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The Weekly Round-Up: Reminiscent Writers, Confusing Urges, Dirty Brecht, History’s Chapters, Lacklustre Celebrations, Controversial Operas

The Oxonian Review presents the Weekly Round-Up, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. “Philip Roth, Lydia Davis, Robert A. Caro, George Saunders, Marilynne Robinson, Jennifer Egan Junot Diaz: ‘Old Books, New Thoughts’“, T Magazine: seven major writers revisit their own early books and reflect on how they helped to shape the intervening years. Roth writes that “rereading Portnoy’s Complaint 45 years on, I am shocked and pleased: shocked that I could have been so reckless, pleased that I was so reckless.”

2. “Daniel Yudkin: ‘The Philosophical Implications of the Urge to Urinate’“, Scientific American: inspired by William James’ theories of the ways in which the state of our bodies affects how we think the world works, Yudkin considers the age-old question of free will. Physical urges—the desire to go to the loo, to have sex, to eat—radically change the extent to which healthy subjects believe in their own free will. New research shows that these urges are read by individuals as reminders of their own physical limitations. This may not answer the deeper philosophical questions, but “fortunately, for social scientists (and for readers of this column), the task of the experimental psychologist isn’t to settle once and for all whether we have free will, but rather to see whether people think they do.”

3. “Anthony Daniels: ‘Bertolt Brecht’s Marie-Antoinettism’“, The New Criterion: Daniels reviews a new biography of Brecht, in which the author, Stephen Parker, concentrates on the earthy qualities of the German playwright and theorist: bad breath, poor hygiene, awful dress. The review is scathing of aspects of the biography but, en route to his conclusions, Daniels speculates on Brecht’s cultural significance and the extent to which he deserves his lofty position in the pantheon of twentieth century literature. “In all the hundreds of thousands of words, there is no account of Brecht ever having done a good, kind, generous, or unselfish, let alone a self-sacrificing, thing.”

4. “Nicholas Dames: ‘The Chapter: A History’“, The New Yorker: the humble chapter is not as simple—or as inevitable—a concept as we may imagine. For philosophers, like John Locke, it has raised a problem: should prose allow itself to be fragmented, divided up, its arguments interrupted? When the structure which we now know was first devised, some felt that the Bible, once without chapters, had been hacked up and denied its own integrity. But what of the novel’s chapter, “that modest, provisional kind of closure, a pause that promises more the same later, like the fall of night”? That’s quite another story…

5. “Gerald Howard: ‘No Argument Here’“, N+1: Martin Scorsese’s new documentary on fifty years of the New York Review of Books, that most culturally indispensable journal, frankly disappoints Gerald Howard. The 50 Year Argument becomes a kind of hagiographic love-in, embodying none of the challenge and critique of the journal which it celebrates. “The lamentable result is reverent to a fault, The Last Waltz for eggheads, with the bite and spark of an hour-and-forty-five-minute infomercial.”

6. “Paul Berman: ‘Klinghoffer at the Met’“, Tablet: The Death of Klinghoffer is simply one of the finest operas of the twentieth century. John Adams, its minimalist composer—whose earlier work Nixon in China was roundly lauded everywhere—met with extreme opposition when Klinghoffer premiered. The true-life story of an American Jew murdered by Palestinian terrorists was condemned as anti-Semitic. Its librettist, Alice Goodman, was never given the chance to write another opera, a travesty given her unique talents. Berman reviews the Met’s bold new production, as well as the rhetoric of the protesting crowds outside. Their argument: “The Metropolitan Opera openly acknowledges that the opera ‘looks for the humanity in the terrorists.’ Why??? Would we look for the humanity in the al-Qaeda murderers of thousands of innocent people on 9/11?” Opera rarely gets this kind of attention.


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