How should one narrate the life of a great writer? Joseph Frank’s five-volume biography of Dostoevsky, now supplemented by his Lectures on Dostoevsky, revivified the form by situating the novelist within the ideological struggles of his day. The many fascinating primary sources about Dostoevsky’s life inspired Thomas Marullo to experiment with a new kind of biography in his brilliant Fyodor Dostoevsky: A Life in Letters, Memoirs, and Criticism. (A third volume is still to come.) The novelist Alex Christofi was similarly inspired, and while his innovative biography, Dostoevsky in Love, occasionally intrigues, it ultimately offers little that’s new. All three recognize the difficulty of distinguishing Dostoevsky’s actual life from the legends about him.
The history of the asterisk.
Sumerian pictographic writing includes a sign for “star” that looks like a modern asterisk. These early writings from five thousand years ago are the first known depiction of an asterisk; however, it seems unlikely that these pictograms are the forerunner of the symbol we use today. Palaeographers know that Aristarchus of Samothrace (220–143 bc) used an asterisk symbol when editing Homer in the second century bc, because later scholars wrote about him doing so. Physical examples of Aristarchus’ asterisks have not survived, so we cannot know their physical shape, but as the word asterisk derives from the Greek asteriskos, meaning “little star,” an assumption has been made that they resembled a small star. Aristarchus used the symbols to mark places in Homer’s text that he was copying where he thought passages were from another source. By the third century Origen of Alexandria had adopted the asterisk when compiling the Hexapla—a Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures, the Septuagint. Origen used the asterisk to demarcate texts that he had added to the Septuagint from the original Hebrew. Both these early uses of the asterisk are as an editing tool, to notify the reader that the passage they are reading should be read with caution.
The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was famous for his anti-colonial positions, but waffled when it came to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Why did he struggle to be consistent, and what does that tell us about “progressive except for Palestine” intellectuals today?
Hosted by Andrew Keen, Keen On features conversations with some of the world’s leading thinkers and writers about the economic, political, and technological issues being discussed in the news, right now.
In this episode, Andrew is joined by Stephen M. Fleming, the author of Know Thyself: The Science of Self-Awareness, to discuss the vast potential of metacognition.
The Western tradition has never been more appealingly portrayed than in Rembrandt’s 1653 painting “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.” Whether you stand in front of it at the Metropolitan Museum or look at it online, the painting turns you into a link in a chain that goes back three thousand years. Here you are in the twenty-first century, contemplating a painting made in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, which portrays a philosopher who lived in Athens in the fourth century B.C., looking at a poet thought to have lived in the eighth century B.C. Tradition abolishes time, making us all contemporaries.
Yet the painting hints that Homer doesn’t quite belong in the same dimension of reality occupied by you, Aristotle, and Rembrandt. Aristotle is portrayed realistically in the dress of Rembrandt’s time—sumptuous white shirt, simple black apron, and broad-brimmed hat. (It wasn’t until the twentieth century that art historians determined that the figure was Aristotle; earlier identifications included a contemporary of Rembrandt’s, the writer Pieter Cornelisz Hooft.) In other words, Aristotle is a human being like us, albeit an extraordinary one. Homer, however, is a white marble bust—a work of art within a work of art.
In the year 1760, a Swiss naturalist named Charles Bonnet became concerned when his grandfather Charles Lullin began to experience a parade of “amusing and magical visions.” The eighty-nine-year-old Lullin was being visited by visions of people, birds, carriages, and buildings, all of which were invisible to everyone but him. Apparently these mysterious objects materialized spontaneously among the few bits of the world he was still able to perceive through his cataracts.
In this elegant, smallish book, just slightly larger than the Loeb Classic Library volumes, with left-hand-pages given over to Latin text, editor Michael Fontaine, a professor of classics at Cornell University, combines the extant writings on humor in public speaking of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.) and of Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (ca. A.D. 35-99). Mr. Fontaine calls Cicero’s “On the Ideal Orator” a “masterpiece” and Quintilian’s “The Education of the Orator” “a master textbook on public speaking.” Neither is an understatement.
In a loose, one is inclined to say a swinging, translation, Mr. Fontaine makes use of such words as “zingers,” “badmouthing,” “shtick” and “chutzpah.” (Bet you didn’t know the Romans knew Yiddish.) He also employs such contemporary phrases as “virtue-signaling,” “metrosexual” and “politically incorrect.” To enjoy his translation, one must smother the pedant in oneself and recall that there is no such thing as the perfect translation; only more or less inaccurate ones. I have myself long owed a debt of hearty laughter to a French translator who rendered “Englishmen always love an underdog” as “Les Anglais aiment toujours le ventre du chien,” or Englishmen love the belly of the dog.
Ultra-processed foods have known negative implications for health; however, their effect on skeletal development has never been explored. Here, we show that young rats fed ultra-processed food rich in fat and sugar suffer from growth retardation due to lesions in their tibial growth plates. The bone mineral density decreases significantly, and the structural parameters of the bone deteriorate, presenting a sieve-like appearance in the cortices and poor trabecular parameters in long bones and vertebrae. This results in inferior mechanical performance of the entire bone with a high fracture risk. RNA sequence analysis of the growth plates demonstrated an imbalance in extracellular matrix formation and degradation and impairment of proliferation, differentiation and mineralization processes. Our findings highlight, for the first time, the severe impact of consuming ultra-processed foods on the growing skeleton. This pathology extends far beyond that explained by the known metabolic effects, highlighting bone as a new target for studies of modern diets.
A life led in this way would harmonise body, mind, social purpose and wonder at nature. Such a life, for the Aztecs, amounted to a kind of careful dance, one that took account of the treacherous terrain of the slippery earth, and in which pleasure was little more than an incidental feature. This vision stands in sharp relief to the Greeks’ idea of happiness, where reason and pleasure are intrinsic to the best performance of our life’s act on the world’s stage. Aztec philosophy encourages us to question this received ‘Western’ wisdom about the good life – and to seriously consider the sobering notion that doing something worthwhile is more important than enjoying it.
“Speculative Resistance”—a term coined by Malka Older—posits that one great power speculative fiction wields is that exploring other worlds and ways societies could work encourages people to question extant systems, to imagine alternatives, to hope, to act, and to reject the old hope-ending “because that’s the way it is.” The author Ursula K. Le Guin termed “realists of a larger reality” do broaden expectations, and even galvanize (as we see in innumerable places, from A.I. rights think tanks to Star Wars-themed Women’s March signs), but we can also narrow expectations when we repeat patterns, leaving the impression that even in a thousand magic and alien worlds X is still always true. We know that stereotypes do harm, for example that the attitudes of TV-watching millions are affected by the fact that 33% of Black and 50% of Latino immigrant characters depicted on American TV are shown committing crimes. This essay aims to call attention to something similar but subtler, subtle because of its very ubiquity in speculative fiction, general fiction, even nonfiction, but which—if we step up and challenge it—could do real good: protagonist stories. We don’t mean stories with main characters, we mean something very specific.