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.
My Sixties were a little different from those of my contemporaries. Of course, I joined in the enthusiasm for the Beatles, mild drugs, political dissent, and sex (the latter imagined rather than practiced, but in this too I think I reflected majority experience, retrospective mythology notwithstanding). But so far as political activism was concerned, I was diverted from the mainstream in the years between 1963 and 1969 by an all-embracing engagement with left-wing Zionism. I spent the summers of 1963, 1965, and 1967 working on Israeli kibbutzim and much of the time in between was actively engaged in proselytizing Labour Zionism as an unpaid official of one of its youth movements. During the summer of 1964 I was being “prepared” for leadership at a training camp in southwest France; and from February through July of 1966 I worked full time at Machanayim, a collective farm in the Upper Galilee.
I was jolted the other day when The New York Times science section splashed three big close-up head-shots of FDR across the top of its front page. (The story: his death of a cerebral hemorrhage may have been linked to a melanoma.) Suddenly, unexpectedly, there was the face of my president. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932, at the height of the Depression, more or less a year after I was born, and by the time I became conscious of the great world out there, he had become the family hero: as resourceful as he was wise, as charming as he was brilliant. Everyone we knew loved his handsome, distinguished face, was moved by his beautiful voice—the famous fireside chats!—and, most important of all in those frightening times, took comfort from the confidence he radiated. We knew instinctively that with him leading us, all would be well.
It is entirely appropriate that two women have become the iconic symbols of Iran’s protest movement. Thanks to cell phones and the Internet, millions of people around the world saw footage of the blood-soaked face of the young Neda Agha Soltan, as she lay dying on a Tehran street, shot by security forces during a peaceful demonstration. But even before last June’s rigged presidential election, Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi, had gained international renown as the first woman in Iranian history to campaign alongside her husband—making speeches of her own and taking a strong stand on controversial social issues.