Archive

In Memoriam

10 April 2014

In 1981, promotional ads for something called “Music Television” started hitting in the US with the tagline: “You’ll never look at music the same way again.” Around the same time appeared a pilot video for something called Perfect Lives: A Television Opera by American composer Robert Ashley. Ashley was light-years from the video hit parade of MTV, but he too wanted to make music television. More…

9 December 2013

Mandela pushed the idea of usefulness until it no longer resembled exploitation of things and occasions but a determination to find the universe fruitful. He took the country’s deepest and most glaring bad impulses and turned them inside out. He was the one man who understood South Africa, in his bones, and put its history to the only possible good use that could come of it. More…

22 November 2013

When Doris Lessing died on Sunday, we lost our strongest conduit to the international cultural aristocracy that mediated between politics and the arts for a very brief period after the Second World War. More…

11 November 2013

Writing art criticism for the Nation, Danto developed an almost uncanny ability to look at works of art on their own terms. He was sensitive to what the art was telling him, to what each work wanted to be. He was in dialogue with every work of art he ever saw. That’s not to say he liked it all. But he always tried to let the work speak. More…

25 September 2013

“The idea that I have called ‘the politics of authenticity’ is a dream of an ideal community in which individuality will not be subsumed and sacrificed, but fully developed and expressed.” Yes, we thought and dreamed that way, and Berman put such yearnings in the context of the Romantic Age and even Marxist ideology. The student left was driven in large part by a desire for just this sort of authenticity. More…

18 September 2013

The great injustice of modern life was not the inequities alone but the high tax they placed on us: the ways in which they limited our range of expression as well as our formal freedoms, our libido as well as work week, the ways they helped turned whole neighborhoods into expressways. More…

12 April 2013

The eagerness to apply rhetoric and imagery akin to lynching and witch-burning to Thatcher was and is impossible to get enthusiastic about. Why this conflation of the person and her policies? Why was her conservatism perceived as evil rather than destructive, demonic rather than politically catastrophic? More…

25 March 2013

The old question in Soviet studies used to be: Was Stalinism a continuation of Leninism, or a betrayal of it? If you were on the right, you answered that it was a continuation; if you were on the left, a betrayal. The new question is whether Putinism is a continuation of Yeltsinism, or a betrayal of it. If you are on the right (and in the US this includes most liberals and neoliberals), you believe that it’s a betrayal; if you are on the left, you believe that it’s a continuation. More…

26 September 2012

Tellingly, Firestone’s “dream” feminist protest was a smile boycott. While it did not lack humor, Dialectic was a smile boycott on a grand scale. Whatever she was like as a person, as the author of Dialectic Firestone refused to be judicious, apologetic, modest, or coy. The book’s appeal had as much to do with her assumption that she could take on that era’s big guns—Marx and Freud—as anything else. More…

26 September 2012

Her wit was biting and aphoristic; her words sizzled on the page. With an almost anachronistic philosophical confidence she explained the world as she saw it without hesitation, from the ground up. At age 25 she wrote The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution—described by contemporaries as “the little red book for women“—and then, mystifying her admirers, withdrew from the movement and from public life. More…

26 September 2012

I was impressed with Shulie’s writing, as most people are: it’s cogent, original, seminal, stimulating, bursting with brilliance. It was Shulie who marched up to me, as the other downtowners eyed me warily, and got straight to the point: “I’ve heard so many terrible things about you, I knew I had to meet you.” More…

7 June 2012

To write The Great War, Fussell read every British war memoir of note and then churned through the archives of the Imperial War Museum, adding the voices of scores of Tommies to those of the famous war writers, among whom Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden loom the largest. More…

28 February 2012

Barney Rosset not only had taste, he had nerve and he was shrewd as hell. When Doubleday, frightened by the assassination of Malcolm X, refused to publish the Alex Haley–ghosted Autobiography, Grove stepped up to the plate and acquired one of the most important books in the history of American race relations—and made a boatload of money in the bargain. More…

12 January 2012

I say mystery is the only certainty/ That embracing nothingness/ as hard as you did those big/ bear arms around the dissipating void/ so all the stars squeezed out the sides/ you made Nietzsche look/ like the crybaby punk/ he actually was infected with syphilis/ and so forth who said god/ is dead and remains dead and we/ killed him talk about/ Oedipal guilt, which you/ spat out like an apple’s/ arsenic pit More…

19 December 2011

It’s been said many times that Hitchens tended to “personalize” politics, to think in terms of character and friendship rather than structure and movements. That seems true, but also incomplete. My sense of him as a writer was that, like a poet, he loved certain rhetorical and musical effects much more than others, and he wanted from his journalistic occasions above all opportunities to produce those cherished effects. More…

17 December 2011

Surely a contrarian who remembered writing this, while now enjoying the lavish hospitality of Vanity Fair and the Hoover Institution, would feel irresistibly tempted to remind the latter that the society they are dedicated to protecting from radical criticism is a crass plutocracy, and the former that nobody is more covetous and greedy than the rich rabble whom they celebrate from month to month? More…

9 June 2011

Ross’s books won’t make high schoolers, or anyone else, want to line up behind the barricades—but, at his best, he was as absurd and funny as Herbert Read or Lord Buckley. Yet for all his antics, Ross wasn’t just an angry clown—he was also a relentless political and literary experimenter, one whose disregard for good taste and popular opinion defined his career. More…

27 April 2011

For every new generation, the corpus of literature seems already to have formed itself in such a way as to exclude the kind of voice in which you could actually write. Wallace proved that for us too there was a way to write without falsifying, through your diction, your sense of the world. Though this alone couldn’t make our writing any good, it held out the chance. More…

16 March 2011

It was a miraculous time! For family reasons I moved to Belarus, finished my career here. When I came, I immersed myself into this Chernobylized space, it was a corrective to my sense of things. It was impossible to imagine anything like it, even though I’d always dealt with the most advanced technologies, with outer space technologies. It’s hard even to explain. More…

19 August 2010

In Jamaican parlance, a “selector” is a DJ, and a “DJ” is an MC. Before he became a great reggae singer, Lincoln “Sugar” Minott was both. Though he will perhaps be best remembered for his smooth voice and prolific recording career—forty albums in around as many years—it was his hustle and charm, cultivated in the highly competitive and wildly energetic Jamaican dancehall, that endeared Sugar to the world. More…

16 August 2010

The first time I read Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives I was 22 years old. I lived in Lima on a miserable salary and the only thing I was doing with my life, other than getting drunk to the point of senselessness, was reading and writing, imitating and attempting, as well as throwing myself against the door each time my literary style proved to be nothing more than a pale and clumsy echo of the voices of writers who’d influenced me. More…

9 August 2010

Tony Judt began as an intellectual historian; he will be remembered by many as a bracing critic of Zionism, a vigorous proponent of European-style social democracy, and—tragically—a victim of ALS. I have heard many describe as “moving” his snatches of memoir, published over the last year of his life. This is true—but what may have been even more moving was the extent to which he devoted his last days to making the case for the welfare state. More…

18 June 2010

The death of José Saramago at 87 brings to an end the career not only of arguably the greatest novelist of the last quarter century, but of a great political novelist. It was often noted that Saramago joined the Portuguese Communist party in 1968 and never resigned his membership, but most critics didn’t know how to square Saramago’s Marxism with his fiction. More…

9 June 2010

Markson seemed determined to build novels out of as little of the traditional narrative materials as he could manage. How many walls does the house really need? How many doors? How thick a foundation, and how great a roof? His later characters, if they even can be called characters, are but occasional presences. More…

11 September 2009

After David Foster Wallace’s tragic death last September 12, while unburdening my shelf of his works to give them a good nostalgic thumbing-through, I remembered an LP in my collection—plucked several summers ago from the dollar bin of a liquidating Cambridge record store—by an artist with the same name as one of Wallace’s most memorable characters. More…

17 August 2009

Lately I’ve read, as you probably did too, about the profits gained by Wall Street firms through “flash trades” executed on the basis of information received thirty milliseconds before being shown to traders generally. Something I did not learn from the newspaper was that the Marxist political scientist Giovanni Arrighi had died, on June 18 of this year. More…

15 March 2009

The Updike who deserves attention isn’t the snowy belletrist who ginned up thought experiments like Gertrude and Claudius and inflicted the 928-page nonfiction omnibus More Matter on already cowed bookshelves. It is, instead, the Cheever-era “writer of his generation.” More…

13 January 2009

Pinter’s work follows the consequences of single words, but also of single actions. It is in this context that his intruders come into play: a door opens, a stranger enters the room, and nothing will ever be the same. What matters are not the intruders themselves, however, but the consequences of the intrusion. More…

18 September 2008

He couldn’t stand being the center of attention. He’d found that even praise could be harmful, and so he’d brush it off as if it was beside the point, or as if he wasn’t worth it. Of course he was worth it. But if a workshop got particularly warm and congratulatory, Dave would say, “Let’s not sit around and give each other hand jobs.” More…

10 September 2007

Francisco Umbral died as every writer should: in the midst of dictating his next newspaper column to his wife. Umbral, as it turns out, left behind over eighty published books. All the same, he is remembered at least as much for his womanizing and his notorious sexual appetite as he is for that vast body of work More…

5 July 2007

Hope is often associated with religion, but in Rorty it was adamantly and unrepentantly secular. His critics often declared that the “irony” he championed, a way of holding one’s beliefs lightly, was the posture of an elitist. But holding your beliefs open to unending contestation, never giving in to the flat declarative certainties of those around you, must have been unusually hard work. More…

14 January 2007

In my Philadelphia neighborhood, Monday is garbage day, which means Sunday night is garbage night. Exceptions are made for any national holiday. Yet, for some reason, the streets are all piled high with garbage as I walk home tonight. I can’t help wondering if the citizens of Philadelphia know something I don’t. Is Martin Luther King Jr. day really a garbage day? More…

22 November 2006

Ellen Willis never became a brand or icon the way Susan Sontag did, though they were roughly the same age, and wrote about similar things. As a writer and a feminist myself, I had been and am her target audience, and even I was only dimly aware of her when we first met, six years ago, after I’d enrolled in the graduate program in cultural reporting and criticism she’d founded at NYU. More…

8 September 2006

Naguib Mahfouz was two days short of ninety when I met him at one of his weekly, two-and-a-half-hour nadwas in the Sheraton Hotel on the Nile Corniche. I went with a friend, an American like me, and Mahfouz stood up to greet us. He had a small, oddly adolescent growth of whiskers beneath his chin, as though still considering the role of Confucian sage. More…

27 June 2006

Barbara and I talked on the phone maybe a dozen times and saw each other half that often; I can’t claim I knew her well. And yet if the first thing you wonder about most powerful and impressive people is what they are really, truly like, this was not the case with Barbara Epstein. More…

5 June 2006

Sorrentino wrote so well that his work attracted a flock of adjectives, each one insufficient to its simple descriptive task. His early work appeared in small, mimeographed magazines alongside Beat writers and Black Mountain poets, with whom he was sometimes compared. Later, he was by turns modernist and postmodernist, avant-garde until that term lost its faddish charge, and experimental. More…

31 October 2005

Whenever people suggest to me, either explicitly or otherwise, that the writing world is a meritocracy, that people eventually get what they deserve and the rest fall out, that the world, in short, is a fair world, I think of Patrick Giles. “I never established myself as a freelancer,” he’d say, frustrated with the course of his career. More…

15 May 2005

A case could be made that he was, and will be, the last great American novelist, the beneficiary of a cultural field sowed by Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent. He was historically necessary: the novelist of the post-war Jewish cultural ascendancy. He could write novels for adults, with references to Spinoza and Marx, because there were enough adult readers—men among them—to support his doing so. More…

6 January 2005

Susan Sontag was the first living intellectual who mattered to me. I discovered Against Interpretation early on in college, and its title essay at once confirmed and cast doubt upon what I sensed was my vocation. More…

6 January 2005

Let the song lie in the thing! Besides, all things are sanctified by genius. In the last analysis, Kafka sighed, all things are miracles. Seeing at what they were looking / Let the audience look to their eyes. The jury of my senses and I said No. More…

18 October 2004

Jacques Derrida died last weekend. Polite French journalese will refer to “sa disparition,” his disappearance. If I were a “deconstructionist,” this would be the moment to reflect on the words disappearance and appearance. We only say someone has disappeared, we do not speak of his life as an appearance, but this is what is implied by someone’s disappearance. More…

Image: "Untitled" (detail). Jakob Brugge and Cathryn Garcia-Menocal. Steel. 18” X 36” 2010. Courtesy the artists.