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By Frans De Waal

As the men with the knives dragged the thieves, the crowd jostled for a better view. Minutes later, four young men lay bleeding, each without his right hand and left leg. Some of the onlookers collapsed in fear. Others cheered. This was in June, in Somalia, as reported in the New York Times.

No surprise there, many would say—nothing but one more dismal demonstration of humankind’s worst impulses. “Man is a wolf to man,” Thomas Hobbes declared three centuries ago, and the sentiment was old then. But in his remarkable new book, The Age of Empathy, Frans de Waal contends that Hobbes managed to malign both animals and human beings in the same breath.

Humans are social animals, de Waal observes, and natural selection has shaped us to cooperate, share, and empathize as well as to compete, fight, and maim. The same holds for chimps and gorillas—and wolves. “Don’t believe anyone who says that since nature is based on a struggle for life, we need to live like this as well,” writes de Waal. “Many animals survive not by eliminating each other or keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing.”

De Waal has two big goals in his compact book. One is to counter the argument that “every man for himself” is a law of nature. Economists and political thinkers, proclaiming themselves the spokesmen for clear-eyed realism, long ago took a horrified look at the natural world and declared that it is a jungle out there. Competition is ruthless and perpetual, and animals are gladiators with claws and fangs.

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Francis De Waal.

Hardback: Harmony, 2009.
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Rebecca Solnit, author of

(Reviewing coming soon in the ERB) BELIEVER: I’ve seen you referred to as an art historian, a landscape writer, and an art critic, if not more. How do you consider your own work and writer’s identity?

REBECCA SOLNIT: In Wanderlust, I wrote, “This history of walking is an amateur history, just as walking is an amateur act. To use a walking metaphor, it trespasses through everybody else’s field—through anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies—and doesn’t stop in any of them on its long route. For if a field of expertise can be imagined as a real field—a nice rectangular confine carefully tilled and yielding a specific crop—then the subject of walking resembles walking itself in its lack of confines.” I have a very clear sense of what I am here to do and what its internal coherence is, but it doesn’t fit into the way that ideas and continuities are chopped up into fields or labeled. Sometimes I say I’m an essayist, because that’s an elegant, historically grounded—if sometimes trivialized—mode of literature, while nonfiction is just a term for the leftovers when fiction is considered to be paramount, and creative nonfiction is even more abject a term.

BLVR: In what way, or for whom, do you figure these labels matter?

RS: Well, people want to call you something, and saying you’re just a writer is not enough. Not that I’m comparing myself to them, but Orwell wrote memoir, fiction, polemics, beautiful essays, reviews, ruminations, and tirades; Sontag wrote mostly essays, a few at length, some dealing with broader ideas and genres, some dealing with politics and ethics—and then there are her novels. I love best the nonfiction of a lot of people celebrated mostly for their fiction, from Virginia Woolf to Jamaica Kincaid. The best part about the critical training I got in the visual arts is that it was really just about reading things carefully and asking questions about meaning. The subject could be an artwork, but it could also be the history of nuclear physics or national parks or the representation of Native Americans or the perceptual and spatial changes the railroad brought.

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Rebecca Solnit.

Hardback: Viking, 2009
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A Review of Ernst Bloch’s

Since its original publication in 1968, Ernst Bloch’s Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom has been the book to deal with by any serious quester after knowledge of the deep symbiotic relationship between those über-‘Others’, Christianity and Atheism. As an unabashed utopian Marxist thinker philosopher, Bloch (1885 – 1977) eschews that ‘excess of hyper-rationalism or dogmatic materialism’ his more prosaic musular atheist stable mates generally bring to discussions of religion. In the words of Peter Thompson, Director of the Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies at the University of Sheffield, in his excellent Introduction to this long unavailable classic, ‘Ernst Bloch and the Quantum Mechanics of Hope’ (i – xxx, i):

(R)eligion as both debate and way of life has not crumbled in the face of an apparently inexorable rationalist, scientific, modernising Enlightenment and the globalisation of the market economy, but retains a potency and strength which remains far in excess of its ability to explain.

Bloch himself rubbed shoulders with that unique coterie of enlightened radical Marxists – Brecht, Adorno, Benjamin, for example. Perhaps we have the embryo of some such today in Eagleton, Badiou, Žižek, Habermas and others for whom religion-averse aggressive sorts of atheistic fundamentalism are as intellectually uncongenial as the ‘exclusively modern phenomenon’ (Habermas 2001: 10) of their religion counterparts. Marx’s own dialectical understanding of religiosity, captured well in his open-minded insight into ‘the opium of the masses, the heart of the heartless world’ pervades Bloch’s ‘detective work’, as he himself called it, on the emancipatory – for which, read ‘heretical’, a favourite Blochian trope – potential within Christianity. Bloch’s exegesis of the Bible is an insider’s hermeneutic, unlike that verstehen-free religion-cynical spleen of Hitchens, Dawkins, Gray and other high priests of resurgent Darwinism.

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Ernst Bloch.

Paperback: Verso, 2009.
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A Review of Esther Sternberg’s

I have a keen interest in the healing dimensions of space, and in particular the role of landscape architecture and exterior spaces to provide this function. This comes from doing a lot of work and research in the realm of therapeutic garden design over the years in hospital, hospice, and eldercare facilities. I first became interested in the phenomenon while doing my undergraduate final project related to a cemetery design that utilized physical space design to aid in the bereavement process, and was fascinated by the connection between environmental design and health. There is an innate connection between space and health – but sometimes the connections, both physiologically and spatially, are a bit fuzzy. There are a number of successful examples in literature and design, but often there is either dismissal of designs as unscientific by the medical community, or by inadequate application and understanding of scientific concepts and mechanisms by designers – resulting in poor or partially realized applications.

That’s where Ms. Sternberg’s book shines. It is not neccesarily a ‘how-to’ (there are a growing number of resources out there in this genre), but more aptly a bridge between the scientific research of the concept of healing and how this work in the design of spaces. The book spans the available research, starting with some of the more intuitive architectural concepts of Wright, Aalto, and Neutra, touching on the pioneering work of Ulrich, and expanding on the growing design-science connections being made by collaborations between space design and health research, and looking specifically at both the microcosm of hospitals, and the macro-scale of cities, and the range of designs that this thinking can inform.

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Esther Sternberg.

Hardback: Harvard UP, 2009.
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BookForum Reviews
Lev Grossman’s new novel

Lev Grossman’s third novel, The Magicians, pulls liberally from a grab bag of very familiar fantasy tropes: the troubled boy–turned–master conjurer; the school of wizardry, hidden by spellcraft in plain sight; the sinister presence that haunts the students’ nightmares; even a sport played, tournament-style, exclusively by young mages. As the book opens, seventeen-year-old Quentin Coldwater is preparing to leave his bucolic Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood for the greener lawns of the Ivy League. He has a small circle of friends, kind but distant parents, and a GPA “higher than most people even realize it is possible for a GPA to be.”

And yet something is awry. Although Quentin has “painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness . . . happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come.” On a bitter winter day, he stumbles through one of Park Slope’s myriad community gardens, past “the corpses of gladiolas, petunias, shoulder-high sunflowers, rosebushes,” and onto the campus of Brakebills College. Here, on an aging country estate, Quentin has been summoned to learn magic from an eclectic cast of master wizards. “First things first: magic is real,” the dean of Brakebills tells him shortly after his arrival. “This isn’t summer school, Quentin. This is . . . the whole shebang.”

Read the full review:

Lev Grossman.

Hardback: Viking, 2009.
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