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The New York Review of Books - February 10, 2018

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Anna Deavere Smith on
Jesmyn Ward
March 8, 2018 / Volume LXV, Number 4
The Ruin of Venezuela
by Enrique Krauze
Anthony Appiah on Michel Leiris
John Banville on Oscar Wilde
Nathaniel Rich on
Philip Roth
Princeton University Press is a
#PressforProgress
Reputation
Misdemeanorland
Perfect Me
Unnatural Selection
Gloria Origgi
Issa Kohler-Hausmann
Heather Widdows
Katrina van Grouw
The Extreme
Gone Mainstream
Living on Paper
On Weaving
Iris Murdoch
Anni Albers
“Keep the Damned
Women Out”
The Sum of
Small Things
Committed to Memory
Nancy Weiss Malkiel
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
Cheryl Finley
The Social Meaning
of Money
Uneasy Street
A Thirst for Empire
Black Out
Viviana A. Zelizer
Rachel Sherman
Erika Rappaport
Asma Naeem
Cynthia Miller-Idriss
An Academic Life
Hanna Holborn Gray
press.princeton.edu
Contents
4
8
10
Enrique Krauze
Kwame Anthony Appiah
Cathleen Schine
12
15
Anna Deavere Smith
Fintan O’Toole
17
18
21
Charles Glass
John Banville
Adam Tooze
24
Christopher Benfey
28
29
30
Eamon Duffy
Vona Groarke
Regina Marler
33
Glen S. Fukushima
36
39
Nathaniel Rich
Negar Azimi
42
Letters from
Hell of a Fiesta
Phantom Africa by Michel Leiris, translated from the French by Brent Hayes Edwards
Jewish Comedy: A Serious History by Jeremy Dauber
Feeling Jewish (A Book for Just About Anyone) by Devorah Baum
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Network a play directed by Ivo van Hove, adapted by Lee Hall from the screenplay
by Paddy Chayefsky, at the National Theatre, London
Syria’s New Normal
Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years by Nicholas Frankel
Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment
by Yanis Varoufakis
All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt
by John Taliaferro
Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image
by Joshua Zeitz
The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise
of American Imperialism by Mark Zwonitzer
John Hay, Friend of Giants: The Man and Life Connecting Abraham Lincoln,
Mark Twain, Henry James, and Theodore Roosevelt by Philip McFarland
Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton by Rob Iliffe
Poem
Farewell to the Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism by Whitney Chadwick
Down Below by Leonora Carrington, with an introduction by Marina Warner
The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, with an introduction by Kathryn Davis,
translated from the French by Kathrine Talbot and from the Spanish
by Anthony Kerrigan
Japan’s Security Renaissance: New Policies and Politics for the Twenty-First Century
by Andrew L. Oros
The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia by Kurt M. Campbell
Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China by Sheila A. Smith
Why Write?: Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013 by Philip Roth
India Modern: The Paintings of M. F. Husain an exhibition
at the Art Institute of Chicago
Barbara Ehrlich White, Jed Perl, James Schneider, and Frederick M. Schweitzer
Exclusively in the online edition of this issue at www.nybooks.com
T. H. Breen
Aryeh Neier
Camping with Honest George at the Museum of the American Revolution
The International Criminal Court in an Effective Global Justice System
by Linda E. Carter, Mark S. Ellis, and Charles Chernor Jalloh
DREAMS
DEFERRED
s epa r at e a n d u n eq ua l
THE KERNER COMMISSION
A N D T H E U N R AV E L I N G O F
AMERICAN LIBERALISM
STEVEN M. GILLON
“An enormously impressive
book. . . . Required reading
for all who seek to fathom
the depths, darkness—
and durability—of
American racism.”
—D AV I D M . K E N N E D Y,
Stanford University
CONTRIBUTORS
KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH teaches philosophy at New
York University. His new book, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, based on his 2017 BBC Reith Lectures, will be published in August.
NEGAR AZIMI is the Senior Editor of Bidoun and has written
for Artforum, Harper’s, and The New York Times Magazine,
among other publications.
JOHN BANVILLE’s Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir is published in February.
CHRISTOPHER BENFEY is Mellon Professor of English at
Mount Holyoke. He is the author of Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival.
EAMON DUFFY is Emeritus Professor of the History of
Christianity at the University of Cambridge. His latest book is
Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England.
GLEN S. FUKUSHIMA is a Senior Fellow at the Center for
American Progress based in Washington, D.C., San Francisco,
and Tokyo. He served as Deputy Assistant United States Trade
Representative for Japan and China in the 1980s and as President
of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan in the 1990s.
CHARLES GLASS is a former ABC News Chief Middle East
Correspondent. He is the author, most recently, of Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring. His reporting was supported in part by a grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.
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
VONA GROARKE’s latest book is her Selected Poems. She
teaches at the University of Manchester.
ENRIQUE KRAUZE is the author of Redeemers: Ideas and
Power in Latin America and Editor-in-Chief of the magazine
Letras Libres, published in Mexico City. HANK HEIFETZ is a
poet, novelist, and translator from Spanish, Sanskrit, and Tamil.
REGINA MARLER is the author of Bloomsbury Pie: The
Making of the Bloomsbury Boom. She edited Queer Beats:
How the Beats Turned America on to Sex and the Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell.
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.
NATHANIEL RICH is the author, most recently, of King
Zeno.
CATHLEEN SCHINE’s latest novel is They May Not Mean to
but They Do.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH is an actress and playwright. Her
film Notes from the Field will be aired on HBO on February 24.
ADAM TOOZE is the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of History and the Director of the European Institute at
Columbia. His new book, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial
Crises Changed the World, will be published in August.
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T H E D E AT H A N D L E G A C Y O F
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
JA SON SOKOL
“An important, timely, and
invigorating addition to the
vast literature on Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr. By examining
the evolution of King’s legacy
after his death with great care
and deft analysis, historian
Jason Sokol offers new
insights into the meaning of
a life that continues
to shape contemporary
American democracy.”
—P E N I E L E . J O S E P H,
author of Stokely: A Life
On the cover: Petare, eastern Caracas, Venezuela, 2007; photograph by Christopher Anderson (Magnum Photos).
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3
Pancho Cajas
Hell of a Fiesta
Nicolás Maduro
Enrique Krauze
In the spring of 2017, and all through
the year, social media feeds in Venezuela were filled with images of deprivation and despair: long lines of people
hoping to purchase food; women fighting over a stick of butter; mothers who
could not find milk to buy; children
picking through garbage in search of
something to eat; empty shelves in
pharmacies and stores; hospitals without stretchers, drugs, or minimum levels of hygiene; doctors operating on
a patient by the light of a cell phone;
women giving birth outside of hospitals. Venezuela’s economy, the economist Ricardo Hausmann wrote in a
recent study, is suffering a collapse
that is “unprecedented” in the Western world.1 Between 2013 and 2017 the
country’s national and per capita GDPs
contracted more severely than those of
the US did during the Great Depression and more than those of Russia,
Cuba, and Albania did after the fall of
communism.
This is a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions. By May 2017,
Venezuela’s minimum monthly wage
wasn’t enough to meet even 12 percent
of a single person’s basic food needs.2
A survey of 6,500 households by three
prestigious universities showed that 74
percent of the population had lost on
average nineteen pounds in 2016. Infant mortality in hospitals has risen by
100 percent. Diseases nearly eradicated
in many countries, like malaria and
diphtheria, have flourished; illnesses
largely new to the area, like Chikungunya, Zika, and dengue, have spread.
Caracas is now the most dangerous city
on the planet. All this is happening in
a country that has one of the largest oil
reserves in the world.
None of the present crises seemed
likely in 2007 and 2008, when I made a
number of visits to Venezuela. Caracas
was seen as the new Mecca for the European, Latin American, and American
left. Progressive news organizations,
magazines, and newspapers including
The Guardian, The New Yorker, and
the BBC reported favorably on Hugo
Chávez, whose presidency lasted from
1999 until 2013. They mentioned the
dangers of his cult of personality but
yielded to it all the same. Chávez, as
the writer Alma Guillermoprieto succinctly noted in these pages, was “indisputably fascinating, and often even
endearing.”3
Despite ever-growing limitations on
freedom of expression and the canceling of the license of RCTV (the principal independent radio and television
service), some analysts, including the
British writer Tariq Ali, kept proclaiming that Venezuela was the most democratic country in Latin America. Since
they were indulgent of Cuba, they didn’t
mind that Venezuela was drifting toward
the authoritarian Cuban model. They
rightly celebrated Chávez’s successes
at reducing poverty, but they failed to
see the damage his administration was
meanwhile inflicting on the country’s
entire productive infrastructure—most
consequentially, on Venezuela’s stateowned petroleum company, Petróleos
de Venezuela (PDVSA).
In 1998, as the development specialists
Ramón Espinasa and Carlos Sucre note
in their recent study of the Venezuelan
oil industry,4 PDVSA employed 40,000
people and produced 3.4 million barrels of oil per day. By the first decade of
the twenty-first century, it projected it
would be producing 4.4 million barrels
per day. It operated autonomously and
by law deposited its profits in the country’s Central Bank. With Chávez’s election, all this changed. He ordered that
PDVSA personnel be hired for their
political credentials rather than their
technical skills, and that oil be sold
at highly discounted prices to Latin
American countries sympathetic to his
administration.
1
“Venezuela’s Unprecedented Collapse,” Project Syndicate, July 31, 2017,
a brief résumé of the internal report
Background and Recent Economic
Trends (Harvard Center for International Development, 2017).
2
As of this writing, the minimum
monthly wage is $5, enough to buy four
pounds of meat and nothing else.
3
“Don’t Cry for Me, Venezuela,” The
New York Review, October 6, 2005.
4
4
Ramón Espinasa and Carlos Sucre,
The Fall and Collapse of the Venezuelan Oil Sector, August 2017. See
also Igor Hernández and Francisco
Monaldi, Weathering Collapse: An
Assessment of the Financial and Operational Situation of the Venezuelan
Oil Industry, Center for International
Development Working Paper no. 327,
November 2016, Harvard University;
available at growthlab.cid.harvard.edu.
In December 2002, the employees
of PDVSA went on strike. The government responded by stripping the company of its administrative autonomy,
nullifying the exchange agreement that
required PDVSA to sell all foreign currency resulting from the sale of oil to
the Central Bank, and handling those
resources discretionally itself, outside
the budget approved by the Venezuelan
National Assembly. Roughly 20,000
employees were dismissed, two thirds
of them with technical and professional skills. In the years that followed,
PDVSA became a super-ministry; it distributed food, built houses, and managed some of the 1,400 businesses that
Chávez frenetically nationalized starting in 2007. During Chávez’s presidency, it came to employ three times
as many people as it had before 1998.
Its productivity, on the other hand, fell
significantly; it produced 700,000 fewer
barrels per day. This reduction was
masked in part by the surge in oil prices
that began in 2002 and peaked in 2008
at $147 per barrel.
Critics of Chávez—former guerrillas, opposition leaders, left-wing
intellectuals, labor and religious leaders, artists, businessmen, students,
academics, and former military officers—foresaw what was coming. One
of those voices was Espinasa, who told
me in 2008 that “the prices will fall;
the government will not be able to halt
its expenditures and production will
not recover; the collapse is inevitable;
the perfect storm is coming.” But oil
revenues remained high for four years,
and Chávez used these revenues to
spend more than ever. Each year he
left a public-sector deficit of around
10 percent of the GDP. Between 2014
and 2015—by which point oil prices
had collapsed, Chávez had died, and
Nicolás Maduro had succeeded him as
president—those deficits reached 20
percent of the GDP.
The government justified such spending by wagering that the price of oil
would simply continue to rise. In 2008
Alí Rodríguez Araque, one of Chávez’s
main advisers and at that time minister of finance, told me that the price
would go as high as $250 per barrel. In
June 2014, when prices fell, the country
would have been less badly damaged
had the government saved at least part
of the profits it had made during the
boom, as PDVSA had previously been
required by law to do. Studies have
shown that these savings could have
amounted to $233 billion. Not only did
the government fail to do this; it sextupled its external debt to $172 billion,
making Venezuela the most indebted
nation in the world.
Between 1999 and 2017 PDVSA
earned $635 billion in cash and produced an additional $406 billion worth
of oil, which it used to subsidize the
internal market (gasoline in Venezuela
is virtually free) and reward countries
seen as politically sympathetic to the
regime. What happened to the rest of
this money? Jorge Giordani, a former
minister of planning who left the government in 2014, estimates that $300
billion was simply stolen. Another
portion was wasted on unfinished
pharaonic projects (rail lines, bridges
started but left incomplete), purchases
of Russian military equipment, opaque
and unaccountable multibillion-dollar
public entities such as the Venezuelan
Economic and Social Development
Bank and the Fund for National Development, costly and unproductive
expropriations, wasteful imports to
compensate for the lack of internal
production, purely sumptuary imports
(500,000 automobiles in 2006 alone),
and excessive growth in public employment. From 1998 to 2013, consumption grew by 60 percent but production
barely increased.
From this pattern a clear conclusion can be drawn: the tragedy of the
Venezuelan economy is due not to the
fall of oil prices in 2014 but to PDVSA’s
historic collapse in production. The
dismantling of that institution set a pattern of politicization and opaque and
inefficient management for the rest of
Venezuela’s economy, including the
steel, farming, cattle, fishing, transport,
construction, food, and fertilizer industries. In 2007, the country exported 85
percent of its cement; today it has to
import cement from abroad.
It
became common to call Chávez
“the soul of the fiesta.” The people of
Venezuela hung on his every declaration. In December 2007 he scheduled
a referendum that proposed dozens
of constitutional changes meant to
consolidate the Venezuelan socialist
state: unrestricted presidential terms,
limitations on private property, a “new
political geometry” (which in practice
would become a form of gerrymandering), the consolidation of his personal
guard as a kind of army parallel to the
country’s military, suppression of the
autonomy of the Central Bank, direct
access for the president to the country’s international monetary reserves
and the license to use them however
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February 25–May 13
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5
6
nosed with cancer, he died in Caracas
on March 5, 2013, after undergoing
long and somewhat mysterious treatments in Havana. In Patria o Muerte, a
recent novel by Alberto Barrera Tyszka
set during the Comandante’s final agonies in Cuba, a poor woman explains
to Madeleine, an American academic,
why she feels grateful for Chávez:
He changed my way of thinking, of
looking, of looking at myself. You
ask what did he give me, concretely
you say. As I have told you. It’s that
we had nothing, that we
were nothing. Or better
said, we felt that we were
nothing, that we had no
value, we did not matter.
And that is what Chávez
changed. That’s what he
gave us.
can countries. But it was his intimacy
with Chávez during the Comandante’s final illness that brought him the
presidency.
Maduro had a messiah before
Chávez, the famous Indian guru Sai
Baba, accredited by his followers with
magic powers. He and his wife spent
some time at Sai Baba’s ashram in
India. The connection with Sai Baba
explains his frequent wearing of orange
tunics, his Indian-style greeting with
closed hands raised before his face, and
his superstitious conviction of being
half of what it produced when Chávez
was elected in 1998. Maduro nonetheless intends to continue his rule. Presidential elections are set for the end of
April, with himself as the prime candidate. Few expect them to be free or fair.
Key figures in the opposition have been
banned from running, imprisoned, or
forced into exile.
M
aduro’s presidency has given rise
to one of the most impressive defenses
of democracy in the twenty-first century. Between April and
July 2017, hundreds of thousands took to the streets
to protest the decision of
the Venezuelan Supreme
Court—which Maduro controls—to dissolve the National Assembly, the only
independent power that
still existed in Venezuela, in
The Comandante was
which a two-thirds majority
one of them. He spoke with
opposed the government.
them and for them. He apThe demonstrators’ confronpealed to the natural relitations with the Bolivarian
giosity of a people drawn
National Guard led to over
to faith, magic, and the folk
120 deaths, thousands of inreligion of Santería. This
juries, and the imprisonment
appeal could be used to
and torture of hundreds. 5
manipulate opinion and beOn July 16, almost seven
havior. Chávez had always
and a half million people—
taken his identification with
a quarter of the population
Bolívar to extremes, but in
and more than a third of
2010 those extremes reached
the electorate—voted in an
an especially morbid level: he
unofficial referendum held
opened Bolívar’s sarcophaby the opposition to defend
gus, ordered the painting of
the National Assembly and
a portrait supposedly based
reject the call by the Elecon DNA evidence, and presented Bolívar not as the cretoral Authority (also conole he was (of pure Spanish
trolled by Maduro) to elect
descent) but as a mestizo like
a new and illegal Constituent
Chávez.
Assembly. Most of the candidates for the Constituent
Assembly had been chosen
he man entrusted with the
by municipal governments
responsibility for Chávez’s
and organizations loyal to
legacy has been Nicolás
Maduro.
Maduro. He was called “The
The effort came to nothA supporter of Hugo Chávez waiting in line to view his coffin at the
priest of Chavismo” by the
ing. After an election that
Military Academy, Fort Tiuna, Caracas, March 2013; photograph by
Venezuelan journalist Roger
was clearly fraudulent (acJerome Sessini from Magnum Manifesto, edited by Clément Chéroux
Santodomingo, the author of
cording to Smartmatic, the
with Clara Bouveresse and published by Thames and Hudson
De verde a Maduro, a brief
company that provided the
and Contrasto on the seventieth anniversary of Magnum Photos.
biography—more accurately
software for it), the spurious
An exhibition is on view at the Ara Pacis Museum, Rome,
a piece of reportage—pubConstituent Assembly was
February 7–June 3, 2018.
lished in 2013 and based on a
established. With the opposipair of interviews done some
tion divided, weakened, and
years earlier. Maduro, who was born in
discouraged, Maduro now has immense
protected by some superior power.
1962, recalled, in detail, scenes of “popower, which he has been using to seRevelations about Sai Baba’s pedolice brutality” he had witnessed as a
verely limit freedom of expression. After
philia and his closeness to the Uganchild. As a young man he tried being
the protests it became dangerous to post
dan dictator Idi Amin did not appear
a rock musician and a baseball player,
images of the poverty and desperation
to disturb Maduro. Without renouncbut he also maintained connections
to which much of the country has been
ing his devotion to Sai Baba, Maduro
with left-wing organizations, thanks to
brought. The Constituent Assembly—
transferred it to Chávez. During his
which, in 1986, he spent some months
many of whose members have incited
tenure as minister of foreign relations
in Cuba studying Marxist-Leninism.
hate for twenty years—has approved
he became Chávez’s vice-president,
He was for a time a bus driver and a
a law that can impose up to twenty
spokesperson, and faithful apostle.
union leader.
years of prison time on anyone who
“I am Chávez,” Maduro said shortly
Although in 1993 he visited Chávez
“foments, promotes, or incites hate.”
before his leader died. But although
in prison, he did not belong to the inner
According to the public health activhe spoke like Chávez, he was certainly
circle and was barely noticed when in
ist Feliciano Reyna, much of the blame
not Chávez. After his death, Maduro
2000 he was elected as a deputy to
for Venezuela’s present crisis lies with
declared publicly that “Chávez apthe National Assembly. His dizzying
Maduro. “What is happening is delibpeared to me in the form of a little
ascent to power began in 2006, when
erate,” Reyna argues, pointing to the
bird.” Although some writers still treat
Chávez named him minister of foreign
president’s refusal to accept an offer
Maduro as an astute leader and a pure
relations. Surrounded by older men
revolutionary who has met with hard
5
The International Criminal Court in
from whom he sought independence
times, the regime is now very close to
The Hague announced on February 8
and by military officers of his own age
a full dictatorship. It has lost its quasithat preliminary probes would be made
whom he distrusted, Chávez needed
religious aura. Maduro’s government
into alleged crimes by police and secuthe loyalty and support of younger
has been forcing Venezuelans into subrity forces in Venezuela. The crimes
men and came to recognize Maduro as
mission or exile (an estimated 500,000
concern “frequently used excessive
unconditionally devoted to him. Durhave fled in the last two years) while it
force to disperse and put down demoning Maduro’s time as a diplomat—in
counts on a rise in the price of oil. But
strations,” as well as the abuse of some
the years of the oil bonanza—he connot even that miracle would compenopposition members in detention. See
solidated the regime’s alliances with
sate for PDVSA’s decline in production,
Aryeh Neier, “A Glimmer of Justice,”
down to 1.7 million barrels per day,
in the online edition of this issue.
politically sympathetic Latin AmeriJerome Sessini/Magnum Photos
he pleased, and the establishment of a
“popular power” based on the creation
of communes.
The referendum required a single
“yes” or “no” vote for all the provisions together, but to Chávez’s surprise
the negative votes prevailed. Students
made important contributions to the
mobilization against the initiative, but
Venezuelans in general rejected the
radical drift Chávez was proposing toward the Cuban model. “Enjoy your
shitty victory,” Chávez said, promising
to advance his project through decrees
instead. Over the last decade, his government and that of his successor have
fulfilled that promise.
Chávez wanted to create a federation with Cuba. He had since his youth
been intoxicated by a heroic view of
history. His favorite work of political
theory was The Role of the Individual
in History by Georgi Plekhanov, whose
vision of the Great Man distinctly
equipped to address “the great social
needs of his time” Chávez dreamed of
applying to Venezuela, and to himself.
He would present himself as the heir
of Simón Bolívar, erasing or rejecting
all of the country’s history between the
death of Bolívar and his own accession
to power.
But it was Fidel Castro who became
his “spiritual father.” Before Chávez
was elected president, after a trip to
Cuba, he emphasized his admiration
for Castro’s relation to his people: “It’s
as if Fidel is everything.” During the
first year of his presidency, in a speech
at the University of Havana, Chávez
predicted that “Venezuela is heading
toward the same sea as the Cuban people, a sea of happiness, of true social
justice, of peace.” When Castro fell ill
in 2006, Chávez accelerated his revolutionary project, against the counsel of
his most experienced advisers.
For Cuba, which had since 1959 hungered for preferential access to Venezuelan oil, the Chávez connection offered
significant economic advantages. At its
height in 2013, according to the CubanAmerican economist Carmelo MesaLago, Venezuela contributed about 15
percent of Cuba’s GDP—more than the
USSR did in the 1980s. About 40,000
Cubans, many of them doctors, were
sent to Venezuela and assigned to attend to the poor, part of a widespread
program of Chávez’s to import Cuban
educational and medical personnel
into the country in exchange for oil
subsidies.
Critics of this “mission” system
pointed to the abandonment of established health institutions (hundreds of
hospitals and thousands of mobile clinics), the cost for Venezuela ($6 billion
in 2013 alone), and the political nature
of the operation, since Chávez received
obedience in return for his munificence. By now the missions barely
exist, but the Cuban intelligence services remain fully entrenched in Venezuela. The government has ceded the
management of the national identification system to Cuban functionaries, as
well as the control of businesses, customs, and notary publics.
To become a political heir to Castro,
Chávez aspired to transform himself
into the leader of “twenty-first century
socialism,” to become “everything.” He
wanted to remain in power until 2030,
when he would celebrate his seventysixth birthday and the two hundredth
anniversary of the death of Bolívar. It
was a wager Chávez would lose. Diag-
T
The New York Review
from thirteen countries to send food
and medicine through national and
international NGOs and the UN. The
powerful politician Diosdado Cabello
has said that Venezuela won’t accept
the help because doing so would open
the doors for an imperialist invasion. In
his public appearances (during which,
on occasion, he dances the salsa), Maduro has suggested that hunger could
be alleviated by the breeding of rabbits.
One of his solutions to the crisis involved an especially ingenious
combination of feeding people and
manipulating them politically. About
a third of Venezuela’s population depends on receiving imported boxes of
food marked with CLAP, the initials
of the local Committee for Supplies
and Production, which carries out this
distribution according to a system of
identity cards. (A typical CLAP package, which is supposed to arrive every
three weeks, contains small portions of
pasta, rice, powdered milk, and canned
tuna.) In the referendum on the new
Constituent Assembly, the government came up with the idea of forcing
recipients to renew these cards at polling booths, intimidating them with the
prospect of losing their food cards, and
even their homes, if they didn’t vote for
the official candidates.
Instead of reversing the stubborn
statism of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution, Maduro has concentrated on paying the external debt. To do so he has
choked off imports of goods and services, which have dropped by 75 percent between 2012 and 2016. Most of
this contraction has been in manufacturing, commerce, construction, and
transport, but there has been pervasive
damage to the private sector in general.
Between 1998 and 2016, the number of
private enterprises fell from 13,000 to
4,000. At the same time, Maduro has
been printing more currency, leading to dramatic inflation. People now
often have to choose between food and
medicine.
The Maduro government and its supporters maintain that the crisis is the
result of an economic war waged by the
American Empire against the people
of Venezuela. But the United States has
always been the principal customer for
Venezuelan oil—it has bought $477 billion worth since 1998—and has now become one of the few to pay in cash. The
full responsibility lies with the Chávez
and Maduro regimes themselves, which
for fifteen years had a windfall of petroleum resources comparable only
to those of the major Middle Eastern
producers yet wasted that income recklessly. Maduro’s government is not an
unfortunate heir of chavismo but its
natural conclusion, the hangover after
the fiesta. But it is also, in the words of
Feliciano Reyna, “a militaristic project,
aiming to control power, exorbitantly
corrupt and inflicting extensive damage on the Venezuelan population.”
T
hroughout Venezuela’s history,
which has been full of civil wars and
long periods of tyranny, the armed
forces have often intervened and made
radical changes. It happened in 1945,
when the military gave power to civilians and cleared the way for a brief experiment with democracy (1945–1948).
This prefigured the democratic regime
that came to power in 1958, lasted forty
C E L E B R AT ING
years, and led to more social, economic, and cultural achievements than
mistakes before its collapse.
Now even a military intervention
seems improbable. Miguel Henrique
Otero, the editor of El Nacional, an
independent newspaper with a long
history that today only precariously
survives, told me:
The military is divided into various
groups. Many of them—on active
duty or retired—manage public
companies. Recently, an officer of
the Guardia Nacional Boliviana,
who was active in repressing the
protests of 2017, has been named
director of PDVSA. Others have
connections with the narcos, and
some hold governmental positions.
In 2002 there were seventy generals
in Venezuela, now there are 1,200.
The common soldiers have gained
little and are a reservoir of violence
and desertion. The army does not
at present seem to be showing signs
of rebellion, and, if such sentiments
do exist in the middle ranks of officers, those who harbor them live
in fear of Cuban espionage.
Although the regime now appears to
have everything under control, it may
still end up defeated by the human
and material cost of its failures. “If the
economy remains as it is, we will die,”
Ricardo Hausmann affirms. He is not
exaggerating. Even if oil prices start
rising again, as long as Venezuelan oil
production does not recover the country will be doomed. It is already well on
its way to hyperinflation, which almost
no regime has survived. The Maduro
government may well continue applying
the Cuban method of control through
scarcity, but it cannot rule out the possibility that the population’s increasing
hunger and illness will lead to a social
eruption of enormous proportions.
Is there an exit strategy? According to Hausmann, the regime needs to
immediately allow food and medicine
into Venezuela, negotiate a substantial
reduction in the country’s huge debt,
arrange for an adequate delay in paying off the rest, and with the remaining resources open the gates to imports
that might revive the economy. Such an
economic shift would have to be accompanied by equally dramatic political
changes. Maduro’s government would
have to guarantee free and fair elections, liberate political prisoners, and
recognize the National Assembly as the
only legitimate parliamentary body.
Maduro is bound to oppose such reforms. But Venezuela has fallen into
so deep an abyss that positive moves
along these lines would meet with almost universal support from democratic countries around the world. The
United States might in the past have
favored such solutions, but under Donald Trump it has fallen into its own sort
of chavismo. And although supporters in Europe and Latin America have
expressed solidarity with the opposition, Venezuelans, in effect, remain
alone. In one of the country’s hellish
hospitals, a woman told a reporter
for El Nacional: “So rich a country.
We had everything and they destroyed
it. And the future.”
—February 8, 2018;
translated from the Spanish
by Hank Heifetz
YE ARS
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7
Surreal Anthropology
Kwame Anthony Appiah
On April 15, 1931, a host of Parisian
luminaries gathered to attend a boxing match showcasing “Panama” Al
Brown—an Afro-Panamanian bantamweight and the sport’s first Latino
world champion. If a resurrected Proust
had wanted to evoke the social life of
Paris at the time, he could have done
worse than to focus one of his swirling
crowd scenes around this sporting gala.
Marcel Mauss, the great sociologist,
nephew of Émile Durkheim and wellknown author of the brilliant The Gift
(Essai sur le don), fresh from giving his
first classes as the new chair of sociology
at the Collège de France, epitomized
the elite of the French academy. Representing the social elite was the Vicomte
de Noailles, patron of all the arts. He
had commissioned music from Francis
Poulenc, financed Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge
d’or, and was the first major collector
of Salvador Dalí. Accompanying him
was his friend and protégé Jean Cocteau, who (astonishingly) was then
Panama Al Brown’s boxing manager
and (rather less astonishingly) seems to
have been one of his client’s many male
lovers. Brown was no more a standard
pugilist than Cocteau—artist, writer,
filmmaker, doyen of the avant-garde—
was a traditional manager: he had been
a jazz singer in Paris and tap- danced in
Josephine Baker’s Revue Nègre.
The bout was a fund-raiser, and a successful one, yielding more than 100,000
francs for a notable cause: Brown
announced that he was fighting “to
increase the knowledge about and understanding of Africa.” In particular,
the event was in support of an expedition across French Africa, stretching
more than five thousand miles from
Dakar, Senegal, capital of French West
Africa, to Djibouti, capital of French
Somaliland. Subvention had already
arrived from the French parliament,
various other French ministries and
institutions, and the Rockefeller Foundation, but this mission—at its core a
shopping trip that was to last more than
a year and a half—would not be cheap.
Every franc counted.
The Mission ethnographique et linguistique Dakar–Djibouti was led by
the entrepreneurial anthropologist
Marcel Griaule and included a couple
of trained linguists, a botanist, an ethnomusicologist, an official artist, a fellow with expertise in transportation as
well as in film and photography, and a
handyman who also served as a nurse,
mechanic, cobbler, and barber. Then
there was the mission’s “secretaryarchivist,” Michel Leiris, who was also
in attendance at that Paris gala.
Leiris, not yet thirty, was a curious choice for the position. He was
a lightly occupied litterateur: a poet,
a critic, and an editor at Georges Bataille’s Surrealist journal Documents,
a fantastic mélange of ethnography,
archaeology, and music and art criticism, with photographic celebrations
of everything from abattoirs to the big
toe. Leiris—who had allied himself
with André Breton’s first Surrealist
8
Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris /© The Estate of Francis Bacon.
All rights reserved, ARS , NY / DACS , London/Artimage 2018. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.
Phantom Africa
by Michel Leiris, translated from the
French by Brent Hayes Edwards.
Seagull, 711 pp., $60.00
Francis Bacon: Portrait of Michel Leiris, 1976
manifesto in 1924, only to be expelled
in a “purge” that followed a few years
later—had extensive connections in the
art world and was married to the stepdaughter of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler,
the first great art dealer of the Cubists.
He earned his bona fides as a Surrealist poet in 1925 with the publication of
Simulacre, whose method of composition he described like this:
On a blank page inscribe—disconnectedly, in the greatest possible
disorder—a certain number of
words that strike you as being resonant. When you feel prompted to
link several of them together, circle each and construct a sentence.
Continue doing this until you have
exhausted all the words on the
page, except (perhaps) for one or
two which will supply the title.
The results can be oddly pleasing:
hors des perspectives du langage
le règne des ossatures s’abreuve
au nid muet de l’énigme.
[outside the perspectives of
language
the reign of skeletons drinks deep
at the voiceless nest of the
enigma.]
His only other published book at
that point was Le point cardinal, which
an admirer once described as a “sustained prose narrative of erotic transcendence,” providing an account of
“the gradual attainment of surreality
by a speaking subject.” Is this someone
you’d entrust with keeping the official
record of an ethnographic odyssey?
“What inspired Griaule to take me
on as a collaborator?” Leiris himself
asked. “This remains unclear to me;
but for it I will always be grateful to
Griaule, or to the demon that inspired
him.” We all have reason to be grateful
to that demon. L’Afrique fantôme, the
account of the Dakar–Djibouti mission
that Leiris published in 1934, the year
after his return, is by turns annoying,
charming, fascinating, and simply bizarre. This book is no bantamweight,
weighing in at some seven hundred
pages of exhausting if irresistible reading. We should be grateful, too, for
Brent Hayes Edwards’s fluid and intelligent new translation and the rich but
unobtrusive scholarly apparatus that
surrounds it. Some of the many rewards of this edition are to be found in
the margins of the text, where Edwards
has assembled useful counterpoints of
various kinds, including excerpts from
the letters Leiris wrote along the way to
his wife, Zette.
Many have seen this intensely personal work as the opening salvo in a
lifelong onslaught of autobiographical
writing, a predecessor to Leiris’s 1939
L’Âge d’homme (Manhood), which
Susan Sontag described in these pages
as a “brilliant and repulsive autobiographical narrative.” Manhood’s successors, the four volumes of La Règle
du jeu (The Rules of the Game), published from 1948 to 1976, were to make
their author one of the most admired
French literary figures of his generation. Given his wide and weighty reputation, it’s surprising that an English
translation of Phantom Africa has had
to wait more than eighty years.
T
he steamship Saint-Firmin set sail
from Bordeaux for West Africa about a
month after that rather surreal sporting
gala, with the Dakar–Djibouti mission
team aboard. They had been charged
with collecting art and artifacts for
the two major Parisian museums that
then displayed African material culture: the Natural History Museum
and the ethnographic museum of the
Trocadéro, where two decades earlier
Picasso, encountering its collection of
African masks, had come to realize,
in his words, “what painting was all
about.” Along the way, the mission’s
members were to conduct high-speed
interrogations of a score of cultures
and languages—a sort of anthropological speed dating. There were only two
extended visits, with Dogon villagers
in Mali and with the Amhara people
in Gondar, Ethiopia. The mission had
the support of the French authorities
when it was moving through French
West Africa and French Somaliland,
in places that are now in Senegal, Mali,
Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and
Djibouti; but it passed as well through
the Belgian Congo and British Nigeria,
where it received the friendly support
of the local administrators of these
other European powers; its patron for
the stay in Gondar was the local consul of Mussolini’s Italian government,
which was soon to make Ethiopia one
of its colonial possessions (though for
less than five years).
None of this stopped Leiris from
remarking critically on the habits of
colonial officials or from noticing the
darker sides of the colonial system and
the barriers it placed between Europeans and Africans. After a drunken
exchange of “lyrical compliments”
stressing the brotherhood of man with
a group of Dogon elders, Leiris writes:
What a sinister comedy these old
Dogon and I have been playing! A
European hypocrite, all sugar and
honey, and a Dogon hypocrite, so
trite because so much weaker—
and accustomed to tourists, in
any case—will not be brought
any closer by the exchange of
fermented liquor. The only link
there is between us is a common
duplicity.
Three months later, he says he is “less
and less able to stand the idea of colonization” and suggests that all the talk
about the welfare of the natives is in
the service of reducing resistance so
they will “pay their taxes.” In a letter to
Picasso, he writes that “the arrogance
of white men, more something stupid
than positively malicious, is on display
at every occasion.” Edwards rightly
speaks of Leiris’s “contemptuous depictions of the parade of mediocre colonial administrators.”
The most consistent attitude of the
book, though, is not really anticolonialism but a kind of generalized misanthropy. If the administrators are
stupid, the locals are dishonest, manipulative, duplicitous—as, of course,
are the members of the Mission Dakar–
Djibouti; as, of course, is Leiris. It
took him another couple of decades to
The New York Review
revealed in his willingness to report
the overnight work of his own unconscious. (The cultural theorist James
Clifford has aptly referred to Leiris’s
“oneirography.”) His entries for 1932,
for example, begin:
1 January.
A dream: A French district commissioner, affiliated with a powerful sect of Dahomean fetishists,
tries to strangle me while I sleep;
it seems to have something to do
with a human sacrifice; I yell to
Griaule for help.
Nor are dreams like these the only
intensely personal details he shares.
On another occasion he worries out
tom Africa is, I think, less demanding.
All the same, there is something seductive about the ruthless self-revelation,
which was to go even further in Manhood (a book he had begun before the
trip but finished only on his return).
Long before the celebrated “autofictions” of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Leiris—in this work as in his later, interior
ethnographies—relished self- exposure
in its chilliest forms. He dares us to dislike him.
Consider Leiris’s investigations—
over the long months spent among
Amhara villagers in Gondar—into a
form of spirit-possession by the zar,
spirits who inhabited their priestesses
and could harm and heal. (More than
twenty years after his return, he pubPrivate Collection
“blossom,” as Edwards puts it in his
helpful introduction, “into a full-fledged
anticolonial stance.”
Leiris’s journal is nevertheless
franker about the mission’s methods
than Griaule and the mission’s government sponsors would have preferred. On September 6, 1931, visiting
the village of Kemeni—in what is now
south- central Mali—Griaule pockets a
couple of flutes he finds in a shrine, hiding them “inside his boots.” Not long
afterward, Griaule gets fed up with the
refusal of the chief of a Bamana shrine
to agree on the terms for viewing an
important ritual object, which Leiris
describes as “an enormous mask of a
vaguely animal form, unfortunately
deteriorated but entirely covered with
a crust of coagulated blood.” The object played a central role in the ceremonies of the kono society, whose initiates
learn secret knowledge from a ritual
expert. Griaule decides that he has had
enough of the locals, and then decrees
that, since they are clearly mocking us, they must hand over the
kono as recompense in exchange
for 10 francs, or the police supposedly hiding in the truck will take
the chief and the village notables
to San, where they will have to
explain themselves to the administration. Appalling blackmail!
Edwards’s marginal note to the passage tells us, “In the manuscript, ‘Appalling blackmail’ replaced a sentence
that Leiris crossed out: ‘A peculiar
operation involving all sorts of things,
from simple bluffing to blackmail, the
abuse of power, fraud, and pure profanation.’” Ten francs in today’s money is
five or six dollars—for the central ritual
object of Bamana traditional religion.
The following day, Griaule orders
Leiris and a fellow mission member to
creep into a shrine in the next village
and steal another piece, without the
bother of having to negotiate a price.
“My heart is beating very loudly,” Leiris wrote that evening, “because, since
yesterday’s fiasco, I am more keenly
aware of the enormity of our crime.”
It’s no wonder that he came to refer to
the objects they collected as butin, a
word that shares its Germanic origins
with the English word “booty.”
Still, given recent debates about the
return of colonial expropriations, it’s
worth pointing out, as Leiris did later,
that episodes like these were rare.
“We paid for almost everything,” Leiris told some younger anthropologists
more than fifty years on. If the flutes
and the kono have rightful owners
somewhere who might want to make a
claim on them, much of the rest of the
butin seems to have been acquired for
an agreed price from people who were
entitled to sell it. And so these objects
(many of which are now in the Musée
du Quai Branly in Paris) can continue
to serve the function Leiris hoped they
would: reducing ethnocentric prejudices by making the civilizations of Africa intelligible to Europeans.
André Breton, in his first “Surrealist
Manifesto,” wrote, “A story is told that,
in former times, Saint-Pol-Roux used
to have a placard posted on the door of
his manor house in Camaret, every evening before he went to sleep, on which
you could read: THE POET IS WORKING.” Leiris’s debts to Surrealism are
March 8, 2018
pedition extended to sexual tourism.)
Exploring the zar, Leiris is constantly
offering the women gifts—money, perfume, blankets, animals for sacrifice.
His sense that he is being manipulated
in order to keep this booty coming eventually undermines their relationships.
By the time he is leaving, he writes of
Emawayish, “Her above all I can bear
no longer.” In the daily back and forth
of their negotiations about which rites
the priestesses of the zar will perform
for his review, a pattern of mutual exploitation develops, though one that is
outside the colonial setting that frames
so many of the mission’s earlier activities. For only here, toward the end of
their journey, in independent Ethiopia—where Haile Selassie was newly
ensconced as Negusa Nagast, King of
Kings—did the mission members face
a set of officials rather less compliant
than the colonial administrators who
had cleared their path elsewhere. The
comedy of Griaule’s negotiations with
a variety of Ethiopian officials, first
about their entry into the country, and
then about their departure, provides
one of the high points of the narrative.
Upon his return from the journey,
Michel Leiris (second from left) during a ceremony at the house of the priestess
Malkam Ayyahou (top center), Gondar, Ethiopia, September 1932
loud about his impotence. In early
April 1932, he starts drafting a possible
preface to the book, telling us, for no
evident reason, that he reread it “in the
toilet.” In this abandoned preface he
takes up the question why there is so
much about its author in the mission’s
official diary:
Some will say that, speaking of Africa, I don’t need to say whether,
on such-and-such a day, I was in
a good mood, or even how I defecated. I would reply that while not
being the sort of person who falls
to his knees before his own works
(whether it is a matter of books or
of children, two kinds of excrement), I do not see why, if all else
fails, I should let such an event pass
in silence. Not only is it just as important in itself as the fact that this
or that tree, or a native dressed in
this or that fashion, or this or that
animal happened to be at a given
moment on the side of the road.
But this phenomenon of defecation
also must be recounted because it
is valuable from the perspective of
the narrative’s authenticity.
A little later, he adds—in a sentence
that could have been written by Montaigne—“I have as little taste as I have
talent for speaking of what I do not
know, and the only thing I know well
is myself.” He is, as Montaigne put it,
“myself the matter of my book.”
If Leiris doesn’t have a persuasive
account of how or why he chose what
to tell us, the peculiar focus on himself
is a critical aspect of the work’s fascination. Sontag observed of Manhood
that it “makes unusual demands on our
interest in the author as a man.” Phan-
lished a monograph based on this
work.*) Over more than a hundred
pages, Leiris reports the daily waxing
and waning of his relationships with a
variety of figures in this female cult,
starting with Malkam Ayyahou, the
“lady chieftess of the zar,” whom he
views—when they meet in July 1932—
as “part procuress, part clown, and part
pythoness.” Then he meets her daughter, Emawayish, and carries on with her
a strange, extended relationship, with
an erotic dimension that is oddly inexplicit. One wonders what Leiris’s wife
thought as she received the regular installments of the journal that he mailed
to her for safekeeping. In early September, he describes the young priestess
as “so placid and beautiful.” In a note
added after his return, he writes of having “put my hand under her shamma,”
the long white cotton robe worn by
Ethiopian women and men. “I will always remember the dampness between
her thighs—damp as the earth out of
which golems are made.”
“The constant obstacle between me
and Emawayish,” he decides in retrospect, “was the idea that she was
excised, that I couldn’t excite her and
might appear impotent.” (According
to UNICEF, even today two thirds of
Ethiopian women have been excised,
that is, subjected to genital cutting.) In
September 1933, Leiris writes of “the
shame that I felt at having traveled for
nearly two years through Africa without sleeping with a single woman.”
(This was decidedly not true of everyone on the mission; Leiris makes clear
that for some of his colleagues the ex*La Possession et ses aspects théâtraux
chez les Éthiopiens de Gondar (Paris:
Plon, 1958).
Leiris took up a post as an ethnologist
at the Musée de l’Homme, which inherited the collections of the Trocadéro in
1937 (and lost them to the new Musée
du quai Branly in 2006). He worked
there until his retirement in 1971. Griaule went on to be a leading figure in
French social science, becoming the
first chair of anthropology at the Sorbonne. He returned often to work with
the Dogon, and in 1948, he published
Dieu d’eau: Entretiens avec Ogotemmêli, an astonishing account of a series
of conversations with a blind Dogon
hunter who regaled him over thirtythree days with secret cosmological
knowledge. Controversy persists about
how much of this material was Ogotemmêli’s invention and how much was
indeed Dogon tradition. (I am of the
party of the skeptics.) Unsurprisingly,
the publication of L’Afrique fantôme
led to an estrangement between Griaule and Leiris. Other scholars found
it merely baffling. In a three-sentence
journal notice, the great British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard
declared that “the book has little scientific value.”
An unclassifiable classic, Phantom
Africa belongs to no genre. Certainly
its pages have inspired a broad range of
readers over the years. Sartre discussed
the book’s account of Ethiopian spiritpossession extensively in his Cahiers
pour une morale, and called out to it
in “Orphée noir,” his introduction to
Léopold Sédar Senghor’s classic 1948
anthology of new black poetry; in one
of many incantatory passages, Sartre
spoke of “phantom Africa flickering
like a flame between being and nothingness” (thus linking Leiris’s title with
one of his own). Scholars have found
the book’s influence, too, in the novel
Le regard du roi (The Radiance of the
King) by the Guinean author Camara
Laye, one of the most significant works
of francophone African literature; it
traces the journey of a shipwrecked
European whose fictional experiences
bear similarities to Leiris’s account.
Phantom Africa—a dazzling feat of
what James Clifford persuasively calls
“ethnographic surrealism”—remains
at once sui generis and, for many of
9
its French readers, intensely generative. In ways that couldn’t have been
anticipated, it was as valuable as any
of the treasures that came back with
the sometimes unsavory expedition
that Panama Al Brown’s boxing match
helped launch.
Leiris himself was forever marked by
the experiences he recorded. Among
the first of his scholarly works was
one based on the notes of his trip, “La
langue secrète des Dogons de Sanga,”
which, in 1938, served as his thesis at
l’École Pratique des Hautes Études,
and was one of his many distinguished
contributions to ethnography. In postwar Paris, Leiris became an active
supporter of the literary magazine and
publishing house Présence Africaine,
which was a center of anticolonial and
anti-racist organizing. He also became
increasingly active in the French left—
he was a figure in the protests of May
1968—and, when he died, in 1990, he
left most of his estate to human rights
organizations such as the Mouvement
contre le Racisme et pour l’Amitié
entre les Peuples.
The experiment that was Phantom Africa was, perhaps for the best, not to be
repeated. In the decades that followed
his Dakar-to-Djibouti adventures, Leiris
divided his writing largely between eth-
nography and autobiography, separating the two streams of prose nonfiction
that had come together for a moment
in Phantom Africa. Reading this brilliantly idiosyncratic book, seeing how
“scientific” ethnographic knowledge was
made, you can understand why he wrote,
long after his retirement, that ethnography was “a sort of hunt with no quarry
save shadows”—or, as he should perhaps
have said, phantoms.
So Funny You Could Plotz
Cathleen Schine
AP Images
Jewish Comedy:
A Serious History
by Jeremy Dauber.
Norton, 364 pp., $28.95
Feeling Jewish
(A Book for Just About Anyone)
by Devorah Baum.
Yale University Press, 282 pp., $26.00
Many years ago at a literary conference
in Key West that focused on humor, I
heard Billy Collins speak. Comedy, he
said, is the dog that leaves the room
when you call its name. Collins’s wistful, loving resignation over the elusive
nature of comedy has distinguished
antecedents. The list of those who have
called comedy’s name only to watch
it prance off in the other direction,
wagging its tail, is long and illustrious, reaching back millennia. Cicero
warned that one could “discourse more
wittily on any other topic than wit
itself.”
Humor is physical, intellectual, emotional, cultural, ephemeral, essential.
Puns and riddles and slapstick and satire and dirty jokes and knock-knock
jokes, sitcoms and witticisms and
clowns—they find categorical constrictions risible. Like physicists, humor
scholars seek a unified theory. The
linguists Salvatore Attardo and Victor
Raskin have tried to propose one, developing Raskin’s Script-Based Semantic Theory of Humor into the General
Theory of Verbal Humor. As a field of
study, humor is hot.1
Linguists and philosophers and lexicographers are not the only scholars
chasing the dog of comedy. There are
also historians of humor, who would
seem to have an easier task: they’re not
expected to discover its essence. They
study comedy as it has lived. People
have always laughed, in every age, in
every part of the world. We even make
the same sound when we laugh. Mary
Beard points out in Laughter in Ancient Rome, her eloquent examination
of classical humor:
Unlike the barking of dogs, the
grunting of pigs, or the croaking of
frogs—which different languages
render in bewilderingly different
1
For me, a nonspecialized consumer
of comic works and an amateur humor
studies hobbyist, the most accessibly thoughtful and enjoyable book on
the subject I’ve read is Argument of
Laughter (1951) by D. H. Monro, a linguistics professor at Melbourne University. There are nonsense poems by
Edward Lear in it.
10
as sweet as honey, the lion denounces
them as flatterers and eats them. Then
the lion meets a fox, an animal that represents the Jews in these stories:
“Smell me, my friend,” asked the
lion, “and tell me whether my
breath is sweet.” Now the sly fox
saw the pitfall and was wary. “Pardon me, O king of the forest,” said
the fox most politely, “for I cannot
smell at all! I have a bad cold!”
Zero Mostel, Lee Meredith, and Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks’s The Producers, 1967
ways (“oink oink,” says the AngloAmerican pig, “röf röf röf” or “uí
uí” the Hungarian, “soch soch”
the Welsh)—laughter in almost all
world languages, and in entirely
different linguistic families, is rendered as (or includes within its repertoire) some variant on ha ha, hee
hee, or tee hee.
The trouble for historians arises when,
like their fellow comedy scholars, they
have to explain what the “tee hees” are
in response to.
T
his is a challenge that the Columbia
professor and Yiddish scholar Jeremy
Dauber has bravely accepted in Jewish Comedy: A Serious History. It is
indeed a serious study and most interesting at its most serious and obscure.
Dauber sets out one of the basic difficulties of his endeavor in the introduction to the book: “how to define
and describe Jewish humor as it’s appeared in all its vast and variegated
forms, from antiquity to yesterday.”
He offers a straightforward, simple
solution: humor produced by Jews and
humor having something to do with
Jews, regardless of historical period—
a sensible corral for a subject that has
wandered the world and millennia
so extensively. But what ultimately
emerges in Dauber’s study is a more
dynamic definition of Jewish humor,
a kind of call and response that is less
simple and far darker.
As Dauber makes his way through
wit, raunch, irony, folksiness, and ambiguity as well as biblical times, the diaspora, the Holocaust, and the postwar
period, he reveals a polemical tendency
in Jewish humor: Jewish Comedy is, in
fact, a record of humor as a response
to oppression. Sometimes the response
is rebelliousness toward outside oppressors, including the excruciating
Holocaust jokes Dauber mentions;
sometimes there is rebellion against
the oppressive pieties of Jewish authority, as among the Enlightenment Jews
of the Haskalah movement. Sometimes
the rebellion turns against the hypocrisy of the Jewish community itself,
like the tales of shtetl fools. Sid Caesar,
Woody Allen, and parodies in Mad
magazine can all be understood as a response to some kind of oppressive cultural atmosphere, even if the pushback
is against a domineering Jewish mother
or the very idea of victimization.
Dauber begins by warning that what
we find funny changes over time and in
different situations and that not all the
humor he discusses will seem funny to
us now. It’s true that in a modern setting some of the examples of ancient
and medieval humor he presents have
more historical than comic force. In
one animal fable, a genre Dauber calls
a “repository of medieval wit and comedy,” a lion with bad breath approaches
various animals to ask about his halitosis. If they say, Yes, you do have bad
breath, the lion is insulted and eats
them. If they say, No, your breath is
Dauber divides his book into “seven
major conceptual rubrics” that straddle
vast geographical and chronological
divides: responses to persecution and
anti- Semitism; satirical looks at Jewish
society; intellectual wit; crude jokes;
metaphysical irony; folksy Jews; and
the ambiguous nature of what it means
to be Jewish. The first chapter, in which
the fox fable appears, takes us from the
biblical Esther to riddles to Sephardic
parodies to Haskalah writings.
The features of satire that most interest Dauber are, first, its use as a weapon
and, second, the targets at which that
weapon is aimed. In the Book of Esther, for instance, the target is the hostile nation in power. In other cases, as
with the Haskalah, the target is traditional Judaism itself. Dauber is less
charitable to self- directed satire than
to satirical attacks on outside threats,
characterizing, for example, the intellectual reform movement of Enlightenment Jews, who sought political and
social equality even if it meant emulating their neighbors’ culture and abandoning traditional Jewish culture, as
the “desire by German Jews to fit in.”
Jews in Russia, he says, “really bought
into the new ideals of philosophical
rationalism and religious toleration.”
Haskalah interest in Enlightenment
literary style and language is portrayed
as effectively disloyal, relinquishing
Yiddish and “prizing literary forms
like the bourgeois satire or philosophical dialogue over the traditional Purim
play.”
Dauber sees Haskalah satire of religious and cultural hypocrisy as fueling
“the comedy of self-hatred (or selfcriticism, if you prefer).” The concept
of the “self-hating Jew” has a long, controversial history of its own (including,
of course, its current incarnation as a
label to dismiss any Jew who criticizes
the Israeli government) that Dauber
does not directly address. But few Jewish writers or comedians of the past
fifty years have entirely escaped the appellation. For Dauber, Haskalah satire
is the foundation of the modern “selfThe New York Review
Satire influenced by Molière and writ-
ten in the scholarly language of Hebrew certainly did not play as well in
the hinterlands as in sophisticated Berlin. In the villages of Eastern Europe,
the decidedly antirationalist Hasidic
movement was growing instead. A kind
of culture war broke out, Dauber says,
between elitist Haskalah Jews and the
earthy Hasidim. In order to reach more
people, Haskalah writers shifted from
Hebrew to Yiddish in their satires of
the absurdities and hypocrisies of traditional Jewish life. The pogroms of
the late nineteenth century, however,
made some in the movement doubtful
about the possibility of real equality or
progress.
S.Y. Abramovitch, known as Mendele the Book Peddler, was a Yiddish
writer who started out as a liberal
satirist and became increasingly ambivalent about the possibility of social
change. Dauber cites his late novel The
Mare (1873), in which a Jewish student
barred from university goes mad and
hallucinates the existence of a talking horse, a symbol of the Jews, who
is beaten and exiled. Even the liberal
Russians (represented in the novel by
an organization that fights animal cruelty) assume it is the horse’s fault that
it is beaten: “‘Let the mare become
more presentable,’ they say. ‘When she
has learned all the tricks required of a
trained horse, she will be worthy of our
commiseration, and our society will
stand with her.’”
There is much to absorb and enjoy
in Jewish Comedy: the 1893 Rand McNally Guide to the Hudson River describing the area that a generation later
came to be known as the Borscht Belt
as “a great resort of our Israelite brethren”; a wonderful passage describing
Mel Brooks’s parody The Producers
as hailing back to the Book of Jonah;
Dauber’s surprisingly moving take on
mid-twentieth- century political satirists—“sicknicks” like Mort Sahl—as
growing out of the greenhorn comedy
of the immigrant; or Jewish comedy’s
leap “from schul to pool” along with
secularized Jewish country- club prosperity, which leads eventually to 1970s
figures like Norman Lear and Paul
Mazursky.
The effort to categorize and link all
these funny Jews can misfire. The association of a mere vulgarian like Howard Stern with a brilliant revolutionary
of manners like Mel Brooks is tenuous,
to say the least, and the treatment of
contemporary comedians like Sarah
Silverman and Jon Stewart sometimes
feels like my 1960s Reform Jewish Sunday school’s name- checking of Jewish sports figures, though with many
more names. (Silverman is, unsurprisingly, one of the few women Dauber
can call on in the comic land of the
patriarchs.)
In a book that consciously holds up
a very particular lens to its subject,
Dauber’s treatment of writers like
Philip Roth, Nathan Englander, and
Cynthia Ozick is perhaps necessarily
narrow. Jewish Comedy is not meant to
be a work of literary criticism. It is also
not a joke book, though there are some
very good jokes, like this one from the
time of the pogroms: “Two Jews before
a Russian firing squad, both offered
March 8, 2018
blindfolds. One accepts, the other
scornfully refuses. His friend urges
him: ‘Shh . . . don’t make trouble.’”
That joke, with just a little tinkering, could be told by a black comedian
today. Or a Muslim comedian. Or a gay
comedian. Any minority that has been
excluded, threatened, oppressed. What
makes the firing-squad joke Jewish is
its specific historical setting. And while
the appeal and threat of assimilation
may be newer to some ethnic groups or
nationalities than to wandering Jews,
the same tension exists, a tension ripe
for humor.
Devorah Baum’s Feeling Jewish (A
Book for Just About Anyone) makes
the point that the struggles associated
with Jews as outsiders can be experienced by anyone today, minority comGroucho Marx
munities and individual misfits as well
as Jews. It is not a book about humor,
although the chapter headings read like
a Woody Allen parody: Self-Hatred,
Envy, Guilt, Over the Top, Paranoia,
Mother Love, Affected.
While Dauber seeks to isolate the
Jewishness of humor, Baum is concerned with the Jewishness of the
modern individual. When she writes
that “self-hatred . . . is never more obvious than when it strives to escape itself, as when Jews counsel each other
to behave ‘perfectly’ in order to solve
their problems,” she seems to be making the same point Dauber did about
Enlightenment Jews trying to “fit
in,” but Baum is talking about something else entirely: “tell that to the
person with OCD,” she continues, or
“anorexia, or any other perfectionist
disorder.”
As my stepfather used to say, “It’s
tough to be an old Jew.” Dauber says it
was always tough, and that is the background for all of Jewish humor. Baum
is saying it’s tough for everyone, not just
Jews. Dauber illuminates an argumentative, dynamic relationship between
Jews and the despotic world they have
survived, a defining relationship that
mirrors a long, testy covenant with
God. Baum discusses the exclusion of
Jews less as a historical reality or even
a cultural inheritance than as a feeling
shared by all marginalized individuals
or groups.
Her chapter on self-hatred takes a
decidedly philosophical and psychoanalytic tack. She concentrates on Philip
Roth and Amy Levy, the nineteenthcentury English writer who committed
suicide at twenty-seven, but she also
has recourse to her own academic version of name- checking with shout- outs
to everyone from Franz Kafka to Adrienne Rich to Gary Shteyngart. Baum
David Levine
hating Jew,” from—in his judgment—
Lenny Bruce to Philip Roth to Larry
David.
quotes Freud referring to Theodor
Lessing, a German-Jewish philosopher who was one of the originators of
the term “self-hating Jew,” in a letter:
“‘Don’t you think . . . that self-hatred
like [Theodor Lessing’s] is an exquisite
Jewish phenomenon?’” There is also
Nietzsche, who, she writes, was able to
emancipate himself from his hatred of
the “fixity” of his own German identity
by ceasing to hate the Jews, something
he accomplished by, in turn, admiring
Jews for their self-hatred. She ends the
chapter with a grateful nod to Groucho
Marx for breathing “some air and lightness into an impossible situation by
suggesting a kind of confidence within
and about the unrelentingness of one’s
self- doubt.”
In a 1962 Commentary review of
Theodor Reik’s Jewish Wit, Marion
Magid observed: “It would be ironic indeed if Jewish wit had outdistanced its
persecutors for centuries, only to succumb in the end to the heavy hand of
psychoanalysis.” There are moments,
certainly, when Feeling Jewish capitulates not only to psychoanalysis but
also to the turgid demands of critical
theory. Nevertheless, the impulse behind the book is both learned and generous, and Jewish wit manages to carry
on quite happily. Here is a joke Baum
offers in her concluding chapter:
Two Jews, Moishe and Itzhik,
are walking in the forest in the
Ukraine some 150 years ago. In
the distance they see two local
guys walking toward them. Moishe
turns to Itzhik, panics, and says:
“Itzhik, what shall we do? There’s
two of them, and we’re all alone!”2
A sense of marginalization does
cross religious boundaries, and for
many of us disillusioned with the present state of the world, finding common
ground with others who are “all alone”
can be a rare source of hope. That’s
why Dauber’s descriptions of Jewish reactions to specific oppression feel universal. Baum is offering an open hand
to the despised, a worthy endeavor, but
by sometimes appearing to define Jewishness as primarily an uncomfortable
feeling, she distorts a long, peculiar historical burden.
Feeling Jewish, Baum comments, “can
often sound like a byword for feeling
funny: both funny peculiar—strange,
odd, out of place—and funny haha.”
For many in my generation of postwar,
comfortable, secular, suburban Jews
(and our secular, less comfortable, less
suburban children and grandchildren),
feeling Jewish is more associated with
feeling funny haha than funny out of
place. Overt anti- Semitism seemed
until recently to be on the wane, and
comedy, whether stand-up or in movies
or sitcoms or novels, is a fundamental
part of popular culture.
Funny haha is our place, one created
for us by our ancestors. A biter gelechter, bitter laughter, was one of the
first phrases I learned in Yiddish, the
secret language of adults, of laughter
and of bitterness. When I begged my
grandparents to translate what I heard
them say, it was almost always jokes or
2
This joke is one of many that Baum
also includes in her jaunty collection,
The Jewish Joke, to be published in
May.
curses. But that secret language was
shared with all of America without
America fully realizing it. Yiddish, or
its echoes, has survived in comedy in
a way it has not in other literary art
forms.
Dauber’s description of Enlightenment Jews attempting to join the
greater culture through assimilation
is presented as a doomed enterprise,
which it obviously and nightmarishly turned out to be, at least in
mid-twentieth- century Europe. And
the recent surge of anti- Semitism reminds us that thousands of years of
outsider status embeds itself deeply.
But in comedy, Jewishness has been
blown about by the winds of Yiddish and has managed to put down a
few roots. There are stray words, as
in this headline from USA Today on
October 31, 2017: “Bupkis on Bump
Stocks.” When you consider that bupkis (translation: nothing, nada, rien)
always has a slightly humorous ring
and literally means “goatshit” in Yiddish, the headline was in rather bad
taste so soon after the mass murder in
Las Vegas.
But bupkis has assimilated—it
has become American. Rob, the allAmerican suburban character played
by Dick Van Dyke on The Dick Van
Dyke Show, wrote a song called “Bupkis.” The Dick Van Dyke Show was created by Carl Reiner, so a bupkis here or
there should not, perhaps, be surprising, though I imagine it was in 1965.
But when bupkis appeared in a 2006
Mos Def lyric, Reiner probably had
nothing to do with it. This assimilated
Yiddish turns up in unexpected places:
“None of that 25,000 Miles Mishegas”
says the sign at the JetBlue terminal in
New York. Token Yiddish. But a token
of the survival of a comic tradition, a
delight in the ridiculous—not unlike
the kitchen Yiddish my mother picked
up sitting under the table listening to
her grandmother or the vocabulary of
humor and insult I gleaned from my
grandparents.
The phenomenon is a sort of lowculture inside- out version of Cynthia
Ozick’s New Yiddish. Ozick gave a
controversial talk in 1970 that was later
published as “Toward a New Yiddish”
in her masterful collection Art and
Ardor. She offered a hope that the Anglophone diaspora would use English
to express a truly Jewish art rather
than America’s pagan “religion of art.”
In English, perhaps, a diaspora literary
culture could thrive through a Jewish,
liturgical voice: “a choral voice, a communal voice: the echo of the voice of
the Lord of History.”
The Lord of History seems to have
played a trick on us all, his echoes resounding in comedy, too. Yiddish, the
immigrant’s pastiche language, the
language Israel rejected, the dead language that lives in a few fundamentalist
religious enclaves, is also the language
of Jewish humor for assimilated American Jews, and by “language” I mean
not just words but rhythm and intonation and gesture. Is this a superficial
understanding of Yiddish and what it
means to be Jewish? Of course it is. It
is a hopeful, cherished fantasy as much
as Ozick’s New Yiddish was a hopeful, cherished fantasy. But it is also a
daily, living fantasy. When I asked my
mother recently how she would define Jewish humor she said, “a flavor.”
We are still tasting it. And it’s still
funny.
11
Ghost Whisperers
Emily Kask
Anna Deavere Smith
Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward.
Scribner, 289 pp., $26.00
Mr. Eady is a student concern
specialist at North Charleston High, in Charleston,
South Carolina. South Carolina was one of four states I
visited to research—for my
play Notes from the Field—
what has come to be known,
among social scientists, educators, jurists, politicians, and
grassroots activists, as “the
school-to-prison pipeline.” I
met Eady when I took a side
trip to Charleston while traveling up and down the “Corridor of Shame,” a stretch
of towns along I-95 with
about thirty-six substandard
schools. Many children in
these schools are travelers on
the school-to-prison pipeline.
During the Obama administration the Justice Department released data revealing
the overuse of expulsions and
suspensions to discipline kids
who live in poverty. Black,
brown, Native American, and
poor white children are disciplined
more harshly than those in the middle
and upper classes. If you are not in
school, you are in trouble. Hence the
schools themselves have been widely
cited as the reasons why kids end up in
juvenile facilities and from there begin
cycles of incarceration. But schools are
just one element in a series of problems
that includes poverty, the drug economy, violence, mental illness, and our
unrealistic expectation that the family
as a social structure suffices as a protective antidote to all of the above.
If schools are to meet the demands of
the modern world, they need to be more
than sorting mechanisms designed to
identify who goes to college, who joins
the workforce after the twelfth grade,
and those for whom there is no place.
They need to be reimagined as centers
for a culture of learning and growing in
which students, teachers, staff, administrators, and parents are respected and
cared for intellectually, physically, and
creatively.
Tony Eady was about the 250th person I interviewed. He had worked in a
maximum-security penitentiary before
becoming a student concern specialist
at North Charleston High. For Eady,
students, teachers, and administrators
in undersourced schools in poor neighborhoods are in as much of a pressure
cooker as inmates and prison guards:
This job can be overbearing. This
job can cause you to step outta
your character. . . . Because I used
to work in a penitentiary—I used
to work at a maximum-security
prison—I tell the kids; “This is
just a rehearsal!” I tell the kids
this: “When you get on that bus
[to prison]—you get sentenced . . .
you heading to one of those institutions, you have to change. You
can’t be the same person you were
when you walked into the courtroom. . . . You can’t be the same
12
Jesmyn Ward near DeLisle Bayou, DeLisle, Mississippi, August 2017
person because they are not normal people back there. Everybody
is trying to get after you, or get over
on you. It’s different. . . . It’s [words
fail him here—he uses a gesture].
You have to step out of your character. There’s animals back there.
People get raped, people get beat
on, people get murdered, people
get stabbed—there’s nowhere to
run, nowhere to hide. This is real.
And they buildin’ more of those
than they buildin’ schools.”
The notorious Parchman Farm
prison in Mississippi is about half
a day’s ride north of where Jesmyn
Ward’s characters live in her novel Sing,
Unburied, Sing. It is the kind of place
that would, to use Eady’s words, “cause
you to step outta your character.” It
has been chronicled in literature: in
nonfiction books such as David M.
Oshinsky’s riveting “Worse Than Slavery”1 ; in photographs, including those
by R. Kim Rushing in his recent book
Parchman, in which the images are accompanied by first-person, sometimes
handwritten accounts from inmates2 ;
in the blues and rock and roll; and in
work songs such as those recorded by
John and Alan Lomax, a number of
which can be heard in the recent collection Parchman Farm: Photographs
and Field Recordings: 1947–1959. 3
W
ard’s story is told by three narrators. Two—thirteen-year- old Jojo and
1
David M. Oshinsky, “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of
Jim Crow Justice (Free Press, 1996).
2
R. Kim Rushing, Parchman, with a
foreword by Mark Goodman (University Press of Mississippi, 2016).
3
Alan Lomax, Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings: 1947–
1959 (Dust-to-Digital, 2014).
his mother, Leonie—live in the present, and the third—a boy named Richie
who is about the same age as Jojo—is a
ghost. The novel opens in the words of
Jojo on his thirteenth birthday: “I like
to think I know what death is. I like to
think that it’s something I could look at
straight.”
Jojo, on paper, would seem to be
the type of kid who might be sent to
Mr. Eady’s office, if he lived in North
Charleston. If he were evaluated—that
is, if time and resources for evaluation
were available—he might be categorized as “at risk.” His father, Michael,
who is white and the son of rednecks, is
incarcerated at Parchman. His mother,
Leonie, a black woman, is by her own
definition Michael’s “baby mama.” Leonie’s father, called Pop by Jojo, spent
time at Parchman too, as a teenager.
Jojo and his younger sister, Kayla, live
with Leonie’s parents, Pop and Mam, as
do Leonie and Michael when he is out
of jail. Michael’s parents have nothing
to do with their grandchildren, and on
one occasion his father just about pulls
a shotgun on Leonie when she drives
onto his property to let him know his
son is being released from prison.
It seems as if Jojo is not paying attention in school. But he is. He is incredibly vigilant. He sees through his
teacher’s makeup to the bruises under
her eyes and wonders if she gets beaten
like his mother does. Leonie and Michael often fight. Jojo watches his
mother get bruises.
In the real world, a thirteen-year-old
with Jojo’s profile might have an IEP: an
“individualized education plan.” The
IEP would record everything about him,
including information about his family.
Of interest would be the fact that Leonie gets high often. She disappears for
days at a time. What drug Leonie prefers is not explicitly stated, but she gets
high with Misty, who likes Lortab, OxyContin, coke, ecstasy, and meth. Misty
is white. Her boyfriend, Bishop, is also
at Parchman. All of the adults
around Jojo are connected to
the system of mass incarceration. Misty, like Leonie, dates
across racial lines. Bishop is
black. Cross-racial dating is
not unusual in the world of
this novel; but the previous
generation’s racism, like that
of Michael’s parents, has not
budged.
Leonie is not attentive toward her children. Her daughter, Kayla (short for Michaela,
after her father), a toddler, is
not yet completely verbal. She
has the habit of kneading her
brother’s ear. Mam says that
this is because Leonie did not
breastfeed Kayla. Mam says
the kneading of her brother’s
ear is her substitute for the
comfort she was not given by
her mother. Mam is a compassionate woman and a healer,
not just for those in her family but also for others in the
community. She would have
helped raise Jojo and Kayla
since their father is in prison
and their mother is rarely
there either physically or
emotionally, but Mam is on her deathbed, on her last lap with cancer. So Jojo
functions as Kayla’s parent. He takes
care of her needs. If Leonie comes near
her, she cries and puts her head on Jojo’s chest.
Leonie admits her shortcomings:
“And I stand there, watching my children comfort each other. My hands itch,
wanting to do something. I could reach
out and touch them both, but I don’t.”
Her life is not about being a caretaker.
She doesn’t have the psychic space for it.
When her older brother Given was still
in high school he was murdered. His
death preoccupies her. Leonie comes
from a loving household, but that’s not
sufficient. She can’t shake what happened to her brother. She is in trauma.
She deals with that trauma by falling in love. But it’s who she fell in love
with that causes her to be haunted by
Given’s ghost. Given appears to her because it was a cousin of Michael’s who
murdered him. The murder was called
a hunting accident by Michael’s family.
Though the murder was intentional—
an outsized act of jealousy about a lost
bet—the cousin served only a mild
sentence at Parchman. But this does
not keep Leonie from falling into Michael’s embrace:
From the first moment I saw him
walking across the grass to where
I sat in the shadow of the school
sign, he saw me. Saw past skin
the color of unmilked coffee, eyes
black, lips the color of plums, and
saw me. Saw the walking wound I
was, and came to be my balm.
Jojo, who has stopped calling Leonie by any maternal name, has got
her number: “She ain’t Mam. She ain’t
Pop. She ain’t never healed nothing or
grown nothing in her life. . . . Leonie
kill things.” Jojo notices this because he
sees. He is not just observant—he is a
seer. His ability to see and the developThe New York Review
ment of his seeing in the course of the
novel are what gave me the confidence
that this young man will break the cycle
of incarceration that has snatched two
generations of men in his family.
J
Alan Lomax Collection/American Folklife Center,
Library of Congress/Association for Cultural Equity
ojo understands he has to face death to
become a man like Pop, his grandfather,
whose name is River. He wants to stand
straight and tall like Pop. He does not
blink as his grandfather kills a goat. But
when the goat’s guts are being pulled
out, “the smell of death” conquers him:
“The rot coming from something just
alive, something hot with blood and
life.” He runs away and vomits.
Sing, Unburied, Sing has an abundance of smells—vomit, liver frying,
murder, and River—who just happened
to be in the vicinity of his brother—
went too for “harboring a fugitive.” At
Parchman he saw and experienced the
unimaginable. The third narrator of
this story is the ghost of a boy named
Richie who was twelve years old when
he went to Parchman. He tells Jojo
that the inmates nicknamed Pop River
Red because “he rolled with everything like a river, over the fell trees
and stumps, through storms and sun.”
Then one storm broke that he could not
roll through. Jojo wants to know what
stopped River from rolling.
There are two Parchman prisons for
Jojo. There is the modern prison where
his father, Michael, is incarcerated.
Doing time there now is very different
from doing time the way his
grandfather River did time.
In his book, R. Kim Rushing interviews a current
inmate identified as Terry
Wilkins:
I’m in this 10x10 room
24 hours a day and seven
days a week. This is
where time starts doing
you. Just set back and
think of your self setting in a room the size
of a small bathroom.
Day and night. Month
after month. That’s doing
time.
Pop/River was at Parchman when it was a work
farm—a profitable cotton
plantation. River did not
live in a ten-by-ten room.
Inmates worked and lived
in a wide open space, but
open space, he says, does
not mean freedom:
You see them open fields
we worked in, the way you
could look right through
that barbed wire, the way
you could grab it and get
a toehold here, a bloody
handhold there, the way they cut
them trees flat so that land is empty
and open to the ends of the earth,
and you think, I can get out of here
if I set my mind to it. I can follow the
right stars south and all the way on
home. But the reason you think that
is because you don’t see the trusty
shooters. You don’t know the sergeant. You don’t know the sergeant
come from a long line of men bred
to treat you like a plowing horse, like
a hunting dog—and bred to think he
can make you like it.
Living with Robots
Paul Dumouchel • Luisa Damiano
TRANSLATED BY
“Living with Robots will meet various expectations,
uniting the intellectual depth of a carefully
documented academic treatise with the pleasure
of a casual page-turner. Those in search of
cultural erudition are provided with myriad
references to books and movies, and those
with a taste for technical novelty are treated to
fascinating descriptions of the most hi-tech social
robots.”
—Paula Quinon, Science
$29.95
Collecting the World
Hans Sloane and the Origins of
the British Museum
James Delbourgo
+A Guardian Book of the Week
+A Times Book of the Week
“Delbourgo’s engrossing new biography situates
Sloane within the welter of intellectual and
political crosscurrents that marked his times.”
—Bruce Boucher, New York Times Book Review
“Delbourgo’s deft and capable history of Sloane’s
legacy is deeply necessary as museums face our
complicated histories and consider how to move
forward.”
—Suzanne Fischer, Los Angeles Review of Books
Belknap Press | $35.00
Inmates at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman
when it was a work farm, 1959; photograph by Alan Lomax
from Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings:
1947–1959, published by Dust-to-Digital
pasta sauce, body odor, salt, sulphur,
pine, lemon cleaner, fried potatoes.
They waft through the humid Mississippi spring weather. Jojo often
describes odors. He smells as if he’s
sniffing for the death he knows he must
face. Jojo is on a mission. Manhood is
essential. He is very clear about what
he needs to do to get the firm foundation that his parents cannot provide.
It’s all about the knowledge that Pop is
carrying from the past to the present:
He tells me stories. . . . Sometimes
he’ll tell me the same story three,
even four times. Hearing him . . .
makes me feel like his voice is a
hand he’s reached out to me, like
he’s rubbing my back and I can
duck whatever makes me feel like
I’ll never be able to stand as tall as
Pop, never be as sure.
There’s one particular death-filled
story that Jojo is after. Mam warns him
that Pop doesn’t tell the full story and
sometimes mixes it up. River was taken
to Parchman when he was fifteen. His
brother, Stag, killed a white man in a
juke joint. (Stag is perhaps inspired by
the criminal in the folk song “Stagger
Lee,” of which Lomax recorded a version called “Stackalee” at Parchman in
1947.) Stag went to Parchman prison for
March 8, 2018
Malcolm DeBevoise
The China Questions
Critical Insights into a Rising Power
EDITED BY
Jennifer Rudolph • Michael Szonyi
“This collection is impressive for its comprehensiveness, with contributors providing numerous
pointed observations...This is a highly informative,
readable collection.”
—Publishers Weekly
$27.95
Enlisting Faith
How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped
Religion and State in Modern America
Ronit Y. Stahl
Parchman prison, established in
1901, was a barbaric extension of slavery. Its contribution to prison reform in
the earlier part of the twentieth century
was its introduction of conjugal visits on
Sundays. At first, only black prisoners
of Parchman were allowed conjugal visits. It was a while before the white prisoners could partake of the advantage.
“You gotta understand,” a sergeant at
Parchman says in Oshinsky’s book,
“that back in them days niggers were
pretty simple creatures. Give ’em some
pork, some greens, some cornbread,
and some poontang every now and then
and they would work for you.”
When Michael gets released from
prison, Leonie makes Jojo and Kayla
accompany her to pick him up. It is
“[In] a history of the modern chaplaincy, Ronit
Stahl...contends that the military constructed a
new civic religious ideal, a non-denominational
‘moral monotheism’ that, in turn, reshaped the
wider civilian culture...Enlisting Faith deserves to
be read by anyone interested in an underexplored
aspect of the intersection of religion and the
state or, even more, in the stories of those who
honorably served them both.”
—Marc M. Arkin, Wall Street Journal
$39.95
HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS
www.hup.harvard.edu
tel: 800.405.1619
13
T
he literary accomplishment of Sing,
Unburied, Sing has been widely appreciated: it received glowing reviews
and won the National Book Award for
fiction. Having traveled the modern
school-to-prison pipeline around the
US, I find this book important for another reason. In research institutes and
departments of education, children like
Jojo and their families are data. The
data are essential, and it is crucial that
the magnitude of the problem of mass
incarceration be made visible. But data
> The
only tell part of the story. Sometimes
those who collect data, for the sake of
making a case, identify humans by the
marks of their circumstances. As the
extreme-action choreographer Elizabeth Streb told me in an interview:
Like how much, how many feet of
protection does who get, on earth?
How high are their fences? Like
the people who are the richest are
the furthest away from any type of
penetration. The poorest people,
you know, have scars on their face?
Because they, they can’t keep harm
away from them.
Ward’s characters are much more
than their scars. The novel suggests that
you have resources to get you through,
regardless of your circumstances. Some
of those resources are not tallied by experts. The ear might be a better way of
finding those resources than looking at
numbers on a spreadsheet. And it takes
a certain kind of ear.
When I listened to the 1940s recordings of Alan Lomax interviewing the
musicians at Parchman prison, I heard
his questions far in the background.
His tone of voice seemed to invite the
speaker to speak. That’s how I read
Ward’s relationship to the voices of
her characters. She accepts—perhaps
welcomes—her characters, with all
their flaws. Her attitude toward them
reminded me of people I met in the
trenches and on the front lines of the
school-to-prison pipeline. I call them
the “walkers.” I met them in schools,
in prisons, in county jails, in a public defender’s office, by a river with a
salmon-fishing tribe. The walkers go
Paston Treasure >
microcosm of the known world
February 15–May 27, 2018
This exhibition has been organized by the
Yale Center for British Art and Norfolk Museums
Service, and is accompanied by a publication
of the same title.
Free and open to the public
1080 Chapel Street, New Haven
1 877 BRIT ART | britishart.yale.edu
@yalebritishart #PastonTreasure
Unknown artist (Dutch School), The Paston Treasure (detail), ca. 1663,
oil on canvas, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Norwich, UK,
courtesy of Norfolk Museums Service
14
the distance with those they serve no
matter how egregious their actions and
no matter how many times they fatten
recidivism rates.
During my travels, I was at first surprised to hear the word “trauma” used
by so many different kinds of experts.
I heard it from activists, members of
the judiciary, and scientists, to name a
few. I came to appreciate their awareness that both present trauma and historical trauma have a negative impact.
And yet, there was something missing:
that certain kind of listening that one
experiences when listening to music.
Among the many recordings Lomax
made at Parchman was one of a conversation he had with W. D. Stewart
(“Bama”) in late 1947:
Over the course of Ward’s novel, Jojo
learns how to hear and see by embracing, body against body, his grandfather’s
storytelling and his trauma. By the end,
Jojo can see the entire tree of ghosts.
The ghosts talk to him in a chorus of
first-person testimonies. These testimonies are the story of historical trauma:
“He raped me and suffocated me until I
died . . . they came in my cell in the middle
of the night and they hung me they found
I could read and they dragged me out to
the barn and gouged my eyes . . . he put me
under the water and I couldn’t breathe.”
Jojo can also hear the significance of
the song of his younger sister, Kayla,
even though she is a toddler and can’t
yet speak a full sentence:
R. Kim Rushing
on this road trip with his mother and
her drug buddy, Misty, that Jojo comes
into contact with the death he wants to
know. On their way back from Parchman, Michael in tow, they are pulled
over by the police. In the course of the
near arrest, the officer handcuffs Jojo,
throws him to the ground, kicks him,
and puts a gun in his face. His little sister is near the gun too.
This harrowing scene would itself
be a rite of passage for many thirteenyear- old American black boys. But
something else demands Jojo’s attention—the ghost of Richie. Richie came
under Pop’s protection when he went
to Parchman and he died there under
circumstances that keep him from finding peace in death. The ghost of Richie
is what Jojo needs to get the full story
of his grandfather’s years in prison.
Having come back with Richie’s ghost
at his side, and with Richie’s wordless
songs in his ear, he gets Pop to fill in the
blanks of the story. Once the story is
complete, Mam crosses into death, and
Jojo starts to see the tree of ghosts he
knows he must see in order to be a man.
Lomax: Do you think it makes
work easier when you sing?
Bama: Yessuh. . . . What makes it
go so better when you singin. . . .
You might not forget you see, and
the time that’s pass on. But if you
get your mind devoted on one
something . . . it look it be hard for
ya to make it see, to make a day, a
day be long it look like. Keep your
mind for bein devoted on just one
thing why you just practically take
up singin see.
Sing, Unburied, Sing honors paying
attention: seeing, listening, and, finally,
singing. The novel inspires me to think
that we need new songs, new ways of
seeing, new ways of listening. Prisons
are highly mechanized technological
places with little space to move—very
circumscribed spaces in which to sing.
I visited Lee Correctional Institution,
a maximum-security facility in South
Carolina. While there, I was invited to
a concert at which inmates performed
with Decoda, an ensemble of young
classical musicians, some trained at
Juilliard, who play at venues from
Carnegie Hall to prisons.
Jesmyn Ward has said in interviews
that Parchman, about three hundred
miles north of her Mississippi hometown, had interested her for a long time
before she wrote Sing, Unburied, Sing.
The same is true of Claire Bryant, one
of the founders of Decoda, who lived
near Lee Correctional in South Carolina as a girl. Claire went to Lee to conduct a music workshop with the inmates
in which they were encouraged to compose and prepare for a performance.
She had little time. She therefore
quickly identified the natural musicians and trained them to teach other
inmates. Whatever skill the inmates
were able to refine in the controlled environment of prison was backed up by
this group of proficient classical musicians. The resulting concert—a mix of
genres—was breathtakingly beautiful.
The men and women in prisons
across this country have an American
song to sing, a story to tell. Even as
there is an increased concern that our
society has become too punitive, few
of us know what that song might sound
like. Arts programs in prisons—rare
enough to begin with—are often temporary and vulnerable to cancellation.
(The same is true of schools.) Apparently the overseers of Parchman prison
in the early twentieth century saw the
value of music. Work songs and field
hollers were at the very least tolerated,
because they moved the work along at
a pace, and toward a profit.
Gregory Applewhite in the A-Zone of
Parchman prison, 1995; photograph by
R. Kim Rushing from his book Parchman.
It includes handwritten letters by inmates
and is published by the University
Press of Mississippi.
Kayla begins to sing, a song of
mismatched, half-garbled words,
nothing that I can understand.
Only the melody which is low but
as loud as the swish and sway of the
trees, that cuts their whispering
but twines with it at the same time.
And the ghosts open their mouths
wider and their faces fold at the
edges so they look like they’re
crying, but they can’t. And Kayla
sings louder. She waves her hand in
the air as she sings, and I know it,
know the movement, know it’s how
Leonie rubbed my back, rubbed
Kayla’s back, when we were frightened of the world. Kayla sings, and
the multitude of ghosts lean forward, nodding. They smile with
something like relief, something
like remembrance, something like
ease. . . . Home, they say. Home.
Once Jojo has embraced his grandfather’s pain, once he has seen and heard
the tree of ghosts and listened to his
little sister’s half-sung song, he can do
the manly things he must do with a new
energy. He has always known that his
mother could not care for him, that she
is trapped in the embrace of his father,
a white man whose family excused the
murder of Jojo’s uncle by one of their
own. At the end of the novel, Leonie
and Michael have left for a couple of
days—presumably to get high. Jojo puts
Kayla on the Head Start bus and comes
back inside to get ready for school. One
feels his dignity and is hopeful that he
is going to be all right.
The New York Review
Mad As Hell About What?
Fintan O’Toole
Network, one of the big movie hits
of 1976, now seems prophetic in both
senses of the word. The Old Testament
prophet is typically less interested in
seeing into the future than in denouncing the iniquities already present in the
world. Howard Beale, the deranged TV
news anchor created by Paddy Chayefsky, is a comic, deluded, but nonetheless captivating descendant of Jeremiah
or Ezekiel.
But the film has also come to seem
prophetic in the more colloquial sense.
Even before the rise of Donald Trump,
Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West
Wing, claimed that “no predictor of
the future—not even Orwell—has ever
been as right as Chayefsky was when
he wrote Network.” The film deals with
the rise of infotainment, the decline
of hard news, the birth of a culture in
which we are assailed by an unending
storm of images, the collapse of objective reality, and the emergence of a
global market. The tycoon Jensen instructs Beale:
We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale.
The world is a collage of corporations, inexorably determined by
the immutable by-laws of business.
This may seem obvious now. It was
not in 1976, when China was still Maoist and the Soviet Union seemed certain
to endure. As if that was not prescient
enough, Network also appears to foreshadow in the United States a politics
of pure rage. It is not just that Beale’s
televised rant echoes through into the
present, but that the echoes seem to
grow louder all the time:
I don’t want you to protest. I don’t
want you to riot. I don’t want you to
write your congressmen. Because I
wouldn’t know what to tell you to
write. . . . All I know is first you’ve
got to get mad. You’ve got to say,
“I’m a human being, goddammit.
My life has value.” So I want you
to get up now. I want you to get out
of your chairs and go to the window. Right now. I want you to go
to the window, open it, and stick
your head out and yell. I want you
to yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m
not going to take this any more!”
It is not at all surprising that Ivo van
Hove’s often stunning staging of Lee
Hall’s adaptation of Network, with the
mesmerizing Bryan Cranston in the
role of Beale—for which Peter Finch
won a posthumous Oscar in 1977—is
the great success of the current London theater season. When Michelle
Dockery, as the cynical and amoral
program executive Diana, argues that
the articulation of rage is better box office than “the business of morality,” the
lines feel, after the era of Trump, like a
recognition scene in a Greek tragedy.
How many networks, after all, told
March 8, 2018
themselves that Trump the candidate
was great for ratings?
Adapting a movie for the stage is
often a futile exercise, but a theatrical version of Network makes sense.
On the one hand, the film is highly
unusual for its verbosity and long setpiece monologues. Its director, Sidney
Lumet, called Chayefsky “the Jewish
Shaw,” and Network does indeed hark
back to the Irish playwright’s mix of
verbal arias, madcap absurdity, and
moral outrage. On the other hand, the
film also plays with the dizzying nature of electronic imagery, switching
deftly between live action and scenes
ery and Henshall move outside the theater altogether and the camera follows
them, relaying their movements and
dialogue back to us inside.
As an experience, this is at once woozy
and spellbinding. And yet, onstage as
onscreen, Network raises a question it
can never quite answer: What is all the
rage at? What are we supposed to be
mad as hell about? Chayefsky himself,
as he drafted the screenplay, wrote in
capitals across a page from his notebook, “THE SHOW LACKS A POINT
OF VIEW.” The dazzling diversity of
perspectives in the stage version gives us
many simultaneous points of view, but
Diana the sex siren. In his script, he
introduces her as “thirty-four, tall, willowy and with the best ass ever seen
on a Vice President in Charge of Programming.” He has her tell her staff
“I don’t want to play butch boss with
you people,” suggesting of course that
butch boss is exactly what she is. She is
thus a kind of chimera—a bossy man
in a sexy woman’s body. Indeed, sexually she is all male. She tells Max before
their first date:
Jan Versweyveld
Network
a play directed by Ivo van Hove,
adapted by Lee Hall from
the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky,
at the National Theatre, London,
November 13, 2017–March 24, 2018
Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale in Ivo van Hove’s stage production of Network, 2017
glimpsed on multiple TV screens and
studio monitors. Van Hove’s production makes the most of both of these
possibilities, relishing Cranston’s oldfashioned rhetorical power while also
creating a vertiginous whirl of perceptions in which the live action on stage is
being filmed by black- clad technicians
whose presence, like the kuroko of kabuki theater, we both see and ignore.
The filmed images are in turn broadcast on huge screens, but just slightly
out of synch with the action, so that we
cannot escape from visual and cognitive dissonance.
The sense of disorientation is heightened by the way van Hove and the set
designer Jan Versweyveld fracture the
theatrical space of the Lyttelton Theatre. Never mind the fourth wall, the
stage has walls within walls. Stage right
is dominated by a transparent glass box
that is the TV control room. Sometimes
we can hear what is being said within it,
at other times the action inside unfolds
as a dumb show of gesticulations. Stage
left is a working restaurant, where patrons who have paid for the privilege eat
and drink. Some of the action happens
here, such as the crucial early scene
where Beale, about to be fired because
his ratings are disappearing below the
horizon, half-jokes with his boss and
old friend Max Schumacher (William
Holden in the movie, Douglas Henshall onstage) about killing himself on
air. The device jumbles reality and representation, audience and actors. Between these two spaces, there is the TV
studio. Behind them is Beale’s dressing
room, where the mirrors create further
reflections and refractions. And even
these spaces are subverted when Dock-
does this merely mask the absence that
so worried Chayefsky? As Dave Itzkoff
reveals in his vivid and illuminating
book on the making of the movie, Mad
as Hell: The Making of Network and the
Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in
Movies (2014), Chayefsky’s critical selfanalysis continued:
I guess what bothers me is that the
picture seems to have no ultimate
statement beyond the idea that a
network would kill for ratings. . . .
We are making some kind of statement about American society and
its lack of clarity is what’s bothering me—Even more, I’m not taking a stand—I’m not for anything
or anyone—If we give Howard
[Beale] a speech at the end of the
show, what would he say?
Chayefsky never came up with an answer—Beale is murdered on live TV
and gets no final speech.
At this distance, however, it is easier to
see the sources of the rage that overflows
in the original Network. There are three
specific anxieties behind it. The first is
the rise of feminism and the appearance of the high-powered professional
woman. Diana, played in the movie by
Faye Dunaway, is the driver of the plot.
She is the obsessively ratings-driven
head of programming at the network
who recognizes that Beale’s rantings
could be turned into a hit show. But she
is also the femme fatale who lures the
middle-aged Max away from his wife.
Chayefsky does not know how to
combine Diana the career woman with
I can’t tell you how many men have
told me what a lousy lay I am. I
apparently have a masculine temperament. I arouse quickly, consummate prematurely and can’t
wait to get my clothes back on and
get out of that bedroom.
The second source of anger is the rise
of uppity and dangerous blacks. At the
end of the film, the camera focuses on
a big African-American man in the audience of Beale’s live show. He stands
up and shoots Beale with a submachine
gun. There is also a white shooter on
the other side of the studio, but it is the
image of the black man that is repeated
on the TV screen shots that brings the
movie to a close. This is the culmination of the subplot of Network that has
Diana creating a weekly show around
an ultra-leftist terrorist group, the Ecumenical Liberation Army.
The leader of the ELA, the ludicrous
Great Ahmed Khan, is “a large powerful black man.” Arthur Burghardt, who
plays Ahmed in the movie, was a real
political activist who had been jailed
for draft evasion. He told Itzkoff that
when he read the part he immediately
recognized it as a caricature of the
black power leader as “a tyrant, a punk,
a criminal,” but “I decided I’d play
the archetype to the hilt.” Although
it is scarcely noticeable in the movie,
Chayefsky specifies that Khan is to be
seen wearing “the crescent moon of the
Midianites” around his neck, linking
him in the writer’s mind to the biblical
tribe driven out of Israel by the Jews
and also to Islam, for which the crescent moon is a symbol.
This points to Chayefsky’s third pool
of apprehension. He lived in dread of a
second Holocaust. In an interview with
Women’s Wear Daily in 1971, he expressed the belief that all Jews around
the world were in danger of imminent
genocide. “Six million went up with a
snap of the finger last time, and there
is little reason to assume anybody’s
going to protect the other 12 million
still extant,” he said, and added that the
risk was especially great in the United
States: “There’s a lot of anti- Semitism
in America, real gutter Munich stuff.
You hear it in the New Left: ‘Kill the
kosher pigs.’” Network was written
after the oil crisis of 1973, when the
Arab-led Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries placed an
embargo on exports to states that had
supported Israel. One of the main objects of Beale’s ranting is the threat of a
Saudi takeover of the Communications
Corporation of America (CCA), the
network’s owner:
Well, I’ll tell you who they’re buying CCA for. They’re buying it for
15
This apocalyptic fear of annihilation is interwoven with a subtler sense
of loss: the collapse of the Jewish prophetic tradition. Beale is a showbiz Jeremiah, a loopy Moses, and a deranged
Messiah. The send-up of the idea of
prophecy is at the core of the film’s
humor but also of its bleak vision of the
complete loss of cultural meaning.
When Diana is later looking to replace Beale because his ratings are
falling, we see a screen test by a phony
long-bearded figure standing on a
mountaintop dressed in the kind of garb
that Moses tends to wear in early biblical epics. The directions in Chayefsky’s
screenplay are dismally dismissive of
what the Jewish prophetic tradition has
come to: “The Mosaic figure on the console rants until otherwise indicated.”
T
hese specifically Jewish anxieties
are important because they suggest
that the audience’s wildly enthusiastic
reaction to Beale’s “mad as hell” rant
is supposed to make us deeply uncomfortable. In Chayefsky’s original narrative treatment for the screenplay, the
import of the famous scene in which
we see viewers all over America obey
Beale’s command to go their windows
and shout out their anger is unambiguously ominous:
Thin voices penetrated the dank
rumble of the city, shouting: “I’m
mad as hell, and I’m not going
to take it any more!” Then, suddenly it began to gather, the edges
of sounds and voices, until it all
surged out in an indistinguishable
roar of rage like the thunder of a
Nuremberg rally.
In the finished screenplay, Chayefsky’s
fears break out into melodramatic
capitals:
A terrifying THUNDERCLAP,
followed by a FULGURATION of
LIGHTNING, punctuates the gathering CHORUS coming from the
huddled, black border of the city’s
SCREAMING people, an indistinguishable tidal roar of human
RAGE , as formidable as the
THUNDER RUMBLING above. It
sounds like the Nuremberg rally.
The underlying problem for Lee
Hall’s stage adaptation is that it has to
suppress these neuroses. They are too
awkward for our times. The misogynistic image of Diana as the butch boss
and sexual chimera is greatly softened
in Michelle Dockery’s portrayal. The
scene in the movie where Dunaway
talks incessantly about TV programming as she mounts Max and climaxes
while still discussing time slots and ratings is shifted from the bedroom to the
onstage restaurant. It becomes more
surreal, more comic, less vicious. Diana
is still screwed up but there is a much
less obvious suggestion that her “masculine” sexuality and amoral cynicism
are the inevitable results of a woman’s
pursuit of professional ambition.
Even more starkly, the stage version is scrubbed clean of racial anxiety. In Chayefsky’s screenplay, “busing
16
Cranston takes up where Finch left off.
trouble in Boston” is one of the news
quite do, though, is to give it a political
The real-time countdowns to his live
stories running on the TV screens as
cutting edge. Hall’s version of the story
TV broadcasts allow him to emphathe story begins. In Hall’s version, it
is no more certain about the ultimate
size just how cool Beale is, as he talks
is gone. In the original, Beale’s rants
political point than Chayefsky’s was. In
or dresses right up to the moment the
specifically imagine America as a
some ways, it is less so. Chayefsky’s at
camera’s red light goes on. He is no
white society: “This is a nation of two
least had a grounding in an economic
maniac—or rather his mania is indishundred– odd million, transistorized,
depression in the US, and Beale actinguishable from his normality. This
deodorized, whiter-than-white, steelknowledges this even while he is urging
is, after all, what makes Cranston such
belted bodies.” Hall gets rid of “whiterhis audience to express its rage: “First,
a great actor. Most good actors can
than-white”: “This is a nation of two
you’ve got to get mad. When you’re
move convincingly from one state to
hundred– odd million, transistorized,
mad enough we’ll figure out what to
another; Cranston acts both simultadeodorized, dehumanized beings.”
do about the depression.” It is typineously. His justly celebrated Walter
The theater show itself is not whiter
cal of Hall’s interventions in the script
White in Breaking Bad was not a mildthan white—black actors play one of
that this becomes less specific: “First
mannered chemistry teacher turned
the main network executives, a reporter,
you’ve got to get mad. When you’re
crystal meth maker and killer—he was
and a technician. More importantly, the
mad enough we’ll figure out what
always completely both men, always
black terrorists are expunged. Beale is
to do.”
nice and loving and terrifying and
not shot by a black man.
cruel.
As for the Jewish strain of Chayefall, to his credit, does try to figure
The same ability to integrate opposky’s screenplay, it too is played down.
out what Chayefsky could not: how to
sites was apparent in Cranston’s last
Other than Beale’s paranoia about an
give Beale a concluding and
Arab takeover of the US,
conclusive speech. The endit is admittedly more iming encapsulates both the
plicit in the film than exstrengths and the problems
plicit. But there are two
of this version of Network.
specific moments that
Beale’s assassination is
draw attention to it. One
superbly staged, and in a
is when the head of the
brilliant coup de théâtre,
news division, Edward
Cranston magically apRuddy, dies. Chayefsky
pears outside of the double
specifies that his funeral
image of his own dead body
takes place in Temple
on the stage and the video
Emanuel on 65th Street
screen. He sits on the side of
in New York and the film
the stage, using his gift for
establishes this location
intimacy to draw the audiin a clear exterior shot.
ence toward him in sorrow
The other, more subtly,
and sympathy, and delivers
is near the start of the film
a last monologue:
when Beale and Max, in
their cups, are improvAnd so Howard Beale being on the possibilities of
came the only TV persona weekly show in which
Peter Finch as Howard Beale in Sidney Lumet’s film Network, 1976
ality who died because
people are killed on air:
of bad ratings. But here
“We could make a series
is the truth: the “absolute truth,”
stage role, as Lyndon Johnson in Robout of it. . . . Every Sunday night, bring
paradoxical as it might appear, the
ert Schenkkan’s All the Way on Broadyour knitting and watch somebody get
thing we must be most afraid of is
way in 2014. His LBJ was not by turns
guillotined, hung, electrocuted, gassed.”
the destructive power of absolute
monstrous and noble, but thoroughly
Hall distances the historical analogies
beliefs—that we can know anydemonstrated each of these qualities
and drops the implicit reference to the
thing conclusively, absolutely—
simultaneously. The lovely paradox of
Nazi gas chambers: “We could make a
whether we are compelled to it by
his Howard Beale is that even as van
series out of it. . . . Every Sunday night,
anger, fear, righteousness, injustice,
Hove is swirling us around a disintesettle down and watch someone get
indignation; as soon as we have osgrating world, he is the one person who
hung drawn and quartered.”
sified that truth, as soon as we start
remains oddly integrated, seamlessly
These changes are all in good taste,
believing in that Absolute—we
containing madness and self- control,
yet they leave a hole where Chayefstop believing in human beings,
wildness and restraint, delusion and
sky’s phobias and fixations should be.
as mad and tragic as they are. The
calculation. There is no split in his perWithout the paranoia about women in
only total commitment any of us
sonality: the rhetorical rage is a smooth
masculine roles, the threat of a black
can have is to other people—in all
continuation of the quiet despair that
uprising, and an Arab-funded antitheir complexity, in their otherness,
Cranston so movingly embodies.
Semitic takeover of America, the stage
their intractable reality . . . this is
So, to some degree, the suppression
version of Network is more decent
truly what I believe: it is not beliefs
of Chayefsky’s original anxieties works
and less rancid than the film. It is also
that matter it is human beings. This
because it feeds into a superb perforsomewhat defanged. In an era when
is Howard Beale signing off for the
mance. By cutting away most of the terAmerican politics have been domivery last time.
rorist subplot, Hall allows for a clearer
nated by the mobilization of anger at
focus on Beale. While the movie bevery specific groups—Mexicans, MusThis is sweet and decent and Crangins with a voiceover telling us, “This
lims, “elites,” the Black Lives Matter
ston makes it deeply affecting. But it is
story is about Howard Beale,” the
campaign—this version of Network
surely too sweet and too decent. Beale
stage version changes it to “This is the
offers a rage that is not really at anyshould be terrifying: if his story really
story of Howard Beale”—a subtle but
one at all. And this makes for a pecumeans anything to our times, it is not
telling shift. Beale’s part is enhanced
liar anomaly—it feels prescient sure
about how we must love one another
with more lines: an important jourenough but also too benign for the
but about how rage can be so dangernalistic war story that Max tells (and
present moment. As an articulator
ously satisfying and so treacherously
repeats) about an incident in his early
of American rage, Howard Beale is
entertaining.
career is taken from him by Hall and
just so much nicer and more humane
After this speech, van Hove has the
given instead to Beale, so that it can
than Donald Trump. The roar of the
video screens show the succession of
act as a comic foreshadowing of his
Nuremberg rally that Chayefsky heard
presidential swearings-in since the
tragic death wish. All of this makes it
in the audience’s echoing of his “mad
original film was released, from Jimmy
easier for Cranston to be richly symas hell” battle cry is even more muted
Carter in 1977 to Donald Trump in
pathetic, to turn the mad prophet
than it was in the movie.
2017. On the evening I was there, the auinto a melancholy everyman who has
dience spontaneously greeted the sight
reached the end of his tether. He may
n some respects, this is an advantage
of Trump with cries of “We’re mad as
be mad as hell, but hell is his own life;
for Bryan Cranston. Peter Finch’s orighell and we’re not going to take it anywhat he cannot take anymore is being
more!” One could not help but feel that
inal Beale is tremendous because he
himself.
some of the ambiguity of this cry was
does not indulge in mere mad acting—
Cranston makes this existential deshe is calm, controlled, at times almost
being forgotten, some essential irony
olation moving and funny and paradissociated from his own harangues.
lost.
doxically vibrant. What even he cannot
H
Everett Collection
the Saudi-Arabian Investment
Corporation! They’re buying it for
the Arabs!. . . We know the Arabs
control more than sixteen billion
dollars in this country!
I
The New York Review
Syria’s New Normal
Charles Glass
Mount Qasioun soars above the Damascus plain to a height of four thousand feet, a sheer escarpment that for
millennia has borne witness to insurrection, invasion, siege, and annihilation. Mankind’s first, albeit legendary,
murder occurred in Qasioun’s Cave of
Blood, where Cain crushed his brother
Abel’s skull with a stone. For many
Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Abel
became the original martyr, the prototype for millions who followed him into
blameless death.
Cafés on the summit used to afford a
vista of the sprawling metropolis below,
until the government banned visitors
lest they act as artillery spotters for the
rebels. Damascus divided in 2011 into
hostile strongholds of the state and its
armed opponents. Six and a half years
later, the government has restored its
rule to all the areas visible from Qasioun, apart from two besieged, nearly
leveled, corners, one along the city’s
eastern fringe and the other in a tiny
pocket to the south. Occasional artillery and mortar rounds testify to the
insurgents’ stubborn survival, but the
rebellion no longer threatens the rule
of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The postwar era has begun.
“The regime stays,” one diplomat in
Damascus told me. “That’s it. The time
of regime change is over.” Terms such as
“regime change” and “transition” have
for the most part disappeared from
political discourse. The government is
establishing a new normal. Electricity has been restored from a few hours
to twenty-four most days. Water flows
from the taps, the garbage is collected,
and taxi drivers moan about traffic.
Brides in white chiffon sway and ululate as they ride in open convertibles
to their wedding parties. Far from Damascus, only a few zones of rural Syria
elude the government’s grasp: Idlib in
the northwest, two areas adjoining the
Jordanian and Israeli borders in the
south, the Kurdish-held desert beside
Iraq in the east, and a small enclave between Idlib and the Turkish border.
Damascenes have begun speaking
of antebellum Syria with the dreamy
yearning that Scarlett O’Hara had for
Tara. They reminisce about driving
along a 225-mile checkpoint-free road
north past Homs and Hama to Aleppo.
They recall strolling, day and night,
without fear of robbers. Women did not
suffer harassment in the streets. There
were no potholes in the roads. No one
asked about your religion. Visitors arrived from all over the world to see
Syria’s ancient treasures and shop in its
vaulted souks. Business was good. And
on and on. Government supporters and
those who wished that the war had had
another result share the conviction that
life was better before.
“I think in the first six months of
2018 there will be a new constitution
for Syria,” a Syrian security source
says, “but nothing will change.” Nothing? “The structure will stay the same.
Rami Makhlouf and the Alawis are secure. Everything else can change, but
March 8, 2018
it’s decoration.” Makhlouf, Assad’s
fabulously rich first cousin, symbolizes
the financial chicanery that inspired
resentment and protests against the
regime in 2011. “The sad thing is that
corruption-wise, things are worse,”
says a Syrian businessman who struggled to remain neutral throughout the
war. “As a regime, if they are worried
about the country, they should stop the
corruption. If they stay like that, there
won’t be any reconstruction. Five or ten
people have 90 percent of the cake.”
Syrian malfeasance is paltry compared to that in neighboring Lebanon
“gives cash for work, things like removing rubble. The cash goes to the local
community in exchange for their work.
It’s happening everywhere [in Syria],
but not on a large scale. But there is
no development aid to build hospitals,
schools, etc.”
Wary of the US’s veto power, the UN
has so far maintained its humanitarian effort, albeit on a sharply reduced
budget, as if the war were still raging
rather than commit to reconstruction.
The switch to development, although it
would bolster the regime’s international
image, would also require it to submit
Moises Saman/Magnum Photos
And Cain said unto the Lord, My
punishment is greater than I can
bear.
—Genesis 4:13
to destroy themselves or flee the country: “Idlib is not strategic. It has no petrol. Let it take another year.”
The Turkish army has entered Idlib
province, to the apparent annoyance of
the government but with the approval
of Russia and Iran. Its stated purpose
is to control the Islamist jihadis it once
armed, but Kurds fear the real goal is
to prevent them from creating a contiguous Kurdish- controlled region along
the Turkish border between Afrin
in the west and the Iraqi border zone
they hold in the east. The Kurdish YPG
(Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, People’s
Protection Units) militia is less hostile
to the regime than the jihadis are, but it
nonetheless enjoys American support
in the form of air cover, special forces
protectors, funding, and weaponry.
The Russian-backed Syrian army and
American-armed Kurds have raced
to seize the Euphrates Valley and its
oilfields from the jihadis. Their lines
of confrontation have moved close
enough for mistakes to expand the war
again.
Insurgents in the outlying districts are
Protesters against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Hama, Syria, July 2011
and Iraq, where rampant bribery and
official theft have crippled the economy, and lags behind the plundering
by Assad’s oil-rich patrons in Russia
and Iran. But it remains a grievance.
Drivers on the twenty-five-mile road
between the Lebanese border and Damascus, for example, must tip soldiers
a dollar at one checkpoint and two
packs of Marlboros at another to avoid
lengthy inspections of their cars and
documents. Small sums add up, and
thousands of cigarettes find their way
to the black market to supplement the
soldiers’ meager salaries.
In society’s higher reaches, the illicit
gains are greater. By evading international sanctions during the war, a new
breed of entrepreneurs has enriched
itself through arms deals, smuggling,
and trade between government and
opposition zones—including, many insist, brokering the sale of wheat and oil
from areas controlled until recently by
the Islamic State. Friends tell me that
war profiteering has created so many
nouveaux riches that they no longer
recognize the clientele at the onceexclusive Aleppo Club. One can almost
hear Lady Bracknell: “My dear, who
are these people?”
Now that its position is more stable,
the government craves international
legitimacy. It has asked the United
Nations to switch its vast wartime program of humanitarian aid to one of
development, which would entail moving money from individual victims of
the war to state institutions—a move
the US has so far opposed. The United
Nations, one UN official explained,
to oversight and transparency, which it
would attempt to evade. The government, along with most of the populace,
also wants the US and Europe to lift
economic sanctions, arguing that they
do more harm to civilians than to the
senior officials they are intended to
punish and encourage the corruption
that accompanies sanctions-busting
everywhere.
Some European Union member
states, most of whose ambassadors fled
when the US closed its embassy in February 2012, are sending diplomats back
on regular visits to discuss assisting
Syria’s reconstruction with or without
the UN. “We have our papers and our
statements on reconstruction, but only
to implement when real political transition is on the table,” one diplomat told
me. Transition implies the replacement
of one regime with another, but Syria’s
victorious government is staying put.
Even without a transition, American
and other Western intelligence agencies have resumed contact with Syria’s
forbidding military intelligence chief,
Ali Mamlouk, seeking information on
foreign jihadis to prevent their return
home undetected.
Idlib is especially troubling to the
West, Russia, and the regime. It still
holds the greatest concentration of
jihadist forces, many of whom were
transferred there when they agreed to
surrender other areas to the army. One
international aid staff member, who has
worked on both sides of the battle lines,
admitted that “when you group three
thousand rebels in one area, they will
fight each other.” A Moscow-trained
security expert in Damascus believes
that Assad can wait for Idlib’s fighters
too weak and divided to unseat Assad,
but they may yet sour the fruits of his
triumph. US forces and bases in the
Kurdish-held northeast have the potential to harass the Syrian army and
undermine Iran and Russia. Taking a
cue from his father during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon, Assad retains
the option of sponsoring anti-Western
resistance to liberate the homeland
from the US and its clients, especially
in Arab regions where Kurdish dominion is unwelcome.
The senior Syrian official blames
the US for prolonging the conflict
by keeping the Syrian army out of
certain areas. “It does not want the
Jordanian and Iraqi borders in government hands,” the official insists.
Jordan recognizes that American strategy entrenched rather than broke the
“Shiite crescent” that King Abdullah
predicted in 2004. Syria’s and Baghdad’s victories over the Islamic State,
as well as the defeat of Iraq’s Kurds by
the Iraqi army and Shiite paramilitaries, allow Iran’s influence to run across
Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah’s enclaves
in Lebanon. Persia, in effect, is reestablishing the direct route to the Mediterranean that the Byzantines denied
it in the seventh century, checked for
the moment by the US-backed Border
Protection Force.
But this is a precarious gain that will
be expensive to sustain, especially with
American bases in northeast Syria.
The Iranian-backed northern arc of
Shiism across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon makes Sunni monarchs in Saudi
Arabia, the United Arab Emirates,
Kuwait, Bahrain, and Jordan uneasy.
They see Iran displacing them in the
heart of the Arab world. Iran emerged
victorious in Syria over dissidents the
Sunni monarchs supported, and has become a more consistent and vociferous
champion of Palestinian rights than
Saudi Arabia.
While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman rages against
Assad, Iran, and the Shias, a Jordanian
17
government spokesman said Jordan’s
relations with Syria were “likely to
take a positive turn.” King Abdullah’s
bridge to Assad offers a degree of Sunni
Arab amity to offset Iran. The strategy
of Saudi Arabia, the jihadis’ largest financial benefactor, is less clear. It has
cut arms supplies to the most extreme
jihadis, conceding defeat in Syria; but
it has escalated its challenge to Iran in
both Yemen and Lebanon. When Saudi
Arabia persuaded Lebanon’s Sunni
prime minister, Saad Hariri, to resign
on November 5, 2017, many Lebanese
feared that Saudi Arabia was signaling its encouragement of an Israeli
attack or invasion of Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah and thus deprive Iran
of its most valuable foreign military
asset.
With Syria entering its precarious postwar period, the government
and those who failed to bring it down
blame each other for the devastation
that they—with foreign-supplied armaments—have wrought over the past
seven years. The war’s toll has been
at least as high as those from the epochs of Sumerians, Persians, Greeks,
Romans, Mongols, Turks, or French.
Fighting since 2011 has left as many
as half a million dead and far more
crippled, blind, limbless, or otherwise
scarred in body and mind. The fratricidal struggle has forced nearly half
the country’s pre-war population of
22 million out of their homes, driven
five million out of the country, and left
thousands of orphans. Historic monuments have vanished; the country’s
wealth has been looted. Mass exodus
and distrust have unraveled the social
fabric.
Many Syrians abroad, including
the respected human rights lawyer
Anwar Bounni, demand a reckoning
for wartime murder, rape, and torture.
Dossiers on the behavior of both the
government and the insurgents, especially the Islamic State, grow thicker as
evidence mounts. But the testimony is
likely to remain of more use to scholars
than to courts of justice, which cannot
apprehend elusive jihadis and will be
constrained from prosecuting government officials with whom most of the
world—led by Russia, Iran, India, and
China—is doing business. Someone is
to blame for the country’s devastation,
but neither side will take responsibility. Both bear the mark of Cain while
claiming the unblemished cloak of
Abel.
—February 7, 2018
The Impossibility of Being Oscar
John Banville
The argument could be made that
Oscar Wilde, one of the greatest
literary artists of what we persist
in calling the fin de siècle—that is,
roughly, the period between 1880
and 1900—was at his greatest in
two instances of aesthetic theorizing, namely the page-long preface to his novel, The Picture of
Dorian Gray, and the pamphletlength essay “The Decay of
Lying.” It may seem paradoxical
to lay so heavy an emphasis on a
couple of snippets from an oeuvre
that includes such theatrical masterpieces as The Importance of
Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, as well as the tormented
prison testaments De Profundus and “The Ballad of Reading
Gaol,” but then was not Wilde
himself the supreme master of
paradox? Indeed, turning the received wisdom of the ages upon its
head, with the lightest and most
elegant flick of an aphorism, was
the very essence of his art.
“There is no such thing as a
moral or an immoral book,” the
preface to Dorian Gray pronounces,
with the serene authority of a papal
bull—Wilde, with his love of pomp and
swagger, held the papacy in fascinated
and envious esteem—which raises the
further question as to whether there
might be such a thing as a moral or an
immoral life. Late-Victorian England
certainly had no doubt, after Wilde’s
headlong plunge into disgrace in 1895,
that he was to the highest degree an immoralist, to use his friend and admirer
André Gide’s term, and for his crimes
consigned him to two years’ hard labor,
before stepping back with a snarl of disgust and a grim brushing of the hands.
And it was not just the haute bourgeoisie that rounded on him: numerous fellow artists deserted their former
friend and colleague, not a few of them
in terror of being themselves seized
upon and hauled out of the closet.
Henry James, who had met Wilde
early on, in 1882, in America, and
pronounced him “an unclean beast”
whom he found “repulsive and fatu18
Young Oscar attended Portora
boarding school in Enniskillen,
then Trinity College, Dublin, and
progressed on to Oxford, where
he became one of Magdalen College’s dubious exquisites, gleefully dressing the part in flowing
capes and floppy collars and
adorning his rooms with ostrich
feathers, fresh lilies, and much
blue china. However, he also applied himself energetically to his
studies, particularly in Greek and
Latin—it was no idle boast when
at the last he spoke of himself
as having been “once a lord of
language.”
At Oxford he came under new
and, for the time, revolutionary
intellectual influences, including
John Ruskin and, in particular,
Walter Pater, whose artistic doctrines were to be of the highest
significance for Wilde in his life
and in his art. Like all artists, of
course, he must, if not strike dead
the father—the Pater!—then at
least deliver him a glancing blow.
In the largely one-sided dialogue
that is “The Decay of Lying,”
dominant Vivian, who is Wilde’s
mouthpiece, goes a delicate but
decidedly measured step further
‘Interior of a Café with Toulouse-Lautrec and Oscar Wilde’; undated watercolor by Ricard Opisso
than his mentor in the drive to
relieve art of all supposed debt
to mere utility and the commonplace
ous,” was in equal measures shocked
mother had urged him to go, but go he
world’s “turbid passions”:
and gripped by the “very squalid tragwould not. “I decided it was nobler and
edy, but still a tragedy” that began with
more beautiful to stay,” he told the love
Art never expresses anything but
Wilde’s committal for trial on charges
of his life, Lord Alfred Douglas. “I did
itself. This is the principle of my
of homosexual offenses in the spring
not want to be called a coward or a denew aesthetics; and it is this, more
of 1895. James wrote to a friend at the
serter.” To the end he connived in and
than that vital connection between
time: “[Wilde] was never in the smallembraced his own downfall.
form and substance, on which Mr
est degree interesting to me—but this
Pater dwells, that makes music the
hideous human history has made him
he facts of the affair have become
type of all the arts.
so—in a manner.” In a manner: in the
the stuff of legend, so perhaps it is well
barely breathed cadence both the terto reiterate them briefly here. Oscar
The “new aesthetics” were perhaps
ror and the wistfulness are clearly to be
Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was
not quite the novelty he claimed them
heard.
born in Dublin in 1854, to Sir William
to be—the art-for-art’s-sake movement
The burning question that was asked
Wilde, a highly successful and fashionwas well underway when he published
at the time, and it is a question that
able eye and ear surgeon, and his admi“The Decay of Lying” in 1889—but
glimmers to this day, was why Wilde
rable if slightly preposterous wife, Jane,
no one, not even Flaubert in his letters
had not taken advantage of the chance
who had Italian blood in her veins, and
or Baudelaire in his journalism, had
to flee the country that was tacitly ofunder the pseudonym Speranza wrote
stated the case for art’s total autonomy
fered to him by the authorities on that
patriotic poetry—high-flown doggerel,
with such point and assurance, and in
fateful day—the adjective is unavoidmost of it—for the nationalist press,
such a consummately persuasive prose
able—April 5, 1895, when a warrant
which on one occasion almost earned
style. And then there is the breadth of
for his arrest on charges of homosexual
her a prison sentence. What a thing it
reading, in classical and modern aucrimes was held in abeyance for an
would have been for the highly respectthors, on which much of Wilde’s arguhour and a half, time enough for him
able Wildes had she been convicted:
ment is founded. He knew well whereof
to take the steamer to Calais and imtwo jailbirds in one family!
he so fluently spoke.
munity from prosecution. Even his
Private Collection/© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS ), New York/ VEGAP, Madrid
Oscar Wilde:
The Unrepentant Years
by Nicholas Frankel.
Harvard University Press,
374 pp., $29.95
T
The New York Review
When he finished his studies, it was
with the most concentrated singlemindedness and beadiness of eye
that he set about making his way in
the “world of letters,” as the literary
egg-and-spoon race used quaintly to
be called. Oddly, perhaps, for one so
learned in and committed to the culture of Old Europe, it was in the New
World that he forged—ah, how ambiguous that so innocent-seeming little
word!—his first lavish success, when
he undertook an American speaking
tour, lecturing on, among other topics,
the art of interior design. The trip was
supposed to take up four months, but
lasted a year. Though far from home,
Oscar had arrived.
In his private life also he seemed to
step onto the firmest of ground when
in 1884 he married Constance Lloyd, a
lawyer’s daughter with a not inconsiderable private income to sweeten the
match. They moved into a nice house in
Tite Street in London’s Chelsea, where
they carried out much interior design and
had two children, Cyril and Vyvyan—
curiously, these were the names he gave
to the pair of debaters in “The Decay
of Lying,” though “Vyvyan” there is
spelled “Vivian”—but the tender tethers
of domestic bliss could not keep Oscar in
check for long. As he wrote years later,
“Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in search
for new sensation.” At first the depths
of depravity in which he sank himself
were not very deep. It is believed he
had his first serious homosexual experience in 1886 with the French-born
Canadian journalist and art critic Robert Ross, who was to remain one of his
staunchest friends and supporters up
to, and following, his death.
H
ere we must pause a moment. Shallow the depths may have been, but they
were murky too. “Did Oscar Wilde
think of himself as a homosexual?”
Nicholas Frankel asks early on in
Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentent Years,
his fascinating study of the hitherto
largely neglected last phase of Wilde’s
life. Pointing out that the word “homosexual” first appeared in print, and
then only as an adjective, in 1892, Frankel observes:
There must always be something
anachronistic about speaking of
any Victorian’s “sexual identity.”
Sex—whether sanctioned or illicit—was something people engaged in, but it wasn’t yet seen as
an expression of one’s sexuality.
March 8, 2018
The relationship between Wilde
and Douglas is still widely misunderstood. Douglas has too often
been represented as a callous and
heartless Judas or Iago figure who
spurred Wilde on to not one but
two disastrous and fateful actions,
before abandoning Wilde each time
to face the consequences alone.
One must admire Frankel’s largeness
of spirit in seeking to recuperate Bosie’s
reputation, but he does not produce a
great deal of evidence in support of his
case. True, Bosie was more than the
spoiled, sniveling brat that posterity
has made of him—but not much more.
He did push Wilde toward the edge of
the precipice, seemingly without any
care for the consequences, and even if,
as Frankel writes, “he knew and loved
Wilde more intimately than any other
individual in the period with which we
are concerned,” that love had as much
in it of selfishness and irresponsibility
as “Uranian” nobility.
The first of the “two disastrous and
fateful actions” that Bosie took was
to persuade Wilde to institute a libel
case against his father, the truly vile
Marquess of Queensbury—a Mr. Hyde
without a Dr. Jekyll—who, knowing of
his son’s relations with Wilde, left his
calling card at Wilde’s club with a note
scrawled across it accusing the fabulously famous playwright of being a
“somdomite [sic].” Wilde, in defiance
of the advice of many of his friends,
went ahead and instituted proceedings
for libel, which, as we know, proved a
horrible miscalculation, and led to his
being charged with acts of gross indecency and sent to jail.
It is likely that Wilde did not fully
grasp what a jail sentence meant in
those times. “Almost certainly,” Frankel writes, “he still held an exalted and
Romantic view of imprisonment: he
had once written that ‘an unjust imprisonment for a noble cause strengthens
as well as deepens the nature.’” A terrible awakening was in store for him at
Pentonville Prison, one of the harshest
places of detention in Victorian England. “At first it was a fiendish nightmare,” Wilde told another loyal friend,
Frank Harris, “more horrible than
anything I had ever dreamt of.” On arrival he was made to “bathe” in a tub of
filthy water; his hair, those ample locks
of which he had once been so vain, was
cropped short; and, clad in “the livery
of shame,” he was thrust into a cell so
confined and noisome he felt he could
barely breathe:
But the inhumanity was the worst
of it; what devilish creatures men
are. I had never known anything
about them. I had never dreamt of
such cruelties.
about reform of the penal system and
achieved considerable results. He was
also a vigorous campaigner for the repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment
Act, under which he had been convicted for homosexual activity. “I have
no doubt that we shall win,” he wrote
to the activist George Ives in 1898, “but
the road is long, and red with monstrous
martyrdoms.” Here it should be kept
in mind that Wilde the arch-aesthete
was also the author of the anarchistinfluenced essay “The Soul of Man
under Socialism.” Oscar was a man of
many parts, not all of them effete.
By the autumn of 1895 Wilde was, in
Frankel’s words, “nearing a complete
breakdown.” Seriously debilitated by
hunger, sleeplessness, and recurring illnesses, he was so weak that one morning he could not get out of bed, and
when forced to he fell down repeatedly;
in one of these falls he suffered damage to his inner ear, an injury that may
well have contributed to his premature
death from meningoencephalitis five
years later.
As time went on his prison conditions did improve somewhat, thanks
in part to the efforts of Ross and, especially, Harris, one of the figures in
Wilde’s circle hitherto regarded as a
rascal but who comes out of Frankel’s
informed and engrossing book with a
positively saintly aspect. In the summer
of 1896, Harris secured an interview
with Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise, the
chairman of the Prison Commission,
to plead for more lenient treatment for
the suffering prisoner, who by now had
been transferred from the Piranesian
chamber of horrors that was Pentonville to the slightly less punitive Reading Gaol. To Harris’s pleasant surprise,
Ruggles-Brise at once dispatched him
to Reading to ascertain Wilde’s condition, physical and spiritual.
According to Frankel, “Harris’s visit
of 1896 was a turning point in Wilde’s
treatment during his two years in
prison.” One effect, which was not to
last, was Wilde’s pious and purely strategic repudiation of his notions of the
nobility of Uranian love. At Harris’s
urging, Wilde concocted a long and on
the face of it heartfelt petition to the
British Home Secretary pleading for
early release. Frankel writes:
It begins by observing that, while he
had no wish to palliate the “terrible
offences” of which he had “rightly
been found guilty,” those offences
were “forms of sexual madness”
and “diseases to be cared for by a
physician, rather than crimes to be
punished by a judge.”
The capitulation that this twothousand-word document represents
is thoroughly understandable, given
Wilde’s plight, yet it is dismayingly sad
to see such a proud man brought so low.
In the long, epistolary cri de coeur
that is De Profundus, completed in
1897, Wilde excoriated Bosie as the
cause of his ruin. Ironically, Bosie
did not even know of the existence of
this document until many years later.
Wilde had left it in the care of Robert Ross, who published it five years
after his death. So heavily censored
was this version that Douglas himself
was able to review it—in Motorist and
© Dan Walsh. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
All the same, it seems fair to say that
Wilde knew his own nature, whatever
term he might employ to describe it.
“A poet in prison for loving boys loves
boys,” he wrote matter- of-factly from
Paris, after his release from incarceration and his reconciliation with
Douglas—“Bosie”—and he went on
to point out, in the dignified, melancholy tone of his last years, that if after
serving his sentence he had altered
his life and given up “boys,” it would
have been to admit that “Uranian
love is ignoble.” But which was it that
drove him most desperately, the commitment to nobility and true love or
the nostalgie de la boue that brought
him to the muddied depths where
boy prostitutes, or “renters,” paddled
and plashed? Or were the depths the
depths of the jungle? “It was like feast-
ing with panthers,” he famously wrote
from prison. “The danger was half the
excitement.”
The particular “occasion of sin,”
as the priests used to have it, that put
him behind bars was darling Bosie.
Douglas has been much maligned, and
deservedly so, as many might think,
though not Frankel, one of whose aims,
in his quiet but persuasively revisionist account, is to scrape at least some
of the slime from Bosie’s besmeared
reputation:
Dan Walsh
*ULG%RRN, 2008
ink and pencil on paper, 28 pages, 11 1/2 x 13 inches (29.2 x 33 cm)
hirambutler.com
It is to Wilde’s great credit that after
his release he worked hard to bring
19
POETRY THAT RESISTS
From the author of
The Performance of
Becoming Human
WINNER OF THE
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Daniel Borzutzky
“I am vehemently protective of my native city—its rollicking history
and gritty glories are legion. But it is also sweltering, blade-edged and
murderous, with brown people squarely in its gunsights. Borzutzky’s
surreal and terrifying lakeside dreamscape—sparked by the real-world
specter of the city’s infamous ‘blacksite’ interrogation warehouse—is
deftly crafted and chilling in its proximity to the real.”— PATRICIA SMITH
Traveler!—without realizing that it
had originated as a letter to himself.
Yet far from causing Wilde to regard
Douglas as a baneful and destructive
influence upon him, the torments of his
two years in prison seem only to have
intensified his passion for the handsome and not untalented young man.
As Frankel writes, “The strictly sexual
element in their love for each other had
disappeared in the early years of their
relationship. . . . But the two men still
loved each other, and their continued
friendship and affection was a public scandal.” In a letter to his mother,
which Frankel has no hesitation in describing as “heartbreaking,” Douglas
wrote: “I still love and admire him, and
I think he has been infamously treated
by ignorant and cruel brutes.”
The scandalous reunion became public when they settled together in Naples,
a city Wilde described with relish as
“evil and luxurious” and where the recidivist pair, despite a chronic shortage of funds, ate well, drank copiously,
and diverted themselves in hot pursuit
of boys. This was the second of the two
“disastrous and fateful actions” that
Frankel considers to have been unjustly
blamed on Bosie; to the contrary, he
insists—perhaps a little overstrenuously—that the “ill-fated reunion of
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas
in Naples is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented events in the
history of literature,” even though it “put
paid to whatever hopes of respectability
and a decent livelihood Wilde nurtured.”
Respectability: the word immediately
conjures the thought of Wilde’s wife,
Constance, baffled by the calamity that
had befallen her and her children, and
always expressive more of sadness than
anger or vituperation. Her harshest action was to forbid Wilde access to their
two sons, and he went to his grave without ever having a glimpse of them again,
except in photographs that she sent him.
This was one of the deprivations he
found hardest to bear—“what I want is
the love of my children”—and for which
he could not bring himself to forgive his
wife. All the same, he fully realized the
dreadful wound he had inflicted on this
decent and much put-upon woman: “I
don’t mind my life being wrecked,” he
wrote to a friend, “that is as it should
be—but when I think of poor Constance I simply want to kill myself.”
W
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THE WALL
Ilan Stavans
“This autobioborderless explosion across the page, mind, and heart
of Stavans comes trembling into your hands to give you the keys to
freedom. A rare wonder—a breathless zig-zag—a lightning bolt
of voices in one. Magnificent pioneer, Ilan Stavans, here,
illuminates a necessary wall-breaker poetics.”
—JUAN FELIPE HERRERA, United States Poet Laureate, 2015–2017
Pitt Poetry Series
U N I V E R S I TY OF PITTSBURGH PRESS
20
8 0 0 .6 2 1 .2 7 3 6
ilde’s friends urged him to begin
writing again in those last, forlorn
years, and he even signed contracts for
new work, but it was only a ruse to get
hold of some cash, of which he was ever
in need—in Paris after his release from
jail he stopped his old friend the singer
Nellie Melba in the street and, almost
weeping in shame, asked her for money.
Although he was destitute, he still insisted on living the life of the hugely
successful playwright he had once
been. “My work was a joy to me,” he
wrote: “when my plays were on, I drew
a hundred pounds a week! I delighted
in every minute of the day.” But was it
precisely there, in the joy, the boundless
delight, the bullion in the bank, that he
had prepared his own ultimate failure?
After his release he tried, in Naples
and elsewhere, to rekindle the spark of
glory, but in vain; all was ashes. “Something is killed in me,” he told Ross. “I
feel no desire to write.” And he added:
“I don’t think I am equal to the intellectual architecture of thought.”
This last is a highly significant observation, perhaps more significant and
more revealing than he realized. Had
he ever allowed himself to be the equal
of what was required by the excess of literary talent that had been bestowed on
him? Had he lived up to his own austere
demands, which he set out so dogmatically, despite the lightness of expression, in the preface to Dorian Gray and
“The Decay of Lying”? Certainly the
plays are great, in their way—Salomé in
particular shows him for the subversive
artist he could have been, had he had
the nerve for it—but somehow they are
not quite enough, not quite the fulfilment of his genius. He had, throughout
his life, talked away too much of his talent; as one observer put it, “He wasted
himself in words.”
There are hints that he knew, or at
least suspected, that at the deepest
level he had faltered in his task. When
he published a revised version of The
Importance of Being Earnest, he dedicated it to the ever-faithful Ross, but
remarked wistfully that he “wish[ed] it
were a more wonderful work of art—
of higher seriousness of intent” (italics
added). Likewise, of “The Ballad of
Reading Gaol,” he pointed out that it
was “drawn from actual experience”
and therefore “a sort of denial of my
own philosophy of art.”
Could it be, then, that it is precisely
in his philosophy of art, rather than the
works of art he produced out of it, that
his true achievement rests? His plays
and his fiction sparkle, they coruscate
with brilliant gleams and glitters, but
even at its best, his is an art of talking
heads, of heads that talk in defiance of
that “higher seriousness of intent” that
must inform even the lightest work—
contrast Wilde and Chekhov, and marvel at what the latter could make out of
characters just as flimsy-seeming as the
former’s incessantly and sometimes insufferably witty marionettes.
It is a common notion that Wilde set
going the conflagration that destroyed
him out of a surfeit of success—“a hundred pounds a week!”—but it is also
possible to think that what kindled
the flame was the awareness of failure
smouldering in him from the outset.
When Gide asked him if he had been
aware that it would all come to ruin,
his reply resonated with ambiguous
emphasis:
Of course! Of course I knew that
there would be a catastrophe . . .
I was expecting it. It had to end
that way. Just imagine: it wasn’t
possible to go any further, and it
couldn’t last. That’s why, you see,
it has to be ended.
An artist’s aesthetic will not be denied; that way the profoundest depths
await.
New York Review Books
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Managing Editor: Sara Kramer
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The New York Review
A Modern Greek Tragedy
Adam Tooze
On January 25, 2015, after five years
of debt crisis and economic and social decline that left half the country’s
young people unemployed, the Greek
electorate handed power to the most
radical coalition to govern a European
country in decades. Under the leadership of the youthful Alexis Tsipras, the
Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza)
won 36.3 percent of the vote, qualifying it for the fifty-seat bonus awarded
to the party with a plurality. To the
horror of bien pensant opinion in Berlin and Paris, it chose as its partner
in government a right-wing nationalist party, the Independent Greeks
(ANEL).
In Greece the left was jubilant. The
memory of the heroic anti-Nazi resistance, the civil war, and the students
who rose up against the dictatorship
of the colonels in the 1970s was vindicated. Syriza was the toast of the
radical chic from Berlin to Brooklyn.
Centrists were bemused. Had such
left-wing enthusiasm not had its day?
NATO hawks were up in arms. With
Ukraine and Syria in mind, columnists
fretted over Syriza’s possible ties to
Moscow. The oligarchs who controlled
much of the Greek media were on the
warpath. Tens of billions of euros fled
Greek bank accounts.
Meanwhile, Greece’s new finance
minister, the ferociously charismatic
and thoroughly Anglophone Yanis
Varoufakis, became a global celebrity. His glamorous lifestyle, motorcycle, and tight T-shirts delighted the
media. In Brussels, European officials
still fume about his disruptive impact
on their staid proceedings. In Greece
he would face charges of treason. The
appearance this fall of Varoufakis’s
memoir, Adults in the Room, stirs
old memories. The legendary GreekFrench filmmaker Costa-Gavras has
pronounced himself so “enraged by
the violence and indifference of the
Eurogroup members [i.e., the eurozone
finance ministers], especially the German side, to the . . . unsustainable situation in which the Greek people live,”
that he will turn Varoufakis’s exposé
into a film.
1.
The financial situation Syriza and Varoufakis inherited in January 2015 was
dire. The outgoing conservative government of the New Democracy party
had failed to satisfy the demands of
the troika of Greece’s creditors—the
International Monetary Fund (IMF),
the European Central Bank (ECB),
and the European Commission (EC).
As Tsipras and his cabinet took office,
the EC was withholding €7 billion that
Greece urgently needed to make payments on debts owed to the IMF and
the ECB.
The Syriza administration did not
dispute the need for reform. Indeed,
March 8, 2018
Siegfried Woldhek
Adults in the Room:
My Battle with the European and
American Deep Establishment
by Yanis Varoufakis.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
550 pp., $28.00
Yanis Varoufakis
it was far less entangled with Greece’s
old corruption than were the established parties it displaced. But Syriza
demanded that it be allowed to put a
priority on the Greek social emergency
and that it be treated as a government
among governments, not as an object
of the troika’s administrative discipline. Most fundamentally, Varoufakis
insisted, the creditors had to acknowledge the obvious fact that the restructuring of Greece’s debts in 2012 had
been inadequate. At over 170 percent
of the country’s GDP in 2015, the debts
were unpayable. They needed to be
rescheduled and reduced. Varoufakis
suggested separating out the cost of
recapitalizing Greece’s banks or linking debt service to future economic
growth. In any case, before Syriza
would make further rounds of painful
social and economic changes, Varoufakis demanded a promise of long-term
sustainability.
For six months the Syriza government held out, demanding changes to
the Memorandum of Understanding
with the troika. To bolster its position,
on July 5, 2015, the government staged
a referendum in which 61 percent of
Greeks voted to reject the creditors’
terms. France and Italy might have
been willing to grant concessions, but a
bloc of conservative Eurogroup members, led by Germany, took a hard line.
Although the IMF publicly declared
that Greece’s debt was unpayable, the
EC , the ECB, and Germany held firm.
Rather than face expulsion from the
eurozone, after a draining marathon
of negotiations, on July 13 Prime Minister Tsipras accepted further concessional loans in exchange for another
round of troika discipline. There was
no debt writedown, only the promise
that one might be considered at a later
date.
The hashtag #ThisIsACoup spread
across Twitter. Jürgen Habermas proclaimed in an interview that Germany
had forfeited any claim to moral authority. The intransigent Greek far left
split away to form a new party, Laiki
Enotita (Popular Unity). Varoufakis
resigned in July and in February 2016
launched his own pan-European movement, Di EM 25. Meanwhile, Tsipras lost
his majority and was forced to call new
elections. But the Syriza story was not
over. On September 20, 2015, Tsipras
was reelected. In the face of immense
external pressure, he remains in power
today.
E
ven the party’s most severe critics
acknowledge that the survival of the
Syriza government is a remarkable
feat. But is it any more than that? The
European mainstream welcomes the
humbling of the radical left and looks
forward to a future in which a tamed
Greece may finally be released from
its debt program. For many of the leftwing activists who rallied to Syriza’s
cause in January 2015, Tsipras presents
a sad spectacle. His government is yet
another example of social- democratic
betrayal, a repeat of the cycle that
brought ignominious electoral defeat
not just to the Panhellenic Socialist
Movement (PASOK), which before 2015
had been one of Greece’s two major
parties, but also to French, Dutch, German, and British socialists. Not everyone on the left shares this view. Syriza
retains the loyalty of articulate spokesmen such as Costas Douzinas, another
Greek expat academic and member of
the Greek parliament, who rejects any
thoroughgoing condemnation of the
party.1 For Douzinas the Syriza project
was always multipronged and must be
judged accordingly.
The recalcitrant working-class culture of Syriza’s strong labor wing,
rooted in the docklands of Piraeus and
northern Thessaloniki, is far removed
from the globe-trotting, cosmopolitan
milieu of Varoufakis and Douzinas,
but also from the Marxist intellectualism of Popular Unity. But Syriza is
also a party of the rainbow coalition.
It is committed to environmentalism,
prison reform, and LGBT rights and
seeks a humane solution to the refugee
crisis. Though the government’s resources are pitiful and the “deep state”
is profoundly uncooperative, these are
the issues on which Syriza has made
the most difference, at least by holding at bay far worse alternatives. But
to operate with any real freedom the
Greek government needed to do more.
It needed to loosen the troika’s financial discipline. Above all it needed
to achieve debt reduction. It was on
this front that Varoufakis’s battle was
fought and lost.
If one asks European officials, the
consensus is harsh: Varoufakis was
a self-aggrandizing time waster who
helped ruin the Greek economy before Tsipras got rid of him. The hardedged intellectuals of Popular Unity
agree that Varoufakis was as much a
part of the problem as he was a part
of the solution. They also agree that it
was a mistake for Syriza to have haggled with the eurozone creditors. Their
preferred option was for Syriza to have
broken with the creditors from the beginning.2 A “rupture,” an exit from the
eurozone, in January or February 2015
might have sustained the momentum of
Syriza’s election victory.
The opportunity for a break was
there. Germany and its allies seemed
ready to countenance immediate
Grexit. But on February 20, Varoufakis
thought that he had found the basis for
a serious renegotiation of terms. Days
later it was clear that the creditors had
no intention of making the least concession. Why did the Greek government not simply walk away? Why did
it stay at the table in a doomed attempt
to reason with the Eurogroup? Given
his identification with the left, Varoufakis is haunted by these questions. It is
the struggle to answer them that makes
his frank memoir not only engrossing
but an important contribution to the
library of modern politics, as a case
study in the limits of radicalism and the
forces that hold the status quo in place.
2.
To understand Varoufakis’s motivations, we have to understand how he
defines what was at stake in the battle
between Greece and its creditors. For
many on the left, the struggle was
1
Costas Douzinas, Syriza in Power:
Reflections of an Accidental Politician
(Polity, 2017).
2
See Costas Lapavitsas, “The Path Not
Taken,” Jacobin, October 9, 2015.
21
22
sential to the interpretation of the crisis
offered in Adults in the Room that this
question has no clear or good answer.
In Varoufakis’s rendering, Europe’s
“bailoutistan” is a madhouse, an Alicein-Wonderland world. It is propelled by
the narrow self-interest of politicians,
oligarchs, and small-minded technocrats. It is perpetuated by the exclusion and opacity that define the “black
boxes” of modern power networks.
But the system in its entirety lacks all
logic. Greece, Europe, and the world
economy would all be better off if the
eurozone would sort itself out.
This conclusion ultimately justified
Varoufakis’s determination to negotiate. Perhaps, with his brilliance and
opined, it would follow the Communist
Eastern bloc into oblivion.
Once again Varoufakis had a quick
comeback. To compare Greece’s welfare state with communism was tendentious. The democratic socialists of
Syriza had as much in common with
the GDR as Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Party (CDP) did
with General Pinochet’s dictatorship
in Chile. Tired of arguing, Schäuble
backed off, leaving Varoufakis to congratulate himself on having disposed of
his opponent’s anachronistic views. In
retrospect Varoufakis is so anxious to
convince us that he won the argument
that he fails to convey Schäuble’s message: restructuring first Germany and
Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters
between the “forces of capital” and
democracy. That made a good rallying cry. But it is far from the situation
that Syriza actually confronted in 2015.
Due to the 2012 debt write-down, when
Syriza took power three years later
only 15 percent of Greece’s debts were
owed to banks, insurance funds, or
hedge funds. Eighty-five percent were
debts to official agencies and other
European governments. The struggle
was not with the capital markets but
with official creditors and the other
national governments assembled in the
Eurogroup.
Disconcertingly for the left, Varoufakis turned the tables. Rather than
confronting “capital,” he started the
negotiations by going to London to reassure the remaining private holders of
Greek debt that their interests would be
protected. Cultivating the Anglophone
media, Varoufakis pitted market rationality against the conservative dogma
of the creditors who demanded that
Greece pay the unpayable. His aim was
to align global business opinion with
the Syriza government in demanding a
fresh start for both Greece and Europe.
But this invites the question: How
had the eurozone crisis become so confused? The creditors pointed to decades
of Greek financial incontinence. It was
a mistake to have admitted Greece to
the rich club of the eurozone in the first
place. On the need for domestic reform,
the radicals of Syriza did not disagree.
Their discredited predecessors had presided over a shambles from which the
Greek upper class profited more than
anyone. But for Varoufakis, the real
origin of the eurozone imbroglio was to
be found not in Greece but in the creditor countries. The huge losses suffered
by German, French, and Benelux banks
between 2008 and 2009 forced their
governments into ruinously unpopular
bailouts. Twelve months later, when the
Greek crisis hit the headlines, it was the
same German, French, Dutch, and Belgian banks that were on the hook.
In order to avoid a comprehensive restructuring of their banks, the governments of Northern Europe decided to,
as they viewed it, rescue Greece. They
funneled funds to Athens, most of
which then flowed back out to Greece’s
creditor banks in Northern Europe.
The troika staffers who swept through
Athens in what Varoufakis calls their
“convoys of Mercedes-Benzes and
BMWs” were claiming to bring rational
reform to a backward Greece. In fact
their program was illogical. It was neither sustainable for Greece nor did it
deliver stability for the eurozone. Its
ultimate rationale, dictated by political
convenience, was to give Northern Europe a roundabout bank bailout.
Extending Greek debts and pretending that they were payable became the
basic modus operandi of the eurozone.
It is this pattern of denial, which persists today, that Varoufakis repeatedly
encountered when negotiating with his
European counterparts. In private, government ministers, EU commissioners,
and IMF economists would agree that
Greece’s debt had to be restructured.
But once in public they reverted to
the familiar mantra that Greece must
prove its “credibility” by “reforms” and
“savings” that tore apart the social fabric of Greece and wrecked its economy.
Beyond the self-serving logic of a bureaucracy bent on preserving its own
authority and control, what wider purpose has this strategy served? It is es-
Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis arriving at Maximos Mansion
for a government council meeting, Athens, June 2015
clarity, and armed with his personal
proposal for an overhaul of the eurozone, little Greece and its left-wing
government would lead Europe out of
confusion and impasse, back toward
freedom and prosperity. Not for nothing did Christine Lagarde of the IMF
once tease Varoufakis that he sounded
like John Maynard Keynes. She apparently did not mean it as a compliment.
It was certainly a bold gambit. What
Varoufakis does not openly contemplate, even in his memoir, is the
alternative. What if there was no misunderstanding, no muddle? What if
there was method to the apparent madness of the eurozone’s actions? Only
in passing does Varoufakis allow his
readers to glimpse that grimmer scenario. The most important flash comes
early on in the book, during his first encounter with Angela Merkel’s finance
minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. To Varoufakis’s surprise, Germany’s elder
statesman did not dwell on day-to-day
affairs. Schäuble wanted to talk about
more fundamental issues, particularly
the cuts that Europe had to make to
its welfare state for it to compete with
India and China.
Varoufakis was ready with the standard progressive answer. If welfare
costs are the issue, the obvious solution
is to raise wages and welfare benefits in
the emerging markets, such as those of
India and China, not to lower those in
the advanced economies. But Schäuble
was unrelenting. As Helmut Kohl’s interior minister during reunification,
he had had a hand in winding up the
German Democratic Republic’s economy. If Western Europe did not make
the necessary adjustment, Schäuble
then Europe was a historic project that
would not stop at the behest of a radical
left-wing government in Greece.
At the height of the crisis—between
2010 and 2012—there was indeed a
spectacular confusion in the eurozone that might have been resolved
by means of a grand bargain. But even
then, the idea that the solution could
have come from Greece was fanciful.
In 2012, it took the combined weight
of France, Italy, Spain, the European
Central Bank, the European Commission, and the Obama administration to
convince Germany to accept the ECB’s
commitment to do “whatever it takes”
to save the eurozone. What emerged in
the aftermath of that crisis was neither a
muddle—as Varoufakis suggests—nor a
conspiracy. Europe’s political economy
came to be dominated by the “reform”
project first launched by Germany’s
main political parties in the early 2000s,
which centered on labor market liberalization and fiscal consolidation.
This project was motivated by the
lessons from the aftermath of communism and the perceived pressures of globalization—precisely the themes that
Schäuble was harping on and to which
Varoufakis turned a deaf ear. In 2015
no one in the Eurogroup wanted to revisit the mess of 2010–2012, certainly
not at the behest of a Greek government that rejected the entire premise
on which the eurozone had finally been
stabilized. Why should the Eurogroup
make concessions to such a government
in Greece when they had been denied
to far more cooperative partners in Ireland, Portugal, and Spain? If Greece
was still struggling, what it needed was
not radical experimentation, but more
reform. First of all, Syriza would have
to be ground down.
Europe’s bureaucrats are masters at
the dark arts of prevarication and obfuscation, and the ramified and opaque
structure of the EU offers them every
conceivable device for diversion. One
favorite maneuver in 2015 was to pingpong Greece back and forth between
the national governments assembled
in the Eurogroup and the institutions
that make up the troika. When Varoufakis attempted to cut a deal with
Schäuble, the German would refer the
Greeks to the “institutions.” Following
this lead, Varoufakis would then enter
into amiable discussions with the European Commission. Assuming he had
an agreement, he would then arrive at
the Eurogroup, where the Commission
would be overruled by a conservative
bloc of national governments, led by
Germany. Varoufakis’s efforts to propose “constructive” modifications of
the troika program were met with silence. As Varoufakis discovered, it is a
breach of protocol in the Eurogroup to
present formal proposals, since doing
so would require that national parliaments be notified. It might even require that the status of the Eurogroup
be clarified. Already prepared and
overly substantive contributions from
those actually attending the Eurogroup
meetings are therefore frowned upon.
Seeking an escape from the claustrophobia of the EU, the Syriza government went beyond it. The old left wing
of the party looked to Russia. Varoufakis, with an eye to the shifting balance
in the twenty-first-century economy,
sought to make a deal with the Chinese.
But from Moscow and Beijing, Greece
received the same answer: you must
come to terms with Germany. The same
message came from Washington.
Varoufakis leans toward Britain
and the US. His closest advisers were
Americans: James Galbraith and Jeffrey Sachs. Adults in the Room starts
with a Chandleresque description of an
encounter in a D.C. bar with Lawrence
Summers, whom Varoufakis invokes
as a remote but authoritative mentor.
When Syriza took office, Obama made
sympathetic comments. But when Germany made its position clear, the US
pulled back. As one American official
told Varoufakis, Washington would
not meddle. Greece belonged in Germany’s “sphere of influence.”3
3.
Did Greece have any way of breaking
out of Germany’s grip? The common
criticism of Varoufakis’s period in office is that he was an intellectual who
took the knife of logic to a political gunfight. He was ill equipped from the start.
Adults in the Room is at pains to show
that this interpretation is mistaken. Varoufakis insists that he had prepared a
response in case his efforts to negotiate
a debt write-down with Germany failed.
Indeed, it was only because he had this
weapon on hand that he was willing to
accept Syriza’s invitation to become
finance minister and to enter the labyrinth of negotiations in the first place.
The plan that caused a scandal in the
summer of 2015 and earned Varoufakis
notoriety was a scheme to replace the
euro with a new drachma. That scheme
3
See Daniel Marans, “US Foreign Policy Got in the Way of Helping Greece,
Greek Ex-Official Says,” HuffPost,
April 29, 2016.
The New York Review
was in fact little more than due diligence, a reserve measure Varoufakis
held on to in case the negotiations took
the worst possible turn.
The far more dangerous weapon was
one that Varoufakis proposed to direct
against the European Central Bank. In
a coincidence that would prove fateful,
three days before Syriza was elected
in January 2015, the ECB’s president,
Mario Draghi, announced a new policy
of quantitative easing for the eurozone
(purchasing bonds in order to reduce
interest rates). Long resisted by Europe’s monetary conservatives, notably
in Germany, this was the ECB’s way of
keeping deflation from spreading to Europe from the ailing emerging-market
economies of Latin America and Asia.
By buying sovereign and private
bonds, the ECB propped up their
prices, pushed interest rates down, and
flushed hundreds of billions in euro liquidity into the financial system. The
primary aim was to stimulate the eurozone economy, but quantitative easing also had political ramifications.
As long as the ECB kept buying their
bonds, Spain, Italy, and Portugal were
immune to contagion from the uncertainty surrounding Greece. Quantitative easing thus deprived Syriza of one
of its chief bargaining weapons. Ironically, it was the ECB’s action—made
in defiance of the conservatives in the
Eurogroup—that freed those conservatives to lay siege to the left-wing government in Athens. They could force
Greece to the brink of a disorderly
Grexit without fear of destabilizing the
rest of the eurozone and fight Greece’s
political contagion without having to
worry about the financial kind.
The response that Varoufakis devised
to break out of this siege was truly Machiavellian. Draghi’s bond-buying had a
fragile political and legal basis. The German Supreme Court and the European
Court of Justice had only grudgingly
approved it after repeated legal challenges by German right-wing euroskeptics. What Varoufakis proposed was to
unhinge that delicate legal and political
equilibrium. To do so Greece would default on the Greek bonds that the ECB
had purchased in 2010 and 2011 during
earlier rounds of bond market stabilization. That part of Greece’s sovereign
debt had not been written down in 2012.
The bonds were under Greek law. Their
face value was roughly $33 billion. If
Greece defaulted on all or part of those
bonds, the ECB would be forced to reevaluate its entire portfolio of eurozone
sovereign bonds, and the door would be
thrown open to a new legal challenge
from the German right wing, putting
quantitative easing into jeopardy.
Varoufakis had outlined a strategy of
this type on his blog as early as 2012.
It was vaguely hinted at in the press in
2015.4 But Adults in the Room gives the
first full-fledged account of his intent.
Varoufakis wants us to know that whatever we may think of his bargaining
tactics, he was not so naive as to go into
the Eurogroup negotiations unarmed.
The question is why his weapon was
never used.
T
he answer turns on the cabinet politics around Prime Minister Tsipras.
Conservative elements in the Greek
4
See Paul Mason, “The Inside Story of
Syriza’s Struggle to Save Greece,” The
Nation, December 18, 2015.
March 8, 2018
state bureaucracy put powerful pressure on Athens not to break with the
eurozone. They were joined by members of the Syriza coalition that had too
much at stake in the status quo. When
Varoufakis and his team were absent
from Greece, Tsipras fell under the influence of more cautious advisers.
In April Varoufakis was dispatched
to Washington with orders to inform the
IMF of a pending default on Greece’s
latest debt payment. But when he arrived in Washington his orders were
revoked. Repeatedly, Tsipras shrank
from the ultimate confrontation. By
May he had succumbed to pressure
from Germany to remove his troublesome finance minister from the front
line of the eurozone negotiations.
Varoufakis gives an engaging picture
both of the palace politics within Athens and of his desperate willingness to
believe in Tsipras’s historic mission that
held him in place. What he does not discuss are the wider implications of his
proposed strategy of confrontation with
the ECB, notably its likely repercussions
for the other stressed peripheral borrowers. Had Greece defaulted, it is hard
to say whether the loss would have been
inflicted on the ECB or merely on the
Greek central bank. But as far as Portugal, Spain, and Italy were concerned,
the Greek strategy carried considerable
risks. The entire point of Varoufakis’s
proposal was to put them in harm’s way
and to widen the Greek crisis, thereby
forcing Draghi and the Germans to
back off. His plan was to deliberately
unleash a civil war in Europe over the
one promise that since 2012 had been
holding the European currency together—Draghi’s commitment to do
“whatever it takes”—thus exposing the
other weaker eurozone members to the
full force of the bond markets.
How this would have worked out
politically and what consequences it
might have had for the left in Portugal
and Spain are not questions that Varoufakis takes up. That he even considered
such a tactic points to the extraordinary
pitch of tension that eurozone politics
had reached. Given Greece’s subordinate position, it would be bombastic to
call his scheme a “nuclear option.” But
it was certainly a dirty bomb.
4.
From its inception after World War II,
the European Union has always been
marked by a combination of high ideals,
economic logic, and power politics. The
balance has shifted over time depending on circumstance. In the early 2000s
Brussels preened itself as the capital of
the “good Europe”: a prosperous, unified, peaceful Rechtsstaat of continental scale. It was saccharine. But Europe
was making up with soft-power appeal
for what it lacked in hard-power clout.
That self-image did not survive the
crisis of 2008. The EU today is no longer the “good Europe” of a decade ago.
But neither is it the technocratic and
neoliberal machine that it is variously
caricatured to be. As Varoufakis’s
memoir starkly reveals, it has become
an arena for a political clash between
contending visions of socioeconomic
change. As is commonly observed, the
EU does not have a democratic constitution. But to harp endlessly on the fact
that Europe has no demos is an obfuscation in its own right. Like any large,
complex polity, it is made up of multiple
constituencies governed by different
and conflicting logics. National politics
today, whether in Greece, Germany,
France, or the Czech Republic, take
place within a European force field.
Within that force field, Syriza’s challenge mattered. It still does, as does the
lower-key progressive project in Portugal. But both of these challenges are
small, weak, and opposed by powerful
enemies. The idea that countries like
Greece and Portugal have an equal
voice in the EU is a pious fiction. To
make themselves heard, they have to use
means fair and foul. One should not be
scandalized by the lengths to which Varoufakis was willing to go. They suggest
what he was up against: the dogged determination of the Eurogroup, its conservatism, and also its contradictions.
The divide between the European
Central Bank and the factions that influence policymaking in Germany has
strategic implications. Europe’s rescue
from the acute phase of the eurozone
crisis between 2010 and 2012 depended
on Merkel and Draghi’s ability to balance the demands of such factions.
Varoufakis’s threat to expose the contradictions in that balance was well directed. But it was also dangerous, and
for that reason Tsipras pulled back.
Varoufakis clearly considers Tsipras
naive for imagining that he could strike
a deal with Germany. But Tsipras was at
least half right. On the night of July 12,
2015, at the climax of the Greek debt crisis, Merkel did not push Schäuble’s proposal to exclude Greece from the euro
for a “time out.” As Tsipras correctly
judged, the majority of the Greek population did not want to risk a rupture, and
Merkel knew that the same was true in
Germany. Tsipras and Merkel struck a
deal that would allow both countries to
muddle through. The fury of the German right says as much about the nature
of that compromise as does the disappointment of the Greek left.
For Germany’s new right, Merkel’s
surrender over Greece was a prelude
to her impetuous open-door response
to the refugee crisis. Both constituted
a betrayal of the conservative foundations of the Federal Republic. The Alternative für Deutschland was founded
in the spring of 2013 not as a party of
anti-immigrant resentment. The “alternative” it purported to offer was
an escape from Merkel’s endless compromises over the eurozone. The huge
losses suffered by both the Social Democratic Party and Merkel’s CDU in the
Bundestag election of September 2017
confirm how deeply the crises of 2015—
Greece on top of Ukraine topped by
the refugee crisis—shook even the most
stable European polity. That the future
of Europe now hangs on Merkel’s ability to construct yet another unlikely
coalition in Berlin suggests the extent
to which the status quo in Europe depends not only on economic interests
and technocratic calculations—however those may be defined—but also on
the endlessly shifting play of electoral
politics and governmental negotiation.
Varoufakis adorns his narrative with
references to Greek tragedy mixed with
denunciations of the black boxes within
which technocracy conceals its power.
As far as the eurozone is concerned
these are largely beside the point. What
he has actually given us is something
more prosaic but no less important: a
deeply reflective, first-person insight
into the workings of modern power and
politics.
23
The Quiet Little Warrior
Christopher Benfey
Brown University Portrait Collection, Providence, Rhode Island
All the Great Prizes:
The Life of John Hay,
from Lincoln to Roosevelt
by John Taliaferro.
Simon and Schuster,
673 pp., $35.00; $21.00 (paper)
Lincoln’s Boys:
John Hay, John Nicolay, and
the War for Lincoln’s Image
by Joshua Zeitz.
Penguin, 390 pp., $17.00 (paper)
The Statesman and the Storyteller:
John Hay, Mark Twain, and the
Rise of American Imperialism
by Mark Zwonitzer.
Algonquin, 583 pp., $35.00
John Hay, Friend of Giants:
The Man and Life
Connecting Abraham Lincoln,
Mark Twain, Henry James,
and Theodore Roosevelt
by Philip McFarland.
Rowman and Littlefield,
366 pp., $27.00
During the winter of 1903, John Singer
Sargent was invited to the White House
to paint Theodore Roosevelt’s official
portrait. Feeling like “a rabbit in the
presence of a boa constrictor,” Sargent had the impatient president grasp
the large round knob of a staircase,
as though to keep him in place. Since
Roosevelt limited sessions to a half
hour, Sargent improved the time by
crossing Lafayette Square to the sumptuous house of John Hay, Roosevelt’s
secretary of state, where he painted a
portrait of Hay—a private commission—in his darkened library. While
the youthful Roosevelt is depicted as a
commanding presence, as though holding the diminished world in his firm
grip, Hay at sixty-four, a slight man
prone to obscure ailments, looks pensive, his right hand held tentatively aloft
and a rebellious strand of hair straying
across his creased forehead. One could
almost imagine the two men posing
for contrasting allegorical figures representing the Man Who Carries a Big
Stick and the Man Who Talks Softly.
Perhaps there is something in the
very nature of diplomacy that tends to
blur the outlines of individual achievement, but no biography of Hay, or of
others in his illustrious circle, has managed to capture the elusive figure in
Sargent’s portrait, who once remarked,
with characteristic modesty, that his
life was an “oughtnottobiography.”
Even Henry Adams, in his The Education of Henry Adams, with its incisive
accounts of so many politicians and
mountebanks, is oddly reticent about
his closest friend and longtime Washington neighbor. John Taliaferro’s sympathetic but by no means hagiographic
portrait, All the Great Prizes (2013),
brought us closer to the subject than
previous attempts, while exploring the
motivations behind his self- effacement.
Three subsequent books on Hay, all
of which build on Taliaferro’s findings,
follow a revealing pattern. Each one
pairs Hay with illustrious contemporaries: with John Nicolay, his fellow
presidential secretary, in Joshua Zeitz’s
Lincoln’s Boys; with Mark Twain
in Mark Zwonitzer’s The Statesman
24
John Singer Sargent: John Hay, 1903
and the Storyteller; and with Lincoln,
Twain, Henry James, and Roosevelt, in
Philip McFarland’s wide-ranging John
Hay, Friend of Giants. The impression
left by such partial portraits—of which
Zwonitzer’s, principally concerned with
Twain’s and Hay’s diverging views of
the benefits of empire, is the most substantial—is that Hay, no giant himself,
gained in stature by his association
with others.
The subtitles of these books convey
something about the sheer extent of
Hay’s life, beginning with his youthful
service in Abraham Lincoln’s White
House. With his fellow private secretary, the German-born John Nicolay,
Hay later wrote the official biography,
as long as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall,
of Lincoln’s life and times. Hay was
regarded as the literary stylist on Lincoln’s team, ghostwriting much of the
president’s correspondence, including,
apparently, one of his most famous letters. Later, he wrote popular dialect
poems, drawn from the Midwest where
he grew up, along with an anti-labor
novel much admired in its day.
But it is as a statesman specializing
in foreign affairs—first as a diplomat
serving in European posts after the
Civil War, and then as secretary of
state in the successive administrations
of McKinley and Roosevelt—that Hay
makes the greatest claim to historical
significance. He was of that generation
that guided the United States from its
fledgling years as a peripheral participant in the world to its still ambivalent
embrace of empire. It was Hay who
famously characterized the SpanishAmerican War as a “splendid little
war.” He also defended the horrific
American occupation of the Philippines and arranged the secret meetings
that eventually led to construction
of a canal under American control in
“independent” Panama—independent,
because the United States had encouraged the state of Panama to declare
independence from Colombia in exchange for military support and a favorable deal on the canal.
Hay also—and it is still regarded as
his greatest achievement—established
the American policy regarding China,
expressed in his successive “Open
Door” notes of 1899–1900. These documents, agreed to by the other imperial powers, ensured that China would
be open to trade with all foreign powers on an equal basis; they are widely
viewed as having prevented the partition of China—by Great Britain, Russia, Germany, France, and Japan—into
exclusive economic “spheres of influence,” essentially colonies. Taliaferro
follows other historians in considering
the Open Door Hay’s “masterpiece,”
adding the hyperbolic claim that “if
Lincoln had saved the Union, John
Hay deserves a nod of credit for saving
China from ‘spoliation’ at the hands of
the other powers.”
Hay conceived of diplomacy as a
transaction among gentlemen. He believed in trust among civilized nations
and fought tenaciously for treaties
against an obstinate Senate that despised such self-limiting agreements.
George Kennan, a distinguished diplomat of a later, less civil era, once
characterized “the America I know
and love and owe allegiance to” as “the
America of . . . John Hay and Henry
Adams and Roosevelt,” specifying that
“it stood for certain ideals of decency
and courage and generosity which
were as fine as anything the world has
ever known.” Hay’s conviction that
the United States was a beacon to a
world struggling toward democracy
could easily be abused, as in the case
of the Philippines and later American
interventions in Asia. “He was a man
of his time—,” Kennan concludes, with
perhaps a touch of irony, “a man of dignity and sensitivity—a great American
gentleman.”
J
ohn Milton Hay was born in Salem,
Indiana, in 1838. His father, a bookish physician, moved his family further
west, to Warsaw, Illinois, a river town
just above Twain’s Hannibal and just
below the Morman settlement at Nauvoo, and founded the public library
there. Taliaferro mentions two events
that he thinks shaped Hay’s childhood.
Hay came across a runaway slave hiding
in the family basement, and later said,
“that incident has given me a greater
horror than anything I have ever read
about slavery.” His father was drawn
into the anti-Mormon activities of the
Warsaw militia “as its surgeon,” though
Hay, while denouncing the Mormon
leaders as “blackguards,” claimed that
his father opposed the lynch mob that
marched on the jail in nearby Carthage
and murdered Joseph Smith and his
brother. Hay’s father, who read Homer
and Virgil for pleasure, instructed his
precocious son at home, encouraging
his gift for languages. Hay attended
a local academy, where he met John
Nicolay, and enrolled, at age sixteen, at
Brown. Drawn into the literary circle
of the Providence poet Sarah Helen
Whitman, who had once been engaged
to Edgar Allan Poe, Hay wrote poetry
in a sappy Byronic mode.
Back in Warsaw, Hay read law in the
office of his uncle Milton, next door
to the law office of Abraham Lincoln,
where Nicolay worked. When Lincoln,
who had begun his campaign for public
office, needed someone to answer his
letters, Nicolay suggested Hay. After
Lincoln’s surprising victory, the two
young men followed Lincoln to Washington, a city Hay found, in Taliaferro’s
deft phrase, “at once august and disgusting.” At the ill- equipped White
House of the early 1860s, where Mary
Todd Lincoln couldn’t muster matching table settings for a dozen guests,
ordinary citizens lined up every day by
the hundreds to get by the gatekeepers,
Hay and Nicolay, and meet with the beleaguered president face to face.
John Hay was “the stylish one” on
the White House staff, according to
Taliaferro, “dapper and erudite, with
the pen of a poet.” Nicolay, by contrast,
was “short-tempered and dyspeptic,”
in Zeitz’s account, “a brooding figure
to those seeking the president’s time
or favor.” Two or three hundred letters arrived at the White House every
day. Hay told William Herndon that
Lincoln “signed without reading them
the letters I wrote in his name.” One of
Lincoln’s most famous letters is known
as the Bixby letter. A Mrs. Bixby of
Boston had reportedly lost five sons
in the war (it later came to light that
she had lost two, and was a southern
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25
But I cannot refrain from tendering
to you the consolation that may be
found in the thanks of the Republic
they died to save. . . . I pray that our
Heavenly Father may assuage the
anguish of your bereavement, and
leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost.
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26
The leading liberal minds of the
Old World clearly recognize that
the American system of government is the nearest to perfection
of all that have ever been evolved
from the intelligence of man and
the force of circumstance.
In a lighter mode, Hay wrote poems
in dialect celebrating a native American
virtue sprung from the rough circumstances of the frontier. “Jim Bludso” is
about the engineer of a steamboat on
the Mississippi who, in an ill-advised
race with a newer boat, accidentally
sets his boat on fire. Bludso remains on
board until all the passengers except
himself are safely ashore:
on Cleveland. Two workers vie for the
same young woman. One is the hardworking carpenter Sam Sleeny, “whose
daily life was a practical argument
against the doctrines of socialism.” The
other is the dark-skinned and “oleaginous” Andrew Jackson Offitt, who has
organized, among “the laziest and most
incapable workmen in the town,” a secret society called the “Brotherhood
of Bread-winners.” In a melodramatic
sequence, Offitt organizes a factory
strike, nearly kills the owner with a
hammer while pinning the crime on
Sleeny, and finally gets his due. Sleeny
marries the novel’s erstwhile siren,
while the recovering factory owner
marries the highborn and angelic Alice
(modeled on Hay’s own very maternal wife). “Hay tells his story from the
omniscient point of view,” McFarland
The letter was long considered among
the greatest writings in the Lincoln
He were n’t no saint,—but at
canon. It was later set to music; I’ve
jedgment
heard it sung, movingly, by the
baritone Thomas Hampson.
The World War II film Saving
Private Ryan drew major elements of its plot from the Bixby
exchange. It is now widely believed that the letter was written
by John Hay, who reportedly
told friends that he had written
it, and who pasted it in scrapbooks along with poems he
published anonymously during
the war. One can see how the
Bixby letter could have been
written by someone convinced
that he was expressing what a
more eloquent Lincoln ought
to have written on such an occasion. The genteel phrases—
“to beguile you from the grief,”
“refrain from tendering to you
the consolation,” “may assuage
the anguish”—are, as Taliaferro notes, “more characteristic of Hay, appearing over and
Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in ‘The Big Type War of the Yellow Kids’;
over in his own letters and selillustration by Leon Baritt from Vim, 1898
dom in Lincoln’s.” Hungover at
Gettysburg after a long night of
I’d run my chance with Jim,
reveling, Hay had only this to say about
writes, “yet one feels—readers felt it
’Longside of some pious
the famously terse address, in which he
at the time—that his view is hardly obgentlemen
himself had no hand: “The President in
jective, but rather in favor of the rich,
That wouldn’t shook hands
a firm free way, with more grace than is
against the strikers, the discontented,
with him.
his wont said his half dozen lines of conthe upstarts.”
He seen his duty, a dead- sure
secration and the music wailed and we
Ohio was a center of Republican
thing,—
went home through crowded and cheerpolitics, and Hay supported the canAnd went for it thar and then;
ing streets.”
didacies of the Ohio-born presidents
And Christ ain’t a going to be too
Garfield and McKinley. Hay had helped
hard
to bail out McKinley, then governor of
uring the war, Hay bought some
On a man that died for men.
Ohio, when he incurred a large debt in
orange groves in Florida, and thought
1893, and later contributed to his canabout returning to Illinois as a gentleAmong the many admirers of the poem
didacy. President McKinley gratefully
man farmer. He was still in Washingwas Mark Twain, who pointed out that
appointed Hay ambassador to Great
ton when Lincoln was shot and, by his
Bludso, if he steered the boat, should
Britain and later secretary of state. Hay
own account, was standing at the head
have been a pilot, and not an engineer.
was not directly involved in the Ameriof the bed when the president died.
Hay was well paid by the Tribune,
can suppression of the insurgents (forNeither the orange groves nor the Midbut he found a better way to secure
mer allies against Spanish rule) in the
west held much appeal for Hay, who achis financial future when he married
Philippines, but he defended American
cepted a minor diplomatic post in Paris
Clara Stone, one of the richest women
policy there, arguing that the Filipinos
instead, followed by postings in Vienna
in America, in 1874. Her father was
were not “oppressed” but were being
and Madrid, where he also wrote for
Amasa Stone, a name that Edith Wharschooled for democracy. (Twain reAmerican magazines. “The Empire atton might have invented, who, from
ferred to the American presence in the
tained its most resplendent bloom the
his base in Cleveland, had amassed a
Philippines as “a quagmire from which
year before its fall,” he wrote of Paris
fortune in steel and railroads. Stone
each fresh step renders the difficulty of
in 1869, on the eve of the ruinous war
persuaded Hay to work for him in
extrication immensely greater.”) Hay
with Prussia.
Cleveland, building a huge mansion
praised “the men who are striving . . . to
Hay’s study of European revolutions
next door to his own house in anticipaameliorate their condition and to make
persuaded him that nations could grow
tion of many grandchildren. Hay witthem fit for self-government and all its
in democratic directions. In Spain he
nessed the intense labor agitation that
attendant advantages.”
claimed to hear, with his customary effollowed the worldwide depression of
Such rhetoric would become all too
fusiveness, “strains of lyric beauty that
1873 and wrote darkly of international
familiar in twentieth- century Ameriare only heard in the fresh and dewy
conspiracies and proletarian uprisings
can foreign policy. Hay’s high-handed
dawn of democracies.” In the editoriinstilling “the very devil . . . into the
treatment of the parties in the various
als he began writing in 1870 for Horace
lower class of working men.”
canal negotiations strikes a similar
Greeley’s New York Tribune, Hay deThe novel Hay wrote on the subtone. Convinced that an “Isthmian”
veloped his ideas about the inevitable
ject, The Bread-Winners, published
canal would be, as Roosevelt said, “one
progress of democracy in the world,
anonymously in 1883, is a sentimental
of the future highways of civilization,”
with the United States in the vanguard:
romance set in a gritty city modeled
Hay considered anyone who opposed
D
The New York Review
Library of Congress
sympathizer); the governor of Massachusetts thought something special was
called for to honor such conspicuous
sacrifice. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which
should attempt to beguile you from the
grief of a loss so overwhelming,” the
letter reads in part.
it, such as the “greedy little anthropoids” in Bogotá, barbaric and unworthy of respect.
Hay’s diplomacy was more admirable when he was dealing with men
he considered his equals, such as the
European ministers he skillfully coerced into agreeing to the Open Door
in China. Here, too, however, his success may have had inadvertent liabilities, since “a myth was established,”
as Kennan put it, “which was destined
to flourish in American thinking for at
least a half- century.” The myth was that
American statesmen could be relied on
for ideas that would save the world.
The main facts of Hay’s diplomacy
have been known for a long time. It
is an aspect of Hay’s private life that
Taliaferro presents as a new discovery,
one that subsequent writers on Hay
have tended to accept, though McFarland, for one, adopts a more cautious
attitude toward it. Adams and Hay
had commissioned the architect H. H.
Richardson to build adjacent houses
on Lafayette Square (where the HayAdams Hotel now stands), opposite the
White House. The ostentatious Hay
residence had a gold-leaf ceiling and a
fireplace of emerald green marble; the
Adams house, inspired by Japanese design, was contrastingly austere. Just before the houses were complete, in late
1885, Adams’s wife, Clover, committed
suicide, ingesting potassium cyanide
used in her photographic work.
Following this disaster, a group of
friends came regularly to the Adams or
the Hay residence, and often summered
together, at Adams’s family retreat in
Beverly Farms or at yet another Hay
mansion in New Hampshire. The circle
included the charismatic mining engineer Clarence King, Senator Henry
Cabot Lodge and his wife, Nannie, and,
centrally, Elizabeth Cameron, a native
of Cleveland and the much younger
wife of Pennsylvania Senator Donald
Cameron, a rich, drunken lout. It has
been widely believed for some time,
and was given its fullest expression in
Patricia O’Toole’s racy biographical
study The Five of Hearts, that Hay was
in love with Nannie Lodge, and that
Adams in turn was in love with Lizzie
Cameron. Taliaferro underplays Hay’s
“conjectured” attachment with Mrs.
Lodge, which he thinks “dimmed”
with the years. He maintains, instead,
that Hay, like Adams, was passionately
in love with Mrs. Cameron, a famous
beauty who posed as Nike in SaintGaudens’s gilded sculptural group,
located at the southeast corner of Central Park, commemorating the victory
march of General Sherman, Cameron’s
uncle, through the defeated South.
I suspect, however, that Cameron’s
unavailability made Hay’s letters and
love poems a harmless diversion. “The
lady of my love bids me not to love her,”
he wrote in one sonnet. “I can but bow
obedient to her will.” His letters to her
are carefully “diplomatic,” hedged with
ambiguous longing and couched in the
language of religious adulation. “My
proud goddess,” he wrote, “my glorious
beauty, my grand, sweet woman, I want
to shut my eyes to everything about
you here, and adore you as I did at
Dulwich.” Such conventional remarks
might be contrasted with Adams’s agonizing pleas to Lizzie: “I must always
make more demand on you than you
can gratify. . . . I am not old enough to
March 8, 2018
be a tame cat; you are too old to accept
me in any other character.”
“On looking them over,” Cameron
wrote, when William Roscoe Thayer
asked if Hay’s letters to her might be
included in a posthumous collection,
I find that most of them are what
would seem to anyone not well acquainted with Mr. Hay, ardent love
letters! You, who must have handled many such, will understand
that they merely express his habit
of gallantry, and his love of writing
pretty phrases.
Taliaferro thinks Cameron is hiding
something here. An easier explanation
would be that she was right about Hay.
Hay’s final years were marred by
tragedy. His son Del, attending his Yale
reunion during the summer of 1901, fell
to his death, perhaps deliberately, from
a hotel window. “Good luck has pursued me like my shadow,” Hay wrote
Adams. “Now it is gone—it seems to
me forever.” Barely two months later,
McKinley was assassinated. Hay’s
service under the undisciplined Roosevelt, who dismissed him as “a fine
figurehead,” wore him down further.
In his final diary entry, in June 1905,
Hay wrote, “By mere length of service
I shall occupy a modest place in the history of my time,” adding:
I know death is the common lot,
and what is universal ought not
to be deemed a misfortune; and
yet—instead of confronting it with
dignity and philosophy, I cling instinctively to life and the things of
life, as eagerly as if I had not had
my chance at happiness & gained
nearly all the great prizes.
Some of the prizes have not aged
well. Too facile and self- consciously literary to be an interesting poet or writer
of fiction, Hay held a lifelong allegiance
to the party of Lincoln, which turned
out to be similarly melodramatic. As
the Republican Party abandoned its
commitment to the less fortunate and
embraced big business, Hay remained
resolute. “To Hay,” Adams observed
acidly, “the difference [between Democrat and Republican] was that of being
respectable or not.”
It is in Hay’s diplomacy that we should
look for a new tone in foreign policy.
After Hay managed to rally the Great
Powers and the Chinese government,
Henry Adams’s brother Brooks wrote
admiringly, “I believe you to be one of
the two or three Americans living who
have measured the present situation,
and that your policy will prove to have
carried us round one of the great corners of our history.” It was Hay’s ability
to quietly take the “measure” of an international crisis that struck his contemporaries as something new. A key word
for Hay, in this respect, was to exploit
what was “possible.” “I do what seems
possible every day—not caring a hoot
for consistency or the Absolute,” he
wrote to Adams of the turmoil in China.
If Hay’s rhetorical pitch was often
too high or too low in his melodramatic
fiction and his bathetic poetry, in his diplomacy of the possible he often found
the right, the realistic measure. After
Hay’s death, his close friend William
Dean Howells, the foremost proponent
of realism in fiction, handsomely called
Hay “the most innately American of
our statesmen.”
The 2018
Whiting
Creative
Nonfiction
Grant
We congratulate the winners
of the 2017 grant:
Michael Brenson
for David Smith and the
Transformation of American Sculpture
Philip Gourevitch
for You Hide That You Hate Me
and I Hide That I Know
Pacifique Irankunda
for The Times of Stories
Seth Kantner
for A Thousand Trails Home
Jay Kirk
The Whiting Foundation will award
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the sciences, philosophy, criticism, food
or travel writing, and personal or lyric
essays. Emphasis should be on craft
as well as content. The book must have
been under contract with a publisher for
at least two years as of the application
deadline of May 2.
for Avoid the Day
Meghan O’Rourke
for What’s Wrong with Me?: The
Mysteries of Chronic Illness
George Packer
for Richard Holbrooke and the End
of the American Century
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for The Baby on the Fire Escape
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visit www.whiting.org, where you can
also learn more about the Foundation’s
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27
Far from the Tree
Eamon Duffy
Sometime in 1664 the young Isaac
Newton abandoned his hitherto dutiful undergraduate note-taking on the
standard Cambridge curriculum, dominated, as it had been for centuries, by
classical languages and the works of
Aristotle. Instead, his notebooks begin
to trace his excited response to radical
new scientific and philosophical ideas
culled from the works of René Descartes and Pierre Gassendi. This risqué
engagement with suspect French Catholic thinkers, considered in Restoration
Cambridge the last word in avant-garde
modernity, was to trigger the emergence
of Newton’s own far greater scientific
genius. With astonishing rapidity, the
earnest and melancholy young loner
moved from admiring assimilation to
pioneering explorations in philosophy,
mathematics, and the physical sciences.
Over the next three years, during which
plague raged and London burned, Newton laid the groundwork for the innovations in mathematics, optics, astronomy,
and theoretical physics whose gradual
(and on Newton’s part sometimes reluctant) publication in the 1670s and 1680s
would transform Western science.
Newton’s astonishing precocity in
what his age called “Natural Philosophy” is well known. Reported and
embellished in his own lifetime by
admiring disciples, it made him that
unlikely thing: a celebrity intellectual.
The first scientist ever to be knighted,
for the last twenty-three years of his
life he dominated English thought as
president of the Royal Society, and
his name became Enlightenment England’s shorthand for transcendent
scientific genius—in Alexander Pope’s
famous couplet:
Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid
in Night.
God said, Let Newton be! and all
was Light.
What was less well known to his contemporaries, and largely forgotten for
centuries after his death, was that Newton did not consider the mathematical
and scientific discoveries on which his
fame rested to be the most important
aspects of his life’s work. The greatest
scientific mind of the Enlightenment
was also an ardent alchemist who accumulated the most remarkable library
of alchemical books and manuscripts
in Europe. Years of refined but futile
experimentation with mercury and
other poisonous metals in search of
an alchemical panacea to cure all ills
may well have undermined his health
and contributed to at least one bout of
insanity. Even more remarkably, Newton laid more weight and devoted more
time to the study of the Bible and the
history of religion than to more strictly
scientific pursuits. From the late 1670s
onward he was increasingly preoccupied with theological study and writing,
to which at times his scientific pursuits
seemed an irritating interruption.
28
Almost none of the resulting theological writing saw the light of day in
Newton’s lifetime, and until the late
twentieth century it was studiously ignored, patronized, or dismissed by biographers and historians of science as
an embarrassing aberration. But its importance for an understanding of Newton’s mind can be gauged from its sheer
bulk. When a collection of his private
papers was auctioned at Sotheby’s in
1936, it contained more than 200,000
words on biblical chronology and another million on biblical interpretation,
church history, and other branches of
physics. The obscurity surrounding his
theological activity was no accident. He
went to considerable trouble to conceal
its nature and extent from all but a few
trusted friends, because from the later
1670s onward Newton knew himself to
be an arch-heretic. Secrecy in any case
came naturally to a man whose personality had a strong paranoid streak.
William Whiston, Newton’s onetime
friend, disciple, and successor in the
Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, described him as a man of “the most fearful, cautious, and suspicious Temper,
that I ever knew.”
Tate, London
Priest of Nature:
The Religious Worlds
of Isaac Newton
by Rob Iliffe.
Oxford University Press,
522 pp., $34.95
William Blake: Newton, 1795
theology. These papers attracted few
buyers, and many were later donated to
the National Library of Israel. A separate cache of over a thousand pages of
notes on biblical chronology is in New
College, Oxford, there are more on
chronology and ancient history in the
Bodleian Library, while another collection on ecclesiastical history and doctrine, somewhat improbably rescued
and donated by the economist John
Maynard Keynes, is in the library of
King’s College, Cambridge.
Some of Newton’s theological speculations were directly related to his
scientific work. His conception of the
universe as infinitely extended, for example, flowed from his belief that all
being involved extension, and since
God was an illimitable being, the infinite extension of space was a necessary
consequence of God’s existence. In a
similar way, he believed that because
human beings were made in the image
of God, reflection on how immaterial
human minds could move our material
bodies to action could throw light on
the question of how God as pure spirit
related to the physical creation. This
was the root of his controversial claim
that the infinite space of the universe in
some way operated as the “sensorium”
of God, as bodies do for souls, a claim
that predictably brought accusations
that he had followed Spinoza into materialism, and that he was subsequently
forced to qualify.
But Newton’s theological explorations took him far beyond the
borderlands between physics and meta-
I
n this matter, caution was fully justified. Had Newton’s religious opinions
been made public, they would certainly
have resulted in his ignominious expulsion from the university and the probable end of his scientific career. For
Newton had come to believe that for almost a millennium and a half the entire
Christian world, including the Church
of England, had been in the grip of a
deadly and idolatrous delusion, fraudulently propagated by corrupt priests
and monks led by “Saint” Athanasius.
The false and blasphemous doctrine of
the Trinity, which made Christ equal to
God, was, he believed, the “great Apostasy” and the conduit for the spread of
other deadly perversions of true Christianity—vowed celibacy and the monastic life, the claims of the priesthood,
and the growth of papal authority chief
among them.
Newton had of course imbibed his
belief in the apostasy of the Roman
Catholic Church from the Puritan tradition, in which he had been nurtured
and which was still a powerful influence in Restoration Cambridge. That
the pope was Antichrist was an axiom
of seventeenth- century Protestantism, and many of Newton’s Cambridge
teachers and mentors spilled oceans
of ink and preached hours of sermons
detailing the darkness into which papal
abomination had plunged the Western church. In all this, the mysterious
prophecies of Daniel and the Book
of Revelation loomed large. The outpoured vials, trumpets, horsemen, and
plagues of biblical Apocalypse were
believed to be components of a divine
code, from which those with the right
key could read detailed information
about the past and future history of the
church and the world.
The days and dates mentioned in
the Bible were believed to be a crucial
part of this code, and Cambridge had a
strong tradition of scholarship in biblical chronology and prophecy, designed
to pinpoint exactly when the Catholic
Church had sold its soul to Satan, and
to alert readers to the turning points of
history, the likely date of the longed-for
downfall of the papal Antichrist, and
the historical upheavals that would precede Christ’s Second Coming. It was a
tradition in which Newton was known
to be immersed, and those in the know
hoped that this genius might bring a
new mathematical accuracy and refinement to deciphering these mysteries.
But most of the exponents of this tradition combined hatred of Rome with
acceptance of the doctrine of the Trinity as a central plank of true Christianity, and believed the Church of England
to be firmly on the side of the angels
in the struggle against Antichrist. And
the religious politics of Restoration
England, with the alarming prospect of
the succession of Charles II’s Catholic
brother James to England’s Protestant
throne, brought a new urgency to their
already avid interest. Some of the best
minds of the day were convinced that
history was moving toward a final confrontation between Protestant light
and papal darkness. Henry More, a
poet, philosopher, and theologian, and
one of the Cambridge teachers who
had exerted influence on the young
Newton, wrote and published a series
of urgent apocalyptic commentaries in
1680, prompted by the so- called Popish
Plot to assassinate Charles II.
Not so Newton. He was as horrified
as anyone else by the advent of a Catholic king, and he played a prominent
and dangerous part in the university’s
resistance to James II’s attempts to
establish Catholics in Cambridge. But
for him the Great Apostasy went far
deeper than popery, and the Church of
England itself, by enforcing Trinitarian
belief, was deeply compromised. True
Christianity was known and practiced
only by a handful of enlightened souls
like himself: “I mean not all that call
themselves Christians, but a remnant,
a few scattered persons which God
hath chosen, such as without being
blinded, led by interest, education, or
humane authorities, can set themselves
sincerely and earnestly to search after
truth.”
His own search after truth led Newton to immerse himself not only in biblical commentaries but in an exhaustive
reading of the history of the early
church, and the writings of the Church
Fathers. From these he constructed
a sorry narrative of defilement and
decay, as the original purity of the Gospel was contaminated by the exaltation
of a creature, Christ, to the throne of
God himself, and the consequent seepage of idolatry into every area of the
church’s life, above all in the worship
of the dead (in the cult of the saints)
and of material bread in the eucharist.
The villain of this narrative was AthaThe New York Review
nasius, who at the Council of Nicaea in
325 had beguiled the church into accepting the unity of substance between
God and Christ, and whose biography
of Saint Anthony had been instrumental in spreading the poison of monasticism. Over the centuries the deepening
deception had been promoted by crafty
priests whose self-interest had enslaved
the minds of Christians and branded
as heretics those who held fast to true
Christianity.
N
ewton’s heterodoxy was not confined to the internal history of the
church. For anyone who accepted the
literal truth of biblical narrative, the
existence of the multitude of contending world religions was a puzzle. If all
but a single family of the human race
had been wiped out in the Flood, how
had the religions of the Gentiles arisen?
These questions were much debated,
and the conventional answer was that
the descendants of the sons of Noah—
Ham, Shem, and Japheth—had fallen
away from the truth inherited from the
Patriarchs, and polytheism had been
the result.
Newton accepted this solution in
broad outline, but added to the speculations of earlier scholars his own remarkable refinements. He ransacked
centuries of scholarly speculation and
synthesized biblical and pagan sources
for the ancient history of the Near East
to construct an extraordinary treatise,
endlessly redrafted—“The Philosophical Origins of the Gentile Theology.”
The religion of the Patriarchs and of
Noah, he believed, had been in essence the rational worship of the God
of Nature. There was no way “to come
to the knowledge of a Deity but by the
frame of nature.” True religion and
sound astronomy went together. The
ancients had understood the real nature of the heavens, knowing them to
be composed of a limitless vacuum in
which the planets orbited the sun. The
earliest temples, Newton believed, had
been models of the solar system, circular enclosures surrounding a sacred fire
that represented the sun. “The whole
heavens they recconed to be the true
& real Temple of God & therefore . . .
they framed it so as in the fittest manner to represent the whole systeme of
the heavens.”
But humanity’s inherent inclination
to idolatry, and the crafty pursuit of
power by kings and priests, had combined to corrupt both true knowledge
of the heavens and true worship of the
God who had made the heavens. The
genuine understanding of the universe
that had been expressed symbolically
in ancient philosophy and religious
worship began to be interpreted literally, the circling stars imagined as
embedded in crystal spheres. Over
the course of time the stars and other
heavenly bodies were given the names
of honored ancestors, the descendants
of Noah’s children who had divided the
world among themselves. Eventually
those ancestors came to be venerated
as kings, then projected into the heavens and worshiped as gods.
Newton’s attempt to construct a coherent single narrative of the origin
and decline of true religion, encompassing all known ancient civilizations, involved extraordinary ingenuity
and formidable scholarship in arcane
sources. It also involved a drastic reduction of “real” Christianity to little
March 8, 2018
more than the ancient natural religion
he thought had been practiced by Noah
and the Patriarchs. Christ was the Messiah and the most exalted of God’s messengers, but he stood in a long line of
prophets from Moses onward who had
sought to recall mankind from idolatry
and corrupt religion. It is hard to avoid
the suspicion that Newton saw himself
as standing in that same illustrious line
of reformers.
But if Newton burned with indignation against what he took to be the doctrinal corruptions prevailing across the
Christian world, natural timidity prevented him from making any prophetic
stance. In the mountains of paper he
devoted to tracing the perversion of
true religion he raged against priests,
creeds, and institutional Christianity
in language reminiscent of the contemporary diatribes of skeptics and deists.
Like them, Newton rarely participated
in public worship, being a notorious
absentee from his college chapel. He
avoided subscription to the teachings
of the Church of England by obtaining
a royal dispensation from the requirement that fellows of Trinity College
should be ordained. But his manifest
moral earnestness and his interest in
biblical interpretation earned him a
reputation for serious but conventional
piety. He seems only once to have come
close to a public declaration of his real
opinions.
In the early 1690s Newton formed a
close friendship with the philosopher
John Locke. They shared many interests, and Locke was deeply impressed
by Newton’s astonishingly detailed
knowledge of the Bible. The doctrine
of the Trinity had come increasingly
under attack from Unitarian Christians, like the followers of the heretical
Polish theologian Fausto Sozzini, as
well as from outright religious unbelievers, and Locke took a close interest
in the issue, accumulating an extensive library of mainly anti-Trinitarian
books. Emboldened by this, in November 1690 Newton sent Locke a draft
treatise attacking two of the principal
New Testament texts used in support
of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.
This was “An Historical Account of
two notable Corruptions of Scripture,
in a letter to a Friend.” The scriptural
passages in question were I John 5:7,
the so- called Johannine Comma, and
I Timothy 3:16. As these passages occurred in the King James Bible, each
contained explicit statements of the
doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity
of Jesus. In fact, these Trinitarian references were additions to the original
Greek text, inserted at the time of the
Arian controversy in the fourth century—they are omitted or noted in the
margin in all modern editions. In 1690,
however, Newton’s demolition of their
authenticity was a potential bombshell,
which would have clearly identified him
as an anti-Trinitarian heretic, a likelihood compounded by the pamphlet’s
pugnaciously dismissive tone:
Tis the temper of the hot and superstitious part of mankind in matters of religion ever to be fond of
mysteries, & for that reason to like
best what they understand least.
Locke was impressed, and undertook to have the treatise translated into
French and published anonymously in
the Netherlands, an offer Newton eagerly accepted. Predictably, he soon
developed cold feet, pretended that he
had never authorized publication, and
insisted that the treatise be suppressed.
It would eventually resurface fifty years
later and, since Newton was then safely
dead, it was published under his own
name. But in his lifetime, Sir Isaac’s
reputation remained unsullied. His
views were nevertheless contagious,
and some of his most talented disciples would be more outspoken, and
would pay the price. His successor in
the Lucasian Chair, William Whiston,
adopted Newton’s anti-Trinitarianism
and loathing of Athanasius, but unlike
his master, campaigned openly against
ON THE DEPLOYMENT
OF SIMILE TO UNDERSTAND
GOOD MARRIAGES
Clothes stiffening into position overnight
on chairs or on the backs of chairs—
that is like a marriage too
and so is the rain crowding the window
so hard I can hardly see through
and so is the sand in the rock pool
when the stick in your hand
or the stone thrown by your hand
is a thing of the past
so the sand settles back
as before
the Athanasian corruption of Christianity. For his pains he was denounced
in Convocation, stripped of his college fellowship, and expelled from the
university. Whiston was compelled to
make a living lecturing on science and
mathematics in the London and Bath
coffeehouses. Characteristically, Newton disowned him.
Newton’s religious heterodoxy is well
documented, and has been explored
by previous biographers like Frank
Manuel and Richard Westfall. So in
one sense, Priest of Nature, Rob Iliffe’s
exhaustive new study of Newton’s religion, offers few real surprises. But no
previous study has so thoroughly laid
out the relation between Newton’s religious writings and the relevant works by
his predecessors and contemporaries.
And no previous study has conveyed so
vividly the dominance of these religious
preoccupations through most of his long
career. Newton’s scholarly life, Iliffe insists, “was suffused with an overriding
religious purpose.” He brought to bear
on his religious explorations the same
formidable intellectual resources and
methods that made him so great a scientist, the “heroic intellectual labour
that produced the monumental works
in theology, natural philosophy and
mathematics that survive today.”
All that is true enough, and the reader
who perseveres through Iliffe’s dense
and demanding book will emerge with
a heightened appreciation of Newton’s
extraordinarily complex and idiosyncratic mind. And even if one does not
entirely buy Iliffe’s argument for the essential continuities between Newton’s
religious and scientific endeavors, his
juxtaposition of them is salutary. The
Catholic Church’s disastrous handling
of the Galileo affair helped entrench
the notion that religion and science
are incompatibles, inevitably at odds.
Iliffe’s painstaking exploration of the
consuming religious preoccupations of
the greatest of early modern scientists
certainly complicates any such crudely
binary perception.
What Iliffe does not dwell on, however, is the sense that any reader, no
matter how religiously well disposed,
must have of the monumental waste
of genius depicted in these pages. We
must not patronize the past, but we
cannot entirely dispense with the benefits of hindsight. Newton’s conviction
that the Book of Revelation held the
key to history is simply untrue, based as
it was on a precritical misunderstanding of the nature of Jewish apocalyptic
thought. The long labors he lavished on
its decipherment, however ingenious,
were entirely misplaced. And Newton’s
feverishly monocausal reading of the
Christian past as one vast conspiracy to
pervert and pollute the aboriginal religion of reason was ultimately paranoid
and delusional, the product of hysteria
rather than of history. In 1681 John
Dryden wrote:
what is obvious
Great wits are sure to madness
near allied,
And thin partitions do their
bounds divide.
is how the rock hides
inside itself
right there
in front of you.
—Vona Groarke
He had in mind the first Earl of Shaftesbury, at that time in the Tower charged
with high treason—but he might just as
well have been commenting on the religious obsessions of his great contemporary, Isaac Newton.
29
In the Cauldron at Midnight
Regina Marler
Münchner Stadtmuseum/bpk/Art Resource; Art © Robert and Gail Rentzer for Estate of Morris Hirshfield/
Licensed by VAGA , New York; Art (Ernst): © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS ), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Farewell to the Muse:
Love, War and the Women
of Surrealism
by Whitney Chadwick.
Thames and Hudson,
256 pp., $35.00
Down Below
by Leonora Carrington, with an
introduction by Marina Warner.
New York Review Books,
69 pp., $14.00 (paper)
The Complete Stories of
Leonora Carrington
with an introduction by Kathryn
Davis, translated from the French by
Kathrine Talbot and from the Spanish
by Anthony Kerrigan.
Dorothy, 215 pp., $16.00 (paper)
One morning in Mexico City in 1991, the
English Surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington and the art historian
Whitney Chadwick set off for the Mercado de Sonora, a traditional market in
a rough part of town that is also known
as a mercado de brujería, or witches’
market. “It is here that the shamans
and the curanderas [folk healers] find
their supplies,” Carrington explained.
After showing Chadwick various healing herbs and miracle cures, Carrington
found what she’d been seeking: “one of
the best-known curanderas.” They negotiated the price with an attendant,
and Chadwick was led alone through a
torn curtain to a woman on a low stool
with long braids and penetrating dark
eyes. “I stood paralyzed,” Chadwick recalled, “remembering stories my uncles
had once told of foxes that hypnotized
cats by swaying in front of them. I grew
more nervous as the seconds passed.”
Then she heard a commotion behind
her, the curtain parted, and Carrington
gripped her arm: “‘Don’t do it,’ she
whispered, ‘Don’t do it. This woman
works with black magic. She will kill
frogs on your body and use the blood.
Run!’” Chadwick stood transfixed until
Carrington pulled her away, and they
fled the market.
This incredible story is not from
Chadwick’s latest book, Farewell to
the Muse, but from a talk—a “memory
piece,” as she described it—that she
delivered in Mexico City in April 2017
at the centenary celebrations for Carrington, who died in 2011 at the age
of ninety-four. She and Carrington
had been friends since the early 1980s,
when Chadwick was among the earliest scholars to seek out the more-orless forgotten women of the Surrealist
movement. In fact, one of the rich pleasures of reading this first generation
of Carrington scholars—among them
Marina Warner, Gloria Orenstein, and
Susan Aberth, who wrote the first biography of Carrington—is that they knew
her (and often related artists, such as
Leonor Fini) for years. We need memoirs from these pioneers.
Chadwick does allow herself one
significant anecdote in the introduction to Farewell to the Muse. In 1982,
the painter Roland Penrose showed her
his remarkable art collection at Farley Farm House, East Sussex. When
he learned she was planning to write
about the female Surrealists, he shook
30
Leonora Carrington with André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst,
New York City, 1942; photograph by Hermann Landshoff. At center
is Morris Hirshfield’s painting Nude at the Window (1941).
his head: “‘You shouldn’t write a book
about the women,’ he said . . . . ‘They
weren’t artists.’” Chadwick probably
glanced around the room at this point,
having just seen the work he owned
by his two wives, the French poet and
collagist Valentine Penrose and the
American photographer Lee Miller.
“‘Of course the women were important,’ he continued, ‘but it was because
they were our muses.’”
The vexed issue of muses undermines the revolutionary program of
international Surrealism: the rejection
of the rational and of all the oppressive
institutions and bourgeois norms that,
André Breton and others argued, had
led to the ravages of World War I. In
place of the military, the family, and
the church, Surrealists would celebrate
the imagination, sexual liberty, and the
promptings of the unconscious. In his
first Surrealist Manifesto, Breton called
for an art of “psychic automatism” that
would record “thought, in the absence
of any control exercised by reason,
apart from any moral or aesthetic concerns.” Women were exalted as conduits to these chthonic realms. In the
process, Breton and his followers created a mythology out of the way pretty
women made them feel.
“Man defines woman not as herself
but as relative to him,” observed Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex
(1949). Among the writers she skewered, she could have included the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, whose 1924
poem “L’Amoureuse” throws his image
over his wife Gala’s like a coat: “She
has the shape of my hands, she has the
color of my eyes, she is engulfed in my
shadow.” But Beauvoir went straight
for Breton. The ideal woman of Breton’s poetry, she wrote, “casts the same
spell as the equivocal objects loved by
the surrealists: she is like the spoon-
shoe, the table-magnifying glass, the
sugar cube of marble that the poet discovers at the flea market or invents in a
dream.” Equating Beauty with Woman
relegates women to a land of toys. The
Second Sex sold 22,000 copies in its
first week alone, and Beauvoir’s analysis of Breton fueled decades of feminist
revisions of Surrealism. When Beauvoir criticizes you, you stay criticized.
C
an a woman be a muse and an artist? In theory, yes. In practice, the roles
seldom overlap comfortably. “All that
means is you’re someone else’s object,”
as Carrington put it. Although her
early self-portrait, The Inn of the Dawn
Horse (1937–1938), conveys an exhilarating self-confidence through both
the central figure and the animal surrogates around her, especially the galloping white horse, her Portrait of Max
Ernst (1939), which depicts the German Surrealist as his alter ego, Loplop,
the Bird Superior, bears a mixed message: he carries a tiny horse trapped in
a lantern, and the white horse behind
him is frozen stiff.
Lee Miller left Man Ray in part due
to a dispute over the attribution of their
collaborative art. After Breton’s wife
Jacqueline Lamba gave birth to their
daughter, she struggled with her husband for time to paint. “The women
surrealists were considered secondary
to the male,” Carrington told an interviewer. Women artists regularly exhibited with the Surrealists, and their art
was taken seriously within the Paris
group. Breton actively promoted Frida
Kahlo’s work. But one can sense the
male Surrealists’ ambivalence in watching young and beautiful women develop
into mature artists, for example in Max
Ernst’s condescending praise of his
ex-lover Méret Oppenheim’s legend-
ary Object (1936): “Who covers a soup
spoon with luxurious fur? Little Méret.
Who has outgrown us? Little Méret.”1
Women were not included in Breton’s promotional group photos of the
Surrealist artists, and they are barely
mentioned—except as models and
muses—in the early histories of the
movement. The female Surrealists in all
their variety were reduced to one story:
the beautiful femme-enfant who nurtures male creativity. “We know more
about Kiki of Montparnasse and Nadja
than we do of Lee Miller and Valentine
Hugo [Penrose],” Chadwick remarked
in her Women Artists and the Surrealist
Movement (1985). After thirty years of
feminist reappraisals, and as a result of
Antony Penrose’s discovery and release
of his mother’s photographic archive,
we now know more about Lee Miller
than about Breton’s Nadja.
While Chadwick included a chapter
on women as muses in Women Artists
and the Surrealist Movement, only later
did she become “fully aware of the fundamental incompatibility of the roles of
beguiling muse and committed professional artist.” As Lee Miller said, “I’d
rather take a picture than be one.” Carrington threw cold water on the whole
romantic notion. “I didn’t have time to
be anyone’s muse,” she told Chadwick.
“I was too busy rebelling against my
family and learning to be an artist.”
H
ence Farewell to the Muse, which
follows five pairs of women artists from
the late 1930s through World War II—
no longer the muses or femmes-enfants
of Surrealist legend, but creators in
their own right. Chadwick’s fascinating account of Claude Cahun and Suzanne Malherbe’s wartime resistance
on the German-occupied island of
Jersey quickens the pulse even seventy
years later. Although other Surrealists,
like Paul and Nusch Éluard, engaged in
subversive activities in France during
the Occupation, these two middle-aged
French lesbians in poor health elevated
resistance to an art form, risking their
lives in a small, isolated community in
which even the natives had not quite
accepted them. The women created
collaged texts, leaflets, and banners in
German to “sow doubt in the minds of
German soldiers.” Some of their messages (left in cigarette boxes for soldiers
to find) were so oblique as to seem surreal: “Ohne Ende” (Without End) read
one, alluding to a Nazi pre-war slogan,
“Terror without end or an end to terror.” They evaded discovery until near
the end of the war, when they were arrested, held in solitary confinement, and
condemned to death. In February 1945,
the German High Command granted
them a reprieve from execution. They
were reunited in prison, where they
organized a clandestine postal system
among prisoners and made nuisances of
themselves until the Occupation ended.
Unlike the creative partnerships
Chadwick explored in Significant Oth1
In fairness to Ernst, this was not
purely belittling, so to speak. Oppenheim had been named for the character
Meretlein—Little Meret—in a Gottfried Keller story, “Green Henry.”
The New York Review
Leonora Carrington/Private Collection/Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images/
© 2018 Estate of Leonora Carrington/Artists Rights Society (ARS ), New York
ers (1993), those in Farewell are enlightening but not always inevitable
pairings. Frida Kahlo and Jacqueline
Lamba Breton, for example, were
drawn to each other when they met
in Mexico in 1938—during the fourmonth trip in which André Breton famously remarked that Mexico was “the
Surrealist place par excellence”—but
their relationship was characterized
more by absence than presence. Kahlo’s passionate farewell letter after one
parting is undercut by her failure to
send it.
Similarly, Lee Miller and Valentine
Penrose were linked chiefly through
Roland Penrose, the painter-turned-
eate a harrowing mental universe
that parallels and intersects with a
real world.
Born in Lancashire in 1917 to a
wealthy industrialist and his Irish wife,
Carrington was fed ghost stories and
Irish folklore from the cradle, and raised
in a gothic mansion called Crookhey
Hall. Considered a wild child, she was
expelled from two convent schools for
failing to “collaborate with either work
or play,” and also for trying to learn
to levitate. At her father’s insistence,
she was presented at the court of King
George V and made to endure a ball
in her honor, later unleashing her resentment about the experience in what is probably
her best-known story, “The
Debutante.” When her father at last consented to art
school, she studied in Florence and then at the Cubist
Amédée Ozenfant’s new
school in London. A fellow student brought her to
a dinner party where Max
Ernst corked her overflowing beer bottle with his
finger—in this case, the
perfect gesture.
Even before she met him,
Carrington had been swept
away by Ernst’s assemblage
Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale, featured in Herbert Read’s
influential early study Surrealism (1936), and also the
work Ernst showed at London’s 1936 International
Leonora Carrington: A Warning to Mother, 1973
Surrealist Exhibition. She
recalled “a burning inside”
champion of Surrealist art, who diwhen she first saw his art: “You know
vorced Valentine to be with Lee. The
how when something really touches you,
three of them lived together at times,
it feels like burning.”
and Roland continued to support ValErnst was married and forty-six.
entine financially, but Lee’s artistic
Carrington was nineteen. When he
career essentially ended with the war.
left for Paris, she followed, “and stayed
She and Valentine did not share imand stayed.” Carrington would not reagery or inspire each other or study
turn to England for fifteen years. Altogether.
though her chapter is called “The Two
Chadwick’s chapter on Carrington
Leonors,” one can’t blame Chadwick
and the Argentine-born painter and
for lingering on the three-year Ernst/
designer Leonor Fini springs from her
Carrington love affair: the books and
access to a fantastic trove of newly disart they produced at their farmhouse
covered letters between the friends.
in the Ardèche, the photographs Lee
Found in Fini’s Paris studio by the
Miller took of the lovers—Leonora
executor of her estate, they offer an
concocting something in her kitchen
account of the dark prelude to Car(like her notorious prank omelet with
rington’s mental breakdown—as dehair clippings), Max shielding her
scribed in her memoir, Down Below
bare breasts with his hands as she sun(first published in 1944)—beginning
bathed, her ever-present cigarette in
in 1939 when her lover, Max Ernst, was
the foreground.
jailed by the French as an enemy alien.
The horse-human hybrids CarLater, after the Germans invaded, he
rington painted on the interior walls
was jailed again as a degenerate artof their house made their way into the
ist. Carrington was left alone among
collage Ernst produced to illustrate
suspicious villagers in Saint-Martinher first published story, “The House
d’Ardèche, writing everyone she
of Fear,” written in French in 1937 and
knew, frantically trying to free him. “I
published the following year. Many of
thought I knew the story behind these
the later elements of her fiction appear
letters,” Chadwick writes, but the letin this story. Her nameless heroine
ters themselves had a
is invited to a secret party of horses,
presided over by “the mistress of the
rare and raw immediacy. Written
house—Fear. She looked slightly like a
almost day by day with the urgency
horse, but was much uglier. Her dressof one fighting to remain sane, they
ing gown was made of live bats sewn
had the feel of a diary or a personal
together by their wings: the way they
journal. Addressed to a dear friend
fluttered, one would have thought they
by a narrator who is isolated, terdidn’t much like it.”
rified and enraged, they are both
Like the Bloomsbury Group and
descriptive and intimate. . . . The
the Beats, the Surrealists could be inworld they describe is neither that
cestuous, choosing lovers from inside
of the surrealists in Paris, nor one
the circle and often remaining close to
in which women propel the male
their exes. When Ernst and Carrington
imagination. Instead they delinreached Paris, he introduced her to
March 8, 2018
“Jane Gillette’s The Trail of the Demon and Other Stories follows our demonic
nature side by side with our impulse toward deference and politeness. The
stories are constantly ripping open and then concealing again the nature of
their characters. It is really quite extraordinary.”
—M I C H AE L
SI LV E RBLAT T, host of KCRW’s Bookworm
“Jane Gillette’s stories are sinewy and
astringent, laced with mordant humor
and sharp insights about the realities
of sex, race, and privilege. Often her
narrators look back on their lives
from a distance of years, discovering
the ‘unlooked-for experience of foiled
expectations.’ Her voice, reminiscent of
Grace Paley or Edith Pearlman, is strong
and smart and wholly her own. This
collection is a pleasure to read.”
—Alix Ohlin
author of Inside and Signs and Wonders
“Jane Gillette’s scalpel-sharp prose strips
away her characters’ carefully constructed
facades and reveals their vulnerable,
truest selves. Whether dissecting racial
anxiety or class resentment or various forms of jealousy and disappointment,
Gillette’s stories fearlessly expose the human heart beating beneath our
civilization’s many veils.”
—May-Lee Chai, author of Dragon Chica and The Girl from Purple Mountain
Jane Gillette’s The Trail of the Demon and Other Stories, the first title from
the Missouri Review’s new imprint Missouri Review Books, is available through
Small Press Distribution or by ordering from missourireview.com.
CONGRATULATIONS TO NYC HISTORY DAY STUDENTS
for their hard work in researching and creating projects exploring “Conflict &
Compromise in History.” The award winning Frederick A.O. Schwarz Education
Center serves 50,000 students, teachers, and families with NYC History Day
representing one of our most exciting and long-standing programs.
Learn more at mcny.org/education
The Frederick A.O. Schwarz Education Center is endowed by grants from The Thompson Family
Foundation Fund, and other generous donors.
31
Imperious and mercurial, she was
also generous, loving and happy
to share her rich intellectual life
with the younger woman she considered her double. Like Leonora,
she believed that cats possessed
highly developed psychic powers,
that horses had mythological powers that identified them with the
feminine, and that painting was an
alchemical process.
While Ernst relished Carrington’s
youth, Fini included a full-length portrait of her as a breast-plated warrior in
her painting The Alcove: An Interior
with Three Figures.
After a riotous visit to Ernst and
Carrington in the summer of 1939, Fini
left in a huff after slashing all but the
face of a portrait of Carrington she’d
begun. By the time the contretemps
passed and the friends renewed their
correspondence, Ernst had been arrested, and the lovers’ idyll was over.
Carrington’s mind was unhinged.
F
or a long time, the factual accuracy
of Carrington’s memoir of madness,
Down Below, was in question. It has
been republished by New York Review
Books, with a sparkling new introduction by Marina Warner, and I won’t
spoil its revelations here. Suffice it to
say that the letters to Fini confirm Carrington’s account up to Ernst’s second
imprisonment, and recent research
confirms many seemingly outlandish
details of her confinement “for incurable insanity” at Sanatorio Morales
in Santander, Spain, and her brutal
treatment with convulsive drugs. (One
of two surviving sketchbooks from
1940—during Carrington’s internment at Santander—recently surfaced
and was offered for sale by Mary-Anne
Martin Fine Art in New York City.)
The first version of Down Below,
written soon after her arrival in New
York in 1941, was lost, and Carrington
reconstructed her story (in French) at
the request of a friend. That manuscript was translated back into English
for its 1944 publication in the Surrealist
journal VVV. She had been reading her
friend Pierre Mabille’s book Mirror of
the Marvelous (1940), and drew from it
a useful and healing symbolic framework for her suffering, a language for
the numinous correspondences she had
observed during her breakdown.
Carrington’s deepening interest in
esoteric knowledge and traditions,
such as alchemy and the tarot—a fascination she’d shared with the Surrealists—would now be encouraged by
a new partner, the Mexican diplomat
Renato Leduc. An acquaintance she
had met through Picasso, Leduc saved
her life by marrying her and getting
her out of Europe after she escaped
from her nurse’s custody. When she
32
you’re wasting your time. That’s not a
lier painting of the same name) is on
ran into Ernst by chance in a Lisbon
way of understanding. . . . It’s a visual
permanent display along the Paseo de
market in 1941, he was already inworld. You want to turn things into a
la Reforma in Mexico City. Her stovolved with Peggy Guggenheim. They
kind of intellectual game.”
ries, most written originally in French,
had each found their separate rescuYet the game persists. We can’t see
have been brought together for the first
ers. Carrington’s paintings and stories
her art only with our feelings, as Cartime in The Complete Stories of Leof the early 1940s (such as “Waiting,”
rington had hoped, especially when we
onora Carrington: these, too, bubbled
included in the new collected stories)
are aware of its autobiographical conup from the cauldron, full of animal
show her grieving this loss, and attent. (She told Moorhead that “every
stinks, cruel and grotesque meals, and
tempting to wrest artistic and emopiece of writing she ever did was authe looming, punitive father-figure,
tional autonomy from Ernst while not
tobiographical.”) Most recently, Abrendered with what Marina Wardiminishing their shared past.
erth has been exploring what she calls
ner memorably called Carrington’s
After spending most of the war in
“invocation paintings,” those works
“deadpan perversity.” (In one story,
New York, Carrington and Leduc
that go beyond depictions of magic
she names a convent “Jesus’s Little
moved to Mexico, where he took her
Smile of Anguish.”)
to meet curanderas and
The narrator of “The
shamans. They joined a
Debutante” convinces a
teeming refugee commuhyena to take her place
nity of artists and writers
at her dreaded comingbenefiting from Mexico’s
out ball, but the hyena
remarkable open-door
sensibly points out that
policy for those fleeing
they don’t look enough
European fascism. After
alike: she will have to
her amicable parting
kill the narrator’s maid
from Leduc, she married
and wear her face to the
Emerico (“Chiki”) Weisz,
ball. “Only if you promwonderfully described
ise to kill her before
by her friend Chloe
tearing off her face,” the
Aridjis as a “Hungarian
narrator replies. “It’ll
photographer to whom
hurt too much otherLeonora was married for
wise.” And, of course,
over fifty years, largely in
the maid’s body must be
silence.” They had two
disposed of, too:
sons. Her friendship with
the painter Remedios
When Mary came in I
Varo and the Hungarian
turned to the wall so
photographer Kati Horna
as not to see. I must
(dubbed “those Euroadmit it didn’t take
pean bitches” by Frida
long. A brief cry, and
Kahlo) was explored
it was over. While the
in “Surreal Friends,” a
hyena was eating, I
2010 exhibition at Pallant
looked out the winHouse Gallery, Chichesdow. A few minutes
ter. Kahlo’s epithet would
later she said, “I can’t
have been a livelier title.
eat any more. Her two
Not long after settling
feet are left over still,
in Mexico City, Carringbut if you have a little
ton met the English colbag, I’ll eat them later
lector and eccentric Edin the day.”
ward James, who helped
secure her first solo exhiLeonor Fini: The Alcove: An Interior with Three Figures, 1939;
A small notebook of
bition at Pierre Matisse’s
from Whitney Chadwick’s Farewell to the Muse. The figure standing at left
Carrington’s drawings
Gallery in New York in
is Leonora Carrington, while Fini herself sits on the bed at far right.
and absurd stories for
1947 and left us the mostchildren, titled The Milk
quoted comment on Carcircles or otherworldly creatures and
of Dreams, was published in 2013. 3
rington’s art: “The paintings of Leonora
Some tales are in the mischievous vein
that seem part of Carrington’s ritual
Carrington are not merely painted.
of Hilaire Belloc, but without even an
occult practices: witchcraft, basically.
They are brewed. They sometimes seem
ironic moral. In “The Gelatin and the
“Carrington’s work is so layered and
to have materialized in a cauldron at
Vulture,” a girl’s parents fail to notice
complicated that I often project it onto
the stroke of midnight.” In Mexico,
that a vulture has fallen into their desthe wall and now with the computer I
Carrington’s visionary art, with its anisert and been solidified. In “The Nasty
can enlarge it, flip it backwards or upmal hybrids, kabbalistic symbols, and
Story of the Camomile Tea,” a boy
side down, and for you who know her
references to world mythologies, found
pees out his window on passersby until
work, that is often necessary,” Aberth
an avid audience. Although she left
an elephant and a horse enter his room
explained at the centenary celebration
the country after the 1968 Tlatelolco
and return the favor.
in Mexico. Close examination of Carmassacre of student protesters, she
Carrington’s long-overdue 2015
rington’s painting Sachiel, Angel of
returned and helped found Mexico’s
retrospective at Tate Liverpool, coThursday (1967) revealed the angel’s
women’s liberation movement in the
curated by the Mexican novelist Chloe
sigil, a special sign to call him forth:
1970s. Long before her death, she had
Aridjis and Francesco Manacorda,
“This painting then is not a passive repbecome the most famous living artist in
Tate Liverpool’s artistic director, also
resentation but a dynamic invocation.”
Mexico.
inspired a film, a psychological art
The director and spiritual teacher Ale“She hated art historians,” her biworld thriller called Female Human
jandro Jodorowsky and an American
ographer Susan Aberth recalls. CarAnimal (due later this year), starring
friend of Carrington’s, Rita Pomade,
rington deplored both the obsessive
Aridjis. And lastly, Carrington’s novel,
have each written about their spiritual
interest in her years with Max Ernst
The Hearing Trumpet, published in
apprenticeships to her, which sound
and the expectation that she would ex1976, has just been released as an aulike magical journeys inside her paintplain her art. Asked what a painting
diobook superbly read by Siân Phillips.
ings: fantastic and dangerous, with
meant, she was likely to reply, “What
The pleasure of hearing this mild doblood rites and dream visitations.
does it mean to you?” A young cousin
mestic satire rattle completely off the
from England, the journalist Joanna
rails can’t be overstated. It is Down
Moorhead, sought her out in the last
n the past few years, Carrington has
Below reimagined as a comedy, with
years of her life (and has published a
been included in at least five major exan affectionate portrayal of Remedios
new biography of her, The Surreal Life
hibitions of female Surrealists—most
Varo as the elderly protagonist’s deof Leonora Carrington 2), but Carrington resisted explaining the sources
recently, the White Cube’s powerful
ranged sidekick: entry-level Leonora
of her art: “You’re trying to intellecshow in the summer of 2017, “DreamCarrington for readers afraid of the
tualize something, desperately, and
ers Awake.” Her sculptures can often
dark.
be seen around Mexico; How Doth
2
3
London: Virago, 2017.
New York Review Books, 2013.
the Little Crocodile (based on an earRichard Overstreet/Leonor Fini Estate, Paris
Leonor Fini, his friend and former
lover. Tall, dazzling, and bejeweled,
Fini cultivated a baroque theatricality; every day with her was a masked
ball. Recognizing Carrington as “a
revolutionary,” she claimed her as an
astrological twin—a feat possible only
because Fini lied about her age. “This
chronological charade, combined with
later cosmetic surgeries, sustained the
image of youth and beauty that remained vital to Leonor’s self-image,
the sexuality and her sense of her place
in the world,” writes Chadwick:
I
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responded with a tirade:
Japan gets almost seventy percent
of its oil from the Persian Gulf, relies on ships led back home by our
destroyers, battleships, helicopters, frog men. Then the Japanese
sail home, where they give the oil
to fuel their factories so that they
can knock the hell out of General
Motors, Chrysler and Ford. Their
openly screwing us is a disgrace.
Why aren’t they paying us? The
Japanese cajole us, they bow to us,
they tell us how great we are and
then they pick our pockets. We’re
losing hundreds of billions of dollars a year while they laugh at our
stupidity.
Since the 1980s, Trump has regularly
excoriated Japan. It steals American
jobs, he insists; it rapaciously exports
to the US; it unfairly restricts US imports; it manipulates its currency for
trade advantage; it enjoys a free ride on
defense. These criticisms appeared in
a full-page advertisement Trump paid
for in three newspapers in 1987 and he
repeated them often over the ensuing
years, including in an interview with
Oprah Winfrey in 1988.
He brought them up again during his
2016 presidential campaign, along with
grievances against Germany, South
Korea, and Saudi Arabia—the other
countries he had accused in the same
Playboy interview of having “ripped
off” the US. As the election narrowed
to a contest between him and Hillary
Clinton, dozens of books and magazine
articles appeared in Japan warning
of the dire consequences of a Trump
presidency. Since the US presidential
election of 1984, the Japanese establishment—the Liberal Democratic
Party (LDP), the government bureaucracy, and the business community—
had favored the Republican candidate.
This time they supported Clinton, on
the logic that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.
When Trump won, Japanese Prime
Minister Shinzo Abe quickly flew to
New York to meet with the presidentelect on November 17, fewer than ten
days after the election. He was the first
foreign leader to do so. Having been
extensively briefed before the meeting
March 8, 2018
Masks of Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe worn at a Halloween parade in Tokyo, October 2017
enemy, and the Asahi Shimbun is my
enemy. I have tamed the Asahi; I hope
you will tame the Times.”
Trump felt an immediate rapport
with Abe. On February 10, when Abe
visited Washington for his first official
meeting with the new president, Trump
spent part of their joint press conference gushing about their relationship:
We developed a great friendship
when we met in New York City,
at Trump Tower. We spoke for
a long, long period of time. And
when I greeted him today at the
car, I was saying—I shook hands,
but I grabbed him and hugged him
because that’s the way we feel. We
have a very, very good bond—very,
very good chemistry.
At the state dinner that Abe hosted
for Trump in Tokyo on November 6,
2017, Trump effused to the press that
“we have to spend more time together
because I have enjoyed every minute of
it,” before adding that most Trumpian
of compliments, “even though he’s a
very, very tough negotiator.” Abe exuded confidence that the red carpet
treatment he had given the narcissistic
president had worked: “When you play
golf with someone not just once, but for
two times,” Abe said, “the person must
be your favorite guy.”
Skillful handling of the US president
has been a requirement for successful Japanese prime ministers in the
postwar period. Yasuhiro Nakasone’s
“Ron/Yasu” relationship with Ronald
Reagan in the 1980s was the model
until Junichiro Koizumi’s chumminess with George W. Bush took the
fessional but cool, businesslike, and at
times prickly. And because he had met
with candidate Clinton at her request
in New York on September 19, he felt
the need to make up for lost time by
seeking Trump out before he assumed
office. Between 2006 and 2007, Abe
had an unsuccessful one-year term as
prime minister following the popular
Koizumi, who had held the position
for more than five years. Abe spent
five years in the wilderness plotting his
comeback before returning to office in
2012. Despite several financial scandals and gaffes by some of his closest
associates, he and his party have managed to win every national election
since then, aided both by the disarray
in the opposition parties and by the
hostile international environment. The
Japanese electorate may not be enthusiastic about Abe or the LDP, but they
see no alternative and feel betrayed by
the opposition party, which failed to
govern effectively during its three years
in office from 2009 to 2012.
In the view of Andrew Oros, a professor of political science at Washington College, Abe has done much so
far to contribute to a “security renaissance” in Japan. He has, for instance,
increased the defense budget, created a
National Security Council, relaxed the
ban on exporting military technology,
passed a State Secrets Protection Law,
and enacted legislation to expand Japan’s overseas military activities. Oros
appears to welcome these developments. But even he has some concern
about Abe’s “outspokenly nationalist
views on controversial history issues”
and his associations with “historical
revisionists” such as the Japan Confer-
ence, a nationalist organization whose
mission includes revising the constitution, promoting patriotic education,
rejecting the verdicts of the Tokyo War
Crimes Trial, and supporting official
visits by Japanese political leaders to
the Yasukuni Shrine to pray for the
war dead, including the spirits of World
War II leaders who were found guilty
at the trial.
Abe’s nationalistic agenda echoes
the aspirations of his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, the wartime munitions
minister who was suspected of war
crimes and imprisoned by the postwar
US occupation forces. Kishi was later
released and enlisted by the same US
authorities to fight against the Japanese Socialist and Communist parties;
he served as prime minister in the late
1950s. Abe’s self-professed dream has
been sengo rejiimu kara no dakkyaku
(to “escape the shackles of the postwar regime”)—that is, to dismantle
the US occupation policy of democratizing and demilitarizing Japan. To
this end, he has long sought to revise
the constitution, especially the pacifist
Article 9, which was written after the
war under the direction of the American occupiers led by General Douglas
MacArthur, Supreme Commander of
the Allied Powers in Japan.
Abe has been masterful at targeting
his messages to different audiences.
As Oros notes, he uses different terminology domestically and abroad to
describe his national security strategy.
Internationally, he relies on the English phrase “proactive contributions
to peace,” with the emphasis on “contributions.” But the original term in
Japanese is sekkyokuteki heiwashugi
(“proactive pacifism”), with the emphasis on “pacifism,” which has a more
reassuring ring to the Japanese public, many of whom are suspicious that
Abe’s hidden agenda is to embark on a
full-scale militarization of Japan.
Abe has likewise tried to convince
the international community that
he actively promotes women in the
workplace. At the World Assembly of
Women conference in Tokyo on November 3, just two days before the president’s arrival, Abe pledged to Ivanka,
whom he invited to Tokyo as a keynote
speaker, that the Japanese government
would contribute $50 million to the
Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, which she supports. But a few days
earlier, the World Economic Forum
had announced that Japan had fallen
three positions, from 111th to 114th out
of 144 countries, in the Global Gender
Gap report, the worst performance
among the G7 countries.
The LDP’s landslide victory in the
October 22, 2017, election means
that—barring health problems or a
major scandal—Abe is likely to remain
Japan’s prime minister until 2021.
Including the one year he served as
prime minister from 2006 to 2007, this
would mean that he will have spent
more time in office than any prime
minister in Japanese history since Hirobumi Ito first assumed the position
in 1885. He is in a more powerful position now than at any previous time.
The question is how he will use his remaining four years, and what he hopes
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34
I
n some respects Abe would have preferred Clinton as president. She would
have kept the US more assertively engaged in Asia, counterbalancing China
and protecting Japan from North
Korea. And she would likely have continued the “pivot” to Asia that began
when she was secretary of state and
Kurt Campbell was her assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific
affairs. Campbell’s book The Pivot:
The Future of American Statecraft in
Asia reads like a workplan that could
have been used in a Clinton administration. It gives a ten-point program for
giving Asia “a greater degree of strategic regard,” which would involve mobilizing the American public to support
the country’s increased attention to
Asia, strengthening ties to Asian allies,
and shaping “the contours of China’s
rise.”
Trump, by contrast, has withdrawn
the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the economic centerpiece of the pivot, creating a vacuum
that China has been only too happy to
fill. (The remaining eleven TPP countries are in the process of implementing the agreement anyway, suggesting
that the Pacific Rim countries are
perfectly willing to collaborate among
themselves without help from the US.)
On several occasions—including his
“America First” speech on November
10 at the APEC CEO Summit in Vietnam and his speech on December 18
unveiling the new National Security
Strategy—Trump has made it clear that
he does not intend to pursue a multilateral approach to the region, cooperate
with Europe in Asia, or promote freedom, democracy, and human rights in
Asia.
Trump often insists that the US can
no longer afford to protect its allies and
that they should fend for themselves.
During his campaign, he went so far
as to suggest that if North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, “we may be
better off” if South Korea and Japan
have them too. Although he has touted
“a free and open Indo-Pacific region”
since his November trip to Asia, there
has been little substance behind the
catchphrase. Asian leaders have concluded that Trump has withdrawn the
US from the region and left it to China
to fill the resulting power gap.
At the same time, a Trump presidency will give Abe freedom—more
than he could have hoped for under
Clinton—to move the country in a nationalist direction. Since World War
II, the Japanese right, of which Abe
is a leader, has found ways to use the
US to advance its own domestic policy
agenda, from enacting secrecy legislation that gives the government more
control over information to expanding the overseas responsibilities of the
Japan Self-Defense Forces. Trump’s
rise to power has given this nationalist wing of Japanese politics the opportunity to expand its influence and
proclaim its aims more openly. Former
White House chief strategist Steve
Bannon, in a speech at the Japanese
Conservative Political Action Conference in Tokyo on December 17, had
nothing but praise for Abe, calling him
a “Trump before Trump” and celebrating his drive to “reinstill the spirit of
nationalism.” He extolled Abe for hav-
ing “talked about a nation’s pride, a nation’s destiny, a nation taking control of
its future.”
Aside from revising Article 9, Abe
wants to improve Japan’s relationship
with Russia, including by resolving
the long-standing dispute between the
two countries over four of the Kuril Islands, which were annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II but over
which Japan still claims sovereignty.
He also aims to ensure that school textbooks give a “balanced picture”—i.e.,
one that includes patriotic and nationalist viewpoints—of such issues as the
Nanking massacre and the “comfort
women,” many of whom were forced
to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. And he hopes to legitimize official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine,
Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Smith predicts “a very difficult future”
for Sino-Japanese relations, in part because “increasing nationalist activism
in Japan” is bound to produce “reactive
popular responses from China.”
From Japan’s perspective, relations
between China and the US should ideally be neither too close nor too distant.
Overly cooperative ties could result in
the US and China establishing a “new
model of great power relations,” perhaps in the form of a “G-2,” by which
China and the US would make all of the
important decisions affecting the AsiaPacific region, excluding or at least
marginalizing Japan. Some Japanese
feared that Susan Rice, the national
security adviser in the second Obama
administration, was dangerously close
Ki Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
to get out of his new camaraderie with
Trump.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a campaign rally in Tokyo, October 2017
which have been criticized for glorifying Japanese wartime leaders who were
judged guilty in the Tokyo War Crimes
Trial. When Abe visited the shrine in
2013, the Obama administration issued
an unprecedented public statement of
“disappointment.” There is no indication that the Trump administration
would do the same if Abe were to visit
the shrine now.
Abe is on less secure ground when
it comes to Trump’s dealings with
China. Since the nineteenth century,
the US has debated how best to deal
simultaneously with China and Japan.
From the Meiji Restoration of 1868 to
the early 1930s, it considered Japan a
model student of the West. But during
the 1930s through 1945, China, in part
through the efforts of Chiang Kai-shek
and his allies, emerged as the country
the US should support against a colonialist Japan. Starting in the late 1940s,
George Kennan and others promoted a
view of Japan as the anti-Communist
bulwark of Western capitalism. Now
China’s new economic and political influence is again changing the balance
of power in Asia.
Japan itself has had a tense relationship with China. In her book Intimate
Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics
and a Rising China, Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign
Relations, surveys some of the recent
conflicts between the two countries.
In addition to Chinese disapproval of
official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine
by Japanese political leaders, there
are maritime boundary disputes in the
East China Sea, Japanese concerns
over the safety of food imports from
China, and territorial disputes over the
to giving China such precedence over
Japan.
The Japanese still remember a case
of this nightmare scenario from 1971,
when President Richard Nixon sent
his national security adviser, Henry
Kissinger, to Beijing for secret talks
to reestablish relations with China
without notifying Japan. Any deals
that Trump may cut with Xi Jinping
or Kim Jong-un could have disastrous
consequences, not only for the US but
also for its allies in Asia. On the other
hand, open conflict between China and
the US could force Japan to make difficult choices between an ally on which
it relies for security and a rising power
on which it increasingly relies for economic benefits—whether in the form
of investment, tourism, or trade. For
although Japanese nationalists reject
many of the reforms the US undertook
in postwar Japan, they also need the
US to deter a hostile environment in
Northeast Asia.
On
the whole, however, the initial
shock and fear generated in Japan by
Trump’s victory has transformed into
what some in the country have called
“Trump optimism.” A Pew Research
survey has found that among America’s
allies, Japan showed a drop of only 15
points in its favorable views of the US
after Trump’s inauguration, compared
to 17 points in France and 22 points in
Germany. The assessment of whether
the US president would “do the right
thing regarding world affairs” dropped
75 points in Germany and 70 points in
France, but only 54 points in Japan.
A partial explanation may be that for
many establishment Japanese—mostly
old and male—Trump’s notion of an
The New York Review
America made “great again” agrees
with their image of America from the
occupation period through the mid1960s, when old white males, much like
those in Trump’s cabinet, were running
the country.
Under Trump and Secretary of State
Rex Tillerson, the Obama-era concept
of the “Asia-Pacific” has been replaced
by that of the “Indo-Pacific.” What this
term means is so far unclear, but Abe
welcomes its use. For years he and his
deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, have
advocated engaging India in a “diamond” or “arc” of security and trade
that would also include Japan, the US,
and Australia—with the unstated but
obvious intent to contain China.
Abe may see India as a foil against
China, but his affinity for the country
also has deep historical and ideological
roots. During a visit to India in August
2007, near the end of his first term as
prime minister, Abe visited Kolkata
to meet relatives of Subhas Chandra
Bose, the Indian nationalist who during
World War II tried to rid India of British rule with the help of Nazi Germany
and Imperial Japan. He also met with
the son of Radhabinod Pal, the sole
judge who dissented at the Tokyo War
Crimes Trial, arguing that the Japanese defendants should all be acquitted
because the legitimacy of the tribunal
was questionable and the verdicts represented victor’s justice. “Many Japanese have been moved deeply by such
persons of strong will and action of
the independence of India like Subhas
Chandra Bose,” Abe said. “Even to
this day, many Japanese revere Radhabinod Pal.”
For Abe, North Korea’s missile and
nuclear programs and Trump’s combative attitude toward Kim Jong-un
have been godsends. According to
Deputy Prime Minister Aso, the threat
from North Korea was a major factor in
the LDP’s landslide victory in the October 22 elections. And it has helped to
mute the tensions between Japan and
South Korea over the issue of comfort
women, since Abe and South Korean
President Moon Jae-in need to cooperate against North Korea. The nearly
twenty telephone calls between Abe
and Trump since he assumed the presidency—more than Trump has had with
any other foreign leader—have all concentrated on how best to respond to the
North Korean threat.
Finally, once the US concludes its renegotiations with Canada and Mexico
over the North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA) and with Korea
over the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), its priority on trade
is likely to be China. The list of US
grievances on this front is long: trade
deficits, tariffs, nontariff barriers, currency manipulation, forced technology
transfers, theft of intellectual property
rights, dumping, cyberattacks, subsidies to state-owned enterprises. This
means that, despite repeated threats
to do so, the US is unlikely to press
Japan to start negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement in the near
future. Abe has been anxious to stave
off Trump’s promises to get tough with
Japan on trade, and as long as Trump is
preoccupied with China, Abe will have
the breathing space he needs to pursue
his nationalist agenda.
What can we expect from another
four years of Abe? He still promises
March 8, 2018
to revive the economy through “Abenomics,” which in its original form
comprised monetary easing, fiscal
stimulus, and structural reform to spur
sustained economic growth. But even
Abe’s staunchest supporters concede
that Abenomics has failed to attain the
target he promised in 2013: to raise the
inflation rate to 2 percent within two
years. His supporters argue that the
economy is “well on the way” to reaching the desired outcome. Critics, on the
other hand, point out that despite the
weak yen, high stock prices, and record corporate earnings, Abenomics
has not produced economic gains for
most households, and the demographic
challenges facing Japan—shrinking
population, low birth rate, and aging
workforce—are formidable.
In the New Year’s speeches he gave
in Tokyo in early January, several of
which I attended, Abe emphasized
that this year is the 150th anniversary
of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which
saw the birth of Japan’s emergence as
a modern state. For Abe, this is an opportunity for Japan to “make a new
beginning.” Many Japanese nationalists, including members of the Japan
Conference, have told me that the US
“emasculated” Japan after World War
II by forcing a constitution on the country that deprives it of a legitimate military and by imposing American-style
democratic institutions and values that,
in their view, are incompatible with
“Japanese identity.” For them, revising
the constitution would be the clearest
sign that the “postwar regime” had
ended and that Japan had finally regained its autonomy and independence
as a sovereign nation.
The LDP and several of its allied parties are eager to revise the constitution,
and after the recent elections they now
command the necessary two-thirds
majority in the upper and lower houses.
But a constitutional revision would
have to be approved by a majority in
a national referendum, which will not
be easy. In a nationwide poll taken last
May, 82 percent of respondents were
“proud of the current Constitution that
advocates pacifism.” However, if North
Korea continues its aggressive missile and nuclear tests, if South Korea
strengthens its military in response, if
China intensifies its challenges to territories that Japanese claims as its own,
and if the US loses its credibility as a defender of Japan against outside threats,
the mood in Japan could change.
This is what former Osaka mayor
Toru Hashimoto had in mind when
he said in a public forum in Washington on March 27, 2017, that he hopes
Trump will announce the withdrawal
of US forces from Japan, since doing
so would force the Japanese public to
think seriously about the country’s defense for the first time since the end
of World War II. Kim Jong-un and Xi
Jinping, in other words, have provided
the external threats that will help Abe
keep the Japanese electorate supporting the LDP and an assertive foreign
policy. And Trump, by touting “America First,” has given Abe the freedom
to pursue a “Japan First” policy that
may allow him, during his last four
years in office, to become the first postwar prime minister to revise the constitution and to go down in the history
books for realizing what he considers
Japan’s “new beginning,” which might
actually seem more like reverting to
the past.
“GALEN STRAWSON IS ONE OF THE
CLEVEREST MEN ALIVE.” —IAN McEWAN
Galen Strawson might be described as the
Montaigne of modern philosophers, endlessly
curious, enormously erudite, unafraid of strange,
difficult, and provocative propositions, and able to
describe them clearly—in other words, he is a true
essayist. Strawson also shares with Montaigne a
particular fascination with the elastic and elusive
nature of the self and of consciousness.
THINGS THAT
BOTHER ME
DEATH, FREEDOM,
THE SELF, ETC.
Galen Strawson
Of the essays collected here, “A Fallacy of Our Age”
(an inspiration for Vendela Vida’s novel Let the
Northern Lights Erase Your Name) takes issue
with the commencement-address cliché that life
is a story. Strawson questions whether it is desirable
or even meaningful to think about life that way.
“The Sense of the Self” offers an alternative account, in part personal, of how a distinct sense
of self is not at all incompatible with a sense of
the self as discontinuous, leading Strawson to a
position that he sees as in some ways Buddhist.
“Real Naturalism” argues that a fully naturalist
account of consciousness supports a belief in
the immanence of consciousness in nature as
a whole (also known as panpsychism), while in
the final essay Strawson offers a vivid account of
coming of age in the 1960s.
Drawing on literature and life as much as on phi losophy, this is a book that prompts both argu
ment and wonder.
EVENTS WITH GALEN STRAWSON
Sunday, March 25th, 2pm
Book People
603 N. Lamar Blvd, Austin, Texas
www.bookpeople.com
(512) 472–5050
Tuesday, April 17th, 7pm
Book Culture on Columbus
450 Columbus Avenue, New York, NY
www.bookculture.com
(212) 595–1962
“Galen Strawson has a marvelous gift for untangling even the most complex lines in philosophical thinking and laying them straight. He writes
with humor, clarity and always from a recognizably human place. Even the most complex
and controversial areas in modern philosophy
come into the light when you are in his benign
company. . . . He opens windows and finds lightswitches like no other philosopher writing today.”
—Stephen Fry
Available in bookstores, call (646) 215-2500,
or visit www.nyrb.com
A charming picture book
I WISH I WAS
SICK, TOO!
by Franz Brandenberg
Illustrations by Aliki
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On sale March 20th
Edward is sick and Elizabeth is well, and nothing could be more unfair! Edward gets
to stay in bed and everyone treats him like a prince. Elizabeth has to get out of bed,
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practice the piano. “I wish I was sick too!” Elizabeth complains, and soon, to her
dawning dismay, her wish is granted. Jealousy and kindness, fairness and responsibility, the passionate complaints and pleasures of childhood are well represented here
by a close-knit and surprisingly intellectual cat family, drawn with good humor and
sympathy by the illustrator Aliki and author Franz Brandenberg.
The perfect book to read when you’re sick, or when you’re well and wish you were sick, too.
“This one is bound to be a favorite among the very young.”
—Children’s Book Review Service
“A common experience, told in simple text, is delightfully pictured.”
—The Horn Book Magazine
“Human families with their own Edwards and Elizabeths will enjoy the characterization.”
—Kirkus Reviews
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Bank Street Bookstore
2780 Broadway at 107th Street, Manhattan
Available in bookstores, call (646) 215-2500 or from www.nyrb.com
35
Roth Agonistes
Why Write?:
Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013
by Philip Roth.
Library of America,
452 pp., $35.00
David Levine
Nathaniel Rich
Philip Roth
Why write? Philip Roth answered
the question in a 1981 interview with
Le Nouvel Observateur. He wrote, he
said, in order “to be freed from my
own suffocatingly boring and narrow
perspective on life and to be lured into
imaginative sympathy with a fully developed narrative point of view not my
own.”
A more intriguing question: Why
not write? For this is what Roth, since
2009, has chosen to do: not write.
When asked to explain his decision, he
has tended to summon a Bartlebyesque
detachment: “I have no desire any longer to write fiction,” he told one disappointed interviewer in 2014. “I did
what I did and it’s done.” He elaborated
slightly a month later, in a conversation with Sweden’s Svenska Dagbladet,
crediting his self-imposed silence to
a strong suspicion that I’d done
my best work and anything more
would be inferior. I was by this
time no longer in possession of the
mental vitality or the verbal energy
or the physical fitness needed to
mount and sustain a large creative
attack of any duration on a complex structure as demanding as the
novel.
“Attack” is the word that rises, threedimensionally, from the text. It recurs
often throughout Roth’s nonfiction,
invoked to describe the various aggressions he has absorbed, his resentment
toward his critics, and his assault on the
blank page that faced him each morning. During his early writing years in
Chicago, Roth began each morning
by shouting at the young face peering
out from the mirror at him: “Attack!
Attack!”
The force of Roth’s attack, sustained
for more than a half- century, is what
made his retirement so startling. It is
also the quality that, more than anything, sustains this volume, which
serves as an addendum to the Complete Novels, published in nine parts by
the Library of America. Why Write?:
Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013—a
title that is itself a minor fiction, since
three of the essays date from 2014—
divides into three sections: a partial
selection from Reading Myself and
Others of 1975 (omitting his essays
about baseball, politics, and literary
eroticism), paired with four querulous
interviews from the 1980s; an anthology of encounters with other novelists during the 1980s and 1990s; and
a series of late essays, interviews, and
award speeches. Occasionally there
emerge vivid biographical fragments,
like a description of the cafeteria near
Lake Michigan where once a week he
treated himself to a thick slice of roast
beef lathered in its bloody juice, or his
chance encounter, on a morning walk
in Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution, with a crowd of people laughing at giant television screens showing
footage of a Communist Party meeting
held several months earlier. “I thought
36
that this must be the highest purpose of
laughter,” Roth writes, “to bury wickedness in ridicule.” His novels carry
the same lesson.
In a speech that recalls his childhood, he notes that fiction’s “ruthless
intimacy” derives from the “scrupulous
fidelity to the blizzard of specific data
that is a personal life.” But in these
pages he rarely approaches the intimacy
of his two short books of memoir—The
Facts (1988), about his development as
a writer, and Patrimony (1991), about
his father’s death—books that possess
all the wrenching emotional nuance
of his fiction. Instead he is generally at
great pains to depict his adult life as a
dreary parade of professional monotony. (If we take him at his word this is
dim news for Blake Bailey, who is six
years into an anticipated decade-long
process of writing an authorized Life.)
As Roth put it in a 1974 interview with
Joyce Carol Oates, in a sentiment he
would often repeat, “Writing in a room
by myself is practically my whole life.”
It’s true that most writers, especially
those as productive as Roth—thirtyone books in fifty- one years—have
little time to do anything else but sit
in a room and write. But few novelists have been as dogged by personal
interrogations as Roth, or as publicly
distressed by them. Anthony Burgess
did not spend much time worrying
that viewers of Stanley Kubrick’s A
Clockwork Orange assumed him to
be a violent psychopath, after all, and
Vladimir Nabokov did not care when
literal-minded readers mistook him for
a child rapist. But Roth doesn’t find it
very funny to be mistaken for Alexander Portnoy. He is nearly as peeved to
be confused for David Kepesh, Peter
Tarnopol, and Nathan Zuckerman.
His objection to the underlying assumption—that his characters, many
of whom share his physical traits, circumstances, and sometimes even his
name, are thinly veiled autobiographical portraits—is this volume’s dominant refrain.
“What nonfiction I have written has
arisen mainly from a provocation.” The
original provocation came from Jewish
readers offended by the publication
of his story “Defender of the Faith”
in The New Yorker in 1959. A prominent New York rabbi claimed that Roth
had “earned the gratitude” of antiSemites and demanded that the AntiDefamation League “silence” him
the way they did in medieval Europe.
During the next few years Roth defended himself at synagogues, Yeshiva
University, Jewish ladies’ groups, Jewish community centers, and symposia
sponsored by B’nai B’rith, fielding accusations screamed from the audience.
He embarked on this publicspeaking campaign for reasons he later
called “stupid”: to defend himself and
to explain himself to the paranoid assimilationists of his father’s generation who berated him for “informing”
the goyim that some Jews might not
be paragons of virtue and might even
possess human qualities. “Fiction is not
written to affirm the principles and beliefs that everybody seems to hold,” he
told his detractors, but his introductory
lecture in literary theory failed to mollify them. The publication of Goodbye, Columbus (1959) sparked another
flare, and after the Semitically blameless Letting Go (1962) and the Jewless
When She Was Good (1967), Portnoy’s
Complaint (1969) was received like a
firebomb thrown into a Hillel House.
Writing in Haaretz, Gershom Scholem,
perhaps unwittingly, echoed nearly
verbatim the rabbi’s slander of a decade earlier, calling Portnoy “the book
for which all anti- Semites have been
praying.”
For many years Roth denied the
charge that he wrote the novel out
of an impulse to stick it to the AntiDefamation Leaguers; he dedicated
an entire essay, “In Response to Those
Who Have Asked Me: How Did You
Come to Write That Book, Anyway?,”
to an involved account of the novel’s
prehistory as a series of failed drafts
and abandoned dramatic devices, and
cited Kafka as a literary model. But
in a 1984 interview with the London
Sunday Times, he acknowledged the
influence of certain extraliterary impulses. “My Jewish detractors,” he
said, “wouldn’t let up, no matter what
I wrote. So I thought finally, ‘Well, you
want it, I’ll give it to you.’ And out came
Portnoy, apertures spurting.”
By then Roth, having largely won
his personal culture battle against the
scandalized rabbis and their congregants, turned to defend himself from
charges of sexual deviance (“my overnight notoriety as a sexual freak”),
misogyny, and, most insulting of all,
failure of the imagination. Questioned
by a French interviewer about similarities between his life and those of his
characters, he replies:
You should read my books as fiction, demanding the pleasures that
fiction can yield. I have nothing to
confess and no one I want to confess to. As for my autobiography, I
can’t begin to tell you how dull it
would be. My autobiography would
consist almost entirely of chapters
about me sitting alone in a room
looking at a typewriter.
Later: “Am I Lonoff? Am I Zuckerman? Am I Portnoy?. . . As of now I am
nothing like so sharply delineated as a
character in a book. I am still amorphous Roth.” To the London Sunday
Times: “You’re confusing me with all
those astute book reviewers who are
sure that I am the only novelist in the
history of literature who has never
made anything up.” When Hermione
Lee, in a 1984 interview with Roth in
The Paris Review, notes the link between the dead parents in his books
and the death of his mother, Roth suggests icily that she ask his father, then
still alive, about the climactic death of
Nathan Zuckerman’s father: “I’ll give
you his phone number.”
Despite these denials, or perhaps
because of their vehemence, the salacious confusion between his work and
his life at times benefited his sales. In
2004, ahead of the publication of The
Plot Against America, he wrote an
essay for The New York Times denying that the novel was “a roman à clef
The New York Review
to the present moment in America”—a
protestation that guaranteed it would
be treated exactly that way. It became
his first best seller in seventeen years.
His preoccupation with the autobiographical question outlasted his career.
At the conclusion of his 2014 interview
with Svenska Dagbladet, the final one
in the volume, he brings it up himself
when the interviewer fails to ask it: “If
you won’t mind, may I use the occasion
of your final question to say what is
probably already clear to [your] readers?” For four paragraphs he expands
on the difference between a writer’s
own thoughts and the thoughts of his
characters.
Roth knows he shouldn’t bother. He
endorses Edmund Wilson’s observation that most of what is written about
fiction is a “collection of opinions by
persons of various degrees of intelligence who have happened to have some
contact with [the writer’s] book.” Why
dignify unlettered, ad hominem attacks
by granting them the standing of “criticism”? But he can’t help himself. In his
crusade of defiance no line of criticism
is beneath him, and no critic.
In 2012 he published in The New
Yorker an open letter to Wikipedia, objecting that the entry for The
Human Stain alleged that the novel
was “inspired by the life of the writer
Anatole Broyard.” The premise of the
essay is that he must publish his correction in The New Yorker because
a Wikipedia “Administrator” insists
upon confirmation from a verified secondary source. It is not clear whether
Roth understands that anyone in the
world can be an editor of Wikipedia
and that changes can be made at any
time, so phrases like “Wikipedia contends . . .” or “Wikipedia writes . . .”
have little meaning. But the humor
lies in the image of the literary lion,
in his retirement, furrow-browed over
his keypad, writing several thousand
words in defense of his genius—“I had
invented him as a full-blown character
from scratch”—against the confusions
of anonymous, semiliterate critics on a
newfangled crowd-sourced website.
As it turns out, there were several
extensive additional chapters that The
New Yorker did not publish, in which
Roth disputes Wikipedia’s treatment
of Nathan Zuckerman, Operation Shylock, and American Pastoral. Most of
his complaints address further allegations of biographical similarity. He
concludes with a quotation of Flaubert’s: “Everything one invents is true,
you may be perfectly sure of that. . . .
My poor Bovary, without a doubt, is
suffering and weeping in twenty villages in France at this very moment.”
At
the heart of Roth’s defense of
himself lies a defense of fiction itself.
Though the biographical fallacy is
his main personal tormentor, he also
takes on the intentional fallacy—the
notion that readers should take a
writer’s own ideas about a work into
account. Roth happily shares his own
views when prompted, needless to say
(“the last line of My Life as a Man is
meant to . . .”), but he doesn’t endorse
the practice. “The intelligence of even
the most intelligent novelist is often
debased, or at the least distorted, when
it’s isolated from the novel that embodies it,” he writes. “Detached from the
fiction, a novelist’s wisdom can even be
just so much talk.”
March 8, 2018
Shop Talk, originally published in
2001, is the name he gave to a series of
encounters with other novelists, most
of them taking the form of transcribed
interviews that are expanded and edited by both participants, in the style
of The Paris Review’s interview series.
They are works of criticism in the guise
of portraits: within his questions Roth
nests mini- essays, sometimes running several paragraphs, analyzing his
subjects’ fiction. Roth’s critical voice
is higher-pitched than the voice of his
novelistic narrators, occasionally pedantic, but he is a sympathetic reader,
deeply perceptive, and shrewd in isolating the sensibility that unites an entire
body of work. “It’s all one book you
write anyway,” he says in his own interview with The Paris Review, and this
conceit guides his own reading.
He suggests to Primo Levi, whom
he visits months before his death, that
Levi’s “entire literary labor [is] dedicated to restoring to work its humane
meaning, reclaiming the word Arbeit
from the derisive cynicism with which
your Auschwitz employers had disfigured it.” He compares Aharon Appelfeld to Kafka in the way that their
characters’ hardships arrive “inexplicably, out of nowhere, in a society
seemingly without history or politics.”
Levi and Appelfeld accept Roth’s readings, but not all of his encounters go
smoothly. The chapter on Mary McCarthy is a single exchange of letters,
in which McCarthy, at Roth’s invitation, offers a polite critique of The
Counterlife, and Roth responds with
a bristling point-by-point defense.
(“Truly, I don’t see what there is to be
offended by there, and maybe it wasn’t
this that offended and irritated you.”)
No response by McCarthy is recorded.
On a final visit with Bernard Malamud,
the declining writer reads to Roth the
opening chapters of a novel in progress. It’s not very good. In the hope of
trying to understand better what Malamud is attempting, Roth asks him
what happens next. “What’s next isn’t
the point,” replies Malamud, “in a soft
voice suffused with fury.” A painful silence elapses between them. Malamud
dies before they can meet again.
The volume’s most exciting piece is a
hybrid, with a hybridized title: “‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’; or, Looking at Kafka.” In the first
section, a haunting account of Kafka’s
strained relationship with women and
the ponderous influence of his father
gives way to a clever study of the theme
of entrapment in his fiction. The second
section is an imagined alternative history, in the style of The Ghost Writer
and The Plot Against America, in
which Kafka survives the war, travels
to America, becomes Roth’s Hebrew
school teacher, and is fixed up by Roth’s
father with Roth’s spinster aunt. For
a while, things go well in Newark for
Kafka. He becomes a regular presence
at family dinners. “Just look at him
when he sits in that club chair,” exclaims
Roth’s father, after one meal. “This is
Franz Kafka’s dream come true.”
Roth describes his nonfiction as revealing himself “out from behind the
disguises and inventions and artifices
of the novel,” but he is never more himself than when he appears in disguise.
The same is true of all great novelists.
Between the interviews given in selfdefense, the conversations with peers,
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37
and the exchanges with angry Jews,
there emerges from Roth’s nonfiction a
unified theory of the novel as a bulwark
against the excesses of modern society. The assaults on the novelist come
from two fronts. The first is the social
chaos of a nation in political crisis and
cultural decline. Roth began to speak
about this danger in 1960:
The American writer in the middle
of the twentieth century has his
hands full in trying to understand,
describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It
stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates,
and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager
imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and
the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any
novelist.
In East Prussia, January 1945, the German forces are in retreat and the Red
Army is approaching. The von Globig
family’s manor house, the Georgenhof,
is falling into disrepair. Auntie runs the
estate as best she can since Eberhard
von Globig, a special officer in the German
army, went to war, leaving behind his
beautiful but vague wife, Katharina, and
her bookish twelve-year- old son, Peter.
As the road fills with Germans fleeing
the occupied territories, the Georgenhof
begins to receive strange visitors—a
Nazi violinist, a dissident painter, a
Baltic baron, even a Jewish refugee.
Yet in the main, life continues as banal,
wondrous, and complicit as ever for the
family, until their caution, their hedged
bets, and their denial are answered by
the wholly expected events they haven’t
allowed themselves to imagine.
All for Nothing, published in 2006, was
the last novel by Walter Kempowski, one
of postwar Germany’s most acclaimed
and popular writers.
“Beneath its apparently affectless
façade, All for Nothing seethes with
human drama, contradiction and
complexity. No one is blameless; no
one wholly unsympathetic. The result
is an astonishing literary achievement.”
—Toby Lichtig, The Telegraph
“Far more than a great German novel;
Kempowski’s late masterwork is a
universal tract which suggests that
history can only present the facts;
it is crafted stories such as this
which enable us to grasp a sense
of the vicious reality of war.”
—Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times
ALL FOR NOTHING
Walter Kempowski
Introduction by Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated from the German
by Anthea Bell
Paperback and e-book • $16.95
This problem obsessed Saul Bellow
too; it was the dominant subject of his
nonfiction. “The noise of life is the great
threat,” he wrote in 1970, “the sounds
of the public sphere, the din of politics,
the turbulence and agitation that set in
about 1914 and have now reached an intolerable volume.” Bellow worried that
the fervor of public life would destroy
the private conditions necessary for the
creation and appreciation of art. Roth,
despite writing before the tumult of the
Sixties, went farther, suggesting that a
radically destabilized society had made
it difficult to discriminate between reality and fiction. What was the point of
writing or reading novels when reality
was as fantastic as any fiction?
Such apprehensions may seem quaint
when viewed from the comic-book
hellscape of 2018, though it is perversely reassuring that life in 1960 felt
as berserk as it does now. American reality continued to overwhelm the imagination during the Vietnam War, which
Roth likened to “living on a steady
diet of Dostoevsky,” and under the administration of the “grotesque” Richard Nixon, the subject of Our Gang.
And in Reagan’s Eighties, dominated
as they were by “a proliferation of . . .
media stupidity and cynical commercialism—American-style philistinism
run amok,” a time when, Roth complained, it became “easier for even the
best- educated people” to discuss movies and television shows than literature.
The threat continued in the 1990s,
when Roth bemoaned to Ivan Klíma
the obliterating influence of “that trivializer of everything, commercial television”; during the administration of
George W. Bush (“we are ambushed . . .
by the unpredictability that is history”);
and in the final years of the Obama administration: “Very little truthfulness
anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so
much calculated to disgust, the gigantic
hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions
at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can
see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps. . . .”
This year, in an e-mail published in
The New Yorker, Roth worried about
the newest manifestation of this threat:
“It isn’t Trump as a character, a human
type—the real- estate type, the callow
and callous killer capitalist—that out-
strips the imagination. It is Trump as
President of the United States.”
Toward the end of his career, in his
novels and public statements, Roth
began to prophesy the extinction of a
literary culture—an age-old pastime
for aging writers. But in his earlier
critical essays, he described literature
as not only immune to the incursions
of the “mass electronically amplified
philistine culture,” but its most powerful antidote. What better refuge from
the simplifying influence of mass culture than the richness of great fiction,
with its openhearted embrace of moral
contradiction and emotional complex-
Jewish authors who wrote popular fiction about Jews of unambiguous heroism or charm. Their stories filled their
Jewish readers with pride, the authors’
pockets with dough, and their gentile
readers with relief, “for if the victim
is not a victim, then the victimizer is
probably no victimizer either.”
This kind of pandering, Roth argues,
is not merely a form of soft bigotry but
bad fiction: clichéd, clumsy, cartoonish. Its aims are anti-literary. It grinds
the complexity of a human life, with its
moral contradictions and immoderate
seethings, into a harmless pablum. It is
a form, in other words, of propaganda.
Dominique Nabokov
“Memorable and monumental:
a book to read alongside rival and
compatriot Günter Grass’s Tin Drum
as a portrait of decline and fall.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Milan Kundera and Philip Roth, New York City, 1981;
photograph by Dominique Nabokov
ity? As the shrill hue increases to an insane volume, fiction’s value grows ever
more precious. “Where the mass media
inundate us with inane falsifications of
human affairs,” Roth wrote in 1990,
“serious literature is no less of a life
preserver, even if the society is all but
oblivious of it.” In the current deluge,
we have more reason to cling to that
preserver than ever before.
T
he attacks that accompanied the publication of his first stories alerted Roth
to a second, even more insidious threat.
The allegations of anti- Semitism seem
to have pained him, in part, because
they came from the kind of people he
had known his whole life. Even as he
was enraged by their misplaced piousness, he was sensitive to their fears and
their paranoia. He understood that
“going wild in public is the last thing in
the world that a good Jew is expected
to do—by himself, his family, his fellow
Jews. . . . Or so history and ingrained
fear argue.” One does not spend five
decades defending oneself against such
charges unless they leave a wound.
But the wound was not only personal. The attacks of anti- Semitism
were attacks on the integrity of fiction.
In “New Jewish Stereotypes,” a speech
given in 1961, Roth holds up for derision Leon Uris and Harry Golden,
Certainly Jews could use some effective
propaganda. But novelists shouldn’t
feel forced to write it. As Roth puts it:
“The novelist asks himself, ‘What do
people think?’; the PR man asks, ‘What
will people think?’”
The generation of Jews offended by
Philip Roth is long gone, and its concerns may seem pitiful in retrospect,
but Roth’s point holds. At a time of renewed sensitivity to questions of cultural
identity, the biographical fallacy has
returned in full force. Readers and critics, distraught at the nihilism of the current political nightmare, have sought
comfort in fiction that affirms their
principles and beliefs, fiction in which
victimized peoples rise triumphant.
They desire a new Exodus, new Leon
Urises. And they will get them. But we
should hope for something more. We
should hope for new Philip Roths.
“A writer needs his poisons,” Roth
said in his Paris Review interview.
“The antidote to his poisons is often
a book.” He published more than two
dozen such books. Why Write? is not
one of them. It more closely resembles
an account of the poisons Roth was
made to swallow and the symptoms
they caused—the headaches, the convulsions, the bouts of delirium. Roth
may still resent his exposure to these
toxins, but there’s no denying that they
did their job.
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The New York Review
Midnight’s Child
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Negar Azimi
M.F. Husain: Indian Dance Forms, 2008–2011
India Modern:
The Paintings of M. F. Husain
an exhibition at the
Art Institute of Chicago,
July 14, 2017—March 4, 2018
With his lean stick-like frame and luxurious halo of thick white hair, the Indian artist M. F. Husain was a figure
of romance. A consummate showman,
he was known to wake at the crack of
dawn to paint with his two-foot-long
brush, shirtless, always barefoot, in
his down-and- out studio—a conspicuous choice—in front of Delhi’s overcrowded Jama Masjid. When a canvas
was not available, he would paint on
anything at hand: floors, walls, hotel
room furniture, automobiles, a horse.
By the end of the 1960s, the artist in
dervish drag had become Mr. India, a
human mascot and a stand-in for the
nation. Even Andy Warhol, roughly his
contemporary, another artist- celebrity,
never managed that. Husain’s art appeared on postage stamps and recently
inspired a Google Doodle. People
called him the Picasso of India, an
inexact comparison that nonetheless
captured the place he held in the national imagination. For many, he was
Indian art.
In his youth, Husain would play the
part of the monkey god Hanuman during the local Ramlila pageant—the
popular reenactment of the Ramayana.
Like Hanuman, who once mistook the
sun for a piece of fruit and leapt up to
bite it, Husain was renowned for his optimism, his impeccable manners, and
his shape-shifting. He was anything
you wanted him to be: equally at home
in Bombay or Paris, dashing in bespoke
suits, friends with Roberto Rossellini.
An à la carte Muslim, he prayed five
times a day, but was also a well-known
Casanova. In his art and in his person,
he straddled divergent worlds: urban
March 8, 2018
and rural, Muslim and Hindu, modern
and indigenous, East and West.
But by the mid-1990s, the mildmannered artist was embroiled in a
national controversy. In 1996 a small
Hindi-language magazine reproduced
a delicate pen-and-ink drawing Husain
had made in the 1970s of Saraswati,
the Hindu goddess of knowledge and
the arts. Her face is featureless, without eyes or a nose. She holds a lotus
flower in one hand, and a comely triad
of fish, peacock, and veena, a string instrument, float around her. She is also
naked. “Is he an artist or a butcher?”
screeched the article’s headline. The
image was blasphemous, the author
insisted, an assault on the goddess’s
honor and by implication on the sanctity of Hinduism itself. In rendering
the goddess as a modernist nude, it was
alleged, Husain had besmirched her.
But Hindu painting had a centurieslong tradition of depicting gods and
goddesses in the nude: the real implication was that Husain, a Muslim, had
no right to make use of Hinduism’s
rich store of imagery. Comparisons to
that other scandalous Indian Muslim,
Salman Rushdie, soon followed.
The Mumbai police swiftly pressed
charges against the artist for promoting enmity between religious groups.
In an art gallery in Ahmedabad, sixteen Husain paintings were destroyed.
The brouhaha and the legal battles
it inspired lasted for more than a decade. In 2006, Husain went into exile,
alternating between apartments in the
UK and the Persian Gulf, where his
deep-pocketed patrons indulged his
weakness for expensive cars. He died
in London in 2011 at the age of ninetyfive, a gypsy in a foreign land. His obituarists wondered whether India had
failed him. It’s hard to argue otherwise.
On the occasion of the seventieth
anniversary of India’s independence,
an exhibition at the Art Institute of
Chicago features Husain’s final artworks, eight large-scale canvases that
he painted at the behest of a leading Indian industrial family. Never seen before in America, these paintings from
Husain’s Indian Civilization series
provide a kind of greatest hits compilation, or illustrated beginner’s guide,
to Indian history. Squeezed into each
tableau is an ecstatic pileup of icons and
archetypes, faces and places, rendered in
loose, hasty brushstrokes. Each painting
delivers on its thematic promise quite
literally. Indian Dance Forms offers
a sketch of three dancing traditions:
Kathak, a dance that originated in ancient court life; a modern Indian ballet;
and the Kathakali folk dance. Indian
Households depicts Muslim, Hindu,
and Sikh families at home, doing homey
things: sewing, smoking, playing, tending to babies. The works are installed in
a gallery devoted to Indian and Southeast Asian art. When I visited this past
winter, families, some Indian, shuffled
dutifully from one painting to another,
amid a sea of sacred statuary—gods,
demons, and dancers, frozen in time.
Maqbool Fida Husain was born into
a modest family in 1915 in the central
Indian city of Pandharpur. His boyhood
was spent in Indore, a multireligious
city where the authorities patronized
the festivals of Hindus and Muslims
alike. Poet-dandies would daily offer
their recitations to enthralled crowds.
The Ramlila brought to life the epic tale
of Prince Rama and his quest to rescue
his wife from the ogreish demon king.
Indore was famous, too, for its annual
Muharram procession, a Shia ritual that
spectacularly dramatizes the death of
the Prophet’s grandson, Imam Hussein.
The city’s Muharram festival was
uniquely elaborate, featuring a parade
of mourners, some wearing lion masks,
ferrying around taziyas—giddily decorated constructions depicting several
stories or more, covered in gilt paper
and cloth, representing Hussein’s tomb.
Giant horses fashioned from papiermâché were thrust high in the sky, in
honor of his loyal equine companion
Duldul. Hindus participated, too. Indore’s vibrant, eclectic, and unselfconscious syncretism was to become
one of Husain’s most enduring touchstones, one of the primary sources for
his idea of India.
In Bombay, the city he came to be
identified with, Husain studied briefly
at the hallowed Sir JJ School of Art.
For a while, he slept on the city’s
streets, later renting a room in a shabby
lane frequented by prostitutes. Eventually, he married the daughter of a benefactress and moved into a tumbledown
tenement where they raised five children. For a time, Husain worked as a
painter of cinema billboards. Like a trapeze artist, he would clamber up perilous heights, paint tins hanging from his
toes, perched nimbly between sky and
earth, making vivid oversize portraits
of stars like Raj Kapoor and Suraiya.
Not long after, he designed children’s
furniture for a company called Fantasy.
Husain painted for himself in the evenings. Both fantasy and film became
central themes of his art.
In 1947 Husain won a prize from
the Bombay Art Society. The following year, the Royal Academy in London organized an exhibition in New
Delhi called “Masterpieces of Indian
Art,” a survey of work from museums
across the newly independent country, brought together for the first time.
Husain’s encounter with this show was
decisive. He lingered over sculptures
of the Gupta period with their smooth
egg-shaped heads, the sensuous men
and women of the Khajuraho temples,
39
FOUND AND LOST
MITTENS, MIEP, AND
SHOVELFULS OF DIRT
Alison Leslie Gold
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Best known for works that have kept alive
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what made her into a gatherer of other
people’s stories, until now. She goes
back to her childhood in order to chart
the origin of her need to save objects,
stories, and people, especially herself.
Starting with her grade school experience of running the ‘Lost and Found’
room, Gold develops, through a series
of letters, a meditation on aging, friendship, loss, and the forces that link us
to the dead. In the very act of writing,
she begins to find a route out of depression and grief.
In this haunting memoir, a tender memorial to the extraordinary people in her
life, including her parents; her lover; and
Miep Gies, who became one of her
closest friends, she gives a luminous
account of key moments that brought
her to be the writer she is.
Recently published
and brightly colored Basohli miniatures, whose subjects have huge lotus
petal–shaped eyes. That same year, one
of Husain’s canvases caught the eye of
the young F. N. Souza, a fellow painter
also destined for great fame. “Just tell
me, what is this? Have you discovered
something new?” Souza was said to
have asked him.
Souza had recently launched the
Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, a
coterie of artists who had come together
amid the roiling backdrop of partition
and independence to fashion a
visual language that might harness the upheavals they were
living through. The Progressives resisted the romantic nostalgia of the prevailing Bengal
School, which aimed to nurture
an authentic Indian art by reviving older artistic traditions,
like miniature painting. Souza
and his compatriots insisted
on a break with colonial arts
education, too, with its faultless Greek and Roman bodies
and its staid academicism. Inspired by their encounters with
European modern art—a small
community of exiles from wartime Europe became the Progressives’ first promoters and
collectors—they engaged with
India’s past and present while
producing modernist canvases
of extraordinary power. Souza,
a former Communist whose
own violently expressionist
work often portrayed bodies
in ecstasy and pain, became
Husain’s mentor. But Husain,
then and later, would shy away
from overtly political subject
matter.
years, he was coy, even elusive, about
this. By 1963, Husain was invited to
produce a portrait of the prime minister. It is a little like Mount Rushmore,
offering four different orientations of
Nehru’s head. A comment on the duplicitous nature of politicians? Probably not. The divided, psychoanalytical
self? It’s impossible to say. What is
clear is the artist’s devotion.
In 1967, on an invitation from the
state Films Division, Husain made a
spirited foray into filmmaking. The
result, Through the Eyes of a
Painter, is a surreal, fragmentary tableau. “I have tried to
tackle the film medium with
the feeling of a painter,” he announces at the start of the film,
addressing the viewer with a
paintbrush theatrically in hand.
He goes on to invoke his use
of “unrelated moving visuals
juxtaposed to create a total
form . . . a total poetic form.”
And unrelated they are. Set in a
village in Rajasthan, the film alternates between bucolic shots
of the residents going about
their daily lives, the painter
painting, and a series of almost
totemic objects—bull, lantern,
shoe, umbrella. Husain’s jarring
jumps and cuts produce juxtapositions that seem to offer up
a set of equivalencies: painting
and filmmaking, art-making
and manual labor, country and
city, animate and inanimate. His
liberal detractors have inferred
that the film is statist propaganda dressed up as a romantic
vision of a society that supposedly has no boundaries. But
the opening and closing shots
of the film—which feature the
artist’s arrival in and departure
he progressive moment did
from the village by automated
M.F. Husain: Durga, 1976; from ‘Husain at Hundred,’
not last long. By the early 1950s,
means—seem to offer subtle acan exhibition at Aicon Gallery, New York City, in 2015
most of its founding members,
knowledgment of his privileged
including Souza, had left India
status. Through the Eyes of a
for the West. Husain stayed behind.
That allegorical India may have
Painter won him a Golden Bear at the
“People declared me finished as an
been best expressed in Man (1951), a
Berlin International Film Festival.
artist because I was still painting Inlarge tableau rendered in earthy reds,
Around the same time, Husain’s art
dian images,” he told an interviewer
greens, ochre, and black, which centers
took another turn. Inspired by a confor ArtAsiaPacific just before he died.
on a robust man in black caught in deep
versation with the socialist leader Ram
He painted assiduously, obsessively,
thought, perhaps a riff on Rodin’s The
Manohar Lohia, who had urged him to
in a spare, expressionistic style that
Thinker. This figure, who might well
“stop painting for the Tatas and Birfavored figures drawn from everyday
be an artist, holds a canvas or tablet
las”—two of India’s richest families—
life. Soon, Husain was the painter of
that depicts two women in the manner
Husain painted a series of large-scale
India’s villages—their colors, customs,
of traditional Indian sculpture. Elseoil- on-canvas panels depicting stories
myths, and secrets. In embracing such
where there is a cow, sacred to Hindus,
drawn from the Ramayana that could
folk subjects, the artist had reclaimed
and three other men—two crudely
be affixed to roving oxcarts in a vilthe “primitive,” long the domain of Eusketched, one raising a hand in a geslage’s annual Ramlila pageant. The
ropean modernists and nostalgists, as a
ture of warning or possibly benedicpopular mode suited him, and in 1971
distinctly postcolonial impulse.
tion. Several set of feet seem to jump
he prepared an equally sweeping seBetween the Spider and the Lamp
out of the canvas. Here and elsewhere,
ries for the São Paulo Biennial derived
(1956) was an early triumph. Five fethe artist’s interest in dance is apparent.
from the Mahabharata, sometimes
male figures in five shades of brown,
Amid this cubistic jumble of shapes,
described as the world’s longest epic
crudely angular in profile, stand stiffly
colors, and instincts is a sense that
poem, which chronicles an ancient war
in a vertical composition. One balances
something monumental is emerging—a
between feuding dynasties. Husain had
a storm lantern on her head, another
nation in its birth pangs, embracing its
been invited to exhibit alongside his
holds a spider (ingeniously represented
paradoxes and its ambiguities.
hero Picasso; his choice of subject, he
by eight crooked lines) on a leash. Anlater admitted, was driven by his appreother figure is nude, her arms crossed,
ciation of Guernica.
rom the beginning, Husain was a
as if expressing indifference or dismay.
Husain was a star by the 1970s, but
devotee of Prime Minister Jawaharlal
Two others hover ambiguously. The
he was not without his critics. His work
Nehru, serving the cause of creating
viewer feels that a drama is unfolding,
had become inescapable—on public
a pluralist, secular, socialist India. He
a kind of street theater.
murals, in the Delhi airport, in the lobpainted India’s multiplicity with reckWomen appear often, and powerbies of upscale hotels. In a 1978 essay,
less abandon. In this respect the artist
fully, in Husain’s work. He was obthe eminent Indian critic Geeta Kapur
was a sort of magician, performing an
sessed with female celebrity and
praised the artist’s early work and the
ideal of unity in a country that had just
harbored dramatic crushes on the
sincerity of his engagement with village
been violently broken in two along relidancer Indrani Rahman, the buxom
life but suggested that his later painting
gious lines. Puzzlingly, however, India’s
Bolly wood icon Madhuri Dixit
had become increasingly thin, frictioncentral drama of partition, in which as
(around whom he made a whimsiless, an art without much at stake and
many as two million people died, is all
cal feature film late in life), and even
hence tailor-made for members of the
but absent in Husain’s work. In later
Mother Teresa. Horses too figure in
Indian elite. Husain did not help his
many paintings, often captured midgallop. For years, Husain’s horse
paintings were his most coveted works.
Inspired by the Muharram processions
of his youth, they just as easily recall
the phallic-necked horses of the Italian sculptor Marino Marini. Husain
was channeling the ability to be everywhere and everything. At his best, he
dramatized the Nehruvian fantasy of
a modern, progressive, universalist India—a synthesis of multiple empires,
faiths, and even art histories.
Aicon Gallery, New York
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40
The New York Review
I
n 1996, the scandal over Husain’s allegedly indecent drawing of Saraswati
erupted. The campaign against the artist unfolded amid the rise of a Hindu
right primed to seize any occasion to
attack symbols of a secularism that, in
their eyes, had pandered to minorities.
India, they thought, had lost its way
after centuries of occupation—first by
Muslims, then by the British, and finally by an out- of-touch secular Nehruvian elite. This was the conviction of
the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had
come to power in the late 1990s promising a renaissance of Hindutva, a puritanical vision of Hindu identity.
The scandal did not wane. Husain
exhibitions continued to be vandalized. More court cases were filed. The
artist’s work was debated in the Indian Parliament. One extremist group
offered $11 million for his head. Another promised gold to whoever gouged
out Husain’s eyes and cut off his right
thumb. A group of secular artists and
critics, including Kapur and led by the
photographer Ram Rahman, rallied to
his defense. The artist’s name became
inextricably linked to debates over freedom of expression, and a generation
came to know Husain more as a cause
célèbre than as an artist. He was the
subject of countless petitions, marches,
and solidarity exhibitions. Husain, in
his humble artist costume, played the
scapegoat. The incidents made concrete
the Indian Muslim’s unique burden:
he is the ungovernable, the apostate
threat to the Hindu way, subject to
loyalty tests, forced to suppress his
difference.
In 2006, the controversy flared up
again when a Husain painting titled
Bharat Mata went up for auction at a
charity event. A blood-red Mother
India was represented as a woman, her
naked body contorted in the shape of
the nation itself, with the names of its
major states tattooed all over. (Gujarat and Bhopal each sat on one breast;
Goa and Hyderabad hovered above
the pubis.) Like the nude Saraswati,
Bharat Mata was more pretty than licentious, its erotic charge null. This
hardly mattered. Partisans of Hindutva
again charged Husain with blasphemy.
The artist, who had just turned ninety,
decamped to the Gulf. He was exonerated of the highest-profile charges
three years later, but the ruling from
the Delhi High Court came with its
own ironies. Judge Sanjay Kishan
Kaul’s opening statement began with a
quote from, of all people, Picasso: “Art
is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden
to ignorant innocents.” It is difficult
to imagine a sentiment further from
Husain’s own.
In his last years, the lion in winter,
bedecked in chic sunglasses, hobnobbed with enlightened sheikhs and
sheikhas in the Gulf. For Sheikha
March 8, 2018
M.F. Husain in his studio with a picture of
Madhuri Dixit, Mumbai, circa 1998
tion of Indian artists and critics, Husain is an antique—their inheritance,
and hence a site of Oedipal struggle.
His relative mutedness in the midst
of the attacks on his honor and his
Sufic utterances when asked about
politics, delivered in a gnomic murmur
(“I know nothing about what is rightwing or what is left-wing,” he once
told an interviewer), have led some to
dismiss him as little more than a sentimental stylist. Others associate him
with the sins of Nehru: the late prime
minister’s modernization from the top
and his lip service to progressivism
abroad but repression at home, particularly in Kashmir. Others invoke the
unsavory Indira-as-Durga faux pas.
At the Art Institute, the eight tableaus—triptychs because they are said
to be at least partly inspired by the tribhanga pose of Indian dance—jump
out amid the ancient figurines with
which they are placed. The titles of the
paintings have all the verve of placards
in a natural history museum: Traditional Indian Festivals, Indian Households, Modes of Transport. The colors
are odd, at times garishly fluorescent—
a departure from the earthy, even distinctly Indian, tones Husain used to
favor. Some of the figures have faces
that have not been completed; they
seem less archetypal than indefinite,
unfinished. There is a familiar, starry
cast: Gandhi, Nehru, the mystic Swami
Vivekananda, with his crossed hands.
Hindu deities are also present. This
banal mélange also includes the proud
Indian tiger, the rounded top of the
Delhi governor’s building, the familiar
thrust of India Gate. Elsewhere three
dynasties are represented: the Mau-
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50
2018
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E
ryan, known for its pacifist emperor
Ashoka, the Mughal, and the British.
This is painting as potted history lesson. There is none of the expressionistic brio of the early work, the fulsome
ambiguities of a painting like Man, or
the subtle excavation of culture one
sees in Between the Spider and the
Lamp. The themes explode, even as
the nuance shrinks. It is as if the artist
has conscripted moldering wax figures
to move around on a stage set of history. Here is a portrait of the artist as
an elderly man.
To be sure, any showing of Husain
in America is a fine thing. Despite his
reputation at home, he remains largely
unknown to Western audiences. For
this, we can thank the uneven terrain of modern and contemporary art,
which remains largely Western-centric
despite the proliferation of biennials
and the emphasis major museums have
recently put on geographically themed
shows. To its credit, Husain’s work offers a case study of a modern art that
is polyfocal, fertilized by India’s inestimable cultural richness, but also in
dialogue with the world.
Perhaps the biggest scandal of the
Chicago show is not the story of the
Mohamedan disrobing Hindu deities,
but the failure to show work that could
inspire an important debate about
modern art as a global phenomenon.
A recent exhibition on postwar art at
Munich’s Haus der Kunst put Husain’s
Man alongside a Giacometti, a Francis
Bacon, and a rare On Kawara, inviting
viewers to consider how different postwar circumstances might have shaped
art—how they were strikingly different, but similar, too. It would be nice
to see a full-scale Husain retrospective,
something no museum outside of India
has attempted. (The Peabody Essex in
Massachusetts has considerable holdings.) What about showing the billboard work? The children’s furniture?
The playful feature films he made in
the second half of his life?
Next time, we hope. In India, the
sectarian fires that began burning
twenty-six years ago, when Hindu extremists destroyed an ancient mosque
in Ayodhya, continue to rage. The man
who presided over communal riots in
Gujarat fifteen years later now bears
the title prime minister. So- called beef
lynchings of Muslims by vigilante mobs
go largely unpunished. In November,
a Bollywood epic called Padmavati
(later renamed Padmaavat) inspired
protests in several Indian states after
rumors spread of a scene in which a
Muslim king fantasizes about a Hindu
queen. That same month, threats of
protest shut down an exhibition of
Husain’s silkscreen prints in the city
of Pune. In such an environment,
Husain’s syncretistic work is more of
an endangered species than ever.
Husain found his stakes late in life,
in a period during which the integrated
world of his provincial youth came increasingly undone. He still represents
an expansive vision of art as public culture, open- ended, neither chaste nor
decadent. “Let History Cut Across Me
Without Me” was the title he gave to a
1993 exhibition at the National Gallery
of Modern Art in Delhi that featured
oversized marionettes drawn from
Christian, Muslim, and Hindu imagery, traditional and modern, arranged
in a series of delirious tableaus. At
once playful and mordant, the phrase’s
ambiguity speaks volumes.
SA
V
Mozah, the handsome wife of the former emir of Qatar, he prepared ninetynine canvases, including a series on
Arab civilization. The government
of Abu Dhabi commissioned another
series on Indian cinema. And then
there are the canvases on display in
Chicago, commissioned by the Mittals,
an Indian family who made their fortune in steel.
At home, Husain’s auction prices
soar. The coffee table hagiographies
pile up, too. Owning a work by Husain
signals a certain arrivisme; his painting
even makes a cameo in the upmarket
London home of a South Asian drug
dealer in the 1985 film My Beautiful
Laundrette. But for a younger generaStuart Freedman/eyevine/Redux
case when, at the height of the Emergency—one of the darkest and most
polarizing periods in modern Indian
history, during which Indira Gandhi
abrogated civil and political liberties
for nearly two years between 1975
and 1977—he painted a portrait of the
prime minister as Durga, the Hindu
warrior goddess. For many in the leftliberal intelligentsia, this was a shocking betrayal. Husain was never meant
to be a court painter.
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41
MY RENOIR
To the Editors:
In “The Art of Pleasure” [NYR, December
21, 2017], Jed Perl praises Jean Renoir’s
1958 Renoir, My Father but denigrates my
newly published biography, Renoir: An
Intimate Biography. Renoir, My Father
is a well-loved series of recollections by
the sixty-four-year-old movie producer/
director/writer who was twenty-five when
his seventy-eight-year-old father died in
1919. The book could be the most touching tribute by a son to his adored father,
but no one reading it believes it is a serious biography any more than one believes
Jean Renoir’s brilliant film La Grande Illusion to be a factual, accurate depiction of
World War I.
As Jean Renoir writes at the beginning of
Renoir, My Father:
through a narrative punctuated by 1,100
quotes from Renoir’s letters (almost half
unpublished) so that the reader has direct
contact with the painter through his own
words. In this way, Renoir reveals himself
in all his complexity: altruistic, shrewd, manipulative, self-serving, conflict-avoiding,
double-talking, secretive, loyal, and
generous.
It is a shame that Mr. Perl did not share
the opinion of the reviewer for the Financial Times (UK) who wrote:
This documentary life, based on thousands of letters, many unpublished,
which she has collected since 1961, is
the most personal account of any ImMusée de l’Orangerie, Paris
LETTERS
The Reader: It is not Renoir you are
presenting to us, but your own conception of him.
The Author: Of course, History is a
subjective genre, after all.
Jean Renoir had no written records of his
conversations with his father, so he drew
on earlier recollections by his father’s many
writer friends and on the recollections of
Renoir’s third model, Gabrielle, then his
Hollywood neighbor. Jean Renoir only
quotes a few letters by Renoir. Though
widely beloved, Renoir, My Father is not
a reliable source for information about
Renoir.
As the art historian Robert L. Herbert
wrote in the introduction to a 2001 reissue of Renoir, My Father (NYRB Classics),
“The appeal and the value of Jean Renoir’s
book is in his imaginative reconstruction of
the time and the personages of his father’s
paintings.” Perhaps pointedly, Herbert
does not say “of his father.”
More troublingly, Jean Renoir’s biography
is censored. He never mentions his secret illegitimate half-sister, Jeanne, and he never
acknowledges that his parents’ marriage
changed from love to estrangement when,
as Mary Cassatt wrote to Louisine Havemeyer, “The wife sent off the former model
who has been with them eighteen years and
was Renoir’s devoted nurse. She, the wife,
was jealous and . . . [Renoir] is without a
nurse, he who is as helpless as a baby . . . he
now is without affection around him.”
Jean Renoir had no intention of trying
to answer the questions that my biography
explores: Who was Renoir? What was his
character and his personality? What kind
of a person was he to his wife, sons, secret
illegitimate daughter, models, dealers, patrons, and numerous friends—Catholic,
Protestant, and Jewish? Through my interspersing of narrative with short quotes
from Renoir’s letters, the reader gains an
intimate understanding of the complex and
heroic Renoir.
Renoir’s life story is inspiring: he painted
four thousand joyful, sensuous, lifeaffirming paintings at the same time that
he suffered throughout an exceedingly difficult life: first, decades of poverty or financial insecurity; then, decades of rheumatoid
arthritis that paralyzed his fingers and legs
and left him perpetually in pain.
Renoir’s life story is the opposite of Van
Gogh’s. Van Gogh constantly suffered,
expressed his suffering in his art, and committed suicide at age thirty-seven. Renoir
also constantly suffered but only expressed
his suffering in his letters and in a few selfportraits. For the remaining four thousand paintings, Renoir only expressed joy,
optimism, sensuality, and sociability. As
Renoir wrote, “Thanks be to painting which
even late in life still furnishes illusions and
sometimes joy.”
The goal of my 2017 biography was to
reveal Renoir’s character and personality
42
Auguste Renoir: Gabrielle and Jean,
1895–1896
pressionist ever written. . . . For Renoir
devotees, this is an unmissable, revelatory account.
Or the opinion of the reviewer for The
Independent (UK) who wrote:
lanes meant that only they would benefit.
Further steps were taken in 1940 and culminated in FDR’s Lend-Lease proposal to
supply Great Britain on an almost unlimited basis, with only nebulous provisions
for eventual payment. Enacted in March
1941, Lend-Lease was pivotal not only for
its scale but for its patent abandonment
of neutrality. In the fall Congress authorized the arming of American merchant
ships and use of the US Navy in escorting
convoys across the U-boat-infested Atlantic. This amounted to an undeclared naval
war with Germany. Many additional examples of interventionist activity might be
cited.
Each step received majority support and
met also with fierce and substantial resistance. Congress divided largely but not
entirely along party lines. Republicans opposed the administration and Democrats
backed their president. Public opinion split
in too many ways to allow for any simple
summary. Acrimony and mutual suspicion
may have been worse than in our current
rancorous political climate.
Wheatcroft is much nearer the mark on
the question of a US declaration of war
on Nazi Germany. Here polls showed that
very large, albeit shrinking, majorities opposed such action right up until Pearl Harbor. Even then FDR asked only for war
against Japan and left Hitler to take the
decisive step. Of course Churchill always
desired full American belligerency. He had
to settle for less until December 1941, but
meanwhile he got a great deal more than
“nothing.”
James Schneider
Associate Professor of History Emeritus
University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas
OH, DIZZY!
To the Editors:
Renoir would have been grateful for
the thoroughness with which his new
biographer Barbara Ehrlich White has
peeled away the myths and the lies first
disseminated by his son Jean Renoir in
an early hagiography of his father.
Barbara Ehrlich White, Ph.D.
Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres
Adjunct Professor of Art
History Emerita,
Tufts University
Medford, Massachusetts
Jed Perl replies:
Barbara Ehrlich White is a great admirer of
Renoir’s art. So am I. About that we can
agree. But we don’t agree about much else.
The strange thing about her letter is that
she hasn’t even attempted to respond to my
criticisms. I think her biography of Renoir
is a missed opportunity.
In his review of Rosemary Ashton’s One
Hot Summer [NYR, December 21, 2017],
Tim Flannery errs in crediting Benjamin
Disraeli with enactment of Jewish emancipation in 1858, a bit of myth-making
that most of Disraeli’s many biographers
indulge in and that he himself practiced
wholesale. Disraeli entered Parliament in
1837, and one of his first votes was cast
against Jewish emancipation. He really
supported emancipation only once, in a famous speech in the 1847 debate that cost
him politically; on the many occasions when
a bill came before Parliament between
1837 and 1858, he did not speak at all or
spoke against it, and sometimes voted for,
sometimes against it. The public Disraeli
differed from the private one, as he had to
because his political standing, still perilous
in 1858, would have been jeopardized by
identifying himself with Jewish causes. In
1858 he did not participate in the debate,
but played his part behind the scenes in the
protracted maneuvers that went on for several months.
The Classifieds
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NOT EXACTLY NOTHING
Frederick M. Schweitzer
To the Editors:
Geoffrey Wheatcroft is twice mistaken in
stating [“A Star Is Born,” NYR, January
18, 2018] that Americans “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.” Instead, amid intense and often
bitter debate, America abandoned its isolationism in favor of extensive aid to Hitler’s
foes.
This shift began in the autumn of 1939
when the Roosevelt administration secured
congressional repeal of an embargo on
arms shipments to nations at war. America
remained neutral from a legal standpoint—
any nation could buy arms—but everyone
realized that Allied command of the sea
Professor of History Emeritus
Manhattan College
Riverdale, New York
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43
CY TWOMBLY
Coronation of Sesostris
Gagosian New York
New and forthcoming Cy Twombly titles in the Gagosian Shop
Catalogue Raisonné of Drawings, Vol. 8: 1990–2011
Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, Vol. VII Addendum
In Beauty it is finished, Drawings 1951–2008 exhibition catalogue
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