“Walk around a university campus,” fumed Geoff Dyer in Out of Sheer Rage, “and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch.” In my last piece in this space I suggested that writers are anxious to present literature as somehow more alive than life itself—a place of great intensity and courageous engagement—perhaps out of concern that the profession they have opted for is actually a space of relative refuge and fearful retreat. But what about those who write about writing, the reviewers and academics? Is Dyer correct that while original literature throbs with life, literary criticism is the work of cloistered drudges who suffocate the very creature that provides them with a living?
What will Afghanistan look like in 2014, after a dozen years of occupation, more than 2,800 NATO soldiers killed, and an expenditure of $1 trillion? If the participants in this week’s NATO summit in Chicago are to be believed, what they will leave behind is little more than a series of fortresses in enemy territory: Kabul and the other major cities will be protected by Afghan forces, while the countryside falls back into the hands of the Taliban. NATO leaders all but acknowledged that much of Kandahar and Helmand provinces—where 30,000 US marines had launched “the surge” two years ago to root out the Taliban—would quickly revert back to Taliban control once the Americans left.
The United States is quietly being drawn into an escalating conflict in Yemen. Following the discovery earlier this month of a new bomb plot aimed at American airliners, the US government has been aiming drones at alleged members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) at an unprecedented rate. Last week, US and Yemeni officials revealed that US special operations forces are on the ground in Yemen and that more may be on the way. Meanwhile AQAP, the Yemen-based organization now regarded by some officials as one of the principal terrorist threats to the United States, has stepped up attacks around the country, including a huge suicide bombing in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, on Monday, that killed at least sixty people.
The extraordinarily successful French magazine XXI is the publishing industry’s greatest champion of comics reportage. It has regularly sent cartoonists out into the world and given them a good deal of magazine space. Editor Patrick de Saint-Exupery, a seasoned journalist himself, was open to any idea I had and supportive at every step of the way. The author Pankaj Mishra passed me along to Indian journalist Piyush Srivastava, who suggested I visit Kushinagar and who graciously agreed to be my guide. We met in Lucknow, where he is based, and drove for a day to reach the district, where many of the dalits—“untouchables”—are experiencing not just abject poverty but real hunger. After three visits to the same hamlet, Piyush and I were essentially chased out of the area by higher caste individuals who did not like us snooping around. We decided to visit other villages, but briefly, for no more than a couple hours each, to avoid the same result.
Everyone has noticed by now the non-laugh laugh of Mitt Romney, a kind of half-stifled barking. But what does it mean? It is blurted out as abruptly as it is broken off. Is it a kind of punctuation, part comma, part full stop, part interrogatory mark? What, if anything, is it trying to convey? Why does it seem more like coughing or burping than laughter?
The announcement Wednesday by Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, that her nation is ready to discuss economic stimulus to keep Greece in the eurozone is—if serious—a hugely important development. But the critical test will be what policies emerge from this announcement. After more than three years of unsuccessful efforts to tackle the problems in Greece and other countries through imposed austerity measures in return for bailout funds, observers might be forgiven for thinking there are no solutions to the continuing eurozone crisis. Yet the eurozone is not stuck between a rock and a hard place. The tragedy is that effective solutions are available, but the stronger European nations, led by Germany and the European Central Bank, seem incapable of adopting them, or perhaps even thinking clearly about them. The crisis is not purely a consequence of Greek intransigence, by any means.
When my mother was very old and in a nursing home, she surprised me one day toward the end of her life by asking me if I still wrote poetry. When I blurted out that I still do, she stared at me with incomprehension. I had to repeat what I said, till she sighed and shook her head, probably thinking to herself this son of mine has always been a little nuts. Now that I’m in my seventies, I’m asked that question now and then by people who don’t know me well. Many of them, I suspect, hope to hear me say that I’ve come my senses and given up that foolish passion of my youth and are visibly surprised to hear me confess that I haven’t yet. They seem to think there is something downright unwholesome and even shocking about it, as if I were dating a high school girl, at my age, and going with her roller-skating that night.
I want to toss out a provocation: that in the world of literature there is a predominance of people whose approach to life is structured around issues of fear and courage and who find it difficult to find a stable position in relation to those values. Not that they are necessarily more fearful than others, but that a sense of themselves as fearful or courageous is crucial for them and will be decisive in the structuring of both the content and style of their work.
Why do some people who would recognize gay civil unions oppose gay marriage? Certain religious groups want to deny gays the sacredeness of what they take to be a sacrament. But marriage is no sacrament.
Part of what makes the current situation in Bahrain so disturbing is that the regime has succeeded in replacing the narrative of a peaceful movement for reform with an altogether different one: that the country’s majority Shia are intent on driving the Sunnis off the island and handing the country over to Iran. Although last year’s protests were led by predominantly Shia opposition groups, Bahrain’s urban populations have long been mixed and the uprising also drew Sunnis dissatisfied with how the country was run. But as I witnessed during a recent five day visit, by mobilizing Sunnis against Shia protesters on the claim the latter are manipulated by a predatory Iran, the regime has made Shia-Sunni hostility the conflict’s overriding theme.