Solitary Confinement: The Beginning of the End?

David Cole

Solitary Watch

Since the rapid expansion of high-security prisons in the 1980s, solitary confinement has become pervasive across the United States in both state and federal prisons, involving, according to recent estimates, more than 75,000 inmates at any given time. It is imposed by prison officials for security and disciplinary reasons, but often with little oversight and on the basis of minor infractions. So far, many of the reforms voluntarily adopted by prison officials involve cutting back on, not eliminating, solitary confinement. A recent settlement in California might provide a way forward.

The Unguarded Moment

Christopher Benfey

bpk/Salomon/ullstein bild via Getty Images

One of the founding figures of photojournalism, Erich Salomon pioneered the use of hidden cameras—the phrase “candid camera” was first applied to him. As my father turns ninety and I myself slide farther past sixty, the unguarded moments at a 1929 birthday party, captured by Salomon’s camera, recall the poet Rilke contemplating a photograph of his own father in his youth: “You swiftly fading daguerreotype/ In my more slowly fading hands.”

Liotard: The Unexpected Likeness

Jenny Uglow

Musée d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève

It’s two weeks now since I saw the remarkable show of Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789), yet I’m still puzzling over the nature of the Swiss-French painter’s charm and strength. For all his showmanship, Liotard’s greatest art, as Walpole said, was in catching a likeness; and in grasping the fleeting moment, he casts us too back in time.

Beethoven Beneath the Monolith

Tamsin Shaw

Salzburger Festspiele/Monika Rittershaus

For the obsessive seeker of meaning, contemporary opera productions can make for some difficult evenings. Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, is always challenging. Watching the Salzburg production, directed by Claus Guth, I was not shocked, but a little perplexed. By the end, the audience can no longer be sure what is supposed to be real and what unreal, who is imprisoned and who is imprisoning.

Clearing Up Ambiguity

Tim Parks

Herbert List/Magnum Photos

In every other sphere of expression ambiguity is a flaw. What is it about ambiguity that it is so highly praised in literature? Above all, how did it come to take on, at least for some, a cloak of liberal righteousness, to shift from being an aesthetic to a moral virtue, as if the text that wasn’t clear, that didn’t state its preferences clearly, were ethically superior to the text that does.

The Movies of My Youth

Italo Calvino

There were years when I went to the movies almost every day, around the time of my adolescence. Those were years in which cinema was my world. It satisfied a need for disorientation, for shifting my attention to another place, and I believe it’s a need that corresponds to a primary function of integration in the world, an essential phase in any kind of development.

The Situation-Room Comedy

Francine Prose


Offhandedly mocking our inadequate, improvisatory foreign policy in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, The Brink, the little-known HBO series that aired this summer and has been renewed for a second season, is so funny, so inventive—and so fearless in what it has to say about geopolitics—that watching it would be pure pleasure were the events it depicts not so uncomfortably close to the perilous reality of the world in which we live.

A Brutal American Epic

Charles Simic

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Charles Reznikoff’s long poem Testimony: The United States (1885-1915): Recitative is a compilation of case summaries, a sequence of self-contained pieces. These “recitatives,” as he called them, tell the stories of some five hundred court cases from all over this country and deal with a broad segment of the American population, urban and rural.

Climate Change: A Warning from Islam

Bill McKibben

Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

The real effect of documents like the recent Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, or Pope Francis’s encyclical, is less immediate policy shifts than a change in the emotional climate. It’s not necessarily that we take what the pope says as Gospel, or decide that because our university sold its fossil fuel stocks we will do likewise; it’s that these things normalize action, moving it from the category of “something that activists want” to “something obvious.” That’s the phase we’re reaching right now in the climate fight.

2016: From Peculiar to Worrisome

Elizabeth Drew

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The presidential campaign has gone from peculiar to worrisome. This isn’t only because of who’s ahead in the polls at the moment, but also what an accumulation of polls and anecdotal evidence tell us about the state of the electorate, and what that portends. Of big concern is whether there can be any mediation between the “governors” and the stronger-than-ever anti-government forces. Will whoever is elected be able to govern?