Early Kermode

Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books:

Frank Kermode

I hadn’t​ been expecting to bump into Frank in one of the remoter stacks of the Cambridge University Library. This is where they keep the back numbers of old scholarly periodicals, a morgue only likely to be violated by those, like me, who now spend their days picking over the cairns left by academic labourers seventy years ago. And Frank Kermode had been dead for almost ten years – he died on 17 August 2010. I’d seen him in my mind quite frequently in the intervening decade: one of my running routes takes me past his old flat, and the sight of the building is enough to stir memories of evenings spent drinking and talking. But this was different. One might expect to meet any number of those who navvied at Eng. Lit. in the first half of the 20th century here, names now largely unknown even to their successors. But, quite suddenly, as I was looking for something else in the back pages of the impeccably learned (read: dry as dust) Review of English Studies for July 1949, there he was: ‘Frank Kermode’. Not, I was interested to note, ‘J.F. Kermode’ or any other variant that signalled the first name he never used. (It was one of the lesser indignities of his time in hospital during his final illness that well-meaning nurses and auxiliaries, scanning his patient details, would cheerily address him as ‘John’.) He was already using the name that was to become so familiar, the byline that launched a thousand pieces. Was he already that ‘Frank Kermode’, that effortlessly elegant, perceptive, slyly amusing, wide-ranging critic? Not really, not to judge by this piece of scholarly flotsam. It was a review of a book called Music and Poetry of the English Renaissance by Bruce Pattison: a learned, exact, even exacting, piece, full of abstruse detail, acknowledging the book’s achievement but, in the manner of young scholars everywhere, ticking it off for not drawing on the latest scholarship.

More here.

Seabird Poop Is Worth More Than $1 Billion Annually

Courtney Sexton in Smithsonian Magazine:

When Don Lyons, director of the Audubon Society’s Seabird Restoration Program visited a small inland valley in Japan, he found a local variety of rice colloquially called “cormorant rice.” The grain got its moniker not from its size or color or area of origin, but from the seabirds whose guano fertilized the paddies in the valley. The birds nested in the trees around the dammed ponds used to irrigate the rice fields, where they could feed on small fish stocked in the reservoirs. Their excrement, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, washed into the water and eventually to the paddies, where it fertilized the crop.

The phenomenon that Lyons encountered is not a new one—references to the value of bird guano can be found even in the Bible, and an entire industry in South America grew around the harvesting of what many called “white gold.” What is new is that scientists have now calculated an exact value for seabird poop. This week, researchers published a study in Trends in Ecology and Evolution that estimates the value of seabird nutrient deposits at up to $1.1 billion annually. “I see that [many] people just think you care about something when it brings benefits, when they can see the benefits,” says Daniel Plazas-Jiménez, study author and researcher at the Universidade Federal de Goiás in Brazil. “So, I think that is the importance of communicating what seabirds do for humankind.”

More here.

Co-opt & Corrupt: How Trump Bent and Broke the GOP

Ruth Ben-Ghiat in the New York Review of Books:

“As time went on, it became clear that the sickness was a feature, that anyone who entered the building became a little sick themselves,” wrote the journalist Olivia Nuzzi in March 2018 of the Donald J. Trump White House and those who serve it. For a century, those who have worked closely with authoritarian rulers have shown the symptoms of this malady: a compulsion to praise the head of state and a willingness to sacrifice one’s own ideals, principles, and dignity to remain in his good graces, at the center of power.

In his relationship with Republican political elites, as in other areas of endeavor, President Trump has followed the model of “personalist rule” used by leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Some of these rulers destroy democracy, and others, like the Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi, govern nominally open societies in undemocratic ways. Yet personalist rule always concentrates power in one individual whose own political and financial interests and private relationships with other despots often prevail over national interests in shaping domestic and foreign policy. Loyalty to this head of state and his allies, rather than expertise, is a primary qualification for serving him, whether as ministers or bureaucrats, as is participation in his corruption schemes.

While some authoritarians have political parties of their own creation at their disposal, Trump had no ready-made vehicle for his political ambitions before 2016. He had to win over the Grand Old Party to gain credibility and access to its machine and gain the collaboration of its elites.

More here.

Hydroxychloroquine: A Morality Tale

Norman Doidge in Tablet:

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, a survey of the world’s frontline physicians showed hydroxychloroquine to be the drug they considered the most effective at treating COVID-19 patients. That was in early April, shortly after a French study showed it was safe and effective in lowering the virus count, at times in combination with azithromycin. Next we were told hydroxychloroquine was likely ineffective, and also dangerous, and that that French study was flawed and the scientist behind it worthy of mockery. More studies followed, with contradictory results, and then out came what was hailed by some as a definitive study of 96,000 patients showing the drug was most certainly dangerous and ineffective, and indeed that it killed 30% more people than those who didn’t take it. Within days, that study was retracted, with the editor of one of the two most respected medical journals in the Western world conceding it was “a monumental fraud.” And on it went.

Not only are lay people confused; professionals are. All that seems certain is that there is something disturbing going on in our science, and that if and when the “perfect study” were to ever come along, many won’t know what to believe.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Acquainted With the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

by Robert Frost
Robert Frost Collected Poems

The Lying Life of Adults – a girl’s own story

Lara Feigel in The Guardian:

Elena Ferrante is so good on the bodily feelings of female adolescence: the sweaty, clotted skin, the sudden bulges as breasts form, the awkwardly exciting transformations. She is good, also, on the way that childhood friendships change, becoming infused with desire and longing. Her characters startle themselves with their readiness to betray their friends for the newly discovered opposite sex, but they startle themselves too when they jettison their heavy, often rather insulting male suitors and return to their nimbler companions.

Her latest novel, The Lying Life of Adults, is set over the protracted years of adolescence, from 12 to 17. The confusion of bodily change provides a murky backdrop for the lucid mental clarity this period of life can bring. These are years when you are an outsider to yourself, unable fully to recognise the person you are becoming, and an outsider to the once familiar figures who surround you. So it’s not surprising that these are often the years when the novelist is born. In this case, Giovanna becomes a novelist through observing the lies of adults , and through learning to tell her own. Giovanna has grown up in Naples, the familiar territory of Ferrante’s quartet. She lives high in the rarefied boulevards of the upper city, but has grown up knowing that there’s another city down below, where her father spent his childhood and his family still live. “To visit them you had to go down, and down, keep going down, into the depths of the depths of Naples.” She is the beloved daughter of two teacher parents, nurtured by the admiration of a father whose violence she nonetheless fears, because periodically he mashes up “sophisticated arguments and uncontrolled emotions”.

More here.

Quantum paradox points to shaky foundations of reality

George Musser in Science:

Nearly 60 years ago, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Eugene Wigner captured one of the many oddities of quantum mechanics in a thought experiment. He imagined a friend of his, sealed in a lab, measuring a particle such as an atom while Wigner stood outside. Quantum mechanics famously allows particles to occupy many locations at once—a so-called superposition—but the friend’s observation “collapses” the particle to just one spot. Yet for Wigner, the superposition remains: The collapse occurs only when he makes a measurement sometime later. Worse, Wigner also sees the friend in a superposition. Their experiences directly conflict.

Now, researchers in Australia and Taiwan offer perhaps the sharpest demonstration that Wigner’s paradox is real. In a study published this week in Nature Physics, they transform the thought experiment into a mathematical theorem that confirms the irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of the scenario. The team also tests the theorem with an experiment, using photons as proxies for the humans. Whereas Wigner believed resolving the paradox requires quantum mechanics to break down for large systems such as human observers, some of the new study’s authors believe something just as fundamental is on thin ice: objectivity. It could mean there is no such thing as an absolute fact, one that is as true for me as it is for you.

 “It’s a bit disconcerting,” says co-author Nora Tischler of Griffith University. “A measurement outcome is what science is based on. If somehow that’s not absolute, it’s hard to imagine.”

More here.

The Last of the Hedgehogs

Chris Fleming in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

IN 1953, ISAIAH BERLIN published his long essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” outlining his now-famous Oxbridge variant on there are two kinds of people in this world. He drew the title from an ambiguous fragment attributed to the ancient lyric poet Archilochus of Paros: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.” Written with the aim of pointing out tensions between Tolstoy’s grand view of history and the artistic temperament that saw such a view as untenable, Berlin’s essay became an unlikely hit, although less for its argument about Russian literature than for its contention that two antithetical personae govern the world of ideas: hedgehogs, who view the world in terms of some all-embracing system, seeing all facts as fitting into a grand pattern; and foxes, those pluralists or particularists who refuse “big theory” for reasons either intellectual or temperamental.

Berlin’s typology is beautifully blunt: perhaps more a serious game than a scientific typology, it works wonderfully only when it does. With the French American literary and cultural theorist René Girard, it works very well.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Neil Johnson on Complexity, Conflict, and Infodemiology

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Physicists have traditionally simplified systems as much as possible, in order to shed light on fundamental properties. But small, simple parts build up into large, complex wholes. Are there new rules and laws of nature that apply specifically to the realm of complexity? This has been a popular question for a few decades now, and we have some answers but not as many as we would like. Neil Johnson is an expert on complex systems generally, and information networks in particular. We discuss how self-organization can arise from individual units following their own agendas, and how we can mathematically characterize such behavior. Then we talk about information networks in the modern world, including how they have been used to spread disinformation and find recruits for radical fringe groups.

More here.

British spy’s account sheds light on role in 1953 Iranian coup

Julian Borger in The Guardian:

A first-hand account of Britain’s role in the 1953 coup that overthrew the elected prime minister of Iran and restored the shah to power has been published for the first time.

The account by the MI6 officer who ran the operation describes how it took British intelligence years to persuade the US to take part in the coup. Meanwhile, MI6 recruited agents and bribed members of Iran’s parliament with banknotes transported in biscuit tins.

Together the MI6 and CIA even recruited Shah Reza Pahlavi’s sister in an effort to persuade the reluctant monarch to back the coup to overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh.

“The plan would have involved seizure of key points in the city by what units we thought were loyal to the shah … seizure of the radio station etc … the classical plan,” recalled Norman Darbyshire, the head of MI6’s Persia station in Cyprus at the time of the coup.

More here.

Titian’s Farts

Kelly Grovier at the BBC.

That the Latin name for the caper flower, Capparis spinosa, is related to the Italian word capriolare (meaning ‘to jump in the air’), is a droll enough visual/verbal play to suggest that Titian is intentionally teasing us with the placement of the prickly perennial plant directly under the bouncing Bacchus. But it is the plant’s medicinal use, since antiquity, as a natural carminative (or remedy for excessive flatulence) that reveals the artist is truly letting rip with some mischievous fun. In the context of Titian’s carefully deployed caper, Bacchus’s explosive propulsion from his seat appears more wittily, if crudely, choreographed by Titian, who demystifies the lovestruck levitation by providing us with a more down-to-earth explanation for the cheeky lift-off. In Titian’s retelling of Ovid’s myth, Bacchus has been hoisted by his own pungent petard, as Shakespeare, who likewise loved toilet humour, might have said.

more here.


James Delbourgo at Literary Review:

The original Garden of Emptiness, Kyle Chayka explains in his pugnacious whistlestop tour of minimalism, is to be found in the 16th-century rock garden of the Kyoto Zen temple Ryoan-Ji. Chayka journeys to this sacred spot in search of the philosophical minimalism that has been obscured by today’s commodified decluttering. His book, which ranges from the Stoics and Buddhism to Mies van der Rohe, is a rebuke to the Shintoistic declutterer Marie Kondo, whose bestselling Netflix-powered KonMari method urges us to retain only those possessions that ‘spark joy’ and to practise such techniques as folding trousers vertically and not – heavens! – horizontally. Chayka warms to Donald Judd’s Plexiglas, Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Brian Eno’s ‘Discreet Music’. He is irked by minimalist hipsters’ all-grey uniforms and the solipsistic sensory deprivation of the Soulex company’s amniotic ‘float spas’. But such businesses are booming. In hard times, many go minimal by default, yet others pay handsomely for the ultimate postmodern lifestyle commodity, which, Kayla observes, they can of course never possess: nothing.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

Sheltered in Place

You watch your boy struggle with giving
up the turtle, returning it to the pond
where he’d found it on a walk—
first time you’d all been out in days.

How thoughtful he thought he’d been,
making it a home in the home
where the family sheltered in place.
How he cared for his armored friend.

Having picked flowers, knowing they’d die,
you understand the urge to pluck
the exotic, the beautiful—any diversion
from fear, which is in itself a disease.

That morning, you helped your boy
give up the idea of living forever.

by Richard Levine
from The Poetry Foundation

The Last Seduction: The greatest femme fatale ever?

Anna Smith in BBC:

In 1994, the term ‘straight to TV movie’ was used mostly as an insult. So when a small film called The Last Seduction premiered on HBO, nobody expected much. But those who caught it were floored by a darkly comic noir thriller with a knockout performance from Linda Fiorentino as Bridget Gregory. Bridget is a smart-talking New Yorker who hits ‘cow country’ with a suitcase of cash her husband Clay (Bill Pullman) had acquired in a drug deal. Advised to lie low for a while, Bridget shacks up with smitten local Mike (Peter Berg) and uses him to enact a devious plan. Directed by John Dahl and written by Steve Barancik, The Last Seduction is bitterly funny and deliciously clever – the razor-sharp dialogue is loaded with one-liners. It’s also sexy in a way that appeals to both women and men. With its manipulative femme fatale, it touches on similar themes to the big-budget Basic Instinct – but many believe it does it much better.

…Calculated tears are a move worthy of the film’s lead character Bridget, a quick-thinking profiler who knows exactly how to get results from the person in front of her. She issues orders to Mike in the manner of a dominatrix (in and out of bed), but she also knows when he needs to feel manly – so she feigns vulnerability. City slicker Bridget exploits everyone’s weaknesses and prejudices, even harnessing the casual racism of small-town cops to shake off a black private investigator on her tail. She is what lawyer Frank (JT Walsh) calls “a self-serving bitch” – a ruthless, superior psychologist who knows she’s smarter than everyone else in the room.

With brazen self-confidence, a knowing smile and a husky voice, Linda Fiorentino spoke to audiences seeking an unconventional heroine. It was a ‘dream role’ for the actress, according to a 1995 interview with Roger Ebert. “After I read that script, I was in Arizona and I got in a car and drove six hours to get to the meeting because I had never read anything so unique in terms of a female character. And I walked in the meeting with John Dahl, the director, and I said, ‘John, you are not allowed to hire anyone but me for this film.’ And I wasn’t kidding.”

More here.

Why India’s Pandemic Response Is Tipping Toward Pseudoscience

Vidya Krishnan in The Atlantic:

Soon after the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan tweeted that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and been admitted to a Mumbai hospital, the authorities declared his palatial residence in India’s business capital a “containment zone,” and several members of the Bachchan family were announced to have also tested positive. Bachchan is one of the world’s most recognizable actors, a celebrity with no peer in India, and his health was an issue of national concern. Ultimately, his case was a light one, and he was eventually discharged, allowed to quarantine at home.

Yet while the narrow facts of his case appear straightforward, the episode nevertheless spotlights a much broader problem in India: Its coronavirus caseload appears to only be worsening, hamstrung by decades of underinvestment in public health, poor medical infrastructure, and, more recently, a troubling official tolerance of pseudoscience, as well as a growing politicization of health care.

The mere fact that Bachchan tested positive—that he was tested at all—will focus minds in India on the coronavirus pandemic, which has been slowly but surely gathering pace in the country. More than 1.8 million people have so far tested positive, upwards of 48,000 are known to have died of COVID-19, and infections show little sign of abating. Arguably India’s most recognizable celebrity, Bachchan has starred in movies for decades, as have his wife, son, and daughter-in-law, and his high-profile announcement may spur many who were skeptical of getting tested to do so (if they are able) and to take greater precautions: He is quite literally cinematic royalty, some combination of Tom Hanks and Prince Charles (both of whose diagnoses made the virus very real for Americans and Britons, respectively).

More here.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

by Eric J. Weiner

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.—James Baldwin

Real social transformation, real change has to come out of a love of life and a love of the world…—Adrienne Rich

Finally, outrage. Intense, violent, peaceful, burning, painful, heart-wrenching, passionate, empowering, joyful, loving outrage. Finally. We have, for decades, lived with the violence of erasure, silencing, the carceral state, economic pain, hunger, poverty, marginalization, humiliation, colonization, juridical racism, and sexual objectification. Our outrage is collective, multi-ethnic, cross-gendered and includes people from across the economic spectrum. One match does not start a firestorm unless what it touches is primed to burn. But unlike other moments of outrage that have briefly erupted over the years in the face of death and injustice, there seems to be something different this time; our outrage burns with a kind of love not seen or felt since Selma and Stonewall. Every scream against white supremacy, each interlocked arm that refuses to yield, every step we take along roads paved in blood and sweat, each drop of milk poured over eyes burning from pepper spray, every fist raised in solidarity, each time we are afraid but keep fighting is a sign that radical love has returned with a vengeance.

In this time of civil unrest and democratic insurgency, the kind of k-12 and university education we are providing to the nation’s children and young adults is of paramount importance. A democratic education, following Dewey, is the keystone to a functioning democratic society. Public schools are responsible for providing our children and young adults this kind of education. Within schools, teachers-in-relation to their students are the engines of learning and intellectual/emotional development. A teacher who teaches in the service of democracy in the United States, regardless of grade-level and content area knowledge, has three primary objectives: 1) To teach their students how to think critically; 2) To help their students develop habits of mind/body that are consistent with the demands of democratic life; and 3) To protect and nurture their students’ natural curiosity and creativity. In order for them to be able to meet these objectives within our current historical context, we must reassert the importance of what bell hooks calls an “ethic of love” and Paulo Freire called a “pedagogy of love” into the praxis of teaching/learning. Read more »

Cowardice and Joy in Portland, Part 1: Navigating by Tu Fu

by David Oates

Tu Fu, Chinese Poet

My decision not to go into downtown Portland for the protest demonstration has held up for four weeks now. The Federal provocateurs have finally begun to leave, and the threat of violence has been reduced to comparative insignificance. . . so it seems that if I were to show up now, it would merely underline that I am a craven fair-weather sort of progressive. That die is cast.

What have I been doing instead? Well, same as everybody. Sheltering in place. Cooking dinner. Trying to stay on my path. I’m a writer born in 1950, so I’m past the ditch-digging and hustling part of my life. But my path hasn’t changed.

I read things. I write poems or essays. I think about that next book. I take long walks to mull it over. I come back to our quiet, clean-but-becoming-threadbare home, ascend the stairs to my cluttered study, find the book or page or little stack of half-realized ideas, and make some tiny increment of progress. Two words that fit together. Two ideas. Two sentences. This is my near horizon.

It feels very far indeed from the Federal Courthouse. The anger of Black Lives Matter (which makes sense to me). The anger of Trumps and Trumpies (which seems evil and hard to account for). Just two miles from my house – I’ve walked it often. Across an elm-shaded neighborhood. Over the Hawthorne Bridge. And then there I am, staring at the plinth where the bronze elk ought to be standing. The boarded-up shops. The beaten-brown grass. The sprawl and slash of graffiti covering nearly every surface.

I’ve been there by day, but never at night.

This is my far horizon: discord, the derangement of politics, slogans, lies and delusions, conflict, power plays. Shouting. Orderly protest. State-organized cruelty. Aspiration for democracy. Truncheoning of democracy.

* * *

How to navigate between and among these worlds? Flailingly is my usual answer, as it for most of us. Just muddling along.

But a Chinese poet from the 700s is also, often, my guide: Tu Fu, a minor court official of the Tang era. A wry, thoughtful guy who lived on a houseboat and liked to drink. Read more »