Random finds (2019, week 1) — On why we should be worried about our souls, technology and ethics, and why the past is the new future

Mark Storm
25 min readJan 4, 2019


Tehran-based practice CAAT Studio has completed a house for a local stone seller in the city of Mahallat, Iran, with a facade made from local travertine. (Photograph by Parham Taghioff)

I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my fluid and boundless curiosity. I am also creating #TheInfiniteDaily; an of little pieces of wisdom, art, music, books and other things that have made me stop and think.

If you want to know more about my work and how I help leaders and their teams find their way through complexity, ambiguity, paradox & doubt, go to Leadership Confidant — A new and more focused way of thriving on my ‘multitudes’ or visit my new ‘uncluttered’ website.

This week: Why the big-data make over of humanity could be a recipe for disaster; technology’s needs for ethics; John Crowley believes the past is the new future; Emily Wilson’s The Odyssey; how Rome fell into tyranny; how long is the perfect book?; Rembrandt and Saskia; storm; and, finally, Miles Davis and genius as circumstance.

Yuval Noah Harari is worried about our souls

“The big-data makeover of humanity could be a recipe for disaster,” says Yuval Noah Harari. “For the first time in history, we have absolutely no idea how the world will look in 30 years,” he tells Steve Paulson in an interview in Nautilus.

What’s different about this moment in history?

[Harari] “What’s different is the pace of technological change, especially the twin revolutions of artificial intelligence and bioengineering. They make it possible to hack human beings and other organisms, and then re-engineer them and create new life forms.”

How far can this technology go in changing who we are?

[Harari] “Very far. Beyond our imagination. It can change our imagination, too. If your imagination is too limited to think of new possibilities, we can just improve it. For billions of years, all of life was confined to the organic realm. It didn’t matter if you were an amoeba, a Tyrannosaurus rex, a coconut, a cucumber, or a Homo sapiens. You were made of organic compounds and subject to the laws of organic biochemistry. But now we’re about to break out of this limited organic realm and start combining the organic with inorganic bots to create cyborgs.”

What worries you about the new cyborgs?

[Harari] “Experiments are already under way to augment the human immune system with an inorganic, bionic system. Millions of tiny nanorobots and sensors monitor what’s happening inside your body. They could discover the beginning of cancer, or some infectious disease, and fight against these dangers for your health. The system can monitor not just what goes wrong. It can monitor your moods, your emotions, your thoughts. That means an external system can get to know you much better than you know yourself. You go to therapy for years to get in touch with your emotions, but this system, whether it belongs to Google or Amazon or the government, can monitor your emotions in ways that neither you nor your therapist can approach in any way.”

HOMO MACHINA: We are no longer afraid of the machine, Harari says, we have become it: “We no longer search for information. We Google. We trust the Google algorithm and we lose the ability to search for information independently.” Photograph by Antonio Olmo)

The fear we usually hear about artificial intelligence is it will allow the robots to take over. They will gain autonomy and become our masters. But you’re saying something quite different. You’re saying we will give in to the machines.

[Harari] “Right. We will shift authority to them. In most science-fiction movies, the robots rebuild themselves and try to kill the humans. And the humans must fight back and destroy the robots. This is a very comforting myth. It tells humans that nobody can do a better job than you. If you rely on the robots, it will end in disaster. The far more frightening scenario is that the robots will make better decisions than us. Then the question is, ‘What is human life all about?’ For thousands of years we have constructed this idea of human life as a drama of decision-making. Life is a road with many intersections, and every couple of days or months or years, you need to make decisions.”

This is what our ethical systems are based on. This is to some degree what religion is based on.

[Harari] “Exactly. You make good decisions, you go to heaven. You make bad decisions, you go to hell. And this is everything from Shakespeare plays to silly Hollywood comedies. Whom should they marry? Should I go to war or make peace? What happens to our notion of humanity if Hamlet just takes out his smartphone and asks Siri what to do?”

If your crystal ball is accurate, what can we do?

[Harari] “We can definitely regulate the new technologies. We can make sure they are used for good and not evil purposes. We need to make sure the big-data algorithms are serving us, the individual people, and not just serving the interests of the corporation or government. At present we see more AI systems that are used to monitor individuals in the service of governments and corporations. But the technology itself can be used to monitor the corporations and the governments in the service of the individuals. Most of the efforts give the government or corporations the ability to monitor us. But there is no technical problem in reversing the direction of the surveillance.”

We could also just simply unplug.

[Harari] “I would definitely recommend that everybody unplug for at least an hour or two every day and for longer periods during the year. I completely unplug and practice two hours of meditation every day. Every year I go for longer retreats of 30 or 60 days of complete disconnection from all phones, computers, devices. I’m a happier and calmer person because of that; I have greater peace of mind. It also helps me in my job of seeing the world better. Because what really comes between you and the world, makes everything so blurred and hard to understand, are your own weaknesses, your own pre-existing biases and fears. If you don’t know these biases, don’t know your fears and hatreds and cravings, it will be extremely difficult to understand the world. If your mind is all over the place and you have a hard time focusing it for any length of time, you will never be able to go deep into any question. Meditation helps me to focus my mind. It helps me to get to know my weaknesses and biases.”

Are you an optimist or pessimist about where we’re headed?

[Harari] “I will summarize my view of the world in three simple statements. Things are better than ever before. Things are still quite bad. Things can get much worse. This adds up to a somewhat optimistic view because if you realize things are better than before, this means we can make them even better. We are not stuck in the same miserable position for all of history. There are things we can do to improve the situation. But there is nothing inevitable about it. I’m not a believer that science and technology will inevitably create a better world. Science and technology guarantee only one thing. And this thing is power. Humankind is going to become more powerful. But what to do with this power? Here we have all kinds of options. If you look back in history, sometimes people use power very wisely, and very often they misuse their power. One of the most important forces in human history is human stupidity. We should never underestimate human stupidity. When you combine the limitless resource of human stupidity with amazing new powers that humankind will gain in the 21st century, this can be a recipe for disaster.”

Why technology needs ethics

“The more full of tech the world is, the more it craves for ethics. Because what matters is not figuring out whether or not we must be afraid of robots, but how to manage digital society in a coordinated manner,” writes Laura Traldi, who interviewed Luciano Floridi, a philosopher and the director of the Digital Ethics Lab at the University of Oxford.

This interview is part of a two-part story that provides different views on the AI and Big Data issues (the second interview was with Evgeny Morozov).

“Luciano Floridi has never been tender with technology. In ’95, when the web as we know it today did not exist and he was a PhD Philosophy student, he wrote things such as these. ‘No one controls the system globally, and the very structure of the internet ensures that will ever be able to control it in the future.’ Or ‘the Internet promotes the growth of knowledge while creating forms of unprecedented ignorance,’” Traldi writes.

But despite nobody listened to him, Floridi is overall hopeful about the future. And also optimistic, unlike Evgeny Morozov on the role of Europe on the topic of Artificial Intelligence.

“The problem with Big Data is not so much who owns them but the control one can have on how they them.” — Luciano Floridi

Our data is in the hands of a few companies that consequently have a monopoly on AI (on this, read here). Why we should not worry?

[Floridi] “We must worry. But not so much on the subject of who owns data as on how data are used, and on what kind of control can be exercised on this use. At the moment commercial data (on behavior, habits, movements) are in the hands of tech giants. And institutional ones (on tax, health, property) belong to states. In front of this situation there are those who are obsessively worried about any government interference on private subjects (Americans, for instance). And who are concerned about the opposite (we Europeans). Both are legitimate yet often extreme concerns. And, taken individually, they fail to make us grasp the real issue. Which is, in both cases, the lack of control.”

Why is control a bigger issue than ownership when it comes to Big Data?

[Floridi] “In an ideal situation, companies do their jobs and collect commercial data. And then supply them to the State when they are needed for social purposes. For example to contrast tax evasion, terrorism, the exploitation of migratory flows, or for scientific research. But the condition for all this to work is control. Control on the State is called democracy: when it is solid, functioning, and guided by a forward-looking policy. And, already on this point, in many cases, we are not really there, even in Europe.

On private individuals, control should be provided by the Anti-trust. But clearly something went wrong when the Internet arrived because Amazon, Facebook and Google have no competitors. They are like that one bar in the provincial town: either you go and drink there or you stay home alone.”

“No city can compete with the computing power of Google, Facebook or even Uber, and probably not even a coalition of cities will. Also because their political and economic models are determined nationally or globally. This is why their ability to implement independent and effective policies is under constant attack.” — Evgeny Morozov in Big Data should be common good. And here is why.

Why should companies jeopardize a system that benefits them?

[Floridi] “Some recent political and social events have opened the eyes of the big techs. The election of Trump, Brexit, the spreading of fake news, social anger … The most mature companies have long understood that the advantages on the short range do not pay off in the long run. Above all if the health of society, which is the first condition for economic prosperity, is jeopardized. And it is no coincidence that the giants are giving up the culture of ‘I want it all and now’ with a more forward-looking perspective. I think of Zuckerberg who used to say ‘let’s give people what they want.’ But who now talks about helping society grow. Because those who know history are shivering. When the shifting events occur (and the arrival of digital technology is one), society re-adjusts itself but normally only after wars, revolutions and lots of blood. The aim, now, should be to get there before these events happen.”

What defines a “good” policy?

[Floridi] “… rather than continuing to think about further technological challenges, we should focus on digital governance, which is currently delegated to the corporate world — primarily American. This means the the only logic that is applied to this governance is that of profit and of entrepreneurial culture. It is an unsatisfactory solution, because it is inherent in the constant risk of the colonizing monopoly. To complete it, we need above all courage to make the right social choices. In other words, there is a great need for good politics.

The commitment to work on a digital human project. That means: a form of human life — individual, collective, and public — that a society presents and promotes as desirable. At least in theory or implicitly, and depending on historical moments. It is plausible that each human project is not entirely feasible, or is only minimally so. And therefore should be understood only as a regulatory ideal, as an aim. But certainly the problems we are worried about today are only consequences of the absence of a digital human project.”

Isn’t that surprising? There is more need of philosophy and ethics today, in the hyper-tech world, than ever before …

[Floridi] “It’s very true. As I said, a quarter of a century ago, when we were writing about ethics in relation to technology, there was not exactly the line to listen to us. Now, however, sooner or later everyone knocks on the the ‘ethicist’s door. The growing attention to ethics — which should guarantee the human dimension of the social project — is the reason why, in the end, we should be optimistic.”

More tech in an article in Esquire by Scott Galloway, in which he builds a case for breaking up Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

The past is the new future

“My wife recently said to me, ‘The past is the new future,’John Crowley writes in The Next Future. “The sense I make of it is that instead of growing clearer as we probe it, the future has grown dimmer, less solid, almost hard to believe in, but the past has continued to expand rather than shrink with distance: the actual things we did do have gained rather than lost complexity and interest, and the past seems rich, its lessons not simple or singular, a big landscape of human possibility, generative, inexhaustible.

As a guide to present action and long-term planning, the future is anyway relatively new. The shape of things to come was not a constant concern of most people for most of the past. The Romans could imagine future wars and the founding of new cities and dynasties, but these would resemble in most ways the old ones. Christians foresaw an absolute end to time and history located (depending on specific creed and perceived signs of the times) at varying distances from the present, but between now and then it was all to be much the same, only worse. The Founding Fathers announced a New Order of the Ages, but it was a new order explicitly modeled on the classical republics that had existed in Rome or Athens. The idea of a future that will not at all resemble the past really only comes when advancing technology changes the conditions of life and work within a single generation. To that generation it is apparent that, just as the past differs radically from the present, so will the future,” Cowley wtites.

When Thomas More coined the word ‘utopia’ in 1516, he not only referred to the Greek ‘eu-topos,’ or ‘good place,’ but also to ‘ou-topos,’ meaning ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere.’ — In Search of Utopia , an exhibition at M-Museum in Leuven, Belgium, inspired by Thomas More’s book Utopia, an iconic work that was first published 500 years ago in Leuven by the printer Dirk Martens.

“At that point (it’s not really a locatable point, and not a universal one, but it can be thought of as somewhere in the first half of the nineteenth century, earlier in some places, later in others) a change can also be discerned in the efforts of planners and projectors to determine the future shape of the coming world — ‘determine’ both in the sense of finding out what it would be and in the sense of controlling it. Early utopias from Plato through Thomas More (inventor of the term) and on to Charles Fourier were all about proper social organization, good laws, societies that fit human nature better than the state or society the utopian lived in. After this point utopias are almost all set not on remote islands or mountaintops but in the future, and all must take into account the force of accelerating technology on everything from wealth creation to population expansion to world peace.

So also must all the dark warnings of decline, disaster, waste, and failure that are the left hand of the predicting impulse. And both of these impulses, hope and fear, are swept up in, and give power to, the characteristic fictions of mass change and of futures that entirely replace pasts,” Cowley writes.

“‘Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,’ George Orwell said in a well-known futurist novel. He didn’t claim that who controls the past controls the present, but if we like to believe that strenuous efforts today will make a difference to the future that we, collectively, must one day suffer, then why not strive to imagine a past that would alter the present we live in? Why should the future be privileged as a realm of speculation? Thus the mode of modern storytelling called ‘alternative history’ or ‘the counterfactual,’ a mode that Philip Roth [seems to have felt] he invented in The Plot Against America. It’s actually of course common, not to say ubiquitous: the idea that with only a tiny drift of events in one direction or another the present would not be as we see it; the butterfly effect of chaos theory, the law of unintended consequences, makes the present seem as unlikely, even marvelous, as any future. Charles Darwin couldn’t help but see evolution as a mode of one-way progress, no matter how he cautioned himself and us against it, but the more we study the earth’s past the clearer it is that our present resulted from a continuous branching of long-past possibilities, a process describable neither as chance nor as necessity, going on forever, a process we perforce inhabit, facing both ways. It could have been different, and somehow still seems it might. The past is the new future.”

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” — Nineteen Eighty-Four, directed by Michael Radford and starring John Hurt as Winston Smith. (Photograpg courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

“Any prediction about what is in fact to come, when cast as fiction, runs the risk not just of being wrong but of being not about the future at all. The two most famous futurist fictions of the twentieth century — 1984 (which took place a mere thirty-odd years in the future) and Brave New World (set six hundred years on) — are of course best seen not as prediction but as critical allegories of the present. (They are like temporal versions of Gulliver’s Travels, which could be called a geographical allegory.) That’s why they still hold interest while more earnestly meant divinings don’t. Both novels, which resemble each other closely while seeming to be opposites, are based on the if-this-goes-on premise — but this never does go on. Something else does. Both Orwell (if he had lived) and Huxley might have been tempted to congratulate themselves when the future seemed to trend away ever more sharply from their visions: their warnings had been heeded. Had they?

A third and less well-known novel — We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921) — certainly influenced Orwell, who claimed that it must certainly have influenced Huxley. Zamyatin invented a couple of the standard features of the future which would haunt science fiction from then on, including people with numbers rather than names, and the possibly nonexistent but still omnipotent and omnipresent Leader. Its central trope is transparency: the whole numbered society, marching in unison, living in houses of glass, is bent on the creation of an enormous rocket ship, also made entirely of glass, aimed at the moon. Like Orwell’s and Huxley’s, it’s a futurist novel that’s not about the future. It differs from them in being not an allegory or an object lesson or warning of any kind but a transcendent personal vision, an impossibility rather than a possibility. Where Orwell’s imagined world is shabby and cheap and nasty, and Huxley’s brightly colored and silly, Zamyatin’s is filled with an unsettling radiant joy, right through to its terrible ending. It has what Milan Kundera perceived in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot: ‘the comical absence of the comical.’ Instead of perspicacity and authority, which in the predicting of the future are fatuous, there is beauty and strangeness, the qualities of art, which sees clearly and predicts nothing, at least on purpose. These are the qualities of all the greatest fictional representations of the future, books that, after the initial shock they carry has faded, can reappear not as tales about our shared future nor salutary warnings for the present they were written in but simply as works of disinterested passion, no more (and no less) a realistic rendering of this world or any world now or to come than is The Tempest or The Four Zoas.

Time, W.H. Auden said, is intolerant and forgetful, but ‘worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives.’ Time will leave my new and no doubt baselessly optimistic Totalitopia behind; it was being left behind even as I wrote it down. As a prediction it might bewilder or bore, but as a work of art in language — if it were as easy to turn it into a work of art as it was to think it up — it might survive its vicissitudes in the turbulence of time and emerge sometime downstream as a valuable inheritance from the past, all its inadequate dreams and fears washed away. Meanwhile the real world then, no matter what, will be as racked with pain and insufficiency as any human world at any time. It just won’t be racked by the same old pains and insufficiencies; it will be strange. It is forever unknowably strange, its strangeness not the strangeness of fiction or of any art or any guess but absolute. That’s its nature. Of course holding the mirror up to nature is what Hamlet insisted all playing, or pretending, must do; but — as Lewis Carroll knew — the image in a mirror, however scary or amusing or enlightening, is always reversed.”

And also this …

In the Athenian daily I Kathimerini, Emily Wilson talks about her translation of Homer’s The Odyssey; a translation that “will change the way the poem is read in English,” according to Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian.

Higgins writes, “The poem is full of bloodshed and excitement, monsters and witches, plots and lies. It also contains passages of stillness and sheer delight. Here is Wilson’s translation of part of the description of the grove sheltering the nymph Calypso’s cave.

The scent of citrus and of brittle pine
Suffused the island. Inside, she was singing
And weaving with a shuttle made of gold.
Her voice was beautiful. Around the cave
A luscious forest flourished: alder, poplar,
And scented cypress.

A woman’s voice: how beautiful to hear it.”

When asked why she thinks “women hadn’t touched this poem before?”, Wilson says:

“Women have certainly ‘touched’ this poem a lot! Women have been reading The Odyssey in Greek for many, many centuries, all the way back to ancient times. In recent decades, there are plenty of female classicists, including female Homerists, from many of whom, as well as my male colleagues, I’ve learnt a great deal. There are some great female Homer scholars and I want to give them all possible due credit. There are, of course, a gazillion times more women who have read all or part of the poem in the original than the tiny number of humans, male and female, who have created literary translations of it into modern languages.

I also want to give due to the many women who have translated The Odyssey into other languages, such as French or Italian or Dutch or Turkish. English is the problem, and specifically, the English-speaking classics world of the past few decades. It’s hard to explain it because of course there are many female people who could in theory have translated this poem before me; it’s not that I’m uniquely qualified — though I think I have certain relatively unusual qualifications that have nothing at all to do with my gender, but which have to do with my interest in English metrical poetry as well as in Homer.”

Penelope with the Suitors (c. 1509), by Pintoricchio (fresco , detached and mounted on canvas, 124 x 146 cm, photograph courtesy of The National Gallery).

With regard to misogynist or sexist terms in the older translations, Wilson says:

“I looked closely at a few passages in multiple translations after finishing my translation, not while I was doing it. I’d say that actual misogynistic language is relatively rare, compared to all the other words in an epic poem… In English, Robert Fagles’s translations have been very influential, and they have quite a lot of such terms, so I think that had an impact on subsequent versions. But I don’t think counting insult terms is the way to go here. I’m really more interested in the more subtle kinds of choices that translators make that impact gender roles and other social roles. For instance, even beyond whether the translator makes Telemachus call the slave women ‘sluts’ or not, there are real questions about whether the narrative allows us to sympathize with the victims of the murder or not. I think the Greek text allows a lot more sympathy here, and a lot more multivocality in general, a lot more narrative complexity, than many translations seem to do. This has to do with far more than just gender, though of course gender tends to be the headline. The real story is about narrative perspective and literary as well as ethical complexity.”

Now that thousands of people will get to discover Homer through Wilson’s eyes, she feels very excited, she says.

“I hope people can be reminded that Homer can actually be fun to read! It’s a thrilling story with so many great characters, male and female, divine and human, slave and free, rich and poor, native and foreigner. It’s a wonderful read, and I’m just piggybacking on Homer’s greatness.”

More Homer in an essay in Aeon Magazine by Tim Whitmarsh, entitled Black Achilles.

The Economist published a review of Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny by Edward Watts, entitled Lessons from the fall of a great republic.

“Shakespeare missed a trick. His version of Julius Caesar’s funeral does, admittedly, have its moments. But he might have done even better had he read his Appian. For while the Bard’s version musters oratorical verve, the historian’s offers a coup de théâtre, complete with the astute use of props, sightlines and stagecraft.

Before the funeral, well aware that Caesar’s corpse would be obscured by the throng, a wax cast of the body was prepared, with each of the assassins’ blows marked on it clearly. This was then erected above Caesar’s bier. As the Roman people filled the Forum, a mechanical device rotated the model slowly, revealing the 23 ‘gaping’ wounds to everyone. The crowd, as they say, went wild.

Caesar’s reign — and its bloody end and bloodier aftermath — would later come to be seen as a turning point in the history of Rome. And indeed it was, but as Edward Watts points out in Mortal Republic, the Republic had been in its death throes for decades. The decline was caused less by gaping wounds than gaping inequality, and by leaders unable or unwilling to remedy it. If that syndrome sounds familiar, it is meant to. Mr Watts says inquiries about how antiquity can illuminate the ‘occasionally alarming political realities of our world’ prompted his reflections.”

The death of Caesar (La morte di Cesare, 1804–1805), by Vincenzo Camuccini (oil on canvas, 112 x 195 cm, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome)

“This ominously titled book is his response, furnished with such nudgingly apposite chapters as The Politics of Frustration and The Republic of the Mediocre. His gambit isn’t new: the classical world is often used as a lens through which to examine modernity. Want to understand China? Read Thucydides. Need to know about Afghanistan? Best study Plutarch. This trick can easily go awry: the past was not just the present in togas, as some historians would do well to remember. But Mr Watts pulls it off deftly.

He begins by taking the reader on a brisk march through Roman history. The Republic’s early citizens were legendarily hardy. In the late third century bc, faced with multiple threats, Rome entered a state Mr Watts describes as ‘an ancient version of total war.’ Two-thirds of the male citizen population between 17 and 30 years old were enrolled in the army, ready to die for Rome. And die they did, cut down in battle after battle like fields of wheat. During one engagement with Hannibal, tens of thousands were killed. The Roman response was to regroup — and win.

Such sturdiness didn’t last. By the second century BC, the formerly united Republic had been split into two factions — not by war but by wealth. On one side was a class of ‘superwealthy Romans,’ enriched by military conquest and growing financial sophistication. They dined off silver plate, ate imported fish, drank vintage wine and holidayed in extravagant Mediterranean villas. One of the most powerful was Crassus, a man who made his fortune in unscrupulous property deals, then used that money to buy political influence.

Yet while some Romans swilled from ornate goblets, the majority drank a more bitter draught. They endured a life of backbreaking work and the knowledge that they would almost certainly end up poorer than their parents. Such a situation could hardly last — and didn’t.

What remains one of the world’s longest-lasting republics fell by the end of the first century bc, to be replaced by autocracy. Rome had defeated its enemies abroad but, argues Mr Watts, it was undone from within by greed and inequality — and by the sort of politicians ‘who breach a republic’s political norms.’ plus ‘citizens who choose not to punish them.’”

“British novelist E.M. Forster once complained that long books ‘are usually overpraised’ because ‘the reader wishes to convince others and himself that he has not wasted his time,’” writes James Tozer, an editorial data analyst of The Economist, in How long is the perfect book?

To test Forster’s theory, Tozer collected reader ratings for 737 books tagged as “classic literature” on Goodreads.

“The bias towards chunky tomes was substantial. Slim volumes of 100 to 200 pages scored only 3.87 out of 5, whereas those over 1,000 pages scored 4.19. Longer is better, say the readers.”

Tozer gives three possible explanations. First, the phenomenon which Forster describes, akin to literary Stockholm syndrome. Second, those who like a book enough to finish it may be more inclined to leave a review (survivor bias). And finally, cumulative value: “a handful of the books longer than 1,000 pages are anthologies, which tend to be judged on their overall worth rather than the quality of each individual piece,” Tozer writes.

“Shakespeare claimed that brevity is the soul of wit, but his hefty collected works score 4.49, compared with an average of just 3.8 for his individual plays.” — How long is the perfect book? Bigger really is better, readers say.

“The data show other reading biases, too. Reviewers favour modern tales over old ones, with the exception of some ancient texts that continue to delight, such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Tales from the Arabian Nights and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. […] Goodreads users are hardly a bunch of anti-intellectual orcs and trolls: Russian literature is among the mostly highly rated genres. After months of ploughing through Anna Karenina, or Crime and Punishment, a good rating is as much a reward for the reader as the writer.”

In 2019, exhibitions across the Netherlands will mark the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death. And at their heart lie the portraits of his wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, charting their short, doomed marriage.

“It is 350 years since Rembrandt died at the age of 63, destitute, his decline as dramatic as his rise. His rough magic had long since fallen out of fashion with the Dutch, and he was buried, like Mozart, in a pauper’s grave,” writes Laura Cumming in Rembrandt and Saskia: a love story for the ages.

“But his resurrection as the outstanding chronicler of the human face, daily altered by experience, and of the heart’s journey through love, grief, despair and every imaginable emotion was almost immediate; and it is never-ending.”

Of all the exhibitions, Cummings finds Rembrandt and Saskia at the Fries Museum, an intimate portrait of the artist’s marriage in images, objects and word, the most surprising. “Rembrandt was 28 when he married Saskia in 1634; 36 when she died, leaving him with a baby son and a sorrow so destructive he gave up painting in oils for several years. The measure of his loss is apparent, too, in the nature of these images of Saskia and their happiness, made before (and in one case after) her death. Here is the artist’s heart,” she writes.

Saskia van Uylenburgh in Arcadian Costume (1635), by Rembrandt (oil on canvas, 123.5 x 97.5 cm, The National Gallery)

“[T]here is one picture that is rarely seen, and has not moved from the wall in a German castle on which it has been hanging for the past 250 years. It is the great portrait of Saskia that concludes the Fries Museum show. Rembrandt had painted his wife not long after their marriage. But he did not complete the picture until after her death in 1642. He kept her likeness with him, among his close possessions, until financial troubles forced him to sell his own works, as well those in his collection. It was bought by his old friend, the collector Jan Six. Around 1750, the portrait passed to the Elector of Hesse-Kassel, and it has been in Kassel ever since, until now. Saskia has come home to Leeuwarden especially for this exhibition.

What a magnetic painting it is: Saskia in red velvet and gold, beneath a vast and voluptuous hat, suddenly seen, for the first and last time, in profile. How delicate she now looks, with her glowing skin, the lower lip much more subtle and sensuous, the face full of shrewd and steady intelligence. It immediately confirms the remark made by the notary Saskia summoned a week or so before her death, to write down her last will and testament: she had lost neither her wits nor her sense of humour.

Time runs back to the start, and there is her neat little mouth, the sense of her small pearly teeth, the slight double chin, the red-gold hair. She is no longer sick, pregnant or tired, but restored to her spry young self. This is in the gift of her husband and his art; brushing in her soft ear lobe, her fresh complexion, her self-possession and everlasting youth. After her death, Rembrandt added an elegant ostrich feather to her hat and put a sprig of rosemary in her hand. Rosemary for remembrance.”

Saskia in a Red Hat (completed in 1642 after her death), by Rembrandt (oil on wood, 78.8 x 99.5 cm, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel)

The Hague–turbulent seas, menacing skies, devastation, and suffering in the fishing community: in an exhibition that opens on 18 November, the focus at Panorama Mesdag in The Hague will be on storms, culminating in the storm of 1894. STORM presents a remarkable selection of paintings, by artists such as Hendrik Willem Mesdag, Jozef Israëls, Andreas Schelfhout and Johannes Christiaan Schotel, with stirring depictions of the overwhelming power of nature.

Andreas Schelfhout’s “Ship running aground in a storm at Scheveningen” (1837, oil on panel, 60 x 76.5 cm, Amsterdam Museum)

Storms were a popular subject for artists in the early 19th century. Schelfhout and Schotel painted romanticised scenes that emphasised the insignificance of the human being in the face of natural catastrophe. Around 1850–1860, the artists Willem Antonie van Deventer, Louis Meijer and Israëls, working in Scheveningen, chose instead to depict the emptiness of the landscape after a storm. There is a deceptive tranquillity about their poetic paintings: only upon closer inspection do we see the drama unfold.

Willem Antonie van Deventer’s “After the storm” (1863, oil on canvas, 67.5 x 99.2 cm, Teylers Museum)
F. H. Kaemmerer’s “Elegant ladies on the beach at Scheveningen” (1871, oil on board, 15,5 x 24,0 cm, Simonis & Buunk)
So What or Kind of Blue, […] they were done in that era, the right hour, the right day, and it happened. It’s over; it’s on the record.” — Miles Davis

“In an essay titled Genius as Circumstance in the Los Angeles Review of Books, [Yuval Sharon, artistic director of The Industry in Los Angeles] writes, ‘Moments, ideas, a single poem in a collection — a work of genius, no matter how individually wrought — is never the product of a single individual. We should stop thinking of genius as an attribute and instead start to think of it as a condition, a circumstance.’ As a theater director, Sharon writes, ‘my work consists entirely of creating the conditions for genius to flow.’ He defines genius as ‘the oxygen that those in a shared space breathe in and are transformed by; it allows them to reach their full potential. In this way, ‘genius’ returns to its original Latin meaning of an ‘attendant spirit.’” — Brian Gallagher, The Case Against Geniuses



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought