body atlas
January 7, 2014, 3:41 pm
Filed under: unseen world | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Happiness and depression are felt all over the body, while anger and pride only in the chest and head. These are images from research on emotion response by a group of scientists from Finland. The researchers used stimuli – words, images, stories – to provoke emotion and the subjects indicated where the emotion manifested on their bodies.

From Body Atlas, Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari K. Hietanen

An Atlas Of The Human Body That Maps Where We Feel Emotions, Fast Company, Jessica Leber

a world that is losing its sense of humour
February 23, 2013, 12:01 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , ,

848Something to be scared of: a world that is losing its sense of humour.

Is mainstream American humour angry?  Not all, but I think much of it is: flat footed, mean spirited, capricious, dirty, designed to scandalize, witless, a sledge hammer, dull.  A generalization?  Perhaps.

Here is author Milan Kundera’s observation about loss of humour and the corollary rise of fear and stupidity and arrogance:

I learned the value of humour during the time of Stalinist terror. I was twenty then. I could always recognize a person who was not a Stalinist, a person whom I needn’t fear, by the way he smiled. A sense of humour was a trustworthy sign of recognition. Ever since, I have been terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humour.

The stupidity of people comes from having an answer to everything.

Milan Kundera, interviewed by Philip Roth

the instinct to love
January 22, 2012, 2:34 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , , ,

Perhaps the best function of parenthood is to teach the young creature to love with safety, so that it may be able to venture unafraid when later emotion comes; the thwarting of the instinct to love is the root of all sorrow and not sex only but divinity itself is insulted when it is repressed. To disapprove, to condemn –the human soul shrivels under barren righteousness.

Freya Stark

The instinct to love is the quick of life and the flowering of it leads to fearless living. That’s the best case scenario. But the scene is strewn with the walking wounded, and flowering and fearlessness have gone the way of the dodo, it seems.

I spoke with a friend only this week about the very real and deleterious affects, thirty years and more on, of parental absenteeism, alcohol and isolation.  I don’t know why her psychic misery, which is easily traceable as she so vividly related to me, is somehow unreal and to be denied.  She described her misery and in the same breath stated that, once past the age of eighteen, one mustn’t blame. There’s a small insanity: bearing witness to the root – and saying it’s not real and that someone can’t be blamed.  Well, you only have yourself to blame these days; an almost desperate need to which she still clings.


A girl was selling books on her stoop and I picked up a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited for $2.  Maybe it will be something like Downton, which I have been devouring – I thought.  Not two weeks later I saw the full set of Brideshead DVDs at the library and checked them out and watched all 11 episodes in three nights.

On its face Brideshead is a story, like Downton, of the waning of the British aristocracy in the early 20th century.   That’s what the reviewers and the jacket covers tell us.  But the story is really more about adolescent love, family and religion.  At its heart, it is about the thwarting of love. Continue reading

a short history of the wolf
November 13, 2011, 3:05 pm
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the degradation of intelligence
January 18, 2011, 7:33 pm
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I was wandering with a friend through a lower east side neighborhood in Manhattan, having just moved into town and relishing each new street and bar and topic that came up as we ambled along and talked.  He had moved to the US three years prior, and I had been here – in another city – for over ten years.  But now I was new to New York and he was my guide.  Too, he was a confessor of sorts for me to test my ideas about the strangeness of life in America.  And so on that day I made some generalizations between bars, including one about my bafflement about our love affair with dumbing down, our anti intellectualism.  His answer surprised me both for how quickly he reacted and for the content.  I asked, why do I always feel like I can’t have an intelligent conversation with anyone, friends, acquaintances, colleagues?  He said, because in America you have to pay for your education.

This is George Monbiot on the degradation of intelligence in the US. Regardless of personal politics, it is a topic worth taking a dispassionate look at.  Topics include fundamentalism, darwinianism and slavery.  A really clear if biased discussion of a big problem for a society that continues to describe itself as free.

From the article:

Like most people on my side of the Atlantic, I have for many years been mystified by American politics. The US has the world’s best universities and attracts the world’s finest minds. It dominates discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge. Yet, uniquely among the developed nations (with the possible exception of Australia), learning is a grave political disadvantage.


Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason provides the fullest explanation I have read so far. She shows that the degradation of US politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies.

Continue reading

fire and driving
December 15, 2010, 6:21 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , ,

In religion there is the start in the garden and the end in the city, and we have somehow found ourselves in neither place, driving.  There is a core motivation, fear, we must understand to navigate the city and garden; we have misappropriated our knowledge of it which has driven us out of these ancient places into the suburban landscape.

In this review of Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs, S. Brent Plate gives us a keen definition of two kinds of fear:  one that trembles before something awesome and challenges us to change our lives for the better, and another that quakes before other petty people and their perceived power and causes us to retract and entrench and protect.  This is the classic description of the fear of God and of man; Augustine’s seminal work to disentangle the heavenly kingdom from the Roman and other kingdoms of this earth.

Continue reading

the uneasy fear of ideas
November 7, 2010, 7:17 pm
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Even in the new world, things get old in a hurry.  And it makes sense that in the American north east, where the Puritans and Quakers and Dutch first established themselves, and where new treaties and governments and constitutions were established first, and native peoples beat back, the body politic began its atrophy.

H. L. Mencken was a Baltimore writer and social critic.  In this excerpt from his essay, The Scene Almost Staggers, he takes down the eastern seaboard cities, that densely populated string of urbanity from which the great western expansion sprung.  Class esteem, self actualization and fear are the hallmarks of the east coast society that only a few generations earlier had escaped similar social strictures and clambered onto boats to make the trans Atlantic journey to a new kind of elusive freedom.

I left a midwestern city ten years ago, its twins and lawns and new uncomfortable towers, drawn by the lights and density of the American north east.  A girl I knew back then said, curiously, LA was the city to go to now, because of its start up verve, sun, sense of possibility.  Her words rankled; and I went east easily trading the new car city for the potential urbanity of the older east.  But the streets, wonderfully formed, were for the most part empty, and still are.  The cities are there, but the money and the ideas and the people are in the suburbs.

Mencken pulls no punches describing his own home town from the vantage of San Francisco.  If a city is as much its people as it’s building, spaces and forms, then what’s the advantage of beauty and urbanity if occupied by thugs and savants?

From Mencken’s essay:

The East, it seems to me, is gone, and perhaps for good. All the towns along the seaboard are now as alike as so many soldiers in a row. They think alike. They hope and fear alike. They smell alike. They begin to look alike. What one says all the others say. What one does all the others do. It is as if some gigantic and relentless force labored to crush all personality, all distinction, all tang and savor out of them. They sink to the spiritual and intellectual level of villages—fat, lethargic, and degraded. Their aspirations are the aspirations of curb brokers, greengrocers, and honorary pallbearers. The living hope of their typical citizen is to die respected by bank cashiers, Young Men’s Christian Association secretaries, and policemen. They are ironed out, disemboweled, denatured, dephlogisticated, salted down, boiled, baked, dried in a kiln.

Think of Washington: a hundred thousand miserable botches of ninth-rate clerks, all groveling at the feet of such puerile caricatures as Daniels, Burleson, and Palmer. Baltimore: mile after mile of identical houses, all inhabited by persons who regard Douglas Fairbanks as a greater man than Beethoven. (What zoologist, without a blood count and a lumbar puncture, could distinguish one Baltimorean from another?) Philadelphia: an intellectual and cultural slum. Newark: a worse one. New York: a wholesale district with an annex for entertaining the visiting trade. New Haven and Hartford: blanks. Boston: a potter’s field, a dissecting room. Mental decay in all its forms, but one symptom there is in common: the uneasy fear of ideas, the hot yearning to be correct at all costs, the thirst to be well esteemed by cads.

-H. L. Mencken, The Scene Almost Staggers, 1920, San Francisco

fear itself
January 21, 2010, 12:29 am
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , , , , ,

Last week I had an argument with a friend about the skating rinks in Manhattan.  She argued that the ‘market should decide’ what we pay for the rinks, and I argued – a bit forcefully, I guess – that the rinks should be made accessible to a broad public which could involve the market but also other decision making bodies.  It ended badly and COFRB “The Chairman” Greenspan’s name was taken in vain.

It is patently absurd that something that doesn’t care be made an oracle that we consult and beseech and yea verily believe in.  Market truth is an ideology that is particularly unyielding and unhelpful when it comes to how we build and live in cities.  The city, like a lover, needs more than mere assertions of truth:  without nuance and care the deal goes south in a hurry.

In the excerpt below, from the essay Confronting Fear by Sophie Body-Gendrot, is a discussion of how fear is a cancer to the proper public use of the city.  In imagery reminiscent of a witch trial – only on the other side – Body-Gendrot tells us we need to drag fear and rumour into the public square and reveal their intransigence and wrongheadedness.  Fear has lead to flight and sprawl, and sprawl destroys the city, and the people who partake should be taxed.  Now that’s a daring statement, and one of the few that is worth listening to in the clang and din rising from the prophets and hawkers of the new sustainability.

Here is the excerpt:

It is our task as urban scholars to deconstruct such elusive terms as unsafety, urban violence, disorder, community and ‘sensitization to violence.’  It cannot be denied that crime and terrorism are urban threats in our time.  There is a before and after 9/11, with global repercussions.  Yet the answer to fear is not to escape from the city, buy a gun and shelter ina gated community.  It is an illusion to think that families, their children, and their grandchildren can live safely for ever after in a bunker, dismissing the outside world.  Because the city is a historical construct, what they miss is the overlapping and intersecting urbanisms, each representing different historical moments and existing simultaneously.  Parks, riversides, shopping centres, museums and shared collective moments of celebration illustrate the vitality of cities.  Fears and rumours about crime that undermine the use of public space should be selected, confronted and addressed in public debate.  The debate about sprawl is open:  according to Anne Power and Richard Rogers, the harm it produces to the city should be officially acknowledged and higher taxes should be implemented for those whose lifestyle destroys the urban core.

-Confronting Fear, Sophie Body-GendrotThe Endless City, Phaidon

i’m me!
September 22, 2008, 4:00 am
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Here are the novelist Ian McEwan’s thoughts on the imagination from an interview with Ramona Koval on Radio National.  They are talking about his book Atonement which was made into a picture last year.  Although I haven’t read the book, I have a sneaking suspicion it’s miles better than the film.

I remember when I was studying literary criticism, we read an apologetic piece that claimed that literature’s use is to humanize us.  It was late in my undergrad and I was pleasantly surprised by this new idea that, beside beauty and delight, literature was useful.  It seemed to bring it all crashing down to the level of function as if literature were a machine, designed to meet some base social operation.  Some people don’t trust beauty and want everything to be understood at its basest level.  I do trust it, and somehow, the idea that literature, and by extension art, is beautiful and useful adds to its complexity – and desirability.

McEwan talks about this same idea in the quotation below.  He says imagination helps us to have empathy with other people.  Which is the same thing as saying literature humanizes.  Helpfully, he tells us what we are like when not properly humanized:  cruel and fearful.

Here is the quotation.  Read the entire article here.

My mother dropped me at the beach on her way to work. I was in North Africa. It was early in the morning. It was the Mediterranean spring and I had the day to myself. No friends—I don’t know why, that day—and I had one of those little epiphanies of ‘I’m me,’ and at the same time thinking, well, everyone must feel this. Everyone must think, ‘I’m me.’ It’s a terrifying idea, I think, for a child, and yet that sense that other people exist is the basis of our morality. You cannot be cruel to someone, I think, if you are fully aware of what it’s like to be them. In other words, you could see cruelty as a failure of the imagination, as a failure of empathy. And to come back to the novel as a form, I think that’s where it is supreme in giving us that sense of other minds.

~from Books and Writing, Radio National with Ramona KovalSunday 22/9/2002

the narcissistic ties of blood
May 17, 2008, 1:04 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , ,

Ah, how I loathe the culture wars.  We are walking out of a battle field now, one on which the definitions of family were ravaged.  Here is a clearer view.

The prevailing orthodoxy claims that family is foundational to good society and living.  They emphasize blood lines and values and remove their kids from public schools.  It is a loving inward gaze.

The alternate view is that such self love can lead to territoriality and fear of the outsider. And it seems that when asked, most people believe that family values means looking beyond the family.  Maybe that’s what loving your neighbour is: that to really love, we must look past ourselves, our bloodlines, our tribe, and try to understand and love ‘other’ people.

Salon-The U.S. News article cited a 1997 poll in which 75 percent of 950 adults said moms with kids under 3 who work outside the home are threatening family values.

Coontz-You know these polls change from day to day depending on how they’re phrased. If you phrase the question, “Are women who work neglecting their kids?” the overwhelming majority will say no. In many cases, because it is the only vocabulary people have to express their concern, they’ll use the conservative term “family values,” but when you press people on what they mean by that, they’ll define it in a totally different way than the right wing does. The public defines it in terms of teaching your kids to look beyond the family. They define it in terms of reaching out to get involved in community activities. Whereas the right-wing definition of family values is extraordinarily narrow — even in terms of the history of Christianity. Christ was quite anti-family. He said that family bonds can interfere with your commitment to the larger Christian community. And the early evangelicals took pains to always talk about the Christian household, to indicate that you had to reach beyond the narrow, selfish ties of sexual attraction and the narcissistic ties of blood in order to look out for the larger community.

May 20, 1997, “Christ was quite anti-family”, STEPHANIE COONTZ ON THE WAY WE WEREN’T — AND ARE,