Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: #MeToo, Mary Magdalene, memory, and more.

The editors

November 25, 2023

Beyond good and evil: Ethical disagreement makes friendship difficult, even painful. Our present political moment is illustration enough of that. But, as Michal Zechariah writes in a letter to The Harper Review, friendship is a matter of “real life,” not “a game of competing trolley problems.” For Zechariah, we face the editors’ proposition—should friends share our values?—“already entangled in deep relationships.” Turning to Montaigne, Zechariah challenges us to think of those aspects of friendship that go beyond morality—or at least escape it. It is these friendships that we are bound to, Zechariah writes, for better or for worse.

Some months in my life: In January of this year, Dutch art collective Keeping It Real Art Critics, or KIRAC, announced the release of a pornographic film starring Michel Houellebecq. The following month, the French writer filed a lawsuit against KIRAC after discovering that a retroactive clause in his contract with the collective meant that certain video clips he believed to be confidential could actually be made public. In his recent book Quelques mois dans ma vie, Octobre 2022 – Mars 2023, Houellebecq provides a detailed account of the affair. However, Joséphine Haillot writes for Compact Magazine that the interesting thing about the book is not the legal battle itself but that, in it, we witness a Houellebecq who aligns himself with the trend of “calling out” that emerged in the wake of the #MeToo movement. But does this mean the anti-liberal Houellebecq we at The Harper Review are familiar with has completely vanished? Read Haillot’s piece to find out.

Street-fighting man: The legendary sixteenth-century Italian painter Caravaggio is known for being dramatic. Today, we think of his high-drama, high-contrast figure compositions, but in his lifetime, he was also known for street-fighting and patronizing shady taverns. At the Art Institute of Chicago, viewers can get a sense of the painter’s work and life: two of Caravaggio’s masterworks are on loan until December 31. The Cardsharps (ca. 1595), from the collection of Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum, features three feather-capped men whose shifty expressions suggest the sordid underworld of Caravaggio’s Rome. Martha and Mary Magdalene (ca. 1598) is on loan from the Detroit Institute of the Arts; the painter’s version of the commonly portrayed Gospel episode is unusual for its spare setting and intimate composition. With these works displayed among select paintings of his followers—known as the Caravaggistithe brief Chicago visit of Caravaggio is a must-see

Musical memory: In Jeremy Eichler’s latest book, Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance, the acclaimed music critic trains his ear on four musical works inspired by the Holocaust: Richard Strauss’s “Metamorphosen,” Arnold Schoenberg’s “A Survivor From Warsaw,” Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” and Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar” symphony. Reflecting on the power of music to bear witness to the unspeakable, Eichler argues that music possesses a unique capacity to preserve the past. Time’s Echo not only offers a compelling cultural history of classical music in twentieth-century Europe, but also meditates profoundly on how four men fought to preserve the humanist spirit in the face of unspeakable atrocities.

Manufacturing consent: In a recent essay for The New Yorker, writer Jay Caspian Kang discusses the importance of news organizations upholding journalistic independence. Kang writes in the aftermath of a number of firings of journalists from various magazines for expressing views on the Israel-Hamas conflict. Citing Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Kang argues that the problem identified by Herman and Chomsky is more severe than ever before, especially given the limited number of news outlets available today. (The Harper Review’s coeditor in chief Surya Gowda came to differing conclusions on Manufacturing Consent in the magazine’s inaugural issue.) Kang advocates for calm on the part of news outlets in the midst of controversial world events, and claims that firing journalists will only run the risk of producing imbalanced coverage and imperiling thoughtful discourse.