Roving thoughts and provocations

Christo’s ‘Over the River’: An Act of Homage

Leo Steinberg

Wolfgang Volz

Jubilation is the dominant mood when- and wherever a Christo/Jeanne-Claude project is realized. I have witnessed it time and again—32 years ago, in Loose Park, Kansas City, overlooking its Wrapped Walk Ways, every inch of the winding itinerary paved with bright clinquant stuff, of which Christo remarked: “When the sunlight falls on that nylon and sets it sparkling, it’s very beautiful.” He saw no need to boast about cheerful families bestriding the luster under their feet as if walking on air.

Joy hailed the Surrounded Islands in Biscayne Bay, Miami, May 1983: eleven small isles, each in its private hug, embraced by the scandalous pink of buoyant industrial fabric.

Or, more recently in Central Park, Manhattan (2005): abundance of Gates, waving their saffron scarves, 7,503 of them, erected to host processions of walkers, whose glee reminded ambulant seniors of the smiles that lit up this same city on V-E Day, 1945—except that the present fête needed no losing side.

Eats and Reads

Ingrid D. Rowland

For Italian columnist Giacomo Papi, the essence of contemporary society has been revealed once and for all in the way we eat. It all started, he maintains, in the 1980s, when bow tie pasta with salmon in cream sauce began to appear on Italian menus:

Cooking began to be an aesthetic experience. Thirty years later, the salmon has been replaced by tuna (tartare, seared, with ginger), risotto is triumphant, the cream has disappeared, and every ingredient comes mysteriously supplied with its own geography…Thirty years later, it is impossible to eat and discuss some other subject. It is impossible to sit at table without analyzing, forkful by forkful, every flavor and ingredient…as if the experience will be incomprehensible and insipid without commentary. It is the triumph of meta-cuisine. Taste no longer affords pleasure on its own. Just as contemporary art exists only if someone talks about and interprets it, so cooking only lives, these days, in the comments of its consumers.

The consequences of meta-cuisine for society are dire, in Papi’s view:

Food has replaced fashion…The mouth has become our most important organ. It is a transformation in keeping with our era, which seems to be concerned mostly with channeling its own voracity. Cooking is the art of our time. Because eating is the only sensory, and hence aesthetic, experience that is entirely fulfilled in consumption. By destroying the work of art.

On the other side of the Atlantic, matters are no different.

Russia’s Reckoning with Katyń

Timothy Snyder

Why does it matter that the Russian parliament has just declared the Katyń mass murder of 1940 to be a Stalinist crime? Seventy years on, no one doubts the responsibility of Stalin, Beria, and the Soviet NKVD for the murder of about 21,892 Polish citizens in the Katyń Forest and four other sites. Yet, according to an opinion poll, more than 80 percent of Poles believe that the gesture, which confirms something that in effect all Poles already know, will improve relations between the two countries. Moscow understands that better relations with Warsaw will remove an obstacle to closer ties with the EU, and that for Poles history can be central to diplomacy.

John Lennon: Bull in Search of a China Shop

Giles Harvey

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When the Beatles called on Elvis at his rented Bel Air mansion in August 1965, the odds of a pleasant evening were always going to be long. Whereas the Fab Four, with five number one albums behind them, were currently basking in the high noon of their creative prime, Elvis had spent the past half-decade squandering his prodigious talents on awful movies and now, at only thirty, looked to be in permanent eclipse. And so, having taken a seat beside a sun-bronzed Elvis on the sofa—where, like any other night, he was simultaneously watching TV with the sound off and listening to music—John, Paul, George, and Ringo suddenly found themselves with nothing to say. “If you guys are just gonna sit there and stare at me,” said Presley at last, “I’m goin’ to bed…I didn’t mean for this to be like the subjects calling on the King.”

The evening seemed to turn a corner, though, when Elvis proposed a jam session and summoned the guitars. “This beats talking, doesn’t it?” said John Lennon, once the music was underway and it seemed as though they would get along after all. Later, however, Lennon began to press Elvis on why he’d abandoned rock ’n’ roll for Hollywood. The star of Tickle Me and Kissin’ Cousins bragged defensively: “I’m making movies at a million bucks a time and one of ’em—I won’t say which one—took only fifteen days to complete.”

Well, we’ve got an hour to spare now,” replied Lennon, unable to help himself. “Let’s make an epic together.”

Tajikistan: The Next Jihadi Stronghold?

Ahmed Rashid

AP Photo/NTV

It is autumn in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, and for a brief moment, the weather is stunningly beautiful—perfectly crisp and sunny, but not cold. Much of the city’s low-lying, subdued architecture—a particular Central Asian hybrid—is quite attractive; the broad avenues, lined with large pine and chestnut trees, remind you a bit of Paris. But the atmosphere in Tajikstan, which shares an 800-mile border with northern Afghanistan, is anything but calm.

The Things I Learned at Dinner

Charles Simic

Magnum Photos

Back in the early 1970s, when I was teaching in California, I had a colleague named Bob Williams who taught fiction writing and was famous for beginning each semester with a lecture on the art of cooking. He’d tell his students, for example, how to prepare a dish of sausages, onions, and peppers—elaborately describing how to chose the right frying pan, olive oil, and sausages, explaining next how they ought to be cooked till browned and then removed from the pan—so that the sliced onions, garlic and peppers, and whatever fresh herbs could be introduced in their own proper order—until he had the entire class salivating. The point, of course, was not just to stimulate their appetites, but to show them the degree of love and devotion to the smallest detail required to turn this simple Italian dish, often poorly made, into a culinary masterpiece. Writing stories and poems was like that too, he told them. Instead of the ingredients he had just conjured, there would be words, experiences, and imaginings to combine. Actually, what he demonstrated to his students was the ancient relationship between cooking, eating well, and storytelling.

How Google Can Save America’s Books

Robert Darnton

Félix Vallotton

Google represents the ultimate in business plans. By controlling access to information, it has made billions, which it is now investing in the control of the information itself. What began as Google Book Search is therefore becoming the largest library and book business in the world. Like all commercial enterprises, Google’s primary responsibility is to make money for its shareholders. Libraries exist to get books to readers—books and other forms of knowledge and entertainment, provided for free. The fundamental incompatibility of purpose between libraries and Google Book Search could be mitigated if Google were willing to contribute some of its data and expertise to the creation of a Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

Google has demonstrated the possibility of transforming the intellectual riches of our libraries, books lying inert and underused on shelves, into an electronic database that could be tapped by anyone anywhere at any time. Why not adapt its formula for success to the public good—a digital library composed of virtually all the books in our greatest research libraries available free of charge to the entire citizenry, in fact, to everyone in the world?

NATO’s Dangerous Wager with Karzai

Ahmed Rashid

At the close of its summit meeting in Lisbon on Saturday, NATO announced it had reached an agreement with the Afghan government to continue combat operations in Afghanistan for years to come. But it is far from clear that these plans—which postpone a transfer of responsibility for security to Afghan forces until 2014—will find much support in Kabul. Afghan president Hamid Karzai is a changed man. His worldview now is decidedly anti-Western. When I spoke with him earlier this month at the presidential palace in Kabul, Karzai told me that the US has been unable to bring peace to Afghanistan or to secure cooperation from Pakistan, which continues to give sanctuary to the Taliban. He rejects the barrage of US criticism at his government on issues like corruption and poor administration and says the original sin of all these faults lies with the Americans.

Brazil in the Shadow of Lula

Lilia M. Schwarcz

Ricardo Stuckert/PR

On October 31, a former bureaucrat named Dilma Rousseff became the first female president of Brazil after easily winning a runoff election with 56 percent of the vote. Yet this outcome—in which she defeated Jose Serra, the candidate of the Social Democratic Party—had very little to do with Rousseff’s appeal among the Brazilian public or any distinct political platform of her own. Instead, it reflected the overwhelming popularity of outgoing president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva.

Obama’s Torture Problem

David Cole

In the face of overwhelming evidence that numerous US detainees were tortured during the Bush years, President Barack Obama has famously said he wants to “look forward, not back.” He prohibited the use of torture and cruelty in one of his first executive acts, but since then he has consistently resisted all efforts to hold accountable those who, under the prior administration, authorized such mistreatment. He has opposed a commission of inquiry, failed to order a criminal investigation of high-level officials who authorized—and concocted legal justifications for—torture, and successfully defeated all suits seeking damages for victims. Unacknowledged guilt, however, has a stubborn way of sticking around. In recent days, torture has been back in the national conversation, raising once again the issue of what we (and others) should do about it.