Philosophical ruminations.
June 22 1997 3:30 AM

ScrotumTightening

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Just in time for Bloomsday, the British publisher Picador has issued a new "reader-friendly" edition of Ulysses in Europe, and scholars are declaring it a travesty. The 10,000 alleged improvements include punctuating Molly Bloom's famous monologue and rewriting knotty sentences. Some of editor Danis Rose's changes may seem merely cosmetic--the famous evocation of the "scrotumtightening sea," for example, appears as "scrotum-tightening." But, as a reviewer in the Irish Times noted, adding that hyphen "loses the contractive effect on the male appendages of an early-morning dip." Indignant Joyceans also quarrel with Rose for fiddling with Joyce's use of dialect (substituting "Cor blimey" for "God blimey") and slicing the "Oxen of the Sun" chapter into 11 separate sections. Perhaps the most vocal critic has been Boston University's John Kidd, who in 1988 also exposed legions of errors in Hans Walter Gabler's so-called "Corrected Text" of Ulysses. Kidd's own seven-volume Norton edition of Ulysses is due out next year.

Nabokov's Blues

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Vladimir Nabokov's taxonomies of Latin American butterflies, long disparaged as armchair entomology, turn out to be top-drawer science, according to a recent article in the New York Times. In the 1940s, the émigré novelist held a part-time job at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology and published the first attempted classification of an obscure group of blue butterflies known as Polyommatini. For years, Nabokov's study attracted more attention from literary critics than from scientists. But in 1993, lepidopterists Kurt Johnson and Zsolt Balint embarked on a new study of the butterflies, and then compared their results with Nabokov's. The duo's findings are published in "Nabokov as Lepidopterist: An Informed Appraisal," in the current issue of Nabokov Studies. Of the seven generic names established by Nabokov, five were deemed still valid, and the two mistakes could be attributed to his not having had enough samples. In recognition of this achievement, the lepidopterists have christened some recently discovered specimens of the Polyommatini with Nabokovian names, such as Madeleinea lolita.

Suicidal Tendencies

Using the same data, the nation's two leading medical journals have reached opposite conclusions on the consequences of legalizing assisted suicide. Last winter, the New England Journal of Medicine surveyed more than 5,000 doctors in the Netherlands and found that, despite euthanasia-friendly laws, the country had experienced no significant upswing in doctor-assisted deaths. An accompanying editorial argued that the Dutch experience should alleviate fears that legalizing assisted suicide would lead to "widespread involuntary euthanasia" performed on society's weakest members. A new report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, however, looks at the same questionnaires and claims that doctor-assisted deaths in the Netherlands have in fact skyrocketed--by 27 percent over the past five years. The questionnaires also revealed, JAMA says, that an alarming number of physicians had administered fatal doses of painkillers to "fully competent" patients without their approval. Now each journal is accusing the other of masking political commentary as science. For more on the assisted-suicide issue, see Slate's "Dialogue."

The Showalter Fan Club

Princeton English Professor Elaine Showalter's recent polemic, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media, argues that such supposedly organic illnesses as Chronic Fatigue and Gulf War syndromes are simply psychological disorders. The claim has so angered Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sufferers that they've turned out in large numbers to heckle Showalter on her book tour. They've also erected a Web Site devoted to debunking Showalter's arguments. One section, called "Handling Showalter," suggests questions for sufferers to ask the author when she swings by their local bookshop, such as: "Is Elaine projecting? Isn't it true that those who have emotional problems often project their problems onto others? And so, aren't you yourself doing this?" Other recommended questions include: "Are you psychiatric?" and "How well is Elaine?" On another page, which features testimonies from people who've had run-ins with Showalter, one Washington, D.C., contributor recounts asking the professor to sign his copy of the book--with an apology.

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Baby Talk

A recent article in Science claimed to rebut Noam Chomsky's theory that our capacity for language is hard-wired in a particular--and uniquely human--module of the brain. Last December, three cognitive psychologists at the University of Rochester played two-minute audiotapes consisting of short nonsense words (such as "bidakupado") for a group of 8-month-old babies. The infants, they found, listened longer to subsequent tapes that didn't contain these words than to those that did--suggesting the babies had "learned" the words. According to the Rochester team, the findings suggest that our language-learning abilities may have to do with our general cognitive prowess, not with any particular language "module." But a gallery of letters published in the May 23 issue of Science says this finding hardly undermines Chomskyan linguistics. MIT's Steven Pinker argues that the Rochester researchers fail to comprehend that "learning words and learning grammar are ... different computational problems." In other words, it's not our vocabularies but our ability to string words together that is a distinctively human evolutionary adaptation.

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