Roving thoughts and provocations

Posing for the Senate

Christopher Benfey

Left: Melina Mara/The Washington Post; Right: Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It is hard to watch the verbal sparring between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown, the candidates in this fall’s closely watched Massachusetts Senate race for the “Kennedy seat,” without recalling the classic 1949 comedy Adam’s Rib. In that Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn vehicle, Adam and Amanda Bonner are husband-and-wife lawyers who battle in the courtroom before ending up as Democratic and Republican rivals. “I’m not sure I care to expose myself,” Amanda says, “to typical instinctive masculine brutality.” Which invariably meets with Adam’s “Oh, come now” response. Now, we have Warren adopting the Amanda pose, to Brown’s Adam.

A Treasure Trove of Edward Gorey

Eve Bowen

All images courtesy of the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

Edward Gorey’s work tends to combine whimsically grim storylines with dour yet dancerly protagonists. Whether they are Edwardian ladies, fur-coated gentlemen, ill-fated children, or unusual animals, his characters are almost always on some kind of journey. His stories often unfold in wallpapered rooms, on barren estates, or among statues, beast-shaped topiaries, and urns. “Few seem to return from the borders to which I’ve sent them,” he wrote.

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions

Perry Link

AP Photo/Andy Wong

The word “embarrassment” has been used around the world in press reports about the murder charges against Bogu Kailai, the wife of disgraced Chinese official Bo Xilai. But I doubt that anything as mild as embarrassment is what fills the minds of Party leaders in Beijing. Much more is at stake. What did Bo Xilai’s police chief Wang Lijun tell the Americans, and what agreement did the Americans make with Chinese authorities when they released Wang to their custody? Normally the Communist Party completely suppresses news of murders and other “embarrassments.” The fact that it decided to make a public announcement in this case must be, at least in part, because the Americans hold information that they could, if they wanted, divulge.

Floodplain Fantasy

Geoffrey O’Brien

Fox Searchlight

To say that Beasts of the Southern Wild was filmed in southern Louisiana understates the case—it seems like an enormous construction made from pieces of southern Louisiana, and inhabited by the people that the film’s young director Benh Zeitlin, a New Yorker who has been living in New Orleans since 2008, found there. Yet this is no documentary but a work of purest fantasy, set in a world just adjacent to the real and operating with all the liberties of folklore.

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.