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The New York Review of Books — January 28, 2018

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Ian Bostridge on English Songs
February 22, 2018 / Volume LXV, Number 3
Charlotte Salomon’s
Art of Catastrophe
Fire in the White House
by Michael Tomasky
The Case for Reason, Science,
Humanism, and Progress
The C.I.A. and America’s Secret
Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan
In t his elegant ass essment of t he human
condition, Pinker urges us to step back from
the gory headlines and prophecies of doom,
which play to our psychological biases. “A terrific
book….[Pinker] recounts the progress across a
broad array of metrics, from health to wars, the
environment to happiness, equal rights to quality
of life.”—Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times.
Resuming the narrative of his Pulitzer Prizewinning Ghost Wars, Steve Coll tells for the first
time the epic story of America’s intelligence,
military, and diplomatic efforts to defeat Al
Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and
Pakistan since 9/11. This is the definitive
explanation of how America came to be so
badly ensnared in an elaborate, factional, and
seemingly interminable conflict in South Asia.
Viking • 576 pages • 978-0-525-42757-5 • $35.00
Penguin Press • 784 pages • 978-1-59420-458-6 • $35.00
“In glowing and remarkable prose, Zadie Smith
argues out the world we live in. Her approach
is fierce and lucid, nuanced and definitive, witty
and deeply serious, joyful and hopeful and
honest. This book is a tonic that will help the
reader reengage with life.”—Andrew Solomon,
president of PEN America.
Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
Penguin Press • 464 pages • 978-1-59420-625-2 • $28.00
“Brilliant, timeless and timely. Political Tribes
concisely explains the forces that made our
experiences in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq so
maddeningly difficult to comprehend, and brings
that same thoughtful analysis to America today.
Amy Chua provokes thought—and we need
that.”—General Stanley McChrystal, U.S. Army
Penguin Press • 304 pages • 978-0-399-56285-3 • $28.00
Chief Justice John Marshall
and His Times
“In every chapter of this page-turning account
of Marshall’s pivotal place in our nation’s history,
even the expert will learn something new. How
did Joel Paul figure out, for instance, that the
great Chief Justice probably suborned perjury on
his brother’s part during the bizarre Marbury v.
Madison trial? You owe it to yourself to read Joel
Paul’s terrific book to find out.”—Laurence H.
Tribe, Harvard Law School.
Riverhead • 512 pages • 978-1-59448-823-8 • $30.00
Dispatches from the Border
“A beautiful, fiercely honest, and nevertheless
deeply empathetic look at those who police
the border and the migrants who risk—and
lose—their lives crossing it. In a time of often
ill-informed or downright deceitful political
rhetoric, this book is an invaluable corrective.”—
Phil Klay, National Book Award-winning author
of Redeployment.
Riverhead • 256 pages • 978-0-735-21771-3 • $26.00
Networks and Power, from
the Freemasons to Facebook
“Brilliantly illuminates the great power struggle
between networks and hierarchies that is raging
around the world today. As a software engineer
steeped in the theory and practice of networks,
I was deeply impressed by this book’s insights.
Silicon Valley needed a history lesson and
Ferguson has provided it.”—Eric Schmidt, former
executive chairman of Alphabet, the parent
company of Google.
In this thought-provoking collection of twentythree pieces, the Nobel Prize-winning author
examines the work of some of the world’s
greatest writers, from Daniel Defoe in the
early eighteenth century to Goethe and Irène
Némirovsky to Coetzee’s contemporary Philip
Roth, offering readers an illuminating and
wise analysis of a remarkable list of works of
international literature.
Viking • 304 pages • 978-0-735-22391-2 • $28.00
Penguin Press • 592 pages • 978-0-735-22291-5 • $30.00
The United Kingdom, 1800-1906
The second volume in his autobiographical
quartet based on the seasons, Winter is an
achingly beautiful collection of daily meditations
and letters addressed directly to Knaugsaard’s
unborn daughter.
“Cannadine shows a polymathic command of the
cultural life of the period….[He] has pulled off
the hat-trick of commanding erudition, original
interpretation and graceful writing.”—Maya
Jasanoff, The Guardian.
Penguin Press • 272 pages • 978-0-399-56333-1 • $27.00
Viking • 624 pages • 978-0-525-55789-0 • $40.00
Academic Services • 375 Hudson Street • New York, New York 10014
Michael Tomasky
Colm Tóibín
Christopher de Bellaigue
Ian Bostridge
Andrew Motion
Jason DeParle
Joel Smith
Andrew Motion
Amy Knight
Julian Lucas
Paul Reitter
Suzy Hansen
Craig Brown
Michael Ignatieff
Yasmine El Rashidi
Verlyn Klinkenborg
Lisa Appignanesi
Letters from
Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff
Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic by David Frum
The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff
Half-Baked Revolt in Iran
O Sing unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music by Andrew Gant
Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece by Jonathan Keates
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government
Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
One, Two, Three, More by Helen Levitt, with an introduction by Geoff Dyer
The Magnitsky Affair
Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated from the French
by Jordan Stump
Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated from the French
by Melanie Mauthner
Speaking of Universities by Stefan Collini
What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?: The American Revolution in Education
by Geoffrey Galt Harpham
You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education
by George Anders
Istanbul: Memories and the City (Deluxe Edition) by Orhan Pamuk,
translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely
Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes
The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983–1992 by Tina Brown
Wormwood a six-part Netflix series directed by Errol Morris
Toughing It Out in Cairo
Farewell to the Horse: A Cultural History by Ulrich Raulff,
translated from the German by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp
Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre? an exhibition at the Jewish Historical Museum,
Amsterdam, October 20, 2017–March 25, 2018
Life? or Theatre? by Charlotte Salomon
Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?: A Selection of 450 Gouaches
Mark A. Michelson and John Ryle
“The Counterrevolution is
searing and indispensable.
LISA APPIGNANESI is Chair of the Royal Society of Literature and of this year’s Man Booker International Prize. She is the
author of Mad, Bad, and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind
Doctors and Losing the Dead. Her next book, Everyday Madness,
will be published in September.
AMY KNIGHT is a former Woodrow Wilson Fellow. Her most
recent book is Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political
CHRISTOPHER DE BELLAIGUE’s most recent book is The
Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason,
1798 to Modern Times.
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.
totally our democracy is
YASMINE EL RASHIDI is the author of The Battle for Egypt:
Dispatches from the Revolution and Chronicle of a Last Summer:
A Novel of Egypt.
might never rescue it.”
IAN BOSTRIDGE is an opera singer and a song recitalist.
He is the author of Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an
CRAIG BROWN has been a columnist for Private Eye since
1989. His most recent book is Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of
Princess Margaret.
JASON DEPARLE, a reporter for The New York Times, is writing a book about a family of immigrants and the rise of global
SUZY HANSEN is the author of Notes on a Foreign Country:
An American Abroad in a Post-American World. She lives in
JULIAN LUCAS is an associate editor at Cabinet, web editor
at The Point, and a contributing writer for The New York Times.
PAUL REITTER teaches in the German Department at Ohio
State University and is the author of Bambi’s Jewish Roots and
Other Essays on German-Jewish Culture. Currently a Fellow at
the American Academy in Berlin, he co-edited The Rise of the
Research University: A Sourcebook and Friedrich Nietzsche’s On
the Future of Our Educational Institutions.
JOEL SMITH is the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography at the Morgan Library and Museum.
Bernard Harcourt’s analysis
is brutal and clear: if we
don’t fully grasp just how
now compromised, we
Pulitzer Prize–winning
author of Blood in the Water
“An important and deeply
MICHAEL IGNATIEFF is President of Central European University in Budapest. His books include Isaiah Berlin: A Life and
The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World.
COLM TÓIBÍN is Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of
the Humanities at Columbia. His most recent book is the novel
House of Names.
challenging book. It should
VERLYN KLINKENBORG’s books include Several Short Sentences About Writing and Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile.
MICHAEL TOMASKY is a Special Correspondent for The
Daily Beast and the Editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
who cares about the future
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» Sue Halpern: Facebook’s Fake News Fix
» James Kirchick: Ron Paul’s Paranoid Style
» Claudia Dreifus: An Interview with Robert Caro
» Kenan Malik: The Great British Empire Debate
Plus Danzy Senna on George Schuyler, Geoffrey O’Brien on Phantom Thread, and more
be mandatory for anyone
of the Republic.”
author of The Three Lives
of James Madison
“This book should be
required reading for
every American.”
University of Chicago
The paintings on the cover and on pages 48 and 49 are by Charlotte Salomon from Life? or Theatre?, 1940–1942 (Charlotte Salomon ® Collection Jewish Historical
Museum, Amsterdam © Charlotte Salomon Foundation). Reprinted by arrangement with The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.
The New York Review of Books (ISSN 0028-7504), published 20 times a year, monthly in January, July, August, and September; semi-monthly in February, March, April,
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The Worst of the Worst
The Corruption of
the American Republic
by David Frum.
Harper, 301 pp., $25.99
Michael Tomasky
On January 10, The Washington Post
reported that Donald J. Trump passed
a milestone that none of his predecessors is known to have attained: just
short of the anniversary of his first
year in office, he told his two
thousandth lie.1 It had happened
sometime the day before, when the
president was meeting with legislators to discuss immigration and
tossed out a few of his old standbys—about how quickly the border wall could be built, about “the
worst of the worst” gaining entry
to the United States through a visa
lottery, and about his wall’s ability
to curtail the drug trade.
The path from the first lie to the
two thousandth (and now beyond),
a veritable Via Dolorosa of civic
corruption, has been impossible
for even the most resolute citizen
to avoid. Trump is in our faces,
and our brains, constantly. Yet
the barrage is so unceasing that
we can’t remember what he did
and said last week, or sometimes
even yesterday. Do you remember,
for example, that first major lie?
It was a doozy: the one about how
his inaugural crowds were larger
than Barack Obama’s, larger than
anyone’s, the largest ever, despite the
ample photographic evidence that rendered the claim laughable.
That was Day One. On Day Two, he
sent his press secretary, Sean Spicer,
out to meet the White House press
corps for the first time. In that ill-fitting
suit jacket that appeared to have been
tailored for someone with a neck a good
three inches thicker than his, Spicer insisted that the photographs were misleading and the press was wrong. Not
just wrong—lying. “There’s been a lot
of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable,” he said, sputtering his words in
terse reports as if they were issuing
from a machine gun.
And I’m here to tell you that it
goes two ways. We’re gonna hold
the press accountable as well. The
American people deserve better,
and as long as he serves as the messenger for this incredible movement, he will take his message
directly to the American people,
where his focus will always be.
Here we are, a year later. From my
reading and television viewing, the general assessment of most pundits seems
to be that it’s been worse than we could
have imagined (except on the Fox News
Glenn Kessler and Meg Kelly, “President Trump Has Made More Than
2,000 False or Misleading Claims over
355 Days,” The Washington Post, January 10, 2018.
Channel, where everything in Trump
world is coming up roses and the gravest threat to democracy is still someone
named Clinton). But honestly, who
couldn’t have imagined any of this?
To anyone who had the right read on
Trump’s personality—the vanity, the insecurity, the contempt for knowledge, the
addiction to chaos—nothing that’s happened has been surprising in the least.
I think most close observers of
Trump understood his personality perfectly well. If that’s right, what, then,
could explain the surprise? Maybe just
a reasonable disbelief that a president
would, for example, remark crudely
on a female television anchor’s facelift surgery, or actually encourage the
been “just a neutral observer” in the
White House:
Completely. I would have been perfectly happy to have written a contrarian book about how interesting
and potentially hopeful and novel
Trump-as-president was. I would
have written a positive Trump
book. And I thought it would be a
fun thing to do—an audacious way
to look at the world. 3
And so Wolff got his access, as he
wrote in his own Reporter piece, because Trump’s “non-disapproval became a kind of passport for me to hang
around.” He benefited, no doubt, from
the unprecedented disorganization
of the Trump White House, where no
one quite had the authority to tell him
to leave. He made his appointments, but basically, he says, he just
plopped himself down on a couch
in the entrance foyer of the West
Wing. I know the anteroom, and
the couch. The Cabinet Room is to
the left as you face the sofa (with
the Oval Office off of it), the Roosevelt Room to the right, and many
offices nearby. Everyone walks by.
It’s a grand place to sit and watch.
In no time, he was horrified at
what he saw. You surely know by
now the book’s big scoops, which
are stunning. The biggest one is
dropped very late in the book,
in a section about Trump’s sons,
Don Jr. and Eric, who “existed in
an enforced infantile relationship
to their father, a role that embarrassed them, but one that they also
professionally embraced.” Wolff is
discussing the infamous meeting on
June 9, 2016, at Trump Tower that
Don Jr. had with Paul Manafort—
who would soon be named Trump’s
campaign chairman—Jared Kushner, and the Kremlin- connected Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya.4
The New York Times broke the news of
the meeting last July, and sources told
the paper that Don Jr. was looking for
dirt on Clinton.
Wolff writes that “not long after the
meeting was revealed,” he was talking
with Steve Bannon, then still the president’s chief political strategist, who
said: “Even if you thought that this was
not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad
shit, and I happen to think it’s all of
that, you should have called the FBI immediately.” It was this quote—far too
frank, and given to “the enemy,” i.e.,
the nonconservative media—that got
Bannon fired from Breitbart News, to
which he had returned after he left the
White House (and where, incidentally,
he was earning $750,000 a year in 2013,
which was at least $200,000 more than
Jill Abramson, the editor of The New
York Times at the time, was making).
The quote has landed Bannon in the
conservative movement doghouse, but
we all know these things can change;
it’s not hard to imagine the mercurial
Trump deciding someday that Bannon
is of use to him again.
That quote was hard news, but the
most breathtaking scoops in Fire and
Gerald Scarfe
Fire and Fury:
Inside the Trump White House
by Michael Wolff.
Henry Holt, 321 pp., $30.00
people—in media, mostly, but also in
Silicon Valley and show business and
politics. His subject is power and how
men (and some women) use it. We were
colleagues for a few years at New York
magazine. We talked politics sometimes, but he was always rather sphinxlike on the topic. I suppose if one sat
him down and asked him his positions
on abortion rights and same-sex marriage and global warming and so on,
he’d come out a liberal. But positions
per se don’t interest him much. What
interests him is how men to whom history has given the stage command it or
fail to.
Wolff interviewed Trump in the
spring of 2016 for The Hollywood Reporter, his current home base. When
the resulting piece—not fawning, but
by no means written with the acid
Boy Scouts—the Boy Scouts!—to boo
his predecessor (remember that one?).
But I think there has been some deeper
collective refusal on the part of the political class to acknowledge what has
happened here, and of course to own
up to their part in it. No one (on this
point I include myself) believed Trump
could win. No one took his candidacy
seriously enough. This is especially
true of the press, which, in hammering
away on Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, assumed itself to be in training to refight
the wars of the 1990s once the Clintons
moved back into the White House.
When we are forced to confront the
reality of a shocking outcome that
we never thought would happen, we
start rationalizing: It wasn’t our fault.
There’s nothing we could have done.
Maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe it’s
what we deserve. And maybe, in some
strange way, it will all work out.
pen for which he is often known—appeared, he e-mailed Trump press aide
Hope Hicks. Her oh-so-very Trumpland verdict: “Great cover!” (It featured a grainy shot of Trump’s head
floating in air, with images of Hillary
Clinton and Bernie Sanders in his
mirrored sunglasses.) Wolff then approached Trump after the election, as
he wrote in the Reporter following Fire
and Fury’s release, with an offer:
I proposed to him that I come
to the White House and report
an inside story for later publication—journalistically, as a fly on
the wall—which he seemed to misconstrue as a request for a job. No,
I said. I’d like to just watch and
write a book. “A book?” he responded, losing interest. “I hear a
lot of people want to write books,”
he added, clearly not understanding why anybody would. “Do you
know Ed Klein?”—author of several virulently anti-Hillary books.
“Great guy. I think he should write
a book about me.” But sure, Trump
seemed to say, knock yourself out.2
To be fair to the press, the reporting
on the Trump administration has been
thorough and often unflinching, willing
to call a lie a lie (witness the Post’s list)
and even resolved, as we saw recently,
to print the word “shithole” in news
stories and headlines and say it on air.
But the rules of journalism generally
prevent news outlets from rendering
larger judgments. Journalism tries to
get the little stuff right but often gets
the big stuff wrong.
Enter Michael Wolff.
For a good two decades, Wolff has
chronicled the doings of important
In an in-house interview with a Reporter staffer timed to the book’s release, Wolff confirmed that politics and
ideology weren’t exactly foremost in
his mind. He was asked whether he had
Michael Wolff, “‘You Can’t Make
This S--- Up’: My Year Inside Trump’s
Insane White House,” The Hollywood
Reporter, January 4, 2018.
Seth Abramovitch, “Michael Wolff
Reflects on a Wild Week and Trump’s
Anger: ‘I Have No Side Here’ (Q&A),”
The Hollywood Reporter, January 6, 2018.
See also Amy Knight’s “The Magnitsky Affair” on page 25 of this issue.
The New York Review
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February 22, 2018
He would come out of this campaign, Trump assured [Roger]
Ailes, with a far more powerful
brand and untold opportunities.
“This is bigger than I ever dreamed
of,” he told Ailes in a conversation
a week before the election. “I don’t
think about losing because it isn’t
losing. We’ve totally won.” What’s
more, he was already laying down
his public response to losing the
election: It was stolen!
On election night, when it became clear
that he had won, Trump, Wolff writes,
seemed paralyzed. Melania, his wife,
was crying, and not tears of joy.
The attacks on Wolff haven’t stuck
partly because it all rings so true. But
I think there is also another reason.
Some critics have tried to accuse Wolff
of not playing by the standard rules of
journalism, by which they mean to insinuate that he’s taken off-the-record
material and put it on the record. But
no one has produced evidence of this.
And in fact, outside of eight or ten salacious quotes, nothing in Fire and Fury
seems out of the ordinary. Indeed, for
quite long stretches, it reads like any
conventional work in the genre. Trump
himself disappears for pages at a time.
The running theme is the feud between
Bannon and “Jarvanka,” Wolff’s portmanteau for Jared Kushner and Ivanka
Trump, which is no more inherently
interesting than the feuds inside any
other White House. At times one can
feel Wolff himself getting a little bored.
However, there is one sense in which
he doesn’t play by the usual rules.
Wolff doesn’t do “fairness.” He comes
to his conclusions, and he lets you know
them. He doesn’t tell the other side. No
New York Times or Washington Post
reporter could have written this book.
They follow rules that demand more
“balance,” rules under which they might
have been more likely to get all the small
things absolutely right but would have
diluted the larger truth. And so, free
from that stricture of straight news reporting, Fire and Fury has performed a
great public service: it has forced mainstream Washington to confront and discuss the core issue of this presidency,
which is the president’s fitness for office.
hile Wolff doesn’t emphasize policy positions, they are of keen interest
to David Frum, the conservative commentator who writes for The Atlantic and graces cable-news television
screens frequently, often these days in
The foreign policy writer Max Boot
was a vocal and at times strident champion of the Bush Doctrine. These days
he’s a ferocious and shrewd critic of the
president. Washington Post bloggercolumnist Jennifer Rubin was, among
prominent conservative pundits, probably Mitt Romney’s most aggressive defender in 2012 and aside from that was
known for her hard-line foreign policy
views, particularly on matters relating
to Israel. Now, her columns often read
as if they could have been written by
the late Molly Ivins. (Two recent Rubin
headlines: “Trump Retreats on Iran,
and He Will Need to Do So Again”;
“The Enablers of the Racist President
Are Back at It.”)
Observing the extent to which the
Trump era has forced these and other
conservative writers into a thorough-
minds. He has ripped the conscience out of half of the political
spectrum and left a moral void
where American conservatism
used to be.
If journalism is the first draft of history, Trumpocracy reveals Frum’s intent that he be one of the first out of
the gate offering a second draft. He
acknowledges in his introduction that
there is a risk of events overtaking his
arguments and proving some of them
wrong; however, he adds, “if it’s potentially embarrassing to speak too soon,
it can also be dangerous to wait too
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Fury are about Trump himself. “What
a fucking idiot,” Rupert Murdoch is reported to have muttered as he put down
the phone after talking to Trump, then
president- elect, about immigration.
Trump’s complete incuriosity and resistance to learning anything is a constant theme. “Here’s the deal,” one of
Trump’s close associates told Reince
Priebus, when the former Republican Party chairman was named the
president’s chief of staff. “In an hour
meeting with him you’re going to hear
fifty-four minutes of stories and they’re
going to be the same stories over and
over again. So you have to have one
point to make and you have to pepper
it in whenever you can.”
The White House and the GOP, of
course, have tried to attack Wolff’s
credibility. Trump himself, on January
13, called Wolff “mentally deranged”
in a tweet (his first public remarks that
day, after he finished the round of golf
he was playing when Hawaii received
a false missile attack alert). Even presumably sympathetic interlocutors like
Stephen Colbert have pressed Wolff on
why he doesn’t make public the recordings of these conversations he says he
has. And some journalists have spotted
small mistakes, like a Washington Post
reporter placed at a meeting he apparently did not attend.
But by and large, Wolff’s reporting
has held up. It makes perfect sense that
Trump not only didn’t expect to win,
he didn’t want to win. By the end he
campaigned feverishly, because he’s a
competitive man, and he surely hated
the thought of losing, as he would have
put it, to a girl. But he did not want to
be the president:
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders listening to President Trump speaking
on video during a news briefing at the White House, January 2018
need of a shave. For many years, Frum
has been an astute observer of the conservative movement. It is a measure of
how conservatism has changed—and
possibly of how Frum has changed,
but I think more the former—that he
used to write books and articles criticizing the Republican Party from the
right. His 1994 book, Dead Right, argued that Republicans had drifted
from their ideological roots of minimal
government, fiscal responsibility, and
personal probity. From today’s vantage
point, of course, the concept of drift
circa 1994 seems quaint.
Today Frum—also a onetime colleague of mine, at The Daily Beast—is
part of a group of (former?) neoconservatives who have emerged as some of
Trump and Trumpism’s most forceful
critics. It seems likely, in the first instance, that their objections to Trump
had to do with his Lindberghian
foreign-policy views, which offend everything they have stood for. Back in
late 2015, neoconservative criticisms
of Trump tended to be focused on his
isolationism. But in fairness, their attacks on him have expanded far afield
from foreign policy, to his rhetoric and
behavior and destruction of norms and
all the things liberals care about.
Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol was a neoconservative writer,
organizer, and theorist for a quartercentury, at the barricades on controversies from health care reform to the
Iraq War (he was also the most important promoter of Sarah Palin, who
embodied Trumpism before Trump became Trump). Now he regularly issues
withering tweets about Trump and is a
fixture on the liberal-leaning MSNBC .
going reassessment of their movement,
their party, and themselves—and
wondering who among them will do a
complete ideological volte-face—has
become a parlor game in Washington
journalism and intellectual circles.
Rubin seems farthest along that road.
But Boot turned quite a few heads at
year’s end with a column in Foreign
Policy headlined “2017 Was the Year
I Learned About My White Privilege,”
in which he wrote:
It has become impossible for me to
deny the reality of discrimination,
harassment, even violence that
people of color and women continue to experience in modern- day
America from a power structure
that remains for the most part in
the hands of straight, white males.
People like me, in other words.
It’s hard to imagine these folks becoming liberals, but it’s also pretty difficult
to picture someone staying a conservative after experiencing an epiphany
like that.
Frum insists that he is still a conservative and writes in Trumpocracy that
he wants “a conservatism that can not
only win elections but also govern responsibly, a conservatism that is culturally modern, economically inclusive,
and environmentally responsible.”
His is a far more polemical book than
Wolff’s, and Frum is a skilled polemicist, capable of producing lines that
carry rhetorical precision and force but
stop short of screaming for attention:
Trump has contaminated thousands of careers and millions of
warning is expressed in his
subtitle—that Trump’s rule is a very
real threat to the republic. At other
times in his text he calls Trump a threat
to democracy. Those are two different
things—“republic” refers to a body of
laws, “democracy” to majority rule—
and while it’s true that Trump is a threat
to both, it would have been helpful to
readers unsure about that distinction
if Frum had explained both threats in
more detail and laid out why they’re different. Nevertheless, his broader warning about what the alert citizen should
be on the lookout for is on point:
The thing to fear from the Trump
presidency is not the bold overthrow of the Constitution, but the
stealthy paralysis of governance;
not the open defiance of law, but
an accumulating subversion of
norms; not the deployment of state
power to intimidate dissidents, but
the incitement of private violence
to radicalize supporters.
The book is organized into chapters with dramatic titles: “Enablers,”
“Appeasers,” “Plunder,” “Betrayals.”
“Enablers” discusses WikiLeaks and
various fake-news purveyors and includes a sobering anecdote about “the
single most circulated fake story of the
election”—the news (false) that Pope
Francis had endorsed Trump, which
popped up first on a website made to
look like that of a local TV news station and then on a website called Ending the Fed (both fake). The story
was seen by more than one million
people. “Appeasers” is about how establishment Republicans went from
saying “Never!” to their current state
of servility.
“Plunder,” my favorite chapter, provides a rich catalog of Trump family pelf that may be useful one day to
Democratic impeachment committee
staff. As with presidential lies, these
episodes have been so numerous and
so shocking—yet simultaneously rendered so pedestrian by their repetition and the casual attitude with which
every Trump family member advances
them—that we can’t begin to remember them all.
If you squint hard, back through
time’s mists, you may recall the phone
call Trump placed to Argentine president Mauricio Macri six days after his
victory. Why this relatively obscure
head of state, alone among the leaders
of South America? We don’t know. But
we do know that at the time, a Trumplicensed building in Buenos Aires was
stalled. Miraculously, the next day,
someone cut through the red tape, and
the project was moving forward. Trump
The New York Review
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
David Hutchinson
Robert Rauschenberg
Dana Harper
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also put his daughter Ivanka on this
call. She has known Macri since she
was young, but she is also still involved
in her father’s business. We learned
of all this only through the Argentine
Frum’s criticisms are not limited to
Trump. He devotes several pages to
an attack on recent Republican efforts
to suppress the votes of Democraticleaning constituencies, advancing the
argument, which many conservatives
are still loath to make, that Trump,
far from being an aberration of modern Republicanism, is in fact its logical
It was not out of the ether that
Donald Trump confected his postelection claim that he lost the popular vote only because “millions”
voted illegally. Such claims have
been circulating in the Republican
world for some time, based in some
cases on purported statistical evidence. Beyond the evidence, however, was fear: fear that the time
would soon come, and maybe already had come, when democracy
would be turned against those who
regarded themselves as its rightful
winners and proper custodians.
side can’t win elections democratically,
“they will reject democracy.” Trumpocracy warns that the day of reckoning
is upon us—that the liberal democracy
that is our heritage “imposes limits
and requires compromises,” and that
Trumpism is its mortal enemy. As
the lies mount, questions that once
seemed overwrought can no longer
be put to the side. We probably have
three years of this—at least—to go.
—January 25, 2018
Conservatives, he writes later, will
never abandon conservatism. If the day
comes when they conclude that their
The Heart of Conrad
Colm Tóibín
Joseph Conrad’s heroes were often
alone, and close to hostility and danger.
Sometimes, when Conrad’s imagination was at its most fertile and his command of English at its most precise, the
danger came darkly from within the
self. At other times, however, it came
from what could not be named. Conrad sought then to evoke rather than
delineate, using something close to the
language of prayer. While his imagination was content at times with the tiny,
vivid, perfectly observed detail, it was
also nourished by the need to suggest
and symbolize. Like a poet, he often
left the space in between strangely, alluringly vacant.
His own vague terms—words like
“ineffable,” “infinite,” “mysterious,”
“unknowable”—were as close as he
could come to a sense of our fate in the
world or the essence of the universe, a
sense that reached beyond the time he
described and beyond his characters’
circumstances. This idea of “beyond”
satisfied something in his imagination.
He worked as though between the intricate systems of a ship and the vague
horizon of a vast sea.
This irreconcilable distance between
what was precise and what was shimmering made him much more than a
novelist of adventure, a chronicler of the
issues that haunted his time, or a writer
who dramatized moral questions. This
left him open to interpretation—and
indeed attack. In the mid-1970s, two
of the most prominent novelists of the
age, V. S. Naipaul and Chinua Achebe,
set their sights on Conrad, the first in
an essay called “Conrad’s Darkness
and Mine” and the other in “An Image
of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of
Naipaul’s problems with Conrad are
essentially stylistic and formal, arising
from Conrad’s “unwillingness to let the
story speak for itself, this anxiety to draw
all the mystery out of a straightforward
situation.” Naipaul sees no great virtue
in Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Under
Western Eyes, or Victory: “A multiplicity of Conrads, and they all seemed to
me to be flawed. . . . The Conrad novel
was like a simple film with an elaborate commentary.” As he contemplates
some of Conrad’s fiction, Naipaul writes
witheringly, “I had read other stories
of lonely white men going mad in hot
countries.” Thus, he continues, the story
of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, “the up8
Bettmann/Getty Images
The Dawn Watch:
Joseph Conrad in a Global World
by Maya Jasanoff.
Penguin, 375 pp., $30.00
the writers; I didn’t see my world
reflected in theirs. My colonial
world was more mixed and secondhand, and more restricted.
He finds that his feelings about this
were exactly caught by Conrad in a passage from a story that ended:
It appeared to us a land without
memories, regrets, and hopes; a
land where nothing could survive
the coming of the night, and where
each sunrise, like a dazzling act of
special creation, was disconnected
from the eve and the morrow.
Joseph Conrad arriving in New York on the SS Tuscania, 1923
river ivory agent, who is led to primitivism and lunacy by his unlimited power
over primitive men, was lost on me.”
In his essay, Naipaul invokes Conrad
as “a writer who is missing a society. . . .
Conrad’s experience was too scattered;
he knew many societies by their externals, but he knew none in depth.” And
then he laments:
The great societies that produced
the great novels of the past have
cracked. . . . The novel as a form no
longer carries conviction. . . . The
novelist, like the painter, no longer recognizes his interpretative
function; he seeks to go beyond it;
and his audience diminishes. And
so the world we inhabit, which is
always new, goes by unexamined,
made ordinary by the camera, unmeditated on.
However, Naipaul begins to connect
moments in Conrad with aspects of his
own experience and memory of childhood and his view that he, as someone
born in Trinidad, has had no densely
structured society to dramatize:
It came to me that the great novelists wrote about highly organized
societies. I had no such society; I
couldn’t share the assumptions of
Since Naipaul cannot detach himself as a writer from “the corruption of
causes, half-made societies that seemed
doomed to remain half-made,” he finds
“that Conrad—sixty years before, in
a time of a great peace—had been everywhere before me.” In rereading The
Secret Agent, he discovers characters
and phrases that strike him as “real” in
a way they had not before. He notes a
phrase—the “exasperated vanity of ignorance”—about one of the terrorists
in the book who “took the part of an insolent and venomous evoker of sinister
impulses which lurk in the blind envy
and exasperated vanity of ignorance.”
As Naipaul grows to appreciate that
phrase he sees something essential in
Conrad: nouns that seemed muted or
throttled by their adjectives, as though
the impulse were merely to make a
fine-sounding phrase or add impressively to the mystery, can, in fact, if
studied carefully or read in a certain
light, stand apart, become precise. He
observes that Conrad, despite all his
concern with ineffability, often meant
business. “Words which at one time
we disregard,” Naipaul wrote, “at another moment glitter.” Even though his
“reservations about Conrad as a novelist remain,” still he cannot dismiss
him: “Conrad’s value to me is that he
is someone who sixty to seventy years
ago meditated on my world, a world I
recognize today. I feel this about no
other writer of the century.”
erhaps it is precisely the dilemma
Naipaul outlines, the dilemma in which
the novelist “no longer recognizes his
interpretative function,” that makes
Conrad so worthy now of close attention. For novelists who deal with isolation, solitude, hesitation, and the lone
self, who are not comfortable trying to
interpret the world with any confidence
or assurance, Conrad’s strategies are
The New York Review
instructive and his technical sleights
of hand fascinating. The homelessness
of his characters becomes spiritual as
much as geographical. He is the great
example to those of us who want to
offer our characters a fully imagined
solitude. And in the way Conrad handles time and action and obsession in
Victory, or in the hushed voice and doubled presence in “The Secret Sharer,”
or in formalizing the difficulty of handling story itself in Lord Jim, or in his
characters’ inhabiting elusive spaces
where the shivering self will not find
peace, he remains our contemporary.
Despite his eloquence and his eye
for detail, the figure of Marlow, however, who appears in Lord Jim as the
storyteller and who narrates the tale
in Heart of Darkness, often pushes his
luck. He is the long-winded man of the
world, cynical, nonchalant about so
many matters, salty, with an edge of
brutality and overdeveloped masculinity in his tone. Also, he often sounds
like a novelist who has read too much
Walter Pater. He has been everywhere
and is shocked by nothing, and, especially in Heart of Darkness, he has a
way of seeming implicated in the very
story that he seeks to distance himself
from. As he weaves his narrative, trying to manage it and fathom its hidden
meanings, his listeners, and indeed his
readers, begin to know more than he,
the most knowing of narrators, knows.
While Naipaul is ready to find precision and insight in Conrad’s phrases,
Chinua Achebe finds the heaping of
abstract terms in Conrad’s prose less
than engaging:
at an alternative frame of reference by
which we may judge the actions and
opinions of his characters.” Later in the
essay Achebe writes, “Joseph Conrad
was a thoroughgoing racist.” And then,
having seen off the arguments against
this view with some astute comments,
Achebe adds, “There remains still in
Conrad’s attitude a residue of antipathy to black people which his peculiar
psychology alone can explain.” Having quoted a passage in which Conrad
is deeply impressed by his first view of
an Englishman and having placed this
against his depiction of a black man,
Achebe describes what is happening as
“irrational love and irrational hate jostling together in the heart of that talented, tormented man.”
Achebe, however, accepts that Conrad, at one level, was a writer who was
February 22, 2018
n her book The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, the
historian Maya Jasanoff follows Conrad’s footsteps by traveling to what is
now the Democratic Republic of the
Congo. But most of her book is taken
up with connecting some of what Conrad wrote—most notably Heart of
Darkness, Nostromo, and The Secret
Agent—not only with his own background and the time when the work
was produced, but the time we live in
now. “Conrad’s pen,” she writes, “was
like a magic wand, conjuring the spirits of the future.” She connects the
Lincoln & Churchill
Statesmen at War
“For years, I have longed to be in the same room with
Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. And now
Lewis Lehrman has given all of us that chance with this
sweeping, yet intimate study of the war leadership of both
remarkable men. With penetrating insight, Lehrman
unfolds the contrasts and similarities between these two
leaders: their points of origin, their temperaments, the
nature of their ambitions, their leadership styles. I savored
every page of this magnificent work.”
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize winner, author
of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
Hardcover: 544 pages
Publisher: Stackpole Books
ISBN: 978-0811719674
Churchill, Roosevelt
& Company
Studies in Character and Statecraft
“Lewis E. Lehrman’s arresting and deeply researched
study of the Anglo-American alliance during the Second
World War brilliantly establishes how Roosevelt and
Churchill … found and relied on the right people ….
Rich in historical immediacy, Churchill, Roosevelt &
Company demonstrates how generals, diplomats, spies,
businessmen, economists, and other key figures served
the needs of both Prime Minister and President in their
unyielding defense of democratic government.”
She came forward, all in black with
a pale head, floating toward me in
the dusk. She was in mourning. . . .
She took both my hands in hers
and murmured, “I had heard you
were coming.” . . . She had a mature
capacity for fidelity, for belief, for
“The most significant difference,”
Achebe notes, “is the one implied in
the author’s bestowal of human expression to the one and the withholding of
it from the other.”
Achebe is not buying the idea that
Marlow is merely a narrator. If it was
Conrad’s intention to create distance
between him and Marlow, “his care
seems to me totally wasted because he
neglects to hint, clearly and adequately,
ing, that makes its way into the actual
texture of the sentences themselves,
including the ones with which Achebe
has no patience.
When a writer while pretending
to record scenes, incidents, and
their impact is in reality engaged
in inducing hypnotic stupor in his
readers through a bombardment
of emotive words and other forms
of trickery, much more has to be at
stake than stylistic felicity.
As Achebe has it in his 1977 essay,
Conrad could get away with this because “he chose the role of purveyor of
comforting myths.”
Although women are scarce on the
ground in Heart of Darkness, Achebe
compares images of two women, one
in the Congo and the other in Brussels, both of whom have been associated with Kurtz in the novella. The first
“was savage and superb, wild- eyed and
magnificent. . . . She stood looking at us
without a stir and like the wilderness
itself, with the air of brooding over an
inscrutable purpose.” The other was
European, refined:
repelled by what Europe was doing in
Africa: “Conrad saw and condemned
the evil of imperial exploitation but
was strangely unaware of the racism on
which it sharpened its iron tooth.” He
thus, Achebe argues, produced a text
that was concerned to dramatize the
evils of the colonial enterprise while
displaying and failing to disguise aspects of the very ideology that allowed
that enterprise to thrive.
Achebe concludes that Heart of
Darkness is not therefore “a great
work of art.” Nonetheless, the novella
remains, whether we like it or not, a
valuable document, or even a defenseless piece of fiction, written by a confused and troubled artist on a matter
on which he had resolved nothing, least
of all his own unsavory views, releasing
an energy, both ambiguous and reveal-
- Richard Carwardine, Rhodes Professor of American
History at Oxford University, author of Lincoln: A Life
of Purpose and Power
Hardcover: 472 pages
Publisher: Stackpole Books
ISBN: 978-0811718981
After 9/11 and the rise of Islamist
terrorism, I was startled to remember that the same author who’d
condemned imperialism in Heart
of Darkness had also written The
Secret Agent (1907), which centers
around a terrorist bomb plot in
London. After the 2008 financial
crisis, I found Conrad in Nostromo
(1904) portraying multinational
capitalism getting up to the same
kinds of tricks that I read about in
the daily newspaper. As the digital
revolution gathered pace, I discovered Conrad writing movingly, in
Lord Jim (1900) and many other
works, about the consequences of
technological disruption in the industry he knew best: shipping. As
debates about immigration unsettled Europe and the United States,
I marveled anew and afresh at how
Conrad had produced any of these
books in English—his third language, which he’d learned only as
an adult.
Thus Conrad, for Jasanoff, is her
contemporary, as someone interested
in current affairs as much as he is for a
generation of novelists who have been
fascinated by the style and the form of
his books and his ability to work intensely with a single consciousness.
Joseph Conrad, an only child, was
born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in the Ukraine in 1857. His father
was a political activist and Polish nationalist who was at various times imprisoned and sent into exile. When
Conrad was three years old his father
was taken from the house in Warsaw by
tsarist police and locked up in Warsaw’s
Citadel. His mother was also briefly arrested. Conrad later wrote that “in the
courtyard of this Citadel—characteristically for our nation—my childhood
memories began.”
Conrad’s mother died when he was
eight from the hardships she endured
in exile, and his father, having taken
his son to live in Kraków, died when he
was eleven, leaving him in the care of
an uncle. Almost half a century after
his father’s death, Conrad remembered
his funeral in Kraków:
In the moonlight-flooded silence
of the old town of glorious tombs
and tragic memories, I could see
again the small boy of that day following a hearse; a space kept clear
in which I walked alone, conscious
of an enormous following. . . . Half
the population had turned out on
that fine May afternoon. . . . They
had come . . . to render homage
to the ardent fidelity of the man
whose life had been a fearless confession in word and deed of a creed
which the simplest heart in that
crowd could feel and understand.
As a result of his reading, Conrad decided that he wished to be a sailor, an
unusual choice for someone in Kraków.
At sixteen, he was sent to Marseilles,
but later joined the British merchant
marine. “By the time Conrad signed
on to the Duke of Sutherland in 1878,”
Jasanoff writes, “British ship- owners
controlled about 70 percent of world
trade.” The conditions were dangerous,
the pay, compared to factory work, was
not good, and as the lord of the admi10
ralty admitted, “it would have been
impossible to obtain men at such low
wages, unless the imaginations of boys
had been interested by the prospect of
a distant travel.” Conrad got his master’s certificate in 1886, the same year
that he became a British subject.
At sea, Conrad had difficulties with
captains. “Whatever the provocations,” Jasanoff writes, “the frequency
of his disputes suggested an itchy, bristling soul, loath to settle into place.”
Because steam was replacing sail, the
total number of ships sailing fell in
Conrad’s time at sea by 30 percent, thus
making it harder to find work. Conrad
captained a ship only once; the rest of
the time he took work at whatever level
he could find it.
Between 1885 and 1908, the Congo
Free State was personally owned and
exploited for his own benefit by King
Leopold II of Belgium. At the beginning, when Conrad was there, the
wealth came in the form of ivory; later,
it came more abundantly and at even
greater human cost in the form of rubber. Between 1890, when Conrad arrived, and 1896, the export of rubber
would increase tenfold, making the
Congo the largest producer in Africa.
While Leopold claimed that his mission was humanitarian, it became clear
that he was interested only in plunder.
And plunder in the most difficult
terrain, as Hochschild makes clear:
“Much of the Congo River basin,” in
Hochschild’s description,
HIP /Art Resource
themes of his novel to present- day
an attitude of meditative repose.” He
stayed in the Congo for six months.
By the time he began the novella, in
1898, the rubber industry had replaced
ivory hunting in the Congo and the
atrocities had become more intense
and vicious. Conrad, who had settled
in England, had a deep-seated fear of
the political activity that had ruined
his childhood and caused his parents’
early deaths. Despite the entreaties of
Casement, he would not become involved in the movement to reform the
Congo. “It is not in me,” he wrote to a
friend, “I am only a wretched novelist
inventing wretched stories and not even
up to that miserable game.” He wrote
to Casement that his novella was “an
awful fudge” and referred elsewhere to
“the foggishness of H of D.”
The year after his Congo journey,
Conrad made two round-trip voyages
to Australia as first mate on a ship
called the Torrens. A passenger on one
of these journeys was the novelist John
Galsworthy, who wrote to his parents:
The first mate is a Pole called Conrad and is a capital chap, though
queer to look at. He is a man of
travel and experience in many
parts of the world, and has a fund
of yarns on which I draw freely. He
has been right up the Congo and
all around Malacca and Borneo
and other out of the way parts, to
say nothing of a little smuggling in
the days of his youth.
An encampment on the Congo River, circa 1890
When an early biographer found a
captain who remembered Conrad from
a journey in the East in 1887 and 1888,
the captain recalled that “when he went
down to the cabin to talk to his first
mate, he usually found him writing.” Jasanoff describes the connection between
life at sea and the way in which a narrative like Lord Jim meanders and flows:
A ship’s logbook captures the peculiar quality of stasis in motion,
recording each day in a sequence
of digits: dates, degrees, bearings,
depths. . . . This gives the sailor
at sea a particular relationship
to time. . . . With nothing new to
talk about in the present, the past
and the future become extraordinarily rich imaginative domains. . . .
Counting up his months at sea, Conrad spent several years of his life on
some of the longest routes that sailing ships regularly plied, with small
crews, no passengers, and few port
calls along the way. . . . Lord Jim
represented the result: a narrative
composed in sailor’s time.
Early in 1890 when the captain of a
boat on the Congo River became involved in a dispute and was killed,
Conrad was offered the job as his replacement. The political background,
and the set of events and images that
Conrad transformed into Heart of
Darkness, are dealt with in Norman
Sherry’s Conrad’s Western World
(1971), Sven Lindqvist’s “Exterminate
All the Brutes” (1992), and, most usefully, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), as well as in
Jasanoff’s book.
lies on a plateau in the African
interior. From the western rim of
this plateau, nearly a thousand
feet high, the river descends to sea
level in a mere 220 miles. During
this tumultuous descent, the river
squeezes through narrow canyons,
boils up in waves forty feet high,
and tumbles over thirty-two separate cataracts.
The inland stretches of the river, however, are navigable, with water levels
that tend not to vary. The Congo drains
an area larger than India with seven
thousand miles of interconnecting waterways. There were two hundred different ethnic groups with four hundred
different languages and dialects at the
time of Leopold’s annexation. Many of
these groups had been severely weakened by two centuries of the slave
trade. Before the railway was completed in 1898, goods had to be carried
on a treacherous path between the port
of Matadi and the interior.
When Conrad arrived in Matadi in
June 1890, one of the first Europeans
he met was Roger Casement, who in
1904 would write a devastating report
on atrocities committed by King Leopold in the Congo as he effectively enslaved the population and treated them
with extraordinary savagery to get the
rubber to the ocean port.* Conrad, like
Marlow in Heart of Darkness, traveled
on foot from the port to the interior.
He set out with a caravan of thirty- one
men, noting on July 4, 1890: “Saw another dead body lying by the path in
*See my “The Tragedy of Roger Casement,” The New York Review, May 27,
By 1894 Conrad’s career at sea had
ended. He published his first novel the
following year and in 1896 married Jessie George, settling in Essex and then
in Kent, and getting to know the literary figures of the age, including Henry
James, Stephen Crane, H. G. Wells,
and Ford Madox Ford, with whom he
collaborated on two novels.
In his essay on Conrad, V. S. Naipaul
complains about how settled Conrad’s
mind was by the time he gave up the
sea. Unlike “most imaginative writers”
who “discover themselves, and their
world, through their work,” Conrad
was “a man whose character had been
formed” before he began to write. But
for each book he wrote Conrad found
a new style, a new system of narration.
For some books, he used the worlds he
had known or seen or visited, the places
that had intrigued him and stayed in his
dreams, but for others, he had to imagine
everything, including the implications of
his own compositions. He told a friend
who asked which was his best book:
I don’t know. They are all so different. I can never resist the temptation to experiment, and can never
write in the same way twice. Nostromo is my biggest canvas, my
most ambitious performance. Perhaps it is the best. I do not know.
With Nostromo, set in a fictional South
American country, Conrad had not only
to imagine the terrain but to attempt to
see and make sense of what was happening in world affairs as the dominance of
the United States in the world began to
exert itself and the power of England
waned. One of the most valuable and
persuasive sections of Jasanoff’s book is
her connecting the writing of Nostromo
with the creation of the Panama Canal.
“In January 1903,” she writes,
The New York Review
just as Conrad started writing
Nostromo, the US and Colombian
secretaries of state signed a treaty
granting the United States a onehundred-year renewable lease
on a six-mile strip flanking the
canal. . . . While the papers murmured about revolution in Colombia, Conrad opened a fresh section
of Nostromo with hints of dissent
in Costaguana [his fictional locus].
Conrad did not know South America, thus making the connection between events that he followed in the
newspapers as they unfolded in 1903
and his novel all the more interesting: “In Costaguana, Conrad plotted
a revolution in the fictional Sulaco
that mirrored the real-life secessionist
movement brewing in Panama.” When
he finished the book on September 1,
1904, Jasanoff writes,
he left Sulaco in the condition of
Panama. As Panama had gotten its
independence instantly recognized
by the United States and its economy bolstered by American investment in the canal, so Sulaco had its
independence instantly recognized
by the United States, and its economy underwritten by investment in
the [fictional] San Tomé mine.
Since she is concerned to place Conrad in what she calls in her subtitle “a
global world,” it is essential for Jasanoff
that Conrad in Nostromo is not guessing or working in the dark, and that he
is not only in tune with geopolitical undercurrents but ready to prophesy what
the world will look like in the future.
Thus she quotes from a long essay Conrad wrote in 1905 called “Autocracy
and War” in which he insisted that the
idea of Europe was finished:
There is only an armed and trading continent, the home of slowly
maturing economical contests for
life and death, and of loudly proclaimed world-wide ambitions.
In his book, the power of the United
States was the power that mattered. In
the future, Conrad also wrote, “no war
will be waged for an idea.” And as Jasanoff writes, “money was everything.”
Money, too, began to come Conrad’s
way. At the age of fifty-six, with the
novel Chance, he had his first best seller.
In 1919, The Arrow of Gold was the
second-best-selling novel in the entire
United States. Jasanoff quotes a newspaper report “that in 1920 the sales of the
books of Joseph Conrad amounted to
thirty-six times what they did in 1911.”
When he died in 1924, Virginia Woolf
emphasized Conrad’s foreignness. She
called him “our guest” and highlighted
his “air of mystery” and his “strong foreign accent.” Since he had set his novels in both East and West, in Malaya
and in London and in South America
and in Africa, it is easy to see him as
a writer who was a guest of the world,
who was fully global avant la lettre.
But there is a peculiar intensity in
the way he deals with Russia in his
essay “Autocracy and War.” “The truth
is that the Russia of our fathers,” he
of our childhood . . . the testamentary Russia of Peter the Great . . .
can do nothing. It can do nothing because it does not exist. It
has vanished for ever at last, and
as yet there is no new Russia to
take the place of that ill- omened
creation, which, being a fantasy
of a madman’s brain, could in reality be nothing else than a figure
out of a nightmare seated upon
a monument of fear and oppression. . . . Spectral it lived and spectral it disappears without leaving a
memory of a single generous deed,
of a single service rendered—even
involuntarily—to the polity of nations. Other despotisms there have
been, but none whose origin was
so grimly fantastic in its baseness,
and the beginning of whose end
was so gruesomely ignoble.
“Fast-paced … colorful”
– Foreign Affairs
“Artful … thrilling history”
– Beth Gutcheon, author of More Than You Know
These are merely two examples of
many that make clear Conrad’s deep
hatred of Russia. In his analysis of Nostromo in Joseph Conrad: The Three
Lives, Frederick R. Karl connects the
politics of Sulaco to Poland rather than
to Panama, with Russia in the background rather than the United States.
“Conrad’s ability to see,” Karl writes,
a “close-meshed net of crime and
corruption lay upon the whole
country” was an insight that lay
at the foundation of . . . The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes,
Chance, and Victory. This, not
some theory about democracy, its
successes or failures, is Conrad’s
political base.
Jasanoff quotes Conrad writing
at the time of his return to Poland in
1914: “In 1874 I got into a train in Cracow (Vienna express) on my way to the
sea, as a man might get into a dream.
And here is the dream going on still.”
It is as though in his dreaming of places
such as the Congo and Borneo, London
and South America, Conrad was also
finding metaphors for the place he had
left, the place about which, no matter
how far he traveled, he never stopped
dreaming: the Poland of his parents.
In this way, too, because he kept his
doubleness intact, he remains our contemporary, and perhaps also in the way
he made sure that, in a time of crisis as
much as in a time of calm, it was the quality of his irony that saved him. When he
was asked why he didn’t write in Polish,
the great English novelist replied:
I value too much our beautiful
Polish literature to introduce into
it my worthless twaddle. But for
Englishmen my capacities are just
sufficient: they enable me to earn
my living.
New York Review Books
(including NYRB Classics and Poets, The New York Review Children’s Collection, and NYR Comics)
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February 22, 2018
Stirring U.S. History
Wrapped in a Story of
Love and Adventure
In the turbulent 1850s, American politicians, flush with victory
over Mexico and goaded on by a jingoistic press, set out on the next
step to “Manifest Destiny.” For the South, Cuba’s wealth and quarter million slaves would close the gap with the North, making the
two sides equal in the great civil war that loomed.
“A wonderful story that should be read and reread, told and retold.
The idea that Cuba should be ours is completely crazy.
– Alejandro Orfila, former secretary general of the
Organization of American States, former Argentine
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“If only President Kennedy could have read Waiting for Uncle John.
A gifted raconteur, Goldsborough weaves together the ruinous
illusions of the pre-Civil War South with the very real forces behind
Manifest Destiny.”
– Richard E. Feinberg, former White House
and State Department official; author of Open for
Business: Building the new Cuban Economy.
“A fascinating story very well written. All the genealogical connections are terrific. For those of us in the Kennedy Administration in
1961, the repetitions of attitude and predicament are haunting.”
– Thomas L. Hughes, former president of the Carnegie
Endowment; author of Anecdotage.
Waiting for Uncle John by James Oliver Goldsborough
Hardcover: ISBN 978-1-63226-089-5; $24.00
eBook: ISBN 978-1-63226-090-1; $12.99
Published by Prospecta Press. Available from bookstores everywhere. • (203) 571-0781
Distributed to the book trade by
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Half-Baked Revolt in Iran
During the months of unrest that culminated in his ejection from the throne
of Iran in January 1979, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi oscillated between
repression and leniency, rifle fire and
mea culpas. Since coming to power on
his departure, the clerical leaders of the
Islamic Republic have concentrated on
avoiding the Shah’s mistakes, elevating
consistency and an unfaltering will into
high principles of state.
The country’s current supreme leader,
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, demonstrated
these qualities in the summer of 2009,
when he faced a vast outpouring of
anger provoked by a fraudulently conducted presidential election. At a chilling Friday Prayers in Tehran on June 19,
which I attended, Khamenei declared
valid the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and warned millions of demonstrators to go home or
expect “bloodshed and chaos.” Over the
next couple of months, the minority of
protesters who defied his warning were
chased, beaten, and shot in the streets;
torturers went to work on detainees in
prisons; and state television broadcast
the “confessions” of broken men in
show trials. That autumn the universities expelled dissident students, and
there was an exodus abroad of depressed
young people. This huge, exuberant, but
ultimately deferential agitation—regime change was not its purpose—was
smashed with embarrassing ease.
The protests that erupted in Iran for
a week or so at the end of December
and the beginning of January attracted
only a few tens of thousands, by contrast, but they were more widespread
than those in 2009, affecting some
eighty cities and towns across the country. They started in the northeastern
city of Mashhad but spread as far as
Izeh, in the far west, and Ghahderijan, in the central province of Isfahan.
Rising living costs along with budget
proposals to raise gasoline prices and
cut monthly assistance to the middle
classes were the spark, though the demonstrations soon took on a more radical flavor than the earlier protests, with
calls of “Death to Khamenei!” and attacks on banks, shops, cars, paramilitary installations, and a mosque.
The state’s response was uneven.
In Tehran the authorities managed to
quell the protests by flooding sensitive areas (such as the neighborhood
around Tehran University) with armed
men; they were less prepared in the
smaller towns, where around twentyfive people—including at least one
member of the security forces—were
killed. Several thousand people were
arrested, two of whom later died in detention in suspicious circumstances.
I was in Tehran, staying with my Ira-
nian parents-in-law, and it was immediately apparent that while many Iranians
shared the rage of the mostly young,
male protesters—against the state’s
hypocrisy and intrusions, the siphoning
off of wealth, the stifling of personal
freedoms—they didn’t seriously contemplate joining them. In 2009 every
member of my circle of friends in Iran
was demonstrating for the limited goal
of reversing a sham election. This time
Siegfried Woldhek
Christopher de Bellaigue
tion drew no salary and lived with their
parents, or the peasant women who
walked miles during the conflict between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s to donate an egg or a bag of melon seeds to
the war effort? In the words of one European executive who recently moved
to Iran with his family, and whose social life consists of visiting one opulent penthouse after another, “Having
lived in Tehran and Moscow, I’d say the
wealth here is more conspicuous.”
none took part. Many disapproved of
the vandalism and destruction. There
were also widespread suspicions that
the protests had been manipulated,
whether by agents provocateurs working for malevolent state institutions or
by outside powers.
But the main reason the protests did
not become a mass movement was a
fear of the consequences on the part of
those Iranians who, for all their frustrations, have families and livelihoods
and assets to lose. The issue wasn’t
electoral fraud or the perennial struggle between reformists and hard-liners,
but something entirely different—the
fate of the Islamic Republic. The protesters’ goal, ill- defined though it was,
was not to reform the regime but to
hurt it—mortally, if possible. At present most Iranians are still some way
from sharing that objective.
During the protests President Donald Trump tweeted about his “respect
for the people of Iran as they try to take
back their corrupt government,” and
also pledged “great support from the
United States at the appropriate time.”
But for many Iranians there may never
be an “appropriate time” for revolution
or regime change, with their prospects
of slaughter, mass looting, and outside
intervention, and beyond that the awful
possibility that the most stable country
in the Middle East might become another Syria.
Where do things stand in Iran now,
with the nuclear deal threatened by an
erratic US president, with the country
engaged in a struggle for regional dominance with Saudi Arabia, and with at
least 850,000 Iranians entering a labor
market every year that has room for
only 650,000 of them? This question
would be easier to answer if Iran were
as static as it is often depicted in the
foreign media. But it is already in the
throes of several revolutions.
Sexual liberalization, consumerism,
and social media are rocking a society
that has recently become overwhelmingly urban, and will become more so
as the countryside continues to turn
into desert. (Droughts have emptied
villages across the Persian plateau, and
90 percent of Lake Urmia, once the
sixth-largest saline lake in the world,
has evaporated.) Over the past decade
or so the Persian language has been
infused with English phrases and concepts from the Internet, while American and Japanese technology (there are
some 30 million smartphones in Iran),
Turkish soap operas, and Chinesemanufactured goods slowly destroy
the blend of homespun creativity, Shia
observance, and close- quarter living
that one might call traditional Iranian
This, broadly, was the culture from
which the Islamic Republic arose,
undergirded by a fawning reverence
for old age and male authority in the
home, the workplace, and the top of
the state. But these patriarchies have
also been weakened by changing social
mores and a generation of universityeducated women. Back in 2009 a crowd
shouting “Death to Khamenei!” was
a terrifying novelty. This New Year’s
it became a commonplace. Another
principle under threat is the wearing of
the hijab, which is gradually becoming
optional in the more adventurous areas
of north Tehran, while booze is in such
hot demand that bootleggers don’t even
bother to provide “scotch” whisky that
tastes or looks like the real thing.
I watched two films in Tehran cinemas whose jokes about sex and pillpopping would not have passed the
censors five years ago. Both films highlighted the destructive power of social
media and, in the case of Side-Mirror
(about a joyriding couple who damage
a Maserati side-mirror that is worth
more than their combined worldly possessions), economic envy. Who nowadays remembers those government
officials who shortly after the revolu-
hat the changes coursing through
Iranian society cannot be stopped, but
may possibly be channeled, is something President Hassan Rouhani understands. A tough, canny mullah who
has occupied senior posts since the beginning of the Islamic Republic and has
become a reformer, he kept his counsel
during the brutal crackdown after the
2009 election. This time silence was not
an option; his government was the initial target of the protesters, and calls of
“Death to Rouhani!” were heard. But
the president did not respond by reviling or threatening his detractors (in
contrast with Ahmadinejad, who called
the protesters of 2009 “dust”). Instead
he has gone out of his way to articulate
many of their grievances, in the process advancing concepts so radical they
amount to abandoning important revolutionary doctrines.
The Rouhani proposals can be boiled
down to two points: an increase in institutional transparency and in personal freedom. The Islamic Republic
as represented by the supreme leader is
hostile to both. Since the protests, the
president has promised greater scrutiny of publicly funded clerical institutions—including one that pays a dole to
unemployed mullahs, and others that
spread Islamic propaganda—whose
reluctance to open their accounts has
been much criticized. He has also denounced the use of surveillance devices
by the security services, the practice of
investigating the religious and political
beliefs of applicants for jobs in the public sector, and crackdowns on the Internet. (The messaging app Telegram,
with 40 million Iranian subscribers,
was blocked for more than two weeks
during the protests on the orders of the
Supreme National Security Council,
which is controlled by conservatives.
On January 13 the authorities ended
the block, which many people had sidestepped by using virtual private networks, VPNs, to access sites banned on
the public network.)
In perhaps his most perceptive comments, on January 8 President Rouhani summed up the division that has
opened up between the clerical establishment and the young when he said,
“The problem is that we want people
two generations younger than us to
live the same way we like to live, while
in reality we can’t . . . prescribe their
Lifestyles in the Islamic Republic have changed more in the last ten
years than in the previous thirty, but
the desire for further and faster change
is insatiable, and the president is a regime loyalist who realizes that unless
the reformists within the government
The New York Review
Antigone Undone: Juliette Binoche, Anne Carson,
Ivo van Hove, and the Art of Resistance by Will Aitken
“Antigone Undone takes us backstage with the greatest tragedy of all time.”
Bonnie Honig, author of Antigone, Interrupted
“This thoughtful and disturbing memoir poignantly illustrates how, for good
or ill, the power of art can transform human understanding.” Laurel Smith,
theatre director, playwright, and producer
“Antigone Undone forces us to look at ourselves, a timeless challenge speaking
to everyone, in all eras.” Floyd Favel Starr, actor, playwright, and theatre director
“Not for those who can resist being shattered.” Laurie Anderson
February 22, 2018
the international oil markets has been
more than offset by low prices and the
continuing unwillingness of European
firms to do business with it. (US companies are mostly barred from Iran
as a result of bilateral sanctions that
are separate from the nuclear issue.)
Trump’s hostility to the Islamic Republic and his support of Saudi Arabia
and Israel have sharpened the fears of
European companies that the US will
punish them if they enter Iran, so on
the whole they have refrained from
making substantial investments in the
world’s last unexploited market (not
counting North Korea). One Iranian
food manufacturer I met reported that
his efforts at forming a joint venture
with a big Italian company had come
to naught because of worries about US
retaliation: “After eighteen months of
talks they simply walked away.”
Contrary to what Trump and his allies allege, Iran is far from awash in
post-sanctions loot; the country’s oil
revenues in 2016 (around $41 billion)
were $20 billion less than those in 2013,
when sanctions were at their peak.
Under Rouhani’s frugal stewardship,
inflation has fallen, and last year the
economy grew by around 6 percent. No
one is starving in Iran, and people have
some money for consumer goods—imports of rice, which is associated with
fine living, are up sharply, and Saeed
Laylaz, an economist, reports that
some 600,000 poor Iranians were able
to buy cars over the last Iranian year.
(The Iranian year begins near the vernal equinox.)
Yet there is a dangerous gap between popular expectations of a better standard of living after the nuclear
Princeton University Press and the
New York Institute for the Humanities
are pleased to announce the third
annual co-sponsored Humanities Lecture
Nature and the Nationalism
in the Age of Trump
delivered by Jedediah Purdy
March 7th, 2018 at 6:30 PM
Tishman Auditorium at the NYU School of Law
40 Washington Square South
New York
Please RSVP to:
Free and open to the public
Jedediah Purdy is Robinson O. Everett Professor of Law at Duke University and the author
of several books including After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene and For Common
Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today
deal and the way things have turned
out. Half the country’s population is
under thirty, and with all the demands
that Iranians regard as their right—
car, house, and family—the pressure
to increase the number of jobs is immense. But those being created are
mostly unskilled; there are fewer opportunities for university- educated
Iranians, many of whom end up unemployed or doing work for which they
are overqualified. In some of the small
towns where the recent protests took
place, youth unemployment is even
higher than the national figure of 24
percent. And even if international relations improve, foreigners
would not rush to invest in
Iran unless Iranians do so
who made millions when the nation’s
fortunes were at their lowest.
It is widely acknowledged that under
Ahmadinejad well-placed officials and
senior Revolutionary Guardsmen enriched themselves through sanctionsbusting, hoarding, and speculation, and
in 2016 the businessman Babak Zanjani was sentenced to death for skimming billions of dollars from illicit oil
sales. (His sentence has yet to be carried out.) Rouhani and his allies have
a particular interest in demonstrating
that the economy was in ruins when
they took over and that the country’s
structural problems date from Ahma-
his isn’t happening. The
government is spending its
revenues on salaries, with
little left over. As for the
private sector, in a country
where illegal credit institutions (affiliated with groups
such as the Revolutionary
Guards) offer 24 percent
interest—called “profit”
in the jargon of Islamic
banks, which are forbidden
to pay interest—entrepreneurs have little reason to
invest in the real economy.
Across the country industrial plants are operating at
reduced capacity because
their owners, many of them
the recipients of loans under
Ahmadinejad, have put the
money on deposit, or into
property, or offshore. Pay
in arrears is a fact of life for
workers in both the public
and private sectors.
The controversial credit
institutions account for
around a quarter of all
A protester near Tehran University, December 2017
banking activity. They are
allegedly used to launder money from drug, fuel, and alcodinejad’s time. This is largely true, but
hol smuggling, and—as all pyramid
the former president is now presenting
schemes do—collapse spectacularly
himself as a victim of plotting by memwhen the base thins out. “I didn’t see a
bers of the establishment, and to make
single rial,” lamented a depositor who
his point he has picked a fight with the
recently lost his life savings this way,
head of the judiciary, Sadegh Larijani,
“and when I went [to the premises] I
and other members of the influential
was told that the general manager was
Larijani family; both sides accuse the
in jail.” The government would like
other of larceny and abuses of power.
to fold the credit institutions into the
The state is now substantially weakmainstream banking system, but the
ened by quarreling between different
banks are themselves in poor shape,
power centers.
saddled with bad loans given out under
Last year, Ahmadinejad’s former
duress during the Ahmadinejad period.
vice-president Hamid Baghaei anAs borrowers struggle to repay these
nounced on Telegram that he had been
loans, the amount of debt on the banks’
sentenced to sixty-three years in jail for
books continues to rise—by a quarter
corruption. The state prosecutor has
over the last Iranian year alone.
accused certain high-ranking officials
Much money is being spent to asof smuggling, and another former highsuage public anger. The Central Bank
ranking official was convicted of being
has reportedly paid out large sums to
an accessory to murder. Rouhani’s
people who sank their savings in the
brother, several senior Revolutioncredit institutions. The government is
ary Guard officers, and the brother of
propping up seventeen public pension
the vice-president have been added to
funds that the minister of social welfare
a lengthening list of prominent peohas declared “bankrupt”; the sight of
ple arrested on suspicion of corrupdesultory bands of pensioners raising
tion. In December the son of Akbar
their fists outside government buildings
Hashemi Rafsanjani—a titan of the
has become common. Fear of a popular
state who died in January 2017 after
reaction will probably lead parliament
holding almost all the top positions
to water down Rouhani’s plans to raise
in Iran—disclosed that his father’s
gas prices and cut subsidies. If he is sebody had contained suspiciously high
rious about balancing the books, many
levels of radioactivity and that the inpeople argue, he should concentrate
vestigation into his death was being
his efforts on the thieves and fat cats
The New York Review
EPA - EFE /Rex/Shutterstock
adopt more radical objectives, the rift
between the people and the system will
become impossible to bridge. At present nothing unites the vocal opposition,
such as it is, except a visceral antipathy
to the Islamic Republic and the clerical
elite. During the protests, nationalist
and monarchist slogans were hurled,
as well as calls for human rights and
an end to institutionalized corruption.
But no one really expects serious agitation in favor of the return of the Pahlavis (the shah’s son lives in the United
States), while the socialist ideas that
animated many of the revolutionaries
in 1979 have given way to equally unattainable dreams of consumer heaven.
No adventurous changes of the kind
favored by Rouhani will be achievable as long as the frail, seventy- eightyear- old Khamenei retains control of
his faculties and the country, but the
sixty-nine-year- old president is clearly
demonstrating his intention to have reformist ideas dominate the next phase
of Iranian history. Rouhani would
argue that his aim, as a loyalist, is to
protect the Islamic Republic, but history is full of reformists who have accidentally opened the door to political
collapse. If there is one moniker no
Iranian leader covets, whether he is a
reformist or a hard-liner, it is “Iran’s
If the death of Iran’s supreme leader
will be, as a friend of mine puts it, Iran’s
second ground zero (the first being the
shah’s flight in 1979), avoiding turbulence even in the interim won’t be easy.
The nuclear deal of 2015 and the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions were
supposed to lead to rising prosperity,
but the country’s successful return to
othing is in its correct place anymore!” exclaims a woman from the
pressured, precarious middle class,
citing almost at random a dearth of
autumn plums (they were apparently
exported to neighboring Iraq), the
corruption of public examinations for
university admissions, and a scandal
surrounding canned food that was
found to contain traces of cat meat.
Add to this the driest, warmest winter
in decades, nauseating pollution in the
big cities, and a series of earthquakes—
the worst of which, on November 12,
took 620 lives in the west of the country—and it’s hardly surprising that
people are jumpy.
They are also hooked on social
media, which is no more trustworthy
or temperate in Iran than elsewhere.
A particular irritant to the authorities is the Amad channel, a dissident
news service run from Turkey, which
has been described to me as containing a mixture of truth, falsehood, and
innuendo. It had 1.3 million Iranian
followers on Telegram, but under pressure from Iran, Telegram closed down
the channel after it issued calls for protesters to arm themselves with Molotov
cocktails. The reluctance of many Iranians to join the protests stems in part
from their suspicion that Amad and
other opposition voices are supported
by hostile powers. The BBC’s Persianlanguage channel, for instance, which
reported extensively on the protests, is
funded by the British government.
Still, many Iranians expressed derision on social media when the judiciary announced that the two detained
protesters who died in custody had
committed suicide, and that a third, a
restaurant delivery boy who turned up
dead in the western town of Sanandaj,
was a terrorist. A claim by the national
prosecutor that bullets found in the
bodies of the dead protesters were not
the kind used by the security forces
seemed designed to back up Khamenei’s assertions that foreign powers
and an exiled armed opposition group
called the People’s Mujahedin had fomented the unrest. Again, Telegram
was the forum for public skepticism,
underlining the risks involved in permitting Iranians to use what has become an indispensable technology that
can also be a conduit for popular wrath.
Iranian officials will be especially
keen to prevent the so-far sedentary
majority from being infuriated by further deaths, whether in custody or on
the streets, which could rally them—despite all they have to lose—to the cause
of opposition. It’s another lesson from
1978, when isolated protests joined up
and became an uninterrupted train of
death and mourning, and the revolution got closer.
Great upheavals can start with trifles, like the confiscation of the street
vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s wares in
the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid
in December 2010, which set off the
Arab Spring. Or they can start with
falsehoods, as when the revolutionary
forces blamed the shah’s government
for the inferno that killed at least 470
people in a cinema in southern Iran in
1978. (A tribunal that was convened
after the revolution determined that
in fact Islamic radicals had been responsible.) In Iran today, with all sides
making outlandish and in many cases
unverifiable claims, it is often hard
to separate truth from lies. “Do not
believe any assertion if you have not
February 22, 2018
seen . . . proper documentation,” Ayatollah Khamenei warned on January
9. On the same day hitherto unseen
footage was mysteriously disseminated
on the Internet showing the moment
when Khamenei was elevated to the
supreme leadership in 1989, under circumstances that his detractors are now
calling unconstitutional.
On January 9 Khamenei also blamed
America, Israel, and (indirectly) Saudi
Arabia for stirring up the protests. He
delivered an implicit rebuke to Rouhani
when he said that the “revolutionary
youth,” far from feeling alienated, are
“more numerous now than they were at
the beginning of the revolution.” Of all
Trump’s messages during the protests,
none seems to have riled the supreme
leader more than his tweet that “other
than the vast military power of the
United States . . . Iran’s people are what
their leaders fear the most.” Khamenei
responded furiously that “the Iranian
regime was born of these people . . . if
we were so scared of you, how come we
tossed you out of Iran in the 1970s, and
out of the whole region in the 2010s?”
His words were a reminder that no
matter how parlous things are at home,
Iran’s international influence has rarely
been higher. And while Iranians frequently call on their leaders to focus
on domestic challenges, Iran’s striking success so far in preventing ISIS
and other Sunni militant groups from
destabilizing the country can at least
partly be attributed to its strategy of
propping up allies like Syria’s president
Bashar al-Assad and the Shia militias
of Iraq. However much liberal Iranians
I know disapprove of the Revolution-
ary Guard’s political and economic
interests, they confess privately that
they are glad to have such a formidable
force to protect them.
Although on January 12 Trump reluctantly waived sanctions on Iran
for another four months, keeping the
nuclear deal barely alive, Iran’s leaders are convinced that the United
States, having been silent on the matter of regime change under Obama,
is once again committed to toppling
the Islamic Republic. Whether or not
Trump carries out his promise to either “fix” the deal or tear it up (given
Iran’s refusal to discuss amendments,
no fix seems possible), Iran’s internal
struggle for democracy has once again
been linked to the strategies and whims
of the country’s external enemies.
—January 25, 2018
—Atul Gawande, The New Yorker
“One of the ‘6 Books to Help
Understand Trump’s Win.’”
—The New York Times on 11/9/16
“This is a smart, respectful
and compelling book.”
The New York Times Book Review
“The anger and hurt of the author’s
interviewees is intelligible to all. In
today’s political climate, this may
be invaluable.” —The Economist
“Exemplary. . . . It is the clearest
narrative exposition yet of the social
basis of the Trump backlash and of
right-wing populism generally.”
The American Prospect
God’s Own Music
Ian Bostridge
The Composition and
Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece
by Jonathan Keates.
Basic Books, 165 pp., $25.00
The Anglican choral tradition is one
of the great successes of English cultural diffusion, to rank with Association Football (soccer), cricket, and the
works of William Shakespeare. It has a
cultural heft way beyond its parochial
and very specific origins, and it turns
up in the oddest places. The most incongruous example must surely be the
upmarket gloss that Thomas Tallis’s
forty-part motet Spem in Alium lends
to a down-and- dirty scene in the film
Fifty Shades of Grey.
I’m often surprised by how far this
music travels. The transposition of the
Anglican sound world into the urban
jungle of New York seemed rather miraculous the first time I walked into
Saint Thomas Episcopal Church on
Fifth Avenue to bathe in the glories
of stained glass–inflected light and
English-inflected harmonies. On another occasion, I was in Jacksonville
Beach, Florida, for a concert, arriving
just after a school shooting in nextdoor Jacksonville that had made me
preternaturally alert to the cultural
differences between the Old and the
New Worlds. But it turned out that the
concert was in St. Paul’s by-the- Sea
Episcopal Church. Our greenroom was
the church vestry, and I felt strangely
at home among the cassocks and surplices, The Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems (some nice Tallis there), and the
familiar hardcovers of Hymns Ancient
and Modern and The English Hymnal,
the red and the green.
I grew up on the fringes of this Anglican culture, and I remain at one and
the same time drawn to it and stoutly resistant. Resistant because in the mainstream classical world of opera and
song in which I work, a church sound is
often frowned upon whenever a hint of
it (the withdrawal of vibrato from the
voice, for example) is detected or imagined. Drawn, because from the ages of
seven to twelve or thirteen I sang, una
voce bianca as the Italians call it, in
the humble precincts of St. Leonard’s,
a parish church in Streatham, South
London. Its glory days had been in the
eighteenth century, the days of the socalled Streatham worthies, when the
likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds, David
Garrick, Edmund Burke, and Oliver
Goldsmith—all friends of the wealthy
brewer Henry Thrale—hung out in
what was then a mere village. Samuel
Johnson was a regular worshiper.
By the 1970s St. Leonard’s was part
of the anonymous London sprawl,
on the way down, and yet the church
choir, under the leadership of an inspiring organist and choirmaster, Tom
McLelland-Young, kept alive the flame
of a musical tradition that—as Andrew
Gant, in his history of English church
music, O Sing unto the Lord, makes
clear—can trace its roots back to late
antiquity. With limited resources we
performed the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach (in truncated form) and
anthems by Counter-Reformation masters such as the Italian Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and the Spaniard
Tomás Luis de Victoria. But at the core
of our repertoire (though I hesitate to
use that rather professional word) was
the glorious inheritance from the English Reformation and its immediate
aftermath—Thomas Tallis, William
Byrd, the exotically named Orlando
Gibbons, John Blow, Henry Purcell—
Jewel celebrated mass psalm-singing
at Paul’s Cross in London and wrote
that “you may now sometimes see . . .
after the service, six thousand persons,
old and young, of both sexes, all singing together and praising God”; Oliver
Cromwell’s New Model Army went into
battle with psalms on their lips. But the
songs that congregations loved to sing
in church and that the clergy sought
to control were metrical psalms (they
stood, strictly speaking, outside the
approved liturgy); they were rendered
into rhyming English verse and sung as
what we would nowadays call hymns.
Scala/Art Resource
O Sing unto the Lord:
A History of English Church Music
by Andrew Gant.
University of Chicago Press,
454 pp., $35.00
Luca della Robbia the Elder: detail from the Cantoria (choir loft),
in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy, 1431–1438
and the music that was created in an
attempt to recreate that beauty of
holiness: the Victorian and Edwardian anthem tradition of Hubert Parry,
Charles Villiers Stanford, Herbert
Howells, and many others.
Gant’s book is particularly fascinat-
ing for a former suburban choirboy
like myself because it explains a lot of
things that at the time seemed either
rather mysterious or just to be taken for
granted. Psalms, for example—sung
by choir and congregation—seemed
to occupy an inordinate amount of
the morning service, and the junior
members of the choir spent much of
the sermon sniggering over the psalmist’s more recondite imagery, usually
in psalms we never sang but found in
the prayer book, and which we somehow conjured into a vague impropriety
(“my mouth is dried up like a potsherd
and my tongue cleaveth to the roof of
my mouth” seemed unaccountably
Psalm-singing was, as Gant makes
clear, one of the major strands of postReformation church music in England.
It was a vital part of congregational
singing from the 1500s on, a totem
of Protestant rectitude, and a site of
struggle between populist instincts and
clerical control. It had migrated from
the evangelical movements of continental Europe and fit well into a political culture that celebrated English
reform as a resurrection of the blessed
biblical Israel: in 1560, Bishop John
Gant gives the example of Psalm 84,
“How pleasant is thy dwelling place,”
married in Thomas Ravenscroft’s
1621 Psalter to a tune that in our own
day is better known as “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night”
(which naughty choirboys inevitably
garbled into “while shepherds washed
their socks by night”).
The psalms we sang back in the
1970s, and which continue to be sung in
Anglican or Episcopalian churches and
cathedrals today, are something rather
different from this metrical populism.
Anglican or English chant—which
dates back to the sixteenth century but
didn’t triumph until the nineteenth—
was a matter of matching the natural
speech-rhythms of the psalm to the
notes of a simple harmonized melody.
It thus preserved the authorized translation of the psalm in question and
created an echo of monastic chanting,
although the tunes were far removed
from the Gregorian austerity of medieval times. I seem to remember our
leading the congregation in the singing
of these psalms, but it’s a tricky business (it involves singing a lot of words
to the same note, and changing at just
the right moment) and nowadays left
mostly to the choir alone.
The other crucial elements of English church music, and its twin glories,
are hymn-singing and the anthem,
which stand at the alternate poles of
populism and elitism in religious practice. Hymns have been a feature of
Christian worship almost from the very
beginning, of course, as songs of praise
and adoration of the Divinity. Lutheranism is deeply rooted in congregational hymn-singing; its most famous
hymn, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”
(A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) is a
sturdy embodiment in music and words
of a movement built on Luther’s declaration Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht
anders (Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise). Bach’s Passions are structured
around the congregational singing of
Lutheran hymns. Calvinism, the other
main current of early Protestantism,
was queasier about anything that was
not the licensed word of God appearing in a church service (hence the nervousness about metrical psalms).
he Church of England, carried this
way and that in rival versions of the
evangelical current (not for nothing did
the Venetian ambassador to the court
of Elizabeth I say that as far as religion
was concerned, England was a country
“where men change their beliefs from
day to day”), ended up pursuing a sort
of middle way. This, the typical Anglican “fudge,” as Gant calls it, happened
less by design than as a series of historical accidents. The Calvinist tendencies of the English establishment kept
the singing of hymns in church at bay
until relatively late: “I do not reconcile
to the consistency and propriety of our
Church duty the unauthorized introduction of the Morning and Evening
hymn,” wrote William Charles Dyer in
The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1814.
Yet in the well-populated margins—
among dissenters and Methodists—the
eighteenth century had seen the birth
of a hymn-writing tradition. Its most
prolific figures were the dissenter Isaac
Watts (1674–1748), credited with the
authorship of around 750 hymns, and
Charles Wesley (1707–1788), founder
with his brother John of the Methodist
movement, who wrote an extraordinary
six thousand hymns plus another three
thousand devotional poems. When the
Oxford Movement of the nineteenth
century discovered a definitive place
for hymn-singing within the Anglican
church service itself, there was a broad
repertoire to draw on, from across the
confessional spectrum, theologically
diverse as to text, and promiscuous as
to music (harmonized folk songs, composed tunes from oratorios, and Moravian melodies had all found their way
into the melting pot). Hymns Ancient
and Modern was first published in 1861,
The English Hymnal in 1906.
Hymns have migrated out of the
church building into public ceremonial
(“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” at
remembrance services for the world
wars), schools (“I Vow to Thee, My
Country”), and the sports field (“Abide
with Me” or “Cwm Rhondda” at soccer
matches). As with so much of the cultural inheritance we feed on and at the
same time demean, most of the hymns
sung in Anglican or Episcopal churches
are overwhelmingly either Victorian or
composed as part of the Victorian religious revival. The weight of condescension has been heavy—Gant notices
the number of times music scholars or
historians have called the Victorian
hymn tradition “debased”—but these
The New York Review
eading O Sing unto the Lord set
me thinking about the hymns I love—
these tunes that according to Gant “did
for the English what opera did for the
Italians.” What gives them, beyond
nostalgia, their particular power? “My
Song Is Love Unknown” is a text by
the mid-seventeenth- century Church
of England minister Samuel Crossman,
from his “Young Man’s Meditation” of
1664, which has as one of its epigraphs
George Herbert’s contention “A Verse
may find him whom a Sermon flies,
And turn delight into a Sacrifice”:
My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I,
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh, and die?. . .
February 22, 2018
Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King,
Never was grief like thine.
This is my Friend,
In whose sweet praise
I all my days
Could gladly spend.
On the page these verses are by
turns meditative, introspective, and
outraged. They reflect Crossman’s
personal saving faith and the institutional faith of the church to which he
belonged, but they were actually composed at what must have been a time of
anxious moral questioning for the poet.
Ejected from the established church
in the wake of the Restoration settlement that followed the Civil War and
Interregnum of 1642–1660, he wrestled
with his conscience, took the necessary
The renowned Flemish theorist and
composer Johannes Tinctoris, writing
a little later, was clear about the origins
of the European musical renaissance:
In this age the capabilities of our
music increased so miraculously
that it would seem to be a new art.
Of this new art, as I might in fact
call it, the English . . . are held to be
the source and origin.
Yet while the fifteenth century was
in many ways a glorious age for English music and saw individual composers, no longer anonymous, moving for
the first time into the limelight, it was
the trauma of the English Reformation from the 1530s on that somehow
resulted in an outpouring of immortal
music that still speaks to us today. The
Reformation was, as Gant pithily puts
Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Art Resource
songs of praise do not merely project
“a cast-iron certainty of being right
with a certain sentimentality of expression.” They are also capable of expressing tenderness, meditation, doubt, and
yearning. The melodic undertow of
a quintessentially Victorian anxiety
courses through them, sometimes at
one with the words, sometimes cutting
subtly against them, and creating a dynamic irony that reaches well beyond
the stereotypical complacency.
Some of the most famous hymns
have complicated genealogies, like the
aforementioned “I Vow to Thee, My
Country.” It originated before World
War I as a poem but was only transformed into a hymn in the 1920s, requisitioning the great central tune from
Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter” in The Planets. Its words express gentleness, peace,
and the tragedy of sacrifice rather than
the unthinking patriotism they are so
often supposed to embody.
Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem” is perhaps the most complicated of all, and
the most representative of the multitudinous and curious sources of English
hymnody. The text is by William Blake
and forms the preface to his Milton:
a Poem. Its “dark Satanic mills” and
call for a New Jerusalem in “England’s
green and pleasant land” are hardly
the stuff of orthodoxy. Indeed, Parry
wrote his setting not as a hymn but as
a political song, intended for a “Fight
for the Right” campaign meeting at
the Queen’s Hall in London in 1916.
In the depths of war despondency, the
poet laureate, Robert Bridges, rather
counterintuitively thought that a song
made from Blake’s radical verses, antiestablishment to their core, forged in
the heat of coruscating irony, might
“brace the spirit of the nation [to] accept with cheerfulness all the sacrifices
Having written the song, which begins
“And did those feet in ancient Time,”
Parry, who was something of a radical,
developed misgivings that almost led
to his withdrawing it; only adoption by
the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies saved it. Despite all this,
and its technical failure to qualify as a
hymn at all (it includes not one word of
praise of the Godhead), “Jerusalem”
has gone on to conquer the world, sung
at the state funeral of Ronald Reagan
in Washington National Cathedral
in 2004 and at the royal wedding of
Prince William and Kate Middleton
in Westminster Abbey in 2011.
Thomas Webster: A Village Choir, 1847
oaths, and was ordained afresh in 1665.
His own sense of isolation surely lent
his identification with Christ’s loneliness and his need for Christ’s saving
love an added intensity.
More than two and a half centuries
later, in 1925, the composer John Ireland set Crossman’s poem to music, in
a masterpiece of protean strophic setting—the tune as harmonized seems
to open a myriad of emotional possibilities that allow it to track the text
with an unerring sensitivity. At its
heart, though, is a melody of ineffable
tenderness, a tenderness that is sometimes concealed in lusty congregational renderings with organ. Ireland
claimed to have written the setting
in a bare fifteen minutes, but the casual virtuosity that this implies belies
the deep personal source of the introspective lyricism that makes this such
a masterpiece. What after all was the
resonance of this “love unknown” for a
homosexual like Ireland, living the life
of the repressed?
To turn to the other pillar of Anglican
music, there is a paradox at the heart
of the anthem tradition. English church
music was renowned in the late Middle
Ages. In 1440, a French poet, Martin le
Franc, praised the Burgundian school
for having taken on board the English
way of writing music:
They have found a new practice, a
way of making sweet consonance,
in music high and low, in different
shades, and rests and pauses, and
have taken on the English manner.
it, siding with a particular revisionist
strand of recent historiography, “an insurrection by the government against its
own people . . .with the added complication that the government kept changing sides.” It produced the dissolution
of the monasteries, with the attendant
destruction of much of the musical fabric of the country, a revolution in but
also a prolonged uncertainty about the
status of the liturgy, and a devastating
loss of existing books and manuscripts
comparable in its effects on musical life
to that of the iconoclasm of the 1530s
and 1540s upon the visual arts.
Crisis inspired art. If the Elizabethan
age was the age of Shakespeare, it was
also that of Thomas Tallis and William
Byrd. The politico-theological ferment
that so obviously fed the playwright’s
imagination may have, less directly,
lent a certain expressive tension to the
masses and motets of these two great
composers, both royal servants who
remained orthodox Catholics in a period of Protestant ascendancy that, for
some, amounted to a Protestant terror.
In 1581 the Jesuit missionary Edmund Campion was hanged, drawn,
and quartered for treason; a fellow Jesuit, Henry Walpole, wrote a poem in
protest, “Why do I Use my Paper, Ink
and Pen?” Byrd set it to music. The
Recusancy Act of 1593 imposed fines
and eventual house arrest on those who
failed to attend Anglican worship; between 1592 and 1595 Byrd nonetheless
wrote and published his three great
settings of the Latin Mass, a service officially outlawed under the new dispensation. Yet Byrd was also, in the midst
of all this, a loyal servant of the state:
in 1588, after the defeat of the Spanish
Armada, Queen Elizabeth had written
a poem extolling her triumph, “Look
and bow down thine ear, O Lord, from
thy bright sphere behold and see thy
handmaid and thy handiwork.” Byrd
set it to music as part of the victory
We cannot be sure exactly how Byrd
managed to reconcile the demands of
private conscience and public service,
or how his employers at court regarded
his ambiguous engagement with treachery. His Quomodo cantabimus, a psalm
text about the Babylonian captivity,
speaks to a sense of internal exile; and
toward the end of his life Byrd increasingly withdrew into crypto- Catholic
circles away from court. The glory days
of this first great flowering ran from the
Reformation to the Glorious Revolution in 1689, when the Protestant settlement finally triumphed under the aegis
of a foreign prince, William of Orange,
culminating in that titanic figure Henry
Purcell—a tumultuous era in which the
outcome of ecclesiastical politics remained distinctly uncertain. But it is
worth remembering that most of the
great composers of church music of the
twentieth century were also familiar
with a sense of cognitive dissonance
that faintly mirrored that of William
Benjamin Britten, for example, was
no true believer, at best an agnostic and
a humanist admirer of Christian ethics;
yet he produced some of the greatest
church music since Purcell. His most
monumental work of religious music,
the War Requiem, is riddled with unorthodoxy and skepticism. Written for
the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, it combines a brilliant reenactment of the Continental tradition
(Mozart, Verdi, Fauré) in its rendering
of the Latin Mass for the dead with
highly personal settings of the poems
of Wilfred Owen. The effect is highly
ambiguous, as quasi-liturgical music
rooted in gestures inherited from the
past is confronted with Owen’s angry
sense that organized Christianity
has betrayed the pacifist ethic of its
prophet. The Agnus Dei, sung by the
choir, is cruelly juxtaposed with lines
such as these from the tenor soloist:
Near Golgotha strolls many a
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh- marked by
the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ’s
he most iconic work of the English
choral tradition, and the most famous,
with its rousing “Hallelujah” chorus,
is surely Handel’s Messiah (1741), the
subject of Jonathan Keates’s new and
excellent brief study. Keates, a distinguished biographer of Handel, sets
out to examine the origin and afterlife of the piece, and to establish what
an eighteenth- century critic might
have called its “sublimity.” Keates celebrates its “emotional range, the ways
in which it embraces the multiplicity
of existence, the directness of its engagement with our longing, our fears,
our sorrows, our ecstasy and exaltation, giv[ing] the whole achievement
an incomparable universality.” Keates
recognizes that Handel was as spiritual
a composer as J. S. Bach, his Messiah
as rooted in that spirituality as Bach’s
The Policy State
An American Predicament
Karen Orren • Stephen Skowronek
“A sterling example of political science at its best:
analytically rigorous, historically informed, and
targeted at questions of undeniable contemporary
significance ... Orren and Skowronek uncover a
transformation that revolutionized American
politics and now threatens to tear it apart.”
—Timothy Shenk, New Republic
Sea of the Caliphs
The Mediterranean in the
Medieval Islamic World
Christophe Picard
“Picard shows that the Mediterranean, long
considered marginal to Islam, even reduced to
a clichéd playground for pirates, was in reality
a major site for the development of Muslim
societies between the seventh and twelfth
centuries. He recasts the traditional view of
Fernand Braudel by making Islam the dominant
actor in this space for several centuries, not only
as a military power but also as a commercial and
intellectual force.”
—Le Monde
Belknap Press | $35.00
Safe Passage
The Transition from British to
American Hegemony
Kori Schake
+A Washington Post/Monkey Cage Gift Book
“A remarkable and timely chronicle—living history
of the best sort.”
Passions were in his; Keates will
have no truck with the tradition that
“pigeonhole[s] Handel as a cynical opportunist, a shrewd entertainer with an
eye on the market.”
I say “the English choral tradition,” yet Messiah was not written for
a church, and George Frideric Handel
(born Georg Friedrich Händel) was
only an Englishman by adoption. Arriving in 1710 after early musical service in Halle, Hamburg, Hanover, and
Italy, he established himself at the
English court and in London society
and became a cultural embodiment of
the Hanoverian regime that had guaranteed the security of the Protestant
establishment after the death of Queen
Anne in 1714. The decades before Messiah were devoted to reams of masterly
Italian opera (Ariodante, Xerxes, Alcina, and so on); to royal church music,
most famously for the coronation of
George II (“Zadok the Priest” is still
sung at British coronations to this day);
and, increasingly, to the new form that
he invented, and to which the years
after Messiah were devoted: the English oratorio, Bible stories dramatized
but not fully staged (Samson, Saul,
Jephtha . . .). The music of Messiah
draws on all these strands, sometimes
reworking music with a decidedly Italian secular origin to religious purpose
and adding a good dose of Purcellinflected Anglicanism.
Messiah was first performed at the
music room in Fishamble Street in
Dublin, immediately after Handel’s
withdrawal, sick and exhausted, from
the Italian opera scene in London,
which had been such a central part of
his life. Originally a concert piece, it
is decidedly theatrical in character,
something reflected in the series of effective stagings of the piece that have
been mounted by opera houses in recent years. Its first roster of soloists
included the actress Susanna Cibber
singing contralto (“Behold, a virgin
shall conceive”; “He was despised and
rejected of men”). “Her voice was a
thread,” wrote Charles Burney, the
eighteenth- century music chronicler,
“and her knowledge of Music very inconsiderable, yet by a natural pathos,
and a perfect conception of the words,
she often penetrated the heart, when
others, with infinitely greater voice and
skill, could only reach the ear.” Cibber
was a scandalous figure in London society, and it was said that Dr. Patrick
Delany, the chancellor of St. Patrick’s
Cathedral in Dublin, on hearing her
sing “He was despised,” was moved to
exclaim: “Woman, for this be all thy
sins forgiven thee!”
Handel was without doubt moved
by a deep religious instinct in creating Messiah. Of composing the “Hallelujah” chorus, he spoke in visionary
terms: “I did think I did see all heaven
before me, and the great God himself.”
Praised for the “noble entertainment”
that was Messiah, he was a little uncomfortable: “I should be sorry if I
only entertained them. I wish to make
them better.” Yet there is a sort of insoluble cognitive dissonance at the core
of Messiah, a mysterious ideological
fault line, as there is in so much English choral music, from William Byrd to
Benjamin Britten.
Messiah is called an oratorio, but it
is very different from Handel’s other
works in that genre. It tells a story, but
it is the story of Christ, not of an Old
Testament hero. Its text is mainly assembled from Old Testament prophetic
writings about the coming of the Messiah, and despite the drama the music
brings, the compilation serves a very
particular ideological purpose in emphasizing what Saint Paul called the
“Mystery of Godliness” and the reality
of the Incarnation. It is, at least in part,
an anti- deistical tract.
The compiler, Charles Jennens, was
a nonjuror, one of that small number of
Protestant Englishmen who remained
loyal to the House of Stuart (expelled
for their Catholicism) and regarded
the Hanoverian kings, despite their
reformed faith, as usurpers. Nonjurors
were unwilling to swear oaths of service to the Crown and hence excluded
themselves from public life. They also
tended to be at odds with the progressive and polite religious establishment
that was dominant in this Age of Reason, of which Handel, with his court
pension and status as a cultural icon,
was so much a part. Messiah sees the
coming together of the Whig composer
par excellence with a Tory ideologue
as librettist; and the nature of the relationship between the two remains
a mystery. “I must take him as I find
him,” wrote Jennens of Handel, “and
make the best use I can of him.”
—Brendan Simms, Wall Street Journal
The Pricing of Progress
Economic Indicators and the
Capitalization of American Life
Eli Cook
“Eli Cook’s groundbreaking new book traces
how health, lives, and land came to be seen as
‘income-generating investments,’ a transformation
that has not just shaped how we perceive the
costs of catastrophes like the opioid epidemic (or
how we market boutique medical care), but that
also, Cook asserts, propelled the emergence of
capitalism itself.”
—Adam Gaffney, New Republic
Transported by a sudden gust of wind
not felt by anything except itself,
a butterfly, a Cabbage White, blows in
and dithers through my yard considering
is this the place to rest, or this, or this,
and in the process fastens with a thread
I cannot see the drowsy flower-heads
each to the other and in turn to me,
until a second gust of wind arrives
and lifts it through my fence and out of sight.
Which leaves the yard exactly as it was,
except that now a sense of emptiness
insists a moment of my life has passed
which otherwise I would not think to miss.
—Andrew Motion
tel: 800.405.1619
The New York Review
When Government Drew the Color Line
Jason DeParle
In 2007 a sharply divided Supreme
Court struck down plans to integrate
the Seattle and Louisville public
schools. Both districts faced the geographic dilemma that confounds most
American cities: their neighborhoods
were highly segregated by race and
therefore so were many of their schools.
To compensate, each district occasionally considered a student’s race in making school assignments. Seattle,
for instance, used race as a tiebreaking factor in filling some
oversubscribed high schools.
Across the country, hundreds
of districts had similar plans.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer,
writing for the court’s liberal
wing in the case, Parents Involved in Community Schools
v. Seattle School District No. 1,
argued that the modest use of
race served essential educational and democratic goals
and kept faith with the Court’s
“finest hour,” its rejection of
segregation a half- century earlier in Brown v. Board of Education. But Chief Justice John
G. Roberts Jr., representing a
conservative plurality, called
any weighing of race unconstitutional. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race
is to stop discriminating on the
basis of race,” he wrote. Crucial
to his reasoning was the assertion that segregation in Seattle
and Louisville was de facto, not
de jure—a product of private
choices, not state action. Since
the state didn’t cause segregation, the
state didn’t have to fix it—and couldn’t
fix it by sorting students by race.
Richard Rothstein, an education
analyst at the left-leaning Economic
Policy Institute, thinks John Roberts
is a bad historian. The Color of Law,
his powerful history of governmental
efforts to impose housing segregation,
was written in part as a retort. “Residential segregation was created by state
action,” he writes, not merely by amorphous “societal” influences. While private discrimination also deserves some
share of the blame, Rothstein shows
that “racially explicit policies of federal, state, and local governments . . .
segregated every metropolitan area in
the United States.” Government agencies used public housing to clear mixed
neighborhoods and create segregated
ones. Governments built highways as
buffers to keep the races apart. They
used federal mortgage insurance to
usher in an era of suburbanization on
the condition that developers keep
blacks out. From New Dealers to
county sheriffs, government agencies
at every level helped impose segregation—not de facto but de jure.
Rothstein calls his story a “forgotten history,” not a hidden one. Indeed,
part of the book’s shock is just how
explicit the government’s racial engineering often was. The demand for
segregation was made plain in workaFebruary 22, 2018
day documents like the Federal Housing Administration’s Underwriting
Manual, which specified that loans
should be made in neighborhoods that
“continue to be occupied by the same
social and racial classes” but not in
those vulnerable to the influx of “inharmonious racial groups.” A New
Deal agency, the Home Owners’ Loan
Corporation, drew color- coded maps
with neighborhoods occupied by whites
shaded green and approved for loans
and black areas marked red and denied credit—the original “redlining.”
The FHA financed Levittown, the emblem of postwar suburbanization, on
erful as public housing, which both
reinforced color lines and drew them
where they hadn’t existed. Public housing typically conjures high-rise black
ghettos. But it started during the Depression mostly to help working- class
whites. The first agency to build public
housing was the Public Works Administration, which was launched in 1933.
It happened to be run by a racial liberal, Harold Ickes, a former head of
the Chicago NAACP. Yet Ickes created
a “neighborhood composition rule”—
projects in white areas could only house
whites, and projects in black neighborhoods could only house blacks.
Francisco, the Board of Supervisors
in 1949 called for “nonsegregation” in
future projects, a policy the housing authority spurned. Its chairman testified
that the authority wanted to “localize
occupancy of Negroes.” In already segregated cities like Chicago, the building of segregated public housing made
racial division more entrenched.
Whites started leaving public housing in the 1950s for better options in the
private market, from which AfricanAmericans were largely excluded. As
housing projects became mostly black,
disputes over where to build them intensified. The infamous high-rises, like
the Robert Taylor Homes in
Chicago, were largely concentrated in isolated black areas far
from the white parts of town.
Some states passed constitutional amendments requiring
local referendums before projects could be built, which gave
white suburbs veto power. In
1976 the Supreme Court upheld lower court rulings that
the federal government and
the Chicago Housing Authority, by concentrating projects
in black neighborhoods, had
unconstitutionally imposed segregation. But when the Court
ordered that future projects be
constructed in white areas, the
authority simply stopped building them. Rothstein, who was
a young researcher on the case,
argues that it was too late anyway—vacant land in white areas
was mostly gone and the chance
for integration had passed.
Zoning laws gave governments another way to impose
segregation. The first codes
were openly racial, simply banning blacks from buying houses
on white blocks. But the Supreme
Court in 1917 ruled racial proscriptions
unconstitutional—not because they
hurt blacks but because they violated
property rights, by limiting owners’
ability to sell. Some cities just ignored
the Court: until 1968, Apopka, Florida,
had a law that banned blacks from living north of the railroad tracks. But
most codes switched to economic criteria
to achieve the same goals; they banned
apartment buildings in certain parts
of town or allowed only single-family
houses. In 1921, Commerce Secretary
Herbert Hoover created an Advisory
Committee on Zoning to draft a model
statute and stacked the group with segregationists. One member said zoning was
needed to “maintain the nation and the
race.” Hoover bet the economic criteria
would pass Court muster, and proved
right. The class bias was genuine, not
merely a subterfuge, but Rothstein sees
enough racism intertwined to call exclusionary zoning “integral to the story
of de jure segregation.”
Exclusionary zoning was effective,
but it couldn’t protect white neighborhoods from blacks with money.
The government’s mortgage insurance programs did. Their profound
contribution to de jure segregation is
largely unappreciated. Starting during
the New Deal and accelerating in the
postwar years, the government transformed American life with a campaign
Kerry James Marshall/Denver Art Museum/Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
The Color of Law:
A Forgotten History of How Our
Government Segregated America
by Richard Rothstein.
Liveright, 345 pp., $27.95
Kerry James Marshall: Better Homes, Better Gardens, 1994. Marshall’s work will be on view
in the exhibition ‘Figuring History,’ at the Seattle Art Museum, February 15–May 13, 2018.
the condition that none of its 17,500
homes be sold to blacks. The policies
on black and white were spelled out in
black and white.
De jure segregation is long gone from
the books, but its significance is more
than historical. The conditions it created endure. American cities remain
highly segregated. Schools are highly
unequal. Huge gaps in wealth persist
between blacks and whites, largely
driven by differences in home equity.
Compared to poor whites, poor blacks
are much more likely to live in poor
neighborhoods, which compounds
their disadvantages. Since the government helped impose segregation,
Rothstein argues that it has a constitutional obligation to remedy it. He has
thoughts on solutions, though none, he
readily admits, that are politically feasible. The current racial polarization is
part of his point—one reason American politics is so divided is that American census tracts are. The Color of Law
is designed more to start a conversation than to prescribe a solution, and
on those grounds it succeeds, joining
works by writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates
and Nikole Hannah-Jones that achieve
the difficult feat of taking a fresh look
at race.
the government’s tools for
imposing segregation, few were as pow-
Perhaps he was trying to appease
southerners in the New Deal coalition.
Or perhaps segregation was the only
way to get blacks housed at all. Rothstein doesn’t say. But across the country officials used the program to raze
integrated neighborhoods and build
projects that kept the races apart. The
first project, Techwood Homes in Atlanta, destroyed a racially mixed neighborhood of 1,600 families and built 600
apartments for whites. A Miami civic
leader said the city used public housing
to “remove the entire colored population” from areas it wanted white. The
same thing happened across the Northeast and Midwest.
In 1937, the federal government
stopped building apartments directly
and started financing local housing authorities, but it maintained its segregationist principles. The agency in charge,
the US Housing Authority, specified
that projects should ensure “the preservation rather than the disruption of
community social structures.” The
first USHA project was built in Austin,
Texas, where a go-getter congressman
named Lyndon B. Johnson secured the
funds. Until then, Austin’s black residents were scattered throughout the
city, but officials built a black project
on the east side of town and a white
project to the west, creating “a more
rigid segregation than had previously
existed.” In supposedly liberal San
he federal government adopted a fair
housing law in 1968; explicitly segregationist policies are long gone. Is it fair
to blame them for segregation today?
To a large extent it is. Residential segregation is uniquely long-lasting. As
Rothstein argues, a lunch counter can
be integrated overnight, but neighborhoods resist change. Communities are
organic. People sink roots. An affluent
white neighborhood can only integrate
if African-Americans can afford the
homes. With government support for
segregation, a die was cast. Even today,
blacks are about one percent of the
population of Levittown.
The problems African-Americans
faced were compounded by terrible
timing: by the time the government allowed them to buy in, many were priced
out. The first three postwar decades
Residential segregation isn’t the only
reason for the difference in wealth
between blacks and whites, but it’s a
big one. Rothstein tells the story of a
black trucker and World War II veteran
named Vince Mereday, who carried
building supplies to Levittown but was
barred by government policy from buying a home there. Rebuffed, he bought
in a black subdivision called Lakeview,
with a large down payment and a higher
interest rate since he couldn’t get FHA
insurance. Lakeview remains predominantly black, and Rothstein estimates
that its properties have enjoyed only a
fifth of the appreciation of Levittown.
That means a family like the Meredays
The Gordon Parks Foundation
to promote homeownership and suburbanization. But the sale of the American Dream explicitly excluded blacks.
Before the New Deal, it was hard to
buy a home. Buyers generally had to put
down 50 percent and rely on interestonly loans that came due in five to
seven years. Since borrowers didn’t acquire equity, they had to make big payments at the end of the term or borrow
again. To fight Depression- era foreclosures, the Home Owners Loan Corporation bought troubled mortgages and
reissued them on easier terms, with
longer repayment and amortization
schedules that allowed borrowers to
pay down their debt. But the agency’s
pioneering color- coded maps generally
barred loans in neighborhoods with
black residents.
The Federal Housing Administration aided first-time buyers by insuring
loans, which made it cheaper to borrow. The standard FHA loan covered
80 percent of the purchase price, with a
twenty-year term and full amortization.
(Later terms were even more liberal.)
The FHA’s twenty-year loan was a revolution in social policy, bringing homeownership to millions of Americans. But
it was also a force for segregation, banning loans to blacks—or even to neighborhoods that contained blacks—on the
theory, as the Underwriting Manual explained, that such “adverse influences”
threatened property values.
The FHA didn’t segregate America
just one loan at a time. By underwriting
mass developments, Rothstein writes, it
created “entire subdivisions, in many
cases entire suburbs, as racially exclusive white suburbs.” None was more
celebrated than Levittown, an ingenious
solution to the postwar housing shortage—thousands of affordable, massproduced homes offered to veterans with
no down payment. But only the government’s promise to insure the mortgages
allowed William Levitt to secure the
construction loans. “We are 100 percent
dependent on Government,” he said.
Among the FHA’s conditions, in Levittown and other mass projects, was that
no homes be sold to blacks. By 1950,
the FHA and the Veterans Administration insured half of all new mortgages
on such terms. If that wasn’t de jure
segregation, it’s hard to know what is.
Not least among the ways in which
government supported segregation was
through collusion in vigilante violence.
The Color of Law has an entire chapter
on the cross-burning mobs that threatened blacks in white neighborhoods
while police stood by or aided the harassment. In a famous Louisville case
from the 1950s, a white couple, Carl
and Anne Braden, bought a house in a
white neighborhood for black friends,
Andrew and Charlotte Wade. White
crowds threw rocks through the Wades’
window, shot at the house, and finally
dynamited it. The bomber went free,
but Andrew Wade was arrested for
disturbing the peace and Carl Braden
prosecuted for “sedition.” (His conviction was overturned on appeal.) Yet
when the Supreme Court struck down
Louisville’s school integration plan in
2007, it argued that the city’s segregation was “a product not of state action
but of private choices.”
Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton, Mobile, Alabama, 1956; photograph by Gordon Parks
from Segregation Story, published by the Gordon Parks Foundation and Steidl.
Parks’s work is on view in the two-part exhibition ‘I Am You,’ at the Jack Shainman
Gallery, New York City, January 11–March 24, 2018.
were uniquely auspicious for the growing suburban middle class. Real wages
nearly doubled, and the stock of affordable housing rapidly grew. Postmen,
firefighters, auto mechanics—all could
afford their own patch of crabgrass.
Beset by job and neighborhood discrimination, African-Americans largely
missed the postwar boom. Later, as
racial barriers eased, economic barriers rose—wages stagnated and housing
prices soared. From 1973 to 1990, average black wages fell by about 2 percent,
while housing prices rose more than 50
percent. When Levittown was built in
the late 1940s, homes in the Long Island development sold for about twice
the median income. Now they sell for six
or eight times the median. As Rothstein
puts it, “the window of opportunity for
an integrated nation had mostly closed.”
One legacy of housing segregation
is the large racial disparity in wealth.
Most Americans get their wealth from
home equity. Shunted to segregated
developments and forced to pay higher
borrowing costs, African-Americans
for the most part lost out on the gains
that benefited many whites. Blacks have
about 60 percent of the family income
of whites, but less than 10 percent of the
wealth—a huge gap and one that impedes advancement. Nest eggs finance
education; they tame emergencies.
would have missed $200,000 in gains
over three generations, simply because
of the color of their skin.
One can quibble with nuances of
Rothstein’s account. He may overstate
the extent to which the problems of the
black underclass stemmed from housing
discrimination alone, as opposed to, say,
deindustrialization or the social disorder
(high crime, low educational attainment,
early and nonmarital child-bearing)
linked to the injustice of the sharecropping experience in the South. In fact,
as William Julius Wilson demonstrated
three decades ago in The Truly Disadvantaged, the “social dislocation” of the
black ghettos worsened in the wake of
fair housing laws as middle-class families left. Rothstein also doesn’t fully explore the segregationists’ motives. Were
they primarily social or economic?
Sometimes he dismisses the argument
that integration threatened property
values. Elsewhere he notes that when
blacks moved into white neighborhoods, panicked whites often bailed out
at fire-sale prices. Fears about property
values don’t justify discrimination, but
a fuller discussion of the economics
would better illuminate the politics.
The Color of Law ends at the Nixon
administration. A lot has changed
since then. The growth of the black
middle class and better (if not great)
fair housing enforcement has reduced
segregation, although it remains high.
A standard segregation measure, the
“dissimilarity index,” peaked in 1970 at
79 (meaning that 79 percent of blacks
in a typical metro area would need to
move to achieve an even distribution).
By 2010 the figure had fallen to 59. Cities are divided in new ethnic and economic ways. Latinos outnumber blacks,
and segregation by income has soared—
largely from rich families flocking to
rich neighborhoods. The changing
landscape affects access to opportunity
in ways still not fully understood.
But blacks continue to face big disadvantages. Sean Reardon and his colleagues at Stanford recently found that
black families with incomes of $55,000
to $60,000 a year live in neighborhoods
similar to those of whites with just
$12,000. The old African-American
lament—that blacks have to be twice
as good as whites to earn equal treatment—turns out to be wildly optimistic. When it comes to housing, the
spread looks more like five to one.
Rothstein hesitates to offer solutions, arguing that the ground hasn’t
been laid for the kinds of policies he
thinks are constitutionally required.
He prefers the word “remedy” to “reparations” but supports the concept either way (unpersuasively, I think). He
cites Levittown as an illustration. To
promote integration and redistribute
wealth, he suggests that the government
buy Levittown houses and sell them to
black families at the equivalent of the
original price—i.e., buy them at the
market price of $350,000 and sell them
to black buyers for $75,000. In most
cases, the beneficiaries would have
no connection to the original victims.
But fixes for historic injustices cannot
be “precisely calibrated,” Rothstein
writes. “De jure segregation is too massive a historical wrong to satisfy this
principle” of limiting compensation to
individual victims. He rejects the idea
that other minorities would raise comparable claims and seems unconcerned
about backlash from whites.
More modestly, he calls for an assault
on exclusionary zoning laws and floats
an idea to require localities to house
a share of poor people and AfricanAmericans proportional to the metro
average. In areas that fall short, homeowners would lose an escalating share
of their mortgage interest and property
tax deductions. He would add money to
Section 8 vouchers so that poor families
could move to higher-income neighborhoods. He is clear- eyed, however, that
any effort to move poor, black families
into white neighborhoods will meet
strong resistance. He warns that an
influx of disadvantaged families could
hurt property values in affluent suburbs
“because racial and economic snobbery
is now part of their appeal.” It could
also increase petty crime, and force
upper middle class schools to spend
more on “special counseling and remedial programs.” While he thinks such
costs are manageable, he warns they
are not zero. “We delude ourselves if
we think that desegregation can only be
a win-win experience for all,” he writes.
The federal official who pushed hardest for housing integration was George
Romney, Richard Nixon’s housing
secretary, who said the federal government had put a “white noose” around
black cities. Nixon forced him to resign.
But it’s unfair to judge a work of history as important as The Color of Law
The New York Review
February 22, 2018
by the feasibility of its remedies. Rothstein is in the business of raising awareness, not prescribing policy. That he
mines sources as dry as the FHA’s Underwriting Manual to tell a story of epic
injustice lends his account a special eloquence. When he started the project a
decade ago, Rothstein couldn’t have
known that he would publish it into a
storm of take-back- our-nation white
militancy—timing both bad and good.
The racial hostility of the moment is
one measure of the need the book fills.
As I finished it, a new poll revealed that
55 percent of whites believe that discrimination persists—discrimination
against whites.* Among Republicans,
the figure is nearly three quarters.
It may credit Americans too much to
*The poll, by NPR, the Robert Wood
Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard
T. H. Chan School of Public Health,
was published in November.
call this a “forgotten history.” I doubt
most whites ever knew it. Rothstein
summons special indignation at history
textbooks that fail to explain the government’s role in imposing residential
segregation. A Holt McDougal volume
says that “African Americans found
themselves forced into segregated
neighborhoods,” without describing
the government policies that did the
forcing. A Pearson textbook celebrates
Levittown with no mention of the ex-
clusion of blacks and says that “de facto
segregation, or segregation by unwritten custom or tradition, was a fact of
life.” Rothstein seethes. “There was
nothing unwritten about government
policy to promote segregation,” he
writes. “It was spelled out in the FHA’s
Underwriting Manual.” He calls such
history “mendacious,” and he’s right.
The Color of Law makes it harder for
future textbook writers, and the rest of
us, to make that mistake again.
People Watching
Joel Smith
The “street” in “street photography”
does not refer to a location or a subject;
it identifies an idiom. A street photographer walks into situations nobody
controls in order to discover what can
be made of them as pictures. She commits to contingency as a coauthor, as
war photographers do, but her object is
art, not news. A street photographer is
a central, even if unseen, character in
every scene she records. Any human
gesture in a street photograph—a
swinging arm seen from this angle, a
planted foot from that one—results
from the posture and movements not
of the subject alone but of two people,
photographer and photographed.
The characteristic gestures in the
street photographs of Helen Levitt
marry grace with awkwardness—
folded limbs, trailing skirts, feet acutely
angled as someone turns around. The
sidewalks in her world are dirty, the
curbstones cracked, doors and walls
pockmarked and chalk-marked. The
vacant lots where kids go scampering are generations deep in shattered
Some of these features of Levitt’s
work can be accounted for by her explanation—meant to repel any imputation of a do-gooder’s motives or, in her
images of children, motherly tenderness—that she photographed in poor
neighborhoods because that’s where
life happened in the streets, and kids
were simply the people she found out
and about. But some of its features,
too, must be declared matters of style.
In an essay written in the 1940s for
what would become Levitt’s first book,
A Way of Seeing (1965), James Agee
positioned her street pictures as “lyrical photographs” as opposed to “social
or psychological document[s].” Levitt
summarized the capacity that allowed
her to make her pictures: “I can feel
what people feel.”
A lifelong inner ear condition gave
her what she called a “wobble”; she
also had, as a jazz pianist or horn player
might have, an affinity for irresolution, missteps, in-between shiftings of
weight, the moment not at the apex
of a jump but just after. Her pictures
say: Things don’t line up. Bodies have
minds of their own. People interact in a
richer, more expressive way in life than
they ever will on a stage; the hard and
worthwhile part is catching them at it.
Helen Levitt/Film Documents LLC
One, Two, Three, More
by Helen Levitt,
with an introduction by Geoff Dyer.
PowerHouse, 203 pp., $40.00
New York City, circa 1940; photographs by Helen Levitt
In the 1930s Levitt sometimes outfitted
her camera (as Ben Shahn and Walker
Evans also did) with an angled prism
that let her appear to be photographing
90 degrees off what her lens was taking
in. This kept her subjects from reacting
self-consciously to the camera, but it
also must have gotten her at least half
engaged in peripheral vision.
photograph Levitt made around
1940 has the kind of elegant internal
logic that invites protracted discussion
and tempts bloggers and teachers of
art history surveys to let it stand for
her work as a whole. Nine children on
a summer sidewalk are playing with
the scavenged parts of a half-length
mirror. The photographer, standing a
few feet out in the street, has a nearly
straight-on view through the heavy
wooden frame, which is held upright
(reasserting the format of the overall image) by two shirtless boys to its
left and right. Within and behind the
frame—taking the place of the artist’s
reflection—is a boy on a tricycle, who
looks through the frame and down at
an older boy in the foreground, stooping to collect shards from the gutter.
In the background, a world of adults
and older children occupies itself amid
storefronts and signage, underlining
the self-containment of the scene.
Every detail of the photograph contributes a note to its fullness, without ostentation or overlap or, most
remarkably of all, the least whiff of
If anything is wrong with using this
endlessly remarkable photograph as an
epitome of Levitt’s art, it is that apotheosis seems foreign to her nature; most
of her images traffic in the simpler,
looser observations of an unbiased
eye on the move. A new collection of
Levitt’s photographs, One, Two, Three,
More, errs on the everyday, miraclefree side of her work. A few dozen of
the book’s previously unpublished images might even prompt longtime admirers to ask: Is this picture a failure
that should have been left in the box?
Or on the contrary: If Levitt had published this image decades ago, would I
ever have questioned how remarkable
it is?
At the center of one such photograph, a figure is darkly reflected in
a vertical pane of glass—a shop door
that stands slightly ajar. (See illustration at the top of page 23.) Even on
repeat viewings I want to read the reflection as the photographer’s. In fact it
belongs to a woman who stands to the
left of the door, raising a handkerchief
to her face in a gesture that recalls that
of a camera operator. She and the man
beside her gaze toward something out
of sight, beyond the left edge of the
image. In the lower-right corner of the
scene, a seated man casts his glance in
the opposite direction, out of frame to
the right. If the children, entranced by
their empty mirror frame, embody the
collective absorption of a tribe, these
adults are the very image of distracted
anomie. The glass-faced storefront behind them forms a frieze of seven narrow facets that only just fail to cohere.
The book’s most anomalous image
portrays a trio of women, dressed for
hot weather and bending over to search
in the mud at the marshy edge of a body
of water. They occupy the immediate
foreground in profile, Babylonian-style,
holding three poses that are sufficiently
alike to signify their engagement in a
common cause. Behind them, a stand
of rushes carries one’s eye to a rocky
bluff in the distance, upon which other
figures appear, outlined against the
sky. This is no Manhattan scene, nor is
it clear where we are in time, but Levitt’s voice comes through in the kind of
attention the image pays—not exactly
The New York Review
Helen Levitt/Film Documents LLC
to the women (one doesn’t see enough
of them to wonder who they are) or to
the place (no photographer ever cared
less about landscape), but to the way a
space is defined by the human things
going on in it.
Levitt was born in Brooklyn in 1913.
February 22, 2018
Masters of street photography tend
to move around a lot. Restlessness figures in their public image: their creativity looks indivisible from wanderlust
and from the portability of the handheld camera. Beginning in Africa in
1931, Cartier-Bresson traveled widely
and constantly, creating pictures so intimate and subtle that the entire world
seemed to have fallen under his artistic spell. In the course of two rambling
road trips between 1955 and 1956,
Robert Frank produced a sequence of
images that reads like both a highly
personal travel diary and a pictorial
concordance to American sensibilities.
Lee Friedlander has been photographing continuously since the early 1960s,
extending the reach of his art with each
thematic project. (His recent subjects in
book form have included show-window
mannequins entangled in reflections of
the skyline outside and roadside views
framed in the driver’s-side windows of
rental cars.)
Amid this company, Helen Levitt
is notable for having photographed
almost nowhere but in the streets of
two neighborhoods in New York City.
Except for a 1941 trip to Mexico and
working expeditions by subway (with
her friend Walker Evans in 1938 and on
her own after 19781), she created nearly
her entire published body of work on
the sidewalks of Harlem and the Lower
East Side, as often as not photograph1
Some of these photographs have just
been collected in Manhattan Transit:
The Subway Photographs of Helen
Levitt, edited by Marvin Hoshino and
Thomas Zander with an introduction
by David Campany (Cologne: Walther
König, 2017).
ing children. In the introduction to A
Way of Seeing, James Agee translated
the narrowness of Levitt’s beat into
the makings of a photo-mythology:
in their roughness and anonymity, he
wrote, her street settings stand for “the
world.” That world’s denizens—Levitt’s people tend to be powerless, poor,
and, in his dubious phrase, “pastoral”—pantomime the adventures of the
soul at large in a mortal realm with no
fixed home or occupation. For Agee,
Levitt’s work is about humanity’s tenuous claim on a state of grace that is embodied in the play of children. Thus,
for example, he describes a sequence of
images that segues from the rampages
of children to scenes of awkward adolescence: “Subtly, ineluctably, the quality of citizenship in this world where
all are kings and queens begins to shift
and, almost invariably, to decline and
to disintegrate.”
Agee’s perspective on Levitt’s work,
as he conceded, was willfully personal
and “extravagant.” It stands in contrast to her own remark on street work:
“It was like collecting. When you see
something you grab it.” Different as the
two accounts are, they are not irreconcilable; one might even say that Levitt’s best pictures stick in the mind by
sustaining a mental dialogue between
something like Agee’s register of metaphor and Levitt’s own radically literal
perspective on what her pictures disclosed. When Levitt said, “All I can say
about the work I do is that the aesthetic
is in reality itself,” she was either effacing her part in it or bragging, or both.
he plates in One, Two, Three, More
are preceded by a note: “The photoHelen Levitt/Film Documents LLC
She was in her early twenties when she
began thinking of the camera as a possible way into art. Her inspiration was
seeing Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs exhibited at the Julien Levy
Gallery. At that time, the mid-1930s,
advertisements promised that the
Leica 35mm camera, which CartierBresson used, would enable anyone to
“catch the ‘fleeting moment.’” In 1952,
Cartier-Bresson’s landmark monograph,
Images à la Sauvette (Unlicensed Images), would be published in English as
The Decisive Moment. Starry formulations such as “the fleeting” and “the
decisive” lay far from Levitt’s down-toearth view of her métier, but from the
early years of her career to the present
“the moment” has continued to be regarded as the crucible of meaning in
street photography. In a street photograph, an artist of quickened senses
appears to have extracted, in real time,
enduring art from the inchoate actions
of passersby.
But if a photograph is the deposit
of the instant stored in the negative, it
also reflects insights and actions from
before and after that moment, enacted
on less hurried scales of time. Some of
those choices, though just as specific to
the medium as a shutter’s instantaneity, get downplayed in heroic accounts
of the photographer’s art.
After deciding where to be with the
camera (Mumbai, say, or Midtown), an
artist decides when and how often to
press the shutter release. This act does
not always indicate a “decisive” grasp
of what is happening; it might be a way
of asking a question. Later come decisions about which negatives to print
and which to suppress—choices that
can be revisited throughout a photographer’s life, and even after it. At any
time, too, one can decide or redecide
whether and how to crop the original
composition, and how to manage in the
darkroom countless subtleties of contrast and emphasis. The artist, or someone, has to decide how large to print a
picture, and subsequently publish it.
No less substantial are decisions about
how to pair, sequence, caption, title, or
otherwise give a structured setting to
the image. All of these choices—some
based on others preceding, others quite
independent—can add up to a substantial revision of the camera’s ostensibly
“momentary” account.
Levitt’s case provides an occasion for
recognizing the contrast between the
“moment,” in which photographic criticism has invested so much, and the long,
unusually elastic timescale that photographic authorship allows for. Right up
until her death in 2009 at age ninety-five,
Levitt was continually revisiting the exposures she had made on the street sixty
or seventy years earlier—work that continues to come to light in books such as
One, Two, Three, More. She had every
right, of course, to remain engaged with
her early negatives, but it is sensible to
distinguish between the young artist
doing her first street work, the middleaged one shaping it into book form, and
the nonagenarian approaching it with a
lifetime’s experience.
graphs in this book were made between 1934 and 1946, mainly in New
York City.” These years define the
first phase of Levitt’s street work; she
would take up the still camera again in
the late 1950s, after years making a living as a film editor. From the start her
work was characterized by a canny unshowiness. Many street photographers
seize on easy visual dramas between
up-close and far-off by wading into the
middle of the action. Levitt tended to
hold back, letting her people occupy
an arm’s-length, middle-ground zone,
where it was easy to keep them clear of
the camera frame. Her spacious, lucid
staging habits lend the gravity of theater to the simple actions that attracted
her, such as looking across the street or
resting on the fender of a truck. Finding fault in her street scenes would be
as contrarian as telling a rock critic you
have no use for the Beatles.
If Levitt’s hands-off manner has aged
better than the higher-energy methods of street photographers as various
as Lisette Model, William Klein, or
Garry Winogrand, her reputation has
benefited, too, from her rigor as a selfeditor. Levitt did not live by publishing
magazine features or books, and she
released new work only when satisfied
with it. A series of mishaps delayed the
publication of A Way of Seeing until
twenty-two years after the 1943 exhibition it reflects (“Helen Levitt: Photographs of Children” at the Museum
of Modern Art), and that book served
for roughly another two decades as the
main public record of her work. (A second edition in 1981 added twenty-four
plates; a third, in 1989, twenty more.)
Otherwise she published sparingly, despite ongoing activity in both color and
black-and-white and a run of museum
and gallery shows that began with a
1974 MoMA exhibition of new street
work in color. Only in this century,
when she was in her eighties and nineties, did Levitt at last publish substantial new collections of work, which she
gathered from throughout her career,
relying on the printer Chuck Kelton to
meet her demanding specifications in
rendering the images.2
These late-in-life volumes remained
faithful to a format Levitt established
for her books in A Way of Seeing: a
brief, literate, unillustrated preface,
followed by an unbroken sequence of
uncaptioned photographs, one per page
at matching scale. As a mode of presentation, this formula is (as the artist herself was) almost invisibly low-key, but it
nonetheless conveys a message by casting the holder of the book as a reader.
As you make your way through these
volumes, encountering photographs
two at a time, you never run up against
any kind of showy graphic gesture;
each image simply holds its page, facing
its partner civilly, like the anthologized
works of a short-form poet.
By contrast, Evans and Frank, in
their respective monographs American
Photographs (1938) and The Americans (1959), positioned their pictures
on right-hand pages only. Dates and
titles (always minimal: usually just a
place name) are present but set apart
from the pictures, in section lists or at
the bottom of a facing page. This is the
See Crosstown, with an introduction by Francine Prose (PowerHouse,
2001); and Here and There, with a foreword by Adam Gopnik (PowerHouse,
Tarsila do Amaral. Postcard (Cartão-postal). 1929.
Private collection, Rio de Janeiro. © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciamentos
template for an art book or a museum
catalog, and its earnest theatrics (all
those blank left-hand pages holding
their breath) would be wrong for Levitt. So too would the picture-magazinebased format Cartier-Bresson employed
in his oversize monographs, in which
the spreads accommodate anywhere
from one “double-truck” image spanning the gutter to four photographs at a
time. Levitt’s books decline to be catalogs or magazines; instead, they are
Levitt’s way of showing that looking at
her photographs, or looking around the
city, is like reading a book.
A National Public Radio correspondent, Melissa Block, has recounted that
in a 2001 visit to Levitt’s apartment,
she spied a box of working prints labeled “Here and There.” (The book of
that title would appear two years later.)
When Block asked to peek inside the
box, Levitt replied: “Nope. Cause I’m
unsure about it. If I was sure that they
were worth anything, I’d show it to you.
But I can’t.” It sounds as if the box contained proof prints, of the kind Levitt
made for herself as a way to audition
exposures, new or old, and decide
whether they merited further attention.
The images in One, Two, Three, More
are drawn from among Levitt’s proof
prints, some signed, others not. By my
informal count, about twenty of the 176
photographs in the book have appeared
in print previously. Around a dozen
more are variants—neighboring moments—of frequently published images,
including a group of Halloween maskers
descending a stoop, an angel-faced boy
cradling a toy pistol, three kids chasing
one another through an empty lot with a
tree branch, and two nuns in conversation on an East River pier.
These outtakes afford valuable
glimpses of Levitt’s working methods
in the field. They undercut the notion
that she seldom pressed the shutter
more than once at a given scene, even
while they confirm the rightness of her
original instincts about which negative to print. (Kelton, to whom Levitt
would bring strips of film for printing,
observes that she seemed to work
both ways without favoring one over
the other. A memorable frame might
show up on a whole roll of one-offs; in
other cases Levitt would shoot a dozen
frames or more in one spot, or stalk a
likely prospect through the streets.)
ow would Levitt feel about the airing of her also-rans, and how should
we? Geoff Dyer’s warm but dispensable introduction does not raise the
question. One imagines that the artist—whose strong suit was never printing—would have been better served by
a presentation that put these images
forward as leaves from a notebook,
rather than undiscovered but (as too
frequently they are) unremarkable
works. By way of explaining her success
rate, Levitt once noted that she “never
had a project”; every moment, every
subject, had to earn its way into her
attention. So it is, counterintuitively,
fascinating to see all these graphically
negligible lonely dog-walkers (seven of
them), emotionally ambiguous couples,
and amorphous gatherings on stoops.
Young artists might feel cheered to discover that Levitt had slow days when
she shot more or less by rote, and what
is more, that she was still asking herself
seventy years later whether she’d got
anything good.
The book’s title refers to the four sections into which its plates are divided.
One realizes with dismay that those
numbers indicate how many people
are in the pictures. Thus fifty-five loners (One) are followed by fifty-three
pairs, thirty-five trios, and thirty-seven
groups of four and up. This clumping
of photographs on such a simple basis
undermines the subtlety of Levitt’s art
for what feels like a trivial and distracting trick, flattening 180 diverse images
into chapters that often grow tedious.
Why do this? (The book’s editor, accidentally uncredited on the colophon,
is its designer and Levitt’s longtime coeditor, Marvin Hoshino.)
Though perhaps intended only as
a fresh variation on the format of a
Levitt book, this choice has one more
effect, possibly unintended but, in the
end, worthwhile. You will not want to
read One, Two, Three, More straight
through, as if it were just another Levitt
book. As of course it is not: the author
is gone. Think of it, instead, as something more modest, individual, and
intimate: an appendix of half-rejected,
half-resuscitated exposures, an afterword, a commentary, a loving farewell,
to be dipped into here and there and adventured in, like a neighborhood where
you enjoy going walking to watch the
Walking in Chincoteague among the reeds
stitching thin air and sunlight into shade
I thought of Tabitha the seamstress dead
and Peter at her bedside calling out
Get up!—which led me suddenly to you
and winter evenings from the time before,
hunched in a cone of yellow light, one hand
poising your needle like a trophy saved
from chaos that might any moment now
descend again, the other with a thread
you lifted to your pouting lips and kissed
to dampen and make sharp enough to pierce
the needle’s eye before you pulled it tight,
and took a breath, and cut the thread in two.
—Andrew Motion
11 West 53 Street, Manhattan
The New York Review
The Magnitsky Affair
Amy Knight
February 22, 2018
Four months later, in June 2007,
Kuznetsov and his colleague Pavel
Karpov presided over a raid of Hermitage’s Moscow offices, along with those
of its attorneys, Firestone Duncan. On
the pretext that they were investigating
Hermitage for tax evasion, the officers
stole corporate documents and official seals, which they used to illegally
transfer ownership of three Hermitage
companies to a criminal organization
associated with a convicted fraudster,
Dmitri Klyuev. Then the new owners filed for a tax refund of $230 million from the Russian Treasury on the
ussian prosecutor-general Yuri
Chaika was responsible for handling
the Magnitsky case and received numerous complaints from Hermitage
lawyers and human rights activists both
before and after Magnitsky’s death. His
office conducted several perfunctory
investigations, but only filed charges
against two prison doctors. The charges
against one were later dropped, and the
other doctor was acquitted. In March
2013, the case was officially closed.
In the meantime, Russian authorities
revisited an old tax dispute with Hermitage involving two shell companies
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Last May, a money-laundering suit
brought by the United States against
Prevezon Holdings Ltd., a Cyprusbased real estate corporation, was unexpectedly settled three days before it
was set to go to trial. The case had been
at the center of a major international
political controversy. Prevezon, which
is owned by a Kremlin- connected Russian businessman named Denis Katsyv,
was accused by the US government of
using laundered money from a 2007
Russian tax fraud to buy millions of
dollars’ worth of Manhattan real estate. The fraud, which was discovered
by a Russian accountant named Sergei
Magnitsky, involved companies owned
by Hermitage Capital Management, a
Moscow-based hedge fund run by the
American-born British financier William Browder.
In 2009, Magnitsky died in police
custody, where he had been held in abject conditions for nearly a year; three
years later, President Obama signed
legislation named after Magnitsky that
placed heavy sanctions on numerous
Russians involved in this affair. Several Russian lobbyists with close ties
to the Kremlin have urged Donald
Trump and members of Congress to
reconsider those sanctions. “In view of
recent revelations regarding Russia’s
outsized influence,” William H. Pauley
III, the presiding judge in the Prevezon
trial, observed in November, “there
may have been more to this money
laundering case than a few luxury
The Magnitsky affair begins with
Browder. In 2005, the value of Hermitage Capital Management reportedly
reached $4.5 billion, and Browder had
become a vocal cheerleader for Vladimir Putin, issuing a report for Hermitage that hailed Putin’s reforms. At the
same time, he was leading a successful
campaign against corporate abuses
by the Russian oil giant Gazprom. In
his best-selling 2015 book, Red Notice, Browder writes that he assumed
that Putin shared his desire to get rid
of corrupt oligarchs and also that, as
a foreigner, he was “somehow exempt
from the informal rules [of minding
one’s own business] that governed everyone else’s lives in Russia.” But as the
Russian journalist Anna Arutunyan
pointed out in 2014, Browder “crossed
the line by presuming a degree of
closeness and loyalty that no foreign
investor could ever have.” Putin’s administration, she wrote, “turned away
from him and left him at the mercy of
the paper law [written law that is not
usually enforced],” making “it clear to
law enforcement predators that he was
fair game.”
Browder was banned from entering Russia in November 2005, labeled
a “threat to national security,” and
forced to relocate to London. In February 2007, an officer with the Ministry of
Internal Affairs (MVD) named Artem
Kuznetsov hinted that a bribe could
help resolve Browder’s visa problem,
but Hermitage rejected the suggestion.
“It was only a matter of time,” Arutunyan noted, “before law enforcement
officials who worked the protection
racket dug up enough on his company
to put someone in jail.”
President-elect Donald Trump with Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr.,
and Vice President–elect Mike Pence at a news conference
at Trump Tower, New York City, January 2017
false grounds that those three companies had suffered financial losses.
The money was siphoned through a
tangled web of shell companies, and
approximately $1.9 million was traced
to Prevezon.
Sergei Magnitsky was, at the time,
an employee of Firestone Duncan,
which provided auditing services to
Hermitage. Hermitage enlisted him
to investigate the circumstances surrounding the raid. The same MVD officers who oversaw the raid, Karpov
and Kuznetsov, had Magnitsky arrested for tax evasion on Hermitage’s
behalf in November 2008, after he
testified against them to the Russian
prosecutor’s office. Russian human
rights groups established that Magnitsky was subjected to treatment by
prison officials “comparable to torture,” apparently to get him to retract
his statements. He developed acute
pancreatitis that went untreated and
died an anguished death in November
2009. Andreas Gross, a Swiss member
of the Parliamentary Assembly of the
Council of Europe (an international
organization dedicated to upholding
human rights), observed in his exhaustive, meticulously documented report
on the case:
Instead of receiving the urgently
needed treatment, Sergei Magnitsky was “tranquillised” by a
beating with rubber batons, handcuffed and thrown into a holding
cell, alone and without any medical attention.
set up by the hedge fund in the region
of Kalmykia that offered significant tax
breaks to firms that invested their profits there and employed disabled people.
The authorities claimed that, in taking
advantage of the tax breaks, Hermitage
had falsified its tax statements for 2001.
The case had been closed “for lack of
evidence” in 2005, but it was reopened
in 2008, shortly after Magnitsky testified about the office raid. In November
2012, Browder and Magnitsky (posthumously) were charged with tax evasion.
In July 2013 Browder was convicted in
absentia and sentenced to nine years
behind bars.
Why did Russian authorities at the
highest level go to such lengths—allowing Magnitsky to be arrested and
tortured to death in prison and reopening the tax charges against him and
Browder—to cover up a crime perpetrated at the expense of the Russian
government by mid-level officials like
Kuznetsov and Karpov? As the Gross
report points out, Russia is a mafia
state whose leaders ignore the crimes
of their underlings in exchange for absolute loyalty. Additionally, the Kremlin itself benefits from such crimes. It
has an immense “parallel budget” of
black funds from tax reimbursements
and kickbacks from state contracts.
Most importantly, the Kremlin is, on
principle, deeply resentful of Western efforts to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs. Putin and his colleagues know that
their political legitimacy, which depends
on a steady stream of state-sponsored
propaganda and appeals to patriotism,
is fragile. They consider all outside influence to be aimed at regime change.
This resentment explains why Putin
and his allies have been so critical of
the 2012 Sergei Magnitsky Rule of
Law Accountability Act, under whose
terms the United States sanctioned
eighteen Russian officials allegedly
complicit in Magnitsky’s persecution.
The act prevented the Russians named
from entering the US and froze their
assets in US banks; Browder’s lobbying
and testimony had a significant part in
getting it passed. Russia responded by
banning American adoptions of Russian children and establishing its own
list of sanctioned Americans.
The list of those sanctioned under
the Magnitsky Act was expanded several times, most recently in December
2017, when the notoriously ruthless and
corrupt Chechen president Ramzan
Kadyrov was added, along with four
others. It now includes forty-nine people, but only two—Kadyrov and Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of the Russian
Investigative Committee—are highlevel officials close to Putin. Notably
absent is Yuri Chaika, the éminence
grise of the entire Magnitsky affair,
although his son Artem was recently
sanctioned under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the president to impose sanctions on foreigners
worldwide for human rights abuses and
corruption. (Britain, Canada, Estonia,
and Lithuania have passed similar legislation.) The sanctions imposed on
Russia after its invasion of Crimea in
2014 have had a far greater effect on it
than the Magnitsky ones, touching on
high-level officials and causing serious
harm to the Russian economy. But as
onerous as the Crimea-related sanctions are, they do not address Russia’s
behavior toward its own citizens, as the
Magnitsky sanctions do.
Veselnitskaya, the Russian
defense lawyer in the Prevezon case,
and a Russian-American former Soviet intelligence officer named Rinat
Akhmetshin have been waging a determined Kremlin-inspired campaign
against the Magnitsky Act since early
2015. The two have operated under
the auspices of their lobbying group,
the lofty-sounding Human Rights Accountability Global Initiative Foundation. Despite her claims to the contrary,
Veselnitskaya is close to Putin’s circle
of siloviki—officials from the security,
military, and police agencies. After
an early career as a Moscow regional
prosecutor, she successfully defended
the Federal Security Service (FSB) in
land disputes and became a protégé of
Chaika, who has made repealing the
Magnitsky Act his top priority.
Chaika has served as prosecutorgeneral since 2006 and was reappointed
for a third term in 2016, despite highly
publicized corruption allegations
against his family. The democratic opposition leader and Russian presidential
candidate Aleksei Navalny, who made
those allegations in an incendiary 2015
documentary video, put it this way:
Everyone knows that Chaika is
a thief and a murderer. . . . This
Not surprisingly, the Russians’ main
target is Browder, who was not only the
driving force behind the Magnitsky
Act but also initiated the Prevezon
case by filing a complaint in December
2012 with the Manhattan district attorney’s office. In December 2015, Chaika
wrote a fiery letter to the Russian
newspaper Kommersant denouncing
Browder as a swindler and a criminal
and accusing him of financing, with
the complicity of Western secret services, Navalny’s video about his family’s corruption. A few months later,
the Russian nightly television program
Vesti Nedeli revealed a complex plot,
allegedly inspired by the CIA, to “undermine the constitutional order of
Russia.” The two main figures in the
plot were Browder (“Agent Solomon”)
and Navalny (“Agent Freedom”), who
supposedly joined together in 2006 to
mount an information attack on social
media with the intention of discrediting officials in Putin’s government, specifically Chaika. The program, which
featured an appearance by Veselnitskaya, also claimed that Browder had
conspired with agents from Britain’s
MI6 to have Russian prison officials
cause Magnitsky’s death.
The Vesti Nedeli broadcast was hard
to take seriously, with its far-fetched
premise and obviously faked documentation. More successful at undermining
Browder was an English-language film
by Andrei Nekrasov, The Magnitsky
Act: Behind the Scenes, which was
screened at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., in June 2016. Kyle Parker, a
staffer on the House Foreign Affairs
Committee who played a significant
part in the passage of the Magnitsky
Act, noted in an e-mail to his colleagues that the film had “nothing new,
just the same MVD lies repackaged.”
But for those who have less knowledge
about the Magnitsky case, the film is
persuasive, especially since Nekrasov is
an award-winning Russian filmmaker
who in the past produced documentaries highly critical of the Putin regime.
The Magnitsky Act depicts Nekrasov
initially believing Browder’s testimony
and then discovering that he fabricated the case in order to hide his and
Magnitsky’s own tax fraud. Nekrasov
claims that Magnitsky never testified
against Karpov and Kuznetsov, when
in fact he mentioned them more than
once in testimony he gave the police
in June 2008 and reaffirmed the following October. Nekrasov also denies
that Magnitsky was deprived of medical care and beaten shortly before his
death. Valerii Borshchev, the chairman of a Russian public commission
that concluded that Magnitsky’s death
was the result of torture he suffered in
prison, was outraged by the film: “It
negates everything we did.” Liudmila
Alekseeva, the head of the Moscow
Helsinki Group, noted: “I have no idea
who was behind this film and commissioned the film-maker. But one thing is
clear: these are people for whom it is
very important to disavow the evidence
of corruption that emerged from the
Magnitsky case.”
Nekrasov insisted in an e-mail to me
that, despite reports to the contrary,
Veselnitskaya was not involved in making or promoting his film. But the film
reproduces video clips of Browder running away as he is being served with
a subpoena to testify in the Prevezon
case and of his April 2015 deposition,
both of which were likely passed on to
Nekrasov by Prevezon’s defense team.
When Congressman Dana Rohrabacher visited Moscow in April 2016,
Veselnitskaya discussed Nekrasov’s
film with him and gave him a copy.
Rohrabacher, known to be a supporter
of the Kremlin, dutifully promoted the
film in Washington. After the screening, which Veselnitskaya attended, she
joined Rohrabacher for dinner, along
with Nekrasov and Akhmetshin.
As emerged from his recently released August 2017 testimony to the
Senate Judiciary Committee, Glenn
Simpson of the firm Fusion GPS arranged for people to view the Nekrasov
film. He had been hired by Prevezon’s
defense team to gather evidence against
Browder and serve him with subpoenas. Amazingly, Simpson claimed that
his firm did not believe that its work
for Prevezon benefited the Russian
government, despite the fact that his
materials against Browder were used
by Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin for
lobbying against the Magnitsky Act.
Simpson repeated this claim during
questioning by the House Committee
in November.
Four days before the screening of the
Nekrasov film, on June 9, 2016, Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin had met with
Trump’s team in Trump Tower. According to an e-mail sent to Donald
Trump Jr., Chaika initiated the gathering when he met on June 3, 2016,
with Trump’s friend Aras Agalarov,
an Azeri businessman and client of
Veselnitskaya who sponsored Trump’s
2013 Miss Universe contest in Moscow.
Chaika asked Agalarov to arrange a
meeting between the Veselnitskaya
group and members of the Trump campaign, offering “high level and sensitive
information” against Hillary Clinton.
Agalarov would have gladly obliged
Chaika, since the two are allies. (Agalarov defended Chaika in a fiery letter
to Kommersant after Navalny’s exposé
on Chaika’s family.) According to Agalarov’s American attorney, Chaika
vetted the talking points that Veselnitskaya used for the Trump Tower meeting, which focused on the Magnitsky
Act rather than on Clinton.
Veselnitskaya said recently that Donald Jr. promised her that his father, if
elected president, would reexamine the
Magnitsky Act. An important question
this raises is what the Russians offered
in return. They had unsubstantiated
information about an American firm
tied to Browder, Ziff Brothers, which
had supposedly evaded Russian taxes
and might have contributed money to
the Clinton campaign. What else did
they promise? Did the Russians tell the
Trump group that they were working
behind the scenes to influence the elections in Trump’s favor and that they
had provided WikiLeaks with hacked
e-mails from the Democratic National
If we are to believe the Christopher
Steele dossier, the Russians also had
kompromat on Trump, some of it originating from Agalarov. The dossier cites
a Russian émigré source reporting in
July 2016 that the Kremlin had given
its word not to deploy this kompromat,
“given how helpful and cooperative his
[Trump’s] team had been.” Because the
dossier was commissioned by Fusion
GPS and Simpson was in frequent contact with Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin—he had dinner with both of them
on June 10—this source may well have
been Akhmetshin.
Donald Jr. apparently followed up
on his promise to Veselnitskaya because the president has on several occasions expressed reservations about
sanctions against Russia. Last summer,
at the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, he
even went out of his way to speak to
Putin privately about the Magnitsky
Act. (We know this because afterward
Trump said that the two had discussed
American adoptions of Russian children, which the Russians had banned
Yury Martyanov/Kommersant/AP Images
guarantees Putin the main quality that is demanded in the country—loyalty. Chaika knows that
he and his family and his deputies
could all be imprisoned (rightly)
for twenty years at any time. And
he will do anything to earn mercy
and security.
Natalia Veselnitskaya,
a Kremlin-linked lawyer who met
with Donald Trump Jr. in June 2016
in response to the Magnitsky Act.)
More recently, after discussions with
Putin during his trip to Asia, Trump
said at a news conference in Hanoi on
November 12 that “people don’t realize Russia has been very, very heavily
sanctioned. . . . It’s now time to get back
to healing a world that is shattered and
On Trump’s inauguration day, former national security adviser Michael
Flynn told a business colleague that
one of Trump’s first acts would be to
“rip up” sanctions against Russia. But
Trump’s authority over sanctions on
Russia is limited. In August, he signed
a new law called Countering America’s
Adversaries Through Sanctions, but
only because Congress would have
overridden his veto. The law, which is
separate from the Magnitsky Act, instructs the Trump administration to
provide, by January 29, 2018, a list of
key Russian political and business figures who might in the future be sanctioned, along with their families, for
corruption and human rights violations. Not surprisingly, Trump has said
that the law is seriously flawed because
it restricts his ability to negotiate with
Russia and to ease or lift sanctions
without congressional approval.
fter the meeting between the Russians and the Trump group came to
light last July, Democratic members
of the House Judiciary Committee
sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff
Sessions expressing concern that the
Trump Tower meeting had contributed
to the decision to settle the Prevezon
case. Trump’s abrupt dismissal of Preet
Bharara, the US attorney prosecuting the case, in March 2017 added to
speculation that his administration had
pushed for a settlement.
But there is no apparent evidence of
interference by the White House in the
case. The settlement was reached when
Prevezon agreed to pay a fine of almost
$6 million, three times the amount that
its owner, Denys Katsyv, had received
from the tax fraud, while admitting no
responsibility for Magnitsky’s death.
(The complaint had charged that Prevezon was associated with the organization that indirectly caused his death.)
In a November letter to the chairman
of the House Judiciary Committee, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd
said that prosecutors in the case had no
contact with Trump or any members of
his administration or campaign staff
regarding the case. Louise Shelley, a
George Mason University expert on
Russian crime who was to appear as
a government witness at the trial, told
me that “prosecutors for the Southern
District always try to settle, because
they want a high conviction rate.” And
in this case, Shelley said, “the financial
costs of a trial would have been huge,
as it would have lasted for weeks. In
complex cases like this one that go to
a jury, the government is always at risk
as they may recover less in damages
after trial than they would if they had
Also, one of the defense’s main strategies would have been to challenge the
credibility of Browder, whose Hermitage team had provided much of the
documentation against Prevezon. The
defense had won a bid to have Browder
deposed a second time, which prosecutors probably wanted to avoid, since
his earlier deposition had not gone
smoothly. (Browder falsely insisted
that Magnitsky was an attorney, despite
the fact that he had no legal training;
Browder also said he could not remember whether he had someone suggest to
Magnitsky that he take responsibility
for the tax returns.)
Even with the Prevezon case over,
the Kremlin continues to rail against
Browder and the Magnitsky Act. In
October, at the annual Valdai Forum
in Sochi, Putin insisted that behind the
Magnitsky case are “the criminal activities of an entire gang” led by Browder.
And Chaika recently sent two letters
to Attorney General Sessions requesting him to open a criminal case against
Browder and Ziff Brothers and asking
that he reexamine the Magnitsky Act,
which was “based only on submissions
from criminal people.” Chaika made
similar statements in November on
the Russian television program Vesti
Nedeli, which also featured Veselnitskaya and Nekrasov, again claiming that
Browder used Magnitsky’s death to
cover up his own corruption.
The Kremlin’s reactions to Browder
and the Magnitsky law are eerily reminiscent of the Stalin era. In his almost
maniacal obsession with Browder,
Chaika recalls Stalin’s notorious prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky, who lashed
out against Stalin’s perceived enemies
with absurd accusations and vitriolic rhetoric. Under Stalin, the public
was of course shielded from the facts.
Today Navalny, who draws huge crowds
at his campaign rallies despite having
been refused a place on the ballot for
the presidential election in March, has
over two million followers on Twitter
and 1.5 million subscribers on YouThe New York Review
Tube. But Putin, like Stalin, has absolute control over the security and
law enforcement agencies, and he has
shown that he can use them to attack
his critics, sometimes with violence.
The democratic Russian politician
Boris Nemtsov, who appeared before
Congress to advocate expanding the
Magnitsky Act, was gunned down on
a bridge just outside the Kremlin in
February 2015. His colleague Vladimir
Kara-Murza, another vocal proponent
of the act, was twice brought close to
death by poisoning. Alexander Perepilichny, a Russian oligarch who gave
Browder documents that incriminated
a Russian tax official in the Hermitage
fraud, dropped dead outside his London home at age forty-four in November 2012. As the inquest into his death
continues, a highly classified 2016 US
intelligence report on Russian political assassinations is said to assert that
Perepilichny was killed on orders from
the Kremlin. More recently, a lawyer for the Magnitsky family, Nikolai
Gorokhov, almost died after a mysterious fall from his apartment window in
Moscow in March 2017, shortly before
he was to testify in the Prevezon case.
Browder has said many times that
the Kremlin would like to assassinate
him. One wonders why he still risks
fighting for the Magnitsky cause. According to Andreas Gross, who was
struck when he met Browder by his
deeply emotional reaction to Magnitsky’s death, Browder believes that
he himself was the intended victim of
the Russian conspiracy and that Magnitsky was targeted in his stead. “This
goes a long way,” Gross observed, “towards explaining [his] dogged, sometimes slightly overdone, worldwide
lobbying campaign to obtain ‘justice
for Sergei.’” Perhaps, too, Browder realizes that the arbitrary, lawless Russian system that destroyed Magnitsky
was the same system that allowed him
to make such large amounts of money
in the early Putin years.
—January 24, 2018
Fatal Beauty
Julian Lucas
Dominique Nabokov
by Scholastique Mukasonga,
translated from the French
by Jordan Stump.
Archipelago, 165 pp., $16.00 (paper)
Our Lady of the Nile
by Scholastique Mukasonga,
translated from the French
by Melanie Mauthner.
Archipelago, 244 pp., $18.00 (paper)
Helena is the most beautiful girl in
Rwanda. She has everything: a bevy
of admiring suitors, lace garments
and high-heeled shoes, skin-lightening
creams from Nigeria, and a coveted
spot at Notre-Dame- de- Cîteaux, Kigali’s finest lycée. The white teachers
adore her, one so distractedly that he
pronounces her—in a whisper the other
students cannot help but overhear—“a
real Tutsi beauty.” While this schoolgirl
gossip betrays the fledgling envies of
adolescence, in the newly independent
republic of the “majority people,” it
also augurs Helena’s ruin. After graduation, ascendant Hutu nationalism
prevents her from working, marrying,
or remaining in the country; expelled
from jobs as a Belgian official’s secretary, then a shopkeeper’s kept “clerk,”
she flees to Burundi in 1973 and becomes a prostitute.
At the hotel Sources of the Nile in
Bujumbura, Helena draws an elite
clientele of businessmen, military officers, European diplomats, and even
Zaire’s President Mobutu Sese Seko.
Ministers’ wives groom her for his
state visit, weighing every aspect of her
dress, ethnicity, and deportment, preparations dismissed in a moment’s tap of
the strongman’s ivory-pommeled cane.
His rejection marks Helena’s expulsion from Bujumbura’s glittering circuit. She dies destitute and humiliated,
murdered as a scapegoat during an
outbreak of AIDS. Only the narrator,
another young exile, cares to remember the cousin who was once the pride
of their village: “It was a great misfortune to be beautiful,” Asumpta begins.
“And none greater than to be beautiful
in Rwanda when you were a Tutsi.”
“Le malheur d’être belle,” the penultimate story of L’Iguifou (2010), is
not yet available in English. But its
arc of precarious pride, loss, and remembrance in the lives of girls and
women exemplifies the work of Scholastique Mukasonga, a Rwandan
writer who has lived in France since
1992. Centered on life in Rwandan
villages and Catholic schools, her six
February 22, 2018
Scholastique Mukasonga, New York City, 2016; photograph by Dominique Nabokov
books1 of memoir and fiction span the
century from colonialism’s advent in
1894 to the genocide that occurred exactly one hundred years later. Among
the nearly one million people killed
were thirty-seven members of her family, including both of her parents and
all but one of her siblings. She last saw
them in 1986.
Ten years passed before Mukasonga
returned to Rwanda. There was nobody
left to visit. Brush had reclaimed the site
Gallimard expects to publish a new
volume, entitled Un si beau diplôme!,
in March.
of her family enclosure, where the Hutu
neighbors, stammering alibis, swore that
no one had ever lived. She published
her first book, Inyenzi, ou, Les cafards
(2006), translated in 2016 as Cockroaches, to defy this oblivion. The book
is a “paper grave” for her dead and the
narrative of her own survival, from her
displaced youth through the needle’s eye
of education to exile and the painful solace of recording a Rwanda she outlived.
That she did escape—first to Burundi in 1973 and then to France in
1992—owes much to her mother, Stefania, the subject of her second memoir,
La femme aux pieds nus (2008). Rais-
ing a family forcibly resettled to Rwanda’s most inhospitable region, Stefania
employs all her care, ingenuity, and the
resources of tradition to save her children and protect their community. Mukasonga patterns her memorial after
Stefania’s tenacious example, “weaving
and reweaving a shroud” of words for
her mother’s unrecoverable remains.
The twinned labors of survival and
mourning became the paradigm of her
fiction, an oeuvre including two collections of short stories, L’Iguifou and Ce
que murmurent les collines (2014), and
two novels. The latest, Coeur tambour
(2016), traces the life of a precolonial
queen reincarnated as a world-famous
diva. Across her work, womanhood
becomes the key to Rwanda’s fraught
history, a conduit of hidden continuities that resist annihilation. But the
impositions of femininity also serve
as a synecdoche for the colonial and
ethno-nationalist myths that warped
Rwandan society.
Mukasonga’s masterpiece is the Prix
Renaudot–winning novel Notre- dame
du nil, published by Gallimard in 2012
and translated in 2014 as Our Lady of
the Nile, a book set two decades before
the genocide at a Catholic girls’ boarding school.2 Under the anxious eye of a
European mother superior, teenage scions of Rwanda’s elite struggle to secure
their futures. For some, it is a question
of supremacy; for others, of survival;
and, for Hutu and Tutsi alike, of who
counts as a “real Rwandan girl.”
The novel’s electricity comes from its
deceptive lightness, the danse macabre
of dorm intrigue on the cusp of Armageddon. But its core is a reckoning with
the genocide’s deep origins, an unraveling of Rwanda’s colonial background
that is also an allegory of its miseducation. As in so many of Mukasonga’s
stories, the hero’s survival depends
on returning to the beginning—to the
prologue of a story known to most nonRwandans only by its end.
orn in 1956 near the source of the
Nile in Rwanda’s Gikongoro province, Scholastique Mukasonga grew up
caught in an immense reversal of fortune. It was called the muyaga, a “social
revolution” that replaced the ancient
monarchy with a Hutu nationalist
The jacket copy sets Our Lady of the
Nile “fifteen years prior to the 1994
Rwandan genocide,” in 1979, but the
coup that catalyzes the novel’s climactic events took place in 1973.
The smallest and most marginal demographic is the Twa, a population traditionally clustered near forests whom
Europeans called pygmies.
Wah-Watusi,” number two on Billboard
in 1962. And the world shrugged at the
bloody downfall of Rwanda’s Tutsis,
a blip against the cold war’s thermonuclear backdrop. Bertrand Russell,
Mukasonga notes in Cockroaches,
was the rare Westerner to grasp what
he called “the most horrible and systematic human massacre we have had
occasion to witness since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis.” More
characteristic was Elspeth Huxley’s
repugnant analysis for The New York
Times Magazine. An ex- colonist raised
on a Kenyan coffee plantation, Huxley
wrote that the “Bourbons of Africa”
had brought their fate upon themselves:
called the Rwandan Patriotic Front
(RPF). Unlike their predecessors, these
revanchists were successful, and their
commander, Paul Kagame, still rules in
Kigali today. But their enemies exacted
an incalculable price.
After the mysterious assassination of
President Juvénal Habyarimana during
a cease-fire with the RPF in April 1994,
extremists in his government instigated
a genocide against the country’s Tutsi
population. 5 Branding them traitors
and resurrecting visions of the old feudalism, officials exhorted “the people
of the hoe”—a Herrenvolkish term for
Rwanda’s Hutu majority—to reap a
human harvest.
Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
republic. What began in 1957 as a partisan struggle over who would rule
Rwanda after independence—Tutsi
chiefs or a new elite risen from the oppressed Hutu majority—devolved from
1959 to 1964 into pogroms. Emboldened by Belgian support, Hutu mobs
burned the homes and slaughtered the
livestock of Rwanda’s Tutsi population, expelling more than 300,000 to
neighboring countries. Those who remained became second-class citizens
in a majoritarian “democracy” that
viewed them as a fifth column. The
newly elected President Grégoire Kayibanda, in a speech infamously punctuated by the sarcastic refrain “Who is
genocide?,” warned that not even Tutsi
“students and girls” would be safe if
their “terrorist race” challenged the
new republic.
Rwanda’s strife was not the usual
case of colonial borders throwing
strangers together. The “land of a thousand hills” had been a nation-state for
hundreds of years before European
contact, a centralized kingdom ruled
by an absolute monarch called the
mwami. Such rulers—known collectively as the abami—belonged to the
hereditary caste called “Tutsi,” from
a word meaning “rich in cattle,” while
the vast majority of their subjects were
peasant farmers designated “Hutu.”3
These were not races or ethnic
groups. All were “Banyarwanda,”
speaking one language, sharing one
society, and claiming descent from one
legendary ancestor. Hutus could become Tutsis, and some northern Hutus
held independent power. But fractures
emerged as the abami used German
and then Belgian assistance to bolster
their authority. Beginning in the 1890s,
European help turned into European
rule, and Tutsi caste primacy into
Western-style racial supremacy. Colonial authorities armed with calipers
and the dubious science of physiognomy issued ethnic identity cards and
replaced Rwanda’s complex divisions
with Cartesian absolutes. For Tutsis,
considered a “Hamitic” race superior
to “true Negroes,” Belgium opened
select positions in the colonial administration and the Catholic Church. For
Hutus, it was forced labor.
After nearly half a century, Belgium
had a change, if not of heart, then of
political fashion. Tutsi elites alienated
colonial authorities by agitating for
independence and aligning with the
Soviet Union. In the church, an influx of working- class, predominately
Flemish priests sympathized with the
plight of the Hutus, promoting many
to consequential positions. Among
them was Kayibanda, a protégé of
Rwanda’s apostolic vicar and the editor
of the Catholic journal Kinyamateka,
which relentlessly decried Tutsi “neofeudalism.” He won the support of colonial authorities and, in 1961, Rwanda’s
presidency, which he used to consolidate an authoritarian regime. Abandoned by their erstwhile sponsors, the
Tutsis were left to foot the bill for six
decades of anticolonial grievance.
Belgium congratulated itself for
promoting democracy in Africa. Kayibanda sat down with President Kennedy and shook hands with Pope Paul
VI. American teens danced to “The
The elegant and long-legged Tutsi
with their dances and their epic
poetry, their lyrehorned cattle
and superb basketwork and code
of seemly behavior, had dwindled
into tourist fodder. The fate of all
species, institutions or individuals who will not, or cannot, adapt
caught up with them. Those who
will not bend must break.4
ukasonga was a young girl when
Huxley wrote “The Rise and Fall of
the Watusi,” four years into her family’s forced relocation to the arid Rwandan province of Bugesera. Cockroaches,
her first memoir, gives only a glimpse
of their former life. In the monarchy’s
dwindling days, her father, Cosma, had
been secretary to a subchief near the city
of Butare. He was not quite a Bourbon,
but in 1960, when the mobs came looking for Tutsi aristocrats, his family was
not forgotten. Arsonists destroyed their
enclosure, and a “jury of Hutu notables”
ruled on their deportation. All they took
into exile was a cast-iron cookpot.
In Bugesera, Mukasonga’s family
and thousands of others were “dropped
like so many Robinson Crusoes into
the middle of the savannah.” The nearest city was Nyamata, or “land of milk”
in Kinyarwanda—a cruel irony for
pastoralists still mourning their slaughtered herds. Exile meant poor shelter,
unfamiliar foods, compulsory coffee
cultivation, the menace of trespassing
leopards, and the humiliation of hanging mandatory icons of Kayibanda and
the Madonna in their home: “We lived
our lives under the twin portraits of the
President who’d vowed to exterminate
us and Mary who was waiting for us in
Segregated in the hinterlands, the
deportees were harassed incessantly
by soldiers stationed nearby, especially after armed Tutsi refugees called
inyenzi launched an invasion from just
over the Burundi border in 1963. Mukasonga remembers the huge ceremonial
longbow her father made in anticipation of the mwami’s restoration and
their safe return. But the insurgents
failed, and Nyamata’s Tutsis bore the
blame: “They called us Inyenzi—cockroaches. From now on, in Nyamata, we
would all be Inyenzi. I was an Inyenzi.”
It was a stigma that befell every Tutsi
in Rwanda only three decades later;
what the world saw in 1994, Mukasonga had already lived in rehearsal.
The genocide was catalyzed by an
event quite like the attack that earned
her family terrible reprisals: a 1990
invasion led by Tutsi exiles in Uganda
“The Rise and Fall of the Watusi,”
February 23, 1964.
A woman killed in the Rwandan genocide,
from a display of photographs at the
Kigali Genocide Memorial, March 2016
Gutsembatsemba, Kinyarwanda for
“radical extermination,” claimed more
than 800,000 lives in one hundred
days—Tutsis and dissenting Hutus murdered by armed militias that often conscripted their neighbors. In Nyamata,
the killers reduced the Tutsi population
from 60,000 to just over 5,000 people.
The urgency of Cockroaches reflects
Mukasonga’s drive to redress this singular obliteration; to insist, as she puts
it, that “no genocide is perfect.”
In a genre, the survivor’s memoir,
that insists on redemption—and a
country where reconciliation is national dogma—Cockroaches stands out
for its bracing, unmitigated, and often
bitter ironies. Returning to Rwanda
in 2004, Mukasonga attends mass at a
church in the complex where her family was rounded up for deportation in
1959. While the smiling parishioners
sing hymns under the Vatican’s flag, she
Habyarimana was shot down in his
Dassault Falcon 50—a gift from French
president François Mitterrand—as it approached Kigali’s airport on the night
of April 6, 1994. The truth behind his
spectacular demise remains contentious. Most believe that he was targeted
by Hutu Power elements in his own cabinet, who feared the consequences of
his power-sharing agreement with the
Tutsi-led RPF. Others have alleged that
the RPF, now Rwanda’s ruling party,
was itself responsible, a charge the
party considers tantamount to genocide denial. After the French government made this claim in 2006, Rwanda
suspended diplomatic relations and
began taking steps to become an Anglophone country. In 2010, Rwanda
published the Mutsinzi Report, an exhaustive forensic analysis of the crash
purporting to exonerate the RPF.
wonders, “How many murderers among
the pious assembly?” The genocide is a
pall darkening the cherished past and
an undertow tugging at the present,
bifurcating the world with its unbridgeable distance. It is the distance that
Primo Levi, an avowed influence, describes in his reflections on Auschwitz
in The Drowned and the Saved (1986):
“We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. . . Those who saw the Gorgon
have not returned to tell about it.”
The door is barred in both directions.
Mukasonga “sleepwalked” through life
in France as the genocide unfolded, far
from the events but already shouldering
their enormous weight. It is palpable
in “Le deuil,” her story of a bereaved
Rwandan expatriate who haunts the
funerals of strangers in Paris churches.
She weeps in the back pews, envying
the families of the peacefully dead,
until one day a priest shows her out.
She flies home.
Mourning’s alienation is only sharpened by the narrowness of Mukasonga’s escape. At twelve, she was already
resigned to never leaving Rwanda, expecting to end her days a “peasant.” But
miraculously, she passed the national
exam, cleared the racial quota restricting Tutsis, and matriculated at the lycée
Notre-Dame- de- Cîteaux. Her father
clung to the illusion that scholarly success might put her beyond the “ethnic”
ban, but in 1973, she was assaulted by
Hutu classmates and subsequently fled
Rwanda for Burundi. School did save
her, if not in the expected way.
The instruction that really mattered
was her mother’s. Raised illiterate in
a Catholic orphanage—“she was only
taught to pray”—yet responsible more
than anyone for Mukasonga’s literary imagination, Stefania never let the
Rwanda of her youth dull against the
hardships of exile. She “piously” maintained a garden of plants from home,
“not for daily consumption but as a way
of bearing witness to what was in danger
of disappearing.” She regaled her daughter with tales of the legendary mwami
Ruganzu Ndori long into the night.
Mukasonga echoes Stefania’s careful
transmission of heritage in her ardor
for the aesthetic particularities of her
childhood. Cockroaches’ most lyrical
passage is a description of brewing urwarwa, banana beer, a simple pastime
that subtly enfolds community and
landscape. Mukasonga excels at using
the thread of quotidian activity to
string together episodes that imperceptibly accumulate, their anecdotal lightness condensing like vapor into clouds.
She insistently traces this ethos of gathering to her mother, and it manifests
most fully not in Cockroaches but her
second memoir, La femme aux pieds
nus. A chapter is devoted to Stefania’s
efforts to construct, behind the prefabricated shelter allotted to her family,
the traditional inzu, a domed, circular
house “plaited like basketwork.”
The inzu was already on its way to
the museum by the 1960s. But within
its “maternal curves,” defiantly incongruous amid the angular homes of
the other refugees, Stefania recovered
some of the old Rwanda. Mukasonga,
describing its interior divisions, seems
to build in tandem with her mother,
sheltering their intimacy against oblivion: here is the uruhimbi, a curving
altar for pots of milk, here is the alcove
where sisters sleep on the same mat,
and here, under the inzu’s spiral crown,
is the hearth where mother tells stories.
The New York Review
There is no better lycée than Our
Lady of the Nile. Nor is there any
higher. Twenty-five hundred meters, the white teachers proudly
proclaim. “Two thousand four
hundred ninety-three meters,”
points out Sister Lydwine, our geography teacher. “We’re so close
to heaven,” whispers Mother Superior, clasping her hands together.
The correction reveals an ominous
subtext in Mother Superior’s remark;
for heaven and mismeasurement really
are behind it all. “The greatest misfortune to befall Rwandans,” Mukasonga
writes in Ce que murmurent les collines, “was to live at the sources of the
Nile, there where since Antiquity had
grown the myth of a primordial land,
a lost and inaccessible paradise.” This
freighted geography encouraged fantastic racial preconceptions, myths that
afflicted Rwanda’s inhabitants after
European explorers reached its hills
in the 1880s. Encountering a kingdom
of uncommon sophistication, they decided that its rulers could not be fully
African. The Tutsis—“so tall and finefeatured, with an appearance so imposing”—must have originated elsewhere,
in Ethiopia or ancient Egypt or Israel,
while more audacious ethnologues
cited Tibet, Atlantis, or even the Garden of Eden.
Objectification led to Tutsi privilege
under colonialism and exotic representations in the West, from documentaries like A Giant People: The Watussi
of Africa (1939) to lost-world adventure flicks like Watusi (1959). But after
independence, aggrieved Hutu nationalists turned this mythic past against
its former beneficiaries, claiming that
Tutsis were not authentically Rwandan
at all. The former distinction became
what Mukasonga calls “a shirt of Nessus,” alluding to the poisoned mantle
that Deianira used to kill her husband,
Heracles. Nevertheless, Europe’s invention had already left an indelible
imprint. “Our skulls were Caucasian,
our profiles Semitic, our builds Nilotic,” Mukasonga writes in La femme
aux pieds nus. “We could not but recognize ourselves in the evil double
risen from their fantasies.”
Our Lady of the Nile descends into the
crucible of this national psychodrama,
a perfect storm of colonial racecraft
and Christian-inspired mythmaking
that especially weighed upon women. 6
Looming over the action is a statue of
the namesake Madonna that presides
over the mountain spring where the
Nile originates. She is a black Virgin,
pride of the school’s self- consciously
“modern” students and a symbol of the
The first three items in the so-called
Hutu Ten Commandments, a 1990
document of exterminationist propaganda, all pertain explicitly to women,
urging Hutu men to distrust Tutsi
wives, “concubines,” and secretaries,
and to respect “our Hutu daughters.”
The genocide’s first victim in the city of
Butare was Rosalie Gicanda, formerly
Rwanda’s queen.
February 22, 2018
young nation’s bright future. But she
is also a Rwandan Galatea, fashioned
by the same colonists who carved the
country into competing racial ideals.
The students, many of them daughters of Hutu ministers or military officers, arrive at the start of term by
Peugeot 404, ministerial Mercedes, and
boyfriend’s motorbike. Everything is
an accessory in the ceaseless struggle
for status: love spells from the village
rainmaker, contraband issues of Paris
Match, preeminence in the welcome
ceremony for Queen Fabiola of Belgium. Behind the scrim of this East
African Mean Girls, powerful clans maneuver, using their daughters to cement
alliances and secure lavish dowries. As
Joe McNally/Getty Images
ut there were other stories,” Mukasonga continues. “The stories told
by the whites.” Our Lady of the Nile—
in many ways the dark mirror of La
femme aux pieds nus—opens with
an exercise in geography, a recitation
of the school’s altitude that seems to
promise a fall:
Rwandan boys with gravestones
after the genocide, December 1996
the narrator warns us early, “The young
ladies of Our Lady of the Nile know just
how much they are worth.”
Their extravagant behavior shows
it. Frida, from a diplomatic family,
scandalizes the nuns by sleeping with
Zaire’s young ambassador in the lycée’s
guest bungalow. Goretti, a northerner
whose father runs an army base, organizes a “patriotic” field trip in armored
vehicles to see Rwanda’s mountain gorillas—outrageously monopolized, she
feels, by an unnamed white researcher
who is likely Dian Fossey. The queen
bee is Gloriosa, daughter of a ruling
party minister and leader in the “Bureau of Militant Rwandan Youth.” She
relentlessly harasses Virginia and Veronica, the only Tutsi girls permitted by
the school’s racial quota. Gloriosa never
tires of reminding them of where things
stand. “Beauty has switched sides,” she
tells Veronica. “Your supposed beauty
will bring you misfortune.”
The novel’s dialogue can be rhetorical and expository, tending to fit each
character too neatly into the lycée’s
clockwork. But this shortcoming’s
complement is a preternatural sensitivity to social rhythms and the intricate
ramifications of events. A trained social worker who has practiced in rural
Burundi and metropolitan France, Mukasonga is remarkably good at illustrating the symbiotic, sometimes parasitic
nature of identity. One dimension that
distinguishes Our Lady of the Nile from
other national allegories—the category
to which the critic Fredric Jameson
sweepingly relegated all “third-world
literature”—is that the girls know they
are in one, each resisting or aspiring to
fulfill her appointed role.
Most often, these roles are ideals
created by men. Gloriosa’s Pygmalion
is Father Herménégilde, the religion
teacher, a lecherous, rambling Hutu nationalist who encourages her zealotry
and compares her to Joan of Arc. Another girl dreams of being adopted by
the Belgian royal family, while Frida
falls under the spell of her Zairean ambassador. The most unctuous pedestalpeddler is Fontenaille, a failed artist and
colonial holdover who lives on a ruined
coffee plantation near the lycée. He is
obsessed with the Tutsis, and keen to
offer the conveniently outcast Virginia
and Veronica a refuge in his dreams.
They are not very original dreams; at
an ersatz Nubian temple on his estate,
Fontenaille stages the hoary mythology
of Tutsi origins through antique tableaux vivants. Men dressed as Rwanda’s
royal intore warriors perform dances,
while Veronica, sedated, sits enthroned
as the Egyptian goddess Isis—yet another treacherous avatar of Our Lady
of the Nile. Fontenaille promises to
help Virginia study in Europe, but as
with Elspeth Huxley, his seeming concern belies a morbid enchantment with
her people’s extinction. “Even if the
Tutsi were to disappear,” he declares,
“I am the custodian of their legend.”
Fontenaille pays for his solipsistic
vision, and Veronica for trusting it. At
the novel’s climax, Gloriosa overthrows
the school by claiming that Tutsi rebels
hiding in the hills have tried to assault
her. The lie is a cover-up for destroying the Madonna while trying to chisel
off her “Tutsi nose,” and it succeeds
spectacularly. With Herménégilde’s assistance, Gloriosa busses in young men
to hunt down the Tutsis under the pretext of enthroning a new Hutu Lady of
the Nile. The killers find Veronica at
Fontenaille’s. He has hanged himself,
leaving his “goddess” to be raped and
burned alive in the temple sanctum.
The grisly, farcical denouement is
a mise- en- abyme of the simulacral
Rwanda that Europe created, deadly in
consequence yet perversely whimsical
in origin, an illustration of what happens
when outsiders play God. The disastrous collision of Western fantasy and
African reality recalls Wole Soyinka’s
1975 play Death and the King’s Horseman, which turns on an important ritual
suicide preempted by British authorities
in Yorubaland. However, the immediate referent of Mukasonga’s allegory is
not the colonial encounter but Rwanda’s 1973 coup, in which Grégoire Kayibanda, a southerner like Gloriosa, was
overthrown by Juvénal Habyarimana, a
northerner like Goretti. Kayibanda had
tried to consolidate his power by scapegoating the Tutsi population, but the
resulting instability gave his Hutu rivals
an opening. It was a case of cutting off
the nose to spite the face—and so, too,
with Gloriosa. Her revolutionary terror ends prematurely after her father is
imprisoned, and Goretti replaces her as
doyenne of the dorms.
Only Virginia, the lycée’s other
Tutsi, escapes the allegory’s machinery. She seeks out Rubanga, an elderly
hermit and forgotten eminence of the
old mwami’s court. He dispatches her
to soothe the troubled spirit of a forgotten queen, Nyiramavugo, who is buried
in a mortuary grove near the gaudy
temple on Fontenaille’s estate. Her act
of mourning is the grace that saves her;
when Gloriosa’s killers arrive, Nyiramavugo sends Virginia a dream that
indicates whom among the Hutu girls
she can trust. Virginia lives by heeding
Rubanga’s cautionary words: “For an
umwiru, forgetting means death.”
icero attributed the science of memory to the lone survivor of a tragedy.
The poet Simonides had just left a banquet when the roof collapsed, instantly
killing everyone inside. The victims
were mangled beyond recognition, but
Simonides distinguished their remains
by walking through the ruins and visualizing the feast. The technique became known as the “method of loci.”
Mukasonga ends Cockroaches with
a walk through the all-but-destroyed
villages of Gitwe and Gitagata, recording every victim she can remember in
a blue schoolchild’s notebook. She recites the names of the beekeeper, the
teacher, the man who cooked rice at
school, the Good Samaritan who transported the sick, and the “shame of the
village” who rustled his neighbors’ cows.
With a parent’s tender vigilance, she divides the sustenance of grief among the
shades who “vie for space” in her recollections, “all those who have no one
left to mourn them.” Her census of the
dead concludes in the ruins of her childhood home, where, shutting her eyes,
she imagines her mother’s embrace. But
trespass truncates the catharsis of reunion. A Hutu neighbor who recognizes
Mukasonga runs off at the sight of her,
screaming “It had to happen!”
The woman and her family refuse to
say what they know, but their silence
guides Mukasonga to the book’s arresting final image. Amid the stones of the
inzu’s old hearth, she finds a snake and
adopts it as an emblem. It is neither the
biblical serpent, nor “the snake whose
name the Hutus spat at us as an insult,”
but the representative of a heritage that
actively defies erasure:
This is the snake that my mother
knew all about, she who knew so
many things that the missionaries’ oppressive teachings forbade
her to pass on, but that sometimes,
poking through a sentence or a
gesture—often addressed to me—
revealed a whole world hidden beneath the lessons of the catechism.
Long after the post-independence
African renaissance that gave Guinea
Camara Laye and Senegal Léopold
Sédar Senghor, Scholastique Mukasonga has established herself as her
country’s first internationally recognized writer. She has accomplished this
by writing against all those forces that
for so long prevented someone like her
from emerging: the Catholic and colonial authorities who extirpated or perverted Rwanda’s traditional culture;
the nationalists who, like the Maoists
in China, trampled their own heritage in
their resentment of an overthrown elite;
and the génocidaires who tried to ensure
that stories like hers were never told.
Remembrance is a treacherous river,
with as many muddy tributaries as clear
springs. Crimes often eclipse their victims, blotting out in mind what they
have already destroyed in fact; or they
metastasize into pretexts for renewed
atrocities. But Mukasonga’s work makes
the rigorous protocols of mourning a
model for a more careful remembrance,
one that, like her heroes, chooses particularity over the consoling sweep of
myth and propaganda; the umwiru, for
whom “forgetting means death,” over
the blandishments of a Fontenaille. Immortalizing her family and the Tutsis
of Nyamata, who came to such terrible
ends, she has given Rwanda’s modern
literature a magnificent beginning.
The Business of Learning
Paul Reitter
What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?:
The American Revolution
in Education
by Geoffrey Galt Harpham.
University of Chicago Press,
230 pp., $75.00; $25.00 (paper)
You Can Do Anything:
The Surprising Power of a
“Useless” Liberal Arts Education
by George Anders.
Little, Brown, 342 pp., $27.00
In the summer of 1740, Adam
Smith transferred from the
University of Glasgow to Oxford. Things did not work out
there as he had hoped. It wasn’t
just the class snobbism that got
to Smith, a scholarship student.
He saw his years at Oxford as
a waste of time intellectually,
so much so that the outrage
he expressed more than two
decades later reads like a response to a fresh wound. In The
Wealth of Nations, Smith complained that the indolence of
Oxford professors had reached
the point where most “have . . .
given up altogether even the
pretense of teaching.” He
added that institutions such as
Oxford and Cambridge were,
in effect, “sanctuaries in which
exploded systems and obsolete
prejudices found shelter and
protection, after they had been
hunted out of every other corner of the world.”
Smith was far from alone with
his frustrations. In eighteenthcentury Europe, distrust of universities ran high. They were
often seen as sclerotic places where traditional privileges allowed for the kinds
of abuses Smith listed. The situation
was particularly fraught in the German
territories, because a culture of student
rowdiness had also earned German
universities a reputation for corrupting
young people. In 1787, Friedrich Schiller reported from Jena that university
students would lounge in their windows
and empty the contents of their chamber pots onto the busy streets below.
“The students delighted in terrorizing
honest citizens,” he wrote to a friend.
This made for good literary material; academic satire was one of the
most popular genres of the era, with
even Frederick the Great writing one.
But the state of student life unsettled
parents and thus exacerbated the problem of declining enrollments, which
left a number of universities too poor
to pay their faculties regularly, something that didn’t help them offer better
instruction. Professors who spoke out
against the excesses of student drinking and secret societies could face
violent reprisals, as the philosopher
J. G. Fichte did in 1794–1795. Students
repeatedly bombarded his house with
rocks, nearly killing his sick fatherin-law on one occasion when a large
paving stone came crashing through a
window. With technical institutes—an
Enlightenment favorite—and finishing
academies proliferating, and with scientific academies functioning as centers of discovery, a question raised by
learned and influential commentators
grew louder and louder: Do we even
need universities?
This moment of crisis led to an inspired reimagining of higher education
(a reimagining whose other enabling
conditions scholars have located in circumstances that range from the rise of
German idealism to a desire for prestige on the part of an emerging professional class). What we now think of as
liberal higher education took shape
ties would be vastly more capable as
bureaucrats than those who had been
saddled with narrow vocational training. Impractical study had a deeper
Wilhelm von Humboldt, the scholarstatesman tasked with redesigning
Prussia’s system of education, applied
this notion not only to the “subjective
development” of students, but also to
the production of new knowledge. He
proposed that the best way for “the
state” to get “the scientific and scholarly knowledge it wants” would be by
giving the university enough autonomy
to pursue research freely. When the
the faculties, before the founding of the
Second Empire, most students opted
for concentrations in professional areas
like law.
It wasn’t until around 1870 that arts
and sciences enrollments at the University of Berlin surpassed those of
medicine, and the shift had a lot to do
with Germany’s boom in dye production drawing vocationally oriented
young men to chemistry lectures. By
the 1880s, the German state, under
pressure from industry lobbyists, had
begun pushing universities closer to
technical education in certain areas. In
the US, the Morrill Act of 1862 mandated that any university or
college making use of the land
grant system of funding that it
established must “promote the
liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.”
The debate about which side
is more important to the land
grant mission—the liberal or
the practical—rages on.
European and American universities have thus straddled the
divide between “economic practices and the life of the mind,”
as Collini puts it. They are
“doomed to be homes both to
instrumentality on a large scale
and to the critique of that instrumentality in a tension or conflict
that cannot be wholly resolved.”
This helps explain why there has
pretty much always been the
sense that the ideals of liberal
education and free inquiry are
under siege.
Collini might have gone further in probing the dynamics
driving the perception that the
university has seen better days.
That the ideal of pure research
can generate its own form of vocationalism—namely, a focus
on technical training and the specialist’s lack of intellectual openness—has
also been an important motif in the
fretting about liberal higher education.
This line of lament stretches back at
least as far as Adolf Diesterweg’s Ruining German Universities (1836) and
was summed up by Nietzsche, who
wrote, “It isn’t the triumph of systematic scholarship that sets the nineteenth
century apart but rather the victory of
systematic method over scholarship.”
ullstein bild/Getty Images
Speaking of Universities
by Stefan Collini.
Verso, 296 pp., $26.95
German fraternity students, circa 1900
at this time. Fichte wrote that in their
present form, German universities
couldn’t really justify their existence.
They would have to transmute themselves into institutions where, through
open- ended, preferably humanistic
study, young men from all social classes
learned to think systematically but also
boldly and independently, becoming
“artists of learning.” Doing so would
mean developing capacities that would
serve them well on whatever career
path they took, and that would make
them fuller people. As Fichte put it, the
education universities impart should be
a “free and infinitely adaptable possession, a tool we can readily apply to life.”
The philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher never got along with Fichte,
and he and Fichte disagreed on various
aspects of university reform. But generally speaking, they shared a vision that
will seem familiar to anyone who has
read today’s rationales for a collegelevel general education program. What
should be “second nature,” according
to Schleiermacher, is for the student
“to view everything from the perspective of systematic inquiry, see individual things not in isolation but rather in
their intellectual interconnection and
place them in a larger context.” Writing
in 1808, Schleiermacher claimed that
young men equipped with such abili-
University of Berlin opened its doors in
1810, with Fichte and Schleiermacher
on the faculty (and making life difficult for each other), this was its guiding ideal: open- ended learning and
research for their own sake.
In the essay collection Speaking of
Universities, Stefan Collini, professor
emeritus of English and intellectual
history at Cambridge, writes insightfully about the fate of that ideal. His
interest is partly historical. As Collini
observes, “the ideal of free enquiry,”
which “has been at the heart of the
conception of the modern university,”
has always operated in the midst of
The modern university has had,
from the start, more frankly utilitarian
functions than liberal education and
pure research, such as offering professional education. The very process of
bureaucratic modernization in Prussia
that gave Humboldt his opportunity
as a reformer also led to an increased
emphasis on credentialing through
comprehensive exams, which, in turn,
encouraged a student culture of learning for the test. Although Humboldt’s
redesign and rhetoric won greater prestige for the faculty of arts and sciences,
formerly categorized as the lowest of
imilarly, the relationship between the
ideal of character formation in liberal
education and its ideal of free inquiry
has been complicated, and it, too, has
caused much elegiac feeling. Perhaps the
most famous example is Max Weber’s
1917 speech “Science as a Vocation,”
in which he asked whether universities
should try to instill in students values
beyond the ones open inquiry requires.
He concluded (with resignation) that
they should not; but as influential as
his position has been, it hardly settled
the matter. With democracies and their
systems of values being tested, his question has been regaining prominence.
A century after Weber addressed an
audience of students in wartime Munich, Harvard’s president Drew Gilpin
Faust warned students gathered for
The New York Review
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“negative effect” on society, up from 34
percent just two years earlier.
his climate of opinion is bad for
academic autonomy. It has emboldened Republican politicians in Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin to take
aim at tenure. It has also led Democrats in the California state legislature
to push for rolling back certain areas
of self-governance in the UC system.
Furthermore, mistrust of colleges and
universities can only get in the way of
public investment in higher education,
which would make it easier for millions of students to think of more than
their job prospects when choosing a
major. The atmosphere of suspicion is
especially hard on what Collini refers
substantive measures of quality are
badly out of sync with the evaluation’s
quantification schemes and criteria for
In addition, Collini lays out how
other ways of determining value in
the transactional model—few student
customers, for example, means little
value—endanger less popular fields
that contribute to the pursuit of knowledge, such as mine, German. He also
devotes considerable space to examining the language in which the policy
decisions driving the financialization
of higher education are couched. He
demonstrates, for instance, how “the
Mission Statement Present is used to
disguise implausible non sequiturs
as universally acknowledged general
truths,” as it does in the claim: “Putting
Collini wants to preserve certain
core ideals. But he also claims for himself the position of a progressive realist,
of someone who understands and even
embraces the inevitability of change.
In order to maintain this position credibly, you have to go beyond offering
truisms like “fundamental forces in the
world . . . are bound to affect the character and functioning of universities.”
The challenge is to balance a traditionalist critique of present trends with a
sincere openness to the evolution of
liberal education and research culture.
Here Collini’s mandarin terminology
gets in the way.
Paul Marotta/Getty Images
commencement that “in today’s world
I believe it is dangerous for universities
not to fully acknowledge and embrace
their responsibilities to service and values, as well as to reason and discovery.”
Rather than taking up the valuesversus- discovery issue, one of the more
productive topics in recent scholarship
on higher education, Collini mostly
concentrates on the tension between
free inquiry and liberal education,
which he has no problem describing
as “the true ends of universities,” and
instrumental aims. Not the least of his
motivations for tracking how advocates
of the liberal model have reckoned with
the pressure of such aims in the past is
to cull resources for dealing with it in
the present, when, in his estimation,
it has gotten much worse. Collini sees
market values overrunning academic
ones in the here and now.
He focuses on the situation in Britain, but he warns, not implausibly, that
it could predict the future in other
countries, including the US, where
the majority of college students are
enrolled at public institutions (and
universities are no strangers to managerialism). Since 2010, the Tories have
radicalized what Collini calls the “financialization” of higher education.
McKinsey-trained bureaucrats have
mixed invasive oversight and deregulation in an attempt to impose the logic
of the market on Britain’s universities.
In this transactional model, students
are viewed as the paying customers for
the services universities provide, and
universities are pressured in various
ways to treat them as such rather than
as, say, students.
In Britain and the US, high levels of
student debt have made free tuition a
part of political platforms on the left.
Yet there is also a great deal of popular “indifference or even hostility toward universities,” in Collini’s phrase.
British universities haven’t been roiled
by free speech and safe space controversies, which have drawn to US college students the kind of opprobrium
previously reserved for the campus
“troublemakers” of the 1960s and their
counterparts in eighteenth- century
Germany. (Surely it’s unusual for the
US attorney general to bemoan the
character defects of American college
students, as Jeff Sessions recently did.)
But in both the US and Britain, populist anti-intellectualism, a tendency to
see professors as ideologues of the liberal elite, and resentment over the job
security of tenured academics have intensified problems of public trust.
Nor has the situation been improved
by recent scandals over compensation
for administrators at public universities
in both countries, or by other messes
that have landed the University of California and CUNY in the news. These
include $175,000 spent by UC Davis to
“scrub” online references to student
protesters being pepper-sprayed by
campus police, hundreds of admissions
offers rescinded by UC Irvine on shaky
grounds, and the Office of the President at the University of California interfering with a state audit. Meanwhile,
right-wing websites that “monitor” academia appear to have doubled down on
their efforts to make every incendiary
or insensitive tweet by a liberal professor go viral. Hence, at least in part, the
results of a Pew Research Center survey conducted in June 2017: 58 percent
of Republicans now believe that America’s colleges and universities have a
Harvard students at the Hasty Pudding Theatricals celebration honoring Octavia Spencer
as Woman of the Year, Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 2017
to as “real learning.” With its indirect
payoff for society and hard-to-measure
“impact,” liberal higher education requires of its supporters a particularly
great leap of faith. What, then, should
concerned advocates of liberal higher
learning do?
They could, of course, try to follow
Collini’s lead in conveying how new
policies and practices are undermining it. Much of Speaking of Universities is devoted to detailed reports from
the trenches. Collini describes how
Britain’s revamped system for auditing academic productivity diminishes
professorial autonomy to a degree that
would have made Adam Smith blush.
As cynical as he was about professors, Smith, who became one himself,
maintained that the evaluation of academic performance should be left to
academics. When it comes to teaching,
“extraneous jurisdiction . . . is likely to
be exercised both ignorantly and capriciously,” he wrote. And it is also likely
to leave those subjected to it feeling
Today, professors and researchers
in Britain are measured according
to standards they have little control
over, with the distribution of research
funding at stake. This has been going
on for a while. Now, however, the independence of the bodies overseeing
the evaluations, which are supposed to
have an “arm’s length” distance to the
ministry they report to, is being diminished as the government reconfigures
those bodies—and the evaluations—
to match its higher education agenda.
What especially interests Collini is how
the evaluation process is tilted to the
disadvantage of the humanities, whose
financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful.”
For the actual claim here is that going
into debt will do students good.
Collini writes that academics should
“be able to articulate an understanding of what universities are for that is
adequate for our time.” He certainly
believes that he knows what they are
for. Whatever else universities do—
however much they become identified
with functions like that of health care
provider, tech hub, sports franchise,
booster of the economy, bastion of
inclusiveness, or stage for political
speech—their most fundamental role
in Collini’s view remains to be the
place that combines liberal education
and free inquiry.
Collini is certainly adept at taking
apart managerial discourse and laying out aspects of the predicament of
universities in clear, sometimes vivid
prose: he compares the critical power
of classic writings about the “idea
of the university” to the force of the
Large Hadron Collider. Hence the
impact of his work: he enjoys a sizable readership and has caught the
attention of politicians involved with
university reform. What’s missing is a
fuller rearticulation of the very thing
he’s arguing for. Given how alive Collini is to the effects of language, it’s
odd that he relies on phrases like “real
learning” and “true ends of universities” to evoke liberal higher education.
The problem with these formulations
isn’t their generality or abstractness,
or simply that they’re haughty and
threadbare. It’s that they make for a
contradiction that dulls the salutary
jolt of Collini’s book.
nother strategy for reanimating ideals is to bring to light the underappreciated richness of their roots. This is the
approach that Geoffrey Galt Harpham,
a former director of the National Humanities Center, takes in trying to redress the problem of “the defensive,
moralizing, banalized discourse that
has for many years been associated
with liberal education and the humanities.” The wager of his book What Do
You Think, Mr. Ramirez? is that we
will put ourselves in a better position
to make the case for liberal education
in the US by doing one of the things
humanists do: tracing its lineage in significant texts. Here the most important
text is the aspirational report of 1945,
General Education in a Free Society,
known more widely as the Harvard
Redbook, which wanted all citizens to
have “some common and binding understanding of the society which they
will possess in common.”
Although he gives Wilhelm von
Humboldt credit for pioneering the
modern notion of liberal education,
Harpham stresses that it was in “the
post-WWII United States that the
concept of Bildung was applied to a
national program of universal education.” Hence his title: Mr. Ramirez is
a pseudonym for a Cuban émigré who
went to community college “to better
himself” and was asked, in a required
general education course, to weigh in
on Shakespeare. He floundered, but
the experience motivated him. Eventually, Mr. Ramirez became a distinguished professor of literature. Where
else, Harpham asks, could this have
The real question for him, though,
is how it happened. How did the general education ideals that changed Mr.
Ramirez’s life come to be? Harpham
offers an answer by way of the following steps. With its talk of the “whole
man” and “moral citizenship,” the
Redbook can come across as a cold war
relic. What Harpham tries to show is
that its basic ideas about individual and
social development through literary
study remain persuasive. From there
he suggestively links the project of general education—and the importance
of English departments in the postwar
era—to older democratic traditions in
American culture, such as early modes
of interpreting the Constitution and
Emerson’s championing of eloquence.
That liberal education—broadly conceived—is good for democracy is a familiar claim, one that goes back at least
as far as Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps it
has become too familiar. In his attempt
to revivify the discourse in support of
liberal education, Harpham, in effect,
expands the script, making the American system of general education out to
The New York Review
be an aid to democracy that is deeply
grounded in American culture.
Harpham ultimately fails to demonstrate how “precious conceptual
resources” now “immured” in the Redbook might renew that discourse. But
it is still easy to imagine his historical argument finding its way into the
speeches of university presidents in the
US. On the other hand, it is hard to say
whether it will inspire new college students and their families. Its prospects
for assuaging their practical concerns
seem doubtful.
or that purpose, there is George Anders’s You Can Do Anything, part of a
growing body of literature about how
liberal higher education can lead to
success in business or other pursuits.
Like most contributors to the genre,
Anders has a background in the liberal
arts. He fondly recalls studying literature as an undergraduate at Stanford,
and he doesn’t present the benefits of
liberal education merely in utilitarian terms. Anders believes that liberal
study can be life- enriching in ways that
can’t be reduced to market value. But
he went on to have a distinguished career in business journalism, and he has
a different point to make: with its rapid
flux and corresponding need for adaptability, today’s world of business is a
place where “artists of learning” can
and do thrive.
In earnest and lucid support of a
counterintuitive idea, Anders tells the
stories of liberal arts majors who have
managed to establish themselves in
all kinds of careers, including several
for which conventional wisdom says
that only those with an engineering or
other professional degree need apply.
Though he isn’t writing from the perspective of someone out to save liberal
education, he does seem worried about
its future, and his book offers a way
to stop or slow the trend of dwindling
numbers of liberal arts majors.
In a time of anxiety about student
debt and the future of the workplace,
Anders’s stories of career success speak
to visceral concerns. Deans across the
country have employed a version of
this approach, inviting business leaders
with a liberal arts background to speak
on campus. And some of these deans
claim that this strategy has drawn students to the humanities, arts, and social
sciences. If the message of utility here
seems stark, the idea remains that utility proceeds from open- ended learning,
learning that can amount to “secular
soul-building,” as some advocates for
the humanities still like to put it.
But the strategy also entails a shift
that could have harmful consequences.
Schleiermacher and Humboldt stressed
the paradoxical social utility of liberal
education. They wrote of its benefits
for the state and society, in part because they were trying to convince the
state to fund their model of higher education, but also because that’s how they
conceived of those benefits. By contrast, Anders focuses on utility for the
individual—there’s a reason why his
book’s title is addressed to “you” and
not “we”—and in emphasizing private
material gains his book is representative of its genre.
Yet one can do that and still be mindful of how framing a college degree as
a private good might affect public support for higher education, which is crucial for its health. Encouraging people
February 22, 2018
to think of higher education, liberal
or otherwise, mostly as a private good
rather than a public one is basically
an endorsement of the transactional
model Collini opposes. It makes it
less likely that people will support increased public funding for higher education if they see it as having mainly
private benefits, particularly if their
children are planning to attend a private institution or if the flagship state
schools that receive a disproportionate share of public funding seem out of
reach. UC Berkeley now rejects 83 percent of its applicants, the same rate as
Harvard just a generation ago.
This is a difficult time for liberal
higher education and free inquiry,
especially at public institutions. As
Collini takes some steps toward explaining, we are seeing longtime pressures combine with newer ones in ways
that threaten what has been the mission
of the modern university. But in the
end, he expresses cautious optimism,
which isn’t misguided. Despite all the
cynicism directed at public universities
there, tax increases to help the state
university system have broad support
in California. This isn’t yet the mass
movement for high-quality, affordable,
liberal higher education that some see
as the sole way to significantly better
days; however, it is certainly promising.
Fichte’s assessment of German universities was too bleak. Having largely
freed the arts and sciences from censorship by the theology faculty, the
University of Göttingen had been fostering a climate of open inquiry, as well
as research productivity and rational
systems of hiring and promotion. And
it did very well. Founded just a few
years before Smith arrived at Oxford,
Göttingen was famous for the vibrancy
of its arts and sciences faculty; it had
a far higher percentage of arts and
sciences students than any other German university. Indeed, this university,
where Humboldt was briefly a student,
helped inspire his reforms. One scholar
has even claimed that we can see in
Göttingen “the beginning, or rather
the refounding, of ‘liberal education’
on the university level.”*
But the government minister who
planned the university had different
goals at the top of his list of priorities. He wanted to build an institution
that would make money for the state,
and he organized it accordingly. In the
eighteenth century Göttingen wasn’t
just regarded as the place to go for an
education in the arts and sciences. It
was also known as the place where, as
some Göttingen professors liked to say,
learning had become “a big commercial enterprise.”
This isn’t to imply that Collini is
wrong to warn that the continuing
transformation of British universities
into business enterprises could make
them fundamentally different. One
can agree with him and still be wary
of narratives of decline. Perhaps our
high-pressure moment could turn out
to yield not only intelligent works on
the roots of general education, but also
what the crisis of German universities around 1800 produced: persuasive
new ways of expressing what liberal
education can be.
*Charles McClelland, State, Society,
and the University in Germany, 1700–
1914 (Cambridge University Press,
1980), p. 39.
and the
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Istanbul Blues
Ara Guler/Magnum Photos
Suzy Hansen
Istanbul: Memories and the City
(Deluxe Edition)
by Orhan Pamuk, translated from
the Turkish by Maureen Freely.
Knopf, 560 pp., $45.00
Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities
by Bettany Hughes.
Da Capo, 800 pp., $40.00
In the early morning hours of September 4, 1963, a family was asleep in a
yalı, or wooden house, near the shore
of the Bosphorus. Fog sometimes
twists so completely around the waters of Istanbul that from the hillsides
of the European quarter the Old City
disappears. From a perch on the Asian
side it can seem as if there is no Europe
at all. That was why, on that morning,
a 5,500-ton Soviet freighter hauling
Nikita Khrushchev’s military supplies
to Cuba rammed thirty feet inland,
straight inside the yalı of the sleeping
family. “We thought the yalı had been
struck by lightning; the building had
split in two,” a family member told the
newspapers. “When we pulled ourselves together, we went into our thirdfloor sitting room and found ourselves
nose to nose with a huge tanker.” Two
yalıs were crushed, and three people
died. Orhan Pamuk recounts this event
in his 2003 memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City. The newspapers that
reported it, he writes, featured a picture of the tanker in the sitting room:
“Hanging on the wall was a photograph
of their pasha grandfather; sitting on
the sideboard was a bowl of grapes.”
The story is one of many tanker tragedies described in Pamuk’s chapter
“On the Ships That Passed Through
the Bosphorus . . . and Other Disasters.” There was the Yugoslavian
tanker Peter Zoranich carrying heating
oil that exploded when it smashed into
the Greek vessel World Harmony; the
Romanian tanker that split a fishing
boat in two; another that collided with
a Greek freighter and exploded violently enough to shatter windows many
miles away; and the Lebanese shipload
of Romanian sheep that tangled with
a Filipino cargo vessel carrying wheat
from New Orleans to Russia. Twenty
thousand sheep ended up at the bottom
of the Bosphorus, though a few swam
to shore, surprising some men drinking
I don’t know why the Romanians and
the Greeks had such bad luck on the
Bosphorus in the twentieth century.
But it is hard to read this chapter—
the book has been reissued this year
in a gorgeously illustrated special edition—and not think that these historical calamities, these drowned sheep,
could easily be invoked to justify Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdo÷an’s
plans to build an entirely new canal
parallel to that beautiful, boat-clogged
strait. Erdo÷an’s dream of a second
Bosphorus is most commonly called,
even by himself, “the Crazy Project.”
The idea, which Erdo÷an’s government has been fantasizing about for
over six years now, is a canal that would
extend from the Sea of Marmara to
the Black Sea, much as the Bosphorus
does. It would be around thirty miles
long, twenty-seven yards deep, and
anywhere between 120 to 160 yards
Kumkapı fishermen returning to port at dawn, Istanbul, 1950
wide (estimates vary), and would eliminate tanker traffic from the Bosphorus
entirely. The government argues that
the 50,000 ships passing through the
strait every year, including some 5,000
that carry hazardous chemicals, are endangering its citizens, as shown by the
many stories in Pamuk’s book. “More
than seven hundred accidents occurred
in the Istanbul and [Dardanelles]
Straits in [the] last fifty years,” Captain
Saim O÷uzülgen, director of the Turkish Straits Research and Implementation Center at Bahçeúehir University,
told a Turkish newspaper some years
ago. The Crazy Project almost makes
But many experts have warned of the
environmental catastrophes the project
could cause. A new canal would fundamentally transform the flow of the currents from the Black Sea to the Sea of
Marmara, changing the salinity of both
and affecting the disposal of urban
waste. The project might also destroy
farmland and forests on the outskirts
of tree-deprived Istanbul; set off a
development boom along the canal,
including houses, office parks, malls,
and roads; and affect the many lakes
from which the city obtains its drinking water.
Environmental concerns in Turkey—after a decade of overdevelopment that has involved the uprooting of
tens of thousands of trees and the pouring of what must be tens of thousands
of tons of cement—have lately taken on
grave proportions. This past July, for
instance, an extraordinary hailstorm
suddenly overtook the city. In a year of
many disasters, both violent and political, none for me was more frightening
than the instant blackening of a hot
summer afternoon and the sky’s subsequent pelting of hail larger than golf
balls. They took the paint and plaster
off houses, shattered window panes,
drove perfectly round holes into hard
plastic bins, and knocked people in
the head. This extreme weather event,
many said afterward, seemed to come
from Istanbul’s particular environmental problems.
Many Turksa also think there is no
way that their mysteriously resilient
economy can support a megaproject
like Erdo÷an’s second Bosphorus,
which is estimated to cost $10 billion.
But late last year, after dignitaries from
the president’s Justice and Development Party visited Panama to consult
canal experts, Erdo÷an announced definitively that the ground-breaking for
the canal would happen in 2018.
As Pamuk describes throughout his
book, such promises of modernization characterized much of the twentieth century in Turkey. Politicians of
all persuasions—leftist and nationalist descendants of Kemal Atatürk, the
founder of the Turkish Republic, and
especially the center-right politicians
who were Erdo÷an’s precursors—promoted development as proof of their
competence. After World War I and the
fall of the Ottoman Empire, Atatürk
and his soldiers fought off the advances
of Western forces determined to claim
Istanbul and much of the Aegean coast
for themselves. These Kemalists then
had to engage Turkish citizens in the
patriotic project of building a modern
nation out of the rubble of a ravaged
former empire. By the 1980s, secularist generals were encouraging Turkish
politicians to open up markets and accelerate industrialization. As early as
1994, Bülent Ecevit, a longtime leftist
nationalist politician who came of age
during a comparatively impoverished
era, included the idea of a crazy canal
in his political platform. Turkey after
World War I was terribly poor, and
ordinary citizens relished modernization, the illusion of catching up with
the West.
Pamuk deplored “the neglect and
dereliction” that accompanied these
efforts. In the tearing down of pashas’
mansions, and in the deliberate burning of the ornately beautiful wooden
yalıs in order to build ugly modern
apartment buildings, he saw that “the
great drive to westernize amounted
mostly to the erasure of the past.”
I read Istanbul before I moved to
the city in 2007, the year that Erdo÷an,
then supported by liberals, began his
triumph over the military. There was a
brief, golden period of optimism about
the former Islamist, but even then his
government had begun manipulating
the judiciary, imprisoning opponents,
and rigging the country’s privatization
process so that it favored businessmen
close to the state. Back then, Erdo÷an
received a good amount of sympathy, especially from Westerners, and
I wonder if Pamuk’s books had something to do with that: the Nobel Prize
winner’s criticisms of the Turkish Republic seemed in some way to match
Erdo÷an’s rejection of it.
Perhaps the rush to erase a civilization had, indeed, been a crime against
Turkey’s deeper Ottoman cultural
roots, and perhaps it was not wrong,
or at least not surprising, that eventually a leader would try to restore what
was lost in the country’s unrestrained
efforts to emulate the West. The irony
is that Erdo÷an became the most egregious modernizer of all. But here lies
the confusion about Turkish modernization and Westernization, and about
Turkish Islam and secularism: all of
these concepts have become so distorted and inaccurate that it is difficult
to discern what actually happened to
Turks in the twentieth century.
oth Pamuk’s book and a new history, Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities by
Bettany Hughes, make it clear that part
of the reason for this distortion is that
the country is so rarely described from
within. Hughes, like many who have
written about Istanbul, is a foreigner,
and thus prone to the familiar hyperbole about the glories of the premodern
city. Pamuk, meanwhile, devotes much
of his book to addressing foreigners’
perceptions of his native city, and admits he is obsessed with how Westerners see it. These discussions can have
the effect of keeping one very far from
the actual streets of Istanbul.
But much of Pamuk’s book is also
dark and intimate, and not at all like
foreigners’ accounts, which so often
wallow in the city’s exotic beauty. In
2017, his memoir of love does not read
like urban hagiography but instead
like a story of disintegration. When
we remove our fantasy-inflected perceptions, what is left of historic Istanbul? What was this great civilization
that Pamuk would say the modern-day
Turks were “unfit or unprepared to inherit,” and what did they do to it?
Hughes, a classicist, is the author
of Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore and The Hemlock Cup:
Socrates, Athens and the Search for the
Good Life. The ancient and Roman
periods, not surprisingly, dominate
more than half of her six-hundredpage biography of Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire gets about two hundred
pages—Suleiman the Magnificent is
given a few sad paragraphs in which he
manages to be overshadowed by both
the admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa and
the architect Mimar Sinan—and Istanbul’s tragic, multitudinous twentieth
century is, proportionately, accorded
much less. But Hughes’s proclivities
also mean that the book is cleverly organized around descriptions of various
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February 22, 2018
Over the next centuries, the Eastern
Roman—later called the Byzantine—
Empire was weakened by repeated
attacks from Goths, Huns, Vikings,
Vandals, and, much later, those tiresome Crusaders. A new Muslim army
of Turks had by the time of the Crusades captured much of Syria, Iraq, and
Anatolia, and threatened to conquer
Constantinople and breach the gates
of the Christian world (as Muhammad
had allegedly dreamed). The Byzantines and Turks clashed most dramatically in 1017 at the Battle of Manzikert,
which Erdo÷an regularly invokes to
stir up neo-Ottoman nostalgia and
By 1326, the Ottoman leader Orhan
Gazi and his people had settled a
hundred miles southeast of Constantinople, in Bursa. Orhan’s father,
Osman, told him he dreamed that a
“tree grew from his navel.” The tree
“spread across the earth, and when a
wind stirred its sword-shaped leaves
these pointed towards the city of Constantinople.” Osman at the time had
recently had his heart broken by a girl
from Eskiüehir. “It was this acceptance
of grief and sorrow as a certainty of the
human condition that liberated Osman
to achieve greatness,” Hughes writes.
The idealization of Istanbul, and its
history of chauvinism, begins with this
tribesman. Here is how Ottoman myths
came to characterize Osman’s dream:
That city, placed at the junction
of two seas and two continents,
seemed like a diamond set between two sapphires and two emeralds, to form the most precious
stone in a ring of universal empire.
Osman thought that he was in
the act of placing that visioned ring
on his finger, when he awoke.
Turkey to the West than in reconstructing a particular period in Turkish history. In the details of the novel—and
of all his books, as well as his Museum
of Innocence, which assembles scores
of old products and artifacts from recent Turkish history—he displays an
obsession with setting things down beThis dream would be realized in 1453,
fore they are swept away. “History,” he
when the Ottoman sultan Mehmet the
writes, became “a word with no meanConqueror launched a well-organized
ing.” The reason Pamuk liked Brodattack on Constantinople that lasted
sky’s writing was because Brodsky
fifty-one days. Four thousand people
acknowledged that Istanbul was not a
were killed, many were raped, and
divine, indestructible city at all. It was
countless treasures, buildings, and
a city to which something terrible was
books were destroyed. Mehmet reporthappening.
edly wept when he finally took stock of
One of Pamuk’s more controverthe devastation his troops had wrought.
sial preoccupations in Istanbul is that
The Turks, who communicated with
the repression of Islamic culture also
their conquered subjects in Greek, had
involved repressing, or blighting, the
been meticulously planning the empire
Turkish soul. The secularized people
that would last for the next
he knew, he writes, grapfive hundred years.
pled “with the most basic
From the fifteenth cenquestions of existence.” But
tury onward, Constantireading the memoir in its
new edition, with Hughes’s
Muslims, as ISIS propadescriptions of Istanbul’s
ganda never fails to rebeauty in mind, I was more
mind us—was a wondrous
keenly aware than I had
place, heavily wooded and
been before of Pamuk’s
full of “cherry, almond,
reports of the city’s physipear, plum, quince, peach
cal destruction—the tankand apple trees,” as well as
ers crashing into yalıs that
bounteous animal and mamodernizing Turks no lonrine life. The Ottomans saw
ger loved or wanted, the
nature as a sign of wealth
popular Turkish pastime of
and power. “Gardens were
watching the demolition, by
fundamental in the culture
fire, of historic buildings.
of Muslim Constantinople,”
His Istanbul was not necesOrhan Pamuk on his balcony overlooking the Bosphorus;
Hughes writes. Western visisarily a commentary on the
from Istanbul: Memories and the City
tors identified one thousand
wisdom of enforced secugardens in the city, and one
larization or on the benefits
hundred imperial gardens around the
of religiosity. It could just be about the
words about Istanbul, the typical reflex
palaces cared for by 20,000 gardeners.
fact that human beings cannot withof writers and historians who wish to
The city’s Muslim inhabitants saw the
stand so much loss.
suggest that Istanbul’s natural magic is
garden design around the Sublime Porte
In this year’s somber Istanbul bienineffable and eternal.
as, in Hughes’s words, “an outward sign
nale, most of the exhibits concerned the
of the harmony of justice, of the magnifienvironment, urbanization, and annihen Pamuk read Joseph Brodcence of the Ottoman dynasty.” Sultan
hilation. At the Pera Museum, several
sky’s offensive descriptions of Istanbul
Ahmed III in the eighteenth century
paintings had been covered in cement.
in The New Yorker in the 1980s—
began enlisting tortoises adorned with
More than one exhibit featured people
“nothing grows here except mustaches”
candles to illuminate the thousands of
cowering in bunkers, and many more
is one terrible line—he felt both anger
tulips planted between the pathways.
displayed themes of claustrophobia.
and relief. “When western observers
The Ottomans loved nature, trees, flowAn apartment was outfitted as a kind
speak ill of the city,” Pamuk writes, “I
ers, and beautiful women from the Cauof beautiful haunted house throughoften find myself in agreement, taking
casus; they also loved books, knowledge,
out which Greek music—ostensibly
more pleasure in their cold-blooded
art, and fireworks displays. No wonder
that of its onetime inhabitants—played
candor than in the condescending adthe many Western travelers who came
mournfully. Another exhibit invited
miration of Pierre Loti, forever going
to gaze at Constantinople record it as a
several artists to draw the marine and
on about Istanbul’s beauty, strangeland of fantasy.
plant life of Istanbul, as if to say: Some
ness, and wondrous uniqueness.” BrodThe Ottomans were also relatively
day they will all be gone. One installasky saw the Istanbul Pamuk himself
tolerant of non-Muslims, but Hughes
tion forced visitors to stand in a room as
had been seeing, a city that had become
never really contemplates why this
apocalyptic biblical passages were pro“a monotonous monolingual town in
was so. Nor does she elaborate much
jected on the floor and snaked around
black and white.” To Pamuk, walking
on the millet system, in which nontheir feet. When I was there, a group of
through the backstreets of Beyoùlu in
Muslims won the protection of the
children chased after the words, trying
to jump on them, to make them stop.
the 1970s, Istanbul was “terribly poor
Ottoman state and could more or less
Since Ottoman times, as we learn
and shabby,” besieged by a poverty that
govern themselves in certain matters
from Hughes’s book, the earth has
inflicted “heartache on all who live
of law and education according to their
had a particular significance for Turks.
among” it. Pamuk famously called this
own religious strictures—as long as
“Even outside the poorest houses there
hüzün. The empire had fallen and so
they accepted lower status and fewer
were window boxes or a pot of herbs,”
had its grandeur and greatness; there
rights. This absence of deeper discusshe writes. “Horticulture was meant to
were no more colors, no more lansion about religious tolerance becomes
represent God’s bounty and the diverguages, no more diversity—no more
striking as, in the course of the history
sity of his creation.” She also notes that
Christian-Muslim-Jewish cosmopolishe tells, minorities in the empire begin
“during the First World War Western
tanism of the Ottoman kind.
to suffer more and more. Ottoman
soldiers noted Turkish troops laying
What remained, though, was the cosviolence against Christians appalled
out little patches of turf and plant pots
mopolitanism and cultural complexity
Westerners after the early-nineteentharound their campaign tents.” It’s not
of the Turks themselves. The incredible
century Chios Massacre, during which
surprising. When Turks migrated to the
regional and ethnic variations they exthe Turks murdered countless Greeks
cities from Anatolia with little but the
hibited would take years for a foreigner
on an island in the Aegean. Western
shirts on their backs and were forced
to detect. Atatürk and the Kemalists
eyes that had once been drawn to the
to build cheap shanty homes by hand,
wanted to conceal this diversity for the
Ottoman Empire with fascination now
they nonetheless always tried to snag a
sake of unifying Turkish citizens under
looked upon it with revulsion. The
garden plot in the big city.
a common culture. Pamuk makes it
Russians soon tried to retake the capiPamuk’s hüzün may have emerged
clear in Istanbul, and even clearer in his
tal of Christendom. Western bankers
in response not to the loss of empire,
2014 novel A Strangeness in My Mind,
exploited Turkish debts. The hatred of
wealth, power, or Islamic culture, but to
that he is less interested in explaining
the Turk spread to the United States,
where newspaper editorials soon excoriated the Ottomans and clamored for
their downfall.
Although she skates over this history
rather quickly, Hughes has a gift for
collapsing detail gracefully. We learn
that the name “Golden Horn” (an inlet
of the Bosphorus) comes from the glistening fish in its waters; that the star
and crescent on the Turkish flag come
from Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft;
that the book review was invented in
Constantinople; that the word “booze”
comes from boza, a Turkish alcoholic
drink; that the word “passport” came
from the Sublime Porte; and that when
the Ottoman Empire fell in 1922, the
palace eunuchs formed a self-help
group. But by the end of the book we
are left mostly with these winning facts
and Hughes’s romantic and laudatory
Archive of Orhan Pamuk
artifacts from Roman times that have
been uncovered in the recent digging
for one of Erdo÷an’s megaprojects, the
underwater tunnel across the Bosphorus connecting Asia to Europe.
Hughes uses these artifacts to connect the Roman Era to the Reis Era
(reis is the Turkish word for chief, and
Erdo÷an’s nickname). “A coffin might
seem an odd place to start,” she writes
early on in the book, about the world’s
oldest coffin, which was found in 2011
under a new metro station near Istanbul’s red light district. Inside lay a
woman curled in the fetal position. In
a neighborhood on the Asian shores of
the Bosphorus, we discover remnants
of scuta, the leather shields of Roman
soldiers, which may have given the area
its name—Scutari—before it became
Üsküdar, where Erdo÷an now keeps
one of his homes.
Hughes’s history begins in the seventh century BC, when Megarian Greek
explorers settled the land across from
ancient Chalcedon, or “the city of the
blind”—so named for the sad people
who settled the Asian side of Istanbul
rather than the obviously superior hills
of the western side. After that came
the Achaemenid Empire and years of
violent conflict over the city among
Greeks, Persians, and Macedonians,
until Alexander the Great swept over
the Hellespont and liberated Byzantion
as an independent Hellenic entity.
The city gained a special status in the
expanding Roman Empire, and in 330
AD, Constantine I declared the city—
now renamed Constantinople—the
empire’s capital. As the surrounding
regions gradually converted to Christianity, Hughes writes, the religion
“was looking increasingly like a means
to unify and indeed to consolidate
power.” Constantine considered Constantinople a city given to him by God.
The New York Review
the loss of a civilization that loved nature and beauty and that treasured a city
once thought to have an endless supply
of both. In Byzantine times, after environmental catastrophes, Hughes writes,
“there seems to have been a sense that
God was somehow displeased by Christendom.” When that hailstorm struck
Istanbul in 2017, the joke I heard was
that God was displeased with Erdo÷an.
Then again, the president is just following the path to progress, like the
good disciple of Ecevit, Atatürk, and
the Ottoman sultans he is. Someday
the endless debate about Islam and
secularism, tradition and modernity,
will be subsumed by the one about
environmental disaster. None of these
questions about Istanbul as “the
world’s desire” will matter if nothing
of traditional Istanbul survives, if its
inhabitants, once prevented from modernizing, continue to do so with such
Doing the New York Hustle
Craig Brown
The finest diarists are able to view
themselves with the detachment they
apply to others. They become, in this
sense, their own sharpest biographers,
dividing themselves into both observer
and observed, audience and performer,
hovering eagle-eyed above themselves,
ever curious to record, however unfavorably, their own imperfect ways. As
Claire Tomalin puts it in her biography
of Samuel Pepys: “In writing it down,
he detached himself from the self who
acted out the scene.”
In her diaries of her years at Vanity
Fair, Tina Brown is certainly adept at
noting, with her unforgiving eye, the
flaws in others. Revulsion brings out
the best in her. The Hollywood agent
Swifty Lazar is “tiny and bald and hairy
in the wrong places. From the back his
bald head and ancient baby’s neck look
like crinkled foreskin.” Nancy Reagan’s
walker Jerry Zipkin possesses a face
“like a huge inflated rubber dinghy,
balanced on top of a short, HumptyDumpty body.” A social columnist
at The New York Times is “a bogus
grandee . . . a coiffed asparagus.” Jackie
Onassis’s face is “always slightly out of
whack with her expression, as if they
are two separate entities at work. She
has perfected a fascinated stare.”
Brown also has an ear finely tuned
to the absurdities of the rich, the
spoiled, and the famous. She records
them with relish. “You know what?”
Donald Trump shouts to her over dinner at Ann Getty’s in 1987. “Went to
the opening of the Met last night. Ring
Cycle. Plácido Domingo. Five hours.
Dinner started at twelve. Beat that.
I said to Ivana, what, are you crazy?
Never again.” Minutes later, an unnamed Italian art dealer shares his misgivings about the American way of life:
You know, . . . it is easy in America
to take a very tiny sum like five
hundred thousand dollars and turn
it into three hundred million! So
easy! But you know what? I don’t
want to. Because eet means raping
those poor fuckers the American
public even more than they are
already. You know what ees the
difference between the European
peasant and the American peasant? The American peasant eats
sheet, wears sheet, watches sheet
on TV, looks out of his window at
sheet! How can we go on raping
them and giving them more sheet
to buy!
In moments like these, Tina Brown is
the social diarist par excellence, skewering the pampered society grotesques
February 22, 2018
WireImage/Getty Images
The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983–1992
by Tina Brown.
Henry Holt, 436 pp., $32.00
Tina Brown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the Council of Fashion Designer
of America Awards, 1989; photograph by Ron Galella
of her time with a gleeful and merciless
zest. “To be a good diarist one must
have a snouty, sneaky mind,” wrote
Harold Nicolson in his 1947 diary, and
Brown is clearly in possession of Nicolson’s prerequisite. She snuffles around
like a prize truffle hog, unearthing all
the whiffiest gobbets of conversation.
Her pocket-sized sketches have the
cruel precision of caricatures by Gillray or Rowlandson and the comic verve
of Edith Wharton. “We had lunch with
the preposterous Princess Michael of
Kent,” she observes at one point,
who looked about fifteen hands
high in an orange silk wrap dress.
She has developed a mad, false
laugh and a new Lady Bracknell
voice for dealing with inferiors.
“Row-eena,” she gushed at the
cowed debutante she totes around
as her “lady-in-waiting,” “where
is the Dom Perignon? It was sitting outside but those fooools have
taken it away! Find it! (Mad false
laugh.) “Isn’t the service quite
diabolical? Do shut the kitchen
door, Rowena. I hate to stare into
a kitchen!”
Brown chronicles a world of fashion
designers and film stars, perfumiers and
politicians, each category barely distinguishable from the others. She particularly thrives on the fury caused by
injured vanity: Oscar de la Renta is furious with Bob Colacello for suggesting
that Geoffrey Beene’s business is bigger
than his. (“His business is not twenty
times bigger than mine! Mine is twenty
times bigger than his. . . .When I see that
cheap little nobody Bob Colacello he
better get out of my path because I will
knock him down.”) The owner of Sotheby’s is furious that “the wife of a New
York auction house chief” has been
identified in Vanity Fair as a former Madame Claude girl. (“Are you aware how
few auction house chiefs there are? . . .
Do you think anyone thinks it’s Mrs.
Alsop of Christie’s?”) Such contretemps suggest that little has changed
since Dorothy Parker first observed,
“To see what God thinks of money, just
look at all the people he gave it to.”
More often than not, though, Brown’s
jibes are too generalized, too hand-medown, to draw blood. Take her anthropomorphization of noses, for instance:
at first, it’s amusing to learn that Norman Podhoretz has a “hard, pitiless
nose” and that Stephen Spender has
“wonderfully malicious nostrils.” But
she employs these preassembled constructions again and again, with diminishing returns. After Carl Icahn’s “big,
humorless nose” and Warren Beatty’s
“unserious nose,” the joke wears
thin, its meaninglessness exposed by
Brown spares herself the cynicism
she accords others. In her babyishly
boastful introduction, she excitedly
tells the story of her own life as though
she were narrating the trailer for her
own biopic: “I was swept off my feet
in sophomore year by Martin Amis,
then a twenty-three-year-old literary
lothario.” An article she wrote for the
Oxford student magazine apparently
“launched me as an enfant terrible of
the British media,” though this is the
first the British media will have heard
of it. Her gooey account of her first
encounter with her husband, then Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, might
have come straight out of Fifty Shades
of Grey: “The fact that the mighty Mr.
E had read my insignificant jottings . . .
and actually wanted to meet me was, to
me, heart-stopping.” She is rarely backward in coming forward; even her humility carries a strong undercurrent of
self-satisfaction, and she is deft at making breathless elisions between her own
life and world events, as though the one
were indistinguishable from the other.
“The same month I took over the editorship of Tatler, in June 1979,” she
observes, “a new Prime Minister took
over 10 Downing Street.”
After a few years at Tatler, she was
dreaming of Manhattan, where she
had spent a three-month “sojourn”
after graduating. “I wanted to go back
to Manhattan—and conquer it,” she
writes, now firmly the star of her own
movie. As luck would have it, in the
spring of 1983, she received a call from
Alexander Liberman, the editorial director of Condé Nast, and “the strains
of Gershwin’s clarinet again began to
rise in my head.” At this point, his intentions were opaque, beyond a lunch
meeting in Manhattan. But Brown
already knew what she wanted. “A
tortured, perilous courtship for the
editorship of Vanity Fair was about
to begin” is the way she ends her
The diaries begin on April 10, 1983,
with our modern-day Becky Sharp
landing in New York City late at night,
“brimming with fear and insecurity.”
As if by magic, both these emotions
have disappeared by dawn. From then
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owever crablike her advance, it fails
to pass unnoticed. Lerman “looks at
me with awful suspicion, like a manic,
whiskery prawn, convinced I am Alex’s
spy.” Which, of course, she is. A month
passes, during which Lerman rejects
all her ideas. “Doesn’t he understand
I could save his job?” she asks. But
there’s no time for an answer. Before
the completion of that day’s entry, she
has buttonholed Condé Nast owner Si
Newhouse—who scuttles in and out
of these diaries like a goblin—and insisted to him that Lerman cannot provide leadership, and that she should be
his replacement.
By the end of that year, her dream
has come true. “Bull’s-eye! They were
offering me the job!” Significant moments in her life may be measured out
with exclamation marks. “The first
issue of my VF is on the newsstands at
last! I love the way it looks, sexy and
strong and clean!” (March 31, 1984);
“A red-letter day! Si called me upstairs
to give me a thirty-thousand-dollar
raise!” (December 14, 1987); “Vanity
Fair’s fifth anniversary party! What a
night!” (March 1, 1988); “Hooray! I
love my job! I love Vanity Fair!” (January 5, 1989).
Accordingly, her first entry for 1990
begins: “A new decade!” After five
years at Vanity Fair, her zeitgeist barometer has become supersensitive,
quivering uncontrollably at each fresh
event, her favorite adjectives—epic,
iconic, turbo-charged, hot—applied to
everything, no matter how inconsiderable or underwhelming. “It’s amazing
how fast the eighties recedes in the
back mirror,” she observes, and it’s still
only January 10. After all, “Dynasty
finally bit the dust at the end of last
year, and it now feels as antique as ancient Rome.” By the following September, she has put Roseanne Barr on the
cover because, apparently, “proletarian
chic is all the rage.”
She who lives by the zeitgeist must
die by the zeigeist. In its appetite for
the new and modern, The Vanity Fair
Diaries seems something of a period
piece, full of trappings now almost as
outdated as bustles, wing collars, and
horse-drawn carriages. In 1986, Brown
is having a drink at the Ritz-Carlton
with a flirtatious Warren Beatty (“So
your husband’s in Washington half
the week? . . . How do we progress this
now?”) when a waiter brings a tele-
it’s amazingly easy to forget two
million massacred Cambodians as
one is passing around the cheese
There is nothing nearly as nimble
in The Vanity Fair Diaries, nothing as
ambivalent or funny or close to life.
Instead, Brown makes the parties she
throws and attends sound more like
meat-processing plants, with herself as
a senior foreman, present simply to deal
with the assembled bodies, clipboard
and bolt-pistol at the ready. A beady
kind of joylessness abounds. “This
party is for a thousand careful Cinderellas,” wrote Everett, “and even if their
coaches don’t turn to taxis at midnight,
their serene fascinated faces revert to
witches’ grimaces if the evening’s lonDimitrios Kambouris/WireImage/Getty Images
on, it’s down to business. “As soon as I
woke up I rushed to the newsstand on
the corner to look for the April issue of
Vanity Fair.”
She does not like what she sees of
the newly revived magazine, and judges
that the “incomprehensible” cover
will “surely tank on the newsstand.”
Inside, there’s a “brainy but boring”
essay by Helen Vendler, a poem by
Amy Clampitt, and “a gassy run of
pages from V. S. Naipaul’s autobiography.” As her diaries unfold, her weariness with the world of literature grows
steadily more apparent. Of the handful
of authors who merit a mention, Philip
Roth is “a bit of a disappointment,” and
Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne
are “always a struggle.” Only Norman
Mailer is really up to scratch, possibly
because he represents yet another career opportunity: “I feel I want to write
down everything that comes out of his
mouth. He needs a Boswell to follow
him around.”
In her first diary entry, Brown has already set her sights on the target closest
to hand. The question is, how long can
Richard Locke survive as Vanity Fair’s
editor? By the end of the month, Locke
has been replaced, not by Brown—she
feels she ducked the offer, though it
remains unclear whether it actually
came—but by Leo Lerman from Vogue
(“Leo is about a hundred years old”).
Brown has been made a consultant,
secretly believing that “there is no way
Leo can do the VF job successfully.”
The diary entry on her first day in her
new advisory role includes what she
calls a “killer critique” of Vanity Fair,
which she has diligently copied out of
that month’s New Criterion. “Now I understand why they wanted me here so
fast,” she concludes.
Tina Brown with Henry and Nancy Kissinger at the Four Seasons for a party
to celebrate Rudolph Giuliani’s book Leadership, New York City, 2002
phone to the table. Two years later,
Brown is proud to have coined the term
“Acceleration Syndrome,” because “car
phones and call waiting and home faxes
are making everything so revved up.”
The pages are packed full with the
relics of a bygone age—“the megarich Reliance Insurance tycoon Saul
Steinberg and his trophy wife, a slim
brunette bombshell called Gayfryd,”
“Paul Marciano, the marketing wiz behind the Guess Jeans ads,” and so on,
ad infinitum—mysteries to all but the
most dedicated social antiquarian. At
Vanity Fair’s fifth anniversary party,
Brown ends the night conga-ing with
Henry Kissinger, who would have been
redolent of an earlier era even back
then. The Kissingers were, as always,
the first to arrive, along with Dennis
Hopper and Jackie Collins. In Rupert Everett’s witty memoir, Vanished
Years, the actor recalled a similarly
lavish, similarly random party thrown
by Brown and the then still-greetable
Harvey Weinstein in 1999 to launch the
epic, iconic, turbo-charged, hot Talk
magazine. Everett arrived with Madonna, to find Kissinger already there:
Omygod, I think, this is the man
who dragged Cambodia into the
Vietnam War, but of course I say
nothing, even when a waitress
comes by to ask what we want to
“What’s on the menu?” asks
Kissinger, and I can barely restrain
myself from shrieking, “What’s on
the menu, Henry? Would that be
Operation Menu?”
Instead I obsequiously offer to
go and fetch some nibbles. With
success comes compromise, and
gevity exceeds by a minute the schedule prescribed by their publicist.”
Yet with her quiver of exclamation
marks, Brown persists in portraying
herself as the wide-eyed ingenue, even
when she is taking an ax to her underlings. Perhaps the most chilling phrase
in the diaries is “Gotta clean house.”
Soon after being appointed editor of
Vanity Fair, Brown hears that a production editor has been complaining behind her back about rushed deadlines.
She is furious. The production editor
attempts to appease her with praise,
but it is too little, too late. Within a few
weeks, she is out. “Got back from Florida refreshed and fired Linda Rice,”
Brown writes. And then she adds,
breezily, “Gotta clean house.” Little
Orphan Annie has turned into Lizzie
Borden, running amok with the ax: “A
few days away made me determined
to remove negative elements from the
office.” More casualties follow. In one
particularly frosty passage—strangely
reminiscent of Armando Iannucci’s
recent movie The Death of Stalin—
Newhouse goads her by asking, “Do
you have a problem with firing people, Tina? I wouldn’t have thought
you did.”
“No,” I replied. “And I feel I
should start firing a few who are
making problems.”
“All at once or one by one?” I
felt he was teasing me now.
“I will let you know,” I said.
I immediately went downstairs
and kissed good-bye to Locke’s
golden girl Moira Hodgson. She
writes well but her resentful poThe New York Review
litesse has been getting on my
A large part of the book is taken up
with office politics, presumably more
interesting to those involved and their
immediate family and friends than to
the rest of us. Might it be of use as a
manual for aspiring editors? Brown offers little nuggets of advice, not least
eternal vigilance, but it is doubtful that
the set formula she has worked out by
July 1984—“Celeb cover to move the
newsstand, juicy news narrative like
Vicki Morgan, A-list literary piece, visual escapism, revealing political profile, fashion. If we nail each of these
per issue it’s gonna work”—could be
successfully transferred to any other
magazine over thirty years later.
“Juicy news narrative” invariably involves the murder of and/or by someone
extremely wealthy and/or glamorous.
If there has been a shortage of wellheeled slaughter that month, then an
untimely death must suffice. On June
17, 1986, Brown records the news that
“Olivia Channon, the Guinness heiress
and Oxford undergraduate, overdosed
on heroin and died.” Bingo! Her excitement is palpable, though she is careful
to cloak it in sympathy. (“Who let her
down?”) Within a week, Brown has
hotfooted it to Oxford, researcher and
notebook at her side, busily attempting
to “re-create her story” for Vanity Fair.
As it happens, her article never appeared, a fact that passes unmentioned
in the diaries, which are devoted to
narratives of professional success, not
personal failure.
Brown does not share Pepys’s ability
to detach the diarist from the self; there
is an element of personal PR in almost
everything she writes. In one entry,
Harold Evans makes what Brown calls
“the cunning point” that “people believe what they see in print even if it
happens to be in your own publication.” Acting on this advice, she starts
introducing excited reports of Vanity
Fair’s epic, iconic, turbo-charged, hot
success into her editor’s letters. Any
candor is largely restricted to people
other than herself, many of them, like
Leo Lerman, now safely dead and buried. But in one area of her own life she
is remarkably frank.
By and large, the diary form follows
the vicissitudes of life too closely for a
shape or clear themes to emerge, but
one way of reading The Vanity Fair
Diaries is as the record of one woman’s gradual realization of her everincreasing market value. In this, she is
free with her facts and figures: when
she takes over the editorship, she accepts a salary of $130,000. Within six
months, her agent, Mort Janklow, tells
her that she has been offered “in the region of 250K” for a novel. She has never
written one before, but that is not the
reason she hesitates: “The catch is, I
have no time to write it.”
In under four years, her stock has
risen high enough for Swifty Lazar to
phone her with the question, “How
does two million dollars sound to
you? . . . that’s what I can get for a novel
by you.” Four months later, Newhouse
raises her salary by a further $100,000.
But this is peanuts: within a year, she
has hired a lawyer to up the stakes.
“Thanks to Mort, five years in I am
now paid six hundred thousand a year
on a three-year contract with a millionFebruary 22, 2018
dollar bonus at the end, plus my parents taken care of and no debt on our
apartment.” That debt, with Newhouse,
mentioned almost as an afterthought,
had been for $300,000.
The decisiveness she brings to her
job is less evident in her life beyond it.
Throughout the diaries, she seesaws, to
the point of tedium, between wanting
to live in the US and wanting to live
in England. One moment, she is mad
about New York; the next, for London,
and then it’s New York, and then it’s
back to London. “My fascination with
New York success is beginning to pall,”
she writes on New Year’s Eve, 1985.
“In fact, I realize more and more, I love
New York City, period. London seems
to get smaller and smaller to me,” she
writes on May 7, 1986.
Her prose, too, whips restlessly back
and forth across the Atlantic, often
within the course of the same sentence.
Rupert Everett neatly described it as
“the hilarious compromise an English
speaker arrives at with the American
dialect.” At times, she reminds me of an
escaped prisoner in a hammy B-movie,
desperately hoping to pass herself off
as a native abroad, having memorized
a dodgy phrasebook. “Gotta get some
movie-star covers and see what’s popping on the West Coast after so long
holed up in long-knived Manhattan,”
she writes on a plane to Los Angeles.
Hyperbole acts on her diaries like a
virus. At one point, she describes the
launch party for her husband’s book
as being “so high powered the energy
threatened to lift the lid off the restaurant.” Elsewhere, articles “explode,”
glamour is “drop-dead,” and, come
December, New York’s pace “hots up
to a burning crescendo.” Meeting Michael Jackson, she judges him “a Mozartian kind of genius,” and does not
stop there. “His gift, like that of anyone world-class, is fostered by lonely
discipline, obliterating obsession, and
the desperate drive for the extinction
of ego by the gift itself.”
A pivotal word in her diaries is
“buzz.” In July 1985, she rails against
it: “I’m sick of people writing about
the ‘buzz’ I ‘create’ with Vanity Fair. . . .
They call it ‘buzz.’ I call it engagement. I feel a nagging sense this ‘buzz’
bullshit would not keep being said
about a male editor.” But before long
she has forgotten her high-minded objections; as the diary progresses, she
begins sprinkling the word approvingly. “By week’s end the buzz on the
new VF was deafening,” she writes in
February 1991. “I expected some buzz,
but not what is unfolding,” she observes
the following July, after the naked and
pregnant Demi Moore has appeared on
the cover.
Buzz is what she does; the busy buzz
of self-promotion—hers, her friends’
and her enemies’—is the background
noise throughout these diaries. In
1986, someone called the Countess of
Romanones telephones Brown from
Acapulco following the death of the
Duchess of Windsor. It is the countess’s
duty to escort the duchess’s corpse to
its final resting place in the shadow of
Windsor Castle. She wants Vanity Fair
to provide a free seat on the Concorde
and to ask a top designer to supply her
with a free funeral outfit. Brown relays
this tale of avarice and insensitivity
with her usual gusto. “Is there anyone
left who is not hustling?” she asks. Sensibly, she does not look to herself for an
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Latest political hot air! “Barnhart treats
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228 pages
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An Unending Search for Freedom
by Norman Bodek
The Ballad of Jim Allison and Thunderbird Recording
by Tom Ryerson
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In 1974 Big Jim Allison opens his own
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by Curtis F. Jones
A Medical Memoir
by Jerome P. Kassirer, M.D.
A basic reference on military action in the
Middle East over the past 100 years, and
an unsparing evaluation of US policy. As
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served seven tours in the region, and five
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Riveting account of ethical and personal
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their passionate journey tests the boundaries of love and touches upon the ‘art of
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February 22, 2018
Who Killed
Frank Olson?
Michael Ignatieff
Eric Olson with his father, Frank Olson, Frederick, Maryland, late 1940s; from Errol Morris’s Wormwood
a six-part Netflix series
directed by Errol Morris
“Wormwood, wormwood,” Hamlet
mutters as he absorbs the realization
that his mother was complicit in the
murder of his father. Eric Olson uses
Hamlet’s word when, at the end of
Errol Morris’s devastating Wormwood,
he sums up what it means, finally, to
know that his own father, a biochemist employed at the US weapons laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland, did
not die in an accidental fall from a New
York hotel window in November 1953,
did not take his own life after being administered LSD as the authorities had
claimed since 1975, but was in fact executed on orders from his superiors in
the Central Intelligence Agency.
When Morris asks at the end of the
film what it means for Eric to know
this, he replies: “You think you’re
going to find peace of mind? What’s
that consist of? You’re going to find out
that your father was murdered by the
CIA. Feel better now? . . .Wormwood.
It’s all bitter.”
Olson was nine years old when he last
felt his father’s touch grazing his head
as he went out the door of their woodframe house in Frederick, Maryland,
never to return. It was in that house that
about a week later, his father’s superior
at the CIA woke the family up and told
them that Frank Olson had suffered
a fatal accident. Eric was told that his
father “fell” or “jumped” from a hotel
window. Even a nine-year- old knew
that “fell” and “jumped” meant two
different things, and in the space between the two words a doubt grew that
was to consume his whole life. He lives
to this day in the same house where he
heard that first lie. Now he knows that
the right word was “dropped.” Agents
working for the CIA knocked Olson
unconscious and dropped him from
the window. Does such knowledge give
him a feeling of vindication, having
sought it for so long? “I needed truth a
long time ago,” he tells Morris. “Truth
is no good to me now.”
In writing about the Eric Olson
story, I can’t pretend any detachment.
We were graduate students at Harvard
in the 1970s, and we’ve stayed close
since then. In 2001, I wrote a piece
for The New York Times Magazine
about his case. Writing it made me
aware of just how reluctant I was—
and still am—to believe, although I’m
not even an American citizen, that the
US government could have done what
Eric came to believe it had done to his
father. To believe such a thing was,
in Eric’s words, “to leave the known
Though I still resist the facts, the
facts, as Olson’s research has established, are that Allen Dulles, Richard
Helms, and other unnamed persons
at the highest levels of the American
government ordered the death of Eric’s
father because they feared he knew too
much about US biological warfare during the Korean War and about the torture and execution of Soviet agents and
ex-Nazi “expendables” in black sites in
Europe during the early 1950s. Having killed him, the CIA confected the
story that Olson’s death was a suicide
brought on by stress, and later attributed his jump from the window to the
effects of a cocktail laced with LSD. It
now appears that the LSD was administered, at a CIA retreat in Maryland,
to discover exactly what Olson knew.
When this experiment revealed that he
was indeed “unreliable,” he was taken
to New York and disposed of.
The initial crime was compounded
by a cover-up that enveloped Olson’s
family in a fog of silent misery and bafflement. In 1975, when the story that
Olson had been given LSD first broke
in The Washington Post, the family
was quickly invited to the White House
and received an apology in the Oval
Office from President Ford. The scene
was arranged by Donald Rumsfeld
and Dick Cheney, Ford’s most important staffers, and it was followed by a
meeting between the family and William Colby, then head of the CIA, at
the agency’s headquarters in Langley,
Virginia. Colby gave them documents
that had been carefully selected and redacted to support the story that Olson
had committed suicide after being administered LSD. Soon after the meeting with Colby, the Olson family was
maneuvered into a compensation deal
in return for renouncing their right to
pursue the matter further in the courts.
The story might have ended there but
for Eric’s determination, like Hamlet’s,
to establish the truth of his father’s
death and to avenge him, to restore his
lost honor by establishing that he was
not an unreliable and suicidal depressive, as his superiors depicted him, but
a troubled patriot wrestling with the
burden of what to do once he realized
that his country had used his science to
commit crimes of war.
ric remains the only friend I have
who has entirely left the known universe of belief that the American state
remains a government of laws rather
than a regime of covert violence. For
leaving that universe he has paid a
price as bitter as wormwood. I’ve been
divided all my life about that price:
truth is better than lies, of course, but
disentangling the two can destroy faith
in institutions and in people and drain
away your happiness. You can tell from
Eric’s eyes, when the camera comes to
rest on him in the series, that living in
a world without any trusting illusions
is bleak and comfortless. I’ve told Eric
many times, as have other friends, that
enough is enough, but he’s gone ahead
anyway, with a cold- eyed courage I admire but find painful to watch. He challenges me: What else can I do? Could
you live with these lies?
Now the six-part Netflix series has
gone out to millions of people who will
view it, one hopes, as both Olson and
Morris intend: as a parable of American misuse of power in its moment of
hegemony. It may force some viewers
to leave their known universe of trust
in government, while for those who’ve
already left, the series will just confirm
what they believe. My question is about
the generation born after the cold war.
What will they make of Wormwood
after Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, WikiLeaks, and all the revelations that the US government has spied
on its own citizens and tried to cover up
the truth? One generation’s shocking
truth may be the next generation’s banality. Truth, in other words, may have
a sell-by date. Will Wormwood be seen,
by a younger generation, as nothing
more than an evening’s binge-watch?
I won’t try to review Wormwood because I’m too close to judge what kind
of a binge-watch it might be. The question of whether Morris’s mix of period
reenactment, found footage, and interviews “works” is not one that I can
answer, except to say that, as far as I
could judge, it is scrupulous about the
facts as I know them. But accuracy is
not what makes the series troubling,
at least for me. When it depicts Frank
Olson falling from the thirteenth floor
of the Statler Hotel on Seventh Avenue
in New York at 2:30 AM on November
28, 1953, I can’t stand back and assess Errol Morris’s skill in reenacting
the scene because I find myself asking
what it would be like for Eric to see
the reenactment, his father falling and
lying crumpled, still alive, but moaning
his last breath. The question for me is
whether the reenactment affords Eric a
moment of catharsis or just more bleak
Instead of admiring Morris’s skill,
I find myself thinking about why Eric
would put himself through the ordeal
of collaborating with Morris in the first
place. He might, after all, have rested
content with what, by the late 1990s, he
knew already. He might have decided
to “move on.” Instead, he returned to
appear in a four-hour marathon to tell
the story to a vast new audience. The
question is why.
Here we get into complicated territory about why people disclose terrible
stories to strangers, in this case a large
television audience. Tolstoy’s great
story The Kreutzer Sonata—about a
man who tells a complete stranger on
a train the story of his miserable marriage and murder of his wife—asks the
same question. What is this compulsion to narrate? Is pain shared pain
relieved? Or is it just the hopeless
display of scars? A futile search for
For me, the most disturbing scene
in Wormwood, indeed the most difficult moment in Eric Olson’s quest, occurred in 1994 when, after the death of
his mother, he decided to exhume his
father’s body and allow a forensic pathologist to examine it. I knew Eric had
done this, but I had not realized that he
had allowed an amateur cameraman to
videotape both the exhumation and the
uncovering of the body. Morris includes
the footage in Wormwood: we follow
Eric into the lab and catch a glimpse of
the corpse itself, still covered in a decaying and blackened funeral shroud.
The New York Review
Eric tells Morris on camera that he
touched his father’s skull and surveyed
his father’s penis, as the body lay unwrapped on the slab. We are here at the
outer limits of what sons should see and
what they should disclose. All truth is
good, we like to believe, but not all
truth is good to show or to say.
These filmic decisions to show and dis-
close flow from the entire Olson project
to find the truth at whatever cost. Yet
the question remains: Would you exhume your own father’s body, allow it
to be dismembered and displayed? Eric
has paid full price for these decisions
and would argue, as he does in the film,
that the exhumation provided proof
that his father was struck on the head
before he was thrown out of the window. Without exhumation, therefore,
no truth.
The project that Olson and Morris
share is to coldly expose the illusion
that the truth shall make you free. The
phrase, after all, is inscribed in the entrance hallway of CIA headquarters in
Virginia. The CIA’s appropriation of it
is beyond irony, but for the rest of us
there is the therapeutic implication that
human beings can recover from anything once they call a hurt by its name
and trace it back to its deepest roots.
In place of such consoling thoughts, the
American writer Liam Rector wrote a
poem in 2000 with these concluding
America likes to think
Every one can recover from
every thing,
But about this,
Especially, America is wrong.
If telling painful stories does not
help us to recover from them, what
then is the point of Wormwood? Eric’s
answer—and Morris’s too—would be
that the purpose of truth-telling is not
therapy but politics. Eric says at one
point that the truth has to be shared
for it to be truth at all. What is truth
if only you know it? In this case, the
truth cannot become truth unless it
is acknowledged as a public fact, and
if the American government will not
provide this acknowledgment, then the
next best thing would be validation by
a mass television audience.
Such validation, however, is only the
next best thing. Eric Olson knows that
it’s not enough to dig up his father’s
body, not enough to track down witnesses, comb the records, launch legal
suits. The final confirmation—and the
closure, if such a thing is possible—
must come from the ultimate source,
the CIA itself. Eric admits, in the film,
that he cannot rid himself of the belief
that somewhere in the agency’s innermost vault, on a shelf, in a dust-covered
box, in a folder, there must be some
final proof that Frank Olson’s death
was not a suicide, not a murder, but an
execution. There must be some yellowing piece of paper that will confirm, at
last, that everything Eric knows actually happened.
The person most likely to know
whether such a piece of paper exists
and to know the old-timer who could
sign himself into the vault to find it is
the investigative reporter Seymour
Hersh, now eighty years old. He has reported on the story for nearly as long
as Eric has pursued the truth. In the
February 22, 2018
final episode of the series, Hersh says
that he believes Eric’s version, but refuses to provide the final confirmation
he has been seeking. Hersh tells Morris
that protecting his sources has to prevail over disclosure: “I can’t say what
I know without putting somebody in
jeopardy, so I can’t do it.”
We are left to speculate why. Either
to protect himself, or because he genuinely revels in keeping a secret, Hersh
tells Morris that he shouldn’t be looking to tie the Olson story up in a neat
bow. Morris agrees, saying, “Part of
the story is the fact that you can’t tell
the whole story.” Then Hersh adds
that “the fact that [Eric] can’t get closure . . .will be of great satisfaction to
the CIA. The old-timers, they’ll love
it. . . . The tradecraft won. It’s a victory for them . . . one for them, zero for
us.” One can only hope that a day will
come when Hersh decides to deny the
old-timers their victory. If he doesn’t,
they will carry their secrets to their
graves, and Eric’s version of the truth
will never have official confirmation.
But that very idea—of government as
the final validator of truth—may have
died a long time ago, even as far back
as the Warren Commission, which was
supposed to establish the truth of the
Kennedy assassination and instead furthered a generation’s worth of paranoid
At one point in Wormwood, Eric
Olson stands back from his own narrative and asks, “What is this story
about?” What is the ultimate frame
in which it finds its meaning? The answer may be that his father’s story is
an important chapter in the history of
Americans’ ceasing to believe in their
government as a source of truth. President Ford’s false apology to the family belongs with the lies that surround
the secret bombing of Cambodia in
1969–1970 and the Watergate breakin and flow forward, in a slowly cumulating narrative of betrayal that now
encompasses lies about the torture of
detainees after September 11 and the
stories revealed by Edward Snowden
and Chelsea Manning. Taken one by
one, such episodes can be dismissed as
regrettable exceptions. As a pattern,
they undermine the fundamentals of
democratic faith.
It may be sentimental to imagine that
there ever was a time when Americans
entirely believed their government, but
anyone born during the cold war cannot help feeling that a process of damage and disillusion began in the 1950s
and has not stopped since. Wormwood
was released at the end of the first year
of the Trump presidency, which is built
on this cumulative narrative of loss of
faith and trust in the American state
and its government. Without this sixtyyear narrative, how could we begin to
explain how a president could get away
with constant attacks on the credibility
of his own country’s intelligence agencies? It was and is right to demand accountability from these agencies and
to unearth, as Olson has done, the dire
truths they have sought to conceal for
so long. Eric has done all that one man
can do in the service of the truth, but if
truth has no consequences, if the secret
agencies cannot be made answerable to
the people they protect, the result can
only be ever increasing public disillusion with the American state. Donald
Trump has feasted on the disillusion.
This might be the most bitter legacy of
Eric Olson’s quest for truth.
Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of great twentiethcentury novels. Taking off from the work of John
Dos Passos and James Joyce, Alfred Döblin
depicts modern life in all its shocking violence,
corruption, splendor, and horror.
Alfred Döblin
Franz Biberkopf, pimp and petty thief, has just
finished serving a term in prison for murdering
his girlfriend. He’s on his own in Weimar Berlin
with its lousy economy and frontier morality, but
Franz is determined to turn over new leaf, get
ahead, make an honest man of himself, and
so on and so forth. He hawks papers, chases
girls, needs and bleeds money, gets mixed up
in various criminal and political schemes in spite
of himself, and when he tries to back out of
them, it’s at the cost of an arm. This is only the
beginning of our modern everyman’s multiplying
misfortunes, but though Franz is more dupe
than hustler, in the end, well, persistence is
rewarded and things might be said to work out.
A new translation from the
German by Michael Hofmann Michael Hofmann, celebrated for his translations
of Joseph Roth and Franz Kafka, has prepared
a new version, the first in more than seventyfive years, in which Döblin’s sublime and scurrilous masterpiece comes alive in English as
“Hofmann’s version is vigorous and
fresh, bringing Döblin to a new never before.
generation of readers. A welcome
refurbishing of a masterpiece of literary
modernism, one of the most significant
German novels of the 20th century.”
—Kirkus, starred review
“The story of Franz Biberkopf is the
Éducation sentimentale of the petty
thief. The most extreme, dizzying, last,
and most advanced embodiment of the
old bourgeois bildungsroman.”
—Walter Benjamin
“I found myself reading Berlin Alexanderplatz in
a way that you could hardly call reading—more
like devouring, gobbling, gulping down. And these
expressions still don’t do justice to that way of
reading, which dangerously often wasn’t reading
at all, but more life, suffering, despair, and fear.”
—Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Available in bookstores, call (646) 215-2500,
or visit
“The best autobiography ever written. . .
The old viscount could write one hell of
a sentence. It’s an incredible book.”
—Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions
Written over the course of four decades, FrançoisRené de Chateaubriand’s epic autobiography
has drawn the admiration of Baudelaire, Flaubert,
Proust, Barthes, and Sebald.
Here, in the first books of his massive
Memoirs, spanning the years 1768 to 1800,
Chateaubriand looks back on the already bygone
world of his youth.
François-René de
A new translation from the
French by Alex Andriesse
He recounts the history of his aristocratic
family and the first rumblings of the French
Revolution. He recalls playing games on the
beaches of Saint-Malo, wandering in the woods
near his father’s castle in Combourg, hunting
with King Louis XVI at Versailles, witnessing the
first heads carried on pikes through the streets
of Paris, meeting with George Washington in
Philadelphia, and falling hopelessly in love with
a young woman named Charlotte in the small
Suffolk town of Bungay. The volume ends with
Chateaubriand’s return to France after seven
years of exile in England.
Introduction by Anka Muhlstein In this new edition (the first unabridged English
“To read Chateaubriand is to witness
the subjective and yet comprehensive
unfolding of a society’s change:
of customs, prospects, ethics,
conventions. He stands (as in the
famous portrait by Girodet) on the
farther shore.” —Alberto Manguel
translation of any portion of the Memoirs to be
published in more than a century), Chateaubriand
emerges as a writer of great wit and clarity, a
self-deprecating egotist whose meditations on
the meaning of history, memory, and morality
are leavened with a mixture of high whimsy
and memorable gloom.
Available in bookstores, call (646) 215-2500,
or visit
Toughing It Out in Cairo
I admit that when I began these notes
in the autumn of 2014, some six months
after the election of Egyptian president
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the previous May,
I wanted to build a case in support of el
shaab (the people). By that I mean the
unprecedented number of Egyptians
who had taken to the streets the summer
before, calling for the army to assist in
the ouster of then president Mohamed
Morsi. The grievances against the Islamist president were many, including
violence perpetrated by his Freedom
and Justice Party and the most overreaching power grab of any Egyptian
president (he granted himself extrajudicial constitutional powers). Amid a
rapidly declining economy and a general sense of disarray, popular dissent
had escalated. Millions of Egyptians
poured into the streets, underhandedly
encouraged by long-standing forces of
the “deep state”—the army and state
security services.
In the months following Morsi’s removal by the military in July 2013,
described nationally as “the second
revolution” and internationally as “a
military coup,” I kept a notebook of
the varying descriptions of Egyptians
in the international press. They were
criticized for their call to topple a freely
and fairly elected leader. The question
of morals and ideals recurred. Mention
was even made of abandoning “morality” for short-term political gains.
Although I understood that my circumstances were particular, as well as
privileged—from the neighborhood I
lived in to the school I went to—I was
not so naive as to think that military
rule would not infringe on my life.
There were many precedents in our history: crackdowns on activists, newspaper editors, writers, and “debauchery,”
which is legally defined here as anything that falls outside marital bounds.
The last of these has been a witch-hunt.
I convinced myself that lives like mine
were peripheral to a nascent political
discourse. Setting out to defend the actions and choices of the beleaguered
working class seemed virtuous. I realized only later that these different sets
of interests—of personal and political
freedoms, and basic standards of living—were all inseparable.
In search of my story, I got in my car
and drove east in mid-May 2015 from
Cairo to Suez. Nine months earlier,
Sisi had announced the revival of a
decades- old “mega-project” to expand the 150-year- old Suez Canal.
He pledged that the project would be
finished in exactly twelve months, and
that every Egyptian would see “immediate returns.” I was skeptical about the
promised date of completion and drove
through the desert to see for myself.
Celebratory billboards lined the route
leading out of the city, as if the project
was already complete. At the site of
construction, I was told that the army
had been working round the clock.
The new canal was in fact inaugurated on August 6, 2015, twelve months
Siegfried Woldhek
Yasmine El Rashidi
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi
to the day from when the project was
first announced, and thousands of
Egyptians took to the streets in celebration. Downtown Cairo was awash
in flags and fireworks, music, flashing
strobe-light shows, and animal-themed
blow-up dolls as tall as townhouses
whose only visible relationship to
the canal might have been symbolic,
in their exaggerated size. It brought
back memories of the day in February
2011 when President Hosni Mubarak
stepped down.
Acting as a government mouthpiece,
the local press described the New Suez
Canal as “Egypt’s gift to the world”
and “the great Egyptian dream.” The
foreign press generally referred to the
“$8 billion Suez Canal expansion that
the world may not need.” A former
ship captain explained to me: “Eight
percent of global sea trade currently
passes through the Suez Canal. By multiplying capacity, you’re multiplying the
number of ships that will save the extra
ten days and 9,000 kilometers that it
takes to sail around the Cape of Good
Hope.” If a 35-kilometer portion of
the 164-kilometer artificial waterway
that connects the Mediterranean to
the Red Sea were expanded to make a
two-way channel, the eleven-hour wait
time of ships passing through would be
reduced to three. Seventy-four more
ships could pass through the canal each
day. Annual canal revenue would double by 2023.
The financing of the project under
Sisi was shrewd—a tax-free public bond
with certificates in denominations as
low as ten Egyptian pounds (marketed
to students), and a 12 percent interest rate with the option of quarterly
payouts. The necessary $8 billion was
raised in a week. People everywhere
spoke of having put their savings into
Suez Canal bonds. Lives felt quantifiably changed—I heard references to
“free money.”
In that same inaugural summer,
France sold Egypt twenty-four Rafale
fighter jets, some of which flew over the
city on a Friday in July, rattling windows
and roaring into the lull of a blistering
afternoon during Ramadan. Someone
on Twitter called the air show “juvenile,” and a stream of snide remarks in
English followed, but as the planes flew
overhead, I watched people who were
waiting for the bus downtown burst
into applause. It was the same reaction
I had seen months earlier when shiny
new black, armed police jeeps began to
circulate in the streets of the city, sirens
sounding, back windows open, masked
men with guns peering out. It was,
when I thought of it, directly linked to
the illusion of safety. After the turmoil
of recent years, it was about a tangible
measure of change.
What strikes me most vividly about
that time is the discrepancy between
what I was experiencing on the streets
and the narratives I was reading on
social media and in the international
press. This, I realized, was the critical
distance between emotion and intellect, between the democratic ideals of
what a place should be and the symbolic changes that have no significant
impact on the quality of everyday life
but cause a palpable emotional effect
in people.
Later that year, in the fall of 2015,
while I was having breakfast with my
father and his friends at the local sporting club, debating the worsening condition of human rights, a young waiter
who was friendly with my father excused himself for interjecting and said,
“Sorry to contradict you, but human
rights begin with the conditions under
which we live. The revolution made life
harder for us—us being the poor—so
of course when they arrest these activists, I say it’s for the better, we can’t afford another revolution. We can hardly
afford to eat each day.” I asked the
waiter about his salary (200 pounds a
month, then about $25), and whether
he had been to Tahrir and supported
the protests in 2011. “Of course,” he replied, “like everyone, I wanted a better
quality of life.”
By then it was December, four
months after the opening of the new
canal, and, aside from those who had
bought bonds and received the first
payout, most people I heard began describing it as el- tira’a (a sewer). When
I asked one woman, Sabah, a cook
who juggles jobs in six homes each
week, why her opinion of the canal
had changed, she said: “They promised
revenues and immediate returns, and
now everyone says revenues are down.
Where are the immediate returns? The
project has failed.”
The success of Sisi and his government had quickly come to be measured
by the concrete effects their symbolic
gestures had on daily life. The canal,
four months later, was a failure against
the measure of “immediate returns,”
but the president, as yet, was not. For
those like Sabah, her income and residential address had entitled her to
government assistance. Sisi reimplemented this program, along with others adapted from the Nasser days, but
now with a much higher monthly allowance for each eligible family, and
no longer limited to cooking oil and
sugar. Sabah’s new monthly allowance
for her family of five stood at four kilograms of meat, 100 rolls of bread, a
bag of oranges, three kilos of tomatoes,
two packets of sugar, two bottles of oil,
a sack of rice, and access to a range of
government-subsidized goods (garbage
bags, soap, canned products, fresh vegetables, frozen chicken).
This, she said, if one were to be
“fair” and “despite the failure of the
canal,” had to be acknowledged as one
of the “great successes” of Sisi’s year
in office. At a government-subsidized
co- op, people told me that by today’s
standards these supplies were “as good
as free.” They also reminded me about
the increases in state salaries, the exemption from public school fees that
year, the implementation of the Dignity welfare cash program for the elderly and disabled, and the 15 percent
increases in state pensions; one woman
tapped on my notebook insistently and
asked me to write that down.
The New York Review
Yet later in the winter, there was a
sense of disappointment—a gap between the expectations of what a president could accomplish immediately
and what had actually materialized.
Experienced through the glaring lens
of the past six years, however, Sisi was
still seen as “the savior.” “His intentions are good,” people would say, “his
heart is with the country.” Sisi was no
Nasser, but his nationalist credentials
as a former army general lent him credibility. He also spoke the language of
the street—his public speeches were
matter- of-fact and colloquial.
ists, whose son Alaa Abdel Fattah is
serving a five-year prison sentence on
trumped-up charges; or the team behind the online paper Mada Masr, led
by the journalist and editor Lina Attalah, who continued to publish despite
scrutiny and censorship (the paper’s
website was eventually blocked, along
with 127 others). The risks of human
rights work had become almost prohibitive, with arrests, disappearances, and
travel bans all commonplace. I counted
the number of activists, academics, and
artists who had left the country, and
friends who were emigrating. Regeni’s
name often came up in conversations—
his murder lingered in our minds.
More and more of my friends and acquaintances were expressing discomfort,
I spent the remainder of the winter and
even fear, over the punitive and increasthe spring of 2016 away, in New York
ingly severe measures taken by the state.
on a fellowship, followA friend’s activist neighing the news in detail
bor was dragged from
from afar. I conducted
his home in the night and
interviews by Viber and
disappeared for four days
by proxy, taking notes
on allegations of being an
as I tried to keep up with
“Islamist sympathizer”
events at home. Discon(he was not); a writer was
tent surged in February
imprisoned, on grounds
over the shifting official
of “offending public moraccounts of what had
als,” for sexually explicit
happened to Giulio Rescenes in a novel; gay
geni, an Italian graduate
men were being hunted
student who disappeared
by undercover police on
and was then found dead
the hookup app Grindr;
on a highway in Cairo, his
a poet was jailed on charbody bearing marks of
ges of “blasphemy” and
severe torture. Everyone
“contempt of religion”
I spoke to expressed outfor calling the slaughter
rage and disbelief. Diploof sheep during a Mus‘Boy at Moulid,’ Luxor, Egypt, 2006; photograph by Laura El-Tantawy
matic relations between
lim feast “the most horrifrom her book In the Shadow of the Pyramids, published in 2015
Italy and Egypt were
ble massacre committed
threatened, and rumors
by humans”; two women
from Cairo to a “smart hub” being built
were circulating that Regeni had been
were threatened with jail for allegedly
in the desert? This last one was met
killed by the police to undermine mili“kissing” in a car (they were not). It
with muffled grumbles, but the answers
tary intelligence and the army. A former
was around this time that I started to
to the others were invariably: “The govparliamentarian told me at the time that
become conscious of what I kept on
ernment’s job is to keep us fed, and at
the murder might have been a mistake—
my phone and downloaded a virtual
least the country is safe again.” The vitorture gone too far—but that “there are
private network to divert my Web presolent tumult of the jihadi stronghold in
deep tensions between the two factions
ence from Cairo to Italy.
Sinai was far enough from the everyday
of intelligence in the country, and it puts
I also observed, in myself and my
life of the city that it hardly figured into
the country at some peril.”
friends, how inured we had become
this feeling of safety; it did, however,
Regeni’s murder extended beyond
to the events of our own recent hisjustify for people the extreme crackthe bounds of what we had come to extory, which were landmarked by the
down on Islamists. (TV anchors regupect from even the most brutal of insites where they had occurred: this
larly lamented attacks on conscripts in
terrogations, and friends talked about
was where the Copts got trampled by
the Sinai and spoke of “Egypt’s war on
it for months afterward. Then in April,
army tanks; on this street corner I saw
the president declared that two Red
a pile of dead bodies; here supporters
More and more, on the streets of
Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, long
of Morsi opened fire on young activists;
Cairo, in government offices, and in
perceived as Egypt’s, fell within the
there two hundred people were killed
informal settlements on the outskirts
territorial waters of Saudi Arabia and
at the hands of the police; and this was
of the city, I heard references to Syria:
would be transferred to the kingdom.
where the prosecutor general was assas“We could have ended up like them.”
Public attention shifted to this new
sinated by a car bomb. It was only as I
Disappointment seemed to be brackdeclaration, which brought revolutionmade these mental notes that I realized
eted by this comparison. Islamist supary and pro-government Egyptians
how I, too, had slipped into some variaporters with whom I had long-standing
together in opposition to it. The handotion of the so- called inertia. A friend
relations were harder to engage; those
ver hit a deep nationalistic nerve—it
one evening described our often-dulled
I did get through to generally shook
was seen as a “selling out” that unresponses to news and events that once
their heads, shrugged, and said there
dermined Egypt’s sovereignty—and
enraged us as a type of PTSD.
was “nothing to say.”
Egypt’s courts halted it, overruling
Egyptians were commonly criticized
Sisi, who eventually overruled them.
as “apathetic” or “inert,” but they might
There were murmurs of another revomore accurately have been described
lution and scattered small-scale proIf there was a logic to the emotional
as “passive.” Government employees,
tests. Over 150 protesters were arrested
and practical calculus that kept dissent
people tending to their lives, those who
and jailed. But revolutionary sentiment
at bay during the first two years of Sisi’s
spoke and those who did not—all were
then ebbed sharply in May, when an
presidency, it was widely thought that
making a calculated choice. Passivity has
EgyptAir flight from Paris crashed into
the events of November 2016 might
been their particular mode of survival.
the Mediterranean, killing all sixtyundermine his rule. As a result of seThis same passive disposition had
six people on board and stirring pity
verely dwindling currency reserves, the
come to mark many of the rest of
among Egyptians for their country and
government was forced to implement a
us too—activists, intellectuals, and
its government.
series of long- overdue austerity meapeople on the left. I kept tabs on the
When I returned home to Cairo
sures to secure a $12 billion loan from
shrinking number of people who
in June, there was a general sense of
the IMF. The risks of implementing the
showed up to protest, and then on the
calm, and as I tended to paperwork at
loan program were described by the
decreasing number of protests. Only
the government’s central administraagency’s staff as “significant.” Morsi had
a handful of people still voiced their
tive building over the summer, I asked
considered these same measures but
dissent, including Laila Soueif, the mathe several dozen clerks who handled
backed out after a public outcry. Sisi had
triarch of a family of longtime activmy papers about the general state of
Laura El-Tantawy/Neutral Grey
things. When I asked about inflation
and the cost of living, they would shake
their heads, but thank God we can still
put food on our tables. What about the
shortages of certain food supplies?
Thank God the army is stepping in and
providing them. And the battle over
the dam being built by Ethiopia that
will threaten Egypt’s water supply? It
would be a catastrophe, but thank God
Sisi is a statesman.
I might have asked: What about the
shutting down of publishing houses
and cultural spaces? What about the
activists in jail? What about the prison
sentences handed out en masse? What
about the TV programs banned and
anchors taken permanently off the air?
What about the $45 billion being spent
on “The New Capital,” another megaproject, which will relocate the capital
February 22, 2018
little choice but to take the risk. First gas
and fuel subsidies were suddenly lifted
(causing price hikes of 50 percent), then
the Egyptian pound was floated, plunging the currency from seven to twenty
pounds against the dollar. Overnight,
the price of milk, tomatoes, pasta, cigarettes, soap, water, sugar, oil, chicken,
chocolate, bread, juice, toilet paper,
matches, bananas, plumbing services,
and household goods leapt.
I heard people complain that their
businesses lost half their value; a cargo
expediter said everyone was affected
by the crisis except the one percent. A
friend with a medium-sized business
importing knickknacks from China said
he was thrust into sudden debt. Many
months later, when summer approached,
I asked him what he now thought of the
austerity measures, which had already
driven up foreign direct investment. He
replied: “Don’t talk to me about politics. The only thing I can talk about is
making enough of a living to put my
kids through school and pay for the bills,
which I barely can. They want to make it
impossible for us to be political.”
I thought about this when I went to
a popular nightspot downtown guarded
by hefty bouncers. Once inside (for
$3), I watched a younger generation
of friends, who have drifted in and out
of depression the past few years, order
rounds of beers on the dance floor. I attended house parties where those same
friends shared stories about other parties of Sixties-style drug-fueled “debauchery.” I asked these friends, who
had all come of age during the revolution, whether they weren’t scared. “It’s
the only way to survive,” a friend who is
a DJ told me. “Either you indulge fully
and get lost in this hedonistic lifestyle,
or you die.”
As prices increased further, I wondered how anyone would be able to
survive. My mother complained about
the cost of basic goods and monthly
expenses, and friends snapped as their
electricity bills rose to many times what
they used to be. By August, I heard people everywhere talking about the price
of school supplies. School bags seemed
to be the measure of the state of things.
What cost 90 pounds a year before cost
350 pounds now. Inflation was at its
highest (33 percent) since 1986 (when
it was 35.1 percent), and second-highest
since 1958. When, over the months that
followed, I asked my grocer or the man
who delivered the bread or the garbage
collectors how they were managing to
keep afloat, the invariable answer was
“baraka”—blessings from God.
I asked Sabah again, last October,
what she thought of the situation. The
voucher the government offered her for
food supplies used to cover her family’s needs, but now covered a fraction
of them. Free money and “as good as
free” goods seemed as far gone as revolution. So had Sisi failed her? “They say
he is building a $10 million palace in
the desert for himself when the rest of
us can hardly eat, but what is the alternative? To be fair, he inherited a mess.
At least he is a nationalist, one of us.”
When Sisi took office in May 2014,
little was demanded of him by those
who took to the streets except to rid
the country of the prospect of a revived Islamic caliphate. The eradication of rising Islamist views was widely
supported, even by the president’s
fiercest critics. Last summer, Mohamed
Anwar Al- Sadat, founder of the Reform and Development Party, the former chair of the parliament’s Human
Rights Committee, and the nephew of
former president Anwar Al- Sadat, told
me: “We would have descended into
chaos had the Brotherhood stayed in
power. The country would not have survived the remainder of Morsi’s term.”
There was a handful of people who
knew what military rule would bring,
who anticipated the crackdowns, the
closing-in of the state. Some had forecast the outbursts of violence to come.
But perhaps nobody quite anticipated
that the deep state would be resurrected
with such ferocity, and so unabashedly.
As I went about my days last summer,
I saw plainclothes state security informants on every other street corner and
in almost every café. Twice in the course
of a week they circulated through the
streets of my neighborhood, taking inventories of everyone living or working
there or visiting the area, and copying
IDs. At a gallery downtown that I frequently visit, there was a resident informer seated across the street every
day. When I asked a range of political
figures about the surveillance, the answer I got was “paranoia”—to this day,
no one fully understands the political
and emotional causes that led to the
revolution on January 25, 2011.
Last summer, in his sprawling office near the presidential palace, AlSadat told me that he had urged Sisi to
consider a more pluralistic approach
to governance. “You can’t annihilate
an entire group. History has already
tried and failed with that.” And Sisi’s
response? “None. And I fear that if
they continue this way, you will start to
hear of school buses and cinemas being
bombed. We’re on that path.” A suicide
bomber who blew up a Coptic church
in Alexandria last April had allegedly
been held in an Egyptian jail for the
preceding two years. In late November,
305 people were killed in an Islamist
shoot- out in a mosque in Sinai. And
yet tourism in Cairo has been increas-
ing—I saw busloads of foreigners at the
Egyptian Museum last summer; a year
before, there had been none. People I
speak to criticize Sisi for keeping the
interior minister in office despite terrorist attacks. At the same time they
express pity for the army—radicalism
seems at once to undermine and to
strengthen Sisi’s hold on power. The
country feels more and more mired in
such contradictions.
Al- Sadat, who was kicked out of parliament for criticizing the government’s
human rights record, had considered
a presidential run this March but now
says he won’t compete for fear of retribution against his supporters in opposing Sisi. Ahmed Shafik—who lost
closely to Morsi—has also backed out,
his lawyer citing intimidation by the
state. The young leftist lawyer and activist Khaled Ali, who took less than
2 percent of the vote in 2012, was expected to run again, but he withdrew,
saying that “conditions do not allow
for a fair contest.” Also running was
the army’s former chief of staff, Sami
Anan, before he was detained for
questioning on grounds of breaching
military law. The rest of the political
opposition is fragmented, worn down
by a lack of organization and the turmoil of the past few years (many leading political figures are living abroad,
in exile).
There are many questions at this
point. The most immediate is less about
who will win than about who will run
and what they might inspire. Can we
find meaning in being engaged again,
lining up for hours as we did when we
went out to vote—in most cases for the
first time in our lives—after Mubarak
was ousted in 2011?
“I admit,” a brass worker in Cairo’s
old city told me one evening in November, “I’m not happy with how things
have unfolded. This was never a revolution to begin with. It was all scripted
from the start, by military intelligence,
so what is one to do now except put
your head down and try to make a
—January 25, 2018
A Horse Is a Horse, of Course
Jack Spencer
Verlyn Klinkenborg
Farewell to the Horse:
A Cultural History
by Ulrich Raulff, translated
from the German by Ruth
Ahmedzai Kemp.
Liveright, 449 pp., $35.00
In 1937, a car carrying Rebecca
West got stuck in a snowdrift
on a Croatian hilltop. “Peasants
ran out of a cottage near by,” she
wrote, “shouting with laughter because machinery had made a fool
of itself, and dug out the automobile with incredible rapidity. They
were doubtless anxious to get back
and tell a horse about it.” West’s
prose shimmers with imagination,
and she has a way of being highly
illuminating when she’s merely
incidental, as she is here. You can
almost feel the car blushing and
hear the horse and peasants snickering together in the dim light of
winter. And in this passage, just
in passing, West reveals a historical divide. You could look out, it
seemed, from that snowy hilltop
in two very different directions:
into the watershed of the past,
full of horses and peasants, and
into the watershed of the immediate future, apparently full of machinery. It was a vista you could
find almost anywhere in 1937.
Yet when war began again, two years
later, it was again a war of horses, like
the one that ended in 1918. We think of
World War II as a war of men and machines—of blitzkrieg and aerial bombardment. But it was also, especially on
the Eastern Front, a war of horses pulling armaments and ineffectual vehicles
through mud and snow, just as World
War I had been. In that war, the German
army—to cite only one of the warring
nations—used 1.8 million horses. Nearly
one and a quarter million of them died.*
*It is estimated that all the parties in
World War I deployed a total of sixteen
‘Dark Horse,’ Wyoming, 2005; photograph by Jack Spencer
from his book This Land: An American Portrait, published by University of Texas Press
By the end of World War II, Germany had put 2.7 million horses into
service, with a death toll of 1.8 million.
According to one historian, German
infantry divisions during World War
II “possessed more than twice as many
horses as an equivalent division in the
First World War.” Why so many more
horses? Because there were so many
more machines, and the machines were
so much heavier. And because the German army soon began to experience
what Richard Overy calls “demodmillion horses, half of which died before the war was over.
ernisation.” In Russia, by December
1941, he writes in Why the Allies Won,
“the Panzer armies were using horses
again.” Machinery was making a fool
of itself and of everyone else, and there
was no joking this time. It was another
tragedy for horses, like every war before it.
“A horse’s mind does not adapt to
modern thinking,” says Ann Hyland
in Equus, her study of horses in the
Roman world. It belongs, instead, to
the eternal present. It isn’t just the
massive size of the animals that makes
them look so exposed in war
photos. It’s also their unblinking awareness of the moment,
the seemingly limitless gaze
of their large, dark eyes. They
don’t amplify the fear of the
humans around them. They reflect it, which somehow makes
it worse. Their fear is “refracted
outwards, towards the viewer,
the witness, the enemy,” writes
Ulrich Raulff in his strange and
fascinating new book, Farewell
to the Horse. What changes
over time, as its role in history
changes, isn’t the horse. It’s our
perception of it. By the end of
World War I, the horse at war
was no longer an embodiment of
“terrifying power,” as it was in
the days of mounted cavalry. It
was a drudge, a laborer in a dire
landscape. The terror it experienced was simply gratuitous, a
change for the worse in working
Raulff’s subject is the dissolution of what he calls “the Centaurian pact”—the economic
and cultural bond uniting humans and horses—between 1815
and 1945. In little more than a
century, the energy provided
by horses was replaced almost
entirely by the energy of machines. The change was profound and
complex, and it was accompanied by a
kind of amnesia as the silent partner
in the pact was put out to pasture or
carted away to be rendered or simply
buried where it fell. We cannot recall—we can barely imagine—all the
ways in which horses were once used
before they became, as they are now
in the developed world, largely recreational. Nor can we imagine what it
was like to live surrounded by them,
as one would have been in Manhattan in 1900, when there were 130,000
working horses in the city. The horse’s
role in human history, Raulff writes,
The New York Review
s suggestive as it is, there’s also a
curious imprecision in Raulff’s use of
the centaur. The image of that mythical creature—half-horse, half-human,
with a distinct character of its own,
sometimes wise, sometimes choleric—
must have seemed irresistible to someone writing about the relationship
between humans and horses. But it
isn’t as revealing as he hopes because
it’s essentially synoptic, an emblem of
argument. When it comes to centaurs,
it’s worth heeding the voice of Chrysantas in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia.
The centaur, Chrysantas points out,
has only two ears and two eyes, unlike a mounted human who, if she’s
observant, also sees and hears with the
eyes and ears of the horse she’s riding.
“Centaurs,” he notes, “must have had
difficulty in making use of many of the
good things invented for man; and how
could they have enjoyed many of the
comforts natural to the horse?” Better to be a “centaur that can be taken
apart and put together again,” in other
words, a human seated on a horse’s
The chimera that Raulff is really describing when he talks about the centaurian pact is actually another beast
altogether, a creature we have no name
for: half horse, half machine. Beginning in the 1840s, there was a “huge
boom in the exploitation of horses,”
largely driven by the advent of new agricultural inventions like horse- drawn
reapers, which, as Raulff notes, “could
only save manpower by increasing
the use of animal labour instead.” As
the machines grew in size and capacity, so too grew the size of the horse
teams drawing them until, by the early
twentieth century, it was possible to
see forty-horse teams pulling combine
harvesters in the wheat fields of the
Palouse, in Washington State. These
are hardly centaurian monstrosities, if
only because the machines and horse
teams utterly dwarf the humans who
drive them. Though many people rode
February 22, 2018
here are many reasons why Raulff
doesn’t write from the stable in Farewell to the Horse, but I suspect that the
main reason is simply this: the horse
is a given. Its nature is essentially unchanged from the horses Xenophon
wrote about. Raulff relies on our apparent familiarity with the horse, as evidenced by the long line of humans who
troop through his book, each having
his equestrian say. He assures us that
“the horse, for all its sublimations and
projections, remains a snorting, nodding, hoof-scraping, warmly fragrant
reality.” But the reality of the animal’s
character is almost entirely missing
from his book.
So too is the vast literature that deals
with the training and riding and management of horses, a literature that
includes some remarkable nineteenthcentury works. Riding, for Raulff, is “a
neuro-navigation between interrelated
natures,” which doesn’t sound like the
kind of thing that nearly persuaded
Sir Philip Sidney to have wished
himself a horse. Nor does it capture
how different those two natures really are and how tenuous the ground
on which they meet. After all, there’s
an entire subgenre of satiric poetry
about equestrian disasters befalling
unskilled riders. It can be summed up
in a quotation from William Cowper:
“Thus equipp’d Academicus climbs up
his horse, / And out they both sally for
better or worse.”
In my experience, cultural notions of
the horse, no matter how crude or refined, tend to vanish in the presence of
the animal you’re about to train or ride.
So too do any cultural notions of yourself—any image of who you’ll be when
you’re in the saddle. There is simply the
silent gulf between species, which has
to be crossed somehow by both creatures in a way that uses the best of their
very different natures. As William
Cavendish wrote in 1658, “there should
always be a man and a beast, and not
two beasts.” When things went wrong
between a horse and its rider—a sudden bolt or a fit of bucking—Ray Hunt,
the great Western horse trainer, would
often ask, “What happened before
what happened happened?” This was
his way of pointing out that the awareness of humans usually lags behind
the awareness of horses. Being a good
rider means more than having a good
seat and good hands. It means having a
good mind, being as alert and attentive
as the horse is, as present in the world.
For most of us, this is a stretch. We have
to live up to the horses we work with.
This is the tragedy of the machine
horse of the nineteenth century. There
was no use for a horse’s awareness,
its instincts, its mind. All that was
wanted was its muscle, its horsepower.
That’s the point of putting blinders on
a carriage horse—to narrow its range
of attention. It was as though, having the horse at hand, humans really
wanted for their machine work—their
trams and omnibuses—a lesser creature, a fast ox of sorts. And in a sense,
that’s what the drudgery of the work
routinely created: an animal that was
as close to being a machine as any organism could become. Instead of living up to the horse, we had to bring the
horse’s mind down to our own level of
inattention, which can be truly stupendous. Jeremy Bentham framed the
problem brilliantly in 1789 when he
wrote, “The question is not, can they
reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can
they suffer?”
But even this—generous as it is
and, as Raulff says, “still valid to this
day”—isn’t quite enough. You don’t
have to be Gulliver, returned from
the Houyhnhnms, to admire horses
for their minds as well as their bodies. They are “docile and omnipotent,”
Emily Dickinson wrote, but only when
we meet them in kinship, with the best
of ourselves.
in the nineteenth century—one human
on one horse—it was a time in which
it seemed as though horses would be
shackled to machines forever.
This was especially true in cities,
which were jammed with horse- drawn
vehicles of every kind, producing the
distinctive (and now forgotten) roar of
horseshoes and hard wheels on paved
and cobbled streets, a roar accented
by the cracking of whips, a sound that
Schopenhauer called a “sudden, sharp
thwack which slices through one’s
brain and shatters one’s thoughts.”
Raulff alludes in passing to “the short
summer of urban horse- drawn mass
transport,” but the nostalgic note in
that phrase seems a little discordant. It
was certainly no summer for the horse
teams pulling omnibuses and trams or
for the cities that relied on them. If the
nineteenth- century city was a biocenosis—an ecological community—dominated by two species, it was also a place
where “the life of one species means the
death of the other.” City horses could
work for only a few years before they
were exhausted, and their very presence was a threat to the humans who
lived among them. “In 1867,” Raulff
writes, “horse-powered transportation
on the streets of New York caused an
average of four fatalities per week, with
another forty pedestrians injured.”
To us, now, there is always something archaic about the horse. The
picture that comes to mind is the individual rider—the cowboy, the hunter,
the jockey at the track—an image that
goes straight back to antiquity. We
forget that the horse, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,
was actually “an outstanding agent of
modernization.” If we look back nostalgically from the speed of our own
lives to an era of gigs and curricles
and stagecoaches, we forget how swift
they seemed on the open road to their
passengers, like Samuel Johnson, who
expressed to Boswell “his love of driving fast in a post- chaise.” It was a need
for speed as well as power that led to
the equestrian boom of the nineteenth
century, a boom that ended quickly in
cities as motorized vehicles took over
from horses in the early twentieth century, solving one environmental problem—two and a half million pounds of
horse manure per day in New York in
1900—and causing another.
The change came more slowly in the
country, though it was no less sweeping. In the United States, the number
of horses on farms and ranches peaked
between 1910 and 1920 at about 19 million. By 1940 there were half as many,
and by 1954 the number had dropped
to just under three million, fewer than
there were in 1850. In the agricultural
world, horses replaced the labor of
humans, and machines replaced the
labor of horses. What no one foresaw
was how quickly the disappearance of
farmers themselves would follow the
disappearance of working horses.
New York
“is like a lost continent . . . still waiting
to be discovered.”
What the horse requires, Raulff suggests, is an “histoire totale.” What he
offers instead is a sweeping cultural
history, more kaleidoscopic than totale,
as bibliographical as it is historical. He
writes, as he says, “never . . . from the
stable, but always from the ivory tower
of the library.” And he candidly admits
that “this . . . is not the horse’s book.” It’s
the work of a historian who has “never
seen a horse die,” the kind of book in
which the horse becomes a “living metaphor,” “the re-semanticized being par
Farewell to the Horse is a whirlwind
that seems capable of drawing into its
vortex almost anyone who ever thought
of a horse. Jacques Lacan and Alan
Turing and Lucian Freud, Goethe and
his writing stool, Myron Cohen and his
one-way street joke, Nietzsche and his
mad embrace of a beaten cart-horse—
these and a vast crowd of occasional
and oblique equestrians make it clear
that what Raulff is tracing are the endless impressions the horse has left on
the minds of humans. The horse may
be “the privileged object of human
research and cognition,” but it has always risked disappearing “behind all
discourse.” In Raulff’s book, the horse
risks being buried beneath an avalanche of analogy.
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Painting on the Precipice
Charlotte Salomon/Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam/Charlotte Salomon Foundation
Lisa Appignanesi
Charlotte Salomon:
Life? or Theatre?
an exhibition at the Jewish
Historical Museum, Amsterdam,
October 20, 2017–March 25, 2018
Life? or Theatre?
by Charlotte Salomon.
Overlook Duckworth, 815 pp., $150.00
Charlotte Salomon:
Life? or Theatre?:
A Selection of 450 Gouaches
Taschen, 599 pp., $35.00
A woman walks down the red stairs of
a tall roofless building. Her dress is almost black. Her hair is pulled back, her
arms crossed against the cold, her face
melancholy. She walks past denuded
trees up a darkened street, curves into
another, and another. The wind seems
to be propelling her, tugging at her, so
that at one point her hair tumbles free,
her dress whirls. Lamplight turns pavement and road a stormy sea blue. As
she comes closer her path is outlined in
blood red, until red takes her over to
transform her into a drowning figure in
a blackened lake.
The next day the newspaper carries
The woman we now know as Charlotte appears laid out on a pinkish slab,
floating like a Chagall bride. Mourners
gather. There are only three of them,
a stiff, bearded man and two other
wretched huddled figures, a mother and
an older daughter.
These are the first two of 871 extraordinary gouaches created by the
young German artist Charlotte Salomon between 1940 and 1942. She is not
the Charlotte of these opening images,
only her namesake. But death perpetually tugs at this young woman, too, calling her to the soft, embracing sleep that
prematurely swallowed so many members of her family, including the aunt
she was named after.
Born in Berlin in 1917, Charlotte Salomon, together with her unborn child,
died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz
in 1943. Her painted images, executed
under great internal and external pressure, make up a sequence that evokes
her life and times. More memoir than
autobiography, her book is an emotionally charged narrative that analyzes as
well as depicts. It takes us on an epic
journey in images, words, and music
through two and a half decades of history that end in tragedy. This history as
Gesamtkunstwerk may be Charlotte’s
own, one conjured through memory,
but it is far larger than the self. Salomon gives us a rare insight into the
anxious life of the cultured GermanJewish bourgeoisie, assimilated yet still
outsiders, as the Weimar Republic—
plagued by patriarchal certainties and
nostalgia—shattered into Nazi rule.
Salomon conceived of her book as a
performance that poses a basic existential question: Life or theater? Among
an array of masks—some hiding hypocrisy, others concealing secrets or
simply allowing one to “pass,” an everyday part of life for Jews in an increasingly anti- Semitic environment—where
Charlotte reflecting on her first love; paintings by Charlotte Salomon
from Life? or Theatre?, 1940–1942
might an authentic life lie? It is a young
person’s anguished question: no answer
may be possible, but through an exploration of it, realities are revealed.
The book is structured as a piece of
experimental musical theater, Singspiel, or cabaret on paper, with three
acts and three colors. Occasionally it
feels like a Piscator-Brecht production, bringing in the noise of streets
and Nazi marches. At other times, it is
an opera of death and rebirth painted
to strains of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice. At still others, the lyrical call of
Schubert’s lieder runs through it with
great poignancy.
to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
Paulinka Bimbam is the artist’s stepmother, Paula Salomon-Lindberg, a devoted and charismatic contralto who at
first is adored by the young Charlotte,
a sad, lonely, and contrary child, after
her own mother dies.
Before the curtain on her theater
opens, Salomon describes the way her
work came into being:
The creation of the following
paintings is to be imagined as follows: A person is sitting beside the
sea. He is painting. A tune suddenly enters his mind. As he starts
to hum it, he notices that the tune
exactly matches what he is trying
to commit to paper. A text forms
in his head, and he starts to sing
the tune, with his own words, over
and over again in a loud voice until
the painting seems complete. Frequently, several texts take shape,
and the result is a duet, or it even
happens that each character has to
sing a different text, resulting in a
n her introductory pages, in her customary block capitals, Salomon lists a
cast of characters that includes everyone in her circle. Each one is dubbed
with a name that echoes their character. Dr. and Mrs. Knarre—which
means a “scraping rattle” and incorporates the word for “fool”—represent her rigid and ever- contemptuous
wealthy maternal grandparents, Dr.
Ludwig and Marianne Grunwald. Dr.
Kann stands in for the artist’s father,
Dr. Albert Salomon, who rose to be a
distinguished cancer surgeon. Like all
other Jewish professionals, he was fired
from his post when the Nazis came to
power. He then worked as head of the
Jewish Hospital in Berlin until November 10, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht, when he was arrested and sent
This description of the painter humming while working in an utterly concentrated, trancelike state may well
have brought to life Charlotte’s home,
This translation uses the masculine
pronoun that agrees with Der Mensch
(person), but of course the person here
is a she: Charlotte.
where her stepmother sang and rehearsed continually—eventually with a
singing coach who would come to play
a large part in Charlotte’s life.
A prologue, a main section, and an
epilogue make up the book’s three
acts. The first section, containing 211
images overlaid with tracing paper on
which handwritten words describe the
illustrated action, introduces us to her
wealthy, cultivated family, her childhood, and the death of her mother,
Franziska. It’s a riveting story, even
without Salomon’s stunning images.
Having decided, after her own sister’s
suicide, to become a nurse and join the
army medical corps, Franziska meets a
young doctor, Albert. She marries him,
although her parents have misgivings
about the match. Charlotte is born on
his return from the front in 1917. A series of bright gouaches joyfully detail
the early years of infancy and family
life, the white nursery, the childhood
games, the hugs. But by scene two,
Franziska is crushed by despair. An
eerie image of a window opening onto
a blue void announces her death. Then
against a background of urgent orange,
green, and yellow brushstrokes, her
crumpled figure lies in a vertical heap,
with one leg askew high in the air. On
the opposite page, her mother, Mrs.
Knarre, crouches like a chthonic deity
to maternal mourning. The text reads:
“Grief spreads throughout her body. It
transcends her own suffering. It is the
suffering of the world.”
The suicide is kept secret from eightyear- old Charlotte, who awaits the
letter from heaven her mother had
promised her. She turns into a shy, difficult, lonely child, perking up only on
travels with her grandparents to the
Dolomites, Venice, and Rome, where
the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel leaves
an indelible mark on her.
The arrival of an adored and adoring singing stepmother changes everything. A blond, fearless beauty, her
Jewish roots lie in a small town where
her father was a “singing Rabbi” who
performed both in synagogue and in
churches, as does his daughter. Paulinka has a fund of energy and good
sense that extends to reprimanding the
ever arrogant and critical grandparents. She transforms Charlotte’s life,
and in the process introduces her for
the first time to the more religious sides
of Jewishness.
The good days soon come to an end.
Anti- Semitism forces Charlotte from
her elite school, and the whole family
from their positions. In an image dated
1933, Salomon depicts the Nazi takeover: amid a marching, capped, and
mustachioed mass, a banner flies with
a reverse swastika. On the opposite
page stones are being thrown at shops,
one bearing her family name, while a
crowd rallies around a huge copy of
Der Stürmer, the “organ of popular enlightenment” that fomented hatred of
the Jews.
On top of such political dangers and
restrictions on Jews, Charlotte suffers
the usual difficulties of adolescence, a
time of uncertainties, jealousies, rivalries with friends, and, even back then,
some rebellion against parents. Salomon is brilliant here at shifting points of
The New York Review
view so that the viewer/reader is never
trapped in Charlotte’s single perspective, but sees her sullenness in relation
to the beauty of school friends or the
equanimity of her stepmother.
This section ends in 1937 when Charlotte, after two years at the Berlin
Academy for Fine and Applied Arts
in Charlottenburg, is awarded a prize
but deprived of a diploma because she
is Jewish. She is in fact the only Jewish
student remaining at the school, having been admitted after all the Jewish
teachers had been fired. The minutes of
the admissions committee (February
7, 1936) state that because of her “reserved nature,” she posed no danger to
the racial purity of the Aryan students.
The images from these academy
days contain some of the most
finished freestanding portraits
in the book, particularly of Charlotte’s friend Barbara in a mood
of reverie. Yet they have nothing of the monumentality or that
echt- German “fairy tale” quality that the school, now purged
of degenerate art, encouraged.
riant greens of the Mediterranean that
Salomon’s determination to create
her Singspiel comes into being. Her
grandmother, learning that war has
broken out, succumbs to her recurring
despair—“the awful pain that has pursued her throughout her life.” She tries
to hang herself. When she doesn’t succeed, her howls are writ large in a series
of fierce images in which rudimentarily
outlined figures move against a wash of
Munch-like colors: “Oh let me die, let
me die . . . I can’t go on living.”
Charlotte’s ever-insensitive and selfserving grandfather chooses this moment to tell her the secret and, for him,
shameful history of the suicides that
plagued so many in his wife’s disturbed
All of the images and text in Life?
February 22, 2018
Charlotte Salomon/Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam/Charlotte Salomon Foundation
or Theatre? are painted in three colors: red, yellow, and blue. Salomon
blends these into brightly radiant or
deadly somber hues. Whether this restricted palette was a deliberate choice
or an accident of impoverished circumstances, we will never know. What is
clear, however, is that with this paucity
of means, the twenty-three-year- old
Charlotte created a hybrid work of
startling artistic innovation, at once
a book, a storyboard for a silent film
with indicated musical accompaniment
(though sometimes a talkie complete
with long shots and close-ups), and a
powerful graphic novel decades ahead
of its time, incorporating some of the
stunning poster-art techniques
of Weimar Germany.
Many of her images also
emerge as vibrant, freestanding
gallery art. There are complex
perspectives that bring to mind
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Friedrichstrasse or George Grosz’s
depictions of disparate urban
scenes occurring simultaneously
within one pictorial space. There
is expressive gesture and heightife? or Theatre? then focuses
ened emotion reminiscent of
on Amadeus Daberlohn (Alfred
Munch or Max Beckmann, and
Wolfsohn), a penniless singing
occasionally, too, the languor of
coach with a philosophical bent
Modigliani. All this is combined
who exalts the singing voice and
with a Fauvist palette and a vathe movies and is Charlotte’s
riety of brushstrokes, plus, on
first love. Although Daberlohn
occasion, graffiti-like texts. But
is in love with her stepmother,
despite these parallels, the arhe encourages Charlotte’s art.
tistic signature is unmistakably
In this second section, tracing
that of Charlotte Salomon. With
paper is replaced by bold text
its energy and fierceness, the sewritten directly on the image.
ries is a remarkable accomplishSometimes these texts counment for so young an artist.
terpoint the pictorial scene,
Charlotte’s serious, youthful
providing caustic commentary.
face in a self-portrait stares diSometimes they describe the virectly out at us from Overlook’s
sual action or the vicissitudes of Charlotte’s grandfather telling her about suicides in the family sumptuous boxed edition of her
a character’s inner life.
opus, which has been published
In one long section, Daberlohn’s
family. It is the first time Charlotte
to mark the centenary of her birth.
romantic Nietzschean philosophy is
hears about these self-inflicted deaths,
The reproductions are almost the full
written under 1,387 close-ups of his
including her mother’s. Bravely she
size of the originals, larger than those
speaking face. In others, in a radical
tries to turn her increasingly addled
in any previous book. This edition not
departure of visual representation, he
grandmother around by using Daberonly contains all of Life? or Theatre?
lectures while lying down, a cigarette in
lohn’s ideas. But the old woman’s agony
but also a previously unpublished and
hand. He may be a mansplainer, but it
takes her over: it’s a guilty madness, as
remarkable letter addressed to Amais Charlotte who expresses his words. It
if she were both prey to a ruthless indeus Daberlohn. For the first time in
is clear she gains creative strength from
herited death instinct and responsible
reproduction, the tiniest details of her
Daberlohn, who, like the Orpheus so
for the many suicides in her family.
sometimes- crowded images can clearly
prevalent in his ideas, survived an enShe also wants to throttle her husband,
be seen. The very luxuriousness of the
counter with death when he was buried
who has always belittled her suffering,
edition underscores the extent to which
in a trench among corpses in World
insisted on covering it up, and focused
Salomon has, after arguably too long
War I. Amnesia and aphonia accomon the bright side of life. We are again
a delay, entered the ranks of major
panied his “rebirth”: when his voice
shown a window overlooking the void,
twentieth- century artists.
returned, it was with the conviction
and on the following page, a pink upTaschen has also just published a sethat song was the greatest of arts. Nazi
turned body with its leg uncannily ellected edition in a smaller medium ocwork restrictions have reduced him to
evated in a wave—a repetition of the
tavo format containing 450 gouaches,
penury. He hypothesizes that destrucmaternal suicide.
plus photographs of Charlotte and her
tive and generative forces swirl in the
Caring for her infirm and increascircle. The volume contains two excelunconscious and feed the artist, who is,
ingly senile grandfather, together with
lent background essays, one by Judith
in his view, an androgynous creature.
the brutal experience of Gurs—the
C. E. Belinfante, who has been enThis theory of dual gendering has a
prison camp in the Pyrenees where
gaged with Salomon’s work and family
freeing influence on Charlotte.
enemy aliens were sent in an oversince 1971, and the other by the art hisSalomon’s epilogue brings the action
crammed railway car—brings Chartorian Evelyn Benesch, who explores
of her theater to the French Riviera
lotte herself to the verge of succumbing
Salomon’s formal inspirations.
in 1939: the heroine has escaped Nazi
to the preordained family pattern. She
In Germany, a new biography by
Germany to join her grandparents, who
feels doomed. An abyss opens. Her
Margret Greiner has appeared: Charmoved there in 1934. She travels alone.
doctor advises her to start painting
lotte Salomon: “Es ist mein ganzes
Her father, through his wife’s efforts,
again: making art will bring her around.
Leben” (2017). This is a rather breezy,
has been released from forced labor at
She remembers her mentor, her real or
somewhat novelistic life as compared
Sachsenhausen. But their passes with
imaginary lover, and with Daberlohn’s
with Mary Lowenthal Felstiner’s now
false IDs haven’t yet come through, and
voice in her mind’s ear, she begins “to
classic To Paint Her Life (1994). GreinCharlotte needs to leave Germany becreate her world anew from the depths.”
er’s nonacademic tone may be another
fore her twenty-first birthday, when she
The narrative has now come full
sign that Salomon is entering a new
would need a new document. A darkly
circle. As if she were Proust’s daughter,
sphere of recognition. A translation by
ominous sequence depicts the deparCharlotte is now impelled to redeem
Sam Taylor of the French writer David
ture as both a heart-wrenching separalost and wasted time—as well as times
Foenkinos’s best-selling novel Chartion and a deportation.
laid waste. And so Life? or Theatre? is
lotte (2016)—also published by OverIt is amid the intense blues and luxuborn.
look—brings Salomon’s life ever closer
to Anne Frank’s. The novel, more an
act of ventriloquism than fiction, has
made a large popular audience familiar with the written part of Life? or
Theatre? Foenkinos’s main addition
is to imagine Charlotte in Auschwitz
and to insert material about her parents’ discovery of the gouaches. The
book won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, and with its breathless rush of
one-line sentences, as if it were verse
in prose, it does resemble a novel for
The centenary is also being marked
by an exhibition of all her paintings at
the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, to which Salomon’s parents
in 1971 donated her extant work. I was
first introduced to her extraordinary
book in the fine exhibition at the Royal
Academy in London in 1998, having
been encouraged to see it by the Salomon scholar Darcy Buerkle. For that
show, the RA made a careful selection
of four hundred images. Other smaller
shows have traveled through Germany,
France, the US, and Israel.
Why has the rise in Salomon’s stature taken so long? Current interest
may well have something to do with a
new taste for the graphic novel. Then,
too, after Jean-Michel Basquiat we’ve
grown accustomed to bursts of text
on image. But it may also be that the
very conditions of Salomon’s life have
swallowed her work up into the greater
story of the Holocaust—ever anxious about the possibilities of its own
he Jewish Historical Museum’s website has a fascinating interview with
Salomon’s father and stepmother from
1963. It incorporates footage from the
late 1940s together with images held
by Ottilie Moore, the American who
gave refuge to her grandparents and
eventually to Charlotte herself. It was
Moore who encouraged her to paint
and bought some of the first work she
produced amid the beauties of her
Villa l’Ermitage in Villefranche.
Charlotte’s parents, having fled to
Amsterdam in March 1939, were interred in Westerbork, a Dutch transit
camp, from which they fled in 1943.
They then lived in hiding until the
war’s end, when Albert retrained and
once more took up work as a doctor. In
1947 they traveled to Villefranche to
try to find out more about Charlotte’s
last years. Here they met Moore, who
amazed them by presenting them with
the sequence of Charlotte’s gouaches—
along with other work that has now
It may have been the Salomons’ acquaintance in Amsterdam with Anne
Frank’s father, Otto Frank, that encouraged them to make Charlotte’s
work public. The process took time.
It was inevitably mired in the family’s grief and desire to forget, a now
recognized unwillingness or inability
of survivors to share painful matters.
The first Salomon exhibition was held
in 1961 at the Fodor branch of the Stedelijk Museum. A catalog entry written
by Charlotte’s father calls her book “an
analytical diary written from memory.”
The word “diary,” combined with the
book’s association with the Holocaust,
led to a shallow analogy between Anne
Frank’s moving chronicle of daily life
in hiding and Charlotte Salomon’s radical and tormented pictorial examination of her own life and that of Berlin’s
Jews from World War I through the rise
of Nazism.
Another factor that may have suppressed Salomon’s reputation is the general modernist distaste for art embedded
in story, even though in past centuries
so much art used to be. Artists such
as Paula Rego and Kara Walker have
gradually altered our ways of seeing.
But the trouble with Salomon’s Life? or
Theatre? is that it can’t be divided and
sold as individual pieces in the gallery
world so effective at creating value.
Finally, there is that hoary old question of gender. It has always been easier for women to enter museums in the
nude than clothed and wielding a paintbrush. The gender imbalance is gradually shifting, and Salomon’s legacy has
taken on new weight. Feminist scholars
have helped greatly here.2 Yet it’s not
altogether clear how interpreting Salomon’s work to present her, and perhaps her mother and aunt, as victims of
(grandparental) sexual abuse deepens
our understanding of her art or of a history mired in racism and persecution.
Suicide was indeed more prevalent
among Jewish women in Berlin than
Jewish men, but Protestants and Catholics were not far behind: newspapers
spoke of a suicide epidemic in urban society as a whole. The horrors of World
War I and its aftermath—mass unemployment, a horrible death toll, the
See, for example, the work of Darcy
Buerkle, Jacqueline Rose, and Griselda
Pollock, whose book Charlotte Salomon
and the Theatre of Memory will be published by Yale University Press in March.
wounded ever visible in the streets—
contributed to the epidemic. For women
who wanted freedom and for whom that
desire already produced inner conflict,
patriarchal prohibitions—more vociferously expressed because of the evident
crisis in masculinity—were an extra
burden. Adding sexual abuse to the
mountain of ills for the women in the
Salomon maternal line merely reduces
Charlotte’s suicidal impulse (which was
shared by men in the family) to a single
hypothetical cause.
It is true that in the final pages of
Life? or Theatre? Charlotte’s grandfather callously hands her her dead
grandmother’s quilt, and a few pages
later, as they flee Nice, he stands in his
shirt, saying, “I don’t understand you.
What’s wrong with sharing a bed with
me—when there’s nothing else available? I’m in favor of what’s natural.”
“Don’t torment me,” Charlotte responds. She is already distraught by the
flight, by her grandmother’s death, and
by her grandfather’s untimely revelations of her family members’ suicides.
She thinks she, too, is going mad. The
escape of madness is attractive.
It is possible to interpret her grandfather’s act as an indication of longengrained abuse, or as yet another
example of his perennial insensitivity
to others. The final pages of Life? or
Theatre? depict how she was ever more
“crushed by the proximity of her grandfather, tragically hounded as he was by
Fate.” She turns it all around “to create
her world anew from the depths.”
In the spectacular “lost” letter that
Charlotte addressed to her “beloved
To the Editors:
Simon Callow’s article on Paul Robeson
[NYR, February 8], who was a childhood
(and beyond) hero of mine, was a powerful
reminder of what a great man Robeson was
and how shamefully we all neglected him.
It also brought back to me two memories
of the only times I saw him in person, each
of which may add a little to the list of his
The first, in the mid-1940s, was when he
came to my parents’ home (I must have
been about ten) in Brookline, Massachusetts, to raise money for American veterans
of the Lincoln Brigade, a republican unit in
the Spanish civil war. There were perhaps
forty people there to hear him. My younger
brother and I were at the top of the stairs,
forbidden to come down but allowed to stay
where we could glimpse him and hear him.
He spoke well and with feeling, with his
marvelous voice and expressiveness. And
he sang a few songs (there was a piano),
including, of course, “The Four Insurgent
Generals.” We were mesmerized, as I think
the adults were, even more by his moving
singing than by his powerful speaking.
The second was in April 1959. I was
hitchhiking around England in the wet
and the mud. I came into Stratford-uponAvon, saw that Robeson was appearing as
Othello, and knew immediately that this
was one event that I would forever regret
missing, even though I was cold and sopping wet and had no idea that this was to be
one of his last appearances in that role. The
theater was sold out, but I was able to plead
my way into a place standing at the back.
Robeson’s performance was hypnotic.
tested by hard pain and
moves toward
a truer
Paul Robeson, Trafalgar Square,
London, June 1959
But one aspect of it I have never seen performed, except this time, or referred to.
As Shakespeare created him, Othello was
not only black, he was aging; he was past
his prime and could never recapture it;
and he was aware of this sad and enraging
fact. Robeson incorporated this aspect of
Othello into his performance. His speaking stumbled once or twice, lost strength a
little. He seemed to have brief periods of
inattention. And all of this clearly was, at
the time and in memory, Othello and not
Robeson, intentional as part of the role,
unifying actor and role and man.
Mark A. Michelson
Ra’anana, Israel
To the Editors:
In his admirable essay on Paul Robeson
Simon Callow notes the long eclipse of
Robeson’s once-global reputation, from
the 1960s to the present. Today, writes Callow, “it is hard to find anyone under fifty
who has the slightest idea who he is.” Let
it be noted, though, that some of Robeson’s British admirers kept the faith. In
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Ludwig Grunwald died on February
12, 1943. Charlotte went back to the
Villa l’Ermitage, where another refugee, Alexander Nagler, had also lived
for some years. They were married on
June 17, 1943. Three months later they
were arrested and taken to Drancy,
outside Paris, from which the trains left
for Auschwitz.
Charlotte survived the call of suicide.
Only her exhilarating work survived
the predations of Nazism.
ullstein bild/Getty Images
friend,” Amadeus Daberlohn, included
in the Overlook volume, she talks of
having made a “Veronalomelette,” an
omelette spiked with barbiturates, for
the grandfather who she had “discovered was the thorn of the diseased state
inside me.” Is this a vengeful murder or
euthanasia of an old man she characterizes as a “shallow type”—a “symbol
for me of the people I had to resist,” a
mere play actor in the “Theatre” that is
now “dead”?
We will never know, but the letter,
sensitively translated by Darcy Buerkle
and Mary Felstiner, has testamentary
heft. “Perhaps dearest,” she writes, “it
is actually true that with this war even
the theater that’s played out by humanity comes to an end so that all of
2006, the thirtieth anniversary of his death,
I attended the dedication of a memorial to
Robeson at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, organized by the
West Africanist Philip Jaggar. (As Callow
notes, Robeson studied Kiswahili and phonetics at SOAS in the 1930s.) A gathering of
students and others listened as the Labour
politician Tony Benn discussed Robeson’s
life as a performer and political activist.
The Jamaican-born bass-baritone Sir Willard White sang a cappella versions of “Ol’
Man River” and “Deep River”—they had
been sung at Robeson’s funeral in Harlem
in 1976. Most memorably, a speaker from
the audience described a Campaign for
Nuclear Disarmament rally in Trafalgar
Square in 1959, when Robeson was playing
Othello at Stratford, a year after the restoration of his passport by the US government. As London traffic rumbled around
the square, the speaker recalled, a succession of notables addressed the crowd from
the steps of Nelson’s Column. “Then,” he
concluded, “Paul Robeson sang . . . and the
buses stopped.”
John Ryle
Bard College
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York
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