Via NY Times, by Carl Zimmer
Vladimir Nabokov may be known to most people as the author of classic novels like “Lolita” and “Pale Fire.” But even as he was writing those books, Nabokov had a parallel existence as a self-taught expert on butterflies.
He was the curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, and collected the insects across the United States. He published detailed descriptions of hundreds of species. And in a speculative moment in 1945, he came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves.
Few professional lepidopterists took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1977, his scientific reputation has grown. And over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about how Polyommatus blues evolved. On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.
“It’s really quite a marvel,” said Naomi Pierce of Harvard, a co-author of the paper.
Nabokov inherited his passion for butterflies from his parents. When his father was imprisoned by the Russian authorities for his political activities, the 8-year-old Vladimir brought a butterfly to his cell as a gift. As a teenager, Nabokov went on butterfly-hunting expeditions and carefully described the specimens he caught, imitating the scientific journals he read in his spare time. Had it not been for the Russian Revolution, which forced his family into exile in 1919, Nabokov said that he might have become a full-time lepidopterist.
In his European exile, Nabokov visited butterfly collections in museums. He used the proceeds of his second novel, “King, Queen, Knave,” to finance an expedition to the Pyrenees, where he and his wife, Vera, netted over a hundred species. The rise of the Nazis drove Nabokov into exile once more in 1940, this time to the United States. It was there that Nabokov found his greatest fame as a novelist. It was also there that he delved deepest into the science of butterflies.
Nabokov spent much of the 1940s dissecting a confusing group of species called Polyommatus blues. He developed forward-thinking ways to classify the butterflies based on differences in their genitalia. He argued that what were thought to be closely related species were actually only distantly related.
At the end of a 1945 paper on the group, he mused on how they had evolved. He speculated that they originated in Asia, moved over the Bering Strait, and moved south all the way to Chile.
Allowing himself a few literary flourishes, Nabokov invited his readers to imagine “a modern taxonomist straddling a Wellsian time machine.” Going back millions of years, he would end up at a time when only Asian forms of the butterflies existed. Then, moving forward again, the taxonomist would see five waves of butterflies arriving in the New World.
Nabokov conceded that the thought of butterflies making a trip from Siberia to Alaska and then all the way down into South America might sound far-fetched. But it made more sense to him than an unknown land bridge spanning the Pacific. “I find it easier to give a friendly little push to some of the forms and hang my distributional horseshoes on the nail of Nome rather than postulate transoceanic land-bridges in other parts of the world,” he wrote.
When “Lolita” made Nabokov a star in 1958, journalists were delighted to discover his hidden life as a butterfly expert. A famous photograph of Nabokov that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post when he was 66 is from a butterfly’s perspective. The looming Russian author swings a net with rapt concentration. But despite the fact that he was the best-known butterfly expert of his day and a Harvard museum curator, other lepidopterists considered Nabokov a dutiful but undistinguished researcher. He could describe details well, they granted, but did not produce scientifically important ideas.
[ Continue ]
From the New Yorker
ABSTRACT: JOURNAL excerpts by Roland Barthes about mourning his mother, Henriette, who died at eighty-four, in October, 1977.
October 27th Every morning, around six-thirty, in the darkness outside, the metallic racket of the garbage cans. She would say with relief: the night is finally over (she suffered during the night, alone, a cruel business).
October 31st I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it—or without being sure of not doing so—although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths.
November 5th Sad afternoon. Shopping. Purchase (frivolity) of a tea cake at the bakery. Taking care of the customer ahead of me, the girl behind the counter says Voilà. The expression I used when I brought maman something, when I was taking care of her. Once, toward the end, half-conscious, she repeated, faintly, Voilà “I’m here,” a word we used with each other all our lives). The word spoken by the girl at the bakery brought tears to my eyes. I kept on crying quite a while back in the silent apartment.
November 9th —Less and less to write, to say, except this (which I can tell no one).
November 11th Solitude = having no one at home to whom you can say, I’ll be back at a specific time, or whom you can call to say (or to whom you can just say), Voilà, I’m home now.
April 3rd Despair: the word is too theatrical, a part of the language. A stone.
June 15th Everything began all over again immediately: arrival of manuscripts, requests, people’s stories, each person mercilessly pushing ahead his own little demand (for love, for gratitude): no sooner has she departed than the world deafens me with its continuance.
From Mourning Diary
Via BBC, by Imogen Foulkes
Safe deposit boxes believed to contain manuscripts and drawings by the late author Franz Kafka are due to be opened at a bank in Zurich.
The move is the latest twist in a long legal battle over who owns the papers.
Two Israeli sisters say they inherited the documents from their mother, but the Israeli state claims them as part of the country’s cultural heritage.
The contents will be examined by an expert who will report to the judge handling the case.
Literary archives around the world say the manuscripts, hidden for decades, must at least be made public.
Franz Kafka was one of the most enigmatic authors of the 20th Century.
He died of tuberculosis in 1924 aged only 40 and, if his own last wishes had been followed, novels such as The Trial and The Castle would never have seen the light of day.
Kafka asked his friend and fellow writer, Max Brod, to burn his manuscripts after his death. Brod refused, publishing the novels and taking letters and other writings to Israel where he left them to his secretary Esther Hoffe – who then bequeathed them to her two daughters.
At some point during the past 50 years, the documents were stored in bank vaults in Tel Aviv and Zurich.
But when the two daughters – now both in their 70s – tried to sell some of the manuscripts, the legal battle began.
Israel is claiming the documents as part of its cultural heritage arguing that because Kafka was Jewish, his works belong there.
The sisters say the works are their rightful inheritance to dispose of as they wish. Meanwhile, Germany’s literary archive has offered to buy the manuscripts.
Today, on the orders of a Tel Aviv judge, the four vaults in Zurich will be opened but only for the eyes of one Kafka specialist who will itemise the contents and report back to the judge.
For the general public, the mystery of Kafka’s remaining works will continue.
His mistake was, however, quite pardonable, for the truth, even if it is inevitable, is not always conceivable as a whole. People who learn some accurate detail of another person’s life at once deduce consequences which are not accurate, and see in the newly discovered fact an explanation of things that have no connection with it whatsoever.
Part Two | The Transfer of Desire
In the birth of desire, the third person is always present.
Determined to make irrefutable the link between a sign and its meaning, Roland Barthes’ book of 1970, S/Z, establishes an analysis of Sarrasine, a short story by Honoré de Balzac, where meanings originate and function from symbolic codes within the text, demonstrating how these codes operate subconsciously in the mind of the reader. As an active text for the reader, symbolic codes are triggers of desire within the narrative. “At the origin of Narrative, desire. To produce narrative, however, desire must vary, must enter into a system of equivalents…” Barthes discerns narration as “determined not by a desire to narrate but by a desire to exchange,” and concludes by asking, “what should the narrative be exchanged for? What is the narrative worth?” Here, Barthes makes clear how the rhetoric of narration must be exchanged for something; it must be applied to something for value to appear.
For architects, the question which must be addressed, is the rhetoric of narration worth the project? Are they synonymous? Is the rhetoric of narration that is applied to a project have any relevance to one who experiences and uses the built work? To apply a narrative, is to apply a descriptive text latent with codes of meaning onto an object (i.e. rhetoric); it relies on the metaphor to explain and justify. This is diametrically opposed to describing intentional moves directly. Etymologically, the English word metaphor is derived from the Greek word metaphora, which is defined as: to transfer. By applying a narration, intention is transferred away from the work, and placed within the description. In transferring intention, desire presents itself, through avoidance. By turning away from what now becomes the obscure object, desire is not necessarily denied of the object, but it is transferred away from it. Within Freudian psychoanalysis, the term for transferred desire is reaction formation. Calvin C. Hall further described the expression in A Primer of Freudian Psychology:
The person wants what he fears. He is not afraid of the object; he is afraid of the wish for the object. The reactive fear prevents the dreaded wish from being fulfilled.
The reactive fear of many architects is found within the rhetoric of narration, preventing the complete fulfillment of their expressed wish for the desired object of architecture. Hereby pulling the rug from the stability of the ground plane that may frame a debate of the object, of the built or drawn work, gravity is shifted away from validating the project through qualities of proportion, material, color, shape, issues which please aesthetic and spatial sensibilities, thus placing all of the legitimating justification of the project into the narration. If the French literary critic René Girard were to dissect the current state of narrations into architectural projects, I imagine that his critique to be along the lines of the following: Behind the devotion to the narrative, the mawkish altruism of the architect, the hypocritical engagement of metaphor with design intentions, we find not the generous impulse of a being truly prepared to give itself, but rather the tormented recourse of vanity at bay, the centrifugal movement of an ego powerless to desire by itself. While Girard’s text, Deceit, Desire, & the Novel, of 1961, focuses on mediations of desire found within Romantic novels, his critique parallels ours, as both fields are concerned with the transfer of desire and intention, either into, or away from an object, through specific linguistic applications.
Currently, the common case of metaphoric narration among designers within the academies of architecture is of biomimetic behaviors, such as a flock of birds, which is represented in computational code for both 2D, and 3D software packages. The symptoms of the metaphor of a flock of birds are transferred into the code, through behaviors of agents, the floating Cartesian coordinates. Here, the agents, a popular term for digital designers to represent assigned “intentionality” in their code, are either attracted to, or repelled from other agents, based on their assigned numeric values, and their proximity to other agents with similar values. Depending on the details in the code, when an agent comes within a certain distance from another, it may draw a line, draw a circle of a specific diameter, change color, etc., producing some output once the run of code has been completed. Consequently, many designers base the success of their projects on the codes ability to produce something, in tandem with the rhetoric of narrative metaphors behind the code’s performance. Such a methodology is willfully opposed to explicitly designing an entire object, where complete intention may be clear. Computation makes way for the designer to transfer intention into the performance of the code, while maintaining a hands-off approach to the outcome of the designed object; a guiltless, naïveté of responsibility in designing, where the wish for the directed object never appears. As computation will only calculate, and never will do anything more, the willful desire for the architectural object remains to be seen.
Destroy all the symbolic attributes accumulated by the linguistic signs, purify the signs to the point of annihilation, articulate their interrelationships on the basis of a complete freedom of relations: these are all operations depending directly on the fundamental law of systematic infraction of the rules, the law on which the avant-garde theory was structured.
It is in any case a fact that the entire modern movement postulates an internal criticism of its own process. And it is also well known that the assumption of the task of criticism on the part of art has always corresponded to an annulment of criticism itself.
An Italian inventor, Enrico Dini, chairman of the company Monolite UK Ltd, has developed a huge three-dimensional printer called D-Shape that can print entire buildings out of sand and an inorganic binder. The printer works by spraying a thin layer of sand followed by a layer of magnesium-based binder from hundreds of nozzles on its underside. The glue turns the sand to solid stone, which is built up layer by layer from the bottom up to form a sculpture, or a sandstone building.
The D-shape printer can create a building four times faster than it could be built by conventional means, and reduces the cost to half or less. There is little waste, which is better for the environment, and it can easily “print” curved structures that are difficult and expensive to build by other means. Dini is proving the technology by creating a nine cubic meter pavilion for a roundabout in the town of Pontedera.
The printer can be moved along horizontal beams and four vertical columns, and the printer head is raised by only 5-10 mm for each new layer. The printer is driven by a computer running CAD software and prints at a resolution of 25 dpi (dots per inch). The completed material resembles marble, is stronger than concrete, and does not need iron reinforcing. The printing process can successfully create internal curves, partitions, ducting, and hollow columns.
Dini also has lunar plans for the D-shape, and is in discussions with La Scuola Normale Superiore, Norman Foster (a UK architecture firm), and Alta Space, as part of the Aurora program run by the European Space Agency (ESA), to build a modified D-Shape that could use lunar regolith (moon dust) to build a moon base. Dini will carry out trials in a vacuum chamber at Alta Space’s facility in Pisa to ensure the process is possible in a low-atmosphere environment such as the moon.
Dini said his ultimate dream is to complete Guidi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which has been under construction since 1882 and which is not expected to be completed until 2026 at the earliest.
Another example of where we have seen the conundrum of architecture mating with mass-produced technology:
Early in Victor Hugo‘s novel of medieval Paris, Notre Dame de Paris, the antagonist, Claude Frollo, utters a terrifying line. He directs the eyes of two visitors from a book on his desk to the massive silhouette of Notre Dame cathedral beyond his door, Frollo then announces: “Ceci Tuera Cela” (This will kill that).
“That” is the cathedral, “this” is the machine that produced the book on his desk: the printing press. “Small things overcome great ones,” Frollo laments, “the book will kill the building.”
For Frollo — or, rather, Hugo — the history of architecture is the history of writing. Before the printing press, mankind communicated through architecture. From Stonehenge to the Parthenon, alphabets were inscribed in “books of stone.” Rows of stones were sentences, Hugo insists, while Greek columns were “hieroglyphs” pregnant with meaning.
The language of architecture climaxes in the Gothic cathedral. For centuries, Hugo asserts, priests had controlled society, and thus architecture: the squat lines of Romanesque cathedrals reflect this oppressive dogmatism. But, by the High Middle Ages, the Gothic cathedral liberates man’s spirit. Poets, in the guise of architects, gave flight to their thoughts and aspirations, in flying buttresses and towering spires.
In this (admittedly) potted history of the West, the cathedral, this Goliath, inevitably falls to the David of moveable type, the book. By 1832, the year he published his novel, Hugo believed architecture had reached an impasse: architects had nothing new to say. This artistic bankruptcy was revealed in the profusion of movements that toyed with earlier styles: neo-classicism, neo-Byzantine, neo-this, neo-that. Architecture was dead, but architects hadn’t yet heard the news.
Except for one: Henri Labrouste. Labrouste was still a young man building a reputation when he read Hugo. It was an epiphany — one embodied in Labrouste’s first great commission: the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. The library’s lines are sharp and free of ornamentation: it refuses the slightest of nods to past styles. It is a machine for reading in which function alone determines its shape. Labrouste drives home the point by engraving the names of dozens of great thinkers on the exterior walls. Ornamentation? Hardly: instead, it is an enormous card catalogue: on the other side, books by these very same authors were to be shelved.
How ironic that these writers, responsible for digging architecture’s grave, would be so honored by an architect. And perhaps it is even more ironic that the library lies in the shadow of the Pantheon, the French Republic’s Hall of Fame. Hugo detested this neo-classical pile: a “great sponge cake,” he called it. Yet in 1885, the great man was buried there. Perhaps we should just call it a machine for commemoration.
Similarly, see this, if you need new body parts, that is.
Via BBC, by Vivienne Parry:
The mad heroines of classic Victorian fiction have long been objects of fascination.
The violent and feral Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, the mysterious Woman in White whose escape from an asylum begins Wilkie Collins’s gripping thriller, and the terminally delusional Emma in Madame Bovary.
But were they really mad? Would we today recognise them as mentally ill or were our heroines merely misunderstood, not to mention a tad inconvenient?
For Radio 4 documentary, Madwomen in the Attic, medical historians, psychiatrists and literary specialists gave their diagnoses of our troubled heroines.
The picture of Mrs Rochester on all fours, baying at the moon, manic laughter ringing through the house, sadly still defines our notions of madness today.
Yet even when Jane Eyre was published in 1847, Charlotte Bronte was criticised for her portrait of insanity.
But Charlotte’s brother Branwell was an opium-addicted alcoholic, subject to severe depression.
“While she was writing Jane Eyre downstairs,” says Anne Dinsdale, archivist at the Haworth Parsonage – where the Bronte family lived – “Branwell would have been raving in the bedroom on the second floor, where he had been confined because he was a danger.
“He even set the bed on fire.”
Bertha Rochester does the same in Jane Eyre.
“We have a letter from Charlotte to her publisher,” says Anne, “in which she answered her critics saying that ‘the character is shocking but all too natural’.”
“Bertha is the embodiment of the monstrous lunatic who requires restraint,” says historian of madness, Catherine Arnold.
At the time, mental illness was regarded with shame and as evidence of familial “taint”.
Even though asylums were available, secrecy was better served by keeping the sufferer confined at home, as Rochester (and the Brontes) did.
There has been much speculation about the first Mrs Rochester’s madness.
Notions of female insanity in the 1850s included “unrestrained behaviour,” often merely Victorian-speak for female sexuality.
“Attics are where wives who cannot be contained, who are over-sexualised and unruly are stored away,” says writer and psychotherapist, Adam Phillips.
And would not anyone have then gone mad, locked up in an attic with gin-sodden Grace Poole?
But Dinesh Bhugra, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, recognises a clear description of schizophrenia in Jane Eyre.
“You can rule out manic depression as there is no evidence of a mood disorder, just a chronic deteriorating condition.”
By the time Wilkie Collins wrote Woman in White in 1860, there were many private and public asylums, including the long established Bethlem Hospital (from which we get the word Bedlam), now the Imperial War Museum.
The plot of Woman in White sounds far-fetched – wicked aristocrat Sir Percival Glyde, aided by sinister Count Fosco, plans elaborate asylum switch of sane woman (his rich wife Laura) for madwoman (the nothing-but-white wearing Anne Catherick) in order to get his hands on a fortune.
But it was based on a real-life case, that of millionaire novelist and MP Bulwer Lytton who had his wife Rosina carted off to an asylum when she began to criticise him in public.
She was released only after a public appeal.
“If a man wanted to get rid of his wife, he would simply get two doctors to certify her and lock her up,” says John Sutherland, Emeritus professor of English Literature at University College London.
“It’s what Dickens himself did when his wife kicked up a fuss at his affair.”
But what about the “madwoman”, Anne Catherick?
“They talk about her as being feeble-minded as a child and that she’d grow out of it – so perhaps a learning disability as we understand it,” says Dinesh Bhugra.
“An asylum wasn’t necessary.”
Meanwhile he points out that there are a number of plainly certifiable mad-men in Woman in White.
The psychopath Fosco, for instance, or the obsessive compulsive Mr Fairlie. They are admired, not incarcerated.
In the 19th Century women were thought to be intrinsically mad by virtue of their femaleness, which made them vulnerable, and women outnumbered men in Victorian asylums almost two to one.
If Jane Eyre looks back to an almost medieval view of madness, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary looks forward to the age of Freud and analysis.
Madame Bovary marries a dull, unsuccessful doctor called Charles. She dreams of luxury and romance and after the birth of her daughter, embarks on two ruinous affairs.
A serial fantasist and shopaholic, she gets into a monstrous level of debt.
When there is no way out of her debt, she takes poison and dies. It is a coolly analytic portrait of a woman unravelling.
Flaubert knew of the work of Parisian neurologist Charcot (later to be a mentor of Freud) and of his descriptions of hysteria.
“You could argue that Madame Bovary is a clinical case study,” says Sandra Gilbert, Professor of English at the University of California.
But is Emma mad?
“No she’s not mad, just very frustrated,” says Adam Phillips.
And very, very irritating, perhaps particularly to women readers.
“Men find her fascinating and today there is no doubt she’d be a reality TV star, living out her fantasies and celebrated – not censured – for her dreams.”