Famous At Eighty

Nov 23 2014 @ 1:25pm

Reviewing Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, a new biography of the British novelist, Alan Hollinghurst reminds us of her late-in-life flowering as a writer:

She published her first book, a biography of the artist Edward Burne-Jones, when she was fifty-eight; her first novel appeared when she was sixty. She was, as she said, “an old writer who had never been a young one.” How different it would have been if, like her close contemporaries Muriel Spark, Angus Wilson, and Anthony Burgess, she had started publishing fiction in the 1950s, if she’d moved in the shifting currents of influence and allegiance and left her mark on the literary history of those decades. But as it happened she made her debut at the age when others are going off or giving up, and after diffident beginnings rapidly emerged as an utterly distinctive talent, with no obvious debts to anybody. In America she achieved fame at the age of eighty with The Blue Flower, her finest and most demanding book, and also her last. She died, aged eighty-three, in 2000.

This triumph of late productivity is unavoidably tied to loss, the paradoxical freedoms of bereavement. Edward Burne-Jones was written immediately after her father died. Dedicated to her children, it reaches back into the cultural world of the generation before her own that she had always found so fascinating: it is a passing on of knowledge. Her first novel, The Golden Child, a “joke” as she called it, was written to amuse her gravely ill husband Desmond Fitzgerald, and is dedicated, posthumously, to him. Everything that followed is thus the product of a near quarter-century of widowhood.

James Wood, meanwhile, parses her distinctively stylish prose:

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An Open Faith In Burma

Nov 23 2014 @ 12:38pm

dish_natpwe

While attending a nat pwe – a festival devoted to the folk spirits, or nats, of Burmese tradition – Will Boast finds another side to the celebration:

I’d been told by locals that nat pwes were also “gay” festivals and to expect to see “many ladyboys.” The junta’s attempts to subdue nat worship had an unintended effect: the role of the nat wife [or nat kadaw] was embraced by an already marginalized group. Homosexuality is illegal in Burma and has been since its British colonizers instituted a late-nineteenth-century ban on “intercourse against the order of nature.”

Government restrictions opened a professional vacuum, says scholar Tamara C. Ho. Becoming a nat kadaw offered the achauk—a Burmese term for gay and transgender men—both “a vocation and queer visibility.”

Anthropologists differ in their readings of the gendered aspects of nat worship. Still, nowhere else in Burma, not even in vast, multi-ethnic Yangon, did I see any cross-dressing or open displays of affection between men. In a country marked by socially conservative, austere Buddhist ways, the nat pwe, it seems, provides a rare moment during which the usual rules can be suspended.

(Image of male dancer at nat pwe festival by Flickr user Thomas)

Faith Moves In Mysterious Ways

Nov 23 2014 @ 11:49am

After reflecting on the way Mormons have changed their teachings on polygamy and race, Will Saletan posits that the LDS Church will come to affirm the lives and loves of gay people:

When you look back at these stories—not just the reported facts, but the way the church has recast them—you can see how a reversal on homosexuality might unfold. First there’s a shift in the surrounding culture. Then there’s political and legal pressure. Meanwhile, LDS leaders have to grapple with the pain of gay Mormons—now acknowledged by the church as “same-sex attracted”—who sacrifice for an institution that forbids them to love and marry. Within the church hierarchy, less conservative voices gradually replace leaders who have died or stepped down. Eventually, the time is right for a revelation. When you pray hard enough, and you know what you want to hear, you’ll hear it.

The church is well along this path. Two years ago, it acknowledged homosexuality as a deeply ingrained condition and said it “should not be viewed as a disease.” Today, in its essay on polygamy, the church affirms its defense of traditional marriage, but with a caveat. “Marriage between one man and one woman is God’s standard for marriage,” the essay concludes—“unless He declares otherwise, which He did through His prophet, Joseph Smith.” It happened once. In fact, it happened twice. When the time is right, it’ll happen again.

Not so fast, Douthat replies.

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The View From Your Window

Nov 23 2014 @ 11:11am

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Joigny, France, 12 pm

On The Morality Of Mind Games

Nov 23 2014 @ 10:34am

Michael Thomsen describes the objective of Ether One, a game that recreates the experience of dementia for the player: “Your job is to dive into the mind of Jean Thompson, a sixty-nine-year-old woman diagnosed with dementia, and retrieve a series of lost memories.” Players are encouraged to “collect” memories, represented by tchotchkes and mementos that can only be carried one at a time:

As a player, you’re never sure what’s important and what isn’t, so the system encourages you to take everything. This hoarding is repaid with periodic puzzles, such as a door with a numeric lock whose code can be found on the bottom of a previously collected mug. As the game progresses, these puzzles increase in complexity, as does the array of random objects filling the shelves. The collection gradually overwhelms the player’s ability to remember just where all of these things came from and why they seemed important enough to retrieve. Why did I bring this plate all the way back here? Whose hat is this supposed to be again? It’s a tidy simulation of the cognitive degradation of dementia.

Thomsen goes on to ponder the moral implications of games designed to simulate mental illness:

If a game is going to be a game, in the sense of a progressive series of challenges leading to a definite end state, it can’t represent dementia or Alzheimer’s with anything other than a self-conscious artifice. We’re used to suspending some disbelief to enjoy shooting games, but it feels like bad faith to say that a disease should be the basis of a similar kind of entertainment. Our desire to entertain ourselves within systems that make triviality and tragedy indistinguishable says more about us than the depicted subjects. If violent war games are driven by delusional power fantasies, then empathy games are driven by a parallel delusion about how caring we are in reality.

Quote For The Day

Nov 23 2014 @ 9:33am

“In democracies it is by no means the case that all who cultivate literature have received a literary education, and most of those who have some acquaintance with good writing go into politics or adopt some profession which leaves only short, stolen hours for the pleasures of the mind. They therefore do not make such delights the principal joy of their existence, but think of them rather as a passing relaxation needed from the serious business of life. Such men will never have a deep enough understanding of literature to appreciate its refinements. Fine nuances will pass them by. With but short time to spend on books, they want it all to be profitable. They like books which are easily got and quickly read, requiring no learned researches to understand them. They like facile forms of beauty, self-explanatory and immediately enjoyable; above all, they like things unexpected and new. Accustomed to the monotonous struggle of practical life, what they want is vivid, lively emotions, sudden revelations, brilliant truths, or errors able to rouse them up and plunge them, almost by violence, into the middle of the subject.

Need I say any more? Who does not guess what is coming before I say it?

By and large the literature of a democracy will never exhibit the order, regularity, skill, and art characteristic of aristocratic literature; formal qualities will be neglected or actually despised. The style will often be strange, incorrect, overburdened, and loose, and almost always strong and bold. Writers will be more anxious to work quickly than to perfect details. Short works will be commoner than long books, wit than erudition, imagination than depth. There will be a rude and untutored vigor of thought with great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will strive to astonish more than to please, and to stir passions rather than to charm taste,” – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.

Discovering The God Of Peace

Nov 23 2014 @ 8:34am

We’ve featured debates about Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence over the last few months. In a new interview about the book, she admits her views of God and religion have changed over time:

The change began while I was writing “A History of God.” I expected it to be like its predecessors: a rather smart, clever thing where I showed how people just “rejigged” the idea of God to suit their purposes. But things started to change there. I started seeing in depth how inadequate my idea of God had been. As a young girl, and a young nun, I thought of God as “up there.” Then reading all these people, Maimonides, Avicenna, Thomas Aquinas, all the great voices of the monotheistic tradition, and hearing them say that all our ideas of God are man-made and can’t possibly measure up to who God is — this was a start of the deepening of my understanding.

I tended to favor the individual and the mystical over the organized. But one of the things that I’ve learned is that religion is largely about community. People before Luther simply didn’t experience God in an individual way. You did it by living with the idea of God in community and acting kindly and creatively.

How she makes the case for the continued relevance of the tradition of religious non-violence:

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God’s Unexpected Smile

Nov 23 2014 @ 7:35am

Recently we featured a survey of the Colombian writer Nicolás Gómez Dávila’s acerbic aphorisms. Matthew Walther considers a translation of his Scholia to an Implicit Text, noticing his idiosyncratic theological positions:

Though traditional Catholics will doubtless enjoy his digs at progressive clergymen and agree with his aesthetic objections to the Mass of Pope Paul VI, Gómez-Dávila’s orthodoxy, especially by the standards of the preconciliar Church, is very much an open question. He was almost certainly a fideist of the Kierkegaardian variety, starkly declaring that “if God were a conclusion of reasoning, I would not feel it necessary to worship Him.” He insisted that “Scholasticism sinned by trying to turn Christians into know-alls” and that it encouraged the higher criticism (“Christ did not leave documents but disciples”). There are also hints in his work, if not of outright universalism, then certainly of hope for the salvation of all, also expressed by Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the founder of this magazine: “I rather believe in God’s smile than in his wrath.”

If Gómez-Dávila is ever declared a saint, admittedly a very remote possibility, he should be taken up as the patron of nihilists—which is to say, of most of us on our worst days. His work is a complement to, if not a substitute for, gin, tobacco, and constant prayer. The fact that his tone is caustic and his political views incompatible with even a limited faith in liberal democracy should caution readers against complacence and placing ultimate trust in anything but the articles of the Creed. “I do not belong to a perishing world,” he wrote. “I prolong and transmit a deathless truth.”

A Short Film For Saturday

Nov 22 2014 @ 9:03pm

A portrait of Richard Thompson, the “cartoonist’s cartoonist”:

In an interview with Michael Cavna, filmmaker Andy Hemmendinger explains what motivated his tribute:

MICHAEL CAVNA: Congratulations on the beautiful documentary, guys. When did you first discover Richard’s work, and what inspired you to make this film?

ANDY HEMMENDINGER: Richard has been a friend and neighbor of mine for the last 15-plus years. I enjoyed his sense of humor from the beginning, and while I knew he did illustrations and cartoons, I’d never seen any of his work. One day, a friend of mine called up and said that he’d made fun of my last name in a cartoon that he’d done. After that, I started paying attention to his work.

I loved his sense of humor and began to read him regularly, especially when “Cul De Sac” started. It did surprise me that not everyone knew who he was, though. This past spring, I was visiting Richard and saw a self-portrait he’d drawn in which he was a chick that had just hatched. That image really struck me. It made me think of the endless hours he’d spent staring at a blank piece of paper, waiting for ideas to strike. Like staring at the inside of the egg. And now it wasn’t the lack of ideas that constrained him, but the Parkinson’s. [Ed. note: Thompson retired "Cul de Sac" in 2012 to battle his Parkinson's disease.]

Between the combination of this mental image and wanting … other people to enjoy his work as much as we did, we decided to make a film.

Responding to a book by Jeffrey Kluger, Brooke Lea Foster defends today’s young adults from accusations of narcissism:

[A]re Millennials any more narcissistic than, say, the Baby Boomers, who were once considered the most self-obsessed cohort of their time? Consider the 1976 cover story of New York Magazine, in which Tom Wolfe declared the ‘70s “The Me Decade.” One could argue that every generation seems a little more narcissistic than the last, puffing out its chest and going out into the world with an overabundance of self-confidence, swagger, even a bit of arrogance. These traits are simply hallmarks of early adulthood—it’s often the first time people are putting themselves out there, applying for first jobs and meeting potential life partners. Overconfidence is how people muscle through the big changes. …

[S]tudies have directly contradicted the idea that Millennials are the most narcissistic of previous generations.

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