Only fools would predict the unpredictable, and thus with the course of the Egyptian revolution. Imagine yourself as a pundit in Paris at the start of the French Revolution, the mother of them all. In August of 1789, you would have celebrated the “General Declaration of Human Rights,” an ur-document of democracy, as the dawn of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” Yet, four years later, the Terreur erupted, claiming anywhere between 16,000 and 40,000 lives. In 1804, one-man despotism was back.
Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography By John A. Hall (Verso, 400 pp., $49.95) John A. Hall concludes his account of Ernest Gellner by observing that his outlook on the world was austere. “But therein lies its attraction,” he goes on. “Not much real comfort for our woes is on offer; the consolations peddled in the market are indeed worthless.
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.
Václav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic, is legendary for his lack of manners. When his country assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union in 2009, Klaus—a stocky and vigorous man with close-cropped white hair and a fastidiously trimmed moustache—got into a scrap with a group of European politicians because he had refused to fly the EU flag above his office in Prague Castle. Nicolas Sarkozy pronounced the snub “hurtful,” yet Klaus was anything but contrite. Instead, he used his first address to the European Parliament to compare the EU to the Soviet Union.
Louis D. Brandeis: A Life By Melvin I. Urofsky (Pantheon, 955 pp., $40) I. In 1916, Herbert Croly, the founder and editor of The New Republic, wrote to Willard Straight, the owner of the magazine, about the Supreme Court nomination of Louis Brandeis. Croly enclosed a draft editorial called “The Motive of Class Consciousness,” and also a chart prepared by a lawyer in Brandeis’s office showing the overlapping financial interests, social and business connections, and directorships of fifty-two prominent Bostonians who had signed a petition opposing Brandeis’s nomination.
"Why," asks a friend, "is this World Cup so rubbish?" At least, he says, "Italia 90 had a good sound track going for it." And it's true: Pavarotti is better than the Vuvuzelas. But is this tournament a disappointment so far? I'm not convinced it has been. True, there's not been too much spectacular football—though Germany and Argentina have had more than their share of moments—but did anyone really expect much from, say, France? Or England? And wasn't Italy-Paraguay always likely to be a tactical affair?
Adam Mickiewicz: The Life of a Romantic By Roman Koropeckyj (Cornell University Press, 549 pp., $45) It was Poland’s peculiar luck to receive its literary matrix, its cultural subtext, the source of its national mythology, from the hands of a provincial genius, a Romantic poet and mystic, in the first half of the nineteenth century. Imagine the creative possibilities, and the inevitable perils, of such a provenance.
Why This World: A Biography of Clarice LispectorBy Benjamin Moser (Oxford University Press, 479 pp., $29.95) No one has ever known quite how to understand Clarice Lispector. Though she considered herself fully a Brazilian, having lived in the country since infancy, both her critics and her admirers often described her accent and her diction as “foreign”—perhaps unsure how else to characterize her unconventional wrestlings with the Portuguese language.
Call it the Obama doctrine. The central theme of Barack Obama’s foreign policy to date has been simple: He wants to lower the risk that a nuclear weapon will be exploded inside the United States. Think back. Obama’s first foreign policy address, delivered in Prague last April, called for a nuclear-free world—not a short-term practical goal, of course, but an ideal meant to shape our thinking and discourse. His top strategic priorities are stopping Iran from developing a nuclear bomb and stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan; Obama is investing billions of dollars and tens of thousands of U.S.
Thomas Omestad covered the Velvet Revolution in Prague for the December 25, 1989, issue of TNR. Read his piece here. The opening moments of what became known as Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” did not feel so velvety. Nor did the outcome of those events--a largely peaceful triumph of the people over a stifling authoritarian system--seem certain. For those on the streets of Prague on the evening of Friday, November 17, 1989, it was easy to imagine a tragedy-in-the-making and perhaps a reprieve, of sorts, for a dying regime.