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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
It has been twelve days since Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president of the republic, and the country—although still celebrating—has never been more divided. Many feel that the revolution has succeeded and it is time for everyone to get back to work. Many more feel that his ousting is but a small first step on a long and tortuous road. On February 18, as millions of people came out again to the streets of downtown Cairo and central Tahrir Square for Friday prayers, and as much smaller numbers marched again on Tuesday, the fragmentation of the protest movement was clear, and a new question loomed: what exactly do we want now as a nation, and are we willing to continue fighting for it?
If any further proof is needed of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi’s mental instability it is provided by WikiLeaks dispatches from US diplomats in Tripoli in November and December of 2009. At issue was some nearly loose nuclear material, a Russian plane, and a lone security guard—a footnote in the WikiLeaks scandal that many may have missed. But first, a little background.
Almost from the moment he assumed power in 1969, Qaddafi was interested in acquiring nuclear weapons. He tried to buy them from China; and when that failed he tried to build them himself. In the 1990s he bought an entire turnkey nuclear weapons program from the Pakistani proliferator A.Q. Khan, including centrifuges and designs for a nuclear weapon. It is believed he gave up the entire program in 2003 in a grand bargain with the United States that eventually restored Libya’s diplomatic status and allowed US companies to do business with the oil-rich country.
The question has come to haunt every article and broadcast from Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the region whose people have revolted: what constitutes a revolution? In the 1970s, we used to chase that question in courses on comparative revolutions; and looking back on my ancient lecture notes, I can’t help but imagine a trajectory: England, 1640; France, 1789; Russia, 1917 … and Egypt, 2011?