The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Nov. 4 2000 12:00 AM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

A CHAGNON-TIERNEY UPDATE
Debate continues about Patrick Tierney's yet-to-be published Darkness in El Dorado, his book about the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and the geneticist James Neel. John Tooby refuted Tierney's conclusions—some had appeared as an extract in The New Yorker—in Slate. The New Yorker defended itself against Tooby's charges, though contributors to Slate's "Fray" weren't persuaded. John J. Miller of the National Review interviewed Chagnon in October: "E.O. Wilson calls [Chagnon] every other day. Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker have backed him publicly. UC-Santa Barbara and the University of Michigan maintain websites that are in the process of posting point-by-point refutations of Tierney's arguments. 'I'm considering legal action,' says Chagnon." On his Web site, Chagnon links to a letter written by Neel in 1967 that suggests that the outbreak of measles took place before Chagnon and Neel administered the vaccine Edmonston B to the Yanomamö. "There seems to be a raging measles epidemic amongst the Yanomamo," Neel informs the Venezuelan authorities. "According to our information, measles was first introduced on the Brazilian side, at Totootobi when the daughter of the missionary there, Keith Wardlaw, came down with measles which she had presumably contracted when the family was in Manaus on leave." What strikes the compiler of this page as odd is how Tierney's book came to be nominated for a National Book Award before its publication. Isn't this as peculiar as nominating a Broadway show for a Tony before opening night?

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LONG BUT TO THE POINT
Denis Dutton, an American philosopher who teaches in New Zealand, is the editor of Philosophy and Literature and the founder of the Arts & Letters Web page. In an interview with Ray Sawhill, Dutton says: "One thing that surprises me is that people are not necessarily looking for short pieces [on the Internet]. Many of our most popular items have actually been quite long. This challenges the idea that everything on the Internet ought to be short and sharp. People are also looking for longer, meditative pieces that provide an occasion for thinking."

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AND DID THOSE FEET IN ANCIENT TIME …
Dismissed as a crank while he lived, William Blake is now considered one of the more radically inclined poets. One hundred years after his death, part of his poem "Jerusalem" was put to music by Sir Edward Elgar and has been a national and environmental anthem ever since. London's Tate Gallery will shortly open an astonishingly large Blake exhibition, which will include the colored illustrations for the entire "Jerusalem" poem. It is the first time the engravings have been seen in Britain—they were lent by the Yale Center for British Art.

ALL TOO GREEN AND PLEASANT LANDS
The European Commission is alarmed by the possibility that much of Southern Europe may come to resemble a desert in the next 100 years. (For the commission's environment Web site, click here.) Northern Europe will become both wetter and warmer. It's likely that should the predictions prove accurate, then tropical diseases—for example, malaria—will become more prevalent in places such as the Netherlands and Britain, countries with extensive wetlands prone to flooding (as New Scientist explains) and to mosquitoes.

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IT'S GOOD TO TALK, BUT …
Anyone who has traveled on an Italian train in recent years will understand the notion of cell phone hell. The incessant ringing and nattering is enough to bring on mal di testa in even the most hardened of skulls. Here in the United States, the situation isn't as bad, but in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly, Jonathan Rowe laments the absence of quietness on board American planes and trains. "Thomas Carlyle once advised Anthony Trollope to use travel as a time to 'sit still and label his thoughts.' For centuries, travel played this quiet role. I have a hunch that the eloquence and depth of this nation's founders had partly to do with their mode of travel."

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GOOD TO GET OUT OF THE COUNTRY
The weekly Central Europe Review, a finalist in this year's Online Journalism Awards, publishes a long interview with Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky. He tells Julie Hanson that he has few misgiving about living an exile's life in Canada. "Henry Miller recommended that writers live abroad, because their native language suddenly becomes precious to them. They see its possibilities and beauty, which they hadn't noticed at home, because there everyone spoke Czech."

STAYING AT HOME
Jean-Jacques Schuhl's novel Ingrid Caven is the winner of France's prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt. In addition to the award, Schuhl will receive a check for about $7. Such is the prestige of the Goncourt, however, that the author "can expect to sell up to 500,000 copies of his book," the Guardian explains. "And the real Ingrid Caven, a German singer and actor, will not do too badly as a result of the book's success, either. She tells this morning's Le Monde that she has received several film offers as a result of its publication earlier this month."

SURVIVAL OF THE NICEST
Nature reports on an evolutionary model developed by Jacob Koella of the Université Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris. The "model pits two behavioural strategies"—altruism and egotism—"against each other in a hypothetical evolutionary battle, and finds that they eventually settle into an uneasy truce, side by side." Gender also plays a role in such conflicts, as Jessa Netting writes. "Female ground squirrels … call out when danger threatens, alerting surrounding squirrels to predators but putting themselves in danger, a seemingly altruistic act. Many males, on the other hand, never raise the alarm."

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LIVING AS IF THERE WERE NO TOMORROW
Francis Wheen's life of Karl Marx appears at a time when, as Robert Skidelsky writes, "the Enlightenment project, of which Marxism was an offshoot," has collapsed. No longer can history be conceived as "a 'meta-narrative' linking the past to the future. … Today we live entirely in the present. For most people the past has little meaning; there is no future on the horizon except more of the present, apart from the ambiguous promises offered by science." Earlier this year, Gertrude Himmelfarb, in a review of the same book, attacked Marx for his racism and anti-Semitism. In Britannica.com, Peter Hudis explains why Marx's ideas have found new enthusiasts.

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SUPPORTING THE PARTY ARTNews asks whether Picasso "was a Cold Warrior for the Evil Empire." It's well-known that the painter joined the Communist Party in 1944 and remained a member until his death, but a new book suggests that Picasso was more of an activist than previously recognized. Personal motive played a part, as Hugh Eakin explains. "The artist considered his acceptance into the party the logical conclusion of everything his life had stood for. … By the start of World War I, Picasso had developed the lifelong antipathy to armed conflict that would play out in his energetic efforts for the Communist-sponsored peace movement. The Spanish Civil War turned him into a Franco hater and antifascist, a stance that as early as 1936 earned him the title of pintor marxista (Marxist painter) in the Spanish press."

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OUT OF THE FRYING PAN AND INTO THE CRINGE"There was no damage to my spine or to my eyes or to my brain or to my balls, and these are the essential components of a critic's activity,"Robert Hughes said after a horrible car crash in the Australian outback last year. "I feel as though I've been handed something on a plate, namely the rest of my life." Though Hughes was acquitted of reckless driving by a Western Australian court this past spring, the critic's plate is not all arugula and Parmesan cheese. He must now contend with an appeal and a hostile Australian press, eager to belittle a belligerent critic of Australia's cultural temerity. (For an example of his views, click here.) The Sydney Morning Herald published a long article about Hughes' enemies over the weekend. "What is going on here?" asked Tony McDonough. "How is it that one man can engender such a depth of antagonism? Time and again, those who came across the critic during his tribulations and his subsequent trial report the same sense of being spoken down to, of being regarded as a lesser form of life."

WHAT TO DO ABOUT GAS?
Whether the fuel crisis in Europe has any bearing on auto accident statistics remains to be seen, but European drivers of automobiles and trucks are bracing themselves for a winter with very little gas. In anticipation of consumer discontent, various columnists, such as Hugo Young, blame the greed of freight companies. (For the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung's special report on the crisis, click {{here#2:http://www.faz.com/IN/INtemplates/eFAZ/rubinfocus.asp?rub={B1312000-FBFB-11D2-B228-00105A9CAF88}?={27B7ECD9-993D-11D4-B997-009027BA226C}&doc={81374DC5-9AC8-11D4-B997-009027BA226C};}}; for the Guardian's click here.) In Prospect, David Fleming argues that the standoff between European governments and drivers masks a more profound problem: namely, what to do when all the oil in the world runs out. Fleming suggests that Western governments are too scared to address the question.

FUEL FOR FICTION
Richard Poirier, editor of the literary journal Raritan Review, is not pleased with James Atlas' biography of the novelist Saul Bellow. Nor, Poirier imagines, is Bellow. "Atlas's critical naivety and the consequent indiscretions and confusions visited on his readers are glaringly evident when he alleges that in Herzog, as in other works, Bellow 'altered his age by a year or two'. In fact nothing was 'altered', and the word 'his' ought to refer not to Bellow but to Herzog, a fictional character whose age is entirely a matter of his creator's choice." Frederic Raphael gives both Atlas and Bellow a thrashing in the Los Angeles Times. Of Bellow, Raphael says: "At the center of his work, I sense a kind of aesthetic slipperiness which is matched, it seems, by his morals. We are assured that he thinks a lot, aloud and sententiously, about 'the human condition[…],' but how imaginatively does he inhabit it, except by being all too human himself?"

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MIRROR ON THE WORLD
Frank Rich's memoir Ghost Light is an account of how a precocious boy from Washington, D.C., fell in love with the theater—and, more especially, with Broadway. "The happiness of being at a play," Rich writes, "the most joyous sensation I knew, could not be had without the punishing realization of how finite and unrepeatable each visit to a theater was." (For James Shapiro's review, click here.) In the latest issue of the New York Times Magazine, Rich writes about the seemingly infinite, endlessly repeatable, and vastly punishing 1990s "mediathons"—the Simpson saga, the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow divorce, and, above all, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Woody Allen tells Rich what his life was like after he was discovered to be having an affair with one of his wife's adopted children.

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REVERSED IMAGE
Mirrors, like mediathons, may say something about us but, as Jim Holt explains, the image you see in the mirror is more complex than you might think. "The optics and geometry of reflection are precisely the same for all dimensions parallel to the mirror. So why does a mirror treat the horizontal and vertical axes differently? Why does it reverse left and right but not up and down? … Foolish or not, the issue has been vexing philosophers for at least half a century now. As far as I can tell, it first arose in the early 1950s, as a sort of sidebar to discussions of Immanuel Kant's theory of spatial relations."

FACE IN THE MIRROR
Richard Ben Cramer's biography of Joe DiMaggio is a portrait of a man who looked in the mirror each morning and liked what he saw. In Cramer's rendition, DiMaggio is vain and opportunistic; though the quality of his character takes nothing away from his sense of spatial relations on the baseball field (except when it came to playing second base), the sails of the Yankee Clipper have suffered a shredding of sorts. To read Wilfred Sheed's review, click here. John Gregory Dunne's review appeared in last week's New Yorker. "While Cramer's reporting is prodigious," Dunne says, "he never really solves the problem of how to tell the story. … He re-creates conversations he never heard, and tries to goose the narrative with a kind of Damon Runyon argot …"

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LIFE WITHOUT PAIN
Writing in Nature, David Adam says that genetic-engineering techniques have given scientists a much better idea about physical pain—and how to stop it. "Perhaps the most famous pain-triggering molecule identified so far is capsaicin, which gives hot chili peppers their powerful kick. Three years ago, a team of pharmacologists based at the University of California, San Francisco, led by David Julius, found the receptor protein that binds capsaicin and sets off its familiar burning sensation. Using nerve cells and chili extracts they could see how the receptor effectively opened a gate to admit pain."

HIGH LIFE
Though marijuana is not, strictly speaking, a painkiller, many people praise the drug for the relief that it brings—for example, pot helps cancer patients recover from the extremely painful consequences of chemotherapy. (For Bruce Gottlieb's "Explainer" on the legality of using marijuana for medical purposes, click here; for New York police views about pot, read Slate's cop columnist, "Flatfoot.") In the Guardian, Richard Davenport-Hines assesses some new studies about cannabis, particularly Leslie Iversen's The Science of Marijuana. Iversen "has produced the most authoritative and up-to-date scientific assessment of the medical uses of cannabis now available. … 'The argument that approval of the medical use of cannabis would be tantamount to encouraging the legalization of the drug for all purposes is clearly specious,' Iversen concludes, 'and is no justification for withholding an effective medicine from patients who need it.' "

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A LITTLE BIT OF THIS AND A LITTLE BIT OF THAT
Scott Malcomson's interesting new book about race, One Drop of Blood: America's Misadventure of Race, was reviewed by Orlando Patterson, who wrote that by the late 19th century the "one-drop rule" had "become a virtual law of nature among white Americans. As Malcomson points out, 'A little "black blood" could make you black, but it took a great deal of "white blood" to render a person white. … The sum of what you were not—Indian, black, slavemade you what you were.' And it still does. … Were the nation ever to acknowledge this, the result would be a cultural revolution that would outdo the 1960's."