There is a new CD called Pas de Deux, featuring a concerto by James Horner. I was going to review it. Then the composer died. He was killed last week when the plane he was piloting crashed. I decided not to review his music—for what if I didn’t like it?
Then I decided I would listen to it and write about it if I did, in fact, like it. I have now listened to it. I like it well enough. Anyway, I will write about it, with due respect.
James Horner was one of the most successful movie composers of all time. Among his scores are Aliens, The Name of the Rose, Braveheart, Apollo 13, and Titanic. He began as a concert composer (for lack of a better term), but moved into movies because he thought classical composing had become bossy, rigid, and ideological (which it had).
Mari and Hakon Samuelsen are a brother-and-sister pair from Norway. She plays the violin, he the cello. One of their missions in life is to expand the repertoire for violin and cello. Man cannot live on the Brahms A-minor concerto alone. They also want to cause the creation of music that is easily lovable by audiences.
In 2011, they had an opportunity to play a private concert at the home of a Norwegian film director in California. The director invited Horner, who accepted.
The liner notes of the present album say, “It almost seemed that Horner wasn’t coming (a qualified pilot, he’d had trouble landing his private plane), but when he eventually appeared, the musicians gratefully played for him.” Then they asked him to write a concerto for them. He did (for a big fee, paid by a Norwegian foundation).
He gave his concerto a title: Pas de Deux. The work is in three movements, none of which are marked, really. The movements are labeled Part I, Part II, and Part III. Basically, they are fast(ish), slow, and fast.
The Samuelsens have recorded the work along with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vasily Petrenko. No fewer than six times, the liner notes describe the concerto as “hypnotic.” Is it? I’ll tell you, in brief, what I heard.
Part I begins with a C-major chord—or a playing around with a C-major chord. Then it goes to F major (the subdominant, for those keeping score at home). The music is sweet, harmonious, centered.
The solo instruments play bending lines, indeed resembling dancers in a pas de deux. There are also movieland touches, expressing wonderment. I think of the collaboration between Steven Spielberg and John Williams.
For those “bending” lines, I have some more clichés: The lines are “arching,” “yearning,” “aching.” This is music that can certainly be danced to. It is ballet music, as well as movie music.
The score has a feeling of fluidity. It’s almost watery, actually. It evokes (to me) the British Isles. This first movement is nice, enjoyable, easy on the ears.
Part II, i.e., the slow movement, is similar. It has some pleasant chimes. It’s lovely, romantic. It blooms into lushness. It’s pop-like, cinematic, pretty.
The third movement starts tense and martial, and later it gives off a sense of flying. Movie composers are good at this: Think of Williams in E.T. (Can that movie be more than thirty years old now?) Horner’s double concerto has a big, Disneyesque conclusion.
I have called this concerto ballet music and movie music. Is it concert music? Sure: If you play it in a concert, it is. It seems to me another film score, and a very fine film score at that. It would gag a lot of critics, because the presence of sugar is strong. But it would please a lot of audiences—which is not a bad thing.
It pleased me too. I’m listening to the concerto again right this second (and like it better than on first hearing).
Horner has—had, I guess I have to say—a substantial gift. This gift made him millions (presumably), and he deserved them.
The Samuelsens’ disc is filled out with music by three other composers. Those composers are Arvo Pärt (his famous Fratres), Giovanni Sollima (an Italian born in 1962), and Ludovico Einaudi (another Italian, born in 1955).
Sig. Einaudi is the son of the famous publisher, and the grandson of a president of Italy (Luigi, 1948 to 1955).
Don’t let me put down Horner’s Pas de Deux as so much ear candy. It is ear candy, yes, but my ears are enjoying it as I speak. The concerto is moving, too, and I’m sorry the composer is gone.
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Recent links of note:
‘Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi’
Hooray for the High Bridge
In Memoriam: James Salter
Crappy Days are Here Again
From our pages:
Harper Lee’s loving-kindness
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by James Bowman
Le Chevalier de Bayard
In physics, so they tell me, the great white intellectual whale which has so far eluded even the brightest minds is what they call the “unified field theory” which would account for discrete descriptions of physical phenomena—such as general relativity and quantum theory—relations between which remain largely undiscovered. If there are laws of ratiocination analogous to those of physics, one of them must be that this urge to intellectual simplification and unification is a constant of human thought. It’s a theory, anyway. It occurred to me on reading an article in The Washington Post, which I took to be a progressive attempt to develop a sort of unified field theory of those demon -isms: sexism and racism — with colonialism thrown in for good measure.
It was written by one Lisa Wade, an assistant professor of sociology at President Obama’s alma mater—though it’s probably sexist to call it that—Occidental College. In it, Assistant Professor Wade purports to explain, in the words of the headline, “How ‘benevolent sexism’ drove Dylann Roof’s racist massacre.”
Sociologists use the term “benevolent sexism” (she writes) to describe the attribution of positive traits to women that, nonetheless, justify their subordination to men. For example, women may be described as good with people, but this is believed to make them perform poorly in competitive arenas like work, sports or politics. Better that they leave that to the men.
That seems to me a pretty poor example, as there is no obvious reason why being “good with people” should disqualify anyone from being equally good at work, sports or politics. Rather the reverse, I would have thought. But, clearly, Ms. Wade has a strong interest in making the position she is arguing against look as irrational as possible, even if nobody actually holds it.
It is interesting to me that she avoids the locus classicus of “benevolent sexism,” which is chivalry. Because women, as compared to men, are by nature relatively vulnerable and, in particular, vulnerable to sexually motivated violence by men, there once was a cultural movement which conferred a special honor on men who not only refrained from such violence themselves but who undertook to protect women in general, or particular women, from violence on the part of other men. Naturally, this cultural phenomenon depended absolutely on a prior cultural recognition of the differences between men and women—differences which feminism depends, equally absolutely, on pretending do not exist. Chivalry, therefore, in the feminist nomenclature must take its place, however paradoxically, alongside rape, as an example of “sexism”—albeit with the qualification of “benevolent.”
Got that? Now it seems that, along with other flotsam and jetsam of Western culture bobbing about in young Mr. Roof’s addled brain, there might have been some odd rags and patches of chivalry. It’s hard to be sure, since his reported, if quite unfounded, accusation against his victims that “you rape our women” appears to be a good deal more indignant about the imagined “our” than the imagined “rape”—as you might expect from someone in the process of committing what was clearly a racially motivated crime. But the important point, surely, is that both are imaginary. Let’s say that “benevolent sexism” formed as much a part of the killer’s thinking, such as it was, as racism did. Are not both of these -isms founded, in his case if no other, in sheer fantasy? How can you blame the actions of a deluded person not on his delusions—and his willingness to act upon them—but on the things he is deluded about?
The answer, I think, lies in the fact that, because feminism proceeds from a theory—that what it chooses to call “gender” is merely “socially constructed”—feminists tend to assume that those who disagree with them must have a theory of their own, a theory which the feminists then helpfully construct for their opponents only, subsequently, to demolish it. Such an intellectual exercise is obviously divorced from any reality that it may purport to describe, but it is how you end up casting a pimply, delusional hobbledehoy in the role of the Chevalier de Bayard, sans peur et sans reproche—in effect, taking him at his own valuation and therefore denying that he is delusional at all. Not that Ms. Wade says any of this, of course, but that’s the point. To say so would make the preposterousness of Mr. Roof’s identification as a “benevolent sexist” too obvious.
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by Lucia Ryan
While the focus in public secondary education narrows on the common core curriculum and standardized testing, there remains a tier of prestigious independent schools and specialized public schools sending large percentages of their graduating classes to top-rated institutions each year, the reasons for which, aside from money, go widely unmentioned. This year, for the first time in its history, Stanford’s admission rate dipped to 5%. At no surprise to its applicant pool, the toxicity of the competition to be in that 5% was also at an all-time high. Such competitiveness and cutthroat drive has become ubiquitous in these high-performing schools, and perhaps seen as necessary in maintaining their ever-climbing standards. Having graduated from such a school, one that boasts a nearly 50% matriculation rate to Ivy League schools, Stanford, and MIT, I have observed the ways in which the stifling pressure to excel affects the students behind these numbers, and how they may emerge level-headed in spite of it.
Schools in this division are expected to produce these statistics every year, and many succeed. The pressure to meet these expectations ultimately lies on the students, who wholeheartedly and relentlessly work towards acceptance at those institutions with admissions rates below 10%. The result is not just competition for those spots, but an environment of overworked, overwhelmed, and exhausted seventeen-year-olds who believe their worth lies in those institutions.
Unfortunately, this culture seems unlikely to change any time soon, as the schools towards which students work are only becoming more competitive. In fact, it isn’t until after acceptance letters arrive and enrollment decisions are made that the culture at these high schools shifts at all, and the pressure and stress that students place on themselves finally alleviates.
There is hope, however, in gaining appreciation from the whole process. Aside from the obvious and material accomplishment of going to the college or university of one’s choice, we can actually be grateful for the stress and emotional struggle that such a process engenders.
A recent study from UC Berkeley researcher, Daniela Kaufer, says stress can be beneficial, but perhaps in moderation. To summarize her argument, she found that the stress hormones released in the brain transform newly born cells into white matter, which protects and strengthens neuronal fibers, which the connecting pathways in the brain. Basically, stress increases our emotional capacity and ability to make connections.
We already knew that stress allows us to appreciate non-stress, or relaxation, but Kaufer’s study suggests that there is something more we can learn from it, other than the fact that we would rather not have it. I saw these benefits of stress among my classmates in high school: When the work was as its worst and the stress its most consuming, we initially found ourselves estranged from one another. The stress that drove each of us inward allowed us to discover our need for community and companionship, thus turning us outward. From the loneliness fostered by stress grew a capacity for empathy that had not existed before.
So, not only must we appreciate stressful times, but perhaps we can also accept their necessity and find gratitude for them. In Gabriella Borter’s 2013 blog post “,” she describes an environment like the one I have above, expressing concern that excessive stress may rid us of our passion and drive. She concludes, “Success should lie in the process, not at the finish line.” I would like to expand on that point: We certainly must appreciate the process, because doing so devalues the finish line and makes us realize that the work we devote toward a goal is just as important as the goal itself. Moreover, that work does not have to lead to successful outcomes; the process should involve challenge, difficulty, and failure. With failure or even the mere possibility of mediocrity, inevitably comes stress. Along the way, our humility deepens. Once this happens, once we know that success is not a given, we may devote ourselves to our work and to others more freely.
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by Lucia Ryan
Chao Lu receiving his Guiness Book of World Records plaque
Like all things unresolved and supposedly infinite, the number, or rather the concept, pi, is totally intriguing to the human mind. We know that we may apply pi to finding the area of circles or the period of sine graphs or the volume of spherical objects, but what is it? Over one trillion of its digits have been calculated yet still pi has no tangible or known end. We acknowledge this paradox—that pi is infinite yet we could know each digit if we wanted to—and we also acknowledge its ceaselessness and wonder: Does it really go on forever? How much can we know?
These questions have prompted a niche sub-culture of people who devote hours (if not weeks, months, years) to memorizing the digits of pi. According to the Pi World Ranking List, the world record for pi recitation is 67,890 digits, set in 2005 by Chao Lu of China. It took him one year to memorize and 24 hours and 4 seconds to recite. He was allowed no more than 15 seconds between each digit—this meant no bathroom, food, or water breaks for the entirety of the performance.
The Pi World Ranking List requires that “performances of 10,000 digits or more must be certified by an additional academic or scientific witness. Alternatively this may be an official such as a lawyer, notary, or minister.” Until 10,000 digits, a contestant just needs two independent, unrelated witnesses to verify the recitation.
Chao Lu undoubtedly has a freakish memory and a wicked work ethic. He also had a serious incentive: breaking the world record, eternal fame in the math world (or, rather, the faux-math world), and a general sense of unequivocal awe when we hear his name in relation to that number.
Freakish would also be an understatement. Google “how to memorize pi” and several articles suggesting image association, or word association, or creating a story using the phonetics of each number will pop up, promising that in eight short steps you can nail down the first fifty.
Pi Day, March 14th (3.14), usually falls in the final week before my former school’s Spring Break, and memorizing numbers to literally no end hardly takes priority over final exams and papers to most students at my high school. I, however, have always been one of those people whose memory has an affinity for numbers, and rarely forget a birthday or telephone number. The three years I competed in the annual Pi Recitation Contest at my high school, I had little to no competition—in that only one other person showed up—except for my first year, when the winner claimed to have memorized 500 back in middle school, sat down, and managed to recall 350. After he graduated, though, I resolved to memorize as much as my schedule allowed time for. I did not use any image association or phonetic tricks, but rather memorized pi in chunks of ten, to the rhythm of a telephone number (3.14159, 265-358-9793). This trick allowed me to memorize and recite 305 by the time March 14th arrived.
Outside of my high school, however, Pi Recitation Competitions and general celebration of Pi Day are both well-tended-to and attended. This year, Pi Day was especially glorified, almost as a mega-Pi day, as we not only lived the first three digits, but the first nine, on March 14th, 2015, at 9:26:53 AM and PM (3.141592653.) Pi Day celebrations across the world consisted of not only pi recitation competitions, but also pi(e) eating contests, pi(e) making contests, pi(e) throwing contests, pizza pi(e) making contests, 3.14 mile long races and the like.
Perhaps our obsession with pi comes from its accessibility: 3.14 is a number that manifests in our daily lives as easily as we want it to. Or in the case of pi recitation, anyone can memorize for as long as he or she wants, at no cost other than time. Or maybe it really is the immortality, rather, eternity that is pi that challenges us to unpack it.
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Mel Bernstine, Red Light District, 2015, Posca on Mountboard, 7.5x7.5"
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This week: Salter, Sound, and Streaming.
Fiction: A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux): It’s an unfortunate truth that great writers often go unread until their deaths, like literary Van Goghs, never enjoying the benefits of fame during their lifetimes. Even writers who receive some acclaim during their lives are often buoyed posthumously, and James Salter belongs in this latter category. Though long-recognized as a “writer’s writer” (a damning euphemism for lack of sales), Salter will surely be the recipient of renewed interest following his death this past weekend at the age of 90. As such, there appears to be no better time than now to reexamine his most-known work, A Sport and a Pastime, detailing the amatory exploits of a Yale dropout in the south of France. —BR
Nonfiction: Experience, by Martin Amis (Vintage): Although Martin Amis’s memoir Experience was published back at the start of the millennium, I have only just read it. I did so reluctantly, at the behest of a friend, because I’d read a couple of MA’s novels and hadn’t liked them. I am an avid fan of the work of Amis père, Kingsley, whose novel Lucky Jim is one of the funniest things I have ever read. Martin’s oeuvre, what I know of it, is distinctly less agreeable. But I am glad I read Experience. It is a remarkable memoir, moving, deep, and, yes, funny by turns. Above all, perhaps—and this was the real surprise—it is gratifyingly affectionate, about friends, family, about almost everyone with the possible exception of Eric Jacobs, the official biographer of Kingsley Amis. Experience is a remarkable book that conjures winningly with life’s principle mysteries. A line from Amis’s friend Saul Bellow which is repeated a few times is worth the price of admission: Death, said Bellow, is “the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything.” But don’t let that somber (if eloquent) observation put you off: Experience is an allegro performance full of joy and fun, as well as a harrowing account of dental catastrophe. Be thankful for your snappers. —RK
Poetry: The Typewriter Project: The Subconscious of the City (Through July 29): One does not think of Tompkins Square Park as a font of poetry, but that changes with the installation of The Typewriter Project this summer. The project, which has popped up around New York since 2014, places typewriter booths in various locales, allowing users to contribute original poetry and prose to an ever-growing text that lives on the web. As far as public instillations go, this seems not only innocuous, but also fruitful, giving every budding McGonagall a chance to practice his doggerel. —BR
Art: June Bugs (Through June 27): The Geoffrey Young Gallery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, is a cult favorite for Young's ability to attract some top names and great works to his small second-floor gallery (all despite a charmingly out-of-date website). On view now is "June Bugs," featuring a dozen works each on paper by Brenda Goodman and Mel Bernstine, along with a selection of other work that includes James Siena and Fred Tomaselli. Goodman and Bernstine are each coming off of big New York shows (Goodman at Life on Mars; Bernstine at McKenzie), but here is a chance to see their smaller work in an intimate (and always well curated) two-person exhibition. This Saturday at 6pm, the gallery will stay open late for a performance by "Brooklyn's own" Chris Dingman's Subliminal Trio. —JP
Music: The Tchaikovsky Competition (Through June 30): One of the world's most prestigious musical contests, the Tchaikovsky Competition, has been going on for a week now, and for the first time in its more than fifty-year history, the entire proceedings are being live-streamed, courtesy of Medici.tv. The competition's laureates include many of the most celebrated performers of the last half-century, most recently Daniil Trifonov, whose Grand Prix in 2011 vaulted him to the top tier of concert pianists. Round II is being heard right now, with the finals scheduled to begin on Sunday and continue through next week. —ECS
Theater: The Sound and the Fury (Through July 12): The Public Theater recently extended the run of The Sound and the Fury for a second time, adding two weeks on to its prior closing date of June 27. The play has received praise for its chaotic and enthralling interpretation of the first and most famous chapter of the 1929 masterpiece by William Faulkner. Performed by the experimental theater group Elevator Repair Service, who first worked with The Public Theater in 2010 with Gatz, this dramatization of the incomprehensible Benjy chapter is confusing but engrossing, and requires every ounce of your attention as the novel opens before your eyes verbatim on stage. —LR
Support Our Friends: First Things is pleased to invite you to a memorable weekend of thought-provoking seminars and lectures on the concept of freedom. Join us as we study pre-assigned classics from Western Civilization in small-group seminars limited to 15 participants. There are no prerequisites to attend. This will be a rare opportunity to get together with like-minded individuals in a spirit of friendship and common purpose to discuss big, timeless ideas, and how they inform the cultural issues occupying our nation in recent years.
From the archive: The Amis country, by David Yezzi: Speaking of Kingsley Amis, here is our Poetry Editor, David Yezzi, writing in 2007 on his verse, which Yezzi finds “bare-knuckled, witty, [and] light but never ‘lite.’”
From our latest issue: Doing as the Romans do, by William Logan: On recent verse.
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From Decca, there is an album featuring Britten’s Piano Concerto and Barber’s Piano Concerto. Each composer wrote just one. The pianist on this album is an American previously unknown to me: Elizabeth Joy Roe. The conductor is a Bulgarian previously unknown to me: Emil Tabakov. (He was once in his country’s government, as minister of culture.)
The orchestra is very well-known, and one of the best in the world: the London Symphony Orchestra.
Britten wrote his piano concerto in 1938, revising it in 1945. It is in four movements, all of which are interestingly marked: Toccata, Waltz, Impromptu, and March. With the composer on the podium, Sviatoslav Richter made a recording of this work.
Barber composed his concerto in the early 1960s, on commission from G. Schirmer Inc., the music publisher—Schirmer was celebrating its hundredth birthday. The concerto’s premiere was in 1962, at the new Lincoln Center. The work is in three movements, the middle one of which is Canzone. If Barber could do anything, he could write songs.
In 1964, John Browning recorded the concerto with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.
This is a smart pairing, the Britten and Barber piano concertos. Each composer is quite famous, and each concerto is not. The CD is filled out with another smart pairing: two nearly unknown pieces by the two featured composers, and, specifically, two nocturnes.
Britten wrote his Night-Piece (Notturno) for the Leeds piano competition—the first one, in 1963. Just for the record, that competition was won by Michael Roll, a Briton (and the son of Jewish refugees from Vienna). The jury was chaired by Arthur Bliss.
Barber wrote his Nocturne in homage to John Field, the Irish composer (1782-1837) who is considered “the father of the nocturne.” And you recall that one of his best songs (for voice!) is, in fact, “Nocturne” (words by Frederic Prokosch).
The cover of Decca’s CD booklet shows the pianist, Elizabeth Joy Roe, in a beautiful blue gown, standing on rocks at the edge of the ocean. The inside cover has her in a different dress, crouching on the same rocks, it appears. The back of the CD container (the “jewel case”) has her in a third outfit, lying languidly on what may be a glass table.
Is there anything much weirder than classical-CD art, especially when attractive young women are involved?
Miss Roe has written her own liner notes, in exuberant and impassioned style. She clearly loves these composers—Britten and Barber—and points out similarities between them. She also loves their piano concertos.
About Britten, she writes some of the usual stuff, such as that he was courageous in his homosexuality and pacifism. (For a contrary view—mine—see this article.)
About Barber, she writes that his concerto “may arguably be the preeminent American piano concerto and Barber’s pièce de résistance.” Huh. Let’s consider the first part of that statement, putting the pièce de résistance business to one side.
Can we count Rhapsody in Blue as a piano concerto? We can certainly count the same composer’s Concerto in F. What about MacDowell, Copland, Menotti . . .?
Another question, for which I borrow language from William F. Buckley Jr.: Is hailing the preeminent American piano concerto on the order of hailing the tallest building in Wichita, Kansas?
Anyway, Miss Roe has raised an interesting question.
But enough prelude: How’s the playing on this disc? Good, very good. The pianist is smart, poised, understanding, and committed. Maestro Tabakov is the same. And the orchestra is beautiful and virtuosic.
I recommend this disc, both for its performances and the repertoire (including those bonuses, the nocturnes). We should know these works, even if we are unable to consider them neglected masterpieces.
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Waddesdon Manor, UK/Historic England/Bridgeman Images
Recent links of note:
Country house picnics (with some ace opera attached)
Bloodless Headers in Lifeless Papers
The Rothschild Taste
Meet the Banking Regulator with an 8,000-Mile Commute
The Labour leadership election is an oasis of boredom
From our pages:
Doing as the Romans do
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by James Bowman
Hillary Clinton on Roosevelt Island
One sympathizes, naturally, with the incomprehension of Ella Whelan of Spiked Online when she writes of Hillary Clinton’s Roosevelt Island speech as follows:
But what Ms. Whelan fails to understand is that “middle-class” in America today doesn’t mean middle-class anymore. In the political and media codes of today, which have so largely displaced the rational discourse to which the English of our forefathers was so admirably adapted, to be middle-class is ipso facto to be a victim—if nothing else, a victim of “the rich,” “the one-percent,” or the “millionaires and billionaires,” whose good fortune is now routinely supposed to have been illegitimately won at the expense of everybody else.
That’s why the more aggressive, or “fighting” side of Mrs. Clinton’s appeal on the same occasion, was so largely directed against those unnamed “billionaires and corporations” whose tax cuts, enacted by Republicans out of sheer greed, have supposedly impoverished those lower down the economic scale, and whose money is said to be corrupting the democratic process with the help of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. No doubt on the principle that the best defense is an offense, this attack on the rich is designed at least in part to deflect Republican criticism of the Clinton family’s own riches and the highly dubious means by which they have been acquired. But such transparent cynicism would hardly be possible without the groundwork done by the media over the past two decades and more in continually singing, not the “song called ‘Yesterday’” that Hillary says the Republicans are singing, but the middle-class blues.
Do you doubt me? Just look at this story from last weekend’s Washington Post. “How theme parks like Disney World left the middle class behind,” the headline promises to tell us. It seems that, since the admission fees at Disney World, etc., are up by more than the rate of inflation, it must follow that they have “priced middle-class families out.” True, attendance is also said to be up, but somehow that never troubles the reporter, Drew Harwell, with the obvious question of who, if not the middle classes, is attending in such numbers? If what is implicit in such reasoning had been made explicit in the headline—“Only the Rich now able to afford Disney World”—the absurdity of the proposition would have been apparent. But the Post, like the rest of the media—like Hillary Clinton—now expects the media audience to be willing to take it for granted that the mere mention of “middle-class” carries with it—as does that of “women,” gays, and racial or ethnic minorities—the suggestion of victimization. They also know that these would-be victims do not need to be told who their alleged victimizers are.
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( 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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