The Ascending Strings, and Other News


On the Shelf

Augusta Savage presents a model of “The Harp” to Grover Whalen, the organizer of the World’s Fair. Photo: New York Public Library


  • Are you tired of fellow feeling? Have you had it up to here with all this talk about “walking a mile in another person’s shoes” and “understanding the suffering of others”? You probably don’t have many friends, do you? And yet there’s a place in this world for you. A new book by the psychologist Paul Bloom argues so steadfastly against empathy that its title is Against Empathy. And his theory is not so uncaring as that title suggests: “People are bingeing on a sentiment that does not, on balance, make the world a better place. Empathy is ‘sugary soda, tempting and delicious and bad for us.’ In its stead, Mr. Bloom prescribes a nutritious diet of reason, compassion, and self-control … His complaint is with empathy defined as feeling what someone else feels. Though philosophers at least as far back as Adam Smith have held it up as a virtue, Mr. Bloom says it is a dubious moral guide. Empathy is biased: people tend to feel for those who look like themselves. It is limited in scope, often focusing attention on the one at the expense of the many, or on short-term rather than long-term consequences. It can incite hatred and violence … It is innumerate, blind to statistics and to the costs of saccharine indulgence.”
  • Augusta Savage was the most important black woman sculptor of the twentieth century, Keisha N. Blain writes, but she’s tragically uncelebrated now: “Like other key figures of the 1920s such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, Savage skillfully challenged negative images and stereotypical depictions of black people. One of her largest commissions, for instance, were sculptures for the World’s Fair of 1939, inspired by ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ a song often described as the black national anthem. ‘The Harp,’ another work in the commission, depicted black singers as the ascending strings of that instrument. Regrettably, both pieces were destroyed when the fairgrounds were torn down … The racial climate at the time hampered wider recognition of her work. Savage won a prestigious scholarship at a summer arts program at the Fontainebleau School of the Fine Arts outside of Paris in 1923, for instance, but the offer was withdrawn when the school discovered that she was black. Despite her efforts — she filed a complaint with the Ethical Culture Committee — and public outcry from several well-known black leaders at the time, the organizers upheld the decision.”

  • Taylor Swift, on the other hand, is celebrated more and more, especially among a demographic she would do well to disavow: white supremacists. As Zachary Woolfe writes, Swift’s lily-whiteness has made her the belle of the fascist ball, and yet she refuses to break her increasingly intolerable silence on politics: “Andrew Anglin, who writes the avowedly neo-Nazi blog the Daily Stormer, has called her ‘a pure Aryan goddess, like something out of classical Greek poetry.’ Another alt-right blogger, this one female, celebrated her as ‘the embodiment of healthy Southern values.’ And in the post-verbal media of Twitter and Facebook, Swift now frequently appears in mocked-up photos cribbed from her own social-media feed, and kitted out with SS flags, storm-trooper uniforms, swastika armbands, and Gothic-lettered Jew-hatred … The irony of Swift’s Nazification is that the Wonder Bread pop star is a neurotic curator of her image, emitting only the safest of soft-feminist statements and keeping all other beliefs under wraps.”
  • Centuries before the Heritage Foundation was churning out dubious “research studies” to support the Reagan Right, precursors to “think tanks” were thriving in France, where they served similarly propagandistic ends, Jacob Soll says: “While the term think tank is modern, it can be traced to the humanist academies and scholarly networks of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries … In France, in particular, which was famous for its academies and libraries, the crown often called on groups of scholars from the Republic of Letters—a self-styled international network of scholars and experts who corresponded, shared information, and ran archives, libraries and publication projects. When in need of an expert, kings such as Louis XIII would call on figures like Godefroy and sent them as experts and representatives to diplomatic meetings.”
  • No one knows where the name John le Carré came from, including David Cornwell, the man who claimed it for himself. But wait—could it be—in the letters of the New York Review of Books, one Irving U. Ojalvo reports that he remembers the story from a double date he went on with Cornwell in the early seventies: “David Cornwell seems to have forgotten the origin of his nom de plume. If so, I can possibly help to refresh his memory as I had a chance encounter with him … in a Spanish parador that we were both staying at and over dinner with our respective female companions. During our conversation … he also stated that he had struck upon the name ‘le Carré’ when in Switzerland where he was intrigued by a sign over a shoe cobbler shop with that name.”