Claude McKay’s Lost Novel

Colin Grant at the NYRB:

Claude McKay, France, 1928

The peripatetic writer Claude McKay was born in Jamaica in 1889 but made in Harlem. As he wrote in his memoir, A Long Way from Home (1937), nothing came close to its “hot syncopated fascination.” His time there was heady and fortuitous. It was a period, recalled Langston Hughes, “when the Negro was in vogue,” and a number of competitors battled for the souls of black folk. They included wealthy, exotic-seeking white voyeurs and Afrophilic benefactors; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which aimed to marshal the arts into the service of civil rights; the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Marcus Garvey’s pan-Africanist back-to-Africa movement; and the Communists, who, in opposition to Garvey’s “race first” doctrine, argued that the working class, no matter their color, should put “class first.”

more here.

Against the capitalist creeds of scarcity and self-interest, a plan for humanity’s shared flourishing is finally coming into view

Dirk Philipsen in Aeon:

A basic truth is once again trying to break through the agony of worldwide pandemic and the enduring inhumanity of racist oppression. Healthcare workers risking their lives for others, mutual aid networks empowering neighbourhoods, farmers delivering food to quarantined customers, mothers forming lines to protect youth from police violence: we’re in this life together. We – young and old, citizen and immigrant – do best when we collaborate. Indeed, our only way to survive is to have each other’s back while safeguarding the resilience and diversity of this planet we call home.

As an insight, it’s not new, or surprising. Anthropologists have long told us that, as a species neither particularly strong nor fast, humans survived because of our unique ability to create and cooperate. ‘All our thriving is mutual’ is how the Indigenous scholar Edgar Villanueva captured the age-old wisdom in his book Decolonizing Wealth (2018). What is new is the extent to which so many civic and corporate leaders – sometimes entire cultures – have lost sight of our most precious collective quality.

This loss is rooted, in large part, in the tragedy of the private – this notion that moved, in short order, from curious idea to ideology to global economic system. It claimed selfishness, greed and private property as the real seeds of progress.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Jeremy England on Biology, Thermodynamics, and the Bible

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Erwin Schrödinger’s famous book What Is Life? highlighted the connections between physics, and thermodynamics in particular, and the nature of living beings. But the exact connections between living organisms and the flow of heat and entropy remains a topic of ongoing research. Jeremy England is a leader in this field, deriving connections between thermodynamic relations and the processes of life. He is also an ordained rabbi who finds resonances between modern science and passages in the Hebrew Bible. We talk about it all, from entropy fluctuation theorems to how scientists should approach religion.

More here.

Why Is America the World’s Police?

Sam Lebovic in the Boston Review:

Most Americans never encounter the simple, brute fact of U.S. military supremacy. Bases are far away; wars in remote places are waged remotely; amid the general fragmentation of social life, those who serve in the military are lumped into particular demographic niches. But on the rare occasions when Americans do think about their military, they are remarkably supportive. The military routinely ranks as the most-trusted institution in polls; even after decades of cuts to all manner of other services, the ever-expanding defense budget remains sacrosanct. Amid general rancor and paranoia about their politics, Americans are overwhelmingly content not only that their military is the world’s most powerful, but also its most expensive: it costs more than the armed forces of the next ten countries combined.

In his new book, historian Stephen Wertheim seeks to explain the origins of this attitude. He zooms in on the pivotal years of World War II, focusing our attention on the frenzied and consequential planning for the postwar world order. Observing a tight network of policy-makers and intellectuals as they drafted the blueprints for what they increasingly thought of as an “American Century,” Wertheim shows that they decided to “attain armed primacy.”

More here.

The Deep Humanity of Jewish Law

Zalman Rothschild at The Marginalia Review:

By bringing attention to the very first encounters with uncertainty in early rabbinic literature (the Mishna and Tosefta), Halbertal insightfully demonstrates the ways in which early Jewish legal authorities were keenly interested in “demarcate[ing] and limit[ing] the destabilizing power of doubt and fear of uncertainty.” The heaps of laws surrounding states of uncertainty – which Halbertal correctly describes as some of the most complex areas of Jewish law – were not designed, by virtue of their sheer volume and complexity, to increase anxiety but to quell it. Early rabbinic engagement with doubt was thus an expression of liberation, not legal bondage. Its intent was not to compound hair-splitting laws on top of likely never-to-be-experienced hypotheticals for the sake of burdening Jews with laws where none previously existed, thereby adding to their already extensive repertoire of rules. Rather, this complex system was intended to free up the Jewish practitioner.

more here.

The Stylish Disaffection of “Divorcing”

Dustin Illingworth at the Paris Review:

Susan Taubes’s fiction is animated by an unbearable awareness of death. Her first and only novel, Divorcing (1969), had the working title To America and Back in a Coffin. (An apt title, but deemed unmarketable and rejected by her publishers.) Like her contemporary Ingeborg Bachmann, Taubes’s fiction transposes existential mysteries with aesthetic ones. (There are other similarities between the pair: both published only one novel; both novels feature a love interest named Ivan; neither writer would live to see fifty.) Long out of print, Divorcing will finally be reissued by NYRB Classics this month. Taubes’s foreshortened oeuvre—this novel, an unpublished novella, a handful of stories—offers a range of formal precarities that mirror states of inward collapse. Fiction seemed to give shape to her own vulnerability. A lifelong depressive, she took her own life mere weeks after Divorcing was published. Her close friend Susan Sontag later suggested it was Hugh Kenner’s New York Times review that finally pushed Taubes over the edge. “Lady novelists have always claimed the privilege of transcending mere plausibilities,” he’d written. Sontag herself would identify the body.

more here.

The Good Lord Bird and the Bloody Comedy of John Brown

Laura Miller in Slate:

In this didactic cultural moment, when many judge works of art by whether they deliver the right message with perfect clarity, it can be easy to forget that the purpose of novels is not to teach us life lessons or instill in us the proper view on some issue. In other words, the novel isn’t a tool of moral instruction. Rather, it’s a way to imagine how morality plays out in life, to experience vicariously how human beings—flawed, mercurial, riddled with contradictions they often don’t perceive themselves—try and fail not only to do the right thing, but even to understand what the right thing is in the first place. Sometimes that gap between our aspirations or self-knowledge and our actions can be tragic, but just as often, depending on your perspective, it can be funny.

When James McBride published his National Book Award–winning novel, The Good Lord Bird, in 2013, he explained in an interview that the subject of his book—the fire-breathing abolitionist John Brown—“was so serious, and his cause was so serious, that most of what’s been written about him is really serious and, in my opinion, a little bit boring.” Now, even more than in 2013, the belief that slavery in America can only properly be addressed with pious solemnity and torture porn prevails, and confessing that you find this approach a little bit boring seems almost taboo. But The Good Lord Bird is a comic novel, an exuberant if often dark tumble through the kaleidoscope of paradoxes, absurdities, and, yes, horrors that have made up American attitudes toward race and our national identity. Because it captures the many different ways that human beings come to terms with an essentially insane institution, Showtime’s seven-part series is the rare adaptation that deepens and enriches the novel upon which it’s based.
More here.

Are the Brain’s Electromagnetic Fields the Seat of Consciousness?

Tam Hunt in Nautilus:

Christof Koch is a neuroscientist distinguished by his rock-solid scientific work and romantic yearning to understand consciousness. He recently closed an essay by wondering: “What is it about the brain, the most complex piece of active matter in the known universe, that turns its activity into the feeling of life itself?” No coincidence with that phrasing—The Feeling of Life Itself is his latest book. He argues that consciousness is produced by the brain but that it’s also more widespread in nature than we might suppose.

His essay described new experimental work, from Stanford neuroscientist Kieran Fox and his colleagues, that explored the effects of electrically stimulating the brain, which revealed an ordering principle. That is, the more removed from sensory input or motor output structures a brain region is, the less likely it is that it contributes to our subjective experience. The “exacting data,” Koch wrote, “provides critical causal, not just observational, evidence to identify the neuronal correlates of consciousness.”

Neuronal correlates of consciousness are the parts of the brain thought to be required for consciousness to occur. The idea that there are only neuronal correlates of consciousness, and that these correlates are the patterns of synaptic firing in specific parts of the brain, is what you might call the conventional view in neuroscience. If we peer deeply into the brain, in other words, what we’ll find is that electrochemical synapse firings—produced by neurons of various types—are responsible for, as Koch puts it, the feeling of life itself, consciousness.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

What if We Could

believe in god, I mean
really believe, the way
you believe in the person
sitting next to you on the bus
so when he shifts positions
or spreads his knees
for a backpack you lean
a little to the side
to make room for this
stranger who inserts himself
uninvited into your life,
rules demand
you accommodate him,
let this new presence
change you, how
the moon pushes and pulls
the seas as it shoves
across the horizon
and then, when the stranger
gets up before you do,
there’s still some warmth
lingering on the seat,
something you could touch
if you wanted to, something
to prove it happened.

by Grant Clauser
The Ecotheo Review

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Trump, Trumpism, and Biden’s Burden

by Ali Minai

But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
 I guess an’ fear!
—Robert Burns, “To a Mouse”

On January 24, 2017 – four days after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States – I sat down at my computer and wrote out an 8-point plan by which I feared he and his party could change forever the nature of American democracy. Now, as we approach another presidential election, it is interesting to look back and take stock.

Here was the plan – reproduced verbatim without any change except a small typo correction:

Step 1: Delegitimize all authoritative sources of information – mainstream media, scientists, economists, historians, other experts.

Step 2: Use control of government resources to foment conspiracy theories and generate fake information (including fake data) to delegitimize popular predecessor.

Step 3. Use the judiciary and the legislature to criminalize criticism and dissent.

Step 4 Stop keeping track of data that would quantify inconvenient facts about climate change, economic inequality, social problems, civil rights problems, gun violence, police brutality, corporate greed, foreign wars, etc.

Step 5: Use control of government institutions to revise previous data and generate new false data to shape perceptions of prior dysfunction and current progress.

Step 6: Divide the opposition by tangling them in internal feuds on issues such as trade, race, political correctness, Israel, etc.

Step 7: Pack the bureaucracy and judiciary as far as possible with compliant functionaries who support the program.

Step 8: Use government institutions to ensure single-party electoral dominance for the foreseeable future, thus removing all fear of public accountability.

I would now like to pose two questions:

  1. Was all this possible in January 2017?
  2. Did it come to pass, and if not, why not?

To answer the first question, yes, it was certainly possible. The mechanisms were all there. Trump had come in with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. The party dominated governorships and state legislatures across the country. The judiciary had already been packed well by previous Republican administrations, and the reversal of this packing stymied by Republican obstruction during the Obama years. The Right-Wing propaganda machine, led by Fox News and Talk Radio, was humming on all cylinders. Read more »

What John von Neumann really did at Los Alamos

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

John von Neumann (Image: Life Magazine)

During a wartime visit to England in early 1943, John von Neumann wrote a letter to his fellow mathematician Oswald Veblen at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, saying:

“I think I have learned a great deal of experimental physics here, particularly of the gas dynamical variety, and that I shall return a better and impurer man. I have also developed an obscene interest in computational techniques…”

This seemingly mundane communication was to foreshadow a decisive effect on the development of two overwhelmingly important aspects of 20th and 21st century technology – the development of computing and the development of nuclear weapons.

Johnny von Neumann was the multifaceted intellectual diamond of the 20th century. He contributed so many seminal ideas to so many fields so quickly that it would be impossible for any one person to summarize, let alone understand them. He may have been the last universalist in mathematics, having almost complete command of both pure and applied mathematics. But he didn’t stop there. After making fundamental contributions to operator algebra, set theory and the foundations of mathematics, he revolutionized at least two different and disparate fields – economics and computer science – and made contributions to a dozen others, each of which would have been important enough to enshrine his name in scientific history.

But at the end of his relatively short life which was cut down cruelly by cancer, von Neumann had acquired another identity – that of an American patriot who had done more than almost anyone else to make sure that his country was well-defended and ahead of the Soviet Union in the rapidly heating Cold War. Like most other contributions of this sort, this one had a distinctly Faustian gleam to it, bringing both glory and woe to humanity’s experiments in self-elevation and self-destruction. Read more »

Monday Poem

August 18, 12:10 pm

orange serpentine between
sloped green and me
sky pondlight
blue clean, clouds
half unseen
in a frame
like dream
bone-like brick
wood-like flesh
and glass that,
with reflections, sings
with ridges and walls,
choral: concrete, spheres, steel
and other distinctly
human things

Jim Culleny

A Dialogue on Politics as Game

by Charlie Huenemann

Bill: Can you believe these Republicans?! Just four years after swearing up and down that no nominee for the Supreme Court should ever be approved in an election year for the president, and promising on their mothers’ graves that they would never do such a thing, here they are doing exactly that!

Alice: Why are you surprised, Bill?  They are doing exactly what they should be doing. And the Democrats are doing what they should be doing – grandstanding about principles, and declaring that they would never go back on their word, and decrying the demise of American politics, and so forth and so on. Everything is going as it should.

Bill: How can you say that? The Republicans – and, okay, I admit it, the Democrats too, to some extent – are being hypocritical, and just saying whatever they think they need to say to score their own political points.

Alice: Well, yes. Isn’t that their job?

Bill: No! Their job is to govern, and to engage in reasoned discourse about the public good, and vote according to their conscience. I know that sounds naive – but the fact that it sounds naive just shows how far we have drifted from the way things are supposed to be.

Alice: I think you deeply misunderstand the nature of truly liberal democracy. You seem to think that if people just reflect hard enough, and speak to one another in even-tempered tones, there will emerge some sort of consensus that, overall, over the long run, tends to track what is truly good for the public. Read more »

Fermentation as Metaphor

by Joan Harvey

Sandor Ellix Katz, Fermentation as Metaphor. Chelsea Green Publishing (October 2020)

The new book by Sandor Ellix Katz, Fermentation as Metaphor, is “Dedicated to bubbly excitement, in its infinite effervescent manifestations.” As our Covid Days drag on, I have a dream about champagne flutes gone missing, though I manage to find other glasses that will do. I suspect this is a dream about our current loss of social celebrations, and a wish for the bubbly groupings of the past, but, also, when I find different glasses, how it is still possible to find other ways to bubble (or with glasses how it is possible to see things differently).

“Bubbles create movement, literally exciting the substrate being transformed by the fermentation, bringing it to life” (Katz 80). When our ideas, our spirits, our thoughts bubble up, it shows that something exciting is taking shape. Fermentation is from the latin fervere, which means to boil. It’s all about the bubbles. We even live in an age of bubbles: the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has written a 664-page tome called Bubbles, the first of a three-part trilogy, a theory of relationship and intimacy that takes us from the womb to the Christian conception of God; the Flaming Lips performed a concert in which every musician and each person in the audience was encased in a bubble, and I, for one, live in a liberal bubble. But Sandor Katz’s bubbles have energy, permeability, and an excitement that is very much shared, rather than isolating. Read more »

Risky Business

by Mike O’Brien

This column is not about the American election. You’re welcome.

Instead, I want to write about evidence, justification, and risk. This is partly a response to very recent events, and partly a regurgitation of some ideas I ruminated on years ago.

First, the recent bits. I was listening to the Montreal branch of Canadian national radio, a lunchtime call-in show that was asking listeners about their views on restaurant re-openings. Covid infections have spiked in the last month in Quebec, hovering around 1000 new cases per day in a population of roughly 8 million. The provincial government imposed a one-month lockdown on October 1st, shutting bars, restaurants, and other businesses and public facilities, as well as banning private gatherings. This was originally imposed on the metropolitan areas of Montreal and Quebec City, deemed “red zones”, but this designation was soon applied to just about every urbanized area along the St Lawrence river corridor.

It was a reluctant, long-avoided (bars had been open since late June) bid to keep Covid transmission sufficiently controlled to allow schools to remain open. The centre-right CAQ (Coalition for the Future of Quebec) government is very much a pro-business party, led by an airline entrepreneur, and has been accused of insisting on continued in-person schooling because it allows parents to return to work. I don’t doubt that this was a factor in their calculation, though they may also genuinely believe in their public claims that a return to schooling is necessary for the mental health and educational progress of children. They went so far as to deny children the choice to continue remote schooling, except for rare medical exemptions. I think it’s rather short-sighted, given that children are already known to be spreaders of the disease (and potentially victims of long-term harm, even if they are asymptomatic when infected). Given that Covid is not going away anytime soon, and may be surpassed by even worse viruses in the future, I would have liked to see our government build and maintain remote-learning infrastructure, to allow a rapid shutdown whenever necessary. But I don’t run the government. I just complain about it on the internet. Read more »

Time Stays, We Go

by Mary Hrovat

Photograph of red maple leaves on the groundAutumn is brilliant. One of the things I looked forward to when I moved to the Midwest from the desert southwest was the experience of a year with four seasons. I did not anticipate how very beautiful autumn could be, and even after 40 years in the Midwest, I can’t get enough of this season. I can’t spend enough time outside in the wonderfully crisp air, under the low-angle sunlight, stopping to drink in the deep burnished golds, the lemony yellows, the gloriously variegated reds and oranges.

It took me a while to start recognizing specific types of trees instead of seeing only a mass of color, and I’m still learning new ones. I didn’t know until recently, for example, that the leaves of pawpaw trees turn the color of the sun in a child’s drawing. The pawpaw trees in my neighbors’ yard briefly cast a warm glow through my bedroom window on sunny afternoons this time of year. The leaves of ginkgo trees turn a similar color that deepens slightly with time; two huge old trees on campus drop countless small golden fans over the ground. (We won’t talk about the smell.)

I realize I have a surprising number of memories specifically about falling and fallen leaves: noticing dry leaves scurrying down the sidewalk, driven by a frisky wind on a cool autumn evening; pausing to watch a single yellow leaf drift to a rain-wet brick sidewalk under tenuous November sunshine as I hurried to a physics lab; seeing the perfect circles of red leaves on the ground under small maple trees; finding, one morning on my way to work, that an oak tree had dropped seemingly all of its leaves overnight, covering the sidewalk with a rich ruby carpet for me to walk on. Late one overcast afternoon last year, the clouds lifted near the western horizon, just enough for the setting sun to illuminate a maple with leaves that ranged in color from green to orange to scarlet. It blazed like a torch against an iron-gray eastern sky. I used to think moments like these pull me out of everyday life, but now I think they re-enchant it. Read more »