Roving thoughts and provocations

The Siege of Rome

Ingrid D. Rowland

Former Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law attending a mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, April 2, 2007 (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Rome is under siege these days. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, always willing to assume the role of martyr, continues to claim that everyone is out to get him: the Communists, pinko magistrates (called “red togas” in Roman parlance), and the Left in general. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State, responding to the sudden torrent of sexual abuse allegations against the priesthood, says that everyone is out to get the Church and the Pope. Everywhere this spring, the open city seems to be sprouting new street barriers, or permanent guard posts, or at least a vanload of police.

Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography

Janet Malcolm

Republica Portuguesa, a collage by Janet Malcolm, 6¼ x 17 in., 2003
(Courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art)
I have been aware, as I write this autobiography, of a feeling of boredom with the project. My efforts to make what I write interesting seem pitiful. My hands are tied, I feel. I cannot write about myself as I write about the people I have written about as a journalist. To these people I have been a kind of amanuensis: they have dictated their stories to me and I have retold them. They have posed for me and I have drawn their portraits. No one is dictating to me or posing for me now.

A Mushroom Cloud, Recollected

Jeremy Bernstein

With the renewed interest in nuclear weapons I have been struck by how few people there still are who have seen one explode. There are a few survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and there are a small number who witnessed some of the above ground test explosions. But the last American above-ground test was in 1962 and the last above-ground test by any country was conducted by the Chinese in 1980. This means that the Indians, Pakistanis, Israelis—to say nothing of the Iranians and North Koreans—have never seen a nuclear explosion. In the main, this is a very good thing: the fallout from such a test is a real health hazard. But there is a downside. We have lost the experience of watching a nuclear explosion—perhaps the most powerful lesson about nuclear bombs there is.

Suddenly a Political Mastermind?

Michael Tomasky

The speed and certainty with which the conventional wisdom in Washington flips can be a comical thing to watch. A mere forty-eight hours ago, Barack Obama was a struggling president, even a likely one-termer. Today, in the wake of the House’s narrow passage of the health-reform bill—which is to say, on the strength of a grand total of four votes, which if cast the other way would have ensured reform’s defeat—he’s suddenly once again a political mastermind and one of the most consequential presidents of the last half-century!

Slide Show: Houdon’s Sensuous Sculpture

Michael Shae

In “The Best Faces of the Enlightenment,” from the April 8 issue of The New York Review, Willibald Sauerländer writes about a new exhibition of the work of Jean-Antoine Houdon, whom he calls “the last and probably greatest French sculptor of the eighteenth century.” In his works—a selection of which can be seen in this slide show—the “panegyric rhetoric of the baroque” and the “flounces and wigs of the rococo” give way to “an unadorned naturalism.” “Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sensuous Sculpture” was organized by the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt, Germany, and is on view at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France, until June 27. It includes nineteen works by Houdon (1741–1828); it also includes works by some of his most important contemporaries, including Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, Augustin Pajou, and Jean-Baptiste II Lemoyne.

Blogging, Now and Then

Robert Darnton

Blogging brings out the hit-and-run element in communication. Bloggers tend to be punchy. They often hit below the belt; and when they land a blow, they dash off to another target. Pow! The idea is to provoke, to score points, to vent opinions, and frequently to gossip.

The Blustering Blast

Charles Simic


For someone like me who lives in New Hampshire, cold and snow are things I take in stride, the way I fancy the inhabitants of the tropics barely take notice of the hot muggy days they have there. It’s the howling wind that discombobulates me, the one a neighbor calls “Labrador Express,” conjuring up for me visions of the bleak landscape of that great peninsula in eastern Canada that once I surveyed in horror from a low-flying plane.

Slide Show: The Indiana Jones of Ants

In her review of Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson’s first novel, Anthill, in the April 8 issue of The New York Review, Margaret Atwood encourages anyone interested in ants to “take a look at the daring eco-adventurer Mark Moffett’s spectacular new ant book, Adventures Among Ants.” Moffett—who studied evolutionary biology under Wilson—has been tracking ants for decades; his research has taken him all over the world, including as a photographer for National Geographic magazine, earning him the nickname “the Indiana Jones of entomology.” These photographs come from his book, which will be published by University of California Press in May.

Lenten Thoughts

Garry Wills

The second mystery is the scourging of Jesus. This was a prescribed part of Roman execution by crucifixion. The convict was stripped naked and beaten with rods. This was done to break his spirit, so there would be no undignified scuffle when the man was led to the execution site and affixed to the cross. It was to demean him ahead of time, to degrade his manhood, so he would be cowed and submissive when taken to his death.