Tokyo, Japan—Back in 1976, I worked as an English teacher in Sendai, the large city closest to the epicenter of Friday’s horrendous earthquake. Once a week I would go to the campus of Tohoku University—the city’s pre-eminent university—for an afternoon of “English discussion” with a group of professors and grad students. Their research involved the effects of earthquakes on buildings.
January 27, 2011
Giuseppe Arcimboldo National Gallery Franz Xaver Messerschmidt Neue Galerie When artists of earlier eras become subjects of renewed interest, you can be sure that big changes are in the air. All too often relegated to specialized studies in the history of taste, such shifts in an artist’s fortunes are among our most reliable guides to current attitudes and values, a look into the dark glass of the past that can also function as a mirror in which we see reflected some aspect of ourselves.
Making Regions Work--Lessons from Italy
November 12, 2010
More than a month after my trip to Italy, I keep thinking about one of the books I read there--Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, by Robert Putnam. A classic text of governance and civics, Putnam's study focuses on a unique experiment begun in 1970 when Italy suddenly transferred the main responsibility for such activities as urban affairs, regional planning, public works, and economic development from a discredited and unpopular national government to a newly created set of elected regional governments. Alert to the potential for a novel study of fundamental issues in ci
The Old New Thing
October 20, 2010
The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History By Samuel Moyn (Belknap Press, 337 pp., $27.95) In 1807, in Yorkshire, activists hit the campaign trail for William Wilberforce, whose eloquent parliamentary fight against Britain’s slave trade had won surprising success. “O we’ve heard of his Cants in Humanity’s Cause/While the Senate was hush’d, and the land wept applause,” they sang.
No More Arcs
October 15, 2010
Can history come to an end? Arthur Danto has written of art entering a “post-historical” phase; he believes that the history of modern art as moving toward a state of abstraction has been fulfilled—indeed, internally exhausted. Since the 1960s, this particular “narrative,” as he calls it, has come to an end, even as the art world continues to exist, even to flourish. Although I don't like the phrase “post-historical,” I think Danto is right. I had not, however, considered this idea in relation to history understood in its traditional sense as the actions of great men and nation building.
September 02, 2010
Super Sad True Love Story By Gary Shteyngart (Random House, 334 pp., $26) There was once a city in the heart of America where all life seemed to be, if not entirely in harmony with its surroundings, then at least functioning in its own kind of equilibrium. Day after day, workers repaired to skyscrapers stacked with single-person cubicles, where they sat for eight, nine, ten hours gazing into glowing screens that were at once portals to the outside world and magical mirrors reflecting their own desires.
In Praise of Corruption
August 27, 2010
Terry Glavin, the cofounder of the Canadian-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee and a firm supporter of Western intervention in Afghanistan, tells a joke that has made the rounds in Kabul. The United Nations, sick of the corruption that is rife in the Afghan government, demands that Karzai clean things up. “Of course, of course,” Karzai replies.
August 12, 2010
The Sicilian Girl Music Box Films Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child Arthouse Films Long ago it expanded into other places, but to think of the Mafia is to think first of Sicily. Partly, of course, this is because of the many films about the Sicilian Mafia, so many that they constitute a genre, and none of which, as far as I have seen, has been less than good. Now comes The Sicilian Girl, which sustains the genre in expected and unusual ways. The expected ways, shamefully gripping, are, as always, the threats and businesslike killing.
James Downie's Best and Worst
July 12, 2010
Best Goal: By miles (which, ironically, seemed like the distance the ball traveled), Giovanni van Bronckhorst against Uruguay. Simply unstoppable. Most important goal (to Americans): Landon Donovan against Algeria, of course. To prove that soccer is now "mainstream," all you have to do is look at the many sports columnists (Bill Simmons, most notably), in their obligatory Lebron articles, using Donovan's goal as an example of what sports can be.
Which team should the large majority of us who are neither Dutch nor Spanish support? At the final there are sometimes strong pulls of sentiment even for neutrals, though such sentimental longings can be disappointed, with Germany the likely culprit. I mean the 1954, “Aus! Aus! Aus!” final, when so many people wanted to see the World Cup got to Ferenc Puskas and his wonderful Hungarians, and 1974, when so many of us rooted for Johan Cruyff’s Dutchmen, only for both to be defeated by what we no longer call Teutonic efficiency.