Roving thoughts and provocations

Messerschmidt’s Mad Faces

Willibald Sauerländer

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736–1783) is one of those elusive eighteenth-century figures who confront us with the nocturnal side of the enlightenment. In the eyes of his contemporaries, he was not only a madman but also a mad artist. At the same time that he began to withdraw from society, he started to work on the project that would isolate him artistically as well, the Kopfstücke, or “character heads,” in which he concentrated his efforts to depict the passions and emotions of humanity.

The Serbian Surprise

Charles Simic

Ron Haviv/AP Photo

An astonishing event occurred in the United Nations this month: the government of Serbia made a complete reversal of its policy toward Kosovo. Ever since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, the Serbian government has maintained that it will never recognize the right of its former province to secede, but will fight through diplomacy and through the United Nations to get it back. And it continued to maintain that position even after the International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled in July that there is nothing in international law that prohibits Kosovo from declaring independence. Now, to the surprise of everyone—including me—the Serbian government has agreed to hold compromise talks with Kosovo.

Iran’s Interrupted Lives

Haleh Esfandiari

In late September, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York asserting his government’s respect for human rights, several young students in Iran were receiving lengthy prison sentences for their efforts to speak out in defense of those rights. Indeed—as a small photography exhibition about student repression in Iran at Georgetown Law School this month powerfully reminded us—hundreds of Iranian students, journalists, and bloggers have been jailed, many of them in deplorable conditions, since the disputed elections of June 2009. And though the matter has received little attention in the press, many more continue to be arrested and sentenced.

From Chamonix to Islamabad: A Road Trip

Jeremy Bernstein

Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

When still in my early teens I decided that over the course of time I would see the ten highest mountains in the world. It did not occur to me that I would climb any of them, but I thought I could surely see them and even get to their bases. In 1967, I went to Nepal and managed to see seven of them; I even made it to the base of a couple, including Everest. But I missed Kanchenjunga, the third highest, which is in the far east of the country on the border with the Indian state of Sikkim. I also hadn’t seen K2, the second highest, which is on the border of Pakistan and China; or Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest, which is in the Pakistani Himalayas. To see these two I would have to get to Pakistan.

Turkey Packs the Court

Can Yeginsu

Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

On September 12, fifty-eight percent of the Turkish people voted in favor of amending their country’s constitution. The international community, including the European Union and the United States, has endorsed the result as a victory for democracy in Turkey. However well-intentioned, that optimism rests, I fear, on a fundamental misunderstanding of what was truly at issue in that vote. To explain, let me turn to an unlikely starting point: the New Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Who’s Afraid of Ukrainian History?

Timothy Snyder

Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP/Getty Images

On summer evenings, the people of the west Ukrainian city Lviv come to sing: under the statue of Taras Shevchenko, the great poet who prophesied Ukrainian independence in the nineteenth century, on the street that was renamed Liberty Boulevard when Ukraine emerged from Soviet rule in 1991. The songs tell of beautiful dark-eyed girls pining for brave soldiers. In one song, young men must leave their homes to fight for freedom as partisans; in the next, they are overwhelmed and killed by Soviet forces. One of the more bellicose songs ends “We’ll cry out ‘Glory, glory, glory’ until the earth shakes,” accompanied by the stamping of feet on the cobblestones. These passionate Ukrainian laments overlook the fact that Lviv was once Polish Lwów, and before that Habsburg Lemberg. Well into the twentieth century it was a Polish-Jewish city.

Bashevis Revisited

Harold Bloom

Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Der Kuntsenmakher fun Lublin perhaps should have been entitled The Trickster of Lublin when first it was published in English a half-century ago. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s second novel established his American audience, which grew until his death at eighty-seven in 1991. Rereading it now in Yiddish and in English (the novel has just been reissued in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of its publication) has been a mixed experience. The book set the formula for all his narratives long or short. They are prurient sagas of the flesh and of repentance, marked by the ambivalences of a vegetarian satyr.

Stealing Newman

Garry Wills

Andrew Milligan/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Pope Benedict XVI is the best-dressed liar in the world. And in England he presided over the best set-designed lie imaginable. He beatified the nineteenth-century Oxford theologian John Henry Newman, presenting him (in the penultimate step toward canonization) as a docile believer in papal authority, an enemy of dissent, and a rebuke to anyone who questions church authority. When the pope declared authentic the bogus miracle on which he bases the beatification—the claim that a deacon from Boston was cured of a spinal disease after praying to the cardinal—he said in a letter from Rome to England last February, “In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognize dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate.” This is a Newman few who are acquainted with his radical views would recognize.

America’s Front Page

Charles Simic

Nicholas Kamma/AFP/Getty Images

Cleaning my basement recently, I came upon an issue of The New York Times dated Friday, April 13, 1990. The headlines tell about the East Germans issuing an apology for Nazi crimes, Americans finding excuses for not being part of the census, early glaucoma being found in President Bush’s eye, and the Pulitzer Prizes that were announced the day before. Inside, there are reports about the Soviet military unhappy with President Gorbachev after the Communist Party relinquished sole power in the government; the move of twenty Orthodox Jewish families in Jerusalem into some housing in the Christian quarter of the Old City, which provoked a protest by hundreds of Christian clerics who were sprayed with tear gas by the soldiers guarding the settlers; Britain seizing a big forged-steel tube made by a British manufacturer going to Iraq, because custom officials determined it could be used to build a missile launcher capable of hurling warheads for hundreds of miles—despite the chief executive of the company saying it would blow itself into pieces if they tried to use it as a weapon. How familiar all this sounds.