Friday, March 29, 2019

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People - (Very) Rough Notes

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Bloomsbury published it in Britain in 2017, it became a bit of a trans-Atlantic phenomenon, I read it because it was mentioned in Emma Watson's Our Shared Shelf book club, and now it has come out in a German-language translation. To celebrate, the German publisher Tropen Verlag held a book presentation event here in Berlin. I attended it on Wednesday, March 27th. The book is about racial bias in Britain and about how difficult it is for a black person to speak about racism, even with liberal people, because she or he will encounter so much resistance and misplaced guilt.

Apologies for the postmodernist presentation of these notes. In the end, I felt that it was the most direct and truthful representation of the event that I could muster; any attempt to string them together seemed to dump in more after-the-fact analysis that I can't be sure is accurate.

- 7 p.m.
- Dussmann Kulturkaufhaus, Friedrichstraße 90, in Berlin Mitte
- Friedrichstraße overground S-Bahn station, restaurants with glass façades, tourists, lights, after dark
- people milling about around islands of books segmented into genres, with stairs leading between 4 levels (5 including the café)
- stage in basement café (Kulturbühne?): capacity 200, overfilled
- overspill crowd in front of large video screen with good sound waiting to be let into basement, then realizing that we'd just be watching the screen, as previously announced on Facebook
- a portly older man in a suit grumbling that the high number of attendees was not good for security
- at least 2 ushers
- people sitting on the floor or standing in front of the screen
- young woman apologizing to friends for not joining them on time - she'd needed to finish work
- plurality of demographic likely young women, but plenty of young men and older men and women; no children except perhaps a baby that occasionally wailed
- at elevators and entrance to the English language books section, with vertical garden behind the screen

Image from Tropen Verlag [Klett-Cotta]

- Reni Eddo-Lodge sitting down with an elderly white German lady for the interview
- interviewer lists all the prizes the author had won, mentions that she had written a blog post and that it had gone viral (author later mentions that her blog was linked to Twitter, and it was the Twitter post that went viral and led to many people thanking her for saying what they'd been thinking)
- asks what was the conversation that was the breaking point and led to the book
- author replies that if one reads the chapter about all the frustrating conversations she had while being active in feminist circles, one would understand what led her to write it

- interviewer mentions that back in 1995 there was already a discussion about the repression of black voices in the feminist discourse (around a certain prize?)
- mention of author never having been taught about the British slave trade in school, just hearing about it in an elective course at university
- interviewer asks about author feeling isolated at university (a characterization the author takes issue with but that the interviewer insists is in the book) and wonders where the other black women were - they both talk about the bias that leads to there being very few black women in teaching roles at universities ('Let's say they shouldn't all get on the same airplane,' joked Reni Eddo-Lodge, before saying that there are about 20 [if I heard correctly])

- author stresses that she is not calling individual white people racists; she is saying that black people are disadvantaged by a system that people may not be conscious of. Black schoolchildren may be marked down by their teachers, for example, but this does not mean that the teachers are evil. It just means that they have a subconscious bias

- interviewer asks whether author felt frustrated that she had to use such violent language in her blog post to get her point across - author says that she does not feel her language was violent, perhaps "striking" [Note: reminded me of 'Angry Black Woman' stereotype, criticized e.g. by Audre Lorde in her 1981 speech "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism".]

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Marie Curie Through Her Daughter's Eyes

Madame Curie
by Ève Curie, transl. Vincent Sheean

Radium Girls
by Kate Moore
Simon & Schuster UK
(E-Book: 480 pp.)


In the poor household of a teacher, a mother who had died of tuberculosis as her children were still young, and five children, in Varsovian houses in a Poland considered as a property of the Tsar's Russia, Marie Curie grew up in conditions that were unlikely for a Nobel Laureate. Women could not study at the official universities in Poland in the 1880s, and the academic culture was stifled by Russian political control.

Warsaw: Orthodox Church (1890-1900)
"Postcard showing a 19th century view of the Orthodox Church of
the Holy Trinity in Warsaw. Today the church serves as
the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army."
Marie Curie lost her faith after her mother
and one of her sisters died, early in her life.
via Wikimedia Commons
Even as Marie grew older, poverty vexed her as well as the lack of academic opportunity. Her family had made ends meet by renting out rooms to boarders, and through the teaching salary of the father. But the four remaining children (the eldest child died from a childhood illness) soon had to earn wages to educate, feed and shelter themselves.

Marie became a governess. Her job in the Polish countryside ended badly as she and the older brother of her charges fell in love; they were forbidden to marry by the young man's parents, and although she kept earning money there until there was another job for her, she felt her own intellectual development and self-education becoming sluggish. She fell into what I suspect was a depression. Marie had decided with her elder sister Bronisława (Bronya for short) that Bronya would study in Paris, that Marie would send her money that she could spare from her own expenses and her father's, and that as soon as enough money had gathered, the younger sister would study at the Sorbonne. At present she was just at the stage of earning and sending money.

But at last it happened. Paris brought Marie Skłodowska the ability to study as much as she wanted. She earned the best grades of anyone in her classes at the Sorbonne, I think. She also met Pierre Curie, when she was looking for more resources for her research. It was, it seems, the happiest period of her life in unpromising circumstances. Her apartment was dreadful and so unheated that one winter she piled all her clothing and even a chair over herself so that she could sleep; she barely ate anything and became ill; and she wore the same clothing for ages. Apparently Pierre Curie was her soulmate in this aspect too — appalling self-neglect, but also their idealistic and disinterested love of science, seemed to draw them together — and it seems charming, even if this reader at least spent many pages of Madame Curie (the biography first published in 1938 by her daughter Ève) trying to mentally reach through time to tell them to 'Eat something nourishing, for the love of God!'

It's difficult not to become misty-eyed at the portrait of the Curies' romance. It was at first complicated to keep the relationship going as Marie Sklodovska, loyal to Poland and very worried about her father, doubted whether to really marry a French citizen and bind herself to building a life that would keep her away from Warsaw and her family. But Pierre Curie's determination pulled them through, and Marie Curie never seems to have regretted it, although later in life she was — her daughter tells us — a cynic about love.

Pierre Curie liked going on endless walks without any predetermined goal, and Marie Curie enjoyed rambling and loved gardening until she died. So they shared a fondness of nature, too. Their honeymoon sounds beautiful and characteristic: they went on a bicycle tour (I wonder if bicycles were still enormous pennyfarthings in the 1890s?) through the French countryside. It turned out that their families got along well, too. There had been a de facto reunion around the time of the wedding, and Marie had finally been able to see relatives whom she had left behind in Poland, and with whom she'd only been able to talk by letter.

When the married pair returned from their honeymoon, they hoped in vain for a large, weatherproof laboratory space, as well as equipment and any paid staff. Their lab environment was so dusty, etc. that it had been contaminating their materials. It was worse for the Curies because they hated self-advertising and they were bad at actively snaffling paid positions and honours that would finance a better laboratory. Also, intrigues and academic politics ran against them. Prejudices existed against women and foreigners like Marie Curie. The French Academy of Sciences voted against admitting the Curies, and the Sorbonne dragged its heels for years before it finally offered Pierre Curie a professorship and refused even a little longer to pay for a laboratory or laboratory assistants. So, although the École Normale Supérieure was friendlier, offering Pierre a cheap laboratory and offering Marie employment, often the Curies had to finance their own research as they could.

"Rue Lhomond, Paris, 1913"
The street on which the Curies' 'cheap laboratory' stood.
From the Bibliothèque nationale de France
via Wikimedia Commons

Marie Curie chose to write her doctoral thesis about uranium, specifically an effect that Henri Becquerel had observed, i.e. that it can create black prints on photographic paper even though it isn't phosphorescent.

Friday, February 01, 2019

February 2019 in Books: What We'll Be Reading Next

"2019 in books: what you'll be reading this year"
The Guardian,
Saturday, January 5, 2019

John Ruskin, the Victorian art theorist, entered the world on February 8, 1819, but I confess I likely will not be reading any of his essays.
"John Ruskin" (1853/4)
by John Everett Millais
Oil on canvas, in the Ashmolean Museum
via Wikimedia Commons

TO CROSS into the American realm of letters, I've been pleased that James Baldwin has had a posthumous renaissance these past few years, or that perhaps he's never faded from view. A New Yorker originally, a public figure, black, gay — his writings, and his perspective on racism and his debates with people like the conservative William F. Buckley, are much-quoted even now. He lived and wrote at the height of the American civil rights movement, born in Harlem in 1924 and dying at the age of 63 in southern France — the country he had moved to after the Second World War.

He was, perhaps, not a raging optimist. Here's a Friday quotation, taken from Another Country (quoted in Goodreads here):
"People don't have any mercy. They tear you limb from limb, in the name of love. Then, when you're dead, when they've killed you by what they made you go through, they say you didn't have any character. They weep big, bitter tears - not for you. For themselves, because they've lost their toy."
Baldwin's book If Beale Street Could Talk has just been adapted into a film, which was released in the US last year by Barry Jenkins. (It appears in the Guardian's article because in Britain the film is coming out later, on February 8.)

"James Baldwin" [Wikipedia]

From the first edition, via Wikimedia Commons

On February 5th, I'm looking forward to Angie Thomas's — she is an American, too, but Mississippian and born in 1988 — book On the Come Up. It's apparently the story of a teenager who wants to become a rapper. Thomas's last book The Hate U Give — the winner of many prizes and the basis of a Hollywood film — has a tense and immediate prose that can appeal to an adult reader just as much as to a younger millennial, which is why I think I might like On the Come Up.

“On the Come Up by Angie Thomas review – another YA hit”
Patrice Lawrence (January 30, 2019) [Guardian, online]

On February 21st, Penguin UK is coming out with a collection of Toni Morrison's essays and speeches, including her eulogy of James Baldwin, and it's called Mouth Full of Blood. (Demosthenes' stones seem more comfortable to me, where filling mouths is concerned.)


RETURNING to children's literature, Penguin UK is publishing an illustrated digest of Charles Darwin's important work On the Origin of Species, on February 19th. Designed in serene, bright saffron-yellow, greens, pale turquoise and senna by Sabina Radeva, the flora and fauna are presented in familiar and soothing forms.

via C.H. Beck

LASTLY, the German publisher C.H. Beck is printing Alexander von Humboldt's accounts of his expedition to Russia in the year 1829 — fifteen years after the Napoleonic Wars.

Von Humboldt's accounts of travelling along the Amazon in the early 19th century were a pleasant read. So I am looking forward to Die Russland-Expedition: Von der Newa bis zum Altai.
[Note: C.H. Beck released it last week, so it does not count as a February book, properly speaking.]


Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Generation After Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde,
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
(Tantor Audio, 2016)

Brittney Cooper,
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower
(MacMillan Audio, 2018)

Rebecca Traister,
Good and Mad: How Women's Anger Is Reshaping America
(Simon + Schuster Audio, 2018)

"Women's March - Washington DC 2017"
by S Pakhrin, Jan. 20, 2017
via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0 Licence)

Last year I joined the Our Shared Shelf reader group on Goodreads. It is an ambassadorial project that Emma Watson, who is famous for her acting work but has also undertaken women's rights work for the United Nations, began to help fulfill her UN role.

For November and December, the reader group discussed three works by American women: Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger by Rebecca Traister, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

New York Review of Books, Digest: Dec./Jan. 2018/9

A few gems appeared in the Letters to the Editor section this month, and I most enjoyed this exploration of the modern terrain of American masculinity in the workplace:

~"What Men Want" - An Exchange
On "Male Trouble"
(the article by Arlie Russell Hochschild, in the NYRB [Oct. 11, 2018]) ~

A GENTLEMAN READER, who must have Arno Breker and Futurist statues of masculine physiques littered around his domicile, has written in to remark:
Hochschild's article [. . .] does not ultimately come to grips with the impact of losing the physical connection to work found, as she describes, in coal mines, assembly lines, oil rigs, and steel mills.
After he has pooh-poohed the idea of funding drug treatments, education bursaries, etc. for industrial workers who are losing their jobs in the United States, the letter-writer declares that these measures would not address the underlying "alienation" and "lack of a viable livelihood."

"Nor," he asserts
does retraining for androgynous jobs, like coding, that men supposedly "badly want" (how does she know?).
Arlie Russell Hochschild asserts, in her reply to the letter, that Appalachian miners and factory workers might miss "high wages and camaraderie" after they lose their jobs. They do not appear to be nostalgic about the repetitive/hazardous labour.

Moreover, unemployment, imprisonment and homelessness do not present an ideal masculine existence either.

So her proposed social welfare programmes (and 'androgynous' work training) might be the lesser evils. (pp. 93-4)


"One Hundred Years of Destruction"
(by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, pp. 74, 80-81])

Wheatcroft's article is very painful to read. After he touches on the unscrupulous projects of the British government using the RAF in early 19th-century colonialist warfare, he analyzes the RAF in World War II.

He argues the weaknesses of preferring the Air Force, instead of land- or sea-based forces, in overall British strategy. (Was it the best use of metal, factory labour, etc.? Was it the most effective?)

He frowns on Sir Winston Churchill and high-ranking officers who ordered the RAF to harass and slaughter about 400,000 people in aerial bombing of cities:
"It was quite a feat to kill 400,000 civilians while barely affecting the German war economy."
The RAF pilots, too, died at an intense rate;
"Out of almost 125,000 who flew on active service, an awe-inspiring 55,573 were killed."
The peril of this article is, I think, that a veteran, or the descendants of a veteran, might read this and feel personally attacked. The author does try to qualify his assertions, and perhaps indirectly acknowledges that a good conscience was one of the casualties of war for many people (who are open to crises of conscience).


[Patricia Storace's article, "Sing, Goddess" about Pat Barker's novel The Silence of the Girls and Madeline Miller's Circe, both set in Homeric Greece, and about the brutal woman's lot in an Archaic, men-dominated world (e.g. during war-time), was similarly painful. (pp. 65-66, 68]


"Founding Frenemies" by T.H. Breen winds up in a near-"twist ending." The article at first appears to be about U.S. President John Adams's abrasive demeanour and his unexpected friendship with Thomas Jefferson. Then, at the end, it becomes apparent that the pleasantly idle nostalgia-trip to late 18th-century America is no such thing, after all... (pp. 68, 70-71)


[All articles, including the quotations above, are from the New York Review of Books, Vol. LXV, No. 20, December 20, 2018 - January 16, 2019]

Sunday, January 13, 2019

In Memory: John Burningham

I grew up with the pictures of the British children's book writer and illustrator John Burningham, who has died on January 4th this year. So I wanted to post a brief tribute, albeit a lazy one that links to articles by those who sometimes did know him personally:

"Remembering John Burningham"
Penguin UK, January 9, 2019
(Penguin Random House were his publishers.)
With much sadness, the family of John Burningham, author and illustrator of countless much-loved children’s books including Mr Gumpy’s Outing, Avocado Baby and Borka, confirm that he passed away on Friday 4 January, aged 82.
The article quotes a long-ago tribute from Maurice Sendak, which the American illustrator had written for a book published in 2009 when both men were still alive:
"Your work, John, is stunning, luscious, sexy, hilarious and mysterious and frequently just plain nuts."

John Burningham: Behind the Scenes
Jonathan Cape, 2009
via Goodreads
"John Burningham, children's author and illustrator, dies aged 82"
Alison Flood,, January 7, 2019

"Helen Oxenbury and John Burningham win top books honour"
Interview by Alison Flood,, February 8, 2018

In a recent interview for the Guardian, together with his wife Helen Oxenbury, the author had said,
Children are not less intelligent, they're just less experienced, and there is this rather silly attitude that can be adopted, that 'Oh it's for children, it's got to be pink coloured cakes or lots of pattern everywhere, that's what they'll like', and they’re bored.
He and Helen Oxenbury had agreed that old age should not be an impediment to continuing their work:
"I'm very fortunate that I've got good eyesight and I haven't got a trembly hand, so I shall get on with it" [...]
Burningham insisted. Also,
[T]he pair said that winning a lifetime achievement award did not mean they would be hanging up their paintbrushes. “I am horrible, aren’t I, John, if I’m not working?” said Oxenbury. “Dreadful,” said Burningham. “So I have to carry on,” said Oxenbury.


"Obituary: John Burningham"
By Shannon Maughan, Publishers Weekly, January 10, 2019

The Orderly God in Leibniz's Vision

Discourse on Metaphysics
by Gottfried Leibniz, translated by George Redington Montgomery
Discours de métaphysique (1686) GP iv 427-463
via Wikisource

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote this treatise in 1686 during a letter exchange with a French fellow philosopher, Antoine Arnauld. It wasn't published until over a century later. So I surmise it didn't play a role in founding Leibniz's reputation as a philosopher who rather heartlessly argued that the world is perfection and that, by implication, anyone who suffers or rebels against it is too thick to understand God's machinery. Leibniz was 40 at the time of writing; his influential work Monadologie was produced about 30 years later, and Candide, Voltaire's riposte, was published in 1759.

Turning to Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy, I see that Leibniz's chapter begins on a firm note: firstly, the German philosopher was apparently "not admirable" as a person. Also, part of Leibniz's work was meant to appeal to his royal patrons and not to 'rock the boat,' which mined its worth from a philosophical point of view.
It was the popular Leibniz who invented the doctrine that this is the best of all possible worlds

Here Leibniz sets out his Logical God, and a Connect The Dot metaphor:
VI. That God does nothing which is not orderly, and that it is not even possible to conceive of events which are not regular.The activities or the acts of will of God are commonly divided into ordinary and extraordinary. But it is well to bear in mind that God does nothing out of order. Therefore, that which passes for extraordinary is so only with regard to a particular order established among the created things, for as regards the universal order, everything conforms to it. This is so true that not only does nothing occur in this world which is absolutely irregular, but it is even impossible to conceive of such an occurrence. Because, let us suppose for example that some one jots down a quantity of points upon a sheet of paper helter skelter, as do those who exercise the ridiculous art of Geomancy; now I say that it is possible to find a geometrical line whose concept shall be uniform and constant, that is, in accordance with a certain formula, and which line at the same time shall pass through all of those points, and in the same order in which the hand jotted them down; also if a continuous line be traced, which is now straight, now circular, and now of any other description, it is possible to find a mental equivalent, a formula or an equation common to all the points of this line by virtue of which formula the changes in the direction of the line must occur. There is no instance of a face whose contour does not form part of a geometric line and which can not be traced entire by a certain mathematical motion. But when the formula is very complex, that which conforms to it passes for irregular. Thus we may  say that in whatever manner God might have created the world, it would always have been regular and in a certain order. God, however, has chosen the most perfect, that is to say the one which is at the same time the simplest in hypotheses and the richest in phenomena, as might be the case with a geometric line, whose construction was easy, but whose properties and effects were extremely remarkable and of great significance.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, c. 1700
Portrait by Johann Friedrich Wentzel (1670–1729)
via Wikimedia Commons


Russell argues against using God as a logical solution to philosophical problems.
The God of the Old Testament is a God of power, the God of the New Testament is also a God of love; but the God of the theologians, from Aristotle to Calvin, is one whose appeal is intellectual: His existence solves certain puzzles which otherwise would create argumentative difficulties in the understanding of the universe. This Deity who appears at the end of a piece of reasoning, like the proof of a proposition in geometry, did not satisfy Rousseau, who reverted to a conception of God more akin to that of the Gospels.
Leibniz, I gather, runs the risk of not loving his fellow man enough to consider God's purpose in light of man's welfare, and of seeing God in the bloodless way Russell describes.

Furthermore, the British philosopher counters the 'best of all worlds' argument as efficiently as Voltaire. First he recapitulates the Leibnizian reasoning: God made a world that has evil too, rather than all good, he writes; and
That is because some great goods are logically bound up with certain evils.
He further explains Leibniz's point with this example: a drink of water would not be appreciated as a great good if one were not thirsty.

In short:
The world that resulted [from God's decision] [...] has a greater surplus of good over evil than any other possible world; it is therefore the best of all possible worlds, and the evil that it contains affords no argument against the goodness of God.
But Russell then argues that this line of reasoning is self-interested. It might appeal to Leibniz himself and to Leibniz's patrons, but not to much of the rest of the world:
This argument apparently satisfied the Queen of Prussia. Her serfs continued to suffer the evil, while she continued to enjoy the good,* and it was comforting to be assured by a great philosopher that this was just and right.
My father and I once talked about a different metaphor for an organized/disorganized world: If we inspect a carpet from beneath, as human beings do when we look at the world, we see the frayed ends of yarn, the unfinished appearance, etc. Whereas a being who is looking at the carpet from the top, like God, is seeing and understanding the pattern. Not that I remember Papa presenting this belief as his own; he was discussing it as an illustration.

I like the Connect the Dot metaphor, too. But I think I'd substitute the modern metaphor of 'not seeing the forest for the trees.' When the world is composed of many elements, it can be hard to see patterns and organization that may exist.


"Bertrand Russell Smoking A Pipe"
"The Welsh philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell smoking the pipe while sitting on an armchair. 1954 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)"
via Wikimedia Commons


My two cents: I'm not entirely opposed to the idea that "What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter" — that it is possible to believe in a God whose reasoning is not always understandable but might be explained to us in the afterlife. That said, I object very much to human beings explaining away the hardships of others, by attempting to intuit God's reasoning themselves. I think that it's nicer to have the sense to see that this is a tricky endeavour, and have the compassion to see that it should not be undertaken if it makes people feel even worse.**

"Discourse on Metaphysics" [Wikipedia]
"Monadology" [Wikipedia]
"Leibniz" in The History of Western Philosophy, 2nd ed., by Bertrand Russell (London: George Allen + Unwin, 1979), pp. 563-576
John 13.7, King James Bible []

* (His premise that Queen of Prussia was happier than her subjects because she was richer is not watertight. But I agree that the world might make far greater sense to her, because it feels materially fulfilling, than it would to a peasant to whom it feels materially precarious.)
** I should state that I am not thinking of specific examples of this behaviour! — this is not a passive-aggressive allusion or 'subtweet.'