Ian Buruma’s notebook: Teenagers discover Montaigne the blogger

Plus: A discussion in George Soros’s flag, the irrationality of Vladimir Putin, and the mystery of Britain’s brilliant actors

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

Bard College in upstate New York, where I teach in the spring semester, is an interesting institution, once better known for sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll than academic rigour. This has changed, thanks to Bard’s president, Leon Botstein, who conducts orchestras when he is not presiding. This semester, I am teaching a class in literary journalism. I asked my students to write a short essay about their favourite writer of non-fiction. This proved to be difficult for some, since they had no favourite writers of non-fiction; indeed they had never read any literary non-fiction at all for pleasure, certainly not at book length. But several did come up with a name: Michel de Montaigne. They really liked his essays. One young woman wrote that he was like a blogger — not an entirely silly observation. It turned out they had had to read Montaigne as part of a ‘great books’ course. The 16th-century blogger had opened their eyes to real quality. So here’s a toast to one Dead White Male.

Once in a while, Bard College organises a panel discussion in the Manhattan flat of George Soros, the financier, for the edification of George and guests. I am suspicious of panel discussions. The blasts of hot air can be insufferable. The only thing worse is to hear people reading their academic papers. This time I had been roped in to hold forth with two others on a subject I know little about: US foreign policy in the Middle East. This didn’t stop me from spewing warm wind, of course. Thank God, my fellow panellists were a bit better informed. But none of us really had a clue what the US government can or should do about the war in Syria, the ghastly regime in Egypt, or Iran, apart from ‘giving diplomacy a chance’. I cannot imagine that our discussion left many in the audience much the wiser. But Americans are serious people, and unfailingly polite. And so the occasion was declared a great success. One well-groomed American lady with a strong British accent (born in Belsize Park) purred: ‘Very meaty. Very meaty.’ I wasn’t quite sure whether she was referring to the panellists or to what we had said.

One of the pleasures of reading newspaper columnists is to be thoroughly irritated. The stable of opinionists in the New York Times offer ample opportunity for this type of masochism. It is annoying enough to read Tom Friedman’s pompous ‘letters to the President’, instructing the Commander-in-Chief just what to do about anything. But my personal bête noire is Nicholas Kristof, who has a Gladstonian penchant for saving fallen women, especially very young fallen women, in Cambodia, Central Africa, or wherever. This time, he had helped a family in Boston track down their 15-year-old daughter, who had run away and become a prostitute. The police managed to get her back, not entirely, it seems, according to her own will. There is nothing ignoble about saving sex slaves, prostitutes or young runaways. Nor is it a bad thing to alert the public to these sad lives. But when a columnist keeps banging away at the same thing, over and over, he becomes a bore, like those people one meets at parties who pin you into a corner. This is worse than being irritated. You end up dodging them: oh, there’s that chap again who goes on about prostitutes.

Thick snow followed by a night of rain has reduced the streets of New York to a sea of grey slush. Another panel discussion, but one of rare interest actually. Masha Gessen, the brave Russian journalist and gay activist (a lesbian mother of three children, she had to leave Moscow swiftly before such arrangements are forbidden by law), spoke at a New York University institute about Putin’s Russia. My assumption had been that Putin was a cynical operator. I thought that new laws banning ‘gay propaganda’ were introduced to rally Putin’s rural constituency by pandering to their prejudices. Deeply unpopular in the major cities, Putin needs every bigot he can get. This may still be true, but Gessen argues that Putin really believes in the mortal threat of homosexuals to the Russian soul. Russia, in his view, is the last bastion of traditional family values. European support for the democrats in the Ukraine is part of a gay conspiracy to undermine Father Russia. One should always be careful not to underestimate the irrationality of ‘great leaders’.

Mark Rylance and company have recreated a little bit of Shakespeare’s Globe at the Belasco theatre on Broadway. Their performance of Twelfth Night was magnificent. Why is it that the best shows on Broadway are so often imported from London? The expense is part of it: Americans no longer dare to experiment very much; a flop is simply too costly. But Britain does still seem to produce better actors per capita than anywhere else. Except perhaps for Japan. The two countries have much in common: social roles are clearly defined, class is expressed in a thousand subtle ways, acting is so much part of daily social intercourse. New York audiences are generous to a fault. Eager to show that they get every joke in Shakespeare, people howl with laughter even when it is not required. Rylance is a stickler for authenticity. The costumes were tailored according to Elizabethan standards, and candles flickered over the stage, with the unfortunate result that as the performance progressed, bits of wax would rain down onto the actors in mid-soliloquy. People didn’t know whether to laugh, so, polite as always, there were just a few nervous titters.

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Ian Buruma’s books include Year Zero: A History of 1945 and A Japanese Mirror.

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