Saturday, July 31, 2010

California state of mind

My luggage - which went missing - has been found! The sun broke through! UCSD between terms is an oasis of calm - and every book is on the shelf at Geisel! A gem from Elie Wiesel (Messengers of God, 215):

There were those who claimed that Job did exist but that his sufferings are sheer literary inventions. Then there were those who declared that while Job never existed, he undeniably did suffer.

So even Job's enjoying a (perhaps unhealthy) change of air. And San Diego's own North County Repertory Theatre did a brilliant production of the musical "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." A hoot!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Summer bummer

This national weather map, from today's San Diego Union-Tribune, isn't detailed enough to tell you what's going on here. If you could zoom in on the southwesternmost corner of the country, you'd find green like the north of Canada! I kid you not: the San Diego phenomenon called "June Gloom" - cloudbanks squatting on the coast, blocking the sun and keeping temperatures low - has extended all summer this year. Someone coined the term "Summer Bummer" for it. For me, coming from New York's hottest month on record, it's quite a shock. I think you could plot New York City's temperatures of the last month and they'd never intersect San Diego's. NY's nighttime lows were higher than SD's daily highs!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Following the sunset westward

looping out beyond the Verrazano Narrows
one of many majestic anvil thunderheads over New Mexicomulti-layered cloudscapes over Arizonaand finally approaching Jupiter, er, California

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Lacks standards

This is a picture of HeLa cells (source), which, cultured in their gajillions over sixty years, have been responsible for countless scientific breakthroughs (starting with the polio vaccine) and many of the techniques used in biological research today. Wired mapped it out thus:
The scale of the phenomenon is mind-boggling. The original sample taken in 1951 was about the size of a dime, but if one could bring together all the cells which have since been grown from it, they'd weigh more than a hundred Empire State Buildings. Hundreds of cures and billions of dollars in pharmaceutical products have been made possible.

HeLa cells are the subject of a fascinating new book by Rebecca Skloot, the fruit of a decade's research into the source of HeLa - a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in 1951 at thirty-one. Turns out she did not give permission for the sample from her tumor to be taken, and, until recently, her descendants didn't know, and have never benefited in any way from what her cells effected. Until recently, few researchers thought about the HeLa cells' having a source, let alone who it was.

Skloot tracks down Lacks' family, who challenged everything [she] thought she knew about faith, science, journalism, and race (7). For Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were able to reproduce like no others (others soon die, but HeLa is "immortal"), was African American, child of a poor tobacco-farming family of ex-slaves in rural Virginia. The story is full of pathos, and bitter ironies. The central one: She's the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty, one relation says. If our mother so important to science, why can't we get health insurance? (168)

Skloot uses the story of her attempt to learn who Lacks was as a way to introduce readers to issues in bioethics - are our cells our own, what is informed consent (a term first used in 1957), who's entitled to make money off tissues, etc. - and to the horrifying history of African Americans' experience with medicine in the US. Long excluded from coverage in segregated and underfunded facilities on the one hand, they were on the other hand used - without notification - for medical research, of which the Tuskegee story is only the best-known case. One of Lacks' daughters, an epileptic, ends up at a "Hospital for the Negro Insane" called Crownsville, where

scientists often conducted research on patients ... without their consent, including one study entitled "Pneumoencephalographic and skull X-ray studies in 100 epileptics." Pneumoencephalography was a technique developed in 1919 for taking images of the brain, which floats in a sea of fluid. The fluid protects the brain from damage, but makes it very difficult to X-ray, since images taken through fluid are cloudy. Pneumoencephalography involved drilling holes into the skulls of research subjects, draining the fluid surrounding their brains, and pumping air or helium into the skull in place of the fluid to allow crisp X-rays. The side effects - crippling headaches, dizziness, seizures, vomiting - lasted until the body naturally refilled the skull with spinal fluid, which usually took two or three months. (275-6)

The practice was discontinued only in the 1970s. How could...? I can't find words.

The Lacks' family story is full of tragedy and horror, but we are given to understand it isn't exceptional. Exceptional is only that Henrietta's cancer (the cells from her body which weren't cancerous lasted no longer than other people's) made HeLa possible, and through it incredible scientific progress. So what do we do with that? Part of what makes the book so gripping is that it seems there should be something we can do with it, but there isn't. The Lacks' suffering - the suffering of inherited poverty, institutionalized racism and the consequent dysfunctions of health and family - isn't redeemed by her death and its immortal product.

In the place of resolution one is left with a number of opaque, surd facts. Henrietta's full but difficult life, cut short by illness. The unprecedented and category-defying spread of "her" cells. (Someone suggested that, as the cells multiply and change, HeLa is no longer human but a new species, 216.) The fact that it was not her healthy but her cancerous cells which achieved "immortality." All of our indebtedness to the research the HeLa cells have made possible. (Not to mention our indebtedness to research results wrung from the suffering of vulnerable people to this day.) The irrelevance of all this to the life chances of her family, poor blacks in America...

It's profoundly unsettling, as I suppose all of medicine (and all of ethics) ultimately should be: individual fates and destinies are unassimilable to the "larger" issues, methods and breakthroughs. From the question "is HeLa a form of human life?" we are brought to broader as well as more practical questions of what a human life is, and what conduces to - or hinders - its fragile flourishing.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (NY: Crown, 2010)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Making art of hot air

A soap bubble artist at work in Washington Square Park today.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Job in the family tree

Behold Job's place in Peter of Poitiers' 13th century genealogy of Christ
(French 13th century, now resident here) - this is about a tenth of the whole genealogy. To confirm, that's Job, dangling in a generation-defying way into the far upper left of the second frame (under the name Job in my caption), son of a Hus, in turn son of Abraham's brother Nahor. This is the version of Job's genealogy which makes him part of the family of Israel. More earlier interpreters thought him identical with Jobab, a grandson of Esau, and so a gentile. (The Septuagint split the difference: a descendant of Esau, Job was linked to Abraham through his mother.) Even in Peter of Poitiers, he's a genealogical cul-de-sac.


One of my favorite things in the print version of the Times is this way of presenting temperature forecasts for the coming days. I suppose I understand why it's not considered worth showing in the eternal present of the online version - in real time, it's a matter of indifference what the record or even average temperatures for that day are, not to mention the performance of past days. (Unless your way of living in time is all about projecting pasts into futures... or, less ambitiously and authentically, futures into pasts.) But you've got to admit, it is a great way of presenting a lot of information economically, and even elegantly.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


Nature one-ups art in the National Cathedral. (The prisms were the beveled edges of the frame of a clerestory window high above the choir stalls, not the prisms at the center of the western rose window.) But it was good to escape the 99 degree (a record!) temps outside and enjoy the light refracted this way! The view from the seventh floor of one of the cathedral spires toward baking DC:

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Weekend in Washington! (Monet's luminous "The Stroll" at the National Gallery of Art alone vaut le voyage. Seen from across the room Madame Monet is as diaphanously radiant as the cloud. And her son creates depth and traverses it.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Another secular saint

This time it's Galileo, in whose museum in Florence remains of a finger, a thumb and a tooth are displayed like relics. They were, indeed, found in a reliquary by a collector named Alberto Bruschi. But the translation of relics is always a storied affair:

Mr. Bruschi credits providence with the find. “More than by chance, things are also helped along a bit by the souls of the dead,” he said in a telephone interview.

That's providence? Oh well, you don't expect religious precision from an article (and a paper) which manages to assert that the Vatican still hasn't fully accepted heliocentrism!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wahlverwandschaft / Elective affinity

If you google my surname persistently, you will come upon this lovely lady, Francine L. A singer and performer in the teens and twenties, she was also in a few silent films. (One, "Max wants a divorce," is on youtube with French title and German subtitles.) The thing is... it was a stage name! (Her father's name was J. Louis La Remée.) Through her mother she was a member of a great family in the Yiddish theater, the Adlers (Stella Adler was her cousin). I can't claim to have a star of the silent screen as a distant relation (or the Yiddish theater, which would be cool too), but at least I can say that a century ago - her debut was in 1910 - there was something in our family name which had an affinity with show business.
I've actually known about her for a while. A friend who collects sheet music from the early 20th century gave me the score at left a few years ago - it's even autographed! I'm not sure what a half-and-half is, but I'm happy to claim Francine Adler La Remée as a half-and-half relation!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The jungle takes over

Remember that garden I cultivated two years ago? I can still see it from our fourth floor perch. In a year and a half of near total neglect - I've seen people down there once, total - it's been nearly reclaimed by creepers and vines. Pity. But kind of thrilling, too, in a sublime sort of way.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A saint for secularism!

Hagiography, indeed martyrology, lives! "Agora," the Spanish/Portuguese historical drama directed by Chilean director Alejandro Amenábar, is about the 4th century philosopher Hypatia, who stood up for scepticism, science - we see her nearly scoop Kepler (!) - and liberal tolerance in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, the pathos is that it would have been the right place at the right time - sophisticated, cosmopolitan pagan Alexandria - were it not for the rise of intolerant Christianity. If only everyone had porcelain skin and a toney British accent and knew the axioms of Euclid by heart. Swarthy black-clad middle eastern-looking fanatics (like Cyril of Alexandria and the SA-like Parabolani) outwit Roman-looking romantics and German-looking bishops, but it is the virginal Hypatia - the film's only woman - who must die, and the (already devastated) Great Library of Alexandria with her. It's historically problematic, and as troubling in its racial politics - noble white liberals threatened by dark Taliban-like religious rabble? Puleeze! Did Oriana Fallacci write your screenplay? But it's worth seeing. It's beautiful - a whole world has been lovingly recreated. And it's quirky - from time to time the camera pans up into the sky, sometimes far out into space, for no very clear reason. (The starry-heavensy opening, including the music, evoke the start of "Battlestar Galactica.") And it's always good to learn about other religions and their hagiographies.

Monday, July 19, 2010

New view

From the third floor of the Time Warner Center...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mathematical reality

Was lucky enough yesterday to see an amazing play, one of the best in years, London's Complicite theater and Simon McBurney's "A Disappearing Number," part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Complicité is known for state of the art stagecraft, and it was a stunning show - great acting, amazing stage effects, multi-media, several plots (and time periods) moving simultaneously in the space of the stage. It was also a beautiful and profound story, or stories. What's it about? Mathematics, mathematicians, human beings: its two main plots follow early 20th century Indian genius Ramanajun and a woman who teaches college mathematics today, raising questions of love and belonging, loss and exile, partition, convergence and - the disappearing number - infinity.

One of its subjects is the beauty of mathematics, which it conveys in a manner which reminded me of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" (one of the very best plays I've ever seen) in the way it let the magic of the stage enact mathematical processes, lending each a new vibrancy and beauty. And beauty is truth here. Says an actor early in "A Disappearing Number":

ANINDA: (In an Indian accent.) I'm Aninda, that is Al and this is Ruth. (Pause. His accent changes.) Actually, that's a lie. I'm an actor playing Aninda, he's an actor playing Al and she's an actress playing Ruth. But the mathematics is real.
Complicite, A Disappearing Number (London: Oberon, 2008), 23

The play's other subject might be stated thus: is our reality any greater, in relation to mathematics, than that of actors on a stage? In the sense in which mathematics is reality, truth, beauty, are we real at all? Perhaps the way to true reality is to feel the force of the question.

It gets - dare I say it - pretty religious, the religion of the Upanishads. (If we do Religion & Theater again, maybe we can include this!)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Taking the sacrament

Characteristically brilliant cartoon by Andy Dietsche in the Episcopal New Yorker. Particularly inspired:

7:15 Rite I Eucharist (Children Most Definitely By God Not Welcome)
8:00 Rite I Eucharist (Very Well-Behaved Children Grudgingly Tolerated)
9:00 Children's Regular Prayer Service (Medium-Level Chaos)

10:30 "U-2charist" or Whatever (With the Curate as "Bono" Impersonator)
1:15 Cranky Rite II Hypoallergenic Eucharist (No Incense by Order of Choir!)
3:00 Praise Service (Medium Restrained: Spirited But No Arm Raising)
10:45 Taizé-ish Service
11:30 Compline (With Cookies and Warm Milk Afterwards)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Get this!

Can you believe that typological interpreta- tion of Job is alive? These guys can hardly believe it, but they're part of it - two of Job's friends in the Old Testament tableau vivant to the mockery of Jesus in this year's Oberammergau Passion Play. The interleaving of OT scenes is a traditional part of Overammergau, but I believe the inclusion of Job is new to this staging. There's nothing new in thinking of Job when contemplating the mockery of Christ, but traditionally it's Mrs. Job (sometimes with satanic help), not the friends, doing the mocking!
O. Huber & C. Stückl, Passion Play 2010 Oberammergau (NY: Prestel, 2010), 64-65

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Premature Fall

The heat wave-stricken trees today. Compare Monday and last week.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sint Job

Praised be the Web for its treasures! Praised be for the intercession of flickr, through which I found an altarpiece to Saint Job featured in none of the histories of Christian art I've been scouring for Job-related art. Dating from 1530, it is in a church in Schoonbroek (Belgium). A Leo Wens, one of the church's deacons, has explicated each scene on their website (praised be also Google Translate for its intercession). Even better, he brings out the
liturgical life of the altar over the centuries by reproducing a number of prayers and litanies of St. Job! Here are two, one presumably 18th (or perhaps 17th) century, the second dated 1851. And he reports that the Job statue on top was festively processed through town until 1991. Through all of this you really get a sense of the life of religious art!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Burnt by the sun

When I said last week that the trees outside my window were wilting in the heat, you probably thought I was exaggerating. I did. If only! Compare today's view with four days ago; you won't believe your eyes.

Identity in difference

Can't resist inflicting yet more Job art on you (partly, I have to admit, because I can't use all these wonderful things I'm finding in a book that's mainly about the text, the book of Job, and not just the figure of Job in various biblical and less-than-biblical traditions), here the 1360 Kreuzaltar in the Backsteingotik (brick gothic) abbey of Bad Doberan, on the Baltic Sea. A gothic marvel Ruskin would appreciate: while perfectly balanced as a whole, nothing in it is ever repeated - every rondel a shape all its own, identity in difference. Job appears on the right wing of this (double-sided) altar with scenes of the Passion, and it is hard to find a clearer illustration of the identification of Job as a type of Christ. The man on the dungheap, scourged by his wife and a demon, has the very same face as the man to whom thugs are attaching a crown of thorns.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

da Fredi

Job is brought together with Adam and Eve, Abraham and Lot and Joseph's dream by Bartolo da Fredi in his 1367 frescoes for the Collegiata church in San Gimignano - the whole bottom tier is Job's.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


I'm a little reluctant to admit this, but I've become quite the fan of Google Books. Not only can you there find the 1869 account of a German Orientalist's visit to the Monastery of Job in Hauran, Syria (in a book not owned by the libraries I use), and there learn of the small long round stones and slag, which tradition declares to be the worms that fell to the ground out of Job's sores, petrified. But you can find a current book (2008) on the Geology of Iraq which describes a kind of stone known as Zor Hauran Formation, which, in its youngest form, bears the fossilized tracks of marine worms. Trippy! However I have yet to find geological confirmation of my favorite factoid of the ancient cult of St. Job: the spring, described in a fragment credibly attributed to the Iberian pilgrim Egeria who visited the tomb of Job at Carneas in Hauran around 400 CE, whose color changes four times a year; it has first a pus-like color, then the color of blood, then that of bile, and finally it becomes crystal clear.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Bible nest

Visited a place today which has 45,000 Bibles, in over 2500 languages. This is one of the newest, a translation of the (Catholic) Bible into Bukusu, a Kenyan language, published 2010! Cool! I was as intrigued by the fact that this (from British illustrator Horace Knowles) was the only image to Ayubu/Job. 9:26 is a most unusual passage to emphasize - though the image also calls to mind God's care for birds of prey in 39.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Heat wave

Have you heard about our record temps? They come on top of a largely rainless June, and are taking their toll on plants, like the trees in the courtyard outside my office window... I've never seen a tree wilt before.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Homeless ambulances lined up beside bankrupt St. Vincent's Hospital.

Job in the company of saints!

In Venice there's a church dedicated to Saint Job. Here's the altarpiece, painted by Giovanni Bellini in 1487. Some of the same characters turn up in his mysterious "Allegoria Sacra," too:

Tuesday, July 06, 2010


Had a fascinating chat today with someone who was here before there was a Lang college - a student at the Seminar College onto which ELC was grafted. A rather different place - tiny, truly interdisciplinary, quite ideological but clearly really intellectual - and not too happy to be turned into something else. I knew a bit about it before (it had been a four-year college since 1977), but hearing someone - not least someone who's my near contemporary - describe his time there makes it real in a whole new way. This Village Voice ad shows the lay of the land in 1978.
As a bonus for my efforts to recall a prehistory which has fallen out of the official stories, he gave me an account of the prehistory of The New School as a whole which I hadn't heard before: Columbia professors teaching adults somewhere on the Upper West Side until WW1 led some of them to break with Columbia and move downtown and start The New School. Before WW1? Didn't it all start because of the WW1-related rupture of Beard and Robinson with Columbia? But it can't have been that simple. There must have been plans afoot before that. Memory of that might still have been available in 1981...