Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Appalachian Tragedy by Peter A. Galuszka

On April 5, 2010 an explosion ripped through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, killing twenty-nine coal miners. This was the deadliest mine disaster in the United States in forty years – a disaster rooted in the cynical corporate culture of Massey and its notorious C.E.O. Don Blankenship and the endless cycle of poverty, exploitation, and environmental abuse that has dominated the Appalachian coal fields since the beginning of mining in the region. It never should have happened.

The only substantive effort to bring some kind of closure to the issues brought forth at the Upper Big Branch mine is the Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety Protection Act, first drawn up in 2010. It got nowhere in the House of Representatives, where it was drafted, and after Republicans won control of the House in 2010, chances of moving it forward seem nil.

The bill proposes a number of regulatory changes that would prevent the kind of Massey modus operandi of litigating every effort to cite safety infractions and enforce regulations against them. The bill would make it easier for federal regulators to take action if they can show a mine operator is chronically violating safety rules. Better ways of monitoring gas inside deep mines would be required. Miners who alert coal-firm management of possible safety violations would be spared retribution, as would any family member working with them in the mine.

Two key provisions in the bill have drawn the most fire from the industry. One would allow the the Mine Safety and Health Administration to subpoena testimony and documents in the case of a multiple-death incident. Incredibly, in the Upper Big Branch case, MSHA did not have this power. As one Democratic congressional aide points out, other federal agencies have subpoena power in matters far less serious than coal mine deaths, such as allowing the federal government to subpoena witnesses and records involving a milk marketing program. Coal-industry officials are fighting hard to keep MSHA from getting any more authority.

An even more controversial part of the Byrd bill would hold top-level corporate officials and directors of a coal firm or holding company criminally responsible if they learned their firm was operating in an unsafe way and they took no action. Such regulation would go to the heart of Massey’s behavior at the Upper Big Branch mine.

For the families of Upper Big Branch victims, the issuance of another report, and the special, private explanatory sessions with the next of kin, has become its own routine. In the beginning Massey offered $3 million to each family who lost a loved one in the disaster. The new deal between Alpha Natural Resources, the new owner of the Upper Big Branch, and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Charleston pays a floor settlement of $1.5 million to each of the families of the dead miners as well as to the two miners injured in the blast. Assuming that each family got both payments, they would still amount to about $130 million, or the cost of about two and a half longwall mining machines.

Looking at in another way, the top executives and directors of Massey Energy were together paid nearly $196 million just to go along with the sale of their firm to Alpha. C.E.O. Don Blankenship got more than $86 million, not including several properties along with legal and medical insurances. President Baxter F. Phillips got a parachute valued at $45 million, an Chris Adkins wound up with an $11 million parachute. For his troubles guiding Massey through the days after the disaster, setting up Blankenship for his departure, and putting together the sell-out to Alpha, Admiral Bobby Ray Inman got a final package worth nearly $10 million.

Large questions remain about how Massey Energy got away with such lax and ineffective regulatory supervision for so many years and why the cycle of poverty and exploitation never seem to get broken in Central Appalachia. With bipartisan gridlock in Washington and push to deregulate and cut government spending, little will be done in the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch to give miners the protection they need. Self-seeking companies such as Alpha may enter into voluntary reform agreements with prosecutors but whether the terms of these agreements are fulfilled in the long run is another question. The record is not encouraging but even if they hold, they involve only one firm, not the industry as a whole.

The system and regulators such as MSHA were too inept structurally and operationally to prevent the Upper Big Branch explosion, and the Alpha deal really does nothing about that deficiency. Federal mine-safety regulators still won’t be able to subpoena documents or witnesses. Monetary fines simply won’t be enough to change potentially deadly behavior. Highly paid coal executives and their boards will still be able to dodge criminal prosecution if they know of safety issues and do nothing. Repeat offenders like Massey Energy will still be able to game the system. In short, even after the terrors of the Upper Big Branch disaster, it is still business as usual in the coal fields.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Selling Shale Gas by Tom Wilbur

[Although vividly described in this book, see Josh Fox’s movie Gasland for what is perhaps a more accessible view of the unchecked corporate exploitation, deceit, recklessness and destruction of the Shale Gas Industry as it plays out on the ground among small stake-holders and by-standers in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio.]

The international rush into America’s shale boom was accompanied by renewed questions about its economic sustainability. At the end of 2011 the USGS estimated the Marcellus Shale deposits to hold 84 trillion cubic feet of gas rather than the 410 trillion cubic feet estimated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Production from initial wells coming on line through 2011 remained strong, but revised numbers underscored talk that Marcellus wells might taper faster than expected. In addition, a week prior to the USGS announcement, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman began an investigation into whether companies accurately represented the profitability of their wells in the Marcellus. Range Resources, Cabot and Goodrich Petroleum Corporation received subpoenas for documents detailing formulas used to project how long wells can produce gas without additional hydraulic fracturing. The Securities and Exchange Commission was also investigating how energy companies calculate and publicly disclose the performance of their shale gas wells.

Combined with growing protests against growing environmental destruction caused by the industry, this uncertainty over the longevity and, consequently, the value of shale gas reserve, was a growing public relations problem for the industry. Both industry analysts and government officials downplayed the significance of disparities in federal agencies’ calculation of Marcellus reserves. Philip Budzik, an operations research analyst with the EIA, told Bloomberg that there was still relatively little comprehensive information to draw on regarding estimates: “Layer on that the fact that over the next 30 years, the technology is going to evolve. It will have an impact on our projections. We need a keep a sense of proportion here.” The same report offered this perspective from Kevin Book, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners, a policy analysis firm: “One fifth of a big number is still a big number. . . It shouldn’t tell you anything about your conclusions. It should tell you what you need to know about estimates: they get revised.”

The proof of estimates about the size of shale gas reserves, as one industry representative told me, ultimately would play out with drilling results; and at the end of 2011, they were looking good. So good, in fact, that a market glut was inevitable without an easing of production or a surge in demand. With all the capital in play, an easing of production was not a likely option. In other words, a big push to produce America’s shale gas would necessitate a big push to sell it.

Working with the heads of others in the industry the C.E.O. of Chesapeake Natural Gas outlined plans for such a market push. Chesapeake would divert 1 to 2 percent of its forecasted annual drilling budget away from production and put money towards projects to stimulate demand. This amounted to some $1 billion over ten years to support infrastructure, such as fueling stations for natural gas-powered vehicles, in order to, in the words of the company’s press office, “reach the tipping point” where manufacturers “will have sufficient confidence to increase their production of natural gas-powered vehicles. The investment would also encourage other “end-use technologies” including the conversion of methane into a liquid fuel that could be blended with diesel or gasoline, or even as a replacement for both of these fuels. To provide a model, the company was converting its own fleet of 5,000 trucks to run on natural gas.

Chesapeake had some powerful allies motivated by similar goals, including the influential energy baron, T. Boone Pickens, founder of Mesa Petroleum , one of the largest independent oil companies. As the shale gas boom became established in Texas, Pickens also formed Clean Energy Fuels, a company that owns and operates natural-gas filling stations and production plants to supply them. When Marcellus prospecting heated-up in July 2008, the eighty-year-old Pickens began a campaign to “wean the country off foreign oil” through aggressive development of natural gas. Pickens, by his own account, spent $82 million over three years promoting these initiatives in “The Pickens Plan” which was delivered to mainstream America through television, newspaper, Internet and magazine news coverage. It advertised natural gas as clean, abundant and cheap. America was depicted as the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas.”

At the time, Tony Ingraffea, a engineer and fracturing mechanics scholar and ecologist and biochemist Robert Howarth, both of Cornell university in upstate N.Y., were just finishing their paper challenging the hypothesis that natural gas was a clean alternative to coal. Their peer-reviewed methodology took into account something that was generally unaccounted for: fugitive emissions from methane released from shale formations during hydraulic fracturing. With these emissions factored into the equation, Howarth and Ingraffea found shale gas extraction was a greater global warming threat than coal mining. Industry reporters characterized these findings as “disingenuous”, “simply not true”, a “Gusher of Hogwash”.

In a series of debates with Terry Engelder, a geology professor at Penn State - which itself had already leased thousands of acres to gas companies - Ingraffea calculated that recovering nearly 500 trillion cubic feet of gas from counties overlying the Marcellus and Utica Shale deposits in Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Ohio, and West Virginia would require 400,000 wells – 170,000 in Pennsylvania. At the time, just over 2,000 wells had been drilled, and less than a third of them fracked. All the environmental problems Pennsylvania had been experiencing were but a hint of what was to come. “You’re only 800 frack jobs into a 60,000 frack job experience!”, Ingraffea explained.

Devonian shale formations are typically highly fractured to begin with. When cleaved by hydraulic forces at any given point, the natural system of cracks provided an “flow-network” of gas, not all of which could be captured by man-made systems. Even if the industry could someday “get it right” and eliminate all the spills and leaks that are under their control, the global impact from burning nonrenewable energy would be a net loss. The idea of using natural gas as a bridge to some brighter sustainable energy future was a carefully crafted industry myth, according to Tony Ingraffea: “When are we going to stop kicking the can down the road to our kids and grandkids and suck it up, and solve the damn problem now?”

Nevertheless, a manifestation of the Pickens Plan found support in Congress. House Resolution 1380, commonly known as the Natural Gas Act, would provide a series of tax breaks over a period of five years to trucking companies, vehicle owners, vehicle manufacturers, and fueling station owners. These tax breaks were geared to encourage the transition from gasoline and diesel to natural gas. In the summer of 2011, 108 Democrats and 75 Republicans ( in a typical show of ‘bi-partisanship’) signed onto the bill, which also received encouraging signals from the Obama administration which soon came up with its own plan “recognizing the importance of shale gas development and supporting global efforts to displace oil with natural gas.”

HR 1380 looked like a legislative winner, until it was knocked off track by an opposing political force, nurtured in conservative circles and backed by another tycoon with a fortune staked to energy: Charles Koch. Koch and his brother David, control Koch Industries, a $100 billion privately held conglomerate with major holdings in cattle, timber, and oil. The company is also vested in petrochemical companies, the profitability of which depends on cheap natural gas supplies. The Pickens Plans posed dual threats to Koch. First, it encouraged higher prices with the stimulation of natural gas demand and, second, it encroached on the oil market on which Koch-owned refineries and pipelines depended. Charles Koch went on the attack, casting HR 1380 as an unfair and unhealthy meddling with free markets, a “well-intentioned but misguided suggestion. . . .promoted, in large part, by those seeking to profit politically, rather than by competing in a market where consumers voted with their wallets.” Koch articulated a view supported by editorial writers of the oil trade and financial market publications and conservative political action groups, including the American conservative Union, and Americans for Prosperity (a group co-founded by David Koch).

The Koch brothers were not Pickens’ only commercial antagonists. Using natural gas as both fuel and feedstock, Dow Chemical Company had a hand in manufacturing 3,300 different products, from paints to personal care items, and the company stood to lose if government-subsidized initiatives encroached on its supply of natural gas, driving up its price. Dow alone uses the equivalent of 850,000 barrels per day (approximately the daily energy use of Australia) mostly in the form of naphtha, natural gas, and natural gas liquids.

As HR 1380 circulated in Washington offices, Dow presented its own position paper to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in the U.S. Senate. It flatly summarized the downside of attempts to reduce dependency on foreign oil and domestic coal: “The potential exists for demand (of natural gas) to outstrip supply, assuming that fuel switching from coal to gas continues to accelerate and factoring in the proposals by some to displace 25 percent of our oil imports with natural gas.” While the Pickens pitch relied heavily on the foreign oil-dependency theme, the petrochemical industry countered with the promise of jobs, a promise that never lost its appeal given the economic problems of the day.. Access to vast shale gas reserves that made available abundant cheap feedstock and fuel to supply the petrochemical industry, the Dow report concluded, “will provide an opportunity for more than 400,000 jobs – good jobs.” This was the future promised by the natural gas boom, “barring ill-conceived policies that restrict access to this supply.”

The fight pitting Pickens and Chesapeake against the Koch brothers and Dow Chemical was a fight over the rate and flow of shale gas. Chesapeake and Pickens, in the supply side of the business, stood to gain from a broader market. Dow and Koch, on the consumptive side of the equation, stood to lose.

Meanwhile the number of faulty well casings cited by the Department of Environmental Protection continued to climb in 2011, even after Pennsylvania’s new standards took effect in February. During the first nine months, the department issued eighty-nine citations for faulty casings and cementing practices – seven more than for all of 2010 – of Marcellus shale wells throughout Pennsylvania operated by Range Resources, Cabot, Chesapeake, Chief Oil and Gas, Hess, Exco Resources, Williams Production, and XTO Energy. The industry continued to characterize the many problems associated with fracking as exaggerated and irrelevant.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Invitation to the Dance by Theodor Adorno

Psycho-analysis prides itself on restoring the capacity for pleasure, which is impaired by neurotic illness. As if the mere concept of a capacity for pleasure did not suffice gravely to devalue such a thing, if it exists. As if a happiness gained through speculation on happiness were not the opposite, a further encroachment of institutionally planned behavior patterns on the ever-diminishing sphere of experience.

What a state the dominant consciousness must have reached, when the resolute proclamation of compulsive extravagance and champagne jollity, formerly reserved to attaches in Hungarian operettas, is elevated in deadly earnest to a maxim of right living.

Prescribed happiness looks exactly what it is; to have a part in it, the neurotic thus made happy must forfeit the last vestige of reason left to him by repression and regression, and to oblige the analyst, display indiscriminate enthusiasm for the trashy film, the expensive but bad meal in the French restaurant, the serious drink and the love-making taken like medicine as ‘sex’.

Schiller’s dictum that “Life’s good, in spite of it all”, papier-mache from the start, has become idiocy now that it is blown into the same trumpet as omnipresent advertising, with psycho-analysis, despite its better possibilities, adding its fuel to the flames.

As people have altogether too few inhibitions and not too many, without being a whit healthier for it, a cathartic method with a standard other than successful adaptation and economic success would have to aim at bringing people to a consciousness of unhappiness both general and – inseparable from it – personal, and at depriving them of the illusory gratifications by which the abominable order keeps a second hold on life inside them, as if it did not already have them firmly enough in its power from the outside.

Only when sated with false pleasure, disgusted with the goods offered, dimly aware of the inadequacy of happiness even when it is that – to say nothing of cases where it is bought by abandoning allegedly morbid resistance to its positive surrogate – can men gain an idea what experience might be.

The admonitions to be happy, voiced in concert by the scientifically epicurean sanatorium-director and the highly-strung propaganda chiefs of the entertainment industry, have about them the fury of the father berating his children for not rushing joyously down stairs when he comes home irritable from his office. It is part of the mechanism of domination to forbid recognition of the suffering it produces, and there is a straight line of development between the gospel of happiness and the construction of camps of extermination so far off in Poland that each of our own countrymen can convince himself he cannot hear the screams of pain. That is the model of an unhampered capacity for happiness. He who calls it by its name will be told gloatingly by psycho-analysis that it is just his Oedipus complex.

No 38
Minima Moralia

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bird Plow by Jon Young

What The Robin Knows; How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young; Science and Audio editing by Dan Gardoqui; Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2012

Consider the plow mounted on a huge truck barreling down the highway in a heavy storm, shoving aside the snow and anything else in its path. It doesn’t slow down. It has no respect. Out of the way! In the wild, the birds are the first creatures who flee an invaded scene, and they proclaim the alarm for all to see and hear. We call this the bird plow, and its why Native American scouts could pinpoint the location of invading cavalry troops from two miles away. Those stories are passed down to this day. When I first heard them, I thought a little hyperbole might have seeped in. Now I give the stories much more credence. The bird plow is marked by a rush of birds flying up and away in straight-line trajectories from an approaching threat on the ground. Given the mayhem soldiers on horseback must have caused, it’s quite likely that the great scouts could have identified the mortal threat to their tribes from two miles or maybe even further.

The most common cause of the bird plow is the abrupt entry into a given habitat by people. More unusual instigation includes fast-moving vehicles (where they are not common); a spooked herd of deer, elk, or moose stampeding through the woods or across the meadow or tundra; or a pack of wolves, say, in furious pursuit of prey. On a pond, river, bay, or lake, the explosive lift-off of ducks, cormorants, geese, and mergansers is a bird plow. In all cases, the disruption has consequences. The baseline (status quo habitat) is disrupted. The birds have to exert a lot of energy and often end up in unfamiliar turf. Riskiest of all, the may become the victims of wake hunters, who know well the opportunities stirred up by a bird plow.

Fortunately, the nature of the danger and the conservation-of-energy principles make such all-out flight unnecessary most of the time. Like the alarms of all shapes, the bird plow is usually, in one way or another, “contained”. The birds always take into account the reach of the predator or other danger. In cities and suburbs, where birds are habituated to our presence, we may elicit no alarm at all. The birds may well react to us but perhaps not with full flight. The bird plow is usually reserved for people entering a natural area where they’re more an unknown quantity and behaving with an imperious assumption of permission, intruding inconsiderately in the daily rounds of wildlife habitat.

The fact that we are the most common cause of the bird plow is a sad reflection of what we represent to the birds and what our behavior says about us. It is also ironic. Joe the hiker is not dangerous, but the birds don’t know that, and their excessive reaction may now call in the hawks and coyotes in the area, who really are a danger. The natural world is a culture of vigilance based on carefully tended relationships and connections, maintained through recognition, mutual respect, and “jungle etiquette’ that in the end preserves a baseline status quo and conserves energy. Joe the hiker or Jill the jogger throw it into disarray, and anyone who has some knowledge of bird language understands exactly what happens.

Have you ever been in a public place, a plaza of some sort, and seen some individual moving a bit stiffly, seeming without purpose, making no eye contact, maybe ill or even dangerous, all in all just not fitting in with the general tone and vibe of the place? Something about this person was “off”, and you noticed the aberration... You might even have become a little nervous. Well, exactly the same dynamic is in play in the natural world – in spades, because the birds and animals have a lot more to be nervous about in their environment than we have in ours. That’s a hard fact of their lives.

Head down, not paying attention to anything outside our thoughts, sudden body movements, all and all not fitting in – such humans are viewed differently in the natural world (including the backyard) than those who are well into the routine of invisibility. . . . if we believe we’re in a good mood, or at least an okay mood, but the birds tell us otherwise with their alarms and other actions, who’s right? Here’s the bird language rule: They’re right. If we’re in an outright bad mood, if our attitude is arrogant or simply clueless and unfeeling, this attitude will be reflected in our movements as we barge through the trees, and we’ll be treated differently by the birds. Just as they read the cat’s body language and behavior, they read our body language, behavior, noises, and energy – in short, the overall vibe. They read us all the time. One experiment confirmed that mockingbirds identify and later remember the specific individuals who have approached too close to their nests.

The good news is that bird language allows us to turn the tables, in effect. If we learn to read the birds – and their behaviors and vocalizations – through them, we can read the world at large. Anyone with a working understanding of this discipline can approach an unknown habitat and quickly draw all sorts of “natural world” conclusions. The types of birds seen or heard, their numbers and behaviors and vocalizations, will reveal the locations of running water or still water, dead trees, ripe fruit, a carcass, predators, fish runs, insect hatches, and so much more. The details of the habitat become very clear. If we don’t barge in and kick up a big bird plow – if we replace collision with connection, learn to read detail, feel at home, relax , by expanding the sphere of awareness and shrinking the sphere of disturbance, developing a functional invisibility through empathy and respect - ultimately the birds will yield to us, allow a close encounter with them and other animals otherwise extremely wary of our presence.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The World Within Reach- The Library by Jacques Bonnet

Phantoms of the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet, translated from the French by Sidn Reynolds, introduction by James Salter; The Overlook Press, New York, N.Y. 2008-2012.

The library protects us from external enemies, filters the noise of the world, tempers the cold wind around us – but also gives us the feeling of being all-powerful. For the library makes our puny human capacities fade into insignificance: it concentrates time and space. It contains on its shelves all the strata of the past. The centuries that have gone before us are there. ( “Writing is great, very great, in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space” – Abraham Lincoln.)

The past haunts libraries, not only in documents bearing witness to past ages, but through scholarly works, literary reconstructions and images of all kinds. But my library is also a concentration of space. Every region on earth is represented there somewhere, the continents with all their landscapes, their climates and their ways of life. Even imaginary countries like Swift’s Lilliput, Musil’s Cacania, Buzatti’s Desert of the Tartars, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Or places little known to humans but explored by authors – Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Dante’s Inferno, or Cyrano de Bergerac’s Voyages to the Moon and the Sun. I can be transported there in an instant, change my mind immediately, or even find myself in two places at once.

All this has something divine about it – which is perhaps why when we talk about libraries, we so easily think in religious terms. Borges parodied Nicholas of Cusa: “The library is a sphere, of which the true center is a some kind of hexagon, and the surface of which is inaccessible.” Umberto Eco uttered this strange pronouncement: “If God existed, he would be a library”. And surely that must refer to the way it enables us to overcome time and space.

And here – since my intention is not to write about the authors who matter most deeply to me – I will not be talking about what it means to be living in daily contact with them. (“With few books, but learned ones/ I live in conversation with the dead/ And I listen to the deceased with my eyes” – Francisco de Quevedo.) For beyond books themselves, there is everything they have to tell us about the human condition. Pointing out that the past allows us to put our own present into salutary perspective is something of a truism, yet surprisingly many people seem not to know it. To cite just one example, which touches me nearly, if you delve into history, you see how individuals come into and out of focus as fashions change:

J.S. Bach was forgotten for a century until he was rediscovered thanks to Mendelssohn; Shakespeare was unknown in France until Voltaire and above all the romantics; Georges de la Tour had vanished from memory for two hundred years – and the same was true of Vermeer! Jean Cocteau relates in his Journal that when Jean-Pierre Melvile’s film Les Enfants terribles came out in 1950, the soundtrack contained a keyboard piece by Vivaldi, but he could not find a single recording of The Four Seasons in any Paris record shop.

To take some recent examples, it is easy nowadays to express a liking for Impressionism, Cubism or abstract painting, since our age has assimilated what was once new and shocking. But who is to say whether in 1880 I would have preferred Manet and Renoir to Bouguereau and Cabanel? More seriously, would I have been a pro-Dreyfusard when it really mattered, or opposed to the Munich agreement in time to make a difference? People more intelligent than I came down on the wrong side. Lucien Febvre writes somewhere that anachronism is the mortal sin of historians, but it is also a common failing among ordinary people, and one has to be aware of it and try to fight it.

But to return to the library. Once it has been established, it tends to become an unavoidable transit zone for reality, a sort of vortex that sucks in everything that happens to us. That catalogue you want to find a place for on the shelf becomes an integral part of a visit to the exhibition or museum, as does the documentation about a town and its monuments discovered in the depths of Portugal, Italy or France. What bliss it is, after a day in a city you have always meant to visit, as you sit in your hotel room at the end of the afternoon, looking through the books, postcards and brochures destined to find their way top your bookshelves, all giving you the comforting feeling that you are taking home some tangible elements of what has already become the past! It gives you the impression of safe guarding some fragments of lost time, whereas everything else, the emotions and sensations of the journey, will be fleeting memories. . .

The library is governed by a wider economy, to do with one’s relation to the outside world. To play its part properly, the library must be left behind from time to time, so that one can miss it and then gradually rediscover it. From a distance, it becomes idealized, and helps one to bear the discomfort of traveling. It is waiting for s at home and is already being enriched with the things we are bringing back with us. . .

Would I ever have put together the same library if I had been born into the internet generation? Almost certainly not. If we are to believe the statistical surveys of the time spent on average in front of a computer or television screen, when does anyone have time to read? The internet and the many television channels have driven out the boredom which was always the prime motive for reading, but should we regret it? What is more, we now have the convenience of being able to order books online (new or second-hand); and the availability of the basic texts, along with the digitizing of others, has made it far easier to locate a particular passage.

These novelties have unavoidably transformed the status of the library: it is only one among many ways of acquiring knowledge. And they have changed the status of the book, which is just one method among others, and not the most accessible, of finding “entertainment.” But the art book, for example, will not be much affected by the phenomena. Even if there are more and more images on the internet, they aren’t always the ones you want, and the screen is not really adapted to consulting text and image at the same time. As for reading War and Peace or leafing through numbers of L’Os a Moelle (The marrow bones) edited by Pierre Dac (Omnibus edition, 2007), the hard copy version, as they say, probably still has a future.


In fact, for my generation, the internet is a valuable extra, but it is only an extra. For example, a few months ago, I had to identify about a thousand French film titles relating to “noir” films, mostly American in origin, referred to in an Italian book. Without the existence of several Italian film-buff websites, I would never have managed it. And I found up-to-date information there which none of the books on my shelves could manage – obviously, since they could only cover the period up to three or four years ago What is more, I have benefited from a classic book-based education, which means I have a particular view of the internet.

What will be the approach of the generations who are growing up with it? Who knows whether it will be better or worse, but it will certainly be different. I am not very good at using search engines, but they fit into a specific, pre-established scheme in my head. It’s the same for figures: I learned mathematics in the days of the multiplication tables and mental arithmetic, so I don’t need a calculator, but on the other hand, my mental calculations are certainly slower than a machine. As Robert Musil put it, “All progress forward is at he same time a step backward. History shows that you never escape unscathed from a beneficial form of progress.

Oddly enough, the infinite source of information which the internet provides does not have for me the same magical status as my library. Here I am in front of my computer, I can look up anything I want, jumping even further in time and space than through my books, but there is something missing: that touch of the divine. Perhaps its something physical: I’m only using my fingertips: the whole process is outside me, going through a screen and a machine. Nothing like these walls lined with books which I know – almost –by heart. On the one hand, I feel as if I have a fabulous artificial arm, able to move about in that interstellar space outside, while on the other, I am inside a womb whose walls are my book-lined shelves – the archetype in literature would be the inside of the Nautilus, 20,000 leagues under the sea. As you see, it is not always a rational matter.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ignorance by Stuart Firestein

One kind of ignorance is willful stupidity; worse than simple stupidity, it is a callow indifference to facts or logic. It shows itself as a stubborn devotion to uninformed opinions, ignoring contrary ideas, opinions, or data. The ignorant are unaware, unenlightened, uninformed, and surprisingly often occupy elected offices. We can all agree that none of this is good.

But there is another, less pejorative sense of ignorance that describes a particular condition of knowledge: the absence of fact, understanding, insight, or clarity about something. It is not an individual lack of information but a communal gap in knowledge. It is a case where data don’t exist, or more commonly, where the existing data don’t make sense, don’t add up to a coherent explanation, cannot be used to make a prediction or statement about some thing or event. This is knowledgeable ignorance. It leads us to frame better questions, the first step to getting better answers. It is the most important resource we scientists have, and using it correctly is the most important thing a scientist does. James Clerk Maxwell, perhaps the greatest physicist between Newton and Einstein, advises that “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.”

One of the crucial ideas of this book is that ignorance of this sort need not be the province of scientists alone, although it must be admitted that the good ones are the world’s experts in it. But they don’t own it. You can be ignorant too. Want to be on the cutting edge? Well, it’s all, or mostly ignorance out there. Forget the answers, work on the questions.

In the early days of television, the pioneering performer Steve Allen introduced on his variety show a regular routine known as The Question Man. The world it seemed had an overabundance of answers but too few questions. In the postwar 1950s, with its emphasis on science and technology, it could easily have felt this way to many people. The Question Man would be given an answer, and it was his task to come up with a question. We need the Question Man again. WE still have too many answers, or at least we put too much stock in answers. Too much emphasis on the answers and too little attention to the questions have produced a warped view of science.

Of course, science creates and uses facts; it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. As a scientist you have to know the facts or some subset of them. But how does a scientist use facts beyond simply accumulating them? As raw material, not as a finished product. In those facts is the next round of questions, improved questions with new unknowns.

The direct result of the discovery process in science is, of course, data. Observations, measurements, findings, and results accumulate at at some point may gel into a fact. The literary critic and historian Mary Poovey recently wrote a noteworthy book titled A History of Modern Fact in which she traces the development of fact as a respected and preferred unit of knowledge. In its growth to this exalted position it has supposedly shed any debt to authority, opinion, bias or perspective. That is, it can be trusted because it supposedly arose from unbiased observations and measurements without being affected by subjective interpretation. Obviously this is ridiculous, as she so exhaustively shows. No matter how objective the measurement, someone still had to decide to make that measurement, providing ample opportunity for bias to enter the scheme right there. And of course data and facts are always interpreted because they often fail to produce an uncontested result. Nonetheless, this idealized view of the fact still commands a central place, especially in science education where facts occupy a position at least as exulted as truth, and where they provide credibility by being separated from opinion. Scientific facts are “disinterested,” which certainly doesn’t sound like much fun and may be why they have become so uninteresting.

In reality, only false science reveres “facts,” thinks of them as permanent and claims to be able to know everything and predict with unerring accuracy. Indeed, when new evidence forces scientists to modify their theories, it is considered a triumph, not a defeat. Max Planck, the brilliant physicist who led the revolution in physics now known as quantum mechanics, was asked how often science changed. He replied: “With every funeral.” As each new generation of scientists comes to maturity, unencumbered by the ideas and “facts” of the previous generation, conception and comprehension is free to change in ways incremental and revolutionary. Real science is a revision in progress, always. It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance.

The poet John Keats hit upon an ideal state of mind for the literary psyche that he called Negative Capability – “that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact &reason.” He considered Shakespeare to be the exemplar of this state of mind, allowing him to inhabit the thoughts and feelings of his characters because his imagination was not hindered by certainty, fact, and mundane reality. This notion can be adapted to the scientist who really should always find himself or herself in this state of “uncertainty without irritability”. Scientists do reach after fact an reason, but it is when they are most uncertain that the reaching is often the most imaginative. Erwin Schrodinger, one of the great philosopher-scientists, says, “In an honest search for knowledge you quite often have to abide by ignorance for an indefinite period.” Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. At any rate, there is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.

Remember also the admonition of the the renown early 20th-century biologist J.B.S. Haldane: not only is the universe queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.” There are things going on right under our noses that we don’t know about. Worse that that, things we can’t know about; things about which we may never have the capability to know about. There may be limits. If there are sensory stimuli beyond our perception, why not ideas beyond our conception? Have we run into any of those limits yet? Would we know them if we did?. Comedian philosopher George Carlin wryly observed that “One can never know for sure what a deserted area looks like.”

We are all scientists: trying to understand our environment, to make sense of input that is not always complete or sensible, looking for black cats in dark rooms. Our minds do their best to decipher a complex world with information gathered by our limited sensory organs. The process is familiar to us all. We occasionally do “experiments,” testing this or that to see how closely it fits our theory of the world. But let’s face it: we are mostly stumbling around in the dark. The occasional glimpse of genuine reality only confirms for us the extent of the darkness we live in, the scope of our ignorance. But why fight it? Why not enjoy the mystery of it all? After all, there’s nothing like a good puzzle, and it turns out, in this life, it’s not hard to find one.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

Published in 2001

At a 1999 conference on foodservice equipment, top American executives from Burger King, McDonald’s, and Tricon Global Restaurants, Inc. (the owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC) appeared together on a panel to discuss labor shortages, employee training, computerization, and the latest kitchen technology. At the time the three corporations employed about 3.7 million people worldwide, operating about 60,000 restaurants, opening a new one every two hours. Putting aside their intense rivalry for customers, the executives had realized at a gathering the previous evening that when it came to labor issues, they were incomplete agreement: “We are aligned as a team to support this industry,” Dave Brewer, vice president of engineering at KFC explained.

One of the most important goals they held in common was the redesign of kitchen equipment so that less money needed to be spent training workers. “Make the equipment intuitive, make it so that the job is easier to do right than to do wrong,” advised Jerry Sus, the leading equipment systems engineer at McDonald’s. “The easier it is for the worker to use, the easier it is for us not to have to train him.” John Reckert – director of strategic operations and of research and development at Burger King – felt optimistic about the benefits that new technology would bring to the industry. “We can develop equipment that only works one way,” Reckert said. ‘There are many different ways today that employees can abuse our product, mess up the flow . . . . If the equipment only allows one process, there’s very little to train.”

Instead of giving written instructions to crew members, another panelist suggested, rely as much as possible on photographs of menu items, and “if there are instructions, make them very simple, write them at a fifth-grade level, and write them in Spanish and English. All the executives agreed that “zero-training” was the fast food industry’s ideal, though it might not ever be attained.

While thus quietly spending enormous sums on research and technology to eliminate employee training, the fat food chains have accepted hundreds of millions of millions of dollars in government subsidies for “training” workers. Through federal programs such as Targeted Jobs Tax Credit and its successor, the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, the chains have for years claimed tax credits of up to $2,400 for each new low-income worker they hired. In 1996 an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor concluded that 92 percent of these workers would have been hired by the companies anyway – and that their new jobs were part-time, provided little training, and came with no benefits. These federal subsidy programs were created to reward American companies that gave job training to the poor.

Attempts to end these subsidies have been strenuously opposed by the National Council of Chain Restaurants and its allies in Congress. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit program was renewed in 1996. It offered as much as $385 million in subsidies the following year. Fast food restaurants had to employ a worker for only four hundred hours to receive the federal money – and then could get more money as soon as that worker quit and was replaced. American taxpayers have in effected subsidized the industry’s high turnover rate, providing company tax breaks for workers who are employed for just a few months and receive no training.

The industry front group formed to defend these government subsidies is called the “Committee for Employment Opportunities”. Its chief lobbyist, Bill Signer, told the Houston Chronicle there was nothing wrong with the use of federal subsidies to create low-paying, low-skilled, short-term jobs for the poor. Trying to justify the minimal amount of training given to these workers, Signer said, “They’ve got to crawl before they can walk.”

The employees who the fast food industry expects to crawl are by far the biggest group of low-wage workers in the United States today. The nation has about 1 million migrant farm workers and about 3.5 million fast food workers. Although picking strawberries is orders of magnitude more difficult than cooking hamburgers both jobs are now filled by people who are generally young, unskilled, and willing to work long hours for low pay. Moreover, the turnover rates for both jobs are among the highest in the American economy. The annual turnover rate in the fast food industry is now about 300 to 400 percent. The typical fast food worker quits or is fired every three to four months.

The fast food industry pays the minimum wage to a higher proportion of its workers than any other American industry. Consequently, a low minimum wage has long been a crucial part of the fast food industry’s business plan. Between 1968 and 1990, the years when the fast food chains expanded at their fastest rate, the real value of he U.S. minimum age fell by almost 40 percent. In the late 1990s, the real value of the U.S. minimum wage still remained about 27 percent lower that it was in the late 1960s. nevertheless, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) has vehemently opposed any rise in the minimum wage at the federal, state, or local level. About sixty large food-service companies – including Jack in the Box, Wendy’s, Chevy’s, and Red Lobster – have backed congressional legislation that would essential eliminate the federal minimum wage by allowing states to disregard it. Peter Meersman, the president of the Colorado Restaurant Association, advocates creating a federal guest worker program to import low-wage foodservice workers from overseas.

While the real value of the wages paid to restaurant workers has declined for the past three decades, the earnings of restaurant company executives have risen considerably. According to a 1997 survey in National Restaurant News, the average corporate executive bonus was $131,000, an increase of 20 percent over the previous year. Increasing the federal minimum wage by a dollar would add about two cents to the cost of a fast food hamburger. . .

Afterward for the paperback edition:

There is one criticism of Fast Food Nation that needs to be addressed. A number of people have said that I was too hard on the Republican Party, that an anti-Republican bias seemed to pervade the book. Fast Food Nation has no hidden partisan agenda; the issues that it addresses transcend party politics. In retrospect, I could have been more critical of the Clinton administration’s ties to agribusiness. Had I devoted more space to the poultry industry, for example, I would have examined the close links between Bill Clinton and the Tyson family. The FDA’s failure to to investigate the health risks of biotech foods and its lackadaisical effort to keep cattle remains out of cattle feed also occurred during the Clinton years.

Nevertheless, it is a sad but undeniable fact that for the past two decades the right wing of the Republican Party has worked closely with the fast food industry and the meatpacking industry to oppose food safety laws, worker safety laws, and increases in the minimum wage. . . . :

More than a decade has passed since Fast Food Nation was published, and I’d love to report that the book is out of date, that the many problems it describes have be solved... Sadly, that is not the case. . .

Monday, October 15, 2012

The End of Sigmund Freud by David Cohen

The Woolfs had been publishing English translations of Freud’s works since 1924 when a discrete advertisement told the reading public they could buy the Collected Papers by Sigmund Freud, M.D., vol. 1 and vol. 2, and that the complete set including three more volumes would cost 4 guineas. The Woolfs paid Freud 50 pounds as advance on each volume, but they had never met their author before he arrived in England in late 1938.

Soon after Freud settled in Hampstead, Leonard Woolf had made “discreet inquiries as to whether he would like Virginia and me to come and see him. The answer was yes and in the afternoon of January 28, 1939, we went and had tea wit him. I feel no call to praise the famous men I have known” – and Woolf had known more than a few. His acquaintances included Bertrand Russell, the poets W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Nehru, as well as the economist-hedonist John Maynard Keynes. These celebrities had not left Woolf agog with admiration. “Nearly all famous men are disappointing or bores or both. Freud was neither; he had an aura not of fame but of greatness. The terrible cancer of the mouth . . . had already attacked him.”

Freud was, Leonard Woolf noted, not just a genius but also ‘as unlike many geniuses, an extraordinarily nice man with a civilized temperament, pleasant, and extraordinarily courteous in a formal, old-fashioned way. – for instance, he almost ceremoniously presented Virginia with a flower. There was something about him of a half-extinct volcano, something somber suppressed, reserved. He gave me a feeling only a very few people whom I have met gave me, a feeling of great gentleness, but behind the gentleness, great strength. Leonard also recorded that Freud appeared “as a screwed-up, shrunken very old man with a monkey’s light eyes paralysed spasmodic movements inarticulate; but alert. Difficult talk, Immense potential, an old fire now flickering.”

Despite his deteriorating condition Freud now finished An Outline of Psychoanalysis, a short book but not one for beginners because it makes many assumptions about what readers know. At the start of Chapter 5, “Explanatry Notes on The Interpretation of Dreams,” Freud wrote a sentence that reflects much of his beliefs and character: “States of conflict and turbulence alone can further our knowledge.”

Freud highlighted successes, failures, and worries about the future of the discipline he founded. He lamented that no philosopher or psychologist could begin to explain consciousness or how mind and body are linked. Nevertheless, he could provide “a first report on the facts that we have observed.” Psychoanalysis had “proved fruitful after all” because it had found that the laws by which the unconscious worked differed from those of the conscious mind. He had not wasted his time.

Freud repeated one of his long-held ambitions – to make it possible for psychoanalysis to help human beings develop more maturity or as he put it that “where the id and the superego were, the ego will be.” He hoped that psychoanalysis could transform people. If we recognize the forces in our unconscious, we are less at their mercy. If we know ourselves, we can control our chaotic, aggressive, and destructive impulses, to some extent at least. Self-knowledge is power.

Freud was sophisticated philosophically and knew that many of his arguments were circular and that his treatments often failed but he felt the future of his profession looked bright. Chemicals might one day provide cures. For now, however, Freud wrote, analysis offered the best hope for those who were in distress.

Every day now, Freud was himself in great physical distress. It was clear that his cancer was inoperable and incurable. He was dreadfully weak – and, more humiliating, he smelled disgusting. When his beloved dog Lun came out of quarantine, the dog refused to come near him because he stank so vilely. And now Freud never ate in front of other people because the last botched operation had made it impossible for him to eat without dribbling and making a mess. Paula Fichtl had to clean food off his trousers, jacket, and the floor. For a fastidious man like Freud, these were terrible humiliations. The best his doctor could do was to alleviate Freud’s pain but he had an obstinate patient because Freud hated taking anything stronger than aspirin because it made him think less clearly.

Maresfield Gardens was now a house in which a much-loved man was dying. On September 21, in severe pain, Freud asked his doctor Max Schur to fulfill his side of an old bargain. The suffering did not make sense anymore. He asked Schur to ease him out of life. Freud said goodbye to his wife, to his daughter Mathilde, to his sons, and finally to his youngest daughter, Anna, his true heir. She did not want him to take the morphine but Freud saw no point in prolonging his existence now and prepared himself lucidly. Schur gives a touching description. Taking the hand the hand of the physician Freud said “My dear Schur, you certainly remember our first talk. You promised not to forsake me when my time comes. Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense any more.” Schur reassured his patient that he had not forgotten. “When he was again in agony, I gave him a hypodermic of two centigrams of morphine. He soon felt relief and fell into a peaceful sleep. I repeated this dose after about twelve hours."

Freud died toward Midnight on September 21, 1939 and was cremated three days later at the Golders Green Crematorium. The family asked Ernest Jones to give the funeral oration and he rose to the occasion. “It had been hard to wish him to live a day longer when he was suffering so much.” Jones paid respect to “what in others expresses itself as religious feeling’ but in Freud was expressed “as a transcendental belief in the value of life and in the value of love.” Jones recalled Freud’s vivid personality and “instinctive love of the truth.” He added that he felt no one could have ever lied to Freud.”

One should not speak ill of eulogies, but many people lied to Freud and, at times, he seems to have lied to himself.

In 1925 Edward Bernays wanted his uncle, Sigmund Freud, to write an autobiography. He had, he said, a good offer from an American publisher. “What deprives all autobiographies of value is their tissue of lies,” Freud shot back. “Let’s just say parenthetically that your publisher shows American naivety in imagining that a man, honest until now, could stoop so low for five thousand dollars. The temptation would begin at one hundred times that sum, but even then I would renounce it after half an hour.”

Twelve years later Freud’s friend Arnold Zweig, the Socialist writer, asked for his permission to write his biography. Freud was as fierce as before: “Anyone who writes a biography is committed to lies, concealments, hypocrisy, flattering and even to hiding his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth does not exist and, if it did, we could not use it.” He added a reference to his beloved Hamlet, “Was the prince not right when he asks who could escape whipping were he used after his desert.”

Ernest Jones finished his eulogy in some style, however: “One can say of him that as never a man loved life more, so never a man feared death less. . . so we take our leave of a man whose like we shall not know again. From our hearts we thank him for having lived; for having done; for having loved.”

Monday, October 8, 2012

Choosing a Bride by Johannes Kepler

Excerpted from The Sleepwalkers; A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe by Arthur Koestler; Penguin Books, 1959

Only one circumstance, but a basic one, relieved the gloom of Johannes Kepler’s later years: his second marriage, in 1613, to Susanna Reuttinger. He was forty-one, she twenty-four, the daughter of a cabinet-maker. Susanna’s parents had died while she was a child; she had been brought up in the household of the Baroness Starhemberg. We do not know what position she occupied in the household but to judge by the scandalized reactions of Kepler’s correspondents, it must have been a lowly one – something between a maid and a companion.

Kepler’s first marriage had been engineered by his well-wishers when he was an inexperienced and penniless young teacher. Before his second marriage, friends and go-betweens again played a prominent part – but this time Kepler had to choose between no less than eleven candidates for his hand. In a letter to an unknown nobleman, which extends to eight printed folio pages, Kepler has described in meticulous detail the process of elimination and selection that he followed. It is a curious document, and among the most revealing in his voluminous writings. It shows that he solved the problem of choosing the right wife among the eleven candidates by much the same method by which he found the orbit of Mars: he committed a series of mistakes which might have proved fatal, but cancelled out; and up to the last moment he failed to realize that he held the correct solution in his hands.

The letter is dated from Linz, 23 October 1613:

Though all Christians start a wedding invitation by solemnly declaring their marriage is due to special Divine arrangement, I as a philosopher, would like to discourse with you, O wisest of men, in greater detail about this. Was it Divine Providence or my own moral guilt which, for two years or longer, tore me in so many different directions and made m consider the possibility of such different unions? If it was Divine Providence, to what purpose did it use these various personalities and events? For there is nothing I would like to investigate more thoroughly, and that I more intensely long to know, than this: can I find God, whom I can almost touch with my hands when I contemplate the universe, also in my own self? If, on the other hand, the fault was mine, in what did it consist? Cupidity, lack of judgment, or ignorance? And why, on the other hand, was there nobody among my advisers to approve of my final decision? Why am I losing their previous esteem or appear to be losing it?

What could have seemed more reasonable than that I, as a philosopher, past the peak of virility, at an age when passion is extinct, the body dried and softened by nature, should have married a widow who would look after the household, who was known to me and my first wife, and unmistakably recommended to me by her? But if so, why did nothing come of it?. . .

The reasons why this first project came to nothing were, among others, that the prospective bride had two marriageable daughters, that her fortune was in the hands of a trustee, and, as an afterthought,

Also the consideration of health, because, though her body was strong, it was suspect of ill-health because of her stinking breath; to this came my dubious reputation in matters of religion. In addition to this, when I met the woman after everything had been settled (I had not seen her for the last six years), there was nothing about her that pleased me. It is therefore sufficiently clear that the matter could not succeed. But why did God permit that I should be occupied with this project which was doomed to failure? Perhaps to prevent my getting involved in other perplexities while my thoughts were on this person? . . . I believe things like this happen to others too, not only once but often; but the difference is that others do not worry as much as I do, that they forget more easily and get over things quicker than I do; or that they have more self-control and are less credulous than I am . . . And now for the others.

Together with the mother, her two daughters were also offered to me – under an unfavorable omen, if an offense to probity can be interpreted as such: for the project was presented by the well-wishers of the ladies in a form which was not very proper. The ugliness of this project upset me intensely; yet I began nevertheless to inquire into the conditions. As I thus transferred my interest from widows to virgins, and continued to think of the absent one [the mother][ whom, so far, I had not seen, I was captivated by the appearance and pleasant features of the one who was present [the daughter]. Her education had been, as it became sufficiently clear, was more splendid than it would be useful to me. She had been brought up in luxury that was above her station, also she was not of sufficient age to run a household. I decided to submit the reasons which spoke against the marriage to the judgment of the mother, who was a wise woman and loved her daughter. But it would have been better if I had not done so, because the mother did not seem to be pleased. This was the second one, and now I come to the third.

The third was a maiden in Bohemia whom Kepler found attractive, and who took a liking to his orphaned children. He left them for a time in her care ‘which was a rash act, for later on I had to fetch them back at my own expense’. She was willing to marry him, but she had, a year earlier, given her word to another man. That other man had, in the meantime, begotten a child with a prostitute, so that the maiden considered herself free, but she thought it nevertheless necessary to obtain the permission of her ex-fiance’s employer. This employer had some time ago given Kepler a letter of recommendation – and by a mysterious non-sequitur, Kepler states that this prevented the marriage. We are left to wonder.

The fourth he would have married gladly, in spite of her ‘tall stature and athletic build’, if meanwhile the fifth had not entered the scene. The fifth was Susanna, his future wife:

In comparing her to the fourth the advantage was with the latter as regards the reputation of the family, the earnestness of expression, property, and dowry; but the fifth had the advantage through her love, and promise to be modest, thrifty, diligent, and to love her step-children . . . . While I was waging my long and heavy battle with this problem, I was waiting for a visit from Frau Helmard, wondering whether she would advise me to marry the third, who would then carry the day over the last-mentioned two. Having heard at last what this woman had to say, I began to decide in favor of the fourth, annoyed that I had to let the fifth go. As I was turning this over, and on the point of making a decision, fate intervened: the fourth got tired of my hesitations and gave her word to another suitor. Just as I had been previously annoyed about having to reject the fifth, I was now so much hurt about the loss of the fourth, that the fifth too began to lose her attraction for me. In this case, to be sure, the fault was in my feelings.

Concerning the fifth, there is also the question why, since she was destined for me, God permitted that in the course of one year, she would have six more rivals? Was there no other way for my uneasy heart to be content with its fate than by realizing the impossibility of the fulfillment of so many other desires?

And so to No. 6, who had been recommended to Kepler by his stepdaughter:

A certain nobility, and some possessions made her desirable; on the other hand, she was not old enough, and I feared the expense of a sumptuous wedding; and her noble rank in itself made her suspect of pride. In addition, I felt pity for the fifth, who had already understood what was afoot and what had been decided. This division in me between willingness and unwillingness had, on the one hand, the advantage that it excused me in the eyes of my advisers, but on the other the disadvantage that I was as pained as if I had been rejected . . . But in this case, to, Divine Providence had meant well because that woman would not have fitted in at all with my habits and household.

Now, as the fifth ruled, to my joy, alone in my heart, a fact which I also expressed to her in words, suddenly a new rival arose for her, whom I shall call No. 7 – because certain people, whom you know, suspected that the humility of the fifth and recommended the noble rank of the seventh. She also had an appearance which deserved to be loved. Again I was prepared to give up the fifth, and to chose the seventh, provided it was true what they said about her. . . .

But again he prevaricated; ‘and what else could have been the result but a rejection, which I had quasi-provoked?’

Tongues were wagging all over Linz; to avoid more gossip and ridicule, he now turned his attention to a candidate of common origin ‘who nevertheless aspired to the nobility. Though her appearance had nothing to recommend her, her mother was a most worthy person.’ But she was as fickle as he was undecided, and after alternately giving him her word and retracting it on seven subsequent occasions, he again thanked Divine Providence and let her go.

His methods now became more cautious and secretive. When he met No. 9, who, apart from a lung disease, had much to recommend her, he pretended to be in love with someone else, hoping that the candidate’s reaction might betray her feelings. Her reactions were promptly top tell Mother, who was ready to give her blessing, but Kepler mistakenly thought she had rejected him and then it was too late to put matters right.

The tenth was also of noble rank, of sufficient means and thrifty.

But her features were most abhorrent, and her shape ugly even for a man of simple tastes. The contrast of our bodies was most conspicuous: I thin, dried-up and meagre she, short and fat, and coming from a family distinguished by redundant obesity. She was quite unworthy compared with the fifth, but this did not revive love for the latter.

The eleventh and last one was again ‘of noble rank, opulent, and thrifty’; but after waiting four months for an answer, Kepler was told that the maiden was not yet sufficiently grown up.

Having thus exhausted the counsels of my friends, I, at the last moment before my departure for Rattisbon, returned to the fifth, pledged her my word and received hers.

Now you have my commentary on my remark at the beginning of this invitation. You now see how Divine Providence drove me into these perplexities that I may learn to scorn noble rank, wealth, and parentage, of which she has none, and to seek with equanimity other, simpler virtues. . .

The letter ends with Kepler entreating his aristocratic friend to come to the wdding banquet and heklp him by his presence to brave the adversity of public opinion.

Susanna seems to have justified Kepler’s choice, and lived up to his expectations. There is hardly any mention of her in his letters, and as far as Kepler’s domestic life was concerned, no news is good news. She bore him seven children, of whom three died in infancy.

I have said that Kepler’s way of discovering the right wife for himself strangely reminds one of the method of his scientific discoveries. Perhaps, having heard of his matrimonial odyssey, this sounds less far-fetched or whimsical. There is the same characteristic split in the personality between, on the one hand, the pathetically eager, Chaplinesque figure who stumbles from one wrong hypothesis to another and from one candidate to the next – oval orbits, egg-shaped orbits, chubby-faced obits; who proceeded by trial and error, falls into grotesque traps, analyses with pedantic seriousness each mistake and finds in each a sign of Divine Providence; one can hardly imagine a more painfully humorless performance. But on the other hand, he did discover his Laws and did make the right choice among the eleven candidates, guided by that sleepwalking intuition which made his waking errors cancel out and always asserted itself at the critical moment. Social rank and financial considerations are topmost in his waking consciousness, yet in the end he married the only candidate who had neither rank, nor money, nor family; and though he anxiously listens to everybody’s advice, seems to be easily swayed and without a will of his own, he decides on the person unanimously rejected by all.

It is the same dichotomy which we observed in all his activities and attitudes. In his quarrels with Tycho and constant naggings at him, he displayed embarrassing pettiness. But he was curiously devoid of jealousy or lasting resentment. He was proud of his discoveries and often boasted of them (particularly of those which turned out to be worthless), but he had no proprietary feeling about them; he was quite prepared to share the copyright of the three Laws with the worthless Junker Tengnagel and, contrary to the habits of the time, gave in all his books most generous credit to others – to Maestlin, Brahe, Gilbert and Galileo. He even gave credit where none was due, for instance to Fabricius, whom he nearly saddledewith the honor of having discovered the elliptic orbits. He freely informed his correspondents of his latest researches and naively expected other astronomers to part with their jealously guarded observations; when they refused, as Tycho and his heirs did, he simply pinched the material without a qualm of conscience. He had, in fact, no sense of private property concerning scientific research. Such an attitude is most unusual among scholars in our day; in Kepler‘s day it seemed quite insane. But it was the most endearing lunacy in his discordant, fantastic self.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Joseph Smith by Harold Bloom

If one decides that Joseph Smith was no prophet, let alone king of the Kingdom of God (which he was anointed just before his death), then one’s dominant emotion towards him must be wonder. There is no other figure remotely like him in our national history, and it is unlikely that anyone like him ever can come again. Most Americans have never heard of him, and most of those who have remember him a a fascinating scamp or charlatan who invented the story of the Angel Moroni and the gold plates, and then forged The Book of Mormon as a follow-up. Since the Book of Mormon, more even than the King James Bible, exists in more unread copies than any other work, that is poor fame indeed for a charismatic unmatched in our history. I myself can think of not another American, except for Emerson and Whitman, who so moves and alters my imagination.

For someone who is not a Morman, what matters most about Joseph Smith is how American both the man and his religion have proved to be. So self-created was he that he transcends Emerson and Whitman in my imaginative response, and takes his place with the great figures of our fiction, since at moments he appears far larger than life, in the mode of a Shakespearean character. So rich and varied a personality, so vital a spark of divinity, is almost beyond the limits of the human, as normally we construe those limits. To one who does not believe in him, but who has studied him intensely, Smith becomes almost a mythology in himself.

In the midst of writing this, I paused to reread Morton Smith’s remarkable Jesus the Magician (1978), and found myself rewriting the book as I went along, substituting Joseph Smith for Jesus, and Joseph Smith’s circumstances and associates for those of Jesus. No Mormon (presumably) would sanction such an impiety, but it is strikingly instructive. Joseph Smith the Magician is no more or less arbitrary a figure than Morton Smith’s persuasive myth-maker.

I end as I began, with wonder. We do not know Joseph Smith, as he prophesied that even his own could never hope to know him:

. . . You don’t know me, you never knew my heart. No man knows my history. I cannot tell it. I don’t blame anyone for not believing my history; if I had not experienced what I have, I could not believe it myself.

[Funeral sermon for Elder King Follett, April, 1844]

He requires strong poets, major novelists, accomplished dramatists to tell his history, and they have not yet come to him. He is as enigmatic as Abraham Lincoln, his contemporary, but even if we did not know Lincoln, we at least keep learning what it is that we cannot quite understand. But with Joseph Smith, we cannot be certain what baffles us most. As an unbeliever, I marvel at his intuitive understanding of the permanent religious dilemmas of our country. Traditional Christianity suits the United States about as well as European culture does, which means scarcely at all. Our deep need for originality gave us Joseph Smith even as it gave us Emerson and Emily Dickinson, Whitman and Melville, Henry and William James, even as it gave us Lincoln, who founded our all-but-all-powerful Presidency.

There is something of Joseph Smith’s spirit in every manifestation of the American Religion. Joseph knew that he was no part of creation, knew that what was best and oldest in him already was God. And he knew also, more humanly, that despite his prophetic vocation and communal vision, he was essentially alone, and could experience his own spiritual freedom only in prophetic solitude.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The early history of the Mormons is manifestly a catalog and exodus, and its contour shape a peculiar and self-reliant people, whose characteristics are not altogether different one hundred and fifty years later, despite the determined march by Mormons into the American Establishment in the last century. R. Laurence Moore, in his Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (1986), makes a remarkable attempt to handle all the paradoxes of Mormonism in one dialectical summary:

We come back to Tolstoy. He knew what he was talking about. Mormons taught the American Religion, or at least a vital aspect of it, but not because their doctrines somehow sprouted naturally out of the American frontier and provided a domestic alternative to faiths imported from Europe. Mormons followed a lesson, already by their time established in the American experience, the one way of becoming American was to invent oneself out of a sense of opposition. This was perhaps the most useful consequence of America’s voluntary system of church formation. The American mainstream, certainly its religious mainstream, never mean anything except what competing parties chose to make of it. It was not anything fixed. It was an area of conflict. In defining themselves as being apart from the mainstream, Mormons were in fact laying their claim to it. By declaring themselves outsiders, they were moving to the center.

This cannot be wholly persuasive, or perhaps Moore’s dialectic held until a generation ago, but is now outworn by the authentic consolidation of an American mainstream, particularly a religious mainstream. It is weirdly true, in 1991, that the Mormons are as mainstream as you are, whoever you are, at least in terms of the religion of politics and the politics of religion (that is: Gnostic).

Pragmatically, however, the Mormons are allied in warlike patriotism, opposition to abortion, and refusal to seek economic and social justice with their so-called doctrinal enemies: Southern Baptist Fundamentalists, Assemblies of God Pentecostals, Evangelicals of every denomination. And the current Mormon rhetoric in invoking Jesus Christ (though no cross ever appears in their temples) does serve as perhaps a deliberate veil behind which a post-Christian religion continues its complex development. . . .

One gets the impression that the present Mormon leadership is very patient; they believe that much of the future is theirs, particularly in America. We have not yet had a Mormon President of the United States, and perhaps never will, but our Presidents are increasingly responsive to Mormon sensibilities, rather more that might be expected for a religious movement representing in its formal membership just two percent of our population. But all that concerns a religious critic ought to be the spiritual question of what it is that the Mormons might mean by the Kingdom of God, whether in the United States or elsewhere. Certainly, by 1843, Joseph Smith meant becoming a god, by the assumption of kingly powers, and thus presiding over the angels.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

George Orwell Diaries

6.3.40: From a letter from Lady Oxford to the Daily Telegraph, on the subject of war economies:

“Since most London houses are deserted there is little entertaining. . . in any case, most people have to part with their cooks and live in hotels.”

Apparently nothing will ever teach these people that the other 99% of the population exist.

6.14.40: The Germans are definitely in Paris, one day ahead of schedule. It has to be taken as a certainty that Hitler will go to Versailles. Why don’t they mine it and blow it up while he is there? Spanish troops have occupied Tangier, obviously with the view of letting the Italians use it as a base. To conquer Spanish Morocco from French Morocco would probably be easy at this date, and to do so, ditto the other Spanish colonies, and set up Negrin or someone of his kind as an alternative government would be a severe blow to Franco. But even the present British government would never think of doing such a thing. One has almost lost the power of imagining that the Allied governments can ever take the initiatives.

Always, as I walk through the Underground stations, sickened by the advertisements, the silly staring ( idiotic, yard-wide ham-pink) faces and strident colors, the general frantic struggle to induce people to waste labor and materials by consuming useless luxuries or harmful drugs. How much rubbish this war will sweep away, if only we can hang on throughout the summer. War is simply a reversal of civilized life, its motto is “Evil be thou my good”, and so much of the good of modern life is actually evil that it is questionable whether on balance war does harm.

3.23.41: Yesterday attended a more or less compulsory Home Guard church parade, to take part in the national day of prayer. There were contingents of the Auxiliary Fire Service, Air Force cadets, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, etc., etc. Appalled by the jingoism and self-righteousness of the whole thing . . . I am not shocked by the Church condoning war, as many people profess to be – nearly always people who are not religious believers themselves, I notice. If you accept government you accept war, and if you accept war you must in most cases desire one side or the other to win. I can never work up any disgust over bishops blessing the colors of regiments, etc. All that kind of thing is founded on a sentimental idea that fighting is incompatible with loving your enemies. Actually you can only love your enemies if you are willing to kill them in certain circumstances. But what is disgusting about services like these is the absence of any kind of self-criticism. Apparently God is expected to help us on the ground that we are better than the Germans.

In the set prayer composed for the occasion God is asked “to turn the hearts of our enemies, and to help us to forgive them; to give them repentance for their misdoings, and a readiness to make amends.” Nothing about our enemies forgiving us. It seems to me that the Christian attitude would be that we are no better than our enemies, we are all miserable sinners, but that it so happens that it would be better if our cause prevailed and therefore that it is legitimate to pray for this. . . . . I suppose the idea is that it would be bad for morale to let people realize that the enemy has a case, though even that is a psychological error, in my opinion. But perhaps they aren’t thinking about the effect on the people taking part in the service but are simply looking for direct results from their nation-wide praying campaign, a sort of box barrage fired at the angels.

4.27.42: From the Italian radio, describing life in London:

“Five shillings were given for one egg yesterday, and one pound sterling for a kilogram of potatoes. Rice had disappeared, even from the Black Market, and peas have become the prerogative of millionaires. There is no sugar on the market, although small quantities are still to be found at prohibitive prices.”

One would say that his is stupid propaganda, because if such conditions really existed England would stop fighting in a few weeks, and when this fails to happen the listener is bound to see that he has been deceived. But in fact there is no such reaction. You can go on and on telling lies, and the most palpable lies at that, and even if they are not believed, there is no strong revulsion either.

We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe top grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgment have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponents point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends.

The Indian nationalist is sunken in self-pity and hatred of Britain and utterly indifferent to the sufferings of China, the English pacifist works himself up into frenzies about the concentration camps on the Isle of Man and forgets about those in Germany etc., etc. One notices this in the case of people one disagrees with, such as Fascists or pacifists but in fact everyone is the same, at least everyone who has definite opinions

Everyone is dishonest, and everyone is utterly heartless towards people who are outside the immediate range of his own interests. What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on and off like a tap according to political expediency.

All the pinks, or most of them, who flung themselves to and fro in their rage against Nazi atrocities before the war, forgot all about these atrocities and obviously lost sympathy with the Jews etc. as soon as the war began to bore them. Ditto with people who hated Russia like poison up to June 22, 1941, and then suddenly forgot about the [purges, the G.P.U. etc. the moment Russia came into the war. I am not thinking about lying for political ends, but of actual changes in subjective feelings,. But is there no one who has both firm opinions and a balanced outlook? Actually there are plenty, but they are powerless. All the power is in the hands of paranoiacs.

4.29.42: Yesterday to the House to hear the Indian debate. A poor show except for Cripp’s speech. They are now sitting in the House of Lords (the Commons being severely damaged in an air raid). During Cripp’s speech one had the impression that the house was full, but on counting I found only about 200-250 members, which is enough to fill most seats. Everything had a somewhat mangy look. Red rexine cushions on the benches – I could swear they used to be red plush at one time. The ushers shirt fronts were very dingy. When I see the dreary rubbish going on, or when I read about the later days of the League of Nations or the antics of Indian politicians, with their endless changes of front, line-ups, demarches, denunciations, protests and gestures generally, I always remember that the Roman Senate still existed under the later Empire. [This is the twilight of Parliamentary democracy] these creatures are simply ghosts gibbering in some corner while the real events happen elsewhere.

9.10.42 Lecturing last night at Morley College, Lambeth. Small hall, about 100 people, working-class intelligentsia (same sort of audience as Left Book Club branch). During the questions afterwards, no less than 6 people asked “Does not the lecturer think it was a great mistake to lift the ban on the Daily Worker” – reasons given, that the D.W.’s loyalty is not reliable and it is a waste of paper. [Only one woman stood up for the D.W., evidently a Communist at whom one or two of the others expressed impatience (‘Oh, she’s always saying that”!) ] This after a year during which there has been ceaseless clamor for the lifting of the ban. One is constantly being thrown out in one’s calculations because one listens to the articulate minority and forgets the other 99 per cent. Cf. Munich, when the mass of people were almost certainly behind Chamberlain’s policy, thought to read the New Statesman etc., you wouldn’t have thought so.

4.17.49 : Cranham Hospital:

Curious effect, here in the sanatorium, on Easter Sunday, when the people in this (the most expensive) block of “chalets” mostly have visitors, of hearing large numbers of upper-class English voices. I have been almost out of the sound of them for two years, hearing them at most one or two at a time, my ears growing more & more used to working-class or lower-middle class Scottish voices. In the hospital as Hairmyres, for instance, I literally never heard a ‘cultivated’ accent except when I had a visitor. It is as though I were hearing these voices for the first time. And what voices! A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a constant bah-bahing of laughter about nothing, above all a sort of heaviness and richness combined with a fundamental ill-will- people who, one instinctively feels, even without being able to see them, are the enemies of anything intelligent or sensitive or beautiful. No wonder everyone hates us so.

Orwell’s last entry but one. He died of a massive haemorrhage of the lungs on Saturday, January 21, 1950. His funeral service was arranged by Malcolm Muggerage at Christ Church, Albany Street, London. He was buried at All Saints, Sutton Courtney, Berkshire.