The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

WHO’S WHO IN THE RED AND THE BLACK Al Gore told Oprah Winfrey that his favorite novel was by Stendhal, and for sheer debauchery The Red and the Black outdoes anything that has happened in Washington over the last five years. Daniel Mendelsohn summarizes the novel like so: “The Red and the Black follows the career of one Julien Sorel, a French peasant boy who has a sharp mind, a cute face and a talent for worming his way into the affections of powerful men and into the boudoirs of their voluptuous female relatives.” For David Frum, Sorel’s chief weakness is that he lacks “the audacity to be sincere.” In both of these descriptions of Sorel, isn’t there more than a passing resemblance to the current occupant of the Maison Blanc? Should Al Gore now tell us WHY The Red and the Black is his favorite novel?

SCRIPTING HOLLYWOOD LIVES Bertolt Brecht, Erich Maria Remarque, Thomas Mann, his brother Heinrich—these were just some of the writers and artists who fled Hitler’s Germany for Hollywood where they were spied upon by Hoover’s FBI. Alexander Stephan’s new book, Communazis, is an account of the FBI’s surveillance of these German émigrés. (Click here to read more about it and here to buy it.) As Martin Kettle explains, the agency “called these exiles ‘Communazis’ because they believed that though they were refugees from one form of tyranny, they might also be in league with [another]. … Everything from the way the writers lived— their conversations, their friends, their private lives and loves, and even the details of the books they were writing—formed part of [a] steady stream of information.”

Colm Tóibín is a novelist, essayist, and the editor of the Penguin Book of Irish Writing. In his famous 1993 essay ‘In Two Minds About Ireland,’ published by the London Review (not on the Web), Tóibín wrote about the need to appreciate the ambiguities of Irish life. The nationalist interpretation of the past, he said, should be rejected in favor of a more ambivalent view of Irish history. His latest novel, The Blackwater Lightship—praised by Margaret Elizabeth Williams (click here to buy it)—is, like his earlier works, an exploration of some of these ambiguities. What is it like to live a gay life (and to have AIDS) in a country and culture that has traditionally outlawed all things homosexual? If you are gay, how “Irish” are you? To read Tóibín’s essay on why gay literature is so dark, click here. Tóibín is currently a fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

In the Telegraph, novelist and biographer A.N. Wilson welcomes the death of the automobile—heralded, he believes, by a worldwide gas crisis. “All the things we would lose, if we simply stopped using [internal combustion] engines, would be bad things. … If a majority want more cars, more planes, more fumes, more filth, more noise, then the majority should be ignored. Oh for a strong government which taxed [gas] and its guzzlers out of existence.” In Audobon magazine, both presidential candidates are asked about energy conservation—timely interviews because the United States has failed to meet international fuel emission targets. Former editor of the Financial Times Geoffrey Owen writes about the oil trade and the legacy of imperialism. A New York Times editorial argues that Amtrak should receive more government money so that it can construct high-speed rail links in the nation’s most congested travel corridors.

OBJECT OR SUBJECT?“As I am supposed to be remembering myself, I am central to these memories,” Gore Vidal declared in his memoir Palimpsest. “I am, however, happier to be at the edge, as one is in an essay, studying someone else or what someone else has made art of.” Fred Kaplan, author of Vidal’s biography, tells the readers of Lingua Franca how the essayist and novelist was forever at the edge of his life while he was writing the book, scrutinizing what he, Kaplan, had made of Vidal’s life and art. Vidal’s new novel, The Golden Age, is the subject of this week’s Slate Book Club. Click here to read what Erik Tarloff, James Fallows, and A.O. Scott have to say about the book; click here to buy the novel.

In an interview with Feed’s Stephen Johnson, Internet legend Brewster Kahle, head of Alexa, talks about the massive electronic library he and his company have constructed. “We now have about thirty terabytes of archival material … and that’s 1.5 times the size of all of the books in the Library of Congress. … [W]e’re now beyond the largest collection of information ever accumulated by humans. We’ve gotten somewhere!”

In their pursuit of knowledge, have certain anthropologists gone too far? The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes a disturbing story about a forthcoming book by Patrick Tierney, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. (Click here to order a copy.) According to the Chronicle, Tierney “accuses certain researchers of fomenting deadly disease and violence among the Yanomami, an indigenous people of Venezuela. Some scholars are worried that the allegations will make it harder for all cultural anthropologists who do fieldwork to persuade their subjects and the public that they are responsible, objective, and trustworthy.”

The successor to last year’s “Sensation” art show, “ Apocalypse,” was unveiled at London’s Royal Academy   this week. The exhibition arrives in New York next year; expect nothing less than an outcry—or, as the Guardian phrases it, “much grinding of dentures.” Fiachra Gibbons writes: “With conservative Roman Catholics already protesting at a sculpture of the Pope being felled by a meteorite … not to mention [a] vast gorefest, Hell—comprising tens of thousands of mutilated toy SS soldiers—there was plenty to be outraged about if you were that way inclined.” Norman Rosenthal, head of the RA and curator of “Apocalypse,” defended his show with characteristic British self-deprecation: “I’m not an art person. I’m a straightforward philistine.”

“Come November,” Joseph Fishkin writes in the New Republic, “the World War II Memorial will … plop down smack in the middle of the Mall. How come? The memorial is a cautionary example of what can happen when one man—in this case J. Carter Brown, chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts—wields enough power … to ram through his own grandiose vision at the expense of common sense.” The unappealing design for the monument looks about as bold as anything Mussolini might have cooked up 60 years ago. To see where the monument will be built click here. For the Washington Post’s coverage, click here.

HOW SHOULD WE REMEMBER THE HOLOCAUST? Many people consider Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry an inflammatory book; some say it is the work of an anti-Semite. In an extract published by the Guardian, Finkelstein writes: “I sometimes think that American Jewry ‘discovering’ the Nazi Holocaust was worse than its having been forgotten. True, my parents brooded in private; the suffering they endured was not publicly validated. But wasn’t that better than the current crass exploitation of Jewish martyrdom?” For passages such as these, the New York Times has compared the book to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous 19th-century tract forged by Russian anti-Semites. Elie Wiesel, described as a “silly” opportunist by Finkelstein, refuses to read The Holocaust Industry. A spokeswoman tells the New York Post that “the Nobel laureate was too disgusted to read [it], adding that he considered it ‘slanderous and not worth comment.’ “

Lisa DePaulo
’s portrait of Liz Smith, the gossip columnist who has written her autobiography, Natural Blonde, appears in this week’s New York magazine. (Click here to buy the book.) Smith’s passion for both men and women has attracted a great deal of attention. So has her refusal to go along with the wishes of gay activists. DePaulo writes, “Why, she once told the gay magazine OutWeek, should she have ‘to march down the street being an exhibitionist asshole’? [N]ow that she has made a public statement, does she regret it? ‘Well, no!’ says Liz. ‘I’ve led a wonderful life. I have no complaints.’ As she escorts me to the door, she takes my arm. ‘You know what the real surprise of this book is?’ she says. ‘That I come out as a heterosexual. Because as I get older, you know, I prefer men to women, I must say. It’s a lot simpler.’ “

That the Italian fencers should defeat the French to win the Olympic gold medal in the team épée event is especially fitting when you consider that the greatest fencing master of all time was an Italian who trained in Paris. Domenico Angiolo Malevolti Tremamondo (he later removed “earthshaker,” though he kept “bad turns,” and became Domenico Malevolti Angelo) wrote the classic L’Ecole des Armes or “The School of Fencing” in 1763. (Michigan State University Library’s Schmitter Fencing Collection describes its copy of L’Ecole des Armes as a “jewel.”) When compiling his Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot chose to reprint Angelo’s work verbatim. Born in Livorno in 1716, Angelo eventually moved to London, where he founded an important fencing school; the great 18th-century actor David Garrick was one of Angelo’s pupils. To view an illustration from the book, click here.

A QUESTION OF ATTRIBUTION Why is Lionel Trilling, author of The Liberal Imagination, being hailed by Norman Podhoretz and others as a forebear of neoconservatism? Sam Tanenhaus says that neocons have adopted Trilling as their intellectual hero. Earlier this year, Nathan Glick explored the influence of Trilling on Gertrude Himmelfarb; her husband, Irving Kristol; and Podhoretz, who says that if Trilling were alive today he’d be writing for Commentary magazine. But Podhoretz’s speculations, Glick insists, “besides being a disloyal deprecation of a former friend and mentor, have the scent of ideological self-serving.” In an introduction to the selected essays of Trilling, The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent, Leon Wieseltier says that Trilling was first and foremost a liberal.

Nicholas Grimshaw is a European architect who isn’t as well-known in the United States as he should be. London’s Sunday Times suggests that there’s a reason for this. “He is a reticent man, not involved in politics like [Richard] Rogers. Nor yet has he become a public figure like [Norman] Foster. He prefers to sit in his studio and get on with the business of pushing the boundaries forward. He has an obsession with detail. He and his partners have been known to spend insane lengths of time determining the relative sizes of a bolt and its washer.” Grimshaw’s two heroes are Buckminster Fuller and the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel (whose father, Marc Isambard, won the competition to build the Capitol in Washington, D.C., but was passed over when another plan was deemed more economic). To visit Grimshaw’s Web site, click here.

The latest issue of the New York Times Magazine is devoted to people who have come from far and wide to live in New York. Kurt Andersen writes about Americans who have left their hometowns in search of bright lights and Latin dancing. Salman Rushdie explains the virtues of the city over another metropolis, London, which he finds too “bitchy.” (For an example of the bitchiness Rushdie is escaping from, read the Observer’s account of the Times’ story.) The City of New York says that “as of 1995, an estimated 33 percent of the city’s population was foreign-born and approximately another 20 percent were the offspring of immigrants.”

Though he’s a lot older than most “cool” writers, J.G. Ballard may be the coolest novelist alive. Known most widely as the author of the Empire of the Sun, a book that Stephen Spielberg made into a movie, the novelist’s critical portrayal of modern life is as pungent as anyone’s. His new novel, Super-Cannes (click here to buy it), is, he says, about a “consumer society [that] hungers for the deviant and unexpected—psychopathy is the only engine powerful enough to light our imaginations, to drive the arts, sciences and industries of the world.” Click here to read a review in the Guardian. John Sutherland explained the “Ballardian law of the universe” in the Sunday Times. “Every idealistic attempt by human society to organize itself into progressive or ‘higher’ forms will, inevitably, precipitate catastrophe. Interesting catastrophe, of course. The high-rise block degenerates into a jungle; the motorway system (as in Crash) becomes a 70 mph, high-tech killing ground; the leisure city of the future (as in Cocaine Nights) decays into Sodom by the Med.” To read an interview with Ballard, click here.

The review of academic life celebrated its 10th anniversary with a new look to its Web site, a beaming red and yellow cover (on the print edition) and, last night, a party in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. To mark the occasion, the magazine highlights 10 of its best pieces. A Lingua Franca article that led to a controversy—a 1996 piece by Alan Sokal, which revealed that the physicist had fooled a modish academic journal into publishing a “sham essay”—now appears in a book, The Sokal Hoax (click here to buy it). The volume, which contains much background material as well as reactions to Sokal’s article, is a useful anatomy of an important debate: how academics convey their ideas to their pupils and to the public.

A recent report claims that Americans are in danger of losing the ability to write with their hands. All the more reason, therefore, to visit a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is devoted to the stunning calligraphy of China, where handwriting is an art form as much as it is a form of communication and where a well-expressed idea demands craftsmanship. To view some of the exhibits, click here. To view the 14th-century “Record of the Miaoyan Monastery,” click here Writing in the New York Times, Holland Cotter says: “By image-obsessed Western standards, one picture is worth, absolute minimum, a thousand paltry words. But in China, where words are images, writing has traditionally been the highest art form of all, and a source of profound political and emotional power.”

A BIRTHDAY PARTY Harold Pinter turns 70 next month. The playwright’s Web site—click here to view it—has details on the celebrations, which include a production of Betrayal on Broadway. In his journals (an extract was published by The New Yorker in August—not on the Web, alas), the great theater critic Kenneth Tynan said that Pinter, like Polanski, Olivier, Brando, and Orson Welles, has the capacity to intimidate an audience. “What enables [them] to exercise talent is the ability to impose oneself (s’imposer). … Definition of an imposer: one about whom one worries whether his response to the next remark will be a smile or a snarl. With imposers, there is always danger, even if one isn’t employed by them.” Pinter recently played Sir Thomas Bertram in a movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Like two other modernist playwrights, Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard, Pinter adores cricket.

Now that the federal prosecutors have dropped their case against the Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee, many officials may wish to recall sunnier times at the government’s nuclear laboratory—though some people may dispute whether the events leading up to and including the detonation of the first atomic bomb were especially “sunny.” (For the New York Times’ coverage of the Lee case, click here.) Steven Shapin writes about two new books on the Manhattan Project (In the Shadow of the Bomb, by S.S. Schweber, and Atomic Fragments, by Mary Palevsky) and an era when scientists, such as Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, were treated as masters of the universe. “All the great men were there,” Shapin writes, “all united in an urgent common cause that broke down the artificial disciplinary boundaries that existed in the academy.” Though some of the nuclear physicists subsequently denounced the bomb—Oppenheimer most prominently—others “continued to be happily watered by the torrents of dollars that so fundamentally transformed the nature of physics research in the postwar decades.”

BEL DU JOUR Michael Wood recalls meeting the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel in Mexico in 1978. “First impressions. He is old, bent, has rather crooked teeth, large intelligent eyes behind heavy glasses. … ‘I am a monk,’ he says, ‘I don’t go out.’ It’s largely true.” In his remarkable memoir, My Last Sigh (click here to buy it, and click fast because Barnes & Noble only has a few copies left), Buñuel wrote that his “infancy slipped by in an almost medieval atmosphere. I had the good fortune of spending my childhood in the Middle Ages.” Garrett White’s translation of the selected writings of Buñuel, An Unspeakable Betrayal (click here to buy it), reinforces the view that though Buñuel despised religion, the church was always an important source for his imagination. The film notes for one of his last films, The Phantom of Liberty, begins: “In a room, with four candles placed around it, is a coffin in which lies a very beautiful woman who might be the bride. As the protagonist draws near her, the corpse opens its eyes and says: ‘Would you mind leaving me in peace?’ “

ARTnews Katie Clifford explains how museums such as MoMA and the Met choose paintings for their collections. For example, if a museum wanted to acquire a painting by Jasper Johns, which one would it choose? Nan Rosenthal, a consultant in the Met’s Department of Modern Art says: “We went after White Flag, a canonical masterpiece and the first Johns painting to enter our collection. … Much larger than his other paintings of this time, White Flag … [is one of Johns’ painting that] set the stage for Pop, Minimal, and, to an extent, Conceptual art.”

Painters like to imagine the pictures a rival artist might have executed if only he or she had been different. Less mad, perhaps, or more modest, or perhaps the opposite: madder or brasher. An example of this pursuit can be found in Hilton Kramer’s article about an exhibition of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors, currently on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To view some of the paintings, click here }. Toward the end of his New York Observer piece, Kramer quotes the painter Fairfield Porter, who said of Sargent: “His painting was full of discarded potentialities. … They are not part of anything—his sophistication made him aware of excellence but gave him no goal, his personality no shape, and his life no helpless mad direction.”