Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Cats kitned without tails, poultry without rumps

A favorite passage (another one that I can't include in the book--wrong time period, not relevant!) from Nathaniel Highmore's rather magical The history of generation. Examining the several opinions of divers authors, especially that of Sir Kenelm Digby, in his discourse of bodies. With a general relation of the manner of generation, as well in plants as animals: with some figures delineating the first originals of some creatures, evidently demonstrating the rest. To which is joyned a discourse of the cure of wounds by sympathy, or without any real applycation of medicines to the part affected, but especially by that powder, known chiefly by the name of Sir Gilbert Talbots powder (1651):

(Images courtesy of EEBO.)

Monday, July 30, 2007

Your classic 50s drive-in-movie-monster plant

Really I am stealing Ed Park's idea (sorry, Ed!), but if you have not read Ralph Blumenthal's story in the Times about a Texas lake that is being engulfed by a predatory aquatic fern called Salvinia molesta then you have missed something excellent. Both the story and the pictures (by Michael Stravato for the Times) are amazing...

Rapt in each other's company

Richard Sandomir has a rather hilarious article in the Times today about the literary afterlife of Robert Ludlum:
The writers met at Mr. Morrison’s annual Christmas party in 1980, the year in which “The Bourne Identity,” and Mr. Lustbader’s “The Ninja,” were published. Mr. Lustbader said that they sat rapt in each other’s company in a corner at the party.

“We talked for hours about characters and story arcs and how to fashion a book in three acts, where one act outdoes the next one. We talked about being the only thriller writers who knew anything about characters and wrote about characters in our books.”

Mr. Weiner suggested to Mr. Lustbader that he write a Bourne novel, but he didn’t take the offer seriously until the plot for “The Bourne Legacy” (St. Martin’s Press) came to him while showering. He admired Bourne and believed that he understood what motivated him; he agreed to a deal with the estate in which he had no obligation to copy Mr. Ludlum’s italicized style, although his pacing and plotting are eerily similar to Mr. Ludlum’s. “The Bourne Legacy” has sold 272,000 hardcover and paperback copies, Nielsen BookScan reported.

“I wanted to preserve the essence of Bourne and his sense of honor,” Mr. Lustbader said. He refreshed Bourne by killing off characters who were central to Mr. Ludlum’s creation and made him ageless, which conforms to the possibility of the Bourne films continuing. James Bond, after all, doesn’t turn into an on-screen geezer; he gets replaced by a younger actor.

Mr. Ludlum sent Bourne into action three times between 1980 and 1990.

“He never intended Bourne to be a series,” Mr. Lustbader added, “so he gave Bourne a wife, Marie, and kids, and made him older. But you can’t have that with continuing characters. So with the O.K. from the estate, I wanted to kill off Marie by natural causes and have the kids shipped to her family in Canada. He needed to start the next chapter of his life.”

Mr. Lustbader’s “The Bourne Betrayal,” has sold 86,000 copies through July 20, and is currently No. 8 on the New York Times hardcover best-seller list.

I think I read one of these posthumous books (a rash airport purchase), though I couldn't tell you which; I wouldn't recommend it. This thing Lustbader's describing about "continuing characters" is exactly what I most disapprove of, it is always a bad thing when the hero doesn't age with the times, you end up with increasingly thinned-out characters because of the ways that even insignificant personal characteristics have a lot to do with the time and place a person grew up in--but I've got a real soft spot for the novels of Robert Ludlum (the Bourne ones are much the best), ever since they were pressed upon me by my dearly beloved high-school boyfriend.

Bonus link: Christopher Hitchens on the two sub-literary games he used to play with Salman Rushdie. The second involves reciting lines from Bob Dylan as if they are blank verse:
The first, not that you asked, was to re-title Shakespeare plays as if they had been written by Robert Ludlum. (Rushdie, who invented the game, came up with The Elsinore Vacillation, The Dunsinane Reforestation, The Kerchief Implication, and The Rialto Sanction.)

[ED.: A correction--thanks to the reader who sent this in! From Carol Blue's profile of Salman Rushdie, in the New Yorker issue of 13 May 1996: "Rushdie excels at what might be termed Shakespeare trivia. Once, in the course of a literary word game, he was challenged to rename a Shakespeare play as if it had been written by Robert Ludlum. He was asked, first, to retitle "Hamlet" in the style of the author of "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "The Scarlatti Inheritance." With no advance notice and almost no hesitation, he said, "The Elsinore Vacillation." A palpable hit but, the other participants thought, sheer luck. Bet you can't do it twice. What about "Macbeth"? "The Dunsinane Deforestation." More meditated offerings included "The Rialto Forfeit," "The Capulet Infatuation," "The Kerchief Implication," and "The Solstice Entrancement."" Blue is Hitchens' wife; they are clearly describing the same incident... It's like the stories about Samuel Johnson, you get these intriguingly oblique-to-one-another accounts by different people because he was so famous in later life for conversation that many listeners documented what he had to say in their journals afterwards; sometimes you can deduce him saying what was surely the same thing, only one listener forgets or did not understand the punchline...]

Idiotic things

I was thinking randomly this morning of the most idiotic thing I've done all year, I was tickled by it because it seemed so apt to my personality as well as so absurd.

My day usually starts out with me blearily making a cup of coffee in one of these. I drink it americano style, i.e. with some hot water and then milk to top it up, so while the coffee's brewing and the water's boiling I put a sweet-and-low packet into the mug, pour in the coffee when it's ready, top it up with water from the kettle and then add a dash of milk. (Then I repeat the whole process about twenty minutes later, and after that I feel a bit more human.)

Similarly when I have tea, I put the teabag and the sweetener in the mug while the kettle's coming to the boil, then pour in the water from the kettle and a splash of milk.

My idiotic thing that one day this fall (I really must have been pretty bleary-eyed, I am not a fast waker-upper...) was that I put the coffee on, turned the gas on under the kettle and then got the mug out & sweet-and-lowed it. Only as I poured the coffee into the mug did I realize that I had absent-mindedly also put in a teabag!

(It tasted pretty awful, I did not whisk out the teabag quite in time, but I drank it anyway while waiting for the next round of coffee to brew.)

But as of this afternoon I have a new candidate for most foolish thing I've done all year. The cycling gloves I bought with my bike seemed strikingly uncomfortable, so much so that I could not really imagine how I'd thought they fit me in the store. However it was one of those shopping trips where I was buying everything at once, so perhaps I just wasn't paying attention? They were too tight across the knuckles, the little finger pinched awfully, they altogether seemed like a terrible distraction rather than anything helpful. (They're basically these or similar.) That ride last week confirmed my feeling that these were not acceptable, they were strangling my hands if such a thing is possible--not to mention no padding to speak of on the palms.

I had a birthday gift certificate and got a new pair at Jackrabbit this weekend, they didn't have a good selection of women's ones but the size small men's were fine. (Let's say something pretty much like these.)

I tried them on just now--no, I'm not going out for a ride, it was idle procrastination, I'm having a reasonable work day but you need to interrupt it with something!--my first thought was "Yes, these really are much better." My second thought--hmmm....

My second thought was a stunning realization that the reason the other gloves were so uncomfortable was that I had them on the wrong hands!





How did I not notice this? I guess if it's, like, a boxing-type glove, you think you want the padding on the knuckle side...

The realm of instant recovery

Since I have e-mailed this link to at least four different people in the last few days, I now officially deem it blog-worthy: it's a 2003 piece from Outside magazine in which journalist and serious amateur cyclist Stuart Stevens undertakes a regime of chemical performance enhancement in order to see what happens. It's absolutely fascinating, and obviously related to what's on everyone's minds right now with all this Tour and baseball stuff...
Despite these measurements, I remained skeptical about all the drugs until March 29, when I rode an event along the central coast of California, the Solvang Double Century, at what for me was a fast and hard pace, finishing in around 11.5 hours. About ten hours in, it dawned on me that something was definitely happening. Sure, I'd been training hard, but I'd done enough of that to know what to expect. All around me were riders—good, strong riders—who looked as worn out as you'd expect after ten hours in the saddle. I was tired, but I felt curiously strong, annoyingly talkative and fresh, eager to hammer the last 40 miles. The last time I'd ridden 200 miles, I felt awful the next day, like I'd been hit by a truck. After the Solvang race I woke up and felt hardly a touch of soreness. I also felt like I could easily ride another 200, and I realized that I'd entered another world, the realm of instant recovery. I'll be frank: It was a reassuring kind of world, and I could see why people might want to stay there.

(Thanks to Wendy for the link.)

On heredity

I'm sure I've posted this before, but since it's one of the things I fall in love with all over again each time I return to the book manuscript, I will indulge myself without scruple...

August Weismann is one of the great figures in the history of heredity; I can't remember exactly where I first really heard about him, but I suppose I'd been reading Francois Jacob and Jacques Roger and had mentally earmarked Weismann's 1889 Essays on Heredity and Kindred Biological Problems as a most-coveted book that I couldn't wait to lay my hands on.

So there I was at the British Library (I see from my notes that it was December 2003, I had a ridiculously long and varied list of desiderata!) just drooling for the large quantities of good stuff that awaited me, but of course sometimes the things you've most been looking forward to in advance turn out to be greatly disappointing, dry or irrelevant or whatever. So it was incredibly exciting that Weismann (his contemporary translators did right by him, I think) had one of those electrifying voices that speaks to you across the intervening hundred and twenty years as if they were nothing.

Here's a bit of what I have to say in the book:
In an essay titled “On the Supposed Botanical Proofs of the Transmission of Acquired Characters” (1888), Weismann provides a remarkably elegant refutation of the argument that acquired characters are passed on to offspring. His discussion makes it very clear both that the revival of Lamarckism (supported by Darwin’s development of the theory of pangenesis) was a dominant feature of the current scientific landscape and that this theory was very closely linked to the continuing belief in the power of the maternal imagination.

Weismann proposes a series of systematic experiments in mice as the initial step necessary for disproving the hypothesis, but he also observes with regard to humans that “the mutilations of certain parts of the human body, as practised by different nations from times immemorial, have, in not a single instance, led to the malformation or reduction of the parts in question. Such hereditary effects have been produced neither by circumcision, nor the removal of the front teeth, nor the boring of holes in the lips or nose, nor the extraordinary artificial crushing and crippling of the feet of Chinese women.”

“Not every post hoc is also a propter hoc,” he argues: “Nothing illustrates this better than a comparison between the ‘proofs’ which are even now brought forward in favour of the transmission of mutilations and the ‘proofs’ which supported the belief in the efficacy of so-called ‘maternal impressions’ during pregnancy, a belief which was universally maintained up to the middle of the present century.”

He notes that only one year earlier, a respectable scientific journal had reprinted an 1864 story about a pregnant merino sheep who broke her right fore-leg and gave birth four months later to a lamb that “possessed a ring of black wool from two to three inches in breadth round the place at which the mother’s leg had been broken, and upon the same leg”:
Now if we even admitted that a ring of black wool could be looked upon as a character which corresponds to the fracture of the mother’s leg, the case could not possibly be interpreted as the transmission of a mutilation, but as an instance of the efficacy of maternal impressions; for the ewe was already pregnant when she fractured her leg. The present state of biological science teaches us that, with the fusion of egg and sperm-cell, potential heredity is determined. . . . Such tales, when quoted as ‘remarkable facts which prove the transmission of mutilations,’ thoroughly deserve the contempt with which they have been received by Kant and His. When the above-mentioned instance was told me, I replied, “It is a pity that the black wool was not arranged in the form of the inscription ‘To the memory of the fractured leg of my dear mother.’”

No theory could survive such an assault. And yet Weismann’s radical skepticism is matched by a wry awareness of how attractive such explanations can be: “The readiness with which we may be deceived is shown by the fact that I myself nearly became a victim during the past year (1888),” he confesses, telling the story of a friend whose ear is marked by a scar from a duelling sword and whose daughter has a very similar mark on her ear (442). Only when Weismann looks at the friend’s other ear and notices it has the same ridge does he recognize the mark as a hereditary rather than an acquired character.


Martin Wainwright at the Guardian on the lost language of the miners in the English north-east:
Term after term is related to mining practices, such as stappil, a shaft with steps beside the coal seam, or corf-batters, boys who scraped out filthy baskets used for hauling coal to the pithead.

Other words are more earthy: arse-loop is a rope chair used when repairing shafts and a candyman or bum-bailiff is a despised official who evicts strikers from company-owned homes.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Bakewell's sheepish doctrine

A rather amazing illustration (not sure how well it will reproduce here) from Roger J. Wood and Vitezslav Orel's fascinating Genetic Prehistory in Selective Breeding: A Prelude to Mendel:

The caption: "Plaster models of two sheep made from life to scale (2.25 inches to 1 foot, or 1:5.33) by George Garrard: (a) Old Lincoln ewe (c. 1800) and (B) New Leicester ewe (1810). (Copies of photographs supplied by The Natural History Museum Trading Company Ltd (London)."

I can't seem to find the absolutely perfect link on these sheep--here's a good bit, though--really the great account of this era of animal breeding (with great pictures!) is Harriet Ritvo's The Animal Estate. I've been minorly obsessed with Bakewell [ED.: breeder/"inventor" of the New Leicester] for a long time--he gives me a sinister skin-crawling kind of feeling--he really was an artist, and his medium was the actual flesh of real animals, which he bred "in-and-in" for bulk--like an eighteenth-century georgic incarnation of China Mieville's Remades...

An unusual species

From Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature:
I have tried to write without technical terms. Because so many disciplines border the topic, I think it must necessarily be discussed in plain language. This is not at all a piece of condescension, a trnaslation of learned matter into rougher and less suitable terms. Each subject evolves enough technical language to suit its own assumptions. These may well be good enough to use within that subject, and still serve badly for relating it to its neighbors. On very general questions of method, thereefore, it is important to force oneself to write and speak plain English. As everyone used to the academic scene knows, the boundaries between subjects recognized at any time have grown up partly by chance--they commemorate strong pioneering personalities, bits of teaching convenience, even the flow of research money, as well as real principles of investigation. The true structure of the problems may cut right across them.

But besides this general consideration there is a special one about discussions of motives. Like many areas of moral philosophy, this is ground already familiar to common sense. Making up a terminology here is not at all like making one up for biochemistry or nuclear physics. The facts are not new. People have been trying to understand their own and other people's motives for thousands of years. They have thrsashed out quite a sophisticated terminology, namely, the one we use every day. Of course it needs refining and expanding, but to by-pass it and start again as if it were all ignorant babble is arrogant and wasteful. B. F. Skinner has demanded a brand-new technical language of psychology, on the ground that "the vernacular is clumsy and obese." What elegant slimness technical language may possess, however, is bought at the price of reinforcing prejudice. Jargon always tends to make unwelcome facts unstatable. We can all see this when we look at other people's jargon. It is just as true of our own.
I am in love with this book! It's so forthright...

Such, such were the joys

Lev Grossman interviews Neil Gaiman at Time:
"My biggest problem with Harry Potter is that I went to an English public school and hated it," he says. (By "public school," the English mean what Americans mean by private school.) "I would have rather lived under the stairs." When he was 17, Gaiman wrote his own novel about English schools. "At the end, all the dead teachers came back to life--there was sort of this plague of zombies ripping the thing apart--and our decapitated hero had his eyes pecked out by the school peacock. That for me was trying to write a version of my own public school experience that was nicer and more fun."

(Thanks to Sarah for the link.)

Love and swimming

At the Washington Post, Ron Charles has a very nice piece about my friend Aoibheann Sweeney's new novel Among Other Things, I've Taken Up Smoking (a very good title for a novel, in my opinion). I've got it here and am looking forward to reading it shortly, not least because a quick survey of the opening chapters reveals to me some significant swimming-related elements...

More thoughts on running will follow sometime in the next couple days, I had a very good run yesterday morning (I realize that one happy discovery of the summer is that I have learned to love running fast down hills), but the most annoying recent development round here is that the letter T just popped off my laptop keyboard! Equipment failure at the crucial juncture--not good...

Friday, July 27, 2007

The old gods in a climate of modern rationalism

Hilary Mantel has an uncanny piece in the Guardian Review about bringing back the dead:

When I began to write, it was my first ambition to write a good historical novel and my second to write a good ghost story, and I didn't then see that these ambitions were allied. Technically, it's possible that the ghost story is the more difficult. If the author leaves events unexplained, the reader feels cheated. But if you explain too much, you explain away. A ghost story always exists on the brink between sense and nonsense, between order and chaos, between the rules of existence we know and the ones we don't know yet. When I was a child, I lived in a haunted house. I was brought up in a family that not only lived among ghosts but also manufactured its own. When I was 10, I lost my father. He didn't die, but went away, and very little but music remained of him. Forty years later, music helped bring him back.

First of all I used prose. I dusted down a fictional version, in which the narrator says:

"We lived at the top of the village, in a house which I considered to be haunted. My father had disappeared. Perhaps it was his presence, long and pallid, which slid behind the door in sweeps of draught and raised the hackles on the terrier's neck. He had been a clerk; crosswords were his hobby and a little angling: simple card-games and a cigarette card collection. He left at 10 o'clock one blustery March morning, taking his albums and his tweed overcoat, and leaving all his underwear, which my mother washed and gave to a jumble sale. We didn't miss him much, only the little tunes which he used to play on the piano: over and over, Pineapple Rag."

In real life it didn't happen quite so tidily. When I was about seven, my mother took up with an old lover of hers, and my father faded away, still living in the house but just flitting through, silent as a shadow except for increasingly rare hours when he sat down at the piano. The summer I was 11, I went with my mother and my brothers and my stepfather to another town, and my name got changed, and I never saw my father again. In the years that followed I learned that any mention of him would cause more trouble than I was equipped to handle.

As I grew older I was haunted by the thought that, if I passed him in the street, I probably wouldn't recognise him. Also, if he died, I thought my mother would get to hear, but I knew she wouldn't tell me. Perhaps it was after I knew that I wasn't going to have children myself that I thought more about him, but he always lived in some place I couldn't imagine; he inhabited in my mind a halfway house, neither living nor dead, and certainly lost to me. My memoir, published in 2003, was like a message in a bottle. It seemed a long shot that it would find him, but I hoped it might.

Soon after publication I wrote some short plays for Radio 4, for Woman's Hour, based on my story collection Learning to Talk: about someone like me, with a disappearing father like mine. I tried hard to get the music right. We couldn't use "Pineapple Rag" - music so easily evokes a whole era that we were afraid that it would take the listener back to the 1920s, not to the 1950s where we wanted them to be. Instead we opted for jazz and blues from the 50s and 60s, and the producer arranged for a piano in the studio - a suitably battered instrument - and for an actor who would be my father for three days of recording.

Some time later, I had a letter from a stranger, which brought me news. It appeared that my father had married again; he never had any more children of his own, but became stepfather to a family of six, four of whom were daughters. It was the eldest daughter, a woman of my own age, who now wrote to me. He had died, I learned, in 1997. My new stepsister emailed me a photograph of him. A face not seen for 40 years came swimming out of the darkness of the screen. I could see how he had altered, how he had aged, and how features of my brothers' faces, as they had aged, were mixed up in his. Later, when my new stepsister looked out for me the very few things he had left behind, she forwarded to me his army papers, and I saw how my personality was mixed up in his. She gave me a cassette tape, old and scratchy, which she said was a recording of some of his favourite music. It was labelled in the neat sloping capitals that I remember him using to fill in the crossword every evening in the Manchester Evening News. There were the song titles, full of loss and regret: "Canal Street Blues", "How Long Blues", "I Don't Know Why", "Walking Out My Door", and a song named "Calling 'Em Home".

I had called him home, I felt: not through telephone directories and tracing agencies, not by any rational means, but through the exercise of as much art as I had at my disposal. I'd used indirection to bring back the dead. For some years I lived in Africa, in Botswana, and people there used to say that to see ghosts you need to look out of the corners of your eyes. If you turn on them a direct gaze, then, like Eurydice, they vanish.

Six bikes

Matt Seaton's top ten books about cycling, at the Guardian. That looks like a great list. I've only read #1 and #10, both indeed very good; I am going to read every one of the others at my earliest possible convenience...

I had an extremely good bike ride the other day, courtesy of my friend R. I am still so nervous about riding in the street that my heartrate is shooting up even just sitting here thinking about it; it's not the traffic per se, the roads aren't that crowded round here really, it's the combination of traffic and clipless pedals. Still getting the hang of those...

But with his moral support, I ignored the fact that my hands were shaking like leaves (seriously!) and we rode down Riverside Drive to 86th St. and thence across to Central Park (traffic-free from 10 to 3 on weekdays), where we did three loops with lots of educational drills: practicing looking back on both sides, raising hand off bars and waving it around for balance, "feathering" brakes on downhills (nice word) and also seeing that it's OK to go downhill without clutching desperately onto the brakes, putting hands on the top of the bar for climbing (I love climbing, that Harlem Hill is ridiculously easier on a bike than when you're running!), shifting for different terrain, clipping in and out while riding, pedaling with one foot, etc. etc.

It was extremely educational and confidence-building! Fitness is not an issue, I have strong legs and a fast bike--too fast, frankly...

(It took some fortitude to get back on the real road once it was time to go home, I must confess that if I had been by myself I would have almost certainly copped out and walked my bike across the couple blocks of intersectiony stuff--that was nerve-racking--once you're across Central Park West, though, there is a bike lane running along 87th St. going west to Riverside that makes it fairly straightforward. But these buses are not helpful! And of course the bike lane is only a token gesture, largely ignored by drivers; but it makes you feel that you are morally in the right...)

22 miles or so, not bad, only fell over once right at the very beginning, on the sidewalk downstairs from my apartment building, as I miscalculated my initial clippings-in. Really it is not that bad at all falling over, you are not very high up off the ground--and it's going to be well worth it once I'm a bit more experienced, those pedals really feel great once you're actually riding, very centaur-like to be attached in that way--only a moderate bruise on the hip, nothing serious!

Unfortunately right now is not a sensible time to plunge into this whole-heartedly, we made a plan for a Friday-morning bike ride in the heat of the moment only then I belatedly remembered that Friday's a rest day on my training schedule and that I am already in the taper for my half-marathon next weekend and that it's not sensible to add in any lower-body stuff at this point! Not to mention the bruises and minor injury potential!

It was a blow to decide to cancel for this morning, especially because I was so nervous that I felt I just had to do it (STRINGENT INNER VOICE: "You have to do it, you are so nervous, if you cancel it's only because really you're afraid"; SENSIBLE INNER VOICE: "No, you're not rationalizing, you really shouldn't, you've already overloaded your muscles on exercise this week": STRINGENT INNER VOICE: "But--"); discretion being the better part of valor, I did steel myself to cancel after some agonizing and I will just try and have a couple really mild little rides in the next week where I go twenty blocks down Riverside Drive and then straight into Riverside Park with no daunting crosstown attempts and practice the clipping bit so that when I have to ride over to E. 90th all by myself in the very early morning of Tuesday the 7th I will not have a total nervous breakdown!

It's good for me to do something that makes me so nervous, I can't only do things that are straightforwardly exciting and not nerve-racking, it will give me more sympathy with my students for instance when they are nervous about public speaking (and frankly though I can hardly remember it I do vaguely recall how much my hands were shaking during one of the the first big undergraduate lectures I ever gave, on Julius Caesar in 1997 or so when I was a TA). My heartfelt wish is that it will be a couple months from now and I will have almost completely forgotten how nervous this whole thing made me to begin with! It is true that my swimming has improved so much since January that it's scarcely believable, we will hope for the same with bike-riding...

The sense of smell

I had a minorly Proustian moment just now--I finally got some proper adhesive to deal with my index card situation--I am in love with the container visually, too, but it's the smell of the stuff that really takes me back to elementary school. Oh, the allure of coating one's fingers with different kinds of glue--Elmer's for fingerprint molds (I remember my friend K.'s older brother having a forensic science kit, and us aged five or six making a huge mess brushing graphite dust onto glasses and trying to lift the fingerprints off with the special clear stickers that came with the kit, a good but messy toy!)--rubber cement for rolling into a kind of gummy ball that would get quite large if you had patience...

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A small taste

of the book manuscript. Which is going to be finished (I hereby declare) by Tuesday, September 4, the first day of classes and the day I plan to submit my tenure materials...

In a series of letters exchanged during the summer and fall of 1813, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson fell to debating the relative merits of aristocracy and democracy. Adams maintained that a genuinely republican government “over five and twenty millions people, when four and twenty millions and five hundred thousands of them could neither write nor read” should be considered “as unnatural irrational and impracticable; as it would be over the Elephants Lions Tigers Panthers Wolves and Bears in the Royal Menagerie, at Versailles”:

Inequalities of Mind and Body are so established by God Almighty in his constitution of Human Nature that no Art or policy can ever plain them down to a Level. I have never read Reasoning more absurd, Sophistry more gross, in proof of the Athanasian Creed, or Transubstantiation, than the subtle labours of Helvetius and Rousseau to demonstrate the natural Equality of Mankind.

The rest of the letter conveys Adams’ powerfully elegiac sense of opportunities lost. Having seen the European nations from 1778 to 1785 “to be advancing by slow but sure Steps towards an Amelioration of the condition of Man,” Adams claims to have “dreaded” the French Revolution because it would “not only arrest the progress of Improvement, but give it a retrograde course, for at least a Century, if not many Centuries”: “Let me now ask you, very seriously my Friend,” he entreats Jefferson, “Where are now in 1813, the Perfection and perfectability of human Nature? Where is now, the progress of the human Mind? Where is the Amelioration of Society?”

In subsequent letters, Adams frames human inequality in terms of breeding, offering his own translation of a maxim attributed to the poet Theognis (writing in Greek during the sixth century BCE)—“‘When We want to purchace, Horses, Asses or Rams, We inquire for the Wellborn. And every one wishes to procure, from the good Breeds. A good Man, does not care to marry a Shrew, the Daughter of a Shrew; unless They give him, a great deal of Money with her’”—and asking “how far advanced We were in the Science of Aristocracy, since Theognis’s Stallions Jacks and Rams?” In response, Jefferson suggests that the passage from Theognis “has an Ethical, rather than a political object,” serving as “a reproof to man, who, while with his domestic animals he is curious to improve the race by employing always the finest male, pays no attention to the improvement of his own race.” Such improvements might be highly desirable, Jefferson continues, and yet precluded by the circumstances of democratic government:

The selecting the best male for a Haram of well chosen females also, which Theognis seems to recommend from the example of our sheep and asses, would doubtless improve the human, as it does the brute animal, and produce a race of veritable [aristocrats]. For experience proves that the moral and physical qualities of man, whether good or evil, are transmissible in a certain degree from father to son. But I suspect that the equal rights of men will rise up against this privileged Solomon, and oblige us to continue acquiescence under the [degeneration of the race of men] which Theognis complains of, and to content ourselves with the accidental aristoi produced by the fortuitous concourse of breeders.

By lingering on the idea of a natural aristocracy among men, both men express a shared sense that the century of perfectibility has come to an end, the French Revolution having spelled the death or at least the general discrediting of a notion of human malleability that had flourished in the conditions created by Locke’s writings on education and the human mind.

Earwigs make good mothers

There's something about insects--natural history in its purest and most alluring form--at the TLS, Gaden S. Robinson reviews James T. Costa's appealing-sounding book The Other Insect Societies:

Aphids are the new hot property in studies of social insects. Widespread caste differentiation among gall-making species from two families is a comparatively recent discovery, and there are numerous variations on the theme. A generalized scenario involves a foundress mother aphid inducing, by a combination of mechanical damage and possibly the injection of growth-inducing chemicals, a hollow gall in a leaf in spring. The foundress mother may have been the product of sexual reproduction on an alternative hostplant in autumn – hostplant alternation is common in many aphids. She then populates the gall by giving birth to first instar nymphs (rather than laying eggs); these are all daughters produced parthenogenetically – ie, each is a clone of the mother. While some daughters are conventional aphids like their mother and mature to resemble her precisely, others more resemble small scorpions with muscled raptorial forelegs and forward-directed dagger-like stylets – the stabbing mouthparts that in the familiar greenfly are plugged into a leaf or stem to suck sap. These agile, aggressive soldiers never moult and mature. Their sole function is to defend the colony. In one Taiwanese species, the soldiers mount suicide attacks against mammals, including man, and this appears to be primarily a defence against squirrels eating the Styrax gall that is home to the colony. If we consider the cloning aphid as a superorganism, the foundress might be considered to have split herself into an array of feeders and breeders (for the daughters repeat the cloning process) and mailed fists. The numerous parthenogenetic generations that may ensue through the summer, coupled with the remarkable fecundity of aphids, place some of these aphids potentially among the biggest superorganisms in existence. But it is often not as simple as this. There is evidence in many species of numerous foundresses being found in one gall; there is cannibalism, parasitism, competition and a host of other dirty tricks as well as co-operation between different clones. Teasing apart the genetic and ecological advantages, and determining the relatedness (or not, in view of the dirty tricks department) of aphid “families” has become a compelling and very active research area.

Another book I heartily recommend is Thomas Eisner's extraordinary For Love of Insects, which should be in everyone's collection....

Macready pauses

Michael Dobson has a great piece in the latest LRB on the Astor Place Shakespeare riots. Really the whole thing is just great, beautifully well-written and full of well-selected details; and in any case I find this topic of the strange afterlife of Shakespearean drama one of those magical subjects I can never get enough of...

In fact, even before the rebellion of the colonies, some had linked the imaginative scope of Shakespearean drama to the liberating possibilities offered by the New World. An ode by William Havard, recited at Drury Lane in 1757, identifies Shakespeare as the Columbus of world drama, anticipating the installation, more than a century later, of statues of the playwright and the explorer opposite one another in Central Park, as two proto-founding fathers. The value of Shakespeare’s work had been recognised more pragmatically on the frontier itself, where in 1764 the explorer Thomas Morris, venturing into what is now Illinois, discovered to his surprise not only that he was not the first anglophone to have got so far west but that the locals already knew exactly how much the crown jewels of his culture were worth: ‘An Indian . . . called the little chief . . . made me a present of a volume of Shakespeare’s plays; a singular gift from a savage. He however begged a little gunpowder in return, a commodity to him much more precious than diamonds.’ Morris later had the good fortune to be lingering in his canoe, absorbed in Antony and Cleopatra, while the little chief’s tribe efficiently massacred the remainder of his party, perhaps in an unsuccessful bid to repossess the book so as to be able to repeat the transaction should any more of his kind trespass on their lands.

The War of Independence ended British imperial control over these violent and unpredictable territories, but it did not evict Shakespeare from them, despite the fact that one of the things the Puritan Pilgrim Fathers had emigrated from England to escape was Shakespearean theatre. Although the British military authorities who took over the John Street theatre in New York during the hostilities must have wondered whether the productions of Richard III, King Lear, The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth that they staged there between 1777 and 1783 were the last performances of Shakespeare or of anything else that would ever be seen west of the Atlantic, their local enemies were already getting in on the act. The rebel army mounted Coriolanus at Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1778, thereby founding a tradition of American military performances of Shakespeare that was to survive for many years. Awaiting action against the Mexican army in Texas in 1845, the young Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant played Desdemona.

I must get Nigel Cliff's book, it sounds excellent...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The problem of Susan

Eliot Weinberger has a fairly devastating essay about Susan Sontag in the new issue of the New York Review of Books--devastating partly because of its unusual combination of dispassion, dislike and clarity of analysis.

Any thoughts from others who've read it? It seems to me at once compelling in its line of argument and so ruthless as to induce some squeamishness in me. I think scruples would prevent me writing an essay like this about someone so recently deceased, though I am rather full of admiration for Weinberger's moral fortitude on the occasion.

(I wouldn't say I have a brief either for or against Sontag, though perhaps that's damning in itself; in adult life, I haven't found her writing speaks to me, for reasons related to Weinberger's critique, but I remember somehow finding Illness as Metaphor on a library shelf as a teenager and reading it with a kind of relief, as if to say, "This is the kind of writing I want to do, what a good thing to learn that it is not just a figment of my imagination that people should write books like this!"

It is easy to forget, now in the age of the internet and (in my life) of free research-library access and of professional and personal access to interesting people of all sorts, how starved for intellectual stimulation I felt before I went to college, and that was with a book-reading kind of family and an excellent school and really perfectly reasonable access to intellectual things compared to the conditions many people labor under--only when you are that age people do not think you should be wanting to immerse yourself in such things! It is one of the ways in which the admirable theories of progressive educationalists do not actually fit with my real personal experience of having been a person who would have liked it if someone taught me calculus and Greek when I was nine!

And I must admit, a naive admission, that I did think that when I went to college somehow everyone would magically be exactly like me and want to read and write and talk about books all the time, but of course this is not at all the case, it was a rather comical misunderstanding of the nature of the Ivy League!

(Another book I found in high school, on the shelf of my friend S.'s step-mother who had I believe done a master's degree in literature, and which similarly gave me a feeling of recognition rather than of discovery, was Barthes' S/Z. And of course the novels and prose of Anthony Burgess were my real guide to intellectual things, entirely in absentia Burgess set me on a course of reading that undoubtedly shaped my sensibilities in the formative years...)

A dog with a dollar bill in its mouth

A nice longish excerpt at the Sun of Luc Sante's "Commerce" (thanks to Ed for the link). That guy is just a staggeringly good writer, I love how this piece works like a mosaic of unexpectedly sized and shaped tiles (everyone should read it for the writing anyway, but especially read it if you are fond of the sordid but enchanting lost New York of the 1970s and early 1980s--it's funny, I have no love for bohemian squalor, in fact I am fairly strongly against it, but this essay makes it distinctly alluring...); here, too, if you didn't read it before, is Sante's lovely essay "French Without Tears" (which I am afraid I have misremembered as "Smurfs in French," which is what I secretly think it should have been called!).

The heart is in the mechanism

Andy Beta profiles Nico Muhly at the Evil Weekly a.k.a. Village Voice.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Rather in love

with this Roland Barthes book on the Neutral, something about its style and preoccupations just particularly speaks to me. It's full of all sorts of good things, here's another one that I can't resist:

Gide. His biographer (the Petite Dame) makes him into a specialist of hesitation: “‘Coffee or Nescaf√© (decaffeinated)? But say it, so that we make more of it!' He looks at me with a disconsolate face: 'But you strip me of all my possibilities of hesitation.'” Hesitations about traveling (in particular toward the end of his life): his last project to travel, Morocco (which he didn’t do) → contradictory telegrams (1946): “So that there he is totally hesitatnt as always and all entangled in the middle of too many temptations . . .” (1946). And this, which perfectly summarizes the theme of Gidian hesitation such as it was perceived by people around him (in other words, his legend): “Before letting him go, there is always the painful moment when I ask him the indispensable question: ‘Will you lunch and will you have dinner with me?’ which he is not far from considering as an attack on his freedom. <…> The difficulty he has making a decision is truly incredible. It’s not so much the choice that seems difficult to him, but it’s that the choice risks depriving him of the more agreeable, the unexpected that could occur.” (1946) → somehow the hedonist’s anxiety: a logic of the “pickup” {drague}, of the adventure (adventure: the agreeable: “tellable” unexpected): to study: waiting for the new.

I partly find this funny because I am pathologically decisive myself, I rarely hesitate in matters large or small; the adventure itself often seems disagreeable to me, do not for instance arrange for me a surprise party, although it is true that some of the most lovely moments in life are quite unexpected!

Il est deux heures

At the New Yorker, a magically good article about bonobos by Ian Parker.

Of course I'm obsessed with the great apes in any case (at age seven and eight, I was absolutely in thrall to Jane Goodall's In the Shadow of Man, and really believed that when I grew up I was going to be living in Tanzania and spending my days crouched in a tree under some sort of tarp watching chimpanzees through binoculars), but it's pretty much perfect in the writing also.

Here's the intellectual meat, which makes me happy because it shows so clearly why my eight-year-old self would not have been sorry to learn I would be studying the eighteenth century instead of primates:

In 1974, not long after Horn left Africa, Goodall witnessed the start of what she came to call the Four-Year War in Gombe. A chimpanzee population split into two, and, over time, one group wiped out the other, in gory episodes of territorial attack and cannibalism. Chimp aggression was already recognized by science, but chimp warfare was not. “I struggled to come to terms with this new knowledge,” Goodall later wrote. She would wake in the night, haunted by the memory of witnessing a female chimpanzee gorging on the flesh of an infant, “her mouth smeared with blood like some grotesque vampire from the legends of childhood.”

Reports of this behavior found a place in a long-running debate about the fundamentals of human nature—a debate, in short, about whether people were nasty or nice. Were humans savage but for the constructs of civil society (Thomas Hobbes)? Or were they civil but for the corruptions of society (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)? It had not taken warring chimps to suggest some element of biological inheritance in human behavior, including aggression: the case had been made, in its most popular recent form, by Desmond Morris, in “The Naked Ape,” his 1967 best-seller. But if chimpanzees had once pointed the way toward a tetchy but less than menacing common ancestor, they could no longer do so: Goodall had documented bloodlust in our closest relative. According to Richard Wrangham, a primatologist at Harvard and the author, with Dale Peterson, of “Demonic Males” (1996), the Gombe killings “made credible the idea that our warring tendencies go back into our prehuman past. They made us a little less special.”

And here's a bit of the descriptive writing Parker does so well (the article is just packed with lovely details, in the observation as well as in the phrasing):

At the Lui Kotal camp, which Hohmann started five years after being expelled from Lomako, the people who were not tracking apes spent the morning under the Audubon calendar, as the temperature and the humidity rose. Ryan Matthews put out solar panels, to charge a car battery powering a laptop that dispatched e-mail through an uncertain satellite connection. Or, in a storage hut, he arranged precious cans of sardines into a supermarket pyramid. We sometimes heard the sneezelike call of a black mangabey monkey. For lunch, we ate cassava in its local form, a long, cold, gray tube of boiled dough—a single gnocco grown to the size of a dachshund. A radio brought news of gunfire and rocket attacks in Kinshasa: Jean-Pierre Bemba, the defeated opposition candidate in last year’s Presidential elections, had ignored a deadline to disarm his militia, and hundreds had been killed in street fighting. The airport that we had used had been attacked. The Congolese camp members—including, at any time, two bonobo field workers, a cook, an assistant cook, and a fisherman, working on commission—were largely pro-Bemba, or, at least, anti-government, a view expressed at times as nostalgia for the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko. Once, they sang a celebratory Mobutu song that they had learned as schoolchildren.

Bonus links:

I'm a great admirer of William Boyd's novels in general (and if you have ever suffered from insomnia, Armadillo's the must-read!), but Brazzaville Beach is my absolute favorite. It's an extraordinary book, I highly recommend it, and at its core is a set of incidents among chimpanzee groups that's fairly closely based, I think, on the episode Parker alludes to in that first quotation.

I am also a fan of the much-mocked eighteenth-century Scottish jurist and philosopher Lord Monboddo. Almost none of my much-cherished Monboddo material is going to make it into the breeding book, though I have dementedly large collections of notes on his two six-volume contributions to the theory of language and human nature (one reason Monboddo's more mocked than read, I fear, is that his preferred form of publication was so inconvenient--the six volumes on language appeared at more or less irregular intervals between 1773 and 1792, and the wide-ranging Antient Metaphysics between 1779 and 1799).

Monboddo believed that chimpanzees were a kind of human and that humans naturally walked on all fours. (He also believed that some humans had tails, that the closest animal analogue to human society could be found among the beavers, that all exercise should be taken naked, that Egypt’s early rulers were not human beings but “daimons” or minor gods and that the Aristotelian syllogism was more powerful than anything in Locke, Newton or Descartes.)

Anyway, here's a nice bit of Monboddo to conclude:

There are, I know, many, who will think this progress of man, from a quadruped and an Ourang Outang to men such as we see them now a days, very disgraceful to the species. But they should consider their own progress as an individual. In the womb, man is no better than a vegetable; and, when born, he is at first more imperfect, I believe, than any other animal in the same state, wanting almost altogether that comparative faculty, which the brutes, young and old, possess. If, therefore, there be such a progress in the individual, it is not to be wondered that there should be a progress also in the species, from the mere animal up to the intellectual creature...

Tickle the nape of a rat pup's neck

Natalie Angier has a rather good article about rats in the Science Times today.

The cerebral and emotional pleasures of the eighteenth century

Norman Geras asked me to contribute to his series of posts on books that changed your life, and here are my thoughts. The book I end up singling out is Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, which has so strongly reconfigured my thinking on various things that it even makes an appearance in The Explosionist...

Monday, July 23, 2007

Quantum foam

In his latest Blinded by Science column, Bruno Maddox reflects on the death of science fiction.

A funny interlude this morning

in which I was interviewed on camera for an HBO documentary called Love Sick. I must say, it was extremely enjoyable--we were in the studio in the journalism school, so it was all much spiffier than my actual office, which is rather on the tiny-and-squalid side of things (part of the squalor is my own fault, it is rather untidy, but partly it's just in the nature of things, the ongoing mold infestation has caused the books to have to be taken down and cleaned by non-book-type people who put them back on the shelves any which way, I have rearranged several times but I gave up on it after about the third time it happened, also there is always somehow a mousetrap in plain view, I quite often see a little mouse scuttling across the floor and just hope s/he does not get snagged by the trap, really I should throw it away because I will be horrified if I find a dead mouse as opposed to a live one!).

I got to hold forth on (unfortunate) love in literature at some length (in short, think the Iliad, Medea, Paolo and Francesca, Don Quixote and Madame Bovary and the destructiveness of certain kinds of fantasy life, Notes on a Scandal and Enduring Love, folie a deux, the film Heavenly Creatures, etc.) and put in another plug for Call Me By Your Name, which I feel is a novel everyone should read.

Beforehand, while they were figuring out the lighting and stuff, I had a very enjoyable conversation with the person who facilitated the whole thing, Anne Burt. I initially met Anne in a Pilates class at the Columbia gym, but when we got to talking I realized she was (a) the editor of a book I had just been reading about (very good BTW) and (b) the cousin of my old friend Steve.

So our conversation this morning naturally turned to athletic matters (obviously I am generally obsessed with this stuff right now, but also the Pilates connection spurred it) and it turns out that Anne runs also, and I did utter a sentence that will not sound unfamiliar--namely, "It's my heart's desire to run the marathon, but unfortunately I decided it would be more sensible to wait till next year"--and the cameraman gave me a pleasant but inquisitive look and said, "What kind of thing do you do here?"

I told him I was a professor of English, and he nodded like it all suddenly made sense.

"I film a lot of fitness television," he said. "And somehow the people on fitness TV don't talk like you do. Heart's desire--it's like something out of Jane Eyre!"

Sunday, July 22, 2007

On a brighter note

my friend Nico's got a series of three posts about the Faroe Islands that must not be missed (aside from everything else, Nico's prose style is undergoing the most lovely development under the influence of blogging, he's now got it working so that it produces almost exactly the same effect as his conversational style, a trick that cannot be pulled off by simple transcription!): #1 (on liquid nourishment, with extraordinary watery Turneresque landscapes--mmmm, swimming...); #2 (on fly-catching); and #3 (on singing in English).

In which I am thwarted

Oh, it is too maddening!

Seriously, this triathlon business is going to drive me to go and live in the country where I can just go out and swim in a body of water. (I've been thinking for a long time that I wouldn't mind living on a desert island. So long as it had a major research library. And I wouldn't say no to some rolling hills with not very much traffic, for bike-related purposes...)

I've been feeling really bad about not swimming enough recently. Three factors unfortunately converged:

(1) Transition from more expensive but more-individual-attention weekly swim clinic taught by super-inspiring female triathlete who caused me to strive to the utmost, to still very good but more large-group workout-type weekly swim session where there's much less individual attention and psychological investment.

(2) Half-marathon training.

(3) Summer pool hours!

It's the third that's got me ranting tonight.

Twice in the last three days, I've been thwarted.

Friday night it was my own fault, I went to swim at the Columbia pool around 8 (ideal time for swimming in my opinion) and only in the locker room did I realize that summer hours have the pool closing at 8 rather than 9 on Friday evenings. I am an idiot!

And this evening I had my second foray up to Riverbank State Park, which was my only available option for evening weekend swimming, and I swear on the phone message (they have nothing so helpful as a detailed website) it says adult lap swim 6:30-8:15 morning and evening daily, but I got up there and the pool was obviously closed and some very polite teenagers informed me what I could tell from myself from the signs, which is that there's no evening lap swim on Sundays.

Arghh! How am I ever going to get to be a better swimmer if I never swim?

Resolved: I will henceforth swim a minimum of three times a week if it kills me. (I swam four times a week from February to June, or sometimes five, with only one or two weeks where I fell short of the weekly goal, and that is why my technique and conditioning both improved so much.) But this resolution is all for naught when the pools are closed!

Triathlon on the brain

At the FT, Richard Waters considers the fashion for triathlons:

Excess in exercise is a way to marry the protestant work ethic of a Midwesterner with the self-indulgence of a sybarite.

It is the ultimate in carnality, the mortification and the indulgence of the flesh in one, all released in one mighty rush of endorphins. Asceticism and hedonism are united.

Faced with the glories of the English Lake District, Wordsworth was moved to poetry. Faced with the Sierra Nevada, any northern Californian baby boomer worth his or her salt would strap on the Nikes. The knees may be going, the sciatic nerves may be jangling, but immortality resides in conquering just one more summit.

(Wordsworth did a lot of pretty strenuous walking, though, too--albeit I can't say that I can quite imagine him training for a triathlon. He would have been an earnest and well-equipped cyclist, that's my bet...)

Saturday, July 21, 2007


I've been looking forward to today for a number of weeks now, and am happy to say that it completely lived up to expectations as the second-to-last non-guilty non-work day between now and September, a particularly good one because packed full of the most perfectly enjoyable things.

(The other remaining non-guilty non-work day, though inevitably there will be a handful of guilt-stricken and non-enjoyable non-work days also, is August 5.)

Of course it was a happy coincidence that the release of the final Harry Potter book should fall on my birthday! Very exciting--I resisted going to buy it at midnight last night, for reasons that will become clear shortly, but I got it this afternoon, flopped down on my bed with it around five and have just finished and am now going to go to bed.

But before lavish Potter-reading, and slightly less decadently, the real highlight of the day was meeting up with the others in my running group at Van Cortland Park at eight this morning for an absolutely delightful twelve-mile run.

(Possibly a bit shorter--there was some debate, more or less unresolvable--either it was short or we ran very fast, but probably the former, and my footpod certainly thought it was short!)

It was a real trail run, too, quite different from what I usually do--hilly, and uneven and interesting footing, and in the woods (I was in nature!), and all very good. It wasn't one of those insanely blissful runs you get sometimes, my stomach was a tiny bit unsettled and my legs got (satisfactorily) tired, but it was very all-round enjoyable, including perfect low-humidity weather, and of course afterwards you feel quite amazing.

(Comically our coach, who is usually the voice of strict and utter healthiness in eating, insisted that the ritual runners' accompaniment to a "Vanny" run is a slice of carrot cake afterwards--with icing, she was most particular!--at the exclusively carrot-cake-purveying Lloyd's Carrot Cake. It was quite delicious--I waited to eat it till I got home, though I am afraid that I did not have time to drink the cup of coffee I'd brewed to have with it before having to go out again--had to stow the coffee in the fridge and drink it later, iced...)

I had just time to shower before I went to yoga (I do it at the Columbia gym mostly, but it's this kind if you're curious), and then I purchased Harry Potter which I could not get last night in case I stayed up all night reading and ruined my morning run, and then I had mid-afternoon lunch (it is funny the way a long run makes you ravenously hungry) with my dad who is in town for Wagnerian opera, and then I had a few birthday phone calls and then I plunged into the world of Potter.

No spoilers here I hope, just close your eyes though and skip to the next paragraph if you're trying to stay pure for it--the final third or so of the volume is perhaps a more satisfying read than the first half, I kind of just forgot that our trio weren't going to be at Hogwarts at the beginning of this installment, and of course the school is a large part of the books' charm, once you temporarily have on hold any school scenes or Snape appearances it is perhaps not quite as enjoyable--there's a bit too much mythic patterning for my taste, where you get Lord of the Rings-Arthur-Aslan-Christ kind of stuff in rapid succession--but J. K. Rowling really just has a genius for making a world, there's no doubt about it.

I wouldn't say that these are my favorite books in the world (Philip Pullman and Garth Nix and Diana Wynne Jones all seem to me rather superior writers in this sort of vein), but I do love them, and I also just get a huge kick out of the way everybody's so obsessed--I mean, I often feel like I'm going to die if I can't get hold of (fill in the blank's) new novel that minute, but most people do not live this way, it is nice to get an alternate-universish vision of a world in which everyone has this kind of relationship with novels!

Further thoughts on turning 36: no surprises here, the thirties are undoubtedly better than the twenties (and the twenties better than the teens), so that's all good. My resolutions and goals go in calendar years rather than birthday years, but it can be said that I will be very disappointed in myself if I have not done at least one and possibly two or three triathlons by July 21, 2008!

Further thoughts on running: oh, the agony and the ectasy!

From where I sit now, there are two main problems with running.

One, it's hard on the body and injury-producing: I don't have any injury right now, I seem to have finally gotten rid of most of the last traces of stress-fracture related muscle problem, everything's good, but I am keenly aware of the hazards. It is my heart's desire to run the marathon, it kills me that I'm not going to run my first one this fall, I am sure I'm right to have decided to wait till next year but it makes me sorry to think about how careful you have to be with this stuff.

Two, running is terribly conducive to self-dissatisfaction and self-criticism! Because there's no two ways about it, it's totally a sport of numbers. I was having despairing philosophical reflections on this earlier in the week, though I have firmly put them out of mind now and will stop over-analyzing.

This unproductive line of thought was prompted by a really very satisfactory result in our little time trial run on Tuesday. We did two loops of the Central Park reservoir (3.14 miles total), and had to commit in advance to a specific pace and then guess afterwards (i.e. before we got our times) what our pace had actually been. I picked 8:30 (a rather aspirational minutes-per-mile pace for me), was afraid I'd fallen short (though was certainly running very hard, it was not comfortable!), but actually made it at 8:24.

This is really very good. I didn't do the time trial at the beginning of this particular season's training, I think I had a swimming clinic that night, but I looked back at my times from last year and I really have made a huge improvement. My beginner's time for one loop on 8/22/06 was 9:04 (I'd been running inside on a treadmill for six months or so previously but hadn't really nerved myself up to take it properly outside), and I remember I was very pleased indeed when we got timed for two loops on 9/28/06 and I made 8:59 pace at the longer distance--seemed a great barrier to have broken under nine minutes per mile, especially since I always believed that nine minutes was my genetic limit...

So briefly I had pride in my result!

But the thing is, I have my heart set on running eight-minute miles! I hope that by the end of next summer, I might run a four-mile race below eight-minute pace, and I hope that by a couple years from now I could do long runs at eight-minute pace--think of the satisfaction of being able to race a half-marathon at eight-minute pace!

You see where I'm going with this--I suddenly got this horrible inkling of how once you get eight-minute pace you look at the folks who can do 7:40 really comfortably and just think with longing about how you should be able to do that too. Where does it all stop?!?

Oh dear...

However I am just saying now and to my future self that really eight-minute pace would be pretty great, there is no shame in not being a really fast runner, and whatever speed you run at there is always some perfectly good other runner, rather slower than you, who would be glad to run as fast as you do!

So I must just take this as a lesson in resignation and striving, I will strive to run as fast as I possibly can and reach the utmost of my realistic genetic limits (certainly I should be able to do eight-minute miles, this is an ambitious and yet also a fairly reasonable goal), but I will not let myself fill up with self-reproach for not being a superb natural athlete whose body responds magically well to training! Because really the magic of training is that it works on everybody, your body does respond even if you are not very genetically gifted, and really also I am within all reasonable expectation strong and fast (enough) and healthy.

It's funny, back to the same talent-striving thing I seem to have posted about several times recently: I feel that my one really huge advantage with this training stuff is that I am incredibly hard-working and consistent, I never skip workouts or training sessions and my nutrition (other than today!) is excellent and I feel that really this gives me a leg up over the naturally talented who train inconsistently, and I do not think I'm wrong on this.

But perhaps in honor of it being my birthday I should say to myself that I do have a very modest little talent for running (not at all an unusual talent, in the universe of fast runners I am a very slow runner, but a little talent just like in the parable), it's not mere force of will and dogged hard labor that lets me run faster, and I should try and enjoy cultivating it, for fun, rather than turning it into another extreme and self-critical striver's project!


Friday, July 20, 2007

A happy cat, a joyologist

It's not available online (here's the abstract), but Oliver Sacks has a most compelling essay in this week's New Yorker about two cases in which patients who suffered a catastrophic injury or illness (one is struck by lightning, the other has a large malignant brain tumor surgically removed) were afterwards visited with a passion and gift for music unlike anything in their previous lives. Obviously cases like this are incredibly unusual, more often a devastating injury involves straight-up losses rather than this kind of strange trade-off, but both stories are mesmerizing:

In 2002, Salimah started to have brief episodes, lasting a minute or less, in which she would get "a strange feeling"--sometimes a sense that she was on a beach that she had once known while at the same time being perfectly conscious of her current surroundings and able to continue a conversation, or drive a car, or do whatever she had been doing. Occasionally, the episodes were accompanied by a "sour taste" in her mouth. She noticed these strange occurrencecs, but did not think of them as having any neurological significance. It was only when she had a grand-mal seizure, in the summer of 2003, that she went to a neurologist and was given brain scans, which revealed a large tumor in her right temporal lobe--the cause of her peculiar episodes. The tumor, her doctors felt, was malignant (though it was probably an oligodendroglioma, of relatively low malignancy) and needed to be removed. Salimah wondered if she had been given a death sentence and was fearful of the operation and its possible consequences; she and her husband had been told that it might cause some "personality changes." But, in the event, the surgery went well, most of the tumor was removed, and, after a period of convalescence, Salimah was able to return to her work as a chemist.

Before the surgery, Salimah had been a fairly reserved woman, who would occasionally be annoyed or preoccupied by small things like dust or untidiness; her husband said that she was sometimes "obsessive" about jobs that needed to be done around the house. But now, after the surgery, she seemed unperturbed by such domestic matters. She had become, in the idiosyncratic words of her husband (English was not their first langage), a "happy cat." She was, he declared, a "joyologist."

Salimah's new cheerfulness was apparent at work. She had worked in the same laboratory for fifteen years and had always been admired for her intelligence and dedication. Yet, while losing none of this professional competence, she seemed a much warmer person, keenly sympathetic and interested in the lives and feelings of her co-workers. Where before, in a colleague's words, she had been "much more into herself," she now became the confidante and social center of the entire lab.

At home, too, she shed some of her Marie Curie-like, work-oriented personality. She permitted herself time off from her thinking, her equations, and became more interested in going to movies and parties, living it up a bit. And a new love, a new passion, entered her life. As a girl, she had been, in her own words, "vaguely musical," had played the piano a little, but music had never played any great part in her life. Now it was different. She longed to go to concerts, to listen to classical music on the radio or on CDs. She could be moved to rapture or tears by music which had carried "no special feeling" for her before. She became "addicted" to her car radio, which she would listen to while driving to work. A colleague who happened to pass Salimah in her convertible on the road said that the music on her radio was "incredibly loud"--he could hear it a quarter of a mile away. Salimah was "entertaining the whole freeway."

Like Tony Cicoria, Salimah showed a drastic transformation from being only vaguely interested in music to being passionately excited by it and in continual need of it. And with both of them there were other, more general changes, too--a surge of emotionality, as if emotions of every sort were being stimulated or released. In Salmiah's words, "What happened after the surgery--I felt reborn. That changed my outlook on life and made me appreciate every minute of it."

I find this piece especially moving because I heard Sacks read it at Columbia this spring. The week before the lecture I was talking with my late lamented swimming teacher Doug Stern about Sacks, who was a good friend of his (I think I mentioned it because I had to come to a different swim clinic because of the lecture). I rhapsodized about my long-time passion for the writing of Oliver Sacks and how much I hoped to talk to him sometime, and Doug said (in very characteristic form!), "Well, go up to him and tell him Doug Stern says hello. Then he'll talk to you. If you don't, he won't talk to you."

In the event, I didn't have the heart to, the talk was really mesmerizing (especially the introductory ruminations with which Sacks preceded the reading--he has a quality that I like very much and that you don't see too often, of being able to think out loud with freshness and striking originality in an entirely unselfconscious manner) but afterwards he was thronged with people, and he looked so tired that I could not imagine it would be humane for me to force my way into the queue!

(Though I did have the temptation to tell him, because I thought he would think it was funny, that I had had a strange near-hallucination in the corner of my mind's eye for the preceding week, which was that though I knew he was going to talk about music and the brain, I was secretly convinced that at the last minute he would change his topic and talk about swimming instead!)

Not long afterwards, Doug was diagnosed with cancer, and the next time I saw Oliver Sacks speak, it was at Doug's funeral. That's a melodramatic note to end on, but really I have nothing more to say. One of my alternate-universe selves is a neurologist, one of these days my actual self is going to look into neurology more extensively rather than just reading about it in a dilettantish kind of way.

(The metaphor of grace comes back in with these lightning-and-brain-tumor stories, in a way that recapitulates certain points of the ongoing conversation in my head about striving and talents--in a sense, we have no non-theological language for these things, so that although I am not a believer in any religious sense it is hard not to think of a special talent as "God-given"--is there another term that has the same force? "Innate" or "natural" are weak in contrast.)

A long bike ride

It was my lovely sister-in-law Jessi's idea--she is an avid cyclist (is that a fair description?!?) and also babysits the kid of a guy (coincidentally a high-school classmate of mine) who has MS--but a modest number of Davidsons and Davidson family affiliates are going to do the MS City to Shore Bike Tour on September 29 to raise money for research and to support programs for people living with multiple sclerosis.

We will do the forty-five mile ride from Hammonton to Ocean City, New Jersey, and we each need to raise $250 to participate. I am fully ready just to donate it myself, I hate asking for money, but if you happen to feel that it's a good cause and you can spare $5 or $10, then I would be very grateful for your sponsorship!

Here's where you can donate money to the National MS Society (that link should take you to my donation page, but if not, type in Jenny Davidson and just make sure that you get my page and not the page of the inevitable other Jenny Davidson); and I promise I will write up a good description (with pictures!) of the day of the ride.

I am excited, of course, to have a cycling goal to train for. I went to a very good repair clinic yesterday at Sid's Bikes, I feel considerably more confident in my ability to deal with potential problems (it is also rather illuminating to watch someone put one of these bikes through the different gears while it's sitting up at eye level on a stand, much clearer to understand what's going on). But it will also be a good family day out, very salubrious!

(Oh, a funny memory: in the 1970s, a lot of children's books--those Laura Ingalls Wilder ones, I feel sure, but all sorts of others also--had a promotional page at the back for the MS Read-a-Thon. I always read this page longingly and covetously, and in fact I think at one point I even sent away the provided coupon for more information, though I do not remember ever getting it; because I did not understand that the way you raised money was to ask people to give it to you, I was maybe six years old--we were still living in Wilmington, Delaware--and thought that the money somehow was just magically raised by reading the books! I thought I would be the perfect person to do it because I read so many books and that it would be an efficient way to take advantage of that fact!)

A martial art based on catlike movements

How did I miss this last week?!? At the FT, James Lovegrove reviews Nick Green's The Cat Kin, clearly this is one I am fated to order extravagantly from Amazon UK (though the review has the slightly surreal feel of those very abbreviated plot summaries on the NYT bestseller list):

Ben and his mother are in danger of being thrown out on to the street by a ruthless landlord. Tiffany is neglected by her parents. Both children find solace in the study of a martial art based on catlike movements.

But “pashki” turns out to be more than merely a physical discipline. It bestows supernatural abilities, which come in handy when Ben and Tiffany discover a sinister plot linked directly with the problems in their lives.

Nick Green’s first novel is a slick, smart, witty read, which rightly reasserts the superiority of all things feline.

I want to study a martial art based on catlike movements--and gain supernatural abilities!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The ram in the thicket, the stayed hand

The latest installment of Marco Roth's memoir:

Since his bar mitzvah, back in 1952, my father must have experienced something like this fall: He’d lost his trust in God, rather than his “faith” in God’s existence. Although he could talk the talk of scientific atheism, he probably felt something much closer to betrayal than liberation. That evolution, astronomy, and Jewish history itself seemed to show that God could not have existed did not really excuse Him for not existing. The Covenant had been broken for good. No surprises—but, as he told me, it was the Holocaust that really did it. The good news was that both sides of my family had been spared. And yet, for most others in our situation, such good fortune usually gave rise to the great postwar secular religion of American Jewish gratitude for liberal democracy, to the optimism and confidence found in the novels of Bellow and Philip Roth. For my father, on the other hand, our very luck became part of the case against God, a protest against history. Once my father fell out with God, he sought refuge in a cosmopolitan, European culture that had already ceased to exist when he began to dream about making it his home. What caring being could have permitted both such devastation and my father’s own delusion that a European bohemia could save him? There seemed a peculiar, personal quality to my father’s outrage when he spoke about not just the rottenness of the Germans and the Austrians; the weakness of the French; the stunned complicity of the Judenrat; the painful theodicy of the Hasidim, but also the failure of a whole idea of civilization.

Ways of seeing

This link will blow your mind. Just go and take a look, if you have any interest in the future of visual information on the web... (Thanks to Nico for the link.)

Dangerous trades

At the Scotsman, Linda Summerhayes considers the life of John Scott Haldane, the subject of a new biography by Martin Goodman (got to get that one, I've got a minor Haldane family obsession--J. B. S. Haldane is one of my favorites, and Naomi Mitchison's autobiography was a wonderfully useful source for The Explosionist):

While his eight-year-old daughter looked on in wonder, John Scott Haldane calmly closed the chamber door and pumped a toxic blend of gases into the enclosed space.

His mission was to discover more about the effect of poison gases on the body and his daughter Naomi was given the job to pull him free and revive him should things go too far.

An echo of Mr. James?

At the New Republic (via Powell's), Andrew Delbanco reviews Hermione Lee's Edith Wharton biography.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Six minutes

At the TLS, Adrian Tahourdin has a great piece about Pierre Bayard's extremely appealing-sounding Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus?, a book which (tantalizing as may be) I am almost certainly too lazy to read myself until it is translated into English:

Bayard’s project is a serious one. He tells us, in his “Prologue”, that he was born into a family who read little, that he himself has almost no appetite for reading and that, anyway, he cannot find the time for it. As a (fifty-two-year-old) professor of French literature at the University of Paris VIII (and a practising psychoanalyst), he often finds himself obliged to comment on books he hasn’t looked at. And yet “non-reading” is a taboo subject in the circles in which he moves. He lists three constraints that we all feel as readers: “The first of these constraints could be called the obligation to read. We live in a society . . . in which reading still remains the object of a form of sacralization”, particularly where certain “canonical texts” are concerned: it is practically forbidden not to have read these. The second constraint “could be called the obligation to read a book in its entirety. If non-reading is frowned on, speed-reading and skimming are viewed in as poor a light”. For example, “it would be almost unthinkable for professors of literature to admit – what is after all true for most of them – that they have merely skimmed Proust’s work”. Can this really be the case? If so, it’s a dismaying thought – presumably Bayard has had some explaining to do to his colleagues since his book was published in France earlier this year. The third constraint, and the one which most of us would take as given, is the need to have read a book in order to be able to talk about it: according to Bayard, it is perfectly possible to have a fruitful discussion about a book one hasn’t read, even with someone who hasn’t read it either. These constraints lead to a lack of openness in our dealings with each other, Bayard claims, and generate unnecessary feelings of guilt.

He does not address the fact that most of us have our blind spots where particular authors are concerned, and that many of us do feel oppressed by the thought of the books we haven’t quite got round to reading, or wish that we had read years ago and know we now never will. Bayard is not interested in this; instead, he divides the works he mentions into four categories: “LI” indicates “livres inconnus” (books he is unfamiliar with); “LP” “livres parcourus” (books glanced at); “LE” “livres dont j’ai entendu parler” (books he has heard discussed) and “LO” “les livres que j’ai oubli√©s” (books he has read but forgotten). Ulysses, for example, falls into the category “LE”: he claims not to have read the novel, but he can place it within its literary context, knows that it is in a sense a reprise of the Odyssey, that it follows the ebb and flow of consciousness, and that it takes place in Dublin over the course of a single day. When teaching he makes frequent and unflinching references to Joyce.

I love it! "LP" seems an especially useful category (and also perhaps there is need for a supplemental category LOL, "livres que j'ai oublies ayant lus"--not sure that is quite grammatically correct, but the meaning is books which I have forgotten having read...).

Also free at the TLS: a rather enchanting review by my dissertation advisor Claude Rawson of a new edition of the eighteenth-century satirical miscellany The New Foundling Hospital for Wit. Here, for instance, are some thoughts prompted by a parody of Macbeth titled The Three Conjurors:

Such irrational accesses of delinquent likeableness in the portrayal of criminal or tyrannical malefactors have not as far as I know been fully understood, though W. H. Auden has some suggestive remarks about them in The Orators. It is partly a matter, as Auden perceived, of how we are drawn to aspects of the “heroic” of which we disapprove, and, as Brecht said to those who complained that he was being soft on Hitler in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, may also be a patronizing put-down. An interesting exception is Macbett (1972), Ionesco’s play of the Cold War years, where no atmosphere of boorish good humour rubs off on disreputable protagonists, and where even Shakespeare’s good characters, Duncan, “Banco”, and “Macol” (Malcolm), are Hitlerian or Stalinist killers, not even minimally likeable. A comparable effect is nevertheless created by means of a slapstick automatism of “cruelty”, as though the slanging matches of Punch and Judy shows, or the clockwork routine of a clown knocking another down, were defining the mood of every order to behead, and every act of mass killing. Ionesco, following Jan Kott, thought Shakespeare was the ancestor of the “absurd”.


Part of the work I'm doing this next month is steeling myself once and for all to sift through heaps of interesting notes and papers and put in the dead letter file various quotations and thoughts that will find no place in the book. Here's one rather irresistible one that must go, from Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, which is a sort of Adam-Smith-avant-la-lettre and on my short list of eighteenth-century books which I believe everybody should read (especially essential is the "Essay on Charity and Charity-Schools," which I really believe is indispensable). Here Mandeville's attacking the notion of "honor":

The Excellency of this Principle is, that the Vulgar are destitute of it, and it is only to be met with in People of the better sort, as some Oranges have Kernels, and others not, tho' the out-side be the same. In great Families it is like the Gout, generally counted Hereditary, and all Lords Children are born with it. In some that never felt any thing of it, it is acquired by Conversation and Reading, (especially of Romances) in others by Preferment; but there is nothing that encourages the Growth of it more than a Sword, and upon the first wearing of one, some People have felt considerable Shoots of it in four and twenty Hours.