The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

Have You Seen This Head? and Other News

July 16, 2015 | by

Murnau

F. W. Murnau shooting in 1920.

  • Have you seen F. W. Murnau’s skull? From the neck up, the Nosferatu director has gone missing from his grave, which sits about twelve miles out of Berlin. No reward has been set, and no word given on whether his lovely throat remains intact.
  • I do my best to ensure that this is a Go Set a Watchman­–free space. But who can resist the chance to quote a bunch of parents who named their sons after Atticus Finch, only to find that Watchman depicts him as a racist, segregationist clod? “When we first heard about the book, my wife said, ‘Oh no, I hope Atticus didn’t turn bad or something,’ ” one father told the New York Times. “Maybe our son will grow up and be the more famous and distinguished Atticus, and maybe he’ll get all the recognition.” The name was the 370th most common in the country last year, and Watchman’s first printing comprises two million copies. Young Atticus has his work cut out for him.
  • Ethics professors spend their entire careers immersed in rigorous analysis of what’s right and good. If you’ve never met one, you could be forgiven for ranking them just under clergymen in their unswerving dedication to the moral life. But ethicists are not, in fact, any more ethical than you or I. A researcher examined their approaches to “voting in public elections, calling one’s mother, eating the meat of mammals, donating to charity, littering, disruptive chatting and door-slamming during philosophy presentations, responding to student emails, attending conferences without paying registration fees, organ donation, blood donation, theft of library books, overall moral evaluation by one’s departmental peers based on personal impressions, honesty in responding to survey questions, and joining the Nazi party in 1930s Germany.” The result will stop the presses: “For the most part, ethicists behave no differently from professors of any other sort—logicians, chemists, historians, foreign-language instructors.” (They do donate to charities more regularly and eat less meat, though.)
  • When the Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon published his first novel, he had a terrifying encounter with a reader of sorts: “He smiled and shook my hand and even said he was sorry to bother me at home. But he walked in without being asked, and immediately, as he sat down on one of the sofas, took out a big black gun and placed it loudly on the living room table … He said that Hitler was one of his heroes. He said that Hitler was one of the greatest of men. He said that he admired how Hitler always knew exactly how to dispose of his enemies. He said that we should all learn from Hitler. He then asked me if I understood and I managed to stutter that I did and he grabbed his gun from the table, got up, and walked silently out of my house.”
  • The trials and triumphs of editing Saul Bellow’s last novel, Ravelstein: “As he homed in on something that was bothering him, you’d hear first a deep rasping, the audible intakes of breath growing sharper. Then he’d look up. ‘This isn’t working,’ he’d say. More breathing. Then, ‘Let’s try this.’ At this point, I would start writing, taking down his words. Word by word a new paragraph would emerge and take the place of the older one, stronger, sharper than what was there before. Even as I read it out to him, I’d see how he’d changed it for the better. Whatever had jarred in the earlier version had gone. Writer’s alchemy—changing what was pretty good to begin with into something even better.”

Call Me Madam

November 20, 2014 | by

1930s_bathroom

Photo: Karen Horton

In my defense, I was really little when my mom took me to my first concert at a grown-up concert hall. The music was for children, but I was still too babyish; I demanded to leave in the middle of act I so I could pee. I have no memory of what we heard that day, but the elegant bathroom made a huge impression on me. “Who was that lady?” I asked my mother, after a uniformed woman had handed me a paper towel and my mom had dropped a bill in her basket. And she explained: that was a Madame Pipi.

For a long while after that, I was obsessed. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” adults would ask me. And I would answer, “A Madame Pipi.” It seemed to me the most glamorous job in the world; to be surrounded by grandeur, dressed in a smart uniform, and have a bowl of money, besides. To a small child, all grown-ups seem important and magisterial; bathrooms loom large; the adult measures of income and status do not apply. I made myself a Madame Pipi outfit with a small apron, although my parents would not allow me to be on duty when we had guests. Read More »

Mad, Etc.

August 5, 2014 | by

A panda painting, small-claims court, and the perils of communal living.

Panda-Brookfield-Zoo-2

From a 1937 advertisement.

Of the many collectives in West Philadelphia, the Mitten was widely held to be the ideal model. Founded by six young progressives from the Inter-cooperative Council in Michigan, it hosted workshops on social justice and fundraised for local nonprofits. And it was a staple of the queer-arts scene: punk bands played in the basement and drag shows filled the living room, with performers grinding on audience members and audience members grinding on banisters. In the adjacent lot they had grown a lush garden with six raised beds and a chicken coop.

When I first moved to Philadelphia, I was eager to join a house like this one—but brimming with collaborative energy, they were in high demand, and the ones I found lacked the character and spirit that’d drawn me to communal living in the first place.

I was impatient, though, and took a room in Cedar Park, aka “University City,” at an A-frame Victorian with a huge mulberry tree. The quaint facade hardly matched its sterile interior: overhead lighting reflected off marble countertops, the white walls were bare, and there was La-Z-Boy furniture in suburban quantities. This collective included five members, young professionals who, surprisingly, spent the majority of time away from the house, staying often with their partners. A math teacher, a product engineer, a classical vocalist and a software designer—they were mild and even a little shy. But one of the members, Jeff, maintained a particular enthusiasm for the house. He spoke in an affectedly deep voice, noticeably straining as he described the order of things: regular meals “kept costs down”; adherence to the chore wheel “kept everything running smoothly.” He appeared to be the oldest by a significant difference; his skin had a jaundiced tint, and his goatee was visibly grayed. A baseball cap covered his bald head, and in his beige clothing he nearly blended with the plush chairs in the living room. Read More »

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How Is the Critic Free?

September 4, 2012 | by

A non-question has recently preoccupied the literary corners of the Internet: How rude should a book critic be? I call it a non-question because its non-answer is the same as for people in social situations generally: it depends. It’s impossible to find a universal rule that licenses rudeness. There’s always going to be at least one observer who feels that a conflict could and should be handled politely. (And who knows? Insofar as politeness is a skill, maybe there's always room for improvement.) Also, there’s always going to be at least one observer who describes as honest what others call rude. But even if you give up on unanimity and settle for a majority opinion, you still can’t formulate a general decision. Try it and see. Was William Giraldi justified in adopting a rude tone about Alix Ohlin’s novel? Was Ron Powers, about Dale Peck’s? Only the particular questions are worth debating, and no matter how many questions like them you answer, you never reach a rule that has the purity of math. The most you can hope for is etiquette.

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