Roving thoughts and provocations

Berlusconi’s New Rival?

Ingrid D. Rowland

Silvio Berlusconi
Alessandra Tarantino/AP Images

The Italians have a one-syllable word, an interjection, that means “I don’t know”: “Boh.” And “Boh” is probably the only credible commentary anyone can make right now about the country’s political situation. At the end of March, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà or “Freedom People” party swept regional elections nationwide, gaining control of four new regions (roughly equivalent to states in the US), including Campania (Naples), Lazio (Rome), and Piedmont (Turin), while holding on to Lombardy (Milan) and the Veneto. The opposition’s Democratic Party, forever split into squabbling groups, once again missed an opportunity (indeed there is no opportunity so far that they have not missed). Most of the contests were close, and turnout was unusually low by Italian standards.

Debating Nuclear Deterrence

A Symposium

In his NYRblog post last week, “Is Nuclear Deterrence Obsolete?” Jeremy Bernstein asked whether the principle of deterrence continues to provide a valid ground for maintaining a nuclear arsenal. Following are a series of responses from several of Bernstein’s correspondents who have studied nuclear weapons closely, together with a rejoinder by Bernstein. We invite readers to submit further comments of their own.

What Do Israelis Think of Obama?

Eyal Press

Sebastian Scheiner/AP Images

PRES OBAMA: SAVE ISRAEL FROM ITSELF.” So proclaimed a sign at a demonstration in late March in Sheik Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem where activists gather every Friday to protest the eviction of Palestinian residents from their homes. Among the demonstrators was the Israeli novelist David Grossman, with whom I struck up a conversation about Barack Obama, who is not generally regarded as a popular figure in Israel these days, not least because of his public call for a halt to Israeli settlement activity. Some news sources have put his approval rating among Israelis as low as 4 percent.

When the Antichrist Came to Orvieto

Ingrid D. Rowland

The Italian city of Orvieto, a little over an hour’s journey north of Rome, perches atop a massive, impregnable spur of volcanic rock, but that forbidding first impression dissipates quickly in the friendly, hospitable maze of its medieval streets. The city’s history goes back to Etruscan times, when it was called Velzna and managed an important religious sanctuary (recently rediscovered near the fairgrounds at the foot of what locals call “The Rock”); today Orvieto’s most conspicuous treasures are wine, ceramics, and art—and, of course, this being Italy, the food (a local pasta called umbrichelli, truffles, mushrooms, game). It is hard to imagine that so thoroughly beguiling a place was ever famous for anything but the bounty of its generous earth.

Groping in the Digital Dark

Wyatt Mason

A young Jean-Yves in Michel Gondry’s Thorn of the Heart

In early September of 1909, while on vacation in northern Italy, Franz Kafka attended an airshow in Brescia. It was the first time he had seen airplanes in flight. In an essay, “The Aeroplanes at Brescia,” he calls them “the machines.” When Louis Blériot—who had just become the first human to fly across the English Channel—takes his machine up into the Italian air, Kafka reports that, “Everyone gazes up at him enraptured, in no one’s heart is there room for anyone else.” Because this is, after all, Kafka, let’s call this the “Parable of the Machine”: as it enraptures, technology leaves us more alone.

I have been thinking of this parable in relation to the pace at which the film industry is loosing 3-D movies upon us.

Austria’s Hollow Center?

Timothy Snyder

In Austria’s presidential campaign this spring, a basic question underlying democratic politics in postwar Europe was made startlingly explicit: is recognition of the historical reality of the gas chambers a precondition for becoming head of state?

In Strindberg’s Exquisite Hell

Geoffrey O’Brien

Anna Chancellor as Tekla
Hugo Glendinning

Before seeing it performed a few days ago, I had never read August Strindberg’s 1888 play Creditors, but through the modern miracle of Google Books I was able to download in an instant a 1910 translation, prefaced with a warning from the translator that it “has both the excellencies and the extravagances peculiar to all revolutionary art.” Written in the same so-called Naturalist period that produced The Father and Miss Julie, Creditors has been far less frequently anthologized or produced, although Strindberg called it at the time of its composition “my favorite work.” (He also thought that all three of its characters were “sympathetic”—a view that has not been widely shared.)

On the page, especially in the diction of 1910, it seemed a challenging prospect for revival. In a one-act, three-character play pitting two men against the woman each blames for sapping their vital energies—a play consisting of nothing but relentless, nearly uninterrupted talk—Strindberg seemed to have managed a perfect encapsulation of his characteristic blending of antifeminist polemic and sexual paranoia. As a work of tortured self-revelation (full of direct allusions to the circumstances of his own first marriage, which had dissolved not long before the play was written) and, incidentally, as a document of late Victorian sexology at its murkiest, Creditors could hardly be surpassed, but it was hard to imagine contemporary actors playing it before a contemporary audience without eliciting squirms or giggles.

UK Elections: Boredom at the Ballot Box

Jonathan Raban

The Guardian

After the short-lived tornado of “Bigotgate” on April 28, and the final televised prime ministerial debate the next evening the British opinion polls have been all over the place. They agree that David Cameron’s Conservatives will win and Gordon Brown’s Labour party will lose, but everything else is shrouded in fog. Either the surge of support for the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg is holding steady, or it’s fading to the point where the Lib Dems will come in third in votes after Labour (whatever happens, they will certainly come a poor third in seats). Either the Conservatives will have an overall majority, as most of the people I’ve been talking to are now anticipating without relish, or there’ll be a hung parliament, in which case Cameron will have to strike some kind of deal with Clegg. Each poll confidently suggests a different outcome on the long night of May 6.

Is Nuclear Deterrence Obsolete?

Jeremy Bernstein

Nuclear weapons protestors dancing during the first London-Aldermaston March, London, April, 1958. Aldermaston became a nuclear base in 1950 and is now the headquarters of Britain’s Trident missile program. (SSPL/Getty Images)

In the recent foreign policy debate among the three candidates in next week’s general election in Great Britain—the incumbent Gordon Brown (Labour) against David Cameron (Conservative) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat)—it is generally conceded that Clegg won. But I have seen no commentary on the interesting exchange about nuclear deterrence that took place somewhere in the middle of the debate.

Slide Show: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Genius at Work

Dominique Nabokov

The art of photography is deliciously impure: its aesthetic triumphs and traditions are inescapably enmeshed in the messy world of work.” So writes Peter Galassi, curator of “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,” the Museum of Modern Art’s ambitious new exhibition devoted to the work of one of the most brilliant photographers of the twentieth century.