Sunday, 13 December 2009

Lennard Bickel's Shackletons Forgotten Men: The Untold Tale of an Antarctic Tragedy

The heroic age of Antarctic exploration ended with Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition of 1914–1916. And this, no doubt because of the relatively recent film starring Kenneth Branagh, is nowadays probably the best known of the many incredible adventures experienced by the early Antarctic explorers.
Ernest Shackleton took part in Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1901–1904, during which the two men, plus Dr. Edward Wilson, attempted unsuccessfully to reach the South Pole. Shackleton’s physical collapse caused Scott to send him back, invalided on a supply ship, in 1903. The former, however, was far from giving up exploring and returned to Antarctica as leader of the Nimrod expedition in 1907, establishing his base, like Scott before him, on Ross Island. His own bid for the pole would take Scott’s route across the Ross Ice Shelf and would vastly improve on Scott’s southernmost latitude of 82º 17S; it would also lead to the discovery of the 100-mile-long Beardmore Glacier, via which the explorers would be able to reach the Antarctic plateau, access to which in 1902 the Scott team had found blocked by what is now known as the trans-Antarctic mountains. After crossing the ice shelf, however, ascending the 10,000 feet up to the plateau, and sledging hundreds of miles at high-altitude and in conditions of extreme cold and fearsome blizzards, Shackleton, was forced to turn around at 88º 23S, 97 nautical miles short of the South Pole, having ascertained that there was not enough food left to sustain the party on the return journey, even if on starvation rations.

Next to return to the Antarctic was Robert Falcon Scott, who led the Terra Nova expedition of 1910–1913. As I already related in my review of Scott’s fellow expeditioner Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account, The Worst Journey in the World, Scott succeeded in his bid for the South Pole, only to find that he had been beaten by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen (who had reached it a month earlier) and to eventually die, along with the rest of his party, on the Ross Ice Shelf during return journey.

With the South Pole already conquered, there was no great feat left for Shackleton to do but to attempt a crossing of the Southern continent. To this effect he organized the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–1917. This new venture was to consist of two parties: one, led by Shackleton himself, was to sail aboard the Endurance and approach the continent via the Weddell Sea; the other, led by Captain Aeneas Mackintosh, was to sail aboard the Aurora, and land on Ross Island. Shackleton was to lead his party up onto the plateau, through to the South Pole, down the Beardmore Glacier, across the Ross Ice Shelf, and right through to Mackintosh’s base on Ross Island. Mackintosh, on the other hand, was to lead a team across the Ross Ice Shelf, laying supply depots to support the latter stages of Shackleton’s march, at regular intervals, all the way to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier.

This was to be accomplished in an era when there were no radio or satellite communications and where there was no possibility of an air rescue or re-supply. Each party was to accomplish its mission in the expectation that the other party would do their part, but without any way of knowing whether they were still alive and without any means of contacting civilization.

Lennard Bickell’s book tells the harrowing and mostly unknown story of the Ross Sea Party.

The Aurora reached Ross Island early in 1915, during the Austral Summer (Northerners should remember that seasons are reversed in the Southern hemisphere). Mackintosh decided to set up in Cave Evans. Cape Evans is some 13 miles North of Hut Point, where Scott’s Discovery hut is situated, and where there the snow slopes provide easiest access to the Ross Ice Shelf (or Barrier, as it was known back then, since it ends in a sheer, sea-facing cliff some 150 feet high). Shackleton, however, had forbidden mooring the boat any further South than the Glacier Point, aware that when the Discovery did so some 14 years earlier the sea froze the ship in, and rendered it immovable, for two years. Scott’s Terra Nova hut was to be used, and, accordingly, the dogs, some coal, and minimal supplies were brought ashore; but the Aurora was intended to remain the main base of operations.

Mackintosh, unaware that Shackleton was not planning to attempt the crossing until the following year (the cable that was to inform Mackintosh was never sent), and thinking it conceivable that Shackleton might attempt the Antarctic crossing that same season, ordered the laying of depots to begin immediately. At the very least, two depots were to be laid: one at the Minna Bluff (at 79º S) and another at 80º S. Mackintosh was impetuous and lacked experience on the ice, so the depot laying began without allowing the dogs to acclimatize and at a grueling pace; the operation was beset with problems and imperfect organization. As a result, the 80º S depot ended up incomplete and, after two months, the party returned to Hut Point frostbitten, exhausted, and demoralized, having worked to death all the dogs that they had taken with them.
The route back to Cape Evans involved crossing the sea ice, but, due to the seasonal thinness of the latter, the party was forced to remain at Hut Point, living in Spartan conditions and with inadequate supplies, until deep into the Winter (June). When they finally were able to return to Cape Evans, they found that the Aurora had been blown away in a blizzard, and was presumably lost with all hands. Along with it went their scientific equipment, clothing, soap, sledging gear, and food supplies. The remains of the Ross Sea Party thus found themselves marooned in the Antarctic, and facing a minimum of two years on the ice, without food, fuel, or adequate supplies, before any possible rescue.
Knowing that Shackleton’s party depended on them, Mackintosh ordered the depot laying mission to go ahead regardless. To this effect, the men plundered all the huts, looking for whatever supplies had been left behind from the previous three expeditions. This amounted to very little: 15-year-old dog biscuits, a few tins here and there, and a few items of old, used, battered, discarded gear. To survive, it was concluded, they would have to rely of seals for both food and fuel; and they would have to use available materials to improvise extra clothing.

What follows in the book is a horrific account of the 1,200-mile depot-laying journey across the world’s largest ice shelf — and the world’s most inhospitable terrain. For most people a 12-mile walk is considered very long, even in good weather, when well fed, sufficiently hydrated, and adequately attired. Imagine, then, doing that a hundred times over, while pulling 200-pound sledges across rugged and sticky surfaces, sinking up to your waist in snow, at temperatures of 60 or more degrees of frost, beset by freezing winds and blizzards, on starvation rations (consisting of months-old meat and biscuits every day, for every meal), wearing threadbare and ragged clothing, with painfully frostbitten hands and face, sleeping in bags that have frozen solid, unable to bathe, shaking violently with cold every night, having to defecate into a hole in the ice inside a freezing tent, and, eventually, with a severe case of scurvy, without access to medicine, analgesics, or fresh food. Consider that at –4º F (-20º C) , boiling water freezes instantly if thrown up in the air; –4º F was considered a warm day for the old Antarctic explorers. If you think this is bad, this is just the beginning.

Page after page, the situation for the depot-laying party gets worse and worse, ever grimmer and more desperate; wasting away, excruciatingly cold, in agonizing pain, clinically depressed, drained of vitality, sick, and with no option but to carry on pulling for hundreds of miles, one cannot help but shake one’s head in wonder every five or so pages, as the men are hit by new and ever-more-horrible setbacks and are forced to brave the most unimaginable conditions. This is truly grim and brutal reading.

And things do not end there, because, although all minus one of the men eventually manage to crawl back to Hut Point, they, by then little more than wide-eyed wraiths, skin and bones, with beards down to their chests and hair down to their shoulders and gums swollen out of their mouths and blistered skin as black as coal, then are forced to winter in what was little more than a bare cupboard, or drafty shed, battered by blizzards and eking a troglodytic existence by eating seals and heating themselves with a grimy, fuliginous, pungent blubber stove that was barely able to keep their living space above freezing within a one-foot radius. This, without any idea of whether they would ever be rescued – or whether Shackleton had survived the trans-Antarctic crossing; without any idea, in fact, of what was happening at all, except that there was a war going on in Europe and that rescue operations to remote Antarctica would probably not be a priority.
To find out how it all ends, you will have to read the book.

But one thing that is clear when reading these chronicles of the early Antarctic explorers is that, whatever their faults, it is clear from their behavior and their speech that the citizens of the British Empire had a clearer sense themselves and their place in the world than their modern counterparts do today. Moreover, they seem much harder, on average, than our coevals: despite the numerous reverses, and despite having, at times, fierce disagreements on how to proceed given their circumstances, it is evident from the narrative that civility, mutual respect, and a sense of responsibility were always maintained. The narrative does not suggest at any point that there was ever any panic, hysterics, back-stabbing, or selfish dog-eat-dog behavior, like that which we see so often and so convincingly depicted in modern films. There was a mission here, and, despite the extreme adversity and zero external support, it was accomplished. The depots were laid.

Compare and contrast what you read here against what you see in the 2006 BBC reality series Blizzard: Race to the Pole with Bruce Parry (of Tribe and Amazon fame), where a team of modern explorers attempt to replicate (in Greenland) Robert Falcon’s Scott march to the South Pole – and fail, despite shortcuts, modern gear, and comparatively benign conditions. In the end, it did not matter that the extreme suffering of Mackintosh’s men (and the deaths of three of them) was in vain (Shackleton never made it): as one of the survivors remarked years afterwards, it showed what white men can accomplish, even with everything going against them.

I must point out that Lennard Bickel’s prose has some shortcomings: I would personally punctuate more than he does, and his rhythm can be, at times, awkward. However, he is sufficiently adept at conjuring the bleak atmosphere and evoking the desperateness of the plight of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expeditions’ Ross Sea party to overcome said shortcomings: the reader is sucked into the white-knuckle tale almost instantly, and the book is difficult to put down. Even if you never thought of reading about early 20th century Antarctic exploration, you may well find yourself craving for more after this tome.

Certainly, there is much we can learn from the great British exploits in the white continent at a time when the Empire was at its zenith. And one can easily see, when reading accounts such as Bickell’s and Cherry’s, why a certain German chancellor whom I will not name held the British Empire and the British in as high regard as he did.

Read my review of The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, another true story of Antarctic exploration, here.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Africa: Postal Addresses and Age

Postal Addresses:

These are two interesting articles by African journalists, which show to what degree priorities are different in their part of the world, when compared to ours.

Firstly, it seems addresses are not all that important in certain parts of Africa. Despite regulatory efforts to name streets and number houses, many remain unnamed and unnumbered. Maps seem rare. Hence, it is difficult, if not impossible in some cases, to get an address; and proofs of address can, at times, also be red herrings. In Ghana, if you want directions, you will be told what turns to take and what landmarks to notice. And if you want to receive post, you have to go to a post office.

Secondly, it also seems age is a matter of guesswork and expedience, as people are not very meticulous when it comes to keeping a records of births and deaths, despite regulatory efforts to that effect. In some countries, less than 40% of births and less than 20% of deaths are recorded.

The conclusion seems to be that in certain parts of Africa people are not too worried about measuring things exactly and recording them precisely, consistently, and reliably. In this they seem to differ fundamentally to Europeans, who are all about exact measurements and precise, consistent, and reliable records.

Ideas of international development seek a convergence of 'developing' countries with the West's techno-industrial model of society. It would seem to me that this is a Quixotic pursuit, as it does not take into account the unique features of other cultures, and assumes that lack of development is necessarily a bad thing; in some ways, this is a form of imperialism, derived from a Eurocentric worldview. Yet, the political leadership in many African countries does embrace this imperialism, out of a mixture of need (for Western money) and desire (for Western standards of living).

Monday, 30 November 2009

The Art of Jonathan Bowden, volume 1, 1980 – 2007

The Art of Jonathan Bowden, volume 1, 1980 – 2007
Jonathan Bowden
London: The Spinning Top Club, 2007

The first time my wife saw Jonathan Bowden’s art she thought he was insane. I had some days before attended a meeting where he spoke about the German filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and his epic, 7-hour production Hitler: A Film from Germany. Due to engineering work on the railway network, I arrived late, in the midst of Lady Michele Renouf’s talk about freedom of speech, the Lisbon Treaty, and the European Constitution. At this time Bowden, who was due to speak next, was leaning on a windowsill, facing the audience. Clad in suit and tie, sporting a wooden pendant carved with a rune, and a pair of small, bottle-bottom spectacles, he stood there with a head of curly hair, arms crossed, and eyes closed, deep in thought. The room was hot, pre-Victorian, crammed to capacity with angry middle-aged men, compressed into tightly packed rows of hard coccyx-crunching chairs–stewing in their fury against the modern world.
As I sat down, a man in the front row, who had already asked a question, asked another. Bowden leapt like an attack dog and forcefully silenced the inquisitor. ‘Questions at the end, please!” he shouted. “Authoritarian men won’t have another’s will imposed upon them”, he said on a different occasion. His manner was harsh, loud, serious, unpleasant, overbearing. This is how I knew he was the chairman.
When his turn came to speak, his vast oral cavity exploded with a hurricane of decibels; the thermonuclear shockwave of intellectual verbiage swept over the heads of the congregated audience, stunning it into paralyzed silence. Bowden turned his head left, then right, then left, then right, his eyes closed, gesticulating, baring his teeth, roaring like a lion. Even if there was anyone present who did not understand his erudite diction, everyone knew where it was coming from: a place of Nietzschean ferocity, Doric hardness, primal purpose, pagan pride, ancient darkness, and unquenchable fury. The discharge of energy was inspiring, and motivated me to visit this man’s website.

It found he was a prolific writer and an artist with an especially rabid style. His paintings, done in acrylic (for speed), are chaotic mosaics of color, intense, expressionistic, and densely crisscrossed with sadistic lines. It is the work of a schizophrenic patient, who labors at night, hunched over his table, pen in fist, his face red, his eyes wide, perspiring, hyperventilating, furiously attacking the paper surface in an paroxysm of uncontrolled hatred and rage. Otherwise it is the work of an obsessive compulsive, who fills vast surfaces with incomprehensible patchworks and patterns that respect no rhyme or reason, who destroys as he creates, who accretes as he annihilates, cackles as he militates. The art is grotesque, primordial, and rudely contemptuous of bourgeois expectations. It is filled with ghoulish faces, deformity, evil, psychotic stares, lascivious leers, nightmarish sarcasm, and human monstrosity. The portraits offer nothing but a demonic freak show. Where there are women, the images are not flattering: they are obscene, vulgar, violently sexual. This is no derivation from the Classicist figurative tradition: when one looks at Bowden’s art one thinks of Marvel comic strips, blended with Edvard Munch, Otto Dix, and Jackson Pollock.
Jonathan Bowden
Bowden’s art is modern, or modernist, but he argues that it is no longer so, for what we class as “modern” art has already been around for well over a hundred years. This is obviously true, but all the same it enrages, perplexes, and horrifies some in Bowden’s political constituency: indeed, some years ago, he was vigorously attacked by a number of anonymous posters in Stormfront, in a manner that he later described as “semi-literate and scatological.” But while for some Bowden’s creations are another example of entartete Kunst, others rate it highly; views on its merits are polarized. In a subsequent response to his critics, Bowden wrote:
Once a classic early photographer like Edward Muybridge produced an interconnected series of images featuring Greco-Roman wrestlers and running horses, the world was forever changed. Fine art now had a choice–it either replicated photography badly or in a stylized way which was loyal to a tradition running from Rembrandt to Orpen or it contrived to do something else. What it did was to go inside the mind and tap all sorts of semi-conscious and unconscious ideas, fantasies, desires and imaginative forays. The point about this art is that it is highly personal and powerful because it comes from inside. This means that people often of a highly rigid and morally defensive character find this work heretical, blasphemous, evil and even degenerate. (Indeed the theory of degenerate art originates from the 1880’s when this change of direction took place).
He explained that “representational, classical, traditional and academic work has been taken over by cinema,” and that he sees the failure of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union to prevent painters and sculptors from producing modernist work as a confirmation of the dynamism of the modernist current. He added:
Turning to my own work, various currents are discernible. These are the demonic, strength and a concern with pure power, ugliness and fury as well as erotica and shape, or purely imaginative formulations. In my own mind the softer material balances the harsher, more violent and aggressive work. Nonetheless, I have also done a large number of relatively traditional pieces which hark back to classic art by Bosch, Rops, and Caravaggio. Some are also based on Hellenistic form. Obviously a subjective element intrudes into art but I believe that modernistic fury is the correct vehicle for elitist and hierarchical values.
Neo-Classic High JinxThe Art of Jonathan Bowden is the first of two volumes, collecting the 47-year-old artist’s work from 1980 to 2007. In total we have 179 paintings and 25 sketches. The pages are black and the text white, which is what works best with artwork of such vibrant colors. Sadly, it is a softcover edition and a few of the images are slightly out of focus.
Sadly also, there is no introduction or biographical essay: one goes from the table of contents straight to the art. The interaction between the latter and the former, however, provides an unexpected source of entertainment that compensates for these deficiencies, as it proves quite rewarding either to look at the title of a painting in the index and then find the corresponding painting or vice versa.

This is because the titles reflect an obvious, (in Bowden’s own words) “elitist, semi-transcendentalist, hieratic, non-dualist, neo-pagan, ‘politically incorrect’, and inegalitarian” sensibility, and, as Lasha Darkmoon has pointed out in her recent articles for The Occidental Observer, we do not find that very often in the contemporary art world. One cannot read titles like Against Greenpeace, An Apple a Day Keeps Fury at Bay, Depressed Human Reptile, Eugene Sue’s The Eternal Jew, Louisiana Lynching, Flying Vagina Head, Give Me 140 Million Dollars, God Plays with Balls, Happy Hellraiser, I am Disembowelled, Too Many Turkey Twizzlers, and not want to find out what Bowden visualized.

These are, of course, the quirkier titles. Others suggest a number of recurring themes: classical / mythological (Masked Acropolis, Olympia on Blue), demonic (Orange Lucifer, Lycanthropy Now), sexual (Napalm Blonde, Vulvic Head and Ear), fascistic (Adolf & Leni, Mussolini with Bi-Planes), among others.
Artistically unexplored among Bowden’s obsessions are his morbid fear of obesity, for example, and his troglodytic indifference to technology. At a recent event in the United States, I noticed Bowden, who on previous occasions had refused to eat anything at all, dined out of tiny dessert dishes. When questioned on his rather singular temperance, he explained that he comes from the West country, and that people from his part of the world have a tendency to grow sideways.

His worry, however, is wrapped into a certain morbidity of the imagination. At various points he expressed disappointment at the lack of examples of “brontosaurian obesity,” the witnessing of which he had been eagerly anticipating, not without a measure of horrified fascination. Perhaps this is because Bowden, like one Harry Stephen Keeler, appreciates human deformity and freakery of nature: “it adds to the fauna and flora,” he says.

As to his relationship with the electronic marvels of our age, Bowden admits to not owning a CD player, a DVD player, or even a color television; indeed, the communicates with the world via a mobile telephone that must be nearly a decade old–a geological era in technological terms. “I believe in planning your own obsolescence,” he argues.
The Marquis de Sade
I must admit I recognize a bit myself in this rather eccentric character. This is a man who likes extremes, and rushes to them faster than the speed of light the moment an idea is presented to him. Like me, he cartoonifies everything and everybody; he enjoys exaggeration, obscurity, exoticism, rarity, maximal expression–life is a comic strip; he can see humor in even the nadir of the Kali Yuga.

Bowden’s stern appearance (I say he has looked 40 since he was 18) is somewhat deceptive, but his art accurately reflects this personality profile: beneath the hyperchromatic energy there is a gothic sensibility, that is drawn to authors like Edward Bulwer-Lytton, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Bram Stoker–not forgetting the Irishman’s more obscure books–blended with an extroverted theatricality. Suddenly his suit and tie and heavy-soled, skull-crushing footwear and the van filled with corpses are not inconsistencies, but parts of an organic–and partly animalistic, partly inhuman–whole. They are consistent with the orator whose meanest and most gleeful insults are “BBC News reader” and “lib-er-alll!”

The Art of Jonathan Bowden will not please everyone and will not confirm the ordinary man in his beliefs (Bowden does not give a damn), but it is without a doubt interesting for those who revel in psychological extremity and would like an insight into the psyche of this Nietzschean beast.

Note: Many of Jonathan Bowden’s books can be purchased or downloaded for Lulu.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Colin Campbell The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism

Willem Kalf - Still Life

The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism
by Colin Campbell
Alcuin Academics, 2005

As the title immediately suggests, this is meant to be a companion volume to Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In Colin Campbell’s opinion, the latter only told half of the story (that of production), and left unanswered fundamental questions relating to the other half (that of consumption). His aim was, therefore, to complement Weber’s narrative with its logical counterpart and to provide a complete account of the socio-cultural aspects of the modern Western economy with a synthetic super-narrative that explained both its facets of production and consumption. The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism is, needless to say, a hugely ambitious multidisciplinary enterprise, produced by a profound and astute thinker.

According to Campbell, most writing about consumption had hitherto focused on taste and fashion, without explaining where taste and fashion came from or why, and attributing the consumer revolution to simple emulation of the aristocracy by an aspiring middle class, when, in fact, the consumer revolution was a middle class phenomenon, and the two classes were divided by crucial psychological and socio-cultural differences. Another problem has been that Protestantism and Romanticism have been cast as in opposition, while Protestantism was widespread among the middle class. How come the relatively ascetic protestants, and not the profligate aristocracy, were the ones who drove the consumer revolution?
Campbell, Colin - The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism
Campbell’s investigation spends a great deal of time on an excruciatingly detailed unraveling of the protestant system of belief, and uncovers there, rather surprisingly, the origins of modern consumption. To reproduce Campbell’s analysis here in a rigorous manner would be unnecessarily prolix, but suffice it to say that a disillusionment with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination led to a more individualistic, autonomous, and heuristic approach to life choices; that this served as background for the idea of being a man of sentiment; that the “sentimental man,” originally a term that implied a man with the capacity for deep emotion (especially of a pious and sorrowful nature) and thoughtfulness, evolved to mean a deeply emotional man; and that Sentimentalism, as it evolved into Romanticism, accreted notions of daydreaming, fantasy, and individual genius. Consumption, therefore, is the attempt of the consumer to create his own individual reality through daydreaming.

The notion of daydreaming is important, and harmonious with the characterization of the modern consumer we find in Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (2009), which I reviewed this last Summer: modern consumers make significant psychological and emotional investments into consumer products, daydreaming about the kind of lifestyle they would like to have, and therefore of the kind of person they would like to be. This, in the context of the psychological processes triggered by the present historical socio-cultural environment, leads to a cycle of longing and acquisition, where acquisition does not result in satisfaction but in disappointment and continued longing. Thus, even mediocre consumer products are imbued with enormous meaning, and are frequently replaced and/or disacquired once obtained by the consumer, who has by then moved on to continued daydreaming and fixation on yet another product. This fits well with an evolutionary account of consumption, whereby consumer objects are used – sub- or semi-consciously – for purposes of status display along a variety of dimensions (e.g. amiability, stability, conscientiousness, etc.), and whereby consumers engage, accordingly, in deception and self-deception in the effort to define themselves to themselves and to others.
The fact that Campbell’s notion of the daydreaming consumer survives comparison with evolutionist explanations of human behavior suggests that said notion is theoretically sound. This is good news, for the system of objects is not the only realm where the daydreaming occurs: it also occurs in the realm of the system of ideas. Thus, by transposing Campbell’s narrative we can gain a better understanding of how ideas become objects of taste and fashion, and how, irrespective of quality, daydreaming consumers acquire and disacquire them as a result of their longing to be a certain type of person as well as of the ideas in question being emotionally imbued with meaning.

William Pierce’s claim, therefore, that people usually have no opinion of their own, and simply acquire an opinion by looking around to see what others are saying and doing and then selecting the one that is in the majority, was not far from the truth. I would only add that when people look around in search for a ready-made opinion to espouse, they are looking to identify the one that best enhances their self-esteem (their sense of being a good person), according to their temperament, socio-economic status, personal history, and system of belief. Of course, because humans fear ostracism, ego-enhancing opinion often ends up being majority opinion, but this is not always the case: many feel superior in their adoption of contrarian or unconventional views.

I must admit that a t times I found Campbell’s monograph soporific—particularly during the era-long chapter where he waded into the somniferous quicksand of Calvinist theology. This is not to say that Campbell’s prose is difficult: it is, simply, dull, clumsy, desiccated, and occasionally pleonastic—the opposite what is needed when dealing with as coma-inducing a topic as the obscure nuances of Christian theology. Worse: the book has been printed using a tiny, compressed font, which makes each line lightyears long and each page seem like a deep pond of turgid sludge, exhausting to the reader before he even begins, and as unpromising of any joy as the front cover. The unfortunate result is a reluctance on my part to relive it all over again with a blow-by-blow explication of its theoretical and argumentative subtleties. The mere thought of it makes me anxious, because it would mean diving back into that feculent prose in search for detail. I am forced, therefore, to disappoint readers looking for more than a general summary. Then again, such readers should not rely on a review, but put in the effort themselves.

That said, t here is no question that this is an accomplished effort at a theoretical level, and, to my mind, Campbell cleverly and successfully reconciles the Protestant ethic with its Romantic counterpart, as well as the parallel processes of production and consumption in modern society, in a fashion that also seems to answer the questions that had been ignored, or left unanswered, by previous writers.

Yet to me this is not the end of the journey, for Campbell, like Weber before him, only deals with the socio-cultural aspects of consumption, while Man is also a biological entity, which means that the morphology of society and culture has more than an intellectual dimension. With Spent Geoffrey Miller did a better job at integrating the socio-cultural consequences of biology into his evolutionist account, but it was light on the socio-cultural side and his book lacks the depth of Campbell’s study. (To be fair, however, Spent was aimed at a popular audience whereas The Romantic Ethic . . . was aimed at a more academic audience.) To have a complete understanding of consumption, its socio-cultural and its biological sides need to be theoretically synthesised. I am not aware of whether this synthesis has occurred or been consciously attempted.

I would recommend this book only to those who both have an active interest in consumption and are adept at a highly creative synthesis and application of theoretical knowledge.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World


Apsley Cherry-Garrard The Worst Journey in the World
N.Y.: Doran ; London : Constable & Company Ltd., 1922 

I remember watching the 1948 film Scott Of The Antarctic at some point in the early 1990s and marveling both at its grimness and the sheer Englishness of its sensibilities. The film dramatizes Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s successful but ultimately tragic South Polar Journey, undertaken in 1911 during his Terra Nova Expedition of 1910 – 1913, and draws from both Scott's Last Expedition and the present volume, as well as from the photographs taken by fellow expeditioner, Herbert Ponting. Produced in Britain by Ealing Studios, it is a film well of its time, providing a study in the quintessentially English stiff upper lip. It is also one of the very few films I have voluntarily watched more than once, without regrets.

If the film was good, however, Cherry’s account of the full expedition, of which the Polar journey was only a part, is even better, and it is easy to see why it is considered to be the best travel book ever written. Initially commissioned to serve as the official account of the expedition — tediously detailing time tables, rations, duties, etc. — the author soon decided to create a personalized account and exploration of the experience, which was finally published in 1922.

Cherry was the youngest member of the expedition, which he joined (just) in the capacity of “assistant zoologist”, without specialist’s credentials — but also a talented writer and a thoughtful man of fundamentally conservative sensibilities. What makes this book particularly poignant, however, is the fate of the expedition’s leader, Robert Scott. Scott, a captain in the Royal Navy, had been to the Antarctic once before during his Discovery Expedition (1901 – 1904), which was headquartered at Hut Point, in McMurdo Sound, Ross Island (the modern McMurdo Base, controlled by the United States, and the largest in the continent, is located nearby). One of his fellow explorers from that expedition was Ernest Shackleton, who was sent home early on health grounds only to return in 1907 as leader of the Nimrod Expedition, as which he established a Farthest South latitude on his attempt to reach the South Pole in 1909 (he was forced to turn around 97 geographical miles from the Pole when he realized that there would not be enough food, otherwise, to survive the return journey).

Among Scott’s aims in the subsequent Terra Nova expedition was to reach the South Pole, although this was not his sole purpose, but rather the bait with which he sought to attract the required funding: the Terra Nova expedition was primarily a scientific one, and therefore quite unlike that of Scott’s rival, Roald Amundsen, which was geared purely—and brilliantly—as a race. Scott and his team (16 men all told, equipped with sledges, ponies, and motor cars) departed on 1 November 1911—the earliest his Siberian ponies could set out, due to the cold temperatures. The plan was to cross the Barrier (now known as the Ross Ice Shelf), ascend to the plateau via the Beardmore Glacier (discovered by Shackleton), and head South, laying depots with provisions along the way, and gradually sending back the men, until reaching 87° S latitude; from them on it was to be Scott leading a team of four, manhauling all the way to the South Pole. At the last minute, however, Scott decided to take five men. This posed a logistical problem, obviously, as the rations, the depots, the tent, etc., had been designed for four. Yet the reorganization proved not insuperable, and when last seen by the last homeward-bound party, Scott and his men—Wilson, Oates, Evans, and Bowers, the latter without skis—were in good shape, making fast progress, and with sufficient food to take them all to the South Pole and back on full rations.

But then, as Cherry tells us, “something happened,” and Scott’s team began to go downhill. Surface conditions on the plateau proved worse than expected, with sastrugi and ice crystals making sledge pulling extremely difficult. Temperatures were also considerably lower than anticipated, with strong crystal-bearded winds blowing in their faces all the way to the Pole. Evans acquired a hand injury while building a new sledge at the One and a Half Degree Depot, and began mentally to deteriorate and become easily frostbitten in the hands and face. Oates, silently bothered by a knee injury acquired during the Boer War, also began feeling the cold, eventually getting a frostbitten foot. Then the season broke earlier than expected on the Barrier, where Scott’s party encountered extremely cold temperatures and bad blizzards on their way back from the Pole. And finally, although unbeknownst to them, the party’s calorie input (circa 4,000 calories) was well below what it ought to have been (circa 6,000-8,000), despite being on full or more than full rations for most of the way: the men were starving, losing weight rapidly, and becoming progressively weaker and more vulnerable to the cold and frostbites. Evans eventually collapsed at the foot of the Beardmore Glacier on the return journey, and Oates, with a frozen foot, eventually decided to sacrifice himself to save his companions by walking into a blizzard (“I am just going outside now. I may be some time”). But the three remaining men, cold and starving, were unable to achieve the expected mileage, and, their condition steadily deteriorating, were eventually halted 11 miles from the One Ton Depot by an unrelenting blizzard that lasted for more than 9 days — longer than they had food and fuel for. All three died on 29 – 30 March 1912, having walked for 5 months and covered a distance of 1,800 miles. It was their diary — especially Scott’s — that told the tale when their tent was found by the Search Party once the Antarctic Summer returned in November that year.
Contrary to the criticism that eventually flared in the 1970s, Cherry believed that little else could have been done by Scott or for Scott, given what was known at the time. The tale of this journey, therefore, is one of endurance and hardihood in the face of a string of disasters, and it is difficult to resist not being moved by this fine example of heroic tragedy. Indeed, Scott’s death was mourned across the British Empire when the news broke in 1913, whenceupon he was immediately elevated to the status of a hero. It never mattered that Scott was beaten to the Pole by Amundsen, who, as Scott’s Polar party found upon their arrival, had conquered it a month earlier.

The South Polar Journey, however, was not the worst journey in the world: the worst journey in the world was the Winter Journey undertaken by Cherry, Bowers, and the party’s leader, Dr. Edward “Bill” Wilson, in June 1911. The purpose of the Winter Journey was to go to Cape Crozier and collect Emperor penguin eggs: at the time, it was believed these penguins were primitive birds and Wilson was interested in studying their embryology. The journey involved sledging on the ice for weeks in complete darkness, with temperatures as low as -77.5° F. Cherry tells how touching metal at such temperatures caused instant frostbite; how it would take them an hour of thumping and shoving to get inside their frozen sleeping bags; how he would shiver inside his until he thought his spine would break; how clothes would freeze instantly, and therefore had to be frozen into a pulling position when stepping out of the tent in the “morning”; how the division of night and day eventually became meaningless in the months-long Antarctic night, and they eventually abandoned the 24-hour clock; how their tent was blown off by a blizzard and they had to lay the latter out in an igloo for several days, without food (they eventually recovered the tent); how all his teeth eventually cracked, due to the freezing cold; how their diet consisted of just pemmican, butter, biscuits, and tea; how he could not wear his glasses due to the extreme cold; how they consumed 80% of their fuel on the outward journey and had to do almost without on the way back; and so on. It is a harrowing tale. Eventually, however, they succeeded in reaching cape Crozier and returning to their Winter quarters with the eggs, five weeks later, although barely alive.

Cherry’s account reads in parts like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, with digressions about penguins, seals, nutrition, sledge design, and the constitution of the ideal Antarctic sledger. The most interesting digressions, however, are those where we are given a physical and psychological profile of the most important members of the expedition, and where we are given glimpses of life at Winter quarters: they were all scientists or otherwise specialists, with access to books and combined experience in all parts of the world, so there were often fierce discussions (they called them “cags”). Although the author famously asserts that “[p]olar exploration is the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time that has ever been devised,” he makes it clear, writing years after the event, that, on the whole, he also had many a good time: the explorers lived an extraordinarily hard life—three years with no running water, no fresh fruit or vegetables, no women; hard bedding, fuliginous huts, intense physical labor, extreme isolation, once-a-year correspondence, and so on—but there was a sense of purpose, a sense of camaraderie, and the sense that they were setting foot in places, and seeing sights, never before seen or known. The author nearly lost his life, and he certainly lost his heath, vitality, and peace of mind, but his narrative—grim and terrifying as it is at times—is often nostalgic.

In this latter sense, I am half reminded of Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, where the latter author recounts his gruesome experiences in the Great War, not with the sarcastic disenchantment that afflicted his contemporary, Otto Dix, following service in that conflict, but rather nostalgically, portraying war, even, as a spiritual inner experience. Cherry, Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers, and the others, were men of a different standard to what we are used today: the frequent and extensive excerpts Cherry inserts from Scott’s, Wilson’s, Bowers’, Lashley’s, and his own diary, show them as having the same feelings, emotions, worries, and preoccupations that we do, only without the propensity to exaggerate and complain that has become the hallmark of modern Western man. These gentlemen faced adversity with stoicism and courage, overcame their own weaknesses through self-confidence and sheer force of will, and their narratives are, accordingly, studies in understatement. Cherry reminds us on several occasions that circumstances were considerably worse than the ever-cheerful Bowers, the scientifically detached Wilson, or even the depressive Scott allowed. These were not men prone to apologizing for themselves, eluding responsibility, or throwing in the towel at the first sign of difficulty: Scott and his companions in the South Polar Journey knew that they would ultimately not pull through for quite some time before they met their bitter end on the blizzing Ice Barrier, yet they still carried on, determined to “fight it out until the last biscuit”. It might be that these were self-selecting qualities, ubiquitous by virtue of these gentlemen’s being all Antarctic explorers with a military background, but how often do you encounter that spirit today?

In the final analysis, of course, Cherry concludes that the expedition ought to have enjoyed greater institutional support. While the funding of the Discovery Expedition was handled by the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society, despite obtaining a government grant for half the costs, for the Terra Nova Expedition Scott was forced to court private investors and to rely on sympathetic firms to provide the supplies. Cherry objected to this — particularly as the Terra Nova, the boat purchased by Scott to take his expedition to the Antarctic, was clunker, bought at a discount, horrible for the dogs and the ponies, and apparently not even fit for sailing. Cherry also thought the expedition ended up lasting far too long — then again, the final year was unplanned and a consequence of the failure of Scott’s Polar party to return. Ultimately, he asks whether the extreme suffering of this expedition was futile: the collection of the Emperor penguin eggs was, after all, Dr. Wilson’s main interest in the expedition, and yet, upon returning to England, the embryologists at the Natural History Museum exhibited a shocking indifference and scientists found that the eggs added little to existing scientific knowledge.

For a book that is nearly 700 pages in length (including a substantial introduction) I made my way through it like a knife through butter. I have not enjoyed a book as much as I have enjoyed this one in a very long time, and I thoroughly recommend it, even if you are not interested in Antarctic exploration. Despite its being a haunted explorer’s account of a rather grim adventure, there is great beauty in it, with extraordinary characters and inspiring feats of superhuman endurance, courage, generosity, and heroism, accomplished in the most inhospitable environment on Earth. Most importantly, perhaps, it is a reminder of how we were and what we achieved, before it all went so horribly wrong following the Great War and World War II. Let us look at the past here and see how we can re-invent our future.

Note: For extensive photos from the British Antarctic Expedition, click here.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Geoffrey Miller's Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior
Geoffrey Miller
New York: Viking, 2009

When I was asked to review this book, I half groaned because I was sure of what to expect and I also knew it was not going to broaden my knowledge in a significant way. From my earlier reading up on other, but tangentially related subject areas (e.g., advertising), I already knew, and it seemed more than obvious to me, that consumer behavior had an evolutionary basis. Therefore, I expected this book would not make me look at the world in an entirely different way, but, rather, would reaffirm, maybe clarify, and hopefully deepen by a micron or two, my existing knowledge on the topic. The book is written for a popular audience, so my expectations were met. Fortunately, however, reading it proved not to be a chore: the style is very readable, the information is well-organized, and there are a number of unexpected surprises along the way to keep the reader engaged.
Miller, Geoffrey - Spent
Coming from a humanities educational background, I was familiar with Jean Baudrillard’s treatment of consumerism through his early works: The System of Objects (Radical Thinkers) (1968), The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (1970), and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972). Baudrillard believed that there were four ways an object acquired value: through its functional value (similar to the Marxian use-value); through its exchange, or economic value; through its symbolic value (the object’s relationship to a subject, or individual, such as an engagement ring to a young lady or a medal to an Olympic athlete); and, finally, through its sign value (the object’s value within a system of objects, whereby a Montblanc fountain-pen may signify higher socioeconomic status than a Bic ball-pen, or a Fair Trade organic chicken may signify certain social values in relation to a chicken that has been intensively farmed). Baudrillard focused most of his energy on the latter forms of value. Writing at the juncture between evolutionary psychology and marketing, Geoffrey Miller (an evolutionary psychologist) does the same here, except from a purely biological perspective.

The are three core ideas in Spent: firstly, conspicuous consumption is essentially a narcissistic process being used by humans to signal their biological fitness to others while also pleasuring themselves; secondly, this processes is unreliable, as humans cheat by broadcasting fraudulent signals in an effort to flatter themselves and achieve higher social status; and thirdly, this process is also inefficient, as the need for continuous economic growth has led capitalists since the 1950s to manufacture products with built-in obsolescence, thus fueling a wasteful process of continuous substandard production and continuous consumption and rubbish generation. In other words, we live in a world where insatiable and amoral capitalists constantly make flimsy products with ever-changing designs and ever-higher specifications so that they break quickly and/or cause embarrassment after a year, and humans, motivated by primordial mating and hedonistic urges that have evolved biological bases, are thus compelled to frequently replace their consumer goods with newer and better models—usually the most expensive ones they can afford—so that they can delude themselves and others into thinking that they are higher-quality humans than they really are.

Miller tells us that levels of fitness are advertised by humans along six independent dimensions, comprised of general intelligence, and the five dimensions that define the human personality: openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability, and extraversion. Extending or drawing from theories expounded by Thorstein Veblen and Amotz Zahavi (the latter’s are not mainstream), Miller also tells us that, because fraudulent fitness signaling is part and parcel of animal behavior, humans, like other animals, will attempt to prove the authenticity of their signals by making their signaling a costly endeavor that is beyond the means of a faker. Signaling can be rendered costly through its being conspicuously wasteful (getting an MA at Oxford), conspicuously precise (getting an MIT PhD), or a conspicuous badge of reputation (getting a Harvard MBA) that requires effort to achieve, is difficult to maintain, and entails severe punishment if forged. Miller attempts to highlight the degree to which these strategies are wasteful when he points out that, in as much as university credentials are a proxy for general intelligence, both job seekers and prospective employers could much more efficiently determine a job seeker’s general intelligence with a simple, quick, and cheap IQ test.

As expected, we are told here that signaling behavior becomes, according to experimental data, exaggerated when humans are what Miller calls “mating-primed” (on the pull). Also as expected, men and women exhibit different proclivities: males emphasizing aggression and openness to experience by performing impressive and unexpected feats in front of desirable females, and females emphasizing agreeableness through participation in, for example, charitable events. And again as expected, Miller tells us that while dumb, young humans engaging in fitness signaling will tend to emphasize body-enhancing consumption (e.g., breast implants, muscle-building powders, platform shoes), older, more intelligent humans, educated by experience on the futility of such strategies, instead emphasize their general intelligence, conscientiousness, and stability through effective maintenance of their appearance, via regular exercise, sensible diet, careful grooming, and tasteful fashion. Still, this strategy follows biologically-determined patters: as women’s physiognomic indicators of fertility (eye size; sclera whiteness; lip coloration, fullness, and eversion; breast size; etc.) peak in their mid twenties, older women will apply make-up and opt for sartorial strategies that compensate for the progressive fading of these traits, in a subconscious effort to indicate genetic quality and stability, as well as—as mentioned above—conscientiousness.

Less expected were some of the explanations for some human consumer choices: when a human purchases a top-of-the-line, fully featured piece of electronic equipment, be it a stereo or a sewing machine, the features are less important than the opportunity the equipment provides its owner to talk about them, and thus signal his/her intelligence through their detailed, jargon-laden enumeration and description. This makes perfect sense, of course, and reading it provided theoretical confirmation of the correctness of my decision in the 1990s, when, after noticing that I only ever used a fraction of all available features and functions in any piece of electronic equipment, I decided to build a recording studio with the simplest justifiable models by the best possible brands.

Even less expected for me where some of the facts outside the topic of this book. Miller, conscious of the disrepute into which the evolutionary sciences have fallen due to political activists committed to, or influenced by, Marxist ideology—Stephen Jay Gould, Leon Kamin, Steven Rose, and Richard Lewontin—and ultra-orthodox nurture bigots in modern academia, makes sure to precede his discussion by describing himself as a liberal, and by enumerating a catalogue of liberal credentials (he classes himself as a “feminist”, for example).[1] He also goes on to cite survey data that shows most evolutionary psychologists in contemporary academia are socially liberal, like him. The term liberal is in this case used in the American sense, of course, which means Left-leaning liberals, as opposed to classical-leaning liberals, which is what Americans usually call “conservative”. It is a sad state of affairs when a scientist feels obligated to asseverate his political correctness before he even begins to make his case in order to avoid ostracism.

Unusually, however, Miller seems an honest liberal (even if he contradicts himself, as in pp. 297-8), and is critical in the first chapters as well as in the later chapters of the Marxist death-grip on academic freedom of inquiry and expression and of the cult of what is euphemistically—but misleadingly—referred to as “diversity” and “multiculturalism”. The latter occurs in the context of a discussion on the various possible alternatives to a society based on conspicuous consumption, which occupies the final four chapters of this book. Miller believes that the 'multiculturalist' ideology is an obstacle to overcoming the consumer society because it prevents the expression of individuality and the formation of communities with alternative norms and forms of social display. This is because humans, when left to freely associate, tend to cluster in communities with shared traits, while legislation inspired by “multiculturalist” ideals tends—ironically, given that it ostensibly aims to do the opposite—to prevent freedom of association. Moreover, and citing Robert Putnam’s research (but also making sure to clarify he does not think diversity is bad), Miller argues that “[t]here is increasing evidence that communities with a chaotic diversity of social norms do not function very well” (p. 297). Since the only loophole in anti-discrimination laws is income, the result is that people are then motivated to escape multiculturalism is through economic stratification, by renting or buying at higher price points, thus causing the formation of
low-income ghettos, working-class tract houses, professional exurbs: a form of assortative living by income, which correlates only moderately with intelligence and conscientiousness.
. . .
[W]hen economic stratification is the only basis for choosing where to live, wealth becomes reified as the central form of status in every community — the lowest common denominator of human virtue, the only trait-display game in town. Since you end up living next to people who might well respect wildly different intellectual, political, social, and moral values, the only way to compete for status is through conspicuous consumption. Grow a greener lawn, buy a bigger car, add a media room . . . (p. 300)
This is a very interesting and valid argument, linking the negative facets of “multiculturalism” with the consumer society in a way that I had not come across before.

Miller’s exploration of the various possible ways we could explode the consumer society does get rather silly at times (at one point, Miller considers the idea of tattooing genetic trait levels on people’s faces; and elsewhere he weighs requiring consumers to qualify to purchase certain products, on the basis of how these products reflect their actual genetic endowments). However, when he eventually reaches a serious recommendation, it is one I can agree with: promoting product longevity. In other words, shifting production away from the contemporary profit-oriented paradigm of cheap, rapidly-obsolescing, throwaway products and towards the manufacture of high quality, long-lasting ones, that can be easily serviced and repaired. This suggests a return to the manufacturing standards we last saw during the Victorian era, which never fails to put a smile on my face. Miller believes that this can be achieved using the tax system, and he proposes abolishing the income tax and instituting a progressive consumption tax designed to make cheap, throwaway products more expensive than sturdy ones.

Frankly, I detest the idea of any kind of tax, since I see it today as a forced asset confiscation practiced by governments who predate on individuals who, through creative energy and hard work, do well and are worthy of economic reward (although there are, without a doubt, many who, though unworthy, become wealthy); but if there has to be tax, if that is the only way to clear the world out of the perpetual inundation of tacky rubbish, and if that is the only way to obliterate the miserable businesses that pump it out day after day by the centillions, then let it mercilessly punish low quality—let it sadistically flog manufacturers of low-quality products with the scourging whip of fiscal law until they squeal with pain, rip their hair out, and rend their garments as they see their profits plummet at the speed of light and completely and forever disappear into the black hole of categorical bankruptcy.

If you are looking for a deadly serious, arid text of hard-core science, Spent is not for you: the same information can be presented in a more detailed, programmatic, and reliable manner than it is here; this book is written to entertain as much as it is to educate a popular audience. If you are looking for a readable overview, a refresher, or an update on how evolved biology interacts with marketing and consumption, and would appreciate a few key insights as a prelude to further study, Spent is an easy basic text. It should be noted, however, that his area of research is still in relative infancy, and there is here a certain amount of speculation laced with proper science. Therefore, if you are interested in this topic, and are an activist or businessman interested in developing more effective ways to market your message or products, you may want to adopt an interdisciplinary approach and read this alongside Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda, Jean Baudrillard’s early works on consumerism, and some of the texts in Miller’s own bibliography, which include — surprise, surprise! — The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, and The Global Bell Curve, by Richard Lynn, among others.


[1] I met Miller while visiting the United States in 2011 and it seems the feminist label is not what a lot of readers—and especially anti-feminist readers—would take that to mean. In an hour-long lecture, which I attended, he mentioned the need to make it easier for women who wish to work to be able also to raise a family. I welcome that, since I have seen, first hand, how difficult it is for women who have careers, but who also desire or have families, to combine both; the way our society and the labour market is organised now, one or the other has to suffer, and lucky or very skilful are the women who can combine both without one being to the detriment of the other. A number of my acquaintances are of the view that women should stay at home, period. I don't agree: firstly, some women are not temperamentally or otherwise not suited to be stay-at-home mothers; secondly, while being a stay-at-home mother is unfairly demeaned in our money-obsessed society, it also drives some women crazy (I have seen this too), and they end up suffering from depression for lack of adequate stimulation; and thirdly, there is a minority of women who can make a better contribution through their talents than through simple reproduction. Our aim as a species should not be just to reproduce like animals; we should also aim to achieve greatness. (Note added in February 2014.)

Monday, 13 July 2009

One of My Album Covers Apparently Rocked the World

By pure chance, I discovered that one of my album covers, specifically the one I did in 1995 for the original Cacophonous Records' version of Dimmu Borgir's second album, "Stormblåst", appears in the book Heavy Metal Thunder: Album Covers that Rocked the World. Nobody told me, so I have found out three years after its publication.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Alexander Theroux

At my wedding, my cousin Pierre remarked upon the fact that when in my teens I used to enjoy reading dictionaries and collecting rare, antique, and obscure words (a criterion that defines my collecting in other areas as well). Several such dictionaries consisted purely of such words, and one of them helpfully illustrated their usage with quotes by modern authors. One of the authors most frequently mentioned was Alexander Theroux, who wrote Darconville's Cat (1981) and whose last novel, Laura Warholic, was published in 2007, following twenty years of silence. I presented my wife with a copy of the latter two days before our wedding, and, having only recently begun reading it, she has been sharing with me selected passages, where the author's contemptuous wit has iridesced with particular brilliance.

I have to say that rarely have I encountered a more technically accomplished author: Alexander Theroux's prose is of an extraordinarily high literary level, which does not suprise me in an 18th Century author like Edward Gibbon, but which is very rare in a world where quantity always takes precedence over quality, and where publishers bin long manuscripts without a glance because they are worried about the cost of paper. Unsurprisingly, he epitomises the Nietzschean genius, for whom recognition is usually prefaced by Dickensian penury, an obscure death, and a century of oblivion.

Theroux was interviewed here and here.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Holographic Memory

On Friday I decided to drive back home the long way after visiting the bank. My wife, who was with me, suggested we stopped by to have a browse at an independent DVD shop situated in a nearby village; the shop in question carries mostly old, silent, foreign, and independent films. There was nothing of immediate interest there, however, so we took a stroll, which ended at an exhibition of holographic art.

The exhibition was interesting. Among other things, we learnt that, so long as you do not wish to change the object under observation or adjust the focus, a holographic microscope works just as well as a physical microscope: if one looks through the eyepiece, the magnified object can be seen in sharp focus. This was one of various holographic plates that had been made as proof of concept, we were told: holographic technology has many applications, spread across diverse fields, including medicine, tourism, and conservation.

I was keen to investigate the future evolution of this technology, as I am always collecting ideas for future projects, so I conversed with the organiser at some length. Somehow we ended up on the topic of cloning, at which point the organiser stated that the idea had originated in Germany. This would not have surprised me, had the organiser not then gone on to suggest that this had been a Nazi invention. His account of the research having been motivated by a desire to replicate the Aryan race struck me straightaway as apocryphal, particularly as he stated that for the Nazis "people who were not blond and blue-eyed were essentially monkeys". This statement is obviously incorrect, because while the Nazis idealised the pure Nordic type, almost none of the top Nazis - least of all Himmler and Goebbels - fit that description; in fact, only a minority of Germans fit that description. Moreover, while the Nazis did set up stud farms for the SS, I had never heard of the Nazis having been involved in attempts to clone humans.

Upon returning home, it did not take long before I found the origins of the story: it seems to be a 1976 novel by Ira Levin, called The Boys from Brazil, which was made into a film in 1978. While I found multiple references to modern research on cloning being characterised by fearful interests and organisations as "Nazi-like", I found no non-fiction sources claiming that the Nazis were ever involved in human cloning.

The first mammal was only successfully cloned in 1996, and the mammal in question was a sheep called Dolly.