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.”
In “Gray Magic,” from the February 11 issue of The New York Review, Sanford Schwartz writes about the Luc Tuymans retrospective, which will be on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from February 6 to May 2. (It originated at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, and will travel on to Dallas, Chicago, and Brussels; the catalog is edited by Madeleine Grynsztejn and Helen Molesworth.) Below is a slide show of images from the exhibition, accompanied by excerpts from Schwartz’s review.
The colossal earthquake that struck Haiti last week raises a profound and recurring question for this fragile nation. As they bury over 100,000 dead—some of them in mass graves—and more than a million survivors seek water, food, shelter and medicines, can Haitians ever move beyond mere survival to build a more viable state? For a nation battered by two centuries of misrule, divided by garish contrasts between rich and poor, stripped of its forests, victimized annually by vicious hurricanes, built astride a ghastly seismic fault-line and situated on a favored route for cocaine traffickers, one may well conclude that misery here is endemic.
During the 2008 primary campaigns, there was a constant muted roar telling Barack Obama to become more aggressive, to answer wild allegations against him, to “stand up to” Hillary Clinton or his other rivals. He rightly saw that would boomerang against him. The last thing he could appear was an angry black man. Harry Reid, with his derided comments in the book Game Change, was basically right. It was helpful that Obama, the first black man with a realistic chance at the presidency, was lighter skinned and better spoken than, say, an Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. He was the anti-Sharpton, not railing against American racism. He was more a Sidney Poitier than a Shirley Chisholm.
My immediate response to the news of Eric Rohmer’s death was the keen regret that there would be no more Rohmer films, and thus no more of those surprises he was still, at nearly 90, thoroughly capable of eliciting. Indeed, his last three films (The Lady and the Duke, Triple Agent, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon) were among his most surprising, period films that ventured into political tragedy and pastoral comedy in ways that opened up new dimensions in his earlier work. Few filmmakers have been able to develop a body of utterly personal work so deliberately and methodically, and he managed it only with the most extreme budgetary discipline.