Rachmaninoff’s Cape: a nostalgia memoir published on March 26

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My new book will be published just two days before the 72nd anniversary of Rachmaninoff’s death on March 28 2015, and a few days before his birthday on April 1, so I have been thinking about his 142nd birthday. What would he have thought of my book if he could have read it? I don’t think Rachmaninoff would have recoiled from the categories I tried to unpack – history, nationalism, culture, creativity, love, sex, money, secrecy, exile, and so forth. But what would have made of the main theme, his nostalgia for Russia and the contexts of that nostalgia? (more…)

Nostalgia in the musical language of the late Russian Romantics

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Colleagues and friends in Oxford attended, with me, the recent Met Opera performance of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. The opera opens with its heroine and her nurse in their secluded cottage deep in the Russian forest. Iolanta laments her condition – what condition? She sees nothing and knows nothing except that eyes are for crying. Yet she harbours a presentiment that nothing is right: Iolanta is longing for something but does not know what. Unaware she is blind, she has known nothing but her present condition in which she has dwelled all her life. Even her nurse is imbued with a similar nostalgia-for-the-unnamed in which Iolanta lingers. The music’s melodic line and vocabulary demonstrate how familiar Tchaikovsky was with the language of nostalgia in the nineteenth-century fin-de-siècle.

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First expert appraisal appears on Rachmaninoff’s Cape: a nostalgia memoir

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Rachmaninoff’s Cape has had its first expert comment, which I print here:

‘If biography means the writing of a life, then the facts pertaining to the life of Sergei Rachmaninoff are clear and well-established. Yet how is a biographer to sound the mysterious inner life of Rachmaninoff as a creative artist? And how can facts alone account for the impact of his music on listeners to this day? (more…)

Rachmaninoff’s Cape: a nostalgia memoir soon to appear on March 26 2015

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Cover of Rachmaninoff's Cape

Rachmaninoff’s Cape: A Nostalgia Memoir (to be published March 2015)

GEORGE ROUSSEAU wrote academic books for four decades until something happened. His best boyhood friend’s mother died and left him a large trunk filled with her diaries and papers enabling him to chronicle her fascination with the great Russian pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. He was so gripped he felt he had to tell her story, and could only reconstruct it set against the backdrop of Rachmaninoff’s Silver Age Russia and New York City’s musical world in the early twentieth century. But another concern soon became evident, the American obsession with the much-misunderstood condition of nostalgia in the post-Romantic age. (more…)

Network Narratives are catching on

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Network narratives start to take hold. Not only their mandatory historical documentation, but the crucial idea that the most basic conception of “networks” has changed over time and needs to be problematized far more than it has been.

Take Voltaire for example, the great networker of the French Enlightenment. He was a celebrity in his own time; far more than Foucault, Lacan, or Derrida in ours. He networked far and wide, especially when he came to England, and hobnobbed with the aristocracy. Revolutionary ideas of “Enlightenment” were then first aired by philosophers in their saloons, and this is where Voltaire first learned about empiricism and the experimental method. He carried these notions back to the Continent and further networked them to launch a pan-European Enlightenment. But its main facets first appeared on English soil, and Voltaire would not have known about them without constant networking.

More recent is the 2012 bicentenary of Charles Dickens. Dickens’s biographical networking cannot not hold a candle to Voltaire’s but something else does. Among new books pouring forward from presses as the bicentenary commences this year, including ever more biographies, is one devoted to “Dickens’s networks”. This is Jonathan Grossman’s Charles Dickens’s Networks (Oxford University Press, 2012). A generation ago such a book would have been unthinkable. Why? The author is an excellent literary historian in the UCLA English Department who could have documented the rise of railways in Victorian England two decades ago and situated their role in Dickens’s novels. But Grossman would not have had the idea. But now he shows how early networked Victorian communities came together, for the first time, with record speed.

Network Narratives at Christmas

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Christmas is the ultimate “network”, where everything connects to everything else. Except that Christmas forms a sentimental chain, inherently nostalgic and backward looking, historically a recent phenomenon in our contemporary version and shaped by inescapable live-above-your-means ideologies. Christmas networks stand in contrast to other profit-chains based on geographies, migrations, kinship outside the immediate family, and most of all trust – spheres based on earned trust and deserved kinship, rather than the old-time Christmas networks stemming from sentiment.

All these are, of course, metaphors, especially the largest of them – networks. Ultimately all language is inescapably metaphorical, as linguists wisely teach. But metaphors come in flavors and types, as well as degrees of significance and hugely varied gradients of utility. Among metaphors, the network clusters are far more pertinent to the present global situation than many other metaphors. Contagion, for example, pales by comparison, especially the contagion of deficit and going bust.

Robert Guest’s new book Borderless Economics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) eloquently presents a crucial aspect of the case for networks – the kinship networks that enhance our lot – but there are many others. Networks did not arise in the last few decades, yet they have  never been more important, as Guest demonstrates, than right now.

Historicizing Networks

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Talk and writing about networks is reaching frenzied heights. You cannot pick up a newspaper or magazine without finding articles about the ubiquitous,  twittering, “networked” classes. Most deal with cognition and consciousness, and to what degree mind is as embodied as brain. But networks loom as large.

The “humanities” of networks lags: their history, anthropology and sociology. How old are networks? How have they changed? Why did they arise in the first place?

The history of networks, broadly construed, is not yet a mini-subdiscipline. But universal agreement exists that networks flourished throughout the last century. Nods are made at the Victorians too. And glances at the Romantics (those groups of Byronic aficionados and Shelleyan extended families). But before then – before the high Enlightenment and French Revolution – networks remain foreign concepts.

This is odd. The Republic of Letters flourished from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, with a vast secondary literature documenting it. It was “virtual” in our sense (had no fixed physical home) but nonetheless existed. Everyone attached understood its codes and practices and goals for the enhancement of human knowledge and sociability. The Republic was indeed a pleasure-offering “network” no less than Facebook; its far-flung members twittering as prolifically by snail-mail.

We need a history of networks; even more pressingly we need a sociology. We need to understand why human beings require networks in this transhistorical way. Saying that man is a social creature is not at all the same. Networking is not the opposite of being a solitaire or celibitaire.

Neurology Narratives

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Canongate Publishers in Edinburgh recently reissued Jonas Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist. I missed the original publication when Houghton Mifflin printed it in Boston in 2007. This is a wonderful book title, even if Proust was more neurasthenic than neuroscientist.

The new dust jacket reiterates that “science is not the only path to knowledge. In fact, when it comes to understanding the brain, art got there first. Taking a group of artists — a painter, a poet, a chef, a composer, and a handful of novelists — Lehrer shows how each one discovered an essential truth about the mind that science is only now rediscovering. We learn, for example, how Proust first revealed the fallibility of memory; how George Eliot discovered the brain’s malleability; how the French chef Escoffier discovered umami (the fifth taste); how Cézanne worked out the subtleties of vision; and how Gertrude Stein exposed the deep structure of language — a full half-century before the work of Noam Chomsky and other linguists. It’s the ultimate tale of art trumping science.”

Well, not quite, but Lehrer does not attack science, although he highlights the cost of reducing concepts to atoms and genes. He seems more concerned with the ways in which we know – especially the notion that measurement (all kinds) and understanding (intuiting) entail two different types of knowledge. This is a thorny position to unravel, even more difficult to develop. It is not immediately apparent why measurement should be a lesser form of “understanding” than the type that derives from words, colors, and the senses.

Lehrer is spot on to argue that science and art need to listen more closely to each other than they do at present. It almost sounds as if his subtext is the revival of the two-cultures controversy in a new key. This would not be a bad thing if it encouraged our most capable minds to combine the best of both worlds to brilliant effect. But it is a tall order at a moment when the humanities are under such attack, and when resources everywhere seem to be contracting, even in the sciences. I am grateful to Lehrer for braving it. I wish others would too. For some young scholars under thirty the two-cultures controversy was a thing of the past – dead and gone.

Physiological Idealism and historical neurocultures

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Theorists of contemporary neurocultures – neuroeconomics, neuroshopping, neuro-stockmarkets – often proceed as if they had never heard of the great physiological idealism of the nineteenth century. This long wave commenced in the high Enlightenment, when a revolution in thinking about the anatomical nerves got underway, blossomed during the Victorian and Bismarckian period, and continued into the twentieth century. But socio-political developments – German militarism, the Great War, Crash of 1929, American Depression of the 1930s, Holocaust – tumbled whatever persuasion it retained. Set chronological dials to the aftermath of the Second World War, and physiological idealism is no longer capable of spinning its yarns without the challenges of all sorts of  historical constructionists demanding more context, more socio-political culture, more psychology of the masses. More than blind physiological idealism.

In the intervening two generations since the 1950s something else has also subverted this idealism. As neurocultures have continued to burgeon, so too has a counter-culture fiercely pitted against the notion of mechanical human beings. Cults of spiritualism, especially to the east and west of Europe, celebrate man’s potential for spiritual growth. Waves of religious rebirth, also east and west of Europe, reassert themselves, often in fundamentalist  forms. Popular philosophical and metaphysical doctrines circulate trouncing neuroidealism – especially neurophysiological idealism – which seems to reduce ordinary men and women to mechanical objects. The message is that stressed-out modern folk need anything but more neurophysiology.

Yet cutting-edge neuroscientists continue their laboratory brain localizations, lending an impression that breakthroughs in the understanding of  consciousness can only arrive this way. The message? Down with popular subversion of neurophysiological idealism. The further message that ‘mind-stuff’ is synonymous with computer-based brain localization, and that physiological idealism is far from dead. It has been repackaged together with the irresistible new digital technology: a global force enhancing neurocultures.