Archive for February, 2007

Under the Sea

February 23, 2007

A couple of years ago I was wandering through the stacks of the biology library looking for inspiration and happened upon a book. It was Cindy Van Dover, Deep-Ocean Journeys: Discovering New Life at the Bottom of the Sea (Reading, MA: Addison-Welsey, 1997). Van Dover was the first female Alvin driver, a submersible with incredible deep ocean capabilities. She is also a professional marine biologist and, judging by the personal exploration she shares into her chosen field, one hell of an interesting woman.

Originally published as the Octopus’s Garden the year before, Deep-Ocean Journeys describes Van Dover’s engagement with a fascinating and alien world. The ocean floor is a desert of sorts, but, amazingly, life clings tenaciously around hydrothermal vents in this realm of eternal darkness. She describes the strange and unusual denizens of the deep with a poetic naturphilosophie flair. In the final analysis an ethical paradigm informs her work, and in discussions of the fragility of these depthless spaces, an argument evocative of Carson’s archetypal classic Silent Spring emerges.

Much of the deep-ocean is as mysterious to us as deep space. Down there, the pressure conditions are little different from the surface of Jupiter. And finding life in the abyss also reminds us of the possibility of life in environments we assume are universally inhospitable. Reading Van Dover’s book gave me a different way to understand vitalism, too.

This is why when I see something like this story, about a giant (colossal) squid dredged up by a New Zealand fishing boat off the coast of Antarctica, my mind lights up. You could end up going all At the Mountains of Madness on this, and maybe the inner space/outer space dichotomy needs more refinement. Truth is, it’s just a really incredible find proving how poorly understood certain parts our own world remain. These are large ocean predators and we know next to nothing about them.

More frightening than any of Lovecraft’s mind-bending creations is the fact that we use this mysterious realm as a dumping ground. I notice, for example, the science tidbits at the back of Harper’s a couple of weeks ago mentioned research suggesting an alarming decline in the populations of small ocean organisms (like plankton) — this could be easily accompanied by other research warning of the environmental hazards of an ever more tainted ocean. Food chains are more complex in water ecosystems, and the accumulation of toxins, a worrying effect in all living systems, takes on greater severity. The beluga whales of the Gulf of St. Lawrence have such intense concentrations of toxins in them, for example, they are living chemical laboratories. Like the ocean floor, this goes way deeper than admittedly tragic, and more well-publicized, accidents (c.f. the Exxon Valdez)…

With apologies to science fiction from Jules Verne to The Simpsons, nobody is going to live at the bottom of the sea. But the ocean, we should remember, is the world’s largest ecosystem. And its mysteries abound. The picture at the top of this post is of a creature (one of many bizarre and odd beasts) that washed up after the tsunami in Southeast Asia in December of 2004. Its alien strangeness reminds us of the natural possibilities…

Funny thing this nature — in its dual role as both mysterious and ultimately connected to us. It is in the ocean, a place that still moves deeply in the human psyche, that insight to this link lies. I am reminded of The School of Athens in the Musei di Vaticani, and Aristotle’s downward pointing hand. He wasn’t the most influential figure in biological thought up until the 19th century for nothing, and recalls us to look around us here on earth for meaning. Much of what has been learned in the physical sciences has infiltrated our understanding of living nature, but what an interesting mindset it would be to have the opposite approach become more essential. I think that’s one good way to understand the environmental message…”Look to the stars, sure, but never forget the depths of inner space.”

That’s deep…It’s probably why people also like to swim with dolphins…

Georgia On My Mind

February 16, 2007

I love Georgia…It’s one of the most beautiful states in the union. I first tagged along with my mom on a business trip to Atlanta in about 1987…I remember Peachtree Plaza, watching Dominique Wilkins and the Hawks beat the San Antonio Spurs, and a steak dinner fit for a king. Since then, I’ve been back many times, and spent lengthy periods in the late-90s exploring the meandering banks of the Chattahoochee River around Atlanta while visiting. I’ve seen most of the state, from the Smoky Mountains in the upcountry north to the beautiful squares and gardens (and Oglethorpes…) of the coastal low country in Savannah and environs.

All this to say I appreciate the subtleties and varieties of the southern experience. I’m no southerner, mind you, but I understand the sense of history and nostalgia that pervades this part of the U.S., despite ill-conceived tangents…

It thus comes as a pleasant surprise that the Georgia state legislature has decided to debate the idea of an apology for the eugenic sterilization programs carried out there in the interwar years. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has a piece about it here. There’s also an op-ed in the Macon Telegraph that makes a simple, but thoroughly worthwhile, point. The history of eugenics is something I know a bit about — to me the whole idea of its past popularity symbolizes the most misguided and hubristic aspects of state-sanctioned science and its human costs.

Eugenics was a widespread phenomena in the west (and beyond…countries like Brazil had eugenics programs, too — partly in an effort to emulate the progress-loving west), and its history in the deep south is well documented in Edward J. Larson’s Sex, Race and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995). More general introductions can be found in the work of Daniel J. Kevles, and Stephen Jay Gould talks about eugenics in his classic The Mismeasure of Man. They’re all worth a look.

In the end it doesn’t really matter whether the legislature apologizes or not (apologies for historical injustices have limited meaning anyway, and are too often thinly veiled publicity stunts…) — the mere fact of it being made an issue and placed into the mainstream public sphere is an accomplishment. Sure, there may be conflicting reasons for doing so (heck, perhaps the right to life people are driving it…), but if the end result is a few more people aware of and perhaps even vigilant about the often dangerous relationship between science and the state, then so much the better. I think that’s just peachy.

The Historian’s Craft

February 11, 2007

One of the most important texts on historiography and historical method in the 20th century, it is difficult to call The Historian’s Craft a “book” in the conventional, marketed sense. It was a fragmentary piece, one Bloch was working on when the Nazis caught up to him in 1944. In its printed form it has been left fairly intact and is relatively faithful to the original — manuscript, that is.

Bloch begins by asking a worthwhile question, one perhaps asked even more frequently today: “What is the use of history?” He seeks rationales for studying history in his world — a practical and pragmatic place. There is the seeking for a sense that history can be “scientific”. But as a humble student of post-Newtonian physics, Bloch understood that scientific could mean many things. His science was uncertainty, relativity, doubt — a challenge to the concrete solidity of the 19th century bourgeois mind. There is a clear distinction here between the positivistic, sociological Durkheimian approach and the skeptical, inconclusive historicism that seemed a necessary palliative.

A historian above all, Bloch suggests, must be guided by sources. And here’s the rub. For sources need careful and considerate examination, when they’re available…He talks of closed sources too, using examples like the Society of Jesus and the Bank of France. Here, like any true historian, he puts forward the notion of secrecy as a fundamental impediment to historical investigation and even entertains the idea of concealment as a bourgeois value. It’s a tough sell.

What he comes to is criticism. Bloch reminds us of the rise of a type of skepticism and doubt — or more precisely the implementation of these virtues as instruments of knowledge — and, always historically minded, links its development to a particular time (for him, it’s the mid-17th century — as a historian of science, I see some strength in that claim…). There is a cautionary tale of forgery and deception here, as he recounts stories of papers allegedly written by Pascal anticipating Newton’s theories of gravitation, and even of feigned correspondence between a young Pascal and Galileo. Bloch urges us to be vigilant, on every front. Sometimes, he confesses, there is a deep problem of deception in sources, intentional or otherwise. Then there are the vagaries of memory and even rumor…

And yet he does not allow this to quell his belief in the fantastic in human nature — in its ultimately unpredictable quality. A quality he as a historian seeks to understand, or at least appreciate (and, in writing, celebrate). At a point, he quotes the late 19th century French mathematician, economist and philosopher Antoine Augustin Cournot: “The impossible physical event…is nothing but an event whose probability is infinitely small.” (p. 133) Bloch’s historian is patently non-Newtonian and conscious that everything doesn’t always fit the neat categories science has found fit to fit them in. They can give you a real fit, I’ll tell you…

He finally turns to a beautiful description (p. 154) of the inherent “strangeness” of history by the 19th century medievalist Jules Michelet. I won’t reproduce it here, only in so far as I hope this ersatz review gets all you non-historians running to the nearest used bookstore or library…

He concludes wistfully, with a final nod to the importance of understanding language and meaning — historically…Reminding us of the power of etymology to unearth deeply covered bits of the psyche. There is a sense, finally, of the peculiarities of historical causation, a parting shot across the bow at the ordered Enlightenment edifice of predictability and progress: “Is not man himself the greatest variable in nature.” (p. 197)


Despite the fact that Bloch was probably killed by that variable, his method lives on. We live in a swanky, swishy, fast-moving post-modern world of spin doctoring and unmitigated bull, but with patience and a little digging, everybody can learn the historian’s craft. Just don’t believe the hype.


Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1954).


February 8, 2007

Nostomania. Homesickness. Doctors (of body and mind) have a label for everything. I wonder if this dis-ease is endemic to historians — “manic nostalgia”, after all, sounds like a good description of what us history types engage in. But what “home” are we nostalgic for? Maybe for me it isn’t the past, but the “undiscovered country.” The future.

Sitting in familiar, cold, stark Montreal, I almost can’t believe the picture above was taken at a spot where I stood little more than a week ago. Sure, there are things of interest in this city, like this get together I missed last night, but is there anything like that around here? And how important is that to me? Romanticizing, I know. I spent yesterday evening devouring Rosemary Sullivan’s The Labyrinth of Desire: Women, Passion and Romantic Obsession (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2001), and am well aware, at the moment, of the dangers of idealizing things. And yet, isn’t it ideal?

Streaming in Technicolor

February 6, 2007

Write a letter down the road of life and times being what they are it’s going to come back from the dead sea shells by the dozen, dirty or otherwise, with all that we know about five minutes have passed the ball of waxing philosophical conundrum stick with it and don’t give up the ghost in the machine washed up, has been around the block out the sunshine state of mind over matter of fact based on a true or false pretense and need to relax by the pool hall of fame and glory be to be or not on my account for this is the last ditch effortless is more than I can handle with care about anything you want not that I can say for sure of myself esteemed colleague of nations and states the obvious to all for one momentary lapse of judgement day and night sticks and stones may break my back to the wall street signature abhors a vacuum pack a lunch and dinner plate glass window on the world-wide-eyed curiosity killed the cats and dogs of war crime does not pay phone call of the wild west young man is it hot to the touch of class by itself serve up and down under the table salt of the earth mother and father of the bride of Frankenstein’s monster mash unit of measurement what I said everything was going to be put right or wrong way out in left field of battleship shape of things to come out with your hands tied behind it all for one and a two to tango in Paris in the spring forward marching off the deep end is near and dear to my heart transplant a tree falls in the forest green grass is always better half pint sized up the situation room for rent and tear it out by the root of the problem solved.


February 5, 2007

An ad for a film coming out entitled 300 caught my eye the other day. My historian’s brain immediately knew what it was about, of course…Most decently trained memory addicts have read Herodotus’ The Histories, and remember the 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. They were joined there by 700 Thespians, and a random assortment of other Greeks, said to number between three and ten (Herodotus puts the number around seven) thousand who valiantly tried to hold the pass of Thermopylae against the Persian king Xerxes and his army of millions (over five million, again according to Herodotus) in 480 BC.

While these numbers may be wrong or exaggerated, the fact remains the Greeks were outmatched, but held firm and made the Persians pay. Thermopylae is seen as a kind of triumphal Western civilization moment — a story of a small group of fighters from independent city-states holding off a massive empire and its autocratic king.

This new movie, taken from a Frank Miller (of Sin City fame) graphic novel, is supposed to focus on the Spartan leader Leonidas’ struggle, and the unifying effect of the battle on the Greek city-states. My skeptical mind actually thinks it may be a bit of propaganda about the virtuous freedom-loving Greeks fighting off hordes of “othered” Persians. Except, these days, I wonder who the bad guys are. If indeed there really is any relationship to the heroism demonstrated by this mythic tale in the world today.

Point is, despite the involvement of Thespians, this was a real, historically-recorded Greek tragedy, not a play. Well, at least according to Herodotus. To hear the ancient historian’s words on the matter is to realize that the whole thing really was somewhat absurd. The courage (foolhardiness?) of the Spartan Dieneces, for example, is recorded as follows; when told by a native of Trachis that when the Persians fired their arrows there were so many of them that they hid the sun, Dieneces is said to have replied, non-plused: “This is pleasant news that the stranger from Trachis brings us: if the Persians hide the sun, we shall have our battle in the shade.” (Herodotus, The Histories (London: Penguin, 1954), p. 518).

Thermopylae, you see, is a lesson in perseverance and courage despite the odds (which end up being totally overwhelming…), not a pseudo-racialist statement about ancient Greek superiority. Anybody who can’t figure that out isn’t worth standing in a narrow mountain pass with, metaphorically speaking.

Propaganda aside, on the art imitating life imitating art front, I think this new film project seems much more promising in its potential to capture the current international situation. All told, I don’t see (m)any Spartans out there…Just a whole lot of lazy, corrupt and self-indulgent Romans..

On My Desk

February 2, 2007

Right, so this is not an inspired idea, but maybe the content will prove otherwise. These are the books on my desk (in no particular order), and what I’m thinking about them…

Poetry of the Romantics (London: Penguin, 1995).

The classics. A very thin volume — that’s poetry for ya, always packing a punch.

Hans Driesch, Psychical Research: The Science of the Super-Normal, trans. Theodore Besterman (London: G. Bell & Sons, 1933).

Like Bergson, Driesch was a vitalist whose interests extended to the realm of psychical research and the paranormal. This is both a theoretical work, and a manual for the “scientific” investigation of mediumship. It has a brief, yet insightful, foreword by Oliver Lodge. It is also in real good shape for a 75 year old book (still has a ratty dust-cover!) and I paid too much for it…

Aristotle, De Anima (On The Soul), trans. Hugh Lawson-Tancred (London: Penguin, 1986).

There are lots of versions of this fundamental text. I like this softcover, though, since it’s stamped from where I bought it, at Shakespeare and Company in Paris during my research junket two years ago. I loved that place…right in the shadow of Notre Dame.

Mary Roach, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005).

Just finished this. For someone who wrote an MA thesis on the history of psychical research, it’s kinda old news. But her take is very journalistic, inquisitive and personal. That and funny. Love the last paragraph: “Perhaps I should believe in a hereafter, in a consciousness that zips through the air like a Simpsons rerun, simply because it’s more appealing — more fun and more hopeful — than not believing. The debunkers are probably right, but they’re no fun to visit a graveyard with. What the hell. I believe in ghosts.”

John Mullarkey, ed., The New Bergson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999).

New interpretations of an important and somewhat forgotten thinker. He may be making a comeback (with my help!). I think the world would be a better place if everybody read his classic, Creative Evolution. It’s nominally mind-blowing.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper, 1959).

Part paleontologist, part philosopher and part priest, Teilhard de Chardin is the coolest Jesuit ever. I haven’t read this one cover to cover, but I’ve read a ton of his stuff and it is all good. I know what you’re thinking…What’s his deal with all the Catholics?…I just like the weird ones, I swear.

C.L. Ten, ed., The Nineteenth Century (London: Routledge, 1994).

This is volume 7 of the Routledge History of Philosophy series. Good academic summaries of much of 19th century philosophy. And guess what, 19th century philosophy is probably more important to the 21st century than 20th century philosophy. Did that make any sense? I’m just being dense, kinda like this book…

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (London: Penguin, 2005).

This is from the new Penguin philosophy series…Which are nice little books. Aurelius is the stoic’s stoic…This is “daily affirmations” for people with an obsession with death and a Sisyphean complex. Life’s hard, sorta pointless and short…Get used to it and be stern, tough and excellent anyway. I like reading him…I just have a hard time putting any of what he says into practice. Most people who aren’t 2000 year old Roman emperors would…

David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Rousseau’s Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment (London: Faber and Faber, 2006).

A pseudo-novelistic route into Enlightenment philosophy and the emergence of a literary public sphere in the late 18th century. These guys had too much time on their hands to just bitch and moan. Rousseau was oversensitive and kinda psychotic, and Hume was a boob. Then there were all those catty salonierre. You thought grad-students were bad…

Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud (New York: Vintage, 1955).

Reading this closely now. The ’68ers were reading Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich a lot when all hell broke loose in Paris in May. Can certainly see the revolutionary tone here. I think we’ve gone from pleasure principle to reality principle to surreality principle. Still, sadly, 50 years after the fact, this book couldn’t be more relevant.

I know what you’re thinking. What’s with all the heavy stuff? Read a bloody comic book or something. I guess…But somebody went to the trouble of writing these books, so I figure someone should also read them. Or at least leave them lying around on a desk…


February 1, 2007

“Among some of the initiating fraternities there are preserved memorials in symbolism of certain secret processes by which the condition of spiritual adeptship was assured — within their individual members — for those who, by natural or acquired gifts, were able to translate the symbolism or — in other words — to make use of the processes. This is perhaps as much as can be said on the subject to those who are outside the Brotherhoods. It is well known, however, for it can be learned by any one from the literature of all the mystics — whether such processes were followed out under definite instructions, as when Tauler was taught by Merswin, or were reached independently by the many mystics who never had masters on earth — that they are all connected with what is termed the Interior Way, and that the attainment of that state in which it is possible for the veridic experience which is above logical understanding to be reached by the individual man, has been invariably by the way of contemplation. The last word has been defined after many ways, all of which connote the state of preoccupation with the quest and hunger for the term thereof. Novalis was right therefore when he said that the condition of knowledge, or of that realization which is knowledge in the mode of life, is definable only as Eudaimonia — that is, saintly calm of contemplation. In this manner the pillared gates of initiation symbolize the entrance of our own souls. All the arcana are held therein — ‘as if in archives’ — the stars which influence us, the instruments by which we divine, and the keys of things intelligible. It is this paramount and catholic comprehensiveness which makes it impossible for us, in the last resource, to be taught, except by the spirit. In respect of material life, the soul is a receptacle of impressions and communication from without, but in respect of spiritual life it is a conduit of eternal graces. The state of communication from without through the material forms of perception is a state of inhibition: the only natural condition of the soul is that of inhabitation, in which we receive our freedom as ‘mystic citizens of the eternal kingdom.’ These statements are loci communes, the commonplaces of eternal life.”

Arthur Edward Waite, A New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry (New York: University Books, 1970), pp. 265-66.


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