Reviews and News:
There were a couple of controversies in the world of letters this week. The first, which won’t be news to many of you, is Romanus Cessario’s commendation of Pius IX’s decision to remove of a young Jewish boy from his parents’ care in 1858. Rod Dreher has been among the many that have criticized the piece. Yesterday evening, Robert T. Miller called on R. R. Reno, editor of First Things, to disavow it. Reno this morning offers a somewhat meandering explanation for why he published it in the first place.
The second is Moira Donegan’s avowal that she is the person who created the Media Men spreadsheet late last year. She came forward because she learned that a forthcoming piece in Harper’s would name her as the author: “In the weeks after the spreadsheet was exposed, my life changed dramatically. I lost friends: some who thought I had been overzealous, others who thought I had not been zealous enough. I lost my job, too. The fear of being exposed, and of the harassment that will inevitably follow, has dominated my life since. I’ve learned that protecting women is a position that comes with few protections itself. This escalated when I learned Katie Roiphe would be publishing my name in a forthcoming piece in Harper’s magazine. In early December, Roiphe had emailed me to ask if I wanted to comment for a Harper’s story she was writing on the ‘feminist moment.’ She did not say that she knew I had created the spreadsheet. I declined and heard nothing more from Roiphe or Harper’s until I received an email from a fact checker with questions about Roiphe’s piece. ‘Katie identifies you as a woman widely believed to be one of the creators of the Shitty Men in Media List,’ the fact checker wrote. ‘Were you involved in creating the list? If not, how would you respond to this allegation?’” Katie Roiphe says she was going to do no such thing.
Less controversially, researchers still can’t figure out how to play this ancient Roman board game discovered in 2006.
Christian Wiman writes about Richard Wilbur’s delight: “Light writes white. That’s the old saying, which I first heard from a poet who had lived in the Haight since the 1970s and had long since learned to sip his misery like a fine bourbon. I must have been complaining of loneliness or poverty or some other unmanly lack that made him say, pitilessly, ‘Light writes white.’ The exact source of this phrase is hard to pin down, but its meaning is clear enough: If you’re happy, then your page stays blank. There must be some friction for the words to catch fire. No suffering, no song. No absence, no art.” Not so with Wilbur.
Julian Barnes on letting paintings speak: “[M]ost of us, when in front of a picture, do not give the picture time enough to speak. We talk at it, about it, of it, to it; we want to forcibly understand it, get its measure, colonise it, ‘friend’ it. We compare it to other pictures it reminds us of; we read the label on the wall, confirm that it is, say, pastel on monotype, and check which gallery or plutocrat owns it. But unless we are highly trained, we don’t know enough to recognise more than roughly how the picture relates to the history of painting (because it always does, even if negatively). Instead, we hose it with words and move on. The centenary year of Edgar Degas’s death might be a good time to rein in our chatter.”
Why do people re-enact history? “Playing with swords and satisfying historical curiosity are certainly big draws. But re-enactors also keep coming back, despite the wet wool and lack of pants, because of the communities they form, often with people they wouldn’t otherwise meet. It’s a way to share a campfire meal with friends and try out martial arts, yes, but these re-enactors are also chasing an elusive feeling—that moment of forgetting where and when they are, of stepping outside of themselves.”
Essay of the Day:
Marcel Theroux revisits the now forgotten late 19th-century publishing sensation that claimed Jesus travelled to India and trained as a Buddhist monk. Theroux follows the path of the author to India:
“The publication of The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ was a global news story. ‘Ancient Life of Christ: Found by a Russian in a Thibet monastery’ declared the New York Times, making Notovitch sound like a precursor to Indiana Jones. The book went through eleven French editions that year, and two months after its publication the New York Times commended the translators of the book’s English edition, expressing confidence in its authenticity. ‘There need be no doubt about the records,’ the paper declared bullishly.
“Today Notovitch’s book is barely remembered and Notovitch himself is a mysterious footnote to history. Yet the influence of The Unknown Life lingers. Like many unverifiable but seductive claims, the theory that Jesus was a Buddhist has thrived in the glassy twilight of the internet and resurfaces in books such as Holger Kersten’s loopy and unreliable Jesus Lived in India. Like Nazca lines and alien sightings, there’s something weirdly compelling about Notovitch’s tale. It answers a need in all of us to smooth the rough edges of our reality: in this case, to turn the biblical Christian Jesus into a more unifying figure.”
* * *
“The exterior of Hemis monastery is austere, like a 1960s housing development, but its inner courtyards are garishly painted. I was taken to see the deputy lama, Nawang Otsab, who wore an orange woollen beanie hat and a shiny windcheater. He led us into an upper room heated by a wood-burning stove. We sat cross-legged around a low table eating dried apricots and cashew nuts while Geltsen, my driver, translated for me.
“Nawang Otsab said I wasn’t the first to ask him about Notovitch’s book. I got the feeling that he didn’t want to disappoint me, or discourage future visitors; but he was too honest to offer false hope. Behind his polite hospitality, it was clear he thought Notovitch’s tale was suspect. The monastery’s books, he said, were divided into only two sections: Buddha’s teachings and commentaries on Buddha’s teachings. And none of them was in Pali. In their different ways, Dr. Rizvi and Nawang Otsab represent the consensus that Notovitch’s discovery was somehow bogus. Over the years this has become the dominant view.”
Photos: From above
Poem: Bryce Christensen, “Extracurricular”
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This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard