- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Overrated

Harold Pinter has one literary accomplishment: He imported the surrealism of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Luis Bunuel into the staid English theatre. … At their best, his plays are like a nightmarish stress-dream: unbearably primal, raw expressions of menace and fear, whose meaning is always just beyond our grasp.

“But with Samuel Beckett, you always know there is an elaborate existentialist philosophy underneath the darkness and chaos. With Pinter, if you turn on the light and switch off the atmospherics, you find … nothing, except a few commonplace insights: Torture is Bad and Resistance is Good. Pinter himself says ‘the most important line I’ve ever written’ is … ‘Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do.’ … It’s depressingly revealing: Pinter’s staccato sinisterness does not illustrate a point; it distracts the audience from the fact his point is so banal.

“Yet Pinter has been protected by an elderly critical establishment so invested in creating and building up his reputation that they cannot admit how feeble most of his plays now look.

- Johann Hari, writing “Harold Pinter does not deserve the post-mortem white-washing he is about to receive,” on Dec. 25 at the Huffington Post

Crisis theory

“In his Cycles of American History (1986), Arthur Schlesinger Jr. defined a political economy cycle as ‘a continuing shift in national involvement between public purpose and private interest.’ The swing he identified was between ‘liberal’ … and ‘conservative’ epochs.

“The idea of the ‘crisis’ is central. Liberal periods succumb to the corruption of power, as idealists yield to time-servers, and conservative arguments against rent-seeking excesses win the day. But the conservative era then succumbs to a corruption of money, as financiers and businessmen use the freedom of deregulation to rip off the public. A crisis of underregulated markets presages the return to a liberal era.

“This idea fits the American historical narrative tolerably well. It also makes sense globally. The era of what Americans would call ‘conservative’ economics opened with the publication of Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ in 1776. Yet despite the early intellectual ascendancy of free trade, it took a major crisis - the potato famine of the early 1840s - to produce an actual shift in policy: the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws that ushered in the free-trade era.”

- Robert Skidelsky, on “Where Do We Go From Here?” in the January issue of Prospect

In the streets

“One afternoon in the spring of 1968, I dropped in on Lionel Trilling. It was a lovely day, Columbia’s Low Plaza was overflowing with people, flowers, and banners, and it was an adventure just to get across. ‘So,’ I asked him, ‘what do you think?’ His answer was one of the great one-liners of the decade: he said, ‘It’s modernism in the streets.’ … I think he was saying, in his typically ambiguous and oracular way, that whether or not he approved of what the students were doing (he probably didn’t), he affirmed it. …

“If this is true, then we can see modernism thriving in the work of Bob Dylan, Cindy Sherman, Sam Shepard, Patti Smith, Jean-Michel Basquiat. We can see it in Roger Waters (formerly of Pink Floyd), rocking at the Berlin Wall in 1990 as the people celebrated the wall’s having come down; in the Czech ‘Velvet Revolution,’ and in its star Vaclav Havel, who said it couldn’t have happened without Rock and Roll; in Lou Reed and Frank Zappa, President Havel’s first honored guests. All of these figures have not only kept modernism alive, but kept it alive in the streets. And the streets of 1989 aren’t so different from the streets we live in now.”

- Marshall Berman, writing on “Modernism in the Streets” in the fall issue of Dissent

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