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Weekly Round-Up: Funny Tragedy, National Sovereignty, Cubist Hero, Great Composer, Minority Gender, Language Myth

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

1. “Rivka Galchen: ‘What Kind of Funny Is He?’“, London Review of Books: Galchen reviews a new biography of Kafka, and describes how he can’t help seeing the funny side of the Czech writer’s gloomy life. Biography is always a tricky process; the biographer, Reiner Stach, comments that “The life of a human being draws back, comes into view like an animal at the edge of the forest, and disappears again.” The biography is seen as thorough, as funny, and ultimately as moving. But then, perhaps whatever is funny is bound also to be moving, when looked at from another angle. As Galchen reminds us: “The comedy of scale is always simultaneously a tragedy of scale, if viewed from the proper angle, and as articulated in the famous words Kafka wrote on a postcard: ‘The outside world is too small, too clear-cut, too truthful, to contain everything that a person has room for inside.’”

2. “Christopher Caldwell: ‘French Curtains’“, The Weekly Standard: top of the book charts in France at the moment is Le suicide français by Eric Zemmour, a talk-show pundit turned political firebrand. He is attributing the crisis in French identity to a loss of sovereignty and a shift in the volume of diverse political voices. “Since the French student uprising of May 1968, women’s libbers, Muslim migrants, crooked bankers, and overzealous judges have brought France to ruin.” This view is gaining currency across the country, and Caldwell argues that France is as likely as Britain to leave the EU in a search of self-governance.

3. “Julian Bell: ‘Taking a Wrench to Reality’“, The New York Review of Books: in reviewing a Cubist exhibition at the Met in New York, Bell cites the relatively obscure name of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler as the most significant figure in the rise and rise of the art movement. A supporter of Braque and Picasso, when such artists struggled to find any support at all, Kahnweiler bought, exhibited, and promoted these artists in Paris. As a German, his collection was impounded and sold by the French Government in 1914, but Kahnweiler fought back by writing a philosophical defence of Cubism. His work, and this exhibition, celebrate “Cubism’s craziest proposition, its most blatant feint, has a claim on our attention: to insist, in other words, that Cubism has truth value. Pictures want to be bodies, pictures want to be objects, but they aren’t, and they can’t be. The edge where one color meets another can never be the edge where a solid meets space. That is the truth, but is it a truth that painting can point to? Cubism opened up the question, leaving it to dangle every time a brush is raised a hundred years on.”

4. “Christopher Bray: ‘Leonard Bernsetin: a Bad Case of Important-itis’“, The Spectator: Bray reviews Allen Shawn’s new life of Bernstein, revealing the great composer as populist and visionary, writer of tawdry tunes and inspired conductor of great works. “Bernstein went to his grave claiming it was possible to be all these things and more—insisting that you could be a political activistand a concert pianist, a conductor of the challengingly atonal and a writer of the melodically unforgettable. Not everyone was convinced.” Shawn’s new work hopes to convince Bernstein’s detractors that there was only variety and no contradiction in the great man. Shawn, in the end, defends even the most sentimental of Bernstein’s works. He tells a story: “Jonathan Miller, who directed Bernstein’s operetta Candide in London, once excoriated what he saw as the ‘sentimental, saccharine tosh’ of West Side Story’s ‘Somewhere’. ‘You find yourself,’ Miller said, ‘wanting to say: “No, Lenny, there isn’t such a place”.’ But there is such a place. It is called music, and it exists for as long as melodies as beautiful as Bernstein’s are being played.”

5. “Kerry Howley: ‘Menifesto’“, Bookforum: in this review of Laura Kipnis’s Men, a collection of essays on the minority sex, Howley explores the questions which still plague anyone concerned with gender today. She celebrates Kipnis’s decision to avoid typical and unhelpful gender or sex assumptions, and instead to focus on individual case studies, men who have revelled in a kind of freedom (including a freedom to be stupid) which their sex allows. “There is a sense in which men still have a slightly wider circle in which to move, less pressure to conform to type and to remain consistent with their past selves, a greater berth for provoking discomfort and disgust, more right to revel in the entropy that is our universe, and fewer requests to put all the pieces back into place. The men of Men, for all their faults, are worthy subjects precisely because they do not waste that freedom.”

6. “Vyvyan Evans: ‘Real Talk’“, Aeon: Evans, summarising her new book The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct, argues that those who have spent decades theorising on the way in which language use is instinctual have been quite wrong. She argues that human beings do have certain cerebral and physical qualities which enable us to become language-users. But, the acquisition of language by our early ancestors, was a social and not a biological phenomenon. “Surely the most profound spur on the road to speech would have been the development of our instinct for co‚Äëoperation. By this, I don’t mean to say that we always get on. But we do almost always recognise other humans as minded creatures, like us, who have thoughts and feelings that we can attempt to influence.”


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