An Uneasy Calm Amid The Terror

Benjamin Kunkel reflects on a hard couple of weeks in America:

I’m more than ever grateful to be alive, for the interest and pleasure I have in the people I know, in thinking about the world, in the prospect of doing good if politically unavailing work, and in little things photolike the sight last week of some just-bloomed forsythia. (My grandmother, in her dementia, was each spring in New Hampshire surprised repeatedly by the beautiful yellow blazes.)

But whenever I raise my head from more intimate concerns there is the miscarriage of my society and civilization going on around me, robbing many people of what I still have to enjoy, and I find myself appalled enough at the gradual and sudden calamity that it seems to reveal hopes that I never knew I had, evident only in the dashing. These are hopes for this world “which is the world/ Of all of us,—the place where, in the end,/ We find our happiness, or not at all.”

Those lines come from Wordsworth, whose 1805 version of his book-length poem The Prelude I’ve nearly finished for the first time. I wish I’d read it years ago, but at least I’ll have done it once, when no long work in English has made me gladder for my native language. …

Wordsworth, in other words, who as a child “with the breeze/ Had played, a green leaf on the blessed tree/ Of my beloved country,” has come in part to hate his country, and to have impulses of vengeance toward young Englishmen much like him except for their being soldiers. And then, at this knowledge, he feels hatred for the hatred bred in him, compounded with disgust at the French revolution’s turn toward terror and disgust at the counterrevolutionary alliance arrayed against it. It comes to seem, terribly, that the stream of contemporary events doesn’t at all lead into some ocean of peace and justice but deserves a different aquatic image, as if all history were “a reservoir of guilt/ And ignorance, filled up from age to age,/ That could no longer hold its loathsome charge,/ But that burst and spread in deluge through the land.” He consoles himself with the thought that even such a “disastrous period did not want/ Such sprinklings of all human excellence/ As were a joy to hear of.” But the consolation is small. Mass violence has contaminated his joy in either of the opposed countries that he loves, and twisted some of his deepest feelings, with their inclination toward beauty, into ugliness. It must have done something for him to write about all this, and it’s done something for me to read it. But what does it do, to read or write or speak about our grief, anger, and improbable stupid hopes?

In the moment an emotion is expressed or an event reported on, I don’t quite feel the emotion or the event; the names for things partially and temporarily replace their actuality. The need for this relief may explain the desperate quality of my and perhaps your online reading, and of much that is written online or said into TV cameras. Language in the utterance is some escape from what it says. But then the world that is not bits or syllables resumes its undeflected course.

Previous Dish on American terror here and here.

God Of The Future

by Zoe Pollock


Andrew Cohen has reprinted a fascinating profile Carter Phipps wrote of the Catholic theologian John Haught. In it, Haught lays out a beautiful approach to what he calls “evolutionary theology”:

“In the modern world, we feel the tension between two religious vectors or two poles,” he explained to me. “One is the traditional withdrawal from the world—the desire to find peace in some Platonic heaven up there or in some sort of mystical present or some eternal now. Then there’s another pole that comes from being part of a modern world in which political and scientific revolutions have taken place. There is beginning to emerge a feeling that this world—I mean the whole universe, both cosmos and culture—is going somewhere. There is a drama that is unfolding before our eyes, and we wonder if we shouldn’t be part of that. [The Jesuit priest and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin] set out to try to find some resolution between these two poles. He saw that there is communion with God and then there’s communion with the earth. But there’s also communion with God through the earth. He resolved the tension by rediscovering the biblical idea that God is not up above but rather up ahead. In other words, everything that happens in the universe is anticipatory. The world rests on the future. And one could say that God is the one who has future in His very essence.”

For Phipps, it’s an appropriate framework for our time:

The consciousness of our age calls out for a God principle that lives not just in the wondrous beauty of nature, or the eternal stillness of the present moment, but in the unknown creative potential that exists in the mysterious space of the future.

(Photo by Luis Argerich)

The Fair Ones

by Zoe Pollock

Emily Urquhart chronicles her daughter’s albinism diagnosis:

I see lots of other kids wearing sunglasses, and we live in an age of UV-proof clothing and SPF awareness. Visually impaired or sighted, we all carry technological devices that facilitate our everyday tasks. Sadie is beautiful and smart and ridiculously funny, and most importantly she is loved. Her network starts with her two smitten parents and expands across family and friends, a team of doctors, and a beloved dog that waits with tail-thumping enthusiasm at the nursery door every morning. Her fans include the Ph.D.-wielding mamas in our baby group, her sitters, the besotted employee at our local grocery store, and our postal worker, who for a year delivers weekly packages to the little blond girl at number sixty-two.

Before Sadie came along, smug parents would tell me that you can only really know love when you have a child. I interpreted this to mean the love you feel for your child, which I now know is vast and indefinable. But I wonder if they meant it in a greater sense. It is the love we receive that astounds me. You never know how much people care about you until you fall apart a little and everyone picks you up, piece by piece, and puts you back together again.

The Faithful’s Footwear

by Zoe Pollock


Over the years, religions have sent mixed messages regarding shoes:

One tradition holds that the prophet Muhammad initially encouraged his followers to pray with shoes on, because that was in contrast with Jewish practices of the day. He was then angelically inspired to tell his followers to remove their footwear. Since then, Jews in many parts of the world have been praying with shoes on; indeed an early form of Jewish morning prayer includes special supplications to be said when donning one’s footwear: the right shoe first and then the left. But in Arab countries and further east, there is much evidence of Jewish barefootedness. In some cases, Jews were compelled to remove their shoes, at least when treading near a mosque; such rules existed in Morocco and Yemen. In Islamic theocracies, regulations governing clothing and footwear were often used to mark Christians and Jews as monotheists of a lower status.

(Photo by Edwin Lee)

Who’s Hornier?

by Zoe Pollock

Historically, it’s not been men:

[F]or most of Western history, from ancient Greece to beginning of the nineteenth century, women were assumed to be the sex-crazed porn fiends of their day. In one ancient Greek myth, Zeus and Hera argue about whether men or women enjoy sex more. They ask the prophet Tiresias, whom Hera had once transformed into a woman, to settle the debate. He answers, “if sexual pleasure were divided into ten parts, only one part would go to the man, and and nine parts to the woman.” … Montaigne, [psychologist Havelock Ellis] notes, considered women to be “incomparably more apt and more ardent in love than men are, and that in this matter they always know far more than men can teach them, for ‘it is a discipline that is born in their veins.’”

What changed? For one thing, evangelical Protestantism:

Through the gospel, Christian women were “exalted above human nature, raised to that of angels,” as the 1809 book The Female Friend, or The Duties of Christian Virgins put it. The emphasis on sexual purity in the book’s title is telling. If women were to be the new symbols of Protestant religious devotion, they would have to sacrifice the acknowledgement of their sexual desires. Though even the Puritans had believed that it was perfectly acceptable for both men and women to desire sexual pleasure within the confines of marriage, women could now admit to desiring sex in order to bond with their husbands or fulfill their “maternal urges.” As [historian Nancy Cott] put it, “Passionlessness was on the other side of the coin which paid, so to speak, for women’s admission to moral equality.”

Love On The Tracks

by Zoe Pollock

Rose Surnow profiles a novel approach to matchmaking – Erika Christensen’s subway search for suitors:

As her website explains: “The Love Conductor is the first matchmaker to go underground — targeting New York’s 1.6 billion subway riders, many of whom are the most alluring, creative and energetically sexy on earth.” You sign up online and fill out a questionnaire, then Erika will call to get your vibe and figure out what you’re looking for. She rarely meets clients in person, but once she has a clear idea of the kind of mate you’re seeking and some photos of you, she’ll hit the subway (as well as streets and bars) approaching total strangers that fit the bill.

Most matchmakers focus on hooking up rich people, charging thousands of dollars, but Erika goes as low as a measly hundred bucks. Using a sliding scale, she sets rates depending on how hard it will be to find dates for a particular client. Recently, a guy from Connecticut was eager for her services, but she only works in New York City, so she charged him $500. “I have another guy, 29, really cute, has a great job, and lives in Brooklyn. I charged him $100 for two months because I’ll be able to send him on as many dates as he wants to go on.” All participants pay up-front and there’s no set number of dates per package: She promises a certain number based on each person’s datability, then keeps working until she delivers.

The Demand For American Sperm

by Zoe Pollock

This embed is invalid

It’s increasing:

Why is US sperm so popular? It’s not about the superior fitness of American males, exactly. One reason is that the US’s immigration history means lots of ethnic diversity. For some would-be mothers from other parts of the world, this can give US product a leg up over places like Denmark, another sperm exporting powerhouse. Another is all that tracking and testing: the U.S. has some of the world’s highest standards for disease testing and donor screening. The FDA defines sperm as human tissue, and regulates it much as it does the donation of organs.

Paying anonymous donors has also helped:

Unlike many countries, the US allows men to donate anonymously and to be paid for doing so, leading to a comparatively larger donor pool; sperm donations in other countries plummeted following laws prohibiting anonymous donation or payment. After Britain ended anonymity for sperm donors in 2005, the wait for sperm could take years — in part because fewer men agreed to share their sperm with multiple women or with women they didn’t know personally. In Canada, concerns about the commercialization of human reproduction led to a ban on paying donors in 2005; by 2011 a single sperm bank with 35 active donors made up the entire national supply, according to the Toronto magazine The Grid. (In contrast, [Seattle Sperm Bank] alone has more than 140 active donors). Today, more than 90 percent of donor sperm used in Canada is imported from the US.

The Kibbutz Goes Kaput

by Zoe Pollock

Rachel Johnson recently revisited the collective she volunteered at during her youth:

The kibbutz was a third of the size it used to be, and there was no communal dining hall. Instead, everyone stayed home at night, watching TV. And the average age of the members was 80.

She reflects on the larger changes in Israeli society:

Sociologists date the beginning of the end of the kibbutz movement to as long ago as the war of 1967. The annexation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem meant the end of socialism and the start of messianic, Zionist capitalism. Now signs of the change are everywhere. For example — in one of those tiny changes that symbolises a big shift — sandals, the emblematic item of socialist footwear, almost compulsory on the kibbutz, were banned from the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in 2007. …

As I left Galilee, I realised that it would be simplistic to say that the changes in the kibbutz movement mirror the changes in politics, the economy, and the population. In Israel, things are always more complicated. But a country that was once socialist, secular, and led by men who’d all been on kibbutzim, like David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, and Ehud Barak, has turned religious, nationalist and capitalist. There is only one kibbutznik left in the Knesset, but two settler MPs are already ministers.

(Image by Flickr user epiclectic)

The Novelist Exits Stage Left

by Zoe Pollock

Even the greatest writers can fail at applying their talents to the stage, as Rodney Welch learned while reading The Tragedy of Mister Morn, “the latest piece of Nabokov miscellany to find its way into print”:

This convoluted five-act verse 1923 play about the overthrow of an imaginary kingdom is the work of an impassioned young writer who bit off more than he could chew, did not know how to make a complex story look easy, or how to develop cardboard stereotypes into three-dimensional characters. The dialogue is guaranteed to reap little more than confused stares or snorts of derision from the audience. Sometimes, it’s ridiculously expository: “The rain quivers as though in senile drowsiness” or “the moulded whimsy of a frieze on a portico keeps us from recognizing, sometimes, the symmetry of the whole.” Or just ridiculous: “…my face drifts up out of the semi-darkness to meet me, like a murky jellyfish, and the mirror is like black water…” …

On the surface, it seems like he might have succeeded in this career, as his fiction has always had a certain theatricality to it. So many of his characters are lost in plays of their own making, bent on staging their own version of reality. But telling a story in dialogue cramped his style; even in his books, it wasn’t his best means of expression. Like Proust, he was more in his element writing from a deeply interior level, usually through a single tortured consciousness, a single fractured perspective. That’s when his incredibly colorful and comic style took flight, and why he ruled the novel and short story in ways he never could the stage.

For more, check out Christopher Michel’s comprehensive review of Andrea Pitzer’s The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov.