Irresponsible gods

Written on September 3, 2014 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

sapiensAn absorbing, provocative history of civilisation that peers into a post-human future

According to Yuval Noah Harari, a historian who teaches in the faculty of humanities at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, what makes humans different from other animals is not reasoning, toolmaking or a capacity for morality, all of which are found to some degree among our animal kin. Humans are different because they inhabit an imagined world, created from their own ideas, myths and fantasies, which they take as real. Inhabiting this virtual world, humans have achieved things no other animal can match. The power of the imagination has turned the human species – at the beginning, “an animal of no significance” midway up the food chain on the African savannah – into “self-made gods”. But these “deities” lack self-restraint. Wiping out other species, they have dominated the planet without making themselves noticeably happier. Now, with new technologies enabling them to create artificial forms of life and alter their own natures, they hardly know what to do with their new dominion. “Is there anything more dangerous”, Harari asks, “than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

Already a bestseller in Hebrew, Sapiens mounts a fundamental challenge to the predominant contemporary view of humans and their place in the world. “Liberal humanism,” Harari points out, “is built on monotheist foundations.” Take away the soul and the privileged place in the world accorded to humans by a creator-god, and it becomes difficult to explain why humans are so special. The task becomes harder if we perform a thought-experiment based on the facts of human origins. We’ve grown used to thinking of ourselves as the only species of humans. But for most of its history Homo sapiens shared the planet with several humanoid species – the Neanderthals being only the best known. “The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man”, writes Harari. Suppose some or all of these species had survived alongside ourselves up to the present. What would become of the cherished sense that we are set apart from the rest of the natural world by having some peculiar transcendent value? Human uniqueness, Harari concludes, is a myth spawned by an accident of evolution.

Continue reading in Financial Times


Dry spell at Stonehenge reveals secret that has eluded archaeologists

Written on September 2, 2014 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the many mysteries of Stonehenge may have been solved, not because of a scientific breakthrough or painstaking research, but after a maintenance team’s hosepipe turned out to be a little short.

Archaeologists have long argued over whether the ancient monument was once a perfect circle or if it was always, as it is now, an incomplete ring.

When a hosepipe used to keep the grass green in hot spells failed to reach a broken part of the circle, unsightly brown patches began to appear. Custodian Tim Daw was fretting over the blemishes when he realised they matched the spots where stones would probably have stood if the monument had been a complete circle.

Daw said it was a “lightbulb moment”. “I was standing on the public path looking at the grass near the stones and thinking we needed to find a longer hosepipe to get the parched patches to green up,” he said.

“I remembered that the marks were where archaeologists had looked without success for signs that there had been stone holes. I called my colleague over and he saw them and realised their possible significance as well. Not being archaeologists, we called in the professionals.

“I am still amazed, and very pleased, that simply looking at something that tens of thousands of people had unwittingly seen, can reveal secrets that sophisticated machinery can’t.”

The professionals duly took charge. Aerial photographs were hurriedly commissioned before the rain could come and remove the brown patches, and the scorch marks on the western side of the Wiltshire site were mapped, and some of the brown patches indeed tallied with where stones would have stood if the circle were complete.

Other brown patches corresponded to recorded archaeological excavations, included trenches dug by the engineer William Gowland in 1901. That some of the patches matched the site of the trenches supports the theory that they indicate disturbed ground.

Continue reading in The Guardian


flamencoOn a sweltering late August afternoon in the center of Madrid, workers are putting the finishing touches to what will be the first educational institution anywhere to offer an undergraduate program in that most Spanish of art forms, flamenco.

Uflamenco, or the University of Flamenco, has taken more than a decade to get off the ground, explains Antonio Suárez Salazar, the 59-year-oldcantaor, or singer, better known as Guadiana, as he leads us into the welcome cool of the four-story building that in October will open its doors to around 400 students of flamenco dance, singing and guitar from around the world.

Waiting for us inside is Pepe Habichuela, one of Spain’s finest contemporary flamenco guitarists, and patriarch of the Carmona family, from which sprang the three members of the now-defunct group Ketama, which played a lead role in reviving and popularizing flamenco three decades ago.

With him is Pedro Ojesto, composer, performer, and founder of the Escuela de Nuevas Músicas, one of Spain’s most-respected private music colleges. Along with the Carmonas and other partners from Spain’s leading music schools, Ojesto has been a driving force behind Uflamenco.

“We are going to attract the best here, and provide students with the highest level of training possible,” says Ojesto, who a decade ago published Las claves del flamenco (The fundamentals of flamenco): “The first book to codify every flamenco style in a format that music students can understand, using the same approach as at Berklee, with the goal of providing an understanding of every aspect of flamenco, both musically and technically.”

“We are going to create a sensation here,” says Habichuela, looking round the empty rooms, smiling.

“We’re going to attract students from around the world. That’s why it’s been so important to get official recognition for what will be an innovative program that integrates dance and music,” adds Ojesta.

Continue reading in El País


Grand Central

Written on August 28, 2014 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Film

Grand_Central_posterAn illicit romance blooms in a powder-keg environment in Grand Central, French writer-director Rebecca Zlotowski’s second feature that has a great premise but is bogged down by a weaker second half and an unsure handle on the characters. Set among the exploited blue-collar workers at a nuclear power plant in France, the story certainly has an unusual setting, which Zlotowski depicts with an almost Loach-ian attention to unfussy, everyday detail. But the torrid love affair that develops against this largely realistic backdrop between two good-looking colleagues (played by blonde bombshell Lea Seydoux and A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim) is too bombastic and clichéd for the film to ever become a single whole.

Though the film’s generally well-acted and benefits from a few cuts of great music on the soundtrack — courtesy of techno-artist Rob, who also scored the director’s first film, Dear Prudence, which already starred Seydoux — Grand Central’s box office won’t be cooling-tower high beyond home turf, though Franco-friendly venues and festivals could opt for niche engagements.

The film opens with Tcherno (Johan Libereau, another Prudence alumnus) stealing the wallet of Gary (Rahim) on a train. The down-and-out youngsters both hope to be hired by a sub-contractor to do decontamination work at a nuclear power plant and before they’ve even arrived at their future workplace, Gary has stolen Tcherno’s wallet in revenge and the two lowlifes have become fast friends.

The lively opening, set to a pulsating score, imbues the early going with a young and reckless energy that mirrors the characters, who’ll risk being laid off if they’re exposed to too much radiation during the unavoidable small accidents that occur, thus putting either their health or their livelihood in the balance for a ridiculously low income.

Gary finds a bed in a nearby trailer park where several co-workers live, including the veteran Gilles (Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet), who trains the rookies, and the hulking Toni (Denis Menochet), whose fiancée, Karole (Seydoux), is introduced to Gary at a bar where she spontaneously kisses him in an attempt to explain how radiation sickness feels. Immediately, Gary is bewitched by Karole, and soon the two are secretly meeting in the nearby bulrushes for extended bouts of moonlit lovemaking. And as if that sight wasn’t enough of a Hallmark-cliché, the suddenly syrupy score further underlines the point, moving the film far away from the realism of its power plant-set scenes and straight into Lifetime territory.

Continue reading in The Hollywood Reporter


A Battle of the Hamlets

Written on August 25, 2014 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

lawrence-olivier-hamlet-skull“Once you have played it, it will devour you and obsess you for the rest of your life,” Laurence Olivier wrote when he was in his mid-70s. “It has me. I think each day about it. I’ll never play him again, of course, but by God, I wish I could.”

The subject is Hamlet, a character Olivier referred to with both affection and awe as “the man in black, and a role described by the Edwardian pundit Max Beerbohm as “a hoop through which every eminent actor must jump.”

Olivier’s Captain Ahab-like fixation on one of the most dubiously heroic of tragic heroes has been shared for centuries not just by the actors who have played Hamlet but also by the theatergoers who have seen them. In the more than 400 years since Richard Burbage originated it in London, the role of Shakespeare’s existentially challenged prince of Denmark has become the ultimate prize in a sort of eternal Olympics of acting.

Even before I read the play, I was attracted by the image of the man in black, in pensive profile, holding a skull. My grandfather taught Shakespeare and owned many tempting, illustrated volumes on the subject. I didn’t see any kind of performance of “Hamlet” until I was 11, when I attended a school screening of Olivier’s film version. It was a day I shall always remember, because it coincided with the death of my beloved white mouse, Fiona, and all that tragic melancholy seemed to give grandeur to my own.

Even then, on some level, I was aware that you really needed to be with “Hamlet” (and Hamlet) in the solid flesh for full impact, that the oxygen he required to come fully to life could be found only on a stage. So while I’d seen Olivier’s Hamlet, I had also missed out on Olivier’s Hamlet. That didn’t stop the specter of that performance from feeling as real, and as elusive, to me as his murdered father’s was for the young prince.

Those same phantoms, I imagine, are much on the mind of Benedict Cumberbatch these days. Though more than a year away, his Hamlet (at the Barbican in London) has already prompted much heavy-breathing speculation; it follows celebrity interpretations during the past decade that include those of Jude Law, David Tennant and Rory Kinnear.

In anticipation of that event, I have imagined a fantasy arena in which a Battle of the Hamlets might take place. Because the number of Hamlets past is beyond counting, and records of long-ago incarnations are on the sketchy side, I am limiting myself to those since 1922, for which documentation is abundant, and to the interpretations that generated the greatest hue and cry. They must also have been reckoned to have had a touch of the greatness that inspires rapture, shock and derision.

Continue reading in The New York Times

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