Pope Francis: a pontiff putting post-Gutenberg media slugabeds to shame

- caricature of a pompous, power-mad cleric, the kind Pope Francis is doing his best to eliminate -- by the supremely anti-clerical Martin Disteli (1802-1844)

Caricature of a pompous, power-mad cleric, the kind Pope Francis is doing his best to eliminate — by the supremely anti-clerical Martin Disteli (1802-1844)

The astonishing Argentinian Pope Francis, who is 78 and breathing with only one lung, does not expect to live long – hence is racing to do all he can, as fast as possible, to rid the Vatican of bureaucratic arteriosclerosis, closed minds, meaningless pomp and display, factionalism and infighting.

All this we have learnt from the outstanding profile that emerges from assessments of three new biographies by Eamon Duffy, writing in The New York Review of Books.

We tend to think of the young as the most obvious campaigners for radical change; as its natural leaders. But if you stop to think about it, old radicals are far more impressive. They have a lifetime’s experience of discouragement of challengers of the status quo — often, by the extremely nasty and powerful. They have heard all the very best reasons for leaving things as they are — ad nauseam.

For those of us frustrated by the pace of media’s post-Gutenberg revolution, the Duffy essay – certainly no hagiography, with its extended passages about the pontiffs flaws and failures – was a bracing and encouraging read. Not least, about life’s capacity to surprise us. Think of the size of the institution the Vatican manages. In 2011, the Catholic Church had 1.2 billion members, tended to by 413,418 priests. Think of its age. It is two thousand years old. Age and size are typically justifications for intertia – or no change at all.

Extracts from ‘Who Is the Pope?’ The New York Review of Books, 19 February 2015 (with highlights for unrepentant skimmers):

…[A]bove all, Francis is the first pope to embrace wholeheartedly the Second Vatican Council’s aspiration for a church in which authority is shared among the whole episcopate, rather than monolithically focused in the papacy. At the end of the council in 1965, Pope Paul VI had established a permanent Synod of Bishops as a forum for continued collaboration between pope and bishops. Many saw the synod as the major expression of “collegiality” that would devolve much of the decision-making of the Roman Curia to the bishops in synod and through them to the local churches.

Such hopes proved illusory: the Roman authorities saw to it that the synod remained a powerless talking shop with no independence or initiating power. Bergoglio shared the general episcopal dissatisfaction with this situation, and as pope, in one of the most striking passages of Evangelii Gaudium, he has called for “a conversion of the papacy” on such matters. John Paul II, he reminded his readers, had invited suggestions for a renewal of the papal office to make it more visibly an office of service, but “we have made little progress in this regard.” The papacy and the central structures of the Church must heed the call to “pastoral conversion,” because “excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” In particular, Francis insisted, there had been a failure to realize a truly collegial spirit within the church, and episcopal conferences needed to be given “genuine doctrinal authority.”

He has proved as good as his word. Opening the Synod on the Family in October 2014 that, among much else, dealt with the fraught issues of sexuality, contraception, divorce, and remarriage, Francis encouraged the bishops to express their views frankly. No one should be silent or conceal his true opinions, “perhaps believing that the Pope might think something else.” To do so would be a failure in “synodality, because it is necessary to say all that, in the Lord, one feels the need to say: without polite deference, without hesitation.” These were not empty platitudes: under John Paul II and Benedict XVI open questioning of official positions was routinely branded as “dissent,” and bishops who deviated even mildly from the official line were subject to reprimand or removal. For a pope to encourage fearless public outspokenness among the bishops was a startling novelty.

… On the one hand there was the temptation to “hostile inflexibility,” of “wanting to close oneself,…not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises,” clinging to “the certitude of what we know.” This was the special temptation of the zealous, and the so-called “traditionalists.” On the other hand he warned against “a destructive tendency to do-goodism” (buonismo in Italian) that “in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots.” This, [he said], was the special temptation of the “do-gooders,” and of the so-called “progressives and liberals.” …

Though always meticulously respectful of his immediate predecessors, the differences between Francis and them are wide, deep, and, as his handling of the synod makes clear, momentous for the church. His distrust of religious leaders who “play Tarzan,” secure in their own certitudes, does not sit well with admirers of John Paul II or his style of leadership. Though he has commended the “prudence” of Benedict XVI’s rehabilitation of the old Latin liturgy, he is suspicious of the reactionary ideological freight that the Latin liturgy often carries with it, and he despises ceremonial pomp.

… he has abolished honorific titles and dress for the younger clergy working in the Curia, since for him priesthood is essentially about service to the poor and vulnerable, rather than a symbolic status or the exercise of sacramental power.

Perhaps most momentously, Francis has pointed the church away from culture wars with secular society that were such a feature of Benedict’s papacy, toward a less confrontational approach to the social circumstances in which the faithful have to live, and a more fruitful reengagement with the church’s mission to the poor and underprivileged, in whom he sees both the natural and the most receptive hearers of the Gospel. Where Benedict was inclined to blame the increasing marginalization of Christianity in Western society on a collective apostasy rooted in the shallow materialism of secular modern society, Francis is inclined to attribute the corresponding decline in Latin America to the church’s own shortcomings:

Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs…perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas, perhaps the world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions; perhaps the Church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age.

… Francis himself is unlikely to have a long pontificate: he is an old man, with only one functioning lung. Both in Rome and in the dioceses of the world he has been quietly putting in place men who share his vision. But the announcement in January 2015 of his second consistory for the creation of new cardinals was anything but quiet, because the pope’s startling list of the twenty cardinals-designate, fifteen of them under eighty and therefore eligible to vote in the next papal conclave, represented a positive fanfare for Francis’s alternative vision of the Catholic Church.

The Guardian wants to look like a Facebook extension, but the right model for a socially sensitive, reader-supported newspaper is either Private Eye or Tsū.co

-- postgutenberg[at]gmail.com, from a detail by MIL22

— postgutenberg[at]gmail.com, from a detail of a photograph by MIL22

Next week, editorial staff at the newspaper with one of the three most-visited English-language sites on the net will be offered the unusual chance to vote for their next editor-in-chief – even though that will be someone chosen from a different (overlapping) list by the paper’s board of overseers.

The voters will select from among just four candidates for the job — of a total of two dozen-odd applicants — who are brave enough not to rely simply on their qualifications, but submit in public to testing and demonstrating what support they can count on from rank-and-file staffers. The staff favourite is not guaranteed the job: the board of directors could pick an applicant from the longer list not running for election. More curiously yet, the voting is being organised from outside the newspaper, by Britain’s sterling, 108 year-old National Union of Journalists.

This hybrid, fuzzy, faintly Mad Hatter-ish path to the job — or not — has a precedent at The Guardian. Alan Rusbridger, the editor being replaced, who has served as the paper’s chief for two decades, was apparently appointed through an arcane weighing of skills vs. popularity with Guardianistas.

So, history is one reason why no one should read into this succession drama any implication that the paper is democratising its modus operandi. Some onlookers have also made the mistake of assuming that The Guardian is bowing to egalitarian net culture by urging readers to pay subscriptions to become ‘members’ of its organisation. Last year, two of these observers interpreted the scheme’s announcement, in exuberant messages to post-Gutenberg, as proof of the paper’s adoption of the proposal with which this blog began — that Guardian readers were going to be invited to become part-owners through subscriptions that would also be small financial stakes.

So far, that conclusion has been wrong – a realisation that, for some of us, borders on tragic. (See ‘Alan Rusbridger must please not let ‘Guardian membership’ mean bread-and-circuses, and prove that he is sincere about “mutualised” journalism,’ post-Gutenberg.com, 18 September 2014.)

Why? Because we see small-scale reader-owners becoming passionately involved in the paper’s future economic survival — and creating a new economic model for running media — if their contributions of ideas, reactions, news and campaigning for favourite causes are given greater prominence in expanded comments sections. This will be especially true if what they supply is freed from censorship by Guardian moderators. Many of us can remember dozens of stimulating, irreverent, frequently dazzling ‘below-the-line’ contributors to readers’ discussions in the first year or two after this newspaper launched its online ‘Comment-is-Free’ section in 2006. We watched, nearly heartbroken, as most of them stopped reacting to above-the-line articles – or, as we often put it in those days, blogging in comments sections – from disgust with repressive moderators and moderation policies, which too often led to the banning of commenters we loved most. (See: ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?‘, post-Gutenberg.com, 7 November 2011.)

Most traditional journalists, especially senior and long-fêted members of the profession – all around the world – still despise reader-blogger-commenters. They hate the competition. Having got too comfortable on pedestals on which they were seldom criticised or corrected, they were infuriated by the arrival of citizen-debaters. But a few of these, the most honest critics in so-called legacy journalism, are now reluctantly conceding that they could be mistaken in their classification of reader-commenters as either stupid, uneducated, or vicious trolls. We ourselves could be mistaken in perceiving any such concession – in an oblique form – in a couple of entries in the latest ‘From The Message Boards’ column of Private Eye, the paradoxical magazine written – and run — in the spirit of the net at its most impish and egalitarian, that has no online edition at all. (Issue No. 1385, 6 February – 19 February 2015)  For years, typical FTMB inventions have read like this:

wat about the yesterday’s chanel? theres no way them old nazi’s was filmed the day before :) lol! – Hatfield Gooner

What the Eye presented as representative of comments on newspaper web sites was so predictably buffoonish that it was one of its few sections not worth reading at all (unless you live for Benny Hill toilet jokes). But in the latest issue delivered to our letter box, we were astonished to find this toothsome morsel – which we hope is a sign of FTMB raising its game:

It was on ITV actually, but the BBC is equally culpable when it comes to distortion and inaccuracies. I will never forget the astonishment I felt when watching their film about Stephen Hawking, which (unlike Broadchurch [new crime mini-series being discussed in this FMTB column]) purported to be based on fact. In the opening scene, at Hawking’s 21st birthday party on 8 January 1963, the gramophone in the background is playing ‘Some Other Guy’ by The Big Three, a record not released until March that year. Had Hawking received an advance promotional copy? No, because the track hadn’t yet been recorded. One can only conclude that he had travelled back in time from the future, bringing a copy of the disc to prove his own later theories correct. – PCS 3042

Now, there’s a sendup of genius – a perfect specimen of a post by a high-precision-pedant-on-steroids, one class of reader-commenter post-Gutenberg treasured particularly, in the short-lived good old early days of the Guardian’s Comment-is-Free site. Once you had wept with delight over your introduction to PCS 3042, you found yourself stopping in at CiF all day long, hoping that she or he had returned to post again, in your absence.

So did other readers – and fans and sparring-partners of below-the-line marvels like PCS. That boosted site traffic for the best reasons. Instead, the Guardian’s over-zealous moderators have lashed its BTL contributors into such a pathetic, tame, conformist bunch that it does make perfect sense for the redesigned online version of the paper to look like an extension of bland, boring Facebook. Unbelievably, it has picked a blue-and-white colour scheme just like the social media giant’s for a site frame.

Facebook blueandwhite

With artists in London ready to throw themselves at its feet, why did The Guardian chosen to look like an extension of Facebook.com in its latest redesign?

With artists in London ready to throw themselves at its feet, why has The Guardian chosen to look like an extension of Facebook.com in its latest redesign?

Once, we would have scoured the Guardian’s comments sections to see which other readers had noticed this bizarre act of imitation — unless we mean, slavish homage to the $ power of almighty social media. But in this round of site design, the paper’s managers invited readers to submit their reactions to it not openly, on CiF, but in private messages to them. A shrewd move, indeed.

For three years, post-Gutenberg has been pointing out that Facebook, grown fat and sleek on selling minute details of its users’ lives, should rightly be co-owned by those users – who are entitled to shares in its profits. (See: ‘A better Facebook — or why cooperatives run on the web should work better than the old hippie kind,’ post-Gutenberg.com, 14 February 2012.)

If the Guardian wanted to pull off a brilliant coup, it would use its new look as a Facebook acolyte to make its membership scheme more than the meaningless rich reader-patrons’ club that several other newspapers have also introduced.  The similarity in appearance could help to wean diehard Facebook users, subconsciously, from their devotion to being exploited by Mark Zuckerberg’s company.

As we have said wearily before, we fear that the Guardian’s leaders, even those still only in their forties – over-represented, as far as we can tell, in the candidates for the editor’s job – are too old to see what they need to do. Here is proof in a new social media site, Tsū.co – based in New York, despite its Japanese name, especially delicious in combination with its founder’s novelistic Eastern European identity. Conceived of — as we have concluded from sheer guesswork — in much younger minds, Tsū has its heart exactly where the Guardian’s should be. This is the email we received after we signed up:

Welcome to tsu.co [ post-Gutenberg! ] !

It’s an honor to have you as a new member of this unique user-owned community. We have been working hard to build tsu.co (pronounced ‘sue’) with the purpose of breaking the old rules of social publishing by creating a fair economic model where content creators’ ownership is respected, where they are fairly incentivized and where their content is protected.



Sebastian Sobczak

Founder, CEO at tsu.co

PS: We’re also on mobile. Download the app now:

Somehow, Tsū’s arrival has been ignored completely in Guardian coverage of online news and media. Googling yielded a single story about it posted on a blog on the New York Times site last autumn — in ‘The Social Network That Pays You to Friend’ — but no NYT mention since. Decidedly odd, for a startup claiming to have 2 million users last month.

While Facebook and Twitter have been criticized for failing to share their profits with those who post on their platforms, Tsu pledges to do just that: It will give 90 percent of its ad revenue back to users.

Tsu’s philosophy is that “all content creators, which is basically every social user, should receive royalties for the commercial use of their image, likeness and work,” Mr. Sobczak told Op-Talk. “They essentially do all the work, they should get rewarded with the lion’s share.”

“What people don’t realize is how much value is created by these platforms on the backs of basically everybody’s networking,” he said.

Anna North on the Op-Talk blog of The New York Times, 27 October 2014 

How precisely will Tsū be sharing its profits? Through a complex but workable scheme, explained in detail here, in an excellent — by no means wholly laudatory — TechCrunch profile on 19 January by Sarah Perez:

Today, 10% of the total ad revenue goes to Tsu itself. Half of the remainder goes to Tsu’s content creators (users), and the other half goes to the network that brought in those content creators to the platform. That is, when User A invites User B, and then User B shares popular content, User A is compensated for that. The better a users’ network, or “family tree” in Tsu lingo, the more money you make.

How did we hear about it? From a chance mention by LCM, an immeasurably dear artist friend living somewhere deeply rural. She has a clone in a brainy relation, a high-ranking Silicon Valley entrepreneur swimming in the social media shark pond …

Readers, we don’t know exactly how we’ll get there. We are still studying the fine print about Tsū. But something Tsū-like is indisputably our future.

Happy Valentine’s Grey! ☺ A marker for the most dismal possibilities of e-publishing

Wisdom 5,000 miles from this scene: ‘Anyone who has anything at all to promote… can … claim their self-promotion has something to do with Fifty Shades of Grey.’  - Hadley Freeman in The Guardian

Wisdom 5,000 miles from this scene: ‘Anyone who has anything at all to promote… can … claim their self-promotion has something to do with Fifty Shades of Grey.’
- Hadley Freeman in The Guardian

Depressing but inevitable, we suppose, that proof of the unbounded possibilities of unmediated publishing should have come from this witless book. Never mind, it’s perfect for Falselove-choccie-flowers day.

Highlights from the best commentary – the second set, from a review of the film: there will never be a funnier one.

What a time it is to be alive! For this week of all weeks is when anyone who has anything at all to promote, from duct tape to their own good selves, can attain international attention … All they need to do is somehow claim their self-promotion has something to do with Fifty Shades of Grey.

As even Trappist monks in South Korea know, this is the week that the film of EL James’s hilariously successful book is released. Truly, this would be the perfect Valentine’s Day date …

… [I]t is impossible to think of another movie that has proved itself so amenable to lazy PRs and others desperate to hitch their wagons to this attention-sucking vortex, … I honestly don’t think there’s been a day in the past three months when I haven’t received at least five emails from PRs flogging everything from manicures to men’s ties, that haven’t made some grasping reference to Fifty Shades of Desperation. Condom brands and bedding companies have cannily claimed some sort of alliance with the film, replete with mini films and competitions, with one even offering a prize of “a Sealy Ultimate Support Mattress (in grey!)”. Because what could be sexier than coming home and finding your partner has won you a free grey mattress?

Hadley Freeman in The Guardian, 14 February 2015

Part of the difficulty is the lack of sexual chemistry between the two leads. This is a particularly acute problem in a tale of two lovers exploring a relationship that takes in the wilder shores of bondage, submission, dominance and terrible dialogue.

Grey’s eyes are supposed to blaze with seething lust all the time, but he just looks as if he’s suffering from trapped wind. Nurse, fetch the Tums!

It is true that this Hollywood adaptation is not as bad as the books.

Poor Dakota — the daughter of actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith — is often naked, with a high nipple count, lots of buttock shots and occasional flash of front bottom.

Jamie gets to keep his jeans on a lot, which hardly seems fair or feminist, although we do get to see his impressive bottom, rippling with muscles like a bag of walnuts.

Do you trust me?’ he says, undoing her hair.

Yikes, what is he going to give her? A perm?

Soon, they are walking hand in hand towards his sex dungeon for the first time — it’s a big moment in any relationship.

‘Are your Xboxes in there?’ she wonders. The Red Room of Pain where the tyings-up take place — infamous for those who have read the books — looks like a Pilates gym … all sleek cherry leather and shiny clasps.

There are mysterious instruments hung on the walls; whips and manacles, yes. But what are the rest — squirrel tails, that feather duster from Downton Abbey, a paddle, two bread boards?

Meanwhile, there is some hanky panky with ice cubes and a bit of ever so tasteful, slow-motion peacock-feather-tickling that will remind many women not of their libido, but the fact that their mantelpiece could do with a dust.

Jan Moir in The Daily Mail, 11 February 2015

How Switzerland’s naughty winter carnival, Fasnacht, is in the same tradition that gave it the rich world’s most accessible tool for opposing inequality


Fasnacht is being celebrated, now, in Olten, which is at centre-stage in a tale of two cities in a two-part photo essay on Exposure.co (part 1 and part 2).

Fasnacht is being celebrated, now, in Olten, which is at centre-stage in a tale of two cities in a two-part photo essay on Exposure.co (part 1 and part 2). — photographs by postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

An old idea of cynics is that the worst Christians are always in church to confess their sins on Sundays – in the belief that they are free, after that, to behave as disgracefully as they please for the rest of the week.

Certain aspects of the tradition of pre-Lenten license and lasciviousness could be an approximate parallel, across a whole society, for transactional piety or pseudo-piety – at least, in society as it used to be, when most Westerners were still church-goers. But the parallel is only interesting to weigh as a possibility, and cannot be stretched very far.

In the second half of this post, the connection between Lent and the winter carnival that has preceded it since the Middle Ages, in parts of Europe – and known by the Germans and Swiss as Fasnacht — is explained by Burcu Bayer, a young graduate student in the philosophy department of Turkey’s Yildirim Beyazit University. What she says with a delicious freshness, in a text with distinct notes of Google Translate, shows that Fasnacht-like celebrations are a hugely desirable social safety valve — unlike the petty bargains of hypocrites bending the confession box to their nefarious ends.

Indulging in a good old bacchanal before the fasting and other deprivations of Lent has, by ancient sanction, created an opening for have-nots to mock haves, and – for a few days – give the social order a good rattling.

It cannot be an accident that Switzerland, incontestably the world’s most disciplined and orderly society, celebrates Fasnacht’s setting aside of the usual rules for behaviour with special zest and relishing.

The street scenes in this post are from Olten, one of two rival cities in Enemies: a cash-strapped traveller’s search for the secret of Switzerland’s extreme equality, a book showing how the Swiss have managed to make extreme democracy practical – a long way from untethered intellectualising or idealism. There was certainly no drunkenness, obscene or wild behaviour on display anywhere the camera went on a Saturday afternoon and early evening (in a sequence of events recounted here.)

Olten has a strange and fascinating history as a leader in overthrowing feudalism – starting with its rebellion against the authority of the Catholic Church. The first of the two extracts that follow is from a review of a new book arguing that it was not the seeds of modern scientific thinking that led Westerners to value individual freedom and responsibility as supremely important, but dissent inside the Church:

‘What is the West about?” asks Larry Siedentop, an emeritus fellow of Keble College, Oxford. […] In “Inventing the Individual,” he asks where the Western understanding of liberty comes from and finds—unlike most political thinkers—that its source is Christianity.

This part of the answer, as Mr. Siedentop notes, may prove irritating, because it flies in the face of the comfortable idea that democratic liberty, like modern science, grew out of the 18th-century Enlightenment and, in particular, out of the Enlightenment’s struggle against a reactionary and oppressive church. Not so, he says. Western freedom centers on the notion of the responsible individual endowed with a sovereign conscience and unalienable rights, and that notion emerged, in stages, during the centuries between Paul the Apostle and the churchmen of the Middle Ages.

… In the ancient world, he says, the individual did not exist as such. Everyone had his place within a hierarchy, … the father as ruler of the family, the emperor as ruler of the state and its people, and the slave as a “human tool” subject to the will of his owner. Roman law presumed indelible distinctions: slave-free, citizen-alien, master-follower.

Christianity, as preached by St. Paul in the first century and by St. Augustine in the fourth, promised something quite different, and revolutionary. “In Paul’s writings,” Mr. Siedentop writes, “we see the emergence of a new sense of justice, founded on the assumption of moral equality rather than on natural inequality.

’Where ‘I’ Comes From,’ David Gress, The Wall Street Journal, 19 December 2014

In Switzerland, the fire of religious revolution and ‘something quite different’ found abundant fuel in its founding tribes’ own — longstanding — traditions of egalitarianism.

Fasnacht fits those beautifully, as Burcu Bayer shows us – in an authorial voice resembling nothing you’d expect to read in a thesis but, rather, the forthright foreign student at the table next to yours, somewhere, on whose conversation you cannot help eavesdropping:

The Carnival of the middle ages has no parallel in modern times. The official feasts and celebrations were linked to the church, the feudal lords, or the state. Carnivals were related to one of the religious rituals, it was the last blowout before Lent. It was a time of excess, when the prohibitions on carnal satisfaction are abolished and popular creative energy is given full expression in the form of costumes, masks, songs, dances, puppet shows, poems, plays, etc.. Society is, in normal circumstances, ruled by the “head” i.e, in medieval Europe, the court and the church. During Carnival, hierarchy is not only suspended but inverted: The village idiot becomes king; sinners in priestly vestments preach nonsensical or blasphemous sermons. It is a space-time governed by the joyously eating, drinking, screwing and odor-emitting regions of corporal existence, which the mind ignores or otherwise represses. These features of Carnival lead us to relate it with a social criticism. To explain, inverted hierarchy can be read as an acquired right by a social movement, it is peasants’ right to be the head of the society.

Thus, these carnivals became an opportunity to protest. There are different levels of approaching this protest behavior of Carnivals. First line is the reversal of society where idiot becomes king; slave becomes master and so the hierarchy of society is inversed. A second life, a second world is constructed and it is a “world inside out”. It is a world like a utopian realm that freedom, equality and abundance exist.

- from ‘Carnivals as a Site of Protests during Renaissance,’ Burcu Bayer, 2013

Switzerland’s egalitarian spirit has its grassroots pushing up sturdy green blades towards possibilities still undreamt of in other places. Dreams that any Swiss citizen can seek to turn into reality through that quintessentially Swiss political tool, the referendum (as we showed in an earlier post here, quoting Diccon Bewes.) For example? … Well, how about the Basic Income Movement – founded on a vision of everyone being guaranteed a monthly payment large enough to meet fundamental necessities, with no conditions imposed, no questions asked:

This fall, a truck dumped eight million coins outside the Parliament building in Bern, one for every Swiss citizen. It was a publicity stunt for advocates of an audacious social policy that just might become reality in the tiny, rich country. Along with the coins, activists delivered 125,000 signatures — enough to trigger a Swiss public referendum, this time on providing a monthly income to every citizen, no strings attached. Every month, every Swiss person would receive a check from the government, no matter how rich or poor, how hardworking or lazy, how old or young. Poverty would disappear. Economists, needless to say, are sharply divided on what would reappear in its place — and whether such a basic-income scheme might have some appeal for other, less socialist countries too.

‘Switzerland’s Proposal to Pay People for Being Alive,’ Annie Lowrey, The New York Times, 12 November 2013




Carl Djerassi, exemplary forerunner of Post-Gutenberg Man

Carl Djerassi in the late summer of 2013 - postgutenberg [at]gmail.com

Carl Djerassi at home in Green Street in San Francisco in the late summer of 2013
- photograph: postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

Recorded with sadness:

Carl Djerassi,

29 October 1923 – 30 January 2015

In an unprecedented commemoration, in our experience, yesterday’s Guardian ran — in addition to a short obituary for the general reader — a long and detailed encapsulation of Carl Djerassi’s extraordinary life in its science pages, and in its arts section, a critique of his dramatic oeuvre by a veteran theatre critic.

The photograph was taken in a poignant, unforgettable afternoon spent with Dr. Djerassi in September, 2013 – in which he revealed that he was recovering from a surgical operation for an illness he hoped to defeat for a second time. One recurring conversational theme was a comparison of recent experiences of grief and bereavement: it was clear that he found the loss of his third wife, the literary scholar Diane Middlebrook, virtually unendurable. We were both unquestionably happier discussing e-publishing and the post-print future — the reason for his invitation after writing, improbably, to express his pleasure and surprise in discovering this ‘sophisticated and literary’ blog.

His mention of having personally designed the gorgeous cover of the book he is holding, in his portrait – Newton’s Darkness: Two Dramatic Views — made it impossible not to ask him to pose with it. This he graciously agreed to do without any fuss, issuing no instructions and imposing no conditions. He could not have been a more relaxed subject.

The cover image he chose for the joint publication in a single volume of his play, Calculus, and Newton’s Hooke, by the English dramatist (and father of a physicist) David Pinner — about curious incidents and relationships in the life of Isaac Newton — is a photograph of a sculpture by Salvador Dali, a perfect choice for the surreal life of the greatest scientist before Einstein.

The news that Dr. Djerassi had designed some of his own book jackets could not have been less surprising after the three entries on this blog nominating him as a leader in the transition to unbounded, unboxed, post-Gutenberg creative expression: ‘Carl Djerassi’s sumptuous foretaste of publishing’s mixed-media future’, parts 1, 2 and 3.

We did not expect to find any mention of his accomplishments as an early prototype of Post-Gutenberg Man in any obituary, and indeed there has been none in the dozen-odd specimens we have read so far. But on this blog and elsewhere, there will be a lot more to say on that subject.

In the meanwhile, because his interest in finding new readers of his work could not have been fiercer, all the way to his final weeks, here is an extract from Dr. Djerassi’s programme notes for Calculus – which should be of particular interest to readers of the most popular item in this site’s archives, ‘The Riddle of Ramanujan,’ an essay and review of a novelisation by David Leavitt of the life of India’s legendary mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Any mention of dabbling in mysticism by a venerated scientific figure is apt to make the typical working scientist bristle, snap, or break out in some other conversational equivalent of hives. Positively the last thing she or he wants to hear is about the brain of Newton not merely leaning heavily in that direction, but every bit as preoccupied by the extra-rational and occult as an ‘exotic’ subcontinental would be three centuries later.

Putting physics on a firm experimental and mathematical foundation – an approach coined Newtonism – earned Newton the ultimate accolade as father of modern scientific thought. However, a revisionist historical analysis, based in part on the discovery by the economist John Maynard Keynes of a huge trove of unpublished papers and documents, has led some scholars to consider Newton the last great mystic rather than first modern scientist.


… Newton spent much more time on alchemy and mystical theology than on “science”-composing over 1 million words on each of these two endeavors, much more than all his writings on physics combined! His alchemical library was huge and his alchemical experiments, though kept secret from all but a few intimates and servants, consumed much of his waking hours for decades. Even his religious convictions had to be kept secret, because his faith in Arianism (holding that Christ and God are not of one substance) was considered heretical within the Anglican Church.

Born on Christmas day in the year of Galileo’s death, Newton was so convinced of his supernatural powers that he once constructed a virtual anagram of his name (Isaacus Neutonus) in terms of “God’s holy one” (Jeova sanctus unus). His position as a fellow of Trinity College and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (a chair now held by Stephen Hawking), his subsequent elevation to the important government rank of Master of the Mint, and conferment of a knighthood by Queen Anne …

[ and here, because the playwright would prefer you to read his words in their context – and purchase and arrange for performances of his play — please continue to … http://www.djerassi.com/calculus/calculusfull.pdf ]