Roving thoughts and provocations

Austria’s Hollow Center?

Timothy Snyder

In Austria’s presidential campaign this spring, a basic question underlying democratic politics in postwar Europe was made startlingly explicit: is recognition of the historical reality of the gas chambers a precondition for becoming head of state?

In Strindberg’s Exquisite Hell

Geoffrey O’Brien

Anna Chancellor as Tekla
Hugo Glendinning

Before seeing it performed a few days ago, I had never read August Strindberg’s 1888 play Creditors, but through the modern miracle of Google Books I was able to download in an instant a 1910 translation, prefaced with a warning from the translator that it “has both the excellencies and the extravagances peculiar to all revolutionary art.” Written in the same so-called Naturalist period that produced The Father and Miss Julie, Creditors has been far less frequently anthologized or produced, although Strindberg called it at the time of its composition “my favorite work.” (He also thought that all three of its characters were “sympathetic”—a view that has not been widely shared.)

On the page, especially in the diction of 1910, it seemed a challenging prospect for revival. In a one-act, three-character play pitting two men against the woman each blames for sapping their vital energies—a play consisting of nothing but relentless, nearly uninterrupted talk—Strindberg seemed to have managed a perfect encapsulation of his characteristic blending of antifeminist polemic and sexual paranoia. As a work of tortured self-revelation (full of direct allusions to the circumstances of his own first marriage, which had dissolved not long before the play was written) and, incidentally, as a document of late Victorian sexology at its murkiest, Creditors could hardly be surpassed, but it was hard to imagine contemporary actors playing it before a contemporary audience without eliciting squirms or giggles.

UK Elections: Boredom at the Ballot Box

Jonathan Raban

Ballot
The Guardian

After the short-lived tornado of “Bigotgate” on April 28, and the final televised prime ministerial debate the next evening the British opinion polls have been all over the place. They agree that David Cameron’s Conservatives will win and Gordon Brown’s Labour party will lose, but everything else is shrouded in fog. Either the surge of support for the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg is holding steady, or it’s fading to the point where the Lib Dems will come in third in votes after Labour (whatever happens, they will certainly come a poor third in seats). Either the Conservatives will have an overall majority, as most of the people I’ve been talking to are now anticipating without relish, or there’ll be a hung parliament, in which case Cameron will have to strike some kind of deal with Clegg. Each poll confidently suggests a different outcome on the long night of May 6.

Is Nuclear Deterrence Obsolete?

Jeremy Bernstein

Nuclear weapons protestors dancing during the first London-Aldermaston March, London, April, 1958. Aldermaston became a nuclear base in 1950 and is now the headquarters of Britain’s Trident missile program. (SSPL/Getty Images)

In the recent foreign policy debate among the three candidates in next week’s general election in Great Britain—the incumbent Gordon Brown (Labour) against David Cameron (Conservative) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat)—it is generally conceded that Clegg won. But I have seen no commentary on the interesting exchange about nuclear deterrence that took place somewhere in the middle of the debate.

Slide Show: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Genius at Work

Dominique Nabokov

The art of photography is deliciously impure: its aesthetic triumphs and traditions are inescapably enmeshed in the messy world of work.” So writes Peter Galassi, curator of “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,” the Museum of Modern Art’s ambitious new exhibition devoted to the work of one of the most brilliant photographers of the twentieth century.

Confessions of a Poet Laureate

Charles Simic

William Blake: Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, c. 1785
It never crossed my mind that I would become the poet laureate of the United States. The day I received the call from the Library of Congress, I was carrying a bag of groceries from the car to the house when the phone rang. They didn’t beat around the bush, but told me straight out that this was an honor and not a job they were offering to me. Of course, I was stunned, and without letting the groceries out of my hand, told them that I needed to think about it for a while and that I would call them back tomorrow. My first thought was, who needs this?

What Happened to Wallenberg: Russia’s Chilling Revelation

Amy Knight

The fate of Raoul Wallenberg, the heroic young Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews before he was arrested by the Soviets in Budapest in early 1945, is one of the great unresolved mysteries of World War II. For decades, the official story from Moscow has been that Wallenberg died in Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison on July 17, 1947—two and a half years after he was captured. But many questions have surrounded that story, and now the Russians themselves have come up with startling new information suggesting that Wallenberg did not die on that date.

After the Second Debate: The Clegg Catharsis?

Jonathan Raban

After the second televised prime ministerial debate, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats continue to run neck-and-neck in opinion polls with David Cameron’s Conservatives, with Gordon Brown and Labour in third place.

This interesting, but not entirely unexpected, turn of events has little to do with Clegg’s personal charisma or a sudden rush of popular enthusiasm for Lib Dem policies, like their strong support for Britain’s membership of the EU, their redistributionist tax schemes (among other measures, they’d raise the basic tax threshold to £10,000 per annum and slap a “mansion tax” on houses worth more than £2m), and their championing of civil liberties against New Labour’s increased use of extended detention without trial and mass surveillance. Polling suggests that most Britons are either lukewarm about the Lib Dem proposals or don’t know what they are. Their enthusiasm for Clegg, and their seeming readiness to vote Lib Dem on May 6, has another likely explanation.

Picturing Iraq’s Unseen Millions

Hugh Eakin

In reporting on the two million people who have fled Iraq since 2003, Alisa Roth and I have been struck by the extent to which their experiences have eluded visualization. Unlike during other refugee crises, we have seen no columns of people on foot pushing their belongings in carts and wheelbarrows; no large camps with blue UN tents; no legions of starving, half-naked children gathered in dusty rural terrain. Instead, hundreds of thousands of ordinary, middle-class men and women—educated city-dwellers like ourselves—have fled from Baghdad and other Iraqi cities to similarly anonymous urban areas outside the country.

A Ballerina, Inside Out

Toni Bentley

Doctor, I want my hip bone.”

Doctor Padgett did a double take.

I want my bone, you know, what you’ll be taking out.”

Well, I don’t know about that,” he said, “you’ll have to talk to pathology about that.”

Down the hall, the pathologist said sure. A couple of weeks after surgery you can have it. (First they would have to conduct the routine tests on any newly removed body part.)

They both asked me the same question: “Why?” I wasn’t sure, I just knew I wanted it. Perhaps I didn’t want to part with the part of me that had caused me the most pain without having a final word.