Roving thoughts and provocations

Winter’s Philosophers

Charles Simic

Jean Gaumy/Magnum Photos

Everyone who thinks is unhappy,” says Sergei Dovlatov in one of his stories. Some crows caw all day, some have nothing to say. I see one of them pace back and forth on my lawn the way I’ve seen Hamlet do on stage. Whatever is bothering him seems insoluble, too much for one crow to figure out on his own. Still, no harm trying, I suppose, even with the racket his relatives are making as they fly to and fro, as if the road they oversee is not covered only with fallen leaves and patches of ice, but also with fresh road kill.

Rio’s New Reality Show

Lilia M. Schwarcz

Jefferson Bernardes/AFP/Getty Images

Not so long ago, whenever Brazilian professors were invited to give a lecture at a foreign university, they would be expected to say something about their country’s famously exotic national culture. There was no escaping Brazil’s reputation for samba, football, and beautiful mulatto girls, not to mention capoeira (a martial art), candomblé (a syncretic African religion) and feijoada (a traditional bean stew that has been considered, since the 1930s, the national dish). Today, the old cliché of laid-back, exotic Brazil is increasingly being supplanted by a less naive image, one dominated by violence, favelas, and drug-trafficking. But what is the meaning of this image, and how much grounding does it have in reality?

The Fading Dream of Europe

Orhan Pamuk

In the schoolbooks I read as a child in the 1950s and 1960s, Europe was a rosy land of legend. While forging his new republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, which had been crushed and fragmented in World War I, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk fought against the Greek army, but with the support of his own army he later introduced a slew of social and cultural modernization reforms that were not anti- but pro-Western. It was to legitimize these reforms, which helped to strengthen the new Turkish state’s new elites (and were the subject of continuous debate in Turkey over the next eighty years), that we were called upon to embrace and even imitate a rosy-pink—occidentalist—European dream.

Obama’s Second Act?

Michael Tomasky

Lately, Barack Obama doesn’t look like such a bad poker player. Roundly criticized for “negotiating with himself” before the Republicans even got to the table on the tax compromise—and for the Democrats’ abysmal showing in the midterm elections—the president can now claim a head-turning sequence of out-of-nowhere legislative victories: the long-sought repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, the approval of the New Start treaty with Russia, and, on Wednesday afternoon, a bill extending health coverage benefits for rescue workers and others who got sick in the 9/11 aftermath. Republicans had invested much time and energy in blocking all of them, and very few Democrats in Washington would have been willing to predict two weeks ago that any of these measures would pass.

Brutality in Belarus

Timothy Snyder

Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images

Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus’s sad capital, is one of the most terrifying public spaces in Europe. It is nothing but concrete, steel, glass and fearsome horizons—no benches, shelter, or anything for people who might wish to do something so normal as to assemble and speak together. Where anything vertical rises from the ground, it bears a video camera, ensuring that any gathering can be observed by the Belarusian KGB. And yet, when Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed victory by an improbably large absolute majority in the presidential elections on December 19, people came, in the tens of thousands, to protest the official results.

I Work Against Ego’: The Art of Hedda Sterne

Sarah Boxer

Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

In “The Last Irascible,” my new essay in the The New York Review, I write about the idiosyncratic life of the hundred-year-old artist Hedda Sterne, drawing on an interview I recorded with her in 2003. Born in Romania in 1910, Sterne fled German-occupied Bucharest and eventually settled in New York, where she became one of the few women in a circle of Abstract Expressionist painters that included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline. But Sterne thought of herself as an anti-Abstract Expressionist, someone with no use for the cult of personality and personal gesture. Rarely did she paint a pure abstraction. In the 1960s she drew lettuce heads as crazy mazes, as if she were a worm inside, investigating. She pointed out that even her webby white-on-white drawings—made in the 1990s, when she was practically blind—represented the “floaters and flashers” across her field of vision. Although major museums acquired her work, and despite having one of the longest exhibition histories of any living artist (seventy years), she is hardly well known. Here is a selection of her work.

The Smithsonian’s New Culture War

David Cole

On November 29, a conservative website posted an 11-second clip of ants crawling over a crucifix from a 4-minute video made by David Wojnarowicz, an artist who died of AIDS in 1992. The video, Fire in My Belly, was part of a show at the National Portrait Gallery called “Hide/Seek,” said to be the country’s first national exhibition devoted to gay and lesbian themes. Wojnarowicz made the video in 1986 and 1987, as his lover Peter Hujar was dying of AIDS, and as David himself learned that he was HIV-positive; it is an eerie meditation on life, death, violence, and nature, featuring imagery from the Day of the Dead. David later explained that he saw Jesus as a symbol of someone who willingly took on the suffering of the world. A self-appointed conservative guardian of public morality, William Donohue of the Catholic League, saw it differently, and attacked the video clip as blasphemous and demanded that the piece be taken down. The Smithsonian—which runs the National Portrait Gallery and which is funded by the US Government—promptly removed the video from the exhibition, effectively granting Donohue a “heckler’s veto.”

The Holocaust We Don’t See: Lanzmann’s Shoah Revisited

Timothy Snyder

Les Films Aleph

Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, opening this month in New York twenty-five years after its original release, is one of the great works of art of the twentieth century. As it begins, Simon Srebnik, a Polish Jew who was one of two survivors of Chełmno, returns to the death facility at Lanzmann’s request, and sings a song of his boyhood—about a white house, a house that is no longer—in the language of a country that was his homeland as it was of millions of Jews for centuries, a Poland made wretched by war. Mordechai Podchlebnik, the other survivor of Chełmno, in another conversation with Lanzmann, remembers human smoke against blue skies. The work of the stationary gas chambers began in German-occupied Poland on December 8, 1941. Here is the beginning of Lanzmann’s nine-hour reconstruction of the Holocaust, and in commencing with the faces and voices of Chełmno’s survivors, he has chosen well. Using no historical footage, Lanzmann instead elicits the detailed horror of mass death by asphyxiation at Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, and Auschwitz from his own conversations with Jewish victims, German perpetrators, and Polish bystanders.

It Is Not Convenient To Speak of Such Things’: Notes from Rangoon

Howard W. French

Howard W. French

I arrived in Rangoon at the beginning of the monsoon this summer after 36 hours of travel from New York, with a stop in Tokyo and a second change of planes in Bangkok. There I boarded an old Air Myanmar jet, and it was immediately clear that I was traveling to a country that lived in semi-isolation as the plane filled with migrant workers, many of whom were awkwardly toting large, makeshift bundles of carry-on goods—clothing, medicine, electronics, and other items that were either unavailable or unaffordable back home.

Officially, I had come to Burma—ruled by one of the world’s most opaque and repressive regimes—to teach a one-month documentary photography course to local photojournalists. But it was the only country in Southeast Asia I had never managed to visit and I was very eager to explore the place for myself.