Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Salacious, shocking and sordid, and now a French national treasure

The writings, etched in dark ink on a small scroll, tell the sordid story of four debauched aristocrats who lock themselves away in a castle to play out their wildest sexual fantasies, which run the gamut from orgies and animals to torture. Even their author — the Marquis de Sade, the 18th-century French nobleman whose libidinous antics helped break sexual mores and inspired the word sadism — considered his work "the most impure tale ever written since the world began." France considered Sade such a notorious philanderer that he was jailed under royal orders in the late 1700s, including in the Bastille prison in Paris for over a decade, just before it was stormed by revolutionaries. It was during this time that he wrote his salacious text. But more than two centuries later, the French government last week recognized his work, titled 120 Days of Sodom, or The School of Libertinage, as a national treasure. The government decision came just a day before his work was about to be sold off at an auction in Paris, and means that the document, Sade’s earliest work of fiction, may not be taken out of the country for at least 30 months. During that time, the state is expected to shore up funds to purchase it at international rates, according to officials involved in the sale and the government decision. It had been expected to fetch $7 million had it been auctioned.

Sade’s work, written on a scroll measuring 3 feet long and just 4 inches wide, "is a serious document of literature, of France’s literary history," said Frédéric Castaing, an expert on 18th-century manuscripts and a member of a commission that advises the government on what works should be designated as national treasures. Sade, he added, was one of France’s most influential authors of the 18th century, alongside Voltaire and Diderot, and inspired the Surrealist movement in the 20th century.

Sade kept his manuscript hidden behind a rock in his cell in the Bastille but he was unable to smuggle it out with him when he was transferred to an asylum in 1789, a loss that caused him to weep "tears of blood," according to scholars.

"It is the most extraordinarily shocking thing ever written," said Will McMorran, a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London who translated it into English in 2016. "It is a very disturbing text," he said. "It is a remarkable transition for an author who was in prison" for his sexual aberrations, he added, "and whose work is now under lock and key."

Kimiko de Freytas-tamura, New York Times

Who were the artists who made prehistoric cave paintings in France and Spain? Directly proving anything definitive about the executors of paintings made 33,000 years ago, in the case of the Chauvet Cave in France — or even as long as 40,800 years ago, in the case of the El Castillo cave in Spain — is nearly impossible. But several theories about the well-hidden and anatomically accurate portrayals of animals suggest that they involved important and secret magical or religious rituals, so that only the best work would be worthy. Hunter-artists would presumably be very familiar with the anatomy of animals after close observation of their prey.

After the famous discovery of the Lascaux Cave galleries of animals, the early archaeologist Henri Breuil theorized that they involved rituals of sympathetic magic designed to ensure a good hunt. However, some of the animals portrayed in the Chauvet cave, like lions, panthers, bears and hyenas, were not hunted for food.

Later ideas included the possibility that the art was produced in shamanic rituals under the influence of hallucinogenic substances, or that the paintings were sometimes simply outpourings of creativity by professional and well-supported artists.

Still another researcher, R. Dale Guthrie, points out that the whole body of cave art shows a wide range of abilities: "There are many unskilled Paleolithic drawings that are rarely reproduced in art books."

C. Clairborne Ray, New York Times

The size of the average British wineglass grew by more than seven times from 1700 through today, according to a new paper published in the BMJ. For the study, the researchers analyzed the capacities of hundreds of wineglasses from various sources, including the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford, the Royal Household, historic catalogs from English glassware maker Dartington Crystal, the John Lewis department store and eBay.

Back around 1700, the typical wineglass had a capacity of just 66 milliliters (a little over two ounces). Typical capacities increased gradually throughout the following centuries, but starting around 1990 the average size ballooned dramatically, reaching 449 ml, over 15 ounces, and well over half the size of a typical 750 ml bottle of wine.

According to the study, glass sizes were initially kept small because of a glass excise tax in England that was abolished in 1845. In the 20th century, "wine glasses started to be tailored in shape and size for different wine varieties," according to the study, "both reflecting and contributing to a burgeoning market for wine appreciation, where larger glasses were considered important."

Studies have also shown that larger glass sizes have boosted wine sales in bars and restaurants, giving those establishments an incentive to go big. The sight of big glasses in restaurants may in turn help shape norms about typical glass sizes when drinking at home.

People don’t typically fill their wineglasses to capacity, so an average capacity of 449 ml doesn’t indicate that the average wine drinker is gulping down over half a bottle per glass. "I ... hope the authors have not been committing the faux pas of filling [their glasses] to the brim," writes Basil F. Moss of the Royal Derbyshire Hospital in a response to the study. "They should usually be filled to the widest point, which leaving the glass about a third full — the shape of the glass can then capture the aroma. Cheers!"

Christopher Ingraham,
Washington Post

Rich people are different from the rest of us — and that includes the way they experience happiness. Instead of feeling positive emotions that involve connections with other people, their happiness is more likely to be expressed as feelings that focus on themselves, new research shows.

The findings, published in the journal Emotion, seemed to fit a larger pattern, according to the psychologists who conducted the study. After all, they wrote, people with money are more insulated from social and environmental threats. That gives them the luxury of being able to focus on their own "internal states and goals" instead of having to worry about other people. Those who inhabit the lower classes, on the other hand, often find themselves at the mercy of others. In their case, the researchers wrote, the best coping strategy is to muddle through together. That requires them to focus on other people instead of just themselves.

To see how social class influences happiness, Paul Piff and Jake Moskowitz of the University of California Irvine examined survey data from 1,519 Americans who answered questions about their household income and their emotional state. The participants hailed from all 50 states, and they were a racially, ethnically and economically representative microcosm of the country as a whole.

The survey probed people’s happiness by asking about seven distinct positive emotions: amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, enthusiasm, love and pride. Each emotion was described in a concise sentence, and survey-takers used a 7-point scale to show how much they agreed or disagreed with the statement.

The researchers found that people from higher social classes were more likely than their poorer counterparts to agree with statements indicating they felt pride ("It feels good to know that people look up to me"), contentment ("I feel satisfied more often than most people") and amusement ("Many things are funny to me"). On the other hand, people with less money were more likely than their richer counterparts to agree with statements that indicated compassion ("Nurturing others gives me a warm feeling inside"), love ("I develop strong emotions toward people I can rely on") and awe ("I often feel awe").

These associations held up even when the study authors controlled for factors including age, gender, political ideology and religious beliefs, the researchers reported.

"What seems to be the case is that your wealth predisposes you to different kinds of happiness," he explained. "While wealthier individuals may find greater positivity in their accomplishments, status and individual achievements, less wealthy individuals seem to find more positivity and happiness in their relationships, their ability to care for and connect with others."

Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times

How deep is the sand on a typical beach? There are so many variables in the evolving natural history of a sandy beach that it would be virtually impossible to identify a typical beach. The depth of the sand can range from a few inches to many feet and can change noticeably with each season, each storm, each tide or even each wave.

Often, underneath the loose sand of a beach is a layer of hard, compacted sand, which could be on its way to becoming sandstone if the necessary cement, pressure and heat ever appear — and if it is not eroded by severe storms.

Among the variables in beach depth are the shape and angle of the area where sand accumulates; the materials that lie under the sand, whether mud, rocks, rubble or more sand; the source of the sand, as well as its size and texture; and wave and current patterns.

Human intervention is often futile. Repeated studies have found that sand pumped onto beaches in order to protect coastal property may be washed out by a storm or two. These beaches commonly lose all the new sand in five years or so.

C. Claiborne Ray, New York Times