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John M. Hagedorn’s The In$ane Chicago Way mines the secret history of the attempt to form a Spanish Mafia by Chicago gangs in the 1990s—including why it failed—in order to examine and contextualize our current potential to intervene in and reduce gang-related violence. Hagedorn was recently interviewed by Milt Rosenberg (podcast in full here), and submitted his book to the scrutiny of the Page 99 Test, both of which you can access online, including an excerpt from Page 99 below. And, if you’re in Chicago, you can catch Hagedorn in person at the Great Cities Institute (412 S. Peoria, Suite 400) on Monday, October 19th, at 2:30PM.
From the Page 99 Test blog:
The In$ane Chicago Way tells a heretofore unknown story of how Chicago Latino gangs tried to create a Spanish mafia and why they failed. In$ane explains how a coalition of Latino gangs, Spanish Growth & Development (SGD), was created by gang leaders to control violence, organize crime, and corrupt police. Law enforcement and even most gang members were not aware of the 10-year existence of SGD which ruled the streets from the Illinois prison system. SGD was not destroyed from outside by arrests but by an internecine war of the families, or rival groups of gangs. The book follows SGD from its origins to its bloody demise in an assassination of the steps of a peace conference.
Chicago’s mafia, the Outfit, was not an uninterested observer to these efforts. They worked backstage through their minor league team, the C-Note$, to influence SGD, particularly to control violence in order to safeguard profits. The book follows the exploits of the five principal C-Note leaders, who my Outfit informant called “Two Dagos, Two Spics, and a Hillbilly.” In order to infiltrate SGD, the Outfit had to overlook their Italian C-Note leaders and push forth a Puerto Rican, Mo Mo, as their de facto representative. Page 99 is a small glimpse into Mo Mo and why he became the Outfit’s choice as their covert liaison to SGD.
To read more about The In$sane Chicago Way, click here.
To read the Page 99 Test post in full, click here.
Our free e-book for October:
Alan Gilbert’s Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting Emancipation in the War for Independence
We commonly think of the American Revolution as simply the war for independence from British colonial rule. But, of course, that independence actually applied to only a portion of the American population—African Americans would still be bound in slavery for nearly another century. Alan Gilbert asks us to rethink what we know about the Revolutionary War, to realize that while white Americans were fighting for their freedom, many black Americans were joining the British imperial forces to gain theirs. Further, a movement led by sailors—both black and white—pushed strongly for emancipation on the American side. There were actually two wars being waged at once: a political revolution for independence from Britain and a social revolution for emancipation and equality.
Gilbert presents persuasive evidence that slavery could have been abolished during the Revolution itself if either side had fully pursued the military advantage of freeing slaves and pressing them into combat, and his extensive research also reveals that free blacks on both sides played a crucial and underappreciated role in the actual fighting. Black Patriots and Loyalists contends that the struggle for emancipation was not only basic to the Revolution itself, but was a rousing force that would inspire freedom movements like the abolition societies of the North and the black loyalist pilgrimages for freedom in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.
Download your copy of Black Patriots and Loyalists, here.
Robert Pogue Harrison’s Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age explores the history of culture, from antiquity to the present, in order to frame how neotony, the retention of juvenile characteristics through adulthood, has become central to our youth-obsessed, yet historically entrenched civilization. Mired in the past, and at the same time, forced to look forward, the way in which we frame life and death errs heavy on the side of protracting the cusp of adulthood. “While genius liberates the novelties of the future,” Harrison writes, “wisdom inherits the legacies of the past, renewing them in the process of handing them down.”
From the Southern Humanities Review, which considers Harrison one of our foremost academics working today:
Robert Pogue Harrison, an intellectual steeped in the philosophical and literary traditions of the Western world, may be the single most significant writer in the humanities today. In three of his previous books—Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, The Dominion of the Dead, and Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition—he developed a particular style of writing that takes readers on a journey through time, tracing a particular concept or trope as it manifests itself in a wide array of literary and philosophical works. . . . In each of his books, Harrison demonstrates that responses to the most fundamental human questions often appear in the most unlikely places and that it takes a formidable intellect and an Auerbach-like memory to be able to discern a particular thread that runs through the tradition. To read Harrison, therefore, is to be reminded of texts that you may have read years ago, or the texts that you may be studying or even teaching at this time, only to discover that you have never carefully read them.
And, as the SHR piece concludes:
In Juvenescence, Harrison fashions himself as a type of philosophico-literary renouvelant, a young adherent to a long tradition, one who affirms his faith in the meaning-producing capacities of texts that are both all too familiar and long forgotten. In doing this, Harrison has written a book that enacts what it describes, one which boldly explores new ideas through revitalizing the past.
To read more about Juvenescence, click here.
Appropriated from the Spolia Mag Tumblr, here are some upcoming readings and release events surrounding Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project. All are free and open to the public, except where indicated.
The Dead Ladies are going on tour!
September 29, New York
A conversation with Laura Kipnis
at Melville House
46 John Street, Brooklyn
October 1, Chicago
Good old-fashioned house party (open to the public)
1926 W Erie
October 5, London
70 Cadogan Place, Knightsbridge
October 12, Paris
Reading, champagne, and launch party
at Berkeley Books
8 Rue Casimir Delavigne
October 15, Leipzig
Cabaret! With opera singer Jennifer Porto! Details T/K
(Image: Maud Gonne. Or me, in my traveling hat, I’m not sure.)
To read more about The Dead Ladies Project, click here.
The Proust Questionnaire dates back to the parlor room fad of the “confession album,” popularized in late-nineteenth-century England, in which individuals, families, strangers, and the occasional ill-mannered first date answered a series of questions, which inevitably revealed a bevy of his/her/their aspirations, fantasies, and personal tastes. Earning its current moniker via the series of sophisticated (and yes, Proustian) responses provided by the author in two recorded versions (dated 1885/86 and 1890/91, respectively), the mental survey accrued further cultural currency when it was included as form of celebrity confessional in the back pages of the American magazine Vanity Fair. To celebrate the debut of her first book The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries, we asked writer and editor Jessa Crispin to let us crawl along with her to the recesses of her mind to give you a taste of what makes her tick and let you know why she’s one of the sharpest interlocutors of contemporary art and lit around today. Not playing favorites or anything, but you can read Proust’s and—for fun and karmic resolution—Norman Mailer’s responses via hyperlinks. Read Crispin’s in full below.
Your favorite virtue:
I have been using the Minchiate tarot for a while, and for a while almost every day I was drawing the virtue card “Faith” as my card for the day. And man, I hated her, with her dreamy, delusional, silly oh everything is sure to get better vibe. I don’t like to be challenged on my “everything is fucking terrible” point of view. But she’s growing on me.
Your favorite qualities in a man:
Your favorite qualities in a woman:
Your chief characteristic:
What you appreciate the most in your friends:
I’ve been crazy blessed with friends. Brilliant fuckers, all of them. I am constantly inspired by all of them, and most everything I write starts as a conversation with one of them. But beyond their brilliance, they are all compassionate, warm people, and I don’t know what I did to deserve so many of them and of such high quality.
Your main fault:
My appetites are enormous.
Your favorite occupation:
The love of my life, Honeybee, makes candy. (Whimsical candy! It is delicious and available online!) Her kitchen was four blocks from my apartment in Chicago, so she would bring over rejected candy. Nougat that was too soft, scraps from caramel, marshmallows that didn’t set properly. She thinks of ways to make people feel like kids again, basically. She has a good job.
Your idea of happiness:
Baby elephant gifs and the sounds that camels make.
A friend just texted me my answer, though: “opera tickets for tomorrow night in a foreign city.” And this is also true.
Your idea of misery:
An unmoving train or plane.
If not yourself, who would you be?
I am quite enjoying being myself. I don’t think I would trade it in. Unless I could be a baby elephant.
Where would you like to live?
Oh babe, if I had an answer to this question, it would be a very different life I’d be leading.
Your favorite color and flower:
I am growing a collection of poisonous plants in my garden right now, so let’s say Foxglove, Datura, and Belladonna. They are awfully pretty and they will definitely kill you.
I am an adult, though, and so I do not have a favorite color.
Your favorite bird (NB addition, c. 1891):
The one specific blackbird who lived in the birch tree outside my Berlin apartment.
He’s probably dead by now, though. I don’t know the lifespan of the average urban blackbird.
Your favorite prose authors:
Oh my jesus god. The thought of answering this question exhausts me, I have to go lie under the rug now. Okay, my report from under the rug: Henry James will always be my spinster king. My love for him will always be fiercer than for anyone else. But also, all the writers in my book, plus Helen Garner, Rebecca Brown, Kathryn Davis, James Baldwin, Shalom Auslander, Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Bowen, JG Farrell, oh look I found a quarter under here.
Your favorite poets:
Lately I’ve been reading Rachel Wetzsteon a lot. Also recently discovered June Jordan, and wow. But also: Anne Carson, Hoa Nguyen, Alice Notley, Daphne Gottlieb. It would seem pretentious to say Ovid, but his exile poems are beautiful.
Your favorite heroes in fiction:
All the disappointments to their families, the guys who couldn’t get the girl, the men who couldn’t find their hero’s journey, the men who died of TB before really accomplishing anything.
Your favorite heroines in fiction:
Catherine Sloper and all the other spinsters.
Your favorite painters and composers:
Your heroes in real life:
Michael Servetus, Giordano Bruno, and all of the other heretics. Basically if the State ever set you on fire, I am on your side.
Your favorite heroines in real life:
The women who led the Ferguson protests and #blacklivesmatter. The women who were at the Stonewall riots. The lesbians who took care of the dying men during the AIDS crisis. The women I worked with at pro-choice organizations in Texas who worked hard to make sure women who wanted and needed an abortion had access. Basically every goddamn woman who just continues to do the work that needs to be done, even when they’re forgotten, spoken over, and written out of history.
What characters in history do you most dislike:
Most of the men, really.
Your heroines in world history:
Rosa Luxemburg, Joan of Arc, Louise Michel, Boudica, and all the other women who just got fed up and started setting shit on fire.
Your favorite food and drink:
Oysters and dry martinis.
Your favorite names:
I made up the name Jessa when I was 11 or 12, because I hated my birth name. But, you should know that the list of possible names that I gave full and serious consideration to were Jessa, Crystal, and Sierra. So.
What I hate the most:
My downstairs neighbors’ record collection.
World history characters I hate the most:
The imperial British.
The military event I admire the most:
The moment in the Romanian revolution where the army stopped shooting at protesters and started shooting at the government buildings.
The reform I admire the most:
Whatever reform it was that made crows capable of making and using tools.
The natural talent I’d like to be gifted with:
I wish I had been able to play an instrument, but I was terrible. My hands are like paws, absolutely no articulation or independence of movement. I was forced to try to play the clarinet, but I squawked and squeaked until they asked me to please stop. Plus, how would a person ever choose one instrument to learn and perfect? Out of all possible, how could you ever limit yourself to one? What if twenty years in you realize you chose wrong? Or maybe the instrument chooses you? I admire really good bassoon players, what must their world be like? I think Stravinsky must have, too, he always wrote good parts for bassoons.
How I wish to die:
Did you know that Isak Dinesen died because near the end of her life she refused to eat anything other than white grapes, oysters, and champagne? What a way to go.
What is your present state of mind:
For what fault have you most toleration?
Your favorite motto:
I always thought the idea of “live like each day is your last” is a stupid, selfish way to look at life. Same with, “Follow your bliss.” Your bliss is built on the oppression of others, 98% of the time. Maybe no mottoes. Maybe stop trying to simplify this terrible, amazing, idiotic, beautiful world we live in. Maybe accept the terror of not understanding, of not knowing. Maybe that’s a good place to work from.
(this is not an actual author photo of Jessa Crispin, but a woodcut of
Saint Christina the Astonishing)
To read more about The Dead Ladies Project, click here.
To visit the Bookslut and Spolia, click here and here, respectively.
Joanna Kempner’s Not Tonight: Migraine and the Politics of Gender and Health confronts our tendency to dismiss the migraine as an ailment de la femme, subject to the gendered constraints surrounding how we talk about—as well as legislate and alleviate—pain. In the book, Kempner traces the symptoms of headache-like disorders, which often deliver no set of objective symptoms but instead a mix of visual and somatic sensitivities, to the nineteenth-century origins of the migraine, its reputation in the 1940s for soliciting the “migraine personality” (code for so-called uptight neurotic women), forward to present-day sufferers. A couple of weeks ago, following the death of neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, Kempner published a piece at the Migraine blog on Sacks’s lesser-known first book: called Migraine, it drew upon Sacks’s experience working at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, the nation’s first headache clinic, and reflected on the neuropsychological effects of migraines.
From Kempner’s post:
The book itself was a tour de force. The backbone of the text is a thorough and eloquent overview of the various forms of migraine (as they were understood in 1970), peppered throughout with case studies from Sacks’ clinical practice. But what made Migraine different from other texts on the subject were Sacks’ unique observations about the disorder, within which he saw “an entire encyclopedia of neurology.” Foreshadowing his future interests in hallucinations and the nature of consciousness, Sacks devoted a large portion of the text to migraine auras, describing in detail both the variety of visual and sensory disturbances that may be experienced and the affective changes that can accompany aura: déjà vu, existential dread, anxiety, or delirium. That he illustrated these discussions with what might have been the first collection of “migraine art” made the book particularly unusual and innovative. Paintings drawn by people who had experienced migraine aura enabled Sacks to visually describe what aura felt like.
Migraine, however, is a book that ought to be read and understood as a product of its time. In 1970, when it was published, psychosomatic medicine ruled headache medicine. It was a time when some headache specialists thought it was perfectly acceptable to attribute migraine solely to rage or personality flaws of the patient. Sacks, importantly, took the position that migraine was always physiological in nature and he steadfastly rejected the “migraine personality”—an idea popular at the time that held that people with migraine were obsessive, Type-A characters. However, Sacks had not given up the psychological completely. He argued that migraine served important psychological functions, for example providing respite for patients. He also warned that, although the migraine personality may be myth, people with migraine had many other problematic personality types that had to be dealt with at the clinic. So, although Sacks was a progressive physician in many ways, reading Migraine now can sometimes be a jarring experience.
One thing is for sure. Sacks’ trademark empathy and compassion for patients shines throughout his work on migraine.
To read more about Not Tonight, click here.
To read an excerpt from the book, click here.
In a piece for the Atlantic on the debut of Stephen Colbert’s new late night gig, Megan Garber leverages some scholarship from Pablo Boczkowski’s News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Information Abundance, which positions the thriving competition and rampant imitation prominent among journalists as impetus for our desires to instantly consume—and then avoid acrimonious public conversations about—breaking news (especially that of the political kind). Garber sees Colbert as a song-and-dance Charlie Rose, rather than a David Letterman, and goes on to frame his debut as part of the slow creep of politics into entertainment and entertainment into politics, ultimately noting Boczkowski’s discussion of chatting about politics with our peers.
[P]olitics and late-night comedy have long been happy, if occasionally awkward, bedfellows. Clinton, saxophoning with Arsenio. Bush, chatting with Leno. Obama, chatting with ferns. But Colbert was, in subtle but significant ways, different. He wasn’t treating Jeb as a celebrity, giving him an easy opportunity for free, and content-free, media; he was treating him as a person who is running for political office. He was actually interviewing him. He was trying to have a conversation with him about things that directly affect people’s lives. (Same, to some extent, with George Clooney, Colbert’s first guest: The two talked about acting and movie-making, but they also talked about Darfur.)
You could think of all that as a kind of mission creep, politics seeping into entertainment; you could also, though, think of it as entertainment making its way into politics. Productively. Part of Donald Trump’s popularity has to be explained by his refusal to acknowledge a distinction between the two. And part of why politics has become so polarized, while we’re at it, is likely that we’ve come to see the workings of government as things that exist separately from the rest of our lives. The sociologist Pablo Boczkowski talks about the reluctance many people have to talk about politics in a work environment
, where such discussions can create unnecessary acrimony; instead, we silo ourselves, discussing the issues of the day, for the most part, with people we know will pretty much agree with us.
That’s not a good thing, for people or for democracy. And Colbert’s latest debut suggested that late-night comedy might actually play a role in fixing it.
To read more about News at Work, click here.
Kenneth A. Manaster’s Illinois Justice: The Scandal of 1969 and the Rise of John Paul Stevens tells the story of the “Scandal of 1969,” in which citizen-spur Sherman Skolnick accused two Illinois Supreme Court justices, Ray Klingbiel and Roy Solfisburg, of accepting bank stock bribes an influential Chicago lawyer in exchange for their decision in his pending criminal case. The resulting investigation by commission and later trial, helmed by then-unknown Chicago litigator and chief counsel John Paul Stevens, was conducted in under six weeks with a measly budget, and ultimately led to not only the resignation of both judges, but also significant reforms to the Illinois legal system—as well as Stevens’s own rise to appointments on the US Court of Appeals and later, the Supreme Court.
Fifteen years after publication and now the subject of the documentary Unexpected Justice: The Rise of John Paul Stevens, which premieres this week on Chicago’s WTTW, the book contextualizes the road to power for one of the twentieth century’s foremost judicial minds, as well as provides an account of a less familiar but crucial chapter in Illinois history, written by someone who experienced events first hand. (Manaster served on the commission that investigated the case).
Watch Unexpected Justice on Friday, September 13, at 7:30PM and Sunday, September 15, at 5:30PM CST.
Read more about Illinois Justice here.
An excerpt from an exchange between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jamelle Bouie on Twitter yesterday, in which (among many other things, which each deserve further explication to do justice to their conversation, so check it out in full here) they discuss the relationship between “the submerged state” and race in the United States:
To read more about Suzanne Mettler’s The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy, click here.
Today, we’re excited to introduce a brand-new series drawn from the interdisciplinary study of religion, helmed by series editors Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern, and acquired by editorial director for the humanities and social sciences, Alan Thomas.
Class 200 offers the most innovative works in the study of religion today. Resting on a generation of critical scholarship that reevaluated the central categories of the field, the series aims to surpass that good work by rebuilding the vocabulary of, and establishing new questions for, religious studies.
The series will publish authors who understand descriptions of religion to be always bound up in explanations for it. It will nurture authorial reflexivity, documentary intensity, and genealogical responsibility. The series presumes no inaugurating definition of religion other than what it is not: it is not reducible to demographics, doctrines, or cognitive mechanics. It is more than a discursive concept or cultural idiom. It is something that can be named only with a precise and poetic wrestling with the nature of its naming.
Class 200 seeks to renew the study of religion as a field of inquiry that is open in terms of disciplinary affiliation, relishes archival and ethnographic immersion, and is scrupulous in its use of categories. The series is not defined by topics but by certain shared fundamentals: rigor, an investment in language, an awareness of authority, and a strategy regarding the politics of truth claims in any archival or anthropological situation.
Class 200 takes its name from the Dewey Decimal System call number for religion.
BTW, I have completely faith (no pun intended) that Class 200 has excellent potential on Twitter and you should follow them @Class200. Here’s a teaser:
Contact the series editors here:
Department of Religious Studies
John Lardas Modern
Department of Religious Studies
Franklin & Marshall College
To read more about Class 200 and other series, click here.
Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, University of Chicago Press editorial director Alan Thomas has a piece on the legacy of Norman Maclean’s now classic account of the 1949 Mann Gulch disaster, Young Men and Fire—carefully detailed and processed by an account of Thomas’s own experience of bringing the long delayed manuscript to publication. Below follows an excerpt from the longer essay, a must-read for anyone interested in Maclean’s stunning reportage or the contradictions and complexities inherent in a young man editing a posthumous manuscript from one of our most acclaimed storytellers, on furloughs in Japan, Chicago, and Missoula, Montana. Visit the LARB website for me.
Reading Young Men and Fire for the first time, you expect that the book will end with fire science and the definitive account it allows Maclean to give at the end of part two of the book. But there is a third and last part to come, a very brief section that feels like a coda. It is in some ways the most experimental part of Young Men and Fire, and Marie Borroff, for one, argued in her essay on the book that it is not a success, that the book should have ended short of part three. “I have to say,” writes Borroff, “and I say it hesitantly and with pain — that what we are presented with in the last twenty pages as his further attempts to bring the poetic imagination to bear on his subject strike me as just that: as attempts.”
Perhaps, but those last pages were important to Maclean. Part three, he says in his notes, entrusts itself “to the Imagination and Compassion of the Story-teller.” Imagination takes the form of an elevated view of the Smokejumpers’ last moments, extending an earlier reference to Thomas Hardy’s Sky Spirits, “who comment upon tragedies of man from distant horizons.” Compassion brings the storyteller, and us, back to the ground with the doomed men, “to project ourselves into their final thoughts.” He envisions, most importantly, their loneliness, which, he writes, “loomed up suddenly — they were young and not used to being alone.” Here, accompanying the men to their end, Maclean recalls his wife, who died of cancer of the esophagus: “Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.”
These are the last lines of the book — an abrupt, almost unbearable ending. All deaths are lonely, Maclean seems to say in these final pages, but acknowledging that his own wife was lonely in death may reveal a deeper sorrow. We think of his father’s words in A River Runs Through It: “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.” We think of Dodge, who at the crucial moment couldn’t save his men, and whose wife told Maclean, “I loved him very much, but I didn’t know him very well.” And we think of the loneliness of an old man spending his last years at a writing table, as the energy to finish leaves him.
The closing pages of Young Men and Fire may be imperfect and strained, but that is because Maclean is trying to grasp something ultimate — the quality of “a special kind of death,” the death of the young and unfulfilled. He speculates that for them the last emotions were fear, followed by self-pity and bewilderment, and then finally, as they each made a last lunge up the hill, “some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth.”
Read Thomas’s essay in full at the Los Angeles Review of Books, here.
To read more about Young Men and Fire, click here.
Below is an excerpt from an interview conducted by the editor/novelist Mairead Case with Jessa Crispin, about Crispin’s forthcoming book The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries (publishing on September 22—my birthday, coincidentally). The two talk bathing rituals, auguring one’s future via hypothetically deciding whose role you’d play in the Odyssey, kitchen-adjacent and macaroni-sacrificing breakdowns, love, travel, jerks, and writing, among other things.
When do you not feel lonely?
There are moments.
I wish other people would write about loneliness more. It’s hard to remember that it’s not personal. That we live in a world that is built to make people lonely. That our society is structured around competition, so that we cannot connect we must always conquer. We are set up to think there is a finite amount of goodness in the world, and so if we are lacking in it it is because that bitch over there with the really good shoes is hoarding it. So it’s difficult to remember that your loneliness is not really about you and everyone has it.
So I try to remember that. It’s been a really long time, though, since I’ve been in a relationship that anybody else would recognize as a relationship, and that is hard. I’ve never felt like I’ve had a family where I could go back to if I were in trouble. But there are compensations. I have “family” scattered all over the world now, and no matter where I’ve lived I’ve always managed to have a dining room table crowded with others with full wine glasses and some divine hunk of meat steaming in the center. I am currently in a city where I don’t live, but I managed to cobble together a rowdy dinner party and I made pot roast with sour cherry couscous and we all drank too much wine and it went on until the next day, and it was wonderful. I was not lonely then.
Read the interview in full, here.
To read more about The Dead Ladies Project, click here.
Edward H. Miller’s Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy explores how a coterie of civic-minded operatives, backroom business brokers, evangelical leaders, and other representatives of the far-right generated a populist movement based on the dollar, the Bible, and an anti-civil rights agenda that would remake the Republican party in their own image, beginning at home in Dallas. Below follows a brief excerpt from a Q & A Miller did recently with the Dallas Morning News. You can read it in full here.
In our politics today, what do you hear of the tone that dominated Dallas in the middle of the last century?
I see it echoing throughout the presidential campaign. It’s safe to say that a lot of the incendiary speech has certainly trumped the careful deliberation among the right, and conspiratorial thinking that was long a characteristic of “Nut Country” in the 1950s is very much in vogue today. Donald Trump consistently doubts the legitimacy of President Obama’s birth certificate. The apocalyptic doomsday rhetoric that ultraconservatives like H.L. Hunt, Dan Smoot, W. A. Criswell used is very much part of politics today. This does little to improve our public discourse. When I hear people like Lindsey Graham say he’s running for president because the world is on fire or Glenn Beck mention that the passage of Obamacare means the end of America as we know it, it does remind me of the frenzied style, the over-the-top dialogue that really characterizes the features of the Dallas ultraconservatives.
To read more about Nut Country, click here.
Our free e-book for September:
Into Africa by Craig Packer
Craig Packer takes us into Africa for a journey of fifty-two days in the fall of 1991. But this is more than a tour of magnificent animals in an exotic, faraway place. A field biologist since 1972, Packer began his work studying primates at Gombe and then the lions of the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater with his wife and colleague Anne Pusey. Here, he introduces us to the real world of fieldwork—initiating assistants to lion research in the Serengeti, helping a doctoral student collect data, collaborating with Jane Goodall on primate research.
As in the works of George Schaller and Cynthia Moss, Packer transports us to life in the field. He is addicted to this land—to the beauty of a male lion striding across the Serengeti plains, to the calls of a baboon troop through the rain forests of Gombe—and to understanding the animals that inhabit it. Through his vivid narration, we feel the dust and the bumps of the Arusha Road, smell the rosemary in the air at lunchtime on a Serengeti verandah, and hear the lyrics of the Grateful Dead playing off bootlegged tapes.
Into Africa also explores the social lives of the animals and the threats to their survival. Packer grapples with questions he has passionately tried to answer for more than two decades. Why do female lions raise their young in crèches? Why do male baboons move from troop to troop while male chimps band together? How can humans and animals continue to coexist in a world of diminishing resources? Immediate demands—logistical nightmares, political upheavals, physical exhaustion—yield to the larger inescapable issues of the interdependence of the land, the animals, and the people who inhabit it.
Download your free copy of Into Africa here.
The novelist and occasional raconteur Jonathan Ames was asked by the Big Issue to name his “Top 5 Books for American Anglophiles.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, he named a cadre of authors instead, Anthony Powell among them, and Ames had this to say, in particular, about Powell and his work:
About 15 years ago some snobby writer in New York told me he was reading Powell’s epic 12-novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time, and wanting to be this writer’s intellectual peer (a hopeless endeavour), I set out to read it as well. I spent nearly a year absorbing all 12 books, and especially enjoyed the beautiful edition that had been put out by the University of Chicago Press—the spines of the books, when all lined up, formed the painting of the same name by Nicolas Poussin, which had been, in part, Powell’s inspiration for the work. A lot of Dance was rather boring but it was also quite wonderful to follow Powell’s characters over 70 years, and I saw resonance in my own life—how we keep re-encountering the same people over and over, how we keep struggling with the same issues over and over. Powell certainly intended this, as he wished to demonstrate in his fiction, I believe, aspects of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence.
To read up on the many works of Anthony Powell published by the University of Chicago Press, click here.
The Phi Beta Kappa Society recently announced the shortlists for their 2015 book awards, and several books published by university presses made the cut. The awards include the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award (which honors the book “that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity”), and the Christian Gauss Award, described below:
The Christian Gauss Award goes to books in the field of literary scholarship or criticism. The prize, created in 1960, honors the late Christian Gauss, the distinguished Princeton University scholar, teacher, and dean who also served as President of The Phi Beta Kappa Society.
Among those books shortlisted for the Gauss Award was Ramie Targoff’s Posthumous Love: Eros and the Afterlife in Renaissance England, which considers the boundaries that Renaissance English poets drew between earthly and heavenly existence, as they transformed the concept of posthumous love—so dominant in the days of Dante and Petrarch—and instead introduced a new mode of poetics that derived its emotional and aesthetic power from its insistence upon love’s mortal limits.
Winners—each of whom will receive a $10,000 prize—will be announced on October 1, 2015.
To read more about Posthumous Love, click here.
from Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries
Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! Help!
William James, Varieties of Religious Experience
“You’re in Berlin because you feel like a failure.”
I had met this man all of ten minutes ago and he was already summing me up neatly. I made subtle readjustments to my clothing, as if it had been a wayward bra strap or an upwardly mobile hemline that had given me away. More likely it was my blank stare in response to his question, “So, what brings you to Berlin?”
He has had to do this a lot, I imagine: greet lost boys and girls, still wild with jet lag, still unsure how to make ourselves look less obviously like what we are, we members of the Third Great Wave of American Expatriation to Berlin. This man before me was second on the list of names that everyone gets from worried friends when resettling overseas: Everyone I Know in the City to Which You Are Moving (Not Totally Vouched For). I had lasted about a week before I sent e-mails tinged with panic to everyone on my list. He had been the first to answer.
I must have blushed at the accuracy of his remark, because he immediately qualified it. “Everyone who moves to Berlin feels like a failure. That’s why we’re here. You’ll have good company.” Still embarrassed, I scanned the menu for one of the four German words I had mastered and, failing, pointed helplessly to a random item when the waiter returned. It would prove to be a strange Swiss soda of indeterminate flavor. It tasted like the branch of a tree, carbonated. It was not unpleasant. I had been shooting for something alcoholic, but I was already too laid bare to have admitting to a mistake and reordering left in me.
At this moment it seemed unlikely this American could commiserate. My own failings were too grandiose, the depths to which I had fallen too abysmal. I was narcissistic in my failings, and he looked like he was doing pretty okay. He sat across from me confident, knowledgeable. He had ordered in German. The people in the restaurant had greeted him by name. He talked about artistic projects he was working on. He was certainly sweating less than I was on this hot July day. Later a tale would unravel, one that mimicked the stories of so many of the Americans who had flocked here over the last decade. Unable to survive financially in New York without having to abandon their writing, their art, their music, they came to a city of cheap rents, national health insurance, and plentiful bartending jobs that could cover a reasonable cost of living. He had an apartment. It had hardwood floors. A failure, my eye.
In contrast, there I was, ten days into my new city and still stumbling around like a newborn calf. I was tired of being the person I was on an almost atomic level. I longed to be disassembled, for the chemical bonds holding me together to weaken and for bits of me to dissolve slowly into the atmosphere. It was not a death wish, not really. Not anymore. I was hoping something in the environment, some sturdier, more German atoms, would replace them.
Because there does seem to be something about Berlin that calls out to the exhausted, the broke, the uninsurable with preexisting mental health disorders, the artistically spent, those trapped in the waning of careers, of inspiration, of family relations, and of ambition. To all those whose anxiety dreams play out as trying to steer a careening car while trapped in the backseat, come to us. We have a café culture and surprisingly affordable rents. Come to us, and you can finish out your collapse among people who understand.
* * *
Let’s say, for a moment, that the character of a city has an effect on its inhabitants, and that it sets the frequency on which it calls out to the migratory. People who are tuned a certain way will heed the call almost without knowing why. Thinking they’ve chosen this city, they’ll never know that the city chose them. Let’s say, for a moment, that the literal situation of a city can leak out into the metaphorical realm. That the city is the vessel and we are all merely beings of differing viscosity, slowly taking on the shape of that into which we are poured.
If that were the case, what to make of the fact that Berlin is built on sand? Situated on a plain with no natural defenses, no major river, no wealth of any particular resource, it’s a city that should not exist. It can’t be any wonder that Berlin has for hundreds of years—no, longer than that, past Napoleon, past the medieval days when suspected witches were lined up at the city gates and molten metal was poured between their clenched teeth, past the whispers of the Romans that those who inhabited these lands were not quite human, back to the days of the people residing here who are now known to us only by some pottery shards and bronze tools—been a little unstable. It would explain the city’s endless need to collapse and rebuild, even as the nation that engulfs it marches on confidently, linearly.
Perhaps its unstable nature is what beckons the unstable to its gates. The Lausitzer. The Jastorf. The Semnonen. The name-less and the preliterate. A shifting bunch of conquerors and the conquered. On through invaders and defenders, and populations reduced by half in war, disease, and the destruction of whoever pulled the short straw for being the scapegoat this century. The process merely sped up in the twentieth, oscillating madly through world wars and grotesque ideas, crashing economies and blind eyes turned.
It plays out seasonally as well here in the northern reaches of Germany. The lush highs of summer, everything green and tangled with a sun reluctant to leave its post at night and overly enthusiastically trying to rouse you from bed in the very early hours of the morning, crash endlessly down toward the darkness of the winter solstice. The trees that had been blooming in a state of fecund glory when I arrived in the city lost their leaves, revealing that the only things behind them were the endless concrete boxes of Soviet midcentury “architecture.” The sun shunned us and rarely peeked out from behind its thick cloud cover. When it deigned to, it gave off all the glow and heat of a porch light. The gray of the sky matched the gray of the buildings matched the gray of the thick coating of ice that remained on the sidewalks all winter. I fell on it one night, or early one morning, I guess, a little worse for wear, accompanied by a man I met at a bar, whose entire seduction strategy was just to follow me home, despite the fact that I kept trying to shoo him away like a stray dog.
I was six months into my Berlin residence. And from my akimbo position I threw the holy tantrum of a sailor-mouthed two-year-old. “Fuck this city. Fuck it. Why the fuck did I ever move here, god fucking damn it.”
“You’re strange,” said the German man, still resolutely standing by.
“Help me up.”
* * *
That’s when I took my William James essays off the shelf. I found in his works of philosophy a friend, a mentor, a professor, and some sort of idealized father. It was his works on the more mundane matters that I relied on—how to make changes in your life, how to believe you can make changes in your life, how to convince yourself to get out of bed in the morning, how not to be a worthless slug—rather than his more important pieces about war or whatever.
James is now a bit of an odd fellow in philosophy. More widely influential than widely known, his theory of pragmatism and his groundbreaking work in the field of psychology make him something of a hidden mover. If you do seek him out, it’s not generally in the way one reads Descartes or Kant or Nietzsche, as a refinement of the intellect or in the pursuit of one’s studies. One finds James when one needs him. He makes quiet sense of the world in all its glories and deprivations, its calamities and its beauties. As a philosopher, James is able to hold all of the sorrow and violence and pain of the world in his mind and remain somehow optimistic. It doesn’t wipe out the goodness of the world, it just sits beside it. It’s no wonder then that people get a little religious about this agnostic philosopher, this man who can restore your faith in the world without necessarily bringing god into it.
I sought out William James because I needed him. He and I were now separated by about a century of death, but we found ourselves occupying the same biographical eddy: bottoming out in Berlin.
* * *
Here is how William James found himself in Berlin: a failure. He had tried and failed to become a painter, failed to become a doctor, failed to become an adventurer. He was not yet a writer, but he was almost certainly still a virgin. He was in his mid-twenties and painfully aware that he had failed even in deciding what it was he wanted to do. He stood there, absolutely calcified with indecision and doubt, while his soon-to-be-famous friends like Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. made decisions and started careers, and his soon-to-be-famous younger brother, Henry, started his literary apprenticeship with the Atlantic.
Whereas he—well, he fled. First to Dresden and then to Berlin. He arrived under the pretext of furthering his education, but that may have simply been a way to convince his parents to pay for the trip because, despite his advancing age, he had yet to make an income. At any rate, he failed to go to class, ever. Instead he holed up in his Berlin guesthouse, learning German, training his telescope on the legs of the occupants of the all-girls’ school across the street, and failing to figure out a way to flirt with the pretty woman who played the piano downstairs. All the while in his letters to his brother he was alluding to a daily battle not to do himself in.
James lightly fictionalized this time in his life in Varieties of Religious Experience, passing off the breakdown to someone he knows who told him about it. (He’s French, you don’t know him.) In that work he described the sensation of his suicidal idyll as “desperation absolute and complete, the whole universe coagulating about the sufferer into a material of overwhelming horror, surrounding him without opening or end. Not the conception or intellectual perception of evil, but the grisly blood-freezing heart-palsying sensation of it close upon one, and no other conception or sensation able to live for a moment in its presence.” And while his letters to his parents hint at some of this darkness, there he mostly chats about that other Berlin experience, the roast veal and the beer and the music and the philosophy.
Here is how Berlin responded to William James’s time in Berlin: they built a center in his name. At the place of his greatest misery and torment, they built a permanent structure. Although maybe at this point they couldn’t help it. After all the documentation they had to do of the horrors of the twentieth century, maybe now it’s an unconscious reflex to throw up a memorial on the site of every trauma.
Well, not really a structure, I guess. More like a small room. The minute I learned of the center’s existence, I sent off an e-mail to make an appointment. I expected a hall of philosophy on the university campus, maybe in that glorious red brick so many of the buildings in James’s time had been constructed with. I scribbled the address down on a piece of paper, and I took the train to the outskirts, to the University of Potsdam campus. It’s situated next to Sanssouci and its gardens, the former playground of the Prussian king. While the main path through the gardens is still marked with magnificent elm trees, most of the grounds have been allowed to go to seed. It’s not a tourist destination on par with Versailles, and so it is kept in only middling shape. There is a lovely rose garden, but that is surrounded by tangle and bramble. It’s been let go in the Berlin way, all of those straight German lines blurring a little into chaos.
Past the garden gates, into the campus, into the main philosophy hall, up the main staircase, down a hallway, to the left and then right, I came to my destination. It was a small door. The William James Center proved, despite its authoritative name, to be the work of one man. Herr Doktor Professor Logi Gunnarsson. Or is it Herr Professor Doktor . . . I should have remembered to look up the proper order before I left. “It’s Logi, call me Logi.” Luckily Dr. Logi is Icelandic and not beholden to the German titling system. The center’s archives are really just the contents of Dr. Logi’s office. A desk, a computer, some bookcases. Dr. Logi is slight and sandy, and he has the wonderful awkwardness that comes with too many hours spent in the company of dead men.
He is, he tells me, attempting to re-create William James’s personal library as part of his administration of the center, so that he can be surrounded by the same books that surrounded James. It’s a devotional act couched in a scholarly one. It’s an act I can understand. Dr. Logi pours me a cup of tea, and we chat about our good friend William James. Up for discussion, a traumatic encounter with a prostitute, alluded to in letters to his brother and in a journal. He did, it seems, either lose his virginity to the prostitute or, perhaps even more traumatically, fail to.
“The poor dear,” I say.
“Yes, quite. He was hopeless with women. It seems, though, that after he married Alice Howe Gibbens, the physical ailments he was treating in Berlin, the bad back and so on, disappeared.”
“Were they caused by the burden of a protracted virginity?”
“Perhaps. The poor dear.”
I am keeping Dr. Logi from professional duties, but I don’t care and it appears he doesn’t either. I imagine it might be a relief for him, as it is for me, to have someone to converse with about our favorite person. Or willingly converse, as I’m sure he inflicts William James on the people around him like I do.
“What do you make,” I ask slowly, “of the fact that his first book wasn’t published until he was forty-nine?”
Part of William’s freakout, Dr. Logi had mentioned earlier, sprang from an enormous need to be seen. By the public, by his friends, by his father. He wanted to “assert his reality” on the world, as he wrote in his letters, and it took approximately twenty years after writing that statement until he would.
“Surely not . . .” Dr. Logi starts, but then he does the math in his head. “I guess I knew that but had forgotten. I mean . . . And he could not have known he would eventually succeed.”
We both sit quietly, drinking the dregs of our tea and feeling the long expanse of the years before us. The weight of uncertainty. Whether it’ll be a late blooming or whether the soil will prove to be infertile.
* * *
Whenever James was corresponding with a colleague or an inquirer, Dr. Logi told me, he would request from them a portrait. It was important for him to see the whole of the person, at least a bit of their humanity, and not only their written representation.
In that spirit, I have before me two images of William James. The first was taken around the time he moved to Berlin. He looks stricken, pale and withdrawn. It is as if he had recoiled into a permanent flinch. He looks off to the side, unable perhaps to meet the camera’s gaze. There is something fractured deep at the heart of him.
In the other, it is a few decades on. There is gray in his beard and his face is worn. He exudes charm, warmth, and wisdom. It is a William James in whose lap you want to sit and listen to stories. He is keeping some secrets, but he will share them if you draw near.
It is the distance between these two photographs that is so fascinating. Not simply in age but in substance of the man. Biographers are interested (I am interested) in the Berlin breakdown because of the distance traveled between the two Jameses and the quality of the end result. It’s a favorite myth in our culture that hardship makes you a better person, that it is merely the grindstone on which your essence is refined and polished. But the truth is that scarcity, depression, thwarted ambition, and suffering most often leave the person a little twisted. That is the territory where mean drunks and tyrannical bastards come from.
Not so with James. He may have always been a little hopeless with women (he sent a series of hilarious and heartbreaking letters to his Alice in the months before their wedding, in a vein that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever gotten a little sullen after a bottle of wine and decided to start texting), and the weight of depression did occasionally re-descend, but he walked out of that phase with dignity and great compassion. He used his experiences, both the good and the ill, for the base of his incredibly humane body of work.
So then what’s the magic formula? Can his transition be distilled down to a scientific protocol to be reproduced at home in your own basement laboratory? Could we use William James’s example to turn our respective chemical imbalances into alchemical processes?
* * *
There are persons whose existence is little more than a series of zig-zags, as now one tendency and now another gets the upper hand. Their spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles. Wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and an effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes.
William James, Varieties of Religious Experience
It is difficult today to imagine the Berlin that James encountered in the nineteenth century. So much of the city was reduced to rubble and ash in the intervening years. I can look at photos and get a sense of who the city might have been. But when I’m out, actually walking around on the streets, it is an entirely different place.
Most of the surface of the city was bulldozed after World War II, and the unsalvageable and the unclaimed was dumped in Grunewald on the outskirts of town. The pile of junk that used to be houses, used to be bakeries and hat shops, used to be attached to human bodies, was covered in dirt, and the wild was allowed to reclaim it. Now it is something of a park or nature preserve, with hiking trails through the woods—the trees still looking suspiciously young—up and down this artificial hill. One of the only hills in this swamp-turned-into-a-city.
The Germans may look like proper churchgoing Lutherans on the outside, but they are all at heart tree-worshiping animists from way back, starting with the pagan cults in the Schwarzwald, to the nature idolatry of the romantic and counter-Enlightenment movements in the nineteenth century. It still bleeds through in their songs and in their art. A few decades before James arrived, Bogumil Goltz wrote, “What the evil over-clever, insipid, bright cold world encumbers and complicates, the wood-green mysterious, enchanted, dark, culture-renouncing but true to the law of nature must free and make good again.”
So maybe that is where James’s Berlin still resides, out in Grunewald, buried in some sort of purification rite inspired by a mysterious calling from deep within the German DNA. The wood-green making all of those horrors good again. It’s a calm place, soothing. But also policed by territorial wild boar.
To read more about The Dead Ladies Project, click here.
An excerpt from Jacqui Shine’s review of Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars at the LA Review of Books:
Though the allegiances of the culture wars tend to fall along predictable political lines, Hartman gives special attention to surprising moments of reversal and repetition. He notes, for example, that colorblind conservatism actually marks something of a reversion to an earlier colorblind liberalism, rather than the invention of a new ideological stance from whole cloth. After 1965, Hartman argues, a “reconstructed racial liberalism favored a proactive government that would guarantee black Americans not only ‘equality as a right and a theory’ but also, as the nation’s leading liberal Lyndon Johnson famously put it, ‘equality as a fact and a result.’” The fruit of this strategy was the rise of affirmative action, and “the line that divided opponents in the affirmative action debate … was the line between an older colorblind racial liberalism and a newer color-conscious racial liberalism that had incorporated elements of Black Power into its theoretical framework.” Thus, when conservatives took up the rhetoric of colorblindness to oppose racial quotas, they were repurposing an earlier liberal position. Hartman likewise stresses the peculiar politics of the national debate over pornography, in which “the logic of anti-porn feminism influenced the Christian Right,” and William Buckley Jr. found himself agreeing with Andrea Dworkin that pornography should be banned, though not about why.
Read the review in full here.
To read more about The War for the Soul of America, click here.
This past weekend, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago launched the exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, co-organized by Naomi Beckwith and Dieter Roelstraete. An easy explication for the impetus behind the show takes the viewer to the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s, where African American artists and musicians grappled with new language and forms inspired by the black nationalist turn in the Civil Rights movement. I’m plucking that line from the jacket copy, but the show (and its associated book) goes beyond [its important] cultural inventory and instead repositions the wide-ranging experimental works and the community of artists who made them in one particular canon to which they have long-belonged: the history of avant-garde collectives engaged equally in art and social justice.
You can view sample pages from the book here.
From a very brief description via the Art Newspaper:
This year, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), an avant-garde jazz collective founded on the South Side of Chicago, celebrates its 50th birthday. Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art is joining the festivities with the exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now. Hingeing on the themes of improvisation, experimentation and collectivity, it looks at the 1960s avant-garde African-American arts scene of the South Side, including the AACM and visual art collectives such as the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA) and art that responds to and continues this legacy.
And from a more fleshed-out version at the MCA Chicago’s website:
The exhibition, which takes its title from a 1984 book by Chicago jazz critic John Litweiler, showcases the multifaceted world of the black avant-garde in Chicago during the 1960s alongside a selection of contemporary artists’ interpretations of this heritage. It includes works of music and art from, among others, AACM-founder, pianist, and painter Muhal Richard Abrams; Art Ensemble of Chicago bandleader Roscoe Mitchell; and AfriCOBRA cofounders Jeff Donaldson, Jae and Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Gerald Williams. Archival materials—brochures, banners, photographs, posters, sheet music, record covers—provide a rich context for the exhibition. Recent works by artists such as Terry Adkins, Nick Cave, Renée Green, Rashid Johnson, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Cauleen Smith, and Stan Douglas present an ongoing intergenerational conversation about experimentation, improvisation, collective action, and the search for freedom. Working together across multiple platforms, Catherine Sullivan, George Lewis, Charles Gaines, and Sean Griffin are collaborating on an opera, to be presented on the MCA Stage, and on a related installation within the exhibition.
Long story, short: the sample pages are tantalizing, because the show is quite stunning in its breadth and depth. If the art, images, marginalia, and artifacts gathered here don’t immediately grab you, then, I just don’t know. You should go back and read George E. Lewis’s communal history, A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music? And then think to yourself: I wonder how this looked. And felt. And how it worked. And what it all means now.
Read more about The Freedom Principle here.
Our free e-book for August:
Bernd Stiegler’s Traveling in Place: A History of Armchair Travel
Armchair travel may seem like an oxymoron. Doesn’t travel require us to leave the house? And yet, anyone who has lost herself for hours in the descriptive pages of a novel or the absorbing images of a film knows the very real feeling of having explored and experienced a different place or time without ever leaving her seat. No passport, no currency, no security screening required—the luxury of armchair travel is accessible to us all. In Traveling in Place, Bernd Stiegler celebrates this convenient, magical means of transport in all its many forms.
Organized into twenty-one “legs”—or short chapters—Traveling in Place begins with a consideration of Xavier de Maistre’s 1794 Voyage autour de ma chambre,an account of the forty-two-day “journey around his room” Maistre undertook as a way to entertain himself while under house arrest. Stiegler is fascinated by the notion of exploring the familiar as though it were completely new and strange. He engages writers as diverse as Roussel, Beckett, Perec, Robbe-Grillet, Cortázar, Kierkegaard, and Borges, all of whom show how the everyday can be brilliantly transformed. Like the best guidebooks, Traveling in Place is more interested in the idea of travel as a state of mind than as a physical activity, and Stiegler reflects on the different ways that traveling at home have manifested themselves in the modern era, from literature and film to the virtual possibilities of the Internet, blogs, and contemporary art.
Reminiscent of the pictorial meditations of Sebald, but possessed of the intellectual playfulness of Calvino, Traveling in Place offers an entertaining and creative Baedeker to journeying at home.
August 5, 2015, marks the 66th anniversary of the Mann Gulch wildfire, which eventually spread to cover 4,500 acres of Montana’s Gates of the Mountain Wilderness in Helena National Forest, and claimed the lives of 12 of the 15 elite US Forest Service Smokejumpers, who acted as first responders in the moments before the blaze jumped up a slope and “blew up” its surrounding grass. Haunted by the event, Montana native, author, and former University of Chicago professor Norman Maclean devoted much of his life’s work to researching and writing an account of the events that unfolded that first week of August 1949, which would met publication posthumously two years after Maclean’s death as Young Men and Fire. The book, now considered a classic reconstruction of an American tragedy and a premier piece of elegiac memoir qua historical non-fiction, went on to win a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992. Below follows an excerpt.
Then Dodge saw it. Rumsey and Sallee didn’t, and probably none of the rest of the crew did either. Dodge was thirty-three and foreman and was supposed to see; he was in front where he could see. Besides, he hadn’t liked what he had seen when he looked down the canyon after he and Harrison had returned to the landing area to get something to eat, so his seeing powers were doubly on the alert. Rumsey and Sallee were young and they were crew and were carrying tools and rubbernecking at the fire across the gulch. Dodge takes only a few words to say what the “it” was he saw next: “We continued down the canyon for approximately five minutes before I could see that the fire had crossed Mann Gulch and was coming up the ridge toward us.”
Neither Rumsey nor Sallee could see the fire that was now on their side of the gulch, but both could see smoke coming toward them over a hogback directly in front. As for the main fire across the gulch, it still looked about the same to them, “confined to the upper third of the slope.”
At the Review, Dodge estimated they had a 150- to 200-yard head start on the fire coming at them on the north side of the gulch. He immediately reversed direction and started back up the canyon, angling toward the top of the ridge on a steep grade. When asked why he didn’t go straight for the top there and then, he answered that the ground was too rocky and steep and the fire was coming too fast to dare to go at right angles to it.
You may ask yourself how it was that of the crew only Rumsey and Sallee survived. If you had known ahead of time that only two would survive, you probably never would have picked these two—they were first-year jumpers, this was the first fire they had ever jumped on, Sallee was one year younger than the minimum age, and around the base they were known as roommates who had a pretty good time for themselves. They both became big operators in the world of the woods and prairies, and part of this story will be to find them and ask them why they think they alone survived, but even if ultimately your answer or theirs seems incomplete, this seems a good place to start asking the question. In their statements soon after the fire, both say that the moment Dodge reversed the route of the crew they became alarmed, for, even if they couldn’t see the fire, Dodge’s order was to run from one. They reacted in seconds or less. They had been traveling at the end of the line because they were carrying unsheathed saws. When the head of the line started its switchback, Rumsey and Sallee left their positions at the end of the line, put on extra speed, and headed straight uphill, connecting with the front of the line to drop into it right behind Dodge.
They were all traveling at top speed, all except Navon. He was stopping to take snapshots.
The world was getting faster, smaller, and louder, so much faster that for the first time there are random differences among the survivors about how far apart things were. Dodge says it wasn’t until one thousand to fifteen hundred feet after the crew had changed directions that he gave the order for the heavy tools to be dropped. Sallee says it was only two hundred yards, and Rumsey can remember. Whether they had traveled five hundred yards or two hundred yards, the new fire coming up the gulch toward them was coming faster than they had been going. Sallee says, “By the time we dropped our packs and tools the fire was probably not much over a hundred yards behind us, and it seemed to me that it was getting ahead of us both above and below.” If the fire was only a hundred yards behind now it had gained a lot of ground on them since they had reversed directions, and Rumsey says he could never remember going faster in his life than he had for the last five hundred yards.
Dodge testifies that this was the first time he had tried to communicate with his men since rejoining them at the head of the gulch, and he is reported as saying—for the second time—something about “getting out of this death trap.” When asked by the Board of Review if he had explained to the men the danger they were in, he looked at the Board in amazement, as if the Board had never been outside the city limits and wouldn’t know sawdust if they saw it in a pile. It was getting late for talk anyway. What could anybody hear? It roared from behind, below, and across, and the crew, inside it, was shut out from all but a small piece of the outside world.
They had come to the station of the cross where something you want to see and can’t shuts out the sight of everything that otherwise could be seen. Rumsey says again and again what the something was he couldn’t see. “The top of the ridge, the top of the ridge.
“I had noticed that a fire will wear out when it reaches the top of a ridge. I started putting on steam thinking if I could get to the top of the ridge I would be safe.
“I kept thinking the ridge—if I can make it. On the ridge I will be safe… I forgot to mention I could not definitely see the ridge from where we were. We kept running up since it had to be there somewhere. Might be a mile and a half or a hundred feet—I had no idea.”
The survivors say they weren’t panicked, and something like that is probably true. Smokejumpers are selected for being tough, but Dodge’s men were very young and, as he testified, none of them had been on a blowup before and they were getting exhausted and confused. The world roared at them—there was no safe place inside and there was almost no outside. By now they were short of breath from the exertion of their climbing and their lungs were being seared by the heat. A world was coming where no organ of the body had consciousness but the lungs.
Dodge’s order was to throw away just their packs and heavy tools, but to his surprise some of them had already thrown away all their equipment. On the other hand, some of them wouldn’t abandon their heavy tools, even after Dodge’s order. Diettert, one of the most intelligent of the crew, continued carrying both his tools until Rumsey caught up with him, took his shovel, and leaned it against a pine tree. Just a little farther on, Rumsey and Sallee passed the recreation guard, Jim Harrison, who, having been on the fire all afternoon, was now exhausted. He was sitting with his heavy pack on and was making no effort to take it off, and Rumsey and Sallee wondered numbly why he didn’t but no one stopped to suggest he get on his feet or gave him a hand to help him up. It was even too late to pray for him. Afterwards, his ranger wrote his mother and, struggling for something to say that would comfort her, told her that her son always attended mass when he could.
It was way over one hundred degrees. Except for some scattered timber, the slope was mostly hot rock slides and grass dried to hay.
It was becoming a world where thought that could be described as such was done largely by fixations. Thought consisted in repeating over and over something that had been said in a training course or at least by somebody older than you.
Critical distances shortened. It had been a quarter of a mile from where Dodge had rejoined his crew to where he had the crew reverse direction. From there they had gone only five hundred yards at the most before he realized the fire was gaining on them so rapidly that the men should discard whatever was heavy.
The next station of the cross was only seventy-five yards ahead. There they came to the edge of scattered timber with a grassy slope ahead. There they could see what is really not possible to see: the center of a blowup. It is really not possible to see the center of a blowup because the smoke only occasionally lifts, and when it does all that can be seen are pieces, pieces of death flying around looking for you—burning cones, branches circling on wings, a log in flight without a propeller. Below in the bottom of the gulch was a great roar without visible flames but blown with winds on fire. Now, for the first time, they could have seen to the head of the gulch if they had been looking that way. And now, for the first time, to their left the top of the ridge was visible, looking when the smoke parted to be not more than two hundred yards away.
Navon had already left the line and on his own was angling for the top. Having been at Bastogne, he thought he had come to know the deepest of secrets—how death can be avoided—and, as if he did, he had put away his camera. But if he really knew at that moment how death could be avoided, he would have had to know the answers to two questions: How could fires be burning in all directions and be burning right at you? And how could those invisible and present only by a roar all be roaring at you?
On the open slope ahead of the timber Dodge was lighting a fire in the bunch grass with a “gofer” match. He was to say later at the Review that he did not think he or his crew could make the two hundred yards to the top of the ridge. He was also to estimate that the men had about thirty seconds before the fire would roar over them.
Dodge’s fire did not disturb Rumsey’s fixation. Speaking of Dodge lighting his own fire, Rumsey said, “I remember thinking that that was a very good idea, but I don’t remember what I thought it was good for.… I kept thinking the ridge—if I can make it. On the ridge I will be safe.”
Sallee was with Rumsey. Diettert, who before being called to the fire had been working on a project with Rumsey, was the third in the bunch that reached Dodge. On a summer day in 1978, twenty-nine years later, Sallee and I stood on what we thought was the same spot. Sallee said, “I saw him bend over and light a fire with a match. I thought, With the fire almost on our back, what the hell is the boss doing lighting another fire in front of us?”
It shouldn’t be hard to imagine just what most of the crew must have thought when they first looked across the open hill-side and saw their boss seemingly playing with a matchbook in dry grass. Although the Mann Gulch fire occurred early in the history of the Smokejumpers, it is still their special tragedy, the one in which their crew suffered almost a total loss and the only one in which their loss came from the fire itself. It is also the only fire any member of the Forest Service had ever seen or heard of in which the foreman got out ahead of his crew only to light a fire in advance of the fire he and his crew were trying to escape. In case I hadn’t understood him the first time, Sallee repeated, “We thought he must have gone nuts.” A few minutes later his fire became more spectacular still, when Sallee, having reached the top of the ridge, looked back and saw the foreman enter his own fire and lie down in its hot ashes to let the main fire pass over him.
To read more about Young Men and Fire, click here.
In sad news, scholar, media artist, and writer Svetlana Boym (1966–2015) died on August 5, 2015, following a year-long struggle with cancer. The Curt Hugo Reisinger Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literatures at Harvard University, Boym’s voracious and wide-ranging intellectual pursuit of our iconic, burdensome, and occasionally off-kilter inheritances from modernism led to engagements with the works of such artists “as Vladimir Tatlin, Kazimir Malevich, Ilya Kabakov, Victor Shklovsky, Osip Mandelshtam, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Joseph Brodsky, among others.” Included in her own writings was Another Freedom: An Alternative History of an Idea, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2010, which explored freedom’s cross-cultural and utopian possibilities drawn from a personal and historical examination of the relationship between art and politics. Boym had previously been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Academy in Berlin Fellowship, a Bunting Fellowship, and Harvard University’s Everett Mendelsohn Award for excellence in mentoring.
From the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University:
Our memory of her remains of one who was brimming with vitality, brilliance, and wit. Her warm yet fiercely independent personality together with her influential scholarship attracted students and colleagues from around Harvard, and indeed around the world. We will miss her terribly.
To visit Boym’s personal website (and her “Off-Modern Manifesto”), click here.
To read more about Another Freedom, click here.
Jennifer Ann Drobac’s Sexual Exploitation of Teenagers: Adolescent Development, Discrimination, and Consent Law—which focuses on the precarious positions, legal and otherwise, occupied by developing adolescents when sexually harassed by adults, including supervisors, teachers, and mentors—will publish in January 2016. Following a recent change to California civil law spurred by Drobac’s scholarship, the following serves as postscript to the book.
In November 2014, after I completed this manuscript, I spoke with Karen Foshay, a news reporter who was covering a case involving a California middle school student. Los Angeles School District lawyers used the girl’s consent to sex with her teacher to defend a civil action filed by her family. Then, after Arun Rath interviewed me on All Things Considered, I received calls from several California legislative aides regarding possible changes to California civil law. In July 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed S.B. 14, effective January 1, 2016. This bill creates California Civil Code section 1708.5.5, which will prohibit the use of a minor’s consent in a civil action against an adult in a position of authority. It is not clear how this law will affect California civil cases involving adults who do not occupy positions of authority. Additionally, one cannot tell how this new state law will affect federal cases, and particularly those filed under Titles IX and VII. However, this postscript demonstrates that one person can make a difference. You can make a difference.
 Karen Foshay, “LAUSD argued middle schooler can consent to sex with teacher,” 89.3 KPCC, Nov. 13, 2014, available at www.scpr.org/news/2014/11/13/48034/lausd-argued-middle-schooler-can-consent-to-sex-wi/ (interview begins at 2:28) (last accessed Aug. 5, 2015); see also Larry Mantle, “KPCC investigation reveals questionable tactics LAUSD used to defend rape lawsuit,” 89.3 KPCC, Nov. 13, 2014, available at www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2014/11/13/40321/kpcc-investigation-reveals-questionable-tactics-la/ (interview begins at 4:19) (last accessed Aug. 5, 2015).
 Arun Rath, “Criminal Law Says Minors Can’t Consent—But Some Civil Courts Disagree,” All Things Considered, Nov. 16, 2014, available at www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=364538087&m=364561418 (interview begins at 3:44) (last accessed Aug. 5, 2015).
 Patrick McGreevy, “Gov. Brown signs bill closing loophole in sexual assault law,” LA Times, July 16, 2015, available at www.latimes.com/local/political/la-me-pc-gov-brown-closes-loophole-in-sexual-assault-law-20150716-story.html (last accessed Aug. 5, 2015).
To read more about Sexual Exploitation of Teenagers, click here.
Tuesday, August 12th, is the inaugural “World Elephant Day,” initiated by a number of elephant conservation organizations, each working in collaboration toward “better protection for wild elephants, improving enforcement policies to prevent the illegal poaching and trade of ivory, conserving elephant habitats, better treatment for captive elephants and, when appropriate, reintroducing captive elephants into natural, protected sanctuaries.”
Caitlin O’Connell, the author of Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse, recently posted at National Geographic about the loss of Greg, the iconic elephant whose rise and reign as a don among his peers was chronicled in her book. Finally reconciling that fact that she hadn’t seen Greg in four years with the increasing likelihood of his death inspired O’Connell to post a formal obit, of sorts, in which she reminisced on Greg’s presence, absence, and legacy. In part:
Four years after what most probably marked the passing of the don, I can’t ignore the impact that his absence has had on this male society, and just how similar their social dynamics have been to a human society after the loss of a great figure head. In 2012, the first season without the don, there seemed to be competing factions, Prince Charles leading one camp and Luke the other. The interesting thing in that dynamic was the fact that both these characters had been bullies and had previously shown no interest in taking the next generation under their elephantine wing. But in the absence of Greg, they both changed their tune and had amassed an impressive following. But by 2013, both of these building strongholds had collapsed with barely a trace of the loyal following they had built for themselves.
By 2014 it was hard to imagine that such a tightknit social group of male elephants existed. Long gone were the days of Greg’s conga line amassing on the horizon and coming in to spend hours together and the social club that was Mushara.
And now, here we are in the last quarter of the 2015 season, and there is barely a trace of the don’s social fabric that he has so carefully stitched together and vigorously maintained. It was hard for even me to remember the way things were.
A faculty member at the Stanford University School of Medicine, O’Connell has been chronicling the lives of African male elephants for the past twenty-three years, including Elephant Don and an earlier work, The Elephant’s Secret Sense, both of which are published by the University of Chicago Press. As one of our foremost experts on elephant behavior and communication, her posts for National Geographic‘s Voices blog are an excellent foray into the issues faced first-hand by these majestic creatures, as well as an anthropological chronicle of the day-to-day lives of a particular group of elephants living at Etosha National Park in Namibia. You can read more about Greg’s story in Elephant Don—in addition to her blog posts for NG and numerous popular books and articles about elephant communities, O’Connell runs a Tumblr, Elephant Skinny, filled with anecdotes and images that pick up where Elephant Don leaves off (most recently with the birth of Athena, daughter to Mona Lisa, pictured below).
To read more about World Elephant Day, click here.
To read more by Caitlin O’Connell, click here.
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“The World of Chess”
from Gary Alan Fine’s Players and Pawns: How Chess Builds Community and Culture
Chess is not the oldest game of humankind. That honor goes to an Egyptian board game dating back to 3500– 4000 BC. But chess’s longevity is remarkable. While claims of the true beginnings of chess are various and the origins are shrouded in mystery, consensus exists that the game as we recognize it began on the Indian subcontinent in approximately 700 AD, although Persia shaped the early game as well. As with so many origin stories, one can find political motives. For instance, some claim that chess originated in Uzbekistan or even in China.
Chess is considered a war game, or at least a game that models warfare or prepares soldiers, although some legendary origins (Myanmar or Sri Lanka) suggest in a more pacifist fashion that the game was developed to provide a less bloody equivalent to conflict. Given the passion of Napoleon for the game, such sublimation was not inevitably effective. When the game spread to the Islamic world, which rejected gambling and gaming, chess was permitted because it was considered preparation for war. In the Soviet Union, the game was treated not as a bourgeois diversion but a form of proletariat culture.
Over the years, the rules of chess evolved. By the Middle Ages, chess had gained admirers in Europe. Its popularity is evident in writings about chess as morality by Pope Innocent III and Rabbi ben Ezra, both around 1200 AD.9 The second book printed in English, The Game and Playe of the Chesse (translated from the French), addressed chess as morality. The medieval attention to chess is evident in that the names and movement of the chess pieces changed substantially during this period. The most salient change was to increase the power of the vizier, making it the most powerful piece on the board. This transformation, first labeling the piece the queen and then increasing her range, occurred between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Some suggest that this change reflects the authority of women in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Perhaps these explanations are shaped by scholarly wishful thinking, but it is clear that chess changed substantially during the late Middle Ages, and as a result, games prior to the introduction of the powerful queen are rarely studied. Although chess has continued to evolve, a game played after the introduction of the powerful queen is essentially the same game that we play today. The first international tournament was organized in 1851, and by 1886 the world had its first undisputed chess champion, Wilhelm Steinitz.
Depending on one’s definition, today there are many chess players or a great many. A large proportion of Americans, although surely nowhere close to a majority, can play chess at some level. According to Susan Polgar, a prominent grandmaster, there are forty-five million chess players in the United States. Other estimates are slightly lower, but most hover around forty million. In chess hot spots such as Russia, eastern Europe, Iceland, Cuba, and Argentina, the proportion is far higher. Polgar guesses that there are seven hundred million players worldwide. Some skepticism of that figure is warranted, but chess is indeed a global game.
We must distinguish between those who are knowledgeable about the basic rules and those who have a commitment to the game: those who play chess and those who participate in the chessworld. Here the numbers diminish. Though we do not have firm figures for the number of serious players, as of 2010 the United States Chess Federation (USCF) had a membership of approximately eighty thousand. Some of these members are not active, and many others play chess outside the auspices of the organization (particularly in scholastic chess, where some state and city organizations run their own tournaments). The USCF claims that there are approximately ninety thousand active tournament players. In the last fifteen years, there has been substantial growth in the number of young (scholastic) chess players. Chess is now treated as an activity that provides cultural capital. Playing the game is said to increase a child’s cognitive development. In an age in which many parents wish to cultivate their children, chess is treated as a valued training ground, even if it is not perceived as one of those life skills that will continue into adulthood. Estimates of the number of children playing chess run as high as thirty million. But whatever the number, it is striking that the largest number of members of the USCF are third and fourth graders. According to one source, 60 percent of the members of the USCF are age fourteen or younger. While the politics of the organization are set by adult members (one must be sixteen to vote in federation elections), many of the organizational resources are contributed by scholastic members. As a result, it is not surprising that battles have been fought over whether to use resources for high-visibility adult chess or the more popular scholastic chess. Some scholastic chess tournaments are profitable, and the growth of youth chess provides employment for adult teachers.
On many demographic dimensions chess holds up well. A visit to a large tournament finds an impressive number of African Americans, South Asians, East Asians, Hispanics, and eastern European immigrants. A large tournament has the feel of a United Nations of leisure. Such diversity is rare in leisure or voluntary activities. While chess is largely a middle-class pastime, some participants hold working-class jobs or are from working-class homes. And many children participate at adult tournaments. It is common to find a nine-year-old playing— and crushing— a sixty-nine-year-old, an oft -remarked reality that leads to adults being reluctant to play children, who are often better than their ratings suggest. One tournament I attended had participants from five to eighty-seven, a range that was not especially remarkable. The only exception to this demographic diversity is gender. Chess has long been— and still is—male dominated, and the participation of women declines with age and with rated ability. In elementary school as many as 40 percent of players are girls, but there is only one woman in the top one hundred US chess players. In most domains, at least 90 percent of chess players are male, an even greater percentage than in Little League baseball, Dungeons & Dragons, or high school debate. Because of the highly gendered structure of chess and to avoid awkward syntax, I use the male pronoun. Perhaps before too long, readers will find my pronoun usage odd and inappropriate.
THE METAPHORS OF CHESS
When one examines any activity, an inevitable question emerges: what kind of thing is this? Put another way, what is the “cultural logic” of chess? What framework of meaning explains this community? What conventions are embraced? In what domain of activity do we place it? This is the human desire for labeling and categorization. Compared to other games, chess is incredibly deep. No two games are the same, and the seemingly unending choices have lured many players. Chess edges close to infinite possibility. The number of legal positions in chess has been estimated at 1040 (the number of stars in the universe is estimated at 1024), the number of possible games is 10120, and chess databases contain over 3.5 million games.
Is chess so multifaceted? Why and how do these figures resonate with chess players? In the diversity of metaphors, chess exemplifies generic features of human association, including focus and attention, affiliation, beauty, status, collective memory, consumption, and competition. These are topics to which I return.
Perhaps the most obvious metaphor, and hence the one that I address least, is that chess is a game, a form of voluntary activity, grounded on rules and on rivalrous competition. One might say that “game” is not a metaphor but a description. Its voluntarism links chess, like all games, to play, but games have a structured organization that “pure play” lacks. The model of human activity as game, a common metaphor, suggests a strategic approach to everyday life. Chess is a game of strategy and tactics. But it goes beyond the domain of the game, even if other activities (sex, business, or politics) can be treated as symbolic games because of their strategic dimensions.
While chess is a game—a minor aspect of life— it can be treated as much else. Metaphors abound. In a riot of metaphors, Pal Benko and Burt Hochberg argue that the game takes many forms, depending on style. Chess can be a fight, an art, a sport, a life, or a war. Folklorists Marci Reaven and Steve Zeitlin, touring public chess spaces in New York City, found competing visions of chess: an unsolved mathematic problem, a language, a search for truth, a dream, and even “a ball of yarn.” Some speak of chess as a race and the chessboard as a piano. The personification of pieces is common, particularly in scholastic chess. Pawns desire friends, pieces are runners, they look for a job or are unhappy and crying (field notes). The range of cultural images that define this pastime is extensive. Such diversity suggests that activities do not have a singular meaning but can be framed in multiple ways to connect with the needs of the speaker and desires of the audience.
Treating chess as a game of war 23 leads to military metaphors. In one account, the rook is a panzer unit, the knight a spy, the bishop a reconnaissance officer. As the population of chess players is overwhelmingly male, violent and sexual metaphors are common, as when the defeated are judged as weak, soft, or effeminate. Opponents are pinned, hit, stomped, crushed, sacked, or killed. More explicit is the claim of world champion Alexander Alekhine that during a match “a chess master should be a combination of a beast of prey and a monk.” While not many chess players speak so graphically, grandmaster Nigel Short was not alone when he remarked, “I want to rape and mate [my opponent].” In his rant, Short provides support for a Freudian analysis of chess as a sublimated form of homosexual eros and parricide.
Freudians believe that the unconscious appeal of chess results from oedipal dynamics, leading to sexual and aggressive themes. Reuben Fine pondered why many strong chess players display psychiatric disorders, seeing danger in the metaphorical dynamics of the game. Fine argued that chess is often learned by boys at puberty or earlier and that the pieces represent a symbolic keying of ego development (the king is a phallic symbol representing castration anxiety; the queen represents the mother). Those drawn to chess are said to have difficulty balancing aggressive and sexual impulses because of a weakly developed superego. Players are susceptible to developing neurotic traits, echoing grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi’s observation that “no Chess Grandmaster is normal; they only differ in the extent of their madness.” Others point to unconscious aggressive and sexual themes. Any competitive chess player knows the stories of madness, including those of Paul Morphy (“the pride and sorrow of chess”) and Bobby Fischer. However, these examples do not tell the whole story. Focusing on atypical cases such as Morphy’s or Fischer’s paranoia is an inadequate basis for generalization. Much psychoanalysis of chess is based on speculative Freudian assumptions with little empirical support; perhaps this is related to the fact that many psychoanalysts, notably Reuben Fine, are serious chess players. The evidence is more literary confection than systematic proof.
Besides these tendentious images, others build on morality or images of the state. The great Dutch historian of play, Johan Huizinga, argued that “civilization arises and unfolds in and as play.” His assertion applies to the vast array of political metaphors of chess. Chess reveals not only sexual and aggressive dynamics, but social order. Th is is one reason that authors select chess as a background (or foreground) for understanding human relations: Nabokov, Cervantes, Borges, Tolstoy, Ezra Pound, Edgar Allan Poe, and Woody Allen. As early as 1862, the well- known chess editor Willard Fiske, writing as B. K. Rook, connected pieces and society:
We [rooks] are generally considered as the most upright and straightforward of all the denizens of Chessland, from our habit of moving. . . . We have long been the fast friends of the Kings. . . . Of the Bishops there is little to relate. Each of the chess races possesses two individuals of this name, and yet so strong is the hatred of those belonging to the same stock that one of them can never be induced to go into a house that has been occupated by the other. . . . The most erratic members of our state are undoubtedly the Knights. . . . The Pawns are the most numerous members of our body politic.
Lewis Carroll’s imaginings in Through the Looking-Glass have something of the same flavor. The twelfth-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam proclaimed, “We are in truth but pieces on this chess board of life.” To Pope Innocent III (1161– 1216), a chess player himself, was attributed a morality on chess (now thought to be written by John of Wales) that asserts, “This whole world is nearly like a Chess-board, one point of which is white, the other black, because of the double state of life and death, grace and sin. The familia of the Chess-board are like mankind; they all come out of one bag, and are placed in different stations.” Harry, a well-regarded teacher of my acquaintance, expressed the same theme: “The thing I love about chess is that at the beginning of the game, ever yone is equal. Everyone is a citizen, and then through the game, we see what they can do. Chess represents our democratic values. It provides a metaphor of society” (field notes). Pieces stand for political positions—whether democratic or monarchical—in a way easily recognized by children and adults.
As a result, chess is used metaphorically, by the public as well as players. Away from the chessboard, we speak metaphorically of a stalemate, selecting a gambit, or keeping an opponent in check. The political metaphors were even more extensive in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Jenny Adams emphasizes how the game extended politics, reflecting a medieval social hierarchy, sometimes considered an instrument of reform. The English playwright Thomas Middleton in his drama A Game at Chess satirized abortive marriage negotiations between Charles, the son of James I, and Donna Maria, the sister of Philip IV of Spain.
Nowhere is the sociopolitical culture of chess more evident than in the names of the pieces. Chess is a global game in which the pieces have had different meanings over time and in various languages. The names of chess pieces in English and other western European languages were changed from their Middle Eastern designations, as medieval society treated the game as a mirror. The vizier became a queen, the horse a knight, and the elephant a bishop. The allegories of chess were revised. In contrast, even today Russian mirrors the Arabic; there is no queen, but a “ferz,” a counselor. While Russian chess has a “king,” the word used for king is korol, not czar. Perhaps the most problematic example of political labeling is the bishop, borrowed from the Catholic hierarchy. In Russia and throughout much of Asia, the bishop is an “elephant” (borrowed from Indian tradition); in Hebrew and in Dutch the bishop is a “runner,” and in France, the bishop is the fou or “fool.” An account of the naming of chess pieces reveals much about the societies in which they are used. At moments of transition, as in the Middle Ages, names are “in play.” At the time of the American Revolution there was an attempt to rename king, queen, and pawn as governor, general, and pioneer. After their revolution Soviets wanted to use the name commissar and to turn black into red, with its pieces representing the proletariat. Such changes, however, could not overturn the inertia of collective knowledge. These fights over metaphors indicate how tightly linked chess is to the social structure of its location and how its location affects its image.
While some activities fall neatly into human categories— sculpture is art, chemistry is science, tennis is sport—chess can plausibly be seen as all three, each with its own conventions, like any established and collectively recognized social world. Conventions—norms of proper activity— are to be found in all institutionalized domains. Chess action can be striking, systematic, or strategic. The former world champion Anatoly Karpov claimed in an oft-quoted remark that “chess is everything— art, science, and sport.” Perhaps chess is not everything, but each of these categories has been treated as the primary basis of the game.
While some activities fall neatly into human categories—sculpture is art, chemistry is science, tennis is sport—chess can plausibly be seen as all three, each with its own conventions, like any established and collectively recognized social world. Conventions—norms of proper activity—are to be found in all institutionalized domains. Chess action can be striking, systematic, or strategic. The former world champion Anatoly Karpov claimed in an oft-quoted remark that “chess is everything— art, science, and sport.” Perhaps chess is not everything, but each of these categories has been treated as the primary basis of the game.
CHESS AS ART
The rhetoric of chess as constituting an art form is extensive. There are styles and schools of chess, and beautiful moves and combinations. World champion Emanuel Lasker asserted, “There is magic in the creative faculty such as great poets and philosophers conspicuously possess, and equally in the creative chessmaster.” The brilliant Ukrainian grandmaster David Bronstein wrote, “Chess is a fortunate art form. It does not live only in the minds of its witnesses. It is retained in the best games of masters, and does not disappear from memory when the masters leave the stage.” Discussions of symmetry and beauty are seen not only in the writings of masters but in descriptions by amateurs: “It’s kind of hard to see, but there’s beauty in it. The symmetry of the pieces and the idea of threatening, sometimes it all just comes together and it gets distracting at points, but sometimes I really just sit back and go ‘Wow, look at this game.’ It’s like a perfect balance, an absolutely perfect piece of art. . . for instance the idea of a checkmate that’s six moves away is just beautiful.” In simpler words, a high school player remarked, “I like chess because of the way it flows together and it’s like meticulous and artistic. And [my friend] said that’s why he liked music” (interview). I have heard players liken chess to improvisational jazz in the way that combinations of pieces emerge over the course of a game. The rhetoric of competition as art is hardly unique to chess. In examining lifestyle sports, such as surfing, skateboarding, or windsurfing, Belinda Wheaton points to activities linked to the participants’ sense of self. She notes a similar attention to artistic expression, stylistic nuance, and creative invention. For those in the upper echelon, chess also constitutes a lifestyle community, although one with less threat of injury than so-called extreme sports.
Much beauty is found in the elegance of a perfect and inescapable solution to a complex problem. As William James posited, solving problems is deeply gratifying and reveals aesthetic satisfaction. If beauty exists in a competitive environment, it cannot be an individual achievement but must be relational. The philosopher Stuart Rachels observes: “Great chess games are breathtaking works of art. . . . Perfect play, however, cannot guarantee a beautiful game. For one thing, it is not enough that you play perfectly; your opponent must also play well.” Another player writes, “It only takes one brilliant mind to conjure up a brilliancy, but it takes two minds . . . to produce the position in which the fireworks can be let off .” The challenge of a patzer does not produce beauty for the skilled player.
The specific metaphor used by chess players to describe a moment of artistry is brilliancy: a cut diamond on a square board. Brilliancy results from the awe experienced from a simple and perfect answer to a daunting and complex problem— a victory, but not only a victory. The concept is so central to the world of chess that many elite tournaments award a “brilliancy” prize for the game or position with the greatest aesthetic appeal. Brilliancies result from a novel combination of pieces that produces a position that colleagues find startling, even spiritual. Each piece supports and defends other pieces of that color while attacking the opponent’s pieces. As Reuben Fine remarked, “Combinations have always been the most intriguing aspect of Chess. The masters look for them, the public applauds them, the critics praise them. . . . They are the poetry of the game; they are to Chess what melody is to music.”
Often the brilliancy derives from the victor’s sacrificing or placing a piece in danger; only later do obser vers recognize that the stratagem led to victory. “The bigger the sacrifice, the more beautiful.” It is because of his willingness to sacrifice his queen that thirteen-year-old Bobby Fischer’s defeat of former United States Open champion Donald Byrne at the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in New York is called “the game of the century.” The brilliancy was not recognized when the move was first made but only after the game was analyzed and revealed in time.
How is the beauty of chess experienced? How do players become engrossed in chess play? Part of the beauty of chess is its experienced quality. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi speaks of “flow” to capture the capacity of people to focus on an activity so closely that they lose awareness of time, external surroundings, and self-consciousness. Such experiences become autotelic, as the boundaries between self and activity fade. This is when we are most creative, productive, and satisfied in our work, leisure, and personal lives. Csikszentmihalyi selected chess as a key example of a focused activity. Players report performing best when the flow experience is maximized and they “dig in” to the game. It is not only the logic of pieces on the board that contributes to treating chess as art, but experienced emotions. Liquid moves replace concrete choices.
CHESS AS SCIENCE
Players commonly view chess as a science, and many of the greatest chess players (as well as those less gifted) have jobs in technical or scientific fields. Adolf Anderssen, Emanuel Lasker, and Max Euwe were mathematicians; Mikhail Botvinnik was an engineer, and José Raúl Capablanca also studied engineering. As one player explained, “They are all math guys.” Reuben Fine estimated that about half of the greatest players had mathematical or scientific backgrounds.
The metaphor of chess as science relies on the commonsense image of science as value-free, objective, and rigorous. In chess some assert that there is always one best move in a given position. For these players, worrying about “chess psychology” is wasted time if the proper move can be found through rational deliberation. As one informant explained, players review their games because “they are looking for the truth.” At any point there is only “one truth in the position” (field notes). For many players and some philosophers there is “truth in chess.” Computer programs such as Rybka or Fritz are popular in that they support this comforting illusion, no matter the action of an opponent. From this perspective one should play the board, not the opponent. Bobby Fischer was a leading exponent of this view, avowing, “I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.” His position has a powerful logic. The rhetoric of science proclaims that long-term strategies and short-term tactics can be developed through close study of the principles of chess. Aron Nimzowitsch’s Chess Praxis treats chess as a science by stressing fundamental principles, such as “centralization” and “over- protection.” Such a systematic presentation of chess theory emphasizes logic and objectivity, training the mind to apply general principles to vaguely defined situations. Chess is a game of perfect information, in which chance or information unequally distributed among the players should not play a role (as in poker or bridge), and this enshrines science. Each player has the opportunity to see the same things, even if background or training does not permit that seeing.
Chess theory has evolved over time in fits and starts. Of course, much theory cannot be easily detached from stylistic preferences or accepted conventions of play, tied to local chess cultures. Innovation is necessary for grandmasters to dethrone their predecessors; the tactical and strategic answers that worked in previous models are translated into an approach that is alleged to be objectively superior. As games are won and lost, newly “correct” and “objective” approaches to the game are discovered, and advice is reframed. This model suggests that chess theory is metaphorically likened to a science with experimental tests. However, as scholars of science studies indicate, a simple-truth model of scientific progress is not persuasive. Science advances through changes in practices that are defined as legitimate and embedded in social relations. The rational and objective basis of science cannot be separated from cultural context, politics, and scientific reputations and is often contested as chess styles rise and fall.
Max Euwe and John Nunn note that “succeeding generations of experts have contributed to the development of chess play, but it was the style of some outstanding individual which moulded the thinking and style of play of his time.” Perhaps this lays too much emphasis on the genius, rather than the community of competitors, but they rightly indicate the dynamics of change. This is what international master Anthony Saidy terms “the battle of chess ideas.”
Styles of play did not develop steadily and cumulatively but often advanced in revolutionary paradigm shifts that served as strategic replies to dominant paradigms. The objectivity of theoretical principles is often blurred by the confounding factor of creative genius and calculative ability found in the best players. Further, chess theory, like scientific knowledge generally, is in part “Whig history,” a theory of continual progress that interprets the past in light of the choices that characterize the activity in the present.
In the chessworld, as in science, knowledge is acquired socially. Advancement depends on challenges over the board. Players participate in local and extended networks of knowledge, but always based on the recognition of community. Chess is a set not just of ideas but of ideas that become recognized through social relations and shared practices.
CHESS AS SPORT
Chess games are competitive, like the world of sports. While the more prestigious images of chess as art or science are common, the agonistic aspects of sport are also evident. As the Great Soviet Encyclopedia suggests, chess is “a sport masquerading as an art.” Chess can be symbolically “bloody,” as pieces live and die. This reality thrills players, motivates improvement, and shapes status hierarchies. Many players attribute their love for chess to the cutthroat competition. Former world champion Anatoly Karpov remarked, “Chess is a cruel type of sport. In it the weight of victory and defeat lies on the shoulders of one man. . . . When you play well and lose, it’s terrible.” Indeed, checkmate is derived from the Persian for “the king is dead.” As a master-level player describes the hypercompetitive approach of top players at a local club, “The masters at the top . . . [are] very competitive, and [have] big egos. . . . Their whole attitude. . . [is] that I am going to crush you. And I will be extremely rude. And I will do whatever is necessary to crush you.” Another player explained to me, “Chess is like hand-to-hand combat. It’s so visceral. How can I hurt you?” (field notes). Such metaphors are so common as to be unremarkable.
Why is chess so competitive? The answer is found largely in the institutional framework by which club play is organized. In Britain chess had been funded by the Sports Council, intercollegiate chess at Harvard was once overseen by the Department of Athletics, and in Chicago public schools, scholastic chess is administered by the Department of Sports Administration. Some high schools offer athletic letters for chess players. To capture the fan loyalty of sports, entrepreneurs organized the United States Chess League in 2005 and receive funding from poker websites. Sixteen teams of strong players, including grandmasters, play each other in competitive but unrated matches. Teams include the New York Knights and the Saint Louis Arch Bishops. Of course, chess is often a simple pastime for fathers and sons or friends on lazy afternoons, merely a more complex version of Candyland, a board game for preschoolers. While casual games are part of the subculture, they are markedly different from tournament play, where the logic of chess as sport is evident.
Local clubs and tournaments are organized under rules established by national organizations such as the USCF. Players in tournaments can gain or lose rating points that measure their skill in comparison to other players. Ratings range from zero (novices start with an assumed rating of 600 but can lose rating points) to over 2800 for a top grandmaster. As of 2004, the average rating for a member of the USCF (including the many scholastic and occasional players) was 1068. Ratings are perhaps the primary motivating factor of organized play and serve as a form of identification. A rating locates one in a competitive hierarchy and determines in which tournaments one can participate and in which division one can play. The outcomes of tournaments affect ratings, based on a complex and changing mathematical computation. Rating points are assumed to be generally accurate, reliable, and universal indicators of a player’s chess skill, even though, as I discuss in chapter 6, they can be misleading. But in practice, ratings translate into status, prestige, and respect.
The chess rating system is distinctive among leisure worlds in shaping player identities, organizing status rankings, and encouraging or dissuading participation. Comparing chess to other organized sports helps decipher the effects of different evaluative systems. For example, baseball players are judged by a set of statistics (batting average, home runs, runs batted in, fielding percentage, stolen bases) that describe their competence in different skill sets. These sorts of statistics diminish competition among teammates, since they emphasize specialization. Chess does not create separate measures for different facets of the game, but players are assigned a single rating. This is a powerful example of “commensuration,” or “the transformation of diff erent entities into a common metric,” affecting personal investment, social comparison, and status competition. Often, as in ice skating, the determination of these measures is altered to achieve what members of the community consider a “fair” distribution.
Chess is famously an activity of the mind, with only the slightest movement of light wood pieces. Yet lengthy games may involve bodily stress, and players are known for lacking physical fitness, even if prior to long matches some adopt exercise regimes. As I discuss in chapter 1, chess is a game of body as well as mind. To play chess requires an awareness of body, and even if competitors do not require muscle, endurance is essential.
Still, sport has multiple meanings, and chess can, at times, fit the metaphor of sport. The patterns of play suggest an aesthetic appeal that links chess to art worlds. If it is neither quite a material art nor a performance art, the beauty of a well-played game is recognized.
Likewise, we link chess to science. Over the centuries, chess has developed a body of systematic knowledge labeled “chess theory.” As in Thomas Kuhn’s scientific paradigms, there are periods of revolution, periods of active incorporation, and periods of normal play. Finally, chess involves brutal competition. Ultimately chess depends on embracing a culture and a status system based on uncertain outcomes in the form of victories and defeats. While we may speak of chess as a leisure world, ignoring those professionals who earn a living from the activity, it creates solidarity, a desire to demonstrate commitment to a local community.
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