The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

April 27 2001 11:30 PM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

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BLASTS FROM THE PAST The revelations about Sen. Bob Kerrey and a massacre of Vietnamese civilians 32 years ago will, among other things, revive further interest in Operation Phoenix—a CIA program of assassination that killed over 20,000 Vietnamese people. The United States is not the only country currently facing up to an ugly episode from its past. As the Telegraph reports, "French excesses and human rights abuses during the eight-year war against the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) have been under the spotlight since Gen. Jacques Massu announced his 'regret' last year at the use of torture during the conflict. Last June, Gen. Massu, who was military governor of Algiers at the height of the war, apologized to a woman who accused soldiers under his command of torturing her over a period of three months. Gen Massu said: 'When I think back, I'm sorry. We could have done things differently.' " Meanwhile in Belgium, a special commission is addressing the 1960 assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Republic of the Congo's first prime minister after winning its independence from Belgium. According to Ian Black, the report is "likely to cause deep embarrassment." As Black writes: "The commission … was set up after the publication of a book by Lugo De Witte … which claimed that there was clear evidence of Belgian state responsibility for the murder. … New evidence …[also] proved that President Dwight Eisenhower directly ordered his 'elimination.' Crucially however, de Witte's research showed that, by the time Lumumba was killed, Washington had little ability to operate on the ground in the Congo, and had given way to Brussels. 'Belgian officers had direct responsibility for his assassination,' [De Witte alleged]."

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NEWS FROM ELSEWHERE"Britain is open for business," Tony Blair declared a few weeks ago, hoping a prime ministerial invocation would encourage foreigners to visit Britain. Few would disagree; apart from business, what else is open? Pleasure? Ouvert! Aperto! Willkommen et bienvenue! A foot-and-mouth epidemic ( three people have now contracted the disease) cripples the countryside while tuberculosis and meningitis stalk towns and cities. The railway network has buckled, thugs haunt the streets, people are rude, and the rain has reached Tudor proportions. It's as if the entire nation were enduring a version of Survivor on a grand scale, though no one receives a cash prize or knows if it will ever end. Perhaps Simon Schama's history of medieval Britain, with its tales of plague and human torment, should be reclassified by bookstores and displayed on the shelf for "Current Affairs." John Walsh, a columnist quoted by the Los Angles Times, said "I was on a railway platform in the North last week and suddenly someone screamed, 'That's it, that's it. I can't stand it anymore. I'm going to North Africa or to Dubai, I'm going for good.' … People [in London] look around and think the entire city is weeping, that it has kept its emotions all bottled up and is having a good cry that will not cease until August." It's so not a joke. And despite Cristina Odone's defense of Britain's beloved sense irony, laughing at the rain and the mass slaughter of cloven-footed animals is not amusing unless of course you are vacationing in the Med or in the Persian Gulf, where the view of home is outstanding and hilarious. As Alan Watkins points out in the Independent, the British feel-bad factor cannot fail to influence the forthcoming British general elections. And it's no surprise at all to hear that Britons are falling over themselves for the latest volume of military history—to be reminded, perhaps, when an enemy was more tangible than a virus.

TRYING TIMES
Three authors in three countries have found themselves under attack. According to the provisions of a French law passed in 1881, it is a crime to offend the head of a foreign country, as Francois-Xavier Verschave, the author of Noir Silence, recently discovered. The presidents of Congo-Brazzaville, Chad, and Gabon, displeased with Verschave's depiction of their conduct—he had accused them of murder and drug trafficking—took the author to court. Today, however, a French judge ruled in Verschave's favor, arguing that the 1881 law contravenes the European Declaration on Human Rights. In India, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty plans to sue the author and the publishers of a new book about former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Katherine Frank, whose life of Indira appeared in March, told the Guardian, "If people want to sue me I can't do anything about it. Everything I say is sourced and footnoted. If it happened, it happened. I feel confident that my narrative will hold up and I have told the truth." Meanwhile in Egypt, Nawal el-Saadawi, a well-known campaigner for the equal rights of Muslim women who told a Cairo newspaper that the Muslim religious festival the Haj "is a vestige of a pagan practice," has had a fatwa imposed on her by Muslim fundamentalists. A conservative lawyer, Nabih el-Wahsh, says that Ms. el-Saadawi must now be divorced from her Muslim husband for her act of apostasy. As the Cairo Times explains, "The law of hesba, the Islamic right … to bring religious or moral offences before the court, was modified in 1996 to restrict this right to the Public Prosecutor …. However, Al Wahsh says if the prosecutor rejects his petition to bring Al Sa'dawi before the personal status court he is going to file the lawsuit himself and sue the prosecutor."

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FAULTY IMAGE The books of Ryszard Kapuscinski—are invariably greeted with much celebration, but as Aleksander Hemon's argues in review of the Polish journalist's latest book, The Shadow of the Sun, one can find much at fault in the author's depiction of Africa. As Hemon writes, "the Africans [in Kapuscinski work] consist of crazed dictators, like Idi Amin and Charles Taylor, and, on the other hand, of simple people, like the truck driver Salim and Madame Diuf, who are patronizingly admired for being ordinary and keeping up their spirits in the hell of Africa. … In forty-some years, [he has] not come across one African who has any kind of social project, who has produced anything of civic value. … For Kapuscinski, as for [Joseph] Conrad … Africa is a symbolic space filled mainly with projections and fantasies based on an axiomatic assumption—doubtlessly a rewarding one to many Euro-American readers—that 'we' are not like 'them' and never will be." 

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ESCAPING FROM EVERYTHING As Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen wrote last year, suppose "you want to drop everything, escape, far away, where life is real. Who has not had this dream from time to time? Nothing could be more normal. … But suppose now that this desire to flee becomes an obsession. ... [Y]ou have become a pathological runaway, a mad traveler, fit for the asylum and for therapy. .... So how do you get from normal escapist desire to mad travelling?" The essayist and psychologist Adam Phillips' new book, Houdini's Box, is about the question of escapism—and perhaps helps to distinguish between genuinely mad traveling and more ordinary dreams for "real life." As Gaby Wood explains in the Observer, Phillips' notion of escapism is as much about not doing something as it is about acting on an instinct. A "man [can be] afraid of his own desire," she writes. "Every time he senses its onset, he runs away. If he goes to a restaurant, he knows what he wants before he has looked at the menu. ... If a woman he is attracted to speaks to him, he has to go home, yet he is constantly ... 'finding women to flee from.' This man too is an 'escape artist.' "

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ESCAPE TO THE FARM
Farm life is apparently fashionable. The New York publisher Michael Korda heads to the fields in Country Matters: The Pleasures and Tribulations of Moving From a Big City to an Old Country Farmhouse. John Grisham's latest book, A Painted House, is not a thriller but a novel about life on an Arkansas cotton farm in the 1950s. Grisham tells the Boston Globe: "One or two of … [the] characters may actually have lived and breathed on this earth, though I know them only through family lore, which in my family is a most unreliable source."

SRINGTIME FOR CASTRO
As Tom Blanton reported in Slate last week, Fidel Castro recently told a group of visiting Americans that the Soviet Union could have averted the missile crisis had it heeded his advice and been less secretive about the shipment of short- and medium-range nuclear weapons to Cuba in the summer of 1962. "We said: Do it openly. But Khrushchev said no, it must be confidential. We were naïve. We saw the Soviet Union as a superpower. … We thought they knew what they were doing." Once some of the weapons were installed in Cuba, and after their presence had been discovered by a U2 spy plane, it was the same Fidel Castro who madly advised the Soviets to launch a pre-emptive strike against the United States to prevent the destruction of the missiles by American bombers, as Nikita Khrushchev recalled. Some solution to the missile crisis that would have been. On the letters page of this week's Los Angles Times, Ralph Schoenman, once the apple of Bertrand Russell's eye, reiterates a famous boast about how he and the British philosopher saved the world from nuclear destruction in 1962 and also rejects some of the points made by Frederic Raphael in a review of a new biography of Russell. "We advocated a cessation of U.S. attempts to invade Cuba … and menace the world with a nuclear war, and we worked with Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev, U Thant and prominent others to prevent it." In a reply to Schoenman, Raphael writes: "With regard to the modest claim that Bertie and Ralph 'worked with Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev …' the truth is … that Russell was worked on by Khrushchev, who cashed in, metaphorically, on his almost boundless vanity. The unprominent Jack Kennedy (who effectively determined the course of what happened during those 13 days) waved away the philosopher's, and his minion's, irrelevant exhortations."

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FAILING UPWARD As Johnny Rotten famously said of the Sex Pistols, "the crown and the glory of the [band] is that we've always managed to disappoint on big occasions. When the chips were down, we never came through." Now, with Joey Ramone's death, certain Punk fans have come through big time. In the gloom of the late '70s, with its power shortages, blackouts, and economic downturns, who would have believed that the op-ed page of the New York Times would someday remark on the passing of Joey Ramone? Or that nostalgia for a form a music that was anything but nostalgic would become the prevailing mood of the day? Will there now be flowers at CBGBs? On Tuesday in Slate, Douglas Wolk cautioned against teary outbursts, though Jonathan Lethem, writing in the Times, appears to be unable to help himself. "The outpouring of grief at the passing of Joey Ramone on Sunday is partly evidence of the still frustrated cultural identity of a slice of listeners, those of us who will never have an oldies station to call our own." Spare us, Mr Lethem. If possession of an unfrustrated cultural identity is to have one's own oldies station, then it's time to throw out the radio. ( Alex Abramovitch writes about the Ramones in Feed and Michael Tedder in Ironminds.)

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CHILDCARE
In addition to her success as an author—90 million Harry Potter books sold in 42 different languages—J.K. Rowling is also a parent and raises her child on her own. In an interview published by the Guardian, Rowling talks about parenting. "If we demonise [single parents], we don't have to help them. It's much easier for certain sections of society to say, 'You've brought this on yourself by your fecklessness; you sort it out,' than to say, 'You've been a victim of circumstances,' or 'Hey, marriages break up ... but how are we going to help you help yourself?' I never set out to be a lone parent—and there I was. It's undeniable: there's a stigma attached. But I was the most unashamed lone parent you were ever going to meet. I was, like, 'And what is your problem? I'm doing a great job.' I'm very impatient with the idea that any of us should be ashamed about it." The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which issued a new study on child development today, should be impressed with Rowling's notion of motherhood. As the New York Times reports, the authors of the study "found a direct correlation between time spent in child care and traits like aggression, defiance and disobedience. … [T]wo of its lead researchers said the findings held true regardless of the type or quality of care, the sex of the child, the family's socioeconomic status or whether mothers themselves provided sensitive care."

WOLCOTT'S WORLD
As a friend insists, Michael Lind and James Wolcott can, when the light falls in the right places, resemble one another. Now, in the course of a New York Press interview, Wolcott offers his version of Lind's Up From Conservatism, which (after the next phase of his spiritual development, as career changes are now euphemistically known) could appear as a memoir entitled "Up From Vanity Fair." For Wolcott's admirers and enemies, much of what he relays to the editors of the N.Y. Press confirms his position as the Anne Robinson of literary journalism. "There's certain things I don't read right away," he tells the paper. "For example, when I read Salman Rushdie, I was shocked. Because this was so bad. It's bad in a totally bombastic way, and I could see why it would fool people, but don't tell me it's great writing." Some years ago, in a review of Sabbath's Theater, Wolcott described Philip Roth in his dust-jacket photo as "distinguished and debonair, like a Dewar's Profile of the man of letters at leisure." In a dismissal of William Gass' novel The Tunnel, Wolcott wrote that the novelist "began writing this book in 1966 … 1966—the year the Beatles recorded Revolver, Michelangelo Antonioni released Blow-Up, and Twiggy was fashion's favorite Q-Tip. … Now the psychedelic skies are gray. … The Tunnel reflects the loosy-goosy period in which it was begun and the overriding sense of mission needed to span nearly thirty years of hard mental labor. It isn't so much a novel as a Sisyphean labor, the uphill climb of a downhill life." Other Wolcott targets include Susan Faludi and Gore Vidal, though his treatment of Frank Rich's memoir was more sympathetic.

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AT THE EXECUTION
Attorney General John Ashcroft will allow relatives of those who died in the Oklahoma City bombing to watch the execution of Timothy McVeigh on closed-circuit television. Commenting on the attorney general's decision in Writ, Edward Lazarus says that "the real reason the United States (in contrast to every other western nation) insists on having a death penalty is the all-too-human desire for vengeance. Why else provide closed circuit television viewing of McVeigh's execution? And why else grant access only to his victims' families (who may want to exact retribution), and not to all of us (including possible future criminals who might theoretically be deterred)?" Executions were of considerable interest to Michel Foucault. In a review of a new collection of Foucault's essays and lectures, Power: The Essential Works Volume 3, Peter Conrad writes: "One of the best pieces here is a short, impassioned assault on [President] Georges Pompidou's guillotining of two prisoners in 1971. Their abrupt end demonstrates that the whole penal system is impelled by 'the desire for death, the fascination with death;' and that lust—symbolized by the rearing, phallic, blood-stained shape of the guillotine—was grounded, for Foucault, in a fatal sexual curiosity. This complicity between sex and death revealed to him 'the fascism in us all', just as it provoked Genet's sexual rhapsodies about the Nazis." ( Christopher Hitchens' introduction to Charles Duff's A Handbook on Hanging recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times"Book Review.")

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DEATH ON THE LEFT BANK
The death of the Jérôme Lindon last week became a French national event, prompting even President Jacques Chirac to remark on the achievements of the editor, as Alan Riding reports in today's Times. " 'Jérôme Lindon never ceased to defend free and critical thought,'Le Monde said in an editorial. 'He made rebellion—against fashion, conformity, power—a rule of his life.' " Riding continues: "In the mid-1950's Mr. Lindon emerged as a central figure in a literary movement known as the Nouveau Roman when he published novelists like Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Robert Pinget, Michel Butor and Claude Simon. Éditions de Minuit also published Marguerite Duras's most famous novel, 'The Lover'. … In 1950 Mr. Lindon absorbed a literary review, Critique. … In the decades that followed, association with this review led several prominent philosophers to publish with Éditions de Minuit, among them Jacques Derrida, Michel Serres and Pierre Bourdieu. At the same time Mr. Lindon became a fervent defender of authors' rights and independent booksellers." Samuel Beckett was another of Lindon's many authors.