Category: New York Review of Books

Liu Xiaobo: The Man Who Stayed

Ian Johnson writing for the New York Review of Books
liu-xiaobo-ap

Following Liu Xiaobo’s death, Ian Johnson examines for the New York Review of Books the Nobel Laureate’s future place in Chinese history:

For gentlemen of purpose and men of benevolence, while it is inconceivable that they should seek to stay alive at the expense of benevolence, it may happen that they have to accept death in order to have benevolence accomplished. 

—Confucius, Analects

In 1898, some of China’s most brilliant minds allied themselves with the Emperor Guangxu, a young ruler who was trying to assert himself by forcing through reforms to open up China’s political, economic, and educational systems. But opponents quickly struck back, deposing the emperor and causing his advisors to flee for their lives.

One, however, stayed put. He was Tan Sitong, a young scholar from a far-off corner of the empire. Tan knew that remaining in Beijing meant death, but hoped that his execution might shock his fellow citizens awake.

It wasn’t a modest decision. Tan was one of the most provocative essayists of his generation. He had published an influential book decrying the effects of absolutism. He had founded schools and newspapers, and advised other political figures on how to change the system. There was every justification for him to save his own skin so he could contribute to future battles. But these arguments also made Tan realize how valuable it was that he remain in the imperial capital: facing death proudly, at the hands of those resisting reforms, could make a difference; people might pay attention to China’s plight.

So as his friends boarded ships to Japan or fled to the provinces, Tan went to a small hotel in Beijing and waited for the imperial troops. They soon arrived and quickly condemned him to death in the inevitable show trial that followed. The trial itself was interrupted only by an order from above to get on with it: Tan was to be executed immediately.

Before his decapitation at Beijing’s Caishikou execution grounds, however, Tan was able to utter what today are some of the most famous words in China’s century-and-a-half effort to form a modern, pluralistic state: “I wanted to kill the robbers, but lacked the strength to transform the world. This is the place where I should die. Rejoice, rejoice!”

I couldn’t help but think of Tan these past few days as China’s best-known democracy activist, Liu Xiaobo, lay dying of liver cancer in a hospital prison. Death comes to all people and cancer is not the same as an executioner’s sword. But the deaths of the two seemed somehow to connect across the hundred and nineteen years that separate their fates. Like Tan, Liu threw his weight behind a cause that in its immediate aftermath seemed hopeless—in Liu’s case, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. But with time, history vindicated Tan; I wonder if it will do the same for Liu. 

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The Painter and the Novelist

Paul Levy for The New York Review of Books
Virginia and Leslie Stephen, 1902; photograph by George Charles Beresford

Paul Levy writes on the Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell and her younger sister, Virginia Woolf, for The New York Review of Books.

The Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell, née Stephen, lived most of her life (1879–1961) in the chilly, concealing shade of her younger sister, Virginia Woolf—the last twenty years following Virginia’s suicide in 1941. Though the attention paid to the Bloomsbury Group seems to be waning on both sides of the Atlantic, there is currently a surge of interest in Bell. Priya Parmar’s novel Vanessa and Her Sister artfully sheds new light on Bell, who is also part of an imaginative group exhibition, “Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion,” at Two Temple Place in London (William Waldorf Astor’s townhouse, now an exhibition venue). Dulwich Picture Gallery (England’s earliest public art gallery constructed for that purpose) has mounted the first major exhibition of Bell’s work. Her sex life was the chief subject of the BBC series Life in Squares (2015); she was played at different ages by Phoebe Fox and Eve Best.

In 1907, Vanessa married Clive Bell, the art critic and father of her two sons; she briefly became the lover of Roger Fry, the highly admired art critic; and she was the lifelong companion of the gay painter Duncan Grant, whose work will be featured in Tate Britain’s exhibition “Queer British Art, 1861–1967,” opening in April, and who was the father of Bell’s daughter, Angelica. Posterity has judged Virginia the greater artist, but in Parmar’s fictionalized account, Vanessa is the nobler, more sympathetic of the Bloomsbury Group’s founding sisters.

Was Bell a good painter? The striking catalog for the Dulwich show (of seventy-six paintings, works on paper, and fabrics, as well as photographs by both her and Patti Smith) equivocates by stressing her place in art history, saying that she was “one of the most advanced British artists of her time, with her own distinctive vision, boldly interpreting new ideas about art which were brewing in France and beyond.” Nancy Durrant, an art critic for the London Times, agrees: “This show is a joy…. What a magnificent creature she must have been.”

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Raucous, Disorderly Downtown

Richard Hell for The New York Review of Books
downtown-kusama

Richard Hell writes on artist-run galleries in New York during the 50s and 60s

Following the mid-twentieth-century triumph of New York’s Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and their cohort of Abstract Expressionists and Color Field painters, what could the next generation of American artists do? New York had become the new capital of art after a hundred years of Parisian dominance: Could we sustain? “Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965,” an exhibition at NYU’s Grey Gallery (through April 1), captures the fertile tumult of this period.

The focus of “Inventing Downtown” is not on a type or trend of art-making, but rather on an inclusive range of galleries, fourteen of them, formed by artists for themselves in storefronts, lofts, and church basements. The galleries were downtown, mostly in the Lower East Side, because that’s where rents were cheap and where the artists lived. (Commercial galleries were in midtown.) Most of the artists were young. Some of them would become famous, most not. Melissa Rachleff, the show’s curator and author of its exceptional catalog, gives us a rare presentation of the robust roots of art-making, rather than only the flowers.

The Grey Gallery rooms are a patchwork miscellany of wildly various works, but Rachleff has adeptly organized the disorder. She divides the fourteen galleries into five categories. The first, “Leaving Midtown,” focuses on three galleries, two of them among the earliest and longest-lived, the Tanager (1952–1962) on East Fourth Street, and later East Tenth Street; the Hansa (1952–1959), named for influential Abstract Expressionist teacher Hans Hoffman, on East Twelfth Street and later Central Park South; and the Brata (1957–1962) on Tenth Street—all of which were pure artist run co-ops, financed by dues-paying member artists, which showed their members’ work and that of others they deemed interesting. The artists—such as Lois Dodd, Philip Pearlstein, Jean Follett, Allan Kaprow, Ed Clark—range widely in both aesthetic aims and levels of eventual renown. Most show the influence of de Kooning and, to a lesser extent, Pollock.

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‘Fuck’-ing Around

Joan Acocella writing for the New York Review of Books
‘Posing with Trump,’ Paris, November 2016; photograph by Richard Kalvar

Joan Acocella thinks about profanities and ‘the day the Pope dropped the C-bomb’ for the New York Review of Books:

Obscene language presents problems, the linguist Michael Adams writes in his new book, In Praise of Profanity, “but no one seems to spend much time thinking about the good it does.” Actually, a lot of people in the last few decades have been considering its benefits, together with its history, its neuroanatomy, and above all its fantastically large and colorful word list. Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word, an OED-style treatment of fuck that was first published in 1995, has gone into its third edition, ringing ever more changes—artfuckbearfuckfuck the deckfuckbagfuckwadhorsefucksportfuck,Dutch fuckunfuck—on that venerable theme.

Meanwhile, Jonathon Green’s Green’s Dictionary of Slang, in three volumes (2010), lists 1,740 words for sexual intercourse, 1,351 for penis, 1,180 for vagina, 634 for anus or buttocks, and 540 for defecation and urination. In the last few months alone there have been two new books: What the F, by Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California at San Diego, together with Adams’s In Praise of Profanity. So somebody is interested in profanity.

Many writers point out that there hasn’t been enough research on the subject. As long as we haven’t cured cancer, it’s hard to get grants to study dirty words. Accordingly, there don’t seem to have been a lot of recent discoveries in this field. Very many of Bergen’s and Adams’s points, as they acknowledge, have been made in earlier books, an especially rich source being Melissa Mohr’s Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing(2013). Mohr even reads us the graffiti from the brothel in ancient Pompeii—disappointingly laconic (e.g., “I came here and fucked, then went home”), but good to know all the same.

Of course one wants to know the history of the words, and all the books provide it, insofar as they can. Fuck did not get its start as an acronym, as has sometimes been jocosely proposed (“For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” etc.). If it had, there wouldn’t be so many obvious cognates in neighboring languages. Sheidlower lists, among others, the German ficken (to copulate), the Norwegian regional fukka (ditto), and the Middle Dutch fokken (to thrust, to beget children), all of them apparently descendants of a Germanic root meaning “to move back and forth.” Sheidlower says fuck probably entered English in the fifteenth century, but Bergen, writing later, reports that the medievalist Paul Booth recently came across a legal document from 1310 identifying a man as Roger Fuckebythenavel. Booth conjectures that this might have been a metaphor for something like “dimwit.” On the other hand, it could have been a nickname inflicted on an inexperienced young man who actually tried to do it that way, and whose partner could not resist telling her girlfriends.

Something to note here is that the word appeared in a legal document. For a long time fuck was not considered especially vile. Cunt, too, was once an ordinary word. A fourteenth-century surgery textbook calmly states that “in women the neck of the bladder is short and is made fast to the cunt.” Until well after the Renaissance, the words that truly shocked people had to do not with sexual or excretory functions but with religion—words that took the Lord’s name in vain. As late as 1866, Baudelaire, who had been rendered aphasic by a stroke, was expelled from a hospital for compulsively repeating the phrase cré nom, short for sacré nom (holy name).

Many exclamations that now seem to us merely quaint were once “minced oaths.”Criminycrikeycripesgeejeezbejesusgeez Louisegee willikersjiminy, and jeepers creepers are all to Christ and Jesus what frigging is to fucking. The shock-shift from religion to sexual and bathroom matters was of course due primarily to the decline of religion, but Mohr points out that once domestic arrangements were changed so as to give people some privacy for sex and elimination, references to these matters became violations of privacy, and hence shocking.

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Ur-Fascism

Umberto Eco writing for the New York Review of Books in 1995
Umberto-Eco-in-library

Thinking back to his childhood under Mussolini, Umberto Eco outlines the fundamental features of Eternal Fascism:

In 1942, at the age of ten, I received the First Provincial Award of Ludi Juveniles (a voluntary, compulsory competition for young Italian Fascists—that is, for every young Italian). I elaborated with rhetorical skill on the subject “Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?” My answer was positive. I was a smart boy.

I spent two of my early years among the SS, Fascists, Republicans, and partisans shooting at one another, and I learned how to dodge bullets. It was good exercise.

In April 1945, the partisans took over in Milan. Two days later they arrived in the small town where I was living at the time. It was a moment of joy. The main square was crowded with people singing and waving flags, calling in loud voices for Mimo, the partisan leader of that area. A former maresciallo of the Carabinieri, Mimo joined the supporters of General Badoglio, Mussolini’s successor, and lost a leg during one of the first clashes with Mussolini’s remaining forces. Mimo showed up on the balcony of the city hall, pale, leaning on his crutch, and with one hand tried to calm the crowd. I was waiting for his speech because my whole childhood had been marked by the great historic speeches of Mussolini, whose most significant passages we memorized in school. Silence. Mimo spoke in a hoarse voice, barely audible. He said: “Citizens, friends. After so many painful sacrifices … here we are. Glory to those who have fallen for freedom.” And that was it. He went back inside. The crowd yelled, the partisans raised their guns and fired festive volleys. We kids hurried to pick up the shells, precious items, but I had also learned that freedom of speech means freedom from rhetoric.

A few days later I saw the first American soldiers. They were African Americans. The first Yankee I met was a black man, Joseph, who introduced me to the marvels of Dick Tracy and Li’l Abner. His comic books were brightly colored and smelled good.

One of the officers (Major or Captain Muddy) was a guest in the villa of a family whose two daughters were my schoolmates. I met him in their garden where some ladies, surrounding Captain Muddy, talked in tentative French. Captain Muddy knew some French, too. My first image of American liberators was thus—after so many palefaces in black shirts—that of a cultivated black man in a yellow-green uniform saying: “Oui, merci beaucoup, Madame, moi aussi j’aime le champagne…” Unfortunately there was no champagne, but Captain Muddy gave me my first piece of Wrigley’s Spearmint and I started chewing all day long. At night I put my wad in a water glass, so it would be fresh for the next day.

In May we heard that the war was over. Peace gave me a curious sensation. I had been told that permanent warfare was the normal condition for a young Italian. In the following months I discovered that the Resistance was not only a local phenomenon but a European one. I learned new, exciting words like réseau, maquis, armée secrète, Rote Kapelle, Warsaw ghetto. I saw the first photographs of the Holocaust, thus understanding the meaning before knowing the word. I realized what we were liberated from.

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Renata Adler on Pauline Kael

In the New York Review of Books
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In 1980, Renata Adler reviewed Pauline Kael’s When the Lights Go Down for the New York Review of Books in 1980. Both of them were staff writers at the New Yorker. Time magazine called this ‘the New York literary Mafia['s] bloodiest case of assault and battery in years.’ A worthy candidate for hatchet job of the century?

Now, When the Lights Go Down, a collection of her reviews over the past five years, is out; and it is, to my surprise and without Kael- or Simon-like exaggeration, not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless. It turns out to embody something appalling and widespread in the culture. Over the years, that is, Ms. Kael’s quirks, mannerisms, tactics, and excesses have not only taken over her work so thoroughly that hardly anything else, nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility, remains; they have also proved contagious, so that the content and level of critical discussion, of movies but also of other forms, have been altered astonishingly for the worse. To the spectacle of the staff critic as celebrity in frenzy, about to “do” something “to” a text, Ms. Kael has added an entirely new style of ad hominem brutality and intimidation; the substance of her work has become little more than an attempt, with an odd variant of flak advertising copy, to coerce, actually to force numb acquiescence, in the laying down of a remarkably trivial and authoritarian party line.

She has, in principle, four things she likes: frissons of horror; physical violence depicted in explicit detail; sex scenes, so long as they have an ingredient of cruelty and involve partners who know each other either casually or under perverse circumstances; and fantasies of invasion by, or subjugation of or by, apes, pods, teens, bodysnatchers, and extraterrestrials. Whether or not one shares these predilections—and whether they are in fact more than four, or only one—they do not really lend themselves to critical discussion. It turns out, however, that Ms. Kael does think of them as critical positions, and regards it as an act of courage, of moral courage, to subscribe to them. The reason one cannot simply dismiss them as de gustibus, or even as harmless aberration, is that they have become inseparable from the repertory of devices of which Ms. Kael’s writing now, almost wall to wall, consists.

She has an underlying vocabulary of about nine favorite words, which occur several hundred times, and often several times per page, in this book of nearly six hundred pages: “whore” (and its derivatives “whorey,” “whorish,” “whoriness”), applied in many contexts, but almost never to actual prostitution; “myth,” “emblem” (also “mythic,” “emblematic”), used with apparent intellectual intent, but without ascertainable meaning; “pop,” “comicstrip,” “trash” (“trashy”), “pulp” (“pulpy”), all used judgmentally (usually approvingly) but otherwise apparently interchangeable with “mythic”; “urban poetic,” meaning marginally more violent than “pulpy”; “soft” (pejorative); “tension,” meaning, apparently, any desirable state; “rhythm,” used often as a verb, but meaning harmony or speed; “visceral”; and “level.” These words may be used in any variant, or in alternation, or strung together in sequence—“visceral poetry of pulp,” e.g., or “mythic comic-strip level”—until they become a kind of incantation. She also likes words ending in “ized” (“vegetabilized,” “robotized,” “aestheticized,” “utilized,” “mythicized”), and a kind of slang (“twerpy,” “dopey,” “dumb,” “grungy,” “horny,” “stinky,” “drip,” “stupes,” “crud”) which amounts, in prose, to an affectation of straightforwardness.

I leave aside for the moment Ms. Kael’s incessant but special use of words many critics use a lot: “we,” “you,” “they,” “some people”; “needs,” “feel,” “know,” “ought”—as well as her two most characteristic grammatical constructions: “so/that” or “such/that,” used not as a mode of explication or comparison (as in, e.g., he was so lonely that he wept), but as an entirely new hype connective between two unrelated or unformulated thoughts; and her unprecedented use, many times per page and to new purposes, of the mock rhetorical question and the question mark.

Because what is most striking is that she has, over the years, lost any notion of the legitimate borders of polemic. Mistaking lack of civility for vitality, she now substitutes for argument a protracted, obsessional invective—what amounts to a staff cinema critics’ branch of est. Her favorite, most characteristic device of this kind is the ad personam physical (she might say, visceral) image: images, that is, of sexual conduct, deviance, impotence, masturbation; also of indigestion, elimination, excrement. I do not mean to imply that these images are frequent, or that one has to look for them. They are relentless, inexorable. “Swallowing this movie,” one finds on page 147, “is an unnatural act.” On page 151, “his way of pissing on us.” On page 153, “a little gas from undigested Antonioni.” On page 158, “these constipated flourishes.” On page 182, “as forlornly romantic as Cyrano’s plume dipped in horse manure.” On page 226, “the same brand of sanctifying horse manure.” On page 467, “a new brand of pop manure.” On page 120, “flatulent seriousness.” On page 226, “flatulent Biblical-folk John Ford film.” On page 353, “gaseous naïveté.” And elsewhere, everywhere, “flatulent,” “gaseous,” “gasbag,” “makes you feel a little queasy,” “makes you gag a little,” “just a belch from the Nixon era,” “you can’t cut through the crap in her,” “plastic turds.” Of an actress, “She’s making love to herself”; of a screenwriter, “He’s turned in on himself; he’s diddling his own talent.” “It’s tumescent filmmaking.” “Drama and politics don’t climax together.” Sometimes, one has the illusion that these oral, anal, or just physical epithets have some meaning—“Taxi Driver is a movie in heat,” for instance, or “the film is an icebag.” But then: “Coma is like a prophylactic.” One thinks, How, how is it like a prophylactic? “It’s so cleanly made.” Or a metaphor with a sadistic note which defies, precisely, physical comprehension. “The movie has had a spinal tap.”

The Case for Paying Ransoms

Simon Critchley in the New York Review of Books
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Simon Critchley makes the case for negotiating with ISIS for the release of hostages in the New York Review of Books:

The recent revelations about payments made by European governments to secure the release of hostages held by ISIS raise a fascinating set of issues and an apparent moral dilemma. In a couple of extended, detailed, and carefully researched articles published by The New York Times, Rukmini Callimachi documents the extent of the complicity between various European nations and international terrorist organizations. It is estimated that al-Qaeda and its direct affiliates have made $125 million from kidnappings since 2008, including $66 million in the last year alone, which may account for about half of the operating budget of these groups.

The case of ISIS is even more extreme. Emerging out of the chaos of the Syrian civil war, the group that has come to be known as ISIL or ISIS, or the more ontological IS, gradually captured and gathered together twenty-three foreign hostages from twelve countries, the majority of them Europeans. (This is not counting the forty-six Turks and three Iraqis taken during the fall of Mosul in June this year.) They were initially held in a prison under the Children’s Hospital of Aleppo and subsequently transferred to a building outside an oil installation in Raqqa in eastern Syria, the current capital of ISIS.

Notably, the two American and two British hostages—James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, and Alan Henning—who were horrifically beheaded between mid-August and early October of this year were in this group, as was a Russian captive, Sergey Gorbunov, who was shot dead last spring, after it became clear the Russian government had little interest in his case.

So where are all the rest, who mostly came from continental Europe? For the most part, safely back home because their governments negotiated with ISIS for their release. Details are murky, but it would appear that, from among the twenty-three, almost 6 million euros was paid for the release of three Spanish aid workers, followed by a reported $18 million for four French journalists, and substantial payments for an Italian aid worker, and a Danish photojournalist, who was released after the family apparently raised the money for the ransom. (It should also be noted that, according to press reports, the forty-six Turkish hostages and the three Iraqis may have been released in a prison swap for 180 Islamic militants—including two British jihadists, Shabazz Suleman and Hisham Folkard, being held by Turkish authorities. President Erdogan of Turkey denied that any ransom had been paid, but was rather cagey about the details of the negotiations.)

Why Read the Classics?

A classic essay by Italo Calvino in the New York Review of Books
Italo Calvino

Suffice to say that this piece by Italo Calvino, published in 1986 in the New York Review of Books, is very good indeed:

Let us begin with a few suggested definitions.

1) The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading….”

This at least happens among those who consider themselves “very well read.” It does not hold good for young people at the age when they first encounter the world, and the classics as a part of that world.

The reiterative prefix before the verb “read” may be a small hypocrisy on the part of people ashamed to admit they have not read a famous book. To reassure them, we need only observe that, however vast any person’s basic reading may be, there still remain an enormous number of fundamental works that he has not read.

Hands up, anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus and the whole of Thucydides! And Saint-Simon? And Cardinal de Retz? But even the great nineteenth-century cycles of novels are more often talked about than read. In France they begin to read Balzac in school, and judging by the number of copies in circulation, one may suppose that they go on reading him even after that, but if a Gallup poll were taken in Italy, I’m afraid that Balzac would come in practically last. Dickens fans in Italy form a tiny elite; as soon as its members meet, they begin to chatter about characters and episodes as if they were discussing people and things of their own acquaintance. Years ago, while teaching in America, Michel Butor got fed up with being asked about Emile Zola, whom he had never read, so he made up his mind to read the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle. He found it was completely different from what he had thought: a fabulous mythological and cosmogonical family tree, which he went on to describe in a wonderful essay.

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