Friday, October 31, 2008

So much for parenthood

"Pretty much no matter how you test it, children make us less happy. The evidence isn’t just from diary studies; surveys of marital satisfaction show that couples tend to start off happy, get less happy when they have kids, and become happy again only once the kids leave the house. As the psychologist Daniel Gilbert puts it, “Despite what we read in the popular press, the only known symptom of ‘empty-nest syndrome’ is increased smiling.” So why do people believe that children give them so much pleasure? Gilbert sees it as an illusion, a failure of affective forecasting. Society’s needs are served when people believe that having children is a good thing, so we are deluged with images and stories about how wonderful kids are. We think they make us happy, though they actually don’t."


That's Paul Bloom in the November issue of the Atlantic.

Personally, I have several reservations about the article - partly because it seems to me that Bloom is stretching a lot of potentially unrelated research to fit his theory (I'm not sure, for instance, how the Milgram obedience studies "support the view that all of us contain many selves"); partly because the article doesn't sufficiently distinguish, in my opinion, between measures of central tendency and variation across the population (presumably there are people who are genuinely happy about having kids - I'd even hazard a guess that the extent of happiness / unhappiness associated with being a parent varies by gender, age and economic class); and partly because I would have liked to see a clearer definition of happiness (what does it mean, exactly, to be unhappy even though you think you're happy). But hey, who am I to argue with a professor of Psychology at Yale, particularly one who's basically saying what I've always suspected - that this whole celebration of parenthood thing is a gigantic swindle meant to reduce cognitive dissonance for people who've been suckered into having kids.

The November issue also includes a surprisingly sensible piece on blogging by Andrew Sullivan, but that's a whole other post.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Home

"That odd capacity for destitution, as if by nature we ought to have so much more than nature gives us. As if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindnesses because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul should be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all."

- Marilynne Robinson, Home

I know it's only the end of October, but I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Marilynne Robinson's Home is my pick for book of the year. Not since Faulkner has prose been this pristinely beautiful, so mercilessly gentle, so Old Testament like in the starkness and weight of its sorrow. Every page of this book is at once an act of glory and an act of grace, of language at its most exquisite, aching with what remains unspoken. It's a book that deserves not so much to be read, as to be contemplated, meditated on.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More evidence that the NY Times cannot cover India

Will someone please tell me why the NY Times finds it so hard to find people to write about India? I mean, okay, so maybe we're not a country brimming with intellectuals, but surely there are enough people out there who can write a sensible, cogent op-ed piece without indulging in timeworn cliches or spinning off on some bizarre tangent. Why then do we need to be subjected to tripe like this op-ed piece by Tunku Vardarajan?

My favorite bit: "devout Hindus — many of them, no doubt, rocket scientists —". Did you know that many devout Hindus are rocket scientists (is there some new definition of many out there that considers a fraction of 1% to be many?)? Not to mention that all Indians are apparently Hindus and all Hindus are apparently moon worshippers. Oh, and we're all "astrology-obsessed". Tchah!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A quick sharp scratch

Two drinks later, they step out of the bar and discover it's raining. He goes to fetch the car. She stands in the doorway, hands snuggled into her pockets, drawing her coat tight. When did it get so cold?

A hand's breadth away from her, the run-off from the awning falls in a steady stream. Caught in the headlights of a passing cab, the drops of rainwater look like sparks. She remembers that it's Diwali today (or yesterday - is it midnight already?). She'd meant to call her parents. Well, too late now.

It's been three years since she moved to this country, but there's a part of her that's still surprised by how the festivals of her childhood pass unnoticed. Diwali, Holi - words that once meant weeks of anticipation, days of giddy excitement, have become items on her calendar, less important than meetings, more easily missed. It's as though the first contact with this different world had shrunk them, the way the rain shrinks a beloved sweater, until it's too small to wear. What was once essential becomes a curiosity.

She gives a mental shrug. She's romanticizing again. It's ridiculous for her to feel nostalgic about this, she who'd always hated Diwali - the smoke and noise of it, the endless stream of relatives, the sense of forced revelry. So much nicer to spend the evening the way she just had. She ought to be grateful.

What's taking him so long? She may as well have a cigarette while she waits. She pulls one out, puts it between her lips, reaches into her pocket for the lighter. After she lights up, she holds the lighter open for an instant, the flame still shielded by her palm, vivid and helpless in the alien night. Then she puts it safely away.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

More evidence that great minds think alike

Remember this story?

Well, here is the man himself, bringing Ella on stage at the Hollywood Bowl in 1956:

"Now we're going to do one of the numbers, one of the first recordings we did there, an old good one called 'You won't be sausage-fried', I mean, 'You won't be satisfied' *chuckles*"
Okay, okay, so I know it's a really lame joke. But, hey, if it's good enough for ol' Satchmo, it's good enough for me.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Undecided

"I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”

To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked."

Personally, I'm still trying to decide whether I like David Sedaris' new piece in the New Yorker, but I figured I may as well point you to it anyway.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Late Beethoven

No one deserved it more than he did. No one fought harder, or more fiercely, or against greater odds.

No one saw as clearly that triumph is a demon. That fury sings. That beauty, at its heart, is an act of will.

No one learnt at greater cost how wild perfection is, how savage - how it destroys those who nurse it, must be tamed by brute force.

And yet, listening to these final works - these quartets with their voices that meditate on silence, these sonatas where the piano is an animal set free - is it possible not to envy him? Envy him neither his suffering nor his glory, but what lies beyond both - the knowledge that moves beneath these pieces, informs them, inspires them. The sure-footed intuition of a mind at peace.

We may never be old enough for this music. We may not live so long, or so intensely. But it comforts us to know such harmony is possible: a season of soft promises, of beauty both ripe and bare.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On Suicide

There was a time when we romanticized life, and it fell to those among us who were particularly clear-headed, or particularly brave, to insist on death's inevitability. For these men self-destruction was the rational answer - one they could neither accept nor disprove.

If we have reasoned our way back to life now, if we have come to accept the logical necessity of saying yes because it is the only choice we are allowed to make, then this knowledge has only served to make suicide more seductive. For where survival is the proper choice, choosing death is the ultimate fantasy.

***

Am reading Joan Wickersham's The Suicide Index (which is on the shortlist for the National Book Award for non-fiction). You can read the first chapter here and another extract here.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

My life as a culture vulture / Creatures of a Day

It's been a hectic but satisfying week. In the last ten days, I've managed to catch:

a) Three Philadelphia Orchestra concerts (in addition to the Penderecki, I also attended a performance of the Lutoslawki Piano Concerto by Krystian Zimerman - have I mentioned that Lutoslawski is my enthusiasm of the month? - and a performance of Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet)

b) Six films at the New York Film Festival (the highlights being Agnes Jaoui's delightful Let it Rain, Kazakh director Sergei Dvortsevoy's charming and bittersweet Tulpan and a screening of Oshima's surreal yet incredible The Man Who Left His Will on Film; low points were Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence - why, why would anyone make a movie starring David Bowie? - and Jaime Rosales entirely pointless Bullet in the Head, a film that confirms all one's worst stereotypes about experimental cinema being self-indulgent and tedious.)

c) A performance by the Emerson String Quartet

d) An adaptation of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor for the stage

e) A performance by the Parsons Dance Company, which I may get around to ranting about one of these days

f) A screening of Juan Antonio Bardem's Death of a Cyclist.

g) A cello recital (followed by an evening spent obsessively listening to alternate versions of Beethoven's Third Cello Sonata, trying to make the impossible choice between Casal's furious, growling rendition with its menacing first movement and explosive finale, and the experience of hearing Du Pre transform that first movement into pure song, the sound so exquisite it moves me to tears; and I haven't even got to the Rostropovich-Richter recording yet. Sigh)

Good times. Good times.

***

Reading's been taking a bit of a back-seat this week (see above) but did manage to read Reginald Gibbons' new collection Creatures of a Day, which is on the shortlist for this year's National Book Award in poetry. It's not a particularly exciting book (I suspect Silliman would describe it as School of Quietude) but in many ways it's a sublime one, its quiet, meditative poems sneak subtly up on you until you find yourself unexpectedly moved.

The pick of the poems in the book is undoubtedly 'Fern-Texts', a glorious palimpsest of a poem in which Gibbons weaves together his own memories and extracts from Coleridge's notebooks to create an almost fugual exploration of youth, poetry and political engagement; a poem about the meaning of dreams and the dream of Meaning; about the inevitable and endlessly repeated betrayal of both what we thought we stood for, and what we felt but could not say. Describing Coleridge's views on poetry, Gibbons writes that C. saw poems as being "at heart / a dreaming, with states and shifts / of feeling and image and / narratives moving with that / peculiar syntax of con-/ nections that lie beneath what / we think we think." And that's exactly what 'Fern-Texts' is: not thought made transparent, but the movement of the mind captured on the page.

There's also the lovely 'Ode: I had been reading ancient Greeks', in which images of water, a young girl's suicide and the Antigone myth come together in a poem of dark yet artesian power; and the pitch-perfect evocation of an urban landscape in 'Where moon light angles through'. All in all, a book well worth the read.

Thought for the day # 291

Religion is what happens when the poets collaborate with the murderers.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

At Stake

More required reading on the election: The New York Review of Books election special. Predictably intelligent, articulate and (consequently) Democrat. It's always a joy to read Didion, and I also enjoyed the Dworkin and Lelyveld pieces.

I'm a little surprised, and disappointed, that there's no real feminist take on the election (I guess Frances Fitzgerald comes closest, but it's not very close, is it?). Women's rights are certainly at stake in this election - overturning Roe vs Wade will be a major blow, no matter what Wills may say - and with a 'woman' candidate on the Republican ticket, and all the noise about Clinton's disgruntled supporters (some of whom are apparently now supporting Palin - are these women deaf and blind?), surely gender is an issue.

But I think there's more to it than that. I think there was a point when this election had the potential to represent a turning point in gender politics. Remember Naomi Wolf's assertion that the Clinton victory in '92 was at least partly a result of the working of the new female power - the conversion of outrage over Anita Hill into a resounding defeat for the forces of patriarchy and conservatism? The path to real power for women, Wolf argued, lies in their becoming a critical constituency in the national elections - the more critical women are as a vote bank, the more women's issues become central to the political agenda. If the Democrats (who are, after all, the logical choice to be the champion of women's rights) can use the gender card against the old Republican race / class card, then both Democrats and women stand to benefit - the former can parlay women's votes into political victory, the latter can use the decisive nature of their support to ensure their demands for equality are met. That, after all, is how democracy is supposed to work.

And not so long ago, it looked as though this election could be the one where female power finally ended up front and center. In the days leading up to the Palin nomination, the importance of capturing the female vote was a salient part of the larger narrative of the election, so that it seemed that both candidates would finally have to start caring about women's issues. In recent weeks, however, we have heard relatively little about the women's vote, partly, I suspect, because the Palin nomination has sufficiently obscured the issue, and partly because the financial and economic crisis has ended up taking centre stage.

It remains true, however, that the outcome of this election has important implications for the feminist movement, at least in the US. If McCain's gambit of picking Palin succeeds in getting him a disproportionate amount of the female vote, that will only serve to validate the cynical tokenism involved in choosing a female running mate who stands against everything that feminists have fought for all these years. It will send the message that women's rights per se do not matter - as long as you have a few token women on your side, you can continue to pursue your old patriarchal policies, and women will vote for you anyway.

But the implications of this election for the feminist movement go beyond the question of who ends up as president. Even if Obama wins, but wins with more or less equal support from women as from men, that victory will represent, in some sense, a lost opportunity in the battle for gender equality. Because the real opportunity for women in this country coming out of this election is the opportunity to make themselves heard. If the results of this election show that women's votes played a significant role in ensuring victory for whichever candidate eventually ends up winning, that will mean that for campaigns to come candidates will invest time and effort into wooing women voters - time and effort that (assuming tokenism has been shown to fail) will involve thinking seriously and closely about gender inequalities. Imagine an election where the discussion focussed not on the concerns of Joe Sixpack and Joe Plumber but the concerns of Jane Single Mom and Jane Rape Victim. Imagine an election where the analysis wasn't focused on who was ahead in the swing states, but who was ahead with women. All of that seemed possible just six weeks ago, and may still be possible, come 2012, if and only if the results on Nov 4th show Obama winning thanks to an overwhelming proportion of the female vote. The time for women to act as a class for themselves is now.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tigers - White and Paper

You know, the more time I spend listening to John McCain the more convinced I become that the man is incapable of either making or following anything as basic as a logical argument.

Take last night's debate. In response to Obama's perfectly lucid explanation for why he'd not supported legislation banning late stage abortion - because it didn't have exceptions for the mother's health and life - McCain comes up with this beauty:

"Just again, the example of the eloquence of Senator Obama. He's health for the mother. You know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything.

That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, "health." But, look, Cindy and I are adoptive parents. We know what a treasure and joy it is to have an adopted child in our lives. We'll do everything we can to improve adoption in this country."

Let's ignore the bizarre implication that being eloquent is somehow a bad thing, rather than a desirable quality in someone who's in the running to be leader of the free world. Can anyone explain to me what the second paragraph is supposed to mean? Obama's point is simple - bans on abortion that put the mother's health and life at risk are unacceptable. What does improving adoption have to do with ensuring that women's health is safeguarded in such cases? The whole thing's a non sequitur.

As is pretty much everything else McCain says in the debate. All he seems to be able to do is parrot the talking points he's already familiar with; hardly ever does he even seem to really hear or understand his opponents points, let alone engage with them.

Take this parting exchange:

Obama: the centerpiece of Senator McCain's education policy is to increase the voucher program in D.C. by 2,000 slots.

That leaves all of you who live in the other 50 states without an education reform policy from Senator McCain.

So if we are going to be serious about this issue, we've got to have a president who is going to tackle it head-on. And that's what I intend to do as president.

McCain: Because there's not enough vouchers; therefore, we shouldn't do it, even though it's working. I got it.

Now in McCain's senile worldview this may be a stinging rebuttal, but personally, I don't see it. First, he doesn't get it. Obama isn't saying we shouldn't do it, he's saying vouchers aren't a meaningful solution because 2,000 slots in one state don't begin to address the scale of the problem. But even if Obama were saying that we shouldn't do it because there aren't enough vouchers, why is that such a bad point? Sounds like a fairly sensible argument to me. I realize McCain probably doesn't believe this, given his fondness for abolishing earmarks as the panacea for all budgetary problems, but I think most reasonable people would agree that a good criterion for assessing a proposed solution to a problem is whether it actually solves the problem. If McCain's plan only provides 2,000 slots in one state (I should say that I don't know whether this is true or not - but if it isn't surely that's what McCain should have been stressing), it doesn't solve the education problem, which makes it a bad solution. So while McCain's misrepresentation of Obama's point is presumably meant to be sarcastic, it actually makes a lot of sense as a criticism.

Oh, and am I the only one who sees the irony in railing against corporate greed one minute and proposing to solve the nation's economic problems through a trickle down via tax cuts to big business the next? Or of blithering on about bloated government when one of your key proposals is to take 300 billion dollars "go in and buy those home loan mortgages and negotiate with those people in their homes, 11 million homes or more"? Finally, am I the only one who almost choked on my dinner hearing Sarah Palin described as "a role model to women" (I mean, come on, at this point even Tina Fey would make a better VP)?

What last night's debate makes clear, I think, is that this is not so much a contest between two sets of opposing ideas about what the US needs, but a contest between one set of ideas and a lot of incoherent bombast. There's a lot about Obama that I find unconvincing or have reservations about, but given a choice between him and someone who would fail basic reading comprehension, I'll pick the former any time.

***

In other news, it seems India is being rocked by roars of anger by Aravind Adiga's White Tiger. Personally, I haven't heard the slightest whimper of surprise, let alone outrage, over the book, and seriously doubt that anyone other than some ivory tower dwelling white man whose last 'Indian' read was Midnight's Children would find anything in the book insightful, provocative or even news, but that's just me.

It's a fairly ridiculous interview, brimming with banalities and sloppy generalizations. My favorite bit, though, is this:

"it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society. That's what writers like Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens did in the 19th century and, as a result, England and France are better societies."


Never mind the highly questionable causal link between social change in England and France and the novels of Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens. Never mind the fascinating question of how exactly a set of novels consisting of The Temptation of St. Anthony, Salammbo, Madame Bovary, Sentimental Education and Bouvard and Pecuchet comprise a critique of the 'brutal injustices of society'. And never mind that it's hard to imagine anything further from the superb naturalism and psychological accuracy of Dickens than Adiga's styrofoam characters and grotesque framing (can you imagine, say, David Copperfield being written as a series of letters to a visiting Spanish diplomat). What's really hilarious about this quote is that Adiga follows it up with the following statement:

"I'm in a different position from Husain. Fortunately, the political class doesn't read."

A minute of thought will show you that the two positions are hard to reconcile (even assuming it's true the political class doesn't read - apparently Adiga hasn't heard of the controversy around Jaime Laine's biography of Shivaji). Either novels like Adiga's are capable of being an instrument for socio-political change, in which case they are sure to invite political attention; or they are largely irrelevant to the nation's socio-political discourse, in which case all this posturing about Dickens et al makes no sense. In any case, it's hard to see why, if your goal is to use your writing as a means to social change, you would consider the alleged fact that the political class doesn't read 'fortunate'. Plus, of course, it makes you wonder who these people in Adiga's homeland that the novel is causing offence to are, and how, if the political class doesn't read can the Indian tourist board be (as per Jeffries) 'livid'.

Friday, October 10, 2008

NOTICE

In case of alarm, start fire.

In which yours truly, like, totally fanboys out

Oh my god! oh my god! You're not going to BELIEVE who I was sitting next to at the orchestra today! Krzysztof Penderecki! In the flesh! No, really, I swear! He was sitting right across the aisle! I could have reached out and touched him! I would have needed arms 7 feet long, but you know! Oh my god! oh my god!

The worst part is, I didn't even realize it was Penderecki until after the performance ended. There I am applauding away, when Dutoit turns and gestures in my general direction, and the next thing I know the genial old man with the overgrown beard sitting opposite me is hobbling down the aisle while the audience rises to its feet. It had occurred to me that Penderecki may be somewhere in the audience, given that it was the US premiere of his Concerto Grosso No. 1 for three cellos, but who would have imagined he'd be so close?! I was so totally overwhelmed I barely even noticed that Han-Na Chang was sitting two rows in front of me in the second half.

The Concerto Grosso itself was glorious. Not quite as striking as some of Penderecki's early work, perhaps, but profound nonetheless, combining melancholy with savagery, 19 century romanticism with propulsively modern rhythms. Most of the time, the interplay between the three cellos sounded like it could have come straight out of Dvorak, but then the piece would shift unexpectedly into higher gear, the combined menace of bass and percussion reminding us that this was, after all, Penderecki.

And the fact that the Concerto was preceded by Dumbarton Oaks (which I never tire of, though this is the third time I'm hearing it performed this year) and followed by Sibelius' First Symphony, only made things better.

I have to say that from my perspective this season is turning out to be the Philadelphia Orchestra's most promising ever. Three concerts in, and already I've got to hear Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Lutoslawski, Penderecki and Sibelius. Even the one 'classical' piece they played - Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante - was one I'd never heard before, which made listening to its unlikely but sublime combination of bassoon, oboe, violin and cello a genuine revelation. Now if only they keep this up.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Public Eye

Technology can multiply the ways in which we reveal ourselves to the world, but it cannot make the revelations interesting. It can allow us to record every second of our lives, but it cannot ensure that anyone cares.

We are streetlamps burning bright on a road no one travels. We are one-person parades that nobody cheers.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Tell the Bees

New issue of Poetry, featuring this poem by Sarah Lindsay.

Probably best read in the context of this.

The issue also includes William Logan on criticism and some correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (only available to subscribers, I'm afraid), which is less exciting than it sounds, but still delightful, if only for such nuggets as:

"New York is awful I think. After racking my brains I just this minute decided it is like a battered-up old alarm clock that insists on gaining five or six hours a day & has to be kept lying on its side, but maybe I can do better than that"

- Elizabeth Bishop


not to mention some tantalizing chatter about 'Marianne' (Moore). There's something strangely (and perhaps perversely) comforting about discovering that even the finest of poets aren't all that profound in their correspondence with each other. Also, well, getting to read a spontaneous, unedited thought by Bishop is a bit like coming upon Artemis bathing isn't it? One checks one's head for horns and hopes there are no dogs nearby.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Sound and the Fury

What do you get when you put one of the twentieth century's greatest composers together in a room with one of our greatest living pianists?

You get a performance of ferocious vitality, of quicksilver agility, of heart-stopping, breath-taking audaciousness. Forget off-shore drilling, you could light up a whole city with the sheer electricity of Argerich playing Shostakovich.

Much of the credit for this, it must be said, goes to Shostakovich. That first piano concerto is an incredible piece, its rousing first movement and no-holds-barred finale made particularly thrilling by the sense of listening to a purer, more innocent Shostakovich, a Shostakovich upon whom the shades of Stalin's prison house have not yet begun to close. And then there's the second movement, like a sad, lyrical island in a sea of choppy bravado. If the orchestra were a circus, hearing this piece played would be like watching the two most beautiful women in the world turn cartwheels on a high-wire dressed as clowns. Combine that with the barely controlled energy of Argerich's playing, and you've got yourself a real concert.

The one false note of the evening for me (the Shostakovich was preceded by Ravel and Argerich playing Prokofiev's First Piano Concerto - also glorious) was that instead of just ending the concert after the Shostakovich, the orchestra then went on to spend the next half an hour playing Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Now I'm not averse to Musorgsky in general - I tend to think of him as marginally more exciting than Elgar - but after the knife-edge sharpness of Shostakovich, Musorgsky's florid over-orchestrated ramblings felt like too much of an anti-climax. Listening to crescendo follow crescendo like a series of endless double-chins I almost fell asleep. That said, today's was a superb concert, the kind of performance that reminds you just what it is you love about classical music.

A few choice words

The editors of the New Yorker on Obama vs McCain.

Now there's a group of people who can really write.