Roving thoughts and provocations

Writing to Win

Tim Parks

Why do we have this uncritical reverence for the published writer? Why does the simple fact of publication suddenly make a person, hitherto almost derided, now a proper object of our admiration, a repository of special and important knowledge about the human condition? And more interestingly, what effect does this shift from derision to reverence have on the author and his work, and on literary fiction in general?

Dancing to Nowhere

Alexander Stille

Janus Films

Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza is a visual feast, one of the few films that takes full advantage of the hallucinatory beauty Rome. The overripe city stands in stark contrast to the dull, futile, and empty life of the film’s main characters—the frenetic partying, the not-so-hidden desperation and the endless “blah, blah, blah” of their conversation.

Afghanistan: The Desert of Death

Anatol Lieven

Anja Niedringhaus/AP/Corbis

In Afghanistan’s southern Pashtun province of Helmand, the sheer size and emptiness of the land and a pervasive Taliban presence has meant an inability of outside powers to control it. As US and British forces pull back, and the Afghan National Army abandons its outlying positions, the government is likely to shrink to spots on the landscape.

A ‘Twelfth Night’ Epiphany

Walter Kaiser

Photo by Joan Marcus

Twelfth Night, the feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the presentation of the Christ child to the three kings, was one of the major feasts of the medieval and Tudor church. By Elizabeth’s time, it had long since become an occasion for merrymaking, bringing the Christmas holiday to a close. The comic spirit of the occasion was that of the Lord of Misrule deposing whoever was in authority and actions being performed in some sort of topsy-turvy reversal, creating carnival disorder. In Shakespeare’s play, a man plays a girl pretending to be a man, identical twins are confused, a servant imagines he is worthy of being made a noble, cakes and ale triumph over virtue.

When the Yellow Press Got Color

J. Hoberman

On October 18, 1896, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst went to war against Joseph Pulitzer. His opening salvo was The New York Journal’s five-cent color supplement, The American Humorist, which Hearst called “eight pages of iridescent polychromous effulgence that makes the rainbow look like a piece of lead pipe.”

Proust: The Accidental Buddhist

Pico Iyer

Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Many a Tibetan mystic goes on a three-year retreat and comes back with a sense of stillness and attention that suggests great understanding, but most of these monks are masters of silence more than of the written word. The beauty of Proust is that he ventures into the farthest reaches of self-investigation and reflection, but brings his understandings back into language and episodes that anyone can follow.

The NSA on Trial

David Cole

Honoré Daumier

Ever since the Snowden revelations, the Obama administration has maintained that the NSA’s domestic spying program has been approved by all three branches of government. But the secret program had never been subject to public scrutiny or adversarial judicial testing. As of this week, all three branches of government have called for substantial reforms of the program, and a federal judge has seriously questioned its constitutionality.

It’s on YouTube, Kid

Charles Simic

William P. Gottlieb

It dawned on me recently that every song, movie, and TV show that ever made an impression on me is available on YouTube. To test that proposition, and with so many options where to begin confronting me, I began by looking up a 1939 western called Oklahoma Kid with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart that I saw in 1950 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, one cold and snowy winter day while playing hooky from school.

A Striver’s Ramble in Greenwich Village

Luc Sante

Alison Rosa/Long Strange Trip LLC

If you excise the period details, Llewyn Davis, the folksinger protagonist of the Coen brothers’ new film, makes sense. He is a confused, irascible striver, apparently seeking a career when folk music was about the last place you’d look for one. Somehow he has made a connection to the haunting music, but circumstances force him to treat it as a card to play rather than as a path to explore.