Georgette Berger & René Magritte, 1920s


In Kathmandu, Brian Houghton Hodgson was stranded for years with little to do for his employer, the East India Company, and passed the time collecting ornithological specimens for the British Museum and Buddhist scriptures. The original, Sanskrit versions of Buddhist texts had been lost in India, and were only known to exist in translations into Chinese, Tibetan, Pāli, Mongolian and other languages. Hodgson had found them among the Newars, a Buddhist community in otherwise Hindu Nepal. Many of the books he sent to Eugène Burnouf in Paris. Burnouf, a professor who never visited Asia and never met a Buddhist, had moved from his studies of Avestan, the sacred language of the Zoroastrians, to Sanskrit, having caught from German Romanticism the fever of the time: a passionate belief that, as the study of Greek and Roman antiquity had brought on the Renaissance, so the knowledge of India would transform modern times.

Burnouf was the greatest Sanskrit scholar of the period, and his translations of the texts Hodgson sent – including the most influential of Buddhist texts, the Lotus Sutra – and his vast Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism were read by Thoreau, Emerson, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wagner (who left an unfinished ‘Buddhist’ opera at his death), among many others. Burnouf’s Buddha was neither idol nor god, but the teacher of a humanist philosophy which, unlike the Hindu caste system, offered a liberation that was available to all. The original Sanskrit texts offered the clearest views of the Buddha’s own philosophy – in Burnouf’s words, the ‘most ancient, the human Buddhism’. They were, he wrote, ‘of incontestable value for the history of the human spirit’.

It was remarkable how quickly the image of the Buddha had changed. In 1796, Father Paulinus, a Carmelite missionary on the Malabar coast and author of the first European grammar of Sanskrit, had proved that the Buddha was not a man, but the planet Mercury. By the 1840s, the West had more or less the image of the Buddha that we still have today. It was not, however, a complete triumph. Two years after Burnouf’s early death in 1852, H.H. Wilson, the leading scholar of Sanskrit in Britain (director of the Royal Asiatic Society, appointed to the country’s first chair of Sanskrit at Oxford), lectured that the Buddha was a fraud who had never existed, that ‘ignorance and superstition’ are the ‘main props of Buddhism’, but that fortunately it will be ‘overturned’ by the Christian missionaries ‘before whose salutary influence civilisation is extending’. Wilson, almost needless to say, found the admiration of the Buddha typically French.

From Richard Nonas’ notebooks, undated

‘Things mean’ is what structural thinking is always about—expeditions into the interior: the invasion of reason into the interior; the search for information (that turning everything into information is what is dubious about anthropology, and much of art too). I’m not looking for clarification (which is just dull), but for something I don’t have words for: a kind of confusion or doubt which excites me the way some women do. Analysis is too violent, too specific, and too slow. I like my violence ambiguous, but quick—weakened by time, but strengthened by the depth of its wounding. (Words, analysis, make their object nothing more than object, but object—ambiguous object—left alone is something more.) As an anthropologist I destroy (or change, which is the same) whatever I touch. What do I do as an artist? What I touch is tainted; what I’ve touched is tainted. I destroy what I don’t know, by understanding it. Is that what art is about? Is art a kind of extended suicide? What we know, we destroy. What we can’t face, we kill. Art is about failure.

Michael Wolf. Paris Abstract, 2014.

Excerpts from an interview with Roberto Bolaño, 2001

I suppose one writes out of sensitivity, that’s all.

The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. Starting with my own. Being a writer is pleasant—no, pleasant isn’t the word—it’s an activity that has its share of amusing moments, but I know of other things that are even more amusing, amusing in the same way that literature is for me. Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again and playing on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick and then there’s no other choice but to write. For me, the word writing is the exact opposite of the word waiting. Instead of waiting, there is writing. Well, I’m probably wrong—it’s possible that writing is another form of waiting, of delaying things. I’d like to think otherwise. But, as I said, I’m probably wrong.

Plots are a strange matter. I believe, even though there may be many exceptions, that at a certain moment a story chooses you and won’t leave you in peace. Fortunately, that’s not so important—the form, the structure, always belong to you, and without form or structure there’s no book, or at least in most cases that’s what happens. Let’s say the story and the plot arise by chance, that they belong to the realm of chance, that is, chaos, disorder, or to a realm that’s in constant turmoil (some call it apocalyptic). Form, on the other hand, is a choice made through intelligence, cunning, and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death. Form seeks an artifice; the story seeks a precipice. Or to use a metaphor from the Chilean countryside (a bad one, as you’ll see): It’s not that I don’t like precipices, but I prefer to see them from a bridge.

Nicanor Parra says that the best novels are written in meter. And Harold Bloom says that the best poetry of the 20th century is written in prose. I agree with both. But on the other hand I find it difficult to consider myself an active poet. My understanding is that an active poet is someone who writes poems. I sent my most recent ones to you and I’m afraid they’re terrible, although of course, out of kindness and consideration, you lied. I don’t know. There’s something about poetry. Whatever the case, the important thing is to keep reading it. That’s more important than writing it, don’t you think? The truth is, reading is always more important than writing.

Naomi Sims in 1972. Ph: Barry Berenson


Fu qi fei pian—commonly rendered on English language menus as ox tongue and tripe—has a romantic backstory. The dish is a mountain of cold, frilly-edged ribbons of beef tripe and tongue, often bolstered with translucent sheets of tendon and washed in spiced broth, chili oil, and Sichuan peppercorns, then topped with roasted peanuts, cilantro, and in some cases, fragrant Chinese celery. The husband and wife who purportedly invented the offal extravaganza were said to have such a harmonious union that the dish’s name, fu qi fei pian, translates to “man and wife lung slices.”

Interview with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert

James Kaplan: After your loss to Tracy Austin at the ’81 Open, did you feel that the crowd was applauding more than just a tennis match?

Martina Navratilova Well, I thought it was a combination. I became a U.S. citizen that summer, and then I also came out that summer. So they were accepting me as an American despite the fact that I came out as gay, because that certainly was a big no-no back then. That was amazing. I didn’t break down because I lost the match. I would have felt the same whether I won or lost. I was weeping because I was accepted. They kept applauding — that’s when I lost it.

J.K.: And then in ’84 you lost them.

Chris Evert: I want to respond to that. I can understand why they were reacting that way. One reason is that I’d lost 12 times in a row. The other thing is, at the U.S. Open, I felt like I always had the crowd on my side. That was my first big splash, breaking in at that tournament at 16. I was their girl. When I used to play [Evonne Goolagong] in Australia, I sometimes was close to tears after the match, because I didn’t have one fan.

M.N.: So you know how it feels.

C.E.: Exactly. And when I played Virginia Wade in the semis at Wimbledon [in 1977], I almost tanked the last point, because I was so — I mean, I really was annoyed at how biased the fans were. So now the shoe was on the other foot. I think we both felt both sides of the coin.

J.K.: Where was your friendship by September ’84? Martina, at a certain point you had a significant other who considered Chris the enemy and told you to hate her.

M.N.: Yeah. That was Nancy Lieberman. It’s well documented.

J.K.: Right. But by September ’84, were you and Lieberman still together?

M.N.: No. I was with Judy Nelson that year. So things had calmed down on that front.

C.E.: And when I was coached by Dennis Ralston, he was trying to get me to be tough with Martina also. The early ‘80s was probably our worst period, where there were some hurt feelings. But Martina, I think Judy helped you with that. She said, “You can still be friends.”

M.N.: Absolutely. And then [in 1989] you retired, so that changed everything. Because it had always been such a one-on-one situation. I didn’t realize until I was doing commentary what a gladiator-like competition tennis is — other than no one dies. The crowd is waiting for the players to come, and they walk through the tunnel, and they get on the court, and they get out their rackets, their weapons, and now they start. So it’s a miracle that we were able to be friends.

J.K.: Unlike the two of you during your rivalry, [Serena Williams and her competitors] are all playing more or less the same game — power tennis. Tell me about the evolution of the power game.

C.E.: I noticed it with Monica [Seles] and then Steffi [Graf], but Martina led the way. What she had, at her peak, was a serve like Serena Williams right now — either it was an ace, or it was unreturnable, or it would set up for her to come in and volley. I mean, Steffi and Martina were the two greatest players that I ever played. But with Monica, it’s hard to say, because when she got stabbed, she was No. 1 in the world and had won that last grand slam [the 1993 Australian Open, her eighth slam]. With her out of the game for two and a half years, Steffi really didn’t have anybody that was going to challenge her. So she piled up a few more grand slams. After Monica got back, it wasn’t ever the same.

M.N.: I think the power just kind of came gradually. First it was Steffi with the big forehand; then Monica with power off both wings and taking the ball early, really taking time away from you; and then Lindsay [Davenport] with her heavy ball; and then here come the Williams sisters — and then everybody was hitting the ball at Mach-3, and everybody still does now. The equipment makes it possible to do that: it’s not just that you can hit the groundstrokes hard, but you can return hard. With our rackets, you could block or slice the ball on the return of serve; you couldn’t swing — you wouldn’t make it, or you’d make one out of five. The new strings allow you to take a big cut at the ball and put a lot of spin on it, and now everybody can use power, because the harder you swing, the safer the shot. For us, it was the opposite.

George Salter’s cover, 1966.

Peter Mendelsund’s cover, 2013.