Roving thoughts and provocations

Pain and Parentheses

Christopher Benfey

Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three,” Nabokov writes in Lolita. I found myself wondering how many other parentheses like this there were: windows in a wall of verse or prose that suddenly open on an expanse of personal pain. Masquerading as mere asides, they might hold more punch than parentheses are usually expected to hold, more even than the surrounding sentences, and have all the more impact for their disguise as throwaways.

Inequality Is Not the Problem

Jeff Madrick

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The powerful findings of Thomas Piketty and other economists have challenged long-held assumptions that America is a meritocracy. But the problem of inequality is an inadequate description of the situation. We now have stagnating incomes for a large majority of Americans and runaway incomes at the very top. This is not so much “inequality” as a complete lack of growth for much of the country.

The Great Poets’ Brawl of ’68

Charles Simic

David Levine

As soon as the fight started, Allen Ginsberg went down on his knees and began chanting some Buddhist prayer for peace and harmony among all living creatures, which not only distracted those fighting, but also startled a few puzzled couples who had discreetly retreated into the bushes and were now returning in a hurry with their clothes in disarray.

Obamacare: The Hate Can’t Be Cured

Garry Wills

Metropolitan Museum of Art
I fear that the president declared a premature victory for the Affordable Care Act. He made the mistake of thinking that facts matter when a cult is involved. Obamacare is now, for many, haloed with hate. Retaining certitude about its essential evil is a matter of honor for one’s allies and loathing for one’s opponents.

Eleven Visits to the Sky

J. Hoberman

Cinema Guild

Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana documents Nepalese pilgrims as they are conveyed via cable car up to a Hindu temple. There are five ascents to and six descents from the mountain, an eleven-act vaudeville show in which the trips are separated by a clattering landing and an invisible cut made during the darkness of the turn-around.

My Carcass and Myself

James Gleick

In our time the transformation and transplantation of bodies are commonplace. The bionic woman, the bionic man—that’s us, more and more every day. We don’t have brain transplants yet, but we’ve thought about it. So what if a person could survive past his bodily death, to be reconstituted in another form? That is the question Marcel Theroux explores in his novel Strange Bodies.

Iraq: The Road to Chaos

Ned Parker

Mushtaq Muhammed/Reuters/Corbis

On the surface, the speed with which Iraq’s new political order has fallen apart is a puzzle. There had been relative stability since the spring of 2008, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki set out to disband the Shiite militias. But Maliki understood that the American-sponsored rules were temporary. Now, as it prepares for its first national election in four years, Iraq is falling apart again.

Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Ambition

David Bromwich

It is clear from Lincoln’s speeches, writings, and actions that he struggled against ambition in order not to let it prevail over his sense of justice. From what familiar political sources might an American of Lincoln’s generation have come to suppose that ambition poses a moral and political danger? A commanding statement was the pair of speeches by Brutus and Mark Antony to the Roman crowd in Act 3 of Julius Caesar.

The Real Threat to Venezuela’s Democracy

Daniel Wilkinson

Jorge Silva/Reuters/Corbis

The damage the Venezuelan government is doing to the country’s democracy is happening now: jailing political opponents, intimidating judges, beating protesters, abusing detainees, censoring journalists, and filling the airwaves with mandatory broadcasts of the president denouncing his critics as “criminals” and “fascists.”