When I visited Ernest Hemingway’s home in Key West, I took only three photographs. One of his writing studio (which the house’s caretakers claim remains undisturbed), one of the two Coca-Cola machines outside the public bathrooms and one of the little houses built for the dozens of six-toed cats roaming the property. On the roofs of those little houses are placards reading, “Hemingway Home Cats Get Revolution Plus Every Month.”
I took those three pictures because they offered the only visual anecdotes that really interested me about the place: photographic evidence of the continuing myth of Hemingway. A myth so enduring that his former home now has soda machines and his cats have their own medical sponsor. It was bombarding to the point that it almost stifled breathing, the cure was to go to Elizabeth Bishop’s nearby home and sit in the quiet under the palm trees in her front yard.
That myth was built in Hemingway’s lifetime, largely by the writer himself. Ninety-five years after the publication of his first book, The Sun Also Rises, we are still fascinated by the man—so fascinated that, in 2016, when Lesley Blume published Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, it landed on the New York Times bestseller list.
Mom, apple pie, and rationality — all things that are unquestionably good, right? But rationality, as much as we might value it, is easier to aspire to than to achieve. And there are more than a few hot takes on the market suggesting that we shouldn’t even want to be rational — that it’s inefficient or maladaptive. Julia Galef is here to both stand up for the value of being rational, and to explain how we can better achieve it. She distinguishes between the “soldier mindset,” where we believe what we’re told about the world and march toward a goal, and the “scout mindset,” where we’re open-minded about what’s out there and always asking questions. She makes a compelling case that all things considered, it’s better to be a scout.
In less than a month, things began to unravel. India was in the grips of a devastating second wave of the virus and cities were facing fresh lockdowns. By mid-April, the country was averaging more than 100,000 cases a day. On Sunday, India recorded more than 270,000 cases and over 1,600 deaths, both new single-day records. If the runway infection was not checked, India could be recording more than 2,300 deaths every day by first week of June, according to a report by The Lancet Covid-19 Commission.
India is in now in the grips of a public health emergency. Social media feeds are full with videos of Covid funerals at crowded cemeteries, wailing relatives of the dead outside hospitals, long queues of ambulances carrying gasping patients, mortuaries overflowing with the dead, and patients, sometimes two to a bed, in corridors and lobbies of hospitals. There are frantic calls for help for beds, medicines, oxygen, essential drugs and tests. Drugs are being sold on the black market, and test results are taking days. “They didn’t tell me for three hours that my child is dead,” a dazed mother says in one video, sitting outside an ICU. Wails of another person outside the intensive care punctuate the silences.
Carrington made The High Priestess, one of only two cards to have been dated, in 1955, around the same time she and her friend Remedios Varo were haunting the metaphysical clubs established by the disciples of Russian mystics P. D. Ouspensky and G. I. Gurdjieff. Esoterica had long been fashionable in Mexico City. Diego Rivera, when called on by the Communist Party in 1954 to justify his membership in the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, said the group was “essentially materialist.” But Carrington and Varo’s occultism was especially committed, prodigious, and syncretic, encompassing tarot, alchemy, witchcraft, Kabbalah, and indigenous Mexican magic and healing practices. Carrington’s library included at least thirteen titles on cartomancy by authors including Ouspensky, A. E. Waite, Joseph Oswald Wirth, and her friend Kurt Seligmann (who reportedly fell out with André Breton after correcting his interpretation of a tarot card). A March 1943 issue of the Surrealist journal VVV records, alongside Carrington’s recipe for stuffed beef in sherry wine, her aborted attempt with Roberto Matta to invent a new divinatory system that would be to tarot “what non-Euclidian geometry is to Euclidian geometry.”
The Flagellants, the American writer Carlene Hatcher Polite’s debut novel, is one of those out-of-print books that’s been lurking in the corner of my eye for the past few years. First published by Christian Bourgois éditeur as Les Flagellants in Pierre Alien’s 1966 French translation, and then in its original English the following year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the book details the stormy relationship between Ideal and Jimson, a Black couple in New York City. The narrative is largely made up of a series of stream of consciousness orations. Polite’s prose is frenetic and loquacious, and her characters fling both physical and verbal violence back and forth across the page. The French edition received much praise. Polite was deemed “a poet of the weird, an angel of the bizarre,” and the novel was described as “so haunting, so rich in thoughts, sensations, so well located in a poetic chiaroscuro that one [could] savor its ineffaceable harshness.” And while certain American critics weren’t so impressed—“Miss Polite’s narrative creaks with the stresses of literary uncertainty,” wrote Frederic Raphael in the New York Times, summing the novel up as a “dialectical diatribe”—others recognized this young Black woman’s singular, if still rather raw and emergent, talent. Malcolm Boyd, for example, declared the novel “a work of lush imagery and exciting semantic exploration.” It won Polite—then in her midthirties and living in Paris with the youngest of her two daughters—fellowships from the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities (1967) and the Rockefeller Foundation (1968).
. What is my life worth? At the end (I don’t know what end) One person says: I earned three hundred contos, Another: I enjoyed three thousand days of glory, Another: I was at ease with my conscience and that is enough… And I, if they come and ask me what I have done, Will say: I looked at things, nothing more. And that is why I have the Universe here in my pocket. And f God asks me: And what did you see in those things? I will answer: Only things … You yourself added nothing else. And God, who despite all is clever, will make me a new kind of ………. saint.
by Fernando Pessoa from The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro New Directions Paperbook, 2020 translated from the Portuguese by …Margaret Jull Costa and Patricio Ferrari
Conto: a former money of account in Portugal and Brazil
Long after his death in 2003, Edward W Said remains a partner in many imaginary conversations.” The opening line of Tim Brennan’s biography of Said is true – it’s hard to come up with another thinker who remains so present in his absence. Some 50 or so books have been written about him. His writings are taught in universities across the world. Look on social media and you’ll find him constantly referred to, in easy, familiar terms, by the young across the globe. His portrait is on the walls of the old cities of Palestine, in the company of the martyrs. The events of the past years, not least the Arab uprisings and the counter-revolutionary triumphs that followed them, have been for many of us occasions where we turned to his ideas and his example.
Said bestrode not just one world, but several. Just as he was at the same moment a New Yorker and a Palestinian brought up in Egypt, he was also a literary critic, a theorist, a political activist, a musician and more. And if this led to him being “not quite right” in any one world, his genius was to transmute this condition into the engine of ideas around which a considerable part of the intellectual and political life of these worlds came to revolve.
Brennan was Said’s student and friend, familiar with his ideas and comfortable in his company. For Places of Mind he worked closely with Said’s family, conducted interviews with a wide range of his friends and colleagues and (he must have) thoroughly mined the archive held in Columbia University, where Said taught for his entire career. (One delightful moment in the book is when Brennan finds that Said’s teaching notes from 1964 to 1984 prove his old teacher’s statement that some of his best ideas came from his teaching.)
NASA has pulled off the first powered flight on another world. Ingenuity, the robot rotorcraft that is part of the agency’s Perseverance mission, lifted off from the surface of Mars on 19 April, in a 39.1-second flight that is a landmark in interplanetary aviation. “We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” says MiMi Aung, the project’s lead engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
Ingenuity’s short test flight is the off-Earth equivalent of the Wright Brothers piloting their aeroplane above the coastal dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. In tribute, the helicopter carries a postage-stamp-sized piece of muslin fabric from the Wright Brothers’ plane. “Each world gets only one first flight,” says Aung.
The flight came after a one-week delay, because software issues kept the helicopter from transitioning into flight mode two days ahead of a planned flight attempt on 11 April. Today, at 12:34 a.m. US Pacific time, Ingenuity successfully spun its counter-rotating carbon-fibre blades at more than 2,400 revolutions per minute to give it the lift it needed to rise 3 metres into the air. The US$85-million drone hovered there, and then, in a planned manoeuvre, turned 96 degrees and descended safely back to the Martian surface. “This is just the first great flight,” says Aung.
UPDATE, April 20: We should be able to repair everything by the end of this week.
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Enthusiasm for public philosophy, and public-facing scholarship more generally, is pervasive. As active contributors to the “public philosophy” genre, we hold that it’s valuable for academics to reach out to broader audiences. It’s good to think deeply about the issues central to living a meaningful life, and this activity shouldn’t be confined to the halls of academia.
Yet the practice of public philosophy occasions problems of its own. To start, there is the tendency towards cheapening and deforming philosophical reflection, which comes with selling philosophical programs as “life hacks” and self-help regimens. This tendency is often accompanied by an effort to monetize philosophy, which in turn of course makes it less “public.” We’ve already written on this problem (here and here). Setting this aside, there is an additional problem. Enthusiasm for public-facing work among professors has recently begun percolating up into university administration. This, in part, has been fueled by the insistence among the professoriate that public scholarship ought to be “institutionalized,” counted alongside strictly academic work for purposes of promotion, merit assessment, and other forms of advancement. In short, college administrators have begun warming to the idea that faculty ought to develop a profile of public outreach. In some institutions, that faculty will contribute public-facing work is a more-or-less explicit expectation, often tied, albeit vaguely, to benchmarks for promotion and other institutional rewards.
We’re suspicious of the proposal that public-facing scholarly activities should be institutionalized. Read more »
Every institution has its founding myths. In mathematics, one of ours is that mathematical truths are unassailable, universal, and eternal. And that any intelligent being can discover and verify those same truths for themself.
This is why movie aliens who want to communicate with us usually use math . The cornerstone of this myth is that mathematicians give airtight logical arguments for their truths. After all, Pythagoras knew his eponymous theorem 2500 years ago and it’s as true as it ever was. And it was equally true in Mesopotamia 3500 years ago and in China and India 2000+ years ago.
The idea of a “mathematical proof” is what makes math, math.
This semester I am teaching our introduction to mathematical proofs course. The not-so-secret purpose of the class is to help students transition from being mathematical computers to being mathematical creators. The students learn what it means to think mathematically. This includes how to take vague and ill-framed questions and turn them into mathematics, how to creatively solve those problems, and how to communicate those solutions in written and verbal form.
A huge part of the course is teaching the students what it means to give a valid proof. They learn about direct proofs (a direct logical march to the desired result), proofs by contradiction (if the desired result weren’t true, then one is forced to a logical impossibility), proofs by induction (using a recursive loop to verify the desired result), and more. They also learn some of the common pitfalls like pre-supposing the desired result and thereby begging the question.
The topics of the course are basic number theory, set theory, logic, functions, and the like, but the real content is how to read and write proofs. Read more »
If you follow science news, there’s a good chance that you’ve recently heard about Muon g-2 (pronounced “mew-awhn gee minus two”), an experiment whose preliminary results were announced to media fanfare and general excitement. The experiment’s most recent iteration is going on at Fermilab, the physics facility outside Batavia, Illinois, but it continues an experiment that wrapped at Brookhaven National Lab, over in New York, back in the mid-2000s. The experimental appratus, a magnetic ring some 50 feet across, traveled from one lab to the other in a single piece—the pictures of this are impressive—all so the anomalous magnetic dipole moment of the muon could be measured with an unprecedented precision.
The vocabulary itself here was a challenge for headline writers. The main focus was about how this measurement of … whatever it was … would be revolutionary. “A Tiny Particle’s Wobble Could Upend the Known Laws of Physics,” went a headline at the New York Times. “Muon g-2 Experiment at Fermilab Finds Hint of New Particles,” wrote Quanta. An explainer comic from the American Physical Society stressed how “new discoveries are on the horizon,” and Résonaances, a blog widely read by physicists, noted the deluge of new g-2 papers, and found hints that might “open a new experimental era that is almost too beautiful to imagine.”
I have no argument with any of these articles, but they are mainly concerned with narrative building, with explaining how the new measurements fit into an ongoing quest to go beyond the standard model, the “standard model” being a bland summary term for all fundamental physics except for gravity. (Gravity gets its own fundamental theory—viz., general relativity.) But while these articles ably summarized why physicists care about these measurements, they contained hardly any physics, hardly any material of the sort that, after reading, lets you understand what’s going on out there, beyond mere social descriptions. Read more »
We are always looking for the book it is necessary to read next. —Saul Bellow
That quote hangs over my writing desk. Its purpose is to remind me of the urgency of writing. Not the correctness of writing, not its sentiment or fashionability or mild amusement: its urgency. Bellow wants what I want – what every reader wants: the book that is necessary and of the moment, now.
It’s what drives me as a writer. As a reader. And as a small-press publisher.
In the marketplace of books, it can be hard to find that next, necessary book. I keep a list of what to read next – lots of people do. But what is offered to me? Mostly big books from big names, published in editions up into the millions of copies (Michelle Obama’s initial print run for Becoming was 3.4 million, increased to 4.3 million because of demand). The big publishers want sure-fire bestsellers. . . but are these really the necessary books? The “Big Six” publishers who dominate the English-speaking book world have consolidated yet again – it’s the “Big Five” now – and they want a guaranteed return on investment. Until authors can guarantee sales – until they are already in some way famous – why would Penguin Random House give them a contract?
Profit is their necessity, but it’s not mine. I want what is of the heart and of the moment, not merely what is salable.
This disconnect is what has brought small publishers to the fore. They take chances. They can afford to look for excellence, freshness, that je ne sais quoi. I think they follow trends that no trends that aren’t trends yet. And they look above all for urgency. They give writers their first and second books. They edit, sometimes fiercely. They create for writers time and space to grow.
In the economy of creativity, this is how it works now. It’s the little presses who are performing these crucial services. While the big guys make money.Read more »
Children are natural philosophers. Some combination of imagination, maybe, and lack of knowledge. Philosophy is all theory and no data, after all. In any case, in my experience, one of the most popular philosophical puzzles among young people is this.
When I look at something red, it looks red to me. But it’s hard to say what “red” is other than not green, not blue, etc. How do I know that when you look at something red it doesn’t actually look like what I see as green – and vice versa. Philosopher’s call this “The Inverted Spectrum Problem”.
John Locke was the first to write about it. It’s surprising that no one wrote about earlier since, as I said, many, many people, including children, come up with the basic idea all on their own. I think that maybe the problem is a product of the way our view of the mind changed in the early modern period. Specifically, it’s a side effect of the increased emphasis on the idea of idea of a private, internal, inaccessible self. Anyway, in the end, Locke didn’t think it was very important. Maybe it isn’t. But like many philosophical puzzles, it points to something important.
Back up. We learn colors by being shown samples of colors and learning to name them. Back in my day, it was crayons. So, we learn colors by discrimination. But maybe colors are, beyond that, “featureless”, as the philosophical behaviorist said. Yet non-color-blind people are seeing something when they see a color. What is it?
When I ask my students what “red” is, I invariably get the answer, it’s a certain frequency of light. What frequency? I always ask. In the olden days, most of the time, they had to admit they didn’t know. Nowadays, they google it on their phone and say “between 635 and 700 nanometers”. But when you go to the grocery store you don’t tell red apples from green by looking for apples in a certain frequency range, do you? Read more »
I want to be an honest man and a good writer. —James Baldwin
1. My affinity for language is a given. But how it was given—and revealed more than other affinities that may have had it out for me as well—is a mystery I’m trying to solve. My hunch is that an affinity for words was present at birth, then snapped-to early on by seductive teachers who assigned adventure narratives and lyric poems, and later the stories of Stephen Crane, the novels of Thomas Hardy, the poetry of Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay (her marquee name was a poem in itself). The tenderly implied coupling in the woods Tess endured with Alec D’Urberville unfolded so shadily that I had no idea she was being forced against her will otherwise I would have crawled into the novel and run the rapist off in the midst of the act. In such moments, this affinity for the book manifested—a transcendent sense that prose and poetry recognized me as its completion, that I was felt by the writing, meaning that without my moral participation literature was meaningless.
But that wasn’t the well-bottom of my artistic predilection. The inner beacon that called me to be a reader and eventually a writer was also calling me to play music. The entwining of writing and music commingles linear sense and sounded shape, to me, nothing surprising. Which is to say there’s an overlap, an equivalency, and a separation with which these two similarly spirited and self-assertive arts run together in my blood. My artistic sensibility was tuned to language; but some rapacious gnome within, also stirred in childhood, kept using music to mystify and impugn my word bent and its stays, the rebel cause to desacralize my confidence, my expressive facility, my destiny (even in an essay like this).
After all, on the music road, at age eight I first heard a Methodist church choir and I badgered my mother to go for a tryout, which I did and got in; at fourteen, because I saw Benny Goodman swing with a quartet on TV, I took up the clarinet and went right into junior high band; in high school, I was a self-taught guitarist, songwriter, and leader of a Dylanesque folk-rock group; at thirty-three, I earned a bachelor’s degree in music composition, my senior thesis, a knockoff of Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel”; finally, on the strength of a performance art-piece for pianist, electronics, and theater, “Kandinsky’s ‘Several Circles,’” I entered the Ph.D program in avant-garde composition at the University of California, San Diego. Along the journey my synchronous affinities for writing and music developed concurrently, journal writer and piano student, hand-in-hand, double fallbacks, fraternal twins. Read more »
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. —The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (dir. John Ford)
No man is a hero to his valet. —proverb
The highest act of reason…is an aesthetic act. —Holderlin (attrib)
Sometimes it seems that growing up and learning things is one long process of disillusionment. Dis-illusion: we shed illusion, fantasyand myth, and so we disenchant the world. Somehow this is both a good and a bad thing. Good, because we cannot, must not, live on lies; bad because we cannot live on facts alone.
There are plenty of people ready to feed us lies, and plenty who want to believe them: about American Exceptionalism, about race, about the economy – about how global warming is nothing to worry about, when in fact it threatens our very lives. We really do need to find out what is happening and and how it came to be. In the UK, for instance, there seems to be the widespread vague sense that the empire was a sort of outdoor relief programme, all about building railways and schools for the lucky natives, and not at all about exploitation and oppression. So who are all these brown skinned people and what have they to do with us? In the USA we have seen the effects of nurturing lies about race and nation, lies that go all the way back to the the founding: the denial of a history of slavery, genocide and subjugation. And our heroes have feet of clay: Gandhi, Wollstonecraft, Lincoln, Churchill, Jefferson, all were flawed. Indeed, the last three in that list can be indicted of racism. And because of their actions, people died.
And yet there is more to be said about myth, legend and facts. Sometimes the facts can lead us towards error, and the myth can convey something true, as when an event or person inspires us to reach for something higher and better. Moreover, the desire to debunk and find the dirty laundry can generate its own smell: it can be motivated less by a desire to get at the truth than what Nietzsche called ressentiment: half suppressed feelings of hatred and envy that find a brief satisfaction in bringing down anything noble or good. Sometimes, too, something of the truth is to be grasped in the very illusion it engenders – as Hegel says, appearances both conceal and reveal the essential thing. Let me try to explain with some examples. Read more »