How Bibliophiles Flirt: A Sweet Story

Karla Marie-Rose Derus in the New York Times:

During six years of singlehood in my 20s, I became a person I did not know. Before, I had always been a reader. I walked to the library several times a week as a kid and stayed up late into the night reading under my blankets with a flashlight. I checked out so many books and returned them so quickly the librarian once snapped, “Don’t take home so many books if you’re not going to read them all.”

“But I did read them all,” I said, unloading them into her arms.

I was an English major in college and went on to get a master’s in literature. But shortly after the spiral-bound thesis took its place on my shelf next to the degree, I stopped reading. It happened gradually, the way one heals or dies.

More here.

Vices of the mind: fake news, conspiracy theories, bullshit etc…

Richard Marshall interviews Quassim Cassam at 3:AM Magazine:

Quassim Cassam is interested in epistemology, conspiracy theories, terrorism and counterterrorism and medicine. Here he discusses disappearing knowledge, conspiracy theories, how we can protect knowledge from threats of erosion, epistemic vice as Obstructionism, whether epistemic vices might sometimes be ok, Trump and Brexit, the role of expertise, comparing epistemic vices to moral vices, terrorism, why much contemporary philosophy hasn’t engaged with these issues, and what difference philosophy can make regarding them.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Quassim Cassam: I studied P.P.E. (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at Oxford. When I started, I planned to concentrate on Politics and Economics but quickly discovered that I loathed Economics. It took a while for me to become seriously interested in Philosophy but was hooked by a couple of things: reading Kant and Strawson and attending Charles Taylor’s brilliant seminars on Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. I also remember some inspiring tutorials on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus with James Griffin, who was my main undergraduate tutor. When I graduated, I thought seriously about going to law school but decided in the end to stay on to do graduate work in Philosophy. I was lucky enough to be supervised by Strawson and even luckier to land a job teaching Philosophy at Oxford as soon as I finished my doctorate.

More here.

The Aziz Ansari Paradox

Louise Perry in Quillette:

You probably already know—or think you know—what happened on the night of September 25, 2017 between Aziz Ansari and an anonymous woman calling herself “Grace.” These are the accepted facts: she went on a date with Ansari, they went back to his house, and then had some sexual contact that left Grace feeling deeply uncomfortable. No crime was alleged, since Ansari did not force himself on Grace in any way, but this was clearly a nasty encounter for her. The next day, she texted Ansari telling him as much and he apologized for having “misread things.” Several months later, she published her account on the website babe.

For a few weeks following the publication of Grace’s story, the internet was awash with claims and counter-claims about the rights and wrongs of what had taken place. Every media outlet offered up its judgment on Ansari. To somecommentators, he was the victim of a witch hunt, persecuted by an internet mob with no respect for due process. On the other side, many feminists argued that his behavior exemplified the aggressive, entitled, chauvinistic attitude that too many men show towards women. Others suggested that the reaction against Ansari was disproportionate—yes he had behaved badly, but that badly? Everyone had an opinion, not only on what he had done, but on what the incident revealed about sexual politics in the #MeToo era.

More here.

The Eiffel Tower

Hollis Clayson at nonsite:

When the Eiffel Tower—the daring centerpiece of the centenary celebration of the French Revolution, the 1889 Exposition Universelle—was new, it was widely disparaged for its impertinent mechanical appearance. The distinctive 300-meter iron structure still looms over western Paris from the Champ de Mars close to the Seine, but it is now admired, even adored. The history of the Tower thus contains a two-fold surprise: it was the odd World’s Fair edifice to survive, and, though once reviled, it is now loved. Not only has the old derrick-shaped monument become endearing, its thrusting gigantism, surprising shape, and unapologetically industrial materials, along with its attention-grabbing nocturnal lighting and mesmerizing daytime transparency, make it inescapable in many districts of the French capital city. And not only there: owing to its nonstop reproduction and circulation, its familiarity exceeds the spaces of Paris. On account of its global popularity, it is called an urban icon. According to leading image historians, the Tower is “a reference-point for urban signification,” “the iconic object of Paris,” and “the archetype for all urban icons to follow.” The parent of this outlook was literary critic Roland Barthes. In 1964, he argued influentially that the bases of the Tower’s clout are its widespread fame and its emptiness: it is both “a pure signifier” and “an utterly useless monument” meaning that wherever the Tower is known, it absorbs any claim whatsoever about its identity and significance.

more here.

The Dizzying Fiction of Anthony Burgess

Margaret Drabble at the TLS:

A writer of enormous energy, Burgess suffered from an embarrassment of riches as well as from an excessive love of words and language. The vulgar and irritating phrase “swallowed the dictionary” could have been coined for him, and he cheerfully recommends “ransacking the dictionary” when in need of an inspirational boost. Rejecting a critic who praised Shakespeare’s dying delirium in his novel Nothing Like the Sun (1964) as “writing of the highest order”, he confesses, “Not quite so, really. I had taught myself the trick of contriving a satisfactory coda by what, in music, is termed aleatory means: I flicked through a dictionary and took whatever words leaped from the page. I did this again at the end of my Napoleon novel: the effect is surrealistic, oceanic, and easily achieved”. (You’ve Had Your Time, Chapter Two.) This is a very odd mode of composition. Lorna Sage nailed it in a review of Napoleon Symphony (1974), which he quotes in his memoir with what seems to be approval as “probably profound”. Sage writes, “he is original, inventive, idiosyncratic even, and yet the ingredients are synthetic . . . . His own attitude to this, so far as one can extract anything so direct from the novel, is determinedly, manically cheerful. Better the collective unwisdom of the verbal stew, he would say, than any tyrannous signature”. Sage was a brilliantly perceptive critic, and she could read an author’s mind.

more here.

Virgil Thomson’s ‘Feast of Love’

Sudip Bose at The American Scholar:

We can practically feel the wind blowing upon our cheek, so visceral is Thomson’s tone painting here. The sonorities of the orchestra are bright, the musicians strumming phrases like an ancient lyre, the baritone morphing from priest into bard. There’s a lovely decadence to these lyrical passages in duple and triple time, as the singer pleads with Diana to refrain from hunting in her wooded realm so that the party can continue unimpeded. The chaste Diana, meanwhile, has not been invited to the celebration; that her realm is being violated is suggested by another contrasting musical texture—still lyrical but with hints of darkness not far beneath the surface.

Indeed, The Feast of Love is a work of contrasts and tension. Any impulse toward the voluptuous is tempered by classical restraint. A composer such as Samuel Barber might have taken this same text and produced music more romantically exuberant, but Thomson’s aesthetic, honed by Nadia Boulanger in Paris, demanded simplicity, directness, wittiness, and elegance.

more here.

Making sense of how the blind ‘see’ color

Peter Reuell in PhysOrg:

What do you think of when you think of a rainbow? If you’re sighted, you’re probably imagining colors arcing through the sky just after the rain. But what about someone who can’t see a rainbow? How does a congenitally blind person’s knowledge of a rainbow—or even something as seemingly simple as the color red—differ from that of the sighted? The answer, Alfonso Caramazza said, is complicated: There are similarities but also important differences.

The Daniel and Amy Starch Professor of Psychology, Caramazza is the co-author, with postdoctoral fellow Ella Striem-Amit and Xiaoying Wang and Yanchao Bi from Beijing Normal University, of a new study that suggests that, although they experience them differently, the sighted and the blind are still able to share a common understanding of abstract visual phenomena like rainbows and color. The study is described in a December paper published in Nature Communications. “The question here is how do we represent things that don’t have an external physical reality—something we can’t touch or smell?” Caramazza said. “If you think about it, this is not just a problem for the blind; it’s a problem anyone has when they hear a word like ‘ion’ or ‘quark,’ for example. Most of us have only a very vague understanding of what those things actually are. If you talk to physicists they can give you theoretical, mathematically precise descriptions, but none of the things they associate with those things have a concrete, physical correspondence.”

With no way to directly experience what something like quarks actually are, Caramazza said, people lean heavily on language to understand or describe them—using words like “strange” and “charm” to describe quarks’ “flavors.” And the same, he said, is true for  seeking to understand color.

“You can use language to describe things that are physical,” he explained. “If you were blind and I wanted to describe a cup to you, I could say it’s a hard object that’s concave and it’s nonporous, so you can put liquids in it. Those descriptions are things you have some physical experience of, so you can piggyback on that experience. But there are some concepts for which you cannot do that. Color is a surface property of an object, but there’s no way for me to tell a blind person what that sensory experience is, because it’s a purely visual experience. So the way they learn about red is the way you and I learn about quarks, or about concepts like justice or virtue—through a verbal description or use in verbal contexts.”

More here.

Sen. Barack Obama Addresses Race at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia

From The Washington Post:

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across the ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787. The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least 20 more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience, and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.

More here. (Note: Throughout February, we will publish at least one post dedicated to Black History Month)

Thursday Poem

For Rashan Charles

And after the black boy is
strangled by police, after

the protests where the man,
his Rottweiler on an iron leash yells,

let’s go mash up dis city

and another crowd bulks,

the parents of the murdered
beg us not to become

the monsters some think
we already are—even when

the barista shakes her head
at the banners, says actually,

police be killing whites too.
Look how scary it is

to be here and know
if we die someone

will make a sound
like her before earth

is tipped over us.
Who hasn’t had enough?

Enough burning
bins, pushing

shopping trolleys
into static and sirens?

Who isn’t chanting
enough, enough,

enough, throwing spells,
the rebellious

holding what they can
in front of a supermarket

or police stations
or voting booths—I am

kind to the man
sitting next to me

in C.L.R James Library, even if
his breathing disturbs me.

Can we disagree graciously
I am tired of people

not knowing the volume
of their power. Who doesn’t

some silence at night?

by Raymond Antrobus
from Academy of American Poets

What Charles Bukowski’s Glamorous Displays of Alcoholism Left Out

David Orr in the New York Times:

Bukowski relished his image as a swaggering outsider, the kind of man who, having consented to read his poetry at a college, “put down my poems and asked if anybody wanted to arm wrestle.” (Someone did; naturally Bukowski won.) In “On Drinking,” his escapades are entirely typical and roughly as follows: He goes to, copes with or barely avoids jail. He mouths off to cops. He gets into unprovoked fistfights that take three pages to describe and that involve dozens of barehanded punches to the head. He offers to clean a bar’s dirty blinds for money and whiskey, and then, Tom Sawyer-style, persuades the other patrons to do the job for him. He is coated in vomit and/or blood with the regularity of an E.R. nurse. He pleasures, or fails to pleasure, scores of women, none of whom are dissuaded by the foregoing vomit or blood. And he wants nothing to do with modern writers who “lecture at universities / in tie and suit, / the little boys soberly studious, / the little girls with glazed eyes.”

This boozy, cartoon machismo has generally served Bukowski well, in the sense that 25 years after his death he still has a sizable audience by the standards of a fiction writer and a colossal audience by the standards of a poet. As you might expect, that readership is not there for displays of technical prowess. The poems in “On Drinking” are distinguishable from the prose mostly by virtue of line breaks that are inserted in why-not fashion; as in, “once in Paris / drunk on national TV / before 50 million Frenchmen / I began babbling vulgar thoughts / and when the host put his hand over my / mouth / I leaped up from the round table …” There’s basically no difference between these lines and the prose narrative that precedes them, except that the prose involves an extended brawl while the poem includes Bukowski pulling a knife on some French security guards.

More here.

Between gods and animals: becoming human in the Gilgamesh epic

Sophus Helle in Aeon:

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a Babylonian poem composed in ancient Iraq, millennia before Homer. It tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk. To curb his restless and destructive energy, the gods create a friend for him, Enkidu, who grows up among the animals of the steppe. When Gilgamesh hears about this wild man, he orders that a woman named Shamhat be brought out to find him. Shamhat seduces Enkidu, and the two make love for six days and seven nights, transforming Enkidu from beast to man. His strength is diminished, but his intellect is expanded, and he becomes able to think and speak like a human being. Shamhat and Enkidu travel together to a camp of shepherds, where Enkidu learns the ways of humanity. Eventually, Enkidu goes to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh’s abuse of power, and the two heroes wrestle with one another, only to form a passionate friendship.

This, at least, is one version of Gilgamesh’s beginning, but in fact the epic went through a number of different editions. It began as a cycle of stories in the Sumerian language, which were then collected and translated into a single epic in the Akkadian language. The earliest version of the epic was written in a dialect called Old Babylonian, and this version was later revised and updated to create another version, in the Standard Babylonian dialect, which is the one that most readers will encounter today.

Not only does Gilgamesh exist in a number of different versions, each version is in turn made up of many different fragments.

More here.

Inside the Secret Sting Operations to Expose Celebrity Psychics

Jack Hitt in the New York Times:

When you’re setting up fake Facebook pages, it’s the little details that can mess things up. On a group computer call last winter, Susan Gerbic was going through her checklist of tips for her team’s latest sting operation — this one focused on infiltrating the audience of a psychic. It all started with maintaining their Facebook sock puppets — those fake online profiles. “American spellings everyone!” she commanded her half-dozen international colleagues through the Skype crackle.

Gerbic lives in Salinas, Calif., and while she is retired from the routine world of work, she has taken on a new job, as self-appointed guardian of Enlightenment Reason. She spends most of her days wrangling her far-flung group of Guerrilla Skeptics into common cause, defending empirical truth online. This usually consists of editing and monitoring Wikipedia pages — a cat-herding task she says she’s uniquely qualified for. “I was a baby photographer,” she explained. “I ran a JCPenney portrait studio for 34 years.”

Collectively, the group, which has swelled to 144 members, has researched, written or revised almost 900 Wikipedia pages. Sure, they take on the classics, like debunking “spontaneous human combustion,” but many of their other pages have real-world impact.

More here.

The Final Correspondence of Sylvia Plath

Emily Cooke at Bookforum:

Appropriately, given that they follow the arc of a marriage, the letters are filled with what Plath calls at one point “domesticalia.” The exhaustive reports on furniture, cooking, renovations, and real estate aren’t thrilling, but neither are they boring, being possessed of a kind of homely tactile truth that is revealing and hypnotic in its way. For a dinner party in December 1957, when Plath was teaching at Smith, she “tossed off a sponge cake” from a recipe her mother had sent her. “Made my little parfait with 6 egg yolks, maple syrup & 2 cups of heavy cream, frozen, mixed up a delicious spaghetti sauce, a French salad dressing, a salad of lettuce, romaine & chicory & scallions, garlic butter for French bread, and the clam-and-sour-cream dip I learned from Mrs. Graham. . . . We served sherry & hot potato chips & this dip for beginning & then you should see how nice our round table looked, if a bit crowded, with my lovely West German linen cloth (pale nubbly yellow). . . . I’ve never made a meal for 6 before, just 4.” On occasion, the mundane stories suggest a kind of unsettling foreknowledge.

more here.

An Unsolicited Critique of Eric Clapton’s Unplugged

Andrew Marzoni at The Baffler:

What is missing in Clapton’s imitation of African American musical tradition on Unplugged, which Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot fairly described as “a blues album for yuppies,” is the quality most responsible for the music’s sadness as well as its humor, lasting relevance, and political bite: that is, a profound self-awareness. As Eric Lott writes in Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993), whose title Bob Dylan lifted for his 2001 record, “Minstrelsy brought to public form racialized elements of thought and feeling, tone and impulse, residing at the very edge of semantic availability, which Americans only dimly realized they felt, let alone understood.” The antebellum minstrel show, whose enthusiasts included Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Abraham Lincoln, was an expression of white America’s ambivalence toward its own culture of self-proclaimed supremacy; “the whites involved in minstrelsy,” Lott writes, “were far from unenthusiastic about black cultural practices or, conversely, untroubled by them, continuous though the economic logic of blackface was with slavery.”

more here.

Prosperity, the Periphery, and the Future of France

Andrew Hussey at Literary Review:

A week or so before the election in May 2017 that brought Emmanuel Macron to power, I interviewed a senior academic at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, wishing to understand where Macron would be taking France if he won. The response from the professor was gloomy. This was, he said, first because people would be voting for Macron out of fear – at this stage the spectre of a victory for the Front National was still very much on the cards – and not any real belief in his policies. His would therefore be a government elected in bad faith.

Secondly, he went on, Macron severely underestimated how fiercely French people would resist his stated ambition to bring the French economy into a less regulated state and expose it to a globalised environment. For all of these reasons, Macron was bound to fail.

more here.

These old, anatomical drawings are worth dissecting

Gal Koplewitz in MIL:

During his long journey through Europe and the Levant in 1867, Mark Twain stopped off in Milan. Like many, he was struck by the grandeur of the city’s great cathedral, but it was something else that truly became etched in his memory. Standing inside the cathedral was a statue of St Bartholomew, the apostle who had been skinned alive, and who was depicted with his skin draped around his shoulders as if it were a towel. In “The Innocents Abroad”, Twain’s account of that year of travel, he recounts: “The figure was that of a man without a skin; with every vein, artery, muscle, every fibre and tendon and tissue of the human frame represented in minute detail… It was a hideous thing, and yet there was a fascination about it somehow.”

Animated by this same fascination, physicians and artists have, over the centuries, opened up the human body and recorded what they discovered inside, as visitors to a new exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians in London will find. “Under the Skin” brings together a small yet impressive selection of anatomical illustrations, produced primarily by Western physicians and artists (though there are some striking exceptions) from the late Middle Ages through to the 20th century. These scrolls, prints and woodcuts show how these scientists grappled with the challenges of representing human anatomy, and in so doing made illustrations that are as gruesome as they are compelling.

More here.

Who Ain’t a Slave?

Greg Grandin in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

On a late February day in 1805 in the South Pacific, Amasa Delano, master of the Perseverance, a sealer out of Boston, boarded a distressed Spanish ship carrying about 70 West African men, women, and children. Delano spent about nine hours on the vessel, called the Tryal. He talked with its sailors, who were few in number, doled out water to its black-skinned men and women, and took charge of organizing repairs. And all that time, he couldn’t see that it was the West Africans, whom he thought were slaves, and not the Spaniard who introduced himself as captain, who were in command. Nearly two months earlier, the West Africans, who had been loaded at Valparaiso, Chile, bound to be sold in Lima, rose up, executing most of the Tryal’s crew and passengers, along with the slave trader who was taking them to Peru. Led by an elderly man named Babo and his son Mori, the rebels ordered Benito Cerreño, the ship’s owner and captain, to sail them to Senegal.

Cerreño stalled, cruising first north and then south, before running into the Perseverance.The rebels began to ready their weapons for a fight. But then Babo had an idea.

The West Africans let Delano come on board and acted as if they were still slaves. Mori stayed at Cerreño’s side and feigned at being a humble and devoted servant. Cerreño pretended he was still in charge, telling Delano stories about storms, doldrums, and fevers to account for the state of his ship and the absence of any officer aside from himself. The alabaster-skinned Delano later wrote that he found himself surrounded by scores of Africans and a handful of Spanish and mulatto sailors telling their “stories” and sharing their “grievances” in a babel of languages. They spoke in Wolof, Mandinka, Fulani, and Spanish, a rush of words indecipherable in its details but soothing to Delano in its generalities, convincing the New Englander that the desperation he was witnessing was real, that he wasn’t being lured into a pirate’s trap.

Over the years, this remarkable affair—in effect, a one-act, nine-hour, full-cast pantomime of the master-slave relation performed by a group of desperate, starving, and thirsty men and women—has inspired writers, poets, and novelists. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda thought the boldness of the slaves reflected the dissent of the 1960s. More recently the Uruguayan Tomás de Mattos’s Chinese box of a novel, La fragata de las máscaras, uses the deception as a metaphor for a world where reality isn’t hidden behind a mask but is the mask itself.

But by far the most haunting rendition of the events on the Tryal is Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, first published in 1855. Melville left no letters or diaries, at least none yet found, that reveal his thoughts upon reading Delano’s memoir, or what had moved him to fictionalize Delano’s experience on board the rebel-held ship. But by the 1850s, Melville had become preoccupied with the sham of modern life, with the difficulty of distinguishing surface appearance from substance. So it isn’t hard to imagine what attracted him to the incident, and particularly to the duped Delano.

More here. (Note: Throughout February, we will publish at least one post dedicated to Black History Month)

Wednesday Poem

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott
from Derek Walcott Collected Poem
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986