The pathos of Stefan Zweig and his overdue revival

Adam Kirsch in The New Republic:

ScreenHunter_778 Aug. 29 16.36The careers of Stefan Zweig and Walter Benjamin offer a contrast so perfect as to become almost a parable. The two writers were contemporaries—Benjamin was born in 1892, Zweig in 1881—and both operated in the same German literary ecosystem, though Benjamin was from Berlin and Zweig from Vienna. Both reached their height of productivity and reputation during the Weimar Republic, and as Jews both were forbidden from publishing in Germany once Hitler took power. And both ended darkly as suicides: Benjamin took his life in 1940 while trying to flee from France to Spain, and Zweig died a year and a half later in Brazil, where he sought refuge after unhappy sojourns in England and America.

Yet the similarities end with their biographies. As writers, they could not have been more different, and their literary destinies were exact opposites. Zweig flourished during his lifetime, enjoying huge sales of his psychologically charged novels and his popular historical biographies. Born with a fortune—his father was a textile manufacturer in Bohemia—he earned another fortune through his books, carrying into literature the bourgeois discipline and regularity that he inherited from his businessman ancestors.

More here.

The return of radical empiricism

Massimo Pigliucci in Scientia Salon:

Recently, here at Scientia Salon I published three essays — two by Robert Nola [2] and one by Coel Hellier [3] — that epitomize radical empiricism, more so in Hellier’s than in Nola’s case, I might add. Interestingly, Nola is a philosopher and Hellier a scientist, and indeed it is known by now that “scientism” — which is the attitude that results from radical empiricism — is being championed by a number of scientists (e.g., Lawrence Krauss [4], Neil deGrasse Tyson [5]) and philosophers (James Ladyman and Don Ross [6], Alex Rosenberg [7]).

Clearly, I find myself puzzled and bewildered by this state of affairs. As someone who has practiced science for a quarter century and then has gone back to graduate school to switch to philosophy full time I have a rather unusual background that, I think, makes me appreciate where radical empiricists come from, and yet which also precludes me from buying into their simplistic worldview.

In the remainder of this essay, then, I will try to do the following:

    1. Sketch out what I see are the logical moves attempted by radical empiricists;
    2. Show why they don’t work;
    3. Explain why this is more than an academic debate, and certainly more than “just semantics.”

More here.

Friends of Israel

Connie Bruck in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_777 Aug. 29 16.27On July 23rd, officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—the powerful lobbying group known as AIPAC—gathered in a conference room at the Capitol for a closed meeting with a dozen Democratic senators. The agenda of the meeting, which was attended by other Jewish leaders as well, was the war in the Gaza Strip. In the century-long conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the previous two weeks had been particularly harrowing. In Israeli towns and cities, families heard sirens warning of incoming rockets and raced to shelters. In Gaza, there were scenes of utter devastation, with hundreds of Palestinian children dead from bombing and mortar fire. The Israeli government claimed that it had taken extraordinary measures to minimize civilian casualties, but the United Nations was launching an inquiry into possible war crimes. Even before the fighting escalated, the United States, Israel’s closest ally, had made little secret of its frustration with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “How will it have peace if it is unwilling to delineate a border, end the occupation, and allow for Palestinian sovereignty, security, and dignity?” Philip Gordon, the White House coördinator for the Middle East, said in early July. “It cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely. Doing so is not only wrong but a recipe for resentment and recurring instability.” Although the Administration repeatedly reaffirmed its support for Israel, it was clearly uncomfortable with the scale of Israel’s aggression. AIPAC did not share this unease; it endorsed a Senate resolution in support of Israel’s “right to defend its citizens,” which had seventy-nine co-sponsors and passed without a word of dissent.

More here.

from church bells to dumbbells

HD_P_193_1_v_16_1746_finalKatherine Hunt at Cabinet Magazine:

In an article in the Spectator in July 1711, the eponymous character Mr. Spectator—as written by Joseph Addison, one of the magazine’s founders—described his exercise routine. When in town, and therefore not able to go out riding, “I exercise myself an Hour every Morning upon a dumb Bell that is placed in a Corner of my Room, and pleases me the more because it does every thing I require of it in the most profound Silence.”1 We know dumbbells now as handy at-home pieces of gym equipment—free weights that have been around, in some form, at least since ancient Greek athletes used halteres to increase the length of their long jumps. But the dumbbell that Mr. Spectator refers to, and from which the heavy gym weights borrow their name, is something different. An illustration of a similar piece of equipment, published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1746, shows a wooden contraption in which two crossed bars with weights on the ends are mounted on an axle, around which is wound a length of rope. This mechanism would be elevated within a room, or placed in a garret, with the rope hanging down for a person standing below to pull. It mimics the apparatus used for ringing church bells, with the bell itself replaced by two weighted bars—it’s these that resemble the dumbbells of today.

more here.

Women’s Shadow in the American Western

1408626858126Thirza Wakefield at Granta:

‘You want to talk about the vanishing wilderness?’ These are the opening words of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), spoken by Burt Reynolds’ character Lewis, the only self-declared outdoorsman among four Atlanta men headed for a canoeing trip along the fictional Cahulawassee River. The expedition is Lewis’s idea and, driving into backcountry by way of the opening credits, he’s hard-pressed to persuade the party of the urgency and importance of their trip. This is the last chance they’ll have to ride the river: the government plans to flood the valley to make way for a reservoir – more recreation for ‘your smug little suburb’, Lewis calls it. Where they’re going is frontier territory: ‘just about the last wild, untamed, unpolluted, un-fucked-up river in the South.’

Director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond’s wooded American wild is a voluptuous green, backlit by an acid sun. Zsigmond desaturated the film’s Technicolor, dredging the photography of reds, blues and yellows, effecting a backwoods that vibrates with fecundity, a cannibalizing flora that eats at the edges of the frame.

more here.

john Williams’ “Augustus”

Mendelsohn_2-081414_jpg_250x1401_q85Daniel Mendelsohn at The New York Review of Books:

How to write about such a figure? In Augustus, the question is slyly put in the mouth of the emperor’s real-life biographer Nicolaus. “Do you see what I mean,” the confounded scholar writes after a meeting with Augustus, whose notorious prudence he cannot reconcile with an equally notorious penchant for gambling. “There is so much that is not said. I almost believe that the form has not been devised that will let me say what I need to say.”

This is an in-joke on Williams’s part: the form Nicolaus dreams of—which is of course the one Williams ended up using—is the epistolary novel, a genre that wasn’t invented until fifteen centuries after Augustus. And yet its roots go right back to his reign. The Roman poet Ovid—also a character in Augustus, providing gossipy updates on the doings of the imperial court—composed a work called Heroides(“Heroines”), a sequence of verse epistles by mythical women to their lovers.

The epistolary form, so long associated with romantic subjects, is in fact ideally suited to Williams’s quasi-biographical project.

more here.

Friday Poem

The Clothes Shrine

In the early days to find
Light white muslin blouses
On a see-through nylon lone
Drip-drying in the bathroom
Or a nylon slip in the shine
of its own electricity-
As if St, Brigid once more
Had rigged up a ray of sun
Like the one she'd stung on air
To dry her own cloak on
(Hard-pressed Brigid, so
Unstoppably on the go)-
The damp and slump and unfair
Drag of the workday
Made light of and got through
As usual, brilliantly

by Seamus Heaney
from Electric Light
Farra, Straus and Giroux, 2001

Gratitude for help among adult friends and siblings

Anna Rotkirch in Evolutionary Psychology:

Gratitude-rainbowspiral1-300x300Although gratitude is a key prosocial emotion reinforcing reciprocal altruism, it has been largely ignored in the empirical literature. We examined feelings of gratitude and the importance of reciprocity in same-sex peer relations. Participants were 772 individuals (189 men; mean age = 28.80) who completed an online survey using a vignette design. We investigated (i) differences in reported gratitude and the importance of reciprocity among same-sex siblings and same-sex friends, and (ii) how relationship closeness moderates these associations. Based on the theory of kin altruism, we expect that people would feel more grateful towards friends than towards their siblings, and that lack of gratitude or failure to pay back a loan would bother more with friends than with siblings, irrespective of emotional closeness. Results showed that levels of gratitude and expectations of reciprocity were higher towards friends compared to siblings. This was the case also after controlling for emotional closeness. Being close generally made participants feel more grateful and expect lower displays of gratitude in the other. Closeness was also strongly associated with emotional gratitude among siblings compared to friends. We conclude that feelings and displays of gratitude have a special role in friendships. Although a close sibling may elicit as much gratitude as a friend does, even a very close friend is not exempt from the logic of reciprocity in the same way that a sibling is.

More here.

Etching the Neural Landscape

Greg Dunn in American Scientist:

NeralBoth art and science arise from our root desires to describe our experience of reality. From this starting point, the artistic and scientific paths diverge. Science describes external reality, about which we share a consensus. Art captures our internal, subjective realities. But the two sides do not always stand apart. My own work can best be described as science/art, not simply because I paint that which scientists study but because I draw evenly from artistic and scientific approaches to capture the essence of the neurons that carry sensations and produce thought.

My artistic career began during my tenure as a graduate student in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. As I came to learn, molecular research can be an existential exercise in that you must rely on machines and chemical reagents to “see” your experiments. Painting provided me a welcome respite from lab frustrations because it gave me a sense of control. When painting, I can experiment and immediately see the result, judge it against my intentions, and iterate as necessary. I can convey my thoughts to the world without having to worry about grants, contaminated compounds, the politics of publishing, or an unexpected flood in the mouse room threatening to wash away my study subjects.

More here.

From the archives of Playboy: Frank Sinatra

Joe Hyams in Playboy in 1963:

Playboy: All right, let’s start with the most basic question there is: Are you a religious man? Do you believe in God?

Sinatra1Sinatra: Well, that’ll do for openers. I think I can sum up my religious feelings in a couple of paragraphs. First: I believe in you and me. I’m like Albert Schweitzer and Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein in that I have a respect for life—in any form. I believe in nature, in the birds, the sea, the sky, in everything I can see or that there is real evidence for. If these things are what you mean by God, then I believe in God. But I don’t believe in a personal God to whom I look for comfort or for a natural on the next roll of the dice. I’m not unmindful of man’s seeming need for faith; I’m for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. But to me religion is a deeply personal thing in which man and God go it alone together, without the witch doctor in the middle. The witch doctor tries to convince us that we have to ask God for help, to spell out to him what we need, even to bribe him with prayer or cash on the line. Well, I believe that God knows what each of us wants and needs. It’s not necessary for us to make it to church on Sunday to reach Him. You can find Him anyplace. And if that sounds heretical, my source is pretty good: Matthew, Five to Seven, The Sermon on the Mount.

Playboy: You haven’t found any answers for yourself in organized religion?

Sinatra: There are things about organized religion which I resent. Christ is revered as the Prince of Peace, but more blood has been shed in His name than any other figure in history. You show me one step forward in the name of religion and I’ll show you a hundred retrogressions.

More here. [Thanks to Sam Harris.]

The Bourgeois Eric Hobsbawm

David A. Bell in The National Interest:

ScreenHunter_777 Aug. 28 18.20In a famous exchange in 1994, Michael Ignatieff asked Eric Hobsbawm whether the vast human costs inflicted by Stalin on the Soviet Union could possibly be justified. Hobsbawm replied, “Probably not. . . . because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I’m not sure.” Do you mean, Ignatieff pressed him, that “had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” Hobsbawm answered, “Yes.”

Two years after Hobsbawm’s death at the age of ninety-five, his lifelong, unapologetic Communism remains for many the most important thing about him. To his critics on the right, it discredits him, pure and simple. On the left, even some commentators who took more admirable stances on Communist tyrannies treat his steadfast commitment to the USSR as, to quote Perry Anderson, “evidence of an exceptional integrity and strength of character.” They refer with something approaching reverence to the justification he formulated in his 2002 autobiography, Interesting Times: “Emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to the generation tied by an almost unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution.”

But in what ways did Hobsbawm’s politics really shape the voluminous writings that made him one of the most famous historians of the past century?

More here.

Seven of Italy’s top scientists were convicted of manslaughter following a catastrophic quake. Has the country criminalized science?

David Wolman in Medium:

ScreenHunter_776 Aug. 28 18.16During the winter and early spring of 2009, Selvaggi and other seismologists at Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology had been monitoring numerous tremors around L’Aquila. The sequence of small quakes over a short period of time, known as a “seismic swarm,” is distinct from the aftershocks that follow a big quake.

And in places like L’Aquila, they are not necessarily abnormal. Local media repeatedly relayed that generic message to the public. Regional government officials insisted there was no need to fret, despite chronically unenforced building codes. The Civil Protection Department for Abruzzo, the region where L’Aquila is located, even issued a press release flatly proclaiming there would be no big earthquake.

But the people of L’Aquila were understandably concerned. Over the centuries, the city had been devastated by several major quakes: One in 1703 killed 10,000 people, and a magnitude 7.0 quake in 1915 killed 30,000. This history has given rise to a culture of caution. When the ground seems especially temperamental, many residents — like their parents and grandparents before them — grab blankets and cigarettes and head outside to mill about in a piazza or a nearby park. Others sleep in their cars. Better not to be in an ancient building that hasn’t been seismically reinforced.

More here.

You Almost Certainly Have Mites On Your Face

Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science:

Demodex-follicularumThink of all the adults you know. Think of your parents and grandparents. Think of the teachers you had at school, your doctors and dentists, the people who collect your rubbish, and the actors you see on TV. All of these people probably have little mites crawling, eating, sleeping, and having sex on their faces.

There are more than 48,000 species of mites. As far as we know, exactly two of those live on human faces. While their relatives mostly look like lozenges on spindly legs, face-mites are more like wall plugs—long cones with stubby legs at one end. They don’t look like much, and most of us have never looked at one at all. But these weird creatures are almost certainly the animals we spend the most time with.

They live in our hair follicles, buried head-down, eating the oils we secrete, hooking up with each other near the surface, and occasionally crawling about the skin at night. They do this on my face. They probably do it on yours. A group of scientists led by Megan Thoemmes and Rob Dunn at North Carolina State University found that every adult in a small American sample had face-mites on their faces—something that was long suspected but never confirmed. If you want to find humanity’s best friend, ignore dogs; instead, swab a pore and grab a microscope.

More here.

virginia woolf, writing, and painting

517d7ba0-285c-11e4_1089269hRuth Scurr at the Times Literary Supplement:

Critical to the development of Woolf’s writing was the freedom of the Hogarth Press, which she and Leonard began in 1917 after buying a hand-press for £19 5s 6d on Farringdon Street. Woolf’s first two novels, The Voyage Out (1915), and Night and Day (1919), were published by her half-brother Gerald Duckworth’s company. The editions look sombre and conventional, a world away from Jacob’s Room(1922), which the Hogarth Press produced with a bright, bold cover designed by Vanessa Bell. Spalding describes this novel with almost no plot and a central character defined by his absence as “sprightly word painting”. After reading Woolf’s story “The Mark on the Wall”, which formed half of the Hogarth Press’s first publication Two Stories (1917), Roger Fry told her, “You’re the only one now Henry James has gone who uses language as a medium of art, who makes the very texture of the words have a meaning and a quality really almost apart from what you are talking about”.

In 1918, the Hogarth Press was asked to consider Ulysses for publication. The Woolfs explained the technical impossibility: “at our rate of progress a book of 300 pages would take at least two years to produce . . . . We very much regret this as it is our aim to produce writing of merit which the ordinary publisher refuses”. Joyce’s novel was eventually published by Shakespeare and Company, Paris, in 1922. Seeing a first edition of Ulysses alongside a selection of Hogarth Press books – Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude (1917), Hope Mirrlees’s Paris (1920), T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1923) – brings the press’s physical limitations and unbounded literary ambition into sharp focus.

more here.

Why Conservatives Should Read Marx

Marx3_0Jonny Thakkar at The Point:

If they want to be consistent, conservatives ought really to be anti-capitalist. This may be a little surprising, but in point of fact conservatism has always been flexible as far as particular policies are concerned. In the U.S. conservatives oppose universal healthcare as an attack on freedom; in the U.K. they defend it as a national tradition. Both positions count as conservative because, as Samuel Huntington argues, conservatism is a “situational” ideology which necessarily varies from place to place and time to time: “The essence of conservatism is the passionate affirmation of the value of existing institutions.” It follows that conservatives can seek to conserve all manner of institutions, including those designed to fight inequality, safeguard the environment, tame market forces, and so on.

But the potential for such reversals is by no means restricted to the Right. When Leftists reflect on their opposition to the free market, they will find that their reasons are–at least in part–conservative. And why not? If conservatism is indeed situational then its rightness or wrongness must depend entirely on the situation, and the value of what is to be conserved. One trope of “utopian” literature from Plato’s Republic to Aldous Huxley’s Island is the fear of adulterating perfect arrangements. Even radicals sometimes have to be conservative.

more here.

Chris Marker’s level five

MarieastmanWhitney Mallet at n+1:

Around the time video games were to coming to define the memory of Operation Desert Storm, Chris Marker made a movie about a video game that depicted a forgotten battle of a well-remembered war. The heroine in Marker’s 1997 film Level Five is working on a Macintosh, writing a game to reconstruct the Battle of Okinawa,at the tail end of World War II. The Battle of Okinawa was dizzying in its loss of human life, but in the West today, hardly anyone knows it happened. In Level Five, Marker’s subject is as much the conflict as our technologies of remembering it. The focus might be predictable from the experimental filmmaker, who is best-known for his meditations on memory in La Jetée and Sans Soleil—though Level Five is structured more like the latter, an essay film that challenges easy categorization as either fiction or non-fiction. Nearly two decades after the film was made and two years after Marker’s death, Level Five is having its first theatrical release at a moment when wars are not just being remembered in digital arenas, but are increasingly being fought in them too.

In Level Five’s fictional frame, Laura, played by Catherine Belkhodja, is making a video game to tell the true story of the U.S. Army’s invasion into the Japanese island and of the subsequent mass suicide that claimed a huge portion of civilian life. Together with the casualties of war, 150,000 men, women, and children died in the battle, roughly a third of the island’s entire population.

more here.

What Do Talking Apes Really Tell Us?

Jane C. Hu in Slate:

KokoLast week, people around the world mourned the death of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams. According to the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California, we were not the only primates mourning. A press release from the foundation announced that Koko the gorilla—the main subject of its research on ape language ability, capable in sign language and a celebrity in her own right—“was quiet and looked very thoughtful” when she heard about Williams’ death, and later became “somber” as the news sank in. Williams, described in the press release as one of Koko’s “closest friends,” spent an afternoon with the gorilla in 2001. The foundation released a video showing the two laughing and tickling one another. At one point, Koko lifts up Williams’ shirt to touch his bare chest. In another scene, Koko steals Williams’ glasses and wears them around her trailer. These clips resonated with people. In the days after Williams’ death, the video amassed more than 3 million views. Many viewers were charmed and touched to learn that a gorilla forged a bond with a celebrity in just an afternoon and, 13 years later, not only remembered him and understood the finality of his death, but grieved. The foundation hailed the relationship as a triumph over “interspecies boundaries,” and the story was covered in outlets from BuzzFeed to the New York Post to Slate.

The story is a prime example of selective interpretation, a critique that has plagued ape language research since its first experiments. Was Koko really mourning Robin Williams? How much are we projecting ourselves onto her and what are we reading into her behaviors?

More here.

Autómata: a believable robot future

From KurzweilAI:

AutomataGeorge Mason University neuroscience researcher Todd Gillette got a preview of the forthcoming movie Autómata. It “caught me completely by surprise,” he said on his OnMason blog. “Starring Antonio Banderas, here we have a believable future (2044, 30 years from now) in which desertification is threatening society, and a single company is leading the way in intelligent robotics.” “Will this happen? Maybe not, but could it happen? Certainly. There’s at least one nod to Asimov’s 3 laws, and at least from the preview it feels more like an Asimov story, albeit with a somewhat gloomier tone than I, Robot the movie was. “As District 9 showed up the humanity of a severely alien species, finally we get dirty, mechanical robots that don’t look cute at all, but that arguably are alive in the only way that really matters.”The movie is due in theaters on Oct. 10, 2014.


Fast forward fifty years into the future, planet earth is in the midst of gradual desertification. Mankind struggles to survive as the environment deteriorates and the slow regression of the human race begins in AUTÓMATA. On the brink of life and the reality of death, technology combats the prevailing uncertainty and fear with the creation of the first quantum android, the Automata Pilgrim 7000. Designed to bring support to society’s plight, man and robot reveal what it means to co-exist in a culture defined by human nature.

More here.