Roving thoughts and provocations

American Tragedy

Larry McMurtry

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Murderous rampages of the sort that occurred Saturday outside a grocery store here in Tucson may retain some power to shock—twenty people shot down right up the road from where I write—but for me, at least, they have lost all power to surprise. Arizona is after all a state where it’s possible to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, and many do.

The Unexpected Pleasures of Jan Gossart

Andrew Butterfield

Albertina, Vienna

Before it closes on January 17, I urge readers to rush over to the exhibition of Jan Gossart at the Metropolitan Museum to experience its unexpected pleasures. A Netherlandish painter of the early sixteenth century, Gossart (c. 1478-1532) is little known except by historians, yet deserves wider attention. He was one of the first northern painters to travel to Rome to study and possibly the first Netherlandish artist to make paintings of mythological subjects, bringing to northern Europe a new appreciation of classicism and Italian art. The exhibition at the Metropolitan emphasizes the painter’s interest in secular narratives, voluptuous nudes, and his remarkably beautiful and complex portraits, as well as mythological and Biblical paintings.

Lost Rituals, Found Poems

Christopher Benfey

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I was a child growing up in a drab college town in Indiana, our family received an annual New Year’s visit from a vivid woman named Erika Strauss. Erika was related to the Jewish foster family, originally from Berlin, with whom my father, himself a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, spent the war years in England. Afflicted with almost total deafness as a teenager, Erika had also fled Germany and spent the war trapped in occupied Holland. There, she survived by pretending to be a demented deaf-mute in the household of a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church.

The high point of Erika’s visit to our house was the old European New Year’s ritual known as “Bleigiessen,” or lead-pouring, for the performance of which, by candlelight, Erika wore a bright gypsy kerchief about her unruly red hair. With a pair of tongs, she held a small tin cup filled with bits of lead over a hot burner. When the lead had liquefied, she poured it, with a quick flip of her wrist, into a pot of cold water. There, the molten lead assumed strange, spidery shapes. These Erika would interpret, like tea leaves, with one batch for each of my two older brothers and one for me.

Pakistan: When The State Loses Control

Christian Caryl

AP Photo/B.K. Bangash

In his great book of reportage on the revolution in Iran, Shah of Shahs, Ryszard Kapuscinski describes that mysterious tipping point when a demonstrator loses his fear of the Shah’s security forces and refuses to listen when the once all-powerful police order him to step back. Suddenly, all involved realize that the power of the state to cow people into obedience has been broken. I was reminded of that episode by the tragic January 4 murder of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, by a member of his own security detail, in a public shooting just a mile from the presidential palace in Islamabad. As with Kapuscinski’s demonstrator, the killing seemed to mark an epochal shift in the political landscape—though here the poles are reversed. In the case of modern Pakistan, it is now the tyranny of fear that is reaching into the heart of the political system. It has become extremely hard to see how anyone can pull the country’s political culture back from the brink.

The End of the Medvedev Revolution?

Amy Knight

Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA-Novosti/AP

Since a Russian judge sentenced former Yukos oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, to thirteen and a half years in prison on December 30, many commentators have viewed the outcome—after a 22-month trial that openly flouted judicial standards—as a major setback for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. After all, a little more than a year ago, Medvedev gained international attention for vowing to institute the rule of law in Russia and make foreign investment in Russia a top priority, and there had been growing speculation that he might begin to take on the entrenched interests of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. For the moment, those hopes seem dashed. In the long run, however, the case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev may hurt Putin more than Medvedev as the two rivals position themselves for the 2012 presidential contest.

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.