“September 11,” the voice on the tape said, startling me with an unexpected association. “Evidence of impending invasion has been accumulating all day. More ships moving west down the Channel.” I was visiting Churchill’s war rooms, the basement in Whitehall that served as his command center. The voice on the tape was reading from the diaries of General Alan Brooke, later chief of the Imperial General Staff but in the terrifying days of 1940 commander of the Home Forces, tasked with preparing England, lonely and excruciatingly vulnerable, against a German landing.
Joel is one of the so-called minor prophets in the Bible. He appears to have been active in the late sixth- or early fifth-century BCE, in the aftermath of the destruction of the kingdom of Judah. A careful reading of his short and furious oration shows that it may have been also an interpretation of a second catastrophe. A plague seems to have decimated the land—locusts, cankerworms, caterpillars. “The field is wasted.” First the Babylonians, then the bugs: Joel is a morose man, an angry peddler of apocalypse.
A few weeks ago I noticed that the dead of night is no longer dead. It is alive with the songs of birds. The nocturnal concert comes from somewhere in the thickets of my garden, a small bucolic refuge in an unpastoral corner of the city. The performance is lyrical and cacophonous, a patterned program of warbles and screeches and trills and whistles, with an occasional phrase that pierces the heart—very Brooklyn Academy of Music. Robbed of sleep by the din, I thought of transliterating it, but old memories of Hopkins at his most ludicrous (“Teevo cheevo cheevio chee”) made me think again.
“I just want to point out,” declared the student at the far end of the seminar table, “that when Maimonides offers a proof of God’s existence, he is not saying that he has really proved it. What he’s saying is: This works for me, and if it works for you, great.” I was teaching a graduate seminar on The Guide of the Perplexed at a fine American university, and I was pleased to see my students warming to my insistence that the old masterpiece is still alive, and one of the most formidable obstacles ever erected against a thoughtless existence.
The reformer has responded to the democratic stirrings in his country with a war against its children. The murder and mutilation of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb is only the most shocking instance of Bashar al Assad’s mercilessness. The Syrian uprising originated in March as an expression of anger at the arrest and torture of fifteen boys, who were accused of scrawling anti-government graffiti in the town of Dara’a, which has now earned a place of honor in the geography of modern dissent. The crowd that demonstrated for the release of the boys was fired upon, lethally, by Syrian security forces.
Who lost Fayyad? This is the question that historians, and Israelis, and Palestinians, will ask about the most recent spiral into nothingness of the search for the necessary peace.
At the Tidal Basin the other day I was reminded that the most stimulating experiences are the unmediated ones. I was educated for mediation, for middle terms that unified logical or lived discrepancies and conquered them with a category. Contradictions were to be eliminated, like dissonances in music, or shown to be false, and in their resolution lay a release. But I have lost my confidence in single descriptions, and I am a little bored with the dream of release.
After only a few days of allied military action, the Libyan nightmare has been averted, and the rebels are now marching westward again. Like the invincible Serbian juggernaut of yore, the power of Muammar Qaddafi, which frightened Secretary Gates, has been shaken. President Obama has done an admirable thing. On March 18, he gave a speech explaining his decision. The speech was both ringing and baffling: as the poet said, I wish he would explain his explanation. What follows is a commentary on some of the president’s statements.