Weathering the unexpected in Istanbul

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I went to Istanbul’s Taksim Square in a blizzard. Snow comes with Istanbul winters but blizzards are rare. When I emerged from the funicular, Taksim was deserted, which was also rare. The streets spiraling out from its center like bicycle spokes were washed out by a volley of flurries that forced the few pedestrians to scuttle like crabs along the sidewalks. A few tourists gathered in front of the Republic Monument, which depicts two statues of Ataturk, one before and one after the war for independence; the wind had blown a mask of snow over his face on both statues. A batch of roses had been laid at his feet along the eastern portico, a reminder of his importance in Turkish memory. On the western portico, Ataturk’s snow-covered face looked toward Istiklal Caddesi, “Independence Avenue,” obscured by flurries.

I had gone to Istanbul partly because of the weather. I’d always wanted to go but the weather had been a bonus. I hadn’t thought Istanbul would be warm, exactly, but I hadn’t expected the Biblical storms we were at the time experiencing in Boston. I’d been thinking 40, maybe even 50 degree days. It couldn’t get much colder in a city lined with palm trees, right?

The driver who’d collected me at the airport had been the first to warn me of the impending snow fall, but he hadn’t been worried. “The snow here, it does not last.”

He’d been wrong on that point, but neither of us could have known then. I’d asked him if he could visit just one site in Istanbul, what would it be. I’d wanted to know what a local thought worth seeing, and I’d been hoping for a suggestion off the beaten path, the kind of tucked-away jewel only locals knew about. Without hesitating he’d said, “Taksim. If you want to see Istanbul, that’s where to go.”

More… “Huzun, Snowfall”

Chester Brown weeps over the feet of Jesus.

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Religion and spirituality are not subjects that have figured heavily into the world of American comics. When they have, traditionally, it’s been either in the form of evangelism (i.e. Jack Chick’s hardcore proselytizing pamphlets), straightforward adaptation (Picture Stories from the Bible and Robert Crumb’s by-the-numbers version of Genesis) or nose-thumbing iconoclasm (Winshluss’s In God We Trust being a recent example). Rare is the comic or cartoonist that attempts to grapple with issues of theology — or at least Western theology — in the modern world.

Not Chester Brown, though. While far from being the central focus of his bibliography, Brown has long been fascinated with exploring and questioning Christian doctrine, especially when it dovetails with sexuality. It’s a fascination that comes to a head in his latest work, Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible.

More… “Chester’s Christian Comics”

The instructive aspects of midshipman fiction.

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British midshipman literature set in the late-17th and early-18th centuries makes you feel like you’ve entered into an exclusive club, one which is nonetheless open to anyone who comes along and cracks the spine of the latest high seas adventure of a young man in flux.

A midshipman at the time was apt to be a 16- or 17-year-old boy who joined the King’s Navy with the expectation — or hope — that he’d eventually progress to lieutenant, and from there, if all broke well, to senior lieutenant, and on to captain.

This boy immediately took up a role as what we might now think of as management on these ships. The bulk of the crew were career-long sailors who could neither read nor write. Many of whom were victims, at one point, of England’s notorious press gangs, seized into service when they were drunk and stumbling home from the pub.

At which point, the King now owned you, and you would do his royal bidding at sea where you were likely to be impaled by a sliver of wood, flung from the rigging, ran through with a sword, or roasted in a fire. To compensate for the attendant risks of the job, you’d be plied with rum, and inebriated throughout most of your days.

More… “Novel Helmsman”

The wolf is making a comeback in Germany.

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Dogs were “the first large creature who would live with men,” Barry Hulston Lopez writes in his classic of wolf-literature, Of Wolves and Men. But there are different theories as to when wolves and humans came together and how exactly the transition from Canis lupus to Canis familiaris came about. Did shy wolves approach humans because they found out that there was always something to feed on in their surroundings and slowly got used to their company? Or did humans find lone wolf cubs and rear them? Do our dogs derive from a line of wolves that no longer exists?

We don’t know. It probably took the wolves, now in the company of humans, thousands of years to slowly change their appearance. There is a big difference between tamed wolves and the dogs we know today — without selective breeding the genetic makeup wouldn’t have had a chance to change. While some wolves developed into dogs, possibly at different places on earth, the wolves in the wild continued to exist. Especially during extreme winters when game was harder to find they are known to have come close to human settlements to prey on their livestock and to attack humans — although this is extremely rare. A study by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, compiled by a number of leading wolf experts across Europe, states that from 1950 to 2002 there have been nine deadly attacks of wolves on humans in Europe and the same number in Russia.

There is hardly an animal that so often produces conflicting emotions as the wolf. The many stories about humans and wolves span the whole range from attraction to revulsion; they are inspired by both facts and fiction. The story of Romulus and Remus, for example, plays with the idea that there must exist a secret bond between the two species. Then there is the story of Little Red Riding Hood, which probably goes back to the Middle East. The girl walks across the forest to visit her grandmother and finds herself in bed with a wolf dressed up as her grandmother (he has devoured her). There are countless variations of the tale: some crueler, some tamer. There is the curious case of Misha Defonseca, who claimed to have run away from the home of her foster parents in 1940 during the German occupation of Belgium because she wanted to find her parents who had been abducted to Ukraine. To hide from the Nazis, she lived with a pack of wolves. In 1997, she published her memoir, Living with Wolves, which became a bestseller. Around the time it had been made into a movie ten years later, the story was uncovered to be false. Monique de Wael, her real name, was in fact enrolled in a Brussels school during the time.

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The wolf remains a mysterious creature. Barry Hulston Lopez also mentions some of the most common misconceptions about wolves: “Whenever I have spoken with people who have never seen a wolf, I’ve found that the belief that wolves are enormous is pervasive. Even people who have considerable experience with the animal seem to want it to be, somehow, bigger than it is.” But even where the biggest wolves are found in Alaska, a wolf weighing more than 120 pounds is uncommon.

Completely extinct in this country for about 150 years, wolves have reappeared in the lesser-populated regions of Northern and Western Germany since the year 2000. Genetic examinations have proven that they came into the country on their own from neighboring Poland and Austria. Ten years earlier, in 1990, a federal nature protection law came into effect that protected wolves from hunting. In fact, since this point in time, wolves have profited from the highest possible protection standard, which helped to pave the way for a return of these animals.

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As long as they find enough food, wolves have proven they can adapt easily to a new environment; they don’t need complete wilderness. On the other hand, they avoid areas that are developed or where they cannot find enough game (or livestock like sheep and goats), causing the population to always be rather uneven from region to region. And overall numbers are still so low in Germany — currently there are about 31 packs — that they are threatened with extinction in this country. More wolves from other populations are necessary to secure genetic variability and long-time survival, but whether or not they can be considered part of the greater eastern European family of wolves is debated. Scientists are surprised and even overwhelmed by some of the questions now coming up.

Wolves hunt the animals that are easiest to reach. Occasionally, there are reports about wolves killing flocks of sheep when game is not readily available. The examination of saliva samples, and sometimes video footage, then helps to determine the gender and origin of the wolves, data which is then passed on to the National Reference Center for Genetic Examinations of Lynx and Wolf. Farmers receive financial compensation for their killed livestock. In some instances, the predators were proven to not have been wolves actually, but dogs — as could be determined in an incident that occurred in late February this year in North Rhine Westphalia.

The return of wolves to Germany remains a challenge on several levels. In some areas of Germany, scientists, conservationists, hunters, foresters, and representatives of public authorities are developing concepts for how to best deal with the occurrence of wolves. There are various efforts to teach people how to deal with wolves when they appear in their neighborhood. While many people welcome the animals as an enriching environmental factor, others are uneasy, especially with regard to the danger to children. A tool called “flock protection set” has been devised by the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union. It costs a few thousand euros and comprises a motion-sensitive camera and electric nets with white ribbon that can be installed quickly when necessary, in places where no permanent protective fences that reach all the way to the ground have been built. Wolves are able to jump over ditches easily, which is another challenge for keepers of livestock. Some shepherds are getting donkeys, because their shouts are said to drive wolves away. Then the dogs whose task it is to keep wolves at bay can be dangerous to humans, too, which complicates the situation further. There are 500 so-called “wolf ambassadors” in Germany who try to help overcome prejudices, and there is educational material for use in kindergartens and elementary schools. There are 140 wolf ambassadors in Lower Saxony alone, who are also in charge of monitoring the tracks of wolves. That’s two ambassadors per wolf.

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Friends and enemies of the wolves face each other — there is the full range from naiveté to hysteria. Some exaggerate the numbers of wolves and attacks, some play the risks down. The discussion about wolves in Germany reached new heights recently when there were observations of an animal that behaved in a way it was not supposed to. The wolf attacked the dog of a family and by doing this already overstepped a boundary. How had he become so fearless? An expert called from Sweden was commissioned to explain the situation, to find a way to correct his unacceptable behavior — to no avail. There was a report of an incident where this wolf is said to have followed a young mother with her four-year-old daughter sitting in a stroller. However, this doesn’t mean that the animal would have attacked, and there is no way to know. Everybody involved in the process of “managing the wolves” realized that there was a lot at stake, because killing the wolf would mean the first such case of more than a hundred years in this country. A brief discussion on whether the wolf should be confined was responded in the negative — a wild wolf in a cage wouldn’t have made any sense at all. It was ordered to be shot. There is a commonly accepted rule that wolves that become habituated to people must be quickly removed.

There was consensus on the decision to shoot him, because otherwise the chapter of the return of the wolves in Germany might have been closed before it had really come under way. His fans called him “Kurti” — a diminutive of the somewhat old-fashioned German first name “Kurt,” and it may just be a strange coincidence that “Kurt” means “wolf” in Turkish. Just the fact that the animal has been quickly given a human name may be understood as indicating that it cannot be dealt with on its own terms, as an animal. Ten years ago, a somewhat similar case of a free-roaming brown bear in Bavaria — quickly dubbed “Bruno, the problem bear” — spurred similar fears before he was shot. He is now on display in Munich’s museum of natural history.

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The age-old story of wolf, human, and dog hasn’t come to an end yet. The relationship of humans and wolves remains a vexed one: Because it can never be totally free of conflict, it constantly tests humans’ understanding of what wildness means and how far it may go. If humans take up the challenge and discard the myths, this may teach people a more realistic and more honest understanding of nature. The return of the wolves to Germany is both spectacular and controversial. The animals are beautiful, smart, and usually extremely shy of humans. Europe would certainly be poorer without them. New cubs are expected to be born this month. New packs, new territories, new controversies lie ahead. •

Feature image courtesy of Bukowskis via Wikimedia Commons. Article images courtesy of Codex, Robert Ramsay, Philippe, Wellcome Images, Hartmann Schedel, and Granville via Wikimedia Commons and Robin Fabre via Flickr (Creative Commons).

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This paper is a modified version of a talk that was given at the Smart Set Forum: Free Speech on the College Campus on April 21, 2016 at Drexel University. The Forum was sponsored by the Pennoni Honors College.

Discussions about free speech on college campuses are made all the more difficult because many of the controversies that ultimately become framed as controversies about speech begin as controversies about racism, racial equality, sex discrimination, sexual assault, and rape. These are not easy issues to discuss – especially when we disagree. And yet the current state of the “Free Speech” debate on college campuses amounts to little more than a fruitless exchange about who is silencing whom, which distracts us from the issues that require our attention.

More… “Space, Speech, and Subordination on the College Campus”

When reliance becomes compliance

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Can advanced technology make us worse off? I recently had occasion to ponder the question. I was standing in line at a movie theater, when the computer that had replaced the cash register froze up. None of the staff on duty at the theater could fix it. No sales could be made and no tickets issued. I left, with a new appreciation for the old-fashioned mechanical cash register.

This was not the first time I have wondered about what might be called technological regress. Having had bad experiences with inaccessible computer files at work and at home, I now keep multiple paper copies of all important publications and information, in formats which would have been familiar to Gutenberg.

More… “Technological Regress”

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The internet is saying farewell to Bookslut after 14 years. We dug back into our archives to find you lovely readers some gems from Jessa Crispin’s time here at the Smart Set.

Leave James Joyce Alone!

[W]hen scholars and biographers complain about the gatekeepers to the estate, especially when those are family members, what do they expect? Biographers may claim noble and spotless intentions, but for the most part they deal in gossip. Stephen saw the people who raised him reduced to cartoon figures. He watched as the biographer of his very troubled aunt, who had recurring periods of madness and spent most of her life in an institution, hailed as not schizophrenic but merely artistic and damaged by her father’s sexual love for her. His grandfather was called a liar and a cheat. His parents, private figures both, faced a scrutiny they did not deserve. Stephen’s father, Joyce’s son, was called a worthless layabout for never really having a career, and his mother was called mad. If I were Stephen, I would have started to burn documents, too.

I’ll admit it: when it comes to murder, I’m a sexist.

“Think,” I told them. “What would cause a 12-year-old girl to wipe out her entire family? What would cause her sister, when pushed, to say they all got what they deserved?”

As we retread the book carefully, with this question as a lens, I started to feel that maybe I was betraying the book, taking it off in a direction it did not necessarily want to go. I was imposing my own agenda on the novel, using it to prove that, while it’s almost accepted wisdom that adolescent boys are rage-filled thunder gods, ready to wreak death and destruction upon any around them, a girl must have a pretty good reason to lash out. Maybe instead I should have felt it was natural for a 12-year-old girl to poison the sugar.

Walk Like a Man

We stopped freaking out about the “Oh my god, women want to wear pants!” thing a really long time ago. Women wandered into the traditionally masculine realms of self-expression and ambition and now it’s just normal.

Not so with masculinity. It is still as rigid and well defended as ever, despite a few David Bowies or Johnny Depps in the mix. Just look at last year’s total freaking meltdown about a J. Crew catalog that carried a photo of a woman painting her young son’s toenails. . . . When a girl is boyish, or even claims she’d rather be a boy, it’s cute. She’s a tomboy. When a boy is girlish, wanting to wear dresses or try on some makeup, it’s a mental disorder and needs an immediate medical intervention.

Book Report

This is where the action is, after all, the public libraries. And by action I mean bloodletting. It’s perhaps the most vulnerable segment of the American Library Association, dependent on city and state budgets rather than the universities and corporations that find their funding elsewhere. And each year, thousands of the PLA’s 11,000 members descend on a city to set the agenda for the year to come, to commiserate and strategize. And to network for employment, for the more recent victims of the cutbacks.

Secure in the knowledge that libraries are now permanently fucked, I expected to walk in to find a mournful scene. Maybe candlelight vigils for state funding, a designated mourner wailing over grants for arts programs? I was donned in black. I was ready to blend in.

We love you, Bookslut. You will be dearly missed. •

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This paper is a modified version of a talk that was given at the Smart Set Forum: Free Speech on the College Campus on April 21, 2016 at Drexel University. The Forum was sponsored by the Pennoni Honors College.

Our current controversies over free speech on campus actually represent the second set of battles in a culture war that erupted in the U.S. during the late 1980s and that subsided by the mid-1990s — its cessation probably due to the emergence of the World Wide Web as a vast, new forum for dissenting ideas. The openness of the web scattered and partly dissipated the hostile energies that had been building and raging in the mainstream media about political correctness for nearly a decade. However, those problems have stubbornly returned, because they were never fully or honestly addressed by university administrations or faculty the first time around. Now a new generation of college students, born in the 1990s and never exposed to open public debate over free speech, has brought its own assumptions and expectations to the conflict.
More… “Free Speech & the Modern Campus”

Part II of “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points Is a Metaphor”

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Speaking of hell, let’s turn to a brief but encompassing metaphor. It comes from the wonderful Russian writer Varlam Shalamov, who spent 17 years in the Gulag, in the northeast, where permafrost and tundra were prevalent and temperatures could reach minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit — in which the prisoners had to work all day. Solzhenitsyn called this place the Gulag’s “pole of cold and cruelty.” This is the metaphor:

Hope is slavery.

That’s it. Three words. It occurs in his collection Kolyma Tales, which the Soviet government forced him to renounce. “Hope is slavery” because it keeps the one who is hoping in expectation of a change for the better. There will be no change for the better, Shalamov says, and for him there was mostly not. This is the metaphor of a man who has learned that hope is his enemy. That hope will steal from him his energy and his ability to trust. It is one of the strongest metaphors I have ever encountered.

More… “The Head and the Heart”

On digression

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When writing a poem, I often have the impression that I’m working with a finite amount of material, like a block of stone from which I need to carve out a sculpture. It’s exacting, perfectionist work, and if I chip away too much stone, there’s no getting it back.

Prose, in contrast, feels generative unto itself, like those ornamental aquarium plants that readily clone themselves and which, after some escaped from Monaco’s Oceanographic Museum into the Mediterranean, were discovered to be highly toxic to sea life (at least according to a scare-mongering NOVA special I saw many years ago; now their toxicity is under debate). In prose there is no shortage of material. If you get stuck, digress. Just fill up the page. More… “The Point of Tangency”