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The New York Review of Books – December 23, 2017

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Is Very Sorry
January 18, 2018 / Volume LXV, Number 1
Whose Holy Land?
Raja Shehadeh in the West Bank
Sarah Helm in Gaza
xMichelangelo x Alex
xOffenbach x
Making America Worse Again
South Asian Rage
17th Edition
is the rule of reason made flesh. It is belief
in se
sensible authority and reasonable application
thereof. . . . Everything is changing, but some truths
remain steadfast, and they should be not merely
online but at your fingertips.”—Washington Post
CLOTH $70.00
A Life
Laura Dassow Walls
“Luminous. . . . Through Walls’s biography, Thoreau once
more challenges us to see, with his passion and intensity,
the world in all its cruelty and its splendour, riddled with
human lies and abundant in natural truths.”—Financial
CLOTH $35.00
A Photographer’s Life and Afterlife
Pamela Bannos
“The achievement of Bannos’s intelligent, irritable selfreflexive study is in its restraint. She unseats the ghost
and restores to us the woman—but in her own words and
images, and without psychologizing. It’s a portrait as direct
as any of Maier’s, and what a distinct pleasure it is to meet
her gaze again.”—Parul Sehgal, New York Times
CLOTH $35.00
How the Soviet Union Secretly
Mapped the World
John Davies and
Alexander J. Kent
“During the Cold War, the Soviet military undertook
a secret mapping program that’s only recently come to
light in the West. It was one of the greatest mapping
endeavors the world has ever seen. . . . Much of what’s
known about this secret Soviet military project is
outlined in The Red Atlas.”—National Geographic
CLOTH $35.00
A Journey in Search of Modern Marvels
Caspar Henderson
“A marvel throughout. . . . Ferry’s blank verse is as
understatedly traditional, and unflashy, as his diction.
The whole accumulates into a stately, inevitable
force.”—New York Review of Books
“A magnificent Baroque edifice. Henderson’s composed a
literary kunstkammer, one of those old-fashioned ‘cabinets
of wonder,’ where learned scholars would cram fossils
next to chalices next to seashells next to stuffed frog or
birds of paradise—whatever captured their fancy. . . . [The
book] will linger long after you put it down.”—Wall Street
CLOTH $35.00
CLOTH $29.00
Lynne Cooke
Outliers and American Vanguard Art offers a wonderful opportunity to consider works by schooled and self-taught creators in
relation to each other and defined by historical circumstance.
It is sure to inspire vigorous conversation about how artists and
the work they make are represented.
CLOTH $65.00
The People Who Transformed
an Economy
Jan Cienski
“Cienski’s work is highly informative, and
for Americans, provides an object lesson in
what can be learned from the accomplishments, and failures, of other nations,
regimes, and economic systems.”
—Publishers Weekly
CLOTH $27.50
James Mann Damage Bigly
Prudence Crowther Zeus: The Apology
Martin Filler Wiener Werkstätte, 1903–1932: The Luxury of Beauty an exhibition at the Neue Galerie,
New York City
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Christian Witt-Dörring and Janis Staggs
Thomas Powers The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg
Adam Kirsch Jacques Offenbach and the Making of Modern Culture by Laurence Senelick
The Real “Tales of Hoffmann”: Origin, History, and Restoration of an Operatic Masterpiece
by Vincent Giroud and Michael Kaye, with a foreword by Plácido Domingo
Les contes d’Hoffmann an opera by Jacques Offenbach, directed by Bartlett Sher,
at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City
Raja Shehadeh Enclosure: Palestinian Landscapes in a Historical Mirror by Gary Fields
Geoffrey Wheatcroft Churchill a film directed by Jonathan Teplitzky
Darkest Hour a film directed by Joe Wright
Sarah Helm Homeless in Gaza
Andrew Butterfield Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art, New York City
Catalog of the exhibition by Carmen C. Bambach, with contributions from Claire Barry,
Francesco Caglioti, Caroline Elam, Marcella Marongiu, and Mauro Mussolin
Roderick MacFarquhar The Red Emperor
Emily Wilson The Poems of Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, and The Shield of Herakles
translated from the Greek by Barry B. Powell
Mukul Kesavan The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide by Azeem Ibrahim,
with a foreword by Muhammad Yunus
Islam and the State in Myanmar: Muslim- Buddhist Relations and the Politics of Belonging
edited by Melissa Crouch
Ruth Franklin Improvement by Joan Silber
Antony Beevor The War Within: Diaries from the Siege of Leningrad by Alexis Peri
Leningrad 1941–1942: Morality in a City Under Siege by Sergey Yarov,
translated from the Russian by Arch Tait
Besieged Leningrad: Aesthetic Responses to Urban Disaster by Polina Barskova
Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad edited and with an introduction
by Polina Barskova, translated from the Russian by Anand Dibble and seven others
Alan Ryan Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke by Richard Bourke
Fintan O’Toole Keeping On Keeping On by Alan Bennett
Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at London’s National Theatre by Nicholas Hytner
Sue Halpern Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money,
Business, and the World by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott
Attack of the Fifty Foot Blockchain: Bitcoin, Blockchain, Ethereum and Smart Contracts
by David Gerard
David Salle Alex Katz an exhibition at Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York City
Catalog of the exhibition with essays by Frank O’Hara and Tom McGlynn
Letters from Matthew Evangelista and Strobe Talbott
ANTONY BEEVOR , the author of Stalingrad, is a Visiting Professor at the University of Kent. His latest book is Ardennes 1944: The
Battle of the Bulge.
ANDREW BUTTERFIELD is President of Andrew Butterfield
Fine Arts. He is the author of The Sculptures of Andrea del Verrocchio, among other books.
PRUDENCE CROWTHER is on the editorial staff of The New
York Review.
MARTIN FILLER’s Makers of Modern Architecture, Volume III:
From Antoni Gaudí to Maya Lin, a collection of his writing on architecture in these pages, will be published in September.
RUTH FRANKLIN’s most recent book is Shirley Jackson: A
Rather Haunted Life, for which she received the National Book
Critics Circle Award in Biography in 2016.
SUE HALPERN is a regular contributor to The New York Review
and a Scholar-in-Residence at Middlebury. Her latest book, the
novel Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, will be published in
SARAH HELM, the former Middle East Correspondent of The
Independent, is the author, most recently, of Ravensbrück: Life and
Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women.
MUKUL KESAVAN teaches the history of colonial India at Jamia
Millia Islamia in New Delhi.
ADAM KIRSCH is a poet and critic. His most recent book is The
Global Novel: Writing the World in the Twenty-first Century.
RODERICK M ACFARQUHAR is Leroy B. Williams Research
Professor of History and Political Science at Harvard. His latest
publication as editor and contributor is The Politics of China: Sixty
Years of the People’s Republic of China.
JAMES MANN is a Fellow-in-Residence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His books
include The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to
Redefine American Power and Rise of the Vulcans: The History of
Bush’s War Cabinet.
FINTAN O’TOOLE is a columnist with The Irish Times and
Leonard L. Milberg Visiting Lecturer in Irish Letters at Princeton.
His writings on Brexit have won both the European Press Prize and
the Orwell Prize for journalism.
THOMAS POWERS’s books include Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb and The Killing of Crazy Horse.
ALAN RYAN is the author of On Tocqueville, On Marx, and the
two-volume work On Politics: A History of Political Thought from
Herodotus to the Present.
DAVID SALLE is a painter and stage designer. His most recent
book is How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking about Art.
RAJA SHEHADEH’s latest book is Where the Line Is Drawn: A
Tale of Crossings, Friendships, and Fifty Years of Occupation in
Israel-Palestine. He is a founder of the human rights group Al-Haq,
an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists.
GEOFFREY WHEATCROFT is the author of The Controversy
of Zion, The Strange Death of Tory England, and Yo, Blair!
EMILY WILSON is a Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her verse translation of the Odyssey was
published in November.
Editor: Ian Buruma
Deputy Editor: Michael Shae
Senior Editors: Eve Bowen, Gabriel Winslow-Yost
Prudence Crowther, Julie Just
Senior Editor, Poetry: Jana Prikryl
Assistant Editor: Andrew Katzenstein
Founding Editors: Robert B. Silvers (1929–2017)
Barbara Epstein (1928–2006)
Publisher: Rea S. Hederman
Associate Publisher: Catherine Tice
Advertising Director: Lara Frohlich Andersen
Max Nelson and Liza Batkin, Editorial Assistants; Lucy Jakub, Editorial Intern; Sylvia Lonergan, Researcher; Katie Jefferis and John Thorp, Type Production; Janet
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Services: NAPC, 300 North Zeeb Rd., Ann Arbor, MI 48106.
NYRDaily Matt Seaton, Editor; Lucy McKeon, Assistant Editor.
» Geoffrey Wheatcroft: Ravilious & the Neo-Romantics
» Prudence Peiffer: Agnes Martin & Richard Tuttle
» Jenny Uglow: Modigliani: Fevered Life, Pure Line
» Adam Dalva: A Smashed and Splintered Music
Plus: David Shulman on Trump and Jerusalem, Melissa Gira Grant on sexual harassment, and more
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303 Gallery, New York). Also on the cover: Zeus with Cupid (Luigi Spina/Electa/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images).
The New York Review of Books (ISSN 0028-7504), published 20 times a year, monthly in January, July, August, and September; semi-monthly in February, March, April,
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James Mann
The tax legislation that was just
rammed through Congress makes it
quite clear that Donald Trump’s first
year in the White House has been much
more damaging to the nation than that
of any other president in modern times.
Before this bill, it might have been possible, though wrong, to argue that as
president, Trump had brought to his
office more sound and fury than action. The notion took hold for much
of 2017 that his failures in Congress,
along with a series of court rulings, had
limited his impact; the failure to repeal
Obamacare and the courts’ blocking of
the early versions of his
travel ban were cited as
examples of the supposedly constrained Trump
No more. The sweeping
tax bill gives a huge tax
cut to corporations and to
wealthy individuals, and
will add roughly $1 trillion
over the next ten years to
the federal deficit. It will
widen further the already
enormous gulf between
the very wealthy and the
rest of America. And it
sets the stage for an attempt by Republicans in
Congress in 2018 to shrink
the federal deficit by cutting benefits to a large
number of Americans
through reductions in Social Security, Medicare,
and other social programs.
The end-of-year tax
legislation forces a reexamination of quite a
few other ideas about the
Trump presidency that
have taken hold from time
to time over the past twelve months.
One is the assumption that the Republicans in Congress and their leaders Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan
viewed Trump merely as a temporary
tool. Once the Republicans got the tax
cuts they were so desperately seeking
(so this argument went), they would
prove more willing to move against
him, to condemn his excesses and his
outrages. But now that the tax bill has
been completed, they seem more wedded to Trump than ever; they will need
his support for, among other things,
their budget-cutting efforts to follow.
So, too, the passage of the tax bill
suggests a new look at the question of
what might happen if Trump were to
be replaced by Vice President Mike
Pence. There has been a sotto voce line
of argument among liberals that Pence
would be even worse for the country
than Trump. The logic of this was that
Pence seemed more conservative than
Trump and more beholden to financial
interests like those of the Koch brothers; at the same time, he is closer to
congressional Republicans and thus
would be more able to get legislation
through Congress. But the tax bill underscores the fact that Trump himself
can get spectacularly regressive legislation through Congress; the supposedly
“populist” streak that he occasionally
displayed during his presidential campaign is sheer fiction, at least when it
comes to economic policy.
More importantly, although Pence
stands on the far right of the political
spectrum, he at least is on the spectrum
of ordinary politics, while Trump is
not. His tendencies veer toward authoritarianism and white nationalism, with
an overlay of conspiracy theories and
hucksterism. Pence is a conventional,
even boring politician, and while
deeply conservative, he would bring
with him far less of the racism and far
fewer of the attacks on enemies, truth,
and the rule of law that have proved so
incredibly damaging to the nation’s social fabric under Trump.
ven before the tax bill, Trump’s first
year had caused great harm to the nation. It is worth examining where he
The wall along the Mexican border
that Trump ordered to be constructed
as soon as he took office is nowhere
close to being built. He has not persuaded Mexico to pay for it, and at
this point Congress hasn’t agreed to
fund it either. Trump’s original plan to
restrict Muslim immigration into the
United States was blocked for most of
the year in the courts. The plan had to
be revised not once but twice; then, in
early December, the Supreme Court
allowed the third version of the plan
to go forward while legal challenges
proceed. As Trump’s top-priority initiatives got bogged down in the courts,
so too did some of his other campaigns.
Last summer, he announced on Twitter one morning that he was barring
transgendered Americans from the
for Chuck Grassley, the Republican
chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who refused to confirm him.
Meanwhile, a new proposal is being
circulated by a right-wing legal scholar
to expand the number of appellate
judgeships (now 179) by two- or threefold, and to increase the number of
district judges as well, with the avowed
purpose of “undoing the judicial legacy
of President Barack Obama.”2 In short,
while the courts have served as an occasional constraint upon Trump during his first year in office, he is moving
quickly to reshape the judiciary so that,
in the long run, it may prove to be less
independent and less constraining than
it has been.
Elsewhere, across a range of environmental and regulatory agencies, Trump
has appointed officials
with a record of hostility
to the idea that the federal government operates
for the benefit of the public. The most prominent
example is Scott Pruitt,
the administrator of the
Protection Agency, who as the
Oklahoma attorney general had repeatedly gone
to court to block various
EPA actions. Over the
past year, Pruitt has introduced a series of initiatives
favorable to the industries
the EPA regulates, for example eliminating rules
that limit carbon-dioxide
emission. He has also repeatedly questioned the
work of the EPA’s staff on
climate change and other
scientific issues.
It is a mistake to think
that Trump has been causing damage only to a few
specific regulations or
areas of policy. The effects have been pervasive.
One of the most detailed descriptions
of what Trump has meant at the grassroots level comes from Michael Lewis,
in a recent article in Vanity Fair about
the Department of Agriculture. 3 Inside
the department, the effects of the new
Trump era are registered division by
division, program by program: cuts for
the food stamp program, a weakening
of the regulations governing school nutrition, looser rules for meat inspection,
the politicization of the department’s
science programs, instructions to the
career staff to stop using the phrase
“climate change.” All of this has taken
place within Trump’s first year in office.
Gerald Scarfe
Damage Bigly
has had the greatest impact and where
he has failed. Until the tax bill, many of
the domestic proposals to which Trump
had accorded the highest priority had
run aground; either Congress failed to
approve them or they were blocked in
the courts.
He said he was going to do away with
the Affordable Care Act on the first day
of his administration, but it remains on
the books today. It is sometimes argued
that Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security program, created in 1935, did not
become accepted as a permanent feature of American life until two and a
half decades later, when Dwight Eisenhower, the first Republican president
after Roosevelt, finished his eight-year
term without seeking to abolish it. In a
comparable way, historians may someday come to view the Trump presidency as the time when Obamacare
(or at least some of its central features,
like required coverage for preexisting
conditions and allowing children to
stay on their parents’ policies until age
twenty-six) became an established part
of America’s health system.1
Both Trump and the Republican
Congress have sought to weaken the
Affordable Care Act, Trump with
an executive order eliminating some
subsidies to insurance companies and
Congress in a provision of the tax bill
eliminating mandated coverage. But
the law still stands.
armed forces. That policy too has been
blocked in the courts.
Nevertheless, even when the courts
have ruled against him or Congress has
failed to do what he wants, Trump has
inflicted considerable damage on domestic policy through his appointments
and executive actions. The effects have
been clearest and most lasting on the
federal judiciary.
For most of the past year Trump
trumpeted his early appointment of
Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court as
one of his greatest successes. That was
a largely hollow boast, since the person
most responsible for the appointment
was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had blocked President
Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Court throughout the previous year.
However, the harm to the judicial
branch and Trump’s personal imprint
on it are considerably greater when one
considers the lower courts. By midDecember, Trump had appointed twelve
judges to the US Court of Appeals, one
level down from the Supreme Court, the
most this early in any presidency since
Richard Nixon’s. Virtually all of them
are from the right. At the level of district
or trial courts, Trump’s nominations
have included figures like thirty-sixyear-old Brett J. Talley, who has never
tried a case and was unanimously rated
“not qualified” by the American Bar
Association. This proved too much even
When it comes to dealing with the rest
of the world, Trump has been a oneman wrecking ball, destroying many of
the understandings, agreements, and
relationships that have served as the
foundation for American foreign policy
for a half-century or more. The damage is not confined to specific policies:
Trump has gone after the institutions
that guide American foreign policy,
See Linda Greenhouse, “A Conservative Plan to Weaponize the Federal
Courts,” The New York Times, November 23, 2017.
“Inside Trump’s Cruel Campaign
Against the USDA’s Scientists,” November 2017.
The New York Review
Stories by Lee Conell
“Conell brings the characters in her rich debut
collection to life in weird, wise, and often
poignant ways.”—Publishers Weekly
“A significant addition to our understanding of the
poetry and poetics of Eliot, Jones, and Auden.
Highly informative and enlightening.”—Paul
Mariani, author of God and the Imagination: On
Poets, Poetry, and the Ineffable
The Scientist in Western Culture
American Poetry and the Spirit
of Communism
The story of the scientist in Western culture, from
medieval images of alchemists to present-day
depictions of cyberpunks and genetic engineers.
“A fascinating, timely, and rigorous study, Red
Modernism is a virtuosic treatment of the
question of communism in American modernist
poetry.”—Joel Nickels, author of The Poetry of
the Possible: Spontaneity, Modernism, and the
Architecture and the Perception of Race
“A must read for anyone interested in the
intersections between buildings, bodies, and
books at the turn of the twentieth century.”
—William Gleason, author of Sites Unseen:
Architecture, Race, and American Literature
January 18, 2018
n cases where his policies aren’t entirely new, Trump’s style—his pattern
of tweets and personal insults—has
added a new dimension to them, with
unpredictable results. The biggest foreign policy challenge of his first year
came from North Korea’s rapidly developing nuclear weapons program.
Trump’s threats to use force against
North Korea were not a departure from
past American policy; under the rubric of “coercive diplomacy,” previous
administrations have also considered
possible military action against North
Korea. But Trump went a step further
by taunting North Korean leader Kim
Jong-un, calling him “Little Rocket
Man” not only in tweets but in formal
settings including the United Nations
General Assembly. He even threatened
that he would “totally destroy” the
he is himself transferred away. With
Trump’s evident support, he left a wide
array of senior positions vacant for
most or all of the past year. That meant,
for example, that he dealt with North
Korea without either an assistant secretary of state for East Asia or a US ambassador in South Korea; the US still
does not have an ambassador to Egypt,
whose government is beginning to deal
with the Russian military once again.
The result of the State Department’s
short-handedness is that ever more policy is being made by overtaxed officials
at the National Security Council and
the White House, which is apparently
the way Trump wants it. The vacancies
are merely the top of the heap of rubble
at the State Department; Tillerson has
acceded to a wave of deep budget cuts
that eliminate large numbers of positions throughout the department.
Samuel Corum/Anadolu/Getty Images
especially the State Department and
the Central Intelligence Agency.
This has been a yearlong campaign,
starting immediately after Trump took
office. In his first week as president,
he announced that the United States
would withdraw from the Trans-Pacific
Partnership (TPP), the trade agreement
the Obama administration had negotiated that was aimed at strengthening
America’s ties with eleven countries
in Asia and elsewhere. That decision
strengthened perceptions in Asia of the
US as a nation in retreat and thus helps
China in its ambitions to become the
leading power in the region. In December, Trump tore up decades of US policy
by deciding to recognize Jerusalem as
the capital of Israel and move the US
embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
This threatens to harm America’s relations with nations in the Middle East
that have long supported US policy,
such as Jordan and Egypt. Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas said following Trump’s announcement that there
will no longer be a role for the United
States in the Middle East peace process.
Far-reaching as they were, the decisions on TPP and Jerusalem merely
served as bookends for the many foreign policy changes in Trump’s first
year. During 2017, he also withdrew
the US from the Paris accord on climate change. He became the first US
president to waver on America’s commitment to NATO, refusing to say on
his first trip to Europe whether the US
would abide by Article V of the NATO
treaty, which provides for collective
defense. (In that case, he later came
around after repeated prodding by his
foreign policy team.) He roiled America’s closest neighbors by ordering a
renegotiation of the North American
Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Beyond this undermining of past policies and agreements, Trump conducted
himself in ways that eroded America’s
friendships with other countries and
their leaders. His penchant for confrontation extended even to America’s closest allies (indeed, more to allies than to
adversaries, since he mostly held back
from challenging Vladimir Putin or Xi
Jinping). Eight days after he was sworn
in, he engaged in an icy phone-call
standoff with Australian Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull. (“I have had it.
I have been making these calls all day
and this is the most unpleasant call all
day. Putin was a pleasant call. This is
ridiculous,” the new president told the
leader of America’s closest friend in
the Asia-Pacific region.) In late November, Trump outraged the British
public and drew a public rebuke from
Prime Minister Theresa May when he
retweeted incendiary, inaccurate antiMuslim videos posted by a leader of the
far-right group Britain First.
Along the way, there were Trumpian
dustups with Mexico, Germany, and
South Korea, among others. Trump
regularly suggests that America is paying too much for its alliances and agreements, and that other countries aren’t
paying enough. It sometimes seems as
though he believes that we don’t need
allies and would be better off without
them. America’s closest partners have
responded accordingly. Early in December Sigmar Gabriel, the German foreign
minister, said that the Trump administration has come to view Europe as a
“competitor or economic rival” rather
than an ally and that relations with the
United States “will never be the same.”
White supremacists marching through the campus of the University of Virginia,
Charlottesville, August 2017
In the midst of these policy upheavals, Trump was responsible for the
most unstable foreign policy team of
any president since World War II. His
first national security adviser, Michael
Flynn, lasted less than a month in office before he was forced to resign,
and by the end of the year had pleaded
guilty to lying to the FBI. At this writing, it appears that Tillerson may also
be headed for a tenure shorter than
any secretary of state in modern times:
a series of reports in early December
said that Trump would be replacing
him within weeks. While Tillerson
is still there, Trump has consistently
undermined him. One day Tillerson
states that the US is ready to talk to
North Koreans. The following day, the
White House says the exact opposite.
US foreign policy can survive some
personnel upheavals, but Trump has
done institutional damage as well to the
organizations that are responsible for
shaping America’s relations with the rest
of the world. At the time he took office,
Trump’s principal target was the CIA,
which he and his supporters accused of
being part of a “deep state” conspiracy
against him, an attack prompted by the
agency’s reports on Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election.
He continued throughout the year to
attack the CIA, accusing it of being
partisan or biased and its former leaders of being “political hacks.”
The harm at the State Department
was worse. Tillerson appeared to be
the sort of corporate hatchet man who
is brought in from outside to cut the
staff as drastically as possible, before
Worst of all has been the harm
Trump’s America First foreign policy
has caused in the realm of ideas. Over
the past seven decades, the United
States at least professed to stand for
principles of human rights and democracy (although American policies
did not always live up to those ideals).
Under Trump, the ideals have been all
but abandoned. He seems to believe only
in commercial advantage, and rarely if
ever makes even a touchstone reference
to human rights. The major countries he
has courted most assiduously, avoiding
confrontation wherever he can, have
been autocratic regimes: China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Whether coincidentally or not, these also happen to be
three countries with large sums of public or private money to invest overseas.
he greatest damage done during
Trump’s first year concerns neither domestic nor foreign policy, but something
far deeper: it is the harm he has caused
to America’s political system and to the
democratic norms that underlie it. No
evaluation of the impact Trump has had
as president could be complete without
addressing his attacks upon the rule of
law, upon notions of political and racial
tolerance, upon national unity, upon
the freedom of the press, upon civil discourse, upon truth itself. The result has
been to fray the bonds that hold American society together.
Trump has abandoned the very notion of civil discourse by refusing to
accord his political opponents even
a minimum level of respect. No other
president in modern times has so insistently portrayed his adversaries as
dishonorable. The usual practice of
ordinary democratic give-and-take
seems alien to him. At various times,
usually through his Twitter account,
he has responded to criticism by lashing out at Republican senators such as
John McCain, Mitch McConnell, Bob
Corker, and Jeff Flake, as well as his
attorney general Jeff Sessions, disparaging their motives, their character,
their height (Corker, Marco Rubio),
or their ancestry (the US district judge
Gonzalo Curiel, impugned because of
his Mexican-American background).
Other presidents have aspired to become moral leaders; Trump has become America’s chief thug.
He has seriously undermined the
rule of law and the very principles of
democracy by calling for the investigation and prosecution of his political
adversaries. The cries of “lock her up”
that marked his 2016 campaign against
Hillary Clinton (which were denounced
at the time, even by prominent Republicans, as typical of a banana republic)
have evolved in 2017 into his repeated
suggestions that the Justice Department should go after her (with, now, the
support of many Republicans).
Trump fired the FBI director, James
Comey, after he resisted Trump’s
pleading to go easy on Michael Flynn.
At this writing, it is not clear whether
he will try to fire Robert Mueller, the
special prosecutor who took over from
Comey the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But by early December, his supporters were engaged in a campaign, with
his evident support, to undermine the
legitimacy of both Mueller personally
and the FBI as an institution. When his
travel ban was blocked in the courts,
Trump responded by denouncing the
judges. So much for the independence
of and respect for the judiciary.
Trump has shown even less willingness to respect the constitutional
validity of another American political tradition: an independent press as
a restraint and watchdog on government. Any stories he doesn’t like are
dismissed as “fake news,” along with
the news organizations that have published or broadcast them—the very
word “fake” underscoring that he refuses to recognize their legitimacy. Beyond the press, Trump seems to reject
the concepts of objective truth, rational discourse, and scientific expertise,
the Enlightenment ideals on which
this country was founded. From the
earliest days of his administration, he
has asserted his own contrary-to-fact
versions of events even when plain,
verifiable evidence proves otherwise.
Consider, for example, his claims that
the crowds at his inauguration were
bigger than those for President Obama,
or his insistence that he won the popular vote in the 2016 election.
Finally, Trump has sought, repeatedly and deliberately, to sow divisions.
He has attacked one group after another: Mexicans, Muslims, protesting
black athletes. In the process, he has
brought to the surface some of the
raw, ugly emotions of hate in America
that in ordinary times lay more or less
suppressed, and has given presidential validation to racism and nativism,
along with hostility toward education,
science, and professionalism.
The effects are poisonous. If the
United States were to face some
The New York Review
Cultural Cleansing and
Mass Atrocities
Protecting Cultural Heritage in Armed Conflict Zones
The J. Paul Getty Trust, prompted by the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, is enlisting
the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect to engage in an educational campaign for the
protection of cultural heritage in conflict zones. The campaign will raise awareness of UN Member
States regarding the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of
Armed Conflict and its additional protocols, as well as recent resolutions by the UN Security Council.
To that end, the Getty has initiated a series of papers on culture at risk. Learn more about this effort
A World of Art, Research, Conservation, and Philanthropy.
Image: The Umayyad, or Great Mosque, of Aleppo,Syria, March 10, 2017. Photo: Alfred Yaghobzadeh / Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images) / © 2017 The Associated Press
Text and Design: © 2017 J. Paul Getty Trust
January 18, 2018
sudden crisis—an attack overseas or at
home, an economic collapse—Trump,
like any president, would need to summon forth a sense of national unity in
response. He would instead confront
the sullen, divided nation he has so
steadily provoked. Even if there is
no such national emergency, the divisions he has created could last, harming the nation for years after he leaves
It is frequently said that through his
incessant bellicosity, Trump is “playing
to his base,” but that explanation raises
more questions than it answers. His
base represents less than 40 percent of
the country. The election results of the
past two months, particularly in Virginia and Alabama, demonstrate the
limitations of merely exciting his base;
by themselves, his core supporters are
usually not enough for victory. Why,
then, does Trump not try to expand
his support in the way that other presidents have often done? (Bill Clinton’s
strategy of “triangulation” comes to
One unsettling possibility is that
Trump believes that somehow, in some
future crisis, his polarizing approach
may succeed in galvanizing the country
into some new political constellation in
which his base of 35 to 38 percent will
suddenly jump to a majority. Another
possibility, even more disturbing, is that
we are witnessing a strategic embrace
of rule by minority: Trump may believe
that his judicial appointments and his
favoritism toward the donor class of the
wealthiest Americans, when combined
with political tactics like gerrymandering and voter suppression, will enable
him to govern and win reelection without ever gaining anything close to a
popular majority. The third possibility
is that there is no strategy at all; Trump
cannot expand his support simply because he is by nature unable to do so.
He can manage to convey only anger,
resentment, and prejudice; he lacks the
ability to heal divisions, to win over
those who oppose him, to seek common ground.
On the day after Trump was sworn
in, more than a million Americans
turned out in protest demonstrations in
Washington and other cities across the
nation. The harm he has caused to the
nation since then is severe enough to
justify demonstrations many times that
size. Street demonstrations, though,
cannot remove Trump from office. He
will stay on, most likely, for four or
eight years, until he is defeated at the
polls or removed from office through
impeachment or the Twenty-Fifth
Amendment. There are now extensive
debates among Trump’s many opponents about which of these approaches
to pursue. They involve serious questions of tactics and strategy that are beyond the scope of this article.
After Trump’s first year in office,
what is clear beyond doubt is that the
damage he is causing to the nation, to
its domestic and foreign policies, and
even more to the rule of law, to its constitutional system, to its social fabric,
and to its very sense of national unity,
is piling up week by week. The longer
he stays, the worse it will get.
—December 21, 2017
Zeus: The Apology
Heinrich Lossow
Prudence Crowther
The cloud-gatherer Zeus issued this
message today through his public relations team of rustling oak trees:
I came of agelessness just after
heaven and earth were formed, when
there weren’t many rules yet about
behavior, since I’d hardly made any.
If someone broke an oath, I threw
a thunderbolt—that was one of the
few. Nor was there any “workplace
culture” on Olympus to speak of.
That’s no excuse, I know now. I will
leave it for others to judge whether
the fact that my father cut off my
grandfather’s genitals and flung
them into the ocean and ate all
my siblings makes any difference.
One way or another, clearly I have
needed to channel some kind of insecurity, and over the last few weeks
I’ve asked Athena to put together a
phalanx of gods and mortals to help
me wrestle with those demons that
come with the territory of being able
to mess with everything at will. It
doesn’t happen overnight.
But let me address the stories told
to the media by four brave women
named Leda, Io, Europa, and Danaë,
who felt able to name themselves, if
not those accusations leveled by Leto,
Demeter, Thetis, Mnemosyne, and
the hundreds of others who preferred
to remain anonymous—smart women
and good lays all, for whom I have
nothing but the utmost respect. As
for Ganymede, he will confirm that I
have already made him whole for his
“cup-bearing.” We remain friendly.
These stories are true. At the time,
I told myself that because I always
asked first before blinding a woman
with the sight of my full splendor as
Lord of the Sky, it was OK. Yesterday
I learned otherwise. We will all be sitting down soon with the Furies to see
what kinds of remedies are out there.
Leda: I shudder to think that you
interpreted the caress of your thighs
by my dark swan webs as anything
other than a frank infatuation with
your intellect. I totally accept that you
did not “lead me on” (although even
your mother said, “Are you going out
like that?”). And if you did somehow understand the consequences of
what I thought were shared feelings
at the moment I came—the Trojan
War, etc.—that didn’t necessarily
compensate for your terror and my
falling asleep so fast afterward. I get
it. “Indifferent beak,” c’est moi.
Io—or “10,” as I used to call you
in all genuine affection—I’m mortified to think I wrapped us in a dark
cloud in broad daylight without your
consent, though it was a pretty standard prank back then, as was turning you into a heifer the second Hera
caught wind. Of course I was lying
when I told her I’d never seen you
before, and naturally she knew you
didn’t buy that little bell for yourself. Playing the horndog with one
of her own priestesses was inexcusable. Duh. Please do not blame her,
therefore, for forcing you to wander
the earth forever being stung by
a gadfly.
owe a special apology to Europa,
you who so innocently encouraged
your young friends to mount my
broad, chestnut-bright back, touching in gentle wonder my horns like
the crescent moon, breathing in the
flowery fragrance of my magic dander as I licked your nut-brown feet.
The dolphins, Nereids, and Tritons
who appeared to normalize the abduction have been called enablers,
but let’s face it, only the bull was at
fault there—and I am not that bull.
My lawyer wanted to argue that since
I’m not, I can’t be held accountable.
That sounded right to me, actually,
but Chiron put his hoof down. I am
on a journey for sure.
And why on earth I imagined I
could move on Danaë as a shower
of gold coins and get away with it . . .
Yes, they remain a good diversifier to
stocks and bonds, but you deserved
so much more than a relationship
with change. I am really, really sorry.
All that conceded, some of what
has been said is plain wrong. For instance, I would never have become a
chicken to seduce a woman who had
made herself into a rooster when she
saw me coming.
As I have admitted, however,
there is enough truth in these stories
to make me profoundly ashamed.
I’ve brought pain to my family, my
friends, my gazillions of offspring
and their mothers. So after consulting with Edith Hamilton, I have
decided to take a leave from rainmaking to earn back your trust.
A Cyclops wrote: “I’m not half the
man I used to be/There’s a shadow
hangin’ over me/Oh I believe in
yester-me.” I agree. But while I feel
ghastly about those I have hurt, my
travels, in whatever guise, have also
changed me. I’ve spent time with
grieving mothers, with laid-off satyrs
whose jobs have gone to other satyrs,
and people from all walks of life who
just want a better future. I have gotten to know the great people and
features of our planet, and I’ve been
humbled by the faith they have had
no choice but to place in me, given
my prerogatives. I’m grateful to have
this latest chance, and swear I will
not blow the reckoning.
Good night, and good luck with
The New York Review
Between Nouveau and Deco
Martin Filler
Private Collection
Wiener Werkstätte, 1903–1932 :
The Luxury of Beauty
an exhibition at the Neue Galerie,
New York City,
October 26, 2017–January 29, 2018.
Catalog of the exhibition edited
by Christian Witt-Dörring
and Janis Staggs.
Prestel/Neue Galerie, 576 pp., $65.00
The imaginative fervor that gripped
avant-garde master builders and artisans around 1900 in Vienna, the capital of the vast and culturally diverse
Austro-Hungarian Empire, paralleled
equally radical innovation in other
creative realms, including the music
of Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, the painting of Gustav Klimt and
Oskar Kokoschka, and the writings of
Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud.
Yet the singular contributions to the
visual arts that the Viennese made
during this epoch have never loomed
large enough in general chronicles of
The constant rewriting of art history is not solely the province of critics and scholars; cultural institutions
exert enormous influence on the way
the past is perceived. This has been
demonstrated most forcefully by the
strong Francophile bias of New York’s
Museum of Modern Art, whose founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., set out
a Gallocentric narrative of modernism—a begat-begat-begat genealogy
that began with Cézanne and posited
Cubism as the central development of
twentieth- century art. Barr’s highly
selective account deeply affected received opinion for many decades. However, even some loyal supporters of
MoMA have been aware of how much
has been neglected because of Barr’s
preferences. Among them is Ronald
Lauder, the New York cosmetics heir,
collector, and longtime trustee of the
Modern, who served as its board chairman from 1995 to 2005 and cofounded
the Neue Galerie, a privately funded
museum devoted to Austrian and German modernism, in 2001.
The idea for the Neue Galerie began
with Serge Sabarsky, a Vienna-born,
New York–based dealer in Expressionist art who in 1993 bought a BeauxArts mansion on Fifth Avenue and
started a foundation devoted to advancing awareness of that work. After
Sabarsky’s death in 1996, his friend and
client Lauder took over the project and
created what now seems an indispensible part of the city’s cultural life, not
least because the Neue Galerie’s high
standards of programming and presentation have almost single-handedly
redressed the Modern’s systematic
overemphasis on the School of Paris.
In recent years, such hugely popular
Neue Galerie exhibitions as “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in
Nazi Germany, 1937” and “Berlin Metropolis: 1918–1933” have stood out as
major curatorial accomplishments.
They are now followed by yet another triumph, “Wiener Werkstätte,
1903–1932: The Luxury of Beauty,” a
comprehensive survey of the applied
January 18, 2018
Koloman Moser’s design for a poster announcing the opening of the
Wiener Werkstätte Neustiftgasse showroom, 1904–1905
arts collective founded in Vienna by
the architect Josef Hoffmann, the artist Koloman Moser, and the patron
and collector Fritz Waerndorfer. The
Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese Workshops) was a direct offshoot of the Vienna Secession, the maverick faction
of avant-garde painters, sculptors, and
architects who in 1897 broke away from
the stultifyingly conservative Association of Austrian Artists. The new exhibition, brilliantly curated by Christian
Witt-Dörring and Janis Staggs, makes
a wholly convincing case for this brief
efflorescence of incomparably exquisite high-style design.
On view are more than four hundred
objects, including furniture, glassware,
ceramics, metalwork both precious
and base, jewelry, wallpaper, fabrics,
graphic design, and the charming artists’ postcards with which the alliance
inexpensively propagandized its ambitious agenda. The show has been
stunningly installed by the Chicago
architect John Vinci, whose coup de
théâtre is an uncannily accurate recreation of the quirky but captivating
gallery that Dagobert Peche—a Wiener Werkstätte stalwart who might be
termed the organization’s id because of
his untrammeled and often disruptive
inventiveness, in contrast to Hoffmann,
the group’s rational superego—executed within Hoffmann’s Austrian
Pavilion at the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, the Paris extravaganza
that gave its name to Art Deco.
Although several scholars have already convincingly proposed that the
Wiener Werkstätte was the missing
link between Art Nouveau and Art
Deco, the Neue Galerie show and
catalog confirm this notion. The eightpound exhibition catalog harks back to
the doorstop museum publications of
the 1980s. Yet however opulent WittDörring and Staggs’s gorgeously illustrated text might appear, it is filled with
so much new research based on archival sources that it ranks as the most important reference work on the subject.
Received notions of the group and
its clientele have perpetuated clichés
of a decadent imperial society obliviously waltzing on the rim of a political
volcano. However, the rarefied objects
produced by this decorative arts consortium do seem characteristic of a
pre–Great War culture of plutocratic
privilege—in stark contrast to the out-
put of the Bauhaus, which was founded
the year after that devastating conflict
ended. But because the Wiener Werkstätte managed to persist beyond the
downfall of the Austro-Hungarian
Empire for more than a decade—a period no less economically difficult for
hugely diminished Austria than for its
co- combatant Germany—it is incorrect
to see it as a cultural hothouse flower.
The exhibition demonstrates how
the Wiener Werkstätte went through
several successive phases to survive
financially. If one of its many product
lines was not selling, there was no philosophical compunction against coming
up with something completely different
to please customers, at least within the
group’s expansive stylistic parameters.
This noble experiment in advanced
design was nothing less than a conduit
for a richly multicultural, if politically
untenable, society that was coming
apart at the seams bit by bit. Although
there are strong underpinnings of Classicism in many of its designs—such as
Hoffmann’s famous brass centerpiece,
circa 1924, a fluted, footed bowl with
extravagant curlicue handles that spiral
wildly outward with irresistible insouciance—it is the tension between tight
control and wild abandon that gives
them a contradictory quality so much
in tune with that time, and ours as well.
Apart from the duality of so many
Wiener Werkstätte designs—which
often juxtaposed urban sophistication
and peasant vitality, as in Vally Wieselthier’s ceramic sculptures of women
who seem equal part jaded showgirl and
feckless milkmaid—the group’s broad
range defies easy definition. In its more
folkloristic manifestations one can detect an affinity for the Magyar side of
the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while
evocations of a far older empire—the
Byzantine—are evident in jewelry designs such as Hoffmann’s rectilinear
brooches, so densely encrusted with
multicolored semiprecious stones that
they recall the jewels of the empress
Theodora as depicted in the Ravenna
now seems incredible that one
company could turn out both Bertold Löffler’s anorexic stoneware bud
vases (circa 1906) and then a year later
Michael Powolny’s chubby ceramic
putti representing the Four Seasons
(high-style precursors of the kitschig
Hummel figurines first made in 1935).
Moser’s silver-and-niello sugar box of
1903, its cubic form further reinforced
by an all- over black-and-silver- checked
surface, is as severe as a Donald Judd
sculpture. Conversely, Peche’s bombastic walnut writing desk of 1922 is so
massive and overwrought that it could
be best described as Babylonian Baroque. Yet they all bore the superimposed double-W label devised for the
firm by Moser (who also came up with
distinctive initialed logos for each of its
participating artists), and one cannot
say that any single aesthetic represents
the Wiener Werkstätte, which can only
be understood in all its bewildering
The group faced the same basic problem that bedeviled several of its earlier
The economic premise of design reform groups was always shaky. The
Bauhaus was a rare exception, thanks
to its being a state- sponsored school
(hence its official name, Staatliches
Bauhaus) and thus free from the financial pressures of a commercial enterprise. In due course its numerous
design patents and licensing agreements (especially the hugely popular
Bauhaus wallpaper lines) brought
in a steady if not enormous income
that, with admirable equity, was parceled out to students who devised the
MAK , Vienna
Private Collection
Koloman Moser and Fritz Waerndorfer
in the office of the Wiener Werkstätte
on Neustiftgasse, circa 1904
Josef Hoffmann: brooch acquired
by Bertha Waerndorfer, 1907
Cincinnati Art Museum, Gift of the Wiener Werksätte
counterparts in the British Arts and
Crafts movement, including the Century Guild of Artists, established by
Arthur Mackmurdo in 1883; the Art
Workers’ Guild, founded in 1884 by the
architect William Lethaby and others;
and C. R. Ashbee’s Guild and School
of Handicraft (1888). Each of them
was self- consciously modeled after
medieval craftsmen’s guilds (though
with less emphasis on exclusionary job
protection, a central element of those
precursors of modern labor unions).
They all espoused preindustrial fabrication methods and sought to bring
good design to the masses. Yet the objects they produced—even those not
made from intrinsically precious materials—were so labor-intensive that they
could never compete with machinemade items affordable by the working
class, and thus became luxury goods
for the rich.
Design reform groups that were established on conventional business models
fared better financially than their utopian counterparts. William Morris’s
London-based home furnishings concern, Morris & Co. (as it was renamed
in 1875 to capitalize on its mastermind’s
increasing renown), weathered successive changes in popular taste and lasted
until 1940, forced out of business only
by the Blitz. Interestingly, it was not
the earnest Morris, a crusading socialist, to whom the Vienna avant-garde
gravitated among British designers, but
rather the Scottish architect Charles
Rennie Mackintosh, whose outlook was
darker and more emotionally complex
than the heartily straightforward ethos
of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Not
for nothing was Mackintosh’s Glasgow
circle dubbed “The Spook School,”
in response to the wraith-like quality
and spiritual subtext of its decorative
Indeed, one of the Wiener Werkstätte’s signature motifs—repetitive
right-angled grids in wood or metalwork—came directly from Mackintosh.
His designs were extensively published
in the new halftone-illustrated international applied art journals (especially
The Studio, founded in London in
1893, and Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, established in Darmstadt in 1897)
that allowed a rapid and reciprocal
exchange of design ideas across great
distances. Mackintosh also met several
of his Viennese admirers in 1902 at the
First International Exposition of Modern Decorative Arts in Turin, which led
the Wiener Werkstätte’s greatest early
benefactor, Fritz Waerndorfer, to commission a music room for his suburban
Vienna villa from him. This otherworldly environment was completed in
1903, the year the Wiener Werkstätte
opened for business.
Dagobert Peche: vase, circa 1930
product prototypes in their workshop
The Wiener Werkstätte, in contrast,
was a money pit from its inception.
This has long been known, but a comprehensive account of the group’s parlous finances has never before been laid
out in such disheartening detail as it is
in the most important chapter of the
exhibition catalog, “Economics,” by
Ernst Ploil. The Wiener Werkstätte’s
economic dilemma is summed up in a
letter from Hoffmann to the Belgian
engineer and financier Adolphe Stoclet—patron of the architect’s masterpiece, the Palais Stoclet of 1905–1911
in Brussels:
The lady [Miss Wittgenstein]
wanted (for months now) two can-
delabra, each two meters tall, of
gilded wood. Finally the drawings
were finished and correct, and a
cost estimate was drawn up in my
absence. That alone is madness,
since it is simply impossible to produce a cost estimate for an object
you haven’t yet made. . . . Fortunately, Miss Wittgenstein came
and said the estimate was too high.
And at that moment I already told
her that we were freed of any obligation because she did not accept
the estimate and that now we will
not make the candelabras at any
price, because we no longer make
unique objects. . . .
“Strange,” said Miss Wittgenstein, “and we always thought you
were getting extremely rich from
these commissions.” And I said
to her: “You can best see just how
much such commissions can enrich
us (she wanted to pay eight thousand crowns [equal to more than
$100,000 today] for the candelabras) from the fact that now we
simply no longer accept such commissions.”
Miss Wittgenstein (a sister of Ludwig’s,
though it’s not clear which) was a member of a steel-manufacturing dynasty
that had converted from Judaism to
Protestantism and was the second richest family in Austria, after the Rothschilds. As Witt-Dörring explains in
the catalog:
The Werkstätte was supported by a
small group of artists and primarily Jewish wealthy families that
were relatives or friends or were
connected by economic interests
and backed the project of Vienna’s artistic springtime with their
commissions. The members of the
Jewish families had generally assimilated into Vienna’s Christian
culture in the second generation
after Austria-Hungary’s Jewish population obtained full civil
rights from around 1860. Their
desire to integrate fit well with . . .
[the] search for a modern Austrian
style . . .which gained acceptance
in the international market as the
“Viennese style,” [and] offered the
assimilated Jewish population the
potential of a feeling of belonging
that was not defined in terms of
Another mainstay of the Wiener
Werskstätte was the Primavesi family,
descended from Italian Jewish bankers who during the eighteenth century
emigrated from Lombardy to Moravia
(now part of the Czech Republic but
ruled by the Austrian Empire from
1809 to 1918). Hoffmann designed two
large residential schemes for members
of that clan. He carried out a complete
interior remodeling of the baronial
Primavesi Country House, near the
Moravian town of Winkelsdorf (1913–
1914), for the entrepreneur and parliament member Otto Primavesi. And for
Otto’s younger cousin-and-brother-inlaw, the banker and industrialist Robert Primavesi, and his wife, Josefine
Skywa, he created the neo- Classical
Villa Skywa-Primavesi in Vienna
(1913–1915), which includes a large
formal garden (as does the Palais Stoclet). Otto Primavesi took over Waerndorfer’s role as commercial director of
the Wiener Werkstätte in 1915, and he
The New York Review
and Robert became its principal underwriters after Waerndorfer’s financial
he idealistic but impractical Waerndorfer came from another rich Jewish
family, whose profitable cotton mills
allowed him to realize his aesthetic
dreams. Yet this true believer’s unstinting support of the Wiener Werkstätte soon had disastrous economic
consequences. As Witt-Dörring writes,
“Waerndorfer’s absolute faith in Hoffmann’s genius oscillated between the
extremes of ‘Can I afford it?’ and ‘I
owe it to the world to afford it,’” but
the latter attitude invariably won out.
This Maecenas’s willful lack of caution
eventually impoverished him; he immigrated to the US, became an artist,
and during the Great Depression took
up farming in a Philadelphia suburb,
where he died a month before the outbreak of World War II.
Appropriately for a New York audience, the Neue Galerie exhibition
includes a separate gallery on Joseph
Urban, the Vienna-born architect
who immigrated to the US in 1911
and was instrumental in bringing the
Wiener Werkstätte’s concepts to the
attention of an unprecedentedly large
public. Although Urban designed
one of Manhattan’s early modernist gems—the crisp gray-brick and
strip-windowed New School for Social Research of 1929–1931, as fresh
looking now as the day it was completed—his lucrative and highly publicized career as a stage decorator
for the interwar years’ quintessential
Broadway extravaganza, the Ziegfeld
Follies, has overshadowed his other
Much less remembered today is Urban’s design work for Cosmopolitan
Productions, the movie studio bankrolled by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, in large part
to advance the career of his mistress,
Marion Davies, an erstwhile Ziegfeld
girl. As art director on more than thirty
Cosmopolitan films and with Hearst’s
lush budgets at his disposal, Urban created settings that were either directly
based on Wiener Werkstätte interiors
or incorporated actual pieces made by
the consortium.
He was particularly fond of the assertive designs of Peche, which veritably popped off the screen, including
his boldly patterned white-turquoiseand-black Daphnis wallpaper, used
by Urban for E. Mason Hopper’s The
Great White Way (1924). And in E. H.
Griffith’s Unseeing Eyes (1923)—for
which, as Janis Staggs writes in her
superb catalog essay, “perhaps Urban
overcompensated for the dreadful picture by creating one of the most luxurious interiors he ever designed”—a
cameo appearance is made by Peche’s
silver-gilt and coral jewel box of 1920.
Fifteen inches high and topped by
a sprightly three- dimensional doe
munching on grapes overhead, this bizarre but endearing caprice is on loan
from the Metropolitan Museum, which
has always been much more openminded about collecting such oddities
than the comparatively puritanical Museum of Modern Art.
Urban’s commitment to the cause
went even further when he decided to
establish a New York showroom for the
Wiener Werkstätte in order to help its
artists survive during a decade when
America was prospering but Austria,
like its World War I ally Germany, was
mired in the economic depression that
followed its defeat. In 1922 he opened
a shop at 581 Fifth Avenue. America
had never seen anything like it, starting with the octagonal, silk-paneled
reception room dominated by Gustav
Klimt’s nearly six-foot-tall canvas The
Dancer, with a Klimt landscape and an
Egon Schiele Madonna hung elsewhere
on the premises.
But the same impracticalities that
had dogged the Wiener Werkstätte
for the two preceding decades persisted in Manhattan, where Urban perversely made it as difficult as possible
for anyone to actually buy anything.
Even well- disposed visitors wondered
whether they were in a private home
or a museum rather than a store. As
Urban’s daughter Gretl reminisced
years later, “It was funny to see father
upset when one of his favorite pieces
was being looked at by a potential purchaser.” No wonder the store lasted less
than two years. Most of the pieces offered at a landmark show held in 1966
at New York’s Galerie St. Etienne—the
first exhibition of Wiener Werkstätte
designs in the United States since the
Fifth Avenue outpost closed more than
four decades earlier—came from the
Urban family’s considerable stock of
unsold merchandise.
Interest in the nearly forgotten Wiener Werkstätte grew during the 1960s
as part of a widespread Art Nouveau
revival. But whereas the more psychedelic aspects of Art Nouveau that
so captivated the Sixties counterculture were soon deemed passé, the
work of the fin- de-siècle Viennese
avant-garde became even more highly
prized during the 1980s with the rise
of Postmodernism. The proponents of
that neotraditional style were eager
for a return to pattern and ornament,
which had been anathema during the
half- century ascendance of the International Style, and they felt a strong
kinship with the Wiener Werkstätte’s
suave melding of Classical and early
modernist elements.
Among the younger American architects most beguiled by Hoffmann
and his coterie were Richard Meier
(who during the 1970s began to collect turn- of-the- century Austrian design objects) and Charles Gwathmey.
Both of them created china and metalwork, much of it based on the Wiener Werkstätte’s familiar quadratic
motifs, for the Swid Powell company,
which during the 1980s catered to the
new vogue for objects designed by
celebrated architects. But the Postmodernist most taken with Hoffmann
was Michael Graves, who eagerly
turned out furniture, products, and
interior designs for numerous clients
and modeled his practice after that of
the multitalented Viennese master in
an attempt to broaden the writ of the
Being able to control all aspects
of a large commission had immense
appeal for those who, after the
interchangeable-parts ethos of postwar modernism, wanted to achieve
New and Notable
“This is a triumph, a worthy successor to Peter Green’s
outstanding translation of The Iliad. No version known to
me is better at conveying the feeling of the original.”
—Christopher Pelling, Oxford University
The Odyssey is vividly captured and beautifully paced in
this swift and lucid new translation by acclaimed scholar
and translator Peter Green.
Also Available
“Taken as a whole this is the best line-forline translation of the poem I know.”
—London Review of Books
January 18, 2018
“Wolff’s magnum opus is a highly timely book, for
it contains a trove of interesting material that is
highly germane to a political moment when the
issue of wealth inequality is on everyone’s lips.”
—Gregory Clark, Wall Street Journal
“A remarkably easy and valuable read ... Anyone
trying to understand the rise of Donald Trump
would be well advised to study Wolff closely.”
—Duncan Weldon, Prospect
Belknap Press | $39.95
After Ireland
Writing the Nation from Beckett
to the Present
Declan Kiberd
+A Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year
“It is wonderfully written, jargon-free, witty and
exuberantly engaging. What makes Kiberd a great
critic is his disdain for barriers—between Irish and
English, between literary forms, between works
and their historical moments. He is as superb on
Máire Mhac an tSaoi and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill as
he is on Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon.”
—Fintan O’Toole, Financial Times
Numbers and the
Making of Us
Counting and the Course of
Human Cultures
Caleb Everett
+A Smithsonian Best Science Book of the Year
“Numbers is eye-opening, even eye-popping.
And it makes a powerful case for language, as a
cultural invention, being central to the making
of us.”
—Vyvyan Evans, New Scientist
“A fascinating book.”
—James Ryerson, New York Times Book Review
A Cold Welcome
The Little Ice Age and Europe’s
Encounter with North America
Sam White
“[White] tells strange and surprising tales
of drought ... famine, bitterly cold winters,
If you look at it very carefully you
see a rhythm, you see a pattern,
you see what we call push-pull
between negative and positive. So
that was very inspirational to Rafael Viñoly and I.
In fact, the extremely attenuated
proportions of 432 Park—the world’s
highest residential structure—make
it more closely resemble Hoffmann’s
white-painted metal vases, tall but narrow, which employ the same Gitterwerk
(latticework) technique. (This design
and its numerous variants became one
of the Wiener Werkstätte’s most notable commercial successes.) But because
a $225 reproduction of Hoffmann’s
trashcan is on sale in the Neue Galerie’s gift shop, few commentators could
resist citing it as a source for the $1.3
billion skyscraper. All the same, the
transmogrification of an object devised
for one purpose but grossly altered both
in scale (whether bigger or smaller) and
function meets the textbook definition
of kitsch, even if its aesthetic is minimalist rather than naturalistic.*
desperation, and death ... He weaves an intricate,
complex tapestry as he examines the effects both
of climate ... and of weather.”
—Susan Dunn, New York Review of Books
*See my “New York: Conspicuous
Construction,” The New York Review,
April 2, 2015.
MAK , Vienna/Katrin Wisskirchen
Edward N. Wolff
Further evidence of the Wiener
Werkstätte’s obsessive perfectionism
but hopeless business model can be
found in another Gitterwerk piece now
on display at the Neue Galerie. At first
glance, Moser’s silver breadbasket of
1904 would seem to be identical to Hoffmann’s better-known essays in pierced
metalwork. Yet instead of hewing to
either a flat or an evenly rounded surface like most of Hoffmann’s gridded
metal objects, the approximately oval
Ludwig Heinrich Jungnickel:
wallpaper sample, Urwald, 1912
Hulya Kolabas, New York
A Century of Wealth
in America
a cohesive look that would express a
more grounded sense of place and be
distinctively different from prevalent
taste. Graves envisioned a return to
the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of
art) as sought by many artists around
the turn of twentieth century, including Frank Lloyd Wright, the greatest
American exponent of that concept,
whose unified approach to all details
of a scheme perpetually resonates with
the public. But Graves soon faced the
same dilemma that thwarted his many
predecessors in the design reform
movements: luxury objects, no matter
how high the retail markup, are unlikely ever to be as profitable as plentiful machine-made goods.
Graves ultimately concentrated on
moderately priced consumer items (for
Alessi, Target, and other household
product companies), while his architecture came to resemble super-sized
kitchen gadgets. He got rich on royalties from his bird-topped Alessi teakettle (1.5 million units sold), but grew
increasingly embittered as he dropped
off the radar of the architectural press.
Though he blamed his shift of critical
fortune on a prejudice against those
who don’t focus primarily on buildings,
many thought the fault lay in the quality of his work rather than the genres
he pursued.
Another distant echo of the Wiener
Werkstätte now spikes the skyline of
midtown Manhattan. The real estate
mogul Harry Macklowe, developer
of Rafael Viñoly’s 432 Park Avenue
condominium tower of 2011–2015,
revealed that while the building was
under construction, a white-painted
gridded-metal wastepaper basket created by Hoffmann in 1905 served as an
“important touchstone” for the design.
As Macklowe explained:
Koloman Moser: bread basket, 1904
bread basket—ten-and-a-half inches
long by two-and-a-half inches high—
swells outward in five symmetrical
pairs of curving segments, like the
ground plan of a Bavarian Rococo pilgrimage chapel, and is a reminder of
the playful eighteenth- century influences that lay beneath so much of the
Wiener Werkstätte’s output, even early
However, when you look more
closely at Moser’s apparently identical perforations you begin to realize
that although every square seems to
be equal, each turns out to be very
slightly calibrated to compensate for
the billowing curvature. This sleight
of hand conveys an impression of
uniformity that would not exist without exacting and costly attention to
detail. Moser’s almost imperceptible
and uneconomical deception—like
so much else in the Neue Galerie’s
dazzling treasure chest—helps explain why the grand illusion of the
Wiener Werkstätte continues to enchant us a century after its frenetic
tel: 800.405.1619
We mourn the death of William H. Gass,
a long-standing contributor and friend.
The New York Review
The Nuclear Worrier
The Doomsday Machine:
Confessions of a
Nuclear War Planner
by Daniel Ellsberg.
Bloomsbury, 420 pp. $30.00
Daniel Ellsberg in his youth and Daniel Ellsberg in his age are the same
man—a born worrier quick to spot
trouble, take alarm, and issue warning. He is best known for worrying
about the American war in Vietnam,
which time in the war zone convinced
him was a crime, and for doing what he
could to bring it to an end. In that case
he copied and illegally released a huge
collection of secret documents about
the war, first published in June 1971 by
The New York Times, which came to be
known as the Pentagon Papers.
But Vietnam was not the first or the
biggest thing that worried Ellsberg after
he went to work in his late twenties as
an analyst for the RAND Corporation
in 1959. His first and biggest worry was
the American effort to defend itself
with nuclear weapons. When Ellsberg
finally got a look at the plans for such
a war he realized immediately that the
Strategic Air Command had built a
military instrument that not only could
but in his view probably would break
the back of human civilization.
It was Vietnam that got in the way
of his plan to do something about the
nuclear war plans. In his new memoir,
The Doomsday Machine: Confessions
of a Nuclear War Planner, the second
about the big things that obsessed Ellsberg in his youth,1 he does not try to explain why he set aside worry about the
bomb to tackle America’s hopeless war
in Southeast Asia, then in its sixth year.
The probable answer is that he had
gone to see it. Arguing about nuclear
weapons with other supersmart young
analysts and Air Force colonels was
dismaying but not horrifying in the way
of war itself. In Vietnam hundreds of
Americans and thousands of Vietnamese were dying every month, and sometimes every week, with no end in sight.
The commitment of American policymakers to go on killing peasants rather
than confess failure was the crime that
Ellsberg felt impelled to expose and
ut he never stopped worrying about
nuclear weapons. He was far from
alone, of course. The horror of the
bombs dropped on the Japanese cities
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was immediately apparent to all who did not
refuse to see. What separated Ellsberg
from ordinary civilian worriers was his
access to the actual war plans for doing
it again. By the time he received his
first clearances to know official secrets
about types and numbers of weapons,
the handful of first-generation bombs,
assembled one by one by hand at Los
Alamos, New Mexico, had been replaced by more and better devices. Fat
Man, the fission bomb that destroyed
Nagasaki, was blimplike in shape,
weighed about 10,000 pounds, and ex-
The first was Secrets: A Memoir of
Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (Viking, 2002).
January 18, 2018
Siegfried Woldhek
Thomas Powers
Daniel Ellsberg
ploded with the energy of 20,000 tons
of TNT. By the late 1950s the first few
fission bombs had been replaced by
ever- expanding numbers (soon to be
thousands) of thermonuclear fusion
weapons, small enough to fit in the
nose cone of a missile or under a jet
fighter, and roughly a thousand times
more powerful than Fat Man. RAND
did many studies for the Pentagon on
the best way to defend America with
these superweapons, and the best way
to fight a war with them.
Ellsberg’s initiation into the secrets
did not happen in a day, and it took him
awhile to realize that there were many
levels of clearances, each more secret,
more tightly held, and shared with
fewer people than the last. Beyond Top
Secret, the highest clearance known
to exist by the general public, were the
code-word clearances for what is now
called “sensitive compartmented information.” These permitted an individual to know certain specific secrets,
like the fact that the United States
had developed tools—spy planes and
reconnaissance satellites—to photograph the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could carry
thermonuclear warheads. The number
of Soviet missiles was not the one hundred argued by Air Force alarmists in
the Pentagon or the fifty claimed in a
National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)
in June 1961.
In September of that year Ellsberg
learned that the United States would
not find it hard to destroy the Soviet
missile force. Only four ICBMs were
ready to go and they were all at the
missile-testing site in Plesetsk, about
five hundred miles north of Moscow and a hundred miles south of the
White Sea. The four missiles were
liquid-fueled and took a long time to
prepare for launch. They were standing
up in the open and were close enough
together to get all four with a single
nearby hit. To know this you had to
have code-word clearances for Talent
and Keyhole, the systems of overhead
reconnaissance that filmed the vulnerable Soviet missile force.
There is a widespread belief, Ellsberg writes, that “everything leaks; it
all comes out in the New York Times.”
That, he says, “is emphatically not
true.” Even analysts at the heart of the
secret world are not cleared for many
categories of secret information and
are not cleared to know that they are
not cleared. While Ellsberg was being
initiated into these secrets he did not
know that his own father had once enjoyed an early version of a code-word
clearance, a “Q” clearance that protected the secret work on fusion weapons in the years after World War II.
Ellsberg’s father told him this in 1978,
when he also confessed that he had
resigned in 1949 from a bomb-related
engineering job—“the best job he’d
ever had,” Ellsberg writes—because he
wanted no part in building anything a
thousand times more powerful than the
bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
Ellsberg was astonished. Why had
he never known about this? “Oh, I
couldn’t tell any of this to my family,”
answered the senior Ellsberg. “You
weren’t cleared.”
Doomsday Machine addresses
three subjects. The first is the history
of Ellsberg’s work at RAND on nuclear
war planning just before and during the
Kennedy administration, when he discovered what Air Force General Curtis LeMay, commander of the Strategic
Air Command, had planned and prepared by 1960 to do to the Sino- Soviet
bloc in the event of war. The second
is how city- destroying attacks became
the air strategy of choice during World
War II, with the effect of gradually resigning airmen to the efficiency of nuclear weapons, one of which could do
what it had taken three hundred B-29
bombers over Japan to do using conventional bombs. The third is how to
end the dependence of so many nations
on nuclear weapons before a spark creates a conflagration that incinerates the
Ellsberg writes briskly in the service
of opinions formed by long and sober
study. What he means is never in doubt
and it is always interesting. But even so
it is the first and longest section of his
new book that makes the greatest contribution. Many able historians of planning for nuclear war—Gregg Herken
and Fred Kaplan thirty years ago, Ron
Rosenbaum and Eric Schlosser more
recently2 —have set the scene for Ellsberg’s narrative, but he adds numerous
revealing stories of important figures at
the time while providing what is probably the best first-person account of
what nuclear war planning was actually
like. It was intellectually exciting, but
at the same time it fed a sense of dread.
Catastrophe did not require a monster
running things, just a moment of headto-head dispute about something hard
to give up, a couple of wrong guesses,
or a run of bad luck. Nuclear weapons,
as Ellsberg describes them, are like the
pistol in the bedside drawer of a man
subject to wild mood swings—too close
to hand in moments of fear or despair.
Ellsberg loved the intellectual energy
of RAND, where men like the “enormously fat” Herman Kahn, author of
On Thermonuclear War and Thinking
About the Unthinkable, never softened
their opinions. When Ellsberg at his
very first group discussion in the summer of 1958 hazarded a thought, Kahn
shot back, “You’re absolutely wrong.”
Ellsberg didn’t mind; he welcomed the
“gloves- off” debate. But thinking it
all over in the sixty years since, he has
concluded that if security were really
their goal, they were all wrong just
about all of the time. The problem was
not so much the terrible power of nuclear weapons, but what the Air Force
planned to do with them.
The principal author of the Strategic
Air Command’s 1960 plan was LeMay,
the cigar- chomping former commander
of the American bomber fleet that had
aimed to destroy Japan’s will to fight
in 1945, one burned city at a time. LeMay’s strategy for preserving the peace
was to threaten war so terrible that no
See Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (Simon and Schuster, 1983);
Gregg Herken, Counsels of War (Knopf,
1985); Ron Rosenbaum, How the End
Begins (Simon and Schuster, 2011); and
Eric Schlosser, Command and Control
(Penguin, 2013).
he sudden and utter destruction
of the Soviet Union was the goal of
LeMay’s strategic thinking. The SAC’s
actual plan never included one bomb
big enough to destroy all of Russia, but
it promised the same result with many,
many bombs. When Ellsberg started to
work at RAND the immensely complicated and seldom- changed American
plan for nuclear war was spelled out in
Annex C of a document called the Joint
Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP, pronounced Jay- SCAP). Annex C was very
closely held by planners and the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, so closely that not even
the secretary of defense or civilians in
his office were ever shown or informed
about the plan or told even the name
of the document by order of the Joint
That was still the case when the Kennedy administration arrived in 1961.
None of them had ever heard of the
JSCP, Annex C, or its recent successor,
the Single Integrated Operational Plan
(SIOP, pronounced Sy- OP). The reasons for this secrecy had to do with service rivalries, technical complexities in
executing the plan, and the personality
of LeMay, who had made up his mind
that he would know and decide when
a nuclear attack on Russia was necessary, and what ought to be on the target
list. Freedom from meddling was what
LeMay wanted, and the Joint Chiefs
had helped him to get and keep it.
Ellsberg began to pierce the veil of
secrecy while working on a study of war
preparations in the Pacific. The plan he
discovered was basically the Strategic
Air Command’s plan, which was essentially LeMay’s. Herman Kahn’s term
for it was “wargasm.” As drawn up by
LeMay’s team the first SIOP called for
nuclear strikes on just about every city
in Russia and in China. Why China,
too, if the war was with Russia? The
answer, stripped to plain language, had
nothing to do with politics: one plan
was all the planners could handle at a
The first SIOP in December 1960
planned an overwhelming knockout
blow. Moscow alone was targeted with
at least eighty nuclear weapons, and
every Russian city with a population
greater than 25,000 would be hit by at
least one. China would get the same,
for no particular reason. Ellsberg was
started to read The Doomsday Maand why he had failed to see it at the
surprised to discover that the planners
chine I was struck immediately by the
had not been afraid to add up the probsense that I had heard his stories before
able number of dead. Over the first six
and hunted up my old notes. Page after
he first day of the Cuban Missile
months following the initial strike they
page might have come almost verbatim
Crisis caught Ellsberg by surprise, just
estimated that about half the populafrom his new book.
as it did almost everybody else. What
tion of Russia and China would die
Ellsberg’s compulsion to share what
alarmed him most was President Kenof radiation effects alone—a total of
he knew was rare in my experience. I
nedy’s threat to respond to any launch
about 380 million people. Three things
had encountered something like it only
of a missile from Cuba on any country
about this plan convinced Ellsberg to
once before, in 1984 with Ellsberg’s
in North or South America with “a
do what he could to stop it: its magnifriend Sam Cohen. Both men had quit
full retaliatory response on the Soviet
tude, its all- or-nothing character, and
worrying about the rules of secrecy
Union.” Ellsberg knew what was in the
the fact that General LeMay had rebut for different reasons. Cohen was
SIOP. “I wondered if the speechwriter
served to himself the power to decide
compelled to break his silence by the
had any idea what he was saying,” he
when to order the attack.
stupidity of American war plans, which
writes. Scores of millions would die in
Some readers may draw up at this
offended his intelligence. He wanted
a day, hundreds of millions within six
point and wonder whether these horto stop people from talking nonsense.
months or a year. Ellsrors were really true. The
berg called up his friend
answer is that they were,
Harry Rowen in the
as the reader may learn
Pentagon, flew to Washfrom the stout books by
ington the next day from
Kaplan, Herken, RosenCalifornia, and joined
baum, and Schlosser.
the analysts and officials
Ellsberg was not the only
trying to think their way
analyst absorbed in this
through the challenge
struggle, but he was in
raised by Nikita Khruthe thick of it. The heart
shchev’s secret move to
of his plan, he writes,
base thirty- eight Soviet
was “moving a few pieces
missiles in Cuba. What
of paper from one level
follows is Ellsberg’s rich
of authority to a higher
personal account of the
one”—that is, from the
crisis, including many
level of the Joint Chiefs
new details, to join the
of Staff, where everybody
others already published.
agreed that the LeMay
The big new thing in
approach was fine, up to
Ellsberg’s book, the imthe level of the president
portant contribution he
and the secretary of demakes to our thinking
fense, who had been kept
on the danger that never
out of the loop for fifteen
goes away, began with a
years. Ellsberg believed
conversation with Rowen
that Kennedy and Secreabout odds: What had
tary of Defense Robert
been the real chance
McNamara would be horthat we would go to war
rified by the details and
in 1962? In the first few
would insist on changdays of the crisis Ellsberg
ing the plan, and he was
had convinced himself
that the chance was really
The story of that effort
quite small. Khrushchev,
is the meat of the first half
in Ellsberg’s view, was in
of his book. What was at
a box—if push came to
stake was succinctly capshove in the Caribbean
tured without exaggeraDaniel Ellsberg when he was a lieutenant in the Marines, 1954
he couldn’t win, and if
tion in the title of another
he chose to fight anyway
book published twenty
Ellsberg was driven instead by moral
Russia would be reduced to a vestigial
years later, when things had reached
horror; what we planned to do struck
a still more desperate state, by the
him as just inexcusably wrong. In 1986
Ellsberg had been arguing about this
writer Jonathan Schell—The Fate of
he was on fire to warn the world. I was
with Rowen and Herman Kahn and
the Earth.
writing often about nuclear weapons at
many others for two years, and the logic
that time and Ellsberg devoted eight or
was clear—you can’t use nuclear weapgot China off the automatic tarten hours to making sure I knew the
ons if your victim can come back at you,
get list” was the very first thing Daniel
worst. There was nothing scattershot or
which the United States was prepared to
Ellsberg told me in March 1986 when
erratic about his message; it poured out
do to the Soviet Union in overwhelming
we met at a conference of antinuke
in crisp paragraphs with dates and full
fashion. Khrushchev was facing somegroups in San Francisco. That was not
names and a clear narrative structure.
thing like a desperation move in chess;
the absolute worst moment of East–
Ellsberg told me that he was trying to
he could push that last piece out there
West nuclear tension, but it was close.
put it all into a book but something was
but the American response would be
In 1986 the Russians and the Ameriblocking him; with a ready listener like
check and mate. So Khrushchev had to
cans had thousands of weapons tarme he could talk forever, but as soon as
back down, in Ellsberg’s view. Rowen
geted on each other, firing procedures
he sat down in front of a typewriter, the
thought the same thing, and so did the
on both sides were on hair-trigger stawords froze.
Joint Chiefs and Paul Nitze, one of the
tus, and neither side really knew how to
Eventually (it took thirty years) he
principals on the Executive Committee
stop an “exchange” once it began. On
cleared the jam by dividing his story
making the decisions. “At thirty- one,”
more than one occasion in those years
and writing two books, Secrets: A
Ellsberg writes, “I was overconfident
(and since), war was brought suddenly
Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon
that a leader who was outgunned would
close by improbable things like radar
Papers and now at last, in his eightyback down under threat.”
bouncing off a flock of geese or the risseventh year, The Doomsday MaIn fact, that’s the way it worked
ing moon, which both mimicked a mischine. Everything that alarmed and
out. Khrushchev backed down. When
sile attack.
horrified him back in 1986 is in the
things were still tense Rowen had reWhen I met Ellsberg he had already
new book, but something important
marked that he thought the Executive
been thinking about these dangers for
has been added. During the intervenCommittee, which included the presitwenty-five years. From the conference
ing years while Ellsberg struggled, he
dent and his top advisers, had been
our conversation moved to his house
read widely, talked to people, went
putting the chance of war too high—
in the Berkeley Hills, where he talked
back over everything in his own mind,
maybe even ten times too high—not
nonstop about nuclear war planning
and took his story a big step further.
one in a thousand (Rowen’s estimate)
until the sky turned light. Two days
What changed was his slow realization
but one in a hundred. Then a day after
later he did the same again. When I
of how close we came in October 1962,
the crisis ended Rowen told Ellsberg he
DOD /Life Picture Collection/Getty Images
Soviet leader would ever risk it. How
terrible? An answer was given to Ellsberg by a RAND friend, the physicist
Sam Cohen, who had been one of the
youngest of the bomb-makers who
worked on Fat Man, and Little Boy,
which destroyed Hiroshima. Later
Cohen invented the neutron bomb,
which he believed might help save us
from big bombs because it would make
little ones safer to use. Ellsberg thought
Cohen was dead wrong on that point
but they were friends anyway.
Cohen told Ellsberg that in the early
1950s he had been part of a planning
group sent by General Bernie Schriever to ask General LeMay about nuclear force requirements, starting with
the question of how big was the biggest
bomb he wanted. LeMay’s answer:
“One bomb, for Russia.” He meant one
bomb for all of Russia. There were two
problems with LeMay’s approach—it
ignored the fact that war often comes
unwanted and unexpectedly, and it offered no clear guidance for knowing
when the moment for the one bomb
had arrived.
The New York Review
had been way off. Nitze had confided to
Rowen that he had been guessing the
chance of war at “one in ten,” and he
was the optimist on the committee—
other members thought the chance was
even higher than that.
Ellsberg’s first reaction was “puzzlement.” Nitze knew the facts and he
understood the logic of nuclear confrontation. War couldn’t possibly make
sense in Khrushchev’s position. But
then Ellsberg’s eyes opened to the
thing that has obsessed him ever since:
the Executive Committee had chosen
a course of action that they believed
risked a one in ten chance of a nuclear
war that would kill hundreds of millions of people.
his point is the crux of The Doomsday Machine, what Ellsberg contributes to our understanding of the danger
we continue to face: the knowledge
that decent men of courage and intelligence with a personal horror of war
were prepared to run a one-in-ten
chance of killing hundreds of millions
of people—to avoid what? “I’ll be
quite frank,” the secretary of defense
told President Kennedy at a meeting of
the Executive Committee early in the
crisis. “I don’t think there is a military
problem. . . . This is a domestic political
What McNamara meant was that Soviet missiles in Cuba might look bad
but did not really change the military
balance—might look so bad, he did not
have to say, that Kennedy might even
lose the next election. The meaning of
that fact has grown in Ellsberg’s mind
over the decades since 1962. What
hope in the long term could there be
if presidents or other national leaders
were willing to run a one-in-ten chance
of killing hundreds of millions of people just to help win the next election?
That defied all the logic that Ellsberg
and the rest of the RAND analysts had
been counting on to protect the fate of
the earth. Over the last fifty years new
information has emphasized the real
gravity of the confrontation between
the US and the USSR. The problem
wasn’t in the logic, but in the mammoth
military organizations that began to stir
at the outset of the crisis. Unplanned
events began to happen that could have
triggered catastrophe, like the shooting
down of an American reconnaissance
plane over Cuba. When that happened
a furious Robert Kennedy called in
the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, and threatened to attack Cuba
right away if they tried it again. Bobby
thought Khrushchev had ordered the
shootdown to crank up the pressure,
but he was wrong; it was Castro and the
Cubans who did it on their own.
Another thing Bobby and the Executive Committee didn’t know was how
the Soviets in Cuba would respond to
the attack the US planned if the missiles weren’t moved. They didn’t know
that the Soviets had a military force of
42,000 men in Cuba, not the 7,000 estimated by American intelligence. Nor
did they know that the Soviet force had
been supplied with more than a hundred tactical nuclear weapons. And
they did not know that local Soviet
commanders in Cuba had authority
to use those weapons to halt an invasion. Some commander of a Cuban
antiaircraft unit might have shot at
another American reconnaissance
plane; the US might have gone ahead
with its planned invasion; and a Soviet
commander might have used a tactical nuclear weapon to attack American ships drawing close. “And where
would it have ended?” asked McNamara when he learned for the first time
in 1992 that Russian soldiers had been
cleared to use nuclear weapons. “In
utter disaster.”
But it was not only Soviet ground
troops that had nuclear weapons. Soviet
submarines in the Caribbean were also
armed with “a special weapon”—nuclear torpedoes. On two occasions Soviet submarine commanders believed
they were under attack by American
surface ships that were trying to force
them to surface. The Americans were
“signaling” the submarines by bombarding them with “practice” depth
charges, not real depth charges, but the
Soviet sub commanders did not know
these were practice explosives. They
believed the Americans were attacking in earnest, their subs were running
out of air, and on the second occasion
the commander felt he had only two
choices—surface and surrender or use
the special weapon, and he did not dismiss the second possibility out of hand.
The consequences of that are almost
unimaginable, but not quite.
llsberg has a great deal else to say
about nuclear weapons in The Doomsday Machine, but he avoids the easy
and the obvious, which means there
are few mentions of the overheated
posturing of Kim Jong-un and Donald
J. Trump, who before his inaugura-
tion tweeted that “the United States
must greatly strengthen and expand
its nuclear capability until such time as
the world comes to its senses regarding
nukes.” During a meeting last summer
of national security officials, he reportedly called for a tenfold increase in the
number of American nuclear weapons.
It is not fear of the wrong finger on the
red button that makes Ellsberg tremble, but the weapons themselves.
Rousing the comfortable is never
easy, but Ellsberg is a vigorous writer
with a gift for dramatic tension and
the unfolding of events as they cascade
toward disaster. His story wakes old
concerns. We worried about nukes for
decades, but then the Soviet Union collapsed and the cold war ended. Now we
have grown used to thinking that the
danger is fainter, not the planet-busting
wargasm once planned by General
LeMay when both nations were armed
and wired to shoot off everything in a
day. Ellsberg says the danger persists
as long as the weapons are there. The
great achievement of his new book is
to make clear what was hidden fifty
years ago—that Khrushchev’s decision
to move missiles into Cuba, and Kennedy’s decision to stop him, threatened
a war that neither man wanted. The
crystal logic prized by analysts, the
faith in reason that allowed us to think
the unthinkable, evaporated under the
pressure of events. We came this close.
This is not a young man’s argument,
assured and confident. It is an old man’s
warning, the fruit of long reflection and
tinged with sorrow, as clear as he can
make it: these weapons are too dangerous to have because they are too dangerous to use.
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January 18, 2018
Classical Cancan
Adam Kirsch
Jacques Offenbach and
the Making of Modern Culture
by Laurence Senelick.
Cambridge University Press,
354 pp., $120.00
The Real “Tales of Hoffmann”:
Origin, History, and Restoration
of an Operatic Masterpiece
by Vincent Giroud and Michael Kaye,
with a foreword by Plácido Domingo.
Rowman and Littlefield,
563 pp., $130.00; $75.00 (paper)
sical myth, turning Orpheus and Eurydice from symbols of deathless love
into a pair of quarreling, adulterous
spouses. Offenbach, who delighted in
musical parody, impudently quoted the
aria “Che farò senza Euridice?” from
Gluck’s version, sticking out his tongue
at its sublimity.
The show’s popularity was ensured
when an indignant music critic, Jules
Janin, lambasted it in print as a “profanation of holy and glorious antiquity.”
It was as if Janin was auditioning for
the role of Public Opinion, who serves
to drop his objection after hearing the
boy play just half a page of music.
it turned out, however, it was
the teenage Offenbach, now going by
Jacques, who rejected the Conservatoire. After a year he dropped out, preferring to earn a living as an orchestra
player for the Opéra- Comique, one of
the city’s leading theaters. To understand why, one only has to look at the
memoirs of Hector Berlioz, who had
been a student at the Conservatoire a
By the time he died in 1880 at the age
of sixty- one, Jacques Offenbach had
composed more than one hundred
works of musical theater, from twocharacter sketches to full-scale operas.
Yet today, in the United States at any
rate, his reputation rests primarily on
just one piece, his very last—Les contes
d’Hoffmann. Hoffmann is a staple of
the operatic repertoire and has been
recorded many times, while the works
that made Offenbach world-famous in
his lifetime—comic operettas like La
belle Hélène, Orphée aux Enfers, and
La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein—
are known only to devotees. And even
they represent just the peaks of Offenbach’s immense output; there must be
many hours of his music that no one
alive today has ever heard.
This bifurcation of Offenbach’s
achievement, into Hoffmann and everything else, makes it hard to appreciate his real significance—not just as a
composer but as a major figure in the
history of popular culture. For Hoffmann is, both musically and thematically, unrepresentative of his work. It is
an intellectual, poetic, and melancholy
creation, the story of a poet’s disillusionment in love. But if you asked a
Parisian theatergoer in the 1860s what
was unique about the shows known as
offenbachiades, he would have named
quite different qualities. They were
comic, knowing, exciting; they lampooned everything respectable, from
classical mythology to military glory
to the sanctity of marriage; they featured actresses baring their legs and
shoulders as they danced the cancan.
The contrast can be captured in the
two tunes of Offenbach’s that are best
known today: the Barcarolle from
Hoffmann, with its swaying langour,
and the galop infernal (often referred
to as Offenbach’s cancan), with its mad
The moral insouciance of Offenbach’s stage works was crucial to their
appeal from the beginning. His first hit
was a sketch called “The Two Blind
Men,” which featured a pair of beggars
who fake blindness and quarrel over
prime begging spots. Several of Offenbach’s collaborators urged him not to
stage the piece, on the grounds that it
was in bad taste to mock the poor; but
he was vindicated when it drew cheers
and laughter. He pushed the envelope
further with Orphée, which became a
worldwide sensation by spoofing clas16
Bibliothèque de l’Opéra Garnier, Paris/Bridgeman Images
Les contes d’Hoffmann
an opera by Jacques Offenbach,
directed by Bartlett Sher,
at the Metropolitan Opera,
New York City,
September 26–October 28, 2017
Jacques Offenbach; engraving by André Gill from the cover of La Lune, 1866
as the moralistic chorus in Orphée. (It
is Public Opinion who compels Orpheus to try to rescue Eurydice from
Hades, even though he is quite glad to
be rid of her.) That kind of officious
high-mindedness was the butt of Offenbach’s music, and of the witty libretto
by his frequent collaborator Ludovic
Halévy. Offenbach, knowing the publicity value of a scandal, replied gleefully in the pages of Le Figaro: “Bravo
Janin! Thanks Janin, good old Janin,
excellent Janin, the best of friends,
Janin, the greatest of critics!”
By then, Offenbach was already one
of the best-known figures in Paris, his
face—long nose, bald head, benevolent
smile—made familiar by caricaturists.
It was an improbable fate for a man
born to a poor, obscure family of German Jews, and a sign of how powerful
a solvent of social boundaries fame
had become in the nineteenth century.
The composer’s father, Isaac Eberst,
had been a cantor, itinerant singer, and
violinist who eventually settled in Cologne, where he adopted the name of
his hometown, Offenbach am Main.
His son Jakob was born in 1819, in the
aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars that
brought Jewish emancipation to Germany. The doors now stood open to
a much wider world, and when Jakob
proved to be a prodigy on the cello, his
father seized the opportunity, bringing
him to Paris to audition for the Conservatoire in 1833. Family legend had it
that the director, Luigi Cherubini, initially turned young Jakob away on the
grounds that he was not French, only
few years earlier. Berlioz depicts his
own first run-in with Cherubini, who
chased him out of the library for using
it without authorization. It was a foretaste of things to come. The Conservatoire was a hidebound, hierarchical
institution, more concerned with musical politics than musical progress, and
it drove the young Berlioz wild with
Perhaps Offenbach had the same reaction, or perhaps he simply realized
early on that the theater, not the academy, was his native element. His dream
was to see one of his works staged at
the prestigious Opéra- Comique. But
while his career as a cello virtuoso took
off, and he had the opportunity to tour
Europe and play for crowned heads, he
could not budge the theater’s management. It was not until 1855 that Offenbach the composer got his big break.
This was the year of the Exposition
Universelle, with which Napoleon III
aimed to outdo the famous Great Exhibition that had brought so many tourists
to London four years earlier. Knowing
that Paris would be flooded with visitors, Offenbach used his government
connections to obtain the lease on a
small, unused theater on the ChampsElysées. At the time, the law strictly
regulated what kind of work could be
performed at each Paris theater, and
the license for Théâtre des BouffesParisiens, as Offenbach’s house was
named, specified that it could feature
no more than four characters on stage.
Yet within this limitation, Offenbach’s comic genius flourished. “In an
opera which lasts only three- quarters
of an hour . . . and [in which] an orchestra of at most thirty persons is employed, one must have ideas and tunes
that are as genuine as hard cash,” he
observed. Instead of the pompous,
overstuffed pageants that played at the
Opéra, the Bouffes would give people
what they actually wanted—entertainment. “The Two Blind Men” premiered on the opening night, soon to
be followed by Ba- ta- clan, a farce set
in China. (The title, which was meant
to sound Chinese, was popular enough
for a Parisian theater to be named after
it; the Bataclan became known around
the world in 2015, when terrorists
killed eighty-nine people at a rock concert there.) The Bouffes became one
of the city’s most popular theaters, and
Offenbach was dubbed—by no less an
authority than Rossini—“the Mozart
of the Champs-Elysées.”
By 1858, Offenbach was permitted
to put on shows with bigger casts, and
he seized the chance with Orphée aux
Enfers, his first full-scale operetta.
The next decade was the peak of his
success. His great operettas followed
in quick succession: La belle Hélène,
another Greek travesty, this time of
Helen of Troy; Barbe- bleue, a retelling
of the Bluebeard legend; La GrandeDuchesse de Gérolstein, set at a fictional German court, which was seen
by just about every royal visitor to the
1867 Paris Exposition. Indeed, one of
the remarkable things about Offenbach’s shows is that, for all their burlesque of gods, kings, and generals, the
powerful found them highly congenial.
In his influential book about Offenbach, Orpheus in Paris (1937), the
German cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer argued that in the France of the
Second Empire, theater became a cultural power because power itself was
just a variety of theater. Napoleon III
was a play- emperor who maintained
his grip on power with a series of showy
adventures abroad and grands projets
at home. No wonder he admired Offenbach and showered him with signs of
favor, including making him a French
citizen and awarding him the Légion
d’honneur. Indeed, the overlap between
theater and government was sometimes
even clearer: Offenbach’s favorite librettist, Halévy, held a senior position
in the civil service. Halévy’s boss, the
Duc de Morny, who was Napoleon III’s
half-brother, served as foreign minister
but wrote plays in his spare time. If our
own era is characterized by the intersection of politics and celebrity—when
a reality TV personality can be elected
president of the United States—we are
following in the footsteps of the Second
or Offenbach’s critics, by the same
token, his music stood as a symbol of
everything they detested in the public
culture of their time—the flash, the
decadence, the frivolity. Kracauer saw
Offenbach as an ambivalent figure
whose music hastened the very social
decay it embodied. In a dialectical
fashion, Offenbach was a progressive
because he exposed the Second Empire’s reactionary corruption for what
it really was: he “had done more than
The New York Review
anyone else to destroy the Empire from
within,” Kracauer wrote. (In its deft
Marxist analysis of Paris as the capital
of the nineteenth century, Orpheus in
Paris is the book that Walter Benjamin
hoped his Arcades Project would be.)
Of course, it was not lost on Offenbach’s enemies that this agent of corruption was Jewish. (By birth, at any
rate: he converted to Catholicism at the
age of twenty-five, in order to appease
his wife’s family, and was generally irreligious.) As Laurence Senelick shows
in Jacques Offenbach and the Making
of Modern Culture, his comprehensive
study of Offenbach’s reception around
the world, the composer’s Jewishness
was always close to hand as a hostile
explanation for his irreverence. When
La belle Hélène was performed in Berlin in 1875, a local newspaper described
it as a “Jewish speculation on the spirit
of modern society [that] caricatures
whatever is regarded as sublime and sacred in family life.” In the same spirit,
Édouard Drumont, one of the leading
French anti- Semites during the Dreyfus Affair, railed against the “obscene
innuendo, the lecherous rhythms” of
Offenbach’s music.
In these attacks, Offenbach’s Jewishness is made to serve as a shorthand for
corrosive modernity and the vulgarization of mass culture. In the twentieth
century, Tin Pan Alley and rock and
roll would face similar attacks; and as
with those genres, it was precisely the
democratic, irreverent, liberating energy of Offenbach’s music that made
it so popular. Because listeners in the
English-speaking world tend to associate operetta with Gilbert and Sullivan,
it can be hard for us to appreciate just
how transgressive the genre originally
was. For Gilbert and Sullivan, knowing
English taste and Victorian prudery,
deliberately excised the qualities that
made Offenbach so original—the overt
sexuality, the rhythmic agitation. To
his first listeners, Offenbach captured
the thrill of being modern: “La belle
Hélène is the present, our society, it is
us, our beliefs and our tastes and our
gaiety and our spirit of analysis which
knows not parents nor friends nor tradition,” wrote a Parisian journalist in
The year before, in his essay “The
Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire
had declared that beauty is a compound of the ideal and eternal with the
ephemerally modern, which he called
“the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing
on the divine cake.” Offenbach was the
musical equivalent of that icing—not
nourishing, perhaps, but undeniably
delicious. Indeed, many qualities of his
work—its abundance and novelty, its
catchy melodies and exciting rhythms
that people loved to sing and dance
to—bring it close to today’s studiogenerated pop hits. If he were alive
today, he would probably not be a classical musician but a music producer.
Because Offenbach was so closely associated with the Second Empire, the
fall of Napoleon III in 1870 marked
a turning point in his career. After a
long run of hits, he seemed to lose his
touch, and a couple of box office failures reduced him to bankruptcy. He
was forced to lease his country house,
the Villa Orphée, and undertake a
well-paying tour of the United States in
1876. When he returned to France, he
dedicated himself to a new project that
was very different from anything he
had done before: an opera based on the
January 18, 2018
stories of the German Romantic writer
E.T. A. Hoffmann, who had been a
favorite in France since the 1820s. In
1851, a play incorporating the plots of
several Hoffmann stories and featuring the writer himself as the hero had
been a success in Paris. The authors,
Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, went
on to write the libretto for Gounod’s
Faust, among many other works. By
now Carré was dead, but Offenbach
and Barbier joined forces to turn Les
contes d’Hoffmann into an opera.
ffenbach typically composed at a
frantic pace: in 1873 alone he had five
new works on the boards. His carriage
was equipped with a desk so he could
keep writing music on the road. But
with Hoffmann he took a different approach, working on it for three years,
and he achieved a musical and dramatic complexity beyond even the best
of his earlier work. In his last days, he
was heard to say that he was living only
to see Hoffmann performed. The wish
wasn’t granted. By the time he died,
Offenbach had mostly completed the
piano score, but the orchestrations had
to be entrusted to another composer,
Ernest Guiraud. Just as important, Offenbach was not able to guide the production or revise the opera in response
to audience reaction, as he usually did.
The result was that, for decades
after, producers and directors felt free
to alter Hoffmann in accordance with
their own dramatic instincts or the
needs or limitations of their troupes.
In the very first production, in 1881,
one of the opera’s three acts was cut.
Later versions of the score reassigned
tunes to different characters and even
included a spurious aria, “Scintille,
diamant,” based on a melody borrowed from another Offenbach work.
(There was at least good precedent for
this: the opera’s most famous tune, the
Barcarolle, was recycled by Offenbach
himself from an earlier opera.) In recent decades, musicologists have used
Offenbach’s manuscripts to restore the
opera to something like its original
form, but there will never be a single,
authentic version of Hoffmann.
This protean quality seems oddly
appropriate for a work so resistant to
formula and fixity. In an age that set
great store by genre distinctions—
Offenbach’s catalog includes opéracomiques, opéra- bouffes, operettes,
and more—the composer gave Hoffmann a unique designation: it was an
opéra-fantastique, a fantastic or supernatural opera. In The Real “Tales of
Hoffmann,” a phonebook-sized new
volume that includes the full libretto of
the opera, the script of the 1851 play,
and a collection of scholarly essays, the
editor Vincent Giroud explains that
Hoffmann’s stories were translated
into French as contes fantastiques—supernatural tales. For the first generation of French Romantics, the unique
atmosphere of Hoffmann’s tales—the
way they combined magical elements
with depth psychology, giving the effect of nightmares come to life—came
as a revelation. Gérard de Nerval proclaimed, “In literature we aim at the
What makes Les contes d’Hoffmann
so appealing and so dramatically challenging is the way Offenbach filters
this German Romanticism through
his own French psychological realism, thus uniting the two halves of his
In Black and White
A Novel
Translated by Phyllis I. Lyons
“Written as a serial ‘newspaper novel,’
this is a fascinating view of the writer’s
mind and of the evolution of a literary
genius in a rare experimental mode, as
Tanizaki (1886–1965) mingled noir and
the fantastic long before Haruki Murakami
made his name using the same formula.”
—Publishers Weekly
Facing the Abyss
American Literature and Culture in the 1940s
“A richly detailed investigation of
Sisters of the Cross
Translated by Roger Keys and Brian Murphy
burgeoning creativity in a decade marked
“Dark and beguiling; Remizov is a writer
by both hope and dread.”
worth knowing about.”
—Kirkus Reviews
—Kirkus Reviews
Orhan Pamuk and the Good
of World Literature
Writings from the Golden
Age of Russian Poetry
“[An] important and challenging book . . .
Presented and translated by Peter France
Not for or against Pamuk, this book is with
“Poets and general readers should
him in his attempt to enter the gates of the
appreciate this volume as much as
Western canon without at the same time
teachers and scholars . . . it treats an
losing his soul.”
essential Russian poet, and it shows a
—Keith Gessen, cofounding editor of n + 1
master translator at the height of his
—Los Angeles Review of Books
Did you not proudly dream of
Like the wind through the trees
in a forest,
The soft murmuring rustle of the
packed crowd,
Praising your name and following
you with their eyes?
The substitution of ambition for
desire has the effect of lowering the
emotional temperature. Indeed, Les
contes d’Hoffmann is a self- conscious,
self-reflexive work, in a way that Hoffmann’s own tales are not. Because
everything in the opera is a symbol
or parable, the audience experiences
Hoffmann more as the artist devising
the tale than as the hero living through
it. This makes it difficult to keep the
stage action unified and give it narraMarty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
identity. The opera’s three central acts
each depict Hoffmann’s doomed love
for a different woman. The first, Olympia, turns out to be a living doll, an
automaton built by her mad-scientist
“father”; the second, Antonia, is a
singer who can’t resist the call of performance, even though she is doomed to
die if she sings; and the third, Giulietta,
is a heartless Venetian courtesan who
aims to steal Hoffmann’s reflection.
These stories are framed by a prologue, in which we see the drunken
Hoffmann at a tavern with friends,
and an epilogue, in which we learn
that each of the love objects is fictional,
meant to represent a different aspect
of the woman he really loves, the actress Stella. In this way, the three episodes are made to serve as stages in a
young man’s sentimental education.
Mark Schowalter as Spalanzani and Erin Morley as Olympia in the Metropolitan Opera’s
recent production of Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann
First comes blind love, based on first
impressions, without knowledge of the
woman’s real nature; then an idealistic,
romantic passion thwarted by circumstances; and finally a debauched love
that alienates him from his true self.
The psychological acuity of the composite portrait gives the opera the unity
that it lacks dramatically.
In the original Hoffmann stories, each
See It Now
Allianz is a partner of contemporary art at MoMA.
Top: Stephen Shore. U.S. 93, Wikieup, Arizona, December 14, 1976. 1976. Chromogenic color print.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Thomas and Susan Dunn
Bottom: Stephen Shore. West 3rd Street, Parkersburg, West Virginia, May 16, 1974. 1974. Chromogenic
color print. Courtesy the artist and 303 Gallery, New York. © 2017 Stephen Shore
11 West 53 Street, Manhattan
of these unrelated characters points to
a different moral than they do when
brought together by Barbier and Offenbach. Take Antonia, who appears
in the story “Councillor Krespel.” In
Hoffmann’s version, Antonia’s singing
is clearly a version of sexual passion:
it leaves her flushed, “intoxicated with
bliss,” “swimming in delight,” yet it terrifies her father, Krespel, who refuses
to allow her to meet with her suitor, the
composer B. When B. finally does get
Antonia to sing, she perishes in a kind
of Liebestod.
In the opera, on the other hand, sex
is absent from the equation. Instead,
Antonia’s singing is seen—in terms
that Offenbach surely understood and
identified with—as a form of theatrical
ambition. When the diabolical Doctor
Miracle tries to coax Antonia into singing, it is by using the lure of fame:
All the blessings that heaven
entrusted to you,
Must they be buried in the shadow
of a household and family
life?. . .
tive momentum. The recent revival
of Bartlett Sher’s production of Les
contes d’Hoffmann, which debuted at
the Metropolitan Opera in 2009, often
lost sight of Hoffmann himself: Vittorio Grigolo sang beautifully and cut
a handsome figure, but was generally
to be found off to the side of the stage,
striking a tragic pose while events unfolded around him.
By contrast, Tara Erraught as Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s sidekick who is actually his muse in disguise, was more
central to the action. Always on stage
as an ironic observer of Hoffmann’s follies, she shares the audience’s point of
view, and thus serves as a more natural
focus of identification than the nominal hero. Meanwhile, the set design, by
Michael Yeargan, gave in to the almost
irresistible temptation to disintegrate
the work into a series of spectacular
tableaux. The Olympia act, in particular, was awash in Surrealist imagery,
which was certainly striking, yet emotionally unrelated to what is supposed
to be Hoffmann’s plight.
Offenbach himself, who was always
keen on spectacle—indeed, he frequently turned hit shows into financial
disasters because he overspent on sets
and costumes—would have sympathized. Yet of all his works, Hoffmann
is the one that demands the most restraint. Offenbach’s delicacy, well hidden for much of his career, emerges in
this last masterpiece, and it demands
a certain reticence on the part of the
production, lest it be scared back into
The New York Review
Raja Shehadeh
Stephen Shore/303 Gallery, New York
This Land Is Our Land
elled from Jerusalem to Hebron
to Beir Sabaa [now Beersheba] to
Gaza to Khan Yunus to Majdal to
Ramle to Lydda to Kalkilia to Tul
Karam and only passed through
Arab lands. What is owned by the
Jews compares as nothing to what
is owned by the Arabs in Palestine.
His observation was not far from the
truth. By 1949, a year after the State
of Israel was established, only 13.5
percent of its land was under formal
Jewish ownership, either by private individuals or by the state.
In the course of the 1948 Arab–
Israeli War, some 750,000 Palestinians
fled the fighting or were forced off their
land. In 1950 Israel passed a law designating those lands as “absentee” territory and through a series of other legal
measures reserved it for the use of the
Jewish Israeli population. But there remained heavy concentrations of land—
in the Galilee, the north of Israel, and
the Negev in the south—that was still
owned by the Palestinians who stayed
in Israel and became Israeli citizens.
In these areas, Palestinians still far
outnumbered Jewish Israelis in 1950.
The new state was confronted with
two questions: how to “Judaize” those
areas, and how to transfer most of the
land there to Jewish Israelis.
As Gary Fields makes clear, the IsNabi Musa, West Bank, January 19, 2010; photograph by Stephen Shore from the exhibition Stephen Shore,
on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, through May 28, 2018. The catalog is by Quentin Bajac,
with contributions by David Campany, Kristen Gaylord, and Martino Stierli. It is published by MoMA .
Palestinian Landscapes
in a Historical Mirror
by Gary Fields.
University of California Press,
404 pp., $29.95 (paper)
Between 1922 and 1925 my great-uncle,
the journalist Najib Nassar, rode on
horseback throughout Mandate Palestine and the newly created country of
Transjordan. He published his observations as a series of letters in Al-Karmil,
the weekly newspaper he edited in
Haifa. In a number of these letters
Najib voiced his fears about the fate of
Palestinian farmers, especially in the
north of the country, where absentee
Arab landowners were selling their
large estates to new institutions of the
burgeoning Zionist movement.
During his travels northward from
Jenin to Nazareth, Najib proposed
that the nature of the Palestinian
struggle with the Zionist movement
was in essence economic. In the north
of Palestine, wealthy Lebanese landowners owned entire villages. Starting
in the mid-nineteenth century, a series
of legal developments in the Ottoman
Empire—which ruled Palestine until
1917—had enabled the growth of these
large land holdings. They included the
promulgation of the Ottoman Land
Code of 1858, which attempted to
eliminate the musha system, whereby
land was held in common, and required that the cultivator-turnedowner register his land with Treasury
officials. Two things dissuaded farmers from doing so: the desire to avoid
paying taxes on their land and the fact
that the land registry was based in faraway urban centers such as Beirut and
January 18, 2018
These developments had nothing to
do with the Zionist project. They were
simply intended to help implement a
more centralized and rational method
for the collection of taxes. In the hilly
parts of Palestine, where the land was
mainly planted with olive and fruit
trees, holdings were small and the arrival of the Zionists changed little. But
in the arable plain and valley regions,
where water was more readily available,
the Zionists sought to acquire land.
Soon Lebanese landlords—the Sursuk,
Twani, and Khoury families—started
selling their holdings in Marj Bani
Amer (now called the Jezreel Valley).
These feudal landowners had little
interest in supporting the Zionist enterprise; they were unconcerned with
colonization. But the profits from their
lands were falling, and the cotton crops
they planted had failed. They were
investing in large-scale capitalist ventures in Egypt and Lebanon, such as
the Suez Canal Company and the port
in Beirut, and they needed cash. “By
selling all they had in this plain,” Najib
predicted, “these landowners would be
contributing to the distress of the country that would arise from the establishment of a Jewish kingdom.”
he legal processes the Ottomans
had begun were continued in the years
after the end of their rule—first by the
British military occupation of Palestine
from 1917 to 1922, and then when the
League of Nations granted the British
a mandate over Palestine from 1922 to
1948. During both periods, the British
continued to revise the land laws with
a view to making the land more marketable and facilitating its sale to the
Zionists. Among the British figures
whose ideas provided the foundation
for British land policy in Palestine was
Sir Ernest Dowson, who believed that
what the Palestinian fellah, or peasant,
needed was “enclosure and partition of
the common fields.”
In his book Enclosure: Palestinian
Landscapes in a Historical Mirror,
Gary Fields defines enclosure as “a
practice resulting in the transfer of land
from one group of people to another
and the establishment of exclusionary spaces on territorial landscapes.”
Dowson was intent on creating blocks
of property that could be surveyed
and registered with the Mandate Land
Authority. Mandate authorities also
sought to repeal the musha system.
British officials were convinced that the
enclosure of common land, which had
already been implemented in England,
had brought about “improvement” and
“progress,” and they sought to replicate
it in Palestine.
This British policy represented a victory for the Zionist movement. It made
it possible for more Palestinian land to
be sold to Zionist Jews. Yet although
many offered lucrative sums for the
land, not all landowners were tempted
to sell. In some places, Najib wrote,
landowners were establishing an agricultural school and planting more olive
trees to stand against the encroachment. Enough Palestinians refused to
sell that the Zionists ended up acquiring little land. The Palestinian writer
and educator Khalil Sakakini was an
educational inspector under the British Mandate. In his diary he described
a trip he took on December 13, 1934:
If the Jews have a few impoverished colonies the Arabs have
thousands of villages. We trav-
raeli government used methods to
achieve these two objectives not unlike the ones it used in the West Bank
after the Six-Day War of 1967. In these
areas, most of the land ownership was
recorded only as written descriptions,
such as that a particular parcel was
bordered in the north by a road and in
the south by an escarpment. The Israeli
government did not recognize such
descriptions as valid records of ownership. In the Galilee, Fields writes,
Palestinians were compelled to prove,
through documents, that they were the
legal owners of the land:
Palestinians who held rights to
their land through the Ottoman
notion of continuous occupancy
and cultivation were invariably unable to meet this requirement. As
a result, their land passed into the
category of state property. This
newly designated state property
became the foundation of Jewish
Over the past two decades, most of the
land used for Jewish settlements in the
West Bank has been acquired on the
grounds that it belongs to the state.
This tactic has enabled Israeli leaders
to maintain that the state of Israel does
not confiscate land from Palestinians
to build settlements.
The state only began to use this legal
ploy in earnest after 1982. Until then,
the authorities acquired land for settlement primarily by requisitioning it for
military purposes. A smaller percentage of land had been acquired by declaring it absentee land or territory
formerly held by the Jordanian government. By 1979, when I cofounded
the organization Al-Haq with several
other lawyers to bring legal challenges
against the Israeli occupation, Israel
had gained control of roughly 30 percent of the land in the West Bank. But
those acquisitions were for the most
part scattered and separated by plots
of private land, rendering most of them
unsuitable for settlement building.
It was around this time that I was driving to Tel Aviv and passed by the land
of François Albina from Jerusalem, one
of my clients. I could see that mobile
homes were being brought in. When I
next returned to the site I saw a cluster
of nine houses, which later developed
into the settlement of Beit Horon. That
evening I wrote in my diary that what
was built so hastily could just as quickly
be removed. I should have known better. I had seen the settlement master
plan that the Jewish Regional Council
in the West Bank had drawn up in cooperation with the Settlement Division
of the World Zionist Organization. According to this plan, 80,000 Israeli Jews
were to be settled in the West Bank by
1986 in twenty-three settlements and
twenty outposts. Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s minister of defense, declared that
“we are going to leave an entirely different map of the country that it will be
impossible to ignore.”
The custodian of absentee property
had transferred Albina’s land to the
Zionist agency with a long-term lease,
because it was deemed to be state land.
When I proved before an Israeli court
that the land was privately owned by
Albina, the judge decided that the
transaction had been “in fact standard,
strong and binding and this in spite of
the fact that we concluded in our opinion that the ownership of the said land
belongs to the appellant.”
The Israeli judges based this oddly
contradictory decision on Article 5 of
Military Order 58, according to which
“any transaction carried out in good
faith between the Custodian of Ab-
sentee Property and any other person,
concerning property which the Custodian believed when he entered into
the transaction to be abandoned property, will not be void and will continue
to be valid even if it were proved that
the property was not at that time abandoned property.” The presiding judge
did not concern himself with the question of how the custodian could “in
good faith” have believed that Albina’s
land was abandoned. The custodian
had, after all, had access to the area’s
land registry, which was confiscated
by the Israeli military immediately
after the occupation. A circular dated
November 14, 1979, restricted public
access to land records. Such records
are still restricted for most of the land
in the West Bank that Israel controls.
Soon after the court ruled against
Albina, two representatives from the
illegal settlement of Ofra—established
mainly on private Palestinian land—
came to see me at my law office in Ramallah. They wanted me to register a
local West Bank company for them.
When I refused, they were incensed.
“Why not? We are bringing progress
to the area. Do you want to say you’re
against that?” I responded that most
Palestinians felt as I did and would not
want to have anything to do with the
settlers. They answered: “But why? We
are not depriving you of anything. The
more settlements, the more progress.
How can that be bad for you?”
Albina’s case, which began in 1979,
dragged on for several years. During
that period, a change took place in the
primary method the Israeli govern-
ment used to acquire land for building
Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
We began seeing fewer cases of seizure
for military purposes and more cases
like that of Albina, which turned on
the declaration of land as state property. The case that forced this shift in
strategy occurred in 1979 and centered
on a settlement called Elon Moreh.
On June 7, 1979, from a hilltop within
the boundaries of the village of Rujeib,
1.5 miles east of the Jerusalem– Nablus
highway, Mustafa Dweikat and sixteen
other owners of 125 dunums of land
(about thirty- one acres) witnessed the
start of a “settlement operation.” With
the assistance of helicopters and heavy
equipment, a road was being built
from the highway to the hilltop. The
chief of staff had given his approval on
April 11 for the requisitioning of the
area for military purposes. On June
5, Brigadier General Binyamin BenEliezer, the military commander of the
West Bank, had signed the requisition
order, which designated an area of approximately seven hundred dunums as
“seized for military purposes.”
The seventeen owners of the land
appealed to the Israeli High Court of
Justice. At the trial, their counsel presented an affidavit signed by the former
chief of staff of the Israeli army, Haim
Bar-Lev, in which he refuted the claim
that the settlement contributed to Israel’s security. If anything, it would impede military operations. In the event
of a war, he testified, the army might
find itself having to protect the civilian
Israeli settlement instead of fighting the
enemy. For their part, the settlers submitted an affidavit by Menachem Felix,
who maintained on behalf of Gush
Emunim, the early pioneers of settlement in the West Bank, that “the settlement of the People of Israel in the Land
of Israel is the realm of the most effective, the truest act of security.” He then
concluded: “But settlement itself does
not arise out of security reasons or physical needs, but by the power of destiny
of the return of Israelites to their land.”
The Israeli court did not accept
Felix’s statement. Nor did it accept BarLev’s; but for the first and last time,
lawyers for Palestinians succeeded in
having the establishment of a settlement overturned. In its ruling the court
said that the military government could
not create facts about military needs
that are designed ab initio to persist
even after the end of the military rule
in a given area, when the fate of the
area after the end of such rule cannot
yet be known.1
After that ruling, the government
depended significantly less on military
land seizures. The primary method of
acquiring land for settlement construction from then on was to declare it
state property. To determine what land
could be so designated, a 1979 military
survey estimated that 1.53 million dunums of land in the West Bank lacked
a registered title or had been recorded,
as in the Galilee, through written description only.
When I traveled to the United States
in 1985 to promote my book Occupier’s
The case is discussed at length in Michael Sfard’s excellent new book, The
Wall and the Gate: Israel, Palestine,
and the Legal Battle for Human Rights,
translated by Maya Johnston (Metropolitan, 2018), pp. 164–176.
Law: Israel and the West Bank, I spoke
about the settlements and the danger
they presented to solving the Israeli–
Palestinian conflict. I found that many
audience members were convinced by
what they had been told by Israeli propagandists: that the settlements were
necessary for the security of the State
of Israel. I would remind my audiences
of Bar-Lev’s statement, but most still accepted Israel’s security justification for
building settlements. Now that the occupation of the West Bank is in its fiftieth
year, the Israeli government no longer
uses that justification. The leaders of
the settlements and state officials today
claim that this is their God-given land.
This biblical justification does not
apply only to what Israel has classified
as public property. It also applies to privately owned Palestinian land. According to Fields, a report by Talia Sasson
of the Israeli State Attorney’s Office
documented systematic confiscations of private Palestinian land by
settlers who, assisted by complicit
government officials, established
numerous unauthorized outposts
on the landscape . . .which were
later granted legal status as official
Nothing has been done to right this
wrong and return the land to its registered owners. Menachem Felix’s justification for Jewish settlement using the
authority of the Bible has trumped the
secular law of the land.
The story of the transformation of the
land in Palestine/Israel from the Ottoman period to the present takes up much
of Fields’s book. But he tells it in a larger
setting, tracing the idea of “enclosure”
through England and North America before arriving at his discussion of the Palestinian landscape. What has happened
there, he argues, belongs to a “lineage
of dispossession” that can be followed
back “to the practice of overturning
systems of rights to land stemming
from the enclosures in early modern
England.” He describes at length how
maps, property law, and landscape architecture were enlisted by modernizers
from the seventeenth century onward
in the Zionist practices in the Occupied
Palestinian Territories to “gain control
of land from existing landholders and
remake life on the landscape consistent
with their modernizing aims.”
In his chapter on the colonization
of North America and the subjugation
of Native Americans, Fields describes
how “the law emerged as a crucial
instrument in dispossessing Amerindians and transferring their land
to colonists.” In the seventeenth and
early eighteenth centuries, he argues,
the English “tended to favor acquisition of Amerindian land through what
colonists considered lawful purchase,”
although it was invariably the colonists
who had the advantage in such transactions. By the early nineteenth century,
in contrast, “the law had become an
instrument . . . enabling the transfer of
Amerindian land to settlers through
forcible seizure.” A crucial moment in
this development, for Fields, was Chief
Justice John Marshall’s ruling in the
1823 Supreme Court case Johnson v.
M’Intosh that “conquest gives a title
which the courts of the conqueror cannot deny.” In this way, Fields concludes,
a discourse of land improvement
and property rights—suppleThe New York Review
mented with notions of savagery
and racism—had settled upon the
landscape . . .while a ravaged and
decimated population of Indians
was enclosed in reservations.
The claim continues to be heard that
the Zionists made the desert bloom and
that the Palestinians were not forced
off their land. And yet, as Ramzy Baroud shows in his moving new book,
The Last Earth, A Palestinian Story:
“The Nakba, the genesis of all the pain
that has been endured by every Palestinian over the last four generations,
In his conclusion, Fields tell us that
he wrote Enclosure to show
Anisa Ahmad Jaber Mahamid,
born in 1908 in the Palestinian village
of al-Lajjun, Jenin District, and
photographed by Fazal Sheikh in the
Arab-Israeli city of Umm el-Fahem, 2011.
Her portrait appears in Memory Trace, the
first volume in Sheikh’s Erasure Trilogy,
published by Steidl in 2015.
tary one. But reading Fields’s chapters on North America, I recognized
the similarities between the treatment
of Native Americans and some of Israel’s tactics and attitudes toward the
Yet I doubt that, despite Israel’s assiduous efforts over several decades to
push Palestinians into confined areas
within the West Bank, the outcome will
be the same. What distinguishes Israel/
Palestine from the other regions Fields
describes is that the usurpation of land
in the Occupied Palestinian Territories
is taking place long after the age of colonialism came to an end, sixty-nine years
after the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in defiance
of international law. Jewish settlements
violate Article 49 of the 1949 Fourth
Geneva Convention, which prohibits an
occupying power from transferring its
own people into occupied land. And this
is happening in full view of the media
in one of the most reported conflicts in
the world.
the extensive documentation, both visual and textual, of what
took place in the part of Mandate
Palestine where the Israeli state was
established sixty-nine years ago and
is currently taking place in the West
Bank, Israel remains unable to come
to terms with its past, unwilling to recognize the Nakba (catastrophe) that
took place in 1948, and unprepared to
accept that the Palestinians are a nation entitled to self- determination.2
In the West Bank, where I live, the effect of the creation of “white space”
became more evident as time passed.
In the first decades of the Israeli occupation settlements were established
mostly in remote areas and did not
have a significant impact on the daily
lives of Palestinians. It is entirely different now. The separation wall divides
many communities from their arable
land; roads have been built that Palestinians are not allowed to use; nature
reserves have been established from
which Palestinians are excluded. Now
when I try walking in most of the hills
in the West Bank I am called a trespasser. The enclosure of the land has
given rise to a system of discrimination over the use of natural resources
of land and water that is akin to apartheid. Where interaction between the
two communities was possible in the
past, they now live entirely separate
existences in the tiny space that they
share unequally.
Although Fields’s book provides
convincing evidence that what took
place in Palestine/Israel shares a common lineage with what took place in
England and North America over the
past three centuries, it must be pointed
out that most of the land in Israel was
taken after the 1948 Arab–Israeli War.
In the West Bank it was only after
the Oslo Accords of 1993–1995 that
Jewish settlements tripled in number. Only then did the Israeli public
come to believe that the more than 60
percent of the West Bank classified
as Area C—under sole Israeli control—would eventually be annexed to
Reading Enclosure brings home the
tragedy of such immense and irrevocable destruction. The sad truth is that
the creation of gated communities and
walled states is spreading well beyond
the three regions he discusses and
is fast becoming the norm in today’s
world. A few years ago, while taking a
hike close to my home, I encountered a
young settler from Dolev who objected
to my presence in the hills where I’ve
walked for many years. Challenging
my right to hike there, he tried to call
the army to evict me from the land.
As we waited for them to arrive, he
claimed with unflinching conviction
that it was he, not I, who “really lives
See Sarah Helm’s article on page 24 of
this issue.
January 18, 2018
by the Night
how the making of private space,
the making of white space, and
the making of Jewish space on territorial landscapes all spring from
the same exclusionary impulses
deriving from the enclosures and
the appropriation of land in England. Such impulses have enabled
groups of people across time and
territory to proclaim: “This is my
land and not yours.”
Fazal Sheikh
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A Star Is Born
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Geoffrey Wheatcroft
a film directed by Jonathan Teplitzky
Darkest Hour
a film directed by Joe Wright
In May 1941, Winston Churchill gave
orders for a cinema to be installed at
Chequers. This house in Buckinghamshire, built under Queen Elizabeth I
but heavily gothicized under Queen
Victoria, and which a benefactor had
presented to the nation in 1917 as a
country residence for the prime minister, had acquired a new importance as
it was forty miles from Downing Street
and the Blitz. There Churchill would
retreat on weekends to brood about
the war undisturbed by bombs, and to
relax as best he could.
He had always enjoyed drama, on
stage and then on screen, and he saw
public life as a kind of dramatic performance, with himself in the lead:
Jonathan Rose gets this right in the
subtitle of his valuable book The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor
(2014). Churchill’s hugely prolific literary output (from around 1930 onward much assisted by researchers and
ghostwriters) had included film scripts
and one novel—the swashbuckling if
not quite bodice-ripping 1900 Savrola
(“a tale of the revolution in Laurania”),
of which he later endearingly said that
“I have consistently urged my friends
to abstain from reading it.”
In 1929 he visited Hollywood—
where he befriended Charlie Chaplin,
among others—and between 1934 and
1936 he was paid the very large fee of
£10,000 by the Hungarian-born producer Alexander Korda to write two
screenplays. One was about the Great
War and the other about the life of
George V. In the former, an American
fighter pilot who has pretended to be
a Canadian to join the Royal Flying
Corps hears the news that his country
has entered the war and says, “Oh! I’m
so glad! I was brought up on George
Washington, who never told a lie.”
This might have been an uncanny
premonition of that remarkable phenomenon of our time, the American
cult of Churchill. It is expressed through
presidential invocations, warships and
high schools named after him, statues
from New Orleans to Kansas City, dinners in Washington and exhibitions in
New York, and endless books, movies,
and television series. This cult has had
consequences that are serious, and too
often lamentable.
it was as well that neither
of Churchill’s two screenplays was
filmed, but Korda would continue to
play an important if little-known part
in Churchill’s financial life. During
World War II, enormous sums were
paid, in strictly private deals, for the
film rights to Churchill’s biography of
his ancestor the first Duke of Marlborough and his History of the EnglishSpeaking Peoples, which would not
be published for years to come. Again
neither movie was made, but Korda became Sir Alexander as an expression of
At Chequers, Churchill and his colleagues would watch the latest films
appeaser who thought that England
was finished in 1940.)
In 1964 came The Finest Hours, a documentary narrated by Orson Welles,
with Churchill’s words spoken by Patrick Wymark. That was the year before
Churchill’s death. Eight years later
came the first biopic, Young Winston,
based on My Early Life, Churchill’s
most enjoyable book. Produced by
Carl Foreman, a leftist fugitive from
Hollywood, it was directed by Richard
Attenborough with a stellar cast: Robert Shaw, Anne Bancroft, John Mills,
Anthony Hopkins, and Jack Hawkins.
The title role was played by a then unknown, Simon Ward; Pippa Steel was
the girlish Clementine Hozier, whom
Churchill married in 1908.
Four Churchills, clockwise from top left: Albert Finney in The Gathering Storm, 2002;
Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, 2017; Richard Burton in Walk With Destiny, 1974;
and Robert Hardy in The Wilderness Years, 1981
and newsreels showing the progress
of the war. George Orwell said that
Churchill had “a real if not very discriminating feeling for literature,” and
the same could be said of his cinematic
tastes. He detested Citizen Kane, but
then he may have been aware that it
was to some degree based on William
Randolph Hearst, with whom and with
whose newspapers he had established
a lucrative relationship after he stayed
with Hearst at San Simeon in California, the model for Kane’s Xanadu. On
the other hand, he loved Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V, a Churchillian
vision of war-as-epic released the same
year that another army crossed from
England to Normandy.
It was the war years that saw the first
depictions of Churchill onscreen. The
very first may have been Ohm Krüger,
a 1941 German agitprop film about
the Boer War (winner of the best foreign movie award at that year’s Venice
Film Festival—and how many ardent
cineastes remember that?), with a
whisky-sodden Queen Victoria and a
brutal commandant of a concentration
camp—a phrase used by the Spanish
in Cuba shortly before the Boer War
and borrowed by the British in South
Africa—who butchers women. He is
unnamed but bears a striking resemblance to Churchill, who had been a
war correspondent there and was imprisoned by the Boers.
Scarcely less of a curiosity is Mission
to Moscow, directed by Michael Curtiz
in 1943, and based on the fatuous memoirs of Joseph Davies, the American
ambassador to Moscow. In the film,
the Moscow Trials are portrayed as a
judicially proper punishment of fifth
columnists and traitors. It was bitterly
denounced by the anti-Stalinist left,
including Edmund Wilson and Dwight
Macdonald, although Churchill called
Stalin’s purges “merciless but perhaps
not needless.” On his way to Moscow
Davies meets Churchill, played by Dudley Field Malone, an American lawyer
and politician with a sideline as a character actor, who was thought to bear a
close resemblance to the prime minister.
Slowly, steadily, increasingly, movies and television programs about
Churchill began to multiply, until a
trickle became a stream and then a
torrent. This past year has seen at
least two new biopics: Churchill, set in
May 1944 before D-Day, and Darkest
Hour, set in May 1940 before the fall
of France. There’s also the hugely successful Dunkirk. Churchill doesn’t appear in that noisy film, but at the end a
soldier brought back from France picks
up a newspaper and reads, “We shall
fight on the beaches . . .”
In the outpouring of war movies
after 1945 there were sometimes brief
appearances by Churchill. But the
great breakthrough in Churchilliana,
and the first real burgeoning of the
Churchill cult, began around fifteen
years after the war. Shown over 1960
and 1961, the twenty-seven-part The
Valiant Years was based on Churchill’s
The Second World War. One of the first
important documentaries broadcast on
American television, it was directed by
Anthony Bushell and John Schlesinger
and seen by huge numbers of viewers.
The producer, Jack Le Vien, originally hoped that the narrator would be
Prince Philip, but he had to make do
with Gary Merrill, while Richard Burton spoke Churchill’s words.
Given the dates it was shown, it’s possible that The Valiant Years had a part
in John Kennedy’s photo-finish defeat
of Richard Nixon in November 1960.
Kennedy was the first president to invoke Churchill, as did Rose Kennedy,
reminding voters that her boy Jack had
been in London just before the war,
and had written the Churchillian Why
England Slept as his senior thesis at
Harvard. (She understandably didn’t
remind them that her husband, Joseph,
ambassador to the Court of St James’s
and surely FDR’s most eccentric appointment, was a corrupt, anti-Semitic
ne small part in Young Winston was
taken by Robert Hardy, as the headmaster of Harrow. Hardy had actually
met Churchill twice—first when he was
introduced to him as a boy by a family
friend, Dr. William Temple, the archbishop of York, later of Canterbury;
and then in 1953 when he was playing
in Hamlet at the Old Vic with Richard
Burton in the title role. After the play,
Churchill went backstage and entered
Burton’s dressing room with the words,
“My Lord Hamlet, may I use your facilities?,” which became one small part
of the great corpus of Churchillian
Little can the two actors at the Old
Vic have guessed that they would one
day impersonate their backstage visitor.
After The Valiant Years, Burton played
Churchill in the 1974 American television biopic The Gathering Storm. At
the time, he incautiously told an American reporter that “to play Churchill is
to hate him,” and recalled the loathing
felt for him in the South Wales of his
boyhood as an enemy of the working
class and a man who had sent troops
to Tonypandy during a mining dispute
in 1910. Burton was not asked to play
Churchill again.
But Hardy almost cornered the market. He began in 1981 with Winston
Churchill: The Wilderness Years, an
eight-part television dramadoc with
Siân Phillips as Clementine, and never
looked back. By the time he died last
summer at ninety-one, Hardy had almost lost count of his Churchills, from
supporting appearances in the television movies The Woman He Loved
and Bomber Harris to a last hurrah
in Churchill: 100 Days That Saved
Britain in 2015. In between there was
Winnie, by all accounts a simply excruciating musical that closed soon
after it opened, and even a French play,
Celui qui a Dit “NON .” Hardy won
a BAFTA, the British Oscar, for The
Wilderness Years, in which he set the
tone for Churchill as larger-than-life
bulldog, with the scowls and the jowls,
the hats and the cigars, the mannerisms
and the lisping speech that could make
Churchill sound drunk even when he
was sober.
Since then one actor after another has
taken on the part, even though, as the
late A. A. Gill rightly said, Churchill
was an “iceberg for titanic thespian
aspirations.” Maybe the best was Albert Finney in The Gathering Storm,
The New York Review
These movies tend to have a tenuous
basis in fact. In the case of Churchill,
it was certainly true that Churchill
dragged his feet as long as he could
over a cross-channel invasion, which
was the one way that the Western Allies could make a serious contribution
to the defeat of Germany. Even as
D-Day approached he was deeply apprehensive, and told Clementine that
he foresaw terrible casualties, many
more than there were in the event.
But the idea that he tried to call off
the landing at the last moment is silly.
And even more misleading is any idea
that he was guilt-ridden about Gallipoli. He knew that lamentable episode
clouded his reputation and resented
that, since he continued to think,
against all evidence, that it was a brilliant enterprise undone by incompetent execution and sheer misfortune.
What makes Churchill more curious is
Cohen Media Group
a 2002 BBC -HBO biopic with Vanessa
Redgrave, who was so good that Mary
Soames, the Churchills’ youngest and
last surviving child, exclaimed while
watching, “It’s Mama!” Most recently,
in what must be an incomplete catalog,
were two better-than-usual television
Churchills, Michael Gambon and John
Lithgow. In Churchill’s Secret (2016)
Gambon wisely eschewed the usual
shtick—Churchill defiant, Churchill
triumphant—and gave us Churchill
in unhappy decline. The “secret” of
the title was the severe stroke that incapacitated the prime minister for
weeks in the summer of 1953, while the
country was run by a handful of senior
ministers. The public was kept completely unaware of this by a conspiracy among the press lords, principally
Churchill’s friends Beaverbrook and
In World War II: When Lions Roared
(1994), set at the Tehran conference
in 1943, Bob Hoskins was an againsttype Churchill. Michael Caine was
Stalin, and Roosevelt was played by
Lithgow, who has since switched roles:
in the very successful, although sometimes historically misleading, Netflix
drama The Crown, to quote Gill again,
“Lithgow’s Churchill is a marvellously
monstrous rendition of the old sot.” It
was surely significant that a program
ostensibly about the queen and her
family should have digressed into such
pure Churchillian territory as his meeting with Graham Sutherland, who was
painting his portrait.
his year’s cinematic incarnations
aren’t bad by those variable standards,
although it seems that Clementine is as
easy a part to get right as Winston is
to get wrong. There have been few bad
performances of that highly intelligent,
highly strung, intimidating lady. Harriet Walter was good in The Crown,
and Miranda Richardson in Churchill
and Kristin Scott Thomas in Darkest Hour both shine. As to Churchill,
Brian Cox is more than adequate in the
former, and Gary Oldman surprisingly
good in the latter, another improbable
piece of casting for an actor whose previous roles have included Sid Vicious
and Lee Harvey Oswald.
Both these movies are heroic fantasies. As Churchill opens, shortly before
D-Day, our hero walks by the seashore
and sees the water running blood red.
He is, we are to suppose, obsessed by
the horrors of the Gallipoli landings
twenty-nine years earlier—“so many
young men, so much waste”—and
consumed by dread of another futile
slaughter on the beaches of Normandy.
He attends an unlikely open-air conference with Eisenhower, Montgomery,
and King George VI, where he pleads
for the landings—the greatest of their
kind in history and years in the planning—to be canceled. Not surprisingly
he’s politely ignored and goes home to
To add a bizarre touch, Churchill insists, before leaving home, that he must
wear formal dress with knee breeches
to meet the sovereign. Later on there
are some more droll moments, as when
Churchill tells a minion to find out
from General Sir Harold Alexander
whether he has taken Rome yet, something that the Allied commander in
Italy would quite likely have communicated quickly to the prime minister
when it happened.
January 18, 2018
Brian Cox in Jonathan Teplitzky’s
Churchill, 2017
that it was written by Alex von Tunzelmann, who has published Reel History
(2015), a collection of essays about how
the movies travesty historical truth.
Although Darkest Hour has already
garnered critical praise and may prove
a greater success, it is in some ways a
more dangerous warping of the truth.
After an absurdly unlifelike scene in
the House of Commons (which neither large nor small screen ever gets
right), with the whole House seemingly wanting Neville Chamberlain to
resign, Churchill is appointed by King
George VI with the odd words, “It is
my duty to invite you to take up the position of prime minister of this United
Kingdom,” rather than Churchill’s
plausible and amusing account of what
actually happened: the king playfully
asked Churchill if he knew why he
had been summoned to the palace, to
which Churchill replied, “Sir, I simply
couldn’t imagine why.”
As the calamity in France unfolds,
the evil Chamberlain and Lord Halifax
(Ronald Pickup and Stephen Dillane)
still conspire against him. These portrayals are coarse caricatures, outrageous in the case of Halifax, who was
the least enthusiastic of the appeasers,
although ten years earlier as viceroy of
India he had certainly tried to appease
Gandhi—to the rage of Churchill, who
called Gandhi “a half-naked fakir”
unfit to rule India with its “primitive”
In one absurd scene, the two continue their wicked plot over dinner,
wearing white tie and sloshing brandy.
In another, the king visits Churchill
late at night to promise him his support. Almost by convention now, there
is a pretty young woman (Lily James)
working for Churchill whom he bullies
but then befriends. At one point, she
tells him that he’s making his V-sign
the wrong way, palm backward, which
means “Up your bum,” at which they
dissolve into giggles.
All of that is surpassed by a scene in
which Churchill leaps out of his car and
into the Underground. In the train, he
finds a group of stout-hearted Londoners full of the Dunkirk spirit. When
he quotes Macaulay’s “Horatius at the
Bridge,” his line is finished by a black
passenger. Soon our hero is cheered
in the Commons by MPs on all sides.
In fact, the Tory benches were sullenly subdued through his first famous
speeches in May and June, and only
cheered him when he announced the
perfidious sinking of the French fleet at
o these fantastical entertainments
matter? And what do they say about
Churchill—or about us? There is a
standard defense that such movies
are dramas, not documentaries, but
that’s disingenuous. For every person
who has read serious, detached books
about Churchill and his times, there
will be thousands whose knowledge
of him comes from cinema and television. And by now the encrustations of
mythologizing and hero worship have
gone beyond a point where they can be
easily corrected. The line at the end of
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence—
“When the legend becomes fact, print
the legend”—is the guiding principle
for depictions of Churchill in popular
Almost more dangerous than obvious hokum are the dramadocs. The
Wilderness Years that launched Hardy
on his long Churchillian career was cowritten by Martin Gilbert, then still
engaged in his monumental, informative, but uncritical official biography,
and the program gave the authorized
Churchillian version of the 1930s:
Churchill the prophet unheard, the
giant struggling against the pygmies
of appeasement. Orwell’s life was
changed by the Spanish civil war, not
just from fighting in it but from reading
so many lies about it that he wondered
whether a true account of contemporary events could ever be written. One
sometimes wonders whether a true account of the 1930s will ever penetrate
public consciousness, against the version Churchill so successfully if spuriously imposed of his lonely voice
against the craven appeasers who failed
to enlist other nations and the German
generals to thwart Hitler’s aggression.
Robert Harris’s new novel Munich,
published in America in January and
already a British best seller, is most unusual in giving a sympathetic portrait
of Chamberlain.
It’s true that senior British politicians wavered at the time of Dunkirk,
when it seemed for some days that most
of the British army would be lost. Even
Churchill for a moment talked of possible concessions to Hitler that might
lead to a negotiated peace. But why is
that surprising? England could see no
help at hand, and not much objective
reason for hope. Americans who lap
up Dunkirk and Darkest Hour might
remember that their own compatriots
were resolutely united in their determination to have nothing to do with
resisting Hitler, not only in September
1939 and June 1940 but until December
1941, when Hitler left them no choice
by declaring war on the United States.
It matters to remember such things,
because Churchill is still all too much
with us. The Brexit referendum campaign was one of the most unpleasant public events I can remember,
distinguished by bombast and downright mendacity on both sides—and
with Churchill continually invoked,
also by both sides. Sir Nicholas Soames
MP, Churchill’s grandson, and the present Duke of Wellington both claimed
that their illustrious forebears—the
great Marlborough, the Iron Duke, and
Sir Winston himself—would have supported Remain. But Churchill’s image
constantly appeared on the front pages
of the Sun and the Daily Mail, supposedly urging Leave.
On the American side of the Atlantic, the uncontrollable Churchill cult
has had its own dark consequences.
Reverence for Churchill and disdain for
Chamberlain stiffened President Lyndon Johnson’s resolution to send more
troops to Vietnam, as he said himself.
President Ronald Reagan paraphrased
Churchill in his first inaugural address
to justify his economic policies. And
President George Bush the Younger
never stopped quoting Churchill, above
all when urging the invasion of Iraq. In
somewhat optimistic words, Joe Wright,
the director of Darkest Hour, sees his
movie as a rebuke to Donald Trump:
“Churchill resisted when it mattered
most, and as I travel around America
I am really impressed and optimistic at
the level of resistance happening in the
US at the moment.”
However that might be, Wright must
know what effects his film and Dunkirk
are having in England at present. Max
Hastings recently pointed out in these
pages that Dunkirk, doubtless without its makers’ intending it, is taken by
some as a Brexit movie, as we plucky
islanders once more shake the dust of
Europe from our feet.* As if to make
that point, a headline in the Daily Telegraph spelled it out: “When it comes
to Brexit, we need our Dunkirk spirit
But could “our Dunkirk spirit,” however splendid it was at the time, have
been our undoing since? More than a
century ago, Giovanni Giolitti, the Italian prime minister, claimed that “beautiful national legends” help sustain a
country. He should have added that
they can also do great harm. For the
English, “1940” is now the greatest of
such legends: Dunkirk and “Very well,
alone!,” the Battle of Britain and “the
few,” the Blitz and “London can take
it,” and Churchill’s speeches echoing
all the while.
In 1940, Churchill said that “if we
open a quarrel between the past and the
present, we shall find that we have lost
the future,” which is one way of putting
it. Another way is Orwell’s in Nineteen
Eighty-Four: “Who controls the past
controls the future; who controls the
present controls the past.” Churchill—
real or imagined—now controls the
past, the present, and, alas, the future,
maybe with bleaker consequences than
we can yet know.
*Max Hastings, “Splendid Isolation,”
The New York Review, October 12,
Homeless in Gaza
Sarah Helm
slice of land just twenty-five miles
long and seven miles across at its widest, the Gaza Strip sits at the southwest
tip of Israel, bordered to the west by the
Mediterranean, to the south by Egypt,
and to the east and north by Israel. The
other chunk of Palestinian territory,
the West Bank, lies fifty miles away,
with Israeli territory in between.
Until 1948 there was no “Gaza Strip”;
the area around Gaza City was part of
a much larger region of British-ruled
Palestine known as the Gaza District,
which contained scores of Palestinian
villages. During the 1948 war a total
of 750,000 Arabs fled or were expelled
from all over Palestine. About 200,000
The only point of entry from Israel
for human traffic is the Erez checkpoint, on Gaza’s northern border. Yet
even while making that crossing it’s
hard to believe anyone lives on the
other side. The only other people passing through with me on a recent visit
were a group of British surgeons from
the charity IDEALS, their suitcases
packed with prosthetic limbs.
Gaza, the medieval and the
modern seem to coexist, as horses
after villages the residents once lived
in. A man Emad and I met named Ali
Abu Aleish, who lives on Huj Street,
produced documents showing that his
family owned land that is now part of
an estate constructed by Ariel Sharon,
the deceased former prime minister of
In view of Gazans’ daily struggles, it
seems surprising that they have time to
think of the past. But it is precisely because of recent wars that memories of
1948 have been strengthened. The bombardment of Gaza in 2014 caused people to feel that a “second Nakba”
was occurring. I first heard the
phrase soon after that war from an
old man named Abu Ibrahim, who
was sitting on the pile of rubble
that had recently been his home.
His family had herded sheep
around Beersheba for centuries,
and in the war of 1948 they were
forced to flee, first living in a tent,
then building a house near Gaza’s
border, from which they could
see their old land. He showed me
an urn his mother had carried on
her head from Beersheba; the urn
had survived the first and second
Nakba, he said proudly.
Ali Hassan/Anadolu/Getty Images
On November 11, 2017, the gray streets
of Gaza suddenly turned yellow as tens
of thousands of people came out to
wave the flag of Fatah, the party of their
former leader Yasser Arafat. This was
the thirteenth anniversary of Arafat’s
death, and, for the first time since 2007,
when the Islamic resistance movement
Hamas defeated Fatah in the bloody
civil war that followed Hamas’s electoral victory the previous year, it had
permitted a public commemoration of
Arafat Day.
By allowing the celebration, Hamas
had given the first substantial
sign that it was serious about a
new reconciliation deal, signed
with Fatah in October. According
to the agreement, the more moderate Palestinian faction, led by
Mahmoud Abbas, which rules in
the West Bank, would also assume
local administrative control inside
Gaza. With such a prospect, the
people of Gaza hoped that Israel
might be persuaded to lift the siege
of the territory, which was meant
to isolate Hamas and had the effect of punishing all Gazans for
having voted for the party, which
Israel, the United States, and the
European Union consider a terrorist organization. Some Gazans
have dared to hope the deal might
even pave the way for tentative new
discussions about wider peace.
A carnival atmosphere took
hold across the besieged strip during the commemoration, with children selling sweets and cakes. As
the crowds packed into a central square,
leaders of Hamas and Fatah promised
to end their division and find unity. The
people cheered but seemed fearful, too:
after such a long time they were once
again putting battered trust in their
leadership to try to bring a resolution to
the conflict with Israel. An eighty-nineyear-old woman named Aisha waved
her yellow flag, tears in her eyes: “I can’t
breathe,” she declared, “but I can cry.”
The sudden joyous outpouring reminded some of the euphoria that
erupted in 1993, after Arafat and
Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s prime
minister, signed the Oslo Accords on
the White House lawn. But as Gazans
know, Oslo failed to address what many
of them believe was the root cause of the
conflict between Israelis and Palestinians: the dispossession of Palestinians
during the Arab–Israeli war of 1948,
during which the Jewish state was created. Oslo proposed to reverse Israel’s
illegal land seizures of 1967, offering a
“two-state solution,” with the Palestinian state constructed out of Gaza and
the West Bank, joined by a safe passage
across Israel, and East Jerusalem as its
capital. But the negotiators did not address the long-standing claim of Palestinian refugees that they have a right to
return home. Nowhere is that right as
deeply felt as it is in Gaza, which holds
the highest concentration of Palestinian
refugees, many living within a few miles
of their pre-1948 homes.
Mohamed Shuman playing music near the wreckage of his family’s house, Gaza City, June 2015
of those living in the south sought refuge in the Gaza City area, which Egypt
had seized during the war.
In December 1948 the United Nations passed UN Resolution 194, stating that the Palestinians should have
the right to return to their homes, but
Israel’s first prime minister, David
Ben-Gurion, refused, saying that Palestinians would “never return.” Within
a few years Israel had erased almost
every Arab village in the former Gaza
District. “The old will die and the
young will forget,” Ben- Gurion is said
to have declared. The Arabs of Palestine, however, have not forgotten the
events of 1948, which they refer to as
the Nakba, or catastrophe, and they
have been working harder in recent
years than ever before to preserve the
memory of their lost homes.
Ben-Gurion also expressed the hope
that the refugees would move away
from camps near Israel’s border and
disperse into Arab countries, but while
some did move away, most have stayed
in order to be close to their land. The
original 200,000 refugees who fled to
Gaza now number up to an estimated
1.7 million. (Each descendant of a refugee is also classified by the UN as a
refugee.) And with them in the Strip
live another 300,000 Palestinians, indigenous to Gaza.
Today more than two million people
live in Gaza, which is surrounded by
walls and fences patrolled by Israeli soldiers. Israeli drones fill the skies above,
its gunboats patrol the sea. On Gaza’s
southern border is the Rafah crossing into Egypt, usually closed because
Egypt has cooperated with Israel’s siege.
and carts crowd the streets along with
cars and trucks, while children in pristine uniforms pour out of schools. A
new UN school is built each month in
order to accommodate the population
growth. In the middle-class Rimal area,
students speaking into mobile phones
struggle to be heard over hawkers selling wares. Shops seem well stocked, but
prosperity is an illusion, since many of
the luxury goods have been smuggled
through tunnels from Egypt and hardly
anyone can afford them. Thundering
generators struggle to provide emergency power as Gaza itself struggles to
survive the siege while still rebuilding
after recent wars. The Israeli assault
of 2014 lasted fifty-one days and killed
2,200 people, including five hundred
children, as well as destroying thousands of homes, schools, water plants,
and hospitals. Israel lost sixty-six soldiers and seven civilians during the
The UN says that Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020. Sitting on stones
by the seafront with Emad, my twentyfive-year-old Palestinian driver, we
could see why: raw sewage was pouring out into the water, the electricity
cuts having crippled the sewage system.
Emad pointed out that the stones we
were sitting on carried the names of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948. He
was sitting on Majdal, where his family came from. He looked up the coast
to the swinging cranes of the thriving
Israeli port city Ashkelon, built on the
spot were Majdal once stood. I was
sitting on a stone named Huj, a village just a few miles from Gaza. Many
areas and streets in Gaza are named
brahim’s reference to the second
Nakba was echoed up and down
Gaza. The destroyed houses, the
panicked flight, the tents in which
the homeless had to live—these
have reminded many of what happened seventy years ago.
In the aftermath of the 1948 war,
the refugee tragedy caused headlines
and protests around the world, but the
story soon faded from view. The Israeli
government told the world that Palestinians had fled their villages of their
own accord or on orders from Arab
armies that wanted them out of the
way. There was no obligation on Israel,
therefore, to let Palestinians return,
since, according to this argument, their
displacement was not Israel’s responsibility. Any “infiltrators” who tried
to go back were criminals, and they
were shot or put in prison. With the US
standing behind the new Jewish state,
Palestinian accounts of 1948 were too
often ignored.
In the late 1980s Israel’s so-called
new historians, most notably Benny
Morris, examined newly opened Israeli
archives and found no evidence that
the refugees had fled on orders from
Arab leaders, but had done so mostly
out of terror after hearing reports of
massacres carried out by Israeli soldiers in villages such as Deir Yassin,
where Jewish militiamen killed over
150 Palestinian civilians. Ilan Pappé,
another of Israel’s new historians, went
further, identifying what he called a
plan of “ethnic cleansing.”
By this time, however, Israel’s official
narrative of 1948 was so entrenched that
the voices of these new historians were
barely heeded by politicians, and in the
1990s it was considered impossible to
secure Israeli support for the Palestinian right of return. Even Arafat agreed
to set it aside during the Oslo talks.
Today many Palestinian analysts blame
Arafat, as well as Israeli and Western
The New York Review
In Gaza more than 60 percent of the
population is under the age of twentyfive, and it is among the young that the
deepest despair often takes root. Some
are turning to radical Islam, others to
drugs. As many as eighty suicides are
reported in Gaza each month, according to local aid groups, many among
the young. Most of Gaza’s younger
generation have nevertheless remained
remarkably resilient, preparing against
the odds for a better future, while also
making an effort to learn about their
Earlier this year I encountered this
resilience at a Gaza girls’ school, where
I met with a class of seventeen-yearolds preparing for final exams. All had
plans to study further in order to become doctors, social workers, journalists, and lawyers—“anything that helps
Sarah Helm
negotiators, for Oslo’s failure, warning
that a newly unified Palestinian leadership will not remain unified for long if
it doesn’t insist on addressing the right
of return in any new peace talks. “During the Oslo process the right of return
was relegated as if a mere irritant, not a
fundamental human right,” said Ramzy
Baroud, the son of a 1948 Gaza refugee, editor of The Palestine Chronicle
and author of the forthcoming book
The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story.*
“The collapse of the peace process and
the failure of Oslo brought the right of
return back to the center.”
In Israel, however, where the policies
of the extreme right-wing have received
endorsement from Donald Trump, particularly through his stunning recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,
the prospects of putting a Palestinian
Palestinians posing for selfies on a pier by the Mediterranean Sea,
Gaza City, March 2017
right of return on a negotiating table
seem more unlikely than ever; the mere
mention of it is enough to destroy the
possibility of a rapprochement. Even
the dovish Yossi Beilin, an architect
of Oslo, says the two-state approach
remains the only option: “The right of
return will never happen. All this talk
of ’48 is a mood, not an opinion.”
Some Palestinians agree with Beilin. “Palestinians always claimed their
rights to historical Palestine,” said
Ghassan Khatib, professor of politics
at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
“Then someone came along and convinced them that this was utopian and
would not happen, offering a trade-off
to go for the possible instead. Now people realize the possible and the impossible are both impossible, so they might
as well stick to the impossible. But they
have no strategy, no plan.”
Gaza’s own “new historians,” however, like Salman Abu Sitta, founder
of the Palestine Land Society, which
maps pre-war Palestine, say the prospects are not hopeless. “The conflict
began in 1948, not 1967. It cannot be
solved without returning to the root
cause,” said Abu Sitta, who fled the
Gaza District as a child. And there is
a Palestinian plan, he said, which is to
win back ground in the narrative war
by challenging Israel’s version of the
1948 war. A form of peaceful resistance, this campaign of retrieving the
facts is already well underway, he said,
largely thanks to the younger generation of Palestinians.
*To be published by Pluto in February
2018 (distributed by University of Chicago Press).
January 18, 2018
free Gaza,” as one said. I asked how
many had lost family in the war, and at
least ten hands shot up.
“Why did Balfour give away our
land?” asked one girl, referring to the
declaration made in 1917 by Arthur
Balfour, then British foreign secretary,
pledging to create in Palestine a Jewish homeland. “Why did the world not
implement UN Resolution 194 [the
Palestinian right of return]?” “Why
should I be a refugee when my land is
one kilometer away?”
Their teacher explained to me that
schools were placing more emphasis
than ever on teaching history, studying
the pre-1948 villages and the Nakba,
since it helped the children understand
the present. “They have lived through
three wars”—in 2008, 2012, and 2014.
“They want to understand how this can
be. Their parents don’t have answers but
if they can learn their story from the beginning they can make their own minds
up and find connections to the present.”
The teacher herself had lost her father
in the most recent war. “He survived
1948 but was killed in 2014,” she said.
Many of the young are profoundly
disillusioned with Palestinian politics,
openly scorning the “old men,” as they
call leaders of both Hamas and Fatah
who have failed to find solutions for
their generation, preoccupied instead
with internal squabbles. Despite the
unity displayed on Arafat Day, few
young Gazans believe the reconciliation agreement will hold, saying that
the only way to bring Palestinians together is around the issue of 1948. “At a
popular level Palestinians everywhere
including citizens of Israel are resurrecting these ’48 values in response
11'4407.38-* 89).*7
■ 06835(6625*
to divisions of their leadership. It is
an issue that unifies everyone,” said
Ramzy Baroud.
of 1948 certainly unifies
Gazan families as they live under siege.
In Shati refugee camp, power cuts force
families to sit together in the dark,
often passing the time by listening to
a grandparent describing life in his or
her old village, which appears so much
better than life today. “In summer
I ran into the long grass or lay in the
cool orange groves,” said Fatmeh Tarqash as her children and grandchildren
listened. “In winter we built a fire and
took the embers indoors for warmth.”
Fatmeh’s grandchildren have nowhere
to run today. In winter the asbestosroofed homes in the camps are cold and
damp, and in summer the walls sweat.
Fatmeh’s twenty-two-year-old granddaughter, who works with people whose
hearing has been impaired by explosions, listened carefully, and then exclaimed: “They grew their own food.
They were self-sufficient. But today we
must be beggars.” She pointed angrily
to a UN food box. When the electricity to the house suddenly came back on
she showed me her family’s old village
on Google Earth. Would she settle for
a two-state solution? “No. If they give
us part of the land back, they will expect us to be grateful to them. Why
should we be? It’s ours.”
Gazans have a new tool in their campaign to raise awareness about their
dispossession: the Internet has allowed
them to bring their erased villages back
to life by posting photographs of documents and land deeds. Gaza’s “new
historians” are also journalists who
contribute to the Electronic Intifada
and other burgeoning Palestinian news
sites. A young journalist, who didn’t
wish to be named, films close to Gaza’s
northern border and streams his footage of Gazan fishermen being monitored by Israeli gunboats as they haul
in a catch. “We live in a box,” he told
me. “A fake place. We want to show
people what it’s really like and not rely
on others to tell our story.”
New technology also allows the
young to look to the future. At the Islamic University of Gaza, architecture
students redesigned their ancestral
villages as futuristic cities for a competition to be judged in London. One
showed a Palestinian town that had
been destroyed in 1948 rebuilt with
skyscrapers and huge highways. A
month later I saw the finalists’ drawings posted on the wall of a London art
gallery, where the participants joined
us from the West Bank and Gaza via
Skype. Talk of construction rather than
destruction was moving, but these futuristic designs for Palestine after “the
return” seemed fanciful. It is unlikely
that construction by Palestinians on
land recognized as theirs will begin
anytime soon. After all, it is Israel
that is carrying out the construction by
building settlements across Jerusalem
and the West Bank.
Israel is increasingly intransigent
about granting any land at all, even in
the West Bank, where illegal settlement
continues at speed, as it does in Arab
East Jerusalem. Yet some new ideas for
a resolution are emerging, particularly
among the new generation of Palestinians who talk about a one-state solution
with Jews and Arabs living as equals
in a single democratic state on all of
mandate Palestine. Among Israeli Jews
today this prospect seems especially
fanciful, but some Israeli radicals predict it must come. Ilan Pappé, speaking in Cambridge recently to launch his
new book, The Biggest Prison on Earth,
said that the one-state solution was “not
an impossible scenario” and that the alternative is for Israel to continue developing as “an apartheid state.”
Although the concept of a one-state
solution is still in its infancy, we are
certain to hear more about it, precisely
because the prospects for two states
seem dead. The one-state idea is already being discussed within senior
ranks of the moderate Palestinian Authority. Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for Mahmoud Abbas, responding to
Trump’s Jerusalem move, declared that
by recognizing the city as Israel’s capital, Trump had finally killed the twostate idea, adding: “Now is the time
to transform the struggle for one state
with equal rights for everyone living in
historical Palestine from the river to
the sea.”
There is even a smartphone program
called the iNakba app that provides
maps indicating where Palestinian villages once were and what Israeli towns
might be there now. Driving across Israel to reach Gaza, I used the app as
a guide back in time, passing the site
of the Palestinian village of Yibneh,
which is now Yavneh. Near the huge Israeli port of Ashdod lie the remains of
Isdud, where a Gazan friend of mine,
Abu Hasan, once lived. On a recent
visit to Gaza he told me how to find his
house, but it was no longer there.
Almost all traces of the Palestinian
villages have disappeared. A woman
I met in Ashkelon, who had recently
emigrated from Ukraine to Israel, had
never heard of Majdal, which had been
a thriving textile center before 1948.
“There were never any Arabs here,”
she told me. “It’s a lie.” The iNakba app
revealed that the Arab market that still
stands in Ashkelon’s Old City was once
the main market of Majdal.
here are some signs that Palestinians are gaining ground in their narrative war. They have new allies inside
Israel, where a small number of young
Jewish Israelis are helping Palestinians
excavate their history. A group called
Zochrot (“remembering,” in Hebrew),
a nonprofit organization formed in
2002, aims to “raise awareness of the
Palestinian Nakba.” Zochrot devised
the iNakba app.
Israel’s “official historians” have
gone on the defensive, busying themselves with reclassifying sensitive historical files, held in Israeli archives,
relating to 1948. Benny Morris found
that among the reclassified files were
those relating to the massacre at Deir
Yassin. Morris first saw the documents
in the 1980s, but said that “the Defense
Ministry offered no explanation” for
why they have been reclassified.
Whatever small gains the Palestinians are making in their narrative
war, however, they are under no illusion about the monumental task they
face if their objectives are ever to be
achieved. At a café in Gaza, the author Dr. Mohammed Bugi expressed
skepticism. “We need a new Mandela,”
said Bugi, recently banned from traveling to Amman to promote his new
book on pre-1948 Yibneh. “And a new
de Klerk,” said Fayez Sersawi, an artist whose studio was bombed in 2014.
“Now they are trying to crush our culture and shut our history down. The
Nakba has never stopped. The patterns
just repeat themselves.”
At Rafah, a border town on Gaza’s
southern tip, the repeated patterns of
the conflict are highly visible. Camps
here are named after the old villages—
Yibneh, Isdud, and Huj—and have
been regularly bombed in recent times,
just as the villages were in 1948. Rafah’s streets are full of posters of martyrs; its camps have always produced
the most determined resisters, including suicide bombers. Many of them—
including some who were responsible
for the carnage across Israel during the
Second Intifada, which erupted in 2000
in the despair that followed Oslo’s collapse—were descendants of those who
arrived in 1948.
Close to the Egyptian border, where
the Sinai sands sweep into Gaza, small
plastic shelters cover openings of tunnels being dug into Egypt, though in
recent months Israel has begun working
on a new underground wall, sunk deep
into the desert, to block off such tunnels.
Nearby on Rafah’s beach is a jumble of
shacks, home to fishermen, descendants
of villagers from Jura, once a thriving
fishing community just up the coast.
History is about to repeat itself for the
people of Jura whose refugee dwellings
lie in the path of bulldozers clearing
the area to create a wider buffer zone.
Most residents of Rafah, so exposed
here on the border, have suffered too
much as a result of the conflict to wave
flags for Arafat or anyone else. Those
I spoke to did not express hope for the
near future, often saying in chilling
terms that “something worse than the
Nakba” is about to happen. And yet
they also know that in Gaza a change
of mood—too easily dismissed by
Yossi Beilin—can be the harbinger
of change. When the mood in Gaza
changed in 1987, it led to the First Intifada, which in turn led to the first
moves toward peace negotiations.
Even in Rafah the renewed attention being given to the Nakba has also
spread a kind of confidence, a sense
that one day the refugees’ story will
be known and the injustice they have
suffered recognized. The very fact
that evidence of the Nakba is now preserved online, the history now already
widely available, has contributed to
this confidence.
While in Rafah I visited my friend
Abu Hasan, whose erased village I had
searched for on my drive to Gaza, and
I told him I’d failed to find his house.
He was not surprised, but expressed
the view that the Nakba would not be
forgotten. He had just completed his
own history of his village. “How can
our Nakba—our catastrophe—be forgotten? For us it continues every day,”
he said. “What would you think if you
were told you had to leave your home
one day and suddenly abandon everything you’d ever loved and known and
never go back. Would you forget?”
Was he still expecting to go back
to Isdud? “I go back every night. In
my dreams I go back and play among
the trees and chase the birds. Perhaps
I won’t go back myself. I’m very old.
And Isdud won’t be like I knew it. But
Palestinians will go back one day, I’m
—December 20, 2017
The New York Review
Divine Lust
Andrew Butterfield
In a career lasting more than seventy
years Michelangelo reigned supreme
in every art: sculpture, painting,
architecture, drawing, poetry. So
absolute was his mastery, and so
Olympian were his creations, that
he seemed more than mortal to
his contemporaries. They called
him “divine,” said his works were
the most sublime ever made, even
greater than those of antiquity,
and used a new term, terribilità,
to describe the awesome majesty
of his art.
His titanic creativity can never
be fully conveyed within the confines of a museum exhibition. His
greatest masterpieces, such as the
Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome
and the New Sacristy in San Lorenzo in Florence, must be experienced at their sites, and even
the works that can be moved are
deemed so precious that they are
rarely loaned; some never are.
While there have been exhibitions
on parts of Michelangelo’s life and
oeuvre, few museums have tried
to outline the broad sweep of his
inexhaustible artistry.
Yet that is exactly what “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman
and Designer” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art sets out to accomplish. It covers the entire career of
the artist, from his first extant drawings made while he was a teenager to
works created shortly before his death
at eighty- eight in 1564. The heart of
the exhibition is a selection of 133 of
his drawings, the largest group of them
ever displayed at one time. It also includes his earliest painting, one late
architectural model, and three of his
sculptures, from very different points
in his life. Michelangelo’s activity as
a poet is included as well, with two
manuscripts in his own hand of his very
moving sonnets; these add significantly
to our understanding of the artist. Brilliantly curated by Carmen Bambach, a
scholar of drawings at the Metropolitan, and beautifully presented by the
museum’s exhibition and lighting designers, this is likely the finest show on
the artist any of us will ever see.
The material is arranged mainly in
chronological order, but this is meant
to do more than merely tell the familiar story of Michelangelo’s career.
His fame as the greatest artist of all
time both trapped and liberated him.
For almost his entire life he was compelled by rulers to slave away on their
pet projects, yet he was more free than
anyone before him to make art in any
style he willed, and to devise new imagery wholly of his own choosing. His
works have a deeply personal character
January 18, 2018
he intended to paint on a wall of the
Great Council Hall in the Palazzo della
Signoria in Florence, but was unable to
execute owing to demands from other
patrons. Although the cartoon does not
survive, many of his preparatory studies for it do, and the exhibition brings
together a selection of them plus an
early painted copy. These show nude or
nearly naked men, rendered with great
anatomical accuracy and portrayed in
taut and twisting poses.
One particularly beautiful image
from this group is a Study of the Torso
of a Male Nude Seen from the Back.
Here Michelangelo demonstrates ab-
matter this was. To be sure, only a few
years before, Luca Signorelli had filled
his frescoes in the cathedral of Orvieto
with naked bodies, but those figures
seem to be made of dirty and mortal
flesh, while Michelangelo’s exult in triumphant and noble beauty.
As he worked on the cartoon, the
artist began planning other major
paintings and sculptures, principally
for Pope Julius II. The first was the
pontiff’s tomb, which Michelangelo
originally designed to be a colossal monument, ringed with as many
as forty-seven massive marble sculptures. This project was to bedevil him
for forty years, and finally end
with a wretched wall tomb in the
church of San Pietro in Vincoli
in Rome, best known for the artist’s statue of Moses at its center.
As the drawings shown here demonstrate, from the start the commission inspired Michelangelo
perhaps prophetically to imagine
statues of heroic men, bound and
struggling for freedom.
Another commission of Julius
II was the Sistine Chapel ceiling,
which the artist completed in 1512.
At the Metropolitan, the studies
for the painting appear out of historical sequence; they are grouped
together in a gallery two rooms
away from where they would appear according to a more strict
chronology. This disrupts the crucial continuity of these drawings
with those of The Battle of Cascina and Julius’s tomb. Seemingly
this was done so these sheets could
be shown below a large glowing
photograph of the Sistine fresco,
hung from the ceiling of the muMichelangelo: Studies for Adam in the Fresco the Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling,
seum. At first glance this brightly
red chalk, 7 5/8 x 10 3/16 inches, 1511
illuminated picture may seem distracting, but it allows the spectator
solute control of every element of
after frescoes by Giotto and Masacto understand the place of the sketched
draftsmanship. The depiction of the
cio, these sheets reveal the penetrating
figures in relation to their intended lomusculature is of astonishing subtlety,
study of Florentine masters that lay at
cation in the overall scheme, and to
and the fall of lights and darks across
the foundation of his art, and also his
grasp that the sublime finished whole
the skin is so finely graded that the enprecocious confidence in his own sense
was the result of countless preparatory
tire figure seems to throb with life. Reof form. He not only imitates but also
studies of every detail, which Michelanmarkable too is the undulating line that
corrects his celebrated predecessors.
gelo drew with obsessive abandon.
runs around the contours of the body.
For instance, his Study after Saint
The arc of the artist’s life changed
This varies continuously in thickness
Peter by Masaccio, drawn perhaps
significantly following this zenith. In
and tone, adding significantly to the
around 1490, looks more like a powerthe remaining fifty years of his career,
sense of quickening vitality. Each of
ful sculpture than like the painting he
Michelangelo never completed another
these effects was new, and their comcopied it from. The saint’s robes billow
large-scale work, with the exception of
bination so stunned other painters,
with stately grace, and his head has the
the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chaincluding Raphael, Pontormo, and Ansharp edges and rectangular shape of
pel, the frescoes for the Pauline Chapel
drea del Sarto, that they obsessively
a block of stone; it even bears a strong
in the Vatican, and the greatly reduced
studied and copied the cartoon. In the
resemblance to Michelangelo’s marble
tomb for Julius II. This failure was
words of Benvenuto Cellini, Michelanportrait of Brutus, made many decades
partly the result of political circumgelo’s majestic drawing became “the
later, which is exhibited near the end of
stance and the competing aims of his
school of the world.”
the show. Despite the drawing’s monudomineering patrons, and it left him
In his great biography of Michelanmentality, there is nothing stiff about it;
with a sense of bitter frustration, even
gelo, first published in 1893 and never
the outlines of the figure are fluid and
as his renown grew.
surpassed, John Addington Symonds
calligraphic. So great is the vitality of
Correspondingly, the works on view
calls the Battle of Cascina cartoon “the
this youthful sheet that by comparison
in the exhibition that follow the comcentral point” and the “watershed” of
the drawings of his teacher Ghirlandpletion of the Sistine ceiling change
the artist’s career. It was the first work
aio shown nearby look scratchy and
dramatically in mood, subject, and
in which Michelangelo broke free of
intended audience. Whereas previall convention and dedicated himself
ously Michelangelo had concentrated
to the subject that was to occupy his
on creating sculptures and paintings
hen you enter the second room the
imagination for the rest of his life: the
of heroic figures for public display, he
exhibition really takes off. The centermale nude. As Vasari remarked, “the
now often composed drawings full of
piece of this section is a drawing, but
intention of this extraordinary man
private meaning and meant for his own
remarkably one that was destroyed
has been to refuse to paint anything
satisfaction and that of a tight circle of
more than five hundred years ago, soon
but the human body . . . [and] the play
close associates. Two galleries of the
after its making. This is Michelangelo’s
of the passions and contentments of
exhibition are given over to these imgiant cartoon for his fresco The Battle
the soul.” It is hard for us to conceive
ages from the 1520s and 1530s, and enof Cascina, from around 1506, which
how revolutionary a choice of subject
tering this section is like crossing into
that was unprecedented in the history
of art. As Bambach writes, “his drawings, like his sculptures, often exude
a certain autobiographical intensity of
feeling.” Without ever being tendentious, this grouping of works allows
the viewer to begin to see the passion,
melancholy, fear, and frustration that
drove the artist.
The exhibition opens with a long
room dedicated to Michelangelo’s
youth and brief training in Florence
with the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio and the sculptor Bertoldo. Nearly
all of his few extant drawings from
this time are on view. Mostly copies
British Museum, London
Divine Draftsman and Designer
an exhibition at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art, New York City,
November 13, 2017–February 12, 2018.
Catalog of the exhibition by Carmen
C. Bambach, with contributions
from Claire Barry, Francesco Caglioti,
Caroline Elam, Marcella Marongiu,
and Mauro Mussolin.
Metropolitan Museum of Art,
392 pp., $65.00
(distributed by Yale University Press)
—The Guardian
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[Ending Ageism] grapple[s]
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fuelled, Gullette believes, by
what she calls the ‘ideology
of scarcity’—the trope that
the elderly are locusts who
swarm the earth consuming
all our resources.”
—New Yorker
“Ending Ageism is arguably
Gullette’s most memorable
and persuasive work to
date...The rallying cry that
echoes throughout this book
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‘Fight ageism, not
aging.’ It is a crucial
distinction.” —Tikkun
“This is a profoundly
engaged, urgent work
of the humanist
—James Clifford,
author of Returns
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some mysterious domain of dream and
death I grasp eternal life.” Another
poem, not in the exhibition, expresses
his disillusionment in even more stinging words. While carving the fierce and
he first of these rooms features in one
tragic Pietà now in the Florentine Cacorner drawings Michelangelo made
thedral museum, Michelangelo wrote,
as gifts for friends, and in the opposite
“In great slavery, with such weariness,
corner are studies on themes of birth,
and with false concepts and great dandeath, and resurrection. The most spellger to the soul, sculpting here things dibinding of the latter group is an image
vine.” Given his anxious discontent, it is
from the Casa Buonarroti of the Maperhaps no wonder he later attacked the
donna and Child, in which Michelanstatue with a hammer and abandoned it.
gelo intentionally left the two figures in
Some of the last figure drawings
starkly different states of finish. Richly
in the exhibition date from just a few
drawn in black and red chalk, brown
years before Michelangelo’s death and
wash, and white heightening, the arm
depict the Crucifixion. Softly drawn in
and torso of the Child have glowing skin
black chalk with weak and wavering
and exquisite roundness of
lines, these sorrowful imform; He seems to be coming
ages look like they are made
into being before our eyes. By
of shimmering smoke. They
contrast, Michelangelo drew
seem to depict an unattainthe Madonna in trembling
able phantasm, at once eterand wispy lines of sooty black
nal and impermanent, and
chalk; she looks as if she is
beyond the reach of human
about to vanish into the air.
In a poem written at the time
of the drawing, Michelangelo
Draftsman and Designer”
used comparable imagery:
aims at comprehensiveness.
“Man’s thoughts and words . . .
There are two galleries of his
are as . . . smoke to the wind.”
architectural drawings, a secHaunting too is the dispartion on his studies for the Last
ity of the expressions of the
Judgment, and two rooms
Madonna and Child. The
of his drawings for works inbaby seems utterly content as
tended to be executed by his
He obliviously nurses at her
collaborators. The show conbreast; she stares fearfully
cludes with three portraits
into the distance, distraught
of him, which is fitting as
by visions of the horrific
the exhibition is itself a kind
death He will one day suffer.
of portrait, one that is both
The drawings Michelanbeautiful and hard to hold
gelo made for friends are also
onto. This sense of elusivefull of striking contrasts. One
ness does not result solely
rapturous image portrays a
from the sprawling scale of
young nobleman, Andrea
the presentation; it also arises
Quaratesi, who studied with
from the art, which often
the artist. Michelangelo ususeems to be distancing itself
ally disdained lifelike portraifrom the viewer and abounds
ture, but this picture seems to
with images of figures in flight
Michelangelo: Female Figure Seen in Bust-Length From the Front
be a keenly accurate record of
or in ascent or turning away.
(Cleopatra), black chalk, 9 3/16 x 7 3/16 inches, 1530–1533
the youth’s appearance, and
Michelangelo’s art was
the expression on his tender
often driven by the desire
face is sad and sultry. Not long after this
to escape the mundane, physical, coryounger than the artist, one might asdrawing was made, the artist’s friend
rupt, and sinful world. He burned with
sume that he is the youth in the drawSebastiano del Piombo wrote Michelintense passion for the beauty of the
ing. Yet Michelangelo’s poetry suggests
angelo to advise him to guard against
human body and face, but he hoped
that the artist actually identified with
“melancholy love that has always ruthat this ardor would transport him to
Ganymede. He wrote in a sonnet for
ined you.” This delicate portrait is the
another realm, one of ideal form and
Tommaso, “Though lacking feathers I
very image of hopeless infatuation.
deathless purity, above and beyond the
fly with your wings; with your mind I
Nearby are other gift drawings, but of
earthly. The incarnate moved him to asam always carried to heaven.”
wholly different temperament. In conpire to the uncarnate, the immortal, the
During Michelangelo’s lifetime, close
trast to the frankness and naturalism of
eternal, the fantastical, the impossible:
friends reported that his art was full
the Quaratesi portrait, they are imagiunbodied beauty. He felt enchained and
of “Socratic love and Platonic ideas.”
nary pictures of unreal heads in fantastrapped—by his work, by his patrons,
There is no doubt he saw his passion for
tical clothing. The most celebrated is a
by his family, by his lust for beauty, by
Tommaso philosophically, as something
double-sided sheet depicting Cleopahis sinfulness, by his body, by the limits
that transported him from the earthly
tra, but this drawing has little to do
of the actual—and longed to be carried
and ephemeral to the heavenly and
with the historical person. On one side
away in ecstasy and rapture.
eternal. In a madrigal, likely written
of the sheet, a slithering snake wraps
One can see this in his taste for fanfor the youth, Michelangelo said, “My
around her body and bites her breast.
tastical and dreamlike subject matter,
eyes that ever long for lovely things, my
The long braid of the queen’s hair and
in his rejection of naturalism for the
soul that seeks salvation, cannot rise
the tail of the snake floating off into
odd and ideal, in his renunciation of his
to heaven unless they fix their gaze on
space seem to intertwine in a languorgift for creating drawings of the most
beauty.” His friendship with Tommaso
ous and sinister dance. The drawing on
convincing substantiality, and in his
lasted until the end of his days.
the other side of the sheet is even more
preference instead for drawings that,
spectral. Here Michelangelo has given
while exquisite, make the body look aln the rooms of works from the 1540s
Cleopatra staring eyes and a grotesque
most weightless and transparent, as if
and 1550s, the desperate ache of spirimouth with fat lips and jutting teeth.
composed of radiant dust. And one can
tual longing intensifies. Ever an artShe looks frightened and baleful, and
hear it in his poetry, in which he often
ist, Michelangelo now began to make
yet has an odd resemblance to the Malaments his passion for the beguiling ilart about his disenchantment with art.
donna in the Casa Buonarroti drawing.
lusion of mortal beauty; he wishes he
This is especially clear in one of his inMichelangelo made these images of
could truly adore God and the sacred,
tensely poignant sonnets on view here.
Cleopatra for Tommaso del Cavaliere,
but cannot feel such love except by
“The alluring fantasies of the world,”
a young Roman he fell in love with in
gazing on the human and earthly. Unit begins, “have robbed from me the
1532. Although apparently never conquenchable desire and certain failure
time allotted for contemplating God.”
summated, it was a deeply passionate
are twisted together in this hopeless
The poem ends, “Make me hate all
relationship that inspired most of the
pursuit. Hence the air of melancholy
that the world values, and all its beauartist’s gift drawings as well as much of
and sorrow that pervades so much of
ties I honor and adore, so that before
his poetry. Many of these sheets rephis art.
resent classical myths; others depict
fantasy scenes of his own devising. One
such sheet shows archers without bows
shooting arrows at a herm, another represents babies sacrificing a deer. These
are ravishingly beautiful images, but
no one is sure what they are meant to
The only explicitly homoerotic
image Michelangelo gave Tommaso
was a drawing of Jupiter in the guise
of an eagle carrying Ganymede off to
heaven. The original drawing is lost,
but to judge from copies the bird seems
to thrust his body against the boy’s
buttocks as he lifts him upward. Since
Tommaso was about thirty- eight years
Casa Buonarroti, Florence
“[A] stirring new book
[from] the pioneering
US writer Margaret
Morganroth Gullette.”
The New York Review
The Red Emperor
This fall, the Nineteenth Congress of
the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
gave proof that during his five years
as general secretary Xi Jinping has
become the most powerful leader of
China since Mao Zedong died in 1976.
Most observers, Chinese and foreign,
who already knew this could only have
been surprised at the manner in which
it was displayed in public at the congress: in the choice of the new leadership team and the designation of an
official ideology named for Xi.
The CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) consists of the party’s
top leaders, and it currently has seven
members. In the past, the PSC has
been the location of ferocious struggles
for power. Mao forced out two deputies who might have succeeded him:
Liu Shaoqi, who was denied medical treatment when seriously ill, and
Marshal Lin Biao, who was hounded
into fleeing the country and died when
his plane crashed in circumstances
still shrouded in mystery. Even Deng
Xiaoping sacked two general secretaries who had gone wobbly on him.
Under Xi Jinping, a defeated rival who
aspired to PSC membership was tried
and imprisoned, and a powerful retiree
from the Seventeenth PSC suffered the
same fate. The PSC is the pinnacle of
the CCP, but going up or down or simply standing still in the party’s upper
reaches can be perilous. Fealty to the
supreme leader is the surest guarantee
of one’s position.
At each five-year congress the PSC is
reconstituted. Retirement from it and
other leading party bodies is roughly
determined by a norm laid down by
Deng, who hoped to have regular renewals of leadership and to avoid the
spectacle of 1976, when Premier Zhou
Enlai (seventy-seven), Marshal Zhu
De (eighty-nine), and Chairman Mao
(eighty-two) all died while still in office. Retirement by age seventy is now
the target. The rule of thumb for the
PSC has been that you should leave if
you have reached sixty- eight at the
time of a party congress, but there is
a possibility of staying on if you are
only sixty-seven. Five members of the
eighteenth PSC retired as a result of
this norm. Only Xi Jinping (sixty-four)
and Premier Li Keqiang (sixty-two)
were young enough to retain their positions. But before the recent congress,
the Beijing rumor mill was wondering
if a third member would be kept on despite the age barrier.
The top leadership of the CCP is chosen from—though not by—the twentyfive members of the Politburo, which is
in turn chosen from, but again not by,
the 376 new members and alternate
members of the Central Committee
(CC), who are chosen from (but not by)
the 2,287 delegates to the party congress. In practice, the incumbent general secretary and his closest followers
select the compositions of the leading
bodies, especially the PSC, after some
consultation and perhaps argument
with peers and predecessors. So while
the members of the Eighteenth PSC
were chosen by Xi’s predecessors, the
Nineteenth PSC is his creation. Since Xi
loyalists headed the CC’s General Office, its nerve center, and the OrganizaJanuary 18, 2018
Siegfried Woldhek
Roderick MacFarquhar
tion Department, his capacity to detect
and select trustworthy colleagues for
the Nineteenth PSC was guaranteed.
he main concern of outside observers was whether or not the most trustworthy member of the outgoing PSC
would be allowed to defy the age limit
because of his importance to Xi.
During the past five years, Wang Qishan, sixty-nine, a long-term colleague
of the general secretary’s, led the CCP’s
Central Discipline Inspection Commission running Xi’s very determined,
thorough, and much-heralded anticorruption campaign.1 According to the
commission’s report to the recent congress, of the 74,880 nomenklatura officials—i.e., those whose careers were
the CC’s responsibility—at the county
level and above who were investigated
after Wang took office in 2012, 280
were at the ministerial level or above.
Over 35,000 corruption cases have
been handed over to the judicial system
for formal decision on punishment.
Of the CCP’s almost 90 million members, 1,375,000 have been penalized for
breaking party discipline, some doubtless for ignoring the party’s banqueting
limit of “four dishes and a soup.”2
Xi was satisfied enough with the
campaign to declare earlier this year
that it had stopped corruption from
spreading and had developed a “crushing momentum” against graft. So why
did he not keep Wang on? The least
likely speculation is that he was not
See Andrew J. Nathan, “China: The
Struggle at the Top,” The New York
Review, February 9, 2017.
Some sources have suggested that the
meal might include braised chicken,
stir-fried pork, a stew, fried garlic
shoots with chrysanthemum stems, and
pork and melon soup.
strong enough to buck the age seventy
rule. Xi is first above equals. Retaining
Wang should not have been a heavy lift.
Was there anything in the charge of
corruption leveled against Wang by
the fugitive Chinese billionaire Guo
Wengui from his luxury New York
apartment? Guo had had close ties to
a purged senior Chinese security official, and his allegations were much
discussed by the Beijing chattering
classes. But after he was visited twice
in New York by Chinese security officials operating illegally on American
territory, Guo failed to live up to his
promise of revealing more at a press
conference in New York during the
Nineteenth Congress. Other rumors
circulated. When Wang disappeared
from view for several weeks earlier in
the year, there was talk of cancer. Or
was that only a face-saving excuse for
his forced retirement? Then he turned
up at some formal occasions looking
much the same as ever, so that speculation ended.
A more likely possibility is that retaining Wang would send a signal that
Xi intended to stay on as leader after
the conclusion of his current second
term. It has been widely noted that although Xi was given posts that marked
him as the CCP ’s future leader well in
advance of his actual installation, he
has ensured that the new leadership
contains no obvious successor. So
does he intend to emulate Mao and
stay on into old age, which would be
unprecedented in the post-Deng era?
If that is Xi’s long-term plan, then
he is presumably not yet confident
enough to make that final leap into
immortality. So in place of Wang, he
has promoted another close ally, Zhao
Leji, director of the CC ’s Organization Department, to the PSC , where
he will take over the anti- corruption
campaign. Alongside Zhao, Xi also
promoted his principal loyalist in
the CC , the head of the General Office, Li Zhanshu, who enters the PSC
at number three in this hierarchically
organized body.
he second-ranking member in the
new PSC is Premier Li Keqiang, who
held the same position in the previous
committee. But in the past five years
he has been humiliatingly overshadowed by President Xi, who has taken
the chair of economic committees that
Li should have led. The premier clearly
lacks the self- confidence and forceful
personality that enabled Premier Zhu
Rongji to take charge of the economy
when Jiang Zemin was general secretary. Li would be better suited to the
one remaining high-ranking but ceremonial post, the vice-presidency, which
will be decided in the spring, though
some think Xi is holding that office for
Wang Qishan. Li’s fate was not a topic
of the Beijing rumor mill because his
subordinate role is widely perceived.
One cruel comment from a Chinese intellectual was: “Does it matter?”
While Wang Qishan’s fate was the
focus of much speculation, the most
intriguing change in the membership
of the PSC was the promotion into it
of Wang Huning (no relation), who
was the first genuine intellectual to
gain this honor. Wang is from Shanghai, where he was a graduate student
and later a very young professor at the
prestigious Fudan University. After
receiving recommendations from
Shanghai party leaders, Wang was
recruited by then general secretary
Jiang Zemin for the Central Policy
Research Office.
By the end of Jiang’s term in 2002,
Wang had helped him devise his theory
of “three represents” and had risen to
become director of the office. He was
retained by the incoming general secretary, Hu Jintao, who recognized his
talent and whom he accompanied on
foreign trips, and Wang helped write
Hu’s theory of the scientific outlook
on development. Both the theory of
three represents and the scientific outlook on development have become official party doctrine. After Hu retired,
Wang made himself indispensable to
Xi, joining him too on international
trips. He has now been appointed head
of the party’s central secretariat in addition to his PSC membership. Yet unlike most other senior leaders, he has
never run a province or a government
Wang is not so much an opportunist as a Kissinger-type intellectual
whose wisdom every new leader feels
he has to exploit. In his academic days
he published widely. A six-month visit
to the US resulted in a book, America Against America, that probed the
contradictions within American society. One Chinese bookseller is taking advantage of Wang’s meteoric
rise to offer a copy of his 1995 diary/
memoir, A Political Life (Zhengzhide
rensheng), published on the eve of
his move to Beijing, for 11,888 yuan
(almost $1,800). One of the themes
Wang advocated in his writings was
“new authoritarianism”; his emphasis
on the need for strong leadership and
“A pleasure to read. . . .
Building the American Republic
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with remarkable grace and skill,
its fast-moving narrative making
the nation’s struggles and accomplishments new and compelling.”
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University of Richmond
“Written by two leading
political historians, Building
the American Republic provides
an engaging and accessible narrative of US history that combines
a lucid discussion of American
political institutions with an
analysis of major social movements and cultural developments.”
—Rosemarie Zagarri,
George Mason University
ti History
Hi t
tto 1877
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Now more than ever, we need
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Taking a deliberately multifaceted and inclusive stance, Harry
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A Narrative History from 1877
January 18, 2018
his aversion to introducing Western
democracy to China doubtless helped
endear him to Xi. 3
t number four in the new pecking order, just above Wang Huning, is
Wang Yang, a very different kind of
man. From 2007 to 2012, Wang Yang
ran China’s richest province, Guangdong, on the border with Hong Kong,
gaining a reputation as a determined
and innovative economic reformer.
He was widely praised for peacefully
resolving an uprising by villagers
in Wukan against party cadres who
had sold their land from under them,
though his settlement was abandoned
under his successor. Already in the Politburo when Xi came to power in 2012,
Wang was transferred from his provincial post to the central government as
a vice-premier overseeing parts of the
In his new position, Wang Yang
created a sensation among Western
journalists in July 2013 when he met
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in Washington at the annual economic summit between the US and China. Wang
compared the Sino-US relationship to
a marriage with both parties building
trust and cooperation. “In China when
we say a pair of new people, we mean
a newlywed couple. Although US law
does permit marriage between two
men, I don’t think this is what Jacob or
I actually want. We cannot have a di3
Zhengzhide rensheng, pp. 129–135. I
am grateful to Rudolf Wagner for pinpointing this segment of Wang’s book
on the Internet.
vorce the way Wendi and Rupert Murdoch just had. . . . For that, it would be
too big a price to pay.”4
Xi Jinping does not seem the kind of
leader who would appreciate Wang’s
sense of humor. But if Xi gives him
some room, Wang may be the man to
arrange a successful marriage between
state- owned enterprises and the private sector, which would enable Xi to
see his long-promised but so far undelivered economic reform program
come to fruition. Shortly after his elevation to the PSC, Wang wrote in the
official newspaper, People’s Daily, that
China should improve the business
environment for foreign investors and
widen access to its services sector. In
a further gesture toward foreign businessmen, he stated that China should
protect intellectual property, should
not require technology transfer as a
condition of gaining market access,
and should treat domestic and foreign
firms equally in government procurement. Of course, such words have been
uttered before by Chinese spokesmen,
and Western observers are understandably skeptical that Wang will actually
make it easier for foreign businesses to
operate in China. On the other hand, it
is difficult to imagine Xi allowing him
to make such a statement if it meant as
little today as it did in the past.
The lowest-ranked member of the
new PSC is Shanghai party secretary
Han Zheng. Some say his presence
on the committee, along with Wang
Huning’s, was a concession to former
“US-China Relationship Like a
(Straight) Marriage—China’s Wang,”
Reuters, July 10, 2013.
James Turrell
0XQVRQfrom6WLOO/LJKW, 1989–90
Aquatint, 42 1/2 x 29 5/8 inches, Ed. 30
general secretary Jiang Zemin, who
controlled a faction in Shanghai—the
Shanghai “gang”—where he was once
party secretary, while Li Keqiang and
Wang Yang were concessions to the
Youth League faction of Hu Jintao,
who had once been first secretary of the
Youth League. Although factional connections go deep in Chinese politics, it
seems unlikely that Xi Jinping could
establish his supremacy so clearly at
the Nineteenth Congress and still have
to accept colleagues allied with his
predecessors. Before the congress, for
instance, Xi took decisive institutional
moves against the Youth League, once
the powerful junior partner of the CCP ;
unprecedentedly, its party secretary
was not even allowed to be a congress
In case any of his new colleagues did
not understand who was boss, Xi reemphasized his commanding position
at the first meeting of the Politburo,
at which it was decreed that all members had to write reports to the general
secretary every year detailing their activities. It seems more likely that Han
Zheng is in the PSC because Shanghai,
as the biggest and richest city in China,
deserves representation at the top, but
we shall know more when we see how
Xi deploys him.
ven more impressive than the team
that Xi has put together to help him
lead China is the additional status he
has conferred upon himself. Today
in China, the CCP general secretary
is also chairman of the party’s Military Affairs Commission and president of the People’s Republic. While
the presidency gives Chinese leaders
equal status in diplomatic encounters
with foreign leaders, the chairmanship
underlines the fact that the People’s
Liberation Army belongs to the party,
not the nation, as armies do almost everywhere else in the world. No Chinese
leader is likely to ignore Mao’s famous
dictum: “Political power grows out of
the barrel of a gun.” At the beginning
of his first term, in addition to taking
on the leadership of powerful economic
committees, Xi also made himself head
of committees on national security and
foreign affairs.
During the past five years, Xi was
accorded two additional honors. He
was declared the “core” of the party’s
leadership, a seemingly redundant title
except for its historical resonance. In
1997, Jiang Zemin was seventy- one
and was challenged to retire by an
even older contemporary. But it was
pointed out by a surviving party elder
that Deng Xiaoping had granted Jiang
the title, and that this meant he could
not retire just then. The challenger had
to go, but Jiang served another term as
general secretary, retiring only in 2002,
when he was seventy-six. This could be
a precedent that Xi will exploit in due
Xi was also named commander-inchief, a title that only Zhu De, Mao’s
military alter ego during the revolution, could claim. Presumably it was
meant to show that Xi, who inspected
the parade commemorating the ninetieth anniversary of the PLA this year in
military fatigues, was not just a civilian
chairing the generals in the Military
Affairs Commission but a soldier too,
ready to command troops in battle.
How the generals on the Military Affairs Commission have taken this is
uncertain, 5 but some observers argue
that Xi’s sweeping restructuring of the
military over the past two years will
ensure the loyalty of newly promoted
But both these titles were dwarfed by
the reference to Xi Jinping in the new
party constitution passed at the congress:
The Communist Party of China
uses Marxism-Leninism, Mao
Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three
Represents, the Scientific Outlook
on Development, and Xi Jinping
Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era
as its guides to action.
With those few words, Xi leapt over
Deng, whose opening up and reform
were crucial to China’s spectacular economic growth over the past thirty-five
years, but who only had a theory; and
over his two predecessors, who had a
theory or an outlook but whose names
are never listed beside them. Xi is now
up there with Mao, his most daring claim
thus far. As Mao did, he likes to lace his
speeches with quotations from the Chinese classics, though he uses them to
underline points of current policy, not
to bewilder his less well-read colleagues,
which Mao seemed to delight in doing.
An enterprising Chinese journalist
has sifted through Xi’s speeches and
collected examples of this practice.7 A
quotation from The Analects in which
Confucius answers one of his pupils that
“if you were to lead the people correctly,
who would not be rectified?” enables Xi
to urge party leaders to act as exemplars.
Stressing the need for many talented
and able officials in order for China to
achieve his aim of national rejuvenation, he quoted The Book of Poetry, an
anthology of lyrics from the eleventh to
the seventh centuries BCE : “Admirable
are the many officers born in this royal
kingdom. The royal kingdom is able to
produce them, the supporters of [the
House of] Zhou. Numerous is the array
of officers, and by them King Wen enjoys his repose.” Xi, commenting, said
that to “found a state that can last for
centuries, talent is the key.”
But leaving aside the classical em-
bellishments, what does Xi’s Thought
stand for? “Socialism with Chinese
characteristics” is a phrase that has
been around ever since the beginning
of the reform era in 1979. Baldly put,
it has meant that China’s leaders will
adopt almost any policy that will produce economic growth, but they will
still call it socialism. What’s new is the
“New Era,” which presumably starts
now, or perhaps it began with Xi’s accession five years ago. Therefore one
has to study his pronouncements on the
governance of China.
Fortunately, the Chinese propaganda
authorities, who have encouraged the
ever-burgeoning cult of Xi—a recent
On similar occasions in the past, Xi’s
predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao wore well-tailored Mao suits.
Bo Zhiyue, China’s Political Dynamics under Xi Jinping (World Scientific,
2016), pp. 75–77.
Zhang Fengzhi, Xi Jinping: How to
Read Confucius and Other Chinese
Classical Thinkers (CN Times Books,
The New York Review
Jason Lee/Reuters
news broadcast from China’s central
TV station opened with over four minutes of nothing but people applauding Xi—have published a book of his
speeches in Chinese and foreign languages on the wide variety of topics
that a general secretary who insists on
controlling everything has to cover.
The diligence of Xi’s flacks to ensure
that his pronouncements are widely
available is commendable, though
mind-numbing titles might put off a
foreign reader: “Explanatory Notes to
the ‘Decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China
on Some Major Issues Concerning
Comprehensively Continuing the Reform.’” In this case Xi, on behalf of the
Politburo, is explaining a “CC decision”
to the CC, which is indicative of where
the decision was actually made. 8
New Politburo member Wang Huning
with President Xi Jinping during a meeting
with the press, Beijing, October 2017
This decision was an important
milestone under Xi’s leadership, but it
also exposed problems in his strategy.
Xi explained that he and two other
PSC members were responsible for
the drafting of the decision, but the
seven-month-long process involved
consultations with national and provincial leaders, retired party officials, the
heads of the All- China Federation of
Industry and Commerce, and various
non- CCP notables, as well as three review meetings by the PSC and two by
the Politburo. A primary purpose was
to give the market an enhanced part in
the economy: “The market plays a decisive role in allocating resources, but
it is not the sole actor in this regard.”9
And there was the rub that over the
succeeding four years Xi’s team failed
to transform China from an economy
that depended on exports to a domestic
one that depended on consumption. Xi
is wedded to state- owned enterprises
as the bulwark of a socialist economy
and nervous about an untamed free
market. The bursting of the Shanghai
stock market bubble in 2015 must have
been a grave shock.
But in his three-and-a-half-hour
marathon speech to the Nineteenth
Xi Jinping, The Governance of China
(Beijing: Foreign Languages Press,
2014), p. 76.
Xi, The Governance of China, p. 85.
Congress, Xi was relentlessly upbeat.
Problems were listed, shortcomings
admitted, but breakthroughs had been
made in important areas and general
“frameworks,” in Xi’s phrase, for reform
had been established due to the launch
of 1,500 reform measures. China was
fully committed to building a “moderately prosperous society in all respects”
by 2020, he said, in time for the CCP’s
centenary in 2021. Between 2020 and
2035, China is to emerge as a global
leader in innovation, its people will have
more comfortable lives, and the middleincome level will have expanded considerably. The rights of the people will be
protected, and social etiquette and civility will be significantly enhanced, i.e.,
the Chinese will be nicer to each other.
The second stage of Xi’s plan will
last from 2035 to midcentury, in time
for the centenary of the Chinese People’s Republic in 2049, and will see
China become a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong,
democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful, a global leader
that has achieved national strength and
international influence. In short, the
rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and
the flowering of the Chinese dream,
a vague notion of restoring the greatness of China’s most glorious dynasties, which Xi has made his overarching
aim since coming into power, will have
been realized. And to achieve all this,
the party leadership must be upheld
and the strength of the party increased.
Thus when Xi talks of the rule of law he
does not mean the party will be subject
to it, just as “democracy” for him does
not imply any threat to China’s Leninist system of government.
In his speech, Xi revealed some of
the steely patriotism that clearly underlies his smiling and unthreatening
public persona:
The Chinese nation is a great nation; it has been through hardships
and adversity but remains indomitable. The Chinese people are a
great people; they are industrious
and brave; and they never pause in
the pursuit of progress. The Communist Party of China is a great
party; it has the courage to fight
and the mettle to win.
The wheels of history roll on;
the tides of the times are vast and
mighty. History looks kindly on
those with resolve, with drive and
ambition, and with plenty of guts; it
won’t wait for the hesitant, the apathetic, or those shy of a challenge.10
And in this brave new era, China will
be “moving closer to center stage,” in
case anyone had not noticed.
From the officially translated text issued in Beijing. There is an echo here
of the young Mao, who wrote in 1919:
“The time has come! The great tide in
the world is rolling ever more impetuously! . . . He who conforms to it shall
survive, he who resists it shall perish.”
Quoted in Stuart R. Schram, The Political Thought of Mao Tse- tung (Pelican,
1969), p. 163.
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January 18, 2018
A Doggish Translation
Emily Wilson
There seems to be an insatiable thirst
in the contemporary Anglophone
world for new translations of archaic
Greek hexameter poetry. It is easy to
see why the Homer market is booming. The Odyssey—a gripping, deeply
human poem about identity, community, loss, cleverness and lies, gender
inequality, wealth and poverty, migration, travel, colonization, mass murder,
and cultural difference—has never felt
more resonant than it does in 2017. The
Iliad—a starker poem about human
vulnerability, rage, pain, isolation,
honor, and the thrilling, horrific effects
of male aggression—feels more chillingly important on each rereading.
The near- contemporary poems by
Hesiod, also the products of a long oral
tradition and also composed around
the eighth or seventh century BCE (although Barry Powell gives an earlier
date), are less prominent in our culture. Perhaps the relative paucity of
good, reader-friendly translations is
partly to blame. There is a nonmetrical
and fairly old but still-vibrant translation by Richmond Lattimore (1959)
and experimental poetic versions by
Daryl Hine (in hexameters, 2005) and
by Catherine M. Schlegel and Henry
Weinfield (in rhyming couplets, 2006).
There is a nice free-verse version by
Apostolos N. Athanassakis (1983)
and another, in a more folksy register,
by Stanley Lombardo (1993). There is
also a prose translation by Martin West
(1978) and another prose translation
for the Loeb library, with facing Greek
text, by Glenn Most (2007).
This may seem a large array of
choices, but by Homeric standards, it is
pitiful. There have been dozens of new
translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey into English in the past few decades.
I am particularly eager to read the new
translation of Works and Days by the
talented poet Alicia Stallings, which
will appear in March. Until then, we
have a new translation by Barry Powell.
There is no recent English Hesiod
that fully captures the strange poetic
qualities of the original, which would
be a tall order. These poems are composed, like Homer’s, in a regular and
rhythmical, highly artificial but also
fluent and natural-sounding verse. But
the tone and subject matter are quite
different from the Homeric poems. Hesiod’s themes range from the mythical
divine origins of the universe to the importance of not pissing facing the sun.
These poems capture a wonderfully
confusing rag-bag of popular cultural
wisdom, drawn from wide and incompatible sources. This may make Hesiod
sound like the ancient equivalent of a
random Google search, but his poems
are more artful and self- conscious than
that. They express a deep yearning for
social, ethical, cosmological, and poetic order, and at the same time a fundamental awareness of the randomness
and frustrations of life, and of poetry
Warden and Scholars of New College, Oxford/Bridgeman Images/©2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS ), New York/ADAGP, Paris
The Poems of Hesiod:
Theogony, Works and Days,
and The Shield of Herakles
translated from the Greek
by Barry B. Powell.
University of California Press,
184 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Etching by Georges Braque for an edition of Hesiod’s Theogony,
commissioned by Ambroise Vollard, early 1930s
here are many excellent reasons why
nonspecialists might be interested in
reading Hesiod in English translation.
In an era when we may be desperate
for the swamp to be drained and for, in
Hesiod’s words, some “true judgments
that abide by justice” to be made in
Washington, there are particular reasons to turn back to his complex, contradictory analyses to understand how
we got here and how it all went wrong.
The name “Hesiod”—like the name
“Homer”—probably does not refer to
a single individual author, although
Powell is credulous about the ostensibly biographical details in the Hesiodic oeuvre. “Hesiodic” is arguably
the name of a cluster of archaic poetic
genres rather than of an individual: it
denotes poems that describe the origins of the world and the gods, that list
and evoke the characters of the mythical past, and that convey folk wisdom,
from profoundly ethical meditations
about the nature of justice to bits of
trivia about astronomy, farming, sailing, and household management. The
Hesiodic poems—the Theogony and
Works and Days, as well as the much
later Shield of Herakles and Catalog of
Women—do not have the rich, rounded
characters or the compulsive narrative interest of the Homeric texts. But
they tell us an enormous amount about
the dawn of what we used to call “the
Western canon.”
It is clear from Hesiod that “Western
literature” really begins in the East—
in the areas of the world now occupied
by Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and neighboring regions, but once home to the
Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, and
(further down the coast into Lebanon
and Israel) Phoenicians. As Barry Powell emphasizes in his introduction to his
new translation, Hesiod’s poems owe
an enormous debt to these non- Greek
peoples. They could not have been created at all without the help of the Semitic Phoenicians, whose alphabet the
Greeks used to form their own writing
In their content, too, the works of Hesiod are as much Eastern as Greek. The
creation myths evoked by the Hesiodic
Theogony clearly echo similar Hittite
stories, preserved on cuneiform tablets,
about a struggle for succession between
multiple generations of gods. It was the
much- earlier Hittites, not the Greeks,
who first explored the edifying theme
of the divine ruler who is deposed and
castrated, and of the final victory of
the storm god—whom they called Teshub, not Zeus. The Babylonians told a
related story about the divine struggle
for power at the beginning of time. The
moralizing maxims and proverbs of
Hesiod’s Works and Days often come
from Eastern traditions; the genre
of the animal fable, the myth of the
Golden Age, and the stories of Pandora and of Prometheus, as well as the
cataloging of lucky and unlucky days,
all have non- Greek parallels and likely
originated from earlier, non- Greek cultures. It is inspiring, in the current political climate, to remember how much
of “our” early heritage is adapted from
the great archaic cultures of what is
now the Arabic world.
Powell’s new translation of the
Theogony, Works and Days, and The
Shield of Herakles is a slim, attractive
volume that includes maps and several
genealogical tables to help the reader
keep all those titans, heroes, and goddesses straight. It also has some lovely
full- color illustrations of vase paintings and reliefs; the Eastern influences
on the Greek tradition are beautifully
shown by the juxtaposition of a Hittite
storm god with a Greek vase painting
of the storm god Zeus.
But aside from the pretty pictures and
his useful account of Eastern influences
on Greek myth, Powell’s introductory
material is disappointing. His discussion of the composition of these poems
is highly debatable and speculative, including a theory about their date of origin that most scholars would consider
far too early. And he does almost nothing to analyze the poems as literature,
or as proto-philosophy, or as pieces of
evidence that might tell us about the
social fabric of the Greek-speaking culture in which they were composed.
Classicists such as Jenny Strauss Clay,
Pietro Pucci, Kirk Ormand, and the
editors and contributors of the excellent Brill Companion to Hesiod (2009)
have opened up the Hesiodic corpus in
new ways in recent decades. We are now
more aware of these poems’ literary interest, their complex configurations of
gender roles, and their contradictory
positioning between content that seems
to value the elite or aristocratic class—
divine or heroic epic—and the more
popular, perhaps proto- democratic
genre of wisdom literature (a literary tradition that involves giving proverbial advice, like Proverbs in the
Bible). Glenn Most has reminded us
of the conceptual importance of these
apparently “primitive” poems by
showing how they shaped later Greek
philosophical thought. Scholars such as
Christos Tsagalis and Richard Hunter
have written in stimulating ways about
Hesiod’s poetic self-fashioning and the
mixed generic identities and ancient reception of the Hesiodic poems.
None of this intellectual wealth is visible in Powell, whose discussion of what
he calls “Prominent Themes in Hesiod’s Theogony” runs to only two and
a half pages, in which he asserts that the
Theogony is about “the climb to power
of male over female,” a theme that, we
are told, “the Greeks” saw as “normal”;
by “Greeks” he perhaps means “male
elite Greeks.” In Powell’s account
Works and Days, similarly, is a rather
simpler and less interesting poem than
you might imagine from reading recent
scholarship: it is about “the avoidance of
evil deeds” and the “necessity of labor.”
The translations themselves are, if
possible, worse. Take, as an entirely
typical example, this account of the
Iron Age:
Zeus made another race of mortal
human beings who have come
into being upon the rich earth.
Would that I did not live among
this fifth
race of men, but that I died
before, or that I lived after! For
now the race
is of iron, nor do men ever cease
from suffering and sorrow by
day, nor from
The New York Review
being ruined by destruction at
If these lines were laid out as prose,
one might still be irritated by the redundancies (“ruined by destruction,”
“suffering and sorrow”), the repetitions (“race . . . race . . . race”), and the
clumsy archaisms (“cease,” “would
that I did not”). The original does not
repeat the word for “race” (genos) as
often as Powell does, and the redundancies are not in the Greek. But at
least if Powell had set out his writing
as prose, the reader would be free from
the frustration of trying to make sense
of line breaks that make no sense: Who
ends a line with “from”? It may seem
as if writing free verse ought to be
easier than writing in a regular meter.
But free verse rarely works at all well
unless the poem’s bones are informed
by a structure from which it has leapt
away. The glories of H. D.’s metrical
innovations come from a deep awareness of English poetic rhythms, from
which her feet dance toward the fresh
pastures of Euripides. Free verse is not
the same as prose with a strange page
layout. By this metric, Powell obviously
does not write verse, and it would be
less painful if he admitted it.
Even beyond the standards of poetics and prosody, Powell’s diction
is extremely uneven. It tends toward
grandiose archaism (“Mnemosynê of
the beautiful tresses, on whom were begotten the nine/Muses”) and awkward,
unidiomatic phrases (“all stirred hated
battle on that day, the females and the
males”). But then there are several
strange, comical moments when Powell
lapses into a more vernacular mode: we
meet “the Harpies who have nice hair”
and the bronze-worker relaxes on a
“comfy couch,” and when Prometheus
tries to trick Zeus, the great Cloud God
comments, “O son of Iapetos,/most excellent of all the gods—wow!” Powell’s
Hesiod takes on a bizarrely peremptory tone when talking to the Muses
(“Come here, you Muses of Pieria,”
he tells them bossily, as if addressing a
gaggle of noisy preschoolers).
As Lawrence Venuti has reminded
us, there is not necessarily anything
wrong with a translation that draws attention to its own status as translation.
For a classical translator, the occasional use of markedly archaic or markedly modern-sounding words can be a
useful device to invite a deeper reflection on the relationship of ancient to
modern cultures. But in Powell’s case,
where the baseline style is so relentlessly clunky, there seems little reason
to imagine that these moments of stylistic schizophrenia are inserted with
any particular goal in mind.
One might imagine that Powell’s
translations would at least give what
nontranslators like to call a “literal” or
“faithful” account of what the Greek
actually says. Probably he believes that
this is what he has done. But in truth,
no translator can avoid making judgments about what matters in the original and what does not. Powell’s style
already implies a certain set of judgments about Hesiod’s poetic abilities—
judgments that are not very flattering
to the poor old Boeotian bard. His
translations enact the same kinds of
thoughtlessness that are implied by his
thin introductory analysis. I will focus
on his handling of gender, but much the
same point could be made about his approach to other kinds of social status,
January 18, 2018
including the representation of divine
eviewers, especially male reviewers, rarely comment on the gendered
assumptions and biases of male translators. So it is worth emphasizing that
Powell’s rendering of the Greek is, in
a great many moments, noticeably
shaped by his unexamined masculine
bias. Of course, he is by no means alone
in this; he is, in this as in other respects,
absolutely typical. That makes it all the
more important to notice how a particular kind of gender bias shapes his
translation, since similar biases can be
seen in many other classical translations that are often imagined to be “objective” or authoritative.
For example, there are two words
for “man” in Greek: the word aner can
mean either “man” or “husband,” and
connotes a specifically male person.
This is the first word of the Odyssey:
Odysseus is defined as “a man.” By
contrast, the word anthropos suggests
a human being, as opposed to a god or
an animal. Anthropos is masculine in
form (as are, for example, the words for
“world,” “air,” “house,” and “death”
in Greek, and hundreds of abstract
others); but it does not necessarily denote only male people. There is clear
linguistic evidence for this fact, since
the word appears in extant ancient
Greek with the female pronoun (he
anthropos, “the [feminine] human”).
Hesiod uses anthropos several times
to refer to the relationship of gods to
humans, or the contrast between people in the mythical past and people of
his own time. At the beginning of the
Theogony, we are told that the Muses
give inspired speakers the ability to end
quarrels and to persuade crowds of people: this is “the holy gift of the Muses
to human beings [anthropoisin].” Hesiod’s point is surely not that the gods or
the Muses speak only to male people; if
gender had been the element he wanted
to emphasize, he could have used the
other word. But in Powell this becomes
“Such is the sacred gift of the Muses to
men.” Many instances of anthropos are
treated in this way by Powell, but not
all—which means that the Greek-less
reader will have absolutely no way to
tell from Powell when Hesiod means
“men” and when he means “people.”
You might think this distinction matters; but for Powell, it does not.
The same goes for many other words
and phrases that are gender-neutral in
the original. When Hesiod says that the
Gulf of Tartaros is so deep that “one”
who entered the gate (an unspecified,
gender-neutral person) would not reach
the bottom in a whole year, Powell
translates, “If a man were to come inside the gates,/he would not reach the
floor. . . .” Hera is described in Hesiod
as thaleros, a word that can be used of
flourishing plants or abundant tears or
a muscular warrior’s thighs: it suggests
sturdiness or luxuriance or physical
power. In Powell, she becomes “buxom
Hera his wife.” When Hesiod declares
that “giving” (a feminine noun personified) is good, and “stealing” (another
personified feminine) is bad, Powell
makes only one of them feminine, and
by now you can probably guess which:
“Give is good; Grab is a bad girl.”
The masculine bias also creeps into
Powell’s rendering of the relationships
between male and female characters
in the text. There is, for example, the
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short line in the Theogony in which
are central to the poem’s violent mythic
ery” or “calamity”) for mortal men, bewe are told that the goddess Theia was
scheme, in which Kronos castrates his facause they require feeding, which gets
“subdued in sex by Hyperion.” The
ther, Sky, and the bloody drops impregexpensive. In this version, women have
participle, hypodmetheis’, definitely
nate Earth; later Kronos is tricked into
no power and are not described as indisuggests a nonconsensual and probably
swallowing his own children and vomitviduals. In the Works and Days story,
violent encounter; the root verb suging them up—a parodic echo of the feby contrast, Pandora’s name suggests
gests “to overpower” or “to subdue,”
male process of gestation and birth.
that she may be the source of all goodand is used for enemies killed or slaves
These are stories that grapple with
ness, as well as all suffering. She makes
taken in war, or for animals broken to
hard questions about the nature and
a choice to open the jar, although we
the plow or the harness, or for women
gendering of power. Do male authoriare not told why. Moreover, the Works
overpowered in nonconsensual sex.
ties have to steal or borrow from female
and Days story makes it clear that
“Raped” would be a valid translation.
capacities in order to gain control, as
the miseries that come into the world
There are common terms in Hesiod
Zeus does when he swallows Metis?
when the jar opens are separate from
for consensual sexual encounters (such
Is it true—as Powell assures us—that
Pandora herself; she is an instrumental
as mignumi, “to mix” or “mingle” or
“mind” thus becomes “part of his own
cause of their release, but she is not the
“have intercourse”); the text makes
being”—or is there a remaining tension
cause of human pain.
a clear distinction between cases of
between male dominance and female
“mingling” and cases of “subduing”
intelligence? Is “the feminine” always
ll these contradictions, both within
or “raping.” One could argue about
to be associated with disorder, or are
the Pandora story and between the
whether it is or is not appropriate to use
male beings, who can be (and, in HesTheogony and the Works and
a word that is, for us, shocking,
Days versions of the myth,
and describes an action that is
point to some important unlegally recognized as a crime,
resolved tensions in the way
for an action that is at least a
active female behavior was
tiny bit more normalized in
conceived in archaic Greek
the Greek text; the choice of a
culture. This makes it particuword like “overpowered” over
larly important for a translator
“raped” might be defensible
of Hesiod to think carefully
on these grounds. But it is cerabout how exactly the poems
tainly not defensible, on any
articulate gender roles, here
possible philological or scholand elsewhere. But unfortuarly grounds, to alter the originately, Powell gives no sign of
nal by making a nonconsensual
having done any of this work.
encounter sound consensual.
To take just one detail: Zeus
Yet this is exactly what Powtells Hermes, in Works and
ell does. He renders the line
Days, to put into Pandora “a
as: “Theia, submitting in love
doggish mind and a wily charto Hyperion.” There are many
acter.” The term I translated
rapes in Hesiod, and Powell creas “wily” (epiklopos) can be
ates the same distortion every
either positive (suggesting
single time. To take just one
cleverness or competence—it
more example: the Titan Rhea,
is used of Odysseus’s skill in
we are told, is raped by Kronos,
archery) or negative (suggestand from this act of violence
ing the tendency to steal).
the Olympian gods are born:
The term “doggish” (kuneos)
Rheia de dmetheisa Kronoi teke
is used as an insult by Achilphaidima tekna (“Rhea, overles about Agamemnon in the
powered/raped by Kronos, gave
Iliad; it is common in archaic
birth to glorious/shining chilGreek poetry to accuse one’s
dren”). Powell again (and again
‘Pandora’s Box’; engraving by Bernard Picart, 1730
enemies of being like dogs.
and again) erases the violence
As Cristiana Franco argued
that is obvious in the Greek: his
in an important recent study, Shameiod’s world, are) castrated, more prone
translation reads, “Rhea, sleeping with
less: The Canine and the Feminine in
to disintegration, since their bodies are
Kronos, bore splendid children.” Powell
Ancient Greece (2014), dogs are creamore readily partitioned? Do violence,
presumably knows what the verb damtures that share human food but are
treachery, and deceit belong more to
azo means; it is a common enough word,
not human, so “dog” in archaic Greek
masculine or feminine power, or to both
and any basic dictionary will explain its
culture was a good shorthand for hintequally? Is there a way to be simultameaning. But the distinction between
ing that a person might not be propneously male and female? The poems
being “subdued” or “raped” by Kronos
erly human. Hence the insult is more
raise the questions, without necessarily
and “sleeping with Kronos” is one that
commonly used in these texts against
offering a coherent answer. These disthis translator clearly assumes does not
women than men, since their humanity
turbing myths about gender roles are
matter, and therefore does not reflect in
is more often imagined to be in doubt.
an important reason to read and study
his translation.
But kuneos certainly is not exclusively
Hesiod, so it is a pity when a translator
feminine, unlike the modern English
of these texts is unable to look at gender
ll this might conceivably be a little
insult “bitch,” which carries entirely
with open and critical eyes.
less important if the original poems had
different and specific connotations of
It is in Works and Days that we have
nothing to say about gender. But this is
low-level cruelty conceptualized as
the earliest extensive narrative of the
simply not the case. The complex, often
a particularly feminine quality. Powstory of Pandora, “All Gifts,” the fabricontradictory relationships and hierell makes Pandora’s mental qualities
cated, not- quite-human woman whom
archies between men and women, bedefinitely negative, and definitely femiZeus gives to humans as a punishment,
tween feminine and masculine powers,
nized, in ways that the Greek does not
after the Titan Prometheus tricked him
and between gods and goddesses are a
require: his Hermes is told “to put in
and gave fire to mortals. This story, like
central part of what the Homeric and
her the mind/of a bitch and a scheming
that of Adam and Eve in Genesis, might
Hesiodic poems are all about, and gennature.”
be construed as straightforwardly mider in these texts is not a concept that
This is a clear case of how translation
sogynistic: the woman’s decision (to eat
is presented as entirely transparent in
always involves interpretation, and it
the fruit, or to open the box) is at the
illustrates the need for every translaroot of all evil in the world. But it also
The Theogony begins with two kinds
tor—male or female, young or old—to
makes clear that the ultimate cause of
of divine female power: the nine Muses
think as deeply as humanly possible
human misery is a power struggle bewho inspire the poem itself, and the two
about each verbal, poetic, and interpretween two male deities, Prometheus
primordial female forces, Chaos (or
tative choice. Powell’s translations are
the Titan and Zeus the Olympian.
Chasm, Chaos) and Earth (Gaia), who
often not impossible as a way of readThe myth appears in two signifiare the first entities in the universe, and
ing the Greek. But it is a shame that he,
cantly different versions in Hesiod: one
who gradually, painfully, give way to the
like all too many classical translators,
in the Theogony, and another in Works
Titans and then to the Olympian gods
has not thought a little harder about
and Days. In the Theogony, the female
and goddesses. The biological and social
what informs his own readings, and
quasi human is unnamed, and women
differences between male and female
what the alternatives might be.
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Murderous Majorities
Mukul Kesavan
Islam and the State in Myanmar:
Muslim–Buddhist Relations and
the Politics of Belonging
edited by Melissa Crouch.
Oxford University Press,
345 pp., $55.00
The Rohingya are a community of
Muslims concentrated in the northern
parts of Myanmar’s western state of
Rakhine. There have been Muslims in
Rakhine for a thousand years, but their
numbers were substantially increased
by migration from British India, particularly Bengal, during colonial rule.
Before the recent forced exodus to
Bangladesh, the Rohingya population
in Myanmar was estimated at a little
over a million, but that figure is contested. The last census did not count
them because the government did not
wish to recognize Rohingya as a legitimate identity. Including Rohingya
refugees in nearby Bangladesh who
fled during “clearances” conducted by
Myanmar’s military rulers in 1978, the
early 1990s, and 2012, their total number is likely larger.
There are other Muslim communities
in Rakhine and Myanmar, but they are
culturally and ethnically different from
the Rohingya, who have been singled
out for violent discrimination. Their
distinct dialect and ethnic “otherness,”
combined with their concentration in
northern Rakhine, have made them
seem to Myanmar’s rulers unassimilable and a threat to the integrity of this
avowedly Buddhist state.
In late August 2017, Rohingya
militants attacked police stations in
northern Rakhine using knives and
homemade bombs. Twelve members
of the security forces were killed. The
Myanmar military retaliated by burning Rohingya villages, killing and raping civilians, and forcing more than
half a million Rohingyas to flee to
The scale of this ethnic cleansing
represents the most extreme triumph of
majoritarian politics in South Asia. The
persecution of the Rohingya has made
Myanmar something of an inspiration
to majoritarian parties in neighboring
states. The Indian government, led by
the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata
Party, announced in mid-August that
the 40,000 Rohingyas in India (refugees from an earlier exodus) would
be deported because they were illegal
immigrants. Even in early September,
after the ferocity of the Myanmar army’s “clearances” was known and the
extent of the exodus became apparent,
no one in Narendra Modi’s administration voiced even the pro forma expressions of concern by which governments
often acknowledge widespread human
Majoritarianism—the claim that
a nation’s political destiny should be
determined by its religious or ethnic
majority—is as old as the nation-state
in South Asia; it was decolonization’s
January 18, 2018
original sin. Postcolonial nations in
South Asia began with varying degrees
of commitment to the ideal of a pluralistic, broadly secular state, but after
a decade or so of independence they
were either taken over by military rulers or transformed into religious states
by majoritarian politicians.
Pakistan was carved out of British India to create a Muslim-majority
country, and although its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, seemed at times
to support the idea of a secular state,
the genocidal violence of the 1947 Partition more or less purged the country
d’état and enforced a Buddhist nationalist ideology. This process culminated
in the 1982 Citizenship Law, which officially denied Rohingyas the possibility
of full citizenship.
ronically, it was during the transition to civilian rule between 2012 and
2017 that the country became a purely
majoritarian polity through ethnic
cleansing and by formally excluding
Rohingyas in particular and Muslims generally from every democratic
process and institution. The violence
Ahmed Salahuddin/Contact Press Images
The Rohingyas:
Inside Myanmar’s Genocide
by Azeem Ibrahim,
with a foreword by Muhammad Yunus.
Hurst, revised and updated edition,
239 pp., £12.99 (paper)
Rohingyas fleeing across the Naf River from Myanmar into Bangladesh, September 2017
of its non-Muslim minorities. In its
short-lived constitution of 1956, Pakistan formally defined itself as an Islamic republic, and it has remained one
for over sixty years.
Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was founded
in 1948 as a secular nation, but by 1956
its Sinhala Buddhist politicians were
pushing to redefine it as a Buddhist republic with Sinhala, the language of the
Buddhist majority, as the sole national
language. This majoritarian push was
aimed at marginalizing Tamil speakers, a substantial non-Buddhist minority concentrated in the north and east
of the country. Bangladesh, which won
independence from Pakistan in 1971,
was established as a secular Bengalispeaking nation, but after a coup in
1975, a military regime turned it into an
Islamic republic. (The Supreme Court
restored secularism in 2010, but Islam
remains Bangladesh’s official religion.)
Major General Aung San, who
brought about Myanmar’s independence from Britain after World War
II and was assassinated in 1947, envisioned it as a secular republic. The
constitution of 1948, however, which
established Myanmar as an independent nation, conferred full citizenship
on most ethnic minorities but withheld
it from the Rohingya. Throughout the
1950s, the government of U Nu, the
country’s first prime minister, accommodated the idea of a Rohingya community and held out the prospect of
citizenship for Rohingyas. The census
of 1961 even recognized “Rohingya” as
a demographic category. The evolution
of Myanmar into an explicitly Buddhist
state began in 1962 when a military
government seized power in a coup
of 2012 (which prefigured the ethnic
cleansing of 2017) resulted in 120,000
Rohingyas being expelled from towns
in northern Rakhine and confined to
camps for internally displaced persons. The 2014 census was designed
to exclude “alien” minorities; nearly a
third of Rakhine’s population went uncounted because the Rohingya refused
to identify as Bengali Muslim, which
would have lent credibility to the claim
that they were foreigners, not citizens.
The census was used to compile the
new electoral rolls for the country’s
first democratic elections in 2015; it effectively disenfranchised the Rohingya
and led to the total absence of Muslims
from Myanmar’s parliament for the
first time since independence.
That year, the government confiscated the registration cards that had
entitled Rohingyas to health and education services and, until recently, to
the right to vote, which they had previously been granted at the whim of the
regime. The cards were the only official
documents of residence or identity that
they possessed. These administrative
actions successfully established Buddhist supremacy in Rakhine and in
Myanmar as a whole.
The absence of an important minority from both the electoral process and
parliament is the sort of total victory
that majoritarians in South Asia have
long dreamed of but never achieved.
In 2014, a year before Myanmar’s elections, Narendra Modi led the BJP to an
absolute majority in the Indian general
elections. His majority was historic because it did not include a single Muslim
member of parliament from the BJP.
But twenty-three Muslims of other par-
ties were elected to the Lok Sabha, the
Indian parliament’s lower house; the
absence of any Muslims from Myanmar’s legislature was a more comprehensive victory for majoritarianism. It
is no surprise that a right-wing Hindu
nationalist party in India would keep
its distance from Muslims, but in
Myanmar it was the liberal opposition,
the National League for Democracy
(NLD), the party of Aung San Suu
Kyi, that didn’t field a single Muslim
The NLD may have excluded Muslim
candidates for strategic reasons—to
ride out the anti-Rohingya sentiment
stirred up by extremist clergy, to defer
to the military’s prejudices during the
sensitive transition to democracy, to
avoid antagonizing Rakhine’s Buddhist
majority—or because of the prejudices
of its own members. The result was the
political marginalization of an already
threatened minority. Myanmar in 2017,
with a parliament free of Muslims and
600,000 Rohingyas violently driven
out, has proven that it is possible for a
religious majority to achieve political
The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s
Genocide by Azeem Ibrahim doesn’t
pretend to be an objective history of
the tragedy unfolding in Rakhine. It
is a partisan book, and its claim on the
reader’s attention is not its grasp of history but its urgency and prescience.
Completed in 2015, immediately after
the long-awaited elections, it warned
that the transition to democracy had,
tragically, left the Rohingya more excluded, more vulnerable, and more
likely to be expelled than ever before,
unless the NLD and military acted to
stop their persecution. In his epilogue
to the updated paperback edition, written after the violence of September
2017, Ibrahim reflects on the vindication of that prediction and argues that
“we are now seeing an unstable situation escalate into the ethnic cleansing of an entire community.” His
prescience is reason enough to recommend his book, and particularly the
sections that deal with the transition to
democracy in 2015.
Majoritarianism insists on different
tiers of citizenship. Members of the
majority faith and culture are viewed as
the nation’s true citizens. The rest are
courtesy citizens, guests of the majority,
expected to behave well and deferentially. To be tolerated at the majority’s
discretion is no substitute for full citizenship in modern democracies. It is a
state of limbo, a chronically unstable
condition. A polity that denies full citizenship to its minorities will, sooner or
later, politically disenfranchise them or
expel them on the grounds that, despite
being residents, they aren’t citizens at
all and actually belong elsewhere—in
India or Pakistan or Tamil Nadu or,
as with the Rohingya, in Bangladesh.
Myanmar has three categories of citizenship: citizen, associate citizen, and
naturalized citizen. The Rohingya are
classed as foreigners.
The one South Asian state that had
formally resisted the temptation of
majoritarianism until the 1980s was
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Ahmed Salahuddin/Contact Press Images
n his essay for Islam and the State in
India. Founded as a constitutional reThe imagined threat of demographic
Myanmar, a collection that addresses
public in 1950, it treated its substantial
extinction at the hands of fast-breeding,
the relationship between Myanmar’s
Muslim minority (it has the third-largest
evangelizing Muslims is central to maMuslims and their government, BenjaMuslim population in the world) as full
joritarian mobilization in India, Sri
min Schonthal demonstrates the extent
and equal citizens. Despite its being
Lanka, and Myanmar. Several Indian
to which Buddhist majoritarianism in
80 percent Hindu, there was no forprovinces have passed laws that strictly
Myanmar is akin to Sinhala nativism
mal sense in which India’s religious
regulate religious conversion. Their
in Sri Lanka, noting recent meetings
minorities were expected to assimiunstated goal is to prevent conversion
between the Sri Lankan Bodu Bala
late into Hindu culture. The only parto Islam or Christianity; conversion to
Sena (Army of Buddhist Power) and
ties that demanded this assimilation,
Hinduism, on the other hand, is seen
the explicitly anti-Muslim monk-led
such as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the
as reversion. It is referred to as ghar
969 movement in Myanmar. Ashin
political ancestor of Modi’s BJP, were
wapsi, or “homecoming.” In the disminor regional parties that had little
Wirathu, its most notoriously Islamocourse of Hindu majoritarianism, all
power. For the first twenty-five years
phobic preacher, visited Colombo in
Muslims and Christians are ancestrally
of the republic, under the leadership
late 2014 to sign a memorandum of
of Jawaharlal Nehru and then his
understanding between the Bodu Bala
Myanmar remains at the vanguard
daughter Indira Gandhi, India remained
Sena and 969. People in both countries,
of majoritarianism in South Asia, in
a constitutionally secular state.
Schonthal suggests, “are beginning to
its capacity to violently expel an ethIn the late 1970s and early 1980s, the
see their own actions in a broader renic minority, disenfranchise those who
political balance shifted following the
gional framework.”
remain, and make the prejudices of
Emergency, Indira Gandhi’s exBuddhist chauvinists into law.
periment with authoritarian rule
The Organization for the Probetween 1975 and 1977. But the
tection of Race, Religion, and
new politics was also shaped by
Belief, popularly known as Mapogroms. In 1983, two thousand
Ba-Tha (the abbreviation of its
Muslims of Bengali ancestry
Burmese name), began in 2013
were slaughtered in a matter of
as a campaign to pass what were
hours in the town of Nellie, in
collectively known as the Race
Assam. (Unofficial estimates
and Religion Protection Laws.
place the number of deaths at
In a little over two years these
more than ten thousand.) The
laws were approved by the legindigenous Assamese who perislature and signed into law by
petrated the massacre thought
the president.
the Muslims were illegal miOf all the laws governing
grants from Bangladesh whose
monogamy, birth control, relinames had been included on the
gious conversion, and interfaith
electoral rolls. Bangladesh, then
marriage that implicitly target
a relatively new nation, was seen
Muslims, the most flagrantly
by unsympathetic neighbors as a
discriminatory is the Myannet exporter of people, and since
mar Buddhist Women’s Spethese immigrants tended to be
cial Marriage Law. A Buddhist
Bengali-speaking Muslims, they
woman under twenty years of
looked and sounded conspicuage needs parental consent to
ously alien.
marry a non-Buddhist. Local
The 1983 massacre in Assam
registrars are empowered to
was a landmark in Indian polipost marriage applications.
tics. The student organization
The couple can marry only if
whose anti-Muslim activism
no one objects, but any citizen
culminated in the pogrom escan contest the application,
tablished a political party that
causing it to be challenged in
handily won the next provincial
court. In the event of a divorce,
election. The incident demonthe woman automatically gets
strated that illegal immigracustody of the children. The
A Rohingya girl at a makeshift camp in Bangladesh,
tion was a serious problem,
purpose of the law is to make inafter crossing over from Myanmar, September 2017
that Bengali Muslims were a
termarriage between Buddhist
political scapegoat, and, most
women and non-Buddhist men
In another essay in the collection,
significantly, that pogroms could be
as difficult as possible. Monks, priests,
Nyi Nyi Kyaw compares 969’s campolitically profitable.
and majoritarians in every country in
paigns to those of Hindu chauvinist orIn 1984, the assassination of Indira
South Asia will have taken note that
ganizations in India like the Rashtriya
Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards
the government of Myanmar has been
Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP. The
led to the systematic murder of Sikhs
able to stand out as the defender of the
supposed fertility of Muslim men and
in Delhi and elsewhere. Her son, Rajiv
faith by legally discriminating in favor
their practice of polygamy are seen as
Gandhi, won a large electoral victory
of the country’s majority on the basis
threats to the future of Buddhists in
after this pogrom, and the lesson of
of religion.
Myanmar. The allegation is that MusNellie was reinforced, this time at the
Majoritarianism in South Asia isn’t
lim men are waging a “Love Jihad”; as
national level. Subsequent pogroms of
necessarily about targeting Muslims.
Kyaw notes, Ashin Wimalar Biwuntha,
Muslims in Bombay (1992–1993) and
Nor is it provoked by the need to discia 969 monk, has accused Muslim men
Gujarat (2002) were followed by elecpline recalcitrant minorities in general.
of seducing Buddhist women “for their
toral victories for parties like the Shiv
Majoritarian politics results from the
reproductive tactics. They produce a
Sena and the BJP that were complicit
patiently constructed self-image of an
in the violence. There has been no forlot of children, they are snowballing.”
aggrieved, besieged majority that bemal disenfranchisement of minorities,
The terms “Love Jihad” and “Romeo
lieves itself to be long-suffering and rebut majoritarian parties in India have
Jihad” are lifted straight from the lexifuses to suffer in silence anymore. The
learned that encouraging violence
con of Hindu bigotry. The BJP and its
cultivation of this sense of injury is the
affiliates are committed to fighting soagainst minorities pays off electorally.
necessary precondition for the lynchcalled predatory Muslims practicing
Majoritarian violence had become
ings, pogroms, and ethnic cleansing
“Love Jihad” with street vigilantes ora shortcut to power throughout South
that invariably follow.
ganized in “Anti-Romeo squads.” The
Asia. In Myanmar, Pakistan, and BanMajoritarianism promotes equalchief minister of India’s most populous
gladesh, insecure military rulers sought
opportunity bigotry. In Sri Lanka the
state, Uttar Pradesh, a Hindu monk
legitimacy by aligning the state with its
rout of the Tamil Tigers and the final
called Yogi Adityanath, has for years
religious majority, while in India and
destruction of the goal of a Tamil
led a private militia, the Hindu Yuva
Sri Lanka, nativist parties won elechomeland did little to assuage radical
Vahini (Hindu Youth Force), in the
tions by promoting the idea that the nanativists. For the Sinhala Ravaya (the
battle against this phantom enemy. In
tion was being subverted by predatory
Roar of the Sinhala Nation), the Rafact, his principal credential for the
minorities. By the end of the twentieth
vana Balaya (Ravana’s Force, referring
chief minister’s office in 2016 was his
century, majoritarian parties were eito a legendary king believed to have
proven ability to mobilize the “Hindu
ther in power or the principal opposiruled over Sri Lanka), and the Bodu
street” against Muslims.
tion in every South Asian nation.
Bala Sena, Muslims have replaced the
The New York Review
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Tamils as the existential threat to Sri
Lanka’s integrity as a Sinhala Buddhist
nation. The Muslim community was
orphaned by the civil war: Muslims
had long been distrusted by the Sri
Lankan state since they speak Tamil,
but they were also purged from Tiger
strongholds because they were not
Tamil enough. Now, Schonthal writes,
the new Muslim threat is seen as demographic, financial (through their
alleged control of trade and industry),
and transnational, because local Muslims are viewed as part of a broader
conspiracy to Islamicize the Buddhist
world. But Sri Lankan majoritarians
don’t necessarily single out Muslims: a
long-standing campaign by the Jathika
Hela Urumaya (National Heritage
Party) for a bill that would place strict
limits on conversion to non-Buddhist
faiths was spurred by a dislike of Christian missionaries.
Even Pakistan, whose population is
almost entirely Muslim (97 percent),
has targeted minority Muslim sects.
Starting in 1974 it began a fifteenyear process of Islamicization, declaring members of the Ahmadi sect
non-Muslims, passing blasphemy laws
that were routinely used to persecute
minorities, and patronizing fundamentalist Sunni organizations that
were willing to commit acts of horrific
violence against Shias. Bangladesh,
another Muslim-majority nation, has
seen a decline in its Hindu population. While the Bangladeshi state
under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
has become more secular, it remains a
dangerous country for Hindus, tribal
minorities, and atheists.
he recent expulsions of Rohingyas
from Myanmar have provoked a storm
of criticism, which has received defensive responses not just from State
Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and
Myanmar’s official spokespersons,
but also from historians, policy experts, and foreign diplomats. If their
arguments in defense of Myanmar’s
policies succeed in normalizing the
largest forced exodus in peacetime
since the mid-1990s, when two million
Rwandans were forced to leave their
country, minorities across South Asia
will become even more vulnerable to
India’s first response to the violence
in Rakhine was an implicit endorsement of the carnage. According to a
joint statement issued on September
6 during the Indian prime minister’s
state visit to Myanmar, “India condemned the recent terrorist attacks in
northern Rakhine State, wherein several members of the Myanmar security
forces lost their lives. Both sides agreed
that terrorism violates human rights
and there should, therefore, be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs.” The
joint statement made no mention of the
exodus of Rohingya refugees. India’s
foreign secretary, speaking at a conference in New Delhi, was careful not to
criticize Myanmar:
The fact that there is an exodus
of a large number of people from
the Rakhine state is clearly a matter of concern. Our objective will
be to see how they can go back to
their place of origin. That is not
easy. We feel this situation is better addressed through practical
measures and constructive con-
versation rather than doing very
strong condemnations.
The largely Western condemnation
of Myanmar’s government and Aung
San Suu Kyi has been criticized as excessive, simplistic, and ill-informed.
The argument made by majoritarians is that the narrative of Rohingya
victimhood obscures and silences the
trauma of Rakhine Buddhists because
the latter haven’t been as adept in lobbying human rights organizations in
the West. This argument highlights efforts by militant Rohingyas to create
an independent or autonomous Muslim
zone in northern Rakhine since decolonization. It emphasizes the fact that the
Muslim community in Rakhine greatly
expanded after Britain annexed Burma
in the early nineteenth century and allowed immigrants from Bengal to enter
the region. It insists that the Rakhine
Buddhist resentment of Bengali Muslim encroachment needs to be situated
in this longer history if foreigners are
to arrive at a more evenhanded treatment of two communities, both victims
of rival ethnic nationalisms.
The trouble with this position is
that evenhandedness by any historical reckoning is impossible. The only
way the argument in favor of the brutal treatment of Muslims makes sense
is if one accepts the Burmese Buddhist
distinction between native and alien as
the basis for citizenship and belonging. The reason the Rohingya demand
recognition as an ethnic group is that
full citizenship in Myanmar has always
been contingent on membership in one
of the “national races,” or taingyintha.
The government’s policy of excluding the Muslims of Rakhine from the
taingyintha and then denying them
citizenship, despite generations of residence, on the basis of that exclusion is
Kafkaesque in its circularity. As Nick
Cheesman, an Australian academic,
points out in an article on taingyintha,
“ultimately Myanmar’s problem is not
a ‘Rohingya problem’ but a national
races problem . . . the idea of taingyintha itself is the problem.”
Once the news of this latest atrocity
recedes, the Myanmar government will
have reason to believe that its project of
diminishing the presence of Rohingya
in Rakhine is well underway. Sri
Lankan nativists who believe that the
country’s Buddhists are bhumiputras
(sons of the soil) and non-Buddhists
are mlecchas (inferior aliens) will take
heart. The BJP government in Assam,
where illegal Bangladeshi immigration
sparked violence in the past, will learn
new lessons about the latitude given
to perpetrators of ethnic cleansing, as
long as it is conducted by “sons of the
The fact that the most vocal protests
about the recent violence have come
from European countries, foreign
human rights groups, and United Nations organizations has encouraged the
Myanmar government and its apologists to dismiss them as the handiwork
of know-nothing outsiders and professional breast-beaters. But this murderous purge is not a quarrel between the
West and the rest. The ethnic cleansing
of the Rohingya is a particularly vicious
chapter in a long history of majoritarian nationalism in South Asia. Unless
that history is acknowledged and its
legacy contested, more tragedies lie in
—December 20, 2017
The New York Review
The Decisive Moment
Ruth Franklin
“Never again will a single story be told
as though it were the only one,” John
Berger wrote in his novel G. (1972).
In the decades that have followed,
that line has become a rallying cry for
contemporary novelists, including Michael Ondaatje, Arundhati Roy, and,
most famously, Chimamanda Ngozi
Adichie. But it’s worth remembering
that, from Mrs. Dalloway to Underworld, the novel has often relied on a
plurality of voices—sometimes a chorus, sometimes a cacophony—to evoke
the texture of life. A technique that
once felt radical has become a new fictional norm.
So it bears noticing when a novelist
creates a genuinely new way of suggesting the complicated dance of relationships formed and dissolved, of
connections made and missed, that
sets the tone for a human life. For the
last seventeen years, in a succession of
books that are structured as a hybrid
of the novel and linked stories, Joan
Silber has been quietly stretching our
understanding of how stories can be
told. Using one person’s narrative as
a jumping- off point for any number of
others—the high school ex-girlfriend
who appears momentarily in one chapter might become the focus of the
next—her work generates tension and
momentum from the ebbs and flows of
individual lives, but also from the unexpected and sometimes unexplained
links between them. “The world is not
revolving around you—or it’s revolving
around you from your point of view,
but there are a lot of other revolutions
going on at the same time,” she has
said. Her method is “a way of conveying that, of giving a broader canvas
than fiction sometimes gives.”
It’s a testimony to Silber’s gifts that
none of her books in this mode—starting with In My Other Life (2000), there
are now six—feels formulaic. Each of
them pushes in a new direction. Ideas of
Heaven (2004), which was shortlisted
for the National Book Award, is a “ring
of stories” written in the first person,
in which every speaker connects almost invisibly to the next until the final
piece of the puzzle brings them all together. In The Size of the World (2008),
faulty screws in a guidance system for
American planes in Vietnam kickstart
a journey across decades, from Vietnam to Florida, Thailand, Sicily, and
New Jersey. Fools (2013) begins with a
circle of anarchists in 1920s New York
and masterfully unspools threads that
lead from Paris to Mumbai and finally
circle back around. In each book, the
characters are linked not only by their
circumstances but also, and more importantly, by their shared preoccupations: the twin paths of sex and religion
as routes to ecstasy; the unintended
and often irrevocable consequences of
our actions; the challenge of reconciling our practical desires with our moral
With Improvement, her eighth work
of fiction, Silber takes on what might be
the quintessential American drive: im-
January 18, 2018
Siegfried Woldhek
by Joan Silber.
Counterpoint, 227 pp., $26.00
proving ourselves, our partners, or our
situations. How do we live our “best
life,” as Oprah exhorts from the newsstand? How do we become our best
selves—through travel, romance, caretaking, risk-taking? Like the Turkish
carpet that drives much of the book’s
action, Improvement repeats shapes
and motifs, layering them in an intricate pattern that builds into something
far more complex than the sum of its
That carpet, from the village of Kula,
was brought to America by Kiki, whose
niece, Reyna, narrates the first section
of the book. Reyna doesn’t know much
about her aunt’s years in Turkey, other
than that Kiki met a carpet seller in Istanbul in 1970 and married him. When
his business failed, they moved to his
family’s farm in the countryside, living
with his parents. Eight years later, Kiki
returned to New York on her own, toting nine carpets in her “third-world”
luggage—“woven plastic valises baled
up with string.” She sold a few and kept
one for Reyna, who adores her but regards her as a little wacky.
When the novel opens, just before
Hurricane Sandy, Reyna, a single
mother to four-year- old Oliver, has
been waiting patiently for several
months for her boyfriend, Boyd, to be
released from Rikers Island, where he
was sent for selling marijuana. He is
devoted to her and to Oliver, but his
friends—especially Lynnette, his exgirlfriend and the sister of his friend
Claude—mistrust Reyna, presumably
because she’s white. As a part-time
receptionist at a veterinarian’s office,
Reyna doesn’t make much money;
still, she has everything she needs and
is happy with her life, especially with
Boyd in it.
But when Boyd gets out of jail, he
finds that his social position has fallen.
No longer allowed to tend bar as he
once did, he’s stuck working at a diner.
He, Claude, and two other friends cook
up a scheme to smuggle cigarettes from
Richmond, Virginia, where taxes are
low, and sell them in New York. For the
first few runs, everything goes fine, and
the influx of cash gives Boyd and the
others a new confidence. Money and
the things it gets us—not all of them
material—is one of the threads Silber
will worry throughout the novel. “From
repeated success, from tests passed and
suspense endured, their personalities
were all showing signs of change,” she
Claude had stopped looking hangdog and was now a seemlier specimen, Maxwell took on the dignity
of a general, and Wiley was getting
closer to unbearable. Boyd simply
had more hope in him.
We know that something will go
wrong, and it does. One day Wiley,
the designated driver, doesn’t show up.
Maxwell doesn’t have a license, Claude
is a terrible driver, and Boyd, still on
probation, isn’t allowed to leave New
York. They ask Reyna to step in, and
she agrees, but at the last minute she
changes her mind. Who will take care
of Oliver if they get caught and she goes
to jail? Claude, impulsively, takes the
wheel. He and Maxwell never make it
to Richmond. Outside Baltimore, trying to turn onto I-95 from a rest stop,
he crashes into a truck. Claude dies
before the ambulance gets there; Maxwell winds up in the hospital; Lynnette
nearly loses her mind with grief. And
Boyd leaves Reyna, their relationship
poisoned by her last-minute refusal to
help and the disaster that followed. His
yearning for improvement has sabotaged them both.
In life, we often don’t recognize the
moments that potentially alter our
courses until long after the results are
fixed. The same goes for Silber’s fiction, which is centered around those
moments of irrevocability but often allows them to pass by almost unnoticed.
Reyna doesn’t even learn of Claude’s
accident until nearly a week later, after
the consequences have already begun
to take shape. Everyone touched by
it—some directly, others tangentially—
is altered. Each is seen briefly but fully,
with distinct desires and sorrows.
Teddy, the middle-aged trucker who
was driving the tractor-trailer Claude
crashed into, is haunted by the moment:
“the noise of the car’s arrival, the unbelievable cosmic smack of it collapsing
itself into crumpled metal.” He feels
doubly guilty, both for Claude’s death
(though the accident wasn’t his fault)
and also because he was on his way to
visit his ex-wife, Sally, with whom he’s
been having an unlikely affair (he is
remarried). They’ve met again twentysix years after their divorce, after her
casual request for a document led to
an e-mail correspondence and then a
series of furtive meetings. Teddy still
feels guilty, too, about the way he behaved during their marriage: he drank
too much and once ran over a fancy
dress of Sally’s with his truck while
they were having a fight. He wonders
how to repay her for his bad behavior:
He’d assumed his genuine remorse was enough—it was a lot,
from him—but how much of life
was weighable and concrete and
physical and how much was thethought-that- counted?
Back in Richmond, Darisse, whom
Claude has been seeing on his trips
there, grows despondent when he
doesn’t show up at the bar where they
were supposed to meet and stops answering his phone. (“Who had told
the girl in Richmond, or was she still
waiting?” Reyna wonders after she
hears about the accident.) She works as
a home health aide and lives with her
grandmother, who consented to take
her in but not her two-year- old daughter. She’s allowed to see the little girl,
who now lives with her ex’s mother,
only on weekends and only when her
ex is in the mood, which sometimes
depends on her willingness to perform
sexual favors. Soon after Claude’s disappearance, she meets Silas, a softspoken nurse who takes her out to a
jazz club and on their next date brings
her back to his stylish apartment. Everyone around her thinks he’s a step
up from her previous boyfriends—he
dresses well, treats her nicely, makes
her waffles for breakfast—but somehow she still doesn’t feel right with him
and continues to long for Claude. One
person’s improvement is another’s step
With each of these stories—by the
end of the book, there will be several
more distinct strands—Silber spins
another variation on the novel’s larger
themes of advancement and decline, of
the mysterious and messy workings of
love, of paths taken and not taken. Her
technique of shifting viewpoints from
one chapter to the next highlights not
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only the way a single dramatic event
That’s all we get about her illness, and
can ripple outward into ever- expanding
it’s all we need.
circles, but also how a moment that is
The uniformity of Silber’s tone is the
incidental for one person can be deonly real limitation of her method. The
cisive for another. Apparently minor
narrative’s perspective moves fluidly
details also gain something when seen
from one character to the next, but each
from a different perspective. By the
of them sounds more or less the same.
time Kiki’s luggage, which looked so
This is likely deliberate, a way of bringforeign to Reyna as a child, appears
ing together so many diverse figures. If
again, we know exactly how she acthey all had distinctive voices, the required the carpets she’s carrying and
sult might be chaos. Silber has said that
what they mean to her.
she’s “not really trying to capture their
Dieter is a German in his early thirspeaking voices so much as their inner
ties when he spends a summer in the
voices.” But our inner voices aren’t al1970s traveling in Turkey with two
ways as cool and detached as the prose
friends, illegally buying antiquiAnton Chekhov
ties to sell at a profit back home.
One day the trio stops outside
Kiki’s farm, and she impulsively
invites them to stay the night.
After an evening spent drinking
and singing Beatles songs, they
ask her to join them—they could
use a Turkish speaker. “Was this
her next adventure, come in off
the road to summon her?” Kiki
wonders. For her it’s a turning
point—though she chooses to
stay, she will soon realize that
her marriage is over. For the
Germans, she’s simply a curiosity, “the American girl, keeping
house with that granny in the
middle of nowhere.” They will
move on and mostly forget about
The changing perspectives
constantly challenge the reader’s sympathies. A character
who behaves badly in one story
may be depicted more forgivingly in the next. Reyna knows
Lynnette only as Boyd’s jealous
ex-girlfriend, defensive and suspicious of outsiders. But when
the reader sees her later through
the eyes of a client in the salon
where she works, a different
Lynnette appears—fierce, yes,
but loyal and ambitious. Here
we learn about Lynnette’s own
desire for improvement: to open
up a salon of her own, which
she imagines Claude, with his
smuggling money, will help her
do. When circumstances that
she couldn’t have predicted and
doesn’t fully understand bring
about the realization of her
on these pages. A greater tonal variety
dream, it feels, strangely, as if some
would lift the novel’s energy level just
kind of restitution has been made.
a notch.
There are always more stories; there
t’s a cliché to compare a short-story
are always more ways of telling stories.
writer to Chekhov; usually critics do
Part of Silber’s gift is knowing which
that just to say that the stories are
stories not to tell. Her prose is spare,
good. But there are a few writers, such
devoid of flourishes and extraneous
as Alice Munro and William Trevor,
information. We learn everything we
who are consistently and meaningfully
need to know about Silas, Darisse’s
called Chekhovian, and their distinct
new boyfriend, from the descriptions
quality, I think, is that their stories don’t
of his apartment: “a big shining dinfeel like snapshots of a life, but seem to
ing room table and a whole field of orrepresent that life entire. Silber, too,
chids along a window,” the bedroom
bears this distinction; she manages to
“very big and too full of bright light
make the canvases of these linked stoand too arranged, with its surfaces of
ries stretch more broadly than seems
tan and brown and bamboo.” In their
possible. Sometimes years spin by in a
stark setting, the details she offers are
glimpse, as when we learn from Dieter
gems. Steffi, the lone woman in the
of his wife’s bout with cancer:
German trio that visits Kiki, is the lead
negotiator in their antiquities dealings;
Gisela looked wonderful too—
bargaining over a cuneiform tablet, she
older, more angular, and now with
unhooks the gold locket she’s wearing
wine-red hair, a change she’d begun
and sets it on the table: “The real joy of
as defiance. When the chemo made
the trip for her was in those moments.
her hair fall out and it grew back in
Her face was hardly ever like that,
chunks, she went auburn. Her hair
shining.” “Lot of stories in the world,”
was longer now, an areole of jagged
Silas comments offhandedly the mornfuzz, still punk maroon.
ing after he and Darisse first spend the
night together. Perhaps Silber is saving
his for another book.
It’s worth mentioning that Silber
came to her distinctive narrative structures not entirely by choice. Her career
has been marked by setbacks that say far
more about the publishing industry than
about the quality of her writing. After
publishing two more conventional novels—Household Words (1980), which
won the PEN /Hemingway Award, and
In the City (1987)—she was unable to
get another book published for thirteen
years. Interviewing Silber for The Believer, the writer Sarah Stone called this
hiatus “the literary equivalent of
being dropped in the wilderness
with nothing but a light sweater
and a stick of gum.” Paradoxically, Silber told Stone, she found
her period in the wilderness freeing, because she knew no one was
expecting anything specific from
her. She felt no pressure to repeat
herself; instead, she could find a
new path.
When Ideas of Heaven was
named a finalist for the National
Book Award, there was a small
outcry. Not because a beloved
and original writer had finally
gotten her due, but because the
book, like the other finalists—
Florida (Christine Schutt), Our
Kind (Kate Walbert), Madeleine
Is Sleeping (Sarah Shun-lien
Bynum), and the eventual winner, The News from Paraguay
(Lily Tuck)—was too “obscure.”
Writing in The New York Times,
Edward Wyatt expressed incredulity that these books had been
nominated at all, in view of their
poor sales, which he cited as
somewhere between seven hundred and nine hundred copies.
As it turned out, he misstated the
numbers. A rather long correction explained that the Nielsen
BookScan figures on which he
had relied could have excluded
numerically significant sales to libraries or elsewhere. But the real
flaw of his article wasn’t this error.
It was his assumption that there is
a reliable correlation between a
book’s sales and its quality.
One might ask instead: If a
group of well-regarded judges
thought these were the five best books
of the year, why weren’t more people
hearing about them and buying them?
What if someone had suggested that
it might be time to pay attention to
smaller literary novels by women rather
than allowing the big books of the season (Philip Roth’s The Plot Against
America was the main contender that
year) to suck up all the attention?
What if, instead of a piece mocking
these books for their low sales and denigrating the small press that published
one of them, a mainstream newspaper
had questioned why a National Book
Award–nominated author had been
rejected by mainstream publishing
“Is she still around?” a friend exclaimed in delighted surprise when I
mentioned I was reading Joan Silber’s
new novel. It is both tragic and infuriating that a writer as innovative, humane,
and wise is not read more widely. One of
the underlying themes of Improvement
is whether improvement is enough. Can
things that are broken ever be entirely
fixed? Or must we settle for incremental change, bit by painful bit?
The New York Review
The Unmentionable Season of Death
Antony Beevor
Leningrad 1941–1942 :
Morality in a City Under Siege
by Sergey Yarov, translated
from the Russian by Arch Tait.
Polity, 409 pp., $45.00
Besieged Leningrad:
Aesthetic Responses to
Urban Disaster
by Polina Barskova.
Northern Illinois University Press,
232 pp., $49.00 (paper)
mained in Leningrad. Hitler decided
that he did not want his troops to occupy the city. Instead the Wehrmacht
would bombard it and seal it off and
let the remaining residents starve and
die of disease. Once reduced in population, the city would be demolished
and the area handed over to Finland.
Hitler wanted to eradicate the cradle of
Stalin, refusing to believe that the
Germans could have broken through
so easily, suspected sabotage. He sent
General Georgy Zhukov on a plane
to Leningrad to take over responsibility for its defense, with instructions
much by self- censorship as by official
prohibition. Some survivors, as many
Red Army veterans did, revised their
own experiences through the filter of
what they read in official histories. A
number avoided taboo subjects, such
as cannibalism, for political reasons.
Others could not face repeating the
details of the city’s degradation. Even
though the Party had initially encouraged the keeping of diaries, censorship
was needed later to conceal the extent
to which individual experiences contradicted its collective narrative of daily
heroism. This took the form of very
selective quotation and skirting around
Universal History Archive/ UIG /Getty Images
The War Within:
Diaries from the Siege of Leningrad
by Alexis Peri.
Harvard University Press,
337 pp., $29.95
Written in the Dark:
Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad
edited and with an introduction
by Polina Barskova, translated from
the Russian by Anand Dibble
and seven others.
Ugly Duckling, 159 pp., $18.00 (paper)
On June 22, 1941, news of the Nazi invasion prompted disbelief, immediately
followed by outrage, across the Soviet
Union. About 300,000 citizens from
Leningrad joined the armed forces
and another 128,000 the militia—the
narodnoe opolchenie. These battalions of ill-armed cannon fodder were
expected to slow German panzer divisions with little more than their bodies.
They had no uniforms, no transport,
no medical services. Only half of them
had rifles. Soviet losses were appalling.
In the “Leningrad Strategic Defensive
Operations,” which lasted from July 10
to September 30, 1941, the Red Army
and militias suffered 214,078 “irrecoverable losses” out of 517,000 men—a
fatality rate of 41 percent.
General Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Army Group North had
advanced out of East Prussia through
the Soviet-occupied Baltic states. Apart
from a sudden Soviet counterattack
near Lake Ilmen, German progress was
slowed only by the terrain of marshes
and thick birchwoods. Almost half a million Leningrad civilians were sent out to
dig over six hundred miles of earthworks
and four hundred miles of anti-tank
ditches. None of these precautions saved
the city from its first great disaster.
On September 8, the day the Germans took the fortress town of Shlisselburg on the southern shore of Lake
Ladoga, thus cutting off the railway line
from Leningrad to Moscow, Luftwaffe
bombers targeted the food depots in
the south of the city. “Columns of thick
smoke are rising high,” Vasily Churkin
wrote in his diary, horrified by the implications. “It’s the Badaevskiye food
depots burning. Fire is devouring the
six months’ food supplies for the whole
population of Leningrad.” The failure
to disperse the stores had been a major
error. Rations had to be dramatically
reduced right from the start. In addition, little had been done to bring in
firewood for the winter. But the greatest mistake was the failure to evacuate
more civilians. Fewer than half a million Leningraders had been sent east
before the railway line was cut.
More than two and a half million
people, including 400,000 children, reJanuary 18, 2018
Two women collecting the remains of a dead horse for food, Leningrad, 1941
to adopt the most ruthless measures.
Zhukov claimed that, on going straight
to the Smolny Institute, he found the
military council in a state of defeatism
and drunkenness. Zhukov wasted no
time in issuing orders to all commanders of the Leningrad Front: “Make it
clear to all troops that all the families
of those who surrender to the enemy
will be shot.”
This went even further than any of
Stalin’s decrees. Ironically, Stalin himself was liable to execution under this
order, since his son Yakov Djugashvili
was captured by the Germans. Stalin
was not unduly worried by Zhukov’s
decree. He approved of his pitilessness. When Moscow was threatened in
November, Stalin was severely tempted
to strip Leningrad of troops in order to
save the capital. He had little sympathy
for what he saw as a city of the intelligentsia who despised Muscovites and were
suspiciously fond of Western Europe.
he Time of Death” and “The Season of Death” were the names given
to the worst period of the siege, from
the winter of 1941 until the late spring
of 1942. Soldiers in the Red Army received rations. Civilians, unless privileged in some way, were left to starve
on a diet that could not sustain life. As
with the Ukraine famine of 1932–1933,
information about starvation was ruthlessly repressed for decades. It was not
until the era of glasnost in the mid1980s that the Ukraine famine and the
starvation in Leningrad emerged from
their smothering in propaganda.
Siege literature published in the
Soviet era was distorted at least as
the central subject of starvation. Publishers and even “authors themselves,”
Sergey Yarov explains in his introduction to Leningrad 1941–1942, “watered
down the diaries and letters to try to
make them conform to the official Soviet trope of ordeals engendering heroism, which was rewarded by victory.”
The writer Lydia Ginzburg, he adds,
was criticized by censors “for dwelling
unduly on the issue of food.”
Hunger became an unmentionable
subject. Between 1.6 and 2 million
Soviet citizens died during the German blockade of Leningrad. These
included around 800,000 civilians, approximately 40 percent of the pre-war
population, almost the same number as
the military losses. Some were killed
by German bombs and shells; a large
number died from disease, and most
from starvation, yet these categories
cannot be separated statistically. In
The War Within: Diaries from the Siege
of Leningrad, Alexis Peri points out
that the death toll was roughly equivalent to “the total number of American
military who died in all wars between
1776 and 1975.”
Peri, in her fascinating and perceptive book, concentrates on 125 diaries
kept by Leningraders throughout the
blockade. As many of the diarists themselves recognized, their war was physically, symbolically, and psychologically
an internal one. Starvation meant that
their own bodies were desperately feeding off themselves, first the fat, then
the muscle, and finally the internal organs. Their struggle to survive was not
against the German enemy but against
an unforgiving bureaucracy, thieving
strangers and neighbors, and some-
times even family members unable to
control themselves. The sense of isolation came from the geography of the
besieged city, known as the “ring,” the
“circle,” or the “island” because it was
cut off from the “mainland” of the Soviet Union.
People wrote these diaries for many
reasons. Some hoped to preserve their
humanity and sanity in the face of
moral annihilation and to make sense
of the suffering and death around
them. A number minutely recorded
every resentment and slight as their
relationships broke down. For some
there was a need to testify. A diary also
helped them escape the feeling of imprisonment. “To write about the circle
is to break the circle,” wrote Ginzburg.
Others saw themselves as modern- day
Robinson Crusoes, a character admired then because he was seen to be
starting a new society, almost as if he
were a prototype of the New Soviet
Person. One Leningrader even coined
the term “Robinsonia.”
solation increased with the lack of
outside news. Anyone who listened to
a foreign radio station, when the electricity was working, risked execution.
Cautious citizens did not dare mention
the blockade or the siege. The correct
phrase was “the battle” or “the defense” of Leningrad. Bulletins from the
Soviet Information Bureau and reports
in Leningradskaya Pravda revealed
little, so rumors ran unchecked. With
the darkness of a northern winter, an
oppressive silence fell upon this frozen
city of the dead. The dearth of information in itself seemed to contribute to
the death rate. “Curiosity about tomorrow,” wrote Irina Zelenskaia, “is one of
the stimuli sustaining me to live.”
The terrible effects of starvation destroyed identity. People could not be
recognized by close relatives or, if they
had not faced a mirror for some time,
even by themselves. “I look like all
those other devils,” wrote Aleksandra
Borovikova, “I have become just bones
and wrinkled skin.” A number of diarists noticed how a physical similarity
developed between the sexes as breasts
shriveled, arms wasted, and faces wrinkled. Men and women bundled themselves up against the cold in the same
sort of clothes, with men sometimes
wearing women’s fur coats and women
wearing men’s trousers. Even so, men
died more rapidly than women because
their bodies stored less fat.
In a bizarre side effect, dystrophy
made boys and girls begin to grow facial hair. The seventeen-year- old Elena
Mukhina described herself as looking
like an “old man.” This prompted a
number of diarists to wonder who they
really were. In the History Museum of
St. Petersburg there is a sequence of
identity card photographs of a young
woman called Nina Petrova, who appears to age fifty years in just over sixteen months.
Medical interest in the process of
starvation in Leningrad was intense,
yet Soviet doctors do not appear to have
discovered what the Germans found
when the German Sixth Army was encircled at Stalingrad. On December 17,
1942, the army pathologist Dr. Hans
Inevitably, there is a certain overlap
in source material and information
between Peri’s and Yarov’s books. But
the late Professor Yarov, a native of
Leningrad, develops a rather different
approach to great effect, using wider
sources. “This is a book,” he writes,
“about the price that had to be paid
in order to remain human in a time
of inhumanity.” He takes up that fundamental question: Are our ideas of
civilization and natural justice merely
a thin veneer when put to the extreme
test of starvation?
Even within the family, the temptation to steal food could be overwhelming. The ration collectors might
eat part of it on the way home and
then claim that they had been shortchanged at the store, or attacked and
robbed. People would keep corpses in
an apartment to take advantage of the
deceased person’s ration card. Another
uncomfortable truth was that those
who played entirely by the rules were
unlikely to live. One way to survive was
ade wife.” This would be the mistress
of some official or senior manager in
the supply system who could provide
her all the food needed to keep her attractive. She was the equivalent of the
“campaign wife” in the Red Army,
known as a PPZh (short for pokhodnopolevaya zhena, because it sounded like
PPSh, the army’s standard submachinegun), who was usually an attractive
young nurse or signaler appropriated
by a senior officer against her will.
One “blockade wife” who unwisely exposed her healthy flesh in a bania, or
public bath, among the skeletal bodies
was teased by a bony woman: “Hey,
beauty—don’t come here, we might eat
you!” She screamed and ran.
There was a sharp class divide between the few who maintained normal
weight and the famished masses who
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Girgensohn was flown into the Kessel,
or “cauldron,” as the Germans called
it, to discover why unwounded soldiers
were dying so rapidly. He carried out
more than fifty autopsies and many
interviews. Death from starvation, he
observed, was undramatic. His study
of the phenomenon of accelerated starvation showed that the combination of
intense cold, stress, and exhaustion so
upset the metabolism that the bodies
of the victims had been able to absorb
only half the calories and vitamins they
had consumed. He pointed out that
even though these soldiers received
some food every day, they were still
dying far more quickly than hungerstrikers in prison who took only water.
Almost all the diarists described
how hard it was to stop themselves
from thinking about food the entire
time. The obsession became dangerous and disorienting. The medical student Zinaida Sedel’nikova wrote of “a
stomach war.” “I never thought that a
hungry stomach could dictate behavior so powerfully,” she wrote. People
developed a more acute sense of smell
and taste, a great disadvantage amid
the squalor and the degraded food,
with bread bulked out with sawdust.
Their reflexes slowed, and muscle control was reduced due to Vitamin B deficiency. Their eyesight deteriorated and
their legs weakened as they swelled, so
it became increasingly hard to stand
for endless hours in food lines or tow a
child’s sled with the corpse of a family
member to the cemetery or morgue.
Those privileged to receive a Category I ration card or enjoy access to
a Communist Party canteen were far
less likely to suffer. Only 15 percent
of Party members died, as opposed to
nearly 40 percent of the general population, and none of the nomenklatura
died from starvation. At the other end
of the scale, teenagers, who received the
lowest official ration as “dependents,”
were especially vulnerable. A Category
III ration card was known as a smertnik, or death certificate. Children, on
the other hand, were given priority
with a butter ration. Malnutrition, and
the stress within families over dividing
up the food, could produce paranoia.
Every crumb counted. Resentments
mounted and could destroy marriages.
Death was a relief to the sufferer and
all too often to the rest of the family,
which then had one less mouth to feed.
Grief and guilt would come only once
the famine was over and former emotions were restored.
The instinct of mothers to give part
of their own share of food to their children had to be balanced against the fact
that they were usually the ration collector, and if they fainted from hunger in
the street, the rest of the family might
die. Roles, however, were sometimes reversed, with quite young children trying
to care for parents who had collapsed.
Whole families as well as individuals
died unnoticed in frozen apartments.
One woman who searched for surviving children in apparently abandoned
dwellings was shocked at their indifference. “A person would be lying in bed
beside a dead family member, in a state
of complete torpor,” she wrote.
Dmitry Shostakovich during the siege of Leningrad, 1941
to obtain work in the food distribution network or in catering. In orphanages the staff stole from the children.
Workers in canteens never seemed to
lose much weight, prompting their customers to count how many pieces of
macaroni they could find in a bowl of
watery soup. But it was dangerous for
individuals to raise accusations against
people with such power. The only time
common outrage provoked collective
action was against people who jumped
a line outside a bakery.
Among the most despicable were
those who stole ration cards, thus condemning the rightful owner to death,
or those who snatched food from
the hands of the old or infirm as they
emerged from the store. Nobody went
to the aid of these victims for fear of
losing one’s place in line. There were
cases of people setting off air raid sirens to reduce the number of people
waiting ahead of them, or spreading
rumors of unlimited food available at
another store. People would step over
anyone who collapsed in line, while
those who fainted from hunger in the
street were liable to have their ration
card stolen.
Officials managing the evacuation
from the city across Lake Ladoga used
their position to extract bribes from
people wanting to leave. In times of
hunger, the possession of food has
always been both an important currency and a form of exploitable power.
Among the shuffling skeletons of
Leningrad, Peri writes, conspicuously
young women who had not suffered deprivation stood out. These included the
“cafeteria girls” and the sarcastically
named blokadnaia zhena, or “block-
suffered from swollen legs, infestations
of lice, and purple blotches from scurvy.
“Anyone who does not look starved is a
scoundrel,” wrote Izrail Metter.
The true extent of cannibalism during the siege is very hard to assess,
largely because lurid urban myths
spread about neighbors murdering
children to eat them. Some 1,700 people were arrested for the crime, but
there is a marked moral difference between eating the carcass of a person
who has already died and killing someone for his flesh. The authorities, however, firmly suppressed any mention of
either crime since both clearly undermined the Party line that the resistance
had been heroic.
Any idea of self-improvement toward
the New Soviet Person was grotesque
in the circumstances of Leningrad. Peri
brings out this contradiction well. From
1937 on the individual was responsible
for his own condition. Leningraders
were supposedly New Soviet People
“born in the fire of war,” according to
the journalist Nikolai Tikhonov. But
the notion of physical perfectibility was
taken to a grotesque conclusion after
the war when limbless veterans of the
Red Army, known as “samovars,” were
exiled from major cities and dumped
out of sight by a shockingly ungrateful
Sergey Yarov is rightly fascinated by
the minutiae of morality. In such conditions, a sense of right and wrong
became much more acute. Already
famished people who broke off part
of their bread ration and gave it to a
stranger in a worse state would be re-
membered warmly for their sacrifice.
Those on a Category I ration who
hoarded food for an emergency when
those around them were dying would
be seen as unforgivably selfish. This
clearly became an insane obsession: a
number of people starved to death because they didn’t dare touch their miserly reserves. The worst crime in the
eyes of almost everyone was to steal
food from children.
Yarov develops his examples under
such headings as “The concept of honesty,” “Charity,” “Attitudes to theft,”
and “The shifting boundaries of ethics.” He looks at moral choices, moral
imperatives, and moral blindness. Certain ethical dilemmas arose frequently.
Was it, for instance, worth wasting food
on somebody who was going to die anyway? Yarov is particularly good on how
standards shifted. “A part was played
also by the ‘collective’ nature of the
ordeal people were experiencing,” he
writes. “It was difficult to be the first to
decide to behave immorally, but once
that was being done by other citizens,
immoral acts did not seem so terrible.”
Several diarists were struck that, amid
the grandeur of former St. Petersburg,
they had been thrown back to a primitive
state. “We are like cave dwellers waiting
to see the sun,” wrote Dima Afanas’ev,
a sixth-grader. In her new book, Besieged Leningrad: Aesthetic Responses
to Urban Disaster, Polina Barskova uses
source material similar to Peri’s and
Yarov’s, but her purpose is to “assess
how people subjected to catastrophic
events relate to their cultural and physical environment.” Barskova has also edited Written in the Dark, a collection of
poems by five writers who experienced
the siege. One poem by Pavel Zaltsman
describes the “canteen girls”:
In heels and pilfered silks,
In the basement kitchens,
Stirring pots and cooking meals,
Stand the most vile creatures.
And these creatures paint their lips
Over cow’s tongue gathered,
As, abundantly, the milk
Fills their breasts, unwithered.
Gennady Gor, a science fiction writer
and art historian, astonished those who
had known him with the savagery of his
siege poems when they were discovered
after his death:
I ate Rebecca the girl full of
A raven looked down at my
hideous dinner.
A raven looked down at me like at
At how slowly this human was
eating that human.
A raven looked down but it was
for nothing,
I didn’t throw it that arm of
Amid the horrors and heartlessness,
as in all the most appalling episodes
of World War II, the stories of selfsacrifice and unpredictable compassion from strangers just manage to save
the reader from complete despair at the
human race. A Red Army officer took
pity on a schoolgirl, G. N. Ignatova.
“He took me to the army commanders’
dining room and gave me his meal,” she
recounted. “He sat there, crying. Later
I was told two of his children were in
[German] occupied territory.”
The New York Review
An Anglo-Irish Cicero
Alan Ryan
Richard Bourke’s book, as its subtitle
says, is an account of Edmund Burke’s
political life, but he provides enough
biography to allow the reader to see
Burke in the round and appreciate
the extraordinary range of talents that
he possessed. Dr. Johnson famously
observed, “You could not stand five
minutes with that man beneath a shed
while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the
greatest man you had ever yet seen.”
Burke’s origins were respectable but
far from grand; his father was a Dublin lawyer, and his relatives included
Catholic minor gentry, which made
him vulnerable throughout his career
to the charge that he was a covert Catholic. Born in 1730, he made his mark
in his teens as a student at Trinity College, Dublin, but soon left Ireland for
London, and before he was thirty was a
considerable literary figure, the author
of A Vindication of Natural Society, a
satirical attack on religious skepticism,
and A Philosophical Enquiry into the
Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and
Beautiful, a work that students of aesthetics still turn to for its portrayal of
our emotional responses to beauty in
art and to the sublimity of nature. In
1758, he accepted the invitation of the
publishers James and Robert Dodsley
to edit (and write a large part of) the
newly founded Annual Register, a review of the year’s events in politics, history, and literature. Burke could turn
his hand to all of these, and he helped
to edit the Register for the next three
decades; the Register still exists, and
serves the same purpose.
However, Burke wanted to make
his name in politics. In 1759 he began
a miserable six years as private secretary to William Gerard Hamilton, the
chief secretary for Ireland. But in 1765
he took the step that determined his
career. He became private secretary to
the Marquess of Rockingham, a Whig
grandee who had surprisingly been
asked to form a government in spite of
lacking any experience in the great offices of state.
Through Rockingham’s influence,
Burke was found a seat in the House of
Commons as member for Wendover;
on December 24, 1765, he reported,
“Yesterday I was elected for Wendover, got very drunk, and this day
have a heavy cold.” The period was,
to say the least, politically turbulent.
George III had come to the throne in
1760, eager to have a more active part
in politics than his predecessors; the
immediate result was a rapid turnover
of governments as leaders gained and
lost royal favor. The labels of Whig
and Tory meant little; willingness to
follow the king’s wishes meant more;
but personal connections and antipathies determined the fate of ministries
and their policies as well. Not until
Lord North—by then a Tory—became
prime minister in 1770 was there a
stable ministry enjoying the support of
both king and Parliament. The longevity of North’s ministry was perhaps its
January 18, 2018
greatest achievement, although he is
remembered today only for the loss of
the American colonies.
The Rockingham ministry lasted
barely twelve months, and Burke spent
all but a few months of his career as a
Whig on the opposition benches. Opposition had its virtues; assailing government policy on America, India, and
France, he could write with a freedom
that would have been harder to sustain
while defending a government of which
he was part. Burke was at the center
of British political life for almost the
entire final third of the eighteenth century. In those years, Britain digested its
decide whether Britain was a genuine
monarchy, ruled by a sovereign with
the aid of his advisers, or a republic
ruled by ministers answerable to Parliament in which the hereditary head of
state had a definite but limited part, in
effect serving as a hereditary president.
George III wished to remodel the system in a monarchical direction; Burke
was among those who wished to prevent him from doing so.
Misleadingly for modern readers,
periods when the House of Commons was dominant were described
by eighteenth- century observers—as
Burke himself put it—as the reign of
Siegfried Woldhek
Empire and Revolution:
The Political Life of Edmund Burke
by Richard Bourke.
Princeton University Press,
1,001 pp., $29.95 (paper)
Edmund Burke
gains from the Seven Years’ War—better known to Americans as the French
and Indian War—lost its American
colonies, consolidated its hold on
India, found the governance of Ireland
an insoluble puzzle, struggled with the
closely related issue of the civil rights
of Catholics and Dissenters, and approached the end of the century at war
with Revolutionary France.
Meanwhile, forces that Burke only
half-reckoned with were stirring.
There was an increasingly evident
mismatch between the system of parliamentary representation controlled
by landholding aristocrats and the new
commercial and industrial realities.
Birmingham, already the third-largest
city in Britain and the heart of the industrial revolution, had no members
representing it in Parliament, while
Old Sarum, a deserted village outside
Salisbury, sent two MPs. Not long before the end of Burke’s parliamentary
career, the young Charles Grey, who
worked with Burke on the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the corrupt
governor of India, introduced a bill into
the House of Commons to modestly
reform the system. Forty years later, as
the second Earl Grey, he was central
in the passage of the Great Reform
Act of 1832.
he political system that had to handle all these issues was unlike any
other. It was, as Richard Bourke repeatedly reminds us, a parliamentary
monarchy. Just what that was puzzled
many eighteenth-century observers,
especially Europeans. They could not
“democracy.” The popular vote only
partly determined who ruled. Burke
saw the British political system as
a “mixed regime” in which Crown,
Lords, and Commons were together
sovereign; the division of sovereign authority meant that each could serve as
a check on the others, and both political stability and executive effectiveness
demanded a willingness to cooperate with opponents across party lines.
The elected lower house provided the
“democratic” element, the House of
Lords the aristocratic element, and the
king the monarchical element.
On the face of it, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when James II was
evicted and William III installed in
his place, meant that Parliament was
sovereign. William III owed his crown
to Parliament’s vote. But the Crown
disposed of immense powers of patronage, and members of Parliament
were no more immune to the offers of
sinecure positions for themselves and
their families than anyone else has
been. Believing that the influence of
the Crown had gone too far, Burke favored limiting it. Nonetheless, he was
sure that the British Constitution was
uniquely favorable to the freedom of
its subjects; a mixed regime, he argued,
reflected a pluralist society. In creating
their own constitution, the newly independent Americans paid it the tribute
of emulating the structure of the mixed
regime while eliminating the hereditary elements that were central to the
system that Burke spent his political
energies defending.
Burke did not think the American
Founding Fathers were simply wrong to
abandon the hereditary principle. He
thought that England was lucky to have
the right kind of hereditary governing
class but late in life said that the American Constitution was the right model
for the peoples of the New World. That
probably extended to the inhabitants
of Canada. He certainly thought well
of federalism, and approved of the
American concern to provide checks
on executive power and to ensure the
rule of law.
Burke’s defense of the British aristocracy was characteristically subtle. In
the original Aristotelian sense, aristocracy was government by hoi aristoi, “the
best men.” If they were committed to a
life of public service, as Burke thought
they should be, a wealthy landed nobility was a great asset; but so too were
men of talent, scientists, artists, and literary figures. A society committed to
social mobility would allow such men
to rise to positions of influence. Burke,
of course, was such a man.
This was the “open aristocracy” that
Montesquieu before and Tocqueville
after Burke praised, and all three drew
a contrast with the French aristocracy,
which was more nearly a closed caste,
one that had become politically irrelevant under the absolute monarchy, and
had been compensated for its political
impotence with financial privileges
that made the aristocracy obnoxious to
the common people. Not all varieties
of open aristocracy were acceptable;
Burke thought a government of oligarchs drawn from the lowest ranks of
society was the worst of regimes. One
of the counts against the French Revolution was that it had created such a regime, as ambitious parvenus looted the
resources of the church and the property of the old aristocracy. It is easy to
imagine what Burke’s reactions would
have been to post- Soviet Russia.
The British parliamentary monarchy had come into existence in its
eighteenth-century form after the last
Roman Catholic monarch had been
driven into exile; it then survived two
attempts to restore James II’s Stuart heirs in 1715 and 1745. Its success
was no sure thing. Burke was fifteen
years old when the second uprising
to restore the Stuarts took place, and
his later emphasis on the fragility of
British political arrangements was not
solely a rhetorical device designed to
frighten advocates of change. His fear
was deeply felt. But the direction from
which Burke anticipated threats to the
delicate machinery of shared power
changed over the years. In his early
years in the House of Commons, he
opposed George III and his allies. At
the end of his life he warned against
French Revolutionaries and the English friends of the French Revolution.
He was not in general apprehensive
about “the people out of doors,” which
is to say the great majority of the population who had no part in day-to-day political life. He was, as his Reflections on
the Revolution in France makes plain,
very apprehensive about intellectuals,
lawyers, politicians, and demagogues
whose misguided ideas and unbridled
ambition might lead the lower classes
astray and turn politics into mob rule.
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Bourke’s book is nothing
if not ambitious. He sets out both to
track Edmund Burke through every
last inch of his political and parliamentary career and to track the sources
of his thinking through philosophers,
historians, and lawyers from Aristotle
and Cicero to John Locke and beyond.
Burke spent most of his political career in opposition, and the story of his
parliamentary and extraparliamentary
maneuvering to try to assemble a winning coalition has a certain melancholy quality. The same is not true of
his writings, which even at their most
embittered have tremendous verve.
Whatever else his Reflections on the
Revolution in France may be, it is written in captivating prose.
Almost every popular account of
Burke asks whether he was a liberal or a
conservative—on the left or on the right.
His confrontation with Thomas Paine
in the 1790s over the French Revolution
and the rights of man makes the temptation to frame the question in such terms
almost overwhelming. Paine insisted
that every generation had the right to
choose its own form of government. Hereditary monarchy was irrational, and
reverence for tradition allowed the dead
to rule the living. The French were exercising the right to remake their form
of government that the Americans had
exercised in 1776. Burke thought that the
Revolutionaries had opened the door to
anarchy and bloodshed, and was proved
right by events. Their confrontation is
often portrayed as a victory for conservatism over liberalism; but we should beware of anachronism. It was only in 1865
that a British Liberal Party, dedicated to
free trade, gradual enlargement of the
franchise, and peace abroad, fought an
election under the “Liberal Party” label.
Burke was a “reform Whig,” which
is to say he looked to governments to
provide efficient and uncorrupt administration, promote security and prosperity for everyone, and include economic
interests beyond those of the traditional
aristocracy. He wanted to diminish and
eventually abolish the law and customs
limiting the rights of Dissenters and
Catholics. He shared Adam Smith’s
view of the benefits of free trade and the
obstacles to trade caused by the kind of
minute regulation that the French engaged in. He was a believer in progress.
When he sneers at enlightened opinion
in the Reflections, it is utopian rationalism he attacks, not reasoned argument.
Burke’s writings defend the ideal of a
government of laws; they are above all
hostile to arbitrary authority. The British system at its best preserved a delicate balance between autocracy and
democracy; tipped one way it would
become the royal despotism that the
Whigs feared James II had meant to
install, tipped the other, it would succumb to populist pressures that could
also lead to despotism, just as the Civil
War of the 1640s led to the military
dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell. Readers of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France are often astonished
by his thoughts about the likelihood
of the Revolution ending as a military
autocracy; they seem to anticipate Napoleon’s rise to power years later. In
fact, Burke was drawing a moral from
Britain’s 1640s. His constant thought
was that those years of civil war and the
rule of Oliver Cromwell were a political disaster, while the peaceful changes
in the 1680s were a political success:
a revolution that would preserve the
monarchy, confirm the sovereignty of
Parliament, and protect the rights of
Protestant sects, though not to the extent of conceding full political rights to
non-Trinitarian Dissenters.
ourke makes some telling criticisms
of Burke, particularly of his acceptance
of the right of conquest. Burke was savage in his indictment of the greed and
cruelty of the East India Company’s
government of India, and not much less
savage about the misgovernment by
the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland.
It is easy to think of him as an “antiimperialist,” comparable to EnlightenJames Sayers/British Library Board/Bridgeman Images
menace if their ambition was aroused
and then thwarted.
Edmund Burke as Cicero, attempting to
impeach Warren Hastings, the former
governor of Bengal, 1786
ment anti-imperialists such as Diderot.
But Burke’s view was different. He
said that he felt the loss of America as
the loss of half his own self, and died
lamenting the prospect that the contagion of the French Revolution might
mean the loss of the remainder of the
Empire. He was unabashed in defending the British Empire as legitimately
acquired and held by right of conquest.
A country was justified, he believed,
in acquiring an empire by force when it
intended to pursue what was called in
the late nineteenth century a civilizing
mission. John Stuart Mill justified the
“despotic” rule of the British in India
as an educational process by which
the native population would become
self-governing citizens of a liberal
state. This was not what Burke had in
mind. The concept of an imperialism
that would extinguish itself by its own
success was entirely alien to him. In
his view the title to rule was based on
the fact of conquest. It was, for him, a
title acknowledged in international law,
with a very long historical pedigree.
Nonetheless, if empires originated
in conquest, Burke argued, they could
not and must not continue as they had
begun. They must attend to the needs
of the populations over which they exercised their dominion, and thereby
secure their acquiescence; this was the
point at which prudence and morality
coincided. One could not expect a population to accept as legitimate a regime
that treated them as a beaten military
foe or as slaves to be exploited as their
conquerors felt inclined. They must be
well governed, with due but not excessive respect for their own conception of
their physical and emotional welfare.
This was not very different from
David Hume’s view that most governments originate in force and fraud and
are then legitimated by the habit of
obedience. It was very different from
what was then the radical view that just
as slaves retain the natural right to free
themselves if they can, a conquered
people is entitled to recover its freedom
when the chance presents itself. This
was John Locke’s view, and the view
that radicals continued to hold in the
1790s. One implication, embraced by
Thomas Paine and others and attacked
by Burke, was that since the common
people had never been asked to consent
to the government under which they
lived, they were in the position of a conquered people; they were entitled to recover their liberty and reconstitute their
government when they had the chance.
English radicals sometimes invoked
the idea of “the Norman Yoke,” arguing that Anglo-Saxon liberty had been
extinguished by the Norman Conquest,
but their ancient freedom remained
the birthright of Englishmen. Burke
thought all this was pernicious nonsense.
he running theme that gives intellectual coherence to Burke’s career
against the background of the none-toocoherent processes by which governing
coalitions were formed and dissolved in
the late eighteenth century is his attachment to an ideal of balance—a view that
accounts for his hostility to George III
as much as his later hostility to French
Revolutionaries and their English allies. Because it is so easy to read Burke
“backward,” and think that his admiration for Marie Antoinette in his Reflections meant that he was starstruck by the
spectacle of royal grandeur, it is easy to
overlook the depth of his opposition to
royal overreaching. It seemed to him that
the danger of England’s parliamentary
monarchy was that it might tip over into
the royal absolutism of other European
monarchies. Bourke reminds us that in
the mid-eighteenth century Adolf Frederick of Sweden set out to abolish the
parliamentary system that had been
forced on Queen Ulrika Eleonora in
1719, and in 1772 Gustav III succeeded
in reestablishing royal autocracy. Since
George III was eager to establish a
much more active monarchy when he
came to the throne in 1760, Burke’s
apprehensions were well founded.
Burke’s concern to preserve constitutional balance underlay his defense
of political parties. His definition of a
political party—a body of men united
by a conception of the public interest—underlines the contrast between
Burkean high-mindedness and the
self-interested brawling of parties
today. But Burke did not have anything
like modern political parties in mind.
What he saw of the first modern political party, the American DemocraticRepublican Party created by Madison,
he did not like. His own conception was
of a coherent group of parliamentary
allies, able to formulate and press for
policies in the public interest. Such policies for Burke would have prevented
the American Revolution or an approach to Catholic Emancipation.
His aim was the so-called “patriot”
view that the country should be led
by a man “above party.” Purely selfish factions were self-evidently bad; a
mixed constitution required parties of
principle, pushing on the one side toward greater “democracy,” and on the
other toward the enhancement of royal
The New York Review
authority. Parties needed to remain
united for electoral purposes only up to
a point, since many party leaders were
members of the House of Lords, and
others had safe seats in the Commons
representing the “rotten” or “pocket”
boroughs controlled by the grandees
of their party. Burke won and subsequently lost a competitive election in
Bristol, but he was safe enough, first
as member for Wendover in Buckinghamshire and then for Malton in Yorkshire, both seats controlled by allies of
his patron the Marquess of Rockingham. Finding safe seats in the House of
Commons for people who are needed
in government is still one of the tasks of
the leaders of British political parties.
Burke saw himself as an eighteenthcentury Cicero. In the first century
BCE , Cicero had been a novus homo,
a “new man” who worked his way up
to the highest ranks of Roman politics
by ability and hard work, and by serving the entrenched ruling families; and
Burke saw himself as a man who could
assist, encourage, and sometimes berate his noble leaders.
Nor was it only early in his career that
he took Cicero as a rhetorical model.
For seven years from 1788, Burke led
the unsuccessful attempts to impeach
the former governor of Bengal, Sir
Warren Hastings, for mismanagement,
brutality, and unlawful personal enrichment. When the case against Hastings collapsed two years before Burke’s
death in 1797, he remarked bitterly that
the English did not care how badly
Hastings had behaved, whereas Cicero
knew that the public was on his side
when he made his name by prosecuting
Verres, the governor of Sicily.
entered Parliament in 1765,
and for the next seventeen years he was
preoccupied with the fate of Britain’s
American colonies. Empire and Revolution shows how real was the fear that
the weakening of British power caused
by the failure in America would allow
the French to recover their losses in
India from the Seven Years’ War at
the same time the American colonies
secured their independence. Britain
would be losing its empire both in the
East and the West. Defeat on the Ohio,
so George III and his ministers feared,
would lead to defeat on the Ganges.
During the long-drawn-out slackening of Britain’s grasp on its American
colonies, Burke was at his best as a political analyst. He was very slow to accept that the colonies were irreparably
lost, adjusting his ideas of what might
be done to avoid that disaster as affairs
worsened. He never denied there was
a tension between the legislative supremacy of the British Parliament as a
matter of law and the needs of distant
and increasingly strong-willed colonies
to depend on their own local management. A mark of Burke’s superior political intelligence was his highly plausible
theory of government at a distance—
governments ought not to attempt to
govern colonies in detail. It was impossible to incorporate the colonies into
the British state; three thousand miles
of ocean forbade it. It was equally impossible to exercise a despotic rule over
such spirited people; they were, after
all, defending English liberty.
Burke was not enamored of the behavior of the colonists; he called the
council that sprang up in Boston after
the official council had been dissolved
“a ‘Vermin’ substitute.” Nonetheless,
as his wonderful speech on conciliation with America demonstrates, he
was desperate to avoid a complete
separation. He admired the energy of
the Americans, thought the time might
come when Britain would benefit from
friendly relations with America, and
clung to the hope that wiser policies
would preserve the imperial tie.
When those hopes were dashed, he
accepted that independence was the
only answer. The success of the American Revolution raises the old question
of whether Burke’s approval of it was
consistent with his outraged reaction
to the French Revolution. Burke’s initial response to the French Revolution
was in fact optimistic. It was, he briefly
felt, impossible not to admire the spirit
of the French; perhaps 1789 might be
a French 1688. He changed his mind
almost at once. It was the implications for British politics that alarmed
him, as Richard Bourke makes clear.
The target of Burke’s Reflections was
the Reverend Richard Price, a Unitarian minister, who, in a sermon on the
love of country, claimed that we have a
natural right to choose our rulers and
to cashier them for misconduct. Burke,
of course, thought we had no such
right. What was less clear, and what his
long battle against Thomas Paine and
Rights of Man never completely clarified, was what rights Burke was willing
to recognize.
In Bourke’s account, Burke believed
that we have a natural right of resistance. A sufficient degree of misgovernment dissolves allegiance, and we
may resort to self-help. This is when the
common people have an important part
in politics, one that is essentially defensive. This was the American situation.
Constructing a system of government
and making it work was something else,
not a question of natural right, but of
skilled artifice; it was a matter of prudence. Like Gouverneur Morris, Burke
agreed that “the people” were the
source of authority, but this, he thought,
gave the mass of the population no particular title to determine how authority
was to be exercised. Paine and Price, to
be consistent, had to think of political
representation as personal representation, from which one-person- one-vote
follows rather swiftly. Burke thought legitimate interests, not persons, should
be represented.
What might Burke make of contemporary British politics? It seems a safe
bet that he would have been appalled
by David Cameron’s misjudgment in
calling a referendum to decide whether
the United Kingdom should remain
a member of the European Union. A
parliamentary monarchy, even one
in which the prime minister exercises
the royal prerogative in the sovereign’s
name, has no place for referendum.
The task of government is to determine
what is in the best interests of the nation and to govern accordingly; calling
a referendum in a panic and scuttling
off after it all went wrong is the antithesis of the responsible statesmanship
that Burke called for. As for what he
might have made of Donald Trump,
words fail. Burke had an eye for rich
adventurers who bought seats in Parliament on returning from India; but that
someone like Trump would rise to supreme power would not have occurred
to him.
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January 18, 2018
Backing Into the Spotlight
Fintan O’Toole
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Getty Images
Keeping On Keeping On
by Alan Bennett.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
722 pp., $40.00
Balancing Acts:
Behind the Scenes at
London’s National Theatre
by Nicholas Hytner.
Knopf, 312 pp., $28.95
Last summer, I saw a fine production of
Alan Bennett’s best-known play, The
Madness of George III, at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.
I had read the play before but knew it
mostly from Nicholas Hytner’s 1994
film version in which, as Hytner puts
it in his engaging and illuminating theatrical memoir Balancing Acts, Nigel
Hawthorne’s imperious monarch movingly “descends into babbling incontinence.” But I always had a problem with
the play. It openly invokes King Lear,
but compared to that terrifying journey
into the dark heart of a deranged state,
it seemed too soft. Bennett’s drama,
though full of tender compassion and
rueful melancholy, appeared in the end
to treat the king’s madness as a colorful
historical episode, not as a metaphor
for unhinged authority.
Yet watching it a year after Britain
voted to leave the European Union and
a month after Theresa May lost her authority in a disastrous general election,
The Madness of George III seemed
precisely that: a perfect theatrical
metaphor for a national nervous breakdown that does not rise to the heights
of tragedy but rather, in its babbling
incontinence, teeters closer to both farcical absurdity and quiet despair. Suddenly, Alan Bennett does not seem so
soft after all. In his new collection of
diaries and autobiographical essays, it
becomes ever clearer that he has long
been onto something that eluded other,
apparently more politically acute, English writers.
n July 2007, The Guardian published
an opinion piece by the distinguished
Marxist critic Terry Eagleton in which
he lamented the loss of the great tradition of English radical literature and
the absence of contemporary heirs to
Percy Shelley and William Blake: “For
almost the first time in two centuries,
there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question
the foundations of the western way of
life.”* He made “an honourable exception” of Harold Pinter on the grounds
that “being a champagne socialist is
better than being no socialist at all,”
but made no mention of Bennett.
Bennett records in the diary that
forms half of Keeping On Keeping On
that if he used e-mail (which as a confirmed Luddite he does not) he would
send Eagleton or The Guardian a oneword message: “Ahem.” He has recently returned from a cold, wet, and
sparsely attended protest against the
US military presence at a Royal Air
Force base outside Harrogate: “I’m not
sure if this means that in Eagleton’s
view I don’t qualify because of my ab*“Only Pinter Remains,” The Guardian, July 6, 2007.
Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, and Alan Bennett
performing in Beyond the Fringe, 1964
sence of eminence or because such protests as I take part in are too sporadic
and low-profile to be noticed.”
It may, at first glance, seem odd that
Bennett thinks of himself as a writer
in the radical English tradition, even
though, while Eagleton scorned David
Hare and Salman Rushdie for accepting knighthoods, Bennett had declined
the honor when it was offered to him
in 1996. (He also refused an honorary
doctorate from his alma mater, Oxford
University, because it had established
a Rupert Murdoch Chair of Language
and Communication.) The plays for
which he is best known—The Madness of George III, The History Boys,
The Lady in the Van—seem rather
more inclined to celebrate an English
tolerance for individual oddity than to
rage against the established order of
things. The mental disturbance of King
George or of Miss Shepherd, the lady
who lived in a dilapidated old van she
parked in front of Bennett’s house in
London, draws out his lovable qualities
of kindness and forbearance. It is not
threatening. In his previous volume of
diaries and memoirs, Untold Stories,
Bennett wrote beautifully of his mother’s struggles with mental illness. Even
in a psychotic state, she practiced a restrained kind of madness:
Certainly in all her excursions into
unreality Mam remained the shy,
unassuming woman she had always
been, none of her fantasies extravagant, her claims, however irrational they might be, always modest.
She might be ill, disturbed, mad
even, but she still knew her place.
Something of the same modesty
clings to Bennett’s public persona and
in part explains his great popularity in
England. Nicholas Hytner describes
Bennett the playwright as “a stylist as
demanding as Oscar Wilde.” He does
indeed have an aphoristic wit, but dazzling Wildean display is not his manner. The polite, understated “Ahem”
that he did not utter in protest at Eagleton’s implicit dismissal of his claims to
being a writer of political consequence
chimes well with the English suspicion
of volubility. Bennett’s Englishness
is marked by verbal, emotional, and
imaginative restraint. “It is not good to
talk,” he notes in his diary in October
2006. “Most of the time it’s better to
keep quiet.” Hytner, who also directed
the original stage production of The
Madness of George III at the National
Theatre in London in 1991, experienced this aversion to effusion:
“What do you think it’s about,
“It’s about the madness of
George III.”
When a pretty girl, apparently rather
too wrapped up in her own beauty,
crosses the road irritatingly slowly in
front of Bennett and his partner, Rupert Thomas, the long-serving editor
of The World of Interiors, a Condé
Nast design magazine based in London, he is tempted to roll down the
car window and shout at her, “Listen.
We’re nancies. Big tits mean nothing
to us.” But of course he doesn’t. His
blurting is all interior: part of the pleasure of his diaries is the sense that he
tells them things he would never say
out loud.
Yet this understatement is still a statement, a mode of privacy transmuted
into a very recognizable public persona.
The diaries, after all, are published annually in the London Review of Books
and collected in hefty volumes. We must
remember that Bennett first came to
notice in 1960 as a performer in the famous satiric review Beyond the Fringe,
albeit as the deadpan foil to the flamboyant Peter Cook, Dudley Moore,
and Jonathan Miller. His dryly laconic
Yorkshire tones and bespectacled ordinariness have become paradoxically
iconic. As Hytner writes, “Most actors
can do Alan . . . not just his voice and
mannerisms, but his wry melancholy
and boundless empathy.” His very lack
of glamour is itself the obverse side of
fame, a way of backing into the spotlight.
But being understated also means
that, as a political figure, Bennett is
greatly undervalued. He can seem almost like a creature from The Wind in
the Willows, which, at Hytner’s suggestion, he successfully adapted for the
stage—a cute denizen of an imaginary
and long-vanished English landscape.
In an entry from his diary for September 2006, he records the experience of
making supper while idly listening to
an arts review program on BBC radio.
Out of nowhere,
some Scottish woman in the course
of telling off the novelist Mark
Haddon accuses him of “Alan
Bennettish tweeness.” It’s not a serious injury to my self-esteem but
rather as if someone passing me in
the street has just turned back to
give me a flying kick up the bum
and then gone on their way. I hope
for some mild objection from one
of the other participants but none
is forthcoming so perhaps I’m now
tweeness’s accepted measure.
If not tweeness, then whimsicality.
In March 2013, Bennett is in the post
office in the picturesque Suffolk village of Yoxford. There “an ancient customer recognises me and shakes me so
firmly by the hand it’s like being caught
in a mangle. ‘Say something whimsical’,
he commands.” Bennett in his eighties
has become a very English kind of national treasure, which is to say a nicely
unobtrusive piece of old jewelry that
can be taken out of the drawer when
the nation wants to be reminded of its
more solid, unpretentious self. He possesses a peculiarly unimposing eminence. (“Well,” a woman tells him as
she lets him through the barriers at an
event, “you’re a celebrity yourself . . . or
on the celebrity side anyway.”) No matter how much he protests or rages, he is
all too aware that his compatriots are
determined to see him as droll, lovable,
and above all unthreatening:
I shall still be thought to be kindly,
cosy and essentially harmless. I
am in the pigeon-hole marked “no
threat” and did I stab Judi Dench
with a pitchfork I should still be a
teddy bear.
To an extent, Bennett does enjoy
playing up the persona of the superanThe New York Review
Keeping On Keeping On and its
earlier companion volumes do indeed
constitute a kind of Anglo- Saxon
chronicle. Bennett is English, not British. Scotland is another country: “In
Glasgow nobody’s heard of me anyway.” “‘Brits,’” he notes disdainfully
in 2010, “—so much of what is hateful
about the world since Mrs Thatcher
in that gritty hard little word.” But his
England is not so much a place, more
an obscure object of desire. In Untold
Stories, Bennett wrote about his Aunty
Myra, who “determined that if her present did not amount to much . . . then the
past could be called in to compensate.”
Bennett would love to be able to
make the same determination. When
he visits a church in Walpole St Peter,
“nothing seems to have been lost, nothing spoilt.” As a medieval historian by
Antony Crolla
nuated remnant of a bygone country,
peering myopically and uncomprehendingly at the contemporary world.
In June 2005, he sees a woman walking along the street with a handkerchief
pressed to her mouth and surmises that
she must be on her way home from a
painful visit to the dentist. Then he realizes that it’s not a handkerchief that’s
pressed to her mouth—it’s her mobile
phone. He buys a bottle of organic wine
and is pleased by the label’s claim that
it is “Suitable for Vegetarians and Vagrants,” glad to see the needs of derelict winos so openly acknowledged.
But of course when he looks again, the
label says “Vegans,” not “Vagrants.”
In 2010, on a visit to Finchale Priory
in rustic Durham, he admires the old
lichens growing on the path leading
to the south door, only to realize that
they are, in fact, bits of spat- out chewing gum.
though this self- deprecating
humor feeds the cuddly and reassuring
image, Bennett is in fact much happier
when Rupert tells him, as they watch a
movie of Wuthering Heights, “You’re
rather like Heathcliff.” “Really?”
“Yeah. Difficult, Northern and a cunt.”
But he is deemed, and perhaps doomed,
to be more teddy bear than Northern
cunt, to be liked and even loved but not
to be taken quite seriously as a political
or public figure.
Unless, that is, Brexit alerts us to
the remarkable truth that Bennett’s
funny, laconic, apparently quirky, and
(yes) whimsical memoirs and diaries
have an epic, tragic, and deeply political theme: the unavailing search for an
idea of England. Keeping On Keeping
On is the third volume of these writings, after Writing Home and Untold
Stories. The diary part of it ends with a
postscript for June 23, 2016, the day of
the Brexit referendum, before the momentous result is known. It says little:
“Well, we shall see.” But it acts as a
powerful recoil, for it is now difficult
not to see, in the crisis of Englishness
that Bennett has been recording for
thirty years, a personal and intimate
charting of the underground fault lines
that would eventually create that great
In April 2008, when Bennett has just
given his notebooks and manuscripts
to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, he is delighted by a phone call
from the keeper of special collections:
“I thought you would like to know that
this evening your MSS are reposing in
Bodley’s strongroom on the next shelf
to the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle.” Later,
at a public reception in Oxford to mark
the gift, Bennett tells this story and adds
a dryly comic twist: “The only other
time in my life when I’d been in such
proximity to ancient memories was one
evening in New York when I’d found
myself sitting next to Bette Davis.”
But he is enough of an Anglo- Saxon
to compare the destruction of the industrial heartlands of his beloved North
of England by Margaret Thatcher’s
monetarist revolution to the harrying
of the North by the invading Normans
in the eleventh century. Recalling a
trip from Hull to Liverpool around
1990, he evokes “a trail of devastation,
decay and manufacturing slump that
stretched from coast to coast” and adds:
“It struck me then that no one had done
such systematic damage to the North
since William the Conquerer.”
January 18, 2018
Alan Bennett, London
training and a traditionalist by instinct,
he would be happy to be able to say the
same for England as a whole. Bennett
describes his politics as a “blend of
backward-looking radicalism and conservative socialism.” In another writer,
each of these terms might seem an
oxymoron, but for him they are accurate evocations of a kind of desolation.
For, much as he might wish otherwise,
something has been lost, something
spoilt, and that something is not just an
old man’s youth. It is England itself.
Nations, of course, are never anything but lost. And Bennett’s sense of
loss is not recent. His first play, Forty
Years On, written when he was thirtyfour, was set in an old mansion called
Albion House—the state- of-England
metaphor being perhaps all too obvious. It is already valedictory: “a lament for an England that has gone.”
Bennett’s Englishness, moreover, is
best expressed in his rendering of monarchs (George III or the present Queen
Elizabeth, who is portrayed in the novella The Uncommon Reader with a
perfect mix of lèse-majesté and affection) or traitors (in The Old Country
and An Englishman Abroad)—or ideally by both together, as in A Question
of Attribution, which brings the queen
together with her perfidious keeper of
paintings, Anthony Blunt. It is as if the
country can best be seen either from
above or from the great beyond of treason, never quite in its day-to- day self.
In his Yorkshire boyhood, as again
in middle and old age, Bennett haunted
medieval churches, drawn to their odd
remnants of a vanished Catholic world,
to “the dregs of history,” the accidental
survivals of the Reformation and the
dissolution of the monasteries. This
attraction to poignant survivals is part
of what makes so touching what could
otherwise be unbearably dull and precious—the many diary entries in which
Bennett and Rupert drive to some rustic
old church, admire the medieval rood
lofts, spy out some obscure tracery, or
complain about some botched restoration job, then eat their homemade
sandwiches. Bennett is not really an
antiquarian. He is well aware that these
churches are not some kind of hidden
essence of the real England. They are
merely, as he suggests at one point, “a
metaphor for an ex-England maybe.”
Ex-England is Bennett’s country. Or as
he fears, “England dismantled.”
Even as he consumes English heritage, Bennett is acutely conscious of,
and very funny about, the way this heritage has been repackaged for consumption. The countryside he loves is “now
renovated and bijou- d.” For all the
accusations of “Alan Bennettish tweeness,” he is in truth hilariously alert to
the self- consciously quaint. “The village shop” in Lacock, Wiltshire is, he
notes deadpan, “handily named The
Village Shop.” He sees in the urban
customers drawn to the farmers’ markets and trendy cheese shops that have
occupied those villages “the middle
class . . . hugging themselves in selfcongratulation at the perfection of their
lives.” At one point, while painting a
wall in his house, he thinks of images
he’s seen on television of IRA men held
at the notorious Maze Prison in Northern Ireland during their “dirty protest”
in the 1970s and 1980s, smearing excrement on the walls of their cells: “I was
invariably struck by what a nice warm
and varied shade the protester had
achieved. ‘Maze brown’ I suppose Farrow & Ball would tastefully have called
it”—Farrow and Ball paints being the
wonderfully expensive expressions of
an imagined English tradition of exquisitely understated elegance.
On the surface, Bennett’s sense of
dislocation is merely aesthetic. He
sometimes sounds like Prince Charles
in his grumbling about modern architects and “the dismal record of mediocre architecture which has ruined
so many English towns.” He bemoans
“the nastification of England” as a
matter of “bad windows, crude pointing, poor stonework.” But it is really
the political architecture that he has
fallen out of love with. His lament for
England is not a mere tragedy of manners. It is a mourning for “a society systematically broken by Mrs Thatcher”
and not adequately rebuilt by Tony
Blair’s New Labour project. When
Blair, on his retirement as prime minister in May 2007, claims that he leaves
behind “a country . . . at home in its
own skin,” Bennett is enraged: “This is
virtually the opposite of what the last
five years in particular have made me
feel.” Bennett is supposed to embody a
cozy kind of Englishness, but in fact he
comes to represent a country that is not
at all at home in its own skin, a nation
retreating before the onslaught of a rapacious capitalism: “Less and less are
we a nation and more and more just a
captive market to be exploited.”
The closer Keeping On Keeping On
comes to the present time from its beginnings in 2005, the more evident this
becomes. Near the start, in a diary
entry of March 2005, Bennett refers to
“all one’s complicated feelings about
England I hold back,” but that incli-
nation to hold back quickly loses its
grip. Four months later he is already
broaching the possibility that he might
be “ashamed to be English.” This is almost as shocking as if it were uttered
in her Christmas message by the queen
herself. One cannot but feel a pang of
pity for a country whose love for this
national treasure is becoming more
and more bluntly unrequited.
he drama of Keeping On Keeping On
is that the reader begins to realize that
the past Bennett is so touchingly and so
hopelessly searching for is not actually
all that long gone. It is not quaint villages and medieval stained glass. It is
social democracy. It is England not as
a mystical nation but as a functioning
and nurturing state. The fragments to
which he is really drawn are the poignant survivors, not of Henry VIII’s
dissolution of the Catholic monasteries
and the destruction of the old religion’s
physical imagery, but of the neoliberal
revolution of the 1980s. In a sermon
he delivered in Cambridge in 2014, the
text of which is published in the book,
he comes to the realization that his
haunting of old churches is really a personal political metaphor:
In my bleaker moments these
shards of history seem to me emblematic obviously of what has
happened to England in the past
but also a reminder and a warning
of what in other respects is continuing to happen in the present,
with the fabric of the state and the
welfare state in particular stealthily dismantled as once the fabric of
churches more rudely was, sold off,
farmed out; another Dissolution.
This would be an odd, one might even
say a whimsical, conjunction, were it
not also a moving and meaningful one.
When Bennett is looking at fifteenthcentury bench ends or alabaster tomb
chests or the fragments of stained glass
that were sufficiently inaccessible to escape the Puritan iconoclast’s hammer,
he is actually seeing the fragments of
social democracy: public libraries, free
universities, the national health service.
Since his country is the welfare state,
it is not surprising that his England is
becoming an ex-England, defined by a
phony notion of heritage in which, as
he puts it, “We glory in Shakespeare
yet we close our public libraries.”
Bennett was himself a perfect beneficiary of postwar social democracy,
privileged enough to be able to take
full advantage of all its opportunities
for self-advancement, underprivileged
enough to need them. He grew up in
a “comparatively genteel” suburb of
Leeds. His father’s butcher shop was
Bennett’s High Class Meat Purveyors
of Otley Road. “We no more made the
lower grade than we did a higher one.”
But he had free, high- quality secondary education, free or cheap concert
halls, libraries, and galleries, the BBC,
free university education at Oxford, a
theatrical career that took off in an England where to be working- or middleclass and from the previously shunned
North was suddenly fashionable. And
he does not want to forget any of this.
While Mrs. Thatcher was superbly
dismissive of “the Nanny State,” Bennett knows that “I was lucky in my time
and I’m grateful to have been nannied.” His old man’s memories are not
harmless nostalgia. They are the most
subversive of recollections, the recalling of a past in which the state created
possibilities for its citizens: “Whereas
nowadays the state is a dirty word, for
my generation the state was a saviour,
delivering us out of poverty and want
(and provincial boredom) and putting
us on the road to a better life; the state
saved my father’s life, my mother’s sanity and my own life too.”
This state was a tangible, practical,
collective identity, an England that
transcended imperial nostalgia, class
prejudice, and the pieties of tradition.
Its slow receding has left an empty space
to be filled by the confused and incoherent English nationalism whose rise
was scarcely noticed until it announced
itself so explosively in the Brexit vote.
Bennett’s beloved Yorkshire voted
heavily to leave. The shock would have
been considerably lessened had more
attention been paid to his increasingly insistent reflections in his published diaries on an England that was
emphatically not at home with itself.
Like the death of the canary in the
mineshaft, Bennett’s heartsick inability to maintain his love for his country
should have been a warning that something toxic was gathering in the air. Yet
Bennett also provides a kind of hope.
Being ashamed to be English is, as he
is well aware, a way of retaining intense feelings for the country: “There
are different ways of being English,” he
reflects in 2012, “one of which is not to
want to be English at all.”
And Bennett, when we strip away the
wrongly imputed coziness, still speaks
for other ways of being English: tolerant, kind to strangers, modest, decent,
funny, suspicious of all grandiosities,
and quietly egalitarian. Even as his
book serves as a highly personal chronicle of one kind of national decline, it
may also serve, when the country, like
King George at the end of the play, is
recovering from its great mental breakdown, as a reminder of those admirable
Bitcoin Mania
Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP /Getty Images
Sue Halpern
Blockchain Revolution:
How the Technology Behind
Bitcoin Is Changing Money,
Business, and the World
by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott.
Portfolio/Penguin, 348 pp., $30.00
Attack of the Fifty Foot Blockchain:
Bitcoin, Blockchain, Ethereum and
Smart Contracts
by David Gerard.
CreateSpace, 178 pp., $16.95 (paper)
The first time I bought virtual money,
in October 2017, bitcoins, the cryptocurrency everyone by now has heard
of, were trading at $5,919.20. A month
later, as I started writing this, a single
coin sold for $2,000 more. “Coin” is a
metaphor. A cryptocurrency such as
bitcoin is purely digital: it is a piece
of code—a string of numbers and letters—that uses encryption techniques
and a decentralized computer network
to process transactions and generate
new units. Its value derives entirely
from people’s perception of what it is
worth. The same might be said of paper
money, now divorced from gold and silver, or of gold and silver for that matter. Money is a human invention. It has
value because we say it does.
In 2008, when a person or persons
going by the name Satoshi Nakamoto
published the whitepaper “Bitcoin: A
Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,”
bitcoins were worth nothing because
they didn’t exist. Three months later,
when the first version of bitcoin software
was released by Nakamoto and the inaugural bitcoins were traded, they were
essentially free. By September 2010, a
single bitcoin cost about six cents. By
June 2011, it was $22.59. And while the
price had its ups and downs, the overall
trend was up, up, up. By the end of 2013,
as the idea of a currency controlled exclusively by computers running cryptographic algorithms created and traded
without the intercession of a central
bank, a nation-state, a taxation authority, or any kind of regulation began to
take hold, especially among libertarians
and those unsettled by the financial crisis, as well as among black-market criminals and terrorists, it was nearly $1,000.*
The higher the price, the greater the interest of investors and speculators, which
propelled the price even higher.
price. Additional sources appear
in the Web version of this review at
James MacWhyte at a bitcoin trading club meeting, Tokyo, February 2014
Because the software was programmed to issue a finite number of
bitcoins—21 million—bitcoin’s spectacular trajectory seemed, and continues to seem, like a textbook case of
supply and demand. (Nearly 80 percent have been issued so far through
a computer-intensive process called
“mining.”) How high will the price
go? The Internet is full of prognostications—$22,000 by the end of 2018,
$50,000 by 2020—that make bitcoin’s
mid-December valuation at over
$18,000 look like a bargain, which, of
course, is driving more investment.
And this despite warnings of a bitcoin
bubble, predictions of a future crash,
and an admonishment from Jamie
Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase,
who called bitcoin a fraud that will
not end well for investors. Still, Dimon
conceded that for people who reside in
countries with unstable currencies and
hyperinflation, like Venezuela or Argentina, bitcoin might be a useful option, as indeed it has turned out to be.
He also acknowledged its utility for
the two billion people around the world
without access to traditional banking
institutions, who are known as “the
unbanked.” For them, a cell phone can
function as a bankbook, a debit card,
and a way to send and receive payments. A website called Abra, for example, enables users to send bitcoins,
which are denominated fractionally
down to eight decimal points, from one
mobile phone to another, anywhere in
the world; the receiver can keep the
payment in bitcoin or exchange it for
digital dollars or pesos or some other
currency, and spend them at merchants
that accept Abra as a payment system.
It gets a little more complicated,
though, if the recipient wants to convert the payment into physical cash.
Consider the case of an unbanked Filipino woman who has received a remittance from her daughter in Canada.
As Don and Alex Tapscott explain
in Blockchain Revolution: How the
Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World:
“She checks the app and notices there
are four other Abra users within a fourblock radius of her. She messages them
all to see who will exchange her digital
pesos for physical pesos and at what
price. The four come back to her with
different ‘bids.’” She then chooses the
one with the highest customer satisfaction rating, though not the lowest bid,
and meets him to make the exchange.
Using bitcoin as if it were “regular”
money to buy things, however, has
proved to be more challenging, in part
because its value keeps fluctuating,
and in part because businesses have
been slow to accept it as a form of payment. That may be changing. You can
now use bitcoin to pay for a pizza from
Domino’s or a sandwich from Subway,
a subscription to the Chicago SunTimes or the Dish Network, a couch
(and anything else on its site) from
Overstock, a gallon of maple syrup
from a small sugarhouse in Vermont,
or airline tickets on a number of carriers—and the list is growing.
own cryptocurrency exchange
experience was more mundane than
that of the woman in the Philippines.
I logged onto a website called Coinbase and created an account linked to
my credit card. Coinbase gave me the
option of buying three different digital
currencies: bitcoin, ether, or litecoin.
Since the $50 I was willing to invest was
more than ten times less than the cost
of a single bitcoin even before Coinbase subtracted its service fee, I figured
the fractional amount of bitcoin I’d be
buying—something on the order of
.0076—would hardly be worth it. (Full
disclosure: I was wrong.) So instead of
bitcoin, I bought .16 ether, and in November 2017, my $50 was up to about
$54. But if I cashed out then, Coinbase’s fees to do so would have lowered
the amount close to my original stake.
These days, transaction fees on
cryptocurrency in general, and bitcoin
specifically, can be fairly steep. The
irony here is that digital currency has
been championed as offering more
value than traditional money because it
moves directly from person to person
without the interference of extractive
intermediaries like banks and other
financial institutions. In theory, that
is how peer-to-peer networks are supposed to work. But as more and more
money has poured into digital currencies, those banks and financial institutions have begun to move in.
Coinbase, for example, which now
has more accounts than the legacy brokerage Charles Schwab, began as a Silicon Valley start-up aimed at making
the process of buying and selling cryptocurrencies as easy as online banking.
It has received investments from major
venture capital funds—Andreessen
Horowitz, Union Square Ventures, and
DFJ, among others—as well as from
the New York Stock Exchange and a
number of traditional banks. Those investments have further driven the everincreasing value of cryptocurrencies.
So has—thus far—the ancillary market
in bitcoin futures, which opened for
trading in mid-December 2017.
While this is arguably how markets
are supposed to work, the booming
trade in bitcoin has made things difficult for the bitcoin operating system,
which is having trouble processing the
high volume of transactions coming its
The New York Review
Swann Auction Galleries
104 East 25th Street, New
York, NY 10010; (212) 2544710;
John Davis Gallery 362 ½ Warren
Street, Hudson, NY 12534; (518)
Foundation 599 11th
Avenue, Floor 4, New
York, NY 10036
Upcoming Auction: “Icons
& Images: Photographs &
Photobooks,” February 15;
Preview: February 10-15.
Twenty-five vintage contact prints of iconic works
by Lewis W. Hine, including Powerhouse Mechanic,
circa 1921, and various Empire State Building views,
lead this dynamic sale of
vernacular and fine art
twentieth-cenLewis W. Hine, Powerhouse Mechanic, silver
tury masterpieces include
contact print, circa 1921. Estimate $70,000 to
Cowgirl, Wyoming, 1955,
by Robert Frank, printed
1980s, as well as works by Sally Mann, Herb Ritts, Cindy Sherman,
Robert Silvers, W. Eugene Smith, Bert Stern and Alfred Stieglitz.
Martin Dull; Title, 1.06 –1-29
"My goal is simple: to communicate
through paint and found objects the
many and diverse sensations of being within a non-objective environment. I work abstractly because
I am interested in the individual
and subjective responses to these
forms. In this sense, my work serves
as a bridge from the personal to the
public, the intangible to the geographical, while encouraging communication and, ultimately, unity."
Martin Dull
Boris Lurie in Habana,
a large-scale retrospective survey of
Lurie’s work at the
Museo Nacional de
Bellas Artes La Habana, Cuba has been
January 28, 2018.
Confusions of a Wasted Youth, 2017,
acrylic and charcoal on canvas,
92 x 45 inches
BORIS LURIE. “NO in Orange”, c. 1962
"The majority of the works in this exhibition are entertaining only as
an after-thought l believe; their primary intention is to communicate,
or more accurately, be a savage experience that owes little to that
diplomatic finesse which all commercial art must cultivate. Why?
Because serious art in a rather cowardly mass society such as ours
must constantly assert to the public that it is motivated by a different
purpose than the decorative or simply artful work which is gobbled
up by mass-media man without Indigestion. We have too much sickness in every compromised area of our lives to need art that soothes."
Seymour Krim, 1963
Ansel Adams, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, silver print, 1941, printed circa
1965. Estimate $80,000 to $120,000.
Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian One Bowling Green, New York, NY 10004;; Free Admission.
Andrei Kushnir, Timeless, 9 ¼” x 12 ¼” Oil
Through video projection, innovative sound art, interactive digital media, performance, and installation, Transformer: Native Art in Light and
Sound presents the work of ten artists who reflect on their place in and
between traditional and dominant cultures, demonstrating the continuity of indigenous cultures and creativity in the digital age. Transformer
presents works by Jordan Bennett (Mi'kmaq), Raven Chacon (Diné),
Jon Corbett (Métis), Marcella Ernest (Ojibwe), Stephen Foster (Haida),
Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit), Julie Nagam (Anishnawbe/Métis), Marianne
Nicolson (Kwakwaka'wakw), Keli Mashburn (Osage), and Kevin McKenzie (Cree/Métis). Open Nov. 10, 2017, to Jan. 6, 2019.
The Drawing Room
11937; (631) 324-5016;;
Charles Jones (18661959) was an English
gardener whose sensitively composed photographs of vegetables,
fruits and flowers have
been widely championed
since their discovery in
London in 1981. Printed
c. 1900 from glass plate
negatives, his tightly
cropped views of heirBean (Dwarf) Sutton’s Masterpiece, c. 1900, 6 x
4 1/4 inches
loom beans, a single onion, or a pair of extraordinary tulips reveal a straightforward and modern sensibility. On view
through January. Winter hours: Friday, Saturday & Sunday 11–5, and
by appointment.
January 18, 2018
American Painting Fine Art, 5125 MacArthur Blvd., NW, Suite 17,
Washington, DC 20016; 202-244-3244;;
Wed. thru Sat. 11 am–7 pm, and by appointment.
Current Exhibit: Small Treasures, works by Gallery Artists, Guest Artists and members of the Washington Society of Landscape Painters.
Small paintings in oil, acrylic, mixed media and watercolor, all framed
and perfect for giving (or keeping!) Also, works by gallery artists Andrei Kushnir, Michele Martin Taylor, David Baise, Michael Francis, Carol
Spils, Stevens Jay Carter and Ross Merrill. Our gallery is dedicated to
the finest work in landscape, still life, genre, urban and marine art by
current traditional American painters, many with national reputations.
Alexandre Gallery
Lois Dodd: Selected Paintings
Thursday, November 30 through
Saturday, January 20, 2018
The gallery is pleased to announce the publication of a new
monograph on Lois Dodd. Written by Faye Hirsch and published by Lund Humphries, this book will be
part of the launch of the publisher’s new Contemporary Painters Series.
Available from the gallery in December 2017, it will include 100 color
plates and 144 pages (ISBN 978-1-84822-237-3).
Whitfield Lovell, After an Afternoon, 2008, Radios with sound, 59 x 72 x 11,
© Whitfield Lovell. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York.
Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams Street, New London, CT
06320; (860) 443-2545;
On Another Note: The Intersection of Art and Music (on view through
March 11, 2018) is curated by Alva Greenberg and features more than
40 works of art inspired by music, ranging from paintings and photographs to assemblage, glass, sculpture and video. Through artists’
explorations, this exhibition hopes to broaden the viewer’s perception
of how music can inspire the making of art as well as portray the vast
variety of ways in which it can be made visual.
Shepherd / W & K
Galleries 58 East 79th
Street, New York, NY
10075; (212) 861-4050;
(212) 772-1314;
shepherd ny@aol.c om ;
s h e p h e rd g a l l e r y. c o m .
W & K Fine Art, Vienna
will be Participating in
Master Drawings New
York 2018 and is showing highlights, including
paintings and sculpture,
from the Vienna gallery’s collection at their
New York partner-gallery,
Shepherd W & K.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1(880 – 1938)
The Master Drawings
Nudes on the Beach, Fehmarn Island, 1912
even takes place from
Saturday 27 January to
Saturday 3 February 2018. Further information can be found on our
he central obstacle to a fully automated monetary system run exclusively by computers is validation: how
to ensure that the transactions on the
network are legitimate. The bitcoin
software devised by Nakamoto employs a number of features to deal with
this. The first is basic encryption. A bitcoin is nothing more than a record of
value—you have seven bitcoin, I have
five bitcoin, and so on—encoded and
stored on the bitcoin system as an address. To release that bitcoin to buy
something or to cash it out, its owner
must use a private encryption key,
known only to him or her, which is associated with that account. Matching
the private key with the address is done
automatically by the decentralized network of computers. If they don’t match
up, or if the owner of the private key is
attempting to spend his or her bitcoin
more than once, the computers reject
the transaction.
The “miners” who verify and collect these transactions into a block—
“miners” being a term for those who run
the computers on the network—are also
required by the bitcoin software to perform an additional validating function
before the block can be added to the
bitcoin ledger. Called “proof of work,”
it is essentially a computational lottery
in which all the mining computers vie
to guess an algorithmically generated
number between zero and 4,294,967,296
with the correct number of zeros preceding it. Finding the target number
takes trillions of guesses and a tremendous amount of computing power.
The idea behind “proof of work,” according to Daniel Krawisz, of the Satoshi Nakamoto Institute, is that it is
“an added complication, like a ritual,
so as to make blocks more difficult
to generate. . . . [It] is . . . a means for a
group of self-interested people, none
of whom is subordinate to any other, to
establish a consensus against a considerable incentive to resist it.” Because it
takes so much computing power to find
this number, miners are motivated to
ensure that the transactions they are
processing are valid and nonconflicting. But they are motivated to participate in the first place because the
software generates a reward: the miner
who finds the “proof of work” number
first is paid in (an algorithmically determined number of) bitcoins. Though
that is how new bitcoins are created, or
“mined,” and added to the system, as
the Tapscotts point out, mining is
an awkward analogy because it
conjures images of experts whose
talent might confer some competitive advantage. . . . It doesn’t. Each
miner is running the software
like a utility function in the background, and the software is doing
all the computations. . . . There’s
no skill involved.
When the bitcoin network began
operating in 2009, people could run
the validation program on their personal computers and earn bitcoins if
their computer solved the puzzle first.
As demand for bitcoin increased, and
more people were vying to find the random, algorithmic proof of work validation number, speed became essential.
Mining began to require sophisticated
graphics cards and, when those proved
too slow, special, superfast computers
built specifically to validate transactions and mine bitcoins. Individual
miners have dropped out for the most
part, and industrial operators have
moved in. These days, mining is so
computer-intensive that it takes place
in huge processing centers in countries
with low energy costs, like China and
Iceland. One of these, in the town of
Ordos, in Inner Mongolia, has a staff of
fifty who oversee 25,000 computers in
eight buildings that run day and night.
A company called BitFury, which operates mining facilities in Iceland and the
Republic of Georgia and also manufactures and sells specialized, industrial
processing rigs, is estimated to have
mined at least half a million bitcoins
so far. At today’s price, that’s worth
around $7.5 billion.
Still, it’s not exactly free money.
Marco Streng, the cofounder of Genesis Mining, estimates that it costs
his company around $400 in electricity alone to mine each bitcoin. That’s
because bitcoin mining is not only
computationally intensive, it is energyintensive. By one estimate, the power
consumption of bitcoin mining now
exceeds that of Ireland and is growing so exponentially that it will surpass
that of the entire United States by July
2019. A year ago, the CEO of BitFury,
Valery Vavilov, reckoned that energy
accounted for between 90 and 95 percent of his company’s bitcoin-mining
costs. According to David Gerard—
whose new book, Attack of the Fifty
Foot Blockchain, is a sober riposte to
all the upbeat forecasts about cryptocurrency like the Tapscotts’—“By the
end of 2016,” a single mining facility
in China was using “over half the estimated power used by all of Google’s
data centres worldwide at the time.”
One way bitcoin miners offset these
costs is by collecting the very thing
digital money, traded peer-to-peer, was
supposed to make obsolete: transaction fees. By one estimate, these fees
have risen 1,289 percent since March
2015. On any given day, the fees will be
in the millions of dollars and now cost
upward of twenty dollars per transaction. While transaction fees are not
mandatory, they are a way for users to
attempt to jump the queue in a system
rife with bottlenecks, since those who
offer miners a fee to have their transactions included in a block have a bet-
ter chance of that happening. With so
many transactions lined up, waiting to
be processed, miners have discretion
over which will make it to the head of
the line; the higher the fee, the more
likely it is to be chosen. As the explanatory website Unlock Blockchain puts
it: “when miners mine a block, they
become temporary dictators of that
block. If you want your transactions to
go through, you will have to pay a toll
to the miner in charge. . . . The higher
the transaction fees, the faster the miners will put [the transactions] up in
their block.” As a consequence, transactions can be held up for hours or days
or dropped altogether.
itcoin’s high transaction fees and
slow transaction times were two of the
Thomas Nast
way. What began as a structural feature
of bitcoin software—that only onemegabyte blocks of transaction data
(currently 2,200 to 2,500 transactions
on average) could be processed every
ten minutes—has become a structural
obstacle, as transactions get bottlenecked and the speed at which new ones
can be resolved slows to a crawl. One
day this past December, for instance,
traffic in bitcoin was so overwhelming
that many Coinbase account holders
were unable to log into their accounts.
Even when it is working smoothly,
the bitcoin network is only able to process seven transactions per second. By
contrast, PayPal processes 193, and
Visa 1,667. If there is any chance of bitcoin becoming a commercially viable
method of payment, it will have to scale
up. But scaling up will require a structural change, and since bitcoin software is an open source project with no
central authority, amendments to it are
ceded to the voluntary developer community. So far, numerous solutions to
the scalability issue have been debated,
but no consensus has emerged.
reasons I chose to buy ether. But there
was another reason as well: while bitcoin was invented to bypass traditional
currency by tendering a new kind of
money, ether, another cryptocurrency
that can be bought, sold, and used to
purchase goods and services, was created to raise capital to fund a project
called the Ethereum network. The
principals behind it are building out
what is being trumpeted as the next
iteration of the Internet, Web 3.0, also
known as “the blockchain.”
A blockchain is, essentially, a way of
moving information between parties
over the Internet and storing that information and its transaction history on a
disparate network of computers. Bitcoin, for example, operates on a blockchain: as transactions are aggregated
into blocks, each block is assigned a
unique cryptographic signature called
a “hash.” Once the validating cryptographic puzzle for the latest block has
been solved by a mining computer,
three things happen: the result is timestamped, the new block is linked irrevocably to the blocks before and after
it by its unique hash, and the block and
its hash are posted to all the other computers that were attempting to solve
the puzzle. This decentralized network
of computers is the repository of the
immutable ledger of bitcoin transactions. As the Tapscotts observe, “If you
wanted to steal a bitcoin, you’d have to
rewrite the coin’s entire history on the
blockchain in broad daylight.”
While bitcoin operates on a blockchain, it is not the blockchain. The
insight of Vitalik Buterin, the young
polymath who created Ethereum, was
that in addition to exchanging digital
money, the blockchain could be used
to facilitate transactions of other kinds
of digitized data, such as property registrations, birth certificates, medical
records, and bills of lading. Because
the blockchain is decentralized and its
ledger immutable, those transactions
would be protected from hacking; and
because the blockchain is a peer-topeer system that lets people and businesses interact directly with each other,
it is inherently more efficient and also
cheaper than systems that are burdened with middlemen such as lawyers
and regulators.
A company that aims to reduce drug
counterfeiting is using the blockchain
to follow pharmaceuticals from provenance to purchase. Another outfit is
doing something similar with high- end
sneakers. Yet another start-up, this
one called Paragon, is currently raising
money to create a blockchain that “registers everything that has happened to
a cannabis product, from seed to sale,
letting consumers, retailers and the
government know where everything
came from.” “We are treating cannabis
as a normal crop,” Paragon’s founder
and CEO Jessica VerSteeg, a former
Miss Iowa, told a reporter for the website Benzinga. “So, the same way that
you would want to know where the corn
on your table came from, or the apple
that you had at lunch came from, you
want to know where the weed you’re
consuming came from.”
While a blockchain is not a full- on
solution to fraud or hacking, its decentralized infrastructure ensures
that there are no “honeypots” of data
available for criminals to exploit. Still,
touting a bitcoin- derived technology as
the answer to cybercrime may seem a
stretch in light of the high-profile—and
lucrative—thefts of cryptocurrency
over the past few years. Gerard notes
that “as of March 2015, a full third of
all Bitcoin exchanges”—where people stored their bitcoin—“up to then
had been hacked, and nearly half had
closed.” There was, most famously, the
2014 pilferage of Mt. Gox, a Japanesebased digital coin exchange, in which
850,000 bitcoins worth $460,000,000
disappeared. Two years later another
exchange, Bitfinex, was hacked and
around $60 million in bitcoin was
taken; the company’s solution was to
spread the loss to all its customers, including those whose accounts had not
been drained. Then there was the theft
via malware of $40 million by a man
in Pennsylvania earlier this year. He
confessed, but the other thieves slipped
away, leaving victims with no way to retrieve their funds.
Unlike money kept in a bank, cryptocurrencies are uninsured and unregulated. That is one of the consequences
of a monetary system that exists—intentionally—beyond government control
or oversight. It may be small consolation to those who were affected by
these thefts that neither the bitcoin
network nor the Ethereum network itself has been breached, which perhaps
proves the immunity of the blockchain
to hacking. (In 2016, there was a $60
million hack of a company running on
the Ethereum system, but the theft occurred because there was a bug in that
company’s software.)
In addition to demonstrating that a
blockchain could be used to build out
new ventures, Buterin also showed that
those new ventures could be financed,
like the Ethereum Network, by the
crowd-funded sale of their own branded
cryptocurrency. So, for example, Paragon created its own digital “coin,”
ParagonCoin, and put 100,000,000 up
for sale at $1 per coin (to be paid in
The New York Review
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January 18, 2018
Two very intelligent, very idealistic young
women leave the convent school where
they became the fastest of friends to
return to their families and embark on
their new lives. For Renée this means
an arranged marriage with a country
gentleman of Provence. Meanwhile,
Louise makes for her family’s house in
Paris, intent on enjoying her freedom
to the fullest. What will come of these
very different lives?
Despite Balzac’s title, these aren’t
memoirs; rather, this is an epistolary
novel. For some ten years, these two will
keep up their correspondence, obeying
their vow to tell each other every tiny
detail of their strange new lives.
“Graham Robb concludes his
prodigious 1994 biography of
Balzac with the terse suggestion
that ‘Unknown masterpieces are
waiting to be rediscovered.’....[The
Memoirs of Two Young Wives is]
a gem of a book, occasionally florid
and schematic yet engrossing, and
this new translation by Jordan Stump
makes for precisely the kind of rediscovery that Robb invited.” —From
Morris Dickstein’s introduction
Honoré de Balzac
Introduction by Morris Dickstein
A new translation by Jordan Stump
Paperback and e-book • $15.95
On sale January 9th
Also by Balzac
in the NYRB Classics series
Available in bookstores, call (646) 215-2500,
or visit
cryptocurrency). ParagonCoins can be
traded for services, once the business
is operational—whenever that is—or
traded for crypto- and other currencies.
In addition to Jessica VerSteeg, Paragon is fronted by Jayceon Taylor, who
is better known in some circles as the
rapper The Game. Celebrity promoters like Taylor have become routine in
this world of ICOs—initial coin offerings. The boxer Floyd Mayweather is
the face of Stox, an ICO that raised $30
million for a service that is supposed to
predict sports scores, stock prices, and
even the weather. (It appears unable to
predict when Stox itself might be up and
running.) Another rapper, Ghostface
Killah, of the Wu-Tang Clan, is the chief
branding officer for Cream Capital, a
company that is looking for $30 million
to become the world’s largest distributor of cryptocurrency ATMs. Cream
Capital got its name from Wu-Tang’s
1993 hit “C.R.E.A.M.,” which stands for
“cash rules everything around me.” It’s
now been repurposed to mean “crypto
rules everything around me.”
For the moment—and until either the
Securities and Exchange Commission
decides that ICOs are illegal or investors become wary of tossing money at
projects that do not exist and may never
exist—crypto, in the form of ICOs, does
seem to rule start-up funding; as of this
past summer more money has been
raised from these crowd-sourced coin
offerings than from established venture capital funds and angel investors.
Writing in The New York Times, Nathaniel Popper tells of a group of coders
in the Bay Area who raised $35 million
in under thirty seconds for a proposal
to create an ad-free Web browser, and
a Swiss team that received $100 million
to develop an online chat program. According to the website CoinDesk, as
of this fall, more than $3.5 billion has
been invested in ICOs, almost all of it in
2017, with close to $3 billion pouring in
between June and the end of October.
“It’s kind of like when you are a little
kid and you know you are getting away
with something,” an investment analyst
named Chris Burniske told Popper.
“It’s not going to last forever, but it’s
fun in the interim. The space is giddy
right now.”
Vitalik Buterin’s other innovation
was to show how smart contracts could
be written and stored on the blockchain. These are covenants, written
in code, that specify the terms of an
agreement. They are “smart” because
as soon as its terms are met, the contract executes automatically, without
human intervention. Once triggered,
it can’t be amended, tampered with,
or impeded. A writer for the Foundation for Economic Education calls this
“programmable money”:
A smart contract is a tool for
changing the world. We have this
mental model of all these computers synced together. Now imagine
that rather than syncing a transaction . . .we sync software. . . . Every
machine in the network runs the
same small program. It could be
something simple, like a loan: I
send you some money, and your
account automatically pays it back,
with interest, a few days later. . . .
We all agree to these terms, and
it’s locked in using the smart contract. We have achieved programmable money. You might say that
this doesn’t sound very compli-
cated or impressive, but just wait
and see where this goes.
Where it might go is anyone’s guess,
but there is no doubt that smart contracts and the blockchain itself augment the trend toward automation,
though it is automation through lines
of code, not robotics. For businesses
looking to cut costs, this is one of the
main attractions of blockchain technology. “If contracts are automated, then
what will happen to traditional firm
structures, processes, and intermediaries like lawyers and accountants?”
ask Marco Iansiti and Karim Lakhani
in the Harvard Business Review. “And
what about managers? Their roles
would all radically change.” Indeed.
Most blockchain advocates imagine
them changing so radically as to disappear altogether, taking with them many
of the costs currently associated with
doing business. According to a report
from the research arm of the Spanish
bank Santander, the blockchain “could
reduce banks’ infrastructure costs attributable to cross-border payments,
securities trading, and regulatory compliance by $15–20 billion per annum by
“Whereas most technologies tend
to automate workers on the periphery doing menial tasks,” the Tapscotts
quote Buterin saying, “blockchain
automates away the center. Instead
of putting the taxi driver out of a job,
blockchain puts Uber out of a job and
lets the taxi drivers work with the customer directly.” Forget for a moment
that this sounds a lot like standing on
a street corner and hailing a livery cab:
what Buterin is talking about is actually
something potentially revolutionary,
as the Tapscotts suggest in their title.
Whether it will be a revolution for good
or one that continues what has come to
seem technology’s inexorable, crushing ascendance will be determined not
only by where it is deployed, but how.
The CIA (through its venture capital
group, In- Q-Tel), the defense contractor Northrop Grumman, NASDAQ,
Deloitte, Toyota, UnitedHealth, Fidelity, IBM, Credit Suisse, Goldman
Sachs, Microsoft, and even JPMorgan Chase, to name just a few, are all
looking to employ blockchain technology. So are UNICEF, the Indian state
of Andhra Pradesh, and the charity
Mercy Corps. The Tapscotts imagine
that the blockchain could be used by
NGOs to eliminate corruption in the
distribution of foreign aid by enabling
funds to move directly from giver to
receiver. But they also envision it as a
way for banks to operate without external oversight, encouraging other kinds
of corruption. Either way, we’d be wise
to remember that technology is never
neutral. It is always endowed with the
values of its creators. In the case of the
blockchain and cryptocurrency, those
values are libertarian and mechanistic;
trust resides in algorithmic rules, while
the rules of the state and other regulatory bodies are viewed with suspicion
and hostility.
oth the Ethereum and bitcoin blockchains are public: anyone can see their
ledgers of transactions. For this reason,
they are called “permissionless.” The
ledger doesn’t reveal who purchased
what by name, but does show what was
purchased and when it was purchased
and by which encrypted pseudonym.
While this is a security feature of a
permissionless blockchain, it has also
proved to be a boon to law enforcement.
The FBI was able to catch Ross Ulbricht,
the mastermind of Silk Road—the
multimillion-dollar criminal enterprise
he operated on the dark web through
which users could exchange drugs and
guns and stolen goods for bitcoin—because after seizing his computer, they
were able to link him to the bitcoin wallets where he stored his earnings. They
then used the ledger to trace his entire
transaction history.
Ulbricht is now serving a sentence
of life without possibility of parole,
and the criminals and terrorists who,
before his arrest, had relied on bitcoin
to shield their identities are using tumblers—programs that mix transactions
and make them hard to link to a specific account—or they have migrated
to cryptocurrencies that promise full
anonymity, which neither the bitcoin
nor Ethereum network does.
Just as criminals want to shield their
identities on the blockchain, corporations and other institutions are wary
of putting proprietary information on
a permissionless network. Instead,
companies have been exploring how
to adapt the blockchain for business,
creating invitation-only, “permissioned”
peer-to-peer networks that enable speed
and efficiency (often by eliminating
jobs and bypassing regulation), security, and immutability, while discarding
the public and energy-intensive aspects
of the original version of blockchain
Last May, the R3 consortium—an association of major banks and financial
services companies including ING, Barclays, UBS, Wells Fargo, and the Bank
of Canada, as well as the government
of Singapore—announced that it had
raised $107 million to develop commercial (gated) blockchain applications.
And Goldman Sachs has patented its
own cryptocurrency, SETLcoin, to digitize and trade real-world assets such as
property deeds and stocks on a blockchain. According to Goldman’s patent
application, these assets will be verified
by a trusted third party, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission.
There is no better illustration of the
propagation and acceptance—which is
to say, co-optation and perversion—of
Satoshi Nakamoto’s idea of a peer-topeer, decentralized blockchain trading
network, born out of the 2008 financial
crisis and an inherent distrust of banks
and governments, than a cryptocurrency patent held by an investment bank
that relies on an official, third-party regulatory agency for authentication.
Meanwhile, at press time, my $50 of
ether was up to $130, and Nakamoto’s
creation was trading at over $15,000. It
took nearly five years for the value of
a bitcoin to rise from $0 to $1,000; it
had taken five hours for it to move from
$15,000 to $16,000. This is not typically
how money appreciates. Yet bitcoin
is anything but typical. It is computer
code in which people have invested the
idea of value. When that idea, which
by now has morphed into the belief
that it’s possible to get filthy rich out of
thin air, no longer captures the public
imagination—if the bubble bursts—the
blockchain will persist. As those who
actually control the flow of money—the
banks and corporations and governments—know, that is where the real
value of Nakamoto’s invention lies.
—December 21, 2017
The New York Review
Playing It Cool
Alex Katz/Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York and Rome
David Salle
Alex Katz
an exhibition at Gavin Brown’s
enterprise, New York City,
November 5–December 22, 2017.
Catalog of the exhibition
with essays by Frank O’Hara
and Tom McGlynn.
Gavin Brown’s enterprise,
72 pp., $20.00 (paper)
Other animals use tools, but as far as
I know, we’re the only ones to make
paintbrushes. Painting is a physical
thing, like sports or ballet. There are
important exceptions, of course, like
Wade Guyton and his followers, who
use computers, scanners, and inkjet
printers to make paintings, but for anyone not placing a heavy bet on digital
tech, how one grips the brush matters,
as does each finely calibrated aspect
in the chain of command from brain
to canvas: the size and shape of the
brush, the viscosity of the paint, and
the pressure exerted by the shoulderarm-hand continuum, its direction and
velocity. That’s what painting is on a
physical level: brush hitting canvas. It’s
been going on for a long time because
the way it links perception with action
intersects with something elemental
about humans. Painting is no more
passé than drumming or, for that matter, pole-vaulting, which is not to say
that we all need to do it, or can.
Every painter is different. The way
some approach the job can be compared to how a ballet dancer thinks
about choreography. The steps are
prescribed, and the music provides
the tempo, but certain dancers have a
distinctive élan or vitality that, when
combined with the quality known
as “attack”—the initiation of movement as well as the accents within a
phrase—conveys a forthright, efficient
character. Balanchine often likened
choreography to carpentry, a task executed with diligence and precision. The
point where technique meets an internal drive or intention represents, on the
ballet stage, personality in motion.
Alex Katz paints real people, as
he sees them. Starting out in the Abstract Expressionist milieu of the early
1950s, he found that his talent was best
suited to realism, and if he ever looked
backward, you wouldn’t know it. You
can feel, in his early paintings, the
struggle to translate observed reality
into painted forms and still be part of
the dominant conversation of the day.
There was a big jump in the development of Katz’s style from the late 1950s
to the early 1960s, as if, when the decade changed, someone fired a starting
pistol and the race began in earnest.
One of Katz’s primary innovations
was to bring the look and scale of
billboards, movies, and TV to realist
painting. He first deployed his invention—the head tightly cropped just
above the eyes or just below the mouth,
isolated on one side of the canvas—in
the early 1960s with portraits of friends
like Paul Taylor and Elaine de Kooning. The close-up, the fragment, the
detail, along with flat color—these are
some of the things that cinema gave
to painting. Katz and the Pop artists,
especially Roy Lichtenstein, shared a
similar starting point, but the differJanuary 18, 2018
Alex Katz: Bill 3, oil on linen, 96 x 96 inches, 2017
ences are instructive. Simply put, Lichtenstein made paintings of pictures, not
of things, and in his hands, an image
is more purely graphic; the forms coalesce by virtue of the black outline,
and whatever illusion of volume we see
is clearly meant to be ironic.
Katz, on the other hand, eschews
outlines altogether; his precise tones
map the interlocking play of light and
shadow as it defines form. The overall
contour of an image—the shape of the
head, for example—is important, of
course, and Katz is a master at the kind
of extended line or brush mark that
describes a form’s perimeter. But it is
the interplay of the interior shapes—
the areas of darks and lights that he
locates within the formal schema—
that contains, in his hands, the elements of drama: anticipation, conflict,
his, more than anything else, is what
gives a Katz painting its air of sophistication. The way he orchestrates these
shapes within a complex form, the way
he shapes the shapes, is like getting
dressed in a fitted black suit—you first
put in the pocket handkerchief and
then take it out as you realize, looking
in the mirror, that it spoils the effect
of the whole. In lieu of outlines, what
matters are edges—the places where
the shape of one color or tone touches
an adjacent one of a different tone. It’s
been the basis of realist painting for
hundreds of years; Katz makes it modern by all but eliminating the transitions between light and dark shapes.
This is styling in action: why use dozens of interior shapes to describe all the
stuff that happens on a face, when just
four or five will do?
“Styling” is the most frequently invoked term in the Katzian lexicon. Its
precise definition is a little slippery; it
can mean anything from how a work
looks—its surface appearance—to the
energy behind it and the mind-set from
which it results. Styling, for Katz, is the
sum total of the decisions, both conscious and otherwise, that place one in
a relationship to the past and to what’s
possible now. He can look at a painting
that appears to be cutting-edge and say
of it simply, “The styling is eight years
out of date.” Or ten, or five, or fifty.
Sometimes these discussions of who
is or is not on the outermost edge of the
style curve can get a little abstract. One
evening in the 1980s, the dancer and
choreographer Karole Armitage and
I were having dinner with Alex and
Ada Katz in the East Village. I could
see Karole starting to lose the thread
at one point, as Alex was speaking. She
turned to Ada and asked if, after what
was already at that point quite a long
marriage, she always knew what Alex
was talking about. “Usually,” said Ada.
Katz has always been a great reader
of poetry. In the burnished years of the
late 1950s and early 1960s, the poet
and MoMA curator Frank O’Hara was
both a friend and a perceptive early
champion of his work. In a 1966 essay,
O’Hara wrote that Katz’s “‘breakthrough’. . .was toward enlargement of
image, a move away from the personal
characteristics in the handling of paint,
in order to emphasize the abstractness
of the subject and the inherent values it
possessed, and which he released.”
Today a painting by Alex Katz is one
of the most recognizable in contemporary art. His portraits are both closely
observed and highly distilled—if you
know them, his sitters are recognizable, but the objectivity can be a little
bit frosty. The chilliness inside the intimacy is the result of two ideas, the
classicist and the anecdotal, working in
tandem. When asked to name the artists he most admires, Katz started his
list with Jackson Pollock and ended
it with “the guy who made Nefertiti.”
Both are classicizing artists for whom
technique is in the service of an idealized image. (It’s perhaps less obvious
in Pollock, but what he gives us is an
image of abstraction.) A Katz portrait,
with its smooth surface and refined
forms, merges that tradition with a
casual, anecdotal approach that foregrounds its own workmanlike materiality. It’s classicism for Beats, or high
temple art for people who live in lofts.
Katz celebrated his ninetieth birth-
day this past July up at his place in
Maine with family and a few friends. I
couldn’t be there, but I heard he took
part of the day off. Gavin Brown, his
New York dealer, marked the occasion
by installing a group of recent paintings at the gallery’s new home on West
127th Street. Gavin Brown’s enterprise
is now spread out over an entire building, the top two floors of which have
impressively high ceilings, the result of
removing every other floor. The main
galleries are long rectangles of rough
brick covered in some sections with
sheetrock painted a lovely shade of
gray. The rooms are almost as tall as
they are wide, their proportions somewhat reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel—not bad as a backdrop for full-on
chromatic painting.
The show contains landscapes,
nudes, and portraits, in a variety of
formats, but the big news is a group of
eight-foot-square paintings of closely
cropped faces isolated on grounds of
strong cadmium yellow. In some paintings the square is divided vertically
into halves or thirds, with different
views of the same face compressed into
each rectangular sliver, like adjacent
frames of a comic strip or frames of a
film taken seconds apart. Sometimes a
head will overlap itself, like a stutter;
other times a face will be cropped as if
by an occluding frame, but without the
additional head adjacent—just more
yellow space.
These colored areas are not really
backgrounds; the negative spaces, or
nonfigurative parts of the painting, are
painted in the same way as the heads,
the paint laid down and brushed out just
so, without being precious about it. The
paint is purposeful and the surfaces
look fresh and taut. The space pulses
with the energetic wavelengths of the
yellow pigment; the citron color pushes
against the efficiently delineated contours of cheek, eye socket, and chin.
The compressed spatial architecture
of the face maintains an equilibrium,
a stilled traction within the rectangle.
One painting from the show, Bill
3 (2017), will serve as an example.
The eight-foot-square canvas is divided in half vertically; on either side
are close-up segments of a man’s face
with a beautiful skin tone somewhere
between umber and sienna, the right
side of the face and chiseled jaw line
offset by cadmium yellow. There is
very little tonal contrast within the
two truncated views of this man Bill;
even the whites of his eyes, as well as
the lighter underlip, are brown, though
of a slightly lighter tone than the rest
Alex Katz/Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York and Rome
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Alex Katz: Vivien, oil on linen, 60 x 144 inches, 2017
of the face. Bill’s eyes are looking over
his left shoulder, that is, to our right,
and slightly down, and the head on the
left, cropped even tighter, eliminates
one eye altogether—a fragment of a
fragment. The overall impression is of
a head hacked from soft stone, roughhewn, umber-toned, with a certain heft
and mass. But the rigidity is contradicted by the softness of the brushwork
at the internal edges—upper lip, side
of nose, eye socket—where the brown
meets a slightly darker one, and even at
the face’s contours, where brown meets
The painting commits to a radical,
stripped-down composition. If you
could turn it upside down, with the
two rocky cliff-like shapes of softly
brushed umber checked by a yellow
of almost fearful intensity, you might
have an Ellsworth Kelly, but with more
sophisticated color. It’s as if a newly
discovered chunk of Mount Rushmore
were found to also contain an homage
to our friend Bill, but he’s only visible
when the sky turns deep yellow, making those other guys disappear. Any
way you turn it, the painting is simple,
clear, bold, and internally consistent.
At the same time, the close-valued
colors and their specific harmonies are
mysterious and evocative. The painting is glamorous and tight, a sweet/sour
Gavin Brown helpfully reprinted the
O’Hara essay in the show’s catalog.
Elaborating further on the equivalence
between figuration and abstraction in
Katz’s work, O’Hara writes:
The isolation of a visage . . . in a
richly colored space . . . reminds one
of [Barnett] Newman, whose stripes
do not exist in an anonymous space
because the character of that space,
its color, dimensions and texture,
equal the slender hieratic signal of
the total work’s intelligibility.
Fifty years later, comparing a painting by Katz to one of Newman’s “zip”
paintings is still a radical idea, and
very much to the point. A painting is
everything that exists on its surface,
and all of it matters. O’Hara, with his
own clarity, his own brand of anecdotal
classicism, then offered this summation: “Katz is a cool painter.” Cool, and
also hot. A lifetime of decisiveness and
will has gone into making him so.
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To the Editors:
In his review of William Taubman’s biography of Mikhail Gorbachev [“The Man
Who Lost an Empire,” NYR, December
21, 2017], Strobe Talbott also comments
on two subsequent rulers of Russia: Boris
Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin, like
the last leader of the Soviet Union, writes
Talbott, “was loath to use force or risk
instability as the world’s largest territorial state dismantled itself,” whereas Putin
pursued a “scorched-earth strategy in subduing Chechen secessionists.” Yet it was
Yeltsin in late 1994 who first chose force to
crush Chechnya’s separatist movement, by
launching a devastating war that entailed
massive indiscriminate bombing of the
capital city Grozny and smaller Chechen
towns. Many thousands of civilians—Russian and Chechen alike—perished, and
tens of thousands became refugees or internally displaced people.
Yeltsin’s “war of choice” to put down a
mainly secular movement for autonomy
sowed the seeds of the subsequent Islamist
terrorism that has wracked the region since
and reverberated in places as distant as
Boston. In April 1996, almost a year and
a half into the Chechen war, at a summit
meeting with Yeltsin in Moscow, Talbott’s
boss President Bill Clinton effectively endorsed Russia’s resort to force. “I would
remind you that we once had a Civil War
in our country,” said Clinton, fought “over
the proposition that Abraham Lincoln gave
his life for, that no State had a right to withdraw from our Union.” It is past time to
recognize that the corruption and violence
we condemn in Putin’s Russia began with
Yeltsin, rather than with his hand-picked
Matthew Evangelista
President White Professor of
History and Political Science
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
Strobe Talbott replies:
As Professor Evangelista says, Boris Yeltsin’s military operation against Chechnya
in 1994 was an act of mass cruelty, and the
resulting alienation of his liberal supporters
was a self-inflicted blow to his presidency
that weakened him politically. My reference
to Yeltsin’s aversion to force concerned his
resistance to revanchists bent on adjusting the borders of the USSR’s constituent
republics to bring as many ethnic Russians
as possible into an expanded, predatory,
post-Soviet Russian Federation. Yeltsin’s
opposition protected the Soviet Union from
a decade-long bloodbath like the one that
accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia.
When it came to Chechnya, Yeltsin was
dealing not with a newly independent state
but with militant secessionism within the
Russian Federation. He first tried to quell
the movement with punitive raids targeted
against rebel strongholds, but that strategy
ended in debacles and further advances by
the guerrillas. With more patience, subtlety,
and time, Yeltsin might have negotiated a
settlement that would have kept Chechnya
in Russia. Even if a peaceful compromise
was impossible, Yeltsin should have found
means other than an all-out invasion that
caused many thousands of casualties among
Chechen civilians. Two years later he tried
to make amends by granting Chechnya a
high degree of autonomy, renouncing the
future use of force, and accepting the elected
nationalist president, Aslan Maskhadov.
As for the US government’s statements
during that First Chechen War, I have written from experience as a member of the
Clinton administration. In my memoir of
US–Russia relations in the 1990s, The Russia Hand (2002), I acknowledged that we
knew little about the Chechens’ side of the
story and were inclined to accept Moscow’s,
a shortcoming that skewed our analysis and
policy. I also expressed regret over missing
a chance to persuade President Clinton not
to compare Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln.
That said, those of us who met with Yeltsin in the early and mid-1990s could see that
he was frustrated and enervated by the lethal
chaos in the Caucasus. We had quite a different impression of Vladimir Putin when,
as prime minister in 1999, he launched the
Second Chechen War. After several murderous and still not fully explained bombings in Russian cities, he ordered a relentless air campaign against Chechnya. That
assault was much more brutal than Yeltsin’s
war, and it ended with the installation of
Chechen leaders so thuggish, violent, and
deeply entrenched that they have operated
with impunity even in Moscow itself. Yet
Putin’s popularity skyrocketed in Russia,
clinching his succession to Yeltsin and anticipating what he is and does today.
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January 18, 2018
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Useless Joyce
The Prison of Love
Measured Words
French ‘Ecocritique’
Textual Functions, Cultural
Romance, Translation, and the Book
in the Sixteenth Century
Computation and Writing in
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Reading Contemporary French Theory
and Fiction Ecologically
by Tim Conley
by Emily C. Francomano
by Arielle Saiber
by Stephanie Posthumus
Useless Joyce provocatively analyzes
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Cárcel de amor, Emily Francomano
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This anthology provides the evolution
of Italian poetry after World War II. It
includes works by Pasolini, Pagliarani,
Rosselli, Sanguineti and Zanzotto, as
well as Villa and Cacciatore.
Журналы и газеты
Размер файла
13 128 Кб
journal, The New York Review of Books
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