Current Genres of Fate: Fate’s Epic Side

—because despite being enlightened, civilized, advanced, and free, we are trapped—

by Paul North

Magnolia poster

In the 1930s a Hungarian psychiatrist, Leopold Szondi, began to think that families predetermine the lives of their members, before he was deported to Bergen-Belsen because his family was Jewish. Through a special negotiation he and other intellectuals were released and sent into exile. Szondi settled in Switzerland, where he worked the rest of his long life on tests and treatments for Genotropism, the name he gave to this curse on families. Members of a family share, he thought, a narrow set of psychological tendencies that are transmitted across generations. Who you choose as a life partner, what kind of career you end up practicing, even how much money you make are all determined up to a point by a ‘familial unconscious.'

The familial unconscious contains drives and needs specific to the family and gives them their desires, their limits, their fate. Now, although Szondi wanted to release individuals from the family's unconscious predeterminations, and he invented a therapy to do so, the principle that underpinned his therapy was itself a fateful idea. Instead of staying limited by family traits, he wanted you to learn that: “Wahl macht Schicksal” — “Choice makes fate.” With this principle, Szondi hoped to break through the walls of his patients' familial unconscious. What if he succeeded? Well, through this principle he also locked patients into a new idea of destiny. Fate may not pre-determine you, but it does determine you. The way it determines you now is not necessarily better, only different. Now your fate happens to you choice by choice.

Let us imagine that there is a history for the idea of fate. It is a fiction or a semi-fiction, but that doesn't matter. It will help us to see a pattern. The first stage of the history is ancient, even archaic. We see Greek and Roman worry about fate all over epic poetry and stoic philosophy. In monotheisms, however, and especially in Christianity, fate takes a back seat to a different kind of story, where what happens at the end of time cannot be pre-judged by humans. At the end of all things, whether it comes as a last judgment or a gift of grace, a human-looking God will be there, making all the final decisions.

The philosophical essayist Odo Marquard, who first sketched out this historical tale about fate—the fate of fate, he called it—was right: the weightiest things in life, which used to be completely out of our hands (threads were held by “the fates,” judgments were made by God) at some point were put directly into our hands. After the great monotheisms (this is fiction too: we know they have not ended), everything, Marquard wrote in 1981, comes to be seen as made by human beings, including the highest things, like God, history, and truth. He notes that the expansive new human power of making did not actually put an end to the fate idea. Just because we began to think of ourselves as in charge, as making all things, including our own history, our ideas and ideals, this did not mean that we were free—on the contrary.

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Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Angry Birds and Angry Voters

by Matt McKenna

MaxresdefaultAngry Birds is one of those generic children’s films that incorporates already popular intellectual property to mitigate the risk of losing money. The logic is that kids might skip a boring film about madcap animated animals, but if these madcap animated animals are the same ones with whom the children already have an established connection through video games, toys, and school supplies, the terribleness of the film won’t impact revenue. It works too: Angry Birds, a movie based on a smartphone video game franchise, has already made $164 million at the box office worldwide. I don’t mean this as a knock on children’s taste in films–the same risk reduction strategy applies to grown-up films as well. I bring up the Angry Birds intellectual property only because the “angry” in Angry Birds reflects the “angry” in America’s current political zeitgeist. So while children aren’t allowed to vote in the upcoming 2016 election, Hollywood is still able to provide them with an alternative entertainment option that promotes anger as the most responsible reaction to current events.

Angry Birds’ protagonist is Red, a bird who isolates himself from his community by being a pugnacious jerk. While the other adult birds are nauseatingly nice, Red is sociopathic: in one of his first scenes, Red assaults a father and smashes the father’s egg to cause a premature birth of the bird within (the baby bird survives, thank goodness). Of course, Red’s nasty disposition is eventually validated when the island is invaded by deceitful pigs who claim to be friendly but wind up stealing the birds’ eggs. Because Red had previously warned his fellow birds that the visitors were up to no good, he is subsequently chosen to lead these once wimpy flock to battle against the duplicitous pigs. By the end, Red defeats the pigs, saves the stolen eggs, and the birds who used to look down on Red now sing songs about how angry and valiant he is.

If Angry Birds wasn't so boring, it's horrifying moral would be the the film’s primary attribute. Reinforcing the current “you're either with us or against us” political climate in America, Angry Birds’ moral hinges on the idea that kindness is for the weak, and aggression is the only way to avoid looking like a sap.

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Orange catby Akim Reinhardt

Hotter. I need it to be hotter.

I'm sitting in the backyard of my sister's carriage house apartment in Orange, California, a circle of jolly boutique and micro brew quaintness amid the sprawling shit hole that is Orange Country.

Of course nowadays, most any place in America afflicted by people is a shit hole. Indeed, even a quotient of the unpopulated spaces is beginning to emit a fecal stench, as if the human foulness emanating from the peopled portions of our nation is so strong as to waft and stain everything around it, like a halo of shimmering, homo sapiens stank.

I want it to be hotter.

After all, there are no more distinct places in the United States, or precious few at any rate. Instead, there are just types. The urban playground loaded with bars and restaurants, and kickball and skeeball leagues for childless 20- and 30-somethings; the poor and working class black and brown food deserts that gird the yuppies and empty nesters; the little towns hemorrhaging people, stragglers holding onto the local bar like shipwreck survivors grasping a buoy in the ocean; the increasingly opulent college towns full of precious students, microcosmic training yards for the urban playgrounds; the tourist spots offering up overpriced drinks and glossy nostalgia; all of it bound together by highways, those endless concourses of fast food, gasoline, and the occasional pile of roadkill.

But all of those types are just islands scattered about the uber-type, that oceanic wasteland of suburbia and its relentless waves of roads, strip malls, and tract housing, repeating itself over and over again like the backdrop of a cheap 1970s cartoon where a boring bipedal cat, arms outstretched, chases a smarmy little mouse who's certainly got it coming, but predictably manages to perpetually escape the fanged horror it deserves, thus prolonging the crankshaft repetition of house tree fence; house tree fence; house tree fence . . .

And all of it, every last bit of it, shot through with shitty chain outlets. Your uppers, your downers, your food in wrappers and boxes, your slave labor clothing, your mega stores, your tech shacks, and your money huts, all of them speckling the landscape like aggressive tumors mindlessly devouring their host.

No more places. Just types.

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Charles Yu in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_1982 May. 29 16.54Once upon a time, there was a man whose therapist thought it would be a good idea for the man to work through some stuff by telling a story about that stuff.

The man lived in a one-bedroom efficiency cottage all by himself, in a sort of dicey part of town. One day, the man woke up and realized that this was pretty much it for him. It wasn’t terrible. But it wasn’t great, either. And not likely to improve. The man was smart enough to realize this, yet not quite smart enough to do anything about it. He lived out the rest of his days and eventually died. The end. Happy now?

The man could see that his therapist was not amused.

A rather unsatisfactory ending, the therapist opined, and suggested that the man could do better. The man thought, Is she really serious about this? But he didn’t say anything out loud. The man was not convinced that he needed to be talking to the therapist at all, but he had tried so many other things (potions, spells, witches), and spent so much of his copper and silver, with absolutely nothing to show for it, that he figured why the hell not.

So how do I do this? he asked.

Why don’t you start again? the therapist replied. And, instead of rushing to the end, try to focus on the details.

O.K., the man said.

More here.

A Shocking Find In a Neanderthal Cave In France

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_1981 May. 29 16.50In February 1990, thanks to a 15-year-old boy named Bruno Kowalsczewski, footsteps echoed through the chambers of Bruniquel Cave for the first time in tens of thousands of years.

The cave sits in France’s scenic Aveyron Valley, but its entrance had long been sealed by an ancient rockslide. Kowalsczewski’s father had detected faint wisps of air emerging from the scree, and the boy spent three years clearing away the rubble. He eventually dug out a tight, thirty-meter-long passage that the thinnest members of the local caving club could squeeze through. They found themselves in a large, roomy corridor. There were animal bones and signs of bear activity, but nothing recent. The floor was pockmarked with pools of water. The walls were punctuated by stalactites (the ones that hang down) and stalagmites (the ones that stick up).

Some 336 meters into the cave, the caver stumbled across something extraordinary—a vast chamber where several stalagmites had beendeliberately broken. Most of the 400 pieces had been arranged into two rings—a large one between 4 and 7 metres across, and a smaller one just 2 metres wide. Others had been propped up against these donuts. Yet others had been stacked into four piles. Traces of fire were everywhere, and there was a mass of burnt bones.

More here.

Robert Reich: It’s time for Clinton and Sanders supporters to swallow some tough medicine

With the Democratic primaries grinding to a bitter end, I have suggestions for both Clinton and Sanders supporters that neither will like.

Robert Reich in Raw Story:

Robert-reich-800x430First, my advice to Clinton supporters: Don’t try to drum Bernie Sanders out of the race before Hillary Clinton officially gets the nomination (if she in fact does get it).

Some of you say Bernie should bow out because he has no chance of getting the nomination, and his continuing candidacy is harming Hillary Clinton’s chances.

It’s true that Bernie’s chances are slim, but it’s inaccurate to say he has no chance. If you consider only pledged delegates, who have been selected in caucuses and primaries, he’s not all that far behind Hillary Clinton. And the upcoming primary in California – the nation’s most populous state—could possibly alter Sanders’s and Clinton’s relative tallies.

My calculation doesn’t include so-called “superdelegates”—Democratic office holders and other insiders who haven’t been selected through primaries and caucuses. But in this year of anti-establishment fury, it would be unwise for Hillary Clinton to rely on superdelegates to get her over the finish line.

More here.


Andrew Altschul and Mark Slouka in Literary Hub:


Because, as writers, we are particularly aware of the many ways that language can be abused in the name of power;

Because we believe that any democracy worthy of the name rests on pluralism, welcomes principled disagreement, and achieves consensus through reasoned debate;

Because American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another;

Because the history of dictatorship is the history of manipulation and division, demagoguery and lies;

Because the search for justice is predicated on a respect for the truth;

More here.

What do clothes say?

Shahidha Bari in Aeon:

Header_GettyImages-514190672_masterWhere language falls short though, clothes might speak. Ideas, we languidly suppose, are to be found in books and poems, visualised in buildings and paintings, exposited in philosophical propositions and mathematical deductions. They are taught in classrooms; expressed in language, number and diagram. Much trickier to accept is that clothes might also be understood as forms of thought, reflections and meditations as articulate as any poem or equation. What if the world could open up to us with the tug of a thread, its mysteries disentangling like a frayed hemline? What if clothes were not simply reflective of personality, indicative of our banal preferences for grey over green, but more deeply imprinted with the ways that human beings have lived: a material record of our experiences and an expression of our ambition? What if we could understand the world in the perfect geometry of a notched lapel, the orderly measures of a pleated skirt, the stilled, skin-warmed perfection of a circlet of pearls?

Some people love clothes: they collect them, care for and clamour over them, taking pains to present themselves correctly and considering their purchases with great seriousness. For some, the making and wearing of clothes is an art form, indicative of their taste and discernment: clothes signal their distinction. For others, clothes fulfill a function, or provide a uniform, barely warranting a thought beyond the requisite specifications of decency, the regulation of temperature and the unremarkable meeting of social mores. But clothes are freighted with memory and meaning: the ties, if you like, that bind. In clothes, we are connected to other people and other places in complicated, powerful and unyielding ways, expressed in an idiom that is found everywhere, if only we care to read it.

More here.

Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person

Alain de Botton in The New York Times:

AlainIT’S one of the things we are most afraid might happen to us. We go to great lengths to avoid it. And yet we do it all the same: We marry the wrong person. Partly, it’s because we have a bewildering array of problems that emerge when we try to get close to others. We seem normal only to those who don’t know us very well. In a wiser, more self-aware society than our own, a standard question on any early dinner date would be: “And how are you crazy?”

Perhaps we have a latent tendency to get furious when someone disagrees with us or can relax only when we are working; perhaps we’re tricky about intimacy after sex or clam up in response to humiliation. Nobody’s perfect. The problem is that before marriage, we rarely delve into our complexities. Whenever casual relationships threaten to reveal our flaws, we blame our partners and call it a day. As for our friends, they don’t care enough to do the hard work of enlightening us. One of the privileges of being on our own is therefore the sincere impression that we are really quite easy to live with. Our partners are no more self-aware. Naturally, we make a stab at trying to understand them. We visit their families. We look at their photos, we meet their college friends. All this contributes to a sense that we’ve done our homework. We haven’t. Marriage ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating.

More here. (Note: Also watch the video of Mr. Alain de Botton's talk posted below on Saturday)

Sunday Poem

At the Center

Today doves flew from my head
and my hair grew
the longing is gone from my body
and I'm filled with peace, perfect peace

No longer shall I speak of electrocuted poets
or the ones who inhaled gas until
they danced in the dizziness of death
But of brown women
who turn the soil with their hands
making vegetable gardens and tending fruit trees

Today I went into my storehouse
selected the choicest oil and annoint my body
wrapped myself in the rarest cloth
of a deep wine red
stood at my front gate
and words poured from my mouth in flaming chants

Today the craftsman has come
to make a design for me
of a woman sitting in deep repose
with doves flying from her head
He has made all the pieces and they fit
well together
I shall hang it at my window for all the world to see

by Afua Cooper
from Understatement: An Anthology of 12 Toronto Poets
Toronto: Seraphim Edition, 1996.

Taking the Kamasutra seriously

Nicola Barker in The Spectator:

9780190499280The rough English translation of Kamasutra is pleasure (kama) treatise (sutra). In the West, since it was first (rather surreptitiously) translated and published back in 1883, the book has generally been associated with a series of beautiful, ancient illustrations of a couple determinedly coupling in a variety of fascinating — and often utterly improbable — positions; as essentially ‘the erotic counterpart to the ascetic asanas of yoga’. But there is so much more to it than that, as Wendy Doniger doggedly contends in this, her fine collection of frank, brief, clear-eyed essays. Doniger believes the Kamasutra to be not only a precious and under-appreciated part of the Sanskrit canon, but also a great Indian literary landmark which has been — for way too long now — criminally undervalued in its place of origin. Hence its need for ‘redemption’ (a paradoxically Christian notion, perhaps).

She traces the history of the Kamasutra, detailing how the three aims of human life (the Triple Set in Indian parlance) are dharma(religion), artha (power) and kama (pleasure). In a satisfying parallel, these three aims are underpinned by a trinity of ancient texts; theDharmashastra (written by the sober, strict and rather sexist Manu), the Arthashastra (by Kautilya, the Indian Machiavelli-plus) and theKamasutra (by the slightly slippery but often refreshingly open-minded Vatsyayana).

More here.

Major Cell Phone Radiation Study Reignites Cancer Questions

Dina Fine in Scientific American:

53973F17-CDEF-4CAC-A582E854D969C390 (1)Federal scientists released partial findings Friday from a $25-million animal study that tested the possibility of links between cancer and chronic exposure to the type of radiation emitted from cell phones and wireless devices. The findings, which chronicle an unprecedented number of rodents subjected to a lifetime of electromagnetic radiation starting in utero, present some of the strongest evidence to date that such exposure is associated with the formation of rare cancers in at least two cell types in the brains and hearts of rats. The results, which were posted on a prepublication Web site run by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, are poised to reignite controversy about how such everyday exposure might affect human health.

Researchers at the National Toxicology Program (NTP), a federal interagency group under the National Institutes of Health, led the study. They chronically exposed rodents to carefully calibrated radio-frequency (RF) radiation levels designed to roughly emulate what humans with heavy cell phone use or exposure could theoretically experience in their daily lives. The animals were placed in specially built chambers that dosed their whole bodies with varying amounts and types of this radiation for approximately nine hours per day throughout their two-year life spans.

More here.

Can Liberal Education Save the Sciences?

Lorraine Daston in The Point:

ScreenHunter_1980 May. 28 20.05Some of you may be mentally re-parsing my title to something more like “Can Liberal Education Be Saved from the Sciences?” For today’s embattled humanities, the sciences have come to stand for the antithesis of what is now understood to constitute the content and values of a liberal education, namely: the cultivation of the intellectual and artistic traditions of diverse cultures past and present, the assertion of the generalist’s prerogatives over those of the specialist, and the defense of non-utilitarian values as preparation for civic engagement in the cause of the commonweal. In contrast, what are currently known as the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—stand for knowledge that is presumed universal and uniform, for narrow specialization and, above all, for applications that are useful and often lucrative. A comparative glance at the budgets for the sciences and for the disciplines that constitute the core of the Core seems to tell it all: it’s not the sciences that need saving, most certainly not by the likes of liberal education, a minnow—a starving minnow, at that—sent out to rescue a fat and sassy whale.

Nonetheless, I’m sticking to my original title. In the scant time allotted, I’m going to gallop through the history of the place of the sciences and mathematics in the liberal education curriculum, from the medieval university through the present. This is a history that packs some surprises. I’ll then draw some lessons for the place of the sciences in a liberal education for the here and now.

More here.

In ‘Secondhand Time,’ Voices From a Lost Russia

25BOOKALECIEVICH1-master180-v4Dwight Garner at The New York Times:

In “Danko’s Burning Heart,” a short story by Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), a group of people are lost in a forest at night. Danko wants to lead them to safety. His heart burns with such desire that it catches fire. He rips it from his chest and uses it to light the way.

There’s a bit of Danko, an element of self-sacrifice, in the lives and work of Russia’s best journalists. I’m thinking of Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated on Vladimir V. Putin’s birthday in 2006. I’m thinking too of Svetlana Alexievich, born in Ukraine, winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Ms. Alexievich is an investigative journalist who compiles, in Studs Terkel-like fashion, dense volumes of oral history about postwar Russia. Her books bring her trouble. “Zinky Boys” (1992), for example, about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, led her to be put on trial for defaming the Soviet Army. (She was acquitted.)

When she won the Nobel, Ms. Alexievich was little known in the West. Her major books are slowly making their way into English. Here now is her newest, “Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets,” a sprawling examination of life in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of a feral brand of capitalism.

more here.


Books-read-2016Nikil Saval at The New Yorker:

Julian Barnes’s new novel, “The Noise of Time,” is about Shostakovich, and it begins with the composer enduring the humiliation and misery of his exclusion from musical life, in 1936. “All that he knew was that this was the worst time,” the first part opens. Barnes has Shostakovich repeat it twice more, at the beginnings of the novel’s two other sections, in response to fresh sources of persecution in 1948 and 1960, bringing to mind Edgar from “King Lear”: “The worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’ “ The novel’s title comes from the nineteenth-century poet Alexander Blok, who used the phrase to describe history. The Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam chose it for the title of his memoir, published in 1923—Mandelstam, who would indeed suffer Stalin’s worst. For Barnes’s Shostakovich, “the noise of time” is counterposed to “that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music.” Real artists, Barnes has Shostakovich say, protect that private part of themselves against history, but if the music “is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time” it is “transformed into the whisper of history.” So we watch as Shostakovich struggles to live a life devoted to music, with history constantly intervening.

What Shostakovich’s music had to do with history has been one of the most fraught questions in the history of music. He lived through the most terrifying decades of the Soviet Union to become its most celebrated composer. Despite his transgression with “Lady Macbeth,” many of his compositions—such as the Seventh Symphony (“Leningrad”), performed in 1942 in the midst of the devastating siege and broadcast over loudspeakers into no man’s land—served the purposes of official propaganda (though the music itself was more multilayered than its use would suggest).

more here.

a review of ‘the violet hour’ by katie roiphe

The-violet-hour-roipheThom Cuell at 3:AM Magazine:

“Either the wallpaper goes or I do.” “A certain butterfly is already on the wing”. “I haven’t had champagne for a long time.” We love to package celebrity deaths up with a final quote, a summing up of the subject’s life and character – a way to process the messiness of mortality into something clean and understandable. In 2016, this year of notable deaths, we are updating the symbolic language surrounding death for the social media age: there is the temporary Facebook profile filter – the digital equivalent of the Victorian widow’s weeds – the hashtag, the contrarian newspaper columnist’s cynical response, the street party. In her new book The Violet Hour, Katie Roiphe looks at the reality behind these tropes, exploring the process of death through biographical essays on six writers who were notable for their engagement with mortality: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter.

Each of these writers worked in the shades of the prison-house; as Roiphe describes it, her chosen subjects are “especially sensitive or attuned to death… [writers and artists] who have worked through the problem of death in their art, in their letters, in their love affairs, in their dreams”. Through close examination of their final days, Roiphe aims to find some insight into the way the artist’s mind responds to impending mortality. Underlying her work are the questions of whether creativity can have a palliative function, and whether an artistic engagement with the subject can prepare us for the reality of death. Although fans of Roland Barthes (himself the victim of a bizarre, disputed death, run over by either a laundry van or a milk float, depending on who you believe) might query the close identification between the writer and the work, Roiphe hopes that “it is in the specifics, the odd, surprising details, the jokes, the offhand comments, that some other greater story is told and communicated”.

more here.