All posts by Phil W

Why Does Halifax Send Boston a Christmas Tree Every Year?

On the morning of Thursday, Dec. 6, 1917, the captain and crew of a French munitions ship called Mont-Blanc were eager to reach the safety of Halifax Harbour, and with good reason,” writes John U. Bacon for The Boston Globe. The ship was chock-full of explosives for use against Germany. But before it could reach the harbour, you might say, mistakes were made.

The ship exploded at in dock at a force estimated to be one-fifth that of the first atomic bomb.

About two hours after the explosion, Governor Samuel W. McCall sent a telegram to the mayor of Halifax: “Understand your city in danger from explosion and conflagration. Reports only fragmentary. Massachusetts ready to go the limit in rendering every assistance you may be in need of. Wire me immediately.”

Dennett’s Dizzying Intellect

While he may not repeat a word the meaning of which he is uncertain, Daniel Dennett does exhibit a dizzying intellect. David Bentley Hart reviews his latest book.

The simple truth of the matter is that Dennett is a fanatic: He believes so fiercely in the unique authority and absolutely comprehensive competency of the third-person scientific perspective that he is willing to deny not only the analytic authority, but also the actual existence, of the first-person vantage. At the very least, though, he is an intellectually consistent fanatic, inasmuch as he correctly grasps (as many other physical reductionists do not) that consciousness really is irreconcilable with a coherent metaphysical naturalism. Since, however, the position he champions is inherently ridiculous, the only way that he can argue on its behalf is by relentlessly, and in as many ways as possible, changing the subject whenever the obvious objections are raised.

For what it is worth, Dennett often exhibits considerable ingenuity in his evasions — so much ingenuity, in fact, that he sometimes seems to have succeeded in baffling even himself.

Contemporary Buildings Actually Hate You

Let’s be really honest with ourselves: a brief glance at any structure designed in the last 50 years should be enough to persuade anyone that something has gone deeply, terribly wrong with us. Some unseen person or force seems committed to replacing literally every attractive and appealing thing with an ugly and unpleasant thing. The architecture produced by contemporary global capitalism is possibly the most obvious visible evidence that it has some kind of perverse effect on the human soul.

Brianna Rennix & Nathan J. Robinson explain why you dislike contemporary architecture and, if you don’t, why you should, with some truly stunning examples. (via Hunter Baker)

Miłosz: “All I Wanted Was to Get Out”

Someone will read as moral
that the people of Rome or Warsaw
haggle, laugh, make love
as they pass by the martyrs’ pyres.
Someone else will read
of the passing of things human,
of the oblivion
born before the flames have died. (from “Campo dei Fiori“)

His biographer notes his depression, even at least one moment of despair.

Half a deadpan paragraph treats as more or less normal the moment when Miłosz swallowed a quantity of vodka, loaded a revolver with a single bullet, and played Russian roulette. Graham Greene, a not-so-dissimilar character, also gave way to this particular form of nihilism—or is it vanity? . . .

The Sovietization of Poland was bound to be fraught with moral choices that would lead either to reward or to punishment, possibly a concentration camp and death. . . . Once he was in the West, Miłosz himself was to observe, “All I wanted was to get out, and see what would happen next,” accepting that this amounted to making “a pact with the devil.”

‘The English eerie is on the rise’

A loose but substantial body of work is emerging that explores the English landscape in terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities, that is sceptical of comfortable notions of “dwelling” and “belonging”, and of the packagings of the past as “heritage”, and that locates itself within a spectred rather than a sceptred isle. . . . We are, certainly, very far from “nature writing”, whatever that once was, and into a mutated cultural terrain that includes the weird and the punk as well as the attentive and the devotional.

Robert Macfarlane writes about the eerie lands of England in many art forms, beginning with a good summary of a strange story. (via Alan Jacobs)

Call to Fund Finishing of Unpublished Burgess Novel

Prance, Noah!

There are many kinds of flood, not all of them water. Here: France, green and grey beneath a swift blue sky, and wholly submerged. The flood here is war.

Adam Roberts, professor of nineteenth-century literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, has been inspired to take up a screenplay left unproduced by Anthony Burgess, a historical movie on The Black Prince. Roberts is working on developing it into a novel. Above is an excerpt from the work in progress.

Roberts said he talked over his idea “with Andrew Biswell (director of the Burgess Foundation in Manchester the world’s leading expert on Burgess’s writing) and we agreed it would be worth seeing if the work could be completed. I have always felt that a science fiction writer is working in the same sort of territory as the writer of historical fiction (and several of my SF novels have been historical, or included historical elements): the creation of a world, the estrangement of the familiar.”

He has been crowd sourcing his fund this year and is 72 percent to his goal this morning.

How the Land Shaped America

Mark Helprin describes how the concept of America was shaped in part by its land.

For without understanding nature’s metaphors of infinity, man looms far larger in his own eyes than he would in their insistent presence, and, as history shows, comes to believe not only that he is the measure of all things but the maker and judge of life, death, and everything in between. . . .

Man reacts in the presence of limitlessness. He is buoyed immensely on tides of freedom.

Ragging on Dan Brown

Matt Walther has jotted down a few notes on how bad Dan Brown’s latest work is.

Origin is not a thriller. No writer honestly attempting to concoct one would dare to begin with several chapters of a man taking a guided tour of a museum complete with unevocative descriptions of each work of art . . .

Nor, finally, would anyone who is not going out of his way to subvert the very notion of suspense as a factor that might conceivably motivate us to turn pages attempt even as a joke what must be the most banal chapter-ending cliffhanger in the history of fiction: “‘This getaway car was hired,’ Langdon said, pointing to the stylized U on the windshield. ‘It’s an Uber.'”

In the following chapter, a cop boggles at this feat of deduction.  And there’s far, far worse, if you find such things entertaining. (via Prufrock News)

Kirkus Leans Heavily on Identity Perspectives

burned book on fireRecently, Kirkus Reviews printed a review of the Young Adult novel American Heart by Laura Moriarty. It’s a futuristic story that follows a Huckleberry Finn pattern with its leading teenager helping  an Iranian immigrant and professor on the run in an America where Muslims are interned in camps.

Apparently the review was not damning enough, because presumed readers on the social webs decried American Heart for having a white savior narrative. The reviewer, who is a non-white Muslim woman, did think it was that big of an issue, but online pressure got Kirkus to pull the review for re-evaluation. When reissued, the review said this: “Sarah Mary’s [the teenager’s] ignorance is an effective worldbuilding device, but it is problematic that Sadaf [the Iranian] is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter.”

Vulture’s Kat Rosenfield spoke to Kirkus’s editor-in-chief about how this revision was made.

And while Smith says the call-out of said problematic element is not meant to dissuade readers from reading the book — “If readers don’t care that this novel is only told about a Muslim character, from the perspective of a white teenager, that’s fine” — he acknowledges that Kirkus does care, and does judge books at least in part on whether they adhere to certain progressive ideals. When I ask if the book’s star was revoked explicitly and exclusively because it features a Muslim character seen from the perspective of a white teenager, Smith pauses for only a second: “Yes.”

I wonder if this will put American Heart on the banned books list for 2018.

Looking for Missing Pieces

In the vein of the news we shared several days ago (“Worse Than You’ve Heard” ), Abby Perry writes about a few people who have provoked her over the years, teachers and singers who were “edgy” in different ways, and our responses to those people.

I knew my salvation was secure, but I wondered if perhaps the hollowness I’d sometimes felt in the conservative evangelicalism of my childhood could be filled by the fresh air this singing provocateur was breathing. Maybe this was the missing piece.

But, she says, maybe this desire for finding a missing piece is a significant problem that draws us away from our own families and churches.

“The church isn’t a static commodity—it’s a living thing, and living things often cause and experience pain.”

Self-Help and Help for Your Soul

When asked what kind of book he reads in secret, Jake Garrett replied, self-help books.

“Ten years ago, when I worked at a small bookstore in downtown Vancouver, I would look askance at people that came in and asked for these books. What happened in their life that led them to this moment? I thought as I guided them to the self-help section, speaking softly and smiling as if anything more would break them.”

Now, he is that person.

I’ve benefited from a good self-help myself, but far better help can be found in scripture and good biblical writing. For instance, here are 6 Things Christ Does With Your Sin. Also this, God Is Bigger Than Our Immaturity.

“The ’70s was such a different era.”

Isaac Chotiner interviewed a man who wrote a lot about today’s most prominent villain Harvey Weinstein but not about his actions as a sexual predator.

“The book was not about Harvey per se,” Peter Biskind told him. “It was about the explosion of independent film in the ’90s.”

But Chotiner pressed him on whether he’d heard stories of Weinstein’s (or other people’s) aggressive immorality.

“There was a lot of free sex in the ’70s,” Biskind said. “This was the era of free love, so everybody was stoned all the time. . . . There was a general feeling in the ’70s, and I think it has always been true in Hollywood, all the way back to silent pictures, that rules don’t apply to them, which was the name of Beatty’s last movie. It’s the air they breathe. They are not constrained by civilian morality, put it that way.”

Were the ’70s really as debauched as all that? Ross Douthat thinks so. Continue reading “The ’70s was such a different era.”

What Can We Gain Looking Back?

What can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services. What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy.

From The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, who just won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Beethoven’s Fifth As It Was First Heard

Gerald Elias paints a slice of life in 1808 Vienna for someone looking forward to the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Of course, as a music lover, you sing in your parish choir and play duets and trios at home with the family (you on piano, and assorted family members doing the vocalizing). You are partial to Mozart’s concert arias, though they are the devil to get through unscathed.

The only music that is possible for you, or anyone in the world, to hear is live, face-to-face. That makes life pretty quiet. The cows low in the field on the hill, the goldfinches chirp in the linden tree in front of your house, the easy flow of the brook gurgles behind it. At night, sometimes you can hear loud talk from the tavern on the corner, but otherwise from dusk until dawn life is essentially silent.

While you wait for the performance to begin you wonder why it takes Beethoven so much longer to write a symphony than other composers – a mystery to you because from everything you’ve been told, his symphonies are rough around the edges, disconnected, and make an altogether unpleasant noise. The program, which Beethoven himself is conducting (though it’s well-known he’s hard of hearing), is as crazy as the man himself: the Sixth Symphony, one of his concert arias, the Gloria from his Mass in C, and his Fourth Piano Concerto, which Beethoven will perform himself. That’s the first half.