In a celebrated poem Ogden Nash begs the octopus to tell him if its limbs are arms or legs. Textbooks have a no-nonsense answer: they are arms, not legs (and emphatically not tentacles). But super tongues would be at least as good. Each octopus arm is a muscular hydrostat, like a human tongue, and each of the tens or hundreds of suckers on it is lined with tens of thousands of chemoreceptors—taste buds to you and me—and a comparable number of nerve endings that provide an exquisite sense of touch.
There is consternation at Wikipedia over the discovery that hundreds of novelists who happen to be female were being systematically removed from the category “American novelists” and assigned to the category “American women novelists.” Categories are a big deal. They are an important way to group articles; some people use them to navigate or browse. Categories provide structure for a web of knowledge—not a tree, because a category can have multiple parents, as well as multiple children. It’s fair to say that Wikipedia has spent far more time considering the philosophical ramifications of categorization than Aristotle and Kant ever did.
As the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings continues, one of the more clouded aspects is the tale of “Misha,” a mysterious US-based Islamist who has been accused by members of the Tsarnaev family of radicalizing Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two alleged bombers. “It started in 2009. And it started right there, in Cambridge,” Tamerlan’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, told CNN after the attacks. “This person just took his brain. He just brainwashed him completely.” These accusations set off a frenzied search for what some reports have called an Islamic Svengali, and over the past few days, the FBI has said it has located and has been talking to “Misha,” though his identity has remained unknown. Today I was able to interview “Misha.”
The nonsense about what it takes for a president to win a victory in Congress has reached ridiculous dimensions. The fact that Barack Obama failed to win legislation to place further curbs on the purchase of guns—even after the horror of Newtown, Connecticut—has made people who ought to know better decide that he’s not an “arm-twister.” Ever since Obama took office, others have been certain about how he should handle the job and that he wasn’t doing it right.
Lisa Ross’s luminous photographs are not our usual images of Xinjiang. One of China’s most turbulent areas, the huge autonomous region in the country’s northwest was brought under permanent Chinese control only in the mid-twentieth century and its population of Uighur Muslims has long had difficult relations with Beijing. In 2008, 2009, and 2012, Xinjiang was the site of bloody protests. Instead of representing these political conflicts, however, Ross’s photographs reveal a little-known religious tradition in Xinjiang—its desert shrines to Sufi saints.
James Nares’s Street, an engrossing and celebratory hour-long, oversized video projection of life in New York City, is a monument to evanescence. Now installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 27, the work was fashioned from sixteen hours of material, recorded in six-second bursts from a vehicle moving through city streets at a rate of thirty miles per hour. The molasses-paced tour opens in Times Square and, occasionally revisiting the midtown area, goes through Harlem, Chelsea, and parts of the Bronx, with extended crosstown trips to transverse busy 125th, 34th, and 14th streets, accompanied by Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore’s unamplified twelve-string vamping.
After my first book of poetry came out in 1967 and received some favorable reviews, I started getting calls and letters from schools around the country inviting me to come and read. If the money being offered was acceptable, I’d say yes. Over the last forty-five years, I’ve been to colleges and universities, but also to high schools, libraries, bookstores, grade schools, bars, nursing homes, jazz clubs, coffee houses, movie theaters, abandoned malls, and places that don’t fall into any of these categories, like that storefront where I shared the bill with a magician and a local rock band. It was packed, I remember, with a rough young crowd who were there to hear the band and who were okay with the magician being the first act, but grew unruly once they learned that a poet was to follow.
The close cooperation between Moscow and Washington on the Boston bombing investigation raises new questions about the issue of human rights in Russia. Will the US government now turn a blind eye to Russia’s increasingly brutal crackdown on its own democratic opposition because of overriding concerns about national security, just as it did after 9/11? Will the Kremlin wager that it can get away with its hard-line approach now that, as a result of the Boston attacks, the Obama Administration needs its help in counter-terrorism efforts? A test case could be the trial of Russian anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
With the heavy lifting of narration shifted elsewhere, Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s opera David et Jonathas is free to devote itself to almost nothing but high points. Characters and situations are isolated and offered up for consideration, giving us more a series of disjunctive pictures than a linear enactment of the whole story. Everything is of maximum intensity. Within a few moments of the beginning of the Aix-en-Provence Festival production of David et Jonathas now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the music had taken over with overpowering thoroughness.
It could have been the setting of any Cambodian notable’s funeral. There was a large wooden house. There was a tall, terraced pyre in the dirt yard. The case for the coffin was topped with a silhouette of Angkor Wat. But this was Malai, a tidy little town in Cambodia’s northwest that for many years has been an enclave for Khmer Rouge holdouts. And the elder being commemorated was Ieng Sary, Pol Pot’s foreign minister and a member of his standing committee, who died last month at eighty-seven while on trial for assorted mass crimes before a UN-backed tribunal.