Месечни архиви: August 2016

Revealing an Unknown Cairo

Yasmine El Rashidi, New York City, 2016
Brigitte LacombeYasmine El Rashidi, New York City, 2016

The unnamed narrator of Yasmine El Rashidi’s short first novel, Chronicle of a Last Summer, records her conversation in 2014 with a young Cairene record salesman named Mohamed:

He tells me the revolution has connected us to a past that preceded us. I nod, tell him I’ve gone back into our history books to understand. I’ve read everything. I can’t believe all this I didn’t know. You might not believe me, he says, but I have too. He’s learning that history is repeating itself. We talk about Nasser. The first revolution. 1919. The Wafd revolting against the British.

What El Rashidi attempts in her deceptively quiet, adamantine novel is no less than to suffuse the present with the past, to convey the way in which a walk through Cairo and the purchase of vegetables are acts filled not only with vivid present detail but also with echoes of historical and political significance. Language, too—whether Egyptian Arabic or English—means more than itself, and in the novel’s three sections, El Rashidi’s narrator builds a small lexicon of freighted words: “listless,” “lethal,” “Tadmeer” or “devastation,” “Kifaya” or “it’s enough,” “truth.” An entire nuanced world emanates from these apparently offhand recollections.

The novel’s title is, like the book itself, artfully simple: Chronicle of a Last Summer suggests the presentation of a single, meaning-filled summer, the one final season in which all becomes clear. In fact, however, each of the book’s three sections relates the events of a different summer—1984, 1998, and 2014—and even within these, the narrator recalls other summers too. Each might be the last (i.e., final) in a different respect—the narrator’s last summer with her father, the last summer of her innocence, the last summer in her childhood home, etc. Or El Rashidi could also intend the title in the sense of the stock student assignment “what I did last summer,” which would account for the near-diaristic element of the later two segments. In any event, the title’s ambiguity hovers over the novel: we, like the narrator herself, seek elucidation, resolution, and change where there may be none to find. It is not only the character’s plight, but that of her very nation: not for nothing is the book’s subtitle “A Novel of Egypt.”

In the first section—in its details, the most vividly rendered—the narrator is a small girl. She tells us she was just three and three quarters when Anwar Sadat was assassinated, which puts her at six and a half in the summer of 1984. El Rashidi finely conjures the world through a child’s eyes, with the abruptness and near surreality of that perspective. For a child, everything is normal, or potentially so. “I am sitting with Mama waiting for the power to cut,” she writes in her school notebook, then explains that everyone in Cairo—except their most important friends—endures daily power cuts of an hour or two: “Mama also says the Sadats never have them. They are related to us, but not close enough for our power cuts to stop too.”

The narrator lives with her Mama in an architecturally notable modern house by the Nile, where her mother was also raised. The household has suffered painful attrition: the deaths of her maternal grandmother and her aunt Nesma, who had Down’s Syndrome; and, most bafflingly, the disappearance of Baba, her father. “I loved the way Baba smelled…. Even when he went on trips his smell would still be there. It had gone away this time. I was waiting for him to come back.” She doesn’t know why or where he has gone: “I didn’t know why nobody talked about Baba even though everyone missed him. I still counted every day but didn’t know anymore what I was counting to.”

Beyond this intimately unsettled domesticity lies an analogously unstable world:

There are some things that are never there the next day. There are some things that are always there. Like the billboard with the president on it. There are some things that are there for a very long time then disappear.

The cityscape changes constantly; shops and people vanish overnight; nobody explains any of it. “I told Grandmama there were too many things I was waiting to understand. She laughed and patted my head. She said it’s better not to know too much anyway.”

The narrator’s mother remains largely a cipher, at no time more so than in these early years. Her expression, when we’re privy to it, is a lament—“Mama lost many friends because of Nasser. Her best friend was the daughter of the king and had to leave. Her other best friend was Jewish and also had to leave.” The narrator knows that her parents’ politics diverge:

They would only ever fight about Nasser and money. Mama would scream about all the things that Nasser took from Grandpa. Baba shouted back that he gave his father his whole life.

Any social education the narrator receives will come not from her mother but from two very different father figures: her young cousin Dido, staunchly rebellious, and her “Uncle,” a close family friend of her parents’ generation. Dido, a Communist (“It means he keeps to the left,” she explains), disapproves of her enrollment at the British School: he “says my school will repress me. It is the only thing left of the monarchy and colonialism. Mama and Baba are antirevolutionary for sending me there. Where did their nationalism go?” Uncle, on the other hand, older, an architect and a traditionalist, rails that “everything Nasser did was a failed idea.”

These two stand on opposite sides of an intellectual divide. Uncle is closer to the narrator’s mother. Mama’s social world was, in youth, that of a pre-1952 cosmopolitan elite about which excellent memoirs have been written (such as André Aciman’s Out of Egypt). In Mama’s case, being neither Jewish nor of the royal family, she has remained ensconced in an ever-shrinking aristocratic world, between her beautiful but increasingly decrepit house and “the club,” which

used to belong to the king. Then Nasser came and gave half of it to the people. He made it free. Half the fields and half the horse-racing track and half the golf course. The other half is for other kinds of people, like us.

Baba, although a regular at the club before his disappearance, came from a different background than his wife: a successful businessman (he owns a tile factory), he is descended from one of Nasser’s close associates, presumably a military officer of middle-class origins catapulted to prominence by the 1952 revolution. The novel is rich in its quiet implications—we learn, for example, that Baba’s cousin was one of Sadat’s assassins, which makes clear that “rebellion” can take the form of the Muslim Brotherhood as easily as it can communism.

By 1998, the narrator is a university student at the American University in Cairo. She aspires to be a filmmaker, in itself a radical act in a country in which visual memory has been created by the state-controlled television, in the form of frequently replayed political hagiographies showing great moments in the lives of Nasser and Sadat. “I begin to realize the power of these montages, these visual narratives of my childhood. We had all seen these scenes innumerable times. Images imprinted on us through repetition.” Inspired by a French film by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, the narrator proposes to make a documentary in which she asks people in the street a single question: “Maybe I could ask people if they are angry,” she muses. But she is well aware of the wariness of her compatriots when faced with a camera:

The only people who are allowed to film on the streets are the TV. They work at the Egyptian Radio and Television Union. If you work there, you are also the TV. You are also, maybe, someone with ties to the surveillance state. Someone it might be better to stay away from.

For the newly adult narrator, questions arise about how appropriately to position herself in society. Her cousin Dido still pushes her to overt rebellion; her friend Habiba educates her in Egyptian political correctness:

She didn’t buy anything made in Israel or America. Didn’t drink coffee because the money benefits Israel. Didn’t wear certain kinds of shoes because the soles are made in Israel…. She didn’t use the term Middle East because it is a creation of the British. To use it is to remain colonized. I used Middle East all the time.

In this situation, she says, “I think about Baba more and more.” Her father still has not returned. “At a point the idea of someone long absent turns from emotion into something of a mental exercise in remembering and deduction.” Figuring out who her father actually was and who she herself may be are endeavors linked, too, to figuring out the reality of her nation, and nationality: “I felt deceived too, cheated out of a life, but I wasn’t sure why, or by what. I wondered. Was that also inherited, our listlessness, our sense of resignation?” Baba’s stories and opinions glitter in her memory:

Much he had said had been true, the things I remembered anyway. The things he told me. There was much I didn’t know, and many things I imagine I had inherited, borrowed, maybe even imposed on him, the man I wanted him to be, pieced together, fading memories held tight by strands.

This imaginary Baba, “pieced together,” offers the narrator a path between Dido’s and Uncle’s, a way forward that would account for both the past and the need to change the past. When the narrator sets off to the campus science building with her camera to shoot her film, she is accosted by a guard who tries to shoo her away. Seeing the name on her ID, he practically falls at her feet: “He…asks if I need anything. What a great pleasure to meet you. Your Baba was a great man. If ever you need anything. Anything at all.”

One might surmise that Baba’s return—were it possible—could provide a solution to the many irreconcilable elements in the narrator’s life. Her mother’s nostalgia, Uncle’s frustration, Dido’s rage—all swirl around and within her. It’s as if Baba, so mysteriously and so long vanished, holds the key.

Maids of honor at an upper-class wedding in Cairo, 1987
Abbas/Magnum PhotosMaids of honor at an upper-class wedding in Cairo, 1987

But the novel’s third section proves this hope to be false. By 2014, Uncle has died (in 2010); Baba, miraculously, has returned (in the same year); Mama has become a social activist; the 2011 revolution has taken place; poor Dido is in prison awaiting trial. And yet, in spite of so much change, there is only the slightest sense of progress. The narrator’s own perspective has altered over time—“Ours wasn’t a culture used to change. Permanency was valued. We lived in the same places we were born in. The less change, the less movement, the better. It was a view to stability, rather than the oppression I had internalized it to be”—and she has turned from filmmaking to writing a novel.

Instead of being filled with hope, she has reinforced, through her father’s return, the cyclical existential absurdity of the Egyptian situation: “I became less and less reactionary to Baba’s pessimism when I fully digested all that he had been through,” she records. Interestingly, we are never told what he has done or where he has been, although we understand that he was in hiding as a result of false criminal charges brought when he refused to become involved in corruption. “We have never really spoken about his years of absence,” she says. “I have pieced together stories, but never ask questions, never raise the conversation….” Instead, the cohort with which he surrounds himself explains all:

Once an outer mourning had left and marked their faces, they all began to laugh, about the old days, how they used to live…. At this time one year ago I would be sitting down to drink tea with Mubarak and briefing him. And look at me now, practically in my boxers, being served stale bread…. Here is the former state security agent. He used to be the most successful currency trader. This man used to be the minister of foreign affairs. This man was Mubarak’s adviser on Israel. This man was his photographer…. This woman used to be Miss Egypt. Once the most important newspaper columnist in the Arab world. This man used to own a bank….

The members of the club, power brokers now obsolete, mill about as if in an allegorical scene from Dante.

In this third section, El Rashidi addresses, in fiction, some of the events she wrote about in her essays for the NYR Daily, the online edition of this journal, collected under the title The Battle for Egypt (2011). Dated from January 26 to March 29, 2011, they recorded, as did her reports for the print edition, the heady unfolding of events in Tahrir Square and their aftermath; the divisions that emerged almost immediately; the sense that the vote for the new constitution was skewed by various factors. In a spirit of optimism, she wrote on February 12, 2011, that “this revolution, for the people of Egypt, may turn out to be less about a leader than about hope, pride and the sense of possibility”; but by February 23, she observed:

The splintering of the movement feels familiar…. Many of the core activists who are still coming out belong to an upper-middle-class elite…. But the larger story at this point lies with the labor movements and unions—the broader public whose participation was so vital to the uprising, and whose long struggle for economic justice continues.

For the narrator of El Rashidi’s novel, several years later in 2014, disillusionment is profound: her father “tells me that he knew a revolution would change nothing.” She recalls clashes in which the Muslim Brotherhood and the police colluded: “At the morgue piles of young men had phone numbers scrawled on their arms…. They had left their houses knowing they might not return.” Cairo’s cityscape exists for her now in a palimpsest, the memories of recent violence inseparable from those that preceded them:

My memories of crossing that street, of university, of my paralysis in the face of the city, have been overwritten. Then overwritten again. The scars of our most recent history are everywhere. I have to dig, consciously project myself back into an imagined past as I sit here now, writing, to recall going there with Baba. It was on the same street corner where Baba saw the Israeli jets [in 1967] that I first saw the square full, first experienced tear gas, saw my first dead body, shot from behind. I think of Uncle constantly and the conversations we had…. He would tell me that to be a witness to history is a burden for the chosen.

El Rashidi’s novel is elliptical, at times even oblique. Much is discreetly omitted from her text—the narrator’s name; Mama’s character; the circumstances of Baba’s long absence. The book’s three sections, each at so considerable a chronological remove from the others, have the effect of vivid but separate snapshots from a vast album. The book coheres instead around the trajectory of a rebellious energy, the struggle against that ingrained vocabulary of listlessness and defeat that permeates so much of the characters’ discourse.

Uncle and Dido are, in this sense, the novel’s central characters, more so even than the observing narrator herself. By 2014, Uncle is dead, and Dido is in prison, “on charges of inciting anarchy, disrupting the state.” The narrator and Dido have been intermittently estranged over the years, but she visits him there—“he seemed to sit as if in obligation, answering me in monosyllables”—and eventually he asks to see her father. Baba’s symbolic importance affects Dido, too, and the older man offers a version of a blessing: “I heard him [Baba] whisper that he was proud of him [Dido], that he was much braver than he had ever been.”

Soon thereafter, the narrator has the realization, of her rebellious cousin, that “more and more he sounds like Uncle.” Dido’s personal journey—from youthful optimism (1984) to a fierce restlessness (1998), thence to a boil (the events of 2011), and on to disastrous deflation and despair—mirrors that of Egypt itself over these years. That trajectory, the book suggests, has been repeated over generations: it was also Baba’s; in a different form, it was Baba’s father’s, too, by Nasser’s side.

There is, at the novel’s close, a meaningful shift in the narrator’s family, at least: Mama finally decides to leave the beloved family home. Although she remains largely in the background, Mama is the character apparently most energized by the revolution of 2011, the person who has found purpose and focus, eschewing nostalgia even as the men who surround her have lapsed into rueful inanition. Whether her newfound vigor will prove effectual is unclear—the country’s fateful defeatism is a strong adversary—but in the disheartening aftermath of the revolution, there is mercifully some modest sense of an opening to the future, the prospect of something new and possibly better.

Chronicle of a Last Summer wastes no words. Every sentence has meaning, though not portentously so. The novel can be read swiftly, as the personal narrative of a young girl growing into womanhood while her aristocratic family collapses around her and she tries to find her artistic path; or it can be read more slowly, as a domestic tapestry through which are threaded all the complexities of recent Egyptian society.1

As a small child visiting the Mugamma (a Cairo government building) with her mother in 1984, the narrator overhears a group of women talking about Ayman al-Zawahiri (one of the men arrested after Sadat’s assassination and the current leader of al-Qaeda): “He should be in jail forever, and they’ve now set him loose on us. Yalahwee.” In 2014, she remembers Uncle’s last year (2010):

He had been saying all year that it was untenable. La faim. He told me to watch for certain things. The price of tomatoes and okra. If the man carrying the bread on his head as he cycles is whistling or not.

Camus of course wrote about Algeria’s famine in the 1940s as one cause of the war for independence; similarly, the famine in Syria has been cited as a cause of the civil war there.2 On the one hand, the narrator simply records Uncle’s passing conversation; on the other, she elucidates for us both the tenor of the times and its significance.

In El Rashidi’s novel, as in life, the familial and the societal are ultimately inseparable. It is Uncle’s melancholic perspective that provides the book with its abiding wisdom:

Uncle said it was inevitable, eventually some change would come, but much more so he wished our lives were different. To fall in love, to build a life with a loved one, was the greatest freedom. He hoped I, we, would have that one day.

  1. 1

    Fully to appreciate this evocative debut, some American readers may be grateful for a background account of modern Egyptian history. Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot’s brief volume, A Short History of Modern Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 1985; updated 2007), while it does not cover the last tumultuous decade, provides a succinct, engaging, and often witty account of the last century that puts El Rashidi’s narrator’s family history into enlightening perspective, and makes clear both the importance and the complexity of Egyptian national identity.  

  2. 2

    See Albert Camus, Algerian Chronicles, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, with an introduction by Alice Kaplan (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2013); and see also Ian Sample, “Global Warming Contributed to Syria’s 2011 Uprising, Scientists Claim,” The Guardian, March 2, 2015. 

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The Beauty of Belief

A man attempting to control his subject through hypnosis, nineteenth century
Tony Oursler’s personal archiveA man attempting to control his subject through hypnosis, nineteenth century

It’s been a beautiful summer, at least in the Northeast, but much about the current election cycle has made it something of a challenge to have any sort of fun at all. How doubly grateful we are, then, to find distraction, humor, entertainment, and pleasure in two museum shows devoted to so much funny, engaging, and ultimately moving evidence of our search for instructive or simply comforting messages from the beyond. The shows—“Imponderable” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and “Tony Oursler: The Imponderable Archive” at the Hessel Museum at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies—reveal the intriguing connections between the work of video artist Tony Oursler and his encyclopedic and obsessive collection of over 2,500 images and objects. Nearly all of these objects touch on some aspect of the occult or, perhaps more accurately, on beliefs and belief systems that cannot be supported by (or that run counter to) science. They provide evidence of the (often misguided) power of faith, and of our longing to believe in—or our compulsion to disprove—the existence of phenomena that we know to be unlikely, irrational, illogical, or physically impossible.

The ghost of Thomas Becket, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170, Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, circa 1920
Tony Oursler’s personal archiveThe ghost of Thomas Becket, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170, Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, circa 1920

Born in New York in 1957, Oursler attended the California Institute for the Arts, where he met the artist Mike Kelley, another passionate collector. Oursler’s earlier works include a timeline of technologies (beginning with the camera obscura) “that may or may not be used in cultural production,” and installations and sculptures in which videos of expressive human faces are projected onto inanimate forms. The artifacts that Oursler has assembled over his career allude to the miraculous (the figure of the Virgin Mary imprinted on a rose petal), the paranormal (the outlines of Thomas Becket’s ghost visible on a pillar in Canterbury Cathedral), the criminal (newspaper photos of Charles Manson, Jonestown, and Patty Hearst), the quasi-scientific (a portable E-meter from the early days of Scientology; a print of a “Japanese mermaid” that resembles a hybrid of a dinosaur, a chicken, and a fish), and the simply strange (pictures of a psychic who conned trusting senior citizens by conjuring devil’s heads from tomatoes, and of Viennese cult members wearing pacifiers to signify their rejection of adult society). There are voodoo dolls, shrunken heads, tarot cards, reliquaries, shadow puppets, magic lantern slides, astrological charts, palmistry and phrenological diagrams, an antique color wheel, and a wide assortment of stage props and ritual objects. Everywhere are pictures of “natural wonders” (human faces and forms appearing on rocks, in the snow, in the spray from waves; angels sighted in the clouds; the head of Christ materializing in a grove of trees) and of feats performed by stage magicians, hypnotists, and mediums. Many of the film and theater posters, book jackets, and pamphlet covers are small masterpieces of campy but nonetheless striking graphic design, and there are some marvelous ephemera (a series of dream drawings done by Federico Fellini), movie stills (a portrait of Charlie Chaplin as the Great Dictator), and photos of sets from vintage detective and horror movies that testify to the ways in which film blurs the division between reality and illusion. We can easily intuit, but may find it hard to explain, exactly why these items so clearly belong together, especially since the ways in which they resemble one another are, in some cases, more visual than contextual. Thus images of political figures (Jimmy Carter, Senator Joseph McCarthy) being burned in effigy recall dazzlingly bright ghostly emanations, while some rather lovely Rorschach-test blots are not unlike the delicate water colors depicting the heads and faces of spirits. An illustration of “The Crown Chakra” done by the Rit. Rev. C. W. Leadbeater in 1927 vaguely recalls a page from The Principles of Light and Color, by nineteenth-century mesmerist Edwin D. Babbitt, who believed that “all ailments and diseases could be attributed to an imbalance in the individual’s ‘color field,’ or aura.”

An illustration of "The Crown Chakra" from The Chakras: A Monograph, by Rt. Rev. C. W. Leadbeater, 1927, left; a page from Edwin D. Babbitt's The Principles of Light and Color, 1878, right
Tony Oursler’s personal archiveAn illustration of “The Crown Chakra” from The Chakras: A Monograph, by Rt. Rev. C. W. Leadbeater, 1927, left; a page from Edwin D. Babbitt’s The Principles of Light and Color, 1878, right

At the MoMA show, organized by Stuart Comer and Erica Papernik-Shimizu, a selection of these artifacts is on view in a gallery just outside the theater showing Imponderable, Oursler’s deadpan, zany, inventive new ninety-minute film. Outrageously costumed and heavily made up, declaiming their lines as stiffly and awkwardly as grade-school thespians, the film’s actors impersonate Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, and various mediums, spiritualists, charlatans, specters, and devils, while flames and ethereal bodies (and body parts) cavort among them. The film’s subject, loosely speaking, is the effort of early-twentieth-century rationalists (among them the artist’s grandfather, Charles Fulton Oursler) to debunk Victorian fairy and spirit photographs, séances, and other manifestations of the belief that the dead can be contacted and that our lost loved ones walk among us. The irony is that Oursler employs highly sophisticated technology to produce special effects (including an ingenious approach to “5-D,” utilizing colored lights, the simulation of a breeze blowing, and rumblings emanating from the theater itself) that seem, in their way, fully as mysterious, wondrous, and otherworldly as the gauzy apparitions that haunted Victorian gardens, photo studios, darkened parlors, and gas-lit theaters.

University of Toronto students burn an effigy of Joseph McCarthy, 1953
Tony Oursler’s personal archiveUniversity of Toronto students burn an effigy of Joseph McCarthy, 1953

At the Hessel Museum, one can watch two of Oursler’s funny and imaginative video installations, Le Volcan and My Saturnian Lovers(s). But here the artifacts—680 of them—are the stars of the show. Curated by Tom Eccles and Beatrix Ruf, the objects are grouped in thirty-five glass-topped tables that evoke the museums—or, more specifically, the cabinets of curiosity—of an earlier era. The lighting (noticeably lower than we may be accustomed to experiencing in museums) is fittingly atmospheric, and the thoughtful exhibition design perfectly complements the material being displayed. Museum guards pass out booklets identifying the numbered objects on view and providing explanations that are immensely helpful, given that many of the apparitions and complex images would be difficult to see even at closer range and in brighter light. Fortunately, an enormous, ambitious, and handsomely designed catalogue—originally published to accompany the 2015 LUMA Foundation exhibitions in Arles and Zurich, republished for the current shows—allows us to spend the considerable time required to study the images and read the brief, descriptive texts that at least partly satisfy, or further inspire, our curiosity. In case we’re wondering how early-twentieth-century mediums insured that ectoplasmic entities visited their séances, a mini-collection of mesh panels, veils, and gloves, soaked in a fluorescent substance to make them glow in the dark, provides a credible explanation. And how, without help, could we understand what we are seeing in the 1963 news photograph in which “Blonde hypnotist Pat Collins, left, who not only attracts the Hollywood crowd to the Interlude on the Sunset Strip but gets ‘em onstage in droves as well, hypnotizes one of the famous names of the film colony…The young actress [Tuesday Weld], uninhibited normally, was hypnotized into believing she was a stripper.”

"Aura portrait" of Noel Oursler, Tony Oursler's mother, 2014
Tony Oursler’s personal archive/Jason Mandella“Aura portrait” of Noel Oursler, Tony Oursler’s mother, 2014

Among the intelligent and illuminating texts included in the catalogue are essays on Mesmerism, on UFO photography, on American female mediums, and on the early history of the cinema and its relationship to magic. But perhaps the most interesting articles are those that document Oursler’s ancestry. His grandfather, Charles Fulton Oursler, was a stage magician, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, an editor and publisher of True Detective and True Romance magazines, and the author of the best-selling biography of Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told. He was also deeply committed to the debunking of the “occult sciences,” of mediums, and of practitioners of spiritualism. Frequently working with Harry Houdini, he took on such figures as Arthur Conan Doyle (a believer in fairy photography) and one of the most celebrated mediums of the 1920s, Mina “Margery” Crandon. A transcribed conversation between Tony Oursler and Crandon’s great-granddaughter, Anna Thurlow, is also included in the catalogue. A passage from that conversation comes close to the heart of what Oursler is doing in his archive and his work, at once “debunking,” gently mocking, and enthusiastically celebrating the fantastic, the surreal, the colorful world of the imagination, and the persistence of the faithful who hold fast to their beliefs despite how effectively and convincingly they are disproved.

A still from Tony Oursler's film <em>Imponderable</em>, 2015-2016
Tony Oursler’s personal archiveA still from Tony Oursler’s film Imponderable, 2015-2016

“When people ask me about Margery,” Thurlow tells Oursler, “they always say, ‘Was she for real or not?’ And I always thought that was sort of missing the whole point of what she was doing. That the question of ‘fraud or not?’ was just a false question, that it was really more about how she did it, and why she did it, not whether it was real or not…Looking at your work—the projections with their disembodied quality, sort of old and new—there’s a similar feeling that I get from her pictures. She’s in these freakish poses and sometimes they look like a crime photograph. But at the same time, they thought they were doing something so modern, and you have these wild gadgets that they used at the séances…It’s kind of this juxtaposition.”

A poster for stage magician Fulton Oursler, circa 1920
Tony Oursler’s personal archive/Jason MandellaA poster for stage magician Fulton Oursler, circa 1920

Carrying on the family tradition, Tony Oursler’s father was the editor of a publication entitled Angels on Earth, a magazine that presented “true stories about God’s angels and humans who have played angelic roles in daily life.” And, quoted in the catalogue, Oursler himself gives us what is perhaps the clearest, simplest, and most useful explanation of his own stance toward what he collects and creates:

Looking at this material, people may get the idea that I’m a believer. I am curious. But I’m not a mystic. Much as I’d like to be a levitator and talk with aliens, I haven’t. My artwork is expressing my great appreciation for all this belief. The joys of making art are my form of belief.


“Tony Oursler: Imponderable” is at the Museum of Modern Art through January 8, and “Tony Oursler: The Imponderable Archive” is at the Hessel Museum at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies through October 30. Imponderable: The Archives of Tony Oursler is published by JRP|Ringier and distributed by Artbook DAP.

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At Home with the Irrational

baxter-rational

Over four decades and many books, “Colonel” Glen Baxter has built a world and language all his own—slightly familiar, decidedly abnormal, irresistibly funny. Baxter’s drawings and prose poems are a delicious stew of adventure novels, highbrow hijinks, and outright absurdity. The following is a selection from Baxter’s new book, Almost Completely Baxter, which brings together highlights from the full sweep of his long career.

—The Editors

 

Television didn’t arrive in England until the Fifties. Its images were of course in black, white, and grey, which fit perfectly with our childhood lives, already chugging along in drab monochrome. Light grey drizzle fell from the black clouds and specks of soot belched from the factory chimneys. It was grim. This monotony could only be broken by a visit to the cinema. Republic Pictures film serials and Flash Gordon were my guides to a more exciting future.

A film I remember fondly featured a scene where a tousle-haired man in a belted raincoat is leaning against a tall building in Manhattan. A cop walks by swinging his billy club. “Move along, buster!” he exhorts. “Do ya think you’re holding up the building?” The accused adjusts his battered hat and moves away as instructed. The building crashes to the ground in a flurry of dust and rubble. I had entered the world of the Marx Brothers and I would never look back.

Years later at art school I came upon a similar spirit of anarchy in the work of the Dada and Surrealist poets and painters. I was home, and dry. And yet, I was distinctly out of step with the prevailing ideology. I was surrounded by abstract painters churning out fake de Koonings and Rothkos. The collage novels of Max Ernst, with their haunting dreamlike imagery and absurdity, became my beacon as I tried to escape the prevailing orthodoxy.

My early attempts at prose poetry found their way into print in the samizdat publication Adventures in Poetry, published by the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Lower East Side. Encouraged by poets Ron Padgett and Larry Fagin, I came to New York and read from my collected works. After years of neglect in my homeland I had finally found my audience.

—Glen Baxter, August 2016 


baxter-failure

baxter-nipple


baxter-sandwich


baxter-polenta


baxter-scrundley


baxter-fruit


baxter-beards


baxter-deteriorate


PAYING ATTENTION

It had taken me a week to prepare for this. No one had the slightest suspicion that their tongues would be the subject of a police investigation, but there would be time enough for research and debate later. The dinghy rounded the headland with a great deal of movement. The Mate puffed greedily at his habit. It was not, after all, for him to criticize the catering at Port Moresby. At the centre of the recent upheavals and reciprocations stood a woman the like of which the islanders had not seen before. One arm longer than the other, reddish hair swept up in the breeze, she certainly commanded respect, fear, admiration, and disgust. The Mate ceased his tugging and looked at the Captain. He could not stop transforming his thoughts into a string of continuous disappointments. He pushed his forehead up and back. A plank, about seven feet long, remained inches away. He saw it twice. He had tried to reach it only once before, but that had been three weeks ago to the day, and for the moment he seemed content to remain where he stood, swaying over the liverwurst. If only he were able to reach out and take up the spatula, he might again be able to regain his composure. He knew this, but felt otherwise. His knees were rotating very slowly, and the smoke from the shore was already curling on his lower lip. He had led such a disgruntled existence that he had begun to enjoy the spectacle of a tumbler of water being filled, emptied, and filled again. A slow smile of gratification flashed into the air. It seemed to emanate from his chin, but he knew this was unlikely. He was evidently upset. He tumbled forward into a beaker of milk. This was his last chance. He grabbed his legs, and tucking them up under his collar, he rolled quietly into the harbour. 


Almost Completely Baxter: New and Selected Blurtings is published by New York Review Comics.

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The Diva of Delusion

Hugh Grant, Lloyd Hutchinson, Meryl Streep, and Simon Helberg in Stephen Frears's <em>Florence Foster Jenkins</em>, 2016
Qwerty Films/Pathé Pictures International/Paramount PicturesHugh Grant, Lloyd Hutchinson, Meryl Streep, and Simon Helberg in Stephen Frears’s Florence Foster Jenkins, 2016

At select gatherings of audiophiles a half-century ago, there came an inevitable late hour, as the Grand Marnier, Strega, and B&B flowed, when a special LP was put on the hi-fi: A Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!! Recital!!!! Released in 1954, a decade after the death of the eponymous artiste, this unintentionally comedic favorite of musical cognoscenti preserved the astoundingly awful voice of a septuagenarian New York clubwoman who bulldozed her way to a legendary, self-financed 1944 Carnegie Hall recital, oblivious to the fact that she was considered by experts to be the world’s worst classical singer.

Forget being an operatic has-been: “Lady Florence,” as this Margaret Dumont impersonator preferred being addressed, was the very definition of a never-was. Yet Jenkins’s profound disconnect from reality never deterred her, and indeed endeared her to a small battalion of Camp followers that included Cole Porter and Tallulah Bankhead, and other aficionados of grand self-delusion. But there was pathos there, too, as suggested by Stephen Frears’s predominantly schmaltzy but sporadically affecting new film, Florence Foster Jenkins, with Meryl Streep in the title role.

Fans of Frears’s acerbic early work—especially such superbly cynical studies of deception and betrayal as Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and The Grifters (1990)—are likely to find Florence Foster Jenkins mawkishly sentimental. However, one can understand the dramatic problem of how to sympathetically depict a heroine who was widely perceived as a figure of fun, for to further ridicule her might lead audiences to ask why should we care about such a grandiose buffoon to begin with.  

The closest cinematic analog to Jenkins is Susan Alexander Kane, the hapless second wife of the titular publishing magnate in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). There is, of course, a major difference. Whereas the lower-class Susie was reluctantly pushed onto the operatic stage by her fame-seeking husband, the wealthy Jenkins craved the lyric limelight all on her own. Furthermore, Citizen Kane’s devastatingly accurate sendup of grand opera, in a dazzling score composed by Bernard Herrmann, can never be surpassed. Herrmann’s learned parody of Jules Massenet’s overheated fin-de-siècle orientalisme—the aria “Ah, cruel” from an imaginary opera, Salammbô, set to an equally humid, devilishly funny French text concocted by the actor and producer John Houseman—is so accomplished that several stars, from Eileen Farrell to Kiri Te Kanawa, have recorded it.

A more class-appropriate equivalent would be Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, a socialite aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and one of the voracious co-stars of the Albert and David Maysles cult-classic documentary Grey Gardens (1975). Beale, known as Big Edie to differentiate her from her even battier daughter, called Little Edie, retreated from an unhappy marriage and into an abortive attempt to become an opera singer, a folie à deux abetted by her musical accompanist and lover, George “Gould” Strong. Big Edie’s thin and quavery voice, heard as she listens to her decades-old recordings, was perhaps no better than Jenkins’s, but Beale lacked a deep purse to advance her similarly futile reverie.  

Florence Foster Jenkins offers some marvelous set pieces, including Streep’s hilariously inept version of “The Laughing Song” from Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus and her fearsome-for-the-wrong-reasons rendition of the Queen of the Night’s stratospherically high and fiendishly detailed aria from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. For the latter, draped in nocturnal black velvet and crowned by a headdress of golden stars en tremblant, the would-be diva screeches her way through punishing passages with enormous brio but complete imprecision. Streep, as we know from Mike Nichols’s Postcards from the Edge (1990) and several other films, has a fine singing voice, and here she deftly carries off the tricky business of making her character sound just bad enough, but no more.

Despite her encyclopedic repertoire of accents from aristocratic Danish to outback Australian and working-class Bronx to arriviste British—even Streep does not possess an infinite range. Thus for the new movie she recycles her imitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, first heard in voiceovers for Ken Burns’s 2014 PBS documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. (I still recall being startled by the former first lady’s fluty patrician intonations in a 1959 TV commercial she made for Good Luck margarine, the proceeds from which she donated to UNICEF.) Here Streep followed the lead of Katharine Hepburn, who was advised by John Huston, director of The African Queen (1951), to base her characterization of that film’s prim but resourceful British spinster on the doughty Mrs. Roosevelt. Hepburn later recalled this note as “the goddamnest best piece of direction I have ever heard.”

Because I find a pronounced element of Camp in many of Streep’s performances—particularly her cartoonish impersonations of a loosey-goosey Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s Julie/Julia (2009) and a huffing, bustling Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady (2011)—her evocation of Jenkins surprised me by its relative restraint. The same is true of her co-star, Hugh Grant, who as Jenkins’s ever-solicitous if unfaithful spouse finally drops his repetitive rom-com persona of a blinking, commitment-phobic lothario and does his finest work since playing a scummy Liverpool theater director in Mike Newell’s An Awfully Big Adventure (1995).

Streep is not the only Florence Foster Jenkins cast member to apparently model a role on a specific source. Simon Helberg, as Jenkins’s piano accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, channels the barely controlled nervous hysteria and suddenly awakened eagerness for bigger things that Gene Wilder so brilliantly combined as Leo Bloom, the long repressed but easily corrupted accountant in Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1967). And, like Bloom’s blossoming affection for the overbearing Broadway producer Max Bialystock, McMoon comes to love his bossy benefactor in much the same way.

Regrettably, Florence Foster Jenkins avoids probing the degree to which money can insulate untalented artists from realizing that they are no good at what they do. Yes, we do see the mechanics of protection as Jenkins’s husband, a failed British actor named St. Clair Bayfield, carefully controls tickets to her recitals so that no negative audience reactions will puncture her pretty bubble of self-regard. But can her clueless vanity have been all that endearing, no matter how much Bayfield may have prized his wife and meal ticket?

I can think of several present-day New York parallels to Jenkins—rich socialites who, if not quite as amusingly bad at their respective mediums as she was in hers, are nonetheless able to present themselves as serious artists because some gallerist, publisher, or producer is happy to take their money in return for a public platform that gives some degree of credibility to their otherwise insupportable pursuits. They attract their own claques of bought-and-paid-for admirers, and doubtless attribute their lack of legitimate critical acclaim to the same injustice that has led many great artists to die in poverty. This solipsistic syndrome strikes me as the real tragedy of Jenkins’s faux career, not her lack of a secure G above high C.    

In the film’s most touching scene, Jenkins, at loose ends one weekend when her husband flits off with his girlfriend to the Hamptons for a tryst, shows up unannounced at McMoon’s grungy loft. She insists on tidying up his disheveled digs, and asks him to play the piano while she washes dishes. This ruefully reflective grass widow recalls how as a child prodigy—“Little Miss Foster”—she gave a piano recital at the White House (for the music-loving President Rutherford B. Hayes, whose frequent musicales included an 1878 performance by the coloratura soprano Marie Selika Williams, the first African-American artist to perform at the Executive Mansion). She explains how nerve damage to her left hand—which Nicholas Martin’s frustratingly sketchy script never connects to her phobia of knives, or perhaps to the syphilis she contracted from her “alley cat” first husband—ended her hopes for a concert career, just as the venereal disease did her ability to bear children.

As Jenkins hesitantly picks out the opening notes of Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, her impaired dexterity makes her falter, whereupon McMoon takes over the left-hand part and they work through this hauntingly elegiac composition with extraordinary reciprocal tenderness. The suspension of disbelief central to all successful artistic collaborations is palpable here, and for a few wonderful moments one is fully drawn into the fantasy life of this thwarted but undaunted dreamer.               


Florence Foster Jenkins is playing at select theaters across the country.

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In the Attic of Early Islam

Inlaid metal basin depicting scenes from the Mamluk court, later known as the Baptismal Bowl of Saint Louis, by Muhammad Ibn al-Zayn, Egypt, circa 1320-1340
Musée du Louvre, Paris/RMN-Grand Palais/Art ResourceInlaid metal basin depicting scenes from the Mamluk court, later known as the Baptismal Bowl of Saint Louis, by Muhammad Ibn al-Zayn, Egypt, circa 1320-1340

Sometime around the year 1314, a retired Egyptian bureaucrat named Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri began writing a compendium of all knowledge, under the appealingly reckless title The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition. It would eventually total more than 9,000 pages in thirty volumes, covering all of human history from Adam onward, all known plants and animals, geography, law, the arts of government and war, poetry, recipes, jokes, and of course, the revelations of Islam.

At one point, Nuwayri tackles a subject that may seem familiar to the modern audience: the Islamic punishments for adultery, sodomy, and fornication. He cites authorities who declare that such sinners must be stoned to death or severely flogged, in language that conjures up the gruesomely “medieval” execution videotapes posted seven hundred years later by ISIS: “Whosoever engages in the act of the people of Lot—both the active and passive participant—must be put to death.”

Yet this authentically medieval author then continues unblinkingly with a long, celebratory chapter about erotic poetry, much of it homosexual and wine-fueled. A sample:

That sly and brilliant one
Who grows girlish in his impudence
He appears manly at first
But after a drink is suddenly a woman
When you tell him: “Baby, say Moses,”
He lisps moistly: “Motheth”
He embraces me until morning
Trading stories with me in the dark.

The juxtaposition is one of many in this bizarre, fascinating book that illustrate the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam, so different from the crude puritanical myths purveyed by modern-day jihadis. The Ultimate Ambition, a canonical work for scholars in the Islamic world for centuries, has been translated into English for the first time and radically condensed (to about three hundred pages) by Elias Muhanna, a professor of comparative literature at Brown University. Reading it is like stumbling into a cavernous attic full of unimaginably strange artifacts, some of them unforgettable, some merely dross. From the alleged self-fellation of monkeys to the many lovely Bedouin words for the night sky (“the Encrusted, because of its abundance of stars, and the Forehead, because of its smoothness”) to the court rituals of Egypt’s then-overlords, the Mamluks, nothing seems to escape Nuwayri’s taxonomic ambitions.

Nuwayri draws heavily on earlier Islamic sources, and his respect for tradition usually prevents him from passing judgment, even when the claims he is citing are hilariously implausible. In one section, for instance, he passes on a story about a sexually voracious she-bear who captures a man so that she can slake her lust on him again and again, licking his feet raw to prevent him from leaving the cave. Yet at a few points Nuwayri permits himself a brief editorial comment, as in one section about happiness: “Imru’ al-Qays was asked, ‘What is happiness?’ and he replied: ‘A delicate maiden burning with fragrance, burdened by her ample curves.’ He was infatuated by women.” At another point Nuwayri relays a story from “a trustworthy person among the Abyssinians” about how to escape the charge of a wild rhino: “If the man urinates on the rhinoceros’s ear, it will run away and not return to him. That way, the man will escape from it. God knows best.” One has to wonder if the pious addendum is slightly tongue-in-cheek—a rhetorical shrug of the shoulders.  

At times Nuwayri allows his sources to compete with each other, citing different juristic opinions on wine-drinking, music, and the punishments for illicit sex. At least once, he even dramatizes such a disagreement:

The caliph al-Ma’mūn asked (the judge) Yaḥyā ibn Aktham about the meaning of desire, and he replied: “It is the auspicious thoughts that a man’s heart falls in love with and his soul esteems.” Then (the theologian) Thumāma spoke up and said: “Shut up, Yaḥyā! You should stick to answering questions about divorce or whether a pilgrim violates his ritual purity by hunting a gazelle or killing an ant.”

Mostly, the heterodoxy creeps in sideways, in the book’s unapologetic references to supposedly illicit pleasures. The section on the human body includes the sub-heading “On Poetic Descriptions of the Down on the Young Male Cheek.” The section titled “On the Buttocks” includes this poetic snippet:

The eyes of his onlookers gathered around
His haunches, like a second belt  

But Nuwayri is not deliberately sabotaging Muslim orthodoxy. He is merely reflecting a world in which moral prescriptions existed alongside a much messier reality, and some degree of dissonance between the two was accepted and forgiven. This loose fit between life and text applied throughout the pre-modern Middle East, but perhaps especially in the turbulent, plague-ridden years of the fourteenth century. Egypt’s rulers, the Mamluks, were a caste of military slave-soldiers who had seized power from their owners in 1250, three decades before Nuwayri’s birth, and remained in power until the Ottomans conquered them in 1517. They were mostly Turkic people from the Eurasian steppe whose forefathers had been kidnapped and trained (too well) in the arts of war. Culturally, it was a time when Sufi mysticism was gaining adherents, and rowdy religious festivals packed Cairo’s streets, encouraging promiscuous minglings of sect and ritual.

This kind of dissonance is still visible in much of the Middle East, despite the dramatic encroachment in recent decades of more literalistic and intolerant strains of religion. I was always struck, while living in Iraq and Lebanon, by the way Muslims could claim they accepted brutally categorical edicts on hellfire, Jews, and unbelief while living in a far more elastic and accepting way. This, I think, is what the late scholar Shahab Ahmed meant when he wrote in his posthumous book What Is Islam? that a true understanding of Islam must “come to terms with—indeed, be coherent with—the capaciousness, complexity, and, often, outright contradiction that obtains within” the religion’s lived history.

Religion aside, the book is full of strange myths and nostrums that hint at what mattered to people in the fourteenth century: sex, money, power, perfume. Nuwayri retails directions for incense and fragrance that are so elaborate it is hard to believe anyone really followed them. (One begins, “Take one hundred mithqāls of rare Tibetan musk and pound it after cleaning it of organ matter and hair.”) Then again, people and cities must have smelled awful, and olfactory relief made a difference. There are also many formulae for enlarging the penis, tightening the vagina, enemas, suppositories, contraceptives, and other sexual aids, with titles like “A Recipe for Another Medicine that Produces Indescribable Pleasure.”    

Some of the most memorable moments in The Ultimate Ambition come when Nuwayri stops being so deferential to earlier Arab sources and offers up his own experience. In fact, it is a shame there are not more of these, because—as Muhanna recounts in an introduction to his translation—Nuwayri led an interesting life, working his way up through the Mamluk administration as a clerk and supervisor for the Mamluk sultan in Egypt, Syria, and what is now Lebanon. Nuwayri appears to have fought in an important battle with a Mongol army in Syria. Later, he was given the job of overseeing the sultan’s properties back in Cairo, an important position that required him to manage and coordinate the activities of officers, traders, judges, clerics, and teachers.

This distinguished resumé accounts for Nuwayri’s self-assured tone as he lists the duties of a medieval scribe, with notes on how he should carry himself, what he should wear, and how he should speak. Nuwayri proudly retails what he has learned about the proper management of the sultan’s properties, including subsections on “The Sultan’s Larder” and “The Sultan’s Buttery” (“The administrator also prepares the ṭāri’ al-ṭāri’, which is the third meal, served after the second is removed and reserved for the sultan and his closest companions”). He also narrates the signal events of his lifetime, including a sudden bout of inflation near the close of the thirteenth century (he lists the prices of wheat, chickens, and quince) and a terrible plague that led to victims being buried in mass graves. “The corpses that were not well buried were eaten by the dogs,” he writes. “Meanwhile, the people who lived ate the dogs.”   

One of the book’s most memorable moments, for me, comes in the section on lions, which were still indigenous to the Middle East in Nuwayri’s time. After citing various authorities on the lion’s bravery, he adds that he has seen this quality with his own eyes, during a night journey from a town in the Jordan Valley to another one near what is today Ramallah, in the West Bank:

I was with about twenty-five horsemen and a group of men carrying bows and quivers. It was a moonlit night, and a lion joined us as we were walking. He kept pace with us along the right side of the road; he was not far at all, in fact closer than a stone’s throw away, and he stayed that way for a quarter of the night. Then, when he despaired of catching any one of us, due to our vigilance, he lagged behind us and then left us in a different direction.

This passage, so persuasively real, is offered by Nuwayri as a kind of aside, a dip into the merely empirical. For him, the primary task was weaving together the accounts of his predecessors into a vast and unified body of knowledge. He could scarcely have imagined that The Ultimate Ambition, written with such confidence from the heart of a mighty empire, would one day appear to us like that lion: a vanished, near-mythical creature at the desert’s edge.


Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri’s The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, edited by Elias Muhanna, will be published August 30 by Penguin Random House

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Who Is Kim Jong-un?

Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System

Pyongyang Republic: North Korea’s Capital of Human Rights Denial

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspecting the remodeled Manyongdae children’s camp in Pyongyang; undated photograph released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency on June 4, 2016
KCNA/ReutersNorth Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspecting the remodeled Manyongdae children’s camp in Pyongyang; undated photograph released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency on June 4, 2016

The pudgy cheeks and flaring hairdo of North Korea’s young ruler Kim Jong-un, his bromance with tattooed and pierced former basketball star Dennis Rodman, his boy-on-a-lark grin at missile firings, combine incongruously with the regime’s pledge to drown its enemies in a “sea of fire.” They elicit a mix of revulsion and ridicule in the West. Many predict that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea cannot survive much longer, given its pervasive poverty, genocidal prison camp system identified by a UN commission of inquiry as committing crimes against humanity,1 self-imposed economic isolation, confrontations with all of its neighbors, and its leader’s youth and inexperience. The Obama administration has adopted a position of “strategic patience,” waiting for intensifying international sanctions to force North Korea either to give up its nuclear weapons or to implode and be taken over by the pro-Western government of South Korea.

But North Korea’s other closest neighbors, the Chinese, have never expected the DPRK to surrender or collapse, and so far they have been correct. Instead of giving up its nuclear bomb and missile programs, Pyongyang is by now thought to have between ten and twenty nuclear devices and over one thousand short-, medium-, and long-range missiles, and to be developing a compact warhead that will be able to hit the US mainland.

At home, the regime recently survived the toughest test that totalitarian systems face, a leadership succession. The country was ruled by Kim Il-sung from 1948, when the postwar Soviet occupation of North Korea ended, until his death in 1994; by his son, Kim Jong-il, from 1994 until he died in 2011; and since 2011 by the founder’s grandson, Kim Jong-un. Jong-un was his father’s youngest son and a surprise successor; he emerged as heir apparent only two years before his father’s death, in contrast to his father, who had been heir apparent for twenty years. Kim Jong-il is believed to have run the country’s terrorism, counterfeiting, smuggling, and proliferation operations for most of that time.

In another contrast, the second Kim had staged a protracted public mourning for his father and made a show of modesty by postponing his formal takeover of top posts for three years, whereas Jong-un, only twenty-seven years old, anointed himself as first secretary of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) immediately upon his father’s death and before long assumed the posts of chair of the Central Military Commission, chair of the National Defense Commission, and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, among others. This May, he summoned the Seventh Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party, its first in thirty-six years, so he could accept the position of party chairman and place his personal stamp on the country’s policy of “parallel advance” (byungjin) in building both the economy and nuclear weapons.

The third Kim’s authority rests on a uniquely North Korean form of legitimation that his grandfather established for the regime. The predecessor of the KWP was a classically Leninist organization called the Korean Communist Party, created in the 1920s under Soviet and (later) Chinese tutelage. But after Kim Il-sung took over the northern half of Korea in 1948, he purged his pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese rivals and constructed a distinctive cult of personality. In this cult, “Kim Il Sung was not presented as an heir to, a disciple of, or the recipient of the guidance of any foreign leader, philosopher, or thinker,” according to the North Korea expert Andrei Lankov in The Real North Korea. “He was the founding father…in his own right, the Creator of the Immortal Juche Idea and the Greatest Man in the Five Thousand Years of Korean History.”

The cult’s imagery drew themes from Christianity (which had long been propagated by missionaries on the Korean peninsula, including, according to some sources, Kim Il-sung’s maternal grandfather), Buddhism, and the emperor myth of Korea’s former colonizer, Japan. As B.R. Myers shows in The Cleanest Race, his analysis of North Korean propaganda, Kim Il-sung was portrayed as an androgynous figure—plump, soft, and clean—endowed with moral purity and uncanny composure, dispensing practical guidance and motherly love to a needy “child race.”

The North Korean regime, therefore, is neither “Stalinist” nor “Confucianist,” as it is often described. It adheres to an ideology called Kimilsungism, centered on the notion of juche (“self-reliance”). This ideology was once described by Kim Jong-il as “an original idea that cannot be explained within the framework of Marxism-Leninism…an idea newly discovered in the history of human thought.” Centered around the idea that “man, not nature, holds the position of Master in the material world,” juche is what the Korea scholar Bruce Cumings calls “the opaque core of North Korean national solipsism.”2

To provide for the regime’s future, Kim Il-sung made the myth that gave him personal legitimation also the basis of a new dynasty. He probably feared, as Lankov speculates, being rushed off the stage by his designated successor in the way that, for example, Lin Biao had recently been accused of doing to Mao in China. The only person unlikely to be tempted to overthrow him was his son, whose own survival would depend on the robustness of his father’s myth. The younger Kim’s birth year was altered from 1941 to 1942 to rhyme with his father’s birth year of 1912. His official birthplace was moved from its actual location in Siberia, where the Korean Communists were hiding out during the war, to a mythical secret revolutionary military camp on the snow-capped sacred Mount Paektu inside Japanese-occupied Korea. And the story of his youth was retroactively packed with demonstrations of resoluteness and virtue.

As the end of his own life approached, Kim Jong-il in turn needed to find a successor among his three male offspring. (He also had four daughters, who today occupy posts of varying responsibility in the regime.) Observers had originally expected the succession to fall upon the eldest, Kim Jong-nam (born in 1971).3 Jong-nam, however, was the offspring of Jong-il’s first long-term consort (it is not clear whether Jong-il ever formally married any of his companions), whom the patriarch Kim Il-sung disliked. Moreover, in 2001, Jong-nam was caught by Japanese immigration officials entering the country on a forged Dominican passport, accompanied by a wife, child, and nanny. The forged passport was nothing unusual for North Korean elites, but apparently Jong-nam’s reason for using it—to bring his family to visit Tokyo Disneyland—confirmed in his father’s eyes that he lacked the necessary toughness to wield power. Jong-nam was sent into exile, and reportedly spends much of his time in the Chinese gambling city of Macau. He has given several press interviews expressing his disapproval of “hereditary succession.” Chinese guards, I have been told, protect him from potential North Korean assassins. It is not clear who supports him.

Kim Jong-il’s second son, Kim Jong-chul, was also found inadequate, according to a gossipy book by the family’s Japanese former sushi chef, because he was too “effeminate.” That left Jong-un, born in 1984,4 although his official birthday has been adjusted to 1982 to continue the mystical parallelism with his grandfather’s and father’s birth years. Jong-un was not academically talented, and during his secondary education at a private school in Switzerland he is said to have been obsessed with basketball and other sports. But he was short-tempered and domineering, characteristics suitable for inheriting a dictatorship. In 2009, word appeared that a “new genius of leadership had emerged from within the ancient lands of Korea.” Jong-un’s appearance was groomed to resemble his grandfather’s—including his bouffant haircut. Observers speculate that he was encouraged to gain weight for this purpose; according to intelligence reports he may now be suffering from health problems related to obesity.

The most serious threat to Jong-un’s authority was his uncle. The husband of Kim Jong-il’s only sister, Jang Song-taek had accumulated broad influence, serving among other things as vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission, the controller of Pyongyang’s foreign exchange resources, and the regime’s chief contact with China.5 Many viewed him as a regent, and he held a potential threat over Jong-un’s head in the form of a close relationship with the exiled older half-brother Jong-nam, who could potentially have replaced the younger sibling at the head of the party and state.

On December 8, 2013, two years after Jong-un came to power, the young ruler arranged for Jang to be seized by uniformed guards in front of hundreds of high-ranking officials who had been summoned to an enlarged meeting of the ruling party’s Political Bureau. Jang was accused of “anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts,” of conducting numerous extramarital affairs, and of other crimes. He was denounced as “an ugly human scum worse than a dog” and executed by firing squad (not, as was rumored at the time, by antiaircraft guns or ravenous dogs). Many of his followers were killed or sent to labor camps, some reports say along with their spouses, children, and grandchildren. Jang’s wife may or may not have approved of her adulterous husband’s execution; she is said to be suffering from dementia and has appeared silently in public a handful of times since the purge.

This family drama especially shocked North Korea’s only formal allies, the Chinese. They interpreted such flagrant mistreatment of their prime Pyongyang interlocutor, whom they regarded as a rational reformer, as an insult. And the purge underscored a moral difference between the two dictatorships: for all the viciousness of their politics, Chinese politicians do not execute their relatives.

The young ruler also needed to firm up his authority among the regime’s technocratic elites. B.R. Myers makes a point that applies to Kim Jong-un as well as to his predecessors:

Since this is not a Marxist-Leninist state committed to the improvement of material living standards, but rather a nationalist one in which the leader’s main function is to embody Korean virtues—which are not seen to include intellectual brilliance anyway—the relative inferiority of [the leader’s] genius troubles propagandists less than an outsider might assume.

Still, a principal function of rulers in the Kim dynastic line is to visit production units throughout the country and dispense “on-the-spot guidance.”6 How could Kim Jong-un—only a year before his father’s death appointed a four-star general and vice-chair of the Central Military Committee without any prior military experience—command the respect of the country’s one-million-strong professional armed forces, the fourth-largest in the world, or its missile scientists, trained in the USSR and China, who had managed under conditions of economic stagnation to build nuclear bombs and missiles that (more or less) work, or of the country’s senior economic planners and diplomats?

Kim Jong-un
Kim Jong-un; drawing by John Springs

To assert his control over them, Kim Jong-un purged dozens of high-ranking military officers as well as some senior party and security officials. (The Associated Press reported South Korean sources as saying that Kim executed some seventy high officials in his first four years in office.) At the same time, he promoted officials from his grandfather’s and father’s generations whom he regarded as loyal.

Kim moved to consolidate support among the general public by retaining but mildly softening the regime’s society-wide system of layered deprivation. This has been examined in a pair of invaluable reports by Robert Collins, who describes how the songbun, or class status, system of North Korea “subdivides the population of the country into 51 categories or ranks of trustworthiness and loyalty to the Kim family and North Korean state.” These categories are grouped in turn into three broad castes: the core, the wavering, and the hostile classes, representing about 25 percent, 55 percent, and 20 percent of the population, respectively.

Class status is hereditary, and it determines where one can live, the quality of one’s housing, one’s educational opportunities and work assignments, and access to food and consumer goods. The armed forces and security services are recruited from the core classes and seek to protect the system on which their and their families’ privileges depend. Any sign of political disloyalty moves an individual into the hostile class and often into a labor camp for an open-ended term that usually ends in death. Moreover, as Lankov reports, “not only the culprit but also the entire family disappears.”

The order of privilege is not only social but physical. Living in nearly first-world conditions in downtown Pyongyang are several hundred thousand top members of society. Further out but still in the city are lower-ranking cadres and experts whose conditions of life are inferior but tolerable. The mass of the population lives away from the capital. Personnel in the middle layers of privilege are afraid to question the system for fear of being demoted to layers suffering greater privation. This system generates an anxious conformity throughout society comparable to that generated by the Gulag in the Soviet Union and race exclusion in Nazi Germany.

The harshness of life for the majority has been mitigated to some extent by modest economic and cultural reforms, some of which began under Kim Jong-il. The regime tolerates small-scale private markets, which improve access to food; farmers may keep part of their harvests; enterprises can distribute some of their income to workers and staff; and a limited number of traders can go back and forth across the Chinese border. The famine of the late 1990s is fading in memory. The GDP growth rate has run about 1 percent per year since Kim took office, compared to negative rates during many of his father’s years. The new leader has cultivated a stodgy kind of youth culture, represented by exhibition basketball games with the Harlem Globetrotters, a girl band playing Western pop songs and surrounded by dancers costumed as Disney cartoon characters, a glitzy new water park, and the unusual (in North Korea) public appearances at his side of his beautiful young wife, a former singer.

The economy, however, still depends largely on four sources: exports to China of fishery products and minerals, often produced by prison camp inmates; the dispatch of teams of indentured laborers to Siberia, Africa, and the Middle East; the proceeds of illicit counterfeiting and smuggling; and relief aid blackmailed from South Korea and the West by the threat of starvation. In the 2000s Beijing tried to persuade Kim Jong-il to adopt Chinese-style reforms. But the elder Kim was probably right to judge that reforms on that scale would be politically suicidal. Even China almost collapsed in 1989, after the first ten years of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.

North Korea is more like East Germany than it is like China: there is another Korean regime of similar size next door that offers a more successful economic model. Even the mild opening that the Kims have allowed has produced a hunger for information, fed by legal and illegal travelers to China and by radio broadcasts and other media disseminated by the “defector” community (as it is called) in South Korea, which could lead at some point to mass resistance. To prevent this, the regime controls information by locking radio receivers to approved frequencies and engineering cell phones and computers that can access only government-controlled sites. The population remains compliant, but is unlikely to feel the adulation for Kim Jong-un that earlier generations did for his grandfather. As in East Germany, North Korean citizens would flee in unstoppable numbers if the border were open and they fully understood what was going on next door.

The young ruler has dealt equally boldly with his challenges abroad. All the surrounding powers wish him ill; he has checkmated them. South Korea lives under the threat of thousands of artillery pieces pointed at Seoul and suffers intermittent North Korean military provocations. But in view of the prospect of mass immigration, it fears the collapse of the Pyongyang regime even more than its survival, and has propped it up with extensive food aid. Tokyo’s North Korea diplomacy focuses on trying to discover the fate of an unknown number of its citizens who were abducted in the late 1970s and the 1980s from Japanese beaches and streets by North Korean agents apparently seeking language instructors and potential spies.7

China opposes the North Korean nuclear weapons program because it drives South Korean, Japanese, and US weapons policies in a direction it dislikes (such as the recent South Korean agreement to deploy an American radar and missile defense system called THAAD) and raises the potential—although the Chinese deem it remote—of nuclear war next door and a flood of refugees. But Beijing does not regard the North Korean problem as a crisis the way Washington does, because the situation provides some benefits for China. Pyongyang’s disruptive behavior places stress on the relationships between Washington and its principal Asian allies in Tokyo and Seoul, since the three partners have different priorities in dealing with the North Korean threat.

China has been able to position itself as a major diplomatic broker in the region, driving South Korea closer to it and forcing Washington to express its gratitude for whatever efforts Beijing makes to help solve the North Korean problem. Although the Chinese have never liked the Kim dynasty, they have to deal with the North Korea that exists. This June, the Chinese president Xi Jinping granted an audience to a personal envoy sent by Kim Jong-un, even though the envoy’s brief was to deliver the defiant message that Pyongyang would never give up its nuclear weapons program.

Beijing sees the solution to the Korean nuclear problem as lying chiefly in Washington. As the Chinese see it, North Korean nuclear policy is an inevitable response to decades of threats from the US to North Korea’s survival, precisely as Pyongyang says it is. Chinese strategists believe Pyongyang would have bargained away the nuclear program if Washington had given credible guarantees not to seek the regime’s overthrow. But although Washington has said many things along this line, the formulations were never sufficiently firm and public to be credible. Two major deals to dismantle the nuclear weapons program—in 1994 and 2005—collapsed amid mutual accusations of duplicity between Pyongyang and Washington. Now, in China’s view, it is too late to denuclearize North Korea. What Kim Jong-un wants is international recognition as a nuclear power. Eventually the US will have to give it to him.

The ability of the weakest power in Northeast Asia to defy all the others is nothing new. As Charles Armstrong shows in Tyranny of the Weak, Pyongyang benefited from the rivalry between China and the Soviet Union throughout the cold war by virtue of “masterful manipulation.” Relations between the Kim dynasty and its Communist patrons were even worse than the outside world suspected, yet Pyongyang kept both countries busy bidding for its support. A similar dynamic applies today, as the regime confronts the rest of the world with its ability to wreak harm both by surviving and by collapsing.

Kim Jong-un has surprised the skeptics. In five years he has turned a most unpromising situation into a certain kind of success. He has refuted those at home and abroad who doubted his vigilance and ruthlessness, fostered a mild economic recovery, and advanced his country’s position as a nuclear power. UN sanctions have been calibrated at China’s behest so as not to threaten the regime’s survival. If Kim’s economy were to falter, China and South Korea would have to bail him out. The only risk of collapse would be if young Kim’s health declined. Even then, the strong, disciplined army, with its privileges at stake, would maintain order. China would be the beneficiary, which is one reason that Beijing sees no need for the discussions about contingency plans that many Western strategists call for. This is, however, a poor kind of victory, with the young ruler and his countrymen trapped in a self-sustaining nightmare that shows no prospect of ending.

  1. 1

    “Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” March 17, 2014, available at www.ohchr.org.  

  2. 2

    See Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country (New Press, 2004), p. 159.  

  3. 3

    For the Kim family tree, see nkleadershipwatch.wordpress.com/kim-family.  

  4. 4

    This date, long uncertain, has been confirmed by an aunt of Kim who lives in exile. See Anna Fifield, “The Secret Life of Kim Jong-un’s Aunt, Who Has Lived in the US Since 1998,” The Washington Post, May 27, 2016.  

  5. 5

    See Ken E. Gause, “North Korean Leadership Dynamics and Decision-Making Under Kim Jong-un: A Second Year Assessment,” Center for Naval Analyses, March 2014, and “North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics Under Kim Jung-un,” Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2015.  

  6. 6

    See Jae-Cheon Lim, Leader Symbols and Personality Cult in North Korea: The Leader State (Routledge, 2015), pp. 104–117.  

  7. 7

    See Robert S. Boynton, The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). 

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Lucian Freud: The Pitiless Eye

Unfinished self-portrait by Lucian Freud, circa 1980
Estate of Lucian Freud/National Portrait Gallery, London/The Lucian Freud ArchiveUnfinished self-portrait by Lucian Freud, circa 1980

At the National Portrait Gallery in London, not far from the ticket hall, there is a small bay for free temporary exhibitions. It can take you by surprise as you pass it in the corridor. This summer, as you walk toward it, an uncanny sight faces you—the head of a man emerging from a white cocoon, like a figure in a shroud. But the face is far from dead. In fact it is ferociously alive: it is an unfinished self-portrait by Lucian Freud. 

The white sheet through which his head pokes is the canvas itself and the unnerving oval form of the emerging face is a result of Freud’s practice of beginning a portrait by focusing on a central feature—nose, mouth, forehead, a shadow on the brow—and working very slowly outward. You can see this in his incomplete portrait of Francis Bacon of 1957, abandoned when Bacon set off abroad. The self-portrait here, probably from the mid-1980s and never shown in public before, does resemble Freud’s famous Reflection (Self Portrait) (1985), but its uncanny strength gives it far more impact than you would expect from any preparatory sketch.  

Lucian Freud: Child seated, circa 1961
Estate of Lucian Freud/National Portrait Gallery, London/The Lucian Freud ArchiveLucian Freud: Child seated, circa 1961

Freud was fond of the NPG and the gallery was proud of Freud. He’s present in the museum’s collection as a subject; the NPG possesses many photographs of Freud as well as a sculpture of him by Jacob Epstein and drawings of him by Frank Auerbach and David Hockney. And he has starred here as an artist—Britain’s greatest, strangest modern portraitist. Crowds flooded in to the exhibition “Lucian Freud Portraits,” shown in 2012, the year after he died at the age of eighty-eight. That exhibition drew more visitors than any previous NPG show, suggesting an interesting fact: this grand, obsessive easel-artist, with his charcoal sketches, his thickly daubed palette and tough hogs-hair brushes, his studio full of oily rags, had somehow eclipsed the more recent, sensation-seeking Brit Art generation, and a formidable group of installation and conceptual artists, as the nation’s enduring avant-garde art-world hero. Violent, curious, nosy, intrusive—sometimes tender—Freud’s portraits were ruthlessly observed: he was a pitiless observer of the human body, and of human vulnerability and frailty.

Freud is a powerful example of post-mortem state approval. The new self-portrait is a centrepiece for “Lucian Freud Unseen,” a small display of drawings and sketches from Freud’s voluminous notebooks. These were allocated to the Gallery under the “acceptance in lieu” scheme whereby the British government accepts objects or houses in place of inheritance tax: in this case the self-portrait alone settled tax of over half a million pounds, and the archive nearly 3 million. This fruitful, sometimes controversial scheme, started in 1910, is administered by the Arts Council, and has brought over £250 million of “cultural property” into public ownership over the past decade alone. The biggest offer so far relates to Freud’s own collection: his forty Frank Auerbach paintings and drawings—shown at the Tate in 2014—were given by his estate to settle tax of £16 million.

Lucian Freud: Self-portrait with lamp and text, date unknown
Estate of Lucian Freud/National Portrait Gallery, London/The Lucian Freud ArchiveLucian Freud: Self-portrait with lamp and text, date unknown

The bequest of Freud’s own work is a huge archive, with material from his early years to the 1990s: countless letters, 162 childhood drawings, and 47 sketchbooks—in all there are 800 drawings. The sketchbooks form a kind of artist’s autobiography, vivified by jottings on ideas and projects and people, phone numbers and racing tips. The National Portrait Gallery’s senior curator, Sarah Howgate, has selected many of these for a book to accompany the show, with an essay by Martin Gayford (whose 2010 book Man with a Blue Scarf gave such an unforgettable account of the perils and pains, and pleasures, of sitting for a Freud portrait). The current display is a tiny fragment of the riches. But it takes us through his life, beginning with packed, colorful childish paintings, full of birds and trees, that date from his early boyhood in Berlin. The family emigrated to London in 1933, when he was ten—five years before his grandfather Sigmund Freud fled Vienna. Lucian’s childhood works and letters were carefully dated and kept by his mother Lucie, whose controlling, protective interest he bitterly resented—he crows back at her in a teenage letter from Paris on show here, in spiky black on ragged red paper, about paint, and shirts, and lies.

Freud was always a rebel. He was expelled from his private school, Bryanston in Dorset, for “disruptive behaviour”; later, he left the Central School of Arts in London, in protest at the classical curriculum, for the East Anglian school of painting, where Cedric Morris encouraged him to paint. He stalked Soho as a youthful prodigy, dressed in fur coat and fez, drinking and gambling, and after World War II (when he briefly joined the Merchant Navy, on convoy duty) he lived in France and Greece, and then settled finally in London, abandoning early experiments in surrealism and expressionism for his own realist style.         

Lucian Freud: Sketch for Large Interior, WII (after Watteu), 1981-1983
Estate of Lucian Freud/National Portrait Gallery, London/The Lucian Freud ArchiveLucian Freud: Sketch for Large Interior, WII (after Watteu), 1981-1983

The sketches swim up like notations of memory. Freud’s brilliant drawing of his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, with whom he eloped in 1953, focuses on her huge, pale eyes, the eyes that slant so disturbingly as she lies in bed in his 1954 double portrait, Hotel Bedroom, with his own figure dark against the light. Another portrait of her, Girl in Bed (1952), is upstairs in the gallery—it’s strange to wander between the two. And nearly thirty years later comes a study for a detail of Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau) (1981)—his first proper studio, filled with light from skylight, window, and mirror, with the women huddled around his grandson Kai, as the pierrot. His complicated family ties lasted a lifetime, as suggested by a sketch in the exhibition made in his final years for the cover of his granddaughter Ester’s novel, Hideous Kinky (1992). 

Freud felt—in a very old-fashioned way—that his portraits somehow got to the essence, the heart of the “self.” Martin Gayford quotes him as saying he wanted a painting not to be “of” or “like” the person he painted: “I didn’t want to get just a likeness like a mimic, but to portray them, like an actor…. As far as I am concerned the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does.” After sittings, he liked to talk to his subjects, share a meal, understand their feelings. “In a way, I don’t want the picture to come from me. I want it to come from them.” In practice, this often meant that the person did not exist for Freud apart from the sittings: those who did not turn up, or wriggled, or chattered, or were otherwise annoying, were out—no matter what they gave up to sit for him for so long.

Lucian Freud: Girl sleeping, date unknown
Estate of Lucian Freud/National Portrait Gallery, London/The Lucian Freud ArchiveLucian Freud: Girl sleeping, date unknown

Sitting for Freud often took months while he circled around, came back, altered details, slowly filled in the center and worked outward. Small details, like the light on a lapel, a stray tuft of hair, or a deepening, swirling background, could alter the focus of the whole, and the  strength and density came in part from this technique of returning, layering, reworking. The sketches were part of this work, but also a separate expression of the subject that obsessed him at the time. His lasting draughtsmanship shows in the sketch Girl sleeping, while the drastic change in his painting style in the 1950s from flat, almost hallucinatory definition, to loosely-handled watercolors and the lavish, heavy brushstrokes of later oils, is displayed in the loose, fast sketch of Anna in Venice, from the 1960s. Missing here are the naked poses that leave his subjects splayed and open, male and female genitalia rendered with a clinical gaze. But even the sketches of faces have an air of exposure, as if Freud investigates the physical being, the muscles, the clumps of hair, the slight distortion of features—noticeably so in this small display in the powerful sketch of Lord Goodman (whose portrait he etched in 1987), eyebrows twitching, jowls descending.

Looking at Freud’s sketches you feel you are in the company of a man of wit, intelligence—and who has a rather uncomfortable, even frightening power. For his sitters, vanity was out of place, affectation was punished; there is something rough, and dangerous about his work. But even in the slightest sketch, what shows through, and what lasts, is his agile talent and his penetrating, devouring curiosity about people.


“Lucian Freud Unseen” is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, through September 6. The accompanying catalog, Lucian Freud’s Sketchbooks, is published by Yale University Press

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Atomic Light

akadem-6
Pablo Ortiz MonasterioThe gas-dynamic plasma trap, used by scientists of Institute of Nuclear Physics to hold and heat the plasma in a magnetic field, Akademgorodok, 2014

As so often in Mexico, as in so many other countries, there are cities in Russia that at first might seem frozen in time, immobilized at the instant they were imagined, at the moment of their greatest splendor, with the traces of that bygone age perfectly visible on the façades of buildings, in the layout of the streets. They are like those gentlemen who wear the same suit for years, the same impossible spectacles, without seeming to notice, installed in the past. Akademgorodok, the celebrated city of scientists, on the outskirts of Novosibirsk, seems to have stepped right out of the 1960s, when the utopia of communism still seemed possible; its triumph just around the corner. Soviet science had put the earth’s first artificial satellite in orbit in 1957, the very year in which Akademgorodok was founded, a sort of hippie colony avant la lettre—as I am tempted to call it—whose principal aim was total dedication to science.

The site chosen, on the right bank of the stately Ob, in a virgin forest of conifers and birches, corresponded to this idea of spiritual retreat. The original idea, the final push, and the execution of the project were the work of virtually one man, Mikhail Lavrentyev (1900–1980). It was he who convinced his bearded colleagues—mathematicians, physicists, biologists—to accompany him to distant Siberia. Entire collectives of scientists from Moscow and Leningrad joined in the adventure. In 1960, the rest of the more than forty laboratory-institutes of the present-day Aakademgorodok went into operation.

As in the university towns of the United States, scientific activity dominates the entire life of Akademgorodok. The next thing the visitor encounters upon arrival is a long fence with the following words painted on it: “The power of Russia shall multiply thanks to Siberia,” words attributed to Mikhail Lomonosov, the rest of the great Russian scientists. The visitor is taken to see the Dom Uchyonykh or “House of Scientists,” a mix of concert hall and conference center. Among the few attractions of the city are doubtless the woodlands, the skimpy shopping center, and, on the few summer nights, the woodlands again. The city’s strong suit is definitely the countless laboratories, standing whitewashed among the trees. The first is that of Nuclear Research, founded in 1958 by Gersh Budker, one of Lavrentyev’s close collaborators. Its squat appearance does not, however, reflect its importance. What one sees is actually the tip of the iceberg: it consists of underground floors and more floors of arcane installations, a veritable labyrinth of endless tunnels where it is very easy to get lost.

Looking at Pablo Ortiz Monasterio’s magnificent photos, it is difficult, however, to form an idea of what exactly is done in this laboratory. Nor can anything be deduced from the brief explanation on the institute’s website. Nonetheless, I will note it here for the benefit of readers-viewers: the scientists are engaged in researching the nature and behavior of elementary particles with the help of electron-positron colliders. They also carry out research in electron and photonuclear physics by means of particle storage rings and, lastly, they study plasma physics and controlled nuclear fusion reactions.

Knowing the secretiveness of the Russians, and their inveterate suspicion of foreigners, it is easy to imagine the degree of cleverness and tenacity the Mexican photographer would have had to demonstrate in order to move about in the depths of this world with a camera in his hand. I don’t think the installations were ever visited by outsiders during the cold war, and they are not exactly a tourist destination today, though Russia opened its borders years ago. Monasterio’s formidable images are one of the few graphic records of these installations in existence and without a doubt the most eloquent photographs ever taken of them. They also constitute a document of unique importance. It was in these Spartan conditions that the Soviets performed their scientific exploits. The laboratory remains one of the most prestigious in its field anywhere in the world. There is a lesson here, namely, that high-quality science can also be done outside of the First World.

There is something else that does not appear in these photos, that could not appear, and that deserves to be mentioned. Many of the main ideas of perestroika emerged for the first time from laboratories like these ones. Soviet science, Soviet laboratories were genuine islands of freethinking. Accustomed to thinking for themselves, the scientists had begun to draw conclusions about the failed communist experiment. The celebrated Andrei Sakharov is perhaps the best example: alongside his very successful career as a nuclear physicist, Sakharov found time in 1968 to write what would become one of the most influential essays of the Soviet dissidence: “Progress, Peaceful Coexistence, and Intellectual Freedom.” The greatest dissident of Soviet Russia, the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, was a mathematician by profession. Solzhenitsyn documented his life as a scientist captive to Stalinism in The First Circle, one the best novels ever written about the relationship between totalitarianism and science.

What is most astonishing about this genuine relic of Soviet science that Monasterio has brought to light, apart from the very Seventies-ish psychedelic palette, is the precarious nature of the installations, the austere conditions in which the scientists worked and lived. None of those immaculate laboratories illuminated by fluorescent lighting that Hollywood has made us come to expect. Unplugged science, I might be tempted to call it, if it were not for the tangles of cables that appear in so many of the images.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a sharp blow to Russian science. It certainly continues to win international prizes, but it is the shadow of what it once was, operating now on a meager 1 percent of GDP, whereas the Soviet colossus invested 7 percent. The shrinking of human capital has also been considerable. Many scientists have gone into more profitable fields. Under communism, when private property was anathema and going into business for oneself was not an option, science attracted the most enterprising; it was a field where one’s talent and originality could be displayed. That is no longer necessary: many of Russia’s foremost oligarchs come out of the world of science. The best-known case is Boris Berezovsky, a mathematician by profession and former member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

There is something heroic about these scientists, buried in the depths of their tunnels, entrenched behind their particle colliders. A large dose of romanticism, of devotion, even of poetic brio is required. The pleasure of doing science. So palpable, so visible. In these laboratories. And whatever there may be in all that—who would have thought?—of Mexican festiveness, or even of visual drunkenness. A tamed, a humanized science, Monasterio seems to say.


Adapted from José Manuel Prieto’s essay “Atomic Light: The Akademgorodok of Pablo Ortiz Monasterio” in Pablo Ortiz Monasterio’s Akademgorodok, published by RM/Conaculta and distributed by Artbook DAP.

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Fear of Rattlesnake Island

William Bartram: The Rattle Snake, late eighteenth century
The Right Hon. Earl of Derby/Bridgeman ImagesWilliam Bartram: The Rattle Snake, late eighteenth century

We were sitting, my wife and I, at a summer dinner party by the pool, in honor of a mother and her college-age daughter visiting from Chicago. Just for a moment, as night was coming on, the subject of rattlesnakes—our Massachusetts Timber Rattlesnakes, Crotalus horridus, to be precise—edged out the incessant talk of Trump Trump Trump. Our visitors, full of the police troubles in Chicago, were unaware of the Great Rattlesnake Controversy, and Tara, our well-informed hostess, weighed in first.

Four towns in central Massachusetts, she explained, were deliberately flooded during the 1930s, their entire population—along with 6,000 graves, she added ghoulishly—“relocated” to create the Quabbin Reservoir, and bring water to Boston. Some quaint houses were salvaged from the general destruction and moved, wall by wall, to prosperous towns like Amherst (where we now live), but stores and other businesses, a state highway, even a railroad, were lost forever.

As two huge dams were set in place and the waters rose, eventually covering thirty-nine square miles, some of the higher elevations—like Mount Ararat after Noah’s flood—became islands in the vast expanse. One of these islands, closed to public access and located in the middle of the reservoir, is named Mount Zion, and it was here that the state of Massachusetts has proposed to introduce a small colony of Timber Rattlesnakes, beginning in 2017, to the vehement outrage of many local residents, who treasure the banks of the Quabbin for fishing and its pristine waters for boating. 

Tara is a local, unlike the rest of us urban transplants, and I respected her sense of solidarity with the displaced. Their parents and grandparents were not asked if they were okay with abandoning their homes; they themselves were not asked if they wouldn’t mind having a few rattlesnakes as neighbors. But I myself would not have begun the story with the eradication of the four towns by government fiat, and the scattering of their population.

I would have begun, instead—I actually did begin, and rather vehemently, to the evident surprise of our Chicago contingent—with the indiscriminate slaughter of native rattlesnakes, which began much earlier, intensified with the rapid settling of New England by Europeans schooled in the biblical evils of the serpent, the devil incarnate, and continues unabated to this day, even though it is a serious crime to kill or even to disturb a rattlesnake, an officially endangered species in our state.

Never mind that rattlesnakes are not particularly dangerous—unless you’re a mouse, I added wittily. They rarely bite people; their venom is seldom lethal and anti-venoms are widely available and effective. Nor are they quick to anger. The Timber Rattlesnake is a mild snake, I insisted, shy and nervous of humans.

As the Quaker naturalist William Bartram (one of my heroes, and much admired by Coleridge) explained during the 1770s, the rattlesnake “is never known to strike until he is first assaulted or fears himself in danger, and even then always gives the earliest warning by the rattles at the extremity of the tail.” It is a sad irony that the snake’s rattle, which functions as a warning device, is widely regarded as a bellicose drumroll, or war-cry, instead. It may well have been in a mood of remorse for having killed a rattlesnake on impulse that Bartram, vowing solemnly that he “would never again be accessory to the death of a rattle snake,” painted his marvelous portrait of a coiled rattler.

The last time someone actually died of a rattlesnake bite in Massachusetts was in 1791, and yet the emblematic idea of the snake, lurking in the underbrush, can’t quite be shaken. “Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love,” as Melville wrote in his chapter on the whiteness of the whale, “the invisible spheres were formed in fright.” During the nineteenth century, rattlesnakes, along with wolves, were often identified with American Indians, those other sinister denizens of the New England forest, and all three suffered the same fate. The popular Southern novelist William Gilmore Simms, whose books are larded with the snakelike characteristics of the native population, believed that rattlesnakes were among the weapons of American Indians: “with a single note, he bids the serpent uncoil from his purpose, and wind unharmingly away from the bosom of his victim.”

Timber Rattlesnakes, nostalgically recorded in local place names like Rattlesnake Gutter (where the plumber who snakes our drains has his business) and Rattlesnake Knob, once thrived in New England. Not anymore. They have been wholly exterminated in Maine and Rhode Island, and it is estimated that not more than two hundred survive in a few disparate colonies—just five, two of which are in immediate jeopardy—in Massachusetts.

Mount Zion Island, at rear, at the Quabbin Reservoir, Petersham, Massachusetts, September 6, 2013
Clif Read, The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation/AP ImagesMount Zion Island, at rear, at the Quabbin Reservoir, Petersham, Massachusetts, September 6, 2013

Under the circumstances, it seemed reasonable to conservationists and herpetologists to find an uninhabited island, outfitted with the belowground dens essential to snake survival in the winter, and slowly introduce a small colony of rattlesnakes, one by one, equipped with monitors to track their location. Mount Zion is large enough, at 1,350 acres, that snakes, according to experts, “would have little motivation to leave.” If, by chance, a rattler rashly swam to the mainland—and scare-videos showing rattlesnakes swimming were widely circulated among opponents of the scheme, and duly sent to legislators—it could not long survive there without its den, even if unmolested by humans.

“This dreaded animal is easily killed,” Bartram noted; “a stick no thicker than a man’s thumb is sufficient to kill the largest at one stroke.” Against a car, a slow-moving snake doesn’t stand a chance. “The whole point of this project,” as Tom French, assistant director of the State Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, who developed the Zion Island plan, told The New York Times, “was to find a place we could protect rattlesnakes from people.”

The Zion Island plan may have seemed reasonable to conservationists, and even to Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a  moderate Republican, and thus something of an endangered species himself. “I can’t believe here I am, defending snakes,” Baker told a Boston Herald radio program. “I don’t like snakes either, OK? I’m not a snake guy. But they absolutely have a role to play in nature.”

It did not seem reasonable to the locals. “All it takes is two of ’em to get across,” Kyle Whitcomb, a police officer and avid fisherman in Ware, which borders the reservoir, told The Boston Globe, “and then all of a sudden you got snakes all throughout the town of Ware.” He added, “I’m petrified of snakes.” According to another local quoted in the Times, “Instead of ‘Snakes on a Plane,’ it’d be snakes on an island.”

As the night deepened, and mosquitoes (Zika!) swarmed around the outdoor candles, I found myself, a little drunkenly, venturing a possible relation between the growing xenophobia in our country and the senseless demonizing of the rattlesnake. “Here’s the government,” I imagined the anti-snake crowd saying, “trying to let in a bunch of snakes, from out of state, no less, and actually hoping they will thrive here. Put up a wall instead; make ’em pay for it; keep ’em out!”

In an interesting scholarly article called “Rattlesnakes in the Garden,” Zachary Hutchins notes that during the struggle for independence the rattlesnake became a symbol (“Don’t tread on me!”) of “white colonial unity” against the British oppressor. “Popular rhetoric after the American Revolution,” however, “used the rattlesnake and serpentine fascination as metaphors for a wide variety of subversive forces that threatened the nation, especially the dangers associated with racial diversity and religious declension.” By such strange cycles, the unifying emblem seamlessly morphs into the exclusionary nightmare.

For the moment, the wall-builders, at least as far as rattlesnakes are concerned, appear to be in the ascendant. The Zion Island plan has been shelved for the moment, “on pause,” according to Governor Baker, pending more discussion and analysis. An exasperated conservationist named Lou Perrotti, who is supervising the breeding of Timber Rattlesnakes at a zoo in Rhode Island for eventual (or, let’s say, possible) release on Zion Island, put the problem memorably. “If we only conserve the cute and the cuddly,” he said, “we’re going to have forests full of butterflies and bunny rabbits, and they’re going to be very nonfunctioning ecosystems that would eventually collapse.”

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African Wildlife: Darkness Falls

Elephants, which are diurnal and nocturnal and only sleep for short periods, 2015
Robert J. Ross/Officina Libraria/ACC Distribution Elephants, which are diurnal and nocturnal and only sleep for short periods, 2015

It was around 2002 or 2003 that the latest round of the great onslaught on African wildlife began. Conservationists across the continent started noticing the same thing: a growing proportion of dead elephants had been illegally killed, often with their faces sawed off and tusks dragged away. The rise in elephant poaching seemed closely correlated to China’s economic progress. China’s economy was booming in the early 2000s, and in China, ivory is coveted as a status symbol, carved into bracelets, bookmarks, shot glasses, statuettes, and combs. As China’s middle class grew to the hundreds of millions, one of the most advanced life forms on the planet—which wildlife experts have long been especially interested in for its intelligence and human-like social behavior—was being wiped out for trinkets. And it was being abetted by pervasive corruption, extreme poverty, and instability in the regions of Africa where the elephants were found. This was globalization gone wrong.

By 2010, more than 30,000 African elephants were being killed each year, a rate faster than the population could reproduce. It was reminiscent of the 1980s, when the African elephant population was halved, leading to an international ban on the commercial ivory trade in 1989. That ban and the accompanying public awareness campaign helped shift perceptions about ivory, discouraging Western and Japanese consumers from buying it. Elephant populations began to recover in the 1990s and early 2000s.

A flock of red-billed quelea, 2015
Officina Libraria/ACC Distribution A flock of red-billed quelea, 2015

But then soaring demand from China pushed the price of ivory irresistibly high and destitute poachers across Africa were willing to risk their lives to down elephants. Today, wildlife experts speak of an “elephant holocaust.” Not since the late 1800s, when Europeans went plunging into Congo and other parts of Africa in a quest for ivory for billiard balls and piano keys, “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience,” as Conrad put it, has such a large chunk of the elephant population disappeared. Minka Kelly, a television actress, recently tried to stir people to action by saying that by the time you finished a cup of coffee—or for that matter, reading this article—another elephant would be killed.

These animals have suffered all manners of death. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, elephants are shot in the top of the head by high caliber rifles from helicopters, most likely flown by African armies, some of them American­-funded allies. In Kenya, their hides are pierced by poison arrows. In Malawi, poisoned pumpkins are rolled into the road for the elephants to eat, resulting in a slow, agonizing death while the poachers watch. The newest problem is the sudden death of many vultures. These scavengers are the savannah’s natural alarm bell, circling in the sky and waiting patiently in the trees, tipping off rangers to where poachers have recently been active. Sprinkle some insecticide on the carcasses for the vultures to ingest and you can kill many more elephants without ever being detected.

An elephant's tusks, 2015
Robert J. Ross/Officina Libraria/ACC Distribution An elephant’s tusks, 2015

The regions of Africa that have suffered most from poaching are those steeped in conflict, where it is too dangerous for conservationists to work. A few years ago, Janjaweed militiamen from Sudan tromped more than a thousand miles to slaughter hundreds of elephants in Cameroon in the span of a few days. In the Central African Republic, torn by religious conflict, some of the local elephant populations may soon go extinct.

When I visited Congo’s Garamba National Park a few years ago, I saw for myself what happens when war meets elephants. Garamba is situated in the middle of three different conflicts—South Sudan’s civil war to the east, Central African Republic’s to the west, Congo’s ongoing chaos to the south. Garamba’s rangers don’t wear scout uniforms or floppy hats like their counterparts in most other parts of the world. Instead, when they set off for work each morning, they suit up for battle: helmets, vests, bandoliers, assault rifles, belt-fed machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades. Every year dozens of wildlife rangers are killed by the armed groups that have eagerly stepped into the poaching business. Ivory is Africa’s newest conflict resource, the twenty-first-century version of blood diamonds. Some of the most brutal groups—Somalia’s Shabab, the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Janjaweed, and Congo’s Mai Mai militias—are now trading in ivory, using it to fuel their bloodshed.

An African fish eagle flying off with a young Nile crocodile, 2015
Robert J. Ross/Officina Libraria/ACC Distribution An African fish eagle flying off with a young Nile crocodile, 2015

And there’s another threat, possibly even deeper and harder to root out than war: corruption. Ivory trafficking hinges on widespread government corruption because of the distances and logistics involved in getting a piece of an elephant from the African bush thousands of miles to the underground ivory markets in Hong Kong or Beijing. My research and others’ has shown that the whole illicit chain is lubricated by sticky-fingered police, port officials, and other bureaucrats on both sides of the ocean, who are bribed to allow illegal ivory shipments to slip through. It is the same for the horns of rhino, also being intensively poached to feed a vast Asian market. (Many Chinese and Vietnamese people still believe ground-up rhino horn is a superb medicine for everything from headaches to cancer.) Wildlife trafficking now mimics drug trafficking or human trafficking; it’s inextricably linked to organized crime. In Sudan, I learned that there was a well-worn practice called “buying time” in which smugglers pay police officers and border guards a certain fee per hour to get their goods through checkpoints. 

Or consider the case of Tanzania, a wildlife haven and one of Africa’s most peaceful nations. With the same political party in power since independence fifty years ago, Tanzania is essentially a one-party state, and lacks the checks and balances of other emerging democracies. Tanzanians remain trapped in grinding poverty partly because so many public resources are stolen or frittered away by corrupt officials. The natural environment also suffers. Several years ago, the Tanzanian government was implicated in illegally shipping a planeload of live animals, including baby giraffes, to Qatar. Government officials have also leased protected land to a company that has allowed hunters to run over animals with a truck. Still, there may be no worse victim of environmental mismanagement and corruption in Tanzania than the Selous Game Reserve in the southern part of the country.

Heron and egret footprints, 2015
Robert J. Ross/Officina Libraria/ACC Distribution Heron and egret footprints, 2015

Named after Frederick Selous (1851-1917), a Victorian adventurer who spent years hunting game and collecting specimens in this area, the Selous is among the largest wildlife reserves in Africa, 50,000 square kilometers, bigger than Switzerland. Its incredibly varied landscape is rippled with green hills, crossed by rushing rivers, cut by rocky gorges, and soggy with swamps. Its creatures include the big shots of African wildlife: lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, giraffes, hippos, sixteen-foot-long Nile crocodiles, and very rare bat-eared wild dogs—as well as what was once one of the largest elephant populations in Africa. Its flora is just as spectacular, Baobobs with trunks twenty-feet wide and two thousand other kinds of plants and trees. Because the Selous is home to the tsetse fly that kills cattle and gives people African sleeping sickness, it has remained remote and unpopulated for eons. (Selous himself died on the banks of the Rufiji River here, cut down by a German sniper in 1917, during World War I.)

Today, however, the Selous, and especially its elephants, are in crisis. Because of what is widely suspected to be collusion between local officials and ruthless poachers, Selous has recently lost nearly 90 percent of its elephants. A census in 1976 indicated there were 109,000 elephants in the Selous; now that number is perhaps less than 15,000. Each day in the park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an estimated six elephants have been killed.

Yellow baboons, 2015
Robert J. Ross/Officina Libraria/ACC Distribution Yellow baboons, 2015

This is probably the best reason to open Robert Ross’s new book of photographs of the reserve, Selous in Africa: A Long Way from Anywhere. According to the biographical note on the dustjacket, Ross, a native New Yorker, turned to wildlife photography after “wisely leaving a career in property finance and development.” I’m glad he did. There are countless books on African wildlife and this one partly hews to the classic formula of giraffes in golden light and a sherbet-colored sun sinking into the doum palms. But Selous is also a record of what is at stake, a set of portraits of the extraordinary wildlife we are losing. One senses, more strongly than in other books of this kind, that Ross wants to bring us into a fast disappearing world and keep us there. Many of his most interesting pictures are not of lions or leopards or slit-eyed crocs, though there are plenty of those, but of tiny insects crawling across leaves, animal tracks pressed into the mud, clouds smeared across the Tanzanian sky.

One of my favorite images was the two-page spread of hundreds of red-billed quelea, the world’s most abundant wild bird species, in flight, a few patches of blue sky peeking out through the blizzard of beating wings. Or the shot of a housefly catching a ride on the back of a Diplopoda millipede and the one of a fish eagle flying away with a wriggling baby croc in its talons. There are several strong images of elephants, though majestic “tuskers,” as they are called in east Africa, were clearly not Ross’s focus. His camera seemed to be always searching, not for anything in particular but for anything interesting. Ross said his 276-page book was the product of more than 100,000 images shot over four years. The sheer amount of life in the Selous, and in these pages, is staggering.

Red-billed quelea, 2015
Robert J. Ross/Officina Libraria/ACC Distribution Red-billed quelea, 2015

The war against poaching grinds on. In some countries, like Kenya, politicians have finally woken up and passed stricter laws against ivory trafficking, and major traffickers have been arrested and punished. It is in Kenya’s interest; wildlife tourism is one of the biggest sources of foreign currency. In China, the anti-ivory campaigns by Chinese celebrities like Li Bingbing, a leading film actress, and Yao Ming, the former NBA player, may be starting to have an effect. The price of ivory on China’s streets has dropped from $2,000 to $1,000 a kilo. But African rhinos are still get plucked off at a distressing rate, with the street price for rhino horn at $60,000 a kilo—more than cocaine. Or gold.

Though the Selous feels like another world thankfully disconnected from ours, it is just as vulnerable or perhaps more. Recently the Tanzanian government cut off a piece of the park and turned it into a uranium mine. There is now talk of prospecting for oil and gas in the reserve. Men with guns continue to take lives here, and as on the other battlefields around the world, it seems very difficult to stop them.

A house fly riding on the back of a Diplopoda millipede, 2015
Robert J. Ross/Officina Libraria/ACC Distribution A house fly riding on the back of a Diplopoda millipede, 2015

Robert Ross’s Selous in Africa: A Long Way from Anywhere is published by Officinal Libraria and distributed by ACC Distribution.

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