The Decline of Violence

imageOf course, every generation is convinced that the world is going to hell, that it was better in the past.  More and more, I am convinced that this is little more than a dismissal of the complexities of the modern world, and I usually take the moaning about the degradation of morals, the disrespect of the youth of today…etc.,  with a grain of salt. In my opinion this is just a form of sentimentalism and nostalgia.  Also, because of the nature of our modern media, we see violence that happens everyday, in places all around the world, and we are less shocked all the time. Some of us are becoming panicked about our jadedness, and we respond in a wide variety of ways–some good for progress, most bad.

I have a feeling, from what I’ve seen and read in my adult life, though, that humanity is growing and evolving away from the widespread violence that has been taken for granted in the near and distant past.  But still, a mere feeling that something is right cannot be defended in any credible way.

I admit I began Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” with a bit of confirmation bias because of this feeling.  To look for simple reaffirmation of one’s opinions is irresponsible, but it is another thing to gather proof and information to support a position. Pinker is a scientist who has packed his book with hundreds of citations, graphs, quotes, studies, numbers and overall credibility to put forward in support to his suggestion that violence has declined, overall, in modern history.

From women’s essential part in the civilization of the American West, to daily life in Medieval Europe, from child sacrifice to animal rights, with extensive discussions on modern war and tribalism, and with themes such as rape, child abuse, riot behavior, slavery and war, Pinker shows the sum of today’s incidents of violence is a fraction of what it was in the distant past, and less than in the near past. But it is much more complex than that statement, and it would do us well to figure out those complexities.

From the Steven Pinker website:

“Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.
With the panache and intellectual zeal that have made his earlier books international bestsellers and literary classics, Pinker will force you to rethink your deepest beliefs about progress, modernity, and human nature. This gripping book is sure to be among the most debated of the century so far.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity    by Steven Pinker

New York, NY: Viking.

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Hitchcock and Truffaut Talk Shop

imageAlfred Hitchcock was a living example of what the Cahiers du Cinema thought a director and visionary should be.  I’ve always been surprised by who Godard and Truffaut respected, especially in their early days as burgeoning Nouvelle Vague artists (Howard Hawks, Robert Aldrich…etc.), but they always stressed the importance of the director in the highly collaborative art of cinema.  The documentary Hitchcock Truffaut is probably a lot of what you’ve seen before if you’re a fan of Hitchcock, but watchable nonetheless, and something that can be learned from with each viewing.  There is a reason why Wes Anderson’s copy of Truffaut’s Hitchcock Truffaut is now an overused pile of papers.

Many clips of the documentary are available on YouTube, but the insight of the other directors is worth watching the real documentary. More importantly, though, I believe one should monetarily support works like this.

The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller has written a piece on the book that brought about the documentary (click the first link below).  And Richard Brody wrote a review on the documentary itself (click second link).  Both are excellent, and a fair tributes to the brilliance and dedication of Hitchcock and the humility of Truffaut.

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-book-that-gets-inside-alfred-hitchcocks-mind?mbid=social_facebook

 

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-book-that-reinvented-hitchcock

Nonrequired Reading for Late Night Thinking

imageNobel laureate Wisława Szymborska is more known for her poetry, but she also worked as a book reviewer in Poland for a few years.  The reviews she writes in Nonrequired Reading are short and informal, probably due to column restrictions.  The reviews, on a wide range of subjects from DYI to the search for aliens, from corruption in the world of paleontology to bird guides, from Greek philosophy to statistics, all are a pleasure to read and full of a poet’s insight.  I am always interested in nonfiction writings of novelists and poets, and if Robert Hass says Szymborska is worth reading, I’m on board. Other great reads that come to mind: Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez and Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and Camilo Jose Cela’s Journey to the Alcarria. I am nearly always taken in when good writers take the time to write in their own prose about the truths in the worlds they live in.

A quote from her review of Karel Capek’s The War with the Newts:

But…in the beginning, how can you tell a demented naysayer from a prophet with the right on his side?  The world is full of all sorts of sleeping powers–but how can you know in advance with may be safely released and which should be kept under lock at all times? Between the moment when it’s already too late, a single, suitable, perfectly timed moment must occur when the misfortune can still be averted. In all the commotion in most often passes unnoticed. But which moment is it? How do we recognize it? This is  probably the most painful question posed to human beings by our own history.”

 

Nonrequired Reading

By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh
New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2002

In Defense of Polymaths

The Invention of Nature                                                                                                                                           by Andrea Wulf
John Murray, 473 pp.

imageAlexander Von Humboldt was an often insufferable chatterbox who dominated conversation and dinner parties that usually included important contemporaries, thinkers and politicians.  His interests spanned from the movements of land masses and volcanology to astronomy, from plant and animal habitats to mineralogy to map making, from vertebrate nervous systems to geopolitics, but his greatest contribution was his (now self-evident) concept of nature.  Before Humboldt, studies were made in general isolation and empircal observation didn’t necessarily mix with the theoretical.  But Humboldt made a lifetime of experiencing nature firsthand and recording volumes of invaluable observations.  And although outside of scientific circles he is mostly forgotten, his name has left a permanent mark. He has more things named after him than anyone.  There is the Humboldt ocean current that flows past Chile and Peru, there are parks in South America named after him, like the Pico Humboldt in Venezuela and the Sierra image Humboldt in Mexico.  There is a village in Argentina, a river in Brazil, a bay in Colombia, and a geyser in Ecuador named Humboldt. In Greenland there is the Humboldt Glacier and the Kap Humboldt.  There are rivers and waterfalls in New Zealand and Tasmania, and mountain ranges in China, South Africa, Antarctica and New Zealand.  There is the Rue Alexandre de Humboldt in Paris and parks in Germany (his native country).  In North America, there are four counties, and thirteen towns, mountains,  and lakes named after him (and one river).  There is the Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California and two parks–one in Chicago and one in Buffalo, named Humboldt.  Almost 100 animals and 300 plants are named after him, and the state of Nevada was almost called Humboldt. Several minerals have his name, and there is even a Mare Humboldtianum on the moon.

His contribution to exploration and scientific thinking is almost unknowable because it is so vast. And most interestingly, he was not a scientist, but a naturalist and compulsive documenter with insatiable wanderlust and curiosity.  His immeasurable influence can at least partly be measured by his associates and those he affected.  Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe was his close friend, and Humboldt undoubtedly had an influence in his finishing Faust. Charles Darwin kept Humboldt’s Kosmos as a guiding inspiration, filling it with notes, and he attributed the development of his Origin of Species to Humboldt so blatantly that we might never have heard of his natural selection or evolution.

Thomas Jefferson considered Humboldt’s maps of the western territories invaluable, and found himself giddy with excitement when the eccentric German came to visit the White House in a young United States.

imageThe philosphy of conservation in the United States owes much to Humboldt.  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is in large part a rumination of his ideas of the interconnectedness of nature. George Perkins Marsh wrote Man and Nature in 1860, a book inspired directly by Humboldt’s ideas, and marking the beginning of conservation movement.  Henry David Thoreau found a way to focus his introverted, mountain man eccentricities after discovering Humboldt, and eventually broke away from Emerson’s existentialism, more and more valuing Humboldt’s direct observation of nature. During his time in Yosemite, John Muir filled his copy of Humboldt’s Views of Nature and Cosmos with notes, at a time when he was coming up with his ideas of glacial formation of landscapes.

Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman both loved the writings of Humboldt.

A comprehensive list of his influences could go on and on, and this book is a voluminous collection of fascinating stories, and strong encouragement for someone like me, a person with wildly varied interests, but who cannot claim to be a scientist or specialist in most things.  Our view of nature nowadays owes so much to the tenacity and inventiveness of Humboldlt, and Wulf has made a proper, highly readable book of it.

Berghaus Atlas, UCD Library Special Collections - copystand images for Prof Anne Buttimer

Berghaus Atlas, UCD Library Special Collections – copystand images for Prof Anne Buttimer

Art History and Talented Travel Writing

imageHaving a background in art history provides the traveller a useful layer of awareness.  The way people behave and the cultures that form norms and traditions, the traditions that foreigners find as interesting as locals find essential, can almost always be best expressed in their art. In writing truly great travel literature, having a reckless sense of adventure doesn’t hurt either, much less a natural talent for writing.

Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana portrays the same sort of rugged adventure that one can find in Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars, or Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, or Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia.  He documents, in consistent and often dry journal style, his travels through Persia and Afghanistan in the 1930’s (a time that seems at current reading at once more difficult and easier to explore as a westerner).  His course descriptions of the people he met and the locales in which he found them epitomize exoticism before the word became cliché.

If you’re looking for what’s been called the finest pre-war travel book, Byron sets the standard many have recognized but rarely reach.

 

Godard’s Le Mèpris and Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (19 81)

A smart critique of Godard’s Contempt (Le Mèpris 1964) and Beineix’s Diva from 1981. Written by Jimmy Weaver for The Seventh Art.

Click here, or the link at bottom.

image image

http://www.theseventhart.org/essays/The-Seventh-Art-Contempt-Le-Mepris-Diva.pdf