'pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will'


How to be happy? Big question. I still think Freud got it right," he instructs. "Good health. Interesting work. Satisfying personal relationships. It’s worth checking every now and then to see how you score on all three.
Ian McEwan in this extended Guardian interview. I’ve always liked him, but not too much. His work is notable for drawing a sufficient amount of admiration but stopping just short of adoration. There is a noticeable lack of intellectualism in his writings; he’s more sentimental and less ironic than his peer group; and his prose can be too formulaic at times, seemingly intent on ingratiating the writing workshop crowd. He is spot on on the “big question” though.


Folksy torture is the best kind of torture, no?

I believe that’s how Saddam used to describe his acts of torture: “You know, some folks just need to be tortured from time to time. So, we torture some folks.”

I used to be on the fence about the wisdom behind prosecuting the Bush administration’s routine and willful use of torture. Seeing how Obama’s hesitance now seems to have been born out of what can only be described as a casual approach to the rule of law and governance, I rather regret my earlier hesitance. Obama’s approach to egregious breaches of law (forget human dignity) is to state the obvious once the topic is considered safe for public discussion, and then to act as if he’s a meager chairman of a fact-finding mission with little power except to make policy recommendations.

Let’s be frank, this president has turned out to be neither the resolute, principled, or visionary leader that his campaign led many to believe. He may indeed be all of those things as a person in his own dwellings - but not as a leader of a country so consequential to the global order. 

Another thing he claims not to be is a reporter. He describes himself as a tourist: “a marine anthropologist whose data was so thoroughly and distortingly mixed up with the means of obtaining it that it probably had no value as data”.

Geoff Dyer’s interview with The New Statesman

This is actually how I feel about the value of data collected by most social scientists (I myself don’t collect data, being at the humanities end of the social sciences and all). Too bad their writing isn’t even half as good as Dyer’s. Full interview here.

Evgeny Kissin - Bach Siciliana (No. 2 in E Major)

Should you need a mental health break from the cruel world around, then simply disengage from the torrent of sad news and pointless commentary. I’m on a 72-hour Bach and Beethoven piano sonatas/concertos regimen followed by seeing a really good friend get married.

Doesn’t need a caption. 

Gaza and the Luxury of Opinion

Too many ignorant comments about the war in Gaza in high and low circles of the internet. It strikes me that if one has the luxury of opinion about what are life and death matters to others in far away lands, then one at least should have the decency to pause before justifying any action that causes suffering. Power differentials matter.

Imagine for a moment that you and your family were confined to a piece of property too small for your basic needs and nourishment (forget flourishing!). Now, imagine that the entrances and exists to the property are controlled by overwhelming armed forces on the ground, in the air, and even from the adjacent river that runs behind the house. You and your family are doubtless resentful of this (justifiably or not), and so you are desperate to gain access to any and all pieces of weaponry and armor to lash out at your jailers, even though you have no hope of ever even approximating their military prowess. Lastly, let’s also suspend all sense of history and judgment about the reasons behind you and your family’s confinement to this piece of land in the first place (maybe you deserved it, maybe you didn’t, maybe your plight is a historical accident). 

Mindful of the immense power differential between you and your jailers, and leaving aside the morality of your confinement in the first place, the key moral question then is about your ongoing treatment. What amount of punishment constitutes too much - i.e. cruel and unusual - punishment? 

A common sense of decency and humanity demands that we affirm a reasonably similar answer to this question regardless of what we might each hold dear in our views of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Cruel and unusual behavior is never justified, but the temptation to do so, alas, is at its highest when there is such asymmetry in the distribution of power.

The consequences of our actions take hold of us, quite indifferent to our claim that meanwhile we have improved.
Selections from Part Four—“Epigrams and Interludes”—of Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufman; from The Modern Library’s Basic Writings of Nietzsche.

Gordimer and Me


Leo Carey recalls working with Nadine Gordimer: http://nyr.kr/1jTyEsI

“Gordimer had a slightly fearsome reputation—not suffering fools gladly, that sort of thing—but we got along well. Of course, I was trying hard not to be a fool. I sent her memos that were highly detailed, as a way of semaphoring that all was under control.”

Photograph: Jerome Delay/AP

A perilous and unspoken accord in American politics has grown up while no one was looking, which unites the liberal left and the authoritarian right. They agree in their unquestioning support of a government without checks or oversight; and it is the Obama presidency that has cemented the agreement. The state apparatus which supports wars and the weapons industry for Republicans yields welfare and expanded entitlements for Democrats. The Democrats take to the wars indifferently but are willing to accept them for what they get in return. The Republicans hate the entitlements and all that goes by the name of welfare, but they cannot escape the charge of hypocrisy when they vote for ever-enlarging military entitlements.

What can be the reason for Obama’s decision to ‘partner’ in counterterrorist training and the supply of weapons to protract the civil war in Syria? This would scarcely seem to be in his interest if he wants a settlement with Iran to round off his record in foreign affairs. And yet Obama has a propensity, which no walk of reason could justify, to pledge to do a thing that looks strong, then call it off, then halfway do it anyway. Syria in the summer and autumn of 2013 was the most damaging instance of this to occur in open view. From threat to hesitation, to declaring an attack, to postponing the attack, to aborting the attack because a solution was offered from outside that didn’t require the use of force: the giddy succession of warlike postures entertained and abandoned last year is now to be followed by the subsidising of a proxy war after all.

David Bromwich in LRB

Well worth the read. Captures the sense of utter disappointment and despair doubtless felt by many of us who’ve stood by this president for far too long. 

Anonymous asked: My mother really likes the London Review of Books. My family is in debt to you for the recommendation. She asked me today why the LRB has so few female writers. I had not noticed that but do agree with her upon reflection. I thought you might an answer because I really could do nothing but speculate. Thanks for maintaining such an honorable blog.

I had wondered about the same point until I saw the following article in The Guardian on the LRB and its inimitable editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers. She seems aware of the disparity as well, but not concerned that it somehow diminishes the quality of what they have published in the past. I can’t speculate beyond what’s in the article. 

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