The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

July 21 2000 11:30 PM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument


DER LITERATURPAPST Daniel Johnson's profile of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the most influential literary critic in Germany, appears in Prospect. "He is also an educator and an impresario of literature … the man who has made housewives read serious novels and poetry. … When he first met Günter Grass in 1958, Grass asked him: 'What are you really: a Pole, a German, or what?' Reich-Ranicki replied with a bon mot of which he is evidently still proud: 'I am half a Pole, half a German and wholly a Jew.' " On another occasion, Reich-Ranicki said: "I am not a German. I never have been, and I never will be. But nobody can take my Germanness (Deutschtum) away from me." James M. Markham of the New York Times wrote about Reich-Ranicki in 1984."On the post-Hitler literary landscape, [he] is a singular feature, a talisman and a sturdy signpost, a reminder that German poets, novelists and critics once had constituencies running from Warsaw through Budapest and Prague to Berlin, Vienna and Zurich." Reich-Ranicki's autobiography, Mein Leben (My Life), has sold almost a million copies in Germany—an English translation will apparently be published shortly.


SHOULD PROFESSORS THROW STONES? Edward Said is a professor of English at Columbia University, an outspoken Palestinian critic of the Oslo agreement, and the author of many books. Last year, he published a memoir, Out of Place (click here to buy it, click here to read a chapter, and click here to learn about the attack on the professor and his book). Earlier this month, Said was photographed throwing stones at a fence on the Israeli-Lebanon border. Hurling stones at the fence has apparently become something a celebratory act for Lebanese men, eager to show their approval of Israel's withdrawal from their country. Said told the Associated Press that the incident was "basically trivial." The New Republic, which carries the photograph on its Web site, disagrees. The picture "shows a visitor from America gleefully throwing a rock at the Israeli soldiers on the other side of the border." But since there are no soldiers in the photo, it's hard to prove that Said was aiming at anything other than the fence. TNR quotes Said: "I had no idea that media people were there or that I was the object of attention." The magazine goes on to say: "It is reassuring to learn that if he had noticed the camera, Said would have stifled his spontaneous expression of solidarity with Hezbollah."


THE STENCH OF SUCCESS Joe Eszterhas'American Rhapsody (click here to buy it) should perhaps have been titled "Self-indulgence," as much for the way it blurs fact and fiction as for its nauseating portrayal of Hollywood and the gilded age of sex and rock 'n' roll. Reading Eszterhas is similar to walking into a room overpowered by extremely expensive bad taste and the lingering scent of the sewer. Writing in the New York Observer, Francine Prose says the "book's most appalling chapter [is] a meditation on why African-Americans supported the President, how Mr. Eszterhas (who refers to Vernon Jordan as the 'Ace of Spades') and Mr. Clinton share a similar desire to be black, and how much the President has done for racial harmony. … Were the book's editors asleep at their desks?" Prose asks. "Was no one paying attention?" Peter Kurth, writing in Salon, thinks Eszterhas doesn't go far enough: "Let's face it, America: A straight man 'telling all' isn't telling much. Eszterhas is so straight he thinks blow jobs were invented in the 1960s."

Marcus Oliphant, an Australian nuclear scientist who was part of the Manhattan Project, died a few days ago. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oliphant said that his role in the creation of the nuclear bomb made him a "war criminal." Writing in the Guardian, Geoffrey Robertson laments the lack of American interest in the International Criminal Court. "The need for global criminal justice is greater than ever. Pinochet would have been a perfect candidate for arraignment at the ICC." Meantime, the National Post reports that the families of 323 Argentine sailors who died when their warship, the General Belgrano, was sunk by a British submarine during the 1982 Falklands War, want to put Margaret Thatcher on trial at the European Court of Human Rights as a war criminal. The case will hinge not on whether the sinking of the battleship destroyed any hope of a Peruvian sponsored-peace plan but on whether such a plan existed. The lawyer representing the families says that his clients "want compensation, and a condemnation of Margaret Thatcher as well as the extradition of Mrs. Thatcher to Argentine courts so she can be judged, penalized and jailed in Argentina."

The New York Times Book Review explains that the rankings in its weekly best-seller list "reflect sales … at almost 4,000 bookstores plus wholesalers serving 50,000 other retailers (gift shops, department stores, newsstands, supermarkets), statistically weighted to represent all such outlets nationwide." Appearing on the list invariably turns a best seller into an even bigger best seller. On the other hand, a review in the Times is not a requirement for best-sellerdom. Of the 35 hardback nonfiction bestsellers listed on the Book Review's Web site, 19 have been reviewed. On the paperback list, 22 titles have received a Times review. Fiction fares less well. On both the hardcover and the paperback lists, only 11 books have been reviewed. On the new and much-debated children's best-seller list  (click here to read on the controversy), five titles have been reviewed by the Times, and three of those are by J.K. Rowling. Needless to say, the four Potter books occupy the first four berths.


" Uncommon Knowledge" posts an exchange between Ronald Radosh and Christopher Hitchens on Spain's civil war. Radosh: "It was either a case by mid-'36 and definitely by '37 … of Franco's victory or Stalin's victory. … Under those two horrible choices … I think it is better that Franco won." Hitchens: "There is no one in Spain now, hardly even anyone in the Spanish Communist Party, who has any illusions on what was done on the left and to the left and by some of the left under Stalinism. But there is no one, or no one I've yet met of that cohort, who … is glad that [Franco won] … or would accept this kind of reasoning." 

Auden and MacNeice, Fischer and Spassky, Reagan and Gorbachev—what is it about Iceland and couples? Rather more, it seems, than just the poets, chess players, and politicians who have visited the volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic to thrash things out. The population is currently part of a vast genetic experiment. Since the 240,000 Icelanders can track their ancestry back for more than 1,000 years,  they are, the New Scientist says, "uniquely placed for tracing inherited diseases." In an interview with the magazine, Kari Stefansson, the leader of the experiment and "the bad boy of genetics," explains the importance of his work and defends himself from critics who say that he is a profiteer.

Do you want to forge a union with blue blood? The Tatler, founded in 1709 with the intention of publishing " accounts of gallantry, pleasure and entertainment," now lists all the available British aristocrats on a special Web page, Plenty of Jemimas and Henrys to be snapped up, but don't delay. Also in the latest issue, Sally Ann Lesson has some useful advice on how to avoid cads. "Cads aren't quite gentlemen, which is what makes them so thrilling. They almost are, but they're a bit too smooth, a bit too polished. … Cads know lots of things that are bad for them, like the phone numbers of tabloid newspapers. They also like lots of things that are bad for them, and most of those things they can't afford." (To read her article, click "Features" on Tatler's home page.)

Robert Craft, a conductor and arguably one of the best music critics alive, tells the Daily Telegraph about how he first met Stravinsky and the 20 years he subsequently spent with the composer. "English was a new language for him then. As he finished each page of The Rake's Progress he would give it to me, and I would check it for errors. He was always asking me for advice on how to stress the words. 'Di-la-to-ri-ness.' I remember him having trouble with that one." To find out more about Robert Craft, visit his home page. For his biography, click here. In an article published in the New York Review of Books last year, he writes about Stravinsky and Balanchine—Craft was the only person to "witness … the creation of two masterpieces, Agon and The Flood."


Poor CNN. Not only are the ratings of the cable news service tanking, but it was also mugged by the preposterous Nancy Stouffer, who claims that J.K. Rowling stole the term "muggle" from a novel she wrote in the 1980s. (In the Potter books, a muggle is a human, not a wizard.) On July 5, Greta Van Susteren, host of Burden of Proof, interviewed Stouffer and asked the writer how she came up with the word. "I derived the term from my son, who used to come up and pinch my cheek and tell me that he wanted to kiss me on my muggy, and that's where I came up with the term, and I started calling him a muggle." Van S.: "Do you know of any other use of the term muggles? Have you ever come across that term?" Stouffer: "Yes, I have. I have defended these same trademarks twice before, once in 1987, successfully in federal court, and once in 1992 against Stephen Bochco, who was using the term 'muggle' for Capital Critters."
That an author would claim to have copyrighted "muggle" is especially ludicrous because Lewis Carroll came up with word more than 100 years ago, in a three-chapter story called "Wilhelm von Schmitz." Thanks to the wonders of, you can read the story here. The relevant passage goes like this: " 'He's confessed to it, constable? you heard him?' said the first speaker (who rejoiced in the euphonious title of Muggle …) 'it's as much as his life is worth.'
'I say, stow that—' warmly responded the other; 'seems to me the gen'leman was a spouting potry.'
'What—what's the matter?' here gasped our unfortunate hero, who had recovered his breath; 'you—Muggle—what do you mean by it?' "
Moreover, muggles was the word used by jazz musicians to describe marijuana in the 1920s and '30s, as Brendan McNally tells Omnivore.

The New England Journal of Medicine publishes an important report on the causes of cancer. Hereditary factors have been exaggerated, it seems. To read the abstract click here. In an accompanying editorial, the journal says: "From this work has come the widely accepted estimate that 80 to 90 percent of human cancer is due to environmental factors. Yet in the past 15 years, the explosion of molecular genetics has overshadowed environmental explanations by revealing genetic mechanisms underlying cancer."

MONKEY BUSINESS posts a special on the 75th anniversary of the Scopes trial, perhaps the most important American court case of the 20th century. Gregg Easterbrook explains what happened and imagines a 21st-century battle between creationists and Darwinists. For transcripts from the courtroom, click here. To read H. L. Mencken's account of the so-called Monkey Trial click here.


Despite the news that Bill Gates will give $100 million to Botswana to help the country fight its catastrophic AIDS problem, the president of the country, Festus Mogae, tells the first international conference on AIDS, currently in progress in South Africa: "We really are in a national crisis. We are threatened with extinction. People are dying in chillingly high numbers. We are losing the best of young people. It is a crisis of the first magnitude." But the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, who has expressed his suspicions about HIV, " dashed the hopes of thousands of participants, and noisy protesters, who wanted to hear him state clearly that H.I.V. causes AIDS." In the New York Review of Books, Helen Epstein writes about how " Mbeki had begun to solicit the opinions of a murky group of California scientists and activists who believe that AIDS is caused not by HIV but by a vague collection of factors, including malnutrition, chemical pollution, recreational drugs, and by the very pharmaceutical drugs that are used to treat the disease." For proof of the correlation between HIV and AIDS, Mbeki might like to consult the National Institutes of Health's Web site.


MAD ABOUT POTTER Writing in Slate last year, A.O. Scott said that it's "probably a mistake to try to read too much cultural significance into [the] extraordinary success" of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. But with the arrival of the fourth Harry Potter book less than 48 hours away, who can resist? Adults are delighted by the success of the Potter books because it suggests that children are reading and not watching television. But part of the appeal is the author, J.K. Rowling. Her life is hugely attractive to adults bored by the kind of New Economy success you read about in Fast Company. In a Newsweek interview, Rowling said: " I was the most disorganized person that ever walked this earth." Asked by the London Times about the troubles in her life, Rowling quoted the Buddha: " 'Life is Suffering.' I love that. … Because I think YES. Life is not supposed to be neat. … It's a comfort to all of us who have messed up. And then you find your way back, bizarrely." To read the Rowling interview in Salon, click here. For the latest Potter news, click here. To find out more about the campaign to prevent Harry Potter books from being banned in various states, click here. To read about the novelist who claims that Rowling is a plagiarist, click here. For a discussion of the new Potter in Slate, click here.

Photograph of Festus G. Mogae by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters.Illustrations by Nina Frenkel.