Let’s imagine that we have been condemned for life to making, year in year out a burdensome and near impossible decision to which the world increasingly and inexplicably ascribes a crazy importance. How do we go about it? We look for some simple, rapid and broadly acceptable criteria that will help us get this pain out of the way. And since, as Borges himself noted, aesthetics are difficult and require a special sensibility and long reflection, while political affiliations are easier and quickly grasped, we begin to identify those areas of the world that have grabbed public attention, perhaps because of political turmoil or abuses of human rights, we find those authors who have already won a huge level of respect and possibly major prizes in the literary communities of these countries and who are outspokenly committed on the right side of whatever political divide we’re talking about, and we select them.
Dylan’s studio. I think it was Dylan’s studio. I’m still not sure. It didn’t look like any artist’s studio I’d ever been in. It was on the second floor and was around five hundred square feet and furnished with furniture that looked like it had been found on the street. There was a small Casio keyboard on a keyboard stand. There was a store-bought easel and a carton of art supplies on the floor. Except for the art supplies, there wasn’t a single thing in this room that would tell someone, “Art is made here.” It was kind of astounding. It was like Dylan was painting in a witness protection program. Maybe that’s my way in. That kind of thought. “The Fugitive.” That’s how I should think about his art. I’m always looking for a way in, and I think I’ve found it. I know he paints on the road. In hotel rooms. And there are a lot of hotel rooms—he goes all over the world. And when he isn’t playing music, he’s painting. That day he showed me twenty paintings. The first thing that hit me was how complete they were. And the fact that he knew what he was doing.
We’re feeling vulnerable and surly these days in western Massachusetts, as the leaves turn yellow, the Red Sox fade, and winter looms. Our corridor of New England along the Connecticut River endured, during the summer months, a ruinous tornado in Springfield, an earthquake, of all things, and Hurricane Irene, which knocked out roads and historic covered bridges in our hill towns and across neighboring Vermont, and left a lot of people homeless and adrift. We don’t see much of Mitt Romney, our ex-governor, in these troubled times. Then again, we never did. Our most indelible memories are of Mitt leaving—“the sight of Mitt’s back,” as a friend of mine put it, as he went off to lay the groundwork for yet another campaign.
What Perry has brought to the Republican muddle thus far is his abundant, if unfocused, energy. He rushes from debate to debate, gives many interviews, gets his picture on the cover of TIME; yet all his politicking is curiously affectless. He makes sounds, but where’s the personality? Hillary Clinton has a personality; so does Sarah Palin. Either of those women could cut Governor Perry off at the knees, and will if given the chance.
Over the past few days, much has been written about the Palestinian bid for UN recognition of its statehood and Washington’s opposition to it. But the real importance of last week’s events at the UN does not lie with the US response itself, but with the effect that response has had on the international community. For now, the Palestinian bid must be reviewed by a special UN committee, a process that will take weeks or months, thus postponing any immediate reckoning with the veto threatened by the Obama Administration. But for the first time, there is a broad recognition of the emptiness of the American claim that the US is uniquely qualified to bring the Israel-Palestine conflict to an end, and that it may instead be the main obstacle to peace.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” she said. “I mean, my sisters get pregnant looking at a cologne ad. They get pregnant in pollen season.”
For six months they had been trying to conceive, and still her period was as regular as the tide. She decided to see a doctor. He told her it would be a waste of money, that the fertility counselor would probably recommend treatments linked to uterine cancer. He went into obscure specifics about the effect of fertility drugs on “weak hydrogen bonds” in the DNA molecule. She listened because he was a very intelligent person who knew more than she did about most things, but in the end she arranged an appointment anyway.
At dusk on the afternoon before Thanksgiving Day in 2002, my family and I returned to our home in Chilmark on the island of Martha’s Vineyard to discover fifty-six cows on our newly sown lawn. We turned the car around and drove to our neighbor’s house. She called the cow herder, who arrived banging the dinner pail. The cows stampeded to their field next door. The stone wall I share with my neighbor, a good friend, serves as a boundary between us. It had begun to fall, and where a thicket of brambles obscured the collapse, the cows found a place to cross.
I wanted to rebuild the wall. At first, my neighbor suggested repairing the electrical fencing on her side, but I was concerned that it might fail again. There were a few tense days while we decided what to do. During those days, I walked the wall on my side. It was the first time I had really looked at it intently. Who had built this wall and when? It was beautiful. Stones rested on each other, securely or tentatively, many covered with lichen. Branches cast their shadows.
Outside Tunis one afternoon last week I visited the Tunisian American Association for Management Studies, which offers vocational training and literacy courses to working-class women. A sewing class had just ended, and the participants—a dozen girls and women between the ages of fifteen and fifty, most of them wearing headscarves—agreed to talk about the country’s first democratic election, scheduled to take place on October 23. In recent weeks, polls have showed that Ennahda (Renaissance), an Islamist party banned by the dictatorship of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, is poised to win about one third of the vote. Ennahda’s leaders insist that if they win they will respect equal rights for men and women and maintain a division between Islam and the state. Still, they are widely distrusted.
Withdraw into protection and safeguard all that is important to you, take it down to below the earth, all that you have, take down the jewelry, the food, the children’s photographs, the armchair where you like to sit with a book in your hand, the curtain, behind which you feel yourselves to be safe, from the window; gather together all that was dear to you, gather together the identity cards and baptismal certificates, take the money out of the bank and hide it in the cellar behind the wall, but really every piece of jewelry, every scrap of food, every photograph of the child, every armchair and every beloved book, every curtain and every document, and really all of the money down to the very last cent, and really hide all of these things well, but really well, under the earth…
Asghar Farhadi’s film Nader and Simin: A Separation, is a fine account of Iran’s predicament; anyone interested in the mysteries of change and tradition—the difficulties faced by many people as they try and reconcile themselves to modern values and norms—will learn much from it. I saw it in Tehran this summer, and so movingly did it reflect what I was witnessing around me, I was surprised that the authorities had allowed it to be screened and its creator and leading actors to travel to Germany to be honored by the Berlin Film Festival.