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Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): My dad died suddenly six weeks ago. In the days after the shiva—the people all gone, the kitchen table piled high with babka, my sister and I not yet ready to return to life—what else could we do? We watched TV. We watched RuPaul’s Drag Race, which, though it’s been on for 16 seasons, neither of us had ever watched before.

In case you, like me, have been living under a rock: Drag Race is a reality show where drag queens from around the country compete in a number of performance challenges where they sing, dance, act, tell jokes, impersonate celebrities, sew their own clothes, walk the runway, and, of course—in the head-to-head elimination challenge that closes each episode—lip sync (“for. your. life.” as RuPaul’s catchphrase goes).

Last summer, I dipped into HBO’s We’re Here, in which former Drag Race superstars go to small American towns and scrounge together the few out queers and their allies for an out-and-proud drag show. It’s well-made—more documentary than “reality”—and I dare you not to cry at least once an episode. But I always feel just a bit uncomfortable with the show’s gaze. Though it never crosses over into full-blown condescension toward rural America, it does seem designed to allow liberals in blue coastal states to pat themselves on the back for their open-mindedness. I’ve also always been just a tad wary of the show’s premise, which pushes drag on its small-town hosts the way some people push ayahuasca—a kind of mystical rite and shortcut to enlightenment for people of all genders and sexual orientations. In one particularly misguided episode, the queens enlist the mother of a queer young adult who committed suicide into the show, insisting that all the makeup and sequins are part of her healing. After the performance, she looks positively broken.

But on Drag Race, among those who have devoted their lives to drag, it seems hard to overstate its power. RuPaul often says that “drag does not change who you are, it reveals who you are,” a process we see in action in the “werk room” and on the mainstage, as the queens bare themselves by accretion. They glue down their eyebrows, and bury themselves in makeup, padding, and fabric, in a labor of artifice that becomes a route to the real. As the girls get painted, they talk about their lives: Many of them have been rejected by their families and have replaced them with drag families; they tell stories of addiction and religious fundamentalism and suicide, of bullying and poverty and chronic illness. When people advance in the competition, Ru will frequently talk about how they’ve been “peeling away layers.” In this regard, one gets the sense that these alter egos are not so much a means of escape from this world as a prophetic revelation toward a new one, fashioned in the queens’ own image.

I don’t know why this show has been such a balm for me as I grieve. Perhaps it’s the way that every episode follows the exact same script, each punctuated by a set of beloved RuPaul catchphrases—something reliable in a world destabilized through disappearance. But maybe I am simply responding to the show’s value system: it’s relentless emphasis on joy, self-love, and resilience. For now, the queens will have to model these feelings until I can produce them on my own again.

Nora Caplan-Bricker (executive editor): Over the past two months, I finally read Simone de Beauvoir’s best-known novel, The Mandarins—which too many friends to count have recommended to me as the rare novel to capture the feeling of political life. Originally published in 1954 and translated into English in 1956, it follows a circle of leftist intellectuals in Paris during the years after World War II.

From the opening scene, the novel considers the challenges of rebuilding after near-total loss. Gathering in December 1944 to celebrate the first Christmas since the end of Nazi occupation, the characters find themselves at “a very peculiar party,” as Anne Dubreuilh, one of Beauvoir’s protagonists, later reflects, attended by “all the dead who weren’t there.” It’s not only friends, lovers, and Resistance comrades who have been swallowed up by the darkness of the last four years, but also a whole society that has been “liquidat[ed]”: Gone is the world in which the characters understood themselves as denizens of a global power, replaced by one where Europe seems doomed to be annexed by either the United States or the Soviet Union. Over the next four years, the characters accomplish the impossible feat of starting over, only to be brought again and again to new lows. Anne’s husband, Robert Dubreuilh, a celebrated left-wing intellectual, organizes a new socialist party, hoping to remain independent of the rigidly sectarian Communists while simultaneously opposing American hegemony—but the Cold War redraws the political map faster than Robert can plant a flag for an independent socialist Europe, and he watches Nazi collaborators rehabilitated on the national stage as France’s sclerotic left is devoured by infighting. Robert’s protege, Henri Perron, suffers his own disappointment, laboring to balance his commitment to politics and his calling as a writer, only to feel himself misunderstood by both comrades and audience. And Anne—dedicated to a companionable but sexless marriage, believing her “life as a woman” to be “over”—rediscovers a hunger for experience in a surprise love affair, then suffers all the more acutely when it crashes and burns.

Anne’s narrative reminds the reader that The Mandarins is concerned with the fundamental question of how to live. But the novel’s most richly unusual quality is its attention to the struggles of writing and politics as, for these characters, the drama of life itself. (The various romances—a game of musical chairs involving an infinite secondary cast—are comparatively prone to drag.) Beauvoir gives us life-defining attachments founded in shared belief, and wrenching ruptures over divergent political calculations. The novel, like its characters, refuses any zero-sum choice between devotion to people and to ideas. In a perceptive essay on The Mandarins, the literary critic Toril Moi writes that the novel advances Beauvoir’s philosophical argument that “for our lives to have meaning, we need the responses of others, understood as free subjects”: It is the possibility of understanding and being understood that justifies the effort involved in writing, arguing, loving; it’s the fact that the other is “other” and can disagree that gives their recognition value and power. Or, as Henri reflects, “If you spend the best of your days trying to communicate with others, it’s because others count.” Ultimately, it’s a fundamental interest in other people—and a sense of responsibility to them—that compels Beauvoir’s characters to recommit to their work every time their dreams and ambitions fail.

I was surprised, when I went looking for writing about the novel, to learn that it received mixed reviews in its own time. It won France’s highest literary honor but was dismissed by the Cold War-era American press. Critics tended to interpret it as a roman à clef—with Anne and Robert standing in for Beauvoir and her famous partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Henri modeled on Albert Camus—an approach that caused Beauvoir no end of frustration. (She did, however, openly acknowledge that Anne’s romance with an American was modeled on her affair with the writer Nelson Algren.) If its popularity among my friends is any indication, it has recently found a more receptive Anglophone audience (Moi, too, hypothesizes that “its moment may have come”). Perhaps a formal reappraisal can begin with the standard that the novel itself elaborates through its characters’ vigorous debates. Their challenge, as they define it, is to reclaim the territory of personal experience from the “right-wing aesthetes” while insisting on the individual’s enmeshment in the broader world. The result, Robert argues, should be literature that “mak[es] us see things in a new perspective by setting them in their true place”—holding subjective impressions of beauty alongside the contexts that falsify them or give them meaning.

The Mandarins does just this, capturing a crushing historical moment in a portrait of people fighting to make it otherwise. Their sense of futility is, of course, all too familiar. Projection is yet another form of bad reading—the opposite of the astute recognition that Henri seeks—but I appreciated the novel’s particular resonance, and the way that, for Beauvoir, the characters’ lives are neither reducible to their failures nor separable from the hopes into which they put everything.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): There are many, many films about people exploring the world after they die. But few if any treat this terrain as movingly—or with as much love and sympathy for its characters—as Hirokazu Kore-eda’s early work After Life (1998), which is now streaming on the Criterion Channel. In the film’s imagining of the next world, when we die, we find ourselves in a waiting room in a dreadful office building. The bureaucratic workers at this way station call our names and explain to us how we will spend eternity: We are to choose one moment from our lives, which will be recreated and filmed so we can enjoy it over and over forever. There’s no catch; we won’t discover that this treasured memory was actually hellish, or come to regret it. The reward for leaving the life we lived is that we get to relive its best moment forever.

After Life goes on to show the dead talking about their lives with the officials of the beyond as they ponder which cherished memory to select, describing moments great and small. In a move that imbues the film with pathos, Kore-eda chose to have the actors give unscripted reflections on their own lives. After the characters make their decision, After Life depicts a film crew’s painstaking recreation of the chosen episodes by a film crew. Everything must be just so; after all, these scenes must last until the end of time. Beyond offering a comforting vision of death, the film is a celebration of the singular beauty of those rare moments in our lives that marked us deeply. (As the narrator in Chris Marker’s immortal short film La Jetée says, “Moments we remember differ from others by the scars they leave.”) On the night before I went in for bypass surgery a few years ago, when I feared I might die, this was the film I chose to watch.

Ever since I first saw the film upon its original release, I’ve known precisely what event I’d choose to relive forever. (Regular readers may recall that I mentioned it once before.) The moment took place on June 22nd, 1962, at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, then the home of the New York Mets. I was ten years old and loved nothing as much as I loved the Houston Colt .45s (now the Astros), and my father had taken me and my brother to see them play the Mets in a twi-night doubleheader, two games beginning at dusk. The moment I still think of as the most beautiful one of my life was the scene when we came up the ramp in right field: the bright lights, the green grass, and the Colt .45s. I can still see the gray of their uniforms; the blue and rust of the trim, hat, and socks; my favorite player on the team, Román Mejías, as he came up to bat. Every subsequent moment of happiness has been an echo of that one. If only there really was a crew who would one day reconstruct it for me.