2014/10/07

Anti-boycott petition

This just come to my in-box from a scholar at Tel Aviv University. I agree (broadly) with the argument that an academic boycott is not the way to encourage dialogue, and dialogue is what we most need in the age of extremisms. Boycotts of many products may be effective, for example, a boycott of the Israeli weapons industry might be a very good thing — and might even make the Israel government respond. But boycotts of academic or any other intellectual interchange — "I refuse even to listen to you" sort of boycotts — will not only be utterly ineffective to change Israeli (or anybody's) policy, but will simply hamper much needed communication. 

They are seeking signature from academics, but I am not affiliated to any academic institution, so rather than sign I'm expressing my support here. Follow the link to read the petition, though I think Professor Dreyfus' presentation of the case is especially clear.
Friends,

May I suggest that you consider signing this petition against academic boycotts, specifically academic boycotts of Israel’s academic institutions, scholars and students. The petition originated in the USA but is intended to be signed by scholars in all
countries. 

Personally, I oppose much of our present government’s policies with respect to Palestinians and a Palestinian state. So do many of my colleagues. However, I oppose an academic boycott in principle (see Zvi Ziegler’s arguments below) and in practice: A boycott is likely to weaken voices against government policy and strengthen the right wing in Israel. 

Best wishes,

Tommy
Tommy Dreyfus

Zvi Ziegler is head of the committee gathering signatures. He writes,
Our approach is that academic boycotts are harmful to the progress of mankind , and that science should be pursued without discriminating against people on account of their race, gender, nationality, politics, etc. This approach is identical to the one expressed by several national academies of science, including the USA one.



2014/10/01

Brilliant images hold up a wispy tale

Light YearsLight Years by James Salter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Salter is famous for his beautiful sentences, beginning here with “We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind. This great estuary is wide, endless.”

The opening of Light Years seems to open a world, a very particular world of rough, unyielding nature — river, trees, rocks — and the precarious and unstable marks left by generations of humans, down to the youngest, two little girls who crouch outside the bathroom, urging their story-telling papa (who is soaking in the tub) to come out and tell them more about their pony that, according to him swims to the bottom of the river to eat the onions that grow there.

The little girls grow up, their story-telling father continues telling fables but mostly to himself, while their mother keeps trying out new ways, and new lovers, in a mostly unsuccessful effort to keep herself interested in life. Their pets, including that errant pony, a tailless dog and a turtle, grow old and all but the turtle die, as do some of this family's friends — lots of little events, and some bigger ones, occur over the 15-some "light years," 1958 to about 1973, through which we observe a man and a woman, the parents of those little girls, from their home in rural New York to their work and play in New York City, and then briefly (and separately) to Italy and Switzerland, before each — separately still — returns to the soggy land around that black river, its familiar buildings decayed and newer, unwelcoming ones thrown up as gaudy future ruins.

And that’s about it for the story. No one here is driven by any great, unforgiving ambition, but the man and woman and all their friends move mostly by inertia, nudged along at times by dreams and impulses, which are mostly disappointing when fulfilled. Still, the book is so beautifully written, the people are so believably individual, and the weather and texture and look of the sites so vivid, that it is a joy to read. The opening lines, about the river and the sea birds and its “dream of the past” are as entrancing as the opening lines of García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, but with this difference: the first lines of the latter book — the Colonel facing a firing squad and remembering his childhood — contain the hint of the whole complicated story. In Light Years, there almost is no story beyond the images of different moments in the slow and uncomprehending maturing, or simply aging, of a man and woman as they drift apart and with no common project.


View all my reviews

2014/09/18

From the center of the maelstrom of the Paris Commune

Mes cahiers rouges: souvenirs de la communeMes cahiers rouges: souvenirs de la commune by Maxime Vuillaume
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Maxime Vuillaume’s “red notebooks” (cahiers rouges) contain some of the most vivid first hand testimony of all the writings on the Paris Commune. Vuillaume knew almost all the major players, some of them very well, and was himself an important actor, as a founder and editor of one of the most popular newspapers of the Commune, Le Père Duchêne.

Only 26 when he barely escaped execution in the bloody final week of the Commune (May 20-28, 1871), Vuillaume wrote the first post-commune reports in clandestine documents from his exile in Switzerland, before the amnesty (1880) permitted him to return to France. For years, he was reluctant to publish his notes, for fear of injuring people still living or being sued by their descendants. But finally, some 30 years after the annihilation of the commune, a younger journalist, Lucien Descaves, persuaded him to put them into shape and publish them, and Vuillaume then also began to compose and publish additional "cahiers", sometimes correcting things in the earlier ones or adding detail, and sometimes taking on aspects of the Commune that he had not personally experienced but researched through documents and interviews. All of these, the earliest and most personal and the later researched reports, have been gathered together in this edition of the “red notebooks.”

Vuillaume's Père Duchêne was a foul-mouthed, rabble-rousing, over-the-top scandal sheet, in imitation of the original Père Duchesne of Jacques-René Hébert that rallied the sans-culottes from 1790 until Hébert was guillotined in 1794. As in the original version, the "Old Man" or "Père"of the title was the fictional voice of a man of the "people", i.e., the unprivileged, lambasting the rich, the clergy, and anybody else seen as an oppressor. Its readers probably knew the paper was not to be trusted — reporting events that may or may not have occurred — but they bought it anyway, so many of them that the paper made more money than expected. They must have delighted in the invective against the “jeanfoutres” and “bougres” (gross insults, common in speech but rarely seen in print in those days), meaning all those opposed to the Commune, including Catholic clergy, local bourgeois and the government in Versailles.

The more mature Vuillaume, traumatized by the horrific bloodshed and prolonged repression of the end of the commune, became a much more serious, careful and responsible reporter, but without losing his capacity for vivid and impassioned description. Thus all these reports or “notebooks” are well worth reading, even those that go over material also covered by his journalist contemporaries Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray and Jules Vallès (both of whom Vuillaume knew well). But by far the liveliest cahiers are those on the experiences closest to him: Cahier I, “Une journée à la cour martiale de Luxembourg,” describes the army's systematic killing of suspected communards after their final defeat and Vuillaume’s own very narrow escape from execution; III, “Quand nous faisions Le Père Duchêne,” about all that he and his equally young partners, Eugène Vermersch and Alphonse Humbert, had to go through to get the capital together, write and distribute a daily paper in that period of intense debate, street agitation and combats, and IV, “Quelques-uns de la Commune”, intimate portraits of communards including Raoul Rigault, who in his last days was the commune’s chief prosecutor. Samples from some of those sharp-tongued articles are included in this book, but for the most part, the mature Vuillaume writes a more temperate prose, but still with passion for the lost cause of the Commune.

See also my reviews of Jules Vallès' fictionalized account, L'Insurgé,  and Lissagaray's Histoire de la Commune de 1871

View all my reviews

2014/09/08

Memory Booster | HMS

Another step forward in understanding how short-term memory works! And without it, we couldn't create long-term memories — or so I suppose, and that's what most specialists also believe. We may all be wrong, but now that they've identified this calcium sensor in short-term memory, they may be able to test that hypothesis.

Memory Booster | HMS

Memory is all we have to work with, we authors. So this really matters. For more reflections on this topic (e.g., my note on Elkhonon Goldberg's book, The Wisdom Paradox) click on "memory" keyword below.

2014/09/05

Visit to Russia — Susana's travelogue

Here is my accomplice Susana Torre's account of our recent trip to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. For more writing and other work by Susana, see her website, Susana Torre.

SUSANA AND GEOFF’S TRIP TO MOSCOW AND SAINT PETERSBURG, JULY-AUGUST 2014 

SHHHHHHH!!! The young guards were, very loudly, making sure we didn’t make any noise going down the steps of Lenin’s Mausoleum in almost complete darkness. It’s impossible to tell if the figure lying in state with face and hands precisely lit is the real mummy, or a wax representation. All the same, we wanted to say goodbye in our last day in Moscow to the symbol of the momentous social changes brought about by the October 1917 revolution. Goodbye, Vladimir Ilych. Goodbye, John Reed and Alexei Shchusev buried with many others along the Kremlin wall.
Red Square. From left: GUM, St. Basil's, Lenin's tomb (click for larger view)
We made this trip intending to make the picture in our heads, formed by our readings by historians, theoreticians, protagonists and inspirers of the revolution, more nuanced and complete. Not exactly a nostalgic trip for lost ideals, but to see first hand whatever remained of the material evidence of those ideals, and to see what had become of them today in Moscow and Saint Petersburg (called “Peter” by the Russians). First Moscow, and then a trip on the fast “Sapsan” — “Hawk” — train to “Peter”, through flat farmland, villages and densely packed residential high-rise suburbs. Geoff had resumed his college Russian language studies, and managed to communicate and read all the Cyrillic signs, indispensable to travel by public transportation – especially the subway, as efficient, clean, advertisement-free, frequent and fast as touted in the tourist guides, including the lavish use of marble surfaces and alabaster fixtures.

Considering an alternative to the Moscow subway
On our first day in Moscow we visited Krasnaya Ploshchad, Red, or Beautiful, Square (“krasnaya” has both meanings in Russian), the vast open space, formerly a market, just outside the walls of the Kremlin. The brightly colored multiple onion-domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral dominate one end, and the more somber, red-brick State Historical Museum the other, over 2,000 feet away. Stretching along part of the wall is Lenin’s classical-cum-constructivist mausoleum, and facing it across the square, 230 feet away, sits the huge GUM, the largest covered arcade in the world. Built in 1890 to impress Europeans and create an enclosed place for the nobility to consume the latest Parisian fashions, today it is a private shopping mall known to locals as “the exhibition hall of prices”. From the restaurant terrace in front of GUM, we watched the people ambling across the great space, at a much more leisurely pace than the purposeful walk of people in Western capital cities. Maybe this is because the square is a destination unto itself, not a passing-through place. It is from here that the avenues structuring the city radiate, intersected by multi-lane, high-speed ring roads that pedestrians may cross only by underground passages. To my surprise, the interior of St. Basil’s Cathedral (a Museum since 1929) was not a large nave, but a collection of eight chapels around a ninth, central one less than 700 square feet in area. We had to search through the narrow connecting corridors to find one with especially great acoustics, resonating with the voices of a four-man vocal group.

Even the Cathedrals within the Kremlin walls followed a similar pattern, churches meant for a privileged few and with no ambition to include the unwashed masses. We were more impressed with the model of Catherine the Great’s insanely ambitious Grand Kremlin Palace, now in the Architecture Museum than with the existing Kremlin itself. Had it been built, monumental Neo-Classical double colonnades would have surmounted the entire Kremlin Wall facing Red Square.

Christ the Savior,Tsereteli’s sculpture 
Everywhere we saw the signs of historical continuity between Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Perestroika Russia: cathedrals turned into museums; streets in Moscow’s center lined with mansions of the aristocracy now put to public uses or turned into homes for the “oligarchs”, including the Art Nouveau gem of a house the last Tsar had built for a lover — now a museum — with the balcony from which Lenin harangued the partisans after he had taken over the house for Bolshevik
headquarters. One discontinuity, Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, demolished by Stalin to make room for a Palace of the Soviets that was never built, was rebuilt in the 1990s. Here, Pussy Riot staged the 4-minute concert that landed two of their members in jail for almost two years. The cathedral faces the river and a pedestrian bridge that brings Moscow’s youth into the fashionable Strelka café, and the nearby, exceedingly ugly 15-story high statue by the apparatchik architect/sculptor Zurab Tsereteli. The sculpture was a gift representing Columbus, intended for the US but rejected, and here displayed with a new head, that of Peter the Great.


Another continuity is the ubiquitous orange and black striped ribbon of St. George, symbolizing fire and gunpowder, that is everywhere attached to car handles and rear-view mirrors, to Putin’s lapel and the lapels of bodyguards in black suits in 90-degree weather. The ribbon is a component of military decorations awarded by imperial, Soviet and current Russia governments, now used to show support for pro-Russians in the disputed regions of Ukraine. Many coffee mugs in the souvenir section of the gigantic Izmailovo flea market had the map of Crimea next to the legend: “It’s OURS!” The popular mood seems to be with Putin, and the Russian TV channel in English kept reporting on the lies of the Western media about Russia’s military involvement in the Donbass.

Among the dozens of house museums where artists and writers lived, the one I wanted to see most was that of Anatoly Lunacharsky, Lenin’s Commissar of Enlightenment, a great intellectual and promoter of the artistic avant-garde; he staged a happening avant la lettre, a trial against God for crimes against humanity, in which the deity was condemned to death and “executed” by a firing squad shooting machine guns into the sky. When we could get no answer on the phone for an appointment, we simply showed up at the address and rang the bell. A burly man— evidently the caretaker — came down to inform us, by gesture and the few words we could understand, that the apartment was now privately occupied; with a semi-apologetic grin, he explained in one word: олигарх, i.e., “oligarch”.

In both Moscow and St. Petersburg we visited art and political history museums. In Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery annex, we were able to see the 50% of George Costakis’ extraordinary art collection that he was obliged to leave behind when he moved to Greece, including Malevich’s Black Square and some of the best pieces of Natalia Goncharova, which establish her role as the inspiring founder of new movements. It was enlightening to see them for the first time in the context of earlier and later works by Russian artists not well known in the West. The focus of the contemporary art world is Moscow’s “Garage”, a would-be museum currently housed in a temporary, unremarkable structure designed by Shigeru Ban, awaiting its permanent location in a Soviet era pavilion being remodeled by Rem Koolhas, in a clear effort to become an international destination. Although we are not entirely up-to-date with Russian contemporary art, we had liked the rambunctious energy of songspiel videos by the art collective Chto Delat? (What is to be done?) http://vimeo.com/12130035 -- but the exhibition at Garage, with work by artists in the periphery of the Russian Federation about the dislocation produced by the end of the Soviet Union, seemed trite and superficial.

Construction in Moscow’s center, especially in its main radial avenue, Tverskaya Ulitsa, seems to have stopped after Stalin built the Seven Sisters skyscrapers in the late 1940s and early 50s. The foundations for an eighth “Sister” bordering Red Square were used after Stalin’s death for the modern, monstrously big Rossiya Hotel (21-storeys, 3,200 rooms, police station, etc.), the biggest in Europe, which was finally demolished in 2006. It has become a contested site, with public pressure to use it for a park instead of a new entertainment center designed by Norman Foster. But a new International Business Center, boasting Europe’s tallest building, is nearly finished on a site beyond the third ring road. We saw its gleaming towers at a distance during our tour of Constructivist buildings – the workers’ clubs, communal housing and other emblematic projects built during the 1920s that embody the revolutionary social change made into architecture during the Bolshevik government’s first years.

We continued our search for places and buildings of that fateful period when we arrived in picture book Neo-Classical “Peter”. Such buildings can be found mostly in Narvskaya Zastava, the center of the workers’ movement during the events of 1917, still a proletarian neighborhood full of factories and streets with names like “Tractor” or “Barricade”. Two impressive relics are the Kirovsky District Soviet building, municipal offices still used for the original purpose, and the former humongous industrial kitchen supplying hot lunches to factory workers in the area, now a shabby shopping mall. Lenin’s statue and the hammer and sickle on the façade of the Soviet building have not been removed to a “Fallen Monuments” park like the one we visited in Moscow, and his statue with the raised arm still shows the way on the square in front of the Finland Station (we had been re-reading Edmund Wilson’s book.) The temporary exhibition of extravagantly lavish costumes worn by the army of palace servants we saw at the Hermitage was another reminder of why the revolution had to happen. Sustaining it through the decades; a world war; centralized power; and a lack of understanding about the transformation of a proletarian consciousness was quite another matter.
Vladimir Ilyich & comrade, in the Park of Fallen Monuments

2014/09/01

Will Self declares George Orwell the 'Supreme Mediocrity' | Books | theguardian.com

I surprised myself by agreeing with him! "Wigan Pier", "Down and Out in Paris and London" are important reportage, also "Homage to Catalonia" if you account for the very obvious bias, and even (the much weaker) "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" may be worth reading for the satire (not the characterization or plot drama, which are almost nil), but Orwell as didactic preacher ("Animal Farm", "1984", "Politics and the English Language") really is just mediocre at best. Good reporter, shallow thinker. And barely acceptable as a novelist.

Will Self declares George Orwell the 'Supreme Mediocrity' | Books | theguardian.com

Now I suppose I'd better read something by Will Self.

2014/08/31

Postscript: Russia and Ukraine

The "pregnancy" metaphor, may be overworked, but this analysis is in line with our impressions from the Russian newscasts and our conversations during our recent visit to Russia:

Russia Is Pregnant with Ukraine

New York Review of Books, 2014.07.24


2014/08/19

Revolutionary thought, from Michelet to Lenin

Edmund Wilson's TO THE FINLAND STATION: A Study in the Writing and Acting of HistoryTO THE FINLAND STATION: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History by Edmund Wilson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yesterday I devoted a pair of hours to a review of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, composing directly on the Goodreads review screen as was my habit. But when I was finally satisfied with it and pressed the button to “Publish,” the review vanished! Replaced by the sign-in screen for Goodreads. I won’t do that again. From now on, I’ll compose my reviews in Word, then post them — so if the link fails, I’ll still have my draft.

I won’t try to reconstruct my review. Instead, I refer you to the very good, thorough critique of this book by Louis Menand, in The New Yorker, March 24, 2003, The Historical Romance: Edmund Wilson’s adventure with Communism.

Menand will tell you how Wilson got the idea for the book and his many problems in writing it, including his changing attitudes toward the Soviet Union. Wilson, beginning this huge project in the 1930s, had got himself committed to an overly rosy picture of the Soviet Union, one that no longer convinced even him by the time he published the book in 1940. In his new introduction written in 1971 (a year before his death), Wilson tries to correct that rosy view, at least partially, quoting some very negative reminiscences by contemporaries of Lenin and making very explicit his disgust with Josef Stalin, who was barely mentioned in the original book.

 More important for contemporary readers, as Menand points out, is the success of this wide-ranging history of revolutionary thought in bringing together the ideas and the often tangled lives of those who developed them, from Jules Michelet to Vladimir Lenin. Wilson here is clearly emulating Michelet, whose histories of the French revolution he admires for making the past seem suspenseful and contemporary, viewing events (as much as possible) through the eyes of the people who were living them.

But the book is really historical journalism rather than philosophy, where Wilson was hopelessly incompetent — evident in his chapter on Marx and Engels’ concept of the dialectic. Menand writes,

“The dialectic was just the sort of high-theory concept that Wilson reflexively avoided. At the same time, he was not a man quick to concede his ignorance, and he devoted a chapter of his book to explaining that the dialectic is basically a religious myth (a characteristic exercise in journalistic debunking). Wilson had no idea what he was talking about. ”

Menand however does, and explains it in as good a two-paragraph exposition as you’re likely to find of this subtle and complex way of thinking. I recommend it.

View all my reviews

2014/08/13

Historical fiction

Here, in this essay by Sam Jordison, is a clear defense of a genre that needs no defense — historical fiction has always been with us, since Homer, and continues to have very wide readership. Even though some of it is no more that what Hilary Mantel described as "chick-lit with wimples."

What interested me most was this other quote from Hilary Mantel, on the special challenge for serious exploration of the past:
"The grumbling is aimed at literary fiction set in the past,
which is accused of being, by its nature, escapist. It's as if the past
is some feathered sanctuary, a nest muffled from contention and the
noise of debate, its events suffused by a pink, romantic glow. But this
is not how, in practice, modern novelists see their subject matter. If
anything, the opposite is true. A relation of past events brings you up
against events and mentalities that, should you choose to describe them,
would bring you to the borders of what your readers could bear. The
danger you have to negotiate is not the dimpled coyness of the past – it
is its obscenity."
In the Paris Commune, the most transgressive "obscenity" is not sexual, but the subversiveness of the exalted revolutionary ideals. And the terrible bloodiness of the affair, especially in that final week of May 1871, and the disturbing parallels to cruel events today. This all may surpass the borders of what readers can accept. I shall try to take my readers into that disturbing, exhilarating world, though I know many may be reluctant to go there.
Paris sous le drapeau rouge. Place de l'Hôtel de Ville. De Vieux papiers (blog)



Historical fiction can speak very clearly to the present and the past | Books | theguardian.com

2014/08/06

Russians today

Back home in Spain after two weeks in Russia and reflecting on what it all has meant. Our last visit in Saint Petersburg (Monday, 2 days ago), after the ornate Italianate-Slavonic Smolny cathedral and monastery, was to the decidedly un-ornate and still busy Finland Station, Finlyandskaya Vokzal, a plain white railroad and Metro terminal behind a magnificent statue of  Lenin pointing to the future. And yesterday on the plane, I finished Edmund Wilson's look back to the history culminating in that gesture. I'll have more to say about that ambitious, stimulating and antiquated book, To the Finland Station, in a future essay. For now, just some general impressions of Russia.

Finland Station, St. Petersburg
First and most importantly, the people. Everyone we met, anyone we approached to ask directions or anything else, was friendly and helpful — surprisingly so, at first, until we realized that that was the norm. Our initial surprise was because of the difference in facial expression and body language. Russians look severe until you give them a reason to look at you with interest and to smile, which requires no more than that you take an interest in them by saying "Hello" or "Excuse me, do you know…?" And the typical Russian stride takes command of the ground more definitively than the lighter, quicker steps we're used to. Russians appear brusque and direct to Westerners (just read the guide books), which I quite liked. When they try to help you, they get right to the point, and may go so far as to walk out of their way to point and show you what it is they think you asked. At least, that was our experience. It's a huge country with millions of individuals and regional contrasts, but such were the people we encountered in Moscow and St. Petersburg. A second general impression was the over-all cleanliness of streets and sidewalks, and —mostly — the good repair of public spaces, as compared to, say, Madrid or New York. No obvious garbage strewn on the streets or rivers. Nor did we see much obvious poverty, even outside the central tourist areas, except for a few, mostly elderly women, mendicants. Nor any jostling or shoving — beyond unavoidable pressing together —even on the crowded subway cars.

Finally, as I've already noted in this blog, there appears to be an attitude of critical respect toward the whole, still recent Soviet experience. Most of the statues and images of Stalin have disappeared (except as jokey designs on matryoshki and other souvenirs), but many of Lenin remain, and at least some of the impressive architecture is being restored.

Unfortunately I don't have the language skills for more than minimal observation, so I can't tell you much about public opinion. From comments by our Moscow guide, and the flags and collection booths for money for the people of Donbass, it was evident that a sizable part of the population think that Russia must support the separatists in eastern Ukraine, and from all that and what we read or saw in Russian media, that US accusations against the Russian government are baseless and motivated by competitive interest. And people seem very satisfied to have recovered Crimea.