The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

COSTUME DRAMA In an essay published in this week’s New Yorker, Judith Thurman praises an exhibition about Cleopatra at the British Museum (though Brian Sewell describes the show as “a disgrace”). The bounty of the Egyptian queen, Thurman writes, “is inexhaustible. Every age restyles her in its own image and invests her with its own preoccupations. ‘Many unpleasant things have been said about Cleopatra,’ A.C. Bradley wrote in 1909, ‘and the more that are said, the more wonderful she appears.’ ” Few unpleasant things are said about Jacqueline Kennedy, but like Cleopatra, her bounty, too, is seemingly inexhaustible, as an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art } attests. Not everyone is enthusiastic about the Hamish Bowles- curated show; Jed Perl, like some of the critics of the Cleopatra, believes the exhibition represents a triumph of entertainment and fashion over art. “The real point [of the show] is to replace paintings with dresses—to turn the museum over, at least temporarily, to the fashionistas and assorted cultural marketers who simply cannot bear the idea that there is some corner of the contemporary landscape that they do not control.” On the other hand, Herbert Muschamp is hugely enthusiastic about this exhibit. “I would go so far as to call this a first-rate show of political art. … It is also the strongest show I’ve seen on the role played by the media in the transformation of modern American life.”

The lives of three famous British intellectuals, Bertrand Russell, A.J.P. Taylor, and A.J. Ayer, hardly correspond with the conclusions of a recently published Dutch and Swedish study about monogamy and sex since none were predisposed to monogamous relationships—for Russell and Ayer, infidelity was the way of love. (Nor, for that matter, were some of their wives. Russell’s second wife had a child with another man, as did Ayer’s first—which contradicts some of report’s findings. Not all women desire monogamous relationships.) Taylor, like Ayer, would remarry one of his wives, Margaret—though she, as a recent New Statesman article puts it, “made his life a misery not only by painful infatuations with younger men, but also by giving away large sums of money to the wretched Dylan Thomas.” All three men were attacked for failing to live up to their early promise, though these jibes often seem to be veiled moralizing about their chaotic relationships or envy at their social lives and their ability to draw incomes from books or journalism. Taylor, a prolific journalist, was charged with a “lack of seriousness.” According to Thomas Nagel, there’s something indecent about the second volume of Ray Monk’s Russell biography’s evident desire to prove “the depths of Russell’s misery and sexual passions.” “It would have been possible to take the same attitude toward Ayer,” writes Simon Blackburn. “After all, he had the same tangled family life as Russell, he did his best work when young … but he maintained a large output of articles and books, producing some of the most beautiful, lucid, philosophical prose since Hume.”

Bravo, David Remnick and everyone who works for The New Yorker. At a lunch held at the Waldorf Astoria today, the magazine won five National Magazine Awards. In the middle of May, the weekly publication will host a festival in Manhattan, though the pretext for the occasion seems more about brand extension and self-celebrity than gilding a lily or commemorating the magazine’s many journalistic and literary accomplishments. (The festival program is a large PDF file that takes some time to download.) Among the speakers and performers are Tracy Chapman, Chuck Close, Rickie Lee Jones, Stella McCartney, and Patti Smith, who will all be interviewed by various contributors to the magazine, while some of the more illustrious writers will talk about their work. It’s as if The New Yorker wants to go the way of late-night television, though where in this belle galère is the light relief of Paul Schaffer and the CBS Orchestra? Such self-regard—should the magazine’s famous mascot, the debonair Eustace Tilley, exchange his monocle for a mirror?—has one wondering what can possibly be next? Eustace, a lifestyle magazine about the magazine’s editors, featuring “Annals of Annals,” “Words on Talk,” and “Factchecker Master Class”?

VIA DOLLAR-OSA The enthusiasm of many Republicans for naming (or renaming) government buildings and airports in memory of Ronald Reagan has reached such loopy proportions—it’s been proposed that Reagan’s face should adorn the $10 bill—that one wonders whether they have forgotten that this former president is alive. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Noemie Emery, writing in the conservative Weekly Standard, argues that such messianic tendencies need to be curbed. It’s idiocy, she says, to cut funding to Washington’s Metro system for its refusal “to change its station signs to read Reagan National Airport. … Washington is becoming a capital with too many memorials and much too much reverence; with too many things named for too many people. … It is the Bill Clintons of the world who fret over legacies. … Ronald Reagan also had it right when he signed a bill (that his fans are now trying to overturn in his honor) prohibiting the erecting of monuments on the Mall to anyone not already dead for a quarter century. This wise measure was designed to let partisan fevers run their course, to prevent spectacles like the Metro sign war, in which embittered diehard liberals and Reagan’s more overwrought friends both look silly and spiteful.”

In today’s New York Times there’s an advertisement paid for and produced by the friends of Abe Hirshfeld, the businessman and would-be politician convicted last year for fraud and for plotting the murder of a business partner—among many other things. Designed as a major front-page story of an intensely local newspaper, The Blackstar News, the ad says Abe “likes” prison. As Milton Allimadi (who it seems is Blackstar News’ sole journalist) “reports,” ” ‘Finally, after 80 years, I have found a completely new world’ [Hirschfeld says], ‘a most beautiful world excellent world. I never had a chance to be in a Black home,’  he quips, referring to his prison experience, where most of his fellow inmates and card-playing partners are African American. … He launches into singing the praises of Bill Cosby, Colin Powell, Venus Williams, and Tiger Woods … . ‘Almost every Black person can hit the golf course as well as Tiger Woods.’ ” Some praise. According to his short online autobiography the felon says: “Thank God and thanks to the United States and the simple people. They love me and I give them hope. … They trust me so and they really hope that I am the last man to bring a realistic future for many of them to return to a new life.” Yes, Abe. You really are the last man anyone should turn for a bright new life.

WRITERS’ LIVES The strike action planned by the Writers Guild of America could begin this Wednesday, as the New York Times reports. In the Guardian, Betsy Blair—nominated for an Oscar in 1957 for her performance in Marty, formerly married to Gene Kelly, and now married to director Karel Reisz—recalls an era when certain Hollywood writers were confronted by an different adversary: McCarthyism. As Gareth McLean writes in an interview with Blair, “[S]he and Kelly were both leftwing and even though she didn’t suffer as much as others, she finds it hard to talk about now. ‘To be very leftwing in Hollywood was to work for the unions, to work for the blacks, the ordinary things that are social democratic principles. It was, if you were a writer, to try and write a film in which black people had a dignified position rather than just servants. At the time, you weren’t to say you were a communist or you weren’t a communist—they had no right to ask. I think now that the committee knew from the FBI who was a communist and who wasn’t and they didn’t call anyone who wasn’t. I wasn’t that important that I would have been called but it was an incomprehensible time.’ “

Safari Club International
promotes hunting around the world. Members of the Arizona-based organization include former President George Bush, former Vice President Dan Quayle, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. As Chris McGreal reports, the Safari Club is annoyed that the government of Botswana has recently banned lion hunting.Quayle and Schwarzkopf safaried in that country last year. “Rich Americans, Europeans, and Japanese pay about £20,000 … to kill a lion in Botswana. The government usually permits the shooting of about 50 lions a year by trophy hunters but decided to impose the ban in part because American shooters favor lions with thick manes for their walls, leading to a disproportionate killing of mature males. The shortage of such beasts is now so great that hunters have been making use of a mane-extension service back in the US where fake hair is weaved in to give their trophies an extra flourish before they hang the heads.”

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].”

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.

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.”

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.” 

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.’ “