Christopher Hitchens remembers Saul Bellow

From Slate:

Bellow_1Bellow’s version of neoconservatism made him a few enemies. And there are hints, here and there, of anti-black paranoia in Mr. Sammler’s Planet and in some other characters and settings. His nonfiction book To Jerusalem and Back managed to visit the Holy Land and avoid meeting any non-Jews. But, despite the ethnic emphasis of much of his work, Bellow will always attract readers by the scope and universality and humor of his themes. He was not, in my opinion, what people glibly call “an elitist.” He was a deep humanist, with a proper contempt for—this is a great phrase from Humboldt’s Gift—”the mental rabble of the wised-up world.”

In a recent essay, one of our finer critics, Lee Siegel, asks what is it with Bellow and a number of non-American writers. Martin Amis had an almost father-son relationship with him (and it can’t be said that this was for lack of a literary parent). James Wood co-taught a class with him at Harvard. Ian McEwan’s most successful and daring novel, Saturday, pays homage to a Bellovian inspiration. (And the abrupt, nasty street confrontation in that book has a lot in common with the irruption of the oafish Cantabile in Humboldt’s Gift.) What other American novelist has had such a direct and startling influence on non-Americans who are young enough to be his children?

More here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Moscow Gets a Biennial Too

John Kelsey at Artforum:Article00

Moscow mixes the surface energies of Las Vegas with pages from Kafka’s Castle. On the one hand, there is actual wildness and popular images of it: flashy casinos and raging discos, quasi-legal prostitution (the age of consent only sixteen), ever-flowing vodka, and the massive influx of luxury goods (Dior, Chanel, a block-long Rolex billboard across from Red Square), in addition to Russia’s mythic oligarchs and gangsters, who put our versions of these figures to shame as far as bling, badness, and influence go. On the other hand, there are unsmiling uniforms at the front desk, overly complex and time-consuming procedures in place of our cheery service economy’s efficiency, high prices and police hassles, all of which make the usual touristic aspect of a biennial so awkward and dysfunctional here. . . .

The banality of evil: Scientists in Nazi Germany

Editorial in Nature entitled “Uncomfortable Truths”:

For decades after the Second World War, the prevailing view of how scientists interacted with the Nazi regime was fixated on such cases of dramatic criminality. According to this view, science during the Nazi era was contaminated by a few, very rotten apples. This version of history also held that these rotten apples were engaged in ‘pseudoscience’ — low-quality research whose results were meaningless; that the Nazis held ‘real’ science in low esteem, so that the main body of scientists simply trod water for the duration; and that most of those who did work to further the aims of the regime did so under duress. This conventional wisdom was broadly framed at the Nuremberg trials, which condemned the heinous crimes of high-ranking Nazis, but did not enquire into the behaviour of less notorious individuals, including rank-and-file scientists. This account suited both the winners and losers of the war.

But it is the Max Planck Society (MPS), which administers 80 research institutes in Germany, that has taken the lead in exposing its own past to unflinching scrutiny. The MPS has found that a large part of the most criminal research conducted was not ‘pseudoscience’ — in fact, it followed conventional scientific methods and was at the cutting edge of research at the time. It has also demonstrated that the Nazis held basic research in high esteem, increasing funding for it during the war years without requiring scientists to join the Nazi Party. And it found that, far from being subjected to force, many scientists voluntarily oriented their work to fit the regime’s policies — as a way of getting money and of exploiting the new resources that Nazi policies made available through, for example, the invasion of other countries. Most researchers, it turns out, seem to have regarded the regime not as a threat, but as an opportunity for their research ambitions.

Read more here.


Our own J.M. Tyree is on a roll. I highly recommend his brilliant essay on Hunter S. Thompson in The Believer:

Article_tyreeThompson’s art comes from the basic insight that American political life has become so “peculiar and baroque,” and our media so inured to accepted rituals, that if an ordinary person were to set down in words what they saw politicians saying and doing offstage, it would appear hallucinatory, as if our leaders had just stepped off a spaceship. That’s the essence of his post-factual journalistic style, which has the crispness, wit, and visceral impact of eighteenth-century court satire. Between Thompson and Norman Mailer, an entirely novel method of covering Presidential conventions came into existence during the late 1960s and early 1970s, generating a great deal of extremely good nonfiction which was really a kind of subjective delving into the cultural psyche. The portraits of Richard Nixon’s strong and very real allure drawn by both writers endure as a way in to a distasteful but deeply rooted dimension of American life, an aggrieved paranoia and almost Spartan militarism that have now found their apotheosis in the George W. Bush version of the “war on terror.”

Read the rest here.

A fresh approach to viewing the complexity of the Universe

Philip Anderson reviews A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down by Robert Laughlin, in Nature:

I should make my interests clear right at the start. For many years I have thought that a book such as this should be written, and have been urged to write it myself. I didn’t do so, and couldn’t possibly have written one as suited as this is for its target audience. A Different Universe is a book about what physics really is; it is not only unique, it is an almost indispensable counterbalance to the recent proliferation of books by Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking and their fellows, who promulgate the idea that physics is a science predominantly of deep, quasi-theological speculations about the ultimate nature of things. The enterprise of writing this book has my strong endorsement, then, and any disagreements or criticisms should be read in that light.

The central theme of the book is the triumph of emergence over reductionism: that large objects such as ourselves are the product of principles of organization and of collective behaviour that cannot in any meaningful sense be reduced to the behaviour of our elementary constituents.

More here.

Chekhov & Tolstoy

Anthony Daniels in The New Criterion:

After he had written Anna Karenina, Tolstoy reacted against literature. He wanted henceforth to be a moral philosopher, a prophet, a sage, and a saint, rather than an artist. (How often we mistake the nature of our own gifts!) And many people subsequently fell under his didactic spell, even—for a time—Chekhov, a man one normally thinks of as being peculiarly unsusceptible to the siren-call of sages and saints. Chekhov the disciple—it sounds strange in the light of our image of him, but such, for a time, he was.

In 1886, Tolstoy published his first substantial work of fiction for nearly twenty years, the novella The Death of Ivan Illych. He started to write it after he received Turgenev’s famous deathbed letter: “My friend,” wrote Turgenev, who was then very weak, in great pain and only a short time from death, “return to literature! … My friend, great writer of the Russian land, heed my request!”

Three years after the publication of The Death of Ivan Illych, Chekhov, then twenty-nine, published a novella of very nearly the same length, on much the same theme, called A Dreary Story. The similarities between the two stories were marked and were noted at the time, but the differences were deep and ultimately very important.

More here.

More on Altruism

Following up on yesterday’s post on Sam Bowles’ work, the tsunami and the response to it give Mark Buchanan an opportunity to explore why humans cooperate with genetic strangers.

“Not that Homo sapiens is the only species in which individuals bestow kindness on others.  Many mammals, birds, insects and even bacteria do likewise. . . Humans are different, for we cooperate with complete genetic strangers – workmates, neighbours, anonymous people in far-off countries. Why on earth do we do that?
. . .
One possibility, [Robert] Trivers suggests, is that evolution actually is wiping these people out – it just hasn’t finished the job yet. He, along with many anthropologists, takes the view that humans evolved to cooperate when our ancestors lived in small, isolated groups of hunter-gatherers. . . If Trivers is right, then true altruism is what evolutionary biologists call a ‘maladaptation’. Evolved to respond in a certain way to a given situation, we find it hard to act differently in the changed circumstances of the modern world.
. . .

[But] support for the idea that strong reciprocity is an adaptation in its own right comes from the theoretical studies of economist Herbert Gintis of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, anthropologist Robert Boyd of the University of California at Los Angeles, and others. They set up a computer model in which groups of individuals interacted, and watched how their behaviour evolved. Individuals were set up in the model to behave initially either as cheats or as cooperators, and in personal interactions the former came off best. When groups competed with one another, however, cooperation came into its own: groups with more cooperators were likely to flourish.

But that was only the start.”

Does Peer Review Work?

Daniel Engber at considers the issue in light of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine study on the relationship between prayer and fertility. 

“Peer review is the gold standard of modern science. For medical researchers and other scientists, it’s the gateway to funding, publication, and career advancement. When they apply for government grants from the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation, their proposals are reviewed by a panel of their colleagues. When they submit their completed work for publication, journals and university presses ask for the opinions of others in the field. And when they apply for jobs or tenure, scientists are judged largely on the basis of their peer-reviewed publications.

Scientists give peer review so much authority because they view it as a part of the grand tradition of scientific inquiry—an extension, even, of the formal experimental method. Peer evaluation is the endpoint of a cautious progression from theories and predictions to experiments and results. . . [S]cientists have claimed that peer review filters out lousy papers, faulty experiments, and irrelevant findings. They say it improves the quality of an accepted paper by providing helpful comments for revision. And they can’t imagine a better way to accomplish these goals.

So, what explains the Columbia prayer study? Journal editors will tell you that peer review is not designed to detect fraud—clever misinformation will sail right through no matter how scrupulous the reviews. But the prayer study wasn’t a clever fraud.”

Inside the Lighthouse family

Virginia Woolf: An inner life is reviewed in The Guardian.

Virginia Woolf by Julia Briggs

Woolf’s continuing status as a novelist is part of the reason why biographers find it hard to let her alone, but it is also true that hers is an iconic life. Good cheekbones, bisexuality, genius and suicide are all claims to posthumous celebrity, but it is as if Woolf’s particular combination of talent, beauty and vulnerability has acquired a significance beyond that of an individual story.

Her important contributions to feminist writing in England are an aspect of this, since the process of her thinking about women in the world is carried forward in her novels, her essays and even her suicide. Having invented the myth of Judith Shakespeare (in A Room of One’s Own), she brutally illustrated the point that the world was not yet ready for a woman of genius by choosing her heroine’s fate of death by drowning. Her tragedy, like that of Sylvia Plath, has therefore been treated as a paradigm for creative women’s experience in the 20th century.

Read more here.

Hirst is just another symptom of the hype, the hubris, and the money…

Jerry Saltz in The Village Voice:

SaltzThe 31 paintings in Damien Hirst’s sad new show at Gagosian are not paintings at all; or rather, they’re generic-to-bad photo-realist efforts. Any semi-adept student or average commercial artist could have made them. Many do. But this isn’t what makes Hirst’s paintings sad; it only makes them ordinary and academic.

A team of assistants executed these works, although the gallery is quick to point out that “Damien worked on every one.” Whatever. The paintings are proficient but inane. What’s sad about Hirst’s new show is that this rebel of 1988 (when he curated the legendary “Freeze” exhibition in London), this grandfather of old-school British shock tactics and entrepreneurial razzmatazz, this mini-mogul who has the means to make images of anything he wants in any style at all—and who not long ago made the extraordinary Armageddon, a monochrome painting composed entirely of dead flies—this artist chose to render such run-of-the-mill sensationalist subjects in such run-of-the-mill ways. This truculent pumpkin, once so adept at failing in flamboyant ways, has gone from beery bluster to blowsy bathos.

More here.

Saul Bellow has died at 89

Mel Gussow and Charles McGrath in the New York Times:

BellowSaul Bellow, the Nobel laureate and self-proclaimed historian of society whose fictional heroes – and whose scathing, unrelenting and darkly comic examination of their struggle for meaning – gave new immediacy to the American novel in the second half of the 20th century, died yesterday at his home in Brookline, Mass. He was 89.

Bellow’s death saddens me.  More from the NYT obit here.  I remember reading about an evening at Bellow’s house (in Martin Amis’s memoir Experience), where Amis repeatedly kicks Christopher Hitchens on the shins under the table to make him stop defending Edward Said to an increasingly displeased Mr. & Mrs. Bellow. There’s a bit of that here, and I expect that both Amis and the Hitch will be writing their public goodbyes to Bellow soon, which I shall link to when it happens.

Also, just as a quick start on what I hope will be more comprehensive coverage of Bellow at 3 Quarks, Hitchens reviewed Ravelstein in the London Review of Books here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

Can Altruism Explain the Emergence of Markets and Private Property?

Rooted in the wide but dispered literature in experimental economics, a richer game theory, and simulations, Sam Bowles’ new book Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, Evolution departs from what has been the norm in the discipline by, among other things, trying to integrate altruism into the standard model of human behavior and use it to explain the emergence of private property and markets.

Eric Maskin reviews the book in Science.

“Indeed, Bowles maintains that this sort of altruism is an important ingredient in the workings of modern economies. How else, he asks, but by altruism can we plausibly explain why employees of large companies so often work harder when they own the company themselves? (Each employee is, in effect, participating in a public-good game: working harder to increase the value of the company is personally costly while almost the entire increase accrues to the other employee-owners.)

Yet Bowles goes still further. Not only are altruistic preferences needed for understanding modern economic behavior, they were, he contends, even more important in human prehistory—in particular, for the creation of the institution of private property. As conceived by Bowles, private property is cultural evolution’s answer to the problem of wasteful conflict in human production and exchange.”

Read here on Bowles’ home page, “recent and forthcoming books”.

On religion and secular democracy in America

The upcoming issue of The Boston Review looks at religion in America and its relationship to the politics of individualism, compassion and solidarity.  Two pieces are already available. 

Mike Gecan looks at why Democrats have had a hard time attracting the faithful and suggests that the Republican economic agenda and religion in America have an elective affinity.

“[R]eligious resonance is reinforced by an economic resonance that is also deep and powerful. The president’s “ownership society” is based on a vision of an individual who is capable of having a direct and personal relationship with the market. An individual should have control over his or her own economic destiny—should be able to own a home rather than renting, work for a private business rather than for the government, save money for retirement rather than expecting the government or an employer to make the arrangements. This is self-reliance, updated and reaffirmed.

The president is asserting that the individual person or family doesn’t need mediating institutions and programs. In fact, in his view, these institutions and programs have disrupted the development of the hoped-for relationship between the person and the market, just as many believers feel that denominations and religious bureaucracies impede the growth of the personal relationship with God. Rugged economic individualism parallels rugged religious individualism; it is a consistent, compelling, and profoundly appealing theme.”

. . .

What is the nature of this appeal? What is so resonant in its refrain? First, it is positive and optimistic. When I watch Joel Osteen, I have a clear sense of why his congregation has grown from 7,000 to 25,000 in just a few years: he exudes good feeling in his preaching. Forget the words. Watch his eyes, his face. He communicates his belief in the ability of the people to reach for Jesus and relate to him. Many liberals and progressives have never understood the power of relationships—relationships that start with an enthusiastic recognition of the capacity of others to grow and develop, of the innate preference that most people feel to be viewed not as clients of agencies or bundles of needs desperate to be “served” but as good and full beings who are agents of their own destinies. Osteen seems to understand this deeply and radiates it with every gesture, expression, and word. Bush communicates it, too, in his own way, by positing a picture of each individual American with the ability and means to control his or her financial future.

Also worth reading is this piece by Albert Raboteau, a believer.  He offers this insight into the political response of many of the faithful.

“To keep Christianity from being reduced to religion—just one more isolated compartment among the many that occupy the modern person’s life (this, for Father Schmemann, was the meaning of secularism)—it is essential to hold sight of the reality of the kingdom as present and as future. Secularism is not antireligious. It approves of religion by turning it into what Niebuhr called an ‘idol,’ one among others suited to our self-gratification. Secularism, in this sense, robs the Church of its eschatological dimension. It is no longer the primary community for us, the source of our life and our joy, but one more activity in a busy week, competing with work, social life, and entertainment.

When the Church loses its awareness of the kingdom of God and its essential sacramentality, there develops (as Father Schmemann writes) ‘a peculiar divorce of the forms of the Church’s life from their content, from that reality whose presence, power and meaning they are meant to express and, as a consequence the transformation of those forms into an end in itself so that the very task of the Church is seen as the preservation of the ‘ancient,’ ‘venerable,’ and ‘beautiful’ forms, regardless of the ‘reality’ to which they refer.’ The Church, in effect, becomes a museum of archaic artifacts and rituals, beautiful but inert.”

Moral Vertigo Brought on by Colossus of Vulgarity

3 Quarks’ own J.M. Tyree writes a hilariously true architectural review of the humongous and hideous Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, in his Okracoke Post:

Timwar1For a moment, reading the “letter from Nina and Tim Zagat” in the free Zagat Survey guide to the mall – “is that Anderson Cooper coming out of Williams-Sonoma?” they ask, going on to describe the “awe” one feels just entering the atrium – I am truly overcome by something like terror. Momentarily, I get moral vertigo, a glimpse of the place as it might have been seen by a Sayyid Qutb, an abomination of desolation. Two friends of mine who were recently thinking of starting a consultancy had taken on the joke motto “So That Others May Live.” The Time Warner Center, you genuinely feel, is designed so that others may die, distantly and off-screen, in some pocket of the world it is better not to think on. The real motto of the place is this piece of eternally revolving gibberish: “The shops at Columbus Circle – A great space to shop.” The Time Warner Center is a mall facility space that greatly facilitates shopping at shops.

Read the rest here.

Battle for the black hole

Arthur I Miller recounts a historic clash between an Indian student and the world’s top astrophysicist in The Guardian:

It began when an Indian student called Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (Chandra) decided to work out what would happen if Einstein’s special theory of relativity was applied to the processes that went on inside stars. Pencil in hand, 19-year-old Chandra did some calculations. At the time, scientists assumed that when a star burned up the last of its fuel, it would turn into a ball of cinders and go cold – become a white dwarf star. Chandra’s mathematics showed that a white dwarf much heavier than the sun could not exist, but would undergo an eternal collapse into a tiny point of infinite density, until it slipped though a crevice in space and time, from which nothing could escape, not even light. It was the first irrefutable mathematical proof that black holes – as they were later dubbed – had to exist. His uncle, CV Raman, had been the first Indian to win the Nobel prize in physics. Chandra hoped that he might win one too.

At Cambridge his hopes were dashed. Scientists there ignored his discovery. Cast down by the dank fens and dreary weather, utterly unlike the welcoming warmth of south India, he gave way to depression. But he pressed on and in 1933, completed his doctorate. He also won a fellowship to continue his work at Cambridge. Buoyed by these successes, he returned to his research on the fate of the stars. To his surprise the great Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, doyen of the astrophysical world, took to visiting him frequently to see how he was getting on.

Read more here.

250th Anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary

Beryl Bainbridge in The Guardian:

Samueljohnson190x280In 1746, some months after his 36th birthday, Samuel Johnson, that great literary figure of the 18th century, affectionately referred to as the Good Doctor, began work on his monumental Dictionary of the English Language . It took him nine years. April 15 marks the 250th anniversary of its publication.

Johnson was already an established man of letters, famous for his epitaphs, his parliamentary debates, his translations of the Odes of his favourite poet, Horace, numerous essays written for the Gentleman’s Magazine and for his epic poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes”. His contemporaries were the giants of the age, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, yet it is his name that resounds the loudest in the 21st century.

Read more here.  And see also Azra’s earlier post about SJ here.

Simon Baron-Cohen on Innate Gender Differences

From “The Assortive Mating Theory,” a talk with Simon Baron-Cohen at

BcMy thesis with regard to sex differences is quite moderate, in that I do not discount environmental factors; I’m just saying, don’t forget about biology. To me that sounds very moderate. But for some people in the field of gender studies, even that is too extreme. They want it to be all environment and no biology. You can understand that politically that was an important position in the 1960s, in an effort to try to change society. But is it a true description, scientifically, of what goes on? It’s time to distinguish politics and science, and just look at the evidence.

Read more here, including responses by Marc D. Hauser and Steven Pinker.

Choosing a Pope in the Internet Age

A reader of this site recently sent me an email bringing up a couple of interesting points about the process by which a new pope will soon be chosen after John Paul II, arguably the most “mediatized” pope ever (see a related post by Joi Ito on his blog here). This is the first time that a new pope is being chosen in the age of the Internet. What might this mean for the process, if anything? She writes:

  • The choice of the next pope–one of the most influential leaders in the world (spiritual leadership and influence over about 1 billion people)–is one of the least transparent processes around.
  • 117 people get together in the Sistine chapel to decide on the new pope.
  • 114 of the 117 were chosen by the just-deceased pope (indicating a lot of value convergence–and also a tendency towards conservatism). [You can read more about the process here at the BBC.]
  • Little is known about the candidates (most of this information is available in scattered local media). No single (as far as is obvious) source exists to share this information with the broader public.
  • The voting mechanism: 2/3 majority required, but under rules brought in by the previous pope, a simple majority can waive this rule and thereby a simple majority can vote in the next pope.
  • Now suppose someone built (a) a wiki to pool information about the candidates and (b) an online and SMS feedback system to register the global point of view.
  • If such a thing were to happen would this be a good thing for (a) the Roman Catholic church, (b) for the Christian community, (c) for the world?

I know very little about Roman Catholicism, but these seem like interesting things. I add some corollary questions below:

  • Even if there is no room for anyone’s opinion but the presumably-divinely-chosen 117 in the actual election of a new pope, would it be possible to influence their opinions with a massive show of popular preference for one of the “papabili” (main candidates)?
  • How can the internet be used (by the 117 themselves) to make the process of pope-selection more transparent to the public? Would they want it to be?
  • Could the 117 make use of the internet to help them make their decision? By taking stock of public opinion, for example, or by inviting objections to a particular candidate’s election?
  • Would more public involvement in the election of a new pope, even if just as spectator to the heretofore secretive processes of selection, contribute to greater commitment to the new pope, or might it have the opposite effect by demystifying the divine in some way?
  • What are the theological details of catholicism which speak to these issues?

The March of Unreason

Review of The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism by Dick Taverne, from The Economist:

THIS cogent restating of the case for science, reason, optimism and the other values of the Enlightenment is clear about its opponents. They include anyone who uses alternative medicine, or who buys organic food, or worries about genetic modification, or opposes nuclear power, or likes post-modernism, or doesn’t vaccinate their children properly, or distrusts scientists, or believes the Bible, or dislikes global capitalism or thinks that human progress damages the environment. In Dick Taverne’s view, all these wrong-headed beliefs are part of the same batty, sentimental mindset that ultimately threatens democracy.

A former lawyer and centre-left politician who was ennobled in 1996, Lord Taverne presents a useful compendium of facts and arguments that are often drowned out by media scare stories and green propaganda. Alternative medicine is at best a placebo, and at worst outright harmful; if it worked reliably, it would not be alternative. Organic food is often worse for the environment than conventional farming. GM crops, by contrast, are hugely promising and rich western nations’ antipathy towards them is a mystifying bit of self-indulgence.

More here.