Roving thoughts and provocations

Bringing Light to Norway’s Dark Night

Martin Filler

Jarle Wæhler

Witnessing the endless daylight of Scandinavian Midsummer this past summer in Vardø, a picturesque Barents Sea island village built around the northernmost fortress on earth, I was led to wonder what life must be like there during the opposite extreme of the winter solstice. As it happens, this year’s Midsummer celebration gave some idea of that very different experience, or at least of the possible dire effects of prolonged climatic stress on the collective psyche. On June 23, Queen Sonja of Norway came to open the Steilneset Memorial to the Victims of the Witch Trials in Vardø, a new monument by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois that eerily evokes the dark night of the soul that it also attempts to expiate.

Was King Hammurabi a Commie?

Charles Simic

Félix Vallotton

“Nothing ever changes” may be one of the truest things ever said. Certainly, life was different when our grandparents were young, in many ways far worse and in other ways far better—as they never failed to inform us every time some new, faddish invention came along. But despite all the predictions of social reformers and utopian thinkers, human behavior seems to have remained pretty much the same throughout recorded history. The four-thousand-year old admonition in the Code of Hammurabi that the strong be prevented from oppressing the weak, or Thomas Moore’s observation in the sixteenth century that society was a conspiracy of the rich to defraud the poor, are not only perfectly understandable today, but are aimed at the same problem that has brought demonstrators to the streets from Wall Street to Oakland.

Day of the 40,000 Dead

Alma Guillermoprieto

Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

In Mexico, the dearly beloved who are no longer in this world receive special dispensation to return to us once a year. To celebrate this miracle, we bring flowers to an elaborate, colorful altar, make a path with marigold petals to show them the way, sing to them, pamper them with offerings of their favorite foods, and generally laugh with them at death and other things. In certain parts of the country, the Day of the Dead, and the altar-building events that lead up to it, are a bigger deal than Christmas.

This November 2nd has turned out slightly different from the preceding ones, however: as the number of fatalities in the current wave of narcowar violence approaches 40,000, a growing number of people have decided that these dead, too, should be remembered, although their killing is hardly a cause for celebration.

In the Jaws of the Mullahs

Haleh Esfandiari

Amir & Khalil

Following the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad in 2009, the world looked on as tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets in protest, only to be repressed by force, arrested, or worse. Though there is far less coverage of Iran now—few foreign correspondents are allowed into the country—repression has continued and even intensified since these events, with widespread arrests, purges of university faculty, closure of publications, and a clampdown on political activity. Still, supporters of the Green Movement have not been entirely silenced, as Zahra’s Paradise, a powerful new graphic novel set in contemporary Iran, makes clear.

Are China’s Rulers Getting Religion?

Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson

After decades of destruction, Daoist temples are being rebuilt with government support. And shortly after the Communist Party’s annual plenum this month, authorities were convening an International Daoism Forum. The meeting was held near Mt. Heng in Hunan Province, one of Daoism’s five holy mountains, and was attended by 500 participants. It received extensive play in the Chinese media, with a noted British Daoist scholar, Martin Palmer, getting airtime on Chinese television. This is a sharp change for a religion that that was persecuted under Mao and long regarded as suspect. What, exactly, is gong on here?

In the Land of No News

Timothy Snyder

Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Lincoln, Lawrence, and Norman are among America’s most attractive cities, where the opportunity for social advancement provided by big state universities are sources of local pride. Like most of the big college towns in the middle of the country, they have the art shops, the bookstores, and the cafés that coastal people say they miss in American life. What they do not have is presence. If you watch the national news on television, you see two kinds of American places: the kind where things are happening, and the kind where things have already happened. CNN and Fox speculate about the present in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles (and during campaign season, in “battleground” or swing states like Iowa and Ohio). Everywhere else in the country, things do happen, but always without warning—and rarely with anyone to witness them.

How to Save Europe

Jeff Madrick

Michael Probst/AP Photo

The financial crisis is the next great test: it will mark the success of one of the great political and social experiments of our time if the Europeans come together to remedy it; it will be tragic for Europe and for the world if they do not.

Over the High-Tech Rainbow

Sue Halpern

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The day after the iPhone 4S was launched, Apple’s founder and resident seer, Steve Jobs, died. One of the most popular Jobs quotes circulating in the days after his death was one that he attributed to hockey great Wayne Gretzky: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” After three days of record iPhone 4S sales, there’s no better example of playing to where the puck is going to be than Siri. There are other “personal assistant” smart phone apps available. Indeed, before Apple removed it from its App Store, Siri was one of them. But who knew that consumers wanted Siri baked into their phone, and into Apple’s servers, which stores all previous “conversations,” so that Siri gets more and more familiar with its “boss” all the time? Steve Jobs, obviously.

Playing to where the puck is going to be is, of course, a proxy for anticipating and then apprehending the future. At a conference at the MIT Media Lab last week sponsored by Technology Review, engineers, scientists, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, students, and corporate spokespeople were engaged in the journal’s annual attempt both to anticipate where the puck will land and, at the same time, push it there.

Why Mice?

Art Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman

Twenty-five years ago, Art Spiegelman published the first of his Maus books—a pair of graphic novels about the experiences of the author’s father during the Holocaust, with Jews drawn as wide-eyed mice and Nazis as menacing cats. Maus II was awarded the Pulitzer prize in 1991—the only graphic novel ever to win—and both books continue to move and provoke readers. In his new book MetaMaus, Spiegelman talks with Hillary Chute, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, about how the Maus books came into being. What follows is the first of two excerpts from their conversation.