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Levine's Progress

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: May 12, 2015 02:17 PM


James Levine; photo by Jonathan Tichler

The Metropolitan Opera season has now ended, and it ended with James Levine conducting a doubleheader: The Rake’s Progress (Stravinsky) and Un ballo in maschera (Verdi) on Saturday. It is remarkable, and remarkably good, to have Levine back, after a host of medical problems sidelined him. Every performance seems like a bonus.

I heard Levine conduct The Rake’s Progress on Monday, May 4. This opera, as you know, is an example of Stravinsky’s neo-Classical style. It is based on the engravings of Hogarth, and the libretto is by Auden (with Chester Kallman). The Met’s production is that of 1997 by Jonathan Miller (now Sir Jonathan).

Levine was not at his crispest and sharpest the night I heard him. He did not have his A game, as Tiger Woods might say. (Woods has had a worse decade than Levine.) His conducting could have been both crisper and lither. More graceful. It was sometimes a bit heavy, borderline clumsy.

But my standards for Levine are very high, as his own standards are. That he conducted commendably almost goes without saying.

The Met orchestra played well for Levine, and this is especially true of the winds. The Rake’s Progress is a workout for winds. Usually the strings have pride of place. Stravinsky puts other players, other sections, in the sun.

Singing the role of Tom Rakewell was Paul Appleby, the American tenor. He is sweet-voiced and pure. A bigger voice might have been desirable, but Appleby could be heard, and he did not force. One of the things I admired about him is that he kept everything simple. He did not permit complications. He just “let it happen.” “’Tis the gift to be simple.”

As the opera unfolded, I thought, “Appleby does not have much of a presence onstage. There is not much magnetism coming from him.” But, you know? Appleby’s Rakewell was a kind of Everyman, which is not a bad thing.

Singing his true love, or discarded true love—namely, Anne Trulove—was Layla Claire, the Canadian soprano. She is lissome and endearing. She made a splendid Anne Trulove—except when it perhaps counted most, I’m sorry to say. That was in the aria that begins “No word from Tom.”

I sometimes think of this multi-sectioned aria as Stravinsky’s “Come scoglio” (referring to a soprano aria in Mozart’s Così fan tutte).

Claire was simply not ready to sing the aria, especially its final, fast section. She did not have the flexibility. Her pitch was uncertain. Her rhythm was sloppy. She took an awkward breath before the ending high C, and that C was wretched. She held it very briefly, which was wise. Ideally, the note spins and spins.

This aria ought to be thrilling—maybe the high point of the opera, for me—and it was a letdown.

I have written harshly about Layla Claire, but let me emphasize that she handled most of her role beautifully. And that she is a lovable, talented, and valuable singer.

Gerald Finley, the Canadian bass-baritone, was Nick Shadow, i.e., the devil, and he was suavely sinister. Finley is so polished and intelligent, I sometimes think he is too much so (which is strange). Stephanie Blythe, the American mezzo, stole scenes as Baba the Turk, as she always does.

There was another mezzo onstage, Margaret Lattimore, as the brothelkeeper. (This character is the whorehouse equivalent of a playing manager in baseball.) It is always good to hear Lattimore’s sizable and glowing voice. A British bass, Brindley Sherratt, sang Father Trulove, and he did so in a gravely paternal manner, which was just right.

Back to Levine. His season is not quite over, for he leads the Met orchestra in Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon. The program is the Brahms D-minor piano concerto, with Yefim Bronfman as soloist, and the Symphonie fantastique (Berlioz). On paper, this is a great concert. What will it be like in the hall? Stay tuned . . .

 

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Westminster Election Diary

by David Pryce-Jones

Posted: May 08, 2015 01:36 PM


 

May 8th. 16.00 hours. High Noon.

One of Winston Churchill’s most famous bon mots is that democracy is the worst of systems except for all the others. What a tribute!  If Britain were a third world country this election would have ended in violence. Instead, the country’s political scene has been cleansed with an efficiency only slightly less brutal than that of the firing-squad. Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, leaders of three parties unable to perform, had all resigned by lunchtime and will not be heard from any more. The electorate had the chance to expel unwanted figures into the limbo reserved for politicians who failed the tests they are expected to pass.
 
Out with George Galloway, voluntary trumpeter of Arab dictators. Out with Ed Balls, whose ideological games had wrecked the economy. Out with Vince Cable, who embodied disloyalty to colleagues. Nothing is to be learnt from them and numerous others of the same stamp.  The fate of Ed Miliband, though, has a moral. He intrigued against his brother David, in order to appropriate his place as leader of the Labour Party, only to fail in that position without any possibility of reprieve. The ancient Greeks attributed such self-seeking to hubris, with the necessary payoff of nemesis. This election offers an unforgettable illustration of this age-old understanding of cause and effect in human affairs.
 

May 8. 0600 hours. First light.

 “But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.” Writing that immortal line, G.K. Chesterton was trusting the governed to get the measure of their governors. Getting that measure is the contribution of the people of England to the common good. And gracious heavens, against all forecasts the people of England have done it again. The pundits repeated in unanimous chorus that the Conservatives and Labour were neck and neck. Through the night, though, the Conservatives were winning seats by ever-larger margins, and Labour was losing them. By now, David Cameron is evidently able to form a Conservative government unshackled by a coalition. The astonishment and disbelief of those chorusing pundits, especially on the BBC, is a comedy that lightens the spirits.  

The cause of the Labour downfall is simple enough. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, proves to be a hard-line Leftist, believing that the state should control the individual and the individual should have no control over the state. Resenting capitalism, he wants to control markets and punish through taxation everyone who has benefitted from markets. He reminds me of Mikhael Gorbachev, whose policy of perestroika was supposed to have the edge over reality. One look at him has been enough for the people of England.  

The Scottish National Party has captured an almost clean sweep of the Scottish seats, thus smashing beyond repair the previous Labour monopoly. A twenty-year-old student, in one startling instance, has trounced an experienced former cabinet minister. Culturally distinct from the English, the people of Scotland are wandering away into another imaginary landscape of socialism and nationalism. Now where have we had examples of this combination, and has any good ever come of it?

 

May 7, Midnight. The Witching Hour.

There are still a few generous Londoners who invite their friends to come to their houses during the fraught hours when the votes in a general election are being counted. One such host is Tom Stacey, who has behind him a long and glittering career in publishing and journalism. The crowds in his house have a touch of the fever that is current once the polls have closed and the votes are being counted. Exit polls are only temperature tests, but one of 20,000 voters gives the Conservatives 319, just short of the magic 326 and so in need of a coalition. That same poll puts Labour at 239, plainly second by a long way.

In the previous parliament the minority Conservatives were able to govern because a coalition with the Liberal Democrats produced a majority of 72. Pro-Europe, climate change enthusiasts, pacifists, and always politically correct, Liberal Democrat voters are so disgusted that their party leaders out of pure opportunism formed a coalition with the Conservatives that they have deserted the party. The exit poll gives them just 10 seats, which would leave a renewed coalition with a majority of one.

In the event that the Conservatives cannot find coalition partners, Labour could try to cobble together all the parties of the Left. Ed Balls, a Labour former Chancellor of the Exchequer, came on to the BBC to explain how this trick might be performed, his face gleaming with dishonesty. Scotland was a Labour fiefdom, but the exit poll gives the Scottish National Party 58 of the 59 Scottish seats: in short, it will have eradicated and humiliated Labour. Balls speaks as if a coalition of these two leftist enemies was natural, viable, likely; an admirable way of throwing Conservatives out of the window.

Two conclusions emerge on the horizon. With many fewer votes than the Conservatives, Labour seems willing to try to govern by hook or crook. The absence of legitimacy would certainly destabilize the country. Meanwhile, the frenzy of Scottish nationalism looks set to break apart the United Kingdom.

The night is young, and mischief is afoot.

 

May 7, 1500 hours. Election day in England. 

In the Conservative corner, David Cameron, the present Prime Minister. In the Socialist corner Ed (false bonhomie for Edward) Miliband. It came to me lately that my judgement is coloured by having known the fathers of both these politicians. I was at school with Ian Cameron. Born without heels, he had to undergo many operations. Wearing specially made boots that could not really compensate for the handicap, he played football. Everyone admired the courage. Then when I was literary editor of Time and Tide, a weekly magazine, Ralph Miliband used to come round to the office trying to wheedle into print his childish Marxistic apologias. Yesterday, in a lengthy and detailed profile on Sky Television, a man who knew him well said that Ed was different from Ralph only in the one respect: that he planned to put his utopia in place without violence.

Never mind his startling record of incompetence and ignorance, the implicit class warfare ought to be enough to sink Miliband, his colleagues and his party—but it isn’t so. The Westminster parliament consists of 650 seats, and normally in our two-party system whoever obtains the majority of 326 and upwards forms the government. Recent polls, as well as Cameron and Miliband on the hustings, all estimate that Conservatives and Labour will both finish somewhere in the range of 280 to 300 seats. One prospect, therefore, is the minority government of one or other of the parties, by its nature short-term and unstable.

But special interest groups have mortally wounded the two-party system. Large numbers of Conservatives have split to form the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), for the purpose of leaving the European Union. Instead of wooing them, Cameron has been inexplicably off-hand, not to say offensive. With parlous symmetry, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) is predicted to take all 59 constituencies in Scotland, almost all of which had previously been Labour.

Miliband therefore could obtain fewer seats than Cameron but nonetheless entice the SNP into a coalition, in which case Scots as nationalists would be governing the English. Gnomic pronouncements from Labour politicians suggest that Miliband is indeed planning to set up a government cobbled out of the SNP and other minority parties. The lack of legitimacy would be an unwelcome novelty, nothing less than the democratic version of a coup.

My polling station happened to be in the ominously named Macbeth Street. "Double, double, toil and trouble," I told myself. “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.”

 

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On the road with Verdi

by Eric C. Simpson

Posted: May 08, 2015 09:26 AM


Troy Cook and Eric Owens in Verdi's Don Carlo at Opera Philadelphia; photo by Kelly & Massa photography

Over the weekend, I visited my home city of Philadelphia to check in on its opera company. It had been almost a decade since I’d set foot in the Academy of Music at Broad and Locust; the thrill is no less than I remembered. This is one of America’s great concert halls, even if it no longer hosts one of America’s great orchestras. Its auditorium is beautifully decorated in old-world splendor, and at 2,300 seats it feels positively cozy next to the cavernous Met.

The opera on Sunday was Verdi’s Don Carlo, a personal favorite. Opera Philadelphia’s production was mounted specifically to give the star bass-baritone Eric Owens a chance to try on the role of King Philip, and so it was natural that the director, Tim Albery, might try to recenter the opera around his character. In large part, this means that Owens must give a compelling dramatic and vocal performance, which, to no one’s surprise, he did. Owens’s Philip is a king weighed down by self-doubt and immeasurable loneliness. His account of the extended monologue “Ella giammai m’amo” was quieter and more introspective than the interpretation we’ve heard at the Met lately (that of the miraculous Ferruccio Furlanetto), but it was powerful in its own way.

Albery’s other attempts to make this Philip’s story were problematic, at best. First off, he cut the first act. This is a traditional cut. And a bad one. I’m not necessarily against cuts as a rule (God knows Carmen is bloated at full length), but absent the “Fontainebleau” act, Don Carlo makes less sense musically and just about no sense dramatically. With it, Verdi introduces several important musical motifs, and we learn that Carlo, the prince of the title, was engaged to be married to Elisabetta, a French Princess, but that she was instead married to Philip, Carlo’s father, in order to seal a peace treaty between France and Spain. Without it, we spend the first three acts wondering why this maladjusted young royal is lusting after his stepmom (though Dmitri Pittas’s gangly portrayal actually fit that narrative fairly well).

One conceit in particular left me scratching my head: Albery, drawing on the subplot of the rebellion in Flanders, wanted to show Philip as the head of an especially violent regime that has spiralled out of his control. In order to do so he took the auto-da-fé scene, an obvious choice, and recast it as a scene out of a Nazi death camp—not an obvious choice. Picking such a specific—not to mention sensitive—historical event as your allegory is a risky directorial move, especially when it’s done offhand, as it was in Albery’s staging. The image materializes out of nowhere—one moment, we’re supposedly in the garden of the palace, and the next, the chorus, uniformed in grey work clothes, is singing protestations of faith through a cage fence. No doubt the invocation of the Holocaust was meant to shock the audience, but it was more puzzling than anything else. I needn’t parse why that’s a problem.

Throw in some questionable singing by a couple of the principals, and there wasn’t much cause for optimism before the intermission. What came after, though, was consistently brilliant. When the curtain rises to reveal Philip’s chamber, the back wall of the set has been blown open as though by artillery fire, revealing a stormy evening sky—a dramatic explanation would require some particularly close reading, but visually the effect was striking, especially after the drab sameness that dominated the first half. Much of the opera’s most intense music comes in the fourth and fifth (third and fourth, in this version) acts, and the principals all hit their strides at precisely the right moments. Michelle DeYoung, whose mezzo-soprano had earlier sounded strangled at the top of Eboli’s showy “Veil song,” gave a riveting account of the impassioned “O don fatale,” finding just the right amount of crackle in her voice. Leah Crocetto played the scene of “Tu che le vanità” with intensity and sculpted the aria sensitively, showing off a a plush soprano that cut right across the orchestra without a hint of strain at its top. Morris Robinson's cavernous voice shook the auditorium in his appearance as the Grand Inquisitor.

One performance truly stands out in my mind—even in the shadow of Owens, Troy Cook’s noble portrayal of Rodrigo was a thrill to behold. It can be a thankless task, representing the loyal sidekick of a troubled Infante, but Cook was fully invested in his character, and his voice is ideal for the role. He has a beautiful, robust, woolen baritone, the sort that flows effortlessly in its middle range, and gathers energy as it climbs higher, never showing the faintest hint of a blemish. His interpretations of the two arias in his death scene could stand next to just about anyone’s—that glorious, full tone never faltered, even as he peppered his final lines with twinges of agony. To this point, Cook has appeared mostly with regional American companies, such as Kentucky, the Boston Lyric, and Opera North Carolina. It’s rarely worth speculating as to why this or that singer is not engaged at this or that house, and I won’t attempt that here. But I will say that if Cook should make an appearance in New York, I will make a point of going to hear him.

 

Morris Robinson and Eric Owens in Don Carlo at Opera Philadelphia

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The Critic's Notebook for May 4, 2015

by Christine Emba

Posted: May 05, 2015 11:49 AM


Jacob Lawrence, “In the North the African American had more educational opportunities.” 1941, now at MoMA

 

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

 

This week: Striving migrants, romantic outlaws, and suburban eccentrics.  

FictionThe Wonder Garden, by Lauren Acampora (Grove Press):  Lauren Acampora’s debut novel is a series of intelligent and often unnerving interlinked stories set in a fictional upscale Connecticut suburb called Old Cranbury. With precise prose and pointed metaphors, Acampora paints a striking and convincing picture of the eccentricities that lie behind seemingly conventional façades.  —CE

Nonfiction: Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon (Random House): Romantic Outlaws is the first comprehensive dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and her daughter, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Though the two hardly knew each other—Wollstonecraft died just ten days after giving birth—their lives are similarly compelling. This is emphasized by Gordon’s technique of alternating between the two women every chapter. This is not just the story of two fascinating lives, but of two critical periods in history: Revolutionary France and Victorian England. And, of course, William Godwin, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley make their necessary appearances throughout. —RH

Poetry: Blue Fasa, by Nathaniel Mackey (New Directions): This sixth collection of poems from the 2006 National Book Award winner extends two interwoven and ongoing serial poems from his previous works, and takes its title from two related musical traditions: a West African griot epic as told by the Fasa, an ancient Ghanaian clan, and the trumpeter Kenny Dorhaham’s classic “Blue Bossa,” influenced by Brazilian bossa nova. Mackey’s poems are commanding in their cerebral and musical reach, a lyrical migration through time, place, and polity. —CE

Art: “One-Way Ticket”: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series at MoMA (April 3-September 7): Bjork at MoMA has received all the hate hype. And to be sure, judging by the crowds, this exhibition has furthered the museum's mission to build a better tourist trap. Still, it's worth battling the lines and making your way to the relatively empty MoMA exhibition "One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series and Other Works." In 1941, Lawrence painted sixty tempera panels with captions illustrating the Great Migration, the movement of black Americans from the rural South to the industrial North. The series was immediately acquired by MoMA and The Phillips Collection, taking thirty panels each. Now together again at the museum for the first time in twenty years, this important series is as illustrative and moving as ever. Look for a full review in our forthcoming June issue.  —JP

Music: The Road of Promise, performed by the Collegiate Chorale at Carnegie Hall (May 6-7): No one would accuse Kurt Weill of choosing a flimsy subject; his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht before and immediately after his flight from Nazi Geramny produced a number of masterful musical-dramatical works, including The Seven Deadly Sins, the satirical Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and the gritty Threepenny Opera. His 1937 collaboration with Franz Werfel, an epic telling of the story of the Jewish people in the Old Testament, The Eternal Promise had a brief initial run due to its high production costs, and has been revived only once. This week, the Collegiate Chorale and the Orchestra of St. Luke's present the U.S. premiere of a concert adaptation of the work entitled The Road of Promise for two performances at Carnegie Hall. —ECS

Other: PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature (May 4-10): As recent events have shown, the PEN is mightier than the sword. This week, one hundred writers from thirty countries descend upon New York City for readings, workshops, performances, and more as part of the literary organization’s annual celebration. This year’s festival is set to highlight contemporary literary cultures across Africa and its diaspora. The list of headlining writers includes names like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (who co-curated the event along with festival director Laszlo Jakab Orsos), Sigrid Nunez, and Tom Stoppard.  —CE

From the archive: The many lives of Frederick Douglass, by James Tuttleton: Remembrance, reconciliation, and transcendence.

From our latest issue: The moral of Caesar, by Roger Kimball: Ceasar’s death was more than the end of an extraordinary life; it was the end of an era. 

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: May 01, 2015 05:05 PM


Edgar Degas, Jockeys in the Rain, 1886
It's May, our new issue is out, and the Kentucky Derby is tomorrow!

Recent links of note:

Is the West's loss of faith terminal?
Douglas Murray, Standpoint
Life in modern liberal democracies has become thinner and more shallow. What does this mean for the future of our society?

Decorum in the digital age
Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post
"Silence was once prized as a mark of success in many public spaces, including libraries, museums and concert halls; the vibrancy of many of those spaces, today, is measured by noise, hubbub and laughter.”

Theft of rare books investigated at New York Public Library
Darah Gregorian, New York Daily News
The overdue fines are going to be terrible. 

The New Yorker & MoMA: Have New York City's twin towers of culture lost their way?
Robert Silverman, The Daily Beast
Once pillars of cosmopolitan seriousness, they now pander to celebrity.  

Six PEN members decline gala after award for Charlie Hebdo
Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times
The decision by PEN American Center to give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to the French satirical newspaper has prompted dissent. Salman Rushdie disapproves, and the argument has spilled over onto Facebook and Twitter, those time-honored venues for literary debate. 

 

From our pages:

 A burnt-out fairground
David Pryce-Jones
A selection from David Pryce-Jones's memoir depicts the literary machinations, anti-Semitism, and changing politics of twentieth-century Europe.

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Charles Murray to receive third Edmund Burke Award

by Rebecca Hecht

Posted: Apr 29, 2015 12:18 PM


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

NEW YORK, April 29, 2015 — Distinguished social scientist Charles Murray will receive the third Edmund Burke Award for Service to Culture and Society at The New Criterion’s gala tonight in New York City. The event benefits The New Criterion, an influential monthly review of the arts and intellectual life, and the award, which was first presented to Dr. Henry Kissinger in 2012, gives homage to the inspiration provided by Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century political philosopher.

Charles Murray will be the guest of honor and will be delivering remarks on "Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission."

“For more than three decades, Murray has brought to his writing a visceral appreciation of the fiduciary bond that links past and future,” remarked Roger Kimball, the Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion. “Not only does his work exhibit a refreshing freedom from cant and an inspiring allergy to the protean and seductive intoxications of sentimentality, it is also instinct with a deep humanity and unwavering commitment to the intractable realities that make human flourishing possible.”

Murray’s groundbreaking scholarship, beginning with Losing Ground in 1984 and encompassing influential, provocative works such as The Bell Curve (1994), Real Education (2008), and Coming Apart (2012), has revolutionized our thinking about a wide range of hitherto intractable social problems: from welfare policy and meaningful education reform to the perquisites of individual liberty, the blight of statist overreach, and the conditions for lasting cultural achievement.

About The New Criterion

The New Criterion (www.newcriterion.com) is a New York-based monthly literary magazine and journal of artistic and cultural criticism, edited by Roger Kimball. It was founded in 1982 by Hilton Kramer, former art critic for The New York Times who passed away in March 2012, and Samuel Lipman, a pianist and music critic. The New Criterion draws inspiration and its name from The Criterion, a British literary magazine edited by T. S. Eliot from 1922 to 1939. For over three decades, it has featured criticism of poetry, theatre, art, music, the media, and books from America's leading commentators.

Since its inception, the magazine has been home to many of the smartest minds in cultural journalism including Donald Kagan, Henry Kissinger, Mark Steyn, Andrew Roberts, Theodore Dalrymple, Joseph Epstein, Denis Donoghue, William F. Buckley Jr., Andrew C. McCarthy, and Charles Murray.

The Times Literary Supplement has said "The New Criterion is probably more consistently worth reading than any other magazine in English." The Wall Street Journal has said "it operates as a refuge for a civilizing element in short supply in contemporary America: honest criticism" and calls The New Criterion "the best art magazine and a provocative force in other cultural areas."

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Contact:

Christine Emba
The New Criterion

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A profile in reviewing courage

by James Bowman

Posted: Apr 29, 2015 12:09 PM


 

Just over a year ago I wrote of the Twitter-bombing I had received on account of having written that the movie 12 Years a Slave would have been better, and even more effective as propaganda, if it had allowed itself to present an ever-so-slightly more benign portrait of slavery in the antebellum South than the exaggeratedly moralistic one it had in fact presented. A few months later, The Economist got an even more severe bombardment for publishing a review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books) which made much the same point—and subsequently made the career and fortune of Mr. Baptist when the review had to be withdrawn (though you can still see it in a segregated “special page” of the website “in the interests of transparency”) with a groveling apology from the editors for having run it in the first place.

A few weeks ago, the Times Literary Supplement (paywall)—which once employed me as its American editor—got around to publishing its own review of Mr. Baptist’s book by Ari Kelman, the McCabe Greer Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War, to be published next month. Professor Kelman begins by recounting the story of The Economist’s dreadful faux pas and then proceeds to demonstrate, as he was clearly well-advised to do, that he has no intention of making any similar mistakes himself.

The firestorm greeting the Economist review revealed a publishing landscape re-oriented by ubiquitous social media, a US political climate superheated by several high-profile cases of police and vigilante violence against African Americans, a cultural moment in which critiques of capitalism were gaining renewed purchase, and a surprisingly deep engagement among some readers with the historiography of slavery. What the reaction to the Economist’s pan of Baptist’s work failed to do was enlighten observers about the content or quality of The Half Has Never Been Told, a book unusual, even courageous, for its enormous ambition and admirable breadth, but also occasionally confounding due to the author’s rhetorical choices.

And, of course, he would know all about courageousness. He then summons up the ghost of William Archibald Dunning, the long dead historian and apologist for segregation, as if Dunning’s ideas were the only possible alternative to those of the "radical" tradition, in which Mr. Baptist is working, of historians who "locate slavery at the core rather than on the periphery of the American experience." Not surprisingly, Mr. Baptist agrees with the radicals. “He argues that the ‘peculiar institution’ should not be understood as a vestigial organ, an appendix or spleen waiting to be cut from the body politic on the eve of the Civil War, but as the beating heart of the United States’s economic development. Armed with reams of data from scores of archives. . .” etc. etc.

The implication is that the reams of data and the scores of archives justify such an extraordinary (and, I should have thought, self-evidently false) assertion as that slavery was “the beating heart of the United States’s economic development.” He does not actually say so, however, preferring merely to hint at the sort of criticisms the Economist’s reviewer made (“Other onlookers were upset that the Economist questioned Baptist’s reliance on qualitative rather than quantitative evidence: stories recounted by former slaves.”) Huh? what about those reams of data and scores of archives? Did that all amount to no more than a collection of anecdotes? Well, he’s not going to say that either, only that “like many scholars working in a post-colonial context, he lets survivors of bondage speak for themselves.”

By consulting “thousands of personal narrative”, he promises a layered interpretation. “One story fills in gaps left by another”, he explains, “allowing one to read between the lines.” The alternative would be granting slaveholders monopoly rights on their history, relying exclusively on the oppressors to depict the practices of oppression and the people they oppressed.

This, too, is self-evidently false. The only two “alternatives” he allows for are relying only on slaves’ or only on slaveholders’ accounts when a careful historian would pretty obviously want to use both together to get at the truth—not the emotional truth that can be used for political purposes, including the preposterous one of morally invalidating the entire American national experience, but the truth which announces itself by being complicated and difficult and uncongenial to the childishly simple division of the world into good guys and bad guys, victims and their oppressors.

Then there comes just the soupçon of a hint that maybe The Half Has Never Been Told relies on composite portraits of its victims—or, as Professor Kelman prefers to put it: “some of the vignettes told from the perspective of enslaved people incorporate not only the specific content of the historical documents cited, but also details from other sources, as is the custom with evocative history.” Oh, is that what you call it? Evocative history? One has seen this “custom” before, of course, but one didn’t know the technical name. But Professor Kelman would not have us think that there’s anything wrong with that: “Some readers will be grateful for this unorthodox stylistic choice, which Baptist repeats throughout his book, allowing his portraiture in these cases to approximate photorealism. Others may wonder if some of the verisimilitude that marks The Half Has Never Been Told strays closer to surrealism.”

Others may wonder! That’s as near to criticism as he allows himself to get before hurrying on to a ringing endorsement of Edward Baptist’s view that police killings of black criminals or Trayvon Martin’s killing by a man he had been fighting are all part of “the legacies of slavery.” In his final sentence, he slyly adds: “For its defenders, then, The Half Has Never Been Told has offered the historical backdrop for the stirring declaration ‘black lives matter’”—not that he is necessarily one of its defenders! Well, I suppose we should thank Professor Kelman for pushing so far towards what must be the very outer limit that scholars are henceforth to be permitted for criticizing the work of those wonderfully “unorthodox” evocative historians who can claim a victim’s privilege for their moralizing—and so showing us where that limit lies.

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Critic's Notebook for April 27, 2015

by Christine Emba

Posted: Apr 27, 2015 06:58 PM


 

Jacob Collins, Peonies in a Silver Cup, 2014, at Adelson Galleries

 

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

 

This week: Rakes, Bookaneers, lapdogs, and loners. 

FictionThe Last Bookaneer: A Novel, by Matthew Pearl (Penguin Press): London in the 1890s was a dangerous place for authors. Unprotected by strict copyright laws and living amongst a large literate public that was ravenous for new entertainment, writers were often the victims of bookaneers: manuscript stealers or “literary pirates,” as Matthew Pearl (Dante scholar, Yale Law School graduate, and author of The Dante Club) describes them in his newest novel. These bookaneers wandered into cafes and print shops to steal other peoples’ writing and give it to publishers, who are able to make huge profits off the works of great authors such as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. However, a new international copyright law means that things are about to change. Matthew Pearl’s novel starts off as Pen Davenport, the best bookaneer in Europe is working on his last big steal: the latest manuscript from Robert Louis Stevenson, who is living out his final days on the island of Samoa. But he’s not the only bookaneer that wants this important work, and this assignment will prove to be one of the biggest thefts of his life. —RH

Nonfiction: The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (America in the World), by Jürgen Osterhammel, translated by Patrick Camiller (Princeton University Press): I have only just begun to dig into this huge, ambitious, multifaceted book, but I can already tell that it is an important and penetrating history of modernity and America's place in that unfinished project. A grand history of the old school with a dollop of up-to-date methodology. Long but rewarding. —RK

Poetry: Nothing to Declare: Poems, by Henri Cole (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): In his ninth collection of poetry, the highly acclaimed Cole displays a startling vulnerability in expressive yet graceful language. Cole’s delicate poems are an invitation to readers to bear witness to life’s burdens. —CE

Art: Jacob Collins at Adelson Galleries (April 28-May 30): Through his own schools, most recently the Grand Central Atelier in Long Island City, Jacob Collins has taught a generation of artists the revived disciplines of classical painting. Through all this instruction, Collins's first student was himself, and he remains enrolled in his own ongoing course of rediscovery. Opening Tuesday, the latest products of his study are on view through May 30 in an exhibition of still lifes at Adelson Galleries, the venerable gallery now in the Crown Building. —JP

Music: The Rake’s Progress at the Metropolitan Opera (May 1-9): Stravinsky's 1951 masterpiece The Rake's Progress returns to the Metropolitan Opera for a fleeting run of three performances beginning this Friday. The composer’s glittering wit shines in this opera based on the series of paintings by William Hogarth, and the Met has assembled a superb cast to work with James Levine. Paul Appleby makes his role debut as Tom Rakewell opposite Gerald Finley's Nick Shadow. The marvelous Stephanie Blythe, who has an upcoming recital at Carnegie Hall (look for her in this listing in a few weeks), plays Baba the Turk, and Layla Claire sings the enchanting Anne Trulove. —ECS

Other: “When You Cut Into the Present the Future Leaks Out” at the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse (April 23—July 19) and “The Architecture of Democracy” at First Things (Tuesday, April 28): For decades, the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse, at the intersection of the Melrose and Morrisania neighborhoods of the South Bronx, has stood as a derelict reminder of the once-great ambition of the Bronx and its embodiment in civic architecture. Built between 1905 and 1914, designed in part by the artist Oscar Bluemner, the Courthouse is now temporarily brought back to life by No Longer Empty. This engaging arts organization delivers art to underserved neighborhoods by recommissioning underused architecture. Anyone fortunate enough to have seen the fascinating intervention at the nearby Andrew Freedman Home three years ago will know this latest project is a must-see. Visitors will find a vibrant area that is unrecognizable from the neighborhood that was once depicted in "Fort Apache in the Bronx." When there, be sure to try the Jamaican cuisine at K & L Restaurant, across the street from the exhibition.

On the subject of architecture: With the new Whitney Museum, designed by Renzo Piano, set to open May 1, the critic and activist Justin Shubow offers a valuable dissenting voice to such contemporary design. This Tuesday at 6pm he brings his lecture on "The Architecture of Democracy" to the editorial offices of First Things—JP

From the archive: Of lapdogs & loners: American poetry today, by Eric Ormsby: On the distinctive state of poetry in America.

From our latest issue: Scandal, or lack thereof, by James Bowman: On the thin line between scandal and partisan rhetoric.

 

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Tragically misguided

by Kyle Smith

Posted: Apr 27, 2015 11:46 AM


Peter Sarsgaard as Hamlet in the Classic Stage Company production of HAMLET

Peter Sarsgaard’s Hamlet is a flippant, cocaine-snorting party boy with a shaved head and sleek contemporary clothes. His silky shirt and impeccable sport jacket say, “Point me to the dance floor.” He makes impertinent gestures, delivers many of his lines in a high-pitched trill, and frequently interrupts himself with girlish titters. He says “conscience does make cow-aa-aa-ards of us all” and balls his fists up under his chin when he’s angry. His Dark Prince of Elsinore is the most sarcastic gay waiter you’ve ever met.

It’s a strange approach for Sarsgaard, a dependably stealthy and frequently creepy actor who on celluloid is usually found delivering his lines in a deadly monotone. Even when playing gay characters, he rarely comes across as camp. Yet if there’s a Ghost watching over this production, it’s Paul Lynde’s.

The director, Austin Pendleton, himself an experienced performer who has played both Hamlet and Claudius, prides himself on being an actor’s director. Meanwhile, Sarsgaard praises Pendleton’s listening ability. In combination these two factors suggest that Sarsgaard felt free to try something off-beat, perhaps even off-off-beat. The theater is small (199 seats), the off-Broadway location funky and sheltered. Why not do a Hamlet that contains more than one queen?

Credit, I suppose, must be given for audacity, and under Pendleton’s direction at Greenwich Village’s Classic Stage Company (through May 10) a considerably trimmed, 190-minute Hamlet at least feels fresh and brisk. This Hamlet has some spring in its step. But it frequently skips right off the path Shakespeare laid. Pendleton dispenses entirely with King Hamlet—no “murder most foul” here to set the mood for revenge—creating the possibility that we’re meant to think the Ghost might be a group delusion.

The question of Hamlet’s madness, though, seems less compelling in this production than the question of Sarsgaard’s silliness, a stratagem that proves unworkable for several reasons. One is that this normally coiled viper of an actor is not particularly convincing as a flibbertigibbet. His manner is mannered. And his Hamlet is an off-puttingly contemporary figure, one at odds with the much more traditional Claudius (Harris Yulin), stentorian and pompous, a portrayal that would not have been out of place in a 1950s production.

There is nothing new in portraying Hamlet as effeminate. If anything, playing Hamlet as sexually ambiguous was the prevailing choice in the nineteenth century. The great Shakespearean Edwin Booth wrote in 1882, “I have always endeavored to make prominent the femininity of the character and therein lies the secret of my success—I think. I doubt if ever a robust and masculine treatment of the character will be accepted so generally as the more womanly and refined interpretation.”

It seemed inconceivable to our Victorian forebears that a real man would hesitate to act, but to the vacillating, self-doubting twenty-first-century man, an equivocating nature hardly seems difficult to grasp. Yet Sarsgaard isn’t just in touch with his feminine side, he’s a cabaret act. In reconceiving the Bard’s language as a series of snippy asides and vexatious rejoinders, Sarsgaard does injury to it. Hamlet is not a thriller, or at least not a good one—we don’t watch it for the clunky machinations of its plot. In a first-rate production, though, we are enthralled by the fragile beauty of the words and the sorrowful descent of each character into the pit of his own flaws. Sarsgaard is playing a cello with a butter knife here, and such music as he makes clangs against the ear.

As Hamlet puts when directing the performers of The Mousetrap, “It offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters.” It’s a struggle to feel the tragic heft in the words while Sarsgaard chuckles and capers and gesticulates, now with fingers splayed across his midsection, now with an elbow at his hip and his palm raised heavenward. When he kisses Ophelia (an ethereal Lisa Joyce), he immediately flounces away in disgust. He rushes through some lines and pushes others away from him with hand gestures; he is most himself, it seems, when companionably snorting cocaine with Rosencrantz (Scott Parkinson) and Guildenstern (Daniel Morgan Shelley). You get the feeling the main reason he’s so snotty about everything is not that he lost his father to treachery and murder, but that he’d prefer to be free of all obligations so he and his cocaine buddies might dash off to Fire Island to judge a Liza Minnelli-impersonator contest.

Because of Sarsgaard and Pendleton’s choices, Claudius emerges as a much more sympathetic figure. That seems to have been intentional: Pendleton has said that he doesn’t think anyone in the play, Claudius included, deserves to die. Yet should it really be a point of contention which of these two men’s fate is more just? To guide things further off the rails, Pendleton has Claudius succumb to a guilty conscience instead of to Hamlet’s sword. After Gertrude (knowingly) drinks the poison, the king follows suit. There are curious choices, and then there are inexplicable ones. God’s bodkins, this is not supposed to be the Tragedy of Claudius!

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Apr 24, 2015 10:50 AM


Critics and press recuperating at the new Whitney Museum. As an unnamed TNC editor put it: "The best parts of the museum are the windows -- they keep you from having to look at the building."

Recent links of note:

A monument to tastelessness
Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal
A frequent TNC contributor takes on the new Whitney Museum of American Art. In the words of one noted critic: "They'll need some ice for that burn."

The liberal arts vs. neoliberalism
Jackson Lears, Commonweal
"Among the educated professional classes, no one would be caught dead confusing intellectual inquiry with a quest for ultimate meaning, or with the effort to create an independent self. Indeed the very notion of authentic selfhood—a self determined to heed its own ethical and aesthetic imperatives, resistant to the claims of fashion, money, and popularity—has come to seem archaic."

The radical Le Corbusier design that shaped Italy
Margaret Rhodes, Wired
Ah, modernism. I prefer the classic villa myself. 

King Lear: The syntax and scansion of insanity
Brian Stavely, Tor.com
"If you know how a character talks, you know how she thinks, and if you know how she thinks, you know how she acts."

Reading lists, outfits, even salads are curated — it's absurd.
David Balzer, The Guardian
And this list of links is lovingly curated for you, dear reader. 

 

From our pages:

Campus inquisition
The treatment of John McAdams at Marquette University reveals the newest level of intolerance in the world of higher education.

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