All posts by Robert Zaretsky


‘Charlie Hebdo,’ Houellebecq, and France’s Pungent Satirical Tradition

Accompanying many of the appalling accounts of Wednesday’s massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo is a reproduction of the satirical weekly’s cover. It features a caricature of the writer Michel Houellebecq, garbed in a blue wizard’s outfit, face unshaven, jowls sagging and eyes bleary (no doubt from one glass de trop), smoke spiraling from a cigarette wedged between his fingers. No doubt in a slurred voice, France’s best-selling novelist, whose new book Soumission (Submission) went on sale th…


Tolstoy’s Ghost

In 1854 the young Russian officer Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was stationed in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. For several weeks French and British forces had laid siege to the city. An aspiring writer and inspired Russian patriot, Tolstoy transformed his observations into the Sevastopol Sketches, three long dispatches that won him the regard not just of critics but also of Czar Alexander II, who was desperately seeking a way out of the war that his just-deceased father, Nicholas I, had recklessly …


What’s at Stake With Grade Inflation?

Truth, we’re told, is the first casualty of war. But as I hunker in my office bunker, the dull thud of history term papers landing on my desk, columns of sleep-deprived and anxiety-ridden students trudging past the door, I’m convinced that truth is also the first casualty of undergraduate paper writing. It is not only the historical truths trampled in the mangled and muddied papers written by my students. More insidiously, a deeper truth also suffers. Only tatters remain of the contract, implici…


Torture at the Movies

In the beginning is torture. We confront a man being slowly and systematically brutalized by fellow men. The victim’s gaze is flattened, his body is battered, and his dignity is crushed. All the while the torturer regards his work with an unperturbed matter-of-factness, succeeded by satisfaction when the victim finally offers information critical to a nation’s security.

Zero Dark Thirty? No. The Battle of Algiers.

Nearly half a century divides the making of the two movies. (The Battle of Algiers