Wednesday, February 25, 2009


I'm just back from a short trip to London, where one of the highlights was the "Babylon: Myth and Reality" exhibit at the British Museum, which continues until March 15 and is well worth your time. As the title implies, Babylon, about 85 kilometers south of Baghdad, was one of the great capitals of the ancient world (and most closely associated with King Nebuchadnezzar II, 605-562 BC); but it is also a center-point for myths and stories that still resonate today. The Biblical stories of the Tower of Babel, the "writing on the wall," Daniel in the lion's den, and many others are set in Babylon, which was also a center of science and mathematics, great architectural experiments, and good old-fashioned decadence.

The exhibit explores the real city and the legends it inspired, and ends with a slide show about the great damage United States troops did to the site--the military built a camp right on it--after the invasion of Iraq. The slide show was put together under the direction of John Curtis, Keeper of the Middle East Collections at the British Museum and a tireless advocate for protection of Iraq's archaeological heritage, which was decimated under the U.S. occupation. It took courage for the British Museum to so directly criticize American actions, and they should be congratulated for doing so.

More culture: Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl. I'm not very good at writing about music, other than on its possible evolutionary significance, which I do often for Science. But I do know that Puccini's "Turandot" is far and away the greatest opera ever written and that Van Morrison is the only man on this sorry planet who can sing worth a damn (quite a few women, on the other hand, can sing very sweetly indeed.) So naturally I preordered this new album and plunked it on the CD player as soon as it arrived. Contrary to the lukewarm, albeit sympathetic, review that James Parker gave it in Slate, this album is just pure bliss. Van Morrison is notoriously uneven in live performances, but when he knows his reputation is on the line he can soar straight into the stratosphere. I have heard him live twice in my life, once during the 1970s at the old Keystone club in Berkeley, and a few years ago here in Paris, I think it was at the Olympia. The experience was transporting in both cases; indeed, during his Paris gig, at one point I levitated out of my seat and was not quite sure where I was going to go next, sideways or straight up. A bit of an unsettling experience, although I eventually did find my seat again. At the Hollywood Bowl, he sailed through the old songs as if it were still yesterday. I just wish I had been there.

Slight U.S. shift on Israel? Glenn Greenwald thinks there might be encouraging signs. Let's hope he's right.

Palin in 2012! I gather that Bobby Jindal's response to Obama's speech to Congress was not the rousing success nor the launching pad for his presidential campaign that some Republicans had hoped for. No worries, the GOP has lots of other talent. After all, the wisdom of their economic plan--cutting taxes when fewer and fewer people are making enough money to pay them anyway, and letting the free market take care of things--should soon be obvious.


Richard Parker said...

"It took courage for the British Museum to so directly criticize American actions, and they should be congratulated for doing so."


As Donny Rumsfeld said 'Things happen'

You can't send an army of 150,000 niggers and hillbillies out to a country they've never heard of before, and expect them to respect a very ancient history.

- I used the phrase 'niggers and hillbillies' deliberately, to reflect the thinking of the elite who sent them there.

Michael Balter said...

Thanks for your comment, Richard, but the soldiers who built that camp right on the site of Babylon did so at the orders of their superiors. Thus your characterizations of them could be taken to be insulting, and certainly borderline for this blog. I will not censor or delete them, but would caution you to be sure that there is no ambiguity in what you say here.

Anne Gilbert said...

Re your comments about the opera Turandot:

It's a great opera in many ways, and very influential in some(plus requiring some pretty strong singers if done well). But I don't think it's the greatest opera ever written. That honor, IMO, goes to Don Giovanni, which I would stop in my tracks to see or here. But as I say, that's just my opinion. I'm not a musician, just a music lover.
Anne G