Sunday, June 30, 2019

Stefan Kürten

German artist, born 1963. Perfect World (Gold), 2016.

 Many of his works show modernist architecture, especially houses. Soul of Light, 2016

 Sunday Morning Coming Down, 2015.

All Things Must Pass, 2017.

Black Mirror, 2017.

Heile Welt, 2015. I'm not sure how much I like these but they are certainly distinctive and interesting.

Humanistic Education

After writing my post about Emily Wilson I have decided to launch a discussion about what humanistic education is for, and what sort of things it should include. I am putting my own ideas out mostly to find out what others think on the subject.

Things I want a person who claims to be educated to know:

I want people to be familiar with the recent history of the world, especially in terms of ideology and how that led to World War: nationalism, fascism, communism, anti-communism, World War II, the Cold War, Maoist China, anti-colonialism, the conservative resurgence led by Nixon, Reagan, and Thatcher, the collapse of the Soviet system, the transformation of China. This seems to me essential to understanding what is happening in the world around us today.

I also want people to understand how old and diverse humanity is. Through some combination of anthropology and history I want people to get a sense of how different some human societies have been from their own, and some inkling of the very different ways people have thought and lived.

I want people to be immersed in beauty and to spend some time contemplating things that are amazing to behold: art, architecture, poetry, music.

I want people to read some fiction and think a little bit about the problem of how we know other people: can a novel or memoir really give you insight into another person's mind? If not, what could? (This is of course my personal obsession: how can we bridge the gaps between people?)

I want people to have some understanding of the basics of science: what scientists do, what counts as scientific evidence, what we know, think we know, and don't know. I would teach evolution, atomic theory, and plate tectonics. This may be the thing on this list we are best at right now, and I suspect many Americans graduate from high school knowing what I consider the essentials here, but I didn't want to ignore this.

I think people should learn another language.

I think people should take a serious class in ethics that would be taught as discussion. Some notion of how complex the most basic notions of right and wrong are, when you look closely, seems to me important.

I think people should practice expression in writing and speech.

What else?

Tyler Cowen Interviews Emily Wilson

Interesting interview with British classicist Emily Wilson, whose translation of the Odyssey has gotten a lot of praise. I was moved to write about it by this description of her work space as she translates:
I have a very big desk from IKEA, and I have a huge orange cat, who’s mostly on it. I also have a couple of Greek dictionaries, usually a couple of commentaries, the Greek text, a notebook, a laptop. So, I usually do some writing of a draft by hand in the notebook first, and then I type it up on the laptop. Then I revise it, and I consult the various texts that are spread around me on my big desk at various points.
But there is more. Here is Wilson on Socrates:
I deeply admire him, with some serious reservations. The reason I’m constantly turned back to thinking about him — partly because as an academic and also as a writer, I’m constantly thinking about, “What does it actually mean to try to educate people?”

I’m interested in the Socrates who claims that he isn’t teaching anybody anything, and yet he’s living this life of being engaged in conversations which are clearly designed to either draw things out of people or else put things into them insidiously. So I’m interested in whether all educators are somehow in that double bind of “Am I actually helping you find something out, or am I imposing my own vision on you?”

I’m interested, also, in the figure of the dying Socrates as an image. In a way, this is related to the Seneca questions, as an image of integrity. What does it mean to live with so much integrity that you can be absolutely yourself at every moment, even when you’ve just poisoned yourself?
And then this on the future of Classics:
I don’t know. I think it’s going to have to look different because you’re right that enrollments are declining. There’s also a lot of questioning from within, by classicists, about the elitist legacy of classics, about the ways that it’s been tied up with the people who end up being classicists — especially in Britain, but this is true in the States, too — are those who’ve gone to the fancy private schools and have learned Latin since they were five years old.

Then, it’s sort of tied up with being of a particular class means that you can speak Latin or you can read Latin. If we can’t give a better reason to learn Latin or Greek, or to read the ancient texts, than this is going to be entry to a particular social class within our own society — which it no longer is — then, of course, that’s not going to be a good reason for people in the future.
I think this is absolutely right. Since about 1800 classical studies have survived mainly as a way of defining the upper class. Upper class people went to schools where they studied Latin and Greek. Upper class people got the joke when British General Sir Charles Napier reported his conquest of Sindh with the one-word Latin message, peccavi – I have sinned. Even rebels against the elite, like George Orwell, communicated their rebellion in texts laced with Latin words and references to their experience in elite schools.

If, like most modern liberals, all modern libertarians, and (apparently) Emily Wilson, you are  uncomfortable with the very existence of an elite class that passes its status to its children, what are classical studies for? There is a big group in America, led by libertarian tech moguls, that says classical studies is just the worst example of how everything taught in school is bunk.

I can fashion a defense of humanistic studies, but when I analyze myself critically I think it boils down to "that is the way I like thinking about the world and I most enjoy talking to other people who share it." I do think humanistic study is a great way to learn things like writing, speaking, critical reading, and so on, but it is not the only way and I am not at all sure it is the best way. I have difficulty supporting a system that forces millions of uninterested young people to immerse themselves in it.

About classics in particular I think the appeal comes partly from its small canon. You can read, as an undergraduate, pretty much all of the central texts of the ancient historical canon: the Iliad, the Odyssey, Sappho, Pindar, Herodotus, Sophocles, Thucydides, some Plato, some Cicero, Caesar, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Livy, Tacitus, Marcus Aurelius. A lot more could be added but what I listed would take you a long way. It is a very rich body of work but not a daunting one. I have read (in translation) everything on the list, and I am a medievalist by training who makes his living mostly studying the modern period. So in the nineteenth century you could ask military, political, legal, and educational leaders be familiar with all of this, or at least be able to pretend to. I know I get a lot from belonging to the group that knows about these things.

But anyway I am not at all sure that classical studies has a future separate from its role in defining class, and I worry that if we really break the power of old elites it will disappear.

Partisan Politics at the Supreme Court

The conservative-majority court has not been the disaster Democrats feared. There have been a bunch of different coalitions, sometimes involving conservative and liberal justices on the same side. Sometimes, it seems, the personal philosophies of the justices do matter. Chief Justice John Roberts, it seems to me, has done a decent job of keeping things focused on the legal matters at hand and not letting partisan ideology take over.

EXCEPT when it comes to issues that bear directly on which party holds power in Congress or the White House. When it's Bush vs. Gore or the recent case on gerrymandering, all of the justices reliably vote the interests of their own party. When a decision would throw the White House or either house of Congress to the other party, everything else goes out the window.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Comparing American Generations

Interesting chart from Kevin Drum comparing income and expenditures for three generations of Americans at the same point in their lives, with all numbers adjusted for inflation. It is not at all clear that Millennials are doing any worse than others.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Covering Up the Murals at George Washington High

George Washington High School in San Francisco hosts a series of 13 murals depicting the life of George Washington. These are not, however, the patriotic murals you may be imagining:
The works were created in the mid-1930s by Victor Arnautoff, a social realist, for the Works Progress Administration, an agency created under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that provided public works jobs for the unemployed during the Great Depression.

Arnautoff, who was born in Russia and taught at Stanford, was a Communist who embedded messages critical of the founding father in his murals. He depicted Washington, accurately, at a time when that was rarely acknowledged, as a slave owner and the leader of the nation that annihilated Native Americans. There are no cherry trees.
And yet the murals have been controversial since the 1960s, with all of the complaints coming from the left. In response to objections from black and Native American students, the San Francisco Board of Education just voted to remove them.

People say things like this:
Virginia Marshall, president of the San Francisco Alliance of Black School Educators said Arnautoff’s paintings remind her of “my great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother who were beaten and hung from trees and told they were less than human.”

Paloma Flores, a member of the Pit-River Nation and coordinator of the school’s Indian Education Program, said Arnautoff’s “intent no longer matters.” The murals “glorify the white man’s role and dismiss the humanity of other people who are still alive,” she said.
Above is the most controversial of the 13, showing Washington pointing a gang of settlers westward over the dead body of an American Indian.

I am reminded of many other similar controversies, like the one over the Ann Rice O'Hanlon's mural in the University of Kentucky student center that we talked about here before. Or an older controversy that forced the Library of Congress to take down an exhibit about plantation life; people objected in particular to a photograph that showed a mounted overseer looming over a slave working in a cotton field. In all of these cases the real objection is that the images depict the past as it actually happened.

Nobody is saying that these images are not accurate, or that they omit minority groups, or that they ignore the human cost of Manifest Destiny or any of that. Settlers marching west over Indian bodies is, if you ask me, an entirely fair depiction of what took place. No, the problem is that they clearly show the dark side of our history. This raises the question: is it possible in America to bring that past into our public sphere? As I said about the UK mural, thinking that we need to remember slavery and what was done to the Indians does not necessarily imply that we should have a mural about it in the lunch room.

But what sort of public art can we have in America? Consider:
Joely Proudfit, director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center in San Marcos, said it is not worth saving the art if one native student “is triggered by that.”
What sort of monument wouldn't trigger somebody? The only way to avoid giving offense is just to ignore the whole problem. We're going to end up with hundreds of murals that show happy people of every ethnicity going about happy lives, as if we did not live on blood-soaked soil, as if we had never tried to slaughter each other. Is that the right answer?

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Alison Pollack's Fungi

Retired environmental consultant and avid photographer Alison Pollack has a thing for fungi and slime molds. She takes these during walks in Northern California. More at her Instagram. Above, Physarum viride, a slime mold.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Why Are You a Spinster?

In 1889, a British magazine called Tit-Bits sponsored a contest for the best explanation of why a woman was a spinster. Note that the numbers after the names are part of the address, not ages. Via Dr. Bob Nicholson.

Professors on Airplanes

Seth Wynnes:
Flying comes at a huge environmental cost, and yet many researchers view it as crucial to their success. Using the University of British Columbia as a case study, we investigated whether the faculty at our institution who flew the most were also the most successful. We found that beyond a small threshold there was no relationship between scholarly output and how much an individual academic flies.
Professors go to conferences because they enjoy interacting with their peers. Nothing wrong with that; the reason we have built this fabulous technological economy is so we can do things we enjoy. But like many other cranky moralists I am skeptical of big name academics who spend half their time jetting around the world to conferences where they can stay in nice hotels and chat with other big name academics. Those people are not doing more or more interesting work than people who stay home and think. In fact in many fields people do their best work when they are young and don't have the time or money to fly around much.

And here's another reason why so many people don't take climate science seriously:
We certainly did find evidence that researchers fly more than is likely necessary. In the portion of our sample composed of only fulltime faculty, we categorized 10% of trips as “easily avoidable”. These were trips like going to your destination and flying back in the same day or flying a short distance trip that could have been replaced by ground travel. Interestingly, green academics (those studying subjects like climate change or sustainability) not only had the same level of emissions from air travel as their peers, but they were indistinguishable in the category of “easily avoidable” trips as well.
It's hard to believe we are really in a climate crisis when the people promoting the crisis viewpoint don't act like they believe it, either.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Russ Roberts on Scientific Modesty

Tyler Cowen recently interviewed economist Russ Roberts. My favorite parts were Roberts' expressions of intellectual modesty. The first came after Cowen asked him what changes he would make if he were czar of American science:
ROBERTS: Well, I’ll cheat for a minute and say what I’ll change is for people to be more willing to accept the possibility that they’re wrong, which is not a policy lever that we actually have control of. I’m a big fan of Richard Feynman’s quote: “The first thing is not to fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

We romanticize science a great deal, and I think we romanticize the objectivity of academics and scientific researchers. They have their own pet theories, their own fads, their own reputations. It’s very hard to do science. It’s very hard to do good science.
And in response to a question about how his views have changed over the past twenty years:
I’ve become disenchanted with economics in general in the following sense: We have this idea, which is a very strange idea when you go deeply into it, which we teach our students, something called utility theory.

We developed utility theory in economics to explain why people buy what they buy. We’re trying to generate demand curves and explain why, when a price of some good goes up, you buy more of a different type of good. We call that a substitute. There might be you buy less of it. We call that a complement.

We were very focused on what I could call commercial behavior — what people do with their money. Then somehow, we made a bizarre leap from that narrow focus to arguing that we have something to say about people’s well-being. You think about how strange that is.

Now, if I said to you, “Does what people buy contribute to their well-being?” Of course it does. We want to buy things that add more to our well-being than things that add less. That’s reasonable. Most people would agree with that. Would you then jump to the conclusion that what people consume determines how happy they are? Now, that would be ludicrous. Adam Smith understood in 1759 that that isn’t the case.

If you asked economists, “Is that true?” “Well, of course not. No, when I mean utility, I mean everything. I mean the nonmonetary aspects of a job, for example, and the nonmonetary aspects of the steak you cook at night for the romantic dinner. It’s the romance that’s more important than the consumption of the steak, of course. We all know that.”

Yet, somehow, we’ve become the arbiters of how policy translates into well-being. I find that really deeply disturbing.

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Frescoes of the House at Sorgues

Sorgues is a town near Avignon that was part of the papal state during the "Babylonian Captivity" of 1309-1376. Some time during that period a person associated with the papal court built a large house in Sorgues and decorated it frescoes. They were removed in the 18th century and taken to the Louvre; now they are in the Petit Palais Museum in Avignon.

The frescoes come from two rooms. In the first, larger room they show a hunting scene in a forest.

In the smaller room they show a "scene of intrigue." Frescoes like these once adorned the homes of thousands of nobles and wealthy merchants across Europe, but almost all have disappeared. Which makes these quite special.

Violence at Çatalhöyük

The neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük in southern Turkey has fascinated the world since it was first discovered. It was quite large, 32 acres, and so densely packed with houses that people had to enter their homes through holes in the roof; streets, one supposes, had not been invented yet. There were occasional "courtyards", roofless spaces within the mass of buildings, but they could also only be entered from above and most seem to have filled up fairly quickly with refuse. The population of the town at its peak may have been as much as 8,000, enough that some call it the first city.

Which raises a lot of questions. Why, in such an empty world, would some of the first farmers in that region choose to live in such a dense mass?

If you try to imagine what that was like, you will immediately see the problems. What happened to the trash and waste? A lot of it seems to have been dumped into those courtyards or any other available space, and what was put in baskets for removal may have just been carried across the roofs to the edge of the town and tossed off. The place was full of shit, examination of which has shown that the residents all suffered from worms and other intestinal parasites. And another question: how did people get along? Didn't they drive each other crazy as people living in such close quarters usually do?

A new study of burials from the 7100 B.C. to 5950 B.C. period confirms these problems. According to the analysts, their data show that Çatalhöyük was "a highly stressful environment."
Recently, archaeologists compiled 25 years of data gathered from the remains of 742 individuals at Çatalhöyük. In the preserved evidence of more than 1,000 years of Neolithic life, the scientists discovered "a compelling record of elevated levels of interpersonal violence" triggered by the stress of city living, the researchers wrote in the study.

The scientists found that the number of injuries, evident in skeletons, increased when the community was at its largest, suggesting that as Çatalhöyük's population boomed, violence became more frequent. About 25% of the 95 examined skulls showed healed injuries made by small spherical projectiles, probably a clay ball flung by a slingshot. Many of these clay spheres were also preserved around the site, according to the study.

The majority of the victims were women, and they appeared to have been struck from behind; 12 of the skulls had been fractured more than once, the scientists reported.

Disease was also rampant in Çatalhöyük when the city was at its most crowded, with around 33% of the human skeletons showing signs that hinted at bacterial infection. During that same period, approximately 13% of the women's teeth and 10% of the men's teeth were riddled with cavities — the result of a diet rich in grains.
The investigators also found that the amount of heavy work the inhabitants did started out as greater than that of hunter-gatherers and only increased over time, so that after a millennium the people of Çatalhöyük were worn down by their labors and suffering from arthritis and the like as a result.

There are a lot of problems with these numbers, and the biggest is that we know the burials at Çatalhöyük were not a random sample. There are not nearly enough of them to represent the whole large population; consider that for a period of a thousand years in a community of at least 5,000 people they only have 742 bodies to study. Since we don't know why some people were carefully buried within the settlement and why others have vanished, we can't really say who these people were.

I would also question the assumption that the violence shown by these skeletons represents conflict within the community. What about attacks from outsiders? Because the most obvious answer to the question of why they lived piled on top of each other like that is, "for defense." If they were regularly being attacked by outsiders, who (say) used sling stones to attack women who went out to get water or work in the fields, that could explain a lot. The usual objection to this is to point out that the iconography of these people never shows war, and few weapons have been found. They do not seem to have been very warlike. But maybe that was the point; by living together in such a large community they were able to achieve safety without militarization.

Here's another thought: if those women with head injuries were killed by their neighbors, could these have been stonings, carried out by this close-knit community against those who violated its norms?

The cost  of that density to their way of life was high no matter how you look at it: disease from overcrowding, tooth decay from a grain-heavy diet, many injuries from violence. Why didn't they simply spread out across the landscape into smaller, more manageable settlements, where they might have had more access to wild foods and thus a more diverse diet?

As I said, I think the threat of violence from outsiders is one reason. The other may be the social and spiritual attractions of life within a large community. Çatalhöyük got famous because of the density of religious art in certain buildings that the site's original excavator, James Mellaart, called "shrines." The more convincing interpretation, put forward by Ian Hodder, is that these are houses that had become the central places for family cults within which the elders preserved secret knowledge and shared it as needed with younger non-initiates. I imagine that the people of these settlements were obsessed with secret cults and the level of their initiation within them; I imagine that their social and spiritual lives revolved around initiations and other semi-secret rituals enacted in these small, dark house-shrines. Perhaps they devoted their lives to achieving higher and higher ranks in more and more cults, to learning more and more secrets, as certain aboriginal Australians still do.

Their identities, we can assume, were wrapped up in their home: in its cults, its art, its ritual, its families and clans. They stayed within its disease-ridden, violence-plagued walls because moving away to some smaller, more open community meant giving up everything they cared about.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Han van Meegeren and the Toulouse Caravaggio

This painting, known as the Toulouse Caravaggio, is to be auctioned off next week in France; whether it will fetch the $100 million price the sellers are hoping for depends on whether anyone with that much money believes it is a real Caravaggio.

The sellers think that this is a known but lost painting, of which a copy survives painted in the 17th century by one of Carvaggio's acquaintances. That lost painting was done in Naples around 1607. The Toulouse painting does have the look of a Caravaggio, and Judith is obviously his favorite female model, the courtesan Fillide Melandroni.

Compare Caravaggio's other painting of the same scene, done in Rome in 1598.

Caravaggio had a thing for red drapery, and the drapery in the Toulouse Caravaggio looks like his.

So does the detail on this cuff.

But I am skeptical. I am skeptical because the people proclaiming this as a lost Caravaggio say things like:
“Look at the execution of the lips, the way the chin and eyelids are painted,” said Mr. Turquin, pointing at the face of Judith, challenging the viewer with her gaze as she coolly decapitates Holofernes with his own sword. “It belongs to Caravaggio. How could it be by anyone else?”
And to that I say, balderdash. To see why you have only to consider the career of the famous forger Han van Meegeren. Van Meegeren was a Dutch painter who in the 1920s and 1930s created dozens of fake old master paintings, most spectacularly ten fake Vermeers. Experts, some of them extremely well educated and sophisticated, proclaimed these to be authentic masterpieces. In fact when Van Meegeren, in prison facing charges of collaborating with the Nazis, revealed the fraud, some of the curators who had bought his paintings refused to believe him. Van Meegeren actually did collaborate with the Nazis, but he got off by revealing that he had sold one of his fake Vermeers to Goering for a huge sum, which made him a Dutch folk hero for a while. (He still is a folk here in some corners of the internet, but he was both a Nazi and a crook.)

Actually the weird thing to me about van Meegeren's career is that his fake Vermeers don't look anything like real ones to me; consider the comparison above, Vermeer on the left and van Meegeren on the right. The van Meegeren looks to me like a painting from the 1930s.

And there were people who spotted this, but enough experts were taken in that van Meegeren became a very wealthy man. Connoisseurship simply cannot be trusted.

The experts who are most skeptical about the Toulouse Caravaggio point to the face of the servant. This is both clumsy and anatomically dubious, and Caravaggio, like most Italian painters of the 16th and 17th centuries, was obsessed with showing how faces actually convey emotion. Of course it might be that the master did most of the painting but left some details to an assistant, but this face seems prominent to me.

So I'm against. But then my Connoisseurship isn't reliable either.

The Three Body Exam Problem

Jiayang Fan on Liu Cixin, China's most famous science fiction writer:
Liu’s tomes—they tend to be tomes—have been translated into more than twenty languages, and the trilogy has sold some eight million copies worldwide. He has won China’s highest honor for science-fiction writing, the Galaxy Award, nine times, and in 2015 he became the first Asian writer to win the Hugo Award, the most prestigious international science-fiction prize. In China, one of his stories has been a set text in the gao kao—the notoriously competitive college-entrance exams that determine the fate of ten million pupils annually; another has appeared in the national seventh-grade-curriculum textbook. When a reporter recently challenged Liu to answer the middle-school questions about the “meaning” and the “central themes” of his story, he didn’t get a single one right. “I’m a writer,” he told me, with a shrug. “I don’t begin with some conceit in mind. I’m just trying to tell a good story.”

Suicide Rates Still Rising, Especially among the Young

Charts from Kevin Drum, using CDC data. The rates for men area much higher than those for women, and so far as we can tell this has always been true. (Numbers represents deaths per year per 100,000 people). But women are catching up; since 1999 the rate for women is up 58%, vs. 34% for men.

The dramatic rise in suicide among men 15-24 seems particularly noteworthy. People sometimes call the rising death rate among middle aged people, mostly suicide and drug overdoses, "deaths of despair." But what business do 18- or 22-year-old men have despairing?

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Hans Holbein, Thomas More's Family

This is a preparatory sketch for Holbein's life-sized portrait of the family of Thomas More, now lost. The finished version, done in 1527, must have been quite something.

The astronomer Nicholas Kratzer (1487–1550), a friend of Holbein and More, and the tutor of More's children, added the names and ages of the sitters in Latin. Wikipedia:
On the left is Elizabeth Dauncy, More's second daughter; beside her is his adopted daughter, Margaret Giggs, explaining a point to Thomas More's father, John More; Thomas More himself sits in the centre, with the engaged couple Anne Cresacre and his only son, John More, on either side of him; beside John More is the household fool, Henry Patenson; on the right of the picture are More's youngest daughter, Cecily Heron, and his eldest daughter, Margaret Roper; More's second wife, Alice, is kneeling on the extreme right.
You have to love that the fool is standing while the wife kneels on the floor.

You can get an idea of what the colors were from this 1593 copy (of a sort) by Rowland Lockey.

The Resistance Witches

What is one supposed to make of this?
In March, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared her birth time with the astrologer Arthur Lipp-Bonewits, who then shared her birth chart with the world, creating an online sensation. “AOC’s Aries Moon indicates that she’s emotionally fed by a certain amount of independence, self-determination, and spontaneity,” Jeanna Kadlec wrote in Allure.

During the Kavanaugh hearings, 13,000 “resistance witches” cast a hex on Brett Kavanaugh. There is now a plethora of guidebooks for how to use astrology and witchcraft to advance left-wing causes. They have names like Magic for Resistance: Rituals and Spells for Change and The New Aradia: A Witch’s Handbook to Magical Resistance.
It's always hard to know what people believe, but the boom in astrology and tarot card reading among the young, and the rise of witchcraft, inspire me to ask anyway. What attracts so many young people in North America and Europe to these light forms of the occult?

Faddism and boredom, for sure. But what else?

I think one attraction is the desire of people who live their lives on social media to have something to share with others and discuss. If not much is happening in your life, you can always post an amusing horoscope, along with a joke about Leos, or turn over a tarot card and write about how it might relate to your life.

For astrology in particular the desire to categorize and stereotype others seems relevant. The young and woke have forbidden themselves from offering even the most innocuous statements about the races or genders, and a generalization about people from California or people who work in fast food could get you into a nasty fight. So they use astrological signs; so far, anyway, nobody thinks you're a racist if you say Leos are tempermental.

The Myers-Briggs works in the same way; you can't tell jokes about Poles or Jewish mothers any more, but you can still tell jokes about INFPs.

Astrology also provides as escape hatch of sorts for people whose lives are very heavily political, a way to get into a different mindset than the guilt and rage that defines political thinking for so many young people interested in social justice. You can enjoy it without taking it seriously, and without feeling any guilt about not taking it seriously. And unlike dancing, you can do it from home, through your computer screen.

The association of witchcraft with political protest also strikes me as interesting. The problem with political protest is that once you get everyone to the protest, you have to do something. The old rituals of protest seem played out, especially among the post-ironic young. Chant slogans? Really? Some people (including David Brooks, who wrote the passage I started from) think the absence of rituals from our lives is a major problem. I disagree, but there do some to be people who enjoy ritualistic acts. If you do, and your deepest beliefs are defined by politics and a rejection of Dead White Maleness, then casting a hex on Brett Kavanaugh might have a certain appeal. To me the most striking thing about modern Wicca is how many people enjoy the practice while not having a clue what they believe. I think this was a common characteristic of old paganism as well, but over the past millennium we have gotten used to religions that have some sort of agreed theology, which Wicca absolutely does not.

I absolutely do not think that the attraction of young leftists says anything interesting about current left-wing politics. Almost everybody believes in or at least enjoys something silly and untrue.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Votive Figurines of Ayia Irini

Ayia Irini is a sanctuary on the island of Cyprus in use from about 1,000 to 500 BC. The sanctuary was excavated during the Swedish Cyprus Expedition of 1927-1931. The most impressive discovery was 2,000 clay votive figurines that had been left as offerings to the goddess of the place. These are now on display in the Medelshavmuseet in Stockholm.

Under the terms of their agreement, the Swedes left all the gold and silver they found behind in Cyprus; that was all the Cypriot authorities were really concerned about. These figurines were cataloged but nobody thought to display the until 1982, when some curator finally found them and realized their potential.