Why George MacDonald Matters

Timothy Larsen at Marginalia Review:

Late in life, with his children raised and the battle of the bills behind him, our Scottish author returned to his early love and wrote another disorientating and uncanny “fairy tale for grown people,” Lilith (1895). Its protagonist is Mr. Vane who crosses over from the materialistic banality of his library to “the region of the seven dimensions” where he can learn how to stop being a mere “man of the world” and broaden into a “man of the universe.” Phantastes and Lilith might perplex even you—my sophisticated, time-and-space travelling readers of the universe; a generation raised on Bunyan was at its wit’s end.  Beside realism, all they knew was allegory.  Pilgrim’s Progress was not a hard nut to crack.  One soon learns to trust someone named Hopeful, but to be wary of Lord Hate-Good; to brace oneself when asked to climb the Hill of Difficulty, but to count on having a good time in the House of the Palace Beautiful. After writing Phantastes, MacDonald was besieged with letters from readers who assumed that it was an allegory too subtle for them to grasp.  Like giving up and asking for the solution to a crossword puzzle, readers appealed to the author to send them the “key” for interpreting it. MacDonald wearily explained that there was no master key – that readers were free “to take any meaning they themselves see in it.” Once again, readers have long learned to accept such a state of things, but MacDonald is the one who made it possible.  It is hard to imagine a bewildering romp of a novel such as G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908) were it not for MacDonald.

more here.

On Joan Micklin Silver (1935–2020)

Carlos Valladares at n+1:

Hester Street contains no muckraking impulse to uncover the “truth” of How the Other Half Lives. She rejected any sort of outsider gaze in favor of an awareness to the cadences of Yiddish, the shimmering falling leaves as an immigrant son and his father learn how to play baseball in a sun-kissed park, the loving camera effect gotten out of Keats’s blindingly over-exposed white shirt. It’s a perceptiveness that doesn’t advertise how perceptive it is. Much of Hester Street is consumed with the ordinary problem of how Carol Kane should style her wild hair, what raiment she should cross Delancey Street in, which hat to wear. Nearly a century after the events of Hester Street, in Crossing Delancey (my favorite Silver film, a rom-com set in contemporary 1988 New York), Amy Irving is obsessed by the same problem: whether to wear a Diane Keaton-ish bowler hat that was gifted to her by the owner of a pickle shop (Peter Riegert). The past constantly revives in Silver; newer generations never forget where they came from; time ebbs and flows in and out of style.

more here.

Wednesday Poem

Mindanao Deep

The waves still roll fiercely from far
out breaking over a new sandbar
then gathering up again to break once
more full upon the shore. and I think
of how on even the calmest day there
is a little shimmer against the solidness
of land. a little rolling aqainstness,
and I feel the ancientness of the anger
hard and tight in her belly six miles
down in the dark fold of the Mindanao Deep.

by Nils Peterson

Why Donald Trump will never admit defeat

Judith Butler in The Guardian:

It could be considered a small thing that Trump can neither meet with Biden nor acknowledge that he has lost the election to him. But what if the refusal to acknowledge loss is bound up with the path of destruction we call Trump’s exit route? Why is it so hard to lose? The question has at least two meanings in these times. So many of us are losing people to Covid-19, or fearing death for ourselves or others. All of us are living in relation to ambient illness and death, whether or not we have a name for that sense of the atmosphere. Death and illness are quite literally in the air. And yet, it is unclear how to name or fathom these losses, and the resistance of Trump to public mourning has drawn from, and intensified, a masculinist refusal to mourn that is bound up with nationalist pride and even white supremacy. The Trumpists tend not to grieve openly pandemic deaths. They have conventionally rejected the numbers as exaggerated (“fake news!”) or defied the threat of death with their gatherings and maskless marauding through the public spaces, most recently in their spectacle of thuggery in the US Capitol in animal costumes. Trump never acknowledged the losses the US has suffered, and had no inclination or capacity to offer condolences. When the losses were referenced, they were not so bad, the curve was flattening, the pandemic would be short, it was not his fault, it was China’s fault. What people need, he claimed, was to get back to work because they were “dying” at home, by which he meant only that they were driven crazy by domestic confinement.

Trump’s inability to acknowledge his election loss is related to his inability to acknowledge and mourn public losses from the pandemic, but also his destructive itinerary.

More here.

Obituary for a Failed Presidency

Susan B. Glasser in The New Yorker:

Precisely at noon on Wednesday, Donald Trump’s disastrous Presidency will end, two weeks to the day after he unleashed a mob of his supporters to storm the Capitol, seeking to overturn the election results, and one week to the day after he was impeached for so doing. He leaves behind a city and a country reeling from four hundred thousand Americans dead, as of Tuesday, from a pandemic whose gravity he downplayed and denied; an economic crisis; and an internal political rift so great that it invites comparisons to the Civil War.

In the end, Trump was everything his haters feared—a chaos candidate, in the prescient words of one of his 2016 rivals, who became a chaos President. An American demagogue, he embraced division and racial discord, railed against a “deep state” within his own government, praised autocrats and attacked allies, politicized the administration of justice, monetized the Presidency for himself and his children, and presided over a tumultuous, turnover-ridden Administration via impulsive tweets. He leaves office, Gallup reported this week, with the lowest average approval ratings in the history of the modern Presidency. Defeated by Joe Biden in the 2020 election by seven million votes, Trump became the first incumbent seeking reëlection to see his party lose the White House, Senate, and the House of Representatives since Herbert Hoover, in 1932. A liar on an unprecedented scale, Trump made more than thirty thousand false statements in the course of his Presidency, according to the Washington Post, culminating in perhaps the biggest lie of all: that he won an election that he decisively lost.

Yet Republicans—the vast majority, that is, of those who still identify themselves as Republicans—continue to embrace Trump and the conspiracy theories about his defeat that the departing President has spread to explain his loss. This, more than anything, might have been the most surprising thing about Trump’s tenure: his ability to turn one of America’s two political parties into a cult of personality organized around a repeatedly bankrupt New York real-estate developer. And so we are ending these four years having learned not that Donald Trump is a bad man—the evidence of that was already voluminous and incontrovertible before he entered politics—but that there are millions of Americans who were willing to overthrow our constitutional system in order to keep him in power, who would follow Trump’s dark lies rather than acknowledge unwelcome truths.
More here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Epidemic Empire: An Interview with Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb

Anne Schult at the Journal of the History of Ideas:

Anne Schult: Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, reflections on contagious disease as allegory have abounded, and some of the most canonical texts engaging with this trope—from Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor to Albert Camus’ The Plague—have regained popularity in public discourse as commentators are trying to make sense of the current public health crisis. In Epidemic Empire, you also draw on these (and many other) writings but place them at the very specific discursive nexus of epidemic, terror, and Islam. In doing so, you not only trace how disease has been used rhetorically to pathologize and dehumanize political resistance since the nineteenth century, but also expose the historical concurrency of insurgency and contagious disease in British India and their consequent stylization as inextricably related epistemological problems across the British, French, and American empires. What aspects that have hitherto remained hidden or obscured about the “epidemic imaginary” does this explicit focus on colonial, anticolonial, and postcolonial politics reveal, and how might these explain its continuous appeal?

Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb: You’ve identified really carefully the process I unfold in the book: the way metaphors of disease— and in the story-length register, allegories of epidemic, like Camus’s—naturalize political violence along the lines of an earthquake, or an extinction event, as if they are part of earth’s in-built life cycle. In earlier imperial writings about nature and the natural world, you also see natural phenomena being described as revolutions, upheavals, or the violence of nature. Think Alexander von Humboldt, trained as a geologist for the purposes of mining, observing the earthquakes in the new world, or the term “rogue wave,” denoting a break in tide patterns but also connoting a vagrant or a beggar by way of the Latin rogare.For catastrophes and novel events—events we might call sublime, or at least out of the realm of the everyday—speakers of many languages use the tools of comparison to assist in sense-making.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Frank Wilczek on the Present and Future of Fundamental Physics

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

What is the world made of? How does it behave? These questions, aimed at the most basic level of reality, are the subject of fundamental physics. What counts as fundamental is somewhat contestable, but it includes our best understanding of matter and energy, space and time, and dynamical laws, as well as complex emergent structures and the sweep of the cosmos. Few people are better positioned to talk about fundamental physics than Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Laureate who has made significant contributions to our understanding of the strong interactions, dark matter, black holes, and condensed matter, as well as proposing the existence of time crystals. We talk about what we currently know about fundamental physics, but also the directions in which it is heading, for better and for worse.

More here.

How to Hold Social Media Accountable for Undermining Democracy

Yaël Eisenstat in the Harvard Business Review:

It is time to define responsibility and hold these companies accountable for how they aid and abet criminal activity. And it is time to listen to those who have shouted from the rooftops about these issues for years, as opposed to allowing Silicon Valley leaders to dictate the terms.

We need to change our approach not only because of the role these platforms have played in crises like last week’s, but also because of how CEOs have responded — or failed to respond. The reactionary decisions on which content to take down, which voices to downgrade, and which political ads to allow have amounted to tinkering around the margins of the bigger issue: a business model that rewards the loudest, most extreme voices.

Yet there does not seem to be the will to reckon with that problem.

More here.

A Legendary Director’s Larger-Than-Life Memoir

Nathan Taylor Pemberton at Bookforum:

Earlier in his career, Gregory writes, theater was a “drug to relieve the pain of living.” But escaping into his “calling” came with no shortage of throbbing side effects. One of the “most awful” days of Gregory’s life is the one when he directs a scene at Strasberg’s Actors Studio only to receive a brutal critique from the famed teacher in front of his fellow students, among them Marilyn Monroe and Paul Newman. (He’d stay away from Strasberg’s class for months.) The belated success of his Alice came only after a succession of early failures: being fired from three consecutive directorships at small regional theaters. An “enfant terrible” in these years, Gregory hired a chemist to synthesize the smell of “rotting flesh” for a production in Philadelphia, resulting in an actor vomiting during a tech rehearsal and Gregory’s dismissal from the play. Another firing, from a theater in Los Angeles, came after he was punched by the program’s benefactor, the movie star Gregory Peck.

more here.

Peter Saul’s American Icons

J. Hoberman at The Point:

A mild sensation in the late Sixties, a cult artist in the early Aughts, and now a seasoned art world veteran, Saul, who is 86, is having a moment. “How long until Peter Saul is rediscovered once and for all,” Beau Rutland wrote on the occasion of Saul’s comprehensive 2017 show at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. European retrospectives and newly respectful reviews have culminated in a two-floor survey at the New Museum last February. It is Saul’s first retrospective in New York City, accompanied by a lavish catalog and the publication of his “professional artist correspondence,” a fascinating collection of letters written to his parents and his longtime gallerist Allan Frumkin.

Aptly named “Crime and Punishment,” the New Museum exhibition, which closes this week, is both seductive and off-putting. Each canvas is a consummately designed riot. The colors—hot pink, bilious lime, deep purple—scream. The images deliquesce. If you are in range, you’re spattered or slimed.

more here.

‘People in their 80s and 90s are bloody brilliant!’ Kate Mosse on writing – and being a carer

Emine Saner in The Guardian:

It was 10 years ago that Kate Mosse got the idea for her latest series of historical novels – and immediately tried to talk herself out of it. “I just thought: ‘Don’t do this, Kate – you know nothing about the French wars of religion, nothing about the 17th and 18th centuries. This whole history is obviously a minefield,” she recalls. Despite those initial reservations, she eventually embarked on what would become a quartet of novels about the French Protestants known as the Huguenots, beginning in 16th-century Languedoc with The Burning Chambers (published in 2018) and following the diaspora across two continents and three centuries. It’s not as if she had much else on – only a few other books, a couple of plays, keeping the Women’s prize for fiction going, railing against Brexit and being a carer.

Even during the pandemic, she has been incredibly productive – the initial shock of it “felt like grief” she says, and she couldn’t concentrate on writing, so instead she read more than 250 golden age detective books. The City of Tears, the sequel to The Burning Chambers, should have been released in May last year and she would have spent much of 2020 promoting it; instead, she is now working on the third instalment of the series. And then she wrote another book, out later this year, about her role as a carer – first helping her mother look after her father, who had Parkinson’s and died in 2011, and now for her 90-year-old mother-in-law, Rosie. In order to protect Rosie, who lives with Mosse and her husband, Greg, the household has been virtually self-isolating since March.

Mosse’s move into historical fiction changed her life with the success of Labyrinth – a Holy Grail adventure story – in 2005, and the following two books in her Languedoc trilogy, so this return to the genre has felt exciting, she says. When her father was diagnosed, Mosse decided not to work on any research-heavy books that required long periods of travel, in order to support her parents – they also both lived with Mosse and her husband. “Sadly, my dad died in 2011 and then my ma died in 2014,” she says. “Then for a period of time, I could be back out, doing research, and it’s been a really lovely thing to have this huge project.”

More here.

Twins With Covid Help Scientists Untangle the Disease’s Genetic Roots

Katherine Wu in The New York Times:

After 35 years of sharing everything from a love for jazz music to tubes of lip gloss, twins Kimberly and Kelly Standard assumed that when they became sick with Covid-19 their experiences would be as identical as their DNA. The virus had different plans. Early last spring, the sisters from Rochester, Michigan, checked themselves into the hospital with fevers and shortness of breath. While Kelly was discharged after less than a week, her sister ended up in intensive care. Kimberly spent almost a month in critical condition, breathing through tubes and dipping in and out of shock. Weeks after Kelly had returned to their shared home, Kimberly was still relearning how to speak, walk and chew and swallow solid food she could barely taste. Nearly a year later, the sisters are bedeviled by the bizarrely divergent paths their illnesses took.

“I want to know,” Kelly said, “why did she have Covid worse than me?”

Since the new coronavirus first shuddered into view, questions like the one posed by Ms. Standard have spurred scientific projects around the globe. Among the 94 million infections documented since the start of the outbreak, no two have truly been alike, even for people who share a genetic code. Identical twins offer researchers a ready-made experiment to untangle the contributions of nature and nurture in driving disease. With the help of twin registries in the United States, Australia, Europe and elsewhere, researchers are confirming that genetics can affect which symptoms Covid-19 patients experience. These studies have also underscored the importance of the environment and pure chance: Even between identical twins, immune systems can look vastly different — and continue to grow apart over the course of a lifetime.

More here.

Monday, January 18, 2021

In memoriam: Sahabzada M. Yaqub Khan, my uncle

by Muneeza Shamsie

Sahabzada M. Yaqub Khan, Government House, Karachi, 1948

This year, 26 January marks the fifth death anniversary, of Sahabzada M. Yaqub-Khan (1920-2016), my uncle. To me it seems as if it was yesterday. He was my mother’s youngest brother and her only sibling in Pakistan. The bond between them was so close that I cannot remember a time, when he was not integral to my family life. To my younger sister, Naushaba (now Naushaba Hasnain) and me, he was always ‘Mamou’. I have no idea when Mamou and I first met. He was a prisoner-of-war at the time I was born in Lahore. As I grew up I was told by my parents never to ask him about his POW years because it was such a dreadful experience.  I learnt in time, that he had been captured in Egypt (at Bir Hachim after the Battle of Tobruk) and he escaped in Italy with two fellow officers – the future Commander in Chiefs of the Pakistan and Indian armies respectively, Generals Yahya Khan and Kumaramangalam – but they had been recaptured. Mamou was then moved to a concentration camp in Germany. He had utilized those years to learn languages: French, German, Italian and Russian. Afterwards he was sent to England to convalesce. There he was often mistaken for his second cousin, the Nawab of Pataudi, the famous cricketer.  The resemblance was so uncanny that two generations later, my daughter Kamila chanced upon a photograph in a book on cricket history. She did a double take and thought ‘What is Yaqub Nana doing here?’

My first conscious memory of Mamou revolves around the unsolved mystery of Fuzzy Wuzzy Kitten, my favourite book. This had big pictures of kitten in a lovely soft, velvety material. Possibly Mamou used to read it to me. One day the book disappeared.  For some reason I thought that he was responsible. He would often tease me – and ask with a big grin – until I was quite grown up. “Who took Fuzzy Wuzzy Kitten?”  I would point to him. He would go into peals of laughter. And I still don’t know what happened to Fuzzy Wuzzy Kitten. Read more »

On the varieties of change

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

A block of tungsten and a bottle of sodium

I have been thinking a lot about change recently. 2020 seemed like a good year to do this, for several reasons. There was the political turmoil in the United States where I live. There was the global pandemic. There was the birth of our daughter. There were a few projects I worked on related to long term change on evolutionary timescales. All of these issues gave me the opportunity to think about change and some of the paradoxes associated with it. Everybody defines change in their own way, and some changes may be more important to some of us than to others, so how we react to, adapt to and enable change is ultimately very subjective. And yet we all have to deal with some very objective measures of change, at the very least those pertaining to life and death. So the paradox of change is that while it impacts us on a very subjective, personal level and each of us perceives it very differently, on another level it also unites us because of its universal aspects, aspects that can help us define our common humanity.

There was of course the pandemic that forced great changes. A way of life which we took for granted was suddenly and irrevocably changed. Careers and lives ended, we hunkered down in our homes, stopped traveling and started looking inward. For some of us who had been caught up in immediate matters of family, the pandemic even came as a welcome respite in which we got to spend more time with our significant others and children. We stepped back and reevaluated our life on the treadmill. For others, it posed a constant challenge to get work done, especially with kids whose schools were closed. For my wife and me, the pandemic was a chance to spend more time with our newborn daughter and avoid the stresses and boredom of the commute and stresses of physical meetings in the office. What can be unwelcome change for one can be unexpectedly welcome for another. In this particular case we were privileged, but the tables could well be turned. Read more »

My Cousin Daryl Pens a Paean to Lauren Boebert

by Joan Harvey 

Still from Rural Colorado United video

I always knew that we couldn’t Make America Great Again without Sarah Palin. So when she retreated to Alaska to be with John Galt and all the others who shrugged because they were tired of holding up the Lib-tards and their socialist laziness, I figured we were on the path to becoming Venezuela. Sure, Donald Trump, the greatest president since Abe Lincoln and probably tied with George Washington for second, was in office, but he couldn’t do it alone. This country has so many Lib-tards and blue-state welfare queens that without someone like Sarah Palin, our country was due for collapse.

So I took things into my own hands. Have you read The Secret? You have to read it! It’s about using the energy of the universe to get what you really, truly, deeply want to make your life AWESOME! The book says to make a vision board with some magazines and glitter and rubber cement, because the universe needs pictures to help it know what you want. Well, I knew I couldn’t make a vision board (you know I don’t mess with that girly shit) so I got my old lady Darla to make one. Right in the middle of that vision board, Darla pasted Sarah Palin. And then she surrounded her with the other Palins: Todd, and Trig, and Track, and Sailor, and Bristol, and Plumber. And then we pasted on the text of the Second Amendment, and pictures of some friends totally armed to protect ourselves from Antifa and BLM. Guys that could keep America Great and Free! And we waited, and we prayed, and we let ourselves be open to the universe.

And that’s when Lauren Boebert walked into our life as if she had walked right off our vision board! Read more »

(Re)reading Don DeLillo in Dark Times

by Andrea Scrima

Adapted from a talk given on April 28, 2017 at the New School, New York City, as part of The Body Artist: A Conference on Don DeLillo.

For some readers, Don DeLillo is a guy thing: an immensely gifted geek whose male characters are incapable of emotional communication; whose dialogue sounds more like the brilliant inner monologues of a mind challenging its own assumptions than individual expressions of distinct personalities; who has examined, analyzed, and celebrated American culture with a wistful nostalgia for baseball, poker, fistfights, and billiards, the kind of rough-and-tumble male bonding that redeems unremarkable domestic existence. Whatever his weaknesses might be, most would agree that DeLillo is a wary paranoiac with an uncanny ability to predict, well in advance, shifts in culture, technology, and the communication media and their effects on individual and collective psychology and to express these phenomena in evocative and hypnotic prose. DeLillo speaks powerfully to American obsessions: our anxiety at being alive, our fear of death, the way in which our efforts to transcend ourselves in some meaningful way are stymied by a culture that both engenders and entraps us. The question now is whether his work can help us analyze the unprecedented political situation we find ourselves in today.

I’ve been living in Berlin for over thirty years. Live outside your native culture long enough, and you begin to see it as a sort of double exposure in which your sense of family and identity and belonging is overlaid with a strange, shape-shifting disturbance pattern in which everything seems normal until it suddenly doesn’t, and you begin to see the country from a foreigner’s point of view. For as long as I can remember, America has enjoyed its superpower status, exporting the products of its creative industries around the globe, often through aggressive means, and showing little sustained interest in the cultures of other countries. Lawrence Venuti, the translation theorist, has spoken of “a trade imbalance with serious cultural ramifications” resulting in “a complacency in Anglo-American relations with cultural others, a complacency that can be described—without too much exaggeration—as imperialistic abroad and xenophobic at home.” Only a tiny percentage of all publications in the United States are works in translation, meaning that we have comparatively meager resources to examine our society and culture in comparison to other societies and cultures, and that this impedes our ability to reflect objectively on ourselves.

What does this have to do with Don DeLillo? Read more »