Roving thoughts and provocations

Swing Low

Christopher Benfey

My mother, who died on the fall equinox, left contradictory instructions about arrangements for her death. She told my father, firmly, that she didn’t want a memorial service. And she told me, just as firmly, that she wanted “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”—“the cradle-song of death which all men know,” as W. E. B. Du Bois called it—sung at her memorial.

Ukraine: Putin’s Denial

Timothy Snyder

Sergei Guneev/RIA Novosti

Asked about the turmoil in Ukraine, Alexander Orlov, the Russian Ambassador to France, declared: “Russians and Ukrainians are one nation. It’s like the Bretons and the Normans in France. You can’t separate them.” In denying the existence of a Ukrainian nation, he was echoing Russian President Vladimir Putin.

What We Learned in Tahrir

Yasmine El Rashidi

Noujaim Films

That winter we all became activists. We opened Twitter accounts, many of us, and learned how to dress for winter nights in Tahrir Square. I thought, we all thought, that the euphoria, the sense of possibility, would carry the country for years. As Jehane Noujaim’s documentary, The Square, vividly depicts, not only did we forget, but the euphoria quickly dissipated.

China: Five Pounds of Facts

Jonathan Mirsky

Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

No one seems to have measured how old Chinese civilization is, but Endymion Wilkinson can give a better answer than anyone else. “1.6 billion minutes separate us from the Zhou conquest of the Shang,” he informs us at the beginning of his Chinese History: A New Manual. Undaunted, he then sets out to describe everything that has happened since.

No Harm to the Kimbell

Martin Filler

Kimbell Art Museum

The good news is that the Renzo Piano Pavilion, its eponymous architect’s long-awaited addition to Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum of 1966–1972 in Fort Worth, is far from the disaster feared by many admirers of the most revered twentieth-century gallery. There is no bad news, only mild regret that the new $135 million building is not very distinguished.

Trapped in Vienna

Andrew Butterfield

Eisenberger Collection, Vienna

Vienna was not only a birthplace of modernism; it was also a “laboratory of world destruction,” to quote the legendary Viennese journalist Karl Kraus. The show at the National Gallery in London helps the viewer to see in the clearest terms the suffocating anxiety and oppressive solitude of the artists, writers, and patrons who were responsible for much of Viennese modernism. You can almost watch the apocalypse unfold.

A Way Out for Ukraine?

Timothy Snyder

Ivan Sekretarev/AP/Corbis

The hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets in Ukraine have few options. They cannot force their own officials to sign a trade agreement with the EU. No elections are on the horizon, and Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych has no interest in calling them—unless a deal can be struck. But the Ukrainian constitution may offer a way out.

Afghanistan: Risking a Collapse

Anatol Lieven

Omar Sobhani/Reuters/Corbis

Afghan president Hamid Karzai is playing a game for very high stakes. After two five-year terms, he is required to step down and is angling for as much influence as he can over his successor. Now he has threatened not to sign a military basing agreement with the US until after the election—thereby putting at risk the willingness of the US and the West to remain engaged in Afghanistan at all.

Literature and Bureaucracy

Tim Parks

 

Literature is implacably opposed to bureaucracy. Isn’t it? But what about Balzac’s ambition to “compete with the civil registry”? Or Dante’s need to find a pigeonhole in hell for every sinner of every category? Or Flaubert’s two incompetents, who become obsessive copiers of literary snippets? In each case, we revel in the mind’s ability to possess the world in language, rather than to change it.

High Culture Laid Low: A New York Requiem

Martin Filler

Stephanie Berger/Brooklyn Academy of Music

As the winter season of New York high culture kicks into full swing, one thing seems quite apparent: there is little appetite for the new in the performing arts here, because innovation carries so much financial risk.  In view of such a situation, the demise earlier this fall of the adventurous but profligate New York City Opera—and the particular qualities of its last staging—provide a kind of case study in the predicament of major cultural institutions today.