Splendid Visions: A meditation on the childhood sublime

From Orion Magazine:

Cities are not entirely devoid of nature, I know, but their parks and reserves make it difficult to achieve what Thoreau named “a constant intercourse with nature,” one that leads to “the contemplation of natural phenomenon” and thus to “the preservation of moral & intellectual health.” For Thoreau, that constancy was not negotiable. If he thought he could have achieved the sublime in the Boston Common—the oldest park in the nation—he might have tried, but he didn’t believe it was possible. Consummate immersion in the deep green of Concord was the only method of obtaining the particular brand of clarity that had become so necessary for his sustained contentment.

WHAT WILL BECOME of Ethan, of his “moral & intellectual health,” in the city of Boston without Thoreau’s constancy, without the mountains and meadows, the rivers and forests so integral to his development into a fully feeling adult? Since his birth I have returned again and again to Wordsworth and Thoreau with a kind of hallowed intensity, convinced that their nature-wisdom has something to teach me about raising and loving my son. I’ve been conflicted since day one over the prospect of raising Ethan in the city, because my beloved Wordsworth recommends a life in nature—because Wordsworth wouldn’t have been Wordsworth without it—and because I myself grew up within frolicking distance of forests and streams that taught me about bliss and its first ingredient, beauty. Too much concrete, macadam, and steel—like too much electronic illumination, God help us—must be detrimental to a child’s development. Someone asked me recently, “What do you want Ethan to be? A poet?” And I thought: Indeed. The poets, those unacknowledged legislators, have always been wiser than the philosophers, the politicians, the pundits. If it’s true that children raised in cities often grow into shrewd, incisive adults wise to the crooked ways of the world, that being exposed daily to a wealth of cultures, languages, libraries, bookstores, theaters, and museums can make impressive people, Wordsworth might argue that those individuals lack a “sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused”—that is, a sense of the unity, harmony, freedom, and “unwearied Joy” exemplified by nature. Who doesn’t want “unwearied Joy” for his child? Emerson might go a bit further and say that those divorced from nature have a thinking deficiency, because “Nature is the vehicle of thought.”

More here.

the romantic quixote


When Spaniards say, “It’s all the Germans’ fault,” they could be referring to the European debt crisis. When British Hispanists say the same, they are most likely talking about the so-called Romantic interpretation of Miguel de Cervantes’ masterpiece Don Quixote. In his influential book The Romantic Approach to Don Quixote, the late Cambridge don Anthony Close assailed critics who read Cervantes’ work in a philosophical light for imposing “modern stereotypes and preoccupations” on a novel that, in his view, was written exclusively as a parody of the tales of chivalry predominant in the sixteenth century. Close’s Oxford ally P. E. Russell did him one better, asserting that Cervantes should not be considered to have “contributed anything of originality to the history of ideas.” The logic Russell used to support this claim was almost dizzying in its circularity, as it required him to stipulate—as a standard for establishing that someone has had a truly original idea—the presence of a contemporary who had expressed more or less the same idea. The agents-provocateurs of this most British pique were, as I indicated before, Germans. To be more specific, they were the thinkers and poets associated with or influential to the German Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century, most notably Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

more from William Egginton at Arcade here.

the dark side of britten


We are only two months into the Britten centenary year and already books, articles and talks (and, of course, performances) swell the flood of existing biographical studies and the six bulky volumes of diaries and letters. Dead for less than 40 years, Britten is as copiously documented as any English composer except Elgar. Have emails wiped out areas of research? I hope that some teenage composer, a latter-day Britten, is even now baring their musical soul writing candid and maybe scurrilous opinions on the current musical scene in a diary as the young Britten did from 1928. ‘The child is father to the man’ rings true in Britten’s case. Britten the man was a Jekyll and Hyde, with Hyde perhaps too often gaining the upper hand. The sophisticated judgments, often couched in schoolboyish jargon, tell us how Britten discovered music, not only by performing and by reading scores but also by attending concerts and listening avidly to the radio and recordings. As well as, of course, by composing ambitious works galore.

more from Michael Kennedy at The Spectator here.

First direct brain-to-brain interface between two animals

From Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence:

Brain_2_brain_ratsResearchers have electronically linked the brains of pairs of rats for the first time, enabling them to communicate directly to solve simple behavioral puzzles. They even brain-linked two animals thousands of miles apart — one in Durham, North Carolina and one in Natal, Brazil. The researchers think linking multiple brains could form the first “organic computer.” “Our previous studies with brain-machine interfaces had convinced us that the brain was much more plastic than we had thought,” said Duke University Medical Center neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis . “In those experiments, the brain was able to adapt easily to accept input from devices outside the body and even learn how to process invisible infrared light generated by an artificial sensor. “So, the question we asked was: if the brain could assimilate signals from artificial sensors, could it also assimilate information input from sensors from a different body?” To find out, the researchers first trained pairs of rats to solve a simple problem — to press the correct lever when an indicator light above the lever switched on, to obtain a sip of water. They next connected the two animals’ brains via arrays of microelectrodes inserted into the area of the cortex that processes touch information.

One animal of the dyad was designated as the “encoder” animal. This animal received a visual cue that informed it which lever to press in exchange for a food pellet. Once this “encoder” rat pressed the right lever, a sample of its brain activity that coded its behavioral decision was translated into a pattern of electrical stimulation that was delivered directly into the brain of the second animal of the dyad, known as the “decoder” animal. The decoder rat had the same types of levers in its chamber, but it did not receive any visual cue indicating which lever it should press to obtain a reward. So to press the correct lever and receive the reward it craved, the decoder rat would have to rely on the cue transmitted from the encoder via the brain-to-brain machine interface. The researchers then conducted trials to determine how well the decoder animal could decipher the brain input from the encoder rat to choose the correct lever. The decoder rat ultimately achieved a maximum success rate of about 70 percent, only slightly below the possible maximum success rate of 78 percent that the researchers had theorized was achievable. This maximum rate was what the researchers found they could achieve when they were transmitting regular electrical signals directly to the decoder rat’s brain that were not generated by the encoder.

More here.

Why did Hobbes write Leviathan?


The present-day reputation of Leviathan is somewhat ironic. Modern readers are shocked by the book’s political philosophy, with its seemingly bleak view of human nature and its endorsement of sovereign power with no constitutional constraints. Yet in fact Leviathan offers perhaps the most accommodating version of Hobbes’s political thinking. It adds to the earlier argument of De Cive a novel conception of political representation, which although far removed from the modern democratic understanding of the idea, displays some of the lineaments of it. In De Cive Hobbes envisaged the state as having a democratic foundation in popular consent that must necessarily be abandoned in favour of monarchy for reasons of practicality. In Leviathan he offers an account of politics that is open to multiple different political forms. I suspect one reason Leviathan has retained its fascination is that Hobbes’s attempt to map his idea of sovereignty on to a shifting political landscape gave it an open-ended quality, which has allowed later readers to find what they were looking for in it. Hobbes’s contemporaries were more confused than outraged by his political views: they couldn’t be sure if he was really a monarchist or not. What scandalized them were the parts of the book that modern readers skip over: the assault on religion.

more from David Runciman at the TLS here.

Friday Poem

On a Day When the Wind is Perfect

On a day
when the wind is perfect,
the sail just needs to open
and the world is full of beauty.
Today is such a day.

My eyes are like the sun
that makes promises;
the promise of life
that it always keeps
each morning.

The living heart gives to us
as does that luminous sphere,
both caress the earth with great tenderness.

This is a breeze that can enter the soul.
This love I know plays a drum.
Arms move around me;
who can contain their self before my beauty?

Peace is wonderful,
but ecstatic dance is more fun,
and less narcissistic;
gregarious He makes our lips.

On a day when the wind is perfect,
the sail just needs to open
and the love starts.

Today is such
a day.

by Rumi

from Love Poems From God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West
by Daniel Ladinsky