Roving thoughts and provocations

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.

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.