Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Comet Lovejoy

Visible to the naked eye next week.

The Warcq Chariot Burial

I reported here last summer on the Gallic chariot burial under excavation at Warcq in the Ardennes region of France, near the Belgian border. Thinking over the year that has been, I was reminded of this discovery and went back to the INRAP web site to see what might have been posted since.

I found a 6-minute video in French, full of amazing images, and a second press release adding more information on the project. All of this is from June and July, though, so nothing yet on radiocarbon dates or any such post-excavation details. The date is an issue because chariot burials were more common before about 300 BCE, but some of the other artifacts in this one look later, perhaps as late as 100 BCE, by which time we thought the practice had stopped.

There are four horses in the grave, which is extraordinary. Most Gallic chieftains made do with two, some with none. Note the dark stains in the walls of the excavation, which are the remains of the boards that once formed the burial chamber.

Lots of pictures in the video of grave goods under excavation, giving you a good idea of what this stuff looks like as it comes out of the ground. Directly above is a smashed pot and some other stuff.

The torc around the buried chieftain's neck. No, I don't see the skull either, so I suppose it must have decomposed into that dark stain. What survives of the necklace is thin gold foil, which must once have decorated a wooden or leather frame.

What an extraordinary find. From the press release:
The two-wheeled chariot is ceremonial, not built for war. The vehicle is finely decorated, including bronze pieces, sometimes set with dark blue or yellow glass paste on the body and hubs. Other enigmatic wooden objects are still covered with a thin gold foil. . . . The deceased, probably a man, lay on the body of the chariot. An exceptional gold necklace still encircles his neck. A fibula is linked to his clothes. A bent sword scabbard, a pair of shears and an iron razor rest beside him. Three ceramic vases, whole, were crushed in the collapse of the ceiling of the room. Besides the four horses there is a pig, no doubt a food offering. Everything here indicates a spectacular, elaborately staged funeral.

The Long Way to Freedom

Yuval Levin's "Taking the Long Way" questions whether liberty, as defined by either liberals or conservatives, is enough to build a good society. Just freeing ourselves from constraints, he suggests, will avail us little if we are not prepared to use the freedom we win. It's a fascinating meditation, and David Brooks gave it one of his Sidney Awards. Levin begins by arguing that in contemporary America liberals and conservatives are united by the same individualistic philosophy:
The left’s flawed idea of liberty . . . begins from the straightforward premise that liberty consists of the individual’s freedom from coercion and constraint—in essence, the freedom to shape one’s life as one chooses. There will always be limits to that freedom, of course. But in this view most limits are artificial and unjust barriers rather than natural and necessary constraints. Therefore, the proper mission of a liberal society is to remove as many of them as possible. . . . The choosing individual is the foundation of this progressive vision of liberty, and all of society is to be constructed around that essential unit.

Some limits are material or economic. The simple fact of scarcity constrains what we can do. But this constraint does not apply equally to all. Some are rich and have ample resources to exercise their liberty, while others are poor and have few options. What is more, the efforts required to meet our material needs—work—often amount to constraints on our freedom as well. This is especially true for the less well-off. They’re more likely to work at jobs they don’t like for the sake of a paycheck. The liberal society tries to alleviate these constraints by redistributing wealth to some degree. A key goal of progressive taxation and the modern welfare state is to increase significantly the liberty of the poor at a relatively minimal cost to the liberty of the rich.
Conservatives differ from this mainly in their intense suspicion of the state and their insistence on an expansive view of property rights:
When conservatives object to this idea of the liberal society, it is often on the ground that the range of government coercion it permits is too broad. But many conservatives (and all the more so libertarians) root their complaints in the same radical individualism as the progressives they oppose. They don’t object to the liberal view of liberty. Instead, they see liberalism as betraying it. They insist, for instance, that public redistribution of wealth is a greater constraint on free choice than the economic want it is meant to address. The same goes for campaign finance laws and many other liberal efforts to limit liberty for the sake of greater liberty. They deem the paradox of liberalism a fatal contradiction.

Their individualism leads them to this view in part because the American conservative idea of liberty is often mediated by the concept of rights, and especially property rights. The fact of economic want is not a violation of these rights. Poverty in this sense does not necessarily involve injustice. By contrast, government redistribution of property can directly impinge on our rights of ownership, and thus can easily be seen as unjust. Conservatives therefore assert that an idea of liberty grounded in individual rights is superior to the liberal approach that seeks an overall increase in individual autonomy. Rights, especially property rights, impose meaningful limits on the power of the state, which is uniquely positioned to constrain our liberty.
I think all of this is highly intelligent. As Levin notes, though, this is not what actually happens in American politics. What our politicians actually do often violates all these theories about individual liberty, often with the enthusiastic consent of the voters.
The theory and practice of American liberty have always been remarkably different from one another. Our theories have tended to be stark, abstract, individualistic, and fairly radical. Our practice has been elaborate, practical, communitarian, and fairly conservative. Our theories present our sort of liberal society as the product of a new discovery of the Enlightenment—a sharp break from what came before. Our practice reveals otherwise.
This is also intelligent; as Levin says, the political theory of liberty evolved partly as a new justification for societies that had not actually changed very much. We make a mistake when we assume that our societies grew from a social contract of free individuals, since there have never been any such individuals. We are all embedded in our social worlds and generally act accordingly, whatever theory of freedom we espouse. The bald contradictions of American politics -- like, for example, being angry that people will not salute the flag that represents the Land of the Free, or declaring whole classes of ideas unacceptable in the name of freedom -- flow from saying we believe in a theory of liberty of which we make only sporadic use.

From there Levin wanders toward religion and moral conservatism, as providing foundations for society that the simple pursuit of freedom cannot. I am of course deeply ambivalent about this. I belong to no religion and find that "traditional morality" is often a cover for patriarchy, aristocracy, racism, and smug intolerance. And yet like Levin I wonder whether people can thrive without some sort of traditional foundation. I find that the parts of my life that work best, and that give me deep satisfaction, are the traditional ones: family, work, scholarship, a sense of fulfilling my duties and honoring my obligations. Looking around America I see that freedom is failing a lot of people very badly: drug addiction, crime, prison on the one hand, empty indulgence and shallow celebrity on the other.

The critics of philosophical liberalism are right -- it is a great exercise in question begging, full of fantasies like free choice, independence, the self-made man. We are none of us truly independent; our selves are just nodes in a great network of human ties, biological imperatives, technological systems, social classes, ancient ideas. We are shaped by our circumstances much more than we shape them. We believe what we believe because of how we were raised and what we are taught and the mysterious operations of brain chemicals. To found a society on freedom is to found it on a shadow.

But what is the alternative?

Levin, as I know from his other writings, would reject much of the social progress of the past 60 years; he would have women focus on raising children, and he would not use the power of the state to undo segregation. This I condemn as immorality in the guise of conservatism.

Levin finds many of his own answers in religion. So it will continue to be for many people. For others, though, religion is about as relevant as tribal taboos, and this also will continue. For our society as a whole, religion has no answers at all; there is no important political or social question in America without religious voices on both sides, no such thing as a religious approach to life or its problems.

I am occasionally drawn to a much more communitarian politics, one in which the "rights" (another liberal fantasy, actually) of individuals are disregarded in pursuit of common ends. Levin makes much of work and its dignity, and I agree; so why not give everyone a job? We easily could, if we imposed high taxes on the rich and simply required companies to hire their share of the unemployed. Fascist and communist states have done it, so why don't we? We don't, I suppose, because at some level we really do love liberty and fear any system that threatens it too starkly. We also disagree so strongly about the measures we might take together that libertarianism becomes the easiest option, almost the default option; we don't agree on what we should do, so we'll just let everyone do his or her own thing. Our system seems built to move in that direction. Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Kate Mosse, The Winter Ghosts

The Winter Ghosts (2012) is a charming little ghost story, perfect reading for a lonely winter's evening. It's short, just five cds in the version I listened to, so an easy read for a single night. It strikes me now that it would actually be a good story to tell out loud, in a condensed version of about 45 minutes or so. It begins in the south of France in 1933. The narrator is a young Englishman who has never gotten over the sorrow of losing his beloved elder brother at the Somme, and his constant habitation of the no man's land between life and death has made him receptive to the voices of ghosts from another, more ancient conflict. The story is just sad enough to be piquant without ruining the fun. It turned my long, dismal drive of yesterday into a great pleasure, and I recommend it for anyone else needing a little distraction.

Still Life with Archaeological Site

Taken yesterday in southern Maryland. In the background, a tidal creek. In the excavation, the brick foundation of a nineteenth-century slave quarter. This site also has Indian occupation (the celt I posted a few weeks ago came from here) and a rather mysterious early eighteenth-century component.

Reverse view of the foundation. This was a frame building with glass windows and a brick chimney, so a pretty decent home by the standards of the time.


Yesterday I will filling out yet another form to get access to a government facility and when it came to "hair color" I unthinkingly checked the box for "Brown," as I have for my whole life. About a minute later it occurred to me that I should have checked the box for "Gray."


The numbers:
From 1947 to 1979, the postwar economic boom more than doubled median family income to $58,573 in 2013 dollars. Had earnings growth kept that pace through the careers of baby boomers, median family income would have topped $124,000 by 2013. Instead, it was $63,815.
Quite likely the postwar boom was a unique event driven by one-time changes in technology and society, so to compare it to more recent times is misleading. Still, it is clear that we are not doing very well by ordinary families.

John Harwood follows this up with a description of the plans various Democrats and Republicans have put forward to get the median income rising again. Some of them strike me as good ideas, viz., Larry Summers wants us to borrow $200 billion a year while interest rates are really low and invest it in infrastructure; other Democrats want big investments in education. The main Republican idea is still tax "simplification," that is, closing "loopholes" so we can reduce overall tax rates, and I think this is a sham. On the other hand I am not sure cutting corporate taxes is a bad idea. If reducing our corporate tax rates would get more companies to locate in America, that would presumably help a little. So I would support that, and in fact I would support eliminating corporate income taxes altogether, provided we make up the shortfall by raising income taxes on the rich.

But none of this will transform our economic situation. I think we are stuck with slow growth for another generation, which to me means we should focus on distributing what we have more equitably (by high taxes on the rich, a higher minimum wage and support for unions) and using it more productively (building trains instead of fighter planes).

Monday, December 29, 2014

Vincent Munier

Vincent Munier (born 1976) is a French wildlife photographer, one of those featured in National Geographic's Masters of Nature Photography. The child of indulgent parents who encouraged him to, as they say, follow his dreams, he left school at 18 to wander the woods with his "precious" camera. He has largely avoided the usual path to success in his profession, never working with an agency, going on a lecture tour or seeking out magazine assignments. He lives simply on a small property in Lorraine, France, and many of his photographs have been taken within a few miles of his home. Above is one of these, a coal tit landing on a meadow in the Vosges Mountains.

Despite his efforts to avoid commercialism, Munier has been on some high-profile international assignments. He has a wonderful way with snow, and his most famous pictures are of polar animals like these musk oxen.

Snowy owl.

Cranes, Siberia.

But I find myself drawn to the more domestic pictures, taken in France where Munier is obviously on intimate terms with the wildlife.

Many more pictures at Munier's web site.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Jeff Pearce, Prevail

Prevail is a history of the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1936, and also of the part that event played in global culture and the diplomatic run-up to World War II. The event is easy enough to describe: Mussolini's fascist regime, seeking military glory and colonial wealth, sent its army into Ethiopia, supported by tanks, modern artillery, and airplanes dropping poison gas. The forces of Emperor Haile Selassie fought bravely but were defeated by superior technology, especially the airplanes and gas. The Italians took the capital and other major cities and the Emperor fled to London. But resistance continued in the countryside down to World War II, and in 1941 the British supported a major Ethiopian revolt that cast out the Italians and put Selassie back on his throne.

But that is only the beginning of the story that Jeff Pearce tells. Ethiopia was the only remaining nation in Africa that had never been ruled by Europeans, and Italy's obvious intention to conquer it aroused the sympathy and anger of millions of people across the world. There were marches in support of Ethiopia from Harlem to Cape Town; thousands of African Americans tried to volunteer for the Ethiopian armed forces, but only a handful ever made it to Africa. Among those who got involved in trying to help Ethiopia were many of the future leaders of the anti-colonial movement around the world: Gandhi, Jomo Kenyatta (future president of Kenya), Eric Williams (future Prime Minister of Trinidad), C.L.R. James (the main theorist of third world Marxism), J.B. Danqua of Ghana. Some of the organizations they founded changed their names after Ethiopia fell and began to work for the freedom of all Africa; their influence was especially strong in the Caribbean. It was at this time that Haile Selassie became an icon for Africans around the world, such as the founders of Rastafarianism in Jamaica. Ethiopia was the cause of the hour. In Europe its place was soon taken by the Spanish Civil War, but across Africa and the Caribbean it remained at the center of politics for a generation.

The conquest of Ethiopia also exposed the weakness of the League of Nations. Ethiopia was a member of the League, and the League's charter required that all members help preserve each other's independence. Pearce makes much of the two-faced racism of most Europeans, who talked boldly about the self-determination of peoples but really meant white peoples. Some of the British leaders, especially Anthony Eden, considered the Ethiopian crisis a major test of the League, British power, and the ability of the world to avoid another major war. Others did not frankly much care, or worried that opposing Mussolini over Ethiopia would only drive him into the arms of Hitler. This was the position of French Premier Pierre Laval, an oily character who made things more complicated by making contradictory statements and promises to everybody. When the French socialists came to power in 1936, the new Premier Leon Blum wanted very much to help Ethiopia, but by then it was too late. It's a sad story, and Pearce devotes far too much time to it; reading about debates in the League of Nations bores me to tears, and I'm a historian.

Pearce devotes too much time to lots of other stuff as well, and as a result Prevail is far too long. It also rigidly adheres to a chronological scheme that makes it hard to follow any particular thread, such as the interest of African Americans or the political situation in Ethiopia. Since it is the only book on the subject I know, you should consider it if you are really interested in the subject, but otherwise not.

More on Suffering and Belonging

Writing in the New Yorker, Maria Konokova goes over some of the social science about pain and the sense of belonging to a group:
One explanation for the finding is the classic one: that the value comes from dissonance reduction and the need to convince yourself that a painful exercise was worth it. Another theory, however, derives from something closer to the idea expressed by Emile Durkheim, writing in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, that pain, when it does not occur naturally, creates communal bonds in part because “suffering creates exceptional strength.” The willingness and ability to endure pain for some greater cause tells you something about yourself and your fellow sufferers. A club is more valuable to you if you and everyone else endured feats of extreme physical endurance to enter it. Indeed, a study of injury among corps de ballet members of the Royal Ballet and former dancers who had been injured enough to end their careers found that pain was seen as both essential and defining for a dancer. “Part of the discipline is to have pain,” one dancer observed. Another made an injury a point of pride: “I danced hard with a sprained ankle, on a sprain!” Because ballet is such a physically grueling sport, and injury such a common occurrence, it is itself almost a mark of dedication and commitment. If you are injured, you are training hard. If you dance through an injury, you are committed to your success. Pain becomes a signal of your suffering, which reveals your identity and your loyalty to the group. You love ballet in part because everyone in it gets hurt; you love temple more because everyone who reached it had to suffer so much.
As psychologist Brock Bastian puts it,
We tend to overvalue pleasure, but pain is a central part of what it means to be human and what makes us happy.

Art in the City of Money

Alan Feuer takes on the notion that bohemian New York is dead:
Somehow, in the last few years, it has become an article of faith that New York has lost its artistic spirit, that the city’s long run as a capital of culture is over. After all (or so the argument goes), foreign oligarchs and hedge-fund traders have bought up all the real estate, chased away the artists and turned the bohemia that once ran east from Chumley’s clear across the Williamsburg Bridge into a soulless playground of money. . . .
The Miss Rockaway Armada, a flotilla of junk rafts 
But what you cannot argue — at least, not according to many artists — is that art in New York is dead. Yes, the rents are high, but people are adapting by living in increasingly inventive ways, at places like the Silent Barn, an arts collective in Bushwick, Brooklyn, or 3B, an artist-run bed-and-breakfast near Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. . . .
Performance of the Dreary Coast at night on the Gowanus Canal 
The supremacy of real estate and capital that so many people carp about has helped define a new New York aesthetic, one that has moved away from traditional disciplines like painting and sculpture into a more itinerant, guerrilla-style version of performance art. Whether it’s the madcap anarchy of Brooklyn’s annual Bike Kill, in which tattooed lunatics joust on homemade cycles, or the Junxion, a secret cell of artists who drive school buses of marching bands and fire-spinners to remote locations (say, underneath the Kosciuszko Bridge), this wacky and transgressive method of creation is D.I.Y. in spirit and armed with tactics that draw upon graffiti, punk rock, the Situationists and the Occupy movement.
A mod Christmas tree at Silent Barn
“Whenever people ask me if New York is over, my response is that the coolest stuff I’ve seen here has been in the last two years,” said Jeff Stark, who is 42 and has lived in the city since 1999. “Artists make art that reflects the space they’re in, and since we’re in New York, which is expensive, people have started making crazy outdoor art or temporary, pop-up stuff — weird, little culture happenings, sometimes in public places, sometimes in the middle of the night.”
Piano of MagicalMerriment installed in Tomkin Square Park

I am personally very impressed by the vitality of artistic culture in our age. Except for architecture, which remains in thrall to modernism, every sort of art of is bursting with creativity in a dozen different directions: music, painting, sculpture, documentary filmmaking, television storytelling, animation, digital art. Everywhere you look there is a creative ferment that spans DIY youtube productions to the slickest commercial endeavors, tradition to madcap innovation.

One of the mobile events hosted by Junxion in their school buses

The bohemian scene, as Feuer says, has largely moved into "happenings" held in abandoned buildings or under bridges, spaces where just showing up is a sort of transgression and puts people in the mood for the weird and rule-breaking. (Plus, no need to pay extravagant rents.) But the thriving bohemian world is a small part of the American art scene; from HBO to Pixar to Bethesda Games to the potholes of Chicago, art is being made everywhere. 

Public festivals are especially creative these days, things like Baltimore's Kinetic Sculpture Race or New York's Mermaid Parade (above).

New York artist Chris Hackett uses castoff junk to make equipment for surviving the zombie apocalypse

Some people are always sure that the golden age is in the past, and our best days are over. They are silly. As a license plate I saw the other day put it, NOWSGR8.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Are Poets Crazier than Other People?

If you ask poets, yes. A British study recently recruited 294 poets to answer questionnaires about their mental health, and they reported rates of mental illness significantly higher than the population at large:
two poets (0.7%) reported schizophrenia, 15 reported bipolar disorder (5.1%), 152 reported depression (51.7%) and 80 reported anxiety disorder (27.2%).
Is this real, or are they exaggerating? If they are exaggerating, is it because they are sensitive drama queens, or because they just believe that as poets they ought to be crazy?

The Deer

The deer my mother swears to God we never saw,
the ones that stepped between the trees
on pound-coin-coloured hooves,
I’d bring them up each teatime in the holidays

and they were brighter every time I did;
more supple than the otters we waited for
at Ullapool, more graceful than the kingfisher
that darned the river south of Rannoch Moor.

Five years on, in that same house, I rose
for water in the middle of the night and watched
my mother at the window, looking out
to where the forest lapped the garden’s edge.

From where she stood, I saw them stealing
through the pines and they must have been closer
than before, because I had no memory
of those fish-bone ribs, that ragged fur,
their eyes, like hers, that flickered back
towards whatever followed them.

--Helen Mort

Emile-Antoine Bourdelle

Emile-Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929) was a French sculptor who rose to prominence as Auguste Rodin's assistant. I was inspired to write about him by this amazing sculpture, Night (1904).

Bourdelle was the son of a skilled cabinet maker. According to the Musée Bourdelle,
At school, the child showed such a gift for drawing that his teacher, Mr Rousset, allowed him to express himself freely, "sitting in a kind of hall, away from the rest of the class". Aged 13, Bourdelle joined his father's studio as an apprentice. In the evening, he took drawing classes in Montauban, where he learned modelling techniques based on the study of copies of antique plaster casts. The young cabinet maker's skill soon earned him the recognition of art lovers in Montauban. In 1876, he was given a scholarship and passed the entrance examination for the Toulouse School of Fine Arts.
Above, photograph of Bourdelle's studio, now the heart the Musée Bourdelle in Paris.

Bourdelle started winning prizes in the late 1880s, but he never managed to earn enough on his own to make a decent living. So in 1893 he went to work for Rodin as a "praticien" (sculptor's assistant) and stayed with him for 15 years.
The two men respected each other and the collaboration proved to be a decisive one. 
Although Bourdelle spent much of his time executing Rodin's designs, he also continued with his own work and staged a major personal show in 1905. (Crispin the Clown, 1893)

One of Bourdelle's many depictions of Beethoven. Bourdelle was obsessed with Beethoven's struggle to compose music despite his deafness; he once said this was equivalent to his own struggle to express human suffering through stone.

Day and Night, 1903.

Bust of Gustave Eiffel, on display by the Eiffel Tower.

I know what you're thinking, but his is not Gimli in old age; it's two versions of Bourdelle's statue of Rodin, 1909-1910.

Bourdelle in his studio around 1910.

Two reliefs from 1912-1913, detail from The Nine Muses and Dance.

The great hall in the Musée Bourdelle, a modern addition to the original studio.


Herakles the Archer, (1910)

Two more scenes from the Musée Bourdelle. It is closed for renovation right now but should re-open early next year.

A face.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Copper Goat from Sumer

c. 2400 BCE. From the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Thinking about International Development

Interesting essay by Michael Hobbes on the international development industry, to which David Brooks just gave one of his annual Sidney Awards for magazine writing:
When you improve something, you change it in ways you couldn’t have expected. You can find examples of this in every corner of development practice. A project in Kenya that gave kids free uniforms, textbooks, and classroom materials increased enrollment by 50 percent, swamping the teachers and reducing the quality of education for everyone. Communities in India cut off their own water supply so they could be classified as “slums” and be eligible for slum-upgrading funding. I’ve worked in places where as soon as a company sets up a health clinic or an education program, the local government disappears—why should they spend money on primary schools when a rich company is ready to take on the responsibility? . . .

The fancy academic term for this is “complex adaptive systems.” We all understand that every ecosystem, each forest floor or coral reef, is the result of millions of interactions between its constituent parts, a balance of all the aggregated adaptations of plants and animals to their climate and each other. Adding a non-native species, or removing one that has always been there, changes these relationships in ways that are too intertwined and complicated to predict.

According to Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos, international development is just such an invasive species. Why Dertu doesn’t have a vaccination clinic, why Kenyan schoolkids can’t read, it’s a combination of culture, politics, history, laws, infrastructure, individuals—all of a society’s component parts, their harmony and their discord, working as one organism. Introducing something foreign into that system—millions in donor cash, dozens of trained personnel and equipment, U.N. Land Rovers—causes it to adapt in ways you can’t predict.
Changing the world is hard. Creating “development” is especially tricky, because the difference between rich countries and poor countries is not mainly about having more or less stuff. It is about having a completely different culture, one built around small families, extended education, the middle class job, and a maniacal obsession with orderliness and long-term planning.

Religion and Experience

Religion is fundamentally a practice that helps people to look at the world as it is and yet to experience it — to some extent, in some way — as it should be.

--T.M. Luhrmann

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas

From the Guarani Indians of Santa Maria de Fe.