Non-Fiction

Escape From the Nazis: Anna Seghers’s Suspenseful Classic

23 May 2018

From The New York Review of Books:

My first encounter with Anna Seghers’s novel Das siebte Kreuz (The Seventh Cross) was brief and painful. At some point in the mid-1990s—I must have been in tenth or eleventh grade—our German teacher announced that in the months to come we would be reading excerpts from an antiwar novel written in the days of the Third Reich. The announcement was greeted by the students with incredulity and protest. What? Such a big fat book! On top of that, the antiquated language and a plot that refused to get under way, quite aside from the fact that no one could keep track of all the characters.

. . . .

For almost a quarter of a century, that was my only acquaintance with Anna Seghers—until I recently looked up something in an entirely different context and got snagged on a still from a movie. It showed Spencer Tracy in a Hollywood film called The Seventh Cross. I was amazed: that unreadable old tome had been made into a movie! And with a star actor? My curiosity aroused, I read The Seventh Cross for a second time, and I devoured it in two days. After that, I understood why it was an international bestseller.

It had been a hit almost immediately after it was published in 1942—simultaneously in German by a publisher in exile in Mexico and in an English translation in the United States. Within six months, it had sold 421,000 copies in the US. To date, it has been translated into more than thirty languages. Then, in 1944, the Austria-born director Fred Zinnemann, who would make the western classic High Noon a few years later, filmed The Seventh Cross for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Besides Tracy, the cast included Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, and Helene Weigel (in her only film role during her American exile).

After the war, the novel was published to acclaim in Seghers’s native Germany. In 1947, in Darmstadt, Seghers was awarded the most important prize for German-language literature, the Georg Büchner Prize.

. . . .

Anna Seghers was born Netty Reiling, in Mainz in 1900, the only child of an upper-class Jewish family. Her father was a dealer in art and antiquities. Seghers always felt close ties to her native city. Decades later, at the age of seventy-five, she wrote in a telegram to the citizens of Mainz, “In the city where I spent my childhood, I received what Goethe called the original impression a person absorbs of a part of reality, whether it is a river, a forest, the stars, or the people.”

. . . .

Then, in 1933, as in a stage drama, came the moment of peripeteia, a sudden, total reversal. In the year Hitler came to power Seghers, doubly endangered as both a Jew and a Communist, fled with her family to Switzerland. It was the beginning of a long odyssey. She lived in Paris—separated from her husband, who had been interned in a French concentration camp—until France was occupied by the Nazis in 1940. Alone with their two children, she managed first to organize his release and then orchestrate the family’s escape by ship via New York to Mexico City, where she would stay until 1947.

It was in Mexico that she learned of her mother’s fate: murdered in 1942 in the Lublin concentration camp in Poland. The message from the Jewish congregation of Mainz was matter-of-fact: “Mrs. Hedwig Reiling arrived in Piaski near Lublin in the month of March, 1942, and died there.”

Between May of 1938 and late in the summer of 1939, with world war imminent and in precarious circumstances, Anna Seghers wrote “a little novel,” as she called it at first, or as an early working title reads, the “7 Crosses Novel.”

According to her telling, there were originally just four copies of the manuscript, all of which she mailed off in hopes of being published. The first copy was destroyed during an air raid; a friend lost another while fleeing the Nazis; the third fell into the hands of the Gestapo; only the fourth copy, addressed to her German publisher in the United States, arrived at its destination. However, she herself hadn’t kept a copy of her manuscript because the danger of its being found in her apartment by a police raid—a constant fear of hers, even in neutral Mexico—was too great.

The Boston publishing house Little, Brown accepted the novel for publication, but at first, Seghers, at that time the sole support of her family, saw no money from it. The modest author’s advance was withheld in order to pay for the translation. In 1942, the publisher F.C. Weiskopf, by then a friend, wrote her a letter with the happy news that her novel had been selected by the Book of the Month Club: “Be glad, my people, Manna has rained down from heaven.” But it wasn’t until the following year that Seghers started receiving a monthly royalty payment of $500. The breakthrough came with the Hollywood filming. Seghers was paid the fabulous sum of $75,000 in four installments, the last in 1946. This, at least, brought to an end the time of financial distress.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

Tom Wolfe, Sage of Status Anxiety

17 May 2018

From The New Yorker:

A great magazine writer is a writer who sells magazines. Tom Wolfe sold magazines. People bought magazines on the newsstand in order to read the pieces in them written by Tom Wolfe.

Behind every great magazine writer is a great magazine editor, and the editor behind Wolfe was Clay Felker.

. . . .

Felker and Wolfe believed that what New York City is all about, what every New Yorker is obsessed with, is status, and status, or status anxiety, is the theme of most of Wolfe’s writing. Wolfe’s own famous sartorial look, the three-piece white suit, was really a disguise. He called it “neo-pretentious,” but who was he pretending to be? No one wears three-piece white suits in New York City. The suit made him socially unplaceable. It was an escape from the problem of status.

Felker and Wolfe also understood that the people who like to read magazine stories about status are the people who are insecure about their status. Flush economic times produce people like this, people who worry that their money is not buying them standing, and those times in New York—the nineteen-sixties and the nineteen-eighties—were the best times for Felker and Wolfe’s kind of journalism.

Wolfe was a satirist. Politically, satire is a conservative genre. Satire is highbrow populism. (Hence Wolfe’s diatribes against modernist art and architecture.) Satire is premised on the belief that, no matter how much liberal enlightenment you introduce into human affairs, people will still sort themselves into some kind of pecking order, in which all the little birds are trying to get in with the big bird at the head of the line.

Satire also associates aspiration with fatuousness and newness with faddishness, and Wolfe was skilled at making those reductions. He was predictable and he was mean, but he was also (in the beginning, anyway, until he assumed the role of a cultural warrior) funny, and he was not vicious. This may be because he was so maniacally focussed on surfaces—dress, manners, styles of speech—that he left the person underneath relatively unscathed.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

How To Tell Your Family That You’re Writing A Memoir

14 May 2018

From The Literary Hub:

I didn’t intend for it to be a memoir. I swear. It just kept tilting in that direction.

The only scenes that felt real and true were those with my wife and two sons. Still, it took a few years of writing my way in and out of corners and dead ends before I stopped referring to my book as a “history of skateboarding with bits of personal narrative,” before I understood and started calling it what it was: a family memoir, a story about fatherhood and raising boys.

I’m not sure how far along I was before I came clean and told my family that dad’s misshapen skateboarding book had become a book about, well . . . us. The secret grew inside me until I finally admitted to my sons, Sean and Leo, to my wife, Mary, and to myself that the story had evolved, grown more personal, more cathartic for me but more fraught for us all.

When we had “the talk,” my kids and my wife were understanding and generous in ways that I’ll never be able to repay. But coming clean was just the beginning.

The next phase—the hardest and most unsettling period of my 30-plus years as a writer—involved the constant internal debates over what I could or couldn’t say, should or shouldn’t reveal, about the three most important people in my life. That was followed by the awkward and sometimes painful negotiations with my “characters.”

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Are You Listening?

13 May 2018

From The New Yorker:

I always knew my mother couldn’t hear, but I can’t remember when it dawned on me that she’d always be deaf. If I was told, I didn’t believe it. It was no different when I learned about sex. Someone may have sat me down for the facts of life, and although I wasn’t really shocked and probably already knew, I couldn’t bring myself to trust any of it. In between knowing something and refusing to know it lies a murky chasm that even the most enlightened among us are perfectly happy to inhabit. If anyone gave me the official report on my mother, it would have been my grandmother, who did not like her daughter-in-law and who found my mother’s deaf friends as repellent as ungainly fowls squawking in her son’s living room. If it wasn’t my grandmother, it would have been the way people made fun of my mother on the street.

Some men whistled when she walked by, because she was beautiful and sexy and had a way of looking you boldly in the face until you lowered your eyes. But, when she shopped and spoke with the monotone, guttural voice of the deaf, people laughed. In Alexandria, Egypt, where we lived until we were summarily exiled, like all of the country’s Jews, that’s what you did when someone was different. It wasn’t full-throated laughter; it was derision, the stepchild of contempt, which is as mirthless as it is cruel. She couldn’t hear their laughter, but she read it in their faces. This must be how she finally understood why people always smirked when she thought she was speaking like everyone else. Who knows how long it took her to realize that she was unlike other children, why some turned away, or others, meaning to be kind, had a diffident way when they allowed her to play with them?

Born in Alexandria in 1924 in the wake of British colonial rule, my mother belonged to a middle-class, French-speaking Jewish family. Her father had done well as a bicycle merchant and spared no expense to find a cure for her deafness. Her mother took her to see the most prominent audiologists in Europe, but returned more disheartened after each appointment. There was, the doctors said, no cure. Her child had lost her hearing to meningitis when she was a few months old, and from meningitis there was no coming back. Her ears were healthy, but meningitis had touched the part of her brain responsible for hearing.

In those days, there was nothing resembling deaf pride. Deafness was a stigma. The very poor often neglected their deaf children, condemning them to a lifetime of menial labor. Children remained illiterate, and their language was primitive, gestural. In the snobbish view of my mother’s parents, if you couldn’t cure deafness, you learned to hide it. If you weren’t ashamed of it, you were taught to be. You learned how to lip-read, not sign; you learned to speak with your voice, not your hands. You didn’t eat with your hands; why on earth would you speak with them?

. . . .

[S]he had spent her first eighteen years learning how to do what couldn’t have seemed more unnatural: pretending to hear. It was no better than teaching a blind person to count his steps from this pillar to that post so as not to be caught with a white stick. She learned to laugh at a joke even if she would have needed to hear the play on words in the punch line. She nodded at precisely the right intervals to someone speaking to her in Russian, to the point where the Russian was convinced that she understood everything he’d been saying.

The Greek headmistress was idolized by her students, but her method had disastrous consequences for my mother’s ability to process and synthesize complex ideas. Past a certain threshold, things simply stopped making sense to her. She could talk politics if you outlined the promises made by a Presidential candidate, but she was unable to think through the inconsistencies in his agenda, even when they were explained to her. She lacked the conceptual framework or the symbolic sophistication to acquire and use an abstract vocabulary. She might like a painting by Monet, but she couldn’t discuss the beauty of a poem by Baudelaire.

. . . .

She spoke and understood French, learned Greek and basic Arabic, and when we landed in Italy she picked up Italian by going to the market every day. When she didn’t understand something, she pretended that she did until she got it. She almost always got it. In the consulate in Naples, weeks before immigrating to the United States, in 1968, she had her first encounter with American English. She was asked to raise her right hand and repeat the oath of allegiance. She babbled some soft-spoken sounds that the American functionary was happy to mistake for the oath. The scene was so awkward that it brought out nervous giggles in my brother and me. My mother laughed with us as we walked out of the building, but my father had to be told why it was funny.

. . . .

When friends at the playground asked why my mother spoke with that strange voice, I would say, “Because that is how she speaks.” Her voice didn’t sound strange until it was pointed out to me. It was Mom’s voice—the voice that woke me up in the morning, that called out to me at the beach, that soothed me and told me tales at bedtime.

. . . .

Several years ago, when my mother was in her mid-eighties, I bought her an iPad, so that she could Skype and FaceTime for hours with friends abroad, people she hadn’t seen in ages. It was better than anything I had imagined as a boy. She could call me when I was at home, at the office, at the gym, even at Starbucks. I could FaceTime with her and not worry where she was or how she was doing. After my father died, she insisted on living alone, and my biggest fear was that she would fall and hurt herself. FaceTime also meant that I was spared having to visit her so often, as she well understood: “Does this mean that you’re not coming over tonight because we’re speaking with my iPad?”

. . . .

She was acutely discerning and had a flair for people and situations—from the Latin verb fragrare, to scent. Her radar was always on: whom to trust, what to believe, and how to read an inflection. She made up in scent what she had lost in her deafness. She taught me spices, naming them in a grocery store by dipping her palm into the burlap bags and letting me sniff each handful. She taught me to recognize her perfumes, the smell of damp wool, the smell of leaking gas. When I write about scent, I am channelling not Proust but my mother.

. . . .

She made you want to offer intimacy, too. Better yet, she made you reach into yourself to find it, in case you’d mislaid it or never knew you had it in you to give. This was her language, and, as with prisoners in separate cells learn­ing to tap a new language with its own peculiar grammar and alphabet, she taught you to speak it. Sometimes my friends, within an hour of meeting her, forgot that she couldn’t hear them and came to understand everything she said, even when they couldn’t understand a word of French, much less French spoken by a deaf person. I’d try to step in and interpret for them. “I get it,” my friend would say. “I understand perfectly,” my mother would say—meaning, Leave us alone and stop meddling, we’re do­ing just fine. I was the one not understanding.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

From Falling Apples to Black Holes

13 May 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

Gravity has suddenly become a hot topic in science. In the past few years, gravitational waves have been detected for the first time: ripples in the fabric of space, coming from colliding black holes and neutron stars. Both Marcus Chown’s “The Ascent of Gravity” and A. Zee’s “On Gravity” mention those discoveries, but neither focuses on them. Rather, the books provide the background to our understanding of this fundamental force of nature—a force that is the weakest one known but is, because of its long range, the most important one in the universe at large.

The first person to appreciate the literally universal importance of gravity was Robert Hooke, who realized that every object in the universe attracts every other object. Hooke, a slightly older contemporary of Isaac Newton, was an experimenter and observer as well as a theorist. His insight about gravity came partly from telescopic observations of the moon.

Hooke noticed that lunar craters are formed of nearly circular walls around a shallow depression. They looked, in his words, “as if the substance in the middle had been digg’d up, and thrown on either side.” So he carried out experiments, dropping bullets onto a mixture of water and pipe clay, making miniature craters that, when illuminated from the side, looked just like lunar craters.

Hooke speculated that the material thrown up from the center of the craters of the moon was pulled back down by the moon’s own gravity, independent of the Earth’s gravity. He pointed out that apart from small irregularities like craters, the moon is very round, so that “the outermost bounds . . . are equidistant from the Center of gravitation.” They seemed to be tugged toward the center by gravity, and so Hooke concluded the moon had “a gravitating principle as the Earth has.” This was published in 1665, when Newton was just completing his degree at Cambridge. Hooke went on to suggest that planets are held in orbit by an attractive gravitational force from the sun.

. . . .

A particularly delightful feature of “The Ascent of Gravity” is the inclusion of several fictional vignettes in which the author imagines how the big ideas came to his protagonists—for example, a story of the young Einstein walking out with his girlfriend Marie Winteler under a moonlit sky and having a sudden insight about the way light travels across space. Fantasy, but fun. The author somehow makes his discussion of bizarre phenomena (such as the way rotation actually distorts space) just about as intelligible and entertaining as the fantasy. He eschews equations, but provides clear explanation along with useful guides to further reading, and his book’s easy, conversational style likely took hard work to produce.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Let it be known that, unlike technology (see the Telegraph post below), gravity has delivered on everything it promised. On the earth, only a very few items float around. Unless there are children around the house, most objects stay where you put them. Without gravity, scales would be useless and you would have to spend a lot of time hunting around to find almost anything useful.

Like gravity, time has delivered all it promised. In the memorable words of  Ray Cummings’ 1922 science fiction novel, The Girl in the Golden Atom, “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”

Women Intellectuals and the Art of the Withering Quip

24 April 2018

From The Paris Review:

“If one is a woman writer there are certain things one must do,” the British writer and journalist Rebecca West writes to a friend in 1952. “First, not be too good; second, die young, what an edge Katherine Mansfield has on all of us; third, commit suicide like Virginia Woolf. To go on writing and writing well just can’t be forgiven.” West, ignoring her own advice, neither died prematurely nor blunted the fineness of her writing. As a young woman, she made her name with witty, digressive book reviews that were often wonderfully cutting. (On Henry James: “He splits hairs until there are no longer any hairs to split, and the mental gesture becomes merely the making of agitated passes over a complete and disconcerting baldness.”) She also wrote several novels and covered world events for prestigious magazines, including the trial of the English fascist William Joyce and the 1947 lynching of Willie Earle.

. . . .

The literary critic Michelle Dean’s new book of the same name, a cultural history-cum-group biography, examines the lives and careers of ten sharp women, among them Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Dorothy Parker, Renata Adler, Hannah Arendt, and Zora Neale Hurston. What unites this disparate group, Dean claims, is the ability “to write unforgettably.”

. . . .

“The longer I looked at the work these women laid out before me,” Dean writes, “the more puzzling I found it that anyone could look at the literary and intellectual history of the twentieth century and not center women in it.” 

Dean’s centering, or recentering, is both deeply researched and uncommonly engrossing. Indeed, Sharp’s pacing and wealth of anecdote compel one to consume the book like a novel. Many of the book’s satisfactions arise from the depictions of the incestuous, fiercely competitive beau monde these women inhabited. There is a delicious pleasure in reading about the stars and bit players of the fabled “New York intellectuals” of the 1940s—men and women alike—and their petty spats and rivalries that lasted for days or for decades.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review and here’s a link to Sharp by Michelle Dean

Why You Should Write a Memoir—Even if Nobody Will Read It

20 April 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

Is it worth writing a memoir if no one will ever read it?

Millions dream about spinning their life story into a best-seller. Most never get past the dreaming part, much less the first chapter.

But there are potential rewards other than riches and fame for those who try. According to psychologists and researchers, writing a memoir—even just for personal consumption—can help the author review and make sense of his or her life, come to terms with traumatic events and foster personal growth.

In fact, some of the therapeutic benefits may be lost if the writer thinks about too large an audience—or even a readership greater than one. The story can become less authentic. And there are other potential pitfalls to writing your life story. Writers can be thrown into despair if they have trouble reconciling past failures or placing traumatic events into a larger context.

“It really depends on the type of stories people tell to make sense of their lives,” says Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. People who can construct cohesive life narratives—where there are common threads and one event leads to the next—are likely to benefit from writing a memoir, he says, while those who view their lives as a series of random, unrelated events are not. His research has found that life narratives are especially beneficial if they focus on redemption and overcoming adversity.

. . . .

The act of writing about traumatic or difficult events can reduce stress, lessen depression and improve cognitive functioning, according to researchers. Several studies have even shown such writing to improve the function of the immune system.

Psychologists believe that by converting emotions and images into words, the author starts to organize and structure memories, particularly memories that may be difficult to comprehend and accept.

“You can’t simply dump an entire experience on a piece of paper,” says Joshua Smyth, distinguished professor of biobehavioral health and medicine at Pennsylvania State University. Through writing, he says, the memory of the experience can be broken down into small parts, allowing the event to be more easily processed and then laid to rest.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Writing in the Public Eye, These Women Brought the 20th Century Into Focus

16 April 2018
Comments Off on Writing in the Public Eye, These Women Brought the 20th Century Into Focus

From Smithsonian:

“So there you are” read the kicker on Dorothy Parker’s first, somewhat hesitant review as the newly appointed theatre critic for Vanity Fair. An exploration into musical comediesthe article ran 100 years ago this month—a full two years before American women had the right to vote, when female voices in the public sphere were few and far between. It wouldn’t take long, just a few more articles, for Parker’s voice to transform into the confident, piercing wit for which she’s now famous.

In her new book, Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion (April 10, Grove Atlantic), author Michelle Dean mixes biography, history and criticism to examine how female intellects and critics of the 20th century, like Parker, carved out a space for themselves at a time when women’s opinions weren’t entirely welcome in the national conversation. What drew readers to these women, and what sometimes what repelled them, was their sharpness. As Dean described in an interview, it’s a tone that proved “most successful at cutting through a male-dominated atmosphere of public debate.”

Dedicating individual chapters to each of the ten women she profiles, and a few to illustrate their overlap, Dean lays out a constellation of political thinkers and cultural critics. Often, these women are seen as separate from one another, but the book puts them in conversation with each other. After all, several of the women “knew each other or had personal connections, or wrote about the same things at the same times, or often reviewed each other,” Dean said. Parker leads the pack because, as Dean explained, she was “somebody everybody had to define themselves against…the type of writer that they represent wouldn’t exist without her.”

The role of the 20th century public intellectual to shape political discourse, and that of the critic to define and assess the national culture was primarily dominated by men, from Saul Bellow to Dwight MacDonald to Edmund Wilson. The women Dean covers used their intellect to stake out a place for themselves in the conversation and on the pages of major magazines like The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books where the American public first got to know them. These publications offered the women of Sharp a place to explore and defend their ideas, including Hannah Arendt’s “the banality of evil,” inspired by her reporting on the trial of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann and the concept of “camp” aesthetics, first codified by Susan Sontag in the Partisan Review. They critiqued the merits of each other’s work—in the New York Review of Books, Renata Adler tore apart Pauline Kael’s film criticism—and inspired new writers—a young Kael remembered being struck by the protagonist of Mary McCarthy’s novel, The Company She Keeps. Ultimately, these women influenced the conversation on topics that ranged from politics, film, photography, psychoanalysis to feminism, to name just a few.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian

‘There is no such thing as past or future’: physicist Carlo Rovelli on changing how we think about time

14 April 2018

From The Guardian:

What do we know about time? Language tells us that it “passes”, it moves like a great river, inexorably dragging us with it, and, in the end, washes us up on its shore while it continues, unstoppable. Time flows. It moves ever forwards. Or does it? Poets also tell us that time stumbles or creeps or slows or even, at times, seems to stop. They tell us that the past might be inescapable, immanent in objects or people or landscapes. When Juliet is waiting for Romeo, time passes sluggishly: she longs for Phaethon to take the reins of the Sun’s chariot, since he would whip up the horses and “bring in cloudy night immediately”. When we wake from a vivid dream we are dimly aware that the sense of time we have just experienced is illusory.

Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist who wants to make the uninitiated grasp the excitement of his field. His book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, with its concise, sparkling essays on subjects such as black holes and quanta, has sold 1.3m copies worldwide. Now comes The Order of Time, a dizzying, poetic work in which I found myself abandoning everything I thought I knew about time – certainly the idea that it “flows”, and even that it exists at all, in any profound sense.

. . . .

He rarely visits Bologna, and he has been catching up with old friends. We wander towards the university area. Piazza Verdi is flocked with a lively crowd of students.

. . . .

“In my day it was barricades and police,” he says. He was a passionate student activist, back then. What did he and his pals want? “Small things! We wanted a world without boundaries, without state, without war, without religion, without family, without school, without private property.”

. . . .

He gave his conservative, Veronese parents a bit of a fright, he says. His father, now in his 90s, was surprised when young Carlo’s lecturers said he was actually doing all right, despite the long hair and radical politics and the occasional brush with the police. It was after the optimistic sense of student revolution in Italy came to an abrupt end with the kidnapping and murder of the former prime minister, Aldo Moro, in 1978 that Rovelli began to take physics seriously. But his route to his big academic career was circuitous and unconventional. “Nowadays everyone is worried because there is no work. When I was young, the problem was how to avoid work. I did not want to become part of the ‘productive system’,” he says.

Academia, then, seemed like a way of avoiding the world of a conventional job, and for some years he followed his curiosity without a sense of careerist ambition. He went to Trento in northern Italy to join a research group he was interested in, sleeping in his car for a few months (“I’d get a shower in the department to be decent”). He went to London, because he was interested in the work of Chris Isham, and then to the US, to be near physicists such as Abhay Ashtekar and Lee Smolin. “My first paper was horrendously late compared to what a young person would have to do now. And this was a privilege – I knew more things, there was more time.”

. . . .

Rovelli’s work as a physicist, in crude terms, occupies the large space left by Einstein on the one hand, and the development of quantum theory on the other. If the theory of general relativity describes a world of curved spacetime where everything is continuous, quantum theory describes a world in which discrete quantities of energy interact. In Rovelli’s words, “quantum mechanics cannot deal with the curvature of spacetime, and general relativity cannot account for quanta”.

Both theories are successful; but their apparent incompatibility is an open problem, and one of the current tasks of theoretical physics is to attempt to construct a conceptual framework in which they both work. Rovelli’s field of loop theory, or loop quantum gravity, offers a possible answer to the problem, in which spacetime itself is understood to be granular, a fine structure woven from loops.

String theory offers another, different route towards solving the problem. When I ask him what he thinks about the possibility that his loop quantum gravity work may be wrong, he gently explains that being wrong isn’t the point; being part of the conversation is the point. And anyway, “If you ask who had the longest and most striking list of results it’s Einstein without any doubt. But if you ask who is the scientist who made most mistakes, it’s still Einstein.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Can history help?

31 March 2018

From The London Review of Books:

We are, all of us, saturated with information on change. There is 24-hour news. Twitter, Facebook and other online platforms transmit the latest occurrences across the globe. Those of us old-fashioned enough still to want newspapers can scan their online versions at any time. Yet this blizzard of material easily produces a sense of overload, even powerlessness, a feeling that we are simultaneously being told too much, yet can grasp too little. One vital respect in which history can help is by encouraging us to look away from the blitz of ever shifting news stories, and to consider instead what has proved genuinely significant in the past. Once we do this, we are immediately reminded that most really game-changing transformations have happened slowly. Minute by minute change is a media illusion.

To be sure, there have been a few genuinely world-altering events that seem to have happened in an instant. The men who dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 were deploying technology that had taken decades to develop. Nonetheless, in carrying out that act, these US airmen did effect an almost immediate transformation in the nature of warfare and in attitudes towards it. Many momentous changes, however, have taken centuries to work through. Consider the terrible outbreak of plague in the 14th century known as the Black Death. Europe suffered disproportionately, losing perhaps 50 per cent of its total population. One result of this, however, was that the living standards and wages of many of those who survived seem to have improved. This, it has been suggested, led in time to a marked increase in Europeans’ food consumption and demand for consumer goods. And this rise in demand may well in turn have contributed to the increasing number of European trading voyages across the world’s oceans in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Even traumatic shifts in human history can have mixed and sometimes useful consequences.

. . . .

Populists, a widespread breed at present, often like to represent particular territories and sets of people in terms of an unchanging and finite set of characteristics, either out of boosterism, or as a means to marginalise and condemn. Thus, Sarah Palin, one-time Republican governor of Alaska, used to refer to her supporters as ‘real Americans’, as though such unadulterated beings existed, and as though her opponents were somehow not ‘real’. By the same token, the leading populist party in Finland used to call itself the True Finns, as though other Finns were not part of an essential Finnish nation.

What are the triggers of dramatic episodes of change? Savage outbreaks of disease can be a trigger; so can significant alterations in climate, like the so-called Little Ice Age that began in the 17th century. Some leaps forward in technology, such as the invention of printing in China, have precipitated long-drawn-out, transcontinental changes; so have economic crises, and major shifts in the nature of belief and ideology, such as the Reformation. But perhaps the most recurring and paradoxical trigger of change in human society has been war.

. . . .

Unsurprisingly, the countries that were invaded or defeated tended to be the ones that underwent the most fundamental changes. Germany, Japan and France all gained new constitutions after 1945. By contrast, neither the UK, which was seemingly a victor power, nor the US, which was certainly a victor power, changed its political system in the wake of the Second World War. Instead, in both countries, victory served for a while to burnish and strengthen the existing political order.

Over the centuries both the United Kingdom and the United States have indeed been almost too successful in their recourse to war, and this has had mixed repercussions for their political systems and democracy. In the United States, success against the British in the Revolutionary War led to the drafting of the American constitution of 1787, a brief but remarkable document.

. . . .

This conspicuous success rate on the battlefield helped to cement the political system established in 1787, which has been subject to only a limited number of amendments. The US now possesses the oldest written constitution still in operation in the world, which is an achievement to be sure, but also by now a source of some difficulties. The 1787 constitution said nothing about the operation of political parties. This lacuna was manageable so long as the main US parties were similar in outlook and prepared to abide by certain ‘gentlemanly’ conventions. Today, these conditions no longer apply, and gridlock has ensued. Similarly, the second amendment, passed in 1791, allowing US citizens access to arms, was manageable when most firearms were muskets that took minutes to load. Obviously, this is no longer the case. So while it may be tempting to attribute current political dysfunction in the US to particular personalities, some of the root causes are long-term, structural and connected to America’s experience of war. Military success has helped to foster constitutional stasis and complacency.

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books

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