Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Anthony Appiah: Liu Xiaobos Trial Expected Within Days

TMP this week received from PEN President Anthony Appiah the following missive:

Dear Friends,

We're sure you've been following the news about our PEN colleague in China, Liu Xiaobo, who has been detained for over a year in Beijing and is facing subversion charges for his writings. On Friday, Liu was indicted, and we have learned that he may be tried as early as Monday, December 20. If he is convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

Even if you have already signed our petition, or sent a letter, we are asking you now to flood the Chinese government's e-mail boxes with appeals calling for Liu Xiaobo's immediate release. You can do so by using PEN's new, user-friendly software at Just fill in the few required fields, amend the letter if you wish, and hit send.

Please also pass this on to your friends, family, and colleagues, and urge them to take action.

For more information on the latest developments in Liu's case, and to read PEN's press release about the indictment, please visit

Your voice matters to the Chinese government. Please help us free Liu Xiaobo now.

Thank you.


Anthony Appiah

Top Gear - The Stig

... has been revealed to be Michael Schumacher.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Harold Brodkey on Spring

Some prose written after the third kiss from her (and after the doctor took three stitches in my thumb).

I sit at her desk in her office looking out her large window: Give me the huge actual clouds of the Republic and not the meagre udders of water vapor painted on the old backdrops the Republic Studio used in John Wayne's day. We like the actual big baggy clouds of a New York spring. One doesn't want to flog a transiting cloud to death, but if we are to have sentimental light, let us have it at least in its obvious local form--dry, white, sere, and, I guess, provincial. The spiritual splendor of our drizzly and slaphappy spring weather, our streets jammed with sneezing pedestrians, our skies loony with bluster are our local equivalents of lilac hedges and meadows.

Blustery, raw and rare--and more wind-of-the-sea-scoured than half-melted St. Petersburg. Yuck to cities that have an immersed-in-swamp-and-lagoon moist-air light. They are for watercolorists. Where water laps at the edges of the stones and bricks of somewhat wavery real estate is not home. Home is New York, stony and tall: its real estate is real.

So is its spring.

More from Harold Brodkey HERE.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Leroy Grannis - SURFING (1966)

More about Leroy Grannis, the proto-surf photographer here, and about Taschen's republication of his work here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Epilogue by Robert Lowell

Those bless├Ęd structures, plot and rhyme--
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter's vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All's misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

-- Robert Lowell

... hat tip to Miss Whistle

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Sweet Genius of Walker Percy

A book I need to turn to every couple of years, for reasons like this:

"In the evenings I usually watch television or go to the movies. Weekends I often spend on the Gulf Coast. Our neighborhood theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little. The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man."

- The Moviegoer

Friday, July 3, 2009

Kapuscinski: Revolutions

"All books about all revolutions begin with a chapter that describes the decay of tottering authority or the misery and sufferings of the people. They should begin with a psychological chapter, one that shows how a harassed, terrified man suddenly breaks his terror, stops being afraid. This unusual process, sometimes accomplished in an instant like a shock or a lustration, demands illuminating. Man gets rid of fear and feels free. Without that there would be no revolution."

-from Ryszard Kapuscinski's "Shah of Shahs" (1982)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Note from Tehran - "Meet Now at Afte-Tir Square"

This below from a friend of a friend in Tehran. Always good to hear from those folks. By the way I understand if lots of people set their twitter account to "location: Tehran" it creates extra work for the Basij who are hunting down the people who wear green. Accordingly, I've changed my location for this blog. Right now we're standing in Afte-Tir Square.

here are my observations from last night march in Vali-Asr

1) The crowed was much younger, and less diverse, but still very very large in numbers
2) Very well organized and disciplined, no side incidents and very very silent
3) Posters appearing calling Mussavi the Ghandi of Iran and Ahmadinejad as enemy of Iran.. no mention of Mr. K or the system at all
4) Things got tense as we approached Jame-Jam (the official TV and Radio)
5) Protesters in Green headbands had formed a human chain preventing other protesters from approaching Jame-Jam main enterance
6) Riot police and Bassiji were in full force behind the fence at Jame-Jam...with people taunting them to come out
7) People started shouting that they will take revenge for the killings of the day before
8) Amazingly right in the middle of this... Charles-Junior Burger restaurant (appearing in Iran as Super Star Burger) was open and doing brisk business, (got myself a coke and and cheese burger).
9) Today the news is to convene at Afte-Tir square after the Iran-South Korea world cup game......around 17

Sent from my TehranBerry® wireless device

1700! That's now. Better hurry...

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Hard Questions for President Obama

Last year I posted here, and at my blog at Standpoint Magazine, a series of "hard questions" for then-Senator Obama, who had shown himself during the primaries and election campaign unusually adept at avoiding such.

Herewith a new edition of Hard Questions for President Obama.

1) What are the US goals in Afghanistan?

2) What, so far as we understand, do the Afghan people want?

Given the degree and length of US and NATO involvement, answers to these questions should be clear, as for instance they are in Iraq, yet they are not.

Readers' answers in the comments section are welcome.

My previous "hard questions" posts may be found by following the link at the tag below.

Redux: Hard Questions for Senator Obama

Last year I posted, on this blog and on my blog at Standpoint magazine on-line, an occasional series, entitled “Hard Questions for Senator Obama."

Here were some I posted in July 2008:

1. Why does Senator Obama advocate a surge of troops in Afghanistan though he considers a surge of troops in Iraq to have been a mistake?
2. Why is a stable Afghanistan crucial to US interests while a stable Iraq is not?
3. How long does Senator Obama expect to keep troops in Afghanistan?
4. Why is an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan manageable while the same in Iraq is not?
5. How much does Senator Obama expect to spend rebuilding Afghanistan?
6. Why is rebuilding Afghanistan affordable while rebuilding Iraq is not?
7. Why does Senator Obama consider the ethno-sectarian issues in Iraq to be nearly intractable while in Afghanistan they are something we can overcome?
8. If leaving Iraq will make the Iraqi government behave more responsibly, how will an increased presence in Afghanistan affect the Afghan government?
9. Why does Senator Obama advocate a "surge in diplomacy" and multilateralism in Iraq while simultaneously advocating unilateral action in the Pakistani tribal areas?
10. How large of a "residual force" will be left in Iraq and for how long?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Perspectives on Race

I'm constantly reminded that I give less thought to race and ethnicity than I should. Race is such a complex issue, especially, because of its history, in America.

That said, after reading the text of the 2001 Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture delivered by Judge Sonia Sotomayor (link below), I got to thinking... thinking in a whole new way.

Could it be, I wondered, that I as "a wise Cherokee" would offer better judgment on tobacco-related issues than the federal appeals justices now sitting?

Heck, "my people" invented the stuff!

Well, no, actually, I couldn't. Or not, in any case, because of my ethnicity.

Judge Sotomayor's lecture here.

Notes on Mount Parnassus

Strange doings in the world of English letters. During the run up to the election this year for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry a half dozen candidates withdrew to make way for the distinguished entry of Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. Then, in the face of an energetic campaign to remind the Oxford community of ancient but credible allegations that the poet from St. Lucia, now an octogenarian, had sexually harassed students at Harvard and Boston University decades ago, Walcott himself withdrew. This left two candidates, one being Ruth Padel, who was duly elected.

This week, in the wake of admitting that she’d played a role in spreading the tittle-tattle about Walcott, Padel resigned the professorship before she’d even ascended to it.

I’ve always considered poets the unacknowledged legislators of our time (as noted here). That said, poets, or those in the world of letters, apparently don’t always have their eyes on the stars.

In an earlier career I edited a literary magazine in New York. More recently, I’ve written some screenplays. Apropos the Oxford contretemps, and having spent time in both realms, I’ve often said to friends that Hollywood is much less rough-and-tumble than what Terry Southern used to call “the quality lit game.” But no one ever believes me.

Meanwhile, this correspondent is going fishin’… this very weekend, in fact, on the River Test. As someone once said, “God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling.”

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

ONN Scoops a Peabody

The Onion News Network scooped a 2008 Peabody Award for electronic journalism last week.

Huzzah. We at the Main Point favor text news: newspapers, actual printed newspapers, and political blogs. The only video news we regularly watch is ONN... the key portal for understanding the world around us.

Watch the Onion News Network HERE.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Joe Boyd on Ley Lines, and John Michell's Vision of Ancient Britain

In the Guardian music producer Joe Boyd remembers a 1968 road trip with the late John Michell, the founder of the earth mysteries movement.

"John came equipped with a compass and some maps and asked if we would be interested in helping him conduct an experiment. He took a map and drew the most important English ley line, connecting Glastonbury Tor with Bury St Edmunds, which passes through a remarkable number of towns named St Michael or St George. John proposed that we leave the A4 and attempt to follow this trunk route of ley lines across the Wiltshire downs towards Avebury. We followed a dirt road out on to the downs, turning on to smaller and smaller tracks and eventually continuing on foot. Then, from the top of a rise, Avebury lay below us. The line we were following cleaved the stone circle below directly in half. More remarkable still was a long barrow placed at right angles on the crest of the hill. In the centre of the barrow, exactly where the line crossed, stood a stone dolmen.... His explanation for the geometric string of St Michaels and St Georges [was that] those names indicate "dragon-slayers", John said, and saints often originate in pre-Christian mythology. The ancient Celtic word for dragon..."

Read the whole thing HERE.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Uncle Seymour Tries to Make a Picnic

... but, speaking from Dubai last week, Hersh was at least one sandwich short.

Recently, New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh, speaking in Minnesota, claimed that Vice President Dick Cheney had been in charge of a "secret assassination squad," and that since the change of administration this unit has been "leaderless"... like "ronin," presumably, those samurai who've lost their master... and we all know from Japanese legend how dangerous ronin can be.

Hersh was, in his clumsy and irresponsible way, trying to refer to Joint Special Operations Command, a military group tasked with hunting al Qaeda particularly in inaccessible areas of Afghanistan. The leader of the unit from 2003 to 2008 was Stanley A. McChrystal, recently named by President Obama to be commander of NATO's Af-Pak operations. The JSOC unit of course is now commanded by Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, reports to the Secretary of Defense, and (as pointed out by Bill Roggio) is subject to Congressional Oversight... so is, for one thing, not "leaderless" at all.

In Dubai, at the Arab Media Forum last week, Hersh repeated his strange allegation of a "special death squad," doubled down, and claimed that during the Bush era the American Press became irresponsible "cheerleaders."

In South Asia reports have appeared that Hersh claimed "Cheney's death squad" killed Benazir Bhutto. In Dubai, he contradicted this notion (see link below). We're relieved.

When asked whether "Cheney's death squad," meaning presumably JSOC, then under command of McChrystal, could have killed Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, Hersh said "I can't verify [that]," only later going on to discount this.

Would someone please bring this man home? I understand his address is pinned to his jacket.


Dubai's Gulf News, here and here.

Qatar's Gulf Times.

Bill Roggio on Hersh's earlier left-field fly HERE.

UPDATE - further dis-info and counter-dis-info at these links:

The Dawn (PK)
Daily Times (Pk)
The Nation (Pk)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Martyrs' Square, Beirut, 14 February 2009

While in Beirut as part of a press delegation I attended a memorial in Place des Martyrs for Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister slain four years ago. The memorial became a political rally for the parties who launched the Cedar Revolution. While there I interviewed journalist Jonathan Foreman, writer-at-large for Standpoint magazine, who offered these observations, in the video above.

Over the following weeks I'll be posting here further interviews, as well as photos and diaries of my visit.

This interview, by the way, was shot on a Flip Video Recorder ($85 via Amazon) and edited on a Macintosh using iMovie software.

This video has been updated and has been posted here in March 2012.

Kanye Blogs, But He Doesn't Twitter

... apparently.

This from the blog of Kanye West:


link HERE... I mean here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

MEGAN MCARDLE on The Risk of Debt:

'For a while now, I’ve been asking people at conferences, on and off the record, what America’s sovereign debt risk is? That is, how long until people stop treating treasuries as the “risk free” securities, and start demanding a premium for the risk that we might default.... But last Thursday, the Treasury auction was . . . well, descriptions vary from “weak” to “horrible”. This raises the unpleasant possibility that markets are, as my business school professors insisted, “forward looking”. Voters may believe that getting a bunch of special interests to agree in principal that costs should be cut is the same thing as actually cutting costs. Bond markets don’t. . . . Obama can assure voters that he inherited these deficits. But bond markets pay closer attention to the fact that Obama has already increased the projected deficit he inherited by 50%.'

Read the who thing HERE.

Ace of Spades is

... as sharp as ever on Pelosi's denial of knowing water-boarding was to be employed on terror detainees. Read him HERE, and his originating piece HERE.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New Coalition Commander for Afghanistan

Michael Yon comments:

"In December 2008, I saw General McKiernan briefing Secretary Gates in Afghanistan. That's as close as I've come to General McKiernan. Though I do not personally know General McKiernan, I have heard only positive reports about him. His replacement, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, has an outstanding reputation in the special operations community. McChrystal has a solid reputation for knowing the fight. Unfortunately, though our special operators are the best in the world at the fight, they only stumble and fumble with the press. With media, our special operations forces are clueless and self-defeating. This is crucial. McChrystal can win every fight on the ground and still lose the war. Time will reveal whether McChrystal can adapt and win."

Read more from Yon here.

It's Called CAPITAL-ism for a Reason

... as Bainbridge writes:

"The WSJ’s "USA Inc" series continues today with detail on how the US got secured lenders to abandon their fight to get paid more than 30% of their claims, as against giving more than half [Chrysler] to unsecured workers.... The Journal report quotes one anonymous -- but asinine -- Obama administration official as opining that: 'You don't need banks and bondholders to make cars," said one administration official."

Try telling that to Chrysler when they go to capital markets for further financing down the road.

Read the whole thing HERE, and the WSJ report HERE. And a keen observation HERE.

On Wanda Sykes

Regarding Wanda Sykes's jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner, in which she suggests that Rush Limbaugh was a traitor, comparable to a terrorist and mortal enemy of the US, should be water-boarded, and that she hoped he would die, Christopher Hitchens comments:

"The president should be squirming in his seat. Not smiling. The black *&#$ got it wrong. No one told her the rules."

Go to NYM for unredacted version and full account, HERE.

Monday, May 11, 2009


The latest stir in the blogosphere has been Dijon-gate (see link below), in which MSNBC has hidden President Obama's request at a hamburger restaurant for some "some spicey mustard, some Dijon mustard."

Amazing really. That word... a place-name in fact in France... was right at the tip of his tongue. He didn't even have to think about it.

Odd that Professor Jacobson should make a comparison to the Watergate break-in and cover-up (ie, Water-GATE... Dijon-GATE). To me this calls to mind the airbrushing of photographs practiced by regimes behind the Iron Curtain, the ultimate totalitarian post-modern practice elaborated so brilliantly by Milan Kundera, particularly in his novel "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting."

That said, one Main Point correspondent, "Chicago Stretch," opines that both Jacobson and TMP miss the point. Chicago Stretch, who spent 35 years in our nation's capital before re-locating to Chicago not long ago, writes:

"If Barry and Joe were regular guys, they would have gone to the original Five Guys for burgers, but since it's entirely carry-out there wouldn't have been a place to sit and pose for the photographers. The original Five Guys is on Beauregard just off King Street in western Alexandria. Of course, Ray's Hellburgers is where I'd go for an Effeteburger, the sort you would put Grey Poupon on, as noted in this local review: 'A guy can spend upwards of $17.50 on the signature attraction, but choices such as "The Burger of Seville," which packs in foie gras, bordelaise sauce and white truffle oil, have nothing on the simpler models. Customers place their orders at a counter overlooking the big grill, then listen for their names to be called. The strongest brew available is root beer, but it's great, and while you might wish for french fries, Hell-Burger recently began offering sides of chunky potato salad and creamy coleslaw. The downside? We appreciate the fact that it's toasted, but the brioche bun tends to fall apart under the weight and juice of the hamburger.'"

Gosh, we'd like to try that. We'll have to pop in to Kramer's on the way to pick up the new Kundera. (Is it just me or did the quality of his work drop when he switched from writing in Czech to French?)

Legal Insurrection's revelation of Dijon-gate HERE.

Sitting at Night, by Po Chu-I

Facing the courtyard at day's end, I welcome night--that dark

realm ripe for sitting at this lamp, looking into bright clarity.

No words for such depths of heart, I wonder who can share them.

That's when the moment allows a whispered howl: once, twice.

-translated by David Hinton

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Akira Kurosawa's STRAY DOG

After watching "Marathon Man" earlier this week I've been thinking about pulp fictions and genre films.

Many of the finest filmmakers did their finest work in what some, incorrectly, call the lesser genres. Billy Wilder's film noir "Double Indemnity," an adaptation of the James M. Caine novel, compares well to his original "Sunset Boulevard," and in some ways paved the way for that later work. Elsewhere on this blog I've offered Wilder's account of working on that adaptation with Raymond Chandler, from a conversation I had with the director shortly before he died. (It was a contentious relationship and in the end Wilder was legally enjoined by the studio from brandishing his riding crop during working hours. A limit was also placed on the number of calls he was allowed to accept from young ladies.)

This week I've been re-watching Akira Kurosawa's film noir "Stray Dog" (1949). That film had its genesis as an unpublished police procedural novel that the great Japanese filmmaker himself wrote over a feverish two month period.

"Stray Dog" tells the story of the frantic search by a rookie cop (Toshiro Mifune) for his stolen Colt pistol, which to his shame had been lifted from him on a bus. A manhunt, lead by the rookie's mentor, begins after the stolen gun is used in a murder. The action throughout takes place during a heatwave in a bombed-out post-war Tokyo. One thing that gives the film such psychological depth is that both cop and killer are from the same background and are the same age... though it's never mentioned both must have been recently de-mobilized from the defeated Imperial Army. There's a sense of "there but for the grace of God go I."

The mini documentary in the Criterion Collection edition recounts a stir over the opening shot of a dog panting feverishly. The film premiered during the American occupation of Japan, and a busybody American woman associated with the ASPCA accused Kurosawa of having injected the dog with rabies to get that wild-eyed effect. This was in the wake of post-war revelations about "scientific" experiments performed by the Japanese imperial army. Apparently this woman was persistent, obsessed even, and brought suit. It was the one blot on an otherwise happy production.

Of course, to get the shot Kurosawa simply had his team take the dog on a run for a few minutes on a hot day.

Apple’s New Line of Netbooks

Forgive me but I love their computers so I'm addicted to their news... late last year an Apple executive was talking down netbooks:

“They have cramped keyboards, terrible software, junky hardware, very small screens, and just not a consumer experience, and not something that we would put the Mac brand on, quite frankly. And so, it’s not a space as it exists today that we are interested in, nor do we believe that customers in the long term would be interested in. It’s a segment we would choose not to play in." (via NYT)

More recently an Apple executive responded cryptically to questions whether the company is developing a netbook. Since then there's been much speculation on the subject (see link at bottom).

Some have suggested the company will produce one in the form of a touch-tablet computer, akin to a giant I-pod touch, or a Kindle. Here's my guess what we'll see later this year:

Imagine if you had a computer as thin as the Macbook Air, with the small footprint of the discontinued Macbook Pro 10-inch, a durable solid state drive, and a glass panel below the keyboard that would act as track-pad, dock, widget-dashboard and i-pod application stable. You'd "drive" your computer from the track-pad/dock, freeing up more room on screen.

To get an idea of what this would would simply stand above a Macbook, and lay your I-phone down horizontally over the touch pad. That would be a wonderful driving experience, especially if it had built-in 3-G wireless capability.

Other more responsible though less fun speculation here.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Decline of Journalism (and Math) in the Digital Information Age

Homer, and The New Yorker magazine's vaunted Department of Factual Verification, nods.

In the first paragraph of the lead story of the May 4th issue, a "Comment" piece on tax increases and the prospect of Texas seceding from the union because of them, author Hendrick Hertzberg attempts some math.

He calculates that under the tax hike proposed by the Obama administration, raising the top marginal rate from 35% to 39.6%, "a fellow making, for example, three hundred grand could see his tax bill go up $34.62 per week."

Is Mr. Hertzberg missing a zero, or does he does customarily take extraordinary deductions when he files?

I'm terrible at math, and as readers of this blog know even worse at spelling, but my calculation is an increased liability of $265 per week.

That's not peanuts.

Duffer's Holiday

... named for the two or three weeks in late May into early June when mayflies hatch and even the laziest and most incompetent fisherman (see figure above) can hook one.

This was part of the catch last year on the River Test. I look forward to returning shortly, to Duffer's Heaven. Perhaps I'll encounter this fish again, as I released him moments after the photo was taken.

More on the Test River here.

Mary Kinzie - OBJET

Dear child, why
is it still, along the pillow
this hand of yours half
open on the brightness
thrown by the lamp
anemone in
water the current
once passed through

In sleep you answer
that life catches
against the edge of
its own likeness
vein ever blue
in the body's
marble drift

... posted with permission of the author

Friday, May 1, 2009

from Harold Brodkey

"The night crept on, swept on, late minutes, powdered with darkness, in the middle of a sleeping city, spring crawling like a plague of green snakes, bits of warmth in the air, at 4am smells of leaves when the stink of automobiles died down. Dawn came, so pink, so pastel, so silly."

Yorkshire Dogs

... observed by Lucy Perceval at a village fair in the North Yorkshire Moors.


Print reporters in the White House press room have posted a sign in the desk area reading "Blog-Free Zone."

Hat tip "Page Six"... as if they need it...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Voltaire on Capitalism and Religion

Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan [Muslim], and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker's word.

At the breaking up of this pacific and free assembly, some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass. This man goes and is baptized in a great tub, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: that man has his son's foreskin cut off, whilst a set of Hebrew words (quite unintelligible to him) are mumbled over his child. Others retire to their churches, and there wait for the inspiration of heaven with their hats on, and all are satisfied.

If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another's throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.

- from "Letters on the English"

Monday, April 27, 2009

Elizabeth Bishop's Vision

"Off and on I have written out a poem called 'Grandmother's Glass Eye' which should be about the problem of writing poetry. The situation of my grandmother strikes me as rather like the situation of the poet: the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly un-real; the natural with the unnatural; the curious effect a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye."

... thanks to the heroic Jeannie Vanasco for sending this.

The Third Coming of Ska

The Specials announce a reunion tour.

Our friend Whit Stillman has been preparing a film set in Jamaica in the early 1960s.

Something tells me we're about to witness the third coming of ska.

Until then I'll be watching The Ethiopians "At the Drugstore," HERE.

A Missive from Norman Berke

The Main Point recently received this missive from the admirable and starry-eyed nonagenarian pundit Norman Berke:

Socrates, in a session with his disciples, according to Plato, posed the following question. What policy should you adopt if your neighbors should turn belligerent and become your enemy. One disciple answered quickly, saying, we should attack them before they attack us. Socrates replied, in that case you will always have them as an enemy; wouldn't it be preferable to seek out the possibility of an amicable settlement. And thus was born the policy discussion of the relative merits of hard power vs. soft power, which is still very much with us today.

Down through the ages nation states and empires have debated this difference, tho mainly opting for hard power, and just as often regretting it. The Athenians didn't follow Socrates advice and lost their golden age trying to subdue the Spartans. Spain became a second rate power trying to hold onto the newly empowered Dutch throughout most of the 17th century. Napoleon didn't have to invade Russia to keep his empire. History is replete with such examples. The use of hard power, has, on occasion, been necessary and beneficial.

One such use would be World War11 in successfully defeating evil, although it was preceded by a disastrous attempt at soft power resulting in the agreement at Munich. It cannot be employed to cover up weakness. Another necessary use of hard power would have been the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 with its intent to hunt down the perpetrators while also freeing a nation under the yoke of the Taliban. However, a reversal of policy, resulting in the invasion of Iraq, became, instead, a disastrous use of hard power and a severe setback to the self interest of the United States.

The president of the US has recently completed a swing of eight days in Europe, Turkey, and Iraq, followed shortly thereafter with a swing through Latin America. To those who listened carefully, there was a consistent and powerfully expressed message. Back home, the pundits, while admiring the talk and the delivery, honed in on the limited accomplishments: Europe's refusal to stimulate, and reluctance to commit to more involvement in Afghanistan, all the while missing what was behind the words, a radically new and about face message to the world, that America would henceforth, in its own self interest and that of the world at large, commit itself to the active and unremitting use of soft power. Again, opponents at home picked up on going soft on Cuba, and daring to shake the hand of Chavez. What cannot be denied is that in such a short time there has been a remarkable change among the peoples of the world.

As I sit here, I cannot recall a comparable time in history where the world's leading military power held out the olive branch with an offer to lead the world in ameliorating suspicions, long harbored resentments, hatreds. Cuba, Iran, Russia, Syria, and others will be viewing a new and different America. In the course of this new era of foreign policy, there will be much criticism within, and suspicions without will die hard. It may not work, may well turn out a grand failure. Can you turn an adversary into a friend? It will be a fascinating time to watch and be a part of. As Secretary of State Clinton said, "let's put ideology aside; that is so yesterday"

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


... the April issue, on newsstands now, is one of its strongest. I particularly admired "Tariq Ali's Plan for Pakistan" by Denis MacShane, as well as Jonathan Foreman's "Blood on the Street," regarding the attempted beating of Christopher Hitchens on the streets of Beirut.

I've written about the later HERE.

Harold Brodkey - Be Patient with Him


What do you hold up as a literary ideal?


Ideals are for greeting cards. I am trying to change consciousness, change language in such a way that the modes of behavior I am opposed to become unpopular, absurd, unlikely. You try to work toward a culture that takes time and conscience seriously in a real way and not as part of a tidal flow of hype.


Is that really your belief?


Yes. Be patient with me. Most of the furniture in my house comes from a period in American history called The Era of Good Feeling....

Writing that is meant solely for the public forum is often less interesting than writing where the writer has invented the public space inside the text, in the tone of the address, in the tone of the language. Public language is never new. But in good writing there is something absolutely new in the tone of what I think of as the public space in which the narrator addresses the reader. In a piece of writing the language runs along on the page and in the mind of a reader; in that language there is no actual physical space, but the language should carry the implication of a physical-social location. If you've been to a large Edwardian house you may have seen a small room with a fireplace and a couch, and perhaps two chairs-not a formal, large room, but one where you can sit and talk, where you gossip. Henry James has a tone of address as if he's arrived at such a house, not his own, and he is seated by the fire; an invisible interlocutor or audience listens closely. Walt Whitman speaks outdoors, it seems to me. The space Whitman suggests is complex and American and I think beautiful and a completely new invention. One thing that is unique about it is that there's no tinge of social class in it whatsoever. Jane Austen's writing suggests a drawing-room sort of space; Hemingway's, on a barstool or in a club car; it changes: he's complicated. Emily Dickinson creates a marvelous public space, too, and one of the marvelous things about it is that it is so clearly an invention since it isn't based on being public; it is without a sense of the public. D. H. Lawrence is an absolutely amazing writer, with a fantastic sense of the language, but his sense of public space wavers, and sometimes a whole book or long story of his will collapse when he shifts the public space too drastically and becomes churchly-fascistic, or starts yelling as if in a corral, then muttering in a hallway—no order in it at all.

—from my interview with Harold Brodkey in the Winter 1991 Paris Review (Issue 121), The Art of Fiction, No. 126

Hat tip to Peter Mclachlin, on whose blog I re-encountered a portion of the interview I conducted. Mclachlin also posts HERE.

Unacknowledged Legislators

I'll soon again begin posting admired poems and thoughts about poetry at Unacknowledged Legislators. A hat-tip here to the heroic Jeannie Vanasco, who sends me most of the best that will be appearing.

A further thought on the subject from Charles Borgen:

"Literature, at its best, bridges gaps of experience and culture. It helps you stand in another’s shoes. If one of the things we, as international lawyers, care about is a just world then fostering an understanding of each other’s views is an important step in that direction, regardless as to whether we actually agree with those views. You cannot let rhetoric bury nuance, anger bury analysis. Anger can spur great literature and righteous anger can be the seed of political reform, but great literature and just policies are more than angry reactions. Writers (and international lawyers) are fortunately not the world’s legislators. But both can have a profound influence in how we understand and shape our world."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

My Last Poem by Manuel Bandeira

I would like my last poem thus

That it be gentle saying the simplest and least intended things
That it be ardent like a tearless sob
That it have the beauty of almost scentless flowers
The purity of the flame in which the most limpid diamonds are consumed
The passion of suicides who kill themselves without explanation.

- translation from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Bishop

Note: In 1951, poet Elizabeth Bishop received a $2,500 travel grant to circumnavigate Latin American. She landed in Santos, Brazil that fall, intending to stay two weeks, she lived there fifteen years.

Poem by Jeannie Vanasco

I want to be wrong in a beautiful way

like the stagehands who wheeled out the sun when the actor
was under the moon;
like the scientist who thought the seeds of trees
blown into the sea make birds—
“I have seen them fly from the waters,” he wrote;
like me saying my father died last night—
he died ten years ago;
like Newton dividing white light
into the seven colors of the spectrum for the seven notes
of the musical scale for any other way would break
the Pythagorean principle of harmony.

The Madness of Crowds

“Money ... has often been a cause of the delusion of multitudes. Sober nations have all at once become desperate gamblers, and risked almost their existence upon the turn of a piece of paper. To trace the history of the most prominent of these delusions is the object of the present pages. Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

- Charles Mackay in "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” 1841

Sunday, March 1, 2009

"The Battle of Beirut"

More on "The Battle of Beirut," or "The Afternoon of the Tiny Fist," or as I like to think of it - "The Valentine's Day Menacing"...

Michael Young comments in the Beirut Daily Start on Hitchens' speech at the American University, paying particular attention to the audience. Qifa Nadbki comments on Young's comment. Abu Muqawamma, a former Beirut resident, weighs in. The comments on AM's are particularly interesting. The Exiled rants... ill-informed and fallacious, but fun. No matter the context ("what are the ethics of vandalizing a swastika?"), it is very odd when writers cheer for thugs stomping on a writer's best hand. Unprecedented in my memory.

It should be noted that not a great deal of blood was spilled... but rather a great deal more ink and electrons than blood. No weapons were brandished. Meanwhile in the wake of the Hariri commemoration the city was festive. At the time of the menacing, I was drinking tea at a cafe less than a mile away as bottles of Kefraya were being opened.

May Beirut no longer be a battleground. It's a wonderful city. Go see for yourself.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Valentine's Day Menacing

... or Christopher Hitchens and the battle of Beirut... may be read at my Standpoint magazine blog here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

More on the Plimp

On Beirut soon, but meanwhile more Plimpton while he's on my mind...

For a few years at Paris Review I worked in a little office upstairs between George’s and the billiards room of his apartment. His assistant Antonio, though not much of a Star Trek fan, used to call these offices "The Bridge." When George would fly off to Omaha or wherever to give a speech I’d slip in to his capacious office and sit at his desk. Above it hung a framed letter from Hemingway and a verse collaboration between pugilist Cassius Clay (later M. Ali) and poet Marianne Moore that George had set them one evening at Toots Schorr's saloon. I'd sit at his desk, spin in his chair, sort of like a kid trying on his father’s shoes. Then I’d prepare to make my Important Call.

One day George had gone off and left a large book sitting open in the center of the desk. Well, well, I thought, what have we here? Handwriting... a diary... George’s diary. Open. Of course I had to look.

In the very center of the page that he'd left open, he'd written: “When one goes on a journey of self-exploration, one should go heavily armed. – Verlaine.”

So George.

A Lesson from the Master - George Plimpton

I've been away, on a research trip to Beirut, Lebanon, about which I'll be posting soon. Now back in London, I've been reading off-piste to unwind, mostly Nelson Aldrich's "George, Being George," an oral biography of my old boss at The Paris Review literary magazine in New York. I include here now a story I told Nelson for his book, about Plimpton's attempt to teach me a great lesson in life.

It was a time when 541 East 72nd Street was not such a happy place, and all manner of diverse gossip swirled. Even, so I gathered, about me... patently false rumors I should add. At the time I found such loose talk upsetting. For his part, George tried to teach me to make a practice of ignoring gossip... some of which of course he'd no doubt had a hand in unleashing. I was chatting with him in his office where he adopted a sage-like pose in his Eames chair and offered this bit of wisdom: "James, halitosis is better than no breath at all."

Huh? I said.

"You know," he said, smiling conspiratorially, "just as long as they're talking about you..." All I could do was shake my head and pout. Then one night, a drink with a young woman from Random House that turned into a sort of date. Midway through dinner, she stopped eating, stared at me intently and asked “Is it true you procure black transvestites for George Plimpton?" I burst out laughing. It was just so absurd. But at the same time, oddly, I suddenly had a light feeling, of some weird freedom. I realized there was little you could do to control that kind of thing, and better just to learn to let it slide off your back. The next morning I bounded up the stairs to George’s office to tell him that he had, after all, been right. Well, I did begin to tell him and he absolutely hit the roof—“She said WHAT?!” Who is this woman?”

I had to back out of his office saying, "Halitosis! George, remember halitosis!"