Article archive

January 14, 2010

  • Sparks of God

    Geoffrey O’Brien

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    Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
    The beginning of Act 2 of Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead at the Metropolitan Opera. The prisoners are sorting and collecting the debris and waste paper that rained down at the end of Act 1.

    That black opera of mine is giving me plenty of work,” Leoš Janáček wrote in a letter to his muse Kamila Stösslová in November 1927. He was ...

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  • The Age of Teddy

    Christopher Benfey

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    Snark/Art Resource
    Why not build the new 100,000-ton battleship in this shape?’; a caricature by Emil Flohri lampooning Theodore Roosevelt’s aggressive foreign policy, with his bust and the words ‘The Big Stick’ decorating the prow of the ship and the phrase ‘Peace to all Nations’ billowing out of the smokestacks, published in Judge magazine, 1907

    Mark Twain managed to name the Gilded Age almost before it had ...

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  • Can Science Explain Religion?

    H. Allen Orr

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    National Gallery, London/Art Resource
    Rembrandt: Belshazzar’s Feast, circa 1636–1638, showing the moment when a divine hand appeared before the Babylonian King Belshazzar and wrote on the wall a phrase interpreted by Daniel to mean: ‘God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; your kingdom is given to the Medes and Persians ...
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  • Vindicating del Sarto

    Willibald Sauerländer

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    Andrea del Sarto: The Holy Family with John the Baptist, Elizabeth, and Two Angels, circa 1514; from the collection of the Alte Pinakothek, Munich

    Extravagant shows of old master art have been one of the most significant cultural phenomena of recent decades. Just as music festivals celebrate the giants of music history, museums in London, New York, Washington, and Paris highlight the great painters and sculptors of the past. In ...

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  • Murder in the North

    David Thomson

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    Phil Fisk/IFC Films
    Andrew Garfield and Sean Bean in Red Riding 1974

    Red Riding is better than The Godfather (I’ll try to explain why), but it leaves you feeling so much worse; and the business plan of watching a film is never realized if it doesn’t make you feel it’s leaving you assured, ready to sleep…fulfilled. That’s what we expect from entertainment, isn’t ...

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  • Night

    Tony Judt

    I suffer from a motor neuron disorder, in my case a variant of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): Lou Gehrig’s disease. Motor neuron disorders are far from rare: Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and a variety of lesser diseases all come under that heading. What is distinctive about ALS—the least common of this family of neuro-muscular illnesses—is firstly that there is no loss of sensation (a mixed blessing) and secondly that there is no pain. In contrast to almost every other serious or deadly disease, one is thus left free to contemplate at leisure and in minimal discomfort the catastrophic progress of one’s own deterioration.

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  • Sarah and Her Tribe

    Jonathan Raban

    Sarah Palin; drawing by John Springs

    When she was good,
    She was very good indeed,
    But when she was bad she was horrid.

    There’s a moment of near rapture in the video of Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention in St. Paul on September 3, 2008. It begins in the eleventh minute, after her Westbrook Pegler quote (“We grow good people in our small towns…”) and ...

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  • The Art of the Ditch

    James Salter

    Not long after takeoff from LaGuardia last January 15, as the Charlotte-bound US Airways flight was climbing out smoothly over the Bronx on a northerly heading, something hit the airplane. Something that seemed big. There was a loud noise and a collective gasp from the passengers. Some of them had seen something like a flash of brown going into the engines. The airplane began to wiggle a little and decelerate. The flight attendants were still strapped in their seats not near any windows, but they guessed what had happened. There was a smell of something burning. It had become completely quiet. There was no word from the cockpit. A woman would text her husband, “My flight is crashing.”

    The airplane was not crashing, but it was definitely headed down.

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  • Uncovering Céline

    Wyatt Mason

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    Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images
    Louis-Ferdinand Céline with his dogs, Meudon, France, circa 1955

    Louis-Ferdinand Destouches met Cillie Pam in Paris, at the Café de la Paix, in September 1932. Destouches was a physician who worked at a public clinic in Clichy treating poor and working-class patients; Pam was a twenty-seven-year-old Viennese gymnastics instructor eleven years his junior on a visit to the city. Destouches suggested a stroll in the ...

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  • One Animal

    Henri Cole

    Do not show how jealous you are. Do not
    show how much you care. Do not think the bunch
    of flowers in his hand connects the hand to you.
    Do not close your eyes and kiss the funny
    lips. Do not twist your torso, touching yourself
    like a monkey. Do not put your mouth
    on the filthy place that changes everything.
    Do not utter the monosyllable twice that is
    the ...

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  • East Africa: The Most Corrupt Country

    Jeffrey Gettleman

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    VII Network
    Young women walking to a food relief center in the drought-stricken village of Nadapal, Rift Valley province, Kenya, October 2, 2009; photograph by Stefano De Luigi

    According to the United Nations, the average Kenyan makes $777 a year. Yet members of Kenya’s parliament are among the highest paid in the world, with a compensation package of $145,565 (most of it tax-free). That is 187 times more ...

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  • Corners of the American Scene

    Sanford Schwartz

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    Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
    Richard Caton Woodville: Politics in an Oyster House, 1848

    American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915,” at the Metropolitan Museum, is a version of a show our museums have done on and off over the years and no doubt will continue to do. Given the Met’s own superb collection of American paintings, though, and its clout as a borrower—there are well-known works here ...

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  • Getting Away with Torture

    David Cole

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    Kevin Wolf/AP Images
    Maher Arar, right, testifying by video conference at a House Joint Oversight hearing on ‘Rendition to Torture: The Case of Maher Arar,’ Washington, D.C., October 18, 2007

    In the fall of 2002, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen on his way home from Tunisia, was pulled out of line by US officials while changing planes at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. He was locked ...

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  • The Genius of Thom Gunn

    Colm Tóibín

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    Dominique Nabokov
    Thom Gunn, New York City, 1995

    Although Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, is less than an hour’s drive from San Francisco, it sits alone in the landscape. The sense of ordered opulence on the campus is light-years away from the untidy, chaotic openness of the city on the bay. Of all the ghosts who wander Stanford’s halls, one of the most stern and powerful is ...

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  • Israel & Palestine: Eternal Enmity?

    Tom Segev

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    Alexandra Boulat/VII
    Members of a Hamas women’s organization at Beit Hanoun in the Gaza Strip, after a weeklong military operation by Israeli forces, November 14, 2006

    In June 1948 a British official, blaming the United States for the creation of Israel, described the new nation as a “gangster state.” Over sixty years later the Oxford historian Avi Shlaim writes: “I used to think that this judgment was too ...

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  • Wake Up and Dream

    Michael Dirda

    Richard Powers’s tenth novel may be his breeziest. This is welcome news for readers who have hitherto shied away from this formidable writer, so often dubbed a brainiac and polymath, a Thomas Mann of the Internet-genome era. To enjoy Generosity, you don’t need to have double-majored in physics and philosophy, with a minor in comp lit.

    While Generosity does deal with the implications of a cutting-edge science—in ...

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  • Afghanistan: The India & Kashmir Connection

    Pankaj Mishra

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    Maarcus Bleasdale/VII
    A member of the Indian Central Reserve Police Force protecting himself against tear gas during riots in Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir, July 16, 2009

    Obama’s long speech on Afghanistan on December 1 did not refer even once to India or Kashmir. Yet India has a large and growing presence in Afghanistan, and impoverished young Pakistanis, such as those who led the terrorist attack against ...

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  • Writers in a Cage

    Michael Scammell

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    Boris Pasternak at the Baltic Sea, 1910; portrait by his father, Leonid Pasternak

    The rise and triumph of the Soviet dissident movement in the second half of the twentieth century surely ranks as one of the finest episodes in Russian cultural history. Its significance lies not just in its civic achievements as a hugely effective political opposition, but also in a body of literary work fully worthy of Russia’s ...

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  • Iran’s Path to the Bomb

    Jeremy Bernstein

    Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; drawing by John Springs

    To Western officials who have spent months trying to slow down Iran’s nuclear program, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announcement on November 29 of plans to build ten new uranium enrichment plants is deeply unsettling. But the real worry may be the nuclear facilities already in existence. In mid-November, Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko announced that, for “technical reasons,” the Russians would not finish in ...

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  • Romantic Scientists

    Jenny Uglow

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    Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library
    An 1830 caricature of the medical uses of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, the euphoric effects of which were first investigated in 1799 by Humphry Davy

    When the brilliant twenty-year-old chemist Humphry Davy discovered the potency of nitrous oxide, “laughing gas,” at the recently founded Pneumatic Institution in Bristol in April 1799, he inhaled the new mind-altering substance himself, and shared it with his friends ...

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  • Afghanistan: What Could Work

    Rory Stewart

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    Magnum Photos
    An Afghan woman at a Shiite cemetery in Kabul, 2001; photograph by Abbas from In Whose Name? The Islamic World After 9/11, a collection of his recent images from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and other countries, just published by Thames and Hudson

    Cool poker-players, we are tempted to believe, only raise or fold: they only increase their bet or leave the game. Calling, making the minimum bet to ...

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  • A Statement By Peter W. Galbraith

    Peter W. Galbraith

    Recent reports on my activities in Kur-distan call for a response. I have been both a writer on Iraq and an active participant in events there. After being an eyewitness to Saddam Hussein’s genocide against the Kurds in the 1980s, I came to the view that the Iraqi Kurdish aspiration for independence was morally justified and the only sure means of protecting the Kurdish people. In late 2003 and ...

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  • In Spanking Company

    Jeffrey Meyers

    To the Editors:

    …Andrew O’Hagan’s notice of my life of Samuel Johnson [NYR, October 8, 2009] is an egregious example of an ill-informed piece. His would-be clever opening on the word “nice” fails to hook the reader and his attempt to parade the ideas in the books as if they were his own also falls flat. He adds nothing to our knowledge of Johnson, descends to the lowbrow ...

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  • Google & the Future of Books: An Exchange

    Anthony Lewis, Paul N. Courant, Laine Farley, Paula Kaufman, and John Leslie King, et al.

    To the Editors:

    In his recent article criticizing the Google settlement [“Google and the New Digital Future,” NYR, December 17, 2009], Robert Darnton fails to acknowledge the significant role that libraries have had in the creation of Google Book Search as well as the concrete steps they are taking to address the sorts of concerns he raises. Libraries are using Google-digitized volumes to create the “truly public library” that he ...

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  • What Caused the Collapse?: An Exchange

    Jeffrey Friedman, reply by Jeff Madrick

    Jeff Madrick justifiably complains that the Obama administration’s financial reform plan “presents no persuasive hypothesis why the credit system collapsed in the fall of 2008.” But neither does Madrick. He does show, for example, that if the Fed had recognized an unprecedented nationwide housing bubble in the making (rather than local ones in a few “hot” cities), it might have done something to prevent it. But this doesn’t explain what did happen.

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