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    Numbers and Humanity

    In the final weeks of World War I, Oswald Spengler published Der Untergang des Abendlandes, tamely translated as The Decline of the West. Its almost a thousand pages of turgid Teutonic prose swept over mangled Europe like a tidal wave, becoming the still-young century’s best-seller. (A second volume was published in 1922, to less rapturous…

    Between Leah and Rachel

    Osip Mandelstam’s Conversation About Dante is the major Russian work on the great Florentine poet. Ever since it appeared, and perhaps even before it did, we have known that this conversation would turn out to be about something different: about “time and the self,” as another poet wrote. Dante’s optical devices, his mirrors and his…

    The First Virtue: On Ambedkar

    The great historian C. Vann Woodward, author of The Strange Career of Jim Crow, a book that Martin Luther King, Jr. described as the “historical bible of the civil rights movement,” recount not just as an icon for ‘untouchables’ bus in his autobiography how the writing of the book came to be shaped by an…

    Losing Our Religion

    What Fiddler on the Roof is for most American Jews — an emotional bull’s-eye on any family’s saga that began in a shtetl and wound up in the United States — The Lehman Trilogy is for me. My family, like the Lehmans, came here from Germany in the early nineteenth century. Both families left the…

    How Long Could I Have Been Weightless?

    After the smooth up-pull the car dove fish-efficient in the tractor-trailer’s wake. By then the thick wheel cuts had tapered down the long, curved grade then vanished, leaving undulations in the drifts. All the way from Montreal through French-toned Vermont we’d held to mostly all alone through night-time Massachusetts, the Berkshires rhythmic now, the rise…

    Roots

    Then, the future was glaucomic, the bore through mangrove in the dugout slow. I recall the water in its color tannic. I see now an olive wake dissolving from the churn work of the screw. A time would come — it seems it has — to redecipher, understand again the meaning of the motor’s open…

    Bedazzled

    Air an instrument of the tongue / The tongue an instrument / Of the body … — Robert Pinsky “Burro Banton a di only veteran artist that go Europe and open the festival and close the festival. Him get two pay.” — Peter Metro, dancehall reggae legend Hearing Burro trace the sky in couplet, the…

    In Fuguing Wake

    (Amy Clampitt, for you) Casual. Flitting skin off cucumbers over a wide metal bowl, catcher for the harvest from the summer market, that cosmos of virtue — jug bands, frailed banjos, picked mandolins, tomatoes as a toddler sees them, mitts of stars — I feel a comet trail of shiver where my sternum is, that…

    The Rise of Decline

    Encompassed with domestic conspiracy, military sedition, and civil war, they trembled on the edge of precipices in which, after a longer or shorter term of anxiety, they were inevitably lost. EDWARD GIBBON, THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE In a widely noted coincidence, the Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of…

    Birthrights

    One morning in tenth grade, my Bible teacher started class by holding up a copy of The New York Times. He was the one we called Little Adler, to distinguish him from his older, taller brother, Big Adler, who also taught at the school. Little Adler was a good guy, at a place that was…

    Soloism

    “You are the music/ While the music lasts.” Whatever these words mean in Eliot’s Four Quartets, they have often been given new meaning in dance, and nowhere more so than in the solos choreographed by Merce Cunningham. He is the choreographer whose most radical, controversial, and profound contribution to choreography was to separate it from…

    Hardly a Day

    I. All time indeterminate now so this might be late or early and hardly a day in itself. Call it infernal nevertheless with my first move a descent into air thick with lamentation. I mean tension in the clock as it works towards sunrise and fear becomes natural law. * Starlings in the tree opposite…

    After the hurricane

    After the hurricane my father walked beside me in the woodland broken down; he’d known it as a child and now his wife, my mother, on the far side of the wall we came to in the end, the churchyard wall, had left him to complete his time alone. Wave after breaking wave of shredded…

    The Bee Tree

    American linden also American lime of the family Basswood (tiliaceae un- pronounceable virtually for this layman) but mine opposite keeps that quiet and presents facts as they appear – being a handsome street-shade tree with elephant bark in hard scaly ridges and russet twigs wandering into green until, when flowering, it fills with bees giving…

    Marcus Aurelius’ Workout Book

    To the memory of Christopher Nelson Lasch No image comes as quickly to mind when thinking about the ancient Stoics than that of stone-cold busts from antiquity. Frozen in time, the taut and grim facial muscles secret away any feelings that might have roiled the hearts buried deep beneath the weighted folds of drapery. To…

    Education and The Economic Menace

    In the halcyon days of the British welfare state, even the poor had the opportunity to go to university. Anyone who had been offered a “place” could apply to the local Education Authority for support — not to cover the fees (there were none), but to meet the expenses of living. But when I took…

    The Selfless Self of Self

    On A Portrait of Two Beautiful Young People A Brother and Sister By Gerard Manley Hopkins O I admire and sorrow! The heart’s eye grieves Discovering you, dark tramplers, tyrant years. A juice rides rich through bluebells, in vine leaves, And beauty’s dearest verist vein is tears. Happy the father, mother of these! Too fast:…

    The Last Night of the World

    Unfinished dares avoiding rules override Avernus. Were you wrong about everything to say anything? Plausible laws insufficient to our lives are blowback For the myth of liberty. Depeopled palace trumpets Silent where they were once wild for slaughter calls. Sons and daughters commandeer our mercy for grief Discerning: Who would harm a stranger harms me….

    Animal Magnetism

    Phantom intelligence of the soul knows touch echoes Trace gestures prone to outcompose their originals — Springs and veils marvel at their sudden plainness, Nincompoops with tongs abandon the whole shebang. My stupefaction remains wholly blunt and untamed, That once familiar summer will ripen and destroy all Backward glances aimed at divining an elusive theme,…

    Interaction of Color

    Approached each day ready to return Knowing no knowledge in safety — Day eventually discovering day, Nothing is forever new tomorrow. All along songs that need to grow On us spring into action unlocking Stolen loves still too much to bear. An altar of air colors how hard this Is to say — your true…

    An Atlas of Rare and Familiar Color

    Movements toward the unexceptional, Benediction of the voice’s mannering Vagrancy expires to tilt at beatific winds Tacking ships into a salty harbor of blood. Let us dispense with muttering receipts From Pentecostal fire in the chimney Where the jackdaw builds its nest of straw For weekend escapes to the empyreal stark. Ghosts zone out upon…

    Asteriskos

    In what world do you think I would say such a thing? We waded through possibilities to absurdity’s shore. In youth, I often ran through fearsome rows of corn. That is not metaphor. Primary trouble rests its case. People were after monuments: Less talk, more rock. A neighbor nearly knifed me open for others to…

    The Bottom of Love

    In 1974 an infamous film, which happens to be one of the great cinematic meditations on love, was released. It is called The Night Porter, and it was intended to be nothing more or less than a study of the uncivilized drama of perverse, inexpungible passion. The film was denounced as sadomasochistic Nazi porn. Its…

    The Death Trap of Difference, or What the Uyghurs Understand

    In that tower built of skulls you will find my skull as well they cut my head off just to test the sharpness of a sword. When before the sword our beloved cause-and-effect relationship is ruined like a wild lover Do you know that I am with you  PERHAT TURSUN, “ELEGY”  June 1988 was an…

    Slavery’s Wages

    I was in grade school when the television show Roots, based on Alex Haley’s famous book, first aired. It was a big deal, at least among adults, and my parents insisted that my sister and I watch it. We dutifully sat down in the front the walnut-veneered TV cabinet as my father adjusted the rabbit…

    The Winds

    I went to the demonstration against the closure of the Cines Ideal at the Plaza de Jacinto Benavente, and no sooner had it begun than I inopportunely broke wind; it’s been happening more and more these days. But no one around me noticed. I regretted going there, because the crowd was negligible and those who…

    Belarus Incognita

    I  Long before the protests that shook Belarus in the summer and fall of 2020, I was sitting in a restaurant of a Minsk hotel. It was a late afternoon after a day of intense meetings, and I had nothing more planned for the evening. Suddenly a singer came on stage and started a rather…

    The Tyranny of the Minority, from Calhoun to Trump 

    The deadly mob attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 — exhorted and then cheered on by President Donald J. Trump, with accountability later stonewalled by the Republican Party — was unprecedented in our history, but then again it wasn’t. It is true that never before had a losing presidential candidate, after pounding…

    Treatise on Love

    1. The Empire of Flora A tossing garden in a rising wind, an air of expectation. And Claire tutoring me on the landscaping: pagoda plants, crotons, a kind of blue ginger; over there, African lilies, bellwethers of spring. When she points me to liriopes, I expect the terrace to be inhabited by a feminine miniature,…

    The Mysterious Barricades

    These bareback races are medieval in the modern sense: a bribe, a ruse, the occasional fall, fracture, and a bullet —but also in the sense of a retrieval of standards and emblems, the use of symbol, allegory, amulet, the team colors you cannot refuse. Tomorrow the terracotta dust will plume for about two minutes taking…

    Chiminea

    1 A girl puked on the tour bus on the switchback up Vesuvius. Her mother looked the other way —out the window. Where else? Wildflowers, hardy and tender, seemed unaware of the perils of flourishing in cinder. We trudged, as through beach sand, and when we got back on, sand had been shoveled onto the…

    The Mesocosm

    Two sounds in the house lately: clanking barbells and electric guitar behind garage and bedroom doors. J.’s mesocosm failed; he flagrantly excused himself on the basis of gender, as the gathering of mud and spores, weeds and worms for “nurturing” is not the métier, apparently, of boys. Dear A., I myself was quite taken with…

    Against Translation

    A couple of years ago we rented a beautiful apartment in London, a large flat where we must have stayed four or five times. It was perfectly comfortable and perfectly private, and the location, directly behind the British Museum, was ideal for visits to theaters and museums. It was decorated in the taste of a…

    The Quiet Scandal of College Teaching

    In 1925, student delegates from twenty colleges met at Wesleyan University to discuss a growing concern on America’s campuses: the poor quality of teaching. They decried dry-as-dust professors who filled up blackboards with irrelevant facts while students doodled, read novels, or dozed off. At larger schools, “section men” — soon to be known as teaching…

    Images

    MARIANNE 1960 GOOD GREEK COFFEE GRECIAN WOMAN STUDY MONTREAL WOMAN NO. 1 JUST TO HAVE BEEN MY FIRST WIFE MONTREAL WOMAN NO. 2 MONTREAL VISITOR NO. 1 VIBRANT BUT DEAD

    Liberalism, Inebriated 

    Does liberalism have poems? Are there liberal poets? John Stuart Mill, who loved Shelley and who celebrated “human feeling,” thought so: “Although a philosopher cannot make himself, in the peculiar sense in which we now use the term, a poet, unless at least he have that peculiarity of nature which would probably have made poetry…

    Lambs and Wolves

    For paradise to be possible either the lion must lose his nails, or the lamb must grow his own.  HANS BLUMENBERG  Before setting out to Moriah, where he intends to obey God’s command to sacrifice his son, Abraham loads the wood into Isaac’s arms and carries the burning torch and a sharp knife himself. On…

    Art and Anger

    Poetry can sometimes offer to the young a piercingly accurate formulation of their inchoate suffering. I remember reading, at twenty-three, two lines in a new book:  For to be young Was always to live in other people’s houses.  Perhaps some poet had said it before, but if so, I hadn’t come across it. I learned…

    Race and Enlightenment: The Story of a Slander 

    In 1945, Columbia University published an obscure treatise by Jean Bodin, which originally appeared in 1566, as part of its “Records of Civilization: Sources and Studies” series. Bodin was a theorist of absolutism, but one who had a profound influence on later natural rights thinkers, and this was his first work, translated from Latin by…

    To the Sun

    Among the great longer poems of the twentieth century, the circumstances under which Shaul Tchernikhovsky’s To the Sun was composed were perhaps the most unlikely. This sonnet cycle was written in Hebrew in war-torn Odessa in 1919, with Red and White forces struggling for control of the city. Tchernikhovsky, then forty-five, had served on the…

    What Shall We Watch Now?

    Over the past year, there was so much to be afraid of that fear itself grew fatigued. Was the solitude of lockdown passing into a new systemic withdrawal? Or were we practicing turning our blind eye to kids on the streets with guns?  Nothing felt as eerie then as the bourgeois comfort that now at…

    The Legend of Alice Neel 

    The language of art is embodied in paint and line on canvas or paper, in stone or clay or plastic or metal — it is neither a sob-story nor a confidential whisper.  LINDA NOCHLIN  What makes an artist great? For the duration of the cultural drought that engulfed the plague year, as the rates of…

    The Exclamation Point

    For Tom at seventy in Zion Sergio Sierra was born in Rome in the winter of 1923. When he was twenty-six years old he received rabbinical ordination, after which he assumed a rabbinical post in Bologna, where he assisted in the reconstruction of the shattered Jewish community. The embers of history’s wildfires had not yet…

    Turning in My Card

    “How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?” “I don’t know. How many?” “You wouldn’t know. You weren’t there.” In the American military, identity is an enduring obsession. Long before debates swirled through cultural institutions about the value of hyphenated American identities or the relative fixity of gender-based pronouns, the…

    Writing and Slaughter

    I The Thousand Year Reich had come to an end after twelve bloody years. The “belated nation,” which had drawn the short straw when it came to dividing up the overseas colonies of the world and so colonized inwards with the expulsion and destruction of the Jews (this was the writer Heiner Müller’s thesis), had…

    Notes on Assimilation

    There is a passage in Democracy in America in which Tocqueville observes that in a mass of land spanning the width of the continent and extending from “the edge of the tropics” in the south to the “regions of ice” in the north, “the men scattered over this area do not constitute, as in Europe, shoots of…

    The Fall of the House of Labor

    In 1927, there was a deep economic crisis in Palestine. Unemployed workers would gather in a workingmen’s club in the cellar of Beit Brenner in Tel Aviv to bitterly vent their difficulties. One evening, David Ben-Gurion, then General Secretary of the Histadrut (Zionist Labor Federation in Palestine), addressed them about the future of Zionism and…

    And That is Why

    And that is why I paced the corridors Of those great museums Gazing at paintings of a world In which David is blameless as a boy scout Goliath earns his shameful death While eternal twilight dims Rembrandt’s canvases The twilight of anxiety and attention And I passed from hall to hall Admiring portraits of cynical…

    Winter Dawn

    It happens in winter, at dawn, that a taxi takes you to the airport (yet another festival). Half-awake, you recollect that Andrzej Bursa used to live right here, just outside. He once wrote: the poet suffers for millions. It is still dark at the bus stop, a few people huddle in the cold, seeing them…

    Border

    The scent of gasoline crickets Vladimir Holan Poor people wait by the border and look hopefully at the other side The scent of gasoline crickets skylarks sing the abridged version of a hymn Both sides of the border face east The north is east And the south is east One car holds a giant globe…