Quotes & Commentary #68: Bryson

Quotes & Commentary #68: Bryson

“It’s remarkable that bad things don’t happen more often. According to one estimate reported by Ed Yong in the Atlantic, the number of viruses in birds and mammals that have the potential to leap the species barrier and infect us may be as high as 800,000. That is a lot of potential danger.”

—Bill Bryson

This past Christmas, my mother gave me Bill Bryson’s new book on the human body as a present. It was an excellent gift: I spent half my Christmas break totally absorbed in it. The book is fascinating for several reasons. For one, there is an awful lot that most of us do not know about our own bodies—which itself is funny to think about. But perhaps we are better off not knowing, since the book also highlights how many things could potentially go wrong in the intricate functioning of our mortal frames. The existence of life is a miracle in its own right; and the existence of highly complex life—such as us (or so we like to flatter ourselves)—is a miracle of exponential proportions. So many things have to go right in order for you and me to be here.

That means it is easy for things to go wrong. And a viral infection—when malicious genetic code hijacks our cells—is one way that this marvelous process can get disrupted. One of the best chapters in Bryson’s book is on diseases. When I read the chapter, not too long ago, it seemed to be mainly about things from the distant past that used to menace our species. Bryson discusses typhoid and typhus, smallpox and ebola, and of course the Spanish flu of 1918. Most of these illnesses strike us nowadays as historical curiosities, rendered obsolete by the invention of vaccines and effective antibiotics. But Bryson sounds a note of warning in the chapter that now seems quite prescient. He quotes Michael Kinch, a specialist on drug discovery of Washington University, as saying:

The fact is, we are really no better prepared for a bad outbreak than we were when Spanish flu killed tens of millions of people a hundred years ago. The reason we haven’t had another experience like that isn’t because we have been especially vigilant. It’s because we have been lucky.

I vividly remember reading that passage, and scoffing. Surely, I thought, we must be far better prepared than they were back in 1918, when medicine and technology were so comparatively primitive. I was wrong. Bryson deserves kudos for his writing, as this current crisis has completely borne out his warnings. We are in far more danger than we like to think, and we are basically not prepared for it.

One rather stunning fact—stunning because we so rarely think of it—is how many people normally die from the seasonal flu. In the United States alone, it is between 30-40,000 per year, and that number gets much bigger during particularly bad years. According to Bryson’s book, in the 2017-18 flu season, upwards of 80,000 people died of the flu. These numbers are stunning, especially considering the massive international response that is already underway to slow the spread of this new coronavirus, which has so far taken far fewer lives. Perhaps we should always be practising social distancing… 

The primary issue, at the moment, is essentially this: our society was not built to handle large-scale infectious diseases with fatality rates significantly higher than the seasonal flu. We do not have enough hospital beds, nurses, doctors, respirators, masks, or anything else. Our entire way of life—hanging out in bars, going to concerts, flying from country to country—is premised on being largely free from dangerous infectious diseases. We really did not know how lucky we were. Our situation was highly anomalous in human history, and it will take months before we can return to it.

What is most frustrating, for me, is the degree to which the situation is out of my hands. Everyone craves a sense of control. In a crisis, we want to know what we can do to protect ourselves, or to contribute to a common cause. Right now, these actions are rather humble: wash your hands, stay at home as much as possible, self-isolate if you show symptoms. This is all well and good; but we naturally want to know what is the scale of the danger and how long this immense disruption will last.

At this point, the information available is far from clear. The more articles I read, the more contradictory the information seems. Some are predicting infection rates of up to 80% of the population, while others predict 20%. Some predict that the disease will turn out to be less deadly than it seems, while others are predicting a complete global disruption lasting for months. It also seems unclear (to me, at least) whether children are effective vectors of the virus. Judging from the school closures, many believe yes; but I also have read that there is little available evidence.

Our best tool in fighting pandemics are vaccines. But unfortunately vaccines can take quite a long time to develop. It is not as easy as I (naively) thought. Many trials must be performed to ensure that the vaccine is effective and safe for the general population, and this takes time: months and months. If we cannot immunize ourselves artificially, then, the only possibility is to develop a herd-immunity the hard way: by getting the disease itself. This is a frightening prospect. That route would entail a great deal of suffering and death. But how long can we wait in our homes? In short, I am unclear how we are going to get out of this mess.

Meanwhile, I am fairly stuck in my little apartment in Madrid, one of the new epicenters of the virus. We have only had three days of isolation, and it is not so bad thus far. I began an exercise routine that I can do in my room, and my brother and I have been cooking a lot of hearty meals. But I really cannot see how everyone will be able to keep this up for the long-term, either economically or psychologically. Without extraordinary government measures, I do not think that people could stay in their homes much longer than one month without a great many people facing serious financial strain. Even in the best case scenario, the consequences for the economy seem quite grave. And this is putting aside the social pressure to resume normal life, which will increase from day to day.

At present, I swerve wildly from optimism to pessimism. What I want most of all is a return to normalcy. Never has my old life seemed so desirable! The strangest thing about this crisis is that it went from trivial to serious so quickly. Everyone seems to have been caught unawares. But even Bill Bryson—a popular writer with no specialized training—was able to see potential danger once he looked into the research. If only our experts had been as intelligent and as anxious as he.

Letters from Spain #18: Spanish Cities

Letters from Spain #18: Spanish Cities

Here is the next episode of my Spanish podcast. This one is about the joy of Spanish cities (when there isn’t a pandemic, of course).

Click below for the apple podcast:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-18-spanish-cities/id1469809686?i=1000468584456

Here is the video:

See the transcript below:


Hello,

It seems that I suddenly have an awful lot of time to work with. Because of the surge of coronavirus cases in Madrid, all schools have been closed, and I’ve been sent home for at least two weeks. On Friday they ordered all the shops and restaurants to be closed. And today was the first day of a nation-wide lockdown. Nobody is allowed on the streets, except to go to work, buy medicine or groceries. I think the Spanish people are mostly taking this well. True, there’s no toilet paper left in any of the shops. But people are keeping their spirits up during this difficult time. Every day, at eight o’clock, people have been gathering on their balconies to cheer the hardworking medical personnel. 

It’s a pretty surreal feeling. A few weeks ago, coronavirus was just a thing happening in China. Two weeks ago, it was an Italian problem. Now it’s totally global. 

Anyways, so far I am safe and sound. Meanwhile, the city of Madrid looks very, very different. It’s a complete ghost-town now. The precautions necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus go totally against the grain of Spanish culture. As I’ve talked about before, Spanish people love to be outside, to be in public, and to congregate. They greet each other with kisses and have no issues with physical contact. These qualities are—under normal circumstances—what make Spanish cities so great. In fact, I’d say that this is one of the most charming things about visiting Spain: that the city centers are always bustling with life. 

A big part of this, I think, has to do with the layout of the cities itself. Every major Spanish city predates the invention of the car by centuries, and so the historical parts of these cities are always easily walkable. Really, the invention of the car was bad for city life. You can see the evidence of this almost anywhere in America, as well as in the parts of cities in Europe that have been built to accommodate car travel. On the outskirts of Madrid you enter into a kind of industrial park, where all the buildings are low-lying and spread out. When you don’t have any motivation to put things closeby, you also don’t have motivation to build up in any one place. The result is very ugly—endless asphalt, shabby buildings, and nobody on the street.

I think you can clearly see the bad effect that the car has had on city planning if you examine a place where I worked for a long time: Rivas-Vaciamadrid. Now, I don’t want to insult Rivas, because the people who live there are really quite lovely. But I think the town itself embodies everything that I dislike about modern cities. The major problem is the zoning. All the parts of Rivas are split up into discrete zones, which contain only one type of building. There are zones for single-residency houses, zones for apartment buildings, and zones for restaurants. Most of the shopping is concentrated in one giant mall. The result is deadening. There is hardly any variation to relieve your eye, since all the houses and buildings look exactly the same. 

Even worse, compared to other Spanish cities, there is very little life on the street. I often had to walk from private class to private class, and I wouldn’t see more than three people during the whole time. It’s a place built for cars. There aren’t any good places to gather. True, Rivas has some big parks, but in my experience these were often empty, too. Personally I found it a bit depressing. (Again, this isn’t a reflection on the people of Rivas, who are very nice!) Going from the endlessly similar neighborhoods of the new part of Rivas to the tiny older center was always a relief. There, at least, there are some bars and cafes, and a central square with some benches.

The problem was diagnosed by Jane Jacobs. Cities are vibrant when they are mixed-use. That is, when there are lots of different sorts of things in the same neighborhood, there are that many more reasons for people to be walking on the street. And when people are on the street, the streets become that much more interesting and safe to be in. It naturally reduces the crime rate (at least for violent crime, maybe not pickpocketing), since there are always bystanders, and in general it is one of the chief delights of city life. After all, one of the constant fascinations of living in the city is seeing the human zoo on display.

A high population density can also support a wider variety of businesses, which is another of the great pleasures of city life. First and foremost, there are the cafes, restaurants, and bars. Nowadays they are much emptier than usual, but most of the time they are packed, especially on sunny days like today. I honestly wonder what is the furthest you could go in Spain from an eating establishment. You could be lost in the southern deserts and still be able to order a beer nearby. The omnipresence of restaurants is one of the great joys of Spanish life. If you want a coffee, a glass of wine, or a bite to eat, you can choose from any of the three to six establishments in eyesight. You may think I’m joking, but Spain is the country with the highest density of bars in the world. To give an example, the southern province of the country, Andalucia, has more bars than Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Ireland combined. (And by the way, Andalucia has less than half as many people as these four places.)

Another thing that’s not in short supply in Spain are the supermarkets. My neighborhood is a pretty good example of this. Within a ten minute walk from my front door there are 14 supermarkets. Fourteen! And many of them are quite big. These fourteen supermarkets represent 7 different brands, some of them Spanish, one French (Carrefour), and one German (Lidl). And this is not to mention the many butchers, vegetable shops, and bakery shops nearby. Just the other day I wandered across a very modern-looking butcher shop, which had every kind of meat you could wish for. There, I finally found a type of Spanish sausage I particularly like, called “crioll chorizo” (though the name doesn’t really make sense). My point is that you’re pretty spoiled when it comes to food selection, even if some things that are common in the US are much less common in Spain (like broccoli rabe, which I’ve never seen!).

There are two types of shops common in Spain that are often run by immigrants. One is the humble kebab shop, the most popular fast food option in Europe. I actually live on top of a kebab shop, and the smell of the spiced meats wafts up all day, giving me strange cravings. The other one is called an alimentación, which is sort of a corner shop where you buy snacks, basic amenities, and alcohol. (In Spain you don’t need a liquor license, so everywhere has booze.) Because these sorts of shops are often owned by Chinese people, they are usually called chinos by Spaniards—and I’m kind of unclear whether this is considered, or should be considered, offensive. Chino, by the way, is the standard way to refer to a Chinese person or a Chinese restaurant, of which there are a fair number in Spain.

Speaking of my own neighborhood, what else should I mention? I think by any standard there is an impressive range of businesses. There are several sports stores, for example, and they are not chains. There is a nice little one up the street that has good deals on sweatpants and sweatshirts, and a big one around the corner that has everything from fishing rods to weight lifting machines. Speaking of lifting weights, there’s also a gym—again, not a chain—a few blocks away, where my brother likes to go. And Retiro park is just five minutes up the street, where I like to go running.

Really, the longer I’ve lived in this neighborhood—which is called Pacifico—the more I have come to appreciate it. Though it isn’t a big place to go out at night, it’s a historical neighborhood that is right next to the central train station, Atocha. And I think it embodies a lot of what is good in Spanish cities. The streets are not too big and not too long, which allows for a high density of shops within easy walking distance. As a result, while usually not crowded, there’s hardly a moment when the streets are empty. A few years ago Pacifico was a sleepy part of the city, with lots of older folks. Nowadays the neighborhood seems to be gentrifying (and, no doubt, I am myself contributing to this process). There is an axe-throwing business, where you can take turns hurling a hatchet at a wooden target; there is a fancy dried-goods store, with all these different types of pastas, flours, and exotic spices; and there are lots of bio shops with organic produce and different medicinal herbs. There’s even a big technology store, and a cool book store that also serves coffee, carrot cake, and craft beer. (A specialized craft beer store just moved out of the neighborhood.)

Well, anyway, I think you get my point. There’s a lot of stuff in my neighborhood, and I think this is typical of many neighborhoods in Spain: they are mixed-use, walkable, and well connected with public transportation. In a way they are the antithesis of places that are built around cars. And I think that the result speaks for itself: it is more attractive, more interesting, and all around more livable. There’s another added bonus to living in a Spanish city: the history. Even in my quiet neighborhood, there are some important historical buildings to visit. Quite closeby is the Engine Hall, which is a kind of power station with three massive diesel generators, built for the first generation of the Madrid metro. Nowadays it is a free museum.

Not very far is the Royal Tapestry Factory. This is just one of many royal factories, which were established in the 1700s by the Bourbon monarchs in an effort to emulate the French mercantile model. These are basically state-run organizations that made luxury goods for the royal family. The glass factory, for example, is in the town of La Granja, near one of Spain’s great palaces. The tapestry factory is a brick building with a big smokestack, where some of the finest neoclassical tapestries were made for the Spanish court. No less an artist than Goya made designs for these tapestries, and his original paintings are hanging on the top floor of the Prado. Nowadays, the factory is run by a non-profit, I believe.

Quite close are two more historical landmarks: the Royal Basilica of Our Lady of Atocha, and the Pantheon of Illustrious Men. The first is an important church that is home to one of the many venerated images of the Virgin. The basilica has long been a center of religious and royal life in the city. Bartolomé de las Casas is even buried here—the monk who was one of the first Spaniards to raise awareness about the cruelty of colonization in the Americas. Nextdoor is the Pantheon, which used to be a convent. In the 1800s it was seized from the church and turned into a kind of celebration of civic Spaniards, with elaborate funerary monuments distributed around the old cloister. It’s actually quite a beautiful place, even though I’ve never heard of any of the people buried there. 

Hmmm, it seems that I started a podcast about Spanish city planning, and ended up just talking about how much I like my neighborhood. But I do think that my neighborhood illustrates the ways that a city can be a joyous place. And personally I think that it is a much healthier and saner way to live than having everything spread out, like they’re on little islands, making a car necessary. Cars are convenient things, but you can’t have a car community. I think modern city planners should take a look at these historical neighborhoods and do their best to recreate them. Otherwise, we’ll be condemned to a life of seclusion and isolation, cooped up in our homes, driving from place to place—like we all have coronavirus all the time! It’s not a good way to live.

Unfortunately, even the good neighborhoods that exist are in constant risk of being rendered unlivable by rising rents. And this is a consequence of real estate investing and gentrification. Perhaps it is significant that Vienna, which is often considered the most livable city in the world, has extensive public housing projects—for almost half of its population. At the moment, Madrid’s own housing market is pretty unregulated, and I think this can easily lead to a situation of average, everyday people being pushed out of the center into the outskirts. This is a hollowing out that has already affected places like London and New York, since it basically kills the liveliness that makes these places so attractive to begin with—making them neighborhoods of empty homes owned by wealthy people, or else Airbnbs, with small businesses being bought out by big chains. Whatever the government can do to prevent this kind of situation, I’d welcome it.

Thank you.

Quotes & Commentary #67: Thucydides

Quotes & Commentary #67: Thucydides

Not many days after their arrival in Attica the plague first began to show itself among the Athenians. It was said that it had broken out in many places previously in the neighbourhood of Lemnos and elsewhere; but a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered. Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often; nor did any human art succeed any better. Supplications in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.

—Thucydides

The plague of Athens is one of the most famous epidemics in history. It struck the city-state hard, and played a decisive role in Athens’ loss to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The historian Thucydides, who suffered the disease himself, gives a clinical description of the symptoms. Many are rather garden variety: headache, sore throat, a bad cough, diarrhea, and vomiting. Apart from this, victims suffered ulcers on the skin, and a fever so bad that people tore off their clothes. Thucydides also describes an unquenchable thirst. Tens of thousands died—in a city that was not, by modern standards, especially big—including the great statesman, Pericles; and it created ripples in society that lasted for many years after the plague ended.

(It is still unknown what germ caused the Athenian plague. One theory is typhus.)

It is impossible to make any sort of prediction when it comes to the novel coronavirus. In the beginning, I saw much commentary in the news criticizing China’s heavy-handed approach to dealing with the virus. Back then, most of the political commentary centered on whether an authoritarian regime could adequately cope. Now, Western governments are not looking very good by comparison. The outbreak has caught the leaders off guard, and there were many weeks of downplaying the threat before serious action was taken. And, in the end, Europe will likely have to enact many of the same measures as were put in place in China.

People of any political persuasion can find grist for their mills. I have already mentioned the criticism of China’s heavy-handed approach. Marxists are using the shortages at supermarkets as evidence of the shortcomings of capitalism; while conservatives point to the government’s inadequate response as evidence of bureaucratic incompetence. Trump, as usual, has said many false or misleading things, and the economic downturn caused by the virus could possibly hurt his chances for re-election. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, cites the virus as a good argument for universal healthcare. And so on.

Certainly some of these perspectives have merit. And there is plenty of blame to go around. Judging from the state of things here in Spain, the government was unprepared for the virus, even though they had weeks to observe its progress in China and then Italy. Speaking for myself, the outbreak has been an exercise in humility, since in the past few weeks I consistently downplayed its importance and severity. A week ago I was feeling totally secure, as if my normal life could not be affected. So I do have some sympathy for everyone who underestimated the danger. (On the other hand, the people in power are the ones who are supposed to know, of course.)

To continue my exercise in humility, I think I will refrain from making any definite predictions about the weeks and months to come. There are too many variables. It is unknown how long these measures will have to be enacted; and it is equally unclear exactly what effect this will have on the economy. Further down the line, we cannot predict if, how, or to what extent the crisis will affect the political situation. Big events like September 11 and the 2008 financial crisis had long-lasting political aftershocks, still reverberating today. Will the coronavirus be decisive in the 2020 American presidential elections? Will Spain’s socialist government lose credibility?

The plague of Athens was a major turning point in the history of Ancient Greece. Without Pericles, and reeling from the depopulation, Athens lost to Sparta, which henceforth became the leading power in the Peninsula. The Golden Age of Ancient Greece thus came to an end. How might history have turned out differently if Athens had won instead? Such counterfactuals are impossible to definitively answer. Now, all we can really do is sit in our homes and wait. But perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that, despite all of our missteps, we are far better positioned to deal with the coronavirus than the Athenians were ready to deal with their plague (whatever it was). For one thing, we understand how diseases spread; and thus each of us can do our part to stop it.

Quotes & Commentary #66: Boccaccio

Quotes & Commentary #66: Boccaccio

Let us avoid like death itself the ugly example of others, and go to live in a more dignified fashion in our country houses (of which we all have several), and there let us take what enjoyment, what happiness, and what pleasure we can, without in any way going beyond the bounds of reason. There we can hear the birds sing, and we can see the hills and the pastures turning green, the wheat fields moving like the sea, and a thousand kinds of trees; and we shall be able to see the heavens more clearly, the heavens which, though they still may be cruel, nonetheless will not deny to us their eternal beauties and which are much more pleasing to look at than the deserted walls of our city.

—Giovanni Boccaccio

There are many famous historical examples of plagues, pestilences, and pandemics. The most famous in European history is the Black Death, which killed somewhere between one- and two-thirds of the population. Boccaccio describes the symptom of that disease in grisly detail, noting the “swellings either in the groin or under the armpit,” followed by “black or livid spots,” which very often resulted in death. The characters in Boccaccio’s Decameron—ten young nobles—have the resources to leave the city and retire to an isolated country spot, where they pass the time by telling one hundred stories.

I never thought that I would be in even a vaguely similar situation. But beginning on Monday morning, everyone in Spain—in every region of the country—will be confined to their house, and only allowed to leave to buy medicine or groceries. It will be a complete lockdown, in other words, which will put us in a situation very much like Italy now, and even like that of Boccaccio’s young nobles. That is, we will have an awful lot of time on our hands while we wait out the winter. And we will need to be artistic in passing the time. Already in Italy, the people are playing instruments and singing from their balconies, making impromptu bands. Just a few minutes ago, in Spain, everyone came to the balcony to applaud the efforts of the doctors and nurses—and we are not even in lockdown yet.

It will be a long couple weeks—if, indeed, it ends in a couple weeks. As if the whole society is sick, we all must take to our beds. The future is looking increasingly uncertain. Just last Monday was a normal work day for me. Every day, the virus has accelerated, and the government’s response has struggled to keep up. Now, hopefully, events will begin to slow down with the coming emergency measures. We will have an awful lot of time to sit and think—a maddening amount, perhaps, if we do not know what to do with it. What is even more maddening is the huge deal of uncertainty that has been injected into all of our lives. Apart from the health consequences, which are grave enough, there will almost certainly be economic ramifications that will affect everyone. It is frightening to think of what the worst case scenario might look like. In retrospect, we may see it as a historical turning point.

Well, then, we shall just have to hope that we avoid a worst case scenario, while we count the hours until we can re-emerge from our dens. My own room is comfortable but quite small; and it is internally situated meaning that I have no view of anything but whitewashed walls. It is certainly no Italian villa. Now it is Saturday—only three days of serious disruption so far—but I already miss my old routine; and I know that, in a couple days, I will desperately miss taking long runs and walks. There is a surreal feeling to this whole affair, as if we have somehow been transported back one hundred years or more, when infectious diseases were sources of mysterious dread. 

Considering these circumstances, it is tempting to panic or to wallow in despair. From the present moment, it is difficult to see how this crisis can end. But one way or another it will end. And now that all of the governments of the world are coming to realize the scale of the danger, we will hopefully avoid the worst. We humans have already weathered much worse pandemics (though of course not without some horrible consequences in the interim). In the meantime, like those ten noble Italians, we have to contend with two undramatic foes: boredom and uncertainty. And like them, one of our best allies will be our creativity. We can tell stories, write poetry, practice cooking, or improve our chess game. My main goal is to finally get some drawing done.

And, of course, there are always books to read. Boccaccio himself might be a good place to start. For Boccaccio had an abundance of another one of our major allies in this struggle: humor. I am going to be needing a lot of it in the weeks ahead. All of us will.

Review: Winesburg, Ohio

Review: Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This book did not conform to my expectations, and this is often a cause of bitterness with me. I opened Winesburg, Ohio thinking that it would be a series of carefully-plotted, intersecting short stories illustrating the reality of small-town life in America. And I was excited for this hypothetical book, since it seemed like a wonderful concept. But Anderson had quite different ideas, and his were far less to my taste.

For one, the stories in Winesburg, Ohio have very little in the way of plot, and so they can hardly weave an intricate tapestry. The effect is not that of a carefully worked-out machine, but if a simple accumulation. What is more, this is hardly a work of realism in any meaningful sense. Anderson is not one for sensory details, nor for social analysis; his world is composed of individual souls residing in a shadowy world. The stories could have taken place just as easily in Winesburg as in Warsaw, since Anderson’s fundamental concern is something much more universal.

The insistent message of these stories is that people are bound up within themselves, their inner passions shut off from the world, and they have little idea how to rectify their situation. Thus, the stories follow a characteristic pattern: The protagonist’s frustrated dreams and desires are narrated, and then a crisis follows in which the character tries, unsuccessfully, to disburden herself of this frustration. This usually takes the form of a frantic encounter with George Willard, the young town reporter. The story ends as soon as the crisis is shown to be unsuccessful.

I have many criticisms of these stories. Anderson is as guilty as any author can be of telling and not showing. His stories consist almost entirely of narration. What is worse, I often found the narration unsuccessful, as Anderson seems allergic to the use of vivid, concrete details. We are never in the moment with a character, never able to watch a scene unfold in our mind’s eye. Someone extremely sympathetic to Anderson’s style may argue that this creatures a distance between the reader and the story which mirrors the emotional distance between Anderson’s characters. In my case, however, the result was often apathy or bemusement.

As an example of his style, consider this passage:

There was something biting and forbidding in the character of Kate Swift. Everyone felt it. In the schoolroom she was silent, cold, and stern, and yet in an odd way very close to her pupils. Once in a long while something seemed to have come over her and she was happy. All of the children in the schoolroom felt the effect of her happiness. For a time they did not work but sat back in their chairs and looked at her.

This passage is characteristic in its almost total lack of sensory information. Indeed it seems intentionally vague: “in an odd way,” “something came over her,” “felt the effect”—these phrases suggest that Anderson himself was not interested in really picturing to himself how this strange scene could actually play out. It also shows a kind of curious anti-realism when it comes to describing human behavior. As somebody who has worked as a teacher, I can scarcely imagine the reaction of young pupils to a mysteriously happy teacher being to simply look at her. Has Anderson ever been around a child?

Of course, an author is under no obligation to describe people as behaving realistically. Nevertheless, I think that this oddity is symptomatic of one of the paradoxes in these short stories: though they are about the innermost struggles of different individuals, Anderson seems rather uninterested in his characters as individuals. The persons in this book can hardly be called individuals, in fact, but are mere points of tension. They have problems but no personalities, and once their crisis is over they have no further interest. The way that Anderson writes dialogue is particularly infelicitous—unnatural to the point that it must have been intentional, but which nevertheless struck me as jarring. Luckily, there is not much of it.

What perhaps struck me most about these stories is how strongly they reminded me of a lot of contemporary writing. The idea that we are all silently suffering, or that, in Anderson’s own words, “everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified”—and, most importantly, that emotional expression will fix this problem—this strikes me as a profoundly limited worldview. For my part, I do not think that emotional connection alone is enough to solve any problem, unless it is supplemented by a thoughtful empathy—the ability to see humans in the round and not as simply balls of frustrated passions.

Indeed, as Lionel Trilling argues in his excellent essay on Anderson, the paradox of this philosophy is that it can lead to a world just as cold and brutal as one of repressed desires. And yet, this is an idea that I encounter again and again: that all we need is emotional expression. Expression is easy, however, while understanding is infinitely more difficult.

View all my reviews

Letters from Spain #17: European Travel

Letters from Spain #17: European Travel

My new podcast is out, this one on European Travel. (Yes, a little silly during the coronavirus crisis, but I didn’t plan it this way.) For the apple podcast, click here:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-17-european-travel/id1469809686?i=1000467987733

Here is the YouTube video:

For the (loose) transcript, see below:


Hello,

Well, my podcast this week has been delayed because of a trip. It was my first international trip of the school year, and it was great. My brother and I went to Kraków, Poland—a lovely city, with a well-preserved historical center. Relatively nearby are two major tourist attractions: Auschwitz (very depressing) and the Wieliczka salt mines (very impressive). But maybe the best part of the trip was the food. Every dish was heavy, plentiful, and delicious. Even the coffee and the beer was good. And I was reminded how generally pleasant European travel can be. Arguably, it’s the best part of living here.

Admittedly, it seems like an awkward time to be writing a podcast about traveling, because of the coronavirus outbreak. Just last week, I had a brief layover in Milan, and now Milan is under quarantine, with the rest of Northern Italy. And I just received notice that Madrid will be shutting down schools for the next two weeks. Two weeks! What will I do with myself? Next thing I know, we’ll be under quarantine, too. So I guess it’s not the best time to talk about European travel, now that everyone is cancelling their vacations. However, this crisis will pass, and Europe will once again open its doors to travelers. So here I go!

The major difference between traveling in Europe and in the United States is that Europe is packed with variety. Traveling to another country is like traveling to another state—cheap, easy, and quick. You can get on a plane and, in an hour or two, get out in a place where the people speak an entirely different language, eat different food, where the architecture, music, art, and even the landscape itself is totally different. The whole continent of Europe isn’t bigger than the US. And when you consider that most people travel to Western Europe, you’re talking about an area of land about the size of one American coast.

The main reason why so much cultural variety is packed into such a comparatively small space is, simply, the amount of history that has gone by. America is one big country, and a young country, too; so a lot of the country can seem extremely homogeneous, since it is the result of rapid expansion. And a lot of this expansion happens when means of transport and communication were relatively rapid. Meanwhile, Europe grew out of ancient populations, and virtually every little town and city was relatively isolated for long periods of time. Cultural differences grow and accumulate during all this time; and this is why, in Europe, every region has its own traditional dishes, traditional dances, traditional music, and so on. This is true both within countries and between countries: there is an awful lot of regional variation packed into a relatively small space.

This naturally makes traveling in Europe quite endlessly fascinating. Poland, for example, is not too far away from Spain, but it is absolutely unmistakably distinct. And this goes far deeper than surface features like food and architecture. The two countries have been shaped by quite different historical forces, and so even their cultures have notable contrasts, such as their concepts of personal space and their senses of humor. But I don’t want to overstate my case and argue that they have nothing in common, either. Both Poland and Spain have been heavily influenced by capitalism, for example, and they have both gone through periods of totalitarian rule and repression in the twentieth century.

So the really fascinating thing, then, is seeing Europe as a kind of variation on a theme. Every country has churches, basilicas, and cathedrals, but they all build them somewhat differently. Every country has art museums and monuments to historical events, and these are all intimately interconnected. To give just one example, the beautiful gothic altar in Krakow’s St. Mary’s Basilica was sculpted by a German from Nuremberg, another city that was previously a part of the Habsburg Empire. (The Habsburgs controlled Spain for a while, too, to give you another example of their historical parallels.) 

So national borders are real markers of difference, but they’re also fluid. Perhaps the most famous Pole in history, Nicholas Copernicus, studied for a time in Italy, and published his book with the help of German Protestants. Frederic Chopin, born in Poland, spent most of his professional life in French, as did the Spaniard Picasso and the Dutchman Van Gogh. The more you travel around Europe, then, the more you see a rich, interconnected story unfolding across this varied landscape. In short, it’s very cool.

Anyways, even if you don’t care much about history or art, there’s another factor that makes European travel so appealing: it’s cheap. Part of the reason for this cheapness are the low-cost flights. Sometimes you can find good deals are more traditional airlines, like Iberia; and that may be the best option. But often travelers looking to save money fly with EasyJet or Ryanair. I have a lot of experience with Ryanair. I used them for my outbound and inbound flights to Poland. They are far from being my favorite airline, but their prices are pretty irresistible. My flight to Poland, for example, cost me less than 20 euros. And that’s for a three-and-a-half hour flight! 

Of course, you get what you pay for. There are no amenities on Ryanair. The seats are uncomfortable, there are no screens to watch movies, no plug to charge your phone, and of course food is not included. Besides this, you need to pay extra if you want to choose your seat or even if you want to take a bag for the overhead compartment. Since I bought the cheapest ticket, I had to fit all of my stuff under the seat in front of me. Worst of all may be the advertising. On every Ryanair flight the airstewarts give long, uninspired, rambling advertisements of various products—food, perfume, lottery tickets, and even model planes —over the plane’s crackling PA system. And they do this in two or three languages, so it takes a long time. I’ve never seen anyone buy any of this junk, so in a way it feels like punishment for paying cheap prices.

As much as I like to rag on Ryanair, the truth is that I wouldn’t have been able to travel so much if it weren’t for this infamous company. There are a couple other companies and services that also help in my eternal quest to save money. A basic one is Skyscanner, a website that reliably tells you the cheapest flights. I also have used Blablacar a lot, which is a ride sharing service. Basically, let’s say I’m planning on driving from Seville to Madrid. I can put up an announcement on Blablacar and charge riders to accompany on this trip. The driver can charge whatever they want, but typically the prices are quite a bit lower than, say, paying for a high-speed train. Of course, I felt a little hesitant at first about the prospect of getting into a car with a stranger. But the website is quite well regulated and I haven’t had any truly bad experiences. It’s also a good way to find people to chat with, if you’re trying to improve your language skills.

There is one more service I use that, I admit, makes me feel a bit guilty: Airbnb. The reason that I have some scruples about Airbnb is that it can have a potentially bad effect on the housing market of wherever you’re visiting. It’s often more profitable for landlords to rent their flats short-term to visitors than long-term to locals, and this limits the supply of available residences and drives prices up. In areas with heavy tourism, this can make it almost unliveably expensive. So there is that downside. On the other hand, hotels and even youth hostels can be much, much more expensive than Airbnbs—prohibitively so, for me. In any case, I hope I am reducing the corrosive effect of Airbnbs by normally renting individual rooms (which couldn’t be rented to locals anyway) rather than whole apartments. In Prague, for example, I stayed in a little room in the apartment of a family, far outside the center. This is not only better for the city, but also in my experience more fun, since the idea is to be with locals anyways.

Well, those are my tips. If you do some searching, you can find ways to travel around Europe on an incredibly short budget. And you get a lot for money, since there are so many things to see and do, all over the place. If you’re young—younger than 26, in most cases—then you can get added discounts on museums and monuments. Added to all this, there is also the convenience of the European Union. Now that I’m being paid in Euros, I don’t have to worry about conversion rates if I go to Italy, Germany, or Ireland. There is also something that’s called the Schengen Zone: a zone of countries where no visa or even passport is needed at the border. Flying from Spain to Italy, then, is legally the same as taking a domestic flight. You just walk right into the country.

Europe’s open borders are something that they should be very proud of, I think. It is a level of international trust and cooperation that is unique in history, I believe. And as a result of this, it is quite common for Europeans to have international experience. Though there is at least one case in which all this may backfire: during an pandemic. Now the virus is in every major European country, with over a thousand cases in Spain. And I’ve just heard that all of Italy is on lock-down. I really hope they don’t lock down Spain… 

Anyways, I’m getting a bit off topic. My major point is that Europe is great for travel. There is a lot to see and do, it’s easy and cheap to get around, and borders are almost non-existent. And Europeans themselves take advantage of this. Blessed with lots of vacation time (unlike the United States, where vacation is entirely unregulated), Europeans in general take lots of trips: both within their countries and to neighboring lands. Indeed, one of the big reasons that so many people want to learn English is because of the travel industry. In a continent of so many different nations and languages, English is the only Lengua Franca available.

Now, does all this traveling help to make Europeans wiser, more tolerant, more cosmopolitan? The answer is not immediately clear to me. It’s certainly possible to travel and not learn anything. Go to any touristy area, and you’ll see what I mean. All the food is junk food (a lot of it from America), and everything for sale is junk, too. Many people travel, take a selfie with a famous landmark, stay in a hotel, and then go home. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily. It’s fun. But does it lead to anything more? I think it does, or at least I hope it does. Otherwise, what on earth am I doing? Just having fun?

Thank you.

Versailles and its Gardens

Versailles and its Gardens

Europe is full of palaces. There are so many, in fact, that the persistent traveler can grow a little weary of them. After all, each palace tends to offer the same sorts of attractions: fine furniture, richly decorated rooms, expansive architecture. You get the idea. But even if you are quite uninterested in the pomp of power or the fineries of royal life, there is one palace that must be visited: Versailles. Built for Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King, it is the prototype of virtually all of the palaces built afterwards. From Spain to Austria, Versailles has been scrupulously imitated. It is, in other words, the palace of palaces.

The palace of Versailles is not within the city of Paris itself, but situated in the suburbs. Like Philip II with El Escorial, Louis XIV wanted to be away from the city, in an environment completely under his control. This decision did make the palace slightly inconvenient for the modern traveler to visit. Fortunately, Versailles is well-connected by all forms of public transportation. The cheapest and easiest way to get to Versailles from Paris is on the RER (Regional Express Trains), which stops quite close to the palace. This was not an option when I visited, however, as there was a train strike that day (hardly a rare occurrence in France). Yet this strike only affected these local trains. Long-distance trains from Montparnasse station also have a stop in Versailles (Versailles – Chantiers). This is the option I used.

Even though the walk from Versailles – Chantiers is slightly longer than from the RER stop, the strike worked to my advantage. There were significantly fewer people in the palace than usual. This is not to say that I had the place to myself. Versailles is typically packed; many visitors complain that the crowds ruin the experience. When I visited there were quite a lot of visitors (aside from the visitors by trains, there are dozens of tour buses lined up in the parking lot outside the palace), but not enough to make the place suffocating or claustrophobic. The palace was just mildly stuffy.

If you spend a few minutes to walk around the town of Versailles, you will notice that it looks rather different from the center of Paris. Partially this is because the streets follow a grid layout—a dead giveaway of the Versailles’ past. Before Louis XIV decided to move his court to this spot, the only thing on the land was a small village and a royal hunting lodge. In other words, it was mainly wilderness. The town took shape quickly around the palace; and like the royal gardens, it has been meticulously planned. This is not unusual for palace towns. The town of Aranjuez in Spain, for example, also follows a grid plan—a striking exception to the normal chaos of Spanish towns.

As you approach the enormous palace, several things come into view. There is Louis XIV heroically mounted on a stallion, sporting appropriately regal headwear. Immediately beyond this image of royal power are the tour buses, which give an even greater image of the power of international tourism. Then there is the line. When I visited, it was several hundred feet long, spanning almost the entire length of the palace’s front. Beyond this impatient mass of humankind there is the ornate fence and the even more ornate façade. Both are bright and gold; Louis XIV did not want to leave any of his wealth to the imagination. On the molded gateway, under a floating crown, there is the sun himself, the French king’s favored symbol. As you can see, he was a flagrantly powerful man. But as I had bought a timed entry ticket—thus allowing me to skip the line—I was feeling flagrantly powerful myself.

Before we go inside, I should give you some of the most basic information about the palace and its maker. Though not always successful in his foreign wars, Louis XIV was arguably the most successful monarch in French history at consolidating power within France itself. At the time, simply being king was not enough by itself. Early in Louis XIV’s long reign, when the monarch was only a boy, the nobles of France attempted a rebellion, called the Fronde. The rebellion was eventually put down; but the threat of unruly aristocrats must have sunk deep within Louis’s consciousness. As soon as he was old enough to take control for himself, Louis set about centralizing the state and making his authority as absolute as possible. Unlike his predecessors, for example, he did not rely on ministers to carry out the real duties of governing, but insisting on acting himself,

The palace of Versailles was part of his scheme. Situating the palace outside of Paris allowed the king to escape many of the conventional pressures of both the populace and the wealthy. Instead, anyone who wished to pay their respects at court had to do so on Louis’s territory. And this meant submitting oneself to a byzantine set of rituals and etiquette that Louis established, which governed everything from what to wear to when to speak to how to eat. Louis’s whole routine was a spectacle. Aristocrats watched as the king dined and dressed, biding their time until, with any luck, they had their chance to access the monarch’s ear. It was a ritual perfectly devised to keep underlings in their place.

Considering this historical background, it is wise to view the palace for what it is: a monumental piece of propaganda. Louis XIV wanted Versailles to send an unambiguous message to every visitor: that he occupies the center of France. Thus, the palace’s architectural scheme irresistibly draws the visitor’s eye to the center of the building, where all of the lines meet. It is here that I began my tour.

The first space which caught my eye was the royal chapel. This is a tall and narrow space; greek columns are supported by a row of arches, leading up to a richly decorated ceiling. Once again, the architecture here is perfectly calculated to convey a message. The narrow width of the space makes the ceiling seem especially tall, seeming to squeeze and dwarf the visitor; and the repeating columns and arches unmistakably communicate a sense of orderliness. We are entering a world where even prayer is subservient to the state, and where even religious worship itself is part of the pomp of power.

Next we enter into the State Apartments. These are sumptuously decorated rooms, used by the king for receiving courtiers and visitors. The walls and ceilings of these rooms are covered with designs and paintings. The most notable of these may be the Meal at the House of Simon the Pharosee, by Veronese—a lovely work of the high Italian renaissance. The color gold is everywhere in these rooms, and the ceilings are full of cherubs, clouds, and crowns. The king himself is ever-present, not least in the magnificent bust by Bernini, which manages to make the king into a truly heroic figure. Next in the visit come the royal apartments, where we can see the luxuriant beds where the king and the queen slept. As usual, no matter the luxury, I did not find envying these places of rest. I would not want to sleep in an enormous, empty room—even if it was on the finest silk.

Note the Veronese painting at the far end.
An example of the ornate ceilings.

Then we come to the so-called Grand Gallery, the most opulent rooms in a building full of opulent rooms. In the War Salon we see Louis XIV yet again, in a relief by Antoine Coysevox, looking martial and kingly on his horse. This leads directly to the most famous space of all: the Hall of Mirrors. Nowadays, of course, mirrors are nothing special; but at the time they were extremely expensive, largely because Venice had a monopoly on their production. Louis XIV was committed to using products made in France, but he actually enticed some glass-makers to defect from Venice to France to work for him (whom the Venetians later tried to poison for their betrayal). This hallway served Louis XIV in his endless courtly rituals as a place where he could stroll back and forth, giving underlings a chance to make requests as he passed. Many years later, the Treaty of Versailles—which put an end to WWI, and set the stage for WWII—was signed in this room. 

The king presiding over the War Room.
Expensive or not, the mirrors do not work very well.

The visit next brings you to a newer part of the palace: the Galerie des Batailles. This was built during the reign of Louis Philip I (1830 – 1848), and it replaced several apartments in the original design. It is modelled on the Grand Gallery of the Louvre (to which it looks remarkably similar), and is full of busts and portraits of famous French military men. Unsurprisingly, Napoleon dominates the scene, as painting after painting represent his martial glories. Unless you are an intensely patriotic Frenchman, this room will likely not excite profound emotions. Yet propaganda is seldom more glorious and more impressive that this display. 

This pretty well completes the basic visit to the palace. But the best part of Versailles is still to come: the gardens. Now, gardens come in many varieties; and a major split is between English and French gardens. English gardens are romantic in spirit, seeking to evoke the wildness and grandeur of nature. French gardens are the exact opposite: they represent humanity’s dominance over the natural world. Thus, one finds neat hedge-rows, straight aqueducts, and heroic sculptures. The gardens of Versailles are the most perfect example of this type. Standing at the back of the palace, one sees an entire landscape laid out in perfect symmetry, a harmonious composition that meekly submits to the visitor’s glance. As usual, the environment bespeaks centralized power.

While I normally dislike French gardens (I prefer natural parks to these monuments to neatness), I must admit that walking through the gardens of Versaille is an absolute delight. At every turn there is yet another charming fountain to see, yet another sculpture to please the eye. Most of the imagery used in these gardens comes from ancient Greece and Rome, drawing apparent links between the reign of Louis XIV and these sources of Western culture. Louis XIV seems to invite comparison with Augustus himself. The perfect musical accompaniment to a walk in these gardens is, undoubtedly, the compositions of Jean-Baptise Lully—Louis’s court composer. Like the palace and the gardens, the music conveys pomp and power; it is trim, ornate, and grandiloquent. 

This is my alley.

Eventually, the walker comes across the Grand Trianon. This is a chateau that served as a kind of getaway for the king, much as the Generalife served as a getaway for the residents of the Alhambra. The idea of having a smaller, secondary palace within a fifteen-minute walk from the central palace may seem a little silly; certainly it does not seem like much of a vacation. However, the Grand Trianon served an important function for the kings of France: as a place to be with their mistress. Famed for being the country with the highest tolerance of infidelity, the kings have France have long enjoyed the privilege of supplementing their marriage. (This tradition has, apparently, continued into modern times; Françoise Hollande—Macron’s predecessor—made little effort to hide his own dalliances.) The Grand Trianon would be a resplendent residence in another context, and yet when compared with the monstrous Versailles it appears positively humble.

The Grand Trianon.

Nearby is the Petit Trianon, another supplementary palace. This was built during the reign of Louis XIV’s successor, Louis XV, for his mistress and advisor, Madame Pompadour. Unfortunately, that great woman died before she could move in, and so it was used by her own successor as the head mistress, Madame du Barry. Its most famous resident, however, is undoubtedly Marie Antoinette—not a mistress, but a queen. (Louis XVI was one of the few faithful French monarchs.) Like the kings before her, she came here to escape the demands of court life. As such, the palace was designed for as little interaction as possible between the young queen and the servants. As its name suggests, the building itself is fairly small—though, of course, carefully decorated. 

The Petit Trianon

Directly next door is the Hameau de la Reine (the Queen’s Hamlet). This is a kind of artificial village, built to give the illusion that the Petit Trianon lay deep in the countryside. Thus, there is a farm, a barn, a dovecote, a watermill, and all the other trappings of country life. The architects succeeded in their design, for the little village is quite beautifully rustic. The gardens surrounding this area are quite distinct from those in the rest of Versailles. The influence of Romanticism is clearly marked here: instead of neat hedgerows, trees are scattered about naturalistically, sheep and cows graze in the grass, and the pond is full of hungry fish. It was quite a visual relief after the relentless parallel lines of Versailles and its gardens. 

This brings us to perhaps the most famous scene in the history of the palace. It was in these gardens that, on October 5th, 1789, Marie Antoinette became aware of the crowd approaching the palace. This was the Women’s March, a crowd of Parisians who had walked all the way to Versailles, driven by hunger and scarcity of bread. The king and his ministers ultimately proved unable to pacify the crowd; and a violent confrontation between the citizens and the guards led to the royal family being led away to Paris, where they spent the remainder of their lives as virtual prisoners. It is a myth, by the way, that Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake” in response to the demands for bread. (The quotation comes from a passage in Rousseau’s Confessions, which he wrote long before the Revolution.) But she was an unpopular queen in any case, partly because of her taste for extravagant luxury, and partly being a foreigner (she was Austrian by birth).

The mirrors in the Grand Trianon work better.

The revolution proved a major turning-point in the history of Versailles. The monarchy would never return. In the following years, parts of the palace fell into disrepair. Indeed, the cost of maintaining the palace, and supplying the water needed for all of its gardens, is enormous by any standard—a testament to the power wielded by Louis XIV. History has shown, however, that the power was ultimately fragile, since it was not enough to keep the people of France happy. 

At present, the palace of Versailles stands as a monument to a dead idea: that one single man should occupy the center of a state. It is an impressive and even a beautiful place. Its beauty, however, is that which can be bought wealth and power; it is the beauty of fine materials, unlimited resources, and exquisite craftsmanship. Lacking anything beyond naked self-aggrandizement to animate it, the palace and its gardens have a certain sterility, as if the glorious exteriors have little of value within. Compare this stone behemoth to the Alhambra, which looks like hardly anything from the outside, but whose interior possesses an otherworldly beauty. Perhaps this is because, instead of having images of a king on its walls, the Alhambra has a line of text: “There is no victor but God.”

Review: The Works of Archimedes

Review: The Works of Archimedes

The Works of Archimedes by Archimedes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In fact, how many theorems in geometry which have seemed at first impracticable are in time successfully worked out!

Many of the most influential and ingenious books ever written possess the strange quality of being simultaneously exhilarating and quite boring. Unless you are among that rare class of people who enjoy a mathematical demonstration more than a symphony, this book will likely possess this odd duality. I admit this is the case for me. Reading this book was a constant exercise in fighting the tendency for my eyes to glaze over. But I am happy to report that it is worth the trouble.

Archimedes lived in the 3rd century BCE, somewhat after Euclid, in Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Apart from this, not much else can be said with certainty about the man. But he is the subject of many memorable stories. Everybody knows, for example, the story of his taking a bath and then running through the streets naked, shouting “Eureka!” We also hear of Archimedes using levers to move massive boats, and claiming that he could move the whole earth if he just had a place to stand on. Even his death is the subject of legend. After keeping the invading Romans at bay using ingenious weapons—catapults, cranes, and even mirrors to set ships afire—Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier, too preoccupied with a mathematical problem to care for his own well-being.

True or not, good stories tend to accumulate around figures who are worthy of our attention. And Archimedes is certainly worthy. Archimedes did not leave us any extended works, but instead a collection of treatises on several topics. The central concern in these different works—the keystone to Archimedes’s method—is measurement. Archimedes set his brilliant mind to measuring things that many have concerned impossible to reckon. His work, then, is an almost literal demonstration of the human mind’s ability to scan, delimit, and calculate things far outside the scope of our experience.

As a simple example of this, Archimedes established the ratios between the surface areas and volumes of spheres and cylinders—an accomplishment the mathematician was so proud of that he apparently asked for it to be inscribed on his tombstone. Cicero describes coming across this tombstone in a dilapidated state, so perhaps this story is true. Archimedes also set to work on giving an accurate estimation of the value of pi, which he accomplished by inscribing and circumscribing 96-sided polygons around a circle, and calculating their perimeters. If this sounds relatively simple to you, keep in mind that Archimedes was operating without variables or equations, in the wholly-geometrical style of the Greeks.

Archimedes’s works on conoids, spheroids, and spirals show a similar preoccupation with measurement. What all of these figures have in common is, of course, that they are composed of curved lines. How to calculate the areas contained by such figures is not at all obvious. To do so, Archimedes had to invent a procedure that was essentially equivalent to the modern integral calculus. That is, Archimedes used a method of exhaustion, inscribing and circumscribing ever-more figures composed of straight lines, until an arbitrarily small gap remained between his approximations and what he was attempting to measure. To employ such a method in an age before analytic geometry had even been invented is, I think, an accomplishment difficult to fully appreciate. When the calculus was finally invented, about two thousand years later, it was by men who were “standing on the shoulders of giants.” In his time, Archimedes had few shoulders to stand on.

The most literal example of Archimedes’s concern with measurement is his short work, The Sand Reckoner. In this, he attempts to calculate the number of grains of sand that would be needed to fill up the whole universe. We owe to this bizarre little exercise our knowledge of Aristarchus of Samos, the ancient astronomer who argued that the sun is positioned at the center of the universe. Archimedes mentions Aristarchus because a heliocentric universe would have to be considerably bigger than a geocentric one (since there is no parallax observed of the stars); and Archimedes wanted to calculate the biggest universe possible. He arrives at a number is quite literally astronomical. The point of the exercise, however, is not in the specific number arrived at, but in formulating a way of writing very large numbers. (This was not easy in the ancient Greek numeral system.) Thus, we partly owe to Archimedes our concept of orders of magnitude.

Archimedes’s contributions to natural science are just as significant as his work in pure mathematics. Indeed, one can make the case that Archimedes is the originator of our entire approach to the natural sciences; since it was he who most convincingly demonstrated that physical relationships could be described in purely mathematical form. In his work on levers, for example, Archimedes shows how the center of gravity can be found, and how simple principles can explain the mechanical operation of counterbalancing weights. Contrast this with the approach taken by Aristotle in his Physics, who uses wholly qualitative descriptions and categories to give a causal explanation of physical motion. Archimedes, by contrast, pays no attention to cause whatever, but describes the physical relationship in quantitative terms. This is the exact approach taken by Galileo and Newton.

Arguably, the greatest masterpiece in this collection is On Floating Bodies. Here, Archimedes describes a physical relationship that still bears his name: the relationship of density and shape to buoyancy. While everyone knows thpe story of Archimedes and the crown, it is possible that Archimedes’s attention was turned to this problem while working on the design for an enormous ship, the Syracusia, built to be given as a present to Ptolemy III of Egypt. This would explain Book II, which is devoted to finding the resting position of several different parabolas (more or less the shape of a ship’s hull) in a fluid. The mathematical analysis is truly stunning—so very far beyond what any of his contemporaries were capable of that it can seem even eerie in its sophistication. Even today, it would take a skilled physicist to calculate how a given parabola would rest when placed in a fluid. To do so in ancient times was simply extraordinary.

Typical of ancient Greek mathematics, the results in Archimedes’s works are given in such a way that it is difficult to tell how he originally arrived at these conclusions. Surely, he did not follow the steps of the final proof as it is presented. But then how did he do it? This question was answered quite unexpectedly, with the discovery of the Archimedes Palimpsest in the early 1900s. This was a medieval prayer book that contained the remains of two previously unknown works of Archimedes. (Parchment was so expensive that scribes often scraped old books off to write new ones; but the faded impression of the original work is still visible on the manuscript.) One of these works was the Ostomachion, a collection of different shapes that can be recombined to form a square in thousands of different ways (and it was the task of the mathematician to determine how many).

The other was the Method, which is Archimedes’s account of how he made his geometrical discoveries. Apparently, he did so by clever use of weights and balances, imagining how different shapes could be made to balance one another. His method of exhaustion was also a crucial component, since it allowed Archimedes to calculate the areas of irregular shapes. A proper Greek, Archimedes considered mechanical means to be intellectually unsatisfactory, and so re-cast the results obtained using this method into pure geometrical form for his other treatises. If it were not for the serendipitous discovery of this manuscript, and the dedicated work of many scholars, this insight into his method would have been forever lost to history.

As I hope you can see, Archimedes was a genius among geniuses, a thinker of the rarest caliber. His works are exhilarating demonstrations of the power of the human mind. And yet, they are also—let us admit it—not the most exciting things to read, at least for most of us mere mortals. Speaking for myself, I would need a patient expert as a guide if I wanted to understand any of these works in detail. Even then, it would be hard work. Indeed, I have to admit that, on the whole, I find mathematicians to be a strange group. For the life of me I cannot get excited about the ratio of a sphere to a cylinder—something that Archimedes saw as the culmination of his entire life.

Archimedes is the very embodiment of the man absorbed in impractical pursuits—so obsessed with the world of spirals and curves that he could not even avoid a real sword thrust his way. And yet, if subsequent history has shown anything, it is that these apparently impractical, frigid, and abstract pursuits can reveal deep truths about the universe we live in—much deeper than the high-flown speculations of our philosophers. I think this lesson is worth suffering through a little boredom.



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Review: The Ambassadors

Review: The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors by Henry James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

He had spoken in the tone of talk for talks sake, and yet with an obscure truth lurking in the loose folds…

One would think that, of all the people living on this good green earth, I would be especially prone to loving this particular work of literature. After all, it is about a young American who moved to Europe, fell in love, and then resisted his family’s entreaties to come back and make more money. If you know anything about me, you will know that this has a special resonance. I am also, as it happens, a lover of fancy prose and classic novels. Clearly, in my case, the book’s prospects were extremely favorable.

It is with mild surprise, then, that I report that my feelings are mixed. This is not a novel that one can easily love. It is, rather, a product of James’s infamous late style, which divided critics at the time and has continued to do so ever since. There are many ways to characterize this style—dense, laborious, obscure—but I think that the keynote here is vague. Both in his descriptive passages and his dialogue, James maintains a kind of studious vagueness that can be either delightful or infuriating, depending on your mood and taste. In everything from his sentence structure, to his dialogue, to his descriptions, to his plotting—vagueness reigns.

To indulge in highfalutin terminology, I would say that this is an aesthetic triumph at the expense of humanistic value.

First, the triumph. James, at his best, achieves something like that achieved by the impressionist painters. The strokes of his pen are suggestive rather than illustrative. He asks much of the reader; and this means that the reader becomes an active part of the story. Virtually nothing—not the book’s resolution, nor the personality of the major characters, nor even the meaning of some knotty sentences—is unambiguous, which means that each reader can make the book her own. In other words, James’s late style is quite like the Ostomachion of Archimedes: a set of puzzle pieces that can be assembled in a myriad of ways.

I say that this is an aesthetic triumph because James achieves an effect that is unique, distinctive, novel, and demanding. He creates, in other words, his own aesthetic realm. The cageyness, the uncertainty, the self-referential quirks of this book—we can clearly see, in retrospect, that James was paving the way for literary modernism. And like much of modernism, I think that this aesthetic triumph comes at a great cost to humanistic value.

To simplify matter somewhat, you can describe this loss at the emphasis of form over content. The novels of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Elliot, Tolstoy—say what you will about them, but they have an awful lot of content. Putting aside whatever explicit messages these novels may carry, they introduce us to concrete places, to remarkable individuals, to unforgettable stories. They capture, in other words, a human reality; and in so doing they help us to come to grips with life itself. Now, do not get me wrong: all of these authors also have aesthetic merits. If they did not, they would not be artists at all—merely columnists. My point is that their artistic style was entirely compatible with a definite view of the world, a view that is communicated in their works. This I call their humanistic value.

My main criticism of this book, then, is that James’s remarkable aesthetic sense overpowered whatever message he wished to transmit. Based on a straightforward reading, the intended message is this: American culture is narrow and materialistic, and it leads people to give up enjoyment for superficial, conventional reasons. We are, thus, presented with a cast of characters who embody this difference. Strether and Chad are exquisitely sensitive to the charms of Europe, and improve under its influence; while other Americans, such as Waymarsh, insistently stay within their narrow horizons.

The problem is, again, the vagueness. James is insistently vague on every detail. How exactly is life in Europe more liberating than life in America? And how exactly have Strether or Chad improved? These may seem like superficial questions, but the entire weight of the plot hinges on them. We cannot come to any moral conclusion without knowing the details. Indeed, James is so impressionistic in his portrayal of the main characters that we can hardly come to any conclusions at all. Do we even like these people? Even the ending is veiled in vagueness. Will Chad return to America? And why does Strether decide to return? And is his return a failure, or a success, or what? It is simply impossible to answer these questions.

Perhaps I would have been able to stomach all of these irresolutions if I had absolutely adored James’s style. But I do not. Indeed, I confess to finding James’s prose quite ugly—laborious, convoluted, and dry. There is hardly a passage in this book that one can read aloud without sounding like an alien. The following is entirely typical:

Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then. It has begun in fact already upstairs and before the dressing-glass that struck him as blocking further, so strangely, the dimness of the window of his dull bedroom; begun with a sharper survey of the elements of Appearance than he had for a long time been moved to make.

A few sentences of this may be fine; but pages of it are painful. Granted, James is capable of quite lovely writing. I was enchanted, for example, by his description near the end, of Strether’s venture into the French countryside. Yet, all too often, the book is like this passage: opaque. His dialogue is only slightly better—readable, and yet still plagued by the strained and unnatural cadences of James’s prose. Besides this, James’s characters have the same tendency to vagueness as James himself, and never spell out what they mean.

Obviously this will come down to taste. I like things to be clear and unambiguous. That is my taste. James clearly did not agree. That I liked this book in spite of this divergence is a testament to James’s aesthetic power. He was an artist in the highest sense of the word.

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