barely had the presence of mind not to finger her ear”? The vast majority of Wheel of Time fans will wax nostalgic for the first three novels of Jordan’s trilogy, each of which is a comparatively compact, self-contained marvel of storytelling. The fourth book is the first to carry an ongoing arc into the next volume. After that the characters begin to spread out and, in some cases, stop accomplishing all that much; the pacing grinds to a halt entirely by the time we reach the infamous seven-through-ten stretch. But that still leaves the eleventh book, Knife of Dreams, the last Jordan wrote before his death. And it’s this final volume, according to one devoted reader—who has lived with the Wheel of Time since childhood and the series’s first book, and who has bought each successive sequel on the day that it came out—that is Jordan’s unlikely masterpiece, and justification enough for what’s come before it.

more from Zach Baron at The Believer here.

Killed by Their Own Inventions


Jimi Heselden didn’t invent the Segway, but he was the company’s owner Sunday when he tumbled off a cliff while riding an all-terrain version of the self-balancing vehicle. Maybe he would have invented something like the Segway, though, if Dean Kamen hadn’t gotten to it first. A former coal miner who lost his job following the 1984-85 miners’ strike that affected much of the British coal industry, Heselden took his redundancy, or layoff, money and invented Hesco bastion, a collapsible wire mesh and fabric container that is used for military fortification and flood control. The product has done so well over the past couple of decades, that Heselden was able to purchase Segway in late 2009 and also to donate millions of his personal fortune to charity. When he died this past weekend, Heselden was worth more than $250 million. The Segway’s future is uncertain in the wake of this public relations nightmare, but Heselden was hardly the first to go because of a product he loved. Here, nine other inventors who were killed by their own inventions:

more from Nicholas Jackson at The Atlantic here.