Roving thoughts and provocations

After Aurora: No End to Grief

Charles Simic

Alex Webb/Magnum Photos

One of the blessings of rural life is that newspapers are not readily available and cell phones often don’t work outside larger towns, so the news of the world reaches us late, unless one has the TV or the computer turned on at home. I didn’t hear about the shooting in Colorado till late the next day on my car radio, while driving to the town dump. The monstrosity of the act struck me with full force of its vileness in the peaceful surroundings. My mind wandered back to the morning of September 11, when after watching the unfolding tragedy that culminated in the collapse of the twin towers, I finally took my dog, who had been nagging me for hours, for a walk.

After Aurora: The Devil We Don’t Know

Francine Prose

If we no longer believe in Satan, then what do we make of our sense that something is wrong with the world, that a random malevolent shooter lurks in the schoolyard or the cinema lobby? Our collective disquiet about the mass murders of our time is intensified by the sense that they select their victims at random; that they have come from different backgrounds and harbor dissimilar grudges, and that we have failed to come up with an “explanation” for their actions, or a reliable template to help predict or avert an attack. And yet we remain reluctant to accept the possibility that evil is not a problem that can be solved or a question that has a solution. How do we reconcile our wish to prevent further violence and to protect ourselves and our families with the suspicion that, as those who believed and believe in Satan would argue, evil is an element in the universal order, an aspect of nature and of human nature, a force and a constant threat that exists—and will continue to exist—despite our best efforts to understand and eradicate it?

The People’s Republic of Rumor

Richard Bernstein

Imaginechina via AP Images

The official Chinese media have reported that seventy-seven people died as a result of torrential rains last week, but the Chinese blogosphere tells a different story: of hundreds and possibly thousands of deaths, and widespread damage and chaos. Apart from describing the flood itself, these reports suggest that, once again, Chinese officials were striving to downplay the scope of a disaster to avoid public dissatisfaction. China is a country where there is no truth, though there is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence that if there is a truth on a subject deemed sensitive, whether about the feelings of Tibetans or the number of dead in a storm, it is to be found online, not in official accounts.

The Republicans’ Medicaid Cruelty

Jeff Madrick

AP Photo/Eric Gay

The essential American soul,” claimed D.H. Lawrence, “is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” While the rejection by five state governments of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion may not precisely illustrate Lawrence’s heated observation, it does suggest a contemporary vein of cruelty in America that is deeply disturbing.

Grey Area: How ‘Fifty Shades’ Dominated the Market

Emily Eakin

Getty Images

By late May, more than ten million copies of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy, an erotic romance series about the sexual exploits of a domineering billionaire and an inexperienced coed, had been sold in the United States, all within six weeks of the books’ publication here. This apparently unprecedented achievement occurred without the benefit of a publicity campaign, formal reviews, or Oprah’s blessing, owing to a reputation established, as one industry analyst put it, “totally through word of mouth.” In fact, Leonard’s bestseller originated as fan fiction, an online genre that is inherently collaborative and by convention resolutely anti-commercial.

Recasting the Ancients

Andrew Butterfield

Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung

Once upon a time, antiquity was new. All of a sudden, in the decades around 1500, the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere and other now-celebrated monuments of the ancients began to come forth from the ground, dug up in the fields about Rome. To the artists, patrons, and humanists who beheld them for the first time, these sculptures were breathtaking: timeless yet fresh, canonical yet startling. As in few other moments in the history of art, the shock of the new and the shock of the old were one.

Among the first artists to respond to this surprising treasure trove was a goldsmith from northern Italy called Pier Jacopo Alari de Bonacolsi (c.1455-1528), better known as “Antico,” for his uncompromising passion for Pagan antiquity. Working for Isabella d’Este and her Gonzaga relatives in Mantua, he made as bronze statuettes some of the earliest copies of these and other masterworks of antiquity, including the Spinario, the Venus Felix, and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Today the imitation of classical models may seem like a stale and routine business, but five hundred years ago, it was an exciting and revelatory enterprise. The copies Antico made are surprising in many ways, so much so that although long cherished by collectors as possibly the most sumptuous statuettes in the history of art, the essence of their character still seems to elude full understanding.

Necessary Scapegoats? The Making of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

Stéphanie Giry

David van der Veen/AFP/Getty Images

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has long been keen to go down in history as the man who brought the Pol Pot regime to justice. But Hun Sen, a one-time Khmer Rouge battalion commander, knows only too well that investigations down the Khmer Rouge chain of command could expose the shady pasts of important members of the current government. Now, the joint Cambodian-international tribunal set up to prosecute Khmer Rouge crimes finds itself in a quandry: even as the Cambodian government has supported a case against the surviving senior leaders of the regime it has blocked two other cases against five mid-level officials, each one thought to be responsible for 40,000 to 100,000 deaths.

Does Money Make Us Write Better?

Tim Parks

Musée du Louvre

Let’s talk about money. In his history of world art, E. H. Gombrich mentions a Renaissance artist whose uneven work was a puzzle, until art historians discovered some of his accounts and compared incomes with images: paid less he worked carelessly; well-remunerated he excelled. So, given the decreasing income of writers over recent years—one thinks of the sharp drop in payments for freelance journalism and again in advances for most novelists, partly to do with a stagnant market for books, partly to do with the liveliness and piracy of the Internet—are we to expect a corresponding falling off in the quality of what we read?

South Africa’s AIDS Orphans: Breaking the Silence

Helen Epstein

Nikos Economopoulos/Magnum Photos

When I first visited South Africa in 2000 to report on the AIDS epidemic there, one adult in five was HIV positive, and a million children had lost one or both parents to the disease. But what really amazed me was that no one was talking about this. Silence gripped the nation like a spell. People with obvious AIDS symptoms told me they were suffering from “ulcers” or “tuberculosis” or “pneumonia.” Orphans said their parents had “gone away” or had been “bewitched” by a jealous neighbor. Now, five courageous teenagers from a Cape Town slum have made a fifteen-minute film called Young Carers: Through Our Eyes about what it’s like to lose a parent to AIDS. It’s one of the most powerful films about the epidemic I’ve ever seen.

Modern Architecture’s Dark Side

Martin Filler

The Wolfsonian

There has long been a tendency to see the most important innovations of Modernism as arising directly from progressive causes. But now the French architectural historian and architect Jean-Louis Cohen establishes one big, awful, inescapable truth: the full potential of twentieth-century architecture was realized not in the social-welfare and urban-improvement schemes beloved by the early proponents of the Modern Movement, but rather through technologies perfected during the two world wars to slaughter vast armies, destroy entire cities, decimate noncombatant populations, and industrialize genocide.