Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): A few weeks ago, I sat next to an older woman on a platform upstate waiting for a train back to New York. The chunky jewelry she was wearing basically screamed Jewish psychoanalyst, and we struck up a conversation about the recent Jewish Currents issue, which deals with psychoanalytic themes (reminder to subscribe!). She recommended a YouTube series called Group, which explores a “process group,” a form of group therapy where individuals react moment-to-moment to one another and to the dynamics of the group itself. Only a minute or two into the first episode (they generally run between 15 and 20 minutes), we learn that process groups differ very starkly from, say, dinner party discussion. People are saying things that they would never, ever say in polite company: They are expressing sexual attraction and even arousal toward one another; noting anger and annoyance with even slight or casual comments or behaviors; straightforwardly asking for and receiving love and validation. I consider myself a conflict-forward person without a lot of social anxiety, but some of these interactions had me cowering under my pillow. But I kept watching, because I was surprised by the extent to which I felt myself to be a part of the group, noticing my own emotional reactions to the events in the room (the group members are played by actors but led by the real psychoanalyst Elliot Zeisel).
This became acute at the end of the season, when the group had to address a harmful situation that played out between a man and a woman without rushing to judgment or dismissal, and also without resorting to overarching political ideas or frameworks that might not be shared between the members. This sidelining of politics and recommitment to digging in to raw feelings and relations challenged me enormously, and yet it was helpful to remember that there are other ways to skin a cat, as it were; that there might be other tools in our toolbox. I sometimes found myself frustrated by the lack of resolution—with all the new therapy shows out there, it’s easy to forget that therapy isn’t quite teleological—but I ultimately respected the fidelity to the form. And some of the discomfort and frustration I felt at the end of the first season was instructive in a way that I don’t often experience in relation to television. The second season takes place during the pandemic and tries to bring the reality of Zoom life into the group. I couldn’t stomach that, frankly, but I do crave more. I hope they start meeting again in person soon.
Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Mark Haber’s Saint Sebastian’s Abyss is a slim novel about an obsession so immense it dominates, and eventually destroys, the lives at its center. Haber charts the relationship between two art critics—the unnamed narrator and his friend from his Oxford days, whom we know simply as “Schmidt”—whose camaraderie has soured into enmity. From his deathbed in Berlin, Schmidt has sent the narrator a long-winded email reiterating his disdain, initially inspired by the narrator’s stray remark on the nature of criticism and cultivated over the following 13 years. The narrator catches a flight to Germany for one final confrontation. Most of the novel takes place on this pilgrimage, feverishly zigzagging with the narrator’s thoughts across time and space while tracing the critics’ intertwined careers, and the life of Count Hugo Beckenbauer, the (fictional) syphilitic 16th-century Dutch artist who produced the painting that has consumed Schmidt and the narrator for decades. The pair is convinced that this piece, also titled Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, is an unsurpassed masterpiece. In paragraph-long chapters of one to four pages, the novel details their hyperbolic adulation—as well as their corresponding disgust for most art, including Beckenbauer’s two other surviving works—and compulsive attempts to express the painting’s singular, apocalyptic genius. In sinuous, recursive sentences infused with equal parts reverence and venom, Haber constructs a darkly parodic portrait of aesthetic devotion and intellectual friendship, in which the redemptive practice of collaborative interpretation becomes a cage that two egos relentlessly rattle.
David Klion (newsletter editor): We all know social media is bad for us; as a recovering Twitter addict, I know it better than most. But as with any other addiction, our behavior on social media platforms is easily trivialized, and our minds instinctively recoil at the idea that our silly time-wasting posts have any kind of real-world impact. What Max Fisher effectively conveys in his new book, The Chaos Machine, is that these platforms really are distorting our material reality in tangible and horrifying ways, and that the harms they cause are intrinsic to their design and consciously enabled by the for-profit entities that built and manage them. Fisher, a reporter for The New York Times who helped co-found Vox (which, as he acknowledges early on, is one of a whole cohort of news sites engineered to take advantage of social media algorithms), is exceptionally gifted at explaining complex topics in plain English, and he brings that talent to bear in this account of how Facebook and its peers broke the world, which includes on the ground reporting not only in Silicon Valley but in countries like Myanmar—where, Fisher convincingly argues, Facebook is directly complicit in genocide.
A good antidote to social media is private, closed online communities where a few dozen like-minded people can share articles, ideas, and common idiosyncratic interests without performing for a larger crowd. I hope Fisher won’t mind my acknowledging that he and I are in one such community together—and while that community certainly doesn’t agree on everything, we agree that Fisher has managed to scare us into reconsidering the many hours a day we spend poisoning our brains online.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): There is no political historical documentary that equals Patricio Guzman’s classic multi-part film The Battle of Chile, which follows the birth, tribulations, and death of the Popular Unity government of the socialist president Salvador Allende. Allende led Latin America’s noblest attempt at the democratic construction of true socialism—an attempt bloodily crushed on September 11th, 1973. Guzman, at the time an ardent young leftist and a supporter of Allende, was arrested in the wake of the US-backed right-wing coup and held in the prison camp that was the National Stadium, where the great communist folksinger Victor Jara was murdered. In the decades since, Guzman, living outside Chile, has rarely wandered from the theme of the crushing of the hopes given birth to by the Popular Unity government. His film about the sea to Chile’s west (The Pearl Button) is meant to remind us of the disappeared leftists thrown into it by the Pinochet government; his film about the Atacama Desert (Nostalgia for the Light), is likewise intended to show the families of the disappeared searching for their loved ones’ bones buried there.
Guzman is now an old man, and the newly released My Imaginary Country is his account of the year and a half between the outbreak of demonstrations in Chile in October 2019 over a 30-peso increase in subway fares, through the campaign to authorize the writing of a new constitution, and on to the election of the 36-year-old leftist Gabriel Boric. Guzman’s wonder at this unexpected return of what he thought forever lost is felt in every shot and interview.
Popular Unity was a movement of left-wing political parties; by contrast, the social movements that arose in 2019 were anti-political, and though one might expect an old-line leftist like Guzman to be skeptical of violent protests involving thousands of young people throwing stones at cops, that is not the case. Though he never mentions it, in The Battle of Chile the cops fired at fleeing crowds, while in My Imaginary Country the young men and women, in their masks and helmets, give as good as they get. Another striking difference is that every interview subject in the new film is a woman. Women occasionally appear in The Battle of Chile, but they’re presented here as the major force of change in Chile. Young women barely out of high school are part of the constituent assembly drafting the proposed new constitution. The message of My Imaginary Country is that Chile has changed, and that the changes have just begun.
Sadly, we now know that Guzman’s unbridled optimism crashed against reality, and the proposed constitution, which consecrated a hundred rights and was the most progressive ever proposed anywhere, was soundly defeated in a referendum earlier this month. It’s impossible to fault Guzman, now 81, for believing that the country he imagined in his twenties and thirties was about to become a reality. Hope dies last.