The Two Apes of Brueghel (1957), Wisława Szymborska (1923-2011)
So appears my big graduation exam dream:
In a window sit two monkeys fixed by chains,
Beyond the window the sky flies
And the sea splashes.
The subject is the history of mankind.
I stammer and flail.
One monkey, gazing at me, ironically listens,
The second seems to doze -
But when after a question comes silence,
It prompts me
By softly clinking the chain.
translation by Yours Truly (the dashed lines are there because for some reason I can’t get Tumblr to show a blank line.)
See the original Brueghel painting here. All I have to say about this poem is that a monkey rattling a chain is never a good thing.
This ought to make a nice pairing with The Voyage of the Beagle: Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861.
Damion Searls, editor of this volume, writes:
Thoreau may have discovered a species of bream, perfected the technology of manufacturing pencils, and anticipated modern techniques of cranberry farming, but his most lasting discoveries were about the interactions of different systems: how one growth of forest trees succeeds the previous one, how the lake affects the shore or the riverbanks…
(And to convince you to read Darwin: Why you need to read The Voyage of the Beagle before you die.)
Selling your soul is may actually be a good deal:
In December, the New York Times’ Catherine Rampell asked Harvard, Yale and Princeton for data on the professions their graduates were entering. As of 2011, finance remained the most popular career for Harvard graduates, sucking up 17 percent of those who went from college to a full-time job. At Yale, 14 percent of the 2010 graduating class, and at Princeton, 35.9 percent, were headed into finance.
Nobody in high school looks into the future and thinks, ‘I am so excited about finance,’, but by the end of college, things change:
You’re encouraged to take classes in subjects like English literature and history and political science, all of which are fine and interesting, but none of which leave you with marketable skills. After a few years of study, you suddenly find it’s late in your junior year, or early in your senior year, and you have no skills pointing to the obvious next step.
What Wall Street figured out is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, incredible work ethics and no idea what to do next. So the finance industry takes advantage of that confusion, attracting students who never intended to work in finance but don’t have any better ideas about where to go.
This happens to people who manage to stick it out one more round in academia, as science graduate students. You finish up and realize that after 5-8 years earning the right to be called Dr., your skills designing and executing your own research projects are actually in demand nowhere outside of academia. You can go take a moderately paying job as a human robot executing someone else’s research ideas, or you can go get paid a ton of money as a McKinsey consultant.
My musings on life, probability, and cosmic coin flips over at the Finch and Pea: On the road and in your genome with Poisson.
Rick Santorum, the Republican candidate of Intelligent Design, accuses the Left of “hating Western civilization at the core”?
Santorum’s defense of the Crusades came in Spartanburg, S.C., reports Andy Barr of Politico….
Referring to the “American left,” Santorum observed: “They hate Western civilization at the core. That’s the problem.” Sanoturm also suggested that American involvement in the Middle East is part of our “core American values.” “What I’m talking about is onward American soldiers,” Santorum continued. “What we’re talking about are core American values. ‘All men are created equal’ — that’s a Christian value, but it’s an American value.”
How ironic that a right-winger who opposes Western civilization’s major contributions to science thinks that it is the Left that hates Western Civ…
Over at The Finch and Pea, go read my Darwin Day essay on why the Voyage is great literature. Here’s the hook:
Sitting on a rickety homemade bookshelf in my living room are the fifty volumes of my Great-Grandfather’s Harvard Classics. Once a teenaged political refugee from the Russian revolutionary turmoil of 1905 and later an accomplished bacteriologist with Merck, my Great-Grandfather exemplified Harvard President Charles Eliot’s middle class, American ”twentieth century idea of a cultivated man,” the kind of person for whom Eliot’s “five foot shelf of books” was intended. A respected Mr. among professional scientific peers of Drs., my Great-Grandfather was fiercely committed to self-education. I never met him, but I imagine that my Great-Grandfather would have subscribed to Eliot’s notion of civilizational progress, progress that is the result of “man observing, recording, inventing, and imagining.” The Harvard Classics were selected to be a survey of how this process has played out over the millennia.
Eliot’s words, “observing, recording, inventing, and imagining,” describe several thousand years of human intellectual activity by invoking the process of science. This is appropriate because Eliot, and my Great-Grandfather, were living when the modern scientific view of the world was well on its way to world domination, becoming a new belief system with as much cultural heft as the major religions, and one whose conquest occurred even more rapidly than the spectacular rise from obscurity of Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam over the last two thousand years. The modern scientific angle on the world has not displaced religious views, just as Islam became a global player without displacing Christianity. But science has become as influential as any of its social competitors, with its chronicle of our earth’s history, of the creation of volcanic islands and the erosion of canyons, its story of the solar system with its central principle of gravitation that explains the shapes of the planets as well as their orbits around a central furnace of nuclear fusion, its tale of colliding atoms and molecules that make up the material world, and perhaps the most disturbing account of all, of our deep genetic history that connects without discontinuity into a pre-human, evolutionary past in which our modern DNA has been painfully sculpted by the brutal work of natural selection.
The one volume among the entire Harvard Classics that most prophetically anticipates the coming cultural influence of scientific thought is Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle. But too often the Voyage has been given second billing among collections of Great Books. Adam Kirsch, in an insightful essay on the Harvard Classics, gently chides Eliot for the excessive enthusiasm that led him to devote two of the fifty volumes to Darwin; Kirsch suggests that a modern edition of the Classics should “doubtless” keep On the Origin of Species and ditch the Voyage for James Watson’s Double Helix. Harold Bloom, whose selection of non-fiction for his Western Canon is unforgivably erratic and unprincipled, recommends Matthew Arnold’s essays and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Autobiography, but nothing by Darwin. There is a common (and, let’s face it, usually correct) idea that great scientific writing is valuable for its intellectual importance, but of marginal literary value. Darwin’s <em>Origin</em> is often included in collections of great books by default, because it is one of the very few important primary scientific documents that can be read without specialized training. But the Origin is an argument for a specific scientific theory, while the <em>Voyage</em> is a much more general foreshadowing of science’s cultural force in the modern world. If you are going to read one book by Darwin before you die, or one Great Book on any of the sciences, it must be <em>The Voyage of the Beagle</em>, because this book is a genuinely great work of literature, a compelling account of a then-embryonic vision of the world that has now come into its own in modern society, told in an expressive and beautiful language which is exactly suited to its subject.
Darwin and Melville in the Galapagos: the literary styles of Melville and Darwin, side by side at The Finch and Pea.
Robert Walser, on riding a tram in Berlin 100 years ago:
People do, after all, tend to get somewhat bored on such trips, which often require twenty or thirty minutes or even more, and what do you do to provide yourself with some modicum of entertainment? You look straight ahead. To show by one’s gaze and gestures that one is finding things a bit tedious fills a person with a quite peculiar pleasure. Now you return to studying the face of the conductor on duty, and now you content yourself once more with merely, vacantly staring straight ahead. Isn’t that nice? One thing and then another? I must confess: I have achieved a certain technical mastery in the art of staring straight ahead.
Hasn’t changed much. Read the whole story, “In The Electric Tram” at NYRB.