Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages by Robert Fussier

Here I am, at the end of my road. Academic custom demands a “conclusion” at the end of my journey, but, to tell the truth, I do not know what to “conclude”. I have tried to follow very ordinary people in their lives and daily cares, their material concerns in particular. Although I have attempted to penetrate into the domains of the mind and soul, I have felt myself less at ease there, perhaps for lack of metaphysical sensitivity. I have taken my ordinary people for a millennium, and then I have left them, but they were there before, and they remain there after. What can be said, then, about this small nub of time in this small stretch of land, in the ocean of the human adventure? Nothing that is not known, nothing that is not banal.

My narration arose out of two preoccupations to which I hold strongly and that have cropped up here and there, perhaps expressed too personally. First, I do not believe in the superiority of our species, wherever it comes from, and in spite of its egoistic and dominating comportment. I cannot but grieve at its total inability to master nature, which it treats with imprudent scorn, and I cannot get used to its perfect ignorance of the animal world. It is thus a simple living being, called “man”, that I have sought and pursued, I fear, without spiritual depth, from when he was a baby shaking a rattle to the moment of his death.

In the interest of keeping to what is essential. I have attempted to shake up the mass of stereotypes and a priori statements of those who take pleasure in praising medieval times and those others who read them or listen to them: No! The “Middles Ages” is not the university, the Cistercians, the Teutonic Hanseatic League, or the statutes of the Arte della lana, any more than it is the Summa of Thomas Aquinas or the cathedral of Amiens. I am tired of hearing only about knights, feudalism, Gregorian reform, or seigneurial bans under the pretext that nothing is known about other people. These 'others' are nine-tenths of the humanity of those times. Can we not try to perceive them? I have tried to do this.

It is useless to accuse me of mixing up centuries, of being content with simplistic generalizations, of eliminating nuances of time and space, of using deceptive words and impure sources. I know all this and assume responsibility for it. At least this explains why everything that is indisputably in motion – the political, the economic, and the social scale – has been systematically thrust aside as mere vicissitudes in the history of men.

The human being whom I have followed during this thousand-year period, is he the same as us? Does my analysis lead me to the conclusion that only nuances separate us from medieval men and women? In spite of the convictions brandished by almost all medieval historians, I am persuaded that medieval man is us. Many objections could be raised. The economy is not the same, thanks to capitalism and competition in particular; in those far -off times social hierarchy was based on secondary criteria (learning, common service public or private); the spiritual climate is not the same since the disappearance of the “Christian” vision of the world; daily life itself has been turned upside down by new conceptions of time, space and speed. All this is indisputable but superficial. It is a view taken from on high, as medieval historians are so often wont to do. An attentive reading of any daily newspaper will make it abundantly clear what is essential.

As in the long-gone times of which I speak, life does not lie in the performance of the Stock Exchange, or in the political gesticulations, or in coiffure fashions; what the newspapers are really talking about is professional concerns and money, problems of board and lodging, of violence, love, sports and leisure activities, or else they offer consoling discourses. The ignorant chatterboxes who reign over our sources of information may indeed call a particular decision or event “medieval”, but they fail to see that we are still living “in the Middle Ages”.

Monday, November 22, 2010

As I Walked Out One Evening by W. H. Auden

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
'Love has no ending.

'I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

'I'll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

'The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.'

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
'O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

'In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

'In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

'Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver's brilliant bow.

'O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.

'The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

'Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

'O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

'O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.'

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Twilight Years by Richard Overy

For some years now there has existed a popular belief that the Western world faces a profound crisis. Whether the doom-mongers predict terminal decline or just radical transformation, they have helped to generate a language of anxiety and sentiments of uncertainty. The very titles betray morbid fears: Suicide of the West, The End of Order, Dark Age Ahead and perhaps the best known of all, Patrick Buchanan's The Death of The West (2006).

The fact that the Western world has never been richer, more secure or more heavily armed in its history is taken not as a sign that 'decline' is at best a misuse of the term, at worst a historical absurdity in the early years of the twenty-first century, but as evidence of a disconcerting vulnerability in the face of malign forces, both of nature and of man, for which the West actually bears a good deal of the responsibility.

How often in the last few years has the the 'defense of our way of life' or 'the defense of democracy' been mobilized as an argument, as if it were really endangered from within or without. This sense of crisis has been shaped and enlarged by the concepts, metaphors and language exploited to describe it, and not because of the intrinsic nature of the historical reality the West confronts. What is said develops a reality of its own.

The theme of this book deals with an earlier age in which a strong presentiment of impending disaster also touched many areas of public discourse. The subject-matter is the idea of 'civilization in crisis' in Britain in the years between the two world wars (1919-1940), a period famous for its population of Cassandras and Jeremiahs who helped construct the popular image of the inter-war years as an age of anxiety, doubt or fear.

It is true that the inter-war years differed from the current malaise in the sense that many of the issues confronted by the West were neither phantoms nor extrapolated fantasies but the fruit of real historical dramas. Yet here too the idea of Western civilization in peril, repeated as endlessly as 'our way of life' is today, was persistent and widespread even during periods of relative stability or in the face of evidence to the contrary...they flourished long before the economic slump and the shadow of Hitler gave them more plausible substance.

In the inter-war years fear of decline or collapse was elaborated in Britain in ways that often defied historical reality. The arguments used to explain crisis appear with the passage of time fanciful or exotic or plain wrong – though it is interesting to be reminded that these fears date back only the span of a single lifetime- but they must be understood in their context.

No generation has a monopoly of certainty, ours no more than our parents. The thesis of civilization in danger won a broad popular audience in an inter-war Britain receptive to anxiety as one of the defining features of contemporary culture, cohabiting uneasily with the glittering promise of mass consumption and a narcotic hedonism, which for the lucky minority was real enough...

The constant theme of civilization in crisis, if repeated often enough and in different contexts, develops an explanatory power that does not have to take account of any existing disjuncture between historical reality and the language of threat. British society did not enter the last stages of the end of civilization in the 1920s and 1930s but the constant repetition of the language and cultural tropes of crisis made it seem as if that possibility were real.

These fears were underpinned by historical theories of cyclical change and uncertainties about the biological survival of the race or of a sound economic system or of a political order free of extremes , and above all by the idea that war was an endemic feature of all human evolution. Many of the fears of a future dystopia, of the disastrous consequences if the democratic utopianism of pacifism or race improvement or world government or planned economies should fail, were just as irrational in their turn as the utopian dreams promoted by European dictatorships Britain confronted.

Democracies are no more immune from the distortions of reality or from the dangerous power of popular fear that provokes it, either then or now.

Monday, November 15, 2010

'The Death of Capitalism' by Richard Overy

In Britain before 1914 there was great confidence placed in the self-regulating character of all markets, large and small. The classical view that the principle of laissez faire would, on balance, always tend to the wider benefit of any community was made possible because of the special conditions that shaped the emergence of developed commercial and industrial states in Europe and the special place played by the British economy in stabilizing the international trading and financial markets around the popular rallying cry of Free Trade. Popular approval of laissez faire was the fruit of decades of economic and political practice from the mid-nineteenth century when it came to symbolize the emergence of not only modern consumerism but also of a progressive civil society.

After 1919, following the wartime experience of large-scale state mobilization of resources and destruction , Britain's economy arrived 'in the Doldrums', becalmed and stagnant, unable to sail back to the old-fashioned capitalism, but unable to move forward to a healthier economic climate. The Great War and its immediate aftermath produced in many people a consciousness, as Arnold Toynbee described it in a 1931 broadcast, 'of being swept along on a stream of dizzily rapid change, whose current was carrying us over a precipice that was going to be the greatest fall of man there ever had been – a very Niagara...a crash of Modern Civilization that will lick creation!' It was an historical moment of unstable transition, morbid apocalyptic contemplation and large-scale social anxiety.

Although politicians and businessmen maintained a strong pre-war aversion to challenging traditional market principles in a direct way, it became increasingly clear that in the face of 'the anarchy of individualist capitalism' and its 'modern' consequences that the state was now required to play a larger role in order to maintain stability or to encourage growth. The idea of the free market as the measure of economic health survived fitfully into the 1920s but there was a growing popular expectation that new economic mechanisms were necessary and widespread public interest in the arguments that arose from them.

For anyone on the left in British politics in the two decades after the end of the Great War the crisis of civilization was handcuffed to the long-expected death of the capitalist system. The obituaries were, as it turned out, written in indecent haste but at the time a great deal of British opinion, across the class divides, believed on the basis of the evidence all around them that capitalism's days were numbered.

In 1922 Beatrice and Sidney Webb, doyens of the intellectual left, wrote a short book on the spectacular rise and eventual collapse of British capitalism. The provisional title was to be “The Reign of Capitalism”, which may have been meant to convey the idea that here was a system ripe for abdication, but its evident ambiguity persuaded Sidney Webb a few weeks before publication to alter it to 'The Decay of Capitalist Civilization', which conveyed its central message directly.

The Webbs invited their fellow Fabian and playwright George Bernard Shaw to go over the introduction to make it a livelier read. In a choleric postcard to Beatrice, he protested that the book hardly needed a prologue and told Beatrice bluntly that what they had written for him to correct read like the words of 'a rather bored chairman opening a meeting', and the title the 'd-dest nonsense' of 'Gibbonesque pondorosity'. Never-the-less, he obliged Beatrice by removing some of the platitudes and padding of their original version, and injected into the introduction a more arresting sense of the terminal crisis faced by the modern age. He sensibly cut out 'we must at least admit the possibility, and even, as some might say, the practical certainty' and replaced it with the categorical assertion that capitalist civilization 'is dissolving before our eyes'. The Webb's conclusion, which by any standard was limp and verbose, he deleted in full, replacing it with a second prediction that capitalism, which had 'begun to decay before it reached maturity', would be viewed by historians of the future as little more than an episode, 'a Dark Age' between two greater historical epochs. This conclusion clearly did not satisfy the Webbs and they added a further three pages, burdened again with the temporizing clauses and dull phrasing that Shaw had removed from the remainder.

The central thesis of The Decay was a sustained indictment not only of the irrational character of a system based on naked profit-seeking, which pushed the worker into penury or unemployment and left the capitalist forced to seek other outlets for goods in imperial adventures or war, but above all of the moral bankruptcy of capitalism. It was this, the Webbs believed, that constituted Marx's most important contribution to the debate on the nature of capitalism. His economics ( full of 'pretentious blunders') had done little to serve the socialist cause; but Marx 'called the moral bluff of capitalism' and it was this ethical enlightenment, argued the Webbs, that capitalism could never extinguish.

In the eyes of the Webbs, the danger that the moral crisis of capitalism provoked was the anger of the saboteur – the curiously archaic term used to define the modern anti-capitalist revolutionary – which the Webbs feared might sweep away everything: 'capitalism need not hope to die quietly in its bed; it will die by violence, and civilization will die with it.” Later, Beatrice spoke of the the Soviet experiment in Russia as the complete instance of this decline and fall of capitalism.

The Webbs preferred the path they mapped out as good social democrats, where municipal ownership and regulation, an effective co-operative movement and trade union organization, and the systematic prevention of destitution that would slowly transform capitalism into something institutionally and morally distinct. From the decrepit, diseased form of laissez- faire capital would sprout a reinvigorated and healed community of rational and virtuous collaborators. If both sides chose instead to sabotage the path to social health, the result would threaten 'the existence of civilization'.

The Webbs continued to argue their case that the decay of civilization was in progress through to their deaths in the 1940s. This was the theme of Beatrice's BBC talk in July 1930 on the crisis of democratic capitalism in which she surveyed the grim choice between 'catastrophic upheaval' and 'a slow decay' of living standards, health, culture and 'general civilization.

J.A. Hobson was also one of the best-known popularizers of economic issues in Britain during the twilight years between the two great wars of the twentieth century, spending much of his career analyzing what he called 'The seeds of decay in Capitalism.” It was a view that infected the outlook of even those whose credentials were anything but politically radical or revolutionary. The fear that the capitalist order might decline or perish entirely unless some cure could be found for its evident failings was nourished on the difficulties faced by the developed world in adjusting to the changed post-war economic realities of uneven patterns of growth, an underlying residue of high levels of unemployment and poor trade performance.

Although Hobson's arguments have been taken more seriously by historians of recent years, they were not generally accepted by the academic economists of his day. Never-the-less, He enjoyed widespread popular approval in the 1930s. He is best remembered for the concept of 'under-consumption.' He argued that there existed a perpetual imbalance in capitalism between the capacity to produce goods and the capacity of ordinary people to consume them. This imbalance was due to the maldistribution of income: the rich saved too much and used their wealth either to invest in yet more capital goods, or spend it on luxuries, or unproductive speculation; the rest of the population had too little money to consume all that the system could produce so that periodically the rich stopped investing and created the conditions for mass unemployment and economic recession. The phenomena of over-saving and under-consumption was 'a fatal flaw in the capitalist system'. Capitalism in its unregulated, laissez-faire complexion could not from its very nature produce either maximum productivity or full employment but labored under the paradox of 'poverty in the midst of plenty'.

Hobson did not accept the socialist argument that the excess income should simply be taken from the rich and given to the poor but insisted that the issue was 'want of proportion', that a larger share of the national income should go to consumption and a smaller share to the generation of new forms of production. His approach to transcending market capitalism by a form of democratic socialism was evolutionary, 'a more gradual and discriminative socialism, which involved limited nationalization of socially important industries and utilities, reform of the tax system, the regulation of monopoly and the provision of adequate welfare to meet the needs of the disadvantaged, but which allowed market mechanisms to survive. The costs of welfare and limited state control were to be met from part of the large surplus that accrued to the rich and which so distorted the conditions of capitalist society.

One of the reasons for the great popularity of Hobson's Guide Through World Chaos (1932) was the emphasis he placed on the moral implications of his economics. A more rational proportion between consumption and saving was the key for millions to the enjoyment of greater welfare and leisure. He called this 'the vital income' element in economics, the possibility of leading a desirable life in all its aspects. A free existence means liberating human energies for love and friendship, knowledge and thought, joy and beauty, all goods, he concluded, that are neither marketed nor consumed.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath


Constantin drove me to the UN in his old green convertible with cracked, comfortable brown leather seats and the top down. He told me his tan came from playing tennis,and when we were sitting there side by side flying down the streets in the open sun he took my hand and squeezed it, and I felt happier than I had been since I was about nine and running along the hot white beaches with my father the summer before he died.

And while Constantin and I sat in one of those hushed plush auditoriums in the UN, next to a stern Russian girl with no makeup who was a simultaneous interpreter like Constantin, I thought how strange it had never occurred to me before that I was only purely happy until I was nine years old.

After that – in spite of the Girl Scouts and the piano lessons and the water-color lessons and the dancing lessons and the sailing camp, all of which my mother scrimped to give me, and college, with crewing in the mist before breakfast and blackbottom pies and the new little firecrackers of ideas going off every day – I had never been really happy again.

I stared through the Russian girl in her double-breasted gray suit, rattling off idiom after idiom in her own unknowable tongue – which Constantin said was the most difficult part, because the Russians didn't have the same idioms as our idioms – and I wished with all my heart I could crawl into her and spend the rest of my life barking out one idiom after another. It mightn't make me any happier, but it would be one more little pebble of efficiency among all the other pebbles.

Then Constantin and the Russian girl interpreter and the whole bunch of black and white and yellow men arguing down there behind their labeled microphones seemed to move off at a distance. I saw their mouths going up and down without a sound, as if they were sitting on the deck of a departing ship, stranding me in the middle of a huge silence.

I started adding up all the things I couldn't do.
I began with cooking.

My grandmother and my mother were such good cooks that I left everything to them. They were always trying to teach me one dish or another, but I would just look on and say, “Yes, yes, I see,” while the instructions would slip through my head like water, and then I'd always spoil what I did so nobody would ask me to do it again.

I remember Jody, my best and only girlfriend at college, making me scrambled eggs at her house one morning,. They tasted unusual, and when I asked her if she had put in anything extra, she said cheese and garlic salt. I asked who told her to do that, and she said nobody, she just thought it up. But then, she was practical and a sociology major.

I didn't do shorthand either.

This meant I couldn't get a good job after college. My mother kept telling me nobody wanted a plain English major. But an English major who knew shorthand was something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter.

The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters. Besides, those little shorthand symbols in the book my mother showed me seemed just as bad as let t equal time and let s equal total distance.

My list grew longer.

I was a terrible dancer. I couldn't carry a tune. I had no sense of balance, and when we had to walk down a narrow board with our hands out and a book on our heads in gym class I always fell over. I couldn't ride a horse or ski, the two things I wanted to do most, because they cost too much money. I couldn't speak German or read Hebrew or write Chinese. I didn't even know where most of the old out-of-the-way countries the UN men in front of me represented fitted in on the map.

For the first time in my life, sitting there in the soundproof heart of the UN building between Constantin who could play tennis as well as simultaneously interpret and the Russian girl who knew so many idioms, I felt dreadfully inadequate. The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn't thought about it.

The one good thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end.

I felt like a racehorse in a world without racetracks or a champion college footballer suddenly confronted by Wall Street and a business suit, his days of glory shrunk to a little gold cup on his mantel with a date engraved on it like the date on a tombstone.

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, an another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.


A fresh fall of snow blanketed the asylum grounds – not a Christmas sprinkle, but a man-high January deluge, the sort that snuffs out schools and offices and churches, and leaves, for a day or more, a pure, blank sheet in place of memo pads, date books and calendars.

In a week, if I passed my interview with the board of directors, Philomena Guinea's large black car would drive me west and deposit me at the wrought-iron gates of my college.

The heart of winter!

Massachusetts would be sunk in marble calm. I pictured the snowflaky, Grandma Moses village, the reaches of swampland rattling with dried cattails, the ponds where frogs and hornpout dreamed in a sheath of ice, and the shivering woods.

But under the deceptively clean and level slate the topography was the same, and instead of San Francisco or Europe or Mars I would be learning the old landscape, brook and hill and tree. In one way it seemed a small thing, starting, after a six months' lapse, where I had so vehemently left off.

Everybody would know about me, of course.

Doctor Nolan had said, quite bluntly, that a lot of people would treat me gingerly, or even avoid me, like a leper with a warning bell. My mother's face floated to mind, a pale spiteful reproachful moon, at her last and first visit to the asylum since my twentieth birthday. A daughter in an asylum! I had done that to her. Still, she had obviously decided to forgive me.

“We'll take off where we left off, Esther,” she had said, with her sweet martyr's smile. “We'll act as if all this were a bad dream.”

A bad dream.

To a person in a bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

A bad dream.

I remember everything.

I remember the cadavers and Doreen and the story of the fig tree and Marco's diamond and the sailor on the Common and Doctor Gordon's wall-eyed nurse and the broken thermometers and the Negro with his two kinds of beans and the twenty pounds I gained on insulin and the rock that bulged between the sky and sea like a gray skull.

Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind of snow, should numb and cover them.

But they were part of me. They were my landscape.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Journey Through Iran and Afghanistan by Nicholas Jubber


Parties like this take place every night in North Tehran, charged not only with the usual chemicals you would expect at a gathering of twenty-somethings, but the added intensity of what might happen if the authorities turn up. Sometimes there will be a rap on the door and a bearded officer will be standing outside. Depending on his mood, the partygoers' excuse (“Officer, peace be upon you, we're celebrating the birthday of the blessed imam's holy sister!”) and how much they can offer as remuneration, he will either let them off with a caution or bundle them into a SUV to spend a night behind bars.

No such visit has broken up the party so far tonight. At the back of the flat, a few people were gathering to talk away from the music. Some of them were discussing the latest escapade of the pop star Britney Spears. A couple of others were gossiping about an Iranian soap actress who had broken up with her fiance. Struggling to keep up with the fast pace of the chatter, I pulled up a stool at the breakfast counter and sipped my vodka.

“So you're the English boy!” said a voice beside me.

I turned, peering through the fug of smoke and located her: a young woman in extremely high heels, a black miniskirt and a white collared shirt with a necktie draped over her shoulder (the latter was a deliberate act of rebellion – they are banned from state offices and storefronts, as a symbol of Western decadence). She offered me a Pleasure Light cigarette, took a sip of my vodka as I was fiddling with my Zippo, and asked what I was doing here. I talked about a book I'd written – I thought it would impress her but she just shrugged, her shoulders catching the light as they rose.

“It was about the past,” I said, “So now I want to look at the present.”

“The Tehran is exactly the right place to be.” Mischief was glimmering in her eyes as she drew on her cigarette. “You will find that it is a very modern city. We have the most traffic accidents, and the worse smog...and the most heroin addicts, of course!”

She was laughing. She tipped the rest of my drink down her throat and leaned towards me.

“But it isn't all bad,” she said. “We also have the biggest number of Internet bloggers outside America – so even if we are choking to death and overdosing, at least we are telling the world about it!”

We sat together for a while, me with another vodka and she with a glass of red wine

“It's what our poets always drank,” she pointed out, adding with a droll smile, “and it always makes me think deep thoughts!.”

Among these thoughts, it transpired, was disapproval of my plans.

“So what about the history?, she asked, leaning toward my cupped hands to light another cigarette. “You don't want to write about that too?”

“Well...” I hesitated, looking into her eyes, sparking on either side of the flame. “I suppose...I want to find out what's going on today.”

Again she was laughing. “So you obviously don't know what this song is about?

I turned an ear to the dance floor. It sounded like thrash metal- crashing drums and manically plucked guitar strings, although the singer had a strangely soulful baritone voice, drawing you into the whirlpool of noise. It was impossible for me to make out the words: Not only was the drumbeat too loud, there was the rush and thrum of people's feet and bodies as they crashed against each other and the roar of the more excited men, chanting over the lyrics.

“I wish it was as easy as you are thinking,” she said, sliding off her stool and flashing me one last smile, “but you know, the past times and today, they are like a tortoise and its shell. Even if you can pull them apart, it is not a good idea.”

I was still trying to work out what she meant, testing her words in my head, enjoying the tang of my first Persian riddle, when I felt an arm on my shoulder. Beaming over me, with dance sweat dripping down his curls, was Sina.

“Hey! Why are you alone?” he exclaimed indignantly. He grabbed hold of my arm, towing me back into the living room. “You know,” he said on the way,” I think my baba would like this song.”


His father was a wonderful and in many ways very eclectic man. But he wasn't exactly what you'd call a heavy metal band's target audience: a middle-aged academic, specializing in ancient Persian folklore. The idea of him turning up in this underground honky-tonk, taking off his homburg, and leaping about to the beat was utterly fantastical.

“Because,” said Sina, “the words they are singing are from Shahnameh.”

“You mean...?”


“You mean from a thousand years ago?”

“Of course, Nicholas! What else?

“No, it's just...well, where I come from, it's just...medieval poems and pop music, they don't usually go together all that much.”

“Really?” Sina wrinkled his nose, as if I must have been spawned in some kind barbaric hellhole. “Well,” he said, “poetry is poetry, isn't it?”

Mashad, Eastern Iran.

“Oh. My. God.”

One glimpse is enough to rip out my optimism – like someone came along and extracted it with a knife.

The bus is the last in its row, each more battered and less brightly painted than the one before, its roof heavily crushed by boxes and buckets strapped on with string, and a larger pool of water rising around the wheels to trap them in a glue of mud. All the buses in the station looked decrepit, but this one was a parody of the rest. It looks like the worse bus in the world.

A man is standing over me, wrinkling his nose at my ticket. It turns out he's the driver.

“Why do you go to Afghanistan?” he exclaims. “You think this is a country for tourists?”

His laugh is throaty and thoroughly disconcerting. Had an old man behind me not set his arm on my shoulder, I might be making a dash for the bus back to Tehran.

“I am a traveler like you.” he whispers.

This man has skin like walnut bark and wears a gray waistcoat over his knee-length shirt, under a brimless woolen cap that looks like its been woven from his beard.

“I have been on a pilgrimage,” he continues, “to the Holy City.”

“You are a Hajji? You've just come back?”

“No, no, no!” His teeth gleam gold between his parched lips. “I went thirty years ago. I couldn't afford to go now!”

His small gray eyes shrine through the creases in his skin. He seems to be kind, so I decide to stick with him.

“Afghanistan is a good country,” he says poking his nose between the headrests in front of me – we have settled inside the bus now. He squinnies his brow, before adding, “It was a good country.”

“When?” says a man in an ocean-colored polo shirt who'd taken the seat across the aisle from mine. He looks like he should be on vacation in Hawaii.

The Hajji looks up, frowning, then in a burst of inspiration he declares, “In Kaiser Wilhelm's day!” He raps the headrest as he explains, “There was a train.”

We wait an hour for movement. When it finally comes, there is a terrible groan beneath us, as if some wild beast has been stretched out under the chassis, then a tick-tick as the engine rattles to a stop. Is this bus not even capable of forward propulsion? But I can hear a noise swelling around us, suggesting another cause for our pause. Gingerly, the Hajji lifts a pleated nylon curtain to peer through the window. I notice an anxious expression creeping across his face.

Mujahideen,” he whispers.

A wave of sunlight washes through the door: a swamp of flailing limbs, enormous beards, long torn gowns. Boxes fly down the aisle, burlap sacks pile on the seats and around the steps in the middle. Buckets clatter on top of them, all the way up to the Formica ceiling, as do more sacks, plastic bags, and finally – shunted through the door, defying the tiny space that's let – a Honda motorcycle.

“They are fighting men,” whispers the Hajji. “Do not say you are a foreigner.”

All of them are dressed in baggy trousers and knee-length shirts. - the traditional Afghan costume known as shalwar gameez. I bought a set for myself just yesterday, knowing I would need it in Afghanistan's troubled south, but I haven't put in on yet, so it will be easy to identify me as an outsider. Hiding my tell-tale Roman scripted notebook in the overhead rack, I excavate an enormous green-jacketed hardback out of my pack. It's the only Persian book in my possession – the language not only of the Iranians whom I'm leaving, but also of a large number of the Afghans among who I will be traveling. Tooled across its spine – a gorgeous cluster of golden dots, elaborate curls, and long barbed stalks – is the word Shahnameh – Book of Kings.

“ You are reading that?” asks the Hajji, his golden teeth flashing in his gasp.

The man in the ocean-colored polo shirt, whose name is Wahid, is more proactive.

“Here,” he says, leaning across the aisle and reaching for the book, “give it here.”

He turns the pages delicately, and familiarly – as if he's caressed these very pages in the past – and when he comes across a verse he likes, his mouth expands to the size of a tea saucer:

Mayaazaar mui daneh
kash ast
Ke jaan daara u jaan e shirin
Khush ast.

Oh stamp not the ant that is
under your feet
For it has a soul and its own soul
is sweet.

The Hajji smiles, his eyes as bright as his gold teeth, repeating the verse in a whisper, as if to memorize it for himself. I have come across plenty of poetry aficionados in Iran – on a few occasions I've even attended poetry circles where traditional instruments were played as people recited from their favorite authors. But I was advised not to expect this sort of thing in Afghanistan. “They are murdering brutes” was one of the less cryptic descriptions I heard. So to watch polo-shirt wearing Wahid, his eyes glued to the pages and his lips quivering to the rhythm of Ferdowsi's the thousand year old verses , is reassuring. Maybe the Afghans won't be as formidable as I've been warned.

I has spent eight months in Iran before I finally set out for Afghanistan. Eight months of incredible comfort with the kindest of families in a gated house in North Tehran. For more than half the time, I was actively planning a journey to Afghanistan - a grand old romp through a distant and seemingly treacherous land. But whenever I was on the verge of setting out, something astonishing would happen: I would stumble, quite by chance it seemed, on an absolutely unavoidable reason for delay.

Even when I did finally set out, I decided not to let my fellow passengers in on what I was up to.

“If you tell the Afghan's your plan,” said my host in Tehran – his brown owl-like eyes gleaming with the warning – 'they will tear you to pieces!”

So I'm keeping my mission under wraps, hidden in my backpack and when they ask me what I am doing here, I only give them a vague indication of my route. “I suppose,” I say, when the Hajji asks me, “I want to find out if Afghan and Iranian culture have much in common.”

“Oh yes.” he says excitedly, “we are the same. We are both Aryan, we have the same poets -Hafez, Ferdowsi, for example – and our music is also similar.”

“No we're not! declares Wahid, stamping his foot on the runner. “You know what we call the Iranians? You know?”

His mouth twists into a scowl and he screws up his nose, preparing me for the most offensive put-down in history.

“We call them,” he announces, “sandwich-eaters!”

It isn't quite the slap-down I was anticipating, although it makes sense – given all the sandwich restaurants I've encountered on the Iranian streets. Afghans, as I will soon learn, do not generally indulge in “Westernized” snack food, preferring to stick to their traditional dishes.

“They aren't tough like us,” continues Wahid. “They don't know what it means to be a man!”

As if to underline his point, he drops the green-jacketed copy of the Shahnameh directly into my lap. I dare not utter a sound, lest he decide that I am a sandwich-munching sissy. Now, drawing closer to me on the seat, he appears to be continuing his test of my physical endurance, by squeezing my shoulder under his paw. His face, however, is turning softer, his eyes lightening up with a new thought.

“Mind you,” he says,” have you been to Shiraz?”


“The women!” He chuckles, looking around to check the Hajji isn't listening. “I went to Shiraz,” he whispers. “I thought I was in paradise!” He squeezes my shoulder even harder, before drawing back to his seat, shaking his head as he adds in a loud voice, “a country of sandwich-eaters!”

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Proofiness by Charles Seife

In skillful hands phony data, bogus statistics, and bad mathematics can make the most fanciful idea, the most outrageous falsehood seem true. They can be used to bludgeon enemies, destroy critics, and to squelch debate. Indeed, some people have become incredibly adept at using fake number to prove falsehoods. They have become masters of proofiness: the art of using bogus mathematical arguments to prove something that you know in your heart is true – even when its not.

Our society is now awash in proofiness. Using a few powerful techniques, thousands of people are crafting mathematical falsehoods to get you to swallow untruths. Advertisers forge numbers to get you to buy their products. Politicians fiddle with data to try to get you to reelect them. Pundits and prophets use phony math to get you to believe predictions that never seem to pan out. Businessmen use bogus numerical arguments to steal your money. Pollsters, pretending to listen to what you have to say, use proofiness to tell you what they want you to believe.

Sometimes people use these techniques to try to convince you of frivolous and absurd things. There's no limit to how absurd proofiness can be. At the same , proofiness has extraordinarily serious consequences. It nullifies elections, crowning victors who are undeserving – both Republican and Democrat. Worse yet, it is used to fix the outcome of future elections; politicians and judges use wrongheaded mathematics to manipulate voting districts and undermine the accuracy of the census that dictates which Americans are represented in Congress. Proofiness is largely responsible for the near destruction of our economy- and for the great sucking sound of more than a trillion dollars vanishing from the treasury. Prosecutors and justices use proofiness to acquit the guilty and convict the innocent – and even put people to death. In short, bad math is undermining our democracy

The threat is coming from both the left and the right. Indeed, proofiness sometimes seems to be the only thing that Republicans and Democrats have in common. Yet it is possible to counteract it. Those who have learned to recognize proofiness can find it almost everywhere, ensnaring the public in a web of transparent falsehoods. To the wary, proofiness becomes a daily source of great amusement – and of the blackest out rage.

[The author provides the following example of a type of proofiness- mathematical deception- called disestimation.]

There's an anecdote about an aging guide at a natural history museum. Every day, the guide gives tours of the exhibit ending with the most spectacular sight in the museum: a skeleton of the fearsome tyrannosaurus rex that towers high over the wide-eyed tour group. One day, a teenager gestures at the skeleton and asks the guide, “How old is it?”

“Sixty-five million and thirty-eight years old,” the guide responds proudly.

“How could you possibly know that?” the teenager shoots back.

“Simple! On the very first day that I started working at the museum, I asked the scientist the very same question. He told me that the skeleton was sixty-five million years old. That was thirty -eight years ago.”

In reality, when the scientist says that the dinosaur skeleton is sixty-five million years old, that number is assumed to be a rough approximation; the measurement error is on the order of tens of hundreds or even millions of years. The museum guide screwed up when he took the sixty-five- million -year figure too literally. He ignored the errors inherent to the measurements of the dinosaur's age. Since the errors in measurement absolutely dwarf the time he spent working at the museum, his figure of 65,000,038 years is ridiculous. The guide trusted the measurement beyond the point where it should be trusted. He committed an act of disestimation.

Very similar acts of disestimation occurred in the judgments which determined the final victors in the electoral contests between George Bush and Al Gore in the Florida Presidential contest of 2000 and in the 2008 Senate contest between Al Franken and Norm Coleman in Minnesota. In consideration of the number of people who voted in each of these elections, the unavoidable flaws in balloting procedures and errors in counting, the margins of victory- a few hundred votes- represented a disestimation of the same order magnitude as the anecdotal case of the museum guide. No system of ballot validation or any number of recounts subsequent to the polling could have vouched for the accuracy of the final count, though weeks, months and millions of dollars were spent in an attempt to do just that. In reality both these elections ended in a tie and should have been decided as provided in the state law of both Florida and Minnesota: a flip of the coin.

The consequences of similar kinds of disestimation used in the U.S. Census- which also involve inherently inaccurate headcounts (more effective sampling techniques have been speciously rejected by the majority of conservative justices on the Supreme Court)- are more severe than in the case of the Florida and Minnesota elections. The Census is used to apportion representation to the U.S. Congress. As a result of inaccuracy in the Census itself, millions of Americans are effectively disenfranchised.

The understanding that real-world numbers come from imperfect measurements can inoculate you against Potemkin (fake- as in IQ tests for one) numbers, disestimation, and fruit-picking – it imparts a skepticism about where numbers come from, whether they are trustworthy, and whether they've been presented in an honest and trustworthy manner. A little mathematical sophistication – and a little practice – allows you to recognize the errors of randumbness, causuistry, and regression to the moon; once you get used to spotting phony patterns and false connections, you'll begin to see them everywhere. You'll see how advertisers pump up their products, how bureaucrats cover their failing projects, and how would-be prophets convince the unwary to believe meaningless predictions. And while mathematical knowledge won't stop businesses from ruining the economy, politicians from stealing elections, and court officers from undermining our court systems, it will prevent malefactors from getting away unobserved.

Randumbness: insisting that there there is order or pattern to events where there is only chaos- creating a pattern where there is none to see, like the gambler who believes his luck is “on a roll”, whereas the odds on each individual roll of the dice are exactly the same.

Causuistry: a specialized form of casuistry where the fault in the argument comes from implying that there is a causal relationship between two things when in fact there isn't any such linkage.; mistaking correlation with cause. Causuistry is particularly common in health and nutrition research, as in the studies that supposedly proved that Nutrasweet caused brain cancer, or that mercury in vaccines causes autism.

Regression to the moon: Regression analysis is a mathematical tool that people use to create lines, curves, formulae or equations that fit a set of data; it quickly extracts a pattern from whatever data you provide it. It's an extremely powerful technique yet it is easy to generate a faux patterns to sets of data that have no real explanatory or predictive value at all. Faux regression analysis predicted that in 2000 Gore would win against George Bush with 56.2 percent of the vote. The prize for regression silliness, though, has to go to the academics who crank out equations or formulae for everything under the sun whether or not there's any quantifiable data available or not, such as a formula for happiness which was gobbled up by the press in 2003.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon

'Abyss has no biographer - ', Emily Dickinson said. Truth is bottomless, and she herself almost invisible. After her death, letters from correspondents were burned according to her instructions and soon legend replaced living fact. The public learned to revere a harmless homebody who shut off from life to suffer and contemplate a disappointment in love. Who, then, is there if we pare away the sentimental story that sees the poet through one or other man in her life, or the counter-story that cuts out men in favor of sister-love? Only the poet herself can tell.

'Tell' is one of her words, playing around her flaunting of secrets. The 'I' of her poems leaps out at us with startling disclosures: “I'm Nobody! Who are you?', she asks. 'Nobody' she may be, but no innocuous nonentity, and the roles in her repertoire are many: the confrontational Nobody with a capital N', the tease speaking in riddles to those who would know her; the flirt who exults in the role of a 'Wife – without the Sign!'; and above all, the not-so-veiled boasts of volcanic power controlled by poetic form.

Yet for all the poems' confessional aplomb, a secret slips into silence even as the poet points to it in one of her most telling poems. “I tie my Hat' is about an explosive Existence coexisting with the speakers visible life as a nineteenth-century woman. Modest domesticity is her cover for the soul's immensity, breaking through her clockwork routines:

I tie my Hat – I crease my Shawl -
Life's little duties do – precisely -
As the very least
Were infinite – to me -

I put new Blossoms in the Glass -
And throw the Old – away -
I push a petal from my Gown
That anchored there – I weigh
The time 'twill be til six o'clock -
So much I have to do -
And yet – Existence – some way back -
Stopped – struck – my ticking – through...

A double life is not surprising: it's almost inevitable with intelligent women of Dickinson's homebound generation. She was drawn to Jane Eyre, and Maggie Tulliver, George Eliot's provincial girl whose 'eyes were full of unsatisfied intelligence and unsatisfied, beseeching affection'. All these aspiring nineteenth-century women struggle for self-control and contrive to do their duty. What's stranger in Dickinson's character are the silences surrounding almost every word in the climatic couplet about the nameless thing that 'struck' a tick-tock life.

Unanswered questions resonate in the wake of lives, and no one more elusive than Emily Dickinson.. the first responsible step was to map her social landscape... to track down verifiable facts has been an impressive achievement of the last half-century. A complementary venture lies ahead: to risk 'the Abyss', the biographic sources of creativity we can never fully explain. In that sense, the poet is right to warn us off, yet the enigma she presents beckons: its teasing insistence suggests something to be solved.

Early biographers got lost in the byways of fancy but there are two secure openings to the larger truth of her buried life: one explores- in poems, letters, diaries, journals, unfinished autobiographies, reminiscences, interviews and taped memoirs (the abundance of archival record makes it possible to know the actors close up)- about her 'sickness', how it strikes her and the strange lift it offers her work. A linked approach is though archival records of a different sort of disruption: a family feud in which she was interfused.

The feud began with adultery, Emily Dickinson became its focus after her death, each side battling for her unpublished papers. The issue was not so much money as the right to own the poet – the right to say who she was. Each side claimed to know, and fought to promote its legend. These legends still guard the entrance to the Abyss, for the feud persists even now.

[The lovers in this case were ED's older brother Austin- landowner, trustee and treasurer of Amherst College, sanctified pillar of the community and Mabel Loomis Todd, the remarkable (also married) woman who, after the death of the poet, brought the first collection of her work to the attention of the public: “What we did had a consecration of its own” (mostly in Emily's parlor), they said. Austin's wife was Susan, the poet's dearest friend and next door neighbor. This affair and its ramifications are the source of the principle drama in the book.]

[ The author makes a good circumstantial case that Emily's sickness was epilepsy, which in those days was also matter that 'had to be' carefully concealed from the public eye. By the standard of the day she might have been locked up in an asylum, she could surely never marry, but her father provided a sensible physician, support and independence in her own house with a garden, conservatory and library.]

At the age of sixteen Emily was allowed to attend Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, the first women's college in the country, where a scene of religious revival was underway. She did not rise to the occasion and was assigned to the lowest social category of students: among the thirty out of 235 girls in 'the remnant of no-hopers.' 'Many are flocking to the ark of safety', she wrote in a letter, 'but I have not yet given up to the claims of Christ.. .I have neglected the one thing needful when all are obtaining it ( the desire to be good)... Oh how I wish I could say that with sincerity, but I fear I never can.”

' Have you said your prayers?' the headmistress asked in one confrontation.

'Yes, ' she answered, 'though it can't make much difference to the Creator.”

Dickinson later made her allegiance clear:

'Faith' is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see -
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Emily Dickinson became a model of Ralph Waldo Emerson's belief in the integrity of the private mind, self-reliance and spiritual independence, 'wicked' in the majority view of the people of Amherst at the time, though her opposition was muted, rueful and self-effacing. Privately she questioned her society's abasement before its image of a paternalistic Omnipotence who shames disobedience and prompts the polarizing of the saved and the sinner: 'bright halos' on one side; cast-down eyes on the other.

'Parting is all we know of heaven
And all we need of hell.”

[ Who can truly plumb 'The Abyss? The evidence of her writing suggests that, despite the dreadful anticipation and the exhaustion after, she experienced the onset of her seizures as a kind of ecstasy. The combination of this with her odd position in society, the early deaths of dear friends and siblings and a superb education are reflected in the disruptive ('volcanic') energy crucial to her art, its unconventional shifts and ungrammatical forms, particularly in the Shakespearean manner she turned nouns into verbs.]

The research is still at an early stage, but one idea is that nouns and verbs may be processed in different parts of our brain, which means that when the usual connection is challenged a new pathway opens up. A 'surge' in the brain registers on an electro-encephalogram one six-hundredth of a second after we hear a novelty of transformed grammar. This surge is said to be a kind of syncopation. In jazz, the jolt of syncopation interrupts the glide of musical pathways. This rhythm, as vital to jazz as to Dickinson's start-stop lines, has made her appealing to composers, from John Adam's Harmonium with its marvellously objective choral treatment of 'Because I could not stop for Death', to pop stars like Peter Doherty who adapt her lines.

“Actually, I nicked one or two of Dickinson's lines', he whispered to me, griping a Guinness in London's Boogaloo bar. “Aargh, she's outrageous man! She's fuckin' hardcore!'

What did he pinch?

'I took one Draught of Life, paid only the market price,' he quoted. I added, 'now I'm estranged”. He delivered each word with a point in the air, like an invisible karaoke ball. 'Bom,bom,bom, bom, bom, bom.' He saw his present-day life – estranged, imprisoned, finding solace in words – in what Dickinson had to tell of her life in 1862:

I took one Draught of Life —
I'll tell you what I paid —
Precisely an existence —
The market price, they said.

Curiously, Doherty expresses a Dickinsonian aversion to public eyes. To perform in public is a nightmare, like war, 'but to sit down and write in solitude is like a dream.'

An artist as original as Dickinson must create her audience. She would have chosen readers attuned to the inward life. While Julia Ward Howe was writing 'Battle Hymn of the Republic' and Whitman his Drum Taps, Dickinson demolished feats of heroism: no golden fleece, and Jason a sham. Her friends shared or tolerated her repudiation of dead words, especially sayings of unthinking faith: dull heaven, mindless obedience, meekness and blind belief in the resurrection were all targets. She told her first editor Higginson she shunned people 'because they talk of Hallowed things, aloud – and embarrass my Dog.”

Higginson, who thought he had been corresponding with an apologetic, self-effacing pupil, was puzzled to find himself 'drained' of 'nerve-power' after his first visit to her in 1970. He was unable to describe the creature he found beyond a few surface facts: her light steps had pattered as she approached; she had two smooth bands of auburn hair and no good features; she had been deferential and exquisitely clean in her pique dress and short light-blue cape (crotcheted with a drawstring neck); and after an initial hesitation she proved surprisingly articulate.

'Could you tell me what a home is?' she had asked. 'Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our minds?' She'd read Shakespeare and thought, 'why is any other book needed?'

It should have been exciting, but Higginson was trying to reach her through everyday talk.. Not easy, especially as he sensed that questions might make her withdraw. She, for her part, had no qualms. Without his touching her she drew from him, noting with concern how he tired.

'Gratitude is the only secret that cannot reveal itself,' was her parting flourish. Why complicate thanks with this insistence on her secret? It seemed of a piece with her wish and refusal to 'tell'. Poor Higginson was baffled. She had said a lot of strange things, from which he deduced an 'abnormal' life. He was relieved not to live near her.

When Higginson came face to face with Dickinson for the second and last time, in 1873, he asked her how she coped with lack of occupation, day by day within the same walls. She was astonished and gave him to understand that such a question had never occurred to her. Though by then Higginson had corresponded with her for twelve years and read a good many of her poems, he was unaware that her inward life was so active, and her attention to events of nature so constant, that she felt no lack of occupation. She gardened, kept a flourishing conservatory, made the household bread since her father preferred hers and, then too, she added dreamily, 'people must have puddings...'

Her main occupation, of course, was her work, starting before dawn. One poem “The Birds begun at Four o'clock' celebrates the 'multiplicity' of their music when there is no one to hear: “The Listener – was not -'. Patently untrue, because the poet, singing at the same hour, is awake and present. Nor was it true that her voice had no audience, her poems as ephemeral as birdsong. She ensured that five to six hundred fair copies were entrusted to her friends and, as a further precaution, half of her poems (presumably those she most wished to preserve) were in hand-sewn manuscript booklets tucked away at home, which would sing, she knew, in time to come.

At six o'clock the dawn chorus is over; the 'Band' has gone; the sun rises; day takes over. The poet, the unmentioned witness, is left to balance loss and achievement. This she does with perfect equanimity, closing with a neat full stop:

The Miracle that introduced
Forgotten, as fulfilled.

She tells us, generations on, exactly what we want to know: the Miracle of composition overrode public obliteration during her lifetime. Composition was not only an end in itself; it was 'Extasy':

Nor was it for applause -
That I could ascertain
But independent Extasy
Of Universe, and Men.