Intelligent Design

Oliver Morton pens a touching tribute to modern science, inspired by a visit to a biotech company that mass-produces designer proteins “that recognise and help the body regulate various sorts of target, notably cancers”:

If cells could choose their environment, these pampered tanks would be top of their list. Tens of thousands of hours of meticulous engineering design, years of research by acute minds, billions of dollars in capital expenditure, all devoted to letting one biological process unfold with less hindrance than has ever been possible before. The ability to design environments that so suit their inhabitants may be second only to the ability to design those inhabitants themselves when it comes to the human revolutionising of biology.

And the relation of this fierce focus to diversity is not an either/or. These antibodies are designed for a purpose. I have friends whose cancers have responded to treatments of which these antibodies are a part. Those friends have lives as unique as all human lives, as unique as any sport of creation and far more precious. And mass-produced molecules, copied in numbers that dwarf those of the stars in the sky, have intervened in the machinery that supports that life and helped to prolong it.

Following In The Footsteps To Freedom


Photographer Jeanine Michna-Bales retraced the steps of fleeing slaves along the Underground Railroad for her project Through Darkness to Light:

Finding that there were few visual records of the secret stations along the escape route, she herself traced the steps taken by many of the 100,000 slaves between the Southern plantations of Louisiana to the border of Canada, where slavery was prohibited. Along the way, she creates an archive of historical sites both famous and obscure, discovered through academic inquiry at historical societies and oral histories passed down through generations. …

Michna-Bales shoots after dark, capturing the ambiguous nature of the shadowed land, which becomes shrouded both in terror and in hope. After examining each station during the day, she sometimes had to score the spot with a plastic bag lest she lose her way in the dark. Some safe houses had not been well documented; after reading accounts, she would work from a general area, searching and asking around for old houses. Many homeowners confirmed her hunches and led her other buildings along the railroad. Once, police showed up after her presence had been called in by neighbors, only to offer her more insight into the history of the railroad.

See more of her work here.

A Stand-Up Gal

Linda Holmes calls Cameron Esposito’s new comedy album, Same Sex Symbol, “raunchy and sharp, insightful and very funny”:

What comes through in the record throughout is a particular point of view in which people who believe lesbian pornography represents actual lesbians, or people who believe that they’re looking for threesomes, or people who otherwise fail to understand the basics of her life, are sort of amusing and clueless weirdos she can finally see clearly because, as she explains: “I am so happy with where I am in my life. Just finally, my look sorted out, you know, my gender reflected to you accurately — my gender being ‘fighter pilot.'” And even though “fighter pilot” is a punch line, there’s no punch line to the underlying idea that she is happy. That part is true. It’s not all that common for comedy to come from a place of settled satisfaction with where you’ve ended up, and from the clash between that feeling and the constant expectation of others that you are somehow unsettled by their disapproving or just ignorant gaze.

In an interview, Esposito shares how she got comfortable incorporating more of her personal life into her routines:

When I was starting I was really just figuring how to be out as a person and how to be in the world and be gay because I came from a really conservative, Catholic background. So when I first starting doing standup, part of it was because I wanted to be onstage talking about the person I am. I couldn’t do that yet, so my jokes were more surreal, they were more superficial in some ways, and now I feel like, through standup, I’ve figured out how to talk about myself in a way that makes me more comfortable.

And now I’m just totally chill and it’s a lot easier, and sometimes people are like “Do you always talk about your sexuality onstage?” And I’m like, “No, I just always talk about myself the same way that any comic does.” So the natural evolution of that is that I’m just trying to get closer and closer to what I really am. That’s what people are interested in. The more specific you can be, the more universal it is. If you speak in broad strokes you miss everybody but if you’re like “Are you ever terrified of this thing?” even if they’re not terrified of that thing they still know terror. That’s what makes us people.

Leaving The Family Faith Behind

Laura Cok, whose mother is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church of America, describes how her own atheism is now a family taboo:

[O]f course she has not asked [if I am an atheist], because she does not want to know. Every week she prays, researches her commentaries, procrastinates on writing her sermon, colour codes it and prints it out in increasingly large font. She visits elderly women and eats their cookies and counsels young couples who want to get married. She baptizes babies and takes terrified women to shelters and sits in family court and sees the best and the worst of people, every day. Her whole life has been bringing her to this; it is all she wanted, and faith is all she wanted for me. When I rejected it, I rejected everything: her dreams for my life, all the hope and the grace that she sees.

When she was young, she wanted more than anything to be a minister in a world that would not let her in. And all I have wanted is to be let out. I no longer worry about going to hell, but the same is not true for everyone in this world that I hold dear. To them, I am a lost soul. They may pray for me but it will never help, and I cannot grant them the comfort of an afterlife. My grandparents, my cousins, my best friends: they all believe that I am damned. That is a terrible burden to lay at their feet. And so for so long I have pretended, and not spoken of this, and let my grandfather die believing that my soul was safe. But it goes on for so long, and I am a tired and faithless child, and they will have to let me go.

Going On About Gone Girl

Christopher Orr sets up the story of David Fincher’s new movie, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel:

Like the book, the film tells its story, for a while at least, in the form of two interwoven strands of he-said/she-said: the narrative DNA of an unraveling marriage. We watch as Nick [Dunne (played by Ben Affleck)], on the morning of the couple’s fifth anniversary, goes to the bar he co-manages with his sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), for a far-too-early whiskey. When he returns to his home—a lifeless McMansion in depressed North Carthage, Missouri—his wife [Amy (Rosamund Pike)] is missing, and there are signs of a struggle. He calls the police, and two detectives (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) arrive to conduct an investigation that leads, inevitably, to Nick himself. Does he seem insufficiently concerned about Amy’s disappearance? How can he be so clueless regarding her daily life? Why doesn’t he even know her blood type? And what’s with that shit-eating grin he seems incapable of suppressing?

The film has some critics applauding:

Some people said that this was a film that only Mr Fincher, the director of “Seven” and “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo”, could have done well. They were right. Mr Fincher has managed to pace this perfectly, showcasing snippets of scenes before ruthlessly cutting away and moving on to the next.

“Gone Girl” isn’t Mr Fincher’s best film. It suffers from too many of the same flaws as the novel: a tendency towards absurdity that undermines its granular observations about the reality of domestic life. And yet this could be Mr Fincher’s most exemplary film. He is known for his cold, clever precision, and “Gone Girl” is ever so cold, ever so precise. It is drowning in muted colours and a sense of inevitability. Like Ms Flynn’s novel, its cleverness lies in the fact that it is so raw and yet so empty at the same time. This may not be the perfect film—but it is a perfect adaptation.

In a review that merits a mild spoiler alert, Kevin Fallon goes wild over Affleck’s performance:

[W]hen Gone Girl’s famous mid-point twist arrives, Affleck’s performance zings with sudden energy as Nick transforms from douchebag to Erin Brockovich, diving into the case of Amy’s disappearance (of sorts) himself. Critics often describe the kind of barreling, madcap work Affleck does in the second and third acts of the film as a “wild ride,” and, truly, the one Affleck goes on could not be more entertaining to watch. By the time he lands the line reading of the year—“you fucking bitch”—at the film’s climax, you’re a fool not to erupt in applause: As it turns out, Ben Affleck, star of Gigli and survivor of Bennifer, is a fantastic actor.

Andrew O’Hehir finds Affleck’s “bland characterization … a weak spot,” but heaps praise on Pike’s acting:

Pike may well get an Oscar nomination for this performance, and I daresay she deserves it, but not because Amy resembles a human being. She resembles about six of them, as if Amy were a female archetype splintered into overlapping and competing personalities by the pressure of trying to live up to her beauty, her blondness, her wealth and her “love affair” with the “perfect guy.”

An unimpressed Ryan Gilbey, however, suggests that Fincher – who used to direct commercials and music videos – here “is falling back on his skills as an adman.” Meanwhile, David Thomson sneers that the film “is not just a stepping stone in Fincher’s absorption in misanthropy, but a willful plunging off its cliff”:

Fincher is fifty-two, and one longs to see him reaching out for more than cruelty. Yet, somehow character and intelligence have not emerged. You may know a film is Fincher from the snap of his film-making and its remorseless, depressive view of human situations, but there is no sense of these criminal melodramas amounting to a portrait of the world as a whole. Gone Girl promises to be an unnerving portrait of marriage as ruin, but then it opts for madness and implausibility. Can he find himself and keep working within the mainstream? I’m not sure, and I remain uncertain as to whether he is simply a glittering craftsman in compelling but sometimes self-satisfied pessimism.

Matt Zoller Seitz agrees that “the director is a misanthrope, no question,” but maintains that “misanthropes can be entertaining”:

The most intriguing thing about “Gone Girl” is how droll it is. For long stretches, Fincher’s gliding widescreen camerawork, immaculate compositions and sickly, desaturated colors fuse with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s creepy-optimistic synthesized score to create a perverse big-screen version of one of those TV comedies built around a pathetically unobservant lump of a husband and his hypercontrolling, slightly shrewish wife. For most of its running time, “Gone Girl” is “Everybody Loves Accused Wife-Murderer Raymond,” sprinkled with colorful-verging-on-wacky supporting players (including Tyler Perry as a Johnnie Cochran-like defense attorney and Neil Patrick Harris as a former flame of Amy’s who’s still obsessed with her). Then it takes a right turn, and a left turn, and flips upside down.

Dana Stevens questions how the film handles gender roles:

There’s no way to wade into the stickier wickets of Fincher and Flynn’s gender politics without giving away large chunks of the mystery plot. But there are moments, several of them, in which Nick’s unsavory feelings about his complicated missing wife and about women in general—feelings that might be charitably summed up as “bitches be crazy”—seem indistinguishable from the filmmaker’s own vision of Amy as a black hole of ineffable female needs, moods, and desires. Does this make Gone Girl a sexist movie? A movie about sexism that isn’t fully in control of its tone? Or some unholy hybrid of the two?

David Edelstein also wonders about how the film represents women:

I can’t leave Gone Girl without going back to its depiction of women, though here I risk the dreaded “spoiler.” (Stop reading if you wish.) The timing for a film that ­features instances of trumped-up sexual assaults could hardly be worse, and while it’s nowhere near as extreme as Fatal Attraction—which discredited feminist shibboleths by putting them in the mouth of a psychopath—the movie, like the novel, plays to the stereotype of weak men entrapped by pretend-­helpless women. The Spider Woman is, of course, a noir archetype, and I’m not prepared to renounce my affection for ­Double Indemnity and its ilk. But I can’t say those movies don’t have real-world ­consequences, and coming in the middle of mounting outrage over the pervasiveness of sexual abuse, I’d hate to see the likes of Rush Limbaugh buoyed by the film’s bloodcurdling specimen of a predatory slut. For the rest of us, it’s preferable to view Gone Girl as a profoundly cynical portrait of all sides of all relationships: First you’re blind to the truth of other people, then you see and wish you could go back to being blind. See it with your sweetie!

Alissa Wilkinson insists “this is not a movie about modern marriage at all”:

[I]t is about surfaces and images that we project to one another, but it’s a farce, a movie that takes our silliest ideas about what constitutes a marriage and slams them against the wall repeatedly till they go insane. There’s a lot that’s wrong with a lot of marriages, and plenty to criticize about how we approach marriage. But seriously: this movie does not take place in our universe, or at least, it stops being our universe when they walk through the door of their house. It is, if anything, about one truly messed-up marriage that is so messed up not because of ordinary human flaws, but something like psychosis, maybe.

And Anthony Lane has a similar take:

“Gone Girl” is meant to inspire debates about whether Amy is victimized or vengeful, and whether Nick deserves everything he gets, but, really, who cares? All I could think of was the verdict of Samuel Butler on Thomas Carlyle: “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.” Or, in the words of Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), Nick’s unflappable attorney: “You two are the most fucked-up people I have ever met, and I specialize in fucked-up people.”

The Dissident We Didn’t Understand


Reviewing Daniel J. Mahoney’s The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker, Lee Congdon appreciates the effort to push back against the famed Soviet dissident’s most vehement Western detractors – but isn’t quite convinced when Mahoney “insists that Solzhenitsyn was a proponent of democracy”:

[Solzhenitsyn] was skeptical of democracy at the higher reaches of power. One need not, he recognized, hold a degree in political science in order to arrive at informed judgments about local matters, but only those qualified by education and experience were competent to guide policy, domestic and foreign, at the national level. It is true, as Mahoney points out, that Solzhenitsyn was more or less resigned to some form of democratic order in post-communist Russia, but like Tocqueville he was far from welcoming it. In Rebuilding Russia, written a year before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn observed that “Tocqueville viewed the concepts of democracy and liberty as polar opposites. He was an ardent proponent of liberty but not at all of democracy.”

One of the reasons for Mahoney’s insistence upon his subject’s commitment to democracy is his fear that the Russian might be classed as an authoritarian. In his Letter to the Soviet Leaders, Solzhenitsyn had, after all, written that “it is not authoritarianism itself that is intolerable, but the ideological lies that are daily foisted upon us.” Mahoney insists, however, that “Solzhenitsyn nowhere endorsed authoritarianism as choice-worthy in itself.”

Praising Mahoney’s book, Carl Scott advises those unfamiliar with Solzhenitsyn’s work where to start:

Had I to start over again, I’m not sure the order I’d go in, but certainly the GULAG Archipelago first, in the abridged edition, perhaps some of the key essays and speeches next, available in the Solzhenitysn Reader, edited by Ericson and Mahoney, and then onto either In the First Circle, or the first two first “knots” of the super-novel The Red Wheel, namely, the just reissued–in the superior/complete Willetts translations–August 1914 and November 1916.  The third of these is one of my very favorite novels, despite the criticism it gets for providing too much history and political commentary alongside its main sections.  For In the First Circle and August 1914, make sure you get the newer versions.  And somewhere in there, you need to delve into a number of the short stories and poems.

For more, you can listen to an absorbing podcast Mahoney did about the book here.

(Image: Solzhenitsyn in Cologne, West Germany, in 1974, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Sorrow Casts Its Shadow, And Joy Lives Under It”

Marilynne Robinson’s much-anticipated Lila returns to the small town in Iowa where two previous novels, Gilead and Home, were set – but this time, she focuses on the woman who drifted into the life of the much older Rev. John Ames and gave him an unexpected son. Reviewing the book, Leslie Jamison marvels at the story Robinson tells, which grapples with “what makes grace necessary at all—shame and its afterlife, loss and its residue, the limits and betrayals of intimacy”:

The novel weaves together two narrative threads: the present arc of courtship, marriage, and Lilapregnancy; and the entire past life that delivered Lila to Ames’s church in the first place. Ames, marked by early grief after his first wife and their baby died in childbirth decades earlier, is no stranger to loss himself. “I had learned not to set my heart on anything,” he tells Lila, and she is drawn to this. “He looked as if he’d had his share of loneliness, and that was all right. It was one thing she understood about him.” When you’re scalded, touch hurts: one of the scalded recognizes another, and touches carefully, always. They are both haunted—Lila by the ghost of Doll, the wild woman who cared for her, and Ames by the specter of the life he never got to live with his first family. Part of the beauty of their bond is a mutual willingness to honor the integrity of their former lives. He prays for the “damned” souls of her past, and she begins to tend the grave of his late wife, clearing weeds and pruning the roses.

Lila takes as its core concern what might have constituted, in another narrative, a happy ending: two lonely souls who never expected happiness somehow finding it. But Robinson’s quest is to illuminate how fraught this happiness is, shadowed by fears of its dissolution and the perverse urge to hasten that dissolution before it arrives unbidden.

Jamison adds these thoughts about the grace suffusing Robinson’s writing:

Sorrow casts its shadow, and joy lives under it, surviving in its shade. This bleed between joy and sorrow doesn’t mean happiness is impossible, or inevitably contaminated; instead it reveals a more capacious vision of happiness than we might have imagined—not grace will never deliver you from this mess, but grace is this mess. Or at least, grace is in the mess with you.

Robinson’s grace is all the things we don’t have names for: the immortal souls we may or may not have, a doll with rag limbs loved to tatters. It’s sweet wild berries eaten in a field after a man baptizes the woman he will someday marry. Grace is money for a boy who may have killed his father; it’s one wife restoring the roses on the grave of another. Grace here isn’t a refutation of loss but a way of granting sorrow and joy their respective deeds of title. It offers itself to the doomed and the blessed among us, which is to say all of us. “Pity us, yes, but we are brave,” Lila realizes, “and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us.”

If you can’t wait a few weeks until the novel’s publication date, read an excerpt from it here.

Take It As Unread

Mallory Ortberg kicks offToast thread by coming clean about the books and TV shows she’s only pretended to know:

I will get the ball rolling: I have never seen The Wire. I have seen the pilot for Friday Night Lights three times and the pilot for The West Wing four; I have never seen any other episode for either show. I have never gotten more than three chapters into Lucky Jim because it wasn’t funny and also I hated it. At least two separate friends have lent me their cherished copies of Mary McCarthy’s The Group and I have returned their copies to both of them unopened. I have never read Octavia Butler and I’ve gone for so long without admitting it, I don’t know how I’ll get on after confessing. …

I have read two Chelsea Handler autobiographies. This is not germane to the topic, but I felt the need to confess. I read the first half and the last chapter of The Brothers Karamazov but skipped most of the important stuff. I do not know if I have ever read Camille Paglia. I have a vague idea of who she is — in my mind she is a little bit connected with Fran Leibowitz? — and I know a lot of my friends get mad about her. That’s pretty much it.

I have never read Infinite Jest. I have done my best to give the impression that I have in conversation without ever actually making outright claims, but I have not read even a single word of David Foster Wallace’s fiction. I have never read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, and I do not believe that I ever shall.

The Limits Of Charity

Eric Frith finds fault with Pope Francis for not going far enough in his critiques of capitalism, arguing that his calls for generosity and deep sympathy for the poor don’t address the structural problems at work:

By invoking John Paul II’s formulation of the “option for the poor” as a call to Catholic charity, Francis obscures what should be plain. He denounces the neoliberal mythology of the autonomous and self-regulating market and the market-based commoditization of human life. But his refusal to take on the state, his insistence that charity is the only remedy for the excesses and materialism of capitalism, is in effect an acquiescence to neoliberal logic.

This does not just reflect a paucity of social theory. One does not need Marxist economics to see that encouraging the free flow of commodities while criminalizing the flow of labor will trap the poor between a rock and a hard place. One does not need to stake out a theological position on the efficient markets hypothesis to see that arming police like soldiers will lead to collateral damage. Francis prays for politicians who will take inequality seriously, but never makes reference to liberation theology’s cornerstone scriptural story: the Exodus, when with God’s help the Hebrews freed themselves from slavery.

“Charity,” St. Augustine wrote, “is no substitute for justice withheld.” If the Vatican truly wishes to engage with liberation theology, rather than eulogize it in its sunset moments, Pope Francis will have to address the power behind the markets—the police, the military, and the whole military-carceral state—as [Oscar] Romero, [Miguel] D’Escoto, and indigenous communities in Chiapas did.

Creating Art, One Single Cell At A Time

Klaus Kemp, featured in the above short documentary, The Diatomist, carries on a Victorian tradition that marries art and science to beautiful effect:

Few did obsessive nature handicrafts like the Victorians, whether it was seaweed scrapbooking or shell arranging, something of the salon repression boiling over into insanely labored DIY arts. One of the fascinations was with the newly accessible microscopes, which showed previously invisible specimens such as the single cell algae diatoms, of which there are hundreds of different types in the world. With a single hair, practitioners would scoot the diatoms, encircled by iridescent glass-like silica cell walls, into kaleidoscope patterns only viewable beneath a lens. …

In the short documentary The Diatomist … [filmmaker Matthew] Killip visits Kemp at the work he’s perfected over years of research, showing some of the gorgeous miniature art, as well as expeditions to the water the diatoms call home. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a horse trough, or a ditch, gutters, you name it, where there is water it’s worth having a look,” Kemp says in the film.

Chris Higgins spoke to Kemp about his work:

“As a youngster of 16 I had a great passion for natural history and came across a collection of sample tubes of diatoms from the Victorian era,” Klaus told “I was immediately struck by the beauty and symmetry of diatoms. The symmetry and sculpturing on an organism that one cannot see with the naked eye astonished me, and after 60 years of following this passion I can still get excited from the next sample I receive or collect.”

Klaus is inspired by the original diatomists from the Victorian era whose works are well sought-after by collectors. Names such as Johann Diedrich Möller and R. I. Firth have inspired him so much that Klaus is planning to recreate some of their original exhibition slides himself. Finding those initial tubes while working for a Manchester biological supply company was just the first step of Klaus’ adventure in microscopy. He has since collected thousands of samples from many different sites, with each location having its own specific type or structure of diatom.