Not all writers share the same sense of whom they are writing for. Many may not even think they are directing their work at any audience in particular. All the same, there are clearly periods of history when, across the board, authors’ perceptions of who their readers are change, something that inevitably leads to a change in the kind of text they produce. The most obvious example is the period that stretches from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century when writers all over Europe abandoned Latin for the vernacular. Instead of introducing their work, as before, into an international arena presided over by a largely clerical elite, they “descended” to local and national languages to address themselves to an emerging middle class.
When I was about eleven my father gave me James Ramsey Ullman’s book High Conquest. This was Ullman’s romantic and occasionally inaccurate account of the history of mountain climbing, published in 1941. I was fascinated by the fact that Everest, the highest mountain in the world, had not yet been climbed. But what made the most impression on me were the Mountains of the Moon, a range on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo—then the Belgian Congo. I was struck by how difficult they were to access, and by the fact that although they were on the equator, they were covered with snow. Two officers in Henry Stanley’s 1887 expedition to East Africa were the first Europeans to see them; Stanley named the range “Ruwenzori,” an anglicized version of the Rukonjo name “Rwenjura” meaning “hill of rain.”
I have a collection of Buster Keaton’s films I bought in the late 1980s when they first became available on video. It’s made up of nineteen half-hour shorts and his nine full-length films, all made between 1920 and 1928. Every few years I take a look at some of them, and recently, being thoroughly depressed by our wars and our politics, I watched a dozen of his shorts to cheer myself up. Almost ninety years old, these shorts are still very funny and visually beautiful. They make the Dada and Surrealist pranks everybody was scandalized by in that era seem dated and tame in comparison.
Stalin is guilty. On January 13, four days before the first round of Ukraine’s presidential elections, a Kiev court condemned him and six other Soviet high officials for genocide committed against the Ukrainian nation during the famine in 1932-1933. All seven men, of course, are long dead—but the history at issue in the case is very much alive.
Standing in the passport line at the Gare du Nord in Paris before boarding the Eurostar to London, I become aware of anxious rustling behind me. A family party includes a woman wearing the niqab, the tent-like veil worn in Arabic and Gulf countries that covers the face and head and has a slit for the eyes. I am relieved the woman is behind me in the queue. While she may have no problem passing the police booth marking the exit from France, the UK border control, which has its own booth just a few feet away (an arrangement that saves travelers from having to show their passports on arriving in London), tends to be more exacting. There may be further blockages at the X-ray machines, where passengers are expected to remove their outer garments. In Western Europe, such Muslim attire has long raised understandable—if awkward—security concerns; but in France, it has also provoked a much broader controversy about the nature of French society.
If the Earth has never been shy about proclaiming the instability of its surface, the creature misnamed Homo sapiens has never been shy about ignoring the message. Dubai’s 828 meter-tall Burj Khalifa skyscraper, which opened in early January, is only the latest in a millennial series of contenders for the title of world’s tallest building. It looms, at least for now, above Malaysia’s Petronas Towers, Toronto’s CN Tower, Chicago’s Sears Tower, and the quaintly venerable Empire State Building in that proverbial city of towers, New York. Yet the profile of Burj Khalifa suggests nothing so much as a seventeenth-century engraving intended to ridicule the human habit of tower-building, part of the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher’s exquisitely illustrated essay on the Tower of Babel, Turris Babel of 1679.
Perhaps it was the squirrels and peacocks leaping in the foliage overhead. Or maybe the way the rambling grounds of the Diggi Palace divided into separate tableaux—here Gulzar, a venerated Urdu poet, recited before a rapt audience, there a pair of London publishers toasted a trio of hard drinking and smoking Kashmiris, while over on the lawn tablas thumped and sittars whined. All this made it hard not to feel like a figure in an outsized miniature, such as those late paintings of the great durbars of the Raj, in which suited British officers faced off against far more splendidly plumed native rulers. Yet the Jaipur Literature Festival, now in its fifth year, is determinedly void of pomp and hierarchy.
I’m not sure if I was in Lithuania one recent evening—and it wasn’t the sweet Russian champagne. My wandering started in the village of Krasnogruda in northeastern Poland, home to the poet Czesław Miłosz’s mother, and only about a mile from the Lithuanian border. As the full moon rose and the pines turned blue under their weight of snow, I might have crossed into Lithuania. Or perhaps not. Not so very long ago this invisible border was the western frontier of the Soviet Union, perhaps the most heavily guarded in the world. When I first came to eastern Europe in 1990, it was triply patrolled: by a Poland just emerging from Communism, by a Lithuania not quite yet independent, and by a Soviet Union that still in some measure existed. Today Poland and Lithuania are both democracies within the European Union, and their shared border, unmarked for almost all of its length, is all but invisible.
On December 29, four days after being sentenced to eleven years in prison for “subversion of state power,” the Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo filed an appeal to a higher court. For many familiar with the Chinese regime, the decision seemed quixotic: it is extremely unlikely that a higher court will overturn the sentence, which aims at Liu’s support for Charter 08 and his writings on human rights, democracy, and rule of law in China. Yet Liu’s response to his sentence—and that of a number of Chinese intellectuals over the past few weeks—suggests that the Charter 08 movement continues to survive, despite extraordinary efforts by the Chinese government to repress it.
Given their long personal histories of accessibility, and Italian society’s general focus on physical presence as an essential part of life (the chic version of this phenomenon is presenzialismo, the art of showing up in all the right places), Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Pope Benedict XVI have always run a certain degree of bodily risk in their positions; the fact that they were both assaulted last month—Berlusconi wounded in the face by a sculpture-wielding psychotic and the Pope jumped at by a woman at a Christmas Eve mass—was thus a matter of chance rather than any greater design, divine or human. Furthermore, violent attacks on public figures are a recurring story in Italian history, to say nothing of ancient Rome: King Umberto I was knifed by one anarchist, Giovanni Passanante, in 1878, and fatally shot by another, Gaetano Bresci, in 1900. Former Prime Minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped in March 1978 by the Red Brigades and murdered the following May after 55 excruciating days in a “People’s Prison.”