A new coat of paint

Regular visitors to Archipelagoes may be surprised to find it with a whole new look. I figured that after a year and a half the place needed a bit of a repainting, and this WordPress theme offers some features that I thought you’d appreciate: the body text is darker and thus easier to read in contrast with the white background, long quotations are more vividly presented, and links are easier to spot. However, I’ve got to live with this thing a little while before I’ll be sure I want to keep it, so don’t be surprised if it changes again in the next week or two.

In case you’re wondering, the banner image above is a detail from the German Expressionist Franz Marc’s Tierschicksale (or “Animal Destinies”), painted in 1913. Having received a postcard reproduction of his painting in 1915, the artist wrote to his wife: “It is like a premonition of this war, horrible and gripping; I can hardly believe I painted it!”. Franz Marc was killed on the front in March 1916, struck in the head by a shell splinter.


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Time enough for tweets

One hundred and forty characters is not a lot of text. It’s maybe twenty words if you write like George Orwell, maybe fifteen if like Mervyn Peake, and a good thirty or forty if you know text message shorthand. Even if you do, it’s not exactly War and Peace.

As Jeet amusingly hinted, is Twitter yet another signpost in the ongoing decline of the modern attention span?

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A garish white light

There come moments in the lives of writers when the words that they use everyday seem suddenly and wholly inadequate to the tasks to which they have been set. Moments when every turn of phrase, every carefully-planned construction, fails to capture and convey the desired meaning, leaving the writer with a gnawing fear that perhaps his or her mother tongue was not built to communicate important things at all, but merely to serve as a low-cost mechanism for establishing and cementing interpersonal bonds. One never loses the ability to talk about the weather, somehow.

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Signing up

With global economic growth having come to a shuddering halt, credit markets on life support, currencies faltering, and unemployment rates forging upwards, the United States Army is finally enjoying some relief. Overworked and stressed out, its recruiters have started to meet their annual goals with appreciably less effort, as unemployed young men, defeated by the recession, walk into their offices to sign up for what they hope will be one or two tours. “I’m doing this for eight years,” 22-year-old Sean O’Neil told the New York Times. “Hopefully, when I get out, I’ll have all my fingers and toes and arms, and the economy will have turned around, and I’ll have a little egg to start up my own guitar line.” After an apprenticeship in St. Louis that didn’t pan out, O’Neil had found himself $30,000 in debt; a stint in the military looked like the next best option.

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In the bleak midwinter

"Winter", by Ivan Shishkin

"Winter", by Ivan Shishkin (1890)

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

— Christina Rossetti, 1872

The Christmas season is over, and with it my temporary but rich television diet of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Frosty the Snowman — shows both necessitated and once or twice elevated into rituals of repeated viewings by the involvement of an excited young child. It is all cuddly and positive stuff, of course, with the possible exception of the Grinch, who, despite his alleged role in the “stealing” of Christmas, turns into a benevolent old fellow by the end of the tale, and who is, even at his worst, nothing more dangerous than a grumpy but efficient con-man.

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Come out, come out

Sean Penn in Gus Van Sant's Milk

Sean Penn in Gus Van Sant's "Milk"

Not being a card-carrying progressive — by which I mean only that I’ve long suffered from an instinctive pessimism about what humans are capable of achieving, though it’s a reflex that I’ve gradually gotten better at keeping in check — I’m occasionally struck with a deep sense of amazement (and related feelings of both gratitude and guilt) at the amount of social change that has in fact occurred in the past century. My amazement can be triggered by something as simple as the visual memory of a British pub filled with a thick haze of cigarette smoke (a memory that takes me back only to 1990), an image that feels almost barbaric in comparison with the clear-aired restaurants of today, or by something as shocking — in fact, as forgotten — as the black and white news footage playing behind the initial credits of Gus Van Sant’s Milk, which shows gay men being herded out of taverns and, their faces turned away from the cameras, into police paddy wagons. North American society has travelled quite a distance from that time to this.

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The chimera of democratic peace

Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

Smoke from an Israeli air strike rises over the Gaza Strip (Photo: Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

To the governments of Israel and of much of the Western world, the current battle against Hamas in the Gaza Strip is a black and white case of democracy versus terrorism. Israel claims that its sole motivation is the reduction of rocket fire from the territory; defence minister Ehud Barak has declared repeatedly that “our aim is to force Hamas to stop its hostile activities against Israel and Israelis from Gaza, and to bring about a significant change in the situation in the southern part of Israel”. There is no tone of tragedy or sadness in this statement and in others like it, only a stern-sounding bureaucratese meant to evoke a sense of determination and cool professionalism. Yet for those who claim to love democracy, especially for those who claim to see it as the solution to the intractable problems of the Middle East and of the world in general, there is a political tragedy going on, for two democracies are at war. Continue reading

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