A complete examination of even one topic is probably too much for a book review, but for point of comparison, take Weil’s notion of the creative act. For Weil, all truth and goodness emanate from God, and all creativity begins with modeling what Weil took to be the essence of God’s creative act in emptying the self of itself. As Miklos Veto explains in The Religious Metaphysics of Simone Weil, “For God, the act of creation was not an expansion of self, but much more a renunciation or abdication. This universe is an abandoned kingdom; its price is the withdrawal of God, and its very existence is the cause of separation from God.” Therefore, creativity is ultimately tied to a sacrificial impulse. Without it, we’re trapped in what Weil called “the imagination”—a solipsistic self-referentiality in which we find ways to quite literally “fictionalize” the fellow souls we encounter, making them unreal in order to serve the purpose of maintaining a personality ourselves. In Weil’s harsh metaphysics, to desire existence is both self-defeating and sinful. Of course, literal suicide would be to kill oneself before the act of renunciation—putting the cart before the horse, as it were, and possibly echoing the same bright moments of self-forgetting that the philosopher feels as he chases the top. It’s also nearly the same spirit in which Olsson herself lunges after the ineffable ghosts of her own personality, illustrating the exact opposite of what she took creativity to be: an expansion of self into the imagined figures of the past. A colonization of silence by personality.
But this is exactly why Olsson’s book is useful. Of course, it’s enjoyable to read, and there’s much to learn about the life of Weil’s genius brother and the biographies of a few other mathematicians. Olsson has a natural, clean, and sophisticated voice. But most importantly, The Weil Conjectures is a counter-demonstration of Weil’s principles. It represents all of the emotionally vibrant bourgeois spiritual lassitude that Weil lived her very life against. And so, in the end, its faults are a kind of fascinating felix culpa.
Darwin himself had reservations about his theory, shared by some of the most important biologists of his time. And the problems that worried him have only grown more substantial over the decades. In the famous “Cambrian explosion” of around half a billion years ago, a striking variety of new organisms—including the first-ever animals—pop up suddenly in the fossil record over a mere 70-odd million years. This great outburst followed many hundreds of millions of years of slow growth and scanty fossils, mainly of single-celled organisms, dating back to the origins of life roughly three and half billion years ago.
Darwin’s theory predicts that new life forms evolve gradually from old ones in a constantly branching, spreading tree of life. Those brave new Cambrian creatures must therefore have had Precambrian predecessors, similar but not quite as fancy and sophisticated. They could not have all blown out suddenly, like a bunch of geysers. Each must have had a closely related predecessor, which must have had its own predecessors: Darwinian evolution is gradual, step-by-step. All those predecessors must have come together, further back, into a series of branches leading down to the (long ago) trunk.
But those predecessors of the Cambrian creatures are missing. Darwin himself was disturbed by their absence from the fossil record. He believed they would turn up eventually. Some of his contemporaries (such as the eminent Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz) held that the fossil record was clear enough already, and showed that Darwin’s theory was wrong. Perhaps only a few sites had been searched for fossils, but they had been searched straight down. The Cambrian explosion had been unearthed, and beneath those Cambrian creatures their Precambrian predecessors should have been waiting—and weren’t. In fact, the fossil record as a whole lacked the upward-branching structure Darwin predicted.
The trunk was supposed to branch into many different species, each species giving rise to many genera, and towards the top of the tree you would find so much diversity that you could distinguish separate phyla—the large divisions (sponges, mosses, mollusks, chordates, and so on) that comprise the kingdoms of animals, plants, and several others—take your pick. But, as Berlinski points out, the fossil record shows the opposite: “representatives of separate phyla appearing first followed by lower-level diversification on those basic themes.” In general, “most species enter the evolutionary order fully formed and then depart unchanged.” The incremental development of new species is largely not there. Those missing pre-Cambrian organisms have still not turned up. (Although fossils are subject to interpretation, and some biologists place pre-Cambrian life-forms closer than others to the new-fangled Cambrian creatures.)
Some researchers have guessed that those missing Precambrian precursors were too small or too soft-bodied to have made good fossils. Meyer notes that fossil traces of ancient bacteria and single-celled algae have been discovered: smallness per se doesn’t mean that an organism can’t leave fossil traces—although the existence of fossils depends on the surroundings in which the organism lived, and the history of the relevant rock during the ages since it died. The story is similar for soft-bodied organisms. Hard-bodied forms are more likely to be fossilized than soft-bodied ones, but many fossils of soft-bodied organisms and body parts do exist. Precambrian fossil deposits have been discovered in which tiny, soft-bodied embryo sponges are preserved—but no predecessors to the celebrity organisms of the Cambrian explosion.
This sort of negative evidence can’t ever be conclusive. But the ever-expanding fossil archives don’t look good for Darwin, who made clear and concrete predictions that have (so far) been falsified—according to many reputable paleontologists, anyway. When does the clock run out on those predictions? Never. But any thoughtful person must ask himself whether scientists today are looking for evidence that bears on Darwin, or looking to explain away evidence that contradicts him. There are some of each. Scientists are only human, and their thinking (like everyone else’s) is colored by emotion.
Around the turn of the millennium, these causes converged in a particular genre of TV entertainment, the reality show, which quickly became a leading incubator of negative self-exposure. It is impossible to prove a counterfactual, but without reality TV, it seems unlikely that so many people would equate “being real” and “telling it like it is” with spilling ugly secrets, flaunting rank egotism, attacking personal morality and social norms, and exuding contempt for the opinions and sensibilities of others. This cultural turn is dismaying enough, but as this kind of behavior comes to define what is honest, authentic, and true, it becomes more difficult for free and democratic societies to push back against the looming threat of a full-fledged surveillance state, a digital Panopticon.
Much of what Berman wrote and performed throughout his life was country music: songs about the sadness and difficulty of trying to get by in the world, along with descriptions of that world. “When God was young, he made the wind and the sun,” Berman sang on the opening song of Bright Flight. “And since then, it’s been a slow education.” When country songs are successful, it is because their outward simplicity, their plain-spokenness, their colloquialisms emerge out of enormous and delicate efforts of emotional compression. You can tell when a country song is just simple—when the necessary effort hasn’t been made—and you can tell when a songwriter hasn’t pulled off the compression, because then the song sounds mannered. But when both elements are working, a country song can shimmer, throb, or glare at you with an uncomfortable intensity. And when all that intensity builds up, country songs use humor as a release valve to ease the pressure. Sometimes the intensity and the humor occur simultaneously. “The light of my life is going out tonight,” Berman sang in “Darkness and Cold,” as in: she’s going out to have some fun for once, with someone else.
In “Black and Brown Shoes,” from The Natural Bridge, Berman sang:
When I go downtown
I always wear a corduroy suit
’cause it’s made of a hundred gutters
that the rain can run right through
Happy birthday (this week) to the album that officially introduced one of America's greatest inventions: modal jazz.