Roving thoughts and provocations

Cambodia’s Unseen Horrors

Richard Bernstein

Catherine Dussart Productions

How to depict the grisly reality of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, during which the only permitted images were those of a controlled propaganda machine? In The Missing Picture, his documentary about the KR years, Rithy Panh uses small clay figurines, hundreds of them, painted, clothed, with individual expressions on their faces, and placed in meticulously detailed dioramas that he seems to have reconstructed from the memories of his youth. These clay statuettes cannot, of course, fully depict the horror of the Khmer Rouge story. But as Panh’s narration proceeds, the statuettes take on a reality of their own, a voodoo-like power, their individual features an aid to avoiding what might otherwise be a kind of depersonalizing abstraction.

The Roberts Court: What Kind of Conservatives?

David Cole

Eight years into Chief Justice John Roberts’ tenure, it still remains unclear just what kind of conservatives the Court’s majority justices are. The cases the Court will review in the 2013–2014 term, which begins this week, are likely to go some way toward answering this question. The Court has been invited to overrule precedents governing regulation of campaign finance, government support of religion, equal protection, abortion counseling, and the treaty power. In all of these cases, lawyers have argued that the Court can rule for them without questioning any prior precedent—what we might call conservatism with a lower-case “c.” But perhaps sensing a receptive audience, the lawyers in each case have also invited the Court to go further and overturn past precedents altogether—a dramatic step that would confirm a far more radical Court, or conservatism with a capital “C.”

Nighthawks

Christopher Benfey

Martine Franck/Magnum Photos

On a gray September morning, I awoke from uneasy dreams to find a strange sentence fully formed in my still drowsy mind: “No one in the history of the world has ever universalized both the game given and the god given.” I didn’t remember anything else from the dream that had produced these portentous words, nor did I have a clue what they might mean. I couldn’t even make out the syntax, since the last two words could mean either an inherited capacity, like a god-given talent for tennis, or, instead, a god who is “a given.” And what in the world might it mean to “universalize” such things?

Shutting Down the World?

Jonathan Freedland

Douglas Graham/Getty Images

Around the world, the US government shutdown has produced not just bemusement but a growing sense of angst. European and Asian leaders have not quite reached the stage of harboring nostalgia for George W. Bush, the solitary “decider” and global unilateralist, who felt no need to consult anyone. But they are suddenly finding that the collective decision-making they demanded a decade ago has very definite drawbacks when applied in Washington. It used to be enough to persuade the US president of the need for action; now, foreign governments calculate, they will need the backing of the US Congress too.

Let Us Treat Patients in Syria

Gro Harlem Brundtland and Elizaveta Glinka

Simon-Letellier/Demotix/Corbis

The conflict in Syria has led to what is arguably one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises since the end of the Cold War. An estimated 115,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians, and many more have been wounded, tortured, or abused. Millions have been driven from their homes, families have been divided, and entire communities torn apart; we must not let considerations of military intervention destroy our ability to focus on getting them help. As doctors and medical professionals from around the world, the scale of this emergency leaves us horrified. We are appalled by the lack of access to health care for affected civilians, and by the deliberate targeting of medical facilities and personnel. It is our professional, ethical, and moral duty to provide treatment and care to anyone in need. When we cannot do so personally, we are obliged to speak out in support of those risking their lives to provide life-saving assistance.

Losing Sight of Magritte

Francine Prose

Museum of Modern Art, New York

In high school, I took a weekly drawing class at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and every Friday afternoon I’d stand—reverent, transfixed—in front of Magritte’s The Empire of Light. Now, when I look at that painting in reproduction, and at the works displayed in the new MoMA show on Magritte, I can’t recapture the faintest hint of my former emotion. Magritte’s paintings exude the mysterious and the improbable, but when I visited the exhibition, what seemed most mystifying and unlikely to me was that there had been a time in my life when he was one of my favorite painters.

Iran Opens Its Fist

Gary Sick

Justin Lane/epa/Corbis

He came to New York. He saw almost everyone. Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, may not have conquered, but at least he seems to have persuaded John Kerry and Barack Obama that his proposals for negotiating an end to the US-Iran conflict deserve to be taken seriously. When President Obama picked up his phone in the Oval Office on Friday to bid farewell to President Rouhani with the Persian phrase Khodahafez (“God be with you”), there was the sense that a tectonic shift between Washington and Tehran was taking place.

Pynchon’s Mrs. Dalloway

Edward Mendelson

Reading the first pages of Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge, with its story of a shrewd but otherwise unexceptional woman trying to untangle a vast unsolvable mystery, I remembered the excitement I felt when I first read his earlier novel on the same theme, The Crying of Lot 49. As I thought about The Crying of Lot 49, I belatedly realized that it tells a story very much like the one told by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. In tone, setting, character, and incident, Mrs. Dalloway is a world away from The Crying of Lot 49, but both books have the same overall shape and both describe a lonely and reluctant quest for meanings that can never be obvious. There are greater books, but none that move me in the same way.

Libya: In Search of a Strongman

Nicolas Pelham

Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images

It is perhaps a measure of how close Libya is to breaking apart that two years after ousting one dictator, many Libyans are craving another. Rapacious brigades of armed volunteers, who are based in Misrata and Benghazi in the east, and the creaking military inherited from the old regime, which is based in the capital city of Tripoli and the west, are hurtling toward a new civil war, and the country’s ineffectual authorities seem unable to stop them. As multiple forces assert power in different parts of the country, many feel that only a strongman can hold Libya together. But who could it be?

Verdi vs. the Fanatics

Garry Wills

Liz Lauren/Chicago Opera Theater

There is no denying that Verdi’s Joan of Arc tugs against some of a modern audience’s values. When, for instance, Giovanna is accused of witchcraft, she is unable to deny it because she has fallen in love with the Dauphin she is striving to make King. Why does she feel that a love for an unmarried Christian man, one not even sexually satisfied, must paralyze her with guilt? The Chicago Opera Theater director, David Schweizer, decided that the only way to be convincing about such an obsession with sexual purity is to make the opera show “the perpetual heart-rending consequences of religious fanaticism.”