Categories
America Art

Queer Love and Other Things in Nicole Eisenman

The Pre-Pandemic Apartment in New York City
Formally titled “Triumph of Poverty”
Formally titled “Is-It-So”, this painting depicts lesbian love (an act of cunninglingus). At first I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” but noticed the absence of the male member. Finally, I was struck by the books on the lesbian couples’ night stand. Lesbians must have an astonishing foreplay on hand.

Nicole Eisenman is a contemporary American artist.

Her art is summed up neatly in the following words: “She doesn’t passively genuflect in front of art history […] She resurrects it and camouflages it into our present.”

You can find her art critiqued here.

Categories
Covid Science

Murder on the Orient Express

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (“Emperor of Maladies”) and U.S.-based immunologist, Siddhartha Mukherjee, does an extraordinary job of accounting for the reasons behind the current pandemic’s death and infection disparities across the globe.

It’s a deep mystery that the death and positivity rate toll in the world’s poorest nations have been unexpectedly low, while Europe and the United States have been ravaged. 1/2 a million Americans have died of Covid-19 and the number continues to climb though the viral lethality seems to be on the decline as we speak.

Mukherjee digs up several entangling factors behind this mystery and comes up with the analogy of Agatha Christies’ famed “Murder on the Orient Express.” Citing an overt dependency on the “Ockham’s razor” principle of solving scientific puzzles (“epistemology” not just “epidemiology” needs to be considered in scientific knowledge-gathering as well: It’s not just that “what” of the matter, but the “how” we get to the matter on hand), Mukherjee says that the arriving at the most “parsimonious” or simplest of answers to the questions of the intricate vagaries of human cellular composition will not hold because the human body is not the Newtonian bodies in motion or rest. The human body and its “socio-cellular” ecology is darn complex to yield to the scrutiny led by the the Ockham inquiry principle. Mukherjee suggests we chuck the “razor” and embrace the “quilt” instead. Detective Poirot was shell-shocked upon discovering that the entire village entered into a quilted tangle of complicity to murder the man aboard the Orient Express. So a vast quilt of reasons could be behind the most profoundest of all “epidemiological mysteries” and shall we say, murderous, of our times:

The usual trend of death from infectious diseases—malaria, typhoid, diphtheria, H.I.V.—follows a dismal pattern. Lower-income countries are hardest hit, with high-income countries the least affected. But if you look at the pattern of covid-19 deaths reported per capita—deaths, not infections—Belgium, Italy, Spain, the United States, and the United Kingdom are among the worst off. The reported death rate in India, which has 1.3 billion people and a rickety, ad-hoc public-health infrastructure, is roughly a tenth of what it is in the United States. In Nigeria, with a population of some two hundred million, the reported death rate is less than a hundredth of the U.S. rate. Rich countries, with sophisticated health-care systems, seem to have suffered the worst ravages of the infection. Death rates in poorer countries—particularly in South Asia and large swaths of sub-Saharan Africa—appear curiously low. (South Africa, which accounts for most of sub-Saharan Africa’s reported covid-19 deaths, is an important exception.)”

Among the intertwining causes is the statistico-bureaucratic one: Deaths due to Covid-19 have been vastly underreported in many countries, including India, where folks have died at home rather than in hospital ICU beds. However, delving into the cellular matrix of the human body, Mukherjee says that the presence of “cross-reactive T-cells” in Sub Saharan African bodies and subcontinental South Asian bodies could also have played a vital role in the low Covid 19 death rates in the world’s poorer nations.

What are “Cross-reactive T-cells?” and how do they resist pathogenic invasions of our cellular systems more effectively than antibodies?

Honestly, here I stumbled to grasp the knowledge that was being generously shared with us lay persons in the non-scientific world. So, I’m putting the entire information as is:

Other researchers are exploring whether acquired differences in human immunology might play a role. Acquired, or adaptive, immunity involves two principal kinds of cells: B cells make antibodies against pathogens, and T cells hunt for cells infected by a pathogen. B cells can be imagined as sharpshooters that target a virus with well-aimed bullets, while T cells are gumshoe detectives that go door to door, seeking viruses that are hidden inside cells.

Both B cells and T cells have an unusual capacity: after generating an immune response, some of them may become long-lived passengers in our blood, and carry the “memory” of an already encountered pathogen. These so-called memory cells are triggered when the pathogen reappears, and they can swiftly raise forces to fight it.

At the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, in California, researchers led by Shane Crotty and Alessandro Sette were studying the B- and T-cell responses to the coronavirus through samples of human blood plasma. To quantify the level of immunological activity against the virus, Crotty and Sette wanted a “negative control”—that is, samples of plasma that were collected before the pandemic.

But there was a peculiarity in the data: in more than forty per cent of pre-pandemic samples, the researchers found evidence that the new coronavirus was somehow triggering a T-cell response. These T cells were acting as if they’d recognized a virus they had assuredly never before encountered.

Sette, who was born in Italy, wears blue-rimmed spectacles, and rides his motorcycle to the lab where he works. “A negative control is supposed to be negative,” he told me, stabbing his finger in the air. “We were totally surprised.” He lifted his hands emphatically and waved them around, his ash-gray sweater stretching over his torso. “But the cross-reactivity is always there. We’ve repeated it. Other labs have confirmed the data. The number varies by geography and by the population—twenty per cent, forty per cent—but it’s always there.”

Why is that? Part of the answer may have to do with how T cells recognize pathogens. It’s natural to think of our memory T cells as brandishing a criminal’s mug shot. But what they “remember” is more like the curve of a nostril, the shape of an ear—distinctive snippets of a larger protein picture. Now, suppose a former intruder’s much worse cousin shows up; it’s a fresh face, but it shares a family trait—maybe those batwing ears—that could alert at least some of the memory T cells. Could the novel coronavirus share such traits with previously circulating pathogens?

He told me about an island in Italy, Isola del Giglio, that, he thought, might have been swept by a respiratory infection a few years ago. “But, when covid-19 came and swept through Italy, the Giglio islanders were all spared,” Sette said. “It may just be a story, but it makes you wonder whether one infection might protect you from another, perhaps via cross-reactive T cells.”

Here’s what I understand this to say: cross-reactive T cells will identify an invader from a fragment that resembles a previous invader, and I mean even the tiniest of a tear from a fragment of a fragment will be recognized by cross-reactive T cells as a lethal pathogen and raise the alarm or fight the pathogen.

An antibody, on the other hand, is more “discriminating” in pattern recognition methodologies. An antibody will not rush at a prior invaders “criminal cousin” based on traces of similarity. The invading pathogen has to be more fully formed for antibodies to recognize its criminal intent and hence raise the alarm to go and fight.

Thank you, Dr. Mukherjee for this. Leaves me with a question: Are the Covid 19 vaccines we are being injected with at present sufficient to battle Covid 19 and its increasingly lethal variants?

Categories
Literature New Yorker

Ohio Woes

This is from a story “The Winged Thing” by Patricia Lockwood.

It’s about growing up in Ohio. The experience is narrated dull, but the dullness is lethal enough to drive the young girl into the arms of the Internet.

“As a teenager, she had tried to write poetry about the beauty of her surroundings, but her surroundings were so ugly that she had quickly abandoned the project. Why were the trees here so brown, so stunted? Why did the billboards announce “LOOSE, HOT SLOTS?” Why did her mother collect Precious Moments? Why did the birds seem to say “Bur-ger King, Burger-King,” and why, in her most solitary moments did she find herself humming the jingle for the local accident-and-injury lawyer, which was so catchy that it almost seemed to qualify as a disease?

If she had stayed, she might have got addicted to pills, too, she realized. Something about the way the lunch-bag-colored leaves wadded in the gutters in autumn, something about the way the snow stayed long after it was wanted, like wives. Something about the memory of her multiplication table, with its flat, devouring zero at the corner, and that chalk taste on the center of the mouth.

Instead, she just disappeared into the Internet. She had not realized what a close call she had until recently, for now, in the portal, men were coming up through manholes to confess how near they had come to getting radicalized, how they, too, had wandered the sewers of communal thought for days at a time, dry-mouthed and damp under the arms. How they were exposed to the mutagenic glowing sludge just long enough to become perfectly, perfectly, funny, just long enough to grow that all-discerning third eye.”

Categories
Literature Poetry

The Birth of Gender

Read the poem “Destination” by Dutch poet Hester Knibbe, and know that gender is conceived in the vileness of the human mind.

As we rode into the village we came upon

a convergence of old customs; there was

an empty house and the door stood wide open.

The men from the village lugged a cupboard into the house.

The men from the village hauled a table into the house.

The men from the village heaved a bed into the house.

And the women of the village bore

Dishes and plates and glasses and something to

make the bed habitable into the house.

Then the men pulled a son inside.

Learn to light a fire, they said,

Learn to put out a fire, they said,

We’re latching the shutters.

Then the women pushed a daughter inside.

Learn to be hot, they said,

Learn to be cold, they said,

we’re barricading the door.

(2015)

Categories
Fiction Literature

Dissent As the Art of Freedom

So writes Salman Rushdie in an allegorical tale, “The Old Man in the Piazza.

The story begins with a pandemonium like atmosphere at the “Piazza,” the center of an unspecified city that’s redolent of Italy, but is not Italy.

The pandemonium is not physical but verbal. Citizens argue, scream at each other and generally disagree to the point of making disagreement a principle of discourse.

The narrator observes that the city has entered into an era of the “No” preceded by a time of the “Yes,” or the “dark age” of “assent,” when it was “illegal to argue,” In the dark age of assent residents “were all obliged to agree, at all times. Whatever proposition was made, no matter how risible—that bread and wine could transubstantiate into flesh and blood, that the immigrant population transformed at night into drooling sex monsters, that it was beneficial to raise the taxes paid by the poor, that souls could transmigrate, or that war was necessary—it was forbidden to debunk it, even though immigrants ran the best bakery in the town and our favorite wine store, and even though most of us were poor, and none of us remembered any earlier lives spent as tortoises, or foreigners, or eels, and only a small minority of us were belligerent by nature.”

The age of “assent” stultified voices but more importantly, mindless agreements deprived language of oxygen. After devolving into a vehicle of agreeability, language is threatened into extinction. To survive, language, personified as a gorgeous, Cleopatra-ish woman, revolts ushering the city into becoming a haven of “disputatious citizenry,” that feels free to dissent at every turn of thought. Facts are fervidly consolidated through contesting fiction as in “the sun, madam, does not rise in the west, no matter how vehemently you may argue that it does, and, sir, the moon is not made of Gorgonzola cheese, and to say this is not to agree with your opponent, who describes it as an elaborate papier-mâché fake, nailed to the sky to make us believe that we live in a three-dimensional universe of stars, planets, and satellites, rather than upon a dish with a great lid over it, a lid like an inverted colander, with many holes through which, at night, shines the bright thing we have been deceived into calling starlight.”

Passion now rules and Language is “happier than she was in the subservient, acquiescent days of the ‘yes.’

The story undergoes a further twist and in a Rushdiesque way ends on a note of uncertainty. But the moral of the story is clear and Rushdie himself articulates it in an interview thus:

“I’ve always thought that democracy is like a town square, or a bazaar, or, I guess, a piazza, in which passionate disagreements are constantly taking place. The ability to have such disagreements is what one might call ‘freedom.'”

Categories
Literature Philosophy Poetry

Philosophy of the Selfie

“Selfie”

You want to fix yourself into that event

With an image of the volcano, or street killing,

Or house fire, or fornicating bullfrogs,

Or the centaur dancing, or the unicoen

Piercing balloons over a pond with a fountain

Shaped like an oak tree from the undiscovered torts

That have scattered through office blocks and suburban homes,

And which maybe uncovered one day

And be ripped from the sculpted foliage, becoming fact,

Causing this accumulation of lies to fall like leaves

Into the water below–and the unicorn to leap

Into fiction while you

Will be fixed in time to an image of crime,

Or joy, or wonder, or an unicorn,

As a committment for life on the Internet

Repeated, retweeted,

But forever with your back to it.

–Frieda Hughes (2015)

Categories
Literature

Prayer

A poem titled “Prayer” by Lisa Purpura:

Its occasion

could be

a spot of sun,

bar sign, label

on jeans,

carnation, red

light where you

wait and

gratitude hits.

Or a name

the length of a subway car

that only makes sense

when you say it aloud

in your head

as it passes.

Categories
Capitalism Climate Change

A Wall Street View of the Planet

The Anthropocene.

Categories
Humor Literature

Pasta Inferno

Now and then it occurs to me that things–in this case a crumpled page from a 2012 Issue of the New Yorker Magazine–can contain high quality thought (and wit).

So I was converting pages from one of the world’s most esteemed literary magazines into “packing peanuts” and ran into this gem of an intertextual humor: an allusion to Dante’s “Inferno,” with the soul of a popular American pasta replacing the human soul.

Categories
Books Literature Memoir

Obamabare


The 44th President of the United States has often known to have bared his soul, as it were, particularly in his writing. “A Promised Land” is Obama’s 3rd memoir, the first two being, “Dreams of My Father” (1995) and “Audacity of Hope” (2006).

But does the soul he bares please everybody? Of course not, at least not on certain subject matters. In her extensive review of Obama’s much awaited “post-Presidency” reflections, “A Promised Land,” Nigerian novelist Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, is clearly impatient with Obama’s equivocation on the matter of race and racism in America.

While Adichie commends Obama’s writing as “always pleasurable to read, sentence by sentence, the prose gorgeous in places, the detail granular and vivid,” she cuts him down to size when she perceives Obama to take racism on directly as the national virus that it is:

He writes about race as though overly aware that it will be read by a person keen to take offense. Instances of racism are always preceded by other examples that ostensibly show the absence of racism. And so, while we hear an Iowan supporter say, “I’m thinking about voting for the nigger,” we see many nice Iowans who just care about the issues. The racist incident is never allowed to be and breathe, fully aired out, unmuddied by that notion of “complexity.” Of course racism is always complex, but complexity as an idea too often serves as an evasive device, a means of keeping the conversation comfortable, never taking the full contours of racism to avoid alienating white Americans.

Ngozi Adichie is annoyed by Obama’s reluctant to address “black issues” on grounds that too much focus on it might incur back lash from whites, or what is popularly termed “white lash.” So what if it does? Adichie seems to ask; moreover, hovering her barely concealed cursor of disappointment on the nation’s first black president’s weasel-like cautious approach to racism, Adichie implies that white lash is not something that’s a result of “evil politicians’ manipulation of the white working class, but because racism is in the white working class’ DNA (George Orwell made a similar claim about the English working class’ strange lack of sympathy for the global downtrodden, i.e. the colonized people).