Damian Flanagan at the TLS:
Star, the short novella Mishima published in November 1960, is little known in Japan, buried as it is under the weight of the grander achievements in the forty-two volumes of his Complete Works. But it is now open to rediscovery thanks to an adroit, colloquial translation into American English by Sam Bett. It offers us a snapshot of a twenty-three-year-old, up-and-coming movie star, Rikio “Richie” Mizuno. Paraded in a string of formulaic films, swooned over by his many female fans, Rikio and the studio who manage him carefully groom his image. When a fan intrudes on the set and disrupts a take to throw herself at “Richie”, the director is at first furious, then ponders whether her intervention couldn’t be built into the script. But she can’t act, so she is quickly cut again and promptly attempts suicide, before the studio spin the story as “Richie” intervening to save her life.
Rikio’s own attention is more caught up with hiding from the studio his affair with his silver-teethed, ugly personal assistant, or indulging his narcissistic longing for death, or observing how his star quality opens up a new field of morality. Watching an ordinary person being arrested for shoplifting in a fancy Ginza store, he reflects that if he was to steal something in a shop, it would be simply laughed off as a joke.
Benjamin Voigt at Poetry Magazine:
Now regarded as a towering figure of modern verse, Wallace Stevens was probably better known as an insurance man for much of his adult life. But during a long and comfortable career at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, he also wrote poems that cut to the very heart of existence. Like his near contemporary (and sometimes rival) Robert Frost, in his poems, Stevens sought out “what will suffice” in a turbulent era of war and social upheaval. Combining absurd humor and philosophical heft, the ideas of the Romanticsand the French symbolists, he synthesized his own world of thought, a “planet on the table.” That world can sometimes feel esoteric, even obscure. As Stevens writes, “the poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” But this difficulty is inseparable from his myriad delights and innovations. “Stevens’s greatest originality,” critic Helen Vendler writes, “lay in his more hidden forms of utterance,” in his “strategies of concealment.” Despite these “secrecies,” his work has left a mark that’s lasted generations, influencing poets ranging from John Ashbery to Terrance Hayes. This brief selection from across his career introduces readers to his abiding concerns, to his forms of “originality” and “concealment.”
Jenny Price at The Believer:
More urgently, L.A. is the ideal place to tackle the problem of how to write about nature. In the past twenty-five years, the venerable American literature of nature writing has become distressingly marginal. Even my nature-loving and environmentalist friends tell me they never read it. Earnest, pious, and quite allergic to irony: none of these trademark qualities plays well in 2006. But to me, the core trouble is that nature writers have given us endless paeans to the wonders of wildness since Thoreau fled to Walden Pond, but need to tell us far more about our everyday lives in the places we actually live. Perhaps you’re not worrying about the failures of this literary genre as a serious problem. But in my own arm-waving manifesto about L.A. and America, I will proclaim that the crisis in nature writing is one of our most pressing national cultural catastrophes.
I love L.A. more than I hate it. I wasn’t supposed to. A nature lover from suburban St. Louis, I have enjoyed a fierce and enduring attachment to the wilds of the Southern Rockies. I was supposed to love Boulder, Colorado, where I settled after graduate school in the hope that it might be the perfect place—and it’s a town that every day adores itself in the mirror and confirms its perfection.
What is a clarinet but a straw through which the universe
draws lamentations and joy from a broken vessel? —Anonymous
She’s a voice, they say
but when did you hear a human voice
sing such grace
in baroque quintets and ragtime bands alike?
lilt through the ornaments
and lament with so much reason?
like a low star
then slide on up and scatter notes
far and wide, a firework
under the blackwood skies of the Jazz Age?
This is the world as sung to you by a long-
compassionate after all she’s seen but
Her saddest song
has a whisper deep inside
of translunary laughter:
the sorrows of all the people of all the world
shadow the phrases
she makes dance.
And with such sweet tears
– you realise
when it’s too late – she sings
that same old song again
for you, distingué lovers
so newly met in the garden
by Judith Taylor
from The Open Mouse
Sarah Kasbeer in Dissent:
If Happy the elephant were allowed to live a natural life in the wild, she would likely spend her days roaming miles of tropical forest and plucking fruit and leaves from trees with the finger-like tip of her trunk. She would have grown up as part of a complex social system, in which elephant calves are doted on by older siblings, cousins, and aunts. By age forty-seven, Happy would likely have already raised multiple calves of her own. She would trumpet with excitement at the other members of her herd and call to potential mates using infrasonic rumbles that travel long distances, inaudible to the human ear.
But Happy does not do any of this. She currently lives alone at the Bronx Zoo. And recently, she has become the subject of an unusual custody battle that could result in her release. In 2018, an advocacy group called the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) filed a writ of habeas corpus (Latin for “produce the body”) on Happy’s behalf, and, for the first time, a court heard the case for an elephant’s legal personhood and subsequent right to bodily liberty. Previous habeas petitions by the NhRP, designed to challenge the captivity of chimps, have been unsuccessful. But the arguments have succeeded in furthering the debate around whether animals—especially those proven to have high levels of cognition—should qualify as more than just “things” under the law.
Elephants have a knack for demonstrating that they think, feel, and remember—in a way humans can easily understand. Famous for ritualized expressions of grief, they have been observed covering deceased family members with leaves and dirt, touching their bodies, and even visiting their gravesites.
Vazza and Feletti in Nautilus:
Christof Koch, a leading researcher on consciousness and the human brain, has famously called the brain “the most complex object in the known universe.” It’s not hard to see why this might be true. With a hundred billion neurons and a hundred trillion connections, the brain is a dizzyingly complex object. But there are plenty of other complicated objects in the universe. For example, galaxies can group into enormous structures (called clusters, superclusters, and filaments) that stretch for hundreds of millions of light-years. The boundary between these structures and neighboring stretches of empty space called cosmic voids can be extremely complex.1 Gravity accelerates matter at these boundaries to speeds of thousands of kilometers per second, creating shock waves and turbulence in intergalactic gases. We have predicted that the void-filament boundary is one of the most complex volumes of the universe, as measured by the number of bits of information it takes to describe it.
This got us to thinking: Is it more complex than the brain?
So we—an astrophysicist and a neuroscientist—joined forces to quantitatively compare the complexity of galaxy networks and neuronal networks. The first results from our comparison are truly surprising: Not only are the complexities of the brain and cosmic web actually similar, but so are their structures. The universe may be self-similar across scales that differ in size by a factor of a billion billion billion.
James Penner in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
Although Boyle is not in any way connected to the current Psychedelic Renaissance, he has a lot to say about the topic of psychedelic drugs because he experimented with a wide range of psychotropic drugs in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In his own words, he was a “hippie’s hippie.” In the early 1970s, he was “so blissed out and outrageously accoutred that people would stop me on the street and ask me I could sell them some acid.” However, at that time LSD was not actually the novelist’s drug of choice. Boyle preferred various downers and heroin. His first published short story, “The OD & Hepatitis RR or Bust,” is a visceral description of a heroin experience and its aftermath. This story, which was published in the North American Review, helped Boyle get into the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Boyle was certainly fortunate to escape his youth without overdosing. One of Boyle’s nonfictional essays, “This Monkey, My Back” describes how the experience of writing slowly became his habit of choice: “[W]riting is a habit, an addiction, as powerful and overmastering an urge as putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in your arms. Call it the impulse to make something out of nothing, call it an obsessive-compulsive disorder, call it logorrhea.” Boyle also believes that the “experience of creating art — in this case books — resembles a heroin experience. You have a tremendous rush to complete it. But like any habit you have to do it again.” At the moment, Boyle’s healthier form of addiction has produced nine collections of short stories and 17 novels.
Kate Becker at FQXi:
Our lives are full of experiences that, like cause and effect, only run one way. The irreversibility of time, and of life, is an essential part of the experience of being human. But, incongruously, it is not an essential part of physics. In fact, the laws of physics don’t care at all which way time goes. Spin the clock backward and the equations still work out just fine. “The laws of physics at the fundamental level don’t distinguish between the past and the future,” says Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech. “So how do you reconcile the time symmetric laws of physics with the world in which we live?”
Moreover, we are not passively carried along by time’s river: We make decisions every day in an effort to actively cause the effects we want. Your neighbor’s kid chose to throw his ball recklessly close to your window, after all. Your toddler reasoned that his toy duck would enjoy a swim down the toilet. Deciding, then, is the living fulcrum of cause and effect. Yet physics has no language to describe this essentially human experience. “Physics and math departments, we write equations. And then there are humanities departments, where people talk about emotions and feelings,” says Carlo Rovelli, a theorist at the University of Aix-Marseille in France. “These things should not be separated. The world is one, and we should find the way to articulate the relationship between these fields.”
Now, with the support of two independent FQXi grants, Carroll and Rovelli are taking different approaches to untangling the messy knot that links the physics of cause and effect to our perceptions.
Arlie Hochschild in The Guardian:
In a surprising new national survey, members of each major American political party were asked what they imagined to be the beliefs held by members of the other. The survey asked Democrats: “How many Republicans believe that racism is still a problem in America today?” Democrats guessed 50%. It’s actually 79%. The survey asked Republicans how many Democrats believe “most police are bad people”. Republicans estimated half; it’s really 15%.
The survey, published by the thinktank More in Common as part of its Hidden Tribes of America project, was based on a sample of more than 2,000 people. One of the study’s findings: the wilder a person’s guess as to what the other party is thinking, the more likely they are to also personally disparage members of the opposite party as mean, selfish or bad. Not only do the two parties diverge on a great many issues, they also disagree on what they disagree on.
This much we might guess. But what’s startling is the further finding that higher education does not improve a person’s perceptions – and sometimes even hurts it. In their survey answers, highly educated Republicans were no more accurate in their ideas about Democratic opinion than poorly educated Republicans. For Democrats, the education effect was even worse: the more educated a Democrat is, according to the study, the less he or she understands the Republican worldview.
How do we preserve what makes us human in this age of uncertainty? Broadcaster and author of PostCapitalism Paul Mason covers markets, algorithms, neuroscience and protest to put forward his new case for optimism, and how we can all be much more than cogs in a machine.
Sam Huber at Bookforum:
Though resisted by many queer activists, by 2015 marriage equality had become central to gay and lesbian public life. The post-Obergefell hangover was widespread: If the victory was as total as promised, what work could possibly follow it or be left to do in its wake? Walt Odets’s Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives steps into this confusion with welcome insight and a shift in emphasis. “For gay lives,” Odets writes, “the granting of legal rights and authentic acceptance are two different issues in a society steeped in phobic aversion to real diversity.” To pro-marriage polemicists like Sullivan, gay particularity was attributable to our formal exclusion from mainstream institutions. When gays were no longer treated differently by law, he and others reasoned, we would cease to be different, compelling straights to finally welcome us into the social fold. Odets, a clinical psychologist with thirty years of private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, airs what may look like dirty laundry to those who harbored such hopes. The overriding emphasis on marriage equality has pressured gays and lesbians to adopt a scrupulous regimen of self-love, turning any lingering shame into its own shameful secret. (One of Odets’s patients, Amado, confesses to having preempted a man’s rejection by telling him, “The more you get to know about me, the less you’ll probably want to know.”) Even among those of his patients—older, financially secure, monogamously partnered gay men—who might appear best positioned to reap its benefits, Obergefell has been no panacea for Sullivan’s “marginalization and pathology.”
Ian Volner at Architect Magazine:
The chilling sublimity of the site was undeniable—and discomfiting. Mirroring the debate about anti-wall resistance art, there emerged in the wake of the prototypes’ unveiling a new round of arguments about whether critiquing them risked validating them. “Is it inspired or irresponsible to call Donald Trump’s wall prototypes ‘art’?” That was the headline of a Los Angeles Timesarticle written by the critic Carolina Miranda, who quoted local architect René Peralta: “It would be irresponsible, easy and lazy to consider it as an aesthetic object.” No one had lavished this much attention on the fences that had been built in the mid-2000s; why the sudden interest now? To grant so much exposure to the prototypes—which were never likely to lead to a real wall—was to carry the administration’s water, perpetuating the illusion of progress by raising their visibility.
Edward Vallance at Literary Review:
The story of Edward Whalley and William Goffe, two of the three signatories of Charles I’s death warrant who fled to New England after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, has seen a revival of interest in recent years. No fewer than three popular history books have tackled their adventures in Connecticut and Massachusetts in the past decade and, as Matthew Jenkinson notes, Goffe even played a minor role in Channel 4’s New Worlds, a poorly received historical drama released in 2014. In New England itself, Whalley, Goffe and their fellow ‘regicide’ John Dixwell have long been celebrated figures. Monuments to them stand behind the congregationalist church on New Haven Green, while three intersecting streets in the city bear their names. Outside New Haven, in West Rock Ridge Park, tourists have long enjoyed visiting the Judges’ Cave, where Whalley and Goffe once hid from their pursuers. You can even walk the ‘regicides trail’, a demanding sixteen-mile hike, not to be undertaken in bad weather (as this reviewer belatedly realised) since the path tacks along the edge of a rock escarpment with a steep drop on the other side. If you survive that walk, an hour or so’s drive north will take you to the small town of Hadley, Massachusetts, likely the final resting place of Whalley and Goffe. Here, two streets are also named after the fugitives, though one street sign is now sadly obscured by a billboard advertising the services of a local dentist.
Christopher De Bellaigue in 1843 Magazine:
One of Simon Henderson’s first decisions after taking over last summer as headmaster of Eton College was to move his office out of the labyrinthine, late-medieval centre of the school and into a corporate bunker that has been appended (“insensitively”, as an architectural historian might say) to a Victorian teaching block. Here, in classless, optimistic tones, Henderson lays out a vision of a formerly Olympian institution becoming a mirror of modern society, diversifying its intake so that anyone “from a poor boy at a primary school in the north of England to one from a great fee-paying prep school in the south” can aspire to be educated there (so long as he’s a he, of course), joyfully sharing expertise, teachers and facilities with the state sector – in short, striving “to be relevant and to contribute”. His aspiration that Eton should become an agent of social change is not one that many of his 70 predecessors in the job over the past six centuries would have shared; and it is somehow no surprise to hear that he has incurred the displeasure of some of the more traditionally minded boys by high-fiving them. What had happened, I wondered as I left the bunker, to the Eton I knew when I was a pupil in the late 1980s – a school so grand it didn’t care what anyone thought of it, a four-letter word for the Left, a source of pride for the Right, and a British brand to rival Marmite and King Arthur?
To judge from appearances in this historic little town across the Thames from Windsor Castle, which many tourists think is worth a visit between the Round Tower and Legoland, the answer is actually not a lot. Aside from the fact that there are more brown, black and Asian faces around, the boys go about in their undertakers’ uniforms of tailcoats and starched collars, as they seem to have done for centuries, learning in the old schoolrooms and depleting testosterone on the old playing fields before being locked up for the night in houses they share with 50 of their peers (each boy has his own room). As the absence of girls demonstrates, Eton considers itself exempt from the modern belief in the integration of the sexes that so many independent schools now espouse.
Olive Heffernan in Nature:
In 1972, a young ecologist named Hjalmar Thiel ventured to a remote part of the Pacific Ocean known as the Clarion–Clipperton Zone (CCZ). The sea floor there boasts one of the world’s largest untapped collections of rare-earth elements. Some 4,000 metres below the ocean surface, the abyssal ooze of the CCZ holds trillions of polymetallic nodules — potato-sized deposits loaded with copper, nickel, manganese and other precious ores. Thiel was interested in the region’s largely unstudied meiofauna — the tiny animals that live on and between the nodules. His travel companions — prospective miners — were more eager to harvest its riches. “We had a lot of fights,” he says. On another voyage, Thiel visited the Red Sea with would-be miners who were keen to extract potentially valuable ores from the region’s metal-rich muds. At one point, he cautioned them that if they went ahead with their plans and dumped their waste sediment at the sea surface, it could suffocate small swimmers such as plankton. “They were nearly ready to drown me,” Thiel recalls of his companions.
In a later confrontation, Thiel — who was at the University of Hamburg in Germany — questioned how industry planned to test the environmental impacts of sea-bed mining. He was curtly advised to do his own test. So he did, in 1989. Thirty years on, the test that Thiel and a colleague devised is still the largest experiment ever on the potential impacts of commercial deep-sea mining. Called DISCOL, the simple trial involved raking the centre of a roughly 11-square-kilometre plot in the Pacific Ocean with an 8-metre-wide implement called a plough harrow. The simulated mining created a plume of disturbed sediment that rained down and buried most of the study area, smothering creatures on the sea floor. The test revealed that the impacts of sea-bed mining reached further than anyone had imagined, but it did not actually extract any rocks from the sea bed, which itself would have destroyed even more marine life.
Walking Away From Explosions in Slow Motion
It’s all you can do. The world is always
behind you, the catastrophe of time,
the exchange of air & fire, the wave
of force raising the hair on the back of
your neck, a rivulet of sweat unseen
by all the eyes on your unseeing gaze,
the blank face that says I’m walking away,
I’m getting away with something: all those
opportunities to find your body
framed by boiling galaxies of flame,
untouched by shrapnel, not above it all
but out in front of it, like the future
itself, walking away. Fucking badass.
Fuck no you don’t look back; you can’t look back.
A cinder in your eye might ruin the shot.
A world might suddenly taste of salt.
by Gregory Crosby
from Walking Away From Explosions in Slow Motion
The Operating System, 2018.
Scott Alexander in Slate Star Codex:
Suppose A and B are debating some issue, and B is part of a group especially closely linked to the issue. For example:
1. A plumber and a teacher are debating a proposed pay cut for teachers.
2. A man and a woman are debating abortion.
3. An atheist and a Jew are debating the peace process in Israel.
4. A white person and a black person are debating slavery reparations.
5. A citizen and an undocumented immigrant are debating immigration policy.
6. King Edward and a Jew are debating whether to expel all the Jews from England.
7. You and a KKK Grand Wizard are debating whether the KKK should be banned as a hate group.
8. A scientist and a tobacco company executive are debating whether cigarettes are dangerous.
Who is more biased? A or B?
Timothy Taylor at Edge:
Polythetic entitation is a way of understanding fuzzy-edged groups of things, the products of human technology. It is easiest to understand by contrast with a biological entity, such the sub-phylum vertebrata. If you want to know whether the cat asleep on your chair is a vertebrate, you check whether it has a backbone. If it does, it is. This is an example of monothetic classification, where a particular attribute—the backbone—is sufficient grounds for making the call and (and this is important) at the same time, a necessary attribute.
Compare that situation with wanting to know whether the piece of furniture the cat is asleep on is actually a chair. That may sound crazy, as you know it is a chair. But you do not know it in the same way as you know that the cat is a vertebrate because—as it turns out—there is no single attribute that is at once sufficient and necessary to define your piece of furniture as a chair. It seems natural to dispute this. Does a chair have four legs, or three, or some other support? Refine the target to four-legged chairs and we find there are four-legged tables—which are not chairs—so possessing four legs could never be a sufficiently exclusive characteristic to define the object in front of you as a chair. There has to be a place to sit on a chair, but a sofa has to have that too, as does a stool.
Dan Sinykin in Public Books:
Fifty years ago, almost every publisher in the United States was independent. Beginning in the late 1960s, multinational corporations consolidated the industry. By 2007, four out of every five books on bookstore shelves were published by one of six conglomerates: corporate entities that hold businesses from different industries under one governing financial structure. I call this period—from, roughly, RCA’s purchase of Random House at the end of 1965 until the release of the Amazon Kindle and the 2007–8 financial crisis—the conglomerate era.
The conglomerate era was full of prophecies about the coming death of literature, or, on the other hand, its continued flourishing. Literature, said the doomsayers, needed some freedom from commerce to survive. Otherwise we’d be left with only cookbooks and celebrity memoirs. Novelists, especially, rattled their swords. They even convinced the US Senate, in 1980, to hold a hearing about breaking up the conglomerates. E. L. Doctorow argued on behalf of PEN that “the concentration into fewer and fewer hands of the production and distribution of literary work is by its nature constricting to free speech and the effective exchange of ideas and the diversity of opinion.” Publishers countered that—either in spite or because of their consolidations—more and more diverse literature was being published than ever.
The terms of the debate have remained remarkably constant. Literature will die or flourish. Meanwhile, under pressure over time, literature transformed. Into what?