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Some Thoughts on Veterans’ Day

by James Bowman

Posted: Nov 11, 2014 01:35 PM


 

The unseemly squabble among Navy SEALs and the authorities they once served over how Osama bin Laden was killed and who killed him provides a good example of what happens when a country loses its honor culture. The native or reflexive honor is still there, reinforced by a specialized military honor culture, but the larger social environment no longer retains any sense of what honor means, apart from one’s personal beliefs and values. Without that understanding, even our men of honor — in this case the SEALs — don’t know how to behave. Nor, I scarcely need add, do the journalists who have come forward to criticize Matt Bissonnette, author of No Easy Day and Rob O’Neill, now revealed (though not without further controversy over the claim) as the SEAL whose bullets to the head killed the terrorist leader.

 

Take the New York Times' report of the letter sent to all Navy SEALs, present and former, by Rear Admiral Brian L. Losey of the Naval Special Warfare unit and the SEALs top enlisted man, Michael L. Magaraci, which — so said the Times reporters — “warned that there could be consequences for revealing military secrets and operational details." ‘We will actively seek judicial consequence for members who willfully violate the law, and place our Teammates, our Families, and potential future operations at risk,’ the letter said.” But this makes it sound as if the Navy only cares about the unauthorized revelation of classified information and the danger it might cause to others. The text of the letter, not linked to by the Times, shows that its authors concerns were broader than that:

 

At Naval Special Warfare’s core is the SEAL Ethos. A critical tenant [sic] of our Ethos is “I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions”. Our Ethos is a life-long commitment and obligation, both in and out of the Service. Violators of our Ethos are neither Teammates in good standing nor Teammates who represent Naval Special Warfare. We do not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety and financial gain, which only diminishes otherwise honorable service, courage and sacrifice. Our credibility as a premier fighting force is forged in this sacrifice and has been accomplished with honor, as well as humility. The most important credit we can garner is the respect of our Teammates and Partners.

You can understand why the Times might have left this part out, but its omission actually explains the breach of the SEAL “Ethos” by Messrs Bissonnette and O’Neill, since hardly anyone outside the armed services — maybe even outside special forces — is any longer equipped to understand what Admiral Losey and Force Master Chief Magaraci have written here.

 

In other words, the Ethos — a curious word for it, by the way, when “honor” expresses so much more exactly what they mean — may be specific to the Naval Special Warfare unit, but it requires some point of contact in the culture at large, some general understanding of honor, if it is to have any hope of being treated as binding on those who have returned to life outside the military. They know that hardly anyone in the civilian world can be expected to know or care about what most people understand as the arcane practices of a sort of secret society, like Skull and Bones or the Masons. They want to know what happened and can see no reason why those who did it should not tell them, apart from concerns about the security of information that the media have been teaching them for two generations are invariably overblown. If Julian Assange and Edward Snowden can profit by publicizing our government’s secrets, why shouldn’t these genuine heroes? If President Obama has turned a political profit from the death of Osama bin Laden, why shouldn’t those who actually killed him make a profit of another kind?

 

The only person known to me who has put the matter into its proper perspective is Harry de Quetteville in the London Daily Telegraph who, after years as the paper’s obituaries editor, developed a powerful respect for the many heroes of the Second World War, whose obituaries he published and who never spoke of their own heroic deeds, even when there was nothing but their own sense of honor to prevent them from doing so. The Western honor culture hasn’t always looked down on braggarts and boasters, but the one still known to all those who served from 1939 to 1945, and still respected by them even if they thought it outmoded, certainly did. That code of honor, if the public’s understanding of it hadn’t all but disappeared at some point between the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Clinton administration, would have been far more powerful than any legal sanction in teaching them when to keep their mouths shut.

 

By the way, what was for me almost worse than Mr O’Neill’s bragging about his own role in the death of Osama bin Laden was his telling Esquire — admittedly when he was still known only as “The Shooter” — that he had joined the navy in the first place only because his girlfriend dumped him: “That’s the reason al-Qaeda has been decimated,” he said. “Because she broke my f****** heart.” Oh dear. But by then it was already clear that he had never been taught the manners of a  gentleman, so it’s no surprise that he didn’t know a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell either. Clearly, his comment was a bid for celebrity, which is what the media culture of today ensures that kids will grow up to understand; as once they grew up understanding the manners, and the honor, of ladies and gentlemen.

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Critic's Notebook for November 10, 2014

by Christine Emba

Posted: Nov 11, 2014 12:15 AM


 

Willard Boepple, Gearless Resin, 2002

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: Nature illustrated, sculpture abstracted, and critics critiqued.

Fiction: The End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck. Susan Bernofsky, trans. (New Directions): This ambitious novel uses five different stories to explore the many paths life can take. A baby girl dies accidentally in a small Eastern European town during the early years of the twentieth century, spinning her family into disarray. But what if she had survived? Divided into five sections, each of which imagines a possible endpoint for the nameless female protagonist, the novel elegantly frames our human instinct to reimagine endings and tragedies as barely remembered moments over the course of a lifetime, and offers a unique overview of German and German-Jewish history by an acclaimed author and translator. CE

Nonfiction: Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 18781928, by Stephen Kotkin (Penguin Press): After ten years of research, including the examination of newly discovered records from Soviet military intelligence and the secret police, Stephen Kotkin has released volume I of a three-volume biography of Stalin. Paradoxes of Power describes how Stalin, a poor boy from what is today known as Georgia, succeeded, with stunning determination, in achieving absolute power and subsequently in creating such harmful policies as collectivization and the Great Purges. Kotkin unravels the inner architecture of the regime’s complex political structure and shows how Stalin fit into the center of it all. In dissecting Stalin’s personal life, Kotkin unveils a complicated picture of the dictator, one sure to ignite discussion. –RH

Poetry: Terrapin and Other Poems, by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint): These twenty-one poems by the farmer, writer, and National Humanities Medal winner Wendell Berry were originally chosen as those that children might read and appreciate. Filled with sketches, drawings and watercolors by the artist Tom Pohrt, the volume illustrates Berry’s unique appreciation of nature and simplicity. CE

 Art:  “Willard Boepple: Sculpture” at Lori Bookstein Fine Art (November 13–December 20): This exhibition surveys the mature work of one of the more original and compelling abstract sculptors working today. The art Boepple has produced since the 1970s focuses on corporeal proportions and allusions, metaphorically evoking the human body. The exhibition will coincide with the release of a new monograph of the artist published by Lund Humphries. Willard Boepple Sculpture: The Sense of Things is written by New Criterion art critic Karen Wilkin, with a forward by Michael Fried. —JP

Music: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (November 10–29), & Winterreise (November 11): With the Leipzig Gewandhaus in town and Anne-Sophie Mutter giving a Carnegie Hall recital, this is a particularly hard week in which to pick favorites; but it must be done, so I'll narrow it down to two. Opening tonight and playing again on Thursday at the Metropolitan Opera is Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. This is an intense piece, in an eye-popping production by Graham Vick, with the excellent Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina. Moreover, this opera is of tremendous historical importance as the work which caused Shostakovich more grief than any other with Stalin's regime. On Tuesday, Matthias Goerne, perhaps today's greatest lieder baritone, will team up with the pianist Markus Hinterhäuser for a performance of Schubert's masterful song cycle Winterreise. Animations by William Kentridge, the architect of the Met's engrossing production of The Nose, will hopefully enhance the experience, but either way, the opportunity to hear this great singer deliver such a touchstone work will alone be worth the price of admission. ECS

Other: The Pushcart Prize XXXIX: Best of the Small Presses 2015 Edition, edited by Bill Henderson (The Pushcart Prize): The selections in this volume were chosen from over 8,000 nominations of stories, essays, and poetry sent in by hundreds of presses. Narrowed down to more than sixty pieces of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Pushcart offers a clear and refreshingly panoramic view of the current state of creative writing. CE

From the archive: Marshall’s Men, by Gen. Josiah Bunting III: On camaraderie, leadership, and the greatest generation.

From our latest issue: Virgil Thomson: assessing the critic, by James Penrose: On the sharp-tongued music critic of the 1940s.

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Speechless (almost)

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Nov 07, 2014 11:46 AM


Joyce DiDonato, via NYT

 

In my forthcoming “New York Chronicle” for the magazine, I write about a recital by Elizabeth van den Heever, a young South African soprano. Her program, I say,

was a throwback. It began with Baroque music, continued with German art songs, went to a French set, and closed with music personal to the singer. That’s how it was with Leontyne Price and many other singers. But that sort of program is old-fashioned now. Administrators, critics, and academics want “themes.” They want to teach some sort of musicological lesson. To me, at least, van den Heever’s throwback was delightful. It was practically subversive.

Well, Joyce DiDonato’s recent recital in Carnegie Hall had a theme: “A Journey through Venice.” But the theme was incidental. This was a mixed program of songs and arias by Vivaldi, Rossini, Fauré, Hahn, and the British composer Michael Head. If the organizational conceit of “Venice” makes you feel better, fine. But, honestly, this was just a mixed program—and no worse for that.

Sure, the songs were about Venice. But does anyone really listen to the words anyway? I mean, really?

DiDonato, as you know, is an American mezzo-soprano. She was accompanied on this evening by the French pianist David Zobel. In my aforementioned chronicle, I discuss a performance of the Handel opera Alcina, also in Carnegie Hall. DiDonato filled the title role in that. I write,

Like other critics, I have run out of words to describe and praise DiDonato. I am even tired of writing the sentence I have just written.

I go on to make a few points nonetheless. Should I make a point here? Frequently I write that she “sings like an instrumentalist.” This is a little bit mysterious. She sings like the great violinists play—with the same flexibility and accuracy (to name two qualities). She does things with her voice that you’re not really supposed to be able to do with a voice. Hilary Hahn can do them with a violin, but . . .

I also frequently say that DiDonato “hugs the line.” This, too, is a little mysterious. What do I mean by it? I hate to cop out on you, but I think you know it when you hear it. DiDonato adheres to the musical line ruthlessly, splendidly. A hurricane could not move her off it. She would no more depart from the musical line than would Hahn.

DiDonato is a very good singer of French music, as she proved in her Fauré songs. But she really comes alive in Italian. The voice is more vibrant and colorful when that language is in her mouth. She is at her very best in quick Italian music—think of her Cinderella, in Rossini’s opera.

Speaking of him, DiDonato sang his Regata veneziana. She did so with almost unbelievable charisma. An Italian singer like Ebe Stignani would have grinned with appreciation.

Michael Head lived from 1900 to 1976. Not long before he died, he wrote Three Songs of Venice for Janet Baker. In remarks from the stage, DiDonato explained that she herself was given these songs to study when she was in college, and fell in love with them. They are fine songs indeed. And she sang them beguilingly.

She talked throughout the recital, using a microphone. I thought this was a little cheesy—the talking and the microphone. A little Vegas. If I could sing like DiDonato, I would never talk! Plus, shouldn’t singers be able to project in a hall without a mike? (Maybe I’m being unreasonable here, for speaking is different from singing.)

As regular readers know, I’m always complaining about talking from the stage, and I’m always saying, “He said nothing that wasn’t in the program notes anyway.” DiDonato told a story about Reynaldo Hahn and his Venetian songs. Before relating the story, she said, “I know this is in your program, but . . .” I just loved her for that. The acknowledgement was refreshing.

She sang those Hahn songs beguilingly (to repeat language I have already used). She was beguilement itself. Now, to beguile, you need voice and technique. Those have to come first (especially technique, I would say). Then you can begin to beguile. All the artistry and all the best intentions in the world won’t do the trick. I once heard Marilyn Horne say at a master class, “Get your technique, and the world’s your oyster.” DiDonato did, and it is.

In the last of the Hahn songs, her intonation faltered a tiny bit. Otherwise, it was laser-like, as usual, all through the recital.

At the end of the evening, she made a little statement about the political elections, Carnegie Hall’s status as a “temple,” etc. I wasn’t sure what she was talking about. It seemed to me the usual . . . stuff. But she saved it by saying, “I hope I’m not lecturing you.” See how you have to love her?

In her encores, DiDonato departed from Venice. She began with that famous and well-loved encore “Canzonetta spagnuola,” by Rossini. She missed the first note, but was exemplary thereafter. Then she sang the Neapolitan song that some of us consider the best of them: “Non ti scordar di me.” She sang it with consummate style.

Above, I said that DiDonato offered a “mixed program.” She did—except that it was not mixed with German. To my knowledge, she does not sing in German. I have never heard her sing Schubert or Brahms or Wolf. Or Bach! Can you be a great or historic singer while ignoring German (if that is what DiDonato, in fact, does)? Well, Callas did all right.

Still, it is a curious gap (if it is a gap). I wonder whether the all-capable DiDonato will ever fill it.

In my chronicle, I write,

Typically, we overrate the past and underrate the present. Or else we are cautious about the present (reluctant to go out on a limb with our judgments). I have been privileged to hear many good and great singers since the mid-1970s. I doubt I have heard a better one than this present-day Kansan.

Meaning DiDonato. She is a great and historic singer, and we are privileged to live in her age.

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Review: “Calder and Abstraction” at Peabody Essex Museum

by Franklin Einspruch

Posted: Nov 05, 2014 12:13 PM


Alexander Calder, La Grande vitesse (1:5 intermediate maquette), 1969. Calder Foundation, New York.

There are a handful of modern artists whose signature works are so distinctive that to approach them stylistically is to get yanked into their orbit. Joseph Cornell’s dioramas come to mind as an example—not even Marcel Duchamp could collage thrift-store findings behind glass without evoking the work of his friend. The unfortunate side effect of this distinctiveness is that such artists produce no stylistic heirs, only lesser copyists.

One could assert, for instance, that David Smith was a better sculptor than Alexander Calder, supported by the observation that Anthony Caro, Peter Hide, and several others nearly as great were able to take influences from Smith and run with them, whereas Calder’s creative output was so particular to him that it closed off the possibility of further development by younger artists. When it comes to the mobile, there is Calder, the Calderesque, utter kitsch, and baby toys.

The Peabody Essex Museum’s catalogue for “Calder and Abstraction”, which is excellent on all counts, notes the late critic Clement Greenberg as someone who preferred Smith to Calder. But he enjoyed Calder nonentheless. “Both [Calder and Stuart Davis] have made modern art cheerful,” Greenberg wrote in 1945:

“... The felicity and taste of these two artists is, as a matter of fact, prodigious. Of the fifty paintings in Davis’s exhibition, no more than three or four actually fail on their own terms; and I was struck by a similar evenness in Calder’s one-man show at the Modern Museum two years ago.”

If it seems a slight to call Calder’s work “exquisite minor art,” as Greenberg did in that essay, he also suggested what to do about Calder and other artists whose tastefulness is so great as to count partially against them: “society [should] give them fixed, exactly defined tasks that require them to fit their cheerfulness and discretion into the general decor of modern life in a systematic way. Let Davis and Calder create an atmosphere in which to move, not solo works of art. These are the examples of Boucher and Fragonard, whose spirit their own resembles.”

“Calder and Abstraction” at the Peabody Essex Museum carries out that advice to the letter. The art on display looks fantastic in both senses of the word. 

 

Installation view of Calder and Abstraction: From Avante-Garde to Iconic at Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

Renowned contemporary architect Frank Gehry (who might be the closest thing to a major scion of Calder as can be found) designed the LACMA installation from which the PEM installation is derived, and it is a brilliant success. The gallery is all sleek lines, raised white stages, and walls painted in perfectly chosen downy grays. Sculptures are given enough room that one can appreciate their forms, and sufficiently proximal walls that the viewer can admire the elegant shadows they cast. Snow Flurry (1948) is vignetted in a modernist chapel of sorts, with a translucent back wall through which you can see the work’s shadow as you enter the show; it is a fine bit of drama. Curatorial discernment gathers the abstractions into a cohesive whole, while Calder’s playful genius shines forth, and demands prolonged consideration of every object in the gallery. This exhibition proves Greenberg right seventy years after the fact.

It is interesting to contemplate Calder in terms of liberation and constraint. On one hand, the works are unhampered by the requirements of realism: they are carefree in feeling, and they are free to sway in the spaces in which they hang. On the other hand, Calder is known to have taken formal cues from a visit to the studio of Piet Mondrian, and his pieces reflect a similarly restricted vocabulary of shape and color. They are rigorously attuned to physics, and have clearly been made to stand, balance, and turn just after numerous instances of failed experimentation. Inglorious topplings of metal, cardboard, wood, and twine must have been a usual event in Calder’s studio. But the process ultimately resulted in pieces like Southern Cross (1963), in which the rounded trapezoids on either side of the balance seem to have both a relation and yet a different flavor of arrangement, turning serenely on a point provided by a red, insectoid tripod. The play is orderly, and the order is playful.

 

Alexander Calder, Southern Cross (maquette), 1963. Calder Foundation, New York.

The delight of Calder’s work is its foremost feature. Anyone who doesn’t feel a rise of happiness while looking at Red Panel (c. 1938), in which two friendly shapes hover suspended in front of a sheet of red metal, should check himself for a pulse. That noted, the last room of the exhibition, which goes into his monumental public work from the ‘60s, makes the case that Calder can be regarded in a Smith-like way and hold up to the scrutiny. “Calder and Abstraction” includes a maquette for La Grande Vitesse (1969), and not a tabletop maquette but a monster of bolted steel painted the color of a fire truck. It ought to put to rest any reservations about whether kinesis in Calder’s sculpture is a gimmick. He could do without it when circumstances demanded, and still summon all the grace and charming biomorphism that we associate with him.

 

Alexander Calder, Red Pamel, c. 1963. Calder Foundation, New York.

Sometimes we art writers are pressed to make predictions about the next important phase of art. My prediction is the phenomenon of worldbuilding. Narrative media like film, writing, and digital gaming seem to be advancing while visual art takes a cultural back seat. The driving force of those media is immersion, so art will be required to compete by building worlds that compel the viewer’s attention, pulling it into an invented universe made convincing through the vision of the artist—“an atmosphere in which to move,” as Greenberg put it. Calder will remain inimitable, but in his ebullient body of work he left us clues about how to create such atmospheres, and the opportunity remains to pick them up and run with them.

“Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic” opened at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA on September 6, 2014 and remains on view through January 4, 2015.

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Critic's Notebook for November 3, 2014

by Christine Emba

Posted: Nov 03, 2014 05:58 PM


 

The Purification of the Temple” c. 1600.

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: Interpreting the cello repertoire, visualizing international threats, and tracking art in NYC.

Fiction: A Map of Betrayal, by Ha Jin (Pantheon): From the National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner-winning author Jin comes a woman’s inquisition into the limits of her father’s loyalty to his nation and family. The narrative alternates between the present day and the years spanning 1949 to 1989. In the present, American-born Lillian Shang unravels her father Gary’s mysterious life as a U.S.-based Chinese spy feeding information to the Mao administration. Lillian undertakes her research primarily through Gary’s extensive diaries, bequeathed to Lillian by his longtime mistress. Gary’s story is too messy for journalistic prose alone, so Lillian travels to northeast China to connect with his other family.  CE

Nonfiction: The Control Factor: Our Struggle to See the True Threat, by Bill Siegel (Hamilton Books): Bill Siegel’s The Control Factor was published in 2012. It is not, therefore, a new book.  But it is a very important one. It dramatizes as effectively as any book out there not on the threat the West faces from Islam but also the various mechanisms—psychological, political, characterological—that we in the West habitually deploy to avoid taking the proper measure of that threat. We in the West are nice. We want to believe the best of others. We find it difficult to believe that we have mortal enemies. But the prominent Muslim cleric who explained that “we don't want anything from you. We want to destroy you” labored under no such delusion. Siegel’s book is a wake-up call of continuing pertinence. RK

Poetry: A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War, Fiona Waters, ed. (Atlantic Publishing): It is remarkable to see how eloquent and poignant lines of poetry can arise out of one of the most terrible and destructive periods in history. The ninety-seven harrowing poems in this collection are accompanied by 190 rare photos. Together they create an alternative perspective of life during WWI—one that sometimes gets lost in the narrative of battles and diplomacy.  –RH

 Art: “El Greco in New York” & “El Greco at the Frick Collection” (Nov. 4—Feb. 1): To commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of El Greco’s death, the Metropolitan Museum and the Hispanic Society of America are pooling their collections of his work, while the Frick Collection will display its three El Greco paintings contemporaneously. Together, the exhibitions will show all of El Greco’s work in New York Public collections, a panorama unrivaled outside of the Prado in Madrid. JP

Music: Alisa Weilerstein, Solo: Alisa Weilerstein has established herself as one of today's great interpreters of the cello repertoire, and has made it a personal mission to add new commissions to the ranks of the Baroque and Romantic warhorses. Her latest CD, "Solo," begins with Zoltán Kodály's stunningly passionate Opus 8 Sonata from 1915, and follows it with Osvaldo Golijov's Omaramor, composed in 1991. Also on the disc are Gaspar Cassadó's Suite for solo cello, a staple of the early-twentieth century cello repertoire, and Bright Sheng's 1995 composition, Seven Tunes Heard in ChinaECS

Other: “Location, Location, Location! Art and Real Estate in NYC,” at The National Arts Club, Tuesday, November 4th at 8PM:  Ann Fenterstock, collector, lecturer, and author of Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from SoHo To The Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond will discuss how and why the New York Art market moves to different neighborhoods.JP

From the archive: Chelsea: galleries & garages, by Grace Glueck: On Chelsea’s transformation into an art district.

From our latest issue: The Latin vote, by Roger Kimball: Why everyone should learn the ancient languages.

 

 

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Oct 31, 2014 12:44 PM


Happy Hallowe’en!

Links of interest from the past week:

Ten Scary Classical Music Pieces for Halloween (listen)
“Great music pierces the soul…and can sometimes terrify it.”

Review: The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron
He was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Also a plagiarist, and a terrible friend.

Serendipity in the Stacks: A Case Against Bookless Libraries
“I’m not convinced that form doesn’t matter.” Indeed—neither are we. Speaking of books…

French Culture Minister's Prosaic Reading List Draws Criticism
She hasn’t read a book in two years. Says one Frenchman, aghast: “Barbarism is here.”

Renderings: Encounters and Translations (watch)
In the spirit of the transnational exhibition “Exchange Rates Bushwick,” the artist/translator/organizer Paul D'Agostino hosted a "series of readings and presentations of translations rendered, translations encountered, translations variably treasured." Watch the event, which features Dara Mandle, Matthew Rossi, Alice Lynn McMichael, Andrea Monti, and Todd Portnowitz, online.


From our pages:

The Wizard of "Is"
A review of “Metaphor” by Denis Donoghue.

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Party On

by James Bowman

Posted: Oct 30, 2014 11:42 AM


Remarkable. An organization rather vaingloriously calling itself “Intelligence Squared” tells me that it is holding, or has held, a debate on the motion: “Income Inequality Impairs the American Dream of Upward Mobility.”

Surely, you would think, even intelligence unsquared must be equal to the task of reasoning required to see that it is only income inequality that could make the American Dream of upward mobility possible in the first place — and thus that the motion is nonsense? Too bad I only received an invitation to take part in this nonsensical debate, now available as a DVD or podcast, on the same day it took place. I’ve got to think they really didn’t want my input after all but were only pretending to invite me because they thought I would be flattered by the pretense of my inclusion, even via spam, in such highly intelligent company. I’m not. I tend to agree with Stephen Hawking that “people who boast about their I.Q. are losers.” Sorry Mensa. I have a slight curiosity to see if any of the IQ2 initiate were bright enough to understand that the content of their “debate” was a null set, as they would no doubt put it. But not enough to take the trouble to find out.

Meanwhile, Daniel Finkelstein, a columnist for The Times of London but at heart still a British election strategist writes of the insurgent UKIP challenge to the Conservative party over Europe and immigration that “the electorate is changing and becoming more culturally and socially liberal while the UKIP vote is intense and angry, but represents a growing proportion of an inevitably shrinking group.” The “inevitably shrinking group” is old people, in case you hadn’t guessed. They’re inevitably shrinking because they’re dying off. “The problem for the Conservative party is severe,” he continues. “It relies heavily (more than Labour, making its problem worse) on an older, culturally conservative vote that is shrinking, and yet if it seeks support among the growing sections, and sentiment, of the population it risks exacerbating its problems with UKIP. In the long run the answer is obvious. The Conservative party cannot choose the shrinking, ageing, groups over the growing, young ones. This way death lies. Literally.” 

Obviously, there is a lesson here for the Republican party in America, which is the more culturally conservative of the major parties, though it is interesting to me that Lord Finkelstein — he actually is a lord, by the way — takes it for granted that the young are wedded to their social liberalism and unpersuadable by the inevitably shrinking (and dying) oldsters that there is something to be said for socially conservative views. He’s probably right, but it does go to show the extent to which rational persuasion, which used to be thought the essence of politics in a democracy, is no longer expected to have any place in our public life. That is also the assumption behind the phony “debate” promoted by IQ2. The pretense of rationality is exposed in that case by the logical flaw in the wording of the motion, but it is implicit in most political argument nowadays. Even when we are ostensibly engaged in persuasive efforts we are really only banging the drum for the superiority of our side and for the benefit of those who want to join the winners. 

There’s a similar problem with David Brooks’s piece in the New York Times on the evils of what he calls “Partyism.” The more interesting question to me is why has the natural human tendency to tribalism (as it should be called) become politicized in Western democracies? That is, we have come to base our tribes not on familial or regional or ancestral ties or on religion, as they do in most of the world and have done through most of human history, but on our views about abortion or taxes or income inequality or, God help us, “climate change.” It’s a very odd thing when you think about it. Ultimately, I guess, you’ve got to blame Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, aka Lenin, for persuading so much of the Western world and its media that all the big questions of human existence boil down to simple power relationships, or who is oppressing whom. That’s the intellectual hell from which there is no exit.

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Critic's Notebook for October 27, 2014

by Christine Emba

Posted: Oct 27, 2014 05:54 PM


Oblique, Tom Goldenberg (2010)

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: Families fall together and nations fall apart, Brahms cannot go gentle into that good night.

Fiction: Us, by David Nicholls (Harper): Connie Peterson wakes her husband Douglas in the middle of the night to tell him she may want to end their marriage. The family already has a European trip planned, the last before their son leaves their London suburb for college, and Douglas, ever the scientist, hatches a plan to change Connie's mind: he will ensure their trip becomes an exemplar of the happy family they can be. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Us is a compellingly human and deftly humorous novel of what holds marriages and families together, and what happens when they threaten to fall apart.  CE

Nonfiction: Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life, by Peter Ackroyd (Nan A. Talese): One hundred years after his first film was released, Charlie Chaplin is still one of the most recognizable actors from Hollywood. In this concise biography, Peter Ackroyd revisits one of the first international celebrities. The book follows Chaplin as he learns his craft in South London, insists on becoming his own director in America, gets tangled in politics, and eventually is exiled to Switzerland.—RH

Poetry: Monday marks 100 years since the birth of Dylan Thomas: The Welsh poet and broadcaster died at age 39, but his legacy has flourished both at home and abroad as readers rejoiced at his unwillingness to “go gentle into that good night.” This past Friday saw the staging of his “play for voices” Under Milk Wood at New York City’s 92nd Street Y –listen to a recording here. CE

 Art: “Tom Goldenberg: Landscapes” (through December 16): For a decade the artist Tom Goldenberg has led a peripatetic class called "Drawing on Collections." Visiting the drawing library of a different museum or private collection each week, magnifying glass in hand, he and his students get as close as possible to the artist's touch in New York's rich and largely untapped archive of works on paper. Back in the studio, Goldenberg has clearly worked through these many discoveries in his own landscapes. An intelligent and wide-ranging selection of his art is now on view in “Tom Goldenberg: Landscapes,” which remains on view at The Graduate Center, The City University of New York through December 16, 2014. JP

Music: The Jerusalem Quartet at 92Y (Wednesday, October 29) and Curlew River at St. John the Divine (October 29-November 1): This makes two weeks in a row that I've highlighted Brahms, but when his chamber music is showcased, it's hard to turn away. On Wednesday the Jerusalem String Quartet will finish their “Intimate Brahms” series, joined by the pianist Inon Barnatan for the F-minor quintet. For a change of pace, the White Light Festival on Thursday opens a three-night run of Curlew River at the Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The superb tenor Ian Bostridge stars as the Madwoman in Benjamin Britten's haunting church parable. ECS

Other: The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, by Mark Steyn (Regnery, 2014): The irrepressible Mark Steyn is back with a new collection of essays. The [Un]documented Mark Steyn (Don't Say You Weren't Warned) is a rich cornucopia of essays about the future of America from National Review, The Atlantic MonthlyThe Spectator (both the American and the English ones), London’s Daily Telegraph, and several other literary organs here and abroad.  No one else combines Steyn’s dazzling humor, astonishing erudition, and gripping apocalyptic prognostication.  All is not well in the fruited plains of this great republic, and no one provides chapter and verse of our unfolding dégringolade with the authority and rhetorical élan of Mark Steyn. It’s a neat trick, making societal collapse seem entertaining as well as horrifying, but Steyn manages the feat with consummate skill. —RK

From the archive: Apologia pro Newman, by Paul Dean: Review of The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman, edited by Frank M. Turner 

From our latest issue: Men of the baroque: the sculptor & the poet, by F. H. Buckley: On the works of Gianlorenzo Bernini and Richard Crashaw.

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Watching Shakespeare

by Kate Havard

Posted: Oct 27, 2014 12:32 PM


Kenneth Branagh as Henry V, 1989

This past Saturday was the 599th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, the historical occasion for the magnificent St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare's Henry V. The speech reminds me of the worst Henry V that I ever saw—which is also my favorite.

A few years ago, the Folger Shakespeare Library in D.C. staged Henry V with a very promising rising star in the lead. But in the performance I saw, the man playing the King was not the man whose face was on the posters.

This man was scrawny, unsure of himself, and certainly not dashing. He took the audience through until intermission with nothing objectionable, but his performance was flat. This other Henry didn’t fill up the space on stage. We were powerfully reminded that he was just a man in a dark room, saying words.

The second act was worse.  For some reason, the interloper was carrying a scroll in his hand, and I soon realized that he was reading from a script. The room was painfully still. 

He did not have the famous St. Crispin's day speech memorized, and after a few lines looked down to read from the pages he held. Too embarrassed to watch, I looked at the program and noticed a sheet of paper wedged into the back: Aha.

This Henry V was an understudy. A miserable one.

 

---

After the show, I went to find the stage manager. As it turned out, the lead actor had fallen seriously ill the night before, in the middle of the performance. But because it was still very early on in the run, the understudy hadn't yet learned all of Henry's lines (understudies typically don’t start full rehearsal until the show is underway). When the lead actor went down, the stage managers waved the understudy offstage (he had been playing one of the rowdy tavern dwellers), placed a crown on his head, and told him he would have to go on as King.

With this knowledge, the show went from an illustration of embarrassingly bad Shakespeare to a metaphor for Prince Hal's life: a barfly in the background who, due to forces outside his control, needed to become a King—and fast. No wonder that on a stage full of nobles and princes, the understudy seemed so wrong. He was never supposed to be there in the first place.

I learned from the cast that the lead was so sick that the understudy would be going on again in the next performance. He had two days to become Henry V.  So I went back to the second performance wondering: could he do it?

That night, the air of heroic inevitability that often surrounds King Henry was gone.

Usually, the king’s struggles with his wild youth and bad reputation are confined to the earlier Henry IV plays, parts 1 and 2. By the time Henry V rolls around, young Hal is a near-perfect king. The bad Prince Harry is merely a rumor, an unhappy memory.

But in this production, Henry hadn't quite shaken off his ignominy. Normally,when the French court sends King Henry a case of tennis balls instead of the tribute he demands, the gesture seems a rash and foolish error. Who would risk insulting the King played by Branagh or Olivier? 

But when there is a bad Henry, an uncertain Henry, the insult is threatening and humiliating. He is called out for being a fake, for being out of his league. His enemies don't fear him, and his allies are unsure of him (for even though they said all the right lines, the other actors were surely anxious). Henry the understudy had struggled manfully along so far, but he was clearly not Henry the king.

---

The second performance was like watching someone try to light a fire, but only succeed in summoning up embers and smoke. Soon we were approaching the St. Crispin's day speech. At least there was no more script in the understudy’s hand.

“What’s he that wishes so? My cousin Westmoreland?”

 

He started. He kept going. Halfway through, he was good. Not great, but good. As the other actors sensed that he was pulling it off, he got better.  

“Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,

But he'll remember with advantages

What feats he did that day…”

 

There it was: he had us.  He lit the fire. If only for one speech, he was Henry V.  He went in for the close:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

The other actors were in tears. Their cheers of triumph were real.

 

---

Later I went back to the Folger and saw the "real" production, and technically, it was much better. But the bad Henry remains my favorite.  His performance was an example of why it pays to watch Shakespeare rather than just read it: the medium of theater teaches even through its flaws.

A play with no lead actor is rather like a kingdom with a deposed king.  Prince Hal himself was a kind of inglorious understudy, given command of an enterprise that seemed doomed.  And although I don’t think it was how Henry V was meant to be played, the understudy’s travails highlighted for me the fragile, difficult nature of Prince Hal’s burden: to convince a doubtful audience that he is the rightful King. When Henry is a heroic figure, the task seems easy. In reality, it’s anything but. 

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Oct 24, 2014 02:24 PM


We few, we happy few, we band of readers: This Saturday is St. Crispin’s Day.

 

This week's links:

Yes More Drama, by Dan Kois
“…A great published script makes you understand what the play is, at its heart. Not just what a certain production was like, though it also ought to do a good job of that. It makes you understand how the play feels as a living work of art—how it sounds and behaves inside your head…”

US Army Set to Drop $600K on WWI Art, by Paul McLeary
Well, I guess anyone can get into the art game now.

The Stradivarius Affair, by Buzz Bissinger
If you’re looking to steal a 299 year-old violin, I hear Wisconsin’s the place.

Green Day, by Eric Banks
A hue for health, hearth, and danger. The color green is on its way up, but from where?

Under Milk Wood at the 92nd Street Y (event)
A reading starring and directed by Michael Sheen, broadcast live by BBC Wales.


From our pages:

Crocodile tears on the back nine, by James Bowman
What are Obama’s plans for ISIS?

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About ArmaVirumque

 

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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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