Erdos as a guest

Paul Erdos, Tom Waits, and women in Philosophy:

But he wasn’t just moving from one university or research center to the next in a restless quest for mathematical talent. He was on the move so much because he was holy hell as a house guest. —He “forsook all creature comforts—including a home—to pursue his lifelong study of numbers,” the blurbs will tell you. Bullshit. He forsook the bother and worry of creature comforts. Other people cooked his food. Other people washed his clothing. Other people kept him from wandering into traffic. Other people woke him in time for his “preaching” appointments. Other people filled out his paperwork.

Celebrity duel: Kleist vs. Rilke

Have just emerged from reading Rilke’s Letters to a young poet. Surprised by how much I like it, given that I’ve come to think of myself as basically unsympathetic to Romanticism. I’ll chalk this one up to my general sensation of reverting to adolescence. But…

I tend to forget how late Rilke is. When he’s writing, well over a century has passed since the revolution in France and Young Werther in Germany. The years since had been filled by the aftershocks and farcical imitations of one, and the gradual swelling and dissipation of the Romantic movement kick-started by the other. Kleist, for example, feels like he should be writing later than Rilke. just as Marx had seen and analyzed capitalism at the moment of its birth, perceiving and criticising the mechanisms of the next decades, so did Kleist perceive the opposition between Romanticism and the Enlightenment, and find their synthesis. I’m thinking of his essay on hte Marionette Theatre, which punctures the Romantic idealisation of youth and innocence, while describing how the essential Romantic intensity can be reborn through experience:

…grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god…..we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence

Rilke, in 1903, is still a believer in innocence. His advice to the young poet remains at the level of “to thine own self be true”, never touching on the possibilities of schizophrenic self-invention which now endure as the only conceivable engine of intensity in a time of post-modernism.

More romantics: Wordsworth

Wordsworth, however, is a poet I’ve never been able to make mean something. The main reason, probably, is that I have no time for the pastoral. I’d rather see allusive intensity in the cities I love than in a natural world with which I find no connection.

But the above-linked article by Adam Kirsch turns up other reasons. Apparently “

many of what we now see as the Victorian virtues—earnestness, mature optimism, easy authority—are first incarnated in his poetry

“. And, perceptively:

If his first readers turned against him because he was undignified, today we are more likely to turn away from him because he is too dignified. He knows what he knows so surely, so completely, that he cannot think against himself; no poet besides Milton is as devoid of humor.


His emergence as the great, challenging poet of natural sympathy and his subsequent decline into dull institutional benevolence form one of the key instructive dramas of modern poetry.

And then, there’s the politics. Shelley embodied it with Queen Mab and the Masque of Anarchy. Byron died for it in Greece, and even Coleridge kept up some level of political involvement through his life. Wordsworth did absorb the afterglow of the French Revolution, but as a spectator rather than an actor. “

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive

” is no attempt to change the world, just a thrilling to the work others were doing around him. And even here, argues Kirsch:

“The Prelude” was written as an act of convalescence from and penance for politics, which he finally comes to see as “a degradation” fortunately “transient”

[Kirsch, admittedly, then goes on to praise Wordsworth’s “

struggle to transcend the radicalism of his youth, to rescue its benevolent impulses while escaping its shallowness and intolerance


Brecht: if sharks were men

Linked, because it has slipped my mind for almost a year, and because it’s highly entertaining (if a little obvious). If sharks were men:

There would, of course, also be schools in the big boxes. In these schools the little fish would learn how to swim into the sharks’ jaws. They would need to know geography, for example, so that they could find the big sharks, who lie idly around somewhere. The principal subject would, of course, be the moral education of the little fish. They would be taught that it would be the best and most beautiful thing in the world if a little fish sacrificed itself cheerfully…

One big cop-out

So Copenhagen failed, and we’re deep into the post-summit finger-pointing. Maybe we’ll be able to analyze the scatter-pattern of accusations, retrace what went wrong, and fix it. More likely we’ll just use the blame game as a convenient distraction from figuring out what to do next.

My favourite — both as an article, and because I agree with him — is Joss Garman in the Independent. He’s fiery about Obama (“

a speech so devoid of substance that he might as well have made it on speaker-phone from a beach in Hawaii

“), and Wen Jiabao (“

sulking in his hotel room, as if this were a teenager’s house party instead of a final effort to stave off the breakdown of our biosphere.

“). But he still finds a few likeable figures, such as Lula and Ed Miliband.

Mark Lynas is more simplistic. His much-forwarded Guardian piece has one villain: China

The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful “deal” so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame….

China’s strategy was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks, and thenensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the west had failed the world’s poor once again.

Lynas staunchly defends both Gordon Brown and his own employer, the government of the Maldives*, while attacking the country chosen by both the British and American governments to carry the can. He tries very hard to present this support of the powerful as a contrarian position — and, given he’s writing for Guardian readers, I suppose it is. George Monbiot’s article, for example, is more typical in blaming America. “

The immediate reason for the failure of the talks can be summarised in two words: Barack Obama


Lynas also snaps out a not-entirely-unfounded accusation against the NGO world: “

Campaign groups never blame developing countries for failure; this is an iron rule that is never broken


It’s a shame he doesn’t go into more detail on this. Developing countries seem to have largely outsourced their negotiating teams in environmental summits to NGOs, and to first-world campaigners willing to work cheaply for the good of the planet. It’s the same trade of influence against expertise that happens when they rely on multinational corporations to provide legal or economic advice in trade negotiations — just with added idealism. This area must conceal some fascinating culture clashes and conflicts of interest, which I’d love to see somebody dissect for public consumption.

* It’s hardly encouraging that the Guardian lets Lynas gush about the president of the Maldives without mentioning his conflict of interest.

The Arabs: a history

The Arabs: A history

, by Eugene Rogan, has just been published in hardback. The various reviews present it as an important work, perhaps even as a successor to Hourani’s

History of the Arab Peoples

— respected, but now somewhat long in the tooth. Hourani was Rogan’s “mentor”, whatever that means, but the younger historian has concentrated mainly on media and historical circumstances, in contrast to Hourani’s excursions into “demography, trading patterns and literature“.

Sadly, the reviews in the Guardian and Telegraph concentrate on the Arabs’ contact and conflict with the West. I’m hoping this is just an artefact of the British newspaper industry, not of a narrow focus in the book itself.

My new favourite christmas tradition


A giant straw goat – the traditional Scandinavian yuletide symbol – erected each Christmas in a Swedish town has been burned to the ground yet again.

European referendums

Inspired by the Swiss minaret ban, a reasonably unpleasant German group is trying to force a pan-European referendum on banning minarets. Apparently

The Lisbon Treaty, which has now entered into force, contains a provision for referenda subsequent to the collection of one million signatures in favor of the measure in question. Just how such a process might work, however, has yet to be sufficiently established.

If that’s true, surely we’re about to be deluged in referendums? A million signatures on a European level is nothing. It’s the kind of number Greenpeace could collect without breaking a sweat, for instance, let alone any party organization.

I can’t find much trace of it in the Lisbon Treaty (but the treaty is massive, and I have no idea where to look). The closest is this delightfully vague and toothless provision:

Not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of

Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.

The procedures and conditions required for such a citizens’ initiative shall be determined in accordance with the first paragraph of Article 21 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. [article 8A.4]


Alexander Lukashenko has often been referred to as Europe’s last dictator. All of a sudden, though, he seems to be on a push to rapidly liberalize Belarus’ economy and turn it into a high-tech paradise. But is this socialist island really ready to attract Western investors?


This is really simple. Business isn’t the opposite of dictatorship; it’s something almost orthogonal to it. If one man’s whim completely changes the government of a country, then it’s a dictatorship. Obviously I’m glad his current passions encompass encouraging business rather than staging purges, but that doesn’t make Lukashenko any less a dictator.