A View of Her Own

Sarah Nicole Prickett in Bookforum:

Article00BEGINNING THE SECOND PARAGRAPH of her 1973 essay on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set, published in the New York Review of Books, which she cofounded, Elizabeth Hardwick had a line on the lesser members of that mutual entourage: “Certain peripheral names vex the spirits.” When the essay appeared a year later in Seduction and Betrayal, her formational work on the fates of literary women and women in literature, the line had changed and become: “Certain peripheral names scratch the mind.” No editor, and perhaps only this writer, would make such a change. Unnecessary, it’s instructive. “Certain peripheral names” is contemporaneous, cool and distant, idiomatic of her good friend Joan Didion. Wallace Stevens had “scratch the mind” in a 1938 poem, “The Man on the Dump,” but a nightingale (symbolic, like all birds) was doing the scratching, so the verb made sense. Tricky to effect a key change in a decasyllable. Hardwick makes the odd sentence weirder. Where “vex” exaggerated and made tonal her discord, and came naturally with “the spirits” to a writer who’d studied metaphysical poetry in graduate school, the furtive, unlikely “scratch” awakes in midsentence those annoying minor characters from their index and disturbs the reader, on whom the revised line falls faster thanks to the shorter “mind” and the continuous s-word after the plural, the unlikelihood registering when it’s too late to object: Who says that?

Hardwick could do more in six words than any Hemingway type, including Hemingway. Her feats of compression were exactly that, special, not habitual, because she was not really laconic and liked words better than she liked choosing between them. Her complaints about the process remind me of the writer (Jeff Goldblum) in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), protesting the output of an overproductive hack. “It takes me six months to write one line sometimes,” he says, and when a girl asks why: “Because I pick each word individually, that’s why!” Devoted to “the interest of the mind of the individual [writer],” interested in a plurality of writers and literature, places and persons who don’t belong, Hardwick became singular eventually, not as an event; she is more so now that she has not been greatly imitated. I get it: You would be hard-pressed to trace your own thoughts over her syntax the way you can copy, half-consciously, sentences by Didion, or the way Didion copied sentences by Hemingway. Any Hardwickian rules for writing she left unsaid, subject to desire. Even her students at Barnard, said one who wrote about her later, learned little in the way of technique and found that “the idea was to study her, not a particular subject,” while she thought the purpose of study was to acclimate writers to harder lives.

More here.

assessing kathy acker

Kathy_at_26th_st_studio_1990_nycSarah Ditum at Literary Review:

Kathy Acker is a difficult subject for a biography, largely because, as Chris Kraus notes at the outset of her book, she ‘lied all the time’. Every bit of Acker’s life tended to be fed back through the creative mill, becoming a part of either her experimental writings or her other great project, the invention of Kathy Acker: a pixie-cropped, tattooed, muscle-strapped icon of rebel literature whose confrontational autofiction broke ground, allowing other artists to make the mess of their lives into the medium of their work. Maggie Nelson, the Riot grrrl feminist punk movement and Kraus herself (whose novels cross the boundary between fiction and truth) all have their debts to Acker. But to understand Acker and her piratical, pornographic output, it helps to revisit the culture she belonged to: mid-20th-century America, and the artistic demimondes of New York and San Francisco especially.

Kraus supplies two anecdotes that, though they don’t involve Acker herself, serve to frame the times and attitudes she wrote against and out of. The first is an account of Chris Burden’s 1972 performance piece TV Hijack, which took place around the time Acker was first experimenting with DIY self-publication (producing works such as Politics and The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula). Burden, Kraus writes, ‘appeared on Phyllis Lutjeans’s cable TV interview show and surprised her by holding a knife to her throat. Lutjeans refused to press charges. Later, she’d explain how his assault “taught her a lesson”: her desire to anchor a show was driven by her own “ego and pride”’. For Kraus, this episode is typical of ‘an era when people seemed eager for “lessons”’.

more here.

kafka: the early years

John Banville at the NYRB:

For a person as sensitive as Kafka was, or at least as he presented himself as being—it is entirely possible to view his life in a light other than the one he himself shone upon it—inner escape was the only available strategy. “If we are to believe his own personal mythology,” Stach writes, “he drifted out of life and into literature,” to the point, indeed, that as an adult he would declare that he was literature, and nothing else. Stach, however, offers another and, in its way, far more interesting possibility when he asks, “What if literature was the only feasible way back for him?” Yet along this route into the psychological depths of Kafka’s emotional and artistic self we must pick our way carefully, recalling Kafka’s own skepticism toward Freudian analysis—“I consider the therapeutic part of psychoanalysis a helpless error”—and keeping in mind one of what are known as the Zürau aphorisms, in which he declares with uncharacteristic vehemence: “No psychology ever again!”

Naturally much of this volume is taken up with an account of Kafka’s formal education. One might expect that the student years of an artist would be of great biographical interest, but it is rarely the case, and Stach’s account of Kafka’s schooling is no exception. Perhaps the reason is that the education of an artist is for the most part a self-administered process, the progress of which is not recorded in class placings and examination results.

more here.

The mysterious masterpiece of Portugal’s great modernist

170904_r30463Adam Kirsch at The New Yorker:

If ever there was a writer in flight from his name, it was Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa is the Portuguese word for “person,” and there is nothing he less wanted to be. Again and again, in both poetry and prose, Pessoa denied that he existed as any kind of distinctive individual. “I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist,” he writes in one poem. “I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made of me. . . . That’s me. Period.”

In his magnum opus, “The Book of Disquiet”—a collage of aphorisms and reflections couched in the form of a fictional diary, which he worked on for years but never finished, much less published—Pessoa returns to the same theme: “Through these deliberately unconnected impressions I am the indifferent narrator of my autobiography without events, of my history without a life. These are my Confessions and if I say nothing in them it’s because I have nothing to say.”

This might sound like an unpromising basis for a body of creative work that is now considered one of the greatest of the twentieth century. If a writer is nothing, does nothing, and has nothing to say, what can he write about? But, like the big bang, which took next to nothing and turned it into a cosmos, the expansive power of Pessoa’s imagination turned out to need very little raw material to work with. Indeed, he belongs to a distinguished line of European writers, from Giacomo Leopardi, in the early nineteenth century, to Samuel Beckett, in the twentieth, for whom nullity was a muse.

more here.

Must we really “love one another or die”? A few words on Auden’s “September 1, 1939”

Cynthia Haven in The Book Haven:

Auden-bookSeptember 1, 1939, is the day Nazi Germany invaded Poland. W.H. Audenfamously wrote a poem to commemorate the occasion. “September 1, 1939” begins:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

The poem was taken up after 9/11, and appeared under thumb tacks and refrigerator magnets throughout the nation. But the last lines of the second stanza got special scrutiny in the new century. Was it referring to eternal truths? Or claiming the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I justified the new invasion?

More here.

The princess myth: Hilary Mantel on Diana

Hilary Mantel in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_2806 Sep. 02 14.31Royal time should move slowly and by its own laws: creeping, like the flow of chrism from a jar. But 20 ordinary years have jog-trotted by, and it’s possible to have a grownup conversation with someone who wasn’t born when Diana died. Her widower is long remarried. Her eldest son, once so like her, shows signs of developing the ponderous looks of Philip, his grand-father. Diana should be as passe as ostrich plumes: one of those royal or quasi-royal women, like Mary of Teck or Wallis Simpson or the last tsarina, whose images fade to sepia and whose bones are white as pearls. Instead, we gossip about her as if she had just left the room. We still debate how in 1981 a sweet-faced, puppy-eyed 20-year-old came to marry into the royal house. Was it a setup from the start? Did she know her fiance loved another woman? Was she complicit, or was she an innocent, garlanded for the slab and the knife?

For some people, being dead is only a relative condition; they wreak more than the living do. After their first rigor, they reshape themselves, taking on a flexibility in public discourse. For the anniversary of her death, the princess’s sons remember her for the TV cameras, and we learn that she was “fun” and “very caring” and “a breath of fresh air”. They speak sincerely, but they have no news. Yet there is no bar on saying what you like about her, in defiance of the evidence. Private tapes she made with her voice coach have been shown in a TV documentary, Diana: In Her Own Words. They were trailed as revealing a princess who is “candid” and “uninhibited”. Yet never has she appeared so self-conscious and recalcitrant. Squirming, twitching, avoiding the camera’s eye, she describes herself hopefully as “a rebel”, on the grounds that she liked to do the opposite of everyone else. You want to veil the lens and explain: that is reaction, not rebellion. Throwing a tantrum when thwarted doesn’t make you a free spirit. Rolling your eyes and shrugging doesn’t prove you are brave. And because people say “trust me”, it doesn’t means they’ll keep your secrets.

More here.

Saturday Poem

The Earth is a Satellite of the Moon

Apollo 2 cost more than Apollo 1
Apollo 1 cost plenty

Apollo 3 cost more than Apollo 2
Apollo 2 cost more than Apollo 1
Apollo 1 cost plenty

Apollo 4 cost more than Apollo 3
Apollo 3 cost more than Apollo 2
Apollo 2 cost more than Apollo 1
Apollo 1 cost plenty

Apollo 8 cost a fortune, but no one minded
because the astronauts were Protestant
they read the Bible from the moon
astounding and delighting every Christian
and on their return Pope Paul VI gave them his blessing.

Apollo 9 cost more than all these put together
including Apollo 1 which cost plenty.

The great-grandparents of the people of Acahualinca were less
hungry than the grandparents.
The great-grandparents died of hunger.
The grandparents of the people of Acahualinca were less
hungry than the parents.
The grandparents died of hunger.
The parents of the people of Acahualinca were less
hungry than the children of the people there.
The parents died of hunger.
The people of Acahualinca are less hungry then the children
of the people there.
The children of the people of Acahaulinca, because of hunger,
are not born
they hunger to be born, only to die of hunger.
Blessed are the poor for they shall inherit the moon.

by Leonel Rugama
from Poetry Like Bread
Curbstone Press, 1994

Body politic: Women in the cinema of Partition

Feryal Ali Gauhar in Herald:

CinemaThe cinematic experience is a gratifying hoax, predicated on a suspension of disbelief. We are convinced that all the disparate elements contributing to the production of a filmic experience – such as the transition of time and space, sometimes expanded, oftentimes contracted, the sequencing of scenes, the staging of action, the movement or stillness of camera, the scripted, memorised, rehearsed, measured, timed and delivered dialogue, the birth and nurturing of characters, the orchestration of light, the composition of music – are not crafted but, combined with each other, represent a well-spliced, invisibly strung-together reality. Cinema’s power lies in the illusion it creates, in making us believe that the constructed image, carefully (or carelessly) crafted and structured, is a reality that we are privileged to watch from a safe distance. The act of watching a film, of being in a darkened space, alone yet surrounded by others who are also alone, is like allowing oneself to enter spaces not visible in the stark light of the day. These are constructed spaces, made to seem alive, throbbing with possibility, enabling the human heart to feel things we would otherwise be guarded about.

Film theorists in the 1970s held that cinema provides its viewers a separation from their own egos or perceptions of reality while at the same time reinforcing those egos and perceptions. Perhaps the power of cinema lies in inducing us to subject our ‘self’ to a momentary and perceived loss of control, sort of like a free-fall experience from a twin-engine plane. We know that soon enough, perhaps too soon, we shall hit terra firma and all will be well again; that we will no longer have to engage with difficult situations or deal with suppressed emotions; that we will be unfettered by the suffering of the tragic hero who makes us cry and the buffoonery of the comedian who makes a fool of himself or herself for our pleasure. So why is it then, that, as makers and watchers of films, we return constantly to subjects of human misery and turmoil, to representations of what we consider historical truths, to the scenes of terrible violence, to the destruction of nations, cities, memories, lives? More importantly, why is it that cinema based on ‘historical fact’ is usually about turbulence and injustice and not about peace and prosperity? Why do we feel the need to revisit the past, along with its unresolved angst and the agony of things that went terribly wrong? Is the purpose of investing large amounts of money in film production to celebrate human suffering?

More here.

Salman Rushdie: ‘A lot of what Trump unleashed was there anyway’

Emma Brockes in The Guardian:

Salman rThe image that came to Salman Rushdie, around which he would build his new novel, was an enclosed garden in downtown Manhattan. It is a space that exists in real life (although, as one of the characters in The Golden House observes, real life is a category from which it is increasingly hard to distinguish less reliable entities) and with which Rushdie is familiar; old friends inhabit one of the houses backing on to the garden. “The idea of there being a secret space inside this noisy public space,” he says. “I had this lightbulb moment that it was like a theatre – with a Greek tragedy, amphitheatre quality – where the characters could enact their stories. It also had a Rear Window quality, of being able to spy on everybody else’s lives. At that point, the Golden family decided they wanted to move in.” We are in the offices of Andrew Wylie, Rushdie’s agent of 30 years – “my longest relationship!” he says gleefully – a mile north of Rushdie’s apartment in lower Manhattan. He is looking particularly Rushdie-esque today: part rumpled intellectual, part something less sober. At 70, Rushdie has had more public incarnations than most writers of literary fiction – brilliant novelist, man on the run, subject of tabloid scorn and government dismay, social butterfly, and, in that singularly British designation, man lambasted for being altogether too Up Himself – but it is often overlooked what good company he is. His humour this morning is not caustic, nor ironised, nor filtered through any of the more protected modes of engagement, but is a kind of jolliness – a giggly delight – that simply makes him a good laugh to hang out with.

The Golden family are transplants to New York from Mumbai (or “Bombay” as the author continues to call it in conversation, with what feels like particularly Rushdian obstinacy), an outlandishly wealthy father and his three dysfunctional sons in flight from a personal tragedy; the loss of their mother during the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. We never discover their “real” names; on arriving in the US, the patriarch renames himself Nero Golden – Rushdie, anticipating a collective eye-roll perhaps, points out in the novel this is no more ridiculous a name than Huckleberry Finn or Ichabod Crane – and tests the principle that the US is a place where one can leave one’s past at the door. It is an issue with which Rushdie is intimately familiar; the split in identity, the ability to shed one’s skin after a trauma and potentially skip off scot-free, and he explores both the impossibility and, ultimately, the undesirability of this. That the novel opens with the inauguration of Barack Obama and closes with the election of President Trump, “the Joker” as Rushdie brands him, is the novelist’s reminder there is no progress in history that can’t be undone.

More here.

The Google Memo: The Economist On Nothing

Patrick Lee Miller in Quillette:

AdobeStock_113872945-e1504154724257Most of the debate about James Damore’s memo has focused on its claims about gender, diversity, and affirmative action. Those themes were indeed central to the purpose of the memo. But also important were themes that often got overlooked: reason, open discussion, and classical liberalism. In a way, Damore got some of what he wanted—more discussion about the first set of themes—although he no doubt wished he could keep his job too. Now that there has been so much discussion of those themes, now that the dust has settled after “Googlegate,” it’s a good time to reason through the best arguments on each side of the controversy. Who was right? What can we learn? How can we do better next time there appears to be a clash between the competing values of equality, science, and freedom of speech?

Many of the best arguments on Damore’s side can be found in his own memo.

This may come as a surprise to those who developed their opinion about it, not by reading the memo itself but by absorbing accounts of it in the popular press. The misrepresentation began as soon as the story broke. First to publishing the memo, but without its bibliographic links, Gizmodo’s influential account led to widespread criticism of it for being nothing more than unsourced prejudice. Ignoring not only its research, but also Damore’s many assurances that he values diversity and wishes only to criticize the ways in which it has been pursued at Google, Gizmodo began the tradition of calling his memo an “anti-diversity screed.” It was all downhill from there.

More here.

Researchers say you might as well be your own therapist


Olivia Goldhill in Quartz:

A meta-analyses of 15 studies, published in this month’s volume of Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, found no significant difference in the treatment outcomes for patients who saw a therapist and those who followed a self-help book or online program.

The researchers, led by Robert King, psychology professor at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, evaluated the outcomes of 723 patients who were treated for a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and depression.

All 15 studies involved a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) treatment, and patient outcomes were evaluated by various mental health diagnostic scales, rather than self-assessment.

Contrary to the researchers’ hypothesis that therapists would provide stronger results (though with greater variability), the results showed that therapists were neither more effective nor more variable than self-help options.

They write:

“We found no difference in treatment completion rate and broad equivalence of treatment outcomes for participants treated through self-help and participants treated through a therapist. Also, contrary to our expectations, we found that the variability of outcomes was broadly equivalent, suggesting that differences in efficacy of individual therapists were not sufficient to make therapy outcomes more variable when a therapist was involved.”

The results suggest that therapists don’t play such a significant role in improving the treatment of therapy. An effect size of the magnitude found here means that the best estimate of the effect of the presence or absence of a therapist suggests that this variable accounts for <1% of outcome variance,” the researchers write.

More here.

The Enduring Legacy of Zork


Elizabeth Woyke in the MIT Technology Review:

Vibrant, witty writing set Zork apart. It had no graphics, but lines like “Phosphorescent mosses, fed by a trickle of water from some unseen source above, make [the crystal grotto] glow and sparkle with every color of the rainbow” helped players envision the “Great Underground Empire” they were exploring as they brandished such weapons as glowing “Elvish swords.” “We played with language just like we played with computers,” says Daniels. Wordplay also cropped up in irreverent character names such as “Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive” and “The Wizard of Frobozz.”

Within weeks of its creation, Zork’s clever writing and inventive puzzles attracted players from across the U.S. and England. “The MIT machines were a nerd magnet for kids who had access to the ARPANET,” says Anderson. “They would see someone running something called Zork, rummage around in the MIT file system, find and play the game, and tell their friends.” The MIT mainframe operating system (called ITS) let Zork’s creators remotely watch users type in real time, which revealed common mistakes. “If we found a lot of people using a word the game didn’t support, we would add it as a synonym,” says Daniels.

The four kept refining and expanding Zork until February 1979. A few months later, three of them, plus seven other Dynamic Modeling Group members, founded the software company Infocom. Its first product: a modified version of Zork, split into three parts, released over three years, to fit PCs’ limited memory size and processing power.

Nearly 40 years later, those PC games, which ran on everything from the Apple II to the Commodore 64 in their 1980s heyday, are available online—and still inspire technologists.

More here.

Robert Rauschenberg and the art of the New Frontier

TxDzl4eXIlWwBarry Schwabsky at The Nation:

No artist invented more than Robert Rauschenberg. This remark, attributed to his friend Jasper Johns, is probably true (his exception was Picasso)—at least as long as you understand “invention” in its etymological sense, where it doesn’t mean making things up, creating things that didn’t exist before, but literally to “come into” things, in the sense of finding them. In the art of rhetoric, inventio is the systematic gathering of materials out of which a persuasive discourse can be constructed. Looking back over Rauschenberg’s career from its beginnings around the middle of the last century through his death in 2008, as the current retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (on view through September 17) invites us to do, it becomes clear that Rauschenberg was above all a restless and resourceful gatherer of materials, cultural as well as physical.

The show has been curated by MoMA’s Leah Dickerman and Achim Borchardt-Hume of the Tate Modern in London, where the exhibition was first mounted. (After New York, it will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it will be on view from November 18 to March 25, 2018.) Oddly, while the exhibition in London was simply titled “Robert Rauschenberg,” in New York it’s called “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends.” Here, his works are interspersed with those of associates like Johns, Rauschenberg’s life partner from the mid-1950s through 1961; Susan Weil, to whom he was married in the early 1950s; Cy Twombly, Niki de Saint Phalle, Andy Warhol, Öyvind Fahlström, and others; as well as copious documentation of his work with the nonprofit Experiments in Art and Technology.

more here.

on being an Indian writer

27172664862_eafbf5baf9_zAmit Chaudhuri at n+1:

THE IMPORTANT EUROPEAN NOVELIST makes innovations in the form; the important Indian novelist writes about India. This is a generalization, and not one that I believe. But it represents an unexpressed attitude that governs some of the ways we think of literature today. The first half of the sentence can be changed in response to developments in the new millennium to include “American”; in fact, to allow “American” to replace “European.” The second half should accommodate, along with India, Africa and even Australia. We arguably go to an Australian novel because it asserts Australian characteristics, and Australian characteristics are analogous to what we already know from the newly discovered worlds and continents of the last two hundred years. If an Australian novel is formally innovative, the innovations will exemplify its New World or postcolonial or vivid non-metropolitan features. The innovations of a European novel, on the other hand, are not an assertion of Europe, but deal directly and exclusively with the form of the novel itself. The sequence of deduction moves here in the opposite direction—a major European novelist makes formal innovations; pure formal innovation is a characteristic of European culture (rather than a political expression of Europeanness). If we find formal innovations in a non-European novelist, modulations on form unrelated to, say, identity, difference, or colonial history, we might say, “This novelist has a European air.” We could say the same about the more formally ambitious of the recent American writers, whose innovations are unrelated to Americana: that they are, in some ways, Europeans from, say, Brooklyn. At the moment, though, because of the centrality in the Anglophone world of the USA and of New York, we don’t think of innovations in fiction emerging from these locations as being primarily connected to what it means to be a New Yorker, or an American—we think of them as formal innovations in themselves. The American writer has succeeded the European writer. The rest of us write of where we come from.

more here.

The Mediterranean and the Atlantic from Prehistory to AD 1500

51lI1ZMw4vL._AC_US218_Felipe Fernandez-Armesto at Literary Review:

It took four thousand years for what the author calls ‘the two faces of peninsular Western Europe’ to come together. The evidence for how it happened forms mazes and deserts – sometimes bafflingly dense and convoluted, sometimes maddeningly barren and desolate. Cunliffe finds his way through these with skill. Like a searchlight operator, he switches focus continually, highlighting each sea alternately in vivid flashes or, at times, in sustained glare. He starts in the remotest period of antiquity about which speculation is worthwhile and is surely right to say that ‘seafaring was a fact of life’ in the Palaeolithic era. He shows how, from the sixth to the second millennium BC, there was more cultural traffic from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean than the other way round, plotting distributions of megaliths and bell beakers to demonstrate this. He welcomes us aboard with the merchants of Samos and Byblos who sailed to Tartessos – the El Dorado of antiquity – in the first millennium BC. He evokes the doggedness with which Roman generals overcame their men’s distaste for the sea to conquer Carthage and dominate the Atlantic littoral. He turns the comings and goings of medieval shipping into a coherent story. Finally, when his narrative reaches the end of what we conventionally call the Middle Ages, when Latin Christendom was functioning, albeit imperfectly, on both sides of the European watershed, Cunliffe points us towards Europe’s transatlantic expansion and the creation of an Atlantic world.

Along the way, he chronicles the transformation of Europeans’ perceptions of the Atlantic. Among early explorers it was a ‘journey’ or ‘a place for forgetting’. To peregrinatory Irish anchorites of the early Middle Ages, ‘the Western Sea was their desert’. By the end of the story, after Columbus had demonstrated the viability of commercially exploitable routes to and fro across the ocean, the Atlantic had become a ‘destination’. The space available for monsters and mythopoeia shifted westward to the New World.

more here.

War & Peace & Letting Go of “The Great Man Theory”

Chelsea Ennen in Avidly:

War-and-Peace-BorodinoOn a cold, snowy night in January of 2016, I sat curled up in front of a crackling fire at my childhood home in rural Ohio. Fresh from finishing graduate school in London, I’d only been back in the country for a week. Feeling heartbroken over leaving London, I was clinging to my fundamental desire to work that sometimes substitutes for a deeper sense of identity or purpose. This was around the time the new BBC adaptation of War and Peace was airing on American TV. Watching the lush series and struggling to recall the half of the novel I’d managed to find time to read as an undergrad, I had an idea that merged my newfound time for pleasure reading with my desire for a long-term writing project: I’d read War and Peace over the space of a year, and blog about it weekly. I’d experience the passage of time along with the characters, observing them and myself as specks underneath Tolstoy’s vast expanses of sky and history. 2016 was already looking to be an eventful year both for myself as an individual and America as a whole: I was poised on the edge of something new, and, it seemed, somewhat dauntingly, so was the nation. I’d be the Pierre to the United States’ Imperial Russia. What could go wrong?

If you’ve never felt a desire to slog through one of the heavier cornerstones of the Western canon, I regret to inform you that even the substantial and fully-formed, nearly three-hour-long musical adaptation of the novelNatasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812—only covers about 70 out of War and Peace‘s 1,000+ pages. The wider picture is part philosophy, part wartime epic, and part soap opera. The soap opera part, which is considered the plot proper by most, follows several aristocratic families as they navigate the Napoleonic wars and changing ideas of what it means to be Russian. There is much talk about Napoleon, who eventually appears as a character. His rise from cocktail conversation topic to looming tyrant is so gratingly relevant it puts a certain production of Julius Caesar to shame. Oafish Pierre, his father’s favorite of many bastard children, becomes Count Bezuhov when his father dies, inheriting a massive fortune and all the duplicitous leeches that come with it. Pierre is the stand-in for Tolstoy himself, and his journey to enlightenment embodies Tolstoy’s beliefs on religion, morality, and happiness.

More here.

Friday Poem

Whittling: The Last Class

What has been written
about whittling
is not true

most of it

It is the discovery
that keeps
the fingers moving

not idleness

but the knife looking for
the right plane
that will let the secret out

Whittling is no pastime

he says
who has been whittling
in spare minutes at the wood

of his life for forty years

Three rules he thinks
have helped
Make small cuts

In this way

you may be able to stop before
what was to be an arm
has to be something else

Always whittle away from yourself

and toward something.
For God's sake
and your own
know when to stop

Whittling is the best example
I know of what most
may happen when

least expected

bad or good
Hurry before
angina comes like a pair of pliers

over your left shoulder

There is plenty of wood
for everyone
and you

Go ahead now

May you find
in the waiting wood
rough unspoken

what is true

nearly true

true enough.

by John Stone
from Music from Apartment 8: New and Selected Poems
Louisiana State University Press, 2004.

Why some baby bees are destined to become workers—or queens

Giorgia Guglielmi in Science:

BeeThe saying “you are what you eat” is particularly true for female honey bees, which grow up to be either small, sterile workers or large, fertile queens depending on their diet. Previously, many researchers thought that something in the food fed to young queens—a secretion called royal jelly—was what made the difference. Now, a new study suggests it’s signaling molecules in the grub of young worker bees that keeps their sexual development in check. That diet, a mixture of pollen and honey called “beebread,” is shot through with a special kind of microRNA (miRNA), noncoding RNA molecules that help regulate gene expression. To find out whether these miRNAs were the culprit, scientists added them to the diet of larvae raised in the lab. These larvae developed more slowly, with smaller bodies and smaller ovaries than larvae fed food without the supplement, the team reports today in PLOS Genetics.

The researchers also found that one common, plant-derived miRNA in beebread switches off a gene that helps larvae turn into queens. After being eaten with food, the miRNAs might enter the bee’s gut and spread throughout the rest of the body, where they could help regulate key genes, the scientists say. Although plant miRNAs alone aren’t likely to turn queens into workers, queens-to-be probably don’t want to eat the commoners’ bread.

More here.