The Dregs of Fame

I pass a sign outside of a business every now and then, and staring out at me beneath a bad logo is a caricature of Albert Einstein complete with mustache and wild hair. And I wondered if anyone who knew him, either as a lowly patent clerk or as the head of the Institute for…

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What We’re Doing When We Think We’re Doing Nothing

I’ve always liked it that the actor Richard Burton could admit in his diaries: “I am fascinated by the idea of something but its execution bores me.” And this from the guy who played Hamlet (and whoever else) a million times. But there’s something to it for those of us who’ll never play Hamlet, or…

What’s a Genius to Do?

It’s been said of Picasso: “At the age of sixteen, he produced two paintings which were of academic perfection.... So what do you do with your life if you’re producing academically perfect works at the age of sixteen? Every step afterwards is an innovation.” Indeed, whether you like where Picasso went or not, it’s undeniable…

Powerless But Free?

The image is a familiar one: an aging man or woman who becomes more and more bewildered and angered at the usual political corruption, or the pace of technological or social change. To protect themselves they become more and more strident and inflexible, and retreat behind whatever cultural or religious certainties they can. In the…

Just Because it Works Doesn’t Mean It’s True

It’s always refreshing to hear a religious person, who is trying to convince you of the truth of their faith, suddenly realize the actually wonderful mystery of faith: they can’t actually prove it. And so instead they end up saying something like, “I can’t prove it, but it clearly works.” This is what they say…

Empathy & Ultraviolence

For all of my talk about people being seduced by culture and violence, it’s worth saying that I’ve fallen under the spell many times. From late gradeschool on, when I first discovered writing, oftentimes I tried to sum up my sense of loneliness, and later actual depression, by writing fictional accounts of school shooters. One…

Civilization Does Not Civilize

There is a remarkable moment in an interview with the writer George Steiner. That familiar question about the Nazis comes up, of how someone who listened to Bach and Beethoven by day could put people in gas chambers by night: Steiner: “[there are those who are] certain that the cultivation of the sensibility of beauty,…

We Are Not Safe and Never Will Be

There are many stories from the late 1930s of European and American intellectuals being taken on stage-managed tours of the Soviet Union, nearly all of them returning to their home countries with glowing reviews of what they had seen. An exception was the novelist Andre Gide’s account, Back from the USSR, where he claimed that…

Historical Accuracy

I’ve long noticed a general suspicion shown towards movies purporting to tell a “true story.” Even though it’s no surprise that they take license with real events, after they’re released there are always dozens of webpages treating even the smallest of these instances negatively. What are we so afraid of? On the one hand, surrounded…