Books and Arts
The other day, as I was walking to the grocery store, I strategically moved toward the far edge of the sidewalk to put distance between myself and a pile of large, black trash bags haphazardly stacked against the side of a building. This sight is common in downtown Manhattan, as was the rustling I heard among the bags, which nevertheless made me start. Rats or mice, I thought, as I instinctively crossed the street to avoid them, but it was still light out, too early, it seemed to me, for these nocturnal creatures to be rummaging for food.
Walking down the streets of Soho these days, one rarely sees the light of day or feels the warmth of the sun, which is no small thing now that the low, yet constant, light of autumn has given way to the even lower and more fleeting light of winter. The cause of this unnatural darkness is scaffolding. On some streets in my neighborhood, so many buildings are being restored that the scaffolding forms a continuous overhang--a sort of ugly, makeshift arcade--stretching almost an entire block.
Opening the pages of The New York Times these days, one is often greeted with pictures of chaotic, smoke-filled scenes of injury and death not only of soldiers but of ordinary Iraqi men, women, and children--the grisly work of car bombs and suicide bombers.
A Court Divided: The Rehnquist Court and the Future of Constitutional Law By Mark Tushnet (W.W. Norton, 384 pp., $27.95) Learned Hand, an influential federal judge from New York, used to be famous for saying, in the middle of World War II, that "the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right." Hand practiced what he preached. A leading apostle of judicial restraint, Hand was reluctant to strike down the decisions of state and federal governments.
"Raphael: From Urbino to Rome" is now on exhibition at the National Gallery in London. It is a show I truly long to see not only because there are so few Raphaels in America that it is difficult to experience firsthand the oft-described transcendent force of "the immortal Raphael," as Vasari called him, but also because for a number of years now I have been working on a book in which the place of Raphael in the aesthetic imagination has become a central concern of my story.
For a long time now, whenever I've gone to Los Angeles, I've been alarmed by how impossibly tall the palm trees have grown. Whether I'm driving in Santa Monica or Venice, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, or Pasadena, the familiar sight of row after row of palm trees, their thin, fibrous trunks topped by rough-hewn, yet shimmering fronds stretching hundreds of feet into the broad, shadowless light, has come to fill me with gloom.
Now that George W. Bush has been reelected, the presidential debates keep returning to taunt me, especially the first one. As everyone knows, Bush's muddleheaded, bumbling performance surprised even his supporters, while John Kerry, the accomplished, if long-winded, technocrat, was pronounced the winner by all. There was, however, a little-remarked upon flight of rhetoric during Bush's two-minute closing statement that startled me at the time: "We've climbed the mighty mountain.
What is present other than all those things--physical objects, ideas, and sensibilities as well as their traces and fragments--that have somehow persisted into our own time? It is a characteristic, yet peculiar condition of modern life: Even though our world is made up of just these things from the past, more often than not, they have become unintelligible to us, if not invisible.