Monday, March 27, 2023

History of the Destruction of Troy

The Historia destructionis Troiae ("History of the destruction of Troy") is a Latin prose narrative written by a Sicilian named Guido delle Colonne in the early 13th century. It was mainly based on earlier medieval romances rathre than ancient sources, so it is several removes from the Iliad. Several impressive illustrated manuscripts were made in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. This one was illustrated by François Colombe in the late 1500s and early 1600s, now in the Bibliotheque Nationale. Part of the fun of this is trying to figure out what scenes each image might represent. I think that's part of the Judgement of Paris above.

Mircea Cărtărescu, "Solenoid"

Nobody needs literature, says the narrator of this bizarre, fascinating, sometimes wonderful book. Trapped in this earthly hell, leading lonely, miserable lives, what we need instead is an escape plan.

In his youth the narrator wanted to be a writer. He thought literature was itself an escape plan, that by becoming a writer he could break free. But he failed as a writer and ended up as a middle school Romanian teacher in a run-down suburb of Bucharest, dealing with head lice, annoying colleagues, indifferent students, and bizarre diktaks from the Party. It doesn't matter anyway, he says, because literature is not and cannot be a real escape. In the walls of our prison there are dozens of doors with literary names, but they are all painted-on illusions; no matter how much we read or write, we remain prisoners.

This book is, I think, a 672-page meditation on whether that is true: whether literature, or imagination more broadly, can offer us any escape from the misery of human existence. In form it is the memoir of a lonely, unhappy man obsessed with his dreams. But in this narrative the boundaries of the material world are weak, and surreal magic might erupt an any moment. At one point the narrator is sent to investigate the abandoned factory near his school, because the principal thinks students are sneaking off there to smoke and make out. Instead he finds fantastic machinery from an alien or future civilization, waiting in statis to be activited by some unknown visitor or cataclysm. 

The most striking thing about the book is its boldness. Cărtărescu, it seems, will write about anything. Solenoid begins with a disquisition on head lice and moves on from there to belly button fuzz, the torture of dentistry, recycling drives, oedipal dreams, magnetism, the mathematics of the fourth dimension, faculty infighting, getting lost, a protest movement against death, and whether the seemingly random events of our lives might add up to some kind of pattern. In particular it indulges a kind of self-obsession that borders on solepsism. This world is the narrator's, and it bends around him in like space around a massive black hole, creating bizarre effects. There are plenty of other people, but they exist only so far as they impact the narrator, and it is hinted that when they are of his sight, some don't exist at all. 

Not all of it works. Some passages bored me, others seemed pointlessly gross. But on the whole it is amazing. If you like weird books and can handle body horror, check it out. I have never read anything more inventive.

Here's another thought. 

In the modern world we have a fascination with what you might call anti-art. In Baltimore there is a whole museum devoted to works by non-artists, where they especially like art by lunatics and prisoners. Many modern painters have tried to deny that they ever went to art school. We like the idea of somehow transmuting raw experience onto the canvas or the page without the vast, mediating mechanism of art, with its crushing weight of tradition and convention. The narrator of Solenoid says over and over that this book is not literature. He failed as a writer, tried to put only one work before the public in his youth and then gave that up. No, this is the raw material of his life, just the way he wrote it in a series of journals. These are his own experiences and his own dreams, written down just as he experienced them. This is what the world needs; reality, not literature.

But the pretense of reality is the actual fantasy. Cărtărescu did spent eight years as a middle school teacher early in his career, and I suspect some of the details are in fact drawn from his own life in Stalinist Romania. But Cărtărescu never gave up on writing. As a teacher he continued to publish poems and essays and he eventually left the school to become editor of a literary journal. According to wikpedia he has published 15 books and won several literary prizes.

Nobody can write a book like Solenoid without years of immersion in literature. Books are not raw experience. They are built of words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, each of them carefully constructed, each image weighed according to which other books it evokes, which experiences, which emotions. To make something feel real requires enormous artifice. Only a consummate professional can create, successfully, the feel of raw imagination poured onto the page by a half-mad amateur. Solenoid does this wonderfully, because it is a work of literary art by a real master, no matter how many times its narrator tries to convince us otherwise.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Links 24 March 2023

Sleeping Antelope, Tin Taghirt, Tassili n'Ajjer in Algeria, c. 8000 BC

Wonderful Scott Siskind meditation on San Francisco as the city at the end of time.

More on South Korea's angry feminists. Interesting that cutting their hair very short has become a symbol of women who reject dating, marriage, and childbearing.

Moche mural of two-faced men unearthed in Peru. Moche iconography is wonderful, but we have very little surviving myth or folklore to use in interpreting it, and it is very hard to reconstruct myths from images. So nobody has any idea what these represent.

A first edition of Copernicus' De revolutionibus is going to be auctioned later this spring, one of only 277 known. Could be yours for around $2.5 million.

Delightful narrative by Michael Benanav, chronicling his journey through the Himalayan foothills on the track of an old Indian folktake (NY Times)

Preserved botanical compositions from Flower Press Studio.

The House of the Vetti at Pompeii has reopened after a 20-year restoration, and now women will be admitted to the rooms with pornographic paintings. Progress!

Winners of the British Wildlife Photography Contest.

Corsican wild cats, long known to natives as the "cat-fox", are confirmed as a separate species. Amazing that they could have survived independently of domestic cats, which have bred with and swamped most wildcat species in Europe. Maybe they have some quirk of mating behavior that excludes other cats?

In the Netherlands, the government has gone full bore on fighting climate change and nitrogen emissions, which has included plans to restrict livestock and close thousands of farms; this is what led to last year's protests. Now a newly formed farmers' party has just become the largest in the upper house of Parliament, with the sole purpose of fighting those changes. People support environmentalism when it dovetails with other things they care about, but not when it seems to go against rural tradition.

X-ray analysis shows that most of the obsidian used by ancient Native Americans came from a single source, Obsidian Cliff at Yellowstone. This includes the amazing bifaces found at Hopewell sites in Ohio. (NY Times, JSTOR) Interesting that, so far as I know, no modern Indian nation has any folklore about Obsidian Cliff; obsidian objects are widely considered to be spiritually potent and are part of many medicine bundles, but nobody's lore references the source.

One of my odd little interests is people who fake their age and go back to high school. The NY Times reports on a 29-year-old Koren American woman whose lawyer said "Recently divorced and far away from her family in South Korea, she was trying to recreate the sense of safety she had felt as a student."

The radical career of Quaker agitator Benjamin Lay, a pioneering abolitionist whose constant protests helped persuade the Pennsylvania Quakers to begin censuring slave owners in 1758.

While others are remembering the 20th anniversary of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq and all that followed, Nicholas Kristoff chooses to remember something else Bush did: PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which somebody once calculated has saved 25 million lives. I remember trying to tell my liberals friends in those days that Bush had a great program for AIDS in Africa and being met with disbelief, but nobody is all good or all bad. (NY Times video; wikipedia)

Fan fiction is huge, however you measure it. So far as I am concerned, that's great; telling your own version of the story is a wonderful thing. But why are fan faction writers constantly demanding respect from outsiders? Stop caring what other people think, and just do your thing.

At the New Yorker, the story of "Afro-Cuban writer" Hache Carrillo, who, after his death, turned out to be Detroit-born Herman Glenn Carroll. Carroll seems to have been a serial inventor of lives and personas, who lied about everything, but his novel Losing My Espanglish sounds to me like an amusing take on identity and its permutations rather than a serious attempt to fool people. Maybe one day we'll stop caring who people are and just read their books.

Ukraine Links

Artilleryman Thomas Theiner has two Twitter threads about shoulder-launched anti-tank weapons that will tell you everything you wanted to know about them, with cool pictures and short videos. (First on warheads, second on attack paths and armor.)

And here Theiner lays out NATO doctrine for attacking fortified lines like the ones Russia has constructed in southern Ukraine. He makes it sound like this would be no problem for NATO or anyone else with a few thousand attack planes, but I doubt that Ukraine can do anything like what he describes.

NATO countries are finally transferring their old MIG-29 jets to Ukraine.

Igor Girkin says Putin should stop talking about the war because everything he says sounds lame and weak. "Tell the president to stay quiet and talk less about his ill-fated nose."

Ukraine claims that a drone attack on a rail yard at Dzhankoy in Russion-occupied Crimea destroyed kalibr missiles on their way to the fleet at Sevastapol. If so, that points to major Russian failures of both air defense and operational security.

Twitter thread on the fate of the Alga battalion of volunteers from Tatarstan, which was shot up as Russia withdrew from Kherson and then thrown into the meat grinder at Vuhledar; source says in that battle "the battalion was put down almost completely." 

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Dazzling Images from the Webb Telescope

WR-124, a Wolf-Rayet star

Galaxy NGC 7496

NGC 1433

That's a lot of galaxies

Roberto Calasso, "The Ruin of Kasch"

When I was going through the material I published on my old web site I found my review of one of my favorite books, Roberto Calasso's, The Ruin of Kasch. I wrote it a long time ago, and since then I have read several more of Calasso's books, and my old review no longer satisfied. So I wrote a new one. 

The Revolution

A character in one of Saul Bellow's novels comments that he hates facile "explanations" of the Holocaust; such an event, he says, could be explained "only by explaining everything at once." In The Ruin of Kasch Robert Calasso had a go at doing exactly that: explaining the horrors of the twentieth century by explaining the whole course of human civilization. 

The Ruin of Kasch (1983, English translation 1994) is a maddening, intentionally difficult book about what the human world is like, what it used to be like, and how it changed. Calasso is not interested in a statistical, factual understanding of history, nor in any kind of linear story. Instead he gives us a strange mixture of quotation, gnomic utterance, striking juxtapositions, narratives of obscure incidents, brief biographies of the moderately famous, and cutting analysis of various theories that purport to explain something. His attention jumps around in time and space, with no transitions or explanations. His examples are sometimes so obscure that even experts in whatever period he is writing about may not recognize them. Some of the book makes no sense. Yet by the end I at least was left feeling that I been led through a dark wood to a well of  deep and profound understanding.

Calasso begins with the era of the French Revolution. But this, perhaps the only conventional choice in the whole book, is immediately twisted by his decision to focus his narrative on the character of Talleyrand. Talleyrand, a son of one of France's oldest families, was a survivor, a relic of the old regime who prospered through all the transitions and upheavals of the epoch and emerged at the end as a kingmaker and one of the most powerful and hated men in Europe. Why Talleyrand? Because, I think, of his cold distance from the events he helped to shape. He helped create the new rituals of the Democratic age – tricolor flags, national anthems, independence days – but they made him queasy. Contemplating the future from the first celebration of Bastille Day, he wrote, "I see streams of blood." 

In the short term the Revolution was cut short by reaction, dictatorship, empire, and wars that dwarfed any the continent had seen in centuries. Instead of  the Brotherhood of Man, Europe got the great divide between Left and Right that is still with us. After Waterloo the forces of reaction managed to bottle up the genies of revolution and nationalism for a time, but it could not last.

The Tale Told in the Desert

From the Age of Revolutions Calasso jumps with no transition to the legendary past, retelling an old story called "The Ruin of Kasch". The tale was recorded by the German anthropologist Leo Froebenius in the early 1900s, told at the edge of the Sudanese desert by an old camel driver who waited to tell his own tales until all the other, lesser speakers had exhausted themselves. You know nothing of stories, he said to them, before embarking on the tale of Naphta, a grand ancient kingdom ruled by the guidance of priests who studied the stars. They decided, among many other things, when the king would be sacrificed and a new king crowned. Each king therefore ruled only on their sufferance, awaiting the day when the stars would decree his death. One privilege the kings had was that of choosing their companions, who would accompany them in life and in death. 

A certain king named Akaf grows sad and cannot stop brooding on his upcoming death. He hears about a great storyteller known as Far-li-mas who came from Kasch in the far east, perhaps Arabia or India. Akaf summons Far-li-mas, who tells such wonderful stories that the dawn comes before anyone realizes that the night is passing, and the king forgets his sorrow. The king's sister Sali also hears the stories, and she and Far-li-mas fall in love. Unwilling to leave their fate up to the stargazing priests, Sali and Far-li-mas challenge the old way. Sali says,
Great are the works of God, but the greatest is not his writing in the sky. It is life on earth. 
Sali lures the priests to the court he hear Far-li-mas, and he tells his stories like hashish, so that all the listeners fall asleep, and the priests cannot watch the stars. After some nights the priests realize that they are losing track of the stars and tell the king that Far-li-mas has destroyed order and must be killed. The king summons all the people to the great square of the city so that God may decide the matter. Again Far-li-mas tells his stories, and in the morning the priests are all dead. The old way of sacrifice is abandoned. King Akaf lives until he dies a natural death, and Far-li-mas reigns after him with Sali as his queen.

But upon the death of Far-li-mas, the neighboring kingdoms abandon the oaths of friendship they had sworn to the great Akaf and make war on Naphta. The kingdom is destroyed, the cities abandoned, and the desert covered its once broad fields of grain.

Calasso tells us,
This is a story about the passage from one world to another, from one order to another—and about the ruin of both. It is the story of the precariousness of order: of the old order and the new. The story of their perpetual ruin. (139)
Although Calasso is not impressed by modernity, he is equally unenthralled by the ancient world. No society has really found a solution to the problems of being alive. What he seems to hate about modernity is that we keep proclaiming that we have, in fact, done so, while the ancients at least realized that this was beyond our powers.


Blood sacrifice is one of Calasso's constant themes, and he often makes it a sign of the difference between us and our ancestors: they carried out sacrificial rites, and we do not. This might seem odd, since blood sacrifice disappeared from Europe more than a millennium before the modern age. When I first read The Ruin of Kasch I did not understand where he was going, but after reading his other books and coming back to this one I have some theories. For one, Calasso makes the rite of sacrifice stand in for all the ways we destroy in order to live. He sometimes describers slaughterhouses as sites of industrial sacrifice, and he writes that with World War I human sacrifice returned to Europe on a grand scale.

More subtly, Calasso seems to regard sacrifice as a way of defining human consciousness, not neurologically, but it terms of experience. The sacrificer beholds the other, the animal to be killed, and recognizes it as something separate from himself; and yet they are also connected, since the victim is actually standing in for the sacrificer, one life for another; he is thus aware than one thing can stand for another, as a word for a thought; he feels guilt over the death he must cause, and yet feels also that it must be done; he thinks of other sacrifices, those he remembers and those he knows of from stories, including stories of how the gods first established sacrifice at the dawn of history; he feels himself part of this long chain of killings; yet he is alone with the knife in his hand, confronting a deed he must do. When the animal is killed there is at first a katharsis, a release of tension, but after that comes more guilt that must be atoned for with yet more sacrifices, creating an unending chain of killing and guilt. Sacrifice, Calasso writes, does not expiate guilt; it is guilt. 

Consciousness is built up out of these constant recursions, the thoughts and feelings that loop back on themselves over and over, from the self to the other and then back to the self, bringing in memory and myth and connection and separation. Sacrifice is an act of separation, a killing, but it is also a connection that ties the sacrificer to the divine. In terms of history, we might say that the ancient attitude made consciousness a holy thing, consecrated to the gods through sacrifice, through all the loops of thought that run through divine law and divine story. We used, like Homeric heroes or Old Testament patriarchs, to see the Gods and even walk beside them, but we left them behind. Calasso, it is important to note, did not believe that this change happened at any particular point in time; to Calasso it is still taking place, in all of us. 

The wise man, he suggests, can accept neither the religious postulates of the ancients nor life without them. On the one hand there are the fantastic rituals of the Indian Vedas, too complex to ever be enacted in every detail, yet all said to be essential for existence to continue. On the other there is only Bentham's utilitarianism, represented to Calasso by his dried-up mummy, still kept in London. One cannot be believed, the other is inadequate to our needs. "We are in the middle, wavering."

Goethe Beholds the Paintings

Here is one of the stories Calasso tells us, without much in the way of preamble or explanation, as if saying, "make of this what you will." It concerns the wedding of the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette to the future king of France, but not as a political or diplomatic event. Calasso instead describes the pavilion built in the middle of the Rhine at the exact boundary of French and Austrian territory, where Marie would be handed over from one nation to the other. There she was stripped completely naked and then dressed anew in clothes made entirely in France before she passed into her new home. As it happens the poet Goethe visited the pavilion before the princess passed through, and he observed the elaborate paintings that covered every wall. To his horror, he realized that they depicted the story of Jason and Medea. This is monstrous, he exclaimed to his companions; how can this wedding pavilion be painted with scenes of history's most disastrous marriage? There is no need to worry, said his companions, nobody pays any attention to the subject matter of paintings. Only the style matters.

The Young Hegelians

Already in the heady days of the French Revolution we meet one of the key figures of modern history, the metaphysicians of Terror, the men who believed that utopia was within reach if we could only remove the enemies blocking the way. Calasso cites several of these men, most of them utterly obscure, but perhaps more frightening because they were otherwise such ordinary people. Like a certain Monsieur Baudot, who wrote, 
The egoists, the thoughtless, the enemies of liberty, the enemies of all nature, must not be counted among her children. . . . Let us destroy them completely.
One of these writers called for the extermination of a third of the population. People at the time saw this as an old enemy, religious fanaticism, with the people in place of God, and the nation standing in for the church. But the language was new, and the belief that utopia could be built by human hands, without divine aid. 

Two generations later a new wave of utopian thinkers emerged from among the students and followers of Hegel. Marx is the most famous, but there were many others, young men who thought that Hegel had taken philosophy as far as it could go as thought: the only way to move forward was through action. Philosophy must shift, one wrote, "to the absolutely practical terrain of the will." Through the will, philosophy will achieve, as Bakunin put it, "a complete reconciliation with reality in every area of life." Calasso calls this the "fatal shard of the Hegelian legacy." (256) The world – that is, society – must be made to conform to philosophy in every particular.

If Calasso were in favor of cancelling things, which he is not, he might have inserted here: if we are going to silence anyone, it should not be the trolls or the cruel jokesters but the suave philosophers who want to twist the world until it fits their visions of perfection.

The Nihilists

At around the same time that the young Hegelians were turning philosophy from thought into "praxis," the other great strain of modern thought received new impetus: nihilism. Nihilism was given its most perfect form early on by Stirner, a contemporary of Marx, who wrote that all metaphysics was "mad raving," and that nothing really existed but the brute facts of animal life. Everything else was a mere "ghost" – "spook," his most recent English translator renders this – a story told to frighten us and keep us from knowing the truth. The stage is thus set for two great divisions of modernity, the grand ideologues and the believers in nothing. The rest of us have to make our way between them.

The Fall

Once, Calasso says, there were rules about how things had to be done. There were rules about sacrifice, about worship, about planting and harvesting, about marriage, about kingship, even about war. Through repetition these rules become part of the very fabric of our consciousness, the way we imagined ourselves and the world. Then we threw them away. Our science taught us that they were false, not divinely ordained but invented by other men, perhaps for their own enrichment. Our political revolutions taught us that we could cast them all aside and be free. 

And yet somehow it has not worked out as we hoped. Instead of a free and happy time Europe entered an era of tyranny and war, and the sentiment hung everywhere that were it not for the shreds of the unfree past we still maintained, things would have been even worse. How did it happen? In simple terms, the old regimes imposed limits on the rulers as well as the ruled, and when we swept them away we freed tyrants to dominate us far more cruelly than kings ever could. Yet the loss penetrated much deeper, into the structure of our minds. "Every obligation was a root," Calasso writes, and having cut away the chains that held us down we find ourselves cut off from what sustained us and too easily blown this way and that, from the extremes of devotion to Party and State to extreme indulgence and narcissism. 

It is a remarkable picture, and one to which Calass added in many other books before his death in 2021. But is it true? I find myself of two minds. One way to think about the twentieth century is to say that the cruelty is not new at all, just the technology; if medieval kings had had tanks and secret police forces they would have been just as awful. But if that is not true, if there is something about Hitler, Stalin and the Holocaust that is genuinely different from the woes of the past, then Calasso's analysis is the only one that makes sense to me.

You might think that since Calasso hated totalitarians of every stripe, he might have thought better of the pleasant contemporary era. Not really. At least the ideologues dreamed of something grand; we dream of the trivial (finding ourselves naked in high school, say). When we look at the past, we feel inadequate; when we look to the future, we are afraid. We are free but do not know what to do with our freedom. In the future, his mouthpiece Talleyrand suggests, "everything will be regarded with indifference, except pleasure and business."

Yet Calasso never despaired. We may no longer believe in myths, but we can still lose ourselves in them. We can escape our Benthamite age by reading. Calasso was one of history's great readers, causing reviewer after reviewer to marvel that he had ransacked whole libraries for his material. In books he found insight, understanding, and uplift for the spirit. Above all he found myth. In ancient myths he saw a changeability, a refusal to stand still and be named, that is the opposite of the modern drive toward predictability and sameness, of the dead hand of dictatorship, of Stirner's cynicism and the revolutionaries' bloody certainties. To mass death, he opposed old stories of gods and goddesses, and also modern novels in which we make our own myths. 

Perhaps we cannot believe in the old myths, but then we are not so certain that anyone ever did believe in all of them. The disenchantment of the world, Calasso wrote, has been proclaimed for two centuries, but it has not happened. Despite everything that has been done and said, "the world remained enchanted." 

Monday, March 20, 2023

The Hereford Mappa Mundi, 1300 AD

Behold the largest surviving medieval map (158x133 cm), which has been kept for centuries at Hereford Cathedral in England. It has the common form for mappa mundi, with East at the top and Jerusalem in the center. Around the edge are some scenes of heaven and hell.


The British Isles.

Italy, Sicily, and Crete with an enormous labyrinth.

Scandinavia, with a giant named Gansir and a bear.



Constantinople and the Golden Fleece. In the imaginations of these western Christians, Constantinople was not such a great place, shown smaller than Paris or Rome.

Paradise, surrounded by a wall of fire, with angels looking on.

Beasts in the exotic east. Wikipedia has a large image if you feel like exploring on your own. Some people who think the author of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (a fantasy travelog written around 1360) used this map have put a cleaned-up version online, with all the places mentioned in the travels highlighted.

I love these maps because they show that some medieval people were not, in their minds, confined to the local or the recent. Their thoughts roved across the world, imagining golden kings in Africa and strange beast men in far Asia; they told stories of King Midas, the Argonauts, Troy, and Alexander the Great. Their world was large and growing larger.

David Chipperfield Wins the Pritzker Prize, and I Bemoan Being Trapped in the Wrong Timeline

So they gave the Pritzker Prize to another architect whose buildings make me feel like I am trapped in the wrong universe. Or at least the wrong century. Why, oh why, must we endure these awful rectangular monstrosities? Did you look at those buildings above, the Ciutat de la Justícia in Barcelona (2009) and think, wow that's amazing, give that man a prize! I thought, where is the portal back to the world where I belong?

Or how about this wonder? Oh, the pathos.

I have really tried at various times in my life to understand this kind of art, but I have finally given up. This just looks to me like psychic torture deliberately inflicted on the world by Satan's minions. I simply don't understand how this can be in any way good, or why anyone wants it. And this is, no kidding, the Museum Folkwang in Essen (2009), that is, the museum of folkways. Is there any kind of folk art anywhere in the world as awful as this building?

Here is the Turner Contemporary Museum 2011. Of course one expects a ghastly building to house contemporary art, I mean, a building with any beauty would overwhelm the contents. But what if you tried to walk around this building, heading off to the left of the stairs? You would behold, the whole way around, a blank concrete wall extending above your head. Why do we, by far the richest society in human history, insist on inflicting bare concrete walls on our fellow humans? I look at this and I see a complete indifference to humanity, a utter lack of caring about human emotion.

Now, maybe somebody likes this stuff. I find it hard to believe, but let's posit, for the sake of argument, that such people exist. Fine. They have their buildings. People who design them win prizes. Why is there nothing in the architectural world, absolutely nothing, for people like me? I know there are millions of us; every time anyone asks the public how they feel about modern architecture, they turn their thumbs down. Why does this not matter at all? Why does the machine of architecture keep churning out these monstrsities, colder than antarctic winter, more brutal than Bolshevism, with a capitalist titan's contempt for the masses?

Why must we go on blighting our own world?

Why are we forced to work in what feel like giant icebergs hollowed out to serve as prisons? Why are we forbidden beauty?

Ach. Time for a break to go look at my flowers.

The Perfect Mental Illness for this Moment

You know how some people say that our mental illnesses change as our societies change, so that they end up holding a distorting mirror to our culture? I give you a great example:

The patient was elderly and lived alone. She was showing signs of depression, but it was clear that something more was amiss. She insisted she was trapped in the wrong timeline.

The ward to which she’d been committed was unstuck in time, she told her doctors. Outside, the future had already arrived, and it was not a good one. “She described then that the world outside the ward had been destroyed,” reported the doctors in Exeter, England, who wrote a report about the case in a 2019 issue of the journal Neurology and Neurosurgery.

The woman was diagnosed with a variation of Capgras syndrome. First defined a century ago, Capgras typically describes a person’s belief that someone close to him or her — a spouse or a child — has been replaced with a duplicate impostor. But in this case, the patient believed that the whole world — everything she could observe of it — was a duplicate, a fake.

S.I. Rosenbaum in the NY Times

Dave Eggers, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"

Another review from my old web site:

You can get an idea of the tone of this weird memoir from the inside back cover, which features a picture of the author with a cute golden retriever and says,

Dave Eggers, a founding editor of Might magazine and contributor to many periodicals, is now the editor of McSweeney's, a quarterly journal. He lives in Brooklyn with his brother. This is not their dog.

The brother, Toph, is in a sense the pretext for the whole exercise. The book begins with the death of Dave and Toph's parents within a month of each other from unrelated cancers. Dave, then 21, and his 23-year-old sister become the guardians of their little brother, who was then 8. The relationship between the brothers becomes the thread around which Dave spins a discursive sort of story/essay/rant/writing experiment about three years in his life, all told in a highly self-conscious conversational twenty-something voice, punctuated by frequent "post-modern" moments in which a character will turn to the author and say, "Dave, that's a mediocre metaphor" or complain about being misquoted. It sounds awful, but it isn't. Well, parts of it are pretty awful, but they are redeemed by parts that are brilliantly witty, emotionally wrenching, and genuinely insightful. I was left with the feeling that this experiment was a true success, that it conveyed much better than a conventional novel or narrative memoir could the strange experience of being Dave Eggers, orphan, brother, parent, and ambitious young man.

I have always had difficulty with the "realistic" novel as a form, because most novels just don't come very close to the way life feels to me. There are, first of all, various falsifying conventions that novelists are supposed to follow, like that characters are supposed to change when, so far as I can see, lots of people never really change at all, or that characters are supposed to "resolve" their issues, when I have never resolved any problem that ever really bothered me. Even honest novelists run up against the simple fact that no narrative structure can really convey the random, barely coherent pattern human experience, the way all serious thoughts are undermined by silly or lustful ones even as we think them, all comedy interspersed with brooding about death. Somehow Dave Eggers' style, for all its artifice, rang very true to me. It is a cowardly surrender when a writer, instead of thinking up a way to improve a weak metaphor, has a character point out that it is weak, but it also has a feeling of reality that polished prose lacks. Here Dave visits a suicidal friend tied to a bed in a mental hospital:

I put my hand on his shoulder. I can't believe he's going to make me give him the speech. I am livid that he's going to make me give him the speech. I do it, piecing it together from times I've seen it done on TV and in movies. I tell him that there are many people who love him and would be crushed if he were to kill himself, while wondering, distantly, if that is the truth. I tell him that he has so much potential, that he has so many things to do, while most of me believes that he will never put his body and brain to much use at all. I tell him that we all have dark periods, while becoming ever more angry at him, the theatrics, the self-pity, all this, when he has everything....
But when Dave tries to tell the friend how boring his theatrics are, the friend says "so leave it out," and Dave can only reply, "It's not that boring." Friend: "You're sick."

Dave doesn't even try to make himself seem like a particularly nice person, and in one section he shows how his ambivalence about his relationship with his brother turns him into a complete jerk. On the one hand, he tries to be Toph's buddy and to live out the fantasy of parentless boyhood—everything a mess, no healthy meals, apartments chosen because they had good hallways for sliding down in your socks. On the other hand, he feels responsible and resents even the friendliest attempts to help or offer advice:
"Are you telling me what to—"
"No, I just think that—"
"See, that's just such bullshit, that you think you have a say in something like that, just because I'm young. I mean, you would never contradict some forty-year-old mother, would you?"
"Well, don't. Because I am a forty-year-old mother. As far as you and everyone else is concerned I am a forty-year-old mother. Don't ever forget that."
The central 150 or so pages of the book chronicle Dave's life as an ambitious twenty-something working in the coolest part of San Francisco, in 1993, surrounded by Internet startups and characters from Real World, trying to launch a new magazine in the same building as the people trying to launch Wired. My attitude toward cool young city dwellers like Eggers and his friends swings between intense jealousy and bitter scorn—like, I think, that of many other people—and I was impressed at how Eggers manages to convey both that his life was exciting and that much about it was shallow and stupid. His friends all have vague ideas about change, action, and making a difference or just doing things differently, but they have no substance:
It's like the '60s! Look! Look, we say to one another, at the imbalances, the glaring flaws of the world, aghast, amazed. Look how things are! Look at how, for instance, there are all these homeless people! Look at how they have to defecate all over the streets, where we have to walk! Look at how high rents are! Look at how the banks charge these hidden fees when you use their ATMs! And Ticketmaster! Have you heard about these service charges? How, if you charge your tickets over the phone, they charge you, like $2 for every goddamn ticket! Have you heard about this!
It seems to me that while trendy youth sub-cultures from the hippies to the grungers have produced terrific art and ideas worth listening to, they all have at their cores a denial of reality that borders on the silly. "Baby I'll be there to share the land, that they'll be giving away, when we all live together." Yeah, right. The young San Francisco of 1993, with its tattoos, nose rings, high-tech anarchism, and cant about the Internet revolution, was as silly as any—and yet here I am, on the Internet, using its real potential for self-expression to review a book by one of that generation's snidest spokesmen. Is it possible that any truly creative movement has to be founded on a tendency to believe its own nonsensical version of reality? Or is this just a habit of contemporary youth, along with the belief that grownups are hopeless failures and the experience of the ages is useless schlock? I was just musing on going back, with some adult wisdom, to my 22-year-old life, wondering if I could find a way into the cool world of my own time. I doubt it—three words in which all my jealous sense of aging mediocrity and all my pride in my depth and sense ring together.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius begins with the death of Dave and Toph's mother, but at that point all we get is a clinical account of her illness. His feelings about her gruesome end are all deferred and come up only in the last chapters of the book, when he finds her ashes. He broods long and angrily on her death in pages that are so raw and hurt they are painful to read. Here is none of the cleverness that has carried the book this far, none of the ironic double or triple consciousness. There is only the juxtaposition of the details of life, mostly frisbee throwing, with the horror of her death and the great raw wound it has left in him. It is ugly, it doesn't make much sense, and as art it didn't do much for me, but it had, again, a moving reality. I felt his pain. I also wondered about this pain and the roots of Eggers' persona as a writer: ironic, engaged, detached, scornful, and playful at the same time. I imagined him going through his cool young life with his cool friends and his new magazine, immersed in the center of his generation's consciousness, and yet also living alone with his grief and observing everything from the outside. "In society but not of it" has been the artist's pose for a couple of centuries now, but that hasn't made it any easier to pull off: most art is still either saturated with convention or isolated in its meaninglessness. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is neither. It is familiar but also strange, scornful but also celebratory, irritating but also winning. As much as I resent the pose of Eggers and other 25-year-old writers determined to overthrow all artistic convention, I couldn't help but like this book. 

July 14, 2001 

Friday, March 17, 2023

A Family Cemetery in Rural Maryland

I was visiting a friend today who lives on a 25-acre property in a very rural area. She mentioned that there was a great old cemetery on the next property over; did I want to see it? Did I ever. It was a very gray day with occasional drizzle, perfect for visiting a graveyard, but it did make the photographs a bit dreary.

One of the fascinating things is the location, on a very steep little hill; and this is the coastal plain, where there aren't a lot of steep little hills. The cemetery hill is wooded, with at least a strip of plowed fields on every side.

There is a gigantic oak tree, and vinca covers the ground. (These are very good clues to the location of old cemeteries in this part of the world.)

The ornamental fence in the center seems to be a late addition, since it doesn't enclose most of the graves, including many of the landowning family.

There are about 20 carved stones, but a glance at the ground surface tells you that there are at least as many unmarked graves.

It was a wonderful little adventure, and it lifted my spirits after a blah week.

CRISPR Therapy for Sickle-Cell Disease: Progress Report

The first patients with the dreaded sickle-cell gene were treated with gene editing therapy back in 2019. After three years, all 31 seem to be doing ok. (Articles on the therapy: here, here)

So what now? The treatment is very complex. It involves removing bone marrow from the patient, editing the DNA of the hemocytoblast cells that produce red blood cells, and putting billions of those cells back into the body. No information on the cost has yet been made public but it is surely in the millions of dollars. There are about 100,000 people in the US who have the condition, most of them black, many poor. That's a big burden for Medicaid and the rest of the insurance system.

And globally, most of the 20 million people with the condition live in Sub Saharan Africa. What happens when they start migrating to the US and Europe and applying for asylum on the basis that without this treatment they will die?

Other people question the treatment because nobody knows how long it will last. Hemocytoblasts don't live forever, and presumably the new ones the body makes will have the sickle cell gene. Can we afford to give people this treatment every decade?

CRISPR technology is advancing rapidly, so presumably the cost of the gene editing and cell cloning steps will come down. But bone marrow surgery is a mature technology and it is likely to remain very expensive. I suppose in the long run the solution will be to use gene editing to remove the faulty gene from the population, but then again I suppose that will have to wait on an effective vaccine for malaria. 

This is going to create a lot of ugly fights in years to come.

A thought comes to mind: the reason we don't have flying cars, as people like to ask, is that we are spending our resources helping people live longer, healthier lives.

Links 17 March 2023

Vlad Miroshnikov, Old Trees, 2019

I am a protopian, which means that I accept neither visions of utopia nor fears of dystopia but do expect gradual improvement. (NY Times, Medium)

The NY Times runs an op-ed asking why our anti-poverty programs haven't reduced poverty, relying on a measure of poverty that does not include government assistance. Kevin Drum shreds this by pointing out that if you do account for government assistance, the US poverty rate has fallen from 18.7% in 1980 to 8.3% today. There is a widespread belief on the left that nothing has gotten better, whether we're talking about poverty, racism, health care, or any number of other things, even when this is demonstrably false. 

People tend to assume that artifical intelligence will be less scatterbrained than humans, more focused, perhaps monomaniacal. But if you compare animals, the more intelligent ones seem to be more internally conflicted than the stupid ones. I mean, other than us the animal that does the most bizarre, pointless stuff is probably orcas. So maybe superintelligent AI will we more scatterbrained and conflicted than we are.

I've been reading all my life that the Sargasso Sea was a sort of misnomer/just plain wrong, because the central Atlantic is not really full of seaweed. But Yahoo tells me that there is now a "5,000-mile seaweed bloom that can be seen from space" right around where old maps showed the Sargasso Sea. This is blamed on fertilizer, but maybe something else in the past had the same effect – big dust storms on the Sahara? – and the sailors who named the Sargasso Sea weren't really wrong.

How much safer has construction work gotten over the past century? A lot.

This rather irritating review of two books on the history of science nonetheless comes back to the theory I have mentioned here before, that the intellectual creativity of the modern world, first in Europe and then elsewhere, was launched by the flood of new knowledge coming from around the world.

Ordos in Inner Mongolia, once famous as a "ghost city" that somehow foretold the future collapse of China's economy, is now said to be thriving, mostly because of the schools that have opened there.

More on the view that the recent spate of UFO videos can't depict what they seem to, because the "craft" violate our most basic knowledge of physics. For example, they seem to move through air at extremely high speeds without generating friction. You may think, that just means aliens are super advanced, but if our knowledge of physics is that wrong, you could be looking at literally anything. Like, say, the visions of Paleolithic shamans projected 50,000 years into the future. That wouldn't violate our physics any more than frictionless motion does. 

Narco-submarines made in Colombia can cross the Atlantic, carrying drugs to Europe.

Comprehensive study of donkey genetics finds that they were domesticated only once, in the Horn of Africa, around 5,000 BC. (NY Times, Science) Donkeys were an integral part of human life for a long time, and still are in some places, but the relationship has never been easy. Donkeys have never learned to love their work, as dogs have, so their stubbornness and willful stupidity are part of folklore wherever they are kept.

Interesting article on George Orwell and Albert Camus, who both saw themselves as people who put the truth before ideology and paid a price for it. They arranged to meet once, in Paris soon after WW II, but Camus fell sick and never showed up.

Giorgia Meloni, Italy's new fascist-lite Prime Minister, scares a lot of people – Stern dubbed her "the most dangerous woman in Europe" – but so far she has governed quite responsibly, picked few fights, and sided with Ukraine against Russia, and her approval rating is the highest of any leader in Europe.

Women do sometimes falsely accuse men of rape, as the infamous case of "Facebook fantasist" Eleanor Williams shows. On the other hand, rape remains a difficult crime to prove, so most of these falsely accused men have little trouble proving their innocence.

After decades of trying and bitter public protests, the French government finally rammed through a bill raising the retirement age from 62 to 64. I'll give this to Macron, he risked his political future to do something he felt had to be done. (NY Times, NPR)

Interesting Neolithic archaeology in the Arabian desert.

The Biden administration threatens to ban TikTok if it is not sold to a non-Chinese company. The issue is that TikTok collects a ton of data on users to which the Chinese government could get access. Most users don't care because they figure the US government could get access to their data from US-owned apps, and they don't like that any better.

Ukraine Links

As the snow melts around Bakhmut, fields full of Russian corpses are exposed. I should say that some people doubt these photos but they are being posted by people I have found to be reliable.

"Russian citizens are ratting each other out to authorities in droves for anti-war comments made in bars, beauty salons, and grocery stores." From Vretska.

Spokeswoman for the Free Buryatia Foundation claims that as of January 9, 471 Buryats had been killed fighting for Russia in Ukraine, while by March 4, 622 had been killed. So the daily death toll has risen from 1.5/day in 2022 to 2.8/day in 2023. Buryatia has a population of around 975,000. Also note that while Buryats and other minorities are overrepresented in the Russian army, their death toll amounts to 0.064% of the population. Russia's losses are hard on their army but for the population as a whole people fleeing abroad is a much bigger problem.

Detailed summary of what is known about the Nordstream Pipeline attack from British journalist Brian Whitaker, with lots of links.

British MOD reports that the Russian army has imposed "punitive shell rationing" due to shortages, and that this is the reason Russia can't mount a meaningful offensive.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Fulbrights and Languages

When you apply for a Fulbright fellowship to study in a foreign country, you get points for knowing the language well. Unless you grew up speaking it, in which case you get no points in the language proficiency section. Since Fulbright fellowships to most countries are intensely competitive, this makes people who grew up speaking the language unlikely to win.

This is being challenged in court by the children of immigrants who believe that it unfairly discriminates against them. (NY Times) And it does discriminate against them. The question is, do the stated goals of the Fulbright program, which inlcude promoting international friendship, intercultural relations, and the study of foreign languages, make that discrimination ok? The Fulbright is not particularly interested in sending students back to the countries their parents came from, because that doesn't create new cultural connections, doesn't encourage students to study foreign languages, and, they say, doesn't really encourage students to think internationally. They absolutely do not want to send mainly children of recent immigrants to study in the countries their parents came from. Is that unfair discrimination?

There are lots of ways that American institutions discriminate against native speakers of languages. For example in high school I participated in a statewide competition for German students which explicitly banned those who grew up in German-speaking homes. Is that unfair?

The Fulbright program wants to broaden people's horizons, not reinforce already existing interests and connections. It wants people to study new languages in school, not improve the ones they speak at home. But, against that, the program as it stands absolutely does discriminate against the children of immigrants. Some of the people interviewed by the Times said this felt like double discrimination to them, since they had to fight their way through the educational system in English – and only elite graduate students can even apply for a Fulbright-Hays grant, so these people have already made it a long way – and then face discimination again for the thing that made education harder for them in the first place.

(As a personal aside, I felt like a DeSantis/Trump supporter when one woman who was born in Jordan suggested that the people she was competing against were privileged white folks who could learn languages by foreign travel and fancy summer language institutes, because I spent my summers earning money for school and never set foot outside the country until after I won my Fulbright, which was the only way I could afford it. Hmph.)

Based on the Times story, it looks like the people administering the Fulbright-Hays grants will respond to these suits by greatly de-emphasizing the whole section on language proficiency. I don't blame them, but that again means compromising one of their goals, promoting the study of foreign languages.

I think this connects to the broader debate over college admissions and affirmative action because it pits the right of students to fair treatment against the right of institutions to have goals. No university says its goal is to educate the applicants with the best grades and test scores. The actual goal of elite schools, whether they say it or not, is to shape the future leaders of the country and the world. (I mean here, not just politicians and CEOs, but the leadership in academia, nonprofit foundations, the arts, etc.) Because the American leadership class is now multi-racial, they want a multi-racial student body. Because the American leadership class is nothing like majority Asian, they do not want a majority Asian student body. They understand that grades and test scores are only loosely correlated with leadership potential, so they want to use other criteria in selecting their students. But this seems radically unfair to students who find that they would need much better records than those of different ethnic backgrounds.

I think the Fulbright folks are right that sending students back to the countries their parents were born in does not efficiently promote their goals. I also agree that their policy is discriminatory. What to do about that, I don't really know.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Making a Life

The way we are living,
timorous or bold,
will have been our life. 

– Seamus Heaney, Elegy for Robert Lowell, 1979

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The First Mention of Odin

This gold disc – the term of art is "bracteate," but that just means a gold disc that isn't a coin – was excavated in Denmark in 2020 and dated to the early 400s AD. It was made in a mold and two others of the type are known, one found back in 1870. But the others were too worn for the runic inscription to be read. Because of the swastika, associated with Odin in the Viking period, people had long wondered if this depicted Odin. (Announcement in Danish, English summary)

But the inscription on the new find is legible and has now been partially translated. It seems to refer to the pictured person as Jaga or Jagaz, "Odin's man." So this is not Odin himself but a great lord who was one of Odin's followers. This is the oldest known mention of Odin.

And it fits perfectly with our understanding of how and when Viking culture arose. As I have written here before, archaeological evidence points to the late Roman period, c. 250 to 450 AD, as the time when the Norse first had great lords living in longhouses, surrounded by their warriors. Since the worship of Odin was central to both kingship and warrior culture in later times, one would assume that Odin was central to those things during the period when they arose. As this find confirms.

Gold in the Dark

Kimon de Greef's piece in the February 27 New Yorker, "After the Gold Rush," is the most eye-opening thing I have read in years.

The basic story is this: the small city of Welkom in South Africa was built when mining companies opened a series of deep gold mines in the 1950s. Around 1989, those mines ceased to be profitable. This was partly because the global price of gold fell, and partly because the growing power of South African blacks and their unions meant that they were not as exploitable as they once were. So the mines were closed; across this region, 150,000 miners were laid off.

Many of them responded by sneaking back into the mines and continuing to mine illegally. These men became known as zama-zamas, which means something like "risky-risky." One event that brought illegal mining to the attention of the companies happened during a routine inspection of what was supposed to be a closed shaft:

To assess the mine's condition, a team of specialists lowered a camera down the shaft with a winding machine designed for rescue missions. The footage shows a darkened tunnel, some thirty feet in diameter, with an internal frame of large steel girders. The camera descends at about 5 feet per second. At around eight hundred feet, moving figures appear in the distance, travelling downward at almost the same speed. It is two men sliding down the girders. They have neither helmets nor ropes, and their forearms are protected by sawed-off gum boots. The camer continues its descent, leaving the men in darkness. Twisted around the horizontal beams below then —at 1600 feet, at 2600 feet—are corpses: the remains of men who have fallen, or perhaps been thrown, to their deaths.

It seems that thousands of men were carrying on this very dangerous work. Although the big companies considered the mines unprofitable, enough money was being made to attract the attention of organized crime. By the 2000s, the mines were taken over by violent gangs from Lesotho, who fought underground battles with uzis and shotguns.

The town of Welkom was not in much better shape:

Welkom is surrounded by enormous flat-topped mine dumps that rise from the plains like mesas. The roads have been devoured by potholes. Several years ago, zama-zamas began breaking open wastewater pipes to process gold ore, which requies large volumes of water. They also attacked sewage plants, extracting golf from the sludge itself. Now untreated sewage flows in the streets. In addition, zama-zamas stripped copper cables from around town and within the mines. Cable theft became so rampant that Welkom experienced power failures several times per week. . . . This past November, a clock tower outside the civic center, considered one of Welkom's landmarks, displayed a different incorrect time on each of its three faces.

Eventually, in the 2000s, all the mines around Welkom fell under the control of one mob boss, a man from Mozambique known as Khombi. Khombi created his cartel by taking control of food supply to the mines; miners lived underground for months or even years at a time, all their necessities supplied from above by Khombi's gang. When they struck it big, they ordered buckets of KFC. Khombi played the part of any truly successful boss, building a mansion, corrupting the local government, making generous donations to favored charities, even bailing out the town when it fell so far behind paying for electricity that the electrical company threatened to cut off the whole community.

Just a few years ago, things began to change again. New mining technologies and the rising price of gold made it possible to resume working the mines officially, and those around Welkom were all bought up by one company. The government moved against the zama-zamas and Khombi's gang, bringing in outside police since those in Welkom were all in the pay of the gangs. Hundreds of people were arrested, including more than 50 local officials. Khombi was eventually convicted of murder. De Greef meets people who believe that when the gangs were broken up, hundreds of men were trapped underground and starved to death.

It's an astonishing story, and one still going on. De Greef says there are still zama-zamas under Welkom, besides many other places in South Africa. It is crazy in itself, and one small part of the craziness of post-Apartheid South Africa, where democracy has not led to anything that most people would call justice.