Thursday, January 19, 2017
Lisa Rosman in Signature:
Walking through the galleries of “Mastry,” the two-floor Kerry James Marshall retrospective at Met Breuer, the newest branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I always flash on James Baldwin’s quote: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Certainly Marshall’s paintings, which I have visited three times in the last month, are profoundly American – proudly, gorgeously, and defiantly so. In a swoon of silver, brocade, and funeral banners, they embody the beautiful resistance that our country needs most right now – the civil rights movement that never really ended, the revolution that has just begun. More than that, these paintings ask us to join the party.
Born in Alabama in 1955, Marshall moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1963 – a classic midcentury migration of African American clans. He has said that his infatuation with Marvel comics began around the same time that he visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and certainly both influences are evident in his work. Also evident is the Civil Rights movement, which grew up right along with the artist, often in the same place. He was in Birmingham when four young girls were killed in a bombing of a Baptist church, and was living in L.A.’s Watts section during its 1965 riots. Remaining in that city during his early adulthood, he knew founding members of the Crips gang and studied at the Otis Art Institute, where he opted to become a representational painter who queries accepted tropes of beauty as well as the eye of the beholder. Marshall has a great deal to say about the gaze.
What is Consciousness Good For? Barry Smith and Nicholas Shea present a new research project bringing together philosophy, psychology and neuroscience
Video length: 22:22
It is difficult to write about Alexander Herzen (1812-1870). Just when you think you’ve got the right idea about him, a central insight, he turns away. One can hardly say the simplest thing about him: he was a Russian aristocratic philosopher, but born a landowner’s illegitimate son who polemicised against Tsarism; an early revolutionary, he cautioned against going too fast, lest Russian society broke under the strain; hailed for denouncing official misrule, ultimately he was scorned by both the Romantic dissenters of the 1840s and the nihilists of the 1860s; once as famous as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Lev Tolstoy, he died in relative obscurity; patient, even unrealistic about people’s real intentions, he could be a bitter critic who engaged in long-running feuds; an attentive and loving family man, he committed adultery and was distraught when his wife fell in love with a minor German poet; trained in the natural sciences at Moscow University, he went on to write philosophy, political essays, socialist polemics, history, fiction and a monumental memoir.
Herzen left no central body of doctrine after his death, was adopted by figures as different as Lenin and Isaiah Berlin, and continues to generate various interpretations about his ‘real’ significance.
One can say one thing with certainty, however: to read Herzen is to get involved in ‘those damned questions’, as Dostoevsky called them. How should we live? Where does human responsibility end and fate, or God, or evil begin? What is freedom – is it a supreme virtue or a crime? Is Utopia attainable or even desirable? Is a ‘better’ society valuable to the present, or a nasty dream, used to deceive today’s freethinkers?
Like human beings who grow and change as they move through time and space, literary characters go through a process of elaboration in which they take on a new look and feel. When it moves from one culture to another, a literary character is translated into new idioms. And, in turn, that character can now articulate new ideas. One of the most interesting comic characters in the Jewish literary tradition – one who has been elaborated and re-elaborated over time, space, and language – is the schlemiel. She has been translated into nearly every European language, has had a tremendous impact on Eastern European and German Jews, and in the early 20th century she traveled over the Atlantic to find a new home on American shores. Since the advent of Charlie Chaplin and the first translations of Shalom Aleichem into English, the schlemiel has become an American icon. In film, television, and Jewish American literature, we find new American idioms for the schlemiel (think, for instance, of filmmakers and actors like Woody Allen, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, or Seth Rogen or TV stars like Larry David and Jason Alexander or writers like I.B. Singer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Shalom Auslander). When one thinks of America, now, one doesn’t simply think of a heroic figure; one also thinks of the schlemiel and her antics. And, to be sure, it was the work of many Jewish-American writers, filmmakers, and actors that jettisoned the schlemiel through Broadway, Hollywood, and the pages of popular novels to become an American icon.
What many literary critics overlook, however, is the fact that the schlemiel has also found its way into the pages of great Anglo-American writers like John Updike (see his “Beck” series) and Thomas Pynchon.
It is easy to forget just how strange Berger can be: the swimming dog seemingly committing suicide in Corker’s Freedom; the dead horses in G.; Pig Earth’s ladders that link the rotting matter of the forest floor to ethereal butterflies and angels above; the soup shared with the dead in Here is Where We Meet. In my own reading of Berger over many years, certain themes have shown themselves particularly clearly: he has been a consistently inventive writer of himself, playing with the name “John” and its etymological cousins, Janos, Jean, and Jonas. He is an obsessive writer of animals, primarily for what they show us of ourselves; think of the teeming and disturbing bestiary of The Foot of Clive, the rich descriptions of livestock in Pig Earth, in which nothing remains simply itself, (Pepé’s slaughtered pig has lungs reminiscent of “two sprays of pear blossom”), andKing, Berger’s novel of homelessness, in which the narrator may well be a dog.
His was a distinctive vocabulary of symbols that are altered and reconfigured with every iteration, and perhaps find their fullest expressions in G. and Once in Europa, texts which had had me chasing the tail of a series of metonymic connections to find them twisting and coiling back on themselves, and which laced both books with a simultaneous feeling of superabundance and mystery. Most obviously, he worked restlessly between genres and traditions, probing the spaces between various oppositions.
John Seabrook in The New Yorker:
For a quarter of a century, I averaged a twenty-dollar bottle of wine almost every night, buying most of them individually at a nearby liquor store. I also bought cases of wine for parties and for weekend houses, and plowed through those, too—oceans of wine washing over us and our friends as the children played under the table. Even though I had been drinking three hundred and sixty-five days a year since I was twenty-four, it never occurred to me that I might be an alcoholic. I didn’t think of myself as a particularly heavy drinker. At the very Jag-defiling beginnings of my drinking career, it was clear that I could hold only a certain amount. That mark increased over time, but only up to a point: two highball or water glasses full of ice and either gin or bourbon, followed by up to a bottle and a half of wine. Any more and I’d get sick. My gut always had my back.
In 2009, when my family moved to a town house in Brooklyn, I had a cellar of my own, at last. I loved the vaulted basement, which was dry and high-ceilinged enough for me to stand in. Just after we moved in, I ordered a top-of-the-line redwood wine case, with room for a hundred and twenty-eight bottles, installed it under one of the vaults, and filled it with an exotic collection of vintages I had acquired from my brother-in-law’s online wine business, which was going out of it. Night after night, I went down to my cellar and drank a bottle by myself, because Lisa was cutting back on drinking, and supposedly I was, too.
Jocelyn Kaiser in Science:
The first results of a high-profile effort to replicate influential papers in cancer biology are roiling the biomedical community. Of the five studies the project has tackled so far, some involving experimental treatments already in clinical trials, only two could be repeated; one could not, and technical problems stymied the remaining two replication efforts. Some scientists say these early findings from the Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology, which appear tomorrow in eLife, bolster concerns that too many basic biomedical studies don’t hold up in other labs. “The composite picture is, there is a reproducibility problem,” says epidemiologist John Ioannidis of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, an adviser to the project whose attention-getting analyses have argued that biomedical research suffers from systemic flaws. But others say the results simply show that good studies can be difficult to precisely reproduce, because biological systems are so variable. “People make these flippant comments that science is not reproducible. These first five papers show there are layers of complexity here that make it hard to say that,” says Charles Sawyers, an eLife editor and cancer biologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
The cancer biology project was inspired by reports from two companies that when they tried to follow up on dozens of papers pointing to potential new drugs, they could not replicate as many as 89% of the studies. But the firms, Bayer and Amgen, did not reveal the specific papers or many details of their attempts. So in 2013 the nonprofit Center for Open Science in Charlottesville, Virginia, which had led a replication project for psychology papers, teamed up with Science Exchange of Palo Alto, a service that matches scientists with contract labs that do experiments for hire. The partners won $2 million from a foundation for a large-scale cancer replication effort.
Light was on its way
Light was all business
Light was full speed
when it got interrupted.
Interrupted by what?
When it got tangled up
broke into brand new things.
What kinds of things?
“Thinking of you!
How could speed take shape?
Do you want me to start over?
The fading laser pulse
Information describing the fading laser pulse
in the spin states
is balancing his checkbook
God is encrypting his account.
This is taking forever!
by Rae Armantrout
Poetry (January 2011)
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
David Skinner in Humanities:
To change the world is the dream of many an ambitious figure, but what about those who want to unchange it? Who dream of the old order that existed before the 1960s, or before World War I, or before the French Revolution?
Mark Lilla is a professor of humanities at Columbia University and a contributor to the New York Review of Books. In his new collection of essays, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, he explores the lives and ideas of sundry reactionaries for whom the last revolution “marked the end of a glorious journey, not the beginning of one.” His gallery of backward-looking thinkers stretches from the German-Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig to the émigré philosophers Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, and all the way to the political Islamists who dream of restoring a caliphate.
In 1992, Lilla received a grant from NEH to support translations of postwar political theory in France for a book he edited called New French Thought. His interest in continental philosophy and the modern era has also resulted in books on Giambattista Vico and the place of the religious imagination in contemporary politics. This fall New York Review Books reissued a prequel to the current volume called The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, which is about the dangerous relationship between politics and philosophy as evidenced in the lives of Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and others.
Recently, HUMANITIES emailed Lilla several questions and he emailed us back several answers.
HUMANITIES: What is the shipwrecked mind? Why is it shipwrecked?
MARK LILLA: One of the most common metaphors for history, and for time itself, is that of a river. Time flows, history has currents, etc. While thinking about this image, it occurred to me that some people believe that time carries us along and all we can do is passively experience the ride. Think of cyclical theories of history or even cosmology: The world runs its course, is destroyed, and is then reborn to travel the cycle again.
Other people, though, have a catastrophic conception of history: The river flows but it may not be heading in the right direction. It might flow into a channel full of shoals or rocks, where a ship can run aground or be shattered. This, I think, is the picture of history that reactionaries have.
Ed Yong in The Atlantic:
Thanks to a team of scientists led by Thijs Ettema, Asgard is now also the name of a large clan of microbes. Its members, which are named after Norse gods like Odin, Thor, Loki, and Heimdall, are found all over the world. Many of them are rare and no one has actually seen them under a microscope. But thanks to their DNA, we know they exist. And we know that they are singularly important to us, because they may well be the group from which we evolved.
If Ettema is right, then around two billion years ago, an Asgardian microbe (or an incredibly close relative) took part in a unique event that gave rise to the eukaryotes. That’s the group which includes humans, our fellow animals, plants, fungi, and every living thing made from large, complex cells—all the living things we’re most familiar with, and all the ones we can actually see. Our origins lie either in Asgard, or next door to it.
To understand this story, we have to go back to the very beginning.
Christopher Robichaud at the Niskanen Centre:
Facts these days are taking a beating in politics. A month or so back, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes shared on “The Diane Rehm Show” that “[t]here’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts.” She was pilloried in the press over this, not unsurprisingly, though her words, taken at face value, do at least convey a sense of loss over our purported predicament—it’s unfortunate that there aren’t any facts anymore. Unfortunate or not, is she right that truth has left the building?
Well, no, of course not. We still have death and taxes, if nothing else, two stubborn, non-negotiable facts of modern life. And even if Republicans somehow manage to do away entirely with the latter in the first hundred days of Trump’s presidency, I’m pretty sure we’ll be stuck with our own mortality for at least a little while longer.
The really real world, in other words, didn’t suddenly slip away during the 2016 election cycle, impressions to the contrary notwithstanding. Be that as it may, it’s hard to deny that something funny is going on.
“Post-truth” was recently named the international word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary. PolitiFact’s 2016 Lie of the Year is fake news—as in all of it. A few days before the election, the Toronto Star listed in excruciating detail 560 falsehoods that then-candidate Donald Trump had uttered during the election cycle, a project of mendacity so immense in scope and ambition that the Los Angeles Times, two months earlier, argued that it was unprecedented in modern presidential politics. When election day came around this November, the general consensus among pundits was that the American people would surely reject such an unapologetic liar.
And then Donald Trump was elected the forty-fifth President of the United States.
Morgan Meis and I drove to Switzerland (from Italy, where I live) to look at a painting in Basel that Morgan is writing about in a new book. On the way back, we hit a heavy snowstorm on the Swiss highways and I took some video footage. Then we made this arty short film from it. (The title is a joke: my wife was asked where we were and she sarcastically replied, "On one of their usual quests for knowledge!")
Video length: 7:52
Kai Schultz in The New York Times:
THIMPHU, Bhutan — As a downpour settled into a thick fog outside, Dasho Karma Ura let his eyes flicker at the ceiling of a wood-paneled conference room and began expounding on the nature of happiness. “People feel happy when they see something ethical,” he said. “When you think you have done something right and brave and courageous, when you can constantly recharge yourself as a meaningful actor.” “And lastly,” he added, thumbing Buddhist prayer beads, “something which makes you pause and think, ‘Ah, this is beautiful. Beautiful, meaningful, ethical.’ ”
Mr. Ura, 55, is perhaps one of the world’s leading experts on happiness, at least as seen through the lens of development economics. It has been something of a preoccupation for more than two decades as he has developed and fine-tuned Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness indicator, a supplementary, sometimes alternative, yardstick to the conventional measure of development, gross domestic product. As the president of the Center for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research, Mr. Ura has spent much of his time asking Bhutanese questions about interactions with neighbors, quality of sleep and physical vigor in an attempt to understand and measure subjective well-being. Over the years, he has watched the idea catch on far beyond Bhutan, a remote kingdom in the Himalayas. When Denmark repeatedly came in first on the World Happiness Report, which looks at the science of measuring quality of life, more people became aware of both the report, and the concept behind it. As nations struggle with what Mr. Ura called more “guns, bullets and bombs” than at any other time in history, he said it was imperative that many more countries devise indicators that look beyond economics.
Jane Qiu in Nature:
Giant pandas and the distantly related red pandas may have independently evolved an extra ‘digit’ — a false thumb — through changes to the same genes. The two species share a common ancestor that lived more than 40 million years ago. Giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) are distant relatives of other bears, whereas red pandas (Ailurus fulgens) are more closely related to ferrets. Both species subsist on a diet composed almost entirely of bamboo, with the help of a false digit. The pandas’ ‘thumbs’ — which are actually abnormally enlarged wrist bones — allow both species to grip and handle bamboo with remarkable dexterity. But “exactly how such evolutionarily distant animals evolved such a similar lifestyle and body form has long been a mystery,” says Steve Phelps, a geneticist at the University of Texas at Austin.
In a new study, Wei Fuwen and Hu Yibo, conservation geneticists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology in Beijing, and their colleagues, produced the first genome sequence of the red panda and compared it with the giant panda genome. This comparison turned up a list of 70 genes that showed signs of evolutionary change in both species. Two of the genes, DYNC2H1 and PCNT, are important for limb development, and mutations in these genes can cause bone and muscle abnormalities, including extra digits, in mice and humans. Both pandas also share single amino-acid changes in the proteins encoded by DYNC2H1 and PCNT that are not found in 60 other mammal species. The researchers propose that these changes could have contributed to the pandas’ false thumbs.
In 1988, former altar boy Martin Scorsese said “I’m a believer, but I’m struggling.” His film The Last Temptation of Christ had just released to much criticism in Christian circles. One defender was the Reverend Paul Moore, the Episcopal Bishop of New York. In a letter to The New York Times, Moore praised Scorsese’s provocative representation of Christ, writing that much like the Spanish painters of the 16th and 17th centuries, Scorsese depicted Christ “as an agonized, suffering body on the cross.” Moore said he was “moved” by Scorsese’s film.
Moved enough to gift Scorsese with a book: Silence, a 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō. The director would soon buy the film rights to the book, but “got sidetracked doing other films.” Yet Scorsese “was always going back to the book” because it gave him “a kind of sustenance that I have found in only a very few works of art.” Now, finally, the film has reached theaters—like a long withheld confession.
I can’t help but compare Scorsese’s gestation of the film with Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, finished in 1872 but started nearly 30 years earlier.
The vast majority of writers leave no lasting posthumous trace. They die, and their work, successful as it may have been in its time, simply fades away. A lucky few—the Dickenses, Trollopes, Woolfs— end up firmly ensconced in the culture, their major works widely read, their minor ones remaining in print, and even their ephemera published. Then there’s the middle ground: the writers who are known for one or two pieces drawn from a vast body of work that is otherwise almost wholly forgotten.
Such a one is Thomas De Quincey, whose phantasmagoric memoir Confessions of an English Opium Eater has been handed from poets to trippers in an unbroken skein since the it was first published in 1822. De Quincey wrote many hundreds of thousands of words in addition toConfessions—the complete edition of his works prepared by a US publisher in his later years ran to twenty-two volumes—but it’s not inappropriate that Confessions is what he’s remembered by: opium was his regrettable lodestar, rivaled only, perhaps, by Wordsworth. But whereas he soured on Wordsworth and moved beyond him, opium kept him in its grip for a lifetime.
“Opium was the making of De Quincey,” writes Frances Wilson in Guilty Thing, her absorbing new biography.
A good way to come at John Berger (1926-2017) is to do it by mistake or serendipity, to discover him in the wrong box. At least that was my story, as a music critic who never studied art. Individual, unmanaged, unmediated discovery, an outsider’s discovery, probably suits him best. Not the kind that happens in a curriculum. He didn’t like school!
He has a reputation for appealing to the young, though I’m glad I came to him late. Subsequently I have taught Berger’s work to young critics. It hasn’t always gone well. It takes time to get it right. No single essay or book defines him. Some see him as digressive or humorless—the sort of guy who in the Fifties would lead a review of a show by Henry Moore, his former teacher, in this way: “The development of Henry Moore’s sculpture is a tragic example of how the half-truths on which so much Modern Art has been based eventually lead to sterility and—in terms of appreciation—mass self-deception.” Or, in the Seventies, the sort of guy who would address the tacit power-politics of the zoo (in “Why Look at Animals?”), but not without dilating first on Rousseau, Homer, and Descartes.
But at other times, especially during the Eighties and after, he could write about art in the form of intimate speech but with total clonking certainty, as if to suggest that collaborative thoughts about a painting, or any human achievement really—not with another critic or some kind of licensed expert but with your spouse or child or friend—were the most significant thoughts you could have.
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Paul Rosenberg in Salon:
George Lakoff didn’t start off in the world of politics. He was a founding father of cognitive linguistics, starting with his 1980 book, “Metaphors We Live By“ (co-authored with philosopher Mark Johnson). The book showed how immediate, concrete experience — bodily orientation, physical movement, and so on — structures our understanding of more complex and abstract experiences via “conceptual metaphors” such as “Consciousness Is Up,” “Love Is a Journey,” etc.
Facing the rise of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s and bewildered by how he and other liberals could not make logical sense of conservative ideology (what do gun rights, low taxes and banning abortion have in common?), Lakoff found an answer in conceptual metaphors derived form two contrasting family models explicated by Diana Baumrind as authoritarian (“strict father” in Lakoff’s terms) and authoritative (“nurturant parent”), as described in his 1996 book, “Moral Politics.” His 2004 book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate,” drew on a wider range of cognitive science and gained a mass audience, but failed to fundamentally change how liberals and Democrats approach politics, as was richly illustrated by the recent election of Donald Trump.
But Lakoff is nothing if not persistent, and has penned an election postmortem like no other, “A Minority President: Why the Polls Failed, and What the Majority Can Do.” It rearticulates the arguments of his earlier books — including others like “The Political Mind,” Whose Freedom?“ and Philosophy in the Flesh — along with fresh analysis and new insights that push hard for opening up a new realm of possibilities, instead of retrenching, retreating or repeating strategies and tactics that have failed in the past. In it, Lakoff displays both an intimate familiarity with detailed examples and a broad-based visionary outlook.
Jeremy Bernstein in Inference Review:
Enrico Fermi came to Harvard to give the Loeb Lectures in the fall of 1953. I was eager to meet him. I admired his work, of course, but I also thought there might be a distant family connection between us. My aunt had given me the impression that after Fermi’s arrival in the United States in 1939, she and members of the Fermi family had become the best of friends. When I ran into Fermi in the hallway of the Harvard physics building, I mentioned my aunt. Fermi gave me a chilly stare, and, without saying a word, walked away. Some years later, I described this encounter to someone who knew Fermi very well. He was not surprised.
During his visit, Fermi was persuaded to give an informal talk to a journal club formed under the guidance of Roy Glauber. Then a young assistant professor, Glauber would later win a Nobel Prize. He had gotten to know Fermi at Los Alamos during the war. I had hoped that Fermi would discuss the meson experiments being conducted at the University of Chicago. His talk went no further than describing an elementary problem in quantum theory. Most of us could have given the same lecture. With the exception of Paul Martin, we remained silent. Martin was the most brilliant of the graduate students; he objected to the approximations Fermi had made. Fermi gave a second lecture. Martin was still not satisfied. And a third. At that point, Martin gave up. Fermi would have continued until he had beaten Martin into submission.
The Pope of Physics is an account of Fermi’s life and times. Gino Segrè and his wife, Bettina Hoerlin, have written their account from the inside out; they knew a good many people who knew Fermi. Hoerlin’s father, Herman Hoerlin, worked with Fermi at Los Alamos, and Segrè’s uncle, Emilio Segrè, had been one of Fermi’s original collaborators in Rome. Both Segrè and Hoerlin could regard Fermi as a familiar presence.
Mohammed Hanif in the New York Times:
The army chief of Pakistan recently confirmed the death sentence of Saad Aziz, a business-school graduate and restaurant manager who was convicted of killing my friend Sabeen Mahmud. Sabeen, who was 40 then, ran The Second Floor in Karachi, a cafe where many writers and artists, including me, got their first break. It was also a hub for activists advocating controversial, often lost, causes. She was shot dead on April 24, 2015, minutes after a talk she had organized about the disappearance of Baloch activists, allegedly at the hand of Pakistan’s military intelligence agencies.
Chances are that after the requisite technical appeals to higher courts and a plea for mercy to the president of Pakistan, Aziz will hang. There are even stronger chances that we’ll never know for sure why he killed Sabeen.
Aziz was sentenced to death by a military court last May. The media weren’t allowed to cover the trial. There is no detailed judgment. We’ll never get to hear what Aziz may have said in his defense or about his motives.
Was he a lone killer, or acting on someone’s behalf? Was Sabeen killed for taking a stand against the Pakistani Taliban and their supporters in the mainstream? For defying the powerful military establishment? Because she insisted on drawing red hearts on walls around the city to mark Valentine’s Day?
Video length: 19:41
It’s hard to describe in a word what Kirk Franklin does for a living. Franklin, forty-six, is the most successful contemporary gospel artist of his generation, but he isn’t a singer. He plays the piano, but only intermittently onstage, more to contribute to the pageantry than to show off his modest chops. Above all, he is a songwriter, but in performance and on his albums his role more closely resembles that of a stock character in hip-hop: the hype man. The best hype men—Flavor Flav, Spliff Star, the early Sean (P. Diddy) Combs—hop around onstage, slightly behind and to the side of the lead m.c., addressing the microphone in order to ad-lib or to reinforce punch lines as they rumble by. But a hype man is, by definition, a sidekick, and while most of the sound in Franklin’s music comes from elsewhere—usually, a band and an ensemble of singers—he is always and unquestionably the locus of its energy and intention.
When I first saw Franklin perform live, last spring, at the newly renovated Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, he stood at center stage, spotlit, rasping out preachy interjections whenever his singers paused for breath. The theatre had the grandeur of a cathedral: blood-red velvet curtains framed the stage; golden ceilings, patterned with blue-and-purple paisleys, soared over vaudeville-era balconies and plush seats. During “I Smile,” a bouncy, piano-propelled anthem to joyful resilience against life’s troubles, Franklin punctuated the chorus with a rhythmic series of shouts: “I smile”—“Yes!”—“Even though I’m hurt, see, I smile”—“Come on!”—“Even though I’ve been here for a while”—“Hallelujah!”—“I smile.”
I was flown across the Atlantic to meet my new employers. In downtown Washington, I was surprised by the ubiquity of fresh-faced young men, their blue short-sleeved buttondowns tucked neatly into khakis. Lincoln Group had its headquarters above an Indian grocery on K Street; a small placard in the building’s foyer read: VISITORS TO LINCOLN GROUP/ IRAQEX, 10TH FLOOR, SHOULD BE ANNOUNCED IN ADVANCE. On the tenth floor, electricians wired lights in some rooms while in others suited men conferenced behind glass walls. The company’s head of human resources, who had only just been hired herself, told me with a weary smile that things had been crazy lately.
Paige Craig popped in to see me as I filled out work papers in a tiny waiting room. Shaking my hand with a mighty grip, he uttered something to the effect of “welcome aboard.” He was very well built, with short, tidy hair and the tight khaki trousers and shirt of a military man. As he strode away, he seemed purposeful. Bailey, by contrast, was baby-faced and slight, his sandy-brown hair cut in a Bill Gates bob. In his comer office, we chatted about Oxford. He had studied economics and management at Lincoln College. When I asked whether his college had inspired the company’s new name, he shrugged. “Partly,” he said cryptically. He did say that Lincoln Group was rapidly expanding and that it offered incredible opportunities for bright young people like me: stock options were available to employees after just three months, and I might consider staying on after the summer. Christian Bailey hadn’t yet been to Iraq himself. Although he had planned numerous trips, he said, something always came up that kept him in D.C.
The biggest problem for me is that the theater of the age I live in has almost always tried to be “innovative” and “modern.” And that supposed innovation and modernity often consists in such infelicities as these: if it’s a classic work, you almost never see that work, but a version, adaptation, or recreation by some sly contemporary who thus pockets all the money, given that Sophocles, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Molière, Goldoni, and other such luminaries are all out of copyright. These adaptations generally involve the destruction of the classic work: some dispense with verse, if there is any; others dress Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Brutus in suit and tie, or as Nazi bigwigs, or have them run around naked throughout the entire play (although there is also a fashion for dressing everyone in a kind of hideous sack, so that they all look the same); there are those who prefer to have the characters prancing around a completely bare stage, screaming loudly, or on a stage equipped with a ramp or a tent or a net they can dangle from. Actors are usually told to be either “very natural” or “very artificial,” but the result is always the same, namely, their complete inability to speak the words audibly and in a way that captures the interest of the audience, who end up being so distracted by the actors’ howls, phoney pauses, incomprehensible songs or litanies, and imperfect diction (as well as looking to their own protection, because actors often hurl water or even fireworks into the audience) that they take little notice of what the actors are trying to communicate verbally. In the theater nowadays, it’s almost impossible, regardless of whether it’s relevant or not, to escape (a) hysterical, meaningless dancing, perhaps so that the audience can enjoy some “physical movement”; (b) a more or less “savage” or vaguely medieval scene, along the lines of some kind of revelry or peasant hoedown, or a lynching perhaps, or a gang rape, or a bit of group cannibalism—and whichever option they choose, none of them impresses or seems remotely believable; (c) somersaults, pirouettes, and juggling with a bit of mime thrown in, and there’s nothing I loathe more than mime and juggling (no need, I hope, to explain why).