Best Collection – Animation Short Films Best Animation Online Portal IContent Media Platform Wed, 13 Nov 2019 16:30:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Best Collection – Animation Short Films 32 32 140865691 An Overlooked Novel from 1935 by the Godmother of Feminist Detective Fiction Wed, 13 Nov 2019 16:30:00 +0000

In Gaudy Night,” a classic of the golden age of detective fiction by Dorothy L. Sayers, the heroine, Harriet Vane, wonders whether mystery novels can ever rise to the level of literature. Harriet is a successful author, like her creator, but suffers from writer’s block. The relationships between her characters “were beginning to take on an unnatural, an incredible symmetry. Human beings were not like that.” Harriet wonders what might happen if she were to “abandon the jig-saw kind of story and write a book about human beings for a change.”

More than eighty years after “Gaudy Night” was published, in 1935, we’re enjoying another golden age of detective stories. Mysteries and true-crime narratives seem to satisfy a need for women in particular, as the journalist Rachel Monroe writes in her new book, “Savage Appetites.” Stories about the worst things that can happen to a person serve to excavate a “subterranean knowledge,” Monroe notes, opening up “conversations about subjects that might otherwise be taboo: fear, abuse, exploitation, injustice, rage.” In 2012, the novel “Gone Girl,” by Gillian Flynn, introduced Amy Elliott Dunne, a character whose fury at the false promises of life and marriage prefigured the mass unleashing of women’s anger a few years later. Writers like Tana French, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, and Celeste Ng have won both popular and critical praise with stories about the damage that the world inflicts on women, and, sometimes, about the damage that damaged women do. The mystery genre, with its plots that patrol the outer borders of believable human behavior, has proved uniquely suited to illuminate a generalized hostility toward women, one so normal and pervasive that it’s often almost impossible to see.

Many histories of feminist detective fiction find foremothers for today’s anti-heroines in the hardboiled sleuths of the nineteen-seventies and eighties—in P. D. James’s Cordelia Gray, for example, and Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. But Harriet Vane is an earlier, often overlooked member of the same lineage. In a new group biography of Sayers and the school friends who served as her lifelong support system and creative collaborators, “The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women,” the historian Mo Moulton shows Sayers setting out in “Gaudy Night,” her most psychologically astute and least conventional novel, to present her own philosophy of women’s intrinsic intellectual equality.

Set at Oxford in the fictional women’s college of Shrewsbury, “Gaudy Night” investigates a string of acts of vandalism and threatening letters sent to students and faculty. It’s a romance as much as a mystery, in which the cerebral Harriet comes to terms with possessing “both a heart and a brain,” and accepts her feelings for her partner in crime-solving, the droll and debonair Lord Peter Wimsey. The genteel atmosphere of Sayers’s Oxford—where the key clue is a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid, and where Peter and Harriet take a break from their case to go punting—exists in a different universe from the eerie pageantry of Flynn’s Missouri or the saturated dread of French’s Dublin. But Sayers’s subject cut close to the bone in her own day. As suspicion falls on Shrewsbury’s female faculty, the quarry that Harriet calls “the College Poltergeist” becomes a spectre of the era’s worst fears about educated, professional women. In unmasking the culprit, Harriet, and thus Sayers, vindicates a woman’s right to a life of the mind.

Harriet only accepts Peter’s affections when it becomes clear that he respects her profession. On the subject of her writing, he is, she thinks, “about as protective as a can-opener,” telling her bluntly, “You haven’t yet . . . written the book you could write if you tried.” Sayers seems to have intended this advice for herself as much as for Harriet. “Gaudy Night” was her attempt to prove that detective fiction could address human problems—especially the problem of how a woman can know herself and her ambitions in a world where sexism obscures them from view.

Sayers didn’t begin her career with the intention to write mysteries. Moulton’s book opens at Oxford’s Somerville College, the inspiration for Shrewsbury, in 1912, a few decades after women were first allowed to enroll at the university. As undergraduates, Sayers and a few friends formed what they jokingly termed the Mutual Admiration Society, or M.A.S., a clique of aspiring poets and playwrights who critiqued one another’s drafts over hot cocoa.

The M.A.S. was originally apathetic toward the political cause of women’s equality, declining to join the campaign for suffrage. Still, as upper-class, educated women, Sayers and her friends “were simultaneously insiders and outsiders” in their professional milieus, Moulton writes, arguing that this duality was formative: “I suspect they would have been somewhat boring men.” Sayers, for example, would likely have become an academic if the posts available to women scholars in the early nineteen-twenties hadn’t been so provisional and scarce. Moulton concludes that the M.A.S.’s “marginality within the gender politics of their era served a role like sand in an oyster. They struggled and were pushed out of the main lines of promotion and success, and, instead of reproducing the world of their fathers or their mothers, they made something new.”

Many educated women of Sayers’s generation became either wives or teachers—or they taught until they married. Beginning her adult life during the First World War, Sayers found herself ill-suited for either option. “It’s immoral to take up a job solely for the amount of time one can spend away from it, which is what most of us do with teaching,” she wrote to a friend, in 1917. But her attempts to support herself as a poet and publisher’s apprentice produced “a kind of nightmare” of financial instability. After passing a case of mumps by reading pulp detective novels, Sayers tried her hand at writing her own mystery. In “Whose Body?”, published in 1923, she created the erudite, aristocratic Lord Peter, the protagonist of what would become a wildly popular series. She dreamed up her hero “in an admittedly escapist frame of mind,” Moulton writes, giving him a “posh flat” full of antique books and a butler—“all the luxuries and comforts that she could not afford.”

Sayers couldn’t have chosen a more lucrative genre. In the nineteen-twenties and thirties, mysteries were ubiquitous as mass entertainment. They were also synonymous with a jigsaw-style formula. Even as Sayers grew prosperous from Lord Peter’s exploits, she nursed a level of disdain for her chosen profession. “Make no mistake about it, the detective-story is part of the literature of escape, and not of expression,” she writes in the introduction to “The Omnibus of Crime,” an anthology of stories that she edited in 1929. She argued that the question of how to unite intricate plots with characters who read like “real human beings” was itself a mystery that writers had yet to solve, adding, “At some point or other, either [the characters’] emotions make hay of the detective interest, or the detective interest gets hold of them and makes their emotions look like pasteboard.”

If this question occupied Sayers in the early years of her career, so did a series of personal trials, which Moulton recounts in “The Mutual Admiration Society.” Sayers “was not born a feminist,” Moulton writes. “She became one, through bitter suffering and the stark realization of the precariousness of her position.” (She remained skeptical of the label “feminist” even after it fit.) The first wakeup call was a disastrous love affair with a novelist named John Cournos. Sayers hoped that the relationship would lead to marriage and children; from Cournos’s letters, Moulton summarizes his desires as “unconditional sex” and “total submission.” Next, Sayers had an affair with a married man that resulted in an accidental pregnancy. Lacking any good option—it was 1923, and abortion was illegal and dangerous—the thirty-year-old Sayers chose to keep the child a secret, sending him to live with a cousin. When Sayers later married, the union was not as harmonious as the one she would invent for her fictional characters. Atherton (Mac) Fleming, a journalist and photographer, seems to have viewed his wife’s success with ambivalence—even though, or especially because, her earnings supported him.

Moulton’s book sheds new light on Sayers’s evolution as a writer, showing how some of her best work occurred in collaboration with her friend Muriel St. Clare Byrne. (For one thing, the dynamic between Peter and Harriet may have been modelled on Byrne’s equitable romantic partnership with another woman.) Sayers and Byrne are the most compelling characters in Moulton’s group biography, which also includes subjects who lived much smaller lives; not all the material adheres to the promise of the book’s subtitle, which is to show a circle that “remade the world for women.” But chapters about Sayers and Byrne’s work on a play featuring Peter and Harriet shows how that process altered Sayers’s own writing. In the play, “Busman’s Honeymoon,” written at the same time as “Gaudy Night,” Sayers challenged herself for the first time to craft a convincing romantic arc for her characters—and the play changed her approach to what she called the “psychological elements” of stories. She began defending her genre against the charges of empty escapism that she had once levelled at it. In a lecture from 1936 titled “The Importance of Being Vulgar,” she responded to critics who derided her work as lowbrow, insisting that detective fiction could capture “such vulgarities as birth, love, death, hunger, grief, romance, & heroism.”

In her introduction to the 1929 “Omnibus,” Sayers had lamented the state of the fictional female detective. Most were “charming creatures . . . of twenty-one or thereabouts” who solved their cases through the mystical property of feminine intuition and gave up detective work at book’s end in order to get married. Others, like Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple, were skilled amateurs rather than respected professionals. “The really brilliant woman detective has yet to be created,” Sayers writes.

Harriet only partially fills the vacuum that Sayers identified—she’s an amateur detective to Peter’s semi-professional, and it’s he who assembles the clues—but “Gaudy Night” lays the groundwork for the beloved women sleuths of future generations. The archetypal detective is a figure who values truth above all else: above empathy for victim or villain, love of friends or family, even the preservation of her own life. As Cassie Maddox, a protagonist of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series and a new BBC adaptation, says in the “The Likeness,” from 2008, “The detective’s god is the truth, and you don’t get much higher or much more ruthless than that.” In “Gaudy Night,” women scholars argue bitterly about whether their work can ever come before family. But faced with the case of a male historian supporting his wife and children on a falsified find, they all agree that he must be reported; they value the historical record over the well-being of the man’s family. Sayers’s women are ruthless enough to be trusted with real work.

In the best detective stories, the truth that’s uncovered isn’t limited to the name of the culprit. Mysteries, like works of horror, transmute nebulous fears into tangible dangers. The genre lends itself to exploring anxieties about the unknown and unknowable—shadowy territory that, for Harriet and many of the detectives who’ve followed, includes the contents of their own minds, or the substance of their own personalities.

Sayers’s most cherished feminist commitment is that our true selves are tied up in our talents: that every person, regardless of gender, has a type of work for which they’re intrinsically suited, and that the ethical choice in life is, as Harriet says, to “do one’s own job, however trivial.” In “Gaudy Night,” the typical marriage encompasses a woman’s existence completely, which is why Harriet, “cursed with both a heart and a brain,” has chosen the latter, believing that it’s impossible for a woman to balance both. But her self-abnegation, far from enabling her work, frustrates the fulfillment of her artistic potential, turning her books into lifeless “intellectual exercises.” Meanwhile, women who choose heart over brain face a worse fate. Making another person one’s life’s work has a “devastating effect . . . on one’s character,” as a member of the Shrewsbury faculty tells Harriet. It means being “devoured,” robbed of a rightful role in society as surely as a ghost lacks a foothold on earth. The scholar warns against underestimating women who have undergone this hollowing. “Far from despising them,” she says, “I think they are dangerous.”

“Gaudy Night” hints that most marriages are a form of spiritual femicide. “Gone Girl,” in which a villainous female protagonist escapes her airless marriage by faking her own death, takes that metaphor to its logical conclusion. In the most famous passage of Flynn’s novel, Amy explains how her husband, Nick, set her disappearing act in motion the moment he fell in love—not with her but with the person that men expect women to be: “the Cool Girl . . . the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.” Amy argues that, faced with a real person where he expected the Cool Girl, Nick dismantled her in search of the woman he thought he married. “He took away chunks of me with blasé swipes: my independence, my pride, my esteem. I gave, and he took and took. He Giving Treed me out of existence.” Amy’s lament is that of an everywoman, but her actions are those of a psychopath. Her idea of poetic justice is to frame Nick for her murder: “He killed my soul, which should be a crime. Actually, it is a crime. According to me, at least.”

Nick doesn’t know the real Amy, and this enigma is the engine of “Gone Girl.” In “Gaudy Night,” as mounting evidence suggests that the poltergeist must be one of the esteemed members of Shrewsbury’s faculty, Harriet begins to fear that there’s truth in the fulminations of sexists—that women who choose head over heart are somehow dangerous. She doesn’t know if she’s drawn to the idea of a life with Peter or just anxious about being a woman alone. “If you want to do without personal relationships, then do without them,” Peter says. “Don’t stampede yourself into them by imagining that you’ve got to have them or qualify for a Freudian case-book.” But Harriet can’t discern her own motivation, and self-doubt begins to send her mind haywire.

Here, “Gaudy Night” hits on the reason that mysteries feel tailor-made for writing about sexism: because sexism, like other forms of prejudice, has a way of making people mysteries to themselves. Who would we be in the absence of internalized biases and psychological injuries? This question sits at the heart of the best crime thriller of the last decade, Tana French’s “The Witch Elm.” The narrator, Toby Hennessy, is the golden boy for whom everything goes right. Only after a series of unlucky turns does Toby begin to realize that his identity has always been as contingent on fortune and circumstance as everyone else’s. While he was skating through high school, the cousins he grew up with were being tormented—one for being gay, the other for being a bookish girl who rejected the violent advances of a popular boy. As surely as those assaults shaped their victims, Toby was defined by his failure to notice. As one of the cousins says, “I’m never going to know what I would have been like if you had had my back, that time.” The not-knowing, as the other cousin points out, is “the worst part of all: the idea that I was who I was because of some random guy I just happened to meet. . . . Like anyone could turn me into anything, and there would be nothing I could do about it.” At first, Toby resists the idea that random chance could remake a person. When he realizes that this is exactly what’s happening to him, he feels like he’s falling through the floor of the “warm bright world” that he’s always known, into the “strangling dark” of another one.

Alongside contemporary writers like French and Flynn, Sayers seems almost quaintly optimistic. The vandal of “Gaudy Night” is revealed to be not a member of the faculty but an opponent of women’s education—not an allegory of women’s intellectual unfitness but a manifestation of an irrational hatred. When Harriet understands that she’s free to choose a life of pure head and no heart if she wants, she can finally see the work that she’s meant to do. She commits to a nontraditional marriage and an unconventional detective novel—which, after many reworkings, she deems nearly satisfactory and “almost human.”

By catching her poltergeist, Harriet performs an exorcism on her own fear. Her literary descendants are rarely so lucky. Their mysteries have a way of pulling them down into the dark underside of reality that Toby discovers. Wherever the case leads, the end finds them still living there.

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“Mobituaries,” Mo Rocca’s Curious, Offbeat Collection of Lives Forgotten Tue, 12 Nov 2019 16:05:15 +0000

Some years ago, I was seated at a play next to Mo Rocca, the television and radio personality known for “The Daily Show” and, more recently, “CBS Sunday Morning.” Out of nowhere, he turned to me and asked, in his unmistakable voice, “Do you know anything about Venus flytraps?” I’ve forgotten the tidbit about Venus flytraps that followed, or the reason they came up at all—what I remember is Rocca’s enthusiasm for knowing things for the sake of knowing them. That enthusiasm courses through his new book, “Mobituaries” (written with Jonathan Greenberg), an offshoot of his podcast of the same name. A Mobituary, as Rocca defines it, is “an appreciation for someone who didn’t get the love she or he deserved the first time around.” Some chapters are dedicated to “Forgotten Forerunners,” such as Elizabeth Jennings (1827-1901), a black woman who boarded a whites-only streetcar in Manhattan, a century before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Jennings sued the Third Avenue Railroad, and Rocca, who has a thing for obscure nineteenth-century Presidents, notes that her lawyer was the twenty-four-year-old Chester A. Arthur.

Obituaries tell us about lives lived, but also about whom we value. The Times’ project Overlooked has tried to right historical wrongs by giving obituaries to figures the paper previously ignored. Rocca isn’t as ideological as that—he’s driven by the desire to absorb great facts and pass them on. The quirks of history delight and vex him. He seems genuinely aggrieved that Audrey Hepburn died on the same day as Bill Clinton’s Inauguration and didn’t get her proper due. Same goes for Farrah Fawcett, who died on the same day as Michael Jackson. (One of the book’s many humorous sidebars lists other notable people who died on the same day, in case you were wondering what Margaret Thatcher had in common with Annette Funicello.) There’s even a chapter on historic figures memorialized by rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike—a motley bunch that includes Walt Whitman, Vince Lombardi, and Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. Mobituaries are not reserved only for people; Rocca also revisits the “deaths” of fashion trends (R.I.P., the codpiece), sitcom characters (pour one out for Judy Winslow, of “Family Matters”), and the country of Prussia.

The final Mobituary in the book is for Rocca’s father, Marcel (1929-2004), told through his love of the trumpet, a teen-age hobby that Marcel resumed at the age of fifty, practicing in the cellar of their family home, in Bethesda, Maryland. Rocca credits Marcel with his love of long car rides, the music of Jerome Kern, and obituaries—curiosity paid forward. Also, Rocca notes, would you believe that the famous trumpet player Lee Morgan was shot onstage at Slugs’ Saloon, by his common-law wife? In our fact-challenged times, Rocca’s joyful tour through the “didja know”s of history is an unexpected antidote.

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Weike Wang Reads “The Trip” Tue, 12 Nov 2019 11:00:00 +0000

Deborah Treisman hosts the author Weike Wang, who reads her short story “The Trip,” from the November 18, 2019, issue of The New Yorker.

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Amos Oz and the Politics of the Hebrew Language Tue, 12 Nov 2019 11:00:00 +0000

“A few days ago I was walking in Jerusalem, and in one alley . . . I sensed, there was, the smell of wet fabrics after an ironing,” the Israeli novelist Amos Oz once said in an interview. It was “a mixture of the smells of singed cloth, and steam, and a warm dampness; and a bit of the smell of the material, and it’s also a very domestic smell. And I now need so many words to falteringly relate to you this thing, with which you would be familiar instantly.” Oz, who died in December of last year, and who was one of the most prominent writers of modern Hebrew, was preoccupied throughout his life by the limitations of language: its slipperiness, its inability to fully convey meaning. The written word, he often argued, could only ever be a low-fidelity reproduction of the fullness of being; any text was ultimately humbled by the reality that it sought to represent.

After Oz’s death, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, known as Kan, released a number of radio interviews with him from its archives. The earliest, conducted from his room in Kibbutz Hulda, in 1964, took place not long before the publication of his first book, “Where the Jackals Howl”; the last is from the months before his death. It is uncanny how much the twenty-five-year-old Oz sounds like the seventy-nine-year-old Oz: as articulate and as resolute, almost oracular, in his tone. When you listen to the interviews in sequence, your initial awe at his easy eloquence wears off a bit with the repetition, sometimes word-for-word, of some of his insights. Words, he said in 1975, and again, in 1978, are esek bish, a mess—a cluttered affair that fogs up meaning even as it tries to get it across. But the repetitions also point to his fixation, verging on obsession, with the impossibility of capturing in writing what it was that he wanted to communicate.

For Oz, stories were an attempt to impose order on a world that has none—not so different, he thought, from Paleolithic cave paintings, in which prehistoric artists stilled wild beasts, giving themselves an illusion of control over nature. Still, Oz argued, the most primal human experiences transcend words: “Humans come into the world crying, make love moaning, die sighing,” he said in the 1978 interview. “When you need to communicate these things with words, it’s hard. . . . Some things get lost. You need to trust the reader, to some extent, to produce from the words that which is beyond words.” In her essay collection “Upstream,” the poet Mary Oliver observed that “Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion.” A bet, as Oz put it, that different people will find beauty in the same contours.

Oz was as interested in the particularities of Hebrew as he was in the general problem of language. By his late twenties, after publishing his first three books (a collection of short stories and two novels), he was already one of the best-known literary practitioners of a language that had emerged from its cryogenic state just a few decades earlier. Hebrew newspapers and the first Hebrew novel appeared early in the nineteenth century, but the language was stilted and biblical. Within a century, Hebrew had become a supple, living language, first in literature and then in speech—a compelling and mercurial medium, rapidly adapting to the needs of modernity (imagine Latin repurposed to portray iPhones, third-wave feminism and Billie Eilish). “The Hebrew of my childhood,” Oz told David Remnick for a 2004 Profile in this magazine, “was a language making its first steps in the open, like a creature bred and created in a laboratory or in a zoo and set free.”

In “Jews and Words,” an essay that Oz wrote with his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, the two proposed an understanding of Jewish historical continuity as “primarily textual,” with Jewish lineage transmitted through words rather than blood. In that telling, the reëmergence of Hebrew as a spoken language was not only a rebirth but a rupture. Oz’s life traced the aftermath of this rupture. Born in 1939, in Jerusalem, Oz was the son of two recent Eastern European émigrés to Mandatory Palestine. His father was a librarian who read in sixteen or seventeen languages; his mother read in seven or eight. As part of their commitment to forging a new life—to leaving behind not only forced statelessness but also diasporic cosmopolitanism—Oz grew up only with Hebrew. “Maybe they feared that a knowledge of languages would expose me to the blandishments of Europe,” he wrote in his memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” “that wonderful, murderous continent.”

To Oz, writing in Hebrew was like sculpting in solid rock and crusted sand at the same time. With one foot in the Hebrew of the Bible and the other in the mélange of linguistic influences that made up the vernacular in a young country of immigrants, the language could make a speaker prone to making missteps of word choice: “you don’t want to bring in Isaiah and Psalms and Mount Sinai” to describe an argument over pocket change, Oz told the Paris Review in 1996. Modern Hebrew drew not only from earlier forms of the language but from Polish, Yiddish, Russian, and various dialects of Arabic. If the slow evolution of most languages allowed words to “resonate with an entire cellar of meanings and associations and lullabies and old wives’ tales,” then, for much of the twentieth century, readers and writers of Hebrew had to create their own harmonies.

This was also what made writing in Hebrew hugely tempting (like working “on an active volcano,” he said in both the 1978 radio interview and in the Paris Review). Oz compared the language to Elizabethan English, “when a writer and poet could still make new laws about language.” (In this, he echoes the literary critic George Steiner, who wrote that “Marlowe, Bacon, Shakespeare use words as if they were new, as if no previous touch had clouded their shimmer or muted their resonance. . . . The great treasure of it lies before them, suddenly unlocked, and they ransack it with a sense of infinite resource.”) Along with other novelists and poets of his generation, Oz revelled in the sense of possibility that modern Hebrew afforded, in the unique timbre of strings stretched between such temporally distant worlds.

In his interviews, Oz revealed his delight in Hebrew’s expanding resonances, but he was also alive to the ways in which language can be abused. “Every destruction begins with the destruction of language,” he said, “when you call things by names which are not their own.” Oz, who wrote columns and essays for the Israeli press (he famously used different-colored pens for politics and for prose), framed his role as a public intellectual through his relation to language, and much of his political writing began at that point. In the first column he wrote after the Six-Day War, in which Israel took the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan, he rejected the new practice of referring to the military captures as “liberated territories.” This was, in his view, a “contamination of language”: territory could never be “freed,” and liberation only held meaning in a human context. About the 1982 Lebanon War, which was initially dubbed Operation Peace for Galilee, he said, “War is not peace. Call it war.”

Despite these misgivings about the use and misuse of language, Hebrew remained, to Oz, Zionism’s greatest achievement. Certainly, it was the one he was least ambivalent about. “I have said many times that I’m a chauvinist only in respect of the language,” he told the Paris Review. “I feel for the language everything that perhaps I don’t always feel for the country.” Modern Hebrew literature—its beats and its tenor, its themes and its subjects—was a source of pride, as broad in range as it was particular. Oz identified its central topic as the “troubles of the Jews,” but this seemingly narrow focus did not preclude it rising to a more universal, humanistic plane. “The troubles of the Jews, in the broadest strokes, are not so different from the troubles of humanity,” he said in 1978. “Jews search for something they cannot find; find something they didn’t want; find something they wanted, but it’s not quite right. Other humans are like this, too… Jews are also like other humans, when they try hard.”

Throughout, Oz tied the boundaries of language to the boundaries of ideology. People with too much faith in a specific program, who prescribe too eagerly to an all-encompassing gospel of change, can inevitably become fanatics when the world does not fit neatly into their formulas, he argued. Just as reality cannot be fully expressed in language, it also resists confinement to a single belief system: “We live in a world full of contradictions. . . . and ideology cannot stand contradictions.” Rather, Oz advises perplexion—that we all be driven by our confusion to constantly examine and re-arrange our attic of ideas. His final essay collection, “Dear Zealots,” opens with a broad exploration of fanatics and fanaticism (single-mindedness, humorlessness) and concludes by analyzing the pathologies of those perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Given this outspoken aversion to dogma and intellectual rigidity, it is perhaps ironic how consistent his own views remained over the decades. Secular, liberal Zionism, of which Oz was one of the clearest articulators, has its own set of prescriptions for the world’s problems, its own utopian streak, its own easy solutions to the intractable conflict in the Middle East. Oz subscribed to these aspirations, though he was usually clear-eyed about the obstacles to bringing them about.

There’s an old Zionist hymn that begins with the line “Here in the land our forefathers ached for, all of our hopes will be fulfilled.” The tune is borrowed from an older Yiddish song titled “Goles Marsh,” or “Exile March,” and the Hebrew rendition subverts the original lachrymose lyrics, promising to replace the tears of the diaspora with a life of freedom and farming (and, of course, Hebrew). “Not two or three hopes, all of our hopes,” Oz noted cynically about the song’s opening refrain and the early Zionists who sang it. No dream too small. “Even when they were already here they would sing ‘there,’ ” he added. Always in a state of flux, never quite arriving (other humans are like this, too). Still, when his kids were young, it was one of the songs that Oz would sing to them every night before they went to sleep, half bemused and half believing. It was the last song sung before the crowd dispersed at his funeral, as he was laid to rest in the kibbutz graveyard.

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Weike Wang on Culture Clashes and Claiming Your Identity Mon, 11 Nov 2019 10:00:00 +0000

In The Trip,” your story in this week’s issue, a Chinese-American woman and her Caucasian-American husband take a tour through China and visit her family. How did the premise first come to you?

Earlier in the year, my husband and I travelled to China. It was his first time and probably my seventh. I came back from this trip with some things to process. When anyone asked, I said that the vacation was good, and it was; we had fun, ate well, saw all the sights. But I suppose the trip was particularly odd for me because it was the first time I’d gone with my husband. I found myself having to speak English in places where I never had before—at my uncle’s house, for instance, at my grandfather’s grave, in supermarkets—and quite a lot of English, too, so that my husband could participate. I was translating for everyone and, at the same time, trying to experience on my own. I was happy to translate but also drained. Afterward, I truly couldn’t differentiate which observations were mine and which belonged to someone else. This frightened me. So when I sat down to write a fictional version I knew that it would work better if there were other characters who spoke English as well. Hence the tour guides and the wife’s cousin, and, of course, the husband’s mother.

The couple grow further and further apart in the course of the trip, as he feels alienated and she tries to feel at home. Do you think they were ever genuinely close?

I imagine that, in America, fewer of these divisions would come up. The wife would consider her identity to be part of her but not necessarily an obstacle. The husband is thoughtful but stoic (and would not engage unless he could see that something really bothered her). On a day-to-day basis, both of these characters have low-key attitudes. Their ability to keep things at a distance is common ground and perhaps a result of their both having come from broken homes or being only children. Only children have no buffer, I find. They are given a set of conditions to handle and usually do. Unfortunately, travelling abroad induces stress. I asked myself what this couple would not be able to shrug off, what they would really have to confront, especially in a place where they both face encroaching forces.

In counterbalance to the alienation the husband experiences in China, the wife has had to contend with an overbearing and xenophobic American mother-in-law. Who do you think has it worse?

Thanks for this question. The husband’s mother is overbearing, yes, but I am not sure I consider her xenophobic, or displaying fear/dislike/hate for another group. There is a small event in the story in which the mother believes she is doing something inclusive, but both her son and his wife know better. I don’t think the mother means to be insensitive, but she is also not aware of what she should be sensitive to. The son considers it ignorance, pure and total, but the wife extrapolates. Ignorance leads to fear. And, to take it further, fear leads to dislike, and dislike leads to hate. Internally, the wife would take it further, as she belongs to the more marginalized group. But she hides her thoughts, and, externally, her husband defends her. In the dynamic between the mother and her daughter-in-law, who misclassifies whom? Some people are isolated, have not been informed by the same experiences, cannot keep up with change—yet they do not necessarily dislike or hate. Likewise, the way the wife’s family behaves, this family who I don’t think have travelled much, either, is off-putting, at times hard to bear, but the husband senses that they do not act out of malice, so goes along with it.

Who, then, has it worse?

I chose to write from the husband’s perspective because he would say that his wife does. Part of his character is an awareness gained from being educated and leaving home. He may not get it right all the time, but he tries, and that effort is something I wished to capture.

The husband actually does most of the contending with his mother, who just won’t leave him alone. Is she a malevolent force in his life, or just a small-town woman terrified of losing her only child to a world she doesn’t know?

More the latter. She is proud of her son but doesn’t understand his work or interests, and doesn’t have the capacity to. So she has become singularly proud, and intrusive, trying to fill the unclosable gap between them with constant attention and nostalgia. Her son recognizes that he comes from people who encouraged him but did not necessarily expect him to get to where he is. I think a mother like this has trouble reconciling her son’s success with the collapse of their relationship. She wonders why they can’t have both. She does want him to be happy, I believe, but how can she recognize his happiness if she sees his world only through a pinhole? In real life, this son–mother pair would be estranged, but, in the story, the son still speaks to his mother, still answers the phone; he is hopeful.

There’s a turning point in the story, when the wife’s cousin refers to her as an “ABC”—American-born Chinese. The wife is infuriated because she was born in China, and she sets about to prove or reclaim her Chinese identity. Why does she react so strongly to the comment?

From the cousin’s perspective, the phrase “ABC” would seem like a compliment. She has both envy and admiration for a family member who grew up in the West. The cousin works in a pie store and likely considers herself well versed in American culture, thus her perfect English, which she would have learned in school but perfected through mass consumption of Western shows, movies, and music. But being well versed in pop culture is one thing. The cousin has lived in China her entire life and, thus, has not experienced the same feelings of isolation that the wife has. In China, the cousin is neither immigrant nor minority, and her interest in Western culture comes with little to no baggage. The wife, however, takes the label as an insult. She is both Chinese and American, sure, but has been reminded that she is not enough of either. And what she can express in Chinese is so limited that the childish phrase makes her feel even more reduced.

Your last story in The New Yorker, “Omakase,” also involved a couple in which the man was a white American and the woman was the child of Chinese immigrants. As in that story, neither character here is given a name. Why not? Are you trying to emphasize the universality of the situation, or is it just that, as you said last time, you’re not good at naming characters?

For this story, I wanted the names that I did include to stand out. The more prominent characters (man, woman, mother, cousin) do not have names, because it would detract from my initial goal. The names I chose—Felix the Cat, Helen of Troy, etc.—are silly and fun but, more importantly, easy to remember and say. At some point in my life, I was asked to consider changing my name to Vicky. Vicky Wang—that would have been me. In grade school, I told people to call me Karen, a name I liked because it was also my teacher’s. My classmates kindly obliged. Convenience, the give and take of it, is often built into interactions. So, to expand on what I said before about not being too good with names, I should say, rather, that I am more used to a multi-name system. A person wishes to be called one thing, but on all his official documents he has another name, and perhaps his family calls him a third. The latter would be confusing to write or explain in a story; there would be something really schizophrenic about it.

At the end of the story (spoiler alert!), the wife decides to stay for an indefinite period of time, to reimmerse herself in Chinese language and culture. Did you know from the beginning that the story would end in that way? Or did the ending sneak up on you?

I did not know the ending when I started. I knew up to the point when the wife would stop translating. I knew this because I had wanted to stop translating. But, once I got there, the narrative was still incomplete. The wife is someone who, while not angry at anyone in particular, is angry about her circumstances, angry that she has been robbed of important choices. But we are all the products of a combination of chance and choice. By staying indefinitely, the wife may not have made the right choice, but that is really for her to figure out. If she fails in China, she will at least have proved something to herself, and that is important for her to have—a success or a failure, most likely a mix. When I saw this kind of ending, probably a few lines out, I also knew the husband’s reaction. He is not going to stop her.

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“The Trip,” by Weike Wang Mon, 11 Nov 2019 10:00:00 +0000

Fiction by Weike Wang: “He didn’t think it was fear. He told her what he thought it was. Ignorance leads to fear, she said.”

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From Little Englanders to Brexiteers Mon, 11 Nov 2019 10:00:00 +0000

The more sentimental believers in the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom focus on synchronous developments in American and British politics during the past century. The Second World War, in this telling, was won by a pair of anti-fascists whose alliance and friendship made the world safe for democracy. Even more jaundiced observers cannot help but notice commonalities. In the nineteen-fifties, two moderately conservative regimes turned their countries slightly to the right, while establishing a decades-long, bipartisan commitment to the welfare state. A generation later, the conservative revolution arrived in both countries, with Margaret Thatcher triumphing over an enfeebled Labour government, in 1979, and Ronald Reagan routing Jimmy Carter, in 1980. In the nineteen-nineties, two slick center-left politicians, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, transformed their parties; just as the fifties conservatives had made peace with a social safety net, Democrats and Labourites made it clear that they welcomed the role of free markets and financial capital.

And then, in the summer of 2016, the U.K. voted to leave the European Union in a referendum hastily called by David Cameron—a perfectly fine update of a nineteen-fifties Tory Prime Minister, and someone who, in his recently released memoir, notes his ideological proximity to Barack Obama. Months later, the U.S. elected Donald Trump, a man who referred to himself as Mr. Brexit. These twin “populist” explosions have been the central drama in each country ever since, feeding the news cycle on both sides of the Atlantic with the same mixture of apprehension and disbelief.

American Presidents are difficult to dislodge in the middle of their terms, but British law allows the party in power to replace a Prime Minister without a general election. Boris Johnson, the third Tory premier in as many years, has a slight physical resemblance to Trump, comparable regard for women, and a governing style that combines buffoonery and demagoguery. If you can’t see Donald Trump as the Brussels correspondent for a major print newspaper, as Johnson was in the nineties, you can probably imagine him writing up two versions of a newspaper column—or, anyway, two versions of a tweet—on an issue of national importance, and waiting until the last possible moment to decide which one to publish, as Johnson did in the run-up to the Brexit referendum.

Trump and Johnson have managed to rise to power only because of the institutional weaknesses of their respective parties, and the willingness of conservative élites to stoke and then appease each leader’s base. But there is one key distinction. The Republican establishment, in acquiescing to Trump, has been cynical rather than careless. Tariffs aside, Trump has delivered to G.O.P. power brokers most of what they wanted: deep tax cuts, gutted environmental regulations, abortion restrictions, conservative judges. No such package of partisan gains will come from the Tories’ placation of the anti-European wing, regardless of how Brexit is enacted, assuming that it is.

Brexit is despised by much of the financial sector and many small-business owners. When fifty-two per cent of the U.K. voted to leave, no one in power knew how such a decision could be carried out. Three years later, according to one poll, a majority of Conservative Party members were willing to see the Party destroyed in order to achieve Brexit; a majority also supported leaving the E.U. even if it meant doing significant damage to the British economy. The deal that Boris Johnson finally struck with Europe could eventually lead to a united Ireland and an independent Scotland. (Its ratification will likely depend on how Johnson’s party fares in an election next month.) The Brexiteers who have been celebrating the prospect of a Great Britain unshackled and ready to recapture imperial-era glory may end up with nothing but a little England. What are the roots of such madness?

This is, in effect, the question that Fintan O’Toole sets out to answer in his new book, “The Politics of Pain: Postwar England and the Rise of Nationalism” (Liveright). O’Toole might quibble with my using “United Kingdom” and “Great Britain” interchangeably, since the United Kingdom, unlike Great Britain, encompasses Northern Ireland, whose border with the Republic of Ireland (a member in good standing of the European Union) has been a major Brexit sticking point. And one of the many shocking results of Brexit is the rupture it has created between the Tory Party and its unionist allies in Northern Ireland, the defense of whom has been a defining feature of British conservatism. (The Party’s full name remains the Conservative and Unionist Party.) But O’Toole’s book focusses on the distinction between Great Britain, which includes Scotland and Wales, and the England of his title—the real site of the Tory uprising against Europe.

An essayist of uncommon depth and breadth, O’Toole is a Dubliner known for his work on Ireland. Describing the complicated relationship between Irishness and Englishness, he writes, “So we had these two very different ways of thinking about England: as the opposite of Us and as a place where Us could mean something much more fluid and open.” His concern about a United Kingdom severed from Europe, in turn, is that the fluidity and the openness that have appealed to centuries of dissidents and cosmopolitans are going to vanish. Written after the Brexit referendum but before Johnson replaced Theresa May (who succeeded Cameron), “The Politics of Pain” argues that the causes of the Brexit vote—and the tribulations of Toryism—reach back to the previous century.

The First World War ended with a nascent American hegemony and strong hints that Britain’s imperial days were numbered. But in 1919 the United Kingdom held more territory than it had in 1914. The situation looked bleaker in 1945, at least from the perspective of those who thought Britain’s destiny entailed ruling over people across the world without their consent. Britain emerged from the Second World War at once victorious and shrunken, the image of plucky heroism and imperial twilight. “The power of Brexit,” O’Toole writes, “is that it promised to end at last all this tantalizing uncertainty by fusing these contradictory moods into a single emotion—the pleasurable self-pity in which one can feel at once horribly hard done by and exceptionally grand. Its promise is, at heart, a liberation, not from Europe, but from the torment of an eternally unresolved conflict between superiority and inferiority.”

Or, as Evelyn Waugh wrote in his California-based satire of Anglo-Americanism, “The Loved One” (1948), “You never find an Englishman among the underdogs—except in England of course.” India achieved independence in 1947, Jamaica in 1962; the great majority of the Empire’s “subjects” won their freedom in that fifteen-year interval. By the time the Suez crisis concluded in humiliating fashion, in 1956—when President Eisenhower forced an abrupt end to the Anglo-French-Israeli military operation to regain control of the canal—American primacy, however resented, could no longer be denied.

Dean Acheson’s famous remark, in 1962, that “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role” suggests that striving to become a social democracy within Europe would somehow have been an insufficiently glorious ambition for an erstwhile world power. Acheson wasn’t alone: the debates that galvanized the British in the first twenty-five years after the war—whether to join what was then called the European Economic Community (no), whether to develop an independent nuclear deterrent (yes), whether to devalue the pound (yes, belatedly)—reflected an inability to come to terms with a reduced status. The country never entirely adjusted to being a junior partner to America or a European member state. O’Toole, who argues that ambivalence about joining the European Community was intertwined with enduring fears of German domination, describes the “vertiginous fall from ‘heart of empire’ to ‘occupied colony,’ ” and observes, “In the imperial imagination, there are only two states: dominant and submissive, colonizer and colonized.” (Concerns about Germany making decisions for other sovereign European countries appear somewhat less paranoid in our post-financial-crisis era.)

Hanging over all these issues was Commonwealth immigration. In a superb new study, “The Unsettling of Europe: How Migration Reshaped a Continent” (Basic), Peter Gatrell notes that, in the postwar era, Irish immigration to England “steadily began to yield in significance to migration from other parts of the world.” The British Nationality Act of 1948 had allowed Commonwealth citizens to relocate to the former motherland. “Like their counterparts in Paris or Marseille,” Gatrell writes, “people who arrived from the Commonwealth, and particularly from the Caribbean, spoke the language of the host country, but stood out by virtue of their skin colour.” Britain eventually passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968, which made it more difficult for Commonwealth citizens, especially nonwhite ones, to settle in Britain.

This was also the year that Enoch Powell, a Tory M.P. who represented Wolverhampton, delivered his notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech. Warning of the supposed dangers of Commonwealth immigration, Powell juxtaposed the “decent, ordinary fellow Englishman” with “aliens,” and, alluding to Virgil, added that, “like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’ ” The speech compared proponents of anti-discrimination measures to the appeasers of an earlier era. Powell quoted a constituent who wanted to send his children abroad for their safety, convinced that, “in fifteen or twenty years’ time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Watching Britain let in so many immigrants of color, Powell went on, “is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”

Powell’s words and presence resonated with many voters, but his open expression of racial contempt also spurred outrage. (Leo Abse, a Welsh Labour M.P. who brought to government an abiding interest in psychoanalysis, claimed to spot a connection between fears of Commonwealth immigration and sexual insecurity, memorably stating, “If there were fewer eunuchs in the country, there would be fewer Enochs in the House.”) O’Toole suggests that Powell’s xenophobia was rechannelled, in consequential ways. “No senior figure with credible designs on power would again so explicitly blame blacks and Asians for England’s failings,” he writes. “This left a vacancy, which was filled by the European Union. A particular irony is that the scapegoating of the EU as the eternal source of England’s ills was facilitated in part by one of the more progressive developments in British culture: the gradual marginalization of open racism.”

Half a decade after the Rivers of Blood speech, Britain, over the strenuous objections of men like Powell, joined the European Community. But Powell remains a lodestar for understanding the brewing English-based rebellion against Europe. Paul Corthorn, in “Enoch Powell: Politics and Ideas in Modern Britain” (Oxford), charts his subject’s fascinating trajectory from a supporter of empire to a skeptic of Britain as a global power. Powell, of Welsh descent, was born in the West Midlands area of England, and studied classics. He served in India during the war, and initially had dreams of becoming viceroy. The granting of Indian independence—both overdue and, in execution, hasty—left him stunned and unmoored, and caused a fundamental rethinking of his views. During the next several decades, he began arguing that Britain must not live “in the past of a world-wide empire and the dominion of the seas,” and should instead “find its patriotism in England.” He was privately skeptical of the Suez conflict, which he viewed as post-imperial wishful thinking, a pathetic attempt “to get back what we had lost.” And all this consorted with his long-held disdain for America, his resentment of Britain’s “subordination” to an upstart power.

In the fall of 1974, Prime Minister Edward Heath, the Europhile Tory, was replaced by the Labour Party’s Harold Wilson, who had promised to renegotiate the British-European relationship, and won Powell’s endorsement. (In a referendum conducted eight months after the election, two-thirds of voters supported remaining in Europe.) Powell left the Conservative Party, declaring that “the party system has broken in our hands,” and joined the Ulster Unionist Party, exchanging his parliamentary constituency for one in Northern Ireland. It was, as Corthorn notes, an “unusual step.” (The Scottish essayist Tom Nairn once joked that Powell thought Northern Ireland “was a bit of England.”) Powell represented his Ulster constituency until 1987, deep into the Thatcher era. But he was disappointed by Thatcher’s peacemaking attempts in Ireland, which he saw as being the partial result of American pressure.

Powell, along with many contemporary Brexiteers, could be called a Little Englander. In the nineteenth century, the term was applied to Liberals opposed to the expansion of the British Empire, but in the postwar era it came to refer to resentful Englishmen, frustrated with the rumblings of the outside world, and happy to resist the temptations of globalization and, naturally, immigration. Little Englandism, as the historian Linda Colley has written, was “always the other side of unparalleled imperial dominion, a cleaving to the small and the relatively known in the face of alarm or fatigue or disgust at the prospect of the very large and very strange.”

Between Powell’s time and our own, the rifts have widened: the United Kingdom’s component parts began to express their own identities more fully, and to seek greater devolution from Westminster. (Polls revealed a large uptick in English people identifying as “English” rather than as “British” after the Scottish Parliament was established, in 1999.) The Empire, which had once played a part in stitching together English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish identities, was gone; and a united Europe offered a potential home for smaller countries. In this context, O’Toole writes, a distinctively English political community was bound to emerge. And yet English nationalism was largely relegated to the realm of skinheads, lager louts, and soccer hooligans—“until David Cameron blithely gave it a vast stage in June 2016.” The resulting ironies are everywhere. The Brexiteers, O’Toole notes, “would make much of the idea of restoring the blue-covered ‘British passport’ as an icon of independent identity. But asked in 2011 what nationality they would have on their passport if they could choose, fully 40 per cent of English respondents chose English.” Brexit, O’Toole persuasively argues, “is driven by a force—English nationalism—that its leaders still refuse to articulate. It draws on English disengagement from the Union, but wraps itself in a brashly reassured Unionism.”

Any book that delves deeply into the psyche of a country—or even presumes that countries have psyches—is bound to occasionally skirt the edges of absurdity. O’Toole, alas, can’t resist seeing political significance in the publishing success of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” imagining an audience for whom Christian Grey was the E.U. and Anastasia Steele innocent England. But his summation of the paradox at the heart of Brexit is succinct and shrewd: “There is an imperial nationalism and an anti-imperial nationalism; one sets out to dominate the world, the other to throw off such dominance. The incoherence of the new English nationalism that lies behind Brexit is that it wants to be both simultaneously.”

Last month, Boris Johnson broke with the Unionist bloc in Parliament—which had only recently given Theresa May her majority—in order to reach a Brexit deal with Europe. Because of the fear that a hard border in Ireland would undermine the Good Friday Agreement, the only solution Johnson could find involved putting a de-facto border in the Irish Sea, separating the British mainland from Northern Ireland, which would essentially have remained a part of Europe. That’s why the most fervently anti-Europe Unionists voted against Johnson’s deal. If Brexit does occur, Scotland can be expected to hold another referendum on leaving Great Britain, before, presumably, applying for E.U. membership. The Scots would join other European peoples, such as the Catalans and the Flemish, who have pushed for independence at the national level while still pledging support for the European project. This brand of nationalism does not preclude approaching the rest of the world with open arms.

But what of our Little American President? A reactionary of an earlier era would have been shocked by, say, Trump’s remarks about how America was no better than Russia, but they haven’t affected his base’s image of him as a patriot acting in the interests of the majority. Similarly, Powell would have been stunned to learn that the Little Englanders who revere him today, such as Nigel Farage, don’t much care about Northern Ireland. And yet Powell’s career is again instructive. Corthorn, noting the “inconsistencies and contradictions in his thought,” writes that Powell’s “diverse political campaigns can be understood coherently as part of a long-running and wide-ranging public debate over the ‘decline’ of the British nation.” Trump has reanimated and crystallized the sense shared by many of his supporters that America is in decline, that others are responsible, and that only he can fix it. The plan for fixing it doesn’t much matter, which is why the Republican Party is likely to follow its leader down whatever path he chooses. The nature of Powell’s plan for his country wasn’t always discernible, either, but it was always abundantly clear whom he hated.

O’Toole makes a startling comparison, late in his book, between Brexit and the Confederacy. Brexit won an initial victory in the form of the referendum, but is doomed to fail, he believes, because it was based on deception—the Europeans will never give the United Kingdom a favorable deal. And then: “The self-pity of Lost Causism will meld with the rage of betrayal. Without the EU as whipping boy and scapegoat, there will be no end of blame and no shortage of candidates to be saddled with it: anyone and everyone except the Brexiteers themselves. That most virulent of poisons, the ‘stab-in-the-back,’ is in the bloodstream now and it will work its harm for a long time.” If Powellite open racism partially gave way to anti-European sentiment, the political currents may change direction yet again, guiding anti-European sentiment toward a different target. It is not easy to decipher which country is following which in the latest transatlantic dance, but both America and the United Kingdom appear to be heading somewhere very dark indeed. ♦

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Bruce Gilden’s Gritty Vision of a Lost New York Sun, 10 Nov 2019 11:00:00 +0000

Street photography has always been a predatory enterprise. Traditionally, the intrepid photographer sets out on the streets as if on safari, picking off prey with a camera unobtrusive enough to not raise the hackles of the local wildlife. (The 35-mm. Leica, introduced, in 1925, at the Leipzig Spring Fair, practically produced the genre, due to its then-novel portability, low profile, and whisper-quiet shutter.) Bruce Gilden, however, has made a name for himself by getting in people’s faces. When he stalks the streets, it is often with a blinding flash attached to his camera, which he’ll pop off at an arm’s length from his subjects, petrifying them in the glare. To extend the safari metaphor: this is akin to dismounting from your jeep and gambolling over to a lion so you can play a game of amateur animal tamer. Remarkably, he did this in New York in the nineteen-eighties. Gilden certainly had some gall.

Gilden’s new book, “Lost and Found” (Thames & Hudson), is, in fact, an old book of sorts. In the introduction, he recounts that after decamping from his apartment in New York City and ending up in the comparatively greener pastures of Beacon, he stumbled across a personal treasure trove. Tucked away in his archive were more than two thousand rolls of film from the nineteen-seventies and eighties, which had for some reason slipped through the cracks. During the summer of 2018, Gilden mined these forgotten veins of his work and came away with a collection of seventy-five gritty street snaps from New York’s shambolic “Taxi Driver” era. (An apt reference, it turns out, because Gilden drove a taxi around the time he was making at least some of these pictures.)

“I like to say that street photography is when you can smell the street and feel the dirt,” Gilden writes in his introduction, “and that’s what you feel in these pictures. You feel the dirt, you feel the sweat, you feel the sleaziness, you feel the tension, you feel . . . New York.”

He’s not lying. The vibrance and squalor of the city in the seventies is spread across these pictures like a greasy film. You almost get the sense that you could swipe a finger across them and leave a mark. All of the archetypes present themselves for roll call: the two-bit hustlers, the hard-knuckled mafiosos, the spinsters in their smocks, the poor and the beaten down, the unconscionably rich.

Of course, street photography is not census-taking. To be good, it must be built on moments—the eruption of the theatrical, the fortuitous, or the inexplicable, into the humdrum everyday. Sure enough, Gilden’s got moments to spare. Look: a man caught in the act of grabbing another man by the throat, which would alarm were it not for the eerie, inexplicable placidity of his victim’s face. Look: a forlorn man packed in a scrum of pedestrians, a coat wrapped around his head like a nun’s habit. Look: three men with hairlines heading for the hills, wearing nearly identical suits. Look: three women—perhaps, we could imagine, those earlier three mens’ wives—with ridiculous cotton-candy coifs, decked out in furs, each finer than the last. Look: a man stopped on a street corner, standing stork-like on one leg, his foot temporarily unshod as he tugs up a drooping sock.

Like Garry Winogrand, who is perhaps Gilden’s closest photographic cousin, his eye can sometimes be plain mean. A grimacing woman with a scrunched-up nose barges into the frame; an aging gigolo type, all polyester, gold-plated jewelry and swagger, stands with his scowling wife gripping his arm—such subjects raise the suspicion that they merited the camera’s attention principally to be the object its ridicule. Gilden’s later work, unrelenting closeups of poverty-ravaged faces, lit with direct, powerful flash, seems to provide corroborating evidence. Although they ostensibly traffic in a kind of warts-and-all honesty designed to confront us smugly with the world as it is (call this, perhaps, the Arbus School of Visual Aggression), the pictures noticeably lack the kind of weather-beaten dignity that, say, Katy Grannan bestows on her subjects.

Even with these rough edges, Gilden’s pictures shine as prime examples of a photographic mode that has all but disappeared. The street, it would seem, no longer calls to photographers as it once did. But why? After all, as anyone who lives here knows, New York has no shortage of drama on its sidewalks and in its subways. With the right eye, surely someone could again make the kinds of pictures that Gilden unearthed from his archives, and give the genre his or her own idiosyncratic spin. It seems, though, that the motivation has been lost. Perhaps the explanation is simple: while the streets might still be a circus, we no longer think of them as the biggest stage upon which we strut and fret our hours. Instead, we have vanished into our virtual worlds, halls of mirrors from which it is becoming ever more difficult to escape.

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Sunday Reading: Veterans’ Stories | The New Yorker Sun, 10 Nov 2019 11:00:00 +0000

There are nearly twenty million veterans in the United States. Many have undergone ordeals that most civilians are unable to fathom. Some are also fortunate enough to have experienced stories of hope and renewal. This week, in honor of Veterans Day, we’re sharing some New Yorker pieces from the past two decades about veterans and military service. In “The Oil-Pumping Adventures of Rachael Van Horn,” Ian Frazier profiles an Army Reserves veteran who manages her P.T.S.D. by working in the oil fields of the Oklahoma Panhandle. In “Sophocles’ Message for American Veterans,” Robin Wright considers the lessons that ancient Greek tragedies can offer modern military culture. Peter C. Baker examines a report by the Equal Justice Initiative on the historically unequal treatment of black soldiers who served in the First and Second World Wars, and Sue Halpern explores the use of virtual reality to treat P.T.S.D. for a new generation of veterans. In “A Soldier’s Legacy,” Ben McGrath chronicles the life of a gay Army veteran named Alan Rogers. Finally, in “The Return,” David Finkel examines the complex issues of trauma facing veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. These stories are surprising, moving, and poignant. We hope that you’ll explore them this Sunday.

—David Remnick

The Oil-Pumping Adventures of Rachael Van Horn

After witnessing a bombing in Iraq, the Army Reserves veteran and newspaper columnist decided to work through her P.T.S.D. in the fields of the Panhandle.

The Tragic, Forgotten History of Black Military Veterans

The susceptibility of black ex-soldiers to extrajudicial murder and assault has long been recognized by historians.

Sophocles’ Message for American Veterans

The Theater of War project, founded in 2008, presents readings of Greek tragedies by Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides to military veterans.

The Return

The traumatized veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Virtual Iraq

Using simulation to treat a new generation of traumatized veterans.

A Soldier’s Legacy

Don’t ask, don’t tell, but Alan Rogers was a hero to everyone who knew him.

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Man and Things | The New Yorker Fri, 08 Nov 2019 11:00:00 +0000

The title of my talk, “Man and Things,” may, perhaps, confuse you. It may seem to you, for example, that, paying homage to the devil of generalization, I intend the word “man” to mean some kind of composite, extraordinarily convenient Homo sapiens, a representative of humanity. You might think that for me a “thing” has some kind of definite meaning, which I intend to juggle with philosophical ease. Moreover, the very word “thing” may call up in your imagination something domestic, not very valuable, a thing of comfort or decoration. Incidentally, we might recall that Chekhovian doctor from, I think, “Three Sisters,” who, not knowing how to characterize a gift that was being proudly shown to him, twists it about in his hands and mumbles, “Hmm, yes . . . a thing.”1 In fact, he then, out of clumsiness, drops this thing, a mantel clock, I think, causing resounding repercussions. And still another intonation can be heard in the word “thing.” I once had an acquaintance, a jeweller, in whose mouth the highest praise for a bracelet or a rivière2 was precisely this word, “thing,” pronounced weightily, with a loud voice, over and over, in time with the weighing movement of the palm on which the precious object lay. Finally, the heading of my talk might produce yet another quid pro quo. For the words “man and things” perhaps suggest to another mind the image of a man in an alehouse, a lackey, a waiter,3 as a result of which, the word “things,” too, will hatch out of its fog and take on the image of things for which the management bears no responsibility.

By listing these possible misinterpretations, I hope to eliminate them. Of course, when I say “man,” I mean only myself. Just as the things I am going to talk about won’t pass without nametags into the fog of the commonplace. For by the word “thing” I mean not only a toothpick but also a steam engine. Everything made by human hands is a thing. That is the only general definition I will allow myself.

A thing, a thing made by someone, does not exist in itself. A seagull flying over a cigarette case forgotten on a beach cannot distinguish it from a stone, from sand, from a scrap of seaweed, since in the absence of man a thing immediately returns to nature’s bosom. A rifle lying in the depths of a tropical jungle is no longer a thing but a lawful part of the forest; today already a red stream of ants pours over it; tomorrow it will grow moldy, perhaps even flower. A house is only a stone block when man leaves it. Should he leave it for five hundred years, the house, like a silent, cunning animal running for freedom, will return to nature imperceptibly, and indeed, look, it’s just a pile of stones. And note, by the way, how eagerly and how adroitly the very slightest thing strives to slip away from man, and how inclined it is to suicide. A dropped coin, with the haste of a desperate fugitive, traces a wide arc on the floor and disappears into the farthest corner under the farthest sofa. And not only is there no object without man, but there is no object without a definite relationship to it from the human side. This relationship is slippery. Take, for example, a framed painting, the portrait of a woman. One person looks at it and, with the cold admiration of a connoisseur, analyzes the colors, the chiaroscuro, the background. Another, a craftsman, filled with a certain complex sensation, in which images of his craft mix—the glue, the yardstick, the decorative molding, the firmness of the wood, the gilding—looks at the frame with a professional eye. A third, a friend of the woman depicted, discusses the likeness or, pierced for a moment by one of those faint recollections that are like the street urchins of memory, sees and hears with great clarity (albeit for a moment) that very woman put down her handbag and gloves on the table and say, “Tomorrow is the last sitting, thank God. The eyes have come out well.” And, finally, a fourth looks at the painting with the thought that today the dentist will cause him a great deal of pain, so that each time he sees this painting, he will recall the buzzing of the drill and how the dentist’s breath smelled.

What does all this come to, then? There is not one thing, albeit mathematically there is only one thing, but four, five, six, a million things, depending on how many people look at it. What do I care about a pair of boots left by my neighbor outside his door? But, were my neighbor to die tonight, what human warmth, what pity, what live and tender beauty would these two old, shabby boots, with their eyelet flaps sticking out like little ears, left standing at the door, radiate over me. In my desk, in a crumpled envelope, I found five matches, their heads blackened. Why I had put them there to keep, what memory is linked to them, I have forgotten, forgotten entirely. I’ll still keep them for a time, for the sake of that memory, which I know is connected to them, loving them with some kind of secondary love, but then I’ll throw them out. Thus do we betray things. At a fair, in a remote little town, I won a cheap porcelain pig at target shooting. I abandoned it on the shelf at the hotel when I left town. And in doing so I condemned myself to remember it. I am hopelessly in love with this porcelain pig. I am overcome by an unbearable, slightly silly tenderness when I think of it, won, and unappreciated, and abandoned. With much the same feeling, I sometimes look at some trifling, inconspicuous ornamentation, at the flowers on the wallpaper in a dark corner of a corridor, which, perhaps, no one but me will notice. In someone else’s house, on the writing desk, I saw the exact same ashtray I have on my desk, and yet this one is mine, the other someone else’s. I remember, when I was about ten years old, my uncle died from diphtheria. His rooms were being disinfected. Perhaps they didn’t quite explain disinfection well enough to me: I understood that this man had died and now what they were doing was making it so that his things weren’t his anymore, removing from them the dust, the smell, all that which made these things precisely his.

I don’t like hearing when people talk of machines: oh, our mechanical age; oh, robots; oh, this and that. Machines, instruments, have served us all. In this sense a penknife is no different from some very complicated factory machine. The point is, there’s no complexity here. We take the number of parts as complexity, but the parts themselves are simple, and in the end they connect together simply. When a man looks at a steam engine, its mechanism seems to him unbelievably intricate, because in his notion of it he has disconnected the object from the mind that conceived it. The mind is intricate and complex, human ingenuity is astonishing, but the creation itself is of course simple. The charm of machines is precisely the fact that every intelligent, dextrous man can create a machine. No, we have not moved much further on than our ancestors. In the fifth century, a clever Chinese man invented the submarine. The Mongols in days of yore stunned their Western foes with poisonous gases. I read an advertisement, for instance, for some firm producing all kinds of automated devices for the vending of goods, the latest word in technology, so to speak. Yet automated devices were already being used in gray-haired antiquity. Egyptian priests used them to play on the superstitions of their people. Magical urns stood outside the Temples of Isis. They supplied the faithful with the goddess’s blessing in the form of a few drops of holy water. All that was needed to make this happen was to drop a five-drachma coin into a slot in the urn, just as a young lady would do at an underground station to get a box of almonds. It turns out that this is a sacred and immortal gesture. Those auto-functioning Egyptian urns brought the priests a good profit for several centuries in a row, and of course the secret behind their mechanism was guarded by strict laws, even by the threat of capital punishment. This is how it must have worked: a dropped coin fell along a wired tube onto the well-balanced shoulder of a lever; this would cause a valve in the bottom of the vessel filled with water to open up for a moment, and a little water would pour out through a discharge pipe, into a cup placed there by a gullible Egyptian, sweating with stupefaction. And several centuries later, on the streets and even on the main roads of ancient Rome, there were automats for vending wine, just like the gadgets we have. Thus, a Roman, leaving home, would always take a drinking goblet. If I were a good artist, I would paint the following picture: Horace, thrusting a coin into a slot machine.

Man is God’s likeness; a thing is man’s likeness. A man who makes a thing his God comes to resemble the thing. Thus, one comes full circle: thing, God, man, thing—and a full circle is pleasing to the mind. An automat is in many ways most similar to man. You push it, it responds. You grease its palm, and it brings you pleasure. You give it money, it gives you goods. But in all other kinds of things I feel a certain resemblance to man. Underpants drying in a brisk wind launch into an idiotic, but quite human, dance. An inkwell stares at me with one black eye, with a glint in its pupil. A clock whose hands are at ten to two brings to mind a face with Wilhelm’s whiskers.4 Between the rounded bell-glass of a lamp and the bald head of a philosopher filled with luminous thought, there is a soothing resemblance. We have christened the parts of things, weapons, machines, with words we use for different parts of our bodies, making these diminutives as if we were talking of our children. “Toothlet, eyelet, earlet, hairlet, noselet, footlet, back, handle, head.”5 It is as though I am surrounded by little monsters, and it seems to me that the little teeth of the clock are gnawing away at time, that the “ear” of the needle stuck into the curtain is eavesdropping on me, that the teapot spout,6 with a little droplet poised on its tip, is about to sneeze like a man with a cold. But with larger objects, in houses, trains, automobiles, factories, the human element sometimes becomes startlingly unpleasant. In villages in the Schwarzwald, there are sneering houses: the little window in the roof is elongated like a sly eye. Automobiles, too, can be extremely eyelike, the more so because we give them not three, not one, but two headlights. Little wonder that in our fairy tales and in our spiritualist séances things literally come to life.

I think that, by deepening these analogies, and by going into what I admit is a certain anthropomorphic ardor, we can lend things our feelings. In the lazy positioning of a woolen shawl draped over the back of a chair, there’s something moping: oh, how the shawl longs for someone’s shoulders! In an open but still perfectly blank notebook, there’s something cheerful, joyous, and sincere. A pencil is, by its nature, softer, kinder than a pen. The pen speaks, the pencil whispers.

Finally, there are children among things. These are, of course, toys. They imitate grown-up things, and the more accurate the imitation, the dearer they are to a human child. In childhood, I was troubled by the question: Where will my toys go when I grow up? I imagined a huge museum, where they gradually gathered the toys of children who were growing up. And often now, when I go into a museum of antiquities where there are Roman coins, weapons, clothes, chain mail, it seems to me that I have entered that very museum of my dreams.

We fear letting—not for anything do we want to let—our things return to the nature they came from. It is almost physically painful for me to part with old trousers. I keep letters I will never reread. A thing is a human likeness, and sensing this likeness, its death, its destruction, is unbearable for us. Ancient kings were laid in their coffins with their armor, their implements; they would have taken their palaces with them if they could. Flaubert wished to be buried with his inkwell. But the inkwell would be bored without a quill, the quill without paper, the paper without a desk, the desk without a room, the room without a house, the house without a town. And, no matter how hard man tries, he, too, decays, and his things decay, too. And better than lying like a mummy in a painted sarcophagus in a museum draft, it is far more pleasant, and somehow more honest, to decay in the ground to which, in their turn, toys, and linotypes, and toothpicks, and automobiles will return.

  1. V.N. misremembers who says this: not the doctor, Chebutykin, who will drop the gift, but Vershinin.
  2. A “river of diamonds,” a diamond necklace.
  3. In pre-revolutionary Russia, “Chelovek!” (“Man!”) was a way of summoning a waiter, like the French “Garçon!,” whose literal meaning (“Boy!”) has similarly made the expression now offensive and obsolete in restaurants and bars.
  4. Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941), German emperor.
  5. All are natural diminutives in Russian.
  6. In Russian, “nosik” (“little nose”).


This piece is drawn from “Think, Write, Speak,” which was edited by Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy. The book is out, in November, from Knopf.

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