Roving thoughts and provocations

Exiles

Roberto Bolaño

To be exiled is not to disappear but to shrink, to slowly or quickly get smaller and smaller until we reach our real height, the true height of the self. Swift, master of exile, knew this. For him exile was the secret word for journey. Many of the exiled, freighted with more suffering than reasons to leave, would reject this statement.

All literature carries exile within it, whether the writer has had to pick up and go at the age of twenty or has never left home.

Probably the first exiles on record were Adam and Eve. This is indisputable and it raises a few questions: can it be that we’re all exiles? Is it possible that all of us are wandering strange lands?

The concept of “strange lands” (like that of “home ground”) has some holes in it, presents new questions. Are “strange lands” an objective geographic reality, or a mental construct in constant flux?

The Education of Lord Bloomberg

Diane Ravitch

Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

April 7, 2011 was a day that should be remembered as one of the strangest in the history of the public schools of New York City and New York State. On that day, by coincidence (or not), the Chancellor of the New York City schools, Cathleen Black, and the State Commissioner of Education, David Steiner, both resigned. Black was replaced by longtime city official Dennis Walcott; a successor for Steiner, who will leave by August, has not been named. Hopefully, there will be a national search. Black’s tenure of three months was certainly the shortest ever in the history of the city’s schools. For his part, Steiner lasted less than two years in a job in which his predecessors typically persisted for a decade. The reasons for Black’s sudden departure are obvious; we will have to wait a bit longer to get the inside story about Steiner’s equally abrupt exit, though his handling of Black’s appointment may have undermined him.

We Don’t Know the Language We Don’t Know

Nicholson Baker

Ellen Rachel Davidson

One Saturday last month I went to Lafayette Park in Washington D.C., across the street from the White House, in order to protest several wars. The squirrels were out doing seasonal things. A tree was balancing big buds on the finger-ends of its curving branches; the brown bud coverings, which looked like gecko skins, were drawing back to reveal inner loaves of meaty magnolial pinkness. A policeman in sunglasses, with a blue and white helmet, sat on a Clydesdale horse, while two tourists, a father and his daughter, gazed into the horse’s eyes. The pale, squinty, early spring perfection of the day made me smile.

How to Beat a Dead Octopus

Jana Prikryl

In his poem “Some General Instructions,” which The New York Review published in 1975, Kenneth Koch offered advice on how to live. “Be careful not to set fire/To a friend’s house.” “When taking pills, be sure/You know what they are.” “To ‘cure’ a dead octopus/You hold it by one leg and bang it against a rock.” But quoting bits of the poem seems a falsification, because its true effects are cumulative—it is 233 lines long, a punch-drunk sort of length, as if its principal message were that one should never, in this life, worry about going over quota—and much of its alternating lyricism and irony depend on the coloring that each line receives from its placement above or below another. Koch stuck to ordinary language—the dangerously trite language of self-help manuals—and somehow walked the knife’s edge between wicked parody and an honest urgency that acknowledged the reader’s need to know how to exist in the world. “Think of what you feel/Secretly, and how music has imitated that. Make a moue.” Besides which, he was not afraid of humor—not just as an ornament, but as the engine driving serious self-examination, which is another way of saying that this extravagantly long poem is an enactment of stylistic humility. It never claims to know more than just what is contained in each line—for example, how to cure an octopus.

The Dalai Lama’s ‘Deception’: Why a Seventeenth-Century Decree Matters to Beijing

Robert Barnett

Courtesy of Himalayan Art Resources

The Dalai Lama’s recent announcement of his planned retirement was not well received by China’s Foreign Ministry, whose spokeswoman described it as an attempt “to deceive the international community.” Many assumed this to be a reference to the fact that even after the Tibetan leader gives up his official position within the exile Tibetan administration, he will continue to travel, give speeches, and be a symbolic leader to Tibetans, a source of considerable frustration for Beijing. But Chinese officials also appear to be worried about something rather more obscure: a little-known seventeenth-century precedent in which the retirement of a Dalai Lama concealed a convoluted plot to prevent China from choosing his successor.

For this is not the first time that the Dalai Lama of Tibet has issued a decree announcing that a younger, largely unknown man is to take over as the political leader of the Tibetan people. It happened before—in 1679. To explain why this detail of history matters to the Chinese government requires a little background.

Academic Freedom After the Cronon Controversy

Anthony Grafton

AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal/Michael P. King

Many observers are worried about the latest skirmish in the battle to destroy American higher education, which involves the distinguished environmental historian William Cronon at the University of Wisconsin. As has now been widely reported, on March 17, Stephan Thompson—an operative for the Republican Party of Wisconsin—used the state’s Open Documents law to demand copies of all emails to and from Cronon since January 1 that mention Wisconsin governor Scott Walker or any of a number of other words related to the state’s recent labor debates. Professor Cronon had written critically on his blog Scholar as Citizen of Wisconsin Republicans’ recent efforts to curb the rights of state workers, and Thompson clearly hoped to catch him using his university email to engage in pro-union or pro-Democratic politics, which would violate state law.

Interests vs. Values? Misunderstanding Obama’s Libya Strategy

Anne-Marie Slaughter

President Obama made an important contribution to the Libya debate in his speech Monday night by rejecting the over-worked dichotomy between America’s strategic interests and its core values. Most of the media coverage of the debate relied on this familiar trope. On March 16, at the beginning of the critical week that resulted in a UN resolution and the start of air strikes two days later, the Times reported that “senior officials, notably the national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, have made it clear that the United States does not view Libya as a vital strategic interest.” After the President made the decision to support a no fly zone, the press continued to refer to this dichotomy, but now asserted that values had triumphed over interests. The Times story of the crucial meetings in which the decisions were made—the story which, not coincidentally, provided the original fodder for the “women go to war” saga—began: “Ever since the democracy protests in the region began three months ago, the Obama administration has struggled to balance America’s national security interests against support for democratic principles.”

The Art Destroyers

Garry Wills

Palacio de Bellas Artes

The newly elected governor of Maine, Paul LePage, is outspoken. He said that after his election readers could expect to see in their newspapers, “LePage tells Obama to go to hell.” When he refused to attend a Martin Luther King Day event, he said of the NAACP, “Tell them they can kiss my butt.” Not to be outdone by other Republican governors who are attacking unions, over the weekend he ordered the removal of a 36-foot mural celebrating labor from the lobby of the state Labor Department building in Augusta, and is retitling its conference rooms to remove the names of past labor leaders.

Six Reasons Google Books Failed

Robert Darnton

Judge Denny Chin’s opinion in rejecting the settlement between Google and the authors and publishers who sued it for infringement of their copyrights can be read as both as a map of wrong turns taken in the past and as an invitation to design a better route into the digital future. Extrapolating from the dense, 48-page text that accompanied the judge’s March 23 decision, it is possible to locate six crucial points where things went awry:

First, Google abandoned its original plan to digitize books in order to provide online searching. According to that plan, you would have been able to use Google to search the contents of books for a particular word or brief passage, but would not have been able to view or download a lengthy excerpt or an entire book. Thus, Google could have justified its display of snippets of text in the search results by invoking the doctrine of fair use. In this way, it might have won its case against the plaintiffs, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, and at the same time it could have helped revive fair use as a legitimate means of spreading knowledge—for example, in making digitized material available for teaching purposes.

Tame Jane

Robert Gottlieb

Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

The new film version of Jane Eyre isn’t all bad, but it’s all wrong. The story, despite a confusing flashback structure, is coherent. The dialogue is satisfying. The look is convincing. What’s lacking is Jane Eyre itself—Charlotte Brontë’s feverish inner world of anguish and fury.