What one destination discovered about using virtual reality for travel marketing

What one destination discovered about using virtual reality for travel marketing

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Virtual reality continues its march into the mainstream. While most consumers do not have access to the headsets required to properly experience the medium, there are enough out there that do. One of the things to remember about virtual reality is that it can also be experienced in 360°. So even if travelers don’t have a headset, they can still very much experience the destination.

One recent application of VR was with Visit Mammoth in California. The team created a behind-the-scenes video piece on the making of the VR video, which shows just how much work goes into creating compelling content for this new medium. In this particular video, a 360° camera set-up was flown via drone — the highest level elevation ever flown for a 360° camera.

Visit Mammoth’s Director of Marketing Whitney Lennon provided some insights into how the destination decided to experiment with this technology — and of course what others can learn from their experience.

The actual VR video itself is here (best viewed with a VR headset).

When planning to use VR, did you include an ROI calculation? Or was it more about experimentation and learning? Walk us through the thought process there, and how others considering using the technology should approach it.

There’s certainly an element of experimentation in our use of VR, but it’s done with purpose and with an eye on measurable impact. The technology solves a unique problem for us: showing off the sheer grandeur of our destination in a way that just doesn’t translate fully on traditional video or in still shots.

Our hypothesis was that VR is much better at creating a sense of place for potential visitors in a way that will translate to visitation.

We’ll measure that, as we do with all of our campaigns, as part of our larger campaign awareness survey efforts. Industry standards for KPIs and measuring impact don’t actually exist for this medium, so we’ve had to create those internally, but the early returns have been very positive.

Why VR, is it really all about the sense of immersion?

I alluded to it, but we have a unique problem in Mammoth Lakes in that our destination is almost too good looking. Static images and video just don’t do it justice. There really is no substitute for the real thing, but filming in 360/VR takes video certainly takes us one step closer.

The technology has the capacity to create that sense of immersion but successfully tapping into it really does require some storytelling. More than just showing pretty landscapes it was also important for us to provide some context, the piece had to allow the viewer to experience what a day in Mammoth Lakes can be like.

We did that by following along a few adventurers as they experience Mammoth Lakes. That was an important decision and allowed for a more visceral and emotional experience with the viewer pushing off the top of the ski run or paragliding across the rocky skyline.

Any unforeseen challenges in using the technology?

Anything new comes with challenges. Our environment, at an altitude of over 11,000 feet at the summit of Mammoth Mountain provided some unique challenges for the drone pilots. It required basically inventing of some new technology in order to get the shots we needed.

We also worked with an experienced team, and that’s something I can’t recommend highly enough to others looking at producing VR content. The technology is so new and every shoot is unique, working with a team that has experience in overcoming some of those unique issues is invaluable and will likely save money and time in the long run.

Do you have any regrets? Is there anything you’d have done differently?

Regret probably isn’t the right word but of course, there are things we’d have done differently. Like any camp,aign we’ve optimized based on performance and response. For example, we had our hearts set on showing a cloud-level viewpoint to open up the video.

Once we executed we discovered it wasn’t engaging the viewer as we’d planned. An edited version omitting that initial intro and immediately jumping the viewer right into the action is performing much better

Have the VR pieces worked as you intended? Any surprises?

The VR Pieces are performing above our expectations. When planning and producing these pieces, the possibility to create emotional connections was a major draw, the but emotional response by nature is unpredictable and we’ve definitely been surprised by how it affected some viewers.

For example, those with mobility issues can have this visceral experience of skiing and paragliding for the first time, it’s powerful stuff.

The piece was also recently nominated in the VR category at the Brand Film Festival in NYC, which in our world is nice validation as well.

What are your plans for the technology moving forward?

We initially viewed VR as a long shelf-life hero content and campaign piece. We’d produce multiple pieces and use them in a variety of different campaigns and for multiple years. That’s still true, but as consumer adoption of the technology increases and VR headsets make their way into more homes, the potential applications for VR content will grow exponentially.

Given how well the technology shows off our destination, we’ll absolutely look for new ways to use it and additional opportunities to expand our library.

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April 9, 2018 at 11:33AM

How the Airline Industry Has Changed One Year After #BumpGate

How the Airline Industry Has Changed One Year After #BumpGate

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It was the viral video that horrified the nation: a bloodied passenger on a United flight dragged shrieking from his seat by airport security, because he refused to give up his paid seat to airline employees boarding at the last minute.

But even though Dr. David Dao, then 69, was left with a broken nose, two missing teeth and a concussion from his ordeal on United Express 3411, it was arguably the reputation of the airline industry in general that came out more battered and bruised. Fed up with the the downsides of years of industry consolidation — increasingly fewer choices, worse service, more overbooked planes and worse — American flyers seemed to view the so-called #BumpGate incident less as an aberration than as the realization of their worst fear about flying in the 21st century: that the airlines regarded them as little more than livestock with credit cards.

A Facebook video captured David Dao before he was dragged off the plane. (Photo by Joya Cummings / Facebook)
A Facebook video captured David Dao before he was dragged off the plane. (Photo by Joya Cummings / Facebook)

Reeling from the implications of the PR disaster at hand, US airlines across the board essentially promised that nothing like the Dao dragging incident would happen on their planes ever again.

A year later, everything has changed, for better and worse.

Although it wasn’t strictly an overbooking issue, #BumpGate shed light on the industry practice, in which airlines sell more tickets on plane than there are seats. They do that to take advantage of the fact that, statistically, a certain number of would-be passengers never show up for the flight. By overbooking a flight, airlines reduce the number of empty seats, reduce waste and maximize the amount of money they make on each journey. (In Dao’s case, the plane was fully booked, but randomly selected passengers already on board were asked to make way for airline employees who were needed for a flight at another airport.)


After being told the to leave the plane as the flight was overbooked, aviation security officers struggle with David Dao. (Tyler Bridges / Twitter)

Almost immediately after they realized the scope of the fallout from the incident, many US airlines reacted in one or both of two ways. The first was to vow to end their policies of overbooking (JetBlue made sure to point out they already didn’t overbook, of course).

“Last May, we stopped booking flights over capacity as part of the selling process,” a Southwest spokesman said in an email. “We took this action based upon customer feedback and the improved forecasting tools and techniques that became available with the implementation of our new reservations system that also went live in May 2017. We determined that we no longer have a need to overbook as part of the revenue-management inventory process, and customer feedback has been positive!”


Mr Dao’s bloody face after being dragged from the plane. (Jayse D. Anspach / Twitter)

But Southwest and JetBlue primarily rely on domestic routes for revenue. Airlines serving more international routes rely on overbooking more, to protect their profits on those pricier flights. They were more apt to go the other route of publicly responding to #BumpGate, increasing the amount gate agents were allowed to offer to passengers who voluntarily gave up their seats. Delta upped its price to $9,950 in vouchers. United, not surprisingly, topped the lot, offering up to $10,000 in value to passengers who voluntarily deplaned. (Other airlines refused to divulge what they’ve authorized their agents to offer.)

“Flight 3411 was a defining moment for United Airlines,” United spokesman Charles Hobart said in an email. “It is our responsibility — our mission — to make sure we as a company and all of our 90,000 employees learn from that experience.”

Other changes United made [TK – link to KFan story] as part of a 10-point program included never calling security except when someone posed a safety risk, giving its agents additional training and using new technology to identify which passengers are most likely to be willing to give up a seat.

Fellow passengers captured the incident. (Tyler Bridges / Twitter)
Fellow passengers captured the incident. (Tyler Bridges / Twitter)

The crazy thing is, it all seems to have worked. United alone says it reduced its involuntary denied boardings (or IDBs, industry jargon for people forced off a flight) by 94 percent in the 11 months since Flight 3411. And it wasn’t just United: Across the board, IDBs have dropped dramatically in the last year.

“It really has turned better for passengers, and we have seen that these incidents are really not happening that often,” said Bijan Vasigh, a professor of economics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. “The data show you really have a significant drop in involuntary bookings among airlines.”

According to the Department of Transportation, most major US airlines cut their IDB rates by about half from 2016 to 2017. Delta had the best rate overall, with only 0.05 per 100,000 passengers; Hawaiian and Virgin America were the only two to see their rates increase noticeably. (Delta, Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines didn’t return requests for comment in time for this story. The Federal Aviation Administration officially began treating Virgin America as part of Alaska Airlines in January 2018.)

Still, it could be better, passenger-rights advocates said.

“The rate of bumpings in 2017 is at a record low since they started keeping statistics in 1995,” said Paul Hudson, president of Flyers Rights, a nonprofit organization dedicated to airline passengers. “It’s a significant improvement, but it’s not like it’s zero or anything. And we’re relying on the airlines to report themselves, so it’s not like there can’t be something else out there we don’t know about.”

Although Flight 3411 dominated the news enough to prompt congressional hearings and various proposed legislation with nifty acronyms (TICKETS Act, BOARD Fairly Act) to increase passenger protections and review or enact an outright ban on involuntarily bumping flyers, little to nothing has changed from the standpoint of government regulations. Any actual change, if it comes about, would most likely come via congressional reauthorization of the FAA in this year’s tortured budget process. That would include raising the federally determined cap on involuntary denied boardings, which is still set at no more than $1,350 by the DOT. (The $10,000 worth of vouchers gate agents and their supervisors are allowed to give out at certain airlines applies to voluntary denied boardings.)

But there’s another downside to the post-#BumpGate era of air travel. Possibly even more frightening to airlines than the Flight 3411 incident itself was how quickly the video went viral, tanking United’s value as it turned the company into the butt of a joke the entire globe was in on. Although he’s basing it on anecdotal information, Hudson said that cabin crews have become increasingly wary of people filming anything on board in the last year.

“You see more of these people willing to shut down videos, flight attendants and airlines employees blocking the use of videos, all after the incident,” Hudson said.

Still, Vasigh said #BumpGate has permanently changed the way airlines view and treat their customers.

“The impact of this one passenger showed the airlines that something like this could very huge for them,” he said. “This was a bad event that changed the course of history for the industry.”

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April 9, 2018 at 11:30AM

German Travel Consumer 2018: The German Consumer and Travel Market in 2018

German Travel Consumer 2018: The German Consumer and Travel Market in 2018

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Germany is Europe’s most important travel market. It alone accounts for 30% of EU citizen’s overnight stays in foreign countries and is the world’s third largest outbound market. Click here for a free report extract giving an overview of the German travel market in 2018

Germany is Europe’s most important travel market. It alone accounts for 30% of EU citizen’s overnight stays in foreign countries and is the world’s third largest outbound market. In order to help you get to grips with this critical market and their behaviour, we are releasing free excerpts of our German Travel Consumer 2018 report. Click here to download the report now or use the button below to join EyeforTravel On Demand.  

This first report excerpt covers the state of the German economy, consumer and travel market in 2018. It includes economic performance data, consumer confidence outlooks, household wealth data, market sizing, spending analysis, and currency fluctuation analysis.    

Click here to download the free report

We are releasing three free reports taken from the EyeforTravel German Travel Consumer 2018 report, so keep an eye out for our second and third reports into international and domestic travel and booking patterns and trends.

But if you want the full report immediately, you can become a member of EyeforTravel On Demand now, which also gives you access to all of our other Premium research for the coming year. The complete report includes:


  • Detailed analysis of Germany’s economy and its ramifications for consumer travel spending.

  • More than 80 charts, figures and tables of data detailing the state of the German travel consumer.

  • Outbound and domestic travel market overviews and outlooks.

  • A breakdown of the German journey to booking, including lead times, key apps and most popular websites.

  • Age and location breakdowns for key online behaviors, destination preferences and spending.

  • Trends in German device ownership and usage.

  • Forecasts and outlooks for technologies, destinations, and market growth.

  • An overview of the state of Germany’s travel industry.

  • Data taken from more than 80 different sources.

To get the full report, sign up to EyeforTravel On Demand Premium now. 


Join EyeforTravel On Demand


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April 9, 2018 at 11:15AM

These Are the World’s Best Airlines, According to TripAdvisor

These Are the World’s Best Airlines, According to TripAdvisor

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Today, TripAdvisor announced the winners of its 2018 Travelers’ Choice awards for airlines, recognizing travelers’ favorite carriers around the world. This year, Singapore Airlines was named the number-one airline in the world and Southwest Airlines ranked as the best domestic carrier. Award winners were determined using an algorithm that took into account the quantity and quality of airline reviews and ratings submitted by travelers worldwide over a one-year period on TripAdvisor flights. (Note: On the domestic front, TPG’s list of best and worst airlines yielded similar results.)

The 2018 award categories expanded to honor 69 airlines that provide exceptional value and service across the world in four categories: the top airlines in the world, the top airlines by geographic region, the top airlines by country, and the best airlines by class of service (first, business, premium economy, economy). Winners were based on airline reviews submitted from February 2017 to February 2018. Among the global top-10, Asian carriers prevailed with four airlines on the list (Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines, EVA Air and Korean Air) followed by the Middle East with two airlines (Emirates and Qatar Airways).

TripAdvisor’s 2018 Top Airlines in the World:

According to TripAdvisor, these awards recognize airlines around the world that deliver consistently exceptional experiences to global travelers.

  1. Singapore Airlines, Singapore
  2. Air New Zealand, New Zealand
  3. Emirates, United Arab Emirates
  4. Japan Airlines, Japan
  5. EVA Air, Taiwan
  6. Southwest Airlines, United States
  7. Jet2.com, United Kingdom
  8. Qatar Airways, Qatar
  9. Azul, Brazil
  10. Korean Air, South Korea


    The 2018 Class of Service (North America) winner is Southwest for Best Economy Class.

    TripAdvisor’s 2018 Top Airlines in North America:

    Southwest Airlines, United States (Best)
    Alaska Airlines, United States (Winner)
    Delta Air Lines, United States (Winner)
    Hawaiian Airlines, United States (Winner)
    JetBlue, United States (Winner)
    WestJet, Canada (Winner)

    TripAdvisor’s 2018 Winners for Class of Service (Globally):

    According to TripAdvisor, this award recognizes airlines around the world that provide a consistently exceptional passenger experience in each cabin.

    Best First Class: Singapore Airlines, Singapore
    Best Business Class: Qatar Airways, Qatar
    Best Premium Economy: Air New Zealand, New Zealand
    Best Economy: Singapore Airlines, Singapore

    “We are honored to be this year’s recipient of the Best Airline in the World,” said Goh Choon Phong, CEO of Singapore Airlines. “The award is a validation of the hard work and dedication of our thousands of staff all around the world, who focus their attention every day on ensuring that Singapore Airlines remains competitive on a global level. Our business model is based around three main pillars: product leadership, service excellence and network connectivity. We are continuing to invest heavily in all three areas to ensure we have industry-leading offerings that meet and exceed our customers’ expectations, both on the ground and in the air.”


    The 2018 Class of Service (North America) winner is JetBlue for Best Business Class.

    TripAdvisor’s 2018 Winners for Class of Service (North America):

    Best Business Class: JetBlue, United States
    Best Economy: Southwest Airlines, United States

    Said Ryan Green, vice president and chief marketing officer for Southwest Airlines: “The real winners today are our more than 120 million customers who put their trust in Southwest to get them to where they need to be safely, on time and with the world-renowned hospitality our 60,000 Southwest employees provide.”

    For the complete list of winners from the 2018 Travelers’ Choice awards for airlines, head over to TripAdvisor

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April 9, 2018 at 11:01AM

Pursuits: Where to Find Bangkok’s Best Street Food While You Can

Pursuits: Where to Find Bangkok’s Best Street Food While You Can

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Pursuits

Where to Find Bangkok’s Best Street Food While You Can

Will the city ban its famed street food offerings? It’s unclear. In the meantime, a quest to find the best fishball noodle stands and much more.

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Young locals and tourists eat and wander around the streets of the Train Market in Ratchada.CreditDavid Rama Terrazas Morales for The New York Times

It was a few minutes after 6 p.m., and Lim Lao Sa, a fishball noodle stand tucked into an alleyway near the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, had just opened. Rain was falling, hard. A series of deftly arranged tarps sheltered patrons sitting on red plastic stools at a handful of tables. Water drizzled off the tarp edges, down the concrete walls and past exposed wiring. Fluorescent bulbs cast harsh shadows. Lim Lao Sa’s owners — a brother and sister who’d inherited the 60-year-old business from their father — bickered vigorously.

My friend Win Luanchaison, a real-estate developer and fervent culinary explorer, and I tucked into our bowls. The quenelle-like fishballs were at once springy and creamy, the rice noodles supple, the broth clear and sure of purpose. It was easy to understand why Lim Lao Sa cooked annually for the Thai princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. “She eats egg noodles served dry,” said Pawita Boriboonchaisiri, the elder sister.

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A vendor prepares noodles on Yarowat road in Bangkok’s Chinatown area.Published OnCreditImage by David Rama Terrazas Morales for The New York Times

In fact, given all of this — the setting, the food, the feeling that Lim Lao Sa could be washed away in an instant, by a bad mood or even worse weather — I decided that Lim Lao Sa was the platonic ideal of street food. And it was precisely why I’d come to Bangkok.

Last April, the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority made international headlines when it announced the city of more than 8 million would ban street food vendors — often considered the world’s best — in order to make sidewalks more accessible. The B.M.A. soon walked back its statement, saying street food would be preserved in Chinatown and the Khao San Road backpacker district, but elsewhere it would be eliminated, the vendors relocated from “vital walkways,” as the Tourism Authority of Thailand put it, to “designated zones and nearby markets.” This would happen by year’s end. Eventually. Maybe. Sometime.

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Stir-fried squid eggs in the streets of Yawarat.CreditDavid Rama Terrazas Morales for The New York Times

I wasn’t going to take a chance. If Bangkok’s ad hoc restaurants were threatened — not only by clean-sidewalk-loving governments but, just as seriously, by gentrification and changing tastes — I had to go before it was too late. In July, I flew to Bangkok for a week of eating nothing but street food.

Pretty much immediately, I learned that street food was a term with many definitions.

“For me, street food is only a cart,” said Duangporn Songvisava, known as Bo, who with her husband, Dylan Jones, runs the restaurants bo.lan, which received a Michelin star in December, and Err, which serves rustic drinking food with a focus on quality ingredients. When she was young, Ms. Songvisava, now 37, remembered, as many as 20 carts would line up outside her school to sell snacks on sticks to students. “They have, like, the moo ping — grilled pork on a stick, barbecue — the sausage, the fishball. It just fills you up before you have dinner.” Some were pushcarts, others bicycle-based, but all were mobile and ephemeral.

That, she said, was the tail end of the golden age of Bangkok street food. “In the old days when someone wants to open a cart or a stall, they know how to cook,” she said. “The idea was, you’re a good cook — maybe you should make some food for other people, for a living.

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Grilling a small whole pig using a charcoal stove in the streets of Yawarat.CreditDavid Rama Terrazas Morales for The New York Times

Now, Ms. Songvisava said, profit margins rule. “They just buy everything from the factory, use industrial processed food,” she said. “A lot of seasoning and MSG involved to produce the food because people doesn’t complain.”

Ms. Songvisava was telling me this over beers at Talad Saphan Phut, a night market that she considered a sad remedy for Bangkok’s street food woes. It was here, at a lonely, out-of-the-way parking lot, that the city had relocated vendors from the slated-for-destruction Flower Market, on the theory that loyal customers would follow. We were joined by an intrepid eating crew, which included Mr. Jones; Chawadee Nualkhair, the blogger, known as Chow, behind Bangkok Glutton; and the writer Vincent Vichit-Vadakan who had put me up for my stay and now edits the Michelin Guide’s Bangkok site.

“This is like a good five to 10 kilometers from where the original was,” said Ms. Nualkhair. “So the people who used to eat these guys’ food wouldn’t come here on a regular basis with this special trip.” Only a few vendors in all of Bangkok, she estimated, cooked well enough that people would follow them to new locations.

We decided to drown our concerns in the most apropos way: with street food. Along Thanon Chan, in a surprisingly quiet little neighborhood, were sois, or alleyways, full of food vendors, who had been relocated off the main street. Our gang descended upon them, ordering bowls of noodles — yen ta fo, pink rice noodles in broth with wontons and fishballs, and bamee moodaeng, ribbony egg noodles with roast pork — and watery rice porridge studded with bits of duck or nuggets of coagulated blood, and sweet braised pig’s foot, and bags of all kinds of fried things. As we crowded around folding metal tables and accentuated our treasures with chilies in vinegar, or ground dried chilies, and cracked open Thai craft beers, it all felt deliciously normal — the kind of Bangkok street-food life I’d always imagined.

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A big meal consisting of a seafood platter, pork ribs and Isan dishes like papaya salad or pork salad. Around $30 for everything at the Train Night Market Ratchada.CreditDavid Rama Terrazas Morales for The New York Times

That picture grew more complex over the next few days. In the mornings, I’d leave Vincent’s apartment in search of coffee — and more often than not would return with a baggie of sticky rice and skewers of sweet, fatty grilled pork from the moo-ping cart stationed outside his front door. (Vincent lives near a university, so there’s a steady flow of hungry, frugal students. Some things never change.)

By lunchtime, I would hook up with a friend for exploratory eating. With Dwight Turner, an American who’s blogged for years at BKKFatty.com, I went to the farther reaches of Sukhumvit Road, a central artery through Bangkok. Several SkyTrain stops past the glistening condos and mega-malls, the street-food crackdown didn’t seem to matter, and Mr. Turner and I had to squeeze past countless vendors — of curries, sausages, fruit, flowers, electronics — occupying sidewalk space.

For Mr. Turner, street food was not necessarily defined by mobility. “The necessity,” he said, “is that it’s convenient, at a price that people are willing to pay.”

His definition — which will no doubt enrage certain corners of the internet — opened up what I could consider street food to include Bangkok’s shophouse restaurants: boxy, frill-free dining rooms where the cooking is done up front, in a kitchen that’s often little more than an elaborate, sedentary cart. Such was the case at Sai Kaew, the duck noodle shop Mr. Turner brought me to.

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A vendor sells moo ping (grill pork) early morning in the business area of Sathorn.CreditDavid Rama Terrazas Morales for The New York Times

“In the beginning, I worked full-time in an office like most Thais,” said Sai Kaew’s owner, Ruengchai Chartmongkoljaroen. Thirty years ago, however, he quit his job to push a cart. He set up 10 tables on sidewalk space he’d rented in front of a building, walked his cart in circles to attract attention, and of course worked on his recipes, developing the condiment that became his calling card: light, crunchy, slippery boiled duck intestines, or sai kaew. (Excellent with a slather of his vibrant green hot sauce, and a worthy foil for the sweetly rich duck.) The price for a bowl in 1987: 10 baht, or about 40 cents at the time.

“Day 1, we opened from 12 p.m. to 2 a.m.,” he said. “We sold half a duck.”

Business improved, but even so, he pushed the cart for 16 years before parking it at this shophouse, where on a good day he and his two daughters, who’ve learned the business from childhood will go through “50 big ducks.” Though his duck noodles are now well known, the price remains right: Lunch for two was 160 baht, or less than $5.

This trajectory was one I heard time and again as I ate everything from delicate pig’s brain to incendiary papaya salad to rice noodles stir-fried on a charcoal-fired wok. There might be many reasons to open a cart — a desire for freedom, a love of off-cuts — but eventually, almost everyone wants the security of bricks and mortar.

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A vendor wrapping a Miang Kham — dry shrimps, peanuts, onion, coconut, lime, chili and coconut caramel wrapped in a leaf — which they’ll sell later as snacks.CreditDavid Rama Terrazas Morales for The New York Times

Even Pritipal Singh Sirikumar, whose stand selling crisp, yummy samosas was founded by his father some 50 years ago, dreamed of moving from his open-air nook — about the size of a couch — at the corner of a Chinatown soi. He said it would be to have his own shophouse. “Then we can put in tables and chairs. We can serve more customers. I will serve lassi.”

Mr. Sirikumar’s sentiments were echoed by people like Pongsuang Kunprasop, known as Note, a friend I hadn’t seen in a decade but who refused to eat street food with me. “Been sharing sidewalks with rats and cockroach at night for all my life,” he wrote in an email.

Over the course of a week, I did not see much vermin, nor did I fall ill. (I did carry charcoal pills, a gift from Ms. Songvisava and Mr. Jones, said to counteract food poisoning.) But I also came to appreciate the appeal of air-conditioning, and to understand that the romance attached to the cart, by Thais as well as Westerners, does not always mesh with reality.

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Yen Ta Fo noodle soup vendor near the Udom Suk Station.Published OnCreditImage by David Rama Terrazas Morales for The New York Times

It’s hard work to push a cart, and unless you get lucky — like Raan Jay Fai, a crab-omelet stall that won a Michelin star in December (and that is now so busy the owner has said she would like to return the star) — a shophouse restaurant, a permanent stall in a covered market, or even a job cooking “street food” in the food court of a fancy mall promises stability. And for Thais, entering the middle class is often about strolling down a clear sidewalk to work, dining in air-conditioned comfort and going home to a modern condo. Who’s to say they’re wrong in those desires?

Today, nearly a year after the crackdown, Bangkok’s street-food vendors and aficionados have grown accustomed to constant change. Talad Saphan Phut, the market where I’d talked with Ms. Songvisava, shut down in December, and the street-food-centric Sam Yan neighborhood is being redeveloped by Chulalongkorn University, whose projects have already displaced vendors in numerous areas. Street food in Bangkok has always been defined by mobility and ephemerality, but this is something new.

“Precariousness is the new status quo,” Ms. Nualkhair of Bangkok Glutton wrote via Facebook. “The uncertainty alone is enough to move ppl out of town.”

At the same time, street food is a long way from its demise. For every tale I heard of police clearing vendors away, I found a bamee moodaeng stall making its own noodles or heard the late-morning call of a wandering vendor selling curries and fermented rice noodles.

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Popular coconut and mango Thai ice cream, which you can add ingredients such as corn, coconut jelly, red beans, sticky rice.CreditDavid Rama Terrazas Morales for The New York Times
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Thai congee at one of the branches of the famous restaurant chain Jok Sam Yan.CreditDavid Rama Terrazas Morales for The New York Times

However endangered street food is, pursuing it remains an eye-opening way to discover a city like Bangkok. One morning, Rattama Pongponrat, known as Pom, an ebullient culinary consultant and former curator at Museum Siam, led me on a daylong binge, from a breakfast of toast with coconut jam to a sidewalk stand selling noodles with atypically thick slices of offal. There was fried chicken piled atop metal tables. There was glorious mango ice cream from a dinky corner shop.

And there was Ms. Pongponrat, overjoyed at it all. When the sun was high, we strode through the shaded alleyways of Chinatown, past tropical fruits pickled in chilies, batter-fried squid roe with a spicy-sweet sauce — until, finally, we burst out onto a bridge where Ms. Pongponrat had hoped to find one particular vendor. Instead, the bridge had been entirely cleared.

“Oh, my God, it’s all gone!” Ms. Pongponrat shouted. “I never knew it was a bridge. I’ve never seen this before in my life.” She began swearing, then looked up at a well-tended four-story building, yellow with green shutters, the crisp style at once Chinese and Neo-Classical. “What a beautiful building,” she said in wonder. Then we plunged back into the fray to find another snack.

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CreditDavid Rama Terrazas Morales for The New York Times

If You Go

Finding street food in Bangkok is easy — you’ll see fishball and satay stands parked, it seems, in front of nearly every 7-Eleven — but finding the really good stuff takes a little more effort, and a bit of wandering. Addresses for many of the vendors are nonexistent or nonsensical, but this Google Map shows just about every place I visited.

Chinatown is an excellent place to begin, for its density of talented vendors and for the official protection they enjoy (at least for the moment). Yaowarat Road is the heart of its street-food zone — think rolled rice noodles with crispy pork belly, or sweet boiled lotus root on crushed ice — but if you wander a little farther afield, you’ll encounter the fishball-noodle stand Lim Lao Sa (on Song Wat Road near Trok Saphan Yuan), Natthapon Coconut Ice Cream (on Phraeng Phuthon Road), and the high-end drinking-food restaurant Err (394/35 Maha Rat Road; errbkk.com).

For a stroll through not-yet-gentrified Bangkok, take the Sky Train to Udom Suk station and head down Sukhumvit Road soi 103, through numerous vendors crowding the sidewalk. (Try them!) To the left, in the marketplace, is a bamee moodaeng stall that makes its own excellent noodles, and a few blocks northeast is Sai Kaew, the duck noodle soup shop.

To see another way street food is evolving, check out Talad Ruam Sab, known as the Lunch Market, across Asok Road (Sukhumvit soi 21) from Srinakharinwirot University. There you’ll find dozens of tiny stalls serving everything from sweet braised pig’s leg to fiery crab curry with fermented rice noodles. Bring friends, stake out space at a communal table, and order promiscuously.

Finally, there is the Michelin guide, whose Bangkok edition includes 28 street-food vendors (all in shophouses, technically). Find it online at guide.michelin.com/th/en/bangkok.

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April 9, 2018 at 10:06AM

Will Pope Francis Cause a Schism in the Catholic Church?

Will Pope Francis Cause a Schism in the Catholic Church?

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For the better part of the past two years, Catholics around the world have been fighting over a footnote. In April, 2016, Pope Francis, after leading two synods devoted to “the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world,” published a teaching document titled “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love.” Tucked away in the eighth chapter of the text is footnote 351, which corresponds to an anodyne-sounding sentence about the extent to which “mitigating factors” might affect a pastor’s handling of certain personal predicaments—such as divorce, followed by remarriage—that are considered sinful. Catholics who find themselves in such situations, the footnote explains, might be helped along by the very sacraments that their transgressions would typically bar them from receiving. Communion “is not a prize for the perfect,” Francis writes, “but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

For Pope Francis’s progressive supporters, this was the latest sign of a pastoral tendency toward inclusiveness and mercy. For his more traditionalist critics, it was a direct threat to the Catholic injunction against divorce, about which Jesus was brutally clear, in the Book of Matthew: “Whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful), and marries another, commits adultery.” Catholic doctrine holds that marriage is an “indissoluble” ontological state, and that, for this reason, Communion is not extended to those who violate it. A few weeks after the release of “Amoris Laetitia,” the German Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann said in an interview that footnote 351 could lead to “a schism that would not be settled on the peripheries, but rather in the heart of the Church.” He added, “May God forbid that from happening.”

Spaemann, a professor emeritus at the University of Munich, has close ties to Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger, was himself a German academic, and is the author of notable works of scholarship, including the 1968 book “Introduction to Christianity,” a much heralded explication of the faith. In 1977, Ratzinger became the archbishop of Munich and Freising, and then, in 1981, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which, once upon a time, was called the Inquisition. As prefect, he served Pope John Paul II as a kind of theologian-in-chief, and was known, on occasion, to gently correct even the Pontiff. Ratzinger was elected Pope, in 2005, after the death of John Paul, but continued to devote himself to scholarship; in addition to the sermons and encyclicals that are the ordinary literary duty of that office, he found time to compose and publish “Jesus of Nazareth,” a three-volume work on the life of Christ. He was not a popularizer of the faith, as John Paul was, or as Francis would become; he was a writer. And he became, over time, a living metaphor for the way in which an emphasis on a religion’s textual dimensions can act both as an agent of clarity and as a bulwark against change.

Then, in 2013, Benedict committed one of the more radical acts in recent Catholic history: he resigned. The last voluntary papal resignation had occurred in 1294, soon after the hermit Pietro Angelerio was made Pope Celestine V, as a sort of cosmic joke. Angelerio had written angrily to an assembly of cardinals, in the midst of a two-year impasse in naming a new Pope, warning them that they would incur God’s wrath if it lasted any longer. The cardinals’ response was to drag the monk out of seclusion and fit him for white robes. He stayed in office just long enough to declare the Pope’s right to abdicate and to avail himself of that option. Dante is said to have written Celestine into the Inferno; according to this theory, he’s the anonymous figure in Hell’s antechamber “who due to cowardice made the great refusal.” No new Pope has named himself Celestine in the centuries since. He hardly offered a sparkling precedent for Benedict’s decision.

Francis’s tenure has made clearer every day that the resignation would mean a departure from at least the recent past. Francis, who is eighty-one, recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of his ascension to the office, but he still seems fundamentally new. After the conclave that culminated in his election, on the way to his inaugural Mass at the Sistine Chapel, he made sure to be photographed handling his own baggage, looking more like a tourist or a pilgrim than a Pontiff. He opted for simple black shoes, in pointed contrast to Benedict’s red leather numbers. Even his chosen name—he’s the first Pope to name himself Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, and the first Pope in more than a millennium to choose a name that had not been chosen before—hinted at a radical simplicity. He has not written the sort of scholarly tracts for which Benedict will be remembered, but he has produced “Happiness in This Life” (Random House), a collection of peppy one-liners, almost self-helpish in tone, culled from his encyclicals and sermons. “There is one word that I want to say to you: joy! ” Francis declares. “Never be sad, men and women: A Christian should never be sad! Never let yourself be discouraged!”

Francis seems less intent on altering the Church’s most controversial doctrines than on exhibiting boredom with the whole angst-ridden discourse that surrounds them. When he was asked about footnote 351, shortly after “Amoris Laetitia” was published, he said that he couldn’t remember it. Earlier in his papacy, while fielding questions from the Vatican press corps on a plane, he was asked about the Church’s stance on homosexuality. He replied, “Who am I to judge?” It sounded more like a plea to move past the issue than like an actual invocation of humility. (After all, when it comes to society’s market-driven indifference to the poor, or even to Francis’s pet theological causes, such as devotion to the Virgin Mary, he is not shy about offering judgments.) Francis quickly became popular in the press, and among liberal non-Catholics. After the worst years of the clerical-abuse crisis in the Church, here was a leader who embodied Catholicism’s lastingly positive, if comparatively abstract, associations. (Few of us imagine ourselves as opposed to love, mercy, and human dignity.) He sounded willing, even eager, to leave the less comfortable conversations—about divorce, contraception, homosexuality—behind.

But the appeal of the institution of the Papacy, for many, lies in its promise of constancy. According to Catholic teaching, the office was created when Christ named the apostle Peter the first leader of the Church, saying, in a pun on the Greek meaning of Peter’s name, “Upon this rock will I build my church.” The more impressive the edifice you’d like to build, the more important a stable base becomes. Today, under Francis, and in the wake of Benedict’s resignation—he is now Pope Emeritus, a title that has never existed before—the Papacy has become the site for unexpected shifts and discontinuities. Hence, in part, the fierce reactions of Francis’s critics, some of whom, like Spaemann, have come to understand the clash over “Amoris” as a crisis. In becoming implicitly more amenable to divorce—and, by extension, to other ills of the wider culture—the Church, they worry, might cease, permanently, in any recognizable way, to be itself.

This unsettling state of affairs is the subject of “To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism” (Simon & Schuster), a new book by the conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat. As the controversy over “Amoris Laetitia” has grown, the thirty-eight-year-old Douthat has become perhaps the most prominent lay critic of Francis’s papacy. In that unofficial capacity, he has duelled in print, in public conversations, and, often, on Twitter, with many of Francis’s defenders, including Antonio Spadaro, an Italian Jesuit priest and journalist who is thought to be one of the Pope’s closest confidants outside the Vatican. Almost uniquely among mainstream commentators, Douthat has been willing to suggest the possibility that Francis will spark a genuine schism between liberals and conservatives. His previous book, on the quirky diversity—and, in his view, the errancy—of Christianity in America, is titled “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.” In “To Change the Church,” one sometimes senses a barely constrained wish to apply the H-word to Francis himself—a wish suppressed only, perhaps, by a last shred or two of institutional deference.

The book opens, oddly, with an extended meditation on Douthat’s own religious history and on the mixture of sensibilities that, he admits, might color, or even compromise, his assessment of “Amoris” and the Pope. Douthat was born into Protestantism, wobbling along the seldom-travelled border between Pentecostal fire and the polite mainstream. He converted to Catholicism as a teen-ager, freely but under the influence of his spiritually itinerant mother. “So in the world of cradle Catholics and adult converts, groups that are often contrasted with one another and occasionally find themselves at odds, I belong to the little-known third category in between,” he explains. He casts his life as a Christian as similarly divided—often doubtful and ironic where others seem, to him, naturally pious and enviably prone to untroubled belief. “Sometimes I felt as though my conversion was incomplete, awaiting some further grace or transformation,” he writes. “At others I felt that I belonged to a category of Catholics that used to be common in Catholic novels . . . the good bad Catholic or the bad good one, whose loyalty was stronger than his faith and whose faith was stronger than his practice, but who didn’t want the church to change all the rules to make his practice easier because then what would really be the point?”

The story of Francis’s papacy is in part a regional story: prelates from wealthier European countries, where ancient cathedrals increasingly sit empty, have, in their eagerness to encourage congregants to return, been more likely to support the liberal interpretations of “Amoris.” Meanwhile, representatives of the newly dynamic Church in the global South—especially Africa, where Catholicism is in a pitched battle with charismatic and, often, prosperity-promising denominations—have hewed to traditionalism. (The German Benedict and the Latin-American Francis occupy ironic positions in this divide; Benedict is something of an anomaly among his countrymen, and the brashness of Francis, the Argentine son of Italian immigrants, may stem in part from his upbringing in a place in which, at the time, Catholicism still amounted to a total culture.) Douthat notes these divisions, but refrains, amid his other confessions, from turning the geographic mirror on himself. The American Church is proportionally smaller, and more embattled, than many of its counterparts elsewhere; for years, immigration has been its sole source of consistent growth. And our country’s rapidly fragmenting political and cultural landscape casts frightening shadows when held up against a Church that continues its choppy engagement with an increasingly irreligious West.

At first blush, the Church might appear to be as plagued by splintering as so much of American life is: besides the rough liberal-conservative divide that, in its current form, has persisted since the sixties, there are also Catholic socialists, Catholic Trumpists, liberation theologians, liturgical traditionalists lamenting the loss of the old Latin Mass, and ultramontane restorationists who hint at their hopes for a return to theocracy—and who, by implication, dismiss both liberals and conservatives as modernists who have been led astray by pluralistic democracy, and by the false hope of convergence with the wider world.

But these factions are, ideally, united by a sense of eschatology via history: a hope that they are all journeying, however imperfectly, together, toward God. These days, this would seem to constitute a major point of attraction, especially to a certain kind of politically interested American spiritual seeker. In the secular realm, we carry out our arguments—and develop our politics, each of us an autodidact—without the benefit of a common moral language or the bedrock of shared premises, and we sometimes appear fated, therefore, to retreat to our various ideological corners for good. The Catholicism of a figure like Benedict, with his faith in the legibility of earthly and spiritual experience, presents a salve for this condition. Its adherents might squabble, but their differences lead them back, eventually, to a mutual inheritance: the words of Jesus in the Gospels, the lives of the saints, the rhythms of the liturgy, the catechism of the Church. This common ground might not prompt agreement, but it can result in understanding, and in something like harmony. One of my favorite genres of Catholic literature is the book-length interview: the Pope or some other high-ranking churchman sits down with a reporter or other layman, both operating on the assumption that conversation tends toward truth. (Francis has participated in more than one of these books; the most recent was just published in Italy, under the title “God Is Young.”)

In his most effective columns for the Times, Douthat, a staunch social conservative who nonetheless manages to project a tone of Gen X knowingness and mild ennui, is not so much an ideological champion or purveyor of contrarian opinion as a cunning interpreter. As the Times’ Op-Ed section has become the subject of internecine media controversy, largely over the quality and the usefulness of its conservative contributorship, Douthat stands as the cleverest and least predictable writer there. He means to persuade—or, at least, to subtly reroute the grooves of reasoning by which his wary readers arrive at their reliably liberal positions. But he usually tries to do so by breezing past the most radical implications of his ideas. In one recent column, he offered a rationale for why liberals should welcome a nativist like the White House policy staffer and speechwriter Stephen Miller at the table of the immigration debate, presenting several benign-sounding arguments for Miller’s pretty gross position on the subject without ever letting slip whether he shares it.

He isn’t so coy in “To Change the Church”—the sincerity of his alarm with respect to Francis won’t allow it. But the book’s best chapters are vehicles for his genuine understanding of more liberal co-religionists, and for his ability to parrot their most compelling arguments, skewing them nearly imperceptibly on the way to chopping them down. One of his signature rhetorical maneuvers is to render, in as plain and unmocking a manner as possible, two partisan stories about—or, as the liberal slur goes, “both sides” of—a given phenomenon or event, and then to clear a path through the middle, revealing the gulf between them to be the result of virtually irreconcilable patterns of thought. In one impressive and quietly comic section of “To Change the Church,” he recounts the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council three times, from three points of view, setting exaggerated tribal grievances next to details of undeniable truth, as if slowly turning over events in order to find an acceptably clean ground for conversation.

His third version of the Vatican II story, the one he considers to be closest to the truth, presents a dialectic. The council, which took place from 1962 to 1965, produced, under the guidance of, first, Pope John XXIII, and then Pope Paul VI, a new framework for Catholic engagement with modernity. Amity between the Church and other denominations, as well as non-Christian religions, was encouraged; the legacy of Catholic anti-Semitism was roundly denounced; it became licit, for the first time, to celebrate the liturgy in vernacular languages, instead of in Latin. Suddenly—according to liberals, who regard John XXIII as a hero—the doors of the Church were open as never before. But John Paul II and Benedict sought to dispel any notion of an ecclesial revolution, and, during their papacies, conservative Catholics largely accepted their argument that Vatican II was completely compatible with the doctrinal dispensations that had preceded it. Progressives retreated, hoping for a liberal Pontiff to arrive soon and revive the world-embracing Vatican II spirit.

The fear that Douthat expresses in “To Change the Church” is that Francis’s foray into theological innovation with “Amoris” threatens to drag these unresolved tensions into the light—and, perhaps, to aggravate them beyond repair. The book is characteristically well written, and makes impressive use of theological crises from centuries past in order to contextualize Francis in the long, often fractious sweep of Catholic history. But at Douthat’s moments of greatest alarm, he seems determined to set aside the surprises, the reversals, and the lingering irresolution that one finds in that history. Francis, he complains throughout the book, is too often ambiguous; Douthat believes that the ambiguity is strategic, a way to mask a subterranean desire to change Catholicism for good. In the Church’s past, however, uncertainty has sometimes been the rule for decades, even centuries, before its ancient teachings have groped their way into coherence with the cultures and the times at hand. Francis appears cognizant that his turn at the helm comes at such a tenuous moment—the abuse scandal and Benedict’s resignation insured as much—and he appears determined to keep his balance for as long as tension persists.

In his position at the Times, Douthat is an essentially, if covertly, evangelistic writer, and he is most convincing when his tone is irenic, funny, and self-deprecating, and when he is willing to trade small, stubborn differences for broader agreements—when, in other words, he most closely resembles Francis. Both hope to win a soul or two, and both come across as willing, given their surroundings, to make a few compromises in the winning. Sounding briefly Benedictine in the preface, Douthat says that his book “is conservative, in the sense that it assumes the church needs a settled core of doctrine, a clear unbroken link to the New Testament and the early church, for Catholicism’s claims and structure and demands to make any sense at all.” But Douthat’s proposed solutions to the crisis, like his historical analyses and his disposition, are more pragmatic than truly traditionalist. He suggests more than once, for instance, that the worldwide Church might perhaps follow the American Church’s lead in widening access to annulments and in speeding up the process for obtaining them. The functional reality would be roughly the same as that expressed by the new Franciscan paradigm—people moving from one set of marriage vows to another, receiving Communion at both the start and the end of the journey—but the surrounding forms would be stable enough to claim continuity. Douthat often sounds like a symptom of the dissonances that Francis seeks to resolve.

In February, Benedict, who will soon turn ninety-one, wrote to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, announcing that he was on a “pilgrimage towards Home.” The impression of Benedict as a scholar-ascetic, hunched over a stack of papers, writing or reading or lost in a moment of prayer, has deepened during the five years since his abdication of the Petrine throne and his scrupulously kept vow to allow his successor to rule without fear of contradiction. In March, the Vatican published an eleven-book series, by eleven different authors, titled “The Theology of Pope Francis,” and its head of communications, Monsignor Dario Viganò, revealed, at a press conference, that he had asked Benedict to offer his thoughts, in the form of “a page or a page and a half of dense theology in his clear and punctual style.” Benedict declined, writing a short letter, a photograph of which Viganò presented to the public—a page of type, under Benedict’s terse letterhead: “Benedict XVI, Papa emeritus.” In the picture, only one paragraph is legible; it contains a rebuke to those who place stock in the opposing caricatures of the two Popes—Benedict as cloistered academic and Francis as untutored operator—and insists on a deeper “interior continuity” between their papacies.

Benedict is surely right to push back against those depictions. For all Francis’s facility with symbols and grand gestures, he has not instituted a break from Church teaching but, rather, a shift in focus from text to practice, from household rules to daily life. He is not, as some of his most strident critics have implied, indifferent to doctrine; it is more that his emphases, and his cryptic silences, have helped coax into view an ideal long cherished by liberal—and, often, lapsed—Catholics: a Church whose appeal lies in its engagement with, and not its retreat from, the wider world. It is unclear whether Francis sees himself in this light. Sometimes he seems to be a figure of convenience for political and cultural élites who have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to marshal his universalist message against the recent global upswing of nativist-nationalist political sentiment—while, at the same time, and mostly successfully, resisting or ignoring his critiques of modern technology and economics.

The Vatican presented Benedict’s letter as an endorsement of Francis, delivered at a moment of growing conservative criticism, but it soon became clear that something was amiss. Reporters from the Associated Press noticed that the bottom two lines on the page in the photograph were slightly blurred, and that the entire second page of the letter was nowhere to be seen. After an outcry from the media and from members of the Church, the rest of the text, in Italian, was released. Benedict’s diplomacy, it turned out, wasn’t so complete. He had expressed disappointment at the inclusion in the series of a theologian who had previously directed “anti-papist” attacks at him, and he revealed that he hadn’t read the books at all. Amid the ensuing rancor over the deception, Viganò resigned.

The episode, almost slapstick in its clumsiness, evoked the persistent, if mostly marginal, murmurings of some reactionaries that Benedict remains the true Pope, having been manipulated into resigning by a corrupt—and, in the most conspiratorial accounts, largely gay—Vatican bureaucracy that was fed up with his fealty to doctrine. The truth, by most reasonable tellings, is less sensational: Benedict was at John Paul II’s side as he slid into helplessness in the years before his death, and saw the disorientation that a dying Pope could sow among his flock. The Church is still foundering from the sexual-abuse crisis, and, in his final years, Benedict didn’t trust himself to steer the faithful past the shoals. Francis has not inspired much more confidence on that score: he has tended to be dismissive of, and sometimes even hostile toward, the critics of bishops and other prelates who enabled decades of wicked behavior. The problem of priestly abuse might indeed be the sturdiest link between Francis and Benedict—and a lingering reminder that what has most grievously afflicted the Church in recent decades came not from the outer world, but from within. ♦

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April 9, 2018 at 10:06AM

“Son” 

“Son” 

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Audio: Read by the author.

It’s not the mirror that is draped but
what remains unspoken between us. Why

say anything about death, how
the body comes to deploy the myriad worm

as if it were a manageable concept not
searing exquisite singularity? To serve it up like

a eulogy or a tale of my or your own
suffering. Some kind of self-abasement.

And so we continue waking to a decapitated sun and trees
continue to irk me. The heart of charity

bears its own set of genomes. You lug a bacterial swarm
in the crook of your knee, and through my guts

writhe helminth parasites. Who was ever only themselves?
At Leptis Magna, when your mother and I were young, we came across

statues of gods with their faces and feet cracked away by vandals. But
for the row of guardian Medusa heads. No one so brave to deface those.

When she spoke, when your mother spoke, even the leashed
greyhound stood transfixed. I stood transfixed.

I gave my life to strangers; I kept it from the ones I love.
Her one arterial child. It is just in you her blood runs.

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April 9, 2018 at 10:06AM

Walter Kempowski’s Epic Novel of Germany in Collapse

Walter Kempowski’s Epic Novel of Germany in Collapse

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Imagine, for a moment, a German novel about the final months of the Second World War, an epic tale of national collapse and shameful private defeat, the ruined landscape ribboned with refugees. Now imagine such a book written by a German who lived through those bitter months as a teen-ager, but written with a light touch, almost quizzically, the entire story suffused with an air of speculative detachment. I wouldn’t have thought it could be done. Then I encountered Walter Kempowski’s extraordinary novel “All for Nothing” (New York Review Books), first published in German in 2006, and now available in Anthea Bell’s vital translation.

That light touch is evident from the beginning. An opening paragraph sets a leisurely scene, like something out of Fontane or Turgenev: “The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea.” It is January, 1945. We think we know how this confident narrative will proceed, in ample furlongs of classic realism: the imperilled gentry, the advancing Red Army, the wintry trek westward. Kempowski’s novel does contain those elements, but the anticipated stability of the storytelling is impishly subverted on the first page, when the author switches from his description of the house to the people who pass it on the road:

All that strangers driving along the road saw of the place was the main house. They wondered who lived there: why don’t we just stop and say hello? And then with a touch of envy they wondered: why don’t we live in a house like that ourselves, a place that must be full of stories? Life is unfair, thought the passers-by.

NO THROUGH ROAD, said a notice on the big barn: no one was allowed to go into the park. Peace reigned behind the house and in the little park and the wood beyond it. There has to be a place where you feel you belong.

The simplicity—“why don’t we just stop and say hello?”—is disarming, and also feels a bit dangerous, like a child’s interrogative curiosity. Then there’s the question of perspective, and its ironies. Kempowski’s prose has quickly moved from the house to those people who cannot gain access to it. But are these outsiders the implied speakers of “There has to be a place where you feel you belong,” or might this truism just as easily have been voiced by the Georgenhof’s owners? Since we can’t really decide who is speaking, we also feel the presence of an implied third speaker—the author, ambiguous, watchful, wry.

There is intense foreboding everywhere, and little resembling peace reigns inside or outside the Georgenhof. We are in East Prussia (an area that is now mostly in Poland); the victorious and understandably vengeful Russian Army is expected at any moment from the eastern border. Better to be captured by the Americans, one character says, than to “fall into the hands of those subhuman Russians.” Later, someone else nervously asks: But didn’t the Russians behave quite well at the end of the First World War? Bombs fall, not far away, on the Mitkau railway station. Tanks and trucks rumble past the big house. The Georgenhof’s matriarch thinks that their old world now resembles a refrain from that Hans Christian Andersen story: “Oh my dearest Augustin, all’s gone, gone, gone.” For German civilians, there are, or soon will be, two unpleasantly overlapping options: surrender here to the invading forces, or journey westward toward the Reich, and surrender there. “There has to be a place where you feel you belong,” but outside the Georgenhof the catastrophe of homelessness has been set in motion, as ordinary Germans begin the westward exodus, while, inside the big house, bags are already packed, and preparations to leave are being discussed. Should the family join relatives in Berlin, or Uncle Josef in Albertsdorf?

In the book’s opening chapters, at least, life inside the Georgenhof retains many of its customary rhythms. Kempowski patiently introduces us to a privileged, insulated, and politically apathetic world. History will infect this family like a virus, but it is a slow-incubating one. When the air-raid siren sounds over Mitkau, the owners of the Georgenhof never react: “What were they supposed to do? . . . Run into the woods? Yes, but not every night.” The Georgenhof has been inhabited since before the First World War by the Globig family, recently ennobled gentry. The patriarch, Eberhard von Globig, is serving in Italy, an officer in charge of supplies. Left in the house are his beautiful, languorous, and withdrawn wife, Katharina, and their fair-haired, inquisitive twelve-year-old son, Peter. Katharina spends much of her time in what is known as the refuge, a private apartment in the mansion where she smokes, lounges on her bed, and listens to the radio—sometimes to the BBC news, which she finds “both alarming and encouraging.” The household is run by an efficient and eccentric fifty-nine-year-old woman from Silesia, known as Auntie. Her bedroom smells of ripe apples and dead mice, and contains a portrait of Hitler. Working under Auntie are two Ukrainian maids, Vera and Sonya, and a Pole named Vladimir, who has the letter “P” embroidered on his uniform.

Life in this little universe stumbles on. An aged schoolmaster, Dr. Wagner, sweet-natured and a bit of a bore, comes every day to tutor young Peter. (“His beard made him look like someone you felt you knew.”) Katharina takes the carriage into Mitkau, to get some new books, and to spend time with her friend Felicitas, who is pregnant. Peter builds a snowman, which “bore a certain resemblance to the Führer and Chancellor of the Third Reich.” Opposite the Georgenhof is a new housing development, built in 1936, whose unofficial deputy mayor is a man named Drygalski, a jackbooted Party member with a Hitler mustache. Bitter, full of petit-bourgeois resentment and genuine grief (his son died fighting in Poland), Drygalski is suspicious of the entitled and aloof Globig clan, and has been watching them for years. The Globigs, in turn, laugh at him, as a jumped-up local tyrant. And there is the politically defiant Mitkau priest, Pastor Brahms, who is revealed to be part of an underground resistance group: “The pastor . . . was a doctrinarian who sometimes, when something like extra sausage was being considered, unexpectedly came out with very old-fashioned principles.”

A dark finale is building, barometrically. A series of unexpected visitors jolt the Georgenhof world; they are harbingers of a general exodus that will eventually include the Globigs. A political economist (and avid stamp collector) is on his way to Mitkau, and takes shelter for the night. He asks his hosts if they saw the fires burning last night. (He also steals a stamp.) He’s a liberal; a more conservative guest is a violinist who has been entertaining the troops, and is trying to get to Danzig, where her father lives. She disapproves of Vladimir’s bringing in firewood—haven’t we been forbidden to get too familiar with people like this?—and thinks the strength of the German people is “inexhaustible.” Still, she asks her hosts if they possess hunting guns, in order to defend themselves when the time comes. When the members of the household warily discuss the “incautious” Pastor Brahms, they mention the words “concentration camp,” but in hushed tones.

Kempowski gives us a hundred pages of this steady pressure-building—delicately achieved, with a constantly flickering humor—until the barometer breaks. The event that bundles the Globig family out of their house and into the general German experience is precipitated by Pastor Brahms. He asks Katharina if she will house, for a single night, a political refugee, a man on the run. Kempowski’s handling of this episode displays all his deep talents as a novelist—his impartial hospitality to many different perspectives, his shrewd comprehension of his characters’ solipsism, the impurity of their heroism. Katharina, elegant, passive, drifting through an unhappy marriage, is far from heroic. She doesn’t give the pastor an immediate response but goes home and struggles with her hesitancy and fear. When she finally agrees to do it, she is not sure why, and feels that “for a few seconds she became another person.” A vaguely felt moral imperative conspires with her craving for excitement. “I felt a hot thrill of alarm run down my spine” are the words she imagines she’ll use about her adventure once it is over.

The refugee, Erwin Hirsch, is a Jew from Berlin, and has been hiding from his persecutors for four years. Katharina tells no one else in the house; Hirsch spends the night, and most of the next day, safely ensconced inside the refuge. Kempowski treats the encounter with an almost uncanny neutrality. Katharina listens to Hirsch’s stories, and is by turns curious, sympathetic, defensive, perhaps even bored by his repetitiousness. At one moment, she and Hirsch look at a map to see how close the Russians are:

What kept the Red Army from striking a blow? They bent over a map, and realized that the Red Army was less than a hundred kilometres away, ready for the final leap.

Should he wait for them or go to meet them? That was the question. But in this cold weather?

“If I’d stayed in Berlin . . . ”

Go to meet the Russians? Put his hands up, saying, “I’m a Jew!” But suppose they made short work of him, called him a spy and shot him. Or said, “A Jew? So what? Anyone can say that, and we have enough Jews of our own.”

One reason that Kempowski’s interrogative prose has a strange air of detachment is that the words have indeed detached themselves from the characters. Two people bend over the map, each with different anxieties, but who is thinking these thoughts about the Russians? Hirsch, Katharina, Kempowski, or all three? Most of “All for Nothing” is written in free indirect discourse, which is to say that the novelist’s prose closely identifies itself with the perspective and the language of a particular character. But here the questions appear to be voiced by a chorus. The effect is a kind of uncertain omniscience, which allows the novelist not only to move easily among his characters but to blend their thoughts, when need be, into a collective anxiety. It’s a modern epic style. (The Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare uses a similar method in his great Second World War epic, “Chronicle in Stone,” which is set in a city under bombardment, in order to do the same thing: to voice a general anxiety.)

Katharina gambles—for the sake of excitement, really—and loses. Hirsch is later picked up by the authorities, and incriminates her. The police arrive; Drygalski gets to stomp around the Georgenhof, the fine old house having confirmed all his blackest suspicions. And Katharina, beautiful and blank, is taken off to prison. But notice how calmly, with what cold-eyed generosity, Kempowski studies his characters’ very different responses to this disaster. Any event, he seems to say, is always radically privatized by those it strikes. We all hoard our own investments in reality; those investments are generally ignoble, but always particular and individual. Katharina is, at first, dazed, unhurried, and appears not to take her arrest very seriously. The detective who shows up at the Georgenhof finds the whole thing a little awkward, because he’s married to Katharina’s friend Felicitas (who sends her love). The Hesse family, guests who have been staying with the Globigs, care only about their own survival: they ask Drygalski if their official travel permit has arrived. “I wish we hadn’t come here,” Frau Hesse says.

And the two Ukrainian maids? They are impressed by Katharina’s bravery; they didn’t think she had it in her. “But fancy running such risks for a lousy Jew. The women cried, and kept telling stories of all the things that had happened to them. It was a long time since they’d had chocolate to eat.” Monstrous, we think, that chocolate could be more important to them than Katharina’s fate, let alone Hirsch’s. But they are crying because the mistress of the house has been arrested, and now they surely see the homelessness that lies ahead for them: “There has to be a place where you feel you belong.” Kempowski is doing nothing more than showing us that most people quite reasonably think of themselves first. Chocolate is just the novelistic detail that beautifully concentrates this truth.

Walter Kempowski, who was born in 1929 and died in 2007, was a lifelong investigator of this kind of private relativism. He was born into a prosperous ship-owning family, in the Baltic port of Rostock, which was almost obliterated by British bombing in 1942. His father was killed during the final days of the war, fighting the Russians in East Prussia. In an introduction to “All for Nothing,” the German writer Jenny Erpenbeck notes that the fifteen-year-old Kempowski witnessed the arrival in Rostock of German refugees from East Prussia. (She adds that one of the last boats to bring them there belonged to the Kempowski family.) Walter was soon a victim of the Cold War, too. After working for the American Army of Occupation in Wiesbaden, he was accused of espionage by the Soviet authorities, and sentenced, along with his brother, to twenty-five years in a labor camp. Kempowski served eight years in Bautzen prison (which eventually passed from Soviet into East German control). Like Dostoyevsky in his Siberian prison camp, Kempowski in Bautzen encountered the stories of his compatriots, and committed himself to telling them, both in fictional and in documentary form. Alongside his many novels, he began to publish books of oral history, dedicated to retrieving some of the neglected and even unspeakable private experiences of Germans (and others) during the war years. “Did You Ever See Hitler?”—published in German in 1973; the English translation, by Michael Roloff, appeared in 1975—gathered the replies of two hundred and thirty ordinary Germans to the book’s interrogatory title. Some are glancing and even lighthearted responses. A glazier remembers standing by Hitler’s car. The Führer had just climbed out, “and then it seemed to me, because I stood right next to him, that he had farted.” A teacher recalls him looking “like a little house painter with a hangover.” A housewife relates how, as a teen-ager, she had screamed with joy as Hitler passed in the street, and written in her notebook, “This is the most beautiful day of my life!” Another woman, in one of the most memorable, most individual replies, says that she had an uncle who kept livestock. “After January 30, 1933”—when Hitler became Chancellor and his Brown Shirts took control of the country—“he killed all his brown chickens. That was still possible in those days.” How the novelist must have cherished the stubborn oddity of that detail.

Kempowski’s biggest project was a “collective diary” of the war years, published in ten volumes between 1993 and 2005, entitled “Das Echolot” (“Echo Soundings,” in English). It runs to almost eight thousand pages, and brings together letters, diaries, speeches, and eyewitness accounts, in order to build what Kempowski called a “collage” of thousands of individual testimonies. The final volume, “Swansong 1945,” was translated into English by Shaun Whiteside and published in America in 2015, and gathers testimonies for just four days, starting with Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday, on April 20th. Here is the scrabble of historical experience before history has laid down its narrative paths. The reader pioneers a rough way through multiple texts, fragments, scraps of narrative, bits of oral history; we are supposed to feel the sheer density, and savage ironies, of diversity. The single day of April 20th, for instance, takes up nearly a hundred pages in the English translation, as we tack between accounts by the famous and the obscure, from politicians to writers, from minor officials to unimportant civilians. Goebbels gives a speech, full of loud lies, while in California Thomas Mann gets down to work on his new novel. Also on that day, a German woman waits to cross the Baltic to Copenhagen (“I wanted to get away at once. To go anywhere a person could live properly again”), while in Leipzig another German woman narrowly escapes being raped by a drunken American soldier. (She distracts the American by disingenuously asking him about President Roosevelt, who she knows has just died: “He sat on the ground in the middle of the courtyard and sobbed. . . . The dead president had saved me.”) Meanwhile, a forced laborer from Ukraine, working in Hamburg, is treated charitably by her camp commander, and, at Bergen-Belsen, a British lieutenant writes, “It was the most appalling sight I have ever seen or indeed ever will see.”

“Swansong 1945” is a shattering experience; it shatters history, so that each single shard cuts deeply. It also offers a lesson in the disorienting arrhythmias of simultaneity: Thomas Mann is at work in sunny Pacific Palisades while survivors gasp for life in Bergen-Belsen; a woman is avoiding getting raped while a British soldier in northwest Germany writes quite cheerfully to his parents that they don’t need to send him any more chocolate. (“We get plenty, thank you.”) Historical injustice has causes and large forces, identifiable culprits and victims. But the moral injustice of the accident of temporality is hard to bear, because it is so arbitrary, as Auden noted in “Musée des Beaux Arts”: while someone is suffering, someone else is “eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” The torturer is wicked, but the torturer’s horse is innocent, and needs to scratch “its innocent behind on a tree.” Erpenbeck puts this eloquently in her introduction. Kempowski, she writes, “proposes his life’s work as an antidote to the traumatic experiences of a wartime childhood, all that he was obliged to learn as a youth: that when bombs start falling, one building will be struck while another is spared, one fifteen-year-old boy will fall in battle while another survives, and one prisoner will know what he’s in jail for while another may have been mistakenly arrested during the chaotic months following the end of the war.”

“All for Nothing” immerses us in the scandal of this arbitrariness, so that we see the differences that make up a collective narrative. In “War and Peace,” Tolstoy said that he was trying to write about “the unconscious swarmlike life of mankind,” by breaking history into the smallest individual units. This is something the novel is supremely equipped to do, because it is the great form of interior inquiry, the form that listens for privacy; but also because the novel simultaneously pulls apart and pushes together a smallish “swarm” of characters. “All for Nothing” is more powerful than “Swansong 1945,” not only because its fictionality feels as real as anything in Kempowski’s oral history but because Kempowski’s novel is a distillation, rather than a collage. Instead of thousands of different testimonies, we encounter a dozen or so lives, densely realized, and these dozen or so people must encounter one another, even if their meetings are only meetings between solipsists.

Anyway, what is solipsism in wartime but the selfishness of survival? Katharina was brave enough to take Hirsch in for the night, but Kempowski doesn’t hesitate to let us know that “she had been glad to be rid of him, that was the truth.” When Drygalski goes home and tells his wife about Katharina’s arrest, he wants praise and approval and is angered when she merely remarks, “Poor woman, she didn’t deserve that!” He leaves the room, slamming the door. Kempowski’s sense of individuation, like Tolstoy’s, is so radical that it extends even to animals. Late in the novel, when Auntie has joined the long journey westward, and is nearing the end of her endurance, she rests her head against the neck of the horse that has been pulling her carriage: “She would have liked to shed tears, leaning against the horse’s neck. But the gelding swished his tail and rolled his eyes. He might well be thinking: now what? Is the old girl going to make a nuisance of herself?”

Katharina’s arrest, and the steady advance of the Russians, sends Peter, Auntie, Vladimir, and Vera onto the path west, along with thousands of others. The last hundred pages of the book achieve momentous power, an epic grandeur—carriages and carts, dead horses frozen in icy lakes, Russian bombers above, French prisoners of war on the move. Dr. Wagner, who did not leave the Georgenhof with Peter, finds his young pupil on the road. A bomb falls, and Peter is “sprinkled with washing powder that had been blasted into the air.” At a hostel, Peter and his teacher come across Felicitas, Katharina’s pregnant friend. She is giving birth, “and half an hour later mother and child were both dead.” She was always so funny, Peter says. Yes, Dr. Wagner replies: “Death takes us all just as we are.”

The material is searing, but Kempowski maintains an atmosphere of detachment, speculation, and even humor. The hostel where Peter and Dr. Wagner stay is named for the eighteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. Only a few pages after the death of Felicitas, Dr. Wagner is not thinking about the dead mother but is trying to recall anything cogent about Herder: “Didn’t Herder have something wrong with his eyes? Maybe an ulcer? That was all he could remember about him just now.” Quietly but insistently, Kempowski reminds us that we are reading a historical novel, written decades after the events by an ironizing contemporary. When the French P.O.W.s march past, he writes, “In the thick, driving snow the scene looked a little like 1812.” Throughout the book, Kempowski quotes poems and cheery popular songs, often in deliberately awkward juxtaposition to the gravity of the narrative. And he playfully repeats “Heil Hitler!,” abrading the phrase with flippancy and overuse. Whenever Drygalski appears or leaves, the official command is cheekily slipped into the text: “When Drygalski finally left—Heil Hitler!—the whole household heaved a sigh of relief.” But later in the book, when Peter, now homeless, is lining up at a pharmacy, the dread phrase begins to lose its power, as the war effort runs out of its power: “People were queuing outside the pharmacy—Heil Hitler—and it was some time before he could buy his toothbrush.” Twenty-four pages later, Peter is back at the shop: “The pharmacy was sold out of liquorice. Heil Hitler!”

Kempowski’s ironic control braces the novel against melodrama. And it gives the author a slight distance from his characters, so that he is not aligned too sympathetically with them. Most of them, with the exception of the brave and kindly Peter (the novelist’s self-portrait), are morally mottled, not entirely heroic but not wholly wicked, either. The novelist presents them as they are, and then steps back a little, as if he were saying to the reader, “Don’t confuse my novelistic sympathy with historical advocacy.” We sense this necessary German anxiety when Erpenbeck, in her introduction, commends the novel’s impartiality, reminding us that it is “in no way a work of nationalistic nostalgia” but, instead, “makes us feel the weight of these end times beyond all political affiliation.” Kempowski’s novel represents one of the culminating achievements of that postwar German self-reckoning, that political and literary renegotiation of the past that has produced important work by Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, W. G. Sebald, and, lately, Erpenbeck herself. We know that such reckoning required a delicate calculus, “beyond all political affiliation.” Sebald, in the lectures on the Allied bombing of German cities that he delivered in 1997 (later published under the title “On the Natural History of Destruction”), argued that the “national humiliation felt by millions in the last years of the war” was the reason that “no one, to the present day, has written the great German epic of the wartime and postwar periods.” A little less than a decade later, but too late for poor Sebald, Walter Kempowski beautifully proved him wrong. ♦

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April 9, 2018 at 10:06AM

“Angels in America”: Brilliant, Maddening, and Necessary

“Angels in America”: Brilliant, Maddening, and Necessary

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It has taken me years to understand that, while I don’t necessarily identify with a number of the characters in “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s brilliant, maddening, and necessary masterwork (now in revival at the Neil Simon, under the direction of Marianne Elliott), I do have deep feelings about the Angel. Not the one at Bethesda Fountain, in Central Park, who watches over some of the story’s action, but the Angel who speaks. She’s played in the current production by the nimble and intelligent Amanda Lawrence; our initial view of her is at the end of “Millennium Approaches,” the first part of the nearly eight-hour, two-part play. (The second is titled “Perestroika.”) We’re in the Manhattan apartment of a young man named Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield). It’s 1985, and Prior, the descendant of a distinguished American family, has AIDS. He’s just thirty, and when he got sick—when the lesions began to show and he was bleeding and had difficulty walking—his overly verbal, politically but not personally committed lover, Louis Ironson (James McArdle), left him, unable to deal with the presumed inevitable.

Fear defined the times. Ronald Reagan was President; the Christian right, including the political-action group the Moral Majority, had helped get him there. The AIDS crisis had laid waste to thousands of people, but Reagan had never talked publicly about the disease. (That didn’t happen until 1987.) Prior is at home, humiliated by loneliness and his body’s slow failure, when he begins to experience some strange things—especially for an ailing man. A powerful erection, for one.

Added to that personal weirdness, two chatty ectoplasms he’s somehow related to come to visit. First, there’s Prior 1, a thirteenth-century figure who carries a scythe. He reveals that he, too, was a victim of “the pestilence.” In some of Kushner’s most vivid, beautiful language, Prior 1 recalls, “You could look outdoors and see Death walking in the morning, dew dampening the ragged hem of his black robe.”

But Prior 2 won’t be outdone. A seventeenth-century Londoner dressed in period costume, Prior 2 speaks about death in a plummy accent. During his lifetime, there was, for instance, Black Jack. “Came from a water pump,” Prior 2 says. “Half the city of London—can you imagine?” (Prior 1 is played by Lee Pace and Prior 2 by Nathan Lane. Both have other roles.)

The youngest Prior wants to know whether he’s going to die. The older Priors can’t answer that. Prior 2: “We’ve been sent to declare Her fabulous incipience. They love a well-paved entrance with lots of heralds.” The ghostly Priors vanish, and in comes the Angel. And she is fabulous. Part winged creature and part radiant hag, she has eyes that focus intently on Prior, along with eight vaginas that excite the object of her interest. With her wild gray hair and a long, slim body covered in a sooty bodysuit, the Angel looks like a refugee from an old, crumbling discothèque, or like a creation of the illustrator Edward Gorey. (Elliott, who has won two Tonys for Best Director—in 2011, for “War Horse,” and in 2015, for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”—is especially adept at stage choreography.)

The Angel tells Prior, “The Great Work begins.” What does she want from Prior? She wants him to speak. To speak is to live. I have seen a number of productions of “Angels in America,” including Ivo van Hove’s outstanding, pared-down version, from 2014, but the Angel’s arrival and command never fail to tear my heart out. The Angel asks Prior to begin his work—their work—by prophesying. Silence and hesitance equal death. Isn’t that what we wanted for our gone friends? To be the messenger for all we wished they could say?

“Angels in America” is filled with wishes, hope, rabbinical anger, fantasy—and the kinds of errors in characterization that are bound to happen when big ideas come fast and furious, and authentic characters with beautifully confused intentions serve or get run over by those ideas. (I suggest reading the play before you see this or any production, to absorb Kushner’s bravura language, which can sometimes get a little lost in all the action.)

But that’s O.K., because just when you think Kushner is losing sight of how to handle the seven primary characters—eight, if you count the Angel—he brings out a new and hitherto unexplored empathy for a family that is not biological, let alone chosen. Roy Cohn (Lane) is diagnosed as having AIDS at the same time that Prior is—but that’s a matter of opinion, according to Cohn. If his doctor, Henry (Susan Brown), announces that diagnosis, the hateful, litigious Cohn—who made sure that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were killed in the electric chair; served as Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during his crusade against Communism; and, toward the end of his life, represented Donald Trump—will destroy Henry’s career. The truth is open to debate. Cohn says that he has liver cancer, and Henry follows suit.

Still, there is something like love in Cohn’s closeted life. He has a protégé named Joe Pitt (Pace), who has lots of ambition but no direction—just Cohn’s kind of guy. He’ll get Joe to Congress, but in return for what? Not realizing that Cohn is gay, Joe can’t tell him—can’t tell anyone—that he’s gay himself; after all, he’s a Mormon, and married. At night, he goes for walks in the Ramble, in Central Park (where the angel at Bethesda looks after us all), to observe men who are in touch with their bodies. When he meets the guilt-ridden Louis, they’re bound by their failure to be honest men. Like most of the characters, except Cohn, Joe and Louis want to be free in themselves, to have their bodies without apology and threat of death or loss. There’s an extraordinary moment when, at the beach—it’s winter—Joe strips out of his Mormon undergarments, as a way of showing that he wants to have no restrictions between him and Louis.

Louis is frightened of love, too: he perceives it as a responsibility, not as a freeing agent. But who, during that time, could separate his love for a man from how he’d care for him if the worst happened?

Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a black nurse who works on the AIDS ward in a Manhattan hospital, sees the worst and tries his best to combat it. With his peroxided hair and purposeful stride, he’s the only character in the piece who deals with realism on a daily basis. When Cohn is put on his floor, Belize knows exactly who he is; he takes the AZT—at the time, a rare and valuable drug—that Cohn has stockpiled, and gives it to the needy, including his closest friend and former lover, Prior.

There are no corny or soap-opera-ish coincidences in Kushner’s work, really; one of the points he’s trying to make is that we are all deeply connected, simply by being active spirits in the same cosmos, and by being closeted and not-closeted gay men. Sexuality dictates and shapes its own culture. Still, despite Belize’s virtues, I have never felt comfortable in his presence. Even the greatest actor would love to do all the finger-snapping part-time-drag-queen stuff, but I don’t know one black man in nineteen-eighties New York who would have felt entirely himself—entirely safe—“reading” white people while on the job. The character is a dream of black strength, an Angela Bassett of the ward.

Similarly, Louis has always got on my nerves. Kushner has poured a lifetime of feeling and thought about Jewish intellectual skepticism into him. He’s a guilty person who fucks up so that he can feel guilty. (Belize: “It’s no fun picking on you, Louis. . . . There’s no satisfying hits, just quivering, the darts just blop in and vanish.”) So, when he learns that Joe worked with Cohn, he doesn’t so much evolve as get woke. When Louis confronts Joe, Pace is so sweet in his confusion that you want to scoop up his tall frame and banish all the terrible things in his life.

Elliott does nothing to tone down the butch-femme dichotomy in the work. While the more “flamboyant” characters Prior and Belize suffer and are intuitive, butch trade like Joe are all about outward strength and quiet intensity. Just as I don’t believe Belize, Andrew Garfield, too cut to be dying of AIDS, engages too much in the limp-wristed school of acting—lots of squealing and literal limp wrists. (Lane plays Lane playing Roy Cohn.) Garfield is a good actor, and, God knows, it’s a part that could kill a less aware star, but flouncing around doesn’t make you gay; it makes you a well-toned actor trying to play an AIDS victim.

When I saw “Millennium Approaches,” audience members laughed when Prior first collapsed, bleeding. I was furious, and then saddened when I realized that many of them were too young to know how AIDS decimated not only a community but the world. They took the scene as another example of Garfield’s amusing overacting. “Angels in America” premièred twenty-seven years ago, a decade after the AIDS crisis began, and, each time it’s performed, there’s another generation of audience members who can’t understand the love and the urgency that the play grew out of.

But back to the Angel. She makes love to Prior, briefly, in “Perestroika,” a scene that put me in mind of the poet James Merrill. In his outstanding trilogy “The Changing Light at Sandover,” there’s an angel, Michael, who visits Merrill and his partner, David Jackson, at the close of Volume II, “Mirabell: Books of Number” (1978). Like Kushner’s Angel, Merrill’s feels at one with the protagonists. They are gay men who commune with the spirit world in order to escape, in part, this world, with its fag-bashing and internalized self-hatred. Merrill’s angel is a kind of guide out of that purgatory and into a more cohesive understanding of the world of bodies. Michael says:

WE HAVE IN THIS MEETING FOUND YOU INTELLIGENT & YOUR SERIOUS NATURES AT ONE WITH US. . . .

I HAVE ESTABLISHED YOUR ACQUAINTANCE & ACCEPT YOU. COME NEXT TIME IN YOUR OWN MANNER. SERVANTS WE ARE NOT.

Michael wants the queer men he loves to rise up and to take their place, not only in the Heaven that awaits them but in the Hell we’ve made through ignorance, fear, and willfulness. I don’t know if Merrill had any influence on Kushner, but, as Kushner’s Angel is for Prior, Merrill’s was among the first to empower my dead and living kind. ♦

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April 9, 2018 at 10:06AM