Friday, March 24, 2017

Beowulf lives!

Image result for Beowulf Illustrations
I have the Gareth Hinds Odyssey and it is excellent. I look forward to reading his Beowulf.

The Atlantic

"What’s it about, this running pop-cultural engagement with the old poem? To begin with, there’s the action: kinetic, enthralling fight scenes that go on for pages, pitting a superheroic human against a shape-shifting, ever-regenerating principle of destruction. Beowulf, mighty warrior of the Geats, hearing that some neighboring Danes are being terrorized by a misshapen antiman called Grendel, crews a ship with up-for-it countrymen and sails to the rescue. In the great hall Heorot—built for feasts, now stalked by Grendel—a bare-handed Beowulf fights the monster, rips his arm off, and nails it over the door of the hall. Then he fights Grendel’s mother, a water monster, diving into her demonic pond (where Grendel crawled to die) and running her through with a sword, which promptly melts. And then, back in Geatland 50 years later, Beowulf faces a dragon. Billows of Game of Thrones–esque dragon breath, heroic paroxysms. Beowulf kills the dragon, and the dragon kills Beowulf. The end.
But it’s not the end. Because beyond, or behind, Beowulf’s triptych of hero-on-monster showdowns lies its starker-than-stark Dark Ages existentialism. The poem begins, very deliberately, with an image that is also a kind of parable: a person emerging nameless from the sea and then—after a lifetime of making a name for himself—being delivered back to the sea again. Scyld Scefing arrives on the shores of Denmark as an oceanic foundling, a baby drifting in a boat, and in time becomes a legend: ruler of the Danes and great-grandfather of Hrothgar, the king whose people Beowulf will later arrive to save. When Scyld dies, he is laid out in a vessel stacked with weapons and treasure, and set adrift once more. Away he floats. That’s it, the poet is saying: That’s life. Out of nowhere, and into nowhere. Better make it count.


But it’s Gareth Hinds’s 2000 Beowulf that is the near-masterpiece, a scholarly, synesthetic freak-out: skutchlp goes Grendel’s arm as Beowulf breaks it with his elbow, and the monster’s agony—his “God-cursed scream and strain of catastrophe”—is rendered by Hinds as streamers of ancient script unwinding into the night sky. In my favorite panel, a blood-red Beowulf is breaching the surface of the evil pond, with Grendel’s severed head hanging by its hair from his teeth and the handle of his melted sword hoisted above him like a crucifix. With this one wild image Hinds is resolving, in a sense, the tension between the pagan origins of the Beowulf story and the later, Christian messaging of the anonymous Beowulf poet: Beowulf himself may never have heard of Christianity, but when he vanquishes monsters, he does so under the sign of Christ.
What Beowulf fights against is the undoing of everything. I used to think that Grendel was your archetypal party-hater, a buzzkill like Jason Voorhees (of the Friday the 13th franchise) or Michael Myers (Halloween), his deep-brain slasher centers activated by laughter, music, the trebley ripples of hedonism. Harp-playing in the great hall makes him homicidal, to be alliterative about it. But it’s not just any old harp-playing that gets Grendel going; it’s the Christian vision of cosmic order laid out by the skald. It harrowed him to hear … how the Almighty had made the earth / a gleaming plain girdled with waters. Creation itself, and the fact that it makes sense, is unbearable to Grendel.
So Grendel hates God. But the promise of Christianity, we begin to see, made barely a dent in this poem, which now emerges whole—eerily intact—into the post-Christian wreck of the current historical moment. There is no transcendence in Beowulf, and no redemption. Tear off the man-beast’s arm, says the poet; plumb the lake of psychic terror and come up victorious; kill the dragon—but the dragon will get you anyway. Cyclical, tribal violence obsesses the Beowulf poet: In the same breath that he hails the splendors of Heorot, he assures us that the great hall will one day be burned to the ground. Beowulf saves the Geats from the dragon, but the rider who distributes the news feels obliged to add that, as a people, they will shortly be under the heel of the murderous, unsupernatural Swedes. And in the churning smoke of Beowulf’s funeral pyre, a tableau from any age, every age: A Geat woman … sang out in grief; / with hair bound up, she unburdened herself / of her worst fears, a wild litany / of nightmare and lament; her nation invaded, / enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles, / slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke."

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Trobrianders, Darwin, Ekman and Fear Recognition

Image result for expression fear
Do you know who else has trouble recognizing fear in other people's faces? Psychopaths. Just saying. Nothing against the Trobrianders, who sound like a very interesting people.

"For more than a century, scientists have wondered whether all humans experience the same basic range of emotions—and if they do, whether they express them in the same way. In the 1870s, it was the central question Charles Darwin explored in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. By the 1960s, emeritus psychologist Paul Ekman, then at the University of California (UC) in San Francisco, had come up with an accepted methodology to explore this question. He showed pictures of Westerners with different facial expressions to people living in isolated cultures, including in Papua New Guinea, and then asked them what emotion was being conveyed. Ekman’s early experiments appeared conclusive. From anger to happiness to sadness to surprise, facial expressions seemed to be universally understood around the world, a biologically innate response to emotion.
That conclusion went virtually unchallenged for 50 years, and it still features prominently in many psychology and anthropology textbooks, says James Russell, a psychologist at Boston College and corresponding author of the recent study. But over the last few decades, scientists have begun questioning the methodologies and assumptions of the earlier studies.
Psychologist Carlos Crivelli was one of them. In 2011, he was working with his colleague, psychologist José-Miguel Fernández-Dols, at the Autonomous University of Madrid. Together, they came up with a plan to investigate Ekman’s initial research in Papua New Guinea. Crivelli and longtime friend and research partner, Sergio Jarillo, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, traveled to the Trobriand Islands off Papua New Guinea’s east coast, where about 60,000 indigenous Trobrianders live. These horticulturists and fishermen have been historically isolated from both mainland Papua New Guinea and the outside world. To learn all that they could, Crivelli and Jarillo embedded themselves in the local culture. They were adopted by host families and took clan names; Crivelli became “Kelakasi” and Jarillo, “Tonogwa.” They spent many months learning the local language, Kilivila.
When it came time to begin the study, they didn’t need translators or local guides. They simply showed 72 young people between the ages of 9 and 15 from different villages photos from an established set of faces used in psychological research. The researchers asked half the Trobrianders to link each of the faces to an emotion from a list: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, or hunger. The other half was given a different task.
Crivelli found that they matched smiling with happiness almost every time. Results for the other combinations were mixed, though. For example, the Trobrianders just couldn’t widely agree on which emotion a scowling face corresponded with. Some said this and some said that. It was the same with the nose-scrunching, pouting, and a neutral expression. There was one facial expression, though, that many of them did agree on: a wide-eyed, lips-parted gasping face (similar to above) that Western cultures almost universally associate with fear and submission. The Trobrianders said it looked “angry.”
Surprised, Crivelli showed a different set of Trobrianders the same faces, but he couched his questions in stories—e.g., “Which of these people would like to start a fight?”—to draw out more context. They, too, associated the gasp face with threatening behavior, Crivelli reports today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The implications here are really big,” he says. “It strongly suggests that at least these facial behaviors are not pancultural, but are instead culturally specific.”"

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

John Hinckley, from St. Elizabeth's hospital to Williamsburg, VA

There's a difference between being disturbed and being dangerous. Let's hope the docs at St. E's aren't proven wrong in their assessment. 

NY Magazine

"In his fantasy pursuit of Jodie Foster, [President Reagan's would-be assassin John] Hinckley cast himself as a chivalric knight, but in life, he had never had a girlfriend. In the hospital, that changed. Hinckley became a promiscuous lover of real women, some of whom seemed to love him back — and others who did not. Leslie deVeau was already a patient at St. Elizabeths when Hinckley arrived, having murdered her 10-year-old daughter in her sleep. (She had then turned the shotgun on herself, but missed her heart and blew off her left arm.) She also was white, and from an upper-middle-class family. Hinckley approached her at a Halloween mixer. “I’d ask you to dance if I danced,” he said.
Their courtship blossomed slowly, over 20 years, constrained by stringent rules and schedules. When they could not see each other, they would exchange letters, taping them beneath the dining tables in the cafeteria. But the romance intensified when deVeau was released (in 1990) and began coming to see him during visiting hours. They would hold hands across a large table and talk, under the watchfulness of the hospital guards. deVeau needed someone to mother, she told The New Yorker in 1999. Hinckley, whom others found distant and defensive, was revealing and loquacious with her, she said. When they first started having sex, outdoors, nearly ten years after they met, it wasn’t awkward, despite Hinckley’s inexperience. “It was as if we’d both had this core of loneliness for a hundred years,” said deVeau.
With Cynthia Bruce, another patient at St. Elizabeths, Hinckley cast himself in a savior role. Bruce, several years younger, has severe schizophrenia and has spent her life in and out of hospitals, according to court documents. By 2009, when they became close, the judge had already approved a series of furloughs home for Hinckley — 12-hour day trips in 2003 and then three-day overnights in 2006 — and his focus was on getting released. In the hospital, he and Bruce were inseparable. And when Hinckley was in Williamsburg, to the annoyance of his mother, they talked incessantly on the phone.
But Hinckley had mixed feelings about Bruce. On the one hand, he loved her. The relationship was “pretty intense,” he told a psychiatrist, and he gave her several rings, including one that was “like the one William gave Kate,” he said. Hinckley even told his family they intended to marry, and said he was considering conversion to Catholicism because Bruce was so devout. On the other hand, he hoped to be out of the hospital soon, so “what’s the point of being engaged to her?” (“It’s very confusing, because they are either engaged or not engaged,” his psychiatrist said.) Another doctor expressed concern that Hinckley was being deceitful, leading Bruce on in order to ameliorate his loneliness. Certain people saw the relationship as evidence of his increased empathy; others saw a mind almost weaponized by selfishness. At a hospital Christmas party, Hinckley was gentlemanly when Bruce had an anxiety attack, escorting her to the front gate so she could get home. But when she’d stood outside the hospital, in full-blown psychosis, holding a sign on a pole and screaming religious terms and his name, Hinckley told his doctors he didn’t hear her.

How do doctors decide when a person’s fantasies are dangerous? In assessing patients for release, psychiatrists talk about “state or trait.” Did a person commit murder because of his “state” — hallucinations or delusions or drunkenness? Or was it depression or a mania that is a part of an underlying disorder — a “trait”? How good is the patient at understanding himself, managing his illness, and acting responsibly in his own interest?
Within three years of hospitalization, John Hinckley’s most dangerous symptoms — his obsessive, fantastical, suicidal-homicidal-romantic thoughts — had abated and, his lawyer says, without the help of psychotropic drugs. But whatever mental illness Hinckley had, it was atypical. “For some people, their symptomology doesn’t fit neatly into a category, or even two or three,” says Paul Appelbaum, the Columbia psychiatrist. “The field doesn’t have it all figured out yet. It’s not unusual to see people who have had multiple diagnoses, incompatible diagnoses, and now have a new set of diagnoses.” Eventually, the hospital settled on a durable clinical label for Hinckley’s illness: major depression and nonspecific psychosis, both of which had been in remission since at least 1990. And over time, Hinckley remained symptom-free. Generally speaking, age modulates psychosis and diminishes violent impulses."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Prescriptions for psychiatric drugs keep rising, and yet the mental health of Americans has deteriorated" -- John Horgan

Scientific American
"In her remarkable bestselling 2007 memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, [law professor Elyn] Saks reveals her struggles with schizophrenia.
She has been hospitalized several times for periods totaling hundreds of days. Doctors once called her prognosis “grave,” which meant that she would probably never be fully autonomous, and she would work, at best, in menial jobs.
She has nonetheless overcome her disorder with the help of medications and—you guessed it--psychoanalysis. Saks has undergone psychoanalysis since she had a psychotic breakdown at Oxford University in the late 1970s, and she plans to continue being treated for the rest of her life.
Saks, who has a Ph.D. from the New Center for Psychoanalysis, saw no contradiction between psychoanalysis and physiological approaches to the mind and its disorders. They represent two levels of “discourse,” she explained to me. “One is at the level of molecules and neurotransmitters and brain cells and so on, and the other is at the level of personality, goals, meaning.”
She is well aware of the criticism of psychoanalysis. She nonetheless finds it “richer and deeper” than alternative theories and therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. Freud, she said, was “an amazing writer. The case studies read like novels.”
Freud’s ideas, Saks noted, have spawned many rival schools of psychoanalysis. Saks’s first analyst practiced a therapy pioneered by Melanie Klein. But Freud is “the granddaddy.”
In her memoir, Saks notes that “Freud and his teachings had always fascinated me.” Psychoanalysis “asks fundamental questions: Why do people do what they do? When can people be held responsible for their actions? Is unconscious motivation relevant to responsibility?”
Saks’s affinity for psychoanalysis is part of larger trend. In her 2015 book In the Mind Fields: Exploring the New Science of Neuropsychoanalysis, journalist Casey Schwartz reports on recent attempts to find common ground between neuroscience and psychoanalysis.
In a 1996 article for Scientific American, “Why Freud Isn’t Dead,” I offered positive and negative reasons for the persistence of psychoanalysis. The positive reasons are those noted by Saks: Freud’s essays and case studies have the compelling complexity and depth of great literature.
The negative and more important reason is that science has not produced a theory/therapy potent enough to render psychoanalysis obsolete once and for all. “Freudians cannot point to unambiguous evidence that psychoanalysis works,” I wrote, “but neither can proponents of more modern treatments.”
I stand by that assessment. Critics liken psychoanalysis to phrenology, the 19th-century pseudo-science that linked personality to the shape of the skull. But if psychoanalysis is akin to phrenology, so are alternative therapies, which range from psychopharmacology and cognitive-behavioral therapy to “electro-cures” and Buddhism. As I reported recently, prescriptions for psychiatric drugs keep rising, and yet the mental health of Americans has deteriorated, according to measures such as disability payments."

Monday, March 20, 2017

Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy (1869)


"[Matthew Arnold's] Culture and Anarchy appeared in book form just one year before Forster’s all-important Education Act of 1870 and it posed questions that still perplex us today: what kind of life should individuals in mass societies be encouraged to lead? How do such societies best ensure that our quality of life is not impoverished ? How to preserve an elevated and exclusive freedom of thought in an age of democratic fervour?
Opposed to this exalted assertion of an ideal version of “the good life”, there was the vulgarity, vigour and vehemence of Victorian England at its zenith. This, Arnold argues, was a heedless and exuberant individualism (replete with prejudice, greed, xenophobia, racism, intolerance and aggression) that would lead to anarchy. He nails this claim by showing how Victorian barbarism affected all strata of national life.
In some of his wittiest and most entertaining passages, Arnold divided English society into three classes — the Barbarians, the Philistines, and the Populace. (With an almost audible sigh, he complains: “It is awkward and tiresome to be always saying the aristocratic class, the middle class, the working class.”) The Barbarians or aristocracy, he says, have a superficial “sweetness and light”, but are too concerned with the maintenance and enjoyment of their privileges to attain a true sense of beauty and a true liberation of thought:
The Barbarians had the passion for field-sports; as of the passion for asserting one’s personal liberty…. The care of the Barbarians for the body, and for all manly exercises; the chivalry of the Barbarians, with its characteristics of high spirit, choice manners, and distinguished bearing – what is this but the politeness of our aristocratic class?” 
The Philistines or middle classes are devoted to money-making and a narrow form of religion; they are indifferent or hostile to beauty; and they are ‘the enemy of the children of light’, or servants of the idea.” 
Finally, the rowdy Populace are violent in their prejudices and brutal in their pleasures. But all three groups are agreed that “doing as one likes” is the chief end of man, and all are self-satisfied."

Sunday, March 19, 2017

For a Young Dancer on St. Patrick's Day -- A.E. Stallings (2009)

At six, her stance is 
Like a professional’s—she waits her cue 
Intensely and with no expression, 
The youngest in the troupe of girls 
Costumed alike in skirts that flare like bells 
Embroidered with designs— 
Abstracted tangled animals and geometric vines— 
Drawn from the Book of Kells, 
Hair done up in headdresses of artificial curls 
To bounce in time to lively Irish dances, 

But it’s the music of a Shaker hymn 
When she takes her place 
Alone on the plywood stage, candescent with such fierce 
And concentrated joy 
As no smile will pierce 
And no trivial laughter can alloy, 
Each swift and nimble limb 
Inhabiting its quickness without haste, 
As if she had only herself to please. 
All gazes 

Fix on her, not because, 
Or not only because, she is a lovely, solemn elf, 
Not that her eyes 
Are just the shade of blue 
 Patterned on antique Delft 
Or that cliché of cloudless skies 
(Though bored through with the blackness of unfathomable Space), 
And it is not her fearsome self-possession 
Around her, tightly furled, 

Rather the possession of her self 
By a vaster power 
Whose presence in this low room till this hour 
Had been unknown to us 
And momently amazes, 
As the wide wind that breathes upon the world 
Enlists the tossing of high-masted trees, 
The bowing of the grass, 
The shiver of a roadside flower, 
So we may see it pass.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Ooh-La-La -- Blossom Dearie (1958)

Say you're fond of fancy thing
Diamond clips and emerald rings
And you want your man to come through
Give him the ooh-la-la
When your car is asked to stop
By a handsome traffic cop
'Less you want a ticket or two
Give him the ooh-la-la
If Napoleon at Waterloo-la-la
Had an army of debutantes
To give the British the well known, ooh-la-la
He would have changed the history of France
When your favorite Romeo
Grabs his hat and starts to go
Don't reveal the fact that you're blue
Don't break down and start to boo hoo
There's just one thing for you
La, la to la, la do la, la
Like Tallulah just
Give him the ooh-la-la
If Napoleon at Waterloo, la, la
Had an army of debutantes
To give the British the well known ooh-la-la
He'd have changed the history of France
When your favorite Romeo
Grabs his hat and starts to go
Don't reveal the fact that you're blue
Don't break down and start to boo hoo
There's just one thing for you
La, la to la, la do la, la
Like Tallulah just
Give him the ooh-la-la
The ooh-la-la
The ooh-la-la
You'd better be like Tallulah
Don't be a fool, ah
Give him the ooh-la-la
Written by Cole Porter 

Friday, March 17, 2017

MG Dana Pittard reduced suicides at Fort Bliss, but his initiatives were abandoned by the US Army

Image result for dana pittard


"[US Army MAJ GEN Dana] Pittard says he never thought about suicide while in combat or at West Point. Both were stressful environments where he felt he was expected to fail—in Iraq because of the difficulty of the mission, and at West Point because he was one of the few black cadets. “I didn’t want to give people the satisfaction,” he says. “Whatever enemy we’re fighting, they’re going to have to kill me.”
But he wonders if his time in Iraq left him too comfortable with death, even numb to it. On April 29, 2004, north of Baghdad, an IED intended for Pittard exploded moments after his truck passed by, hitting the Humvee behind him and killing 20-year-old Specialist Martin Kondor. The soldier was one of thousands to serve under Pittard during the war, but Pittard can still recall Kondor’s name, hometown — York, Pennsylvania — and the date of the bombing. He says details like these stick in his mind. “Stuff like that kind of haunts me.”
Suicides haunt him, too. One of the soldiers in his brigade in Iraq committed suicide, alone in his room with the door locked. He didn’t leave a note. “We all lived so close together,” Pittard recalls. “To this day, I’m not sure why.”
After Kondor’s death, Pittard says, there came a point when he felt sure he was going to be killed in Iraq. He says he stopped worrying about his safety, a feeling he described as “empowering” and “liberating.”
“Of course I thought about my family, but I knew they’d be taken care of. They just wouldn’t have me physically there,” says Pittard.
Although Pittard insists he didn’t feel suicidal, Dr. Ritchie says that the fatalism he experienced is common among soldiers and often results in increased risk taking — driving too fast or drinking too much. In those cases, she says, it can lead to suicide.
Soldiers who have deployed multiple times, like Pittard, are most at risk when they get home. Pittard returned from Iraq in August 2007, and was stationed in California. In 2009, he moved to Virginia, where he was named deputy commander of the agency that runs the Army’s training programs. It was here that he sought psychological counseling. At first, he went with his family, and the purpose of the visits was to help one of his sons. Then, he started going alone. For the first time in his life, he wanted to talk to someone about his depression.
One evening in early 2010, driving on the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge over the James River on his way home from work, he had visions of crashing his car over the short cement guardrail and into the water 20 feet below. It was the nearest he’d ever come to suicide.
At the time, Pittard didn’t tell anyone in the Army that he was going to counseling. He was living off-base, and he went to a private psychologist, not a military doctor. “I wasn’t concerned that anyone would find out,” says Pittard, “but I didn’t think anyone would ever find out.”
They have good reason to be concerned. Some Department of Defense policies still create career penalties for people who seek mental health care. The deployment-eligibility requirements for Central Command and Africa Command, for example, “disqualify or require waivers for individuals who have received a mental or behavioral health diagnosis.” That culture of silence extends to the top leadership of the military. In July, Major General John Rossi, a former neighbor of Pittard’s, became the highest-ranked soldier ever to take his own life. For months, the Army refused to acknowledge his death was a suicide."

Thursday, March 16, 2017

No time to become a psychoanalyst? Try training in "psychoanalytic psychotherapy"

Stat News
"Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the US will experience mental health issues, yet psychoanalysis is rarely covered by insurance — or considered a viable treatment option.
“There’s much more emphasis on medication,” said Lisa Deutscher, vice president of the 106-year-old New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute. “Even in a rather privileged stratum of society, there are shifts away from the idea that it would be useful to spend your time doing therapy. There are greater pressures, like the fact people are on call for their jobs 24/7. It makes other commitments in life that much harder.”
It can even be hard for would-be analysts to find the time to train. They can’t start until they’ve earned an MD, a PhD, or a license to practice clinical social work. After that, they must complete four years of coursework in psychoanalysis and 200 hours of clinical training.
On top of all that, they have to undergo analysis for at least two years — for at least four sessions per week.
“They’re requirements that fit the 1950s, when every psychologist wanted to be an analyst,” said Jamieson Webster, a psychoanalyst with a private practice in downtown Manhattan. “If you’re doing a MD or a PhD or an LCSW, the conditions of starting a private practice and having a job don’t fit with analytic training anymore. Candidates find their analytic voice at 50. That’s nuts.”
It may also help explain why 52 percent of members in the American Psychoanalytic Association are between 60 and 80 years old.
“We are an aging organization,” said Smaller, who runs the school program in Illinois. “When I became president-elect at age 62, it was scary that I might have been considered a Young Turk.”
To bring in a new generation of analysts, training centers have embraced a mode of treatment called “psychoanalytic psychotherapy.” It incorporates Freudian ideas about motivation and the unconscious, yet requires only two years to learn, making it an easier and cheaper route for new candidates to join the profession."

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Nightmares as predictors of suicide

Nightmare. Henry Fuselli (1781)

Nightmares as predictors of suicide.
Tanskanen, Antti; Tuomilehto, Jaakko; Viinamäki, Heimo; Vartiainen, Erkki; Lehtonen, Johannes; Puska, Pekka
Sleep: Journal of Sleep and Sleep Disorders Research, Vol 24(7), Nov 2001, 844-847.

Examined the relationship between the frequency of nightmares and the risk of suicide. A prospective follow-up study in a general population of Finland starting in 1972. A total of 36,211 Ss (17,700 men and 18,511 women aged 25–64 yrs at baseline. The study included self-administered questionnaire (mainly questions on socioeconomic factors, medical history, health behavior, and psychosocial factors) and health examination at the local primary healthcare center. The frequency of nightmares was estimated. The Ss were followed until Dec. 31, 1995, or death. Information on deaths caused by suicide or other self-inflicted injury was obtained from the National Death Register by computerized record linkage using the national personal identification code assigned to every Finnish resident. Using the Cox proportional hazards regression model we controlled for several potential confounding factors. The frequency of nightmares was directly related to the risk of suicide. Among Ss having nightmares occasionally the adjusted relative risk of suicide was 57% higher, and among those reporting frequent nightmares 105% higher compared with Ss reporting no nightmares at all.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Whatever happened to high culture? -- Joseph Epstein

Painting by Boris Chaliapin (1955)

Joseph Epstein

"For many years I taught an undergraduate course in prose style to would-be writers. At one point in the course I used to present my students with a list of 15 or so items that included such names and events as the Peloponnesian War, Leon Trotsky, Serge Diaghilev, the 1913 Armory Show, the Spanish Civil War, Nicolas Chamfort, Boris Chaliapin, C. P. Cavafy, the Dreyfus Affair, and a few others. I asked how many knew who or what these items were. A few among them knew one or two of the names and events listed. I said that, at 20 years old, I myself could not have done better than they. I then added that, if one wanted to pass oneself off as a cultured person one had to know such things and a great deal more. My sense is that these students were, as I hoped they would be, as I myself as an undergraduate was, properly cowed by their own ignorance.
I’m not sure that this same exercise would be of much avail today. Now students need merely pick up their smartphones and Google the names on my list. I’m less than sure that culture, and the notion of being a cultured person, has anything like the high standing it once had. Might most people today rather be well informed than cultured? What was once a high human aspiration—the possession of culture—may no longer be so. How did such a change come about?
Truly cultured people were always a minority, at any time and in every place. One used to be able to find a certain number of them in universities. Some schools appeared to have more than others. Columbia in the days of Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, F. W. Dupee, & Co. was notable among them. They were also to be found in the books one read at universities. One could not read, for example, George Eliot without being immensely impressed with her vast learning, deep understanding, and artistic control over complex material, and wondering if, were she alive today, one could engage her in conversation without oneself seeming sadly inadequate.
No George Eliots around today, and no Barzuns or Trillings either, which is a sad subtraction from the richness of not merely culture but life itself. Nor is it easy to imagine such people soon replaced. Universities, operating under the tyranny of political correctness and the requisites of dumbing down, seem just now keener on building up the self-esteem and protecting the tender sensibilities of their students than in creating young men and women eager to possess culture.

The acquisition of culture requires repose, sitting quietly in a room with a book, or alone with one’s thoughts even at a crowded concert or art museum. Ours is distinctly not an age of repose. The rhythm of our time is jumpy. The smart phone is its characteristic instrument, with calls and texts coming in more than intermittently, Google there to consult as an aide-memoire, to check for stock prices, ball scores, recent terrorist murders. Information not culture is the great desideratum of our day, distraction our chief theme.

Cable television, with something for everyone but the thoughtful, awaits at home. What with raising children under the full-court press regime of parenting, making a living, working out at the gym, worrying about one’s diet, taking a breather to watch a baseball game or a movie, there is scarcely time left to read a serious book or anything else that might be construed as acquiring culture."


Monday, March 13, 2017

What is culture? -- Joseph Epstein


Joseph Epstein

"During my teaching days, along with courses on Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Willa Cather, I taught an undergraduate course called Advanced Prose Style. What it was advanced over was never made clear, but each year the course was attended by 15 or so would-be—or, as we should say today, wannabe—novelists and poets. Usage, diction, syntax, rhythm, metaphor, irony were some of the subjects taken up in class. Around the sixth week of the eight-week term I passed out a list of 12 or so names and historical events—among them Sergei Diaghilev, Francis Poulenc, Mark Rothko, Alexander Herzen, the 1913 Armory Show, John Cage, the Spanish Civil War, George Balanchine, and Jean Cocteau—and asked how many of these items the students could identify.
The identification rate among my students was inevitably low, which did not much surprise me. I mentioned that at their age (20 or 21), I should probably not have done much better, and then added: "But if as writers you intend to present yourself to the world as cultured persons, you have to know these names and events and scores of others, and what is important about them. This is not something that one gets up as if for an exam, or Googles and promptly forgets, but that must be understood in historical context—at least it must for those who seek to live a cultured life."
Oddly, no one ever asked what a cultured life was and why it was worth pursuing. This may have been just as well for, though I believed I was myself by then leading (or earnestly attempting to lead) such a life, I'm not sure I could have answered either question. I'm going to attempt to do so now. 
What I mean by the ideal of culture is high culture, as set out by Matthew Arnold in his 1869 book Culture and Anarchy. Arnold described this level of culture as "the best which has been thought and said," but in our day it has been enlarged to include the best that has been composed and painted and sculpted and filmed. Arnold believed that high culture had its "origin in the love of perfection" and the "study of perfection," and thought it an idea that the new democracy under the industrial revolution developing in his day needed "more than the idea of the blessedness of the franchise, or the wonderfulness of their own industrial performances."
Behind Arnold's notion of high culture was a program for the partial reform of human nature. Attaining the perfection of high culture, Arnold held, would bring about "an inward condition of the mind and spirit .  .  . at variance with the mechanical and material civilization in esteem with us." Properly cultivated, this elevated culture would lead to "an expansion of human nature" and release us from our "inaptitude for seeing more than one side of a thing, with our intense energetic absorption in the particular pursuit we happen to be following."
One might think Matthew Arnold's idea of culture is restricted to the well-born. He saw it otherwise. "In each class," he wrote,
there are born a certain number of natures with a curiosity about their best self, with a bent for seeing things as they are, for disentangling themselves from machinery .  .  . for the pursuit, in a word, of perfection. .  .  . And this bent always tends .  .  . to take them out of their class, and to make their distinguishing characteristic not their [social origins, wealth, or status], but their humanity.
Make no mistake: High culture, culture in the sense in which Arnold speaks of it as an ideal, is an elite activity—but one open to everyone with what Arnold calls a "bent" for it."


Sunday, March 12, 2017

Mass at Dawn -- Roy Campbell (1901-1957)

I dropped my sail and dried my dripping seines
Where the white quay is chequered by cool planes
In whose great branches, always out of sight,
The nightingales are singing day and night.
Though all was grey beneath the moon’s grey beam,
My boat in her new paint shone like a bride,
And silver in my baskets shone the bream:
My arms were tired and I was heavy-eyed,
But when with food and drink, at morning-light,
The children met me at the water-side,
Never was wine so red or bread so white.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

We've Only Just Begun -- The Carpenters (1970)

Pop music for grown ups. Nevermore. (Karen Carpenter died of anorexia nervosa, by the way -- poor thing.)

We've only just begun to live
White lace and promises
A kiss for luck and we're on our way
(We've only begun)
Before the risin' sun, we fly
So many roads to choose
We'll start out walkin' and learn to run
(And yes, we've just begun)
Sharing horizons that are new to us
Watching the signs along the way
Talkin' it over, just the two of us
Workin' together day to day
And when the evening comes, we smile
So much of life ahead
We'll find a place where there's room to grow
(And yes, we've just begun)
Sharing horizons that are new to us
Watching the signs along the way
Talkin' it over, just the two of us
Workin' together day to day
And when the evening comes, we smile
So much of life ahead
We'll find a place where there's room to grow
And yes, we've just begun
Written by Nichols Williams

Friday, March 10, 2017

American Carnage -- Christopher Caldwell

First Things

"If you take too much heroin, your breathing slows until you die. Unfortunately, the drug sets an addictive trap that is sinister and subtle. It provides a euphoria—a feeling of contentment, simplification, and release—which users swear has no equal. Users quickly develop a tolerance, requiring higher and higher amounts to get the same effect. The dosage required to attain the feeling the user originally experienced rises until it is higher than the dosage that will kill him. An addict can get more or less “straight,” but approaching the euphoria he longs for requires walking up to the gates of death. If a heroin addict sees on the news that a user or two has died from an overly strong batch of heroin in some housing project somewhere, his first thought is, “Where is that? That’s the stuff I want.”
Tolerance ebbs as fast as it rises. The most dangerous day for a junkie is not the day he gets arrested, although the withdrawal symptoms—should he not receive medical treatment—are painful and embarrassing, and no picnic for his cellmate, either. But withdrawals are not generally life-threatening, as they are for a hardened alcoholic. The dangerous day comes when the addict is released, for the dosage he had taken comfortably until his arrest two weeks ago may now be enough to kill him.
In 1993, Francis F. Seeburger, a professor of philosophy at the University of Denver, wrote a profound book on the thought processes of addicts called Addiction and Responsibility. We tend to focus on the damage addiction does. A cliché among empathetic therapists, eager to describe addiction as a standard-issue disease, is that “no one ever decides to become an addict.” But that is not exactly true, Seeburger shows. “Something like an addiction to addiction plays a role in all addiction,” he writes. “Addiction itself . . . is tempting; it has many attractive features.” In an empty world, people have a need to need. Addiction supplies it. “Addiction involves the addict. It does not present itself as some externally imposed condition. Instead, it comes toward the addict as the addict’s very self.” Addiction plays on our strengths, not just our failings. It simplifies things. It relieves us of certain responsibilities. It gives life a meaning. It is a “perversely clever copy of that transcendent peace of God.”
The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous thought there was something satanic about addiction. The mightiest sentence in the book of Alcoholics Anonymous is this: “Remember that we deal with alcohol—cunning, baffling, powerful!” The addict is, in his own, life-damaged way, rational. He’s too rational. He is a dedicated person—an oblate of sorts, as Seeburger puts it. He has commitments in another, nether world."

Thursday, March 9, 2017

"What school teaches, first and last, is “the need to be taught.”"

Where have all the education radicals gone? Roman Catholic priest and critic of modernity, Ivan Illich (1926-2002)

The Baffler, George Scialabba
"The first of [Ivan] Illich’s books, Deschooling Society (1971), made him very famous. It caught the crest of a wave of critique and experiment in American education: Paul Goodman, John Holt, Paulo Freire, free schools, community control. Illich shared his contemporaries’ anti-authoritarianism but not their reasons. For most educational radicals, the enemies were tradition—the age-old authority of church and state, bosses, and parents—and inequality: the gap between resources devoted to rich and poor children. From this point of view, the remedies were plain: practice emancipatory social relations in all schools and lavish more resources on those serving poorer children.
To Illich’s mind, those remedies missed the point. He thought the educational system had no good reason to exist. It was, like every modern service industry, in the business of creating and defining the needs it purported to satisfy—in this case, the certification of experts—while discrediting alternative, usually traditional, methods of self-cultivation and self-care. The schools’ primary mission was to produce people able and willing to inhabit a historically new way of life, as clients or administrators of systems whose self-perpetuation was their overriding goal. Thus schools produce childhood, a phenomenon that is, Illich claimed, no more than a few centuries old but is now the universal rationale for imposing an array of requirements, educational and medical, on parents and for training people as lifelong candidates for credentials and consumers of expertise.
It is not what schools taught that Illich objected to; it is that they taught:
To understand what it means to deschool society, and not just to reform the educational establishment, we must focus on the hidden curriculum of schooling. . . . [It is] the ceremonial or ritual of schooling itself [that] constitutes such a hidden curriculum. Even the best of teachers cannot entirely protect his pupils from it. Inevitably, this hidden curriculum of schooling adds prejudice and guilt to the discrimination which a society practices against some of its members and compounds the privilege of others with a new title to condescend to the majority. Just as inevitably, this hidden curriculum serves as a ritual of initiation into a growth-oriented consumer society for rich and poor alike.
Once young people have allowed their imaginations to be formed by curricular instruction, they are conditioned to institutional planning of every sort. . . . Neither ideological criticism nor social action can bring about a new society. Only disenchantment with and detachment from the central social ritual and reform of that ritual can bring about radical change.
What school teaches, first and last, is “the need to be taught.”
In a series of subsequent books—Tools for Conviviality (1973), Energy and Equity (1974), Medical Nemesis (1975), Toward a History of Needs (1978), The Right to Useful Unemployment (1978), and Shadow Work (1981)—Illich formulated parallel critiques of medicine, transportation, law, psychotherapy, the media, and other preserves of self-perpetuating expertise. The medical system produces patients; the legal system produces clients; the entertainment system produces audiences; and the transportation system produces commuters (whose average speed across a city, he liked to point out, is less than the average speed of pedestrians or bicyclists—or would be, if walking or bicycling those routes hadn’t been made impossible by the construction of highways). In this process, far more important than merely teaching us behavior is the way these systems teach us how to define our needs. “As production costs decrease in rich nations, there is an increasing concentration of both capital and labor in the vast enterprise of equipping man for disciplined consumption.”
Why do we have to be taught to need or disciplined to consume? Because being schooled, transported, entertained, etc.—consuming a service dispensed by someone licensed to provide it—is a radical novelty in the life of humankind. Until the advent of modernity only a century or two ago (in most of the world, that is; longer in “advanced” regions), the default settings of human nature included autonomy, mutuality, locality, immediacy, and satiety. Rather than being compulsorily enrolled in age-specific and otherwise highly differentiated institutions, one discovered interests, pursued them, and found others (or not) to learn with and from. Sick care was home- and family-based, far less rigorous and intrusive, and suffering and death were regarded as contingencies to be endured rather than pathologies to be stamped out. Culture and entertainment were less abundant and variegated but more participatory. The (commercially convenient) idea that human needs and wants could expand without limit, that self-creation was an endless project, had not yet been discovered."

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The End of the University -- Roger Scruton

Related image
"Today's class will be about the same thing all your other classes are about -- How to make money."

First Things, Roger Scruton
"When Cardinal Newman wrote The Idea of a University in 1852, it was largely to uphold the old conception of the university, as a place apart, a quasi-monastic precinct opposed to the utilitarian mindset of the new manufacturing society. For Newman, a university exists to mold the characters of those who attend it. Immersing its students in a collegiate environment, and impressing on them an ideal of the educated mind, helps to turn raw human beings into gentlemen.
This, Newman implied, is the true social function of the university. Within college walls the adolescent is granted a vision of the ends of life; and he takes from the university the one thing that the world does not provide, which is a conception of intrinsic value. And that is why the university is so important in an age of commerce and industry, when the utilitarian temptation besieges us on every side, and when we are in danger of making every purpose a material one—in other words, as Newman saw it, in danger of allowing the means to swallow the ends.
Much has changed since Newman’s day. To suggest that universities are engaged in producing gentlemen is more than faintly ridiculous in an age when most students are women. Newman’s ideal university was modeled on the actual universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Trinity College, Dublin, which at the time admitted only men, did not permit their resident scholars to marry, and were maintained as quasi-religious institutions within the fold of the Anglican Church. Their undergraduates were recruited largely from the private schools, and their curriculum was solidly based in Latin, Greek, theology, and mathematics. Their domestic life revolved around the college, where dons and undergraduates had their living quarters, and where they dined together each evening in hall, robed in their academic gowns.
Only a small proportion of those who attended the old British universities in Newman’s day regarded study as the real purpose of being “up” at the alma mater. Some were there to row or play rugby; some were biding time before inheriting a title; some were on their way to commissions in the army, and were meanwhile rioting with their chums. Almost all were members of a social elite that had hit on this unique way of perpetuating itself, by coating its power with a veneer of high culture. And in this protected and beautiful environment you could also take culture seriously. With money in the bank and time on your hands, it was not so hard to turn your back on utilitarian values.
Today’s university differs from Cardinal ­Newman’s in almost every respect. It recruits from all classes of society, is open equally to men and to women, and is very often financed and provisioned by the state. Little if anything remains of the poised domestic life that shaped the soul of Newman, and the curriculum centers not on sublime and purposeless subjects like ancient Greek, in which there hovers the entrancing vision of a life beyond commerce, but on sciences, vocational disciplines, and the now ubiquitous “business studies” through which students supposedly learn the ways of the world."

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Was Benjamin Franklin an atheist? Doubtful.

First Things
"On the boat back from London, in addition to speculating about the causes of the Gulf Stream, making astronomical observations, and studying the ontogeny of crustaceans, [Benjamin] Franklin busied himself with devising four commandments for his life (be frugal, speak the truth, work hard, speak ill of no man), and twelve cardinal virtues necessary to keeping them (temperance, order, sincerity, justice, etc.). Number twelve was “Chastity,” to which he appended the explanation, “Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.” Chastity in moderation, so to speak. A Quaker friend who examined the list said, to Franklin’s surprise, that some people thought him proud, so he added a thirteenth: “Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” While he was almost perpetually involved in plans of self-improvement—at least until the later years when he laid back to enjoy his celebrity—he also thought it advisable that he accept limited imperfections in himself lest he be accused of “a kind of foppery in morals.”
There was that smugness and complacency to which so many have reacted negatively. Having narrowly escaped from the Mathers of Boston, he was determined to live above the world of certainties and the contentiousness that too often attends them. His was the open-minded and universal view befitting the “scientific” disposition of an age of Enlightenment. He evidenced, writes Brands, “an equipoise that nearly everyone who knew him noticed and that many remarked upon. It could make him seem smug or shallow; while others agonized upon life’s deep issues, Franklin contented himself with incomplete answers, maintaining an open mind and seeming to skate upon life’s surface.” The penchant for the scientific could lead him to the silliness of devising a complex system in which he weighed the pros and cons before making an important decision, assigning a certain mathematical weight, positive or negative, to each item and then arriving at the optimal decision by what he called “moral or prudential algebra.”
The General and Particular Government of the Universe
Franklin’s was a very superior mind, and he knew it. Because it was so very superior, most others did not mind his knowing it but, rather, took pleasure in celebrating his gifts, which were also theirs, for this was an age caught up in an exhilarating dream of progress of which genius was the engine. His discoveries about fire and heat led to the invention of a new kind of fireplace, the Franklin stove, which, as with his other inventions, he did not patent. He thought the invention should be free, being among his gifts to the age. He made his living as a printer, and everything else was gratis. He was not, says Brands, “what the modern age would call a true intellectual.” He did have an endlessly inquisitive mind, and it was aimed at what might make life easier, more productive, or happier. “His view of science mirrored his view of religion. Where faith was sterile if it failed to produce good works, so science was sterile—even if interesting—if it failed to produce good inventions.” Although the term would not come into philosophical use for more than a century, he was, in short, a pragmatist.
The same Franklin, however, cultivated a lifelong friendship with the celebrated British revivalist George Whitefield, who drew vast throngs by his rhetorical powers that could, it was said, reduce listeners to tears simply by uttering the word “Mesopotamia.” Franklin organized the building of an arena in Philadelphia for Whitefield’s rallies, since he was barred from the local pulpits. Franklin thought competition in religion a good thing, although there may have been more to it than that. In 1768 Franklin wrote Whitefield of his worries about British policies toward the colonies, a worry made more distressing by his deep devotion to Britain and aversion to the thought of conflict. In his letter he continued their theological debate of thirty years. “I see with you that our affairs are not well managed by our rulers here below; I wish I could believe with you that they are well attended to by those above.” But, “though the general government of the universe is well administered, our particular little affairs are perhaps below notice, and left to take the chance of human prudence or imprudence, as either may happen to be uppermost.” In the midst of anxieties, however, he wrote to another friend, “Take one thing with another, and the world is a pretty good sort of world; and ‘tis our duty to make the best of it and be thankful.” But to whom, or Whom, is it our duty to give thanks?
Franklin certainly flirted with atheism at times in his life, and still today is usually described as a Deist. When he was an old man, Ezra Stiles of Connecticut asked him about his religious convictions, in response to which Franklin penned what he called his creed. “I believe in one God, creator of the universe. That He governs it by His providence. That He ought to be worshiped. . . . That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this.” As for Jesus, “his system of morals and his religion [are] the best the world ever saw or is likely to see. . . . I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.” Franklin asked Stiles not to publish this letter, since it might scandalize the orthodox. One may suggest that its approximation of orthodoxy might rather scandalize the many, then and now, who assume that Franklin was a closet atheist who pretended in public to be a Deist."