From The Guardian: How Lenin’s love of literature shaped the Russian Revolution

Tariq Ali, military historian and himself a prominent firebrand for the left, has published an absorbing article on Vladimir Lenin’s literary tastes. He loved the classics. He read Ovid, Virgil, Horace, and Juvenal deeply. But Ali states that it his love for the gold might adversely have effected his politics; that is, old was not gold in this case, but that might also have to do with its being concentrated in the hands of a few.

Photograph: Shepard Sherbell/Corbis via Getty Images

Photograph: Shepard Sherbell/Corbis via Getty Images

Lenin was also hostile to any notion of a proletarian literature and art, insisting that the peaks of bourgeois culture (and its more ancient predecessors) could not be transcended bymechanical and dead formulae advanced in a country where the level of culture, in the broadest sense, was far too low. Shortcuts in this field would never work, something that was proved conclusively by the excremental socialist realism introduced in the bad years that followed Lenins death. Creativity was numbed. The leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom, where the lives ofall would be shaped by reason, was never made in the Soviet Union or, for that matter, anywhere else.

It might seem surprising that given Ali’s closing remarks he felt the revolution was necessary. Surprising, but understandable; something perhaps we can sympathize with as citizens who have had a rude recent encounter with the ‘lesser of two evils’ principle, especially since we ended up with the worse of two evils. What one reads is less important than how one reads. It is still another matter whether one is sufficiently mature to practice in life the lessons on learns in literature. As students of the Core Curriculum, I take it one of these, then, we know and value very well: sympathy.

Scholars of the Core, read his full post at The Guardian

Timothy O’Leary’s Marsh Chapel Experiment

Can’t connect with the divine? Tired of spinning with nothing to show for but dizziness? Good news! On Good Old (1962) Friday, Timothy O’Leary, a psychologist hailed by Nixon as the most dangerous man in America (he was number three, two was Kissinger), conducted a double blind experiment at Marsh Chapel, in whichone group of students received the drug psilocybin to test whether it could induce mystical experiences–and it did! Many described the experience as being transformative for their well-being and satisfaction with life. Yet it also seems that some for some the effects of the drug did not wear off, since for many it confirmed their belief in the existence of God. How should we consider mystical experiences of this type with another, described wittily by William James:

“Thesimplest rudiment of mystical experience would seem to be that deepened sense of the significance of a maxim or formula which occasionally sweeps over one.”

And lifts one high!

Learn more about the Marsh Chapel Experiment at YouTube

Weekly Round-Up, 3-31-17

Hello there, scholars. Are you ready for your weekly installment of Core-related news? We bet you are. So without further ado:

  • Amid controversy surrounding Jane Austen and the so-called alt-right (as you know, Austen’s opinion on today’s politics is highly sought after; we will get back to you scholars once our staff sprites return from her grave with an exclusive interview), the Birmingham Mail claims that a special edition polymer 5 note bearing an engraving of Jane Austen is now in circulation. It is not the first of its kind; this is the fifth created by “micro-artist” (an extremely tiny artist, we’re assuming) Graham Short (we assumed rightly!!).
  • Looks like we got a little excited with that last bit of news. Anyway, Woolf and her Society of Outsiders are ready to take fascism by storm in this review of Three Guineas over at The Daily Beast.
  • The year is 2032–the 500th anniversary of The Prince. Such is the setting of the 21st-century update of Machiavelli’s work, taking on the form of an opera with music by Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz and libretto by journalist David Ignatius. The New Princepremiered last Friday, March 24, and includes the likes of Alexander Hamilton, the Clintons, and more.

A wild ride. Credit: Marco Borggreve

  • One weird trick: Cultivating your brand by carving a name for yourself in the literary world? John Keats would disapproveof your narrow-mindedness, says Leah Fessler for Quartz. If you find yourself suffering from “egotistical sublime,” or rigid opinions, you won’t be able to write convincing characters or stories. Instead, adopt “negative capability” and remain open-minded about the world.
  • Odysseus ghosted Penelope: An anonymous writer on The Bold Italic confesses their preference for dates to “ghost” them, or, if you’re not hip to the lingo, to ignore them rather than express their lack of interest. Meanwhile, we’re left wondering about the author’s reference to the Odyssey (and quite frankly, the author of this blog post can’t help but agree).

When Odysseus doesn't answer your texts. A bas relief of Penelope by Francis Leggatt Chantrey. (Public Domain)

When Odysseus doesn’t answer your texts. A bas relief of Penelope by Francis Leggatt Chantrey. (Public Domain)

Do you feel enlightened? We hope so. Come back next week for a new round-up!

From Truthout: Banning Howard Zinn’s Books Is Hardly a Way to Start a Conversation

As we all know, Howard Zinn was a prominent activist under the “auspices” of Boston University, best known for hisA People’s History of the United Statesthat was popular in every sense of the word, one of the reasons for its having remainedso powerful. Understandably, on March 2, the governor of Arkansas, Kim Hendren introduced a bill to suppress the work of the great man that is being continued and advanced by the Howard Zinn Project. This organization of benign missionaries works to promote the works of Zinn among middle- and high-schoolers, in an attempt togive some balance to the history courses which take a tendentious recourse to patriotism against an emetic past.

An Arkansas state representative is seeking to expunge books he doesn't like from public school curricula -- including those "by or concerning Howard Zinn." (Photo: Slobodandimitrov / Wikipedia)

An Arkansas state representative is seeking to expunge books he doesn’t like from public school curricula — including those “by or concerning Howard Zinn.” (Photo: Slobodandimitrov / Wikipedia)

To limit access to Zinn’s work is thus an insult to the intellectual freedom and development of Arkansas students.

Hendren, confusingly, even seems to acknowledge the issues with his proposal, stating in his interview with Reason Magazine that his goal is not necessarily for the bill to be passed but rather “to start a conversation.” Perhaps for unintended reasons, Hendren has succeeded. But then it’s worth asking what he intended for the conversation to be about. If he were truly interested in sparking conversation about the alleged harms or “indoctrinating” power of Zinn’s book, he would respect the intelligence of Arkansas students and make the book (and their criticisms) available so they can be discussed and the students can come to those conclusions for themselves. Given the nature of his bill, it would appear the conversation he really wants to have is whether politicians should, in fact, have the power to expunge curricula of books they don’t like.

There is no reason why the working class cannot at the same time be the intellectual one. The efforts of the Howard Zinn Project to advance this in the classroom, and the reflexive opposition from adjudicators such as the introduction of this bill, would ask educators and students alike to be optimistic without being complacent.

Read Jas Chana’s full post at truthout

From The TLS: In Search of Excitement

A history of the novel, The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Volume 7, asks whether the novel is history. Another,The Value of the Novel, by Peter Boxall provides the theoretical foundation for the argument that the novel is not dead–it has only taken a novel form, one that will forecast cultural change as we emerge, according to the reviewer of these two books, Ben Jeffrey, out of the postmodern phase. It seems though we still need to undergo many more of these phases before we can reach a stageof sufficient maturity that would let us know that ‘modern’ is a bad term because provincial, and ‘postmodern’ because it does not correct the mistake initially made. Yet if the novel is predicted to serve a meteorological function for cultural change, and the intelligent criticism at presentis welcoming it, it would seem likely that things are going to be stormy in the future.

You Cannot Judge a Book... 2004 (w/c on paper) by Wolstenholme, Jonathan (b.1950) ; Private Collection; Portal Painters; English, in copyright PLEASE NOTE: Bridgeman Images represents the copyright holder of this image and can arrange clearance.

You Cannot Judge a Book… 2004 (w/c on paper) by Wolstenholme, Jonathan (b.1950) ; Private Collection; Portal Painters; English, in copyright PLEASE NOTE: Bridgeman Images represents the copyright holder of this image and can arrange clearance.

Against this windless cultural background, the challenge is to identify what if anything distinguishes the situation of the novel today. In the introduction to the Oxford History (The Life and Death of the Post-War Novel) and the concluding chapter (The Future of the Novel), Boxall and Cheyette identify themselves as part of a critical movement that is seeking to pass beyond postmodernism . . . without simply reverting to the historical models and paradigms that postmodern thinkers were rightly determined to overthrow. Their case for the novel, roughly, is that it remains a singularly powerful medium for forecasting cultural change. Accordingly, it is in the pages of novels, as much as anywhere else, that we are likely to find premonitions of whatever will replace postmodernism.

Sometimes it’s necessary to be boring. What about the truth that we must strengthen the things that remain to save them from becoming remains; what kind of a cultural forecast will the novel envision if it is blissfully unwilling to acknowledge that unlike the weather, the past is in every age needing to be dusted off. Has the novel seriously been reduced to the function of the dogs that are somehow able to anticipate the storm before anyone else? If so, then it certainly would seem that wisdom is moribund–but in this corner, who can purport to predict the weather?

Read the full post at The TLS

Weekly Round-Up, 3-24-17

What’s shakin’, scholars? This week is jam-packed with news and articles on Gilgamesh, St. Augustine, Walt Whitman, and more. Read on:

  • A cylinder clay seal hailing from the Akkadian period (2000 BC) of Mesopotamia and depicting a scene from the Epic of Gilgamesh, along with 40 other antiquities from Iraq, will find its way to the 57th Venice Biennale this May to November.
  • Suzanne M. Wolfe concocts a tale based on the love life of St. Augustine in her novel The Confessions of X. Meanwhile, we are extremely concerned that the image in the corresponding article features St. Monica, Augustine’s mother.
  • Soprano Julia Bullock appears as the soloist in the New York premiere of “Rime Sparse” (Scattered Rhymes), a soprano, violin, cello, and piano piece by Jonathan Berger in a program called “Love Sonnets”. A “mysterious and hazy 22-minute work,” “Rime Sparse” is composed of seven poems by Petrarch.

Soprano Julia Bullock with pianist Wu Han.  (Credit: Emon Hassan for The New York Times)

Soprano Julia Bullock with pianist Wu Han. (Credit: Emon Hassan for The New York Times)

Biko Eisen-Martin in No Sisters, video monitor visible in the background. (Credit: Teresa Wood)

Biko Eisen-Martin in No Sisters, video monitor visible in the background. (Credit: Teresa Wood)

Well, that should tide you overfor one week. Come back soon!

Left Augustinianism: Original Sin for a Secular Age

Many thanks to Prof. Rabinovitch for bringing this to our attention!

“Accurst Pelagius,” from a 17th-century Calvinist print. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

We know from our readings of Augustine’s City of God that the saint believed in a world of souls stained by original sin. Over in Britain, however, fifth-century ascetic Pelagius denied that nagging evil lurking within souls, pointing instead to a world born to innocence that may be retained throughout a person’s lifetime. In other words, for Pelagius, we are born sinless, and we could live and die sinless if we have a mind to do so. As we can imagine, the two thinkers, Augustine and Pelagius, butted heads more often than not, leading to the latter’s excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church for his heresy regarding original sin. Yet the lifestyles of the two (or past lifestyles, in the case of Augustine) were an “ironic inverse,” Ed Simon writes in his article “Why Sin is Good.” Moreover, at first glance, reformed Augustine and ascetic Pelagius seem to resemble the same ideologies they preached. Yet the most striking difference was who brought about salvation: for Augustine, it is God–only the power of God could have brought about his reform–but for Pelagius, it is the efforts of the individual that determine salvation, not the mercy of God.

But this isn’t an article about a fifth-century argument. Instead, Ed Simon translates the debate into 21st-century terms:

In modern parlance, liberals assume that everyone is good and rational but just hasn’t read the right Mother Jones article or heard the right NPR broadcast yet. Conservatives adopt a more pessimistic attitude, however, for they assume everyone to be bad –everyone but themselves. Indeed for as much as the exuberant fundamentalist likes to blame the liberal relativist or the New Age pluralist for the abolition of belief in sin, it is the reactionary himself who is arguably most responsible for incubating our new world, where the charge to responsibility is treated as anathema. I have in mind the anarcho-capitalist, the libertarian, those who idolize the myth of the “self-made man” when the only Man who can make Himself is not of this world. These ethical pip-squeaks have erroneously imagined that anyone can pull himself up by his bootstraps, or by his jackboots as the case increasingly seems to be. Let us not pretend that there is anything “Christian”in a worldview that lets children without insurance die or that is fine with men and women starving to death in the richest nation in history.

St. Augustine by Carlo Crivelli (c. 1435-c. 1495)

St. Augustine by Carlo Crivelli (c. 1435-c. 1495)

Simon doesn’t say that one side represents Pelagius and the other Augustine; it is far more complex than that. Instead, he says, “belief in original sin keeps one honest, because you know you at least share a propensity to error with everyone, no matter how low.” When a person believes that it is through one’s own volition that one can achieve salvation, or become a “self-made man,” to use contemporary terms, that sort of ideology breeds arrogance and resentment. After all, what need is there for humility in a faultless human being? For Simon, “I’d rather have someone with an awareness of his own inborn shortcomings occupying the highest position of power than someone who believes he never makes mistakes.” Yet we’re all guilty of Pelagianism, so much that it is “unofficially the central heresy of our modern age.” (Even Pelagius’s own teaching that “it is possible to do anything which one really wants to do” recalls many a Facebook post.)

So what use does original sin have today, after so many ideologically utopian children of the Enlightenment have rejected Augustine in favor of the perfectibility of society and man through reason, whether through socialism or libertarianism or fascism? What use do we have for the arguments between Augustine and Pelagius? … For them, the universe contracted in on itself, Pelagius’ Britain separated from Europe. To make the parallels any more obvious would be heavy-handed (and we mustn’t be that). … To be heavy-handed may not be a sin, but what is, is the absurd avarice which leads to the denial of evidence that an Antarctic ice shelf bigger than Rhode Island is about to break off into the ocean due to human-generated climate change, even as the former CEO of Exxon and the current Secretary of State, as well as his boss, the leader of the “free” world, both deny that global warming is real. Sinful is that the eight richest men in the world have a combined wealth equal to the bottom half of the entire planet. Sinful is that black mothers and fathers have to wonder if their children will be murdered, and the knowledge that the perpetrators of those murders will often not be brought to justice. Sinful is that for a shamefully large percentage of the Republic the assertion that Black Lives Matter is somehow debatable.

And so on. The problem remains, however, that people simply don’t like to be accused of sin. This fact doesn’t make the realities of the world any less true, Simon retorts. The solution, he says, is “left Augustinianism,” an ideology that addresses the “consumption beyond reason” and the immense immorality that “can influence politics.” It means an acknowledgement of sin, of avarice, of selfishness, even in a secular world, not only in the world but in ourselves. After all, “sin”–or evil, if that word strikes you better–“like life, is not our fault –but it is our responsibility.”

Read the rest of Ed Simon’s article on Marginalia here.

From The New York Times: Books Can Take You Places…

“Donald Trump doesn’t want you to go,” the title goes on, reminding us that it is actually not going where he wants some to go that is the real problem for those people. Hisham Matar at the New York Times shares an imaginative column with us in which he describes reading as getting to know others by knowing oneself. It’s an old maxim, often having to do with truth: “be true to yourself and you’ll be true to others,” found in Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and Matar:

Antoine Maillard

Antoine Maillard

All great art allows us this: a glimpse across the limits of our self. These occurrences arent merely amusing or disorientating or interesting experiments in virtual reality. They are moments of genuine expansion. They are at the heart of our humanity. Our future depends on them. We couldnt have gotten here without them.

Just as a river leads to the sea and from Jane Austens vernacular social order to William Faulkners American South, from Naguib Mahfouzs Cairo to Tayeb Salihs village in Sudan the particular in great literature has always flowed to the universal.

That is perhaps what the author of the iconic novel The House of Hunger, the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera, meant when he said, If you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then he had no use for you. What he was resisting was narrow provincialism, the sort of identitarianism that has invaded our academies and public discourse, and which sees individual life as, first and foremost, representative of a racial, religious or cultural category.

In his review, Matar, at one with himself, manages to reach us also by expressing atruth about literature and politics that is urgently in need of recognition: diversity is about unity and not division.

Know thyself at The New York Times

From The Guardian: Ozymandias statue found in mud

A joint Egyptian-German expedition has recently unearthed several missing pieces of the statue of Ramses II, the Egyptian pharaoh who was the subject for another masterpiece, of which the Core students who have done their homework will remember at least a fragment–“Ozymandias,” by P.B. Shelley. The discovery is therefore literally out of this world, and, in literature, figuratively.

Egyptian workers with the head of the statue. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Egyptian workers with the head of the statue. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

The pharaoh, also known as Ramses the Great or Ozymandias, was the third of the 19th dynasty of Egypt and ruled for 66 years, from 1279BC to 1213BC.

He led several military expeditions and expanded the Egyptian empire to stretch from Syria in the east to Nubia (northern Sudan) in the south. His successors called him the Great Ancestor.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 sonnet Ozymandias which contained the line Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! was written soon after the British Museum acquired a large fragment of a statue of Ramses II from the 13th century BC.

A nice felicity would have been if at least one of the archaeologists was sufficiently well-versed to have recited those majestic lines upon discovery, but that would be a burlesque, more jest than majesty, so, on that note, some parodies: Necromancyneverpays, Brozymandias, Universitas

Read on his works at The Guardian

Weekly Round-Up, 3-16-17

Welcome back, scholars! Sometimes we like to think of the weekly links as the Core gossip page. We’ve got celebrities, gross diseases, controversy… Well, you’ll see. Read on!

  • Palpatine–er, Ian McDiarmid–plays the titular character in Faust x2, a musical and condensed version of Goethe’s poem, adapted by the actor himself and directed by Lisa Blair. Runs from March 2 to March 25 at the Watermill Theatre in Bagnor, Newbury, UK.

“You sounds of heaven, powerful and gentle, / why do you seek me in the dust?” Credit: Philip Tull.


  • According to medical historian Dr. Howard Markel, tuberculosis is disgusting, and by extension, John Keats, which we already knew. Just kidding, we love Keats and think he was beautiful, but we also agree that TB is not a poetic or romantic disease in the least.
  • Speaking of Keats: here on the Core blog, we love anniversaries, and we certainly have celebrated a lot in the past year. 2017 is the 200-year anniversary of Keats’ first book of poems, which alarmingly received “terrible reviews.” Undeterred, actress Ruth Rosen of Hampstead, UK, held a tribute to the poet earlier this month on March 2, at the National Theatre in London.
  • Guess who else is celebrating an anniversary soon? If you guessed Karl Marx, go get a Snickers from the Core candy basket (provided the basket hasn’t been raided by ravenous Corelings). That’s right, the Father of Communism is celebrating his 200th birthday next year, and a giant statute–statue, rather (read the article, you’ll understand)–gifted by China to the thinker’s birthplace of Trier is stirring great controversy.

An image from December detailing Chinese artist Wu Weishan's planned work. (Via EPA)

An image from December detailing Chinese artist Wu Weishan’s planned work. (Via EPA)

Hope that satiates your thirst for literary gossip. We’ll see you next week with a new batch!