The steward of Middle-earth

Hannah Long writes:

Around the time Christopher [Tolkien] was commissioned an officer in the RAF in 1945, [J.R.R.] Tolkien was calling his son “my chief critic and collaborator.” Christopher would return from flying missions to pore over another chapter of his father’s work. He also joined the informal literary club known as the Inklings. At 21, he was the youngest—and is now the last surviving—member. The band of friends—J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, and Charles Williams, among others—would meet at Oxford’s Eagle and Child pub or Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen College to chat about literature and philosophy and to read aloud portions of works in progress.

Christopher was recruited to narrate his father’s stories. The group considered his clear, rich voice a marked improvement over his father’s dithering, mumbling delivery. Lewis had recognized the brilliance of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work from the first moment he encountered it, and for years remained Tolkien’s only audience. Dyson, not so appreciative, exclaimed during one reading, “Oh, not another f—ing elf!”

Poet and scholar Malcolm Guite argues that the Inklings, despite their profound differences (Tolkien was an English Roman Catholic, Lewis an Ulster Protestant, Williams a hermetic mystic) refined and supported each other in their common literary mission.

“They’re not often noticed by literary historians because . . . in terms of English literature, the self-defining mainstream of 20th-century literature supposedly was high modernism, shaped by Joyce and Eliot,” Guite said in a 2011 lecture. But “there was actually . . . something quite radical going on in that group. Together, they were able to form a profoundly alternative and countercultural vision.” Guite emphasizes, in particular, the Inklings’ shared desire to respond to the materialist, largely atheistic cohort whose voices dominated the world of letters.

Although the Inklings are often accused of escapism, nearly all culture was engaged in a sort of dissociation because of the carnage and devastation of the First World War. Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger writes that Tolkien was “a traveler between worlds,” from his Edwardian youth to his postbellum disillusionment. It was this “oscillation that, paradoxically, makes him a modern writer, for . . . the temporal dislocation of his ‘escape’ mirrored the psychological disjunction and displacement of his century.”

High modernism found that escape in science, creating a stark divide between the material and the spiritual. This technical, technological, atomizing approach turns up in The Lord of the Rings with the villainous wizard Saruman, whose materialist philosophy dismisses the transcendent. Early in the book, Saruman changes his robe from white to multicolored. He explains, “White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” Gandalf replies. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

Saruman ignores that his dissection of color has eliminated something greater than the sum of its parts; he has lost view of the transcendent white light. For the Inklings, the medium of fantasy restored—or rather revealed—the enchantment of a disenchanted world. It reinstated an understanding of the transcendent that had been lost in postwar alienation. [Continue reading…]

China has placed hundreds of thousands of Muslims in cultural extermination camps

The New York Times reports:

On the edge of a desert in far western China, an imposing building sits behind a fence topped with barbed wire. Large red characters on the facade urge people to learn Chinese, study law and acquire job skills. Guards make clear that visitors are not welcome.

Inside, hundreds of ethnic Uighur Muslims spend their days in a high-pressure indoctrination program, where they are forced to listen to lectures, sing hymns praising the Chinese Communist Party and write “self-criticism” essays, according to detainees who have been released.

The goal is to remove any devotion to Islam.

Abdusalam Muhemet, 41, said the police detained him for reciting a verse of the Quran at a funeral. After two months in a nearby camp, he and more than 30 others were ordered to renounce their past lives. Mr. Muhemet said he went along but quietly seethed.

“That was not a place for getting rid of extremism,” he recalled. “That was a place that will breed vengeful feelings and erase Uighur identity.”

This camp outside Hotan, an ancient oasis town in the Taklamakan Desert, is one of hundreds that China has built in the past few years. It is part of a campaign of breathtaking scale and ferocity that has swept up hundreds of thousands of Chinese Muslims for weeks or months of what critics describe as brainwashing, usually without criminal charges.

Though limited to China’s western region of Xinjiang, it is the country’s most sweeping internment program since the Mao era — and the focus of a growing chorus of international criticism. [Continue reading…]

Remembering 1968

Jackson Lears writes:

The religious dimension of American radicalism was what separated it from the student uprisings in Paris and other European cities during the spring of 1968. American radicals lacked the anticlerical animus of Europeans; priests, rabbis, and ministers enlisted in the front ranks of the civil rights and antiwar movements. King’s decision to bear witness against the war was central to legitimating resistance to it, while provoking government counterattacks as well as denunciations from both liberals and conservatives.

“Religion” may be too solemn a word for many 1960s radicals, but it helps to capture the depth of their motives: above all their longing for a more direct, authentic experience of the world than the one on offer in midcentury American society. What made radicals mad, what drove their deepest animus against the war, was their sense that it was a product of the same corporate technostructure—as John Kenneth Galbraith called it in The New Industrial State (1967)—that reduced everyday life to a hamster cage of earning and spending. The tribunes of the technostructure were men like Robert McNamara, who shuttled from the Ford Motor Company to the Defense Department to the World Bank, and who seemed to know everything about managerial techniques but nothing about their ultimate purpose, if indeed there was one. Elite managers were the high priests of an orthodoxy with a blankness, a vacancy, at its center.

The fundamental expression of this vacuity was the war machine that multiplied corpses in Vietnam and nuclear weapons throughout the world. King acknowledged the connection between managerialism and militarism at Arlington Cemetery in February 1968, when he said, “Somewhere along the way we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.” A society of means without ends was a society without a soul.

Antiwar radicals, recoiling from soullessness, challenged the church of technocratic rationality. Taking this challenge seriously, recovering the mood of an extended moment, requires beginning earlier and ending later than 1968. [Continue reading…]

Have we forgotten how to die?

In a review of seven books on death and dying, Julie-Marie Strange writes:

James Turner was twenty-five when his four-year-old daughter Annice died from a lung condition. She died at home with her parents and grandmother; her sleeping siblings were told of her death the next morning. James did everything to soothe Annice’s last days but, never having encountered death before, he didn’t immediately recognize it. He didn’t know what to do or expect and found it hard to discuss things with his wife Martha. The family received many condolences but kept the funeral private. Losing a child, often described as the hardest bereavement to bear, changed James Turner forever.

Death in the twenty-first century is typified by the paradox contained in this story. Although we greedily consume death at a distance through fiction, drama and the media, we are hamstrung by it up close and personal. In 1955 the commentator Geoffrey Gorer declared that death had become more pornographic than sex. It was, he said, the new taboo and mourning had become “indecent”. Since then, matters have arguably got worse. The decline in institutional Christianity left a spiritual and existential vacuum, while the rise in individual materialism has fragmented family networks and communities. Shared rites of passage that publicly validated grief have receded, and the space of death has moved increasingly from the home to the hospital.

Focusing on the US and, to a lesser extent, Northern Europe, Haider Warraich’s Modern Death: How medicine changed the end of life identifies how far-reaching these changes are. A physician and clinical researcher, Warraich is well placed to observe the dubious implications of an expanded medicalization of death. Most people want to die at home, but the majority continue to die in hospital, surrounded by medical equipment. In general, life expectancy in the past century has increased, but so has the use of medicine to prolong it artificially. Definitions of death have grown more complicated – does it lie in brain function or in the heart and lungs? – and are openly contested. And despite what Warraich calls medicine’s “obsession” with preventing or delaying death, there is no clear provision for bereaved families. That task waits to be taken up. Kathryn Mannix agrees in With the End in Mind: Dying, death and wisdom in an age of denial, suggesting that it “has become taboo to mention dying”. Through a “gradual tran­sition”, Mannix says, we have lost the vocab­ulary for talking about death and depend instead on euphemism, lies and ambiguity; she wants us to “reclaim” a language of death.

This is a recurring theme among these seven books. For some, our inability to talk straight about death and dying is partly about the mystery of the end. Andrew Stark, in The Consolations of Mortality: Making sense of death, identifies the decline in religion in the West and the idea of the afterlife as pivotal to our lack of confidence in confronting death. Robert McCrum, in Every Third Thought: On life, death and the endgame, speculates that ageing and death present a particular conundrum to self-assured baby boomers, who try to give death the slip (“let’s talk about it another time . . .”). In From Here to Eternity: Travelling the world to find the good death, Caitlin Doughty expands the problem into a generic Western culture of death “avoidance” – we duck awkward conversations with the dying, hand our corpses to corporate professionals and, worst of all, treat grief with embarrassment and shame. Kevin Toolis, in My Father’s Wake: How the Irish teach us to live, love and die, describes a veritable “Western Death Machine”, in which public services, health professionals, the media and corporate bodies all conspire towards the removal of death and dying from the purview of ordinary people. A former war correspondent, Toolis has seen more than his fair share of death and is here to shake us out of our complacency. [Continue reading…]

How Lebanon transformed Anthony Bourdain

Kim Ghattas writes:

Growing up in Beirut during Lebanon’s 15–year civil war, I wished for someone like Anthony Bourdain to tell the story of my country: a place ripped apart by violence, yes, but also a country where people still drove through militia checkpoints just to gather for big Sunday family lunches, or dodged sniper fire to get to their favorite butcher across town to sample some fresh, raw liver for breakfast. Bourdain, the legendary roving chef and master storyteller who committed suicide on Friday in France at the age of 61, would have approved of such excursions in search of the perfect morsel—he probably would have come along.

Coming of age during conflict made me want to become a journalist. I hoped to tell the story of my country and the Middle East—a place rife with conflicts, sure, but also layered with complexities, a place of diverse peoples full of humanity. In the summer of 2006, I was the BBC’s Beirut correspondent when war erupted between Israel and Hezbollah, the pro-Iran Shia militant group. Hezbollah had kidnapped three Israeli soldiers, triggering the month-long conflict. Within a day, the Israelis had bombed Beirut’s airport out of action. I worked 34 days in a row, 20 hours a day, reporting live on television and radio, alongside dozens of colleagues who’d flown in to help cover the conflict.

I didn’t know it then, but Bourdain was there too, filming an episode of his show No Reservations. And perhaps he didn’t know it then, but Lebanon would change him forever. In the episode, he talked about how he had come to Beirut to make a happy show about food and culture in a city that was regaining its reputation as the party capital of the Middle East. Instead, he found himself filming a country that had tipped into war overnight. Filming on the day the violence broke out, he managed to capture that split second where people’s faces fell as they realized their lives had been upended. [Continue reading…]

How music can fight prejudice

Tom Jacobs writes:

The outpouring of hostility toward immigrants and refugees has reminded us that ethnocentrism remains a fact of life in both Europe and the United States. Combating it will require teaching a new generation to view members of different cultures as potential friends rather than threatening outsiders. But what mode of communication has the power to stimulate such a shift?

New research from Portugal suggests the answer may be music.

It reports schoolchildren around age 11 who learned about the music and culture of a faraway land expressed warmer feelings toward immigrants from that country than those who did not. What’s more, those positive emotions were still evident three months after this exposure to the foreign culture.

“Music can inspire people to travel to other emotional worlds,” writes a research team led by psychologist Felix Neto of the University of Porto. Their work suggests songs can serve as an emotional bridge between cultures, revealing feelings that are common to both. [Continue reading…]

Human society is unprepared for the rise of artificial intelligence

Henry Kissinger writes:

The internet age in which we already live prefigures some of the questions and issues that AI will only make more acute. The Enlightenment sought to submit traditional verities to a liberated, analytic human reason. The internet’s purpose is to ratify knowledge through the accumulation and manipulation of ever expanding data. Human cognition loses its personal character. Individuals turn into data, and data become regnant.

Users of the internet emphasize retrieving and manipulating information over contextualizing or conceptualizing its meaning. They rarely interrogate history or philosophy; as a rule, they demand information relevant to their immediate practical needs. In the process, search-engine algorithms acquire the capacity to predict the preferences of individual clients, enabling the algorithms to personalize results and make them available to other parties for political or commercial purposes. Truth becomes relative. Information threatens to overwhelm wisdom.

Inundated via social media with the opinions of multitudes, users are diverted from introspection; in truth many technophiles use the internet to avoid the solitude they dread. All of these pressures weaken the fortitude required to develop and sustain convictions that can be implemented only by traveling a lonely road, which is the essence of creativity.

The impact of internet technology on politics is particularly pronounced. The ability to target micro-groups has broken up the previous consensus on priorities by permitting a focus on specialized purposes or grievances. Political leaders, overwhelmed by niche pressures, are deprived of time to think or reflect on context, contracting the space available for them to develop vision.

The digital world’s emphasis on speed inhibits reflection; its incentive empowers the radical over the thoughtful; its values are shaped by subgroup consensus, not by introspection. For all its achievements, it runs the risk of turning on itself as its impositions overwhelm its conveniences. [Continue reading…]

Islam in Eastern Europe

Jacob Mikanowski writes:

There has never been an Eastern Europe without Islam. Eastern Europe owes its existence to the intermingling of languages, of cultures, and, perhaps above all, of faiths. It is the meeting place of the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewry, of militant Islam and crusading Christianity, of Byzantine mystics and Sufi saints.

Once, this plurality would have been obvious. A visitor to Vilnius in the 17th century would have heard six languages spoken in the streets; they could have heard prayers conducted in at least five more. The city had churches belonging to five denominations, as well as a synagogue and a mosque. Some examples of “Lithuanian” mosques still exist in Poland and Belarus. Wooden and square, they look just like parish churches, with the minor exception of the ornament at the top: a slim silver crescent instead of a cross.

If anything marks Eastern Europe as a place of its own, and not someone else’s periphery, it is this function as gateway and bridge between and among different traditions. And yet, again and again, the role of Islam in the making of this tapestry has been forgotten or disavowed. That is a grave mistake. Islam is the silver thread holding the whole together. Thirty years ago, the historian Larry Wolff argued that Eastern Europe was a product of the Enlightenment. When Western (principally French) intellectuals began to fashion their countries as realms of progress and rationality, they created the “East” as a flattering foil for their ambitions, filled as it was (in their eyes at least) with backwardness and superstition.

It seems to me that Wolff is only partially right. I think a notion of a separate Eastern Europe predates the Enlightenment by a few hundred years. I think, moreover, that its genesis is intimately tied to the introduction of Islam to the Balkans and southern steppes and, with it, the creation of a shatter-zone between empires stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea. This shatter-zone consisted of a sharp border and a soft frontier. Armies and lone warriors fought along the border. People, stories, and miracles crossed the frontiers. So many of the legends that came to define the nations of the region stem from this space of contact. And everywhere you look, relationships that appear at first to be based on enmity turn out instead to be characterized by mutual influence, mimicry, friendship, and even love. [Continue reading…]

How a Eurasian steppe empire coped with decades of drought

By Diana Crow

The bitterly cold, dry air of the Central Asian steppe is a boon to researchers who study the region. The frigid climate “freeze-dries” everything, including centuries-old trees that once grew on lava flows in Mongolia’s Orkhon Valley. A recent study of the tree-ring record, published in March, from some of these archaic logs reveals a drought that lasted nearly seven decades—one of the longest in a 1,700-year span of steppe history—from A.D. 783–850.

Decades of prolonged drought would have killed much of the grass that the Orkhon Valley’s domesticated horses relied upon. Yet the dominant steppe civilization of the era, an empire of Turkic horse nomads called the Uyghurs, somehow survived nearly 60 years of the drought, a period about seven times longer than the Dust Bowl that devastated the central U.S. in the 1930s.

Based on surviving Chinese and Uyghur documents from the drought years, the study’s authors concluded that the Uyghurs survived by diversifying their economy and using international diplomacy to boost trade.

Rather than driving the Uyghurs to plunder neighboring territories—as other steppe empires tended to do—the drought led them to take advantage of their location on the Silk Road and reinvent their economy. The Uyghurs’ relatively peaceful strategies seem to have staved off total collapse for a surprisingly long time. “They were champs,” says physical geographer and study co-author Amy Hessl of West Virginia University.

Prior to this paper, no one knew that the Uyghurs faced an “epic drought,” Hessl says. The recognition that they did may change the way historians interpret the social, political, and economic strategies of the Uyghurs.

[Read more…]

The Dreamtime, science and narratives of Indigenous Australia

File 20180501 135803 tkypa4.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Lake Mungo and the surrounding Willandra Lakes of NSW were established around 150,000 years ago.
from www.shutterstock.com

David Lambert, Griffith University

This article is an extract from an essay Owning the science: the power of partnerships in First Things First, the 60th edition of Griffith Review.

We’re publishing it as part of our occasional series Zoom Out, where authors explore key ideas in science and technology in the broader context of society and humanity.


Scientific and Indigenous knowledge systems have often been in conflict. In my view, too much is made of these conflicts; they have a lot in common.

For example, Indigenous knowledge typically takes the form of a narrative, usually a spoken story about how the world came to be. In a similar way, evolutionary theories, which aim to explain why particular characters are adapted to certain functions, also take the form of narratives. Both narratives are mostly focused on “origins”.




Read more:
Friday essay: when did Australia’s human history begin?


From a strictly genetic perspective, progress on origins research in Australia has been particularly slow. Early ancient DNA studies were focused on remains from permafrost conditions in Antarctica and cool temperate environments such as northern Europe, including Greenland.

But Australia is very different. Here, human remains are very old, and many are recovered from very hot environments.

While ancient DNA studies have played an important role in informing understanding of the evolution of our species worldwide, little is known about the levels of ancient genomic variation in Australia’s First Peoples – although some progress has been made in recent years. This includes the landmark recovery of genomic sequences from both contemporary and ancient Aboriginal Australian remains.

[Read more…]