Roving thoughts and provocations

Notes from a Chinese Cave: Qigong’s Quiet Return

Ian Johnson

Sim Chi Yin

The Jinhua caves are located in a wooded, hilly area about 200 miles southwest of Shanghai. The most famous cave, Double Dragon Cave, is entered by a stream that passes under a stone overhang just a few inches above the water. Visitors must lie flat in a shallow boat as it is pulled by wires under the outcrop. Rock whizzes by a couple of inches in front of your face and suddenly you are there, in the earth’s womb, where people have come for millennia to meditate. In November, I came to Jinhua with about 400 others on a ten-day retreat to study with Wang Liping, probably China’s most famous teacher of qigong, a form of meditation and breathing exercises rooted in traditional Chinese religion.

Deep Streep?

Martin Filler

Alex Bailey

Among the impenetrable mysteries of modern life is how Meryl Streep can be universally regarded as the greatest dramatic film actress of our time. In my opinion, Streep is easily at her best as a comedienne, not in the high-serious roles she has favored. Now we have the 62-year-old Streep in what many critics deem the crowning achievement of her storied 35-year Hollywood career, as Margaret Thatcher in the starring role of Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady. But when I watched this strange tour de force of Important Acting, I was uncertain whether I was witnessing a tragedy or a farce.

Sassy Angel

Lorrie Moore

The Roche-Wainwright-McGarrigle intertwinings comprise a musical family the sprawling brilliance of which has not been experienced perhaps since—well, we wonʼt say the Lizst-Wagners—but at least the Carter-Cashes. The extended family oeuvre, though varied, often has a conversational, smart-kids-at-summer-camp quality that is both folky and jokey. The Rochesʼ own wistful, clever songs are written with a sweet street spontaneity and prosody, and their clear, pure voices are like a barbershop trio of sassy angels. But most often they sound like plucky girls riding home on a school bus, making things up as they go along.

Banned in China

Jonathan Mirsky

AFP/Getty Images

In late December, a foreign correspondent in Beijing emailed me to say that a four-page article on China I’d written for a special New Year’s edition of Newsweek had been carefully torn from each of the 731 copies of the magazine on sale in China. In over forty years of writing about China, I have been subjected to many forms of pressure. But this has never happened. Surely everything in my article is well known in Beijing, especially to the tiny number of English-reading urban people who buy Newsweek. What had I said that attracted the attention of the official shredder?

Free Associations: Collages

Janet Malcolm, with Hilton Als

Janet Malcolm
Last winter, I came into possession of the papers of an émigré psychiatrist who practiced in New York in the late 1940s and 1950s. The archive included a collection of manila envelopes, around six by ten inches, stuffed with folded sheets of thin paper covered with single-spaced typing: the notes the psychiatrist made after seeing patients (many of them fellow émigrés) in his office. As I studied the sheets with their inky typewriting and 60-year-old paper clips holding them together and leaving rust marks on the surface, my collagist’s imagination began to stir. I began to “see” some version of the collages on view here.

How Austerity Is Killing Europe

Jeff Madrick

Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

The European Union has become a vicious circle of burgeoning debt leading to radical austerity measures, which in turn further weaken economic conditions and result in calls for still more damaging cuts in government spending and higher taxes. Rarely do we get so stark an example of bad—arguably even perverse—economic thinking in action. How could the EU so misread history and treat with contempt the teachings of John Maynard Keynes, who showed that during recessions governments must expand economies through spending and tax cuts, not the opposite? By ignoring this, European policy makers will deepen, not solve, the financial crisis and millions of people will suffer needlessly.

Unsexing Marilyn

Lee Siegel

Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

It is not entirely the fault of the recent movie My Week with Marilyn—about Monroe’s disastrous attempt to make The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier—that it is devoid of sex, which is something like depicting the life of Napoleon without mentioning that he was French. Monroe might have been one of the most sexual beings who ever lived, but the portrayals of her, even by disillusioned observers, sooner or later descend into a sanitized ideal. The sex is overtaken by sentimental treacle, or heroic fantasy, or defensive over-analysis.

Egypt: The Mayhem

Yasmine El Rashidi

Mosa'ab Elshamy

From their position as the apparent protectors of last year’s revolution, Egypt’s military rulers have been pushed into increasingly brutal confrontations with civilians—at Maspero in October, during the run-up to elections in November, and most recently, during a week of mayhem in mid December. Peaceful protesters are arbitrarily being arrested and thrown in jail; and the army’s estrangement from the activists who led the revolution is visible in the newly-erected concrete walls that sever downtown streets to separate its forces from the people. These spasms of violence, as important to the future of Egypt as the outcome of elections, often seem to have a logic of their own; December’s episode was set off by a chain of events few could have predicted.

Politics and Television: How To Level the Field

Max Frankel

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

With campaign spending likely to exceed $6 billion, the 2012 elections will be the most expensive in history. Why do the candidates need all that money? Because electoral success requires them to buy endless hours of television time for commercials that advertise their virtues—and, more often, roundly assail their opponents. And we all know that those sordid slanders work unless they are instantly answered with equally facile and equally expensive rebuttals.There are no easy ways to repair our election system. But a large degree of fairness could be restored to our campaigns if we level the TV playing field. Here’s how to do it.

Après Merce

Alma Guillermoprieto

Nathaniel Tileston

Those of us who were privileged to study with Merce Cunningham at whatever point in his long career will cherish forever the physical challenges he posed for a dancer. Followers like myself also loved his senseless determination to make every piece new, even if it meant losing audience members unwilling to work that hard for the payoff. We loved Merce’s courage: he showed up for work when he was exhausted, when he was injured, when he was suffering, and he always danced full-out. But in an extraordinary act of artistic self-immolation, the creator of some of the twentieth century’s most moving dance works decided in his final years that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company should have a last world tour after his death—and then shut down. Whether he should have been allowed by his board to torch everything he worked so killingly hard to create will be debated for a long time, along with the question of why he did it.