Roving thoughts and provocations

In My Lady’s Crowded Chamber

Geoffrey O’Brien

Pavel Antonov

Even horrible people are tragic.” With this widely quoted phrase Thomas Adès summed up the gist of his 1995 opera Powder Her Face. The horrible person in question is Ethel Margaret Whigham, the fashionable debutante who became the Duchess of Argyll by her second marriage in 1951, and was divorced twelve years later following a trial that evidently handed the London tabloids almost more material than they knew what do with—a variety of sometimes well-documented affairs with some eighty-eight lovers of high and low degree—and more than the opera in its two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time can do much beyond hint at.

Dancing in Empty Beijing

Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson

The Lunar New Year began last week as it always does, with a new moon. The empty sky seemed to empty Beijing of up to half its residents—authorities estimate that an incredible nine million people left the city, which usually has a population of eighteen to twenty million. This made it all the more enjoyable for those who stuck around, who were rewarded with a record number of temple fairs and their performers: scores of folk artists who gave daily performances of traditional arts, acrobatics, and martial arts—the sort of local cultural scene that this town of restaurants and staid museums rarely offers.

On the Stovetop of Sleep

Nicholson Baker

Lise Sarfati/Magnum Photos

You can’t fight it. It happens. The dreams come on. They’re part of what we do. I had a theory once, which I also put in a novel, that many nightmares were caused by a common physical need: the need to get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom. Out of the stochastic stew that sits cooling on the stovetop of our sleep-softened consciousness, a couple of images would be ladled out in a bowl and sprinkled with a special neural Pickapeppa Sauce that made them seem frightening, so as to wake us up. All our subconscious was trying to do, I thought, was to help us by saying, Friend, your bladder is overfull and you should get up and relieve it.

Mingus: The Chaos and the Magic

Christopher Carroll

Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos

Charles Mingus’s audiences never knew quite what they were going to get, and this kept them coming. Mingus, the bassist, composer, and bandleader who reached the height of his fame in the mid-1960s, was notoriously mercurial. He was known to fire and rehire band members over the course of a set, and was once fired himself for chasing a trombonist across the stage with an axe. His reactions to noisy crowds ranged from announcing, “Isaac Stern doesn’t have to put up with this shit,” to ordering his band to read books onstage. His music, which drew omnivorously on the blues, gospel, Dixieland, Duke Ellington, bebop, and classical music, among much else, was similarly unpredictable. It blurred the boundaries between improvisation and composition, often ignoring standard form, and was famous for its rapid shifts in mood and tempo.

Are the Republicans Beyond Saving?

Elizabeth Drew

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Republican Party is having its own form of PTSD. According to one of the most respected party elders the Republicans firmly believed that the voters would reject Barack Obama for a second term and deliver the Senate back into their hands. Wishful thinking combined with erroneous polling assumptions left them totally unprepared for the thumping loss they sustained and they are still in something of a state of shock. “They’re still close in time to that event,” the party elder said. “You need to keep that in mind. Right now they’re groping around in a dark room.”

Fifty Kilos of Quality Meat

Georges Perec

Vaka Valo
Everyone has dreams. Some remember theirs, far fewer recount them, and very few write them down. Why write them down, anyway, knowing you will only sell them out (and no doubt sell yourself out in the process)? I thought I was recording the dreams I was having; I have realized that it was not long before I began having dreams only in order to write them.

How We Made Killing Easy

David Cole

AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, NBC published a leaked Justice Department “white paper” laying out the Obama administration’s case for when the president, or indeed any “informed, high-level official” of the federal government, can authorize the secret killing of a US citizen without charges, a hearing, or a trial. The sixteen-page white paper argues that killing a US citizen with a drone and without trial is legal under domestic and international law, even if the individual is far from any battlefield, not a member of al-Qaeda, and not planning an imminent attack on the United States.

Listening for the Jabberwock

Tim Parks

Are translated texts essentially different from texts in their original form? One of the arguments I have put forward is that there is a natural tendency towards, rhythm, alliteration, and assonance when one writes even the most ordinary prose, and that editing to conform to the linguistic conventions of a different culture can interfere with this. The translator gives priority to the semantic sense, but that sense was also partly guided in the original by what one might call the acoustic inertia of the language. All too often, the generous attempt to match the strategic use of poetic devices only alerts us to the strain the translator has to make to force the language into the desired sound patterns, patterns which in the original sounded easy and even natural.

Holding Education Hostage

Diane Ravitch

Grandville

For weeks, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the United Federation of Teachers have been battling over the issue of teacher evaluation. Governor Andrew Cuomo set a deadline for them to reach an agreement, but they failed to do so, potentially costing the city schools hundreds of millions of dollars. The state education commissioner, John King, jumped into the fray by threatening to withhold over a billion dollars in state and federal aid if there was no settlement between the parties. Now, Governor Cuomo says that he may intervene. What’s going on here? Why can’t the mayor and the union reach an agreement? Why does Commissioner King intend to punish the city’s children if the grown-ups don’t agree?