From Njáls saga: Gunnar fights his ambushers at Rangá.
Scott Alexander, it seems to me, misses the poetry and the sense of awe one ought to feel simply from coming into contact with this remote far more heroic age so distantly removed in the mists of Time from ourselves, but his review of the Saga of Burnt Njal is nonetheless witty and analytically intelligent.
There are only about 40,000 people in medieval Iceland. The book focuses on the Southwest Quarter, so let’s say 10,000 there. Each of our characters is a large landowning farmer with many children, servants, tenants, etc; if he is patriarch of a 20 person household, then there must be about 500 such patriarchs. Each of these 500 relevant Icelanders is profiled in loving depth. And if there are 500 characters in Njal’s Saga, and n people can have n(n-1)/2 possible two-person feuds, that’s 124,750 possible feuds. Of these, about 124,749 actually take place over the course of the saga (Njal and his friend Gunnar are best buds, and refuse to feud for any reason).
A typical feud goes like this:
Someone with a name like Hrapp the Ugly, who is ill-famed throughout the land, becomes jealous of his betters. Maybe one particular better irks him, someone with a name like Eirik The Beloved-By-All.
Hrapp insinuates himself with you, flattering you until you believe he is your best friend. Then, once you trust him completely, he says “Eirik The Beloved-By-All is saying behind your back that you’re weak and effeminate; also maybe he’s plotting to kill you.”
You gather your kinsmen and say “Eirik The Beloved-By-All is slandering and plotting against me, we need to stop him.” Your friends and kinsmen object “Eirik is the kindest of all men! Surely this is only the poison of Hrapp the Ugly, whispering lies into your ear.”
You say “I have sworn to do this thing, and I call upon you as my kin to support me. If you do not, let it be known to all that you refused to help a kinsman in his time of need!”
Your kinsmen grudgingly agree to help you. You all form a raiding party and catch Eirik The Beloved-By-All when he is out hunting with his family. He kills three of your kin, but you kill five of his; he himself escapes.
You and your kin ride to all the neighboring houses, saying “We have slain five kinsmen of Eirik The-Beloved-By-All! Stand witness to our slaying!” This part is non-negotiable. If you don’t announce your killings to the victims’ neighbors immediately, the lawyers will destroy you in court later on.
Months pass. You and your kin go to the Althing. Eirik and his kin are there too, and announce that they are suing you.
You go around to all the leading men at the Althing, asking them to “support” you. The exact implications of “support” are vague, but it seems to involve standing around menacingly holding their axes while the trial is happening, in case the other side tries anything funny.
Eirik offers to drop the suit for a weregild of 300 silver pieces per person. But you refuse to pay more than 100 silver pieces. The trial is on!
You realize you will need a good lawyer. You call in a favor from your wife’s cousin’s husband’s uncle, an old man with a name like Hurgolf The Wise. He agrees to serve as your lawyer. He asks whether you complied with about a dozen insane technicalities, starting with “You did remember to tell your victims’ neighbors that you killed them, right?” and moving on to obscure details of the exact wording you used when presenting the suit. If you got any of these wrong, you will at best lose the suit and at worst be condemned to death.
Hurgolf the Wise and the other side’s lawyer fight it out at the Althing! This trial is almost never a whodunit – you, not being a monster, reported the slaying to the victim’s neighbors immediately. More often, you accuse the other side of not observing all the insane technicalities. You and Eirik almost come to blows in the courthouse. Both lawyers suggest there’s a possibility that either or both sides could be condemned to death for failing to observe the technicalities. Sometimes the lawyers get condemned to death for failing to observe technicalities.
Finally Njal (it is always Njal) offers to arbitrate. You agree. You trust Njal. Everyone trusts Njal. He is the wisest of men, and the greatest lawyer in Iceland.
Njal considers the facts of the case. He decides on a weregild of 200 silver pieces per person. You killed five of Eirik’s kin, but he killed three of your kin, so on net you killed two of Eirik’s kin, so you owe him 400 silver pieces. But he will add an extra 100 because of one of the people you killed was an especially good guy – but then take away seventy-five because one time Eirik’s cousin’s son punched your wife’s brother. So you owe a total of 425 silver pieces.
You pay Eirik’s kin 425 silver pieces. You embrace Eirik, and declare that you are now the closest of friends, and will defend him to the death from then on. He says the same, and gives you rich gifts, and invites you to stay at his farm the next time you’re in his part of southwest Iceland. Possibly he is so swept up in the excitement of mutual reconciliation that he waives the 425 silver piece fee entirely. You declare him the best and most munificent of men.
All of Eirik’s kin join in this display except Eirik’s young niece, who seethes with humiliation. She tells her husband, Ragnar Of The Bloody Axe, that he must kill you, or else she will never sleep with him again.
Ragnar Of The Bloody Axe gathers some of his kin and goes to kill you, but ends up killing five of your kin instead.
Repeat Steps 6-13. Njal offers to arbitrate, and Eirik pays you the weregilds this time. You embrace Eirik, saying you knew all along he was an honorable and noble person and this latest weregild only further proves his excellent nature. You consider offering his son your daughter’s hand in marriage, or vice versa.
Repeat until everyone in both your families is dead.
If you want to read about various Icelanders going through this process 124,749 times, Njal’s Saga is the book for you.
A scandal is taking place in American music this week. And it’s all about a book written 50 years ago—and finally published on Tuesday.
The release of this work has set off arguments that, I suspect, will continue for decades to come.
The book is the long awaited biography of blues legend Robert Johnson by the late Robert ‘Mack’ McCormick (1930-2015). Ever since it was announced a half century ago, this work has been eagerly anticipated by blues fans and music scholars—who hoped it would solve all the mysteries surrounding the most enigmatic figure in twentieth century American music.
Robert Johnson (1911-1938) profoundly influenced later generations of blues, rock, and folk performers—impacting everybody from Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones. But what little we knew about his own life was more legend than reality. We heard crazy stories about him selling his soul to the devil, or showing up in unlikely cities under assumed names, or finally getting poisoned by a jealous husband who literally got away with murder in the racist South.
But it was hard to know what was true and what merely rumor or conjecture—until McCormick started making lengthy field trips into Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and elsewhere, going anywhere or everywhere even a speck of information might be found. While others speculated about Robert Johnson, McCormick was determined to uncover the truth—at whatever the cost.
He did most of this work in the 1960s and early 1970s—starting at a time when professors and career musicologists had little interest in undertaking this kind of laborious research into the origins of the Delta blues. The people doing the work were mostly blues fans like McCormick, and there weren’t many of them. But he was on a mission—almost like those ludicrous Blues Brothers in the movie of the same name—and through sheer bloody persistence eventually tracked down numerous people who knew the legendary musician back in the 1920s and 1930s.
By the time Mack was done, he had collected a whole archive of information from musicians, family, friends, and more than a dozen people who had witnessed or known of that fateful night when the famous guitarist stood up at his last gig, and announced “I’ve been poisoned”—and then fell to the ground.
McCormick began work on his definitive book, which he called Biography of a Phantom. It was a suitable name—because Robert Johnson was a phantom to almost everybody except McCormick himself, who had finally put together all the pieces of an amazing life story.
But the book didn’t appear in the 1970s, despite the author’s grand claims. Nor did it get published in the 1980s or 1990s or at any point in McCormick’s lifetime.
I never thought this book was show up my shelf—but here it is.
Finally, after the author’s death, his huge personal archive—known as “The Monster” because of its massive size—got acquired by the Smithsonian. This stash, which had previously filled the nooks and crannies of McCormick’s Houston home, included recordings, photographs, field notes, and various manuscripts, including different versions of the unpublished Robert Johnson bio.
In the aftermath, the decision was made to publish an early draft of the manuscript. And when it came out on Tuesday, all hell broke loose—at least in the world of blues research and American music history.
Jenny Colgan reviews John Irving’s latest in the world-edition Spectator.
Some time ago I was a guest at a book festival in France where we were invited to dinner in the town hall with local dignitaries. I was asked if I liked asparagus. I do, I said, thinking of delicious green spears. Good, said the woman in charge, as it was the asparagus season. I was then presented with an enormous plate of leek-sized white asparagus with a tiny dab of hollandaise on the side, and then expected to eat my way through essentially a fibrous albino python as the dignitaries looked on expectantly. It was a long evening.
I mention this because that’s basically what the experience of reading this book is like. A fellow reviewer demurred and said, no, it’s more akin to dragging your broken leg down a mountain, à la Touching the Void.
Oddly enough, I was recently re-reading Proust, and in the course of some endless and interminable rhapsodic descriptions of French food, I found myself marveling over his expression of preference for great big, thick asparagus. The large version, in my experience, is always woody or soggy. We avoid it and seek out the young, small shoots. The French are weird, and John Irving is a terrible author.
Christian Lorentzen, The Vying Animal — The life of Philip Roth and the art of literary survival:
The ways writers used to mythologize themselves have either expired or been discarded as toxic. In the old gallery there were patrician men of letters (Howells, Eliot), abolitionists (Stowe), adventurers (Melville, London, Hemingway), madmen (Poe), shamans (Whitman), aristocrat expatriates (James), bohemian expatriates (Stein, Baldwin, Bishop), playboy expatriates (Fitzgerald), denizens of café society (Wharton), romantic provincials (Cather, Thomas Wolfe), small-town chroniclers (Anderson), country squires (Faulkner), suburban squires (Cheever, Updike), vagabonds (Algren), cranks (Pound), drunks (West, Agee, Berryman), dandies (Capote, Tom Wolfe), decadents (Barnes), butterfly-chasing foreigners (Nabokov), cracked aristocrats (Lowell), recluses of uncertain eccentricity (Salinger, Pynchon, DeLillo), committed radicals (Steinbeck, Rexroth, Wright, Hammett, Hellman, Paley), disabused radicals (Ellison, Mary McCarthy), radicals turned celebrities (Mailer, Sontag), activist women of letters (Morrison), alienated children of immigrants (Bellow), neo-cowboys (Cormac McCarthy), hipsters (Kerouac), junkies (Burroughs), and hippies (Ginsberg). In the end there is only the careerist, the professional writer who is first, last, and only a professional writer. The original and so far ultimate careerist in American literature was Philip Roth.”
Every few pages of Wills’s book brings another example of Thompson screwing people over. Thompson always had difficulty with self-discipline, but his inability to produce any work was exacerbated by his cocaine abuse. This was certainly bad for his career. But it was also bad for the careers of those in his orbit. Steadman joined Thompson in Zaire where Rolling Stone had sent them to cover the Ali-Foreman fight. Steadman was eager to see the fight, but Thompson told him, “I didn’t come all this way to watch a couple of niggers beat the shit out of each other.” On the morning of the fight, Steadman frantically tried to find Thompson, who had their press passes, but Thompson had sold them and used the money to buy cocaine and marijuana. When Steadman finally found him, he was stoned and was throwing large quantities of marijuana into the hotel pool. …
When the US military began pulling out of Vietnam, Wenner asked Thompson to cover it for Rolling Stone. Thompson agreed but began to lose his nerve as his departure date drew near. Wenner asked New York Times war correspondent Gloria Emerson to try to bolster Thompson’s confidence. The phone calls between them were recorded (Thompson—like Nixon—recorded many of his phone calls and conversations), and Emerson can be heard telling him how to cover the story, passing him the details of her own contacts and translators, and offering to provide him with all the facts about Vietnam that he lacked.
Thompson finally arrived in Vietnam in April of 1975 (more than a decade after the mainstream journalists he hated began covering the story on a daily basis). He took a lot of opium, mingled with prostitutes, and generally behaved like a clown in order to entertain the other journalists, many of whom were fans of his work. But, as Wills remarks, his behavior “wasn’t as funny in real life.” The other journalists quickly realized that his antics might get him—and them—killed. At least 60 Western journalists were killed covering the war and, as Wills points out, “few of them were running around high on drugs.” Tape recordings make it clear that he was hopelessly out of his element. The other journalists can be heard laughing at his ignorance of the facts on the ground. They teased him about the fact that he hadn’t managed to write a word about the Ali-Foreman fight when Norman Mailer had managed to write a groundbreaking piece for Playboy.
Later, by himself, Thompson can be heard spitting out the words, “Fuck them!” on the recorder. At one point, stoned out of his mind and believing he was chasing “four giant fucker pterodactyls,” Thompson wandered dangerously close to the front line. Several journalists had to put themselves in harm’s way to bundle him into a jeep and drive him back to relative safety. … Read the rest of this entry »
I had to read this section of the book two or three times to absorb what it was saying. I couldn’t believe it could possibly be true. Yet it is: “Shockingly, the 2020 contest was the first presidential election since Reagan’s first successful run in 1980 in which the Republican National Committee could play any role whatsoever in Election Day operations.”
What? Next sentence: “For nearly 40 years, the Democratic National Committee had a massive systemic advantage over its Republican counterpart: the Republican National Committee had been prohibited by law from helping out with poll watcher efforts or nearly any litigation related to how voting is being conducted.”
This section in chapter 1 goes on to explain how such an insane thing could be real. Essentially, after Democrats accused Republicans of cheating in a New Jersey race in 1981, a judge banned the RNC from poll-watching and voting litigation everywhere in the country, then kept re-upping the order until 2018, when it finally expired three years after he died.
This handicapped Republicans for almost 40 years while Democrats were free to do things Republicans couldn’t, like give boosts to their voters all along the voting process and track them extensively, challenge ballots, document irregularities, and sue over election disputes. By 2020, then, Mollie writes:
Democrats had spent the last forty years perfecting their Election Day operations while everyone at the Republican National Committee walked on eggshells, knowing that if they so much as looked in the direction of a polling site, there could be another crackdown. As a result, there was no muscle memory about how to watch polls or communicate with a presidential campaign.
From The World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement by Robert Crease (2011), quoted in the London Review of Books.
The geeks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are fond of merry japes, locally known as ‘hacks’. One of the more memorable happened one night in October 1958 when an MIT fraternity had the idea of initiating new members by making them measure a bridge over the Charles River connecting the Cambridge campus with Boston. Crossing the bridge was often a wet, windy and unpleasant business and it was thought that students returning at night from downtown would like to know, by visible marks and with some precision, how far they still had to go. The older fraternity brothers decided to use one of the new pledges as a rule, and selected Oliver R. Smoot, the shortest of the lot at 5ft 7in. The other pledges laid Smoot out at one end of the bridge, marked his extent with chalk and paint, then picked him up and laid him down again, spelling out the full measurement every ten lengths, and inscribing the mid-point of the bridge with the words ‘halfway to Hell’. In this way, it was determined that the span was 364.4 smoots long, ‘plus or minus one ear’ (to indicate measurement uncertainty).
The hack was too good to let fade away, so every now and then the fraternity makes its pledges repaint the markings. You might think this isn’t the sort of vandalism the police would tolerate, but they do. The smoot markings soon became convenient in recording the exact location of traffic accidents, so (as the story goes) when the bridge walkways needed to be repaved in 1987, the Massachusetts Department of Public Works directed the construction company to lay out the concrete slabs on the walkway not in the customary six-foot lengths but in shorter smoot units. Fifty years after the original hack, the smoot markers have become part of civic tradition: the City of Cambridge declared 4 October 2008 ‘Smoot Day’. MIT students ran up a commemorative plaque on a precision milling machine and created an aluminium Smoot Stick which they deposited in the university’s museum as a durable reference standard: the unit-smoot is now detached from the person-Smoot. Through the legions of MIT graduates driving global high-tech culture, the smoot has travelled the world. If you use Google Earth, you can elect the units of length in which you’d like distances measured: miles, kilometres, yards, feet – and smoots.
Art Deco Ayn denouncing the dirty communists in front of HUAC, 1947.
I found yesterday this affectionate, but clear-eyed, and quite well-written tribute to dear old Ayn written for New York magazine back in 2009 by Sam Anderson as a review of Anne Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made.
Whenever Ayn Rand met someone new—an acolyte who’d traveled cross-country to study at her feet, an editor hoping to publish her next novel—she would open the conversation with a line that seems destined to go down as one of history’s all-time classic icebreakers: “Tell me your premises.” Once you’d managed to mumble something halfhearted about loving your family, say, or the Golden Rule, Rand would set about systematically exposing all of your logical contradictions, then steer you toward her own inviolable set of premises: that man is a heroic being, achievement is the aim of life, existence exists, A is A, and so forth—the whole Objectivist catechism. And once you conceded any part of that basic platform, the game was pretty much over. She’d start piecing together her rationalist Tinkertoys until the mighty Randian edifice towered over you: a rigidly logical Art Deco skyscraper, 30 or 40 feet tall, with little plastic industrialists peeking out the windows—a shining monument to the glories of individualism, the virtues of selfishness, and the deep morality of laissez-faire capitalism. Grant Ayn Rand a premise and you’d leave with a lifestyle.
Stated premises, however, rarely get us all the way down to the bottom of a philosophy. Even when we think we’ve reached bedrock, there’s almost always a secret subbasement blasted out somewhere underneath. William James once argued that every philosophic system sets out to conceal, first of all, the philosopher’s own temperament: that pre-rational bundle of preferences that urges him to hop on whatever logic-train seems to be already heading in his general direction. This creates, as James put it, “a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned … What the system pretends to be is a picture of the great universe of God. What it is—and oh so flagrantly!—is the revelation of how intensely odd the personal flavor of some fellow creature is.”
No one would have been angrier about this claim, and no one confirms its truth more profoundly, than Ayn Rand. Few fellow creatures have had a more intensely odd personal flavor; her temperament could have neutered an ox at 40 paces. She was proud, grouchy, vindictive, insulting, dismissive, and rash. (One former associate called her “the Evel Knievel of leaping to conclusions.”) But she was also idealistic, yearning, candid, worshipful, precise, and improbably charming. She funneled all of these contradictory elements into Objectivism, the home-brewed philosophy that won her thousands of Cold War–era followers and that seems to be making some noise once again in our era of bailouts and tea parties…
It’s easy to chuckle at Rand, smugly, from the safe distance of intervening decades or an opposed ideology, but in person—her big black eyes flashing deep into the night, fueled by nicotine, caffeine, and amphetamines—she was apparently an irresistible force, a machine of pure reason, a free-market Spock who converted doubters left, right, and center. Eyewitnesses say that she never lost an argument. One of her young students (soon to be her young lover) staggered out of his first all-night talk session referring to her, admiringly, as “Mrs. Logic.” And logic, in Rand’s hands, seemed to enjoy superpowers it didn’t possess with anyone else. She claimed, for instance, that she could rationally explain every emotion she’d ever had. “Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive,” she once wrote, “and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life.” One convert insisted that “she knows me better after five hours than my analyst does after five years.” The only option was to yield or stay away.
Browning is undoubtedly the greatest firearm designer of all time. The list of his sporting arms, lever action Winchester, pump and semiauto shotguns is long, and the useful careers of some of his military arms is even longer. The Browning .50 caliber M2 machine gun (the “Ma Deuce”), designed late during WWI, is still in use by the US Military today. His Model 1911 pistol remained our military’s primary issue sidearm right up until the 1980s, and has since gone on to whole new wave of massive enthusiasm for both target-shooting and personal defense. A hundred years after its design, the old 1911 is still pretty much America’s default handgun.
The 1865 Browning home in Ogden, Utah, was adobe brick, situated a few steps away from untrammeled land filled with grouse, a small wildfowl that made tolerable eating once it was plucked, butchered, and cooked, preferably with bacon fat to moisten the dry flesh. Utah’s five varieties of grouse could fly, but mostly the birds shuffled about on the earth. The male “greater” grouse reached seven pounds, making a decent meal and an easy target, as yellow feathers surrounded each eye and a burst of white marked the breast. A skilled hunter could sneak up on a covey picking at leaves and grasses and with one blast of birdshot get two or three for the frying pan.
Such frugality was necessary. The closest railroad stop was nearly one thousand miles east, and the largest nearby town was Salt Lake City, 35 miles to the south and home to only ten thousand people. Ogden’s settlers ate what they grew, raised, or hunted. Water for drinking and crops depended on the streams and rivers that flowed west out of the mountains into the Great Salt Lake, and irrigated wheat, corn, turnips, cabbage, and potatoes. Each settler was obliged to contribute labor or money to construct the hand-dug ditches and canals. They made their own bricks, cured hides for leather, and made molasses out of a thin, yellowish juice squeezed from sugar beets with heavy iron rollers and then boiled down to a thick, dark bittersweet liquid.
The rollers were made by John’s father, Jonathan, himself a talented gunsmith who also doubled as a blacksmith. Jonathan’s shop was his son’s playground, and John’s toys were broken gun parts thrown into the corner. At age six, John was taught by his “pappy” to pick out metal bits for forging and hammering into new gun parts. Soon the boy was wielding tools under his father’s direction.
To build that first crude gun John chose a day when his father was away on an errand. From the pile of discards John retrieved the old musket barrel and dug out a few feet of wire and a length of scrap wood. He clamped the barrel into a vice and with a fine-toothed saw cut off the damaged muzzle. He set Matt to work with a file and orders to scrape a strip along the barrel’s top down to clean metal. With a hatchet John hacked out a crude stock. The boys worked intently. On the frontier a task didn’t have to be polished, but it had to be right. Basic materials were in short supply, and to make his gun parts and agricultural tools Pappy Browning scavenged iron and steel abandoned by exhausted and overloaded immigrants passing through on their way west. Once, he purchased a load of metal fittings collected from the burned-out remains of an army wagon train, and as payment he signed over a parcel of land that, years later, became the site of Ogden’s first hotel.
John used a length of wire to fasten the gun barrel to the stock, then bonded them with drops of molten solder. There was no trigger. Near the barrel’s flash hole John screwed on a tin cone. When it came time to fire, gunpowder and lead birdshot would be loaded down the muzzle and finely ground primer powder would be sprinkled into the cone. The brothers would work together as a team: John would aim, Matt would lean in and ignite the primer with the tip of a smoldering stick, and the cobbled-together shotgun would, presumably, fire.
This wasn’t without risk. There was no telling if the soldered wire was strong enough to contain the recoil, or if the barrel itself would burst. Then there was the matter of ammunition. Gunpowder and shot were expensive imports delivered by ox-drawn wagon train. And the Browning brothers’ makeshift weapon might prove ineffective, or John could miss, and anger their father by using up valuable gunpowder with no result. Despite the risks, John pilfered enough powder and lead shot (from Jonathan’s poorly hidden supply) for one shot.
In ten minutes the brothers were in open country. Ogden’s eastern side nestled against the sheer ramparts of the Wasatch Mountains, and to the west lay the waters of the Great Salt Lake. To the north the Bear and Weber rivers flowed out of the Wasatch to sustain the largest waterfowl breeding ground west of the Mississippi River. Early white explorers were staggered by seemingly endless flocks of geese and ducks. In the 1840s pioneers described the “astonishing spectacle of waterfowl multitudes” taking to the air with a sound like “distant thunder.” Mountains rose up in all four directions, with one range or another flashing reflected sunlight. It was a striking geographic combination, magnified by the bright, clear sunlight of Ogden’s near-mile-high elevation. A settler’s life was lived on a stage of uncommon spectacle.
John carried the shotgun while Matt toted a stick and a small metal can holding a few clumps of glowing coal. The idea was to take two or three birds with a single shot, thereby allaying parental anger with a show of skilled marksmanship. Barefoot, the brothers crept from place to place until they spotted a cluster of birds pecking at the ground. Two were almost touching wings and a third was inches away. John knelt and aimed. Matt pulled the glowing stick out of the embers, almost jabbed John in the ear, and then touched the stick to the tin cone to fire the shot. The recoil knocked John backward—but in front of him lay a dead bird. Two other wounded fowl flapped nearby. Matt scampered ahead and “stood, a bird in each hand, whooping and trying to wring both necks at once.”
The next morning, as Jonathan breakfasted on grouse breast and biscuits, John listened to sympathetic advice from his mother and chose that moment to tell Pappy the story of his gun, his hunt—and the pilfered powder. Jonathan sat quietly and when John was finished made no mention of the theft. He did ask to see the weapon and was unimpressed. “John Moses, you’re going on eleven; can’t you make a better gun than that?”
Matt snickered. John choked down his remaining breakfast. “Pappy has drawn first blood, no doubt about that. He hadn’t scolded about the powder and shot, and the sin of stealing. But he’d hit my pride right on the funny bone,” John told his family decades later. A moment later he followed his father into the shop. He unrolled the wire from the barrel, “whistling soft and low to show how unconcerned I was,” and then stamped on the stock, snapped it in two, and tossed the pieces into a pile of kindling. “I remember thinking, rebelliously, that for all Pappy might say, the gun had gotten three fine birds for breakfast. Then I set to work. Neither of us mentioned it again.”
Paul Levy, in the Spectator, reviews Norman Kolpas’s Foie Gras: A Global History, which defends the rich delicacy and its creation via the practice of gavage (the fattening of geese and ducks by tubular feeding) against a recent wave of Puritanism and snobbish morality posing that got the product banned in California and removed from the shelves of Fortnum & Mason in Britain.
[T]he main opposition claim is that the production of the hyper-fatty livers of ducks and geese is physically cruel and therefore immoral.
The factual argument is just plain wrong, and so is the ethical judgment that depends on it. I have witnessed the ‘force-feeding’ of ducks, and it is not a case of animal abuse. What actually happens is that the nicely behaved ducks (imprinted à la Konrad Lorenz) form an orderly line to take their turn swallowing a flexible tube that in seconds whooshes pellets of maize or mash of cereal down their gullets. They appear to relish this, and are, in my experience, fussed about and petted affectionately by the farming women of the south-west of France who perform what is called the gavage.
The problem, says Norman Kolpas, is that our celebrities and anti-foie gras activists ‘immediately and understandably tend to anthropomorphize the birds, imagining how it might feel for a human to have a feeding tube jammed down the throat’. This image of oral rape comes from an ignorance of bird physiology. The human esophagus is a more rigid structure of muscle, cartilage and bone, and inserting a tube down it means getting past the epiglottis, which triggers the human gag reflex. These waterfowl species do not have a gag reflex.
The gavage, in fact, mimics the birds’ natural pre-migratory behavior; following the seasons, they gorge themselves with food in preparation for their long flights. This had been remarked at least as early as 400 BC, when, says Kolpas, ‘well-fattened geese were deemed sufficiently worthy to be presented as a gift when Agesilaus, king of Sparta, visited Egypt’. The Greeks and Romans force-fed geese with figs rather than grain, a practice later adapted for rich pork liver, as recommended by Apicius. Foie gras found its way to south-western France with the conquest of Gaul (121-51 BC), and then Jewish slaves, cooks and farmers spread it east across Europe. Though goose makes the most appreciated fat liver, the amount of goose foie gras now produced globally has become minuscule (about 5 percent) compared with duck foie gras, mostly from (pond-shunning) hybrid male Moulard ducks, whose meat is also succulent and valued.
Michael Robbins has a little fun upon the occasion of the publication of “The Sentinel, the 25th Jack Reacher blood-curdler.
You know how, when you roll into a small town for the first time, in search of a slice of pie and a decent cup of coffee, you inevitably uncover a byzantine and nefarious criminal conspiracy, perhaps concerning Russian spies and Nazis? And your sense of justice and your MMA-style fighting skills demand that you stick around long enough to expose the evildoers, protect the innocent, and kick a whole lot of ass?
OK, that probably hasn’t happened to you more than once. But it happens to Jack Reacher all the time. Lee Child’s ex-military drifter-hero is framed for murder in a small Georgia town in the first book of the best-selling series, 1997’s Killing Floor, and he goes on to find trouble with a capital T in sleepy flyover hamlets across America—“tiny polite dots” on the map, as 2019’s Blue Moon has it—in eleven of the subsequent novels, including The Sentinel(Delacorte Press, $29), the first to be cowritten with the author’s brother, Andrew Child, who will take over the series after this installment. …
No one in the history of the world has randomly stumbled onto as many kidnappings as Jack Reacher, who once again thus stumbles, wanting only a cup of coffee, at the beginning of The Sentinel. Implausible, sure. A radioactive spider’s bite bestows spider powers on a teenage boy; a woman unweaves a burial shroud every night for three years without any of her suitors getting suspicious. We tell ourselves stories in order to tune the fuck out, sometimes.
So there Reacher is, fresh in town after hitching a ride from Nashville with an insurance agent, when he sees some heavy operators trying to force an ordinary schlub into a Toyota sedan. Except he doesn’t see them. Being Reacher, he senses the plan unfolding before it happens, apparently drawing on genetic memory. He’s headed for the coffee shop as the schlub, one Rusty Rutherford, leaves it:
Reacher didn’t pay him much attention at first. He was just a guy, small and unremarkable, holding his to-go cup. . . . But a moment later Reacher’s interest ratcheted all the way up. He felt a chill at the base of his neck. A signal from some ancient warning system hardwired into the back of his brain. An instinctive recognition. Pattern and movement. Predators circling. Moving in on their prey. Two men and a woman. Spread out. Carefully positioned. Coordinated. Ready to spring their trap.
What chance do the heavy operators have against Jack Reacher’s hardwired spider-sense? No more chance than a complete sentence has against Reacher’s free indirect discourse.
And then we’re off to the races. …
It doesn’t matter that we’re not exactly dealing with John le Carré and George Smiley here. Child has a very particular set of skills. Skills he has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make him a nightmare for readers who have to get up in the morning. He knows that we know that Reacher will yet again prevail against impossible odds, so it’s the details of each confrontation that matter. With what displays of brio shall our hero sally forth this time, deploying what forms of efficient brutality?
Reacher may lack the self-questioning complexity of Smiley or the queasy nuance of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, but Child makes his simplicity a virtue. Reacher is Jason Bourne without the Sophoclean psychology and heroic quest. He’s just real good at getting there first, whether “there” means anticipating an opponent’s moves or deducing the nature of a conspiracy from the scantest of clues. …