All posts filed under: Review

Harold Bloom and Aesthetics in an Age of Piety

Decades ago the literary critic Harold Bloom predicted that a new cultural and historical epoch would emerge in the West, perhaps in the world, determining, to some extent at least, the course of literature in the 21st century. Bloom believed that a new “Theocratic Age” was on the horizon — a moment in which aesthetic values and artistic forms would again be governed by a religious Weltanshauung. Bloom’s prediction must be understood in the context of the global political climate of the post-Cold War age, in which the resurrection not only of religious belief, but of faith-driven life-worlds, godly ways of conceiving morality and politics, were ascendant in North America and the Islamic world. Bloom seems to have believed that Evangelicals, whom he wrote about frequently in his books and essays on American Christianity, would be the dominant force in the West’s most powerful nation (a prediction that from our vantage point of 2016, we can see turned out to be false.) However, his prognosis was correct in a manner in which he may not have …

Music and Language, Cultural Identity and Fame

In this essay I hope to cover all the topics above – an ambitious ask – and suggest why some great composers are forgotten and then revived. In particular there is the mystery of J. S. Bach. Why was Johann Sebastian highly regarded during his lifetime, but only as one good composer among many, then forgotten, and now regarded as one of the great geniuses of all time, ranking with Albert Einstein, Michelangelo and Shakespeare? In 1846 a group of “Ethiopian Serenaders”, including a New Yorker, my great-grandfather John Cragin Rainer, performed for Queen Victoria, their faces painted black and lips white. The jokes were suitably toned down for the royal family. While on tour in the United States Rainer’s forehead was grazed by a bullet from a man in the audience, who presumably thought the black faced minstrels were black. In 1852 he arrived in Sydney from the Californian goldfields with his group, “Rainer’s Original Ethiopian Serenaders”. If his would-be assassin had been a better shot I would not be writing this article now. …

A Memoir from Mesopotamia

A review of The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq by Emma Sky. New York, NY: PublicAffairs (2015), 402 pages. Emma Sky’s memoir of her time in Iraq captivates. Her account, as a British, female, one-time opponent of the Iraq war, deals with how she administered an Iraqi province in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The book documents the years she spent in the country, working closely with the American military — the same organisation she and many like-minded individuals opposed so vigorously in the run up to the war. In the latter role, Sky became associated with what she calls the ‘American tribe’ (despite being a British citizen with little formal guidance from her own government), serving as a political advisor to American officials including Raymond Odierno (‘General O’) and David Petraeus. A great deal of the memoir consists of the realities of administering a newly-liberated nation, with dramatic descriptions of the work the military undertook, the realities of working in a warzone, and interesting dissections – complete with …

Alice in Blunder Land

A review of Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science by Alice Dreger. New York, NY: Penguin (2015), 352 pages. “Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, very gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”¹ Alice Dreger is a bioethicist employed, until very recently, at Northwestern University. The fact that she felt compelled to resign over a point of ethical principle just underscores the points she makes in the book. She has long been a champion of two things. First: that driving spirit in science – the Galilean one – that sees truth as a spiritual goal and raises a middle finger to those that disagree. Second: The just treatment of those typically marginalized and ignored because their needs are inconvenient to wider society.² Galileo’s Middle Finger³ is therefore a series of gripping detective stories exploring the various blunders of scientists who did not see what was coming when they published, of pusillanimous bureaucrats terrified of their University brand being tarnished, of the politically over-zealous, …

Happiness by Design – Paul Dolan

When we think about our ‘happiness’ we may think about the goals we have achieved, how much money we have in the bank, or how prestigious our job is. We may not think about our commute to work, our dreary co-workers or the fact that days at the office seem to drag along, uninspiringly. In doing so, Dolan argues, we privilege our evaluative self over the experiential self (Kahneman & Riis, 2005). And this goes a long way in making us less happy than we could be. The tension between these two selves – the evaluative and the experiential – lies at the heart of Happiness by Design. In these pages, Dolan, a self-described ‘sentimental hedonist’, steps up to advocate for the experiential self. A self, he argues, that often does not have a voice. In 2004–2005 Dolan took up an invitation from Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman to be a Visiting Research Scholar at Princeton; a decision, he says, that set him on the path of subjective wellbeing research. Originally trained as an economist, Dolan …