Reviews and News:

The exiled rabbi and executed poet: "Just before midnight on the evening of Jan. 27, 1949, seven agents of the MGB—as the KGB was known at the time—arrived at the central Moscow apartment of the renowned Yiddish poet and playwright Peretz Markish and arrested him. The arrest did not come as a surprise to the 54-year-old Markish; for a month prior, he had been followed by secret police, with agents even posted near his apartment. 'Our minister just wants to have a talk with your husband,' the arresting agents told the writer's wife, Esther. She would never see him again. Markish was not the only one. Beginning in December of 1948, 15 Jewish intellectuals, all of whom had been associated in one way or another with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), were rounded up and arrested—a part of Stalin's anti-Jewish campaign that began after the end of the Second World War and culminated with the 1953 Doctors' Plot." (HT: Mosaic)

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The person responsible for the destruction of artifacts in Timbuktu goes on trial at The Hague. He has pled guilty—the first person ever to do so at the International Criminal Court.

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Thomas Hardy altarpiece discovered in Windsor church: "The author of Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd trained as an architect and worked as a draughtsman in the 1860s, working on designs for a number of churches. In the 1970s, a collection of designs was discovered behind the organ of All Saints church in Windsor, many of which featured the work of Hardy. Although three of the drawings were kept in the church, until Stuart Tunstall and his fellow churchgoer Don Church embarked on a search for the building's foundation stone, it was believed that none of the designs had been realised."

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Roger Scruton talks: He "credits reading Rainer Maria Rilke's (1875–1926) Letters and Dante's Comedy with exciting his interest in becoming a writer, while Colin Wilson's (1931–2013) Outsider, (1956) convinced Scruton that art is the only truly serious field of study."

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James V. Schall reviews David Walsh's Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being: "It took me over a month to read this remarkable book. It is not that Walsh is not a good and memorable writer; it is that he is precisely both. Almost every page contains passages and considerations that took me back to almost everything I had ever read before."

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Karen Wilkin visits Cuba and writes about its architecture and art: "Not surprisingly, the early work on view seems competent but provincial and often turns out to have been made about twenty years later than we might suspect. What is surprising is the generally subdued color, given the brilliance of Caribbean light. Nothing much changed until the revolution. Oddly, although twentieth-century Cuban architects embraced modernism and often studied abroad, Cuban painters and sculptors appear to have missed Cubism and Fauvism, focusing instead on Mexican muralism, the drearier aspects of the postwar School of Paris, and spiky Surrealism. Wifredo Lam, to whom an entire gallery is devoted, looks like a giant. The Revolution, not unexpectedly, triggered a lot of impassioned, frequently Pop-Art inflected images; revolutionary heroes loom large. The most recent work exhibited could have been made anywhere in response to current trends, despite the government's controls on communication through exorbitant fees for internet access…"

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Essay of the Day:

The New Atlantis has a blockbuster report on human sexuality and identity, written by Arizona State biostatistician Lawrence S. Mayer and Paul R. McHugh of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Among other things, the authors argue that sexual orientation is not determined by biology, that the idea that one's identity as male or female can differ from one's biological sex is not supported by scientific evidence, and that only "a minority of children who experience cross-gender identification will continue to do so into adolescence or adulthood." It's a long report but worth it. There's a helpful executive summary here and a video introduction. Here's an excerpt from the section on gender identity:

"Developments in feminist theory in the second half of the twentieth century further solidified the position that gender is socially constructed. One of the first to use the term "gender" as distinct from sex in the social-science literature was Ann Oakley in her 1972 book, Sex, Gender and Society. In the 1978 book Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach, psychology professors Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna argued that 'gender is a social construction, that a world of two 'sexes' is a result of the socially shared, taken for granted methods which members use to construct reality.'

"Anthropologist Gayle Rubin expresses a similar view, writing in 1975 that 'Gender is a socially imposed division of the sexes. It is a product of the social relations of sexuality.' According to her argument, if it were not for this social imposition, we would still have males and females but not 'men' and 'women.' Furthermore, Rubin argues, if traditional gender roles are socially constructed, then they can also be deconstructed, and we can eliminate 'obligatory sexualities and sex roles' and create 'an androgynous and genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one's sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love.'

"The relationship between gender theory and the deconstruction or overthrowing of traditional gender roles is made even clearer in the works of the influential feminist theorist Judith Butler. In works such as Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) and Undoing Gender (2004) Butler advances what she describes as 'performativity theory,' according to which being a woman or man is not something that one is but something that one does. 'Gender is neither the causal result of sex nor as seemingly fixed as sex,' as she put it. Rather, gender is a constructed status radically independent from biology or bodily traits, 'a free floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one.'

"This view, that gender and thus gender identity are fluid and plastic, and not necessarily binary, has recently become more prominent in popular culture. An example is Facebook's move in 2014 to include 56 new ways for users to describe their gender, in addition to the options of male and female. As Facebook explains, the new options allow the user to 'feel comfortable being your true, authentic self,' an important part of which is 'the expression of gender.' Options include agender, several cis-and trans- variants, gender fluid, gender questioning, neither, other, pangender, and two-spirit.

"Whether or not Judith Butler was correct in describing traditional gender roles of men and women as 'performative,' her theory of gender as a 'free-floating artifice' does seem to describe this new taxonomy of gender. As these terms multiply and their meanings become more individualized, we lose any common set of criteria for defining what gender distinctions mean. If gender is entirely detached from the binary of biological sex, gender could come to refer to any distinctions in behavior, biological attributes, or psychological traits, and each person could have a gender defined by the unique combination of characteristics the person possesses. This reductio ad absurdum is offered to present the possibility that defining gender too broadly could lead to a definition that has little meaning.

"Alternatively, gender identity could be defined in terms of sex-typical traits and behaviors, so that being a boy means behaving in the ways boys typically behave — such as engaging in rough-and-tumble play and expressing an interest in sports and liking toy guns more than dolls. But this would imply that a boy who plays with dolls, hates guns, and refrains from sports or rough-and-tumble play might be considered to be a girl, rather than simply a boy who represents an exception to the typical patterns of male behavior. The ability to recognize exceptions to sex-typical behavior relies on an understanding of maleness and femaleness that is independent of these stereotypical sex-appropriate behaviors. The underlying basis of maleness and femaleness is the distinction between the reproductive roles of the sexes; in mammals such as humans, the female gestates offspring and the male impregnates the female. More universally, the male of the species fertilizes the egg cells provided by the female of the species. This conceptual basis for sex roles is binary and stable, and allows us to distinguish males from females on the grounds of their reproductive systems, even when these individuals exhibit behaviors that are not typical of males or females.

"To illustrate how reproductive roles define the differences between the sexes even when behavior appears to be atypical for the particular sex, consider two examples, one from the diversity of the animal kingdom, and one from the diversity of human behavior. First, we look at the emperor penguin. Male emperor penguins provide more care for eggs than do females, and in this sense, the male emperor penguin could be described as more maternal than the female. However, we recognize that the male emperor penguin is not in fact female but rather that the species represents an exception to the general, but not universal, tendency among animals for females to provide more care than males for offspring. We recognize this because sex-typical behaviors like parental care do not define the sexes; the individual's role in sexual reproduction does.

"Even other sex-typical biological traits, such as chromosomes, are not necessarily helpful for defining sex in a universal way, as the penguin example further illustrates. As with other birds, the genetics of sex determination in the emperor penguin is different than the genetics of sex determination in mammals and many other animals. In humans, males have XY chromosomes and females have XX chromosomes; that is, males have a unique sex-determining chromosome that they do not share with females, while females have two copies of a chromosome that they share with males. But in birds, it is females, not males, that have and pass on the sex-specific chromosome. Just as the observation that male emperor penguins nurture their offspring more than their partners did not lead zoologists to conclude that the egg-laying member of the emperor penguin species was in fact the male, the discovery of the ZW sex-determination system in birds did not lead geneticists to challenge the age-old recognition that hens are females and roosters are males. The only variable that serves as the fundamental and reliable basis for biologists to distinguish the sexes of animals is their role in reproduction, not some other behavioral or biological trait."

Read the rest.

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Image of the Day: Oasis

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Poem: Yves Bonnefoy, "At the Dawn of Time"

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