Skip to main content


Showing posts from March 20, 2022

Losing the plot

  In Adam’s school, some enterprising publisher has given away a bunch of new kid’s books and the teacher has assigned the task of reviewing them to the kids. To help the kids figure out what “review” means, they have a helpful sheet that asks questions about the plot, the pictures, and even what the parents think of the book – clever, that one. These are all fictional books. The question about the plot is: in a few sentences, describe the story   in the book – Resume l’histoire dans quelques lignes. The story – here  l’histoire – is, I take it, a proxy for plot. In the very convenient Dictionary of Untranslateables, the section on plot is under the entry “erzaehlen”.   The entry, like all of the entries, goes muchly into the etymology and philology of key words, and sorts out the diegesis from narration: “If diegesis is the recounted world as it appears in a fiction, narration is the universe in which one recounts , that is, the set of acts and narrative procedures that give rise

The placebo routine

  I n his book, Bad Medicine, David Wootton makes an interesting remark about the symbolism of the stethoscope. It was invented in 1816 by   René Laennec out of a problem in gender politics: the norm for female patients of the all male doctor fraternity was to be examined with their clothes on. Thus, the doctor could not lay his head against the chest of the patient and listen to the sound of what was going on inside. Laennec was concerned with phthisis, a nosological category that has now been subsumed as tuberculosis. The stethoscope was a true advance: doctors became much better at diagnosing phthisis. But therein lies the historical burden of Wootton’s book: “Phthisis no longer exists as a disease: we now call it tuberculosis because we think of it as an infectious disease caused by a speci fi c micro-organism. The same sounds in  a stethoscope that would once have led to a diagnosis of phthisis now leads to tests to con fi rm tuberculosis. But there is an important di ff erence be

sacrificing the baby for the sculpture: on a modern theme

  In his 1910 tome, The Individual and Human Existence, Josef Popper-Lynkeus asks a question: “If for example we were in Paris in the Louvre and a great fire broke out while the gallery was full of visitors, who would we try to save? The art collection or the people, to the very last one of them? It would not occur to the firemen or the volunteer helpers to save the pictures by Raphael, Leonardo, the Venus de Milo and other such irreplaceable artworks before all the human existences were secured. And if someone tried to do otherwise, he would be greeted with universal condemnation and even punishment.” Josef Popper’s way of stating the problem of the value of art in terms of the value of people is part of a tradition in modernism, bringing together the “irreplaceable” art work and the irreplaceable human individual. This tradition exists in some uneasy relationship with the justification of war, or the sacrifice of irreplaceable human existences to the protection of the state – or

Musings on the bunny

First, there was the dread. An invasion loomed on the horizon. We were absolutely disarmed, and went grimly to our fate. Or at least we figured it was our turn to keep the bunny. In Adam’s class, there is a class pet, a bunny named Bonnie. Each weekend, it is the privilege of some volunteer to keep the little cuniculus domesticus, meaning find a place for its cage, feed it, let it hop out and cause whatever unimaginable chaos in our neat little apartment. So Friday we were given our orders and paraphernalia: a bunny carrying case, a cage, and a bag with oats or roughage of some kind, snacks – pellets – and litter. And we set course bravely for home. The bunny was upon us. It was not for us to underrate the gravity of the task which lay before us or the temerity of the ordeal, to which we hoped not be found unequal. Basically we hoped that we would not be the parents to kill the bunny. We are not, much to Adam’s disappointment, a pet keeping household. It is not that I have any problem