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The New Criterion

The New Criterion is probably more consistently worth reading than any other magazine in English.
- The Times Literary Supplement



Seeing is believing

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Sep 16, 2014 12:09 PM

Julia Klieter as Emma, via Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus

My forthcoming chronicle for the magazine is a Salzburg chronicle. In it, I discuss the festival’s production of Fierrabras, an opera by Schubert. The stage director for this production was Peter Stein, the veteran German. Some people knocked it for its “literalism,” among other things. Here on the blog, I would like to make a few comments about literalism—realism?—in opera.

There was a moment in Fierrabras that made me think of Salzburg’s Don Carlo from the summer before. It so happens, Don Carlo was directed by this same Stein. There is a moment in Verdi’s opera when King Philip says, “Who are these men prostrate before me?” (They are the beleaguered and beseeching Flemish.) In Stein’s production, there was no one prostrate before Philip. There were some guys standing around.

If a character in an opera or play says, “Who are these men prostrate before me?” shouldn’t someone be prostrate before him? Or is that too square or literal? And if you are not going to follow the libretto—shouldn’t you change the libretto, to avoid confusion and silliness?

Okay, back to Fierrabras: Charlemagne says, “What? Emma here? On the barbarian’s arm?” In Stein’s production, Emma had actually been on the barbarian’s arm. The staging made perfect sense. I thought, “A minor operatic and directorial miracle.”

P.S. Salzburg had a production of Il trovatore this summer. In the Anvil Chorus, there was no anvil. I swear, it needs one. The chorus is just too . . . weird without it.

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Critic's Notebook for September 15, 2014

by Brian P. Kelly

Posted: Sep 15, 2014 06:07 PM

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in culture, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

This week: Art made on the front lines, Bolaño's final English translation, and the complicated, conflicted life of Alexander Herzen. 

Fiction: A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer (New Directions): Orphaned as a teenager when her parents die in a car crash while vacationing without her or her brother, Bianca drops out of school and starts working at a salon. Her brother, employed by a gym, brings home a pair of petty criminals who soon move in with the siblings. Money runs thin and, with little more to do than watch TV all day, the four develop a plan to rob an old, blind movie star. The final book to be translated into English by the Chilean author known for The Savage Detectives and 2666, this brief work exhibits the eeriness and foreboding that are hallmarks of his writing. BPK

Nonfiction: Collection of Sand: Essays by Italo Calvino, translated by Martin McLaughlin (Mariner Books):  Calvino, best known for his novel Invisible Cities, reminds us of the diversity of his interests in this collection of essays touching on everything from pigsties to Roland Barthes. Pieces on art, book reviews, travelogues from Iran, Japan, Mexico, and more are filled with Calvino’s subtle wit, energized curiosity, and beautiful prose. BPK

Poetry: Callie Siskel wins PSA award: Former New Criterion editor Callie Siskel has won a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. Read Callie in TNC here.   DY

Art: Combat Art—with Michael D. Fay, Victor Juhasz, and Steve Mumford (Wednesday): Michael D. Fay, Victor Juhasz, and Steve Mumford sit down at the Society of Illustrators to discuss their work both in war zones and in documenting the recovery of wounded veterans. Three years ago I curated “The Joe Bonham Project,” a show featuring the work of Fay and other artists depicting the rehabilitation of wounded warriors; more info about the Project is available here. You can read TNC’s coverage of a recent exhibition of Mumford’s work at Postmasters gallery here.  JP

Music: Bach by Lisa Batiashvili (Deutsche Grammophon): Lisa Batiashvili's latest C.D. is slated for its U.S. release Tuesday, on the Deutsche Grammophon label. The Georgian violinist—who will be the New York Philharmonic’s Artist-in-Residence for the 2014–15 season—has been deservedly acclaimed for her fierce performances and recordings of the Romantic and early Modern violin concerti, but her new album marks the first time she’s recorded the music of J. S. Bach (compositions by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel also make an appearance on the disc), whose works occupy a central place in the violin’s repertoire. Included is the spirited A-minor solo sonata, whose fugue is the most energetic of the three Bach wrote for the violin. ECS

Other: Ben Lerner at the NYPL: Ben Lerner sits down with Paul Holdengräber to kick off the fall season of NYPL’s LIVE event series by discussing his forthcoming novel, 10:04. Lerner is the author of the novel Leaving the Atocha Station and three poetry collections, The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path, He has also won the National Book Award and a Guggenheim fellowship. BPK

From the archive: Churchill's friends & rivals by Robert Messenger, October 2008: On the great prime minister's relationships with David Lloyd George and with Gandhi.

From our latest issue: The minister of paradox by Gary Saul Morson: The complicated, often conflicted, life of Alexander Herzen.

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Speech, glorious speech: Yale Edition

by Christine Emba

Posted: Sep 15, 2014 02:14 PM


At 7:00 pm this evening, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is scheduled to present a lecture on the “Clash of Civilizations: Islam and the West” at Yale University as part of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program’s speaker series. We say scheduled, of course, because of the circumstances surrounding the event.

Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born activist, writer, and politician; a former Muslim known for her women’s rights advocacy and critical remarks about Islam. She has served in the Dutch parliament, received awards for her moral courage, commitment to democracy and support of free speech, and was ranked by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world under the category of "Leaders and Revolutionaries." Nevertheless, Yale’s Muslim Students Association (MSA)  has described her statements and positions as “hate speech,” “libel,” and “slander” worthy of condemnation. They feel “disrespected” by her very invitation to Yale’s campus. The group has asked for Hirsi Ali’s invitation to be rescinded,  for her to be prohibited from speaking about Islam, or for the addition of a second speaker with more credentials to provide a “more balanced” talk.  

Last week, representatives from thirty-five campus groups and organizations signed a letter drafted by the MSA expressing concern over the event.  In the days since, several organizations have withdrawn their signatures, claiming that they never gave full support. The lecture will hopefully proceed apace.

We at The New Criterion have been following this debate with great interest. Is it déjà vu? In our May 2014 issue (and again, briefly, in June) we discussed Brandeis University’s revocation of an honorary degree for Hirsi Ali, which the Buckley Program noted was part of their motivation for inviting her to speak on Yale’s campus:

“We have often had occasion in these pages to remark on the irony that the “free-speech movement,” which began in 1964 in the tumult of Berkeley, has over the years mutated into something close to the opposite: an anti-free-speech movement. It is not at all uncommon, on our nation’s campuses, to find academics decrying academic freedom in the name of a putative higher virtue […]

The metastasis of illiberal liberalism beyond the protected purlieus of academia is one of the signal cultural deformations of our time. What it tokens is nothing less than the potential eclipse of that robust understanding of liberal society that has informed the self-understanding of Anglosphere society from the time of Runnymede. At its core stand the ideals of free speech, religious liberty, and equality before the law.

[...] The new illiberal liberalism prattles on about tolerance and diversity, but it practices intolerance and demands conformity whenever it is challenged.”

As legal concepts, libel and slander fall under the umbrella of defamation—false statements of fact that expose the victim to hatred, ridicule, or contempt, cause them to be shunned or injure them in business or trade. Even statements that could be perceived as offensive, however, are not defamatory.  Hate speech should not merely mean “what you said has hurt my feelings,” and indeed, in such a case the best remedy is more speech—not less. Censorship, which is appears to be the MSA's intention, is the suppression of ideas; rarely has it led to an increase in the common good.

Universities have historically been sites for vibrant discussion and free exchange of thought, and silencing debate would be a tragedy.  As we write, the majority of Yale’s students and administration still remain committed to supporting free speech on campus. Let's hope that they continue to do so. 

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Sep 12, 2014 01:04 PM

Raphael, "The Deposition" (1507), oil on wood. Now warped for lack of air-conditioning

Recent links of interest:

Michelangelo's Vision Was Greater Even Than Shakespeare's
"Michelangelo did more than anyone else to create the idea of the artist as a solitary, divinely inspired individual, answerable to no one and nothing except his talent."

How the Wall Street Journal's Improvised 9/11 Battle Plan Helped it to a Pulitzer
A miracle of journalism on a hellish day. 

The Cult of Jeff Koons
Jed Perl pulls no punches: "The Koons retrospective is […] a multimillion-dollar mausoleum in which everything that was ever lively and challenging about avant-gardism and Dada and Duchamp has gone to die."

Why Hirsi Ali Should Come
Free speech debates at Yale.

Publishers Gave Away 122,951,031 Books During World War II
The Great Gatsby didn't find an audience until it was handed out for free.

The Utility of Book Jackets in a Digital World
A frame, a reminder, a talisman, a token...

From our pages:

Pink Pigeons & Blue Mayonnaise
On the composer, painter, and novelist Gerald Berners.

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Critic's Notebook for September 8, 2014

by Brian P. Kelly

Posted: Sep 08, 2014 07:14 PM

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in culture, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

This week: Whit Stillman's new web series, a one-of-a-kind exhibition, and Philippe de Montebello leads a tour of the world's best art museums. 

Fiction: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (Europa): The third book in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name) follows the reunion of childhood friends Elena and Lila and their loving if competitive relationship. As the story progresses through the 1960s and 1970s, Lila remains in Naples, raising her son. Elena leaves to study in Pisa, eventually building a family of her own in Florence. Their continuing friendship provides the backdrop for larger observations about life’s struggles, from grand political movements to more quotidian challenges. BPK

Nonfiction: Philippe de Montebello: Rendez-Vous With Art by Martin Gayford (Thames and Hudson): The British art critic Martin Gayford is a lucky fellow. He got to travel around some of the world’s best museums,  from Florence, Paris, and London to New York, Madrid, and the Hague, with one of the world’s greatest museum directors, Philippe de Montebello, who ended a thirty year tenure at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008. This handsomely produced and illustrated volume is a record of their journeys and, more to the point, their many conversations about Goya, Titian, Rubens, Duccio, Velázquez, Bosch, and a dozen other artists. It is not quite a book of art history, nor is it a travel book, though there is something of both genres enlivening this charming and insightful rendez-vous with art.  RK

Poetry: Once in the West by Christian Wiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): Wiman’s fourth collection of poetry is incredibly personal, exploring everything from his wife and children to illness and failure.  DY

Art: "State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now" (September 13, 2014–January 19, 2015): "On a lonely road quite long ago,/ A trav'ler trod with fiddle and a bow;/ While rambling thru the country rich and grand,'/ He quickly sensed the magic and the beauty of the land." This state song of Arkansas took on new meaning in 2013 as curators from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville set out cross-country "to investigate what’s happening in American art today." 100,000 miles and a thousand studio visits later, "State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now" is set to open this week promising "an unusually diverse look at American art." JP

Music: Bargemusic presents Mark Peskanov and Rita Sloan (Saturday & Sunday): The violinist Mark Peskanov and the pianist Rita Sloan join forces for a program of sonatas, including Mozart's Sonata no. 23 in D Major and Schubert's tranquil Sonata no. 4 in A major. Anchoring the program is César Franck's late masterpiece, the A-minor Sonata. ECS

Other: Whit Stillman’s The Cosmopolitans: We are delighted that our friend Whit Stillman, the creator of such films as Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco, and Damsels in Distress, has returned to the smaller screen with The Cosmopolitans. This Amazon Original Pilot staring Chloe Sevigny and Adam Brody is now streaming online and dependent on our positive audience feedback for renewal as a full series. So in addition to offering up quality entertainment, here's our chance to help out another UHB. JP

From the archive: Pink pigeons & blue mayonnaise by Joseph Epstein, November 1998: On the composer, painter & novelist Gerald Berners

From our latest issue: What Jeff Koons has wrought by Eric Gibson: On “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective” at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Sep 05, 2014 02:27 PM

Site of the Battle of the Somme, today. Photo by Michael St. Maur Sheil, via

Recent links of interest:

The Great Architect Rebellion of 2014
At the Venice Biennale, visitors find their notions of modernism upended. 

Is Art Therapeutic? 
Alain de Botton can't rise above the middlebrow as he tries to prove it so.  

How James McNeil Whistler Became a Brand and Fought for It in Court
"In challenging Ruskin’s scathing critique of his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket, Whistler not only had at stake the extraordinary sum of one thousand pounds, but his reputation as an artist as well. "

Common Core: Better Than Nothing?
Don't expect improvement until individual students become more important than "global competition."

Rise of the Hipster Capitalist
Selling out, but with authenticity. Comments from our own James Panero. 

From our pages:

Guilt Trip: Versailles, Avant-garde & Kitsch 
Thanks for nothing, Joseph Keynes. 

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Evolution of the Obama Doctrine

by Roger Kimball | from PJ Media

Posted: Aug 31, 2014 02:50 PM

The “Obama Doctrine”: what do you suppose that might be? The goal of fundamentally transforming the United States of  America stands in the background, you can be sure of that. But  now, 6 years into the program, we can see an arc of development, an evolution (or devolution). There are many metrics that can be […]

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Aug 29, 2014 12:02 PM

The September issue has arrived! Our thirty-third season brings new articles, new poetry, and new events – we hope you'll join us.


Recent links of interest:

Detroit Mum on Proposal to Use Its Art as Collateral
A recent appraisal finds that the Detroit Institute of Arts collection is worth significantly more than previously assumed. Too much, perhaps, for it to avoid creditors' claims... 

The Great Unread
Why do some classics continue to fascinate while others gather dust? "Universality" is an overused term, but not necessarily overrated. 

Making Classical New 
Perfectionism in the classical-music world runs the risk of leaving musicians themselves out in the cold. 

Why eBay is an Art Forger's Paradise
Just in case you thought buying Picassos online was a good idea. 

Gin, Glorious Gin: How Mother's Ruin Became the Spirit of London.
"Among all the spirits, gin still signifies louche transgression and terminal seediness. And yet it has also had the smartest fans." Many at The New Criterion would agree. 

From our pages:

Clement Greenberg: A Memoir of the Art Critic
He loved vodka, was annoyed by artists who read too much, and deplored the tendency to overvalue art. 

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Advice for the Governor from Frank Sinatra

by James Bowman

Posted: Aug 27, 2014 11:45 AM

“The law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.”

When at the end of Oliver Twist, Mr. Bumble the Beadle is informed of what was formerly known as the Principle of Coverture under English Common Law, he replied in words that have echoed down the years since his own time: “If the law supposes that,” said the Beadle, “the law is a ass — a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience.” The Principle of Coverture was abolished in England by the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 and by various states in the US beginning in the 1830s. Interestingly, Virginia considered and rejected legislation to the same effect in the 1840s and only got around to getting rid of coverture after the Civil War. Some of my fellow Virginians may be wishing they’d left things as they were. 

For the law may be a ass, but at least, if it were still in effect, it would have spared us the soap opera of the McDonnells’ marriage, as Virginia’s former governor, on trial for corruption, is blaming his wife and the troubles she is alleged to have caused him for everything. Poor Maureen McDonnell may or may not be guilty of the charges against her, and those against her husband as well, but as a reactionary of the old school, I can’t help feeling she is nevertheless a victim of her husband’s unchivalrous decision to say so in public in order to save himself. I wonder if there isn’t lurking somewhere even in Bob McDonnell’s breast, as I’m sure there is in that of many other Virginians besides myself, a suspicion that he is behaving like a cad.

Suck it up, Bob, we old style Virginians want to say. The common law dates back to the Age of Chivalry — the real one, not the Victorian imitation whose incongrous zeal for reform abolished coverture along with other legal relics. And chivalry, whatever the feminists may say, is still the best guide to follow when it comes to relations between the sexes. She may have misbehaved, but you’re responsible, as you yourself have admitted in court. It’s time you lived up to your own standard. Apart from anything else, the governor’s acceptance of this ancient, honorable and pre-Enlightenment principle would have saved him from the unmanly behavior of discussing his marital troubles in public, which is a shame to the woman as well as to the man, even by more Enlightened principles than mine.

Coverture or no coverture, within living memory — and not only in Virginia — this vestige of chivalry was widely accepted, at least among those who aspired to gentlemanly status. One does not bandy a woman’s name about. The word “bandy,” indeed, meaning to knock to and fro like a tennis ball, was hardly ever used for any other purpose. Even Frank Sinatra, no gentleman by most reckonings, sang of the principle in one of his best-known and best- performed songs (though it was first performed by Fred Astaire in The Sky’s the Limit of 1943), the great Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer paean to drinking and driving called “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).” Sang Frank as the song’s narrator or persona to the silent “Joe,” the bartender,

I could tell you a lot
But you’ve got
To be to be true to your code
So make it one for my baby
And one more for the road.

The problem is that you haven’t got to be true to your code anymore. Bob McDonnell can tell Joe and everybody else a lot without anyone’s mentioning in reproach to him any such thing as an outdated “code.” And yet there remains a vague sense among those who are (naturally) following the trial obsessively, that he is behaving badly. I just wonder if those, like Petula Dvorak of The Washington Post who are saying that “McDonnell’s betrayal of his wife is anything but moral” wouldn’t find their point of view buttressed by a reminder of that otherwise forgotten “code” by which it is a betrayal. 


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Obama Tries for Kyoto 2.0

by Roger Kimball | from PJ Media

Posted: Aug 27, 2014 11:31 AM

Do you remember this bit from the Constitution of the United States? [The President] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; . . .  That’s so-called “Treaty Clause” from Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution.  […]

go to PJ Media

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About ArmaVirumque


( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)


In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.


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