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Above and Against the Heroic

Date: 05/04/2016
Blogger:
Jeffrey Wallen

The movie Son of Saul, which has received very positive reviews, immerses us in a few days of the life of a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They were responsible for helping shepherd the Jews into the gas chambers, and for disposing of their corpses, after first gleaning what was valuable from them (gold fillings, hair from the women). Primo Levi writes, “Conceiving and organizing these squads was National Socialism’s most demonic crime.”

In the movie, we are almost always with the main character Saul, and we quickly come to sympathize with him, and with his quest to provide a proper Jewish burial for a boy who for a short time miraculously survived the gas chamber. Against the inhuman work of the Sonderkommando, and against the horrific killing enterprise of the Nazis, his quest comes across as a glimmer of purposefulness and dignity. His frantic efforts...

Not Communication, Communion

Date: 04/23/2016
Blogger:
Michael Thurston

A Review of Save Twilight: Selected Poems. New and expanded edition, by Julio Cortázar, Translated by Stephen Kessler. (City Lights, 2016).

In “Axolotl,” an early short story by Julio Cortázar, the protagonist watches the titular amphibians very closely, day after day, imagining his way into their consciousness (or lack of consciousness), taking up the point of view from inside the aquarium, until, as a consequence of this attention, he finds himself suddenly looking out through the glass to see himself staring: “No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I...

The Continuous Conversation

Date: 04/11/2016
Blogger:
Maryam Zehtabi Sabeti Moqaddam

A Review of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, by Aviya Kushner (Spiegel & Grau, 2015).

After two years in Jerusalem as a financial journalist and travel columnist during the second Intifada, Aviya Kushner returned to the United States in 2002 to enroll in the MFA program at the University of Iowa, seeking the safety and luxury of reading as a student. Before the long drive from her New York hometown to Iowa City, the only directions she had received was written on a small sheet of paper: the name of someone that two poet friends had told her to look up—Marilynne Robinson. Professor Robinson’s class on the Bible in English would forever change the course of Kushner’s life and career.

Growing up in a Hebrew-speaking family, Kusher was accustomed to reading the Bible in the original language and discussing its hidden meanings over dinner; she found herself, from an early age, participating in debates over the correct...

Read Like a Rabbi

Date: 04/11/2016
Blogger:
Andrés Amitai Wilson

A Review of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, by Aviya Kushner (Spiegel and Grau, 2015).

Pirkei Avot (“The Chapters of Our Fathers”), a compendium of rabbinic ethical aphorisms, includes  Ben Bag Bag’s prescription for studying Torah: “Turn the Torah over—turn it over for everything is in it. See into it, grow old and worn over it and from it never turn away, for you will not find a better portion than it.” Jewish tradition encourages a reverent grappling with its sacred texts, and the concept of “Torah” is itself elastic. Literally “teaching” or “instruction,” Torah is also the unifying heading of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, traditionally attributed to Moses; Torah is a catchall for the entirety of Jewish texts and a metonym for wisdom. A famous midrash depicts God consulting the Torah before creating the universe, and Torah is frequently hypostatized as God’s consort. Blessings are recited before...

Favorite Things: Broken Sounds/Telephone Bach

Date: 04/07/2016
Blogger:
Michael Markham

This series is a good opportunity to wonder why so many of my most moving experiences listening to music have been moments involving imperfect, marred, or broken sounds. In classical music, in particular, a heavy emphasis is placed on ideal acoustic conditions when “listening correctly.” High fidelity recordings, as Colin Symes demonstrated in his 2004 book, Setting the Record Straight: A Material History of Recording, have been sold on a faulty ontology: the possibility of perfect mimesis of perfect sounds born within a perfect sonic space. The goal of such recordings has been to replicate the experience of “the best seat in the house.” Beyond the implications for recordings themselves, that turn of phrase also assumes that there is such a thing as the perfect form of a sound. Concert halls are designed and judged by acoustic magicians based on some apparently...

Addio, Gian Maria Testa, Stationmaster

Date: 04/03/2016
Blogger:
Gabriele Ferraris

“Working for the railroad suited me. I was comfortable there; it was a supportive environment. I always liked my job. I began working for the railroad on April 1, 1982, and I decided to leave on April 2, 2007. Exactly twenty-five years. I decided to leave because, eventually, I couldn’t keep up with both the concerts and the railroad.

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Favorite Things: Gerald Arpino's Light Rain

Date: 03/07/2016
Blogger:
Nicole Duffy Robertson

(Walter McBride/WM Photos) Dancers: Valerie Robin and Fabrice Calmels

What does it mean when a ballet continues to ignite controversy decades after it was first performed? Unlike Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, which caused riots at its premiere in 1913, but was revived seventy-five years later to standing ovations, Gerald Arpino’s ballet Light Rain (1981) continues to elicit a clear critical split: audiences tend to love it, critics less so (or more interestingly, feel guilty about liking it).1 Light Rain straddles the divide between high vs. popular art, in no small part because of its unabashed celebration...

Something Like a Manifesto

Date: 02/26/2016
Blogger:
Michael Thurston

A Review of Donna Stonecipher's Model City (Shearsman, 2015). 

How many poets are there in the world that you go looking for online, checking regularly, even impatiently, to see whether and when their new books will be out? Not many. Among the poets whose work I anxiously await, Donna Stonecipher has long been near the top of the list. Ever since I first read her third collection, The...

The Radicalism of Abolitionist Radicals

Date: 02/16/2016
Blogger:
Bruce Laurie

(Remarks originally delivered as part of a panel celebrating the publication of Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, Yale University Press, 2016.)

I was not surprised to hear UMass Provost Katherine Newman, in her opening remarks for this book launch, recall the days when historians told us that abolitionists were well-intentioned but feckless bourgeois reformers. It put me in mind of an earlier school of thought, dominant in the 1950s, that looked askance at popular movements of all stripes—any challenge to consensual patterns of thought and the expected ways of doing things. Such scholars considered abolitionists to be abnormal, nearly psychotic cranks, bent out of shape, according to one...

Favorite Things: Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring

Date: 02/07/2016
Blogger:
Nicole Duffy Robertson

When Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes presented The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29, 1913, an unsuspecting Belle Époque audience was shocked. The premiere of Sacre is the stuff of legend, with audiences hissing and screaming obscenities, and the dancers stunned and unable to hear Igor Stravinsky’s music, prompting choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky to run from the house to the wings, yelling the counts for them to be able to continue the dance. The controversial ballet was performed only nine times (including the dress rehearsal) and then dropped from the repertory for most of the twentieth century.

After years of dwelling in the dance world imagination, where it reached almost mythical proportions, Robert Joffrey put the...