Letters between Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee

Terry Eagleton in the Times Literary Supplement:

P12_Eagleton_347034hIt is a Romantic delusion to suppose that writers are likely to have something of interest to say about race relations, nuclear weapons or economic crisis simply by virtue of being writers. There is no reason to assume that a pair of distinguished novelists such as Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee should be any wiser about the state of the world than a physicist or a brain surgeon, as this exchange of letters between them depressingly confirms. In fact, there is no reason why authors should have anything particularly striking to say about writing, let alone about Kashmir or the Continuity IRA. Their comments on their own work can be even more obtuse than those of their critics. If T. S. Eliot really did believe that The Waste Land was merely a piece of rhythmical grumbling, as he once claimed, he should never have been awarded the Order of Merit.

Coetzee’s comments on the current economic crisis are not only wrongheaded but fatuous. Nothing has really happened to the world economy, he writes airily to Auster, other than a change of statistics. It is unlikely that the Bank of England, not to speak of those who have had their homes or livelihoods snatched from them by financial gangsters, would be over-impressed by this argument. Neither, judging from his circumspect reply, is Paul Auster, though he is too respectful of his renowned colleague to say so outright. Mysteriously, Coetzee goes on to suggest that putting this right requires an entirely new economic system, a piece of logic that his correspondent wisely leaves untouched. The truth is that neither man knows anything about economics, and there is no reason why being skilled in handling a metaphor should grant you such insight.

More here.


Helen Epstein in The New Yorker:

Hitler-youth-1937-580In recent years, many victims of violence have written memoirs in which they seek out and confront the perpetrators who harmed them. The opposite is rare. Few perpetrators seek out their victims, let alone write books about them. But fifty years ago this month, Melita Maschmann, a former Nazi, published just such a book.

“Fazit,” which was translated as “Account Rendered” in 1964, is the memoir of a woman who, as a fifteen-year-old and against her family’s wishes, joined the Hitler Youth. Before and during the Second World War, Maschmann worked in the high echelons of press and propaganda of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girls’ section of the Nazi youth organization, and, later, she supervised the eviction of Polish farmers and the resettlement of ethnic Germans on their farms. Arrested in 1945 at the age of twenty-seven, she completed a mandatory de-Nazification course and became a freelance journalist.

Soon after her release from internment in 1948, Maschmann wrote a letter to a Jewish former classmate with whom she had the kind of passionate friendship common among adolescent girls. She didn’t know if her friend had made it out of Berlin before the war, or if her mother (whose address she had obtained) would pass the letter on. “I don’t know if it reached you,” the author writes. “Since then I have often continued my conversation with you, awake and in dreams, but I have never tried to write any of it down. Now, today, I feel impelled to do so. I was prompted to this by a trivial incident. A woman spoke to me in the street and the way she held her head suddenly reminded me quite strikingly of you. But what is the real reason which made me sit down and write to you as soon as I came in? Perhaps in the intervening years I have, without being aware of it, prepared an account within me which must be presented.”

More here.

Iran is in the throes of an unprecedented sexual revolution

Afshin Shahi in Foreign Policy:

ScreenHunter_216 Jun. 03 08.59When someone mentions Iran, what images leap into your mind? Ayatollahs, religious fanaticism, veiled women? How about sexual revolution? That's right. Over the last 30 years, as the mainstream Western media has been preoccupied with the radical policies of the Islamic Republic, the country has undergone a fundamental social and cultural transformation.

While not necessarily positive or negative, Iran's sexual revolution is certainly unprecedented. Social attitudes have changed so much in the last few decades that many members of the Iranian diaspora are shellshocked when they visit the country: “These days Tehran makes London look like a conservative city,” a British-Iranian acquaintance recently told me upon returning from Tehran. When it comes to sexual mores, Iran is indeed moving in the direction of Britain and the United States — and fast.

Good data on Iranian sexual habits are, not surprisingly, tough to come by. But a considerable amount can be gleaned from the official statistics compiled by the Islamic Republic. Declining birth rates, for example, signal a wider acceptance of contraceptives and other forms of family planning — as well as a deterioration of the traditional role of the family. Over the last two decades, the country has experienced the fastest drop in fertility ever recorded in human history.

More here.

Becks in Paris-Entry #11: dead or alive


A blog that “imagines Beckham’s internal monologue as he collides with the Parisian intellectual tradition.”

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.

I kept on coming back to that catchy opening line. Of The Outsider, I mean. ‘Mum died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.’ The thing is, Meursault, it’s like he’s injured, and then he’s brought back too soon. Which is when everything goes pear-shaped. The gaffer should have given him longer to get himself straight.

Your Mum dying and all, that’s got to hurt. Maybe, if she hadn’t died, Meursault would never have shot the guy on the beach. And then he might not have been handed the red card.

Funny how I was reading about Mrs Meursault kicking the bucket, and then it’s Maggie’s turn. La Dame de Fer as they call her here. Madame T. She was like a mother to the nation. And now she’s dead. The Iron Lady… it’s like in Terminator 2 when Arnie lowers himself down into the vat of molten metal. But with the thumbs up right at the end. He knows it’s the right thing to do. It had to be that way. No one goes on for ever.

It made me think of the novel I was reading in China, La Condition humaine. The bit where all prisoners are lined up by the locomotive. In chains. The train isn’t going anywhere. But they are firing up the engine anyway. And what are they using for fuel? The prisoners! One by one they’re chucked in the boiler. Then puffed up out of the funnel. Painful. But I could see what the author was getting at – we’re all going that way, aren’t we? Nothing but smoke in the end. Malraux, Camus, Thatcher, Bobby Moore – all gone. As Sartre said – how did it go? – everything is voué à l’échec. Doomed.

The Return of Political Economy


Charles S. Maier in Eurozine:

“The return of political economy to history” – this was the title of the Berlin Colloquium a few months ago. But had political economy ever really disappeared? Perhaps, relative to other specializations, it had claimed less attention from historians in recent decades; but of course it was hardly less relevant to developments in the world that historians were supposed to study. Why had it apparently ceased to serve as a methodology or approach? This little essay will try to suggest an answer. A related problem has bothered economists, who have taken note of the supposed disappearance of economic history and the history of economic thought as central concerns of their profession. The search for a remedy prompted a Cambridge, Massachusetts discussion two months after the Berlin meeting, as the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) summoned economists and economic historians to reflect on how economic history might claim a larger role in both economics and history departments.

The premise of both gatherings, in which this author participated – and no doubt of others as well, at which he was not present – was the same. Important approaches to analyzing society and economy, past and present, had fallen into disuse, even as they promised important and even necessary insight. From the viewpoint of the economists, “mainstream” analysis – the axiomatic “macro” and “micro” theory that culminated in general equilibrium theory expressed in partial differential equations – was thriving. From the viewpoint of the historians, social history, cultural history, the history of international and civil conflict, had claimed the efforts of young researchers, intellectuals, and the public in general for more than a decade. But somehow economic history, the history of economic thought and the history of political economy, had been eclipsed. But now, so the participants in both gatherings concluded, political economy was back or deserved to be back.

Political Cartoons


Deborah Solomon reviews Victor S. Navasky ‘The Art of Controversy,’ in The New York Times:

It has been eight years since a set of Danish cartoons portraying the prophet Muhammad incited rioting in much of the Muslim world. In the eyes of many Americans, the protests were incomprehensible, a collective temper tantrum spawned by dopey sketches. Muslims were accused, among much else, of lacking a sense of humor. But what if the outcry reflected less on Islamic culture than on cartoon culture, which has its own history of flare-ups and meltdowns? The question goes to the heart of Victor S. Navasky’s thoughtful and deftly illustrated book, “The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power.”

Navasky, a former editor of The Nation and the founding editor of the defunct humor magazine Monocle, has been described as a “word man,” but here he is eager to dwell among image people. He situates the Danish cartoons in exalted company, rubbing them up against the work of canonical masters of graphic satire like William Hogarth in 18th-century England and Honoré Daumier in 19th-­century France. In America, by contrast, political cartoonists are less recognized, perhaps because nothing grows stale faster than fresh newsprint, or perhaps because of the modernist bias that defines art as an elite affair from which any artist with a large following and a regular paycheck is disqualified.

Sunday Poem

Please Hold

This is the future, my wife says.
We are already there, and it’s the same
as the present. Your future, here, she says.
And I’m talking to a robot on the phone.
The robot is giving me countless options,
none of which answer to my needs.
Wonderful, says the robot
when I give him my telephone number.
And Great, says the robot
when I give him my account number.
I have a wonderful telephone number
and a great account number,
but I can find nothing to meet my needs
on the telephone, and into my account
(which is really the robot’s account)
goes money, my money, to pay for nothing.
I’m paying a robot for doing nothing.
This call is free of charge, says the mind-reading robot.
Yes but I'm paying for it, I shout,
out of my wonderful account
into my great telephone bill.
Wonderful, says the robot.
And my wife says, This is the future.
I’m sorry, I don’t understand, says the robot.
Please say Yes or No.
Or you can say Repeat or Menu.
You can say Yes, No, Repeat or Menu,
Or you can say Agent if you’d like to talk
to someone real, who is just as robotic.
I scream Agent! and am cut off,
and my wife says, This is the future.
We are already there and it’s the same
as the present. Your future, here, she says.
And I’m talking to a robot on the phone,
and he is giving me no options
in the guise of countless alternatives.
We appreciate your patience. Please hold.
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Please hold.
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Please hold.
Eine fucking Kleine Nachtmusik.
And the robot transfers me to himself.
Your call is important to us, he says.
And my translator says, This means
your call is not important to them.
And my wife says, This is the future.
And my translator says, Please hold
means that, for all your accomplishments,
the only way you can now meet your needs
is by looting. Wonderful, says the robot

Please hold. Please grow old. Please grow cold.
Please do what you’re told. Grow old. Grow cold.
This is the future. Please hold.

by Ciaran O'Driscoll
from the journal Southword

The schtick of time

From National Post:

Germany-theatre-wwii-history-the_producers-hitlerIn the last decades of communist power, Jews in the Soviet Union discovered that they had achieved a previously unimaginable advantage over Gentiles. Jews could get out of Russia and Gentiles couldn’t. Moscow, under pressure from the US, had agreed to give a limited number of Jews exit visas to Israel. Many non-Jews also wanted to leave and imagined escaping by claiming to be Jews. Some discovered that they had always felt Jewish and began advertising for Jewish grandmothers. For centuries Jews in Czarist Russia had been banned from many of the empire’s regions. Thousands were killed in pogroms that the government supported. After the 1917 revolution their religion was suppressed and the word JEW was printed on internal passports, their identity cards. Now Russian Gentiles were pretending to be Jews! It was an astounding reversal of fortune. Naturally, this situation cried out for Jewish comment. Sure enough, someone came up with the perfect joke: Certain resourceful Georgians (the story goes) forge passports that will prove them Jewish and win them visas. Alas, the authorities discover the scam. Their punishment? They aren’t jailed or killed but they must retain their Jewish identity forever. Both stories, the facts and the comic legend, appear in a richly absorbing new book, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Princeton University Press), by one of the most interesting scholars Canada has produced, Ruth R. Wisse.

…Irony is central to Jewish humour and Wisse suggests that if irony were an Olympic event, Jews would bring home the gold.

More here.

The $2.7 Trillion Medical Bill

From The New York Times:

Colo2Deirdre Yapalater’s recent colonoscopy at a surgical center near her home here on Long Island went smoothly: she was whisked from pre-op to an operating room where a gastroenterologist, assisted by an anesthesiologist and a nurse, performed the routine cancer screening procedure in less than an hour. The test, which found nothing worrisome, racked up what is likely her most expensive medical bill of the year: $6,385. That is fairly typical: in Keene, N.H., Matt Meyer’s colonoscopy was billed at $7,563.56. Maggie Christ of Chappaqua, N.Y., received $9,142.84 in bills for the procedure. In Durham, N.C., the charges for Curtiss Devereux came to $19,438, which included a polyp removal. While their insurers negotiated down the price, the final tab for each test was more than $3,500. “Could that be right?” said Ms. Yapalater, stunned by charges on the statement on her dining room table. Although her insurer covered the procedure and she paid nothing, her health care costs still bite: Her premium payments jumped 10 percent last year, and rising co-payments and deductibles are straining the finances of her middle-class family, with its mission-style house in the suburbs and two S.U.V.’s parked outside. “You keep thinking it’s free,” she said. “We call it free, but of course it’s not.” In many other developed countries, a basic colonoscopy costs just a few hundred dollars and certainly well under $1,000. That chasm in price helps explain why the United States is far and away the world leader in medical spending, even though numerous studies have concluded that Americans do not get better care.

…Americans pay, on average, about four times as much for a hip replacement as patients in Switzerland or France and more than three times as much for a Caesarean section as those in New Zealand or Britain. The average price for Nasonex, a common nasal spray for allergies, is $108 in the United States compared with $21 in Spain. The costs of hospital stays here are about triple those in other developed countries, even though they last no longer, according to a recent report by the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that studies health policy.

More here. (Thanks to Anita Patil)

Tino Sehgal wins Golden Lion for best artist at Venice Biennale

David Batty in The Guardian:

972040_10151500123994143_723525494_nBritish-born Tino Sehgal has won the Golden Lion for best artist at this year's Venice Biennale, the world's oldest and most prestigious art event.

Seghal received the award, the art world equivalent of an Oscar, on Saturday for his performance piece in which a small number of people hum and beatbox while moving on the floor.

Naming him as the best artist in the Encyclopedic Palace show in the central pavilion of the 55th international art biennale, the jury praised Sehgal “for the excellence and innovation that his practice has brought opening the field of artistic disciplines”.

Seghal, whose piece in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall last summer saw performers telling intimate stories to visitors, creates art that has no physical form.

More here. [Photo shows Tino Sehgal with producer Asad Raza.]

At Venice Biennale, Sarah Sze’s ‘Triple Point’

From The New York Times:

Tumblr_mnmpl4FdPs1rrnfp6o1_r1_1280VENICE — The Biennale doesn’t open to the public until Saturday, but the art world arrived early for a peek. Artists, curators and creators responsible for this vast assemblage of exhibitions here have been on hand to meet, greet and explain their work. Among them is Sarah Sze, 44, the installation artist representing the United States. Ms. Sze (pronounced ZEE) has become something of a personality around the neighborhood near the Giardini, the shaded gardens that have been at the heart of the Biennale for more than 100 years. As she walked the street, inconspicuously dressed in black jeans and a dark blazer, newsstand operators and restaurant owners waved and greeted her by name. Many of the neighborhood’s merchants and residents are recipients of her work: sculptural simulations of rocks and boulders that adorn rooftops, balconies and shop windows. Ms. Sze, who is known for creating site-specific environments from everyday objects like toothpicks, sponges, light bulbs and plastic bottles, arrived here in a snow storm on March 28 and has been hoarding, foraging and installing ever since. Anyone reading a list of items in her complex installation might think it was for a scavenger hunt or what to pack for an unusual Outward Bound trip. There are paint cans and ladders; sticks and aluminum rods; branches and espresso cups; tape measures; bags of sand; gaffer’s tape; lamps; screw drivers; clay as well as plastic tubs; napkins that come with Illy coffee; even a sleeping bag — and that’s just a bit of it.

Called “Triple Point,” her exhibition is about “orientation and disorientation,” Ms. Sze said. Holly Block, the director of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and Carey Lovelace, a critic and independent curator, proposed Ms. Sze for the Biennale and organized the exhibition, with the Bronx Museum acting as the commissioning institution.

More here. (Do watch the amazing video!)

Don’t Be Disgusting

From The New York Times:

EtiqIn Renaissance Europe, Italy was Etiquette Central, attracting all the fascination and ridicule that go with that honor. English readers in the early 17th century assumed Tom Coryate, a professional jester turned travel writer, was joking when he reported that Italians did not attack their food with hands and hunting knives as did normal people, even normal royalty. Those finicky Italians wielded forks, a nicety that did not become common in the rest of Europe for another two centuries. Italian princes, courtiers and patricians sought instruction on improving their behavior toward others. That was not a goal that often appeared on the to-do lists of the power elite elsewhere. Of the three most prominent surviving Italian books on conduct, “Galateo,” by Giovanni Della Casa, published in 1558 and now out in a new translation by M. F. Rusnak, is the one that promotes civilized manners for their own sake. The respective aims of Baldassare Castiglione’s “Courtier,” which recommends sprezzatura, the Renaissance equivalent of being cool, and Machiavelli’s “Prince,” devoted to realpolitik (and therefore stressing effective, rather than genial, behavior), are admiration and glory. Although “Galateo” is addressed to a favorite nephew, only in passing does Della Casa, an ecclesiastical diplomat, mention career advancement as an incentive to learn the ways of society. Nor, although he was an archbishop, albeit a worldly one who wrote salacious poetry, does he evoke God as his source, as did the earliest writers of rules of behavior. Rather, as a classics scholar, he uses an aesthetic standard.

Della Casa’s message is: Don’t be disgusting. Pretty much everything that comes out of a bodily orifice meets his definition of disgusting — so much so that the mere sight of someone washing his hands would upset people, as their minds would leap to the function that had necessitated that cleansing.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Long Hair

Hunting Season:

Once every year, the Deer catch human beings.They
do various things which irresistibly draw men near them;
each one selects a certain man. The Deer shoots the man,
who is then compelled to skin it and carry its meat home
and eat it. Then the deer is inside the man. He waits and
hides in there, but the man doesn't know it. When
enough Deer have occupied enough men, they will strike all
at once. The men who don't have Deer in them will
also be taken by surprise, and everything will change some.
This is called “takeover from inside”.

Deer Trails:

Deer trails run on the side hills
cross country access roads
dirt ruts to bone-white
board house ranches,
tumbled down.

Waist high through manzanita,
Through sticky, prickly, crackling
gold dry summer grass.

Deer trails lead to water,
Lead sideways all ways
Narrowing down to one best path –
And split –
And fade away to nowhere.

Deer trails slide under freeways
slip into cities
swing back and forth in crops and orchards
run up the sides of schools!

Deer spoor and crisscross dusty tracks
Are in the house: and coming out the walls:

And deer bound through my hair.

by Gary Snyder