Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, opening this month in New York twenty-five years after its original release, is one of the great works of art of the twentieth century. As it begins, Simon Srebnik, a Polish Jew who was one of two survivors of Chełmno, returns to the death facility at Lanzmann’s request, and sings a song of his boyhood—about a white house, a house that is no longer—in the language of a country that was his homeland as it was of millions of Jews for centuries, a Poland made wretched by war. Mordechai Podchlebnik, the other survivor of Chełmno, in another conversation with Lanzmann, remembers human smoke against blue skies. The work of the stationary gas chambers began in German-occupied Poland on December 8, 1941. Here is the beginning of Lanzmann’s nine-hour reconstruction of the Holocaust, and in commencing with the faces and voices of Chełmno’s survivors, he has chosen well. Using no historical footage, Lanzmann instead elicits the detailed horror of mass death by asphyxiation at Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, and Auschwitz from his own conversations with Jewish victims, German perpetrators, and Polish bystanders.
I arrived in Rangoon at the beginning of the monsoon this summer after 36 hours of travel from New York, with a stop in Tokyo and a second change of planes in Bangkok. There I boarded an old Air Myanmar jet, and it was immediately clear that I was traveling to a country that lived in semi-isolation as the plane filled with migrant workers, many of whom were awkwardly toting large, makeshift bundles of carry-on goods—clothing, medicine, electronics, and other items that were either unavailable or unaffordable back home.
Officially, I had come to Burma—ruled by one of the world’s most opaque and repressive regimes—to teach a one-month documentary photography course to local photojournalists. But it was the only country in Southeast Asia I had never managed to visit and I was very eager to explore the place for myself.
On December 10, I attended the award ceremony in Oslo, Norway, for the Nobel Peace Prize, which the government of China had a few days earlier declared to be a “farce.” The recipient was a friend of mine, the Chinese scholar and essayist Liu Xiaobo, whom Oslo was now referring to as a Laureate and Beijing as a “criminal” serving an eleven-year sentence for “incitement to subvert state power.”
The first film by Frederick Wiseman I saw was Titicut Follies (1967). It was the fall of 1969, my freshman year of college, too long ago to trust my memory scene by scene. What I mainly remember is the festive mood in the dining-hall-turned-theater as the lights went down and latecomers ducked under the projector’s cone of bluish light as they made their way to sit with friends across the room. A very cool senior had made introductory remarks to the effect that what we were about to see had been “banned in Boston” (always promising), and I think we half-expected the local police to show up as if we had gathered in Rick’s gambling den in Casablanca (1942). I remember a little snickering during the opening pan across the expressionless faces of the inmates singing “Strike up the Band” while they wave—tentatively, almost spastically—their pompoms. But once the film started, there was only silence in the room, interrupted now and then by a gasp.
Today, as we gather in Oslo for the award ceremony of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, we take note, with surprise and regret, of the Chinese government’s foolish responses to the granting of this distinguished prize to Dr. Liu Xiaobo. These responses—which have included restricting the freedom of movement of Liu Xiaobo’s family and prohibiting Chinese citizens from expressing their congratulations—are examples of serious government abuses of universal human rights.
The word “information” has grown urgent and problematic—a signpost seen everywhere, freighted with new meaning and import. We hardly need the lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell us that, but after all, this is what they live for. It is a word, they tell us, “exhibiting significant linguistic productivity,” a word that “both reflects and embodies major cultural and technological change,” therefore a word crying out for their attention. In their latest quarterly revision, December 2010, just posted, the entry for “information” is utterly overhauled. (The OED, in case you hadn’t noticed, has evolved into an enterprise of cyberspace, rather than a mere book.)
WikiLeaks changes everything. We can act as if the old standards of journalism still apply to the Internet, but WikiLeaks shows why this is wishful thinking. On November 28—as pretty much anyone who has the capacity to read this should know by now—the Internet organization started posting examples from a cache of 251,287 formerly secret US diplomatic cables. The few thousand journalists in this country who regularly track the State Department’s doings would have needed a couple of centuries to wheedle out this volume of information by traditional methods; the linkage of disparate government computer networks (a well-meaning response to the compartmentalization of data in the pre-9/11 period) apparently allowed one disgruntled Army private to pull it off in a few moments. As WikiLeaks itself boasts, this is “the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain.”
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.
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.
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.