From plaster to plastic


October 20, 2016 by AK

Himadri, the Argumentative Old Git, is unsurprisingly critical of BBC presenter Jenni Murray’s proposal that children be taught about pornography to inoculate them against its harmful effects. Somewhere along the way, Dame Jenni suggests that porn could be analyzed like, say, Jane Austin’s novels. That’s not exactly one of my research interests, but I can’t help sharing this:

She notes, quite rightly, that pornography is now all-pervasive in our society, and that we cannot get rid of it. Under the circumstances, she argues, it is better that children were to be educated on the matter, “so that at least those girls know and all those boys know that not all women are shaved, that not all women make that bloody noise”, and so on. In other words, to teach the children that what they see in pornographic films is but a fantasy.

Commenter witwoud remarks:

She’s right about the hair, though. I worry that today’s boys will be as shocked as Ruskin on his wedding night when they encounter the real thing.

My thoughts exactly, I must confess. Whether the story of John Ruskin’s failure to perform is true or anecdotic, the similarity is unavoidable and thoroughly amusing. We have come the full circle. We are all Victorians now.

Rogues in the quag


October 19, 2016 by AK

Whether or not Moscow has the missing State Department emails and will use them to make good friends with President Clinton, I am starting to suspect that Trump is simply too revolutionary for the Kremlin. The notion that the ruling elites are rotten and the media are the regime’s attack puppets is a little too close to home for comfort.

For people on the outskirts, there’s also no escape from the insidious feeling that America remains the center of the world, no matter what. Its wild presidential race only reinforces the above-average Muscovite’s impression that life is happening elsewhere while Russia is no longer a seething periphery but merely a dammed-off backwater. Its resident frogs are cherishing every chance to go public with their names  – but end up with mostly bogus admirers.

Big banks or intracranial voices?


October 18, 2016 by AK

David Dayen in The New Republic:

Michael Froman, who is now U.S. trade representative but at the time was an executive at Citigroup, wrote an email to Podesta on October 6, 2008, with the subject “Lists.” Froman used a Citigroup email address. He attached… a sample outline of 31 cabinet-level positions and who would fill them…

This was October 6. The election was November 4. And yet Froman, an executive at Citigroup, which would ultimately become the recipient of the largest bailout from the federal government during the financial crisis, had mapped out virtually the entire Obama cabinet, a month before votes were counted.

When your children ask what a conflict of interest means, it helps to have examples like this at hand. It’s also a timely reminder of who’s calling the shots. But at least you can point your finger and blame Citibank, Goldman Sachs et al. Your opponents may be able to counter that the bailout was necessary for the US economy to function and that the amount of funds pumped into each bank is a minor detail relative to the macro impact of the relief program.

Can you discuss Russian politics in similar terms? Russian banks, oil companies, retailers, developers and food producers have significant lobbying power but they don’t get to decide either on issues like Crimea and Syria nor on the makeup of the presidential administration and senior cabinet posts. Who gets to decide? Whose interests do they have in mind? What’s their thinking process? Which would you trust better, Citibank or a black box?

Does meldonium work?


October 18, 2016 by AK

In the swimming pool the other day, I overheard a man – aging but pretty fit – tell a young female instructor, “I popped down some meldonium,” presumably before going to the gym, “two times 250.” Two 250-milligram pills, then.

You can buy meldonium, or mildronate, over the counter in Russian drugstores (so they say). It’s supposed to help blood supply to the heart, but does it really work? It seems that neither the USSR, nor Russia, nor Latvia have obtained positive test results that would be recognized as valid by the US FDA. What if it’s a placebo? Or shall we take WADA’s ban as evidence that it works?

Rereading Les Particules élémentaires


October 17, 2016 by AK

One of the two protagonists in Atomized by Michel Houellebecq reminisces:

Oh, maybe I felt a little sad—but in a very general sort of way. “God Himself cannot undo that which has been done,” as some Catholic writer said somewhere.

Lev Shestov spent half his life telling whoever would listen it isn’t so: if God be God, He will be able to do anything, even if it’s against the laws of logic He Himself created. For He is the Lord of logic no less than of all else.

…if it is not God who is the source of truth and of possibilities and impossibilities conditioned by it; if truth stands above God as above man, equally indifferent to God and man, then God is as defenseless as mortals. His love and mercy are helpless and impotent.

(From Kierkegaard and Existential Philosophy.)

A robust effort to figure out what’s going on


October 16, 2016 by AK

The Wall Street Journal reported on October 7:

The organization WikiLeaks on Friday [Oct. 7] released what it claimed to be Clinton campaign email correspondence revealing excerpts from paid speeches that Hillary Clinton gave in recent years, before her presidential bid.

As I understand, it was a collection of “flags” from HRC’s paid-for speeches before select audiences, compiled by a company working for her campaign. They cover the period after her resignation in February 2013 until March 2015.

It seems to me that Clinton’s position on Russia was pretty conciliatory and generally sensible in 2013, exemplified by this quote:

…we would very much like to have a positive relationship with Russia and we would like to see Putin be less defensive toward a relationship with the United States so that we could work together on some issues.

This was probably no longer possible after the events of 2014 in Ukraine, but nothing in HRC’s pre-Crimea views seems to suggest that she would embark on some insane military adventure against Russia.

On Russian advice to Assad, she said this in June 2013:

The Russian’s view of this is very different. I mean, who conceives Syria as the same way he sees Chechnya? You know, you have to support toughness and absolute merciless reactions in order to drive the opposition down to be strangled, and you can’t give an inch to them and you have to be willing to do what Assad basically has been willing to do.

This sounds plausible, and so does her assessment of the situation in Syria in 2013. She even admitted that the Saudis had been sending arms into Syria and that the Saudi regime was not one of the “stablest” in the world. At that time, HRC did not favor large-scale military intervention. Covert action was possible, she said in October 2013:

Some of us thought, perhaps, we could, with a more robust, covert action trying to vet, identify, train and arm cadres of rebels that would at least have the firepower to be able to protect themselves against both Assad and the Al-Qaeda related jihadist groups that have, unfortunately, been attracted to Syria.

I’m not sure if that has been tried. These bits from June and October 2013 suggest no, not really:

…my view was we should try to find some of the groups that were there that we thought we could build relationships with and develop some covert connections that might then at least give us some insight into what is going on inside Syria.

…I was among the President’s advisors who favored a more robust, covert effort to try to figure out who, if anybody, we could know more about and possibly partner with, but for all kinds of reasons that didn’t come to pass.

That didn’t work out in 2013, but the question been answered since?

Echoes of Chamisso


October 15, 2016 by AK

Two poems by D. H. Lawrence, Bitterness of Death (1916) and A Woman and Her Dead Husband (1917), begin the same, except for a comma:

Ah, stern, cold man,
How can you lie so relentless hard
While I wash you with weeping water!

I’m probably not the first to make this connection, and I could be imagining it, but these lines struck me as a paraphrase of Chamisso’s:

Du schläfst, du harter, unbarmherz’ger Mann,
Den Todesschlaf.

“You are sleeping, you harsh, merciless man, the sleep of death.” This is the eighth poem of the Frauen-Liebe and Leben cycle. Composed in 1830, the nine-poem cycle was set to music by Schumann in 1840. The composer omitted the ending poem, so the one I’ve quoted closes the circle. It begins with

Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz gethan,
Der aber traf.
Du schläfst, du harter, unbarmherz’ger Mann,
Den Todesschlaf.

“Now you have given me the first sorrow – but how it hurts.” According to Chamisso’s diary, these are almost literally the words of a young widow upon her husband’s death. The two lines addressed to the sleeping hard-hearted man follow immediately after “it hurts.”

Some interpreters claim that Schumann’s song is about the husband’s unfaithfulness and his death is metaphorical, but they just can’t deal with the anguish.

It’s poetry all right


October 15, 2016 by AK

Consider the following statements.

  1. Thelonious Monk was a musician.
  2. Bob Dylan is a musician.

Technically, (2) as true as (1) as long as a person who makes a living singing songs and playing a musical instrument is a musician. On the other hand, there’s something ridiculous about (2) placed next to (1).

Consider, then, these two claims:

  1. Wallace Stevens wrote poetry.
  2. Bob Dylan wrote poetry.

At first glance, the juxtaposition is also ridiculous, but if one thinks of Dylan’s poetic texts as lyrics, bearing in mind they are supposed to be sung, they deserve a second glance, at least. They qualify as literature, regardless of whether they are worthy of a Nobel.

This said, Gary Shteyngart’s wisecrack was great:

I totally get the Nobel committee. Reading books is hard.

And then a third example comes to mind:

  1. Shapeless verse read by a handful of critics and academic is poetry.
  2. Bob Dylan’s lyrics is poetry.

If Dylan, then Morrissey


October 13, 2016 by AK

Some people are asking, “Why not Philip Roth? Why not Leonard Cohen?”

Well, for some reason Stockholm doesn’t like Roth. It’s almost as if they had agreed to strike him off the list for good.

Cohen is Canadian. Alice Munro used up the quota in 2013. Two Canadians within five years and not a single American in twenty-four would have been too much. Also, great as Cohen is, he’s less of an era by himself than Bob Dylan.

There are sillier questions, like “why not Paul McCartney?” I guess that’s because Sir Paul is mostly a tunesmith. If there is a British lyricist deserving the prize, that must be Morrissey.

There’s more to life than books, you know.
But not much more,
not much more.

All greats in one bar


October 13, 2016 by AK

The good news today is the Nobel prize in literature going to Bob Dylan

for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.

Yes – a great tradition, and an author whose work is well known and much loved.

Malcolm Bull, an Oxonian at Princeton, is suspicious of greatness, German or American or Eurasian. That’s OK, but in the course of objecting, he says this:

The spectre of a Heideggerian Trump has already been raised by the endorsement Trump received from Alexander Dugin, the Russian occultist and political theorist sometimes referred to as ‘Putin’s Rasputin’.

Mentioning Heidegger, Dugin and Trump in one sentence makes for comical effect, like a joke beginning, “Heidegger, Trump and Dugin walk into a bar.” The hackneyed (Ras)putin pun serves to confuse readers, not to help them understand Dugin’s place in the Russian political serpentarium. In all likelihood, Dugin is a successful self-promoter who has managed to convince some people that he has special access to Putin and wields some influence in the Kremlin.

On the other hand, there is demand for “spirituality” among Russia’s ruling elites, which makes people like Dugin potentially dangerous. Bull’s sentence about a Heideggerian Trump endorsed by Dugin is no less hilarious for that.


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