Kafka’s “A Message From the Emperor” made its first appearance in the Prague Zionist journal Die Selbstwehr (“Self-defense”) in September 1919, the year the thirty-six-year-old Kafka composed his famous letter to his father. Hauntingly oblique, the story weaves together child-like hopefulness and stoical resignation, metaphysical yearning and psychological insight, a seemingly Chinese tale and covert Jewish themes.
The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s ankle-deep heap of porcelain sunflower seeds bewitched recent visitors to London’s Tate Modern. But in early April Ai’s strong criticisms of the regime led to his disappearance somewhere in Beijing. On June 22, eighty-one days later, he reappeared at home. Not freed: reappeared, which can mean something closer house arrest. A lifeguard at my local pool in London announced to me that Ai had been freed, and I fear that is what the “Sinologists”—as the China specialists in the Foreign Office like to be called—may have told Prime Minister David Cameron before his meeting on June 27 in London with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. They may also have mentioned that, according to the government’s official press agency, Ai “confessed his crimes”—though it should be noted no formal charge was ever brought against him.
In addition to the usual gaggle of curators and museum directors, vulpine collectors, slithery yacht-borne oligarchs, and pop celebrities a decade or more removed from their last hit record, this year’s Venice Biennale drew in a handful of politicians as well. But if Venice is still the premier international contemporary-art bonanza, it may have become a victim of its own success.
Over the past ten days, the alarming flight of more than 11,000 Syrians to Turkey—and the prospect of thousands more to come—has brought the international press to Hatay, the dusty Turkish border province with a large Syrian minority where most of the refugees have been put in camps. With impressive speed, Turkey’s Red Crescent has launched a large-scale humanitarian effort to provide a safe haven for victims of Assad’s horrific crackdown. But while journalists seek to interview those who have fled, they have also had to confront a surprisingly recalcitrant Turkish government: for more than a week after the refugees arrived, access to the camps where they are being housed was denied; and Turkey has until now refused support from international humanitarian agencies to deal with the crisis. What is Ankara so nervous about?
The first time I tried to go to China was in 1967, the year after I graduated from college. My father was a radical leftist professor who admired Mao Zedong. And that influence, along with the Vietnam War protests—a movement in which I was not only a participant but an activist—led me to look at socialist China with very high hopes.
“Hell is full of bears,” says the dramatically hirsute trapper and explorer Stephen Meek in Kelly Reichardt’s recent film about emigrant travelers lost in the arid wastes of eastern Oregon in the summer of 1845. About a thousand waterless miles farther along—miles punctuated by Meek’s muttered complaint—the trapper remarks, “Hell is full of Indians.” But he’s not done yet. “Hell is full of mountains,” Meek notes, in a final report of what he has found in the hell called life that, we are invited to conclude, has included a lot of all three.
I have written about the Iranian nuclear program in various fora and each time it is like hitting the third rail. It still amazes me. The problem is that no one knows for sure what’s happening, and the Iranians are happy to keep it this way so you have to guess. My latest post about Iran’s progress toward making a bomb provoked the usual ire from some quarters of the Internet.
If one suggests that the international literary market is also a power game where different nations set their cultural and political might against each other in bestseller lists and international prizes, one inevitably arouses a certain amount of hostility from those who like to think of literature as operating in a more idealized world of noble aspiration and expression.
At least here in America, we’re in a time that’s very, very cynical. So that when you have a piece of pop-culture that has a very virtuous person or a hero, people see those qualities much more as presentations by someone who’s trying to get something, whether money or approval, than true human virtue or true qualities. One consequence of what American scholars call a post-modern era is that everyone has seen so many performances, that American viewers and American readers, we simply assume now that everything is a performance and it’s strategic and it’s tactical. It’s a very sad situation and I think the chances are that nations go through periods of great idealism and great cynicism, and that America and Europe, at least Western Europe right now, are in periods of great cynicism.
Hearing that the same men who brought us South Park were mounting a musical to be called The Book of Mormon, we were tempted to turn away, as from an inevitable massacre. How could the Mormon faith, with its wobbly stories of golden tablets dug up and then lost to view, its pseudo-archaeological racism, its prevarications over the practice of polygamy, its almost exact resemblance to a cult, stand up to all that gleeful juvenile ragging?