Roving thoughts and provocations

Chess & Sanskrit: Persian Jones in Old Calcutta

Jeremy Bernstein

The only time I have visited Calcutta was in September 1988. I was on my way to Bhutan to go trekking and our group assembled in Calcutta for the flight to Paro, Bhutan’s only airport. I was glad for this stopover because I wanted to visit the South Park Street Cemetery, which was established under the British Raj in 1767. The sons of Captain Cook and Charles Dickens are buried there, along with William Thackeray’s father Raymond. I was looking for the grave of William Jones, a late-eighteenth-century genius and polymath.

Disappearing Ink

Luc Sante

Benoit Pailley

I left the New Museum’s “The Last Newspaper”—a show that sets out to explore the relation between newspapers and art at the end of the print era—with my fingers black from printer’s ink, just as they used to be years ago when I read the Times every morning on the subway.

The Big Lie About Social Security

Jeff Madrick

With the midterm elections days away, Republicans and quite a few Democrats have once again been attacking Social Security for running up the federal deficit. The president’s own deficit commission is likely to make Social Security reform a priority. In view of all the rhetoric, voters may be surprised to find out how little Social Security will actually contribute to the future budget gap. In fact, most would probably be stunned.

The Congressional Budget Office, which produces dry, cautious budget projections, recently reminded Congress that Social Security as a percent of GDP will rise from 5 to 6 percent in 2035 and simply stay at that level for the foreseeable future. In other words, the much decried shortfall amounts to only 1 percent of GDP over three decades. And this may be exaggerated.

Ted Hughes’s ‘Last Letter’

Mark Ford

Warren J. Plath/Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College

What happened that night?
    Your final night.”

So begins “Last Letter,” a poem, or rather draft of a poem, by Ted Hughes published in the October 11 issue of the British magazine the New Statesman. “Last Letter” was clearly intended to take its place in Hughes’s 1998 collection of poems to Plath, Birthday Letters, but it’s also clear that he never managed to finish it before he died on October 28, 1998. I suppose anything a poet as famous as Hughes didn’t get around to destroying before he died is likely to end up in the public domain eventually, and certainly a poem that at last sets out what he was up to on that fatal, freezing weekend of February 9 and 10 of 1963 was not going to languish in the British Library’s archive forever.

Reminiscing About the Night Before

Charles Simic

Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

One of the sorrows of our modern age is that so much of the life one knew in one’s youth has completely disappeared, or is on the verge of disappearing. It wasn’t always like that. For most of human history, one could count on one’s favorite dishes and songs still being around when one became old. Not anymore. One evening recently, thinking about this melancholy subject, I was wondering, for example, what happened to the delicious Manhattan clam chowder that was once on the menu in every restaurant and corner luncheonette in the city, when my mind drifted—first to different neighborhoods in New York where I lived, then to small piano bars, now nearly extinct, where I spent many an evening drinking and listening to music.

Cambodia’s Perfect War Criminal

Stéphanie Giry

David Hogsholt/Getty Images

The July conviction of Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch—the gaunt-faced, fever-eyed 68-year-old head of the Khmer Rouge’s leading torture center—by a special UN–Cambodian criminal court has been seen as a breakthrough in international justice. Years in the making, the trial was the first international criminal case brought against an official of the Pol Pot regime since a Vietnamese show trial in 1979. And despite mixed legal procedures, the conflicting approaches of Cambodian and international lawyers, hearings in three languages, budget shortages, corruption scandals, and political pressure, it was widely considered fair. Yet it is unclear how much the Duch case will have advanced the long-delayed efforts for justice against the Khmer Rouge, not least because Duch himself seems to have come out of the experience less repentant than he was when it began.

La Stupendissima

Martin Filler

Metropolitan Opera

Joan Sutherland, the Australian-born prima donna assoluta, was nearly the last survivor among the top sopranos of the twentieth century. Yet Sutherland, who died on October 10 at the age of 83 at her home in Switzerland, is now not so highly regarded in some quarters as her foremost contemporaries, even though in purely technical terms she outstripped almost all of them.

Her voice was as big as Leontyne Price’s and nearly as big as Birgit Nilsson’s; she could spin out haunting pianissimo effects akin to Renata Tebaldi’s fabled morbidezza; and her trill was not only better than Beverly Sills’s, but the best in the business since Luisa Tetrazzini, who retired when Sutherland was a child. And for clockwork consistency, she could sing rings around the incomparable but erratic Maria Callas. Sutherland’s reputation has languished because of her apparent desire to preserve her vocal resources at all costs.

Tea Party à la française

Mark Lilla

Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

It’s strike season in France. Nearly every year around this time you begin to hear the whistles and drums and the loudspeakers bleating out the chants: “On va gagner, on va gagner! OUAAI!!! OUAAI!!!” In a country obsessed with the loss of national memory and shared experience, the annual strikes are, along with the Tour de France, one remaining public ritual reminding the French that they are French—not “European,” not workers of the world united, but French.

Rumblings of Reform in Beijing?

Ian Johnson

www.news.cn/Xinhua/Liu Weibing

Over the past six weeks, China’s thin class of the politically aware has been gripped by a faint hope that maybe, against all odds, some sort of political opening might be in the cards this year. Monday’s conclusion of a key Communist Party meeting didn’t exactly crush this hope, but it did put things in a much more sober perspective.

The excitement began in late August, when Premier Wen Jiabao toured the southern Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen. The one-time fishing village was celebrating the 30th anniversary of its transformation into a Special Economic Zone, where Chinese officials have tested out economic reforms. Mr. Wen used the chance to advocate “political reforms” as well. Most of the time, political reform is a fairly empty phrase in China, almost always meaning a push to make the current system more efficient and slightly more responsive to ordinary citizens’ wishes, for example by opening complaint hotlines or neighborhood centers to make it easier to apply for government services. It never means what some hopeful westerners assume: transformation of China’s authoritarian system.