Those of us who were privileged to study with Merce Cunningham at whatever point in his long career will cherish forever the physical challenges he posed for a dancer. Followers like myself also loved his senseless determination to make every piece new, even if it meant losing audience members unwilling to work that hard for the payoff. We loved Merce’s courage: he showed up for work when he was exhausted, when he was injured, when he was suffering, and he always danced full-out. But in an extraordinary act of artistic self-immolation, the creator of some of the twentieth century’s most moving dance works decided in his final years that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company should have a last world tour after his death—and then shut down. Whether he should have been allowed by his board to torch everything he worked so killingly hard to create will be debated for a long time, along with the question of why he did it.
A German pre-Romantic philosopher, Johann Georg Hamman, held that the sense of music was given to man to make it possible to measure time. The composer Elliott Carter’s fame comes partly from a reconception of time in music that fits the world of today (although there are many other aspects of his music to enjoy). We do not measure time regularly, like clocks do, but with many differing rates of speed. In the complexity of today’s experience, it often seems as if simultaneous events were unfolding with different measures. These different measures coexist and often blend but are not always rationalized in experience under one central system. We might call this a system of irreconcilable regularities.
On November 23, the government of Bahrain was in an uncharacteristically welcoming mood. The occasion was the release of a report about its handling of last spring’s popular uprising. Since the report had been requested—and paid for—by the government itself, officials were expecting a few minor criticisms. Then, they reasoned, the country would move on. Things didn’t go according to plan. The room fell quiet as Cherif Bassiouni, the report’s chief author, said words like “rape” and “torture” to King Hamad, the ruler of Bahrain. He was clear that these abuses weren’t just random acts by a few bad apples. “A number of detainees were tortured,” he said, “which proved there was a deliberate practice by some.” For the first time—perhaps ever—an independent jurist standing before a Persian Gulf monarch publicly accused that monarch’s government of systematic abuse.
Hanukkah commemorates persistence against overwhelming odds, when Jewish rebels in Judea defeated their Greek overlords and oil lamps meant to last a single day miraculously burned eight times as long. Five years ago I heard of what seemed another miracle. Despite having been nearly stamped out by the Nazis six decades earlier, the spirit of Jewish life in Poland had been kindled again in Kraków, near the farmlands where my family had lived for perhaps nine centuries.
Cafés, I was told, served jellied carp with raisins. Klezmer tunes bounced down the cobbled streets. Prewar shop signs had reappeared, flanking a bustling square as if its Jews had never left. The cooks and klezmorim, I later learned, were nearly all non-Jews, the crowds made up of tourists, the façades only that. Auschwitz, a mere hour away, remained a brutal warning against rosy nostalgia or frivolity. Still, I needed to see all this for myself. I went.
Over the past two weeks, the Western press has focused on a striking story out of China: a riveting series of protests in Wukan, a fishing village in the country’s prosperous south. The story is depressingly familiar: Corrupt cadres sell off public land and villagers get nothing. Anger builds and protests erupt. Inept local officials negotiate and then turn to violence, in this case encircling the town with police in hopes of starving the population into submission.
What to make of all this? The overall sense in Western reports is that things are spinning out of control in China, that the center can’t hold and the Communist Party can’t manage. We are told that China has tens of thousands of similar protests each year. The exact numbers aren’t clear but official figures show a dramatic increase in “mass incidents” over the past decade from just a few thousand to, by some measures, 80,000. Subconsciously we get the message: protests are a sign of instability, ergo the stability of China under one-party rule is eroding. And yet to a degree this analysis doesn’t add up.
The world has changed a great deal since the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003–thanks in part to that invasion and to the earlier invasion of Afghanistan. And yet, watching President Barack Obama welcome home the troops at Fort Bragg on December 14, and the media coverage of that event, it struck me that one thing has not changed. Despite the vast expenses incurred by news organizations following the occupation, and the considerable time that politicians in Washington spent debating its merits, many Americans continue to see in Iraq a reflection of their own country’s ideals and contradictions. They will remember Iraq as an American trauma. But it was, above all, an Iraqi trauma.
Nabokov described a fictional play in one of his stories as “essentially idiotic, even ideally idiotic, or, putting it another way, ideally constructed on the solid conventions of traditional dramaturgy.” We all know the kind of thing he is talking about. The lengthy, character-revealing speeches, the unannounced guests who throw everything into confusion, the “dramatic irony,” the “rising action,” the over-neat ordering of life into three brisk acts—these are the solid conventions that keep us away from the theater or that make us wish we’d stayed away when we do end up there. Chekhov, whose plays hardly seem to coerce life at all, boldly broke ranks with this wearying regimentation.
The Kim is dead. Long live the Kim. That, at least, is the story you’ll get from most of the initial takes on the death of Kim Jong Il, whose death was announced Monday around noon, Korean time. His designated political heir, his son Kim Jong Un, is now set to take the reins. That, at least, is how it’s supposed to happen according to the peculiar rules of the world’s only communist monarchy. After all, isn’t the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea a staunchly totalitarian state where nothing ever changes? Actually, no. You could have gotten away with writing that just a few years ago. But too much has happened in North Korea in the interim.
For a moment, it seemed that President Obama would actually stand up to Congress on Guantanamo and military detention. But on Wednesday, the White House announced that the president will not veto the National Defense Authorization Act, despite the extraordinarily dangerous principles the legislation endorses. It creates a presumption in favor of indefinite military detention for foreign terrorism suspects, and it provides that indefinite detention without charge may be imposed on anyone who has provided “substantial support” to groups that are “associated forces” of al-Qaeda, though it leaves undefined what constitutes “substantial support” and which groups might qualify as “associated forces.” Most disturbingly, the law still effectively prevents President Obama from closing Guantanamo.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, DC looks like heroic sculpture from the China of Chairman Mao. In The Mountaintop, a play by Katori Hall now on Broadway, Dr. King is offered yet another tribute his memory could maybe have done without. In Hall’s well-meaning, but naive play about an imagined conversation between King and a maid at the motel where he stayed on the night before he was killed, King’s last hours on earth become an occasion for tribal laughter and warm black feelings. The Mountaintop is so focused on reconciling us—and him—to his death, that Hall seems uninterested in how she might be exploiting King’s legacy.