Roving thoughts and provocations

The Case for Paying Ransoms

Simon Critchley

Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Is it better to remain morally consistent and refuse negotiation with an allegedly evil organization, but watch your citizens get beheaded? Or sign up to a principled agreement not to negotiate with “terrorists,” but then negotiate nonetheless, pay a large amount of money to release your citizens, and simply deny the fact publicly?

Why Read New Books?

Tim Parks

Winsor McCay

Virginia Woolf thought one of the pleasures of reading contemporary novels was that you have to decide for yourself if they are good. This uncertainty of ours, as we tackle, say, our first Eggers, our first Pamuk, our first Jelinek, our first Ferrante, or as we switch from an early Roth to a late Roth, is actually part of the pleasure.

Putin’s New Nostalgia

Timothy Snyder

David Levine

In speaking of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as good foreign policy, Russian President Vladimir Putin has violated both a long Soviet taboo and revised his own prior position that the agreement was “immoral.” What it is about this alliance with Nazi Germany that is so appealing just at the present moment? In fact, Putin’s rehabilitation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact follows other recent moves by Moscow to revive the idea of a division of Eastern Europe between Russia and the West.

Why the Republicans Won

Elizabeth Drew

Pete Souza/Official White House Photo

Never in memory has a midterm election been turned against a president so cynically as it was by the Republicans this year. Scott Brown was among those who made the comprehensive and efficient charge that ISIS was bringing Ebola into America over the Texas border. In exit interviews voters told pollsters that ISIS and Ebola were reasons they voted for Republicans.

Rembrandt in the Depths

Andrew Butterfield

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

“Rembrandt: The Late Works,” an exhibition now on view at London’s National Gallery, will linger long in the mind of anyone who has the pleasure to see it. Bringing together approximately ninety paintings, prints, and drawings Rembrandt made at the end of his life, it reveals a great artist working with unprecedented technical command and emotional power, even as the world closes in around him.

Borges and God

Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos

Osvaldo Ferrari: Throughout your writing, you have referred to what’s divine, including the supernatural. That is, you seem to admit that transcendence exists but you don’t call it God.

Jorge Luis Borges: I do think that it’s safer not to call it God. On the other hand, if we employ other words, perhaps less precise or vivid ones, then we could approach the truth, if an approach to truth is possible. Or it could be something that we ignore.

By Horror Haunted

Christopher Benfey

Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos

My wife and I moved to a new house a few years back. The street address is 666. I warned her that Halloween might be lively at our house and suggested that we get the number changed. I think she was a little embarrassed for me, suspecting that I was superstitious. So far—knock wood—the tricksters have stayed away. But an attempt to remove the diabolical digits from the garage door, where they had been nailed in place by a previous owner, has gone awry. The outlines of the ghostly numbers now shine forth from the stained wood, more visible than ever.

My Asian Road

Leo Rubinfien

Leo Rubinfien/Taka Ishii Gallery/Steven Kasher Gallery

I stayed in quaint hotels and some that were appalling, also in some that were grand. I was an intent, anxious, too-serious boy bent over a heavy novel in the slop-strewn eating hall of a travelers’ block in Shanxi province; at an obscure mountain inn where the rain wouldn’t stop; in Bangkok, at yet another Indian cafe in a murky cul-de-sac. The view changed constantly, but what hardly varied was the sequence of long walks each day.