- The modern, and to my mind true, theory is that mathematics is the abstract form of the natural sciences; and that it is valuable as a training of the reasoning powers not because it is abstract, but because it is a representation of actual things. [T.H. Sanford]
- Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of paintings or music, yet sublimely pure and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. [Bertrand Russell, “The Study of Mathematics” (1907).]
- An age is called Dark, not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it. [James A. Michener, Space (1982).]
- The more you can escape from how horrible things really are, the less it’s going to bother you…and then, the worse things get. [Attibuted to Frank Zappa.]
Awareness of a crisis in the existing paradigm, and of the availability of viable change, is the intellectual dynamic behind unsettling change. Achieving this awareness requires dispassionate observation and careful analysis, because most people do not wish to upset major systems, and therefore will remain oblivious even to major problems for a long time after the system has fallen into crisis. Change may not occur until the system has collapsed, with tragic consequences. This occurs especially in political affairs, where politicians are rewarded for pandering to popular sentiment, which may rally around failing systems long after they have passed their time of viability. The events leading to and including the economic collapse of 1929 offer a case in point.
- Kurt Anderson, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (Random House (2017). “Donald Trump is ‘stupendous Exhibit A’ in the landscape of ‘Fantasyland,’ a fitting leader for a nation that has, over the centuries, nurtured a ‘promiscuous devotion to the untrue.’”
- Wency Lesser, Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020): “. . . a beautifully crafted inquiry into fiction, reality, crime and place.”
- Justin Wolff, Thomas Hart Benton: A Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012): on the realist American painter.
- Barry Gewen, The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World (W.W. Norton and Company, 2020): “In our current age, when demagogues and dictators once more stomp about the stage, Kissinger is 'more than a figure out of history,' Gewen writes. 'He is a philosopher of international relations who has much to teach us about how the modern world works.'”
- Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Harper & Row, 1982): “. . . what (the stone) eloquently speaks is silence, nature’s silence . . .”
- Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pendemic Story (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021): “. . . beating a pandemic means acting before the danger is clear — a mind-set that politicians and bureaucracies are terrible at embracing”.
- Scott Ellsworth, The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice (Dutton, 2021): “A Skillful Narrative of Excavating the Truth About the Tulsa Race Massacre”.
- Alex von Tunzelmann, Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History (Harper/HarperCollins, 2021): “The heart of the book is von Tunzelmann’s 12 chapter-long stories of figures famous enough to have become the subjects of commemorative statues, and then controversial enough to have some or all of these monuments removed.”
- Rob Dunn, A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us About the Destiny of the Human Species (Basic Books, 2021): “Life is not a passive force on the planet, and much as we might presume to sit in judgment of Creation — even sorting species by their economic value to us — we live on nature’s terms.”
- Deborah Cohen, Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took On a World at War (Random House, 2022): “As fascism swept across the continent, these reporters were unsparing in their coverage of what Nazism was unleashing. Hitler personally banned Sheean’s writings. Gunther’s portrayal of the Führer in his best seller ‘Inside Europe’ earned him a place of honor on the Gestapo’s hit list.”
From the dark side: treating globalization as a poltical choice:
- Tara Zahra, Against the World: Anti-Globalism and Mass Politics Between the World Wars (W.W. Norton & Company, 2023): “Globalization connected people, for good and for ill; they were more vested in — and vulnerable to — whatever happened on the other side of the world. Zahra trains our attention on the nationalists, on the reactionaries, on the back-to-the-land activists on both the left and the right who gained political momentum between the two world wars.”
- Chiara Oldani & Jan Wouters, eds., The G7, Anti-Globalism and the Governance of Globalization (Routledge, 2018).
- Sundaresh Menon & Anselmo Reyes, eds., Transnational Commercial Disputes in an Age of Anti-Globalism and Pandemic (Hart Publishing, 2023).
Documentary and Educational Films
Raising public consciousness:
- Food, Inc., an exposé on the food industry
- Taxi to the Dark Side, uncovering torture operations under the George W. Bush administration
- Deliver Us from Evil: exposing the cover-up of sexual predation within the Catholic Church
- Control Room: shining a spotlight on the phenomenon of “media-managed wars”
- King Corn, a small-film look at agriculture in the United States today
Technical and Analytical Readings
- James Gleick, The Information: A History. A Theory. A Flood. (Pantheon Books, 2011): on building the world, with information, via the evolutionary principle, one bit of information at a time.
- Christophe Galfard, The Universe In Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond (Flatiron Books, 2016): “Where Galfard really shines is in his crystal-clear explanation of quantum field theory . . . ”
- Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons On Physics (Riverhead Books, 2016): “ . . . Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics. Each functions perfectly well within its specific realm: Quantum mechanics governs the subatomic world of the very small, while general relativity describes how the world works at very large scales. But neither offers a complete description of how the world works.”
- Max Ernst, The Equivocal Woman (1923) (Is she aware?)
Social change is born of awareness, coupled with compassion. In this passage from Les Misérables, Hugo describes the plight of Parisian children in the 1830s:
Eight or nine years after the events narrated in the second part of this story, people noticed on the Boulevard du Temple, and in the regions of the Château-d'Eau, a little boy eleven or twelve years of age, who would have realized with tolerable accuracy that ideal of the gamin sketched out above, if, with the laugh of his age on his lips, he had not had a heart absolutely sombre and empty. This child was well muffled up in a pair of man's trousers, but he did not get them from his father, and a woman's chemise, but he did not get it from his mother. Some people or other had clothed him in rags out of charity. Still, he had a father and a mother. But his father did not think of him, and his mother did not love him. He was one of those children most deserving of pity, among all, one of those who have father and mother, and who are orphans nevertheless. This child never felt so well as when he was in the street. The pavements were less hard to him than his mother's heart. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume III – Marius; Book First – Paris Studied In Its Atom, Chapter XIII, Little Gavroche.]
Novels and stories:
- Mohsin Hamid, Exit West: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2017): “Your town or city or countryside is in ruins. You try to make it to the border. Only then, hoping to leave, or making it across the border, do you understand that those who live on the other side do not see you as human at all.”
- Loic Dauvillier, The Attack: A Graphic Novel (Firefly Books, 2016): “ . . . a story of lost innocence. On one of his endless wanderings, this time through an olive grove near Bethlehem, Amin meets an old Jewish man, a friend of his father’s. ‘All Palestinian Jews are a bit Arab and Israeli Arabs cannot deny being a little bit Jewish,’ he muses. The old man agrees with him, but asks: ‘So why is there so much hate in the same lineage?’”
- Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Likes (Farrar, Straaus & Giroux, 2020): “Dreams and Waking Life Blur in a New Story Collection.”
- Anna Keesey, Little Century: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012): a novel about a nascent frontier town “in the high desert of eastern Oregon” that does not paint an idyllic picture or “deliver her heroes and villains far from where they started – that is, in the middle of nowhere.”
- Ge Fei, Peach Blossom Paradise (New York Review Books, 2021): showcasing a “. . . deft mix of history, myth and invention, depicting a young woman’s emergence from her sheltered childhood to confront the realities of a land on the brink of violent change.”
- Benjamín Labatut, When We Cease To Understand the World (New York Review Books, 2021): “. . . grapples with science’s moral quandaries, but what is real and what is imagined?”
- K-Ming Chang, Bestiary: A Novel (One World, 2020) “offers up a different kind of narrative, full of magic realism that reaches down your throat, grabs hold of your guts and forces a slow reckoning with what it means to be a foreigner, a native, a mother, a daughter — and all the things in between.”
- Hari Kunzru, Red Pill: A Novel (Knopf, 2020): “Take the blue pill and continue his happy illusory life, or the red one and see the world as it actually is, in all its dizzying, violent, chaotic glory.”
- Angeline Boulley, Firekeeper’s Daughter (Holt Books for Young Readers, 2021): “'I’m writing about trauma, but I’m not writing a tragedy. I didn’t want to lose sight of the funny and loving and wonderful things about my community even though I was talking about meth and other unpleasant truths.'”
- Cherie Jones, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House: A Novel (Little, Brown and Company, 2021): “The trouble in Paradise seems to be that men can’t control themselves, infidelity is a given, sex is currency and domestic abuse is in full bloom like lush tropical foliage.”
- Joseph Roth, Rebellion: A Novel (1924): “Government is similar, in Andreas’s mind, to God; it ‘overlies man like the sky overlies the earth.’ It might be benevolent or punishing, but its ways are not ours to question. . . . So the words ‘rude awakening’ fairly blink in neon letters on the horizon from the opening of this book.”
From the dark side:
- Richard Russo, Empire Falls: A Novel (Knopf, 2001): “So can all of C. B.'s wealth persuade the river to flow away from his land? He thinks so, and tries to do it. But ‘Empire Falls,’' for C. B. and the many other characters who populate the book after his suicidal misadventure with a handgun, is about the long-term spiritual consequences of such folly. It's about the price of reconciling dreams with disappointment, and the many unexpected ways of finding salvation.”
- György Dragomán, The Bone Fire: A Novel (Mariner, paper, 2021): “For the book’s English translation, our word ‘bonfire’ has been broken back down to its etymological roots: the literal fires of bones (and heretics and sinful objects), familiar to speakers of Middle English. That a word we now perceive as benign would have such macabre origins is a reminder that we don’t live terribly far removed from superstition and atavism, either historically or psychologically.”
- John Lanchester, Reality and Other Stories (Norton, 2021): “This intriguing debut collection grapples with technology and its illusion of convenience, choice and escape.”
- Wole Soyinka, Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth (Pantheon, 2021): “a caustic political satire, a murder mystery, a conspiracy story and a deeply felt lament for the spirit of a nation.”
- Mario Vargas Llosa, Harsh Times: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021), “examines power and conspiracy at a crucial point in Latin American history.”
- Alice Zeniter, The Art of Losing: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021): “Deftly mixing research and reimagining, Naima’s narrative probes the conflicts and contradictions of the country Hamid left as a child, then documents his coming-of-age in the labor camps and teeming apartment blocks of a new country that’s anything but welcoming.”
- Neil Stephenson, Termination Shock: A Novel (William Morrow, 2021): “. . . this novel is both a response to a deeply broken reality, and an attempt to alter it.”
Film and Stage
- Born on the Fourth of July, about a gung-ho patriot who learns to question his assumptions
- Solaris, a film that questions what is real: our perceptions or something more objective
- The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a satire on traditionalism
- A Foreign Affair
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Paul Simon, “Silent Eyes”
"Faith" is a fine inventionWhen Gentlemen can see -But Microscopes are prudentIn an Emergency.
[Emily Dickinson, “’Faith’ is a fine invention”]
I winged my bird, / Though he flew toward the setting sun; / But just as the shot rang out, he soared / Up and up through the splinters of golden light, / Till he turned right over, feathers ruffled, / With some of the down of him floating near, / And fell like a plummet into the grass. / I tramped about, parting the tangles, / Till I saw a splash of blood on a stump, / And the quail lying close to the rotten roots. / I reached my hand, but saw no brier, / But something pricked and stung and numbed it. / And then, in a second, I spied the rattler-- / The shutters wide in his yellow eyes, / The head of him arched, sunk back in the rings of him, / A circle of filth, the color of ashes, / Or oak leaves bleached under layers of leaves. / I stood like a stone as he shrank and uncoiled / And started to crawl beneath the stump, / When I fell limp in the grass.
[Edgar Lee Masters, “Bert Kessler”]
After I had attended lectures
At our Chautauqua, and studied French
For twenty years, committing the grammar
Almost by heart,
I thought I’d take a trip to Paris
To give my culture a final polish.
So I went to Peoria for a passport—
(Thomas Rhodes was on the train that morning.)
And there the clerk of the district Court
Made me swear to support and defend
The constitution—yes, even me—
Who couldn’t defend or support it at all!
And what do you think? That very morning
The Federal Judge, in the very next room
To the room where I took the oath,
Decided the constitution
Exempted Rhodes from paying taxes
For the water works of Spoon River!
[Edgar Lee Masters, “Ida Chicken”]
Books of poems:
- Ange Mlinko, Venice: Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2022): “A Poet Who Looks at the Stuff of Daily Life and Sees Looming Apocalypse”.
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 92 (1952): “This work had its inspiration in the 1950 celebrations in Leipzig marking the bi-centenary of Bach's death. . . . like the Third and Fourth Quartets, the Fifth had to wait until Stalin died before it could be performed.” “Accused of writing music that ‘dwells too much on the dark and fearful aspects of reality,’ Shostakovich had been forced to read a humiliating apology and to promise to amend his ways. On the surface, he seemed to do that, composing a series of patriotic cantatas and film scores crafted specifically to please Soviet officialdom. The ‘real’ Shostakovich went underground: over the next few years he continued to write the music he wanted to, but he kept it in his desk, waiting for more favorable times.” Top recorded performances are by Beethoven Quartet in 1953, Borodin String Quartet in 1983, Emerson String Quartet in 1999, and Pacifica Quartet in 2011.
An essential virtue in our rapidly changing world is the capacity to adapt. As essential predicate to that is an awareness of changing realities, and a worldview that recognizes life as a dynamic and unfolding process. Illustrating this is a project of electronic and other music from Australia, called “Anthology of Australian Music on Disc”, now out of print. The following works are drawn from that collection.
- Sitsky, Sharagan: Fantasia No. 5 (1984)
- Ross Edwards, Reflections (1985)
Other works by composers from the Australian series include:
- Sitsky, Piano Sonata No. 1, “Retirer d’en bas de l’eau” (2009)
- Sitsky, Sonata for solo flute No. 1
- Sitsky, Sonata for solo flute No. 2, “Fourteen Days of Barto Thödol"
- Sitsky, Sonata for solo flute No. 5, “The Pied Piper”
- Sitsky, String Quartet (1969)
- Hollier, Variations on a Theme of Larry Sitsky
- Hollier, Sonatina No. 2 for piano
- Richard Meale, “Cantilena Pacifica” and “Clouds Now and Then”
- Carl Vine, Piano Concerto No. 1
- Vincent Plush, Pacifico
- Warren Burt, “Harmonic Color Fields” album
- Burt, “Music for Tuning Forks” album
- Althoff, Sun Music
- Peter Mummé, various tracks
- Tristam Cary, Trios
- Ross Edwards, “The Heart of the Night” on shakuhachi
- Ross Edwards, Marimba Dances
- Gerard Brophy, “Forbidden Colours” album
- Brophy, Sheer Nylon Dances for violin, cello and “fetished” (prepared) piano
William Alwyn’s five symphonies and his Sinfonietta for Strings evoke life in the turbulent twentieth century
- Symphony No. 1 (1949)
- Symphony No. 2 (1953)
- Symphony No. 3 (1956)
- Symphony No. 4 (1959)
- Symphony No. 5, “Hydriotaphia” (1973)
- Sinfonietta for Strings (1970)
Other works from Western classicism:
- Bernstein, Candide (1956), expressing Voltaire’s point that ours is not necessarily the best of all possible worlds (performances conducted by Freeman, Mauceri and Bernstein)
- Henry Kimball Hadley, Symphony No. 4 in D minor, "North, East, South, West", Op, 64 (1910): in this work of musical realism, the four movements represent four locations.
- Weinberg, String Quartet No. 8, Op. 66 (1959)
- Bolcom, Frescoes for two pianos, harmonium and harpsichord (1971): I. War in Heaven; II. The Caves of Orcus.
- Hagerty, “The Realm of Possibility”
- Dykstra, “Orbits”
- Balsys, Dramatic Frescoes (1965), portraying “the conflicts at play” during the Soviet-era cold war
- William Schuman, Night Journey (1947): this Martha Graham ballet takes place at the moment of the character Jocasta’s death (in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex). Per the original program notes, “takes place in the instant when Jocasta learns that she has mated with Oedipus, her own son, and has borne him children.”
- Mieczysław Weinberg, Trumpet Concerto in B-flat Major, Op. 94 (1967): amid characteristic Russian anxiety, the trumpet sounds a warning. In a similar vein, from a French composer, is André Jolivet, Concertino for Trumpet, Piano and Strings (1948).
- Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Symphony No. 7, Op. 81 (1964): “The symphony is in five overwhelmingly slow movements (Adagio sostenuto, Allegro- Adagio sostenuto, Andante, Adagio sostenuto, Allegro-Adagio sostenuto). The treatment of the forces is unusual. The long final movement is at odds in many ways with the preceding ones. Though the harpsichord returns (it is absent from third and fourth movements), its expression is curiously and deliberately unexpressive, and the final two movements tend to have a fragmentary, somewhat uncertain and frequently dissonant character, while the first three are more lyrical.” “. . . there’s a darkness at the heart of the score. The symphony starts out serenely. As it develops though, the dissonances become more prominent, ratcheting up the tension.”
- Gity Razaz, The Strange Highway, for cello octet (2011) (approx. 10 minutes): “I was moved by the subtle but potent sense of desolation and vulnerability expressed through the poem’s powerful imagery. My attempt in writing the piece was to capture and recreate these emotions through rhythmic and violent opening and closing sections that engulf a lyrical, emotionally and dramatically charged middle section that uses dense, contrapuntal melodies and rich harmonies.”
- Theo Hill, “Reality Check”
- Michael Formanek & Elusion Quartet, “Time Like This”
- Bria Skonberg, “Nothing Never Happens”
- Harris Eisenstadt, “Recent Developments”
- Katy Guillen & The Girls, “Heavy Days”
- Nitin Sawhney, “Dystopian Dream”, “grapples with themes of loss, isolation, surrender, and continuity.”
- Johnny Gandelsman, “This Is America: An Anthology 2020-2021”: “Working with funding from 20 arts organizations in 11 states and Washington, D.C., he commissioned 22 new works for solo violin, asking living American composers to write musical reflections of the times we are living through.”