Oswald Probably Did It

It took 9/11 to show me the real damage conspiracy theories can do. Since then, the gleeful and gullible ability of many to believe any and all conspiracy theories has convinced me that Lee Harvey Oswald probably did kill John F. Kennedy, and probably alone. The reason for our desperate need for conspiracy theories hasn’t been put any more eloquently […]

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Neanderthal Compassion, Neanderthal Burials

from the book Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture:   Caring for severely disabled members of the community must be one of the indicators of respect for the individual and for human life. It is clear that Neanderthals fed and looked after severely handicapped members of their communities who were too disabled to contribute to the food quest. […]

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Kiyozawa Manshi Chooses the Buddha

From the Japanese Shin Buddhist Kiyozawa Manshi’s “My Faith,” written five days before his death, in 1903:   [My] study finally led me to the conclusion that human life is incomprehensible. It was this that gave rise to my belief in Tathāgata (Buddha). Not that one must necessarily undertake this kind of study in order to acquire faith. One might […]

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20th Century Poetry #1: Thomas Hardy

  One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here. And it’s worth asking, as I start with […]

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Did Neanderthals Have Language?

from Richard Klein and Blake Edgar’s The Dawn of Human Culture:   The Neanderthals are fascinating because they were so much like us and yet so different. Before we abandon them completely, we want to address one well-known speculation for what could explain the difference. This is the possibility that they possessed only a limited ability to speak, that is, […]

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Eleanor Roosevelt Finds Herself

From Geoffrey Ward’s biography of the Roosevelts comes this moving account of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Dickensian childhood, complete with neglectful mother and alcoholic father. Following the early death of both parents, the intervention of an aunt changes her life:    …[Eleanor’s father] Elliott was delighted at her birth, and called her “Little Nell” after the relentlessly virtuous orphaned heroine of Dickens’s […]

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The Invention of Harmony

from two essays on the origins of the aesthetic impulse in Becoming Human: Innovation in Prehistoric Material and Spiritual Culture:   The earliest current evidence for handaxes comes from West Turkana, Kenya, dated to 1.65 Mya [Million years ago]. Similar finds have been made at Konso, again in Ethiopia, dating to 1.5 Mya. These tools show both lateral and bifacial […]

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Advice to a Young Poet, from Ezra Pound

The late poet and translator W. S. Merwin, who died only last month at ninety-one, has left us a remarkable account of visiting an aging and imprisoned Ezra Pound back in 1949, when Merwin was just starting out. I was in Washington, D.C., at Easter, during one of my last years as a student. I was visiting a college friend […]

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(Brain) Size Matters

from Richard Klein’s The Dawn of Human Culture:   More research is required to demonstrate that the brain enlarged abruptly in steps as we have suggested, but no one questions that brain size increased roughly threefold over the 5- to 7-million-year span of human evolution. Body size also increased over the same interval, but to a much smaller degree, and […]

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What Scientology Tells Us About How Religions Begin

Lawrence Wright’s recent book on the history of Scientology is an immensely important document for studying how religions begin. While much of it fills the reader with the amusement or horror of a colossal fraud—and a fraud which consciously sought out the money and influence of celebrities—Wright is also honest enough to include sections like the following, where he summarizes […]

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Notre Dame & the Liberation of Paris in 1944

  A moment from Matthew Cobb’s Eleven Days in August, on the liberation of Paris in 1944: [the voice of Henri Tanguy was heard on the radio proclaiming:] “Open the road to Paris for the Allied armies, hunt down and destroy the remnants of the German divisions, link up with the Leclerc Division in a common victory—that is the mission […]

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Understanding Religion

I’d been interested in religion and mythology long before 2004, when I first read this opening page of Mircea Eliade’s History of Religious Ideas. But from that day until now I have still not come across so brief and powerful a statement about why the study of religion is important, whether for scholars or believers, or for those who are […]

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Hart Crane, High & Low

Here is one the my favorite moments from a writer’s life, followed by one of the saddest. Only seven months apart, they typify the pendulum of great highs and awful lows in Hart Crane’s life. Desperate to write, and giving in his letters as articulate a record of that burning desire as any writer I know, it is hard not […]

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Joyce’s Dirty Letters

When James Joyce returned to Ireland in the closing months of 1909, leaving his wife Nora Barnacle in Trieste, it was the first time they had been apart for so long since they had fled Ireland together in 1904. Their separation, prompted by a business scheme Joyce hoped to succeed in, instead gifted the world with some of the most […]

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Michelangelo & Leonardo da Vinci

From Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of da Vinci, here is about as concise and colorful a summary of how true genius can, in the same century and even the same city, manifest itself in entirely different ways: When Leonardo left Florence for Milan in 1482, Michelangelo was only seven years old. His father was a member of Florence’s minor nobility […]

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Robert Frost: “Out, Out – ”

“Out, Out – ” The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood, Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it. And from there those that lifted eyes could count Five mountain ranges one behind the other Under the sunset far into Vermont. And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and […]

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Wordsworth & Eternity at St. Paul’s

St. Paul’s Pressed with conflicting thoughts of love and fear I parted from thee, Friend! and took my way Through the great City, pacing with an eye Downcast, ear sleeping, and feet masterless That were sufficient guide unto themselves, And step by step went pensively. Now, mark! Not how my trouble was entirely hushed, (That might not be) but how, […]

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Yeats Discovers Poetry

Here’s W. B. Yeats recalling his earliest experiences of poetry: ….This may have come from the stable-boy, for he was my principal friend. He had a book of Orange rhymes, and the days when we read them together in the hay-loft gave me the pleasure of rhyme for the first time. Later on I can remember being told, when there […]

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Yeats Comes to the Occult

Here is W. B. Yeats, remembering some of his early experiences with the occult and supernatural. All taken from his The Trembling of the Veil, collected in Autobiographies: When staying with Hyde in Roscommon, I had driven over to Lough Kay, hoping to find some local memory of the old story of Tumaus Costello, which I was turning into a […]

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Joyce & Proust Meet

From that greatest of literary biographies, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, here is the account of Joyce meeting Marcel Proust, only a few months before Proust’s death: On May 18, 1922, Sydney Schiff (“Stephen Hudson”), the English novelist whom Joyce had met a few times, invited him to a supper party for Stravinsky and Diaghilev following the first performance of one […]

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