The End of the Prague Spring and the Collapse of World Communism


Christopher Hitchens in Slate:

Forty years ago this week, the greatest English-language poet of the 20th century sat down and wrote an eight-line verse:

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips
While drivel gushes from his lips.

W.H. Auden did not give this telling piece of brilliant doggerel a grandiose name. (He had, after all, called his finest poem “September 1, 1939,” simply after the day on which it was composed.) But just as anyone with a sense of history will know what is intended by that date, so it is that those eight lines, titled “August 1968,” evoke all the drama and tragedy of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The Warsaw Pact no longer exists. Czechoslovakia no longer exists. The Soviet Union, which tried by force to keep the second entity as a part of the first one, likewise no longer exists. Yet few events in memory can be as real and “concrete”—to borrow a favorite term of Marxist propaganda—as the struggle that once took place in these far-from-ethereal regions of Central and Eastern Europe.

On that day, I was in Cuba at a leftist student summer camp. The news, which wasn’t a complete surprise, came to the island very early in the morning. The Cuban Communist Party had been officially neutral regarding the Russian and Czechoslovak parties, so there was no “line.” It was announced that Fidel Castro would therefore produce a line in a speech to be delivered that night. Thus one could spend a whole day in a Communist state that had no official position on the main news item. Most Cubans were, one found, instinctively pro-Czech and anti-superpower. At noon came the information, which altered some people’s opinion, that Ho Chi Minh had endorsed the Russian action. The Chinese Communists, on the other hand, denounced it as analogous to Hitler’s intervention in Prague in 1939. Over the next few days, the world’s Communist leaderships gave their verdicts. The Italian Communists: against. The Greeks (languishing under fascist dictatorship): split. The Portuguese (likewise languishing): in favor. The South Africans: strongly in favor. (That hurt.) The Spanish: quite strongly against. The American Communists: Why even ask? In favor, as usual, and of everything. And so it went on. What became clear, however, was that there was no longer something that could be called the world Communist movement. It was utterly, irretrievably, hopelessly split. The main spring had broken. And the Prague Spring had broken it.

The Novelist and the Murderers

Nathaniel Popper in The Nation:

Early last November, the novelist Francisco Goldman was shouldering his way through the Texas leg of a reading tour for his first nonfiction book, The Art of Political Murder. Published by Grove Press in September, the book had received glowing reviews in newspapers and magazines nationwide, and it would soon be included by The New York Times Book Review in its list of the 100 Notable Books of the Year. On November 5 Goldman was relaxing in his hotel before a reading at a Houston Barnes & Noble when his BlackBerry pinged with an e-mail from an innkeeper in the Guatemalan town of Santiago de Atitlán. One day earlier, Guatemalans had voted in a general election, and the winner of the presidential contest was Álvaro Colom, a self-proclaimed Social Democrat and head of the National Unity of Hope (UNE) Party. Quite unexpectedly, Colom had come from behind in the polls to defeat Otto Pérez Molina, a salt-and-pepper-haired general who had campaigned on the slogan of Mano Dura (Firm Fist), a sturdy platform in a country that was ruled by the military and repressive right-wing parties almost without interruption from 1954 until the late ’90s. As it happens, the election was also the subject of the e-mail Goldman received from the innkeeper, David Glanville: The Art of Political Murder, Glanville wrote, may have been a decisive factor in Pérez Molina’s loss.

Goldman’s book is about neither the election nor the candidates. The Art of Political Murder is an investigation of one of Guatemala’s most notorious and gruesome killings. On a Sunday night in April 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi had been bludgeoned to death just two days after publishing a report about the Guatemalan military’s responsibility for civilian massacres in the country’s recently concluded civil war. In the midst of investigating the case, Goldman found sources who told him that on the night of the murder, Pérez Molina was hanging out in a convenience store near Gerardi’s church with a few conspirators in Gerardi’s murder. That scrap of information is mentioned–but not heavily scrutinized–by Goldman in his book.

evolution and the ‘other’ disciplines


In the last decades of the twentieth century, constructivism became less dominant in the social sciences. Mead’s own work was brought into question, and evolutionary psychology gained credence, if not full acceptance, under the leadership of entomologist E. O. Wilson. In 1998, Ekman published a landmark edition of Darwin’s book that included Darwin’s original photographs and his own, along with related contemporary research.

In this decade, the evolutionary approach to psychology has almost become an orthodoxy in its own right: bestsellers such as Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature scathingly denounce social constructivism, while Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong posits a “universal moral grammar” in an attempt to explain why humans are nice to one another when from a narrowly evolutionary standpoint they have no apparent reason to be. Evolutionary ideas are also remarkably common in a wide range of popular self-help works, such as Ekman’s own Emotions Revealed and John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

more from The Walrus here.

durrell’s alexandria


No single imagination can truly own a city, so when we speak of Proust’s Paris, Joyce’s Dublin, Musil’s Vienna and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria, we are really clearing a space in our minds where specific happenings and feelings may be identified and reconvened. It is these novelists’ pressing need to set their narratives down in some palpable place, almost as aliens colonizing a territory, rather than a compulsion to celebrate their country or fictionalize an already famous vicinity that leads to their iconic inventions.

This is especially the case with the four novels that make up The Alexandria Quartet – Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea – published in quick succession from 1957 to 1960. It had not been Durrell’s original intention to carry the story over so long a span, but once begun, he found he had an irresistible impulse to complete the full trajectory of a long-fostered obsession. Alexandria became the mise en scène of his masterpiece, if not by accident, at least fortuitously. To state this is not to question the powerful presence of the city throughout the novels. But Durrell’s creative instinct appears to have hit on Alexandria as the right domain for his long-anticipated magnum opus because it had become highly familiar to him during his wartime exile and, more importantly, because an Alexandrian woman had entered his life at a critical point.

more from the TLS here.

a fleeting illusion of knowability


The enduring popularity of hard-copy field guides is more surprising given the current transformation in the way we receive information — news through the Internet, say, or television on an iPhone. Publishers are clearly aware of these developments. Video podcasts supplement the new Peterson guide. The Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America comes with a DVD of 138 birdsongs. And some guides, like eNature and FishBase, exist entirely online.

Yet it’s the “throwback” that remains popular. Indeed, the Peterson guide comes with a price of $26; the video podcasts created to accompany it are available for free on the publisher’s Web site.

In Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, Scott Weidensaul views field guides as vehicles for experiencing for the awesomeness that is life. “Field guides make the natural world knowable; they are the first entry point for most people into the diversity of life on the planet,” he writes. “One can shuffle through life noticing little more than dandelions and roses, but open a field guide and…[w]hat had been a blur begins to resolve itself into myriad distinct shards, each unique, each lovely.”

more from The Smart Set here.

Thursday Poem

How To Like It
Stephen Dobyns

These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.
A man and a dog descend their front steps.
The dog says, Let’s go downtown and get crazy drunk.
Let’s tip over all the trash cans we can find.
This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.
But in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid
until it seems he can see remembered faces
caught up among the dark places in the trees.
The dog says, Let’s pick up some girls and just
rip off their clothes. Let’s dig holes everywhere.
Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud
crossing the face of the moon. Like in a movie,
he says to himself, a movie about a person
leaving on a journey. He looks down the street
to the hills outside of town and finds the cut
where the road heads north. He thinks of driving
on that road and the dusty smell of the car
heater, which hasn’t been used since last winter.
The dog says, Let’s go down to the diner and sniff
people’s legs. Let’s stuff ourselves on burgers.
In the man’s mind, the road is empty and dark.
Pine trees press down to the edge of the shoulder,
where the eyes of animals, fixed in his headlights,
shine like small cautions against the night.
Sometimes a passing truck makes his whole car shake.
The dog says, Let’s go to sleep. Let’s lie down
by the fire and put our tails over our noses.
But the man wants to drive all night, crossing
one state line after another, and never stop
until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror.
Then he’ll pull over and rest awhile before
starting again, and at dusk he’ll crest a hill
and there, filling a valley, will be the lights
of a city entirely new to him.
But the dog says, Let’s just go back inside.
Let’s not do anything tonight. So they
walk back up the sidewalk to the front steps.
How is it possible to want so many things
and still want nothing. The man wants to sleep
and wants to hit his head again and again
against a wall. Why is it all so difficult?
But the dog says, Let’s go make a sandwich.
Let’s make the tallest sandwich anyone’s ever seen.
And that’s what they do and that’s where the man’s
wife finds him, staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept-
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.

From Velocities: New and Selected Poems (Penguin, 1994)

Thanks to Harry Walsh


Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences

ntAlexander Nemser in The New Republic:

Book Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov, the future Maxim Gorky, was born in 1868 in Nizhni Novgorod on the Volga River, and grew up in what he later described in his melancholy, violent autobiography as “that close-knit, suffocating little world of pain and suffering where the ordinary Russian man in the street used to live, and where he lives to this day.” It was the world of the provincial petty-bourgeois — neighbors cut the tails off each other’s cats and sons besieged their fathers’ houses, knocking all night on the doors with fists and clubs.

Gorky was struck from the start by the chaos and the carelessness of the life that he saw around him. Many of the most lyrical passages in his autobiography describe the silences that followed the savage outbursts of his relatives. He remembered his lazy cousin Sasha, whose two rows of teeth were “the only interesting thing about him”: “I liked to sit close to him,” Gorky wrote, “neither of us speaking for a whole hour, and watching the black crows circling and wheeling in the red evening sky around the golden cupolas of the Church of the Assumption, diving down to earth and draping the fading sky with a black net…. A scene like this fills the heart with sweet sadness and leaves you content to say nothing.” The cruelty around him made him want to embellish and to correct what he saw. In his best work, however, he told his stories without ornament.

More here.

Spellbound by monsters of the deep

From The Guardian:

Leviathan Philip Hoare began his writing career as the biographer of Stephen Tennant and Noël Coward. More recently, his work has turned into something harder to categorise: amazing feats of history and imagination that take you to places within yourself – never mind the places he is actually describing – that you did not even know existed. Leviathan or, The Whale is one of these feats and it is as elusive a beast as the great, unknowable creature that is its inspiration. It begins as memoir, then moves deftly through biography, literary criticism, social history and, finally, nature writing, in a muscular freestyle so compelling and all-encompassing that it cast a spell on me that endured for days after I had done turning its beautifully illustrated pages. Hoare has long been acclaimed as a brilliantly unconventional writer; WG Sebald was among his most devoted fans. This is the book he was born to write, a classic of its kind.

If you are going to write a book that deals, in large part, with the literary monolith that is Moby-Dick, then you had better be sure to have a good first sentence; Melville’s three little words – ‘Call me Ishmael’ – are so unsurpassably resonant they might have come from the Old Testament. Hoare knows this well – he cannot get the book out of his system (‘Every time I read it, it is as if I am reading it for the first time’) – and he has conjured a pretty good first sentence himself: ‘Perhaps it is because I was nearly born under water.’ Hoare grew up in Southampton. In the days before his birth, his parents visited Portsmouth’s dockyard, where they were taken on a tour of a submarine. As she climbed into its belly, his mother began to feel labour pains.

More here. (Note: For me, Moby Dick arguably remains the best book of American fiction).

The Underground Restaurant Movement

27boar_600 Melena Ryzik in the NYT:

The passionate enthusiasts who have opened dozens of unlicensed restaurants in apartments and other private spaces in recent years do not generally aspire to become traditional restaurateurs, with overhead and investors and the health department — a k a The Man — telling them what to do. They are not in it for the money or for Buddha Bar-size crowds; instead, they say, they are in it for the community and the creative freedom. It’s hard to imagine even the most adventurous legitimate restaurant encouraging customers to hack the hindquarters off a boar’s carcass. And underground restaurants have found their niche. Stringing together the farm-to-table movement and a bloggy kind of interactivity, they have gained a following among food lovers, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who have an opinion on local versus organic, prefer intimate and casual to grand and ceremonial, and are open to meeting people and building connections in new ways. No doubt a lot of them are members of a Facebook fan club for bacon.

“Any night of the week you can go out to dinner, but this is unique,” said Jeremy Townsend, a founder of Ghetto Gourmet, an early underground restaurant based in Oakland, Calif. “People want to get out of that cookie-cutter experience and have a shared experience that has some meaning and authenticity, and some story behind it.” Mr. Townsend’s Web site,, tracks the movement; the number of underground restaurants has doubled in the last year, to about 70, he said.

Who are the citizens of Europe?

Alfred Grosser in the Rheinischer Merkur, translated in signandsight:

The Irish referendum raises many questions. Now I don’t mean the ones concerning the circumstances of the ‘No’ vote. Questions such as: Was the economy slowing down instead of thriving on EU assistance as it had been until recently? Or: Was the advertising for the ‘No’ campaign funded by conservative anti-European Americans of Irish descent? No, the issues I want to discuss are commentaries which say: This is what happens when you disregard the people and submit a treaty which has been drawn up undemocratically and is incomprehensible to boot! Philosopher Jürgen Habermas also recently expressed his doubts about democratic practice in the EU. He suggested combining next year’s European elections with a European referendum.

My first counter-question would be: Who are the citizens of the EU? The current phrasing of the treaty says: “Citizenship of the Union is hereby established. Every person holding the nationality of a Member State shall be a citizen of the Union. Citizenship of the Union shall complement and not replace national citizenship. Citizens of the Union shall enjoy the rights conferred by this Treaty and shall be subject to the duties imposed thereby.”

A small number of citizens of the union have decided for everybody. This does not mean to say that national referenda are illegitimate. In France, the accession of Ireland, together with Britain and Denmark, was sanctioned on 23 April 1972 by a referendum initiated by President Georges Pompidou. However, it attracted little public interest. Sixty-eight percent said ‘Yes’, but only 60 percent of citizens actually went to the polling booths.

An Interview with Vivian Gornick

Gornick2 In the Boston Review:

What drives you to read a particular book?

There are people who feel obliged to read right up to the minute, whatever’s new and talked about. I’m not one of those people. I have never read with an agenda. But I do feel that I have my job as a reader, to engage fully with whatever I’m reading, that’s the only thing that matters.

How do you see your job as a critic?

I feel about writing criticism as I would about writing out of imagination. It has exactly the same responsibilities as any other kind of writing. Criticism is a window through which the writer looks and sees the world. What’s most important is those particular eyes and that particular vision and that particular way of seeing. Which, if you’re lucky, grows more and more coherent as you grow older. It’s a way of looking at things that I’ve found myself applying, not mechanically, not by virtue of agenda. So that there are all kinds of things I don’t feel obliged to read because I don’t feel they will deepen my way of seeing the world.

zagajewski is having trouble writing about milosz


I had read Milosz for many years before I met him in person. In the late Sixties and in the Seventies I didn’t believe I’d ever meet him. He was then for me a legend, a unicorn, somebody living on a different planet; California was but a beautiful name to me. He belonged to a chapter of the history of Polish literature that seemed to be, seen from the landscape of my youth, as remote as the Middle Ages. He was a part of the last generation that had been born into the world of the impoverished gentry (impoverished but still very much defining themselves as gentry): he grew up in a small manor house in the Lithuanian countryside where woods, streams, and water snakes were as evident as streetcars and apartment houses in the modest, industrial city of my childhood. His Poland was so totally different from mine—it had its wings spread to the East. When he was born in 1911 he was a subject of the Russian Tsar; everything Russian, including the language which he knew so well, was familiar to him (though, as his readers well know, he was also very critical of many things Russian). I was born into a Poland that had changed its shape; like a sleeper who turns from one side to another, my country spread its arms toward the West—of course only physically, because politically it was incorporated into the Eastern bloc.

I grew up in a post-German city; almost everything in the world of my childhood looked and smelled German. Cabbage seemed to be German, trees and walls recalled Bismarck, blackbirds sang with a Teutonic accent.

more from Threepenny Review here.



Wind-bells tinkle and cypresses sway in the breeze. The sun casts sharp shadows across an undulating landscape. There are strange concrete forms everywhere: giant open vaults, painted half-domes with strange crests, an amphitheatre ringed by buildings with giant circular openings, little houses sunk into the hillside. Healthy-looking, vaguely hippy-ish people, young and old, stride about in dusty jeans and T-shirts. Beyond are the scrub-covered hills of the Sonoran desert. This not your typical American settlement. In fact, it’s not your typical Earth settlement. For one thing, there are no cars or roads. Everything is connected by winding footpaths. Nor are there shops, billboards, or any other garish commercial intrusion. It looks like the set of a sci-fi movie designed by Le Corbusier. Round the next corner, you might expect to bump into Luke Skywalker, or Socrates, or a troupe of dancers doing Aquarius.

This is Arcosanti, 70 miles from Phoenix, Arizona. It’s a curious taste of what an environmentally friendly US town could look like, but probably never will.

more from The Guardian here.

silent and slow and heavy and dead


When I was in Iraq, I might as well have been circling the earth from a space capsule, circling in farthest orbit. Like Laika in Sputnik. A dog in space. Sending signals back to base, unmoored and weightless and no longer marking time. Home was far away, a distant place that gobbled up whatever I sent back, ignorant and happy but touchingly hungry to know. And then I was back, back in the world with everyone else, but not returning all the way. Still floating like Laika among the regular people in the regular world.

For me, the war sort of flattened things out, flattened things out here and flattened them out there too. Toward the end, when I was still there, so many bombs had gone off so many times that they no longer shocked or even roused; the people screamed in silence and in slow motion. And then I got back to the world, and the weddings and the picnics were the same as everything had been in Iraq, silent and slow and heavy and dead.

more from the NY Times Magazine here.

Wednesday Poem



Dear Pelican
Kathleen Miller
Stepping across and into the creek, dear pelican, you find the strangest ways
we turn over on our sides and let the windows breathe a little
sitting in the middle of a driveway looking up at the stars
and kicking at small particles with our feet,
we can hear the cars go by on the freeway and imagine them as water moving

Dear pelican, unconcerned with forward movement unconcerned with the cars
sounding like water and the swing abandoned due to the season of all things
beginning again, we move as the light moves, chasing it across the sawdust
near the creek and plotting ourselves in the middle
taking care is pelicans is water moving and we are unconcerned
with the forward falling of cars and swings and light and pelicans

We just chase the light chase the creek chase the particles in the driveway
moving not backwards moving not like water unconcerned, move like pelicans
plotting and taking care, move like the abandoning of swings due to season
due to all things beginning again like pelicans

*     *      *      *      *      *      *

In anticipation of sudden shifts in weather, we pelicans sit up on the roof top
with the chimneys and the solar panels, borrowing each other’s sweaters
and ignoring the allergies due to the changing of the seasons
beneath the solar panels and next to the chimneys, we pelicans climb up
between the stacks, searching for unimportant documents
concerning books, concerning transportation and we pelicans

The days are filled with pinecones and chimneys and seasonal allergies
The days are filled with solar panels and unimportant documents and pelicans

In the workplace, we tape pictures of lake systems to our hard drives pretending
to river raft while we boot up in the morning
we hang on our cubicle walls pictures of zebras and a garage sale poster of James Dean
we pelicans walk around the block on our lunch break and kick at the leaves so,
wishing them still bright and hanging, thinking intently about the changing
of the seasons and the allergies, thinking about the chimneys and the solar panels
and the endless search for unimportant documents

Wishing the pinecones and lake systems and hard drives
wishing them still bright and hanging
wishing them bright and still hanging
wishing for pelicans and solar panels unchanged by the changing
of the seasons, bright and hanging

Read more »

How to Disown a Body Part

From Science:

Body Here’s a trick to make a rubber hand come to life. Hide your right hand under a cloth and stick the rubber hand where your right hand should be. Now have someone stroke your right hand and the fake hand at the same time. Before you know it, you’ll begin to “feel” sensation in the rubber hand. But what happens to your real right hand? New research suggests that your body begins to disown it. Psychologists have used the rubber-hand illusion for years to study how people perceive body boundaries. How, for example, does your brain know where you stop and a bicycle begins? Brain scans reveal that the premotor cortex, the part of the brain that integrates vision and touch, helps the body adopt the rubber hand, but no one had looked at what was going on with the hidden, real hand.

Lorimer Moseley, a neuroscientist who studies pain at Oxford University in the U.K., and colleagues repeated the rubber-hand experiment on 11 volunteers, but they added a twist: They took the temperature of the hidden hand. During the 7-minute illusion, the researchers found that the average temperature of the hidden hand dropped 0.27°C in all participants; the temperature of other body parts, including the person’s other real hand, remained the same. The researchers also tried stroking the rubber hand and the experimental hand asynchronously, a trick that diminishes the illusion. In this case, the hidden hand cooled down but slightly less than when the hands were stroked at the same time. The more strongly volunteers rated the vividness of the illusion, the colder their hidden hands became, the team reports online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More here.