Sunshine Recorder

Link: Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and the Critique of Pop Culture

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Link: Reading Wallace Reading

With a fellowship to study his personal library, I wanted to get as far into David Foster Wallace’s head as possible. But what I found there was more than I’d bargained for.

I have David Foster Wallace’s personal copy of Don DeLillo’s novel End Zone. It is in my hands. It used to be his, and now it’s mine, albeit temporarily and under careful supervision by credentialed professionals. It is teeth-chatteringly cold in this room and brain-fryingly hot on the street because it’s July in Austin. People are baking cookies on their dashboards, and they’re delicious. It will not rain until September. 

I am relaying this information to you from the Reading Room of The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which in addition to housing the most powerful air conditioner in North America, houses pretty much every literary archive that you could dream of having access to, including the David Foster Wallace Archive, which, along with Wallace’s manuscripts and correspondence, has about 300 books from his personal library, 250 of which contain copious annotations in Wallace’s miniscule handwriting. I am actually being paid, or, more accurately, subsidized, to read his annotations.

There’s documentation for this. The Andrew Mellon Foundation granted me a fellowship (and a private office) for a proposal entitled “Reading Wallace Reading: David Foster Wallace’s Glosses and the Aesthetic Benefits of Close Reading.” While this may threaten to sound impressive, both the proposal’s title and its contents are in reality complete and utter bullshit. There is nothing academic about my reasons for being here; I am in Austin always and only as a fan. Mere fandom, however, is not enough to convince your wife to allow you to leave her and your two toddlers behind in the mild climes of Los Angeles so that you can jaunt to the burning pit of Hell that is Austin during the drought of 2011 just to pore over the marginalia of a major American writer you’re obsessed with. Phrasing it like that makes you sound irresponsible and selfish, but when you call yourself a Ransom Center Fellow and you flash some Mellon Foundation coin, you’ve got academic immunity and are more or less free from all other obligations.

If all this sounds a bit strange, let me try to contextualize this: apart from one of his sweat-soaked bandanas or used chewing tobacco, David Foster Wallace’s annotations are probably about as sacred to his fans as a piece of the True Cross is to Christians. No Wallace fan could resist an opportunity, especially a subsidized opportunity, to touch the literary equivalent of a medieval holy relic.

If that analogy makes it sound like I consider myself a pilgrim, let me bring things back down to earth because the truth is far less lofty and noble: I am not a pilgrim, and my trip to Austin is no religious pilgrimage. I came to Austin as a stalker, the kind of person who ought to be the recipient of a restraining order, not a research fellowship. The fellowship faintly disguises the fact that I am here to invade David Foster Wallace’s privacy, and that I took advantage of the Mellon Foundation to satisfy my personal compulsion to get as close to the inside of Wallace’s literary head as I could possibly get. What I failed to anticipate during all my academic grifting was how much peering into the dark recesses of Wallace’s skull would give me the howling fantods. What I wanted, I learned, was much more than I bargained for.

This realization came fast and hard the moment I opened DFW’s copy of End Zone. I knew the DeLillo books would be juicy because DeLillo was pretty much Wallace’s favorite author, but that was no preparation for the words that greeted me when I carefully opened the book’s brittle paperback cover:


My breath tripped in my throat. I was hoping for revealing annotations, and Wallace exceeded my expectations with his first gloss. Freaky things like “SILENCE = HORROR” are not the first thing a researcher stumbles across anywhere outside of a TV show. Wallace may have been talking about End Zone, but the context was totally different now; these were words from beyond the grave, written in a dead man’s hand, and even though I’d never met him, here I was holding his treasured book, staring his mind in the face, and his first utterance to me is “SILENCE = HORROR.” Wallace, the self-described “math weenie,” had written the perfect equation, one that has come to represent his silence, the horror of his death, and, as I realized later, my silence, my horror. Equations, after all, work both ways.

And this was only the beginning.

Three books after End Zone, I opened a book whose annotations chilled me deeper than the HRC Reading Room’s cooling system could ever aspire to. This was the moment when I confronted the letters that have preoccupied me for the past three years and filled me with more creative fear and personal dread than I’ve ever felt before.

The letters appeared beside the following passage on page 87 of DeLillo’s Great Jones Street:

“There’s nothing out there but a dull sort of horror. You can’t just churn it up into your own fresh mixture. Hero, rogue and symbol that you are.”

“Maybe I don’t want to churn it up at all. Maybe I want to make it even duller and more horrible. I don’t know. One thing’s sure. I can’t go out there and sing pretty lyrics or striking lyrics and I can’t go out there and make new and louder and more controversial sounds. I’ve done all that. More of that would be just what it says — more of the same. Maybe what I want is less. To become the least of what I was.”

Wallace underlined that entire passage. Then he drew a line down the margin. Then he wrote these three letters: “DFW.” And then he underlined them. Twice.

It’s that “DFW” in the margin that haunts me.

I only thought I knew what “DFW” meant before. It was fanboy shorthand for the literary icon and hero that is David Foster Wallace, but to Wallace, “DFW” stood for the literary entity known as David Foster Wallace, his writerly persona that existed only on the page, apart from the living-and-breathing Dave Wallace. Wallace satirizes his literary moniker-cum-identity in The Pale King, where he writes “once you’re fixed with a certain nom de plume, you’re more or less stuck with it, no matter how alien or pretentious it sounds to you in your everyday life” (297), but this discomfort with his full name existed long beforeThe Pale King. In a postcard to Don DeLillo, Wallace explains that

“ ‘Foster’ is my middle name, foisted on me as part of my N.d.P. by my agent in 1985 — he said there was ‘already a David Wallace.’ I was 23 and would have called myself Seymour Butts if he’d told me to. … Seeing my full name used in print makes me feel like Lee [Harvey] O[swald] did inLibra — another reason that book is probably my favorite of yours …”

In this postcard, Wallace connects the inclusion of his middle name to his hunger for success and approval—the name represents a business decision, a means of standing out in the book market, a decision that was not his and that he has come to feel trapped by years later. It is an identity that he cannot escape — it’s been “foisted upon” him — especially on the page. And what does this have to do with Lee Harvey Oswald? It seems like an extreme comparison, but look at page 416 of DeLillo’s Libra:

“It sounded extremely strange. He didn’t recognize himself in the full intonation of the name. The only time he used his middle name was to write it on a form that had a space for that purpose. No one called him by that name. Now it was everywhere. He heard it coming from the walls. … It sounded odd and dumb and made up. They were talking about somebody else.”

But when Wallace came across a passage in someone else’s fiction that he identified with, he wrote his initials in the margin. Most of the time, he elected to use “DFW” rather than “DW,” implying that he was relating these passages to the literary persona that he felt both shackled to and alienated from.

I’m sure most of us identify with or are touched by passages in the things that we read. That is, after all, one of the reasons that we read. Some of us — diehards perhaps — may even underline them or copy them into a notebook or commit parts of them to memory. But I have never heard of anyone writing his/her initials in the margin of a book. And I’ve certainly never heard of someone doing all of the above and then some. This is obsession, capital-I Identification, the kind that seems excessive and bizarre because that’s exactly what it is.

After finding my first “DFW,” I wasn’t interested in finding anything else in his books. As a Ransom Center staffer delivered each new stack of books to me, the only question I found myself asking was “will this one have a DFW in it?” I never questioned whether seeing a “DFW” might not be a good thing to see, that the presence of one on the page might mark a painful, private moment in Wallace’s life, one that I had no business seeing, let alone being eager to encounter.

Wallace’s initials appear twenty-one times in seventeen books, books ranging from novels to memoirs to literary anthologies to writing guides to philosophy and self-help books, and nearly every “DFW” or “DW” in Wallace’s archive appears next to a passage about creating, or, more precisely, the failure to create. And the “DFW”s that don’t appear alongside gut-wrenching descriptions of arrested creativity accompany withering descriptions of imbalanced, acutely self-conscious mental states, which only adds to the overall impression one gets of Wallace’s mental image of himself as a solipsistic failure, a gifted person who has lost control of his gift and now lives as a prisoner to “DFW” and all of its demands, demands he fears he will never be able to fulfill.

“DFW” represented a classic Wallaceian double-bind to Wallace: it encapsulated his talent and his limitations, the force that blessed him with creative stardom and cursed him with aesthetic failure. His talent, the very thing that held the world in awe of him, was what Wallace viewed as his greatest antagonist, the elusive force that continually threatened to abandon him, leaving him mediocre, forgotten, silent, left with only the horror of failed genius.

Joseph Frank’s book Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation captures this double-bind rather well. Even though Wallace was reading Frank’s bio as an assignment for The New York Times Book Review (during his time aboard the cruise ship he would later christen the Nadir, no less), he still wrote “DFW” next to this passage on page 334 discussing Notes from Underground:

“The underground man’s vanity convinces him of his own superiority and he despises everyone; but since he desires such superiority to berecognized by others, he hates the world for its indifference and falls into self-loathing at his own humiliating dependence.”

Wallace also underlined a related sentiment on page 117 of DeLillo’s novel Ratner’s Star: “The work’s ultimate value was simply what it revealed about the nature of his intellect. What was at stake, in effect, was … his identity …”

And then there’s this one from page 55 of Apostolos K. Doxiades’ novel Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture: “How terrible it must have been for him, if after such a brilliant beginning he suddenly began to feel his great gift, his only strength in life, his only joy, deserting him.” In the margin, Wallace wrote “DW; Self-pity; Faint ☹.”

In his copy of R. D. Laing’s book The Divided Self, Wallace drew a parallel between himself and one of Laing’s case studies. For one individual, Laing wrote, “the loss of an argument would jeopardize his existence,” and Wallace wrote that this would be “Like DFW’s loss of ability to write fiction.” When Wallace sat down to write, this is what lay on the line for him. He had to be “DFW” or he was no one at all.

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Link: Reading Upward

Do people really pass from Fifty Shades of Grey to Alice Munro on a kind of neo-Platonic stairway?

“Frankly, I don’t mind what they’re reading, Twilight, Harry Potter, whatever. So long as they are reading something there’s at least a chance that one day they’ll move on to something better.”

How many times have we heard this opinion expressed? On this occasion the speaker was a literary critic on Canadian radio with whom I was discussing my recent blog post “Reading: The Struggle.” Needless to say the sentiment comes along with the regret that people are reading less and less these days and the notion of a hierarchy of writing with the likes of Joyce and Nabokov at the top and Fifty Shades of Grey at the bottom. Between the two it is assumed that there is a kind of neo-Platonic stairway, such that from the bottom one can pass by stages to the top, a sort of optimistic inversion of the lament that soft porn will lead you to hard and anyone smoking marijuana is irredeemably destined to descend through coke and crack to heroin. The user, that is, is always drawn to a more intense form of the same species of experience.

Of course, while the fear that one will descend from soft to hard drugs tends to be treated as a near certainty, the hope that one might ascend from Hermione Granger to Clarissa Dalloway is usually expressed as a tentative wish. Nevertheless, it serves to justify the intellectual’s saying, “Frankly, I don’t mind what they’re reading, etc.” (as if this were some kind of concession), and underwrites our cautious optimism when we see an adolescent son or daughter immersed in George R.R. Martin. It’s not Dostoevsky, but one day it might be, and in any event it’s better than a computer game or TV since these are not part of the reading stairway.

Is any of this borne out by reality? Do people really pass from Fifty Shades of Grey to Alice Munro? (Through how many intermediate steps? Never to return?) And if it is not true why does a certain kind of intellectual continue to express them? To what end?

In 1948 W.H. Auden published an essay, “The Guilty Vicarage,” on what he calls his “addiction” to detective novels. The point he makes is that these schematic narratives serve the escapist needs of readers who share his particular psychological make-up. These people will not, as a rule, Auden claims, with some elaborate argument, be the same readers as readers of light romances or thrillers, or fantasy fiction. Each genre has its pull on different types of minds. In any event, if he, Auden, is to get any serious work done, he has to make sure that there are no detective novels around, since if there are he can’t resist opening them, and if he opens them he won’t close them till he’s reached the end. Or rather, no new detective novels; for Auden notes this difference between the stuff of his addiction and literature: that the detective novel is no sooner read than forgotten and never invites a second reading, as literature often does.

The implications are clear enough. Auden denies any continuity between literary novels and genre novels, or indeed between the different genres. One does not pass from lower to higher. On the contrary one might perfectly well fall from the higher to the lower, or simply read both, as many people eat both good food and junk food, the only problem being that the latter can be addictive; by constantly repeating the same gratifying formula (the litmus test of genre fiction) it stimulates and satisfies a craving for endless sameness, to the point that the reader can well end up spending all the time he has available for reading with exactly the same fare. (My one powerful experience of this was a spell reading Simenon’s Maigret novels; after five or six it gets harder and harder to distinguish one from another, and yet one goes on.)

Auden, it should be noted, does not propose to stop reading detective novels—he continues to enjoy them—and expresses no regret that people read detective novels rather than, say, Faulkner or Charlotte Brontë, nor any wish that they use detective novels as a stepping stone to “higher things.” He simply notes that he has to struggle to control his addiction, presumably because he doesn’t want to remain trapped in a repetitive pattern of experience that allows no growth and takes him nowhere. His essay, in fact, reads like the reasoning of someone determined to explain to himself why he must not waste too much time with detective novels, and at the same time to forgive himself for the time he does spend with them. If anything, genre fiction prevents engagement with literary fiction, rather than vice versa, partly because of the time it occupies, but more subtly because while the latter is of its nature exploratory and potentially unsettling the former encourages the reader to stay in a comfort zone.

I’m forced to pause here to admit the objection that much supposedly literary fiction also repeats weary formulas, while some novels marketed as genre fiction move toward the exploratory by denying readers the sameness the format led them to expect. And of course many literary writers have made hay “subverting” genre forms. However, if the “I-don’t-mind-people-reading-Twilight-because-it could-lead-to-higher-things” platitude continues to be trotted out, it is because despite all the blurring that has occurred over recent years, we still have no trouble recognizing the difference between the repetitive formula offering easy pleasure and the more strenuous attempt to engage with the world in new ways.

So do people pass from the genre to the literary up our neo-Platonic ladder? Do they discover Stieg Larsson and move on to Pamuk? With no studies or statistics available to settle the question—at least I have not come across any—I can only resort to anecdotal evidence, as a father of three and a university teacher for many years. And the first thing to say is that no one has ever spoken to me of making this progression. My children all enjoyed listening to the classic canon of children’s stories in their infancy, but this did not automatically lead to “serious reading” later on, despite, or quite possibly because of, their parents’ highly developed reading habit. My son spent his adolescence switching back and forth between computer games and compulsive rereadings of The Lord of the Rings, equally happy with both forms of entertainment. Later, he gathered together complete collections of Jo Nesbø and Henning Mankell. When I have suggested trying the work of certain novelists I like—Coetzee, Moravia—his complaint is invariably that they are too disturbing and too close to home. My eldest daughter oscillates between pulp fiction and literary fiction with the greatest of ease, perfectly aware of the entirely different pleasures they offer. My youngest daughter pursues vast fantasy chronicles and seems entirely happy with them; they have never prompted her to consider opening any of the more literary works our bookshelves are stacked with. In fact she reads fantasy chronicles because they are not to be found on the family bookshelves and offer a distinctly different experience from literary fiction. She does not want, she says, to be troubled with the kind of realities she sees quite enough of. She likes the costumed world of bold exploits and special powers.

When I speak to my students, what is most striking is that the majority of them, who are content on a diet made up exclusively of genre fiction, simply do not perceive any difference in kind between these and literary works; they do not see the essentially conservative nature of the one and the exploratory nature of the other. They register no need to widen their reading experiences. Often they propose theses on genre works of no distinction whatsoever, unable to understand why their teachers might put these in a different category from, say, Doris Lessing or D.H. Lawrence.

If we assume, then, for the sake of argument and in the absence of persuasive information to the contrary, that narratives do not form a continuum such that one is naturally led from the simpler to the more complex, but offer quite different experiences that mesh with readers’ psyches and requirements in quite different ways, why do the right-thinking intellectuals continue to insist on this idea, even encouraging their children to read anything rather than nothing, as if the very act of reading was itself a virtue?

It’s evident that publishers have a commercial interest in the comforting notion that any reading is better than none. They can feel virtuous selling a hundred million copies of Fifty Shades, strong in the hope that at least some of those folks might move on to Pulitzer and Nobel winners, and perhaps eventually to some of the more obscure and adventurous writers in their stables — just as, in Fifty Shades itself, the heroine Anastasia can indulge in a little S&M as part of a project to lead Christian Grey out of his perversion and on to the joys of the missionary position in conventional wedlock. It’s always a relief to have reasons for supposing that what one is doing might have a bit more to it than the merest self-interest.

At a deeper level, there is a desire to believe in an educational process that puts the intellectual in a pastoral relationship to an ingenuous public who must be coaxed in a positive direction; that is, the notion of this pathway upward from pulp to Proust allows for the figure of the benign educator who takes the hands of blinkered readers and leads them from the stable to the stars, as the Italians say. It’s good to posit a scheme of things in which possibly obsolete skills like close reading and critical analysis in fact have an important social role.

What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction. And that consequently those of us who do pursue this habit, who feel that it enriches and illuminates us, are not in possession of an essential tool for self-realization or the key to protecting civilization from decadence and collapse. We are just a bunch of folks who for reasons of history and social conditioning have been blessed with a wonderful pursuit. Others may or may not be enticed toward it, but I seriously doubt if E.L. James is the first step toward Shakespeare. Better to start with Romeo and Juliet.

Link: Me, Myself, and I

1. Two years ago, when I was chairing a large Harvard undergraduate program called History and Literature, I had what seemed to me at the time a bright idea. We had a regular forum in which we scheduled lectures by distinguished visiting scholars whose work boldly crossed disciplinary boundaries. I would invite my friend and former Berkeley colleague Thomas Laqueur, who was, I knew, working on an ambitious new book that brought together the history of medicine with cultural history, psychology, theology, and literature.

It wasn’t only a question of friendship; Laqueur’s celebrated 1990 book, Making Sex—on the medical discovery or invention of sexual difference—had a significant impact on a wide range of fields, from the history of science to gender studies, from literary criticism to art history. Discovery or invention: the shared understanding of the difference between men and women was transformed, Laqueur argued, less because of empirical discoveries than because of a complex social reevaluation. His book showed that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries people gradually shifted from a one-sex model—in which the woman’s body was viewed as a providentially inferior version of the man’s—to a two-sex model, in which the organs of generation were understood to be quite distinct. That is, they gave up the ancient idea that the vagina was in effect an unborn penis and grasped that what they had thought were the woman’s undescended testicles were in fact something quite different, something they called ovaries. In literary terms they moved in effect from Shakespeare’s plucky boyish heroines—Rosalind or Viola—toward Dickens’s strange angelic creatures—Agnes Wicklow or Little Dorrit—who seem to be made of different stuff from the men or to have grown up on a different planet or, more precisely, to have different insides.

Laqueur’s most recent book, Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, shares with Making Sex the same startling initial premise: that something we take for granted, something that goes without saying, something that simply seems part of being human has in fact a history, and a fascinating, conflicted, momentous history at that. Small wonder then that he seemed a person whose writings and lecture would enliven the semester for the undergraduates in History and Literature. In fact he did enliven the semester, but a strange thing happened along the way: there was a tremendous outbreak of the jitters. Panic set in not among the students—a large number of whom must have come of age watching There’s Something About Mary—but among the core of instructors who lead the seminars and conduct the tutorials. Though sophisticated and highly trained, when they were faced with the prospect of discussing the history of masturbation with the students, many of them blanched. Coprophagia wouldn’t have fazed them at all, sodomy wouldn’t have slowed them down, incest would have actively interested them—but masturbation: please, anything but that.

After a flurry of anxious conversations, I called a staff meeting to discuss the Great Masturbation Crisis. The first thing that I noticed was that everyone had developed overnight an intense sensitivity to double-entendres, as if language itself had become feverish. “When is Laqueur coming?” (chuckles). “His visit raises a number of issues” (giggles). “What do we hope will emerge from this discussion?” (snorts). “I am sorry if his visit rubs some people the wrong way” (loud guffaws). Perhaps in response to this burst of silliness, an experienced and ordinarily quite sensible instructor got up and made an urgent speech. “I have taught sexually charged subjects before,” she said gravely, “and there is one thing that I believe is absolutely crucial: there must be no humor at all. Once you allow the students to laugh, it is all over.”

Given the fact that the subject of masturbation tends to awaken laughter, this was awkward enough, but more awkward was the response of another instructor: it was, he declared, against his conscience to assign students readings from Laqueur’s new book or to require them to attend the lecture. It wasn’t, he conceded, that the subject—the relationship between the medicalization of human behavior and the imagination—was unimportant, but it should only be discussed in what he chose to call “a non-coercive framework.” In this it was different from virtually every other subject that we might assign. Wishing not to violate his conscience, I excused him from the task and told him that, should any students (to whom I would give the option) share his feelings, he could teach them chapters from Laqueur’s fine early book on Victorian Sunday schools and working-class culture. In the event, none of the students chose this option.

Finally, I had a phone call from a giggling Newsweek reporter who told me that she had gotten word of the forthcoming lecture. “Great,” I said, “I would love you to write about the whole series of lectures that History and Literature had scheduled this year.” No, no, she replied, she was only interested in this one. I understand now, I said with defensive coolness, you have a special interest in eighteenth-century nosology—the scientific classification of diseases. She sounded disappointed, and the magazine contented itself with a brief mention that the “modern master of masturbation” had come to talk at Harvard.

I now fully grasped that Laqueur was on to something both weird and important. How could I not have anticipated it? Had I not read Portnoy’s Complaint or watched Seinfeld? During the last administration, the surgeon general, Jocelyn Elders, was fired, or so it was claimed, for her apparent endorsement of the public health values of masturbation. At a Miami news conference, President Bill Clinton said that her views on the subject reflected “differences with administration policy and my own convictions.” Masturbation is virtually unique, in the array of more or less universal human behaviors, in arousing a peculiar and peculiarly intense current of anxiety.

This anxiety, Laqueur observes, is not found in all cultures and is not part of our own culture’s distant origins. In ancient Greece and Rome, masturbation could be the object of transitory embarrassment or mockery, but it had little or no medical or, as far as we can tell, cultural significance. More surprisingly, Laqueur argues, it is almost impossible to find in ancient Jewish thought. This claim at first seems dubious because in Genesis 38 we read that Onan “spilled his seed upon the ground,” an act that so displeased the Lord that He struck him dead. Onanism indeed became a synonym for masturbation, but not for the rabbis who produced the Talmuds and midrashim. For them the sin of Onan was not masturbation but a willful refusal to procreate. Their conceptual categories—procreation, idolatry, pollution—evidently did not include a significant place for the sinful indulgence in gratuitous, self-generated sexual pleasure. Some commentators on a pronouncement by Rabbi Eliezer—“Any- one who holds his penis when he urinates is as though he brought the flood into the world”—seem close to condemning such pleasure, but on closer inspection these commentators too are concerned with the wasting of semen.

Medieval Christian theologians, by contrast, did have a clear concept of masturbation as a sin, but it was not, Laqueur claims, a sin in which they had particularly intense interest. With the exception of the fifth-century abbot John Cassian, they were far more concerned with what Laqueur calls the ethics of social sexuality than they were with the ethics of solitary sex. What mattered most were “perversions of sexuality as perversions of social life, not as a withdrawal into asocial autarky.” Within the monastery anxiety focused far more on sodomy than on masturbation, while in the world at large it focused more on incest, bestiality, fornication, and adultery.

When theologians commented on Genesis 38 at all, it was to condemn Onan not for what he did but for what he refused to do: thus Saint Augustine interpreted Onan as the sort of person who fails to do what he can to help those in need. As befits a religion that rejected the strict rabbinic obligation to procreate and instead celebrated monastic chastity, the argument here has slipped away from the obligation to be fruitful and multiply and changed into a more general moral obligation. Church fathers could not share in particularly intense form the Jewish anxiety about Onan, precisely because the Church most honored those whose piety led them to escape from the whole cycle of sexual intercourse and generation. Theologians did not permit masturbation, but they did not focus sharply upon it, for sexuality itself, and not only nonreproductive sexuality, was to be overcome. A very severe moralist, Raymond of Peñafort, did warn married men against touching themselves, but only because arousal might make them want to copulate more often with their wives. It may be better to marry than to burn, but that sort of thing should be kept to a minimum. Only one early-fifteenth-century text—a three-page manual “On the Confession of Masturbation,” attributed to the chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean de Gerson—instructed priests on how to elicit confessions of this sin, and this text does not seem to have circulated widely.

2. Reformation theologians did not fundamentally alter the traditional conception of masturbation or significantly intensify the level of interest in it. To be sure, Protestants vehemently castigated Catholics for creating institutions—monasteries and convents—that in their view denigrated marriage and inevitably fostered masturbation. Marriage, the Reformers preached, was not a disappointing second choice made by those who could not embrace the higher goal of chastity; it was the fulfillment of human and divine love. Sexual pleasure in marriage, provided that it was not excessive or pursued for its own sake, was not inherently sinful, or rather any taint of sinfulness was expunged by the divinely sanctioned goal of procreation. In the wake of Luther and Calvin masturbation remained what it had been for the rabbis: an act whose sinfulness lay in the refusal of procreation, the prodigal wasting of seed.

In one of his early sonnets, Shakespeare wittily turns such “unthrifty” wasting into economic malpractice:

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?

In bequeathing the young man such loveliness, nature expected him to pass it along to the next generation; instead the “beauteous niggard” is holding on to it for himself and refusing to create the child who should rightly bear his image into the future. Masturbation, in the sonnet, is the perverse misuse of an inheritance. The young man merely spends upon himself, and thereby throws away, wealth that should rightly generate more wealth:

For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone:
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?

Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,

Which usèd, lives th’executor to be.

The young man, as the sonnet characterizes him, is a “profitless usurer,” and when his final reckoning is made, he will be found in arrears. The economic metaphors here have the odd effect of praising usury, still at the time regarded both as a sin and as a crime. There may be an autobiographical element here—the author of The Merchant of Venice was himself on occasion a usurer, as was his father—but Shakespeare was also anticipating a recurrent theme in the history of “modern masturbation” that concerns Laqueur: from the eighteenth century onward, masturbation is assailed as an abuse of biological and social economy. Still, a poem like Shakespeare’s only shows that masturbation in the full modern sense did not yet exist: by “having traffic” with himself alone, the young man is wasting his seed, but the act itself is not destroying his health or infecting the whole social order.

The Renaissance provides a few glimpses of masturbation that focus on pleasure rather than the avoidance of procreation. In the 1590s Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Nashe wrote a poem about a young man who went to visit his girlfriend who was lodging—just for the sake of convenience, she assured him—in a whorehouse. The man was so aroused by the very sight of her that he had the misfortune of prematurely ejaculating, but the obliging lady managed to awaken him again. Not, however, long enough for her own satisfaction: to his chagrin, the lady only managed to achieve her “solace” by means of a dildo which, she declared, was far more reliable than any man. This piece of social comedy is closer to what Laqueur would consider authentic “modern” masturbation, for Nashe’s focus is the pursuit of pleasure rather than the wasting of seed, but it is still not quite there.

Laqueur’s point is not that men and women did not masturbate throughout antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance—the brief confessional manual attributed to Gerson assumes that the practice is ubiquitous, and the historian finds no reason to doubt it—but rather that it was not regarded as a deeply significant event. It is simply too infrequently mentioned to have counted for a great deal, and the few mentions that surface tend to confirm its relative unimportance. Thus in his diary, alongside the many occasions on which he had a partner in pleasure, Samuel Pepys jotted down moments in which he enjoyed solitary sex, but these latter did not provoke in him any particular shame or self-reproach. On the contrary, he felt a sense of personal triumph when he managed, while being ferried in a boat up the Thames, to bring himself to an orgasm—to have “had it complete,” as he put it—by the strength of his imagination alone. Without using his hands, he noted proudly, he had managed just by thinking about a girl he had seen that day to pass a “trial of my strength of fancy…. So to my office and wrote letters.” Only on such solemn occasions as High Mass on Christmas Eve in 1666, when the sight of the queen and her ladies led him to masturbate in church, did Pepys’s conscience speak out, and only in a very still, small voice.

The seismic shift came about some half-century later, and then not because masturbation was finally understood as a horrible sin or an economic crime but rather because it was classified for the first time as a serious disease. “Modern masturbation,” Solitary Sex begins, “can be dated with a precision rare in cultural history.” It came into being “in or around 1712” with the publication in London of a short tract with a very long title: Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences, in both SEXES Considered, with Spiritual and Physical Advice to those who have already injured themselves by this abominable practice. And seasonable Admonition to the Youth of the nation of Both SEXES…. The anonymous author—Laqueur identifies him as John Marten, a quack surgeon who had published other works of soft-core medical pornography—announced that he had providentially met a pious physician who had found remedies for this hitherto incurable disease. The remedies are expensive, but given the seriousness of the condition, they are worth every penny. Readers are advised to ask for them by name: the “Strengthening Tincture” and the “Prolific Powder.”

It all began here, Laqueur argues. The question, of course, is why this shameless piece of mercenary quackery, instead of being thrown in the rubbish where it belonged, should have served as the foundation stone of a serious medical tradition that transformed cultural assumptions that had been securely in place for thousands of years. In part the answer was a clever marketing trick: subsequent editions, and they were many, included titillating letters from readers who breathlessly disclosed their own personal initiation into masturbatory addiction and testified to the liberating power of the patent medicines. But marketing alone cannot explain why “onanism” and related terms began to show up in the great eighteenth-century encyclopedias or why one of the most influential physicians in France, the celebrated Samuel Auguste David Tissot, took up the idea of masturbation as a dangerous illness or why Tissot’s 1760 work, L’Onanisme, became an instant European literary sensation.

Tissot was not peddling tinctures or titillation, and he was not taken in by the earlier work whose name and concept he appropriated: the English tract, he wrote, “is a real chaos…one of the most unconnected productions that has appeared for a long time.” But far from rejecting its central idea, Tissot “definitively launched masturbation,” as Laqueur puts it, “into the mainstream of Western culture.” It was not long before almost the entire medical profession attributed an inexhaustible list of woes to solitary sex, a list that included spinal tuberculosis, epilepsy, pimples, madness, general wasting, and an early death.

Whatever was driving his intense anxiety—Tissot thought that masturbation was “much the more to be dreaded” than smallpox—it was not, Laqueur argues, the consequence of an empirical increase in masturbation. No one in the eighteenth century claimed that there was more masturbation than ever before—how, in any case, would they have determined this?—and even if statistics proving such an increase miraculously turned up, the terrible anxiety around the issue would still need to be explained. Moreover, there were no new medical observations, discoveries, or even hypotheses that would account for what came to be regarded as so dangerous about the act. And the startling vision of its terrible consequences was not the work of churchmen and cultural conservatives. Their position had not changed.

Modern masturbation—and this is Laqueur’s brilliant point—was the creature of the Enlightenment. It was the age of reason, triumph over superstition, and the tolerant, even enthusiastic acceptance of human sexuality that conjured up the monster of self-abuse. Prior to Tissot and his learned medical colleagues, it was possible for most ordinary people to masturbate, as Pepys had done, without more than a twinge of guilt. After Tissot, anyone who indulged in this secret pleasure did so in the full, abject knowledge of the horrible consequences. Masturbation was an assault on health, on reason, on marriage, and even on pleasure itself. For Enlightenment doctors and their allies did not concede that masturbation was a species of pleasure, however minor or embarrassing; it was at best a false pleasure, a perversion of the real. As such it was dangerous and had at all costs to be prevented.

Confirmation of this surprising conclusion comes from someone who can hardly be accused of prudery: Giacomo Casanova. The great Venetian lover and adventurer recalled a conversation he had in Istanbul in the 1740s with a distinguished Turkish philosopher, Yusuf Ali. “He asked me if I was married.” Casanova, who was still at that time contemplating entering the priesthood, replied that he was not and hoped never to be. “What!” Yusuf Ali answered. “Then I must either believe that you are not a complete man or that you want to damn yourself, unless you tell me that you are a Christian only in show.” “I am a complete man, and I am a Christian,” Casanova answered, adding candidly, “I will further tell you that I love the fair sex and that I hope to enjoy many conquests among them.”

Your religion says that you will be damned,” said the Muslim sage. “I am sure that I shall not, for when we confess our crimes to our priests they are obliged to absolve us.” In the same spirit of candor, Yusuf Ali replied that he found this idea idiotic, and then he asked, “Is masturbation a crime among you too?” “An even greater crime than unlawful copulation,” the Venetian answered. “So I know,” Yusuf Ali continued, “and it has always surprised me, for any legislator who promulgates a law which cannot be enforced is a fool. A man who has no woman and who is in good health cannot but masturbate when imperious nature makes him feel the need for it.”

Casanova’s response goes to the heart of the history that Laqueur has written, for in it we watch Christian moralism give way to medicalization:

We Christians believe just the contrary. We claim that young men who indulge in the practice impair their constitutions and shorten their lives. In many communities they are closely watched, left absolutely no time to commit this crime on themselves.

Masturbation is a crime not because it violates a divine edict—Casanova is far too worldly to brood on that possibility—but because it is for him what smoking or obesity are for us.

This vision of the health risks of solitary sex entirely failed to impress Yusuf Ali, who was equally contemptuous of the attempts to stop it by surveillance:

Those who watch them are ignoramuses and those who pay them to do so are fools, for the prohibition itself must increase the desire to break a law so tyrannical and so contrary to nature.

This observation seems self-evident, yet for the Western doctors and philosophers whose up-to-date views Ca-sanova reflects, what was contrary to nature was not the prohibition but the act itself.

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Link: Extinction Stories: The Ecological True-Crime Genre

We are living in the midst of the worst die-off since the dinosaurs fell victim to an asteroid 65 million years ago. Whatever the proximal causes, human beings are the asteroids this time.

In a comment on a recent New York Times editorial, a reader in North Carolina reported noticing that there were no butterflies on her bushes for the first time this year. The spring peepers were growing fainter in the pond, there were few bees, and for the first time, every birds’ nest in her yard had failed, she said. It’s familiar news. Here on the other side of the country, where I am sitting now, there have been fewer hummingbirds at the feeders this year.  Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, a biologist conducting a survey of elephants found 36 at a reserve where he’d expected to see 300.  It seems that such absences, repeated again and again, are coming to define our time. They are signs of a greater calamity, it’s true, and we often read them as such—failing to register them as events in their own right.  But the truth is that our planet is growing lonelier now.  Do we remember, for instance, the intimacy we shared with other animals, the ones not kept in zoos?  The way bats would start flickering above us as the summer evening grew dim or the childhood bee stings we’d get running barefooted over the lawn? The loss of such small, local experiences are more than just environmental facts but are emotional truths.

We are living in the midst of the worst die-off since the dinosaurs fell victim to an asteroid 65 million years ago, and though certain local effects are noticeable, the scope of the carnage is hard to picture as a whole. In The Sixth Extinction, New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert attempts a rough accounting: If global warming continues apace, it’s estimated “that one-third of all reef building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.” Amphibians, the most vulnerable group, are disappearing at as much as 45,000 times their normal rate, hence the lack of peepers in the pond. “Look around,” one scientist tells Kolbert. “Kill half of what you see…That’s what we could be talking about.” Coral reefs are not expected to make it to mid-century. 

The etiology of this crisis is indisputable: Whatever the proximal causes, human beings are the asteroids this time. This is not news; we’ve been aware of our destructive potential for some time, though there are those still who deny it. It’s not quite as clear what we should do with this knowledge, though, and so—whether from guilt, nostalgia, or as a way to put off a reckoning—we tell each other stories about extinction. In fact, Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction falls into a tradition stretching back at least as far as 1848’s The Dodo and its Kindred—a genre of ecological “true-crime” that chronicles disappearance and implicates human beings in the mass death of others in our world. 

1. Joel Greenberg’s recent A Feathered River Across the Sky is an exemplary entrant in the genre. Meticulously researched and almost loving in its level of detail, it tells the story of the passenger pigeon, which was once the most numerous bird in America but now one of our emblems of loss. In 1860, at Fort Mississauga in Ontario, Major W. Ross King watched a group of passenger pigeons blot out the sun for hours. This flock was later estimated to include 3,717,120,000 individual birds passing over in a single long sheet. In 1895, two flocks were observed in the province: the first made up of 13 birds, the second just 11. By 1910, there were no flocks at all, and all that remained of the passenger pigeon was a bird named Martha, living in a cage at the Cincinnati Zoo; she died four years later. This year marks the hundredth anniversary since the passenger pigeon’s extinction.

Greenburg traces the natural history of the vanished bird like someone trying to describe a phantom, taking care to present its case as faithfully as he can: its diet, breeding habits (as far as they can be guessed at), and tendency to roost in concentrations so great that they could destroy entire forests overnight. Much of the book is dedicated to a condemnatory account of humans’ wholesale slaughter of this abundance of meat in the sky. The pigeons were apparently good eating and easy entertainment; hunters used everything from rifles, nets, and poles to bare hands and even cannons to gather the bounty. As a result, more birds were killed than could be consumed; the rest were used as fertilizer, fed to dogs and pigs, or simply thrown away.

Greenburg’s displeasure at the enthusiasm of 19th century hunters is typical of many extinction narratives. We are meant, as the title of another recent passenger pigeon story has it, to take a “message from Martha.” Self-flagellation is all very well, but knowing—and condemning—the human tendency not to care much for the wellbeing of other species is neither surprising nor especially helpful in terms of effecting change. We have not become better. Greenberg—not just an elegist but an activist as well—points out that similar forms of profligate slaughter continue today, having merely changed venue. On open ocean, seine nets and other modern gadgetry allow commercial fleets to net more than four million tons of tuna—from just four species—every year. 

Despite emblematic cases like the passenger pigeon’s, it seems as though we have little real grasp of what extinction really means—for us, for the future of this world of ours, or (though their feelings are rarely considered) for those going extinct. Passionate reports like Greenberg’s have the feeling of histories neatly boxed up and removed from our immediate physical and emotional realities despite their relevance to us now. In such accounts, anxiety over the present alternates with a sort of excited interest in the past— fascination bordering on nostalgia for what amounts to a biological curio. 

>2. Interest is a primary driver of The Sixth  Extinction, in which Kolbert provides an entertaining, if occasionally troubling, geological and biological history of our moment in the context of die-offs past. The story, laid out in chapters using a single species as a way into a theme, is full of human character, humor, and unexpected facts. Kolbert herself can be seen speaking to scientists and observing animals and fossils in the wild. 

Part of her accomplishment is in underlining the scope of the current cataclysm. As research into the previous five major extinction events teaches her, the environment is changing so quickly that survival will be largely a product of chance. Mass extinction happens when the rules of survival are suddenly changed and traits that have been adaptive in the past become no use at all. Still, everything exists today because something happened to survive before, and the future will be populated by creatures evolved from whatever happens to survive us now. Most likely that will be those hardy invaders whose territory we’ve inadvertently expanded ourselves—probably rats. The biomass of the future will be a human artifact, in other words, like the climate, the course of rivers, the amount of fixed nitrogen, and the variety of habitat, among many other things. And so this moment offers a strange, geological lengthening of time, inscribing our errors onto millions of years of history. Yet as extensive as the changes of the Anthropocene have been, Homo sapiens were always troublesome beasts. Early humans were responsible for extinctions, too, she finds, from moas to saber tooth tigers and giant ground sloths, as well as some of our own relations, including the Neanderthal, the Denisovians, and the Florensian “hobbit.” (It does seem as though we were bent on being alone; all the great apes that survive today, ourselves excepted, are currently in danger of extinction.) Given this propensity, Kolbert largely chooses not to offer hope. Her conclusion is a troubling one: “With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it…[which] is also the capacity to destroy it…If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap.” 

Where Kolbert locates the root of our environmental destructiveness in the capacity for symbolic thought, a more common explanation—though no less problematic in its way—is that an attitude of anthropocentrism is to blame. This means not just the firm separation of “human” and “nature,” but the belief that the planet is intended for our use and has meaning to humans alone. Knowing that the human-spread chytrid virus is almost certain to destroy most of the world’s amphibians, I think at once of the eeriness of a quiet spring pond and only later think what that pond was to the frogs. Given new research into animal consciousness and capacity for thought, such oversights become harder and harder to justify.   

3. Still, our perspective is human, and excepting a kind of radical empathy, we have no other. It’s the human perspective the poet Melanie Challenger takes in her book On Extinction. She examines the question of mankind’s alienation from nature through the lens of cultural loss, grappling with the emotional aspects of extinction by reading it through a progressive human shift away from dependence on the natural world. The loss of distinct, local forms of knowledge based on a relationship to place is “akin to the disappearance of diversity in nature.” Her well-made point is that as we became less dependent on local landscapes, we stopped caring as much for the things that were in them. The environmental devastation that followed then only turned us further away. The problem with Challenger’s argument is that the equivalence of cultural and biological diversity confuses the question. That some Inuit shop at supermarkets rather than hunting on the land is of a different order than the fact that there is no longer a golden toad.  Casting human cultural loss in the light of extinction also covers over the need to consider the fact that “human nature” is not solely human at all: not only was it formed through our interaction with other species—from ancient predators, to various microbes, to the creatures we kill and eat—but our very bodies represent a mass of co-existing life forms in themselves. Only 10 percent of the cells in what we consider the “human body” are actually human at all. 

Despite this, Challenger does get at a question Kolbert’s work provokes but doesn’t confront: “In the great swathes of time given to the Earth, did it really matter if some forms of life died out?” Is the world worse because there’s no longer such thing as a great auk? Of what value is a dolphin in the end? Pointing the finger human-ward, the answer to this question is not as self-evident as people who care about biodiversity, as a good in itself, might believe. In fact, to return to Kolbert’s broad geologic survey of mass extinctions past, our own is just another blip in the long history of life on earth. Yes, it has taken millions of years for biodiversity to recover after previous extinction events, but it has recovered in the end. “Across these spans of almost imperceptible evolution, other entities always emerged in the place of those that perished,” Challenger writes. The message here is life is pretty sturdy and “nature” or the “wilderness” fairly arbitrary concepts. There is no fixed point in our changing world that we can identify as “natural,” and so the thought of re-wilding becomes quickly absurd: Do we really want billions of passenger pigeons despoiling the crops or giant ground sloths stomping around? 

It’s perhaps out of the anxiety such uncertainty generates that extinction books like these are adventure stories of a kind. The author travels the world (Challenger, to her credit, considering her carbon footprint as she does) as a biological tourist of a kind—and the books find themselves solidly embroiled in the same anthropocentric attitudes they pin the crisis on. Despite purportedly addressing a period of mass death, little attention is actually paid to the dead and dying themselves.

And yet, however much human exceptionalism is to blame, part of the lesson of the anthropocene mass extinction is how closely human lives are affected by it, a lesson we are vastly more likely to take to heart than the suffering of any bat or toad; perhaps there is no separation between their suffering and our own. This, in part, is the answer to Challenger’s “so what?” as offered by a new crop of philosophical thinkers, whose work provides a much needed bridge between the humanities and ecological science. If their efforts seem effete in comparison to Kolbert’s vastly more enjoyable narrative, they at least encourage us to step past self-loathing, pity, and the strange excitement those feelings produce. Philosophy, unlike straightforward nonfiction narrative, can hold the kind of uncertainty of which this moment is full.

4. Bill McKibben proclaimed the “end of nature” in the late 1980s, writing that there was no longer anything unaffected by human activity that could be identified as such. In Hyperobjects, philosopher Timothy Morton inverts this. In this age of global warming, species loss, and environmental degradation, there is nothing “human” still unaffected by “nature” and so to separate the two becomes absurd. Morton specializes in something called object-oriented ontology, and his book is as difficult as that concept sounds. Still, those able to wade through his occasionally hyperactive prose (the “gigantic coral reef of sparkling things beneath the Heideggerian U-Boat” or “the cupcake aisle of the ontological supermarket”) will find a fairly radical reconsideration of our place in the world. “This is not only a historical age but also a geological one,” Morton writes, echoing Kolbert. “In this period nonhumans make decisive contact with humans, even the ones busy shoring up the differences between humans and the rest.” Notably, by nonhumans Morton means not just animals but things like plutonium, plastics, and atmospheric carbon—what he calls “hyperobjects.” The extension is a little odd, but his demolition of categories leads to a series of forceful points. The end of the world means the end of an idea of a “world” as something other than us. We cannot “get back to nature” because there’s nothing to get back to. Instead, what the environmental crisis makes obvious is that what we called nature and the environment “are in our face—they are our face.” 

In the context of human exceptionalism—as in narratives like Kolbert and Challenger’s—extinction happens “out there” in “nature.” One must travel and seek it out. But if, following Morton, we were to give up the idea of nature altogether—the idea that there is an “elsewhere” that our waste goes to when we toss it down the garbage shoot, an “elsewhere” where the animals die—we can recognize our intimacy not only with the toxic byproducts of our civilization but with the animals that are dying at our hands. Morton calls for an ecology that neither undermines, like Greenberg’s book might be said to do (refusing to see the big picture by focusing on the individual), nor “overmines,” like Kolbert’s at times (burying the individual in its larger system by focusing on the idea survival of “life”). Instead, he writes, what should be considered is our proximity to all of this death and how we can live with it.

5. The ethics of this proximity is the subject Australian environmental philosopher Thom Van Dooren’s Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. The book is unique among extinction stories for looking less at the phenomenon itself and more at why it might matter in an emotional, moral sense. “What is lost when a species, an evolutionary lineage, a way of life, passes from the world?” he asks. Van Dooren, an academic in the new field of “Extinction Studies,” identifies the “multispecies entanglements” that not only play a role in an animal’s physical evolution but in that of human culture as well. Human culture in India, for instance, has developed in concert with vultures, which are relied on to dispose of cow carcasses and those of humans in certain burial rites. Now that the vultures are dying en masse, the Parsi can no longer “bury” their dead.

Apart from its relevance to human culture, Van Dooren considers non-human animals not just as “life forms” but also as “forms of life,” each with a way of life—what he calls a “flight way”—that generates meaning for that creature itself. (It’s a sign of just how settled we are in ideas of human exceptionalism that this simple claim—not in the least bit radical, really—comes across as somewhat PETA-ish and tree-huggery.)  He offers a beautiful and oddly touching reconsideration of what a species is: “Species are incredible achievements…[they are] shared, produced, and nurtured in the world through the work of successive generations of living beings.” More than just a lineage stretching out in time, a species is composed of the “work” each generation does—an albatross sitting on its egg for weeks without food, a human mother working three jobs. It is both more than the sum of the individuals living and dependent on their participation. Each individual invests a huge amount of resources in the species—it is their work and their striving (even if they are unaware of it) that achieves evolutionary continuity, and so the existence of everything that has evolved along the way, both from it and in being “carried by” it, is co-shaped as a member of its community. 

Considering species in this way changes how we think about what extinction might mean and the enormity of the rupture it creates. Martha’s death was a kind of formal mark, but extinction means more than whether or not there is at least one individual of a given species living, according to Van Dooren. As Greenberg’s account of its life makes clear, what it meant to be a passenger pigeon—a “flight way” of vast flocks and noisy, communal roosts—disappeared long before Martha took her last breath.  A part of what it meant to be a human in the American Midwest must have changed before then, too.

Recognizing such “entanglements,” Van Dooren calls for an a mode of mourning that “does not announce the uniqueness of the human, but works to…grieve for the loss of a world that includes us.” Yet what we are bound up with specifically matters; we must “cast our lot for some ways of life and not others.” This is a surprising plea—unique as far as I can tell—in that instead of aiming for vague ideals such as “nature” or “ecosystem balance,” Van Dooren suggests embracing a form of “Cenocentrism,” fighting for a “continuity of the Cenozoic achievement,” which is to say, for the world that took form after the Cretaceous extinction—the community of life that includes our own species. This rather neatly solves the baseline problem Challenger and Kolbert posed, exchanging what Morton would call an “overmined” valorization of life generally for care of what is proximal to us and for our own, intimate world.

Of course, whichever world we stand for, many individual animals and entire species will suffer, die, and disappear for good. The practical question this poses and the true dilemma of now is not what is going on but what one does with that information once one has it, besides lapsing into cynical resignation. Van Dooren suggests mourning as both the ethical and beneficial response. The fact that there has been so little public mourning for extinction is due to the human “inability to really get—to comprehend at any meaningful level—the multiple connections and dependencies between ourselves and these disappearing others.” We have learned not to be affected by the extinctions of those we consider fundamentally different (the same, of course, goes for those mass human deaths we find it convenient to ignore). But mourning forces us to “relearn the world and our place in it” and can teach us to get the connection, even if it is too late. To other crows, he writes, the body of a dead crow signifies danger, and the birds will often avoid a place where one of their species has died for years. “What must the death of a whole species of crow, alongside a host of others at this time, communicate to any sentient and attentive observer?” Van Dooren wonders. “How could these extinctions not announce our need to find new flight ways, new modes of living in a fragile and changing world?” Van Dooren suggests that we read extinction stories like these as acts of mourning in themselves, the way we read records of human holocausts, with respect and care for the victims.  As with any death, it’s in telling stories about the dead that life and death are put into relation; through mourning, survivors relearn the world and their place in it and, in that way, find new ways to live. This is, in its way, a kind of hope.  “In choosing to grieve actively,” as the author and philosopher of grief Tomis Attig wrote, “we choose life.” 

Like any death, extinction represents the end of a certain portion of the world—of an idea of our world as we thought we knew it. They say shock at the loss of the passenger pigeon was so great that that no one believed it; some speculated it had simply gone to live in Australia or even the moon. For a while, Midwesterners continued to feel the shadows of great flocks passing above, the way an amputee can feel a missing limb. In stories like this, extinction touches us, making an animal’s absence as pointed and as intimate with our human lives as we perhaps never realized its presence to be.Stories like this force us to rethink what survival really means, for us as well as them, whether merely living is enough or at what point we become too alone. The stories we need now go beyond informing us of our errors. They have to be emotionally relevant, inhabiting all of the complexity—ethical, political, and personal—of this moment in time. Doing more than teaching us, such stories could be in themselves ways of mourning—eulogies for a world we thought we knew and that we must relearn.

Tralala, from Hubert Selby Jr.’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn”

“I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets, and in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not. The watchmen that go about the city found me: to whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?” — Song of Solomon 3: 2, 3

Tralala was 15 the first time she was laid. There was no real passion. Just diversion. She hungout in the Greeks with the other neighborhood kids. Nothin to do. Sit and talk. Listen to the jukebox. Drink coffee. Bum cigarettes. Everything a drag. She said yes. In the park. 3 or 4 couples finding their own tree and grass. Actually she didnt say yes. She said nothing. Tony or Vinnie or whoever it was just continued. They all met later at the exit. They grinned at each other. The guys felt real sharp. The girls walked in front and talked about it. They giggled and alluded. Tralala shrugged her shoulders. Getting laid was getting laid. Why all the bullshit? She went to the park often. She always had her pick. The other girls were as willing, but played games. They liked to tease. And giggle. Tralala didn’t fuckaround. Nobody likes a cockteaser. Either you put out or you dont. Thats all. And she had big tits. She was built like a woman. Not like some kid. They preferred her. And even before the first summer was over she played games. Different ones though. She didnt tease the guys. No sense in that. No money either. Some of the girls bugged her and she broke their balls. If a girl liked one of the guys or tried to get him for any reason Tralala cut in. For kicks. The girls hated her. So what. Who needs them.

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Cover design by Erik Nitsche, c1960

Cover design by Erik Nitsche, c1960

(Source: jellobiafrasays, via gravity-rainbow)

Link: Excerpt from William B. Irvine's "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy"


What do you want out of life? You might answer this question by saying that you want a caring spouse, a good job, and a nice house, but these are really just some of the things you want in life. In asking what you want out of life, I am asking the ques- tion in its broadest sense. I am asking not for the goals you form as you go about your daily activities but for your grand goal in living. In other words, of the things in life you might pursue, which is the thing you believe to be most valuable?

Many people will have trouble naming this goal. They know what they want minute by minute or even decade by decade during their life, but they have never paused to consider their grand goal in living. It is perhaps understandable that they haven’t. Our culture doesn’t encourage people to think about such things; indeed, it provides them with an endless stream of distractions so they won’t ever have to. But a grand goal in living is the first component of a philosophy of life. This means that if you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life.

Why is it important to have such a philosophy? Because without one, there is a danger that you will mislive—that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life. There is, in other words, a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living. Instead of spending your life pursuing something genuinely valuable, you squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted by the various baubles life has to offer.

Suppose you can identify your grand goal in living. Suppose, too, that you can explain why this goal is worth attaining. Even then, there is a danger that you will mislive. In particular, if you lack an effective strategy for attaining your goal, it is unlikely that you will attain it. Thus, the second component of a philos- ophy of life is a strategy for attaining your grand goal in living. This strategy will specify what you must do, as you go about your daily activities, to maximize your chances of gaining the thing in life that you take to be ultimately valuable.

If we want to take steps to avoid wasting our wealth, we can easily find experts to help us. Looking in the phone book, we will find any number of certified financial planners. These indi- viduals can help us clarify our financial goals: How much, for example, should we be saving for retirement? And having clari- fied these goals, they can advise us on how to achieve them.

Suppose, however, that we want to take steps to avoid wasting not our wealth but our life. We might seek an expert to guide us: a philosopher of life. This individual would help us think about our goals in living and about which of these goals are in fact worth pursuing. She would remind us that because goals can come into conflict, we need to decide which of our goals should take precedence when conflicts arise. She will therefore help us sort through our goals and place them into a hierarchy. The goal at the pinnacle of this hierarchy will be what I have called our grand goal in living: It is the goal that we should be unwilling to sacrifice to attain other goals. And after helping us select this goal, a philosopher of life will help us devise a strategy for attaining it.

The obvious place to look for a philosopher of life is in the philosophy department of the local university. Visiting the faculty offices there, we will find philosophers specializing in metaphysics, logic, politics, science, religion, and ethics. We might also find philosophers specializing in the philosophy of sport, the philosophy of feminism, and even the philosophy of philosophy. But unless we are at an unusual university, we will find no philosophers of life in the sense I have in mind.

It hasn’t always been this way. Many ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, for example, not only thought philoso- phies of life were worth contemplating but thought the raison d’être of philosophy was to develop them. These philosophers typically had an interest in other areas of philosophy as well— in logic, for example—but only because they thought pursuing that interest would help them develop a philosophy of life.

Furthermore, these ancient philosophers did not keep their discoveries to themselves or share them only with their fellow philosophers. Rather, they formed schools and welcomed as their pupils anyone wishing to acquire a philosophy of life. Different schools offered different advice on what people must do in order to have a good life. Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, founded the Cynic school of philosophy, which advocated an ascetic lifestyle. Aristippus, another pupil of Socrates, founded the Cyrenaic school, which advocated a hedonistic lifestyle. In between these extremes, we find, among many other schools, the Epicurean school, the Skeptic school, and, of most interest to us here, the Stoic school, founded by Zeno of Citium.

The philosophers associated with these schools were unapologetic about their interest in philosophies of life. According to Epicurus, for example, “Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind.” And according to the Stoic philosopher Seneca, about whom I will have much to say in this book, “He who studies with a philosopher should take away with him some one good thing every day: he should daily return home a sounder man, or on the way to become sounder.”

This book is written for those seeking a philosophy of life. In the pages that follow, I focus my attention on a philosophy that I have found useful and that I suspect many readers will also find useful. It is the philosophy of the ancient Stoics. The Stoic philosophy of life may be old, but it merits the attention of any modern individual who wishes to have a life that is both mean- ingful and fulfilling—who wishes, that is, to have a good life.

In other words, this book offers advice on how people should live. More precisely, I will act as a conduit for the advice offered by Stoic philosophers two thousand years ago. This is something my fellow philosophers are generally loath to do, but then again, their interest in philosophy is primarily “academic”; their research, that is to say, is primarily theoret- ical or historical. My interest in Stoicism, by way of contrast, is resolutely practical: My goal is to put this philosophy to work in my life and to encourage others to put it to work in theirs. The ancient Stoics, I think, would have encouraged both sorts of endeavor, but they also would have insisted that the primary reason to study Stoicism is so we can put it into practice.

Another thing to realize is that although Stoicism is a philos- ophy, it has a significant psychological component. The Stoics realized that a life plagued with negative emotions—including anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy—will not be a good life. They therefore became acute observers of the workings of the human mind and as a result became some of the most insightful psychologists of the ancient world. They went on to develop techniques for preventing the onset of negative emotions and for extinguishing them when attempts at preven- tion failed. Even those readers who are leery of philosophical speculation should take an interest in these techniques. Who among us, after all, would not like to reduce the number of negative emotions experienced in daily living?

Although I have been studying philosophy for all my adult life, I was, until recently, woefully ignorant of Stoicism. My teachers in college and graduate school never asked me to read the Stoics, and although I am an avid reader, I saw no need to read them on my own. More generally, I saw no need to ponder a philosophy of life. I instead felt comfortable with what is, for almost everyone, the default philosophy of life: to spend one’s days seeking an interesting mix of affluence, social status, and pleasure. My philosophy of life, in other words, was what might charitably be called an enlightened form of hedonism.

In my fifth decade of life, though, events conspired to intro- duce me to Stoicism. The first of these was the 1998 publica- tion by the author Tom Wolfe of A Man in Full. In this novel, one character accidentally discovers the Stoic philosopher Epictetus and then starts spouting his philosophy. I found this to be simultaneously intriguing and puzzling.

Two years later I started doing research for a book about desire. As part of this research, I examined the advice that has been given over the millennia on mastering desire. I started out by seeing what religions, including Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, and Buddhism (and in particular, Zen Buddhism), had to say about desire. I went on to examine the advice on mastering desire offered by philosophers but found that only a relative handful of them had offered such advice. Prominent among those who had were the Hellenistic philoso- phers: the Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics.

In conducting my research on desire, I had an ulterior motive. I had long been intrigued by Zen Buddhism and imag- ined that on taking a closer look at it in connection with my research, I would become a full-fledged convert. But what I found, much to my surprise, was that Stoicism and Zen have certain things in common. They both, for example, stress the importance of contemplating the transitory nature of the world around us and the importance of mastering desire, to the extent that it is possible to do so. They also advise us to pursue tranquility and give us advice on how to attain and maintain it. Furthermore, I came to realize that Stoicism was better suited to my analytical nature than Buddhism was. As a result, I found myself, much to my amazement, toying with the idea of becoming, instead of a practicing Zen Buddhist, a practicing Stoic.

Before I began my research on desire, Stoicism had been, for me, a nonstarter as a philosophy of life, but as I read the Stoics, I discovered that almost everything I thought I knew about them was wrong. To begin with, I knew that the dictionary defines a stoic as “one who is seemingly indifferent to or unaf- fected by joy, grief, pleasure, or pain.”I therefore expected that the uppercase-S Stoics would be lowercase-s stoical—that they would be emotionally repressed individuals. I discovered, though, that the goal of the Stoics was not to banish emotion from life but to banish negative emotions.

When I read the works of the Stoics, I encountered indi- viduals who were cheerful and optimistic about life (even though they made it a point to spend time thinking about all the bad things that could happen to them) and who were fully capable of enjoying life’s pleasures (while at the same time being careful not to be enslaved by those pleasures). I also encountered, much to my surprise, individuals who valued joy; indeed, according to Seneca, what Stoics seek to discover “is how the mind may always pursue a steady and favourable course, may be well-disposed towards itself, and may view its conditions with joy.” He also asserts that someone who prac- tices Stoic principles “must, whether he wills or not, necessarilybe attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys.” Along similar lines, the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus tells us that if we live in accordance with Stoic principles, “a cheerful disposition and secure joy” will automatically follow.

Rather than being passive individuals who were grimly resigned to being on the receiving end of the world’s abuse and injustice, the Stoics were fully engaged in life and worked hard to make the world a better place. Consider, for example, Cato the Younger. (Although he did not contribute to the liter- ature of Stoicism, Cato was a practicing Stoic; indeed, Seneca refers to him as the perfect Stoic.) His Stoicism did not prevent Cato from fighting bravely to restore the Roman republic. Likewise, Seneca seems to have been remarkably energetic: Besides being a philosopher, he was a successful playwright, an advisor to an emperor, and the first-century equivalent of an investment banker. And Marcus Aurelius, besides being a philosopher, was a Roman emperor—indeed, arguably one of the greatest Roman emperors. As I read about the Stoics, I found myself filled with admiration for them. They were courageous, temperate, reasonable, and self-disciplined—traits I would like to possess. They also thought it important for us to fulfill our obligations and to help our fellow humans—values I happen to share.

In my research on desire, I discovered nearly unanimous agreement among thoughtful people that we are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless we can overcome our insatiability. There was also agreement that one wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to want the things we already have. This seemed to be an important insight, but it left open the question of how, exactly, we could accomplish this. The Stoics, I was delighted to discover, had an answer to this question. They developed a fairly simple technique that, if practiced, can make us glad, if only for a time, to be the person we are, living the life we happen to be living, almost regardless of what that life might be.

The more I studied the Stoics, the more I found myself drawn to their philosophy. But when I tried to share with others my newfound enthusiasm for Stoicism, I quickly discov- ered that I had not been alone in misconceiving the philosophy. Friends, relatives, and even my colleagues at the university seemed to think the Stoics were individuals whose goal was to suppress all emotion and who therefore led grim and passive lives. It dawned on me that the Stoics were the victims of a bum rap, one that I myself had only recently helped promote.

This realization alone might have been sufficient to moti- vate me to write a book about the Stoics—a book that would set the record straight—but as it happens, I came to have a second motivation even stronger than this. After learning about Stoicism, I started, in a low-key, experimental fashion, giving it a try as my philosophy of life. The experiment has thus far been sufficiently successful that I feel compelled to report my find- ings to the world at large, in the belief that others might benefit from studying the Stoics and adopting their philosophy of life.

Readers will naturally be curious about what is involved in the practice of Stoicism. In ancient Greece and Rome, a would-be Stoic could have learned how to practice Stoicism by attending a Stoic school, but this is no longer possible. A modern would-be Stoic might, as an alternative, consult the works of the ancient Stoics, but what she will discover on attempting to do so is that many of these works—in particular, those of the Greek Stoics—have been lost. Furthermore, if she reads the works that have survived, she will discover that although they discuss Stoicism at length, they don’t offer a lesson plan, as it were, for novice Stoics. The challenge I faced in writing this book was to construct such a plan from clues scattered throughout Stoic writings.

Although the remainder of this book provides detailed guidelines for would-be Stoics, let me describe here, in a preliminary fashion, some of the things we will want to do if we adopt Stoicism as our philosophy of life.

We will reconsider our goals in living. In particular, we will take to heart the Stoic claim that many of the things we desire— most notably, fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. We will instead turn our attention to the pursuit of tranquility and what the Stoics called virtue. We will discover that Stoic virtue has very little in common with what people today mean by the word. We will also discover that the tranquility the Stoics sought is not the kind of tranquility that might be brought on by the ingestion of a tranquilizer; it is not, in other words, a zombie-like state. It is instead a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as anger, grief, anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions—in particular, joy.

We will study the various psychological techniques devel- oped by the Stoics for attaining and maintaining tranquility, and we will employ these techniques in daily living. We will, for example, take care to distinguish between things we can control and things we can’t, so that we will no longer worry about the things we can’t control and will instead focus our attention on the things we can control. We will also recognize how easy it is for other people to disturb our tranquility, and we will therefore practice Stoic strategies to prevent them from upsetting us.

Finally, we will become a more thoughtful observer of our own life. We will watch ourselves as we go about our daily business and will later reflect on what we saw, trying to iden- tify the sources of distress in our life and thinking about how to avoid that distress.

Practicing Stoicism will obviously take effort, but this is true of all genuine philosophies of life. Indeed, even “enlight- ened hedonism” takes effort. The enlightened hedonist’s grand goal in living is to maximize the pleasure he experiences in the course of a lifetime. To practice this philosophy of life, he will spend time discovering, exploring, and ranking sources of pleasure and investigating any untoward side effects they might have. The enlightened hedonist will then devise strate- gies for maximizing the amount of pleasure he experiences. (Unenlightened hedonism, in which a person thoughtlessly seeks short-term gratification, is not, I think, a coherent philos- ophy of life.)

The effort required to practice Stoicism will probably be greater than that required to practice enlightened hedonism but less than that required to practice, say, Zen Buddhism.

A Zen Buddhist will have to meditate, a practice that is both time-consuming and (in some of its forms) physically and mentally challenging. The practice of Stoicism, in contrast, doesn’t require us to set aside blocks of time in which to “do Stoicism.” It does require us periodically to reflect on our life, but these periods of reflection can generally be squeezed into odd moments of the day, such as when we are stuck in traffic or—this was Seneca’s recommendation—when we are lying in bed waiting for sleep to come.

When assessing the “costs” associated with practicing Stoicism or any other philosophy of life, readers should realize that there are costs associated with not having a philosophy of life. I have already mentioned one such cost: the danger that you will spend your days pursuing valueless things and will therefore waste your life.

Some readers might, at this point, wonder whether the practice of Stoicism is compatible with their religious beliefs. In the case of most religions, I think it is. Christians in partic- ular will find that Stoic doctrines resonate with their religious views. They will, for example, share the Stoics’ desire to attain tranquility, although Christians might call it peace. They will appreciate Marcus Aurelius’s injunction to “love mankind.”And when they encounter Epictetus’s observation that some things are up to us and some things are not, and that if we have any sense at all, we will focus our energies on the things that are up to us, Christians will be reminded of the “Serenity Prayer,” often attributed to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Having said this, I should add that it is also possible for someone simultaneously to be an agnostic and a practicing Stoic.

The remainder of this book is divided into four parts. In part 1, I describe the birth of philosophy. Although modern philos- ophers tend to spend their days debating esoteric topics, the primary goal of most ancient philosophers was to help ordi- nary people live better lives. Stoicism, as we shall see, was one of the most popular and successful of the ancient schools of philosophy.

In parts and 3, I explain what we must do in order to prac- tice Stoicism. I start by describing the psychological techniques the Stoics developed to attain and subsequently maintain tran- quility. I then describe Stoic advice on how best to deal with the stresses of everyday life: How, for example, should we respond when someone insults us? Although much has changed in the past two millennia, human psychology has changed little. This is why those of us living in the twenty-first century can benefit from the advice that philosophers such as Seneca offered to first-century Romans.

Finally, in part of this book, I defend Stoicism against various criticisms, and I reevaluate Stoic psychology in light of modern scientific findings. I end the book by relating the insights I have gained in my own practice of Stoicism.

My fellow academics might have an interest in this book; they might, for example, be curious about my interpretation of various Stoic utterances. The audience I am most interested in reaching, though, is ordinary individuals who worry that they might be misliving. This includes those who have come to the realization that they lack a coherent philosophy of life and as a result are floundering in their daily activities: what they work to accomplish one day only undoes what they accomplished the day before. It also includes those who have a philosophy of life but worry that it is somehow defective.

I wrote this book with the following question in mind: If the ancient Stoics had taken it upon themselves to write a guidebook for twenty-first-century individuals—a book that would tell us how to have a good life—what might that book have looked like? The pages that follow are my answer to this question.

Link: Being a Better Online Reader

The science of why (at least for now) we absorb and understand less when we read digitally instead of in print.

Soon after Maryanne Wolf published “Proust and the Squid,” a history of the science and the development of the reading brain from antiquity to the twenty-first century, she began to receive letters from readers. Hundreds of them. While the backgrounds of the writers varied, a theme began to emerge: the more reading moved online, the less students seemed to understand. There were the architects who wrote to her about students who relied so heavily on ready digital information that they were unprepared to address basic problems onsite. There were the neurosurgeons who worried about the “cut-and-paste chart mentality” that their students exhibited, missing crucial details because they failed to delve deeply enough into any one case. And there were, of course, the English teachers who lamented that no one wanted to read Henry James anymore. As the letters continued to pour in, Wolf experienced a growing realization: in the seven years it had taken her to research and write her account, reading had changed profoundly—and the ramifications could be felt far beyond English departments and libraries. She called the rude awakening her “Rip van Winkle moment,” and decided that it was important enough to warrant another book. What was going on with these students and professionals? Was the digital format to blame for their superficial approaches, or was something else at work?

Certainly, as we turn to online reading, the physiology of the reading process itself shifts; we don’t read the same way online as we do on paper. Anne Mangen, a professor at the National Centre for Reading Education and Research at the University of Stavanger, in Norway, points out that reading is always an interaction between a person and a technology, be it a computer or an e-reader or even a bound book. Reading “involves factors not usually acknowledged,” she told me. “The ergonomics, the haptics of the device itself. The tangibility of paper versus the intangibility of something digital.” The contrast of pixels, the layout of the words, the concept of scrolling versus turning a page, the physicality of a book versus the ephemerality of a screen, the ability to hyperlink and move from source to source within seconds online—all these variables translate into a different reading experience.

The screen, for one, seems to encourage more skimming behavior: when we scroll, we tend to read more quickly (and less deeply) than when we move sequentially from page to page. Online, the tendency is compounded as a way of coping with an overload of information. There are so many possible sources, so many pages, so many alternatives to any article or book or document that we read more quickly to compensate. When Ziming Liu, a professor at San Jose State University whose research centers on digital reading and the use of e-books, conducted a review of studies that compared print and digital reading experiences, supplementing their conclusions with his own research, he found that several things had changed. On screen, people tended to browse and scan, to look for keywords, and to read in a less linear, more selective fashion. On the page, they tended to concentrate more on following the text. Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading: the more we read online, the more likely we were to move quickly, without stopping to ponder any one thought.

The online world, too, tends to exhaust our resources more quickly than the page. We become tired from the constant need to filter out hyperlinks and possible distractions. And our eyes themselves may grow fatigued from the constantly shifting screens, layouts, colors, and contrasts, an effect that holds for e-readers as well as computers. Mary Dyson, a psychologist at the University of Reading who studies how we perceive and interact with typography and design online and in print, has found that the layout of a text can have a significant effect on the reading experience. We read more quickly when lines are longer, but only to a point. When lines are too long, it becomes taxing to move your eyes from the end of one to the start of the next. We read more efficiently when text is arranged in a single column rather than multiple columns or sections. The font, color, and size of text can all act in tandem to make our reading experience easier or more difficult. And while these variables surely exist on paper just as they do on-screen, the range of formats and layouts online is far greater than it is in print. Online, you can find yourself transitioning to entirely new layouts from moment to moment, and, each time you do so, your eyes and your reading approach need to adjust. Each adjustment, in turn, takes mental and physical energy.

The shift from print to digital reading may lead to more than changes in speed and physical processing. It may come at a cost to understanding, analyzing, and evaluating a text. Much of Mangen’s research focusses on how the format of reading material may affect not just eye movement or reading strategy but broader processing abilities. One of her main hypotheses is that the physical presence of a book—its heft, its feel, the weight and order of its pages—may have more than a purely emotional or nostalgic significance. People prefer physical books, not out of old-fashioned attachment but because the nature of the object itself has deeper repercussions for reading and comprehension. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard some say it’s like they haven’t read anything properly if they’ve read it on a Kindle. The reading has left more of an ephemeral experience,” she told me. Her hunch is that the physicality of a printed page may matter for those reading experiences when you need a firmer grounding in the material. The text you read on a Kindle or computer simply doesn’t have the same tangibility.

In new research that she and her colleagues will present for the first time at the upcoming conference of the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature and Media, in Torino, Italy, Mangen is finding that that may indeed be the case. She, along with her frequent collaborator Jean-Luc Velay, Pascal Robinet, and Gerard Olivier, had students read a short story—Elizabeth George’s “Lusting for Jenny, Inverted” (their version, a French translation, was called “Jenny, Mon Amour”)—in one of two formats: a pocket paperback or a Kindle e-book. When Mangen tested the readers’ comprehension, she found that the medium mattered a lot. When readers were asked to place a series of events from the story in chronological order—a simple plot-reconstruction task, not requiring any deep analysis or critical thinking—those who had read the story in print fared significantly better, making fewer mistakes and recreating an over-all more accurate version of the story. The words looked identical—Kindle e-ink is designed to mimic the printed page—but their physical materiality mattered for basic comprehension.

Wolf’s concerns go far beyond simple comprehension. She fears that as we turn to digital formats, we may see a negative effect on the process that she calls deep reading. Deep reading isn’t how we approach looking for news or information, or trying to get the gist of something. It’s the “sophisticated comprehension processes,” as Wolf calls it, that those young architects and doctors were missing. “Reading is a bridge to thought,” she says. “And it’s that process that I think is the real endangered aspect of reading. In the young, what happens to the formation of the complete reading circuitry? Will it be short-circuited and have less time to develop the deep-reading processes? And in already developed readers like you and me, will those processes atrophy?”

Of course, as Wolf is quick to point out, there’s still no longitudinal data about digital reading. As she put it, “We’re in a place of apprehension rather than comprehension.” And it’s quite possible that the apprehension is misplaced: perhaps digital reading isn’t worse so much as different than print reading. Julie Coiro, who studies digital reading comprehension in elementary- and middle-school students at the University of Rhode Island, has found that good reading in print doesn’t necessarily translate to good reading on-screen. The students do not only differ in their abilities and preferences; they also need different sorts of training to excel at each medium. The online world, she argues, may require students to exercise much greater self-control than a physical book. “In reading on paper, you may have to monitor yourself once, to actually pick up the book,” she says. “On the Internet, that monitoring and self-regulation cycle happens again and again. And if you’re the kind of person who’s naturally good at self-monitoring, you don’t have a problem. But if you’re a reader who hasn’t been trained to pay attention, each time you click a link, you’re constructing your own text. And when you’re asked comprehension questions, it’s like you picked up the wrong book.”

Maybe the decline of deep reading isn’t due to reading skill atrophy but to the need to develop a very different sort of skill, that of teaching yourself to focus your attention. (Interestingly, Cairo found that gamers were often better online readers: they were more comfortable in the medium and better able to stay on task.) In a study comparing digital and print comprehension of a short nonfiction text, Rakefet Ackerman and Morris Goldsmith found that students fared equally well on a post-reading multiple-choice test when they were given a fixed amount of time to read, but that their digital performance plummeted when they had to regulate their time themselves. The digital deficit, they suggest, isn’t a result of the medium as such but rather of a failure of self-knowledge and self-control: we don’t realize that digital comprehension may take just as much time as reading a book.

Last year, Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues found that multitasking while reading on a computer or a tablet slowed readers down, but their comprehension remained unaffected. What did suffer was the quality of a subsequent report that they wrote to synthesize their reading: if they read the original texts on paper or a computer with no Internet access, their end product was superior to that of their Internet-enabled counterparts. If the online readers took notes on paper, however, the negative effects of Internet access were significantly reduced. It wasn’t the screen that disrupted the fuller synthesis of deep reading; it was the allure of multitasking on the Internet and a failure to properly mitigate its impact.

Indeed, some data suggest that, in certain environments and on certain types of tasks, we can read equally well in any format. As far back as 1988, the University College of Swansea psychologists David Oborne and Doreen Holton compared text comprehension for reading on different screens and paper formats (dark characters on a light background, or light characters on a dark background), and found no differences in speed and comprehension between the four conditions. Their subjects, of course, didn’t have the Internet to distract them. In 2011, Annette Taylor, a psychologist at the University of San Diego, similarly found that students performed equally well on a twenty-question multiple-choice comprehension test whether they had read a chapter on-screen or on paper. Given a second test one week later, the two groups’ performances were still indistinguishable. And it’s not just reading. Last year, Sigal Eden and Yoram Eshet-Alkalai found no difference in accuracy between students who edited a six-hundred-word paper on the screen and those who worked on paper. Those who edited on-screen did so faster, but their performance didn’t suffer.

We need to be aware of the effects of deeper digital immersion, Wolf says, but we should be equally cautious when we draw causal arrows or place blame without adequate longitudinal research. “I’m both the Cassandra and the advocate of digital reading,” she says. Maybe her letter writers’ students weren’t victims of digitization so much as victims of insufficient training—and insufficient care—in the tools of managing a shifting landscape of reading and thinking. Deep-reading skills, Wolf points out, may not be emphasized in schools that conform to the Common Core, for instance, and need to meet certain test-taking reading targets that emphasize gist at the expense of depth. “Physical, tangible books give children a lot of time,” she says. “And the digital milieu speeds everything up. So we need to do things much more slowly and gradually than we are.” Not only should digital reading be introduced more slowly into the curriculum; it also should be integrated with the more immersive reading skills that deeper comprehension requires.

Wolf is optimistic that we can learn to navigate online reading just as deeply as we once did print—if we go about it with the necessary thoughtfulness. In a new study, the introduction of an interactive annotation component helped improve comprehension and reading strategy use in a group of fifth graders. It turns out that they could read deeply. They just had to be taught how. Wolf is now working on digital apps to train students in the tools of deep reading, to use the digital world to teach the sorts of skills we tend to associate with quiet contemplation and physical volumes. “The same plasticity that allows us to form a reading circuit to begin with, and short-circuit the development of deep reading if we allow it, also allows us to learn how to duplicate deep reading in a new environment,” she says. “We cannot go backwards. As children move more toward an immersion in digital media, we have to figure out ways to read deeply there.”

Wolf has decided that, despite all of her training in deep reading, she, too, needs some outside help. To finish her book, she has ensconced herself in a small village in France with shaky mobile reception and shakier Internet. Faced with the endless distraction of the digital world, she has chosen to tune out just a bit of it. She’s not going backward; she’s merely adapting.

Link: BBC's In Our Time: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World

Melvyn Bragg and guests David Bradshaw, Daniel Pick and Michele Barrett discuss Aldous Huxley’s dystopian 1932 novel, Brave New World. In Act V Scene I of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the character Miranda declares ‘O wonder! How many Godly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O Brave new world! That has such people in it!’. It is perhaps the only line of Shakespeare to be made famous by someone else, for Brave New World is not associated with Prospero’s Island of sprites, magic and wondrous noises, but with Aldous Huxley’s dystopia of eugenics, soma and zero gravity tennis. A world, incidentally, upon which literary references to Shakespeare would be entirely lost. Brave New World is a lurid, satirical dystopia in which the hopes and fears of the 1930s are writ large and yet the book seems uncannily prescient about our own time. But why did Huxley feel the need to write it and is Brave New World really as dystopian as we are led to believe?

Link: The Enchiridion by Epictetus

1. Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

2. Remember that following desire promises the attainment of that of which you are desirous; and aversion promises the avoiding that to which you are averse. However, he who fails to obtain the object of his desire is disappointed, and he who incurs the object of his aversion wretched. If, then, you confine your aversion to those objects only which are contrary to the natural use of your faculties, which you have in your own control, you will never incur anything to which you are averse. But if you are averse to sickness, or death, or poverty, you will be wretched. Remove aversion, then, from all things that are not in our control, and transfer it to things contrary to the nature of what is in our control. But, for the present, totally suppress desire: for, if you desire any of the things which are not in your own control, you must necessarily be disappointed; and of those which are, and which it would be laudable to desire, nothing is yet in your possession. Use only the appropriate actions of pursuit and avoidance; and even these lightly, and with gentleness and reservation.

3. With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.

4. When you are going about any action, remind yourself what nature the action is. If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.” And in the same manner with regard to every other action. For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have it ready to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.

5. Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.

6. Don’t be prideful with any excellence that is not your own. If a horse should be prideful and say, ” I am handsome,” it would be supportable. But when you are prideful, and say, ” I have a handsome horse,” know that you are proud of what is, in fact, only the good of the horse. What, then, is your own? Only your reaction to the appearances of things. Thus, when you behave conformably to nature in reaction to how things appear, you will be proud with reason; for you will take pride in some good of your own.

7. Consider when, on a voyage, your ship is anchored; if you go on shore to get water you may along the way amuse yourself with picking up a shellish, or an onion. However, your thoughts and continual attention ought to be bent towards the ship, waiting for the captain to call on board; you must then immediately leave all these things, otherwise you will be thrown into the ship, bound neck and feet like a sheep. So it is with life. If, instead of an onion or a shellfish, you are given a wife or child, that is fine. But if the captain calls, you must run to the ship, leaving them, and regarding none of them. But if you are old, never go far from the ship: lest, when you are called, you should be unable to come in time.

8. Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.

9. Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.

10. With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it. If you see an attractive person, you will find that self-restraint is the ability you have against your desire. If you are in pain, you will find fortitude. If you hear unpleasant language, you will find patience. And thus habituated, the appearances of things will not hurry you away along with them.

11. Never say of anything, “I have lost it”; but, “I have returned it.” Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned. Is your estate taken away? Well, and is not that likewise returned? “But he who took it away is a bad man.” What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don’t view it as your own, just as travelers view a hotel.

12. If you want to improve, reject such reasonings as these: "If I neglect my affairs, I’ll have no income; if I don’t correct my servant, he will be bad.” For it is better to die with hunger, exempt from grief and fear, than to live in affluence with perturbation; and it is better your servant should be bad, than you unhappy.

Begin therefore from little things. Is a little oil spilt? A little wine stolen? Say to yourself, “This is the price paid for apathy, for tranquillity, and nothing is to be had for nothing.” When you call your servant, it is possible that he may not come; or, if he does, he may not do what you want. But he is by no means of such importance that it should be in his power to give you any disturbance.

13. If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things. Don’t wish to be thought to know anything; and even if you appear to be somebody important to others, distrust yourself. For, it is difficult to both keep your faculty of choice in a state conformable to nature, and at the same time acquire external things. But while you are careful about the one, you must of necessity neglect the other.

14. If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own. So likewise, if you wish your servant to be without fault, you are a fool; for you wish vice not to be vice,” but something else. But, if you wish to have your desires undisappointed, this is in your own control. Exercise, therefore, what is in your control. He is the master of every other person who is able to confer or remove whatever that person wishes either to have or to avoid. Whoever, then, would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others else he must necessarily be a slave.

15. Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass by you? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait till it reaches you. Do this with regard to children, to a wife, to public posts, to riches, and you will eventually be a worthy partner of the feasts of the gods. And if you don’t even take the things which are set before you, but are able even to reject them, then you will not only be a partner at the feasts of the gods, but also of their empire. For, by doing this, Diogenes, Heraclitus and others like them, deservedly became, and were called, divine.

16. When you see anyone weeping in grief because his son has gone abroad, or is dead, or because he has suffered in his affairs, be careful that the appearance may not misdirect you. Instead, distinguish within your own mind, and be prepared to say, “It’s not the accident that distresses this person., because it doesn’t distress another person; it is the judgment which he makes about it.” As far as words go, however, don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.

17. Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.

18. When a raven happens to croak unluckily, don’t allow the appearance hurry you away with it, but immediately make the distinction to yourself, and say, “None of these things are foretold to me; but either to my paltry body, or property, or reputation, or children, or wife. But to me all omens are lucky, if I will. For whichever of these things happens, it is in my control to derive advantage from it.”

19. You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer. When, therefore, you see anyone eminent in honors, or power, or in high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be hurried away with the appearance, and to pronounce him happy; for, if the essence of good consists in things in our own control, there will be no room for envy or emulation. But, for your part, don’t wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control.

20. Remember, that not he who gives ill language or a blow insults, but the principle which represents these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you. Try, therefore, in the first place, not to be hurried away with the appearance. For if you once gain time and respite, you will more easily command yourself.

21. Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible be daily before your eyes, but chiefly death, and you win never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.

22. If you have an earnest desire of attaining to philosophy, prepare yourself from the very first to be laughed at, to be sneered by the multitude, to hear them say,.” He is returned to us a philosopher all at once,” and ” Whence this supercilious look?” Now, for your part, don’t have a supercilious look indeed; but keep steadily to those things which appear best to you as one appointed by God to this station. For remember that, if you adhere to the same point, those very persons who at first ridiculed will afterwards admire you. But if you are conquered by them, you will incur a double ridicule.

23. If you ever happen to turn your attention to externals, so as to wish to please anyone, be assured that you have ruined your scheme of life. Be contented, then, in everything with being a philosopher; and, if you wish to be thought so likewise by anyone, appear so to yourself, and it will suffice you.

24. Don’t allow such considerations as these distress you. "I will live in dishonor, and be nobody anywhere." For, if dishonor is an evil, you can no more be involved in any evil by the means of another, than be engaged in anything base. Is it any business of yours, then, to get power, or to be admitted to an entertainment? By no means. How, then, after all, is this a dishonor? And how is it true that you will be nobody anywhere, when you ought to be somebody in those things only which are in your own control, in which you may be of the greatest consequence? “But my friends will be unassisted.” — What do you mean by unassisted? They will not have money from you, nor will you make them Roman citizens. Who told you, then, that these are among the things in our own control, and not the affair of others? And who can give to another the things which he has not himself? “Well, but get them, then, that we too may have a share.” If I can get them with the preservation of my own honor and fidelity and greatness of mind, show me the way and I will get them; but if you require me to lose my own proper good that you may gain what is not good, consider how inequitable and foolish you are. Besides, which would you rather have, a sum of money, or a friend of fidelity and honor? Rather assist me, then, to gain this character than require me to do those things by which I may lose it. Well, but my country, say you, as far as depends on me, will be unassisted. Here again, what assistance is this you mean? “It will not have porticoes nor baths of your providing.” And what signifies that? Why, neither does a smith provide it with shoes, or a shoemaker with arms. It is enough if everyone fully performs his own proper business. And were you to supply it with another citizen of honor and fidelity, would not he be of use to it? Yes. Therefore neither are you yourself useless to it. “What place, then, say you, will I hold in the state?” Whatever you can hold with the preservation of your fidelity and honor. But if, by desiring to be useful to that, you lose these, of what use can you be to your country when you are become faithless and void of shame.

25. Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don’t be grieved that you have not gotten them. And remember that you cannot, without using the same means [which others do] to acquire things not in our own control, expect to be thought worthy of an equal share of them. For how can he who does not frequent the door of any [great] man, does not attend him, does not praise him, have an equal share with him who does? You are unjust, then, and insatiable, if you are unwilling to pay the price for which these things are sold, and would have them for nothing. For how much is lettuce sold? Fifty cents, for instance. If another, then, paying fifty cents, takes the lettuce, and you, not paying it, go without them, don’t imagine that he has gained any advantage over you. For as he has the lettuce, so you have the fifty cents which you did not give. So, in the present case, you have not been invited to such a person’s entertainment, because you have not paid him the price for which a supper is sold. It is sold for praise; it is sold for attendance. Give him then the value, if it is for your advantage. But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead. Have you nothing, then, instead of the supper? Yes, indeed, you have: the not praising him, whom you don’t like to praise; the not bearing with his behavior at coming in.

26. The will of nature may be learned from those things in which we don’t distinguish from each other. For example, when our neighbor’s boy breaks a cup, or the like, we are presently ready to say, “These things will happen.” Be assured, then, that when your own cup likewise is broken, you ought to be affected just as when another’s cup was broken. Apply this in like manner to greater things. Is the child or wife of another dead? There is no one who would not say, “This is a human accident.” but if anyone’s own child happens to die, it is presently, “Alas I how wretched am I!” But it should be remembered how we are affected in hearing the same thing concerning others.

27. As a mark is not set up for the sake of missing the aim, so neither does the nature of evil exist in the world.

28. If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?

29. In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist. “I would conquer at the Olympic games.” But consider what precedes and follows, and then, if it is for your advantage, engage in the affair. You must conform to rules, submit to a diet, refrain from dainties; exercise your body, whether you choose it or not, at a stated hour, in heat and cold; you must drink no cold water, nor sometimes even wine. In a word, you must give yourself up to your master, as to a physician. Then, in the combat, you may be thrown into a ditch, dislocate your arm, turn your ankle, swallow dust, be whipped, and, after all, lose the victory. When you have evaluated all this, if your inclination still holds, then go to war. Otherwise, take notice, you will behave like children who sometimes play like wrestlers, sometimes gladiators, sometimes blow a trumpet, and sometimes act a tragedy when they have seen and admired these shows. Thus you too will be at one time a wrestler, at another a gladiator, now a philosopher, then an orator; but with your whole soul, nothing at all. Like an ape, you mimic all you see, and one thing after another is sure to please you, but is out of favor as soon as it becomes familiar. For you have never entered upon anything considerately, nor after having viewed the whole matter on all sides, or made any scrutiny into it, but rashly, and with a cold inclination. Thus some, when they have seen a philosopher and heard a man speaking like Euphrates (though, indeed, who can speak like him?), have a mind to be philosophers too. Consider first, man, what the matter is, and what your own nature is able to bear. If you would be a wrestler, consider your shoulders, your back, your thighs; for different persons are made for different things. Do you think that you can act as you do, and be a philosopher? That you can eat and drink, and be angry and discontented as you are now? You must watch, you must labor, you must get the better of certain appetites, must quit your acquaintance, be despised by your servant, be laughed at by those you meet; come off worse than others in everything, in magistracies, in honors, in courts of judicature. When you have considered all these things round, approach, if you please; if, by parting with them, you have a mind to purchase apathy, freedom, and tranquillity. If not, don’t come here; don’t, like children, be one while a philosopher, then a publican, then an orator, and then one of Caesar’s officers. These things are not consistent. You must be one man, either good or bad. You must cultivate either your own ruling faculty or externals, and apply yourself either to things within or without you; that is, be either a philosopher, or one of the vulgar.

30. Duties are universally measured by relations. Is anyone a father? If so, it is implied that the children should take care of him, submit to him in everything, patiently listen to his reproaches, his correction. But he is a bad father. Is you naturally entitled, then, to a good father? No, only to a father. Is a brother unjust? Well, keep your own situation towards him. Consider not what he does, but what you are to do to keep your own faculty of choice in a state conformable to nature. For another will not hurt you unless you please. You will then be hurt when you think you are hurt. In this manner, therefore, you will find, from the idea of a neighbor, a citizen, a general, the corresponding duties if you accustom yourself to contemplate the several relations.

31. Be assured that the essential property of piety towards the gods is to form right opinions concerning them, as existing “I and as governing the universe with goodness and justice. And fix yourself in this resolution, to obey them, and yield to them, and willingly follow them in all events, as produced by the most perfect understanding. For thus you will never find fault with the gods, nor accuse them as neglecting you. And it is not possible for this to be effected any other way than by withdrawing yourself from things not in our own control, and placing good or evil in those only which are. For if you suppose any of the things not in our own control to be either good or evil, when you are disappointed of what you wish, or incur what you would avoid, you must necessarily find fault with and blame the authors. For every animal is naturally formed to fly and abhor things that appear hurtful, and the causes of them; and to pursue and admire those which appear beneficial, and the causes of them. It is impractical, then, that one who supposes himself to be hurt should be happy about the person who, he thinks, hurts him, just as it is impossible to be happy about the hurt itself. Hence, also, a father is reviled by a son, when he does not impart to him the things which he takes to be good; and the supposing empire to be a good made Polynices and Eteocles mutually enemies. On this account the husbandman, the sailor, the merchant, on this account those who lose wives and children, revile the gods. For where interest is, there too is piety placed. So that, whoever is careful to regulate his desires and aversions as he ought, is, by the very same means, careful of piety likewise. But it is also incumbent on everyone to offer libations and sacrifices and first fruits, conformably to the customs of his country, with purity, and not in a slovenly manner, nor negligently, nor sparingly, nor beyond his ability.

32. When you have recourse to divination, remember that you know not what the event will be, and you come to learn it of the diviner; but of what nature it is you know before you come, at least if you are a philosopher. For if it is among the things not in our own control, it can by no means be either good or evil. Don’t, therefore, bring either desire or aversion with you to the diviner (else you will approach him trembling), but first acquire a distinct knowledge that every event is indifferent and nothing to you., of whatever sort it may be, for it will be in your power to make a right use of it, and this no one can hinder; then come with confidence to the gods, as your counselors, and afterwards, when any counsel is given you, remember what counselors you have assumed, and whose advice you will neglect if you disobey. Come to divination, as Socrates prescribed, in cases of which the whole consideration relates to the event, and in which no opportunities are afforded by reason, or any other art, to discover the thing proposed to be learned. When, therefore, it is our duty to share the danger of a friend or of our country, we ought not to consult the oracle whether we will share it with them or not. For, though the diviner should forewarn you that the victims are unfavorable, this means no more than that either death or mutilation or exile is portended. But we have reason within us, and it directs, even with these hazards, to the greater diviner, the Pythian god, who cast out of the temple the person who gave no assistance to his friend while another was murdering him.

33. Immediately prescribe some character and form of conduce to yourself, which you may keep both alone and in company.

Be for the most part silent, or speak merely what is necessary, and in few words. We may, however, enter, though sparingly, into discourse sometimes when occasion calls for it, but not on any of the common subjects, of gladiators, or horse races, or athletic champions, or feasts, the vulgar topics of conversation; but principally not of men, so as either to blame, or praise, or make comparisons. If you are able, then, by your own conversation bring over that of your company to proper subjects; but, if you happen to be taken among strangers, be silent.

Don’t allow your laughter be much, nor on many occasions, nor profuse.

Avoid swearing, if possible, altogether; if not, as far as you are able.

Avoid public and vulgar entertainments; but, if ever an occasion calls you to them, keep your attention upon the stretch, that you may not imperceptibly slide into vulgar manners. For be assured that if a person be ever so sound himself, yet, if his companion be infected, he who converses with him will be infected likewise.

Provide things relating to the body no further than mere use; as meat, drink, clothing, house, family. But strike off and reject everything relating to show and delicacy.

As far as possible, before marriage, keep yourself pure from familiarities with women, and, if you indulge them, let it be lawfully.” But don’t therefore be troublesome and full of reproofs to those who use these liberties, nor frequently boast that you yourself don’t.

If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: ” He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.”

It is not necessary for you to appear often at public spectacles; but if ever there is a proper occasion for you to be there, don’t appear more solicitous for anyone than for yourself; that is, wish things to be only just as they are, and him only to conquer who is the conqueror, for thus you will meet with no hindrance. But abstain entirely from declamations and derision and violent emotions. And when you come away, don’t discourse a great deal on what has passed, and what does not contribute to your own amendment. For it would appear by such discourse that you were immoderately struck with the show.

Go not [of your own accord] to the rehearsals of any
authors , nor appear [at them] readily. But, if you do appear, keepyour gravity and sedateness, and at the same time avoid being morose.

When you are going to confer with anyone, and particularly of those in a superior station, represent to yourself how Socrates or Zeno would behave in such a case, and you will not be at a loss to make a proper use of whatever may occur.

When you are going to any of the people in power, represent to yourself that you will not find him at home; that you will not be admitted; that the doors will not be opened to you; that he will take no notice of you. If, with all this, it is your duty to go, bear what happens, and never say [to yourself], ” It was not worth so much.” For this is vulgar, and like a man dazed by external things.

In parties of conversation, avoid a frequent and excessive mention of your own actions and dangers. For, however agreeable it may be to yourself to mention the risks you have run, it is not equally agreeable to others to hear your adventures. Avoid, likewise, an endeavor to excite laughter. For this is a slippery point, which may throw you into vulgar manners, and, besides, may be apt to lessen you in the esteem of your acquaintance. Approaches to indecent discourse are likewise dangerous. Whenever, therefore, anything of this sort happens, if there be a proper opportunity, rebuke him who makes advances that way; or, at least, by silence and blushing and a forbidding look, show yourself to be displeased by such talk.

34. If you are struck by the appearance of any promised pleasure, guard yourself against being hurried away by it; but let the affair wait your leisure, and procure yourself some delay. Then bring to your mind both points of time: that in which you will enjoy the pleasure, and that in which you will repent and reproach yourself after you have enjoyed it; and set before you, in opposition to these, how you will be glad and applaud yourself if you abstain. And even though it should appear to you a seasonable gratification, take heed that its enticing, and agreeable and attractive force may not subdue you; but set in opposition to this how much better it is to be conscious of having gained so great a victory.

35. When you do anything from a clear judgment that it ought to be done, never shun the being seen to do it, even though the world should make a wrong supposition about it; for, if you don’t act right, shun the action itself; but, if you do, why are you afraid of those who censure you wrongly?

36. As the proposition, “Either it is day or it is night,” is extremely proper for a disjunctive argument, but quite improper in a conjunctive one, so, at a feast, to choose the largest share is very suitable to the bodily appetite, but utterly inconsistent with the social spirit of an entertainment. When you eat with another, then, remember not only the value of those things which are set before you to the body, but the value of that behavior which ought to be observed towards the person who gives the entertainment.

37. If you have assumed any character above your strength, you have both made an ill figure in that and quitted one which you might have supported.

38. When walking, you are careful not to step on a nail or turn your foot; so likewise be careful not to hurt the ruling faculty of your mind. And, if we were to guard against this in every action, we should undertake the action with the greater safety.

39. The body is to everyone the measure of the possessions proper for it, just as the foot is of the shoe. If, therefore, you stop at this, you will keep the measure; but if you move beyond it, you must necessarily be carried forward, as down a cliff; as in the case of a shoe, if you go beyond its fitness to the foot, it comes first to be gilded, then purple, and then studded with jewels. For to that which once exceeds a due measure, there is no bound.

40. Women from fourteen years old are flattered with the title of “mistresses” by the men. Therefore, perceiving that they are regarded only as qualified to give the men pleasure, they begin to adorn themselves, and in that to place ill their hopes. We should, therefore, fix our attention on making them sensible that they are valued for the appearance of decent, modest and discreet behavior.

41. It is a mark of want of genius to spend much time in things relating to the body, as to be long in our exercises, in eating and drinking, and in the discharge of other animal functions. These should be done incidentally and slightly, and our whole attention be engaged in the care of the understanding.

42. When any person harms you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he acts or speaks from a supposition of its being his duty. Now, it is not possible that he should follow what appears right to you, but what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived. For if anyone should suppose a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt, but he who is deceived about it. Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, “It seemed so to him.”

43. Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, don’t lay hold on the action by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be carried; but by the opposite, that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it, as it is to be carried.

44. These reasonings are unconnected: “I am richer than you, therefore I am better”; “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better.” The connection is rather this: “I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours;” “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours.” But you, after all, are neither property nor style.

45. Does anyone bathe in a mighty little time? Don’t say that he does it ill, but in a mighty little time. Does anyone drink a great quantity of wine? Don’t say that he does ill, but that he drinks a great quantity. For, unless you perfectly understand the principle from which anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill? Thus you will not run the hazard of assenting to any appearances but such as you fully comprehend.

46. Never call yourself a philosopher, nor talk a great deal among the unlearned about theorems, but act conformably to them. Thus, at an entertainment, don’t talk how persons ought to eat, but eat as you ought. For remember that in this manner Socrates also universally avoided all ostentation. And when persons came to him and desired to be recommended by him to philosophers, he took and- recommended them, so well did he bear being overlooked. So that if ever any talk should happen among the unlearned concerning philosophic theorems, be you, for the most part, silent. For there is great danger in immediately throwing out what you have not digested. And, if anyone tells you that you know nothing, and you are not nettled at it, then you may be sure that you have begun your business. For sheep don’t throw up the grass to show the shepherds how much they have eaten; but, inwardly digesting their food, they outwardly produce wool and milk. Thus, therefore, do you likewise not show theorems to the unlearned, but the actions produced by them after they have been digested.

47. When you have brought yourself to supply the necessities of your body at a small price, don’t pique yourself upon it; nor, if you drink water, be saying upon every occasion, “I drink water.” But first consider how much more sparing and patient of hardship the poor are than we. But if at any time you would inure yourself by exercise to labor, and bearing hard trials, do it for your own sake, and not for the world; don’t grasp statues, but, when you are violently thirsty, take a little cold water in your mouth, and spurt it out and tell nobody.

48. The condition and characteristic of a vulgar person, is, that he never expects either benefit or hurt from himself, but from externals. The condition and characteristic of a philosopher is, that he expects all hurt and benefit from himself. The marks of a proficient are, that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, accuses no one, says nothing concerning himself as being anybody, or knowing anything: when he is, in any instance, hindered or restrained, he accuses himself; and, if he is praised, he secretly laughs at the person who praises him; and, if he is censured, he makes no defense. But he goes about with the caution of sick or injured people, dreading to move anything that is set right, before it is perfectly fixed. He suppresses all desire in himself; he transfers his aversion to those things only which thwart the proper use of our own faculty of choice; the exertion of his active powers towards anything is very gentle; if he appears stupid or ignorant, he does not care, and, in a word, he watches himself as an enemy, and one in ambush.

49. When anyone shows himself overly confident in ability to understand and interpret the works of Chrysippus, say to yourself, ” Unless Chrysippus had written obscurely, this person would have had no subject for his vanity. But what do I desire? To understand nature and follow her. I ask, then, who interprets her, and, finding Chrysippus does, I have recourse to him. I don’t understand his writings. I seek, therefore, one to interpret them.” So far there is nothing to value myself upon. And when I find an interpreter, what remains is to make use of his instructions. This alone is the valuable thing. But, if I admire nothing but merely the interpretation, what do I become more than a grammarian instead of a philosopher? Except, indeed, that instead of Homer I interpret Chrysippus. When anyone, therefore, desires me to read Chrysippus to him, I rather blush when I cannot show my actions agreeable and consonant to his discourse.

50. Whatever moral rules you have deliberately proposed to yourself. abide by them as they were laws, and as if you would be guilty of impiety by violating any of them. Don’t regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is no concern of yours. How long, then, will you put off thinking yourself worthy of the highest improvements and follow the distinctions of reason? You have received the philosophical theorems, with which you ought to be familiar, and you have been familiar with them. What other master, then, do you wait for, to throw upon that the delay of reforming yourself? You are no longer a boy, but a grown man. If, therefore, you will be negligent and slothful, and always add procrastination to procrastination, purpose to purpose, and fix day after day in which you will attend to yourself, you will insensibly continue without proficiency, and, living and dying, persevere in being one of the vulgar. This instant, then, think yourself worthy of living as a man grown up, and a proficient. Let whatever appears to be the best be to you an inviolable law. And if any instance of pain or pleasure, or glory or disgrace, is set before you, remember that now is the combat, now the Olympiad comes on, nor can it be put off. By once being defeated and giving way, proficiency is lost, or by the contrary preserved. Thus Socrates became perfect, improving himself by everything. attending to nothing but reason. And though you are not yet a Socrates, you ought, however, to live as one desirous of becoming a Socrates.

51. The first and most necessary topic in philosophy is that of the use of moral theorems, such as, “We ought not to lie;” the second is that of demonstrations, such as, “What is the origin of our obligation not to lie;” the third gives strength and articulation to the other two, such as, “What is the origin of this is a demonstration.” For what is demonstration? What is consequence? What contradiction? What truth? What falsehood? The third topic, then, is necessary on the account of the second, and the second on the account of the first. But the most necessary, and that whereon we ought to rest, is the first. But we act just on the contrary. For we spend all our time on the third topic, and employ all our diligence about that, and entirely neglect the first. Therefore, at the same time that we lie, we are immediately prepared to show how it is demonstrated that lying is not right.

52. Upon all occasions we ought to have these maxims ready at hand:

“Conduct me, Jove, and you, 0 Destiny,
Wherever your decrees have fixed my station.”

“I follow cheerfully; and, did I not,
Wicked and wretched, I must follow still
Whoever yields properly to Fate, is deemed
Wise among men, and knows the laws of heaven.”
Euripides, Frag. 965

And this third:

“0 Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be. Anytus and Melitus may kill me indeed, but hurt me they cannot.”
Plato’s Crito and Apology

Link: Can Classic Moral Stories Promote Honesty in Children ?

The classic moral stories have been used extensively to teach children about the consequences of lying and the virtue of honesty. Despite their widespread use, there is no evidence whether these stories actually promote honesty in children. This study compared the effectiveness of four classic moral stories in promoting honesty in 3-to 7-year-olds. Surprisingly, the stories of “Pinocchio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” failed to reduce lying in children. In contrast, the apocryphal story of “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” significantly increased truth telling. Further results suggest that the reason for the difference in honesty-promoting effectiveness between the “George Washington” story and the other stories wa s that the former emphasizes the positive consequences of honesty, whereas the latter focus on the negative consequences of dishonesty. When the “George Washington” story was altered to focus on the negative consequences of dishonesty, it too failed to promote honesty in children.

Link: Aleksandar Hemon on Man’s Inhumanity to Man

The Bosnian novelist discusses five books on man’s inhumanity to man, including works by Primo Levi and Cormac McCarthy - and Borowski’s chillingly titled This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentleme.

Can you describe Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man?

It’s called Survival in Auschwitz in the US to give it a positive spin – that’s the American publishing world: the Holocaust is all right as long as there are survivors. Primo Levi was an Italian Jew, arrested in 1944 after Italy capitulated and the Nazis took over. He was shipped off to Auschwitz, but because he had a chemical degree, or because he was lucky – which was how he saw it – he was working in the chemical factory in Auschwitz, which was a technological venture. So he managed to survive and see the end, and in fact the book also deals with the last ten days when the Nazis abandoned Auschwitz and the Russian troops had not yet arrived. Levi went back to Italy, indeed to the very same apartment where he was born, so his life was interrupted horribly. And then he wrote about his experiences, and eventually he committed suicide.

He bears witness to the Holocaust, but he’s a scientist, and he needs to understand the ethical system, as it were, behind those crimes. However perverted it is, he’s trying to understand how it works. So he talks about individual experiences, including his own. They’re always examples of a larger – I don’t want to say theory – but of a larger proposition or explanation. He unpacks the formula, as it were, behind it all. So it’s the victory of reason – or the proper kind of reason, as opposed to the Nazi kind of reason. The Holocaust was not madness: it was a technology, a system, and therefore rational. And Levi regains reason, by treating his experience in Auschwitz as something that is subject to rational analysis.

Your next book?

This is a book of stories which was originally published immediately after WWII, so they were very fresh, by Tadeusz Borowski: a young Pole who was a member of the Resistance, and who was arrested and incarcerated. He was an Auschwitz survivor. He killed himself while still in his 20s. The title story: This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, is about a group of inmates whose duties are to help unload the transport. It’s a horrifying story. It’s a horrifying book. He was not Jewish. So while Primo Levi talks from a superior moral position, from the point of view of a Jew, and someone for whom the starting point of the whole thing was the worthlessness of their life, Tadeusz Borowski could make choices, albeit under enormous moral and ethical pressures. He shows the dehumanisation of Auschwitz from a slightly different angle. It seems that the narrator makes the wrong choice: to go for survival at the expense of any respectful ethical choice. But that just shows how hard it was there. It’s not just suffering; it’s the violence and the ethics of it.

There’s another story where the inmates are playing football, and on the other side of the barbed wire fence is a transport. The narrator goes to get the ball when it goes out, and can see thousands of people lining up. Next time he goes to get the ball, there’s no one, and, he says, thousands of people perished between those two moments. So the narrator is not someone who wants to bear witness because it’s his ethical duty – which is Primo Levi’s position. The narrator in Borowski is someone who selfishly, so it seems, wants to protect himself from death and hunger – but at the same time he cannot but see what is happening: so he has this struggle which is horrifying in and of itself, and at the same time dehumanising and humanising. The struggle to stay a human being in a challenging situation is that if you want to stay a human being ethically, you have to stay a human being physically. And that’s what his struggle is, so it bears witness to the Holocaust in a different way.

Red Cavalry?

This is a fictionalised account of the expedition of the Red Cavalry – the Soviet expeditionary force – which in 1920 attacked Poland, hoping to reach Warsaw and establish a Soviet government. Babel was sent with the Red Cavalry as a reporter for a propaganda newspaper, and it’s based on his diaries. Red Cavalry begins with the Cossack troops crossing the River Zbrucz. After crossing, the narrator sees the sun rolling on the horizon like a lopped off head, and then you know that it’s not going to be comfortable. The book is made up of autonomous stories in which the central narrator is Lyutov, who’s obviously standing in for Babel, because he’s bookish and wears glasses. They are not always about Lyutov – sometimes he just reports or pretends to be reporting, and sometimes they are about how he works with the Cossack troops. Lyutov is Jewish – it is not always clear if the Cossacks know that. Cossacks, of course, practice the sport of killing Jews whenever they can. So Lyutov and Babel are in a very awkward position of at the same time being presumably loyal to the Revolution and to their comrades the Cossacks, and also to the tradition of Jews, and of non-violent engagement with the world. Lyutov does not adapt: he says he does not have that most basic of capabilities – to kill a man – and he fails as a Cossack in more ways than one.

It is an incredible piece of literature. Babel has an aesthetic that corresponds to not only his sensibility, but also to his awkward circumstance. You can sense the conflict between the sentences: they don’t flow smoothly, logically from each another; there’s a dialectic of narration, and you can sense the discipline. It was tricky for him: how to bear witness to things, how to talk about the fact that Cossacks were killing Jews, without being sent before a firing squad.

He failed that test?

Well, yes – although in the 1920s Babel apologised to the Cossack leader, Budyonny, and said the book was a mistake. But then he stayed put and never wrote anything like that again, vegetated as a writer, and was shot eventually. His last recorded words were to the NKVD agent who picked him up. Babel said to him, ‘You’re pretty busy these days.’

Blood Meridian?

It’s possibly the greatest American novel of the past 25 years. It is unique. Blood Meridian is amazing, because it’s so rigid in its outlook, so committed to its vision, that it does not care about the conflict of the reader who, if sane, has to be uncomfortable. It is the most violent book I have read. This is a book about a bunch of scalp-hunters in Southwestern American territories before the Civil War, who were hired to hunt, kill, and scalp Native Americans. It follows them as they ride on and roam around killing Indians, committing horrible massacres. It is quite literally apocalyptic. There’s a stretch of about 60 pages, when the only subject is the group, and the most common sentence is ‘They rode on’.

What is most uncomfortable for the reader is that there’s no space in the book from which you can judge it, no space into which the reader could step to protect himself or herself from this world – there are no good guys. Of course, you can close the book and go away, but there’s one scene of a massacre of Indians that is one continuous sentence for a couple of pages. If the sentence ends, or if it’s broken up into little sentences you could quit after, you know, the 25th sentence, but they are strung together paratactically, and you ride on in the sentence.

There’s also to my mind the most amazing character in American fiction in the 20th century: the Judge, who provides theories that justify the world in which these men operate. Also what I like about it is that it entirely blocks the kind of reading that is based on empathy. You cannot identify ethically or morally, or even intellectually or psychologically, with any of the characters. There’s no expression of emotion, no interiority: those men act, and when they act, they act violently. It desensitises you; not because you don’t care, but because the violence is a part of a larger plan. It is not a question of individual agency but rather of the state of the world, or the underlying laws that govern the world.

Tell me about The Known World.

It’s a novel about slavery, but specifically the few recorded instances of black slave-owners, and it’s a masterful, masterful work, the most complete work of literary imagination in recent American fiction. Edward P. Jones could be one of the greatest living American writers. Again it blocks the simple emotional reading that provides redemption, and teaches you that slavery was bad. It shows how dehumanising the whole system was, not only to the slaves, but to everyone involved; it is quite literally soul-emptying. It is of course, again, in some ways like the Holocaust: it was not madness, it was a rational system, an economic system in which all participated in various ways. Even among the slaves there were differences and hierarchies, and degrees of ethical involvement with the issue of slavery. Jones narrates, or manages, dozens of characters. They’re all individually defined, but there’s no central consciousness the way there might be in a straight up psychological novel that you follow as it progresses through some sort of sociological landscape, and so it’s like he’s conducting an orchestra of characters. He shifts from one to the other and has this particular narrative device in which he goes beyond the knowledge of his characters to tell the reader what will happen to them in the years after slavery. The suffering is not simply the physical suffering of individuals; it goes well beyond that. It goes to the heart of the system.

What Jones does is very important, I believe, when we’re talking about war and violence and suffering: not to reduce the understanding to a mere emotional response. Of course the Holocaust is horrifying, of course slavery is horrifying, but if you just see emotional release and redemption then you never understand it and never experience it as a reader.

Why did you choose this subject to talk about?

There’s a way of reading books that’s common in the United States, which is to identify with the best person in the book. And there are complications related to this particular mode of reading: you have to react emotionally to texts, and then analyse your emotions as though you’re analysing a text, and then in that emotional release find redemption. As far as Primo Levi goes, that doesn’t really do anything. It’s hard for me to feel better about the Holocaust when I read Primo Levi. Blood Meridian is the most radical in that sense, in that it’s obviously not about the Holocaust or anything comparable, but it simply does not allow you to assert your moral and human superiority. It confronts you with things that you would rather not know, and it blocks this emotional reading: you have to think about it.

Link: Trigger for What

The demand for trigger warnings on literature in college courses is not students’ seeking coddling but a reflection of the false universality of “great books” syllabi.

Is college itself triggering? A recent New York Times article presented a burgeoning movement on college campuses, involving students barely old enough for  R-rated movies asking for course materials to bear “trigger warnings” — a message appearing at the top of, say, a blog post about sexual violence (or eating disorders, self-harm, etc.), alerting readers with whichever concern that the content may be upsetting to them personally. These, as Jenny Jarvie noted in The New Republic, began on some of the more earnest progressive blogs but have since expanded to new contexts on- and offline. The idea behind trigger warnings is to allow readers to avoid exposure to material they may find traumatizing, but whether trigger warnings’ main function in practice is to protect the vulnerable or attract the prurient is an open question.

As long as trigger warnings were associated with online content only, they were regarded as relatively trivial, but the stakes have increased as they have moved from discussion forums to the educational system. The students who want warnings claim to be concerned for the mental health of their classmates and are perhaps better-attuned than their professors to the prevalence of sexual violence on their campuses. They seem mainly want to professors to alert their classes before presenting violent or tremendously sexually explicit materials — a reasonable enough request. But they also, the Times reported, argue that professors should warn, for example, that The Merchant of Venice “contains anti-Semitism.” In a school paper op-ed linked to by the Times, one student  wants instructors to come prepared knowing exactly which passages from all assigned books could possibly upset a reader — revealing profound but reasonable ignorance of what course prep for instructors entails. (“Professors can also dissect a narrative’s passage, warning their students which sections or volumes of a book possess triggering material and which are safer to read.” No, they probably can’t, if they also hope to sleep.) Some students at Oberlin wanted syllabi combed for “anything that would suggest the inferiority of anyone who is transgender (a form of discrimination known as cissexism) or who uses a wheelchair (or ableism).” Any literature that could possibly offend anybody — which is to say, any literature at all — would qualify.

The trigger-warnings-for-literature story gave something for critics of academia across the political spectrum to agree on. Conservatives, who already suspect that academia is a joke, were predictably horrified by this and latched on to the story to decry “the steamroller of political correctness” on campus. It also fed into broader anxieties about helicopter parenting and about the consumerization of higher ed. Putting advisory labels on books seemed to run counter to the liberalidea of education as a means of challenging young people’s pre-existing notions. Even many who are on the left politically — and I’m thinking of college professors — support the idea that instructors should have the authority to decide what students must read to learn. If some of the backlash came from a place of stodginess, though, most of it was about the fact that some find it quite simply hilarious to imagine having to enumerate everything upsetting that happens in literature and pinning that information onto syllabi. Several of the 1,359 commenters to the Times piece made that now-standard response to anything absurd, claiming to have confused the article with something from The Onion. One professor even developed a full-on parody syllabus, complete with targeted trigger warnings for the major events in American history. (For the Second World War: “No need for Germans, Italians, or Japanese — or their descendants — to show up. We won, they lost. Any questions?” Canadians, meanwhile, are advised to skip the class on the War of 1812.)

Because “trigger warnings” on literature are so plainly ridiculous, it’s easy to forget the possibly quite sensible place such a request might be coming from. I majored in — then went on to get a doctorate in — French literature. I’m Jewish, and in course after course, I began to notice all these Jews in French literature, all these conniving juifs, and their raven-haired juive daughters. They were moneylenders and social climbers, prostitutes and captive, aristocrat-seducing virgins. Background figures set apart from the real story, whose protagonist couldn’t possibly be a Jew. A person — someone whose experience could represent the universal human one — was, by definition, a straight, white, Christian man from a well-off or aristocratic family. Jews and other marginalized sorts might help tell the story of man but couldn’t be him.

I suppose I was “triggered,” in a sense, by what Voltaire and so forth had to say about Jews. Not traumatized, fine, but it is jarring to read hatred directed at the likes of you. There was clearly a disconnect between the “we” who were part of Western/French/“universal” civilization and meant to relate to the author, and the “they” who were … me. Why some people did and didn’t count as French, and by extension as human, is the sort of question that is regularly addressed in graduate school, but often they are thought beyond the scope of an undergrad curriculum.

The “Great Books” approach — the one many colleges and observers outside academia see as essential to a liberal-arts education — asks students to read texts, with very little sense of their original context, by and about a small subset of humanity, and to treat the content of those books as universal. Initiation in this corpus is meant to teach critical thinking skills in a way that reading from contemporary media sources supposedly doesn’t. Part of the goal is teaching students to confront challenging primary documents head-on. But it’s also about reinforcing the idea of a continuous West, with which every student is expected to seamlessly identify.

My own alma mater, the University of Chicago, has an intro course with the universal-sounding title Human Being and Citizen. According to the course description, students “read and discuss seminal works of the Western tradition, selected both because they illumine the central questions and because, read together, they form a compelling record of human inquiry.” While it’s also possible to take intro courses on particular histories (African, Russian, even “Gender and Sexuality in World Civilizations”), the universal — that which demands no justification — remains white and male as ever. Or take Middlebury’s English offerings. You might think any school with a course called Feminist Blogging can’t be all that conservative. But if you look at which creators get no-explanation-necessary courses (Hitchcock, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Nabokov, Stoppard …), it starts to become clear that even with the addition of the sorts of courses that so horrify conservative critics, nothing has changed in the overall terms of the discussion. The “universal” hasn’t budged.

Students who don’t see themselves (that is, female characters, characters of color, etc.) in books deemed “great” — or, more to the point, who see characters similar to themselves treated as less than human — notice this pattern and want to discuss it. But students haven’t been given the tools to address these questions. They don’t know where to begin when it comes to looking at the range of views at a given time. Nor are they likely to learn that even back in the supposedly uniformly un-PC then, the Others themselves often protested the very same arguments as ring offensive today. I remember being altogether stunned that, in the 1840s, French Jews had almost the exact same reaction to a certain essay I’d been studying as I did.

A student seeking answers to such questions may be directed toward identity-based “Studies” options (Women’s Studies, Africana Studies, Queer Studies, etc.) whose framework, while it addresses or anticipates students’ identity-centered complaints, remains shunted off apart from literature and the “great books” that define humans in the universal. The demand for trigger warnings, then, though impractical at best and silencing at worst, may point to a deeper and more appropriate response to having one’s difference made exceptional or invisible — the demand for trigger warnings is a demand for a change in the tenor of discussion around their required readings.

One might argue that trigger warnings fail only in not going far enough, and what is called for is the abolishing of misrepresentative Great Books course requirements. But there is value in a shared frame of cultural reference, which an evolving but somewhat stable canon can provide. Literary value isn’t entirely a construct, and certain texts – some better than others – have had undeniable influence on the society today’s college students live in. If nothing else, it helps to get references to famous books one finds within other famous books without requiring footnotes. So rather than cancel such courses (an unlikely outcome, given that these remain the standbys of undergraduate curricula, and that doctoral degrees continue to be conferred on those who’ve proven their mastery of that material), instructors should find ways to incorporate identity into such courses. But this means dispensing with the assumption that a white male perspective is universal and that any other is particular.

A better approach would be to look at the question of who gets to count as a representative of the human experience as itself one of the big universal questions literature helps address, rather than treat it as a distraction. After all, questions of power and representation are themselves just as big and open-ended as the others — truth, love, jealousy — one is meant to be looking for in a book that is deemed to qualify as great.

Link: The Gay Nabokov

In 1918, a year after the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Nabokov and his four siblings posed for a photograph as a present for their mother. The children were in Yalta, in exile from their native St. Petersburg. In the photo, the air of the fabulous wealth and privilege they grew up in still clings to them. The girls are wearing matching sailor suits. Little Elena, Vladimir’s younger sister, holds a patient pet dachshund in her lap.

In the background looms a serious and rather beautiful young man dressed entirely in black. His intense gaze meets the camera’s through an exquisite pince-nez. He is not Vladimir, who is wearing a bow tie and looking hilariously full of himself. He is Sergei Nabokov, born 11 months after his famous brother and with a very different fate ahead of him.

Vladimir Nabokov, of course, would go on to become one of the most important writers of the 20th century, earning not only critical acclaim but international fame and financial success as well. Sergei would never be famous — in fact, his existence has been all but covered up by his family — but in its own way his life would be just as remarkable. Shy, awkward and foppish, the opposite of his gregarious brother, Sergei had a secret: He was gay.

Sergei’s homosexuality would cast a long shadow over his strange and heroic life, and it would also, ultimately, be the cause of his horrifying and untimely death. It cast a shadow over Vladimir’s life as well: He loved his brother, but whatever else he may have been — a brilliant writer, a loving father — Vladimir was a confirmed homophobe, and his gay brother was a constant source of shame, confusion and regret to him.

Vladimir’s tortured relationship with Sergei is one of the secret stories of an otherwise very public life, and Nabokov scholars are only now slowly coming to terms with the depths of Nabokov’s prejudice. They’re also becoming increasingly aware that Sergei is a crucially important figure in his brother’s work, a presence with whom Nabokov grappled, in different ways and with different degrees of success, throughout his lengthy oeuvre. Meanwhile, the facts of Sergei’s life are still obscure — forgotten or concealed behind euphemisms or confined to the dusty realm of footnotes and archives.

It’s a question worthy of a Nabokov novel: How could the lives of two brothers, both brilliant and talented, both rich and handsome, have led to two such different places: one to literary immortality, the other to the hell of a Nazi concentration camp?

Sergei Vladimirovich Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg on March 12, 1900. The Nabokovs were members of imperial Russia’s most exclusive social circles, and the children grew up in a glamorous whirl of country estates, liveried servants, balls, boating parties and annual vacations in Biarritz, France, and on the Riviera. The family was extraordinarily wealthy; their lineage included princes and generals and government ministers, and even their faithful dog, Box II, was descended from a pair that belonged to Anton Chekhov. Nabokov once told an interviewer, “I probably had the happiest childhood imaginable.”

But Sergei did not. While Vladimir was the eldest and the center of attention, Sergei grew up out of the limelight, shy and unhappy and somewhat odd. Elena Sikorski, nie Nabokov, the girl with the dachshund in her lap, is now 93 and the last surviving Nabokov sibling, but she remembers her aristocratic Russian youth with absolute clarity. When I telephoned her at her home in Geneva to ask about Sergei, she spoke of him fondly, but not without regret. Her voice is surprisingly deep, with an elegant, stateless European accent and just a hint of a quaver. “He was not the favorite of the family,” she recalls. “I think that he was rather miserable during his childhood.”

Nabokov was fascinated by doubles, and his work is full of them — mirrors, twins, reflections, chance resemblances. Sergei was his brother’s double, a “shadow in the background,” as Nabokov put it. All his life Vladimir would be the golden wordsmith, the master of language; Sergei was afflicted with an atrocious stutter that would only get worse as he got older. He idolized Napoleon and slept with a bronze bust of him in his bed. He also loved music, particularly Richard Wagner, and he studied the piano seriously. Vladimir, by contrast, was almost pathologically insensitive to music, which he once described as “an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds.” He would creep up behind Sergei while he was practicing and poke him in the ribs — something he remembered with bitter remorse in later life. “They were never friends when they were children,” says Sikorski. “There was always a sort of aversion.”

Nabokov said that he hardly remembered Sergei as a boy. He once wrote, “I could describe my whole youth in detail without recalling him once.” But Sergei lurks in every corner of “Speak, Memory,” Nabokov’s 1951 memoir, “quiet and listless,” peering at his older brother “like a little owl,” or stumbling around a roller rink in Berlin as his indefatigable brother repeatedly laps him. In a photo of the two boys taken in 1909 in front of their grandmother’s mansion, 10-year-old Vladimir stands with his hands on his hips, legs apart, imperiously staring down the camera. Sergei hides under the brim of his sun hat, one arm held protectively across his midsection, the other stroking his cheek in a strikingly girlish gesture. In retrospect it seems surprising that it took the rest of the family as long as it did to discover what Sergei probably already knew.

When he was 15 and Vladimir 16, Vladimir found Sergei’s diary open on his desk and read it. He showed it to their tutor, who showed it to the children’s father. In retelling the incident Nabokov writes, with uncharacteristic dryness, that Sergei’s journal “abruptly provided a retroactive clarification of certain oddities of behavior on his part.”

Among those oddities was Sergei’s withdrawal from the famously progressive Tenishev school, an all-boy private school also attended by Nabokov and by poet Osip Mandelstam. According to Nabokov’s principal biographer, Brian Boyd, Sergei left because of a series of “unhappy romances.” It’s unlikely that he found much sympathy within his immediate family. According to Sikorski, who quaintly refers to Sergei’s homosexuality as his “attitude,” the family instituted a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. They took Sergei’s revelation “absolutely quietly. Nobody ever spoke about it to him, and he was left to do as he wished.” Marina Ledkovsky, Sergei’s second cousin and a professor emerita at Barnard College, remembers that her own mother “pitied him quite a bit … He adored his mother, and adored his father. He was so affectionate — that’s why it was so very hard for him.”

When the revolution came in 1917, the Nabokov family fled Russia, barely escaping with a fraction of their fortune on a Greek cargo boat loaded with dried fruit. Neither Vladimir nor Sergei would ever return to his motherland. After brief stops in Athens and Paris, Vladimir wound up enrolled at Cambridge University; Sergei started at Oxford but joined his brother at Cambridge a semester later. There they played tennis together — Sergei lacked a backhand but never double-faulted — and hung around with the same set of displaced Russians. In Sergei’s letters from the period, which have never been translated or published, most of his worries are about money and about his parents, who settled in Berlin.

The two brothers went on to earn identical degrees, seconds in Russian and French, but in all other respects Vladimir and Sergei were utterly different. “No two brothers could have been less alike,” wrote Lucie Lion Nohl, another imigri, in a memoir of her acquaintance with Nabokov:

Vladimir was the young homme du monde — handsome, romantic in looks, something of a snob and a gay charmer — Serge was the dandy, an aesthete and balletomane … [He] was tall and very thin. He was very blond and his tow-colored hair usually fell in a lock over his left eye. He suffered from a serious speech impediment, a terrible stutter. Help would only confuse him, so one had to wait until he could say what was on his mind, and it was usually worth hearing … He attended all the Diaghilev premieres wearing a flowing black theater cape and carrying a pommeled cane.

Composer Nicolas Nabokov, cousin to Vladimir and Sergei, paints much the same double portrait:

Rarely have I seen two brothers as different as Volodya and Seryozha. The older one, the writer and poet, was lean, dark, handsome, a sportsman, with a face resembling his mother’s. Seryozha … was not a sportsman. White-blond with a reddish tint to his face, he had an incurable stutter. But he was gay, a bit indolent, and highly sensitive (and therefore an easy butt for teasing sports).

When the brothers graduated in 1922, they joined their family in Berlin, which had become the social and cultural center of the Russian diaspora. Sergei fit easily into the growing gay community there, and he was friendly with German activist Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the world’s first gay tolerance organization. Sergei and Vladimir went to work at a bank, but the 9-to-5 routine didn’t suit them: Sergei quit after a week, Vladimir in a matter of hours. Vladimir remained in Berlin, where he met and married his wife, Vira, but Sergei moved on to Paris.

Paris in the ’20s meant the legendary Paris of expatriates, the Paris of modernists and the avant-garde, of Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Picasso and the surrealists. Sergei would spend much of the next two decades there. While Vladimir never stopped mourning the Russia of his youth, Sergei most likely felt at home for the first time in a city that celebrated art and music, and that took his gayness in stride.

It becomes more difficult to track Sergei when he passed out of his brother’s exhaustively documented life, but some details of his time in Paris survive. We know that in the winter of 1923 Nicolas introduced him to painter Pavel Tchelitchev, whose work now hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and who painted sets for Sergei Diaghilev. Tchelitchev was also gay and also a Russian imigri, and the two of them shared an apartment with Tchelitchev’s lover, Allen Tanner.

The flat was so tiny that when Tchelitchev saw it he remarked, “We are to live in a doll’s house!” It had no electricity and no bath — they had to wash themselves in a zinc tub using water heated on a gas stove. Sergei survived by giving lessons in English and Russian. His circumstances may have been straitened, but the cultural scene in which Sergei found himself was rich beyond all measure. According to Andrew Field, Nabokov’s first biographer, Sergei was good friends with Jean Cocteau, and he was also connected, through Tchelitchev and his cousin Nicolas, to Diaghilev, to composer Virgil Thomson, to those aristocratic aesthetes the Sitwells and even to the legendary salons conducted by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at 27 Rue de Fleurus.

He must have cut quite a figure. Sergei was an incorrigible dandy, and he wore a bow tie at all times. According to one story, told by a former archbishop of San Francisco, he was notorious for attending Mass in full makeup. Nicolas’ son Ivan is now in his 60s, too young to really remember Sergei, but he remembers his mother’s account of him. According to her, Sergei was “the nicest of all the Nabokovs … a sweet, funny man … much nicer, much more dependable and much funnier than all the rest of them.”

According to Ledkovsky, Sergei was deeply kind, “always a gentleman,” devoted to music but also steeped in Russian, French and English poetry — all languages that, along with German, he spoke fluently. “He could recite anything by heart, and when he recited poetry, he would not stutter at all.” He was also himself a poet, in her opinion a good one, though none of his work survives. “He was a very talented, brilliant man,” says Ledkovsky. “If he were not so timid and shy, if he didn’t feel so … out of place, who knows? He might have been the equal of Vladimir.”

The story of Sergei’s life in Paris has a Cinderella ending. Sometime in the late ’20s or early ’30s he met and fell in love with a wealthy, aristocratic Austrian, whom Nabokov’s biographies have heretofore referred to as “Hermann.” After a great deal of research, he emerges as one Hermann Thieme.

Charming, handsome, something of a dilettante, Thieme was the son of an insurance magnate. His family owned (and still owns) Schloss Weissenstein, a magnificent 12th century castle in the tiny Alpine village of Matrei im Osttirol near Innsbruck, Austria. During the ’30s Hermann and Sergei often retreated to Schloss Weissenstein. Iva Formigoni, Hermann’s niece, now lives in Milan, Italy, but she still remembers the two of them lounging around the castle grounds together and playing tennis and bridge with her and her parents. When Sergei came to stay with Ledkovsky’s family in Berlin, he kept a picture of Hermann on his night table. (“I immediately noticed him,” she says, “because he was so extremely good-looking!”)

In a letter that Sergei wrote to his mother, he describes the joy his relationship with Hermann gave him. “It’s all such a strange story, sometimes even I don’t understand how it happened … I’m just suffocating with happiness.” Some of Sergei’s shyness seems finally to have left him. “There are people,” he wrote, “who would not understand this, to whom such things would be completely incomprehensible. They would rather see me in Paris, barely surviving by giving lessons, and in the end a deeply unhappy creature. There is talk about my ‘reputation’ and so on. But I think that you will understand, understand that all those who do not accept and do not understand my happiness are strangers to me.”

Was his own brother one of those strangers? After Vladimir met Hermann for the first time, he described the scene to his wife in a letter: “The husband, I must admit, is very pleasant, quiet, not at all the pederast type, attractive face and manner. All the same I felt rather uncomfortable, especially when one of their friends came up, red-lipped and curly.”

Nabokov simply didn’t like homosexuals. Even after Sergei’s death, Nabokov used homophobic slurs that make the modern reader cringe. In one letter he describes Taos, N.M., where he spent a summer, as “a dismal hole full of third-rate painters and faded pansies.” And he referred to gay Russian critic Georgy Adamovich as “Sodomovich.”

According to Andrew Field, his first biographer, Nabokov considered homosexuality to be a hereditary illness. Nabokov’s homophobia is in fact one of the dirty little secrets of 20th century literature, on a par with T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism. “I believe Nabokov was quite homophobic,” says Galya Diment, vice president of the Nabokov Society and a professor in the Slavic department at the University of Washington. “It behooves his fans and admirers to admit it — and also to regret it.”

Where did this prejudice come from, in a man who spoke out vehemently against both racism and anti-Semitism (his wife was Jewish)? Nabokov’s father, also named Vladimir, was a politician, and he was deeply involved in legislative debates over homosexuality. In pre-revolutionary Russia consensual homosexual intercourse was a crime (as it still is in parts of the United States), and although V.D. Nabokov, as he was known, argued for the decriminalization of sodomy, his attitude toward homosexuality was complicated: He made it abundantly clear that his legislative arguments were based on purely constitutional grounds, on abstract notions of freedom and privacy, and that he personally considered homosexuality to be “deeply repugnant” to any “healthy and normal” person. V.D. Nabokov died in 1922 in Berlin, shot in the chest while breaking up the attempted assassination of a visiting Russian dignitary. Nabokov’s diary records that in their last conversation, the night before, Vladimir and his father had discussed Sergei’s “strange, abnormal inclinations.”

Abnormal or not, homosexuality was actually an important part of life in the Nabokov family. In “Speak, Memory,” we meet little Vladimir’s beloved governess, “lovely, black-haired, aquamarine-eyed Miss Norcott,” who “was asked to leave at once, one night at Abbazia.” What grown-up Vladimir doesn’t tell us is that Miss Norcott was dismissed because she was a lesbian. Nabokov also had no fewer than two gay uncles. Konstantin Nabokov, his father’s brother, was chargi d’affaires at the Russian Embassy in London. Vasily Rukavishnikov, Vladimir’s maternal uncle, was also a diplomat, though a less successful one. He did succeed, however, in making an indelible impression on his young nephew.

Uncle Ruka, as he was universally known, was a wealthy, eccentric dilettante, and there’s every indication that he was in love with the young Nabokov; certainly his attachment to his favorite nephew went beyond what was appropriate. He appears to have subjected Nabokov to a mild form of sexual abuse: “When I was eight or nine,” Nabokov writes in “Speak, Memory,” “he would invariably take me upon his knee after lunch and (while two young footmen were clearing the table in the empty dining room) fondle me, with crooning sounds and fancy endearments.” In his biography of Nabokov, Boyd notes “Humbert’s first feignedly nonchalant fumbles with Lolita,” and suggests that “the adult Nabokov’s disapproval of homosexuals and his solicitude for childhood innocence may all have their origins here.”

Like Sergei, Uncle Ruka was gay, stuttered and loved music passionately. He considered his greatest achievement to be an original poem that he set to his own accompaniment, but of all the Nabokovs it was Sergei who learned to play it by heart. Of course, Uncle Ruka paid no attention to him. When he died in 1916 he left his entire estate — a mansion, 2,000 acres of land and a fortune in rubles — to his favorite nephew, Vladimir, who was a wealthy 17-year-old for a year before the Russian Revolution took it all away again.

Since Nabokov’s death in 1977, the responsibility for managing his posthumous reputation has fallen to his son Dmitri, who is fiercely protective of his father’s public image: One member of the Nabokov family interviewed for this article later asked to retract her statements, for fear of incurring Dmitri’s wrath. Dmitri himself declined to be interviewed — “out of respect for his uncle,” according to his literary agent — but in 1997 he did take part in a revealing exchange on the Internet.

When his father’s attitude toward homosexuality came up on NABOKV-L, a public e-mail list devoted to Nabokov’s work, Dmitri leapt into the fray. “I knew it was only a matter of time before the sexual-preference police would go to town on my father,” he wrote. He summed up Nabokov’s ambivalence perfectly: “He had a sense of justice, a homosexual brother, and not one but two homosexual uncles. Among the writers he admired there were plenty of homosexuals, from Proust to Edmund White. He had a number of homosexual friends. I also know he would have been less than happy had his son inherited those genes.”

After Sergei’s death, Vladimir described him in a letter to Edmund Wilson as “a harmless, indolent, pathetic person who spent his life vaguely shuttling between the Quartier Latin and a castle in Austria.” Nabokov rarely mentioned Sergei in print — at least not by name. It wasn’t until the third published version of his “Speak, Memory” that Nabokov even felt able to include an account of Sergei’s life. In an early piece of autobiography, recently published in the New Yorker, Nabokov describes his brother “drifting in a hedonistic haze, among the cosmopolitan Montparnassian crowd that has been so often depicted by a certain type of American writer. His linguistic and musical gifts dissolved in the indolence of his nature.”

At no point did Nabokov, who in “Lolita” would wring pathos from the sufferings of a child molester, ever have the courage to publicly state that his brother was gay. “It may be a kind of prudery,” muses Michael Wood, author of a book on Nabokov, “The Magician’s Doubts,” and chairman of Princeton University’s English department. “He obviously had a terrific affection for his brother. He also had a fixed distaste for homosexuality.”

But however distasteful he found it as a person, Nabokov as a writer found homosexuality perversely irresistible, and gay characters turn up in almost every one of his 17 novels. There’s invariably something strangely wooden about them. Nabokov was the archenemy of clichi, a writer passionately committed to overturning tired literary conventions through careful observation of the real world, but his homosexual characters are as a rule egregiously stereotyped.

From the giggly ballet dancers of Nabokov’s first novel, “Mary,” to the ghastly Gaston Godin, Humbert Humbert’s neighbor in “Lolita,” to the egomaniacal narrator of “Pale Fire,” they are vain, silly, usually effeminate — he uses the word “mincing” a lot — shallow, intellectually trivial and ineffectual, and the narrator generally introduces them with a nudge and a wink and a snigger. Many of them are pedophiles. Not once did Nabokov, the master observer, describe an instance of mature love between adults of the same sex — even though a glowing example of that love was right before his eyes.

Although Nabokov’s gay characters are two-dimensional at best, Sergei found other, more interesting ways to haunt his brother’s fiction. In “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight,” Nabokov’s fictional account of a man’s attempt to write the life of his mysterious half-brother, one finds uncanny references to Sergei everywhere, from the title character’s name, which alliterates with Sergei’s, to his foppishness and his failures at sports, to a series of uneasy meetings between the brothers in Paris that closely parallels those of the real-life Nabokov brothers. “The similarities of Sebastian and Sergei fit so well together, it’s an aspect of the work that you really have to consider,” says Michael Begnal, an English professor at Wesleyan University who writes on Nabokov. “My impression was that he had to put the whole Sergei situation to rest in his own mind, and in a way that’s what he’s trying to do.”

When he learned of Sergei’s death in 1945, Nabokov was in the middle of writing “Bend Sinister,” his most political novel. Like Sergei, the hero of “Bend Sinister” speaks out against a brutally repressive regime, and like Sergei, he would pay for his courage with his life. But Nabokov’s feelings about his brother were never simple: In “Bend Sinister” it’s not the hero who’s gay but the dictator who orders his death. In 1967, when he finally told the story of Sergei’s life, Nabokov’s writing conveys a sense of unspoken strain and remorse: “For various reasons,” he writes, “I find it inordinately hard to speak about my other brother.”

In “Ada,” his longest novel and one of his last, Nabokov made his best and final attempt to come to terms with his feelings about his brother in print. “Ada” is the story of an incestuous love affair between Van Veen and Ada Veen, brother and sister. Their younger sister, Lucette, is also passionately in love with Van, and she spends most of the novel trailing around after the couple, getting in the way and generally making a pest of herself. Van’s indifference drives Lucette to despair, and toward the end of the book she throws herself from a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic.

Brian Boyd, who is probably the single greatest living authority on Nabokov, believes that the real inspiration for Lucette was Sergei. “The centrality of Lucette in ‘Ada,’” he argues in an e-mail, “in some ways seems to reflect Nabokov’s sense of Sergei: the non-favorite, the frail one beside his confident sibling, the concentration camp victim … the one we’re invited to ignore, and even want to dismiss from the story, but eventually realize we should never have overlooked.”

If Boyd is right, “Ada” gives us a last glimpse of Nabokov thinking about Sergei — and maybe, at last, starting to think about him in a new light. “I think that Nabokov often tries to be inhumanly secure, and confident, and happy, and unregretful,” Wood observes. “If he pulled that off, he would be a monster. It’s a fine thing to try — and an even finer thing to fail.”

Whatever peace Nabokov may have made with Sergei in fiction, it came long after Sergei’s death in fact. Did the two brothers ever bridge the gap between them? “Absolutely not” is the firm answer from Sikorski, their sister. “Perhaps the last years of his life they were closer, but otherwise never.” It can’t have helped that by all accounts Sergei didn’t get along with Vira, Nabokov’s wife.

Still, in the late ’30s, when both brothers were living in Paris, there were signs of warmth. Vladimir writes in “Speak, Memory” that they were “on quite amiable terms” at the time. When their mother died in Prague in 1939, and Vladimir was unable to get away from Paris, Sergei described the funeral for him in a letter. Writing on the spare, elegant stationery of Schloss Weissenstein, he closed the letter affectionately: “I want you to know that I am with you with all of my heart.”

If they had any last words to offer each other, Sergei and Vladimir never got to say them. In the spring of 1940 Hitler invaded France, and by May the Germans were bombing Paris. Vladimir and his family left for America on the last boat out of St. Nazaire, but Sergei was away in the countryside at the time. He returned to Paris to find their apartment suddenly empty.

He chose to stay in Europe with Hermann. The Nazis were already rounding up homosexuals as actively as they were Jews, and to avoid attracting suspicion Sergei and Hermann saw each other only rarely. Sergei took a job as a translator in Berlin, but he had no stomach for war, and the Allied bombings frightened him horribly. “He was just so terrified, poor thing,” Ledkovsky remembers. “Even my mother was consoling him.” The fighting grew more intense, and flight became impossible; Sergei had almost no money, and as a refugee from czarist Russia his only travel document was a flimsy Nansen passport.

In 1941 the Gestapo arrested Sergei on charges of homosexuality. It released him four months later, but he was placed under constant surveillance. It’s ironic that at that moment, after a lifetime of shyness and stuttering, Sergei could not keep silent. He began to speak out vehemently against the injustices of the Third Reich to his friends and colleagues. On Nov. 24, 1943, he served as best man at Ledkovsky’s wedding. Three weeks later he was arrested for the second time.

The file that the police kept on Sergei accuses him of “staatsfeindlichen Au_erungen” — subversive statements. There may have been more to the story: Princess Zinaida Shachovskaya, a fellow Russian imigri (whose relations with the Nabokov family have sometimes been strained), has written an as yet untranslated memoir in which she asserts that Sergei was in fact involved in a plot to hide an escaped prisoner of war, a former Cambridge friend who had become a pilot and been shot down over Germany.

After his arrest Sergei was taken to Neuengamme, a large labor camp near Hamburg, where he became prisoner No. 28631. Conditions were brutal: The camp was a center for medical experimentation, and the Nazis used the prisoners to conduct research on tuberculosis. Of the approximately 106,000 inmates who passed through Neuengamme, fewer than half survived, and as a rule, the guards singled out homosexuals for particularly harsh treatment.

Sergei’s conduct in the camp was nothing less than heroic. Nicolas Nabokov’s son Ivan says that after the war, survivors from Neuengamme would telephone his family out of the blue — they were the only Nabokovs in the book — just to talk about Sergei. “They said he was extraordinary. He gave away lots of packages he was getting, of clothes and food, to people who were really suffering.” Meanwhile, Hermann had also been arrested, but he was sent to fight on the front lines in Africa. He would survive. He spent his later life at Schloss Weissenstein, without a career, caring for his invalid sister. He died in 1972.

In America, Vladimir was beginning a triumphant new life. While Sergei was at Neuengamme, he spent the summer of 1944 sunning himself in Wellfleet, Mass., with Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy. That fall he collected butterflies for Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, enjoyed the benefits of American dentistry and taught Russian to Wellesley College undergraduates, with whom he flirted shamelessly. The New Yorker was beginning to print his poems. He became the first person under 40 to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. He knew nothing of what was happening to his brother in Europe.

In “The Real Life of Sebastian Knight” the narrator has a dream the night before Sebastian dies. He imagines that his half-brother’s hand has been horribly maimed in an accident. In the early fall of 1945, in his apartment in Cambridge, Mass., Nabokov dreamed of his brother Sergei. He saw him lying on a bunk in a German concentration camp, in terrible pain. The next day he received a letter from a family member in Prague. According to camp records, “Sergej Nabokoff” had died on Jan. 9, 1945, of a combination of dysentery, starvation and exhaustion. Neuengamme was liberated four months later.