What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

October 19, 2015 Issue

Claudia Roth Pierpont’s "Bombshells," in this week’s issue, refers to one of my all-time favorite essays – Susan Sontag’s "Fascinating Fascism" (The New York Review of Books, February 6, 1975; included in her great 1980 collection Under the Sign of Saturn). Pierpont writes,

In 1973, Riefenstahl launched a new career as a photographer, with a lauded book of color images of the Nuba, a majestic tribe in remote central Sudan. The subject, as far from her past as possible, supported the increasingly widespread contention that the only constant in her work was a devotion to physical beauty, without regard to race. Sontag, in an essay that seems to have made Riefenstahl angrier than anything Hitler had done, countered that the only constant in Riefenstahl’s work was its inherent Fascism, evident precisely in this devotion to physical beauty, among other things, and in its exclusion of human complexity. It’s a strong argument about intention: a refusal to separate the artist from the art. The photographs, however, remain indistinguishable in any moral or political sense from those taken of the Nuba by George Rodger, the English war photographer whose work inspired Riefenstahl, and whose perspective was anything but Fascist: Rodger, accompanying the British Army in 1945, had been among the first to photograph the corpses at Belsen.

Pierpont is right to say that Sontag’s essay is “a strong argument about intention: a refusal to separate the artist from the art.” But it’s far more than that. It’s powerfully analytical. Most people, leafing through Riefenstahl’s The Last of the Nuba, would probably see it as one more lament for vanishing primitives. Not Sontag. She carefully examined the photographs in conjunction with Riefenstahl’s text and showed they’re “continuous with her Nazis work.” Sontag’s “Fascinating Fascism” is a compelling argument against Riefenstahl’s rehabilitation. It’s an important argument to keep in mind when pondering the possibility floated in Pierpont’s piece that “Riefenstahl might have been both a considerable artist and a considerable Nazis.”

Postscript: Paul Farley’s “Poker,” in this week’s issue, is one of the best poems I’ve read in a long time. It’s an inspired unpacking of the possible history of three old decks of playing cards. The decks are stunningly described with a tactile specificity (“shuffled and dealt to a soft / pliancy, greased with lanolin”; “dark-edged with mammal sweat”) that enables me to feel them in my own hands. “Poker” makes me hungry for more Farley.

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