Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Some of you may have seen my jeremiad last week against the preferential treatment of so-called “legacies” in US university admissions. Legacy: one whose parent(s) or some other relative(s) attended the institution to which he or she is applying. As longstanding practice, most elite US colleges admit legacy students on a much more lenient basis than non-legacy ones. At Harvard, it is statistically nearly six times easier to get in as legacy than non-legacy.
I’ve been chewing over this idea of legacy. Of course the very idea offends many of us, offends our sense of fairness. Certainly it offends me.
On the other hand, the notion of heritage, of being who we are and accomplishing what we accomplish because of who our parents are, seems to me fundamental to human nature.
A few weeks ago, the world of young adult publishing was up in a tizzy over a then-forthcoming fantasy novel by a French-born Chinese author. Essentially, a few influential voices in the world of American YA literature read advanced copies of the book and accused the author of racist depictions of Africa-Americans.
Despite protesting that she had not grown up in the United States and took inspiration from indentured servitude in Asia rather than American slavery, and despite some readers pointing out that the allegedly black character isn’t black, the author asked her publisher to withdraw the book.
This storm in a teacup got me wondering: Should we not read literature by racist authors? Should we not read literature that condones racist attitudes? Naturally, considering this question led me to go back to another author, one whose racism was not in doubt: H. P. Lovecraft.
In July 1518 in the city of Strasbourg, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire but now in France, one Frau Troffea started to dance.
The hours went by. Then the days. And Mrs. Troffea wouldn’t stop. Then others joined her. Hundreds of Strasbourgers were dancing within a few weeks. None of them cared to stop. They danced until they collapsed or — in many cases — died.
I’ve been reading about the “Dancing Plague” over the last few days, perhaps in part due to my interest in plague narratives from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to Camus’s La Peste to Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Those zombie movies and shows that are your guilty pleasure? Plague narratives.
Years ago, when I first read Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, a passage instantly jumped out at me.
Dostoyevsky tells a fable through the mouth of one of his characters. But it wasn’t just the story itself that struck me. It was also the fact that I had heard it before.
In Dostoyevsky’s telling, the story is of Russian Orthodox origin, and it goes like this:
Despite my atheism, sometimes I read the Bible.
Over the holidays I started rereading my favorite books, Job and Ecclesiastes. Then I turned to the Gospels. And some passages in Matthew struck me as they never had before — how did I miss them the first time?
For example, did you know that Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech takes its central metaphor from Matthew 12:25? “And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” (All quotations are from the King James Version.)
“Harden up,” they used to say.
They were my teachers and, soon enough, my fellow 14-year-old boys.
“Harden up” — it could be the response to a great many things during those months when we lived three to a room in wooden huts at the former mill in rural New Zealand. But I remember it most frequently said when we hiked in the forest, stumbling and panting and sweating.
“Harden up,” one teacher might say to a boy complaining on his first hike that his backpack was too heavy. “Harden up,” one boy might to say to another if he fell and scraped his knees and looked like he was going to do anything other than to brush it off.
The new and controversial Gillette ad campaign focusing on the now-popular concept of “toxic masculinity” has prompted me to think back to that semester in high school in the woods.
In December 1400, just in time for Christmas, the emperor of Byzantium, Manuel II Palaiologos, arrived in England on a state visit.
A professional historian tells the full story better than I can on her blog. In short, Manuel came to Western Europe to solicit aid against the Ottoman Turks who were encroaching upon his territory. He had already stopped in Italy and France, and now he sought the friendship of King Henry IV of England.
Henry welcomed Manuel warmly. But after the emperor’s departure, England (and France and the Italian states) gave the Byzantines very little assistance. The immediate crisis for Byzantium passed because of an unlikely ally: Timur, or Tamerlane, from today’s Uzbekistan, attacked the Turks from the east. But the reprieve was temporary. Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453.
For different reasons — or are they so different? — three medieval Chinese poems have been on my mind.
(All translations, such as they are, are mine.)
A couple of months ago, reflecting on the present predicament of the United States, my father sent me this poem that I had learned in school, written in the tenth century by a deposed king now living under house arrest by the man who conquered his country:
In one episode of that excellent show, “The Good Place,” a character explains that every U.S. president who had died had ended up in “the Bad Place,” the show’s version of hell. “Except Lincoln.”
The passing of George H. W. Bush has brought forth the to-be-expected hagiographies, the reverential paeans to his management of the end of the Cold War, to his personal grace, to his loving relationship with his wife Barbara, to the beautiful letter he left Bill Clinton upon leaving office and the remarkable friendship he struck up in later years with the man who defeated him.
On the other side of the ledger, dissenting voices have pointed out how nauseating such paeans can be, and more importantly to underscore the many questionable aspects of Bush’s legacy from the Gulf War to the racism of the Willie Horton campaign ad to his administration turning a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic.
Thanksgiving was not a good day for me.
I crossed the border from The Gambia into Senegal. And I just had one of those days when somehow I was doing everything wrong. I have been traveling nonstop for nearly three-and-half years, besides many other solo trips taken before that. I have been to some of the most difficult or remote corners of the world. But on this day, I behaved like a rube. A sucker. An amateur. A college sophomore on his first trip abroad, flustered because he can’t find a Burger King within two miles.
I have crossed numerous borders, both in Africa and elsewhere, even in unsavory or dangerous places. I knew all about corrupt border officials. They’re a dime a dozen in Africa. On this day, as I tried to exit the Gambia, the border official demanded a bribe from me, dressing it up as a “departure fee.” What I should have done, what any seasoned traveler worth his salt should have done, was to stand my ground and tell him no, and nein, and nyet, and fuhgeddaboudit. But somehow, on this day, maybe because I’d gotten up at five, maybe because I had a headache, after a few minutes of resistance, I sighed and handed over the money.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."