art should be a form of energy made visible


The paintings of Jacopo Tintoretto come as a revelation. According to standard opinion Michelangelo, Titian, and Raphael were the supreme artists of the sixteenth century; yet often during the last four hundred years, viewers have gazed in awe and surprise at works by Tintoretto, and wondered if he might be the greatest painter of all. Thus John Ruskin during his first visit to Venice wrote:

I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today before Tintoret. Just be so good as to take my list of painters, and put him in the school of Art at the top, top, top of everything, with a great big black line to stop him off from everybody…. As for painting, I think I didn’t know what it meant till today.

more from the NYRB here.

The Beginning of Mugabe’s End?

Zimbabwean human rights activist Mary Ndlovu in Pambazuka:

The past weeks have indeed brought a qualitative change to Zimbabwe, with a significant shift in the balance of power between the forces which keep Mugabe in power and those which wish to remove him. Ultimately a government’s endurance rests on its success in maintaining a productive and healthy economy which delivers at least subsistence to the population. Mugabe has failed spectacularly in this sphere, with the economy in a state of contraction for the past seven years, and in free fall for the past year.

This collapse has effects which undermine his political support. Firstly, it makes it more difficult for him to dispense the largesse necessary to buy the continuing loyalty of the political and security elite, and to keep the lower ranks of the forces in line. Second, it makes the population, which has remained largely quiescent and submissive in the face of oppression, restive and prepared to risk more in confronting a hugely unpopular government which has destroyed their lives. And thirdly it has spill-over consequences in the region which are beginning to annoy and frustrate neighbouring governments.

Perceiving a weakening in Mugabe’s power base, opposition leaders in political parties, civil society organisations, student movements and churches, have taken their cue and demonstrated greater determination and willingness to come together to push him out.

On the Robert Moses Exhibits

In n+1:

Last season’s series of museum exhibitions (the Queens Museum’s “Road to Recreation,” the Museum of the City of New York’s “Remaking the Metropolis,” and the Wallach Gallery’s “Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution”), seeking, quite openly, to recover Robert Moses’s reputation and legacy, did not emphasize this particular antagonism, between many of Moses’s built structures and the current spatial ambitions of the city’s real estate interests. The Moses of the exhibits, which were unusual both for the artfulness of their display and for the openly opinionated quality of their explanatory plaques, was not the Moses whose expressways and housing projects are currently preventing New York City from gentrifying as thoroughly as, say, central London or Paris. Instead, it was the “middle-class” Moses—the builder of middle-income housing complexes like Morningside Gardens and Washington Square Village, of Lincoln Center and the United Nations, of soaring suspension bridges leading to suburban parkways, of Jones Beach, the Astoria Pool, and two world’s fairs.

Such a Moses, of course, did actually exist. Moreover, this particular Moses, this mighty champion of middle-class values, has more often been the source of commentators’ collective condemnation than he has of their esteem. Jane Jacobs was already criticizing this Moses, in her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, for importing suburban spatial norms into her city of sidewalks, stoops, and corner shops. By this time, Lewis Mumford, an admirer of Moses during the 1930s and 40s, and usually an adversary of Jacobs’s, was attacking Moses on similar grounds. He found infuriating the “car culture” Moses built for so exclusively, and, along with many other city-planning advocates of the time, Mumford derided the great bureaucrat for neglecting mass transit.

Iraq and Ambivalence

There are parts of this piece by Tish Durkin I disagree with, but the following I have seen at times, and it does leave a bad taste. I hoped my predictions of disaster were wrong from the get go, and that my sporadic predictions that things would work out for Iraq would be right. Shadenfreude over this is, well, not just a broken joy but a deformed one. (via normblog)

[W]hat depresses me, and makes me despise so much war criticism even when I agree with it, is that so many of those positing it seem so happy about what’s gone wrong. They seem to relish the probability that Iraq will get worse and worse so that they can be righter and righter.

This isn’t new.

I remember an anti-war activist who was staying in our hotel in Baghdad, who had not come to Karbala for that first ashura. A good person trying to do good things, she had stayed behind to prepare a media alert on the horrors of the occupation — which, especially at a time when the coverage out of Iraq was largely very upbeat, was a very worthy thing to be doing. Still, one thing really bothered me about her. When, upon everyone’s return from Karbala, the activist heard that the day had actually been free of violence, and full of jubilation, she looked as if she had tasted a bad olive, and spit out her response: “Oh, fuck.”

How she must be gloating now. Reality has made sages of the most dire prophets. It’s perfect: Iraq really has gone to hell, and the demon neocons are the ones that sent it.

Like liberals – and thinking conservatives, and sentient beings — everywhere, I gravely doubt that the troop surge – so little so late — will do anything to save Iraq. But for the sake of the Iraqi people, I sure hope it does – even if that helps the Republicans.

But I’m not sure how widespread it is. While a few I’ve met do seem to feel glee at Iraq’s slide into the abyss (in an echo of the crisis mongering of old Commies, who thought a protracted depression would save the world!), most don’t. The opening of Paul Krugman’s April 11th 2003 NYT column seems me to be representative on this front:

Credit where credit is due: the hawks were right to say that a whiff of precision-guided grapeshot would lead to the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. But even skeptics about this war expected a military victory. (”Of course we’ll win on the battlefield, probably with ease” was the opening line of my start-of-the-war column.) Instead, we worried — and continue to worry — about what would follow. As another skeptic, Michael Kinsley of Slate, wrote yesterday: ”I do hope to be proven wrong. But it hasn’t happened yet.”

Why worry? I won’t pretend to have any insights into what is going on in the minds of the Iraqi people. But there is a pattern to the Bush administration’s way of doing business that does not bode well for the future — a pattern of conquest followed by malign neglect.

Birds Do It. Bees Do It. People Seek the Keys to It

From The New York Times:Desire395

Sexual desire. The phrase alone holds such loaded, voluptuous power that the mere expression of it sounds like a come-on — a little pungent, a little smutty, a little comical and possibly indictable. Everybody with a pair of currently or formerly active gonads knows about sexual desire. It is a near-universal experience, the invisible clause on one’s birth certificate stipulating that one will, upon reaching maturity, feel the urge to engage in activities often associated with the issuance of more birth certificates. Yet universal does not mean uniform, and the definitions of sexual desire can be as quirky and personalized as the very chromosomal combinations that sexual reproduction will yield. Ask an assortment of men and women, “What is sexual desire, and how do you know you’re feeling it?” and after some initial embarrassed mutterings and demands for anonymity, they answer as follows:

“There’s a little bit of adrenaline, a puffing of the chest, a bit of anticipatory tongue motion,” said a divorced lawyer in his late 40s.

“I feel relaxed, warm and comfortable,” said a designer in her 30s.

“A yearning to kiss or grab someone who might respond,” said a male filmmaker, 50. “Or if I’m alone, to call up exes.”

“Listening to Noam Chomsky,” said a psychologist in her 50s, “always turns me on.”

At the same time, the researchers said, it is precisely the complexity of sexual desire, the depth, richness and tangled spangle of its weave, that call out to be understood.

More here.

A single gene could explain much of the size difference between dog breeds

From BBC News:Dog

Researchers studied 3,000 dogs from 143 breeds and found small dogs all shared a mutation in a gene that influences size in other animals. This form of the gene was almost absent in large dog breeds, an international team reported in Science journal. The 14 small dogs in the sample, such as Portuguese water dogs, chihuahuas, fox terriers and pomeranians, share a specific sequence of DNA that includes the gene for making a hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). The scientists also looked at DNA from nine large breeds including Irish wolfhounds, St Bernards and Great Danes.

The IGF-1 gene has been known to influence size in other organisms, including mice and humans. These results suggest that while there are invariably differences among breeds – even in genes for size – IGF-1 has played an important role in the evolution of many small breeds by being a gene that consistently affects body size. The new research suggests that a mutation in this gene led to the appearance of small dogs more than 10,000 years ago.

More here.

Monday, April 9, 2007

A Case of the Mondays: Books About Decline

Environmentalists have been writing apocalyptic books for decades, but in recent years, more mainstream figures have written about the possible decline of current civilization. Jared Diamond’s Collapse concentrates on environmental pressure; Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead (largely motivated by the same work as Collapse—Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel) is more economic. Yet other works moralize about the fact that Western civilization may be heading the way of Islamic and Chinese civilizations in the late Middle Ages.

When you come right down to it, the main issues are not overarching narratives about population pressure or economics, but concrete social problems. Not coincidentally, Jacobs and Diamond, who proceed from almost diametrically opposite approaches, end up talking about very similar pathologies in American society: specific failures of government responsibility, failure to adapt to changing conditions, bad economic planning.

Jacobs starts by listing five problems in American society, corresponding to the erosion of five basic pillars: family/community, higher education, science, governmental responsiveness, and self-regulation of expert organizations. As it turns out, none of the five is really the problem. Rather, Jacobs applies her work on cities and economic growth to all of those factors. For example, when talking about the decline of the family and of communities, she never goes into any of the problems mentioned in any number of books moralizing about the future of the American family; instead, she writes about how car culture constricts economic development.

When talking about higher education, she identifies the problem as one of “credentialing versus educating”—that is, university education is more about getting a degree than about learning. That in itself, she says, is really just a problem of flooding universities with people who aren’t serious about learning, partly because of the GI Bill. Her complaint about science is that engineers and social planners aren’t practicing it seriously, so for example traffic controllers talk about road closures by analogizing them to blocking the flow of water rather than by gathering real-world evidence. Her complaint about governmental responsiveness boils down to mistreatment of city resources. And her comments about self-regulation are most applicable to Enron.

So in fact, what she says is that the United States has a large supply of incompetence, greed, corruption, and bad government. Essentially, that’s exactly what Diamond says. Collapse is largely about why societies decline—they can fail to adapt to changing climate conditions, or deplete their natural resources, or promote decision-making procedures that encourage the elites to ignore the people, or increase their population beyond what is sustainable—but Diamond can’t resist concluding by evaluating the United States and the world based on the same criteria. Globally, he talks about environmental damage in the standard terms that are climate change, habitat loss, overpopulation, and so on. But within the US, the social problems he identifies are almost the exact same ones Jacobs’ boil down to. For example, when talking about the way the American upper class segregates itself into gated communities he is basically repeating Jacobs’ points about self-regulation and responsiveness.

Now, you could make a convincing case that the US is indeed in decline. But such a case would necessarily have to involve new problems, rather than problems that didn’t prevent the country from keeping ascending in the robber baron era and that it ultimately weathered in the 1970s. For example, take a recent example neither Jacobs nor Diamond uses: the breakdown of public health in the US, exemplified by the e. coli outbreak in US spinach products. That indicates that the US is falling behind the rest of the world, even regressing to third-world status (in the normal sense of lack of social and economic progress, as in Delhi, rather than in Jacobs’ sense of economic passivity, as in rural areas everywhere), but not that it’s about to collapse or go into a dark age.

A distressing number of the books I’ve looked at try to interpret decade-long trends in modern times in terms of centuries-long ones in history. To some extent it makes sense, insofar as things are happening a lot more quickly lately than they used to. But still, a trend isn’t something that happens on a ten-year scale—at least, not on a scale that determines a civilization’s fate. Between 1500 and 1800, China clearly fell behind Europe, in a gradual process that bears little to no resemblance to what Jacobs and Diamond describe. It just happened that technological advancements helped Europe more, and in the very long run, Europe’s fractured political system and inhospitable environment proved more conducive to growth than China’s unified government and good climate.

I tend to have little trust in people who extrapolate from short-term trends. A good system of predicting civilizations’ fates should at least be good enough to, for a start, retrodict the Soviet Union’s collapse. And yet so far I haven’t seen anyone tackle what must be the greatest failure of the modern prophets.

Monday Musing: Taking Sides in the Recent Religion Debates

Look, no matter whether you are religious or an atheist or some other thing, no matter what you believe, I expect you’ll agree with me about the importance of this question: why do so many people believe the wrong thing? The reason I can be fairly sure that this is a question which has deep meaning for you, as well as for me, is that none of even the religions with the greatest number of adherents (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism) comprises anything even close to a majority of the world’s human beings (and atheists, of course, are no more than a drop in the bucket of humanity). So, as long as you have some sense of curiosity about other humans, you probably wonder why most people don’t share your correct beliefs. (And this is not even to take into account the many rifts within each religion: Catholic v. Protestant, Shia v. Sunni, etc.) Atheists and the faithful are alike in this: they all hope, sometimes rather desperately, that one day everyone will share their own salutary views. But we’ll come back to this question a little later.

HarrisDawDennett01_3Today, I would just like to set down a few loosely related observations about the debates that have recently raged around the publication of several very high-profile books attacking religion. The most prominent of these have been Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, as well as his Letter to a Christian Nation. (Yes, I’ve read all of them.) What has been remarkable to me is the degree of harshness of the polemic that has been directed at these books by eminent intellectuals as well as journalists and laypeople. Many of these criticisms seem to me to fall roughly into three broad categories, each of which I’d like to examine a little more below:

  1. These views of religion themselves exhibit a sort of fervid faith (in rationality, in science, etc.).
  2. These are theologically naive views of religion from individuals unqualified to examine it.
  3. These views of religion miss the important political underpinnings of recent religious resurgence.


Rationality as a Sort of Religion

This is perhaps the least damaging of the objections but, not only is it very common, it betrays a very basic philosophical confusion endemic to our postmodern era which I want to try and dispel here. But, first, a quick example of what I am talking about taken from the comments section of a post right here on 3QD about the Harris/Sullivan debate on religion:

…there are several unexamined “faiths” at the bottom of Harris’s rationalism. That the world is rational, for one thing. That ontology and epistemology overlap. That all that is “real” is material, and vice versa. That a thing can be known from the sum of its parts. And many more.

Reason works very well once it has been lifted up to a functional level by foundational assumptions. To attribute the “rationalist” perspective to someone like Harris, allows us to make these assumptions transparent, which goes a long way toward making someone like Andrew Sullivan look awfully silly. It’s a charlatan’s game, and we shouldn’t fall for it.

–Deets, April 5, 2007

Here’s the foundational problem that Deets brings up, stated simply: there is no neutral perspective from which science or even rationality itself can be defended or deemed superior to anything else. This is uninterestingly and tautologically true (but leads to much mischief!), as one must be scientific, or at least rational, to show anything at all. In other words, it is not possible to convince anyone of the truth of anything, unless they share certain background beliefs. This means that if someone tells you that AIDS is caused, not by the HIV virus, but by evil spirits whom we must appease by ritually sacrificing cats, for example, there is no way to convince them otherwise without using science, and presumably, a belief in the overall correctness of the scientific method is not something that one shares with one’s interlocutor in this case. So Deets is technically correct in pointing out the “foundational assumptions” here, but there is no need for the sophomoric conclusion that this makes Harris’s arguments a “charlatan’s game.” Indeed, Deets’s line of reasoning could be used to make any- and everything a charlatan’s game. The Earth is not flat, but round, I say. Nope, says Deets, this requires an unwarranted assumption of scientific method. Potassium cyanide is a poison, I say. Maybe, maybe not, says Deets. Sodium metal and chlorine gas can combine to form table salt, say I. I don’t think so, says Deets. I nervously ask, does the sun rise in the east? Says Deets (and I ain’t makin’ this up!):

As you well know, the sun only “rises” in the “East” … from a particular perspective, which our culture long ago rejected as illusory. There is no East, and there is no rising.

–Deets, April 6, 2007

What can one say to Deets? Nothing. One can’t say anything because if Deets is responding in this way, then one does not share enough beliefs with Deets to make communication with him (or her) possible. After all, even just using language to communicate requires that the other agree on what “sodium” is, what “chlorine” is, and even what “is” is. Presuming that we agree on what all these things are, I could try to show Deets that I can repeatedly bring sodium and chlorine together and reliably end up with salt, but that would assume that Deets is impressed with the scientific method, an assumption which I am not allowed to make. (Of course, context is always important to meaning, and therefore to truth, so of course there are contexts in which “The Earth is flat” will be true and others where “The Earth is round” will seem a gross over-simplification or false, which is why there is always an element of good faith in communication.) There is really no point in having such a conversation. There is, literally, nothing one could say. (Okay, I apologize to the real-life Deets for turning him/her into a bit of a caricature for the purposes of my argument, but this really is the outcome of his/her line of thinking.)

The good news is that as human beings we share a huge set of background experiences and beliefs that do make communication possible, and we do agree on many things, and most of us can talk to each other. Even Deets actually has rationality in plentiful supply in his (or her) comments, and carefully follows accepted lines of reasoning in constructing clever arguments. Technical and foundational issues in epistemology or even ontology needn’t keep us from making everyday judgments of truth about all sorts of matters, including whether, say, smoking is bad for one’s health, or whether HIV causes AIDS or evil cat-loving (or hating?) spirits do. (One of the things that human beings all over the planet agree on to a remarkable degree, is science itself. It is a truly shocking–and pleasing–thing to me, that for the most part, scientists in Japan, Malawi, Pakistan, Sweden and Indonesia essentially agree on a huge volume of knowledge and even the methods by which it is produced.) So what is the point of debate about anything, you might ask. It is this: what our project becomes, at least with those people with whom we share a basic understanding of logic and enough background beliefs about the world to be able to assert things like “sodium metal and chlorine gas can combine to form table salt” and have them assent, is an attempt to convince them of something by getting them to be coherent about their beliefs. So if someone says “I agree that sodium and chlorine combine to form salt, but I don’t believe that hydrogen and oxygen gases can be combined to produce water,” I can perhaps try to show that the same beliefs this person shares with me which lead her to believe that sodium and chlorine combine to produce salt, also entail that hydrogen and oxygen can combine to produce water. In other words, all of us share so large a number of beliefs, that it is not possible to be aware of all the logically possible statements that they entail, so the purpose of argument and debate is (often) to show someone that they are holding contradictory beliefs, one of which should be given up; this is how, despite Deets’s reservations, it is possible to have useful discussion.

You might by now have lost track of what this has to do with the “rationality as a sort of religion” objection. What I’ve tried to explain is that while it is logically true that certain assumptions of rationality or even agreement with the methods of science, etc., need to be made, these are not unreasonable assumptions. It is perfectly legitimate of Harris or Dawkins or Dennett to make an argument of the following sort to a religious person, “Since you agree that sodium and chlorine combine to produce salt, and you agree that X, and you agree that Y, and you agree that Z, … and you agree that such and such is a good method of deciding these things, and this thing, and that thing, and… then you should also agree that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old.” What if they don’t agree that sodium and chlorine combine to produce salt, or even that the sun rises in the east? In that case, yes, there isn’t much to say.


Theologically Naive Examinations of Religion

This, for some reason, is the objection most dear to the more sophisticated critics of Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris. There are two related ideas here: there is the standard cheap-shot of “What made X an expert in Y?” (As if only astrologists should ever be allowed to judge the claims of astrology!) And then there is the more credible, at least at first blush, idea that important and serious theological ideas and arguments have been completely ignored by these writers. Once again, first some examples. Here’s the very first paragraph of renowned Marxist-and-psychoanalytic-literary-theorist Terry Eagleton’s review of Dawkins (gently entitled “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching“) in the London Review of Books:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.

Much of the Eagleton review continues in this vein, getting more hysterical, if anything:

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?

And this is H. Allen Orr, also reviewing Dawkins, in the New York Review of Books:

…The God Delusion [is] a book that never squarely faces its opponents. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins’s book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they’re terminally ill?).

These gentlemen do protest far too much, but before I get to them let me say another thing: the problem with arguing with a religious person, say a Christian, or to be even more specific, say a Catholic, is that you have no idea what she actually believes. If I tell you that I believe science is correct, you can be pretty sure about a lot of my very detailed beliefs. You can be sure, just to beat this example to death, that I believe that sodium and chlorine can combine to form table salt. You know that I believe that the Earth is close to four billion years old, that the sun is a star, etc., etc. You can be fairly certain that I don’t pick and choose my beliefs in some arbitrary fashion: “Yes, sodium is real, but uranium is just a figure of speech!” On the contrary, as soon as one begins to corner a religious person about one of their more egregiously silly beliefs, they weasel out with some version of “Oh, but I don’t take that literally!” Transubstantiation may be literally true to some, and only a metaphor to other Catholics. Same with pretty much everything, so it is just not possible to examine every way to conceptualize even just the concept of God, which is just one of the things that theology has spent centuries doing. Religious concepts tend to be slippery as they need not cohere even with each other, much less experience, or dare-I-say-it, reality. The constraints (if any) on how one conceptualizes God, or the afterlife, or hell, or sin, are very loose. No one can be expected to argue with every single one of these conceptions that an army of theologians may have produced over millenia.

But maybe they have produced some particularly significant arguments or ideas worth grappling with. Yeah, sure, maybe they have. What are they? It is remarkable that for all the times this objection, that writers such as Dennett and Dawkins and Harris are ignoring sophisticated theologians, is raised, not a single actual idea or argument due to these theologians is ever mentioned. Why not just say, Mr. Eagleton, what exactly in Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Eriugena, Rahner, and Moltmann refutes Dawkins’s arguments? Unless this is an empty and desperate display of erudition, why not bring up how these subtle examinations of grace and hope might confute Dawkins? Orr can scarcely believe that Dawkins has written a whole book about religion without bringing up William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example. Well, Professor Orr, he chose not to, but you are certainly free to show us how James and Wittgenstein weaken Dawkins’s case. Why don’t you? No, really, just think about it: suppose you are trying to argue that astrology is nonsense, and someone keeps piping up that you haven’t read this or that work by this or that astrologer (especially if there are millenia worth of output from “astrologians”). What will you say? I would say, you bring it up. Show me how what someone wrote weakens my case.


It’s All About the Politics, Stupid

Actually, this is the only objection to Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris to which I am at least somewhat sympathetic. Roughly, it is really a set of related ideas which go something like this:

  1. I am smart and well-educated enough to know what you are trying to tell me about religion.
  2. Only people like me will read your book, and you are not telling us anything new, so at the least, your book is boring.
  3. The only reason you have written this book now, is that many in the West are fearful of a resurgence of a highly politicized, dangerous, terroristic, and fundamentalist Islam and the infamously imminent “clash of civilizations”, and this is therefore an opportune time to attack religion in general and sell books.
  4. Your examination of religion ignores the victory in the West of an economic system which has resulted in such a skewed distribution of not only wealth, but even opportunity for education, access to healthcare, etc., that to ease their noisy lives of desperation, more and more people turn for solace to religion.
  5. And similarly, your focus on the violent and evil acts of a minority of religious extremists, for example, in the Islamic world, with no mention of the systematic political and economic violence done to their societies in the name of strategic considerations, oil, spreading the shining light of democracy, etc., allows your readers (at least the less religious ones) in the West to ignore these latter political considerations and blame everything bad happening in, for example, the middle-east, on the evil irrationality of religion. [This doesn’t apply only to the middle-east or Islam, but anywhere there is religious conflict. The idea is that even if religion were to disappear, there are underlying political injustices that would need to be addressed, and too great a focus on religion allows us to ignore these.]

I do not agree with items 1, 2, or 3 of this list, but feel that there is something to the last two. The first step is wrong because there is much new material in these books (more on that below), and there are new ways of thinking about familiar problems. The second step is clearly not true, as the books have been on best-seller lists and it is clear that a lot of religious people have read them, to their benefit (even if not with full agreement) I am sure. The third step is just silliness, and anytime is a good time to fight irrationality! As for steps four and five, although one cannot dictate to people what their books should be about, given the demographics of religion (at least in America) and the overall salience of religion in the current geopolitical mess, one wishes that these authors would have had something to say about the factors that have produced a resurgence of such hypocrisies as evangelical Christianity, such odious forms of faith as jihadist-fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam, etc., or at the very least acknowledged that religion does not exist in a vacuum, but is shaped and exploited in reaction to political and other realities. Their not addressing this at all leaves one with the uneasy feeling that an elephant in the room has been ignored.


So, we come back now to the question with which I started these brief observations: why are so many people wrong? We tend to agree with humans everywhere about most things, after all. This is not just true in the realm of knowledge (because of which science is the same everywhere, as I mentioned earlier), but the other two classical realms as well: the moral and the aesthetic. Leaving religion aside, we find the same things morally repugnant: incest, murder, rape, dishonesty, theft, etc., and we even find the same things beautiful: sunsets, poetry, music, Angelina Jolie, whatever. Why then is religion the exception? Well, because religion can be seen as just one more phenomenon in the natural world, this, I believe, is properly a scientific question, and the greatest value of the books I have been discussing has, at least for me, been to present new scientific work in anthropology, in psychology, in neuroscience, and many other fields, which bears on this question and is suggestive of possible answers. I wrote a short account giving a flavor of some of these developments here, if you are interested.

My previous Monday Musings can be seen here.

UPDATE: In all fairness to Deets, he has a post at his own blog about his views on all this here.

THOUGHT UNDONE: A Tale of Two Dictators: Musharraf, Mugabe and the Dangers of Absolute Power

It’s often best to reflect on certain issues once the storm is over and the dust has settled. I’m going to try it on the recent events surrounding two dictators and their dictatorships, much in the news recently: Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan.

Both have much in common. Nothing perhaps more significant than the hope and optimism the two generated for their people on coming to power. Mugabe overthrew the colonial British, while Musharraf overthrew the colonial locals (corrupt, decadent, feudal democrats). Both promised freedom and development to their nations. Both glowed and basked in the glory of their place in the sun, until things began to unravel. And with no checks and balances on their power, the unraveling took on a more dangerous form. And their lies the danger of absolute power, never mind the benevolent smokescreen.

Governance is a difficut art and often even the best tend to come up short. Dictators are no different. Except that we can’t change them. Dictators tend to be liberal as long as you agree with them. Any serious opposition, and they tend to want to crush it, never mind the democratic intent. Mugabe hasn’t turned violent or suppressive recently vividly depicted by the press photographs of the battered face of Morgan Tsvangirai. He crushed a revolt by the Ndebele speaking people of Matabeleland way back in the 1980s. Musharraf too has gone about ruthlessly suppressing regional opposition, most famously in the state ordered assassination of prominent Baloch leader Nawab Bugti.

Freedom of the press, or other institutions of the state, like the judiciary for instance, is another sham in these regimes. Freedom is about the same as for an animal in a zoo, okay in confined spaces. Mugabe feels free to expel, intimidate or even kill the press reporters he doesn’t fancy. Musharraf while not so bad (but then he’s been around for less time), too doesnt think highly of independent opinion. The Chief Justice of Pakistan recently found out the hard way, earning the sack for questioning the military regime on its human rights record. The media which backed the judge saw their offices vandalised, and freedom clamped down upon. One of the more subtle methods being the slow withdrawal of government advertisements from prominent anti-government newspapers, thus choking their resources. The state can also put pressure on other private actors like industrialists to follow their No-Ad byline in such a system.

Oh, and lets not forget the false enemies, the straw men which keep the likes of Mugabe and Musharraf going, well past their ‘best before’ dates. It would be the ‘white man’ or the long gone British for Mugabe, or India and its intentions to nuke Pakistan, for Musharraf. The trouble is that they ignore the trouble within, and deflect attention towards the irrelevant. Yet, some people buy it, I wonder why?! Or maybe it isn’t such a wonder. Its just simple self-interest. Those small groups who profit from the regime within the country are collaborators, and the rest suffer from the age old problem of collective action: who’s going to organise them cohesively? Important actors outside the country are relevant too. Powerful countries back these regimes for their own self-interest. Nigeria and South Africa continue to prop up Mugabe fearing an improbable but possible backlash on their domestic politics, while the US and the West does it with Pakistan, allegedly fighting terror together, more likely like dosuing a fire with oil and then fighting it with more fire. The rest, like in the UN are vetoed, and some like in teh Commonwealth are simply impotent.

So the regimes survive and prosper as the people suffer. Yet the dictator’s unshakable belief in themselves ( hubris if you ask me) to be seen as the ‘true democrats’ doesn’t seem to blinker. The only instrument to prove the point seems to be a sham election ,or a ridiculous referendum, which give people no real choices, either because their is no opposition (or they have tapes on their mouths), or because the questions are so cleverly phrased (in referendums) that they have only two answers: yes and yes!

So don’t ever be fooled by a dictator because he’ll get you by the throat later, if not sooner. It’s only a matter of time before the whole edifice of state begins to crumble. It has already happened in Zimbabwe. One feels that it may be a matter of time in Pakistan.

The only rays of hope: civil society groups. Let’s everyone back the Catholic bishops of Zimbabwe who have taken the lead in calling for free and fair elections in that country (or alternatively for the incumbent regime to face a mass revolt). Let’s everyone back the lawyers of Pakistan who have taken to the streets demanding greater freedom and accountability for the judiciary and for the rest of the country, from the military regime in Pakistan. A utopian hope probably. They should actually demand that the military return to the barracks or that the people will push them there.

It isn’t all wishful thinking. Nepal has rid itself of an autocratic and dictatorial king through a popular uprising. Ukraine had its Orange Revolution. Georgia had its own Rose revolution. The people must rise, and they must be backed politically across the globe, to restore democracy. Despite its many flaws, it is still the best political system. And despite their many mirages, dicatorships are really an unending desert of hopelessness.

It’s time everyone recognised that. Don’t even spare a second to praise Mugabe, Musharraf, and the like. You give them a hand, they will take your arm, then your limbs, and then everything.

Below the Fold: Going Home

“Going home. Going home. I’m a-going home.
Quiet-like some still day, I’m just going home.

Mother’s there expecting me, Father’s waiting, too.
Lot’s of folks gathered there. All the friends I knew.”

Paul Robeson. The voice was unmistakable. Light snow falling. The comfort of Chicago’s last classical music station waking me at dawn. I was home.

Dad’s stroke, Mom’s dementia, my uncle’s depression. My father, his sister, and my mother’s recently widowed sister the last of this local life’s combatants. The battle continues.

Little houses, little blocks, now pockmarked every seventh house by makeovers and  tear-downs. Still, sixty years later, the plan-book Cape Cods and Georgians, ours now shorn of its two elm trees, form a distinctive neighborhood, gridded with street names like Elm, Memory Lane, and Maple.  All thanks to the GI Bill.

Our house was a Cape Cod with 740 square feet and an unfinished second floor. My father and his father, my grandfather, finished off the upstairs by themselves, only calling in a plasterer who was a fellow Knight of Columbus with my grandfather and the official plasterer for the Archdiocese. We were small potatoes for the plasterer, but he had it done by his men on a Saturday as a favor to my grandfather. 

It was a working-class neighborhood, neat, tidy, and lawn-conscious, but a far cry from the ranches and bi-levels by the country club across the tracks. The men, bricklayers, pressmen, mechanics, telephone linemen, factory foremen, and the occasional drummer, had good jobs, union jobs, but were seldom home. Mr. Hoffman was a traveling salesman for A.B. Dick, the grand dispenser of the mimeograph machine. He turned off most of the other men with his bragging.

My father’s father was a lawyer who had profited from the first suburban expansion after World War I. Attorney for a small town and its only bank, he made a lot of money and drove a Pierce Arrow. But he got mixed up with a Republican governor who went to jail, and crash-landed financially in the Depression. Grandpa was a textbook case of downward mobility, working as a foreman in a defense plant during the second war. But my mother’s parents treated him with deference, as they were working class and considered him middle-class, great fall or no.

My father couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do. With the GI Bill, he tried dental school and law school, and finally found himself writing service orders in a city Buick agency. We had nice cars, always white and with those three holes below the hood, that were probably financed by the dealer at insider rates, as my father’s $100 a week salary wouldn’t have enabled him such largesse.

After working sales for a family-run oil company on Chicago’s south side, he set out on his own, selling insurance out of the house and getting into used car sales on Chicago’s Western Avenue, where the competition quickly pushed him out. He went into car repair with a man named Norm, whom he often called Father. Some years later, their second garage burned down. Dad fled into teaching, first shop and then worked his way up to college counseling as he acquired more degrees, mostly through night school. He became a civil servant, in effect, a state employee, and never looked back, though he did continue to sell Christmas trees every year outside the third garage where and his partner had worked. Until he became a teacher, he didn’t want the neighbors to know what he did. He was accumulating college credits; they were not. He bounced form one job to the next; they didn’t. I think he was ashamed.

The neighborhood was a world of women and children. There were many children. Even the Protestants had many children. The women, insular, their mothers and sisters their best friends, nonetheless formed little block bands. As their kin typically lived in the city, they were forced to confront and befriend strangers in their new suburban neighborhood. The churches, den-mothering and bridge clubs offered some sociality, but as their houses were teeming with kids, their need for mutual aid was paramount.

So the weekday summer barbecues. They weren’t much: hot dogs or hamburgers  cooked on small flat grills, with cans of  Green Giant Niblets corn lodged next to the coals. This was no place for play dates. Kids were amassed, mothers indifferent to their children’s needs for friendship; they intervened only in cases of bullying.  We played games like Kick the Can and Mother May I. When it grew dark and the mosquitos came out, we went home, the bands dissolving into households once more where the little conflicts between sibs would flare up, only to resolved by falling asleep.

Race was irrelevant. Parents were no doubt bigoted. After all, we Catholics were informally forbidden to join the YMCA, though the only gym in town, because it was Protestant. Imagine race. Perhaps the “n” word was passed among the adults. Absent  the sometime progressive autoworker in the neighborhood mix, the fathers  doubtless benefited from race prejudice and exclusion. But to me and my sister, race, when we encountered black people in our occasional trips to the city, was a source of wonder. When my grandfather took us to a cafeteria in the city on our way to General Motors’ annual Motorama at Soldier Field, a middle-aged black woman handed my sister a plate of very large french fries. At home, we ate those skinny frozen fries laid out on cookie sheets and baked in the oven. The big fries, deep-fried, made a lasting impression on my sister. Like any good native, the black woman and the tasty big fries were fused in her memory.

My mother never knew of the connection, and thought my sister’s requests for big fries were more symptoms of how this shy little girl, unlike her bigger brother, knew exactly what she wanted. My sister always insisted on lobster for her birthday too. It came frozen from South Africa. Rock lobsters. But no matter. For my sister, they were some sign of the good life, or of her life. A little light glowed behind her shyness.

Food at home seldom varied. Tuna fish and egg salad sandwiches  with Miracle Whip were standard for lunch, though I grew fond of Buddig’s chipped beef,  with which my mother would make sandwiches for my school lunch box. Monday dinners consisted of swiss steak cooked on a stove top. For the rest of the week, we had spaghetti and meatballs, store-bought frozen chop suey, baked chicken and tuna fish casserole alternating with frozen fish sticks on Fridays. Saturdays were for hamburgers; Sundays for steak and the occasional roast. There were always potatoes — the one non-meat dish that wasn’t frozen, except for the nasty frozen french fries. Boiled, baked, scalloped, whipped: though we were Irish, we could have been Russian for our devotion to the potato.

My mother spent those years washing clothes, cleaning the house, and raising five children. She had had dreams of being a ballet dancer, but these were quashed by the war and working in Marshall Field’s. She finished two years at Loyola University along the lake. Like my father, she had gone to Catholic schools and to a Catholic university. We went to Catholic schools too, and I was the first of my father’s family to attend a non-Catholic college. My mother’s sister had married a Protestant, and they had joined the profane world of public schools and public universities. 

My sister and I would bike over to the parish school across the tracks. The Irish nuns equipped with big crosses, white breast plates, and sweet-smelling holy pictures took us up in tow. Sixty to a class, dressed in khaki and blue, we were the soldiers of Christ in what we sensed was a hostile Protestant town. We had no gym, we had no science, little math, and a lot of reading and religion. I was smart, and got in a lot of trouble, I think, out of sheer boredom. My sister didn’t speak for two years. They wondered if she was all right.

Catholic school actually taught us little religion. That was simply memorized, like the Latin I spoke as an altar boy at weekday Masses. The key was comportment, and the only intellectual exercise that emerged was deciding what a sin and its gravity were. Matching the injunctions and your infractions was left for you to parse: after all, no one knew exactly what self-abuse was, and we were left to ponder its meaning aided only occasionally by a priest.

Being a Catholic, thus, was more about being somewhat holier and superior to Protestants. Oddly Jews were held in much higher regard, the reason stressed that Christ was a Jew, and the faithful called him Rabbi. So glorious, doubtless because it was prefatory, was Jewish history that an ancient and likely arteriosclerotic nun who knew me well over the years in school called me up to the head of the class, and solemnly asked me in a loud voice to write the history of the Jews. I tried to do it. My first unfinished manuscript.

We Catholics were meant to set a public example for the Protestants. When the Salk vaccine was given en masse to the town’s school children, the nuns drilled into us that we must smile, stand straight, take the shot, and thank the doctor. We were supposed to teach those public schoolers, read Protestant children, how to behave.

Yet, there in Catholic school, as Catholics were Catholics before they were middle and working class, I got to know  through my classmates the habits of the town’s new bourgeoisie. In my class, there was my doctor’s son, a dark-skinned Italian-American bespectacled egghead; the Hungarian architect’s son, tousled hair, obviously brilliant, and an a completely oblivious deviant; the Irish downtown restaurant owner’s daughter left with only one eye after an early bout with cancer. There was the Irish town savings and loan president whose son became a big town lawyer. Other fathers were managers or sold complex machinery. No sample cases and retail routes for these men. Some were even small technical business owners.Their houses were bigger, uncluttered, and kids slept one to a room. Their parents were solicitous, and mothers made you lunch at their houses. Their families took vacations.

I thought these middle class classmates had it made. I never had my classmates over. I went to their houses. Except for these occasional sojourns, I played with the kids in my neighborhood. We contented ourselves with baseball.

The boredom was killing, relieved only by childhood sexual intrigues which stopped under the heel of Church discipline by age eight, and by reading. My father would bring me books from the Chicago Public Library: dog-eared renditions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable, the adventures of Tom Sawyer, and so on. I read easily. Summers, however, were wasted reading endless sports biographies.

My home was in a little world, no bigger than a Catholic parish and a working class  neighborhood. It was often stifling and depressing for me. But it was not an ignorant world . People read newspapers, and you knew right away by their choices which political side they were on. People had opinions. My father by heritage was a Republican, the libertarian type of Republican. He would switch to the Democrats during the Vietnam War, thanks to our persuasion and the anti-war movement of the party’s left wing. My mother was born a Democrat; her mother was a tiny voluntary cog in the Daley machine. They were New Deal Democrats. My mother, sister, and I were thrilled when John Kennedy passed on the town main street in a 1960 motorcade. My father took us to a Nixon rally at O’Hare airport. My sister and I wore our Kennedy buttons.

Most important, as I returned this weekend, is the realization of how unpretentious life at home was, and to some extent still is. Plainness is preferred. Putting on airs and graces isn’t.

Actually, my trip home began 10 days ago in New York. My university faculty is recruiting new members, a time when the humdrum of everyday work ceases, and out come the peacocks and their plumage. Who has the prettiest feathers? Who can show them to advantage in brighter better light?  Better to have strutted in a palace than some rude pasture. After a colloquium finished, and the mating dance of department and candidate recommenced over wine and cheese, I  felt nauseated. Perhaps it was due to the cheese, or the Chinese food I had grabbed earlier to avoid getting drunk, I thought.

Then, I had an impromptu conversation with a colleague whom I like and respect, notwithstanding the fact that he himself was to the manor born, and enjoys the fact. We were searching together for descriptions of how we felt about the colloquium performance of the candidate, when suddenly I blurted out that I found it slick and pretentious. This last judgment, I confessed to him, was based on life with the levellers at home. He agreed with my judgment, choosing slightly different grounds.

Though I grew up calling professors “mister,” even at a prestigious private university in the sixties, I live in an academic world now  where one’s title, fancifully like the “J. Worthington Fowlfeather Professor of…” is longer than the occupant’s name. It is a hall of mirrors, of conversations that reflect themselves or are only reflected in the comments of others similarly caught up in the game. Snobbery is the key to success, and pretension its handmaiden.

Christopher Lasch in The True and Only Heaven (1991) argues that the lower middle class, armed with the ethic of hard work, loyalty, denial, thrift, and equipped with a strong sense of life’s limits were perhaps the only sane and salubrious class left in the United States. Perhaps too trenchant, as he always was.

Somewhere along the way through childhood, I heard Paul Robeson. I heard Leonard Berstein perform Das Lied von der Erde on Chicago’s WFMT. But returning home, I feel the moral strength that stems from the unpretentious life.

Robeson and Mahler fit inside.

Random Walks: Nightmare Theater

Acguillotine_2“I saw a man on a stage

scream, “Put me back in my cage!”

I saw him hanged by his tie;

I saw enough to make me cry.”

— “Planet Earth,” Devo

As a young child, I had a pronounced morbid streak (much to my mother’s dismay), devouring anthologies of ghost/horror stories from the library, and willingly paying the price of the inevitable bad dreams that followed my on-the-sly viewings of midnight monster movies. Once, after watching the classic I Was a Teenage Werewolf while sleeping over at a friend’s house, I awoke in terror in the wee hours, convinced there was a werewolf at the foot of my bed. (It turned out to be a poster of David Cassidy.)

But nothing was more tantalizing than the Alice Cooper record collection owned by my friend’s teenaged brother. Long before I began buying records of my own, I would sneak off to my friend’s house and beg her brother to play Billion Dollar Babies, School’s Out, or Alice Cooper Goes to Hell. Thus, by age 12, I knew all the lyrics to “Generation Landslide,” “No More Mister Nice Guy,” and “I Never Cry,” and naively sang along to the catchy, but decidedly off-color, “Blue Turk,” with no idea of what the lyrics actually meant. Yet it was the narrative-driven, staged theatrics of Welcome To My Nightmare (WTMN) that resonated most with my budding neo-Goth soul.

Many years later, while living in New York’s East Village, I rediscovered Cooper’s music, and found it still had that same resonating power, especially WTMN. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that I found the “story” of Alice so compelling, given that we both hail from a religious background. Alice Cooper was born Vincent Furnier in Detroit in 1948. His grandfather was an ordained “apostle” of the Church of Jesus Christ, and his father was a deacon. The Judeo-Christian mythos was thus ingrained in young Vince at a very early age. Not even the worldly trappings of rock superstardom could erase that early imprinting.

Superstardom didn’t come overnight. As a teenager in Phoenix, Arizona, the future Alice Cooper was on the track team, dabbled in surrealist art, and formed a band for the local talent show with some fellow cross-country teammates. Evincing a fondness for insects, they first called themselves the Earwigs, then changed it to the Spiders after graduating from high school, then (briefly) switched to The Nazz, before finally settling on Alice Cooper. (Rock legend has it that the name came out of a Ouija board session in which Vince learned he was the reincarnation of a 17th century witch of the same name, although Cooper himself later debunked that story. It was meant to conjure up an image of “a sweet little girl with a hatchet behind her back.”) The name originally referred to the band as a whole, but gradually became associated with the group’s flamboyantly androgynous lead singer, with his demented Kabuki-style makeup and penchant for wearing tattered women’s clothing onstage.

From the start, theatrics were a big part of Alice Cooper’s live act, but they didn’t become notorious until September 1969, when a chicken ended up onstage mid-performance at the Toronto Rock ‘n Roll Revival concert. Figuring that chickens should be able to fly, Cooper picked it up and tossed it back into the crowd, where it was ripped to shreds. After the incident was reported in national newspapers, rumors flew that Cooper bit the head off a live chicken and drank its blood onstage. The group’s mentor, Frank Zappa, encouraged the rumor, and the band’s theatrics became increasingly violent — and legendary. (To this day, Cooper is widely credited with being one of the first to bring storylined theatrics to the concert stage.) The more loudly politicians and churches denounced the band and called for the shows to be banned, the more wildly popular they became. Sex and violence sells, a maxim that was true then as it is now. By the 1973 Billion Dollar Babies tour, it had become a full-fledged rock opera, with highly advanced special effects, many designed by magician (and future notorious pseudoscience debunker) James Randi, who even appeared onstage as the executioner during some of the shows.

A consistent (thematically speaking) storyline was also emerging, one with a surprisingly strong moral center. “Alice” became a stage villain, committing all manner of vile acts (complete with live boa constrictors, fake blood, and the lewd fondling and chopping up of baby dolls during the tune “Dead Babies”), Ac90wtmn and finally being “punished” for his crimes in the climactic scene via some form of onstage execution: hanging, electrocution, or the guillotine. The audience ate it up, in fine Aristotelian cathartic fashion. But Alice didn’t stay dead: during the encore he would re-emerge triumphantly, this time in white tails and top-hat — almost a figure of salvation and redemption. Somehow, Cooper had turned the stage show into a modern day rock ‘n roll Passion Play, with himself as the central Anti-Christ figure who is sacrificed and resurrected from the dead.

Christians in medieval Europe would have grasped this immediately. So-called “mystery plays” were all the rage in the Middle Ages, most likely originating with the staging of Bible stories in churches, often with accompanying songs or musical performances. Thematically, the passion and resurrection of Jesus were among the most popular stagings, especially around the Easter celebration. Although they started out simply, the plays gradually became more elaborate and embellished, eventually spreading beyond the churches to become a mainstay of traveling troupes of players. According to Wikipedia, in later centuries, such plays “were often marked by the extravagance of the sets and ‘special effects….'” Papier-mache masks were often worn to better delineate the stock characters, often grotesque when depicting Satan or his minions. One suspects Alice Cooper would have felt right at home in a medieval mystery play.

He might also have felt comfortable with commedia dell’arte (“comedy of humors” in Italian), a form of traveling improvisational theater that was hugely popular in Renaissance Italy. Despite the improvisational nature of the format, there were set characters — each with its own telltale accompanying masks and costumes — and situations that influenced literature and theater (even music) for centuries to come, from Shakespeare and Moliere, to Rostand’s Cyrano and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The Alice Cooper stage shows featured the same elaborate costumes, props, even a few slapstick elements, albeit of a darker variety than one would have found in 15th century Venice. And Cooper’s trademark painted face is a version of a mask, now forever associated in the public mind with that particular demonic character.

Masks predate modern theater, of course, and have played many symbolic roles throughout human history. In ancient Greece, they were used to depict mythological gods, and belonged as much to religious ritual as to drama. In such diverse cultures as Africa, Indonesia, Egypt, China and Mexico, they were used as a protection to ward of evil spirits. And among some New Guinea tribes, masks were seen as living demons or spirits: they were treated with great respect, with natives conversing with them as if they were alive.

Something of that anthropomorphic character of masks seeped into Cooper’s colorful stage persona. Somewhere along the line, it stopped being an act. The stage “Alice” — the fictional character — began to take over, as the Man Behind the Mask (Vince Furnier) sank further and further into chronic alcoholism to cope with the mounting pressure of having to “be” Alice Cooper 24-7. He split with the group in 1974, releasing his first solo record, WTMN, in 1975. It told the story of a young boy named Stephen’s nightmare, and featured narration by Vincent Price and the most elaborate stage effects to date. The tour was a spectacular success, even being filmed live for a concert film that remains popular with the midnight movie crowd today.

Yet despite his spectacular solo success, Cooper was drinking more than ever, even founding his own drinking club, The Hollywood Vampires. (There is actually a cocktail named the Alice Cooper, a blend of vodka, whiskey and lager, that originated in Australian bars.) He was rumored to be consuming up to two cases of Budweiser and a bottle of whiskey a day at one point, and the habit soon had a deleterious effect on his performances. His 1976 follow-up album was appropriately titled “Alice Cooper Goes  To  Hell,” and it was clear from the wretchedly shambling live concerts that the rock superstar was on the road to ruin and professional (if not spiritual) damnation.

Like a 52-car- pile-up on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, it was impossible to look away; one stared in horrified fascination at the spectacle of a performer clearly hellbent on destroying himself for his real or imagined sins — a super-slo-mo, public suicide, performed to a driving rock beat. It was enough to break your heart, even at the tender age of 12. Like everyone else, I couldn’t look away, but inside, I ached for Alice, at the site of such obvious psychological turmoil and pain. Because for all his naughty shenanigans, there was always something likable about Alice, something that made us root for the “bad guy” — and it was the part that belonged to his “creator,” Vince Furnier.

Sometimes even Mega-Villains can be saved. In 1977, right after concluding a disastrous Lace and Whiskey tour, Cooper checked into rehab and cleaned up his act. He used his experiences inside the sanitarium as fodder for 1978’s From the Inside, featuring “How You Gonna See Me Now,” a rather touching ballad whose lyrics centered on his trepidation about how his long-suffering wife would react to him after his hospitalization. Alas, while his health was on the upswing, his musical career was on a downward spiral, and subsequent albums failed to achieve much success. By 1983, he was back in rehab — and this time, the treatment took. Vince made his peace with Alice, learned to set some critical boundaries between himself and his demented stage persona. The two have co-existed ever since, each in his own realm: Alice on stage, Vince in private, and never the twain shall meet.

Isn’t that a compelling tale? All the more so because, well, it’s real. Cooper still performs regularly, still releases albums, even hosts his own nationally syndicated radio show, Nights With Alice Cooper. He’s still playing out that age-old story, finding new mythological variations on the Mystery Play. For instance, in 1994, he released The Last Temptation, a concept album dealing explicitly with faith, temptation and redemption, accompanied by a graphic novel written by Neil Gaiman (the Sandman series, American Gods). He remains one of rock ‘n roll’s most magnetic stage presences, his shows still visually striking, except now they lack that edgy, self-destructive desperation of his shows during the Uber-Alcoholic Era. Some might mourn the loss of the intensity, but it came at such a huge personal cost to the performer one can hardly begrudge the man his inner peace. (What is it about rock ‘n roll culture that demands we sacrifice our rock gods on the alter of our continued entertainment?)

I’m glad Cooper has battled back his personal demons and emerged triumphant from his own private nightmare. These days, he plays golf at his local country club. He’s served on the PTA. He owns a couple of restaurants, and makes the odd cameo guest appearance, most recently as a murder suspect on the USA Network’s Monk. He even (gasp!) votes Republican. (Okay, that one’s hard to forgive….) But as far as his many loyal fans are concerned, his place in the modern musical pantheon is secure.

When not taking random walks at 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette blogs about science and culture at Cocktail Party Physics. Her latest book is The Physics of the Buffyverse.

‘Ah! fuyez, douce image’

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at and at the NLA.

In Act Three of Jules Massenet’s opera Manon, the Chevalier des Grieux, now an abbé, attempts to cast off his passion for Manon Lescaut. He prays for equanimity. But the aria, ‘Ah! fuyez, douce image‘, leaves him broken. However, his passion is soon rekindled. Beauty has him in its grip. Tragedy ensues. Manon dies on the road to Le Havre and des Grieux is left despairing.

The Chevalier has taken beauty seriously. And who has not been subject to its predations? There have been repeated efforts in recent times to explain beauty, meaning the entirety of apprehended life, in all its diversity and configurations. Life is adaptation, due process. A starlit sky: fortuitously reflective random astral matter; a rose: petals, stamens, bees; you have a conversation with your dog after a hard day at work: spare me this anthropomorphic dog delusion. A great love: sexual instinct, add oxytocin; whales rearing out of the ocean: they need air, dominance behaviour, clearing parasites from the skin—anything but ‘the beautiful’, you dolt. We can’t even greet someone affectionately now without another piece of reductive scientism getting its paw jammed in the wheel: we embrace one another on first meeting, an article in Nature proclaims, to assure one another ‘we have no hostile intent’, musings about spider monkeys, ostensibly the subject of the article, providing the corroborative Q.E.D.

Thus is everything limited to the level of explanation. If I ask what you—or I—know about brain surgery, aeroplane mechanics, the geomorphology of Poland, Romania’s political history, Caesar’s eating habits or corruption in Haiti, for example, the answer is, probably, close to absolutely nothing. And yet some people, who can’t predict which nag will win a race in five minutes, or what a stock price will be at the end of the day, with their very little knowledge pumped up to universal wisdom, now hector us with Delphic certitude about the meaning of existence, consciousness and the purpose(lessness) of the universe. Beauty fits in with this bulk disposal lot as just another adaptive response to be ticked off, along with truth, goodness and death. In recent times, philosophy, as far as I understand it, also seems to have let down the side badly, beauty being a stretch too far for protomodern sensibilities. We are now supposed to take seriously the ideas on aesthetics of someone like Heidegger who couldn’t see that Hitler wasn’t exactly a good thing. 

I guess these people haven’t been reading Faust recently, wherein a pact with Mephistopheles has the scholar dabbling on the further shores of hubris. Goethe knew humility before the greatness of the world was essential for any real insight into meaning and purpose. The brave new future, where everything is going to have explicatory pins put through it, is only going to end in tears before bedtime if we do not stay open to, and accept, the strangeness and marvellousness of our residence on Earth—’the beautiful’, in other words. This does not entail appeals to the higher superstition, throwing off scientific method or contracting intellectual discourse—the scientific imagination is beautiful too—but it does require an acknowledgement that one’s understanding is finite and that this circumscribed knowledge of the world leaves the vast whole, largely, a terra incognita. A great deal of our knowledge of the world comes to us through our feelings and how they perceive beauty, the gift unsought, and often importunate, but insisted upon.

Happiness, I read elsewhere [Scientific American Feb. 18, 2007], has something to do with accepting ‘declining marginal utility’—whatever that might be—as part of the human lot. As if you could ever define what is going to make any individual happy in any particular instance. Would des Grieux have been happier, known more, or less, beauty, if he had never met Manon? These ‘what if’ questions are beside the point. We encounter beauty, often in the form of eros, unexpectedly, and precipitously. If it is a profile, a Greek vase, the morning light, that sets the heart racing, so be it. Accept it, rejoice in it. It may leave you alone soon enough.

There are people who need to play Cassandra, perpetually rediscovering the fact that the world can be a very bad place—’India to set up orphanages to curb aborted female fetuses’ is one headline I read recently. Some Modernism belongs to this miserabilist school of hand-wringing. You read a book, see a play or go to an exhibition that is saying, basically, I don’t much like the world, or myself, but please, love my work. But why should we love the work if it only offers negativity. This negativity has gone hand in hand with the kind of utterances noted above, though these, unfortunately, are just as numerous in the arts. Eliot says in ‘Burnt Norton’ that ‘human kind / Cannot bear very much reality’. Tell them that at the entrance to Auschwitz or in the slums of Manila. History teaches that human kind has been bearing mountainous reality forever. Eliot wrote one of the great poems of the twentieth century—’The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’—but that doesn’t excuse this kind of holding forth. 

When spider monkeys start performing the Appassionata, come and let me know, will you. In the meantime, I’m content to accept the world with its gross imperfections, the beauty in the human and in nature that I don’t pretend to understand, but which is the best truth I’ve found. Like des Grieux, we are perplexed by beauty and sometimes wish the cause of our perplexity to leave us. But we cannot do that. We accept our perplexity and incomprehension, and that is our joy, our greatness.

          Take Me To The People Who Know

Quickly, take me to the people
Who have found the truth
Of the way this world is
And what the human means.
I want to sit before them and give thanks
For showing me the error of my ways.
Before, I believed in the heart
And the mystery of being,
That love was the greatest truth
In an inexplicable world.

The millions who pray each day
To their deities—
Why can’t they see their folly,
Like that crowd who showed up
When the Pope expired.
They were certainly in error,
As much as composers like Bruckner,
That peasant from Linz,
Who wrote all his work for the glory of God.
Talk about the future of an illusion.

The torrent of generations
Is turning at my shoulder,
Dust in a glitter of hope.
How miserable their lot,
Not to have had the chance
To know they were wrong, and adjust
Their beliefs to genetic sutras.
Those disinherited led to us,
An evolutionary triumph,
Since progress is always upwards.

But this net of consciousness
Is really due chemical process.
So, quickly then,
Take me to the people who know,
For I need wisdom now.
I am humble before their greatness of mind
That has fathomed the final meanings
And brought from ignorant time
This evidentiary might.
O Beauty! O Truth! O delight!

Written 2005

You can hear Marcelo Alvarez singing ‘Ah! fuyez’ in Paris, 2001 here. 5′ 40” 

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Uzodinma Iweala is the youngest of Granta’s latest Best Young Novelists

At just 24, Uzodinma Iweala is the youngest of Granta’s latest Best Young Novelists selection. Not one for wasting his time, he’s already working on a second book at the same time as training to be a doctor.

Michelle Pauli in The Guardian:

Uzodinmaiwealcobande256Iweala explains, “My dad said to me: “You’ve done a great job, but don’t get too high on being the youngest this or the youngest that because someone somewhere will do great things at a younger age than you. It’s not about the age. It’s about the work you produce.”

Wise words but probably unnecessary – Iweala junior appears to have an exceptionally wise head on his young shoulders. And there’s also no doubting his talent. At 24, he is the youngest of all the young writers on Granta’s list and the recognition comes on the back of his John Llewellyn Rhys prize win with his first novel, Beasts of No Nation, last year.

Iweala, still a student, remains admirably unfazed by the attention he is garnering. “For me, I am really interested in how I can stretch myself to produce things. If in the process others take note and recognise that, then wonderful. I remain very grateful for the recognition that the book and my writing has gotten,” he says. “But I think it would be very detrimental to my own performance as a young and growing writer if I started writing to gain awards and accolades.”

More here.

Big Bang at the atomic lab after scientists get their maths wrong

Jonathan Leake in the Times of London:

Image1A £2 billion project to answer some of the biggest mysteries of the universe has been delayed by months after scientists building it made basic errors in their mathematical calculations.

The mistakes led to an explosion deep in the tunnel at the Cern particle accelerator complex near Geneva in Switzerland. It lifted a 20-ton magnet off its mountings, filling a tunnel with helium gas and forcing an evacuation.

It means that 24 magnets located all around the 17-mile circular accelerator must now be stripped down and repaired or upgraded. The failure is a huge embarrassment for Fermilab, the American national physics laboratory that built the magnets and the anchor system that secured them to the machine.

It appears Fermilab made elementary mistakes in the design of the magnets and their anchors that made them insecure once the system was operational.

More here.

Searching for Light From Extraterrestrials

Phil Berardelli in ScienceNOW Daily News:

For several decades, astronomers have been aiming sensitive radio receivers toward the heavens hoping to eavesdrop on signals generated by beings on planets elsewhere in the galaxy. Nothing yet, of course, but now an international team of researchers is proposing to look for flashes from alien laser beams as well using gamma-ray telescopes.

Gamma-ray telescopes are designed to detect the highest-energy particles of light: photons from exploding stars and the like. But if their ultra-fast, ultra-sensitive cameras are tuned to the proper wavelength, they also can detect faint flashes of optical light of the sort that might come from lasers positioned thousands of light-years away. “There are 20 to 30 naturally occurring light flashes recorded every second” by gamma-ray telescopes around the world, says astrophysicist Joachim Rose of the University of Leeds in the U.K. The telescope software usually ignores the flashes because it is configured to reject “anything that it doesn’t expect,” he says.

But those flashes could be evidence of intelligent life among the stars, Rose says.

Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life

In The Guardian, Simon Jenkins reviews Terry Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life.

The search [for the meaning of life] soon moves into the author’s favourite territory of modernism. He points to the damage that science has done to religion’s answer to his question, so that for most people the answer is personal rather than collective. Until recently, “the idea that there could be meaning to your life which was peculiar to you, quite different from the meaning of other people’s lives, would not have mustered many votes”. Nowadays we feel the need to “own” the question. Life is our question and our answer. That is the gulf that divides Odysseus from Hamlet. Since the great soliloquy, to be or not to be has become my business, not yours.

At this point Eagleton’s argument lurches briefly towards silliness. Ask most people what life means to them, or perhaps what “gives it meaning”, and the answer will be a melange of family, love, home, sport, nationalism and, again, religion. Those who once saw their purpose on Earth as fixed by the sages and myths of tribe and community are today adrift on a sea of modernist diversity. “A great many educated people,” writes Eagleton, “believe that life is an accidental evolutionary phenomenon that has no more intrinsic meaning than a fluctuation in the breeze or a rumble in the gut … If our lives have meaning it is something with which we manage to invest them, not something with which they come ready equipped.”

The Art of Vengeance

Joyce Carol Oates reviews Collected Stories by Roald Dahl, in the New York Review of Books:

Roald_dahlThough a number of Dahl’s most engaging stories, particularly in his early career, are cast in a realist mode, his reputation is that of a writer of macabre, blackly jocose tales that read, at their strongest, like artful variants of Grimm’s fairy tales; Dahl is of that select society of Saki (the pen name of H.H. Munro), Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, and Iris Murdoch, satiric moralists who wield the English language like a surgical instrument to flay, dissect, and expose human folly. As a female character says in the ironically titled “My Lady Love, My Dove”: “I’m a nasty person. And so are you—in a secret sort of way. That’s why we get along together.” Given Dahl’s predilection for severely punishing his fictional characters, you might expect this nasty lady to be punished, but Roald Dahl is not a writer to satisfy expectations.

More here.

The people most at risk from climate change live in countries that have contributed least to the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases

Andrew C. Revkin in the International Herald Tribune:

Screenhunter_02_apr_08_1515Over the last few decades, as scientists have intensified their studies of the human effects on climate and of the effects of climate change on humans, a common theme has emerged: in both respects, the world is a very unequal place.

In almost every instance, the people most at risk from climate change live in countries that have contributed least to the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases linked to the recent warming of the planet.

Those most vulnerable countries also tend to be the poorest. And the countries that face the least harm – and are best equipped to deal with the harm they do face – tend to be the richest.

To advocates of unified action to curb greenhouse gases, this growing realization is not welcome news.

“The original idea was that we were all in this together, and that was an easier idea to sell,” said Robert Mendelsohn, an economist at Yale University.

“But the research is not supporting that. We’re not in it together.”

More here.

Oh Yeah, You Know the Type . . .

Born a Half-Century Ago, Helvetica’s Made a Lasting Impression.

Frank Jordans in the Washington Post:

Ph2007040601989Open a newspaper, look at a street sign, type an e-mail and chances are a Swiss design icon is staring you in the face, though you’d be hard-pressed to identify it.

But peer closely at the shape of the letters: If they’re easy to read and without unnecessary flourishes, then you might well be looking at an example of the Helvetica typeface, which turns 50 this year.

Helvetica lettering adorns images most people can conjure instantly, from New York subway signs to the logos of Harley-Davidson, American Airlines and BMW. But much of the time it remains invisible in a sea of print, unobtrusively conveying the message the designer intended it to.

Unusually for the little-celebrated craft of typography — the design and arrangement of typed letters — the anniversary is being marked in grand fashion, with an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the release of a film by Gary Hustwit paying homage to what the cult documentary maker calls “one of the most popular ways for us to communicate our words.”

“Helvetica is one of those typefaces that everybody knows, everybody sees, but they don’t really see it at the same time because it’s so good at its job…”

More here.