I don’t know how I first came across Trabant (the Hungarian band, not the Icelandic band—and not the fabulously decrepit, partially wooden East German-made car that gave them both their name). Maybe it found me. That’s how it usually feels with the music that’s really important in your life. There are two types of song in the world: the songs that lots of people like, which make you feel like you understand lots of people; and the songs no one else likes, which make it feel like they understand you.
I’ve been listening to Trabant for years now, but I still don’t know much about them. Apparently they never put out a real album. Most of their recordings were spur-of-the-moment, lo-fi improvisations. According to Wikipedia, Trabant’s lyrics are “best described by the words enigmatic, intertextual, grotesque and absurd.” I don’t read or speak Hungarian, so I’ll have to take their word for it. The website also say that “their musical style does not fall into any of the known musical categories.” To me, that doesn’t ring quite true. I think they sound a little bit like Mazzy Star, a little bit like Molly Nilsson, and a little bit like what it would sound like if you forced Blondie to record at the bottom of a well.
In the nearly twenty years since László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance first appeared in translation, his reputation in English has grown at the same gradual, inexorable pace that his books favor. Nearly all his novels of lonely visionaries and glimpsed apocalypses have made it by now into English, and later this year New Directions will substantially fill out the short fiction with a large collection titled The World Goes On. In the meantime, we have last year’s smaller volume; Herman/The Last Wolf picks out three pieces from Krasznahorkai’s short work, two early and one late, and joins them up in an inverted tête-bêche binding.
The Herman stories were written together with Krasznahorkai’s first novel Satantango and originally appeared in 1986. As with the novel, they are set in a remote corner of Hungary and show the author feeling his way toward his mature manner. Herman is an elderly gamekeeper, a last remaining adept in “the splendid mysteries of an ancient craft,” called out of retirement by shadowy authorities in order to exterminate predators from a patch of forest. In the first of two stories he performs his task all too well, trapping and disposing of dogs, cats, badgers, and foxes in an enormous carrion pit that comes to haunt his dreams as a “putrescent hairy mass of dead meat.” Before long we have a reversal of sympathies, and Herman begins to seek human quarry (avoiding obvious grotesquerie, he uses non-lethal snares). In his increasingly desperate and painful epiphanies—he feels he has “divided the world into noxious and beneficial, while in reality both categories originated in the same heinous ruthlessness”—the visionary quality of Krasznahorkai’s mature fictions is just detectable.
In August 1913 the children’s writer Eleanor Farjeon visited the poet Edward Thomas and his family at their home near the South Downs. On their first walk together, Thomas’s 11-year-old daughter Bronwen realised that the city-dwelling Farjeon knew few of the names of the wild flowers that flourished in the surrounding landscape. “My ignorance,” Farjeon recalled later, “horrified her.”
Remedial work was promptly set. Bronwen gathered a hundred different flowers and plants, taught Farjeon their names (“agrimony, mouse-eared-hawkweed, bird’s-foot trefoil … ”), and the next day sat her down “to a neatly ruled examination paper, with the numbered specimens laid out in precise order on the table”. Farjeon was given an hour to complete the test: “60 for a Pass, 70 for Honours.” Her memory was sharp and she topped 90: “Bronwen was proud of me.” Those flower names would later blossom in Farjeon’s books for children, which are twined through with natural lore, notably her chalkland fairy fable, Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep (1937) and her Martin Pippin stories.
If you want an unusual but punchy telling of the world’s explosion of climate-warping gases, look no further than this visualization of CO2 levels over the past centuries soaring like skyscrapers into space. “2A Brief History of CO2 Emissions” portrays the cumulative amount of this common greenhouse gas that humans have produced since the mid-1700s. It also projects to the end of the 21st century to show what might happen if the world disregards the Paris Agreement, an ambitious effort to limit warming that 200 countries signed onto in 2015. (President Donald Trump still wants to renege on it.) At this point, the CO2-plagued atmosphere could see jumps in average temperature as high as 6 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit, the animation’s narrator warns, displaying a model of Earth looking less like planet than porcupine. “We wanted to show where and when CO2 was emitted in the last 250 years—and might be emitted in the coming 80 years if no climate action is taken,” emails Boris Mueller, a creator of the viz along with designer Julian Braun and others at Germany’s University of Applied Sciences Potsdam and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “By visualizing the global distribution and the local amount of cumulated CO2, we were able to create a strong image that demonstrates very clearly the dominant CO2-emitting regions and time spans.”
The visualization begins with a small, white lump growing on London around 1760—the start of the Industrial Revolution. More white dots quickly appear throughout Europe, rising prominently in Paris and Brussels in the mid-1800s, then throughout Asia and the US, where in the early 1900s emissions skyrocket in the New York region, Chicago, and Southern California.
They kept showing up, for days, dead on the windowsill, and for days I did nothing about the ladybugs except to ask if their entering the house unnoticed and dying before I saw them was symbolic. Thinking so was easy. They symbolized birth and death, change and rebirth. It was also possible the tiny beetles embodied an inborn need to show themselves, to turn up in every and any place, even as the dried-out remains of the once lively. Or they stood for the burden of being one thing relieved by becoming another, which all the world’s children suffer.
This went on and on, and could’ve gone on forever, so finally I opened the window and blew them into the wide open because everything and everyone should get a chance to be mourned, and they got theirs, but first they had to die, which is life, not symbolism.
When Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first book, “The Beautiful Struggle,” was published in 2008, it landed with barely a ripple. At the time, Mr. Coates was a struggling writer. He had lost three jobs, and he and his family relied on unemployment checks, his wife’s income and occasional support from his father to stay afloat. By the time the book came out in paperback, his fortune had shifted slightly; he’d become a regular contributor to The Atlantic magazine, writing a blog that attracted a moderate but engaged audience. “I went and did a few events. I did one in Brooklyn and I did one in San Francisco, and maybe 30 people showed up. And I thought, ‘This is what I want. This is it,’” he said in a conversation over a recent lunch. Suffice it to say that Mr. Coates’s second book, “Between the World and Me,” published in 2015, did not suffer the same lack of readership. An early galley was sent to Toni Morrison, who strongly endorsed the book, calling it “required reading” and likening Mr. Coates to James Baldwin. That year, Mr. Coates was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and the National Book Award in nonfiction. His appearances filled auditoriums and the book was adopted on college syllabuses. It has sold 1.5 million copies internationally and has been translated into 19 languages, catapulting him to prominence.
…When the discussion was opened up to the audience, Mr. Jenkins asked how Mr. Coates advised his son on the subject of political activism. Mr. Coates answered that his own father had been part of the Black Panther Party and had later become disillusioned with mass politics. Mr. Coates’s advice to his son, Samori, was to educate himself before getting involved in protests. “I don’t know that that was the correct answer,” he said, “Protest is a very, very real thing, but for me, it’s much more private.” That perceived detachment has drawn criticism. When “Between the World and Me” was published, Dr. West took issue with Ms. Morrison’s comparison of Mr. Coates to Baldwin and expressed as much in a Facebook post, writing that, unlike Mr. Coates, “Baldwin’s painful self-examination led to collective action and a focus on social movements.” In his view, Mr. Coates’s inattention to the Black Lives Matter movement and political activists in “Between the World and Me” “shows a certain distance” from his subject matter.
Mr. Coates counters that he hopes he writes “things that clarify stuff for people that go to those marches, that clarify things that inspire people who go and think about policy. I necessarily need a little bit of distance.”
You see the problem. Carroll posits a “God” whose attributes — and the attributes of whose world — can be enumerated in absentia, more or less like a scientific model: We can imagine the model is correct, then make predictions about outcomes. But this isn’t the way most people approach religion. Just as God’s existence can’t be proven through argument (even if many have tried), one can’t very well discount religious experience by reasoning probabilistically that God is unlikely. Experience is the one thing, in the end, that can’t be denied. Much as we might like to imagine ourselves chilly Bayesian rationalists, I suspect that most of us are led to our fundamental beliefs via methods that are much less austere. We go around sniffing the world, rooting through rubble, turning over dirt. After all our searching, many of us find a world that smells like God. Many others (including me) don’t.
Regardless of your convictions, there is a point here that many would-be Bayesians might overlook. Bayes’s theorem allows well-defined models — mathematically well-defined models — to be tested against observations. Now turn that around, and realize that without a well-defined model, Bayes’s theorem is nearly useless. This has important consequences. It means that Carroll’s faith in his probabilistic approach is overblown, like when he says that even though it is “enormously problematic” to apply Bayesian reasoning to the question of God, “we don’t have any choice.” It also means that for those aspects of your worldview that seep subtly into all your observations, math alone probably won’t change your mind.
Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess,” first published in Dramatic Lyrics (1842), is also an ekphrastic poem: one that engages with a work of art and in this case dramatizes viewers’ responses to the artwork. In the poem, Browning plays with the genre of ekphrasis to reveal the violence underlying representation. An obsessive Duke shows a visitor, and readers, a painting of his last wife. The Duke tries to distract us with courtesy but even as he controls the story of his wife and her image, his emotion exceeds his control and exposes his crimes. Using conversational couplets and telling punctuation, Browning gives us a study of violence, a test of the rivalry between words and images, and a battle between the male and female gaze.
The poem begins with the Duke of Ferrara, a historical figure from the Italian Renaissance, pulling back a curtain to reveal the painting of his wife to the emissary of a Count:
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive.
Such a casual beginning is full of wicked dramatic irony. Browning’s initial trickery appears in the ambiguity of the first words, seemingly functional and innocuous yet implying some curious notions. With “that’s,” the Duke conflates the painting and his wife into an object of “wonder” to be possessed and shown off; with “last,” he hints that he plans for a series of wives, and it’s soon made clear that he’s in talks with the emissary to marry the Count’s daughter. Even the off-hand conjunctive “as if” at first appears to compliment the talent of the painter, Fra Pandolf, but the painting’s splendid lifelikeness quickly summons the presence of death in the past tense “were.” The Duke conjures shadows in the eerie phrase “there she stands,” as if the Duchess herself or her ghost has appeared in the room, startling unsuspecting viewers and putting us on alert.
This is how the long-awaited third season of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks ends: Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) tries to correct the past by bringing murder victim Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) home to her grieving mother, Sarah (Grace Zabriskie). But Laura isn’t Laura. Now alive, she’s Carrie Page from Odessa, Texas; and instead of Sarah answering the door, it’s a woman named Alice Tremond (Mary Reber), who’s never heard of the Palmers. Even Dale isn’t Dale, he’s “Richard.” This “absurd mystery of the strange forces of existence” (as FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) says of accumulating strange events at the series’ beginning), where the heroic sleuth has traveled through space, time, alternate dimensions and multiple identities, ends in devastation as “Richard” retreats deflatedly from his destination. Still, he’s troubled by an uncanny sensation, picked up on by Carrie too. “What year is this?” he asks. From the house we faintly hear Sarah Palmer, from 1989, calling Laura’s name. Sheryl Lee is transported back to her original role, and Laura screams. The house’s electricity erupts before a curtain of black fills the frame. The play is over and the rest is silence.
Where else do we have to go at this shattering conclusion other than back to the beginning? Being that this is a TV show, we’re already home. Following the cut to black, credits scroll over a scene from early in the series, a loop of Laura whispering startling information in Cooper’s ear. But even if the time machine of art can take us back, the sense of this ending is that “home” is still far away. “There’s no place like home,” The Wizard of Oz tells us, and Twin Peaks replies, “There is no place.”
Three and a half million people are without power, water, fuel, food, and support. This isn’t some uninhabited atoll. This is where I grew up. This is where my family lives. This is my home. And my home is dying. I have been desperately trying to come up with the right words to express what I feel and what I think for the better part of a day. My social media has as of late provided me with a space to write my remarks, observations, and more often than not, rants about the situation on Puerto Rico. I shared my anxieties when hours, then days passed without a word from my family. I cried in silent sobs at the pictures that slowly started to come out of the island. Despair began to unite the large Puerto Rican diaspora as we comforted each other, and waited as the absolute silence became more and more unbearable.
…President Trump’s message to Puerto Rico was clear: pay up and drop dead. The island is expected to pay its imaginary debt for the dubious “privilege” of being an imperial colony in the way it’s always done so: in blood. Wall Street’s interests have priority over securing the very survival of nearly four million people. God forbid that millionaire Wall Street bondholders suffer the horror of payment forfeiture over a minor inconvenience like Hurricane María, only the worst storm in eighty years! The president initially denied full federal assistance to the island and refused to suspend the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, or Jones Act, that has for nearly a century strangled commerce to and from Puerto Rico. Because of this stubbornness an obviously colonial World War One-vintage piece of legal protectionism continues to choke the island as its inhabitants are left to fend for themselves. Colonialism is a self-perpetuating state of exception that thrives on crises precisely because the beneficiaries are always the colonizers and their local flunkies who maintain and benefit from the illusion of “self-governance.”
While Homeland Security steadfastly holds on to its refusal to wave the Jones Act, Herr Trump was later forced by public pressure to amend his remarks on aid, and the USNS Comfort hospital ship is now scheduled to arrive on the island in three to five days (as will our bloviating commander-in-chief himself at some point) any help received from the American imperial mainland now carries with it a stigma, a sense of being a discarded, second-hand lifeline.
Bees are emblems of social complexity. Their honeycombs—intricate lattices dripping with food—house bustling hive members carrying out carefully orchestrated duties like defending against predators and coordinating resource collection. Much of our own success is due to this sort of division of labor. Clearly, in the animal kingdom, it pays to be social: Certain neurons make us resent being alone. You could be forgiven for assuming that complex social organization is the—or at least a—pinnacle of evolution. Yet out of the 20,000 known species of bees, only a few are social. Some bee species have even given up social behaviors, opting for the single life. Why?
For one, as introverts know well, socializing requires lots of energy. Highly complex societies of insects require an elaborate arsenal of chemical and physical signals to direct their communal behavior. Social bees have more highly developed exocrine glands than their solitary cousins, and solitary halictid bees have less sensory hairs on their antennae than their social precursors. Solitary and social halictids also have different odorant systems, which play an important role in social bee communication and recognition. As the environment comes up with new demands, and the genetic makeup of the hive adapts, these features might just stop being worth the investment. For another, being social can be stunting—sometimes bees have to grow up fast to survive. Researchers at Whitman College in Washington found that the region of the newly hatched antisocial orchard bee’s brain responsible for foraging ability is about as developed as the corresponding region in the experienced forager honey bee. Antisociality encourages self-sufficiency. Orchard bees must each fend for themselves, and they emerge into the world knowing how to forage for food. For honey bees, on the other hand, only a portion of the hive has to forage at any given time.
How do solitary species evolve to reap these benefits after having been social?
A culture critic turned into a cultural institution, an academic with little time for academia, a revealer of mythologies who became himself a myth – Roland Barthes was a rock star of the writing world when he died suddenly in 1980 and, as with all rock stars, his death only led to a new lease of life. “Lately”, one commentator observed in 2012, “the posthumous corpus of Roland Barthes has been growing at a rate that rivals Tupac Shakur’s. (Can a hologram Barthes be far behind?)” We await the hologram, but the centenary of his birth in 2015 brought a swarm of new commentary with it. For Barthes, 1915 was an “anodyne year: lost in wartime, undistinguished by any event; nobody was born or died that year”; in 2015, its centennial celebration was marked by the kind of adulation reserved for Hollywood celebrities.
Neil Badmington recalls these commemorative events at the beginning of his new book, The Afterlives of Roland Barthes. The mere memory is enough to leave him “weary, overwhelmed; my body tenses and prickles”. Badmington is “privileged”, he writes, “to have lived through those twelve months”, and even expresses sorrow for not being able to witness the celebrations that will mark the bicentenary in 2115.
Afterlives is a brief inspection of Barthes’s posthumously published texts, a look at “what they reveal and what they rewrite”. Badmington’s affection for Barthes – his “professional love” – is plain to see and although, academically speaking, such emotion could be harmful, it is precisely the kind of writing Barthes believed in.
The desert is an invention, a creation of emptiness in the plentitude of existence, an introduction of barrenness into the fecundity of being. However dry this biome, it is never entirely vacant. Besides containing rocks or sand, the actual desert from Atacama to the Sahara and from the Gobi to Mojave is propitious to certain animals (coyotes and scorpions, chipmunks and rattlesnakes) and plants (barrel cacti and Joshua trees, tumbleweeds and ironwood) that find themselves at home there. It would be the height of arrogance to deem these and countless others of its inhabitants so insignificant that they are sidelined or forgotten, leaving only the vast vacuum, the expanding nothingness, that the ecosystem in question has come to denote. An automatic association of the desert with lifelessness betrays precisely such forgetting and neglect, which are, in my view, the side effects of a devastating project—refashioning the earth in the image of abstract thought. “The” desert is abstraction realized, cast over the world at the expense of biological, ecological, and ontological diversity.
When I write that the desert is an invention, I am alluding not only to how emptiness is interpolated by our manners of thinking into the plenum of what we, in a convenient shorthand, encode as “nature,” but also to how, in the literal sense of the Latin invenire, the desert is called forth and comes into the world thanks to the accumulated impact of human industries on the environment.
Not long ago, I was chatting with an older friend who is a retired engineer and also something of a writer, but not of fiction. When he heard that I had just finished a translation of Madame Bovary, he said something like, “But Madame Bovary has already been translated. Why does there need to be another translation?” or “But Madame Bovary has been available in English for a long time, hasn’t it? Why would you want to translate it again?” Often, the idea that there can be a wide range of translations of one text doesn’t occur to people—or that a translation could be bad, very bad, and unfaithful to the original. Instead, a translation is a translation—you write the book again in English, on the basis of the French, a fairly standard procedure, and there it is, it’s been done and doesn’t have to be done again.
A new book that is causing excitement internationally will be quickly translated into many languages, like the Jonathan Littell book that won the Prix Goncourt five years ago. It was soon translated into English, and if it isn’t destined to endure as a piece of literature, it will probably never be translated into English again.
But in the case of a book that appeared more than one hundred and fifty years ago, like Madame Bovary, and that is an important landmark in the history of the novel, there is room for plenty of different English versions.
During my long, boring hours of spare time I sit to play with the earth’s sphere. I establish countries without police or parties and I scrap others that no longer attract consumers. I run roaring rivers through barren deserts and I create continents and oceans that I save for the future just in case. I draw a new colored map of the nations: I roll Germany to the Pacific Ocean teeming with whales and I let the poor refugees sail pirates’ ships to her coasts in the fog dreaming of the promised garden in Bavaria. I switch England with Afghanistan so that its youth can smoke hashish for free provided courtesy of Her Majesty’s government. I smuggle Kuwait from its fenced and mined borders to Comoro, the islands of the moon in its eclipse, keeping the oil fields in tact, of course. At the same time I transport Baghdad in the midst of loud drumming to the islands of Tahiti. I let Saudi Arabic crouch in its eternal desert to preserve the purity of her thoroughbred camels. This is before I surrender America back to the Indians just to give history the justice it has long lacked.
I know that changing the world is not easy but it remains necessary nonetheless.
by Fadhil al-Azzawi translation: Khaled Mattawa from Poetry International Web
In August, detectors on two continents recorded gravitational wave signals from a pair of black holes colliding. This discovery, announced today, is the first observation of gravitational waves by three different detectors, marking a new era of greater insights and improved localization of cosmic events now available through globally networked gravitational-wave observatories.
The collision was observed Aug. 14 at 10:30:43 a.m. Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) using the two National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, and the Virgo detector, funded by CNRS and INFN and located near Pisa, Italy.
The detection by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) and the Virgo collaboration is the first confirmed gravitational wave signal recorded by the Virgo detector. A paper about the event, a collision designated GW170814, has been accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters.
"Little more than a year and a half ago, NSF announced that its Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory had made the first-ever detection of gravitational waves, which resulted from the collision of two black holes in a galaxy a billion light-years away," said NSF Director France Córdova. "Today, we are delighted to announce the first discovery made in partnership between the Virgo gravitational-wave observatory and the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, the first time a gravitational wave detection was observed by these observatories, located thousands of miles apart. This is an exciting milestone in the growing international scientific effort to unlock the extraordinary mysteries of our universe."
Recently, I met a very unlucky man. A financial adviser in his mid-60s, he seemed chronically short of breath, and he had an odd habit of widening his eyes and raising his brows every time he finished a sentence. “I’ve had two potentially deadly cancers,” he told me. “Melanoma and lung cancer. They took the lung cancer out, and the melanoma was resected.” The brows lifted and dropped. “But it wasn’t either of the cancers that nearly killed me,” he continued, with what seemed to me an extraordinarily sanguine approach to his medical history. “It was a heart attack.” Months earlier, he had an acute bout of chest pain — a ripping feeling across his chest that arced down to his left arm. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors discovered a near-complete blockage of one of his heart’s main arteries. By the time cardiologists relieved the block, there was a dying wedge of tissue in his heart; he never recovered normal heart function. If this man’s case had been presented to me a decade earlier, I would have thought of him as the victim of two unrelated illnesses. Heart disease and cancer — Killer 1 and Killer 2 in the United States — inhabited parallel universes of medicine. Coronary heart disease, we were taught as medical residents, was typically caused by the buildup in the arteries of plaque, made up mainly of cholesterol deposits. If the plaque ruptured, a clot formed around it, precipitating an acute blockage of blood flow — a “heart attack.”
Cardiologists learned that they could prevent plaque accumulation by changing diet or habits or by using cholesterol-lowering drugs like Lipitor. Beyond prevention, the doctors could forcibly widen the arterial blockade or inject clot-busting drugs. The image of scales of lead clogging old pipes, and a Roto-Rooter, was hard to shake. Coronary artery disease, it seemed then, was mainly a plumbing problem, demanding a plumber’s toolbox of solutions (to be fair, there’s a cosmos of biology behind cholesterol metabolism and its link to heart disease). Cancer, by contrast, was an exterminator’s problem — a poisoner’s dilemma. Cancer-causing agents unleashed abnormal cellular proliferation by mutating genes involved in regulating growth. These cancer cells, occupying tissues and spreading, demanded a cellular poison — chemotherapy — that would spare normal cells and kill the malignant ones. Cardiologists and oncologists — plumbers and poisoners — lived in different medical realms. We spoke different languages, attended different conferences, read different specialty journals. If our paths intersected, we considered the crossing coincidental, the unavoidable convergence of two common age-related illnesses on the same body.
Like many of America’s traditions, especially in the South, the porch is at once derivative and indigenous, a synthesis of multifarious influences into an American original. Some architectural historians think the concept was imported with and by west-African slaves. But other iterations of the same idea – a shaded outdoor space beside a too-stuffy house – have also been implicated: Italian loggias, Greco-Roman porticos, English colonnades, early colonial architecture in the Caribbean. Spain and France contributed latticed ironwork and other refinements; later came Gothic arches and the turrets and gables of high Victoriana. In the mid-19th century they were incorporated by housebuilders across the country, but in the South they were older and ubiquitous. They have never been quite as innocent as I wanted them to be. Hybrid in origin, in its history and associations the porch is paradoxical. To begin with, it is at once public and reclusive. Like a negligée, it seems alluringly to lay bare a home, a family, its secrets, but also withholds them, the life that is out of sight somehow more opaque by being half-revealed – especially when, as many of the best porches do, it wraps around a house’s façade to make a zone of shady, unseen repose. And, while the neighbours might be able to see what you are doing on the porch, and with whom, your parents inside cannot.
Unsurprisingly, this has always been a place for courtship and assignations, in life and in art. “Sittin’ on the front porch on a summer afternoon,” Dolly Parton sings in “My Tennessee Mountain Home”; “And when the folks ain’t lookin’, you might steal a kiss or two.” Many of the romantic crises in “Gone with the Wind” occur on the porch. We meet Scarlett O’Hara, with her 17-inch waist, being courted by twins on Tara’s. From it she fatefully watches Ashley Wilkes riding up to the plantation and falls in love with him. Rhett Butler first propositions her on a porch in Atlanta, just before Scarlett sees the city burn.