Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 6, 2007

Bookshelf

• The diary of an important writer is always worth reading—but not necessarily for pleasure. Tennessee Williams kept a journal more or less continuously between 1936 and 1958, and the thirty notebooks in which he set down his fugitive thoughts have now been published in their entirety. Alas, Notebooks (New Directions, 828 pp., $40) proves to be far too much of a not-very-good thing, for like a remarkable number of famous playwrights, Williams didn’t know how to do anything but write dialogue. To be sure, he was capable of tossing off good lines by the carload when speaking through the mouths of his characters, but as a diarist he was something of a dull dog, whiny and trite and repetitive in the extreme, and I freely admit that I found it impossible to read Notebooks from beginning to end. A parodist could have a field day with it had Williams not already done the job for himself: “Travelling alone is a bit frightening at times.” “Some day everything will stop for always.” “Perhaps if I could have escaped being peddled I might have become a major artist.” “Oh, how sweet it would be to exist altogether without this tired old fabrication of flesh.” “Mind seems utterly torpid except for the nightly anxiety over falling asleep.” “I am dull, but I go on writing.” Indeed.

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• The diary of an important writer is always worth reading—but not necessarily for pleasure. Tennessee Williams kept a journal more or less continuously between 1936 and 1958, and the thirty notebooks in which he set down his fugitive thoughts have now been published in their entirety. Alas, Notebooks (New Directions, 828 pp., $40) proves to be far too much of a not-very-good thing, for like a remarkable number of famous playwrights, Williams didn’t know how to do anything but write dialogue. To be sure, he was capable of tossing off good lines by the carload when speaking through the mouths of his characters, but as a diarist he was something of a dull dog, whiny and trite and repetitive in the extreme, and I freely admit that I found it impossible to read Notebooks from beginning to end. A parodist could have a field day with it had Williams not already done the job for himself: “Travelling alone is a bit frightening at times.” “Some day everything will stop for always.” “Perhaps if I could have escaped being peddled I might have become a major artist.” “Oh, how sweet it would be to exist altogether without this tired old fabrication of flesh.” “Mind seems utterly torpid except for the nightly anxiety over falling asleep.” “I am dull, but I go on writing.” Indeed.

Margaret Bradham Thornton, the editor of Notebooks, is something of an unintentional self-parodist herself, for her scholarly apparatus turns out to be almost as long as the notebooks themselves. Each page of text is preceded by a page of introductory notes, a good many of them written on the assumption that nobody knows anything: “Blond, buxom Lana Turner (1920-95) was an established glamorous actress whose first role, at age sixteen, earned her the nickname ‘the Sweater Girl’ for the tight blue sweater she wore in the film.” Such fawning treatment would be excessive even for a truly great writer, and Williams was nothing remotely close to that. The Glass Menagerie is a masterpiece, one of the half-dozen greatest plays of the 20th century, and A Streetcar Named Desire is a brilliantly effective applause machine, but most of the rest of his vast output strikes me as overblown and underbelievable, and I found nothing in this monstrously obese book to made me think otherwise.

• Edwin Denby’s Dance Writings (University Press of Florida, 608 pp., $29.95 paper) is back in print, and about time, too. Denby, who covered the New York dance scene regularly in the 1940′s and sporadically thereafter, was by a very wide margin the best and most influential dance critic who ever lived, and anyone who wants to know what it was like to see the premieres of such masterpieces as George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free, and Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire need only consult his lapidary reviews, most of them written on a tight deadline and published in the New York Herald Tribune the next day. He was both quotable and insightful, a rare combination, and he also made one of my all-time favorite remarks about ballet: “Ballet is the one form of theater where nobody speaks a foolish word all evening—nobody on the stage at least.” It’s in here, along with dozens of other permanently memorable remarks about the most evanescent of art forms.

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Suzanne Garment’s Scandal

Gabriel Schoenfeld’s post on the Libby verdict below makes a good occasion to offer our readers veteran COMMENTARY contributor Paul Johnson’s review of Suzanne Garment’s Scandal—a penetrating book on issues not identical with but germane to those brought up by the Libby trial. Johnson’s review finds indisputable Garment’s contention that

Democratic Congresses, by devising special acts and procedures for the prosecution of public officials, in conjunction with “investigative journalists” of the media, overwhelmingly Democratic or even radical, have between them developed a culture of mistrust toward those in power which has made good government—that is to say, courageous government, willing to take calculated risks and make unpopular decisions—far more difficult.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Gabriel Schoenfeld’s post on the Libby verdict below makes a good occasion to offer our readers veteran COMMENTARY contributor Paul Johnson’s review of Suzanne Garment’s Scandal—a penetrating book on issues not identical with but germane to those brought up by the Libby trial. Johnson’s review finds indisputable Garment’s contention that

Democratic Congresses, by devising special acts and procedures for the prosecution of public officials, in conjunction with “investigative journalists” of the media, overwhelmingly Democratic or even radical, have between them developed a culture of mistrust toward those in power which has made good government—that is to say, courageous government, willing to take calculated risks and make unpopular decisions—far more difficult.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

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The Libby Verdict

I met Scooter Libby once or twice in the early 1990’s, when he held a high-ranking post in the Defense Department. On the last occasion, I had just returned from a visit to North Korea, and I told him of my intuition that Kim Il Sung might unveil a nuclear weapon on his upcoming birthday. I remember Scooter scribbling down a note but not saying a word in response to my—as it turned out, non-prescient—observation.

I haven’t seen Scooter since, but I’ve followed his career over the years and watched his trial closely. I didn’t hear all the evidence the jury heard, which led them to their conclusion that he is guilty of four out of the five counts with which he was charged.

But when one compares what he was indicted for—lying to the FBI and to a grand jury—with what the special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed to investigate—the leak of the name of a CIA officer whose covert status has yet to be established and the disclosure of which may therefore not even have been a crime—one cannot help being appalled that this case ever came to trial. And when one considers that, as we now know, the identity of the real leaker—Richard Armitage—was clear to the special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald almost as soon as he was assigned the case, the whole affair, involving the hounding of a public servant working tirelessly to protect the country from a second September 11, takes on another coloration altogether: another case of the wanton criminalization of policy disagreements, another case study of a special prosecutor run amok, a terrible injustice. Let the appeals begin.

I met Scooter Libby once or twice in the early 1990’s, when he held a high-ranking post in the Defense Department. On the last occasion, I had just returned from a visit to North Korea, and I told him of my intuition that Kim Il Sung might unveil a nuclear weapon on his upcoming birthday. I remember Scooter scribbling down a note but not saying a word in response to my—as it turned out, non-prescient—observation.

I haven’t seen Scooter since, but I’ve followed his career over the years and watched his trial closely. I didn’t hear all the evidence the jury heard, which led them to their conclusion that he is guilty of four out of the five counts with which he was charged.

But when one compares what he was indicted for—lying to the FBI and to a grand jury—with what the special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed to investigate—the leak of the name of a CIA officer whose covert status has yet to be established and the disclosure of which may therefore not even have been a crime—one cannot help being appalled that this case ever came to trial. And when one considers that, as we now know, the identity of the real leaker—Richard Armitage—was clear to the special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald almost as soon as he was assigned the case, the whole affair, involving the hounding of a public servant working tirelessly to protect the country from a second September 11, takes on another coloration altogether: another case of the wanton criminalization of policy disagreements, another case study of a special prosecutor run amok, a terrible injustice. Let the appeals begin.

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(Art) Crime Doesn’t Pay

Was the most spectacular art theft of recent years, the taking of Edward Munch’s The Scream (1893), a mere ploy? Apparently so, according to the Guardian. The dramatic daytime heist from Norway’s Munch Museum in 2004, we are now told, was intended to pull the police away from their investigation of another crime—not to cash in on the value of the symbolist masterpiece. The story sheds an interesting light on the peculiar world of art theft.

Munch painted two versions of The Scream, an icon of existential despair. The more familiar version, in Oslo’s National Gallery, was stolen in 1994. Although it was swiftly recovered, the audacity of the theft startled the relatively crime-free nation. It also showed, as the Guardian reveals, how easy it was to paralyze Norway’s law-enforcement apparatus. A decade later, an armed band assaulted a government bank in the port city of Stavanger, machine-gunning a police officer in the process. The furious criminal investigation that ensued seems to have alarmed the robbers, who decided to try art theft as a diversionary tactic. It was the timing of the two crimes, only four months apart, which suggested to police that they might be related and which led them, in the end, to both the painting and the killers.

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Was the most spectacular art theft of recent years, the taking of Edward Munch’s The Scream (1893), a mere ploy? Apparently so, according to the Guardian. The dramatic daytime heist from Norway’s Munch Museum in 2004, we are now told, was intended to pull the police away from their investigation of another crime—not to cash in on the value of the symbolist masterpiece. The story sheds an interesting light on the peculiar world of art theft.

Munch painted two versions of The Scream, an icon of existential despair. The more familiar version, in Oslo’s National Gallery, was stolen in 1994. Although it was swiftly recovered, the audacity of the theft startled the relatively crime-free nation. It also showed, as the Guardian reveals, how easy it was to paralyze Norway’s law-enforcement apparatus. A decade later, an armed band assaulted a government bank in the port city of Stavanger, machine-gunning a police officer in the process. The furious criminal investigation that ensued seems to have alarmed the robbers, who decided to try art theft as a diversionary tactic. It was the timing of the two crimes, only four months apart, which suggested to police that they might be related and which led them, in the end, to both the painting and the killers.

As the fate of The Scream shows, the rewards of art theft tend to be paltry. Hollywood notwithstanding, art thieves tend to be hapless incompetents like those who stole Goya’s Children with a Cart from a van last November as it was being shipped from the Toledo Museum of Art to the Guggenheim in New York. The Goya was promptly recovered, apparently after its new owners realized that their “priceless” masterpiece had a considerably lower resale value.

Not all art theft is solved so briskly, of course. Caravaggio’s Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco, stolen in 1969 from an oratory in Palermo, remains missing, as do those works by Vermeer and Rembrandt stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. A comprehensive listing can be found on the FBI’s Art Theft Program. One of the sadder aspects of the theft of The Scream is that the painting was not treated as a valuable commodity. Having performed its diversionary function, it was wrapped in a wet blanket and forgotten until police retrieved it. The original figure, painted on fragile cardboard, appeared to be melting away in agony; now, alas he is.

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Anbar Against al Qaeda

I’ve argued in the past, and still believe, that you can’t blame the news media for the fact that we’re losing the war in Iraq. But it’s hard to defend some press actions, such as the decision by the New York Times to bury the most important Iraq story of the weekend. Readers of the Saturday New York Times had to turn to the bottom of page A8 to read this dispatch from Edward Wong in Baghdad: “In Lawless Sunni Heartland of Iraq, a Tribal Chief Opposes the Jihadists, and Prays.”

Wong describes a trend I’ve been hearing about on the military grapevine but which hasn’t been much reported in the MSM: the growing willingness of tribal leaders in Anbar province to turn against al Qaeda and offer to fight for the government. The anti-al Qaeda sheiks have formed a group called the Anbar Salvation Council, and they’ve begun encouraging their young men to join the police and various militia forces to battle the jihadists. Thanks to the council’s efforts, the number of Iraqi police recruits in Anbar has shot up from 30 to 300 a month.

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I’ve argued in the past, and still believe, that you can’t blame the news media for the fact that we’re losing the war in Iraq. But it’s hard to defend some press actions, such as the decision by the New York Times to bury the most important Iraq story of the weekend. Readers of the Saturday New York Times had to turn to the bottom of page A8 to read this dispatch from Edward Wong in Baghdad: “In Lawless Sunni Heartland of Iraq, a Tribal Chief Opposes the Jihadists, and Prays.”

Wong describes a trend I’ve been hearing about on the military grapevine but which hasn’t been much reported in the MSM: the growing willingness of tribal leaders in Anbar province to turn against al Qaeda and offer to fight for the government. The anti-al Qaeda sheiks have formed a group called the Anbar Salvation Council, and they’ve begun encouraging their young men to join the police and various militia forces to battle the jihadists. Thanks to the council’s efforts, the number of Iraqi police recruits in Anbar has shot up from 30 to 300 a month.

Wong’s story focuses on the council’s leader, Sheik Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawa, the 35-year-old chief of the Rishawai tribe, which accounts for about 40,000 of the 400,000 residents of Ramadi, the provincial capital. The sheik’s father and three brothers were killed, most likely by al Qaeda, but this hasn’t cowed him; it has only fueled his thirst for vengeance. Wong quotes a U.S. army civil-affairs officer, who emailed him before his own death in combat in December, that Sheik Abdul Sattar “is the most effective local leader in Ramadi I believe the coalition has worked with since they arrived in Anbar in 2003.”

A measure of caution is warranted here. We have heard before about tribal elders rising up against al Qaeda, and there have been previous reports about local militias, such as the Fallujah Brigade, which did not live up to their hype. But if the trends portrayed in Wong’s story continue, it will be a hugely significant break in the battle to reestablish control of Anbar province, the most lawless region of Iraq since the downfall of the Baathist regime.

You might think that this would deserve front-page play. But no. The Times editors have more important stories to place there, such as this article from Montpelier, Vermont: “Warm Winters Upset Rhythms of Maple Sugar.”

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