May 23, 2004
Sunday evening links
Posted by Ed
I'm just back from a weekend trip to Berkeley, and I'm too tired/lazy/busy to write anything substantive of my own. Instead, here are some recent articles that have struck my interest:
- In The Times Literary Supplement, the University of Chicago's Wendy Doniger reviews a new book on Tantrism. What interested me most wasn't just Doniger's description of Tantrism, but her account of how the interpretation of Tantrism has changed and become controversial in India:
Just as pizza, once a Neapolitan speciality, spread throughout Italy as a result of its popularity in America, so Tantra's reputation in India was significantly affected by its notoriety in Europe. Today, many scholars both within and without Hinduism insist that the sort of hard-core Tantra that White describes never existed and that Tantra has always been solely a technique of meditation. When scholars of this ilk encounter the blatantly sexual statements of the hard-core texts (and the Tantras do contain statements like: "The body of every living creature is made of semen and blood. The deities who are fond of sexual pleasure drink semen and blood"), they interpret them metaphorically, somewhat in the manner in which rationalizing Greeks interpreted their own myths as allegories.
That's just a brief sample; read the article for more.
- Scott McLemee has two neat articles out this weekend. The first, a brief review in The New York Times, discusses whether crowd behavior by "the masses" is irrational. The second is a Newsday review of Simon Sebag Montefiore's new Stalin book:
The problem with the book comes not from the abundance of anecdotes and details, but from Montefiore's unwillingness to throw any of them out. That reluctance precludes building any kind of meaningful structure. An enigma of totalitarianism -- one of the things that inspired Orwell, Arendt and others to think hard about it -- was its effort to destroy the difference between the public and the private realms. It made them both equally subject to the absolute demands of ideology. In effect, Montefiore does the same thing, but by reducing everything to the dimensions of trivia.
Before reading "Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar," for example, I did not know that one member of the British delegation to Moscow on the eve of World War II was the author of a book called "Handbook on Solar Heating." And now I do know. But why? That, like Soviet history itself, remains an enigma.
One of these days I'll read the book, but McLemee's review confirms my suspicion that I can afford to wait a while. Perhaps a long while.
- Today's Boston Globe ideas section features an article by Scott Stossel on John Kerry, Sargent Shriver, and Catholics in American politics, as well as a brief account of life in Vorkuta, a former Gulag center in Russia's north. I may comment on these articles more later on...
- Today's New York Times Magazine features a fascinating article on New York city firemen who've left their wives for the widows of firemen killed on September 11. (The article bordered on overly invasive, I thought, but it was still fascinating.)
- At Crooked Timber, Maria Farrell has posted a brief entry on George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire," a series whose next volume I eagerly await.
- In The Moscow Times, Michele Berdy discusses Russian colloquial and idiomatic expressions associated with going to the bathroom. (If she had been feeling evil, she could have really embarassed a lot of her readers with her column this week by making up some amusing expressions and convincing unsuspecting Americans that their conversational Russian is much better than it really is...)
- What can you learn about the "mutation rate" among first names? Why are parents more likely to be inventive when naming daughters than when naming sons? This Economist article touches on these questions.
- Mark Schmitt has posted some really good entries at The Decembrist, including a theory about the Senate (and about whether something has gone fundamentally wrong with that body) and a discussion of religious freedom in Texas (where Scientology qualifies as a state-recognized religion, but Unitarianism doesn't.)
As always, I may add more links later. I may also just wait and write an original post in a day or two.
Posted by Ed at May 23, 2004 06:31 PM
Very glad you liked my piece on the Big Book of Stalin Anecdotes. After finishing the review, it occured to me that the book would actually be okay as supplemental reading. If you were reading a solid historical book about the Moscow Trials (or whatever) and wanted to know some backstage scuttlebutt, then consulting the pertinent chapters of Montefiore would be a good way to take a break.
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