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Our Long Lasting Relatives

Neandertals are all the rage these days. People can get their DNA analyzed and learn about their genetic background, including whether or not they have Neandertals – we’ll stay with that spelling – lurking in the family tree. Even if you haven’t checked your DNA, you may be interested in Beebe Bahrami’s Café Neandertal.

Cafe Neandertal cover imageThis is a dense romantic, fact-filled, roaming account of a dig on a Neandertal site in France. Beebe Bahrami, is probably best known as a travel writer, but she’s also a cultural anthropologist with a deep affection for Neandertals and a love for the land and the people of the Dordogne. She has a unique perspective on the Neandertals and a unique way of telling the story of the dig. I’ve not read a book which was simultaneously so fascinating and annoying as this one. It’s a kind of memoir about Neandertals, about the places they lived in France, about the people who live there nowadays, about wine and good food and paleoanthropologists. It leaps back thousands of years and also confusingly shuffles time in the past decade. No matter, this is a book worth reading.

The writer begins her account by saying, “Seven bodies lay scattered across the cave floor like leaves in the wind. Some were missing limbs or parts of their torsos or craniums. One’s detached head had rolled a few feet away.” And she continues:

Even though this was a cold case, one that I was reconstructing from black-and-white photos while the actual bodies were now in a lab in Paris, it was hard not to feel the visceral presence of these seven. I immediately connected to their humanity through what I imagined were their emotions in their last moments of life. My thoughts burned with a single question. What had happened to them?

No one who reads the title of the book or glances at the flyleaf will be taken in by the pretense that this is a contemporary crime. What’s important here is that Beebe Bahrami feels the visceral presence of these long-gone Neandertals and she connects to their humanity. Early in this work she confesses to carrying a flame for these pre-historic people. “My love affair with Neandertals,” as she calls it, flows through her writing, a constant in this shape-shifting narrative.

Beebe Bahrami author image
Beebe Bahrami

In 2014 — I think it was 2014; it’s sometimes as difficult to date events in this memoir as it is to date Neandertal sites — she joined a team of scientists at a dig in La Ferrassie, in Dordogne in southwestern France. Her participation began by a fleeting glance as she was shopping for shallots at the market in the nearby medieval town, Sarlat-la-Canéda, in May of 2010. Bahrami had been drawn to that area two winters prior when she was exploring spiritual experiences and sacred roots. She had eventually landed in Sarlat and “found it had a pull on me like no region I’d ever inhabited.” As she explained later, “I actually felt as if I had come home.”


Easter – Drama Is Reborn

Three Marys at the Tomb of Jesus
Three Marys at the Tomb of Jesus

Easter, which for Christians marks the resurrection of Jesus, also resurrected theatrical drama. The fall and fragmentation of the Roman empire brought Roman stage plays, and their Greek predecessors, to an end. Theatrical production ceased, fell out of memory, and there were no stage dramas as Europe entered the Middle Ages. There was pageantry, yes, but not theatrical dramas and plays  as we know them today. Much of the Medieval Christian Mass was — in addition to its sacred ritual — an occasion of  pageantry, and the church knew the uses of such displays.

Quem Quaeritis
Quem Quaeritis – Bodleian Library

Sometime in the 10th century, certain Easter services began to incorporate a bit of drama.The plot was simple:On the third day after the crucifixion of Jesus, the three Marys go to the tomb in search of the body of Jesus and find there an angel who asks who they are looking for. (You can see them in the Medieval illustration at the top of this post.) They say they’re looking for Jesus Christ who was crucified. The angel replies that Jesus has risen, as he had foretold he would. Go an announce that he has risen from the grave.

Here in Latin and English are the alternating questions and answers by the angel and the three Marys. The angel speaks first, asking the Marys who they are looking for:

 Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae? Whom do you seek in the grave, o followers of Christ?
Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, o heavenly one.
Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.  He is not here. He has risen, as he foretold. Go out and   announce that he has risen from the grave.

No one can say whether it began by having a single speaker, a priest or cantor, ask the question “Who do you seek?” and other speaker, or singer, replying, or whether it was a whole chorus. In any case, the little exchange became more elaborate and other crucial turns in the life of Jesus were dramatized. Soon these little plays, or skits, were performed outside the church and eventually scenes from the old testament were added. The dramas were originally intended as lessons from the Bible, but they soon became enjoyable plays that were mounted on wheeled platforms — carts that could be taken from town to town and arranged in a circle so the spectators could move easily from one skit to another. Eventually, the playhouse was born, drama as we know it today was born. It all began at Easter.

Douglas Glover’s Elle

I read Douglas Glover’s novel Elle when it came out in 2003, and over the years I’ve continued, now and again, to read a few pages at random. It’s an excellent book – it won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award – with a remarkable narrator heroine and a curious plot, but I go back to it simply because I enjoy the story teller’s voice. The novel is based on an actual event in Canada’s history when a French noblewoman was abandoned on the Isle of Demons in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1542.

Elle book coverThe history is simple. In 1541 Jean-François de La Rocque de Roberval, a nobleman privateer, was made Lieutenant General of New France. He set sail from the old to the New France that same year and along with him and the other colonists in his charge he had his cousin, or maybe it was his niece or his sister – the record is confused – but in any case she was Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval. For some unknown reason Lieutenant General Roberval became infuriated with Marguerite and as the ship entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence he had Marguerite, plus her lover and her maidservant, put ashore on a small unpopulated island, providing them with scant hunting and fishing gear. A few years later Marguerite was rescued by Basque fishermen and by then her lover and an infant who Marguerite had given birth to had died, as had the maidservant.

Marguerite returned to France and her story became known, maybe even well known. The chronicle of Marguerite’s adventure was first put into writing by Queen Marguerite of Navarre, and other elaborated versions by other writers have followed. Douglas Glover, limiting himself to the skimpiest handful of facts, has written the most spirited and strangest story of all.

Glover’s novel opens with this three-sentence paragraph:

Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I am aroused beyond all reckoning, beyond memory, in a ship’s cabin on a spumy gulf somewhere west of Newfoundland, with the so-called Comte D’Epirgny, five years since bad-boy tennis champion of Orleans, tucked between my legs. Admittedly, Richard is turning green from the ship’s violent motions, and if he notices the rat hiding behind the shit bucket, he will surely puke. But I have looped a cord round the base of his cock to keep him hard.

Clearly, this is a Marguerite de La Rocque we haven’t heard from before. What has always intrigued me about Marguerite’s voice isn’t her charming salacious tongue, but her amazing leaps of thought. Douglas Glover is a skilled writer and one of the things I admire in his work is the unobtrusive way he packs his paragraphs. Most writers, following the instructions of their high-school English teachers, use each paragraph to perform one step, do one thing; Glover can write a paragraph that does a lot of different things at once. He gets his characters and the reader located “in a ship’s cabin on a spumy gulf somewhere west of Newfoundland” and at the same time engages the reader by presenting a dramatic sexual encounter just as it struggles toward a climax. Indeed, the dull expository fact of place – a gulf west of Newfoundland – is camouflaged by being part of the sexual scene, for the sea is “spumy” and the ship is rolling and heaving even more than the lovers – a conceit that is carried on between the lines as the scene progresses.

Image of Douglas Glover
Douglas Glover

Both Marguerite and her lover Richard are in commonplace unheroic pain. Richard is about to throw up from seasickness and Marguerite has a colossal toothache. “My tooth feels bigger than my head, bigger than a house. My tooth has colonized the world.” So in the midst of this bout of lovemaking Marguerite prays to St. Apollonia, the patron of “toothache cures.” (Apollonia was martyred by a mob who smashed all her teeth, and such terrible tortures excite Marguerite sexually.) Marguerite can’t quite get to the climax she’s seeking and Richard, violently ill with his seasickness, has stuffed his fists into his mouth, and can’t use his hands to help her get there. “I recall, not for the first time,” Marguerite tells us parenthetically, “that the learned Democritus described coitus as a form of epilepsy.” (more…)

Aristotle & Super Bowl LI

There are a lot of dramas on TV and no matter how the plot zigs and zags you know how most, or maybe all of them, are going to turn out. The only time that’s not true when you’re watching a sporting event – like, say, Super Bowl Fifty-One. Only an incomplete mind, or a terribly deprived one, fails to engage the drama inherent in any game, and the Super Bowl Fifty-One was certainly dramatic.

Aristotle – Nice sculpture, but nobody knows what he looked like.

Aristotle – I’m thinking of the Greek philosopher born in 385 BC, not “Big Aristotle,” Shaquille O’Neal – had some interesting things to say about the dramas that he and his countrymen saw performed in Greece. The play, Aristotle said, should have one action from start to finish, should occur in one place, and should begin and end in one day.Those happenings on stage, he said, weren’t true actions or events but “imitations of an action.”

Despite this, the spectators, were engaged as if the imitations were actual events – as if the actor on stage were really Oedipus, as if, at the close of the play, he has murdered his father and bedded his mother and now, blood streaming down his face, he has actually put out his own eyes in self-punishment.

Adults have the strange ability to simultaneously know that what they’re witnessing is merely a imitation of an action, and at the same time, says Aristotle, they are moved by genuine pity and terror by what they see. We know what the characters in the drama are scripted to feel, we identify ourselves with them and feel the emotions we’d feel if we were in the little world portrayed on stage. The drama played out in a football game engages us the same way, but it’s greatly heightened by our knowledge that what we witness is not bogus, but is actually happening to the players on the field.

The New England Patriots were favored to win by three points.    Most New Englanders identified with the Patriots, of course, but despite the odds, the rest of the United States poured their emotions into the Atlanta Falcons. To put it bluntly, the Patriots had become the team to hate. Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady was thirty-nine years old, had already won four Super Bowl games, tying the best performance by any other quarterback in Super Bowl history, but he had also been tainted by a cheating scandal for which he was punished by being sidelined for four games, a staggering penalty. On the other hand, the Falcon’s quarterback, Matt Ryan, at thirty-one, was in charge of a team of comparative youngsters and had just won the Associated Press NFL Most Valuable Player award. Ryan was leading an exceptional team, a team with a very bright future — a future that might arrive with this game. Maybe Brady was the past.

The trajectory of Super Bowl LI had a stunningly dramatic arc. Over 111 million viewers watched the game on TV, caught up in the emotion of a championship game that tied and went into overtime, a first in Super Bowl history. It obeyed the unities of time, place and action, but no spectator felt terror for the losing Falcons or Matt Ryan – pity, perhaps, but not terror. Super Bowl LI wasn’t an Aristotelian drama and nobody noticed. They were too caught up in the action, real action, not an imitation.


Easter eggsThese Easter eggs were made a generation ago. Delicate little things, real egg shells painted by hand, and the kids who made them have kids of their own now. These lovely ornaments spend most of the year in boxes stored under the eves in the attic, then come into the light for a brief time once a year.There’s no question that for Christians such hollow decorated egg shells came to symbolize the empty tomb of the risen Christ, but precisely when and where the symbol got its start is a vexed piece of history. No matter. Humans have been decorating eggs for thousands of years and for sure a lot of life starts with an egg. For Romans of Christ’s time, all life comes from an egg or, as they say, omne vivum ex ovo.  We too came from an egg and without kids all life would cease. So there they are, bowls of real hollowed egg shells painted by children. There’s resurrection for you!

How Much Do Writers Make?

Monks in a ScriptoriumThe writers pictured above are monks in a scriptorium. They took vows of poverty chastity and obedience. Nowadays writers don’t take vows of chastity and obedience, but a lot of them feel as if they took a vow of poverty when they decided to try authorship.

Writers have never made a lot of money. That’s not news. What is news is that from 2009 to 2015, full-time authors’ income dropped 30 percent. No, that’s not a misprint. And part-time authors saw a 38 percent decrease over the same period.

Maybe you’re thinking that full-time authors found their income falling from, say, around $100,000 to $66,000 a year. Alas, no. In 2009, full-time writers averaged $25,000 a year from writing, and their income from that source dropped to $17,500.

These grim figures come from a survey “commissioned by the Authors Guild and conducted by the Codex Group, a leading publishing industry research firm.”

The Authors Guild chose to survey the period starting with 2009 because that was the year that publishing began to experience changes brought about by the digital revolution. In 2009, only 5 percent of readers had bought an e-book, but by 2015, 50 percent of readers were buying e-books.

The Guild put it this way in their Bulletin, “We’ve seen major consolidation within the traditional publishing industry, which means less diversity among publishers, and with most major publishers now owned by multinational corporations, there’s a tighter focus on the bottom line. These phenomena – along with Amazon’s strong-arming publishers and authors on price and other terms on its way to becoming an industry behemoth, leaving thousands of brick and mortar bookstores shuttered in its wake – have combined to make the business of authorship less profitable than it was six years ago.”

Writer maniac at keyboard

Taking Down the Christmas Tree – revisited

A couple of years ago we published a post about taking down the  Christmas tree. Whereas it is now a lazy New Year’s Day, and whereas we haven’t finished straightening up the house from our Christmas feast and our jolly guests, and whereas we celebrated the arrival of the New Year late last night, probably too late last night, we’re simply going to republish our old post:

Christmas tree trashedTaking down the Christmas tree is one of the saddest domestic chores. For a week or longer this evergreen has been standing in the room with us, filling the air with the scent of balsam or other pines, glittering with lights and sparkling ornaments. And those ornaments are so important, so beautiful, no matter that they’re inexpensive baubles or, say, ordinary pine cones tinted with gold-like paint, or paper and glitter glued together by one of the children a dozen years ago. Each ornament has it’s family history — the history of which grandparents had it on their tree a generation ago, or who brought it as a gift, or made it just this year.

There’s no joy of recognition when taking these ornaments from the tree. That delight happened two weeks ago when, after an absence of a year, we carefully lifted this delicate trinket from it’s wrapping and — oh, yes! — we remember that one, the Santa with the paint chipping off, the glass sphere with Mother and Child inside, or those tiny gold balls we got forty years ago for our first Christmas. And if you turn off all the lamps in the room and leave only the strings of tiny tree lights — how magically beautiful it is!

Now we’re simply returning the faded old ornaments to their little egg-crate boxes, if we can find the right boxes that fit, and stacking them one upon the other in a corner of the attic, or in a closet behind the bag of swim suits and beach clothes.  Then, after struggling to unfasten the tree from the stand, and after spilling water on the floor, we finally grapple with the brittle tree amid a shower of dried pine needles, drag it out the door and toss it on the snowbank down by the road. And there it will lie until the town truck comes to take it away, bits of glittering tinsel still fluttering here and there.

The Language Hoax

Language Hoax 235Some theories just feel right and true. They appeal to our common sense so strongly that we believe in them as soon as we hear them. And if the theory is about language, the language we speak and write, we feel pretty certain that we’re familiar enough with the way it works to assess whether some theory about it is true. Now, here’s a theory about language:

• Language channels the way we think and view the world.

That theory became popular among certain linguists in the 1930s and still circulate among many, perhaps most, educated people today.

One thing we know for certain, languages vary widely. One language may have only a single word for eating and drinking, still another makes uniquely fine discriminations between different shades of a color, yet another has no articles such as the or a.

Native American Hopi have no tense markers to indicate time and no words like later. And that led Benjamin Lee Whorf to propose that since the Hopi language has no way indicate past, present or future, they view time differently from English speakers and, further, the cyclical Hopi cosmology reflects this difference.

Whorf was not a professional linguist, but his ideas looked right to his mentor, the linguist Edward Sapir, and soon the theory — called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — spread among linguists, academics and the general public. However, no examination of people speaking one language or another has found evidence to support the theory. It’s generally conceded now that such linguistic differences as Whorf had in mind don’t actually channel thought or create a particular view of the world.

And now we have John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. McWhorter is a Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University and the author of The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, an excellent book that is both scholarly and readable. He’s the author of many other books on language, as well as works on race and cultural issues, and his articles have appeared in the New York Times, and the New Yorker, among other publications.

The Language Hoax is a short book. The pages are small, only about 5 by 7 inches, and there are about 168 pages, excluding the introduction, notes and index. Even so — as an admirer of John McWhorter’s work I hate to say this — it’s too long.

McWhorter demonstrates again and again the inability of the neo-Whorfians to come up with credible evidence to support their theory. His examples of wild differences over a spectrum of languages are interesting and often amusing. But after a while even the most indulgent reader will wonder why McWhorter bothered to write this book if, as he says repeatedly and credibly, there’s no support for the theory he’s attacking.

He has been careful to acknowledge and praise academic work that does show how the workings of language can have a tiny, marginal effect on thought, and he’s shown the difference between those studies and the general notion held by some people that such differences in language guide thought and shape culture. McWhorter writes in a readable and engaging style — he’s a good writer — but his passion for bashing this moribund theory is hard to understand. And there is certainly no hoax involved in whatever misunderstanding the lay public may have about languages.

Languages change and develop in the most amazing ways, and the variety of ways that languages differ is wonderful. McWhorter believes linguistic changes come about spontaneously. They just bubble up, he says. How those bubble are made and where they come from — well, that would make a very interesting book.

Easter Renewed

Easter eggs AWe were unable to reach the web the past few days, so we arrive here at Easter out of breath and unprepared. We do have those eggs we’ve colored over the years  (well, actually, the children did most of the work) and we’ve taken  them from the little egg boxes that we keep beside the cartons filled with Christmas decorations.  We haven’t anything new to say about Easter eggs, so we’re reposting our sentiments from last year.  The photos are fresh.  You’ll notice they’re the same decorated eggs, but rearranged — we couldn’t get the same arrangement even if we tried.Easter eggs BSociety finds it easier to give up religious belief, than to abandon the traditions and symbols of religion. Eggs have symbolized fertility, birth and rebirth, for a long, long time. And, as you probably know, you can find eggs used symbolically that way in a number of religious traditions.  Here and now we’re celebrating Easter and what we have here are Easter eggs.  Much of Christian lay society makes a greater celebration and display at Christmas, Christ’s birthday, but clearly in the sacred drama of Jesus’ life his rising from the dead on Easter morning is far, far more significant than his birth.

If you wish, the egg represents the stone that was rolled against the entrance to the tomb to seal it and was found rolled aside on the third day after his death. Or, if you wish, the egg being empty — and all those painted eggs are first punctured and drained — symbolizes the empty tomb of Christ on Easter day. But for many people, contemporary Easter eggs, as bright and colorful as flowers, simply call to mind springtime, fertility and that awakening we feel when we have come through another dark winter and are looking forward to more light and warmth.Easter eggs C


March 25th is International Waffle Day

Or maybe it’s simply Waffle Day in Sweden.

Here’s the story, take it as you will. In the liturgical calendar March 25 – exactly nine calendar months prior the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus – is the Feast of the Annunciation. The Annunciation, you recall, is the occasion when the angel Gabriel surprised Mary, telling her that she had been chosen to become the mother of the son of God, to be named Jesus. And Mary assented to God’s plan. That day, in Swedish, is called Vårfrudagen (Our Lady’s Day – the Lady being Mary, mother of God.) But Vårfrudagen sounds enough like Våffeldagen (waffle day) to easily conflate the two, hence the overlap of Waffle Day and Our Lady’s Day in Sweden.

(You can look up the story of the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke, and you can find the confusion over Våffeldagen and Vårfrudagen in Wikipedia under Waffle Day.)

In the United States, Waffle Day is celebrated on August 24, memorializing that day in August of 1869 when Cornelius Swartwout was awarded the first waffle-iron patent granted by the U.S. Patent Office. If we’re not otherwise occupied, we’ll write a post about waffles when August 24 rolls around.

We’re not going to post an image of a waffle. Annunciation by Botticelli

But we do like this image of the Annunciation as envisioned by Sandro Botticelli.  We like the ballet-like relationship between the angel and Mary, and the delicate space between their hands. We like the way the angel’s gossamer cloak, still billowing, is just settling down under the effect of earthly gravity. In this scene which links heaven and earth, we like the solidity of the red tile floor and the sense of spatial volume induced by those lines of perspective, and we like that distant scene in the deep background.

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.