Roving thoughts and provocations

Echoes from the Gloom

Tim Parks

How does Leopardi’s cosmic pessimism, as it’s sometimes called, affect my translation? As one reads the Zibaldone one can’t help feeling that one has heard its voice elsewhere. Either he has had more influence than I knew about, or others since have arrived at similar combinations of gloomy content and emphatic style. An Italian can’t help thinking of Giorgio Manganelli and Carlo Emilio Gadda. But the voices that for me are most constantly present, or nascent, in long sections of the Zibaldone, are Samuel Beckett’s (the novels), Emil Cioran’s, and, above all—indeed overwhelmingly, especially in the wilder riffs on the scandals of human behavior—Thomas Bernhard’s.

Obama’s Long Road to Peace

David Cole

Mario Tama/Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s speech Thursday at the National Defense University may turn out to be the most significant of his tenure. After four years of failing to make much progress toward closing Guantánamo, while increasingly relying on a drone war whose legality has often been questioned, Obama might have chosen to speak more cautiously in his NDU speech. Instead, he went much further, outlining a way out of this “perpetual war,” saying that “our democracy demands it.” Whether he can make good on this promise will very likely define his legacy. If he succeeds in doing so, the Nobel Peace Prize committee will be seen not as naïve, but as remarkably prescient, in its awarding of the Peace Prize to Obama in 2009.

The Unanswerable Question

Alberto Manguel

Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

One day in 1842, the thirty-eight-year old Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his notebook: “To write a dream, which shall resemble the real course of a dream, with all its inconsistency, its eccentricities and aimlessness—with nevertheless a leading idea running through the whole. Up to this old age of the world, no such thing has ever been written.” Indeed. From the first dream of Gilgamesh four thousand years ago on to our time, Hawthorne’s observation proves to be right. Something in the retelling of a dream, however haunting and however true, lacks the peculiar verisimilitude of dreams, their unique vocabulary and texture, their singular identity.

Ibsen’s Broken Homes

Martin Filler

Stephanie Berger/Brooklyn Academy of Music

The fact that many architects seem compelled to seduce and dominate those around them—whether patrons, junior partners, paramours, or some combination thereof—has been part of the popular image of the profession for much of the past century. The highly publicized extramarital-sex-and-murder scandals that embroiled Stanford White and Frank Lloyd Wright during the early 1900s ushered in an age when master builders began to comport themselves more like freewheeling Romantic artists than exacting Medieval masons. Henrik Ibsen had already anticipated these issues in his 1892 play The Master Builder, an architecturally themed drama currently being given a revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater.

Dürer’s Devil Within

Andrew Butterfield

Albertina Museum, Vienna

In the summer of 1494, soon after his engagement, Albrecht Dürer made a startlingly intimate drawing of his fiancée Agnes Frey. One might have expected a twenty-three-year-old to depict his betrothed as a source of love, or comfort or well-being. Instead, Albrecht showed Agnes twisted up in a knot of anxious introversion. In its frank portrayal of an informal moment of unguarded emotion, there had never been a drawing quite like this before. Typically portraiture was honorific and meant to represent the exemplary virtues of the person shown; Dürer instead often sought to capture the idiosyncratic and psychological characteristics of the people he portrayed. He was fascinated with the close scrutiny of dark and brooding emotion.

Why Obama Is Not Nixon

Elizabeth Drew

References to Watergate, impeachment, even Richard Nixon, are being tossed around these days as if they were analogous to the current so-called scandals. But the furors over the IRS, Benghazi, and the Justice Department’s sweeping investigation of the Associated Press, don’t begin to rise—or sink—to that level. The wise and pithy Matt Dowd, a former Republican operative, said recently, “We rush to scandal before we settle on stupidity.” Washington just loves scandals; they’re ever so much more exciting than the daily grind of legislation—if there is any—and the tit-for-tat between the president and the congressional Republicans over the budget was becoming tedious. Faux outrage is a specialty here.

Shooting Our Way to Safety

Charles Simic

David Hurn/Magnum Photos

“How many Bostonians wished they had a gun two weeks ago?” Wayne LaPierre asked the rapt crowd at the NRA National Convention in Houston earlier this month. The huge audience of firearm enthusiasts, who call themselves “freedom’s biggest army, its greatest and brightest hope,” clapped in approval, their eyes having been just opened to how differently things would have turned out had the four million Bostonians and the marathon runners all been packing heat and had drawn their weapons and opened fire at the first sound of explosion.

Rite of Spring

Christopher Benfey

Herbert List/Magnum Photos

Margaret Fuller was known to perform the ancient form of divination in which a passage of Virgil selected at random is assumed to reveal what lies ahead. I thought I might follow Fuller’s lead, and greet the spring by serendipitously dipping into a trusted book for guidance. I determined to draw my first lot on March 21. The previous night, the equinox itself, my wife and I had heard, around midnight, a strange howling in the distance, probably a coyote, or perhaps an owl, though we both allowed ourselves to think that this was a wolf, perhaps a she-wolf, eager to found some new Rome on the outskirts of Amherst, Massachusetts.

Pakistan: A New Beginning?

Ahmed Rashid

K.M. Chaudary/AP Images

Although opposition leader Nawaz Sharif was favored going into Pakistan’s fraught parliamentary elections on Saturday, nobody predicted that his party would win so convincingly. The weeks leading up to the vote were marred by the worst election violence in the country’s history, combined with widespread fear that a divided electorate would fail to produce a government with sufficient clout to deal with growing intolerance, multiple insurgencies, and an imploding economy. But the strong victory by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML) amid high voter turnout now holds the promise of greater stability—and with it the possibility that a civilian government might at last be equipped to tackle some of these challenges.

A Mind Among Pigs

Gabriel Winslow-Yost

ERBP

Upstream Color, Shane Carruth’s long-awaited second film, begins with an extended sequence of victimization, extraordinary in its deadpan brutality. A young woman (Kris, one of only two characters given real names, played by Amy Seimetz) is stun-gunned outside a bar by a deceptively pleasant-looking man, referred to in the credits as the Thief. He forces a strange grub-like creature down her throat, and she wakes up as a sort of zombie—blank, passive, absolutely credulous and obedient. Over the course of several days, the Thief issues her a series of slightly surreal instructions, takes all her valuables, empties her bank account, even makes her take out a loan on her home to give him more money. Meanwhile, the creature squirms visibly under her skin.