Remains Of The Day

Jan 25 2015 @ 2:28pm


Oliver Morton, pausing before a reconstructed gorgosaurus at the Manchester Museum, marvels that “absolutely all that remains of that creature’s life is this scarred skeleton”:

We often think of fossils as being in some way ancestral relatives, if not of humans, then of some other aspect of nature, parts of some great unfolding story. But for the gorgosaurs, the tyrannosaurs and indeed all the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period, this simply isn’t true. The most fecund of their matriarchs has left no deeper imprint than a hatchling that died fresh out of its shell. No species alive today can be traced back to any of the dinosaur species except those few from which birds descended.

Fair enough; what everyone knows about dinosaurs is that they became extinct. What is not as well appreciated—but which, for some reason, the peculiar individuality of this one specimen brought home with some force—is this:

Read On

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, offers an answer:

Humanity’s greatest invention is religion, which does not mean necessarily mean belief in gods. Rather, religion is any system of norms and values that is founded on a belief in superhuman laws. Some religions, such as Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, believe that these superhuman laws were created by the gods. Other religions, such as Buddhism, Communism and Nazism believed that these superhuman laws are natural laws. Thus Buddhists believe in the natural laws of karma, Nazis argued that their ideology reflected the laws of natural selection, and Communists believe that they follow the natural laws of economics.

No matter whether they believe in divine laws or in natural laws, all religions have exactly the same function: to give stability to human institutions. Without some kind of religion, it is simply impossible to maintain social order. During the modern era religions that believe in divine laws went into eclipse. But religions that believe in natural laws became ever more powerful. In the future, they are likely to become more powerful yet. Silicon Valley, for example, is today a hot-house of new techno-religions, which promise us paradise on earth with the help of new technologies. From a religious perspective, Silicon Valley is the most interesting place in the world.

Face Of The Day

Jan 25 2015 @ 12:29pm


Alice Yoo captions:

Photographer Graham McGeorge won multiple awards for the photo above, including the Merit Prize for the 2013 National Geographic Traveler Contest. On his website he has more than a handful of photos that show these eastern screech owls doing what they do best, camoflauging themselves in their natural environment. McGeorge believes that photographers need to have a lot patience to get these shots, he himself visits local swamps and forests on a regular basis to know where and what to look for.

McGeorge follows a strict set of self-imposed rules. As he says, “Ethics is a must. There are many wildlife photographers that bait owls in order to fill their photographic needs. Baiting is very harmful to the health of an owl. To photograph owls in the wild and unbaited you must have a lot of patience, a keen eye and a good ear. Look for holes either made by woodpeckers or old decaying cavities. These are good places to start.”

See more of McGeorge’s work at his website,

Waves Of Grief

Jan 25 2015 @ 11:32am

Andrea Woodhouse, who was in Indonesia when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit a decade ago, reflects on the connection between grief and catastrophe:

In her book Upheavals of Thought, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that emotion is bound up with intelligence: it is not opposed to rationality but rather at its center. Feelings such as love and sorrow are finely tuned responses to judgments about what is true and valuable in the world. As such, our beliefs about the outer world can condition the experience of the inner: they affect not only the way we behave, but how we feel. If I believe in God and an afterlife, for example, I might feel grief differently from someone who does not. The name we give our emotion will be the same, but my grief may contain some hope.

I wondered if this might be true too about grief in the face of catastrophe. Was it that in the face of social expectation people in [the province of] Aceh sought to overcome emotion and control how they behaved? Or did catastrophe overturn something about the emotion itself? I wondered if the vast weight of the tsunami made small the space for grieving. It was as if each person’s grief took the measure of itself and shrank to fit the space left over by the sorrow of others. And so the human spirit flourished instead, and in this there lived a kind of beauty.

“An American Orwell”

Jan 25 2015 @ 10:43am

In a review of Irving Howe’s recently-published collected essays, A Voice Still Heard, Frank Foer appends that label to the critic and longtime editor of Dissent. Foer goes on to assert that Howe was “our most thrilling dissident, a socialist with conservative cultural sympathies, a scything polemicist capable of the most tender, patient literary explication”:

Irving_Howe_(1968)Howe had a heroic conception of the intellectual, and from an early age, he thrust himself into the growing world of little magazines. In his 20s, after his discharge from the Army, he worked as an intern, to use an anachronistic term, for Dwight Macdonald and Hannah Arendt. Both of these early patrons came to somewhat annoy him, but he paid close attention to their methods. Even as he became one of the greatest practicing critics in the country, he was also the sharpest, most observant student of his fellow intellectuals. They were truly his great subject. … Howe wrote about other writers with anthropological detachment, followed by blazing expressions of his disappointment with them. Namely, he flayed them for failing to do the most elemental part of their job, holding society to account.

David Marcus examines the way Howe “considered his literary and political inclinations to be one in the same, two sidesutopian and ironic, committed and criticalof the same intellectual vocation”:

[Lionel] Trilling remarked in this period that this choice between commitment and literary complexity was a “dark and bloody crossroads.” For Howe it was precisely by remaining between politics and literature that one became an intellectual.

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The View From Your Window

Jan 25 2015 @ 10:10am


Istanbul, Turkey, 1 pm

In an interview that circles back to the debate on faith and fiction the Dish has covered extensively over the past two years, Gregory Wolfe defends the way contemporary Catholic novelists approach their work:

The mid-twentieth century Catholic writers tended to “shout” rather than “whisper” for several reasons. For one thing, Modernism in literature loved the big gesture. For another, it was an era when the newly ascendant “master narratives” of modernity—Marxism and Freudianism among them—were clashing with the Judeo-Christian narrative in an intense way. Add to this that for the Catholic writer of the time the Church seemed adamantine (no shadows of dissent), a “sign of contradiction” against modernity itself.

Now flash forward to our own time. Postmodernism questions any and all master narratives, favoring smaller-scale, intimate stories over epics and dramas. Secularism, pluralism, and hedonism have brought about a huge loss of trust in authority, not to mention the authority of the Catholic Church (and that includes its adherents). People have lost touch with the teachings and traditions of their faith. Many people are really starting from scratch.

What kind of fiction would someone write out of this experience of reality? Novels about heroic martyrs to Communist totalitarianism? No, they would be writing out of this confused culture—one where God is discerned only in the still small voice: the whisper, not the shout.

Remembering Father Louis

Jan 25 2015 @ 8:31am

Father Louis, of course, was Thomas Merton, who was born 100 years ago this month. Carol Zaleski looks back at his complex life and faith:

[H]ow inscrutable you were, for all the self-revealing writing. You wrote a memoir worthy of comparison to Augustine’s Confessions—were it not marred by a Holden Caulfield–like contemptus mundi. You tapped into the wellsprings of monastic spirituality through scholarship and reflection on the Rule of St. Benedict, the Desert Fathers, John Cassian, Bernard of Clairvaux—and then you translated that spirituality into an idiom of authenticity and alienation that now seems dated. You restored contemplation to its rightful centrality in Christian life and did much “to reassure the modern world that in the struggle between thought and existence we [monks] are on the side of existence, not on the side of abstraction”—and then you portrayed contemplation as so radically self-emptying that it sheds much of its specific religious content. You fought for the privilege of living as a hermit on the abbey grounds—but you let your hermitage become a gathering place for your nonmonastic friends during a period when you were (as you told Rosemary Radford Ruether) “browned off with and afraid of Catholics.”

On a reductionist psychoanalytic reading, you were an orphan searching for his lost parents, a repressed lover, and a narcissist drowning in his own reflection. On a more discerning Augustinian reading, though, you were an Everyman whose heart is restless until it rests in God; and on a sound monastic reading, you were one of thousands of essentially good monks who strayed but stayed the course. I believe you did stay the course. Had it not been for the faulty electric fan, or the fault in your own heart, I believe you would have returned to Gethsemani to be a model of monastic wisdom after the storms of youth had passed.

Quote For The Day

Jan 25 2015 @ 7:34am

“Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers the most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture,” – Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain.

Priceless Particles

Jan 24 2015 @ 8:34pm


For her project Stardust, Corinne Schulze photographed the “the bits and pieces of archaeological artifacts” she discovered while working with historical treasures at a New York museum:

One day, Schulze looked down at her studio sweep and those tiny pieces of dust and debris left behind struck her differently. Rather than unfortunate casualties of the job, the debris looked to her like celestial formations. She transferred it to a black background—like the vast canvas of space—and snapped a photo.

“It reminded me of the idea that we’re all made of stardust—Carl Sagan and all that stuff,” she said.

Most of the objects she shot were gathered in the early 20th century, when the collection process was far less careful than it is today. Archaeologists shoveled up the objects, dumped them in a box along with whatever dirt and fragments surrounded it, and closed them up with notes about what was found that still left much to the imagination.

See more of Schulze’s work here.