About Me

My Photo
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
Admire John McPhee, Bill Bryson, David Remnick, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr and James Martin (and most open and curious minds)


The Reddit Guide To London | Londonist

The Reddit Guide To London | Londonist

Physics is on the verge of an Earth-shattering discovery | Aeon Opinions

Physics is on the verge of an Earth-shattering discovery | Aeon Opinions

Opinion sized atlas cern 3008

The Book of Revelation: Six homilies for Easter | Thinking Faith: The online journal of the Jesuits in Britain

The Book of Revelation: Six homilies for Easter | Thinking Faith: The online journal of the Jesuits in Britain


Human Extinction Isn't That Unlikely

“A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash,” says a new report.
The sun rises as a dinghy carrying refugees and migrants approaches the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos.Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

We noticed that you have an

Please consider disabling it for our site, or supporting our work in one of these ways

Sign up for
The Atlantic Daily newsletter

Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions.
These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. And according to a new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation, they’re much more likely than we might think.
In its annual report on “global catastrophic risk,” the nonprofit debuted a startling statistic: Across the span of their lives, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.
Partly that’s because the average person will probably not die in an automobile accident. Every year, one in 9,395 people die in a crash; that translates to about a 0.01 percent chance per year. But that chance compounds over the course of a lifetime. At life-long scales, one in 120 Americans die in an accident.
The risk of human extinction due to climate change—or an accidental nuclear war—is much higher than that. The Stern Review, the U.K. government’s premier report on the economics of climate change, estimated a 0.1 percent risk of human extinction every year. That may sound low, but it also adds up when extrapolated to century-scale. The Global Challenges Foundation estimates a 9.5 percent chance of human extinction within the next hundred years.
And that number probably underestimates the risk of dying in any global cataclysm. The Stern Review, whose math suggests the 9.5-percent number, only calculated the danger of species-wide extinction. The Global Challenges Foundation’s report is concerned with all events that would wipe out more than 10 percent of Earth’s human population.
“We don’t expect any of the events that we describe to happen in any 10-year period. They might—but, on balance, they probably won’t,” Sebastian Farquhar, the director of the Global Priorities Project, told me. “But there’s lots of events that we think are unlikely that we still prepare for.”
For instance, most people demand working airbags in their cars and they strap in their seat-belts whenever they go for a drive, he said. We may know that the risk of an accident on any individual car ride is low, but we still believe that it makes sense to reduce possible harm.
So what kind of human-level extinction events are these? The report holds catastrophic climate change and nuclear war far above the rest, and for good reason. On the latter front, it cites multiple occasions when the world stood on the brink of atomic annihilation. While most of these occurred during the Cold War, another took place during the 1990s, the most peaceful decade in recent memory: 
In 1995, Russian systems mistook a Norwegian weather rocket for a potential nuclear attack. Russian President Boris Yeltsin retrieved launch codes and had the nuclear suitcase open in front of him. Thankfully, Russian leaders decided the incident was a false alarm.
Climate change also poses its own risks. As I’ve written about before, serious veterans of climate science now suggest that global warming will spawn continent-sized superstorms by the end of the century. Farquhar said that even more conservative estimates can be alarming: UN-approved climate models estimate that the risk of six to ten degrees Celsius of warming exceeds 3 percent, even if the world tamps down carbon emissions at a fast pace. “On a more plausible emissions scenario, we’re looking at a 10-percent risk,” Farquhar said. Few climate adaption scenarios account for swings in global temperature this enormous.
Other risks won’t stem from technological hubris. Any year, there’s always some chance of a super-volcano erupting or an asteroid careening into the planet. Both would of course devastate the areas around ground zero—but they would also kick up dust into the atmosphere, blocking sunlight and sending global temperatures plunging. (Most climate scientists agree that the same phenomenon would follow any major nuclear exchange.)
Yet natural pandemics may pose the most serious risks of all. In fact, in the past two millennia, the only two events that experts can certify as global catastrophes of this scale were plagues. The Black Death of the 1340s felled more than 10 percent of the world population. Eight centuries prior, another epidemic of theYersinia pestis bacterium—the “Great Plague of Justinian” in 541 and 542—killed between 25 and 33 million people, or between 13 and 17 percent of the global population at that time.
No event approached these totals in the 20th century. The twin wars did not come close: About 1 percent of the global population perished in the Great War, about 3 percent in World War II. Only the Spanish flu epidemic of the late 1910s, which killed between 2.5 and 5 percent of the world’s people, approached the medieval plagues. Farquhar said there’s some evidence that the First World War and Spanish influenza were the same catastrophic global event—but even then, the death toll only came to about 6 percent of humanity.
The report briefly explores other possible risks: a genetically engineered pandemic, geo-engineering gone awry, an all-seeing artificial intelligence. Unlike nuclear war or global warming, though, the report clarifies that these remain mostly notional threats, even as it cautions:
[N]early all of the most threatening global catastrophic risks were unforeseeable a few decades before they became apparent. Forty years before the discovery of the nuclear bomb, few could have predicted that nuclear weapons would come to be one of the leading global catastrophic risks. Immediately after the Second World War, few could have known that catastrophic climate change, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence would come to pose such a significant threat.
So what’s the societal version of an airbag and seatbelt? Farquhar conceded that many existential risks were best handled by policies catered to the specific issue, like reducing stockpiles of warheads or cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. But civilization could generally increase its resilience if it developed technology to rapidly accelerate food production. If technical society had the power to ramp-up less sunlight-dependent food sources, especially, there would be a “lower chance that a particulate winter [from a volcano or nuclear war] would have catastrophic consequences.”
He also thought many problems could be helped if democratic institutions had some kind of ombudsman or committee to represent the interests of future generations. (This strikes me as a distinctly European proposal—in the United States, the national politics of a “representative of future generations” would be thrown off by the abortion debate and unborn personhood, I think.)
The report was a joint project of the Centre for Effective Altruism in London and the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford. It can be read online.



fresco from The Tomb of the Diver, c.475 BC
Are History’s “Greatest Philosophers” All That Great?
by Gregory Lewis
In the canon of western philosophy, generally those regarded as the ‘greatest’ philosophers tend to live far in the past. Consider this example from an informal poll:
  1. Plato (428-348 BCE)
  2. Aristotle (384-322 BCE)
  3. Kant (1724-1804)
  4. Hume (1711-1776)
  5. Descartes (1596-1650)
  6. Socrates (469-399 BCE)
  7. Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
  8. Locke (1632-1704)
  9. Frege (1848-1925)
  10. Aquinas (1225-1274)
(source: LeiterReports)
I take this as fairly representative of consensus opinion—one might argue about some figures versus those left out, or the precise ordering, but most would think (e.g.) Plato and Aristotle should be there, and near the top. All are dead, and only two were alive during the 20th century.
But now consider this graph of human population over time (US Census Bureau, via Wikipedia):
population graph wikipedia
The world population at 500BCE  is estimated to have been 100 million; in the year 2000, it was 6.1 billion, over sixty times greater. Thus if we randomly selected people from those born since the ‘start’ of western philosophy, they would generally be born close to the present day. Yet when it comes to ‘greatest philosophers’, they were generally born much further in the past than one would expect by chance.
Where are the 13 Platos in modern day Attica?
Consider this toy example. Let’s pretend that philosophical greatness is a function of philosophical ability, and let’s pretend that philosophical ability is wholly innate. Thus you’d expect philosophical greatness to be a natural lottery, and the greatest philosophers ever to be those fortunate enough to be born with the greatest philosophical ability.
The Attican population in the time of Plato is thought to have been 250 to 300 thousand people (most of whom weren’t citizens, but ignore that for now). The population of modern day Attica (admittedly slightly larger geographically than Attica in the time of Plato) is 3.8 million. If we say Plato was the most philosophically able in Attica, that ‘only’ puts him at the 1 in 300,000 level. Modern Attica should expect to have around thirteen people at this level, and of this group it is statistically unlikely that Plato would be better than all of them. I am sure there are many very able philosophers in modern day Athens, but none enjoy the renown of Plato; were Plato alive today, instead of be recognized as one of the greatest of all time, perhaps he would be struggling to get tenure instead.
This example turns on how one defines the comparison classes, and these are open to dispute (e.g. was Plato the best in Attica, the best in Greece, or the best in the ancient world?) But the underlying point stands: If philosophical greatness were a matter of natural lottery, the most extreme values of a much larger population are usually greater than that of a much smaller population, and the distribution of greatest philosophers should be uniform by birth rank. It would be incredibly surprising that three of the top ten greatest philosophers of all time (Plato, Aristotle, Socrates) would be situated in such a small fraction of this population.
Why doesn’t Athens now have more than 13 Platos?
The toy example is grossly simplistic, and many factors intervene between being naturally gifted at philosophy and one’s ‘mature’ philosophical ability. Yet this makes the ‘pastward skew’ of philosophical greatness more surprising, not less. Modern society seems to be replete with advantages compared to Plato’s time which should make it better able to nurture the naturally gifted into great philosophers. I list a few of the most salient below:
  1. No matter how gifted, it is hard to become a great philosopher if you die in childhood. We don’t know for sure the infant mortality in ancient Greece, but it is almost certainly at least an order of magnitude greater than the present day.
  2. Even if one doesn’t die, one can become stunted or cognitively impaired due to insults in childhood or early life. Again, we don’t know how prevalent this was, but it certainly it is much less now than then.
  3. Although there remain lamentable barriers to people who aren’t rich white men entering philosophy in the present day, these were even worse in the past: compare ones prospects as a woman in modern Greece versus ancient Athens, or as someone from a lower socioeconomic group versus a slave.
  4. As the world is now richer and safer, budding philosophers have a much greater chance of being able to devote their time to philosophical training and understanding, instead of being trapped in subsistence farming or political intrigue.
  5. Insofar as philosophy is a constructive endeavour on prior work, we have the benefit of 2000 years of subsequent philosophy that Plato could never access.
  6. Insofar as philosophical understanding can be informed by other fields (e.g. natural science, linguistics), the much greater development of these now are also advantages.
  7. Technology allows us to have much wider and easier access to our peers and philosophical work.
And so on. By contrast, it is difficult to think of many factors which favor Plato’s time versus our own—they are shaky as pro tanto considerations, and seem unlikely to be similarly weighty:
  1. One might suggest a ‘field dilution effect’. Skipping across fields, one may wonder whether if Shakespeare were alive today he might be producing films or TV rather than plays. Similarly, there has been a proliferation of fields in academia, and people who would have been philosophers in an earlier time might in the modern day work in a different field.
  2. One may suppose a network effect – maybe being in close collaboration with other great people enhances the greatness of one’s own output. This would suggest clustering, but more would be needed to explain why clusters should happen more often in the past – perhaps some elements of an elitist or ‘aristocratic’ education was better at developing extremely highly levels of performance.
  3. There could be an assortment of ‘decline of the world’ (or at least ‘decline of the west’) explanations: maybe certain important cultural or political values have deteriorated to the detriment of our ability to think well, or (more locally) the field of western philosophy has derailed and so produces less value per unit of human capital invested.
If on balance these factors favor the present over the past, why are the greatest philosophers skewed towards the past, when they should be skewed towards the present?
The benefits of being good in the past
I suggest a better explanation of why the greatest tend to be ancient lies in how we perceive philosophical work. Even though Plato may not have been as ‘naturally’ able as the best philosophers today, and labored under several disadvantages for developing his philosophical ability, being born in the distant past gave him several advantages for his posthumous reputation.
First is low-hanging fruit. In fields like science and mathematics, one may suggest it is easier to make earlier breakthroughs versus subsequent ones: with a high school education I can solve some basic problems in Newtonian mechanics—I can’t do any ‘basic’ problems in general relativity without many years more study, and I may not be clever enough even then. Whether philosophy makes ‘progress’ in a similar way is controversial, but insofar as it does being born early with more (and relatively easier) ‘great breakthroughs’ have yet to be made is an advantage.
Second, related to the first, a mix of polymath premium and forefather effect. Given the relatively primitive and unexplored state of the field of philosophy in antiquity, there are lower heights to scale to reach the limit of human knowledge, and one can stake ones claim to much wider expanses of ground. A.N. Whitehead famously called western philosophy ‘footnotes to Plato’: this may depict Plato as a titanic genius, but may instead be driven by his being fortunate enough to live at a time where he could be the first to sweep across so much, and thus leave his successors relatively more incremental advances to make.
Third, and also related, is retroactive esteem. If one writes the locus classicus for a topic (or an entire field), this gets one a lot of exposure, and a lot of esteem. Even though modern day Aristotelian ethics goes much further than Aristotle ever did, that it all refers to his work gives him an almost mythic quality.
Does it matter if the Ancient Greats weren’t that good?
Does this matter? That ‘historical luck’ as opposed to (forgive me) some Platonic ideal of philosophical genius may have had more to do with Plato’s perceived ‘greatness’ doesn’t mean we shouldn’t regard him as a great philosopher, or Euthrythro or The Republic as great works of the western philosophical tradition. That it may be plausible that Aristotle born in modern times may not be capable of understanding, let alone contributing to the modern state of the art of Logic does not make the seminal early contributions he in fact made any less important.
But it perhaps should make us less deferential towards the ancient greats. Instead of a large secondary literature to find a good argument in Socrates’s infamous refutation of Thrasymachus near the start of The Republic, we should be more willing to believe that Socrates/Plato just made a bum argument: they were not that brilliant, and so the chances of them doing some bad philosophy is not that low. Further, if we don’t believe they are singular geniuses in human history, study of their work should be principally of historical interest: in the same way modern students of physics read contemporary introductions rather than Einstein’s original papers to understand relativity (still less process through the primary works leading up to Einstein), students who want to understand the subject matter of philosophy are better served if they make the same shortcut with modern introductions to the field and read only contemporary primary literature; similarly, we should expect the scholarship of Plato or Aristotle (or any ‘great philosopher’) to improve our understanding into the history of ideas, but not to excavate some hidden philosophical insight relevant to modern discussions.
This is also an optimistic iconoclasm. If I am right, philosophy now is vastly richer than classical Greece, the age of reason, or any other golden age we care to name: far more (and more able) philosophers with much greater ability to collaborate and learn from one another, a wider understanding of the world around us, a long history of our predecessors who have cleared the way before us, and much else besides. Many, perhaps most, universities boast a philosophy department that puts the Lyceum or the Academy to shame. Although our chances of becoming a ‘great philosopher’ have fallen, our chances of getting to the truth have risen. If Plato could have traded the former for the latter, he would have done so joyously.


Paris Review - The Art of Fiction No. 135, Don DeLillo

Paris Review - The Art of Fiction No. 135, Don DeLillo

Rowan Atkinson conducting Beethoven’s 5th is just total mayhem and comic gold - Classic FM

Rowan Atkinson conducting Beethoven’s 5th is just total mayhem and comic gold - Classic FM

Rowan Atkinson conductor

The Great Battle of 2016 Literary Nostalgia: The 1980s vs the 1990s – Flavorwire

The Great Battle of 2016 Literary Nostalgia: The 1980s vs the 1990s – Flavorwire



 Brown is the New Black by Steve Phillips. Each day, the United States population increases by more than 8,000 people, and nearly 90 percent of that growth consists of people of color:

"People of color now comprise more than 37 percent of the U.S. population, greater than triple the12 percent in 1965. The two fastest-growing groups have been Latinos and Asian Americans. In1965 there were fewer than 9 million Latinos in the United States; by 2013 that number had soared to 54 million. During that same forty­-eight-year span, the Asian American population has grown from 2 mil­lion to more than 18 million people. ...

"The country's demographic revolution over the past fifty years has given birth to a New American Majority. Progressive people of color now comprise 23 percent of all the eligible voters in America, and progressive Whites account for 28 percent of all eligible voters. Together, these constituencies make up 51 percent of the country's citizen voting age population, and that majority is getting bigger every single day. ...

"The New American Majority is growing larger every single day (every minute, actually). Each day, the size of the U.S. population increases by more than 8,000 people, and nearly 90 percent of that growth consists of people of color.  To understand this startling reality, one must look at the rate of births and deaths, and the rise in immigration.

"In terms of births, as of 2011 the majority of babies born in America (50.4 percent) are now people of color. A baby is born every seven seconds, resulting in 12,343 births per day. At the other end of the age spectrum, the racial composition of the over-65 segment of the popula­tion is quite different. Because of centuries of racially exclusionary im­migration policies (see Chapter 3), the total U.S. population was nearly 90 percent White as recently as 1950. As a result, the current over-65 population is 78 percent White. Using that figure to estimate the ra­cial breakdown of the country's deaths -- which occur at a rate of 6,646 per day (once every thirteen seconds) -- it's clear that while a majority of births are people of color, deaths are overwhelmingly White.

"What this means for net population growth, then, is that the White birth number of 6,048 new babies each day (49 percent of the babies born every day) are largely canceled out by the 5,204 White deaths ev­ery day. For people of color, the 6,295 daily births (51 percent of all births) are only reduced by 1,442 deaths, leaving a net increase of 4,853 people of color every day.

"And then there are the immigration numbers. Implied, feared, but unstated in America's heated immigration debate is a remarkable pop­ulation statistic -- more than 90 percent of all immigrants to America are people of color. In terms of legal immigration alone, 2,618 people are added to the U.S. population each day, nearly all of them people of color (reflecting the reality that most of the people outside of the United States are people of color). When those numbers are added to the net increase from births and deaths for people of color, the bottom line is that each and every day,7,261 people of color are added to the U.S. population, in contrast to the White growth of 1,053people."
Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority
Author: Steve Phillips
Publisher: The New Press
Copyright 2016 Steve Phillips

Into the City

Captain Claire Bunton and Senior First Officer Ian Palframan

(Only) Clive James

Macho men


Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine and Georges Vigarello, editors
Translated by Keith Cohen
752pp. Columbia University Press. £34.50 (US $50). 
978 0 231 16878 6

Published: 27 April 2016
Carlos Acosta, 2011 Photograph: © Johan Persson/ArenaPAL
We hope you enjoy this piece from theTLS, which is available every Thursday in print and via the TLS app. This week’s issue also includes: the Seine’s drowned muse; gendered language in Rome; Edmund Burke’s real political life; photography with Félix Nadar – and much more.
This book is a lead mine of information. There could have been gold in it, but perhaps yellow lustre was thought to be less impressive than grey heft. Only one of a series of volumes published under the general title of “European Perspectives”, the book bulks large as a collection of specially commissioned articles with virility for a subject. Virile itself in its heaps of strenuously acquired science-sounding vocabulary, it shows what can be done when three sufficiently influential European editors marshal the expertise of a phalanx of sufficiently dedicated European sociologists in order to invest a sufficiently important theme with an extra gravitas it doesn’t really need. The result is like the European Union: one searches for the benefits while keeping an eye on the exits.
Most of the Europeans involved are French, and one of the reasons for the book’s ponderous collective tone could be that the already glutinous academic version of the French language has been not very excitingly translated into English: a term such as “structured, normative alterity” might have sounded more sprightly in the original. The exclusive blame can scarcely be placed on the subject itself, which is, by the nature of things, quite sexy. By the time the European experts have worked out their perspectives, however, the kind of urge that once got Peter Abelard into immortal trouble is drained of poetic nuance, not to say truth.
All too early in the book, on the point of whether masculinity is acquired or intrinsic, Simone de Beauvoir is quoted. The quotation is familiar, but stands out among the circumambient solemnity with a startling freshness, which is a bad sign, because in any context where Beauvoir sets the standard for vivid utterance, it is being set low. “A man” says Beauvoir,“ is not born a man, he becomes a man.” She sounds more scientific than the social scientist who quotes her, although Abelard, could he speak, might point out to both of them that the idea that masculinity is not an a priori condition attached to physiology starts looking shaky when the knives come out. (“The pursuit of truth hides castration”, said Lacan, to which Abelard might have replied “If only”.) But the book, could it speak in a single voice – most of the time, alas, it does, if only in the sense that so many modern academics in the soft sciences sound the same – might reply that sexuality is not merely a matter of gender, or that gender is not merely a matter of anatomy, and that these things are modalities, with virility yet another modality. As always in any such book of any size, if you hear the word “modality” you can count on hearing it again soon.
One of the greatest of modern French thinkers, Raymond Aron, was a sociologist, and he himself admired the sociologist Durkheim. But Aron knew that some of the merit of those proto-sociologists Montesquieu and Tocqueville had been in their clear, non-technical language. There is not a lot of that here. Luckily the themes are ordered in a roughly historical chronology from ancient Greece through to now; and it would take an encyclopedist of the subject to find every section familiar. An uncomfortable word, though, “encyclopedist”: it reminds you that Diderot could write, and hardly anybody gathered here really can.
It shouldn’t matter, but these are troubled times for France and, by extension, Europe and the world; and virility is a topic that suddenly needs all the historically informed treatment that it can get. If virility is a natural male urge, can kindness to women be part of it, or is violent dominance basic? We need to be sure right now, before the next New Year’s Eve celebrations at Cologne railway station, when yet another bunch of macho dimwits might be self-propelled into obscene action by their supposedly irresistible urges.
To be sure, however, is not easy to decide on the basis of the historic evidence. Aristophanes inLysistrata seems to argue, or at least joke, that women not only have natural rights, but could assert them if they timed their sex-strike properly. He doesn’t say that the women would have to count on men being merciful. It’s a reasonable inference, however, that the men were: at least in the play. So the Greek concept of masculinity might have included dominance, as the book says; but didn’t necessarily include the likelihood of dominance expressing itself in the form of rape. The masculinity of Aristophanes himself is not in question. He favoured male body hair, we are told, and looked back fondly to the black arses of the good old days, but out of moral conviction, not desire. For the extensive discussion of Greek homosexuality (it’s a word they didn’t have, but they certainly had the thing) we are given a vignette of Sophocles cruising the ramparts, but there’s no news there.
Real news would have been to tell us how any man, of whatever proclivities, got the urge to act gallantly towards women, or even care about them very much. The Greek conviction that true masculinity included a capacity for self-control is canvassed, but not extended into the surely crucial area where self-control might be exercised out of respect for other selves, and not just for immediate personal advantage. Pericles had a long loyalty to Aspasia. How did that happen, when he had so many affairs, thereby breaking the law that he himself had decreed? Where did gallantry come from, in this or any other context where men could do as they pleased? These questions are not dealt with (or even “addressed”) anywhere in the book. Later the omission will become more and more conspicuous, but it’s already pretty radiant early on, hinting powerfully at the possibility that the many writers concerned share the characteristic of not seeing intersexual affection as a pertinent reality. As Roger Scruton has said of all those Marxist thinkers who wasted thousands of square miles of print condemning the bourgeois family as a capitalist control mechanism, they left out love.
But too early to give up yet, and as we move on into ancient Rome and find Catullus having it off with Ipsithilia nine times in a row we can remind ourselves, even if the book can’t, that though we have entered a big-cock culture (hic habitat felicitas, as Biggus Dickus might have said) there are questions about a woman’s desires, wishes and pleasures that a man might not be able to answer at his ease, or ignore at his whim. Juvenal and Martial are cited to prove that cunnilingus was regarded among Roman men as a non-virile activity. So it was among the men in The Sopranos, but Uncle Junior did it anyway.
Did the women want what they got? Martial has a poem about a woman with insatiable desires but her desires are pictured as aping a man’s. The Cynthia of Propertius held him in physical thrall but we hear little about that. Cornelius Gallus, an interdisciplinary powerhouse who took anything he wanted – for his military aptitude he was put in charge of Egypt – was similarly enslaved by his ravenous girlfriend Lycoris but we hear still less. Perhaps we should forgive that omission, because there are only a few lines of Gallus remaining. The book suggests little can be inferred from Roman poetry about what men wanted from women. On this account, a lot more is known about what men wanted from each other. Martial wanted his catamites snow white, in keeping with the general Roman gay principle that a virile man should be dominus, the active partner, and never cinaedus, the passive partner. Romans admired and envied barbarian virility, but the Vandals were praised for curbing their libido. Here again, the desideratum of controlled behaviour was in there somewhere, even as we picture, in our CGI-saturated imaginations, the horizon darkened by hairy-arsed hordes of foreign thugs bearing down on the city gates.
At which point our flagging virility might be restored by the urge to protect the women, but the book never begins to give us enough about that. Perhaps its aim has been deflected in advance by the contemporary agreement that men commit micro-aggression at the very least if they speak of women as frail creatures. But such an agreement can be reached only after a society has done a lot of developing, and at this stage of the book it has miles to go. Onward into the Dark Ages, and enter Guillaume d’Orange, he of the killing lance, the large horse and the nose brutally reconfigured by the sword of the Saracen. Virile, or what?
Here there is a benumbing proof that pseudo-scientific jargon might not be the worst thing that can happen to expository prose: plain language can be worse still. Guillaume’s chunky image having set the mark, the medieval conception of the virile man is evoked through his hand and arm:
“It is the hand of this man that handles all the harnesses, that organises the carts. It is the hand of this man that holds the hoe, the scythe, the sickle, the hatchet, the flail, the sledgehammer, the rod, or the piece of wood thrown to knock down the acorns from the oak to feed the pigs. All these movements bring into play the power of the body. The tools are often simply the prolongation or the extension of the strength of the arm . . . . ”
You have to love the precise evocation of that piece of wood: no wonder France produced Flaubert. But although the book’s collective authorship seems dedicated to establishing that it can be mercilessly boring whether its modality of tone is plain or technical, tedium is not the main problem. The reader can overcome that with cognac. There is no antidote, however, for a gift of raising a point only to examine the wrong side of it.
Onward into the era of courtly love, and virility acquires délicatesse. One remembers that Rimbaud thought you could have too much of that, but our authors forget he said so. The idea behind his “Par délicatesse/ J’ai perdu ma vie” is that you can miss out on experience by being too civilized – quite a concession, from a career scumbag who wrote poems on a café table with his own excrement – but our authors, whenever they have a tale of conflicting motivations to tell, prefer to complicate it out of existence before it starts. The possibility that a behavioural refinement might entail losing touch with an essential instinct is one to be treated with the written equivalent of close reading, not with a cloud of squid ink. There is a disquisition on Ronsard’s passion for a sexually ambiguous “indeterminate Venus” that soars into ecstasies of postmodern vocabulary (“loss of virile identity . . . spectacle of alterity . . . phantasmic image of a boy-woman”) without ever arriving at the simpler point that when he wrote his great poems to Hélène she was a beautiful young woman, and he was an old man for whom the staircase in the Tuileries palace that led up to her chamber might as well have been the north face of the Eiger. Undoubtedly he wrote a poem about a girl who looked a bit like a boy, but the poems that called out the best of his genius were about a girl who was all girl, and how time was killing him. There was nothing ambiguous about his longing for her; just everything that was sad and lonely.
Eventually the book makes you impatient with its reluctance to say the obvious thing first or at all, but on the long trek to inanition there are moments where no amount of solemn elaboration can mask the significant. Montaigne, towards the end of his life, not only compensated for the loss of sexual experience by indulging his sexual imagination, he said he was doing so. Our authors are thus at a loss to interpret him, and must report him straight. Elsewhere in his career, in Essais III, 1, he said that women were incomparably more capable and ardent than men in the act of love. (One recalls, although once again our authors don’t, how Karl Kraus said that a woman’s sexual pleasure, compared to a man’s, was as an epic to an epigram.) Montaigne took that sweet knowledge to his deathbed, where the erstwhile sweetness was bound to make the present knowledge bitter. Our line-up of savants are on dangerous ground with Montaigne: he really knew things, and knew how to say them without shutting out the world.
British readers will be flattered to see that some attention is paid to Henry VIII’s virile member
British readers will be flattered to see that some attention is paid to Henry VIII’s virile member, or at any rate to the codpiece that Holbein designed to contain it. But they might be non-plussed to discover that Louis XIV and Louis XV combined get not much more space than Henry VIII. One can understand the book’s catchment area of reference being biased towards France, but things turn strange when France itself gets skimpy treatment. It is noted that Louis XIV lost no points for virility through his being a great dancer – since he more or less invented what we now know as the ballet, it’s a clear line from him to Carlos Acosta – but there is nothing at all about the most interesting thing Louis XV did from the virility angle. Or perhaps it could better be defined as the most interesting thing that he didn’t do. In his position as King he could have any woman he desired, but when he ceased to desire Madame de Pompadour she remained his close friend. There had always been criticism of her influence over his state policies and it might have suited him to restrict her access, but he did the opposite. How did all that happen?
You would do far better asking Nancy Mitford, whose book about Louis XIV, The Sun King, is not only more attractively written than this one, but a deeper work of sociology. If our authors had been serious about Henry VIII’s codpiece they might have thrown in a parenthesis about just why Charles II chose to revive his friendship with Lady Castlemaine so long after they had ceased to be lovers, if they ever did; but to neglect an opportunity to discuss the decent behaviour of a King of France who could have been as indecent as he wished is an insult to French civilization.
Worse, it is an insult to their own calling. They are supposed to be explaining things, not adding to the confusion, especially at a time when the confusion threatens to become a mortal danger. At the rate Europe is getting into trouble, its young men will need to be told why it is a mark of virility, and not of weakness, to be less than fanatically certain about the secondary status of women. Of course it is, you might say; but where did that valuable diffidence come from, and how come all these hairy-arsed bandits haven’t got it? The rage for simplicity is a perverted strength, but there might be no countering it without confident pride in the thoughtful complexities of the enlightenment we have inherited. Among the most vital of those complexities is the language of critical reason, so it can be quite unnerving to see it rendered unfit for its first task: being clear.
With relief the reader discovers that Madame de Staël, in De l’Allemagne, confessed she didn’t know “which combination of force and softness” makes of the same man “the unshakeable protector and the subjugated friend of the woman he has chosen”. True subtlety at last, and something to hold onto when we are simultaneously asked to be gripped by the supposed mysteries in the mind of the Marquis de Sade. There are whole pages devoted to the standard assumption that the poor mad jerk-off was engaged in exploring profound conundrums when he dreamed of torturing women. (“Language rediscovers its force of imagery”, raves Michel Delon while pondering some weary gang-bang in La Nouvelle Justine: “The formula gives rise to a virility of violence”.) Those same pages could have been better used in exploring further what lay behind Madame de Staël’s non-violent question. Did Benjamin Constant choose her, or did she choose him? She so embodied equality for women that Napoleon, who thought she was a damned sight too equal all round, banished her. (On her way across Lake Geneva, she said that Napoleon was a man of such mental scope that he could understand anything, except the behaviour of a man of honour.) Vladimir Nabokov, when praising Pushkin, poured scorn on Madame de Staël while slyly neglecting to admit that Pushkin himself admired her. Why was Nabokov so keen to leave her out? It was ungallant of him, and (there might be a connection) it was stupid.
But Madame de Staël had no man of honour in Benjamin Constant. He is quoted here as saying “I cannot do without women”. We might reflect that no woman wants to hear from a man that he wants women. She wants to hear from him that he wants her. Circles of men commonly exist so that they can complain to each other safely about this irrational fussiness on the part of females. Constant’s show of sexual hunger was a common signalling system among the nineteenth-century male writers and artists who wished to parade their secrets. The justifying assumption behind this unprepossessing consensus was that copulation got a man’s mind off love. (Delacroix is usefully quoted as saying, of one of his models, “I took advantage of her and it made me feel a little better”. Even less winningly, we hear Flaubert saying that this element of distraction is one of the missions of the slut.)
Unusually for a work of history that tends to fade into its own future, this part of the book is alive with exemplary names, and the point about how the roué was presumed to be warding off the perils of love is thoroughly made. But it might have been made less mechanical in advance if the case of Casanova had been properly examined. According to his Histoire de ma vie, he was in love every time, even though he was capable of falling for a shape under a counterpane if it looked curved enough. “I only exclaim against the sexual desire of conquest”, wrote Mary Wollstonecraft, “when the heart is out of the question.” (Here we might take another look at her Vindication of the Rights of Woman and then ask ourselves whether Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe is really all that brilliant.)
But sometimes the heart is in question, even for the rake. The book never gets to Albert Camus, but even the non-French reader is likely to be aware that the great writer was catnip for women, perhaps because, sick when young, he had the chastening memory of frailty to go along with his conquering charm: the softened force, or forceful softness, that Madame de Staël was talking about. In the last weeks before his fatal car crash he wrote letters to half a dozen different women telling each of them that she was the love of his life. There is no reason to doubt that they were: there are always some men who think they are starting life again with each new love. Perhaps Talleyrand was a man like that. Alas, and incredibly, the great stick-man of his time doesn’t get even a mention. Talleyrand had a love affair with three women in the one family, each of them of a different generation. Virile, or what?
But we’ve asked that question already, and the book keeps on circling around the answer. As the twentieth century looms in the later pages, there are clear signs of language running short of fuel. The great male artists and writers who got their libidos probed in the nineteenth century might have been succeeded by the great popular artists of the twentieth, but for some reason the opportunity is not taken: here in this age of all ages, when popular culture gets into everything. Couldn’t Jean Gabin have been discussed in terms of his projected image as the ordinary-looking mec made extraordinary by his virility, the muttering man of strength who, just as irresistible off-screen as on, held Marlene Dietrich spellbound for years on end? And wasn’t Alain Delon a flickering symbol of how French virility faded into ambiguity: too good-looking, the smile too ingratiating, his taciturnity in Le Samouraï all too obviously as bogus as a cheaply copied Louis Quatorze commode? Might not Gérard Depardieu have restored the national virile symbolism to its pedestal if he had not been quoted as having assisted at a pack-rape in his youth? The French verb for having been there isassister but a lot of American showbiz journalists didn’t know that, just as they scarcely know where France is. Well, it was all up for discussion: but not by this cénacle.
They didn’t even get around to the hulking challenge posed by the mere existence of François Hollande. One jests, of course: physically, François Hollande has the same imposing aspect as a myopic penguin in a scooter helmet, but what counts, in the virility stakes, is that at least three of the most beautiful women in France have found it impossible to keep their feet when faced with his charisma. No doubt his being President helps, but he wasn’t that when he was still with Ségolène Royal – in fact she seemed more likely to be President than he did – so his powers of attraction must have at least something to do with his inherent qualities. The same was probably true of Warren Beatty even before he became King of Hollywood. It’s just a fact that all the other men in the world have to live with. Knock ourselves out as we might, there are always the blessed few that only have to stand there, and they will be chosen. In a free society, the women do the choosing, and their power is terrifying.
Typically missing a perfect opportunity, the book has nothing about Marie du Plessis, the Lady of the Camelias. One would have thought she was French enough to qualify for inclusion, and edifying enough to rate a whole paragraph. Wealthy men could choose to keep her company but only because of her gift for convincing them that she had chosen them, for their manliness. Liszt wanted to live with her. In a career cut woefully short by tuberculosis, she had every prominent man in Paris on a string including at least two members of the nobility, both of whom were beside her deathbed: it was a mystery that she died broke. Though she could converse cleverly about anything, the first secret of her appeal was her beauty. If there were to be another movie about her to rival Garbo’s, and to be worthy of Verdi’s opera, French pride might demand that it should star Julie Gayet, a fine actress pretty enough to bring Ronsard back from the dead. No doubt M Hollande is fascinated with her views on foreign policy but he dons his helmet and rides to her side because of the same force that drew Henry II to the bedchamber of Diane de Poitiers, and kept him close to her for the rest of his life. (And they didn’t get into this book either.) Think about it all you like, but love itself is no more thoughtful than the lightning, and virility – the proof is here – defies analysis by any committee.
Clive James’s collection of poems include Sentenced to Life, which appeared last year. HisCollected Poems and Gate of Lilacs, a verse commentary on Proust, are both published this month.


They Made Him a Moron | The Baffler

They Made Him a Moron | The Baffler

Corporate presentation demonstrates a secret handshake.


The Worst Opening Line in Literature?

Since 1982 the English department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. Here are this year's winners.

I got a big kick out of reading these. I figured you might want to use them on the show. Enjoy.

Paul Houston

10) "As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the echo chamber he would never hear the end of it."

9) "Just beyond the Narrows the river widens."

8) "With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned, unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes,perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straightnose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description."

7) "Andre, a simple peasant, had only one thing on his mind as he crept along the east wall: "Andre creep ... Andre creep ... Andre creep."

6) "Stanislaus Smedley, a man always on the cutting edge of narcissism, was about to give his body and soul to a back alley sex change surgeon to become the woman he loved."

5) "Although Sarah had an abnormal fear of mice, it did not keep her from eking out a living at a local pet store."

4) "Stanley looked quite bored and somewhat detached, but then, penguins often do."

3) "Like an overripe beefsteak tomato rimmed with cottage cheese, the corpulent remains of Santa Claus lay dead on the hotel floor."

2) "Mike Hardware was the kind of private eye who didn't know the meaning of the word "fear," a man who could laugh in the face of danger and spit in the eye of death -- in short, a moron with suicidal tendencies."


1) "The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, creptalong the green sward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed throughthe castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated,sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude ofthe frog's deception, screaming madly, "You lied!"

When Pius XII quoted Shakespeare - Vatican Radio

When Pius XII quoted Shakespeare - Vatican Radio

Pius XII speaks through the microphones of Vatican Radio

Myths That Make History - Yale Press Log

Myths That Make History - Yale Press Log

On this day in 1667, the poet John Milton (books by this author) sold the copyright for his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, for 10 pounds. Milton had championed the cause of Oliver Cromwell and the Parliament over the king during the English Civil War, and published a series of radical pamphlets in support of such things as Puritanism, freedom of the press, divorce on the basis of incompatibility, and the execution of King Charles I. With the overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of the Commonwealth, Milton was named Secretary of Foreign Tongues, and though he eventually lost his eyesight, he was able to carry out his duties with the help of aides like fellow poet Andrew Marvell.
When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Milton was imprisoned as a traitor and stripped of his property. He was soon released, but was now impoverished as well as completely blind, and he spent the rest of his life secluded in a cottage in Buckinghamshire. This is where he dictated Paradise Lost -an epic poem about the Fall of Man, with Satan as a kind of antihero - and its sequel,Paradise Regained, about the temptation of Christ.