Roving thoughts and provocations

Beauty and the Brain: The Puzzle

Tim Parks

What happens in the brain when we look at a painting, listen to music, read a book? This was the subject of Neuroesthetics: When Art and the Brain Collide, a workshop conference at IULM University Milan bringing together a mix of neurobiologists and art historians. The atmosphere was tense and expectant, the art folk anxious that they wouldn’t understand a word, the biologists concerned that their work would seem underwhelming and wrongheaded.

Hopkins: The Odd Man Out

Colm Tóibín

One of the strangest and most beautiful shows in the Dublin Theatre Festival, which ran during the first week of October, was entitled “No Worst There Is None” and concerned the life of the English poet and Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. It was performed for an audience of twenty-five who followed the actors around the rooms of Newman House on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. This eighteenth century building, which is owned by University College Dublin, has a plaque outside commemorating three disparate figures who spent time in its lofty halls—Cardinal Newman, the first head of the National University of Ireland; James Joyce, who was a student here; and poor, depressed Hopkins, who, sent to Dublin by his order, spent the last five years of his life in the building and wrote what are called his “terrible sonnets.”

How Václav Klaus Blocks European Union

Timothy Snyder

The Czech Republic is a country where everything seems to work, except for the political system. I once lived here, but hadn’t returned for eleven years. Almost everything looks better than it did in 1998, and almost everything looked better in 1998 than it did in 1989, the year of the Velvet Revolution. The Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004, culminating a remarkable transformation from one-party Communist rule to liberal democracy. Yet despite all of this, the Czech Republic has been suspended these past few days in a bizarre political crisis.

How They Convinced Karzai

Ahmed Rashid

Everything that could possibly go wrong in Afghanistan has gone wrong over the past two months. The industrial-level rigging and manipulation of the August 20 election—largely by the government of President Hamid Karzai—could have dealt a death blow to international involvement in Afghanistan, as it entered its ninth year. Worse, it occurred just as the Taliban were ramping up their insurgency and Afghans were becoming even more disillusioned with their government than usual. So how did the US and its allies manage to convince Karzai this week to agree to a run-off election?

Iran’s Harshest Sentence for an Innocent Scholar

Haleh Esfandiari

For me Iran’s sentencing this week of Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh to at least twelve years in prison—the harshest sentence so far passed down by the revolutionary court—is particularly fraught. In 2007, he and I were fellow prisoners in Tehran’s Evin Prison. He was held in the men’s section and I in the women’s section of Ward 209, reserved for political prisoners held by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry. We had been arrested within a day of each other, and we shared, in separate interrogation rooms, the same interrogators. He began to send me books; thanks to him I was able to escape the confines of my prison cell by reading the novels of Dostoevsky and Graham Greene.

Obama’s Bad Bargain with Beijing

Perry Link

As the echoes of China’s spectacular military parade on October 1 were subsiding, officials in the Obama administration, in quieter settings in Washington, D.C., were telling representatives of the Dalai Lama that the president was not going to meet with him. This would mark the first time since 1991 that the Dalai Lama was invited to Washington—he was here to receive a human rights award from the US Congress—without at least some visit, however short and informal, with the president. It also goes against Obama’s own pledge to the Tibetan leader during his 2008 campaign to “continue to support you and the rights of the Tibetans.”

The Mighty Penn

Martin Filler

Irving Penn was assured a high place in the canon of photography well before his death, on October 7 at the age of ninety-two. Yet for those of us who came of age during the 1960s, he seemed the Apollonian counterpart of his Dionysian contemporary and principal competitor, the younger and groovier Richard Avedon, who died five years before Penn almost to the day. They were the twin gods who ruled high-fashion photography after the postwar resurrection of the Paris haute couture, when they brought unprecedented formal power and graphic impact to what had been dismissed as an intractably insipid genre—“visions of loveliness,” in the sneering phrase of Penn’s mentor and tormentor, Alexander Liberman, longtime editorial director of Condé Nast Publications.

Herta Müller’s Nobel

Norman Manea

The Swedish Academy’s selection of Romanian-German writer Herta Müller for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature occasioned surprise in the United States, where Müller is little known. But in Romania, reactions have been strong—and ambivalent.

The Wood God in Valencia

Edmund White

Vicente Molina Foix is one of those cultured Spaniards who seems more French than Iberian. A distinguished novelist, he knows everything about everything though he’s jokey and not at all pedantic and has the exquisite manners of an old-fashioned French aristocrat (come to think of it during the late Middle Ages there were French Counts of Foix in an independent fiefdom in the Pyranees just north of Aragon). He has written poetry, translated Shakespeare, taught for three years at Oxford, worked as a film critic and published a score of novels; his best known work is El Abrecartas, an epistolary novel that covers the twentieth century in Spain and includes among its many characters the Nobel prizewinning poet Vicente Aleixandre (who late in life was a friend to Molina Foix). There are also letters back and forth from Aleixandre and Lorca.