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The New York Review of Books — January 13, 2018

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Annette Gordon-Reed on
Hillary Clinton
February 8, 2018 / Volume LXV, Number 2
Simon Callow:
Masha Gessen’s Life Stories
David Salle on Laura Owens
Magris ❖ Babel
❖ Goldsworthy ❖
Masha Gessen
To Be, or Not to Be
Simon Callow
Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary by Gerald Horne
No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson by Jeff Sparrow
Annette Gordon-Reed
Neal Ascherson
Blameless by Claudio Magris, translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel
Andrew Motion
Ephemeral Works 2004–2014 by Andy Goldsworthy
Projects by Andy Goldsworthy
Janine di Giovanni
Adam Shatz
Stanley Moss
Charlie Savage
Gary Saul Morson
Sean Wilentz
Garry Wills
Jonathan Freedland
Shtisel a television series created by Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon
David Salle
Laura Owens an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art,
New York City, November 10, 2017–February 4, 2018
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Scott Rothkopf
Letters from
What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton
Lebanon: About to Blow?
Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk an album by Wadada Leo Smith
The Pentagon’s Wars: The Military’s Undeclared War
Against America’s Presidents by Mark Perry
The Essential Fictions by Isaac Babel, edited and translated from the Russian
by Val Vinokur
Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel, translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk
Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel, translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk
Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian by Richard Aldous
The New Testament: A Translation by David Bentley Hart
Adam Jacobs, Ferdinand Mount, Peter Bridges, Jeffrey Gettleman,
Elizabeth S. Olson, Justin S. Golub, and Jerome Groopman
NEAL ASCHERSON is the author of Black Sea, Stone
Voices: The Search for Scotland, and the novel Death of
the Fronsac. He is an Honorary Professor at the Institute
of Archaeology, University College London.
SIMON CALLOW is an English actor and director who
has written books about Orson Welles, Charles Dickens,
and Shakespeare. His latest book, Being Wagner: The
Story of the Most Provocative Composer Who Ever Lived,
will be published in paperback this year.
JANINE DI GIOVANNI is the Edward R. Murrow Press
Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author
of The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria.
She will be teaching a course on war reporting and human
rights at Columbia this spring.
JONATHAN FREEDLAND is an editorial-page columnist for The Guardian. His latest novel is To Kill the President, published under the pseudonym Sam Bourne.
MASHA GESSEN is the author of The Future Is History:
How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2017. She is a staff
writer at The New Yorker.
ANNETTE GORDON-REED is the Charles Warren
Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law
School and Professor of History in the Faculty of Arts and
Sciences at Harvard. She is the author of The Hemingses of
Monticello: An American Family, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for History, and Most Blessed of the Patriarchs:
Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination, with
Peter S. Onuf.
GARY SAUL MORSON is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and a Professor in the
Slavic Languages and Literatures Department at Northwestern. Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can
Learn from the Humanities, cowritten with Morton Schapiro, was published last year.
STANLEY MOSS published his Almost Complete Poems
in 2016. A new book, Abandoned Poems, will be published
next fall.
ANDREW MOTION is Homewood Professor in the Arts
at Johns Hopkins. Between 1999 and 2009 he was Poet
Laureate of the United Kingdom. His latest book is Coming in to Land: Selected Poems, 1975–2015.
DAVID SALLE is a painter and essayist.
CHARLIE SAVAGE is a Washington Correspondent for
The New York Times. His latest book is Power Wars: The
Relentless Rise of Presidential Authority and Secrecy.
ADAM SHATZ is a Contributing Editor at the London
Review of Books.
SEAN WILENTZ is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton and the author of
The Politicians and the Egalitarians: The Hidden History
of American Politics.
GARRY WILLS is the subject of a Festschrift published
by Northwestern’s Garret-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Nation and World, Church and God: The Legacy of
Garry Wills. His latest book is What the Qur’an Meant:
And Why It Matters.
Editor: Ian Buruma
Deputy Editor: Michael Shae
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Prudence Crowther, Julie Just
Senior Editor, Poetry: Jana Prikryl
Assistant Editor: Andrew Katzenstein
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Barbara Epstein (1928–2006)
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» Joshua Jelly-Schapiro: Dominica, After the Storm
» Ian Johnson: China’s Insider Artist, Qiu Zhijie
» Mark Gevisser: South Africa’s Next President
» Agnès Poirier: Céline’s Anti-Semitic Pamphlets
Plus: Sarah Boxer on Chris Ware, Danny Lyon’s Memories of Mississippi,
Lisa Appignanesi on Trump’s Crazy, and more.
“Few historians have probed
the hidden undercurrents of
the Cold War as perceptively
and brilliantly as Elaine
Tyler May…. A major
contribution and a mustread to understand the
origins of the Age of Trump.”
Pulitzer Prize–winning coauthor
of “America founded itself on the
principles of life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness, but
for much of the last century, it
has been increasingly seized
by fear, suspicion, and anxiety.
Elaine Tyler May has provided
a lucid, accessible, and
sweeping account of this
national nervous breakdown.”
Columbia University
“A must-read for anyone
seeking to understand
the anxieties that occupy
American politics.”
starred review
On the cover: Peggy Ashcroft and Paul Robeson in Othello, at the Savoy Theatre, London, 1930 (Robeson Family Trust).
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To Be, or Not to Be
This essay was delivered in a slightly
different form as the Robert B. Silvers
Lecture at the New York Public Library on December 18, 2017.
The topic of my talk was determined by
today’s date. Thirty-nine years ago my
parents took a package of documents to
an office in Moscow. This was our application for an exit visa to leave the Soviet
Union. More than two years would pass
before the visa was granted, but from
that day on I have felt a sense of precariousness wherever I have been, along with
a sense of opportunity. They are a pair.
I have emigrated again as an adult. I
was even named a “great immigrant” in
2016, which I took to be an affirmation
of my skill, attained through practice—
though this was hardly what the honor
was meant to convey. I have also raised
kids of my own. If anything, with every
new step I have taken, I have marveled
more at the courage it would have required for my parents to step into the
abyss. I remember seeing them in the
kitchen, poring over a copy of an atlas
of the world. For them, America was
an outline on a page, a web of thin purplish lines. They’d read a few American
books, had seen a handful of Hollywood
movies. A friend was fond of asking
them, jokingly, whether they could really
be sure that the West even existed.
Truthfully, they couldn’t know. They
did know that if they left the Soviet
Union, they would never be able to return (like many things we accept as
rare certainties, this one turned out to
be wrong). They would have to make a
home elsewhere. I think that worked for
them: as Jews, they never felt at home in
the Soviet Union—and when home is not
where you are born, nothing is predetermined. Anything can be. So my parents
always maintained that they viewed their
leap into the unknown as an adventure.
I wasn’t so sure. After all, no one had
asked me.
As a thirteen-year-old, I found myself in a clearing in a wood outside of
Moscow, at a secret—one might say
underground, though it was out in the
open—gathering of Jewish cultural activists. People went up in front of the
crowd, one, two, or several at a time,
with guitars and without, and sang
from a limited repertoire of Hebrew
and Yiddish songs. That is, they sang
the same three or four songs over and
over. The tunes scraped something inside of me, making an organ I didn’t
know I had—located just above the
breastbone—tingle with a sense of belonging. I was surrounded by strangers,
sitting, as we were, on logs laid across
the grass, and I remember their faces to
this day. I looked at them and thought,
This is who I am. The “this” in this was
“Jewish.” From my perch thirty-seven
years later, I’d add “in a secular cultural
community” and “in the Soviet Union,”
but back then space was too small to
require elaboration. Everything about
it seemed self- evident—once I knew
what I was, I would just be it. In fact,
the people in front of me, singing those
songs, were trying to figure out how to
be Jewish in a country that had erased
Jewishness. Now I’d like to think that
it was watching people learning to inhabit an identity that made me tingle.
Some months later, we left the Soviet
In autobiographical books written
by exiles, the moment of emigration is
often addressed in the first few pages—
regardless of where it fell in a writer’s
life. I went to Vladimir Nabokov’s
Speak, Memory to look for the relevant
quote in its familiar place. This took a
while because the phrase was actually
On Valentine’s Day in 1982—I was
fifteen—I went to a gay dance at Yale.
This was a great time for gay dances. It
was no longer terrifying to be queer on
Igor Stomakhin
Masha Gessen
Svetlana Boym had a private theory:
an émigré’s life continues in the land
left behind. It’s a parallel story. In an
unpublished piece, she tried to imagine
the parallel lives her Soviet/Russian/
Jewish left-behind self was leading. Toward the end of her life, this retracing
and reimagining became something
of an obsession. She also had a theory
about me: that I had gone back to reclaim a life that had been interrupted.
In any case, there are many stories to
be told about a single life.
Masha Gessen at her apartment in Moscow in the early 1990s,
when she was in her mid-twenties
on page 250 out of 310. Here it is: “The
break in my own destiny affords me in
retrospect a syncopal kick that I would
not have missed for worlds.”
This is an often-quoted phrase in a
book full of quotable sentences. The
cultural critic and my late friend Svetlana Boym analyzed Nabokov’s application of the word “syncope,” which
has three distinct uses: in linguistics it’s
the shortening of a word by omission
of a sound or syllable from its middle;
in music it is a change of rhythm and
shift of accent when a normally weak
beat is stressed; and in medicine it is a
brief loss of consciousness. “Syncope,”
wrote Svetlana, “is the opposite of symbol and synthesis.”
Suketu Mehta, in his Maximum City,
Each person’s life is dominated by
a central event, which shapes and
distorts everything that comes after
it and, in retrospect, everything that
came before. For me, it was going to
live in America at the age of fourteen. It’s a difficult age at which to
change countries. You haven’t quite
finished growing up where you were
and you’re never well in your skin in
the one you’re moving to.
Mehta didn’t let me down: this assertion appears in the very first pages of
his magnificent book; also, he moved
to America at the same age that I did.
And while I think he might be wrong
about everyone, I am certain he is right
about émigrés: the break colors everything that came before and after.
campus, but gay life was still half-hidden
in a way that was thrilling. I do not remember, in fact, dancing, and I don’t
even remember catching anyone’s eye.
In other words, I’m pretty sure that no
one noticed me. Strangely, that wasn’t
crushing. Because what I do remember
is standing somewhere dark, leaning
against something, and feeling like I was
surrounded by community. I remember
thinking, This is who I could be.
What the syncope of emigration
had meant for me was the difference
between discovering who I was—the
experience I had in the woods outside
of Moscow—and discovering who I
could be—the experience I had at that
dance. It was a moment of choice and,
thanks to the “break in my destiny,” I
was aware of it.
In this sense my personal narrative
splits from that of the American gay
and lesbian movement. The latter was
based on choicelessness. A choice may
have to be defended—certainly, one
has to be prepared to defend one’s
right to make a choice—while arguing
that you were born this way appeals to
people’s sympathy or at least a sense
of decency. It also serves to quell one’s
own doubts and to foreclose future options. We are, mostly, comfortable with
less choice—much as I would have felt
safer if my parents had not set out on
their great emigration adventure.
After I left Moscow, one of my
grandmothers was compelled to hide
the fact of our emigration—we had
committed an act of treason that could
have threatened those left behind. So
in the little town where she lived and
where I had spent summers as a child,
she continued to update my friends on
the life I wasn’t leading. In that Soviet
life, I applied to colleges and failed to
get in. In the end, I settled for some
mediocre-sounding technical route.
I was hurt by the predictability of the
story my grandmother chose for me. In
the United States, I was living an imaginative and risky life—I dropped out
of high school, ran away from home,
lived in the East Village, worked as a
bicycle messenger, dropped out of college, worked in the gay press, became
the editor of a magazine at twenty-one,
got arrested at ACT UP protests, experimented sexually and romantically, behaved abhorrently, was a good friend,
or tried to be—but in the mirror held
up by my grandmother, it wasn’t just
my location that was different: it was
the presence of choice in my life.
After ten years in this country, I
went back to Moscow as a journalist,
on assignment. I felt so unexpectedly
comfortable in a country that I had
expected to feel foreign—as though
my body relaxed into a space that had
stayed open for it—that I also felt resentful about not having had a choice
in leaving. I kept going back and eventually stayed, refashioning myself as
a Russian-language journalist. I pretended that this was the life I would
have had if I had never left, but deep
inside I believed that my grandmother
had been right: there was some parallel me, toiling miserably on some deadend engineering task. This made me a
double impostor in the life I was living.
I’m not sure when I made the choice to
stay in Russia, but I remember hearing
the statement come out of my mouth,
surprising me, as it sometimes happens
when a decision makes itself known. I
had been living there a year, and I was
talking to a close friend, an American
graduate student who had also been
there a year and was now going back.
“I think I’m going to stay,” I said. “Of
course you are,” he responded, as
though it weren’t a choice at all.
Around the same time, I was interviewed by a young Russian journalist: having chosen to return to Russia
made me exotic enough to be written
about. He asked me which I liked better: being a Russian in America or an
American in Russia. I was furious—I
believed myself to be a Russian in Russia and an American in America. It
took me many years to come around to
liking being an outsider wherever I go.
I remet my two grandmothers, whom
I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager, and
started interviewing them. This project
became a book about the choices they
had made. The one who disapproved of
our emigration had become a censor,
which, she told me, was a moral choice.
She had been educated to be a history
teacher, but by the time she had completed her studies she was convinced that
becoming a history teacher in the Soviet
Union would require her to lie to children every day. Censoring, on the other
hand, seemed to her a job that could have
been done by a robot: any other person
would have crossed out the same lines or
confiscated the same mail (her first job
was as a censor of printed material in
incoming international mail), whereas
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Getty Publications
© 2018 J. Paul Getty Trust
February 8, 2018
every history teacher uses a different
kind of charm and persuasion to distort
children’s understanding of the past.
My other grandmother I knew as
a rebel and a dissident, someone who
never compromised. But as I interviewed her I learned that when she was
offered a job with the secret police (as
a translator), she had agreed to take it.
This was during Stalin’s so-called anticosmopolitan campaign, when Jews
were purged from all kinds of Soviet
institutions. She could not get a job to
save her life, or, more to the point, her
toddler son’s life. It had been no choice
at all, she told me: she had to feed her
child. She never started the job because
she failed the medical exam.
The central figure in the book, however, was her father, who was killed in
Majdanek. I had always known that he
had participated in the rebellion in the
Bialystok Ghetto. But then I also found
out that he had served in the Judenrat
(Jewish council) before choosing to
help the rebels.
As I studied the archives—a remarkable number of documents from the Bialystok Ghetto have been preserved—I
realized that my great-grandfather had
been one of the de facto leaders of the
Judenrat. He had been responsible for
food deliveries to and garbage removal
from the ghetto, and I saw strong evidence that he took part in putting
together the lists of names for extermination. I also found a memoir written
by a member of the resistance in which
she recalled my great-grandfather’s efforts to stop the resistance. Later he
apparently changed his position and
started helping the resistance to smuggle weapons into the ghetto. Before the
war, he had been an elected official, a
member of both the city council and
the Jewish council, so it was clear to
me that he had seen his duties in the
Judenrat as the logical outgrowth of his
elected service. I could see the trajectory of my great-grandfather’s choices.
My grandmother didn’t want me to
publish the part about the Judenrat,
and we had a protracted battle over
whose story it was to tell—hers or mine,
or both of ours. In the end, she had only
one demand: that I omit a quote from
Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. This is the infamous quote in
which Arendt says that the Holocaust
would not have been possible without
the help of the Jewish councils.
I saw it as a story of impossible, anguished choices that he nonetheless
insisted on making. Totalitarian regimes aim to make choice impossible,
and this was what interested me at the
time. I was awed by the gap between
my capacity for judgment and the unbearably limited options faced by my
grandparents. I fixated on the ideas of
“impossible choice” and of having “no
choice.” But what interests me now is
that I think resistance can take the
shape of insisting on making a choice,
even when the choice is framed as one
between unacceptable options.
Back in the United States, my parents’
adventure came to a halt, eleven years
after we landed in America. My mother
died of cancer in the summer of 1992.
Another eleven years later, I returned
for a yearlong fellowship—to be a Rus6
sian in America for a year. During that
year I took a test that showed I had
the genetic mutation that had caused
the cancer that killed my mother and
her aunt before that. I was “born this
way”—born to develop cancer of the
breasts or ovaries, or both. The genetic
counselors and doctors asked me what
I wanted to do. It was a choice, framed
as one between “aggressive monitoring”—for the first signs of cancer,
which the doctors were certain would
appear—and preventive surgery.
I ended up writing, first, a series of
articles and then a book on making
choices in the age of genetic testing. I
talked to people who had faced far more
drastic choices than the one before me.
These people had chosen to live without
such essential organs as the stomach or
pancreas, whereas all the doctors were
suggesting to me was the removal of
breasts and ovaries. I chose to remove
my breasts and reconstruct them. I was
choosing my breast size and my fate!
The doctors, incidentally, didn’t
think this was the right choice: they advocated for the removal of the ovaries
rather than, or more importantly than,
the breasts. I found more compelling
evidence in favor of keeping the ovaries
for a while, but two and a half years ago
I had those removed as well. Around
that time, my doctor was strongly suggesting I really no longer had a choice.
Two decades after moving back to
Russia, I left again. It was one of those
impossible choices that don’t feel like
much of a choice: I was one of many
people pushed out of the country during the crackdown that followed the
protests of 2011–2012. Some were given
the choice between emigrating or going
to prison. My options were emigrating
or seeing social services go after my
kids, on the grounds that I am queer.
What had happened to the life my
discontinuous self was leading back
in America while I was in Russia? My
writing life had been proceeding apace,
more or less—I was publishing in the
United States while living in Russia.
Socially, who was I? Who were my
people? Where did I belong? I had lost
some friends and gained others. Some
friends had become couples, split up,
recoupled, had children. I had coupled
and recoupled and had children too.
Also, some of the women I had
known had become men. That’s not the
way most transgender people phrase it;
the default language is one of choicelessness: people say they have always
been men or women and now their authentic selves are emerging. This is the
same “born this way” approach that
the gay and lesbian movement had put
to such good political use in the time
that I’d been gone: it had gotten queer
people access to such institutions as the
military and marriage.
The standard story goes something
like this: as a child I always felt like a
boy, or never felt like a girl, and then I
tried to be a lesbian, but the issue wasn’t
sexual orientation—it was gender, specifically, “true gender,” which could
now be claimed through transitioning. I
found myself feeling resentful at hearing
these stories. I too had always felt like
a boy! It had taken some work for me
to enjoy being a woman (whatever that
means)—I’d succeeded, I had learned
how to be one. But still: here I was, faced
with the possibility that in the parallel
life that my left-behind self was leading
in the United States while I was in Russia, I would have transitioned. True gender (whatever that means) didn’t have
much to do with it, but choice did. Somehow, I’d missed the fact that it was there.
I had written an entire book on making choices that had to do with removing
the parts of the body that would appear
to have made me female: the breasts,
the ovaries, the uterus. And I had not
questioned the assumptions that after a
mastectomy one considers one’s options
for reconstruction, and after a radical
hysterectomy one considers whether to
receive hormone “replacement” in the
form of estrogen. Indeed, I had had reconstruction and was taking estrogen.
I had failed, miserably, at seeing my
choices, made as they were under some
duress, as an opportunity for adventure.
I had failed to think about inhabiting a
different body the way one would think
about inhabiting a different country.
How do I invent the person I am now?
I quit estrogen and started testosterone. I had some trouble with the evidence part of the science, because, as I
have found, all published papers on the
use of testosterone in people who start
out as women fall into one of two categories: articles that aim to show that
people taking testosterone will experience all of the masculinizing changes
that they wish for, and ones that aim to
show that women will have none of the
masculinizing changes that they fear. I
am taking a low dose, and I have no idea
how it’s going to affect me. My voice has
become lower. My body is changing.
But then again, bodies change all
the time. In her book The Argonauts
Maggie Nelson quotes her partner, the
artist Harry Dodge, as saying that he is
not going anywhere—not transitioning
but being himself. I recognize the sentiment, though I’d probably say the opposite: for thirty-nine years, ever since
my parents took those documents to
the visa office, I have felt so precarious
that I lay no claim to someone I “really
am.” That someone is a sequence of
choices, and the question is: Will my
next choice be conscious, and will my
ability to make it be unfettered?
It took little effort to organize the
notes I jotted down for this talk around
the seven words that the Trump administration was reported to have banned
the Centers for Disease Control from
using. All seven words—from “fetus”
to “evidence-based”—are words that
reflect on our understanding of choice.
Choice is a great burden. The call
to invent one’s life, and to do it continuously, can sound unendurable. Totalitarian regimes aim to stamp out the
possibility of choice, but what aspiring
autocrats do is promise to relieve one of
the need to choose. This is the promise
of “Make America Great Again”—it
conjures the allure of an imaginary past
in which one was free not to choose.
I’ve been surprised, in the last year,
that the resurgence of interest in some of
the classic books on totalitarianism has
not brought back Erich Fromm’s wonderful Escape from Freedom (though
Fromm, who was a psychoanalyst and
social psychologist, has been rediscovered by many people in the mental
health profession because he introduced
the idea of “malignant narcissism”). In
the introduction, Fromm apologizes for
what he perceives as sloppiness, which
he says stems from the need to write the
book in a hurry: he felt that the world
was on the verge of catastrophe. He was
writing this in 1940.
In the book, Fromm proposes that
there are two kinds of freedom: “freedom from,” which we all want—we all
want our parents to stop telling us what
to do—and “freedom to,” which can be
difficult or even unbearable. This is the
freedom to invent one’s future, the freedom to choose. Fromm suggests that at
certain times in human history the burden of “freedom to” becomes too painful for a critical mass of people to bear,
and they take the opportunity to cede
their agency—whether it’s to Martin
Luther, Adolf Hitler, or Donald Trump.
No wonder Trump appears to be
obsessed with people who embody
choice. Immigrants are his most frightening imaginary enemy, the ones who
need to be “extremely vetted,” blocked
out with a wall, whose crimes need to
be reported to a special hotline and
whose families need to be kept out of
this country. It puts me in mind of the
“aggressive monitoring” for the cancer
that’s sure to come. Transgender people
have been another target of Trump’s
apparently spontaneous lashing out—
witness the transgender ban in the military, the rescinding of protections for
transgender students, and now the ban
on the very word “transgender.”
But in speaking about immigrants we
tend to privilege choicelessness much as
we do when we are speaking about queer
people or transgender people. We focus
on the distinction between refugees and
“economic migrants,” without asking
why the fear of hunger and destitution
qualifies as a lesser reason for migration
than the fear of imprisonment or death
by gunshot wound—and then only if
that wound is inflicted for political or
religious reasons. But even more than
that, why do we assume that the more
restricted a person’s choices have been,
the more qualified they are to enter
a country that proclaims freedom of
personal choice to be one of its ideals?
Immigrants make a choice. The valor
is not in remaining at risk for catching a
bullet but in making the choice to avoid
it. In the Soviet Union, most dissidents
believed that if one were faced with the
impossible choice between leaving the
country and going to prison, one ought
to choose exile. Less dramatically, the
valor is in being able to experience
your move less as an escape and more
as an adventure. It is in serving as living
reminders of the choicefulness of life—
something that immigrants and most
trans people do, whether their personal
narratives are ones of choice or not.
I wish I could finish on a hopeful
note, by saying something like: If only
we insist on making choices, we will
succeed in keeping darkness at bay.
I’m not convinced that that’s the case.
But I do think that making choices and,
more important, imagining other, better choices, will give us the best chance
possible of coming out of the darkness
better than we were when we went in.
It’s a bit like emigrating that way: the
choice to leave rarely feels free, but
choices we make about inhabiting new
landscapes (or changed bodies) demand an imagination.
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February 8, 2018
The Emperor Robeson
Simon Callow
Beinecke Library, Yale University/Van Vechten Trust
Paul Robeson:
The Artist as Revolutionary
by Gerald Horne.
Pluto, 250 pp., $18.00 (paper)
No Way But This:
In Search of Paul Robeson
by Jeff Sparrow.
Scribe, 292 pp., $19.95 (paper)
When I was growing up in Britain in
the 1950s and 1960s, Paul Robeson was
much in evidence, on records, on the
radio, on television. His name was haloed with the sort of respect accorded
to few performers. The astonishing
voice that, like the Mississippi in the
most famous number in his repertory,
just kept rolling along, seemed to carry
within it an inherent sense of truth.
There was no artifice; there were no
vocal tricks; nothing came between the
listener and the song. It commanded
effortless attention; perfectly focused,
it came from a very deep place, not just
in the larynx, but in the experience of
what it is to be human. In this, Robeson
resembled the English contralto Kathleen Ferrier: both seemed less trained
musicians than natural phenomena.
The spirituals Robeson had been instrumental in discovering for a wider
audience were not simply communal
songs of love and life and death but the
urgent cries of a captive people yearning for a better, a juster life. These
songs, rooted in the past, expressed a
present reality in the lives of twentiethcentury American black people, citizens of the most powerful nation on
earth but oppressed and routinely humiliated on a daily basis. When Robeson sang the refrain of “Go Down
Moses”—“Let my people go!”—it had
nothing to do with consolation or comfort: it was an urgent demand. And in
the Britain in which I grew up, he was
deeply admired for it. For us, he was the
noble representative, the beau idéal, of
his race: physically magnificent, finely
spoken, fiercely intelligent, charismatic
but not at all threatening.
At some point in the 1960s, he faded
from our view. Disgusted with America’s failure to address his passionate
demands for his people, he had gone
to Moscow, endorsing the Soviet regime. Meanwhile, a new generation
of black militants, fierce demagogues,
had become prominent, and suddenly
Robeson seemed very old-fashioned.
There were no more television reruns
of his most famous movies, Sanders of
the River (1935) and The Proud Valley (1940); his music was rarely heard.
When news of his death came in 1976,
there was surprise that he was still
alive. And now, it is hard to find anyone under fifty who has the slightest
idea who he is, or what he was, which
is astonishing—as a singer, of course,
and, especially in Proud Valley, as an
actor, his work is of the highest order.
But his significance as an emblematic
figure is even greater, crucial to an understanding of the American twentieth
Robeson was born in the last years
of the nineteenth century, to a father
who had been a slave and at the time
Paul Robeson as Othello, 1944; photograph by Carl Van Vechten
of the Civil War had fled to the North,
to the town of Princeton, New Jersey,
eventually putting himself through
college and becoming a Presbyterian
minister. He drummed his own fierce
determination and rigorous work ethic
into his children, especially Paul, who
was a model pupil. Studious, athletic,
artistically gifted, he was an all-around
sportsman, sang in the school choir,
and played Othello at the age of sixteen. At Rutgers University, despite vicious opposition from aggressive white
teammates, he became an outstanding
football player; he graduated with distinction. He then studied law, first at
NYU and then Columbia. On graduation, he was marked out for great
things, tipped as a possible future governor of New Jersey, but he gave up the
law almost immediately after a stenographer refused to take dictation “from
a nigger.” Instead he threw himself into
the vibrant artistic life of Harlem at the
height of its Renaissance, appearing in
plays by Eugene O’Neill, giving concerts of African-American music, and
occasionally playing professional football; he was spoken of by Walter Camp
as the greatest end ever.
His fame spread with startling speed;
within a couple of years, he was lionized on both sides of the Atlantic.
From an early age, he was perceived as
almost literally iconic. His stupendous
physique seemed to demand heroic
embodiment, and he was frequently
photographed and sculpted, as often as
not naked; the frontispiece of the first
of many books about him—Paul Robeson: Negro (1930), by his wife, Eslanda
(Essie)—shows Jacob Epstein’s famous bust of him. He was the black
star everyone had been waiting for, the
acceptable face of negritude.
His appearances in England were especially warmly received: he was seen
onstage in The Emperor Jones, Show
Boat, and, most daringly, as Othello.
His singing voice was extensively
broadcast by the BBC, and he made
films; by 1938 he was one of the most
popular film stars in Britain. Swanning
around in the most elegant circles, hobnobbing on equal terms with painters,
poets, philosophers, and politicians,
he felt exhilarated by England’s apparent lack of racial prejudice. He bought
himself a splendid house, threw parties
at which one simply had to be seen,
and engaged in a series of liaisons with
English women under his wife’s nose.
He had not completely given in to the
adoration, though. All the while, he was
being quietly radicalized. He consorted
with left-wing thinkers and young firebrands, like Kwame Nkrumah and
Jomo Kenyatta, bent on overthrowing
colonial rule. Touring Europe, drawing
crowds of tens of thousands to his con-
certs, he was stirred by his audiences’
response to his music, and became
interested in theirs. He was, he said,
a folk singer, not an art singer; folk
music, he declared, was universal, the
living proof of the community of mankind. He absorbed his audience’s songs
into his repertory, whenever possible
in the original language; enrolling in
the philology department of the School
of Oriental and African Languages at
London University, he began a study of
African languages.
His increasing awareness of leftwing ideology showed in his choice of
work—in London he played the leading
role in Stevedore, a play that directly
addressed racism—but also inexorably led him to Moscow in 1934. Russia
grasped him to its collective bosom; audiences went mad for him, Sergei Eisenstein wanted to make a film with him as
Jean- Christophe, emperor of Haiti. He
was overwhelmed, declaring that for
the first time in his life he felt himself
to be “not a Negro but a human being”;
he placed his young son in a Russian
school. Fired by a sense of the coming
battle to be fought, he went to Spain,
then in the throes of the civil war. He
sang for the Republican forces and was
received rapturously, as he was wherever he went, except in Hitler’s Germany, through which he passed rapidly
and uncomfortably, narrowly avoiding
confrontation with Nazi storm troopers. In his speeches, he increasingly
framed the struggle for racial equality
as a war on fascism. In the run-up to
World War II, Robeson became less of
an artist, more of a moral force; less an
American, more a world figure.
But when Hitler invaded Poland and
the war in Europe was finally engaged,
he returned to America, pledging to
support the fight for democratic freedom. He saw American participation
in the war as a tremendous opportunity
to reshape the whole of American life
and, above all, to transform the position
of black people within the nation. His
fame and influence rose to extraordinary heights, and after America joined
the war, his endorsement of its ally the
Soviet Union proved very useful.
In 1943, he reprised his Othello on
Broadway, the first time an amorously
involved black man and white woman
had ever been shown on stage there;
to this day the production holds the
record for the longest run of any nonmusical Shakespeare play on Broadway, and it toured the land to strictly
nonsegregated audiences. The following year, Robeson’s forty-sixth birthday was marked with a grand gala,
attended by over 12,000 people; 4,000
had to be turned away. The playwright
Marc Connelly spoke, describing
Robeson as the representative of “a
highly desirable tomorrow which, by
some lucky accident, we are privileged
to appreciate today.” He was the man
of the future; America was going to
r so it seemed for a brief moment.
The dream was almost immediately
shattered when black GIs returning
from the war were subjected to terrifying outbursts of violence from white
The New York Review
HER Duty
HER Passion
February 8, 2018
Hungarian uprising in 1956, stubbornly
maintained his unqualified admiration of the Soviet Union and what he
insisted was its essentially benevolent
His passport was finally restored to
him in 1958, and he sped away. He based
himself in England, where he sang in
St. Paul’s Cathedral and in the Royal
Festival Hall; he played Othello for one
last season at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
He returned to Moscow, where ecstatic
crowds filled stadiums to welcome him
back. He made his way to Australia and
New Zealand. But something was imploding within him. Back in Moscow,
en route for the US, where he planned
to speak in favor of the fledgling civil rights movement, he
was found with slashed wrists
on the floor of the bathroom
of his hotel room. From there
he went to London, where he
received heavy sedation and
massive doses of electroconvulsive therapy before being
transferred to a somewhat less
draconian hospital in East
Germany. At last, in 1963,
he came back to America
and lived out the remaining
thirteen years of his life as a
private citizen with very occasional public interventions;
there were manic interludes
and depressions, but mostly he
was just very quiet. When he
died in 1976, most of the obituaries—even in the AfricanAmerican press—expressed a
respectful incomprehension.
since it elides the point that (by far)
African-Americans in their quest for
global aid to combat Jim Crow were
attracted to Japan.”
The author’s analyses of world affairs
and his assessments of history’s leading players are, to put it gently, crude;
this, for example, is Winston Churchill:
“the pudgy, cigar-chomping, alcoholguzzling Tory.” And he takes certain,
shall we say, contentious things as selfevident—notably the essential goodness of the USSR. When Robeson first
saw Stalin in Moscow, Horne reports,
he was struck by the dictator’s “wonderful sense of kindliness . . . here was
one who was wise and good,” and duly
held up his son Pauli to see this para-
cated study of languages was designed in part to illustrate the
essential unity of humankind, continues to symbolize the still reigning slogan of the current century:
“workers of the world, unite!”
I’m sorry to break it to Mr. Horne, but
he doesn’t. And it isn’t.
Jeff Sparrow’s No Way But This: In
Search of Paul Robeson is the polar opposite of Horne’s book, a work not of
assertion but of investigation. It takes
nothing at all for granted. The author,
an Australian left-wing commentator,
is very present in the book: it’s his journey (and thus our journey) as much as it
is Robeson’s. He goes to see for himself
a world that is, he admits, far
from his own experience. The
result is arresting, illuminating, and ultimately upsetting.
Sparrow’s starting point is
a curiously moving newsreel,
readily available on YouTube,
showing Robeson in his early
sixties visiting workers on the
building site of the Sydney
Opera House and spontaneously singing for them as they
sit utterly rapt; here, he discovered the plight of the Australian aborigines, ardently
pledging himself to their cause
decades before it became
fashionable. It is this sense of
Robeson’s universalism that
Sparrow seeks to investigate.
It takes him back to Robeson’s birth, and then goes back
further—into the history of
Robeson’s father, the Reverend William, born into slavery,
and further still into the hist is an altogether extraorditory, or rather the experience,
nary life, the stuff of epic. It
of slavery itself.
has not lacked for scholars:
What, Sparrow wants to
A photograph of Paul Robeson inscribed to Carl Van Vechten,
most notably the radical histoknow, was slavery actually
circa 1930; from Gather Out of Star-Dust: A Harlem
rian Martin Duberman’s maslike? He goes to North CaroRenaissance Album, Melissa Barton’s catalog of a recent
terful and all- encompassing
lina and talks first to the very
exhibition at the Beinecke Library at Yale. It is published
five-hundred-page life (1989).
nice and decent descendants
by the library and distributed by Yale University Press.
Robeson’s son, Paul Jr., offered
of slave owners who slowly, unhis personal perceptions of the
comfortably, reveal the reality
great man’s first forty years in An Artgon of benevolence. Horne has nothing
of slavery for their families. One of
ist’s Journey (2001), the first volume of
to say about Robeson’s comment, aptheir young servant girls was savagely
The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, carparently finding no fault with it.
whipped for “being slow.” “They might
rying the story through to its bitter end,
Elsewhere, Horne makes desperately
have been cultured and intelligent peofive years later, in a second volume,
strained attempts to force every action
ple,” says Sparrow, “they might have
The Quest for Freedom, passionate
of Robeson’s into a political mold: of
cared for their children and showed
and contentious. More recently, there
the actor’s heroic assault on the role of
kindness to their neighbours, but they’d
has been Jordan Goodman’s politically
Othello in London—a part of immense
ordered a young slave girl thrashed to
radical A Watched Man. And now—
technical and emotional challenges for
the bone because she dropped a dish.”
coincidentally or not—at a time of acany actor, let alone an untrained and
As it might be in a novel, this small decelerating racial unrest in America,
relatively inexperienced one—he tells
tail of daily and routine brutality, endthere are two new books about him, as
us: “Robeson’s groping as an actor in
lessly repeated as part of a way of life
different from each other as chalk from
his attempt to grasp the lineaments of
only 150 years ago, is somehow more
Othello was of a piece with his gropchilling than a description of greater
Gerald Horne’s Robeson: The Artist
ing as a black man seeking to grasp the
as Revolutionary is baffling. It is writlineaments of capitalism, colonialism,
Likewise, Sparrow notes what it was
ten with great sincerity and passion,
and white supremacy.” No, it wasn’t:
that Robeson’s father, a former slave
but its constant reiteration of certain
it’s just a very hard part. Horne has eviwith no education whatsoever, had to
words and phrases—we learn on page
dently read a great deal and had access
do to get first a BA, then an MA, and
finally a degree in theology: it “meant
after page that Robeson was, indeed, a
to some remarkable material, but it is
mastering Ancient Greek, Latin, Herevolutionary—hardly constitutes an
often impossible to fathom from the
brew, geometry, chemistry, trigonomargument, while the simple presentabook what is really happening at any
etry, mineralogy, political economy,
tion of a narrative eludes the author
one moment or what was going on in
and the myriad other components of
completely. Horne seems unable to
Robeson’s mind.
a nineteenth-century classical educapresent a clear picture of Robeson’s
Horne cites any number of searing
tion.” William Robeson, as a slave,
personality or the world in which he
details, but lacking articulate analysis,
would have had no formal education at
lived; it is a chronological free-for-all,
his account is numbing and bewildering
all. This fierce—heroic—work ethic the
as we giddily lurch from decade to dein equal measure, like being addressed
Reverend Robeson passed on to his son.
cade, backtracking or suddenly leapfrom a dysfunctional megaphone. His
He never spoke about his experience of
ing forward. Often sentences make no
rousing conclusion, bringing his obsesslavery. But the lesson was clear: the
sense whatever: “Though Robeson’s
sion with Robeson’s linguistic gifts to a
only way out of poverty and humiliation
tie to Moscow is often derided,” says
climax, is simply stupefying:
was hard, hard work—working harder
Horne, “this is one- sided—akin to
than any white man would have to, to
judging a boxing match while only
This multi-lingual descendant of
achieve a comparable result.
focusing on one of the fighters—
enslaved Africans, whose dediJames Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection/Beinecke Library, Yale University
racists determined to make it clear that
nothing had changed. After a murderous attack on four African-Americans
in Georgia, an incandescent Robeson,
at the head of a march of three thousand delegates, had a meeting with
the president, Harry S. Truman, in
the course of which he demanded “an
American crusade against lynching.”
Truman coolly observed that the time
was not right. Robeson warned him
that the temper of the black population
was dangerously eruptive. Truman,
taking this as a threat, stood up; the
meeting was over. Asked by a journalist outside the White House whether it
wouldn’t be finer when confronted with
racist brutality to turn the other cheek,
Robeson replied, “If a lyncher hit me
on one cheek, I’d tear his head off before he hit me on the other one.” The
chips were down.
From that moment on, the government moved to discredit Robeson at
every turn; it blocked his employment
prospects, after which he turned to
foreign touring, not hesitating to state
his views whenever he could. At the
Soviet-backed World Peace Council,
he spoke against the belligerence of the
United States, describing it as fascist;
these remarks caused outrage at home,
as did his later comments at the Paris
Peace Congress, at which he said: “We
in America do not forget that it was on
the backs of the white workers from
Europe and on the backs of millions of
blacks that the wealth of America was
built. And we are resolved to share it
equally. We reject any hysterical raving
that urges us to make war on anyone.”
These comments provoked denunciations from all sides—not least from the
black press and his former comradesin-arms in the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People, anxious not to undo the steady
progress they felt they had been making. Robeson’s universal approbation
turned overnight into nearly universal
When he spoke in public in America,
the meetings were often broken up by
protesters armed with rocks, stones,
and knives, chanting “We’re Hitler’s
boys” and “God bless Hitler.” At a
meeting in Peekskill, New York, Robeson narrowly escaped with his life. He
now found himself subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American
Activities Committee, where, refusing
to state whether he was a member of
the Communist Party, he turned the
tables on the interrogator who questioned why he had not stayed in the Soviet Union. “Because my father was a
slave and my people died to build this
country,” replied Robeson. “I am going
to stay here and have a part of it just
like you. And no fascist-minded people
will drive me from it.”
Before long, his passport was confiscated (a move, astonishingly, supported by the American Civil Liberties
Union). Robeson was now effectively
imprisoned in his own country, where
he found it virtually impossible to earn
a living because of FBI threats to theaters that might have hired him. But
he could not be silenced: from time
to time he would go into a studio and
broadcast talks and concerts that were
relayed live to vast crowds across the
ocean. Through all of this, he kept up
his criticism of the government’s racial
policies, but also, despite mounting
evidence of the Terror in Russia under
Stalin and the brutal suppression of the
The New York Review
And then, as another of Sparrow’s interviewees, a distant relative of Robeson, tells him, when a black man has
finally achieved something, a certain
circumspection is necessary. As Robeson himself wrote with bitter anger in
Here I Stand, his 1958 autobiography:
Even when demonstrating that he
is really an equal . . . [c]limb up if
you can—but don’t act “uppity.”
Always show that you are grateful. (Even if what you have gained
has been wrested from unwilling
powers, be sure to be grateful lest
“they” take it all away.)
deploys this contrapuntal
effect—this dialogue between past
and present—brilliantly. He talks to
the elegant British black actor Hugh
Quarshie, a recent Othello for the
Royal Shakespeare Company, about
the challenges of the role, and specifically about what it might have felt like
for Robeson to play the part, painfully
conscious as he must have been that he
was “the only black face in the room.”
Sometimes, says the Oxford- educated
Quarshie, he finds himself talking to
some patron of the arts, expatiating
on “Mozart and Buñuel, and then suddenly I wonder if what they are actually seeing are thick lips and a bone
through my nose.”
Sparrow never lets the reader forget
how other, how fundamentally alien,
black people have been made to feel in
American society, and how recently unspeakable brutality and contempt were
the norm. At the turn of the twentieth
century, in 1901, for example, when
Robeson was three years old, President
Theodore Roosevelt had lunch at the
White House with Booker T. Washington, the great educator and former
slave, eliciting this comment from the
North Carolina senator Benjamin Tillman: “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will
necessitate our killing a thousand
niggers in the South before they learn
their place again.” This was the world
into which Robeson was born.
Wherever Robeson went, Sparrow
goes too: to Harlem to get a sense of
its all-too-brief Renaissance; to London to see the four-storied mansion
in Hampsted, in which at the crest of
Robeson’s first wave of popularity he
and his wife lived with five liveried
servants; to Spain to see, as Sparrow’s
chapter heading has it, “what Fascism
was.” Going there in 1937 was a fearless, almost reckless, thing for Robeson and his wife to do, but he had to do
it. He had to endorse what he felt was
essentially the same fight he was fighting, the fight for human dignity and
freedom. The night before a big battle,
he addressed the soldiers, and then
he sang, sang himself hoarse, as the
volunteers shouted out their requests;
when he sang “I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” the grizzled commander of
the unit, reported the radical journalist Charlotte Haldane, turned beetroot
red with the effort of fighting down the
Sparrow shows how this admittedly
splendid actor, this marvelous singer,
this charismatic speaker, had somehow
evolved into something more: he had for
many people become the embodiment
of the global longing for a better world,
a juster dispensation. In the radically
polarized pre-war world, this passion-
February 8, 2018
ate commitment led him, inevitably, to
Moscow, where he felt that his visionary ideas had the best chance of becoming reality. Sparrow takes us to the
National Hotel, opposite Red Square,
where Robeson told Eisenstein, “Here,
for the first time in my life, I walk in full
human dignity. You cannot imagine
what that means to me as a Negro,” and
sees with his own eyes why Robeson
might have felt that, in the Moscow of
1935, he was in the promised land.
Sparrow interviews a young black
Russian TV personality now living
in Moscow who has a more complicated story than Robeson’s to tell. Her
grandmother, she tells him, was a white
woman who had married a black man
and come to Russia because they could
scarcely hope to live together in America. “It didn’t work out as we hoped,”
she said, “but the idea, the idea was
He pursues Robeson’s commitment
to that elusive idea. Robeson, it is clear,
knew that his dream was just that: that
the reality was otherwise. But he had to
maintain his faith, otherwise what else
was there? The pressure on him from
all sides, the expectation that he would
somehow find a path through all these
contradictions, may have led to his attempted suicide in the Sovietsky Hotel
in 1961: Sparrow surmises that it may
have directly stemmed from the desperate requests from Robeson’s Russian friends to help them get out of the
nightmarish world they found themselves in. “I am unworthy, I am unworthy,” Robeson gasped, over and over
again, to the maid who discovered him
with slashed wrists on the bathroom
floor. Sparrow convincingly suggests
that his descent into bipolarity and the
subsequent attempts to kill himself (“in
1965 there were more half-hearted suicide attempts,” he reports laconically)
were part of the anguish of his having
failed to square his vision with reality.
In an epilogue that must have been
painful for Sparrow—a man of the
left—to write, he acknowledges that
Robeson’s endorsement of Stalin and
Stalin’s successors, his refusal to acknowledge what had been done in
Stalin’s name, is the tragedy of his life.
And it is a tragedy for us, too, because
Robeson had an almost unique combination of gifts that enabled him to articulate his cause in a way that spoke to
all people. “Every artist, every scientist
must decide NOW where he stands,” he
had said when he returned from Spain.
“He has no alternative. There is no
standing above the conflict on Olympian heights.”
As Sparrow describes it, it is a pitiful spectacle: this heroic figure, striving
for dignity for all of his fellow human
beings, robbed of his own, somehow
baffled and cheated by the world. Sparrow quotes a trade unionist who having met him said: “[Robeson] stands
like a giant, yet makes you feel, without stooping to you, that you too are
a giant and hold the power of making
history in your hands as well.” To which
Sparrow soberly adds: “The disintegration of the movements for which Paul
had been such an icon had left behind a
profound void from which we were yet
to recover. We did not feel ourselves giants; we did not feel capable of making
history.” History, he says, has become
meaningless. “And a figure such as Paul
became almost incomprehensible.” On
the contrary. Sparrow has made perfect
and haunting sense of him.
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Female Trouble
Annette Gordon-Reed
The title of Hillary Clinton’s memoir
of her unsuccessful campaign for the
presidency, What Happened, has no
question mark at the end, although
many people around the world might
reflexively add one. Clinton’s defeat
surprised—stunned—many, including,
as is clear from her recollections, Clinton herself. The majority of polls of
the likely electorate indicated that she
was headed for a nearly certain win, although her prolonged struggle for the
Democratic nomination against a wildhaired, septuagenarian socialist from
Vermont was a blinking sign of danger
ahead. A significant number of voters
were in no mood to play it safe, and the
safe choice was what Clinton far too
confidently offered in both the primaries and the general election.
It was not only the polls that led
observers astray; their instincts did
as well. Many, within and outside the
country, had trouble imagining that the
American people would elect to the
most important position in the land,
perhaps in the world, a man who had
never been elected or appointed to
public office, nor sworn an oath of allegiance to the United States as a member of the armed services, nor shown
any serious interest in public service.
From the time candidates can be said to
have openly campaigned for the office,
those aspiring to the presidency have
touted their possession of these extraconstitutionally mandated qualifications, and all presidents before Donald
Trump had at least one of them. They
are “extraconstitutional” because none
is a requirement for the presidency. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution
lists only three qualifications relevant
to modern times: that the president be
a “natural born citizen,” at least thirtyfive years old, and a resident “within
the United States” for fourteen years.
The historian Jack Rakove observed
that the American presidency “posed
the single most perplexing problem
of institutional design” that the framers faced. “The task of establishing a
national executive on republican principles,” Rakove says, “puzzled” them.1
What kind of executive would be suitable in post-Revolutionary America?
What type and amount of power should
the Constitution give to a person who,
in the absence of a vigilant citizenry,
might begin to act like a king? And
what if the people came to love the
president so much that they did not
mind—perhaps even welcomed—deviations from republican principles?
Despite these reservations, it was
understood by the framers that the
president had to be a powerful figure
who could symbolize the nation. Just
what that meant has been contested.
Rakove’s notion that the substance of
Jack N. Rakove, “The Political Presidency: Discovery and Invention,” in
The Revolution of 1800: Democracy,
Race, and the New Republic, edited by
James J. Horn, Jan Ellen Lewis, and
Peter S. Onuf (University Press of Virginia, 2002).
the presidency had to be “discovered”
and “invented” seems exactly right;
and the process of discovery has continued, with varying results, over the
While adhering to the Constitution’s
minimal qualifications, American
voters have always had the ability to
choose a president who did not fit the
norms as they have evolved. They did
that in spectacular fashion when they
elected a black man, Barack Obama,
to the presidency in 2008. It had long
for women holding office, appointive
or elective. Indeed, when Secretary of
the Treasury Albert Gallatin noticed
a shortage of individuals qualified to
hold office during the second Jefferson
administration, he suggested that the
president consider hiring women. President Jefferson, taking his role as the
symbol of the nation to heart, replied,
“The appointment of a woman to office
is an innovation for which the public is
not prepared, nor am I.”
As things turned out, cultural understandings about the electoral process
in relation to gender were more powThomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
What Happened
by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Simon and Schuster, 494 pp., $30.00
Hillary Clinton on television during her first presidential debate with Donald Trump,
Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York, September 2016
been assumed by most Americans that
being white was a requirement for the
highest office in the land. It would
likely never have occurred to the men
who wrote the Constitution that they
had to specify that the person at the
head of the government of the United
States—and the symbol of the nation—
was to be white. This would have been
a deeply felt cultural understanding,
and cultural understandings can have
significantly more force and staying
power than rules of law.
The framers also likely never
thought to state explicitly that the
president had to be a man. As former
British subjects, they knew it was possible for a woman to head the nation
as queen, when the king had no male
heirs. That did not happen very often,
however, and the American Revolution
got rid of monarchy and the possibility
of queens. Under the new Constitution,
presidents would be elected by qualified voters, who would almost invariably be male. For a brief period in the
early American republic, New Jersey,
in the words of the historian Jan Ellen
Lewis, made the “lonely” decision
to allow single, propertied women to
vote. It was the sole state in which this
Even if there was a narrow and
short-lived precedent for women voting, there is no evidence of enthusiasm
erful than understandings about it in
relation to race. Much to the chagrin—
rage, actually—of many white female
abolitionists and women’s rights activists, the Fifteenth Amendment gave
newly freed black men the right to vote
in 1870. Although cultural understandings that promoted white supremacy interfered with the law for decades (and
continue today in the form of voter
suppression), black men voted and held
office during Reconstruction—Mississippi had two black senators, Louisiana
for a short time had a black governor,
and “an estimated 2,000 black men
served in some kind of elective office
during that era.”3
It was not until 1916 that the first
woman, Jeannette Rankin, was elected
to national office. Rankin was elected
to Congress from Montana. Women in
Wyoming were given the right to vote
in 1869. But women of all races had to
wait until the twentieth century, with
the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, for the constitutional right to
vote. The question of who would go first
in the march of national electoral progress—black men or white women—was
asked again during the 2008 presidential primary contest between Obama
and Clinton. The answer was the same
as it had been in the 1860s.
Clinton writes in the book’s first line,
Jan Ellen Lewis, “Rethinking Women’s Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776–1807,”
Rutgers University Law Review, Vol. 63,
No. 3 (Spring 2011), pp. 1017, 1018.
“This is my story of what happened,”
Eric Foner, “Rooted in Reconstruction,” The Nation, November 3, 2008.
acknowledging that her account of the
2016 election will inevitably be subjective. What Happened is her third
memoir, and with it she defies the conventional wisdom that would suggest
waiting at least a few years after important events to reflect upon them, with
an eye toward gaining the perspective
that distance is said to bring. Clinton’s
choice to write this book now, however,
seems fitting because nearly everything
about the election of 2016 was unconventional. It brought forth the first
woman to mount a serious run for the
presidency, a rival candidate strange
for the reasons listed above (and many
more not listed), and the first inkling
that a new form of technology-based
espionage had been deployed in an
effort to shape the outcome of a US
election. Historians can benefit from
Clinton’s near- contemporaneous consideration of each of these issues. They
will likely find her quick first draft engaging (when she does not lapse into
campaign-speak), witty, and useful,
even as they take note of her natural self-interest in writing about these
What Happened is necessarily about
gender. Clinton’s femaleness mattered
so much to her candidacy—how she
ran, what she could and could not do,
the expectations people had of her,
and the expectations she had for herself—that the subject suffuses even
the chapters in which gender is not explicitly addressed. It could hardly be
otherwise, given the history of women
and electoral politics. In “On Being a
Woman in Politics,” the first chapter
of “Sisterhood,” one of the book’s six
thematic sections, Clinton vents. “In
these pages, I put to paper years’ worth
of frustration about the tightrope that
I and other women have had to walk
in order to participate in American
politics.” There was a basic problem of
which she was well aware:
In short, it’s not customary to have
women lead or even to engage in
the rough-and-tumble of politics.
It’s not normal—not yet. So when
it happens, it often doesn’t feel
quite right. That may sound vague,
but it’s potent. People cast their
votes based on feelings like that all
the time.
Becoming the president of the
United States, Clinton believes, is a
particularly difficult goal for a woman
to achieve. “Women leaders around
the world,” she observes, “tend to rise
higher in parliamentary systems, rather
than presidential ones like ours.” She
may have been influenced by the political scientist Farida Jalalzai, whom
the Atlantic Monthly commentator
Uri Friedman quoted when he wrote,
in a postmortem of Clinton’s campaign, that women “are more likely
to serve as prime ministers than as
presidents, perhaps because in parliamentary systems women can ‘bypass
a potentially biased general public
and be chosen by the party.’” Friedman goes on to suggest that “to win a
national vote in a presidential system,
women must contend more directly,
and on a larger scale, with sexism and
The New York Review
stereotypes.”4 It should not surprise
us that requiring candidates to run as
potential symbols of the nation would
place women at a disadvantage.
The person at the head of the ticket
undoubtedly matters in both parliamentary and presidential systems. But
the person matters more in a system
that encourages voters to fixate on
their instinctive responses to a candidate’s personality, rather than on support for a party and its overall policies.
This effect is amplified by the media’s
tendency to concentrate on personalities over policies, aping the convention
that governs Hollywood’s treatment
of celebrities: a star’s ineffable qualities are more important than his or
her competence as an actor. In such a
system, the candidate must be acceptable—likable—across a wide swath of
the voting population, 5 and capable, in
Clinton’s words, of “speaking to large
crowds, looking commanding on camera, dominating in debates, galvanizing
mass movements, and in America, raising a billion dollars.” It is an enterprise
based on seduction.
Women can obviously do these things,
but how are they received when they do
them effectively? A woman operating
in the US’s political system, as Jalalzai
suggests, will necessarily encounter
age- old understandings about femininity and masculinity that have remained
in place to a greater extent than many
care to acknowledge, and that remain
undisturbed by firsthand experiences
with the candidate. On the other hand,
Clinton says, in parliamentary systems
prime ministers are chosen by
their colleagues—people they’ve
worked with day in and day out,
who’ve seen firsthand their talents
and competence. It’s a system designed to reward women’s skill at
building relationships, which requires emotional labor.
One suspects that Clinton is right in
suggesting that in another place, in another system, her qualities would have
made her the head of her party and, ultimately, prime minister.
Even though it was not the only reason she did not become president—the
media’s excessive focus on her e-mails
and James Comey’s bizarre and devastating actions in the week before the
election both did their part—it matters
greatly to considerations of Clinton’s
loss in 2016 that the United States has
never elected a woman president, and it
is naive to think otherwise. History and
culture tell us why no woman has ever
occupied this office, and why putting a
woman in the country’s ultimate position of power might have been difficult
for a good number of men and women
voters to do—especially for many whites
after the culture-shaking experience of
having had a black president. It is not
just the presidency. According to statistics compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary
Union in 2017, the United States “lags
far behind many countries” in women’s
overall participation in the national government, ranking 101st out of 193.
The US’s lackluster record in electing
women to national public office must
be acknowledged, not just for what it
says about Clinton, but for what it says
about the likely experiences and fortunes of women who run for president
in the future. Even had Clinton won it
would be appropriate to pay attention
to her treatment as a female candidate.
Talking about the part gender played
in her defeat is not to make excuses, as
has been charged whenever the harmful double standards applied to her are
pointed out. And it is far too easy to say
that Clinton was simply the “wrong”
woman, a tactic often employed to
short- circuit discussions about gender
and the election.
There is no reason to doubt that any
woman who had been the first to run for
president with the backing of a major
party would have encountered some
of the gender-based scrutiny Clinton
faced, and that female candidates in the
immediate future will shoulder some
of it as well. The journalist Ezra Klein
has observed that Elizabeth Warren, a
politician very different from Clinton
in style, temperament, and political orientation, has begun to receive the same
kind of gender-based treatment that
Clinton faced. “We routinely underestimate,” he wrote this past fall,
what it means that our political
system has been constructed and
interpreted by men, that our expectations for politicians have been set
by generations of male politicians
and shaped by generations of male
Another journalist, Jill Filipovic,
even more adamantly linked the recent
allegations of sexual misconduct by
various media figures to the presidential campaign:
Many of the male journalists who
stand accused of sexual harassment
were on the forefront of covering
the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Matt Lauer interviewed Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump in an official
“commander-in- chief forum” for
NBC. He notoriously peppered and
interrupted Mrs. Clinton with cold,
aggressive, condescending questions hyper-focused on her emails,
only to pitch softballs at Mr. Trump
and treat him with gentle collegiality a half-hour later. Mark Halperin
and Charlie Rose set much of the
televised political discourse on the
race, interviewing other pundits,
opining themselves and obsessing over the electoral play-by-play.
Mr. Rose, after the election, took
a tone similar to Mr. Lauer’s with
Mrs. Clinton—talking down to
her, interrupting her, portraying
her as untrustworthy. Mr. Halperin
was a harsh critic of Mrs. Clinton,
painting her as ruthless and corrupt, while going surprisingly easy
on Mr. Trump. The reporter Glenn
Uri Friedman, “Why It’s So Hard for
a Woman to Become President of the
United States,” The Atlantic, November 12, 2016.
Clinton won the popular vote by
nearly three million; it was our creaky
eighteenth-century constitutional structure that tripped her up. But the stubborn
chosen narrative, set in stone back in the
1990s, was that, unlike her husband,
Hillary Clinton was not that most prized
thing in American politics: likable.
February 8, 2018
Ezra Klein, “Political Journalism Has
Been Profoundly Shaped by Men Like
Leon Wieseltier and Mark Halperin
and It Matters,” Vox, October 27, 2017.
(HAVANA, 2000)
Tania Bruguera. Untitled (Havana, 2000). 2000. Sugar cane bagasse, video, and live performance. The Museum
of Modern Art, New York.The Modern Women’s Fund and Committee on Media and Performance Art Funds. © 2018
Tania Bruguera. Installation view, VII Bienal de La Habana, 2000. Photo: Casey Stoll
11 West 53 Street, Manhattan
Thrush, currently on leave from
The New York Times because of
sexual harassment allegations, covered Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 campaign
when he was at Newsday and continued to write about her over the
next eight years for Politico.7
These revelations, which also reignited stories of sexual misconduct by
Bill Clinton and by the current president, have made it clear that genderbased negative attitudes and actions
do not just affect the individual women
at whom they are aimed; they impede
the progress of women overall. The
misogyny of major participants who
helped shape the 2016 election must be
a part of any serious historical analysis
of what happened in the campaign.
ther factors—her name, her personal history, and her campaign
strategy—also worked against Clinton. Voters had every right to chafe
at the notion that in a nation so large
and blessed with talent as the United
States, two of the people who emerged
as likely standard-bearers for each
party were named Bush and Clinton.
Jeb Bush, scion of the Bush dynasty,
was quickly dispatched and Hillary
Clinton was left to bear the brunt of
the public’s hostility toward establishment candidates. She had served four
years in the Obama administration in
Jill Filipovic, “The Men Who Cost
Clinton the Election,” The New York
Times, December 1, 2017. Glenn Thrush
has since been reinstated at the Times,
but not on the White House beat.
the high-profile position of secretary of
state and been subjected to harsh criticism for foreign policy blunders, both
real and imagined. Many disaffected
Democrats felt that she was too close to
Wall Street because she took corporate
money and gave speeches before financial institutions, some of whose members now run the financial system of the
United States. In the eyes of a crucial
number of voters, Clinton symbolized
a hated neoliberal status quo.
The status quo for many Americans—leaving aside those who the
journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates persuasively argues wanted to vote for a white
man to uphold white supremacy8 —was
one of economic stagnation, generalized anxiety about the future, and anguish over the loss of young people to
opioid addiction in depressed areas
of the nation. Bernie Sanders, whom
Clinton describes as “outraged about
everything,” and Donald Trump, who
knew how to develop themes on social
media better than all of his competitors, appealed to people who believed
that the country’s future depended on
sharply altering the course of history.
And then there was Clinton’s image
of herself as the meticulous, responsible choice. “Sweating the Details,”
the title of one chapter, is important in
politics, but an inspirational and easily
digestible story is more effective in a
campaign than seeking to impress with
facts and details, as much as we might
wish otherwise. As Mario Cuomo famously said, politicians “campaign in
poetry” but “govern in prose.” Only if
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The First White
President,” The Atlantic, October 2017.
their poetry is good enough will they
be allowed to govern.
Perhaps the most revealing passage
in What Happened is Clinton’s statement that she has “always identified
with the older brother” in the parable
of the Prodigal Son, an admission that
highlights both her Methodism, something she played down during most of
her political career, and her sense of
who she is and how she has been seen:
Indeed. How grating it must have been
after all of her hard work for the Democratic Party, including prodigious fundraising, to be challenged by Sanders, who
after decades in politics joined the party
only during the primaries. How grating
it must have been, after her dutiful care
and attention to policy questions, to lose
the presidency to Trump, who disdained
discussing policy at any level other than
the most general. Dutifulness faltered in
the face of passion:
In my more introspective moments,
I do recognize that my campaign
in 2016 lacked the sense of urgency
and passion that I remember from
’92. Back then, we were on a mission to revitalize the Democratic
Party and bring our country back
from twelve years of trickle- down
economics that exploded the deficit, hurt the middle class, and increased poverty. In 2016, we were
seeking to build on eight years of
progress. For a change-hungry
electorate, it was a harder sell.
More hopeful voters bought it;
more pessimistic voters didn’t.
She is said to have murdered someone—
her husband’s deputy White House counsel, Vincent Foster—and ordered the
executions of others. She has been pronounced “the Antichrist.” Clinton ad-
James Siena
Accordion bound book with 36 woodblock prints,
18 x 14 1/2 inches, Ed. 20
Historically, women haven’t been
the ones writing the laws or leading
the armies and navies. We’re not the
ones up there behind the podium
rallying crowds, uniting the country. It’s men who lead. It’s men who
speak. It’s men who represent us to
the world and even to ourselves.
That’s been the case for so long
that it has infiltrated our deepest
thoughts. I suspect that for many of
us—more than we might think—
it feels somehow off to picture a
woman President sitting in the
Oval Office or the Situation Room.
It’s discordant to tune into a political rally and hear a woman’s voice
booming (“screaming,” “screeching”) forth. Even the simple act of
a woman standing up and speaking
to a crowd is relatively new. Think
about it: we know of only a handful
of speeches by women before the
latter half of the twentieth century,
and those tend to be by women in
extreme and desperate situations.
Joan of Arc said a lot of interesting things before they burned her
at the stake.9
How grating it must have been to
see his wayward sibling welcomed
back as if nothing had happened. It
must have felt as if all his years of
hard work and dutiful care meant
nothing at all.
inally, there is the schizophrenic response to Clinton. Regularly hailed as
one of the most admired women in the
world, she has also been the object of
an intense, unremitting hatred that, for
some, appears to know no boundaries.
6HTXHQFH2QH, 2009–10
And here was this woman, well past the
age of visibility, insisting on being seen
and heard! Journalists spoke of hating
to hear the sound of her voice. Clinton
notes this reaction to her use of the
most primary means by which politicians communicate—speaking:
dresses both of these ways in which she
has been viewed, and is clearly more
perplexed by the hatred than the admiration. What person other than one in
the grip of crippling self- doubt—which
Clinton is definitely not—thinks herself or himself worthy of deep hatred?
One could have been implacably opposed to everything Clinton stands for
and have worked overtime to ensure
her defeat in this past election and in
2008 without actually hating her. Something more is clearly going on here, and
it is not all about her shortcomings
as a politician and a person. Can hating Hillary Clinton as a politician be
separated from hating Hillary Clinton
as a woman? More specifically, in how
many minds were those thoughts separated during the 2016 election?
There is no question that a segment of
the population, male and female, hates
and disrespects women and finds it hard
to take them seriously when they move
outside of traditional roles. This is doubly true of women past a certain age,
who are supposed to become invisible.
One suspects that this kneejerk and,
in most cases, unconscious animosity added an extra measure of feeling
to whatever legitimate policy disputes
many observers had with Clinton—hate
topped off principled opposition. And
this hate seemed to spread over the
course of the campaign to voters and
commentators who would not, perhaps,
have come to hate Clinton on their own.
Because human beings are social creatures, expressions of contempt are hard
to contain in just one individual. People
who do not feel it may try to understand
why others have had such an extreme
and personally debilitating response.
Eventually, they may come to assume
that the object of hatred must deserve it.
Clinton ends her memoir at the place
where her public life began: Wellesley
College, where she famously gave an
address at her commencement in 1969.
Listening to the 2017 Wellesley student
speaker, Tala Nashawati, Clinton is
captivated by the young woman’s comparison of herself and her classmates to
“flawed emeralds” that are often “better than flawless ones” because their
“flaws show authenticity and character.” Authenticity and character are
two attributes that Clinton’s most ardent detractors insist she does not possess, defining her solely in terms of her
flaws. Her joy at Nashawati’s reclamation of the word “flaw” is touching and
instructive. After all this time, Clinton
feels the need to make the case that she
is, after all, a human being.
During her UK book tour, Clinton discussed the campaign in a public conversation with the historian Mary Beard,
whose most recent book, Women and
Power: A Manifesto (Liveright, 2017),
discusses, among other things, the
millennia- old hostility toward women
speaking in public. See “Hillary Clinton Meets Mary Beard: ‘I Would Love
to Have Told Trump: “Back Off, You
Creep,”’” The Guardian, December 2,
The New York Review
Death in Trieste
Neal Ascherson
In a museum of war, a fire breaks out—
or just possibly is ignited by someone—
and kills the museum’s creator. This is
not surprising. He sleeps among his
exhibits in a wooden coffin, wearing a
samurai mask and a Prussian spiked
helmet, and he smokes abundantly,
flicking the butts out of the coffin as he
grows drowsy.
Although he appears and reappears
throughout Blameless, this figure is not
exactly a protagonist. He is certainly
heroic, a human bundle of generous
actions and outbursts to which most
episodes in this novel refer. Claudio
Magris doesn’t give him a name. But
in an author’s note at the end, he lets
it be known that he had a real person
in mind:
also true that the Germans allowed him
to choose an example of each of their
weapons before they handed them over
to the New Zealanders.
This is a war museum like no other.
The black iron hulks of siege guns
are Futurist-sculptural; the intricacies
of a rangefinder or the feed system of
early machine guns are shown as masterpieces of human ingenuity. Beside
them are diagrams of mortality and
money. The Triple Entente and its allies called 48.1 million men to arms in
World War I and lost 5.6 million dead
to do is let time flow backward and
everything is reclaimed.” The “firebreathing objects in the Museum” will
nightmares of a troubled, dispelled
dream, a film projected backward,
beginning with death and destruction and ending with people . . .
ultimately happy and smiling, to
make it clear that death, every
death, comes before life, not after.
At first, it seems curious that Magris
does not give a name to this figure who
is and isn’t Diego de Henriquez. But
Danilo De Marco
by Claudio Magris,
translated from the Italian
by Anne Milano Appel.
Yale University Press, 349 pp., $26.00
Professor Diego de Henriquez, a
brilliant, uncompromising Triestine of vast culture and fierce passion, who dedicated his entire life
(1909–1974) to collecting weapons
and military materiel of all types
to build an original, overflowing
War Museum that might, by displaying those instruments of death,
lead to peace.
Not because the weapons were ugly.
On the contrary, de Henriquez wanted
to show their awful beauty and superb
technical ingenuity, alongside the astronomical sums of money that went
into their construction rather than into
making people healthier or wiser. He
did indeed die in a fire, “in circumstances never wholly clarified,” after he
had spent all his own money on acquisitions and faced impossible debts. But
today, after a generation of neglect, the
city of Trieste has taken over his scattered collection and housed part of it—
death engines of the Great War, which
began for Italy in 1915—in a spacious
new museum on the Via Cumano.
The museum tries to be faithful to
its founder, its “coltissimo e bizarro
ricercatore.” This most cultured and
bizarre researcher must have been impossible to work with, but he was also
impossible to resist. Blameless tells anecdotes about him so extravagant that
I was sure Magris had made them up,
but on a visit to the museum in Trieste I
found that almost all of them were true.
De Henriquez did beg weaponry from
armies on the battlefield, even before
World War II was over. He cajoled them
from the Germans, from Italian arms
factories, from the Yugoslav partisan
armies that briefly occupied Trieste in
1945, from the Allied military government that succeeded them, from local
councils anxious to be rid of the smoking scrap metal blocking their streets.
It’s not fiction but historical truth that,
on his own, de Henriquez negotiated
the final surrender of Trieste’s German
garrison to a New Zealand tank brigade. And General Hermann Linkenbach, the German commander, really
did give him his own braided and beribboned tunic in gratitude (de Henriquez
used to wear it on proud occasions). It’s
February 8, 2018
Claudio Magris at Caffè San Marco, Trieste, 2000; photograph by Danilo De Marco
(the British share of that achievement
alone cost $49 billion).
Beyond the weaponry, to one side,
are the results of all that beauty and
inventiveness and investment: photographs of the torn, headless, helpless
bodies of young men. The thoughts of
Diego de Henriquez are on the walls.
Some, like “War=Death, Peace=Life,”
once the slogan over the entrance, are
straightforward enough. Others, concerning his “International Center for
the Abolition of Wars and for Universal
Brotherhood,” are more challenging.
If there were such a thing as a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize, de Henriquez
should obviously win one. But then it’s
not quite clear that he believed in being
posthumous, because he did not quite
believe in death. He called his museum
“the first center in the world for the
reading and modification of the past,
and of the future through the inversion
of time as a consequence of loosening
space-time in order to abolish evil and
What might this mean? The Trieste
authorities have stuck the proclamation up on the museum wall but don’t
presume to decrypt it. They are spending much time and money and imagination on behalf of this man; they
describe him, beautifully, as “the prisoner of a dream we now wish to make
our own.” But for Magris those words
begin to glow with significance. A novelist knows all about loosening spacetime and inverting the flow of time
to run backward. Magris makes his
de Henriquez character declare that
“death does not exist . . . it is merely
an inverter, a machine that simply reverses life like a glove, but all you have
with this author the namelessness is
not accidental. Magris doesn’t do character, or not in the conventional way.
Many other people in Blameless have
names, and yet the reader is allowed
little sense of what they are like beyond
the odd mention that they have beautiful hands or are putting on weight.
There are detailed accounts of what
they do and—in long, elaborate flights
of discussion and imagery—of what
their experiences do to them. We learn
a lot about them, but there’s no attempt
to set up what most fiction sets up: the
illusion of recognizing a real person.
Perhaps Magris has in mind Muriel
Spark’s darkly theological warning that
the novelist commits the worst of mortal sins against God by creating human
beings without the capacity to redeem
revolves around the city
of Trieste, the town of Italo Svevo and
James Joyce to which Magris also belongs. Trieste is a small but ancient
Adriatic city, liminal between several
worlds. It was once the main port and
naval base of the Austro-Hungarian
Empire; today, it perches on a spit of
Italian territory fenced in between the
Slovenian frontier and the sea. From its
Habsburg, Slav, and Italian background
grew a diverse population with a gift for
backing swaggering losers and then for
adjusting loyalty to the next conqueror.
The main action of the novel takes
place between the Fascist 1930s and the
city’s liberation in 1945, concentrating
on the years of German-inflicted terror at the end of the war. After Italy’s
surrender in 1943, the northern shores
of the Adriatic, including Trieste, were
directly annexed to the Reich and occupied by the Wehrmacht and the SS,
which established the only Nazi concentration camp on Italian soil.
The Risiera in Trieste was an old
brick rice mill, today a museum.
There—while most Italians looked the
other way—German and Ukrainian
guards murdered some three to five
thousand people by gas chamber, firing
squad, and wooden bludgeon. Their
victims were members of the Italian
resistance, civilian hostages, Slovene
nationalists and partisans, and patients
from mental hospitals. (That is not
counting the Jews of Trieste and the
Veneto. The Risiera men killed only a
few dozen of them, herding the rest into
trains bound for Auschwitz-Birkenau.)
Human ash and bone from the crematorium ovens were dumped in an inlet
of the Adriatic, where they still coat the
sea floor.
In that period, many important people in Trieste behaved in ways they later
preferred to forget. Postwar officialdom saw their point. The Italian title
of this novel is Non luogo a procedere
(No Grounds for Further Proceedings): this was the welcome conclusion
of the magistrate appointed to investigate allegations of collaboration with
mass murder at the Risiera. The recent
past had not only to be forgotten. It was
necessary to forget that you had even
forgotten. As Magris puts it, “not . . .
oblivion, but . . . oblivion of oblivion.”
In the novel, that is exactly what the
museum founder tries to reverse at the
end of his life. As the real de Henriquez
did, he goes to the Risiera as soon as
the slaughterers have left and finds
the walls covered with thousands of
scratched and scribbled graffiti, the last
messages of those who knew they were
about to die and—often enough—the
names of those individuals in Trieste
who denounced them to the Gestapo.
He copies all the inscriptions down in
notebooks, partly as an “inverter” to
bring the dead back to life and partly
because he anticipates what did in reality happen.
Someone in the Trieste police, whose
leaders had collaborated comfortably
with the Nazis, had the walls rapidly
and thickly whitewashed. The oblivion of oblivion. But the notebooks remained. In the novel, they disappear
after the curator’s death in further
“circumstances never wholly clarified.”
In the Via Cumano museum, though,
all de Henriquez’s notebooks are preserved: 287 volumes, containing 38,000
pages of close, neat writing and drawings. (Some of the prisoners drew faces
of women and portraits of their SS
guards on those walls, and he copied
them as well as the graffiti.)
It’s an attractive trait in Magris that
he so obviously can’t resist a good
story. He seems to collect them from
all over the world, sometimes from
neglected archives or forgotten books,
sometimes from contemporary media
or chance conversations. The peculiar
structure of Blameless reflects this: a
string on which powerful stories hang
loosely threaded like beads. The string
is the tale of the museum founder, his
he courtship and contentment of Luisa’s father and mother are beautifully
told by Magris. They are both, as he
puts it, singing “the songs of Zion in a
strange land,” and yet they do not allow
grim events—his sister is set upon in a
London pub because of her skin color
and kicked to death—to dismay them.
He explains to his small daughter that
she is named after another Luisa. This
is the legendary Luisa de Navarrete,
a freed slave who was abducted from
Puerto Rico in the 1580s by Carib raiders from Dominica.
Here begins another elaborate
Magris “true story,” all about ambiguous identity and cover-up. Over years
of exile, this Luisa assimilates with
her captors and adopts the ways of the
Kalinago tribe, becoming the passionate mistress of their chief. But on her
return, she is arraigned and threatened
with death as a pagan witch; to survive,
she invents a narrative of ceaseless torment by her kidnappers and rape by
FriĀ reappears later in Blameless.
But now it is the 1940s, and he is a sick
old man dying among his rotting cactus
collection in Prague during the Nazi occupation. This allows Magris to recount
at length the assassination of Reinhard
Heydrich, the merciless Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, and the
tragedies that followed. First, the heroic death of his killers, cornered in a
Prague church crypt, and then—following Hitler’s order to “shoot ten
thousand Czechs” in retribution for
Heydrich’s death—the extermination
of the village of Lidice and its inhabitants. The only act of resistance by FriĀ
has been to put some cacti behind the
benches in the Waldstejn Gardens, “so
that German soldiers, when they go
there with Czech girls, might maybe get
pricked in the ass.” He expires fancy-
first miracle of healing. But meanwhile,
the two journalists who had first broken the Schimek story, an Austrian and
a German, did more research and developed doubts. There was no evidence
that Schimek had refused to shoot anyone. But there was evidence that he
had deserted and had been caught by
the Feldgendarmerie in a Polish street,
dressed in civilian clothes with a loaf of
bread under his arm.
A mudslide of hate fell on the researchers who had changed the story.
They were sullying a hero of faith,
truth, and love; they were cynical intellectuals, probably Communists, almost
certainly Jews. But in the Trieste museum, Luisa still wonders which version
is true. Perhaps, she reflects, truth is a
sort of landmine that
Danilo Faita/Diego de Henriquez War Museum for Peace, Trieste
visions and passions, and his end. But
the beads?
After twice reading Blameless, it was
still not easy to see how these stories—
in themselves often marvelously vivid
and ironic—relate in any direct way to
the narrative of the war museum and
its obsessed director. True, they deal
very broadly with some of his themes:
deceit and cover-ups, the ghastly ambiguities of war and of those chosen to be
its heroes, the sense of exile that never
leaves those who have been persecuted
because of their race, the loneliness of
difficult individuals driven by the need
to find and publish the truth. But the
reader may come to feel—and I think
that it should be a warmly sympathetic
feeling—that Magris was bursting with
stories simply too good not to tell and
dropped them into the mix, trusting, as
writers do, that they would somehow
work their way into being (those boring
words) “appropriate” or “relevant.”
Luisa’s story is not like the others, in
that it recurs in installments throughout the novel, in a sort of counterpoint
to the tale of the tragic collector himself. She is introduced at the beginning
as an administrator, appointed by the
city to plan the new museum and bring
together all the weapons and vehicles
and papers that have lain scattered in
hangars and sheds and backyards during the decades since the collector’s
death. But her own life, her own past,
turns out to be a journey across familiar Magris themes: the cover-up of evil
and the transit between identities.
Luisa is the daughter of two racial
outsiders who had a brief, loving marriage. Her father was a black American
soldier from a Creole- Caribbean background who was posted to Trieste. Her
mother, Sara, was a Triestine Jew, saved
as a child because her own mother,
Deborah, hid her with a Slovene family
on the Istrian coast. Returning after the
war, Sara finds that her beloved mother
had been seized on the street and sent
to her death, along with most of the
other Jewish families and those who
tried to save them.
But as Sara grows up, she realizes
that there is embarrassed evasion
around her mother’s fate. Something
terrible is being covered up. There are
sudden silences, awkward changes of
subject, and then, finally, a screaming
outburst from a survivor. How was it
that, a few days after Deborah’s arrest,
the Germans raided the house where
she had been hiding and took away to
their deaths all the other Jews there
and the Italian lawyer who had been
sheltering them?
Nothing is certain. But Sara’s life enters a long darkness: “How she envied
that gift that seemed given to others, to
so many others, to almost everybody;
the ability to forget, or at least to live as
though you had forgotten.” The darkness is lifted by her happy marriage
to the American soldier—two people
whose races leave them with an inescapable sense of exile—but falls again
when he is killed in an airfield accident.
Luisa, their daughter, is doubly bereaved. Their very happiness excluded
her, and as a young woman she knows
that she will never find her own way
into such certainty of love.
Diego de Henriquez with a German Marder tank destroyer that he acquired in 1946;
the photograph was taken in Trebiciano, near Trieste, in 1971
their chief, and pleads—dishonestly
but successfully—that all she has ever
wanted is to be a Christian “good wife.”
Now her namesake, in her museum office, is wondering where to display a
Chamacoco war club from Paraguay.
This diverts the novel off into the
long, tangled story of Alberto Vojtėk
FriĀ, the historical Czech botanist and
ethnologist who assembled the world’s
first serious collection of cacti and gave
his heart to the Chamacoco people in
the Paraguay rainforest. FriĀ brought
one of them, the princely Cherwuish,
to Prague, where he became a fashionable sensation—this was in 1908—
and was whirled from writers’ cafés
to avant-garde theaters without really
understanding the voyeurism of his
audiences. Jaroslav Hašek met the
original Cherwuish, now nicknamed
“ÿerviĀek,” and found his Prague adventures entertaining enough to write
a story about him.
But in Magris’s version, at least,
ÿerviĀek’s bewilderment began to turn
violent and he ran increasingly wild,
fighting the Habsburg gendarmerie
in the street and leaping onstage at a
Yiddish theater performance that he
mistook for a tribal dance party. FriĀ
eventually took him home to South
America. In the novel, Cherwuish vanishes in the carnage of the Chaco War,
the meaningless struggle between Bolivia and Paraguay that Magris describes
in pages of horrible eloquence, war’s
madness as seen through the doomed
Cherwuish’s imagination. (Historically,
Cherwuish took no part in that war, but
lived on for many years as an elder respected for his strange experiences.)
ing that he is changing into one of his
own cacti, which in turn resembles Hitler’s face: “prickly spines, the Führer’s
mustache—I can make him die, the
cancer is spreading and has completely
invaded me, I am him and I’ll let myself
die, and him with me.”
ambiguous death that is
either heroic or heroically unheroic,
depending on which you want to believe, is that of Private Otto Schimek,
a young Austrian conscript in World
War II. The excuse that Magris finds
for retelling this rather well-known
mystery is the sight of a German MP-44
machine pistol hanging on the museum
wall. This represents either the gun
that young Schimek laid down when he
refused to join a firing squad to shoot
Polish hostages or the gun that he threw
away when he decided to become a deserter. Whichever he did, he was shot
for it in November 1944 by Feldgendarmerie military police, near the village
of Machowa in Nazi-occupied Poland.
That much is agreed. So is the fact
that Schimek thought the war was
wrong and un-Christian. Nothing else
is certain. Magris skillfully ventriloquizes the voices of journalists, historians, priests, and politicians in the
miserable controversy that broke out
later. Church and state in Poland, supported by Pope John Paul II and the
Austrian chancellor, set about recruiting him as a noble martyr for peace and
Poland and a candidate for sainthood.
Pilgrimages to his grave began (it has
since been found to contain someone
quite different), and soon there was a
begins by destroying others and
ends up destroying itself; it knocks
the pedestal out from under an
idol, and crash-bang! the idol falls,
but then it smashes the plinth on
which the pedestal rested . . . until
the ground all around caves in and
even the truth is sent flying.
And Magris makes one of the researchers say that
instead of photographs and begonias, they should just place a nice
big loaf of bread on that grave in
Machowa. . . . He deserves it, the
glory, because of that loaf. . . . Real,
tangible, something you can chew
and put in your mouth or maybe
even give a piece to another starving man, never mind plaques and
songs and medals, bread is bread.
It was inevitable that Magris—a
pied piper of fiction—would lead his
mesmerized readers a few miles out
of Trieste to the white walls of Miramare. The little palace leaning over
the sea was built in 1856 by Archduke
Maximilian, brother of the Austrian
emperor, for his young bride Charlotte,
daughter of the king of the Belgians.
But it is Maximilian’s pathetic decision
to become emperor of Mexico, only to
die before a firing squad at Querétaro,
that Magris wants to imagine. That,
and Maximilian’s discovery of a new
species of bedbug, which opens into a
witty, leisurely Magrisian disquisition
on bedbugs and their remarkable agility. Mention of the castle then evokes
another “memory”: a drunken orgy in
April 1945 as the Nazi and Fascist rulers
of Trieste, knowing that defeat and retribution are only days away, celebrate
Hitler’s last birthday at Miramare.
There are many other anecdotes
rattling or jingling on this long, heavy
necklace of a book. Sometimes Claudio
Magris’s prose can seem self-indulgent,
overweight with its endless aphorisms
and recondite allusions. But in the end
Blameless, wonderfully translated by
Anne Milano Appel, succeeds as a
prayer for mercy and reason in a world of
torturers and whitewashers. And Magris
can, when he wants, write with the economy of a master artist. Here is Luisa’s
mother, locked into her own despair:
Life is out there, what you catch
sight of when the windshield wiper
momentarily clears the glass obscured by rain or snow.
If you can wait for epiphanies in this
novel, you will find them.
The New York Review
The Pencil of Nature
Andrew Motion
Andy Goldsworthy
Ephemeral Works 2004 –2014
by Andy Goldsworthy.
Abrams, 367 pp., $85.00
by Andy Goldsworthy.
Abrams, 367 pp., $85.00
February 8, 2018
It’s easy to see why critics in the past
have sometimes described this flurry of
busyness as childlike: there’s a youthful
restlessness about it, and also a primitive pleasure in traipsing off into the
wilds and just mucking about. Goldsworthy used to resist this characterization, but later came to accept it as
a form of praise. “Since I have had my
own children,” he told the London Observer in 2007,
and seen how intensely a child
looks at things, you really can’t
describe that looking as naive. My
work is childlike in the sense that I
am never satisfied to look at something and say that is just a pond or
a tree or whatever. I want to touch
it, get under the skin of it somehow,
try and work out exactly what it is.
‘Icicles Frozen to Icicles. Midday Sun Warming the Bank Above Where I Worked.
Causing Some Ice to Melt and Fall. Continued to Freeze in the Shadows.
Cold Overnight. Still Intact the Following Day. Collapsed Two Days Later.
Dumfriesshire, Scotland. 8 January 2010’; photograph by Andy Goldsworthy
Andy Goldsworthy
The British artist Andy Goldsworthy,
who first made a name for himself in
the early 1980s, has always been most
strongly associated with the land art
practitioners of his own and the previous
generation. Although other figures haunt
the outer ring of his inspiration (Brancusi with his smooth forms, Matisse with
his flowing cut-out lines), Goldsworthy’s
most obvious affinities are with his fellow British earth-inscriber Richard
Long and with Americans of the 1960s
such as Robert Smithson (whose signature work Spiral Jetty uses more than six
thousand tons of black basalt to form a
counterclockwise coil that runs from the
Rozel Point peninsula into the Great
Salt Lake in Utah) or Michael Heizer
(whose Double Negative consists of two
enormous trenches cut into the eastern
edge of the Mormon Mesa in Nevada).
But whereas these artists have long
been embraced by the academy and
honored with museum exhibitions,
Goldsworthy’s reputation has always
depended on a more popular kind of
support. His books—including A Collaboration with Nature (1990), Stone
(1994), Wood (1996), Time (2000),
Passage (2004), Enclosure (2007), and
many others—sell as Christmas presents, and not just in museum shops.
He is much celebrated in the Yorkshire
Sculpture Park but only recently did
any of his work make it into the Tate. As
a result, the idea has taken root in some
quarters that his art might be a bit too
likable for its own good and excessively
straightforward in its consideration of
how the human species does and does
not connect with the environment.
Is this suspicion simply a form of
snobbism? Two enormous and beautifully produced new volumes representing Goldsworthy’s recent activities offer
the chance to find out. One, Ephemeral
Works, contains a photographic record
of what Goldsworthy considers to be
the two hundred “most significant”
fleeting and/or small works he made
between 2004 and 2014. These range
from creations shown in the book’s
two opening photographs—one taken
in early spring of a hazel tree in which
a couple of branches have been neatly
“smeared with black earth,” and one
taken near the start of summer of the
same tree with the same branches now
“rubbed with chalk”—to a concluding
picture of the jagged stump of an ash
tree, crowned (or maybe wounded) by
Goldsworthy with spikes of ice.
Between these images, on page after
lusciously presented page, we find a
multitude of other photographs that
address themes the book jacket handily
identifies as “materiality, temporality,
growth, vitality, permanence, decay,
chance, labor, and memory.” They include images of rocks in a waterfall
on which Goldsworthy has plastered
patterns of gaudily green sycamore
leaves, hawthorn trees from which he
has dangled rickety structures made
of nettle stalks, sidewalks in New York
impressive is the range of materials
that Goldsworthy uses: wind-fallen
branches, lumps and smearings of clay,
rugged boulders, and found objects
such as a hawser, barbed wire, and
gloves find their way into these works,
alongside more predictable items such
as stones from walls and roof slates.
‘Sycamore Leaves Edging the Roots of a Sycamore Tree. Berrydown Foundation,
Hampshire. 1 November 2013’; photograph by Andy Goldsworthy
on which he has splashed gutter water,
lines of snow on a hillside that he has
photographed as they melt, whiplashes
of kelp he has tossed into the air and
photographed as they coiled and scribbled against a gray sky, and icicles he
has broken and reconstructed to form
various snaky or starburst shapes.
The sheer number of these works
seems to bear out the publisher’s claim
that Goldsworthy creates something
“on an almost daily basis,” now most
commonly around his home in the vil-
lage of Penpont, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, where he settled in 1986. It is well
worth saying, therefore, that Ephemeral Works is among other things a
monument to an extraordinarily active
physical and mental engagement with
circumstance. So too, at a necessarily slower pace, is the companion volume Projects, which provides a record
of forty-four larger-scale works, most
of which involved a great deal more
preparation and effort, and have been
produced mainly since 2010. Equally
These remarks are a useful entry
point for thinking about Goldsworthy’s Ephemeral Works. On the one
hand they catch his commitment to the
value of looking as an end in itself; on
the other, they register his hunger to engage with difficult themes that might lie
beneath the superficial beauties of the
world. But does the book realize this
dual ambition? It’s oddly difficult to
give a settled answer, because many of
the qualities that distinguish his work—
its energy, in particular—mean that we
look at each creation knowing that another one is waiting for us just around
the corner. This means that we feel continually hurried on from page to page,
with a voice in our ear saying, “Or you
might prefer this next one instead.”
Goldsworthy’s work is in some respects reminiscent of the poems of Ted
Hughes: it’s convulsively spontaneous,
endlessly enthusiastic about natural
forms, and extraordinarily prolific.
To the extent that these things make
us think about Goldsworthy’s major
themes—flow, change, mortality itself—all well and good. But, as with
Hughes, they can also make us feel the
work is too provisional, that it is content
merely to take a stab at something and
might actually be rather complacent
about the ideas Goldsworthy wants to
persuade us he takes urgently.
Given this, it’s helpful to see what recurring patterns emerge from the swirl
of his ephemeral creations, and ask if
they provide his work with a foundational solidity. There is the pattern of
his material, of course—those many
natural ingredients that flagrantly express the fragility of existence. There is
also the pattern of his shapes, which are
generally less specific in their value, but
which for this reason are possibly more
significant in their effect. One shape
that recurs very strikingly through the
book, so that it might be considered
a kind of punctuation mark, is that of
Goldsworthy’s own body—left on a
road surface, a forest path, a boulder, a
n works such as these, the paradoxes of Goldsworthy’s vision (which
are preserved for us by a mechanical
means—photography—that is itself
paradoxically at odds with the material it represents) are tense and alive.
But they are not presented with equal
strength in all the photographs included
in Ephemeral Works. Several feel saccharine or kitschy (“Wet, yellow elm
leaves. Laid around a smooth, barkless,
dark, wet, fallen elm tree. Dumfriesshire,
Scotland. November 2011”); others seem
insufficiently proofed against ironical
mockery (a photo sequence of the artist burrowing through a line of hay); still
others seem conceptually slight (that
kelp flying through the air).
This probably explains why Goldsworthy’s reputation is reckoned by
some to be less secure than Richard
Long’s, and why the Tate took such a
long time to acquire any of his work (although it now has several photographs).
The plain fact of the matter is that in
Ephemeral Works, as well as in previous books, Goldsworthy comes across
as an artist of uneven quality—bold in
conception and dramatically engaged
with the battle between opposites when
at his best; inconsequentially glib and
decorative at his worst.
How do these strengths and weaknesses show up in Projects? The majority of the works in this companion
volume use the same or similar material (boulders, cut stone, clay, parts of
trees); they explore a similar range of
organic shapes (spheres, zigzag lines,
cairns); they examine the relationship
between Goldsworthy’s interventions
and whatever landscape in which they
are placed; and they echo the “rain
shadows” in a series of “Sleeping
Stones,” which are smooth and shallow
hollows carved out of a cut-stone foundation block and made to fit Goldsworthy’s body. Here, though, we notice a
difference from the ephemeral work.
In every one of the “rain shadows”
Goldsworthy’s physical form is briefly
preserved with his arms raised from his
sides and his feet apart; in the “Sleeping Stones” he is compressed, arms
down and feet together. The effect is
to make us think less about the snow
angels that children like to make and
more about corpses in burial chambers.
This is a significant shift, and forms a
part of the generally darker vision that
appears throughout Projects. Maybe
this increase in gravity is simply a product of Goldsworthy’s advancing age
and the inevitably clearer view he now
has of his own grave. But it’s also the
case that in recent years he has suffered
the loss of both parents (in one of the
ephemeral pieces we see him casting
his father’s ashes), and also the death
in a car accident of his first wife and
the mother of his children, the sculptor
Judith Gregson. None of these events
is dwelled upon in the lengthy interview with his present partner, the art
historian Tina Fiske, that serves as a
preface to Projects, but it’s impossible
not to speculate about their effect on
the work—as well as the effect of the
lingering trauma caused by the early
death of his sister-in-law, which he
has sometimes described as the event
that confirmed his obsession with “the
permanence of temporary objects and
the temporality of permanent objects.”
Goldsworthy’s engagement with mortality is simply more somber now than
previously. It is more graphic in its investigation of themes to do with shelter and burial, alongside those to do
with decay, flow, and growth that have
shaped his thinking from the beginning.
Culvert Cairn (2013), in California,
seems central to this development.
Goldsworthy describes it in the brief
text accompanying his photographs of
the work as “the most technically and
physically challenging project represented in this publication,” and the pictures themselves give a good sense of
what he means. At the outset we see an
unpromising jumble of rocks surrounding a couple of corrugated iron pipes
that jut out from beneath a road circling a hillside and incompetently carry
a stream. These are followed by other
pictures of the site being cleared and a
round chamber being constructed from
beautiful Greywacke sandstone that
Goldsworthy describes as “extremely
hard to cut but also prone to fracture,”
then yet more pictures, this time of a sixfoot-high cairn made of the same mateAndy Goldsworthy
pavement, or a fallen tree trunk when
he lies down at the beginning of a rain
shower, and which then remains as a
ghostly print when he stands up again,
until the falling rain or some kind of
traffic obliterates it.
These “rain shadows” form an interesting counterpart to the figures
created by his contemporary Antony
Gormley. Gormley’s self-images are
placed in a variety of settings—on
rooftops, in cathedral crypts, along
seashores—to insist on their isolation
and vulnerability even while making
us feel how substantial they are. Goldsworthy’s insert themselves into a scene
to raise similar questions about transience and integration. They also force
us to consider the relationship of the
lines created by his anatomy to other
lines that exist in the natural or urban
scene surrounding them. In the end,
they make us think that human beings
only find their place in the scheme of
things with difficulty, and, even when
they do, make an awkward fit.
In this respect, the human lines share a
common purpose with all the other lines
that Goldsworthy directs us to consider:
the straight lines of his sticks and stalks,
for instance, which cut through a landscape, or a tree shape or a stream that
insists on bending. Or the jagged lines
of his icicles remade into zigzags, which
are arranged against a background of
gentler or simpler shapes. Or the snaking lines of his beech leaves when they
are woven into a long and sinuous
strand that wanders and ripples along
the broader current of a stream. Each of
these forms is in some way at odds with
its setting—seeking to become a part of
it, often in fact derived from it, but incapable of doing more than pass through it.
In other words, Goldsworthy’s most
powerful images embody a series of
linked paradoxes. They recognize the
inevitability of decay while making a
plea for fixity; they celebrate surfaces
while discovering whatever it is that
surfaces conceal; and they enjoy a
moment of belonging that they admit
cannot last. His works that include
spherical holes of one kind or another
are especially important in this connection, because they create an idea of
completion (roundedness) even while
they make us think about extinction.
The work called Black Earth Stone
(July 2005), for instance, consists of an
almost perfectly round black ball set
among stones on a beach in Martha’s
Vineyard. It is at one and the same time
an artifact made of natural things that
has been set among other natural things
and a terrifying little shocker. Much the
same goes for the hummock hole of Hay
Field (March 2009), made in the long
grass of a Scottish hayfield flattened by
wind and rain. The swirl of grass stems
around the opening and the darkness
of the interior of the hole as it appears in
a wide sea of grassy greenness no sooner
raise thoughts about playful pastoral hiding places and creaturely burrows than
they replace them with entirely dreadful
notions. The twisting grass around the
hole is like the swirl of water in a basin
that drains down to the Everlasting.
‘Five Storm-Damaged Branch Throws.
Sycamore. Chestnut. Beech. Scots Pine.
Oak. Berrydown Foundation,
Hampshire. 28 October 2013’;
photograph by Andy Goldsworthy
rial being nested inside the chamber. The
series closes with pictures of the stream
deluging onto and around the cairn.
all Goldsworthy’s best work,
Culvert Cairn amounts to a tightly constructed maze of paradoxes. The cairn
is what it is, but equally and obviously
mysterious: Is it solid or is it filled with
life? It is a product of very hard work
that merits exposure and commendation, but is also hidden—not just in an
out- of-the-way spot under a lonely road
but also, after rainfall, by the torrent
that gushes over it. The associations
of its shape are largely benign or even
life-affirming (it is a kind of egg), but
also sinister—it is like the pod of an
alien species, possessing who knows
what powers. It is set in a location that
should require usefulness (the control
of floods, support of a road as it passes
over a stream) but seems to exist purely
as the embodiment of an enigmatic
kind of value—namely beauty.
The same kind of tensions appear
in a number of the other photograph
clusters in Projects. In Refuges des
Arbes (2008) a substantial oak bough
is tightly contained in a coffin-like box
made of slate. In Stone Sea (at the St.
Louis Art Museum, 2012), nineteen
severely hunched limestone arches are
squeezed into the “awkward space”
created when a new extension was made
to the museum by the British architect
David Chipperfield. In Coppice Room
(2010), undertaken for the Jupiter Artland Foundation in Edinburgh, 120 sycamore tree trunks are fixed vertically
from floor to ceiling “and positioned so
that they became more closely packed
toward the far end wall.”
In such snippets of commentary that
Goldsworthy provides to accompany his
images, he is usefully informative about
facts and figures and materials, but less
articulate about intentions and effects.
About Coppice Room, for instance,
he says: “People are able to walk into
the room, through the trees, until they
can progress no further, making the
relatively small space feel almost endless.” What he might equally well have
said, and does not, is that the increasingly crowded-together tree trunks create a human cut- off point, a lostness
and a blockedness. In one sense this
reluctance to say more than he does is
not surprising: Why should—and how
can—artists of any kind say what their
work is meant to achieve? In another respect the reticence is revealing, because
it alerts us to a quality in Goldsworthy’s
work that is precisely to do with things
being unsaid, or unsayable.
Goldsworthy hinted at this in Rivers
and Tides, the excellent documentary
Thomas Riedelsheimer made about his
work in 2001 (a second documentary by
him, Leaning into the Wind, will be released in the US this March). “There’s
a world,” Goldsworthy told his invisible
inquisitor, “beyond what words can define for me. Words do their job, but what
I’m doing here”—which in the film is
throwing handfuls of ground-up ironstone into a river, and watching it stain
the current red—“says a lot more.” Says
without speech, that is. Says by purely
being, or purely doing. Says in the mute
voice of the cairn under the stream flow,
or the oak bough in its box, or the beech
trunks in their shed—or the glacial rock
contained in a section of wall in a forest
in New Hampshire, in the piece called
Watershed Boulder (2015).
Moving as these wordless works are,
their power is confirmed and elaborated
in Projects by others that appear to be
in dialogue with them. Two striking examples of this are Five Men, Seventeen
Days, Fifteen Boulders, One Wall (2010)
and Wood Line (2011). The latter lays
a snaking trail made of 113 sections of
eucalyptus logs through the Presidio of
San Francisco, and the former (which in
this respect is akin to a well-known earlier piece by Goldsworthy called Storm
King Wall, which was built between
1997 and 1998) consists of an undulating wall that ripples around boulders at
the Storm King Art Center in New York
State. Both pieces comprehend the sense
of finality and enclosure that Goldsworthy creates in Coppice Room and elsewhere, but both show his human-made
line wriggling past obstacles so that it
can insist on the possibility of escape or
even freedom. They are, in their qualified way, works that are as optimistic as
those dealing with confinement and ending are bleak and suffocating.
They are also works that impressively
extend the expression of themes that
have obsessed Goldsworthy from the
beginning of his career. At the same
time as they let us hear the silence produced by the deadlocked confrontation
of equally weighed and weighted opposites, they allow the earth to have its
say. Not just by giving close attention to
small and insignificant-seeming things
such as thorns and leaves and nettles
and petals, but by embracing the fact
of their own transience while also reminding us that everything in nature
involves a past and future, as well as the
present in which we regard it.
The New York Review
Lebanon: About to Blow?
Janine di Giovanni
February 8, 2018
Yemen, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels
are fighting against forces loyal to the
government of President Abdrabbuh
Mansour Hadi, which is supported by
Saudi Arabian air strikes. The conflict
has created a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in which, according to the
UN, a child dies every ten minutes. In
early November, a missile was fired by
Yemen’s armed Houthi group toward
Riyadh and intercepted en route by the
Saudis. A second balistic missile fired
by the Houthis later that month was
also brought down. This was clearly a
message from Iran; the Yemenis are
not likely to possess such sophisticated
nity in exile. In Ouiza, they spin out
their days in boredom and confusion.
Ismail, at thirty, is the oldest of the
group and tells me that when he does
work as a laborer in the nearby town
of Sidon, he can earn about 50,000
Lebanese pounds (approximately $30)
in two days—only enough to cover the
cost of a doctor’s visit for his kids, who
often get sick. The last time he went to
pick up a prescription, a group of Lebanese men taunted him with “Nique ta
mère”—Fuck your mother—and threw
stones at him.
When I visited in October, it was
olive season. Many of the children were
abandoned buildings on the outskirts
of towns, or even unheated garages.
Anyone can just drive in.
There is special concern about children who have grown up in refugee
settlements and do not remember the
old life in Homs, Aleppo, or Hama.
“Many of these kids don’t know what
Syria is or where they come from,” says
Jassen, a twenty-seven-year-old refugee from Raqqa whom I met in Tripoli.
“They don’t know the flag, or the country.” During a visit to an outdoor “shift
school,” I saw Syrian preschoolers being
taught to draw a Syrian flag. Khalil el
Helou, a retired Lebanese general, told
me that he feared these children could be easily recruited.
“Imagine a young Syrian, eight
years old. If he lives like this for
ten more years, imagine him at
eighteen. If they are not contained in Lebanon,” he added,
“they will be more dangerous on
the streets of Manhattan.”
Patricia Khoder, a journalist
with L’Orient Le Jour, a Beirut
daily, has expressed other reasons for Lebanese antipathy to
refugees. “Look—we had thirty
years of Syrian occupation,”
she said, referring to the Syrian
troops that were sent to protect
Christians during the civil war
but overstayed their welcome
by decades. At one point, President Hafez al-Assad even sent
his son, Bashar, to oversee the
Syrian forces in Lebanon. The
Syrians did not leave until after
Rafik Hariri’s assassination in
2005. Khoder likens the current
refugee crisis to an imaginary
scenario in postwar France. If
20 million German refugees had descended on Paris in the aftermath of
the Nazi occupation, she tells me, “I
don’t think the French would have accepted that. How can we?”
Last summer, a video went viral of a
group of Lebanese men, since detained,
who physically and verbally assaulted a
Syrian refugee called Uklah from Deiral-Zour in eastern Syria, demanding
that he renounce his country and ISIS.
The BBC reported a “voice note” that
was widely shared on WhatsApp calling on Lebanese to “beat Syrians.”
These events are not uncommon. They
illustrate a recent rise in crimes and
hate speech directed at refugees, who
have become scapegoats for a variety
of Lebanese grievances. A Lebanese
businessman named Alan Bey compared them to Mexican-Americans:
“They work hard and do the work the
Lebanese don’t want to do, but they get
blamed for everything.”
Much of the hatred has been stirred
up by the conniving foreign minister,
Gebran Bassil, who in October famously said, “Yes, we are racist Lebanese,” adding, “and at the same time,
we are open to the world, and no one
has the right to lecture us about being
humanitarian.” This was a jab at European countries that have taken a fraction of the refugees that Lebanon has.
Bassil is forty-seven and the son-inlaw of President Michel Aoun, a former
Lebanese army general. He is the leader
of the Free Patriotic Movement, also
known as the Aounist Party, the largest
Jerome Sessini/Magnum Photos
Lebanon is a tiny country, with a population of around six million; it could
fit neatly between Philadelphia and
Danbury, Connecticut. It has survived
many crises over the past several decades: a brutal civil war from 1975 to
1990 that left 100,000 dead, a string
of political assassinations since 2004
whose perpetrators have gone unpunished, and occupations by Israel and
Syria. But Lebanon’s resilience is fraying. Its infrastructure is badly damaged and unemployment is high. It is
also struggling to accommodate a large
refugee population—500,000 Palestinians, many descended from those
who fled the 1948 Arab-Israeli
war, and nearly 1.5 million Syrians, a majority of them Sunni
Most of the Syrian refugees I
met in Lebanon do not want to
be there—or in Turkey, Jordan,
Iraq, or Egypt. They are fleeing
intense fighting, ethnic cleansing, starvation, chemical attacks,
and Russian air strikes that devastated Aleppo and other rebelheld areas. It is clear that they
are not welcome in Lebanon,
where they are increasingly seen
as disrupting the country’s delicate sectarian balance among
Shia Muslims, Druze, and
Christians and as vulnerable to
Islamist radicalization.
Lebanon’s most recent crisis
was the sudden resignation of
Prime Minister Saad Hariri on
November 4 during a visit to
Saudi Arabia. His announcement, in which he explained that
he was afraid for his life, surprised even his closest advisers
and rattled the country. He has since returned to Lebanon and has suspended
his resignation. Hariri’s father, Rafik, a
former prime minister and a prominent
Sunni businessman, was assassinated
in 2005, along with twenty-two others,
when explosives hidden in a van were
detonated as his motorcade drove near
the St. Georges Hotel in Beirut. After
a painful inquiry, the UN determined
that the assassination was likely committed by members of Hezbollah with
Syrian planning and logistical support.
Hezbollah is the Shia political party
and militant organization funded by
Iran and Syria. Hariri’s death was followed by a series of sectarian murders
of other anti- Syrian politicians, compounding the long-standing frustration
with Lebanon’s failure to bring his killers to justice.
Hezbollah, which backed President
Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian war, has
attained so much power in Lebanon
that it is considered a state within a
state. It holds sway in parliament and
is able to infiltrate Lebanese military
intelligence. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, the regional Sunni giant emboldened by the Trump administration’s
seal of approval, has a stake in keeping Sunnis prominent in the Lebanese
These rising tensions are part of
a much larger conflict. Saudi Arabia and Iran, the regional Shia giant,
are fighting proxy wars for influence
in the Middle East. The bloodiest
battlefield so far has been Syria. In
Syrian children from Homs in Tripoli, Lebanon, October 2013
military hardware. Iran’s president,
Hassan Rouhani, claims to be working toward a rapprochement with Saudi
Arabia, but the two nations continue to
jostle for regional supremacy. Hariri’s
sudden fall from power and the rising
sectarian tension in Lebanon have created fear that the country will be the
next battleground of the Saudi-Iranian
proxy war. In the middle of this uncertainty are Syrian refugees.
he experience of refugees in Lebanon is an extended waiting game. The
government has made clear that it
wants to prevent their integration into
Lebanese society in order to ensure
that they won’t stay, as the Palestinians
have. Lebanon barely tolerates the Palestinians; it certainly does not embrace
them. The miserable refugee complex
of Sabra and Shatila—a sprawling place
of desperation and hopelessness—is a
testament to that.
The Ouiza refugee settlement outside Sidon, where Syrian refugees are
dumped, is next to a Palestinian refugee camp called Ain al-Hilweh—Arabic for “sweet water spring.” In August,
clashes at the Palestinian camp between police and Sunni Islamists left
two dead, and in April, seven people
were killed. I spoke to three men from
the Syrian city of Hama whose stories
were familiar—their lack of work, adequate housing, and medical care, their
trauma of escaping a burning country,
but also their profound sense of indig-
out picking olives or selling tissues on
the streets. The teenage boys weren’t
in school; they lumbered through their
days, increasingly bored and agitated.
“There’s a lot of neglect with these
kids,” explains Kevin Charbel, an Irish
aid worker from the Belgian aid organization Soutien Belge. “It’s not that
their parents don’t love them, it’s just
that they have no idea how to raise
them in these circumstances.” Baha,
another of the three men from Hama
whom I spoke to, told me he was twenty
when he got to Lebanon. His education was interrupted: he feels that his
life has simply halted. It’s a miserable
predicament, he says, to have the sense
of waiting for something to happen.
“I’ve spent six years here, doing nothing. When I was twenty, I thought I had
a future. These six years, I’ve become
twenty years older.” Some days, he
says, he’d rather die in his country than
be humiliated here every single day.
Many Lebanese fear that the settle-
ments are, or will become, hotbeds of
radicalism. Sheikh al-Rafei, the leader
of the Salafist community in Lebanon, warned that refugees suffering
from a sense of dislocation and social
humiliation could easily be preyed
upon by radical recruiters. This is the
technique used by zealous preachers
in the isolated banlieues of France,
and it wouldn’t be hard to replicate in
Lebanon. Syrian refugees live in open
“settlements,” which are often simply
refugees are already being
forced home. Last summer in Arsal, a
border town, a repatriation deal brokered by Hezbollah and the armed
Syrian opposition forces initiated two
separate deportations of thousands
of refugees back to Syria. Some were
combatants, but many were civilians—
wives and children. The UN was not
present to witness the exodus. Such
deportations violate international law
and set a dangerous precedent for dealing with a complicated crisis. They
leave the Syrian men who return vulnerable to conscription into Assad’s
army. Mireille Girard, the head of the
UN Refugee Agency in Lebanon, said:
“There is a fear in Lebanon that the
longer refugees stay, the less they may
want to go back.“ She added that although they want to go home, they will
do so only when “they feel confident
and safe. Return is about trust.”
There is real anxiety about Hezbollah’s domination in Lebanon, and
about Iran’s not very subtle aim of
expanding Shia power from Tehran
to Beirut. The Saudis, meanwhile, are
seeking to prop up their own Sunni
fighters in Syria, stretching the proxy
war over the border into Lebanon.
And Syrian refugees are caught in the
middle. The conflict is especially apparent in cities like Arsal and Tripoli,
Lebanon’s second-largest city and a
northern coastal Sunni stronghold with
strong links to the towns of Hama and
Homs in Syria.
In Tripoli, Islamic militants who oppose President Assad are fighting both
ing in Al-Qusayr. As a devout Salafist,
he is determined that Sunnis will not
lose in the sectarian conflict.
t the heart of the issue is the absence of an official policy or long-term
strategy for what to do with the refugees. When the Syrian civil war began
in 2011, Lebanon and other “frontline” states (Turkey, Jordan) maintained an “open- door policy.” Nadim
Shehadi, from the Fletcher School,
recalled that in 2012 Prime Minister
Najib Mikati and his advisers called
donors and UN Agencies asking for
help in dealing with 50,000 refugees.
He was told that the agencies were
already overstretched and was asked
to “present a plan.” Mikati did not
do so because refugees were crossing
Ali Hashisho/Reuters
Christian party and the second largest
in Lebanon’s parliament. An engineer
by training, he became foreign minister
in 2014, and has his eye on the Lebanese election next May. His strategy is
not sophisticated: “Bassil is trying to
radicalize Lebanese people,” says Ziad
el Sayegh, a senior adviser to the Ministry of State for Displaced Persons.
“It’s simple. Raise fear in Lebanese society, polarize votes.” Many Lebanese
find Bassil and his rhetoric odious.
One political analyst refers to him as
“Im-Bassile.” But like Nigel Farage,
who played a large part in encouraging
pro-Brexit sentiment, there are many
who listen to him. “Bassil started very
early on trying to gain political traction
by creating a panic about the refugees,”
says Nadim Shehadi, who is Lebanese,
from the Fletcher School of Law and
Diplomacy at Tufts University.
One night in Beirut I attended a gala
in support of freedom of the press and
whistleblowers. The annual event is
hosted by a Maronite Christian journalist, Dr. May Chidiac, who lost a leg
and an arm in a car bomb after criticizing the Syrian regime in 2005. The
assassination attempt on Chidiac came
after Rafik Hariri’s murder, along with
a string of others. No one took responsibility, but Chidiac has openly blamed
It was the Lebanese version of the Oscars—red carpets, women in long ball
gowns, waiters in black tie serving iced
Johnny Walker Red and champagne
cocktails, and Beirut’s shiniest politicians, diplomats, businessmen, actors,
and crooners. Models lounged on white
leather sofas. A troupe of dancers did a
routine from Grease and drove a pink
Cadillac convertible onto the stage. It
was a long way from the Ouiza settlement. A Lebanese socialite who asked
me not to use her name told me, “We
can’t handle the refugee situation, we
can’t cope.” Her shrill tone echoed not
only Bassil but also his father-in-law,
President Aoun, who gave an identical
quote to a group of foreign diplomats:
“We can’t cope.”
Bassil’s xenophobia has been apparent for years; as energy minister,
he blamed power cuts in Lebanon on
refugees and foreigners. Now he demands that the Syrians go home—immediately. “Syrian citizens have only
one route, which is the route that leads
them to their homeland,” he said on a
recent trip to the Bekaa Valley. Then
billboards started going up in Beirut
that said: “We will not become a minority in our own villages and cities.
Let’s gather in a mass rally to demand
the departure of the Syrians.”
Palestinian women at the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon, Lebanon,
August 2017
Assad’s supporters (in the form of
Alawite armed groups) and the Lebanese government. Armed conflict has
swept across parts of Beirut such as
the Alawite Jabal Mohsen area and the
Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh district, with
Sunni refugees finding themselves in the
midst of the violence. Residents of both
neighborhoods fight on opposite sides in
Syria, and then come home and continue
the conflict. “We are just waiting for an
order from Saudi Arabia to open up the
next battle,” a local commander told a
German reporter in 2015. “We have to
protect our Sunni community here.”
Attempts have been made to foster
“cultural unity”—multifaith cafés, theatrical collaborations, academic studies. But at the Taqwa Mosque, which
has been a recruiting ground for young
Lebanese Sunnis to go fight in Syria,
Sheikh Salem al-Rafei told me that
the situation was “very critical. Worse
than ever.” When Sheikh Rafei, who
survived an assassination attempt allegedly by Hezbollah in 2013, gave a
sermon to a crowd consisting largely of
Syrian refugees, he encouraged them
to no longer tolerate their marginalization. He cited their lack of status
in Lebanese society, their lack of a future, the humiliations they face every
day, and the deepening sectarian divisions in Lebanon. This was a week before Prime Minister Hariri resigned in
Saudi Arabia. During the bloody battle
for the border town of Al- Qusayr in
2013, when Hezbollah sent fighters to
aid Assad’s army, Sheikh Rafei sent
his own men. “It was a religious duty
to fight in Syria,” he said. About thirty
fighters from Tripoli alone died fight-
the border in very high numbers and
it was impossible to predict how many
more would come. “Mikati was right,”
says Shehadi in retrospect. “Had he
made a plan, mindful of 200,000 refugees, his plan would have collapsed
once the number had grown to one
million refugees. The entire system
would have collapsed. Now there are
1.5 million.”
Khalil el Helou, a retired Lebanese
general whose family came from Syria
in 1970 and who now advises the government, has suggested one sort of
official policy. He recommends that
Lebanon contain and police refugee
settlements, preferably with an international force, to prohibit jihadist recruiters from entering. He is not sure
who would fund this policy, and acknowledges that the international community has already done a poor job of
providing enough humanitarian aid in
Syria. But we have to act soon, he says.
“If we don’t, we are creating a new generation of terrorists who will strike at
Beirut—or New York.”
The Syrian war will eventually end—
painfully, and without the result the
United States government wants to
see: the end of the Assad regime. As for
the refugees, no one seems to have any
idea what to do with them. “Sometimes
there simply is no solution,” Nadim Shehadi admits. “We’ll do the same thing
we do with the Palestinian issue, that is,
turn a blind eye. But the future is very
alarming. If one percent of the refugees
radicalize and decide to take up arms to
fight, that is 25,000 radicalized people.
Only one percent is in fact a lot.”
—January 10, 2018
The New York Review
Silence Bigger Than a Table
Adam Shatz
Some artists start out with a bang, others with barely a whisper. The trumpeter
and composer Wadada Leo Smith, one
of the most influential figures of the
postwar black musical avant-garde,
could not have begun his career more
quietly. In 1972, Smith, then a thirtyone-year- old musician living in New
Haven, released a solo album called
Creative Music—I, on which, besides
trumpet, he played flugelhorn, wooden
flute, harmonica, hand zithers, and an
assortment of percussion instruments
set up on steel poles: bells, gongs, xylophones, cymbals, whistles, aluminum
pot drums, metal plates. And for long
periods of time, Smith did not play at
all. Instead, he allowed silence to fill
the space of his music.
Not many people heard Creative
Music—I when it first appeared, but its
contemplative radicalism was not lost
on those who did. Smith was returning
to the foundations of music: sound and
silence, articulation and breath. While
he drew inspiration from the free jazz
revolution that had begun more than a
decade earlier, his own sensibility could
not have been further from the style of
free jazz known as “energy” or “fire”
music. Loud, intense, often frenetic,
fire music suggested a primal scream
repressed for too long. The meanings
of the scream were spelled out by the
album titles of the period: political
(Jackie McLean’s Let Freedom Ring),
erotic (Alan Shorter’s Orgasm), sacred
(Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity), cosmic
(John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space).
For much of the 1960s, it was contagious. Even Miles Davis, the great poet
of space and stillness, who claimed to
disdain the cacophony of free jazz,
ended up embracing the noise, playing fierce, jabbing notes against roiling
backdrops of electric guitars on albums
like Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson.
A quiet fire burned in Smith’s music,
but more often it suggested water and
wind. Some of his titles resembled
haikus: the first track on Creative
Music—I was titled “Nine (9) Stones
on a Mountain.” While most free jazz
channeled the coiled energies of the
great northern cities, Smith evoked the
vast rural landscapes of the Mississippi
Delta where he had grown up. Formally, his music was more radical than
fire music, less encumbered by traditional song forms. But his was a pastoral modernism: spacious, serene, and in
no hurry to reach its destination. Smith
was not the only pastoral modernist to
emerge from the ranks of the free jazz
movement. His friend Marion Brown,
an alto saxophonist who evoked memories of his rural Georgia childhood, and
Don Cherry, a fellow trumpeter who
created an imaginary folk music while
wandering through North Africa and
Turkey, also worked in this vein. But
Smith would become its most committed exponent, and the most systematic:
an “organic intellectual,” in the words
of George Lewis, a trombonist and
composer who has known him since
the early 1970s.
February 8, 2018
Smith’s unusual feeling for time was
also distinctly southern, nourished by
his childhood memories of rural Mississippi and governed by a nonmetrical
approach that he called “rhythm units,”
in which a long sound was followed by
a long silence, a short sound by a short
silence. The place of silence in his
music reminded some early listeners
of John Cage, a composer he admired,
but Smith attributed it to jazz musicians who had “a style of phrasing that
included silence within the context of
a phrase,” among them Lester Young,
Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and, not
tracks are original compositions that
Smith describes as “profiles” of Monk.
(Two are, in fact, the same piece, an
adagio performed with, and without,
a mute.) Their titles offer visual descriptions of Monk—one imagines him
at Shea Stadium with the pianist Bud
Powell, another at the Five Spot Café,
where Monk played extensively in the
late 1950s, wearing a five-point ring—
and the music is embedded with shadowy allusions to Monk’s work.
Solo: Reflections and Meditations on
Monk emerged much as Creative Music—I did: not in the cutting contests of
Michael Jackson
Solo: Reflections and
Meditations on Monk
an album by Wadada Leo Smith.
TUM Records, $19.98
Wadada Leo Smith at the Montreal Jazz Festival, July 2016
least, Thelonious Monk, who spent his
first five years in North Carolina before
moving to New York City in the Great
Silence also served a different purpose in Smith’s music than it does in
Cage’s. Smith did not want to surrender
control or subjectivity to chance, but
to assert them: his music was willful
rather than a renunciation of will. And
the effect of his silences was to draw
attention to the beauty of his trumpet
playing: stately and soaring, alternately
buoyant and plangent, it is indebted to
the modernism of Davis, Booker Little,
and Don Cherry, yet equally reminiscent of the brassy, southern ebullience
of Louis Armstrong. As the French
writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot wrote of Stéphane Mallarmé,
Smith’s trumpet seemed to emerge
miraculously out of “nothingness . . .
whose secret vitality, force and mystery
it carries out in meditation and in the
accomplishment of its poetic task.”
Since the release of Creative Music—
I nearly a half- century ago, Smith’s
music has evolved in a number of directions, but he has continued to work
with rhythm units, and to draw on the
power of silence and negative space.
On his extraordinary new album, Solo:
Reflections and Meditations on Monk,
he applies these principles to the pianist and composer, whose centenary
was last year. The album includes four
of Monk’s best-known ballads: “Ruby,
My Dear,” “Reflections,” “Crepuscule
with Nellie,” and—the album’s haunting finale—his most famous tune,
“’Round Midnight.” The other four
onstage combat, the traditional testing
ground of jazz creativity, but at Smith’s
home in New Haven. Twenty-five years
ago, a pianist friend gave him a book
of Monk piano transcriptions by Bill
Dobbins, and he began practicing them
in his spare time. He particularly liked
the ballads (or as he calls them, adagios) because “they allow me to really
express my tone.” He played them as
if the bar line didn’t exist, organizing
the music with rhythm units rather
than chord progressions, so that the
pieces would “flow like a wave, and . . .
people can ride that wave with me.” He
decided to record these pieces on solo
trumpet because “the essence of Monk
is, I believe, in his solo performances.”
Smith thereby reveals their brilliant
corners, the way they lend themselves
to “expansions and further explorations,” while at the same time presenting himself as a student paying homage
to a great teacher. All that one hears is
the celestial sound of Smith’s trumpet
and the silences around it. The music
could not be sparer or richer.
“Most people would never realize
that I am closer to Thelonious Monk
than to any other artist,” Smith writes
in his liner notes. He is not exaggerating. Smith has paid homage in his song
titles to many jazz musicians, but never
to Monk. Nor has he ever displayed the
characteristics typically associated with
Monk, such as angular melodic turns,
eccentric phrasing, and impish humor.
But as Smith goes on to observe, Monk,
with his exceptional sensitivity to the
spaces between notes, understood silence not as “a moment of absence,”
but “as a vital field where musical ideas
exist as a result of what was played be-
fore and after”—the same principle
that underlies Smith’s rhythm units.
On Solo: Reflections and Meditations
on Monk, Smith elongates and intensifies Monk’s silences until they sound
like his own. This transformation, far
from betraying Monk, distills the lyricism, tenderness, and yearning at the
heart of his melodic writing.
“I see Monk as a . . . mystical philosopher,” Smith, who is seventy-six, told
me at National Sawdust, a theater in
Brooklyn, where he performed in late
October. “I once heard a writer ask
Monk, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’
And Monk said the meaning of life is
death. And I thought that was the most
perfect answer, because every breath
we take . . . is leading to that magnificent
moment. It’s the other end of the journey, and it’s all connected to the first
big bang, the first breath of life. And . . .
death is not a concept only of leaving,
but of change, or transformation.”
“The second reason” he was drawn
to Monk, he went on, is that “he spent
a lot of time in isolation, and I did
the same thing. The reasons were essentially the same: no one would hire
us.” Monk’s cabaret card, which was
required to play at clubs in New York
City until the early 1960s, was revoked
on several occasions, on mostly spurious charges of narcotics possession.
But as Smith notes, “He didn’t sit
around thinking about that: he actually kept developing and developed so
uniquely that that isolated moment was
probably a gift from the Almighty, just
as mine was. I didn’t sit around, I didn’t
feel left out. I did my research. . . . I performed every week in my house, not for
people—for me.” He would tape his
performances and then examine the
tapes for “flaws in musical direction,
flaws in conceptual design,” as well as
in “how well I received the inspiration
that I was trying to transmit. And what
I discovered . . .was something about
sound and silence, . . . about nonmetrical movement, where you don’t have to
be in beat or in time, but you connect
with the universal time, which is more
like a wave as opposed to a beat.”
Smith’s research has yielded what
is now widely recognized as one of
the most innovative bodies of work in
American music since the 1960s. The
last decade or so has been the most
fertile period of his career. He leads an
electric ensemble called Organic, and
a more traditional jazz group called
the Golden Quartet. He has written
for string quartet, orchestra, and solo
cello, as well as for gamelan and koto
ensembles. His four-hour reflection on
the civil rights era, Ten Freedom Summers, written for a quintet version of
the Golden Quartet and a nine-piece
chamber orchestra, was one of three
finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in 2013.
Smith’s ravishing “graphic” scores—
small, delicate sketches that in their
combination of abstract imagery and
symbols recall Kandinsky and Klee—
have been the subject of recent exhibitions at the Hammer Museum in Los
Angeles and the Renaissance Society
in Chicago.
Just before we spoke at National
Sawdust, Smith played a solo version of
“Ruby, My Dear,” a song Monk wrote
Leo Smith was born in 1941 in
past your knees, . . . past your chest and
past your head, at every one of those
moments I’m amazed, because, look,
I’m taller than the sun, and when the
sun passed my head, I realize, I’m
just a speck.” In this humbling “zone
of transition,” with its natural cycles
of presence and absence, he found
“an organic link of sound and visual
and silence.” He honed his technique
by practicing outdoors: on the front
porch, in the fields, even in the woods,
where he noticed how the sound of
his horn would slowly fade away as he
reached the edge of the forest.
In 1967, after five years in the army,
Smith settled in Chicago and joined
the Association for the Advancement
of Creative Musicians (AACM), a not-
It was also, by his own admission, one
of the least loved. “We were like the
outside guys,” Smith recalls in George
Lewis’s history of the AACM, A Power
Stronger Than Itself. “Notions of silence, rhythmic design, directed motion,
those kinds of things were very different
from the notion of playing the greatest
solo or cutting everybody to pieces that
you’re playing on the same stage with.”
During a year-long sojourn in Paris
from 1969 to 1970, Smith managed to
thoroughly confound French critics,
who did not know what to make of a
style that rejected all the clichés of the
fire music that many of them considered
an expression of black authenticity.
“We would drop a silence bigger than a
table. What do you do? Do you say, hey,
source a new world music: creative music,
a 1973 manifesto permeated by the revolutionary romanticism of the Black Arts
Movement. In notes (8 pieces), Smith
calls for a new set of aesthetic criteria
proper to black improvised music and
looks forward to the day when “the creative music of afro-america, india, bali
and pan-islam. . .will eventually eliminate the political dominance of euroamerica in this world.” In order to take
part in this cultural and political struggle, musicians would have to declare
independence from the music industry
(“this factory of death”) and develop a
“heightened awareness of improvisation
as an art form.”
But perhaps the most revolutionary
feature of notes (8 pieces) is the way
it used the language of cultural
nationalism to upend narrow
cultural nationalist assumptions,
particularly those having to do
with black music’s relationship to
percussion. Smith took particular exception to the “fallacy that
if the drum is not present then
it is not black music (creative
music).” Louis Armstrong’s most
famous recordings, after all, did
not include drums, and yet “the
spirit- essence of the drums is
there.” This essence, from which
black creative music derived its
power and originality, was more
fundamental, if less immediately
audible, than its external trappings. He had discovered it by
exploring rhythm units and the
“space silence that is the absence
of audible sound-rhythms,” and,
as he wrote in a rapturous passage, it had opened his eyes to
Wadada Leo Smith
for his first love, at his sound check. He
rendered its exquisite melody with little
embellishment except for his signature
silences, as though he were leaving a
place for Monk’s ghost to enter the
room. After a brief improvisation (or
“creation,” as Smith prefers to say) and
a reprise of the melody, he suddenly
stopped. “I felt it was finished,” he told
me. “People often play past their inspiration. . . . It’s OK not to play sometimes because your presence on stage,
whether you’re playing or not, influences the music.” That afternoon, he
was dressed in a kind of black smock,
with the stack of dreadlocks he has
worn since the early 1980s, when he
converted to Rastafarianism and added
Wadada to his given name, Leo Smith.
(He later converted to Islam and
made the Hajj to Mecca in 2002,
adding yet another new name,
Ishmael, before Wadada.) He
rarely moved from a fixed position except to huddle, as if the
force of his horn depended on
sustained physical compression.
Like his music, his onstage presence has a riveting stillness.
Leland, Mississippi, “a town so
small you could walk from one
end of it to the other in a minute.” He has not lived there since
the early 1960s, but his drawl is
still as thick as jam, and he often
expresses nostalgia for his southern childhood. Although he grew
up in town, where his mother
worked as a cook, he spent his
summers picking corn, cotton,
and soybeans on his grandparents’ farm. (He still draws on agthe wonder and gorgeousricultural metaphors to describe
ness of nature—i’ve heard
his work, likening the trumpet
the sounds of the crickets,
to a flower, the breath projected
the birds, the whirling about
through it to a seed.)
and clinging of the wind, the
Smith started out on mellofloating waves and clashing of
phone and French horn, before
water against rocks, the love
switching to trumpet when he was
of thunder and beauty that
Wadada Leo Smith’s score for Symphony No. 1: Fall, 2008.
twelve. (He had first “received”
prevails during and after the
The illustration, and the symbols it contains, serve as a guide for improvising musicians in an ensemble.
music in church, “like all dark
lightning—the toiling of souls
Smith refers to the visual language of his scores as “Ankhrasmation.”
people do.”) His first important
throughout the world in suffermusical influence was his steping—the moments of realizafor-profit black musicians’ collective
gimme another drink, or what?” On his
father, the electric blues guitarist Alex
tion, of oneness, of realness in all
and conservatory founded two years
return to the United States, he moved
“Little Bill” Wallace. Elmore James,
of these make and contribute to
earlier by the pianist Muhal Richard
to New Haven and went into near secluB. B. King, and Little Minton often
the wholeness of my music—the
Abrams and three other musicians.
sion. He studied the scores of Charles
stopped by the house to play on the
sound-rhythm beyond . . . expresAbrams, who died in late October at
Ives and Carl Ruggles; read Emerson,
weekends. Smith was “mesmerized”
sion that is clothed in the garment
eighty-seven, envisioned the AACM
Thoreau, and Frederick Douglass; and
by the stories these bluesmen told in
of improvisation. . . . it is what
as a laboratory for generating original
took classes in ethnomusicology at
their songs, and impressed by how
makes my life complete with all
forms and structures for avant-garde
Wesleyan, where he discovered the aftheir lyrics combined profundity and
its suffering and all of its pleasures
jazz, or what he called “creative music.”
finities between black American music
brevity. Many of their songs were about
and all that makes life life.
In the AACM, Smith found himself
and the improvisatory traditions of
women loved and lost, but he realized
among such kindred spirits as Roscoe
West Africa, Indonesia, and Japan. He
that women were really a “metaphor for
“I was arguing with the planet,” but
Mitchell and Anthony Braxton, saxovisited New York occasionally to see
transformation,” much like references
especially with musicians “born into the
phonists who shared his fascination
friends, but left his horn at home, since
to wine in the Sufi poetry he would later
North,” Smith said when I was asked
with the properties of sound. Before
he had no interest in session work, and
read. “The Blues was my first language
him what inspired him to write notes (8
long, he distinguished himself as an
felt in any case that New York was “aland it never went away,” Smith says.
pieces). “In the South you look for esadventurous composer and improviser.
most lost as a place of creativity.”
By the time he was thirteen, he was
sence. You don’t look just for the table,
Although his work was steeped in blues
Having exiled himself from the New
playing the blues at a local whites- only
you look for the essence of the table,
and jazz tradition, that knowledge reYork scene, Smith created his own,
country club. He entered through the
[which is the] seed—it’s not a tree. It’s a
vealed itself in extremely subtle ways,
surrounding himself with like-minded
kitchen, where he was instructed to
seed that sprouted into this wood thing.”
rather than in recognizable “licks” or
young musicians: the alto saxophonist
look neither left nor right, and, above
That search led him to invent not only
riffs, much less grooves.
Marion Brown, the pianist Anthony
all, never to make eye contact with
the idea of rhythm units, but the visual
Puckish off-stage, Smith cut an earDavis, the drummer Pheeroan akLaff,
guests. Looking at a white woman
language of “Ankhrasmation,” a system
nest, ascetic profile in performance:
the bassist Wes Brown, and the vibracould get you killed.
of vivid, multicolored drawings that he
unlike the Art Ensemble of Chicago,
phonist Bobby Naughton. He estabAt nineteen, Smith left Mississippi to
has often used to inspire musicians in
the AACM’s best-known group, he had
lished his own label, Kabell Records,
join the army. But the Delta—its blues,
improvised settings. (“Ankhrasmation”
no interest in the aesthetics of collage,
and recorded a series of albums, startits natural beauty, its slowness—left an
is a portmanteau of Ankh, the Egyptian
ironic citation, or absurdist mischief.
ing with Creative Music—I. (These reindelible imprint on his musical imaginasymbol for life; ras, the Ethiopian word
The Creative Construction Company,
cordings were released in 2004 by John
tion. “When you come up in Mississippi
for leader; and ma, for mother.) With
the band he formed with Braxton, the
Zorn’s label, Tzadik, in an extraordinary
and you walk out in the morning before
rhythm units and Ankhrasmation,
violinist Leroy Jenkins, and the drumbox set, Kabell Years: 1971–1979.) He
sunrise, . . . there’s nothing in front of you
Smith devised a system to structure
mer Steve McCall, was one of the most
also self-published a series of theoretiexcept a long open field. And you watch
his work and to teach other musicians
experimental ensembles of the AACM.
cal writings, such as notes (8 pieces):
the sun come up out of the ground, . . .
to play it, but it was supple enough to
The New York Review
allow for intuition and spontaneity. Explaining the impact of Ankhrasmation
on the actual sound of Smith’s music
is somewhat elusive; but then, as the
pianist Craig Taborn, who has worked
with Smith, told me, “so much of Wadada’s work resides in its mystery.”
For the first half of his career, Smith
was known for a pensive, nearly ambient form of spiritual jazz. It shimmered
with enigmatic, painterly timbres on
works like Divine Love (1979), which
featured an ensemble of Smith and
two other trumpeters, a bass clarinetist, double bass, and vibraphone; and
The Burning of Stones (1980), a piece
for Smith’s muted trumpet and three
harps that evoked Japanese court
music. (Smith was formerly married
to a Japanese poet, Harumi Makino,
and has long been fascinated by Asian
music.) But this ceremonial lyricism
is only one aspect of Smith’s body of
work, which has grown far less austere
and far more accessible since his early
investigations of rhythm units. He has
explored reggae beats, recorded with
the great Zimbabwean chimurenga
singer Thomas Mapfumo, and, with his
Golden Quartet, helped to extend the
vocabularies of modal and electric jazz
that Miles Davis pioneered in the 1960s
and 1970s. Smith’s vernacular inspirations, particularly blues and funk, have
become more pronounced, his playing
hotter and more propulsive, as if he
now felt liberated to draw upon all the
influences he had succeeded in purging
from his rigorous youthful modernism.
Smith has also tried to connect his
music more directly to questions of spirituality, racial justice, and ecology, concerns often invoked in notes (8 pieces).
In the somber, preacherly large-scale
works that have consumed much of his
energy over the last decade—The Great
Lakes Suite, America’s National Parks,
and Ten Freedom Summers, which he
recently performed in Alabama—the
United States appears as a land of epic
promise, ravaged by internal demons.
America in the civil rights era is the
nominal theme of the monumental Ten
Freedom Summers, but it looks back to
the Dred Scott decision of 1857 and all
the way forward to September 11, 2001,
as if to suggest that the latter tragedy
cannot be fully absorbed without a candid reckoning with what America has,
and has not, been to its own people.
A mournful blues performed by the
Golden Quintet, “September 11, 2001:
A Memorial,” is, in my view, the most
haunting piece inspired by the event,
a work that invites comparison with
“Alabama,” Coltrane’s 1963 elegy for
the four girls killed in the Birmingham
church bombing.
For all the minimalism of his sound,
Smith has turned out to be a maximalist in his ambitions, evolving into one of
our most powerful storytellers, an heir
to American chroniclers like Charles
Ives and Ornette Coleman. Smith’s
portrait of Thelonious Monk appears
to unfold on a smaller canvas, harking
back to the intimacy of his early solo
work, but this impression is misleading.
Performing Monk without accompaniment, after all, is a mountain that few
musicians dare to climb, and Wadada
Leo Smith has spent his life preparing
for this moment. Through patience,
humility, and, above all, silence, he has
reached the top of that mountain, and
rewarded us with the glorious culmination of a career devoted to the “divine
love” of creative music.
—Wall Street Journal
Edited by
Fragmentary Republican
Volume I: Ennius, Testimonia.
Epic Fragments
Volume II: Ennius, Dramatic
Fragments. Minor Works
History of Rome
Volume X: Books 35–37
Edited and translated by
J. C. Yardley
Widely regarded as the father of
Roman literature, Ennius is best
known for domesticating Greek
epic and drama. This two-volume
edition, which inaugurates
the Loeb series Fragmentary
Republican Latin, replaces that
of Warmington in Remains of
Old Latin, Volume I and offers
fresh texts, translations, and
annotation that are fully current
with modern scholarship.
Livy’s history, composed as the
imperial autocracy of Augustus
was replacing the republican
system that had stood for over
500 years, presents in splendid
style a vivid narrative of Rome’s
rise from the traditional
foundation of the city in 753 or
751 BC to 9 BC and illustrates the
collective and individual virtues
necessary to achieve and maintain
such greatness. The books of the
fourth decad (31–40) focus on
Rome’s growing hegemony in the
East in the years 200–180. This
edition replaces the original Loeb
edition by Evan T. Sage.
2018 | L294 | L537 | $26.00 each
2018 | L301 | $26.00
Edited and translated by
Sander M. Goldberg
Gesine Manuwald
Volume I: Books 1–4
Volume II: Books 5–6. Thrasybulus. On Exercise with a
Small Ball
Back in 1290 AD London,
I don’t know what would have happened to me.
I might have made it across the Channel—
no donkey or dog, God knows. Sorry, God
would not have known or given a damn.
Some Middle English in my head,
chilly, thought it best to head south.
The compass had not yet arrived from China,
a person like me might have known
the stars teach direction. A venerable rabbi taught,
“Moss often grows on the north side of trees,
there is safety among swarms of blackflies and bees.”
I might have descended past Aix-en-Provence,
in need of rest, stopped, picnicked on wild strawberries.
I hope I read Roman de la Rose
before I crossed the cruel Catholic Pyrenees,
passed some gothic days and nights
in Barcelona, “Ciudad de mis amores,”
escaped a fiery death on Montjuïc.
I hope I, another, dined on sea urchins.
I walked to Cartagena, Santes Creus,
for the love of life to dazzling Córdoba
where I discovered the highest degree of charity:
Make someone independent,
the second highest—Give charity in secret.
—Stanley Moss
February 8, 2018
“The Loeb Library . . . remains to this day the
Anglophone world’s most readily accessible collection
of classical masterpieces.”
Edited and translated by Ian
Hygiene ranks among Galen’s most important works, providing a comprehensive account of the practice of preventive medicine that still has
relevance today. Also included are two shorter treatises on the relationship between health and wellness. Thrasybulus explores whether hygiene
is part of medicine or gymnastics, and On Exercise with a Small Ball
strenuously advocates that activity’s superiority to other forms of exercise.
2018 | L535 | L536 | $26.00 each
For information about the digital Loeb Classical Library
“Its scope is huge—Homer to Bede—and its search
capabilities will make it a sine qua non even for readers
who do not really need the translations.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
Harvard University Press
Controlling the Chief
Charlie Savage
It was August 2004, and the Iraqi insurgency was raging in Anbar province. Major General James “Mad Dog”
Mattis of the Marines, who is now the
Trump administration’s defense secretary, called a meeting with a group of
religious leaders outside Fallujah. His
division was coming under daily fire
from both local militants and foreign
terrorists associated with al- Qaeda’s
affiliate in Iraq, and he hoped to persuade the leaders that it was misguided
of them to encourage local young men
to pick up rifles and shoot at American
forces rather than trying to throw out
al- Qaeda, whose bombings and beheadings were transforming their province into a hellscape.
“How could you send your worshipers, some of them young boys,
against us when their real enemy is alQaeda?” Mattis asked them, according to the military analyst Mark Perry
in his new book, The Pentagon’s Wars:
The Military’s Undeclared War Against
America’s Presidents, a history of highlevel Pentagon decision-making and
of relations between uniformed and
civilian executive branch officials over
the past quarter- century. Perry goes
on to repeat further details about this
meeting drawn from Bing West’s The
Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the
Endgame in Iraq (2008). When the religious leaders continued sipping their
tea, Mattis shouted: “They’re kids. . . .
Untrained, undisciplined teenagers.
They don’t stand a chance.” Later, Mattis told West that the tribes at the time
“only saw us as the enemy”; what was
needed was for al- Qaeda’s militants to
make mistakes and “expose themselves
for what they were.”
Al- Qaeda’s tactics did eventually repulse Anbar’s tribes enough for them
to band together in the so- called Sunni
Awakening and drive the foreign terrorists out. The reprieve was temporary; the remnant of al- Qaeda’s Iraq
affiliate would regenerate across the
border in Syria, rebrand itself as the Islamic State, and sweep back into Iraq
in 2014. But for a few years, Anbar became a somewhat less dysfunctional
and dangerous place, as Mattis had
thought it could be.
More than a decade later, Mattis,
now in a civilian position, is once again
trying to navigate a tricky and dangerous situation. Widely regarded as one
of the “grown-ups” in the idiosyncratic
Trump administration, he is among the
striking number of military men with
whom Trump has chosen to surround
himself. Trump appointed another retired four-star general, John Kelly, as his
homeland security secretary, then elevated him to White House chief of staff.
He made an active-duty three-star general, H. R. McMaster, his national security adviser. McMaster’s chief of staff is
a retired three-star general, Keith Kellogg, and many of the lower-level policy
specialists gradually succeeding Obamaera holdovers at the National Security
Council also have military backgrounds.
As a result, the upper reaches of the ex24
ecutive branch, which felt at times like
a law firm under Obama, are coming to
resemble a command post.
his spreading militarization of the
executive branch makes it timely to
think about the experiences that have
shaped the past generation of top Pentagon brass. The most important of
Trump’s military men—along with
General Joseph Dunford, the chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was
appointed to that position by Obama—
share a remarkably narrow range of
experience. Mattis, Kelly, and Dun-
There is already a growing disparity between Trump’s rhetoric as a
candidate and his foreign policy decisions. For all his campaign talk about
being eager to “bomb the hell out of”
the Islamic State, he ran for president
as something of an isolationist—an opponent of military missions that did not
put “America first”—and at times even
portrayed himself as more dovish than
Hillary Clinton. For instance, he criticized George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq
(ignoring the inconvenient truth that at
the time, he had told Howard Stern that
he supported it), for which Clinton had
famously voted, and he denounced her
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The Pentagon’s Wars:
The Military’s Undeclared War
Against America’s Presidents
by Mark Perry.
Basic Books, 341 pp., $30.00
into the vacuum left behind if American forces departed. “My original
instinct was to pull out—and, historically, I like following my instincts,” he
said. “But all my life I’ve heard that
decisions are much different when you
sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
In October, after the deaths of four
American army soldiers in an ambush
in Niger focused attention on a buildup of hundreds of American forces
there, a deployment that began under
Obama and expanded under Trump,
Mattis testified that the administration had sent the troops to be trainers
and advisers who would help that nation resist incursions by Islamic State
fighters: “Why did President Obama
send troops there? Why did President
Trump send troops there? It’s because
we sensed that as the physical caliphate is collapsing, the enemy is trying
to move somewhere.” Mattis added,
“We’re trying to build up the internal
defenses of another country so they can
do this job on their own.”
President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis outside the White House
on Inauguration Day, January 2017
ford are all Marines, the smallest of
the military services and the one that
has the greatest reputation for cultural
conservatism and for a warrior identity. They have also known one another
and worked together for a long time:
Kelly and Dunford even served in the
unit that Mattis commanded in Anbar.
While McMaster is an Army officer, he
also came up fighting insurgents in the
post–September 11 Muslim world.
Some of The Pentagon’s Wars’ most
interesting passages focus on these men.
Perry writes that observers might like
to believe that their familiarity “with
the terrible costs of war” would make
them “unlikely to support the military
interventions that had marred the terms
of the four previous presidents.” But he
is skeptical about this, pointing to various episodes in their backgrounds that
suggest that “each of these four officers
believed deeply in American military
power—and in its ability to shape the
international environment.” He adds:
Senior military commanders who
knew and had served with Mattis, Kelly, Dunford, and McMaster
now regularly reassured the press
that the election of Trump would
not lead to an upending of America’s traditional role as the enforcer
of global stability. The war on terrorism would continue, the defense
budget would be increased, the US
military would be strengthened,
and, as Donald Trump reassured
the public, the United States “would
start winning wars again.”
advocacy of Obama’s ill-fated 2011 intervention in Libya. In a major foreign
policy speech in April 2016, Trump said:
“Unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my
first instinct. You cannot have a foreign
policy without diplomacy. A superpower
understands that caution and restraint
are really truly signs of strength.”
In a series of moves starting just
days after he took office, Trump has
approved Mattis’s requests to give the
military more freedom to attack Islamist militants at its own discretion,
removing Obama- era constraints on
drone strikes and commando raids
in places like Yemen and Somalia. In
April, after the Syrian government
used chemical weapons against civilians, Trump ordered a punitive missile strike on an Assad regime air base
without offering any public explanation of his rationale for how it complied
with the constraints imposed by the international laws of war.
In August, Trump answered the military’s request for more troops in Afghanistan by authorizing a new surge
of thousands of additional American
forces there, winding back up a sixteenyear- old war that Obama had tried to
wind down. In explaining his decision
in televised remarks, Trump denied
that the United States was resuming
a nation-building mission in Afghanistan, saying instead that the forces
were there only to kill terrorists. But he
conceded that he had been talked into
changing his position on troop levels
out of fears that terrorists would flow
erry explains that The Pentagon’s
Wars “is not a recounting of America’s
recent wars, but a narrative account
of the politics of war—the story of
civil-military relations from Operation Desert Storm to the rise of the Islamic State.” For those hoping that a
skeptical, assertive military mindset is
exactly what is needed to restrain the
potential excesses of the Trump administration, Perry’s portrayal of many
of the most important Pentagon leaders of the past generation may be disturbing. He deplores the “professional,
and inbred, military establishment” of
the post–cold war era, writing that all
too often three- and four-star officers
have been weak, ego- driven, and selfpromoting, while rarely independent
and outspoken enough to stand up to
presidents who advance bad ideas.
The bad ideas Perry has in mind are
protracted nation-building missions.
He is critical of many of the United
States’ military interventions abroad
in places like Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo,
Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, believing
that they squandered the US’s position
of strength at the end of the cold war.
He acknowledges that civilian control
of the military is a hallmark of our democracy. But he suggests that—confronted by a series of “political leaders
whose vision of a world made safe by
American arms, with nations rebuilt
according to our ideals” was doomed
to fail—senior military officers have
too often fallen into line instead of offering unvarnished advice: they should
have more aggressively “insisted that
our civilian leaders question their assumptions or rethink their options.”
This sounds more like a tale of unduly
supine generals than of a Pentagon that
has been engaged in an undeclared war
against America’s presidents. Indeed,
The Pentagon’s Wars contains only
a few episodes that live up to its provocative subtitle. In Perry’s account,
the most striking instance in the last
twenty- eight years of a senior military
officer telling a president “no” came
when General Colin Powell, then the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs, rebelled
against President Clinton’s attempt
The New York Review
in 1993 to let gays and lesbians serve
openly in the military. Powell’s revolt,
resulting in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
compromise, was a “triumph” of sorts,
Perry writes, because henceforth, “for
the first time in history, the head of the
military had a veto: Clinton believed he
couldn’t successfully promote a military policy decision without his concurrence.” Yet Powell’s victory for the
institutional clout of the military may
have been pyrrhic: in Perry’s telling,
the nation’s top civilian officials since
then have “purposely named military
officers they believed they could control” to influential positions, rewarding
those who salute and agree and stifling
those willing to express dissent.
hatever one makes of Perry’s arguments, the analytical portions are
his book’s most interesting and valuable component. But its factual portions have certain limitations. First,
The Pentagon’s Wars contains very
little new information. As the endnotes
make clear, the essential details of most
of the meetings and events it recounts
are taken from previously published
books and articles by journalists like
Michael Gordon, Thomas Ricks, David
Halberstam, and Bob Woodward, and
from memoirs by retired generals and
other former national security leaders.
Although Perry conducted many interviews, a typical passage of his book
will lay out a well- established episode
based on material already put forward
by others and then append a new minor
detail or observation about it.
Second, the contributions of his
Greek chorus of mostly anonymous
sources are often jarringly gossipy. We
are told, for instance, that Army General Norman Schwarzkopf, the leader
of the first Gulf War, under pressure
just before the start of the air campaign, was “almost whimpering” and
“acting like a baby.” General Wesley
Clark, who led the Clinton- era interventions in the Balkans as the head of
European Command, was a “tireless
self-promoter . . .who’d gotten ahead
by rubbing shoulders with the right
people, endlessly polishing his own credentials—and by his singular focus on
himself.” Air Force General Richard
Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs
during the Bush administration’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, “never
disagreed with his boss,” to the point
that he was supposedly called “limp
Dick” behind his back. While Perry
writes that Mattis was a “fearless
fighter and plain talker” as a battlefield commander, he also quotes an unnamed former subordinate Marine who
describes Mattis as a back-slapper who
displayed a need to “parade his masculinity” among lower-ranking troops
by swapping stories about women they
Whatever the value of this kind
of snark, it’s not clear how much credence to give it. I took a closer look at
one of the few bits of original reporting about one of the generals who went
on to work for Trump and came away
unconvinced that it was true. Perry recounts an acrimonious phone call between Mattis and Tom Donilon, then
Obama’s national security adviser, in
December 2012. At the time, Mattis
was in charge of the US Central Command, which oversees military opera-
tions in the Middle East, and he was
developing a reputation for favoring
a more aggressive approach to curbing Iranian misbehavior than some of
Obama’s civilian advisers. According
to the book, Mattis unilaterally moved
a carrier group closer to Iran, and Donilon, when he noticed, told Mattis to
pull it back. But Donilon told me that
neither the phone call nor the carrier
group incident ever happened. I then
talked to half a dozen former White
House and Pentagon officials who were
in a position to know about it, and none
remembered the incident either.*
Finally, Perry made some puzzling
choices about what to omit. The book
largely ignores the unusual policy issues that arose after September 11 and
led to recurring battles between civilian and uniformed officials in both the
Bush and the Obama administrations.
There is no discussion of Guantánamo
or trying terrorists before military commissions, for example, and only a fleeting reference to torture amid a brief
mention of the Abu Ghraib scandal.
The absence of these crucial issues
in a history of recent civilian–military
relations is glaring, and is all the more
unfortunate because their inclusion
*Others who told me they thought this
story was false included Jeremy Bash,
the chief of staff to former secretary of
defense Leon Panetta; James Miller,
the former undersecretary of defense
for policy; and John Allen, a nowretired Marine general who was formerly Mattis’s deputy commander at
Centcom. I received no answer when I
reached out to Mattis through the Pentagon press office.
would have helped to illuminate significant moves by Trump’s generals.
For example, one of Mattis’s early accomplishments as Trump’s secretary of
defense was to persuade the president
to abandon his campaign promise to
sanction the use of torture for interrogating suspected terrorists. Another
example is Kelly’s decision, on his first
day as Trump’s chief of staff, to send
a draft executive order on detainee
policy, which had been nearly ready for
Trump’s signature, back to lower-level
staffers across the various security
agencies for reworking so that its final
language might better lay the groundwork for putting Guantánamo, which
Kelly had overseen during the Obama
years as leader of the US Southern
Command, to a wider use.
In making sense of those moves, it
helps to know that during the Bush
administration, many (though not all)
uniformed military leaders pushed
back hard against civilian officials’
desire to bypass the Geneva Conventions when it came to abusive interrogations of wartime detainees. And it
helps to know that during the Obama
administration, foot- dragging Defense
Department officials sometimes put up
passive resistance to the White House’s
policy of trying to empty Guantánamo.
Including those civilian–military fights
over policy during the war on terror
would have better supported the book’s
subtitle—and made it even more timely
for the Trump era.
ut there is ample material in The Pentagon’s Wars to raise an important question about the Trump administration:
&$!,$$&! !+ "$
February 8, 2018
Christopher Marlowe
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The Calvin & Rose G Hoffman
Prize for a Distinguished
Scholarly Essay on
Are Trump’s generals cut from the
after he took over as Trump’s national
Mattis has also repeatedly reafsame mold as their recent Pentagon
security adviser.
firmed America’s unconditional supcolleagues, whom Perry sees as havBut Kelly has also done things that
port of NATO after Trump called it
into question, and said publicly that
ing been yes-men? There is some evilooked more accommodating to his
it was in America’s interest to stay in
dence to believe they are not. Even if
boss—and not just carrying out, as
the Iran nuclear deal, even as Trump
the purported carrier group incident is
homeland security secretary, Trump’s
threatened to abrogate it. In Novemdubious, it is widely agreed that Matfirst, poorly designed travel ban, which
ber, Air Force General John Hyten,
tis’s hawkish views on Iran created tencaused chaos before courts blocked it.
the commander of the US Strategic
sions with the Obama administration.
In October, after a Democratic conCommand, which controls the United
When he ran Southern Command,
gresswoman criticized Trump over
States’ nuclear weapons, told an audiKelly was also known for candidly sayhis apparent botching of a consolaence at a security forum that if Trump
ing what he believed even when it put
tion call to the widow of one of the
gave him an “illegal” nuclear attack
him at odds with the White House, as
soldiers killed in Niger, Kelly came to
order, he would reject it and try to steer
when he blamed a major 2013 hunger
the White House podium to invoke the
the commander-in- chief toward lawful
strike at Guantánamo on Obama’s
combat death of his own son, while atoptions.
de facto abandonment of his effort to
tacking the lawmaker as an “empty
close the prison in his administration’s
barrel” whom he had once witnessed
middle years. And McMaster, as Perry
crassly bragging, at the dedication cern short, Trump’s generals—some still
reminds us, wrote a book that became
emony for an FBI building in Miami
named after two slain agents, about
in uniform, some now civilians—are
influential in military circles called
how she had used her access to Presiclearly trying to mitigate turmoil and
Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson,
curb potential dangers. That
Robert McNamara, the Joint
may be at once reassuring and
Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That
disturbing. In the United States,
Led to Vietnam (1997). In it, he
the armed forces are supposed
condemned the Joint Chiefs for
to be apolitical. While the nation
failing to forcefully question (or
should be grateful in these trouresign in protest against) Johnbled times that the military as an
son’s disastrous escalation of the
institution has remained loyal to
Vietnam War.
constitutional values, Ned Price,
Against that backdrop, one
a former CIA officer who served
of the striking patterns duron the National Security Council
ing the first year of the Trump
under Obama, wrote in an essay
administration has been the
in Lawfare that the military’s
repeated spectacle of these curvery act of contradicting or disrent and former military men
tancing itself from the president,
contradicting or brushing off
even subtly, “goes against the
the commander-in- chief. Some
grain of our democratic system
of this has come in culture-war
and should engender at least
episodes, such as the debate over
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly in the Oval Office,
fleeting discomfort among even
transgender troops. After Trump
October 2017
the most virulent administration
abruptly declared on Twitter
critics.” Thus, even if it is a good
that transgender people would
dent Obama to secure funding for the
thing for now that the line between
no longer be permitted to serve in the
project. When video of the ceremony
“civil and military affairs in American
American military “in any capacity,”
surfaced showing that Kelly’s accusasociety” is getting a bit blurred, in the
Dunford said that transgender troops
tion was false, he refused to apologize.
long run, Price warned, “that line must
could remain unless and until some
His performance drew a rebuke from
again become inviolable when our pomore formal directive arrived from the
retired Admiral Mike Mullen, who
litical class returns to its senses.” Or as
White House. When the Trump White
served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs
Mullen, in a speech in October at the
House finally produced such a docufrom 2007 to 2011, and who agreed
US Naval Institute, put it:
ment, Mattis launched a lengthy study
with an interviewer in November that
during which transgender troops would
Kelly now appeared to be “all-in” on
How did we get here to a point
be permitted to keep serving. And
supporting Trump as a policy matter:
where we are depending on retired
Dunford later testified that his advice
generals for the stability of our
was that currently serving transgender
Certainly what happened very
system? And what happens if that
troops should be permitted to stay in
sadly a few weeks ago, when he
bulwark breaks, first of all? I have
the military after all, raising the poswas in a position to both defend
been in too many countries globsibility that the president’s edict may
the president in terms of what hapally where the generals, if you will,
fade away.
pened with the gold star family and
gave great comfort to their citiAnother example came after the rathen he ends up—and John ends
zens. That is not the United States
cially tinged violence surrounding the
up politicizing the death of his own
of America.
marches in Charlottesville sparked by
son in the wars. It is indicative of
the city’s plan to remove a statue of
the fact that he clearly is very supThe more immediate question, howRobert E. Lee. After Trump prompted
portive of the president no matter
ever, may be whether Trump’s generals
widespread outrage by equating the
what. And that, that was really a
will last through the Trump presidency.
white supremacist protesters with antisad moment for me.
McMaster is a regular target of farracist counterprotesters, Mattis gave a
right media outlets that see him as a
speech to troops that took a starkly difStill, for all the turbulence of these
threat to Trump’s nationalist agenda
ferent tone, urging the military to “just
culture-war moments, and for all the
and have urged the president to fire
hold the line until our country gets
slow-burn escalation of counterterrorhim. And in late August, Trump, who
back to understanding and respecting
ism deployments, the military men’s
hates being managed, lashed out at
each other.”
Kelly complicates this pattern. In
most important contribution may be
Kelly, who later reportedly told other
some ways he has looked like a rein restraining full-scale war. This past
White House staffers that he had never
straining force, using his power as chief
summer, for example, in response to
been spoken to like that in his thirtyof staff to impose order on the chaotic
North Korea’s provocative testing of
five years of public service and that he
White House by regimenting the flow
more powerful nuclear weapons and
would not abide such treatment in the
of information to Trump and supportlonger-range missiles, Trump declared
future. While Mattis so far has escaped
ing the ouster of several of the most
that “talking is not the answer.” But
Trump’s penchant for abusing his suborunconventional staffers of his adminMattis contradicted him just a few
dinates, it seems safe to predict that he
istration, such as Anthony Scaramucci,
minutes later, telling reporters: “We’re
too will eventually get on the mercurial
the foulmouthed and short-lived White
never out of diplomatic solutions.”
president’s wrong side. In the meanHouse communications director, and
Similarly, when Trump told reporters
time, it looks increasingly as though
Stephen Bannon, the head of Breithe might use the American military
Mattis’s long-ago meeting outside Falbart News whom Trump had made his
to intervene in Venezuela amid deeplujah, asking over tea that the religious
chief strategist. Those moves echoed
ening unrest there, McMaster swiftly
leaders of Anbar province see reason,
a similar overhaul and purge at the
reassured the world that “no military
foreshadowed his final mission: trying,
National Security Council launched
options are anticipated in the near
on a far larger scale, to keep things from
by McMaster last spring and summer,
spinning out of control at home.
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The Horror, the Horror
Gary Saul Morson
The Essential Fictions
by Isaac Babel,
edited and translated
from the Russian by Val Vinokur.
Northwestern University Press,
404 pp., $21.95 (paper)
Red Cavalry
by Isaac Babel, translated
from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk.
London: Pushkin Press,
219 pp., $18.00 (paper)
Odessa Stories
by Isaac Babel, translated
from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk.
London: Pushkin Press,
221 pp., $18.00 (paper)
On January 17, 1940, Stalin approved
the sentences of 346 prominent people,
including the dramaturge Vsevolod
Meyerhold, the former NKVD (secret
police) chief Nikolai Yezhov, and the
writer Isaac Babel. All were shot. Babel
had been arrested on May 15, 1939, in
the middle of the night, and, the story
goes, he remarked to an NKVD officer:
“So, I guess you don’t get much sleep,
do you?”
Grim wit was Babel’s trademark. He
is best known for a cycle of short stories
entitled Red Cavalry, a fictionalized
account of his experiences as a Bolshevik war correspondent with a Cossack
regiment during the Soviet invasion of
Poland in 1920. Lionel Trilling, who introduced Babel to the English-speaking
world, recognized these stories as the
masterpiece of Soviet literature.1 Some
of Babel’s other stories, especially his
Odessa tales, also impressed Trilling
and have remained favorites. They
offer a tragicomic portrait of Odessa’s large Jewish community, with its
rabbis, sensitive schoolboys, and, improbably, a Jewish gangster whose adventures combine epic heroism with a
trickster’s ingenuity.
How did a young man “with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his
heart,” as he describes himself in one
story, wind up in a regiment of Cossacks, known for their extreme brutality, violent masculinity, and hatred of
Jews? Born into a middle- class Jewish
family in 1894, Babel, who received
a traditional Jewish education, was
steeped in the polyglot, multicultural
communities of Odessa, where he acquired fluency in Hebrew, Yiddish,
and French, as well as Russian. In one
story, he describes how Odessa Jews
were obsessed with turning their sons
into great violinists, like Mischa Elman
or Jascha Heifetz; but Babel, who concealed copies of Turgenev on his music
stand, preferred the traditional Russian
view of literature as the most important
thing in the world.
Influenced by Maupassant, he wrote
his first stories in French, but as he recalls in his autobiographical tale “My
First Honorarium,” he was inhibited by
his belief that “it was pointless to write
worse than Lev Tolstoy.” With Tolstoy,
he told an interviewer, “the electric
charge went from the earth, through
the hands, straight to the paper, with
Trilling’s introduction to Isaac Babel,
The Collected Stories, translated by
Walter Morison (Criterion, 1955).
no insulation, quite mercilessly stripping off any and all outer layers with a
sense of truth . . . both transparent and
beautiful.” But it was not Tolstoy’s incomparable realism and transparent
style that Babel would cultivate. It was
his ability to strip away all life’s accidents and reveal its “essence.”
In his tale “Childhood. At Grandmother’s,” the young Babel learns to see
everything around him—streets, shop
windows, stones—“in a special way . . .
and I was quite certain that I could see
in them what was most important, mysterious, what we grown-ups call the essence of things.” He discovered in his
Cavalry, and it is certainly important.
But something else is going on. The
author approaches the world as an anthropologist, a disinterested spectator
recording the odd customs of Cossacks,
Jews, Poles, priests, Hasidic rebbes,
camp whores, and every sort of perpetrator or victim of extreme violence.
Observing his own reactions as if they
were someone else’s, or placing himself in dangerous situations in order
to monitor his own emotions, he treats
himself as just another specimen of the
human condition. In his story “My First
Goose,” he wonders at his own taste
for violence and its intimate link with
A photograph of Isaac Babel taken by the NKVD after his arrest, circa 1939
grandfather a man who “was ruled by
an inextinguishable search for knowledge and for life.” His grandmother
told him not to trust anyone, but to acquire all human knowledge: “You must
know everything,” she demanded, and
with these words she shaped “my destiny, and her solemn covenant presses
firmly—and forevermore—upon my
weak little shoulders.” That destiny,
as he conceived it, was to become “the
[Russian] literary Messiah, awaited in
vain for so long.”
To see into the essence of things
requires experience. In one autobiographical tale, a proofreader rebukes
Babel for not knowing the natural
world: “And you dare to write! A person who doesn’t live in nature, as a
stone or an animal lives in nature, will
never write two worthwhile lines in his
entire life.” But it was human beings,
in all their beauty and loathsomeness,
he most wanted to know. In 1915, he
moved to St. Petersburg and wrote
some stories that impressed Maxim
Gorky, who published Babel’s work
in his newspaper New Life, until the
Bolsheviks shut it down. As Babel recalled, Gorky advised him to go into
the world and acquire real experience.
Over the next few years, Babel served
as a soldier on the Romanian front and
may even have worked for the nascent
Cheka (secret police) before becoming
a war correspondent.
here could hardly have been a more
grotesque pairing than a sensitive Jewish intellectual with a brutal Cossack
regiment. For Trilling, this contrast
constitutes the central theme of Red
sexuality. He has to know everything.
But what is the morality of looking
at human suffering from outside, as a
scientist examines specimens? That,
too, is a theme of these stories and of
Babel’s work in general. In her memoir Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda
Mandelstam describes Babel as a risktaker, willing to do anything, however
dangerous or morally questionable, to
learn about unexpected situations and
strange people. Babel listened with
more intensity than anyone she had
ever met, while everything about him
“gave an impression of all- consuming
curiosity—the way he held his head, his
mouth, his chin, and particularly his
eyes. . . . Babel’s main driving force was
the unbridled curiosity with which he
scrutinized life and people.”
Babel even seemed to enjoy risk itself.
During the great purges, he had an affair with the NKVD chief Yezhov’s wife.
Instead of living in apartment buildings
for writers, he chose a house where foreigners stayed. “Who in his right mind
would have lived in the same house
as foreigners?” Mandelstam asked,
since any contact with foreigners was
a likely death sentence. She also reports that Babel spent a lot of time with
“militiamen,” a euphemism for NKVD
agents. Mandelstam’s husband, the poet
Osip Mandelstam, asked Babel why he
was so drawn to such company: “Was
it a desire to see what it was like in the
exclusive store where the merchandise
was death?” Babel replied: “I just like to
have a whiff and see what it smells like.”
One might suppose that Yezhov had
Babel arrested for sleeping with his
wife, but in fact he was arrested after
Yezhov fell, apparently because it was
routine to incarcerate anyone associated with an enemy of the people.
Under interrogation, which almost always involved torture, Babel implicated
other cultural figures—not as spies, but
for the views they actually held, which
no one but a totalitarian would find
objectionable. Sergei Eisenstein, according to Babel, had remarked that
under current conditions gifted individuals could not fully realize their talents, while the writer Ilya Ehrenburg
complained that “the continuing wave
of arrests forced all Soviet citizens to
break off any relations with foreigners.” As was not uncommon, Babel’s
confession was bloodstained.
The narrator of Red Cavalry—the war
correspondent Vasily Lyutov, the pseudonym Babel himself had used among
the Cossacks—observes everyone anthropologically, even his fellow Jews, as
if they were a strange tribe. In the opening story, “Crossing the Zbruch,” he is
quartered with a poor Jewish family,
consisting of a pregnant woman, a man
with a covered head asleep against the
wall, and two “scraggy necked Jews”
who hop about “monkey-fashion.” As if
he were disgusted by contact with Jews,
Lyutov describes finding in the room assigned to him “turned-out wardrobes . . .
scraps of women’s fur coats on the floor,
human excrement, and shards of the
hidden dishware Jews use once a year—
at Easter.”
These Jews take their revenge on
him for his imperious treatment of
them. He discovers to his horror that
the man with the covered head, next to
whom he has been sleeping, is a corpse
with a cut throat. The woman explains
that her father begged the Poles to kill
him outside, so his daughter wouldn’t
see him die, “‘but they did as they saw
fit. He met his end in this room and
was thinking of me. And now I should
wish to know,’ said the woman with
sudden and terrible violence, ‘I wish
to know where in the whole world
you could find another father like my
Red Cavalry draws on a diary Babel
kept in which he expresses horror at
the violence committed by Reds, Poles,
and partisans alike.2 Everyone kills
Jews, and he asks himself, “Can it be
that ours is the century in which they
perish?” Like Lyutov, the war correspondent in the stories, Babel clings to a
belief in revolution as more than senseless killing, but encounters everywhere
“the ineradicable cruelty of human beings.” Several stories are narrations by
Bolshevik soldiers who nonchalantly
describe their hideous, needless brutality as a fight against “treason” and
“counter-revolution.” Babel entertains
the thought that “this isn’t a Marxist
revolution, it’s a Cossack rebellion,”
which at least leaves open the possibility that a true Marxist revolution
is taking place elsewhere, but he soon
surrenders even this consolation. “Our
way of bringing freedom—horrible.”
The Bolshevik soldiers resemble their
enemies. “The hatred is the same, the
Cossacks just the same, the cruelty the
same, it’s nonsense to think one army
Isaac Babel, 1920 Diary, edited by
Carol J. Avins and translated by H.T.
Willetts (Yale University Press, 1995).
The New York Review
Pati Hill, Alphabet of Common Objects, c. 1975-79, 45 black and white copier
prints, each 11"x 8.5" ; Image courtesy Estate of Pati Hill.
Andrei Kushnir, Timeless, 9 ¼” x 12 ¼” Oil
American Painting Fine Art 5125 MacArthur Blvd., NW, Suite 17,
Washington, DC 20016; 202-244-3244;;
Wed. thru Sat. 11 am–7 pm, and by appointment.
Current Exhibit: Small Treasures, works by Gallery Artists, Guest Artists and members of the Washington Society of Landscape Painters.
Small paintings in oil, acrylic, mixed media and watercolor, all framed
and perfect for giving (or keeping!). Also, works by gallery artists Andrei Kushnir, Michele Martin Taylor, David Baise, Michael Francis, Carol
Spils, Stevens Jay Carter, and Ross Merrill. Our gallery is dedicated to
the finest work in landscape, still life, genre, urban and marine art by
current traditional American painters, many with national reputations.
Boris Lurie Art Foundation
599 11th Avenue, Floor 4,
New York, NY 10036
Boris Lurie in Habana, a
survey of Lurie’s work at
the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes La Habana, Cuba
has been extended through
January 28, 2018.
"The majority of the works
in this exhibition are enBORIS LURIE. “NO in Orange”, c. 1962
tertaining only as an afterthought l believe; their primary intention is to communicate, or more
accurately, be a savage experience that owes little to that diplomatic
finesse which all commercial art must cultivate. Why? Because serious art in a rather cowardly mass society such as ours must constantly assert to the public that it is motivated by a different purpose
than the decorative or simply artful work which is gobbled up by
mass-media man without Indigestion. We have too much sickness
in every compromised area of our lives to need art that soothes."
Seymour Krim, 1963
Pink Bath, 2016, acrylic on panel, 16" x 20"
John Davis Gallery 362 ½ Warren Street, Hudson, NY 12534;
(518) 828-5907;;
Polina Barskaya, Paintings. Feb 2 – 25.
"My recent paintings are of my immediate surroundings. They are usually self-portraits or portraits of my husband in different moments of our
daily life. They are a kind of documentation, a way of examining, breaking apart, remembering, understanding the passing of time, and recording the stillness of private moments in a very fast paced isolating world."
Polina Barskaya, 2018
Swann Auction Galleries 104 East
25th Street, New York, NY 10010;
(212) 254-4710;
Upcoming Auction:
“Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel
Books,” March 8; Preview: March 3 to 7.
Featuring a selection of early Spanish
books on agriculture, heraldry, horses,
law, literature, medicine, theology and
travel. Fine incunabula include the earliest surviving manual of chess, Arte de
Ajedres by Luis de Lucena, circa 1496-97.
First illustrated editions of two early astronomical texts—the 1478 Sphaera mundi
Luis de Lucena, Arte de ajedres, by Johannes Sacrobosco, and the 1482
first edition, Salamanca, circa
Poeticon Astronomicon by Caius Julius
1496-97. Estimate $10,000 to
Hyginus—will also be offered.
If y ou would like to a d ver tise a
g alle ry or m useum exhibition in
T he New York R e v ie w’s
Galle ri e s & Museums Listing,
p le as e cont act T y Ana nia a t or (212) 293-1630.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1(880 – 1938)
Nudes on the Beach, Fehmarn Island,
W & K Fine Art, Vienna will be
Participating in Master Drawings New York 2018 and is
showing highlights, including
paintings and sculpture, from
the Vienna gallery’s collection
at their New York partner-gallery, Shepherd W & K.
The Master Drawings even
takes place from Saturday 27
January to Saturday 3 February 2018. Further information
can be found on our website:
Wildlife Art
Painted of an old tiger I
photographed in Ranthambhore, India. A portion of each sale goes
to WWF, Panthera, or,
Defenders of Wildlife.
After the web site visit,
send all inquiries to:
Michael Banks: mike@
Emily Nelligan:
Selected Cranberry Island Drawings
Marvin Bileck:
Rain Makes Applesauce
February 10th through March 24th
Loren MacIver: Early Work
February 10th through March 24th
Emily Nelligan, Untitled, c. 1975,
charcoal on paper, 13 x 9 7/8 inches.
Deborah Rosenthal,
Scholar’s Landscape, 2016.
Gouache on paper, 22" x 11"
Shepherd / W & K Galleries
58 East 79th Street, New York,
NY 10075; (212) 861-4050; Fax:
(212) 772-1314; shepherdny@;
Alexandre Gallery
Bowery Gallery 530 West 25 Street, NY
NY 10001; (646) 230-6655;
Falling Uphill: Paintings (January 30–February 24) brings together new paintings by
Deborah Rosenthal in gouache on paper
and oil on canvas. This work reflects the
artist’s recent stays in Rome and in upstate
New York. New and recurring themes—
classical columns juxtaposed with sculpted
figures; the pensive, reclining man or woman in a wide landscape—are set to an insistent beat of vertical-and-horizontal in these
crosshatched compositions.
Lyman Allyn Art Museum 625 Williams Street, New London, CT
06320; (860) 443-2545;
Pati Hill: Photocopier, A Survey of Prints and Books (on view through
March 4, 2018) is an exhibition that considers the first phase of the
cross-disciplinary art of Pati Hill. Although her exploration of the photocopier did not begin until the early 1970s, Hill is regarded as a pioneer
due to her singular approach to the medium. Employing the copier to
record items as common as a gum wrapper or as unexpected as a dead
swan, she also applied the process to transform appropriated photographs for her experiments with narrative.
"Tiger Mountain. It is 24" x 36" acrylic.
Blue Mountain Gallery 530
W 25th St, NY, NY (646) 4864730;;
Tues–Sat 11–6
Anne Diggory: Out of Place
January 30–Feb 24th, 2018
Reception: Thurs, Feb 1, 5–8pm
Gallery talk: Sat, Feb 24, 4pm
Blue Mountain Gallery presents
Out of Place, an exhibition of recent works by Anne Diggory that
involve shifts in media, location
“Why I am not a poet” 24 x 24”. acrylic/
and content. The light-infused
canvas. Homage to Grace and Frank
works include large lake scenes
derived from canoeing Adirondack waterways in upstate New York,
plein air paintings from trips to California and Arizona, and studio interiors with surprising juxtapositions of palettes, everyday objects and
The Grolier Club 47 East 60th Street,
New York, NY 10022; (212) 838-6690;
“A Conversation larger than the Universe: Science Fiction and the Literature
of the Fantastic 1762-2017,” from the collection of Henry Wessells, January 25
through March 10.
Marking the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, this is the first science
fiction exhibition at The Grolier Club.
Seventy books, manuscripts, letters, and
works of art are on view, charting the
emergence of science fiction from the
Gothic and its history up to our dystopian present, and including notable
works by Shelley, H. G. Wells, Katharine Burdekin, Philip K. Dick, Joanna Russ, and others. An illustrated catalogue is available, 288 pages.
(ISBN 978-1-60583-074-2).
In one story, Lyutov encounters an old
Jew, Gedali, who questions whether
paradise can be achieved by random
killing and a war on religion. “The
Revolution—we will say yes to it, but
are we to say no to the Sabbath?”
asks Gedali. Poles beat Jews and the
Revolution beats Poles, which makes
sense, but then why does the Revolution practice violence on Jews as well?
The narrator, pretending to be an unshakable Bolshevik, replies that the
revolution “cannot do without shooting, . . . because she is the Revolution.”
If so, Gedali asks, how is one to tell
revolution from counterrevolution? “I
want an International of kind people,”
Gedali declares, “I would like every
soul to be registered and given firstcategory rations. There, soul, please
eat and enjoy life’s pleasures.” As the
story closes, “Gedali, founder of an impossible International, has gone to the
synagogue to pray.”
The cycle’s core story, “The Life and
Adventures of Matthew Pavlichenko,”
questions the anthropological impulse
itself. What is the morality of treating
living people experimentally, whether
to understand human nature, as the
narrator wishes, or to test sociological
theories, as suggested by the phrase
“the Soviet experiment”? Babel based
the tale not only on a real officer, Apanasenko, described in his diary as
especially brutal, but also on his own
impulse to take brutality as a key to
human nature. “Must penetrate the
soul of the fighting man, I’m penetrating, it’s all horrible, wild beasts with
principles,” he notes in the diary.
The fictional Pavlichenko, who narrates the story, practices cruelty not
only out of revenge or revolutionary
principle but, like Babel himself, out
of a desire to “penetrate the soul.”
Before the Revolution, Pavlichenko’s
master, Nikitinsky, exploited him and
slept with his wife, but now the tables
are turned. As a Red general, Pavlichenko returns to the estate, terrifies
Nikitinsky, and claims to be delivering
a letter written by Lenin to Nikitinsky
personally. I took out a blank page,
Pavlichenko explains, and pretended to
read, “though I can’t read to save my
life. ‘In the name of the people and the
establishment of a bright future, I order
Pavlichenko, Matvei Rodionych, to deprive certain people of life according
to his discretion. . . . That’s Lenin’s letter for you.’”
Since this is apparently a revenge
story, we expect Pavlichenko to shoot
his former master, but learn that the
general has more on his mind than
settling scores. Like Babel, he regards
himself as a sort of social scientist who,
with disinterested curiosity, seeks to
learn the essential truth about life. In
the most chilling passage of Red Cavalry, Pavlichenko, groping for words,
experiments on his victim. Instead of
shooting him,
I trampled my master Nikitinsky.
I trampled on him for an hour or
more than an hour, and in that
time I got to know life in full.
Shooting—I’ll put it this way—
only gets rid of a person, . . . shooting won’t get at the soul, to where
it is in a person and how it shows itself. But, some of the times, I don’t
spare myself, some of the times, I
trample an enemy for more than
an hour, seeing as I wish to get to
know life, this life we live.
Time and again, Pavlichenko does not
spare himself. The quest for knowledge
demands no less.
Untold horror results when knowledge is more important than people,
and still more when one imagines that
life’s essence is to be found in extreme
situations. Babel here enters a debate
running through Russian literature
about whether true life resides in extreme situations, as Dostoevsky’s characters tend to assume, or in the most
ordinary ones, as Tolstoy and Chekhov
believed. Babel and Lyutov are
drawn to extremes, but repeatedly discover the value of the
In “The Death of Dolgushov,”
Lyutov’s coachman Grishchuk,
seeing people torn apart, asks:
“Why do women bother?. . .
What’s the point of matchmaking and marriages and kin dancing at weddings” and all that
effort to raise children? “Makes
me laugh . . .why women bother.”
What women do every day, that’s
what matters, and what violent
men—those “wild beasts with
principles”—do destroys the results of all their prosaic work.
Lyutov and Grishchuk encounter
an injured soldier with his insides
hanging out and his heartbeats
visible, who begs Lyutov to
shoot him so the Poles won’t be
able “to play their nasty tricks”
on him. Lyutov can’t do it, and
his refusal horrifies his friend
Afonka Bida, who rightly detects
cruelty in such “compassion.”
“Your kind with your glasses feel
sorry for our brother like a cat’s
sorry for a mouse,” Bida fumes. As Lyutov despairs at losing Bida as a friend,
Grishchuk, who understands prosaic
goodness, comforts him. As the story
ends, he “took a shriveled apple from
under his driver’s seat. ‘Eat,’ he said to
me. ‘Please, eat . . .’”
In both the diary and the stories, the
author treats the wanton destruction of
beehives as symbolic of war on everyday life and its prosaic values. “Total
destruction. . . . The orchard, apiary,
destruction of the hives, terrible, bees
buzzing despairingly, the men blow
up the hives with gunpowder . . . a wild
orgy . . . I feel sick about it all,” he writes
in the diary, and one Red Cavalry story
begins: “I mourn for the bees. . . . We
defiled untold hives. . . . There are no
more bees in Volhynia.” Bees matter
to the artist Pan Apolek, who scandalizes churchmen by painting Jesus and
Mary with the faces of local sinners, as
if to show that the sacred resides not in
mythic distance but right before one’s
eyes. He tells a story about how gnats
plaguing Jesus on the cross asked a bee
to sting him, but the bee refused since
Jesus is a fellow carpenter. Soldiers kill
bees, but Jesus is their brother.
Babel strove for concision. It is said
that he rewrote one story twenty-two
times to make it as brief and powerful
as possible. For Babel, the right word, le
mot juste, was often the word omitted.
Unsurprisingly, his output was small,
and he produced less and less as Stalinist rule tightened. This silence, and the
reasons for it, became the target of his
own mordant irony in his speech at the
Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934.
The Party and the government, he explained, “have given us everything, depriving us of only one privilege—that
of writing badly.” Of course, without
that right, it is impossible to write anything worthwhile at all. So fearful am I
of disappointing readers, he concludes,
I have become the master of a new
genre: the genre of silence. This comment resonated over the years since
so much Russian literature was written for the drawer, appearing only decades later, or, like Babel’s last work,
was seized by the NKVD and never
as “crumpled” (smyatyi), the way one
crumples a piece of paper before throwing it away. The ruins are not twisted
or gnarled or brought to confusion, but
crooked: the word skruchennyi, as my
colleague Nina Gourianova reminds
me, is the one used in Samuil Marshak’s
famous translation of the English nursery rhyme about a crooked man in a
crooked house. Babel’s strange lexicon,
and the peculiar image of a town resembling a crumpled letter, disappear.
And the translators omit the double
use of the word “in” (“In NovogradVolynsk, in the hastily crumpled city”),
so the sentence’s rhythm changes.
Dralyuk makes a principle of explaining. His introduction offers as an
example of his method a passage
where Babel describes old letters
as istlevshikh (rotten, decaying).
Dralyuk alters this to “letters
worn thin”: “If one takes a moment to imagine what Babel’s
narrator imagines . . . one can
conjure the fragile letters before
one’s eyes, feel their texture; they
have been ‘worn thin’ by friction and sweat.” But Babel does
not describe them as worn thin,
and the Red Cavalry stories constantly offer images of rot, decay,
and moldering.
Translation is the theme of Babel’s story “Guy de Maupassant.”
A woman loves Maupassant passionately, but her renditions remain “tediously correct, lifeless
and loud, the way Jews used to
write Russian.” The narrator
helps: “I spent all night hacking
a path through someone else’s
translation,” he explains (Vinokur). “A phrase is born into
the world both good and bad at
the same time. The secret lies in
a barely discernible twist. The
lever should rest in your hand,
getting warm. You must turn it once, but
not twice.” Too often, Morison turns it
twice, and Dralyuk not at all. Vinokur
gets the right effect most often.
“Guy de Maupassant” contains Babel’s most quoted line about style: “No
iron can enter the heart as icily as a
period placed in time.” (“Nikakoe zhelezo ne mozhet voiti v chelovecheskoe
serdtse tak ledenyashche, kak tochka,
postavlennaya vovremya.”) It is especially sad when translators get the timing of this very sentence wrong. They
drag it out, which is like giving a joke
a wordy punch line. In Morison’s version, “No iron can stab the heart with
such force as a period put just at the
right place,” while Vinokur renders:
“Nothing of iron can breach the human
heart with the chill of a period placed
just in time.” “Stab” and “breach” are
interpretations; “with force” does not
mean “icily”; the right place is not the
right time; and the word “just” is only
implied. For both translators, Babel’s
fourteen words needlessly expand to
eighteen. The period arrives, like a
bungled witticism, a bit late.
Translators, like the rest of us, cling
to words, thoughts, and images that
are all too hopelessly familiar. That
is why Babel crafted a style to shock
readers into seeing the strangeness
before their eyes. He gave his words a
terrifying twist that lodges them in the
heart and mind. Those given, as he was,
to romanticize violence and seek truth
in extreme situations would do well to
attend to his invisible voices and resonant silences.
Sovphoto/ UIG /Getty Images
is different from another. . . . There’s no
Isaac Babel with his grandson, date unknown
Babel’s prose depends on his silences, on what he does not say. Like
his contemporaries the Russian Formalists, he wanted to shock readers out
of cliché and routine perceptions, and
so he cultivated a style demanding interpretations he did not provide. When
convention or common sense suggests
one word, he provides another, slightly
but significantly different. The test of
a good translator is whether she preserves the strangeness. When Babel
writes “invisible voices,” does the
translator supply (as Walter Morison
does) “mysterious voices”? Without
realizing it, most translators betray Babel’s style by interpreting his words.
The new translations by Boris Dralyuk and Val Vinokur, like Morison’s
classic one, provide a readable text
that captures much of what makes Babel’s stories great, but they often explain—that is, explain away—Babel’s
oddities. In the story “Pan Apolek,”
Babel begins a sentence: “V NovogradVolynske, v naspekh smyatom gorode,
sredi skruchennykh razvalin,” which,
as literally as possible, means: “In
Novograd-Volynsk, in the hastily crumpled city, amid the crooked ruins. . . .”
Vinokur gives us “In NovogradVolynsk, among the twisted ruins
of that swiftly crushed town,” while
Dralyuk offers “In Novograd-Volynsk,
among the gnarled ruins of that hastily crushed city.” And Morison: “In
Novograd-Volynsk, among the ruins of
a town swiftly brought to confusion. . . .”
These are all interpretations, almost
paraphrases. Babel describes the city
The New York Review
The High Table Liberal
WireImage/Getty Images
Sean Wilentz
The Imperial Historian
by Richard Aldous.
Norton, 486 pp., $29.95
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. loved American politics. Nominating conventions
thrilled him. Late-night schmoozing
on the campaign trail was hard to beat.
“I must say,” he wrote in his journal in
1960, “that I adore sitting around hotel
rooms with politicians and newspapermen exchanging gossip over drinks.”
Some of the precincts he frequented
were seriously glamorous. (Also from
his journal, about a giant Adlai Stevenson rally at the old Madison Square
Garden in 1952: “Lauren Bacall hailed
me excitedly . . . her voice quivering
with feeling, ‘Arthur, did you read
Walter Lippmann’s column this morning?’”) But Schlesinger delighted in the
humblest political rites—whistle-stop
speeches at the crack of dawn, hackfilled Democratic Jefferson-Jackson
Day dinners—with what he called their
mixture of “corny pontifical introductions, wisecracks and seriousness.”
Today the midcentury American
liberalism that Schlesinger defended and
in large measure defined seems as antiquated as whistle-stops and JeffersonJackson Day dinners. About thirty
years ago, most liberal politicians and
intellectuals (though not Schlesinger)
dropped the toxic “L-word,” denigrated
by the left as well as the right, and began
calling themselves “progressives,” which
had been a decidedly antiliberal term
of the left. With fewer people rising to
claim or even describe its principles, and
with the Democratic Party reduced to a
congeries of special interests, liberalism
lost its élan and came to be redefined by
its political enemies.
Now, a decade after his death,
Schlesinger’s liberalism, in a remarkable convergence of radical left and
radical right, is widely regarded as the
politics of a decadent, self- enraptured,
war-mongering globalist establishment
that long ago abandoned the working
class and the poor. Known in left-wing
circles as “neoliberalism”—once a precise term in economic theory defining
Thatcherism that has morphed into
a sweeping pejorative against liberals, progressives, and European social
democrats not of the hard left—this
caricature stoked rage at both ends of
the spectrum in last year’s election and
had a lot to do with the victory of Donald J. Trump.
In view of this recent history, the
subtitle of Richard Aldous’s otherwise
solid biography is misleading as well as
erroneous. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was
in no way an “imperial” historian; he
was an anti-imperial historian. He created no empire of academic acolytes.
Nor did he write of the United States
as an empire. He did title one of his finest books The Imperial Presidency, but
this was a warning about the dangers
of unchecked executive power. Aldous
might have better described him as a
democratic historian (or even, given
his partisan loyalty, a Democratic historian), although that would have
elided his elite associations and his oldschool, martini-at-lunch, Century Club
style. Schlesinger is best described as a
February 8, 2018
just after FDR’s death, when (fresh
from the Harvard Society of Fellows
via the Office of Wartime Information
and the Office of Strategic Services,
and not yet thirty) he published his second book, The Age of Jackson. For decades, patrician historians had defamed
Andrew Jackson’s presidency as an erratic disaster, headed by a lawless, violent, unschooled ruffian and supported
blindly by the newly enfranchised, ignorant masses. Schlesinger replaced
that view with an account of Jackson
as a genuine democratic leader, the foe
of monopoly and what his supporters
called “the money power” as well as of
the militant, fractious South Carolina
slaveholders led by John C. Calhoun.
Above all, Schlesinger wrote, Jackson
advanced a liberal politics based on
“executive vigor and government action,” in contrast with abiding Jeffersonian fears of centralized power.
Alexandra and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. at Tavern on the Green, New York City, May 1987;
photograph by Ron Galella
liberal historian; he was a leading member of an outstanding generation of liberal historians that included Richard
Hofstadter and C. Vann Woodward.
Aldous’s subtitle conveys a different
impression, portending a book that will
string together all the familiar and trite
putdowns of Schlesinger as the Kennedy family’s obsequious courtier and
(as many leftists saw him) an apologist
for various cold war crimes—that is, an
imperial historian.
But Aldous, a British-born historian
who now teaches at Bard, is not that
kind of biographer. His earlier writings
on modern Anglo-American diplomacy and, above all, on the sometimes
strained relations between Margaret
Thatcher and Ronald Reagan shrewdly
depict the play of principle, obligation,
and psychology that drives politics at
the highest levels. It is a quality of perception that distinguished Schlesinger’s
best historical writing, and it helps Aldous illuminate that writing as well as
Schlesinger’s political forays. Aldous
clearly respects Schlesinger’s politics,
but his detachment gives him room to
criticize without sanctimony and to empathize without evasion. His book helps
reveal why Schlesinger mattered so
much to the history of modern American liberalism, a history and a politics
now badly in need of rescue and repair.
Schlesinger made large intellectual
contributions to three major phases of
twentieth- century American history:
the New Deal, the coming of the cold
war, and the advent of the Kennedy and
Johnson administrations. Born in 1917,
he was too young to be an actual New
Dealer; his real influence began in 1945,
raised by academic as well as popular reviewers, The Age of Jackson instantly became a rare scholarly best
seller and won a Pulitzer Prize—and
soon enough it began to attract unfriendly scrutiny. Some pro-business
critics called it a wrongheaded attack
on early American banking and finance; left-leaning historians called it
an apology for capitalism.1 Both sides
agreed that Schlesinger had projected
the politics of the New Deal back a century earlier, creating a fanciful heroic
Jackson in the mold of the book’s true
hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The latter charge especially was facile and unfair. The Age of Jackson was
a product of its time, but scholars had
presaged its main contentions, particularly about the importance of urban
labor and antimonopolism to Jacksonian politics, long before 1945 or even
1932. (Not least among the revisionists, in fact, was Schlesinger’s father
and fellow Harvard historian, Arthur
Schlesinger Sr.) By rooting Jacksonianism in turbulent class conflicts, the
younger Schlesinger completed a larger
shift in historians’ emphasis away
from celebrating regionalism and the
western frontier as the wellsprings of
American democracy.
FDR’s presence can be detected easily enough; Schlesinger was not shy
about suggesting likenesses between
the past and present. But The Age
of Jackson, even with its infirmities
in retrospect, is a deeply researched,
brilliantly written, and intellectually
acute account of the 1830s, not the
1930s. “One turns with relief from
more partisan myth-making histories,”
Hofstadter, who would later become a
sharp critic of Schlesinger’s argument,
wrote in an early review, “to a study so
An assistant secretary to the Board
of Governors of the Federal Reserve,
Bray Hammond (not Hamilton, as Aldous has it) led the pro-business attack
on Schlesinger’s approving account of
Jackson’s war on the Second Bank of
the United States. An entire sub-school
of historians, based at Columbia and
arguing mainly from the left, claimed
that the faux-populist Jackson, no
friend to labor, was in fact a tribune of
cutthroat entrepreneurs.
“Democracy in the Making,” The New
Republic, October 22, 1945.
lthough directed at international affairs, The Vital Center had everything
to do with domestic cold war politics.
The alliance between New Deal liberals and the pro- Communist wartime
Popular Front left had ruptured. By
1948, the pro- Communists, lambasting
President Harry S. Truman’s containment policies, were supporting the Progressive Party’s presidential candidate,
FDR’s jilted ex-vice president Henry
Wallace. Schlesinger had recently
joined a group that included Niebuhr,
Eleanor Roosevelt, and Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers to form Americans for Democratic
Action (ADA), which in its statement
of principles rejected “any association
with Communists or sympathizers with
communism in the United States.” The
Vital Center, expanded with customary
serving a presidency from the inside—
a presidency that he hoped would
build upon the liberal political tradition his books had traced back to Andrew Jackson. He had every intention
of eventually completing “The Age of
Roosevelt,” but something along the
lines of a book (or several) on the age
of Kennedy began taking shape.
operation—or a bland politics of bipartisan consensus in opposition to the left
and the right. The book’s whole point
was that liberals had to champion “a
fighting faith,” locked in struggle over
enduring vital issues, while also repudiating the Communist temptation.
Aldous’s best chapters concern
Schlesinger’s third contribution, in his
later work for and with John F. Kennedy. In 1952, by then a political intellectual with connections at the highest
levels, Schlesinger enlisted in Adlai
Stevenson’s presidential campaign,
where he mastered the art of breakneck
speechwriting. Although taken with
Stevenson as an intelligent new force
in national politics, Schlesinger became frustrated by his indecisiveness,
which the candidate projected as highmindedness, and by his conservative
Dominique Nabokov
much concerned with the larger problems of historical causation and powered to such an unusual degree by a
capacity for analytical thinking.”2
The book did, however, make sense
of Jacksonian democracy in ways that
helped readers make sense of the
New Deal—especially readers who,
like Schlesinger, came of age in the
1930s—which helped to account for its
popular success. (Aldous aptly calls it
a “generational” book.) In their zigzag
opportunism, the New Dealers offered
shifting rationales for their experimental policies but nothing like a coherent
political philosophy. Schlesinger, plowing through stacks of long-forgotten
speeches, letters, pamphlets, and editorials—by long-forgotten pro-Jackson
radicals as well as mainstream officeholders—found a broad coherence in
the Jacksonians’ ideas that carried over
to contemporary politics on three specific points.
First, Schlesinger claimed—and on
this, he quoted FDR himself—Jacksonian democracy upheld a doctrine
“that entrusts the general welfare to no
one group or class.” Second, the Jacksonians advanced the interests of noncapitalist groups, preeminently farmers
and laboring men, in what Schlesinger
called “that enduring struggle between
the business community and the rest of
society which is the guarantee of freedom in a liberal capitalist state.” Finally, the Jacksonians, chiefly through
President Jackson’s assertion of executive power, began breaking down the
Jeffersonian obsession with curbing
the powers of the national government.
Here was the intellectual basis for
a liberalism that accepted capitalism (which the 1930s Marxist left did
not) but that was also intensely suspicious of capitalists, a liberalism that
endorsed a powerful national government and a powerful presidency as
the chief instruments for protecting
ordinary Americans from the power of
business. Schlesinger would return to
those themes in his subsequent three
volumes of a projected but never completed magnum opus, “The Age of
Roosevelt,” published between 1957
and 1960. But by the time those books
appeared, he had already made his second major contribution to liberalism
with his cold war manifesto, The Vital
Center (1949).
Aldous correctly links The Vital Center to Schlesinger’s growing discomfort
with the treacherous conventional political cant of “left” and “right.” Amid
the global struggle against totalitarianism, Schlesinger charged, liberals everywhere had to disown communism just as
sharply as conservatives had to disown
fascism. In defense of democracy, the
book also presented a critique of political perfectionism. This was grounded
in the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr,
which took special aim at a naive if wellintentioned faith in reason, moral nobility, and human progress that Schlesinger
called “Doughface” progressivism. The
human flaws inherent in the species,
Schlesinger wrote, demanded a strenuous, tough-minded egalitarian politics
that was also informed by a sense of its
own fallibility and tragedy—a politics
that recognized basic conflicts, then
proceeded from “the continuing struggle to try and solve them, not from the
vain hope of their solution.”
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Carl Bernstein, New York City, 1985;
photograph by Dominique Nabokov
Schlesingerian speed from an article he
had published early in 1948, became a
handbook of anti- Soviet liberalism. It
remains a genuine classic in the literature of American politics.
The rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy
soon thereafter led to unjust charges
that Schlesinger and the pro-Truman
liberals had abetted the rise of the Red
Scare and, more broadly, to the distortion that their pragmatic rejection of
political purism marked a readiness
to sacrifice principles for the sake of
gaining power. To be sure, the Truman
administration, under pressure from
the right, blundered into supporting an
egregious loyalty oath program; and as
Aldous shows, Schlesinger’s own actions in the early 1950s were not impeccable. (In 1951, for example, when
a leftist editor who had irked him by
turning down George Orwell’s Animal Farm was named as a member of
the Communist Party before a Senate
subcommittee, Schlesinger denounced
him in the press, a disgraceful episode
he later regretted.)
But the witch hunts alarmed
Schlesinger, who would have nothing
to do with what he called an obsessive
anticommunism that “argued that critics of McCarthy were ‘objectively’ (an
old Communist Party formulation)
pro- Communist.” He denounced redhunters as well as Stalinists and their
naive liberal pawns—and soon enough,
his own name would appear on the
right-wing crusaders’ lists of suspected
pinkos. Even more unjust were claims
that The Vital Center validated either a
revised form of Popular Front politics
of liberals and leftists—the Popular
Front was, by definition, a Communist
instincts, not least over the emerging
issues of civil rights for blacks. Still an
admirer and seeing no better alternative, Schlesinger stuck with Stevenson
in the 1956 campaign, but four years
later (with some anguish and awkwardness) he defected to Kennedy.
Schlesinger’s move has been criticized as a product of disloyal ambition
mixed with an attraction to amoral
politics. Aldous explodes that notion: Schlesinger was actually put off
by Kennedy’s colder, more ruthless
side but came to see in him qualities
of leadership he identified with FDR
and thought Stevenson lacked—above
all, he wrote, “a sense of cool, measured, intelligent concern with action
and power.” For Schlesinger, politics
without a realistic understanding of
power amounted to beautiful-loser
moral preening that crippled the battle against plutocracy and played into
the hands of divisive left-wing demagogues. The question, for Schlesinger,
was whether Kennedy was truly a liberal, not merely “committed by a sense
of history,” he wrote, but “consecrated
by inner conviction.”
Although denied an everyday part
in the 1960 campaign, Schlesinger was
delighted to join the new administration in the vaguely defined position
of special assistant to the president.
For Kennedy, Schlesinger would be a
personal bridge to the pro- Stevenson
ADA liberals and a gadfly (the word is
Aldous’s) in White House policy counsels. He would also be, Kennedy expected, a future in-house historian. For
Schlesinger, the job offered an extraordinary opportunity for a professional
historian to influence events while ob-
hat age, brutally, would last less than
three years. Schlesinger’s part history,
part memoir of it, A Thousand Days,
would bring him back to the top of
the best-seller list and win him a second Pulitzer Prize, but it would also
enhance his reputation as a rhapsodic
and highly selective apologist for Kennedy and his family. Various insiders
minimized Schlesinger’s importance
to Kennedy, not least Secretary of
State Dean Rusk (whom Schlesinger
despised) and Schlesinger’s rival Theodore Sorensen, who by 1963 had successfully cut Schlesinger out of most
presidential speechwriting. Subsequent
releases of declassified material could
make Schlesinger look like a conniver
in administration cover-ups. If punctilious academics at the time (including
his father) winced at his preference for
the White House over his old office in
Harvard’s Widener Library, later historians would charge that he had become
a Kennedy hack.
Aldous finds that Schlesinger was
neither a central participant nor a
complete outlier in the White House;
he was a subordinate whom Kennedy
could find exasperating, with his barrages of lengthy memos, but whom he
genuinely liked, greatly respected, and
consulted regularly. Schlesinger was
not above occasional sycophantic flattery. But he was also unafraid to press
stubbornly for his liberal views, including his opposition to the disastrous
Bay of Pigs invasion, when he stood
out among the White House staff as a
lonely dissenter. On at least one occasion, pushing Kennedy in 1961 to take
a more flexible position on the cold war
flashpoint of Berlin, he made an important contribution that may well have
shaped Kennedy’s shrewd restraint
in handling the Cuban missile crisis a
year later. Aldous effectively describes
the turf-war intrigue and the ricochet
of egos among Kennedy’s aides and appointees, intramural struggles in which
Schlesinger, with all his cleverness, did
not always prevail.
By the summer of 1963, Schlesinger
could see Kennedy’s presidency fulfilling his New Dealer liberal hopes with
its growing sympathy for the civil rights
movement, which had become, he said
at the time, the greatest surge of “spontaneous mass democracy in this country” since the sit- down strikes and spurt
of labor organizing in 1937. “In each
case,” he wrote, “ordinary people took
things into their own hands, asserted
their rights, and outstripped not only
the government but their own organizations.” Kennedy, in fact, reacted in a
more clear- cut way than FDR had, with
an unequivocal speech in early June
backing the movement. But Schlesinger’s enthusiasm came with a historian’s
understanding of how protest movements had to respect and work with the
realities of power in order to accomplish great reforms. “It is indispensable
for the liberals to bring pressure on a
[Democratic] president to do things
and to complain about his slowness to
The New York Review
that the president himself disliked and
worked to change. In 1997, Schlesinger
issued a public dressing- down, instructing Clinton on the difference between
the vital center and the dead center.
Yet Schlesinger, who understood
something of the White House’s political predicament and was persuaded
that Clinton “plainly remains a believer in activist government,” never
jumped ship. (He was even more persuaded about Hillary Clinton.) He
continued to serve as a valued elder
and counselor, encouraging Clinton’s
more liberal aspirations and accomplishments. And when the Republican
radicals launched their impeachment
drive, Schlesinger leapt into the fray,
leading historians’ opposition to
the impeachment on constitutional grounds. (Full disclosure:
he would later describe me in his
journal as his “anti-impeachment
co- conspirator.”) For a moment
he felt young again, and the center
was vital once more; for his efforts,
he received the predictable slurs
from the right—“that arch pseud
and fraud,” one columnist sniggered—but also from the left, with
Christopher Hitchens leading the
charge, scorning him as no historian at all but “a composer of profiles in Democratic opportunism.”
Schlesinger was in fact one of the
few truly great American historians; he left a legacy of intellectual
consequence and serious productivity that puts his detractors to
shame. But his writing covered
much larger ground than history,
and his history writing had implications that reached far beyond
even his largest subjects. Apart
from helping to define the essential
principles of modern liberalism,
Schlesinger showed how political leadership had achieved momentous reform and could succeed again through
the inevitable and often harsh realities
of democratic politics. Without ever
losing sight of the crucial activities of
agitators and social movements, he
demonstrated how it finally took liberal
political leaders to overcome obdurate privilege and plutocracy. He explained how political purists, insistent
on fundamental principles, actually
undermined the realization of those
very principles, and how in the fight
for democratic change purists became
prey for demagogues. He was drawn to
power politics not as an end in itself but
in preference to powerless politics.
If Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who died
in 2007, were still around to defend
liberalism—perhaps in a new rendering of The Vital Center—he would certainly address the latter-day versions
of the politics he engaged in in his own
time. Liberals are left to pick up that
challenge as best they can. It is well to
remember that Schlesinger never renounced the label of “liberal” or lost
his tough-minded and undogmatic
fighting spirit. Because he so deeply
grasped liberalism’s history, he was able
to make a good deal of it himself.
David Levine
act: this is indispensable in order to
in 1980 won Schlesinger’s backing but
enlarge his range of alternatives,” he
proved something of a last hurrah—or
observed. But liberals also had to unso it seemed.
derstand that “theirs is a contributory
Aldous devotes just fifty pages to the
role,” and that finally it remained to
last forty-two years of Schlesinger’s
presidents “to feel the balance of preslife, which is much too little. There is
sure” and turn dreams into realities.
some familiar material about his soKennedy’s assassination—a tragedy
cializing as a man about town in his
that battered even Schlesinger’s stoiadopted home of Manhattan; and there
cal liberalism—proved the beginning
are some touching passages about his
of the end of that momentous converreweaving of what had been a lessgence, and with that the beginning of a
than-happy family life. But while he
crisis of liberal politics that continues to
never managed to complete “The Age
blight our politics half a century later.
of Roosevelt,” Schlesinger remained
The heroic portrayal of Kennedy in A
a stalwart and productive defender
Thousand Days would be fodder for
of liberal politics, tacking against the
decades of snide critics who dismissed
Reagan right-wing wind while taking
the book as (in the words of one of the
sharp issue with what he saw as illibsnidest, Christopher Hitchens)
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
“the founding breviary of the cult
of JFK.” The dismissals ignored the
book’s main theme: that Kennedy’s
liberal instincts only emerged in
the crucible of politics, with an appreciation of the limits as well as
the possibilities of democratic leadership that was bound to dismay
many liberals and leftists. Indeed,
that dismay in time curdled into a
counternarrative of the Kennedy
presidency as a sybaritic men’s club,
reckless in foreign policy and craven in domestic affairs—a reaction
that basically proved Schlesinger’s
point about the rampant cluelessness among intellectuals and
pundits about how politics and government actually work. No less important, Schlesinger believed, was
an understanding of the historical
role of “contingency, chance, ignorance, and sheer stupidity,” and
how they can afflict even the noblest of causes.
Chance and contingency—and
some monumental stupidity by liberal zealotry on the left. The best of his
eral leaders—would deepen Schlesinglater books, The Disuniting of America
er’s tragedy, and liberalism’s. Lyndon
(1991), was a cri de coeur for liberal
Johnson’s disaster in Vietnam (which
pluralism that skewered the ethnic and
Schlesinger had sternly warned Kenracial identity tribalism that, under
nedy to avoid and expected that he
the guise of multiculturalism, had bewould) ruined his Great Society, paved
come the latest ideological straitjacket
the way for Richard Nixon, and left
of well-intentioned progressive intelliberals badly divided (as they remain)
lectuals and educators. Schlesinger ofover the proper direction of US forfered no comfort to the right—an even
eign policy. Robert Kennedy’s chalgreater threat than multiculturalism,
lenge to Johnson in 1968 came to its
he would quip, was monoculturalism—
violent end, breaking Schlesinger’s
but he was swiftly denounced as “a folheart once more; Kennedy’s death,
lower of David Duke” and an advocate
preceded by Martin Luther King’s asof “cultural white face.”
sassination, inflamed baser instincts
The Bill Clinton years aroused his
in racial politics on both sides of the
old political enthusiasm. Schlesinger
color line.
saw in Clinton qualities he had longed
for since the 1960s: “Clinton is plainly
ixon’s White House crimes aroused
of the FDR-Truman-Kennedy-Johnson
Schlesinger to write in 1973 The Impeschool and regards government as a key
rial Presidency, which with a certain
means of promoting the general welNiebuhrian humility recanted some of
fare,” he observed a year into the first
his most exuberant assessments of exterm, surprised by the suffocating punpansive presidential authority. Nixon’s
dits’ consensus that the president “was
downfall, though, soon enough yielded
abandoning liberals and moving to the
the presidency of Jimmy Carter, whom
right.” Some of Clinton’s actions after
Schlesinger came to regard as an inept,
the disastrous 1994 midterms, in which
narrow-minded technocrat who lacked
the Democrats lost control of both
understanding of, let alone passion for,
houses of Congress for the first time
the liberal tradition. Edward Kennein forty years, appalled him, above all
dy’s bumbling effort to displace Carter
Clinton’s signing of a welfare reform bill
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February 8, 2018
A Wild and Indecent Book
Garry Wills
Museum Ludwig, Cologne/Peter Willi/Bridgeman Images/© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS ), New York/ADAGP, Paris
The New Testament:
A Translation
by David Bentley Hart.
Yale University Press, 577 pp., $35.00
It was subtle of God to learn Greek
when he wished to become an author, and not to learn it better.
—Friedrich Nietzsche
on the New Testament
At last a man comes riding to the rescue of the English Bible. Condemning
earlier translations of the New Testament, David Bentley Hart claims that
“most of them effectively hide (sometimes forcibly) things of absolutely
vital significance.” He does not tell
us what “forcibly” means here, but he
condemns translations done by committee (even the majestic yet punchy
King James Version) and those done
by an individual (even the ones who
claim to stick close to the Greek). The
committees, according to Hart, are
bound to strike compromises between
the individuals’ contributions. Actually, King James’s panel of translators
had the good sense to incorporate William Tyndale’s New Testament almost
wholesale. As David Daniell wrote,
“Nine-tenths of the Authorised Version’s New Testament is Tyndale’s.” We
should change the common view that
the KJV and Shakespeare are the most
influential shapers of the English language and say that Tyndale and Shakespeare share that honor.
But that will not give the KJV immunity from Hart’s indictment. He says
that any translation filtered through
one person’s literary sensibility (even
Tyndale’s magnificent one) is bound to
homogenize the collection of different
genres and authors in the New Testament—what Nietzsche claimed is an
agglutination of letters, sermons, putative biographies, tendentious histories,
and fever-dream revelations. How does
Hart escape his own criticism in this,
his own single-translator exercise?
Does he not have a literary sensibility? Of course he does. But he claims
that he has suppressed it here, that he
reveals the idiosyncrasies of each element in the collection. He even boasts,
in the vein of Dickens and T. S. Eliot,
that he can “do the police in different
voices” for the different texts.
He clearly agrees with Nietzsche on
the quality of the book’s koine Greek.
He finds the Gospel of Matthew “rarely
better than ponderous,” that of Mark
“awkwardly written throughout,” and
that of John “syntactically almost
childish,” while Paul’s letters are “maladroit, broken, or impenetrable” and
Revelation is “almost unremittingly
atrocious.” Sometimes he does convey
the original’s sheer goofiness: “Fallen,
fallen, Babylon the Great who has
given all the gentiles to drink from the
wine of the vehemence of her whoring”
(Rev. 14:8). No wonder Hunter Thompson said he did not have to worry about
running out of LSD in a hotel. He could
trip on the Gideon Bible’s Revelation.
But is the direct transmission of bad
Greek into bad English always as clear
as Hart claims? He says he will avoid
later theological constructs of the text,
but then renders thlipsis mgalƝ as “the
Max Ernst: The Virgin Chastising the Christ Child Before Three Witnesses:
André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Painter, 1926
great tribulation” (Rev. 7:14), which
is an event in the calendar of the End
Time as formulated in late-nineteenthcentury premillennial dispensationalism. Thlipsis is a common term in the
New Testament, from a verb (thlibo) for
pressing down or squeezing. It can mean
anything from “discomfort” to “extinction.” Lampe’s lexicon of early Christian
Greek renders it as “affliction”—and so
does Hart, most of the time (e.g., Matt.
24:9). Paul uses thlipsis for the distress
of helping others (2 Cor. 8:13), for the
inconveniences of married life (1 Cor.
7:28), and for the anguish of mothers in childbirth (John 16:21). Even in
Revelation, where Hart calls thlipsis
megalƝ “the great tribulation,” he also
translates the same words as “great affliction” (2:22). He does the same for
the “great affliction” at Matthew 24:21.
art claims that he will not let his
own theological views color his translation. But he clearly does not believe
in hell—at least not in a permanent
hell. Neither do many Christians (including me). They find it hard to think
that God could be crueler even than
his creatures. As the rough-hewn John
Adams of New England wrote in 1813
to the polished Thomas Jefferson of
He [God] created this speck of
dirt and the human species for
his glory; and with the deliberate
design of making nine tenths of
our species miserable forever, for
his glory? This is the doctrine of
Christian theologians in general,
ten to one. Now, my friend, can
prophecies or miracles convince
you or me that infinite benevolence, wisdom, and power created
and preserves, for a time, innumerable millions to make them miserable forever, for his own glory?
Hart says much the same, repudiating
the idea of hell as “the God of love’s
perpetual torture chamber.” He agrees
with Origen’s third-century view that
all mankind will be saved by Jesus. But
rather than rely on crusty John Adams’s common sense, he labors to oust
hell from the text of the Bible.
This affects his translation in six
1. Rather than call hell’s fires
“eternal,” he translates aiĿnios as
“of the Age” (AiĿn) (Matt. 18:8,
25:41). That means that aiĿnios in
non-hell contexts will prove puzzling. Instead of “You are a priest
forever” (Heb. 5:6, 7:17), part of the
formula for the ordination of Catholic priests, we get “You are a priest
unto the Age.” When Jesus at the
Second Coming (Matt. 25:46) divides the damned from the saved,
he says, “These will go to the chastening of that Age, but the just to
the life of that Age” (for KJV “everlasting fire . . . life eternal”).
2. Instead of translating Gehenna
as “hell,” Hart gives us “Hinnom’s
Vale of fire” (Matt. 5:22).
3. Hart transliterates the pagan
“Hades” rather than translating it as
a Christian word for hell (Rev. 6:8).
4. There can be no predestination
without a hell into which to steer
sinners for eternal storage. So Hart
takes pro-orizein, normally translated as “to predestine,” instead
to mean “to mark out in advance”
(Eph. 1:5, 11), setting up an area in
which free will can still operate.
5. The devil, without a hell to
tend, is demoted by Hart to “the
Slanderer.” Admittedly that is a
literal translation of diabolos, but
it reads more like a kenning than a
translation, and it makes the devil
play a reduced role like that of the
Accuser (KatƝgǀr) in Revelation
12:10. Thus we get at Matthew
25:41: “Go from me, you execrable ones, into the fire of the Age
prepared for the Slanderer and
his angels” (for Tyndale and KJV,
“Depart from me, ye cursed, into
everlasting fire which is prepared
for the devil and his angels”).
6. Despite all this meticulous exegetical slickery, Hart has to admit
that the Letter of Jude (called by
him Judas) uses an unequivocal
word for “eternal” punishment, aidios (Jude 6)—but he dodges this
bullet by saying in a footnote that
this applies to an imprisonment of
angels or daemons, not humans,
and he goes back in the next verse
to “fire from the Age” (aiǀnios)
for the fate of humans from Sodom
and Gomorrah (Jude 7). Why not
just affirm the unthinkableness of
God making and populating a hell,
rather than go through all these
maneuvers to oust hell from the
Bible, as if that alone will let Hart
not believe in hell? If even one of
these passages does support the
idea of hell, would he be obliged to
believe in it? That seems a rather
fundamentalist position for one
who claims to be so innovative.
art rightly says that his book is not
for reading out loud in church (though,
in an oral culture, the words were first
dictated to scribes and then read aloud
by a lector to the intended audience).
Hart wants to make people finally believe that Jesus told his followers to give
up all their belongings (Luke 18:22),
make no provision for the morrow
The New York Review
(Matt. 6.25–34), yield to harsh treatment or demands (Matt. 5:39–48), and
hate their family (Luke 14:26): “Far
from teaching ‘family values,’ Christ
was remarkably dismissive of the family.” According to Hart, the first Christians would repel us today; we would
mock them as “extremists” and fanatics. But those messages are already
there in earlier translations. We have
failed to recognize them not because
of faulty translation but because of our
own evasion of what the words mean,
no matter how they are translated.
The reason for our obduracy is that
we cannot believe that Jesus is coming back in our lifetime—as Paul and
the evangelists did. They did not accuLouvre, Paris/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
God’s” (1 Cor. 3:21–23). Paul certainly had a hiccupy style, which could
veer into the spastic. Consider this account of a showdown in Jerusalem over
the freedom of gentile converts from
kashruth (here I omit Hart’s capitals
for each new verse, which further complicate an already tangled mess):
Domenichino: The Ecstasy of Saint Paul,
seventeenth century
mulate goods, since they could not be
used after the End. When Christians in
Thessaly began to worry that some had
died before the Second Coming, Paul
reassured them that those still living
would see the End before they died (1
Thess. 4:13–18). Later church teachings would say that marriage is for the
sake of children (proles). Paul does not
tell people to marry for the sake of children, since the young cannot be educated to deal with a world that will not
be there when they grow up. Instead he
says not to marry at all, unless the fires
of desire are uncontrollable—“better
to marry than to be afire” (1 Cor. 7:8–
9). Slaves should obey their masters,
knowing they will shortly exchange
places with them (Eph. 6:5–9). Every
aspect of the New Testament should be
read in light of this “good news” that
the world will shortly be wiped out.
That certainty even affects Paul’s
literary style. He writes traffic-jam
sentences, trying to say everything
all at once—to cram it in during the
short time left. Paul died while rushing
from Jerusalem to Rome on the way
to Spain. Hart captures some of that
breathlessness—though he creates his
own obstacles by capitalizing the first
letter of each traditional Bible verse.
So a single sentence ends up looking
like this: “Hence let no one boast in
human beings; for all things are yours,
Whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or
cosmos or life or death or things past
or things imminent—all yours—And
you the Anointed’s, and the Anointed
But because of false brethren secretly brought in, who stole in so
as to spy upon our freedom, which
we have in the Anointed One
Jesus, so that they could enslave
us—to whom we did not yield in
subordination for even an hour, so
that the truth of the good tidings
might remain with you. . . . [Hart
interjects in a footnote at this point
that “Paul’s syntax here is even
more vagrant than usual”] and
from those who were esteemed as
something—precisely what sort of
something at that time does not
matter to me (God does not take
a man at his face)—for to me these
estimable men had nothing to add;
rather, to the contrary, seeing that
I have been entrusted with the
good tidings for those of the foreskin, just as has Peter for those of
the circumcision—for he who was
operating in Peter for a mission
to those of the circumcision was
also operating in me for the gentiles—and, recognizing the grace
given to me, James and Cephas
and John—who appeared to be the
pillars—gave their hands in fellowship to me and to bar-Nabas, that
we should go to the gentiles and
they to the circumcision, if only we
should remember the poor—the
very thing, indeed, that I was eager
to do. (Gal. 2:4–13)
Reading that aloud in church might
make people think that poor Paul was
in need of therapy.
Hart goes on from this clash in Jerusalem to tell of its repetition in Antioch, where Peter seemed to go back
on what was settled with that handshake in Jerusalem, prompting Paul
to rebuke Peter “because he was being
contemptible” (kategnǀsmenos—in the
KJV, “to be blamed”) and indulging in
“theatrical charlatanry” (hypokrisis—
in the KJV, “dissimulation”) (Gal. 2:11,
13). Here Hart’s desire to shock makes
him exaggerate what was a notoriously
disturbing passage in the time of Jerome and Augustine (who fought over
the embarrassment of the two main
Apostles disagreeing). Hart’s standard
is that “in most cases I truly believe
that the more unsettling rendering is
also the more accurate.” In most cases?
Perhaps in many. Or some.
Fresh translations of familiar texts are
useful because they make us reexamine
what we thought we knew. Hart has certainly made me think more deeply about
the centrality of the world’s end to the
entirety of the New Testament. I must
reconsider Albert Schweitzer’s work on
the eschatalogical Jesus. Hart tells us
that he wanted to make this book wild,
repellant, “just a bit indecent,” and not
what we expected. He succeeds.
New York Review Books
(including NYRB Classics and Poets, The New York Review Children’s Collection, and NYR Comics)
Editor: Edwin Frank
Managing Editor: Sara Kramer
Senior Editors: Susan Barba, Michael Shae, Gabriel Winslow-Yost, Lucas Adams
Linda Hollick, Publisher; Nicholas During, Publicity; Abigail Dunn, Marketing Manager; Hilary Reid, Marketing
Associate; Evan Johnston and Daniel Drake, Production; Patrick Hederman and Alaina Taylor, Rights; Yongsun
Bark, Distribution.
February 8, 2018
“The Juniper Tree is a fairy tale that haunts
me because even at the end the evil in it is
never wholly undone. Through her reimagining
of the wicked stepmother figure, Comyns
speculates convincingly as to how damage
escalates despite all conscious attempts
to limit itself.” —Helen Oyeyemi
Barbara Comyns
Introduction by Sadie Stein
Paperback and e-book • $14.95
“The Juniper Tree, which appeared in
1985, is one of Comyns’s most
successful, confident and curious
productions. It has the clear pure
narrative quality of a fable, but also
shows a humanity and maturity.”
—Margaret Drabble
Homeless and jobless, Bella Winter is the mother
of a toddler by a man whose name she didn’t
quite catch, and her once pretty face is disfigured
by a scar from a car accident. Friendless and without family, she’s recently disentangled herself
from a selfish boyfriend and a cruel mother.
But she shares a quality common to Barbara
Comyns’s other heroines: a bracingly unsentimental ability to carry on. Before too long, Bella
has found not only a job but a vocation; not
only a place to live but a home and a makeshift
family. As the novel progresses, the story echoes
and inverts the Brothers Grimm’s macabre tale
The Juniper Tree. Will Bella’s hard-won restoration to life and love come at the cost of the
happiness of others?
“A treasure from the 1980s. . . The Juniper Tree
picks up the Grimm notion that an excess of maternal happiness can prove fatal. . . The Grimm
story is about evil, revenge, and justice—an eye
for an eye—but The Juniper Tree is about accidents, damage, and repair.”
—Christine Smallwood, Harper’s
“Comyns’s world is weird and wonderful. . . there’s
also something uniquely original about her voice.
Tragic, comic and completely bonkers all in one,
I’d go as far as to call her something of a neglected
genius.” —Lucy Scholes, The Observer
Introduction by Kathryn Davis
Introduction by Emily Gould
Available in bookstores, call (646) 215-2500,
or visit
Publishing in time for Valentine’s Day,
Maira Kalman’s adorable tale of love will charm
and delight children of all ages and parents.
Ooh-la-la (Max in Love)
Maira Kalman
Hardcover and ebook • $18.95
It’s happened. Before you can say “Pepé le Pew,” Max the millionaire poet dog has
landed in Paris.
Everyone is in a froufrou of delight over Max. There’s Fritz from the Ritz, Madame
Camembert, Charlotte Russe, and Pierre Potpurri, who wants Max to perform in his
Crazy Wolf Nightclub.
Amidst the enchantment and beauty that is Paris in the spring, something is missing
for Max. That je ne sais quoi. That quelque chose. Max has made his millions; when
will he find romance?
“Ooh-la-la, c’est formidable! Busy, surreal illustrations combine with a sophisticated,
witty text to create a fast-moving, hip-hopping Parisian adventure of canine amour. . .
Brilliant, bold, funny and obscure, this is definitely one of Kalman’s best efforts to date.”
—School Library Journal
“With a palette as subtle as the light on Montmartre and a notably free,
sophisticated style, Kalman incorporates witty references to artists and their work in
her own delightfully lively paintings. . . marvelously rich language.” —Kirkus Reviews
Also by Maira Kalman • • •
Hey Willy, See the Pyramids
Max Makes a Million
Available in bookstores, call (646) 215-2500 or from
Ultra-Orthodox ‘Friends’
Jonathan Freedland
As a pitch, it would have sounded unpromising. A TV drama set entirely
among the ultra-Orthodox Jews of
Jerusalem, the men black-hatted,
bearded with side curls, most of the
women bewigged, their sleeves long
and their skin covered up; the action
centered on one family, specifically a
widowed father and his unmarried son,
sharing a cramped apartment, each
sleeping on a narrow single bed; storylines touching on bereavement, the fading health of an elderly mother, power
struggles within a religious elementary
school, and the search for, if not necessarily love, then a person with whom
it might be possible to share a life and
make a home. No nudity, no profanity,
no touching, and certainly no sex.
There cannot be many TV executives who would rush to greenlight that
one. But in 2016 Marta Kauffman, cocreator of Friends, announced that she
had bought the rights to Shtisel, a hit
show on Israeli television’s YES network, and that she planned to adapt
the series for Amazon Prime. Her version will be called Emmis, Yiddish for
truth; it will be located in Brooklyn
rather than the Geula neighborhood
of Jerusalem; and its primary language
will be English rather than Hebrew,
though it’s possible the characters will
lapse into subtitled Yiddish when the
situation demands it, as they do in the
Shtisel, named for the family at the
heart of the saga, will thus take its
place alongside a series of successful
Israeli TV exports. Showtime’s Homeland began life as Hatufim, while
HBO’s In Treatment, following a therapist and his patients over successive
fifty-minute sessions, was a translation
of BeTipul. Meanwhile, Netflix viewers have lapped up Fauda, a thriller
about an undercover intelligence squad
and its Palestinian targets. So Shtisel
comes with a good pedigree, or yichas
as Rabbi Shulem Shtisel might put it.
And yet it stands apart from the
others. While those programs dealt
with the lives of contemporary, nonreligious Israelis—who would at least
look recognizable to the average Netflix viewer—Shtisel inhabits a subculture whose mores would strike most
Americans, or indeed most people
who lead secular lives, as utterly alien.
It takes as given that characters murmur a bracha, or blessing, before eating or drinking anything; that most
hours of a man’s day are devoted to
studying the often abstruse teachings
of centuries- old texts; and that no
one would so much as think of using
a phone or riding a bus during the
prohibited hours of the Sabbath. Crucially, men and women observe the
strictest rules of propriety. If they are
not married to each other, and they are
in a room alone, the door will always
remain open. If they are married, they
sleep in separate twin beds.
Put like that, Shtisel might sound
like The Handmaid’s Tale dubbed into
Yiddish. But while religious rules set
the boundaries for the lives on screen,
they are not at the center of the action.
These obligations are assumed by the
characters and, before too long, the
viewer assumes them too. As a result,
the focus remains on the people of the
story, their trials, their longings, their
memories, their ambitions—most of
which are modest, on the scale of a regular human life.
And yet the success of Shtisel points
to a larger story—one about twentyfirst- century Israel and its changing
composition, about Zionism and the
strange paradox of unintended consequences, and about the persistence of
faith in the era of globalization and
technological progress.
Meanwhile, Shulem has troubles of
his own. In need of a wife, he too avails
himself of the services of a matchmaker.
But no woman can match the apparition of his late wife, who visits him at
intervals, offering a word of tenderness
or advice. Her absence, and his yearning for her, form the emotional bedrock of the story, even though she too
was a stranger when they stood under
the chuppah, the wedding canopy, together. Both the son and the husband
she left behind are floundering.
It’s clear that, in keeping with ultraOrthodox custom, Shulem has many
children and too many grandchildren
Roey Roth
a television series created
by Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon
Doval’e Glickman as Shulem Shtisel (left) in a scene from the Israeli TV show Shtisel
Still, those wider meanings are not
what you see on screen, or what drew
large numbers of Israelis to watch
the show, or what will doubtless lure
millions more to follow the Englishlanguage adaptation. Instead, what you
see is the quiet struggle of human beings, a universal story exquisitely told.
iewed one way, Shtisel is a reworking of that best known of all Yiddish
tales, Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye and
His Daughters, the inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof. But while Tevye struggled to marry off his girls, the recently
widowed Shulem Shtisel toils to find
a wife for his youngest, most difficult
son, Akiva. The boy is, says one matchmaker, a “screw-up,” twenty-seven
years old and still without a bride after
several false starts. In his world, men
are expected to become engaged after
a single, arranged meeting—usually
coffee and cake in a hotel lobby—the
girl chosen for him by his parents, the
couple-to-be barely into their twenties.
Akiva tries to take that conventional
path, several times. But while his father, a lifelong teacher at a cheder,
and his brothers are satisfied with the
life tradition prescribes for them—in
which study is the only possible vocation—“Kiva” is a dreamer, never
without a small exercise book in which
he sketches ducks in a pond or the occasional flower. By the second season,
this artistic passion of Akiva’s will
have blossomed, or escalated, into an
existential crisis for both him and his
father. (There is a nod here to the 1972
novel My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim
Potok’s portrait of the artist as a young
to count. But narrative compactness
demands that we see only a few. Akiva’s sister Giti spends the first season
coping with the shaming truth that her
husband, Lipa, has fled to Argentina,
apparently discarding religious piety
along the way. Giti remains strictly
devout, as does her zealous daughter
Ruchama. Meanwhile, her brother Zvi
Arie studies hard but is frustrated in
his ambition to head the yeshiva and,
by the second season, is revealed as a
man who had good reason to believe he
would amount to more. Finally, there
is Shulem’s aged mother, a resident of
an old-age home where the default language is Yiddish. She is a human link
with the European Jewish past and the
vanished world it represents.
With the exception of Lipa’s shortlived sojourn in Latin America, which
is never fully discussed—Giti would
rather not know the details, so the
audience never hears them—Shtisel
declines to provide the stock storyline
associated with religious characters in
a drama: the crisis of faith. Even when
Akiva gets a serious break as an artist,
one which threatens to collide with his
religious practice, he does not consider
a life ungoverned by Torah. It is simply not an option. The Sopranos do
crime, the Underwoods do politics, the
Shtisels do God: that’s just how it is. It’s
not up for negotiation.
It means that we see these lives from
the inside. The gaze is not that of the
secular outsider, looking upon exotic
creatures whose return to normal,
twenty-first- century life is surely only
a matter of time. On the contrary, perhaps thanks to the guiding hand of cocreator Yehonatan Indursky, who was
raised as a Haredi Jew, Shtisel seems to
be telling the stories these characters
would tell about themselves. There is
no explaining (a scruple the Amazon
version might struggle to observe), no
serving up of comforting clichés for
non-Haredi consumption.
Take Shulem Shtisel himself. A
standard treatment would cast such
a man—sixty-something, steeped in
Torah and with the beard of a biblical
prophet—as the sage patriarch, dispensing the wisdom of the ages. Shtisel
does no such thing, daring to show
Shulem’s naiveté, even his immaturity,
allowing him to make a fool of himself
with a younger woman, repeatedly issuing edicts to his children that are
bound to be broken, and making all the
wrong choices. He stops being the venerable ancient rabbi of Jewish kitsch
and becomes a flawed—and therefore
But it is surely the romance that is
most appealing. Thanks to the multiple restrictions, the firmly enforced
rules and etiquette, the prohibition on
even the mildest physical contact and,
above all, the centrality and expectation of marriage, Shtisel plays out like
a tale told by a Haredi Jane Austen,
with sheitls, or wigs, for bonnets and
peyot, or side curls, for cravats. There
are the meddling parents, the yearning teenage girls, the elusive, uncertain
bachelors, even a furtive love between
US audiences are used to such fare
when it comes dressed as period drama,
usually via Masterpiece Theatre, which
has aired multiple Austen adaptations
in recent years. Nevertheless, it might
be jarring to see it played out in contemporary New York. Emmis will be a
novelty: No Sex in the City.
hat Shtisel exists at all is itself remarkable. Television is the terrain of
secular Israel, which has long stood
apart from the ultra- Orthodox Jews
who make up just ten percent of the
country’s population (but a third of Jerusalem’s). The relationship between
the two has been one of mutual incomprehension, if not outright hostility. In
Knesset elections in 2013, the second
largest party was Yesh Atid (There is
a Future), headed by the quintessentially secular figure of TV host Yair
Lapid. That success was fuelled by Lapid’s pledge to end the exemption the
Haredim enjoy from the military draft,
a persistent source of secular resentment. (In September Israel’s supreme
court ruled the exemption unconstitutional, sparking a potential political
For their part, the Haredim have
stood aloof from the state in which
they live from the day of its founding
in 1948. Many define themselves as either non- or anti-Zionist, for reasons of
strict theology. They hold to the notion
that the establishment of a Jewish state
represents a blasphemous usurpation
of divine authority: the Jews should
have waited for the coming of the Messiah, and the resultant ingathering of
the exiles to the land of Israel, rather
than doing God’s work for him. This
is the doctrinal basis that underpins
Haredi refusal to serve in the military.
Regardless of the theology, what many
The New York Review
change hands among ultra- Orthodox
devotees. One unlikely proof that the
show has penetrated previously impregnable Haredi culture is the emergence
of the Shtisel theme tune as a favored
melody at ultra- Orthodox weddings.
Perhaps one should not read too
much into a single TV show, but it’s
tempting to see Shtisel as achieving the
kind of convergence, if not integration,
that has tended to elude Israeli society itself. Shulem’s brother Nuchem, a
schemer and businessman as worldly
as Shulem is innocent, is played by Sasson Gabai, who was born in Baghdad.
True, Gabai does not obviously look
the part, but to see a Mizrachi, or Middle Eastern, actor play an Ashkenazi
Jew, conducting long scenes in Yiddish,
is to see what was once a sharp dividing
line in Israel become blurred.
Roey Roth
secular Israelis see is a community only
too happy to stand under the national
umbrella while declining to help hold
it aloft.
This history is nodded to in Shtisel,
but no more. In one episode Shulem is
unsure whether to allow his young pupils to watch the flypast of Israeli Air
Force jets that marks Independence
Day. Surely the young boys should ignore such godlessness? In another, his
brother Nuchem dismisses a slogan of
official Israel. “Who wants to build a
nation?” he asks. “Reshaim Arurim,
damned evildoers.”
Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that
when the crew of Shtisel arrived in
the ultra- Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She’arim for the first
day of filming, they were chased out
by a group of locals, outraged at the
Doval’e Glickman and Sasson Gabai in Shtisel
sight of a woman applying makeup to
a male actor. After that, filming had to
be done covertly, by a small, all-male
crew dressed in ultra-Orthodox garb
and using a hidden camera. According
to The Forward, exterior scenes in the
street were filmed from inside buildings, with each actor taking direction
via an earpiece.
The casual viewer would have no
idea. Indeed, it is a tribute to the quality of the acting that it is astonishing
to discover that not one of the cast is,
in fact, ultra- Orthodox. (There is a
small Haredi film industry and there
are Haredi actors, but they rarely appear in work produced by outsiders.)
Dovel’e Glickman is so convincing as
the hapless patriarch—from his Yiddish pronunciation to his gait—that
few would guess that he was for twenty
years the star of one of Israel’s favorite satirical TV shows. Kiva, the son, is
played by the presenter of Israeli TV’s
The Voice, a secular pinup rendered
anew in peyot and tzitzit (the fringes on
a prayer shawl).
The result is that Shtisel has had
the unexpected effect of providing a
small patch of common ground for two
tribes that have long shared the same
space but barely touched. It’s allowed
chilonim, the nonreligious majority,
to acquaint themselves with the lives
of a community some might never encounter any other way. A smattering
of Shtisel’s Yiddishisms have entered
street-level, secular Hebrew—apparently “Reshaim Arurim” is a particular
favorite of the Tel Aviv hipster set—
while the show is said to enjoy an underground following in a Haredi world
that, officially, eschews TV altogether.
Downloads and DVDs reportedly
February 8, 2018
erhaps even more striking is the name
of the script editor for the second season. It is Sayed Kashua, the Palestinian
novelist, screenwriter, and weekly columnist for Haaretz. When it comes to
Palestinian citizens of Israel, Kashua is
more the exception than the rule—he
recently left Israel for Champaign, Illinois, where he teaches advanced Hebrew as well as TV comedy writing in
the University of Illinois’s Jewish studies department—but still, the fact of it
is remarkable: a dramatic exploration
of ultra- Orthodox Jewish life, guided
by a Palestinian Arab.
According to series co- creator Indursky, it’s a good fit. “You’d be surprised how much Haredim and Arabs
have in common.” There’s something
in that: Israeli demographers often link
the two groups together, usually under
the heading of “economically inactive.”
Unemployment is an issue for both
communities, especially among those
Haredi men who either lack the secular
education required for the workplace
or else see it as their religious duty to
study in the yeshiva rather than earn
a living. Both communities, Haredi
and Arab, exist on the edges of the
dominant culture, which is secular and
In one way, then, both the team behind Shtisel and the range of its audience suggest a vision of Israel far less
balkanized than the picture conveyed
on screen. For what the viewer sees is a
community all but sealed off from the
society that surrounds it. When secular
characters appear—such as Kaufman,
the gallery owner who takes Akiva
under his wing—they look alien, even
odd. The viewer begins to see the world
through Haredi eyes. (As for Israel’s
Arab minority, and the Palestinians of
the occupied territories, they are barely
mentioned. They might as well not
exist. Which is probably an accurate,
if disheartening, reflection of Haredi
But if this simple act of humanizing
Haredi Jews for a secular Jewish audience is a milestone for Israel, given the
sullen misapprehension that has long
existed between the two groups, then
it represents an even greater shift for
Zionism. For the founding ideology
of Jewish nationhood was, implicitly
and sometimes explicitly, hostile to the
strictest strands of Judaism.
It wasn’t just the doctrinal dispute over
the legitimacy of auto-emancipation, of
Jews liberating themselves without divine assistance. There was something
deeper too. The first Zionists believed
they were restoring the Jews to their
rightful place as a nation rather than
merely a religious faith. To them, ultraOrthodox Jews represented an earlier
stage of evolution, one which it was the
Jewish destiny to leave behind.
What’s more, in the Zionist imagination the Haredi stood as a kind of
uber– diaspora Jew. He was the galut,
the exile, in human form. He was pale,
introverted and buried in books, while
Zionism was committed to a form of
Muskeljudentum, a muscular Judaism
that would raise a new Jew: tanned,
strong, working the land and gazing toward the horizon. The Zionist pioneers
were confident that the orthodoxy of
the shtetl, its rituals and superstitions,
would fade away once the Jews became
what they deemed a normal people,
healthy and rooted in a land of their
own. Muttering, murmuring Yiddish
would die out, replaced by a renascent,
earthy Hebrew.
So the ironies are many in an Israeli
television show that depicts Haredi life
with dignity and injects Yiddish into
the national bloodstream. Shtisel was
not what the bulk of Israel’s founding
generation had in mind. And yet it can
also be read as a consequence, albeit
an unintended one, of Zionism. For it
is just the kind of flowering, the fruit of
a vibrant Jewish culture, that a Zionist like, say, the essayist Ahad Ha’am
(1856–1927) believed could only spring
from the creation of a new society.
Even if most of the country’s founders would have imagined Israel without Shtisel, it’s hard to imagine Shtisel
without Israel.
And yet none of this is what gives
the show its strength. Shtisel is drama,
not anthropology. Its power comes
from its keen, forgiving eye for human
foibles and weaknesses: parents projecting their own pain onto their children, daughters who cannot forgive
their fathers, husbands seeking the love
of their wives. There is humor. “May
you swallow an umbrella that opens
inside you,” says Nuchem, deploying
a hoary Yiddish curse. “Come on,”
says a would-be bride to Shulem, waiting for his proposal. “We’ve met five
times already. What are we, modern
Orthodox?” There is pathos. “Let me
die like a rebbetzin,” pleads a previously mean-spirited widow of a rabbi
in the old age home, as she chooses
to end her own life rather than decay
through illness. And there is insight
into human beings, struggling to make
their way in a universe that can seem
harsh and full of sorrow—even to those
who believe it was created by God
“Originally written in 1976 but not
published until 2009 in China, this is
a welcome discovery from a writer
who is only now, more than two
decades after her death, coming
into her own.” —Kirkus Reviews
Little Reunions is a roman à clef of
Eileen Chang’s notoriously tumultuous,
but fascinating life. The setting, both
factual and fictional, is a China struggling with the powerful import of western
culture, tearing apart the fabric of traditional life at the same time as Japan
is invading on its own imperial project.
With candor and gravity and Chang’s
typical style, this book, translated into
the English for the first time, illustrates the dense web of contradictions
and compromises that made up one
the world’s great author’s life and work.
Julie, a young student at a Hong Kong
convent school, is abandoned by her
westernized parents: an opium-addicted
father and a difficult social-climbing
mother. Haunted by her privileged but
unhappy childhood, Julie’s life leads
her into the arms of the magnetic
Chih-yung, who is secretly conspiring
with the Japanese puppet regime.
“Before Joan Didion, there was Eileen
Chang. A slender, dramatic woman with
a taste for livid details and feverish
colors, Chang combined Didion’s
glamour and sensibility with the terrific
wit of Evelyn Waugh. She could, with
a single phrase, take you hostage.”
—Jamie Fisher, The Millions
Eileen Chang
Translated by
Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz
Paperback and e-book • $16.95
Introduction by Perry Link
Translated by Karen S. Kingsbury
Available in bookstores, call (646) 215-2500,
or visit
Art in Free Fall
Laura Owens/Collection of Nina Moore
David Salle
Laura Owens
an exhibition at the Whitney Museum
of American Art, New York City,
November 10, 2017–February 4, 2018;
the Dallas Museum of Art, March
25–July 29, 2018; and the Museum
of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles,
November 4, 2018–March 25, 2019.
Catalog of the exhibition
edited by Scott Rothkopf.
Whitney Museum of American Art,
663 pp., $45.00 (paper)
(distributed by Yale University Press)
Laura Owens: Untitled, 66 x 66 inches, 2004
tention. Owens has interesting ideas,
but it is her ability to give them form,
often in unexpected ways sourced from
unlikely corners of the visual world,
that makes her art exciting.
Owens’s paintings are squarely in the
middle of a postmodern aesthetic that’s
been gaining momentum for the last
ten or fifteen years. It is not the world
of Luc Tuymans via Gerhard Richter,
in which the painting’s photographic
source is like a radioactive isotope that
you could never touch but that, in its
absence, is what really matters. The
new attitude is not much interested in
photography at all. It wants to rough an
image up, put it through a digital sieve,
and decorate the hell out of it.
A tree imported from Japanese
painting anchors a wispy, airy composition. The tree shelters a monkey, or an
owl, or a cheetah, perhaps borrowed
from Persian miniatures—brown and
khaki on a cream- colored ground, accentuated here and there by swatches
of painted grids and colored dots, or
beads or bits of yarn, or shapes cut
from colored felt. An Owens monkey
in a tree (or a Peter Doig canoe) is
imagery augmented, repurposed. This
is composite painting. It coheres, but
maybe not in the way we’re used to.
Laura Owens/Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York and Rome;
Sadie Coles HQ , London; and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne
The Los Angeles artist Laura Owens
brings a light touch and a tough mind
to a new kind of synthetic painting. Her
exuberant, bracing midcareer survey at
the Whitney beams a positive, can- do
energy. As a stylist and culture critic,
Owens is neither a stone- cold killer nor
a gleeful nihilist, traits embraced by
some of her peers. She’s an art lover,
an enthusiast who approaches the
problem of what to paint, and how to
paint it, with an open, pragmatic mind.
Her style can appear to be all over the
place, but we always recognize the
work as hers. Her principal theme may
be her own aesthetic malleability.
Owens bends the conceits of art
theory so that her own personality
can flourish. She is not afraid of wit.
Enchantment has its place too. Walking through her show, I was reminded
of something Fairfield Porter once
wrote about Pierre Bonnard: “He was
an individualist without revolt, and his
form . . . comes from his tenderness.”
For decades, and especially in the
mid-twentieth century, a persuasive
reading of modern painting revolved
around the idea of the gestalt—the way
every element in a painting coalesced
into one totality, one essence that blotted out ambiguity. A painting isn’t a
thing about another thing—it just is.
This gestalt theory of painting was especially alluring during abstraction’s
dominance; it put a brake on the drive
for narrative, and helped to establish
painting’s autonomy from literalist
But a funny thing happened to the
gestalt: life intruded. What if the whole
is not more than the sum of its various
parts, but more like a shopping list?
What if all the various elements used to
make a painting are just left out on the
floor like pieces from a puzzle that no
one bothered to finish? In a recent New
Yorker profile, Owens thoughtfully implies that the time for gestalts is over,
that collage—i.e., something made out
of parts or layers—is simply a feature
of the life we all lead. Indeed, a big part
of our culture is involved with putting
things together, with little distinction
made between the invented and the
found, and even less between the past
and the present. The fragmentary, the
deconstructed, even the deliberately
mismatched—that is our reality. We
are all collage artists now.
As someone who holds more or less
the same view I can hardly fault Owens
for believing this, but it seems to me
that her paintings are very much gestalts anyway, though perhaps of a new
kind, something closer in their effect to
imagist poetry, and it’s their sometimes
surprising gestaltness that holds our at-
Laura Owens: Untitled, 66 x 72 inches, 1998
Owens has a big formal range at her
disposal—her quiver is full. Odd color
harmonies: teal, hot pink, raw sienna,
fuschia, manganese blue, cream. The
colors of the decorator shop. Art taste
that’s been knocked down a notch or
two. The paint is applied with a pleasing paint-by-numbers quality. You can
feel the hobby store just around the
Paintings like illustrations in a children’s book. They feel liberated, unafraid to be garish. Saturated color and
loose, agitated brushwork. Images that
kids find appealing: animals in the forest, princesses, wild-haired children—
fairy-tale stuff. The spirit of Magritte
hovers over these paintings—his vache
paintings from the late 1940s, the ones
that nobody wanted.
A chunky white horse with a fanciful
tail like a philodendron frolics against
a loosely painted blue background (see
illustration at left). The horse is happy,
energized; it lifts its head and kicks up
a front hoof, straining at the confines
of the rectangle. Everything about this
painting from 2004 is right: the brushwork like china painting, the scale,
color, and image all aligned. This quality feels instinctual—not something
Owens was ever taught.
The paintings after 2005—a collage of grids in different scales colliding at different angles; a counterpoint
of impasto freestyle painting, or silkscreened commercial imagery, or an
expanse of text with the deadpan look
of an old phone book. The compositions are retinal, assertive, like novel
forms of candy seen in a glass jar. Their
look is closer to greeting cards than to
Franz Kline. This is strangely reassuring; they carry you along without protest, arbitrary, clownish, and weird.
The reciprocity of silk-screen and
digital printing, the computer’s replica
of the hand-made, are products of the
coding mind of twenty-first- century
painting. For artists of Owens’s generation (she’s forty-seven), the easy back
and forth between found and made
forms, and between painting and printing, is a given.
Sometimes the paintings are so
casual-looking they can trip you up.
In 2013, Owens showed twelve large
(roughly twelve-by-ten-foot) paintings
of this new postmodern composite type
in the gallery space that occupies the
ground floor of her Los Angeles studio,
and people have been talking about
them ever since. Paintings that leave
the impression they could be, or do,
just about anything. Perhaps their most
salient quality is confidence. The digital enhancement of a sketch or doodle
enlarged to twelve feet gives a vertiginous, Alice-in-Wonderland feeling to
some of the paintings. Small grids on
top of larger ones, hard- edged curlicues, computer-assisted drawings of
cartoony Spanish galleons, red hearts
and splashy arabesques, Photoshop
lozenges and fat zucchinis of impasto
thick as cake frosting, throbbing pinks
and hot greens—all of it and much more
is easily dispersed around the canvases,
which were hung just inches apart, lest
anything get too contemplative. The
paintings don’t so much violate notions
of good taste as ignore them.
The New York Review
February 8, 2018
Then there are, across a narrow corridor from each other, a pair of pale
robin’s- egg blue paintings of medium
size, both covered with clusters of what
look like hand- drawn, variously sized,
random numbers, which, on a closer
look, are made with thin, raised ribbons of black acrylic paint. The numbers on one painting exactly match
those on the other in size and position,
but reversed, as if one painting is looking at itself in a mirror. A hand- drawn
mirror image of a random
jumble of numbers. The conceit is witty and cartoonyweird. I have no idea what
it means. It’s engaging and
fun to look at. But the color!
Other artists might have an
idea for mirror writing in
painting, but I doubt they
would have expressed it with
the shade of blue found in a
tea shop or a girl’s bedroom.
The surprising color choice
gives the paintings an identity separate from whatever
idea generated them.
One of Owens’s many
strengths is her use of scale—
the big painting and the internal relationship of shapes to
the whole. She’s at ease with
the large New York School
canvas. Even though a lot has
happened since, and no matter how anachronistic it may
seem, our yardstick for serious
painting is still shadowed by
the achievements of the New
Laura Owens: Untitled, 137 1/2 x 120 inches, 2013
York School. One of the hallmarks of that type of abstract
painting is the “all-over” composition, in which the paint
reaches all four edges of the
canvas equally, and the eye
roams through the picture in
a nonhierarchical way. Owens
extends and reinvigorates that
tradition when she brings her
affinity for textiles to the allover, large-scale work.
Textiles, weaving, 2-D
design—all are full-fledged
high art now, and Owens has
no problem letting herself
be influenced by them. Another of her works from 2013
is an almost twelve-foot-tall
painting with line drawings
of cats playing with balls of
yarn dispersed over its white
ground (see top illustration
on this page). Some drawings are carefully executed
and others more slapdash;
some are in plaid, others in
the grid patterns that Owens
is so fond of. Here and there
are touches of spray paint in
raspberry, yellow, and blue.
It’s like a motif that one
might find on a young girl’s
Laura Owens: Untitled (detail),
flannel pajamas, something a
138 1/8 x 106 ½ x 2 5/8 inches overall, 2014
sophisticated seven-year- old
ored, Day- Glo even—are mounted
would find amusing and a bit arch. This
on the canvas, parallel to its surface
is a painting that says: You want allwith just enough clearance to freely
over? OK, how about this? This is the
turn. Wheels punctuate the composiway to be ambitious now. You don’t altion in a jaunty, syncopated rhythm—
ways have to throw your Sunday punch.
a chariot race without the chariots,
a riot of implied motion on top of an
he installation at the Whitney, overalready pushy abstract painting, not
seen by Owens and Scott Rothkopf,
going anywhere, in perpetuity. Hilarithe museum’s chief curator and deputy
ous, breathtaking, circus glamour. The
director for programs, restages exhibighosts of Jean Tinguely and Charles
tions from Owens’s principal galleries
Demuth, the Dada mind of Francis
in Los Angeles, New York, London,
Laura Owens/Ringier Collection
he critic most relevant
to Owens’s work might be
an Englishman who’s been
dead for nearly forty years
and never wrote about contemporary art. In his Seven
Types of Ambiguity (1930),
William Empson concerned
himself with the ways in
which poetical language—
motifs, figures of speech,
even individual words—can
mean more than one thing at
a time. He wanted to know
how a poet or dramatist uses
linguistic constructions to
convey both the complexities
of character and a setting for
interpreting their actions. A
figure of speech inserted into
the right narrative structure
can evoke the unstable experience of a protagonist who
chooses a course of action,
but who retains an awareness of the things not chosen.
In literature, certain words,
certain figures allow the
reader to feel that psychic
rub: this and not that—but
with a bit of that still present;
the memory of what was not
chosen hangs over the action. Empson also made an
important observation about
an author’s intention. He believed that an author could
say something in the work
that could probably not be
said apart from it. This type
of ambiguity in particular
resonates with visual art.
When people talk about
irony in painting, which they
do quite a lot, what they usually mean is ambiguity. Irony
is saying one thing and meaning its opposite, while ambiguity is the ability for a form
to hold two or more meanings at the same time. Painting that trades only on irony
can have a short shelf life.
Ambiguity keeps on giving; it rewards
prolonged looking. In painting, ambiguity is most often present in the imagery, in its references and connotations,
as well as how that imagery is handled.
The style, of course, inflects the feeling.
This is true for Owens as well. What
feels invigorating about her work is that
the painting’s structure itself is also a
marker of ambiguity. But even such
painterly sophistication is not so rare;
what really sets Owens apart is her dexterity at both kinds of ambiguity.
Take, for example, one of her works
from 2013 (not pictured): a dense field
of hot pink slashes on a pale lavender
ground, overprinted with fragments
of differently scaled grids in cadmium
green, turquoise, or black—and that’s
just the background. This eye-dazzler
is covered with lots of wheels (eighteen!) of different sizes. Rubber tires
on metal hubs or spokes—the kind
of wheels found on tricycles, wagons, grocery carts, some brightly col-
Laura Owens/Whitney Museum of American Art
Owens’s paintings sometimes seem
to have been made by another kind
of intelligence altogether, one tuned
to a frequency similar to our own, yet
different, as if a space alien, stranded
here on a mission from a distant galaxy, had been receiving weak radio
signals from Planet X. You can just
about pick out the command from the
static: unintelligible . . . static . . . static . . .
Put raspberry- colored grid on aquacolored rectangle. Add cartoon figures.
Add black squiggles. Put
drop shadows here and there.
Don’t worry about placement—just put somewhere.
Sign on back with made- up
generic name. Try to pass as
earthling until we can send
rescue ship.
Though John Ashbery hailed Joan
Murray (1917–1942) as a key influence
on his work, her sole collection, Poems,
published after her death at the early
age of twenty-four and selected by W.H.
Auden for inclusion in the Yale Series of
Younger Poets, has been almost entirely
unavailable for the better part of half
a century. Poems was put together by
Grant Code, a close friend of Murray’s
mother, and when Murray’s papers,
long thought to be lost, reappeared in
2013, it became clear that Code had
exercised a heavy editorial hand.
This new collection, edited by Farnoosh
Fathi from Murray’s original manuscripts,
restores Murray’s raw lyricism and visionary lines, while also including a good
deal of previously unpublished work, as
well as a selection of her exuberant letters.
Joan Murray
Edited by Farnoosh Fathi
Preface by John Ashbery
Paperback and e-book • $16.00
On sale Febraury 6th
Author photograph courtesy of Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
Monday, February 12th, 7:30pm
Greenlight Bookstore (Ft Greene)
686 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
With Farnoosh Fathi, Simran Bansal,
Corina Copp, Lucy Ives, Caroline Sasso,
Emily Skillings, and others
Wednesday, March 14th, 8pm
The Poetry Project
St Mark’s Church
131 East 10th Street, Manhattan
With Farnoosh Fathi, Monica de La
Torre, Shanna Compton, Katie Fowley,
Darcie Dennigan, and others
Available in bookstores, call (646) 215-2500,
or visit
ambiguity as part of its structure, but
the paintings are not difficult or withholding. Like a character in a screwball
comedy, they wear an expression that
says, I don’t know what happened, Officer; one minute I was just standing
here, and then . . .
The 663-page catalog that accompa-
nies the exhibition is generous and full
of anecdotes. Many voices are heard:
the artist’s mother, her fellow artists,
dealers, novelists, curators, and critics
all contribute their shadings to Owens’s rise. The book is a hybrid literary
form, a bildungsroman with pictures:
add the conceptual icing, which is what
the tuition buys at schools like CalArts,
but you’d better bring your own cake.
not only to the conditions of their own
making, but also to the social nexus in
which they participate. The work of art
is one link in a chain that includes gallerists, curators and critics, her fellow
artists, and of course the viewer. This
focus on the social system of art is, in
part, the legacy of conceptual art as it
has been filtered through the language
of painting. Owens makes being a good
citizen into an aesthetic.
Probably many people can identify
with the trajectory of Owens’s life. I
know I can. Midwestern and middleclass, Owens as a teenager looked at
paintings, noting which ones held her
attention and why. She developed her
Laura Owens/Collection of the Artist
and Cologne. Walls were built, hanging
plans copied—and the result resembles
a Laura Owens theme park instead of
a traditional retrospective that aims to
situate works in relation to one another
as well as to deliver the greatest hits.
The reason is that much of Owens’s
thinking about her work, its generating impulse, is tied up with the notion
of site specificity. There is a continuous
run of invention and forward-thinking
bravado; painting ideas ricochet
around the rooms. You can either run
alongside and try to hop on, or just get
out of the way.
I especially admire the way that
Owens integrates her various sources
and influences into her own pictorial
vocabulary. The ability to be influenced in a productive way, which includes making one’s influences legible
to the audience, might be essential to
success in today’s art world—so much
so that art schools should have a class
in how to identify and use the myriad
external points of reference from the
visual world with which we make up
our hybrid, signified selves.
Let’s recognize too the generative
power of folk art and all of its derivations, including gift shop, decorator
store, calendar, and greeting- card art,
as well as technical drafting, computer
graphics, and the look of giveaway
supermarket magazines. Owens can
mash or stack up all of the referents,
compass points, familial overlaps, and
personal curiosities into one tightly
compressed, orderly bundle. Hers is
the painting equivalent of the machine that turns cars into a solid, dense
cube of crushed metal. Owens’s work
doesn’t look squashed—quite the opposite: its surface is open and inviting,
but the structural components appear
As an image gatherer, Owens is
peripatetic and astute. An estate sale
yielded the source for an especially
winning group of paintings from 1998:
a crewel-work pillow enlivened with a
swarm of honeybees arrayed around
an orange-hued, dome-shaped hive
(see illustration on page 38). As much
as anything else in the show, the sure
touch involved in successfully translating that image of wishful good vibes
to a painting convinced me of Owens’s
superior pictorial instincts. Her bees
are made with thick blobs of black and
yellow acrylic paint, their wings rendered as delicate black lines with veins
of iridescent white, and the dozen or so
insects hover and float on an expanse
of unpainted cotton canvas. The four
tones—coral orange, cadmium yellow,
deep burnt sienna, and umber, which
together create an illusion of volume—
form a perfect chord of color harmonies.
The beehive paintings are secure in
their directness and shorthand styling.
They have what in the theater is called
good stage manners: every decision is
bold, clear, and appropriate.
Owens’s work is part of the American pragmatic tradition. The intellectuality in her work feels new to me.
As a thinker, Owens is self-reflexive,
curious, and matter- of-fact. As a stylist she’s resourceful and fearless. She’s
braided into the same rope with a few
older painters, such as Albert Oehlen
or Charline von Heyl, or, closer to her
own age, Wade Guyton or Seth Price,
but she doesn’t share their angst or
spiky black humor. In fact, Owens
doesn’t seem to have a nihilistic bone
in her body. Her work incorporates
Laura Owens: Untitled, 108 x 84 inches, 2016
the story of an earnest young woman
from the provinces with an appealing,
straightforward manner who, through
luck and pluck and the benevolent intervention of some well-placed patrons,
grows up to see her dream of being an
artist realized.
A blizzard of faxes, letters, clippings, photographs, and invoices to and
from Owens and her dealers and peers
shines a light on the world of professional art schools and the international
network of galleries and alternative
spaces that are the mechanisms of generational renewal. Owens approaches
art-making with a democratic spirit, in
the naturally collegial way that comes
easily when you’re young. The catalog
represents a welcome acknowledgment
that any career of real substance is also
a group project. That Owens so readily
embraces that reality may be a gender
thing; her male counterparts still cling
for the most part to the “prickliest
cactus in the desert” mode, tiresome
though it has become.
It has been terribly important to
Owens that her paintings call attention
skills at summer art camp, going off to
college at RISD, and on to Cal Arts for
grad school. This is how artists today
are made: from avid teenaged drawer
and painter to RISD adept who then
finds herself questioned by the hardliners for whom painting was a lost
cause. It’s a great recipe when combined with talent and drive. By the
time Owens got to grad school, she had
sufficient self- confidence to survive the
ritual hazing known as the group critique. Although Owens put in her time
at CalArts, that hotbed of conceptualism with the arch-enforcer Michael
Asher, it doesn’t seem to have done her
any harm, possibly because she was so
clear about her vocation from an early
What a relief to have a painter who
didn’t get the stuffing knocked out of
her at the Whitney Independent Study
Program or its equivalent. A strong
design sense, internalized early on
and reinforced at critical junctures by
encounters with Chinese painting, or
Matisse, or Bauhaus textiles, can carry
you through a whole career. You can
takes the world of design,
especially children’s books and childfriendly graphics, and teases out the
forms that can be recast as art. Put another way, she has an instinct for choosing the right thing and knowing what
to do with it. Her work has no anxiety
about being nerdy, or not much anxiety
period. This is art that’s comfortable
wearing fuzzy slippers.
Owens’s work is the apotheosis of
painting in the digital age. The defining
feature of digital art—of digital information generally—is its weightlessness.
Images, colors, marks, text, are essentially decals in a nondimensional electronic space. They exist, but only up to
a point. They can excite the mind, but
you can’t touch them. An air of weightlessness remains even when they are
transferred to the physical surface of a
painting. If these images were to fall,
nothing would catch them. They’re like
Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff, just
before he realizes he’s churning air.
Owens is part of the ongoing process of loosening the rules governing
how a painting acquires meaning that
began with the young painters of the
late 1970s and early 1980s (of which I
was one). The general idea was to dissolve the gravitational force field that
held the disparate elements of a painting together, like atoms bundled into
a molecule. This “glue” was, and is,
invisible to most viewers, just as it is
in life generally. These artists wanted
to make it visible, as though shining a
black light on a painting to reveal the
cracks in its surface. And they wanted
to move painting out from under the infuriating drone of high- culture pieties,
which had lost much of their credibility.
There was a low-grade, cheerful nihilism in much of that work, but it didn’t
go very far on the rebuilding side.
The whole project eventually got
absorbed into criticism as the original
artists moved on to other things. The
field lay fallow for some years. Eventually, it fell to artists of Owens’s generation to replant. Owens, whether using
embroidery, the computer, painted
forms, or screen printing, stumbled
on a hidden truth that has been more
or less obscured since the late 1980s:
the relationship between form, visual
logic, and emotional catharsis is itself
A strange thing happens after you
spend some time at the exhibition. Once
you become acclimated to the endless
malleability of the prosaic that is at the
heart of Owens’s visual syntax—Oh,
this is actually not something found
at the mall—what follows is like a tiny
paint bomb that detonates in the mind’s
eye, which leads in turn to a strange
and unexpected hollow sensation. It’s
the tart pinch of a correction you feel
after the cheering stops. The effect of
Owens’s work, with its ebullient leapfrogging into worry-free zones of pictorial busyness, can sometimes feel, to
paraphrase John Haskell, like waiting
for the happiness to arrive.
I can’t fully explain why, but walking
through the show I had the feeling, as
I rounded a corner, of a dream of falling, one that was deprived of its conclusive ending when you hit the floor and
wake. Pictorial free-fall—it’s thrilling,
and quite unnerving. But no matter,
The New York Review
To the Editors:
In his review of Rüdiger Safranski’s Goethe:
Life as a Work of Art [“Super Goethe,”
NYR, December 21, 2017], Ferdinand
Mount concludes:
When [Goethe] finally made his longdreamed-of trip to Italy, he remained
impervious to the Christian art he saw.
He was disappointed even by the classical monuments he saw in Rome, most
of them at this date overgrown tumbles
of stone. For all his endless fertility, Goethe’s imagination or lack of it
has a forbidding quality. He made an
exception for Mantegna’s frescoes in
the Eremitani Chapel in Padua, which
seemed to have a blunt, pure presence.
“Presence” is the key word here. He
condemned what he saw as the poverty
of Christian mythology, always longing for something absent, dwelling, in
a way that he regarded as unholy, on
deprivation, suffering, and expectation
rather than empowerment and possession. The only true divinity was Nature.
Goethe’s own impressions, as recorded
in his Italian Journey (1786–1788), lead this
reader to a wholly contrary assessment. His
entry of October 17, 1786, from Cento, reveals he “liked very much one painting of
[Guercino] which represents the risen Christ
appearing to his mother.” An engraving after
the painting shows the Christ child “in the
foreground facing us, while the Madonna
behind him is lifting his arm so that he may
bless us with his raised fingers. A happy idea,
and very much in the spirit of the Catholic [cf.
‘Christian’] mythology.” In Rome, finally, for
the first time, he notes on November 1, 1786:
Now, at last, I have arrived in the First
City of the world! Had I seen it fifteen
years ago with an intelligent man to
guide me, I should have called myself
lucky, but, since I was destined to visit
it alone and trust to my own eyes, I am
happy, at least, to have been granted
this joy so late in life.
Still further on that same day, he records:
All the dreams of my youth have come
to life; the first engravings I remember—my father hung views of Rome
in the hall—I now see in reality, and
everything I have known for so long
through paintings, drawings, etchings,
woodcuts, plaster casts and cork models is now assembled before me.
terns recall barren terrain seen from
the air. The paintings are bisected near
their edges by vertical and horizontal
bands of white, and here and there with
bits of color (see illustration on page
40). They suffer in reproduction—
there is a sound component to them as
well—but their austerity, resourcefulness, and sense of resolve are impressive. I found them, and much else in the
show, beautiful, dramatic, and moving,
and a strong case for painting’s digitally assisted future.
which gave me the keenest pleasure. I
saw a St. Petronilla by Guercino. . . . The
body of the dead saint is lifted out of the
tomb, restored to life and received into
Heaven by a divine youth. Whatever
objections there may be to this twofold
action, the painting is beyond price.
lems, “Somalia Rebounds” [NYR, December 7]. In my experience Somalis tend to
be brave, tough, and hardworking; but that
does not quite explain where the money
is coming from to rebuild Mogadishu. In
good part the rebuilding may be financed
by remittances from the large and growing
Somali diaspora in America and elsewhere.
One may wonder whether financing also
comes from the huge ransoms paid to Somali pirates in recent years. A 2013 World
Bank report entitled “Pirate Trails” estimated that piracy off the Somali coast had
by that year earned over $300 million for
the pirates and their financiers.
One might wish, too, that Gettleman
had said a few words about the future of
the country. The growth in the Somali diaspora has to some extent eased the pressures caused by the population explosion
in Somalia. That problem is, however, not
going away. The CIA World Factbook estimates that the average Somali woman bears
5.8 children, while in Mexico, for example,
the figure has fallen to only 2.2. Somalia
does not support itself now; can it ever
do so?
Among other continuing problems,
beyond the violence perpetrated by AlShabab, is the existence of Somali political
entities besides the Federal Republic centered in Mogadishu. Most notable is the
Somaliland Republic in the north, which attracts little international attention because
it has enjoyed a quarter-century of relative
peace, and which has not been formally
recognized by foreign governments fearing
a precedent that might be cited by breakaway groups elsewhere. Will there ever
again be a Somalia unified within its pre–
civil war borders? And is such unity really
a necessity?
His perception of the divinity of nature
notwithstanding, Goethe’s reaction on
viewing Christian-themed art in so many
forms was anything but impervious.
Adam Jacobs
Wayne, New Jersey
Ferdinand Mount replies:
Certainly Goethe is now and then charmed
by the pictures and frescoes he sees in Italy,
and he is often impressed by the painterly
technique of the artists in question. He is
touched by pretty madonnas and chubby babies, but he remains indifferent, sometimes
openly hostile, to the Christian message
behind them. He detests in particular martyrdoms and crucifixions, in fact any graphic
image of suffering. In between the passages
quoted by Mr. Jacobs, he writes of the Carracci family, Guido Reni, and Domenichino:
The main obstacle to understanding
these painters is their absurd subjects,
which drive me mad, though I would
like to admire and love them.
It is as if the sons of gods had married
the daughters of men and begotten of
them a variety of monsters. It is always
the same, even with a genius like Guido.
You find yourself in the dissecting
room, at the foot of the gallows, on the
edge of the corpse pit. His heroes always
suffer and never act. Never an interest
in everyday life, always the expectation
of something fantastic about to appear
from outside. . . . Out of ten subjects,
only one should have been painted and
even that one the artist was not allowed
to paint from the proper angle.
The large picture by Guido in the
Church of the Mendicanti [the famous
Pietà dei Mendicanti, now in the Bologna Pinacoteca] is, technically, everything that a painting should be, but the
subject is the ultimate in absurdities
which can be forced upon an artist. . . .
When I look at history in this black
mood, I feel inclined to say: first faith
ennobled the arts, then superstition took
over and ruined them (October 19, 1786).
Goethe’s Italian Journey is largely made
up of agreeable traveler’s impressions of
the sort that any sensitive Grand Tourist,
of his day or ours, might have put together.
What seem to me uniquely and memorably
Goethean are the passages where he breaks
out in passionate revulsion against Christian liturgy and iconography.
And on November 3, 1786:
I looked at the frescoes and found some
excellent ones by artists whose names I
hardly knew—Carlo Maratti, for example, whom I soon came to love and admire. But it was the masterpieces of the
artists whose style I had already studied
February 8, 2018
To the Editors:
It was pleasing to read Jeffrey Gettleman’s
description of how, despite so many prob-
Peter Bridges
US Ambassador to Somalia,
1984 –1986
Arlington, Virginia
they have a different gravitas. Their
terse, shimmering surfaces are made
from black-and-white fields of digital
static. Amorphous sprays of x’s and o’s
and other pixilated data are the result
of various objects put through a scanner, digitally manipulated, enlarged or
reduced, allowed to play out in large
swaths, and sometimes corralled into
shapes with drop-shadow edges. These
compositions are then printed on paper
and glued to aluminum panels. The
silvery-gray tones and irregular pat-
New York
just let it go. I was reminded of what
the iconoclastic film critic and painter
Manny Farber wrote in 1968 at the end
of his review of Jean-Luc Godard’s La
Chinoise: “No other filmmaker has so
consistently made me feel like a stupid
The last room at the Whitney contains three large paintings that were
part of a complex installation made
for the CCA Wattis Institute in San
Francisco in 2016. Though clearly related to other paintings in the show,
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Jeffrey Gettleman replies:
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I agree with Ambassador Bridges that investment from Somalis living in the diaspora is contributing to Mogadishu’s faint
renaissance. And I too am concerned about
Al-Shabab. The government security forces
are still very weak. If it weren’t for the
African Union, the Shabab would be sitting in the presidential palace right now.
Ugandan and Burundian troops are the
backbone of the African Union mission,
and they have taken hundreds of casualties
in the continuing battles to wrest neighborhoods from the Shabab. The Somali troops
are infiltrated by Al-Shabab and have done
much less.
What is Somalia’s future? I think more of
the same. Some areas of the country will stabilize; others will sink deeper into despair.
Fragmentation will continue and more regional governments will assert themselves.
I see the emergence of a loose, highly decentralized city-state model of governance,
reminiscent of parts of Europe in the
1600s. (I think this could happen in other
failing states as well, such as Yemen, Libya,
South Sudan, and the Central African
Republic. I don’t see any of these nations
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To the Editors:
We are auditory professionals who enjoyed
the recent article by Jerome Groopman, reviewing The Language of
Light: A History of Silent Voices,
by Gerald Shea [“The Sounds of Silence,” NYR, December 7]. The history of sign language, the obstacles
placed by organized religion, the
eventual acceptance of, and the current trend away from, signing make
a fascinating and illuminating story.
We recognize the beauty and utility
of sign language and the strong desire by those who use it to keep this
language alive.
However, the article ends with
a discussion of cochlear implants
that paints a picture of the implantee experience that is far less positive than
it is in reality. The point we wish to make
is the tremendous impact of being able to
communicate with all others that cochlear
implants bestow on deaf children and laterdeafened adults. Cochlear implantation
took off during the 1990s, and so today we
have decades of research on language acquisition by implantees. Scores of scholarly
publications, including in the most reputable medical and scientific journals, have
consistently shown that cochlear implants
improve hearing and speech comprehension in children born deaf,1, 2 with social
and emotional effects that extend beyond
laboratory settings.3
For those wishing for a more entertaining learning experience, watch YouTube
cochlear implant videos of everything from
children hearing their family’s voices for the
first time, to a young woman navigating university.4 In the latter, one finds a full story of
the trials and triumphs of a cochlear implantee. Cochlear implants are not a perfect solution, they do not restore fully normal hearing, but there is no doubt that the cochlear
implant is an amazing success story. It is not
a finished story and hundreds of researchers continue to work to improve hearing,
thanks to private industry, the National Institutes of Health, and other funding bodies.
Cochlear implants are a tremendous benefit
to society and their wearers, and to paint
them as anything less is simply inaccurate.
Elizabeth S. Olson, Ph.D.
Justin S. Golub, MD, MS
Department of Otolaryngology
Head and Neck Surgery
Columbia University Medical Center
New York City
See J. K. Niparko et al., “Spoken Language Development in Children Following
Cochlear Implantation,” JAMA, April 21,
See M. A. Svirsky et al., “Language Development in Profoundly Deaf Children with
Cochlear Implants,” Psychological Science,
March 1, 2000.
See A. K. Cheng et al., “Cost-Utility
Analysis of the Cochlear Implant in Children,” JAMA, August 16, 2000.
These and other videos are available at
Jerome Groopman replies:
I have no bias for or against cochlear implants. Contrary to the statement by Professor Olson and Dr. Golub, my portrayal of
their effects is accurate. In fact, the first two
studies cited in their letter fully support the
points made in my review.
Olson and Golub assert that “cochlear
implants are a tremendous benefit to society and their wearers.” A more accurate
assessment would add the phrase “when
they work well.” The greatest benefit, as I
wrote, is generally for those who once could
hear and then lost the ability to do so. The
university student in the YouTube video
Olson and Golub cite had normal hearing
until the age of nineteen months, and then
developed meningitis and became deaf. But
there is considerable variability in how well
children with cochlear implants can acquire
speech and language comprehension, as the
first study they refer to shows. The 188 chil-
children. “Since less than 0.25 percent of
the American population can communicate with sign language,” I noted, “Shea
acknowledges the understandable desire of
parents to give their deaf children sufficient
hearing to function in the larger world.”
But he also argues that signing is a natural
language of the deaf, and in much of the
book recounts the impressive educational
achievements of deaf children educated
with signing. In both studies cited by Olson
and Golub, there is no comparison between
the academic achievement of children with
implants and that of those who sign.
The third reference offered by Olson and
Golub is a cost-utility analysis of cochlear
implants based on what is termed “qualityadjusted life-years” (QALYs). These are
essentially thought experiments in which
healthy people are asked to say what odds
they would take to avoid deafness at the risk
of immediate death (the standard gamble),
or parents of deaf children are asked how
many years of life would be worth
giving up to avoid hearing loss
(time trade-off). The health economist Paul Dolan and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman have found
deep methodological flaws in these
thought experiments, persuasively
arguing that healthy individuals
cannot make meaningful calculations about medical conditions they
themselves have never experienced.1
Many with disabilities find the idea
of healthy people imagining they
would give up life to prevent their
condition highly offensive.
The YouTube testimonials feature
“amazing” outcomes like that of the
young Oxford student. But such inspiring
anecdotes ought to be seen within a larger
clinical setting. Children with scant benefit
from the implant, like those in the study by
Svirsky et al., should be featured as well.
A recent review-article details the delayed
complications experienced by those who
received cochlear implants.2 Some 1,300
of 22,842 adult and pediatric recipients of
cochlear implants suffered significant negative outcomes, most prominently “vestibular complications” such as impaired balance
and dizziness. One might argue that there
should be YouTube testimonials from such
individuals, who have difficulty walking or
feel themselves spinning, alongside those
with outstanding outcomes, to give viewers
a more accurate and complete picture of
implants’ benefits and risks.
Surgeons and scientists like Golub and
Olson believe deeply in the positive net
value of cochlear implants. Shea shows how
many deaf people believe as deeply in signing, their “language of light,” as a hallmark
of their identity and a successful means for
educational advancement. Families must
weigh the full breadth of clinical data, both
positive and negative, as well as the cultural
effects of the device to arrive at the choice
that most enhances their children’s lives.
Yale Center for British Art
coalescing around a strong central government in the near future.)
People living in cities like Mogadishu,
Hargeissa, and Kismayo will be able to
work, go to school, and build some wealth
as these places become nodes of economic
activity, although on a relatively small
scale. They will remain fiercely independent of one another. Bandits, warlords,
and Islamist militants will have significant
power in the vast spaces between the cities
and still operate inside some urban areas.
Unity may not be necessary for stability.
But I don’t see how Somalia will ever build
the infrastructure it needs or get the respect
it deserves if the country remains divided.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema:
Study for Thermaie Antoniniane, 1899
dren in this study are a selected group, not
representative of all those who receive implants; they had to have high baseline cognitive and motor skills before implantation
and thus were most likely to have a positive
From this favorable starting point, many
children, especially those who once had
hearing and lost it, had excellent results
three years later, but many others did not,
falling far below their hearing peers in
speech and comprehension. Furthermore,
assessment of the children’s speech and
comprehension occurred in a laboratory
setting with standardized tests, in keeping
with the observation in my review that most
clinical data on cochlear implants come
from such controlled environments rather
than the larger world. To their credit, the
authors of the study highlight a major limitation of their work: there is no comparative
control group of hearing-impaired children
without cochlear implants. They emphasize
that the absence of such matched controls
“preclude[s] causal conclusions” about the
net benefits of the implants.
Olson and Golub’s second reference, the
study by Svirsky et al., includes data on seventy children collected over thirty months.
These researchers found that while on average the implant slowed language delay,
These average results conceal a large
amount of individual variability. . . .
Some children’s language abilities remain severely delayed even after more
than two years of experience with their
cochlear implant. . . . However, some
children displayed expressive language
abilities that were very close to the average values shown by their normalhearing peers.
A graph (figure 4) in the article clearly
displays the wide range of these outcomes.
While some children with the implant at
2–2.5 years approached estimated mean
normal language proficiency, many fell 95
percent or more below the mean.
Olson and Golub call the device “amazing,” and for some children and families it
certainly is. But for others, as Shea observes
in The Language of Light and the results in
these two studies show, cochlear implants
fall far short of expectations.
As I wrote, cochlear implants have
“mainstreamed” most hearing-impaired
Paul Dolan and Daniel Kahneman, “Interpretations of Utility and Their Implications
for the Valuation of Health,” The Economic Journal, January 2008.
Bradford Terry, Rachel E. Kelt, and Anita
Jeyakumar, “Delayed Complications After
Cochlear Implantation,” JAMA Otolaryngology—Head & Neck Surgery, November
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