Roving thoughts and provocations

The New American Pessimism

Charles Simic

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

I can’t remember when I last heard someone genuinely optimistic about the future of this country. I discount politicians, investment bankers and generals since their line of work requires that they offer upbeat assessments of everything from our deteriorating economy to our suicidal wars, and assorted narcissists accustomed to shutting their eyes to the plight of their fellow Americans. The outright prophets of doom and gloom among our friends and acquaintances tended to be a rare breed until recently.

Elizabeth Bishop’s Other Art

William Benton

Collection of Loren MacIver

This year is the centenary of the birth of Elizabeth Bishop, one of the most celebrated figures in American poetry, and several new collections of her prose, poems, and correspondence have been published to commemorate it. Her work is a widely recognized force in American poetry. Far less known is that Bishop was also an accomplished artist.

Zero Hour in Benghazi

Nicolas Pelham

Josef Koudelka

Two and a half weeks after shrugging off Colonel Qaddafi’s dictatorship, the rebels are continuing their carnival outside the courthouse in Benghazi, the city on Libya’s east coast where they have made their headquarters. Roaring crowds taunt Qaddafi to send his planes and tanks, and promise to brave them as they did his anti-aircraft guns. Mannequins with military boots swing from lampposts, enacting the colonel’s hanging. Cartoon graffiti of him as Abu Shafshufa—literally “father of the fuzzy hair”—cover the surrounding walls. And in cafes broadcasting Arabic news, Qaddafi’s appearance triggers cries of zanga, zanga, or dead-end.

Geoffrey Rush’s Antic, Gibbering, Flailing ‘Madman’

Giles Harvey

Stephanie Berger/BAM

Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) was literature’s great confidence man. Like a Ponzi scheme or a magic trick, his best work is founded on the cornerstone of deceit. In The Inspector-General a young rake inadvertently gulls an entire town into thinking he is an influential government official, then gleefully accepts the bribes and favors that flow his way. In Dead Souls the diabolic anti-hero buys up the names of serfs who have died since the last census in order to pass himself off as a landed gentleman. In the famous short story “The Diary of a Madman,” by contrast, the protagonist seems to play a kind of confidence trick on himself.

Washington’s Budget Battle: Where Is Obama?

Elizabeth Drew

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

In the struggle over government spending for the current fiscal year, the Republicans have forced the White House and the Senate Democrats into a series of retreats, and the outcome is likely to reflect more what the Republicans want than the objective situation seemed to warrant at the outset. Both sides are feeling their way along in a situation with more uncertainties than usual, but this is a most unusual time in Washington. Both sides have already made miscalculations, but thus far, the House Republicans, who were not expected to play such an important role, have held the upper hand.

An Army Without a Country

Ahmed Rashid

AP Photo/K.M.Chaudary

The assassination on Wednesday of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Federal Minister of Minorities, killed in broad daylight in Islamabad by four gunmen is one of the most shameful acts of political violence committed by Pakistani extremists. That it comes just two months after the murder of Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab and one of the countrys’ leading liberal voices makes it all the more chilling. Yet the government and state’s reaction to the two killings has been even more shameful—raising the disturbing possibility that extremism is still being used by the security services in its efforts to oppose Western policies in the region.

Iran’s State of Fear

Haleh Esfandiari

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

As the Libyan uprising was gathering force last week, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, criticized Libya’s leader, Muammar Qaddafi, for using violence against his own people and advised him and other Middle Eastern heads of state to listen to their publics. The irony was not lost on anyone. Only two weeks earlier, on February 14, Ahmadinejad had sent hundreds of riot police, paramilitary basijis, and baton-wielding goons in plainclothes to disrupt demonstrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities called by Mir Hussein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, leaders of the opposition, in solidarity with the people of Tunisia and Egypt. By the end of the day, 1,500 protesters had been arrested; two had been killed.

At Home with the Rembrandts

Martin Filler

Fondation Custodia

New York’s august Frick Collection could never be accused of pandering to the masses. But the enthusiastic public response to two recent Rembrandt shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which together attracted well over a half-million visitors, cannot have been lost on the organizers of “Rembrandt and His School: Masterworks from the Frick and Lugt Collections.”

This exhilarating new show presents more than sixty drawings and prints from the Paris foundation established in 1947 by the renowned Dutch connoisseur and scholar Frits Lugt (1884-1970) and Jacoba Klever, his heiress wife, to preserve some 37,000 works on paper he had amassed since his teens, and exhibits them alongside the Frick’s own Rembrandt paintings and prints.

A Vanguard of Friends’

Dan Chiasson

Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Tibor de Nagy, the iconic midtown gallery, has been celebrating its sixtieth anniversary with a show that doesn’t so much trace its history as distill its early essence. “Painters & Poets” includes drawings, chapbooks, letters and well-known paintings that emerged from the fantastic collaborations between Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers, O’Hara and Joe Brainard, Brainard and John Ashbery, James Schuyler and Grace Hartigan, among many others. The energy of the poets drove those projects, yet often the painters made them sit still and keep their mouths shut, as we see in the many striking portraits in this show of poets reading, writing, sitting there, spacing out, in every phase of dress and undress. Other times, they inspired one another to produce works—like Hartigan’s series of paintings made in response to O’Hara’s poem “Oranges”—that drew from their complementary strengths. “The strangeness of the collaborative situation,” wrote Kenneth Koch, another mainstay of the group, “might lead them to the unknown, or at least to some dazzling insights at which they could never have arrived consciously or alone.”