One of my treasured and almost lifelong gifts from my family has been an appreciation of and (coming a little later) subscription to The New Yorker. In my childhood - and truthfully, well after - I turned primarily to the cartoons, and came to look forward particularly to those drawn by the inimitable Charles Addams. Robert Mankoff, who came to The New Yorker as a cartoonist in Addams's later years, spoke recently with an interviewer about the influence of Addam's work:
What influence has Charles Addams’s work had on cartooning and American humor?
I think his influence is, like the man, largish. He tapped into that vein of American gothic that has a touch of paranoia about it, seeing behind every comforting façade the uncomfortable truth about the duality of human nature. But where Gothic literature usually combined these themes with romance, Addams made the horror hilarious: disturbing, but at the same time friendly, identifiable, and acceptable. In cartooning, you can see the direct influence of his work in someone like Gahan Wilson, and in many other cartoonists. Horror films that combine humor with horror, such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” with its wise-cracking Freddy Krueger, are also in his debt. And, of course, Addams’s humor was “black” and “sick” before those terms applied.
But I think his influence extends beyond the horror genre, to humor not as a comforting “laughter is the best medicine” anodyne but as something deeply skeptical of the purported values of middle-class American life. By making us laugh at, and with, his fiendish protagonists, he makes us temporarily share their values, and doubt our own.
Those with an interest in the private and professional life of the man Charles Addams should turn to Linda H. Davis's biography, Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life (Unabridged), published by Random House in 2006, now also available as an audio book wonderfully read by Don Hagen. Addams's widow gave the biography her blessing, and it's said to pull out all the stops.
But for this particular Halloween occasion, I want simply to offer to readers of Reckonings a small selection; one of Addams's many covers for The New Yorker, and two of his cartoons.
The first is a cover for the issue of July 8, 1961, depicting ghosts from an upland cemetery watching an outdoor drive-in movie - a Western with a particularly appropriate scene - in the valley below:
The second cartoon below is a Halloween occasion, the lady of the house kindly apologizing to a small alien creature (see space ships and companions in background) she plausibly assumes is a boy in costume.
"I'm sorry, sonny. We've run out of candy."
I had the great privilege, for several years around the recent turn of the century, of editing an online journal, The Daily Reprobate, that in its original print version was founded by Mark Twain in 1866. There is, I admit, some scholarly controversy about the details, even the veracity, of that founding legend, but such controversy in general can be safely ignored.
Some articles and snippits from The Reprobate inevitably find their way into Reckonings, if only to lend a much-needed antidote to its insufferable seriousness. Most of those posts are lodged in the category I've called “Words and Whimsey.”
Here is a brief description of The Daily Reprobate, a reasonable definition of its operative word, and a similarly felicitous description of its close sibling, curmudgeon.
The Reprobate's founder, Mark Twain, once remarked aptly, “Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.” Edward Abbey, a modern inheritor of Twain's spirit, added a companion truth, “The distrust of wit is the beginning of tyranny.” The Daily Reprobate honored that wisdom since its founding 140 years ago as a congenial companion for the intelligent and irascible reader gifted with a sense of humor and a love of language.
The word “reprobate” has a distinguished pedigree, having risen over the last 3000 years or so from its wretched beginnings when reprobates were lost souls rejected by God, wicked Sabbath-breaking sons of Belial, fallen angels, Israelites in the desert when Moses was absent. A small residue of that early meaning is preserved in the forbidding language of Calvinism, and in that of evangelical Christians intent upon their own virtue and others' salvation.
More currently, and for the journal’s guidance over its many years of publication, reprobates are shameless rascals. Often reproved as unrepentant scalawags by the Authorities (the bearers of cultural, moral and political orthodoxy) they in fact stand as bastions, fonts of discriminating disapproval. Sometimes they are wily and subtle, coyote shape-shifters resorting to irony and satire, at others straightforward firebrands. In whatever guise, they are pungent critics of deceit and abuse in the established order.
Now, take a moment's opportunity to enjoy a word lover's delight (and no doubt someone else's sheer boredom): contemplation of the relationship between reprobates and curmudgeons. Editors and authors who wrote for The Daily Reprobate were, by blood, title and persuasion, the former. But we offered a congenial home to curmudgeons, who are, in a roundabout way, the closest of kin. On a good day, we can find the two spirits commingling in our hearts.
Purely as a pedigreed word, curmudgeon is a poor relative. No one appears to know where it came from. There's been speculation about its connection to Middle English and Old French words relating to stealing and hoarding; and it is said that a correspondent of Dr. Johnson attempted to assign to it an etymology based on the fusion of coeur (heart) and méchant (malicious, spiteful).
Curmudgeon seems, vexedly, just to appear sometime in the latter half of the 16th century, a nonce-word, made up. There is little doubt that a curmudgeon is a churlish fellow of independent mind, and tolerates neither fools nor those who provoke others' suffering for their own advantage. His critics call him greedy, a muckworm and pinchgut, a lickpenny.
In truth he is none of those. Like Robin of the Hood, he steals and hoards only in the interest of equity, and knows more than most that gifts remain gifts only by passing them on. (See Lewis Hyde’s classic book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.*) The reprobate is typically more consistent; his reprobation is likely to be a matter of character. The curmudgeon's totem animals are the chameleon and the lion. He pads irregularly among soberly collected wisdom, fulmination, frothing outrage, depression, and sleepy abandonment to the muse.
Both reprobates and curmudgeons can be formidable critics. Both are shape-shifters.
It is intriguing that reprobates and curmudgeons are typically identified as men rather than women. Current explanations are unsatisfactory, and the truth belies the myth. A plausible but untested hypothesis rests upon a curious transposition of subject and object. It is not that there are fewer female than male reprobates and curmudgeons. The people whose lives and works they deflate and disarm, however, are far more often men than women, for a simple reason: men have thus far been the world's destroyers.
Edward Abbey's reflections in A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (1989) are fitting here:
“I have been called a curmudgeon, which my obsolescent dictionary defines as 'a surly, ill-mannered, bad-tempered fellow.' ...But through frequent recent usage, the term is acquiring a broader meaning, which our dictionaries have not yet caught up to. Nowadays, curmudgeon is likely to refer to anyone who hates hypocrisy, cant, sham, dogmatic ideologies, the pretenses and evasions of euphemism, and has the nerve to point out unpleasant facts and takes the trouble to impale these sins on the skewer of humor and roast them over the fires of empiric fact, common sense, and native intelligence. In this nation of bleating sheep and braying jackasses, it then becomes an honor to be labeled curmudgeon.”
The last word should be given, in justice, to an inspired taxonomist. John Winokur, in his introduction to The Portable Curmudgeon Redux (a successor to The Portable Curmudgeon, and predecessor of A Curmudgeon's Garden of Love and Return of the Portable Curmudgeon), writes:
“I remain convinced that there is no hope for the human race and that we are in the terminal stages of Life As We Know It. This book is an attempt to amuse myself and others while we're waiting for the last lug nut to fly off the last wheel of civilization.”
* I confess that I liked better the original subtitle, "Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property"
For ninety years Eustace Tilley has been the iconic face of The New Yorker, and we readers see him, or some of his many variants, on every anniversary cover, most recently on the magazine's 90th birthday last month. To be more accurate, I should say Eustace Tilley and the butterfly that hovers in front of his face and is examined through the lens of his monocle.
As Louis Menand wrote on an earlier anniversary ten years ago,
Just to convey what an enlightened community I live in, at 9:26:53 this morning a group of us, led by our resident mathematician, gathered in the library to celebrate Pi Day, that singular moment in historical time, recurring every 100 years, at which the time-and-date corresponds exactly to the first 10 digits of Pi, or π —
π = 3.141592653.... *
There were, of course, celebrations of Pi Day all over the world; I know at many universities and scientific organizations, as noted by the NY Times and surely other publications. I trust most of them, like ours, consumed pies as well.
* Pi, I'd forgotten and relearned this morning, is the number derived by dividing the length of the circumference of a circle by the length of its diameter, so π = C/D.
Occasionally a word will come to our consciousness from some unremembered depth and for no apparent reason. Today I was sitting at my desk, pleased to have found access, through the local public library, to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary. For the moment I had nothing I wanted to look up, but I suppose, having the world's finest English dictionary more or less in hand, words began to stir, move toward consciousness. The one that came first to mind was a thoroughgoing surprise: sigaldry.
I couldn't recall what it meant nor where I had encountered it, so naturally I typed it into the OED's search box. Here is what I found:
Let's imagine, just imagine mind you, that the evidence of Monet's wheatstacks drama began here, very early in the morning light, before sunrise:
Then, if you like, listen to an audio commentary about a later wheatstack painting now in the J. Paul Getty Museum's collection: Wheatstacks, Snow Effect, Morning (Meules, Effet de Neige, Le Matin), Claude Monet, 1891, oil on canvas.
One might ask: Did Monet become preoccupied, even obsessed, by particular objects or scenes that came to his painterly eye? Consider his work on wheatstacks, and recall that he didn't sleep a lot. A Wikipedia entry is helpful, even telling:
"Beginning in the 1880s and 1890s, Monet focused on Haystacks and a number of other subjects... In order to work on many paintings virtually simultaneously, he would awake before dawn so as to begin at the earliest time of day..., sometimes working on as many as ten or twelve paintings a day, each one depicting a slightly different aspect of light. The process would be repeated over the course of days, weeks, or months, depending on the weather and the progress of the paintings, until they were completed. As the seasons changed the process was renewed... At differing times of day and in various seasons haystacks absorb the light from diverse parts of the color spectrum. As a result, the residual light that is reflected off of the haystacks is seen as ever-changing, and manifests in distinctive coloring."
One can imagine psychic and physical stress, even zaniness, accompanying such painting, perhaps captured candidly in Monet's journal, as revealed by Seth Reiss, who recently gathered and loosely translated passages from the journal for The New Yorker:
May 14, 1890
Saw giant stacks of wheat today. I think I am going to start painting those.
June 8, 1890
Having a tough time painting these giant stacks of wheat. I guess I assumed I’d blow through them no problem because they’re just giant stacks of wheat and I’m a professional painter, but getting all the wheat to look good is tough.
June 30, 1890
Painted a decent stack of wheat today. Going to call it, “Wheatstack in the Sunlight, Morning Effect.” Something like that.
Confession: I hated literally everything about painting that stack of wheat, especially how the light bounced off it. But here’s the thing: I have to paint the light right. People go apeshit about the light and how accurate the light is. They ask annoying questions like, “Are the shadows accurate based on the light?” And I always think to myself, “Who gives a fuck? It’s a painting of a red boat and it looks like a million bucks.”
July 9, 1890
Got a little cocky today and tried to put two stacks of wheat in one painting. Total train wreck. The light was going this way and that and—you know what? I don’t even want to talk about it.
September 21, 1890
I was going to take the day off, but then I looked at the calendar and flipped out because I had wanted to paint what a stack of wheat looks like at the end of summer in afternoon light. I must have completely blanked on what day it was, so I had to book it down to the farm. Got that wheatstack on the canvas toot sweet. But now that I’ve painted what a stack of wheat looks like at the end of summer, I guess I have to paint what a stack of wheat looks like at the end of fall. And if I do fall, I have to do end of winter. And then the end of spring. Crap.
December 2, 1890
If I can’t paint these things with snow on the tops of them, I’ll have failed as an artist and as a man. What does a stack of wheat look like with snow on it in the morning? In the afternoon? At dusk? What does a stack of wheat look like with frost on it? What does a stack of wheat look like when the sun is not setting, but almost setting? What does a stack of wheat look like at 2:43 P.M. on a Monday, 2:43 P.M. on Tuesday, 2:43 P.M. on a Wednesday, 2: 43 P.M. on a—you get the idea.
Jan 1, 1891
Happy New Year! Painted seven hundred and fifty-five stacks of wheat today.
Feb 18, 1891
Hey, look, if there are fourteen hundred and forty minutes in a day, I am going to paint fourteen hundred and forty stacks of wheat. End of story. I told my wife that yesterday and she threw a goddam fit. She said, “So if there are eighty-six thousand four hundred seconds in a day, Claude, are you going to paint eighty-six thousand four hundred stacks of wheat?” I responded, “Welcome to the wheat-painting project, Camille!”
Feb 24, 1891
Confession: I ate a little piece of wheat this morning because I was wondering if I ate enough wheat, would a wheatstack form in my stomach? And, if so, would I be able to paint it? What if I opened my mouth and let some light in? What would a stack of wheat look like inside my stomach with, say, 10:45 A.M.winter light shining in on it?
March 15, 1891
Starting to wish stacks of wheat didn’t exist and light didn’t exist.
April 23, 1891
Got into a huge shouting match with the wheat today. I know one of those assholes took my painting supplies, but when I confronted the wheatstacks, they flat out denied it. I said, “Hey, dipshits, where’s my paint?” No response. So I went over to one that I’ve been sort of hanging out with and getting to know pretty well and guess what I got? Nothing. Silence.
April, 30, 1891
I painted a stack of wheat with blood gushing out of it, showed it to the wheat, and said, “This is gonna be you.” Then I took a scythe and went to town on those bastards. I’m calling that painting, “Stacks of Wheat Getting Fucked Up by Claude Monet in Spring.”
May 10, 1891
Proud to report that I am done painting stacks of wheat—NOT because I am no longer allowed to, according to the Giverny Police Department, but because I have fulfilled my artistic mission vis-à-vis stacks of wheat. Anyway, I’m glad that’s over.
May 14, 1891
Saw some pretty cool water lilies today.
You can have Egypt and Nantucket.
The only place I want to visit is The Blue,
not the Wild Blue Yonder that seduces pilots,
but that zone where the unexpected dwells,
waiting to come out of it in the shape of bolts.
I want to walk its azure perimeter
where the unanticipated is coiled, on the mark,
ready to spring into the predictable homes of earth.
I want to stroll through the pale indigo light
examining all the accidents about to rocket into time,
all the forgotten names about to fly from tongues.
I will scrutinize all the surprises of the future
and watch the brainstorms gathering darkly,
ready to hit the heads of inventors
laboring in their crackpot shacks.
A jaded traveler with an invisible passport,
I am at home with this heaven of the unforeseen,
waiting for the next whoosh of sudden departure
when, with no advance warning, to tiny augury,
the unpredictable plummets into our lives
from somewhere that looks like sky.
~ Billy Collins ~
Here is another legacy contribution from the early days of Reckonings (roughly 2003).
Pogo and the other inhabitants of the Okefenokee Swamp* disappeared from newspapers' comic strip pages shortly after their maker, Walt Kelly, died in 1973. I grew up with his world in the 1950s and 1960s.
I still tune in to Doonesbury now and then. I have been devoted to Calvin and Hobbes, Opus, and Gary Larson's wonderful upside down and sideways view of the world. For a time, as a child, the thoroughgoing loving kindness of Al Capp's shmoos captivated me. But Kelly's way with character, setting and especially language were satisfying as no other comic strip. As Brad Leithauser writes, "Pogo was different. It had depth, a madcap unpredictability, and a restive verbal playfulness; it was, in short, the only comic strip spun through the mind of a poet."
The denizens of the Swamp—Pogo, Albert the alligator, Beauregard the hound, Owl, Porky Pine, the ominous wildcat Simple J. Malarkey (modeled on the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy), the blowhard bear P.T. Bridgeport, Miz Beaver and the fetching French skunk, Ma'm'selle Hepzibah, with whom Pogo is shyly enchanted—lent the strip a wonderful range of linguistic warp and woof, lyricism, affection and (mostly) friendly dissension the likes of which we have not seen since.
The pace of life in the Swamp is... well, like a swamp should be: comfortable, slow, yet with rich, unpredictable depth and color.
There are some genuine bad guys among the residents of the swamp—Mole with his omnipresent shades, and his sidekick The Deacon, for example—but they are more like literate rednecks than real evil. The only source of threatened (never realized) violence is the manifestly malignant Malarkey.
Some of Kelly's lines remain with me well over a quarter century after they were uttered. "We have met the enemy and he is us." Whenever I hear "Deck the Halls" at Christmas time, I find myself quietly singing, "Deck us all with Boston Charlie, tra la la la la, la la de da" And when I tend to go on longer than I should--a common professorial malady--I recall one of Pogo's rhymes:
Riddle you the little dew
And little do you do?
Little did is little done,
Tho' little did'll do.
I plan to weave into these pages at least a little did'll of Pogo's gentleness, kindness, exuberance and nonsense, without which this battered world would be much the poorer.
For those interested in a contemporary tribute to Kelly and his creation, and a sample of some of his characters' antics, I recommend Brad Leithauser's essay, "Lyrics in the Swamp," in the April 25, 2002 issue of The New York Review of Books. There are several collections of Pogo still available in paperback.
* The real Okefenokee Swamp, thankfully, is still with us, and is a heartening story of environmental intelligence at work. Covering approximately 700 square miles of South Georgia and North Florida, it is a primitive wetland which harbors thousands of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, many of which are endangered or threatened. The north end of the swamp is bordered by pine forests and thick tangles of vegetation. Small water trails lead south to the open prairies and west to the Suwannee River. Nearly 400,000 acres of the Okefenokee were designated as the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in 1937 (by none other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt), protecting the headwaters of the Suwannee and St. Marys Rivers from further development and depredation. For that, Pogo would be pleased and proud.
Tom Engelhardt writes today:
"Given how similar they sound and how easy it is to imagine one leading to the other, confusing omniscience (having total knowledge) with omnipotence (having total power) is easy enough. It’s a reasonable supposition that, before the Snowden revelations hit, America’s spymasters had made just that mistake. If the drip-drip-drip of Snowden’s mother of all leaks -- which began in May and clearly won’t stop for months to come -- has taught us anything, however, it should be this: omniscience is not omnipotence. At least on the global political scene today, they may bear remarkably little relation to each other. In fact, at the moment Washington seems to be operating in a world in which the more you know about the secret lives of others, the less powerful you turn out to be....
"Conceptually speaking, we’ve never seen anything like the National Security Agency’s urge to surveill, eavesdrop on, spy on, monitor, record, and save every communication of any sort on the planet -- to keep track of humanity, all of humanity, from its major leaders to obscure figures in the backlands of the planet. And the fact is that, within the scope of what might be technologically feasible in our era, they seem not to have missed an opportunity.
"[T]he NSA has at least 35,000 employees, possibly as many as 55,000, and an almost $11 billion budget....
"Along with the giant Internet corporations, they have been involved in a process aimed at taking away the very notion of a right to privacy in our world; yet they utterly failed to grasp the basic lesson they have taught the rest of us. If we live in an era of no privacy, there are no exemptions; if, that is, it’s an age of no-privacy for us, then it’s an age of no-privacy for them, too.
"The word 'conspiracy' is an interesting one in this context. It comes from the Latin conspirare for 'breathe the same air.' In order to do that, you need to be a small group in a small room. Make yourself the largest surveillance outfit on the planet, hire tens of thousands of private contractors — young computer geeks plunged into a situation that would have boggled the mind of George Orwell — and organize a system of storage and electronic retrieval that puts much at an insider’s fingertips, and you’ve just kissed secrecy goodnight and put it to bed for the duration.
"[I]t’s reasonable to assume that, while U.S. spymasters and operators were working at the technological frontiers of surveillance and cryptography, their model for success was distinctly antiquated. However unconsciously, they were still living with a World War II-style mindset. Back then, in an all-out military conflict between two sides, listening in on enemy communications had been at least one key to winning the war. Breaking the German Enigma codes meant knowing precisely where the enemy’s U-boats were, just as breaking Japan’s naval codes ensured victory in the Battle of Midway and elsewhere.
"Unfortunately for the NSA and two administrations in Washington, our world isn’t so clear-cut any more. Breaking the codes, whatever codes, isn’t going to do the trick. You may be able to pick up every kind of communication in Pakistan or Egypt, but even if you could listen to or read them all (and the NSA doesn’t have the linguists or the time to do so), instead of simply drowning in useless data, what good would it do you?
"What’s perhaps most striking ... is the inability of the Obama administration and its intelligence bureaucrats to grasp the nature of what’s happening to them. For that, they would need to skip those daily briefs from an intelligence community which, on the subject, seems blind, deaf, and dumb, and instead take a clear look at the world.
"In short, if the NSA’s surveillance lineup was classic New York Yankees, their season is shaping up as a last-place finish.
"Here, then, is the bottom line of the scorecard for twenty-first century Washington: omniscience, maybe; omnipotence, forget it; intelligence, not a bit of it; and no end in sight.
"[Note: A small bow of thanks to Adam Hochschild and John Cobb for helping spark this piece into existence.]"
Reckonings Editor's note: Tom Engelhardt is rarely responsible for slipping up, and this one is a minor, puzzling and forgivable overstatement —not omnipotence and not omniscience either, unless one counts sheer dead weight as the sum of knowledge. Also, it can and should be clear from reading Tom's account that intelligence is not intrinsically intelligent. This is downright Orwellian. More is less. Strength is weakness. So perhaps less Orwell's 1984, more Alice in Wonderland. No wonder (he said) I spent only one summer in Washington. It was not the heat or humidity that drove me out, not even the weighty responsibility of being the State Department's desk officer for Outer Space. In fact, that was not my title. I was a desk officer in the State Department, but even the State Department was not so crazy as to imagine the US owned outer space. My responsibility was to know the Communications Satellite Corporation, then a plublic-private enterprise. The best part was flying weekly to the United Nations to brief our ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, one of my heros. He was a fine man, if not a successful candidate for president, having the misfortune to be running against Dwight D. Eisenhower (not one of my heros, but a decent man, a good president, a fine general. I think my grandmother was in love with Adlai Stevenson, and he with her. He inscribed a biography about his life, Stuart Brown's Adlai Stevenson: Conscience in Politics, "To Eleanor Roosevelt, my conscience."
Another small bow of thanks to Tom Engelhardt for his astute analysis. Interested readers should go to www.tomdispatch.com, for diverse and consistently intelligent voices on public affairs from foreign and military policy to environmental issues, including Rebecca Solnit, Adam Hochschild, Ann Jones, Peter Van Buren, Jeremy Scahill, Bill McKibben, Andrew Bacevich, and in the old days, Chalmers Johnson. TomDispatch is invaluable. So is Tom.
Paul Krugman wrote a short piece yesterday, October 28, that he called "Poetry and Blogging."
Since I love poetry and write and edit a blog (although I dislike the word), Krugman caught my attention. He's been reading a fascinating book about both pursuits, considered in historical perspective: Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years. A great
title. Standage is an editor at The Economist and author of five well-received history books,
including An Edible History of Humanity (2009), A History of the World in Six Glasses (2005), and The Victorian Internet (1998). He also is a regular commentator on BBC radio, and has written for other publications including the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the New York Times and Wired. He has a degree in engineering and computer science from Oxford, and says he is the least musical member of a musical family.
He begins Writing on the Wall by quoting Cicero:
"Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labors of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge."
Paul Krugman's question, "[W]hen and why did we stop reading poetry? Educated people used to read it all the time, or at least pretend to; that’s no longer the case. Frankly, I don’t read poetry except on very rare occasions. What happened?" — is worth a response.
My own thought is too simple, so I can share it briefly. I haven't stopped reading poetry. It's central to my life, as any passing reader of Reckonings knows. I didn't know others had stopped, but Krugman knows far more others than I do, so I imagine by and large he's correct. If so, that worries me, and becomes of a piece with my worry about the decline of literacy in our culture. The costs of that decline are not up there with those of American warmaking, but I suspect not as far from it as might appear, nor unrelated to it. I do recall someone reporting that Mitt Romney had never heard of One Hundred Years of Solitude. A sobering thought. Perhaps now that he has more leisure... but I imagine not. Current and recent American politicians, by and large, with some notable exceptions, and despite the sheer volume of their speech, are not particularly literate. They haven't the time. I gather the same is true of too many journalists and purveyors of other media. More's the pity, for them, their families, and for their country. Given the awful weight of American influence abroad, the whole earth suffers as well.
Here's a contextual note: Humanities in American colleges and universities are suffering seriously declining enrollments compared to a more vocational focus on science and technology. “College is increasingly being defined narrowly as job preparation, not as something designed to educate the whole person,” said Pauline Yu, president of the American Council of Learned Societies.
October 28, 2013
I just want to give a shoutout to a book I’m reading and really enjoying: Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years. I’ve been a big fan of Standage’s ever since his book The Victorian Internet, about the rise of the telegraph, which shed a lot of light on network technologies while also being great fun. Now he’s done it again.
Standage’s argument is that the essential aspects of social media — exchange of information that runs horizontally, among people who are affiliated in some way, rather than top-down from centralized sources — have been pervasive through history, with the industrial age’s news media only a temporary episode of disruption. As he shows, Cicero didn’t get his news from Rome Today or Rupertus Murdochus — he got it through constant exchanges of letters with people he knew, letters that were often both passed on to multiple readers and copied, much like tweets being retweeted.
Even more interesting is his discussion of the Tudor court, where a lot of the communication among insiders took place through the exchange of … poetry, which allowed people both to discuss sensitive topics elliptically and to demonstrate their cleverness. You could even build a career through poetry, not by selling it, but by using your poems to build a reputation, which could translate into royal favor and high office — sort of the way some people use their blogs to build influence that eventually leads to paying gigs of one kind or another. The tale of John Harington — of the famous “treason never prospers” line — is fascinating.
[I had to - was pleased to - look up John Harington. Wilipedia says that Harington "(4 August 1561 – 20 November 1612), of Kelston, was an [Elizabethan] courtier, author and master of art, popularly known as the inventor of the flush toilet." His famous line that Krugman mentions was, "Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason." Well said. A wise comment worthy of the inventor of the flush toilet, an extraordinarily important gift to us all. Some of our most important reading...]
Incidentally, when and why did we stop reading poetry? Educated people used to read it all the time, or at least pretend to; that’s no longer the case. Frankly, I don’t read poetry except on very rare occasions. What happened?
Anyway, interesting stuff. And since I don’t think Standage is likely to get favors showered on him by our latter-day Queen Elizabeth, buy his book!
Do I speak of the Fountain of Youth, for whose elusiveness we should all be deeply grateful? Of Mircea Eliade's myth of eternal return? (Imagine that, if you will: a merry-go round in Dante's Inferno.) Of our culture's pervasive suggestions that aging well is aging less? (Think "84 years young," or simply "less is more.") Of the fact that science marches on? (We live 40 years longer than we would have in 1880, when the first extensive modern sewage system was built in Memphis, Tennessee, and we would probably have died before we celebrated our 40th birthdays.)
In fact, I'm thinking of none of these. More modestly, I have in mind a colleague's account of an amusing and problematic pair of scholarly articles that appeared this year, one in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, the other in the journal of Experimental Gerontology.
Amusing and problematic are my words. My colleague's words are intriguing and fascinating. I shall allow my colleague to remain anonymous so I can run more freely without trodding on or shooting him in the foot.
Turning Back the Clock on Aging
27 October 2013
A fascinating article in this month’s health policy journal Health Affairs concludes that by focusing on diseases one at a time—trying to prevent heart disease or cancer or dementia—we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Instead, we should devote greater effort to delaying the aging process altogether. If we could slow aging, we could in principle delay the onset and progression of all fatal and disabling diseases at once. Instead of surviving your heart attack and then going on to suffer from dementia or cancer, you would remain healthy longer, perhaps dying suddenly, as centenarians have been reported to do.
But will delaying aging improve the quality of life? And how likely are we actually to postpone aging any time soon?
Using a complicated model known as the Future Elderly Model (FEM), the authors predict what will happen to health care spending, functional status, and life expectancy under various scenarios.
[I must pause for a moment to take note: not the Past Elderly Model or the Present Elderly Model; the Future Elderly Model. Perhaps we may breath more easily, at least with our own and our parents' and our grandparents' experience of aging. Our children's and grandchildren' aging? There is the rub.]
What they find is that decreasing the incidence of heart disease by 25% between 2010 and 2030 wouldn’t do very much for disability rates or overall mortality. Ditto for decreasing the incidence of cancer the same amount [25%] during the same period. In fact, mortality and disability would be much the same as what we can expect if the incidence of cancer and heart disease stayed the same and all that changed is that the number of older people increased, as we can expect when the baby boomers reach old age.
[The baby boomers are nearly upon is. We can almost say, pace Pogo, "We have seen the baby boomers and they are us."]
Delaying aging, by contrast, would have a dramatic effect on both length and quality of life. These benefits would come at a considerable cost—by 2060, costs would be $295 billion greater in the delayed aging scenario than in the status quo scenario because all those people who live longer would typically qualify for Medicare and Social Security. The good financial news, however, is that changing the age of eligibility for Medicare from 65 to 68 and raising the age of eligibility for Social Security from 67 to 68 would offset the increased costs.
[Ah hah. So that's the good financial news. Perhaps good for those of us already receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits, not so good for those who follow us.]
All very compelling. But just what are these potential advances that will allow us to delay aging? The Health Affairs authors cite two scientific papers, one in the Journal of Clinical Investigation and one in a journal called Experimental Gerontology, both published this year. The papers are very intriguing.
The two papers focus on the fact that aging cells secrete a variety of nasty substances that cause chronic inflammation, at least in mice. These chemicals are collectively referred to as SASP (senescence-associated secretory phenotype). SASP or the cells that make them are potential targets for drugs to delay the aging process. So far so good. But as one of the authors points out, it’s not known if SASP causes chronic age-related disease in people. Moreover, it’s entirely possible that disrupting the processes that cause aging and death will turn on the processes that promote cancer. Finally, as another of the authors argued, actually carrying out clinical research in humans, testing whether a drug (if we had one) has a beneficial effect, will take an estimated 17 years. This would bring us to 2030, the exact date in the Health Affairs article by which all the good effects of delaying aging are assumed to have already happened, according to their model. If we aren’t likely to have any aging-delaying drug available for clinical use before 2030, we can’t plausibly expect any beneficial effect until well after that time.
[Well, that certainly clarifies the issue, doesn't it? Let me see if I got it. We all are living and dying, ill or well, before 2030 and after, with or (preferably) without more "anti-aging" drugs, very likely without turning the clock back on aging. I'm glad of that. I'm sorry for the chronically inflamed mice.]
So by all means, let’s go ahead and invest in the basic science of aging. Let’s encourage more clinically trained geriatricians to go into this kind of research (reportedly of 7000 board certified geriatricians, only 12 have research grants from the biological division of the National Institute on Aging). But in the mean time, let’s figure out how best to care for the many frail elders who will be with us for years to come.
[Yes indeed. We are all for well trained geriatricians, the more the merrier. May they live long and happy lives, even if they are not engaged in research that will help our generation and future generations live a little longer. Practicing good medicine with their patients is challenge enough.]
"Once upon a time I was a political cartoonist...but had trouble making witty, incisive jokes; as a small rebellion against deadlines, punchlines and politics...I drew what I thought was an absurd, irresponsible triviality. It showed a man riding towards the sunset on a large duck. On his head was a teapot...not a 'proper' cartoon by conventional standards...the editor laughed, shook his head and published it. Many years later I was able to interpret the meaning of the drawing with certitude...the man was most definitely me and the teapot, worn like a fool's cap, symbolised warmth, nourishment and domestic familiarity...the duck represented feelings of primal freedom and playfulness..innocently I had drawn my impending departure from political cartooning, my flight to freedom."
I can't find the original drawing of which Leunig writes. Let's say the one I found (above) is a successor self-portrait. The duck grew tired of being ridden by a man. They continue their journey together. Some time later the duck turns and looks at the man, who responds.
With a little bit of luck
Will come into your life.
Or if you're inclined to go it alone....
Leunig — no one I know uses his first name — is a national treasure in Australia (literally: in 1999 he was declared a national living treasure by the National Trust and awarded honorary degrees from La Trobe and Griffith universities and the Australian Catholic University for his unique contribution to Australian culture.)
For those intrigued by my short introduction above, I recommend the website maintained on his behalf. From that source, here is a brief biographical excerpt:
Michael Leunig is an Australian cartoonist, writer, painter, philosopher and poet. His commentary on political, cultural and emotional life spans more than forty years and has often explored the idea of an innocent and sacred personal world. The fragile ecosystem of human nature and its relationship to the wider natural world is a related and recurrent theme.
His newspaper work appears regularly in the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. He describes his approach as regressive, humorous, messy, mystical, primal and vaudevillian - producing work which is open to many interpretations and has been widely adapted in education, music, theatre, psychotherapy and spiritual life.
"In the artist of all kinds one can detect an inherent dilema which belongs to the co-existence of two trends; the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found."
- D.W. Winnicott
The poetry of Denise Levertov has long been a valued companion. Six years ago I wrote why that has been so. Interested readers may find that post here, with three more Levertov poems.
The question "Why?" has it's origins in the very beginnings of our learning language. Children are fascinated and delighted by their growing capacities to speak their mother tongue, their mother's tongue, their parents' tongue — in fortunate families, such as that of my great-grandaughter, their parents tongues (plural).
My great-grandaughter lives with her parents in a small house on the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador. From infancy she has learned both Spanish and English. In her still small world, her still small voice, the voice we used to attribute to God, she pimarily speaks Spanish. Her father, my grandson, was born in Edinburgh, but now speaks Spanish better than he speaks English (or Scottish). We tend to forget languages we don't often use, just as we may forget — at least until we are next stirred by the mystery of memory — much about people we no longer see.
For example, I have forgotten my mother's voice. She did not leave me a recording or poems, but she left me a great deal for which I am grateful.
The reader by now will be accustomed to my habit of periphrasis and my incurable attachment to serendipity, the aptitude for making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. The word was used by Horace Walpole in the mid-1700s. Walpole said he took it from a Persian fairy tale, "The princes of Serendip," whose heroes, he said, "were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of." For those determined to find origins (like Eric Partridge), Serendip was the Arab name for Sri Lanka, from the Arabic word serendib, roughly speaking, golden island.
I wish accident and sagacity would always go together. They often don't.
C.G Jung probably adapted serendipity (serendipitously, as it were) in coming upon his concept of synchronicity, which has found its way into English usage. Something is not sought, but it's found, and we then come to feel it was meant to come, or may have been there all along without our recognition, thus causing a shiver of pleasure or wonder. Denise Levertov knew such experiences.
Denise Levertov, 1923-1997
With that introduction, here is a poem of Denise Levertov.
All which, because it was
flame and song and granted us
joy, we thought we'd do, be, revisit,
turns out to have been what it was
that once, only; every invitation
did not begin
a series, a build-up: the marvelous
did happen in our lives, our stories
are not drab with its absence: but don't
expect to return for more. Whatever more
there will be will be
unique as those were unique. Try
to acknowledge the next
song in its body -- halo of flames as utterly
present, as now or never.
Yes, the next song to appear will not — not clearly, not at once — maybe, as Levertov suggests, not at all, come from the last song you knew, or heard, or sang.
At least, your next song will be more likely to grace you with its presence, its joy, if you are prepared to imagine it 'in its own body" — and in yours, not in some other body, nor in your closet of ready-to-wear songs.
I continue to marvel.
NOTHING'S A GIFT
Nothing's a gift, it's all on loan.
I'm drowning in debts up to my ears.
I'll have to pay for myself
with my self,
give up my life for my life.
Here's how it's arranged:
The heart can be repossessed,
the liver, too,
and each single finger and toe.
Too late to tear up the terms,
my debts will be repaid,
and I'll be fleeced,
or, more precisely, flayed.
I move about the planet
in a crush of other debtors.
some are saddled with the burden
of paying off their wings.
Others must, willy-nilly,
account for every leaf.
Every tissue in us lies
on the debit side.
Not a tentacle or tendril
is for keeps.
The inventory, infinitely detailed,
implies we'll be left
not just empty-handed
but handless too.
I can't remember
where, when, and why
I let someone open
this account in my name.
We call the protest against this
And it's the only item
not included on the list.
(Poems New and Collected 1957-1997, trans. S. Baranczak and C. Cavanagh)
I've been immersed of late in the writings of Wislawa Szymborska, a Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize for Poetry in 1996. Mostly I've been reading and re-reading her poems, but then I found myself wanting to know if she traveled from her home in Kraków to Stockholm to receive the Prize in person, because if she did, she would probably have given a speech when she accepted the Prize. I wanted to read that speech.
I'm very glad I followed my nose, because I've been richly rewarded. By two gems. First, by her reflections on the importance of the sentence, "I don't know." It seems like an ordinary, unexceptional sentence, only three words, and expressive of our ignorance at that. Or maybe not only that. Roll it around in your mind. Imagine different ways of saying it, different ways you have said it to yourself or others. Was it the end of a story or the beginning, or — taking a little inspiration from quantum physics — perhaps both at once?
That is just what Wislawa Szymborska was thinking about, and finding a way to say, in her speech on that gray day in Stockholm, the 7th of December 1996. Perhaps she was thinking, dreaming and jotting notes on the train from Kraków to Stockholm. (I imagine her on a train.) Anyway, she said something important about that maligned phrase, "I don't know." And her reflections took her wonderously from inspiration, to "I don't know," to astonishment.
"[I]nspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners - and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's born from a continuous "I don't know."
"That little phrase 'I don't know' is small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself "I don't know," the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself "I don't know", she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying "I don't know," and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.
"Any knowledge that doesn't lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.
"I sometimes dream of situations that can't possibly come true. I audaciously imagine, for example, that I get a chance to chat with the Ecclesiastes, the author of that moving lament on the vanity of all human endeavors. I would bow very deeply before him, because he is, after all, one of the greatest poets, for me at least. That done, I would grab his hand. "'There's nothing new under the sun': that's what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were born new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn't read your poem. And that cypress that you're sitting under hasn't been growing since the dawn of time. It came into being by way of another cypress similar to yours, but not exactly the same. And Ecclesiastes, I'd also like to ask you what new thing under the sun you're planning to work on now? A further supplement to the thoughts you've already expressed? Or maybe you're tempted to contradict some of them now? In your earlier work you mentioned joy - so what if it's fleeting? So maybe your new-under-the-sun poem will be about joy? Have you taken notes yet, do you have drafts? I doubt you'll say, 'I've written everything down, I've got nothing left to add.' There's no poet in the world who can say this, least of all a great poet like yourself.
"The world - whatever we might think when terrified by its vastness and our own impotence, or embittered by its indifference to individual suffering, of people, animals, and perhaps even plants, for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain; whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets we've just begun to discover, planets already dead? still dead? we just don't know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we've got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world - it is astonishing.
"But 'astonishing' is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We're astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we've grown accustomed to. Now the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and isn't based on comparison with something else.
"Granted, in daily speech, where we don't stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like 'the ordinary world,' 'ordinary life,' 'the ordinary course of events' ... But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone's existence in this world.
"It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them."
Richard Wilbur's poem, "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World," reflects upon the experience of waking from sleep, and in a larger sense the experience of awakening into a larger and clearer consciousness (or not). Outside the waking sleeper's window hangs a line of laundry. As Wilbur says, the scene is outside the upper-story window of an apartment building, in front of which, on a clothesline, "the first laundry of the day is being yanked across the sky."
"The things of this world" is a phrase taken from St. Augustine's Confessions, as in these lines from Book X: "I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and new! I have learnt to love you late! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you. The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have no being at all."
"Plato, St. Teresa, and the rest of us in our degree," says Wilbur, "have known that it is painful to return to the cave, to the earth, to the quotidian; Augustine says it is love that brings us back." That is the poem's central theme, the variations and complexities, the imbalance and balance, of returning to the earth, the quotidian, the things of this world. Awakening.
Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded
Hangs for a moment bodiless and
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with
Some are in bed-sheets, some are
Some are in smocks: but truly there
Now they are rising together in calm
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they
With the deep joy of their impersonal
Now they are flying in place,
The terrible speed of their
And staying like white water; and now
of a sudden
They swoon down in so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every
"Oh, let there be nothing on
earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising
And clear dances done in the sight of
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world's hunks
The soul descends once more in bitter
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns
"Bring them down from their ruddy
Let there be clean linen for the backs
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult
— Richard Wilbur
Here is Richard Wilbur commenting upon and reading "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World":
And here is another short video portrait of Wilbur, reflecting upon his mother and father, their families and their impact upon his life and work as a poet:
I occasionally come upon an unfamiliar word or phrase that particularly tickles my fancy. Today's example, courtesy of an old and well-read friend, is sockdolager.
A sockdolager is a hard hit, knockout or finishing blow or remark; something exceptional or outstanding.
As in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckelberry Finn: "The thunder would go rumbling and grumbling away,..and then rip comes another flash and another sockdolager."
J.R. Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1848) offers us another related usage, one hopes for the sake of the fish among us referring to an obsolete instrument: "Socdolager, a patent fish~hook, having two hooks which close upon each other by means of a spring as soon as the fish bites."
I discovered from the Online Etymology Dictionary that sockdologising "was nearly the last word President Abraham Lincoln heard. During the performance of Tom Taylor's 'Our American Cousin,' assassin John Wilkes Booth (who knew the play well) waited for the line 'Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologising old man-trap,' and as the audience laughed, Booth fired the fatal shot."
Another use of the term is in a tale told by Davy Crockett during his years as a member of Congress. He characterized as sockdolagers two comments addressed to him by a learned farmer and constituent, one Horatio Bunce, who persuaded Crockett that he had inadvertently violated the Constitution by his support of a bill passed by the House of Representatives in the preceding year. It's a good story, and may be found here.
Google Tap! A terrific Google spoof for April Fool's Day. Just imagine, writing two letters at once to two entirely different people, with only two buttons, while you're seated on the pot taking care of yet a third piece of important business. And perhaps a fourth, chewing a piece of Google Fiber! Available at www.gmail/tap and www.gmail.com/fiber. Well, the G-Fiber may already be sold out, or run to your local Apple Store. Get them while (if) they last.
There's a serious side to this spoof. If Google Tap is still in the offing and most of us are not about to relearn Morse Code, there are existing applications for our computers, iPads and "smart" phones that point in that direction. Nuance Communications, a large corporation which a recent article in the New York Times called "the leading force in voice technology, and the speech-recognition engine behind Siri, the virtual personal assistant on the Apple iPhone 4S," has also created an app called Dragon Go, and is hard at work on Dragon TV.
"Humans are wired for speech and tend to respond to talking devices as if they were kindred spirits, says Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."
“I’m not saying voice recognition is bad,” Professor Turkle says. “I’m saying it’s part of a package of attachments to objects where we should tread carefully because we are pushing a lot of Darwinian buttons in our psychology.” A curious phrase to use in this context, but I suspect she means there is the possibility that if we spend more time talking with machines we'll spend less time talking with each other. And pushing those buttons could indeed be dangerous to human health and well-being, say to friendships, marriage, and parents and children, for starters.
Think of how many well-dressed men and women you've seen walking down the sidewalk talking into the air, more or less oblivious to their surroundings, or teenagers in a corner of a coffee shop huddled over their cell phones. I've been known to do it myself. Maybe more amusing than dangerous, but I think Professor Turkle is right: we should tread carefully and consciously.
Sven Birkerts writes in the current (April) issue of Poetry Magazine, “We are glued to our screens of all sizes not for amusement or business, but because we think something is going to be announced. We can’t bear to miss it,. We are waiting for the oppression of ’what’s next?’ to be lifted. We are, in a deeper sense, waiting for our poet.”
I think, but am not 100% sure, that until this very moment I have never felt kinship with a fruit fly.
I'm happy to add that while in these years of growing old I continue to feel stress and my responses seem no less diverse and no more or less effective than earlier in life, I no longer feel rejected by attractive females and am no longer tempted to drown my sorrows. My most reliable balm for dysphoria includes the gift of companionship and good conversation, the pleasures of reading, writing and long rambles in field and forest. That, I suppose, may still be regarded by neuroscientists as benign self-medication.
Lest you conclude that I am fruitcake and/or aspiring to publish in True Confessions (available only at supermarkets) the above reflection was prompted by reading a New York Times account of a study published in the leading American scientific journal, Science.
The study itself is entitled "Sexually Rejected Flies Turn to Booze." Well, perhaps that is the racier online version. I have not read the Science article. The illustration at right, however, is drawn from the version on the Science website. It's caption reads "Drinking away rejection. Male [fruit]flies whose attempts at mating have been rejected by females prefer drinking alcohol (right [he does appear comatose, but while on his back he's still guzzling]) over a nonalcoholic sugar drink."
The Times story, explicitly comparative and relatively sober on the subject of addiction and its dynamics, is nonetheless called "Learning from the Spurned and Tipsy Fruit Fly."
It is perhaps apropos to add this intriguing tidbit: Some species of fruit fly, notably Drosophila melanogaster, are engaged in a fascinating and protracted evolutionary battle with tiny, delicate and deadly wasps called parasitoids. In each generation, the wasp evolves to be better and better at finding flies, sinking its eggs in those flies and having the eggs mature into wasps, break out of the fruit fly body, destroying the fly in the process, perhaps feasting on it from the inside on the way. The process sounds a bit ghoulish, out of one of the "Alien" movies, but in fact it is evolutionary cohabitation. The wasp finds her fruitfly hosts, "flies expertly in order to lay her eggs inside the fruitflies as they flee and evade, have an egg-needle just the right length and width to put an egg deep enough but not too deep, and elude the host’s immune system with chemicals and other subterfuge so the hosts immune system does not kill her children. For these reasons, wasps often lay their eggs in just one or a few host species, those with which they have evolved, hosts for which their tools of motherhood are honed."
So it's a kind of evolutionary drama, both death dealing and life giving. If the wasp is successful the host fruit fly dies; if the fruit fly is successful, the wasp larvae die. In successive generations, the wasp evolves to be better and better at finding flies, sinking its eggs in those flies and having the eggs mature into wasps. Each generation, the fruit flies, in turn, evolve counter responses.
Todd Schlenke is a fruit fly biologist at Emory University, and in his neighbor's compost pile. He witnesses this drama again and again, searching to understand and to learn patterns of behavior that might be useful to people as well as the creatures that grow inside us. Todd's curiosity was aroused to find out if alcohol was playing a part. Indeed it was.
Here's the hypothesis: "The flies may be able to use alcohol as a kind of medicine, to kill the wasps once they were infected. This would require the flies to be able to know when they were infected and to respond by drinking more alcohol when they were, even though high levels of alcohol could make them sick too." A delicate business, and one obviously related to our subject above. The experiment is ongoing.
My source for this additional tale is a Scientific American essay with the cute, overly dramatic, potentially misleading and downright silly title "Fruit Flies Use Alcohol to Self-Medicate but Feel Bad About It Afterwards."