The Nation, 22 December 2008


Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta, 1916

It’s usually the reviews that feature most prominently in my notes about The Nation.  That’s because the notes are about things I might want to look up again, and The Nation‘s articles and columns are usually of strictly timely interest.  This week’s issue is no exception.

In this issue, Arthur Danto reviews a retrospective of Giorgio Morandi‘s paintings currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I’ve always had a fondness for Morandi’s subdued color schemes and restricted perspective.   Danto claims that the objects in Morandi’s still lifes seem much more active than is typical for the genre; sometimes they seem “to interact and jostle” as if competing for space on the table.  He cites this 1961 painting as an especially crowded one.  He may be onto something; for example, this 1914 piece does seem to point forward to the Futurists.  But more often when I look at Morandi I see pictures like the one I’ve posted here, quiet images that neither call out for attention with flash nor resist the viewer with trickery, but, rather, allow those who are so minded to take whatever look they wish.   

Throughout a review of a reissue of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination runs the question of what it might mean for literature to have, as Trilling always insisted it should have, a serious moral purpose.  Trilling tries to answer the question with a remark about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an answer the reviewer finds unsatisfactory:

“No one who reads thoughtfully the dialectic of Huck’s great moral crisis will ever again be wholly able to accept without some question and some irony the assumptions of the respectable morality by which he lives, nor will ever again be certain that what he considers the clear dictates of moral reason are not merely the engrained customary beliefs of his time and place.” One response to this might be to say that anyone capable of this kind of “thoughtful” reading is not likely to be a prisoner of social convention in the first place, and vice versa. The passage risks both patronizing the imagined reader and imputing an unrealistic power to Twain’s book. In such passages, the adjective “moral” appears overworked, now indicating the merely conventional social codes, now referring to the wider human vision offered by the critic.

A fair criticism, one must admit.  Humanists from Plato on would have to plead guilty to the charges the reviewer levels against Trilling here. 

Elsewhere in the issue, Katha Pollitt quotes New York University historian Linda Gordon, a founder of Feminists for Obama, calling on feminists to keep up pressure on Mr O, since that’s what their opponents will be doing.  She also quotes an op-ed by economist Randy Albelda calling for increased investment in health, education, eldercare, and other industries that employ many women as part of any economic stimulus plan.  Alexander Cockburn points out that in the aftermath of the Mumbai shootings, several top Indian officials were driven from office in disgrace, a stark contrast with the failure of any senior American to so much as admit error in the aftermath of 9/11.  Stuart Klawans reviews recent films Milk, Australia, and Wendy and Lucy.


  1. cymast

     /  December 12, 2008

    “Natura Morta” does seem like it’s jostling.

  2. acilius

     /  December 12, 2008

    Maybe it’s just something I can’t see. Most of his paintings look very still to me.

  3. cymast

     /  December 12, 2008

    It’s an optical illusion- the combination of vertical and right-slanting lines.

  4. acilius

     /  December 12, 2008

    I see the illusion, but it still looks restful to me. Maybe an imagination deficit on my part.

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