Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age

Clare Bucknell at Literary Review:

The 18th century can seem like a boys’ club at the best of times, so writing a book about an actual all-male club requires delicate handling if it’s to offer something other than the usual narrative. Damrosch’s approach is to show that what makes the Club’s members worth revisiting is the fact that they weren’t always the ‘great men’ we picture them as being. In several cases they were dogged by anxieties or neuroses; often their cultivation of the intellect went hand in hand with an indulgence of powerful physical appetites.

Johnson suffered from depression (which he called ‘hypochondria’ or ‘indolence’) and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Damrosch also diagnoses, on the basis of rather thin evidence, ‘psychosexual needs’ involving domination and restraint. Boswell’s diarised mood swings indicate bipolar disorder and narcissistic tendencies, and his alcoholism caused memory blanks, self-injury and violent episodes. His fondness for prostitutes (‘I ranged an hour in the street and dallied with ten strumpets’) brought on bouts of venereal disease that would eventually kill him. 

more here.

How Women Got the Vote Is a Far More Complex Story Than the History Textbooks Reveal

Alicia Ault in Smithsonian:

Elizabeth Cady Stanton started her activism as an ardent abolitionist. When the 1840 World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London devolved into a heated debate about whether or not women should be allowed to participate, Stanton lost some faith in the movement. It was there that she met Lucretia Mott, a longtime women’s activist, and the two bonded. Upon their return to the United States, they were determined to convene a women’s assembly of their own. It took until 1848 for that meeting, held in Seneca Falls, New York, to come together with a few hundred attendees, including Frederick Douglass. Douglass was pivotal in getting Stanton and Mott’s 12-item Declaration of Sentiments approved by the conventioneers.

Three years later, Stanton recruited a Rochester, New York, resident, Susan B. Anthony, who had been advocating for temperance and abolition, to what was then primarily a women’s rights cause. Over the next two decades, the demands for women’s rights and the rights of free men and women of color, and then, post-Civil War, of former slaves, competed for primacy. Stanton and Anthony were on the verge of being cast out of the suffragist movement, in part, because of their alliance with the radical divorcée Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, in 1872. Woodhull was a flamboyant character, elegantly captured in a portrait by the famed photographer Mathew Brady. But it was Woodhull’s advocacy of “free love”—and her public allegation that one of the abolitionist movement’s leaders, Henry Ward Beecher, was having an affair—that made her kryptonite for the suffragists, including Stanton and Anthony.

More here.

Baboons’ gut makeup is determined mostly by soil, not genetics

Helen Santoro in Science:

You are what you eat. And when you eat a lot of dirt, the makeup of your gut will change—at least, if you’re a baboon. A new study shows local soils, not genetics, may be the primary determinant of baboons’ gut microbiota, the vast ecosystem of microorganisms that live in the gut, digesting food, fighting infections, and breaking down toxins. Past research has shown that the gut microbiota of baboons varies across different populations. Scientists wanted to know the cause: Is it the genes they share with other relatives, the distance between populations, or the environment that creates these internal changes? To find out, the researchers gathered poop from 14 different baboon populations in Kenya’s primate hybrid zone—an area where yellow baboons (Papio cynocephalus) and anubis baboons (P. anubis) mingle and interbreed (above). Along with analyzing the baboons’ DNA, researchers looked at 13 different characteristics of the environment where the stool was collected, including vegetation, elevation, climate, and soil.

The clear winner was soil. Its impact, as measured by the difference in microbiota makeup, was stronger than all other environmental factors. It was three times better at predicting differences than the physical distance between populations and 15 times better at predicting differences than genetic factors. The researchers also found that baboons living in areas with salty soil (which has a smaller selection of microbes) have less diverse gut microbiotas. The findings, published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, are the first to show that the environment may have a stronger influence over baboons’ gut microbiota than their genes.

More here.

Wednesday Poem


In many people’s eyes
absence is a fault or crime.
However hard you try to make amends,
they will still condemn you.
So you can’t go home anymore
and will drift on the wind of chance—
wherever you land
you will be an outsider.

Then accept the role of a wanderer.
At least you can stand alone
and become one of those
who live and die on their own.

You must learn to be content
to inhabit your own space—
any news from far away
can no longer disturb you.
If necessary, turn your back on the past
and let all the slander and praise
vanish from your mind.

by Ha Jin
The Distant Center
Copper Canyon Press, 2018

Getting Acquainted with Wallace Stevens

Kate Stanley in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

CAN POEMS TEACH US how to live? What does it mean to approach poetry as a source of self-help? It’s not hard to call to mind examples of poetry that rouse or soothe or refocus a reader, lifting or quieting the mind like a deep breath. Yet much of the poetry encountered in literature classrooms and canonical anthologies may not readily reflect the self that is reading it, and therefore may not readily become a tool of self-improvement. The work of many modernist poets in particular is placed under the banner of “art for art’s sake,” a motto meant to explicitly free such poetry from the responsibility of serving a didactic or utilitarian function. The poems of Wallace Stevens, for instance, are frequently taken to epitomize the kind of high modernist difficulty that in its slippery symbology and ambiguous affect would seemingly resist being reliably employed for any useful purpose.

But Joan Richardson’s How to Live, What to Do: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens emphatically asserts the practical use-value of poetic difficulty. As is suggested by Richardson’s title (which borrows from a Stevens poem), Stevens is in fact concerned above all with improving the daily lives of his readers. However, unlike the literature of self-help, these poems seem to offer very little by way of straightforward advice or therapeutic instruction.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Matthew Luczy on the Pleasures of Wine

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Some people never drink wine; for others, it’s an indispensable part of an enjoyable meal. Whatever your personal feelings might be, wine seems to exhibit a degree of complexity and nuance that can be intimidating to the non-expert. Where does that complexity come from, and how can we best approach wine? To answer these questions, we talk to Matthew Luczy, sommelier and wine director at Mélisse, one of the top fine-dining restaurants in the Los Angeles area. Matthew insisted that we actually drink wine rather than just talking about it, so drink we do. Therefore, in a Mindscape first, I recruited a third party to join us and add her own impressions of the tasting: science writer Jennifer Ouellette, who I knew would be available because we’re married to each other. We talk about what makes different wines distinct, the effects of aging, and what’s the right bottle to have with pizza. You are free to drink along at home, with exactly these wines or some other choices, but I think the podcast will be enjoyable whether you do or not.

More here.

Serengeti on the Seine

Natalie Angier in the New York Review of Books:

Robert Farren: Life in the Jurassic Sea ‘Duria Antiquior’ (An Earlier Dorset), circa 1850

Alytes obstetricans, the common midwife toad, may be as small as a bar of hotel soap with skin as drab as leaf litter, yet its life story is, quite simply, one for the ages. The job that lends the toads their informal name is done by the male. Come breeding season, a female toad will solicit the services of a male, who mounts her from behind, gripping her torso with his front legs while angling his rear toes to stimulate her genitals. A few minutes pass, he gives her midriff a firm squeeze, and out pops the “baby”: a glistening mass of toad eggs, linked together like pearls on a string, which the male promptly fertilizes with a shot of sperm. As the female hops away—her task is through—midwife becomes nursemaid: the male carefully untangles the inseminated strands of eggs and wraps them around his body. He will carry this cargo everywhere for the next month or two, cleaning and hydrating the eggs until they’re ready to hatch. Yes, he’s a model modern father.

Alytes is also more European than a pack of Gauloises cigarettes. As Tim Flannery explains in Europe: A Natural History, his deeply satisfying and splendidly written survey of the geological, zoological, climatological, and biophilosophical roots of that heavyweight set of coordinates we call Europe, midwife toads are among the only animals that survive from the dawn of the European project 100 million years ago. That is when the European subcontinent, then a tropical archipelago, began to consolidate and take the shape it more or less has today, and when Europe as a biologically distinct landscape emerged.

More here.

Antonello da Messina: A Painter not Human

Ingrid D. Rowland at the NYRB:

Antonello da Messina: Annunciate Madonna, 17 3/4 x 13 1/2 inches, 1475–1476

There are several reasons why Antonello is not as well known today as artists like Leonardo, Michelangelo, or Caravaggio, though he is undoubtedly their equal. First of all, a frustratingly small sample of his work still exists, for his beautiful city, founded by Greeks in Homer’s time (circa 730 BCE), sits on one of the Mediterranean’s major fault lines and has paid the price for that precarious location many times over. Since Caravaggio’s visit in 1608, Messina has been leveled by two catastrophic earthquakes, one in 1783 and another in 1908, when thirty seconds of seismic shaking toppled more than nine tenths of the city’s buildings. Ten minutes later, a forty-foot tsunami crashed down on the devastated port, while a pelting rain continued off and on for miserable weeks, complicating rescue efforts and destroying many of the books, documents, and works of art that had survived the quake, the wave, and the aftershocks (almost three hundred of them).

more here.

Walt Whitman’s Guide to a Thriving Democracy

Mark Edmundson at The Atlantic:

I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” Whitman told a friend. “Emerson brought me to a boil.” Whitman understood that he was a part of one of the greatest experiments since the beginning of time: the revival of democracy in the modern world. The wise believed that it probably could not be done. The people were too ignorant, too crude, too grasping and greedy to come together and from their many create one. Who were we, after all? A nation of castoffs, a collection of crooks and failures, flawed daughters and second sons of second sons, unquestionable losers and highly dubious winners. Up to now, our betters had kept us in line: The aristocracies of Massachusetts and Virginia had shown us the enlightened path and dragged us along behind them. Whitman knew (and Emerson did too) that this could not last forever. By sheer force of numbers, or force plain and simple, outcasts and ne’er-do-wells were eventually going to take over the nation.

more here.

Walter Gropius and The Bauhaus

Dan Chiasson at The New Yorker:

Because his genius was untethered to his misery, and because he often handed his ideas off to others, Gropius is a tricky subject for a biographer. Following his lead, we focus on his colorful and eccentric supporting players. As MacCarthy suggests, he had none of the puffery we associate with great architects. He was more a technocrat than a shaman. In a sense, therefore, MacCarthy’s book is a biography of the Bauhaus itself. It’s a story that she presents with a distinctly human-seeming arc. Its childhood unfolded in Weimar, where Itten impressed the students with his mantra, “Play becomes party—party becomes work—work becomes play,” and Gropius read the Christmas story aloud every year. But by early adolescence, in the mid-twenties, the Bauhaus had outstayed its welcome. In 1924, a new provincial government threatened to cut off the school’s subsidies. Nazi factions in the region supposed that all those foreign-looking students were Jews or Jewish sympathizers. The following year, Gropius moved the school to Dessau, an engineering and manufacturing center, southwest of Berlin. There, for the first time, the Bauhaus built itself a campus.

more here.

The Metamorphosis: The political education of Mario Vargas Llosa

Patrick Iber in The Nation:

Literature is fire,” Mario Vargas Llosa declared in 1967, when he accepted a prize commemorating Rómulo Gallegos, the esteemed Venezuelan novelist and former president. Gallegos represented the center-left tradition in Latin America, and Vargas Llosa was determined to challenge his audience from the left. Literature, the Peruvian novelist continued, “means nonconformism and rebellion…. Within ten, twenty or fifty years, the hour of social justice will arrive in our countries, as it has in Cuba, and the whole of Latin America will have freed itself from the order that despoils it, from the castes that exploit it, from the forces that now insult and repress it.” Nearly 40 years later, in 2005, Vargas Llosa received a very different sort of prize and delivered a very different kind of speech. Accepting the Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute, he denounced the Cuban government and called Fidel Castro an “authoritarian fossil,” praised the Austrian School economist Ludwig von Mises as a “great liberal thinker,” and defended calls for privatizing pensions. It was quite a remarkable transformation. In the opening paragraph of Vargas Llosa’s 1969 novel, Conversation in the Cathedral, the protagonist asks: “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” It is a question that many people have asked as well of Peru’s greatest novelist.

Vargas Llosa is unquestionably one of the most important writers of his generation. He has written 18 novels, at least five of them considered by critics to be of great literary significance. His first, The Time of the Hero, was published in 1963. It dramatizes an act of rebellion by the cadets at Peru’s Leoncio Prado military academy, which led to copies of the book being burned on the school’s parade ground. His next novel, The Green House, was published in 1966 and proved to be a difficult modernist work which depicted Peruvian reality as a confluence of the Catholic Church, the military, indigenous culture, and the brothel that gives the novel its name. A powerful experiment in form, The Green House has usually been read as a critique of capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy, and it helped cement Vargas Llosa’s reputation as one of the key writers of the “boom” generation in Latin American letters.

More here.

Inside the quietly lucrative business of donating human eggs

Paris Martineau in Wired:

IT WAS A Facebook ad that propelled Ashleigh Griffin to act. She had heard about egg donation from her mother, a nurse, but never thought of it as anything more than an esoteric medical procedure. The ad in her Facebook feed in 2011 told a different story. It intrigued Griffin, promising her thousands of dollars for something her body produced on its own, with the bonus of helping another family. It even specified that the opportunity was tailor-made for young cash-strapped women in college, as she was. She clicked through, and only grew more curious. She tried to sign up, but quickly hit a wall. Griffin was 18, and the agency required donors be at least 21. Just before her 21st birthday, she typed “egg donation” into Google, and off she went. Over the next four years, Griffin donated her eggs six times at three different clinics. Four of those times, her ovaries became painfully swollen and she experienced weight gain, abdominal pain, severe nausea, and had trouble urinating; once she was hospitalized. For her efforts, she was paid $61,000.

Egg donation is designed to help families who are having trouble conceiving. The process involves taking eggs from one woman, fertilizing the viable ones, and then transferring them either to the aspiring mother, or a surrogate, in the hope of achieving pregnancy. In practice, it’s often more complicated. The first US child conceived from a donated egg was born in 1984. Since then, the procedure has grown into a thriving industry. Demand from aspiring parents, and a dearth of regulations, have spawned matchmaking agencies that offer to help parents find the perfect young woman whose eggs will result in the equally perfect child. Donating eggs can be lucrative, with agencies paying as much as $50,000 per cycle in some cases.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Beyond Recall

Nothing matters
to the dead,
that’s what’s hard

for the rest of us
to take in—
their complete indifference

to our enticements,
our attempts to get in touch—
they aren’t observing us

from a discreet distance,
they aren’t listening
to a word we say—

you know that,
but you don’t believe it,
even deep in a cave

you don’t believe
in total darkness,
you keep waiting

for your eyes to adjust
and reveal your hand
in front of your face—

so how long a silence
will it take to convince us
that we’re the ones

who no longer exist,
as far as X is concerned,
and Y, that they’ve forgotten

every little thing
they knew about us,
what we told them

and what we didn’t
have to, even our names
mean nothing to them

now—our throats ache
with all we might have said
the next time we saw them.

by Sharon Bryan
from Poetry 180
Random House, 2003

Epictetus and the Problem of Philosophical Progress

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Epictetus’ Enchiridion 52 is an exercise in metaphilosophy. It captures the double-vision students of Stoicism must have about their own progress. The core insight of E52 is that the tools of philosophical inquiry and progress toward insight can themselves become impediments to progress. E52 is the last entry of the Enchiridion in Epictetus’ own words (with E53 being inspirational quotations from Cleanthes, Euripides, and Plato), and in it, a decidedly practical program is endorsed. The key to this endorsement is the contrastive case Epictetus makes. Here is E52 in its entirety:

[1] The first and most necessary subject in philosophy is the application of philosophical principles, such as ‘Don’t be a fraud’. The second is that of proofs, such as why it is that we ought not to be frauds. The third subject is that which confirms and articulates these proofs, such as, how is this a proof? For, what is a proof? What is inference? What is contradiction? What is truth? What is falsehood?

[2] Therefore, the third subject is necessary because of the second, and the second is necessary because of the first. But the most necessary and the one where we must linger is the first. Yet we do it backwards, because we devote time to the third subject and entirely busy ourselves with it, while we completely neglect the first. Consequently, we’re frauds, but we’re ready to prove that we ought not to be frauds.

The problem, of course, is the last sentence: though we have proofs we should not be frauds, we nevertheless are frauds. How, given the Stoic program of philosophical training – that we have the proofs precisely in order to remind ourselves not to be frauds – does this result come about? And more importantly, how, with these tools, can we prevent it? Read more »

Fire in the attic:  Anselm Kiefer, Poet of Paradox

by Brooks Riley

The attic of Notre Dame cathedral, with its tangled, centuries-old dark wooden beams, was affectionately known as the ‘forest’. The fire that originated up there last week made me think of an early Anselm Kiefer painting Quaternity, (1973), three small fires burning on the floor of a wooden attic and a snake writhing toward them, vestiges of the artist’s Catholic upbringing in the form of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost and the Devil. Metaphor meets reality in the sacred attics of stored mythologies.

Our stories begin in the forest,’ Kiefer has said. He means this both literally and figuratively. A man whose name means ‘pine tree’, born in the Black Forest region, comes from a people who inhabited the forests in ancient times. When they left those forests behind, they took the wood with them to build, among other things, their attics and their cathedrals, both shareholders of enduring legacies.

Quaternity is one of the few paintings that addresses a lapsed religion now stored away in Kiefer’s mind, his attic—an attic he once lived in as a student, and one he has revived in other paintings. It is only one of his many recurring motifs that serve as conduits for his multiple concerns and thought processes. Myths of all kinds are stored in that iconic space, along with the first- and second-hand memories of history, philosophy, poetry, metaphysics, astrophysics, mysticism and alchemy. Read more »

Why I Said I Don’t Care About the Notre Dame Fire, Who (Understandably) Criticized Me, and Who (Surprisingly) Was Supportive

by Akim Reinhardt

Image: BBC

First things first. Am I happy that Notre Dame Cathedral burned?
Don’t be silly. Of course not.

Do I wish it hadn’t burned?

If I could wave a wand and undo the fire, would I?
Without hesitation.

This isn’t about my intellectual understanding of the building’s historical or architectural significance, it’s beauty, or what it has meant and continues to mean to millions of people. Rather, It’s about my emotional response, or more specifically, lack thereof, and the surprising reactions I received.

I learned about the fire when I texted a friend about a completely unrelated issue. Coincidentally, she happens to be a Medieval European Art Historian. As you might expect, she was very upset. I was sympathetic to her pain. Yet my own emotional response to the fire was largely nonexistent. I felt nothing.

Then, much as the flames engulfed the church, the story of Notre Dame’s burning engulfed the media. This came about for reasons I understand and really have no problem with. I did not resent the press coverage at all, but it did bring my own emotionless response into even starker relief.

The day continued. I met an old friend who was in from out of town. We had dinner and a couple of drinks. We caught up and talked for about three hours. Neither of us mentioned the fire. I went home and got online. The story was still all over my Facebook and Twitter feeds. At about 11:00 PM, I posted the following self-deprecating joke:

More proof that I’m a horrible person: Don’t really give a shit about Notre Dame.

Despite the late hour, the posting got many responses. Most of it was what I expected. One friend quipped: This is why we need fewer opinions. Others were more aghast. They wanted to know how it is I could feel this way? Some of their comments reflected a sense of betrayal. I get it. I understand that people were deeply touched by the structure and hurt by its burning, and I was sorry for their pain. I just couldn’t find it within myself to care about the building despite understanding its beauty and history. Read more »

Fractions, partial fractions, knots, and other treasures

by Jonathan Kujawa

Last time we found ourselves discussing the topic of writing numbers in different bases. We happen to like base 10 thanks to our ten figures and ten toes, but base 2 (binary), base 16 (hexidecimal), and base 60 (sexagesimal: thanks, Babylonians!) are also often used. But those are human preferences. Math don’t care. If you’ve got twelve Honey badgers, it doesn’t matter if you write it as 12, 1100, c, or as an eye looking at two trees, you’ve got the same number of problems in your life. There may be philosophical quandaries about what exactly is the number “twelve”, or if it exists in its own right or not. But it isn’t controversial to say how you choose to write twelve has little to nothing to do with twelveness.

It’s rather like changing fonts. Not many would say a change of font will make a parking ticket sting less (although Comic Sans might make it sting more). As endless internet discussions rage about the meaning and content of the Mueller report, altogether too few dissect Robert Mueller’s choice of fonts [1].

But mathematicians leave no stone unturned. Even if nearly every rock is just a rock, every so often you find a geode. One thing math teaches us is the value of persistent questioning. After all, when we talked about the Exploding Dots we found if you turn bases this way and that, you discover you can also use 2/3 and other fractions as bases! This time we’ll find ourselves studying knots before we know it. Read more »