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Art: Better When It Isn't About Hillary Clinton

Nicholas Schmidle’s excellent article, "Next-Gen Taliban," in the Jan. 6 Sunday Magazine Section of the New York Times revealed what one should have known or guessed, that the Pakistan jihadi movement is far from homogenous. It is instead a boiling cauldron of more or less radical groups, the younger ones largely more radical--those for whom the suicide bomber is the more than equivalent answer to the B-52 bomber. After reading Schmidle’s piece, the most anti-Musharraf Westerner will more than likely feel some sympathy with his effort to keep the lid on this cauldron, while at least mimicking adherence to a democratic Pakistan.

The average literate Westerner during the Vietnam War became at least superficially acquainted with the geography, demography, and history of what had before been a blank or perhaps a colorful fuzz in his mental world; so now Islam, its varied practioners, devotees, and lethally fanatic adherents are part of our preoccupation if not daily meditation and study. Even if the destruction of the World Trade Center six and a quarter years ago is no longer part of our daily fears and nightly terrors, most of us feel that our own lives are, to greater or less degree, affected by the doings and beliefs of Rehman, the Ghazi brothers, Fazlullah, and the others named in Schmidle’s piece--perhaps not as significantly as by what’s happening in India and China or even London and Paris--but nonetheless to such a degree that we are obliged to learn something about them.

Yesterday afternoon, I listened to the sweetly charming director Peter Sellars rant for two hours about his--to me--detestable notion that the operas, plays, and oratorios he stages are made vivid and important by their relevance to the problems with which front pages and presidential candidates daily bombard us. That evening, after the television news, I dove back into the world of Framley Park, Anthony Trollope’s 150 year old novel about the gentry, clergy, ladies, and--yes--politics of that time, not for one moment thinking of George Bush, the Taliban, Tony Blair, Iraq or the current presidential campaigners. I was far away from them in a world where I cared about Mark Robarts’s financial stupidity and Lady Lufton’s attempted recruitment of the almost madly upright, impoverished pastor, Reverend Mr. Crawley. These "characters" were nearer to me than Rehman, Musharraf, or the now-dead Ghazi brothers, and I cared about what happened to them as much as I cared about what happened to Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, Fred Thompson, and Mitt Romney (fascinating in their way as these people might be).

I understood how Trollope’s work helps form our interpretation of such "political" events as Hillary Clinton’s almost-tears and the almost-disappearance of the 5 military-aged civilian sons of the war partisan Romney, but I refused to do what Sellars apparently wanted his audiences to do, feel the contemporary relevance of Trollope’s novel as he believed the audiences of his productions of Euripides’ The Children of Herakles and The Marriage of Figaro did. Since Sellars compares athletes to artists, I wonder if he wanted us to think of Iraq and George Bush when a USC back crashed into an Illini linesman or of The Ghazi Brothers in the Red Mosque when Mike Tyson chewed off Evander Holyfield’s ear.

What relief that a few brilliant craftsman (including Sellars) create marvelous edifices in which millions through centuries can shelter themselves from the bombardments of the new generation of Taliban, and the tedious speeches of those wanting to direct the world from the beautiful coziness of the Oval Office.

--Richard Stern

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