Henry David Thoreau: Hopelessly Discontent

The following is an indirect response to Kathryn Schulz’s article “Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia,” from The New Yorker, October 19, 2015:

Henry_David_Thoreau_Walden“I have travelled,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden, “a good deal in Concord: and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways.” This displeased Thoreau. He didn’t want to live a life of penance.

He wanted a life more meaningful than one filled with busywork at shops and pointless toil in the fields. He wanted a life, as he put it, more “deliberate.”

“There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world,” wrote Thoreau, “and yet we tolerate incredible dullness.” So, Thoreau got himself some land and built a small house out at Walden Pond. He was, as he says, “a mile from any neighbor.” What he does not mention in Walden is that he was also only a short, few miles’ walk from his mom’s house. He would go there sometimes during his time at Walden for cookies and tea. [Read more...]

Science and the Death of Philosophy

original_2640_oboi_nochnoj_kanon_2048x1367My boy is a bit of a science geek. He subscribes to Discover and Popular Science. They are both styled after the fashion of other pop magazines in an attempt to appeal to non-scientists (“Cold Fusion: A Special Investigation”).

Popular Science focuses on technology. The past year’s issues have featured an invisible, invincible war ship, faster racecars, the ultimate scuba system, elevators with speeds of forty miles an hour.

And there’s the new no-pulse mechanical heart that has revolutionized heart replacement by running steadily at 10,000 rpm instead of trying to pulse like a heart made of muscle. This advance is making the old heart “that mimics nature’s lub-dub… as comically shortsighted as Leonardo Da Vinci designing a flying machine with flapping wings.” People are now walking around, living comfortably, with no pulse whatsoever. [Read more...]

The Affair and the End of It

By Alissa Wilkinson

SHOW_42_34_35_1.epsThe second season of Showtime’s The Affair premiered at the beginning of October. In the show, Noah, a forty-something apparently-happily-married novelist, goes to Montauk for the summer with his wife and kids. He meets Alison, who is also married, about ten years his junior, and still grieving the tragic death of her young son years earlier.

You can gather from the title where it goes from there.

Nothing innovative about this plot, but each episode is split into two halves—one from Noah’s perspective and one from Alison’s. Often both halves retell the same events but with subtle changes to account for differing recollections. In Noah’s memory, Alison is seductive and playful: In Alison’s, Noah is swaggeringly confident. Noah’s wife is much more attractive in Alison’s memory than in Noah’s. Events happen in different orders; people speak with different tones of voice. And so it goes. [Read more...]

A Good Fight: Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night)

Two_days,_one_nightIf a pair of writer/directors exists that can rival Joel and Ethan Coen for a body of work with profound depictions of humanity, it is another set of brothers. The films of the Dardennes, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have consistently been among the best of modern offerings and were a main feature in an essay I wrote on European film for Image a few years back (“Portraits of the Sonata: Desire and Transformation in Modern European Cinema,” No. 61, Spring 2009).

La PromesseL’Enfant, and especially Le Fils, match any expectations one could have with regard to artistic portrayals of humanity’s struggle for decency and dignity, and one of the Dardennes’ latest works, Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night) proves that their touch has not waned in the thirty-odd years they’ve written and directed for the screen.

The film features the magnificent Marion Cotillard. In an Oscar-nominated performance, she plays Sandra, a Belgian mother of two children who has just learned that while she was absent, her employer offered her co-workers a choice: they could either have a one thousand euro bonus, or Sandra could keep her job. [Read more...]

Kent Haruf and the Tie that Binds


By Rebecca A. Spears

When you know people all your life you try to understand how it is for them. What you can’t understand you just accept. —Kent Haruf, The Tie that Binds

I’ve lived most of my life in cities with a population of a million or more, but once or twice I’ve lived in smaller communities of 25,000 or so, where I might run into people more than once. In big cities one person can’t know even a fraction of the inhabitants. So, most city-dwellers cultivate communities with family, friends, colleagues, and other fellow travelers.

How is this so different from life in small towns? In a city like Houston, I don’t have to just accept the people around me. If a relationship with a friend doesn’t suit me, I can move on to other friendships. If I suddenly stop writing and decide to desert my writing group, I might associate more with ice sculptors or entomologists or long-distance runners. Large communities allow people to be more selfish, defining and always seeking their own desires.

In the late Kent Haruf’s novel Plainsong, abandonment and acceptance are always in play. Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teen, suddenly finds herself homeless after her mother locks her out of the house. Maggie Jones, a teacher at her high school, takes her in and helps her. Through Maggie, Victoria eventually realizes that there is a place in the community for her, that people in it will love her like family. To get her to see the reality of her situation, Maggie speaks kindly but directly: “Honey…. Listen to me. You’re here now. This is where you are.” [Read more...]